Summer Reading

Date July 31, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty

An invaluable antidote to the dark forces who want to deprive us of the good stuff and an acknowledgment of the pleasures of a few simple, good things. Anthony Boudrain, author of Kitchen Confidential

Realizing she'd become bored with restaurants, Toronto-based writer Gina Mallet set about to explore food and ways of enjoying it that "touched the emotions."€ The slow food movement, star chefs, and voluminous numbers of cookbooks notwithstanding, she views cooking as an art on the wane. She blames the death of taste on fast food, solitary eating, demands of the marketplace, complacency of consumers, changes in production of meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables and, without being facetious, an underlying fear of food "as the single greatest threat to life."€

She begins with almost 100 pages on "the imperiled egg,"€ and organizes her chapters food by food-beef, chicken, apples, specific species of fish, for examples. Mallet presents her love affair with food in a style fluid and digressive on the one hand, and highly informative on the other. It's as if you're chatting with a talkative and opinionated chef in her home kitchen. She's a terrific story-teller, taking us to her childhood in England, where we meet her aunt and cousin, growing the incomparable Cox apple in their orchard, go shopping with her mother and her in London markets, and hunt for eggs on the family's property in World War II.

There's the story of her sister and her searching the Languedoc countryside for an open restaurant on a Monday. She orders an omelet for dinner without enthusiasm, recalling the "baked slabs of egg"€ in America, but is delighted with the creamy dish, "perfection in ten minutes, with the yolks a color reflecting the hens' diets instead of standard chemical additives."€ She learns to eat sushi in Toronto with her connoisseur friend "Miki-san,"€ who claims that "good sushi chefs are becoming as endangered as some fish,"€ and that tuna cut by a master tastes more complex than one cut by an amateur. Phil, who fishes on a privately owned river in England and ties his own flies, feels brotherhood with the salmon he catches, and always says, "God save the Queen,"€ at the fish's first jerk on the line.

Woven into dozens of mini-stories are bits of history, biology, ecology, horticulture, and recipes. Her leisurely style reflects her attitude toward dining; she's in no hurry to get to the end. Along the way, we learn details on such topics as cattle breeding, how the great French chef Escoffier elevated the egg to haut-cuisine, the role of bacteria in creating cheese. She repeatedly returns to one her favorite themes, panic over food exemplified in repeated scientist and media-generated scares. Hence the fear of eggs (heart disease), of unpasteurized cheeses (with no evidence of increased safety over less healthy and less tasty pasteurized versions), of beef (heart disease, mad cow disease), of farm-raised fish, of apples (an unwarranted scare in the early 1990s caused a precipitous drop in apple prices, forcing many small Washington growers out of business), and so on.

Mallet, more interested in taking us on a journey than presenting a compelling argument, is uncompromisingly elitist, politically incorrect (if GMOs improve flavor, go for them), and hopelessly nostalgic. Yet it's all part of her charm, resulting in a small volume that will delight food lovers, who can linger over her well-turned phrases with the same pleasure they would a soulful meal.

Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World by Gina Mallet. W.W. Norton and Company, publishers. 2004.