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The joy of eating

For this author, there is accounting for taste.


Gina Mallet was in the middle of eating a restaurant's veal chop when she realized she was bored not only with the chop but with food in general -- bored with food overpraised by critics, bored with food trying too hard to make a "splash," bored with food that was "imaginative," and bored with food that was a matter of opinion polls and menu consultants. This was in the late 1990s and Mallet was a restaurant reviewer for a Toronto newspaper, but the bloom was off the rose: Even the idea of eating at someone else's expense was a bore.

Then she entered a no-frills Toronto restaurant, and her faith was restored. The chef was a "tight-lipped Breton" who served her fish soup, pan-fried snapper, and an apple tart. Nothing fancy, but it tasted good. The restaurant felt good. The tables weren't the scene of shouting matches between customers and acoustics. Her fellow diners were taking their time, having conversations.

In Last Chance To Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World (W.W. Norton), Mallet's having a conversation too -- with you the reader (and eater), and you needn't be a foodie to enjoy her wit and wisdom. Only don't look here for a diatribe against the fast food of her subtitle. Mallet has a lot on her mind; the drive-through/drive-by meal is not one of them: "Industrial fast food is never disappointing: it is reassuringly the same," she writes. "It is the food of the pessimist. Nothing can improve it. But then, nothing can make it worse." Case closed.

Case reopened in Mallet's chapter on the "imperiled" egg, the same egg vilified for its cholesterol content by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration beginning in the 1970s and rescued by the Harvard School of Public Health, which gave it a clean bill of health in the 1990s. But Mallet reminds us that it's the imperial egg too: eaten by the Romans, transformed by Carême as a basis for haute cuisine, and elevated to new heights in Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (1903). It's also the egg once farmed (sort of successfully) by Mallet's clueless parents on their Edwardian estate overlooking the Thames when she was a child.

Mallet's mother was a no-nonsense American who didn't argue with the idea of owning a great house, but she never imagined having to live in one during the winter. Mallet's father was an English aristo who went on to become the director of a chain of luxury hotels throughout Europe. During World War II, the Mallet family knew what it was to ration food, but when they moved after the war into a hotel on the French Riviera, Mallet finally learned just how good an egg can be. For starters, it wasn't powdered. It was gently scrambled in butter (real butter!) for maybe a couple minutes (no lumps!) after mixing in some cream (real cream!) and that was it. Simple. Good. And why the hell don't we eat this way today?

One, two minutes is too much trouble. Two, the FDA, mega-farming industrialists, and misminded extremists have scared the joy out of cooking with their dietary declarations based on faulty or absent scientific studies. Or maybe it's the fault of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, because, according to Mallet's French friend Guy, "WASPs don't know anything about food."

But Mallet isn't here to beat up on whole groups or nationalities. She's here to happily admit the English know beef better than anybody, though she's not far removed from food writer Elizabeth David's opinion of postwar English cooking. ("A kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity's needs.") Mallet even praises the all-American grilled-cheese sandwich. She salutes Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Martha Stewart.

It's more than Mallet's praise, however, that makes Last Chance To Eat a source of pleasure and surprise. It's her breeziness and knowledge of eating habits on both sides of the Atlantic, her willingness to open-mindedly consider all things edible.

You say, "Bacteria." Europeans (and Mallet) say, "Yummy."

You say horsemeat. The French say Bucephalus marrow (and like it).

You say low-fat whipping cream. Mallet says you might as well buy the spray variety (and have an orgy while you're at it).

You say porpoise. Nineteenth-century naturalist Frank Buckland (via Mallet) says it tastes like "broiled lamp wick." (But mice: "delicious." Earwigs: "horribly bitter.")

You say sodium-tri-polyphosphate (STP), an active ingredient in carpet-cleaning solutions and paint strippers. Mallet says scallops are packaged in it. (The FDA says STPs are GRAS, "generally recognized as safe.")

You say you don't know how long to cook fish. A Canadian measure recommends 10 minutes per inch of thickness, then asks that you figure the square inches. For a four-inch cut, that means a total cooking time of 160 minutes -- to be on the safe side. Forget taste.

But you say you don't know good taste from bad. Mallet is the voice of reason: "The great thing about good food is you don't have to know what you're eating or be an expert to know that it's delicious. The same is true of any art: it is second-rate cooking ... that is incomprehensible."

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