Saturday, March 21, 2009

Book Review: Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser

New York Times food writer, Amanda Hesser’s tale of meeting and marrying a man she calls Mr. Latte is a cross between a novel, an autobiography, a cookbook, and some of the most tantalizing food writing I’ve ever read. Though each chapter can be looked at as a self-contained story, describing an event in the author’s life, always involving food, they collectively chronicle the progression of Hesser’s relationship with her husband, from their meeting to their marriage. At the end of each chapter are a few recipes of the foods described in it.

The reading is light, but the characters are vivid and lovable, and the food is maddeningly tempting to read about. It’s kind of a food-lover’s Sex and the City, only instead of Mr. Big, we have Mr. Latte, and instead of a lot of sex, there is a whole lot of food. As I read, I gorged myself on the descriptions of various dishes and meals, going back to reread passages about salt-crusted shrimp that you eat whole, shell and all, slow-cooked ginger duck, appetizers of foie gras and jam on bread, roasted beet and Vidalia onion salad, braised oxtails, chicken liver pâté, and oh, I could go on. I read a lot of food-writing these days, in the form of blogs, books, and magazines, and I have to say, though I love it, I do get a little sick of it sometimes, and a little desensitized to even some of the most well-written descriptions of food. Not with Hesser’s writing, though. I devoured this book in two days, and could have gone back for seconds.

That said, I did not love every aspect of this book. I found Hesser to be elitist at times, and couldn’t help but be annoyed at certain points in the book. In the fifth chapter, she describes how tiresome it can be to eat at a new restaurant with a group of foodies, yet her own pretentiousness (turning her nose up at Mr. Latte’s suggestion of Merchant’s, an apparently mediocre New York steakhouse, for their first date, for example) would suggest that she is no better. I was a bit put off by how she breezed over her experience of 9/11, focusing more on the food she ate than the impact the tragedy had on her life. If you aren’t going to speak about an event this monumental with any depth, why mention it at all? And I don’t see why in a book about food and love, she devoted nearly an entire chapter to her great drama over buying a Valentino wedding gown on impulse, but then eventually trading it in for a Prada. Who cares?

These really are minor quibbles, though. One has to keep in mind, this is light reading, and it won’t change your life or provoke any heated debates. Hesser never talks about whether or not you should buy organic, or if you should boycott any meat that did not come from a free-range animal. She doesn’t discuss her beliefs on vegetarianism, or foie gras (though she does eat plenty of it). These are all important issues in the world of food, and though I am certain that Hesser has her opinions about them, they simply don’t have a place in this book. Cooking for Mr. Latte is about Hesser’s love for food, about the people she loves, and how the two constantly interact. She reminds us how food can be a comfort and a joy, and how it can be the most vivid part of some of our best memories.

By including recipes, Hesser also allows her readers to literally get a taste of some of the more memorable moments of this part of her life. Though Hesser’s rich knowledge of the culinary world, and occasional pretentiousness about food might seem intimidating, her recipes are completely approachable. Hesser’s stories show how food brings people together, and so these recipes also bring us closer to Hesser and help us to better understand, and perhaps be inspired by, her lifelong passion for food.

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