A Meal Observed

This author's not really in love with grub

By Andrew Todhunter

Knopf (2004), $23

Assuming that A Meal Observed, Andrew Todhunter's meditation on a single five-hour dinner at Paris' posh Taillevent restaurant, would be like the food porn movies I venerate (Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo), I began reading it with the greatest of expectations. But though I raced through the book with unflagging enthusiasm, I must admit to less-than-complete satiety. The best food writing, exemplified by the work of authors like M.F.K. Fisher, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Calvin Trillin, is both sensuous and erudite; the writers' deep knowledge of the way certain foods have historically been grown and prepared enhances, rather than distracts from, the joy they take in their meals.

But Todhunter, who lives in Sonoma County's exclusive Sea Ranch, is no passionate foodie. Instead of being in love with grub, he seems more enamored with the idea of himself as an aesthete and aficionado. As a result, though the book contains numerous fascinating passages in which Todhunter delves into the workings of fine eateries and the origins of various dishes and ingredients -- I was particularly interested in his explanation of how wines are properly stored -- it contains relatively little discussion of what's on his plate. The author appears to prefer writing about the production of a particular cheese to describing its aromas and flavors; he'll go on a tangent about the history of salt more willingly than he'll relate how it enlivens a dish of escargots. In short, A Meal Observed is clever, fact-filled, and intermittently enchanting, but it lacks the swoony passion of true gourmand lit. It's more of an amuse-bouche than a feast.

 
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