It Must've Been Something I Ate: the Return of the Man Who Ate Everything

by Jeffrey Steingarten
ISBN: 0375727124

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A Review of: It Must Have Been Something I Ate (The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything)
by Brian Fawcett

Jeffrey Steingarten has been conducting a one-man campaign against culinary xenophobia for twenty years. He's been around long enough-and is respected enough in culinary circles-to have been made a Chevalier in the French Order of Merit for his writing about French Gastronomy in 1994. He's also the long-time food writer for Vogue Magazine, something that surprised me more than a little: who knew the haute couture crowd ate food at all, or that Vogue published articles that aren't as emaciated as their models? It Must've Been Something I Ate is a collection of 38 of the Vogue columns, and a sequel to his The Man Who Ate Everything (1997). Both books are marvelously written and constructed, and make for highly informative reading, not just on the subject of cooking.
Steingarten, while a fine writer, doesn't pretend to be a chef, even though he provides a few choice recipes within the text. He's an investigator of phobic culinary habits and behaviors and a food enthusiast, and like any enthusiast, his prose is florid, and occasionally breathless. If you're interested in food, where it comes from, and how it is prepared at its best, he's as good as you could hope for. If you want to rid yourself of your culinary conservatisms, he's better, because he's not writing to frighten you with all the terrible dangers of putting foreign things in your mouth. He's there to entice your senses.
Included is a fascinating essay on designer salt-the current rage amongst foodies. In it, Steingarten determines that none of the designer salts, once dissolved in water, taste any different from common table salt, but that the different forms of delivery-the flat flakes of Maldon salt or the fluffy crystals of Fleur de Sel-have a substantial impact on taste, provided that they're sprinkled on something relatively dry, like a steak, and not on a tomato. In addition, trace elements like magnesium, with which Fleur de Sel is loaded, elevate the flavour of sodium, and makes things taste saltier.
Other surprises abound, like the fact that MSG isn't the problem it has been made out to be. The 1% of people who are sensitive to its active ingredient, glutamate, had better stay away from Parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes and fresh peas, and generally speaking, eat better before they whine about Chinese food, because the problem lies in what they're not eating before they go to the Chinese restaurant, not with MSG, which is present naturally in many foods.
As an aficionado of Japanese cuisine, I was astounded at finding out that the Japanese used to toss out tuna belly for being too oily until about 1960, and that even today, many commercial fishermen feed it to their dogs. Other startling revelations abound in the book: I didn't know, for instance, that Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana, Mexico, (although I confess to some resistance at discovering that it isn't supposed to include anchovies). I did suspect that there is no humane way to kill a lobster, and his description of how lobsters mate is almost enough to make me stop eating them-or at least to propose them, instead, as human sex therapists and models for post-coitus solicitude.
But I don't want to give away all the secrets in Steingarten's book. If you're seriously interested in learning where really good food comes from, and in reducing your level of food aversion, buy and read this man's book. I can say without exaggeration that I've learned more about good food from him than I have from any food writer I've read since I discovered Julia Child when I was about 19. Other writers-many writers, actually-are better than Steingarten on the subject of cooking food, but on source, taste and pointless gastronomic phobias, this man is wonderful breaker of bad habits and silly prohibitions, and as intrepid an explorer of the cornucopia as Roald Amundsen was of the Arctic ice floes.

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