Brunch Reads:
Food Anthologies, Fowl, and Fish

Photo: Olivia Fleming

Welcome to Brunch Reads, Aftertastes’s selection of essays, reviews, and food-related excerpts, to peruse over the weekend’s most important meal. Here is what we’ve been into this week.

Such humble delights as buttered toast.

Bee Wilson’s Pleasures of the Literary Meal in the New Yorker, a review of the new food anthology Pleasures of the Table (ed. Christina Hardyment), has our favorite conclusion:

“Descriptions of people eating provide something that recipes can never give: closure. So much of our food culture now serves to tantalize us with hypothetical meals. We are endlessly promised the “10 best quinoa recipes,” but the odds are that we’ll never make even one of them. Recipes as a form of prose—as opposed to practical guidelines for cooking—promise more than they can deliver. It is noticeable that Hardyment’s chapter of “literary recipes” (Katherine Mansfield’s orange soufflé, Alexandre Dumas’s ostrich-egg omelette) is nothing like as satisfying as her chapter on “Simple Pleasures,” where we read of various people eating such humble delights as buttered toast.”

What does one do with the world when one owns it?
One eats it.

Speaking of eating observations, here is an excerpt from Linda Wolfe’s 1985 food anthology The Literary Gourmet, which, in its opening chapters, explores the esoteric—by today’s standards—tastes of Ancient Rome:

“The Romans developed indulgence of the palate and the stomach beyond anything the ancient world had before experienced. It happened gradually. In the beginning the Romans were energetic and militarily wise. They made themselves masters of the known world. But little by little no luxury was too great, no carnality too vulgar, and no penitence possible. What does one do with the world when one owns it? One eats it.

“They imported their cooks first from Greece. Then they drew them from other outlying regions. Soon they were able to taste all the pleasures of all the places, and their concept of the exotic paled. They ate many meats we now eat, like pork, veal, lamb and ducks. But they ate cranes and peacocks also, and Heliogabalus once offered two hundred gold pieces to anyone who would bring back to him, ostensibly for dinner, the legendary phoenix.

“The length of the Mediterranean and even the shores of the Black Sea were turned inside out in search of the beautiful red-legged flamingo. Its thick and oily tongue was highly prized. Pickled, it was a delicacy without which no Roman banquet could succeed. Sometimes six hundred ostriches were killed for a single imperial meal and only their brains were served. The Romans seem to have been titillated by killing so huge a bird to obtain so small and exquisite a pleasure.”

When Parliament banned newspaper wrapping they were being truly anti-gastronomic.

If you haven’t yet experienced Joanna Avillez’s “Smells the Same” on Lucky Peach, about growing up near the Fulton Fish Market, you’re in for a sensual treat. Speaking of fish, we also finally read this essay by the late Michael Bateman on Fish ‘n’ Chips, which was reprinted in issue 1 of Toast Magazine. Here is an excerpt:

“We took a smart step back when newspaper was outlawed as a fish and chip wrapping. Newspaper had the perfect degree of absorbency. The essential quality of fish and chips is the crispness of the chip, and the crisp coating which seals the juice in the fish. So when you’ve finished cooking them, it’s important to drain them quickly. What you don’t do is to seal the fish and chips hermetically, which is what those modern little greaseproof cartons do. That sort of wrapping means the steam instantly softens the batter and makes the chips soggy. When Parliament banned newspaper wrapping they were being truly anti-gastronomic.”