I just finished a gem of a book, American Food Writing, edited by Molly O’Neill. Its red and blue gingham cover looks just like a picnic cloth or an old-school Betty Crocker cookbook. But inside isn’t strange 1960’s style recipes for coconut puffs. Instead there is a glorious collection of superbly chosen nuggets of writing.
It spans a great deal of time, from Meriwether Lewis (writing on bear sausage) and Fredrick Douglass (on ash-cake), to H. L. Mencken (advice on how to make Hot Dogs more popular) and Ogden Nash (on Croques Madame), and all the way up to Julia Child (on her inauspicious television debut) and Michael Pollan (on “Big Organic”). It meanders through immigrant and all-american foods, relishing all the food cultures and foodways that have been nurtured within our borders. Some pieces come from professional food writers and critics (James Beard and Craig Claiborne), some from personal narratives about food (Nora Ephron and David Sedaris), and yet others are excerpts from works of fiction (John Steinbeck and Herman Melville).
Every piece is helpfully introduced by Ms. O’Neill in good taste. Each intro tells you what you need to know without bogging it down in irrelevant details. Between many of the pieces are classic recipes from the time frame being considered. There are recipes from Potted Lobster, Cape Cod Turkey, Almond Torte, to Vichyssoise. I haven’t tried any of the enclosed recipes (most are, unfortunately, not vegetarian). But what is appealing about these recipes is that each is formatted differently on the page. Font and layout changes for each recipe convey some of the original spirit each one had upon its first publication. It’s a small detail, I was some hundred pages in before I realized it, but it is a charming and visually appealing little detail. I feel it is indicative of the whole book, so very well curated and designed.
I devoured this book with pleasure, and I think you’d do the same. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about food or about Americana. Or anyone who enjoys reading at all!