Monday, July 23, 2018

Three late great food writers and the books you should read

This week there’s no recipe, just a farewell to three food writers who influenced me immensely: Madeleine Kamman, Jonathan Gold, and Anthony Bourdain. 

And while I'm doing that, I want to point you in the direction of three books that I hope will change your life as much as they did mine.

You might not know the names of these three outsized personalities – in fact, unless you’re a serious food nerd, you probably only are really familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s work on television – but you will have felt their influence in today’s food scene, for they possessed unique world views and incidentally wrote incredibly well.

Let me start with Mrs. Kamman, who is rarely mentioned nowadays – I mean, she didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until recently, and the current one is cursory at best – but who nonetheless was a great teacher of France’s noble cuisines. She was even a television star in the long-running PBS series Madeleine Cooks, which still holds up as a great how-to guide to French techniques.

She is mostly remembered now for the famous dislike she formed for Julia Child. It’s true, this spat may seem a bit petty to us nowadays, especially as Mrs. Child is (quite rightly) held in such high esteem.

But at the same time, I wonder how much of this was blown out of proportion simply because we got to watch two great women battle it out while we munched on truffle-infused popcorn and sipped chilled chardonnay.

Yes, Mrs. Kamman was prickly, but she was also a classically trained chef. She was a complete pro who ran a glorious restaurant, Chez La Mère Madeleine in Boston. 

Male chefs get to have oversized egos, and they are rewarded handsomely if they can really burn as television stars in the process, but in the Seventies – and honestly, even today – “lady chefs” have always had to keep their personalities in check. I mean, she took on great chefs like Paul Bocuse, but her words got little traction there because, well, a catfight is always more interesting, isn’t it?

Anyway, what I want you to do is to hunt down two of her most marvelous books: The first one is When French Women Cook (1976), a truly delicious food memoir with recipes. It brings to life her belief in cuisine de terroir, cuisine des femmes, and cuisine du coeur.

To Mrs. Kamman, French cooking centered on the kitchens where women were in charge. She was a feminist of the first order, and this shines in the best possible way throughout this gorgeous story of how she learned to cook and eat well.

I have to admit that I really liked her as a person, too. We spoke many times on the phone, and she was generous with her time and knowledge. She even invited me to stay at the home in Vero Beach, Florida, that she shared with her husband, Alan, so I guess I’m prejudiced, but I hope in a good way. Here are two obituaries that describe her perfectly, from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Her other great book is The New Making of a Cook (1997). When I asked her what book she was most proud of, this was her hands-down favorite. She even sent me an autographed copy that I treasure, while my older copy continues to get stained and dog-eared and scribbled up. If you want to learn how to cook like a French chef, this one is a classic. 

*  *  *

Jonathan Gold suddenly left this world Saturday morning. He was without a doubt my idea of the ultimate food writer. 

He could turn a hunt for the perfect taco or some obscure Chinese bowl of noodles into  an adventure seeped in poetry. 

Mr. Gold wrote  for the L. A. TimesGourmet, and L. A. Weekly as a food critic. His legendary command of the English language was combined with unusual insight into the cuisines of the world that make up Los Angeles's culinary landscape. And for that he won the Pulitzer Prize.

And so, if I ever aspired to write like someone, it was Mr. Gold. He was one of the few Americans who seemed to really understand and appreciate the multifaceted cuisines of China – and pretty much every other cuisine he encountered, as well – with endless passion. In fact, passion was what gave his columns such heft, but they were also seasoned with a healthy helping of wit and compassion.

Perhaps even more important, he painted a picture of contemporary Los Angeles that went beyond Hollywood. He could find beauty in the perfectly cooked spleen from some tiny stand and also appreciate the nuances in some roadside bánh mì. I mean, look at the knowledge concentrated in this ode to congee. I read it and feel hunger, admiration... and deep deep envy.

And that is why even now I always look up from his writings with a new appreciation for all that the world’s people have to offer on their plates and in their kitchens. And that is also why when he told me that he liked my work, I felt as if I too had received a Pulitzer, and it gave me the courage to write All Under Heaven. Hero worship here? Yeah, just a little...

Fortunately for all of us, you can always find his columns online. If you hope to learn how to write like Mr. Gold or simply want to understand the cultural kaleidoscope of Los Angeles, read things like this column on the L. A. fires or, hey, any one of these

But if you really want to submerge into his genius, get a copy of Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles (2000). Even the title is insanely perfect, so imagine what you’ll find between those two covers. My copy is underlined, covered with bookmarks, and deeply creased. It is beloved beyond measure.

Here are two obituaries that really capture the inimitable genius that was Jonathan Gold: from Eater and this stunning remembrance from Ruth Reichl in the L.A. Times.

*  *  *

Anthony Bourdain was a celebrity, rightly beloved for his unique voice, effortless charm, and erudite entrees into places we otherwise would have never heard of, much less yearned to visit.

His televisions shows could at times be stunningly beautiful, at other times weird beyond belief, and a particular unforgettable one took us into the heart of Beirut's war. He dined with President Obama in Hanoi (my favorite local Vietnamese place will serve up their meal on request), and he racked up a shelf full of Emmys and other awards in the process. 

His programs were gut-wrenching at times, and at others made me so hungry that I'd have to hit pause and raid the kitchen before I could manage to sit through another minute.

He was a chef, a novelist, a television star, a publisher, and a perennial presence in our cultural consciousness. He even was the star of an episode of Archer, and you can’t get much cooler than that.

But he was always first and foremost an incredible nonfiction writer. His columns in places like Lucky Peach are classic Bourdain: mordant and beautiful.

If I were to pick a favorite book by him, it would be without a doubt his last one, Appetites: A Cookbook (2016). 

This is not a run-of-the-mill guide to cooking, but rather a lovely stroll around Bourdain’s mind as he feeds you the things he adores. You hear his voice in every line, and the recipes work.

Lots of this has to do with the firm hand shown by his cowriter and gatekeeper, Laurie Woolever. Together they made something marvelous. It's a terrific keeper of a cookbook, and one that I keep on my small shelf of favorites in the kitchen. Appetites is one of those lovely books that teaches, entertains, and feeds me in equal measure.

And now I hear that she is now writing his biography. I can’t wait.

His obituaries are legion, but the one in Eater is great, as is this one from the L. A. Times.

*  *  *

We in the world of food writing lost three masters lately. But their voices live on. We are all so much richer for that, and I remember these three with love, respect, and endless thanks.

Madeleine Kamman's photograph: The New York Times
Jonathan Gold's photograph: Associated Press
Anthony Bourdain's photograph: Ecco


  1. I read When French Women Cook years ago...before food was "A Thing." What an extraordinary book. I made Kamman's recipe for duck with basil on our eleventh wedding anniversary. It took four solid hours of cooking. I thought I'd die. The result was incredible. Kamman was, and is, terribly overlooked. How very fortunate you were to know her. I first encountered read Gold when I moved to LA from Detroit--I read the Weekly as a way to orient myself to a place that felt like Mars. Him, and Michael Ventura. This was long before I cooked a thing. Bourdain...I have special affection for the Les Halles Cookbook, because it came out just as I was getting serious about cooking. Bourdain was the reason I bought a real chef's knife and started making broth at home. All three leave enormous gaps.

    1. I love that you love these wonderful writers, too. I learned so much from them and feel a genuine loss. How lucky we are to have their books! (Sorry it took so long to respond. I've been having trouble with comment notification.)