Summer reading should be pleasant fare. Though I had found perverse comfort earlier this season in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror-- the wars and epidemics of our own century seem paltry when compared to the Hundred Years' War and Bubonic Plague of the 14th-- I felt that, just perhaps, I should read something slightly more upbeat; something that didn't cause me to frequently check myself for lice, fleas or imaginary buboes. Something fun. Something food-related.
I was saved from reading MFK Fisher's The Art of Eating for the 17th time when Ian Jackman's Eat This: 1,001 Things to Eat Before You Diet fell into my hot --and mercifully plague-free-- little hands.
Jackman spent two years writing about and several more eating his way through farmers markets, hot dog stands, panaderias and testicle festivals-- and any place else that serves up food in this country. The result is an entertaining, mind-blowing catalogue of regional American food traditions and obsessions.
Eat This satisfies my criteria for pleasant fare-- something I can pick up and put down, jumping from chapter to chapter without getting lost. Though not a comprehensive work (which is impossible be given the expanse of this country, so don't cry about the omission of scuppernongs), it is a work of astonishing breadth, fascinating food facts and inspiration for many a future food hajj.
When I first flipped through these 382 pages of information, I was overcome with regret that no one ever uttered the words "road trip" to me. Not once. "Vegas" was about as far as it went, and culinary adventure was not the motivation behind that utterance. As I browsed further, skipping about between chapters in Part One: Eating In that seem organized like sections in a supermarket, I came across bits of food history I could relate to-- my father's fascination with Tastykakes in the Bakery chapter, my aunt's penchant for feeding her dog on Chateaubriand while the rest of us ate pasta in Meat.
Part Two: Eating Out is crammed with information not only on what to eat and where to eat it but, for example and (to me) much more fascinating, how a national dish such as the hamburger varies from region to region. A Sloppy Joe-like Dynamite? Go to Rhode Island. Butter Burger? Try Solly's Grill in Madison, Wisconsin. I'll need to ask my Madison contact about that one.
The bits of trivia Jackman picked up along the way are filling up the few remaining parts of my brain as yet unsaturated with useless information, which suits me just fine. From Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Jackman shares a wonderfully creepy burger fact:
Q: Which two American institutions were founded in San Bernadino, California, in 1948?
A: McDonald's and The Hell's Angels.
If you tell me that information isn't going to slip out of your mouth at the next barbecue you attend, I won't believe you.
Of course, for every one item I've tasted or place I've visited (or worked at, for that matter-- four are mentioned in this book), there are 20 listed that I haven't-- a fact I regard with hope rather than frustration. Pancakes at the Original Pantry in Los Angeles? Check. Hungarian Hot Dogs at Tony Packo's in Toledo, Ohio? On my to do list. My friend Gary's family is Hungarian and from Ohio. I've heard the stories, I've seen the photos. Jackman's credibility rating shot way up when I read that. Not that he needs my approval.
In a country I have often viewed (from my cultural bubble of San Francisco) as alarmingly homogenized, where the lingua franca has been peppered with phrases like super-sized and non-fat venti, Eat This simply proves that there are still a lot of lumps in the American Melting Pot. Thank God.
As I step up the planning of my impending holiday in Greece next month, my thoughts are already turning to the next trip. I'm thinking somewhere more exotic. Like Vienna, Georgia. I've never been to the Big Pig Jig Barbecue Contest. I smell a road trip coming on but, this time, I won't wait around for someone to utter those words to me. I'll say them myself.