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Book Review: Eating: A Memoir by Jason Epstein

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Eating: A Memoir by Jason Epstein exhibits all of the endearing qualities that I can only imagine are essential components of the author himself: charm, wit, and above all, a true interest in life.

Epstein has had an enviable array of star-studded life experiences as an essential figure in the literary world. As a publisher and editor at Random House, he has worked with such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov and Gore Vidal, and culinary wonders such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. He even innovated American paperbacks through the founding of Anchor Books — the very publisher of Eating.

Yet, as much as I would love to hear anecdotes about his relationship with Mailer, this memoir is only sprinkled with such reminiscences. Rather, the book is an outlet for Epstein’s life-long passion for food, and one quickly realizes that he may be a man of great importance in the literary world, but he is just as competent in the culinary one.

Eating is a story of life well-lived filled with words well-written. Epstein pulls the reader in straight away with both his personality and his fantastic taste in food by saying that he will avoid the temptation to break his diet and make a blueberry pie for his birthday, which luckily coincides with blueberry season, only to quickly lose the will to resist butter and to make the reader an accomplice in his sin by supplying his mouth-watering recipe.

Equal parts memoir and cookbook, Eating is notably different than other cookbooks in the unique and appealing way in which the recipes are presented. There are no lists of ingredients and quantities, or numbered, clear, step-by-step directions. Rather, Epstein writes about his favorite dishes in paragraph form and literary style, using sentences, not steps, to describe the process of creating a dish. I find this particularly enjoyable, because it allows Epstein to showcase his passion for food and the inevitable experimentations and memories that always accompany a great dish for a gastronome. Epstein tells the reader upfront, “Recipes should be more like stories than like maps or formulae,” and, after reading the way he writes about simple penne in tomato sauce in such a saliva-inducing manner, I can only agree.

Of course, this method also means that, should you want to actually cook any of these dishes (and I really, really do after reading about them), you will have to know what you are doing; this is not a cookbook for a beginner. Rather, these are recipes for people who really want to cook, not just follow a recipe like an automaton; there is thinking involved.

Some of his recommendations are strangely specific, such as using arrowroot instead of cornstarch, or rolling dough out with a glass rolling pin. In these cases, you have to love that he takes the time to explain little things that, unless you learned to cook at the feet of a chef-relative, you might never have learned. Alice Waters’ Bouillabaisse recipe is two pages long (perhaps I should mention that this book has no photos, since it is not solely a cookbook, but Epstein’s descriptiveness in his recipes makes the food quite visible to the imagination). On the other hand, some of his recipe prescriptions remain enigmatic (but entertaining), such as, in the recipe for Patrick’s two-egg lobster omelette, recommending enough lobster “to fill a two-egg omelette.” Epstein will at times tell you to poach things or braise things or, worst of all, cut lobsters in half lengthwise with very little or no instruction. But if you can figure out these laconic directions, you are guaranteed a culinary treat and a good time in the process.

Epstein truly appreciates his ingredients and is never afraid to try new, or even morally-questionable, things in the quest of a delectable dish. “Consider the Lobster” has no place in his chapter on lobsters, but you almost feel as though stabbing a lobster in the brain with a kitchen knife is a small price to pay to gain the kind of joy that food clearly gives Epstein.

Eating is a memoir because the food is always discussed within the context of life. Epstein’s fish recipes are not just for fish; they are about seafood procured on vacations in Sag Harbor. Studies have shown that dishes on menus are much more profitable if the name includes adjectives such as “Nonna’s” or “Deep South” or the origins of the ingredients. We want our food to have a story, to play into the narrative we all want to give to our own lives. In this sense, Eating speaks to a fundamental desire of humanity, to instill importance into activities which are too often done habitually, without thought.

There are some purely biographical passages in Eating that prove that Epstein’s life away from the dinner table is just as interesting as his life in the kitchen. One chapter in which Epstein writes about how he “wandered” into the publishing business I find especially inspirational; I always enjoy people who did not know exactly what they wanted to do at a young age, but tarried around exploring life for a bit first. I always find these people to be the most captivating, or maybe I just find the successful ones reassuring, because I don’t know myself where life will take me. There is also a great story in here about traveling in France with Gore Vidal in which they both learn the lesson of the serendipity of occasionally getting lost.

What is particularly captivating about Eating is just how likable Epstein comes across as being. I only wish that I could pull out a chair at my dining room table and actually share a meal, and an evening of relaxed conversation, with him. Even his back cover photo seems avuncular and good-natured. And occasionally, he will say the most surprising, humorous things, such as when he describes Thanksgiving as his “least unfavorite holiday, since, unlike Halloween, Christmas, or Easter, its pagan soul had not been turned into a marketing opportunity by monotheists.”

I recently moved to New York City, and I can only hope that my experience in this city is as glorious as entering Jason Epstein’s world here. Food can, and should, be so much more than just a thrice-daily necessity, and delving into Epstein’s memoir is a great reminder of that fact. I plan to come back to Eating: A Memoir again and again, in part for the recipes and places to shop for the best ingredients, but also just to be reminded about how full life can be when you truly savor and consider every bite, of food and of life.

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About Kerri Shadid