Would you have dinner with this woman?

The best thing about writing a blog is the relationships that you form with online friends. Anyone could work that out. The second best thing about blogging is being able to say things like this:

I have just read Gina Mallet’s book Last Chance to Eat, a book that claims cookery is dying, being killed by industrialised food production and nutritionist fear-mongering. It is a bad book.

Many food writers have had a privileged upbringing (like me, to a point). Some can write about it in a way that’s not only interesting, but graceful – say, MFK Fisher. Part of what makes her writing graceful and interesting is the clarity of her analytical intelligence. Gina Mallet does not share this virtue. She is just up herself.

Mallet is exceptionally good at one thing, which is is describing the taste of something in terms of something else. I wonder whether my own deeply felt failing at describing the taste of things is what makes her gift in that area shine so bright for me? Regardless, Mallet can describe the physical sensations of taste with a rare and precise clarity – a sense when I read that that, yes, I wish I could have made it sound so abundantly obvious.

It is the only kind of generosity in her writing. Writing about food that lacks generosity is a crime equal to McDonalds, as far as I’m concerned, because lack of generosity is a key sign of a bad host. If someone is writing about gastronomy and the logical fantasy about sitting at their table is a horror, then I’m out. I imagine the dinner conversation would range from the whine:

“Scrambled eggs are an ideal fast food: they are made in a couple of minutes and go with anything – rösti potatoes are particularly good. But who, other than me, makes them any more?. I don’t think it’s just that eggs have been the subject of a (false) health scare in the past 30 years, but rather that scrambled eggs demand a level of attention that fewer and fewer people want to spend on preparing food.” (p 43)

to the fatuous:

“Exactly why a Dover sole tastes so special, why its texture too is unique, is a puzzle. The firm flesh and the unvarying taste compared to other flatfish can only be due to the sole’s character. Unlike the indecisive flounder, the sole is focused and purposeful.” (p 224)

It’s easy to read a book of 200 plus pages and pick out a couple of dreadful sentences, but it needn’t be.

I wonder that Mallet can write like this, and remain immune to the great agrarian romance of authentic eating so prominent in recent years.  In fact she is enthusiastic about the potential of genetically modified foods and entirely artificial foods, as these extracts from her blog show –

Scientists already can create almost every flavour, taste extant in a test tube.

The Nobel for chemistry has gone the discoverers of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) which allows biochemists to track the cell’s machinery at work. Great for medicine – perhaps great for food too. Imagine glowfood on the plate, irridescent green marbling of meat , striped green carrots, the yukon gold speckled with green glow…

The industrialisation of food and our alienation from food production is a fascinating topic, and there is much interesting writing – and activism – in the area. This book, however, is a sentimental whinge.

If you think that’s a little harsh, you can read this more reasoned review of the book by Barbara Santich and Mallet’s response: 

(Gina Mallet, Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World (Milson’s
Point, NSW: Random House Australia, 2004), pp. 236 plus index.

The doom-laden title demands immediate attention; who among us has not, at some stage, bemoaned the lack of flavour in tomatoes and peaches, the blandness of most Australian cheddar, the vapidity of characterless chicken breasts? Not that Gina Mallet gives any answers or any cause for optimism in this book, whose message seems to be that things ain’t what they used to be and we’d better enjoy what we can now, because they will only get worse. Her conclusion is that “unless consumers stick up for taste, there won’t be any” (p. 218).

According to the back cover, Last Chance to Eat is a “provocative and evocative account of the fate of food.” Certainly, the author has had plenty of wonderful food experiences to evoke and writes about them with verve and humour, for example, Dover sole at a birthday lunch at a Parisian brasserie, a properly aged porterhouse at a traditional New York steakhouse. But provocative? Pessimistic would be a better description. Perhaps this is an apt analogy for “the fate of taste,” but I would have found this book more provocative and more challenging if it recognised that the past is passé and directed its focus towards what can be done in the present to affect the future, and what we, as eaters, might do to “stick up for taste.” Instead, the epilogue, set some 50 years in the future, assumes that we simply continued to accept what we were given and, like characters in a Greek tragedy, did nothing to change the fate of taste.

Nevertheless, the book describes clearly and candidly the changes that have occurred in food production and processing practices and the reasons for these changes (essentially, health, hygiene, economics and politics). Mallet explains why steak and kidney pie has become steak and mushroom pie, why the number of different varieties of apple has diminished, why hydroponic tomatoes might be better than organic ones. Writing in a strong and authoritative voice, she is firm in her opinions, as when she states that Béchamel and Velouté are really the only worthy sauce accompaniments to fish (p. 216). In her discussions researchers and scientists are not spared, usually with good reason, for example, the scientists who decreed wood unhygienic and recommended plastic chopping boards; it was later discovered that wood has natural anti-bacterial properties (p. 82).

She can be equally scathing about the FDA, which decreed that children should not lick the bowl and beaters when raw eggs have been used in the cake batter (p. 59) and supermarkets that “don’t listen to customers … but buy the apples that make the best profit” (p. 160).

It is not difficult to agree with Mallet’s arguments and to be swayed by her sentiments. Yet, persuasive as the book is, it has a number of serious flaws that cast doubt on its probity and ultimate worth. One of these is its reliance, especially in the chapter on fish, on a limited selection of resources. I can accept that Bill Gerencer is very knowledgeable about fish and the fishing industry, but I would have expected a reputable writer to corroborate his information by referring to other sources. Bill might be correct when he says that shrimp are soaked in sodium-tripolyphosphate to plump them up before freezing, but surely this could have been confirmed by other industry or government sources (I’m sure Jeffrey Steingarten would have!).

The second serious flaw is the number of factual errors. A prestigious publisher such as Random House presumably employs skilled editors and fact-checkers, so how can it happen that Carême is credited with creating a dish called Chevreuse de perdreaux (p. 33) when the great chef actually named this masterpiece Chartreuse de perdreaux. Or that the chump chop is described as coming from the neck (p. 136), when, according to the English (and Australian) system, the chump is situated between the leg and the loin. Or that it states categorically “sugar is more fattening than fat” (p. 200); depending on how much of each you eat, this might be valid, but weight for weight fat contains more kilojoules than sugar. Finally, I have doubts about a recipe in which 2-3 cm potato cubes are boiled for 30 minutes and then cooked for another 40 minutes in a 190° oven.

Third, I wonder about omissions. Surely, in a discussion of modern slaughtering and meat processing practices and the risks of contamination by E. coli it would have been pertinent to mention Eric Schlosser’s recent exposé of the American meat industry in Fast Food Nation (2001).

The idea behind Last Chance to Eat is admirable. It is disappointing to me that a book that promised so much did not live up to expectations.

Mallet’s reply:

To the editor,

Flattered as I am to be reviewed in your April 2006 newsletter, I must point out that Last Chance to Eat: the Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World is not an academic book but a personal take on the state of our diet.

The personal interpretation of food, the sensual intermingling of food with people, events, and emotions, is a literary tradition—I refer to Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, Sybille Bedford and Colette.

How such a book is received depends entirely on whether the reader goes along with the author rather than on any parsing of the “facts.” Obviously Barbara Santich, your reviewer, didn’t go along with my story of food. Fair enough. But to criticize a book like mine for something that’s not in it strikes me as misleading.

I chose information relevant to me, just the way Brillat Savarin, Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher did. I make and they made no pretence about being omniscient. Indeed that would rob a book of what
value it has. To me, it is the words and style of writing that create meaning better than any marshalling of factoids.

And like Oscar Wilde, I believe that life imitates art rather than vice versa, so should my future dystopia prove right, I shall be happy to take credit for it. Just to clear up some misunderstandings, it seems to me wilful to say I should have singled out Fast Food Nation as a source for my chapter on beef. In fact, as the bibliography shows, I had many sources. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was singled out because it was the most significant to me.

Re sources for the dry-cleaned shrimp—perhaps Australia is free of this pernicious practice, but it’s well-known among fishmongers in North America, and as I noted in my book, the use of dry-cleaning
fluid is okayed by the FDA. Exactly what other source is required?

Errors are always regrettable but I hardly think the misspelling of one word in a Carême recipe detracts
in any meaningful way from the book. Alas, the cash-strapped publishing industry can no longer afford
the kind of checking they did in the past.

I don’t usually respond to reviews, good or bad. But I chose to answer Barbara Santich because her review ran in a university newsletter that is distributed among students. Now Last Chance to Eat is popular among students in North America who have told me that they have learned for the first time about the egg crisis, raw milk cheese controversy, the aging of beef, the apple returning to Asia, and the paint-stripped scallop. Jessa Crispin, the twenty-something blogger whose website BookSlut is one of the most influential book blogs, picked Last Chance as one of her top books of 2004. That pleased me even more than Last Chance being awarded the 2005 James Beard Award for Writing on Food, the most prestigious prize of all.

Best Wishes,
Gina Mallet
gina@ginamallet.com

Gina Mallet’s Last Chance to Eat, the Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World has been published worldwide, won the 2005 James Beard Award for Writing on Food, Cuisine Canada’s Gold Medal for food
writing, is the leading excerpt in Best Food Writing in 2005, and was named one of BookSlut’s top
five books of 2004. She is now working on Elixirs of Youth, Scientists, Scallywags, Food, Genes and
Diet.

NB – The University of Adelaide allows non commercial reproduction of material from the Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink newsletter, where these pieces appeared.

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20 thoughts on “Would you have dinner with this woman?

  1. Hmmm…don’t think I would, actually.

    Have to track down a copy of the book now and have a squiz myself.
    May I just add that I find it a tad weird that Ms Mallet compares herself to Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, Sybille Bedford, Colette AND Brillat Savarin in the one reply?

    Hmmm…

  2. I also love the cry of “who will think of the students!”. I got my copy from the library, Lucy, but I saw several copies in the local remaindered book shop last week.

    No Elizabeth David there that I’ve noticed, now you mention it ; )

  3. She is definitely, completely and utterly up herself – comparing herself to those great food writers once is bad enough, but to do it twice? And then to liken oneself to Oscar Wilde?

    ‘It is the words and style of writing that create meaning more than any marshalling of factoids’ – well, that’s not a defence that saves us in the history wars, why should it work in the food wars?

    And she does not answer the comment about her spud recipe. Oh Zoe, she is a bad, bad one.

  4. Rotten, DSO. Just rotten. Echoes of Lloyd Bentsen, for the political junkies amongst us.

    aof, I’ve extracted poorly there, so I’ll extend the quote in the post – she actually thinks no-one makes scrambled eggs.

    I wonder why no-one running the “who cooks anymore? meme seems to know about this giant army of food obsessed bloggers, or all the people using online food media?

  5. Maybe she thinks that we are all so busy blogging that we don’t actually cook, but she forgets, we whip out our digital cameras at the slightest provocation to prove we are really cooking!

    Oh, the insults, especially since I was woken at 6am by kids desperate to make cinnamon french toast.

  6. BTW, should share this. After waking at 6am the boys were told (rather sternly) to go back to bed at once and wait until I was ready to get up (a long time). When I went in they were both in Aaron’s bed, reading his Kid’s Cookbook and planning breakfast.

  7. makes note to self – drop the Oscar Wilde comparison in next blog post, google to find out wtf a Chartreuse de perdreaux is, ask butcher where chump chops come from, prepare witty riposte for when butcher says chumps..

  8. Myself, I rather liked Ruth L. Ozeki’s ‘personal take’ on American meat production in My Year of Meat.

    I was a bit traumatized after reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Now that was powerful, life-changing writing.

  9. Sage got a kid’s cookbook out today too, and we planned a dinner to make on the weekend. (Chicken nuggets and chocolate truffles, would you believe?)

    Kirsty a vegan friend gave me “My Year of Meat” and I found it very powerful; agreed on Fast Food Nation, a frightening book. The more I learn about industrial food production the more I don’t like.

  10. Speaking as one who has been known to travel under the epithet of non cooker, may I point out that I cooked scrambled eggs just the other day. Not just for myself but for (almost) all my siblings, who had gathered from the 4 corners of the earth, including Melbourne.

    Little did I realise that the simple act of grating some cheese on top and popping it under the griller (coz I was worried about the bottom burning while the top was still liquid) would elicit a tornado of attention. I felt like Frodo after he popped on the ring (except for being invisible of course). The pressure was on once the portions hit the toast and the plates hit the table.

    Luckily for me the chooks’ diet of stinging nettles, molluscs, termites and dung beetles produced a bright yellow, fluffy egg-slab. Of course I refused to divulge what or whether I’d added any odd ingredients, but the bottle of sweet chili sauce on the bench gave me away. Fortunately I’d put the fish sauce back in the cupboard!

    So Gina should not fear for the extinction of scrambled eggs. They are a great way of reducing the poulty-foetus stockpile. Indeed, I am informed that chooks are teh new water tank; every right-thinking inner city dweller must have some. The future of scrambled eggs is bright indeed.

  11. the simple act of grating some cheese on top and popping it under the griller (coz I was worried about the bottom burning while the top was still liquid)

    But why, St33v? I don’t get how it could be necessary to do this?

    I also made scrambled eggs for breakfast this morning, with a smidge of butter and some chives.

  12. I do eggs every which way, nearly every day (thanks chooks), with herbs I grow myself, so there Gina.

    I also worried about why St33v was worried about the bottom of the cheese toast …

  13. What an odd thesis.

    Has she not realised that in the last twenty odd years, more people have learnt more about ingredients and good cooking than ever before in history?

    She comes across as someone who reads cookbooks and goes to restaurants. I wonder if she actually cooks much at all.

  14. BUT I think, I fear she may be correct about access to good quality unprocessed ingredients and the resulting impact upon what you can actually do with it. And perhaps more importantly what you THINK you can do with it

    Visit a “please insert suburb name” shopping centre just about anywhere in Australia (allowing for the usual suspect exceptions – you know who you are) and what passes for “food” is terrifying. Fruit and vegetables that rot within 2 days of being bought – obviously having been cold-stored for months in some cases.

    For most people, food shopping means visiting one of two supermarket chains. Around 70% of Australians apparently. Both chains made profitable by the practices of industrial agro production. One of whom reckons they’re the ‘fresh food people’. “cold store people’ doesn’t cut it obviously. Nor does “exploitative buying practices people”.

    Food, like so much else, is so often not about choice but access. And if that access has to be gained by driving for 30 minutes to visit the growers market, or organic butcher, or Asian grocer, the price of access is also an environmental one.

    As shopping centres steadily empty with business failures in this brave new economy, I dream of community based food co-ops renting the vacant shops, swapping a bumper crop of zucchinis for $15 credit, buying eggs laid that morning…..

    To make scrambled eggs of course.

  15. Mallet isn’t the least bit interested in issues of equity and access, Bernice. I am, eg, I garden, I shop carefully, I’m not wasteful. If we can get this kitchen garden program running in schools all over the country, that would be a big step in educating kids about taste and teahing them the skills to make that knowledge useful. Mallet doesn’t have any idea what to do next, which makes me think she can’t be that interested.

  16. I’ve only just come across this, and I am so glad. I bought that book, sounded good in the blurb, and have been unable to read beyond the first couple of chapters. Every time I have a clear out for the charity shop, I think that one day I’ll finish it … but now I’m going to make a special trip to get it out of the house. It’s not just me 😉 YIPPEEEEEEEE

    Joanna

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