There’s no single recipe for changing the way a country eats. Just look at this trio of new books following American tastemakers who blazed vastly different paths in adjacent eras. Together, they remind us how dramatically our dinner tables have changed in recent decades, and make us wonder about our nation’s next course. Diners who consider food as something more than fuel owe a debt to all three.
David Chang is familiar to modern gastronomes, between his global Momofuku restaurant empire, the now-defunct Lucky Peach magazine and multiple TV shows and appearances. As he notes in “Eat A Peach” (Clarkson Potter, $28), his self-conscious memoir/business book/anti-business book, he was literally “one of the poster children for the kitchen patriarchy,” appearing in an all-male 2013 Time magazine cover on “The Gods of Food.” There’s a lot to learn and appreciate from his ruminations, if readers can sort through the metawriting, a nonlinear second half, and the feeling that there are multiple projects jammed into one here, penned by an author unsure if he’s ready to face them. A post-epilogue chapter on “33 Rules For Becoming A Chef” is a stand-alone classic.
Chang reluctantly writes about his upbringing as a lackluster student and onetime golf prodigy, with a father who is “an archetype of a certain Korean man who remains completely foreign to non-Asian America,” offering “a love that feels distinctly conditional.”
After a brief step on the corporate ladder and time teaching English in Japan, Chang worked tireless years in restaurant kitchens, with creativity “fueled by rage,” and emotions that “with the benefit of many years of consultation with a professional therapist” he now understands as bipolar disorder. He earned wild success, eventually, with Manhattan’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, famed for ramen and pork-belly buns, following his breakthrough intuition that America was ready for “the underground in food (to) become overground.”
Fame eventually leads Chang to a less-relatable plane, as when his account defers to non-disclosure agreements or talk of his lifesaving executive life coach, the same one used by Boeing’s CEO, hired through a connection made at a White House event (the coach’s strength: to “help assholes realize they’re assholes.”)
Rewardingly, by book’s end, Chang has found love, fatherhood and a head start on some peace.
“I am so lucky that this business didn’t kill me,” he writes. “I feel blessed to have realized my shortsightedness while there’s still time to change.” It’s an epiphany more valuable than any Michelin star.
Deborah Madison’s name became synonymous with vegetarian cuisine through Greens, the San Francisco restaurant founded in 1979, through her definitive cookbooks like 1997’s “Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone,” and with her early work supporting U.S. farmers markets and heirloom seeds. Her thoughtful and thought-provoking new memoir, “An Onion in My Pocket” (Knopf, $26.95), takes readers through her recipe-free personal history and provides a firsthand look at America’s farm-to-table “food revolution.” Madison is not just a “vegetarian” cook, though; ultimately she makes a strong case for preferring flexibility over rigid diet labels, suggesting that we should tolerate each other’s differences around the table, understand that they exist for a reason, and also “know that they and we might change.”
Madison writes evocatively about her youth in Davis, California, and a short stint in Japan that led to “20 missing years” studying Zen Buddhism in San Francisco. There, she cooked and learned to develop appealing meals that also accommodated the principles of her diners.
“I didn’t consider myself to be an especially creative cook as much as I was a person who was alert to possibilities,” she writes.
Madison’s account reminds us vividly how much our perspective on food has changed in 40 years; when she opened Greens (a project of the San Francisco Zen Center) it served vegetables that customers — and some cooks — had never tasted: golden beets, fingerling potatoes, “a new green called roquette, or rocket, or arugula.”
The book takes on added piquancy when talking about Madison’s botanist father and wildly creative mother, and an upbringing that left her with a “sense of insufficiency, that there was never enough” — a sense partially neutralized later by the “spirit of plenty” embodied by Alice Waters at the famed restaurant Chez Panisse. The book doesn’t digest other sections of Madison’s personal history as thoroughly, though, with more depth devoted to food-related facts. In fairness, Madison makes even nut loaf a pleasure to read about, but her reserve leaves the reader hungry for even more.
The richest and most focused title, oddly enough, is the one that’s not a personal memoir. John Birdsall’s biography of James Beard, “The Man Who Ate Too Much” (W.W. Norton & Co., $35), is an enticing read with the capacity to change public perception of Beard, “The Dean of American Cuisine,” as thoroughly as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work (via Ron Chernow) did for Alexander Hamilton.
It’s sympathetic even as it strips away old myths, partially steeped in the Pacific Northwest (Beard was a New Yorker but was raised in Portland and kept deep connections to the Oregon coast), gloriously well researched, and simmering with sorrow. (There’s even some music to boot: Beard originally hoped to be an actor and trained, not particularly successfully, as an opera singer.)
Beard was a giant of American food from the 1940s to the 1970s, generating authoritative cookbooks, promoting products and mentoring protégés. As Birdsall writes, his 1959 paperback, “The James Beard Cookbook,” cemented his reputation as “the nation’s affable, avuncular, and gluttonous authority on food and entertaining.” In recent years, Beard has been further immortalized for the prestigious food awards that bear his name.
Birdsall also works through the sadder complexities of Beard’s family life, the genuine insights and prosaic compromises of his professional work, and, most devastatingly, the societal homophobia that deformed his potential. The book’s fly-on-the-wall descriptions are omniscient and particularly haunting. (“James’s eyes were guarded and delicate, sunk in a face as plump and pale as milk-poached meringue.”) Beard asked himself at one point, Birdsall writes, if he would still be lovable if everyone glimpsed the truth of who he was. Now there’s a real chance to find out.