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In four tantalizing titles, food for thought - The Boston Globe

"Save the Plums" author Ruth Reichl

February 16, 2020

A former New York Times restaurant critic, Reichl remains among the most appealing food writers in the business. She fell for Gourmet at age 8, the minute she ran across an old copy (the kid was a foodie before there was a name for it). Nevertheless, years later, when the bigwigs at Conde Nast came courting, she felt ill-suited to the slick world of magazine journalism. Persistent wooing, along with the prospect of pulling the once vibrant publication out of its torpor, overcame her resistance.

“Save Me the Plums” is her account of how, for a few glorious years, this erstwhile bohemian embraced the kind of New York glamour her mother had always fantasized about. Like much literary nonfiction, the book reads novelistically, glibly re-creating scenes and dialogue in ways the reader must take as approximations of the truth. Reichl proves an irresistible narrator, dishing just enough gossip to hold readers but avoid being sued.

Always — and this is probably her secret sauce — she returns to the food. Yet she also understands that the best food writing is a form of armchair travel. Her chapter on a magazine-subsidized trip to Paris memorably includes lacquered duck skin with shiitake, as well as a wistful encounter with a black lace dress.

In “Of Morsels and Marvels,” Caribbean author Maryse Conde offers readers the experience of actually living in Paris, and visiting a great many places besides. Her food enthusiasms accompany her to Ghana, India, Japan, and Australia. As a child in Guadeloupe, Conde took an early interest in cooking, and experimenting with local ingredients. She shrugged off her mother’s disapproval (the family was among the island’s elite; cooking was for the uneducated classes). Eventually, through food, Conde became a student of “ethno-cuisine” — and apparently the acquaintance you most hoped would invite you over for dinner.

Now in her 80s, Conde is a highly regarded novelist who was selected for the New Academy Prize, bestowed when scandal prompted cancellation of the Nobel for literature in 2018. Despite having taught at several American universities, she may be better known on the world stage than among American readers. (Conde writes in French; “Morsels” has been translated into English by her husband, Richard Philcox.)

As a writer, Conde has espoused borrowing freely from literature and history, just as she champions experimenting with new combinations in the kitchen. “Cookbooks,” she says, “are for dummies.”

Henrietta Lovell might add: so are teabags. Even in her native Britain, she notes, people have been settling for bad tea for years. Through her own business, called Rare Tea, Lovell is on a mission to change that. “Infused: Adventures in Tea” is the follow-your-bliss story of how she got started, and her globe-trotting quest for the finest leaves.

Lovell’s memoir is packed with fascinating history, along with precise descriptions of tea varieties and how best to prepare them. Water temperature counts (she condemns boiling), as do the timing and number of infusions.

The reader follows Lovell to tea-growing regions in India, China, South Africa, and beyond. In her drive to get loose-leaf tea into the finest restaurants, she wooed top chefs with imaginative pairings. (Green tea is best with smoked salmon.) She also landed some big-name clients. Working closely with Momofuku, she devised a cold-brew technique now used to make the restaurant’s iced tea.

The self-styled Tea Lady is no teetotaler. In Tokyo, a night of drinking at Hooters nearly caused her to miss an important meeting with Noma, which was planning a pop-up restaurant there. Lovell survived, and ultimately conquered even Paris. She writes proudly of winning over a roomful of French chefs with a tea-and-caviar tasting.

The importance of Paris to all these food writers sent me back to A.J. Liebling. His “Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris,” published in 1962, describes his discovery of the city’s gustatory pleasures during a year intended for study.

Watching Liebling assemble phrases is something like watching Jacques Pepin chop onions: both make practiced technique look effortless. The sexism in Liebling’s book may surprise and put off some readers. Yet he adores food and writes about it with the kind of tender rapture Ruth Reichl would understand. He also throws her rise in a male-dominated world into high relief. Perhaps there is hope for the future after all; if not, then surely the consolations of a well-made cassoulet.

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