The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 4: The Man Who Ate Everything

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

People have called my book the spiritual successor to a number of other works, but in my mind, Jeffrey Steingarten's collection of essays in The Man Who Ate Everything is really where The Food Lab started. It's the first book I read that combined insanely detailed research on food history and food science with the humor and prose to make it easily digestible—goals that I aspire to in every Food Lab essay or book that I write.

I'm of the mind that we do our best learning when we're in the company of friends and colleagues, not professors or bosses, and Steingarten is the ultimate colleague. I can't help but feel an affinity for anyone who roasts a chicken "whenever [he has] nothing better to do." I'd probably be roasting a chicken right now, if I weren't busy giggling to myself as I reread paragraphs from the book and its equally wonderful follow-up, It Must've Been Something I Ate.

He's the friend who not only convinces you that bread (or choucroute, or wagyu beef, or Olestra, or whatever he's writing about at the moment) is the best thing in the world, but that it's the only thing. He grabs your hand and whisks you away to modern Paris and ancient Egypt, where naturally leavened bread was perfected and invented, respectively. He gives you a blow-by-blow narrative of his own early attempts at pain au levain, dragging you along breathlessly as he brings life to a bowl of flour and water. ("The chef has swelled and smells tangy, somewhere between beer and yogurt. I'm proud as a parent!")

No length is too great in his quest for not just culinary perfection but a complete understanding of the history and science of whatever food he happens to have aligned in his targets. "The goal of the arts, culinary or otherwise," he says, "is not to increase our comfort. That is the goal of an easy chair."

Despite its fast pace, self-deprecating style of humor, and easy readability, there's an insane amount of usable information packed into every paragraph, and what's more, you find yourself actually remembering the stuff. Not everything he writes about is immediately useful in the kitchen,* but you are guaranteed to be successful at cocktail parties and Jeopardy! tournaments alike.

* Did you know your metabolic rate is directly related to the amount of lean muscle mass in your body? By this logic, Steingarten concludes, lifting weights would allow one to eat more. "All I have to do is go out and buy a set of sixteen weights ranging from two to thirty pounds each. I am confident they will change my life once I have figured out how to carry them home."

Steingarten, who was a lawyer until he took his position as Vogue's food critic in 1989, is a nerd's nerd and a researcher at heart. The book starts with an essay explaining his goal of attempting to get over every single one of his food aversions (they range from kimchi and anchovies to desserts in Indian restaurants and Greek food), and it's this premise that makes every article a true voyage of discovery, in which he intentionally thrusts himself into uncomfortable positions or onto impassable trails, using his wits, the help of his thankless assistants (Gail Simmons used to be one of them!), and stacks and stacks of books and papers to claw and hack his way out.

He's writing about bread, but he's referencing gas chromatographs! He's documenting the 59 species of yeasts and 238 strains of bacteria found in a sourdough starter! His stories have triumphs (perfect French fries!) and failures (he gets booted from a chemical factory while quoting Shakespeare, on a mission to make a perfect bottle of mineral water). This is the real lesson I learned from this book: Having a good recipe with detailed testing is not enough. In order to get those lessons to really stick, a good cooking article needs to be a good story first.

You think I'm obsessive? Steingarten does what I would have done if a) Serious Eats had an expense account as big as Vogue's, b) I were willing to sacrifice my body and soul for my art the way Steingarten does,** and c) I were much more clever and hard-working.

**"Subsistence, I am happy to report, is not much of a problem for me these days either," he writes. "I could probably subsist for a decade or more on the food energy I have thriftily wrapped around various parts of my body."

A little disclaimer, in case I am accused of cronyism: In the 15 years or so that have passed since I first read his books, Jeffrey and I have actually become regular correspondents and occasional dinner companions. He wrote the foreword for my book. (I still pinch myself about this from time to time.) Every single email he writes to me (most frequently about pizza) is as witty and information-packed as his books. This is a problem for my self-confidence. I currently have an email from him sitting in my inbox that's dated September 25. It is about pizza, and it is blindingly funny. It will likely sit there a few weeks longer before I finally find my way to a response clever enough to send back.

Jeffrey—if you're reading this, the reason it takes me so long to write back to you is due to edits, rewrites, and nervous procrastination.

You can buy The Man Who Ate Everything here.