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50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste

Reviewed by MM Pack, Fri., Dec. 6, 2013

Santa's Big Cookbook Bag
by Edward Behr
Penguin Press, 432 pp., $35

What do canteloupes, green beans, Roque­fort, and sweetbreads have in common? Probably nothing, other than they're all good things to eat and that Edward Behr has chosen them, along with 46 others, as topics in this alphabetical compendium of thoughtful essays, each about a single food.

In 1986, back in the days before everybody got obsessed with food (and thus before the ubiquity of food blogs and food TV), Behr wrote and distributed a little newsletter called "The Art of Eating," which became a word-of-mouth favorite among initiates who cared about food and writing. That newsletter has since evolved into a quarterly magazine and a website, and this is Behr's third book. The common threads remain a focus on the taste and quality of foodstuffs; how to buy, appreciate, and eat them; what foods go well with one another; and best ways to complement the flavors of wines and foods.

The other constant is Behr's quiet voice and unfussy style – spare but rich, erudite yet straightforward. And he's a man of decided opinions. He's a writer's writer, and aspiring food chroniclers could do well by reading his prose and pondering how he does it. "The wonder of eggs is their combination of richness and diverse texture. Eggs are architecture. They're delicate, velvety, airy, flowing, firm, crisp." Or, "Vinegar – vinaigre in French, 'sour wine' – is primordial, the inevitable product of wine, one of the most important and least thought about components of good food, at least in Western cooking."

This is a book to dip into, to surprise and educate yourself. It engages both the brain and the palate, and you'll be newly inspired to enjoy and appreciate your food because of it.

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