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`Endless Feasts' is a collection of writings about food, drink, travel, biography, and fiction from the pages of `Gourmet' magazine from the magazine's founding in the late 1930s to the present. The selections were made by the magazine's current editor, Ruth Reichl, who has, in many ways taken over the throne of leading American culinary editor long left vacant after the passing of Craig Claiborne.
My first reaction, as someone who very much likes to read about food, cooking, and culinary personalities, is that this collection shows the ephemeral nature of a lot of magazine writing, especially some pieces written under less talented editors than Ms. Reichl. In a nutshell, I found this book difficult to read from front to back. In this day of the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and the Travel channel, pieces written about Umbria or Mexico, or Tibet or Shanghai seem just a bit lifeless on the page. When they were written, most pieces were not intended to be memoirs, but the passage of time has turned them from travelogues of today into faded snapshots of a world which is no longer there.
That is not to say there are no good pieces here. There are selections written by M.F.K. Fisher, Madhur Jaffrey, Pat Conroy, Ray Bradbury, Anita Loos, James Villas, Paul Theroux, Elizabeth David, George Plimpton, and James Beard. Part of the problem is that pieces by these writers are in the minority. It is also true that in some cases, as with Madhur Jaffrey, for example, her travel memoir takes her out of her primary area of expertise, so I found her piece on India to be just a bit on the dry side. Many of the pieces by the less well-known writers are good, but maybe not great. Part of the interest of a piece by Elizabeth David is that her great reputation for being a superior culinary writer will mean that when you read her piece, if you encounter a questionable statement, you are wise to question your own judgment on the matter rather than question the author. For most other authors, if you encounter a questionable statement, you may feel a bit up in the air unless you have an unimpeachable authority for your opinion.
While I consider this a forest of trees with a wide variety in their value, one may also raise the issue of the value of the forest. How does an interest in Epicurean pleasures fit into a complete life? Is it possible that `Gourmet' interests by their nature influence a life to wander into a less than productive fields? One piece of evidence is Jim Villas' piece on the life of Lucius Beebe, who was a wealthy epicure who turned himself into a journalist with a disdain for the ordinary which makes H. L. Menchen's poor opinion of the boobiesee (sic) look like a mild tic. Since Beebe embraced a style that required the support of significant wealth, are we of normal means to admire or disdain this sybaritic aesthete. Is not a life made good on average means much more interesting to study?
In a sense, I'm just thinking out loud here. There is definite value in knowing about the lifestyle of Lucius Beebe, just as it is interesting to know of the dinosaurs that took evolution in a direction that could not adapt to a cataclysmic change in their environment. Beebe's preferences for value and competence are commendable. They are also taken in the wrong direction by reliance on great wealth.
One problem with this book for the dedicated reader of culinary writing is that we are likely to have encountered many of these pieces, or many of the same material in other sources. Does one really want to know what James Beard has to say about pasta when we have read everything that Marcella Hazan has written on the subject?
Ultimately, I think this is not the kind of book you read from cover to cover. It is the book you take with you to doctors' waiting rooms when you are between novels or your interest in that latest Rose Levy Beranbaum `bible' is flagging.
Thus, I recommend this book with a caution. A great book to buy at a discount. A not so great book at full list price. For great culinary writing, be sure to complete your reading of M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David or James Villas or even Ruth Reichl herself before spending money here.