Book review: A Meal Observed
"We are not, in short, 'foodies.' "
In "A Meal Observed," Andrew Todhunter's account of a meal at Paris' Taillevent, one of the world's finest restaurants, such a statement misleadingly pegs the author as an iconoclast. Indeed, Todhunter's two previous books have dealt with the risky subjects of rock climbing and extreme sports, so turning up his nose at the gourmets of the world seems to be a reasonable follow-up.
But Todhunter is not so much rebellious as he is confused by his views on the pleasures of food. He describes a conversation at a dinner party: " 'I am a huge foodie,' a woman recently told me ... and it struck me as surprisingly intimate, even indecent. ... I later admitted that if this particular foodie had been more attractive her confession might not have troubled me." Is sensuality reserved for the attractive? Is indulgence in food tantamount to sin? And is sin only for the sexy? We never quite get an explanation of his murky morality, the first of many hanging elements that contribute to the ambivalence of this work.
The organization of the book is clear enough, divided into cutesy chapters that mark the progression of the meal -- L'Arrivee, L'Aperitif, La Carte and so on -- interspersed with protracted interviews with kitchen staff members, uninspired strolls down memory lane, pseudo-philosophical musings, peeks into the busy kitchen and drawn-out tangents on the history of food. These devices give the author plenty of opportunities to hide behind his reportage, and much of the time his voice is conspicuously absent. When it does surface, his pronouncements never quite ring true, erratically swinging from salt-of-the-earth simplicity to Francophilic elitism.
Todhunter can be pretty snide for a non-foodie. Demonstrating the most outdated of culinary cliches, the Paris-born, U.S.-raised author points out the gustatory offenses of the barbaric Americains:
"One can be driven to despair by the packaging in any American chain grocery store or toy store -- the wasteful and misleading size of the containers, the garish and unnatural colors, the hyperbolic, adolescent copy written in cold blood by urban adults, many of them with advanced degrees in English -- 'Mega Monster Cheese Balls Just Got Bigger! Whoah!' "
Todhunter hits all of the other easy targets, too, such as fast food and processed cheese, although, for some reason, Oreos escape his condemnation. Only a poser can think that expressing dislike for the lowbrow automatically makes him or her cultured. These cranky truisms suggest the view of a person who has nothing more worthwhile to offer on the subject.
When Todhunter attempts to make more original assertions on the pleasures of food, he lands painfully off the mark. "The palate is not as closely connected to our higher faculties, generally speaking, as our hearing, sight, or smell." Such a statement is only true for a person who doesn't really love food. If Todhunter truly believes this, why would he waste his time writing a book on haute cuisine? And why would someone want to read a book on food by such a writer?
Once Todhunter makes his true feelings known (although you have to read most of the book to get to them), the rationale for his previous narrative choices begins to gain focus. For instance, the author consistently relies on sexual metaphor in order to articulate his thoughts on food, clearly because he is more comfortable with the former area of sensuality than the latter. He describes "greasy substances, high in fat and protein" as "the T & A of our culinary pornography," and likens his guilt at eating so much and so well to "talking an exceptionally refined young woman you've just met into spending all day and night for three straight days in her apartment." At such points, "A Meal Observed" reads more like "Food for Dudes."
As an aside, one of the most disturbing elements of this book is the silent presence of Todhunter's wife, Erin. We are introduced to her in the first pages as "stunning," but in the remaining text, her contribution is limited to watered-down hearsay delivered by her husband. Although she sits beside him throughout the entire meal, she utters maybe 15 words in the span of 200 pages. By the end of the book, we don't even know the color of her hair. Sadly, what we do know about Erin -- that she is a cheese enthusiast and that she is comfortable vocalizing her impressions, positive and negative, of Taillevent -- leads us to believe that she has better insight into food than her husband does, which no doubt could have benefited this book.
Todhunter writes: "I cannot imagine any food affecting me to the degree that the Parthenon has, or Yeats, or the scent of my first girlfriend's shampoo." If Todhunter were aiming to kill a sacred cow, this book might have been a more rewarding read. But he never quite goes ahead with it, and ends up instead presenting a tepid account of what was apparently an astoundingly good meal. "A Meal Observed" may be a book about food, but it is certainly not a book for food lovers.