A feast for the eyes

Three foodie diaries are enough to satiate even the pickiest readers.

By Daniel Okrent

(Fortune Magazine) -- ALICE WATERS AND CHEZ PANISSE BY THOMAS McNAMEE Penguin Press $27.95

AMERICAN FOOD WRITING: AN ANTHOLOGY WITH CLASSIC RECIPES BY MOLLY O'NEILL Library of America, $40

ABOUT A YEAR BEFORE Calvin Trillin first described an ominous institution poised to destroy the American palate, a restaurant that would play a large role in saving it opened for business in Berkeley. A somewhat spacy but very self-aware young woman had imagined a place where the food would be locally grown, exceptionally fresh, prepared with what might be called a knowing simplicity, and served nightly to a roomful of friends. Her first menu: a set meal of pêté, duck with olives, plum tart, and coffee. Price: $3.95.

Thirty-six years later Alice Waters still presides over Chez Panisse and, in a way, over the national table. (I'll get back to Trillin and the culinary Death Star in a moment.) She has had an army of allies, but Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, by Thomas McNamee, convinces me that Waters has been the key figure in the movement that has glamorized local produce, kidnapped organic food from the health nuts and turned it over to people who actually care how food tastes, and placed vegetables the size of your thumb on the shelves of supermarkets in Akron.

If you know about food, you know about Waters and her restaurant; what you may not know is how improbable was her triumph. McNamee was granted full access to Chez Panisse's records, and he interviewed dozens of the gourmands, hippies, farmers, cokeheads, Francophiles, and assorted others who have gathered around Waters for three-plus decades. If you want to know how not to run a business, you could study Waters' methodology: Disregard your investors. Eschew financial controls. Tolerate the disappearance (largely down the throats of your staff) of as many as 500 bottles of wine in a single month. Spend half your time away from your office, flying around the nation to promote sustainable agriculture. Serve film director Werner Herzog a well-cooked shoe for dinner.

Of course, it worked eventually. (Chez Panisse made its first profit in 1984.) Just think of your favorite restaurants today, so many of them inspired by Waters, and then recall what Trillin described in 1972: a world in which the traveler in America, asking a local to point him to the town's best restaurant, would be directed to a "purple palace that serves 'Continental cuisine' [and is named] something like La Maison de la Casa House."

Trillin's piece is one of many juicy items in American Food Writing, an anthology published by the distinguished Library of America. Editor Molly O'Neill has apparently read every word written about food in America since 1761, the date of the book's first entry. It's a delight to encounter gastronomic Hall of Famers like Trillin, A.J. Liebling, M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root, and Jeffrey Steingarten. But it's a thrill to come across Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, and Thomas Wolfe (his culinary monologue from Of Time and the River is nearly pornographic in its intensity). Lest you think this is all high-toned foodie rhapsodizing, be aware that the book's best piece may be Russell Baker's paean to a meal built on the major food groups: bacon grease, canned beans, My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, and quite a lot of gin.

PIT STOP

A cross-country culinary adventure.

ROADFOOD SANDWICHES

BY JANE AND MICHAEL STERN

Houghton Mifflin, $14.95

You could measure the breadth of American eating by drawing a line from Alice Waters to Jane and Michael Stern, the Tocquevilles of America's diners, clam shacks, and hot dog stands. It would not be unreasonable to assume that anyone willing to eat a fried bologna sandwich would not need to be told how to make one. But the point of their new book, Roadfood Sandwiches, like so much of the authors' work, is less about preparing this food than about cherishing our shrinking regional differences. As long as I can still get a Beef on Weck whenever I'm in Buffalo, as well as Waters' suckling-pig terrine with spring onion and asparagus salad when I make my semiannual pilgrimage to Berkeley, I'll know there's hope for this country yet. Top of page