Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 14, 2009
Here's a trio of culinary treats for your consideration.
On the regional front there's "The Bizarre Truth" (Random House, $24.99), by Andrew Zimmern, a Twin Cities chef and TV personality.
If you have a strong stomach, you've probably watched this bald guy who runs around the world for the Travel Channel, eating weird foods while being photographed for his TV show "Bizarre Foods."
Every time I watch the show or read a chapter from his new book, I'm reminded of a colleague who tells the story of growing up in Milwaukee.
One morning Seymour, his uncle, shows up at the house. My friend's mother invites him in and invites him to stay for noon dinner. Seymour accepts, then asks "what's simmering in that pot?"
"Beef tongue. We're having beef tongue for dinner," says my friend's mother. "Count me out," says Seymour. "I couldn't bear to eat anything that has been in a cow's mouth."
"Stay anyway, Seymour. I'll boil you an egg."
Zimmern's bizarre foods are far more bizarre than the lowly egg. Zimmern writes comically about sampling cow vein stew in Bolivia, raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia, putrefied shark in blood pudding in Iceland and Wolfgang Puck's Hunan-style rooster testicles, drinking cow urine tonic in India and chomping on roasted bats in Samoa.
Zimmern doesn't make these trips to make the reader or viewer throw up; he makes them because he's a culinary anthropologist and points out the natives who eat bats don't think they're weird. They eat them because that's what they've done for centuries.
I guess he's not fibbing. A year ago, I watched his show filmed up on the shores of Lake Mille Lacs. What was bizarre up there? Batter fried chicken gizzards.
I've been eating said gizzards all my life. What's so weird about that?
Almost as unconventional as Zimmern's book is "The Man Who Ate the World (Henry Holt, $15 paper), by Jay Rayner, food critic for the London Observer for which he received the British critic of the year award for his work in 2006.
Rayner's new book could be called a culinary autobiography strung on a framework of his life. As he moves from his Bar Mitzvah with its attendant chopped chicken liver to his adult occupation of drinking $300 bottles of wine and scarfing $400 per person meals at high buck meals at gaudy establishments around the world, we get a look at the whys and wherefores of fine dining.
"I have been thinking hard about the purpose of big-ticket restaurants. I have concluded that I am not the only one attempting to live life like oligarch dining in them. It is part of what they are about: For the price of dinner we get to experience life as a wealthy person, only without having to sell our souls as investment bankers, rape and pillage developing nations, or exploit the downtrodden. It doesn't matter how long it took you to save up. If you can pay the bill you become one of them.
Some the prices he quotes are indeed outlandish. He points out that Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world, 23 percent higher than New York City, where a bottle of mineral water can cost as much as $26.
In one of Gordon Ramsay's London restaurant, he paid $98 for one small glass of Chateau d'Yquem. A hotel suite in Dubai can cost as much as $13,500 "(breakfast not included)."
It's all very interesting, including the debate in Rayner's conscience about whether or not he should ask to be comped, get his meal free in exchange for publicity in his newspaper. (Not usually.)
A trip to his physician who checks out his liver before he goes to Paris for a seven-day food binge is hilarious.
Should we come down to earth for a few lines? OK, here goes: If Zimmern and Rayner are not to your taste, you'll likely enjoy a down-to-earth practical book, "Saving Dinner," by Leanne Ely (Ballantine Books, $16 paper).
Nutritionist Ely's book may prove a challenge for some who think cooking is merely connecting product with some sort of flame and thus eat out every day. But for those who cook and enjoy it, this could be a lifesaver. It includes six weeks of menus, a flurry of side dish suggestions helpful hints and -- this is the biggie -- an itemized grocery list, coordinated with the six week menu.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.