Column: Nothing but the Toth

By Emily Toth for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on March 8, 2010

With this post, Emily kicks off her column for WRB, “Nothing but the Toth,” in which she’ll “share with the world,” she says, her “many opinions and bons mots.” First up: a cornucopia of writing about food.


If you could eat anything right now, what would it be?

Would it be "a rare goat cheese: luscious, creamy, cloven-hoofed," as in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying? Would it be that ever-faithful treat, chocolate? Or are you inclined to the freaky, such as celery sticks or okra pods?

You are, of course, what you eat.

And who in the Western world today is not a foodie? as Vancouver novelist Timothy Taylor asks in The Cranky Connoisseur.

When Martha Nichols invited me to write this column on subjects literary and related, I poked around in my soul and my beloved Kindle reader—and yes! I am an obsessive food reader. In the months since I've had my Kindle, three-quarters of the books I've read have been about cuisines, cooking, traveling for food, preparing it, remembering it, wallowing in love for it.

Take, for instance, Julia and Paul Child's arrival in France in the late 1940s, and their first dish, an achingly tender and buttery sole meuniere. As shown in Julie and Julia (the film by Heartburn author and lifelong foodie Nora Ephron), the sole sizzles and beckons. Julia and Paul swoon, and she moans with hunger and yearning. And Paul simply says, "I know, I know."

That scene is also in Julia Child's exuberant memoir My Life in France (with Alex Prud'Homme), a foodie classic. I learned to cook artichokes from Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—though I didn't cook much more from that book. It was too detailed, too hard.

But I still love reading it and saying, "Yum"—a no-no in the uptight Protestant home of Judith Jones, the editor who signed up Julia Child and whose memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, shows how Jones personally midwifed our cookbook craze. She's the one who gave us the doyennes of ethnic cuisine: Marcella Hazan (Italian cooking), Madhur Jeffrey (Indian), and Claudia Roden (Middle Eastern).

Oh, ye youngsters have no idea how bland American food used to be. I was born in New York City to a Jewish mother and Irish father, lefties who scoffed at religion and loved to dine out—and so the first temple of worship I remember is Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side. There we fed our souls with piled-high pastrami, spicy sour pickles, blintzes, knishes, and Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic—which didn't exist where we settled in Cleveland, when I was eight.

What a wasteland, my mother would kvetch and sigh. We'd take half-day safaris across town to the East Side, where there were delicatessens (Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen is one of few pictures of Jewish Cleveland in the 1950s). My mother would always tell the owners that their stuff wasn't up to New York standards. But the West Side, where we lived, didn't get its first "exotic" (Cantonese) restaurant until I'd gone away to college.

Worst of all were the dishes we made in home ec class, especially "eggs a la goldenrod," an unspeakably horrendous concoction of bland on toast. No wonder Julia Child loathed the home economists, who were already trying to smother our taste buds. (They grew into those nutri-prudes who rail about calories and treat fat as a death-dealing horror—just like sex in the 1950s: "sinful" and "tempting" and "decadent" and "forbidden.")

Reading about sex used to feel naughty—but now it's food writing that fires my imagination. I love the joy of fooding in such books as Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (in which she raves about real Italian pizza and gelato), or Calvin Trillin's Alice, Let's Eat (a hymn to Arthur Bryant's barbecue place in Kansas City, the Mecca for pork fans).

Laura Shapiro's Penguin Lives: Julia Child is zesty and flavorful. And Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an amazing feat of reportage, starting with a huge national wave of Powerball winners (from number slips in fortune cookies) to the creation of fortune cookies by Japanese Americans who lost the franchise when they were interned during World War Two, to the Chinese food staples (lo mein, chop suey) which have become America's national food.

Of course, there's food and sex, especially in books by those lusty ladies Ruth Reichl (Comfort Me with Apples) and Gael Greene (Insatiable). Both judge people (as I do) by their attitudes toward food—and some, indeed, are found wanting.

Greene, as a young reporter, was once delivered to a young horny singer as his prize for the evening. They did what was expected, rather unmemorably she says now, but she recalls with horror and comedy what he (and, yes, of course it was Elvis Presley) did next.

He asked her to call room service and order him up a fried egg sandwich.

You, the readers of this my first column, should now go nosh. But go ye and eat better than the King did. Feed your soul. It's now or never.


Emily Toth (rhymes with both) has published eleven books, including academic advice from her alter ego "Ms. Mentor," the life story of Peyton Place author Grace Metalious, and two biographies of Kate Chopin, whose favorite word was "delicious."


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