It starts with a drink. Specifically, a negroni, which ushers in a feeling of cool nostalgia in the way that only a summer cocktail can. A small group has gathered at Heirloom Book Co. for a Provençal picnic amongst their volumes. We're toasting April Bloomfield, the N.Y.C.-based chef who has stopped in Charleston to promote her first book, A Girl and Her Pig. Despite her "I Heart Bacon" T-shirt, there's no pork in sight. "Too obvious," Sean Brock, the Holy City chef who needs no introduction, tells me in a low voice. There is, however, a $600 lamb stretched out in front of him. He and Bloomfield basted it with lemonade ("made with sorghum, not sugar") and roasted it over a spit.
The chefs, both media darlings, have paired the succulent meat with roasted red peppers and a chickpea salad. Though the fête is on Brock's home turf, Bloomfield's point of view and near-brilliant use of restraint becomes apparent with the subtle sides. "This salad is a delightful jumble of different textures and flavors: There's the sweet crunch of the red onion, the salty feta, and the creamy, lemony dressing coating the delicate little lentils and hearty chickpeas," she and JJ Goode, her co-author, write.
A Girl and Her Pig covers Bloomfield's life and career, opening with the moment she was late turning in her application to be a police officer and, therefore, decided to go to cooking school, but focuses more on her recipes and techniques. The latter details are most telling of how Bloomfield went from being an unknown chef in London to being the head chef and part owner of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and John Dory's Oyster Bar, three much-praised restaurants in New York City. She implores the reader to plate meals "so there's a little air flowing between them and any supporting players are scattered here and there among the stars of the dish." Her salt of choice is Maldon, which is large, flaky, and extracted from an estuary in England. The herb in the aforementioned salad is "a handful of small, delicate cilantro sprigs."
"My affection for these things makes me a very particular cook," she writes in her book. "That's a nice way of admitting that I'm a bit of a control freak. Some of my cooks describe my cooking (affectionately, I hope) as 'anal rustic': 'rustic' because I prefer pan liquid to complicated sauces, and because I'd rather assemble food by hand than plate it with tweezers and 'anal' because I like everything just so."
Yet the recipes included in Bloomfield's cookbook are unpretentious — the kind of food one might make for a Sunday lunch with family or a dinner party with friends. It's a mix of homey dishes, like grilled rib-eye with romesco and roast chicken with tomato-and-bread salad, and British classics, like Bubbles and Squeak and Eton Mess. Even if you haven't been to one of Bloomfield's restaurants, A Girl and Her Pig is a beautiful cookbook to add to your collection. And should you want to frequent one of her establishments? She recommends John Dory's. "There's no meat on the menu," she says.
While Bloomfield's tome focuses on the recipes, fellow New York chef Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef, depicts the messiness of life outside the kitchen. His story begins with heartbreak and hope in Ethiopia.
"My mother was sick, I was sick, and my sister Fantaye was doing only slightly better than the two of us. We were all coughing up blood and my mother had seen enough in her young life to measure the ravages of that disease. She knew she had to do something. She put me on her back. It was all coming at her now: the fatigue and the fever; pieces of her lung splintering and mixing with her throwup; the calcifications on her bones, where the disease had already spread."
The family of three walked 75 miles to a hospital in Addis Ababa, but only he and his sister survived. The pair were adopted by the Samuelsson's, a Swedish family who raised Linda and Marcus along with Anna, their other daughter, who was half-black and also adopted. And, thus, their mixed-raced, middle-class Scandinavian family was born.
While Yes, Chef is, ostensibly, about the making of a James Beard award-winning chef, it's Samuelsson's observations on race, New York City, and his singular focus on food that define the book and give it its strength.
"It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that black people were almost by design not part of the conversation about fine dining," Samuelsson writes about New York in the early 1990s. The chef is likeable, honest, and fallible; he had a daughter early in his career and is only involved in her life by way of checks sent by him and his family.
Yes, Chef is the story about the sacrifices made for greatness and the seams painstakingly sewn to unite a family that's scattered around the world. Even if food is only a source of sustenance for you, not what makes your heart flutter, there is depth in Samuelsson's book that goes beyond the talk of Swedish gravlax and into the heat of life.
There can be no mention of food writing without spilling some amount of ink on M.F.K. Fisher, the author who practically defined the genre in the 20th century. She wrote over 20 books on the subject during her lengthy and prolific career. Though Fisher died in 2002, there is a new collection of her essays out this year. Musings on Wine and Other Libations was edited by Anne Zimmerman, the author of M.F.K.'s biography, and presents 30 vignettes with boozy themes.
Fisher's prose is superlative, and even her tone is surprisingly modern. In her 1957 essay "Martini-Zheen, Anyone?" she wrote, "The bleak, stylish bars off Montgomery Street are straight-faced about Gibsons, a more or less western and much ginnier version of the dry Martini, which is to say that a Gibson has almost nothing in it but cold gin, with an onion instead of an olive for the fussy oldsters." In its own way, it's Gawker meets Mad Men.
It's Zimmerman, then, who can be blamed for the book's shortcomings. Although her biography of Fisher was well-received, her introductions to the essays are timid and lack depth. Instead of providing context, they sum up the words that follow in a sentence. Halfway through the book, I grew weary of the editor's lame interjections: MFK writes about terrines! And now, a wine library! Cheese plates! And perhaps it's only because I've lost family to tippling, but a flight of essays about the drinking life felt tired. Like a good beverage, this collection is best consumed over time to let the full effect set in, without the risk of overindulgence.