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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
When Sallie Tisdale came out with her provocative personal dissection of the philosophy of sex, Talk Dirty to Me, she established herself as a fearless essayist. This daringly prosaic author turns her ponderous attention toward one of life's other great allures: food. The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food isn't quite as sensual as Tisdale's sexual explorations, but it comes close. Like sex, our attitudes toward food are often colored by a mix of obsession and taboo. Few things hold the sort of power food does over our lives, our society, and even our identities. Tisdale looks at this power with an intimate and nostalgic eye, providing a gastronomic perspective of thought that covers the history of the world, the evolution of mankind, and the author's own memories.
Tisdale reviews food's influences on mankind, demonstrating how its very necessity makes it a stunningly powerful force. When it is lacking, behaviors and actions may stray far from the norm as people struggle for survival. The other extreme, overabundance, has led to ostentatious consumption and waste. Food can define who we are and how we live, and even reflect what we believe. Its symbolic nature can and does vary widely, following cultural, personal, and societal lines. Its influence can be obvious or subtle; how a food is served, when it is served, and what it is served with can be as important as the food itself.
Tisdale examines some of the historical aspects of food, discussing foreign influences, the effects of scientific advances such as processing, refrigeration, mass transportation, and the use of preservatives, and how the discovery of bacteria and vitamins influenced dietary norms. But she confines the bulk of her insights to the last 50 years or so, studying the influence of food on American society, women's roles, and her own personal development. With a look back at the first Betty Crocker generation, Tisdale reminisces about her mother, a woman who fulfilled her duties as a wife and mother with a slavish dedication, even when it went against her own grain. This woman's largely antagonistic relationship with cooking explains why some of Tisdale's fondest childhood memories involve some touching but amusingly inelegant foods.
In fact, while you might expect the object of Tisdale's title -- the best thing she ever tasted -- to be some gourmet delight or sinfully rich dessert, it is neither. Instead, it is a food many would snub and few would have on their list of favorites. However, it is not so much the food, its taste, or its preparation that makes it a "best" for Tisdale, it is the emotions that are forever tied to it. She points out that smell is the most evocative sense we have, with taste not far behind. So it's hardly surprising that food is often at the center of many of our most vivid memories. Tisdale's personal reminiscences will undoubtedly trigger some food-oriented journeys down memory lane for many readers.
This emotional tie-in with food is a theme that runs throughout the book, and Tisdale follows the tangent down some intriguing paths. Through a series of memories, anecdotes, and slice-of-life vignettes, she walks her readers through her life, associating memorable moments and meaningful events with specific foods. Piece by piece, she disassembles both American mythology and public and private attitudes toward food. Her discourse on America's battle of the bulge, along with her own occasional skirmishes, provides an eye-opening look at the current fixation on dieting and thinness. She bemoans both the lack of any real identifiable American diet and the profound influence of advertising on what we eat. She explores some of the rich cultural traditions and rituals that have been built up around food and contrasts such dietary extremes as nouveau cuisine and gourmet cooks with recipes that involve Velveeta cheese and Campbell's soups.
As Tisdale explores the historical perspective of food, the issues raised by feminist thinkers are integral to her discussion. The changing faces of both food and feminism go hand in hand, and it seems that women's roles will be forever tied to food in some regard. At times, Tisdale's observations offer us an uncomfortable glance in the mirror, as when she points out how class distinctions are often drawn along food lines, or how modern-day eating habits in America are consistently marked by excess, whether that excess is displayed as indulgence or denial. The Best Thing I Ever Tasted serves as a reminder that we are, indeed, creatures of appetite, subject to the whims and whimsies of our needs and cravings. Tisdale's warm style and amusing perspective make it almost as much fun to examine these appetites as it is to indulge them. (Beth Amos)