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Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food

Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food

by Sallie Tisdale

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Eating is the most common way to celebrate in our culture, the most visible way to indulge ourselves. And yet few things have such power over our lives—it controls us as consumers, as social animals, as guilty creatures of appetite. Through a lively mixture of the history of eating, memoir, sociology, and family recipes, Tisdale explores our public and


Eating is the most common way to celebrate in our culture, the most visible way to indulge ourselves. And yet few things have such power over our lives—it controls us as consumers, as social animals, as guilty creatures of appetite. Through a lively mixture of the history of eating, memoir, sociology, and family recipes, Tisdale explores our public and private attitudes about and relationships with food, drawing a rich portrait of the many forces behind our American appetite and demystifying the everyday miracle of eating.

Editorial Reviews

The 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)

Philadelphia Inquirer
It takes a topic and explores it unhurriedly, through history and myth, advertising and imagination, always asking, always striving for connections. This books reminds us to be mindful of each mouthful, not for its fatgram content or its brand-name status, but for the history and meaning it carries, the power it has to tell us about ourselves.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this informal book-length essay, Tisdale (Talk Dirty to Me) examines food and our relationships with it. Tisdale's style is casual, yet never aimless; each chapter is a well-crafted part of the intensely thoughtful whole. Tisdale is specifically interested in Americans and their relationship to food: she discusses how eating habits change as immigrants become assimilated. She explicates clearly that cooking has remained "women's work" over the years and relates compelling stories of her mother's lackadaisical attitude toward cooking and the ways in which her own experiences both repeat and differ from those of her mother ("She was bound by routine; I'm bound by change"). Tisdale also explores whether processed foods help women (by freeing them from the drudgery of cooking from scratch) or hurt them (by eliminating a type of knowledge that previously had been handed down through generations). This book is peppered with recollections (Tisdale recently prepared homemade soup for her aging father, who informed her that he prefers the taste of the fat-free Cup-a-Soup) and facts ("People ate more meat and lard in 1839 than they did in 1939"). But in the end, Tisdale's forte lies in helping readers to see the big picture, in which she ties together history, folklore, personal anecdote and sharp analysis to show that we truly are what we eat. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Have you ever wondered about the foods that you crave? Is there food that evokes memories? Do you ponder why you eat a particular food regularly, and never consume some other foods? This entertaining book answers those questions and many more in a highly readable format. Tisdale takes us on a culinary tour from the past and present that explains that we truly are what we eat. She believes that eating is much more than simply counting fat grams or calories, or calculating time and convenience. She uses history, sociology, folklore, personal anecdotes and a wealth of research to explain that eating habits are dictated by forces far beyond our reach. An extensive bibliography indicates the variety of resources that she used in the creation of this book. Tisdale says that how we feel about food is how we feel about our lives. Ask anyone who has a craving for a particular food, e.g. chocolate! Anyone interested in food will find this fascinating reading. This is delightful! KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Penguin Putnam/Riverhead, 311p, bibliog, 21cm, 99-048383, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Shirley Reis; IMC Dir. Lake Shore M.S. Mequon, WI, May 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 3)

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Penguin Publishing Group
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5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My mother was a fifth-grade teacher. Sometimes Bruce, Susan, and I walked to school, and sometimes we drove with Mom in the big tan Chevrolet Impala, a majestic boat sailing the wide, shady streets and sliding slowly up the crest of the small hill and down again and rolling into the faculty parking lot. If I didn't feel like walking home after school, I would wait in her classroom, running a finger through the chalk dust, rummaging through her desk drawers until she was ready to leave, and together we would slowly sail home.

    In that serene pause before dinner in her otherwise hectic days, she would pour a cup of coffee and light a cigarette, turn on The Mike Douglas Show or Merv Griffin, and collapse with an audible huff into her armchair. Douglas and Griffin were plump and avuncular, almost accidental celebrities, and now and then there were cooking segments. My mother and I rarely cooked together, but week after week for several years, we watched celebrities cook on daytime television. She'd smoke a cigarette and do a few desultory isometrics with a rubber-and-spring gadget bought from an ad in the back of Good Housekeeping while the nice people on television ate what they'd cooked, and then read her latest romance for a while as I watched Lost in Space.

    My mother also did all the housework, laundry, grocery shopping, and cooking for a family of five. She was up before the rest of us each morning, bringing my silent father a little hair of the dog in their dark, stuffy bedroom, frying eggs and pouring out cereal, pouring coffee, and lighting cigarettesfor herself. When we still attended the primary school a few blocks from home, she often came home from work to meet us for lunch—fried Velveeta-and-Miracle-Whip sandwiches with Campbell's chicken noodle soup, or Vienna sausages still glistening from the can.

    Memory is often a matter of the convenient falsehood—chronologies invert, characters combine and reorient. The questions change, and our minds tend to make up answers as we go along. Childhood especially is like a silent film with the subtitles removed—a jerky, dramatic story unfolding again and again before our eyes, the words lost, the meanings misconstrued. Even names become confused. After a time, memory and imagination weave together so tightly it's impossible to tell which is which. Why is that person laughing? Who is speaking? Whose hand is that, holding mine?

    But this I remember clearly: how she would at last sigh in the late afternoon and put her book aside, and take a last sip from her coffee mug. "Well," she would say, rising heavily from her chair, "I guess I'll get started on dinner." Then she would go quietly into the kitchen, moving without complaint between one unending task and another, day in and day out.

I have never done anything like this. I have not cooked three meals a day, day in and day out. I have not been uncomplaining. I have not been silent. I love to eat, both in the bonhomie of the table and as a solitary delight. I love to cook, too, in rituals followed step by step, transformation, the merging and marbling of raw ingredients into something finished and new. I like this, though I was never taught how to cook by my mother or anyone else. In fact, one reason I like to cook is that I've never done it routinely for long, ever wary of creating the wrong impression, ever a bit unsure about how I want to fit into a kitchen.

    When I've gone away from home, I've sometimes felt strained to the point of breaking. To sort out the varied and often conflicting requirements of my life, of all our lives, is a major part of my religious practice, even when it seems that following a religion creates conflict. One makes room for it and tries not to leave anything out, in a world of fragments and multiple demands. In my family, I've refused to act as though I had to fill a role, as though it was my duty to do so, even when guilt and uncertainty poisoned the freedom on which I insisted. I've been bound, in fact, more by my resistance to the traditions that bound my mother than by the traditions themselves.

    At forty-two, I see how my own relationship to food and eating, to cooking and my place in the kitchen, has changed greatly—only to change back, and change again. So many choices. When my mother went shopping, she had to choose between two markets, two bakeries, and one butcher. I have a dozen specialty markets in my neighborhood. She served roast beef every Sunday. I try to decide between Thai curry and fettucine Alfredo and fresh tomatillo chutney. She was bound by routine; I'm bound by change.

    When I remember childhood meals, I remember how much the same everything was. Now and then there were sudden infusions of sharp, dramatic tastes: large trout fried over a wood fire just after dawn, in sight of their icy river; beef tongue cooked in a steaming kitchen for hours until it sliced like cream; fresh rhubarb baked into a tangy, sticky pie. But these were brief, almost shameful tastes in a world of instant mashed potatoes. We ate fritters now and then, and pickled pigs' feet and a bit of sauerkraut, but not much else you could identify with a given people, place, or time. It's no coincidence that the good, sharp tastes I remember best were those of fresh, wild things just killed, newly picked, full of the earth. The wild game and garden produce was at least as much a matter of economics as desire, in the strange equation that associated fresh food with poverty for a long time. When I was young, duck à l'orange was the ultimate urban sophisticate's dish. We sometimes dined on freshly killed ducks only a few hours out of the sky, and I loved their wilderness blood, their robust and masculine taste, their dark, fat flesh. But I wanted duck à l'orange, which I thought must be something special, indeed.

    Sometimes, in the midst of the urban variety in which I shop now, I feel a strange obligation—to partake, to use up, try it all—not in joy but with a weary sense of duty. I think I must buy the baby asparagus because it is there, undeniably and aggressively there at the little produce market around the corner from my house—right there, the treat my mother waited for most of the year. My mother seemed to cook the same seven meals over and over—roast beef on Sunday, and Thursday-night hash. I seem never to have cooked the same meal twice.

    When I was about ten, my father remodeled our small kitchen. My beefy, unpredictable father could miter a corner to perfection in one hour and pass out on the couch the next. He taught industrial arts at the high school and was an electrician on the side, a bit of a carpenter, a good draftsman. He had a shop behind our house, which smelled of beer and sawdust and was filled with lovely, lethal hand tools hung on a Peg-Board marked with each tool's outline in black felt pen. The floor held a maze of beer-can pyramids and piles of Popular Mechanics, True, and Argosy, and the walls were decorated with old calendar pinups, leggy and breasty girls in swimsuits and halter tops, prone on bales of hay and leaning on fences in gator-bait cutoffs. Near the ceiling hung his old balsa-wood plane models, spinning slowly in the brief eddies of air.

    The kitchen was a cramped and narrow room. We were always going in and out, and so we were always shoving our way past each other to the refrigerator or the stove or the sink. The counters were crammed—coffeemaker, blender, toaster oven, soft loaves of bread, boxes of cereal, medicine and vitamin bottles, storage jars filled with sugar, crackers, and stale flour. The front door of the refrigerator (inside, more cramming—iceberg lettuce, Miracle Whip, ketchup, bologna, Velveeta) was covered with lists and reminders. On top and on the shelves beside it were draped piles of paper bags, plastic wrap, and placemats. The cupboards held everything from pots and pans to BBQ tools to TV trays, Dad's liquor stash, and Mom's cookies. So much, too much.

    My father took my mother's kitchen apart and put it together again, to please her. America was on fire with its imaginary bounty, its tinned fantasy of postindustrial success, and she wanted some, too. He started at the top, with white ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights circling the room behind opaque blue plastic panels. He put in a garbage disposal, cupboards with knubbly blue plastic windows, and a white Formica countertop flecked with gold. The room was still too small. My mother picked out a ridiculously tiny round glass table and two uncomfortable wrought-iron chairs for one corner. She sewed curtains with blue trim and put up blue cornflower wallpaper and bought a new refrigerator, a burly beast that seemed the height of sophistication to me because it had an ice maker. For the rest of the years I lived in that house, a periodic mechanical squeal would erupt from the kitchen without warning—the tray of hardened ice turning over on its automatic arm and raining cubes into the freezer bin. It never worked quite right. I learned to open the freezer with care, prepared for an avalanche of ice falling onto my feet, hard as rocks.

    The last grand addition in my mother's new kitchen was a double oven with a microwave on top. She bought one of the first ones on the market, which must have taken all the spare money she had.

    I say the remodel happened in the late sixties, but in fact I'm not sure exactly. No one in the family remembers for sure—memory is such a slippery thing. My childhood is a dream to me, but it was my mother's clearly remembered past. When I wanted to know about something that had happened when I was young, I asked my mother. After I moved away she wrote me cheerful letters in her neat handwriting, telling me the news of so-and-so getting married, divorced, pregnant, dead. She sent newspaper clippings and the occasional recipe, and tips on getting my kids to eat right. When I was thirty, she died, and the news stopped.

    For a long time I was drawn to simple stories, the kind with obvious narrative devices and clear morals. But a lot of my questions can't be answered at all now, and in the end, that has to be the story. I remember my mother vividly—her voice, the tilt of her head—but I will never be sure if what I remember is her, or only my misshapen belief in her.

    I want to know exactly when we got the microwave because I want to know when her endless labor of cooking ceased. The microwave changed everything—though everything was bound to go, anyway. It was the beginning of real change for my thrilled, my gleeful, my silently guilty mother, who was more than ready to plunge into this particular shiny, beeping future.

    As a child, I was required to come to the table when called and join the family circle for dinner. We looked, arrayed around the table, like all the families in all the magazines she read—the ones in the advertisements for new appliances and cars and vinyl siding—Mother at one end and Father at the other, Big Brother and Little Sister and me on either side, the golden retriever sleeping on the rug. But dinner was the dread hour of my day, tense and demanding in ways I could hardly stand. As soon as I was old enough to get away with it, I ditched the dinner hour and snacked my way through the day, and Mom didn't try very hard to stop me.

    Our freezer gradually filled with little pizzas and tamales and individual-serving-sized boxes of pasta, tubs of ready-made macaroni and cheese and pepperoni pizza rolls and uniformly chopped stew vegetables and chicken pot pies and lots of neatly ordered TV trays of spaghetti-and-meatball dinners and Salisbury steak dinners and fried chicken dinners. Meatloaf was my favorite, with its perfectly symmetrical piece of chopped, formed hamburger in sweet tomato syrup, the neat cubicles of buttered peas and calm mashed potatoes, a place for each, and each in its place. As time went by, I seemed to eat more and more of my meals standing up in the kitchen, reading in my room, going out the door—elsewhere, as my own children have done in their time.

    Mom even learned to make peanut brittle in the microwave. After weeks of gooey, syrupy messes and the rank smell of burning peanut butter, she got it right. That it took her far longer to figure out how to make her favorite candy in the microwave than it would have taken her to do it the old-fashioned way was irrelevant. The microwave was a labor-saving device, she was saving her labor, and the facts were less important than the dream. They always are when we're dreaming.

    I found a recipe for microwave peanut brittle a few years ago. My adolescent daughter helped stir the goo as it grew hotter and hotter and began to bubble alarmingly. My towering son and his taciturn girlfriend arrived and decided, with much whispering, to wait for the results. I spread the candy out to cool and we stood there, waiting, silent, afraid to break the spell, the thin and delicate spell. When we finally broke off big chunks and chewed together ruminatively, I realized I couldn't remember the last time we'd eaten the same food from scratch, eaten at the same time, in one room.

Meet the Author

Sallie Tisdale is the author of five books, including Talk Dirty to Me. A contributing editor at Harper's magazine, and a biweekly columnist for Salon, she has published numerous articles in The New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveler, The New Republic, Esquire, and Vogue. She is the recipient of a NEA Fellowship, a James Phelan Award, a 1999 Pope Foundation Fellowship for journalism, and three National Magazine Award nominations. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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