EPS Review #65 - The Man Who Ate Everything

by Jeffrey Steingarten, Headline, 1997

Steingarten, the food editor at Vogue (who knew Vogue had writing in it?) is kind of like Calvin Trillin, but ruder and more scientific. And maybe even funnier. He starts off by determining to rid himself of food phobias and repulsions (clams, Indian desserts, Greek food...), and does so, as he does everything, systematically. At one dinner party, he suggests that everyone order something they don't like, saying that he will in return order nothing at all that he likes. He broadens his palate, but others don't: he bullies a young dancer so much ("do you want to borrow my fork?") that she eats a handful of potpourri on the way out.

His chapter on water is representative. What is good-tasting water? Not distilled water -- too bland. Saliva is salty, so "we perceive less salty things as having a subzero kind of taste." It must be the other minerals. "I had heard that Pepsi-Cola is extremely careful about the composition of the water it uses, but the people in its research lab in Valhalla, New York, were completely lacking in Pepsi Spirit when I asked them to share their findings." He determines to make his own mineral water, and visits a chemical supply house.

Chemicals come in all degrees of purity, and I specified the "ingestion grade" wherever possible.

Out of the blue, one of them said that I was crazy...I offered to sign a piece of paper guaranteeing that I would not eat anything they sold me. This trick has worked for me in the past but not this time.

So I promised to test all the concoctions on my puppy. (I don't have a puppy.) Until then these two employees had been heavy-lidded and lethargic. But the mention of a puppy brought them to life, making them unaccountably but vividly angry. I was about to quote from Horace, "Ira furor brevis est." ("Anger is a passing madness"), when they threw me out of their shabby quarters. Threw me out!

He doesn't actually find the perfect combination. He has equally systematic chapters about natural yeast bread, ice cream, french fries (one whole chapter on olestra), and so on.

Steingarten was "co-discoverer" of the French Paradox, which means he was one of the first people to read the research and publicise it. He gleefully denies that fat is bad, and that sugar is bad. I am happy to believe him. He even has a chapter, "Salad, the Silent Killer", which asserts that plants don't want to be eaten, excepting fruit, so most of them do their best to poison you if you do. The oxalic acid in uncooked spinach binds with iron and calcium. Cabbage, brussels sprouts and beets contain an anti-B vitamin. Raw soybeans contain anti-D, and can cause rickets. Uncooked Lima (broad) beans contain cyanogens, and can kill you. And so on. The only raw vegetables he could find that seem to do no harm are zucchini and carrots.

I also enjoyed the chapter on choucroute, probably because I would like to do the same thing (go to Alsace for a week and eat it three times a day, and turn greenish).

It is a long book (370 pages), and once you get the angle of his humor, it does not surprise you as much as in the beginning. But it is still a find.

Reiko wrote: I interviewed this guy, and he is a very interesting guy as you can tell. I was a bit scared of him at the beginning, but he got softened up later on. But the interview was disaster (It was about milk, and he said nothing, literally nothing good about milk. It sounds like him, right?) and my editor had to eliminate the story.... too bad.

Ed wrote: this is one of my favourite books. I liked the chapter on the perfect tomato ketchup (with mcdonalds french fries the ideal foil), and on pulled roast pork. Did what he said about Japan resonate at all with you?

I replied: As I recall, his take on Japanese food was that it was wonderful, and that it was hard to go back to eating western food. I can relate to that!

Nick wrote: There is also the Spanish or Portugese paradox. AGEs (Advanced Glycosolated End products, or cross-linking of sugar with protein in the body -- like the sticky substance from honey glazed ham) are suspected to be another culprit of cardiovascular disease. Eades (in Protein Power) stresses that Magnesium in mineral water is important and not all brands are the same.