It Must've Been Something I Ate
Reviewed by Catherine Keenan
January 11 2003
IT MUST'VE BEEN SOMETHING I ATE: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything
By Jeffrey Steingarten
Review, 373pp, $39.95
If Jeffrey Steingarten were not one of the world's greatest food writers, he would be considered mad. When trying to create the perfect pizza, for instance, his first step is to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a Raynger ST-8 non-contact thermometer, which allows him to project bright red dots on any object and measure its temperature to within a tenth of a degree.
Then he goes to his favourite pizzeria in New York, and discovers that its oven reaches a blazing 950 degrees Fahrenheit. This, he reasons, is what he needs to replicate if he is to make the perfect pizza at home, but his oven cuts the heat at a mere 500F. So he decides to fool it by placing frozen paper towels over the thermostat.
"The results were brilliant," he writes, "especially in concept. My oven, believing incorrectly that its temperature was near the freezing point, went full blast until thick waves of smoke billowed from every crack, vent and pore, filling the house with the palpable signs of scientific success.
"Yes, the experiment had to be cut short, but it had lasted longer than the Wright brothers' first flight. Inside the oven was a blackened disc of dough pocked with puddles of flaming cheese. I had succeeded beyond all expectations."
After blackening a friend's oven by trying to cook a pizza during the self-cleaning cycle, he finally succeeds by pouring nine kilograms of charcoal into his barbecue, opening all the air vents, and watching the temperature soar to a magnificent 600F, then 700F, then 900F. He then watches the electrical cord of his barbecue rotisserie melt, along with the all-weather cover he had foolishly left draped on a nearby shelf, before his delightfully crisp, air-pocked pizza emerges. He recommends his method to his readers.
"And in the light of day, feel no regrets that you have burned the paint off the sides of your barbecue and voided the manufacturer's limited warranty." In the search for the perfect pizza, no price is too high.
People who have read Steingarten's previous collection of columns for American Vogue magazine, The Man Who Ate Everything, will know that he approaches every food task with the same absurd, compulsive thoroughness.
Whether he is searching for the freshest piece of toro (the belly of bluefin tuna), the most delectable hot chocolate, or the best baguette, Steingarten's research is as unstinting as his appetites. As with all obsessives, this can get boring, but as in the previous collection, this doesn't happen often. And when he is on top form, you forgive him everything.
Part of the joy of these essays is that they so vividly conjure up a picture of a man who simply loves to eat. Steingarten likes to paint a picture of himself as inept, but he is marvellously well informed about food. And although he will spend thousands of dollars on caviar, he is never a snob.
When he comes across some particularly fine boudin noir, for instance, he adds it to his list of the 100 greatest foods in the world, "tearfully removing the frozen Milky Way bar from my pantheon".
While on some level he knows it is absurd to spend 10 days perfecting, say, pot au feu, he never admits it. In his world, the only weirdos are people who limit themselves to three meals a day, while the dangerously strange are those who persist in believing they have food allergies (Steingarten really hates them). He is as funny, and as endearing, as a favourite, eccentric aunt.
Do read this book. You will enjoy it.
Catherine Keenan is a Herald journalist.