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'Anything That Moves' looks at the fringes of food culture

'Anything That Moves' looks at the fringes of food culture

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Anything that moves

"Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture" by Dana Goodyear takes a close look at adventurous eating.

"Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture," by Dana Goodyear. Riverhead.

To be a food editor is to be barraged with pitches about adventurous eating. I would say that a good one-third of the emails I receive from writers with ideas for Slate food articles boil down to, "I ate a weird thing!" I usually decline these stories, simply because it's rare for a first-person account of eating something unusual to transcend mere titillation. If you've read one account of eating rattlesnake/zebra/hippogriff, I tend to think, you've read them all.

So I was skeptical when I began Dana Goodyear's "Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture," the first sentence of which is, "Bugs, horse, brains, whale; leaves, weeds, ice cream flavored with lichen-covered logs." Goodyear proceeds, in 260 pages, to consume many other off-putting items: stinkbugs, ant eggs (a delicacy in Mexico), lamb spleen, and the Filipino half-developed duck egg known as balut. Amazingly, the shtick never gets old. Thanks partly to Goodyear's skill as a storyteller and partly to her balance of skepticism and affection, "Anything That Moves" is an unceasingly entertaining book. It also lays the groundwork for a comprehensive theory of the modern foodie — though, frustratingly, Goodyear refrains from synthesizing her findings, preferring to keep them at arm's length.

Goodyear's journey into intrepid eating begins with an observation: "Going out to a nice dinner often precipitates a confrontation with a fundamental evolutionary question: Is that food?" She astutely notes that today's food culture ennobles certain ingredients precisely because most people think they are gross. Whereas the gourmands of yesteryear valued refined French preparations and more recent epicureans exalted heirloom produce and pampered livestock, today's cutting-edge foodies have realized that they must set ever narrower standards for their exclusive club. With brie in every deli and "free-range" stamps on every egg carton, old models of refinement have gone mainstream — and so gastronomes have headed to the fringes, eating grasshoppers, rotting beef, and animals that their neighbors consider pets.

Goodyear wisely acknowledges the irony of such ingredients up front:

Most of what I consider here is eaten for pleasure — it is expensive, nonessential — but often it refers to necessity, the kind of deep, bone-licking eating that people do when they must milk every last calorie. ... After centuries of perfecting the ritual of 'civilized' dining, there is a furious back-pedalling, a wilding, even among the chefs who employ the most cutting-edge techniques. At the same time, the traditional foods of poverty are being recast as elite.

Moral questions arise when the kind of people who drop hundreds on a tasting menu pantomime subsistence eating, and when well-to-do Americans turn other cultures' delicacies into a double dare. And though Goodyear generally shies away from explicit judgment, she is very good at mining the discomfort in the contradiction between foodies' material privilege and the way they romanticize the "foods of poverty."

These men talk about "boy food" and "male food," give dishes names like porca puttana (which means "dirty whore" in Italian), talk about treating ingredients "like a lady."

In the first chapter, Goodyear describes several outings with Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, who specializes in "chronicling the city's carts and stands and dives and holes-in-mini-malls; its Peruvian, Korean, Uzbek, Isaan Thai and Islamic Chinese restaurants; the places that serve innards, insects and extremities." (Goodyear also lives in Los Angeles, and "Anything That Moves' " SoCal myopia occasionally frustrated this East Coaster.) Goodyear paints Gold as Patient Zero of the adventurous eating bug — she calls him "the patron saint of foodies." "Interesting cuisine, he believes, often comes out of poverty," Goodyear writes of Gold. She also quotes a Gold acolyte who says Gold taught him that food writing "can be ghetto."

But Goodyear subtly pushes back against the notion of poverty as an efficient crucible of good eats. Two of the most arresting passages in the book are stories about the misery of poverty. One is an account of the abusive childhood of rising L.A. chef Craig Thornton, the other is about a family of mushroom foragers who nearly die of starvation after getting lost on a hunt for black trumpets. They taste their haul of mushrooms — the kind that sell for $7 an ounce when dried — but deem them inedible, and when they're finally rescued, they fill their stomachs with junk food. The effect of this anecdote is unsettling: It highlights the discrepancy between the foodie's "foods of poverty" and the real thing.

Goodyear is at her analytical best when she takes on the question of why we eat certain animals but not others. In a chapter that recounts an undercover sting on a Japanese restaurant illegally serving whale meat, Goodyear examines the cultural and ethical assumptions that underlie Americans' horror at eating animals we deem noble. In response to a marine conservationist's claim that the only thing worse than serving whale meat is serving human flesh, Goodyear writes, "It smelled of unexamined xenophobia: only a sub-human monster would eat another person." She also criticizes the foodies who want to have it both ways: Eat whale meat (or other rare ingredients) while avoiding the ethical ramifications of their decisions.

Goodyear's commentary on foodies' relationship with meat is spot-on, which makes it all the more disappointing that she mostly declines to comment on the gender dynamic of the "new American food culture." Throughout the book, Goodyear profiles men: Gold, Thornton, Laurent Quenioux (a chef who rhapsodizes over the flavor of ant eggs and plans a multicourse meal infused with marijuana smoke), Chris Cosentino (a foulmouthed celebrity chef who specializes in offal). These men talk about "boy food" and "male food," give dishes names like porca puttana (which means "dirty whore" in Italian), talk about treating ingredients "like a lady." One chef says he always has a woman read his meat-rich menu over to "make sure it's not too alienating."

A few women show up in a chapter on raw milk activists, and there is a short passage, almost an afterthought, on an outing with "a bunch of ladies, down to eat weird stuff." But "Anything That Moves" is, overall, a total sausagefest, and Goodyear's interviews are a minefield of gendered assumptions about food. These facts scream out for attention. What is so macho, exactly, about being able to stomach cows' brains and unhatched duck eggs? I wish Goodyear had devoted some of her impressive analytical abilities to that question.

Perhaps that would be asking too much of "Anything That Moves," which is really more of a beefed-up essay collection than a cohesive, stand-alone work. (Versions of many of the chapters have already appeared as New Yorker stories.) And readers who approach the book as a series of amusing and illuminating vignettes will be more than satisfied. I hope Goodyear someday converts her reporting experience into a comprehensive theory of the modern foodie. Food editors need people like her. Anyone who can write so wisely and entertainingly about eating rarities is a rarity herself.


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