Review: The Foodie Handbook
Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
I was really excited to get my hands on a copy of “The Foodie Handbook” by Pim Techamuanvivit (Chronicle 2009) because, honestly, I was reading her blog way before I started Macheesmo. So, it was great to see such a substantial thing that started from humble food blogger roots.
While I was excited, I was also somewhat skeptical. I wasn’t quite sure what a foodie handbook would entail. Is it a cookbook? Is it a travel guide? Does it tell you how to shop for ingredients? Shockingly, the answer is all of the above. Let’s dive in!
A Food Quandary. In her very short, 2 page, introduction Pim does a great job of explaining a problem that I have regularly. That problem is that it’s hard to talk and write about food because it’s a hard thing to describe. Food becomes polarized for most people – it’s either familiar and comforting or strange and exotic. Pim talks a bit about this odd contrast in her intro:
“A chocolate cake is decadent and sinfully delicious, pictures of food that tickle your mouth to water are food porn, simple dishes… are dismissed as comfort food, while intricate cuisine composed of exquisite ingredients is pretentious and haughty. It seems almost impossible to say anything at all about food without a pang of regret, without apologizing for some sort of offense, real or imagined. No wonder food is such a lost cause to so many.”
So I’m hoping that this book will help get rid of some of that mystique and teach everyone how to fall in love (or back in love) with food.
Eating Like a Foodie. One thing that becomes apparent quickly in this book is how comfortable Pim actually is writing about food. She has a very lighthearted style of writing and does a great job of explaining smells, textures, and environments. Before I even knew it, I was 20 pages into this chapter and couldn’t put it down. I think this might have something to do with the years and years of blogging that she has under her belt. Whatever it is, it’s a very good thing.
She talks a lot in this chapter about complex flavors from simple ingredients and I was immediately pulled in. That is until I read the first two recipes. The first one involved hibiscus flowers and the second involved saffron. The recipes were simple. Just a few ingredients. Unfortunately those ingredients happened to be out of the normal range for most Americans I think. But, I give her a pass, because her third recipe was simple and delicious and everything I wanted: a simple onion and bread soup.
The rest of the chapter is a fantastic read. Each section comes off as kind of a long blog post – which I liked. First, Pim gives a funny and also helpful guide to dining in a more upscale restaurant. She reminds us that while it’s sometimes hard to not be intimidated when you walk into a nice restaurant, we have to remember that we are in charge! It’s our money after all!
Then she does a 180 and gives tips on how to eat on the street. She gives some good tips on how you can enjoy your travels and become a virtual Bourdain! All while hopefully not contracting the “Montezuma’s Revenge.”
Cooking Like a Foodie. This is really my favorite chapter in the book (big shocker there). A lot can be summed up by the first sentence: “Buy the best ingredients you can afford.” I could write a whole post on why that sentence is novel in our times. A lot of people try to spend as little as possible on food and then they’re shocked when their dinners turn out sub-par. Pim’s strategy is one that I completely endorse. Ask a lot of questions and learn what ingredients and foods are the best, buy the best ones you can afford, and cook them simply.
The recipes in this chapter are clean, fresh, and look delicious (Did I mention that the photography in this book is some of the best I’ve seen? I love it.) There’s probably 30 recipes in this chapter and they are exactly what I expected out of this book.
Drinking like a Foodie. This chapter is first and foremost about wine, which is one of the most intimidating things in a dining experience. Wine lists can be, literally, books in some restaurants. The first thing she says, which is very important, is that the chapter is not going to transform you into a wine geek. In fact, don’t ever strive to be a wine geek – someone who lives and dies by arbitrary wine ratings that someone else set and have very little to do with how that wine will work for your meal or your situation.
So don’t be a wine geek.
Instead, she gives a lot of very practical tips to make wine very accessible. How to purchase it, how to pair it with food, and how to ask for recommendations. This could honestly be a book on its own and I imagine that it might be the most helpful chapter for a large number of people.
Being a Fabulous Foodie. Pim lost me on this chapter. She lists 50 things that a “foodie” should do in his or her life. I found this to be just a bit pompous. By my count, to complete the list, you would have to travel to 18 different countries. That’s a bit much for most people I think. It’s just unrealistic and I think it sets a bit of a high expectation for being a foodie. I think you can be a perfectly good foodie and never leave your home town.
Maybe you do have to “eat a plate of truffe bel humeur at the restaurant L’Ambroisie in Paris” or “Eat a Yangcheng hairy crab, preferably in or near Yangcheng Lake in China”. If that’s true, I might not ever be a foodie. I would love to have some of those experiences, but it’s a lot to ask.
That said, there are some very down to earth recommendations in the list also. I love at least half of them. Learning to make a good loaf of crusty bread can make you a foodie and requires just a few bucks and some time. My favorite suggestion in the list is learning to make your parents’ favorite meals. That’s awesome and the kind of thing I would expect a real foodie to know.
So I’m not sure that I agree with everything that Pim sees as important. Of course, if you wanted to save every nickle and dime and prioritize these experiences over everything (including your kids’ education maybe) you could really live the life of a foodie as described in this book. In fact, you kind of get the impression that she views these things as important because it’s her life…
But. Some of it is spot-on and throughout the whole book, she writes with a very whimsical voice that, at the very least, makes it a very easy and fun read. If you’re looking for a good lighthearted read about food for a plane ride or something, this fits the bill and there are really good tips in the chapters.
If you wanted to use this book as a checklist to actually becoming a foodie, I might add an item to the list: Get a second job.