The Essentials of Good Taste
With 50 Foods, noted authority Edward Behr has created the definitive guide to the foods every food lover must know. A culinary Baedeker, 50 Foods will delight and inform the connoisseur as well as the novice.
This is a book about taste — a guide to deliciousness. I’ve tried to tell the things that will turn the reader into an instant connoisseur, which is a contradiction in terms, of course. It can’t be done. But I hope to give a good head start.
My choices may provoke arguments over which are the top fifty foods, but I don’t claim that mine are the absolute best and most delicious. The world has too many great foods for anyone to settle on a mere fifty. I chose these partly because they provide a broad sensory range. Most are raw materials, but some have been fermented or otherwise transformed — into bread, ham, cheese. In fact, six of the fifty are cheeses, and you may wonder: why so many? The answer is that cheese is probably the best food, just as wine is the best drink, and even six doesn’t cover all the wonderful basic kinds.
I’ve tried to present clear, simple, practical information about buying, using, preparing, and enjoying. I focus on aroma, appearance, flavor, and texture. For each food, I tell what the “best” means, when that’s clear — often there’s more than “best.” I tell where the foods come from and the methods that make them. I give the signs of top quality — indications of freshness and ripeness, best season, top varieties, proper aging. I tell things to avoid and provide questions to ask. If the food can be stored, I tell how, even how to mature certain soft cheeses. This isn’t a cookbook, but if the way to prepare, serve, or eat something isn’t well-known, I explain it — how to open an oyster, why the best way to cook green beans is boiling, how to clean a whole salted anchovy, when to eat and when to discard the rind of a cheese. I name the complementary flavors.
50 Foods has plenty of advice and opinion, but most of my conclusions are dictated by facts. During the more than twenty-five years I’ve been writing about food, I’ve often made wrong assumptions, and I’ve learned to be skeptical of both received wisdom and my own notions. I try to be clear when I offer pure prejudice — in favor of tart apples over sweet, green asparagus over white, classic baguettes over modern sorts, young skinny French-style green beans over fatter kinds, dry-aged beef over meat sealed in plastic.
I strongly believe that food tastes more delicious when it’s closer to nature, something that after years of careful tasting seems to me obvious. By closer to nature, I mean made using simpler processes, generally lower technology, and without deceptive additions.
Yes, some MSG or a trace of artificial flavoring may possibly improve the taste of something in an absolute sense. But even if that’s true, how can we fully enjoy a food if we don’t know where the flavor comes from and understand just how good nature can be on its own?
Industrial processing tends to simplify flavor. Advanced technology creates vast quantities of low-cost food for a mass market, while its cost-cutting and controls eliminate the extremes of both bad and good. Skilled traditional methods are almost always superior. Generally they’re simpler and less powerful, and they leave more flavor intact. The catch, if there is one, is that low-technology food is more varied and seasonal and comes in wider range of quality from high to low. Traditions evolve, of course; sometimes we can improve them. With scientific insight, artisans can understand what really works, refine old methods, and achieve more consistent high quality.
I’ve included notes on wine because there’s no better drink with food. Wine provides counterpoint, refreshment, and relaxation. Almost any simple wine without defects will do that, assuming it’s somewhat light— light in body and flavor, low to moderate in alcohol, and low in tannin. It helps if the wine also has a pleasing acidity. Lighter wines tend to go with a wider range of foods, and with them it matters less whether the color is white, pink, or red. If you want, stick to light, simple everyday wines and ignore my sometimes expensive recommendations. They’re not essential, although their more particular flavors go better with the food in question, and a few combinations really soar.
You can’t always have the best food, but with the information in this book you will eat better every day. Knowing good food is part of a complete understanding of the world — part of a full enjoyment of nature, a full experience of the senses.
The Wall Street Journal
“In putting together 50 Foods, Mr. Behr has made use of his decades of interviewing farmers and wine producers and his travels in Europe and America. He has strong tastes and strong opinions, and his smart and evocative descriptions make for good reading. Stop at any entry, and he'll draw you in...it will be useful to both the novice and the conoisseur."
Los Angeles Times
“A delicious compendium of food facts and practical advice showcasing 50 foods that everyday cooks, gardeners, foodies and the modern gourmet should include in their culinary repertoire…A treasure trove of culinary history, sound advice and easy enlightenment—though consuming the narrative in one sitting is not advised; try spreading the enjoyment by dipping in often for tasty bites."
"In his elegantly composed, alphabetically organized primer on the most tasty ingredients in good cooking, Behr, the founder of the Art of Eating magazine, shares useful ways of growing, choosing and pairing foods with other foods and, especially wines....The book is certainly a welcome resource for the home chef."
David Chang, New York Times bestselling author of Momofuku and chef/founder of Momofuku:
"Ed Behr is one of the great food writers, and this book may be his best work. Any book that increases culinary knowledge is must-have in my opinion... 50 Foods is a book that every chef and home cook should have."
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and author of What to Eat:
"Ed Behr’s 50 Foods extols the pleasures of his favorites from anchovies to walnuts, with plenty of handy advice about how to tell the difference between a great pear or cheese and one that’s not so great, and what wines make good foods taste even better. He knows the ins and outs of delicious food, and you will too after reading this book."
Dan Barber, Executive Chef and Co-Owner, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns:
"50 Foods may take the shape of a culinary encyclopedia, but it is never encyclopedic in its approach. Instead, Edward Behr plays curator, selecting the best ingredients as his subjects (crab, blue; oysters, raw) and crafting descriptions at once evocative, educational, and eminently practical. You'll learn about the history of the baguette, but also (more importantly) how to predict its quality at the bakery. You'll brush up on the anatomy of an artichoke, then salivate over descriptions of them prepared alla giudia. It is, as Behr puts it, 'a guide to deliciousness'—a promise that he manages to deliver on, artfully."
Danny Meyer, New York Times bestselling author of Setting the Table:
"What a compelling and original gift Ed Behr has given food amateurs of every stripe with his brilliant canon, 50 Foods. The topics themselves are so thoughtfully curated, and the entries are authoritative, opinionated, and eminently useful whether one is a cook, eater, wine lover, or just wants to know and appreciate more than you ever did about 50 important foods."
René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma, voted San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World, 2010, 2011, 2012:
"Smashing! This compelling book tells the story of 50 iconic foodstuffs, taking you around the world in search of deliciousness. To me, that's what’s especially captivating here. Deliciousness is one of the things that makes life fun and this book is full of just that."
Alice Waters, bestselling author, founder and Executive Chef, Chez Panisse:
"Ed Behr has a unique and holistic gastronomic vision, beautifully reflected in his examination of these 50 diverse foods that form the building blocks of taste. This fascinating, eminently readable book is a beautiful resource for curious cooks and people who want to know where their food comes from."
Harold McGee, New York Times bestselling author of the Keys to Good Cooking:
"Ever since I saw the first issue of his Art of Eating in 1986, I've admired Ed Behr for his scrupulous research and forthright judgments about food and drink. I'm always learning something new from him, even about the most familiar things, and especially when I disagree with him. This book is the fruit of Ed's decades-long pursuit of the best edibles that nature and western tradition have to offer. 50 Foods is his summa of the varieties of delicious experience, packed with useful information, a wonderfully concise source of both advice and provocation. If you know The Art of Eating you'll welcome this brisk tour; if you don't, 50 Foods will introduce you to one of the best guides a food lover could have."
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