I have to admit that I was drawn to this book as soon as I heard the title. Robb Walsh’s collection of articles and essays was published in 2003 and although some of the stories date back to the early nineties, it remains fresh, interesting and entertaining.
I learned numerous obscure and fascinating facts ranging from the science of the malodorous durian fruit, to the legal battles over the name Blue Mountain coffee to the curious consumption patterns of spam. Walsh definitely does his research and puts considerable effort into tracking down elusive ingredients and information, sometimes involving physical pain, in the case of finding the hottest chili peppers. But as well as being a source of random trivia, Walsh is a compelling story teller and I loved his ability to set a scene and bring restaurants and their customers to life. So many restaurant reviews (my own included) focus primarily on the food but Walsh vividly describes the atmosphere, the idiosyncrasies and the people he encounters.
Walsh also discusses some interesting questions about what authenticity means when talking about food. Can dishes that have been adapted by a immigrant culture to use locally available ingredients still be considered authentic? And can food that has been adapted to American tastes still be considered authentic? The issue of authenticity is something we have discussed in the process of our taco truck research. People often claim a restaurant is the ‘most authentic’ but this book makes it clear that authenticity is difficult to define.
One of my favorite chapters was called ‘The Ink Blot Test’. Walsh describes two restaurants in detail to illustrate the role of perception, bias and personal preference. People react differently to different restaurants because they place greater or lesser value on different attributes such as authenticity, cleanliness, noise, atmosphere etc.
The book gave me hunger pangs and itchy feet and a strong desire to visit Texas, Mexico and Jamaica. Maybe one day. In the meantime I am looking forward to reading his latest book Sex Death and Oysters. Who knows where I will want to visit after that.