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Book Review: "America the Edible," by Adam Richman

(Author’s Note: My review of America the Edible first appeared, with a few very slight differences, in this week’s edition of the Englewood Review of Books. It is reposted here with permission. This week’s ERB also includes reviews of A Landscape Manifesto, Food Justice, Honeybee Democracy, Justice Rising, and Gardening (Philosophy for Everyone Series), as well as a Christmas poem by Robert Frost and audio recordings of “A Rooted People: Church, Place and Agriculture in an Urban World” conference.)

Regular viewers of Adam Richman’s Travel Channel series, Man vs. Food, know that most episodes follow a predictable pattern. Richman rolls into a new city (about 50 so far, from Amarillo, Texas to Washington, D.C.), explores a couple of the best “pig out” spots, and caps off his visit by taking on a gnarly eating challenge: in Boston, a ten-patty burger, with twenty slices of cheese and twenty pieces of bacon; in Atlanta, an 11-pound pizza; in Pittsburgh, six hot wings, each one 40 times hotter than a jalapeño.

The show is like pork rinds: equal parts revolting and addictive. Don’t ask questions, just pass the bag. It’s also a useful metaphor. What Richman does to amuse an audience is not so different than what many Americans do for dinner. Eating is a cultural act, and a television series whose central premises are that gluttony is entertaining, and that food is something to be conquered – a show that had the network’s highest-ever debut – suggests just how warped our culture may have become.

What gets lost in the challenge portions of Man vs. Food, when Richman is downing a gallon of milkshake or five pounds of nachos, and yet is so clear in America the Edible, Richman’s new book, is the tender devotion he has for good food and the good people and places that produce it.

America the Edible presents foodie “snapshots” of nine American cities, including Los Angeles, Honolulu, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Cleveland, Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Maine, and Savannah. It’s not a travel book exactly, though it does come with helpful tips like how to choose an authentic New York salumeria (Italian pork store), and where to find good local restaurant recommendations (try bellhops, parking attendants, and butchers and fishmongers, among others). Nor is it a work of culinary anthropology, though Richman is fascinated by how the ethnic, economic, and natural histories of a city can be read in its cuisine.

Instead, the book is laid out like the food journal Richman has kept since college. The “hungry history” of the subtitle is his own, and the book contains actual snapshots of its author doing regional theater in St. Louis and Cleveland (he has a Master’s degree from the Yale University School of Drama), standing in front of the Gateway Arch, and eating shave ice at North Shore.

There are at least two ever-present dangers for a project like this. Richman skirts the first danger, vanity, by being charming and winsome, and generous with his praise. “America the Edible is a collection of love letters to some of my favorite food places, their histories, and the time I spent there,” he writes in the Introduction. The second danger, superficiality, is a real one. The book can sound bloggy, as when Richman sums up a bad tuna roll with the words, “Epic. Sushi. Fail.” And when he describes the winter in St. Louis as “ridonkulously frigid…so cold your balls will clink.” (This is also an example of how funny Richman can be.) He isn’t above citing an online encyclopedia, but he’s self-aware enough to give credit with a jaunty, “Thanks, Wikipedia.”

The good news is that the informal, confessional tone of America the Edible encourages a vulnerability that would be inappropriate for a show like Man vs. Food. (Who wants brussel sprouts with their 72-ounce steak?) I’m thinking especially of the chapter in which Richman travels to Savannah to break up with a girl, but also to find something more. He writes:

And as I pulled out of the parking lot and roared out onto the highway, just beyond the fireball dropping below the horizon I caught a shimmering glimpse of something I’d been unable to find in any dish, in any bed, in any city, in any momentary pleasure. There, stretched out before me, waiting for me as though it had always been:

Grace.

On this journey, food will be a companion rather than a foe to be vanquished – an art, a useful entry into the life and texture of a community, and a cherished memory. It is, at last, Man with Food.

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