Reviewed by Robert Brown
“Real Food/Fake Food” is a book for militant gastronomes whose author is anything but. I wish the book had been published the last time I dined at Le Bernardin. Then I could have asked my waiter if the rank piece of white tuna I ended up ordering was the unsafe, banned-in-Japan fish called escolar. Now having read the book, I can hold a restaurant’s feet to the fire more often than before, something militant gastronomes live for. If I see red snapper on the menu of a seafood restaurant, chances are, according to author Larry Olmsted, I would be served some junk fish or another such as tilapia or tilefish.. The book also reminded me to bring my own maple syrup if I want pancakes, waffle or French toast at my local breakfast place since what passes as maple syrup is surely not maple syrup at all, but “high-fructose corn syrup and/or maltodextrin combined with fenugreek seed or anise.”
I first heard of Larry Olmsted when he was promoting “Real Food/ Fake Food” on NPR. What really peaked my interest was his dumping all over truffle oil, none better a product for separating chefs and restaurateurs with some integrity from those with none. Besides this and olive oil in the same chapter, Olmsted also particularly excels in the chapters devoted to Parmigiano-Reggiano, seafood and Kobe beef. Depending on to what extent you know about other cheese and meat, Champagne, Scotch, wine, honey, fruit juices, coffee and tea and Basmati rice among a host of other products, each reader, unless he is an experienced cook, should improve his awareness of what to either avoid or go out of the way for.
Olmsted goes beyond a lengthy consumer’s “Do’s and Dont’s” list in terms of what to order, what to buy and detailed explanations of how certain foodstuffs are grown, raised and produced. Wherever applicable, he delves into the often-confusing bureaucratic regulations and strengths and shortcomings of regulatory bodies, most notably those in the United States that often allow a permissiveness, vagueness, ambiguity or complete failure to enact or legislate when it comes to such matters as grading, mislabeling, defining terms, or protecting enterprises who play by the book or offer the real McCoy. For example, Olmsted delves into counterfeiting or mislabeling or misleading labeling of olive oil and transshipping of crustaceans that allow slave-labor shrimp farming in China to have its origin changed to Indonesia because the shipments make stops there en route to the USA. (For a more recent essay by Olmsted on seafood that includes information not in this book, go to here. He also explains that the United States signed an agreement in 2006 for protecting original-source producers of Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis and other wines on one hand, but grandfathering in the existing domestic producers to continue making their cheap, in- name-only versions. Olmsted tackles dozens of permutations in regulations, agreements, and enforcement and a long list of unsafe food, as well as businesses and individuals engaging in what can only be called misrepresentation, if not out-and-out cheating.
To the book’s minor detriment is that Olmsted, who is a food and travel columnist for Forbes and USA Today is a practitioner of what I call “Home on the Range” journalism (“Where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day”). You find this to be most prevalent among mainstream media food and travel writers, especially when what they write about could offend a current or potential advertiser with the oft-time result that it becomes virtually impossible to separate heart-felt opinion from PR. (Occasionally there is also token criticism just to give the impression that the writer isn’t a complete Pollyanna, but when Olmsted does it, such as the time his dining companion nailed Babbo for serving Grana Padano instead of promised Parmigiano Reggiano, it warms the heart of the integrity-seeking gastronome). Olmsted has nevertheless conceived a very good theme for a book, one that with its 284 references to printed matter Olmsted cites, is a well-researched, worthwhile addition to a personal food-reference library, but somewhat tainted in specific ways I mention below that are a little disquieting even if they don’t seriously distract from the project’s conception.
At 318 pages including back matter, I would call the book a worthwhile slog owing to the author’s wordiness and not-always absorbing self-absorbed story-telling that takes up space that would have otherwise resulted in greater relevance and more-succinct writing. The work also occasionally has a patchwork or stitched-together quality from apparently-recycled material, exemplified by referring to Shea Gallante as the chef at Cru, a Manhattan restaurant he left in 2009 and which closed soon after.
As with certain text books, several chapters conclude with a short summary of the main points. There is also a useful glossary of international acronyms such as DOC or AOC and olive oil and beef grades, but no badly-needed index. In themselves these two aspects of the book are quite useful and make for good, quick reference. However, as a long-time observer of how the members of the culinary media go about writing about or portraying the subject, I was rather taken aback by one of Olmsted’s anecdotes and one of his chapters. In the chapter titled “What’s in a Name? Real Foods Come from Real Places”, Olmsted tells of a long-anticipated first-time tasting of Poulet de Bresse that he had at an unnamed restaurant in Burgundy. He expresses his great disappointment by likening the chicken to the $8.00 rotisserie one at his local supermarket. I and my wife, on the other hand, had our first one (with raspberry vinegar), with scores to follow, as part of our life-changing and first truly great provincial French meal in 1974 at the hands of Alain Chapel in the Lyon suburb of Mionnay. After cutting into the chicken snow-white interior and taking my first bite I said ” I’ve never seen a chicken like this one”. Might Olmsted have been hoisted by his own petard or simply chosen a bad restaurant?
In the chapter titled “Cheeesy Cheese”, Olmsted writes what comes across as public relations which questions his narrative while at the same time creating a lapse in consistency and objectivity. He writes, “I live in Vermont which is the hotbed of the artisanal cheese industry, not just for the country but arguably for the world. Virtually every type of cheese is produced here—hard, soft, from goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and cow’s milk–and many of them are the best in class.” He continues by saying that “our country is enjoying a Golden Age of truly great cheese, and with very few very notable exceptions….which have no near relatives here, you could eat gourmet cheese platter after platter without ever looking beyond our shores”. (Or until the cow’s come home?)
As I come closer to the end of the chapter, I kept asking myself, “Will he or won’t he?” and “He’s only got x number of pages left”. As anyone well-versed in cheese can guess, I am talking about what the majority of American cheese boosters fail to acknowledge:
The Food & Drug Administration prohibits the sale or importing of raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days.
Not to mention this regulation with its implication that cheese makers in the United States, especially those that try to emulate the unctuous raw milk French cow’s milk cheeses or the tangy, lively goat cheeses aged for as little as ten days, have to use pasteurized milk which kills the pathogens that give cheese their full flavor is a critical oversight. The fact that many artisanal cheese makers call their cheese names that might fit a rock group or a brand of Colorado marijuana doesn’t mean that when I ask for “that faux-vacherin from Vermont” the person behind the counter won’t say, “You mean the Jasper Farm ‘Harbison’ “? Yet there are domestic Camemberts and, in the case of Laura Chenel in California, goat cheeses that have the same name as those in France. Why should those not get a mention as Fake Food as they are made with pasteurized milk?
Nevertheless, speaking of NPR, “Real Food/Fake Book” ends up being a highly-worthwhile and noble endeavor All Things Considered.