What an incredible project! Most men face some kind of mid-life crisis in their early 40s and some buy flashy cars and some change careers. I went back to school and got an MBA. It seems to me that the only person crazier than an 18 year old male is one in his early 40s. Simon Majumdar had a nice, safe career going and then hit the famous middle age wall and decides the proper course of action is to do something absolutely nuts.
He decides to cash in his life's savings, leave his job, and travel the globe for a year and eat as widely and broadly as he can in order to understand how we humans eat in every corner of the world. And he found some amazingly out of the way corners. The sheer travel involved in the trip actually frightened me. I traveled frequently for business in the mid-1990s. I once went completely around the globe. Twenty-four time zones in twenty-one days and I arrived home utterly spent and delirious with jet lag. But I had something Simon did not. I had a well-funded expense account and stayed in very nice hotel rooms every step of the way. And it still beat me down. If he were only twenty-five this would be a delightfully fool-hardy adventure. For a forty year old this becomes an act of crazed heroism. That he accomplished it and lived I find to be a staggering achievement. His status as a celebrity food critic is was hard won and well deserved!
After all, you can find any cuisine you want in London and, if you look a bit, I am sure you can find most dishes of exceptional quality. If you add in Paris and New York, you have to get well above 90% of the world's dishes available to you. But just eating exotic dishes that are well prepared is not what Majumdar is after. He knows that experiencing dishes in their natural habitat is quite a different thing and being authentically prepared is often superior to being merely well-prepared. Plus, he put in the energy to find dishes that surprised even him. Things that you can't find in standard-exotic fare, if you can forgive that term. As he puts in on page 182 in referring to a chili, garlic, shrimp paste, chicken dish he had in Thailand, "Exactly the sort of meal I had hoped for when I first set out on the journey. The chance to find out what these famous dishes, so often served in the West, but neutered by bad ingredients and lack of soul, taste like when are made properly and with care."
I also think that Majumdar's reputation as a writer is well deserved. He is an excellent diarist. This book is full of adventure, humor, some drama (his first experiences in Brazil and Senegal), and his accounts of making strangers into friends is always touching. The author's account of his travel to remote areas of China and other Asian locales is something I am glad he did for me. Frankly, reading about them is about as far as I want to go. Very little of what he experienced makes me want to duplicate what he did. Except maybe I would like to taste the food in that monastery where they make delicious meat dishes without a bit of meat. I have been told that many times about vegetarian food and never been fooled once. But I trust Majumdar enough to believe him absolutely.
The author unfolds himself to us along with the story. He brings in elements of his family, or "clan" as he likes to call them, in order to flesh out the story of the food at that point in the adventure. So, there is that bit of skilled writing to keep us interested in what we might learn next. I mean, after all he is an interesting mix of a physician father from India and a fiery mother from Wales. And he uses references to his older brother, whom he identifies as The Great Salami, as a nice counterpoint throughout the story. Another achievement is that he turned his Rucksack, Big Red, into a character. I mean you cheer for the thing when it is in peril and feel for it as it suffers wear and tear during its travels. What does it say about a writer when a reader thinks, "Yeah, Simon, I know you are sick and dying, good luck and all that, but what about Big Red?"
Obviously, I can relate most to his travels in the states. I think he gets Americans far better than most Americans get other parts of the world. He even travelled to Ann Arbor, where I have lived since 1978. He spent his time at Zingerman's, which is a company I know intimately because I have eaten their food since 1983 and several of my children have worked there. While I think the author was fair in his telling of his experience in working at the Deli for a day, I don't think he quite captured how special the place truly is. I say this as a person who has also done a fair amount of traveling and eaten a wide variety of food. But, hey, he only had a day or two here.
I also want to comment on the sheer range of food the author ate and told us about. It is nearly incomprehensible. No wonder his gout ridden toe bothered him on this trip - not just from all the walking, but the vast universes of food he managed to taste and experience. Majumdar is a fair critic. He has an expansive palate, but not universal. He is open in saying that he prefers food that is spicy, crunchy, and sour. Frankly, I can enjoy that food, but it is not the center of my preferred taste galaxy. And while I appreciate the head-to-tail idea and am willing to try and eat more broadly than most people, I am reminded that dogs and cats need food to eat, too. But he also has his lacunae. For example, he doesn't like pizza. Oh, he tries to like it, but for him it remains "snot on toast". And, like nearly everyone on the planet, he has no use for Durian fruit. It is, apparently, a very specialized taste, which I have heard described as a combination of rotted onions and unwashed feet. He also likes to gnaw on chicken and duck bones. He says he chews them to dust. I like to get the food off, but don't get any pleasure in biting bone.
Decades back, during my formative years in fine dining, I was a member of a highly regarded dining club and as I talked with the owner I asked the usual stupid question about what his favorite foods were. I asked this because his restaurant served such a wide range of foods I had never tried before. I learned love sweetbreads. I ate elk there, which I like more than Majumbdar apparently does, and other game. It was a fabulous place to eat with family and friends. In answer, the owner gave me some fabulous advice that has benefitted me ever since. He said, "Craig, it is much less the ingredient than the chef. In the hands of a great chef you will love everything they cook. In the hands of a bad cook the finest ingredients are wasted." And that is always true. While I doubt I will ever crave beef tendon soup, if I were served it by a great cook, I would eat it gratefully and expand my food horizon by one more dish.
Well, let me add to that advice something I learned from this book, having a good and adventurous guide to the great chefs, who are not always in the fancy establishments, is also indispensable to expanding one's food universe. In the back of the book, Majumdar has a few lists. One is of the top twenty tastes he had in his travels. The other is the ten worst tastes. As he says, things he ate so we don't have to. If you want to find some of the funniest writing in the book, use this list to find the spots where he ate them. The food may be awful, but the writing is delicious.
Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, MI