In praising Secret Ingredients, I'm torn between praising the writing style or the content more highly. Both are superb.
As a reading experience, you'll find your mouth watering, your mind remembering tastes and aromas you haven't experienced in years, your eyes alight with remembered scenes you've enjoyed, your mouth smiling as you enjoy great turns of phrase, and your hand writing down things from the book you want to try. At the same time, you'll be learning more about food, beverages, cooking, gathering food, catching fish, preparing food, and dining than you had ever thought you would know.
I normally plow through a book like this in an evening, but I was having so much fun I stretched the pleasure out over several days. I recommend you do the same.
The opening section on dining out was a revelation as I learned about huge feasts that all-male groups would eat unbelievable quantities of food in New York without benefit of tables or utensils. The theme of that section is how overeating has slowly disappeared from eating out as diners more often included women and weight concerns and health consciousness rose.
The book's title is an allusion to how those who are proud of their recipes often pretend to share their recipes while secretly sabotaging the results by leaving out an ingredient or an instruction. That reference appears throughout the book, not just in M.F.K. Fisher's essay by that name.
For those who love haute cuisine in France and New York, there are many articles that show how that estimable pastime has been changing over many decades. For me, there was a lot of nostalgia in reading about restaurants in France and New York where I've had memorable meals. There's a nice lengthy section on Julia Child that will stir happy memories for many about learning French cooking.
To me, the most fascinating articles were about finding food such as A Mess of Clams, A Forager, The Fruit Detective, Gone Fishing, and On the Bay. The most unexpected section was on local delicacies (including Peter Hessler on eating rats).
I was intrigued to find an article where I was an unacknowledged source, Malcolm Gladwell's article about ketchup, for which I had supplied a lot of information about Grey Poupon mustard's great success.
The fiction section is most enjoyable and allows more room for the writing to blossom.
Now, there's a special treat you might not have expected: Many of The New Yorker's best food and beverage cartoons are included. These humorous contributions add a light touch for those sections that become almost too serious.
I was very impressed by the editing done for this book. The articles were well chosen for themselves and for fitting into major themes in the book, themes that both matched the contents' categories and over arched those categories.
Bravo and bon appetit!