Stalking the Green Fairy: And Other Fantastic Adventures in Food
by James Villas
John Wiley, 320 pp.
Review By Bill Marsano.
Recipes are one thing and food writing something else. Usually dull, weak, limp, insipid. Not the sort of thing that encourages second helpings. Then there's James Villas's food writing: It includes recipes (most of the time, anyway) but is mainly noted for its decided opinions and muscular delivery. So take heed: If you are the wimpy-whiner sort whose response to strong opinions is a shudder and a mewling , tut-tutting "tell us how you really feel," steer clear. Villas will flatten you.
A James Beard Award winner and long-time writer for the likes of Town & Country, GQ, Gourmet and other A-list magazines, Villas minces no words and brooks no nonsense as he celebrates American Southern cooking (grits, okra, fruitcake and others); sourdough bread, big-box shopping and clam chowder; grand but ill-respected classics (iceberg lettuce, chicken salad, tuna from the can and meat loaf). Food is a vast subject for Villas, and he does more then merely approach it. He plunges into it. He touches on current dining mores as well; I won't, but suffice it to say that if you use your cellphone in a restaurant you are a boor and if Villas is at the next table you are, in addition, a goner.
An explorer by nature, and open-minded despite his strong opinions, Villas provides alternative recipes for many of his favorites; he is ecumenical so long as enjoyment is the goal. But when the chips are down, so is his foot. Here, for example, is Villas on meatloaf and gravy:
"And, you ask, what about gravy? There is no gravy. There is no call for gravy. Great meat loaf [Villas is of the two-word school] would be utterly desecrated by gravy, just as great mashed potatoes need no gravy. Do not serve gravy."
Nuff said. The adventurous diner and questing cook will enjoy this book, as will, I think, anyone who cares about his stomach. As for the others, away with them. As Dr. Johnson pointed out centuries ago, a man who does not mind his stomach will hardly mind anything else.
Unfortunately, this is a short book. Ration yourself to a chapter at a time. Or, if you decide to be piggy and gorge yourself, just read it over several times. Do not lend it to anyone because you won't get it back.
--Bill Marsano, also a James Beard award winner, doesn't gravy his meat loaf either.