Icons of American Cooking by Victor W. Geraci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book offers twenty-four mini biographies of important figures in the popular culture of cooking. It offers an interesting range, individuals important not just for their careers as chefs or cookbook authors but reviewers (Ruth Reichl, the Zagats), television personalities (Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray), a kitchen supplier (Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma) and even a few entitites that aren't people at all (Betty Crocker and the Culinary Institute of America). It spans a good range of the modern era, with a bit of a paucity in the last two decades - but I guess it's hard to say which currently prominent chefs will endure as icons. I do think that this book isn't properly complete without Alton Brown, however. I'd argue the man is more of a modern institution than Mario Batali is.
These biographies cover a lot of ground, from history to critique to the personalities of these famous faces. I particularly loved how almost every entry surveyed how the individual became acquainted with food and what their childhood relationship to it was. (The obvious exception being the fictitious entity in the list above.) I was very surprised by the Betty Crocker "bio" - it's fascinating. Who knew an imaginary figure had such a backstory?
Unfortunately, the fact that this book is written by multiple authors makes it somewhat uneven. Some of the bios are slight; some are overly consumed with lists and dates; some don't talk about the personality of the chef, which was one of my favorite parts; others don't make sufficient effort to present events chronologically, which requires the reader to stop and retread. I was particularly disappointed by the brevity of the James Beard bio here, and the Culinary Institute of America "bio" is a particular mishmash of trivium. In some cases, I think the bios aren't much more detailed than you could find on Wikipedia.
Overall, though, the biographies that are good here are fascinating, and there are definitely people in here I hadn't heard of before (and am hunting down now). There are plenty of moments of, "So that's what happened with XYZ" ... and even a bit of dirty laundry. And if you're a foodie follower, you'll be entertained by references to other figures in the field - there's a great story about Tom Colicchio in here, and Rick Bayless comes up several times. This book is definitely worth checking out as a kickstart into culinary figures.
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