Nobody has yet asked me to name my favourite book (or indeed anything else) of the year, and it's getting rather close to Christmas. But among the many benefits (for me) of writing this column is that, when all else fails and nobody wants to ask me about something, I can ask myself.
In fact, I'm only half-way through The Man Who Ate Everything and Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits by Jeffrey Steingarten (published by Headline), but I'm reading it slowly, breaking off to announce "interesting" facts to anyone in the vicinity. Steingarten is the food critic of American Vogue, but that's misleading. You could describe him as the P J O'Rourke of food writing (he certainly must have an expense account of a similar size) but that's not quite it, either. Like O'Rourke he begins with certain prejudices about his subject and he's also something of an autodidact, but what he learns is on a different level altogether.
There are essays here on perfect-tasting water, baking bread, trying to lose weight, ripeness of fruit, salt, why salad is bad for you, why fat is good for you. Obviously this sounds like an article from any of our upmarket newspapers. The difference, I suspect, is not just a matter of talent but also of the money that is available in the American media. Steingarten appears to have spent days or even weeks on each of these subjects, read all the relevant scientific and culinary literature, conducted experiments himself, and then written bloody well about what happened. Interesting fact selected more or less at random: distilled water tastes bad to us because it isn't like saliva or, rather, our taste buds have adjusted to the level of salt in our saliva: "As a result, we perceive less salty things as having a sub-zero kind of taste."
There is a wonderful introduction in which he describes how he responded to his appointment at Vogue by forcing himself to eat all the food he truly disliked: insects, Korean pickle, dill, swordfish, anchovies, lard, desserts in Indian restaurants, miso, mocha, chutney, raw sea urchins, felafel, Greek food, clams, blue food (not counting plums and berries), cranberries, kidneys, okra, millet, refried beans and "many forms of yogurt".
Steingarten has, incidentally, a certain animus against the British. While denouncing Greek cuisine he states, quite gratuitously, that the "British go to Greece just for the food, which says volumes to me". That's a little unfair, though to be honest, when eating lunch at home (ie, always) I quite often make myself a salad consisting of chopped tomato, cucumber, spring onion, avocado, sun-dried tomato and rather a lot of feta cheese.
I also feel inadequate in the brevity of my own list of dislikes. I don't much care for sprouts (though I like them fried with chestnuts) and I've written here before about my problem with Swedish fermented herring (smells like shit, I mean literally, and I'm using "literally" in its literal sense). I was once sick (coincidentally) after eating artichoke and couldn't face one for 15 years, but then liked it again.
Steingarten writes fascinatingly about what we dislike: "All human cultures consider fur, paper and hair inappropriate as food. And that's about it. Everything else is learnt." But what about rice paper? And one of my daughters consistently makes an effort to eat her own hair. He describes in detail the process of eating his way through his dislikes, though some of them are a little dubious.
He developed a habit, when in a restaurant, of urging his companions "to cast off their food phobias by ordering at least one dish they expected to detest". I long ago made a similar rule for myself of always ordering the strangest looking thing on any menu. This resulted in my eating so much offal that I suspect I may be that one person who is due, statistically, to die next year of mad cow disease.
Stop press: I've read the introduction again and he never ate an insect.
Nobody's asked me my favourite record of the year, either. It's Nuggets: original artyfacts from the first psychedelic era 1965-1968 (Rhino import). It's on four CDs, it's a compilation of bands with names like Mouse and the Traps, the Cryan Shames, Swingin' Medallions and Clefs of Lavender Hill (who came from Miami, but this was when it was trendy to be English) and it's strange, mad and very wonderful.