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Death by Pad Thai: And Other Unforgettable Meals
By Douglas Bauer
Three Rivers Press
ISBN 0307337847
Reviewed by William I. Lengeman III

I have to admit that I sometimes find it refreshing to read a book of food writing in which foie gras, foam, and other high-falutin' delicacies barely come in for a mention. Not that I'd necessarily categorize Death By Pad Thai as food writing. Yes, each of the 20 writers here are writing about food, but in most cases they are really writing about much more. As with life, food is an element that just happens to figure into it.

The fact that most of these contributors are not food writers, in the strictest sense of the word, probably has a lot to do with this. About the only ones of the bunch that I'd consider food writers would be Jane and Michael Stern, the husband and wife team who have made it their mission to chronicle American foodways. Of the rest, the majority are novelists - one apparently having retired from food writing - with a smattering of poets tossed in for good measure.

There are a lot of reminiscences here, some fond and others not so much, some in which food is the focal point and others in which it almost seems like an afterthought.

Editor Douglas Bauer gets the ball rolling with a reminiscence of his own, recalling the time he spent a week in New Orleans with food writer M.F.K. Fisher. The pair ate their way around the town and sought the perfect Ramos Gin Fizz - a quest that they realized on their last day together.

Among the 20 contributed pieces, most are strong, but there are a number that stand out from the pack. Amy Bloom's La Divina Commedia offers up an obsessive quest of a slightly different sort. She reflects on "looking for the perfect lasagna," a dish she's been preparing for 30 years. Among the many variations she's encountered during this life of lasagna - a dessert version. Who knew?

Michael Gorra remembers his family's produce business and his own long time aversion to vegetables. He also manages to make a simple dish like peppers fried in olive oil and garlic and served with bread sound like just about the best thing you could ever imagine eating.

In Home, Andre Dubus III also reflects on family and food, though the narrative seems to be weighted more heavily toward the former. His remembrance of growing up both before and after his parents' divorce is notable for a relatively rare look at what "real" people eat.

If you're the kind of person who eyeballs other people's food and finds your own wanting by comparison, Aimee Bender's Food Envy will ring a bell. Among the items she's coveted over the years, her classmates' tuna sandwiches and rice balls.

Jane Stern travels back in time to early Thanksgivings spent with "a family of histrionic Russian Jews," before chronicling the first time she ever made a Thanksgiving dinner of her own. A novice, her menu was truly cringeworthy and her turkey spurned by a dog who "had no problem eating fountain pens and his own shit."

Richard Russo tells of the time he and his wife jaunted off to "the city" to celebrate the sale of his first novel. Aspiring novelists will surely be able to relate as the pair wind up at a fancy steakhouse with just enough money left to pay for steaks - and nothing else.

Michelle Wildgren's Beach Food is also about a celebration, in this case a memorable episode of drinking and feasting on seafood soup that made up part of the writer's honeymoon. Before long, though, the honeymoon is over, Wildgren is beset by a shellfish allergy and her husband falls prey to a nasty bout with the bottle.

The other half of the Stern duo - Michael - also has a tale of disaster to tell. His concerns an evening spent showing a pair of sophisticated guests around New York and New Jersey for some decidedly unsophisticated pleasures, an experience that no one in attendance would probably care to repeat.

Seafood appears on the menu again as poet Henri Cole recalls a night out with a colleague, poet and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. Diana Abu-Jaber's night out is spent in an Indian restaurant in Jordan, bemoaning the loss of the foodways and other traditions that are gradually falling by the wayside in that country.

Aside from the Sterns, Steve Almond is probably the closest thing to a food writer here, having penned a memorable paean to sweets - Candyfreak - among other things. He turns in a typically over the top piece called Death By Lobster Pad Thai. Though the author is "perhaps most frightened by lobsters," he manages to put his phobia aside long enough to dig into "the single greatest Lobster Pad Thai in the history of man."

If you're looking for a book that intertwines a dash of food with liberal amounts of nostalgia and reflection, this is it. Then again, you might be like Gorra, who says: "Oh, I'm sick of it, we all are, of this business of food and memory. I don't ever want to read again about what somebody's grandmother cooked, and sometimes I wish I'd never heard of Proust."

Food writer William I. Lengeman III maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a daily Web site, and Tea Industry New, a weekly newsletter. More information at his home page - http://wileng3.blogspot.com

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