What's a Foodie, Anyway? The Foodie Handbook by Pim Techamuanvivit [book review]

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Photograph: Eat Me Daily

I'm not a regular reader of Chez Pim, the all-things-gourmandise blog that's been written by Pim Techamuanvivit for the past four many years. I've been marginally aware of her, of course — it's hard not to be, she is after all the self-proclaimed "queen of the food bloggers" — but with the recent publication of her book The Foodie Handbook: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy (buy on Amazon), she's gone mainstream, aiming to become queen of another set of food writers entirely.

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Photograph: Eat Me Daily

Learn to love food ... again?

With the Handbook, Pim sets out to convert everyone to the love of the edible: "The first step to being a real foodie is learning to love food again," she tells us in the introduction, and right away Pim and I have gotten off on the wrong foot. I don't need to learn how to love food again. I already love it. And, I imagine, so do most of the people who know who Pim is, and the people who are going to buy this volume. (That is, those people who fail to bristle at the title's profligate use of "foodie," that most polarizing of gastronomic terms.) But this initial misstep is a telling one: throughout the volume, Pim doesn't seem to know who her audience is, leaping erratically from infectious cheerleading on the simple joys of berry picking to a conspicuously long-winded and high-minded interlude on the art of pairing wine with Thai food.

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Photograph: Eat Me Daily

Blame it on the layout

Some of this discord can be blamed on the book's organization. It's divided into four broad sections, the first three on how to eat, cook, and drink like a foodie, and the last providing instruction on how to be a "fabulous foodie," a catchall chapter centered around a list of Pim's Top 50 Food Things To Do Before You Die.

Each of these sections condenses into a page or two highly nuanced topics: how to roast a chicken, how to pick good wine, the importance of eating ethically. These are matters to which other authors have devoted entire books, and it's hard for Pim to mask the shallowness of her blog-entry-sized writeups. Still, as jumping-off points, they're quite wonderful, jewel-box introductions to various facets of the culinary world. Pim's idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness voice draws you in, but then leaves you hanging: each section could have benefited from a bibliography or a list of suggested further readings. And all too often it feels like she wasn't expecting her readers to, well, actually read the whole book: recurring figures are introduced and reintroduced, a number of anecdotes pop up more than once, a particular punchline from Coi chef David Patterson comparing recipes to GPS devices is repeated twice almost word-for-word.

Scattered throughout are recipes, most adapted from the kitchens of this or that of Pim's stunning coterie of chef friends: Patterson, Alain Passard, Olivier Roellinger, and her boyfriend David Kinch of Manresa, among others. While recipes appear in every chapter, they're concentrated in the How to Cook section as a string of uninterrupted how-to. They're certainly cookable, beautifully photographed if not always clearly written. Pim is at her weakest when it comes to talking about how food actually tastes, at one point helpfully describing hibiscus as "floral" and strawberries as "fruity," and her narrative recipe style suffers for that.

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Photograph: Eat Me Daily

You must get an elBulli reservation

For someone who wants to turn everyone she can reach out to into a foodie, Pim has a frustratingly undemocratic definition of what qualifies. In her list of fifty things that foodies must do in their life, she tosses off decrees with the oblivious nonchalance of a socialite: we aren't granted the title of foodie if we try for a table at elBulli; we receive that honor only if we manage to actually get one. We have to drink an espresso at Caffè Mulassano in Turin. We have to make our lover a truffle-filled omelet. "Darling," you could imagine a languid Joan Collins saying, "you simply must eat a Yangcheng hairy crab. And it must be done on the shore of Yangcheng Lake in China."

But for all her proclamations of what we must do, know, and eat in order to be foodies, Pim rarely explains why. The lack of a coherent philosophy of foodieism is a big problem in a book that promises to turn its readers into super-eaters. The mere joy of eating isn't enough — if that were all it took, this book would be one page long and bear a two-word sentence: "Love food." Instead, Pim's making the case that there are facts we need to know: kitchen tricks, recipes, drinking tips, and culinary secret handshakes that will make us into more powerful versions of our food-loving selves. But this haphazard collection of lists and opinions almost never gets into the fundamental question of why things like authenticity, seasonality, and ethical eating matter in the first place.

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Photograph: Eat Me Daily

Foodies don't need guides

Frustrated as I was by so many elements of this book, I never actually stopped liking Pim herself. Underneath the affected voice and disorganized content, there's a genuinely charming, passionate force at work here. She's a character: highly idiosyncratic, moderately self-obsessed, certainly opinionated. The book's strongest moments are when she is at her most kookily joyous, being bossy about Bangkok's street food scene or expounding on her relationship with her favorite cheesemonger.

But she's trying to sell this book as an objective guide, which just doesn't fly. Her rigid requirements for foodieism are at odds with that simple "love food again" mission statement. It's there that Pim ultimately falls short: shouldn't the goal here be finding pleasure in the daily act of sustenance? Being a foodie isn't something you do for show, it's what you are even when no one is looking. It's easy enough to land reservations at every Michelin three-star in the Western Hemisphere and call yourself a gourmet, or to foist yourself on the farmers market until every peach-seller knows you by name. The challenge lies in bringing that same reverence home to a peanut butter sandwich. And Pim doesn't ever actually tell us how to do it.

Helen Rosner

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27 Comments

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  1. ~m

    yet another reason why most bloggers shouldn't write anything longer than 500 words.

  2. claudia

    beautifully written - your review, that is...

  3. michele

    Funny, I've never heard of this "Queen of the Food Bloggers". I guess she ain't that special . . .

  4. I want to buy it to support her and the efforts of her blog-gone-published, but some of the criticisms really turn me off.

    :-/

  5. fatima

    The fact that she plopped her face on the cover says volumes.

  6. Leaves me in two minds about buying it (certainly full price). I think your review sounds very fair and considered, even if the book itself doesn't have an impartial view on great food.

  7. At least she didn't include: "You must eat at Manresa" in the list of top 50s. Alas, most of us will never make it to El Bulli.

  8. Leigh

    Great and honest review. I lost interest in her book the second I found out that it has almost more portrait shots of her than pictures of food.

  9. Noe

    If that's a foodie, then I'm obviously not one; I'm just someone who loves to cook and eat.

  10. I think I read this book in 2006. It was called "How to be a Better Foodie" by UK food writer Sudi Piggott. Pretentious decrees and "foodie" dick-waving doesn't get any less annoying with the passage of time, I guess.

    My real question with any book like this is always - where the heck was her editor and why didn't someone give both of them a slap? This review makes it sound as if nobody bothered to read the thing before it was sent to the printers.

  11. JRE

    So being a foodie is really nothing more than conspicuous gastronomic consumption. Thanks, count me out.

  12. Kim

    I think you were kind when you said she was "moderately self-obsessed". For someone to self-proclaim themselves as the "queen of the food bloggers" and with the truly annoying Top 50 Foodie List she created in this book, I would be happy to not be called a foodie. Give me a break already.

  13. pericles

    There is a very similar review here, which is a bit kinder to the book than you were, but seems to have the same objections about it. It looks like a book for her fans only. And I am not one.

  14. Rebecca

    Now the term foodie has officially been granted a negative, snotty connotation. Good job.

  15. Daniel

    It's not overly surprising that she would write the book as it is, since blogging is the only form of writing many bloggers actually do, as more and more of them pick up book deals, which seems to be the direction of things, they need to realize that the two are not the same. Your blog can be, and often is, centered around you. A book intended for sale, unless you are a truly fascinating person, should not be. My bet is we'll see more and more of these with bloggers who don't get that. The shame, or the mistake, really, isn't with Pim in this case, it's with the editor/publisher who is in the business of selling books and ought to know better - both in terms of writing content and choice of photos.

    • Daniel, I think you and Sheryl are right to question the presence of Pim's editor, and that ties into the larger issue that that many publishing houses aren't yet sure how to handle blog-to-book transitions for maximum effect. It's likely that one of Pim's selling points when she was signed to write the book was that her blog gets 250,000 readers a month. It's easy to imagine that someone made the editorial decision to keep the content as bloglike as possible in hopes that it would translate into a similar number of book sales.

      • Daniel

        And, the thing is, it may. We're kind of looking at it, mostly, likely, as other food bloggers/industry people. There's a whole world out there that reads food blogs rabidly and may be entirely fascinated to have one of their favorite bloggers in book form.

  16. Erin

    I personally like Pim, but have seen these things in her before. I am also a blogger who hates the word "foodie". I do think it is really unfair to say that bloggers shouldn't write anything longer than 500 words, look at Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. I started out blogging and am now a food writer and editor. Yes, some should look elsewhere for work, but to generalize all bloggers like this is ridiculous.

    • To be fair, ~m did say "most bloggers." Maybe the bigger picture is that bloggers (and I am definitely a blogger too, both here and at my day job) shouldn't think that the same voice and structure that flies online will translate seamlessly to the printed page.

      • I keep a personal blog, run a professional food site that is blog-based (we try to refer to it as an online food magazine to differentiate ourselves from amateur food bloggers) and write for a variety of other publications, both online and in dead tree format. I write with a different voice and style for each, depending on the publication and the target audience.

        I'm guessing, based on the review, that Pim didn't bother to do that, which may or may not work against her - possibly her fans will by the thing anyway. But if it's self-absorbed and vapid, it won't translate to a larger audience. Why buy what you can essentially get for free by reading the blog? Especially if it's not particularly well-written.

  17. Great review and well said. Most bloggers naturally become obsessed with the little fifedoms that they create. I think this book shows that a successful blog does not automatically turn itself into a book. The formats and talents required for each are completely different.

  18. pericles

    I do think that some of the comments above are a bit unfair in lumping all bloggers, or even all food bloggers, together. This even plays into the image that Ms. Techamuanvivit seems to have cultivated for herself as being representative of all food bloggers. In my view she is just one out of many, and (just my personal opinion) not even the one of best food bloggers out there. The reason why I stated in my comment above that this book seems to be for her fans is, that it's undeniable that she does have a fairly big fan base (though again not even the biggest). As a non-fan, it's always been puzzling to me why she has gotten so much attention in the mainstream media. I have to think that it's mainly a matter of who she knows. Her book (from the review) certainly seems to reflect that - who else but a very well connected person, or a very wealthy one, would be able to get into so many well known restaurants worldwide? A secondary reason may be that she is very cute on camera, and we know how far that goes in this shallow age.

    The only thing that food bloggers have in common is that they write in one way or another about food. Some have already written very good books, and I'm sure other good books are to come. There are some other bloggers with books coming out that I am eagerly looking forward to. I say more power to these bloggers who get first book deals. Getting a second book deal may be another story.

  19. DK

    Well written post and I agree with every word.

    Chez Pim is as famous as it is ONLY because it was started way before the majority of food blogs. Given the quality of the recipes and writing, had this blog been created two months ago, I doubt it would get more than 200 hits a day. Pim is neither a good cook nor a good writer. And her ideas aren't all that original. In stark contrast to other famous bloggers who are much more talented yet down to earth (Clotilde from Chocolate & Zucchini, for example), Pim strikes me as pretentious, arrogant, and oftentimes ignorant. This book of hers is just a lengthier evidence of such attitudes.

    Also, not to be mean, but it irks me when Pim is described as pretty. Sorry, but Jackie Chan in drag would make for a prettier Asian "girl."

  20. Commercial realities of publishing mean that publishers want a ready-made audience who'll snap a book up without thinking for a moment about the quality. Pim was a natural choice for that sort of sales tactic. Echoing some comments above, the majority of bloggers have only one fairly narrow range of "voice", as they aren't trained to write -- it's largely luck that one or two other bloggers have actually managed decent prose in a book format, as most have failed (despite their books selling adequately, of course).

    There are some bloggers who are great writers, but it seems they often attract less popular attention.

  21. I LOVE that last paragraph, about not being a foodie for show. Perfectly stated.

  22. Jenna

    It's the most snobbish, self-congratulatory and otherwise somewhat futile piece of work I have come across in a while. Everytime I saw a portrait shot I couldn't help but roll my eyes. At one point I actually skipped to the end of the book and found that annoying "50 things to do" list. That's when I knew I'd had enough. It makes a mockery of all of us who love food and prepare food with love but don't care to glamorize every morsel with superlative adjectives, ridiculous price tags, anecdotes involving famous people, and expensive flight tickets. If there's one book that made me dislike the person behind it, it was this.

  23. Anna

    So, here's yet another young, attractive female blogger who got a book deal. Am I the only one who is getting tired of this formula?

    I loathe the term "foodie." This book is an example why. Thanks for the great review.

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