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