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Ellen Shapiro

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#1 Ellen Shapiro

Ellen Shapiro
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Posted 06 February 2004 - 09:14 AM

I think Robb has created a new book category: the passionate fresser’s* armchair eat-a-logue -- if you want to keep up, don’t forget to bring your own fork, knife, and spoon. As a person who loves both food and far-flung travel, the essays in Are You Really Going To Eat That? drew me like a Texan to a fruitcake.

But the same way a suburban walker with no intention of ever attempting the summit of Mt. Everest may read and be riveted by Into Thin Air, so will the food enthusiast (armchair or active) be sucked in by Mr. Walsh’s historical, cultural, and social food adventures.

My zeal for travel stems from the passion to learn about other cultures first-hand. Though Robb sometimes portrays his quests for food as a bit overboard and obsessive -- and while he gets a laugh from me every time -- I think there’s far more underlying seriousness to his research than he lets on (and for good reason; he doesn’t want to be teaching an anthropology class). I have found that very often some of my best learning, bonding, and friendships have been developed in the kitchen, whether in a hut on Mt. Kilimanjaro, a ger in Mongolia, or a tea house in the Himalayas. To me, food is the common denominator -- it crosses all cultural lines and, even without words, you can communicate with someone from a culture entirely foreign to your own with a few simple gestures, a smile . . . and a clean plate. Robb’s essays -- whether he’s writing about the history of sopa de guias in Oaxaca, seafood in Chile, or even Pizza in Buenos Aires -- are a journey to the heart of these cultures. And they get better and better as the book progresses.

And by the way, Sally’s is the premier pizza destination -- for his treasonous patronage of Pepe’s I am seriously considering never speaking to Robb again.


*Yiddish: a fresser is someone who eats with great enthusiasm.
Ellen Shapiro

#2 Robb Walsh

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Posted 06 February 2004 - 04:04 PM

Thanks for your kind words Ellen.

And I am truly sorry to hear you have wandered from the true faith and now worship at the altar of Sally's Pizza. How can you go to Wooster Street and eat at the wrong pizzeria???
You must not like clams on your pizza.
It is, as my book establishes, an objective and immutable truth that Frank Pepe's in New Haven makes the best pizza on this planet. Anyone who doesn't weep on first eating the clam pie has no soul. I suspect your pizza opinions were formed during your misguided vegetarian youth.

As for your travel, I have always wanted to go to the Himalayas, Siberia and the spots your frequent. I hope to call you someday for tips on where to eat in Katmandu.

#3 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:05 PM

I'm definitely never speaking to you again. But for anybody else who happens to be reading along, I'll say that the clam pie (white, no sauce, no mozzarella) is the only pie that is arguably best at Pepe's. All other pies are better at Sally's!

Back to other subjects, though my moratorium on speaking to Robb ever again may make discussion difficult, I think it bears emphasizing that breaking bread with strangers is the quickest way to cultural interchange. This is doubly true for Westerners who have, on account of the bad behavior of a few, acquired the reputation for being closed-minded picky eaters. To sit down and try the food of another culture, particularly in a home or other group setting, is the best way to establish "street cred" in a strange place. It opens other doors. I hope all those who focus so much on food (I am thinking of several writers not on this panel) also come to realize that food is not just an end in itself, it is also a means to a larger end: understanding.
Ellen Shapiro

#4 John Whiting

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Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:53 PM

. . . food is not just an end in itself, it is also a means to a larger end: understanding.

I hope you'll forgive a gentle reminder that for a large majority of the earth's population, food is indeed an end in itself, if only to avoid starvation. That's not just a pious observation -- we're talking about parts of the world where requirements are very basic indeed.

This was forced on my attention tonight by a TV documentary in which an African raised in Europe went back to the tribe from which his family had originally come and lived with them for a month, doing their work and eating their food. He lost a lot of his 230 pounds and came away with an incredulity at the total poverty of their existence and how they were able to survive it. Most of the time, he said, the children were crying from hunger.

I mention this, not to spoil the party, but to remind us that peasant cuisines everywhere, even in the midst of plenty, have been adapted from diets of scarcity. To forget this is ivory towerism indeed. Even in France, before WWII peasants lived through the winter on carefully hoarded basic foods; in much of the southwest it was nothing but chestnuts. John Berger's Pig Earth provides an insight into how the peasant mind works and how it enables survival.
John Whiting, London
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#5 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:59 PM

John I think you're illustrating exactly the point I'm trying to make: speaking from the writer's perspective, we need to understand that when we visit a farflung place and eat bugs, it's not about us eating bugs and being cool. Rather, it may very well be that the people in that area are eating bugs because they're the only source of animal protein available to the poor. When we travel and eat we must look at food as a vehicle for understanding.
Ellen Shapiro