"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Book Review:The Amateur Gourmet — Bad like me

by Julie Tilsner on October 4, 2007

in Delicious Books

ThesaucePearls of wisdom from Adam D. Roberts’ new book, The Amateur Gourmet:

“Why burn my kitchen down if I can order Chinese?”

“The meek shall not inherit anything in the kitchen.”

And my personal favorite: “Cooking gets you laid.”

Adam is a fellow food-blogger and first-time author. He is also a kindred spirit, although we’ve never met. Both of us grew up on American cheese slices and Wonder Bread. Both of us came late to the kitchen. Both of us are from demographics that are expected to come equipped with basic kitchen instincts. Just as a killer vinaigrette is supposed to be in the playbook of every gay man, so too is it expected that every Mommy knows how to make a basic roast chicken and potatoes. And yet.

Adam’s blog is on my blogroll for good reason. He’s about five years ahead of me in his culinary education, and his observations as a budding foodie are devoured by a neophyte like myself. I learn basic skills. I laugh. I am entertained. He’s a very creative soul. A talented writer, and wickedly funny. Impossible not to like. And he sings!!

I’m afraid I’m terribly in love with him. Alas. Even though I have a penchant for gay-ish straight men (my ex can handily belt out any Broadway show tune you know, along with choreography, while the flamenco guitarist hates sports but loves to shop for shoes), my love is doomed to be unrequited. December-May romances between two iffy cooks of different sexual persuasions tend not to work out in the long run.

So I watch and admire from afar. And was I purple with envy when I read he had a book coming out, based on his blog? Hell yeah. But in the spirit of camaraderie, I ran out to buy it. I coughed up full retail, picking up the lone copy at a chain bricks and mortar bookstore although I could have gotten it much more cheaply on Amazon.com. I wanted to support a fellow food blogger in his quest to earn out his advance, and to perchance experience some small measure of satisfaction from the crap-shoot that is American publishing.

The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, and Table-Hop like a Pro (almost), is a light-hearted, easy, enjoyable read. I guffawed out loud in public more than once. And I did learn several helpful, clueless newbie cooking tips that I didn’t know before: How to dice an onion, for example. (OK, maybe I still don’t quite get it, but at least now I have it in writing), or the fact that you can’t cook fish en papillote in wax paper. The book is a series of connected lessons about what it means to be in love with food, its preparation, and its sharing, via anecdotes of his friends and family.

As a fan of his blog, I read it eagerly. But as an editor, I had criticisms. The book is loose and light, with an airy tone and lots of extraneous passages meant, I think, to make page count (I know. I’ve written a few light and airy books myself.) The writing is charming, but shallow. More style than substance. Time and again I was left wanting more. Yeah, you’re at a farmer’s market for the first time…what does it smell like? What’s your mood? What does the apple farmer look like? Where do you have to go afterward….paint me a picture, damnit!!  A lot of his dialog seems superfluous, taking up space while not pushing the narrative forward. I get the feeling that he was rushed. That in the thrill of his first-ever book deal, he agreed to a six-month turnaround that left him little time to marinate his copy, and that with a few more months, he could have presented a tighter, more significant book.

His lunch with Gourmet editor and legendary foodie Ruth Reichl, for example, is a wasted opportunity, written like a meandering college essay. The dialog just takes up space. Where is his signature bitchy wit? His endearing self-deprecation?  His paper-cut observations? His chapter on cooking for a date could be so deliciously wrong…yet it falls flat. Why?

I was left feeling frustrated in the end. Because I so connected with the book’s concept, and because he’s such a likable guy, and because I have marveled at the talent displayed in his blog, I felt the book should  be stronger. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to enjoy it more. It’s not unlike the feeling I have after working two hours on a soup that turns out meh…just OK.

I know this is his opening salvo. His test pancake, so to speak. It opens the door for more seasoned work to come. And I look forward to it. The flap copy says he’s working on a novel (aren’t we all) – but that’s good news to me. I’ll buy it eagerly. This guy is already good. But like a serious balsamic vinegar, perhaps he needs to age a few years more before he’s ready to really kick our asses.

I’ll tell you how his basic tomato sauce, the sauce that started it all for him, (thanks to Mario Batali) turned out for me in the next entry. Stay tuned.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

flutter October 4, 2007 at 11:30 am

It’s hard not to adore adam, isn’t it?


AT October 4, 2007 at 10:29 am

…you forgot to say “womens” shoes…


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