To Feed a Hungry Soul

In a courtyard in a Uighur District of western China, a tourist watched a man inflate a sheep's lung with liquid, tie off the windpipe and put the bundle into a wok. Later the tourist found the man selling chunks of the boiled lung, served with rice-stuffed sheep's intestines. The tourist dug in without hesitation. After all, she had traveled thousands of miles and taken a year off from work in search of just such a culinary experience.

The pursuit of a memorable meal (or a really good cup of coffee) has become a life's work. Or so the writers of several new food books would have us believe, as they detail their obsessive, expensive and all-consuming food odysseys. In addition to Fuchsia Dunlop's Chinese-food adventure travelogue, "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper," there's the new "The Saucier's Apprentice," for which journalist Bob Spitz nursed a midlife crisis by taking a four-month sabbatical to cook in Europe's finest restaurants. In "The Man Who Ate the World," British restaurant critic Jay Rayner traveled the globe in search of the perfect high-end meal. For "God in a Cup," Michaele Weissman visited far-flung outposts of the high-end java industry in search of a transformative cup of coffee. But in a time when we are worrying about the global food supply, combating an obesity-fueled diabetes crisis and questioning the environmental impact of flying exotic foodstuffs around the world, one wonders if these books are merely another helping of an already overstuffed genre. There may be something distasteful in the way the writers of these books ascribe fetishistic significance to the elemental act of consuming enough calories to make it through the day.

Although Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer of gourmandism, introducing ice cream and macaroni to American palates, our culture viewed food primarily as fuel well into the 20th century. (It's a notion we shared with the English, who have historically taken a perverse pride in their dismal national cuisine.) It wasn't until after World War II, when cultural ambassadors such as Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child brought French cuisine to American dinner plates, that we began to associate food with pleasure. Meanwhile, the American food industry converted munitions factories and introduced shiny new appliances to encourage women who had worked during wartime to return to their stoves. Revised editions of "The Joy of Cooking" included exotic-for-the-times spices such as chili powder. Over the next decades, Child, M.F.K. Fisher and Alice Waters wrote about transformative food experiences in Europe, sparking a gourmet revolution back home. Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which came out in 1961, begat our current era of the Food Network, "Top Chef" and a "food writing" (as opposed to plain old "cooking") section in bookstores. (Swaggering celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain made cooking a safely macho pursuit for men, too, and have both written best sellers about their kitchen adventures.)

If the progression of our culture's attitudes toward what we eat has been food as fuel, followed by food as pleasure, the latest iteration is food as the destination of a spiritual quest. Whereas the search for truth traditionally involved a negation of the flesh, the pursuit of sensory pleasures is now considered a legitimate path to enlightenment by the writers of these books and the like-minded foodies they encounter on their journeys. One coffee buyer tells Weissman a certain cup of joe was so aromatic, "he felt as if streams of light were pouring out of it." Another fanatic says, "I am the least religious person here, and when I tasted this coffee I saw the face of God in a cup." "These books are about a longing for something more satisfying than just food," says Carole Counihan, editor of "Food and Culture: A Reader." "We want food that satisfies our bodies and an experience that satisfies our souls." But, as most of the writers discover, sating physical hunger is an easier task than satisfying deeper appetites.

In "The Saucier's Apprentice," Spitz savors moments of culinary transcendence over a perfect tarte tatin, but there is a bittersweet quality to the narrative. "It occurred to me that perhaps the dream had gained some kind of purchase on my life, with cooking schools pinch-hitting for that elusive gold ring," he writes. Toward the end of his travels, Rayner still hasn't found epicurean Nirvana. "The whole process of the restaurant meal," he writes, "suddenly seemed so feeble, so ephemeral when examined so closely … Was I really losing my religion?" Even Dunlop is let down by her dish of boiled sheep's lung: "You might imagine you were eating an English pudding," she writes, "if it wasn't for the odd tube poking out."

For the reader, these books may allow us to indulge our most gluttonous fantasies without gaining a pound (or leaving the sofa); the extremity of the writers' quests may put our own pilgrimages to the corner store for a pint of mint chip into perspective. As Counihan says, "I love to eat, but there's something strange about putting all of our meaning into the consumption of food. Is the perfect plate of pasta going to give you meaning in life? I don't know." One thing is clear, though: our appetite for ever more exotic food books remains insatiable.