That’s Jay Rayner. It’s tough to eat for a living.
“I should be hating this book,” I thought to myself guiltily as I enjoyed every single page of Jay Rayner’s recently published foodie memoir, The Man Who Ate the World.
A few months back, you see, I penned a rather negative review ofThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner, and in many ways the premise and structure of Rayner’s book are not so different. Both authors were on transcontinental searches for sublime experiences: Rayner, a food critic, through food; Weiner, a journalist, through a rather pseudo-scientific approach to the elusive notion of happiness. Both men organized their chapters by countries visited, and both authors were deeply self-absorbed and not ashamed to admit it.
So what was the difference?
Well, there were a few. For one thing, Rayner is much funnier. “I eat,” he says, beginning to describe a meal at a high-end restaurant in New York. The sensation of the dish on his palate is “both luxuriously adult and a trip to the nursery. It is both comforting and filthy rude,” an observation that only a Brit—which Rayner is– may be capable of making.
He’s also a very good writer. It’s not easy to write fresh prose about food, but when he describes snails that “looked like big fat commas,” you know that this guy not only appreciates the taste of food, but is passionate about its other properties as well.
But the key difference is that Rayner achieves—and seemingly without trying—what Weiner tried to do but could not: balance the compelling genre of the memoir and the inherent self-absorption of that medium with interesting experiences and powerful flashes of insight that occur with just enough frequency to make reading the book worthwhile.
In the opening, Rayner sets forth his mission, which sounds sober enough: to answer “a few questions…: How much can we really learn about the world in which we live from the food that arrives on our plate? Is it moral to eat well while others starve? And is globalization…threatening to extinguish the flame of unique creativity that has…long burned in the hearts of the world’s great chefs?” He will struggle with these questions—though not so painfully obviously as Weiner does with similar questions in his book—throughout his journey. And because he doesn’t turn away from that struggle, but rather tries to understand it without wringing his hands about it, the reader sees that Rayner’s journey isn’t quite as self-centered as it might seem at times.
Rayner can be ruthlessly catty about chefs, other food critics, and just about anyone he meets. Yet his eye for detail is so fine that I’m inclined to forgive him when he describes one of the world’s most renowned chefs with the funny yet unnecessary description of “a squashed face, as if somebody had inadvertently folded away the middle…and a monkish air, as if a part of his personality has also been folded away.” He’s forgiven because he follows these overly candid impressions that should have gone through his social propriety filter with astute observations about places and food that help even the most well-traveled, well-fed reader learn something new. Who knew that Muscovites adore sushi or that it’s as dangerous to be a restaurant owner or chef in Moscow as it is to be a rabble-rousing journalist?
He’s also forgiven because when he eats “what may well be a perfect meal,” this most sublime food experience is as ethereal for the reader as it is for Rayner. In Tokyo, Rayner lucks his way into the exclusive world of restaurants run out of apartments, Japanese supper clubs of sorts, where a bill for one person can easily run just shy of four digits… and that’s without a comma or dot. These are restaurants for the Japanese upper crust, and foreigners– even those with wealth or connections– rarely pass their thresholds.
Rayner’s description of the meal is Faulkneresque in length, but is only the more appealing for being so, because his lingering detail confirms that the experience was as special as he says it was. “It begins,” he says simply, belying the vivid descriptions that will follow. He is served raw venison “the color of a fresh hemorrhage,” fish whose sweetness is “undercut by the sudden, life-affirming bitterness of the guts,” and, after some other dishes that are “hugely satisfying,” an understated yet entirely appropriate finish of “lipstick-red strawberries with sake ice cream” and a “lotus root jelly that tastes calmingly of tea.” In his rich descriptions, Rayner has taken the reader deep into a certain slice of Japanese culture that is not easily accessible—if at all—to even well-heeled travelers.
But finally, Rayner’s book is so exquisite because it is so thoughtful. This man who has seemed to skewer either the personality or the physique of everyone he has met—sparing no one, including himself—from his poison pen, who has willingly accepted free meals and free lodging and has indulged in dinners that could feed entire communities; who has single-handedly emitted enough carbon in his travels to depopulate a small forest; who has eaten so much that by the end of the book the very joy and sheen of eating have worn off quite a bit, has bursts of razor-sharp social commentary that leave the reader thinking about topics as diverse as the way in which the Internet has changed cultural production and social criticism; the notion of what constitutes authenticity; what “local” means and how high-end restaurants and their patrons are wreaking environmental havoc the world over; and how the exploitation of migrant workers perpetuates much of the modern machinery of commerce.
The book is as hugely satisfying as Rayner’s near perfect meal, and the reader is plenty full, savoring the serious and important questions that Rayner raises, all the while enjoying the bright, popping flavors of the more entertaining bits.
BONUS! If you’d like me to send you my review copy of The Man Who Ate the World, please leave a comment below and tell us about the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Where was it? What was it? I’ll be sure to get in touch with you for your mailing address and ship the book your way!