Many years ago I had a holiday job at the Met, that's the Metropolitan Museum of Art for you non-New Yorkers. That year they were opening the North Shop and I was one of many new sales people hired to work there. It was a great experience for me. I was eighteen years old and it was my first job in retail sales. I loved working behind the jewelry counter. Each item behind the glass case had a story, a reason for being there, from the simplest bookmarks to dragon pins and pearl necklaces. I would spend hours reading the inserts and then using the stories to sell the products. To my youthful eyes, the new store had a glittering allure. I loved that job during the holiday season because the fast pace and varied clientele made for an interesting and exciting passage of time. The fact that I had the freedom to explore the hallways of the museum and slip into special exhibits for free was an added bonus. I wandered into many exhibits that I might never have ventured into otherwise. I found various nooks where I would curl up with a book during a break and just absorb the special atmosphere of solemnity and peace that seemed to permeate the air in the quiet corners of the museum.
One of the other perks of the job was a discount in all of the museum stores. I did most of my Christmas shopping there that year. It’s almost impossible to do that much shopping without seeing something that you want for yourself, and I was no exception. I often found myself at the main gift shop perusing their collection of books. Surprisingly to me, there were quite a few cookbooks to be found on those shelves. The book were heavy and expensive, glossy hardcovers and thick paperbacks waiting to be cracked open by eager hands. I didn't make much money and I had quite list of presents that I wanted to buy for other people. But I was drawn back to the book section again and again. I debated with myself for several days before finally resolving to make a purchase for myself. The two that I finally claimed were The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher and American Food by Evan Jones.
The Art of Eating is a well known classic. There's not much more to be said about the book, other than if your enjoy food writing then you must read it. Alex has not read it in it's entirety, not his cup of tea. But at different moments in our journey I've read passages from the book to him and that has worked almost as well as him reading it himself.
American Food is different beast. It's not as well known and not as well read. When I was younger I was fascinated by the culture of food that existed here in the United States. There was, hopefully still is, such diversity here. The regional variations were much more delineated when I was younger. Chain restaurants had not homogenized our food systems. Mail order catalogs for food were just beginning, the internet was not universal, and there were still items that you could only get in certain areas. So a look back at how traditions developed and where these different foods had come from was fascinating to me.
At that time there wasn't much food writing to be found. If I didn't want to read recipe books, I had a choice between memoirs centered around food, like the Art of Eating or books like American Food which focused on food history. These two books were the beginning of my love affair with food writing. It has been a long journey of searching out the best food writers I could find. The two books touched me in very different ways and this Christmas I am thankful that I found them in such an unlikely arena. I've learned to search for great writing, great being a fluid definition, in tiny bookshops, second hand stores, unusual blogs, giant bookstores, small newspapers, magazines about a variety of different subjects, antique shops and of course, in museums. The many things I've read about food have led me to other trails about art and history, communication and science, entertaining and sharing and many hours of pure enjoyment. So this holiday season, while you're shopping for all the people you love, celebrating with family and friends, and donating money to charity, remember to take a moment for yourself. Treat yourself to something special that you've always wanted and that no one else knows about. You never know where that gift to yourself may lead.