Peter Kaminsky is a longtime food writer, as a journalist, food critic, and cookbook co-author, who found that his career was threatening to shorten his lifespan – after a few decades in the business, he found himself overweight, prediabetic, and rejected when he applied for life insurance. His newest book, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (and Really Well), promises an approach to food that keeps calories in check without sacrificing too much pleasure while weighing the ethical concerns about some types of foods. I thought it fell a little short of those goals, but for someone looking to transition from a diet heavy on processed foods and chain restaurant meals, it’s an excellent starting point to get you to elevate your eating habits, one that never lapses into preaching or the monotony of calorie-counting.
This short (209 pages in deckle-edged hardcover) volume covers quite a bit of ground without much wasted verbiage. Kaminsky briefly recounts his history as a food writer whose waistline expanded with his fame, and discusses how he dropped forty-odd pounds without feeling like he was depriving himself. Some of the advice is obvious – cut out sugars and white flours, load up on whole foods, fill your stomach with vegetables rather than with meat (although he never argues for abstaining from meat entirely) – but much of it will be useful to readers who grasp that stuff but feel like their meals have become boring or even painful. There’s a lot of advice on cooking, including lists of key ingredients to keep on hand as well as using the powers of science, notably caramelization and the Maillard reaction (the flavors created when foods high in protein are browned). Kaminsky abbreviates this concept as FPC, or Flavor per Calorie, a variable that should be maximized at every opportunity – sound advice, easily followed with some basic kitchen skills and ingredient knowledge, some of which is contained within this book.
He also discusses sensible approaches to restaurants, including a discussion of why most chain restaurants are evil – and, along the way, why it’s not elitist or snobbish to try to avoid them. (He singles out Chipotle as an exception, mentioning their commitment to local, sustainable agriculture.) Any experienced home cook knows you can often salvage a mediocre cut of meat by drowning it in butter, cream, salt, or even sugar – think of Guy Fieri’s favorite “sweet soy sauce,” which can’t actually be a thing, right? – so when you see a restaurant dish that seems to promise those things, what are they telling you about the quality of the underlying ingredients? I also appreciated his thoughts on ordering less at restaurants, where portion sizes have grown to absurd levels, something you don’t find when traveling abroad. I tend to eat pretty small portions and rarely finish full entrees at restaurants, but I still feel a bit guilty knowing that what I didn’t eat will simply be trashed (or, rarely, composted). Sometimes I’ll order a few smaller plates rather than a main course, to try more items and to avoid wasting food, but Kaminsky validates that practice, arguing it should be more of the norm, and that a party of four would often do better (and consume fewer calories) to order two to three starters and two entrees, sharing everything as they go.
For me, the value in Culinary Intelligence is twofold: Kaminsky’s writing, which is elegant and spare yet highly descriptive; and the expostulation of a food philosophy very similar to mine. The book’s main point, about eating well without getting fat, will seem a little obvious to anyone who’s been cooking avidly for a number of years, and while Kaminsky’s book will help me keep my awareness of what I’m eating high, I don’t think I learned any new tips or tricks from it. It’s absolutely something I’ll buy for friends who want to start getting into cooking or to try to lose weight without using complicated programs or filling up with “diet” processed foods, and its readability should help it reach that target audience without making them feel like the author was talking down to them.
Next up: I’m currently reading Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series; I reviewed the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in September of 2011. After that, I’ll start Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres.