Houston-based restaurant critic Robb Walsh conjures up a delectable concoction in his latest book Are You Really Going To Eat That? Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker. The thrill-seeking foods that Walsh chows down are indeed fun as we sample them vicariously---the durian fruit in Thailand, and the picoroccos, a barnacle-like seafood, in Chile, but these unusual foods do not occupy prime real estate in this collection of essays. Instead, Walsh often focuses on the culture behind various foods and, in the process, offers unique insights into the strong relationship between the two.
In a touching essay called “Bread of the Dead,” Walsh sits down with a Mexican family to a dinner on Dia de los Mortos (Day of the Dead). By breaking sweet bread, pan de muerto, with the family, Walsh learns about the tradition that is a “time for the living to join their dead family and friends in a joyful feast.” The respect that is accorded past ancestors moves Walsh deeply, and he resolves to carry on the tradition and make it his own.
Walsh’s genuine interest in unearthing the source of authentic foods and facts lead him to faraway places. When a Chilean friend of his waxes poetic about the abundance of seafood in his home country, Walsh decides to check out the feast for himself. He samples a wide variety of seafood including sea urchins (whose flavor was “mineral and bitterly metallic with a melt-in-your-mouth texture like Italian ice) and picoroccos. When Walsh asks a waitress what the picoroccos look like, she tells him that “they live in little apartment houses.” Later during his trip, he finally sees a few:
“They were bigger than any barnacles I’d ever seen before, but they were definitely barnacles. Peeking out of a hole in a column of shell that must have measured three inches across was the now-familiar beak. The two curved points that I had mistaken for pincers now looked like a pair of buckteeth. A long feathery appendage flitted out between them.” On another fact-finding expedition, Walsh travels to Europe when some controversy arises about the true origins of Gruyere cheese. He travels to the source and finds out why the Swiss claim that the French version isn’t really Gruyere.
Refreshingly, Walsh does not shy away from fatty foods -- “moderation in everything including moderation” -- and some of the best essays in the book are his reflections on the Chicken Fried Steak (CFS, “the nutritive metaphor for the romanticized, prairie-hardened personality of Texans”) and the “Squealer” served at Tookie’s along State Highway 146 in Texas. The Squealer, according to Walsh, “exudes attitude.” “Instead of sporting a pile of bacon that’s been fried separately and drained of its grease, this extreme bacon cheeseburger has been ground up with the beef,” Walsh explains, “The thick, hand-formed, bacon-slick patty is fried crisp on the griddle, covered with cheese and served on a bun. The genius of this concept is that the bacon grease bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a very salty, very greasy, crisp-edged burger that is exceptionally juicy, even when well done.” Just when we thought this was excess, Walsh points out that there is even a double Squealer, “which takes the original’s excess and squares it.”
It is also heartening to observe Walsh’s non-Anglocentric approach to food. He often apologizes for inadvertently evaluating foods by comparing them to American food back home. Walsh cannot stomach durian, a fleshy, immensely popular fruit, during his visit to Thailand, and is disturbed enough by the incident to consult a professor of biocultural food habits and find out why some “stinky” foods are offensive to certain peoples while others are considered delicacies. A Thai friend of his in America reassures Walsh that his gag reaction to durian is understandable; he himself can never get foods with cheese “past his nose.”
Are You Really Going To Eat That? celebrates food in all its glory, and is a book well worth sinking your teeth into. It travels the world over in search of good, authentic, often exotic meals. Yet Walsh’s book has all the warmth of one’s own favorite comfort food. After all, as he points out, it is never just about the food, it is about the “elemental sort of love that is invested in every meal.”