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GIFTS / TASTE

Eating Up Every Word

November 29, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

From catalogs, you can order Christmas gifts of fruit or flowers to be delivered once a month for the whole year. Personally, I've got all the fruit and flowers I need. But for a fraction of the price of one of those other gift packages, you can make sure someone on your Christmas list has something decent to read all year.

Food newsletters--some are monthly or bimonthly, some quarterly, some, um, irregular--are the ultimate in self-publishing. Each is usually the work of one lone writer, often operating in a remote location. They are usually photocopied (although with the state of the PC, some look better than a few magazines).

At their best, these newsletters provide some of the best writing about food that is being done today. They can be deeply thoughtful and carefully written in the way only someone with a lot of time and not much else to do can achieve (a suspicious number of the better newsletters come from places that are cold and rainy much of the year).

The worst of the newsletters are failures for the same reason the best of them are successful--the individual writer's vision. In the end, that is the real charm of the medium: You're getting a straight shot of a personality, undimmed by editing or commercial restraints.

Here are four newsletters where that personality works more often than not:

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In his newsletter the Art of Eating, Ed Behr usually tackles one subject per issue. Since an issue averages 18 pages, that gives him enough room to explore his subjects in some depth, especially given that there are only a couple of recipes per issue.

He writes well and plainly: "There is no firm line between land and sea in Louisiana," he writes in an article on Acadian food in Southwest Louisiana (Spring 1995). "Even inland, much of the land isn't dry at all. The soil is a rich, sticky clay, nearly impermeable to water; the stickiest clay of all is called gumbo, like the superlative Louisiana soup."

Several of Behr's best works have been collected in "The Artful Eater," (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992).

The Art of Eating, Box 242, Peacham, VT 05862. Quarterly. Subscriptions are $30 a year, $55 for two years.

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John Thorne's newsletter, Simple Cooking, is much quirkier. The self-styled bad boy of food writers (one of his books is titled "Outlaw Cook"), he pushes the boundaries of the form more successfully than anyone else. A typical issue might include a chapter of "Hanging Out at the No-Name," basically a fiction with recipes, and a quite learned dissection of the origin and art of the cioppino.

Thorne's writing is muscular and aggressive. When he succeeds, the effect can be thrilling. When he misses--well, train crashes are exciting too. The payoffs far outweigh the embarrassments.

"This lack of a unique identity . . . is a mark of cioppino's authenticity," he writes in the latest issue. "Like any vernacular dish that has endured through the years, it is able to generate at need a new member of the tribe--niece or nephew, grandchild, or cousin once removed--that is appropriate to the demands of the moment but that also exhibits those inherited characteristics that set the family apart."

Thorne's writings have been collected in three books, all of which have been recently reprinted by North Point Press: in addition to the previously mentioned "Outlaw Cook" (1994), "Simple Cooking" (1996) and "Serious Pig" (1996).

Simple Cooking, Box 8, Steuben, ME 04680-0008. Bimonthly. Subscriptions are $24 a year.

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Johan Mathiesen might be called Son of Thorne. He is Thorne's progeny as surely as Raymond Chandler begat Mickey Spillane. Word of Mouth, Mathiesen's newsletter, pushes the tough-guy jargon even further, sometimes stumbling into regular-guy poseur but frequently startling with a voice that is surely unique among food writers.

Although most of the tribe rushes to quote the celebrity chef or culinary historian of the moment, Mathiesen is more likely to reflect on the wisdom of some Hells Angel he once knew who cooked in a Northern California bar.

The most recent issue is typical: a review of Sidney Mintz's "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom" that starts with an extended riff, the sole point of which seems to be that the girlfriend of this tough-guy friend of his was one of Mintz's students. On the other hand, there's also a nice, funny piece about being a cookbook dealer. You pay your money, you take your chances.

Word of Mouth, Box 42568, Portland, OR 97242-0568. Bimonthly ("God willing," Mathiesen notes). Subscriptions are $22 a year.

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The writing in Mark Thompson's Farmers Market Outlook is certainly serviceable enough, but it's doubtful anyone subscribes for the prose. Rather, what this locally produced bimonthly offers is an in-depth look at California farmers markets, the produce sold at them and the farmers who grow for them.

The most recent issue had an interesting article about farmers working in urban areas as well as many short stories on various types of produce, with recipes. There are also a lot of quick cook's tips, as well as a farmers market schedule, arranged by day of the week, for all of Southern California.

Farmers Market Outlook, Box 4220, Culver City, CA 90231. Bimonthly. Subscriptions are $20 a year.

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