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Catsup on the Table and Tennis Shoes in the Microwave

THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING And Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes and Pleasurable Pursuits by Jeffrey Steingarten, Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50, 514 pages


In "The Man Who Ate Everything," lawyer-turned-food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has collected 40 essays, most of which first appeared in Vogue magazine, and only a reader with a hard heart, an incurious stomach or a hopelessly dormant sense of humor will fail to be charmed and captivated by his exhaustive exploration of all things gustatory.

Steingarten's distinguishing characteristic, as a writer and an eater, is his thoroughness. Facts, figures, fables, food fetishes and phobias all undergo rigorous examination in the Steingarten lab, whose home base is his Greenwich Village kitchen but whose satellites extend to the Internet and to kitchens, libraries, restaurants and forests, fields and seas, across the globe. "The Man Who Ate Everything" is a tonic to precious food writing and nutrition misinformation, a discerning travelogue and, not incidentally, a vivid portrait of an obsessive personality in action.

It is interesting to note that Steingarten's curriculum vitae includes stints at both MIT and the Harvard Lampoon: Science and satire are not obvious bedfellows, but the combination works to considerable effect here, grounding Steingarten's food enthusiasm in research while leavening his research with humor.

Steingarten the scientist devours papers, abstracts and books, and presents us with the latest thinking on the efficacy of moderate drinking (it reduces the chance of a heart attack), the possibly associated French Paradox (French cholesterol levels are the same as ours, but their heart attack rate is less than half) and the mythic evil of white sugar, which "delivers nothing but calories and acute pleasure."

When it comes to nutrition, Steingarten is the embodiment of restraint and common sense: "Asking people to restrict their diet more severely than they need to . . . ," he remarks sagely, "reinforces the notion that deprivation and anhedonia are critical to the happy life."

"The Man Who Ate Everything" is in all other ways a delightfully immoderate book. Steingarten never merely likes a particular food: He studies its history and etymology and embraces and tastes it in as many of its incarnations as he can find or create.

Take catsup (or "ketchup" in Steingarten's version), for instance. Steingarten believes catsup "stands in the top tier of the world's cold or tepid nondessert sauces." It turns up in 97% of American homes; may represent an atavistic lust for blood; and has been used in a two-Michelin star Parisian restaurant, he reports gleefully, to finish off a sauce of salmon's blood, red wine and verjus.

After discussing the condiment's evolution, chemistry, price range, different vintages (summer-bottled is better, as it is often made from ripe tomatoes rather than tomato concentrate) and "pourability problem," Steingarten must, of course, determine which catsup is superior. He assembles 33 varieties on his kitchen table, including one of his own devising, and sets out to procure 10 orders of French fries from McDonald's in the company of his wife, who announces, "Let the games begin" as they descend on the Golden Arches.

Steingarten brings an equally comprehensive approach to baking; to questing for truffles and Italian ices; to sampling the seafood of the Adriatic and the Pacific Northwest, and to celebrating the cuisines of Kyoto, Tunisia and Memphis, Tenn. He presents detailed discourses on how fruit ripens, how to prepare a flavorful turkey and why microwaves are best used for drying out damp tennis shoes.

His essay on waitering, in which he enrolls at the New York Professional Service School to expose waiters' sneaky tricks, is alone worth the price of the book.

In the end, the conclusions of Steingarten's various searches and contests, the "Festival of Ketchup" among them, are less critical than the many fascinating facts and rich apercus he delivers along the way. Steingarten is capable of following a notion in more directions than a bicycle wheel has spokes. While not every spoke may be of equal value, the accrued momentum produces in the reader a kind of giddy wonder at the unslakeable nature of this man's mind and appetite.

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