The Book of Salt

Embarking on a new reading list is, to me, a highlight of starting a new research project. It gives me an excuse to visit bookstores and libraries and collect stacks of unfamiliar books. It would be more sensible, as a scholar, to build a project on the library I have already assembled – both on my shelves and in my mind. But I’m fickle, I prefer the seduction of the unknown.

Here I must confess: I know almost nothing about the history of food.

I’ve always been greedy in my appetite for cooking and eating, but I have spent little time reading about food. I’ve been too busy with other reading lists. Plus, food writing can be overly precious, too self-consciously sensual, too encumbered with the problem of finding words for an experience that takes place outside the realm of language.

But any worries I might have about whether my new stack of books will be as fun to read as to collect have been quieted this past week as I’ve launched my education with Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. This 2004 novel, about a Vietnamese man named Binh who works as a chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, bridges my old research with my new project by combining the themes of same-sex sexuality and Parisian cookery. The non-linear narrative explores Binh’s memories of home and his time in Paris, always refracted through the lens of the kitchen and the physical act of cooking.

Truong’s account of Toklas instructing Binh in how to smother pigeons, rather than behead them, in order to preserve the juiciness of the meat is devastating.

In language that must have been inspired by Toklas’s cookbook, the character of Toklas instructs Binh “You will need, when dealing with a larger bird, to feed it a couple of spoonfuls of eau de vie, cognac, or a bit of sherry. In my experience, ducks prefer the taste of eau de vie the most. It improves their flavor immeasurably, and it also braces them for what is to come. It will make your task, Bin, easier in every way. (67). Although Binh looks doubtfully at Toklas, her words prove prescient, as throughout the book he uses alcohol to much the same effect, drinking French wine and liquor to brace himself from being devoured by his colonial hosts.

It’s an odd thing to begin my reading with a novel. I don’t know how much of the novel is based in research, or even whether Toklas and Stein ever employed a Vietnamese chef (eventually I will look into that). I chose the book for my week of family vacation before we fly to Paris, thinking it would be an easy read by the poolside. It’s not, actually, the narrative requires concentration to disentangle and the language is so rich that I don’t feel like speeding through the pages. But the choice has succeeded at enamoring me to my new reading list, and teaching me how excellent food writing can be.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s