Edward Behr is best known as the founder of The Art of Eating, a magazine that has what he calls, “for better or worse, a very informed audience.” Over the last 10 years, Behr has developed a book celebrating the simple pleasures of eating that he hopes appeals to both his regular readers and a wider scope of food fans. “I call it in the preface, ‘a guide to deliciousness,’ and that was the subtitle I really wanted for the book,” says the Vermont writer. “But the publisher perhaps wisely convinced me that that was too lightweight of a title for people who don’t know me and know the type of work I do.” The book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” came out this fall and gives readers a thorough, alphabetized account of the joys of eating, from anchovies to walnuts. Each topic is paired with a wine and Behr also offers history, uses, and buying tips.
Q. How did you decide on these 50 foods?
A. Maybe about 40 of these foods are pretty inarguable as basics: beef, apples, green beans. The last 10 or 12 are more personal [like rye bread].
‘So much of modern cooking is about combining unfamiliar things and making unexpected combinations. . . .And the success of these combinations really relies on the quality of the materials. This is a whole book about the quality of materials.’
Q. The book focuses on the simplicity of food, these materials in their unadorned state. Do you think modern cooking tends to be too busy?
A. For sure. But in a way, this book is kind of perfect for modern cooking. So much of modern cooking is about combining unfamiliar things and making unexpected combinations, by which I’m really talking about fashionable restaurant cooking. And the success of these combinations really relies on the quality of the materials. This is a whole book about the quality of materials.
Q. How does living in Vermont inspire that simplistic approach?
A. We’re up in the northeast corner, a half-hour from Canada. It is [an inspiration]. The obvious thing is cheese, which back in the ’80s was pretty uninteresting, the little farm cheeses. Now, in proportion to its size, Vermont has more good cheese than any other state in the country, maybe even not in proportion to its size. I also think just living in the midst of nature is really important for any food writer. There are two approaches to writing about food. One is a very urban focus on cooking, where the epitome would be New York or Paris, and to a lesser extent Boston or San Francisco, where you’re really focused on the professional transformation of foods, mainly in restaurant kitchens. And then there’s a more rural approach, where you’re much more aware of raw materials and maybe you garden yourself, as I do here, and you have a much greater awareness of the importance of the quality of raw materials.
Q. What was the research process like?
A. Basically this represents almost everything I’ve ever done. Any time I randomly was reading something or whenever I came across information that seemed relevant, I would type it into a file. I would start to write, then I would find holes so I would do much more focused research. It’s kind of a synthesis of all the information that you get little by little in The Art of Eating, except there’s no storytelling in “50 Foods.” But this is the handbook that expresses everything that we try to do.
Q. You said your readers are “very informed.” In taking a simple approach, did you worry about alienating fans of the magazine?
A. Probably less than 10 percent [of our readers] are professionals, so it’s 90 percent regular people. I always tell my writers, “Assume your reader’s really smart but don’t assume they have any information on the subject at hand.” So I don’t mean to say they’re all super-knowledgeable. They’re not. But for this book, I really wanted to reach a wider audience and speak to a more everyday kind of person. So I was really careful to do two things that are not that easy to do at the same time: not to compromise on the quality of information at all and yet to be completely clear to somebody who doesn’t bring much other than a love of food to the subject. I couldn’t be as wide-ranging in “50 Foods” as in my usual writing, but I never compromised by dumbing things down. I didn’t cut anything that I would have included for, say, an audience of chefs. Instead, I worked extra hard to be perfectly clear to every reader.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.