Around the World in 80 Dinners: The Ultimate Culinary Adventure by Cheryl and Bill Jamison

Around the World in 80 Dinners: The Ultimate Culinary Adventure

by Cheryl and Bill Jamison

Published byWilliam Morrow

258 pages, 2008



 

 

 

 

 

The New Pornographers

Reviewed by Diane Leach

 

Cheryl and Bill Jamison are best known for their numerous cookbooks, many focused on grilling and outdoor cookery. As an urban dweller lacking a barbeque, I’d never read much of their work, and looked forward to their travelogue, a jaunt from Bali to Brazil celebrating their 20th anniversary.

I was sorely disappointed. What could be an informative, amusing journey though oft-neglected spots -- been to New Caledonia lately? -- is instead a slog through miserably bad writing interspersed with flat attempts at humor and a more than few trumpetings of the Jamison horn. 

The authors thank former editor Harriett Bell, who first suggested they shift from cookbooks to travel writing, then editor Carol Marino. I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Bell, seeing what she’d wrought, jumped into a vat of habanero sauce. 

I realize how nasty I sound. But when one cannot read a book for tripping over clumsy sentences and ridiculous dialogue, it’s tough to stay friendly. Add touches of American smugness and the occasional product push, and the reader is left wondering why somebody at Morrow didn’t hire a ghostwriter.

The book opens with the Jamisons’ travel arrangements for their trip, a three- month journey built around frequent flier miles acquired via actual flights and extensive credit card use.  Whether Morrow fronted them any money for a book deal is kept quiet; we’re to think this trip the product of careful planning, and shown every detail, down to the travel underwear purchased. In fairness, anybody hoping to plan a similar trip can learn much from the Jamisons’ plans. But do we really need to know that Cheryl, contemplating a travel snafu:

... asks if he [Bill] could get help from friends in London at British Airways .... Two decades ago, when the airline was in transition from public to private ownership, Bill served as management consultant at the highest levels of the corporation’s marketing, information management, and strategic planning departments.

No. Nor do we really care that “If you count revised editions as well as the originals, the two of us have collaborated fully on twenty-nine books, not something you’d want to attempt unless you’re pretty simpatico.” 

Nor do we need to know that in the days preceding the trip, “Cheryl tests a few recipes from our cookbook in progress, The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining, submitted to the publisher shortly before our departure and released in the Spring of 2006, after our return.” 

Sell me on your prose and I’ll buy your other books.  Don’t shove them in my face. 

***

Finally the Jamisons fly to Bali. Enter Flat Stanley.

Flat Stanley is a popular children’s book wherein the eponymously named protagonist is flattened by a bulletin board one night in bed. The happy result, his flatness, allows him all manner of wondrous adventures. The Jamison’s grandchildren are enamored of Stanley, who “accompanies” the couple on their travels, where he is posed for photographs the children can use for amusing school presentations back home.  It is unclear whether Stanley is a doll or made from paper, but Cheryl decides to bring him to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, where he is promptly dismembered by a monkey. 

Cheryl is aggrieved: what will they tell the kids? After mulling over their plans to attend a Balinese cremation ceremony, Stanley is redrawn by Cheryl and set aside as the couple attend the cremation of a village woman. Upon their return to the hotel, the Jamisons improvise a ceremony for Stanley, which, depending on your point of view, is idiotic, insulting to the Balinese, or both. At one point Bill remarks of the gentle Balinese hotel staff: “the karma quotient around here must be off the charts.” 

For their sake, I hope so. 

Onward to Australia, where Cheryl is elated to meet Maggie Beer: “’She’s the Alice Waters of Australia,’ referring to the founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, who helped stimulate American interests in fresh, local produce.” 

Really? Of course there are people who have never heard of Waters and consider mesclun groundcover. But readers inclined to drop $24.95 on a hardcover travel book rhapsodizing about exotic meals are likely to be older, educated and affluent enough to have the time and interest in foodie travel. Each and every one of them has heard of Waters. And her restaurant.

Onward. After lunch at an Australian Thai place : “’That sure cleared some nasal passages,’ Cheryl says in one of her favorite compliments.”

Very classy. Nice grammar, too. Here’s Bill on Australia’s Tetsuya and est. restaurants:

I doubt that the best Australian chefs are more talented and creative than the best American chefs, but they push the boundaries much more. A lot of our top chefs are satisfied with putting a good, standard dinner on the table, because that’s what sells, even though the food is seldom much better or different than a skilled home cook can make. These guys act like they should be culinary leaders, blazing new trails rather than catering to conventional tastes.

Grant Achatz. Homaro Cantu. David Chang. Wylie Dufresne.  Bill Telepan. Alex Ureña. Hey, Bill, ever heard of any these guys? They all work in the United States doing things like fried mayonnaise (Dufresne), vegetable ash (Achatz), edible flavored paper (Cantu) and foods so novel, in Achatz’s case, that they call for specially designed implements. A remark like that discredits the authors entirely. And we’re stuck with them for another 200-odd pages.

But I am nothing if not dedicated. I read the entire book, so you don’t have to. 

***

The Jamisons travel to Singapore, that great bastion of street food. Both Calvin Trillin and Anthony Bourdain beat them there, and theirs are the accounts you should read.  See Calvin Trillin’s “Singapore Journal: Three Chopsticks” in the September 7, 2007 issue of the New Yorker (a summary is available at the New Yorker online), or Bourdain’s “Die, Die, Must Try,” from The Nasty Bits. The Jamisons, Trillin and Bourdain all make reference to Singaporean K.F. Seetoh’s guide to street food, the Makansutra. This rough guide’s ultimate rating is “die, die, must try!”  But only the Jamisons, who purchase their copy online, and call it “die, die, must try!” remark that “the tome sucks in many respects, particularly the design and the maps, but it’s one of the most extraordinary eating guides ever written.” They also comment extensively on Singapore’s stringent system of laws and punishments, which, while harsh to the American reader, mean all street foods are safe to eat: “Ironically, we have to thank the tight-assed rulers for this wonderful opportunity.”

Rule number one: never insult your hosts.

And we Americans wonder why the rest of the world hates us. 

***

Let’s hop over to India, where the Jamisons spend a night on a houseboat. The crew leads the couple along Vembanad Lake, feeding them lavishly. Leaving the boat for another inn, we’re told that the “trio of boatmen treated us great and we part with warm farewells...”

That’s just ... great. I have two more horrible sentences and then I’ll say some nice things and tie this mess up. Stay with me.

In Labilia, South Africa, the couple stay at a resort where the ostrich and lamb are tough, but:

The brunches consistently please, providing choices of eggs in different styles, bacon, ham, and other meats such as venison sausage skewers with a chile sauce, sautéed mushrooms,  baked tomatoes, fried potatoes, cheese, fruit, juices, jams, and bread.

In France, Bill and Cheryl visit American friend, Sunshine (yes, Sunshine), who gives Cheryl a piece of carrot cake:

Cheryl gobbles it a bite at a time for the next two days, savoring it like a rare delicacy.

If I taught writing and you handed in the above, I’d fail you.

 ***

Okay.  I said I’d say some nice things.  Here they are.

The couple presents extensive information about the history and customs of each country visited, lending depth and background. Physical surroundings are carefully described and more often than not sound beautiful. The meals themselves are meticulously detailed; it’s evident the Jamisons took careful note of each mouthful. They are oenophiles as well as foodies, and their writing about wine often manages to be both lyrical and grammatically correct.

Each chapter concludes with “the nitty gritty” -- detailed information about the hotels, restaurants, markets, or resorts the Jamisons patronized. They also include a recipe from each country. While the ingredient lists may seem daunting, most items are available at larger markets, and the Jamisons provide substitutions where possible. The recipes themselves are clearly written and within reach of anybody who can prepare a simple meal. 

Unfortunately, none of the above is enough to save the book.  You want armchair food travel? Read Anthony Bourdain for his uncanny, irreverent voice and genuine awe at the world’s food and the people who prepare it. Read Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet or The Seductions of Rice for everything: the fantastic prose, the stunning photographs, the history and the recipes, which are so compelling you will want to cook each one. Read Calvin Trillin for his humor and brilliance. But leave Eighty Dinners in the store. If you must buy something, there’s always Flat Stanley. | May 2008

 

Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at http://barkingkitten.blogspot.com. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.