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Diary of a Mad Foodie

I have long been aware that when someone suddenly breaks into a conversation by pointing to the sky, and with great excitement yells “Did you see that?,” I never do. I always miss the rare sight because I never focus in time or am just plain out of it. There are exceptions to these lapses, and they are always about food.

What others seldom notice, I always do. We can be whizzing along a highway and I will spot a tiny hand-painted sign that says “Homemade pies sold here,” and beg the driver to stop. When I am driving, however, I am bound to get lost because standard directions strike me as hopeless. If I were in charge of the world of direction-giving, I would produce such sensible guideposts as “turn left at the Dunkin’ Donuts and go straight until you see a Stop & Shop market and turn right at that corner.”

I find that noticing food-related details generally enriches my life. In passing through a buffet line, for instance, I always seem to come away with the best stuff, and I should add that I am quick about it. When my companions finally join me at our table, I invariably hear, “I didn’t see that. Where did you find it?” I will have noticed a tray of sushi tucked away on the dessert side of the buffet table or perhaps a pile of fresh shrimp that I load onto my plate next to the usual fare of some sort of chicken and salads.

I am also good at spotting unannounced bargains in supermarkets. My local Whole Foods happened to be selling off my favorite brand of peanut butter one day, and I paid just a couple of dollars for jars that usually cost $5 or $6.

Sometimes my picking up on food details can be distracting. In watching one of tennis’ major tournaments years ago, I happened to notice that Maria Sharapova’s father was signaling her to eat a banana during a brief break in the match. He mimed a banana-peeling gesture, which I suspect I noticed even before she did. That got me thinking about why a player might be better off eating a banana instead of, let’s say, one of those high-calorie energy bars, and my thoughts so drifted that I missed the end of the match.

Another distraction occurred when I was watching a play. On that occasion, I noticed that an actress playing a domestic was peeling a single, lone potato throughout a long scene. While others may have found the prop atmospheric, I was distracted and irritated, and wished that a few more potatoes had been brought into the scene to give the character and her props more credibility. Such pondering made me miss a lot of the dialogue of the play.

Foodie spoilers

I remember a time when my noticing a food detail almost spoiled the plot of a famous movie. “Thelma & Louise” is full of surprising twists, but I became forewarned that Thelma was going to be heading for trouble. And what was my clue? The fact that she was nibbling on a candy bar early in the morning, snapping off little bites as she took the bar in and out of her refrigerator in a surreptitious way. This behavior put me on notice that this childish woman was going to be blundering into harm’s way, and I was right.

Sometimes, my food awareness might classify me as a snoop. Whenever I am a house guest, for instance, I take the trouble to check out the quality of knives in the kitchen and any indication of their care. If I see wooden handles poking out of the dishwasher’s cutlery baskets, I tell myself that serious cooking does not go on in the household and am grateful if I am taken out for dinner.

A more serious snooping incident occurred one time when another guest at a dinner party, the wife of a prominent physicist I had just met, happened to mention that she always has to remember to pick up her husband’s favorite snacks when she goes shopping. I seized upon this fascinating disclosure, and immediately wanted to know exactly what he enjoyed eating, picturing him munching away at his desk while working on important equations.

“Well, peanuts and Hershey bars” was the answer, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know the exact kind of bar —  plain or with nuts? Dark or milk chocolate? And as for the peanuts, that answer was also too vague. Were they salted or unsalted, Spanish redskins or the usual? Or were they the kind that are highly seasoned or covered in crackly candy?

My curiosity had blinded me to the fact that the professor, who was standing nearby, was discomforted by my interrogation. While I had the impression that my interest was complimentary and that I was engaged in a meaningful discussion, in fact, he was feeling an embarrassing invasion of privacy.

A world of our own

This made me realize that we foodies are not like everyone else. We speak with pride about our food preferences, and often have spirited fights about such lofty subjects as where to get the best pizza or what kind of chocolate makes the best brownies, forging friendships on the basis of our passions and even our noisy disagreements.  Sadly, the world at large may think that these concerns are trivial and unworthy, but we know better. Just because we think and talk a lot about food doesn’t mean that we have no interest in political causes or in cultural events. In my experience, passionate people exhibit deep feelings about all of the things they believe in. And food is not the least of them.

Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.