With a title like "Are You Really Going to Eat That?" you might think you were in for a vicarious tasting of toasted grasshoppers, ant-egg soup, or fish with beetle musk sauce.
While author Robb Walsh has been called "the Indiana Jones of food writers," this book, thankfully, is not concerned with dishes that make Westerners wince.
In this collection of his magazine and newspaper essays, Walsh tracks his own relationship with cuisine, starting in Trinidad and South America, and ending in Houston. "What started out as a search for weird things to eat slowly morphed into a study of how cultures express themselves through food," he writes. The latter makes the essays interesting, whether they are about Brazilian pizza or Texas barbecue.
Walsh approaches food as an amateur culinary anthropologist, exploring the origins and preparations of foods, and seasoning his tales with cultural lore. He travels to Jamaica in search of the best coffee in the world, to Chile for the seafood that moved Pablo Neruda to write poetry, to Oaxaca, Mexico, for soup preparations that have remained unchanged for 2,000 years.
In the chapter "Hot Sauce Safari," Walsh traverses the steep hills of Trinidad in search of Caribbean hot-sauce makers. Unlike Mexican-style sauces made from jalapeño peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, Caribbean sauces are made with habanero chilies, papaya, mango, pineapple, herbs, ginger, allspice, and mustard.
The best ones are made in small batches, and can't be mailed easily. So Walsh goes to the source.
One interesting chapter explores the way certain foods can be loved by one culture and reviled by another. In Thailand, he tried to eat a Southeast Asian fruit delicacy called durian, or what Westerners call stinkfruit. It looks like a spiked football on the outside, with custardy sections on the inside, and it smells like rotten eggs. It made him want to wretch, much as Thais feel when they smell cheese.
Walsh consults a biocultural food specialist, who says that finding rotten-smelling things disgusting is a learned response. In many cultures, foul-smelling foods become highly favored.For instance,fermented fish sauce in Southeast Asia, rotten whale meat with the Inuit, and cheese with Europeans - all are things that taste better than they smell. (So they say, anyway.)
Closer to home, Walsh gives a new appreciation of culinary traditions that have grown up right under Americans' noses. One chapter explores the difference between Creole and Cajun.
In Louisiana, Criollos, or Creoles, were those of European descent, legally distinguished from Indians and African slaves by the Spanish government in 1780. Their cooking reflected their affluent French and Spanish roots and ingredients - French haute cuisine, plus tomatoes and spices introduced by the Spanish.
Cajuns, or Acadians (French-Canadian refugees), settled in the swamps and bayous of the eastern part of the state. The cooking they developed was heartier and spicier than the bon vivant cuisine of New Orleans.
Another chapter gives a fascinating history of smoked and barbecued meat. The Carib Indians of the West Indies gave us the word barbecue, along with some of their smoking methods. The babracot was a grill made of green sticks, placed above a fire. Cooks would arrange the meat on the grill and cover it with leaves to retain the smoke.
Today, barbecue is a favorite in Kansas City, the Southeast, and Texas, which hosts more than 100 barbecue cook-offs every year. Middle-aged men from all over the South gather for these events, where they sit proudly around their custom-built barbeque trailers as thick smoke curls above the grills. They debate the relative merits of hickory, peach, mesquite, pecan, and oak wood in smoking. Some trailers feature walk-in kitchens, built-in smokers, and supplies of perfectly cut and aged hardwood.
"Are You Really Going to Eat That?" is a treat for cooks and food lovers alike. Even Walsh's Houston restaurant reviews include enough cultural history and human interest to appeal to those of us living far away.
• Julie Finnin Day is a freelance eater living in Portland, Ore.