Thursday Book: In pursuit of the perfect chip

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THOUGH IT contains barely a dozen recipes that you would want to attempt, this book is gastronomic writing of the highest order, deserving a place alongside Elizabeth David and M F K Fisher. The pieces gathered here originally appeared in American Vogue. It is strange to think that Steingarten's heroic culinary feats - such as scoffing choucroute garnie a l'Alsacienne twice a day for five days while researching sauerkraut, or importing rendered horse fat from Vienna to New York in an attempt to achieve the perfect frite - first appeared in a journal which is otherwise a celebration of anorexia.

However, it would be inaccurate to assume that Steingarten is hoggishly greedy, though at one point he finds it impossible to resist a slab of prizewinning barbecue ribs that has just arrived through the post: "profoundly delicious, satisfying every need that the human body and soul have for food". It is just that he is irrationally, heroically obsessional when it comes to food. Where most dedicated food-lovers stop is where Steingarten starts.

He spends almost a year attempting to re-create the pain au levain naturel produced by Lionel Poilane at 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, the "most famous bakery in the world". Similarly, Steingarten spares no effort to reproduce the "most honoured mashed potatoes in the world", whipped up by Joel Robuchon (Omar Sharif always has two helpings), though he finds Robuchon's addition of half a pound of butter to every pound of la ratte potatoes to be a trifle excessive.

Winningly, Steingarten admits his mistakes. His attempt to cook the legendary Japanese beef known as Wagyu results in steak that is "fibrous, mealy and nearly inedible" (following a meal of Wagyu in Osaka costing $340 a head, his second effort is "wonderful"). And his quest for the ideal chip comes unstuck when "the horse fat began prematurely to go rancid and dark".

Along with such Herculean endeavours, Steingarten mixes in a generous measure of good sense. Pondering the widespread fear of raw shellfish, he notes that "the chance of suffering a substantial injury in one day of skiing is 10 times worse than the chance of getting sick from eating a plate of cold, plump, briny, succulent raw oysters".

Every health freak should be forced to read the chapter ominously entitled "Salad the Silent Killer", which gleefully informs readers that undercooked broad beans contain cyanide and fava beans can cause nausea, fatigue and, in extreme cases, jaundice. The sale of chickpeas is illegal in many Indian states due to the risk of lathyrism (lesions of the spinal cord which cause paralysis of the legs), while immature green potatoes can actually kill.

Steingarten is particularly revealing on the topic of salt. He notes that though the Yanomamo indians of northern Brazil, who eat a virtually salt-free diet, have "amazingly low blood pressure", the lack of sodium in their diet means that any injury may be disastrous (a particular drawback, since one-third of Yanamamo deaths result from violence). In any case, dropping salt would make no difference to most of us. For 92 per cent of the world's population, there is "no significant link" between salt and blood pressure.

Warming to his theme, Steingarten thunders, "Why public health officials want the entire population to act as if we were allergic to salt is beyond me... They never bother to calculate the profound benefits that scrumptious food can bring to our otherwise desperate lives. In 1,000-plus pages of federal nutritional reports I was unable to locate any instance of the words `delicious', `delectable', `savoury' or `yummy'."

Steingarten approaches dieting with the same thoroughness that he tackles indulgence. After a resentful month as a vegan, he finds that his cholesterol is "slightly higher than when I started". With some difficulty, he persuades Proctor & Gamble to let him cook with Olestra, the miracle fat which passes unchanged through the body. Although the notorious problem of "anal seepage" has been overcome, he finds that Olestra-fried delicacies are "repulsively greasy". Steingarten's sharpest barbs are reserved for the best-selling faddists who propound no-fat diets.

This nutritional good sense is balanced by saliva-inducing forays into rural Italy and Kyoto. In his final chapter, he tackles that most daunting of all culinary challenges, the turkey. If you're condemned to having this gruesome bird, you may want to try out a "Thompson's Turkey" in three months time. Described as being "something of a cult", it involves baking the fowl in a flour-and-egg crust. Though the meat is "the most flavoursome and moist you will ever taste", Steingarten resents the loss of the turkey skin. Except for his bizarre prejudices concerning British taste and cuisine ("The British go to Greece just for the food, which says volumes to me"), this book is a banquet of wit, curiosity and good sense.