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Vermont’s Edward Behr Declares the Essential Foods

  • Edward Behr. author of "50 Foods" at his home in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Nov. 26, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Edward Behr. author of "50 Foods" at his home in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Nov. 26, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Edward Behr. author of "50 Foods" at his home in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Nov. 26, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

The writer Edward Behr wanted to begin every essay in his book 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste with an assertion. So his chapter on Camembert starts with the evocative “Camemberts can seem less a food that exists than one that lives in imagination, or perhaps memory.” Take that, Proust!

His essay on ham begins with the useful, insightful observation that “a ham, as it ages, reveals the quality of fresh pork in the same way that a mature cheese reveals the quality of the original milk.”

And you can’t get much pithier than “Baguette means stick,” the first sentence in his essay on the long, thin French bread that, he writes, became popular after World War I.

“A book has more energy when it’s written by a person with a point of view,” Behr said. Which is why he had no qualms about postulating that there are 50 essential foods, from anchovies to walnuts.

“Forty of the foods are inarguable. Ten are arguable, like sweet breads,” he said in an interview at his home in St. Johnsbury, where he has lived since 2009 with his wife Kim Behr and their two sons.

There are omissions. “Where are cherries? Where are tropical fruits?” he said, playing devil’s advocate. Lemons are the only citrus fruit to make the cut. The book is slanted toward European and North American culinary traditions, not the foods of Asia, India or Mexico.

And is caviar truly essential? “I think that it’s not essential in the sense that one could go through life and not taste caviar and not feel deprived,” Behr said. “But I also felt it was important to include chocolate and caviar because they’re part of the wholeness of eating, even if they’re a luxury.”

But Behr also writes about such staples as eggs, bread, chicken, beef, butter, rice, olive oil, lettuce and vinegar, which no one would argue about. The definitions are broad enough that a reader can extrapolate to include foods that may not be specifically named but which also fall into a category like “Greens” or “Munster, and other stinky cheeses.”

Behr doesn’t gush about the latest trends in olive oils or artisan breads, nor does he lard his writing with heavy-breathing metaphors about food —- readers expecting food porn would be advised to look elsewhere. Instead, he’s a kind of food curator, in the artistic and historic sense. This is what you’re looking at, this is what you need to know, and this is why it’s worth paying attention.

Just as an expert can point out that the Rembrandt over there isn’t really a Rembrandt: You can tell by the muddy brush stroke; so Behr tells you what’s authentic, what’s ersatz, and why you should care. And, like a curator, he has catalogued the kind of information that would take a reader a lot of leg work to compile. If you want to buy, say, a piece of salmon, Behr tells you how to buy it, and which foods and wines pair well with it.

“I worked really hard to make the book accessible but without compromising the information. A chef could read it, but also a real food lover, or a neophyte,” Behr said.

A review by noted food writer Moira Hodgson in the Wall Street Journal called 50 Foods “charming and erudite,” and the longtime food writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote that Behr “dives deep into very specific subjects and comes back with fascinating bits of information that help us see the food, wine or region in a different light.”

Behr has two responses to a question he’s asked frequently: How did he get into the business of writing about food? “The short answer is, I don’t know — and naivete. The long answer is, I was always interested in food.”

As a child, Behr was the kind of guest that any parent would like to have over for dinner. No can’t-eats or won’t-eats for him. “I always liked everything ... I don’t have a lot of aversions,” he said, with the exception of peanut butter cookies and peanut butter sandwiches, which had nothing to do with an allergy but his dislike of the taste and texture. (On the other hand, he said, he probably would not decline salted peanuts if they were passed at a party.)

Behr lived in New York City until he was 3, but then moved with his family to Chevy Chase, Md., where he spent his childhood and adolescence. He studied at Bennington College, and then decided to make Vermont his home, moving around the Northeast Kingdom before settling in Peacham, where he lived from 1983 to 2009.

Behr cuts a professorial, congenial figure, and his speech and manner have a pinpoint precision. Although he strikes one as being very particular about what he eats, and how he eats it, he isn’t pretentious about it.

At the moment he is thinking, among other things, about quince, and whether to write an essay about it; he shows off a jar of preserved quince he’s made. He offers up a cup of tea, brewed from a sachet containing spices and coconut that was given to him to try. He doesn’t usually drink flavored teas, preferring his tea straight up.

“I just assumed no one would give me flavored tea,” he said. And why would someone add the taste of coconut to tea in the first place? Odd, his reaction seems to say. He analyzes its taste: Does the coconut come through? Not really, but it’s a decent tea.

Behr came from a family in which a constant topic of conversation at the table was what was on the menu for the next meal. At age 10, his paternal grandmother gave him a frying pan and a spatula (he still has the frying pan), and he began to experiment with cooking, mainly, he said, elaborate egg dishes with loads of different ingredients.

So when he began kicking around ideas for making money at something he was interested in, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. When an initial try at opening a restaurant in Winooski fell through — an outcome for which he’s now grateful because opening a restaurant can be a surefire way to lose money — he decided to write a black-and-white newsletter called The Art of Eating in 1986. There were almost no start-up costs, no real overhead to speak of, and Behr was writer, producer and distributor.

Readers will notice that his magazine, now a quarterly available by subscription, is not called The Art of Cooking, which was, he said, “a very conscious choice.”

“There are thousands of cookbooks published each year, but almost nothing that’s about eating,” Behr said.

In the nearly 30 years since he began publishing The Art of Eating, it has developed into an influential magazine read both by people in the business, and those who just like to read about food. Issues are organized around such themes as Central Texas Barbecue, Bangkok’s Shophouses, Cloth-Bound Vermont Cheddar, the state of pork production or Burgundy wines.

Some people have asked him why, when his business is the best of food, he lives in Vermont rather than a big city. Behr feels he can focus better on his writing by not working in the hothouse New York atmosphere.

And it’s of no small significance that he taught himself how to cook and garden while living in a rural area, an advantage when a writer is talking about the importance of ingredients. “It teaches you about freshness and the importance of variety,” Behr said. An urban writer is a little hindered that way: she or he doesn’t have “experience of raw materials at their very best.”

With the resurgence of interest in American small farming, and the availability nationwide of top quality food, food has become a commodity, with celebrity chefs and cooking competitions abounding on TV and in print.

If Behr could sell thousands of copies of his book by playing the celebrity card, he’d do it, he said. And it’s not a bad development exactly, he added, but it’s more about entertainment and drama than setting a standard or disseminating helpful information. Food blogs have also proliferated, but Behr isn’t crazy about some of them, because, he said, they’re often sloppily researched and written, substituting photography or personal ruminations for what he calls connoisseurship.

Still, for all the developments that Behr finds tedious (the vogue for taking pictures of your meals is one of them: why take out your iPhone when you can eat?) or worrisome (the lack of both slaughterhouses and highly skilled butchers) — there is more to celebrate than to decry. The quality of restaurants has improved dramatically in conjunction with the high quality of products coming from small farms.

“It’s just day and night,” he said. “And contrary to anything I would ever have imagined, the interest in food has continued to grow.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com