In Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (Riverhead), writer Dana Goodyear hooks her readers in with the outrageous, unbelievable stories of America’s most extreme foodies. The book is part personal narrative, part journalism; first-person reportage would be the most accurate description since Goodyear focuses more on the foodies she meets than she does herself.
But Goodyear's decision to home in on her subjects, rather than dwell in her own reflections, means that Anything That Moves is brimming with fascinating tales like, for example, one about the writer eating live octopus with Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer:
Then the proprietor suppressing a smile, produced the main event, a plate of slippery gray tentacles, squirming anxiously. “It’ll try to climb up the chopstick,” Gold said, dousing a tentacle in sesame oil to loosen the grip of its suckers. “I don’t actually know that much about octopus physiology. Most people say that the octopus is dead, and just twitching, but I don’t know. It looks pretty alive to me.”
The book features chapters on adventurous eating practices like the consumption of the raw, the illegal, and the repellent to the uninitiated (insects). There’s even a chapter devoted to those who enjoy holding “Weed Dinners” — which do not involve blunts and bongs but marijuana-flavored food. Extremism, it seems, makes for a highly fascinating topic and overall compelling book.
It is clear that Goodyear has done her research and knows a great deal about American food culture. The American variation of foodie-ism, she writes, came about sometime during the flush post-World War II period. Foodie-ism, however, has its roots in the Roman Empire — which, at its decadent height, became the insatiable stomach of the Earth. Chapters seamlessly weave in the history of food pitching, cultural dietary practices, and American foodie-ism.
Goodyear’s knack for nonfiction craft is evident throughout the book, and makes sense given her background: She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker. Chapters open with colorful anecdotes, pull back into history, and continue on with a mixture of both, without much in the way of explicit argument. And Goodyear’s own authorial voice sounds just like the publication she calls home. The book, in fact, reads much like a series of New Yorker essays, strung together by Goodyear’s first-person journey narrative — which makes a good deal of sense given that Goodyear has published articles on these topics in the magazine previously.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with collecting or reworking past publications. But it seems that, for Goodyear, sticking to The New Yorker’s mode does not allow the author to realize her book’s full potential. New Yorker narrative essays — although well-written, well-reported, and thoughtful — rarely make explicit arguments, which is understandable given the magazine’s parameters. Goodyear’s book does the same, and yet, with such a compelling topic, one wishes that Goodyear had allowed herself great room for analysis.
The author draws intriguing comparisons, like the one to the eating habits of the decadent late Romans. And in another subtle comparison, she talks about foodies in terms that startlingly align with contemporary politics. (The foodies who go after illegal foods, for example, display especially anti-regulation trend.) The book provides the reader with a good deal of fact, but leaves her wanting to know what Goodyear as the authority thinks. How does foodie-ism fit in with the current state of America, and what implications does it have for our culture and its future?
I found myself wanting to know what Goodyear thinks when, for example, Jonathan Gold, sitting across the table from her, admits how delighted he is about the thought of killing his dinner. “You’re killing something with your teeth, and whatever the pleasure of that — and the flavor, I’ve got to admit, is incredibly, hedonistically sweet — it feels wrong,” he says to her. “You’re not supposed to kill things with your teeth.”
I do not want judgement. I just need to know what this all means.