On the Menu: 'Amateur Gourmet' avoids cheap route from blog to book

Lately, every other food book that comes out seems to be the product of a food blog.

There's a good reason for this. Cream rises to the top, as they say, and consequently blogs turned book tend not only to represent the funniest, best written and most distinctive examples of their new-media genre, but also to improve from the reflection, revision and (oh so important) editing that goes with a book deal.

A recent addition is by a blogger whom I had never particularly enjoyed (although many, many other people have). Adam D. Roberts started the Amateur Gourmet in January 2004 while he was in law school. The blog, which he continues to update, contains restaurant reviews, recipes, essays, videos and comics.

I picked up the book with some trepidation, concerned that it would be a series of essays similar to those Mr. Roberts had already posted on his blog, on topics such as "Eating dinner with Frank Bruni" or "American Food Manifesto."

Fortunately, Mr. Roberts stays far away from simply revising and condensing his blog. He also manages to avoid having his life story take over.

Although the reader will learn quite a bit about his quirky food history and confused career path, Mr. Roberts wants his book to be about more than just him.

To re-create how he felt when he first fell in love with cooking, he teaches a friend who never cooks to make spaghetti with tomato sauce over the phone.

To demonstrate the importance of trying new things, he forces a friend who hates coffee to drink first an espresso and then an iced vanilla latte.

Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he fails, but always he entertains.

At several points, Mr. Roberts enlists professionals to help him in his cause, and his starry-eyed descriptions of these food-world giants (some of whom are more gigantic than others) are both endearing and amusing.

I wondered what I could learn from someone who is so unabashedly honest about his own inexperience, and I still find Mr. Roberts' reliance on the mask of inexperience a little annoying (one chef aptly comments, "You're going to have to give up the title [amateur gourmet] once you're not an amateur anymore"), but his attitude of slight ineptitude and imperfection is a refreshing reminder that no matter how much one knows about food, there is always, always more to learn.

Even very experienced cooks are likely to pick up a trick or two from Mr. Roberts' enthusiastic, open-minded experiments. But the best part of this book is how he has given voice to a generation of food lovers who didn't come from a long line of serious cooks or automatically know how to shop at a farmers market or have any kind of distinctive food culture of their own.

His enthusiasm is contagious, and like all the best food books, you'll be constantly torn between reading the next chapter or heading to your kitchen to try out one of the recipes included in the book.

We may not all get to be bloggers turned book authors, but as Mr. Roberts reminds us, we all have what it takes to be amateur gourmets.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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