Feast Your Eyes on National Dish

National Dish is a veritable buffet of dry wit and historical interrogation. It also made me very hungry! Anya von Bremzen embarks on a 6-city world tour, studying the origin and modern state of various national dishes. She samples, snacks, and snarfs her way through Paris, Naples, Tokyo, Seville, Oaxaca, and Istanbul, writing all the way about the history of quintessential culinary exports like tapas, gohan, and pasta. However, she’s keen-eyed in her takedowns of the other very deliberately structured narratives around these foods. A refugee from the former USSR who fled to the United States alongside her mother, von Bremzen is razor-sharp in her critique of national myths and the implications of certain enforced cultural touchstones.

This might seem like, well, kind of a bummer to bring as a perspective to a food book, but the cut of her writing is mollified by a clear faith in the individual people. All of von Bremzen’s explorations are literally characterized by experts and lay people she meets, and the entire arc of her investigation is built around what she learns from them. She learns to make traditional gohan from a sensei before sharing with a konbini (convenience store) worker, samples pot-au-fer alongside a popular influencer and crashes through many a tapas bar with friends. By learning to make the food, or at least where to enjoy it, von Bremzen connects with the culture of a place. She hears the stories people tell about their eating, and even as she balances those against her own pragmatism, the warmth from breaking bread (sometimes literally) shines through. People are actually the beating heart of National Dish.

The language in this account is also something to sink your teeth into! Von Bremzen delicately toes the line between ostentatious and overindulgent, and her descriptions of “diaphanous clouds” of candy floss in Tokyo or “baroquely ironic” Italian mythos around emigration gel nicely against “crushing bowls” of hot ramen. The contrast isn’t random; as with any good piece of journalism, you can trace a clear line between von Bremzen’s editorializing and picked-up phrases from the locals. There’s also a deep respect for translation, she is completely willing to leave operative nouns and subjects as they are and trusts her readers to parse their meaning. This sort of immersion becomes part of the point, not trying to iron out the details of yoshoku vs washoku or even gastronomie writ large for an English reader lets in the natural ephemera of interpretation and speaks to the fuzziness of how everyone considers these broad culinary concepts over time.

National Dish goes to fantastical places. That’s not just in terms of countries! It’s an analysis of how the sausage gets made and the cultural tales told about it. Absolutely worth reading for anyone interested in cuisine, history, and most of all the people that make both!

Emma S.
Library Assistant, Main Library

Emma's favourite part of working at the library is getting the chance to connect with so many people in the community. Her number of "oh hey!"s spoken to acquaintances has increased tenfold since she started working here! While at WPL, her favorite things to borrow are complex and lyrical stories balanced with warm themes and delivery. Epic high fantasy, tender romances and intriguing nonfiction all make the list. She has also been enjoying non-book offerings, especially the park passes. Away from WPL, she loves being outdoors to swim and rock climb, as well as eat her way through every good restaurant in KW.