Literary treat: ‘Bite By Bite,’ by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Jonah Raskin

There couldn’t be a better title for the latest book by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Bite by Bite: Nourishments and Jamborees (Ecco; $26.99). This account by the author of the popular essay collection World of Wonders serves vivid, heartfelt vignettes about food and four generations of family—from her grandparents and parents to her children who devour the often distinct and wonderful fruits that their mother puts on the table with panache.

Nezhukumatathil’s children may not know or remember that “jamborees” are defined as boisterous celebrations; aptly, the word has no known origin. She writes that her favorite fruit is the jackfruit, which she says she tasted for the first time at her grandparents’ home in Kerala, on India’s Malabar Coast, where she enjoyed a “trifecta of abundance” that included mangoes, plantains, and more.

The daughter of a Filipina mother and an Indian father, and a world traveler, the author doesn’t play favorites with tropical delights that once grew wild and are now cultivated. Although she loves jackfruit, which one can find in many Asian markets in the U.S., she calls the mangosteen the “Queen of fruits.” She also offers a pithy quotation from Mark Twain, who called mangosteen the “king by grace over all the fruits of the earth,” and the food that “the angels eat.”

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Surprisingly, Bite By Bite also offers chapters about waffles, maple syrup, and risotto, as well as staples such as potatoes, apples, and rice. There are some recipes, including one for risotto, which Nezhukumatahil calls “a northern Italian rice dish,” and there are thirty delightful color illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura, an artist born in Japan who now lives in California. (Nakamura’s name appears in the acknowledgments but alas not on the cover or title page.)

Nezhukumatathil’s husband and sons figure in Bite By Bite from beginning to end, as does the dinner table, whether it be in India, the Philippines, or in Oxford, Mississippi, where Nezhukumatathil lives. Her sense of wonder infuses Bite By Bite and makes reading it a culinary and literary treat; Nezhukumatathil teaches in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi and is the poetry editor at Sierra magazine.

The book’s bibliography offers an appealing list of dozens of books about food and agriculture, including classics such as M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating and How to Cook a Wolf, along with contemporary works such as Sam Irwin’s Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean (2008) and Grace Lin’s Chinese Menu: The History, the Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods (2023).

The author prepared for Bite By Bite in kitchens and libraries, and also in gardens, orchards, and on farms. She doesn’t seem to belong to a culinary cause, but she values the concept and practice of farm-to-table that’s as old as agriculture itself and as contemporary as the latest food fad.    

Nezhukumatathil offers a dozen “Food Writing Prompts” that will likely inspire foodies, vegetarians, vegans, and others who enjoy healthy meals without red meat. Nezhukumatathil is the star of the show, as she should be, without hogging the stage. She provides entertaining histories about the origins, evolution, and migrations that make fruits and vegetables global. Her book could be devoured in one sitting, but it’s probably best to savor it slowly, morsel by morsel.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.

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