There are essay collections united by author, essay collections united by genre, essay collections united by theme, by decade, by region, by publication. And then there is Matt McAllester’s “Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar,” a collection so specific in its constraints that the subtitle reads like a parody of non-fiction. Promising “Stories of Food During Wartime By The World’s Leading Correspondents,” “Mud Crabs” is more or less true to its word: all eighteen essays are by journalists reporting from foreign conflict zones (sticklers and fact-checkers might note that “war” is, technically, somewhat of an overstatement) and all eighteen do indeed center around food.
But food writing, it turns out, is profoundly different than war reportage, which is itself a different art than memoir. The challenge “Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar” sets out for itself is to find masters of all three. It doesn’t. Generally speaking, the essays in “Mud Crabs” are not triple-threats.
For the most part, though, that doesn’t matter. Taken entirely on their own terms, the essays work: if there are two universally compelling topics, they might be “dispatches from war zones” and “food.” Individually, the works collected here are generally interesting and well-crafted (or at least, well-crafted enough), offering political or historical or cultural observation, plus a vicarious taste of foreign correspondenthood. What the essays don’t do, however, is gel into a cohesive anthology.
Some, like Barbara Demick’s “A Diet for Dictators,” seem to avoid the personal altogether. Charting the surreal gulf between Kim Jong-il’s platters of still-writhing sashimi and his people, picking through animal shit for undigested corn kernels, Demick’s is among the more straight-forwardly “journalistic” in the collection. (It’s no surprise that many of the essays use food as the means to write about class–simultaneous feast and famine is a prime symptom of a “conflict zone.”) She paints a sharp picture of the dictator and a gut-wrenching landscape of the nation. It’s not a personal essay, and it doesn’t pretend to be.
Along with a few other similarly outward-facing pieces, “A Diet for Dictators” defines one end of the “Mud Crabs” spectrum. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Munther Cannot Cook Your Turkey” defines the other. The details of life in Saddam’s Iraq are largely backdrop, supporting a somewhat meandering story that is in equal parts about cultural difference and the difficulties of cooking a wine-glazed turkey in a Muslim country. Chandrasekaran finishes with a recipe for the bird in question.
Only a handful of essays manage to weave together long-form reportage, personal essay and gastronomy. The results aren’t necessarily the flashiest (or the tightest) in the collection–Janine Di Giovanni’s meditation on food and friendship in Bosnia, for example, is too quiet and too sprawling to pack the punch of say, Matt Rees’ ultra-focused and razor-sharp dietary portrait of Ariel Sharon–but “Mud Crabs” depends on them. While not uniformly (or even frequently) standouts, they remain the heart of the collection.
Does “Mud Crabs” add up to more than the sum of its (uneven) parts? Probably not. And still, in its quirky way, the collection sticks with you. In his introduction, McAllester writes that stories here offer, “perhaps, a little more humanity than we can usually slip into our newspaper and magazine stories.” And by that rubric, “Mud Crabs” is a success. (Rachel Sugar)
“Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar”
Edited by Matt McAllester
University of California Press, 232 pages, $28