What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients

Peter Hoffman

By Adrienne Martini

The most important piece of information to take with you into Peter Hoffman’s What’s Good: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients is that Savoy, his flagship restaurant in SoHo, is closed. The first few chapters of What’s Good will make you yearn for a chance to eat there and this advanced warning will save you from a tiny bit of heartbreak.

Like most Edible Finger Lakes readers, Hoffman believes that the best things to eat are those in season and locally sourced. What Hoffman does best in What’s Good is describe the evanescent details of tasting the best of any given month. “Pop on in your mouth,” he writes about the Tristar strawberry, “notice the fragrant, bracing candy that awakens the senses. It might take you back to your childhood.” In a couple of dozen words, you, too, are now craving a particular fruit on a far-off late spring afternoon.

But What’s Good is about far more than the ingredients (although Hoffman gets deep into the weeds about everything from potato varieties to heritage pork), it’s the distillation of one nerdy cook’s journey into the universe of what we put in our mouths and why. There is nearly nothing Hoffman has not mulled over, from the sugar boycotts of the early 1800s to the chemistry of osmoconformer fishes. He dives into the economies of running a restaurant and the design of a host stand. He has definite opinions on how to get produce from the greenmarket to the kitchen and will explain in clear prose exactly how he came to them. No detail is left unexamined in Hoffman’s world; even the check presenters at Savoy were hand-tooled leather, rather than the ubiquitous ones from American Express.

What’s Good doesn’t stop there. There are recipes, that range from humble (Fireplace Beans) to slightly more involved (Pork Shoulder with Pimenton Rub). Not only does Hoffman name-check a few famous chefs, he also highlights highly local producers who inspired his cooking, including our own Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten. There’s an entire chapter built around a Hudson Valley shrimp farmer, who raises these salt-water crustaceans in kiddie pools under a motorcycle museum.

It sounds like a lot to cram into a 350 page book — and it is. But what’s good about What’s Good is that it never feels overstuffed or wordy. Hoffman knows when too much is simply too much and stops just shy of that mark, most of the time. And when his obsessiveness pushes you away, as it does every now and again, it’s his earnestness draws you back in. Even if his food-related declamations and recipes were garbage, which they emphatically are not, this assemblage of stories about local foods, upscale kitchens, and labor would be well worth the cover price, even if you can’t take a field trip to Savoy.

Adrienne Martini writes about running, eating and local politics at martinimade.com.

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