On the Page: Raymond Sokolov and Anna Badkhen

(Knopf, 242 pp., $25.95)

It’s hard to believe in these gourmet-mad times, but 40 years ago the U.S. had “no radicchio, no world-class restaurant, no foie gras, no Sichuan food.” So recalls lifelong food writer Raymond Sokolov in this entertaining memoir. Mr. Sokolov fondly recollects his tenure as the Times restaurant critic in the mid 1970s, just as the city’s food scene was coming alive, launching a “covert plan to overthrow established order in the New York restaurant world,” lambasting snobbish French restaurants (the since-reformed La Grenouille) and championing the elegant, pared-down nouvelle cuisine arriving stateside (the late, beloved Lutèce). Ever irreverent, he reviewed dog food and dueled with the White House chef over the recipe for Tricia Nixon’s wedding cake.

The book doubles as a breezy, ranging history of American food, and the sociopolitical events that shaped it, like the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which allowed a flood of Chinese immigrants to bring their local cuisines to New York. His four-star review of a Hunan pioneer led to accusations of bribery, and the arrival at his house of the confused proprietors, who thus thought they were supposed to bribe him.

The food revolution has been “more potent across the breadth of most modern societies than the avant-garde achievements of any other modern art,” he argues, and while it’s a pleasure to read about decadent meals in Vegas and Copenhagen, he’s a down-home guy at heart, happiest when correcting assumptions about everyday foods (the lime vs. the Key lime, “don’t get me started about the yam,” etc.) and remembering treks through the heartland in search of the country’s best barbecue, registering “an honest blow for the stubborn practitioners of quality, tradition and, sometimes, worthwhile innovation.” —Andrew Russeth

World is a Carpet coverTHE WORLD IS A CARPET
(Riverhead Books, 288 pp., $26.95)

Collecting kindling, watching copulating camels, quieting crying infants with opium, baking naan and gossiping over the loom: these are but a few of the activities that Anna Badkhen vividly captures in her account of daily life in Oqa, a tiny desert settlement so remote that it doesn’t appear on any map. In The World is a Carpet, Ms. Badkhen, a Leningrad-born foreign correspondent who began visiting northern Afghanistan long before 2001, charts the process of weaving a carpet over the course of year. Like so many pieces of yarn, she weaves the words of Persian poets, Western explorers, contemporary journalists and scholars into her narrative, enriching her own account with those that came before. As the Taliban begins laying claim to villages near Oqa and rumors of atrocities travel across the desert, Ms. Badkhen evokes the many invasions that have wracked the land for centuries, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, Soviet armies to American troops.

Ms. Badkhen’s keen observations and compassionate portrayal of the people she lives with are sometimes undermined by her occasionally overwrought writing style. Words too conspicuous to overuse, like “crepuscule” and “strabismic,” resurface repeatedly.

Despite these distractions, Ms. Badkhen’s prose is predominantly poetic, and she delivers a powerful, unsentimental study of life persisting in extreme conditions. Perhaps the greatest testament to her success is that, upon reading the final page, the reader wonders how the people populating her narrative are faring, and desperately hopes that they are all right. —Zoë Lescaze

On the Page: Raymond Sokolov and Anna Badkhen