Take-Out And Other Tales of Culinary Crime by Rob Hart

Take-Out and other tales of culinary crime_Rob Hart.jpg

Publisher: Polis Books | Release Date: Jan. 15, 2019 | Pages: 304

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rob Hart is an author I’ve been hearing a lot about over the last few years, so when Take-Out And Other Tales Of Culinary Crime came across my radar it seemed like the perfect chance to see what this guy was all about. I’m a bit of a foodie (well, less so these days now that money is tighter and free time is so much shorter and harder to come by), and back when we had cable Food Network was the go-to station for my wife and I. Anthony Bourdain and his Travel Channel series, No Reservations, was appointment TV, and we had no problem spending a weekend hooked on marathon blocks of his global eating adventures, waiting for a new episode of Iron Chef America to air. I love food. I’ve also developed a soft spot for food-driven narratives, from Bourdain’s own Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw to Cassandra Khaw’s urban fantasy series involving Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef. So yeah, an author I’ve been wanting to read releasing a collection of food-centric crime stories seemed like a no-brainer, and adding Take-Out to my steady diet of books was a pretty easy decision to make.

Thankfully, Take-Out fully delivered on my expectations. Starting almost from page one, Hart knew what I wanted, and the Bourdain epigraph fronting these stories set an immediate mood and tone, which Hart continued to emphasize in his introduction where he discusses the importance of good meals. Not just as a physical requirement, but on a deeper, almost spiritual level. We build memories around food, plan dates around particular meals and special restaurants. There are few things in this world as emotionally and physically satisfying as a perfectly cooked meal, few things as rewarding as delicious comfort food, few things as powerful and wicked as a high-sugar, high-fat confection.

Maybe that’s why food pairs so well with crime. Food is exciting and when done well can instill remarkable passions. It’s no wonder the mafia was fronted by so many restaurants, or why ice cream trucks are the perfect delivery vehicle for…well, we’re not going to talk about the ice cream trucks. Those drivers are freaking dangerous.

Over the course of these sixteen stories, Hart delivers straight-up food warriors, the men and women on the frontlines of their kitchens or food trucks, drawing overt connections between the culinary and the criminal. We get warring food trucks, escaped convicts on the run, a dead baker bouncer, and Times Square actors dressed as knock-off cartoon characters vying for tips and drug sales. Other stories are softer meditations where food provides the backdrop for deeper reflections - take for instance the aging mobster in “The Gift of the Wiseguy” who escapes witness protection one last time to see his son make good on the family name, delighted to rediscover his mother’s lasagna after so many years away. Food connects people, like Cynthia Marks, a prison guard who has made a deep connection with a death row inmate in “Last Request” and goes out of her way to bring him his last meal in the form of a pizza slice, but not just any pizza - a New York pizza! In “How To Make The Perfect New York Bagel,” the opening story in Take-Out, a decades long friendship was formed over this titular food.

While Take-Out serves up plenty of straight-up crime and noir stories, there are a couple cross-genre standouts, like “Lake Paradox,” which is driven by the absence of food and the craziness an empty belly can cause. “Butcher’s Block,” one of my favorite pieces, takes the concept of televised competitive cooking and warps it into a work approaching survival horror. Imagine if Alton Brown went completely mental, got coked up while watching Fight Club too many times, and decided that Cutthroat Kitchen needed a more literal interpretation for broadcast. That’s “Butcher’s Block,” and hot damn did I ever enjoy that one.

As is the norm with the majority of short story collections, I liked some stories more than others. That said, I can’t honestly say there’s a bad one in the bunch here. Each one of these morsels are pretty damn satisfying and enjoyable. Take-Out ends on a note that’s even a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, involving a character of indeterminate criminality on the run in Singapore. When my wife and I were dating, we went to Singapore for a wedding and were introduced to a number of that country’s culinary specialities. One of the very first dishes I had after landing was a rice noodle dish called char kway teow, a dish Frederick is enjoying as, presumably, one of his last meals in Singapore. I couldn’t help but smile over the fondness I developed for that dish myself, knowing exactly what he was experiencing as I read along, a smile that widened upon mention of the fish head curry in Little India, a phenomenal dish our friends treated us to early on in our visit.

Rob Hart knows his food and his foodie destinations, but more importantly he knows about the bonds and memories that develop and solidify over a good plate of food. We all have those special dishes we hold near and dear to our hearts, and Take-Out exploits this in the best possible ways. The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, after all. Because we know the food at the heart of these stories, by extension we know the characters. Even if we can’t always relate to or condone their actions, we can understand their motives and their passions.

“Meals make the society,” Bourdain said in a 2001 interview with BookPage. “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.” Hart understands and shares this sentiment, delivering on it in story after story. The theme of food is merely the vessel in which these stories are served, but the meat of each of these dishes ultimately has little to do with the food itself. Hart’s just inviting us to the table and sharing with us a buffet of flawed characters in dangerous situations, exploring their lives and complications through a universally relatable theme, and doing so fully, with no reservations.