NO PRECISE NAME has emerged for Mark Kurlansky's much-copied literary recipe. 'Biographies of things' is the reigning champ, thanks only to its ambiguity. Kurlansky's meandering past is partly to blame. He was a draft-dodging playwright, pastry chef and foreign correspondent before he got around to what he always wanted to do: write. But even after selling hundreds of thousands of books, Kurlansky, 56, is more often tagged a food historian than an author. The label bothers him, although he accepts that food dominates his books - whether it's a novel or non-fiction about salt, cod, the year 1968, the Caribbean or European Jews. 'I get frustrated when I'm reading history that there isn't more information on what people were eating,' the New Yorker says in a Sydney restaurant, eager to end the interview and get started on an afternoon of wine tasting aboard a boat on the harbour. 'I see food as a fundamental element of the human condition. I don't believe people who say they don't care what they eat. There's something wrong with them. It's like saying, 'I have sex, but I don't really care whether it's good or not'. It doesn't make sense at all.' Kurlansky's best-known books use the tricks of fiction to tell true stories. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History reminded us of the odd but significant histories of two foods that rarely earn a second glance. He's just finished a history of the once famous New York oyster beds, which disappeared in 1927. The jocular American bristles when asked whether he has a technique. He's had one too many questions about the rise of narrative non-fiction. 'It just seems to be the best way to do it - to use interesting characters, to tell a good story,' he says. But he's happy to hear that his newly released first novel, Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue (Jonathon Cape), reverses his shtick. This time, a fictional story documents the gentrification of New York's East Village in the 1980s, resuscitating its fading food, music and politics. The funky novel's epilogue has 12 recipes from Puerto Rican, Italian, and German immigrants. He throws in a martini and the egg cream - a fizzy chocolate soda once common in New York. Boogaloo started as non-fiction about guilt - how it affects Germans after the Holocaust, how Russians live with the legacy of Stalin, and how South Africans cope after apartheid. 'I also wanted to include day-to-day things, showing how guilt is a universal thing: people who cheat on their wives, the guilt parents feel that they may not have done all they could for their child,' Kurlansky says. 'Then I thought I wanted it to be fiction - because I didn't really want to document people philandering. I started thinking about a novel set in the Lower East Side, which is a neighbourhood I know very well, a very colourful place that's in the process of changing and disappearing.' The novel follows a community less concerned about a roaming serial killer than the influx of yuppies, or 'the smarts'. With a large holding of worthless real estate, the Seltzer family is the centre of a neighbourhood of Jews, Germans, Latinos and Sicilians who squat or rent cheaply. It's a world where drug dealers are welcome - because no violent crime occurs in a dealer's street. As developers loom, the pioneers of boogaloo cruise by, hoping for a revival of the R&B-flavoured Cuban music. A German baker uses his pastries to win over neighbours who, after 40 years, still think he's a Nazi. His daughter cooks naked, using food as foreplay, before spooning leftovers on the body of happily married Nathan Seltzer. Kurlansky jokes that nothing in the novel is autobiographical. 'I've always loved the novelists who write about food,' he says. 'French and Chinese novelists - the cultures with the two great cuisines - almost always write about food.' The eye for narrative that helped enliven the cod is just as good at providing observations for a novel. Kurlansky notices that street graffiti is the best conveyor of subliminal messages and that Jews walk to a 'very fast four beat', whereas Latinos stride with a three-beat cha-cha-cha. 'Looking back at my life, I find it much more surprising that I've written non-fiction, rather than that I've written fiction,' he says. 'I would much rather read a novel than non-fiction. If it's true that the novel is dying, it can't be good. I'm always disturbed by articles on what the US presidents are reading - back when the president could read. They'd all be non-fiction. I'd always think it was bad that we were being run by someone who doesn't even read novels. It shows a lack of empathy. The soul and the heart of being human is denied when you don't read novels. People who can't empathise with other people are more inclined to kill them.' Changes to the East Village that locals may have missed were more apparent to Kurlansky when he returned after 10 years of working for the International Herald Tribune, Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer in Europe and the Caribbean. After climbing out of the reporting career he fell into, Kurlansky could still recognise a story. 'It's just an interesting moment when you have a poor neighbourhood and suddenly money is coming in and you can see the beginning of the end,' he says. 'Some people are going to be pushed out and other people are going to become rich. It does strange things to people and a neighbourhood.' But his journalistic habits don't extend to the books pages of newspapers. Kurlansky - the food writer who has never reviewed a restaurant - says his books would never have been written if he'd listened to critics, even those who praise his work. 'Reviews are something I think should be done, and I want my books reviewed - whether it's a good or a bad review isn't that important,' he says. 'But reviewing is a fundamentally absurd position to be in. To try to universalise personal literary assessments is very dicey water to get into. 'Reviewers tend to, without meaning to, tell you how to write. I don't want to start getting those messages from reviewers about how to write. Writers are really better off not reading criticism of any form.'