Tag Archive: Food

The Book Stack #2

jumbled books
What have we this time around?

You look at the title, Bread Wine Chocolate, and you’re already engaged. I mean, what’s not to like? Clearly three items selected from the book to grab our attention, since in reality, the book is, in order, Wine Chocolate Coffee Beer Bread Octopus. The book came highly anticipated, with suggestions being bandied about that this would be the next big, amazing food book. I clicked a link, put in my Kindle cue to be purchased when it was released, and more or less forgot about it until it showed up one day. I might have left my cursor hovering over the button rather than clicking, had I taken a moment to check out the author, Simran Sethi, a former MTV producer turned news anchor for, oh, MTV, who has gone on to continue work in the media world for various… how can I put this politely… touchie feelie outlets like Mother Earth News and TreeHugger. I’m not, at all, against the environment, sustainability, or anything else of the sort, don’t get me wrong, but it might have had me wondering about her bias in advance, rather than after the fact.

Though in truth, it’s not her bias that ruins this book for me. It’s her writing. I really wanted to like the book. There’s some great, well researched information in it. The problem is, it’s presented in a manner that ping-pongs back and forth between journalistic factual reporting and breathless golly gee whiz wow teen girl gossip style at a pace that would make the cut editors of Reality Bites envious. She also comes across as really, really, self absorbed, self indulgent, and self anything else you might care to insert, as she wings her way across the world with hand-grinder for coffee beans in one hand and an Aeropress brewer in the other, ruing that she isn’t back home with her Keurig machine (oh yeah, all those K-cups are just great for the environment) and her $13 designer chocolate bars. She spends the first couple of chapters of the book outlining what she’s going to cover and why she’s the one to do so, and how much we’re going to appreciate her having done so. Yes, yes, she got down and dirty with the folk who produce these various products, and sampled and tasted and learned to appreciate things at their source. And then promptly trundled back to her hotel to soak in the tub and anxiously write her next words on the balcony at sunset and then jet off to another exotic locale. If you like to hug trees, you’ll probably like this book.

I mentioned in the last book round-up that I had started working my way through a proposed list of the 51 Best Fantasy series. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, that if they’re rated from best, #1, to least best, #51, that progressively, I might like these series less, and less. I’m not sure that will hold true completely – after all, as I mentioned then as well, the Discworld canon wouldn’t even make it onto my list of good, let alone 7th Best. But there does seem to be a slight decline each round. I’ve started in on Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, beginning with The Blade Itself. It’s a relatively easy read.

There are things about it I really like – it’s written in a light-hearted tone, with a bit of humor. The series is often compared to Song of Fire and Ice, the Game of Thrones inspiring stack of books, and in some ways, I can see that – the action sequences, the bloody, grisly, details. But in other ways, not so much – the political manipulations and intrigue are there, but more or less ho-hum, there doesn’t seem to be any big, sweeping vista – within the first few chapters it’s obvious that all the lead characters’ lives are going to quite quickly intersect, in a pretty predictable way. Some reviewers have said that that gets turned on its head as the trilogy progresses, and by the end of the third book, nothing will be as anticipated. I can only hope so. It’s interesting enough to continue forward.

One of the finest books from one of the early crafters of modern science fiction, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a long time favorite that I hadn’t read in quite some time. Another list of “bests”, this time from io9, The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List starts off with this one.

Filled with Evil Corporations, interplanetary intrigue, bio-engineering, power, greed, revenge, and the obligatory Sub-Culture, this has all the elements that make for a great cyberpunk read. Given when this was written, in the early 1950s, it’s a brilliant precursor to that movement at a time when “cyber” didn’t yet mean anything and “punk” meant something completely different. Gripping story, fast paced action, and even it’s own “street” language that fits the genre perfectly. It’s a relatively short book (or at least in comparison to some of those I’ve been reading recently), and with its pace, it’s the sort you can sit down and read through on a rainy afternoon.

A couple of years ago I read the book Of Dice and Men, a look back at the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and, those of us nerds who played it. I was an avid player of the game back in the mid to late 70s, and have continued a fascination with the world(s) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original duo behind the game. I’ve gone on to play computer based games, both early ones that were limited to being installed on your computer and played by one or a couple of people, and on, to MMORPGs, the massive universes created online like Everquest and Worlds of Warcraft.

The earlier book I mentioned was mostly focused on the game itself, and the gamers who took it and ran with it. There was plenty of biographical information about the creators, but you couldn’t call it biography. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination takes another run at it. As he says in the introduction, he couldn’t believe when he started researching the book that no one had ever written a biography of Gary Gygax, who, while not a household name except to those of us in the gaming world, created something that went on to be the foundation for things we take for granted in modern day life, everything from the use of computers for games, to the advent of social media. As he also points out, it’s telling, that in an episode of the pop-culture show Futurama, Gygax’s character is paired up with Lieutenant Uhura, Al Gore, and Steven Hawking – taking on the universe. The book is well written, completely engaging, and for anyone with an interest in the topic, a must read.

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Cooking the Books #2

A round-up of some of my recent food reading.

Pollan, Michael (April 28, 2009) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Setting aside that in some ways this is another book with more of the same diet advice that’s been published in countless books, the most interesting part of this is that not only is it well written and engaging without being preachy, but I like that it really explores how statistics and media messages have been manipulated by corporations and government agencies with agendas that aren’t in our best interests. For those who are Michael Pollan fans, this is a must read.

*****

Davis, Michelle & Holloway, Matt (October 7, 2014) Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck

Yawn. Really, just yawn. Look, I don’t care about people using curse words, but these folks don’t even know how to use them. They’re trying for some weird version of “street cred” and they come across as completely inept at it. It’s as if they wrote the book in a final version with every i dotted and t crossed and all the grammar perfect, and then said, “hey, let’s do a global search and replace on some words like ‘things’ to change it to ‘shit’, and everywhere we use the word ‘delicious’ let’s add in the word ‘fucking’ in front of it”. It comes across as completely formulaic and forced (as it does on their website), and it’s no surprise that they were recently “outed” as a couple of whitebread yuppies just trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a shame, too, because they actually have some decent recipes on the site and in the book, but the quality of those, and the underlying message for healthy eating, just get lost in a big motherfucking pile of word shit. (See, annoying. It doesn’t work when I do it either.)

*****

Orkin, Ivan & Ying, Chris (October 29, 2013) Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint

Most people will probably head to this book for the recipes. After all, why not learn how to make ramen from a westerner who took the time and effort to learn everything he could about the subject and then interpret it and reinterpret it for western palates? And, the recipes sound great, are well written, albeit at times a bit complicated or at least time consuming. But, for me, it was the story of how Ivan Orkin dove into his life and developed his passion for ramen that made the book. Completely captivating.

*****

Sokolov, Raymond (February 11, 2014) Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

Part of my introduction to the world of food came through the brilliantly researched and well written articles by Raymond Sokolov in my monthly subscription to Natural History magazine when I was growing up. Later, I would snag a friend’s daily Wall Street Journal after she finished with it, purely to read his restaurant reviews and food writing. His Saucier’s Apprentice and Cook’s Canon were long ago staples of my bookshelf. This book just continues the saga, with an autobiographical look back at how it all happened, along with an insightful look at where food trends are headed in today’s culinary world. For anyone interested in food history, this book is a must to pick up and enjoy.

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Proofed and Ready to Print

This book, Don’t Fry for Me Argentina, is a collection of stories, conversations, and more about life after having moved to Argentina – some of it adapted from here on the blog, some from other published work, and some wholly new. The book includes two dozen of my versions of both classic and modern Argentine recipes, and basically is a mix of travel reader, cultural viewpoint and, hopefully, just some fun.

fry front cover

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Second Time Around

Just shy of two years since the original edition’s publication, the second edition of my bilingual Spanish and English food and wine dictionary was officially published today and is available: Saltshaker Spanish-English-Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary – Second Edition

This edition incorporates many of the suggestions received over the last two years including making it pocketbook sized, decreasing the amount of “white space” (I’d originally figured on people perhaps wanting to make notes, but most seem to prefer a volume that takes up less room) and size of the typeface, as well as expanding the number of entries by around 40-45% to over 7,000.

Many thanks to those who contributed both suggestions and missing words and phrases over the last two years. Thanks in particular go out to Jean Strejan, who used a particularly experienced and critical eye on the formatting, and once again to Frank Rocca for his new and delightful piece of cover art and constant support.

dictionary 2nd edition cover

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With Liver and Giblets for All

“The wickedly entertaining, hunger-inducing, behind-the-scenes story of the revolution in American food that has made exotic ingredients, celebrity chefs, rarefied cooking tools, and destination restaurants familiar aspects of our everyday lives.”

– back cover blurb from…

The United States of ArugulaBuenos Aires – The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp, catchy title, no? Wish I’d have thought of it first. For those of you not in norteamericano foodie circles, this book has been getting a lot of attention since its publication last year in hard cover (paperback edition just came out in July), everything from press reviews to casual offhand remarks, online and off (yes, there is still life offline). First off, let me say that it’s well worth reading, a veritable page-turner of recent food history in the U.S. – I’m not going to say I couldn’t put it down, as I did, several times, because it’s a long book and I had other things to do, but I also read through it, cover to cover, over the course of the last week.

Here’s the good stuff – it’s witty, and I like that. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it has enough humorous anecdotes, and David Kamp has enough snarky irreverence thrown in to keep a smile on my face through a good portion of the book. It gets into the “history” of the foodie movement pretty well, going very in-depth on a few stories, James Beard, Julia Child, and Alice Waters in particular are covered at length and breadth, and resurface throughout the book. It’s well organized, starting with at least a mention of the late 18th century and moving on up to what was present day when it was written. I knew a good number of the stories already, but not in so much detail, and, of course, I’m in the business, so a lot of the people in the book are people who I know either casually or well. And hey, there are a few stories that I could… well, never mind.

On the other hand, and you knew there’d be one… while he acknowledges that food didn’t spring miraculously into existence with the arrival of James Beard on the scene, quoting Barbara Kafka, “It’s like there was no food in this fucking city, or this country, until this miraculous apparition came along! Or there was no cooking at home until Julia.” But then, he promptly manages to cover the entire period from the 1790s until the 1930s in a matter of a few pages, and even in those keeps returning to the latter part of the 20th century, and then covers the period from the 1930s until the early 60s in less than a dozen pages, most of which are focused on one restaurateur, Henri Soulé. But, in a sense, that’s in keeping with the style of the book – its focus is on some very select individuals and their stories, with others coming into play more as peripherals – not that he doesn’t give those extras some page time, but I was left feeling like they were propping up his main characters – for the most part, the three folk listed above, whom, after reading the book, did I not know better, could have pretty much done it by themselves, with a few food writers thrown in for good measure.

The book is, not surprisingly, coastal-centric… if one can be coastal and centric at the same time – focusing mostly on the food scene in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and a bit in Los Angeles. While there’s no question that a huge amount of the modern food movement, and in particular the public figures in it, come from those areas, I think he gives short shrift to the rest of the country. Someone like Norman Van Aiken, the godfather of “Florida cuisine” doesn’t even make an appearance in the book. Ming Tsai (who ought to fit his celebrity criteria) is nowhere to be seen. His ethnic influences seem limited to French, a nod to Italian (Mario Batali apparently invented Italian food in the U.S. with the help of ingredients from Dean & DeLuca), Mexican (Rick Bayless and a bit of Bobby Flay doing the same for south of the border cuisine, with a very brief nod to Mark Miller and Diane Kennedy, whom, we gather, did lots of research but not much else), and a bit of Japanese, in particular sushi, and in particular the famed Masa and Nobu. There is, in essence, no mention of other influences – China, India, Southeast Asia, the entire rest of Latin America, the Middle East, the rest of Europe, Africa, Austraila (admittedly the latter two have yet to have any major impact on cuisine in the U.S.) – the influence of Chinese cuisine is covered in three widely separated paragraphs, Craig Claiborne meeting the authors of a Chinese cookbook, a mention of Michael Field’s review of a different Chinese cookbook, and Wolfgang Puck bringing Chinese influence (apparently for the first time on our shores) into his restaurant Chinois. The only mention I recall of all of Latin America outside of Mexico is a brief cameo by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, from Peru.

But the biggest “missing” for me were the people, the “ordinary” people. I know that this book is focused on the celebrities – and let’s face it, that’s really what it is, a mixed celebrity bio, which for the most part in this tome means someone who has appeared regularly on television – and anyone who isn’t or wasn’t a celebrity is simply either ignored or discounted – does he really need to remind us, every time he mentions something good that Craig Claiborne did, that in his later years he “declined” into alcoholism, and how many times do we need to hear that James Beard was fat? Or repeatedly pointing out that they were gay, which, if it was somehow worked into their influence on the food scene might have been relevant past the first mention. Or that nobody really likes, or ever liked, Alice Waters…? The people missing, however, are more than just the rest of the professional food world in the U.S., they are the people who were eating all this food. The tenor of the book comes across that 99.99999% of the populace were pretty much dragged, kicking and screaming, forced at gunpoint, to try anything new. There seems to be no awareness, and certainly no acknowledgement, that what made it possible for these chefs and food writers and food growers/raisers to do what they did is that We, the People, were actually a prime part of the equation – from immigrants hungering for foods of their homelands, to GIs who’d been overseas and came back with stories to tell of things they’d eaten, to the world simply “becoming a smaller place” with international travel, global media and in recent years, phenomena like, for example, hey, food communities on the internet, where we were actually actively seeking out the new, the exotic, the different – the social, cultural, political world that influenced the culinary or gastronomic environment into which these people could flourish and become the celebrities that they have.

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New and Improved

The dictionary is back, for those of you who’ve been asking – it’s finally been published in soft-cover version and is available. It is, as best I’ve been able to determine, the only dictionary of its kind – not just a short glossary or traveler’s guide, but a 5,000 entry dictionary that includes common dishes, alternate meanings (including advisories where words are sometimes used in non-food related contexts), and, to boot – a great piece of cover art from my friend and colleague Frank Rocca.

Order away, rate it highly, hey, give me a hand here! SaltShaker Spanish – English – Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary (Bilingual) (English and Spanish Edition)

dictionaryfirstedition

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Thou Shalt Read

In The Devil’s GardenBaltimore – I just finished the book In the Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food by Steward Lee Allen (Ballantine Books, 2002). I love stuff like this. History, speculation, romance, and a bit of comedic relief, and it’s all about my favorite topic – food! The book is an exploration into food taboos, both current and historical, and a look at where they came from, and the results of varioius laws, edicts, codes, and other such attempts to regulate their ingestion.

Let me start with my few minor quibbles about the book. The book is divided into basically seven chapters, one for each of the usual seven deadly sins. Mr. Allen starts each chapter with a menu made up of either pseudonymed items or commonly named items with oddball descriptions – all in an attempt to humorously lead into each sin and the specific subject matter of that chapter. He’s far more amusing when he strings sentences together – for the most part the menus come across as juvenile attempts to entertain. He has a tendency to use “common knowledge” as fact – the most noticeable one for me was when he launched into an exploration of some of the kosher dietary laws. Two in particular stood out, let me take them one at a time.

He states that in Leviticus (Old Testament, or Torah, for those not up on these things) there is a prohibition against the mixing of meat and milk, and claims it was even part of the original ten commandments. First off, there is no such prohibition in Leviticus (I’ll get to that in a moment), and second, the latter claim is complete speculation. The actual statement in the bible translates as “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.” Literally that means that you are prohibited from boiling a young goat in it’s own mother’s milk. This goes along with other prohibitions about not killing a kid on the same day as it’s own mother. The kosher dietary law against mixing meat and milk came in much later in history, and was a rabbinical prohibition in the Talmud, (specifically the Mishnah) or commentary on the Torah, not a “divine” one. It was based on the biblical statement as an attempt to expand upon God’s intentions in the matter. Second, the original statement doesn’t appear in Leviticus (and therefore the kosher laws) at all. It appears twice in the bible, Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21.

The second one he tackles is the prohibition against eating pork. He meanders with this one and cites all sorts of various claims, most of which have been shown to be questionable. While I won’t claim that all scholars agree on where this one came from, there has seemed to be a settling towards an explanation he doesn’t even bother with (surprising, since much of this book goes into the politics of food taboos), which is political. The Jews, at the time, were living amongst, if I’m remembering my studies well, the Canaanites. These folk were major in the pig trade, in fact, they pretty much were the pig trade in the middle east. The leaders of the jewish folk were out to make sure that their people didn’t intermingle – socially, sexually, or even commercially – thereby maintaining a separate identity. Banning any contact with pigs, and making the punishments be both corporal and capital, was a shrewd political maneuver to accomplish their goals.

Those two examples popped up mostly because of my personal religious studies when younger, so they stood out. I wouldn’t be surprised if folks who have training in other areas were to find similar gaffes in other parts of the book.

Now, all that said… I loved this book! It is an entertaining and thoughtful read. It is well written, with some wonderful turns of phrase, good pacing, and overall, damned amusing. It is obviously researched in depth, and whole worlds of both local traditions and scholarly pursuit are brought into the discussion. It was “worldly” in the sense that it covered cultural taboos across the globe. The division into Western culture’s “seven deadly sins” is perhaps a hometown conceit, but the categories are recognizable enough, even if not universal, that anyone can follow them. Oh, and last… kudos to the publisher – the font used is beautiful, and has just enough of an exotic styling to add to the whole feel of the book.

This is the second book in a similar vein that Mr. Allen has written, the first being an exploration into the history of coffee, The Devil’s Cup, which has now moved onto my reading list.

 

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