Re-reading while older.

It's not as dangerous as driving while drunk, but re-reading books that I read as a young person, now that I am an old person, is turning out to be a bittersweet journey.

And yes, I know 46 is a little young to be feeling as old as I am. But frankly, the last few years BEFORE 2020 had aged me, and I think 2020 has aged us all. I think it's safe to say I feel about 84. On a good day. At least I don't have macular degeneration (yet). Kitchen

The other day I was reading something about Anthony Bourdain (how I miss him) and I thought, I'd like to re-read Kitchen Confidential. So I did; but only in parts. This is what I found out:

  • I really miss Anthony Bourdain. I didn't re-read Kitchen Confidential all the way through, but I read it in little bits here and there and every single page I flipped to sucked me in immediately. And what a memoir. I'd forgotten just how meaty it was--literally and figuratively (the paperback copy I've got is slightly over 300 pages). He really had a way of making everything that he talked about interesting (even the parts that weren't that interesting to me, including some of his harder-living days). I usually don't have a lot of patience for "bad boys" describing their hijinks, but I have patience for Bourdain, mostly because when he's acting like a jerk he clearly knows he's acting like a jerk, and sometimes you can hear him striving for a more perfect state of being, through food or perhaps his skill with food. It's inspiring.
  • He was just 44 or so when this, one of his biggest and bestselling books, was published, it is shocking to me how old Bourdain used to seem (when I first read this book I would have been in my late 20s or 30) to me, and now that I'm 46, he seems ridiculously young. How can sixteen years or so make that big a difference in perspective? (And of course he died much too young.)
  • I just really liked this book. Take the chapter where Bourdain describes being the chef in a restaurant that the mob set up to give to a compatriot who had spent time in prison for not ratting them out. Although the man was not really fit to be in charge of a restaurant, Bourdain describes how many of the wise guys really tried to help him make it:

"When we finally opened, we were packed from the first minute. Orders flooded in over the phone and at the counter and at the tables. We were unprepared and understaffed, so the Italian contingent--including various visiting dignitaires, all with oddly anglicized names ('This is Mr. Dee, Tony, and meet a friend, Mr. Brown...This is Mr. Lang'), all of them overweight, cigar-chomping middle-aged guys with bodyguards and ten thousand-dollar watches--pitched in to help out with deliveries and at the counter. Gusy I'd read about later in the papers as running construction in the outer boroughs, purported killers, made men, who lived in concrete piles on Staten Island and Long Beach and security-fenced estates in Jersey, carried brown paper bags of chicken sandwiches up three flights of stairs to Greenwich Village walk-up apartments to make deliveries; they slathered mayo and avocado slices on pita bread behind the counter, and bused tables in the dining room. I have to say I liked them for that." p. 148.)

It remains a classic memoir. And even though it made me feel old to re-read it, it was worth it.

I don't like this back-to-the-lander either.

It's official: I really need to stop reading "back to the land" memoirs.

This week I started Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love. I'm stopping this one at page 97. I figure this means I'm being twice as efficient this week as I was last week. Lookit me! I can learn!

So this is the memoir of a woman who fell in love with a man who wanted to farm, and I mean old-style Farm with a capital "F." So much so that by the time I quit the book, on page 97, they were getting their own farm in shape, buying draft horses, and looking for equipment to use with those horses to break and plant sod on the land they were renting. I have zero interest in horses, so that seemed like a good place to stop.

You know, to each their own. I can respect Kimball and her (eventual) husband, and their desire to grow their own food. But this author had all the earmarks of a certain type of person/personality that I just don't get. First, there was this, when Kimball went to interview her husband-to-be for a magazine article and first met him:

"He introduced himself, shook my hand, and then he was abruptly gone, off on some urgent farm business, the screen door banging shut behind him, promising over his shoulder to give me an interview when he got back that evening. Meantime, I could hoe the broccoli with his assistant, Keena. I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can't believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude." (p. 10.)

Yeah, I can't believe it either. I grew up on a farm where the work always came first and everything else came second. It's not charming. It's brutal, and it grinds you down, particularly if you don't really enjoy working 20 hours out of every day. Secondly, fuck this "this is a man" shit just because he does some physical work. I really do believe all people should do some physical work, whether it be cleaning their own home or doing a garden or something, but quite frankly I like a good cerebral man. When I watch Mr. CR work Excel like a champ, which is a skill that has taken time and brains and a lot of patience to develop, I get turned on. Doesn't mean I run around telling people, "Wow, Mr. CR is a man." Thirdly, why are you hoeing the man's broccoli? You don't have your own work to do? You can't find a man who maybe recognizes that you scheduled this time for an interview and he could abide by that appointment if he respected what you do?

And then there's this, when Kimball went back to see/date Mark and hunted for deer with him. They ended up eating the deer's liver with herbs, white wine, and cream:

"The texture reminded me of wild mushrooms, firm but tender, and the flavor was distinct but not overpowering, the wildness balanced between the civilized and familiar pairing of cream and wine. And there was something else about it, something more primal, a kind of craving, my body yelling, EAT THAT, I NEED IT. That was my first hint that there's a wisdom to the appetite, that if you clear out the white noise of processed food and listen, health and delicious are actually allies. We are animals, after all, hardwired to like what's good for us...That might have been the same deep part of me that first told me to love Mark. Don't be an idiot, it said. The man hunts, he grows, he's strapping and healthy and tall. He'll feed you, and his genes might improve the shrimpiness of your line. LOVE HIM." (p. 28.)

Ugh. Where do I start with this? At the beginning, I guess. I grew up on unprocessed farm food (we butchered our own meat, milked our own cows, etc.) and you know the only time my body has ever screamed EAT THAT I NEED IT at me? The first time I drank coffee and ate S'mores Pop Tarts. I've eaten healthy and I've eaten for shit and honestly I can't tell you that I've FELT a lot different either way. I can grant you that I can see the effects of healthier eating in less weight gain, but other than that? I'm certainly not feeling any epiphany when I bite into local meat vs. whatever the hell it is Costco sells. I feel about this "your body will melt with orgasmic thrills if you just feed it better food" crap the way I felt at the farm market once when I overheard a woman telling the vendor that her kids won't touch any processed stuff since they'd had farm market food. I wanted to clock her. My children have had farm market food since birth and they would gladly give it all up for a steady supply of Welch's fruit snacks (or kiddie crack, as we call them around here).

And don't even get me started on the lack of information about how one gets health insurance or sees the doctor when both parts of a couple freelance/farm. Kimball and her husband have two kids now, I think, so obviously someone saw a doctor at some point. I'm curious how they paid for that? I hate it when farm/freelance/work memoirs leave out the scariest part of our current economy: what you do without health insurance.

I guess maybe I'm just bitter that I'm obviously not hardwired to love real strapping MEN or organic meat. Either way, back to the library with this one.

Oh, Anthony Bourdain.

If you did not see the news, chef/author/TV host/world traveler Anthony Bourdain died on Saturday, in Paris.

There is no shortage of tributes to Bourdain. But I would just like to say, I really loved reading Anthony Bourdain. I put his memoir Kitchen Confidential on my list of best Memoirs, the man could even write a must-read essay about the state of New Jersey, and even when I was wondering if he had jumped the shark, I still loved him.

Also: no one could swear like Anthony Bourdain. No one. I'm so sorry for your loss, world, of Anthony Bourdain.*

*And what a loss it is. Anyone who would say this about Henry Kissinger and stand by it is an American hero.

Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect: A food book worth reading.

There are a lot of books being written these days about our food.

I've read a lot of them myself, but somewhere along the way I burned out on them. Partially this was because I worry about my family's diet, but not enough to do the massive amounts of work that are necessary to grow your own food, or even preserve or freeze it.* Partially this was also because I have the world's least sophisticated palate**, so telling me about how healthy food can also taste great is largely a waste of time.

But I must say that I found Mark Schatzker's investigative book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor to be a new take on a very overdone subject. Schatzker examines food from the viewpoint of flavor--most importantly, how the majority of our food doesn't have any, because it has mainly been produced by a huge agricultural system that must sacrifice complex flavor in order to maximize hardiness and yield.

One thing I really appreciated here was Schatzker's lean journalistic writing and emphasis on scientific studies done on the relationships between flavors in foods and their nutritious compounds. Here's your sample of the book, in which the author describes one of the reasons modern chickens taste so bland:

"In the late 1940s, a new and important feed was unleashed upon poultrydom: the 'high-energy diet.' For chickens to grow twice as fast as their recent ancestors, they needed to mainline carbs.

There was. however, a tradeoff that no one thought much about in the 1940s, or today. What the high-energy diet gains in calories, it loses in flavor. The feed is typically a blend of seeds--corn, wheat, millet, soybeans, etc.--and while some seeds (nutmeg, for example) are flavorful, the seeds we feed chicken are not. And, unlike tomatoes, a chicken doesn't make its own flavor. The taste of animal flesh is strongly influenced by what an animal eats." (p. 35.)

It's an interesting read, and even includes an appendix with a few basic suggestions for starting to improve one's diet. Sigh. I should really follow some of those.

*If I seriously gardened or preserved food I'd have even less time to read! Not. Gonna. Happen.

**For nearly ten years after I graduated from college, I ate a S'mores Pop-Tart and coffee for every breakfast, home-made meatloaf for most at-home meals (hamburger is my true medium), and candy and ice cream in massive, massive quantities. Don't tell my mom, okay? The poor woman raised me on milk my father's dairy herd produced, beef and pork my family raised itself and an awe-inspiring amount of homegrown fruits and vegetables. She was kinder to me for my first eighteen years than I have been to myself since.

Jared Stone's Year of the Cow: Skip it.

I'm not sure why I originally requested Jared Stone's memoir Year of the Cow: How 420 Pounds of Beef Built a Better Life for One American Family from the library. I just liked the title, I suppose.

I've been chipping away at this book for what feels like months, but I've only gotten to about page 52. The book is exactly what its title advertises: Stone buys his family a butchered beef steer, and then writes about their year eating it. My only thought after getting through those 50 pages was "Wow, we're really just writing memoirs about ANYTHING now." Along the way he throws in some history of meat animals and cooking; some family vignettes from his busy Los Angeles existence; and some recipes, but at the end of the day? It's a whole memoir about buying a lot of beef and eating it.

I've seen this done in similar ways, but better, and mostly by Steven Rinella (author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine: How I Spent a Year in the American Wild to Re-Create a Feast from the Classic Recipes of French Master Chef Au and Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter).

Here's your sample, so you can decide for yourself. This is the beginning of chapter 1:

"One cow is approximately one Prius-full of meat.

This is the latest fact I've learned in the past twenty-four hours. It's also the most pressing, as the aforementioned cow has been frozen, packed into eight neat boxes, and stacked into the back of my jet-black Prius. I'm behind the wheel, hell-bent for leather, racing against the cold pouring off the boxes in palpable waves. Due south. Los Angeles by sundown." (p. 7.)

What if you don't have the energy to be radical or a homemaker?

I was rather annoyed by the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Author Shannon Hayes, herself a radical homemaker and author of organic meat cookbooks, took upon herself the task of meeting and interviewing numerous individuals and families who were "pursuing homemaking as a vocation for saving family, community, and the planet." (p. 1.) She then wrote this book, in two parts: the first half, in which she gives a brief history of homemaking and a short critique of our American economic system and culture, and the second, in which she shares insights and lessons learned from her interviews with multiple individuals seeking to live their lives "off the grid" (to differing degrees).

Frankly, I agreed with a lot of her points in the critique of our system. You can't stay home with your kids these days without noticing that you do have choices, and these are it: go to work, and take your kids to daycare; stay at home and spend most of your day scheduling and attending your children's activities and playdates so they're "socialized" before they even get to school; or do neither and feel slightly off for about six years while you and your kids wander around your suburban neighborhood, which is a ghost town, because most people have opted for the first two choices. So yes. I think a lifestyle where money and over-scheduled children are the only goals is not real fulfilling. But still. Does that mean I'm ready to move back to the farm, grow my own food and build my own house?


And I can't say that Hayes really convinces me otherwise. I'll admit, whenever I read a book on this subject, I always flip to the index and look for "health care" or "health insurance," because how an author treats that subject usually lets me know how seriously I have to take them. And this is what I found in this book:

"For many of the homemakers, locally produced, organic and nutrient-dense foods were more reliable guarantees for health than medical insurance. 'The way that we eat...keeps us healthier, so we're not spending a lot of money on doctors bills...or medicines,' says Eve Honeywell who, aong with her husband, became so passionate about good food that she began farming..." (p. 148.)

And if that's not enough of a humdinger, here's the next page:

"A sound home-based health insurance policy requires living a joyous, fulfilling and consequential life. Indeed, in their research on well-being, Ed Diener and Shigehiro Oishi have found that positive states of well-being correlated with better physical health." (p. 149.)

This is the radical homemaking answer to health care and the need for health insurance? Healthy food and a positive attitude? Well, let me just say, as someone who ate totally healthy food the first 18 years of her life, and whose extended family all eats healthy food, um....fuck that. I'm pretty sure my nutrition and attitude didn't have a whole lot to do with my huge old ovarian cyst that required major (expensive) surgery, and I know it doesn't have a lot to do with some other health issues in my family, even though we are basically healthy people.

Although, as you can tell, I probably don't have the required positive attitude that makes it possible to live without health insurance.

Anyway. Once I saw that was the homemakers' answer to health insurance, I rather gave up on taking this book seriously. But I did read the whole thing, and I think the author did put in quite a bit of work doing a lot of personal interviews. So my question remains: has anyone read a good book about trying to live a slightly different lifestyle, but one which still recognizes the absolute necessity of having health insurance in America today?

Dinner: A Love Story (skinny review)

Well, CR3 is nicely settling in to the family's routine (or are we settling into his?), leaving me just a bit more time for reading. However, I am still struggling to find the time to blog, and the books are getting ahead of me just a bit. So I thought this week I would run some "skinny" reviews--like sub sandwiches at our local Milio's shops, where you can buy just the meat and bread in a "skinny" sandwich--these reviews will have just the basics, folks.

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach

What's it all about, briefly?: This book started as a blog, in which Rosenstrach, a publishing professional, posted about her family's nightly dinners (all of which she tracked in a notebook for years). The book covers the years when she was first married, had small children, lost her job, and other life changes.

Representative Quote: In her section on how non-cooking spouses and partners can support the cook: "#5. Take control of the heart sinkers. By this I mean, take care of all the things in the kitchen that routinely make the Cook's heart sink: discovering the dishes in the dishwasher are clean but unloaded, realizing just as you sit down to dinner that no one has anything to drink or that the soy sauce/ketchup/napkins are not on the table." (p. 108.)

The Skinny: An okay read, but the recipes aren't super practical unless you can stop by the big-city grocery or organic co-op on the way home. Beautiful photographs, though.

Paris is for bureaucrats.

I'll let you in on a little secret: I've never really wanted to go to Paris.

I feel like I should travel there someday. People have told me to travel there someday. But the stubborn fact remains that even though I've been to London twice, I'd still rather go back to London (or almost any other city I've been to, in fact, and I'd love to pick up Glasgow and Manchester and Ottawa and a plethora of other British, Scottish, and Canadian places) than go see Paris for the first time. Part of this is the language barrier: I don't know any French, and although my accent for Spanish words is acceptable, my accent on French words is not. In Montreal I screwed up the courage to say "bonjour" to a museum guard, who then smiled kindly and a bit sadly at me and said, "Hello."

So I can't say that Rosecrans Baldwin's travel memoir Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, really made me want to visit the city. But it was a highly enjoyable read, and it's made me vaguely curious to see Paris, which is more than I felt before. Baldwin is better known as one of the founders of The Morning News and a popular literary fiction novelist, but before all of that he took a job in advertising in Paris--despite, as the book jacket reveals, "the fact that he had no experience in advertising. And despite the fact that he barely spoke French."

So what you get here is a mixture of travelogue, as well as a more typical memoir-like focus on work, friendships, and his marriage. He does the travelogue stuff well, like when he describes the neighborhood where they rent an apartment:

"And where roads didn't cross was an old covered market, the Marche du Temple, blue with a dirty glass roof. Some weekends, men trucked in what appeared to be stolen leather goods, but otherwise the market stood empty--Thursdays, maybe it was Tuesdays, a tennis league strung up nets inside--and the surrounding quadrant would be filled with people dawdling over cafe tables that they'd occupy for hours, chatting with friends....Rue Bretagne had a park with a playground, two bookstores, a boutique that sold vintage radios, a booth that sold found photographs--it was the Left Bank I'd seen in picture books, preserved in time. At the center stood the oldest Paris farmer's market still operating, Le Marche des Enfants Rouges, built in the 1600s, now ringed by food stalls that sold Moroccan tagines, huge piles of Turkish desserts, West African stews, even sushi.

It was fantastic." (p. 23.)

So yes, I'll admit that paragraphs like that made Paris more interesting to me than I've ever found it before. But what I enjoyed even more about this book was Baldwin's report of working alongside his French colleagues, trying to navigate the country's many bureaucracies, and the many personality quirks of Parisians. Mr. CR read the book too, and we both enjoyed learning that Parisians love eating at McDonald's, but they spend a lot more money there per meal than Americans will. And there's a lot more lovely bits, including the ones where he discusses how he tried to pick up the knack for when to kiss people on both cheeks in greeting, arguing with the French telemarketer who calls constantly to talk about his telephone service, his coworkers getting annoyed when he has the gall to eat his lunch at his desk (which is simply not done there, I gather), and French labor strikes.

Did Paris really end up bringing Rosecrans down? Not so much. You get the feeling that it was a more exhausting experience than he thought it would be, but in the end he still seems to find the city a little magical. To think something is magic even after you get to know it better? Let's face it: that's the best kind of love story.

A testament for the power of short chapters.

After reading the first few chapters of novelist Kate Christensen's new memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, I didn't think I was going to keep on reading it. Fairly early on, there's some descriptions of her father's abuse of her mother, and I really, REALLY dislike reading about domestic abuse. But for some reason nothing else I had around to read was appealing to me, so I just kind of kept going back to this one, and because it's written in short chapters (which I love), I found that all of a sudden I had finished it.

I know, this does not sound like a ringing endorsement of this book.

But it was, in its own way, very readable. It's not fancy: Christensen basically tells her life story through the lens of food, moving from her childhood in Berkley and through her mother's first divorce and subsequent marriages, during which the family moved around quite a bit. (Her mother's a fascinating character in her own right; a strong-willed woman who, in essence, keeps finding and marrying the "wrong" men, but manages, for the most part, to raise her three daughters in a close-knit family unit.)

Christensen also very matter-of-factly describes her own work experiences, education, and eventual writing career, as well as her complex first marriage. And at the end of several chapters she provides recipes from her personal history, with her own spin on them. Although books with recipes tend to be (in my experience), decidedly "cozy" in tone, that is not the case here. Starting with the domestic abuse, moving through a childhood marked by uprootedness and unhappiness at school (including some horrific offhand remarks about a math teacher of hers who sexually harrasses her and many other students), and moving through an adult life fraught with complex relationships, dieting issues, and a stint of nannying in France, there is a lot of dark stuff here.

It comes late, but Christensen's writing is at her best, I feel, when she is writing about reading and writing. And even when she discusses her fascination with detective novels, she brings it back to food:

"And almost all fictional detectives knew how to eat. Marlowe armed himself for stakeouts with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey; V. I. Warshawski escaped danger and made a beeline for a Hungarian goulash at the Golden Glow...Robert B. Parker's Spencer ate as grandly as he spouted half-pretentious literary allusions, and I loved him for it; I hated his psychotherapist girlfriend, however, because she nibbled at a lettuce leaf and called it a meal."* (p. 222.)

A long time ago I read Christensen's novel The Great Man and really enjoyed it; although this was not my favorite memoir ever, it did remind me that I'd like to read more of her fiction.

*I never cared much for Spencer's girlfriend either. I just thought she was dull.

I've got no problem with indie and self-published books...

...but come on, authors, you've got to try harder than this.

For me, "book discoverability" (discussion about "book discoverability," and how to help people discover books, is all the rage right now in publishing and library circles) has never really been all that much of a problem. I discover books wherever I go; for me the problem is getting through even one-tenth or so of all the books I want to read or have lying around at any one time. A large part of how I find nonfiction books, for instance, is that I merely browse the list of all new nonfiction that my local public library system publishes every month. Whatever title piques my interest, I request.

I tell you that long-winded story because that is how I stumbled across the title Mad City Eats: Food Adventures in Madison, Wisconsin, by Adam Vincent Powell. That is a title that is certain to grab my interest on many levels: I like food, and foodie books. I'm always interested in local subjects and authors. And I'm always vaguely curious who these local authors are (if they are truly "local") and what they're out there doing.

But when I brought this book home, I was disappointed. I have no idea who this Adam Vincent Powell* is, and the book includes no introduction, preface, or really any kind of clue to enlighten me. The book literally just launches into its subject matter, which is a compendium of short chapters on restaurant reviews, thoughts on local food production, and topics like "where to hunker down in Madison if the zombie apocalypse comes." As far as I can tell, there is no organizing principle here--the restaurant reviews are not listed alphabetically or geographically, and they are just all mixed in with related chapters like the zombie apocalypse one. At the end of the book and on the back cover, there isn't even any sort of "About the Author" blurb! I'm a believer in modesty, but come on, Mr. Powell, that's ridiculous.

I read through the book over the course of several mornings while CRjr lovingly took his time over his breakfast, and I actually did enjoy it. The reviews are engagingly written and even the more esoteric chapters are not without their charm (where to hide during aforementioned zombie attack: "Jenifer St. Market: This neighborhood grocery standby would be a pretty good place to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak, as it's small enough to defend but also has loads of beer, wine, and food, all key to dealing with Armageddon."). But in the end I never could get past the disconcerting nature of just being launched into a series of disparate chapters without any understanding of who was writing or publishing this book, and why.

*Evidently he's written a lot of food articles in local newspapers and The Onion.

Look no further for a great guide to food lit!

I am very, very excited: the first book that I helped with, as series editor for the Real Stories series of nonfiction reading guides (published by ABC-CLIO), came out yesterday!

Food litThe book in question is Melissa Brackney Stoeger's Food Lit: A Reader's Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction, and you'll excuse my parental-ish pride if I say it's nothing short of fantastic. Stoeger not only explores (and helps categorize into similar nonfiction food "genres") a TON of popular and current nonfiction titles about food, she provides gorgeous appendix materials about cooking shows, food blogs, and food book awards. If you work in a library and get questions from patrons with an interest in this subject, this is a great resource for you. (For example: Tired of combing through all the cookbooks in your stacks to find the more narrative foodie selections? Melissa has done all that work for you!)

If anyone out there is going to ALA Midwinter, I'm sure they'll have copies in the ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited (#2021) booth for you to look at, although I warn you--reading it will make you hungry (for both books and food)!

I wish I could go pass out advertising flyers at my local food co-op (foodies galore!) for it--I just might, actually.*

*I'm totally biased, but I also love the cover.

Gotta love Bittman.

In case you're on the lookout for an exceedingly practical gift, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Mark Bittman's superlative cookbook How To Cook Everything.

Yeah, it's a big book. But it's awesome. I've looked at a lot of cookbooks, and I usually find at least one or two things I can use, but this is the first book that has been so consistently useful for so many types of recipes. Lately I've been trying to use new ingredients and do more cooking from scratch, and Bittman never fails me when I turn to his book for some inspiration (his chapter on cooking and using beans is particularly good). The best thing about many of these recipes is how simple they are--most include only a few ingredients and can be made with a minimum of fuss.

I've started to use this book so often that his name is steadily sneaking into our kitchen lexicon. His appetizer-ish meatballs are known as Bittman Balls around our house. Likewise with his yogurt biscuits: Bittman Biscuits. And, wonder of wonders, I even found an easy recipe for kale and pasta in his book a few weeks back and have moved it into steady rotation. Don't know what to call that one yet; maybe Bittman Noodles. Or Bittman Finally Found a Way to Use Kale, but that's probably too long.

In any case, if you or anyone you know needs a great basic but still very comprehensive cookbook, this is the one to try.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Food and Health

Welcome back to our continuing series on the 100 "best-ish" nonfiction titles around, undertaken in response to Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles (no qualifying "ish" for them, damnit, they really did list the best!). Taking their categories in turn, rightfully today we should look at Food and Health books.

But first a word about those categories. The Time list is broken down into various nonfiction subject and type categories, and I can't say I agree with most of them. I say, either list the 100 top books and skip the categorization, or pick things a little less randomly. Food and Health aren't the worst categories, but later on we'll be tackling "Nonfiction Novels" and "Social History" (as opposed to History). In the meantime there, are no Travel, True Crime, or Nature Writing categories. What's up with that? Weird, Time editors, weird.

But I digress. Food and Health, okay, here we go. Here's Time's titles:


How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan


And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Joy of Sex, by Dr. Alex Comfort
The Kinsey Reports, by Alfred Kinsey
Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Now, I'm going to quibble with a lot of these on the basis that they are not so much books you read as books you refer to: particularly the Art of French Cooking (which I own and which is incredible, but which is not really a book you read or even particularly use. It's largely a book you have around because you love Julia Child, and because someday you intend to use it, really), the Dr. Spock book, and Our Bodies etc. And really? The Kinsey Reports? Time magazine thinks we're actually going to pick up The Kinsey Reports? I can't even get myself to watch the movie Kinsey, although I do sort of want to see it. Ironically, I'm just never in the mood.

Anyway. Here's what I would suggest for three food titles (keeping in mind I already listed the Bourdain in memoirs):

The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin. If you've never read Trillin, you're in for a treat. He writes about food and travel (and his wife, Alice) with such a lovely and light descriptive touch. Yummy.

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, by Gabriel Thompson. By rights, this title should go in an Investigative/Journalism/Current Affairs section, but the Time list didn't include that category either. (Weak, Time editors, weak.) I'm including it in Food because there should be at least one title about our currently fucked-up system of food production and consumption, and this is the one that sticks in my head. (Of course anything by Wendell Berry would be good too.) This is the title that turned me off supermarket chicken breasts for good, simply because Thompson's description of the horrific working conditions inside chicken plants made me so sad (not only for the chickens, but mostly for the workers handling the chickens).

I think the M.F.K. Fisher is a good choice, but why that title? Why not the better known The Art of Eating?

So: what food titles would you suggest? Don't hold back; it's not a category I know really well, so I'm sure I'm missing tons of titles.

And now this post is too long--tune in for Health sometime later this week. Geez, this list stuff takes work. I'll bet those Time editors were worn out by the time they cooked up their list.

Guest Review: Blood, Bones, and Butter

A while back a very nice CR reader named Susan Kennedy emailed me and asked if I ever planned to review the book Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton. She had just finished and loved it, and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Blood I was touched by her very nice email, so it broke my heart to tell her I had indeed started the book, read maybe a chapter, but had gotten bored and decided I wouldn't be finishing (or reviewing) it. But then we had a great idea: she'd read the book, and I wondered why she'd liked it. So why not have this conversation on the blog? She graciously acquiesced, so below you'll see my questions about the book (in bold) and her answers.

1. In a sentence or two, could you summarize what this book was about?

A chef grows up in kitchens. She learns about life from her French mother, her work experience in varied kitchens in NYC and beyond, and finally with the opening of her own restaurant.

2. What did you like about it?

I liked the vivid and almost fantastical storytelling.  I could smell and hear and taste things she described with humor and honesty.  I listened to the story as an audio book so perhaps this kept my attention better as Gabrielle read the story herself. I particularly enjoyed her account of the writing group in grad school and the Italy stories.  I hated the abrupt ending – seems like she holds something back for another book.

3. Do you typically seek out "foodie" books, or how did you find this title?

I spotted it on a NY Times bestseller list and gave it a try.  I read foodie books if an expose label fits.  As a home cook, I tend to read more recipes than foodie lit.  Let’s see.  Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential cracked my Top Ten list.  Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma educated me.  Foodie books like Julie and Julia that are more fluffy do not interest me much.  Anything that can be described as “slice of life” gets a chance.

4. Would you recommend it to other readers or book groups? Why or why not?

I recommend it for a book club.  It takes you on a tour of various kitchen environments and the lifestyle that group showcases.  It offers many topics to discuss like what is marriage/motherhood/success to the author?  She leaves a few major points unanswered.  For example, how does a lesbian in the 21st century NYC marry a straight man?  She breezes over her relationship with her father and siblings.  Maybe she left them out for the sake of the kitchen theme or perhaps privacy.

5. What are you reading now?

Behind the Palace Doors.  It’s about the British royals from Henry VIII forward.  I tend to be in more than one book at a time.  I am halfway through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which had to go back to the library as it was overdue.  Naturally it is a popular book here in Baltimore.

Many, many thanks to reader Susan Kennedy, and her willingness to share her thoughts on this book. Now, I've got to go get the British royals one she just referenced.

You will need to eat chocolate while reading this book.

Something lighter today than the books I've been discussing lately...

Recently I read Frances Park's and Ginger Park's memoir Chocolate Chocolate: A True Story of Two Sisters, Tons of Treats, and the Little Shop That Could, about how they started a candy store in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, financed largely by a small legacy left them by their father (who died a too-early death). This was an okay book, although I didn't stick any bookmarks in it--there weren't that many memorable passages. The appeal of this book is not so much in the sisters' writing skills (although they do have skill; they've written numerous and well-reviewed books for kids) as it is in the setting of their story: their shop, Chocolate Chocolate.

Chocolate The book opens (in 1983) with the sisters scouting locations for their new shop, and then attending the International Summer Fancy Food and Confection Show to find chocolate suppliers. From there they move on to dealing with the contractor who builds out the space they've rented--or, more accurately, the contractor who cocks up the job of building out the space they've rented. They have a rocky start, but over the years they settle into their groove, put together a group of loyal and regular shoppers, and deal with their own personal life ups and downs.

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different type of chocolate, and the book is rich with candy (and customers of candy) descriptions. I almost made it all the way through, but by the time I hit page 200 I gave in, walked to Walgreens with CRjr, and bought a 3 Musketeers bar. (The big one.) I later consumed it (inhaled it) while finishing the book, and it was a very enjoyable experience.

This is a nice fluffy summer read (see? some nonfiction can be considered "beach reading") but don't read it if you're on a diet.

Not sure what all the fuss is about...quite literally.

One of the biggest nonfiction titles last year in terms of buzz and sales was Geneen Roth's Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything.

Roth This was, of course, because it was an Oprah title. And although I am no fan of Oprah or her book choices, I realized in January that I was eating some leftover Christmas cookies not because I was hungry or even peckish, but rather because I was bored and antsy. So I thought, well, maybe this book will have something to say about eating to fill holes other than one's stomach.*

So, because I knew I probably wasn't going to have the interest to read the whole thing, I did that type of nonfiction reading I do when I want to get the basics of a book but don't necessarily want to read every line of it: I kind of skim-read it for a while. But, honestly, I made it to page 62, and I still have no idea what Roth is saying, or what the point of her book is. The book jacket tells me that Roth posits that "the way you eat is inseparable from your core beliefs about being alive."** Well, okay. But trust me: that doesn't exactly make for compelling storytelling. As far as I can tell, Roth's claim to fame is gaining and losing more than a thousand pounds over her lifetime, and now she teaches seminars basically telling women to lose weight by stopping trying to lose weight. There's a lot of sentences like this:

"When I first meet people who come to my retreat, I see those same beliefs funneled through the relationship with food. As if punishing themselves with dietary rigors will make up for something inherently damaged, fundamentally wrong with their very existence. Being thin becomes The Test. Losing weight becomes their religion." (p. 63.)

Okay. There's nothing wrong with that. I can support a woman who just wants us to have a normal relationship with our food as food. It's just that this book isn't particularly interesting, or personal, or helpful. I've skimmed the whole thing now and about the best line I can find to nutshell it for you is on page 161: "eat what your body wants when you're hungry, stop when you've had enough." The rest of it just seems like a big ad for Geneen Roth Retreats or seminars or whatever.

*I do plenty of eating when I AM hungry and/or peckish, and I am hungry a lot, so I really can't afford to start eating when I'm not hungry if I ever want to fit back into my pre-CRjr fat jeans.***

**I'll buy this. I eat candy, chocolate, and cookies like one of my core beliefs is that someday they won't exist any more. Or, more likely with this economy, I won't be able to afford them any more.

***You read that right. I'm still not even back in my previous FAT jeans. So sad. I don't weigh all that much more, it's just that stuff has...shifted. Sigh.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: A lighter choice, and one with coupons!

Hey! I thought of a lighter nonfiction read that would make super giving as a holiday present!

Beer This year my friend published an updated edition of his Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide.* And what a fun book it is! Unlike many guidebooks, this one is actually a joy to read, containing many facts about beer and brewing, and the types of anecdotes only an extremely personable fellow can gather while traveling around Wisconsin, drinking beer with its residents.

And, to sweeten the pie: the book includes numerous coupon and freebie offers for brew pubs across the state. Give this one as a gift, and the grateful recipient might even take you along on their pub tour!

*Okay, this one really only works for holiday giving if you live in Wisconsin. But will you be traveling to Madison any time soon? Kevin's also published a very nice Insiders' Guide to Madison, Wi.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wendell Berry

If you're looking for a great all-around author who might work for any readers for whom you are seeking gifts, you really don't have to look any farther than Wendell Berry.

The guy's a super-talent. Not only is he a thoughtful human being, but he writes in a variety of formats, and he writes well in all of them.* And, he publishes often enough that even people who are only interested in new books have lots of options. Some of my top picks:

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food: A wonderful collection of essays about food, agriculture, and sustainability. This would make a good gift for anyone interested in those subjects, any of the more environmentally aware people on your holiday list, or anyone who simply enjoys good essay writing. Foodie readers might also get a kick out of this one.

What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth: Another great recent essay collection focusing on matters of economy and agriculture. This one would work for the sustainability crowd, but might also be of interest to any people you know who enjoy business or economics books.

Jayber Crow: Berry's finest novel, in my opinion. A classic. It would work for anyone you know who likes character- and setting-driven fiction, and doesn't mind a bittersweet twinge to their storytelling.

Given: New Poems: A poetry collection that might be good even for people who aren't crazy about poetry. Berry's poetry is just like his prose; clear but evocative, and timeless. Everything you want poetry to be.

*It's a bit disgusting, really, that one man got all this talent.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: As Always, Julia

Julia Child was, let's face it, one sassy dame.*

You have to respect a woman who didn't find her true calling in life until her forties, and who arguably didn't make a grand success of her business until nearly age 50 (born in 1912, her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was first published in 1961). At least I have to respect her--she gives me hope that I may still chance upon something that a) I am good at, and b) I can make some money at.

But all of that aside, Child's life was a fascinating one even before she became television's French Chef. She worked for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), married her true love, traveled the world, and cooked and cooked and cooked until she knew more about cooking than many great chefs. If you're interested in her at all, or know someone who might be, the first book I would suggest purchasing is Noel Riley Fitch's biography, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child.

Julia But the book in question for today is As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece, edited by Joan Reardon. It's a collection of letters between the two women, primarily covering the years 1952-1962, when Child was, along with Simca Beck, experimenting on the recipes that would comprise their infamous cookbook. DeVoto was a woman that Child got to know by accident; Child originally wrote to Avis's husband, historian and columnist Bernard DeVoto, about an article he published about the quality of knives used in American kitchens (primarily stainless steel ones, which evidently don't rust but also aren't easy to adequately sharpen). Avis answered that letter, and soon the two were off, discussing knives, food, politics, culture, and eventually, the chances of publishing Child's cookbook (Avis also had connections to several publishing companies).

The letters have a lot to do with food, as one might imagine. What surprised me, though, is how much the women also chatted over current and cultural affairs, politics (particularly Joe McCarthy), and other issues in their personal lives. I knew I loved Julia; what I didn't expect, though, was to start feeling so attached to Avis DeVoto--who seems to have been a fascinating and warm woman in her own right.

So, who might like this book?

Fans of Julia Child, of course.

"Foodies," or people who love to read anything about food--seeing how the cookbook was tested, and how passionate these women were about food and the correct cooking methods is fascinating.

Anyone who likes letter collections--I myself find them the easiest way to pick up social and cultural history, and I love the personal asides that slip in (from Julia: "What a horrible 5 days we have just been through, both snortling with head colds, and I got the curse on top of it." HA!).

Readers who enjoy nonfiction by or featuring strong, personality-rich women, which Child and DeVoto unquestionably were.

*God love her, she reputedly didn't think much of Julie Powell's memoir Julie and Julia, which she derided as "a stunt."

Has Anthony Bourdain jumped the shark?*

This is a question it hurts me to ask.

Bourdain I love Anthony Bourdain, and was very excited to read his new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. So it was very disappointing to find that, while I read the whole thing, very few of its chapters really did anything for me, and I got the distinct feeling in the earliest chapters in the book that Bourdain has started to phone it in in order to keep publishing new collections (to do which, I'm sure, his publisher is always pushing).

My apathy started with the prologue, in which he describes a group of food notables and a special meal in which they were invited to partake. Now, Bourdain has never been one to mince words, or his love of eating animal flesh. So, if you're a bit squirrelly about delicacies like little birds that are meant to be eaten bones and all, you may want to skip the first chapter. I'm just sayin'. I am emphatically not a vegetarian (let's put it this way: I have eaten cow the same day I have helped butcher it) and it was a little much for me. In subsequent chapters he just seems to be trying too hard to maintain the hard-living facade, sharing stories from when he visited the Caribbean with a mentally unstable rich woman and holding forth on what luminaries in the food world he thinks are heroes and villains.

Which is not to say there's not any good material here. As always, he's at his best when describing food and how people prepare food. The absolute best piece in the whole thing--and it's toward the end, wait for it--is a chapter describing how one of the employees of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City cleans and prepares the restaurant's daily fish portions. It's fascinating, and beautifully written:

"...every one who passes by and sees me standing there with a notebook in hand has to linger for a second, to determine if I've gotten it yet, how phenomenally, amazingly, supernaturally fucking good Justo Thomas is at doing this job. They appreciate this better than I ever could, because when Justo goes on vacation, it will take three of them to cut the same amount of fish that Justo, alone, will scale, gut, clean, and portion in four to five hours...**" (p. 237.)


"'This knife only for monkfish,' says Justo, producing a long blade that might once have been a standard chef's knife but which has been, over the years, ground down into a thin, serpentine, almost double-teardrop edge. Once the monkfish meat is cut away from the bone, one loin at a time, he grabs the tail ends and runs the flexible blade down the body, pulling skin away. With a strange, flicking motion, he shaves off any pink or red." (p. 244.)

Frankly, that chapter made the whole book worth it. I'll still read whatever Bourdain writes, but I'll be happier if he goes back to describing, primarily, the kitchens and the food he loves so much.

*For the record, I thought of this phrase and title before Bourdain used it describing the work of another chef on p. 153. Weird coincidence.

**Normally italics bug me, but Bourdain doesn't use them often, and I like the emphasis they give here.