The great fiction reading adventure of 2010: Part 2.

I love, love, LOVE Anthony Bourdain's nonfiction. I loved him when I read his first foul-mouthed memoir Kitchen Confidential, and I loved him even more when I read his essay collection The Nasty Bits, in which he told the story of accepting some food award and telling a roomful of NYC foodie notables that none of them would have any food to eat or restaurant staffing to speak of without immigrants, illegal or otherwise. I can't wait to read his new collection, Medium Raw, although I haven't heard great things about it.

Bone I still remember browsing one day, long ago, in Barnes and Noble, and coming across a novel by Bourdain titled Bone in the Throat. Huh, I thought. He writes novels too! (It was actually published before Kitchen Confidential) And although that was years ago, I'd always vaguely thought about getting the book from the library. And now I finally got around to it!

It's a pretty standard mystery/mafia novel, in which Bourdain's main character Tommy is a sous chef who comes from a "connected" family, but who would rather cook than learn the family business. And he's almost out of it, too, until his uncle (more of a father figure, really, since Tommy's father "disappeared" when he was small) asks him for one small favor. Tommy is to let his uncle and two other men into the restaurant where he works, after hours, for what Tommy thinks will just be a little chat.

Some fairly graphic details of jobs you should NOT use your good kitchen knives for follow.

I wouldn't say this was a caper novel, or particularly light-hearted, but I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read, with a pretty satisfying ending and good characterization. And the descriptions of the food and cooking? Pure Bourdain, by which I mean, spectacular.

Today's fiction lesson: Like Bourdain's nonfiction? You'll probably like his novels as well.

Free beer!

Now there's a headline guaranteed to raise some interest.

Now, normally, you know I don't much care for shilling for books or advertisers or much of anything. But on rare occasions, the opportunity to shill for someone who does great work comes along, and I like to take those opportunities.

Beer So just a short post today to let you know that my friend Kevin Revolinski's updated Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide is now available! It's a lovely little travel book, listing breweries and brew pubs in Wisconsin, and with a handy little "history of beer" essay in the front that's way more readable than most of the front matter you typically find in guide books.

Each brewery entry contains business information (address, phone, web site, annual production), a list of staple and seasonal beers produced, tour information, the best time to visit, whether or not they serve food, directions, a short informational essay, and a list of other eating and drinking establishments within "stumbling distance." A lot of the breweries also participated in the book's "special offers": at the Great Dane Pub and Brewery in Madison, for example, all you have to do is show them the book (they'll sign it on a handy list in the back, meaning you've received your freebie) and you get a free 10 oz. beer!

It's a very handy reference guide (especially this week, when it's 88 degrees and sticky in Wisconsin, and nothing would be nicer than to hit a local brew pub for a cold brew), and Revolinski's writing style is a lot of fun. This bit of self-revelation comes in the Introduction:

"When I took on this project back in 2006, I didn't even like beer. I can already hear the collective gasp of horror, but let me explain: beer was social lubricant, something you sipped at with friends at a cookout, bought for the cute woman at the other end of the bar, or beer-bonged on occasion. I didn't even like the taste so much and--oh the humanity--often didn't even finish them. I killed many a houseplant at parties and have gotten hordes of bees drunk at picnics with the remains of a bottle of Something-or-Other Light." (p. 2.)

If you live near Madison, Wisconsin, consider coming out to buy a copy of the book and meet Revolinski at the Capital Brewery Bier Garten in Middleton on Friday night, July 16, from 4 to 7 p.m. He's a lot of fun and the Capital Brewery is a great place to sit around outside and enjoy a beer. For more information, please visit his web site at (He's also the author of a ton of other great travel guides about the great state of Wisconsin, including the soon-to-be-available Insider's Guide to Madison, so if you're a local do check out his page.)

Still looking for a book that grabs me.

I have been decidedly "meh" about a lot of nonfiction books lately. Sorry about that. I know that these types of experiences make for rather "meh" book blogging as well.*

Darling The latest entry in the Meh Files is Katharine Darling's Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School. Darling chronicles her stint at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, dishing on the experience as a whole, the chef professors, and her fellow students. She also includes a few personal memoirish details about her life and love affair (she gets engaged over the course of the story), and throws in a few recipes for good measure.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with the book, and I did read the whole thing, and the recipes do look good. But there was something about Darling's tone that didn't do a whole lot for me. Then again, I may just be biased by her author photo, which really bugged me, for some reason. If you can picture it, the tone of the book sounds a little bit like how she looks in that photo; ever so slightly a bit too over-confident for me. Consider:

"It was 8:00 a.m. sharp on our very first day of class, and as I walked into the large room that was dazzlingly bright with the glow of many overhead fluorescent lights bouncing off the stainless steel workstations, ovens, pots, pans, sinks, and even the tools of my classmates, I saw that Tucker [a classmate] had taken up a spot at the front of the room, closest to our chef-instructor's dark green marble-topped lecture station...And my parents thought I was too competitive. If I were competitive, I would have created a diversion and just snatched his spot when he was momentarily distracted. Okay, maybe I was a little bit competitive, but as it turned out, so was Tucker." (p. 18.)

The lady also doth protest too much--throughout she worries about her class standing and never, ever dreams that she deserved to be at the top of her class--and of course she graduates with the top honor. It reminded me a little bit of an old college roommate who used to throw herself on her bed in despair after tests, wailing that she had failed, but who would then tell me later she got something ridiculous like 110% (with extra credit).**

But, if you're a foodie, and you love all things cooking, you might still enjoy this one.

*No, I'm not trying to shunt the blame for lackluster blogging on lackluster authors. Well, maybe a little bit.

**I still love this roommate, she's a sweetie, but I just never believed in bewailing your performance on tests unless you really did fuck it up, with at least a C or lower.

What was the point of this farming experiment, exactly?

I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.

Manny I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).

This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:

"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)

I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?

Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.

A book so good it actually put me off chicken.

Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.

Working Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.

Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.

Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through. 

This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):

"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)

That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.

*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.

**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.

Just too much cheese.

I really, really wanted to love Gordon Edgar's Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. But alas, it was not to be.

Cheesemonger Edgar, who works as the cheese buyer and expert (or "cheesemonger," as he calls it) at the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, relates the story of how he learned to know and love cheese through his job there. In various chapters he describes the arc of his career, but the bulk of the narrative is given over to a very detailed consideration of all sorts of cheese, cheese production methods, cheese producers, and really, all things cheese.

Now, I love memoirs about people's jobs. I like reading about food. I enjoy cheese. But I just couldn't get into this one. I think it was too many paragraphs like this:

"There are differences in the components of feed-based milk and pasture-based milk. Feed-based milk is higher in protein and fat because those are desirable properties in milk, especially milk for cheese, and the animals are fed accordingly. However, recent studies have shown that grazed cows have two to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than other cows. Some preliminary studies have shown that CLA may be an effective cancer inhibitor." (p. 31.)

Now that's good information,* and someday when I'm in the mood and I want to learn more about cheese I may try this book again. I think this was simply a case of wrong expectations: I was expecting more of a lighthearted romp about food and retail and cheese (something along the lines of Steven Jenkins's The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway), but it's much more than that. If you're a cheese lover, and interested in learning a lot more about cheese? Then this is the book for you.

*A little later on in the book he includes some great information about raw milk and raw milk cheeses, which is pertinent information to me because my home state, Wisconsin, is currently debating if it should be legal to sell raw (unpasteurized) milk.

Really, Michael Pollan?

I am thoroughly disgusted with Michael Pollan's new book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.

Rules This did not come as a complete surprise, as I have never been a huge Michael Pollan fan. I know many people who enjoyed The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I don't think it was a bad book, but (here's a surprise) it was too long for me. And In Defense of Food was one of those books that seemed redundant to me--if you were the kind of person to read In Defense of Food, I figured it was probably likely you were the type of person who least NEEDED to read In Defense of Food. (It is wrong to stereotype. But I figured most readers of that book were probably fairly well-off people, who get a charge out of going to farmers' markets and "getting to know their farmers," and who had the time and money to worry about the origins of their food.) But still, it wasn't a terrible book, and to each their own, although, for my money, I prefer books about agriculture and society by Wendell Berry, or cookbooks by Mark Bittman.

But Food Rules is nothing but a 140-page distillation of In Defense of Food (which the author himself summed up in only seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.") with a few other folksy bits thrown in. Divided into three parts (what should I eat?, what kind of food should I eat?, and how should I eat?), each "chapter" consists of a rule (in large type) and a short explanation, such as "Eat only foods that will eventually rot," followed by information like "the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is." What's really annoying is when the rules start to resemble each other, particularly early on; on page 9 you find "avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry," and on page 17, you have "avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce." Hmm.

I have looked the book over and can't discern if any of the money from its publication is going to a charity or something, which would be the only excuse. Otherwise I am going to assume that Pollan was simply looking for a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of his fans. What really hurts me is the fact that all libraries probably had to purchase multiple copies of this little money-grab (as there is usually high demand for Pollan titles of any kind), and for each $11 copy they had to buy, they couldn't buy a different book that had something new or different or better to say. Bah!

How do I get this guy's life?

I know, I know, I said I was off memoirs, but who can pass up a book titled Eating: A Memoir?

Eating Well, not me. The book is by a man named Jason Epstein, who is better known as the former editorial director of Random House and the man who was responsible for the (hugely successful) Vintage paperback line. He has written all about that life in a book titled Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (which I think I read a long time ago but would like to revisit), but in this book he describes his life in terms of food he has eaten and cooked during it. Early chapters about his youth in Maine and New England include family memories and recipes for things like chicken pot pie and linguine with clams; later he on describes meals that he has cooked most recently. Along the way he provides recipes,* which are more short stories than they are lists of ingredients and instructions; it's like your mom is telling you over the phone how to make a dish she's made for years ("I made a spciy marinara in a large porcelain cocotte by softening in olive oil some chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno, and celery, then adding a large can of San Marzano tomatoes...").**

But what really fascinated me about this book was Epstein's stories regarding his early days in publishing. Consider:

"In those pre-jet days, when all but the most intrepid transatlantic travelers sailed to Europe, book publishers went first-class. Book publishing has never been a very profitable business. To make money, you went to work in a bank. Book publishing was a vocation. Without money you might go hungry. Without books you would not know who you are or where you came from or where you might be going. For me and many others, the work we did in those years was its own reward. The annual three-week scouting trip to England and the Continent by sea was a traditional perquisite. First-class passage was compensation for monastic wages. Barbara and I were going to meet the important postwar European writers. We were twenty-five and fearless." (p. 67.)

Let's examine some things in that paragraph, shall we? Somebody working for a publisher got to go anywhere first class? They got to take weeks on a ship and in Europe doing their job? They got to do this when they were twenty-five? I'm pretty sure this guy was a publishing wunderkind who worked hard, but man, reading this, I know I was born at least fifty years too late. From what I can see of the publishing world now, you still get paid monastic wages (if you get paid at all) but you don't go anywhere first class. Sigh. I'll admit that after that I didn't have the heart to finish the book, which was actually quite good (it was making me too hungry, too, so I thought it prudent to stop reading).

*His recipes are interesting, but many involve things that aren't real practical for me, like lobsters, calamari, and duck.

**This is one of Epstein's recipes. My mother's narrative recipes more often begin with this phrase: "You take some hamburger..."

What else is there to say about Wendell Berry?

Last week I promised more thoughts on Wendell Berry's essay and story collection Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food, but I don't know that I have much more (that is coherent) to say about it.

The book is divided into three sections: Farming, Farmers, and Food. I completely loved the essays on farming, although, as with any writing that is thought-provoking, they were also somewhat disturbing. How do we turn around our frightening dependence on cheaply produced food that is bad for us, bad for the animals being raised in industrial settings, and bad for the earth? How do we start to say no to big agribusiness, and support farmers who say no to big agribusiness? How do we really affect a change without moving to the country and raising a few goats ourselves (which I really don't want to do).

The second section, on Farmers, is also very interesting, but contains essays in which Berry examines more of the nitty-gritty surrounding specific farmers who he considers masters of their craft, and how they actually do what they do. Some of these essays were a bit too detailed for me, but I did enjoy the one titled "Charlie Fisher," in which he describes the work and business of a man who responsibly cuts timber and works as a logger.

The third section, "Food," was another small wonder to behold. Here most of the pieces are not essays, but are instead snippets from Berry's stories and novels in which food and meals play a part. I loved these stories and they renewed my desire to read more of Berry's fiction (particularly his short stories). They also made me very hungry, in the best possible way. Consider:

"The Proudfoot family gahterings were famous. As feasts, as collections and concentrations of good things, they were unequaled. Especially in summer there was nothing like them, for then there would be old ham and fried chicken and gravy, and two or three kinds of fish, and hot biscuits and three kinds of cornbread, and potatoes and beans and roasting ears and carrots and beets and onions, and corn pudding and corn creamed and fried, and cabbage boiled and scalloped, and tomatoes stewed and sliced, and fresh cucumbers soaked in vinegar, and three or four kinds of pickles, and if it was late enough in the summer there would be watermelons and muskmelons, and there would be pies and cakes and cobblers and dumplings, and milk and coffee by the gallon." (p. 188.)

Oh, man, I just had breakfast, and now I'm starving again. Give this collection a try if you're already a Wendell fan; if you're new to him, concentrate primarily on the essays in the first section.

Wendell Berry.

All week I hve been reading Wendell Berry's essay collection titled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. It's not a long book, only about 230 pages or so, but reading Wendell Berry always takes me some time. Or rather, I should say, I need to take my time when reading Wendell Berry, because there's only so much of his writing that I can take at a time. That is because reading him is always inspirational, humbling, and scary. And that's a lot to take in while reading.

Berry Berry is inspirational because I find what he says makes sense. In this collection, divided into three sections (Farming, Farmers, and Food), the emphasis of the chosen essays (ranging in publication dates from the early 1970s to 2006) is on why industrial agriculture is damaging our land and economy, and how small and sustainable farming practices should not only be practiced by farmers, but supported by consumers. There is nothing I can argue with in that. He is humbling because, as a small farmer himself, I think he does make the effort to practice what he preaches, and he is humbling because is writing is so clear and so beautiful.* But, as powerful and enjoyable as those first two feelings are, the end result of reading Wendell Berry is that I most often feel scared. Scared that our economy has taken us too far down the road of destroyed soil, food laden with chemicals and produced in animal factories, and oil dependence to ever go back. And, if I'm honest, scared because I DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE FARM and I can't quite figure out how to live in accordance with his principles otherwise.

I think I will chat more on this one tomorrow, as I continue to read. But for today I'll leave you with the main scary thought I had, and a beautiful piece of Wendell's own writing. My scary thought was this: forget producing food in a small way; most of us, in our reliance on Costco and Wal-Mart, have given up on consuming in a small way. How do we even begin to reverse that? And now for the words of the man himself:

"But a culture disintegrates when its economy disconnects from its government, morality, and religion. If we are dismembered in our economic life, how can we be members in our communal and spiritual life? We assume that we can have an exploitive, ruthlessly competitive, profit-for-profit's-sake economy, and yet remain a decent and democractic nation, as we still apparently wish to think ourselves. This simply means that our highest principles and standards have no practical force or influence and are reduced merely to talk...

As a nation, then, we are not very religious and not very democratic, and that is why we have been destroying the family farm for the last forty years--along with other small local economic enterprises of all kinds. We have been willing for millions of people to be condemned to failure and dispossession by the workings of an economy utterly indifferent to any claims they may have had either as children of God or as citizens of a democracy." (pp. 38-39.)

Think on that for a minute or a year or so.

*I have often wondered how long it takes Berry to write one of his typical essays. They are sparkling little jewels of clarity and conciseness.

Memoir moratorium.

Every horrible review you've read of Julie Powell's Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, is right on.

I was not a huge fan of Powell's bestselling memoir Julie and Julia; I read it mainly because I love Julia Child and I was curious about it. When I read it I thought it was easy to see that it was compiled from blog posts, and not very cohesively at that. The story was okay, but I thought it could have used a lot tighter editing.*

Cleaving So when she published this, her second memoir, I knew I probably wouldn't love it, but I actually got curious after reading some bad reviews of it. (This is why I never mind "bad" reviews. Sometimes they pique my interest more than positive ones do.) So I read a lot of it over the weekend, getting to maybe the halfway point before I had to stop. The story is, once again, fairly simple: Powell decides she wants to learn how to be a butcher, so she apprentices herself in a butcher shop a couple of hours away from her home in New York City. At the same time, she is experiencing a rocky period in her marriage--primarily because she has been having an affair (that she doesn't want to stop) for some time, and her husband knows about it.

For whatever reasons, I really enjoyed the bits where she discussed her growing mastery of meat cutting techniques. (I've been ridiculously hungry for burgers and steaks lately, which probably increased my fascination.) But the parts about her affair and marriage? Too weird for me, man, by half. When I got to the part where she went out and engaged in "the worst sex in the world with a total stranger" in order to forget her lover and then immediately texted him about it, I not only put this book down, never to return, but I have now placed a moratorium on all memoirs for at least a week. Uch. Rough sex with strangers and a foodie hook. Is this all it takes to get a memoir deal these days?

*I say this as a blogger: blog posts are not really writing, and books simply thrown together from blog posts are not really books.

Oh, so hungry.

If you have any sort of problems watching what you eat, or you're trying to diet right now, I would highly recommend NOT picking up Frank Bruni's new memoir Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.

Bruni Bruni has been the restaurant critic for the New York Times since 2004, but this book is the much larger story of his always tempestuous relationship with food. Starting when he was very young and growing up in an Italian family that believed making an abundance of food for every meal was the best way to show your family you loved them, Bruni was a champion eater among champion eaters. Of course, then, he struggled with carrying too much weight from little on--describing with perfect accuracy how it felt to have to shop in the "husky" department.

As Bruni grew older, his unhealthy eating habits continued, and he moved through stints with bulimia and Mexican "diet pills" (also known as "Mexican speed") while he simultaneously moved through college, his journalism career, and years of not feeling good enough about himself to feel comfortable letting his boyfriends see him naked. Somewhere along the way you realize you're reading a memoir composed largely of someone's memories of how he eats, which seems like a slight subject, but there's really nothing slight about it.

I liked this one from the start, when I read the "author's note" in the beginning. I am always a sucker for an author who can nicely address the problems of writing a memoir, and Bruni has done that:

"And while none of the people, events or conversations in this book were invented, some conversational details lay beyond the reach of memory, so dialogue has been reconstructed through interviews and other reporting, and fashioned in line with what I know and remember of how the people, including me, spoke."

I also like Bruni's journalistic writing style, which always moves right along. And although it comprised less than 100 pages of the narrative, I'll admit his descriptions of his restaurant critic job were the ones I enjoyed the most. The man can describe food. At one point he actually made baguettes with jam and butter sound so good that I almost had to go driving around at 8 p.m. last night, looking for baguettes (although I know full well that a good baguette in my neck of the Midwestern woods can be hard to find).

My verdict? Read it. But DO NOT read it when you're hungry.

Dude, if you think zoos are okay, you've lost most of your credibility with me.

After all my complaining about it, I still ended up reading a lot of Jonathan Safran Foer's nonfiction manifesto Eating Animals.

It really wasn't for me. First off, Foer explains one of the larger reasons why he decided to investigate America's food supply (and factory farming specifically), as:

Eating "Unexpected impulses struck when I found out I was going to be a father. I began tidying up the house, replacing long-dead lightbulbs, wiping windows, and filing papers. I had my glasses adjusted, bought a dozen pairs of white socks, installed a roof rack on top of the car and a 'dog/cargo divider' in the back, had my first physical in half a decade...and decided to write a book about eating animals..."

And, a few pages later:

"As my son began life and I began this book, it seemed that almost everything he did revolved around eating. He was nursing, or sleeping after nursing, or getting cranky before nursing, or getting rid of the milk he had nursed. As I finish this book, he is able to carry on quite sophisticated conversations, and increasingly the food he eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my chld is not like feeding myself: it matters more." (p. 11.)

Brother. Yes, I know your life changes completely when you have children, blah blah blah, but it's never been my favorite reason for authors to write their books. For one thing it always seems like kind of a prick move to me--maybe you could think about the state of the world before it becomes important to you because you now have children to worry about? Maybe even if you don't have kids you should be thinking about some of these things? Anyway. That's a small, very personal quibble.

It's not that I disagree with Foer, really. I don't think factory farming is right either. I didn't enjoy reading the chapter about how the chicken you buy in the supermarket is "water-cooled" after it is processed, which means it cools in what industry insiders refer to as its own "fecal soup." It's just that most of his arguments fall flat with me. I was particularly annoyed when he talked about taking his son to zoos and thinking about animals--as I think zoos are maybe as cruel to animals as factory farming is (except zoo animals aren't put out of their misery by premature deaths, but are rather kept alive to be gawked at in their tiny little cages).

It's also telling to me that my favorite part of the book was the part not actually written by Foer, but rather by a person who works in the chicken industry (whom Foer quotes):

"It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put...

People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period." (p. 96.)

I want to read a book written by THAT guy. He seems to have a better grip on reality than Foer.

In all? There's at least two books out there that are MUCH better than this one: Mark Bittman's Food Matters, and Catherine Friend's The Compassionate Carnivore. I would highly suggest reading either one (or both!) of those books instead.

What'll you have?

I had a wonderful time this weekend, reading the book Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, by Candacy A. Taylor.

Counter It's a slim but meaty book featuring interviews with waitress "lifers"--waitresses the author sought out who have made working in coffee shops and diners their life's work. In between the interviews the author offers historical and sociological tidbits about the waiting life, including chapters on tricks of the trade, regular customers, and tips. It's also beautifully illustrated, with multiple photographs.*

I enjoyed the interviews and the different women** the author spoke to, particularly as I have a bit of history with the career myself (although I was one of the part-timers just doing the job for cash that these old-timers scoff at as mere flashes in the pan). But I was particularly amused by author's history of how women came to be the staffers of choice for diners during World War II. She cites a 1941 article from The Diner magazine, which lists the reasons why women make superior diner staff:

"1. Women will work for less pay. 2. Women won't stay out late drinking and call in sick the next day. 3. Women belong around food. 4. Women will work harder than men. 5. Women are always happy. 6. Women are more efficient workers. 7. Women are more honest than men--they don't steal. 8. Women can talk and work at the same time. 9. Women clean diners better than men. 10. Women are cleaner than men. 11. The customers like women better. 12. Customers don't swear in front of women." (pg. 18.)

Now, I don't know that I agree with much of that list, but I was charmed by numbers 4,6, and 8. It took me back to my own restaurant days.

This is a great book. Although I'm just glad it was published by someone (in this case, the Cornell University Press), this is the sort of book that should be published by a mainstream trade publisher, and which should become a bestseller. If there were any justice in the world, anyway, that's the way it would be.

*Why aren't all adult nonfiction books illustrated? It would be so much more interesting.

**The frank nature of the interviews reminded me, in the best possible way, of the superlative title The Oxford Project.

A cook after my own heart.

I don't typically "read" cookbooks. (As Mr. CR could tell you, I've got a rotation of about ten meals, heavy on the casseroles, that I bore him with on a regular schedule.) But when Mark Bittman comes out with a new cookbook, I make an exception.

Bittman His new Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less, is nothing short of awesome. I'm particularly happy that he beat Rachael Ray's 30-minute meal times (I dislike Rachael Ray, even though I typically love smokers, I just find her totally boring and her food the worst kind of mishmash that can be thrown together out of cans), and he did it with style. After a short intro about some basic things that you might consider having in your pantry, he gets down to the recipes, each of which are a short paragraph long, including ingredients lists:

"Zucchini and Dill Soup: Grate a couple of zucchini. Cook a chopped onion in butter until softened, then add the zucchini and stir until softened, five minutes or so. Add vegetable or chicken stock and bring to a boil; simmer for about five minutes, then puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and lots of fresh chopped dill."

And that's it! Now, as I am too lazy to measure anything, a cookbook like this (for me) is glorious. (He does say up front that the recipes are all meant to make about 3-4 servings, so I'm guessing you'd just add enough stock in the above recipe for what you think 3-4 servings might look like.) I realize that not everyone likes to cook that way. But for those of us who just like to slop it together? Yummy.

I also love Mark Bittman because he says things like this: (For the type of dairy you should have around): "For cooking, half-and-half or heavy cream is more useful than milk, but if you drink milk you already have it around*, so that's fine. Butter: unsalted, please. And sour cream and/or yogurt: At least occasionally, I prefer the full-fat kinds." (p. 13.)

I love the emphasis on using what you normally have in the house. Also, I'm touched he put in a good word for full-fat dairy (it's the only way to fly, if you ask me), even if just occasionally. Last but not least, I love that he has a tiny kitchen. Talk about doing more with less.

*IF you drink milk? As the daughter of a dairy farmer and someone who is interested in all of your bone health, I would suggest that, short of lactose intolerance problems, ALL of you drink milk. And you thought I didn't care about you.

Charmed, I'm sure.

Here's a short list of things in which I am completely uninterested: hunting, Western Americana and American history, camping and outdoorsy stories of any kind, and buffalo (or bison; they're the same thing).

Buffalo And yet? I managed to make it a good way through Steven Rinella's new book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. It's Rinella's travelogue/history/outdoor adventure memoir, in which he tracks both the history and lore of the American buffalo, as well as (more literally) an actual buffalo that he's hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Although he was interested in buffalo and the history of the West for a long time, the impetus for Rinella's narrative was his winning one of twenty-four annual permits issued to hunt a buffalo in Alaska.

So why on earth did I pick up such a book? Well, the short answer is that some authors completely charm me, and when they do, I'm dedicated to tracking down all the books they write. Rinella is also the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, which was one of my favorite books of 2005, and in which he sought to hunt, trap, capture, or otherwise procure all the ingredients to be used in Auguste Escoffier's 1903 Le Guide Culinaire cookbook. So, even though this is not a book I would have gravitated to because of its subject, I did enjoy a large part of it (I didn't get the whole thing read, although it was very good, largely because I decided what I'd rather do is go back and re-read The Scavenger's Guide). But if you have any interest in the subjects I listed above, I'd recommend this one. Although, if you are not into graphic descriptions of preparing an animal to be eaten (i.e., butchered) then I'd skip it.

But Rinella is charming, no doubt about it. Consider: "The bulk of buffalo history is set in the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene, which spanned from about two milion years ago to ten thousand years ago. Of the geologic epochs, the Pleistocene is by far my favorite. Its relationship to the modern world reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents: their lives were distant and obscure enough that it's difficult for me to really know and understand them, but what I do know about them helps explain a lot about how I turned into the kind of person I am."

You just have to kind of like a guy who has a favorite geologic era, don't you? I do. Have a good weekend, all.

Two takes on urban sufficiency.

Urban I applaud the spirit behind The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen). I really do. I'm on board with their opening projects: composting, a little raised garden bed, container gardening, etc. But when it starts to veer into hardcore, I'm afraid I have to get off the train. A few things I will not be doing:

1. Well, pretty much anything from the "Urban Foraging" chapter. I will not be harvesting and eating weeds (I have eaten weeds--Mom used to make dandelions like endive; chopped up and mixed with mashed potatoes and a bit of bacon--but I got enough of that in my youth) or dumpster diving for food.

2. I know it's all the rage right now, but I will also not be keeping chickens.

3. Composting toilets, making use of my own waste? No freaking way, man. I LOVE my flush toilet, I'm clinging to it until civilization ends, and then I'm just going to give up and die. If that makes me a bad person, environmentally, then so be it.

So I will not become an urban homesteader. There were still a few interesting things in the book, although I found a similar title, Kathy Harrison's Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens, to contain more helpful information about being prepared and what to have on hand for basic emergencies and first aid. Over the weekend I also picked up R.J. Ruppenthal's Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, which I predict I will find interesting until it actually comes time to plant something. Further bulletins on this book as events warrant.

Oh, damn it, now I'm hungry.

Which is not a rare occurrence, granted. But you know how they say you should never go grocery shopping while you're hungry? Well, on a related note, you should never read the book The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway while you're hungry.

Fairway It's a beautiful book, first off, with tons of pictures (which I wish were in color, but you can't have everything), and it's fascinating. Author Steve Jenkins (who is also the author of The Cheese Primer) relates the details of his decades spent working for the Fairway grocery store, which has several locations in New York City, describing how he built their cheese department, as well as how all of the store's departments and managers work together. It's primarily a book about food, for foodies (I'll admit I skimmed the chapters on olive oil and vinegar, I'm not a gourmet cook and those chapters could only hold my interest for so long), but it's also one of my favorite types of books: the work memoir.*

Jenkins admits that he got the job and then fell backwards into loving it, eventually becoming a cheese expert. His love and respect for his job, the objects of his expertise, and his co-workers is inspiring. He also has the correct attitude toward shoppers, in my opinion:

"If your kid is cranky and you're on your way to Fairway or on your way home via Fairway, it is advisable to consider dropping the kid at the apartment, tying the little sweetie securely to something, and then going out to shop...If I see one of your children pick up a twenty-dollar bottle of balsamic vinegar just for the hell of it, I'm going to snatch it away from him (her, whatever), glare at you, and hope you get indignant. After all, shopping here is not a right, it's a privilege. You have to know how to conduct yourself." (pp. 111-112.)

*In addition to being a good memoir, this book also includes a ton of good-lookin' recipes.

Must be nice... have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on bottles of wine from the eighteenth century which may or may not have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

That's the crux of the story in Benjamin Wallace's The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, which I really, really enjoyed.* (I also know it was good, story-driven nonfiction, because Mr. CR read it and enjoyed it too, and that boy needs a good story to get interested.)

Vinegar Wallace, a food writer and journalist, provides a great look behind the collectible wine scene as he tells the story of a bottle of 1787 Lafite wine, supposedly found in a Paris basement, engraved with the initials "Th. J." The wine-world notable behind the find and the eventual sale of the bottle at Christie's, a German named Hardy Rodenstock, is a wily character in his own right. Although questions were initially raised about the authenticity of the bottle of Monticello's Jefferson historians, very few in the very insular wine world questioned Rodenstock's "discovery" of the wine--a policy that would come back to haunt them.

It's a great book, equal parts wine trivia, history, fancy wine parties, and greed and corruption. It ended a bit abruptly for my taste, but I won't hold that against it. And, even though I don't have $156,000 to spend on a bottle of wine (which is what Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, paid for that 1787 Lafite), it has put me rather in the mood for either a box of chardonnay or some of Boone Farm's best vintage.

*This is also the last book I read and enjoyed lately, and that was before surgery. I definitely need to find another good read soon.