Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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We Be Jammin’ — How to Make No-fail, 3-ingredient Jam With Any Quantity of Fruit

Do you ever watch an episode of Bake-Off and boggle when the contestants make jam — in a frying pan? Just because their recipe calls for a small amount of jam for a layer of a cake? How do they do that? Jam must be made in huge quantities, in a gargantuan pot, from flats of berries or massive big baskets of peaches… doesn’t it?

And what happens if you get your fruit home and there’s not enough to make Grandma’s beloved recipe because it calls for 11 pounds of peaches and you’ve only got 7? The recipe will get messed up and jam is already a hot, scary, time-consuming task. Better to just buy a jar and forget about making your own, right?

Hang on, ya’ll, I’m about to rock your world.

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Book Review — Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

In our easy 21st century life, we think we’re “roughing it” when the power goes out for a few hours. But the first emigrants to Canada not only didn’t have power, they also didn’t have roads, running water, nearby stores and shops, or shelter… until they built it themselves.

Catherine Parr Traill (and her sister Susanna Moodie) were part of the early waves of colonial settlers who cleared and farmed land in (then Upper) Canada, and Traill especially documented what her life was like, including the many recipes (receipts) used for daily meals and medicines, as well as instructions on how to do just about anything, from building a fence to making butter.

Originally published in 1855, The Female Emigrant’s Guide was written especially to offer advice to new settlers, explaining what to bring on the crossing, what to buy, and offering myriad tips and instructions on how to set up a homestead in the middle of the woods and not die in the process.

This hefty edition is more interesting than Traill’s own work, however, because of the massive amounts of research and supporting documents Cooke and Lucas include. At 608 pages, the authors include not just the original work by Traill, but a biography, a publication history of the work (it was printed in different editions, with changes and corrections to each version), and then an extensive section called “Guide to Traill’s World” that includes typical seasonal menus, modern interpretations (with measurements and cooking times) of recipes in the guide, a primer for fireplace cooking at home, plus an extensive look at cooking measurements since most recipes of the time didn’t include standardized measurements and when measurements were includes they might be metric, imperial, avoirdupois, Winchester, wine, or apothecary. Or you know, an actual teacup and teaspoon, regardless of how they compared to any official system.

A massive glossary of food and cooking terms might be unnecessarily completest; some entries are for things not actually referenced in Traill’s work but the editors have included them because they were in popular use elsewhere at the time.

Which is to say, that this is a definitive work on both Traill and her life.

The editors avoid delving into the political issues provoked by Traill and other settlers; that is, the outright theft of First Nations land by colonial settlers, other than to point out that they have reproduced the original work as it was written, including the use of terms that are now out of use or considered offensive. Traill and others like her believed themselves to be entitled to Canadian land, and certainly we wouldn’t be here without their efforts, but the general treatment of First Nations peoples in the effort to colonize North America is a shameful bit of history that is vaguely romanticized when admiring Traill’s work.

 

Book Review — Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class

Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class by Luke Barr

Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class
Luke Barr
Penguin Random House, 2018

In his autobiography, renowned chef Auguste Escoffier refers to his dismissal from The Savoy Hotel as “a misunderstanding”. While some people obviously knew the reasons why Escoffier and partner César Ritz were let go, it wasn’t until documents were unearthed in the 1960s that the full extent of the payola and embezzlement the pair were involved in came to light.

Author Luke Barr traces the full history of the Ritz/Escoffier partnership, starting with the opening of the Savoy. The pair had worked together before at some of Ritz’s existing hotels in France and Monaco, but the move to London marked the beginning of their great influence on the hotel and fine dining world. While they built up the Savoy to be internationally-known their departure was but a blip as they had both moved on to other projects including the Ritz in Paris and then the Carlton Hotel in London.

While Barr does make use of the clear drama of the embezzlement and dismissal situation in 1898, this work is really about the huge influence the two men had on European and international culture. Escoffier’s dishes changed how kitchens were run and how food was cooked and served. Ritz’s innovations marked the beginning of the luxury hotel industry (imagine the decadence of a private bathroom when a typical hotel stay would have you sharing a bathroom with up to 60 other suites!)

The pair rubbed shoulders with royalty and celebrities and should have found happiness and satisfaction within their myriad accomplishments. Sadly Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown after the postponement of King Edward’s coronation in 1901 and never fully recovered. After decades of working tirelessly, along with keeping secret the embezzlement he had committed at the Savoy, he was too stressed to continue to run his empire. Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire and continued to be the face of the hotel empire until his retirement in 1920.

The Ritz-Escoffier story is one that has always intrigued me and Barr does a great deal of research here to cover every detail. While the work is clearly non-fiction, Barr’s descriptive prose makes it feel like a carefully woven story with characters, a plot arch, and denouement. He does a great job creating anticipation from a story where the basic facts are already well-known.

The inclusion of menus and details of important parties and events should keep every Escoffier fan happy and fulfilled. Just imagining the sheer quantity of truffles and foie gras that came out of Escoffier’s kitchens during this era is enough to take the breath away. Barr’s details and style really satisfy this aspect of the story, and move it past being a dry, historical detailing of facts to paint a picture of fine dining in the late Victorian era.

Loved this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a love of food and restaurant history.

Book Review — A Square Meal

A Square Meal by Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe

A Square Meal
Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe
Harper Collins, 2016

The United States is known as “the land of plenty” but there were points in history when that was absolutely not the case. During most of the 1930s, unemployment was high, crops failed due to drought, and much of the US population was subjected to famine conditions.

In A Square Meal, food historians Jane Ziegelman (97 Orchard) and Andrew Coe (Chop Suey), trace the food situation in the US from the boom days after the first world war to the stock market crash of the late 1920s and the crop failure of the early 1930s, spending a lot of time exploring various government programs to help feed people, and how they progressed with starts and stops over the decade as funding sources disappeared.

Ziegelman and Coe spend a great deal of time discussing the meals of the Roosevelts (FDR was President through much of the depression) in comparison to the poverty rations and bread lines that the average American was forced to survive on. Eleanor Roosevelt passed off the running of the household side of the White House to a housekeeper/cook named Henrietta Nesbitt who, by all accounts, was a terrible cook, who served visiting dignitaries sparse, bland, poorly-prepared meals. (For more on the Roosevelts and Nesbitt, check out the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt in Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate.)

There’s also a lot of content about home economics, which became a huge trend in the 1920s, and how that affected what people ate, both by choice and in terms of what they were offered in terms of food aid. A character named Aunt Sammy was created by the Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide advice to US women trying to manage households. Interestingly, Aunt Sammy was a scripted column that was sent out to regional radio stations and presented by a local actress with that region’s dialect, so folks in Oklahoma would hear a different Aunt Sammy than listeners in Boston or Maine, in order to have people consider the advice more seriously.

The authors appear to have tag-teamed on various chapters so there isn’t always a clear narrative throughout the book, which makes it a bit dry and almost technical in places. Some bits (hobos, bread lines, the obvious racism towards African-Americans when it came to aid) are more interesting/horrifying than others. Also distressing is the amount of food that was destroyed by farmers because it had depreciated to the point that they would lose money trying to sell it, all while people across the country were starving.

Despite the occasional dry patch, A Square Meal is still a really informative work that offers a greater understanding of US foodways, trends, and attitudes, and demonstrates the base that current food systems were built upon.

Book Review — How to Taste

How to Taste
Becky Selengut
Sasquatch Books, 2018

We spend a lot of time learning to taste beverages such as wine, beer, gin, and even coffee, but seldom are non-chefs taught the intricacies of tasting food. Or more specifically, how to cook food to maximize its taste. In How to Taste, food writer, chef and cooking instructor Becky Selengut works though the different experiences and flavours of food, explaining how to optimize flavour in the food we cook, as well as how to recognize imbalances and correct them for the perfectly balanced dish.

Selengut works through salt, acid, sweet, fat, bitter, and umami, and extends her instruction into aromatics, bite, texture, and finally “color, booze and everything else”. She explains why some age-old instructions actually fail many cooks — for instance the recommendation to add enough salt to cooking water so that it’ “tastes like the ocean”, which, in fact, is waaaay saltier than you want your cooking water to be — and how to understand what a dish needs when it’s out of balance and how to adjust everything else to make it work.

Writing in a fun, conversational style with funny asides, and irreverent anecdotes, Selengut balances the serious science theme of this work, and the section in each chapter called “experiment time” allows the reader to see first hand the differences salt, sugar, bitter, etc, all make in terms of flavouring a dish. A selection of recipes at the end of each chapter demonstrate how to use the techniques learned.

How to Taste emphasizes the importance of understanding taste, as well as having taste experience; knowing what things taste like definitely help when it comes to creating balance with those same ingredient when cooking. I would recommend this book to anyone who cooks professionally, but the home cook, especially someone who didn’t learn to cook at an early age, would be well-served by Selengut’s wise lessons.

Book Review — The Belly of Paris

Cover of The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart #3)
Emile Zola
originally published 1873,
reprint with introduction and translation by Mark Kurlansky, Modern Library, 2009

We all have that one book that we feel that we should have read but just never got around to. For me, that book was Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or The Fat and the Thin, as it was originally titled. This is a disappointment, because, having finally read it, I regret not having made the effort sooner, if only so that I would have had more opportunities to read it over and over again in my lifetime. This is an issue that I fully intend to address in future, but still, had I first read this as a teenager, I’d surely have read it at least a dozen more times in the interim years, so brilliant is this work of fiction.

Set in and around Les Halles market in Paris just after the new buildings were erected in the 1850s, The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent Quenu, wrongly arrested and sent to prison, escaped and returned to his brother, a chef who now runs a successful charcuterie shop on a street near the fish monger section of Les Halles.

The third book in a 20-part series, (The Rougon-Macquart books follow the lives of a fictional family over multiple generations), The Belly of Paris speaks to the politics of the day (plenty of uprisings and upheaval in the years after the French Revolution), and Zola offers both serious and comedic characters as he tells the story of two brothers and their disparate lives and life choices.

In a setting of so much plenty, Zola explores the disparity of the Fats (the well-to-do bourgeois) and the Thins (those always struggling, often with not enough to eat despite their environment). Malice, jealousy and petty gossip propel the story to its heartbreaking but not unexpected ending.

The selling point here is Zola’s detailed, breath-taking imagery. The descriptions of food throughout the market last for pages at a time and in other works of food fiction, this might get tedious, but Zola is so adept at his descriptions, the reader can’t help but imagine themselves there, amid the chaos and bustle, surrounded by the noise and smells of the market. One particular scene, set in a fromagerie and since referred to as “the cheese symphony” is so vivid, so enrapturing, that if the reader can’t place themselves in that shop, smelling those strong, moldering cheeses in the hot summer afternoon, then that reader should give up reading books altogether.

The Belly of Paris is the ultimate work of food fiction which all other novelists choosing to include food in their works must aspire to. I recommend buying a copy (the entire series is now public domain and can be had in ebook format for under $2), so you can read it again and again, as I intend to do. However, the 2009 printing — translated by food writer Mark Kurlansky — is worth seeking out, as Kurlansky’s notes offer a very comprehensive and detailed exploration of the political issues of the time, which might not be known to readers unfamiliar with French history and politics of the era.

Final thought — why has nobody made The Belly of Paris into a film???

Book Review — F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well

F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well by Action Bronson

F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well
Action Bronson
Abrams, 2017

I’ve been putting olive oil on ice cream since forever, but at Lilia in Brooklyn, Chef Missy Robbins showed me how she puts truffles on top of soft-serve with olive oil, honey, and sea salt.

And that’s when I became the biggest Action Bronson fan in the world. Honestly, I know that the man is a rapper, and that there has been some controversy over his lyrics, but as an old Goth, I’ve never been inclined to check out his music (no judgement, just likely not spooky enough for me), or his television shows. However, before he was a musician, Action Bronson was a chef. With a culinary school background. He knows a lot about food, all of it, from everywhere, and his travels as a musician have allowed him to taste food from all over the world. This book is a list of 100 of his favourite things to eat.

Besides the above mentioned olive oil and ice cream, Bronson offers up a little bit of everything, from high-end cuisine to junk food. He’s as happy eating truffles (“Truffles are only fancy to us because we don’t live where they come from.”) as he is drinking Crystal Light; as happy with a slice of greasy New York pizza as he is with a slice from an authentic pizzeria in Naples. He lists his favourite places around the world to get chicken wings and fried chicken (braise it in mustard, OMG), as well as his favourite bagel joints.

F*ck, That’s Delicious is part biography — Bronson traces his love of food back to his childhood in Queens and the vast array of food from around the world — and part cookbook, with plenty of his own recipes (which look fantastic!) for everything from a cheese bagel to his Albanian nonna’s Pasul (a dish of baked cannellini beans), to Explosive Chicken made with Szechuan peppers.

The writing here is funny, intelligent, and shows a true love and respect for foods of all kinds, and the cultures that they come from. The book is full of photos of Bronson on his travels, but also the odd silly cartoon (look for the one that goes with the story about the bear, the Poconos, and a pair of ladies’ slippers), funny diagrams, and plenty of photos of dishes that will make the reader yell, “Gimme that!”

It can seem a bit name-droppy at points — Bronson is friends with Mario Batali, who wrote the foreword, and mentions him frequently, so there’s some discomfort with the perception of misogyny, whether implied or actual — but he gives props to the places and chefs he mentions.

Overall, a really fun book that covers diverse area of the culinary world, and you don’t need to be a fan of Bronson’s music or television shows to be able to enjoy and appreciate it.

Book Review — Best Maine Lobster Rolls

Best Maine Lobster Rolls by Joe Ricchio, Virginia M. Wright

Best Maine Lobster Rolls
Kevin Joe Ricchio, Virginia M. Wright
Down East Books, 2018

First off, let me state that, hailing from Nova Scotia, I am obliged to dispute all so-called “factual” information in this book with regards to the origin of the lobster roll. Or where the best ones might come from. What I will concede is that something that was an old favourite of people along the Atlantic coast — of both the United States and Canada — has soared in popularity over the past decade or so. And in Maine, that has been a boon, both for existing seafood restaurants and as an opportunity for new places to open.

Best Maine Lobster Rolls starts out with a chapter of quotes from both locals and noted food writers on the origins of the dish and, more importantly, exactly what goes into it. This is a point of great debate, relating to pretty much every ingredient (of which there should be only: split-top bun, lobster, mayo, and salt and pepper… I know because I have debated this before), and has become a way for lobster roll sellers to differentiate themselves. Round roll? Lettuce? Brioche? The chart tracking traditional to outlandish ingredients is charming – and correct. No to puff pastry. No to avocado.

If you put lettuce anywhere near my f*cking lobster roll, I’ll just give it back.

The book goes on to offer a directory of select Maine lobster roll joints with a written bio for each place, plus a sidebar indicating the style of bun, how the meat is prepared, the mix (any other ingredients, acceptable or verboten), and the scene, which includes a description of the locale, decor, and service. There’s also a large collection of short one-paragraph reviews of other places, because apparently you can’t spit in Maine without hitting a lobster roll stand.

Finally, there’s a selection of recipes — some traditional, some verging on sacrilegious — from various lobster roll purveyors, as well as recipes for accompaniments like chowder, slaw, lobster salad, blueberry pie, and gin fizz. In Nova Scotia, the only acceptable accompaniment to a lobster roll is a Pepsi, but as a gin drinker, Ill let this pass and will even give it a try.

Throughout, Best Main Lobster Rolls is filled with absolutely gorgeous photos of so many different lobster rolls, but also of local scenery, breath-taking ocean views, lobster shacks, and happy people eating lobster.

As a Maritimer, I’ll debate the definition of “best” lobster roll, and defend my provincial/national rights to the lobster roll to my last breath, but I’ll concede that the lobster shacks in Maine are turning out some mighty fine looking sandwiches. And while you can certainly now get lobster rolls right across North America, it’s an absolute truth that lobster rolls always taste better with the tang of salty ocean air, a view of the grey Atlantic pounding against some jagged rocks, and the squawk of seagulls overhead. So this summer, why not get yourself to Maine (or Nova Scotia or PEI) and stuff yourself silly with tasty, delicious lobster rolls?

With thanks to Down East Books and NetGalley, this book was reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy and may not include exactly the same content or format when published.

Book Review — Edna Lewis: At the Table With an American Original

Cover of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original

Edna Lewis: At the Table With an American Original
Edited by Sara B. Franklin
The University of North Carolina Press, 2018

Edna Lewis. The name likely rings a bell, maybe you’ve heard of her, maybe someone you know has one of her cookbooks. But she’s never been associated with a restaurant empire, and she’s never hosted a TV cooking show. If you’re not from the United States, you’ve likely only heard of Edna Lewis if you’re a fan of cookbooks and Southern cuisine. Don’t feel bad, most people in the US, including many food writers, only know her by name and are unfamiliar with the massive influence she’s had on food culture.

I won’t dwell too long on the facts — you can read about those in this collection of essays compiled by Sara B. Franklin. Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia in 1916. She grew up in the farming community and understood and appreciated what we’ve come to refer to as “slow food” long before there was a name for it. She worked in professional kitchens in New York, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. She was an activist and a fashion designer, a food writer and chef. She also had an astounding influence on many chefs, food writers, and restaurateurs, as her elegant style — of cooking and living — changed the way Americans think of soul food and southern cooking in general.

Franklin has gathered stories and recollections from a vast cross-section of contemporary chefs and food writers. From Toni Tipton-Martin’s story of Lewis’ encouragement for her own book about African-American cooking, to pieces by Michael Twitty, John T. Edge, and Deborah Madison, all talk about Lewis’ influence on them and their own work, and on African-American cuisine.

While all paint respectful and occasionally awe-struck pictures of Miss Lewis, there is a fair amount of redundancy within the pieces. The story of Truman Capote wandering into the kitchen at Café Nicholson in search of more biscuits while Lewis was the chef there turns up a couple of times. Lewis’ words of advice to Toni Tipton-Martin to “leave no stone unturned” in her search to tell the truth about African-American chefs and cookery is quoted more than once as well. So by the end of the collection, the facts and stories are either solidly within the reader’s understanding of Miss Lewis, or else it starts to grate slightly. To be fair, I’m not sure how this could be avoided from an editorial standpoint with all contributors writing about the same subject, especially when some of those contributors only knew Lewis (or knew of her) in passing.

What is important is the acknowledgement of Lewis’ massive influence on American foodways, both from her books and professional work, and how she changed the way people think about Southern food, as well as local food, eaten in season, as fresh as possible. This collection will please those who are already Edna Lewis fans, and will undoubtedly make new fans of those who have just discovered the work of this magnificent woman and chef.

With thanks to The University of North Carolina Press and NetGalley, this book was reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy and may not include exactly the same content or format when published.