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 — The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris

Cover of The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris by Jackie Kai Ellis

The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris
Jackie Kai Ellis 
Appetite by Random House, 2018

Jackie Kai Ellis’ story should be an inspiring one. Despite a childhood in which her family predicted she would be a failure, she progressed from a designer to a self-employed designer to running a successful baked goods stall at farmers’ markets to the owner of a bricks and mortar bakery that was featured in Bon Apetit… which she then used as a base to become a food and travel writer, creator of bespoke food tours of Paris, and winner of many awards and accolades, both locally in her hometown of Vancouver, and internationally. Nice life, right? But the struggle to get to this point was hard fought, as Ellis suffered from severe depression, anorexia and bulimia, and had to deal with over-bearing parents and a husband who might just make it to the Narcissists Hall of Fame. So why does this story of a bootstrapping young gal trying to find a way to love life not sit more comfortably with me?

Told in an essay-type format that jumps around the timeline of Ellis’ life, we see her develop a love of food and art. The title, The Measure of My Powers, is a play on a series of chapters from M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, and quotes from Fisher begin many of Ellis’ chapters. But it feels as if a parallel is attempting to be drawn and despite the setting of Paris and an ultimately unhappy marriage, I don’t really see it. While Ellis knows food, her descriptions of such often feel forced.

However, food is what saves her from her unhappy life, where she can’t get out of bed, starves herself, punches her own face in the shower, and feels trapped by her husband G’s rigid rules about their decor, finances, and lifestyle. It is when she goes to Paris to study pastry that the envelope of darkness falls away from her, even though she still has to contend with G’s lack of enthusiasm for Paris (he spends his days meditating instead of enjoying the city), his gaslighting about their financial arrangements that leaves Jackie fairly screwed, and his disdain for her enjoyment of the experience, regularly telling her to “stop talking about food”. Clearly, the reader can see what Ellis was unable to acknowledge during most of her time with G, but somehow it’s hard to muster sympathy for her, even as she opens her bakery to great success. The stories about defecating herself (Twice! Once leaving the sheets unwashed for someone else to find and clean up!) because of lack of sleep/overwork don’t seem like someone enjoying the achievement of their goals, but rather someone who doesn’t know how to adult particularly well.

I might have liked this more if the essays were chronological. They tended to bounce around in time, often by decades, and this technique didn’t seem to have a real purpose with regards to the overall story. Some of the metaphors, like the whole bit about water, feeling flooded, drowning, etc, as Ellis was working on her bakery, might have been true for her, but felt trite and cliched, and I started to glaze a bit at this point.

The recipes at the end of each chapter were a nice touch, but tended to go on incredibly long with super-detailed instructions and many reference notes that became a bit of a turn-off.

I don’t regret taking the time to read this work, but it felt more like painful self-analysis at many points rather than the story of learning to love life through an appreciation of good food and cooking.

Book Review — The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Emily Nunn
Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017

While it’s generally not recommended to read other reviews of something before writing your own, I was drawn to reviews of The Comfort Food Diaries not for the critique of the writing style or the events depicted, but out of genuine curiosity as to what other readers got out of this book. Because, to me, the main theme was not Nunn’s stated premise of a comfort food road tour and emotional support that she received after her brother’s suicide, descent into alcoholism, and subsequent break-up with her fiancee, but rather an over-arching theme of dysfunctional families, the destruction caused by narcissistic personality disorder, and finding “family” wherever you can. Maybe that can only be seen by someone who is also from a dysfunctional family, but that was a much more prevalent theme for me than Nunn’s search for comfort food.

Nunn is living in Chicago with a man she refers to as The Engineer, along with his daughter (The Princess). She has been made redundant after a great career as a food and features writer. When her closeted gay brother commits suicide, Nunn finds solace in a bottle (or rather a lot of bottles) and has a nervous breakdown of sorts that her partner is not emotionally equipped to handle.

She returns to her family, moving to California to attend the Betty Ford clinic and stay with her sister, but family, despite best intentions, are not always the best people to help and support us, and Nunn finds herself at odds with her sister Elaine once she moves on to stay with other extended family members. This is apparently a typical situation within Nunn’s family with some of her three remaining siblings and divorced parents estranged from someone else at any given point (neither Nunn’s mother or younger sister attend her brother’s funeral, for instance). As the story unfolds, Nunn gives the reader a more nuanced look at her family situation, and I’m happy to award both Nunn’s mother and older sister the official “Piece of Work” award for their head games and narcissism.

All of this leaves Nunn rather more of a mess than she needs to be, and certainly does nothing to help her heal and recover, and much of the book is about her working out feelings towards herself that resonate back to childhood. (Like most auto-biographies, a lot is left unsaid regarding Nunn’s role in the dynamic of these relationships, but I know enough about how narcissists constantly pull the rug out from under the people around them that I can feel real empathy and sympathy for her.)

So wait, where does the food bit come into this? Nunn’s original plan, when she first reached out to friends on Facebook, was to go and visit various friends and relatives, cooking with them and writing about what they consider to be comfort food. And she does do that to some extent, staying with cousins. aunts and uncles, and reconnecting with many friends from her youth, all of whom welcomed her into their homes and lives. One of the key points Nunn discovers is that “comfort food” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and a dish that represents love and caring to one person might bring up terrible memories or distaste for another. This lack of universal agreement reflects the idea that family, the other entity we think of as “comfort” and where we’re most likely to associate food memories, may not be universally accepting either.

There are great-looking recipes throughout, but they feel a bit secondary within this interpretation of the theme, more of a way to avoid the issues Nunn must face on her journey rather than something that enhances it (she admits to avoiding her issues throughout the book), although many of her moments of enlightenment and self-awareness come while cooking and eating the various permutations of southern comfort food she seeks as a form of solace.

I suspect that the rift in Nunn’s family is likely permanent after the publication of this book, but my educated opinion is that she’s probably better off for it. Nunn has found herself and her healing within her family of choice, not her family of birth, and while her journey as an alcoholic and ACON (Adult Child of Narcissists) will always colour her feelings and decisions, the life changes she has made in The Comfort Food Diaries seem like a good base on which to restart her life.

This is a sharp and witty work — Nunn is a great writer — although it leaves a lot unsaid that might have pushed the story in a different direction. At minimum, it will give the reader cause to rethink their ideas of family and comfort and comfort food and how those things interweave throughout the course of a person’s life.

Book Review — The Ghost Orchard

The Ghost Orchard
Helen Humphreys
Harper Collins, 2017

While it first appears to be a simple exploration of lost North American apple varieties, The Ghost Orchard dredges up other kinds of ghosts and other types of loss in a lacy web of colonialism, agriculture, and human relationships.

Taken on when her friend Joanne Page was dying from cancer, Humphreys traces her own search for the Winter White Pearmain (“crisp and juicy with an underlay of pear and honey”), a heritage apple she discovers near a cabin by her home while walking the dog, and a metaphor for all types of loss as she explores the lost orchards of many notable apple-lovers.

There are many tangents here, but the chapters on Robert Frost and his love of apples, as well as the work of Ann Jessop, who travelled the US with apple scions (those are the branches that are grafted onto existing trees, as opposed to planting seeds directly into the ground) are but two stories that Humphreys researches and shares. She also writes extensively about her Grandfather, an artist who painted the artwork for seed packets, and whose interest in not just apples but all types of produce has obviously affected her.

Readers will either love or hate the intertwining of Humphreys’ personal memories and loss with the more factual and historical elements of this work. Sometimes they feel extremely disparate and at odds, yet in the case of her discussion of the orchards of Native North Americans and how they were appropriated by colonial settlers, the sense of loss and sympathy crosses over into the personal.

Humphreys ends with a massive list of lost apple varieties that will make anyone standing in the supermarket considering “red, green, or yellow” tearful at what we’re all missing. Which is sort of the point, I think, on every level.

Book Review — Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets

Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets
Jeff Benjamin
Burgess Lea Press, 2015

Everybody thinks they could run a restaurant. Whether it’s a person who loves to cook imagining themselves as a four-star chef or someone who thinks it would be easy to be a server because, hey, how hard can it be to carry some plates of food, we all think of waiting tables as an easy job.

Turns out, running a restaurant is a lot more complicated than it seems, and it’s about more than just keeping track of who had the salmon.

Jeff Benjamin is the co-owner of the Vetri family of restaurants, a collection of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia and New Jersey. While Benjamin is one of those rare folks who have dedicated their lives to hospitality and service, he doesn’t love everything about all of his customers, and this book, rather than being a how-to manual for other restaurateurs, is more of a gentle explanation for diners as to how most restaurants work.

Benjamin’s overall philosophy is one of “what can I do to make this guest a return customer?” But he concedes that there are some people you just don’t want to see at your door again; the folks who demand free meals because of one mistake, the folks who come with added guests in tow, the folks who steal the silverware.

Front of the House doesn’t get into the mathematical details of things like wine mark-ups or tipping systems but it does gently and politely explain why these things are necessary. Benjamin offers a variety of scenarios in which a diplomatic demeanour has allowed him to correct issues and gain a loyal customer.

If it all seems a bit self-congratulatory, I don’t think it’s meant to be. Benjamin seems genuinely dedicated to the idea of hospitality and really wants his guests to enjoy their meals.

I was a bit taken aback at his reiteration of turning tables in 75 minutes; most restaurants offer at least 90 minutes to 2 hours, with that time frame expressed up front at the time of reservation. (And who among us hasn’t been annoyed at the idea of having to eat and get out in 2 hours?) A mere hour and fifteen minutes allotted per table means that his staff have to perform not a well-orchestrated ballet but a highland fling to keep guests eating and moving at the right rate.

Other than that, most of his system seems to make sense, based on my own restaurant experience and training.

Ultimately, most of Front of House comes down to being kind, doing whatever you can for the customer (within reason), and ensuring that staff are well-trained and knowledgeable. This is a great guide for the average restaurant customer, but while it’s useful for restaurant owners and staff, it won’t serve as a detailed training manual.