April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.

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 — 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.

Book Review — The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria

The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria
Annie Gray
Profile Books, 2017

Queen Victoria was one of the most interesting characters in history, whether you look at her from the perspective of royalty, parent, or politician. But what about Victoria’s life in food? She certainly did love to eat, as food historian Dr. Annie Gray points out in this detailed work about not just Victoria’s own meals but about how food was procured, prepared, and eaten within the royal palaces during the Victorian era.

From corruption and theft to kitchens that often flooded with backed-up sewage, right down to the variance in menus for staff, courtiers, and the royal family (the kitchens sometimes needed to turn out thousands of meals per day, most with extensive multi-course menus), Gray covers it all, from Victoria’s first meal as Queen to her last.

Along the way, Victoria, like many women of her day and for every generation since, struggled with her weight and her heavy, multi-course meals caused her endless indigestion and weight gain as she aged. Despite the many dishes, plus an omnipresent groaning sideboard -— you know, an extra roast or two, just in case you’re still a bit peckish — accounts of dining with Victoria don’t sound particularly pleasant; she reportedly wolfed her food and wasn’t a great conversationalist.

Gray offers extensive exploration of the royal kitchen accounts, including the difficulties in keeping quality staff, and spends a good amount of time discussing farm and garden initiatives implemented by Victoria and Albert at all the castles, including the Swiss Cottage built at Osbourne for the royal children with its own smaller-scale working kitchen. Food was obviously important to Victoria.

There are places where Gray seemingly contradicts herself — Victoria was a daring eater, with a love of Indian food and and a willingness to try new things, or she was set in her ways (it took her decades to agree to change from French service to the now-standard Russian, she ate lamb or mutton at most meals) — but there was undoubtedly a lot of information, menus, and recipes to sift through.

Gray includes a collection of recipes for some of Victoria’s favourite dishes, modernized, thankfully for current kitchens and palates.

While The Greedy Queen can get a bit dry in places, it’s mostly a fun look at Victorian kitchens, cooking techniques, and trends. The insight into Victoria herself is less revealing, but I’m not sure that matters much.