Book Review — Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life

Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life
Susan Seligson
Simon & Schuster, 2002

If you don’t bake bread, can you write a book about bread? Susan Seligson attempts to do so in this book about bread-making in different cultures. She travels to Morocco to follow daily loaves through the fes; to upstate New York to try the sourdough; Jordan for Bedouin flatbreads; Ireland to study soda bread; Maine to understand the ubiquitous Wonderbread; Brooklyn to watch matzo being made; India for roti; New Mexico to get a look at the special, hundred year-old bread ovens called hornos; Alabama for biscuits; a military R&D kitchen to learn about how bread is made to last in MREs (meal, ready to eat) for soldiers; and finally to Paris where she cannot score an interview with the famous baker Lionel Poulaine, and so settles for his brother.

Despite the fact that this is a lot of bread, many of the chapters touch on bread only briefly — Seligson is more of a travel writer than a food writer, and while she asks questions and observes the processes, and describes them, this book often meanders off into the personal memoir realm, such as the chapter on India where she mostly talks about her rich friend, the friend’s home, and the friend’s servant, who, incidentally, is the one who makes the rotis covered in that chapter.

While I found myself laughing at Seligson’s often-caustic observations of the people and places she encounters, other readers might find her a bit too critical and mean-spirited as opposed to observant and forthrightly honest. To be fair, there are chapters where the author does come off as a grade-A jerk. In the chapter about the New Mexican hornos, she complains incessantly about her inability to access the local villages to get a good look at the ovens, the hostility of the Native American people on the pueblos towards Anglos, and the cheap jewelry and crafts sold to tourists. At other times this attitude can be be kind of charming, such as when she spends a day at a matzo factory where they are stringent about keeping out chametz (leavened bread of any kind), only to discover after she leaves that she’s been walking around with part of a chocolate chip cookie in her pocket.

The charming and interesting part of Going With the Grain is being able to see different types of bread and the culture around them (how loaves disappear into the Moroccan fes, for instance, and get returned, properly baked, to their rightful owners), or the intensity of the baking process for a sourdough savant. While Seligson occasionally meanders too far from the subject at hand, she paints vivid pictures of each type of bread and how it comes to life. The recipes at the end of each chapter are a nice touch.

This is a good food-lovers read if the reader can ignore — or find a way to enjoy — Seligson’s personality as it comes through her narrative.

Book Review — Sourdough

Robin Sloan
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

It might be too early to call it, being only February and all, but Sourdough is already a contender for my top fiction pick of the year.

This work of Magical Realism (a genre that combines fact with magical elements) is subtle enough on the weirdness that I often found myself looking things up to see if they were true. Does sourdough “sing” while it is rising? Does it emit light or sparkle? (Hey, you never know with yeast and gas.) Is there really such a thing as a Lois club?

Here’s the deets: Lois Clary moves from Michigan to San Francisco where she takes a job at a tech start-up programming robotic arms. Her co-workers often sleep at work and eat a nutritive gel called Slurry instead of real food. One night while at home she orders soup and a sandwich from a not-especially-legal restaurant run out of someone’s apartment and gets hooked on their amazing sourdough bread. When the owners have to leave the country because of visa issues, they show up at her door with their crock of sourdough starter (because she has become their best customer) and give her a quick lesson on how to care for it and make bread.

From there she starts baking, first for herself, then for friends and co-workers, then the cafeteria at her office, where the chef encourages her to apply for one of the local San Francisco farmers’ markets. She doesn’t get into the main market system but is offered a spot in a new underground market (literally – it’s housed in an old missile bunker) where all the vendors are creating food with some combination of old school tradition and current technology. Lois borrows one of the robotic arms from her work to help her knead the bread with the promise that she will teach/code it to break eggs, as this is one of the hurdles for robotic arms in the food prep industry.

It gets even weirder than this by the end of the book, but Sloan does an amazing job of keeping all the elements together while creating a work that asks more questions than it ultimately answers. There’s the whole dichotomy of old skills and traditional ingredients up against technology – once the robotic arms can be used in industrial-scale bakeries, hundreds of people will lose their jobs. There’s also an Alice Waters-esque character, who even owns a restaurant in Berkeley that matches Chez Panisse in description, who represents the old foodways and traditions while the market Lois takes part in has a mandate to help find solutions to feed people en masse.

Throughout all of this is the relationship between Lois and the sourdough. Sloan integrates the food writing part of his work seamlessly with the rest of the story, which can be a huge problem for many writers trying to incorporate food writing into fiction. His descriptions of the sourdough as it rises and sings, as it takes on a personality, becomes depressed, and goes to battle against King Arthur (the flour, not the guy from the round table), are not only charming and engaging but mouthwatering. I dare you to read this book and not want to crack into a boule of fresh sourdough bread and slather it with butter.

Sloan goes beyond a fun story about bread. Sourdough takes on questions about philosophy, technology, tradition, ethics, history, and relationships of many types.


There’s No Knead

Last week, mt friend Drew posted a link to Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times about a bread recipe that required very little yeast and almost no kneading. The secret, according to Bittman, was to let it sit for a good 18 hours, letting the yeast do all the work in creating the gluten.

Anyone who’s been around these parts for a while knows of my ongoing struggle with bread. I gave up for years because I couldn’t get anything close to the heavenly stuff that came out of my Grandmother’s oven. So I was game to try Bittman’s recipe, but sceptical.

I had the loaf in the oven this afternoon when I came across a post about the bread on the Live Journal food porn community. Like everyone over there, my bread turned out fantastic, although it was not without its problems.

Continue reading “There’s No Knead”

Detox Day 3 – Uncle!

It was the parmesan cheese that did me in. I am sad and pathetic and weak.

I had made a quinoa and kamut pasta with sauteed rapini and without even thinking about it, sprinkled the parm across the top. D’oh! As the point of the whole exercise was to keep the body free of all foods that were potential toxins, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. In theory, I should start all over again, not just brush off what I could and not worry about it.

Then this morning, the coffee called to me. “Sheryl…” it whispered. “You know you want me. I’m a delightful dark roast of Tanzanian peaberry beans. You made me yourself in your little roaster. Did you know that organic coffee is actually an ANTIoxidant and has a plethora of healthful properties? Remember that study that showed that women who drank a cup of coffee per day had a lower rate of Alzheimers disease?” And then the coffee won. Because even greater than my fear of being fat, cancerous and full of illness is my fear of being eighty and not remembering where I left my teeth.

Continue reading “Detox Day 3 – Uncle!”