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 — 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 — In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses

In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
Christoph Ribbat
Pushkin Press, 2018

While the practice of making food for sale to others dates back as far as the human race (apparently the Egyptians were really into street food), the concept of a restaurant — a place where people were seated and served food and drink, then left when the meal was done — exists within Western society for only about the past 250 years. Started in France as a place to buy and consume restorative dishes such as soup, the concept grew and modernized over the centuries.

Of course, there are so many stories, so many chefs, so many food writers, that it’s impossible to talk about them all, but Christoph Ribbat gives it his best effort, interweaving stories of chefs, servers, writers, activists, and even sociologists studying parts of the restaurant industry into one book full of the most poignant stories and events.

Readers may find Ribbat’s style disconcerting. While still moving chronologically, he jumps from place to place, person to person, and restaurant to restaurant, interlacing the story of sociologist Frances Donovan writing about waitresses in 1917 with the first Parisian restaurants in the 1760s. I actually quite enjoyed this format; the reader is not bored by the unnecessary biographies and details of the chefs or servers featured, but is given the meat of the matter in a quick and concise format. Ribbat expects the reader to be familiar with most of the individuals mentioned, but for the most part we are, so it’s all good, and for those whose names we don’t immediately recognize, he does a good job of telling their story in a succinct manner. This felt like the written version of a Julien Temple documentary, with quick cuts and intense imagery. Paired with a cool soundtrack and some grainy historical footage worked in between vignettes, this would actually make a great documentary film.

Ribbat moves the story of restaurants forward by including pieces about Sartre setting up a pseudo office in his favourite cafe, George Orwell working as a dishwasher, Jacques Pepin as a young apprentice, a young Gael Green having sex with Elvis and then ordering him a fried egg sandwich from room service, the first meeting of Hitler henchmen Goring and Goebbels across a restaurant table, the civil rights protests at southern US lunch counters, and a discussion of the emotional labour required to work in a job as a server where you’re expected to smile all the time, usually for very little pay.

Like any documentary, there’s more left out than what gets included but when you look at the massive amount of information Ribbat had to work with, I think he curated the work in a very sharp and concise manner, touching on the most important aspects of the restaurant business (racism, classism, sexism, food activism), both historically and looking forward to the future.

In the final chapter Ribbat moves away from the disparate, inter-cut stories to a more academic tone in which he discusses why he chose to present the work in this format. This feels slightly unnecessary, even with his assertion that the tales and anecdotes presented may be taken (or presented) out of context, they work together to form a cohesive story with a strong, shared theme. He might be undermining his own work here because, while the various stories all spliced together feel a bit like a very delicious rock video, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just as the restaurant progresses through the ages with changing tastes and trends and the adaptation of modern technology, so too does they way we discuss, remember, and analyze the restaurant industry.

With thanks to Pushkin 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 – Stir

stir

Stir – My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
Jessica Fechtor

In February of this year, I got knocked down in the street. A complete accident, it occurred as a woman was stepping out of a shop door and wasn’t watching where she was going. She slammed into my back and sent me flying, face-first onto the sidewalk. I walked away from the fall but was left with severe muscle tears and sprains, including both shoulders. On top of an already herniated disc in my neck, the combo left me useless in terms of cooking or housework for months. Even now (mid-July) my shoulders are still very fragile, having been re-injured a number of times when I overdid something such as lifting a too-heavy item or exercising too much, too soon.

Through it all, as my husband and I ate take-out or prepared food night after night for dinner, I desperately wanted to get back into the kitchen. But I couldn’t bend my head forward to chop, lifting stockpots sent me back to recovery, and even the repetitive action of hulling a bag of peas caused a major set-back. Of all the different types of illness and injuries I’ve had over the years, I’ve never gone this long without being able to cook.

So Jessica Fechtor’s story in Stir, of how a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her, also took away the thing she loved doing most, was very relatable to me. Not the nearly dying part, but definitely the part about wanting to get back into the kitchen.

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Stupid Is as Stupid Does

The foodie intarwebs are abuzz about a recent post by cookbook author Michael Ruhlman claiming that Americans are being taught that they’re too stupid to cook. While I get Ruhlman’s point (lots of people are making a profit on processed food because people are scared to try and cook food themselves), there’s a condescension to his words, a pompousness to his tone, that does a disservice to his message.

If you know how to cook, then yes, cooking is easy. Ruhlman uses a basic roast chicken as an example; sprinkle it with salt, bang it in the oven for an hour, ta da! And those of us who know how to cook understand this. But we also understand many things that a non-cook might not know; things that Ruhlman doesn’t mention in his post. Like washing and patting the chicken dry first, and taking care to clean all surfaces to avoid salmonella. Or to take out that bag of gizzards if there is one. Or whether to cook it on a rack in the pan or directly in the pan itself. Or whether to truss or not (it’s not mentioned in the “look how easy this is” post, and a small chicken doesn’t need to be trussed, but the accompanying photo shows a trussed roast chicken, which might cause confusion), or how much time to add for cooking if your bird is bigger than the size he mentions, or how to check for doneness when the bird comes out of the oven. A commenter even points out that, hey, not everyone, especially people who don’t cook regularly, might have an appropriate pan to cook a chicken in.

Ruhlman knows all these tricks of course, but he misses the point by not sharing the information, and the information is really what it’s all about. Seriously – compare his directions to these from Chef Claire Tansey. It’s the same basic recipe, but Tansey actually addresses all the little questions that can make a difference in both the final product and the cook’s confidence.

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