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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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.

Smörgåsbord – The Tastes of Hamilton: Brux House and Quatrefoil

brux_beets

Recently my husband Greg and I got to spend a day in Hamilton. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t travelled a lot in the past few years, so a trip – even just as far as Hamilton, even if we had to take a stinky Greyhound, and even if the main purpose was for a beer festival – was still a trip. And if I could bargain a visit to the lovely Quatrefoil Restaurant in nearby Dundas out of the deal in exchange for sitting around at a beer festival for hours, all the better.

Incidentally, the Because Beer Festival at Pier 4 Park in Hamilton, overlooking the lovely Hamilton Harbour, was delightful. Okay, I mostly sat at a picnic table by the water watching boats and geese while Greg drank and schmoozed, but it was well organized and relaxing.

We arrived in Hamilton around lunchtime, rolled through the gorgeous original art deco bus station and headed to Brux House, a craft beer restaurant in the Locke Street shopping district, which is incidentally also owned by the folks who own Quatrefoil. Chef Fraser Macfarlane heads the kitchen in both locations, joined by chef Georgina Mitropoulos at Quatrefoil.

Both places share a similar aesthetic – set up in old houses, with a subdued glamour, and attentive servers; Brux House is slightly more relaxed and laid back, Quatrefoil is pretty and elegant and they fold your napkin while you’re in the loo.

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Review – The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky

language-of-foodThe Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
by Dan Jurafsky
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

Fresh. Delicious. Perfectly cooked (oh, how I hate that one). The way we talk about food, especially how it’s described on menus, plays a huge role in how much we’re going to end up paying for those same dishes.

Dan Jurafsky’s amusing and informative book The Language of Food looked at thousands of menus from all types of restaurants. Fancy restaurants with “five-dollar” words on the menu charge more money for their dishes, But beware any place telling you the food is fresh, real (as in maple syrup), or crispy – because don’t you already assume that the food in restaurants is fresh and real? As Willy Shakes said, “I think thou doth protest too much.”

Menus aren’t the only thing Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University discusses in his book. He spends a lot of time looking at the origin of food words and how they morphed as food culture was carried with explorers to new countries. Ice cream, for instance, started as flavoured syrups used in drinks in the Middle East and Persia. Then the Chinese discovered that salt-peter used in gun powder made ice really, really cold and that process also moved east where it was used on those syrups to make the frozen treat sherbet. It didn’t take long for someone to start flavouring milk and cream and using the same process, and voila – ice cream.

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Book Review – Tasty by John McQuaid

tastyLiver, blue cheese, candy, chili peppers. Some people like these foods, others loathe them. But why? How is it that some humans love sweets but hate hot stuff? How can some beer drinkers go crazy for hops while others prefer nothing but sweet, malty stouts? The secret goes beyond our tongues to our very DNA.

Tasty by John McQuaid explores the whole history of taste, starting hundreds of millions of years ago with trilobites and progressing through the stages of evolution. McQuaid does this through five meals that show the progress of vertebrates, touching on the use of tools and ultimately fire.

It also seems a lot changed for humans when we moved off the African continent into other areas of the world and discovered a wider variety of things to eat. As we evolved, people in different parts of the world developed different tastes and this happened within our very genes, creating various levels of tasting ability from super-tasters down to those folks whose taste buds offer little in the way of reaction, allowing them to drink bottles of hot sauce without breaking a sweat.

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