Book Review — Best Maine Lobster Rolls

Best Maine Lobster Rolls by Joe Ricchio, Virginia M. Wright

Best Maine Lobster Rolls
Kevin Joe Ricchio, Virginia M. Wright
Down East Books, 2018

First off, let me state that, hailing from Nova Scotia, I am obliged to dispute all so-called “factual” information in this book with regards to the origin of the lobster roll. Or where the best ones might come from. What I will concede is that something that was an old favourite of people along the Atlantic coast — of both the United States and Canada — has soared in popularity over the past decade or so. And in Maine, that has been a boon, both for existing seafood restaurants and as an opportunity for new places to open.

Best Maine Lobster Rolls starts out with a chapter of quotes from both locals and noted food writers on the origins of the dish and, more importantly, exactly what goes into it. This is a point of great debate, relating to pretty much every ingredient (of which there should be only: split-top bun, lobster, mayo, and salt and pepper… I know because I have debated this before), and has become a way for lobster roll sellers to differentiate themselves. Round roll? Lettuce? Brioche? The chart tracking traditional to outlandish ingredients is charming – and correct. No to puff pastry. No to avocado.

If you put lettuce anywhere near my f*cking lobster roll, I’ll just give it back.

The book goes on to offer a directory of select Maine lobster roll joints with a written bio for each place, plus a sidebar indicating the style of bun, how the meat is prepared, the mix (any other ingredients, acceptable or verboten), and the scene, which includes a description of the locale, decor, and service. There’s also a large collection of short one-paragraph reviews of other places, because apparently you can’t spit in Maine without hitting a lobster roll stand.

Finally, there’s a selection of recipes — some traditional, some verging on sacrilegious — from various lobster roll purveyors, as well as recipes for accompaniments like chowder, slaw, lobster salad, blueberry pie, and gin fizz. In Nova Scotia, the only acceptable accompaniment to a lobster roll is a Pepsi, but as a gin drinker, Ill let this pass and will even give it a try.

Throughout, Best Main Lobster Rolls is filled with absolutely gorgeous photos of so many different lobster rolls, but also of local scenery, breath-taking ocean views, lobster shacks, and happy people eating lobster.

As a Maritimer, I’ll debate the definition of “best” lobster roll, and defend my provincial/national rights to the lobster roll to my last breath, but I’ll concede that the lobster shacks in Maine are turning out some mighty fine looking sandwiches. And while you can certainly now get lobster rolls right across North America, it’s an absolute truth that lobster rolls always taste better with the tang of salty ocean air, a view of the grey Atlantic pounding against some jagged rocks, and the squawk of seagulls overhead. So this summer, why not get yourself to Maine (or Nova Scotia or PEI) and stuff yourself silly with tasty, delicious lobster rolls?

With thanks to Down East Books 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 — 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 — 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.