Book Review — Best Maine Lobster Rolls

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 — The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris

The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris
Jackie Kai Ellis 
Appetite by Random House, 2018

Jackie Kai Ellis’ story should be an inspiring one. Despite a childhood in which her family predicted she would be a failure, she progressed from a designer to a self-employed designer to running a successful baked goods stall at farmers’ markets to the owner of a bricks and mortar bakery that was featured in Bon Apetit… which she then used as a base to become a food and travel writer, creator of bespoke food tours of Paris, and winner of many awards and accolades, both locally in her hometown of Vancouver, and internationally. Nice life, right? But the struggle to get to this point was hard fought, as Ellis suffered from severe depression, anorexia and bulimia, and had to deal with over-bearing parents and a husband who might just make it to the Narcissists Hall of Fame. So why does this story of a bootstrapping young gal trying to find a way to love life not sit more comfortably with me?

Told in an essay-type format that jumps around the timeline of Ellis’ life, we see her develop a love of food and art. The title, The Measure of My Powers, is a play on a series of chapters from M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, and quotes from Fisher begin many of Ellis’ chapters. But it feels as if a parallel is attempting to be drawn and despite the setting of Paris and an ultimately unhappy marriage, I don’t really see it. While Ellis knows food, her descriptions of such often feel forced.

However, food is what saves her from her unhappy life, where she can’t get out of bed, starves herself, punches her own face in the shower, and feels trapped by her husband G’s rigid rules about their decor, finances, and lifestyle. It is when she goes to Paris to study pastry that the envelope of darkness falls away from her, even though she still has to contend with G’s lack of enthusiasm for Paris (he spends his days meditating instead of enjoying the city), his gaslighting about their financial arrangements that leaves Jackie fairly screwed, and his disdain for her enjoyment of the experience, regularly telling her to “stop talking about food”. Clearly, the reader can see what Ellis was unable to acknowledge during most of her time with G, but somehow it’s hard to muster sympathy for her, even as she opens her bakery to great success. The stories about defecating herself (Twice! Once leaving the sheets unwashed for someone else to find and clean up!) because of lack of sleep/overwork don’t seem like someone enjoying the achievement of their goals, but rather someone who doesn’t know how to adult particularly well.

I might have liked this more if the essays were chronological. They tended to bounce around in time, often by decades, and this technique didn’t seem to have a real purpose with regards to the overall story. Some of the metaphors, like the whole bit about water, feeling flooded, drowning, etc, as Ellis was working on her bakery, might have been true for her, but felt trite and cliched, and I started to glaze a bit at this point.

The recipes at the end of each chapter were a nice touch, but tended to go on incredibly long with super-detailed instructions and many reference notes that became a bit of a turn-off.

I don’t regret taking the time to read this work, but it felt more like painful self-analysis at many points rather than the story of learning to love life through an appreciation of good food and cooking.

Book Review — Insects: An Edible Field Guide

Insects: An Edible Field Guide
Stefan Gates
Ebury Press, 2017

Food trend analysts predict that bugs will be our major source of protein within just a few years. However this may squick you, discounting an actual apocalypse, it’s probably safe to say that we’ll continue to eat beef, chicken, fish, and pork as long as it still exists. But bugs are a hot food trend, one that major supermarkets are getting in on, and that chefs are checking out, although mostly as a novelty, but with some creativity and an eye to nutrition and the environment.

Stefan Gates, food writer and presenter of TV shows, is no stranger to eating weird things. He’s based a big part of his career on it, in fact. Over the years he’s eaten plenty of bugs and is a fan of this alternative protein source. His latest book prepares us for the days when we turn to crickets and meal worms instead of a nice roast chicken.

Gates starts by pointing out that two billion people willingly choose to eat insects on a regular basis, and that people in the western world are actually eating more insects than we realize, both in the form of the red dye cochineal (made from the wings of the cochineal beetle, and thus permitted to be called “natural colour” which means it ends up in pretty much every prepared food that is red or pink — yes, even your strawberry yogurt), as well as all the little bits that show up in prepared food like jam or canned vegetables.

He offers a primer on the taste of insects, benefits and dangers, a bit about the science of entomology (the study of insects), and his own reasons for developing an interest in insects as cuisine. The book is then divided into geographical region with a listing for each edible insect with field notes that include an overview of the bug, habitat, taste, dangers (if any), and how to cook or prep each insect. For instance, Gates lists cicadas as nutty, with similarities to chicken, and offers up a recipe for Cicada Florentines.

Each entry is accompanied by a line drawing of the critter by Candela Riveros, and these lovely sketches hearken back to old style field guides of the Victorian era.

One issue that Gates doesn’t address particularly well is where the inquisitive bug-eater is suppose to find these delicacies. He points out that foraging is a serious business in countries like Thailand, and that farmed insects such as crickets are a growing business. But unless you want to stand out in the woods with a net and a jar like when you were a kid, the easiest way to try insects is to buy them from a pet store, where crickets and mealworms are readily available for feeding to pet reptiles and amphibians. (Here in Canada, a national grocery chain has just introduced packaged cricket powder — to be added to “smoothies, sauces chilis, curries, and baking batter” — but by weight it is currently 5 times the price of a top sirloin roast, so it’s unlikely that it will catch on as a regular purchase for most people.)

Ultimately, Insects: An Edible Field Guide is a fun book that most people are not going to take especially seriously, despite Gates’ enthusiasm and dedication to the issue. Trendy or not, it’s going to take a lot of effort (or an apocalypse) to get westerners to willingly eat insects on a regular basis.

(For more information about insect farming and eating, check out this article in The National Post by Laura Brehaut.)

Book Review — The Fruit Forager’s Companion

The Fruit Forager’s Companion
Sara Bir
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018

If you know where to look, there is fruit growing everywhere, even in most cities. Much of this fruit gets wasted as it ripens, falls, and rots; either it is too much for the owner of the land on which the tree grows, or the property in uninhabited. Within my own city of Toronto, the growing season offers a variety of good things to eat, hidden away, or sometimes in plain sight, on public property; berries, quince, rosehips, greens like lamb’s quarters, and coveted black walnuts where a wily forager appears in a public park some evening in October with a ladder and a hook, and clears off entire stands of the trees, not a single precious nut left behind, like the Grinch at Christmas.

Having grown up in a semi-rural area in Nova Scotia, I spent my childhood in the woods, picking berries, fiddleheads, and mushrooms (with the guidance of my Grandmother), and on the beaches digging clams. Let’s just say Sara Bir is a gal after my own heart and I was excited to have the opportunity to read and review her book.

Bir concentrates on fruit, leaving other wild foods such as mushrooms to people with more experience. Rule number one of foraging – don’t eat the poison stuff. Rule number two – ask first, especially if the fruit you want to take is on private property. Bir encourages readers to knock on doors and ask, most people are usually happy to have you take all that fruit away. Bir also encourages readers to be safety-minded; if you can’t reach it easily, you probably don’t need it that badly. She also provides a list of necessary tools such as containers and the all-important gloves, because nature is pointy.

The recipe section of the book is comprised of fruit-based creations, sorted alphabetically, with each fruit introduced with a lovely drawing and basic overview of the fruit, its uses, storage, and cooking tips.

Recipes range from the expected sweet offerings (pastries, cakes, scones) to preserves and pickles, with a few main course dishes such as pork tenderloin with rosemary roasted figs and onions or trout with gooseberry sauce working the savoury abilities of the fruit. A few entries, such as the one for juniper, have no recipes, and Bir goes into varietal detail for some specific fruits but not all.

Happy to see: a reference to Not Far From the Tree, an organization here in Toronto that teams up with homeowners, volunteers, and charities to harvest fruit on private property and share it. Sad to see: Bir joyfully mentions Japonica quince but dismisses them as too much work. They’re not! I foraged Japonicas from my local park for years before they were removed in an effort to control some wandering bamboo, and they made the best face-puckering jam.

Depending on your geographical region, not all of The Fruit Forager’s Companion will apply to you, but even if you have no local lemon trees, the recipes can still be used for purchased fruit. And while the recipes are great, the real treasure here is the information Bir provides for aspiring foragers.

Usability (based on a pdf file): very good. Recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Directions are in paragraph format with no step numbers or line breaks. Fonts appear to be a good size but this may depend on the overall dimensions of the finished printed format. Measurements include metric (yay!).

With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing 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 — Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes

Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes
edited by Valerie Mansour
Nimbus, 2017

As long as people have lived in Nova Scotia, there has been a need to cook and thus, a need for recipes. While many cooks of the past needed no written instruction, keeping all the details in their heads, once the popularity of cookbooks grew, plenty of regional recipes were shared through books (both mainstream and community publications), newspapers, and on scraps of paper, either handwritten or typed.

The Nova Scotia Archives has, well, an archive of old recipes, from handwritten notes for a lemon pie to the mass quantity recipes used at the old Moirs’ chocolate factory. Editor Valerie Mansour has compiled a collection of these, dating back nearly 200 years from 1786 to the 1970s and arranged chronologically. For a fun twist, the recipes were passed on to various Nova Scotia chefs who then analyzed the recipe and made their own version.

In some cases they stuck to the original recipe and in others the chefs deviated far off track because the original was just too scary or unworkable. Each entry includes an image of the original recipe in its original form, the revised recipe developed by the chef, and the chef’s comments, as well as a splendid, mouth-warering photo by Len Wagg.

The collection includes expected favourites such as rice pudding, devilled eggs, seafood chowder, rappie pie, and ginger beer, but there’s a Thai peanut soup recipe from 1910, and a Mulligatawny recipe from 1922 that reveals a worldly sophistication not typically ascribed to Nova Scotians of the time.

Recipes range from cocktails and cider to hearty entrees, side dishes, and desserts, and every Nova Scotian will find an old family favourite among the pages.

While some of the chef’s might have taken more artistic license with their dish than was absolutely necessary, this is a fun and interesting collection that offers updated versions of classic dishes that are within the grasp of the majority of home cooks. Some of the best reading in the book is the detailed archival citation of each recipe in a section at the back which cites the sources for each entry, and references community cookbooks, private collections, and publications ranging from promotional corporate cookbooks to community fundraising books.

As an ex-pat Nova Scotian, this book is a delightful taste of home, but it is also a wonderful resource for anybody interested in food history or Nova Scotian cuisine (past and present) in general.

Lucky Dip – May 6th – Six Cool Food Things

Unelefante-Chocolate-Packaging-Mexico-AChocolate inspired by Jackson Pollack? These beautiful pieces of edible art are from Unelefante in Mexico. [Via KNSTRCT]

Das-Kochbuch-0111Can’t keep track of your best lasagna recipe? How about this one that’s printed on the pasta? [Via BoingBoing]

The story of Sweeney Todd the barber and the little pie shop next door is just fiction… or is it? In the 1380s, Paris had an evil barber/butcher combo that were brought to justice because of a dog waiting for its missing master. [Via Messy Nessy Chic]

Cristina-Burns-photography-12The sweetness of death… skulls, candy and flowers by Cristina Burns. [Via Dangerous Minds]

dali_lesdinersdegala1Before that Surreal Gourmet guy, there was the real surreal gourmet. Salvador Dali’s very rare cookbook. [Via BrainPickings]

spoonsMore skulls and sugar, this time for your coffee – sugar skull spoons. [Via This Is Colossal]