Book Review — Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times

Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times
Amanda Hesser (Editor)
W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

I began my writing career wanting to be an essayist until I discovered that most people have little interest in reading essays. Or writing good ones, since it reminds them too much of being forced to do so at school. Having said that, someone other than me must enjoy the things because the New York Times ran a regular column of food essays, written not so much by food writers but by authors, columnists, and other people of note.

In her introduction, editor Amanda Hesser states:

There was just one rule: nothing sentimental. No one wants to read an overwrought paean to Grandma’s corn bread. But we might well be interested in why your grandma made it whenever she was lonely.

Hesser does a good job of weeding out the sentimental and serving up a collection of mostly fun and quirky stories. A few of them fell flat for me, as is the case with any anthology — you’re never going to love everything — but many of them were enjoyable reads.

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece on interviewing an aspiring line cook who happened to be blind was both amusing and relatable. There was a deaf man in many of my own classes at chef school, and while he had an ASL translator for the theory classes, the two of them together in the kitchens for practical labs became a real danger to themselves and others as we all moved around with hot pans.

Family Menu by Allen Shawn tells the story of his institutionalized sister celebrating her birthday outside of her home for the first time in decades and how she adapted so beautifully when her family all expected her to have a meltdown because things were different. This is a lovely look at the boxes we force each other into simply because we think they cannot accept change.

Tucker Carlson’s piece about working in a baked beans factory is one of the best of the collection, with a sharp wittiness and charm that is belied by his caustic TV persona.

Many of the essays come with a related recipe, including the excerpt from Julia Child’s My Life in France which offers the trio of recipes that caused Child to fail her first attempt at her chef’s diploma at Le Cordon Bleu.

Overall this is an enjoyable collection of essays that remains fairly timeless. Ten years after publication, none of them are especially dated. And while not all of the selected works are great or even memorable, there are enough gems here to make it a worthwhile read.

Book Review — Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture
Megan J. Elias
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

The history of the cookbook is long and varied, but can often be used to trace the overall history and social norms of a specific culture. In Food on the Page Megan J. Elias, a historian and gastronomist from Boston University’s Metropolitan College traces American culture through the first domestically-published cookbooks to present day.

Cookbooks became prevalent in the 1800s, when community-based compendiums were a way for the contributor to show social status by offering recipes for unique dishes. Elias points out that for a long time, the most-contributed pie recipe was lemon, questioning the idea of apple pie as the epitome of American desserts.

Cultural changes eventually reflect in how we cook, and Elias demonstrates the great “whitewashing” of southern cookery books that never mention the slaves who would have actually been cooking the dishes included, or which refer to a romanticized Mammy-figure with love and cake for all.

She addresses the trend for slimming in the early 20th century and the misogyny of food writing after the wars when publications such as Gourmet forced a divide between masculine and feminine cooking and dishes that still exists to some extent today.

French food and its many fans also feature in chapters about how chefs and writers such as Julia Child and MFK Fisher turned Americans against their own local and regional cuisine in favour of complicated French dishes under the guise of sophistication.

I’ll admit that I found the chapter on the counter-culture cookbooks of the 60s and 70s a bit of a bore, not due to Elias’ writing but what with all the references to earnest hearty breads and cakes laced with pot, hippies were and continue to remain tiresome.

Moving on to present day, Elias takes on Michael Pollan and the sustainable food movement, which has inspired a whole new trend in chefs and cookbooks, meant to inspire the home cook to think about where their food comes from.

Finally Elias addresses the popularity of blogs and sites such as Instagram as a more current way of sharing recipes and food stories. Of course, the ultimate goal for a food blogger is still a book deal. Even if more people might visit your blog than buy your book, there is still a seriousness to the physical cookbook that cannot be replicated online.

Food on the Page is extensively researched and is informative and intriguing as both a history of food trends, but also as a series of snapshots of the United States and wider western culture.

Julie & Julia – a Review

First up, I should make it clear that I’m not a fan of French food – either cooking it or eating it. I find it excessively meaty, saucy, heavy and especially fussy. Give me a nice spicy curry or some Ethiopian stewed collard greens any day of the week.

That’s not to say I haven’t cooked and eaten French food, as my year of cooking school was based almost entirely around classic French cuisine, it being the supposed basis and benchmark for all other cuisines (which is complete and utter bullshit, but French chefs, and especially French cooking instructors insist it’s true). So when I first heard about the Julie/Julia Project in which one NYC woman sets herself a goal of working her way through Julia Child’s first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (in a year, no less), my first thought was “Why the hell would anyone do THAT???” Then my second thought was that the only other person I had heard of who worked their way right through that book was Martha Stewart, which to me typifies the type of personality you’d need not to go completely nuts in the process.

Turns out Julia Powell doesn’t have that Martha Stewart perfectionist personality, though, and it works against her significantly during the course of her project.

Continue reading “Julie & Julia – a Review”