Bookish – In Which I Offer Mini Reviews for Many Books

Nobody reads my book reviews anyway, so I figure it’s totally okay if I cheat and pile a bunch into one post. I just want a place to record everything I’ve read because otherwise I’ll pick up the same title five years from now and read it again, and seriously, there are too many books to read, I’m not reading something twice unless it changes my life in some way.

So here’s what I’ve been reading lately…

Crow Winter
Karen McBride
This novel about a young Anishinaabe woman returning to her family home after the death of her father reads more like a young adult novel with traditional characters from the spirit world coming to life to help her come to terms with her loss and save her community. Beautiful artwork throughout by the author. A good entry point for readers of colonial descent to learn more about First Nations culture.

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Book Review — Recipe For a Perfect Wife

Recipe For a Perfect Wife
Karma Brown

I flagged Recipe For a Perfect Wife after a review (or maybe it was a press release) made it out to be a bit of a thriller. While there was murder and mayhem, it was of a more genteel sort, served with tea sandwiches and cake, that was not much of a challenge.

A dual storyline — Nellie in the 1950s and Alice in 2018 — tells of both women’s lives in the same suburban house. Both women have secrets, and are living unhappy lives, making choices mostly to please their respective husbands. Nellie’s mid-century marriage is full of abuse, belittlement, and even rape, while Alice is a modern working gal who has torpedoed her career and agrees to move to the burbs as some form of self-imposed penance.

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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 — 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 Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat
edited by Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper
Roost Books, 2013

How do you decide which books to read? I mean, how much research about the book do you do beforehand? Do you read author profiles? Scour Goodreads for reviews?

I picked up The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage because it is a collection of food-themed essays about food and family. Which is totally something that I love. The works of various writers (mostly food writers but a few more traditional journalists, novelists, and screenwriters) are divided into three sections: food, family and “how we learn to eat”. The first two sections touch on the topics of family recipes, an obsession with candy, and trying to find local, seasonal food in a place that should have plenty of it but doesn’t. However the third section is all about children, specifically kids learning to like different foods… learning to eat, as it were.

There is a logical step for the two editors who both specialize in writing about parenting issues (Grant and Harper met while working on a site called Literary Mama and ran a site together called Learning to Eat). And if you have kids, perhaps it’s a reasonable section to include in a book of essays (mostly) about family food traditions. For the unsuspecting child-free reader, however, especially one who doesn’t really care if your kid likes foie gras or not, it’s a bit of a turn off. I don’t want to listen to people talk about their kids’ eating habits in real life, and I really don’t want to read about them either.

So to be totally honest, I only read the first two sections. And in all fairness, those sections were full of great, honest, witty, intriguing essays that offered both familiar and unique perspectives of food and eating, both within and outside of the family dynamic. Lobster Lessons by Alexsandra Crapanzano tells the story of honouring a great-aunt and her food traditions while also getting her to try new things. Kosher. Or Not by Barbara Rushkoff explains the anxiety most non-Orthodox Jews feel when they don’t keep kosher. Chris Malcomb’s essay about his Italian restaurant-owning family and the evolution of their red sauce is sharp and poignant. And Lisa McNamara’s story about learning to bake pies to catch a husband calls up mid-century mores and how they play out in a modern context.

Readers with kids might well enjoy the third section as relatable and representative of their own experiences. This bit really wasn’t for me, however, so I’ll offer no critique of these works. YMMV as we say on the internet.

A nice touch throughout the collection is that every essay is accompanied by a related recipe which is fun and charming. Sadly the essay about red sauce does not include the recipe in question but one for eggplant Parmesan. Some things have to remain a family secret.

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 – Friday, February 24th, 2012

In Toronto:

The Queen and Beaver (35 Elm Street) is expanding northward with a new location in Yorkville called The Oxley, set to open in mid-April.

The College Street location of Mitzi’s (890 College Street) will be serving its last brunch this weekend, shutting down after service on Sunday, February 26th. The Sorauren Avenue location as well as The Sister on Queen Street West will remain open.

Chef Tawfik Shehata announced earlier today via Twitter that he is no longer associated with The Bowery (55 Colborne Street). No word on what he’ll be doing next.

Chef Nick Liu is planning to host a pair of preview dinners for his new Asian fusion restaurant GwaiLo. Dinners will take place on March 6th and 13th, location TBA. Follow GwaiLo on Twitter to find out more details.

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Market Mondays – Melons

Sometimes, I’m not so bright. Because when I made up the list of fruit and veg to include in this column, I mostly based it on what would be in season. Which is the point of the whole thing (we’ll start covering meat and dairy and spices and such in the winter after the fall harvest), except for the fact that I didn’t really think too much about recipes.

Or more importantly, that there are a few seasonal items, such as melon, that you just don’t cook with all that much. Think about it – chilled soup, salsa, a few cocktails, fruit salad… maybe some cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Whoops.

So what I have for you today is two different recipes for watermelon gazpacho, both from fabulous local chefs, and (thankfully) different enough that you can pick which one you’d prefer to make based on the other ingredients. Or make them both and do a taste test.

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