Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

RelishFood memoirs make life seem as though it has a purpose, an overarching constant that holds a person’s story together. Like the memoirists were always meant to become people who love food from the first time that they tried pickles, or sushi, or a fresh tomato. I come from an extended family of people who mostly distrust the whole institution of eating real food, but I love to imagine that I also had foodie experiences from a young age, and that there is a nostalgic excuse for my love of cooking. Food memoirs help me with this partial re-writing of my past.

This particular memoir is also a graphic novel, complete with cartoon instructions for simple, creative dishes. The cartooning style reminds me a lot of the Silver Spoon for Children by Phaidon, and it seems to me that pictures of food, no mater if they are photographs or cartoons, always make me crave the dish itself. The cartoons help to emphasize the author’s attitude towards food – that it’s casual, fun, and should be taken lightly. This is the perfect book to read with a lovely breakfast when you believe yourself to be fed up with the daily task of cooking.

relish exerpt Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow TBRAvoid

  Length: 176 pgs.

  Ending: photo journal

  Further Reading: Another not-so-serious food memoir is A Homemade    

   life by Molly Wizenberg.


How to Cook a Wolf: A comparison

“I’ll not care, really, even if your nose is a little shiny, so long as you are self-possessed and sure that wolf or no wolf, you mind is your own and your heart is another’s and therefore in the right place” (How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher)

How to cook a wolf coverIf you’ve talked to me much in the past year, you’ll know that Tamar Adler and her book The Everlasting Meal have stolen my imagination and most of my free time. I’ve been happily tasting boiling water for salinity and saving scraps of left-overs at her suggestion, and all the while fervently hoping she’ll write another book. Since I can’t find any hint of a forthcoming title, I read the book that inspired her economical cooking style: How to Cook a Wolf.

It turns out that Tamar was right (as always): her beloved volume decidedly did need to be updated for the modern generation. How to Cook a Wolf is more of a historical document about how the everyday person lived during WWII than a cookbook. Also, Fisher has a penchant for canned food that really doesn’t translate to your fresh-food obsessed modern cook. Tamar instead took the best of what Fisher had to offer: her economical sense, casual blending of recipes with stories, and admiration for good food and good living. I’d only recommend this if you, too, have become obsessed about cooking with economy and grace, and also entertain a love of recent American history.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBRAvoid

Length: 216 pgs.

Ending: Rich, non-economical foods to dream about

Further Reading: Obviously, read Tamar’s updated version: The Everlasting Meal. 

The School of Essential Ingredients

“The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.” (the school of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister)

The School of Essential Ingredients CoverWe are trained to think of books as Very Serious things. People are always encouraging us to read more, and everywhere research says that books benefit the brain. We tend to borrow or purchase big ones, and slowly chip away at them as though completing a nightly duty. There is always a subtle pressure about finding a ‘good’ book, because they can be such an investment of time and energy. So sometimes, it can be freeing to pick up a medium-looking volume, stay in bed on a weekend morning, and read it all in one fell swoop. Then you realize that books are not so serious after all, and that they can be just as light and ephemeral as any movie.

Though I already have several fantastic sounding books in my pile (such as the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde), I decided instead to bring home this comfortable sounding one. I cannot say that it was brilliant or bettered my life; but it did top off a sleepy, relaxing morning perfectly. The food-oriented modern realistic stories were cozy, well written, and intriguing. While each character wasn’t fully flushed out, the stories left just enough for the imagination to continue with on its own. The descriptions of the cooking lessons were, of course, the real draw of the book. Though I don’t agree with the teacher’s blatant moralizing on not tasting batter with raw eggs in it, the descriptions of slow-simmering sauces and creamy tiramisus inspired me to complete the reading experience with my own baking project – which is the best outcome of a food book anyway.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 255

Ending: Satisfying, but open to the imagination

Further Reading: According to LJ, this book is part of an emerging genre of food related writing. I found out about it because Bauermeister is publishing a new book in January, called ‘The Lost Art of Mixing’. I expect it will be in the same vein.

*Disclaimer: In order to get through my enormous backlog, I’ve decided to do several short posts instead of a big compilation. This is purely for selfish reasons; as it will make it easier for me to search for a specific book in the future. I’ll try to get it over with as quickly as possible.

An Everlasting Meal

“Tins and jars of exotic foods are my vice. I can resist expensive oils and salts, but I fall under the spell of little tins of cuttlefish packed in their own ink; Italian figs plumped with honey and wine; monkfish liver terrine; pin-sized baby eels. I have a red oval tin of Italian sardines, marked with their vintage.” (An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with economy and grace by Tamar Adler)

Everlasting Meal coverThis is not a cookbook in the ordinary sense of the word, it rather hovers on the line between philosophy and poetry. Really, it is a collection of suggestions about how to make sense of your otherwise piecemeal life; a set of vague, lovely instructions for good living and cooking. If you crave, however, deliberate lists of precision and exactitude, this is not your book. Only those who feel comfortable with half ideas, with rambling and shuffling paths might be able to extract a few valuable lessons from it the first time around, a handful the second, and more and more as time progresses. It is a book that has the potential to be as everlasting as the title, for it must continue to inform your own table and transform itself into your own ideas.

For me, I feel as though this must be a life-changing book. It has made me think about cooking and eating in a way that none of my other beloved, recipe-oriented cookbooks ever has. Those previous cookbooks have always begged the question of what to do with left over ingredients or meals, and Tamar Adler picks up where they left off. She makes suggestions and imperatives out of those left overs by showing the reader just how good they can be. Unless you are a master chef and superb at practicing home economy, I think that all people must benefit from reading this book. At the very least, it is a collection of passionate poetry organized under invigorating headings such as ‘How to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat’.

Recommended Action: Buy – BorrowTBR – Avoid 

Length: 238

Ending: Appropriate to material (Dessert)

Further Reading: Tamar Adler says herself that An Everlasting Meal is supposed to be a modernization of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook A Wolf. Thus, I would think that this work would flow effortlessly into its inspiration. M.F.K. Fisher has many marvelous works including her autobiography, The Gastronomical Me, and a wonderfully bound collection of essays: The Art of Eating.

The Bread Bible

“Don’t be put off by strange-sounding names, like barm, biga, chef, desem, levain, madre bianca, mother, pâte fermentée, pollish sponge, starter or sourdough starter. At first these terms put me off, and I was resolved to avoid them in this book, thinking that the all-encompassing term starter was all I really needed, but gradually these special words became familiar friends.” (The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum)

The Bread Bible CoverEven though it has been a particularly hot summer, I have somehow spent most of it learning how to bake bread. I grabbed The Bread Bible from the library out of curiosity, was entirely charmed by Rose Levy Beranbaum’s voice, and had no choice but to try my hand at her art. Previously, an attempt at a recipe from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen almost turned me off the whole enterprise, but with Rose’s guidance, my hearth breads now rise to impossible heights and my ciabatta comes out gaping with big, beautiful holes.

I have long been an advocate for reading cookbooks cover to cover – and this is one of the best experiences I’ve had with the practice. Each description of a dough is like a fascinating short story, where minor variations on a general plot line yield mouth-watering impressions in one’s imagination. Rose’s subtle humor and gentle instructions make for a rather relaxing read. If you haven’t tried reading a cookbook before, I would definitely recommend this one to start with: it has a consistent narrative voice, excellent organization, and a thrilling conclusion (‘brioche’).

Keep in mind that actually learning how to bake bread from this book isn’t for everyone – sometimes the strength of the voice wins out over clear instructions, and you may find yourself hunting through the first hundred pages of the book for an essential step or two. On the other hand, maybe mastering the art of bread making is too complicated for such straightforward directives.

Recommended Action: Buy ; Borrow ; TBRAvoid

Length: 640

Further Reading: If you do want to read more cookbooks, I would recommend others that are writers first and cooks second: Nigel Slater is a particular favorite of mine. If you are willing to explore the crossroads of children’s lit and cooking, I highly recommend the Redwall series which, to my mind, is more about food than anything else.

Ripe and Tender

Ripe CoverI spent my day yesterday with Nigel Slater. Not in the literal sense, of course, but in my thoughts and reading materials. It started when I walked into a bookstore and decided to peruse the cooking section (not an uncommon decision for me, I admit). Although I had ogled the gorgeous matte photographs on prior occasions, I had never before taken the time to read him. I have long been an advocate for reading cookbooks cover to cover, and Nigel Slater is no exception – in fact, he is the paragon of what I always hope to find in the cooking aisle.

Unlike the majority of modern nonfiction authors, Nigel Slater can write. If the introduction to Ripe were to be termed modern literature, I, sometimes snob Tender Coverthat I am, would have no objections. He employs the ‘show, don’t tell’ trope masterfully, slowly revealing his love for his garden and passion for food without once saying those specific words. The introduction, which reads like an essay on heartfelt observation, lulls the reader into a tranquil, peaceful place where dreams of a perfect future garden, populated with rare varieties of fruit trees, float through your imagination. Whether you plan on immersing yourself in his simple, earthy cooking style by reading through both tomes, or simply relaxing in the introductory pages, these are books that cannot be missed.

Recommended Action:  Buy –  Borrow – TBR – Avoid

Further reading: The mood and connection with nature reminds me a bit of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, while for more high-quality food writing, you might turn to the collected works of M.F.K Fisher.

Example Photograph

Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating

‘Traditional, hand-made deodorant imported from Columbia is just more interesting than the stuff you by at the supermarket.’ – not really paraphrased from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating by Ari Weinzweig

In spite of the above snide comment, I truly did enjoy reading about pasta, wild rice, and honey every evening before bed. Images of correctly dried vanilla beans and well-aged balsamic vinegar have been steadily populating my dreams for the last month, for which I am very grateful. The book also left me with an urge for a monthly ‘good food’ stipend, from an unknown source, so that I could afford some of those scrumptious olive oils Ari talks about.

The book being thus fully recommended, I must say that Ari is not a connoisseur of writing; only one of food. I do wish he could have thought of another way to describe salivation-worthy delicacies than the word ‘interesting’. It turns out that if the word is used several times a chapter, the word ‘interesting’ is not very interesting at all. Practically every item is described in the same general way, so much so that I found myself knowing exactly what Ari would say were he to write about deodorant or socks. That being said – when he is truly passionate about a particular topic (pepper was my favorite) he does sort of forget his formula and let his pure love of good food shine through. Generally, a recommended reference book, especially for the history and information about the processes, and good for occasional reading.

Beverage: You absolutely have to drink whatever is best in your house – whether it be coffee, tea, wine, or water – because this book will surely make you feel the lack if you don’t.

Reminds me of… this book is actually a readable reference book – and I don’t know whether I’ve encountered another in the category.