Monday, June 11, 2007

well read, well fed (installment 8)-

Summer reading for food lovers

One of my favorite parts of summer is lazy days spent reading by a pool or in a hammock or out on a porch at night with a glass of wine. Lately I've been reading all food-related books. Not cookbooks, but actual novels and memoirs that have food as a major focus. First, I'll go through the first 5 books I've read, then there's the list of books I hope to get to this summer, plus some other people's food book lists. Without further ado...

How to Cook a Tart, by Nina Killham

This book caught my eye from a random library shelf. It's Bright pink, first of all and has a giant fork on it. The name amuses me a little, too. I turned to the back to see the blurbs so I could get an idea of what this books was about. Lo and behold, one of the blurbs is from Anthony Bourdain:
- “How to Cook a Tart is gastro-porn – as if Julia Child and William Burroughs had a bastard child. It mercilessly harpoons foodies, gourmands, health freaks, dieters and food writers with great style and deadly accuracy. Filled with magnificent descriptions of the best of food, the novel left me questioning whether I should cook less and have more sex – or cook more, just with more butter. Dysfunctional family melodrama, biting satire, scathing indictment and a call to the barricades, How to Cook a Tart takes no prisoners.” –Anthony Bourdain’s blurb on the book jacket.

Maybe I'm overly obsessed with the dude, but a blurb from Tony worked on me. The book is a perfect pool-side reading book. Darkly funny, sensuous and full of drama. Jasmine, the main character, is a cookbook writer, her high-fat, butter and flavor filled dishes losing ground to trendy diet books. Her husband is obsessed with cleaning his colon and her daughter hardly eats at all. The tart in question is her husband's young mistress, a thin actress who is also obsessed with cleansing, and also protein. It's not my favorite book of this group, but worth a read, for sure. Here's an excerpt:
“When Daniel had first seen Jasmine at the American CafĂ© in Georgetown seventeen years ago, he walked right into the wall. It was her way with the tarragon chicken croissant in her hands, her intense concentration, her closed, rapturous eyes, the large salad and double chocolate brownie at her table patiently waiting their turn. After salvaging his tray, he grabbed his veggie sandwich, overflowing with righteous sprouts, and sat as closely to her table as possible. He sipped his Perrier and watched while the vision before him sucked like a Hoover at her straw of Coke. She wetted her finger and dabbed at the flaky remains of her croissant. She took a deep, satisfied sigh and looked up, catching him staring at her, and smiled. He, with a mouthful of cucumber, tomato, avocado, and wholegrain bread, nodded back. She then actually smacked her lips and drew forth her salad. Daniel watched in amazement as she forked her lettuce into her mouth as economically as filling a trash bag with trimmings. Finally, she stopped and began to chew, grinning over at him, her eyes mere slits left in a face enlarged by two busy cheeks. Daniel noticed by now that he was not the only one who gawked. Whole tables chewed silently, breathlessly watching as Jasmine, her salad a mere memory paused. She sat up straight and rolled her neck around to release any tension. She hiked up her shoulders to her ears one at a time as if getting ready for strenuous exercise. One last roll of her head and a beatific smile for the waitress who swerved by her table to grab her two exhausted plates. Jasmine then reached for her dessert and drew it close. She gazed at it, contemplating the melting ice cream flowing down to moisten the side of the decadent chocolate brownie, the thinning line of chocolate sauce which pooled into the white cream before disappearing to the bottom of the plate. She picked up a fork, mumbles something Daniel didn’t catch, and began to slide bites of drenched brownie methodically into her increasingly warm and chocolaty mouth.
She met his eyes as he approached, licking her lips. Without a word he sat down before her. She chewed on her lower lip and said nothing. Daniel reached over and gently removed the fork from her hand.
“I hope you saved some for me,” he said.
She smiled, her teeth brown and white like a Jersey cow.”

For more information:
New York Times Book Review of How to Cook a Tart.

Bento Box in the Heartland, My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America, a Food Memoir by Linda Furiya

Of course I had to read this, what with my new Bento Box and all. Stories of the children of Immigrants always fascinate me, especially in the small-town Midwest setting. Furiya tells of being embarrassed when her mom packed her a bento lunch and all she wanted was a plain ol' peanut butter sandwich so she could be like all the other first graders. But she always loved the traditional food her parents worked so hard to keep at the table. This took place in the 60's, so ethnic groceries were not really around in the Midwest, and supermarkets sis not yet have a large selection of international foods. One of the big themes in the book is the struggle to keep the kitchen stocked with Japanese food. This struggle led to family road trips, meeting new people, and huge packages from relatives in Japan.The book is filled with storytelling, identity struggles, family, coming-of-age, history, and some really yummy sounding recipes. It's a great read. Here's an excerpt:
“The first frost of the season was expected that night. In the vegetable garden, the last few hakusai cabbages were draped in plastic, and indication that our meals would be heavy with sweet, hearty leaves.
On a cold evening, the perfect end to a meal was a bowl of tamago gohan (rice and egg porridge). This rice porridge was my comfort food, like chicken noodle soup was for my friends. Japanese mother fed their children this porridge when they had a cold or were recovering from the flu. The essential flavors of the porridge came from the rich broth that remained after chicken-nabe, a one-pot chicken and Chinese cabbage dish
It was unusual for Dad to cook, but chicken-nabe was his specialty, and the ingredients and dark wintry weather at hand suited this meal. Like the yakiniku, chicken-nabe is a communal meal prepared at the table, where those joining in can help themselves to the cooked chicken parts and hakusai cabbage as the please.
The clay pot sat atop a butane-heated tabletop burner that kept the broth, precooked poultry, and vegetables piping hot. We ate in happy silence, savoring the tender chicken and silky cabbage, dipping it in a lush, lemony-salty soy dipping sauce. As dad prepared to make the porridge, the meal was just starting for me. I watched Dad, as if he were catching goldfish with a handheld net, slowly drag a slotted spoon across the golden broth to strain the remaining bits of chicken and cabbage. When it was clear of the meat and vegetable, Dad turned up the blue flame of the gas stove, bringing the broth to a rapid boil before adding the fresh steamed rice to the pot. Like Italian risotto, the rice porridge required long constant stirring to prevent scalding. It was the rhythm of the stirring that seemed to put Dad in the mood for storytelling.”

For more information:
-The blog “What Did You Eat?” reviews the book and cooks one of the recipes from it, Roasted Pork Tenderloin
-Linda Furiya’s food columns from The San Francisco Chronicle

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is one of those writers I always feel like I should read more. A fascinating character, what with his six-toed cats in Key West and all. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea when I was younger, because I loved the movie so. But other than that, my Hemingway repertoire is quite lax. A Moveable Feast was published a couple of years after he committed suicide. It's pretty much a semi-fictional memoir of the time he spent in Paris with his first wife. It was right before he got famous, and had him interacting with a circle of other famous authors of the time, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. The book makes for good summer reading, because the prose are straight-forward, and the picture painted of Paris is one of lively cafes and interesting characters, and of course wine and cocktails galore. Here's an excerpt:
“I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood. At the end of the Ile de la Cite below the Pont Neuf where there was the statue of Henri Quatre, the island ended in a point like the sharp bow of a ship and there was a small park at the water’s edge with fine chestnut trees, huge and spreading, and in the currents and back waters that the Seine made flowing past, there were excellent places to fish. You went down a stairway to the park and watched the fishermen there and under the great bridge. The good spots to fish changed with the height of the river and the fishermen used long, jointed, cane poles but fished with very fine leaders and light gear and quill floats and expertly baited the piece of water that they fished. They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a whole plateful. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.
One of the best places to eat them was at an open-air restaurant built out over the river at Bas Meudon where we would go when we had money for a trip away from our quarter. It was called La Peche Miraculeuse and had a splendid white wine that was sort of a Muscadet. It was a place out of a Maupassant story with the view over the river as Sisly had painted it. You did not have to go that far to goujon. You could get a very good friture on the Ile St.-Louis.
I knew several of the men who fished the fruitful parts of the Seine between the Ile St.-Louis and the Place du Verte Galente and sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had brought and watch the fishing.”

For more information:
-Washington Post review/article on the book
-Another excerpt

Bread Alone, by Judith Ryan Hendricks

I didn't have high expectations for this book. I was afraid it would be a bit to "chick-lit" for my taste. It had those aspects...woman going through a divorce, her ad-exec rich hubby dumping her for a younger prettier advertising associate. Yada Yada. However, I ended up really getting into the book. It made me want to hole up in a quaint cottage and bake bread. And I don't bake! So yeah, there's the heartbreak and the romance and "girl-power!" finding yourself of it all, but it's invigorating, inspiring and a good read. An excerpt:
“It wasn’t until I went to France that I tasted bread that wasn’t full of additives and air. It was like a religious conversion for me. In fact, it’s kind of like sex – one of those things that everyone thinks they know all about and they tell you how great it is, but which is actually pretty uninspiring until you have it one time the way nature intended it to be.
So, the first thing I do is cut the yeast in half. You don’t want the dough to set a new land-speed record. What you want is a long, slow rise to build the kind of texture and flavor that make people think you paid $5.95 for this loaf at the European Gourmet Bakery.
I combine the yeast with the water in a large crockery bowl, stir in the sugar, and let it sit for a few minutes while I measure the flour into another bowl. Then I stir the flour with the only big spoon I can find in this pitifully underequipped kitchen. When it clumps together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, I turn it out on the counter and knead it for ten minutes, adding just enough flour to keep it moving. Then I knead in the salt. Dead last. Because salt strengthens the gluten and makes the dough fight you.
When it’s smooth and elastic enough to spring back when I poke it, I oil a big bowl, slosh the dough around in it, making sure the entire surface is oiled. Then I put a damp towel over it and set it as far from the stove as I can. Someplace like a wine cellar would be nice, but CM doesn’t have one of those. I put it on her dining room table.
With half the yeast, it’ll take twice as long to rise, so I pour myself a glass of sauvignon blanc and start scraping dough off the counter.
The scent of yeast hanging in the air reminds me of my levain and the day that David came to my apartment with the Nixon mask and a pizza. The sharpness of longing I feel takes me somewhat by surprise. Maybe CM was right. Maybe I would be better off without him. But then why do I feel like howling right now? Why do I want to touch his face, smell him, feel his body against me?

For more information:
-Reviews of Bread Alone at the author's website
-Another excerpt

The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, by Steven Rinella

This book could definitely not be confused with "chick-lit." A memoir by Rinella about his quest to prepare a feast using recipes from Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide de Culinare...using mostly game that he has hunted himself throughout the United States. The book is so interesting...taking you throughout America on hunting quests for big game like Elk and Ram, as well as very small game like the elusive squab and plentiful sparrow. Though I wouldn't recommend this book to people who are squeamish about where meat comes from, I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn alot about types/cuts of meat, nature, conservation, fish, travel, farming and cooking. It really was eye-opening for me, a suburban girl who refuses to touch a gun. I have become more and more intriqued with offal lately, and Escoffier's recipe call for lots of it. Caul fat, sweet meats, bladders, livers, hearts, etc. And although he is hunting these animals, you get such a sense of the respect Rinella has for them and for nature. He's not hunting for sport, although most of his hunts seem quite thrilling. He's hunting to eat, and even to contribute the natural order of life. And he's having exciting, often funny adventures doing it. Here's one of my favorite excerpts:
"When you go on a big trip with a group of people, you feel a bond with them that lasts for months or even years. The bond is especially strong if it's a dangerous sort of trip, like canoeing in white water or hiking into a particularly sketchy and remote piece of wilderness. I think that bond forms because the people in the group know they're doing something new and perhaps uncomfortable, and they associate their fellow participants with that great rush that comes from being brave, from going all the way out. That first day's Escoffier meal was the only time I felt a bond like that form inside a house. My friends felt the bond, too. Our rented dinner table had been like a runaway raft, taking us into a crazy, uncharted gorge full of rare tastes and strange smells. Rather than run away, or feign lack of interest, my friends dug in and went for it. And they all came out on the other side, laughing and having a good time. And we still had two meals to go."

For more information:
-Review of A Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine at Bookslut
-Another excerpt from NPR

So that's where I am so far in my summer reading. Here are some books that are on my list to read for the rest of the summer, thanks to lots of internet/blog browsing:

-Educating Peter by Letie Teague, via not martha

-Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey, via Full Belly

-Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford, via Cooking for Engineers

-The Debt to Pleasure: A Novel by John Lanchester via New York Magazine

-Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert, via NPR

-Comfort Food: A Novel by Noah Ashenhurst, via Amazon Listmania

-Little Earthquakes, by Jessica Weiner, via Bookslut

-Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jabar, via Brownie Points

-The Zen of Fish, by Trvor Corson, via Will Work for Food

As if that weren't a big enough pile of books for one little summer, check out some more food book lists:

A long ilist of Food-related books on

Albany Public Library’s “Book Appetit” List

A list of culinary novels

A thread on favorite food books on Serious Eats

also, check out past intallments of my Well Read, Well Fed feature for more good books about food.

Happy Summer reading (and eating)!

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