American “Tare-wahr” by Rowan Jacobsen (ARC)

There are too many foodie books out at the moment.  A lot of which retread the same territory.  Rowan Jacobsen’s latest attempts to introduce a not-so-new premise (one which the French region of Champagne has managed to convince the world of since 1891) and apply it to the Americas.  He believes that where a food is grown imbues it with unique tastes and characteristics.  So, to play fast and loose with an example in the book:  terroir allows me to argue that the carrots in my backyard taste better than the carrots in your backyard.  Why is this?  Well my soil may be better suited for carrots.  It may contain more (or different) minerals, get more rain, have more direct sunlight… etc., etc.

Terroir isn’t a concept I’m all that crazy about.  It’s too easy to manipulate the idea and use it to create a false perception of value.  While I’m positive that is not Rowan Jacobsen’s intention, there’s many a slip between cup and lip… to which the bottled water industry can happily attest.

Terroir translates as “taste of place” and, as already stated, Jacobsen focuses on the tastes of the Americas (both North & South).   Maple Syrup from Vermont, apples from the Northwest, chocolate from Mexico – he jumps all over the map tracking down the best examples and exploring the reasons why.   At the end of every chapter he provides recipes (which I loved) and information, usually in the form of a website, on where to buy the specific brands he’s endorsing (which kind of belies the book’s claim to be the “perfect companion for any self-respecting locavore”).

This is a curious book and one which I have mixed feelings about.  First off: I don’t recommend reading American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters & Fields from cover to cover.  Skip around.  Individual chapters have absolutely no relation to one another, so it’s easy to jump from honey (pg. 81)  to cheese (pg. 210) to avocados (pg. 150) to salmon (pg. 163) without losing your orientation.   At their best, these chapters read like self-contained articles; which I might have enjoyed as installments in a newspaper, magazine or – better yet – as posts on a blog.  But they don’t lend themselves well  to being collected all in one place or read in a single sitting – particularly packaged as hardcover non-fiction.  In fact, I’m surprised this book wasn’t formatted differently:  for the coffee table; as a softcover pocket travel/guide book; or at least with some illustrations.  It could have made a fantastic holiday gift.

The second reason for my having mixed feelings about American Terroir is that Jacobsen can’t seem to figure out if he wants to be Michael Pollan or John McPhee.  One moment he’s talking about sucrose and glucose breaking down.  (More really than I needed to know).  And then he waxing lyrical, writing about gathering apples on a fall day or recycling that tried-and-true gambit: discussing the relationship between food and sex. (Always risky, in my opinion).

Sex rears its head with regularity in these pages, because most of our calories come from “repurposing” other organisms’ reproductive energy.  The realms of food and sex have been blurred on this planet for millions of years.  Just ask a flower.

There are times when Jacobsen’s writing voice borders on priggishness, like in the passage above.  Or when he says, “Sometimes, like William Faulkner, a thing achieves its best expression in its native landscape.  Sometimes, like Cormac McCarthy, it has to head west to find itself.”  It’s difficult not to roll your eyes between sips of your Pinot Noir.  At the same time, you have to be impressed by that kind of unorthodoxy in a food book.  American Terroir has some highs, but a lot of lows.  In small doses I might not have noticed, let alone been bothered by, the poetic flights and pretensions.   But in a full book, spread over a variety of subjects, Rowan Jacobsen’s idiosyncracies became frustrating.

I liked Jacobsen’s second book, Fruitless Fall, a thorough look at honey, bees and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  His first book, A Geography of Oysters, sounds equally fascinating and won the James Beard Award.  Which is why this new book is such a disappointment.  Rowan Jacobsen writes about topics I want to learn more about.  Which means I, along with other readers, will keep buying and (in most cases) enjoying his books.  If you’re a hardcore fan, then you’ll probably disagree with everything I’ve written.  But if your new to this author – American Terroir isn’t where I recommend you begin the relationship.

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59691 648 7

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