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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Richard C. Morais’ The Hundred-Foot Journey (Advance Review Copy)

The Hundred-Foot Journey is narrated by Hassan Haji.  It is, in essence, a middle-aged chef recounting the story of his rise to Michelin stardom.   We learn of Hassan’s childhood in India and  follow the culinary fortunes of the Haji family as they travel from there to France (by way of England) – eventually finding a new home in the French Alps.  They open a restaurant directly across the street from Madame Mallory, a draconian French hotelier who will become Hassan’s worst enemy and greatest benefactress.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a charming first novel about the collision of two cultures: spangled India against the tasteful restraint of the French countryside; and between conflicting personalities – Papa the showman versus Madame Mallory the ascetic.  But, mostly, it is about Hassan’s struggle to follow his destiny without forsaking his past.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Richard C. Morais counted the late Ismail Merchant (of the legendary Merchant Ivory film company) and the author Kazuo Ishiguro among his close friends.  It made perfect sense.  Much like his friends’ works Morais’ writing contains quiet, subtle touches that might easily be overlooked.  And I couldn’t help but think that if Ismail Merchant were to have made The Hundred-Foot Journey into a film the screen would have been filled with gorgeous vistas of the French countryside.  Ishiguro would have told the tale from Madame Mallory’s perspective – looking back on a life that fell just short of greatness and sorting through the reasons why.  Morais’ story is instead as upbeat as a Bollywood film, and he keeps just the right balance of discovery and nostalgia in his narrator’s voice.  The plot conveys a real sense of the passing time and of place.  And underlying every sentence in The Hundred-Foot Journey is an ever abiding love of food, in all its glory.

Yes, it’s a foodie book.  But like everything else in the novel, Morais’ depictions of food are visceral and earthy.  At the same time they manage to retain a degree of sharp delicacy, due to his precisely worded descriptions .

I watched the famous chef expertly trim the vegetable’s leaves with a pair of scissors, the smart snips of her flashing tool ensuring each ragged leaf of the artichoke was symmetrically aligned and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, like she was tidying up after nature. She then picked up one of the lemons that had been cut in half, and doused each of the artichoke wounds – wherever she had snipped a leaf – with a generous squirt of lemon juice. Artichokes contain acid, cynarin, and this neat trick, I later learned prevented the sap-oozing leaves from discoloring the vegetable around its wound.

Next, Madame Mallory used a heavy and sharp knife to cleanly take of the top of the artichoke with a firm downward crunch of the blade. For a few seconds her head was down again, as she plucked some pink, immature leaves from the plant’s center. Picking up a new utensil, she cut at the inner artichoke and elegantly scooped out the thicket of thistle fuzz called the choke. You could see the satisfaction in her face when she finally and surgically removed the soft prize of the artichoke’s heart and set is aside in a bowl of marinade, already heaped with succulent and mushy cups.

Morais provides his reader with the clean, concise explanations of how a dish is prepared, allowing it to speak for itself unburdened by adjectives.  His writing is all the more powerful because of its austerity.   And while he preserves the inevitable link between love and food within his story  – I was glad to see that he doesn’t fixate on the romantic or sexual, but instead equates it with more familial bonds.  In the end, I felt that Morais was writing about food in a new and different way.  Not the typical “food porn” as described by Anthony Bourdain in the blurb – which to me implies artifice, a need for enhancement and ultimately fantasy.  The food in The Hundred-Foot Journey is honest and authentic.  Morais has done something much more difficult than creating food porn.  He has pin-pointed the beauty in what is real.

All through the month of July I will be reviewing books that share a common element: India.  These will include books by Indian authors, books set in India, or simply books about Indian culture.  The Hundred-Foot Journey seemed like the perfect place to start.  Because don’t most of us first experience a foreign culture in the same way?  Through the discovery and appreciation of its food?

Publisher:  Scribner, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 68407 812 0

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How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.

It’s Official! Fall is here – Canal House Cooking Volume No. 2

CHC vol 2 cover hi rez

It has been months… and the tomatoes are all gone.  Thank goodness the ladies over at Canal House have released the newest volume of their Canal House Cookbook No. 2:  Fall & Holiday (all decked out in gold).  Volume No. 2 is the perfect holiday gift, but don’t wait until Christmas to begin giving out copies.  These dishes look delicious and we recommend sharing them with family and friends in the upcoming weeks.

We loved the simplicity of the ingredients and the easy preparation we found in the Summer volume’s recipes.  Volume No. 2, though, is an entirely different animal.  Fall & Holiday are for entertaining in a big way – and Hamilton & Hirsheimer provide everything you need to know to host an unforgettable Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year’s celebration.  The dishes are bit more complicated and labor intensive than those in the previous volume… we spotted several French recipes – coq au vin (made with rooster), etc.- which might intimidate the casual cook.  But the authors do a wonderful job of holding the reader’s hand and walking him/her through the steps gently.   They’ve also included familiar favorites like sweet potato pie, turkey and homemade cranberry sauce.  All the traditional staples of the season are represented – and a generous assortment of baked goods and mixed drink recipes that your guests will  appreciate.

Normally, we’re not big cookbook fans.  So we’re not sure what it is about the Canal House Cookbooks that’s grabbed us.  It could be the beautiful photographs and illustrations, the yummy recipes or the warm and friendly way they are written.  It could be how this particular volume has somehow captured that sense of coziness associated with cooking at home – don’t ask us how.  Or the way the recipes feel so traditional, yet modern at the same time – again, don’t ask us how.  Whatever it is, we recommend you experience it for yourselves.  Here’s a link to Canal House Cooking Vol. No. 2 – Fall & Holiday. The authors have provided some sample recipes from the book, including Roast Duck & Potatoes and a Chocolate Gingerbread.  Mmmmm…. sounds like Sunday dinner.

It’s Monday…here’s what I’m reading! The Cheese Chronicles by Liz Thorpe

It’s Monday!  What are you reading? (thanks to J. Kaye for what’s fast becoming my favorite weekly meme!)

Several years ago I attended a dinner party, the highlight of which was a beer and wine pairing that came at the end.  The host worked for an imported beer distributor.  The cheese had come from a local cheese maker.  The results were truly amazing.  I still have to wipe away a bit of drool when thinking about it.

I only wish I’d had a copy of the book I’m currently reading, The Cheese Chronicles:  A Journey Through the Making & Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table by Liz Thorpe.  A friend recommended it and I’m hoping to have the review up in the next few days.  So far it’s been a fascinating read – through her work at a prestigious NYC cheese shop the author got in at the ground floor of artisanal cheesemaking in America.  Simply put, Liz Thorpe knows cheese.  Plus she writes well, which means her book is entertaining as well as educational.  If only it didn’t make me so hungry!

Here’s a little teaser to whet your appetites:

…The sheep are milked from May until the end of September or beginning of October, and the cheeses age in the Falks’ open-air cave.  There are eight lakes within two miles of the farm, and the unusually high atmospheric moisture creates a phenomenon known as “toolie fog.”  From the marshes with their abundant cattails comes a low fog that hangs just above your feet.  It’s ground fog, slow and creeping, and though the pastures are clear through hot days and cold nights, the toolie fog seeps off the ponds and lakes, permeating LoveTree’s caves and carrying the aromatics of the region.  Mary accentuates this terroir by layering her cheese with cedar boughs and sumac, nestling and wrapping the various cheese in leaves that stew in the cool, damp wafts of toolie fog.

That’s the cheese I’d expect to be served at the Brontë ‘s table.

If you’re up in Hardwick, Vermont, Ms. Thorpe will be speaking at The Galaxy Bookshop this Tuesday, August 25th between 7-8PM.

And please watch this space for my full review later in the week.