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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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.

Lemonade is for sissies! – Canal House Cooking by Hamilton & Hirsheimer

We can’t all have Stewart & Ray for last names – and in today’s world who has the time to put together one of their recipes?  (30 minutes my a$#!)  Or the money to keep the pantry stocked with all the ingredients and the gizmos they seem to need for one lousy dinner party?  (a butane torch!?)  Slaving for hours in the kitchen definitely falls into the category of NOT BookSexy – our time is better spent reading the re-edited version of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Enter Canal House Cooking.  C0-authors Christopher Hirsheimer (she‘s a founder & former Executive Editor of Saveur magazine) & Melissa Hamilton (her resume includes former restaurant owner & food stylist) have impeccable credentials, but its the simplicity of their recipes that has us so excited.  The ingredients never get more complicated than staples like tomatoes, parsley, canned sardines and garlic.  Items that are all available at your local A&P, but with results that look like you shopped at Whole Foods.  We’re particularly crazy about jars of lemons preserved in kosher salt, a recipe they say originated in Morocco and which is currently curing in our fridge.

The book, itself, is as delicious as the recipes.  Volume 1 is full of luscious photographs and illustrations, a bright orange cover and pages with deckle edges.  Hamilton & Hirsheimer ‘s plan is to publish 3 volumes a year (there’s still Fall & Holiday and Winter & Spring to look forward to).  Once you’ve collected a few volumes they’ll look fabulous lined up on your kitchen shelf.  And don’t forget to order extras to give out as gifts.  We slipped a card between the pages of the copy we recently sent to a friend:  “When life give you lemons…. make Preserved Lemons! (page 120).  And if that fails – add some rum to the Melon Water (page 10).  Lemonade is for sissies!”  Words to live by.

Orders are being taken at thecanalhouse.com.