Archive for the ‘Food Writing’ Category

more-home-cookingOn a night when television, social media and frankly even conversations in the street are a little too stressful (even in countries where we are not electing anyone), I have come up with the perfect antidote: the marvellously calming, deeply comforting More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

It would have been very useful if, when I’d read it back in 2014, I’d reviewed Colwin’s first volume of food writing (entitled, you will not be surprised to learn, Home Cooking).  I did not but just trust me on the fact that it was wonderful and so is this follow up book, published posthumously in 1993 after Colwin’s untimely death the year before at the age of just 48.

Her writing is so friendly, so familiar that after just one essay you feel as though you’ve been reading something written directly to you by someone you’ve known your whole life.  Colwin shares herself with the reader through friendly asides, personal anecdotes, and lots and lots of cookbook recommendations (many of which come prefaced by irritated disclaimers that the book is not available in North America due to ignorant publishers – I enjoy these particularly).  All this builds an intimacy that is almost unbearably poignant for the reader, knowing as we do that Colwin’s days would be cut sadly short.

While the book includes many recipes, they are almost beside the point.  Yes, I want to try her recipes for Lemon Pear Crisp and Wensley Cake and Gingerbread, but what most stands out are her stories around the recipes.  I have no memory of what recipes were included in the essay on black beans but the introduction is unforgettable:

I had my first taste of black bean soup on a cold winter Saturday when I was sixteen years old.  A friend, home for the holidays from a very glamorous college, gave a lunch party and invited me.  Seated at her table, I felt that I – mired in high school and barely passing geometry – had died and entered a heaven in which people played the cello, stayed up at night discussing Virginia Woolf, saw plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, and went to Paris for their junior years abroad.  But it was the black bean soup that changed my life.

And I may never need to poach a pear, but I certainly loved to read about Colwin’s first experience doing so:

I first made poached pears in the kitchen of the man who would later become my husband.  He had bought a nice bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, and I thought I would use some of it to poach the fruit.  As the pears were simmering, I decided to take a little nip.  My, I thought, this is fizzy.  It tasted like a kind of sublime grape pop but not as sweet.  By the time the pears were ready, the rest of the wine had been consumed without so much as a drop left for my sweetheart, but I was quite cheerful.

She writes like the novelist she was.  In fact, I kept thinking of Elinor Lipman’s writing as I read this.  They have the same gentle optimism and sense of humour and, of course, love of food.  I was deeply upset when I realised that Lipman’s wonderful novel, The Inn at Lake Devine, was published in 1998 – six years after Colwin’s death – because I am certain she would have loved it.

Most of all, Colwin feels like an encouraging friend in the kitchen.  Someone who is sharing her best tips, her amusing failures, and all of her love.  I came away with half a dozen cook books to track down (chief among these is the irresistibly titled Curries and Bugles), a burning desire to make mulligatawny soup (which I fulfilled on Sunday night with delicious results), and a sense of thankfulness for the generosity these essays embody.  And in that spirit, let us tonight remember that it is far easier to share with others and build friendships than it is to carry on disagreements and maintain an exhausting animosity.  If you chose to do this with cake, all the better:

I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result.  Fortunately, there are such cakes, and usually you get them at the homes of others.  You then purloin the recipe (since you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends, who then serve it others.  This is the way in which nations are unified and friendships made solid.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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classic-german-bakingTwenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend.  We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents.  It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started.  So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.

Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far.  But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.  This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people.  What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic.  Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby.  So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.

This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen.  As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks.  The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with.  We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together.  We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly.   But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers).  It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.

We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together.  We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels.  During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”.  Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes.  (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour.  The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)

When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me.  But these days we live in different cities and in different countries.  It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer.  But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…

Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works.  You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef.  Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking.  Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).

Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking.  She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights.  There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never  a bad thing).  Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them.  As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.

All of the recipes I tried were excellent.  One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices.  Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery.  And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish).  I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed).  I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend).  And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads.  If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess).  And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?

These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend.  Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me.  We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.

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After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

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What a wonderful reading weekend I have had – and Sunday still awaits!  But I knew it was going to be good when two of the books I have been most excited to read this fall arrived at my library late Thursday.  It was as if the universe knew I was taking Friday as a half day off work and so was in need of wonderful reading material to fill the empty hours (or, those hours that weren’t going to filled by my optometrist appointment – after all, I hadn’t known the books were coming and I couldn’t let a half day go to waste).  And Saturday obliged with torrential rains which (I learned the hard way) are not meant to be enjoyed out of doors but instead wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, book in hand.

My Berlin KitchenI started with My Berlin Kitchen, a memoir with recipes (like Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris or Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life), by Luisa Weiss, who blogs as The Wednesday Chef.  Right after my optometrist appointment, I walked over to one of the nearby restaurants, ordered my lunch, and settled down with the book.  I was not waiting until I got home, no sir.  The book, needless to say, got far more attention than my food.

Weiss was born in West Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father.  After her parents divorced when she was three, she spent her early childhood living with her father in Boston and then moved back to Berlin when she was ten to be with her mother.  As an adult, she worked in publishing in New York but it was Berlin she longed for, though it took her a while to realise that and longer still to find her way back.  A product of so many different cultures and with so many different homes to turn to, food was a way for Weiss deal with her homesickness – whichever home that might be.

The most relatable portion of the book, for me, was the section dealing with her confusion during her late twenties as she tried to figure out what it was that was missing from her life, despite the excellent job in her chosen field and committed long-term boyfriend.  Weiss describes herself as “a responsible person, possibly even a square.  I always eat my vegetables.  I never have that third glass of wine (in fact, rarely even that second one).  I get palpitations if I’m not punctual.  And I tell my parents everything.  Sometimes I think this stodgy obedience is the honorary German in me, the stuff that rubbed off on me by osmosis.”  I know how hard it is for that kind of person (being one myself) to admit that all the things you had planned for yourself – and achieved – aren’t actually what you need.  I am always filled with admiration when, having figured out what they actually do want and need, people go out and get it.  (I am still at the figuring out stage myself.)  And that is exactly what Weiss did; she moved back to Berlin, got a book deal on the strength of her success as a blogger so she could do the work she loved, and rekindled a romance with her first love.  Interspersed through this story are her wonderful, incredibly tempting recipes.

Weiss admits that German food does not have the romance of French or Italian cuisine – especially given the hoards of food books or mid-life memoirs screaming in praise of those two countries – and though she spends plenty of time cooking Italian, American and various other types of food, she does do her best to make the case for German food.  For me, this is preaching to the choir.  I adore eating in Germany.  I used to travel to Europe in the spring after university let out and I would always arrive in Germany in time for Spargelzeit, when white asparagus would be in every restaurant, prepared every way you could imagine.  Now, when I visit in the late summer I enjoy pflaumenkuchen (which is less exciting since we make it at home all summer) or  feast on mushrooms when I drop by in the autumn.  Delicious.  So it is no surprise that Weiss’ descriptions of her German meals were my favourites, especially this passage about breakfast offerings:

As for the Germans, well, their breakfasts are legendary.  Groaning boards piled high with thin slices of cheese, hams – boiled, smoked, and cured, sliced cucumber, boiled eggs, tomato wedges, coarse and smooth liverwurst, butter and Quark, plum butter and red currant jelly, all meant to adore slices of dark, grainy Vollkornbrot or freshly backed crusty rolls split in half.

And, at this time of year especially, we must acknowledge that Germany knows better than any country how to celebrate a proper Christmas.  But this is not casual cookie baking; this is a serious production:

I made chewy little squares of gingerbread studded with candied citrus and snow-white anise-flavoured domed cookies that disappeared with a quick crunch.  Meringue-topped hazelnut stars that crackled lightly under out teeth, nuggets of almond paste adorned with peeled almonds and baked until glazed and toothsome and snappy, spiced butter cookies shaped into narrow rectangles and decorated with a scatter of slivered almonds.  Not to mention rich, winey fruit bread, damp, dark, and mysterious, and dense, buttery Stollen coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar.

I spent all day Saturday fighting the urge to go to the store and start buying the ingredients for some of her Christmas recipes – I have enough Czech Christmas cookies that I need to start on without adding these!

I have been busily copy recipes out of the book in anticipation of returning it to the library – Flammkuchen!  Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce!  Those Christmas cookies that I say I shouldn’t make but am still ridiculously tempted by! – but that is only a temporary solution.  I need to own this book.

English DecorationAnother book I need to own, that other much-anticipated book that came into the library with My Berlin Kitchen, is English Decoration by Ben Pentreath, which I curled up with on Saturday afternoon.  If you are not already following Pentreath’s Inspiration blog, you should be.  I have severely culled the number of design-focused blogs that I follow but his I will never drop.

English Decoration is a celebration of English (and Scottish and Welsh) rooms where, in Pentreath’s words, “the personality of the owner is […] woven into every fibre.”  These are not grand estates nor have they been “done” by hired decorators.  They are homes, usually of Pentreath’s friends, that have been decorated over time and, most importantly, have been thoroughly lived in.  There are newspaper clippings and notes pinned up on walls and scattered across dressers; kettles, toasters and sugar bowls have been left on kitchen counters; and magazines are piled high on the floor underneath side tables.  These rooms have clutter of the most functional, attractive sort and they all express their owners’ preferences and personalities.

The book is divided into chapters by types of room: foyers and halls, sitting rooms, kitchens and dining rooms, bedrooms, etc.  It is an image-heavy book (there is nothing more disappointing than a book about interiors that is text-heavy) but the real joy for me came from reading the descriptions that accompany each photo, seeing everything through Pentreath’s eyes.  It is easy for me to look at a photo and say “I like that” or “I hate that” but I don’t learn much doing that and I do so want to learn.  Going through the book more slowly, taking the time to actually read it, helps me to appreciate even more the rooms I like and to consider more closely the rooms I am not immediately drawn to and the reasons why that is.  Happily, this book is full of rooms I loved and the photos by Jan Baldwin are wonderful.  Still, of all the houses featured, I think Pentreath’s own Dorset home remains my favourite:

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

Needless to say, I will be handing out an updated Christmas list to my family with these two books added.

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A bit of a catch-up/catch-all post today just to tidy up some of the odds and ends that have accumulated over the last month, books that I enjoyed but haven’t really been able to gather the energy to review at length.  So, here we are:

Eating India by Chitrita Banerji
I never get tired of reading about India.  Histories, memoirs, novels, cookbooks…anything that educates me about this fascinating country I will try.  Here, Banerji, a Bengali-born food writer who now lives in the States, takes the reader on a culinary journey of India, introducing the specialties of each region as well as the customs and cultural influences that have shaped the gastronomic traditions of the areas.  None of the previous books I’ve read on this topic have ever gone into as much detail as Banerji did on the Portuguese influence, which was by far the most fascinating bit of the book for me.  Overall, I found it quite interesting but neither personal nor descriptive enough to be all that memorable.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
I can’t lie; this was a rather depressing read.  Very informative, absolutely, but super depressing.  Demick focuses on fifteen years in the lives of six North Koreans, all of whom eventually defected to South Korea.  This period saw the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the disappearance of the aid Soviet countries had been sending North Korea), the transition in leadership from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-Il, China’s shift towards capitalism, and, most importantly, the famine that plagued the country throughout the 1990s, killing an estimated two million people.  I never really connected with any of the people profiled.  What kept me reading was my interest in learning so much about such a secretive country and how quickly it went from being a Communist success story to a nation without electricity or running water: as Demick describes it “…North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”  Well-worth reading.

Free for All by Don Borchert
Who doesn’t love reading about librarians?  This was certainly a light, fun read after the dismal prospect of life in North Korea!  As a devoted library user I’m always interested to hear more from the librarians’ perspective.  What they do in a normal day, what they think of the various users, etc.  From Borchert’s tale, I’m rather impressed by how frequently they have to interact with the police (though, given the number of times I’ve seen my own librarians call the cops, I don’t suppose I should be hugely surprised).  All in all, a pleasant read, amusing but not laugh out loud funny, an excellent afternoon’s distraction – just the sort of thing to check out from the library rather than purchase.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My first Connie Willis and such fun!  Despite a rather dizzying beginning that felt more Fforde-like than Jasper Fforde’s own works, this was a genuinely pleasurable read.  It did not quite live up to all the praise that had been heaped upon it but it was a fun day’s entertainment and escape.  While I love time travel novels they can get overly clever in their mysteries, as I think happened here.  Too many different issues all intersected far too quickly and the conclusion felt a bit rushed and muddled.  Comprehensible, yes, but not as enjoyable as the rest of the novel.  I did adore the many mentions of Golden Age mystery novels though, particularly the repeated allusions to my favourite Gaudy Night.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
My attempt to expand my knowledge of Australian literature began with this strange novel, the story of a father who promises his beautiful daughter Ellen to the first man to name all of the hundreds of species of eucalypts on his property.  It’s a strange, dream-like novel that ably displays the art of story telling though perhaps focuses too much on the art of telling at the expense of the story itself.  Everything in this modern-day fairy tale moves slowly, achingly so, only increasing the tension felt first by the reader and then, as she comes to understand the danger, Ellen herself.  It’s a very strange but absorbing novel with a rhythm and style completely its own.

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It’s rather trendy these days to be deeply interested in your food and its origins, to want to know where and how it was grown, even by whom, or, better yet, to do the growing yourself.  I am absolutely a fan of this new agro-consciousness.  Bring on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, almost anything by the prolific but obnoxious Mr. Pollan, and dozens of new titles seemingly every month.  In the 20th Century, we learned how to feed the world’s growing population with the advancements of the Green Revolution.  In the 21st, our challenge is to continue to feed all 6.7 billion of us (or whatever the number is these days) but to do so in a sustainable manner, conserving resources.  In Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat by Sarah Elton, Elton explains the issue in her introduction:

The way we eat today is not sustainable.  In the years since the Second World War, we have industrialized the practice of farming around the world and created a polluting food system that is dependent on fossil fuels.  On the farm, we use machines powered by oil and gas, instead of human muscle and horses, to work the land and to irrigate it too.  The good news is that technology has allowed farmers to reap high returns per hour of labour they spend in the fields, which has meant a huge improvement in standard of living of all of us.  We’ve been freed as a society from the drudgery and poverty of subsistence farming that was the reality of life for so many Canadians over the centuries.  A farmer today is able to produce, per hour of labour, 350 times more than a First Nations farmer would have on the same North American soils.  To live free from subsistence farming is undeniably a good thing.  However, to support this way of farming, we use natural gas to make fertilizer to treat the soil so we can plant the vast monocultures – only one crop planted over acres and acres – that epitomizes large-scale agriculture.  These monocrops are more susceptible to pests, so we then make pesticides from oil to kill the insects.  Then we continue to use our precious resources to irrigate, transport, and process the crops. (P. 11-12)

Elton has written as fascinating survey of agriculture in Canada at the start of the Twenty First Century that is refreshingly reasonable and well-balanced.  Divided into two equally fascinating sections, the first dealing with the rural farmers, the second with consumers in the city, Elton managers to remain optimistic as she considers the struggles both groups face in the name of sustainable agriculture.  The farming section is, as was to be expected, the most depressing.  Most farmers in Canada are nearing or past retirement age with no children to succeed them on family farms often mired in debt.  Profit, if there is any, is usually minute, a lesson I learned well at University: my housemate started an agro-tourism business on his family farm while in high school and within two years it was generating more revenue than the cattle business they’d been running for generations.  It’s sad that farmers, so vital to our survival, can’t make a decent wage but then it’s a global market and the reality is you’re competing for supermarket contracts with overseas producers who pay their labour pennies a day.  What I loved was that Elton’s answer to this question – not so much hers as the farmers she interviews – wasn’t to subsidize farmers; it was to find new ways of distributing the yield and cutting out the middlemen who push the wholesale costs down so low.  Farmers’ markets, local co-op stands or shops, CSA boxes, agreements between farmers and city restaurants…there are so many creative and productive options available that have been successful all across the country, in some cases for decades.   

Elton also takes on the myth of food miles, the belief that eating something that was grown close to where you bought it is more efficient than eating something that was produced further away and shipped in because of the energy consumed in the transportation.  I absolutely agree that it’s more intelligent to eat a carrot or a potato grown near you than one shipped in from California or Idaho.  But are we going to give up eating bananas, or any number of delicious fruits, vegetables, and spices that have become a normal part of our diet over the last decades because we can’t grow them in our harsh climate?   Elton takes a wonderfully level-headed approach to the question: 

We don’t have to abandon coffee, chocolate and spices to support a new food system.  Rather, the ideal of a strong local food economy is to eat good, healthy food that is produced with the least environmental impact.  This usually means food that is produced nearby, but includes imports that are produced and transported sustainably. (P. 15)

Growing bananas in South America and shipping them north makes infinitely more sense than trying to replicate the South American climate in greenhouses across Canada.  The focus, really, should be not on eating what is produced locally but what is produced and transported efficiently.  In some cases that will mean eating what is local, in others what is imported:

Despite the prevalent belief that food grown closer to where it is eaten is better for the environment, food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.  In fact, it can often take fewer kilocalories to grow food and ship it great distances to where it is eaten than it takes for a local farmer to truck food to a nearby market.  Because local doesn’t trump sustainable, the way we grow our food in Canada therefore must change too. (P. 14)

I thoroughly enjoyed Locavore. While I found the first section of the book the most fascinating, the second half dealing with city dwellers was equally well done, though I haven’t discussed it much here.  Given that this is a topic I’ve been interested in for years (mostly because it was one that interested my family – both of my father’s sets of grandparents were farmers and at university he was a rural land use major) it’s not a surprise that I was so engaged throughout the book.  However, it’s also a book that I would not hesitate to pass on to my only vaguely interested friends – both Canadian and foreign, since the issues facing Canada are the same ones facing most Western nations.  Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.  Indeed, I am certain that at least one person I know will probably receive this for Christmas!  

And, for anyone wondering how we can move forward towards a more sustainable model, here’s Elton’s conclusion:

On the farm, we need to move towards a holistic understanding of agriculture that takes its cues from nature, supports biodiversity and relies less and less on fossil fuels.  Farmers must make a living wage and be respected for their work, something achieved by rehumanizing the food chain and connecting farmers with consumers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture while at the same time developing new supply chains for institutions such as universities and hospitals.  When devising our new food system, we need not dwell on the past and replicate subsistence agriculture.  Instead, we can push forward to fashion something new and innovative, using our technology and our imagination to design energy-efficient greenhouses and other novel ways of producing food.

In the city, we need to grow some of what we eat and figure out how to incorporate food production into the metropolis.  By connecting with the food chain, and eating well, we will be more likely to experience a cultural shift and watch a gastronomy of place take hold. (P. 209)

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I had high hopes for The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.  On paper, it sounded like just the book for me: when have I ever turned down an ex-pat memoir about life in Paris?  Including recipes usually just sweetens the deal.  Not so this time.

Lebovitz is a pastry chef, which means that most of the recipes in this memoir (because it’s impossible to write a Paris-based memoir without recipes these days) are for sweets.  His constant discussion of chocolate and other sweets weren’t fascinating enough to draw me, a savoury rather than sweet girl, in.  The best food writers (think Nigel Slater) can overcome any reader’s preferences with effortless grace.  Lebovitz was never once able to make me share his passion for marshmallows or macarons.  That said, the recipes are clear and succinct and probably the best parts of the book, even though I wasn’t intrigued enough to try any of them.

I think what bothered me most about was the sheer arrogance Lebovitz displayed by moving to Paris without speaking French or even trying to understand the culture before arriving.  Yes, he repeatedly chides ignorant American readers against coming to France and pulling an “Ugly American” – expecting to speak English and receive American-style service and deference.  But that doesn’t stop him from doing the same and then adopting a kind of smug amusement as the quaintly rigid ways of the French.  They trim green beans! (don’t most people?)  They expect you to wear real clothes – not sweats! – when appearing in public! (like most civilised societies)  And don’t even get him started on the etiquette surrounding any kind of shopping!  I could have understood some naïveté initially but it is sustained throughout the book and, after a while, it grates.

There were some unintentionally hilarious moments, such as this quote:  “Aside from our ability to form ourselves into nice straight lines in service-oriented situations, one of the most enduring traits of Americans is our ability to be self-deprecating and laugh at our foibles” (p. 77-78).  If you’d asked me to name nations that were good at queuing, I can assure you America would not have been top of my list.  Same goes for their ability to laugh at themselves, both as individuals and, especially, as a nation.  These traits are typically, and with some reason, ascribed to the British and, to some extent, other mild-mannered members of the Commonwealth with self-esteem issues.

None of this was helped by the sheer ugliness of the hardcover edition I borrowed from my library.  The chosen typefaces (and there were several) clashed horribly with one another and gave the book a dated, 1990s appearance.  Considering that it was only published in 2009, this is inexcusable.  The cover design is beautiful; it’s a shame that the same kind of aesthetic didn’t extend to the book’s interior. 

A great disappointment.  Perhaps this is best suited to those who haven’t read much about Paris previously but for those familiar with the city and its sights and customs it is a tedious waste of time and effort.  Much better to reread the delightful and thoughtful Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik or new favourite Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard.

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Have you heard of The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais?  Despite positive reviews from both NPR and The New York Times, this incredibly descriptive book does not seem to be attracting the attention and wide-spread affection that I believe it deserves.  It is a beautiful, elegant fairy tale in a culinary setting: there are many obstacles to be overcome but also a fairy godmother to guide our hero along and to develop his gastronomic gift. 

From India to England to the French Alps and, finally, to Paris, the novel follows the life of Hassan Haji, who grows from a boy with an extraordinary sense for food into one of France’s finest chefs.  Born to a family of Muslim restaurateurs in Bombay/Mumbai, Hassan grows up in the kitchen, passionate about food from a very young age.  When his mother is killed, Hassan’s father packs up the family and move to Europe, living briefly in England before finally settling in Lumière, an idyllic town in the French Alps, where the family opens an Indian restaurant directly across the street from the livid Madame Mallory, with her French country inn and two-star restaurant.  For Hassan, it is Madame Mallory who changes his life for it is she who recognizes in him “that mysterious something that comes along in a chef once a generation…He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born.  He is an artist.  A great artist” (p. 93).      

The love and attention that Morais gives to the meals he describes almost brought me to tears several times.  My mouth was watering over the fish curries described at the beginning of the novel and I don’t even like fish!  All the descriptions are incredibly sensual, giving amazing impressions of colour, smell, and, above all, taste.  To read this book and not long for the meals described is unthinkable. 

I really can’t think of any other fictional book that is so respectful and passionate about food, that pays such close attention to the details, that understands the interplay of nostalgia and emotion that is tied up in any good meal.  The Harrods food hall scene stands out in particular: in two – not even two! – pages you, like Hassan and his father, are overwhelmed and awed by the sheer variety of what is on offer, by the bounty of so many nations, so many different culinary traditions.  The world, you are reminded just as they are learning, is a very big place where no one cuisine can dominate. 

Morais’ characters do have a tendency to speak in aphorisms, but as least they are sensible ones, my favourites being “…a gourmand is a gentleman with the talent and fortitude to continue eating even when he is not hungry” (P. 170 -171) and “…never forget a snob is a person utterly lacking in good taste” (p. 234).  The characters that make these remarks (Le Comte de Nancy and Madame Mallory) were perhaps my favourite characters in the entire novel, Le Comte acting as Hassan’s patron in Paris while Madame Mallory fills the pivotal role of fairy godmother, introducing Hassan to the art of French cooking, recognizing and fostering this young man with abilities she recognizes and respects as being far beyond her own.    

Indeed, I can give Morais no greater praise than to say that I now consider this one of the best and most descriptive books about food that I have read, alongside my favourites Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard and Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey.  To understand food and to be able to write about it so vividly and so charmingly makes the reader’s experience a pleasure – one that will not be soon forgotten.

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I am back in Calgary and happy to report that all the snow has melted (and I fully intend to ignore the snow currently in the weather forecast).  It was a delightful vacation but, all the same, it is nice to be back in my own apartment and to be getting back into a somewhat normal schedule.  However, I will miss having so much spare time for reading!  It was a busy week and, while I’m planning to write up full reviews of a couple of the books read last week (The Moving Finger, Henrietta’s War), in the name of expediency I thought I’d just give some brief thoughts on the other books read, the ones that don’t necessarily warrant full reviews:


Green Metropolis by David Owen was a quick and not particularly enlightening read.  His thesis, essentially, is the obvious: living in a smaller space, close to amenities and your workplace, reduces your carbon footprint.  My greatest quibble with this book is that it is very, very American.  There are no specific international examples used, aside from vague mentions of Europe’s superiority.  Using one example, in this case NYC, to illustrate your argument is never terribly effective and I would have respected Owen much more if he had drawn on further examples.  I was also disappointed by the lack of productive suggestions expressed in the conclusion. 

I Remember You by Harriet Evans was typical vacation fluff and very enjoyable.  Remarkable only for making me yearn desperately to visit Italy (a new urge, it must be said) and for pointing out the perils of ‘idyllic’ village life.  The writing style was generally amusing, though heavy-handed at points (such as when drawing parallels between an elderly character and the young protagonist).  Girl from the South by Joanna Trollope was another light, though less fluffy, read.  I do like Joanna Trollope.  I always pick up her books with some shame and misgivings but there’s really no reason for that.  Her writing is skilled and her characters, especially supporting ones, well formed. 

I consumed two very different books to satisfy my inner-Francophile, both written by journalists: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull.  Flinn’s focus is on her studies at the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school; the onus here is on the food, not on Paris.  Her description of the school is fascinating, intimidating, and inspiring.  I have no desperate urge to attend the school, but it was wonderful to be able to hear such intimate details about what goes on within the kitchens.  Almost French is certainly one of the best examples of the Anglo-ex-pat-in-France memoirs I’ve come across and, originally published in 2002, is seemly one of the earliest as well.  As usual, I was relatively uninterested in the narrator’s romantic entanglements (always, always the reason memoir-writing ex-pats seem to end up in France) but I loved Turnbull’s journalistic style – she does a wonderful job of balancing the personal and the professional, documenting Parisian and French life on a larger scale, giving specific attention to the social and political context of the day.  Her frustration at her initial social isolation (which lasted for several years) was particularly fascinating and echoes the experiences of my friends living in both Paris and London, where most newcomers seem to find it difficult to make friends with locals who are content with their existing social circles, usually composed of friends from University days. 

The real problem with reading while you’re on vacation is that you forget that you have to go back to work eventually.  It seems like the rest of your life should be spent on vacation, travelling to all the wonderful places you read about!

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The first sentence of Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard had me worried: “I slept with my French husband halfway through out first date.”  Oh no, I thought, this is going to be another one of those books about rather desperate, morally-lax ex-pats, seduced as much by France as by Frenchmen, and I’m going to spend the entire time hating the narrator and feeling smugly superior to her.  Clearly, this has happened to me before.  Happily, it was not the case here.

There are few cities in the world with the inherent glamour of Paris.  To name it is to instantly conjure up a city of romance, of passion, of love.  Even the thought of Paris, for the giddy Francophile, is enough to induce palpitations.  It would be easy to follow the clichés, to write of an idealised life that works in all the stereotypes, particularly when writing a book like this aimed at an English-speaking audience so eager to hear only wonderful, fantastic things about France and Paris in particular.  Happily, Bard avoids this path.  Her life in Paris is neither too glamourous nor too squalid.  In fact, at times, it is downright boring.  After moving to Paris, Bard is unemployed and her life revolves around the miniscule apartment that she shares with her boyfriend (and future husband) Gwendal.  It is during these months that she begins her cooking adventures, spending hours going to the markets and various venders to track down the perfect ingredients (and even more hours looking up and memorizing the vocabulary necessary for these excursions).  I found Bard’s description of visits to butcher, of the strict protocol that must be followed, both amusing and stressful: butchers wield incredible power, no matter what country you’re in, and I’ve had some very terrifying lost-in-translation moments of my own with butchers and their patrons in several countries.

I like Elizabeth Bard.  I like her evocative but not overly emotional style of writing, I like her commentary on French culture (the good, the bad, and the perplexing) and, more than anything, I like her recipes.  Actually, I may love her recipes.  So many memoirs-cum-cookbooks by women have an unbalanced number of sweet recipes.  As someone who doesn’t eat many sweets or pastries, this can be frustrating.  Bard strikes a nice balance and the ratio of savory to sweet seems to be around 2-1.  The recipes themselves are very well-written: clear and concise, they assume the cook knows what he or she is doing and thereby refrain from the annoying condescension present in many books of this sort. (Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life is guilty of this sin and it was the only thing that marred my enjoyment of that book.) 

The stories around the recipes had my mouth watering.  Bard knows how to write about food, a skill that not all food writers can claim.  Her description of a New Year’s feast towards the end of the book, hosted by a friend with North African roots, had me almost in tears it was so alluring.  The meal went for more than eight hours and the dishes Bard provides the recipes for, Chicken Tagine with Two Kinds of Lemon and Tagine with Meatballs and Spiced Apricots, will grace my table as soon as I can track down enough people to do justice to both dishes.

Part of what makes the food so alluring here is the social setting in which it’s eaten.  Most of the meals are eaten with friends or, more often, family.  An amazing recipe is one thing but a fantastic meal shared with those you love, dragged out over several hours of good conversation and good wine, is unforgettable.  I may be antisocial most of the time, but at meal times I wish for long tables lined with people.

Though some facets of French culture remain alien to Bard and confuse and frustrate her, her tone never becomes whiney or obnoxious.  She may not be able to understand why things are done the way they are, but she doesn’t attempt to interfere – an ideal, if rare, ex-pat.  Some of the commentary is most interesting, including her observations on the French medical system, the very non-American aversion to leftovers, and, because it’s endlessly fascinating, the eating habits of French women.  But it’s the food that’s the focus here.  The book may be subtitled “A Love Story” but that’s a clever ruse to sell copies to sentimental women.  Yes, Gwendal is very nice (he tap dances!) and their relationship plays an integral part in the memoir (he is, after all, the reason she moves to Paris), but passion does not consume the narrative, unless that passion is for a good cheese.  Already, I’m thinking of buying a copy for my father, a devoted home chef and Francophile, which I would never dare if the book were too sappy or emotional.  That said, I’m afraid one moment in their relationship will prove costly for me some day: they had an eighteen-piece big band at their wedding.  That has blown every dream wedding scenario I had concocted since childhood out of the water.  A big band, smelly cheese and the man you love…perfection.

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