Tag Archives: Book Club

book review: “cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world” by mark kurlansky

CodOn the surface, Cod is a history book: the history of a particular food source, the evolution of its harvest, and the tangential events that resulted from cod being such a large driving economic force.  But in a sense, the story of cod is really the larger story of humankind’s constant attempts to assert their dominion over nature.  As such, while reading about cod’s particular story was new to me, the narrative was as old and familiar as a child’s fairytale, albeit with a much more grim conclusion.

Mark Kurlansky starts his fish tale with a vignette of some modern-day fishermen in Petty Harbor, Newfoundland, to give a feel for the current situation (dire, to say the least).  He then goes in more or less chronological order from the 10th century, circling back to the fishermen of Petty Harbor  towards the end of the book.  In between, he discusses the Basques, the Vikings, the slave trade, the American Revolution and both world wars, and many other countries and cultural groups who had their hands in the cod nets.

The book was disappointingly dry for my taste- I had expected more, since it was so highly rated (even winning a James Beard award for best single-subject cookbook).  Even though the book is short, it took me a while to get through it.  I was most compelled by the last few chapters, which described the current state of the cod stocks and fishing economies.  However, it was difficult to read without feeling powerless and frustrated at the lack of foresight and the utter disregard on the part of governments, politicians, and the fishermen themselves.  It’s the same old story, whether it be old growth forests, natural gas, or any other consumption of a natural resource- politicians don’t want to make themselves unpopular by placing limits on access and thereby stifling local economies, and workers in these fields are reluctant to give up their livelihoods even when they can see the writing on the wall.

My favorite parts of the book by far were the interludes between chapters and the section at the end of the book describing salt cod recipes from years, decades, and even centuries past.  To me, it was fascinating to read about preparations from hundreds of years ago and to try to envision what such dishes would taste like.  I’m actually tempted to try to make one of the really old recipes to see how it turns out, but the differences in language are fairly pronounced.  Although I can understand the words themselves, the directives for preparing the food seem completely opaque.  Still, I get a kick out of reading them and trying to envision their result.

Although I had a little bit of a difficult time making it through this book, I’m glad I read it.  It was definitely depressing in the sense that it ended on a pessimistic note, with world fish stocks in crisis, but I suppose that’s the fault of human history rather than the fault of the author.  If you’re interested in knowing what species are currently the most overfished, here’s a list.  The Greenpeace website also has a lot of good information about marine life and the problem of overfishing.

NB: Originally this post was supposed to be a “Book Club” post, but apparently I was the only one who read the book.  However, if you’re interested in checking out the discussion questions I came up with, go here.

book club: “my life in france” by julia child

My Life in FranceUntil fairly recently, I have to confess that my familiarity with Julia Child was pretty minimal.  I vaguely recall seeing snippets of the French Chef on PBS (you can watch some of the episodes here), and when Dan Aykroyd lampooned Julia on Saturday Night Live, I sort of got it, but that was about the extent of my exposure.  A few months ago, I read Julie and Julia, and in that book there are interludes where the author imagines scenes from Julia Child’s life.  This prompted me to want to learn more, so I picked up My Life in France.  The bulk of the book takes place from 1948-1954, during which time Julia lived in Paris and Marseilles and began the decade-long journey that would culminate in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Julia had lived overseas before, working for the government in such places as Ceylon (where she met Paul Child) and Kunming, but when she and her husband moved to France just after WWII, Julia experienced a feeling she’d never had before- the feeling of finding one’s spiritual home.  She grew up in Pasadena, CA, but never felt she fit into the bland, conservative culture there.  In France, Julia was able to truly blossom and find what would turn out to be her calling.

What struck me the most while reading this book was Julia’s endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm.  Most people would have been content to just take a few cooking classes, enough to prepare them for cooking everyday meals at home and the occasional dinner party.  Julia became a woman obsessed, determined to not only learn all aspects of classical French cuisine, but to share her knowledge with all of America.  The sheer amount of man-hours that went into all of the recipe testing and writing for MtAoFC boggles the mind.  Even with a co-author, the book took well over 10 years to complete, and certainly not for any lack of motivation or work ethic.  But despite her dedication, she seemed to balance it all with a sense of humor and adventure.  Her infectious joie de vivre permeates the book, making the reader feel as if they are a backseat passenger on Julia’s crazy joyride of a life.

Regardless of whether you even like to cook, Julia’s memoir is inspiring for all those who would dream of making a career out of your passion.  It’s true that the 1950s was a different time, and having the luxury of unlimited free time and resources would be an uncommon situation in today’s world.  However, not everyone in her position went on to write a bestselling cookbook and have their own TV show, so clearly Julia’s intrepid spirit and boundless ambition are to thank for her eventual success.

Discussion Questions

(Note: The discussion questions are intended to be a springboard for conversation and comments.  However, if there are other aspects of the book that you would like to touch on, by all means do so!)

1. Julia’s first meal in France (Sole Meunière) was transformative.  She recalls it in the book with great detail, calling it “the most exciting meal of my life”.  Do you have any one meal that stands out in your memory like this?  Was it simply because the food was exquisite, or is it tied to another experience that made it particularly special?

2. Nowadays, with the popularity of celebrity chefs such as Rachel Ray touting “30-minute meals”, is Julia Child obsolete?  Do you think people care anymore about the art of cooking and making something truly oustanding, or are most people looking for the “quick fix”?  Where do you fall on the spectrum, and why?

3. For several years, Julia spent enormous amounts of time and energy writing the cookbook that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, despite having no assurances that the book would ever be published.  Can you imagine undertaking such an enormous endeavor, not knowing if your efforts would ever bear fruit?  Do you feel that this type of dedication is a vanishing quality in our society, or have you or someone you know ever undertaken a similar project not knowing whether there would be a payoff?

4. Julia describes her father and stepmother as being somewhat small-minded and not at all interested in “experiencing” France in the way she did.  Her father’s conservative attitude was a constant source of chagrin for her, and she never felt close to him because of it.  Do you feel she should have made more of an effort, or was she right to give up on him and keep her distance?  Why do you think her father was threatened by Julia’s choice of husband and lifestyle?

5. The memoir covers several periods in Julia’s life, from the time she arrives in France to her later years at La Pitchoune.  What was your favorite part of the book or of Julia’s story, and why?

book club: “hungry monkey” by matthew amster-burton

hungry monkeyI was in the library a few weeks ago checking out The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and on my way out, a little book on the New Arrivals shelf caught my eye.  It was called Hungry Monkey, the story of  food writer* and new father Matthew Amster-Burton and his quest to impart his eclectic food tastes to his daughter, Iris.  The author documents his daughter’s eating habits from infancy to age four, following her  through periods of omnivorosity, ultrapickiness, and everything in between.

You may think it unusual that a single gal with no kids would take an interest in such a book, but actually I have been intrigued by the subject ever since I worked in restaurants way back when.  Parents would order tacos for their kids “No vegetables, just plain meat, that’s all they’ll eat”, and I would always secretly judge a little bit, thinking to myself, “Have you even TRIED to get them to eat a taco with vegetables?  It’s just iceberg letttuce and tomato, for pete’s sake; it’s not like it’s broccoli!”  I suspected, as did Amster-Burton, that kids’ pickiness could be in part due to the parents’ expectation that they would be picky (and thereby not exposing them to diverse foods), rather than something inherent.  I reasoned that children in other cultures must eat whatever food is put in front of them, and that pickiness was somehow another outgrowth of spoiled American privelege.

After reading this book, I do have a new appreciation for what parents go through in this department, especially those who don’t have the luxuries that Amster-Burton has.  Currently a stay-at-home dad, his budget and schedule allow him to tote Iris around his gentrified Seattle neighborhood (Capitol Hill), taking her for lunch at a kaiten-sushi joint or to one of the many specialty markets to grab supplies (lobster, anyone?) for that night’s dinner.  But in spite of exposing Iris to all manner of foods, she still goes through a picky phase, rejecting foods that she had once downed with gusto.  The conclusion that Amster-Burton comes to, through his own experiences and through talking to other parents, is that a certain amount of picky eating is probably unavoidable, and a phase the vast majority of kids experience to one degree or another.  Unlike some of the “parenting experts” he quotes, though, he takes a fairly laissez-faire approach to the whole situation, trusting that his child will not die of a food allergy or suffer malnutrition from not eating enough vegetables.

It was quite entertaining to read about Iris’s encounters with “unusual” foods (at one dinner, presented with a whole fish, Iris proves to be a more intrepid eater than her parents!), and to experience second-hand the little joys and upsets the author lives through as he tries to share his favorite foods with his daughter.  The book is hysterical in parts, and  Amster-Burton has a talent for relaying funny Iris stories in a way that transcends a show-offy “look how cute my kid is” tone.  His wittiness and hip sensibility (he was a rock critic before being a food writer) will appeal to the many thirtysomethings, just starting families, who ate sushi and pad thai in college as often as pizza and subs.

As funny as the book is, it’s not just about superficial anecdotes.  Underlying the whole story is the sense of joy that the author has at sharing each new food with Iris- the glee when she gobbles something up readily, and the pangs of disappointment when a favorite food is eschewed.  Amster-Burton brings Iris into his “food world”, taking her shopping, letting her select menus, and spending many hours in the kitchen with her.  As a dad into sports might play catch with his child to share his love of baseball, Amster-Burton shares his love of food with Iris by making her an active participant in the daily food rituals of the household. And I think that regardless of where Iris ends up on the picky scale as she grows up, she will look back and cherish that one-on-one time spent with her dad.

*Matthew Amster-Burton can currently be found writing about food on his blog, Roots and Grubs.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both the author and myself had some pre-conceived notions about picky eaters.  Did the book change any views you may have had, or (for those of you who are parents) reinforce what you already knew to be true from experience?
  2. The author confesses that he was, in fact, a very picky eater as a child, but turned out to be an avid food-lover.  Most of you reading this are probably adventurous eaters; is this something that you came to on your own, or did your parents nudge you in that direction? Do you think being a “food lover” is innate or learned?
  3. The author describes being forced to try sushi as a kid and almost throwing up, but trying it again in college and loving it. He credits this to the fact that the second time he tried it, he expected to like it.  Do you agree?  Can you think of a food that you probably liked because you expected to like it, or anything you didn’t like in spite of thinking you would?
  4. Not every family can spend the time and money the author does to introduce his daughter to so many foods.  What can working parents or parents with less means do to bring cooking and diverse foods into their children’s lives?  Or do you feel this is even important?
  5. Food obviously plays a huge role in the Amster-Burton household.  What role does food have in your household?  Do you feel that kids need to know “where food comes from” and participate in food preparation, or is it enough just to make sure they’re eating reasonably healthy foods?

book club: “how to pick a peach” by russ parsons

ht pick a peachPop quiz: a) What fruits and vegetables should you NEVER refrigerate?  b) Which ones should you wash before refrigerating?  c) What is the difference between climacteric and non-climacteric fruits?*  You’ll find the answers to these questions and much more in Russ Parsons’ book How to Pick a Peach.  A follow-up to his book How to Read a French Fry, which explored questions of “kitchen science”, How to Pick a Peach sets out to educate the produce consumer on how to choose, store and prepare produce, while also giving great background information on how we arrived at the selection we have today in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets.  The book is organized by seasons, and each chapter covers a particular item or family of items (for example, apples get their own chapter; broccoli & cauliflower are grouped together).  The bulk of the chapters discuss the history of that food, how it came to be developed, farmed, distributed, etc.  Each chapter ends with short segments labeled How to Choose, How to Store, How to Prepare, and One Simple Dish.  Three to four recipes are given for each chapter that highlight that chapter’s fruit or vegetable.  The chapters are interspersed with article-length segments such as “When it’s OK to buy Unripe Fruit”.

I thought this book would be a good choice as we head into that time of year when the farmers’ markets start to get into full swing.  Although I have a pretty good idea of what is in season when, this book was definitely a great refresher course.  Not only that, but I learned some things that surprised me and will certainly make me change my habits, especially in regards to storing food.  I also very much enjoyed reading the histories of the different paths that our produce and farming practices have taken over the years.  Some of it is a bit depressing, such as reading about how many items are bred purely with shipping and storage concerns in mind, but overall the book had a positive tone, highlighting many instances where flavor is winning out over durability or aesthetics.  The subtitle of the book is “The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table”, and Parsons does focus on informing us about what varieties of certain fruits or veggies are especially known for good flavor. His instructions on selecting and storing produce are also geared not only towards avoiding spoilage, but optimizing flavor as well.  I think what I will ultimately take from this book is a positive sense that we are slowly but surely heading back towards the right direction, as well as some crib notes to keep in my wallet until I have the whole climacteric/ non-climacteric thing memorized!  (In fact, the book could have been greatly improved by including a tear-out pocket guide… perhaps an idea for future editions?)

Recipes: The recipes Parsons provides are nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to get a few ideas at the end of a chapter, and most of the recipes are easy and “familiar” enough that you could knock them out without a lot of fuss or advance planning.  I made two recipes from the book, a grilled cheese with onions and an asparagus risotto, which you can read about here.

*a) Never refrigerate potatoes, onions or tomatoes; b) You shouldn’t wash anything before refrigerating; the moisture causes breakdown and more rapid spoilage to occur; c) climacteric fruits can ripen after being picked, while non-climacteric fruits need to be picked at their ripest and will not improve after picking.

Discussion questions: (please feel free to answer one, a few, or all!)

  1. Why do you think Parsons selected a peach as his title fruit, rather than a pear, plum, or some vegetable?
  2. Generations ago, a book like this probably would not have been necessary.  The smaller amount of items available would have meant that the average person would not have needed the breadth of knowledge that we do when we go to the supermarket. We now have a disconnect from many items because they are not local and thus less familiar, and therefore we find ourselves in a position of having to “re-educate” ourselves as consumers.  Is the greater variety worth the trade-off?  How much time and effort are you willing to spend to ensure that you are selecting the best possible produce?
  3. One of the topics discussed in the book is the supply chain and how it affects what varieties are propagated.  How important is it to you to have a wider variety of items, some shipped from across the country or imported, versus having better quality items that can be found locally?
  4. It stands to reason that if consumers stopped buying flavorless peaches, tomatoes, etc, growers would be forced to adapt.  Why and how did people become disinterested about the flavor of their food?  How much blame, if any, should be placed on the average consumer (or the farmers) for the quality of produce found in our grocery stores today?
  5. What do you think the future holds for the flavor of fruits and vegetables, the way the supply chain functions, and for the overall quality of our food?

chew on this! (a food lover’s book club)

book-club-booksAs some of you know, for many years (8, to be precise), I worked in a bookstore.  Every time any sort of food-related book came in, I’d either read it or make note of it for later reading.  Consequently, I have a great big list of foodie books to work my way through.  I’ve been kicking this idea around for some time, to host a virtual foodie book club.  My idea is that the host (which will be me initially, but can rotate once we get a group going) will write a blog post reviewing the book and posing a few discussion questions, and then we can use the comments section as a discussion forum.

Please go here for the current book choice and more info.  I’m really excited to get this going and I hope lots of you join me for this; I think it’ll be fun.  Happy reading!