Tag Archives: book review

book review: “shark’s fin & sichuan pepper” by fuchsia dunlop

The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France.  It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was  nonetheless a challenge.  However, France is one thing; China is quite another.  I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture.  Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing.  Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others.  She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and  to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan CookingRevolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time.  In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies.  She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek.  Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns.  Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst.  She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.

In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners.  In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female.  However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.

The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school.  Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes.  Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation.  The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed.  Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat.  In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.

I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food.  In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best.  Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”.  Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal.  Dunlop describes it thus:

Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me.  When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:

Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
[…]
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)

The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them.  They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).

Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc.  At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted.  In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind.  If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.

book review: “feeding a yen” by calvin trillin

Do you like to read? Eat? Laugh out loud, forcing your beverage of choice through your nose? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (you talk to your computer screen? weirdo…) and if you have not yet read any of Calvin Trillin’s food essays, get thee promptly to a bookstore or library.

I only wish I had encountered Trillin’s food writing earlier- I feel a retrospective bereavement for all those years I was missing out on it.  I had heard of Trillin from working at the bookstore (his Obliviously On He Sails, a poem about the Bush administration,  and About Alice were both pretty good sellers for us), but for whatever reason, his food books did not get ordered.  I was at the library a few weeks ago browsing the Food/Cookbooks section as I am wont to do, when I came across Feeding a Yen and decided to give it a try.

The common thread in this volume of essays is Trillin’s “Register of Frustration and Deprivation”- a list of food items whose authentic incarnations can only be found regionally, and for which the author pines nostalgically.  Each chapter discusses an item on the list- Basque pimientos de Padron, Ecuadorian fanesca, Cajun boudin, and many more.  Since the book’s concept strongly involves a sense of place, many of the essays have the element of great travel writing as well, which was a bonus for me.

One of the funniest essays, especially for anyone who is a regular consumer of “food information” online, was New Grub Street, which talked about Chowhound.com‘s self-proclaimed “Alpha Dog” Jim Leff and other New York food writers such as Robert Sietsema (check out his funny but somewhat snob-noxious blog post “Things We Hate: Overused Food Words” in the Village Voice). These writers are a rare breed in that their lives seem to revolve around a bizarre one-upmanship of who can find the best hidden food gems in New York.  At one point in the essay, Leff talks about a restaurant that serves amba, an Iraqi mango hot sauce. He intones gravely to Trillin, “It’s not considered available. It’s extremely rare. This might be the rarest single food in town.” (p. 84).  I was at Marvin’s house while reading this, and called out “Hey hon?  That mango stuff you have in the fridge… is that called amba?”  I felt more than a little amused (ok, smug) knowing that less than 15 feet away was an item considered by a New Yorker (the Chowhound Alpha Dog, no less) to be a such a rare and exotic foodstuff!

I am looking forward to checking out Trillin’s other food books- I love his dry wit, and his writing alone is enough to make me add foods to my own Register of Frustration & Deprivation that I haven’t even tried yet (I actually had a dream about pimientos de Padrón after reading that essay!).  Alice, Let’s Eat looks like a good one…

Incidentally, Trillin’s book About Alice, a touching and humorous ode to his wife (who died of cancer in 2001), is a beautiful read to get you in the Valentine spirit, or to give as a Valentine’s gift.  We listened to it on audiobook (read by Trillin himself) on the way down south and thoroughly enjoyed it.

book review: “julie and julia”

julie-juliaThere are many theories on what makes people happy, and just as many (if not more) self-help books.  I should know; I worked in a bookstore, and had to shelve books with titles such as “Crappy to Happy” and “Learning to Love Yourself”.  But the only one of these theories that I ever thought actually made sense was outlined in a book called Flow.  The premise is that we are at our happiest when pursuing an activity or goal that is neither too easy nor too difficult, but which offers us a challenge and a focus.

Julie Powell probably never read Flow, but she innately understood that she needed a challenge to lift her out of the doldrums.  Her job as a secretary was unsurprisingly  unfulfilling, and she was angsty over the thought of her approaching 30th birthday. The challenge she undertook, for anyone unfamiliar with the book, was to cook every recipe in Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year, and to blog about the experience.  As she made her way through “The Project”, she gained readers who cheered her on, and also gained a strange sort of strength which propelled her forward, even when she felt she wanted to throw in the tea-towel.

Julie & Julia came out a few years ago when I was still working at the bookstore, and I didn’t read it then, partly based on a co-worker’s review that it “wasn’t that great”.  However, when we decided to have a MtAoFC theme for a recent blogger event, I picked it up from the library out of curiosity.  A fellow blogger had commented that she was turned off by the author’s voice, and I can’t say I totally blame her- she tends towards shrill and whiny at times, and when she describes certain hissy fits, you wonder how her saintly-sounding husband doesn’t crack and either lose his temper or walk out.  But, as with most memoirs, I’d like to think there is some creative exaggeration going on (and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t occasionally had similar fits of frustration in the kitchen). That said, the book isn’t always whiny, of course, and there are parts where Powell displays a keen wit and sarcasm.

I found the book entertaining despite the occasional hysteria over a failed crêpe or what-have-you, and I had respect verging on awe for someone who found the energy to shop for and cook a full meal several times a week after working all day and commuting from the outer boroughs.  I also identified with someone who, although smart and capable, found herself dissatisfied with the fact that life is not all she thought it would be, and wonders how to save herself from dull oblivion.  I don’t know that cooking would work for everyone, but it certainly worked for her, with the completely unexpected results of getting national attention and press, a book deal, and even a movie deal.

One thing I rather liked about Julie is that although she took on a cooking project, she didn’t seem particularly like a “foodie” (prior to the Project, she had never even eaten an egg!!), and I don’t think she ever considered her blog a “food blog”. I almost got the impression that the challenge could have been anything, like building a model replica of Westminster Abbey, or memorizing all the plays of Shakespeare.  She does develop a reverence for Julia Child, though, and the passages in the book where she imagines Julia’s life are the most well-written.  I actually got a little teary-eyed when reading how, at the end of the Project, someone tells her that Julia Child has heard of what she is doing and has a negative opinion of her; it must have been heartbreaking.

In the end, regardless of the elder Julia’s opinion, Julie Powell has the last laugh.  She was able to quit her job as a secretary, and is now a full-fledged freelance writer (check out her post-Project blog here).   It just goes to show that the most important catalyst for change is movement; you never know when a project intended to save your sanity could end up opening up a world of unexpected possibility.