During the summer I add food writing and adventure tales to my usual reading list. I don’t quite know why I incorporate these categories at this moment but it has consistently worked out that way for at least the past several years. I haven’t compiled this year’s list yet, but I suppose because of my dreaming of eating in Cleveland, I thought about my previous years’ reading where hometown food writer Michael Ruhlman consistently ruled.
As I think about Ruhlman’s book, The Making of a Chef, I guess I do get a sense of why I read food writing during the summer. In The Making of a Chef Ruhlman writes about the experiences of students, himself included, at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the Harvard of cooking schools. Not only are the stories of how people found themselves at the school interesting, but the impact of the education on the book’s author helped to crystalize the value of learning and showed proof of what it can do. The presentation of food can reflect heightened understanding. In one memorable scene from the book, Ruhlman describes his desire for a morning cup of coffee and finds that his coffeemaker isn’t working; he’s without the use of his stove because of some home remodeling taking place; and if I can recall it properly, he can’t go out to buy coffee because there’s been heavy snowfall. So how can he have his coffee? After having only been at the CIA for a few months, the impact of the program shows in his decision to use his charcoal grill to prepare his coffee. His education had awakened him to novel possibilities.
Ruhlman’s grilled coffee offers an edifying example because it suggests that we can indeed be fulfilled–satisfied because oftentimes, we do have precisely what we need. If you are living in the United States, then you are residing in a culture that ceaselessly tries to convince us of the inadequacies of what we possess. It’s an unexpected and odd equation whereby ownership equates to shabbiness. Ruhlman’s turning to his grill was a meaningful act because it suggests the value of our everyday things and their purposefulness despite their diminished gleam. Such an act of reclamation identifies what I mean by a good education. A good education is one that helps you to discipline your thinking so that you enter into the habit of contemplating your life beyond apparent constraints. Ruhlman’s coffee suggests that such an approach brings savoriness into your life.
I have only recently realized that my interest in cookbooks has a great deal to do with wanting to immerse myself in just such a notion of savoriness. As I flipped through Dori Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours the other day, I noticed that my thinking wasn’t really concentrated on making the wonderfully delectable treats pictured and plotted but on how they would fit into my life for eating them. So for example, I was thinking that I would enjoy the Orange Tart. I didn’t picture myself actually making it as much as I saw myself having it finished and wondering how I would store it. Then I moved from that thought to how wonderful it would be with a cup of warm tea, but then I realized that I would most likely be the only person eating it. My husband’s not really an Orange Tart and tea kinda guy. Miles would eat it…it just wouldn’t BE the picture. The picture suggests that the Orange Tart is just good. Period. Want it. Make it. Eat it. So then I thought about how television cooking shows really do a successful job of putting recipe ideas into a life plan. They don’t just offer the recipe, show you how to cook it, and then sample it. They tell you how the food might fit into a concept of some sort; a dinner party, reception, gallery opening–that kind of thing. What I realized was that I have been disappointed sometimes with food that I have prepared, not because it didn’t taste good, but because it didn’t fit within a larger plan for how it should be consumed and how it would be enjoyed. When I am thoughtful about the food, all goes well; nothing gets wasted. And that’s really what I want my life to be focused on: Relevance. When nothing gets wasted, that means that everything had a purpose and that purpose was served. Thus, all was relevant–and for me, this reflects the weightiness, the tied to the earth goodness that makes life savory.
Perhaps another reason that I like food writing and why I read it during the summer is because the summer marks a period of restoration for me and efforts to feed the body are always about replenishment and recovery. I am interested in how people seek to replenish themselves. To that end, Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio’s Hungry Planet: What the World Eats is a sumptuous delight. The book features families from around the world photographed with one week’s worth of their groceries. A table also organizes the food so that the photograph gets chronicled through types of food and financial commitment. Thus, as one example, the book’s focus on the Melanders family of four includes a tally of one week’s worth of food in November that breaks down through categories and expenditures in this way: Grains & Other Starchy Foods: $31.98; Dairy: $64.33; Meat, Fish & Eggs: $51.31; Fruits, Vegetables & Nuts: $78.10; Condiments: $31.83; Snacks & Desserts: $14.56; Prepared Food: $66.78; Beverages: $70.17; Miscellaneous: $91.01; Food Expenditures for One Week: 379.39 euros/$500.07. The list itself is even more detailed than my representation as each category chronicles the food shown in the picture. The authors include a recipe from each family in addition to stories about how they consume and consider food.
I flip through Hungry Planet from time-to-time throughout the year. I have noticed that the Menzel aesthetic gets reflected in many of the food blogs that I read. Sometimes menu planners will show photographs of the food they purchased for the week, and other times home cooks will lay out the ingredients used in a recipe they’re sharing. Mimicry serves these bloggers well. Menzel’s aesthetic underscores the beautiful colors and textures that make up a large percentage of the time and attention we devote to feeding ourselves.
I do know that this year’s food reading list will include Michelle Obama’s book American Grown: The White House Kitchen Garden and Garden’s Across America. Though some critics held a rather cynical view of Robbin Gourley’s children’s book, First Garden: The White House Garden and How it Grew, I appreciated the work. It tells a colorful, vibrant story of family and gardening at the White House potentially informative to children and adults alike. It seems to me that this book serves as the kind of inspiration that the First Lady encourages.
Gourley’s first book, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis, would be a pleasant read as well. I flip through The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis, pretty regularly. Lewis’s family was among three who claimed a community as freed people in Virginia. They called their
community Freetown. Reading The Taste of Country Cooking is a rich experience that elegantly demands that you consider the historical context and the meaningfulness of the labor demanded for living in light of what had to be a feeling of indescribable assurance. As strenuous as farming is and as anxiety producing as it must be to have to work in accordance with nature, performing such labor in the shadow of the horrors that existed before in slavery must have been an extraordinary feeling. When I read this particular work by Lewis, I think I do so to try to come to language over what that feeling must have been like. One of the reasons why I find the title of the “award winning” documentary about Lewis, Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie (featured above), disappointing is because it renders the ineffable through lazy racial allusions. To be fair, Mrs. Lewis does have a section in The Taste of Country Cooking where she writes what she voices in the film that makes the first part of the title relevant. Mrs. Lewis doesn’t say anything about Sweet Potato Pie though, she merely gives a recipe. To the point of Gourley’s book, Mrs. Lewis’s memories about pie involves apples.
I heard Peter J. Hatch on NPR recently discussing Thomas Jefferson’s garden and this inspired me to want to read his work, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.” I’ve never visited Monticello but it’s definitely on my list. So is Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Interestingly, the description for the book about dining and hospitality at Mount Vernon, Dining with the Washington’s, doesn’t mention slavery’s role in that practice–unless you count the line that says that the book looks at “those who served” the meals to those guests. Such a line becomes difficult to accept as a reference to slavery, however, because the description claims the volume to be “charming.” Well, there’s certainly incongruity between hospitality, charm, and slavery. Nevertheless, this book is also on my wish list.
I didn’t have a chance to get to my adventures in adventure reading in this post, but as I reflect on the food reading leading to imagined excursions, my reasons for reading these titles is also coming into focus. So I’ll write about those books another time, but for now, all I’ve got to say is: Don’t sleep on Moby-Dick! I can’t wait to read that one with my son. Great, great book.