Category Archives: Books

THE AMERICAN WAY OF EATING: A BOOK TO LOOK FOR

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Dwight Garner reviewed the book The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, who grew up in a working-class home with a mother who was too ill to cook and a busy father who relied on box meals such as Tuna Helper.  Garner writes “[McMillan’s] central concern, in her journalism and in this provocative book, is food and class. She stares at America’s bounty, noting that so few seem able to share in it fully, and she asks: ‘What would it take for us all to eat well?'”

In The American Way of Eating, McMillan goes undercover as she picks grapes and garlic and works at Walmart, that store we all love to hate, and at Applebee’s, which some of us hate even more. But McMillan is not just fooling around, and a cook at Applebee’s notes:“You see that white girl work? Damn, she can work.”

Sounds like my kind of girl and my kind of book.

 

 

 

YEAR END THOUGHTS

Christmas is coming, and what a cooking fool I’ve been! On the docket for today are peanut butter balls and lemon-frosted shortbread. Two ice cream pies—with homemade chocolate ice cream—are in the freezer. In keeping with this season of miracles, my husband, Clif, and I have actually been using a fair amount of self-restraint, and we haven’t gained any weight.

All of the treats I make are rather simple, using basic ingredients such as butter, eggs, and flour. What makes them special is that these are treats Clif and I only have very occasionally. Let’s face it. At our age, Clif and I do not need a steady supply of chocolate chip cookies, lemon-frosted shortbread, and peanut butter balls. But how nice it is to nibble on them during this time of long nights and twinkling lights.

I have just finished reading  One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, which is a selection of excerpts and photographs taken from the journals of Richard Proenneke. Devotees of Maine Public Television will be familiar with Richard Proennneke and his movie Alone in the Wilderness, which is a pledge-week favorite in our house. Shot in the late 1960s, Alone in the Wilderness follows Dick Proenneke as he builds a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and lives a solitary life. (And, yes, Proenneke did all the filming.) Because I am probably the least handy person in Winthrop, and maybe even in Maine, this movie has a special fascination for me. Not only does Dick Proenneke, a mechanic by trade, build the cabin by himself, but he also pretty much makes everything that goes with it—hinges for the door, bunk beds, a stone fireplace, wooden spoons, and bowls. All the work, including felling the trees, is done with hand tools, and not surprisingly, Proenneke has a very lean body. And the man could cook. He makes stews and cranberry syrup and sour dough pancakes. He hunts and he fishes.

In addition to being the ultimate handyman, Proenneke was also a good writer and a keen observer of the natural world. His love of and his respect for nature thrum through One Man’s Wilderness as does his engagement with the world around him. There are even a few dramatic moments, as when he narrowly escapes being mauled by a bear, tries to rescue a caribou calf, and waits patiently for Babe Alsworth, a bush pilot, to bring missionary girls to the cabin for a visit. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that like the famed Godot, the missionary girls never come.)

Those with a survivalist bent will be impressed with Proenneke’s self-sufficiency, and it is true that this man took doing things by hand to a level most of us only dream about. Yet, self-sufficiency isn’t entirely accurate. Proenneke gets regular supplies, delivered by Babe Alsworth every three weeks or so. Proenneke might be solitary, but he isn’t totally cut off from the outside world and indeed relies on it for some of what he uses.

Instead, what impressed me was Proenneke’s creativity, curiosity, and his utter engagement with his environment, which he measured, recorded, filmed, and wrote about. His energy and his capacity for hard work impressed me as well. I was also struck by his Zen-like attitude toward chores: They are necessary so you might as well take pleasure from them rather than resent and hurry through them. (A good lesson for me!)

On very little money, Proenneke nonetheless lived a “rich” and rewarding life. He did not live a life of squalor or misery. He had enough, and he knew it. (I certainly realize that many in this world do not have enough and indeed need more.) To a large extent, Proenneke used what was at hand to fashion a simple but comfortable life. It seems to me that Proenneke’s example can be followed by those of us who don’t live in the wilderness, that the creative, engaged, thrifty life is available to those who live in the country, the city, and even the suburbs.

As the population of the planet edges toward 8 billion, Proenneke’s lessons and wisdom are still relevant today.

 

A BOOK TO RECOMMEND: AN EVERLASTING MEAL: COOKING WITH ECONOMY AND GRACE BY TAMAR ADLER

Most of the books I read, including those that are about food, come from the library. In Maine, we have a wonderful interlibrary loan system, and this gives me access to a wide range of books. As a rule, I can return the books after having read them and not long to own them. At least not too much. But every once in a while a book comes along that I feel I simply must have, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler is one of those books. If I don’t receive it for Christmas, then I will order it after the holidays.

In the introduction to An Everlasting Meal, Adler pays tribute to the late, great M. F. K. Fisher and her book How to Cook a Wolf, which “is not a cookbook or a memoir or a story about one person or one thing. It is a book about cooking defiantly, amid the mess of war and the pains of a bare pantry.” (How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942.) Adler writes “I love that book. I have modeled this one on it.”

I, too, love How to Cook a Wolf. Indeed, I own a copy. Given that Adler is such a fine writer and has such a feel for how various food can be combined, it’s no wonder that I love her book, too. While there are recipes in An Everlasting Meal,  Adler’s focus is more on the philosophy of food and eating. In the wrong hands, a book like this could have been as dry as Melba toast. But An Everlasting Meal was most definitely in the right hands, and after I read the book, I felt as though my cooking horizons had been expanded. I have begun looking at food in a new way, seeing the myriad possibilities in simple, humble ingredients that are often thrown away.

The subtitle of this book is Cooking with Economy and Grace, and Adler means business. She believes that every bit of food from a plant or animal should be used (hence, Economy) to prepare meals that are not only nutritious but also satisfying and good (hence, Grace). Radish greens, parsley stems, celery leaves, the water from cooking pasta and vegetables, bacon fat, chicken fat, and chicken bones all can and should be used—not necessarily together, of course. This is the way our grandmothers and great-grandmothers cooked in a time when they had to raise much of their own food and were therefore ever so careful about using it all. As the population of our planet has just reached 7 billion, this advice to use everything and waste nothing could not be more timely.

Not surprisingly, Adler is big fan of broth, which can come from either animal or vegetable, with a bit of doctoring up by way of onion or garlic and herbs and spices. And into the broth can go a variety of food, either specially cooked for the broth or left over from another meal.

Greatly inspired by Adler, I considered a pasta dish I made a couple of nights ago. Along with the pasta there was red peppers, broccoli, toasted almonds, garlic, feta cheese, sage, and olive oil. There were leftovers, but not enough for a really satisfying meal for two, at least not for my husband, Clif. Keeping Adler’s advice in mind, I had saved some of the pasta water, which I had used to moisten the original dish. I also had two cups of turkey stock in my freezer. (I am beginning to consider homemade turkey or chicken stock liquid gold. The boxed stuff just can’t compare with it.) So, I thought, why not add the leftover pasta to the broth along with a cup of the pasta water to stretch things out?

This is just what I did, and in the oven, we toasted homemade bread with olive oil to go with the soup.

“What do you think?” I asked Clif.

“Great!” he replied.

I must admit, the soup was pretty good. What a way to use leftovers!

Using Adler as my guide, I am thinking ahead to other combinations, such as a soup made with the water broccoli is cooked in. Naturally, this soup would include broccoli as well as onion and garlic or both. Some potatoes to thicken it? After simmering the broccoli and potato water with onion and garlic, I would add some cooked potatoes and broccoli to the broth and blend them with my immersion blender. I would also save chunks of potato and broccoli to add afterward. A bit of grated cheddar cheese would be good, too. Maybe some rosemary.

I’ll let you know how this soup turns out.

In the meantime, you might want to add An Everlasting Meal to your own Christmas list.

 

STILLMEADOW DAYBOOK BY GLADYS TABER

picture of bookThanks, yet again, to Nan and her blog, Letters from a Hill Farm, for introducing me to the books of Gladys Taber, who lived and wrote at Stillmeadow, an old farmhouse in Connecticut. The book I am reading, Stillmeadow Daybook, was published in 1955 by J. B. Lippincott Company, and in it Taber chronicles each month of the year on her farm. She starts with April, which is a good place to begin when gardening is central to your life. In her forward Taber writes, “There is something about the task of preparing vegetables that gives a woman a reflective mood. I wondered how many tons of potatoes I had pared since we put our roots down here in these forty acres of stony Connecticut soil.”

Taber loved the white farm house, built in 1690, from the moment she saw it: “[W]ith its steeply pitched roof, little windows with bubbly glass, and worn lintel, I knew I belonged to it.” But how Taber came to own this house and live there is a little unconventional. Taber, her husband, and her daughter were living in New York City as were Taber’s good friend Jill, her husband, and two children. Both families wanted a house in the country, “a week-end place where we could have outdoor living in peace…where vacations and holidays could be, we felt, very economical.”

So the two families pitched their fortunes together, bought the house, and, amazingly enough, they all got exactly what they wanted. As the children in both families grew and went to “various schools and colleges,” Stillmeadow was the home they could come back to. Even more amazing, over the years, the friendship between the two families didn’t fray with the tensions that must inevitably come with joint ownership. According to the book’s forward, when both Gladys and Jill became widows, they decided to live together at Stillmeadow, which became their “refuge and a haven.” Jill and Gladys had gardens where they raised all their vegetables, and they raised dogs as well. At one point they had thirty-six cocker spaniels, although in Stillmeadow Daybook, they are down to eight cocker spaniels and one Irish setter.

If Stillmeadow Daybook were only about country living—cooking, family, and food—then that would certainly be enough. To me, these are subjects that never grow old. But Taber, a writer and a creative writing teacher, had other things on her mind, too. Her thoughts about poetry—Keats was a favorite—world peace, literature, and other larger subjects are folded into the homely details of life at Stillmeadow, and they bring depth to this charming book. Here is Taber’s take on fiction: “I think novels and short stories will probably be around as long as men can read at all. And there is a great satisfaction to a writer in creating characters which no amount of good reporting could duplicate. I venture to say also that  great fiction illuminates life in a way no other form can do.”

Another thing that impressed me was how much of a foodie Taber was, especially as we tend to think of the 1950s as a grim culinary era in the United States. Taber’s concern with fresh, local food seems amazingly contemporary. “Economics is too complex for me. But I have instincts about supply and demand which I believe in. And I shall always feel a carrot next door is better than a carrot from Ames, Iowa, all things being equal.”

We baby boomers tend to feel sorry for women who came of age before the 1960s, those poor, unliberated things who spent day after frustrating day cooped up in their little houses with their little children, eating Spam sandwiches. While it is true that before the 1960s, the opportunities for women were far more limited than they are now, it is not true that all those pre-1960s women were bubble brains on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And it is arrogant of my generation to think this way. When I read As Always, Julia, the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, I was struck by what a rich life of the mind these women had. The same was true for Gladys and her friend Jill, and that life of the mind brought a spark to even the most mundane chores, from peeling potatoes to making current jelly. The best thing about the life of the mind is that it can be lived anywhere that there are books and magazines, even on a farm in Connecticut, even in a little house in Winthrop, Maine.

The copy of Stillmeadow Daybook I am reading came from Lithgow Public Library as an interlibrary loan book. However, a quick look on Amazon.com showed me that while Stillmeadow Daybook is no longer in print, it can be purchased used at a reasonable price. I also expect that library sales and second-hand shops might be a good place to find Stillmeadow Daybook as well as any of the other numerous books that Taber wrote.

I am looking forward to reading more of Gladys Taber, and I will certainly be looking for her books at various summer book sales.

Again, many thanks, Nan, for introducing me to Gladys Taber.

 

 

JOIE DE VIVRE BY ROBERT ARBOR AND KATHERINE WHITESIDE

On an older post on the blog Letters from a Hill Farm, Nan has reviewed a book called Joie de Vivre: Simple French Style for Everyday Living by Robert Arbor and Katherine Whiteside. Nan read this book as part of a Foodie’s Reading Challenge, which sounds like a lot of fun, and she had many good things to say about Joie de Vivre. So many, in fact, that I will be checking Inter Library Loan to see if any libraries in Maine have a copy of Joie de Vivre.

Here is what appealed to me about Nan’s description of Joie de Vivre—the notion that the good life revolves around family, food, and friends and that to cook you don’t need a big kitchen with granite counter tops and fancy equipment. This is from the book: “It’s not just about cooking, decorating, or entertaining – it’s about enjoying all the small details of domestic life. It’s about making time for family, growing some vegetables in your garden, chatting with the butcher, and cooking for your family and friends.”

According to Nan, the point of the book is that you don’t have to live in France to live this kind of life. You can have it New York City; you can have it in Winthrop, Maine. All you have to do is cook, open up your home, and maybe plant a few herbs and vegetables.

Let’s hear it for this kind of good life, which is available even to those of us who live on a modest budget.

BOOK REVIEW: AS ALWAYS, JULIA: THE LETTERS OF JULIA CHILD & AVIS DEVOTO. EDITED BY JOAN REARDON AND PUBLISHED BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2010

In this age of the computer—with Facebook, Twitter, and email—handwritten letters are pretty much a thing of the past. While there are probably some holdouts who prefer pen and paper, I expect most of us communicate electronically via the computer. While this kind of communication has its good points—speed and ease—it also has one very big drawback—impermanence. Simply put, letters written on paper have much more lasting power than messages sent through email.

We can only be grateful, then, that Julia Child and her friend, mentor, and confidante Avis DeVoto did not have use of computers when they were middle-aged women. Otherwise, we never would have had the many letters they sent to each other, starting in 1952 and ending in 1988, a year before Avis DeVoto’s death. For the letters in As Always, Julia are more than just a chronicle of everyday life in Europe (Julia Child) and Boston (Avis DeVoto) in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the book ends. These letters, arranged and edited by Joan Reardon, trace the arc of a remarkable phenomenon that, like most phenomena, would seem to be a foregone conclusion but really wasn’t. I am referring, of course, to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which did so much to change the way Americans cook. While most foodies know that Julia Child was the driving force behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking—Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle also worked on the book—few foodies realize the pivotal role that Avis DeVoto played in getting this important cookbook published. DeVoto has been called “the midwife” of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Indeed, after reading As Always Julia, I wondered if Julia Child ever would have become JULIA CHILD without DeVoto’s help. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fascinating to think about, and this book is a terrific lesson about the importance of friends.

It’s funny and somehow appropriate that the correspondence began with a knife. Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, was a historian and a journalist. In a 1951 issue of Harper’s, Bernard DeVoto bemoaned the deplorable state of American knives, which were by and large stainless steel and thus couldn’t hold an edge. Julia Child and her husband, Paul, read the article, and even though neither of them knew Bernard DeVoto, they admired his writing, and Julia decided to send him a good knife along with a short letter of explanation. At the time, the Childs were living in Paris, and it was easy for them to get good knives. Avis DeVoto, “mainstay of and secretary to her husband, the mother of two sons, a reviewer of whodunits for the Boston Globe, an editor, an accomplished cook…” answered Julia’s letter and thanked her for the knife. Something immediately clicked between the two women, which resulted in more letters and a friendship that would last until Avis died in 1989.

When Julia Child first began corresponding with Avis DeVoto, Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn’t really Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, the proposed title was French Cooking for All, and the original idea was for it to be published in five individual volumes by Ives Washburn. Julia Child decided to send a first draft to Avis DeVoto, “who immediately saw [the book’s] potential” and thought it should go to Houghton Mifflin, her husband’s publisher. The manuscript did indeed go to Houghton Mifflin, and when they eventually got cold feet because of the manuscript’s length, Avis DeVoto managed to convince Alfred A. Knopf and a “talented young editor” named Judith Jones to read the manuscript and to consider publishing it as one long book. This they did, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally born. This, of course, is only the briefest summation of what really happen during the long, long gestation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In addition to this fascinating history, the smart and witty personalities of each woman shines clearly in this book. Both were passionate, liberal Democrats who were thrown into despair by Joseph McCarthy and his thugs. Child and DeVoto were interested in books, art, and ideas, and this correspondence should put to rest the notion that the 1950s were an intellectual wasteland. While not everyone was a vibrant thinker and a brilliant conversationalist during the 1950s, the same is also true of people today. I would even venture to guess that the percentages are pretty much the same between now and then, but I don’t have any numbers to back up this hypothesis.

Finally, while I have long been a fan of Julia Child and her large, glowing personality, I became totally smitten by the intense, loyal, funny Avis DeVoto, who did so much for Julia Child. How I would have loved to have had  a conversation with the two of them.

As Always Julia is a fascinating chronicle of a critical era in American food history, and it certainly belongs in the library of anyone who loves and is interested in food.

 

LUNCH WITH SHANE AT MIA LINA’S

On Wednesday, I walked into Winthrop to meet Shane, one of the town’s librarians, for lunch at Mia Lina’s. I am happy to report that spring has finally come to central Maine. The grass has turned a bright green, bird song fills the air, water rushes by in the ditches, and the maple trees are in bloom with lovely but modest red flowers. Spring is here, it is here. And even though the day was  gray and damp, the walk, filled with so much to look at and to see, was a pleasant one.

Mia Lina’s is a little pizza place on Main Street, but the food there is better than average. One of my favorite things to order is the chicken teriyaki salad, little chunks of nicely marinated chicken sprinkled over romaine lettuce mixed with other tidbits—cheese, peppers, and olives. A little drizzle of Italian dressing, and you have yourself a pretty good salad. I also love the Lina bread, fresh dough cooked with cheese and served with a side of tomato sauce for dipping. However, although I can eat a whole order by myself, I shouldn’t do so, and I only get Lina bread when I’m with someone who wants to share it with me.

Shane ordered the ravioli, which came with garlic bread, and he said it was tasty.

While the food was good, the conservation was terrific. Shane is about the age of my eldest daughter, but already he is a great conversationalist, a true gift that not everyone has. Shane talks, but he also listens, and because he is devoted to books and music, his mind is lively and interesting.

Along with a little personal chitchat, we talked about what we were reading. Shane just finished reading Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer. Shane spoke about how moved he was by this collection of two novellas and some short stories. As Shane described the opening novella and its two teenage protagonists, he certainly made me want to read it.

In turn, I told him about three books I’ve recently read, which all receive “stars” in my reading journal. The first is Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a short but soulful memoir about a debilitating pathogen Bailey contracted when she was young, and how, as an invalid, she found solace watching a snail a friend brought to her.

The second is Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point. Safina is a marine biologist who can write beautifully and affectingly about the oceans of the world. He also includes stern lectures about overfishing and global warming and controlling our appetites.

Then there is Joan Reardon’s As Always Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis Devoto. The title is self-explanatory, and I hope to soon write a proper book review for this blog.

From there we moved to music—to the great singer/songwriters of the 1970s as well as the wonderful music of the 1990s.

All too soon it was time for Shane to go to the library to begin his shift and for me to return home for household chores.

But a little book and music talk can sure brighten a gray day.