Every year around Christmas time, my wife’s brother Marty, flies from Los Angeles to Meadville to cook and bake. He makes main courses of goose with all the trimmings, breakfasts of blini and lox, sides too numerous to count, Danish peppernodder, and his grandmother’s melt-in-your-mouth caramels. I do my best to bake enough breads — this year I made seven different kinds of sourdough — to keep up. Here is my attempt to describe a week of enjoying life with one of the world’s great cooks. Click here.
The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt ** (of 4)
Hardwick was a down and out village in rural Vermont. Unemployment was high, farmers were struggling, and main street was worn out. As if almost by magic a resurgence of local food and agricultural organizations galloped into town and everyone it appears is destined to live happily ever after. For example, one agripreneur is persuading beleaguered dairy farmers to dedicate some fields to soybeans for his tofu factory. Another invested in an enormous concrete cellar so dairy farmers can supply milk for cheeses he sells at $20 a pound. The Center for an Agricultural Economy opened on Main Street and soon the town was featured in the New York Times. Hewitt argues that every small town should replicate Hardwick, but seriously? How much tofu will Americans eat? Expensive cheese is going to save rural America? And is either one of those things really selling in Hardwick? The underlying premise of the book that conventional American agriculture with its admittedly anti-environmental impacts on soil, water, and air is in fact already coughing its death rattle is passed over without question. For all its flaws, American agricultural productivity is at global and historic highs. Hewitt’s prescription for replacing American agriculture with small local farms, absent any specifics on where or how his agripreneurs cobbled together their capital, or even if they are turning a profit, could have been written by Polyanna.
Murder on the Kibbutz by Batya Gur **** (of 4)
There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson *** (of 4)
Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American. What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism. Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks. Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race. And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans. Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America. And I think that is the point.