It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz *** (of 4)
How does a food receive kosher approval? For some items, like the prohibition of pork, the Torah is comparatively clear. But what about a more modern food like Jell-O which contains gelatin, a substance derived from forbidden bones and hides of animals, but has been turned into a chemical that no longer has much, if any, relationship to its origin? Some rabbis would give Jell-O a kosher stamp. Now, what if the hide used to make the chemical called gelatin was a pig’s? Kosher USA if nothing else is provocative and at its best points to centuries of rabbinic debate still alive as food becomes more and more processed. Horowitz’s academic style and heavy emphasis on the political interplay of corporations and rabbis are sparsely balanced by personal anecdotes, which in many instances, are more captivating than the long passages of textbook-like replays of angry letters between generally conservative rabbis supporting modernization and orthodox rabbis insistent upon glatt kosher laws that adhere to Torah but are indifferent to animal suffering or worker rights.
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.
52 Loaves by William Alexander *** (of 4)
52 Loaves is one of those memoirs where a guy sets out to do something a little ridiculous, bumbles along, has silly adventures, and learns something meaningful along the way. See, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and The Know it All and The Year of Living Biblically, both by A.J. Jacobs. In this instance, Alexander bakes a loaf of bread every week for a year until he manages to make the perfect loaf. As befits this type of book, Alexander opens with many weeks of dense, tasteless, uninspiring loaves that test his patience, make his children long for croissants, brioche, and real bread, and cause his long-suffering wife to roll her eyes every weekend at her her inept husband’s kitchen flailings. With time, of course, Alexander learns the science of bread making, the art of bread making, and the six-thousand year history of bread eating and presents it all in a way that is warm and light, much like the bread he ultimately learns to bake from sourdough (did you hear that, fans, SOURDOUGH) in an ancient Abbey oven in the remote French countryside.
1493 by Charles Mann *** (of 4)
Prior to Columbus’s blundering into the Caribbean, there was negligible interchange of plants, animals, or humans between continents. Shortly thereafter the onset of large-scale globalization was underway. Spain brought silver, Indians, new vegetables, and Spaniards from South America to the Philippines and China. Potatoes, tobacco, and corn from the Americasbecame main staples in Europe and Africa. The forced importation of Africans to the New World became one of the largest human transplantations in history. At many times, and in most places, the number of Africans in the Americas outnumbered whites by more than four to one, making the real history of the Americas a story of the interplay of Africans and Indians, rather than just a story of developing European supremacy. After reading 1493 and Mann’s first book, 1491, I’m more convinced than ever that the history I was taught — white, male, Eurocentric — overlooked 90 percent of what was important.
97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman ** (of 4)
It’s an interesting thesis. Jane Ziegelman, a food historian working at the Tenement Museum traces the food history of five immigrant families that settled on the lower east side of Manhattan: German, German Jewish, Irish, Russian Jewish, and Italian. She suggests that immigrants were aggressive assimilators with one exception. They hung onto the food of their homelands and Americans absorbed their foreign foods, taking on new things like pale ales, frankfurters, hamburgers, bagels, pasta, etc. Unfortunately, the book is short on story and long on fact making it read more like an endless encyclopedia entry than a compelling piece of non-fiction.
The Coffee Trader by David Liss *** (of 4)
A Jewish escapee from the Spanish Inquisition makes his living on the Amsterdam stock market, where shrewd trading skills run up to the border of legality, morality, and safety. The book’s strength is its insight into the lives of Jews trying to maintain their religious and economic identity with the memory of Spanish persecution fresh in their minds. Moreover, the description of how stocks, in this case coffee is making its very first appearance in Europe, are bought and sold is fascinating. The plot is rather ordinary, however. It is a quick read. April 2007.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan **** (of 4)
Probably not much you do not already know about America’s industrial food chain and the manufactured food we consume at the end of it. You probably also already know the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating local. But, Pollan is still a great read for the deft way in which he weaves what we eat with philosophy, chemistry, history, economics, and the humanizing narrative of the people who provide our food. In typical Pollan fashion, however, the book contains about 20 percent more words than it really needs. May 2009.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Burdain *** (of 4)
Extremely well written, if a little long, about the inside view of being a New York City chef.
Buford does his best to make Mario Batali into an eccentric, bigger-than-life, Artiste comparable in status to Michaelangeolo, DaVinci, and Jackie Gleason, but in the end it’s just food, and Batali is a drunk who cooks really well. Buford didn’t make me care. Maybe if I were a devotee of Batali’s TV show or his restaurant, the book would provide that missing piece. I wonder, however, if Buford weren’t a writer for the New Yorker but some shmoe off the street whether an editor would have bought this book. Much better to read Kitchen Confidential. (July 2007)