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- 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today by Stephen Le
- Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition by Vicky Straker
- American Cake by Anne Byrn
- Aran: Recipes and Stories from a Bakery in the Heart of Scotland by Flora Shedden
- At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell
- Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine
- Baking Day with Anna Olson: Recipes to Bake Together by Anna Olson
- Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello
- Berries by Victoria Dickenson
- Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky
- The Bite Me Balance Cookbook: Wholesome Daily Eats & Delectable Occasional Treats by Julie Albert & Lisa Gnat
- Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
- Bong Appétit by the editors of Munchies & Elise McDonough
- The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy by HP Newquist
- Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi
- Brewed in the North: A History of Labatt’s by Matthew J. Bellamy
- Brewing Revolution, Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton
- Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
- Canadian Spirits: The Essential Cross-Country Guide to Distilleries, Their Spirits, and Where to Imbibe Them by Stephen Beaumont & Christine Sismondo
- The Canadian Receipt Book, Containing over 500 Valuable Receipts for the Farmer and the Housewife, First Published in 1867, ed. Jen Rubio
- Cannabis Cuisine, Bud Pairings of a Born Again Chef by Andrea Drummer
- Cherry by Constance L. Kirker & Mary Newman
- Chez Lesley: Mes secrets pour tout réussir en cuisine by Lesley Chesterman
- Chillies: A Global History by Anne Arndt Anderson
- Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants by Ann Hui
- The Clever Gut Diet Cookbook by Clare Bailey & Joy Skipper
- The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History of the Old South by Michael Twitty
- Craft: An Argument: Why the Term “Craft Beer” Is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential by Pete Brown
- Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum
- Dinner with Dickens, Recipes Inspired by the Life and Work of Charles Dickens by Pen Vogler
- Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change by Scott Kennedy (Dundurn Press, 2017)
- Essential Fondue Cookbook: 75 Decadent Recipes to Delight and Entertain by Erin Harris
- Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman
- Fats: A Global History by Michelle Phillipov
- Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder by Christine Baumgarthuber
- Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food by Patric Kuh
- The Flavor Equation, The Science of Great Cooking Explained by Nik Sharma
- The Food Almanac: Recipes and Stories for a Year at the Table by Miranda York
- Food and Museums, edited by Nina Levent & Irina D. Mihalache
- The Food in Jars Kitchen by Marisa McClellan
- Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate by Robert Dirks
- Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin & Ken Albala
- Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain by Carolyn A. Nadeau
- Food on the Move, Dining on the Legendary Railway Journeys of the World, edited by Sharon Hudgins
- France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt
- The French Laundry, Per Se by Thomas Keller et al.
- The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest by Helena Moncrieff
- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France: Recipes Inspired by the Cafés and Bars of Fitzgerald’s Paris and the Riviera in the 1920s by Carol Hilker
- The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North America by Helen Humphreys
- Gifts of the Gods: A History of Food in Greece by Andrew & Rachel Dalby
- Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets: The Best of Canada’s East Coast by Alice Burdick
- The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World by Laura Kumin
- A Hastiness of Cooks, A Practical Handbook… by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
- Hawksworth: The Cookbook by Chef David Hawksworth with Chef Stéphanie Noël & Jacob Richler.
- Healing Cannabis Edibles: Exploring the Synergy of Power Herbs by Ellen Novack & Pat Crocker
- Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis by The Stoner’s Cookbook, Melissa Parks & Laurie Wolf
- Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman
- Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray
- How to Dress an Egg: Surprising and Simple Ways to Cook Dinner by Ned Baldwin and Peter Kaminsky
- I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg
- Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A Global History by Sarah B. Hood
- King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from around the World by Joan Nathan
- The King’s Peas: Delectable Recipes and Their Stories from the Age of Enlightenment by Meredith Chilton
- The Kitchen: A Journey Through Time—and the Homes of Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elvis Presley and Many Others—In Search of the Perfect Design by John Ota
- Kitchen Party by Mary Berg
- Kosher Style: Over 100 Jewish Recipes for the Modern Cook by Amy Rosen
- Little Italy: Italian Finger Food by Nicole Herft
- Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman
- Madrid: A Culinary History by Maria Paz Moreno
- Mandy’s Gourmet Salads: Recipes for Lettuce and Life by Mandy Wolfe, Rebecca Wolfe and Meredith Erickson
- The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall
- Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen by Alexander Smalls & Veronica Chambers
- Melon: A Global History by Sylvia Lovegren
- Montréal l’hiver: Recettes et récits tricotés serrés by Susan Semenak
- The National Trust Book of Scones: 50 Delicious Recipes and Some Curious Crumbs of History by Sarah Clelland
- Oishii: The History of Sushi by Eric C. Rath
- Onions and Garlic: A Global History by Martha Jay
- Ottolenghi Flavor: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, Ixta Belfrage & Tara Wigley
- Out of Old Ontario Kitchens by Lindy Mechefske
- Outlander Kitchen II: Journey to the New World and Back Again by Theresa Carle-Sanders
- Pies, Glorious Pies by Maxine Clark
- Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
- The Prairie Table by Karlynn Johnston
- Precious Cargo: How Foods from the Americas Changed the World by Dave DeWitt
- Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, edited by Kristine Kowalchuk
- Provence to Pondicherry by Tessa Kiros
- Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton
- Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food by Benjamin R. Cohen
- The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, edited by Roxanne Swentzell & Patrician M. Perea
- Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England by Elaine Leong
- Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada, ed. Elizabeth Baird & Bridget Wranich
- The Redpath Canadian Bake Book by Redpath Sugar
- Rose Murray’s Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook: Easy, Feel-Good Food for Family and Friends by Rose Murray
- Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen
- The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about Eating from Prehistory to the Present by Christine A. Hastorf
- Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro
- Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey by Lenore Newman
- A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman & Andrew Coe
- Super Sourdough: The Foolproof Guide to Making World-Class Bread at Home by James Morton
- Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid
- Tasting Rome, Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill
- Tawâw, Progressive Indigenous Cuisine by Shane M. Chartrand & Jennifer Cockrall-King
- T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russian Far East by Sharon Hudgins
- Tea with Jane Austen by Pen Vogler
- Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams
- True to the Land: A History of Food in Australia by Paul van Reyk
- Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet by Ian Mosby, Sarah Rotz & Evan D.G. Fraser
- The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich - A Faithful Recreation of the Original 1909 Edition by Eva Greene Fuller
- United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook by Keith Stavely & Kathleen Fitzgerald
- Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection by Lindsay Gardner
- You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, edited by Chris Ying
- You Wanna PIEce of Me? More than 100 Seriously Tasty Recipes for Sweet and Savory Pies by Jenell Parsons
Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection by Lindsay Gardner (Workman Publishing Company, March 2021). Reviewed by Ivy Lerner-Frank (pictured above).
California Bay Area artist Lindsay Gardner had a big question, especially once her daughters were born: “How does the daily meal ritual relate to my identity as a human, mother, partner, friend, artist and woman?” Gardner attempts to answer this question for herself and her readers in a beautifully produced 200+ page volume, based on her contacts with over 112 women, famous chefs and home cooks alike. Through a series of profiles, essays, conversations and recipes complemented by Gardner’s lavish watercolours, the book serves to enlighten, entertain, and underscore questions of race, identity and legacy through the lens of food.
A recounting of memorable meals, decade by decade, by Ruth Reichl, kicks off the book. The most surprising is a dumpster dive in Berkeley in the ’70s, going full circle to a meal at the Blue Hill restaurant in in New York in the 2010s, made of food that would ordinarily have been relegated to the compost bin. Another in the “memorable meal” series, by writer and recipe developer Jess Thomson, describes her family’s “Thanksgiving Olympics” tradition, in which one person constructs a pumpkin pie (with premade crust and filling) blindfolded, while their competition partner gives instructions.
Two Canadian chefs living in New York make it into the book: Ottawa-born Amanda Cohen, whose essay “The Invisible Women” explores “women who work but didn’t get the praise,” and Gail Simmons, the Toronto-born Top Chef judge. Other chefs featured in the Kitchen Portraits chapters include Joyce Goldstein, Dorie Greenspan and Anita Lo. I wish these brief portraits had been longer.
The eight recipes in the book showcase the diverse backgrounds of the contributors. Dr. Jessica B. Harris, whom many may know from her extensive research on the roots of African-American food, shares her version of Chicken Yassa, a West African dish with a habanero kick; cookbook author and New York Times food writer Priya Krishna offers her mother’s version of kadhi, a chickpea flour–based soup that she describes as “thick, rich and spice-forward,” and Mimi Mendoza, a Hawaii-based, Filipino-born pastry chef, lovingly presents her version of canelés de Bordeaux, with rum and beeswax.
A book like this, attempting to be many things to many people, has its advantages and drawbacks. I appreciated the wide range of (mostly American) chefs and cooks Gardner interviewed, and often wished for more than the two pages allocated to the essays exploring Gardner’s questions. Her own words—“I hope that this book leaves you with more questions than you had when you picked it up”—resonated for me, as this lovingly assembled guide introduced me to a wealth of women chefs and writers I definitely want to learn more about.
Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet by Ian Mosby, Sarah Rotz & Evan D.G. Fraser (University of Regina Press, 2020). Reviewed by Bennett McCardle, pictured above.
This absorbing, well-researched and well-written book should be required reading for anyone interested in either world food culture and supply or climate change.
Three Canadian academics with differing approaches to the subject have banded together and, somewhat to their own surprise, agreed on a single seamless book. Mosby is a cultural historian of food and nutrition. Rotz is a geographer, techno-skeptic and food activist. Fraser is an interdisciplinary academic (agriculture, anthropology and forestry) and director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. Together they’ve produced a multifaceted, well-researched and very readable review of a broad and difficult subject.
They emphasize that they “aren’t predicting a future,” but are laying out for us the food-future factors and issues they think are most important, and suggesting what can be done about them “right now.” Many of their most interesting case examples are Canadian, but this is in no way just a local study.
They structure the book’s eight themes and chapters neatly, each around a specific staple. Algae is their fascinating intro to past futurist predictions about food, so often way off-base (“we were promised algae, damn it!”—Mosby) and the dated prejudices embedded in those SF solutions. Caribou, on the importance of protecting wild food supplies. Kale, on Big Agriculture and the dangerously high price of entry into farming. Millet, on GM seed issues and food sovereignty. Tuna, on seafood sustainability and commercial food fraud. Crickets, on why we have to deal with burdensome cultural preferences for meat. Milk, on policy changes needed to regulate corporate concentration in the food system. And finally, Rice, on the pros and cons of GMO, why we can’t rely on the snail-pace of long-term solutions, and the fact that, yes, we do have immediately workable measures to protect food supply.
Throughout the book, we hear the authors bouncing off each other as to optimism versus pessimism; contrasting attitudes to food technology; the relative importance of scientific, cultural and policy/political factors; the need to educate the public on where and how our food gets to us. We’re conscious of listening to highly knowledgeable people as they look through differing lenses to pin down the same set of big, wicked problems.
What do they agree on? That there are grounds for optimism, if short-term action starts soon. That there is no “One Big Technological Fix.” That big industrial monocultures aren’t sustainable. That corporate concentration (of food producers, processors and distributors) is increasing, and dangerous. That protecting our food supplies includes attention to smaller producers and consumers, as well as control of Big Agriculture.
Also, that GM seeds and modern fertilizers confounded 20th-century pessimists, with hugely positive results for survival and health in poor countries, but with downsides they’re only now realizing. That Indigenous and subsistence peoples are both especially vulnerable, and simultaneously face the worst of climate change. That lab-grown meat—the pop focus of so many today—isn’t the solution to any of our problems.
They advise: avoid hard lines. There are no simple solutions. There is reason for optimism. Useful tools already exist. Don’t take the existing food system as a given. Act on immediate wins as soon as possible.
On the way, we learn about a number of interesting food things, like “hacking photosynthesis”—popular with enthusiast media and billionaire philanthropists, but with no solid results to date. A rare heritage breed of nitrogen-fixing maize that might, or might not, revolutionize corn production. How non-GMO hybridized plants produced the best of the Green Revolution. The unexpected benefits of robot farms. That cities have at most nine days of food supply in emergencies. That a climate change factor little known to the public, but potentially the most dangerous for food production (per the pessimists), is the danger of a major ocean current, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, turning off. To quote one of their expert sources: “Why is it worth the fight? Our future depends on it.” Highly recommended.
Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A Global History by Sarah B. Hood (Reaktion Books: Edible, 2021). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, pictured above.
Many titles from Reaktion Books’ Edible series have been reviewed here, but we are particularly delighted to review this one because it is by our very own Sarah B. Hood, editor of this newsletter. Sarah is also the author of We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011) a cookbook about preserving and canning that grew out of Sarah’s blogging about recipes for preserving just about anything. As everyone reading this review will remember, we were treated to Sarah’s wonderful talk on this about-to-be-published book in early March. In that presentation she reminded us of the long history of canning in Canada and North America—from its earliest roots in Catherine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide to wartime rations sent to soldiers through the Red Cross in WWII.
Beginning with the very earliest preserving traditions in Roman and Persian culinary history, Sarah draws on ancient manuscript descriptions of feasting in imperial households to illustrate how honey, sugar and spices were employed to keep the fruits’ colours and enhance their taste for the delectation of kings and their guests. She then moves to the Renaissance in Europe, where sugar became the preserving ingredient of choice, especially in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and England, where although sugar was still too expensive for the lower classes, the upper classes used it to make suckets and solid fruit pastes served at banquets in grand households.
The next chapter of the book treats with the 1600s, when sweet preserved fruits became ubiquitous all over Europe, and wealthy families began to grow fruit to preserve in their own households, turning it into syrups, jellies, pastes and marmalades made from apples, quinces, cherries, raspberries, oranges, lemons, gooseberries and plums. Sugar, of course, was being supplied in more and more abundance from British-owned New World slave plantations, and the 1700s to the 1800s saw the use of sugar rise appreciably in English and Scottish households as it became ubiquitous in both wealthy and poor households. This had partly to do with a shift in eating patterns as tea-drinking, accompanied by bread and jam, became the choice for both breakfast and a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Jellies, new methods for keeping preserves in jars, and popular discourse about sweet fruit-based desserts are dealt with in this section as well.
As sugar became cheaper and more available to ordinary folks, its use in keeping fruit for later consumption also became the preserve of home cooks. Marmalades originating in Scotland—Robertson’s, Rose’s and Frank Cooper’s—eventually were all made in the same type of factory, but were originally made (according to their manufacturers) by the wives of greengrocers in an effort to preserve citrus before it spoiled.
Sarah’s discussion of the great jam factories of Victorian England and worker unrest are the focus of the next chapters of the book and the most interesting section (in my view). Many of the workers in those factories were young women who were in demand as factory workers. When they were exploited, as they were by several jam manufacturers during this period, they went on strike, and those strikes did result in reforms and better pay. Factories run by Hartley’s, Chivers & Sons, and Wilkins & Sons, in semi-rural surroundings, treated and paid their workers well.
International condiment empires and wartime preserving are the focus of the chapters about the 20th century. The rise of companies familiar to Canadian cooks, such as Shirriffs, Smuckers, Welch’s and E.D. Smith, began during the globalization of manufacturing, both before and after the Second World War, which also brought standardization to a broad range of industries. The need for foods that could be shipped overseas without spoiling and the emphasis on wartime rationing as a patriotic gesture spurred women (particularly Canadian women) to prodigious feats of canning and preserving. Jam for Britain by Canada’s Women’s Institutes produced 1,120,166 kg (2,469,545 lb) over the course of the war.
In the final chapter, Sarah covers the 21st century’s penchant for both novelty and health-conscious cooking. Sugar-free and reduced-sugar versions of the familiar preserves on the shelves of grocery stores began to become available, and jams were used more in baked goods, although still popular for breakfast. With the rise of the Internet, food blogs have become popular as people begin to try their hand at making their favourites (with help from professionals) at home. This trend has become particularly evident during the pandemic but of course this could not have been predicted when Hood began her research for this book.
All in all, this is a nice survey of the history of jam-making and preserves for the layperson. The limitations of a short book like this are, naturally, that a more in-depth look at the history of jam manufacturing and women’s work, as well the history of the sugar industry, could not be expanded on here, but the references for each chapter at the end of the book are useful and relevant. The recipes (also at the back) are selected to give a flavour of each time period.
“Sushi is very simple food, but often exoticized,” says Eric C. Rath in his informative, lovingly illustrated book Oishii. “It’s another reason why we need a careful exposition of where it came from, how it developed, and how it might change in the future.” Rath, a professor of premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas and author of numerous books about Japanese food and culture, lays out the linguistic and food origins and prospects of sushi. Starting with the medieval period and moving into the contemporary era, this comprehensive and very readable volume is best accompanied with a plate of sushi (and perhaps some sake) nearby.
Rath explains the importance of sour taste in sushi’s origins, revealing various methods of lactic-acid fermentation and the significance of preservative elements, tartness and time in its preparation. He introduces funazushi, a preserved crucian carp, and one of the first-found examples of sushi early on in the book, explaining the smell—like blue cheese; the mouth feel, like prosciutto or salami; and the taste, so sour that it “often causes a physical reaction.” Rath then proceeds to give several recipes for funazushi at various points throughout the book, demonstrating how the sushi, as well as diners’ tastes, have evolved over the centuries.
The latter part of the book is devoted to exploring how sushi has been transformed from snack to delicacy, from being sold at food stands to high-end restaurants; the post-war popularity and proliferation of sushi bars; and the rivalry between sushi and soba as a popular food. He examines the professionalization of sushi chefs and the formalization of sushi training and the simultaneous emergence of kaiten conveyor-belt sushi and take-away restaurants, where sushi is produced en masse rather than in an artisanal way.
Oishii means “delicious,” and this describes the book from both a culinary and a visual perspective. The book is dotted with recipes, from the simple Five Lord’s Soup (“Finely dice pickled fish and meat on a cutting board. Add water and boil. Use this as the basis for soup stock.”) to minnow sushi—for those with access to minnows, it’s ready to eat in one day—and how to select the right mackerel to avoid dried-out flesh. Complementing these are more contemporary recipes for home cooks, archival photographs and woodblock prints, and mouthwatering closeups of prepared sushi, making Oishii an enlightening treat for the senses.
This new contribution to the Reaktion Botanical series is a charming read from beginning to end. Beautifully illustrated, it reveals the history, culinary and medicinal uses, symbolic meanings and artistic representation of the cherry tree. Kirker and Newman, also co-authors of Edible Flowers: A Global History, draw on their extensive experience and research skills to explore the sensuous history and folklore of the beloved cherry tree and its stunning blossoms. The difference between the main varieties of cherry trees? The Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata) is known for its beautiful springtime blossoms, while sweet cherry (P. avium) and sour cherry (P. cerasus) are commercially important varieties grown for human consumption.
Everyone enjoys picking and eating cherries, and seemingly no one can resist the beauty of the flowering cherry tree. Cherry blossoms appeal to all of our senses and are loved the world over. The tradition of hanami, blossom viewing, is an ancient custom originally adopted from China, symbolizing reawakening of nature after winter. Drawing on the nostalgia of cherry blossom season are hundreds of sakura folk songs, haiku poems and popular cherry blossom festivals.
Of particular interest to culinary historians, the authors include a chapter titled “Fruit: From Tree to Table” that discusses cherry cultivation, cherry pickers, supply chains, agriculture and production; pick-your-own cherries, beverages and liqueurs, gourmet and artisanal products, lacto-fermentation, cherry-pie baking, the romantic association of cherries and chocolate; and the canning, preserving, freezing and drying of cherries. Current research is also highlighted, focusing on the genetics, breeding, food processing and marketing trends, while taking into account the needs of today’s consumers.
The more than 100 colour photos and illustrations add a great deal to the book, as does the representation of global cherry recipes. Included in the appendix is a historical timeline of cherry references starting in 5,000 BCE, as well as a list of worldwide cherry-related associations and websites. Kirker and Newman have written a delightful, informative book that explores all the nuances of the beloved cherry tree.
This large, heavy, costly, beautifully illustrated cookbook is for you if you love to dream about modern haute cuisine, as served at Thomas Keller’s two most famous restaurants: The French Laundry in Napa, California, and “per se” in New York. Both have three Michelin stars and a mountain of praise.
But it’s also a serious manual for professionals—advanced cooks seeking new techniques and creative inspiration. Not for ordinary daily cooking; its onion soup would take as much time for most cooks as a full dinner. (But you can improve some of your normal techniques with his detailed, clear instructions.)
The French Laundry is widely regarded as one of the USA’s greatest restaurants, and Keller one of its finest chefs. The book recreates the experience of dining at both places, thanks to Keller’s ghostwriter/editors, top American food writer/broadcasters Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman.
Keller frames the book with his concerns about the world of food in the pandemic. COVID has killed or sickened millions, and has undermined the global economy. His sector—restaurants, their suppliers and staff—are especially hard-hit. But the crisis has also shown “the value of restaurants as a social force. Every single one—from sandwich shops to pizza parlors to chains that employ millions of people to the hundreds of thousands of independent restaurants—is more important than any of us realized.” Restaurants participate in “a web of community and connectivity” that extends far beyond diners sharing a table.
I was reassured to find that this is a serious book about food and food service, not a beautiful slice of food porn. Keller describes how his restaurants work as businesses, introducing his entire food network; his three top chefs talk about themselves as professionals. Then he speaks of “every single person, from the dishwasher to the chef to the woman in Petaluma who makes the cheese and the man who created an oyster farm in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where never an oyster had grown before he grew one, to the accountants and the service staff to the whole team in the garden…” (Keller, now a Chevalier of France’s Legion d’Honneur, was once a teenage dishwasher, so he also offers worthwhile “Lessons of a Dishwasher: The Six Disciplines for Success.”)
Then, the recipes: over 70 of them, even more elaborate than those in his earlier The French Laundry Cookbook. Keller’s a perfectionist and wants readers to know exactly how he does it, so they’re not simplified for home cooks.
As a technical master (in an earlier book he said that his eyes were opened to his ignorance when a chef threw a knife at him for not knowing how to truss a chicken) as well as highly creative, he loves remaking ordinary dishes (Fish and chips! Soft-boiled egg! Brownies!) as new and complex wonders. His stuffed squash is a multi-day marvel.
The food in these recipes is clearly absolutely delicious, but demands too much of most of us at home. (Many other reviewers tell of their struggles to approximate his results.) They’re labour-intensive, require many unusual ingredients and equipment, and produce very small servings.
Few of us except professional chefs will attempt even one of these dishes (I do plan to try the eggplant parmesan, one day…) But the accompanying advice is welcome. On the nature of important ingredients; of techniques to intensify their flavour; on difficult processes you might try; on alternative methods. Want to improve your flavours with a dehydrator, or freezing? He explains how.
As to ingredients… consider just two of the desserts. Keller’s lovely rhubarb custard requires more than 40 ingredients, four of them I wouldn’t know where to buy without his supplied advice. The ganache for Gâteau Marjolaine (a lovely chocolate nut mousse meringue cake) takes glucose syrup, Trimoline invert sugar, and sorbitol. “The Liaisons” covers a shelf-full of thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers over and above traditional starches and eggs—Pre-Hy (prehydrated xanthan gum) and iota carrageenan among them.
Lesser barriers to using this oversize book in the ordinary kitchen are the too-small ingredients lists and index (the instructions are however larger). The measurements (provided even for egg yolks) are in grams only.
The book’s many illustrations are stunning colour photos of the finished dishes, restaurants, kitchens, chefs, staff and even raw ingredients. A fennel bulb is spotlit against a black background. A black-and-white sliced beet glows darkly. The tiny perfect servings—like the pool of clam chowder enshrined in a black bowl—would invite derision if Keller didn’t clearly respect his work.
The book ends with a solemn free-verse poem, including: “Fat, not grease… Porters, not dishwashers… I’m disappointed, not WTF… Profession, not industry.” (Less seriously, Keller’s “biyaldi” recipe was the one used as the central McGuffin in that delightful feature cartoon Ratatouille).
Finally, beware, people can lose their heads dining at The French Laundry. In California’s upcoming State election, the Laundry might become one cause of the defeat of State Governor Gavin Newsom. (He, his wife and political advisors from several households partied there last fall—not long after Newsom had specifically asked Californians to stay home except for essential outings. Newsom has been widely pilloried for it.)
More responsible fans of these restaurants can enjoy at least a taste by reading this book. And if you can, as Keller advises, “take your time. Take a long time,” and make even one dish successfully—you should be proud.
I thoroughly enjoyed Berries, particularly since I always like learning about the scientific basis for the history of the classification of food plants. Having had the great pleasure and privilege of publishing a scholarly article on the classification of gourds and squashes as depicted in the ceramics of ancient Ecuador, I know that teasing out the links between scientific and historical classification is not an easy thing to do. Berries are clearly a difficult food to classify, and Dickenson has managed to make the history of the taxonomy and cataloguing of these small fruits both entertaining and informative.
Drawing on Henry David Thoreau’s writings, and making reference to many Canadian examples, the book is well researched as well as engaging. Liberally illustrated with beautiful paintings, woodcuts, photographs and other illustrations, the book takes one on a journey through early taxonomy; the philosophy of and religious ideas about berries; berry picking and its history; attempts to make berry plants more abundant; and ways of preserving these coveted fruits.
The final chapter deals with the global increase in popularity of the berry, and new varieties of berry that have had healthful attributes assigned to them—with little scientific evidence. A useful timeline about the uses and references to berries and a select bibliography complete the book, along with a couple of pages of associations and websites for more research and reference. The book is also beautifully bound, with a pretty cloth spine cover and matching paper flyleafs and end-sheets that complement the photos on the cover.
Berries is from Reaktion’s new Botanical series, distinct from its Edible series, which focuses more on the cultural history and cuisine of the food or drink. Most of us are probably more familiar with that series, but there are now about 30 titles in the Botanical series that merit a closer look.
Nigel Chaffey is a botanist and formerly senior lecturer at Bath Spa University who was the news editor for the Annals of Botany, contributing the monthly “Plant Cuttings” to that well-known international botanical publication. Chaffey calls the new Botanical series “a brilliant series of plant-based texts,” exclaiming further that “these titles are some of the best plants-and-people books that I know and are thoroughly recommended for all who want to gain a little more appreciation of how important plants are to people.” I would happily have several of these on my shelves to pull down and peruse when I need information about where and when a plant species was first named, and how it was used in the past.
John Birdsall’s biography of James Beard can be viewed from different angles: the culinary history of self-described “American” food, the popularization and rise of food celebrities such as Beard and Julia Child, and the story of Beard himself, a complex, closeted queer man at a turning point in gay history. A (self-described) cis-queer male chef and writer, Birdsall first wrote about Beard in a 2013 Lucky Peach magazine article entitled “America, Your Food is So Gay.” Citing Beard, Craig Claiborne and Richard Olney, gay chefs and writers whom he describes as the “architects of modern food in America,” Birdsall describes how these icons of modern cuisine inspired a movement where cooking and sharing food became something outside of the nuclear family experience (to wit: brunch).
Birdsall delves deeply into Beard’s troubled childhood (a distant, unloving father with a second family whom Beard only found out about later in life, and an empathetic mother who had her own secret gay life), his disastrous experience as an aspiring theatre student at Reed College in Oregon (kicked out after one semester and a fling with a professor) and his search for a métier that would match his love of food with his need for attention and a creative outlet for his oversize ego.
The Man Who Ate Too Much is a treasure trove of gossip of the food and publishing world. Birdsall describes the warm relationship Beard had with Julia Child, one of the few with another chef that is not antagonistic, despite some rivalry on his part. He recounts the publication stories of most of his (20+) books, and his relationships with his literary agent, publishers and various cookbook collaborators, acknowledged and unacknowledged.
Birdsall declares that Beard’s plagiarism was “legion” and “inexcusable”; he took from his own writing, his friends’ writing and even from Pillsbury Bake-Off recipes to populate his authoritative volumes. And while Beard was a pioneer in bringing French techniques to American ingredients, there is an acknowledgement that there was also a certain deception in his approach in calling it “American.”
“If it involved a little lying, either actively or by omission, James’ life had always been a continuous performance of concealment and dissembling,” says Birdsall.
For those who know and love Beard, this volume will round out their collection in a way they may not have imagined, with details on his process and passions. Birdsall’s exhaustive research shines a spotlight on Beard’s inner life, his loneliness and dissatisfactions. For those who don’t know Beard and have an interest in queer history and experience, it is an important work that will likely stand as a rich reminder of the road travelled by a pioneer.
Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder by Christine Baumgarthuber (Reaktion Books, 2021). Reviewed by Gary Gillman (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, March 2021.
Christine Baumgarthuber is on staff at Brown University’s Sheridan Center, and holds an English Literature doctorate from Brown. Her journalism has appeared in the Bon Appétit blog, Dissent, the BBC and elsewhere. She also authors the culinary historical blog “The Austerity Kitchen” (sample fare: a short history of the picnic).
Baumgarthuber’s new book adds to the considerable output of the past 20 years on fermented food and drinks. It’s a field admitting of many perspectives: regional, scientific, how-to and cultural, social, and even intellectual history. Sandor E. Katz’s landmark books, including The Art of Fermentation, are the tip of a large iceberg. The mass shows no sign of melting. In Canada three years ago, Huffington Press invited recognition of fermented foods as Canada’s fifth official food group.
Countless small businesses co-exist with industrial producers, in Canada as elsewhere, to offer an endless array of fermented foods. Kraut and kimchi. Beets and Bergenost. Kombucha and kefir. These are just some of the literally thousands of foods and drinks in the fermented class.
Baumgarthuber surveys the cultural and scientific history of beer, bread, cheese, sauerkraut, yogurt and sausage, with notes on many more, often obscure, foods and drinks. Her explanation of Dane Emil Hansen’s single-cell yeast isolation in the late 1800s (he had beer in mind), or how factory cheddar was kickstarted in New York State, are just two examples of her engaging blend of biography, science popularization and social, cultural or intellectual history.
A theme in the book is the Janus face of moulds, yeasts and bacteria. They can break down foods in a way that preserves them while also creating new flavours and probiotics. Over eons of time, people learned that “good” microbes could crowd out the bad; for example, how lactic acid bacteria (a huge group unto themselves) can keep putrefying organisms at bay, even pathogens. Yet the wrong type of bacterium can kill, as Baumgarthuber’s cautionary tale of tinned pâté botulism in Scotland 100 years ago graphically shows.
For a while, the industrial “hygienic” movement of the early and mid-1900s obscured the salutary, domestic side of this history. This is now being corrected, particularly for North Americans avid to learn of fermented food traditions in foreign lands.
Baumgarthuber’s academic background ensures a scholarly tone, but readability is ever present. Think of Jane Grigson sans the recipes, or Mark Kurlansky, which says not a little about this useful book. Perhaps inevitably in such a wide canvas the odd statement seems overly general or questionable. Top fermentation in brewing did survive, notably in Belgium, but also, and more significantly I would argue, in Great Britain. An area that might have been addressed as well is the potential health dangers presented by the high salt content of many fermented foods.
In sum, the book gathers and synthesizes, with useful figures, a tremendous amount of historical, scientific and technical information on how gangs of microbiota produce provender for our daily delectation. The riot of resultant flavours and their associated traditions are fascinating, and the book is a welcome addition to the fermented-food canon.
Tawâw, Progressive Indigenous Cuisine by Shane M. Chartrand & Jennifer Cockrall-King (House of Anansi Press, 2019). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, February 2021.
Tawâw, pronounced Ta-wow, is a delightful cookbook, and also the story of Shane Chartrand’s transformation from a talented fry cook to a talented and innovative Indigenous chef. Written in collaboration with CHC member Jennifer Cockrall-King, whose oeuvre also includes Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution (Prometheus Books, 2012) and Food Artisans of the Okanagan (Touchwood, 2016), this book is a revelation of how Native ingredients, combined with Indigenous knowledge and French-style cooking, can produce delicious, ecologically sound and beautiful food.
This is indeed “Progressive Indigenous Cuisine,” and very much part of an emerging trend by a stellar group of Indigenous chefs like David Wolfman, Christa Bruneau-Guenther (Feast Cafe Bistro), Tawnya Brant, Marie-Cecile Nottaway, Joseph Shawana (Kökum Kitchen), Shawn Adler (Pow Wow Café, Flying Chestnut Kitchen), Rich Francis and Johl Whiteduck Ringuette (NishDish). All of these chefs use Indigenous ingredients, sourced and gathered by themselves or by someone they know, and cooked with love, knowledge and affection for the traditions that have been passed down through generations of people who lived on the land.
Illustrated beautifully with photographs of food, landscapes and people by Catherine Sprague, the book is divided into chapters by season. These recipes are meant to be made at home—but you do need to be a fairly accomplished cook to make many of them. Personally, I would not attempt all of these dishes (some are very complex) but, for instance, in spring, I would definitely try a fish dish like Fried Smelts with Wild Rice, Carrots and Wild Leeks and also Deep Fried Bannock with Saskatoon Berries and Birch Syrup.
One of the things I really like about this book is that the recipes are often preceded by an explanation of the ingredients that Chartrand uses—where he sources them and why, and often why they are important to Indigenous cuisine. For instance, spruce tips, used in a recipe for chilled mussels with stiff cream, are widely available across Canada, and can be considered a medicine as much as a food. Tips to make recipes more successfully at home, rather than in a restaurant kitchen, are also useful and very welcome.
This addition to our (very few) books about Indigenous cooking and ingredients in Canada should become a wonderful complement to our basic kitchen cookbooks. As more people begin to realize that we have a great bounty of wild edibles as well as a wealth of knowledge in our own backyards, we must begin to appreciate and value both in our daily lives.
As Marlene and Laurie Buffalo of Samson Cree Nation say in their foreword to the book, “Food is central to how we fuel our bodies, but it is just as important that we also fuel ourselves and fill up on the nêhiyaw values of respect, love, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth. These are known as the ‘Seven Sacred and Universal Teachings’.” Through the sharing of food, good intentions and blessings, we create space to share, respect, and maintain wâhkôhtowin—kinship and interconnectedness—with one another.
A recent addition to Reaktion Books’ Foods and Nations series, True to the Land presents a thorough examination of Australia’s culinary history. Author Paul van Reyk is a food writer living in Sydney, Australia, who regularly presents at the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. Divided into ten chapters and organized historically, the book describes the foodways of the first peoples, the colonization of Australia, during wartime and between wars, Federation, post-colonialism and modernity; it ends with the themes of Australia as a foodie nation and millennial reckonings.
The text spans 60,000 years, outlining the history of food and agriculture in Australia from its beginnings, with the arrival of the first peoples and the story of how they have managed the land to the present (2020). He describes how food production in Australia has been subject to the constraints of climate, water and soil resulting from centuries of unsustainable post-colonial agricultural practices. Historic recipes are scattered throughout the book and are prefaced by charming stories, along with historical photographs, paintings and pictures of culinary artifacts and food products.
Culinary historians and anthropology buffs may find this book appealing for its discussions of themes like Aboriginal history and foodways, the postcolonial British settler period, the Asian influence on the Australian domestic table with the importation of tea, spices and curry, and the contributions of women through cookery instruction and cookbook writing, which offers insights into the domestic life of Australian women as homemakers.
Foods that have helped form the national identity of Australia include the Granny Smith apple, tea (adopted from China as the national beverage), Keen’s curry powder, Anzac biscuits (named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), and jams and marmalades. The introduction of Vegemite as an Australian breakfast tradition and the inclusion of Bush food in the national menu are some of the more unique additions.
While reading, I considered how the history of Australian cuisine and foodways parallels Canadian food history. When early British settlers arrived in both countries, they found Indigenous peoples who had been living on the land for millennia, developing their sovereign foodways of hunting, fishing and foraging. In Australia, the British dominated early colonization and shaped Australian agriculture and foodways, while in Canada the French and European settlers also contributed to the foundation of early Canadian food cuisine. Chinese and Indian immigrants in turn influenced the foodways of both Australia and Canada, as the foods they introduced were adapted locally to create recipes, early cookery books and some of the first eateries.
Overall, True to the Land, is a skillfully written overview of Australian food history, detailing the evolution of Australian foodways and agriculture while acknowledging the contributions of the many cultures that make up contemporary Australia.
The Food Almanac: Recipes and Stories for a Year at the Table by Miranda York (Pavilion Books, 2020). Reviewed by Ivy Lerner-Frank (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, January 2021.
“This is a book about good things to eat,” says Miranda York in the introduction to The Food Almanac: Recipes and Stories for a Year at the Table. York, founder of “At the Table,” a creative platform that “explores and celebrates British food culture,” has put together a slim volume that promises compelling culinary companionship throughout the year.
Divided into 12 chapters, the book takes a similar approach with the opening page for each monthly entry. Enumerating a “cook’s larder,” York begins by listing local, in-season fruits and vegetables, moves on to wild foods for foraging, game of the season and cheeses suitable to the month. From there, an exploration of ingredients follows, in the form of recipes, poetry, memoir and prose by various well-known chefs, and includes evocative illustrations by Louise Sheeran. Each chapter ends with a reading list, a thematic and eclectic compendium of books for further reading about topics touched upon in the chapter.
February brings a memoir about “The Kitchen God” and Chinese New Year by Britain’s Chinese food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop; March features musings on maple syrup by Acadian Simon Thibault. Diana Henry’s Menu for April starts with crispy Portuguese Prawn Pancakes, moves to Roast Pork with capers, fennel and lemon, and finishes off with Pasteis de Nata. As the year marches on, Meera Sodha contributes a Parsnip and Carrot Mulligatawny Soup for October; December sees a cocktail compendium and instructions on how to make a holiday cheeseboard. The foraging pages are particularly fun, with line drawings and suggestions on what to do with rosehips and elderberries in September, for example. The produce and forest yields are decidedly UK- and European-focused, but CHC readers should feel comfortable knowing that the seasonal options are very much foods that are readily found throughout Canada.
Each chapter’s entries are varied, and none is more than three pages. As such, one of the delights of the book is that it lends itself to different levels of enjoyment. Should one read it all in one go, or save the best bites for last, month by month? Whether it is read by spreading out the enjoyment, or in one fell swoop, this is a charming book to savour in whatever manner one might enjoy.
The Flavor Equation, The Science of Great Cooking Explained by Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books, 2020). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, January 2021.
The Flavor Equation‘s key takeaway is that taste and flavour are not synonymous. Instead, flavour is the sum of six elements: emotion, sight, sound, mouth feel, aroma and taste.
This point is revealed in author Nik Sharma’s introduction, along with engaging anecdotes from his youth. A cook and writer, Sharma had a knack for food science from an early age while being exposed to both North and South Indian cuisine. These early influences inform his cooking, and his subsequent experiences—like his exposure to Cajun and Mexican cuisines—result in recipes with unexpected ingredients and spices. For example, Indian amchur, a fine powder derived from dried green mangoes, is included in a recipe in the chapter “Saltiness.”
Sharma unpacks the six elements’ connection to flavour with multicoloured charts, expert case studies and his own informal research. Every page is a fascinating exercise in science, such as a mouth-feel study that groups people according to their affinity for a texture. There are “chewers, crunchers, suckers, and smooshers.”
The compounds are explored through recipes to achieve distinct flavours like brightness, bitterness, richness and fieriness. Sharma proposes numerous tips on which ingredients enhance these flavours; for example, adding specific types of fruits and berries will increase brightness. He also includes curious details such as how the oxalic acid in raw spinach and rhubarb might etch tooth enamel.
Part inspired cookbook and part textbook, The Flavor Equation is an invaluable reference tool. A commitment to embrace and digest all that is Sharma’s flavour concept is rewarded by confidently applying it to other cooking adventures.
Christopher Kimball of Milk Street sums it up in the foreword: “This is a book about how to turn out food that optimizes flavor.”
Ottolenghi Flavor: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, Ixta Belfrage & Tara Wigley (Appetite by Random House, 2020). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, January 2021.
Yotam Ottolenghi is a well-known chef with 40 cookbooks to his name. This, his latest, is written in collaboration with Ixta Belfrage, who now works in his test kitchen.
As a home cook, I know the importance of flavour in the dishes that I prepare. I can take a mundane dish to new heights by adding and combining different ingredients that end up making the dish sing. One of the main reasons that I am attracted to Ottolenghi’s cookbooks is that he appeals to the home cook with ingredients that are easily accessible, cooking methods that are not difficult or time-consuming, and ideas that help me dream up new dishes.
In his latest book, he does just that, elevating vegetables to new taste experiences. He starts by introducing us to Flavor’s 20 ingredients, some of which we are familiar with and others we may not have considered. He leads us through his approach by outlining his “three Ps”: Process, Pairing and Produce.
- Process is the key method to ramp up flavour before or during cooking. The four processes presented are charring, browning, infusing and aging.
- Pairing is the combination of various ingredients with the four most important pairings: sweet, fat, acidity and (chile) heat. It is the combination and layering of tastes that make the pairings here.
- Produce means understanding what is going on within the ingredient that can do the work on its own by releasing what is inherent in it, such as mushrooms or onions.
The book is laid out in the three sections with explanations and descriptions as to how each of these approaches work, followed by recipes that amplify the method. The recipes are mouthwatering and highlighted by the visuals. Who can resist Fried Onion Rings with Buttermilk and Turmeric, Stuffed Eggplant in Curry and Coconut Dal or Coffee and Pandan Puddings?
This cookbook is ideal for the vegetarian or vegan, or to add as side dishes for the carnivores in the family. This is an ideal gift for the holiday season or for the home cook who wants to try new dishes or who wants to add an extra zing to favourites.
Pies, Glorious Pies by Maxine Clark (Ryland Peters & Small, 2012 & 2020). Reviewed by Maya Love (pictured above). First published in Digestible Bits & Bites, January 2021.
Food stylist, cooking teacher and author Maxine Clark invites readers into her kitchen with Pies, Glorious Pies. Perhaps this is the year for the comfort of pie, although there is always joy to be found in fillings nestled inside of golden crusts. According to Clark, nothing beats a proper pie, and here she offers more than 50 savoury and sweet pie recipes that encourage us to try some new, as well as traditional, pie recipes.
The book offers more savoury recipes than the typical American pie book; in fact, Clark’s volume expands on the concept of savoury pies in the classic British tradition—deep crust, meat and vegetables—with well-loved and full-of-flavour choices like Cornish pasties, chicken pot pie, and steak-and-kidney pie.
Clark lives in Scotland and has spent much of her culinary life developing the savoury pie tradition; thus, the cooking regions covered in the book are mostly Scotland, England, and Wales. However, there is some international flavour too, including a French-Canadian Tourtière, an Italian Medieval Extravaganza Pie, Roasted Mediterranean Vegetable Pie, and others. And yes, because pie can be served at every occasion, there’s a section of sweet pies offered with British flair; Deep-Dish Toffee Apple Pie, Double Cranberry and Orange Pie, and individually made Spiced Baked Apple Pies are a few that caught my eye.
If you are not an experienced pie maker, or you would like a review before tackling the recipes, you can delve into the individual sections, full of step-by-step pictures on Equipment, Pie Practicalities, and Techniques. Then you can head on over to the well-organized, easy-to-navigate recipe chapters. In “Everyday Pies,” there are family-fare pies for any day of the week, while “Posh Pies” offers elegant dishes to impress for special occasions. “Portable Pies” covers handheld pies, such as pasties and piggy pies: perfect for picnics or to take along on day trips. The final chapter, “Sweet Pies,” includes more than a dozen tempting recipes.
Pies, Glorious Pies is a wonderful cookbook that includes rustic-style recipes with easy-to-find ingredients and beautiful photographs of each and every pie. For any occasion. there is a glorious pie that is sure to please your palate.
Baking Day with Anna Olson: Recipes to Bake Together by Anna Olson (Appetite by Random House, 2020). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas (pictured above).
Anna Olson has done it again! Her latest book is pretty, well designed, clearly written and full of tempting full-page colour photos. The recipes are suitable for a range of bakers: novice (indicated by the symbol of one spoon), involved (two spoons) and expert (three spoons). There are also vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free and egg-free options. Even dog and cat treats. Niftily, she also provides six time-related categories, from “quick as can be” to “a full baking day.” That’s followed by a section called “Baking Day Tools and Equipment” that is full of sensible advice for establishing a well-stocked kitchen.
I have prepared four recipes so far, and am eyeing others. First up was Icelandic Brown Bread, a nice loaf to accompany the corn chowder I scrounged from the freezer. Next morning, two toasted slices became delicious vehicles for honey and peanut butter. I’ll make this again. Next was Khachapouri, meaning “cottage cheese bread” in the Georgian language. They’re canoe-shaped breads filled with spinach, feta, eggs and garlic. We loved them. Potato Pancakes with Creamy Scrambled Eggs became a successful dinner, even though it’s in the breakfast chapter. Successful, yes, but I won’t make it again—grating raw potatoes is exasperating and not a quick activity! Ah, but I look forward to repeating the Frozen Maple Walnut Torte: layers of melt-in-the-mouth meringue, maple cream and walnut-maple praline. Heavenly!
My sole complaint is the prep times provided with each recipe. I’ve never liked this feature in cookbooks because the time is always underestimated. All four recipes that I made took longer to prep (although not bake) than stated. The Icelandic bread and the Potato Pancakes each took me 30 minutes, not 15. The Khachapouri took 40, not 20, and the frozen torte absorbed 65 minutes and not the promised 40. But both were definitely worth the time. Our taste buds were happy with all four recipes.
About those recipes I’m eyeing, let’s see—Chocolate Babka, Toffee Pretzel Baklava, Toffee Blondies, Triple Gingerbread Bundt Cake with Brown Butter Glaze, Icebox Meltaway Cookies, Lemon Mousse Cake with Mirror Glaze. Are your baking instincts awakening?
Chez Lesley: Mes secrets pour tout réussir en cuisine by Lesley Chesterman (Cardinal, 2020) and Montréal l’hiver: Recettes et récits tricotés serrés by Susan Semenak, with photos by Cindy Boyce (Cardinal, 2018). Reviewed by Ivy Lerner-Frank (pictured above).
With armchair travelling one of our few current escapes, cookbooks have become important getaways: part fantasy, part therapy. Montreal’s Cardinal publication house, known for its careful curation and beautifully designed volumes, offers two French-language cookbooks to satisfy those who miss travelling to (and eating in) Montreal.
Lesley Chesterman’s newly released hardcover book Chez Lesley (loosely translated as At Lesley’s place: My secrets for success in the kitchen), and Montréal l’hiver (Montreal in winter: Tightly knitted recipes and stories) by Susan Semenak, with photos by Cindy Boyce, bring a uniquely Montreal sensibility of generosity and storytelling to their work, ideal for holiday-season gifting and cooking. Even readers with basic French should be able to enjoy the recipes and the headnotes in these lovingly produced titles.
Chesterman, the former restaurant critic for the Montreal Gazette, was trained as a pastry chef and studied at Montreal’s Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec for three years. She has continued as a presence on local radio in both English and French, and engages in peppy conversations with restaurateurs, chefs, and friends on her Instagram live sessions (@lesleychestrman).
This is her first book, and Chesterman has a lot to say. From soup to scones, how to stock your pantry, and what tools you need to cook with, Chez Lesley is a definitive how-to guide in classic cuisine for both experienced and less seasoned chefs. Each chapter is easily digestible, focused either on an ingredient (Butter: essential, for example), or an entire menu (My favourite feast: Thanksgiving). There are savoury and sweet tarts, a search for the perfect roast chicken (she shares three variations: flattened, poached first, and confit), homely pastas she makes for her family, and an entire chapter entitled Big Pieces of Meat. And, of course, there are Chesterman’s delectable cakes, scones, and chocolates, sumptuously photographed by Maude Chauvin.
Throughout the book, Chesterman shares warmly authoritative headnotes that elaborate on her approach, methods and obsessions, including an informative Bon à savoir/Good to know section in each chapter. These cover everything from the ideal temperature for beating eggs to which fish to start with if you’ve never cooked fish before, how not to store chocolate, and the ideal size for a chicken. These are indeed the tips and tricks for kitchen success, exactly as promised in the title.
Susan Semenak, another Gazette alumna, food writer and teacher, and Montreal-based visual artist, is utterly in love with Montreal. Her previous Cardinal book, Market Chronicles, focused on the city’s Jean Talon Market and is sadly out of print. Montréal l’hiver, released in 2018 and still available, is an ode to the city in winter, lavishly illustrated with Cindy Boyce’s luminous photographs of Semenak’s recipes and life in Montreal’s winter light.
The book is organized around cooking techniques: stewing, steaming, roasting, frying, braising and baking. There’s a section on how to eat in winter—why comfort and, yes, sentimentality, are essential at this time of year. Semenak’s interests and influences are delightfully wide-ranging: spice mixes and cocktail syrups using pine needles and juniper, Haitian and Ukrainian soups, onion bhajis, dal, apple cakes and homemade truffles are all on offer here, meticulously interpreted.
The last part of the book is taken up in practicalities: Vivre l’hiver (how to live in the winter) is a endearing chapter on the joys of the season, from the first snowfall to the inevitable whining and wondering when it will all end. A charming glossary of winter terms (including everything from brouillard de glace—ice fog—to orage de neige, or snowstorm) follows, complemented by tales of local personalities’ strategies for dealing with winter through the lens of the five senses.
Both authors have been hoping for English-language houses to express interest in the original versions, but so far this has not come to pass. It would be a shame, though, for language proficiency to keep readers from these French-language books. Chez Lesley and Montreal l’hiver have enough images and comprehensible recipes to easily hold a cookbook lover’s attention, especially if she’s travel-deprived.
Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine (Artisan, October 2020). Reviewed by Dana Moran
A delightful step back in time, much like the café of its namesake. Pastry chef Polzine has outdone herself bringing to life the European cafés of the 20th century. From the ten-layer honey cake depicted on the cover to preserves and the bread on which to spread them, chef Polzine’s cookbook is a bible of everything you’d need to know to open a 20th-century café of your own. In fact, the cookbook is a complete café: it contains a savoury section with a recipe for Gentleman’s Torte (a buckwheat crepe cake layered with herbed cheese) as well as pierogi, challah and bagels, to name a few.
Although this book is largely for advanced bakers, some of the recipes are simple enough for a novice, and the detailed instructions are well enough laid out that any inspired person might try their hand. The honey cake, for example, is revealed on eight pages, detailing Polzine’s own struggle with mimicking the cake she tasted in Czechoslovakia, with step-by-step instructions on how to bake the ten layers, lovely photos of the assembly and the finished product and the extra recipe for Dulce de Leche.
Something I really enjoyed about this cookbook is that, short of milling the flour, virtually everything is made from scratch. Although it takes nine hours on the stovetop, Polzine knew we’d want to make the Dulce de Leche ourselves as much as we were interested to hear about sourdough starter, which she also shares with us.
I couldn’t resist trying the Cranberry Ginger Upside Down Cakes. The recipe has sufficient detail to let me know I needed to cook the caramel until the cranberries were deflated. I made the mistake of missing one and found it nestled in the middle of one of the cakes when I turned it out of its ramekin. The recipe was relatively easy, and anything the cake missed in appearance was entirely made up for by its rich molasses and ginger taste that occasionally popped with the tartness of cranberry.
Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets: The Best of Canada’s East Coast by Alice Burdick (Formac, 2020). Reviewed by Amy Lavender Harris (pictured above).
Growing up in Ontario, the first-generation daughter of transplanted Maritimers, I inherited a vicarious nostalgia for “down home” cooking. Vats of porridge at morning, tureens of baked beans at noon and roasts of beef for Sunday dinner graced the dining tables of my childhood, interspersed seasonally with boiled fiddleheads, steamed scallops, new potatoes mashed with butter, and bread-and-butter pickles served with a silver fork.
I had not thought very much about the desserts until after my mother died. Among her cookbooks I found her hand-written recipes, darkened with age and spotted with grease, for macaroons and molasses cookies, holiday fruitcake and gingerbread, and fruit cobblers and lemon custards. These recipes opened a wide seam of recognition and longing, and all at once it seemed I could smell the allspice and hear her measuring spoons clanking against the countertop. While browsing the recipes on first read of this book, I stopped short at Aunt Mary’s Dark Fruit Cake—a fruitcake recipe so uncannily similar to the one my mother made every fall that, just reading it, I could taste the dried fruit and cloves.
Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets elicits this feeling on every page. The recipes—originally compiled in 1967 by home economist Mrs. Florence M. Hilchey for a now long-out-of-print centennial cookbook called A Treasury of Nova Scotia Heirloom Recipes—are a cross-section of the familiar and the significant.
Down-home favourites like molasses crisps and rhubarb pie are interspersed with recipes that highlight the Maritimes’ British, German, French and Indigenous culinary heritage. Particular highlights include Boularderie Cookies, an Acadian confection that is both savoury and sweet; Government House Tea Biscuits, a delicate scone first prepared for the 1939 royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth; a recipe for Mincemeat Tarts that includes a venison option; and Old-fashioned Molasses Candy, a sponge-textured taffy with a familiar molasses taste. Another notable addition is War Cake, a make-do, ration-saving recipe dating to the First World War.
The recipes have been updated extensively, augmented with detailed instructions for contemporary cooks, and tested for functionality and taste. They are laid out in an accessible manner that will appeal both to experienced cooks and novice bakers, with attractive reference photographs that will whet any baker’s appetite for fresh confections.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets is its regard for Nova Scotia history. Each entry is prefaced by a short note about the recipe’s historical and cultural origins, emphasizing that culinary traditions emerge from social conditions, not just individual kitchens.
Author Alice Burdick, a transplanted Ontarian, noted Canadian poet and Mahone Bay municipal councillor, is also an enthusiastic cook. Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets is her first cookbook: culinary historians and Nova Scotians will be fortunate if there are others to come.
Mandy’s Gourmet Salads: Recipes for Lettuce and Life by Mandy Wolfe, Rebecca Wolfe and Meredith Erickson. (Appetite by Random House/Penguin Random House Canada, July 2020). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
Before I began writing this review, I asked a long-time Montrealer whether she had ever been to a Mandy’s and what her favourite salad was. Her response was reassuring—yes, she loved Mandy’s, used to go there all the time on her lunch hour, and her favourite was the Cobb salad.
I have to admit that I have never been to a Mandy’s Gourmet Salads café in Montreal. I love salads, but I make my own because usually when you order a salad in a restaurant, even if it’s a restaurant devoted to salads, there’s something weird about the lettuce and other vegetables.
Restaurant salads mostly aren’t that good. Most of the time the vegetables weren’t grown locally and have been flown in from California or Mexico or Chile, which means that they have spent lots of time in a truck or on an airplane. After they have been purchased by the restaurant, they have been stored for too long in a refrigerator (yes, you can tell!) or they were chopped the day before and stored next to the garlic and/or onions. Most restaurants treat salads as an afterthought, and when salad is a side, the chef isn’t the one making it.
Mandy’s Gourmet Salads (Salades Gourmandes) seems to have overcome these problems by putting salads at the top of the menu. This is a brave thing to do (see above for reasons why), because if you’re going to do this, your salad ingredients have to be: (a) fresh that day, and (b) prepared with care and love. Fortunately, that’s what seems to be on the menu at their cafés.
The story of how Mandy’s Gourmet Salads came to be is rather romantic, with a café begun in the back of her now-husband’s clothing store, Mandy Wolfe and her sister Rebecca chopped and sweated their way to what has become a small empire of eight stores scattered across Montreal, with the original in the Vieux Port, still in the back of Mimi & Coco. Smoothies, grain bowls and baked goods—including the family’s much-beloved chocolate chip cookies—have made it onto the menu. And now a cookbook for those who want to make their own healthy salads at home!
The cookbook itself is pretty straightforward, with ingredient lists, easy-to-follow recipes, beautifully staged photos of decor and food, and of the sisters (and family), much like the popular cookbook we reviewed last year—Kitchen Party by Mary Berg. I would recommend this book for someone who really loves salads and can afford to buy fresh vegetables every week.
Hawksworth: The Cookbook by Chef David Hawksworth, with Chef Stéphanie Noël & Jacob Richler (Appetite by Random House/Penguin Random House Canada, October 2020). Reviewed by Frances Latham (pictured above).
For those who do not know Chef David Hawksworth, he is a Vancouverite who left Canada to train in England with renowned chefs before returning home to establish himself in his hometown. My first impressions: this is a beautiful book that invites me in with a lovely cover; it is modern and somehow reassuring. I was intrigued by the use of the title “Chef” before the authors’ names—this is something we do not often see.
There is a generosity of spirit throughout this cookbook. Hawksworth acknowledges unreservedly people who have trained him and people who have worked with him. There is a recognition that people using the book will have differing levels of skill and ingredients to hand, and he sensibly offers little tips and photographs that are superb and helpful at the same time. This cookbook achieves a balance in offering simple and more challenging recipes with great respect for the reader.
The chefs use a light touch throughout, attention to detail on every page, and every page is a delight to read and look at. That said, there is substance here for aspiring chefs and home cooks alike. The recipes are well organized into ten categories everyone will recognize, from starters to cocktails. Each recipe has a little story or introduction, while each section is preceded by a short essay sharing Hawksworth’s journey from his first job as a dishwasher in a fish-and-chips shop at 13 to his present-day employment as the chef-owner of a restaurant group with 300 employees.
People in the industry will recognize his culinary training; he worked with influential chefs Raymond Blanc and Marco White, among others, over the past 30 years, and he shares insider stories that are interesting. He also offers good advice to young apprentice chefs. The recipes are clear and straightforward, even when requiring challenging techniques. Home cooks should be able to approach the recipes with confidence, provided they read them through and have their ingredients ready.
In other words, this is a book that shares restaurant-level recipes scaled for home cookery. I have stickers on half a dozen recipes that I am planning to try, and I have already stolen little nuggets to use (Anchovy Breadcrumbs, page 309). I tried the Roasted Cauliflower with Green Harissa and Sunflower Seeds, which includes ingredients that are readily accessible, and I appreciated the uncomplicated recipe writing.
Chef Philip Howard, in his foreword, describes Hawksworth as a chef’s chef and an industry man. His cookbook is a worthy addition to the Canadian canon.
Aran: Recipes and Stories from a Bakery in the Heart of Scotland by Flora Shedden (Hardie Grant Books, 2019). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell (pictured above).
Aran is an enticing cookbook that unpacks a day in the life of its namesake, a bakery located in Dunkeld, Scotland. Aran—the Gaelic word for bread—features stylish photos of bakery favourites and breathtaking images of the Scottish countryside.
Author Flora Shedden is part celebrity baker, twice-published author and, most recently, bakery owner. Her hands, covered in flour since childhood, ultimately led her to a semi-finalist standing on “The Great British Bake Off” series. The accompanying success and notoriety helped Shedden launch Aran Bakery—a project in which she discovered that “it takes a village to run a bakery.” The book echoes her sentiment with pages that also give a nod to regular customers and suppliers.
The chapters complement the book’s dawn-to-dusk approach, with each heading marking the hour; for example, Elevenses (mid-morning), Twalhoures (midday) and Lòn (lunch). Recipes use plain language with detailed instructions for preparing traditional dishes like black pudding and haggis. Shedden incorporates tasty takes on recipes acquired from or inspired by other bakers and restaurants, such as a Dunkeld publican’s sausage rolls, which she can’t keep on the shelf.
Classics receive the Shedden flourish—a chocolate rye cake, whisky Eccles, pea and nettle quiche and (her) Granny Joan’s shortbread. Aran is not only a clever bakery-inspired cookbook but an ode to a town and its people.
The Prairie Table by Karlynn Johnston (Penguin Random House, 2019). Reviewed by Jan Main (pictured above).
The title The Prairie Table intrigued me. I was born in the Prairies and spent my first six years there, but have never revisited these provinces, by and large considering myself an Easterner from Ontario. However, to rediscover some of my early roots, especially culinary ones, fascinated me. The Prairie Table was an excellent way to sample culinary Prairie life or, as author Karlynn Johnston, who blogs as The Magpie’s Kitchen, says in her introduction, to be invited into an Edmonton kitchen. Together with her husband, Mr. Magpie, she has created a colourful cookbook full of much-loved family recipes.
It is here where all the sharing begins, with crowd-pleasing recipes to bring people together over supper, potlucks and socials. Homey, old-fashioned terms (“socials,” “dainties” and “libations”) flavour the book and give you the sense that family and community are at the core of everything. Indeed, this is true; again, Johnston explains that “the bleakness of isolation was very real (and still can be in rural farming areas on the Prairies.) Social gatherings are essential.”
Of course, with socials come food. And what food! The chapter titles outline the focus of Prairie tables: Ukrainian dishes (yes, Johnston has a Ukrainian background; this chapter illustrates perogy-making in detail, with all the family on board); Breads, Buns and Baked Goods (as expected of the Prairies, an emphasis on wheat); Small Bites and Nibbles (no fancy appetizers!); Salads and Vegetable Sides (vegetables are a hard sell in this part of the world); Main Dishes (suitable for weeknights but company too—any leftovers are used for lunch); Dainties and Cookies (I love the term “dainties”! As Johnston qualifies, when you ask people for coffee, it means coffee and food!); Portable Desserts (suitable for supper and socials); and, finally, the last chapter, Libations (fancy drinks, the province of Mr. Magpie, her husband and business associate).
So many aspects of this cookbook make it inviting: the hard cover in the signature sky blue of the Prairies, sprinkled with a tantalizing collage of dishes to be sampled within; Johnston’s conversational style, which makes you feel at ease with her recipes and eager to try them; and the well laid-out recipes with simple numbered directions, preparation and cooking time. A full-page coloured illustration accompanies each recipe, displaying the finished product in a glass serving dish, part of Johnston’s extensive collection of retro glass—casual and welcoming. Well-illustrated and carefully explained, these dishes are just waiting to be prepared in your kitchen for friends and family in the same hospitable fashion as in The Prairie Table.
The Bite Me Balance Cookbook: Wholesome Daily Eats & Delectable Occasional Treats by Julie Albert & Lisa Gnat (Appetite by Random House, 2020). Reviewed by Maya Love (pictured above).
This is the fourth cookbook by Toronto sisters Julie Albert and Lisa Gnat. Fun and humour are two ingredients that play a key role in their approach to life, food and recipes. Here, Albert and Gnat share 138 original, easy-to-follow recipes for breakfast and brunch, lunch, weeknight dinners and gatherings.
The Bite Me sisters are on a mission to equip readers with the tools (easy, everyday, delicious, healthy, well-tested recipes) needed to create a balanced, healthy-ish lifestyle. In the introduction, they explain their approach and how they have created balance through smarter shopping and eating. Bite Me Balance is not a diet book; it’s a lifestyle and wellness book that we can all use as a guide to fill our fridges and pantries with quality ingredients found in any upscale grocery store.
There are several features that I love. One is that recipes include icons: quick preparation, freezes well, gluten-free, vegetarian and occasional treat. These help us navigate mealtime and locate recipes we’d like to shop for and cook. Another feature is the frequent inclusion of helpful shopping or cooking tips alongside recipes, referred to as “Lessons from Lisa.”
Also unique are their top-ten lists to inspire you, such as steps you can do (to prepare ahead) on a Sunday to make Monday feel less like Monday; meals in a bowl; hosting hacks; and easy, yet elegant recipes, to name a few. Thinking ahead to the fall season, a few of the recipes that caught my attention were Banana Date Oatmeal Bowl; Vegetable Hash with Poached Eggs; Baked Carrot Fries; Chunky Root Vegetable Soup; Turkey Ragu; Za’atar-Crusted Chicken; Banana Sheet Cake; and Pecan Pie Bars.
Bite Me Balance is a cookbook you may want to keep handy in your kitchen for everyday use. It’s a fun and friendly collection with beautiful, compelling colour photographs on every page, reminding us that we “eat with our eyes first.” And remember, as Julie and Lisa say, “it’s all about balance.”
Craft: An Argument: Why the Term “Craft Beer” Is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential by Pete Brown (Storm Lantern Publications, 2020). Reviewed by Gary Gillman (pictured above).
Pete Brown is a well-known author and broadcaster on drinks and food who is based in the UK. His previous books include Pie Fidelity (about British food) and Miracle Brew (the nature and science of beer). His idiosyncratic subtitle explains his theme very well.
In the 1970s, a small brewery revival started in the UK and North America that has burgeoned ever since. In recent years, the momentum has revolutionized the brewing business and beer habits worldwide. Brown charts the origins of the ubiquitous term “craft beer.” He shows that various attempts by lobby groups, publicists and writers to define it are limited in application, if not replete with paradox and contradiction.
If a small hands-on brewery makes a beer similar to a mass-market “light,” while an international mega-brewer produces a resinous and otherwise faultless pilsener in an automated factory, which is craft? Or is neither?
Brown persuades us that, while an airtight definition of craft brewing is logically impossible, the idea of associating craft with brewing is still valid and even necessary. As he puts it: for millions perusing the retail shelves, the “abstract idea” of craft has “innate appeal.”
Brown then examines the notion of craft “in its own right,” its long history in different contexts and societies: Descartes, the Arts and Crafts movement, time-and-motion theory, and Colin Wilson, among many other names and doctrines, come in for scrutiny as to what they can teach us—and not teach us—of hand, mind and automation. This dimension of the book deepens its interest.
Based on his insights, Brown considers that beer is simply one illustration of the idea that “whenever industrial capitalism gets too scientific and regulatory … we seek an alternative point of view …. by re-discovering the counter-cultural ideals of craft.” This and “prioritizing an alternative source of value above financial success, are the acts of the modern-day Outsider.” Still, for Brown, craft and mainstream are complementary; each has meaning but also has the potential to change the other. Using this conceptual foundation, he identifies certain factors to help identify craft ethos, including creativity and motivation.
This book is closely argued and therefore not a casual read. But for the thinking reader interested in food and drink, the rewards are clear. Nor must the reader agree with all of Brown’s assertions—for example, that so-called corporations “do” things to people (as opposed to being actuated by people’s wants)—to be in sympathy with his main points, or at least find them stimulating.
Finally, Brown is a very British writer. Some people on this side of the pond may find his use of the UK vernacular (“wind up,” “uni”) difficult. Don’t let that stop you from reading the book—it is part of the Brown style. He is your pub mate, beer maven and intellectual historian all in one.
You Wanna PIEce of Me? More than 100 Seriously Tasty Recipes for Sweet and Savory Pies by Jenell Parsons (Penguin Random House Canada, November 2020). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell (pictured above).
What’s a pie book without pop tarts, hand pies and pie fries? This single-subject cookbook accompanied by vivid photos of vintage baking implements, includes over 100 of the tastiest, flakiest original pie recipes for sweet-tooths and savoury pie fans, as well as more than 20 savoury recipes with vegan and vegetarian options.
The book’s apt title (You Wanna PIEce of Me?) and whimsical chapter headings are in keeping with author Jenell Parsons’ brand and personality. As head pie-baker and founder of Vancouver’s Pie Hole bakery, she shares that “You can’t really call your company The Pie Hole without having a cheeky side.”
A few chapter titles may require some guesswork, like “We’re Special Too!,” which I presumed referred to pies for dogs or kids? It’s a chapter of uncategorized recipes, like the author’s take on the classics, and her originals—Pink Lemonade and Vegan Avocado Key Lime Pie. Whereas, “Extra Extra!” is a handy guide on how to use up remaining dough. This wordplay incorporates an element of humour supported by Parsons’ expertise garnered from over a decade of building pies.
Some years ago, I happened upon a pop-up Pie Hole tasting where Jenell was giving out samples of one of her savoury creations. My sample-sized slice captured the full flavour of a cheeseburger—pickles and mustard included! The “Winner, Winner, Savory Pie for Dinner” chapter contains this mind-blowing recipe for Bacon Cheeseburger Pie.
The book includes easy how-tos for both sweet and savoury fillings and crusts (always use butter). Engaging and informative headnotes explain Parsons’ process, prep tips and baking stories. In one tale, she received a sizable last-minute order (when eight months pregnant!) for expedited delivery to a well-known band that was rehearsing in town. The group, preparing for their world tour, was none other than U2, who gave her pies major kudos, most notably her Blueberry Goat-Cheese Basil creation.
Parsons’ cookbook cleverly combines expert content with her spirited approach to pie-making. Her original ideas—like Nanaimo Bar Crust and Horchata Milk Pie—further elevate it, giving the book broad appeal. After all, who doesn’t love a scratch-baked pie?
The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest by Helena Moncrieff (ECW Press, 2018). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti (pictured above).
This book reflects on the meaning of food sustainability, food scarcity and food security. It begins with a story about Toronto gardener Francesco and his fig tree. It reminded of my Italian neighbours—Tonino, Salvatore and Giovanni—with their fig trees and their gardens. They lovingly care for the trees and plants on their land during the growing season and prepare for the following year by gathering the seeds from their harvest and storing them. When spring comes around, they grow the seedlings for the next round of abundance. They prune trees, cover the fig trees and share and preserve their harvest.
Helena Moncrieff traces the variety of fruit trees to the arrival of immigrants who brought cuttings from their native countries. Apples, peaches, plums, cherries and different varieties of berries that became orchards and bushes were introduced by successive waves of immigrants over the centuries.
Moncrieff’s premise is that fruit in the urban food forest can be utilized by many people. She presents a fresh perspective on ownership of orchards on public versus private land, approaches to gathering and distributing food, and growing food that can be shared. Her examples include Fruit Share in Winnipeg, where tree owners and pickers connect online, and the Victoria Fruit Tree Project: a group that provides volunteers to pick fruit from people’s backyards, with shares going to the homeowner, the picker and local food banks. All of this takes organization, labour, and diplomacy, especially when picking fruit from private property.
I was pleased to read several pages about CHC member Mya Sangster and the orange tree that grows in the greenhouse at the rear of her home. Mya enjoys growing her own fruit and harvesting it, extending her connection to nature and her understanding of the needs of her tree. She points out that part of it is about saying “I did that. I created food where there was none.” Anyone who has attended the Mad for Marmalade events at Fort York surely remembers Mya’s oranges and her marmalades made from the fruit of that tree.
The author focuses on fruit, but this concept can be extrapolated to vegetables and other food items that can be grown and harvested. People need to be educated, informed and encouraged to see their environment in a way that will create fresh food for themselves. This should not be something that is done only in times of emergency, such as wartime, when there were victory gardens to augment the rations that households were given.
The idea of using urban space for food is catching on. Fruit trees have been planted on property owned by the City; community gardens are being planted on land belonging to Toronto Housing, and many people allow their neighbours to pick fruit from their trees. The use of public space is being reconsidered. We become connected through food, and are becoming more attuned to this notion.
Fruit trees even inspire art. In 2019 the Toronto Biennale of Art inaugurated a public art project commissioned by the City of Mississauga and executed by artist Diane Borsato, entitled ORCHARD. The artist brought people together to taste and learn about apples and community orchards. ORCHARD was a living sculpture made up of old and eccentric varietals of apple trees planted by the artist at the Small Arms Building site. Her artist’s statement was that the work “expands ideas of public art and seeks to foster enduring connectedness to land, plants, food and one another.”
During the pandemic, there has been more interest in gardening. Early on, I noticed an advertisement for garden supplies that were being sold for “your victory garden.” People have started to learn how to create a vegetable garden for the first time. There was a run on seeds, vegetable plants and some fruit trees as people were finding alternatives to store-bought fruits and vegetables. Many of my friends bought beautiful fig trees and berry bushes.
I enjoyed this book because it illustrated the many possibilities for food production that can be applied to our urban setting. We can become urban farmers, no matter how small our plot. The recipes throughout the book using harvested fruits are easy to make, and the ones that I tried, such as the Blueberry Crisp and the Chocolate Pear Tart in a Chocolate Almond Crust, were delicious.
Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen by Alexander Smalls & Veronica Chambers (Flatiron Books, 2020). Reviewed by Maya Love (pictured above).
Chef Alexander Smalls invites us into the kitchen to enjoy the culinary tradition and music that is rooted in memories of growing up in South Carolina. A former opera singer, he subsequently became one of New York’s most celebrated restaurateurs and culinary storytellers, winning a James Beard Award for the cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven. Along with co-author Veronica Chambers, a food writer at The New York Times, Chef Smalls shares a collection of 75 curated Creole and Low Country dishes celebrating the Southern legacy of African American food culture and history.
The book is arranged into seven chapters of recipes inspired by genres of music: Jazz, Spirituals, Gospel, Opera, Divas, Jukebox, and Serenades. Smalls combines his love of music, food, culture, history and storytelling, inspiring readers to understand the nuances of Southern food and music. Throughout the book, he encourages us to improvise with his recipes and to make them our own, looking for the “sweet spot of harmony; the mix between what the recipe calls for and what feels right for us in our own kitchens.”
Canadian home cooks will readily find the ingredients for such easy-to-follow recipes as buttermilk mac and cheese, sweet pickle potato salad, Creole Caesar salad with corn bread croutons, Southern fried chicken plate, citrus-glazed pork loin roast with corn cream sauce and sweet potato biscuits. Food and ingredients featured throughout the book are corn and grits, greens, okra, buttermilk, seafood, beans, sweet potatoes, rice and Bourbon. Sauces are created to accompany many of the dishes, and Smalls proclaims that “gravy is the ambassador of flavor [sic] for the taste buds.”
Cakes, pies and puddings make up the concluding sweet endings chapter, aptly named Serenades. Blackberry cobbler, doughnuts and Southern pound cake are some of the temptations, along with icebox lemon pie. Smalls tells us that “all you need to know is that icebox lemon pie is the easiest pie you’ll ever make.” He’s right—I made the pie. Simply put, Alexander Smalls tells stories through food and music and concludes the book with an extensive playlist to go with the meals.
Little Italy: Italian Finger Food by Nicole Herft (Hardie Grant, 2014). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti (pictured above).
I was drawn to this book because I like finger food and I can make a complete meal out small portions of varied tastes, colours and shapes. I come from an Italian background and often make and eat Italian food, but I always find it interesting to read authors who present a different perspective on Italian-style eating.
Finger foods, or cicchetti as they are called in Venice, stuzzichini in Southern Italy and antipasti in North America, are small portions of the favourite Italian foods that we all enjoy. Think of them as a version of Spanish tapas. It’s fun to try out a variety of savoury and sweet food selections that can be shared with friends and family with a glass of prosecco or Italian wine.
The author does a nice job of dividing the book into the Savoury and Sweet sections with beautiful accompanying pictures of the final product and suggested serving ideas. The recipes are simple to make, and Herft provides detailed instructions on how to execute a successful dish. I especially like the fact that she adds some helpful hints at the beginning of each recipe to enhance the cooking experience or to aid in the selection of the best ingredients for the recipe.
I would recommend this cookbook, as it has a selection of vegetarian, pescatarian and meat-lover recipes—something for everyone! An additional bonus is that the recipes are not seasonal and can be made throughout the year. You can have a cicchetti party where people can make a favorite recipe and share it.
As they say in Italian, “Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto”: Eat well, laugh often, love much and, as celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich invites us, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare”—Everyone to the table to eat. Buon appetito!
Super Sourdough: The Foolproof Guide to Making World-Class Bread at Home by James Morton (Hardie Grant, Quadrille Publishing, 2019). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell (pictured above).
Sourdough bread making—a subject recently topping Internet food searches—can be an intimidating process. Enter Super Sourdough. Many tips and videos are proffered online, but this exhaustive guide to sourdough bread has you covered. As author James Morton asserts, it takes a lifetime to perfect the art of sourdough.
Having achieved renown as a solid contestant on The Great British Bake Off, Scot Morton, a professional baker and medical doctor, directs his expertise toward a scientific approach to baking. Morton unpacks what he considers to be the elite jargon of bread making (autolyse, retardation, lamination) by repeatedly using these terms until they become ingrained.
What I appreciate about Morton’s approach is that right from the start he befriends his readers with guidance and support by sharing his own trials of failed and discouraging attempts. The curriculum opens with an instructional Ten Tenets of Sourdough. Then, in Ingredients and Equipment, he gives a description of flours and essential tools, illustrated with colour plates, and a preamble to the science of sourdough—a subject expanded upon in successive chapters.
Traditional bakers of like mind will find Morton heartily proposing the use of local ingredients and exhorting readers to revolt against refined white flours. He shares his preferred ingredients in Suppliers on page 255. Morton also supports local artisans like potter Natalie Smith, whose pieces are featured in photos throughout the book.
The weighty yet concise chapter Pain au Levain schools bakers on the complex process of sourdough bread in concise detail—accompanied by the useful colour plates. Happily, Morton also blends in some humour: “the following pages are dense, and some might say a little dry, but read them, and hopefully, your loaves won’t be.” Upon conquering Pain au Levain and its related chapters—Understanding Dough, Understanding Starters and Bread Troubleshooting—we’re rewarded with Relaxed Recipes, starring some familiar favourites: Neapolitan-style pizza, focaccia, baps and buns. Bakers are now able to confidently apply their knowledge to a broad range of recipes in the following chapters.
In White Breads for Sharing, Morton recreates traditional bread recipes like Pain de Mie, San Francisco Sourdough and an outstanding Ciabatta. Little Breads, with recipes for buns, pretzels, bagels and Mexican Bolillos, is Morton’s favourite chapter, as the recipes demand repetition, resulting in an eventual mastery of these “little breads.”
Darker Breads features a country Miche, an Einkhorn Batard and Spelt Batons. Morton extols the benefits of using freshly milled flours and assures us that, despite the challenge of working with dark doughs, “This is where the flavour is and where most people fall truly in love with bread baking.” Bitty Breads explores a variety of doughs thoughtfully married with additions of nuts, seeds and olives in loaves of Walnut Levain, Seeded Pumpernickel and a Lemon Poppy Seed Loaf.
Thankfully, Morton addresses the Internet’s popular sourdough query concerning (what to do with) Leftover Starter by responding with inventive recipes for Banana Pancakes, Pappardelle, Crumpets and Cornbread.
In tackling such an enormous subject, perhaps chapters like Bitty Breads and Enriched (Donuts, Brioche, Panettone and Kugelhopf) might have been better suited to a subsequent book. I envision a sequel that will expand on ingredients, flour and milling, as well as advanced techniques and the storied history of sourdough.
The Clever Gut Diet Cookbook by Clare Bailey & Joy Skipper (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books, 2018). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti, pictured above.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, claimed over 2,000 years ago that “all diseases begin in the gut.” Dr. M. Mosley, author of The Clever Gut Diet, points out in the foreword to this book that new research tools are enabling scientists to probe the gut and to uncover the impact of the 1,000 different species that live in the gut, their effect on you, and yours on them. He adds that there has never before been so much interest in the human gut and its tiny inhabitants, the trillions of microbes that make up the microbiome. Recent findings show that gut health has an impact on our mood, weight and immune system.
In fact, the gut is sometimes referred to as our second brain. Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, it helps in understanding the links between digestion, mood, health (general wellbeing) and cognition. Another area of research is how the signals from the digestive system affect metabolism, raising or reducing risk for health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. This is all co-ordinated between nerve signals, gut hormones and the microbiota or bacteria in our guts. Gut health is a fascinating area of study, with astounding results that we have yet to fully comprehend or discover.
Dr. Clare Bailey followed up her husband’s book by producing The Clever Gut Diet Cookbook with the input of a nutritionist, Joy Skipper. Bailey has been a working doctor for over 30 years. She uses her love of food and interest in nutrition to help her patients improve their gut health.
The first thing I noticed about this cookbook is how much care has gone into providing an explanation of what the Clever Gut Diet is all about. Bailey emphasizes that the diet is based on “real food” such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, cheese, meat and fatty fish and less of starchy pizza, pasta, potatoes or bread. The diet has a Mediterranean twist, but draws upon healthy cuisines from all over the world.
She then moves on to food groups and the microbiome, describing seven categories: protein, healthy natural fats, dairy, grains, fibre, prebiotics and probiotics, and polyphenols and phytonutrients. An explanation is provided for each category and how it can be used in improving gut health while avoiding some of the more problematic foods. The authors then explain which ten gut-friendly foods are best, and why they selected them.
There is a section on intermittent fasting with tips for doing it safely, including how to establish healthy habits on an ongoing basis. However, the focus of this cookbook is to repair and improve your gut health, and to this end Bailey outlines how to do this in Phase 1 (removal and repair) and Phase 2 (reintroduction and recovery). Bailey ensures that this is a simple process by inspiring us with two pages of ingredient suggestions that will give variety and interest to your adventure.
The recipes are the highlight of this book. They include breakfast, light meals, dressings and flavourings, main dishes (that you can show off to friends and family, who would not suspect you are improving their gut health), interesting vegetable servings, ferments and, of course, treats, which means breads and desserts (this is where the fibre is hidden!!).
The recipes are easy and the instructions are detailed and can be effortlessly followed by either a seasoned cook or a neophyte. For example, I really enjoyed the Chinese Noodle Jar and the Apricot and Pistachio Bars. It is especially nice to note that the ingredients can mostly be sourced at your local grocery store.
I am a visual person, and one thing I look for in a cookbook is the inclusion of photos of the finished product. This book does not disappoint, and features tempting full-page dishes. I also like the suggestions and short introductions at the beginning of each recipe. I appreciated the wealth of information I learned in plain language, with plenty of examples and references.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is suffering from gut problems or simply interested in improving their gut health, as it will certainly help them achieve overall wellbeing.
Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin & Ken Albala (University of California Press, 2014).
Precious Cargo: How Foods from the Americas Changed the World by Dave DeWitt (Counterpoint, 2014). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas (pictured above).
One of the benefits of lockdown has been investigating my one-day-I’ll-read-this bookshelf. Here are two good books from 2014.
Food in Time and Place is an excellent introduction to the rapidly growing field of food history for generalists, teachers and emerging historians. All 17 essayists are prominent scholars of history, anthropology or sociology with long university careers; a few are “founders” of this academic field, notably Warren Belasco, Ken Albala and Barbara Wheaton. Together, the essays cover extensive eras and geographies, with a slight emphasis on the United States. As usual, no Canada, except two passing mentions. Each takes a more-or-less historiographic approach and supplies extensive notes and bibliographies. The successful intentions are encouraging more investigation of food cultures and systems, and helping teachers of all disciplines to incorporate historical food studies.
Belasco’s introduction, “Food History as a Field,” is an amusing chronology of how his “circuitous and unpredictable” career developed from medieval studies in the late 1960s to roadside diners to food industries to food histories and futures. He writes about many institutional obstacles overcome as the field materialized and solidified into something real. Abala reaches back to “Premodern Europe” in a wonderfully cogent navigation of the vast primary and secondary literature about ancient societies to excavate its culinary information.
Wheaton’s “Cookbooks as Resources for Social History” summarizes her career-long study of systematically extracting meaningful data from cookbooks. (For decades, she taught her system during fascinating week-long seminars, as some CHC members will recall, because we invited her to Toronto in spring 2007.)
Other essays I enjoyed were “Food and the Material Origins of Early America” by Joyce Chaplin and “Food in Recent U.S. History” by Amy Bentley and Hi’ilei Hobart. However, I don’t think the writers in this book give enough credit to archaeologists and living-history practitioners for their contributions to the field of food history. For instance, the skills, knowledge and writings of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) is acknowledged by no one. However, this is definitely a book worth acquiring. I was glad to find it on my shelf!
Dave DeWitt’s determined and curious research for Precious Cargo has ferreted out fascinating sources, enabling him to pose new questions and theories. Examples are his examination of how home cooks, street vendors and cookbook authors differ in their usage of American maize in Africa and American sweet potatoes in China. He shows how other writers inadvertently distort their reportage by not recognizing those distinctions. Another good point: unlike the writers of Food in Time and Place, he really applies archaeologists’ insights.
DeWitt successfully accomplishes the goal expressed in his subtitle, explaining how crops from the Americas transformed the cuisines, cultures and agricultures of all other societies. Ever since Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange in 1972, historians have investigated this transformation, but in my reading experience, DeWitt’s is the best synthesis, enhanced by his own thoughtful analysis.The bibliography and the dozens of colour illustrations are terrific.
Some structural problems marred my enjoyment. Most obviously, DeWitt’s prologue neglects to specify what the “precious cargo” consisted of! This lack of foresight bothered me the whole time. Not until page 341 does the list of ten foods he’s just written about so thoroughly appear: sweet potatoes, maize, white potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, pineapples, turkeys, dried chiles (his spelling), green chiles and green peppers.
Themes of each chapter are hard to discern from their first paragraphs, a challenge exacerbated by his habit of jumping back and forth over the chapters between topics instead of arranging them chronologically, thematically or regionally. Considering how his topics leap around, the index is only decent. Plus, unfortunately, too many clunky sentences, inaccurate subtitles, repetitions, typos and missing words escaped the editorial process. Too bad, because the book is actually quite beautiful. I recommend it nevertheless, because the research is really good.
How to Dress an Egg: Surprising and Simple Ways to Cook Dinner by Ned Baldwin and Peter Kaminsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell (pictured above).
I recently received a box of cookbooks to review and instantly chose this one because of its curious title and winsome aesthetic. I was literally judging a book by its cover. My initial flip through its pages landed me on a whimsical illustration of a doomed slug dangling from the rim of a margarita glass. This drawing, by Gerardo Blumenkrantz, set the tone for an entertaining foray into an informative and engaging book.
For readers acquainted with Houseman, chef-owner Ned Baldwin’s NYC restaurant, the book presents as an extension of its vision “a neighbourhood restaurant where Chef Ned Baldwin serves perceptively-made food that ranges from the familiar to the unexpected.” Before opening Houseman, Baldwin had a career as a visual artist and worked at several NYC ingredient-focused kitchens to expand his culinary skills. He considers himself a home cook turned chef, as the book’s well-adapted recipes illustrate.
It takes two; after dining at Houseman on a few occasions, renowned author and food writer Peter Kaminsky was suitably impressed and approached Baldwin regarding the possibility of creating a cookbook together.
How to Dress an Egg includes straightforward recipes using fresh, basic ingredients skillfully prepared, as well as Houseman menu favourites like variations on roast chicken and tasty veg. Chef Baldwin unpacks the cooking process with “First Things First,” a brief chapter on kitchen essentials and go-to recipes like Mayo, Brown Butter and Preserved Lemons. Clearly presented recipes of ramped-up classics like Roast Chicken and Hanger Steak Five Ways are included in the comprehensive chapters, along with myriad meats, seafood and vegetables. The origin of the book’s title is revealed in the Soup and Eggs chapter: it’s based on a revelation Baldwin had during pre-dinner service on how to elevate Dressed (boiled) Eggs. It is here on page 238 that we become privy to the secret of Egg Candy.
The finale is a brief yet well-considered dessert chapter in which Baldwin presents Chocolate and Cream (Ganache). This two-ingredient recipe then forms the basis for mouth-watering variations on a theme, such as Chocolate, Cheese and Charred Bread. Included are several Hirsheimer & Hamilton photographs deliciously bringing Chef’s recipes to life. These photographs are clearly indicated in the book’s thorough index, along with helpful cross-referenced headings.
How to Dress an Egg will suit readers with an appreciation of good food who are ready to level up their cooking game. Chef Ned Baldwin encourages readers to expand and hone their cooking skills in order to learn a manageable number of dishes superbly well.
Essential Fondue Cookbook: 75 Decadent Recipes to Delight and Entertain by Erin Harris (Callisto Publisher’s Club, 2020). Reviewed by Maya Love (pictured above).
I loved losing myself in my favourite new cookbook release of May, which is written by the Toronto-based blogger behind The Cheese Poet. Erin Harris is a chef, food writer and certified cheese professional, who since 2010 has been spreading the word of Canadian cheeses while encouraging us to enjoy eating and cooking with quality cheese.
While we all enjoy melty, bubbly cheese, Harris ensures that she delivers the traditional in her first cookbook, as well as including new fondue adventures with recipes that will delight and take us through the seasons. She goes beyond the conventional with recipes such as basil pesto, Asian tempura, pimento cheese, a selection of bourguignonnes and hot pots, and yes, of course, there are dessert recipes too.
The book is organized into bite-sized chapters, making it easy to navigate, with discussions of what fondue is, its history, how to choose a fondue pot, the fondue pantry, how to set a fondue table, the etiquette of fondue and how to make it all fun-due! Harris’s enjoyment of travel is reflected in charming stories and global recipes that speak to her love of cheese, local markets and culinary gatherings with friends and family.
Harris ensures that we know how to choose cheese wisely, by explaining why good cheese matters, and she reviews 21 different cheeses we can successfully fondue, alphabetically arranged from American to Vacherin Fribourgeois. This gem of a cookbook is full of useful tips designed to create great fondue experiences with well-organized and easy-to-follow instructions, along with a cooking tip for each of the 75 recipes. And the beginning of each chapter features an enticing colour photograph, encouraging us to cook, dip and enjoy all the fun of fondue.
Essential Fondue is for anyone who enjoys cheese, good food and gathering at the table.
Outlander Kitchen II: Journey to the New World and Back Again by Theresa Carle-Sanders (Delacorte Press, 2020). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
In 2016, Carle-Sanders (who lives on Pender Island, B.C.) published the first Outlander Kitchen, a culinary treat for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s immensely popular romance-adventure novels. Now she’s back with another book that, like the first, offers more than 100 recipes that evoke episodes from the saga of 18th-century Highlander Jamie Fraser and his time-travelling wife, Claire. In fact, each recipe is accompanied by a textual selection that makes reference to the food in question.
Since the first cookbook covered the earlier novels in the series, this one mainly refers to later installments: An Echo in the Bone (2009) and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014), as well as to Gabaldon’s related Lord John Grey series. Those who, like me, are only familiar with the television adaptation will be cheated of the fun of recognition, since these books are far ahead of the TV narrative. But those who have managed to resist both page and screen versions entirely will still likely enjoy this far-ranging, quasi-historical cookbook with its lavish photographs staged with antique-style implements.
For the uninitiated, it’s enough to know that the swashbuckling Frasers spend only some of their time in Scotland. They also travel to the French court, to Jamaica, to the Americas and so on (finding trouble no matter where they land), so this compilation includes recipes as diverse as Savannah Clam Chowder, Cuban Flauta, Mushroom Pâté and Fried Plantains alongside the more expected scones and Scotch Broth.
Carle-Sanders apparently had the assistance of a fairly large pool of volunteer recipe testers, and it shows: the instructions are clear and well written. She acknowledges her debt to several historic cookbooks, such as Mrs. McLintock’s Recipes for Cookery and Pastry-Work of 1736 and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (1747). However, she does not specifically refer to particular historic recipes in her text. Therefore, this is not an introduction to historic cookery techniques, but a collection of useful, practical and tasty recipes that resemble foods that might very well have been eaten in the 1700s. Great fun.
The corn bread recipe is a good one. Photo by Sarah Hood.
The Kitchen: A Journey Through Time—and the Homes of Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elvis Presley and Many Others—In Search of the Perfect Design by John Ota (Appetite by Random House, 2020). Reviewed by Dana McCauley (pictured above).
When a new book written by a friend or acquaintance comes into your hands, there’s always a moment of stress before you open the cover and dip into the pages. What if it’s unreadable? And, if it is bad, how will you tell them without being hurtful? The feeling is especially acute when the book isn’t part of a bigger body of work and you really don’t know what to expect. This was how I felt moments after I agreed to review John Ota’s The Kitchen for this newsletter. I was hoping for the best, but worried the book might only be about angles and ratios or other technical details an architectural writer might share between the covers of a book about historical kitchen design.
I met John Ota a couple of years ago in a tiny Orangeville coffee shop; he had driven from Toronto to attend my talk on a historical book I had written about the food served on an Edwardian cruise ship called the Titanic. Given my own fascination with culinary history and how analyzing what people ate in the past helps me to understand their lives, I knew I’d find things to like within the pages of a book about historic kitchens, and the good news is that The Kitchen is more than just readable; in fact, I think it has broad appeal.
The trick will be for booksellers to find the correct place to shelve it, because The Kitchen spans genres: it’s a memoir by a food lover; it’s a travelogue by a tourist with an eye for light and descriptive detail; it’s a love story brought to life by affectionate letters written home; and it’s an anthropological exploration of the ways cooking and feeding ourselves can reveal day-to-day life. Lastly, at least for this reviewer, The Kitchen is also a self-help book!
John may be predisposed to write a book that spans so many genres because of his training. His background is in architecture—he is an architectural writer and critic who specializes in preservation—a profession that I imagine requires one to be highly empathetic not only to the needs of a building’s current users, but also to the vision and intent of the original builder. John applies this emotional intelligence adeptly to create a highly readable book that uses sensory and descriptive detail to evoke the past.
Over the course of 13 kitchen visits, he charts the evolution of North American home cooking since the 17th century. He takes us from a stand-alone, discretely situated kitchen where servants created banquets for dignitaries using imported ingredients to an open-concept, luxurious cliffside monument to modern food enthusiasm where friends gather to relax, prepare local foods and eat before a spectacular mountain view.
Along with the author, the reader visits kitchens created and used by historical icons (Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Jefferson, to name just three) as well as the cooking areas occupied by the everyday people whose names history has forgotten (such as Plymouth Plantation Pilgrims and Victorian tenement dwellers). He brings all of these people to life with descriptions of their homes, hearths and the foods they prepared to sustain themselves. In chapter one, John explicitly voices his mission: “I need(ed) to understand how the Pilgrims lived, what they ate, how they prepared their meals.” By the end of the chapter, he’s done exactly that.
Every kitchen John visits is given a full chapter, each of which concludes with a letter home to his wife, Franny. In the introduction we learn that Franny, who has recently embraced cooking, hates their home kitchen and that John is visiting historic kitchens as part of the process of designing a cooking space that will please them both. His letters summarize what he’s learned at each location and how he’ll incorporate these lessons into the design of a space where he and Franny will find the creative inspiration to prepare wonderful meals and host celebrations.
It’s these short letters that elevate the book from a mere historical account to a useful and delightful narrative. In these notes, John reinforces the book’s utility as he distills each kitchen tour into lessons that reminded me that I should quit consulting magazines and social media for design ideas and start thinking of kitchens as places that personify their users and not their designers. For me, that insight has been transformative.
Midway through reading The Kitchen, I took an evaluating inventory of my own kitchen. As I stood there, the deficiencies I dwell on (such as having too many appliances cluttering my counters, or the fact that my stove top is so well worn that the numbers on the knobs are fading) became signifiers of a room that is well used by two passionate professional cooks.
Obviously, I’m no longer worried about what I’ll say when I next see author John Ota. In fact, I’m excited to see him, to say “Bravo!” And I am also excited to hear the details about the kitchen that he and Franny plan to create. Perhaps that project will be the basis for his next book? I do hope so.
Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England by Elaine Leong (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
As with many books that are based on the author’s doctoral thesis, Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is not a particularly exciting read, but it is very interesting for readers who are fascinated by the origin of recipes. Recipes today are usually culinary only and are composed of lists of ingredients with more or less exact measurements (pounds and ounces, cups and teaspoons) and with a series of instructions meant to be followed step by step to produce a uniform result. In Leong’s case studies, recipes are both medicinal and culinary, and are tried and tinkered with, sometimes over generations.
The book draws on the handwritten recipe collections of the landed gentry in 16th- and 17th-century England, with the general thesis that the early modern household was a “site of science” that informed the creation of modern science as we know it today. Leong uses these recipe books as case studies to show how every household created a legacy for future generations through the gathering of both culinary and medicinal recipes. The elite men and women of this time period endeavoured to keep their families healthy as well as sustain their families’ ties through this work. Their activities were also supported by a network of servants, experts in households and husbandry, as well as those knowledgeable in a variety of tasks that we would mostly consider outside our own knowledge sphere today, such as brewing and distilling.
As context for the book, in the period discussed Charles I became King of England. During the subsequent English Civil Wars, he was executed in 1649 by Oliver Cromwell, who reigned over Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) until his death in 1658. The landed gentry of England would have been the hereditary lords and ladies of the British aristocracy, a social class of landowners who could live entirely from rental income or at least had a country estate. They therefore would have had the leisure time to exchange and experiment with recipes that were passed from hand to hand. These recipes were written into books that were cherished and often passed down through two or three generations.
Although Leong’s general thesis is not strongly supported by the case studies that she presents, some early science surely resulted from the experimentation that took place through the many iterations of medicinal recipes that are examined in the book. Several diseases that are presented as needing cures are relatively unknown today, such as scrofula, King’s Evil, ague, dropsy and flux, and some of the recipes clearly were not cures for smallpox or for other diseases that we now know to be incurable, but the persistence of the authors in their search for proof of efficacy certainly lends itself to a scientific outlook.
For those interested in early recipes and who have enough academic and historical background to appreciate these very early English attempts at experimentation, this book is certainly worth a read. I would have liked to see the case studies presented as chapters, since the Adderleys, the St. Johns, the Catchmors and the three generations of women in the Glyd family would be worth exploring in depth. My own inclination towards historical fiction may be influencing this wish, however, and other readers may be satisfied with the book as it is.
Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food by Benjamin R. Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
The Pure Food Building at Toronto’s Exhibition Place opened in 1922, but it had its genesis decades earlier with the Pure Food Association, which held an annual Pure Food Show at least as early as 1897. Its goal was to promote “pure” food and especially the manufacturers who claimed to provide it. Its roots reach further back into a North American Pure Food movement.
Throughout the 19th century, increasing industrialization of food production meant that consumers could have more and cheaper food and apparently greater consistency of taste, appearance and nutritive value regardless of the season. On the other hand, it bred suspicion that what seemed to be wholesome was in fact adulterated at best and poisonous at worst. It is this dichotomy, which persists today, that Cohen explores in his oxymoronically named book.
In the first few chapters, Cohen, an engineering professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, explores the evolution of the discourse around “pure food,” which had already coalesced into a matter for public concern by 1820, when German chemist Friedrich Christian Accum published his influential Treatise on Adulteration of Food, and Culinary Poisons. It reached a new level in 1906 with the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act, which laid the groundwork for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), still in place today.
Cohen analyzes the association of food purity with an imagined past rural ideal as compared to a sinister industrial present, as well as the attendant ideas of natural versus artificial, honest versus deceptive, domestic versus foreign, and so on. He follows this philosophical template through a history of three controversial foodstuffs in 19th-century America: glucose (what we now call “corn syrup”), cottonseed oil and oleomargarine.
Worries about glucose were part of a wider network of issues about various types of sweeteners: the economic politics of a growing beet sugar industry, the association of sucrose with slave labour, and the fact that glucose production was environmentally costly. Cottonseed oil, a byproduct of cotton production, grew from virtual nonexistence into a huge industry within a few decades in the later 1800s. (Perhaps I missed it, but Cohen does not seem explicitly to make or deny a connection with the end of slavery through the same period, but one might imagine that cotton producers, forced to pay more for labour, would have been hungry for a new income stream.)
Of these products, the most hated was oleomargarine (now known simply as margarine in North America). It was a challenge to the dairy industry and a disruptor of international trade patterns. Besides, to many consumers and lawmakers, it just didn’t seem right. By 1897, several U.S. states had laws banning it, and many more ruled that it could not be coloured to resemble butter. Within living memory, lard-white margarine was sold in Canada in plastic bags containing a button of dye that could be popped open to colour the margarine at home. Cohen mentions that Quebec still had margarine-colour laws on its books until 2008!
At the end of the book, Cohen points out how pure-food concerns were a boon to chemists, who were hired both to help engineer new foods and to test food products in order to verify their ingredients. By the early 20th century, he demonstrates, the idea of purity had shifted from an association with “natural” sources and processes (as in milking a cow) to the transparency of the ingredient list. That is, an edible oil product was considered to be “pure” if a chemist could show that it contained only the components listed on the package, no matter what those might be.
He finishes with a sketch of how government programs were developed to monitor food purity, concluding that “in the main, this is less a story about scientific analysis being helpful or detrimental and more a story about what conditions led analysis to become a solution. We are part of that story still as we wonder how we know what to eat and who we trust to tell us.”
Pure Adulteration does a great job of explaining the complicated interrelationships of various industries (like cottonseed with wheat and pork) and the ways that new food products affected international trade. For instance, at one point, U.S. cottonseed oil was routinely being shipped to Italy, where manufacturers would (duplicitously) add it to olive oil for export back to North America. It abounds with odd anecdotes, too, like the story of pioneering chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley, who created the “Poison Squad”: a group of young men who were voluntarily fed food additives to test at what levels their health would suffer. (There’s a PBS film about this.)
The work is perhaps at its most intriguing when it reveals the many ways foods and racial prejudice have been interconnected; to offer one example, cane sugar was not only tarnished in the public eye by its reliance on slave labour, but also (ironically) because it was handled by dark-skinned people. In the 1880s, the beet sugar industry would subtly try to position itself as more palatable because it was produced by white hands.
This is a scholarly book with full textual references, an index and a 20-page bibliography, and it is dense with facts and food-production maps. What could have been a plodding read is made enjoyable by Cohen’s gentle, witty voice and crystal-clear writing style. Illuminating and enjoyable.
United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook by Keith Stavely & Kathleen Fitzgerald (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas (pictured above).
The identity of “Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan,” the presumed author of American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American for Americans, has long intrigued historians.
Her story also caught the attention of librarians Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, known for America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking (2004) and Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (2011). In their third book together, they focus on the first American cookbook, produced in 1796 in post-Revolutionary New England, specifically Hartford, Connecticut, and then Albany, New York.
Their goal was to examine and, if necessary, to debunk the romantic and mythic ideas associated with the book and its compiler, and to argue that its publication “was part of an effort by the prominent citizens of Connecticut to win cultural leadership of the new nation known as the United States of America.”
They sometimes don’t convince me, although their ability to ferret out subtle possibilities, linkages, suppositions, and conceivable explanations is continually impressive. By the end, Stavely and Fitzgerald’s scholarship rewards readers with an astoundingly nuanced scrutiny of a modest little cookbook that has come to hold an outsize reputation in the fields of cookbook and culinary histories.
The two authors don’t lay out a thesis or suggest a scenario upfront in their introduction, but let the story unfold point by point, rather like assembling clues to solve a mystery, as they examine a wide range of trans-Atlantic to regional to personal contexts, many not previously considered by other scholars.
Part One is titled “Cooks and Books.” The first chapter, “Adapted to This Country,” looks at the big frameworks of a rising national American identity and cultural independence, as well as previous writings about American cookery. Chapter Two, “Culinary Tradition,” situates the book within the history of British and American (no Canadian yet) recipe manuscripts, dietaries and cookbooks. “Print Culture” likewise situates the book within the history of an experienced British but nascent American publishing industry, such as written versus practical knowledge, literary genre, female anonymity, and the early development of copyright laws. We are also introduced to Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin, and to Charles and George Webster, the pro-agrarian and ruralist Federalist men who printed the conflicting Hartford and Albany editions of American Cookery.
Having set the trans-Atlantic scene, Part Two zeroes in on Connecticut, with three distinct chapters: “Society and Nationality,” “Domestic Culture,” and “Agriculture, Fishing, Horticulture.” Citizens of and visitors to Connecticut were deeply impressed at how the forests had been transformed into prosperous farms and villages by the 1770s; merchants of imported consumer goods like crockery and textiles thrived. Newspapers were published in most towns too. Food was plentiful. This was the world into which Amelia Simmons was born. The depredations against the Native Americans were dismissed by her contemporaries, although not by Stavely and Fitzgerald.
Part Three delves deeply into American cookery itself with “The Cookbook,” “The Author and the Printers,” and “The Readers and the Editions.” The co-authors spend considerable time dissecting the words, tone and intent of Simmons’ title, long subtitle, two contradictory prefaces, and the errata page; the recipe order in editions one and two; the marketing section inserted in the second edition and Simmons’ reaction to it; and her claim to be a semi-literate orphan. They discuss the nation-building tensions the cookbook may or may not exhibit, especially in comparison to several contemporary unpublished culinary manuscripts.
Stavely and Fitzgerald find significant meaning in the intriguing fact that the first edition presented Simmons’ name in an elegant typeface on the title page, versus the plain typeface of the second, as an example of a topic no one else has considered when addressing the author’s and printers’ intentions. Considerable analysis of the actual recipes suggests they didn’t test any in their own kitchen, which seems odd because their introduction clearly says they did.
Another interesting topic is the deliberate (they suggest) omission of cornmeal recipes because they were too plain, even for a mostly plain American cookbook. Stavely and Fitzgerald really build a nuanced portrait of someone who may or may not have been as claimed, who may even have been a constructed persona invented to sell an agrarian republican ideal.
The conclusion, “The American Dream and Its Discontents,” was, for me as a Canadian, the least satisfactory part because the co-authors’ attempts to bring Simmons’ and her fellow Connecticut citizens’ “simmering resentments and self-determination” into the American 20th century seemed lame after I’d avidly followed the unfolding mystery. At the end are four appendices presented as charts: the sources, the recipes, works related to orphanhood, and details of all 15 editions.
United Tastes is an excellent addition to the still too-brief list of book-length—and therefore very detailed—studies of individual cookbooks. It should serve as an inspirational exemplar to other scholars.
Kitchen Party by Mary Berg (Penguin Random House, 2019), reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
Subtitled Effortless Recipes for Every Occasion, this book is full of simple recipes with a twist for the home cook. It is obviously a labour of love, and Berg’s introductions at the beginning of each recipe are personal and warm. The recipes themselves demonstrate her hope to make everyone comfortable in their own kitchen. Many require fairly basic cooking, such as her Baked Steel Cut Oatmeal and Classic Roast Chicken, but the more upscale recipes are made easy enough for a basic cook to master with a couple of tries.
Mary Berg was the first woman to win Master Chef Canada, and also the first winner to host her own cooking show, Mary’s Kitchen Crush, which began airing on CTV in April 2019. CTV has committed to 30 episodes, which is a big commitment for a TV show, but the company has confidence that Berg will be popular with people her own age. After her MasterChef victory, Mary’s fan base grew with appearances as a food expert on other CTV series like Your Morning and The Marilyn Denis Show, as well as an eight-episode Gusto program called Mary’s Big Kitchen Party.
Hosting a party can be daunting without help. The idea here is to make it easy and relaxed, while serving up delicious food and drink. The introduction, “Preparing for a Party,” helps the host to organize menu, ingredients and timing. Berg’s tips and tricks for relaxed hosting are reflected in the chapter headings: Brunch Parties, Cocktail Parties, Dinner Parties, Special Occasion Menus, and Party of Two. Instructions are geared toward the modern kitchen, where baking sheets lined with foil, food processors and stand mixers are everyday items used in preparation.
Mary’s bubbly personality and vibrant look (red hair, red lipstick, bright green horn-rims) certainly add to the attraction of this book and to her presence onscreen. Photos of her eating with family and friends are interspersed with lovely food styling. The recipes are solid and could become favourites in your household, too! I would recommend this book for aspiring cooks in their 20s and 30s, as well as for cooks who want to expand their party chops.
Canadian Spirits: The Essential Cross-Country Guide to Distilleries, Their Spirits, and Where to Imbibe Them by Stephen Beaumont & Christine Sismondo (Nimbus Publishing, 2019). Reviewed by Gary Gillman (pictured above).
Stephen Beaumont is widely known for his decades-long writing on beer, travel, and other drinks. Christone Sismondo has an academic and journalistic background and has written extensively on cocktail culture and Prohibition history. The authors’ respective introductions explain well the purport of the book: to give a snapshot of the national spirits market, particularly in light of craft distilling hitting, as Sismondo puts it, “a critical mass.” The book will appeal to a broad readership by avoiding over-emphasis on the technical. The focus is on the products, their taste and the people who make them.
It starts with a brief history of distilling in Canada, with an explanation of the recent rise of some 170 craft distilleries, tiny in relation to the massive “legacy” distilleries such as Hiram Walker (Wiser’s) in Windsor, Ontario, and Seagram in Gimli, Manitoba. Still, small-scale distilling offers great creativity and variety, often in the face of regulatory obstacles that make finding their products a challenge.
The book then describes the legacy distillers with taste notes for representative products. There follows an impressive cross-country tour of craft distilling as it stood in mid-2019, a province-by-province tourney of the country’s small spirits plants. Producers and their principals are briefly described—often too the natural setting in which they appear—with taste notes on the vodka, gin, whisky, fruit spirits or rum (among other products) produced.
A wide variety of both traditional and more innovative spirits is made, limited only by the distillers’ imagination. Some surprises emerge; for instance, there is relatively little grape brandy (Cognac-type) distilled even in provinces known for wine production.
Each province is divided into sub-regions, with Yukon included with B.C. We learn, for example, that Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, makes a rich-bodied Bluenose Rum, which fits well into the longstanding rum tradition of the Maritimes. At the other end of the country, Legend Distilling in the Okanagan makes two styles of gin and an orange-and-sumac-flavoured liqueur.
Bars and restaurants that specialize in spirits and cocktails are recommended in sidebars. Who knew, for example, that Vancouver is the best place in Canada for a gin crawl? A few cocktails encountered on the authors’ journey, a glossary and a bibliography complete the book.
The book is well designed, with a retro (late-19th-century-style) brown cover. The text is enhanced by excellent photography, but due to the compact size of the volume, the pictures are sometimes hard to appreciate. No doubt this resulted from the modern economics of print publishing. Hopefully, in future years, further editions will better present the images.
Also, albeit dated, Michael Jackson’s landmark 1987 The World Guide to Whisky should, in my view, have been included in the bibliography. Its discussion of Canadian distilling traditions was groundbreaking and is still highly informative.
Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman (ECW Press, 2019), reviewed by Sylvia Lovegren (pictured above).
We moderns tend to think that humanity’s impact on the natural world is a recent phenomenon but, as Lenore Newman points out in her new book, we have been changing the planet since at least the Paleolithic Age. She chronicles many of those changes—from the extinction of the mammoth to the loss of the passenger pigeon, to our own age and the devastating declines in ocean fisheries—and looks at what might be next with a combination of hard research and engaging, thoughtful writing.
One of the most interesting things Newman does is to make connections that I, at least, had never made before. She draws a line from prehistoric man’s hunting of the great mammoth to extinction to the loss of the auroch—the neolithic “cow” illustrated by ancient hands in the mysterious caves in southwestern France—to the hunting of the North American buffalo to near extinction, to the huge herds of dairy and beef cattle that scientists worry are accelerating climate change today.
And she gives us fascinating detail and depth. Most of us know about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that covered North America when Europeans arrived in this hemisphere and how humans hunted them into extinction. Newman explains not only how hard humans had to work to kill off the billions of pigeons, but also how their loss changed North American forests and agriculture forever. As Newman says, “An extinct food is more than a lost source of calories; it is a break in the chain. When we lose a food, we lose recipes, preparation and harvest techniques, and economic niches vanish forever. Tackling the scope of this loss drove me to ask what would turn out to be a haunting question: how serious is culinary extinction, and how serious might it become?”
To answer the question, she travels to Iceland and to Hawaii, explores the sex life of the vanilla orchid, traces the history of the pear from its ancient roots in Asia, and talks with farmers, scientists and the occasional wild-eyed dreamer, including a man who is trying to bring back the passenger pigeon through DNA manipulation. She also teams up with her “ecologist friend” Dan to create “extinction dinners” designed to duplicate as much as possible meals of the past, and those interchanges are great fun.
Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food is eye-opening, entertaining and educational. I had expected to read it over a week or so, but instead stayed up half the night reading it in one go. My only quibble might be that Newman does not give us any easy answers to the question of what to do about “how serious might it become.” But (a) she does not set out nor claim to give us answers, and (b) the answers are complex and beyond the scope of this book. Perhaps most importantly, it is not her job to make us feel better by giving us “the answer”: that is something we will have to do for ourselves. Highly recommended.
Kosher Style: Over 100 Jewish Recipes for the Modern Cook by Amy Rosen (Appetite series by Random House, 2019), reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
Kosher Style by Amy Rosen prompted instant recognition—a secular Jewish gal from Montreal. Having lived in Toronto for over 30 years, but without many Jewish friends here (relatives are another story), I thought Toronto Jews were all about blueberry buns and Gryfe’s bagels. Not so! Amy Rosen’s bubbes’ recipes (slightly modified with modern ingredients such as kosher soy sauce) are those familiar from my own childhood.
Passover recipes aside, the book brims with many foods beloved by Ashkenazi Jews all over North America, organized by types of food; for example, Brunch and Schmears. Rosen explains the concept of kosher—and all of the recipes in the book are either kosher or pareve—but with such joie de vivre that you forget that kosher eating stems from biblical edicts over four thousand years old.
The anecdotes in the book are also funny and wry, and demonstrate why Amy Rosen is a well-known food writer, as well as a cookbook author. “The Early Bird Gets the Matzo Ball” is a meditation on Jewish snowbirds in Florida; “A Cuisine to Call Our Own” explains why Jews love Chinese food (besides the fact that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day); and “Is This the Best Restaurant in America?” not only makes you wish you lived in New York City, but also describes the immigrant experience for many.
I tried two recipes from the book for the book club I belong to: Pickled Beet Salad and succulent Apricot-Almond Rugelach made with cream-cheese dough. Both were gobbled down quickly—the rugelach, in particular, was made to disappear by the men in the group. I will definitely try many other recipes over the upcoming holidays. I will make latkes for Hanukkah, as I always do, but I might try the General Tso chicken too, just for fun.
The King’s Peas: Delectable Recipes and Their Stories from the Age of Enlightenment by Meredith Chilton (Arnoldsche, 2019), reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
We’ve all felt stressed about cooking for guests, but probably not to the same degree as François Vatel, who in 1671 skewered himself instead of the dinner when his fish delivery didn’t arrive on time. Such was the passion of his age for culinary perfection, explored by Meredith Chilton in this deliciously illustrated part-cookbook, part-museum catalogue.
Chilton is a specialist in early European porcelain and 18th-century dining and social culture, and curator emeritus at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, which specializes in ceramics. An elegant hardcover with sumptuous colour pictures on almost every one of its thick, glossy pages, her book was prepared to accompany the exhibit Savour: Food Culture in the Age of Enlightenment at the Gardiner. Both the book and the show have been assembled to illustrate the profound changes in attitudes towards cooking and dining that took place during the Age of Enlightenment in France, between about 1650 and the French Revolution of 1789.
The culinary spirit of the period was typified by a movement away from the heavy spices beloved by the medieval and Renaissance worlds, and towards fresh, simple fare made with local ingredients. In her substantial introductory essay, Chilton makes the point that the prominent culinary trends of our own period share much in common with those of the Enlightenment.
The King’s Peas is a useful addition to a gradually growing library of Canadian cookbooks that interpret historic recipes for modern cooks. Chilton reprints the original text of intriguing recipes for soups, salads, proteins and sweets from numerous period sources, such as La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon (1756), Le cuisinier Gascon by Louis-Auguste II de Bourbon (1740), and Suites des dons de Comus by François Marin (1742).
Although the commentary on each recipe is scholarly—and Chilton includes a valuable endnote on pre-Revolutionary French recipe measurements—the reimaginings of the historic recipes are very free. Of course, they use modern tools (food processors, gas barbecues) and some substitutions for rare ingredients (Seville oranges, sack). But they also make many other concessions to modern taste and convenience.
For instance, in the titular recipe for The King’s Peas, from Les delices de la campagne (1684), Nicolas de Bonnefons instructs the reader to “brown the butter, lard or fat in a saucepan, then throw [the peas] in” before adding “a little water to cook them.” Chilton’s version omits the fat and simply boils the peas with sugar (which is not mentioned by de Bonnefons.)
In place of the pigeons in Elizabeth Raffald’s whimsical Thatched House Pie from The Experienced English Housekeeper of 1769 (which turns out looking like a little house, with a “thatched” vermicelli roof), Chilton substitutes “leftover Braised Beef with Red Wine.” She omits comment on John Evelyn’s very useful direction in Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699) to “swing [rinsed salad leaves] altogether gently in a clean coarse napkin,” something I was taught to do in lieu of using a salad spinner: quite an effective trick. Also, although there are scrupulous notes and a bibliography, there is no index!
However, The King’s Peas is a valuable and delightful taste of a bygone food era. Even its engaging illustrations alone—especially the ceramic tureens shaped like lively birds, fishes and other creatures of the table—offer a strong flavour of a period that, while it might seem somewhat remote, in fact resonates with themes similar to those of our own time, while Chilton’s commentary is rich with detail and charm.
Brewed in the North: A History of Labatt’s by Matthew J. Bellamy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), reviewed by Gary Gillman (pictured above).
A readable yet comprehensive history of the Labatt trajectory from start-up in 1847 until sale in 1995 to a Belgian-based international brewer. Its author, an associate professor of history at Ottawa’s Carleton University, also wrote Profiting the Crown: Canada’s Polymer Corporation, 1942-1990.
Brewed in the North limns the background, personality and motivations of founder John Kinder Labatt, born of Huguenot stock in the Irish Midlands in 1803. Unusually for Ireland then, Labatt’s birth town of Mountmellick was the “Manchester of Ireland.” Growing up in an industrial centre attuned young Labatt to economic activity and the value of hard work. He worked as a clerk in a timber business in London (England), married and finally emigrated to London (Ontario) to farm.
As a successful farmer, Labatt came into contact with malting and brewing figures. In 1847, he entered brewing with his old friend and brewing mentor Samuel Eccles (who later left the partnership, concerned that brewing was unstable due to growing anti-liquor sentiment). Labatt persisted and was rewarded due to making a good product and the growing economy and military presence in London. Labatt took good advantage of the expanding railways to ship his product to regional agencies, which ended his time as a merely local brewer.
Son John Labatt II, like his father “pragmatic, principled, and forward-looking,” was more of a risk-taker. He introduced a beer then new in Canada, IPA (a style that has returned via modern craft brewing), which was a major seller for Labatt until the 1950s. His excellent sales abilities (a “pusher”) and self-confidence made Labatt’s into a major but second-tier regional brewery. Bellamy makes the point that no national-scale breweries emerged until the 1960s, a trend Labatt joined but did not inaugurate; that honour belonged to Canadian Breweries Limited and the famed E.P. Taylor.
John Labatt II met his Waterloo, though, in the form of a failed attempt in the 1890s to crack the US market. After that, the brewery continued to prosper, but its horizons were dimmed by Ontario Prohibition from 1916 to 1927. John Labatt II’s two sons took over, with less skill, but with the inspired decision to entrust executive control during Prohibition to general manager Edmund Burke, whom Bellamy describes as a “bootlegging manager-entrepreneur.” This ensured survival during the Ontario and American Prohibitions.
From the mid-1930s, Labatt’s destiny was increasingly guided by highly skilled (chartered accountant or MBA) professional managers. The company became a bulwark of corporate responsibility in contrast to the freewheeling Burke days. Later came the expensive but necessary creation of national brands, notably Labatt Blue Pilsener; takeover of Canadian breweries outside Ontario to compete more effectively in a highly regulated marketplace; and business diversification, yet rarely with results comparable to the core business.
Bellamy argues successfully that the company remained a big fish in a small pond and hence liable to acquisition by international brewers more alert to the need to be global and focused on the core business. Today, Belgian Stella Artois and Hoegaarden beers are sold in Canada but, as Bellamy notes, no one drinks Labatt Blue in Belgium.
Brewed in the North benefits from its extensive reliance on the Labatt archives and an unpublished history of the company by the late historian Albert Tucker. It contains a few factual errors (inconsequential for the importance of the book); for example, the price offered for Labatt in 1995 by Onex Corp., an unsuccessful bidder, was not $940 million (that was the equity portion) but $2.3 billion. Nonetheless, although other useful histories of Ontarian or Canadian brewing have been written, they lack Bellamy’s systematic approach; hence this book’s special value.
Food on the Move, Dining on the Legendary Railway Journeys of the World, edited by Sharon Hudgins (Reaktion Books, 2018). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti (pictured above).
All aboard! Next stop: an invitation to learn about dining on trains travelling some of the legendary routes through all the continents except for Antarctica.
Food on the Move will appeal to the cultural and culinary historian, artist or railway buff. It includes stories by nine eminent individuals who have ridden the rails for work, travel or pleasure. They recount personal stories about their adventures, providing a unique perspective on their experiences. These pieces give us fascinating insights into how train travel and dining evolved in different parts of the world, especially with regard to class, and to the types of food that passengers brought on board, bought from snack bars or were served in upscale dining cars.
Tested recipes accompany every story so that we can savour the particular foods presented, along with some of the menus of meals shared on the trains. Photos of the dining cars showcase the opulent interiors and the food (even before Instagram) that was served on board or sold at stations. The images provide a better understanding of the different cuisines featured on these routes.
I particularly liked the descriptions of the dining cars; for example, in Arjan Den Boer’s piece about the Orient Express, he quotes French writer Georges Boyer, who commented on the inaugural run of the Orient Express. In 1883, Boyer described a dining car in Le Figaro as being “furnished with Maroquin tapestries, Cordoba leather, and Genoa velvet, made up of a spacious dining room, a smoking room and library, a boudoir for the ladies, a pantry and a kitchen where a chef of the first order works.” It almost feels as though you are personally enjoying the journey, surrounded by luxury and experiencing the excitement of that very first trip.
The pictures of the trains, both exterior and interior, demonstrate the changes in the evolution from steam engines to modern Bullet Trains. I especially appreciated the art in the advertisements for train travel by the different train companies and the photographs of people, landscapes and train stations.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Canadian Judy Corser, whose entry is titled “Sockeye Salmon and Saskatoon Pie: Regional Foods on Canada’s Long-Distance Railways.” Corser has done an excellent job of writing about the evolution of trains and train travel in Canada. After all, it was the railway that helped join our beautiful country together!
Corser describes how National Parks and grand CPR hotels such as the Banff Springs Hotel were established as a result of railway construction. I learned about the “colonist cars” that were built by the CPR specifically to transport immigrants to many parts of Canada, from the 1880s until the Great Depression. Most importantly, I better appreciate the work that went into preparing a day’s meal on the train, the types of foods served, and the service that was provided by the porters and waiters.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and feel that it might make an armchair traveller into a train traveller, ready to explore unknown destinations in style. Train travel gives one time to enjoy the views and slow down the pace of life (even on a high-speed train) while savouring the delicious meals that you are certain to enjoy on the rails.
The Food in Jars Kitchen by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, 2019). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
The height of the preserving season is the right time to get to know Marisa McClellan. Of all the scores of food-preserving writers who originally launched blogs, she is one—perhaps the only one—who has persevered and made it into her career. A Philadelphia resident, Marisa launched the site “Food in Jars” in 2009, and it soon became a beloved resources for the thousands of canners who visited every month for recipes, how-tos and new product assessments.
Marisa published her first book, Food in Jars, in 2012. It is a general preserving cookbook that is already a standard in the field. She has since followed it up with Preserving by the Pint (small-batch recipes), Naturally Sweet Food in Jars (preserves using sugar alternatives) and her most recent book, The Food in Jars Kitchen, which is a tremendously useful compendium of recipes sweet and savoury that use preserves as an ingredient. Like her other books, it is a beautifully designed and photographed hardcover printed on thick, lustrous paper that will resist spills.
With this book, Marisa espouses “empty-jar to empty-jar education,” meaning that she wants to help her readers avoid ending up with a shelf of unused preserves. In her warm and helpful voice, Marisa explains her relationship to each recipe and leads the reader through clear and simple instructions, often for common, everyday foods that don’t need much fancy equipment (except in some cases a food processor).
Of course, there are plenty of baking recipes: scones, Victoria sponge, bars, brownies, cookies and rolls. But there are also sauces and frozen sweets, pastas and braised meats made with jams, chutneys, sauerkraut, pickles and other “food in jars.” Just in case, at the back of the book Marisa includes a collection of ten “Essential Preserves,” which is itself a handy reference; featured are one berry and one stone fruit jam, an “Adaptable Chutney,” a marmalade, a sauerkraut, a kimchi and so on.
With full canning recipes and the versatile “essentials,” The Food in Jars Kitchen could serve as a beginner’s book or a staple for an experienced preserver. Highly recommended!
A Hastiness of Cooks, A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks, for Living-History Reenactors, Historians, Writers, Chefs, Archaeologists, and, of Course, Cooks by Cynthia D. Bertelsen (Turquoise Moon Press, 2018), reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
Cynthia Bertelsen’s new book is an archaeological guide to cooking with fire, an historical treatise on cookbooks and a step-by-step analysis of recipes in various seminal Spanish and English cookbooks. Most of all, it is an attempt at entering the minds of those historical cooks, through their written recipes.
Culinary historians may find this book useful for many reasons, particularly the clear introductions to “what is a cookbook” and the section on using cookbooks in historical research. Experienced living-history cooks will recognize the steps in recipe reconstruction, but Bertelsen lays it all out here with a practiced ease. Tools for background research and the appendices are also helpful, citing all of the sources that Bertelsen clearly uses in her own research.
Recreating historic recipes, “The Practical” section (Part IV) makes its way through all of the best-known Spanish and English cookbooks by recreating historic recipes. This section is irritating, interesting and enlightening all at the same time—I did not personally like the conceit of Bertelsen’s introductions in the “voice” of the author of the original cookbook—but the method of inquiry is sound. The Notes regarding the final dish, for further investigation or better execution of the dish the next time, are welcome additions and the modern recipes are, as always, a great addition to a book about cooking and food.
Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants by Ann Hui (Douglas & McIntyre, 2019), reviewed by Fiona Lucas (pictured above).
I didn’t know much about Chinese cuisines and restaurants in Canada before I read Ann Hui’s marvellous Chop Suey Nation, although I felt familiar with the general history of the Chinese people in Canada. I feel much better informed now, as well as touched by this impressive collection, which is part history lesson, part family detective memoir.
Hui is the national food reporter for the Globe and Mail, in which I read her 2016 series on Chinese-Canadian restaurants. The series was prompted by two small questions: “How did you wind up here?” and “What brought you here?” The answers were gathered from diverse restaurateurs during an 18-day road trip from Victoria, British Columbia, to Fogo Island, Newfoundland.
Only after the series was published did Hui discover that her own parents had owned just such a restaurant, the Legion Café in her subtitle. She then asked them the same two questions. Their surprising answers opened an unexpected door into her own family’s blended immigration and restaurant history, which evolved into this delightful, poignant book.
While unravelling the sweet-and-sour story of her hidden background, Hui simultaneously and skilfully interweaves narratives of mid- to late-20th-century Canadian society around small-town restaurants, restaurateurs and first-, second- and third-generation Chinese immigrants. It’s a rich investigation that includes querying the concept of authenticity in the restaurant meals versus the home cooking of immigrant populations, and that leads to her identifying the origins of “chop suey cuisine” and the ubiquitous buffets across the country, as well as the local adaptations of Chinese pierogis and Newfoundland chow mein. Lots of colour photographs enhance the book.
Perhaps the one thing missing from Hui’s analysis is acknowledgement of some of the existing literature about Chinese-Canadian restaurants, such as Sky Lee’s novel The Disappearing Moon Café (1990), Judy Fong Bates’ novel Midnight at the Dragon Café(2004) and Fred Wah’s memoir Diamond Grill (1996). Chop Suey Nation is crisply and compellingly told. When you next enter a Chinese-Canadian restaurant, you’ll eat your chop suey dinner with new discernment.
Healing Cannabis Edibles: Exploring the Synergy of Power Herbs by Ellen Novack & Pat Crocker (self-published, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above).
Ellen Novack and CHC Lifetime Member Pat Crocker have written Healing Cannabis Edibles to respond to the growing need for a straightforward explanation of how to use cannabis for healing.
The book explores eight medical areas: appetite loss, athletic enhancement, anxiety, epilepsy, inflammation, memory, pain and sleep. Each condition is treated in its own chapter in the book, with recipes that include other herbs and foods that enhance the desired effects of cannabis. Beautiful illustrations, recipe notes and a glossary also make the book very appealing and easy to use.
Pat Crocker is, of course, well known for her 22 cookbooks, including The Herbalist’s Kitchen and The Healing Herbs Cookbook. Her personal interest in herbs and her wish to alleviate her husband’s chronic back pain were the impetus for attending the gardening talk where she met Novack, a business and corporate writer, speech writer and book editor. Novack ran an event planning and writing company, Grand Events, for almost 20 years. Her personal interest in creating the book is in the potential uses of CBD oil for her epileptic son’s condition.
Cannabis for medical use has been legal in Canada since 2001, but legalization for recreational use, which began in October 2018, has driven up the price a bit, making it difficult for some users to afford it. In spite of this, the medical benefits of cannabis are accepted where other drugs may not be effective; for example, its use to treat nausea and vomiting, as side effects of chemotherapy, is covered under certain benefit plans in Canada.
The spiritual and sacred nature of cannabis and other herbs in relation to their healing properties is also thoroughly explored in this book, making a nice contrast to the scientific and medical advice at the beginning of each chapter. The authors clearly enjoyed working together to produce this reasonably priced and informative paperback.
Through happenstance, I recently obtained both of these books. I realized they have features in common; hence this double review. Both are substantial records of recipes that have satisfied the North American sweet tooth, both have beautiful full-page photos, and both have similar versions of some recipes, like Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, of which I have fond childhood memories, and Pink Champagne Cake, which I’ve somehow never heard of before.
First the Redpath book, subtitled Over 200 Delectable Recipes for Cakes, Breads, Desserts and More. It opens with several pages and photographs about the company’s history and sugar technology—avoiding reference to its colonial past—and then an excellent survey of ingredients and equipment for baking success.
Chapters cover cookies, bars, muffins, cakes, icings, pies, breads, puddings and candies. Each recipe is clearly formatted and explained. I made the Gingersnaps—nice snap and ginger flavour! But prep time was 35 minutes, not the promised 15. At the back are good illustrations on basic decorating with marzipan, royal icing and piping bags. To my surprise, this Canadian book does not pair metric measurements with the standard volume measurements, but has a metric conversion table instead.
American Cake also has a subtitle: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes. As with the Redpath book, it opens with historical info and a survey of ingredients, but much more substantively, in keeping with its historical focus. Its ten chapters are chronological, covering a timespan from 1650 to the new millennium, and each begins with an overview showing how social changes in that particular era influenced cake styles.
Numerous sidebars zero in on such topics as the arrival of bundt pans and pineapples in the States. Each recipe has an introduction outlining its individual origin story, and is also clearly formatted and explained. My sole disappointment with this wonderful book is the lack of original recipe texts. It was frustrating to be told that a recipe was modified, but in most cases not told in what way. Including the originals would certainly have added pages, but it would have also have added great value.
The Redpath Canadian Bake Book does have a somewhat corporate feel to it, but it really captures the sense of what Canadians of many cultures and ethnicities like to bake at home today, the common denominator obviously being sugar. A few more recipes from the sweet traditions of new Canadians would have been welcome.
American Cake was not written by a historian but by a professional baker who is also a cookbook author and food editor: Anne Byrn. She did some impressive research in old cookbooks and women’s magazines, with the personal help of long lists of respected food historians, such as Jan Longone, William Woy Weaver and Toni Tipton-Martin, and various libraries, archives and culinary associations. I learned so much! Do you know the origin stories of chocolate brownies and angel food cake?
I liked both books, but I especially liked American Cake. Now someone needs to write Canadian Cake: The Stories and Recipes Behind Our Best-Loved Cakes. Redpath Sugar’s cake and cupcake recipes, plus its role in their historical development, would be sure to feature in that eventual book.
T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russian Far East by Sharon Hudgins, with recipes by Sharon Hudgins & Tom Hudgins (Great American Cooking Series, volume 5, University of North Texas Press, 2018). Reviewed by Luisa Giacometti, pictured above.
The first thing that intrigued me about this book, aside from the colourful cover, was the title and the fact that Texans wrote it while in Siberia and the Russian Far East! Sharon Hudgins wrote a culinary memoir of the time she and her husband spent in Siberia, where they taught at two Russian universities in the 1990s and subsequently returned in 2006. Whatever perceptions you may have about Siberia and its cuisine, this book will confirm and dispel them at the same time.
The author has written a travelogue, a cultural and historical guide and a food reference with delicious recipes mixed in. The stories of living in housing with many electrical and other challenges (this being the norm for Russian women) was interesting, as were the many stories of food origins and uses of certain foods for special occasions, holidays and feasts.
I enjoyed learning about afternoon teas with the concept of time stretching as long as a task takes to accomplish, as long as a conversation needs to last, in a leisurely manner and often with frequent interruptions from new visitors joining the circle. It seems a congenial way of informally appreciating each other’s company and sharing information. These are the mores and norms of a culture that values people.
Helen and George Papashvily observed in their introduction to Russian Cooking over 50 years ago: “Rich, robust, and plenteous, [Slavic cooking] is designed to nourish the spirit as well as the flesh.” This perfectly captures the essence of Russian cuisine and hospitality as described by the Hudginses through their culinary and other adventures.
The recipes are a collection of European, Texan and Russian. Tom (Sharon’s husband) would meticulously scour the markets to find ingredients that would fit into an American recipe, such as roasted T-bone “Whacks” (a thick cut of T-bone steak) and Spanish Mushrooms with Ham (yes, Spanish—a real eclectic mix!). They explain what makes good Siberian Salmon Dumplings (pel’meni) or Russian crepes. The Hudginses shared their American recipes with their Russian friends, and Russian recipes were reciprocated. All these recipes use local ingredients that can easily be found in Toronto markets.
Reading this book is like having friends recount stories about their stay in Russia and all the delectable meals they tasted, experienced and cooked with limited resources while having a wonderful time with new friends and neighbours who shared their hospitality and food with them. It is an excellent example of how food is the universal way of bringing people together!
Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman (HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2018). Reviewed by Gary Gillman (pictured above).
This is Kauffman’s first book, but he is an experienced food journalist with a background in both cooking and restaurant reviewing. The thinking type of food journalist, he has published many fine pieces in various editions of Best Food Writing.
His term “hippie food” is a convenient catch-all that encompasses health food as generally understood, meaning organic, natural, vegetarian and, sometimes, raw foods. His purpose is to explain how hippie food rejected the industrialized, technology-driven food system that preceded it, a sociopolitical stance as much as “an embrace of new flavours and ingredients.”
The author is careful not to advocate the health claims of hippie food, some of which were contradictory or simply far-fetched, but shows an understandable empathy for the desire to live better in the wake of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, cited by Kauffman as a galvanizing factor in health-food consciousness. Despite the loopy message in particular of early macrobiotics, Kauffman points out that some messages of the text Zen Macrobiotics resonate to this day, in particular the insistence on seasonal produce and rejection of crops treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
The book describes the roots of the health food industry in California and its best-known promoters, such as Paul Bragg, a good-looking phys-ed teacher who wrote the 1930s book Live Food Cook Book. Kauffman explains that the year-round agricultural climate in California, and the many doctors and alternative medicine practitioners who flocked there to help those seeking the warmth as a balm, favoured the emergence of a health food subculture that was a key precursor of the hippie food movement.
Successive chapters deal with the advent of brown rice after the initial difficulty to persuade farmers to grow it; macrobiotics, promoted by George Ohsawa, who came to New York from Japan in 1959 to lecture on his yin and yang principle; the rise of brown and whole-grain breads, with due acknowledgment of 19th-century pioneers such as Sylvester Graham; tofu—an ur-food of the health food movement if ever there was one—and the various soy foods that preceded it, such as Adventist soy cutlets; organic farming and its promotion in the hills of Vermont and California, often by urbanites seeking refuge from the culture wars; vegetarian cooking and the spur it received from the growth of international travel; and the creation of countless consumer food co-operatives, many short-lived.
Along the way are countless portraits of the people behind these developments, from the colourful Californian Gypsy Boots, who became an unlikely TV star, to studious Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet, to Mollie Katzen, who helped found Moosewood Collective Restaurant in Ithaca, NY.
I found little to cavil about, but would have liked some reference to Pepperidge Farm whole-wheat bread. It was developed in 1937 by an upper-crust (sorry!) couple from the Connecticut stockbroker belt and promoted to a New York bourgeois set initially. True, they weren’t hippies, but the growth of this product helped create an atmosphere in which brown bread dogma could later flourish.
At least some classic hippie foods were revivals of much older regional dishes. Avocado on bread is explained as a classic counterculture food emerging from the West Coast, but it was known in the late 1800s in Florida.
Finally, reading this study made me realize how health foodism, as big an industry as it is and now partly co-opted by big business (granola was an early prize in this regard), is still a subculture. I consider myself reasonably informed on culinary traditions yet had never read most of the classic health food books Kauffman cites. I don’t think I’ve missed anything by Elizabeth David, though.
The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North America by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
The Ghost Orchard is a lovely book: a lament for the many vanished varieties of apple, intertwined with memories of a dear friend and a dear grandfather. It is simple and profound, factual and contemplative, and altogether a lovely read.
Humphreys ponders the ancient White Winter Pearmain apple, once much admired, now largely forgotten. Her curiosity about its apple-pear taste was her “portal into the lost history of the lost apples,” which she recounts through five overlooked topics. Apple histories in North America are usually told from a colonial settler perspective because they are an imported species, but chapter one is about the many First Nations who planted apple orchards. Chapter two features Ann Jessop, a Quaker preacher who distributed apple scions during her far-flung travels through the American states, including the White Winter Pearmain. She predated Johnny Appleseed by 50 years.
Interspersed through the book are many colour plates of exquisitely depicted apples, dating between 1887 and 1940, from the Pomological Watercolour Collection commissioned by the USA Department of Agriculture. The watercolourists are the subject of chapter three, in which we also learn that Humphreys’s grandfather was a professional botanical artist. Chapter four focuses on the apple lover and poet Robert Frost, whose Vermont orchard of only yellow apples, which he planted at age 83 in 1957 knowing he’d not live to eat the fruit, partially lives on today.
The lone apple trees that dot the urban jungle as evidence of long-gone farms and home orchards appear in chapter five. Then there’s the fanciful narrative about how the White Winter Pearmain (pictured at left) was discovered by two homesick medieval knights. The book concludes with an extensive Glossary of Lost Apples with intriguing names, including Agathe, Catface, Front Door, Granny Spice, Mamma, Montreal Peach, Republican Pippin, Stormproof, Verbena, War Woman, Winter Cheese and many more. Our supermarkets carry a mere dozen or so hardy varieties, whereas dozens were once regionally grown. “Memory becomes its own ghost orchard.”
I wish an index and more endnotes had been included, and more Canadian material. Also, oddly, the apple descriptions do not reference the relevant plates, which would be easy if they were numbered. It would have been nice to see some of her grandfather’s botanical paintings reproduced too.
Humphreys’s imagery and poeticism is lyrical, lush, loving, lucid. The Ghost Orchard is a personal and poignant—also well-researched—study of lost apples, lost flavours, lost people, not-quite lost memories. Reading it was a true pleasure, like eating a flavourful golden-yellow apple on a cool autumn afternoon: misty and nostalgic.
Lindy Mechefske, Out of Old Ontario Kitchens (MacIntyre Purcell Publishing, 2018). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
We don’t have many books on Ontario’s food history, so a new one is welcome. Such an attractive one too, sure to be a useful quick reference in many a personal and public library. In Out of Old Ontario Kitchens, CHC member Lindy Mechefske has done a nice job of surveying the daily dishes eaten by a wide range of Ontarians up until post-World War II, including interweaving references to Indigenous traditions. It’s a richly illustrated overview that serves as an excellent introduction for an audience mostly unfamiliar with but curious about a big topic.
The book is full of appealing recipes from old cookbooks, manuscripts, newspapers and card boxes, all accompanied by historical context. It simulates a colourful homemade scrapbook—full of pictures and recipes on “cards” and “scraps of paper” “taped” in, interspersed with text—that’s been kept open on the kitchen counter during cooking. Hence the many “splotches” and “stains.”
Its visual appeal is considerable. There’s a wonderful sampling of family photos, advertisements, portraits, drawings and covers of seed packages. Most recipes are typeset on “recipe cards,” but a few are scanned from original books or real handwritten recipe cards. The handwriting is so evocative of family traditions living on!
Many intriguing questions about Ontario’s food history are provoked. I wonder about the first appearance of Jewish latkes and Finnish pulla in Ontario cookbooks, which is part of the bigger story of when mainstream Anglo-Canadian cookbooks began to recognize recipes from other immigrant communities. This is a big project still awaiting rigorous attention! I learned that the Algonquians planted apple orchards in the 1700s (I must learn more) and that the first cannery in Prince Edward County was established as early as 1870, not the mid-1880s as I had thought.
Particularly enjoyable are the family anecdotes and histories attached to many of the recipes, because they continue the past into today’s kitchens. One example is Mechefske’s own mother’s Glazed Ginger Shortbread, which she brought with her from England; another is Bertha White’s Golden Corn Cake, one of the wonderful handwritten cards “taped” in. White is one of the several Ontarians, famous and ordinary, whose stories are briefly told beside their recipes.
Not all quotations are endnoted, and more of the commentary should have been endnoted too. Disconcertingly, in the bibliography, the authors’ first names are reduced to initials only (according to APA style) and the index includes only recipes, which is unfortunate because the book is chock-full of other information that is not easily retrieved. For instance, I remember that the author’s mother and Bertha White each have several other recipes included, but which ones?
Furthermore, the most recent research shows that “journey” is disputed as the likely origin word for Johnny Cake; “sarce” once designated much more than dried apples; and “emptins” are the dregs of fermenting ale, not a synonym for potato bread starter. And I think it odd that Mechefske chose the same title as Tina Bates’s 1978 seminal book, which is mentioned in the bibliography.
Mechfeske writes nimbly, covers a breadth of topics succinctly, and has obvious respect for Ontario’s family cooks and cookbooks. This is a terrific survey that will be helpful to many a student preparing a project and to researchers looking for a quick answer. Better yet, the recipes call to action in the kitchen.
You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, edited by Chris Ying (Artisan Books, 2018). Reviewed by Sarah Hood, pictured above.
A collection of tasty essays—some bite-size, others full servings—that examine commonalities in otherwise disparate food cultures. Some are surveys of a particular manner of preparing food, like the one about all the different types of food wrapped in leaves (“Leaves Make Things Steamy” by Aralyn Beaumont), from Greek stuffed vine leaves to Chinese sticky rice in bamboo leaves or Mexican tamales in corn husks. Others delve deeper into philosophical issues, like the thoughtful piece by René Redzepi of the renowned Danish restaurant Noma (“If It Does Well Here, It Belongs Here”), about cross-cultural influences and cultural appropriation in culinary spheres.
There are many Canadian connections, like “Mennonite Cheese Is Mexican Cheese” by Michael Snyder, which documents an expat Mennonite community’s fortunes as farmers, shopkeepers and especially cheesemakers in Mexico. In “Much Depends on How You Hold Your Fork,” Wendell Steavenson tracks down culinary historian and author Margaret Visser (Much Depends on Dinner, The Rituals of Dinner) in the remote retreat in the Pyrenees where she now lives with her husband, Colin, to discuss dining decorum.
By no means does this collection gloss over the frictions, antagonisms and injustices that arise among human beings. Essays like Osayi Endolin’s “Fried Chicken Is Common Ground” even probe painful issues such as the difficult history of fried chicken and its relationship with racist stereotypes in the American South. But overall, it’s a cheerful, optimistic and engaging read. My only caveat: it will probably make you want to hurry out to try some dish or ingredient you’ve never tasted before.
Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray (Prospect Books, 2009). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
You may recall that I reviewed a new biography of cookbook author Patience Gray in Digestible Bits and Bites’ December issue, titled Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray, by Adam Federman. I enjoyed it very much, even though I’d not read any of Gray’s books. It prompted me to get a copy of her best-known cookbook, Honey from a Weed, a title I was familiar with from reading other authors. I said I’d report back. It may not be a recent book, but it is a book new to me, and perhaps to you too, so worth reviewing. And recommending.
Alan Davidson’s Prospect Books first published it in 1986, then re-released it in 1987 and 2002, and again in 2009. It’s considered to be one of the most influential 20th-century cookbooks. I found it mesmerizing. Rhapsodic. How did I manage to miss it during my 32 years of professionally reading cookbooks and culinary history books?
Patience Gray lived the last half of her long life (1917–2005) among the country people of the lowermost point on Italy’s peninsular heel, Apulia. Stretches of time were also spent in Carrara, Tuscany, in Catalonia, northwest Spain, and in the Greek Cyclade Islands, especially Naxos. She and her partner, sculptor Norman Mommens, became an integral part of the Apulia community, although they never lost their foreignness and Englishness. By living on a small rustic plot alongside their farm neighbours, they participated fully in the region’s seasonal and daily rhythms, making their own wine and olive oil, preserving fruits and lard, foraging for edible weeds and growing vegetables. They also cooked on an indoor hearth and grill, carried pails of water from pump to sink and eschewed refrigeration.
I think the cookbook became a classic because its narrative and recipes captured these rhythms and activities so evocatively, respectfully, with both scholarship and familiarity. I can understand the inspiration others must have felt when it was originally published. I can’t forget to mention Corinna Sargood’s dozens of wonderful line drawings, which are integral to the book’s charm.
Honey from a Weed is both autobiographical and archival. Gray knew she was recording the fading communal practices of ancient farming and foraging. Her meticulous observations and wide-ranging historical research, not to mention her frequent acerbic comments on what the 20th century wrought, really bring alive the very old culinary and agricultural continuity of these regions.
Cannabis Cuisine, Herb and Bong Appétit: Three Books About Cooking with Cannabis, reviewed by Elka Weinstein, pictured above
Now that cannabis is legal in Canada, it seems high time to review some cookbooks that utilize and celebrate the aromatic plant in “edibles,” as they are referred to in the new pot parlance.
Bong Appétit by the editors of Munchies & Elise McDonough (10speed Press / Penguin Random House, October 2018)
Munchies, an offshoot of VICE Media, is a website and digital video channel out of Los Angeles, hosted by self-professed cannabis-cooking experts Ry Prichard, Vanessa Lavorato and Abdullah Saeed. As the introduction says, the team at Munchies has experimented with adding cannabis to various kinds of food, some more successfully than others. (The most difficult recipe involves using nitrous oxide to make an alcoholic infusion with mezcal.)
Most recipes are credited to well-known chefs at specific restaurants, such as executive chef Sam Smith at Tusk. Beautifully illustrated, Bong Appétit features clear instructions and ingredient lists. Though it does not suggest specific cannabis strains for each recipe, it does have a section titled “Ry’s Pairing Suggestions for Popular Strains.”
In spite of the cutesy title, this book is the one that I would purchase as a total novice in using edible cannabis. The introductory chapter has sections on equipment and on the usable parts of the plant and its derivates, including kief, water hash, concentrates and extracts. It also explains terpenes (a critical chemical component of cannabis), how to buy weed, where to buy it, and how to prepare it—all very important if you don’t want to be disappointed with your first tries at cooking with cannabis.
Whether you’re looking to try some of these recipes as a first-time “edibles” consumer or you’ve used cannabis before and want the experience to be less experimental, you will find some pretty heady (and delicious) recipes in this book.
Cannabis Cuisine, Bud Pairings of a Born Again Chef by Andrea Drummer (Mango, 2017)
In this part-biography, part-cookbook, chef Andrea Drummer traces her transformation from vehement anti-drug counsellor to “born-again” cannabis advocate to her current status as a celebrity chef and one of ten Top Cannabis Chefs in the USA. Cannabis Cuisinereads like a revelation of Drummer’s discoveries of herself as a chef and of the culinary, medicinal and personal properties of cannabis as a flavour and mood enhancer. Her philosophy is clear: “To orchestrate a great dining experience, one must first identify the participants of choice.”
This is an entertaining read. Childhood memories are interspersed with chapters grouping foods together (slightly idiosyncratically), while many recipes suggest “Bud Pairings” (cannabis strains) for their specific properties, taste and THC percentage. Drummer’s recipes are fairly innovative; most use cannaoil or cannabutter as substitutes for the usual lipids, and the cannabis pairings make sense.
My only quibble is that, although Drummer does explain the fundamentals of how to prepare cannaoil and cannabutter, she does not provide a glossary of terms. I would have liked one, particularly for the cannabis strains. Leafing through the book to find which kinds are suitable for which dishes is a bit tedious, and since most strains are now standardized and available, it would have been helpful to have them all in one place.
Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis by The Stoner’s Cookbook, Melissa Parks & Laurie Wolf (Inkshares, 2015)
This book is very clearly produced for states where cannabis is legal, and indeed, according to their bios, the chefs live in Portland, Oregon and Colorado. Another American practice—warnings about the possible deleterious effects of foods not cooked thoroughly or treated the wrong way before consuming—is featured in a note from the publisher and a disclaimer in bold type that precede the introduction.
The introductory chapter is a clear and easy-to-read how-to on the effects of cannabis, its medicinal properties, and how to produce cannaoil and cannabutters. The recipes are grouped into recognizable cookbook chapters (Dips and Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts), but the recipes do not include suggestions for selecting particular strains of cannabis for dishes, leaving it to the reader to choose the best fit.
Except for the addition of cannabis, these are fairly standard recipes that would work perfectly well without cannabis. And again, there is no glossary. However, the food photography really makes this book shine; photographer Bruce Wolf is Chef Laurie Wolf’s husband, and his eye for detail and light make all of the recipes look mouthwateringly beautiful.
Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
While retrieving a library book I’d put on hold, I caught sight of an arresting black-and-white photo on the front cover of a new book, of an old woman with windswept hair. She radiated a fascinating life well lived. My eye immediately saw the name Patience Gray in the title. I was familiar with food writer Patience Gray, having seen her and her book Honey from a Weed mentioned admiringly by other food writers. I also recalled having read pieces by her in early issues of PPC*. Quixotically, I could even remember that those PPC pieces were cowritten by her son Nick Gray. Of course I had to get that book too—I had to read the life behind that face.
And what a life. Unconventional, for sure. Born in 1917, she started as a well-to-do middle-class English schoolgirl, but by her early 50s was living an ultra-simple rustic life in the remote Italian countryside with her companion, sculptor Norman Mommens. (I confess to not recognizing his name.)
Along the way to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, Patience was a single unwed mother in a primitive English cottage during the war, a research assistant to various magazine editors, a freelance writer about art and design, a wallpaper designer, a contributing translator of Larousse Gastronomique and a friend to many well-known people in literary, music, art and journalism circles.
It turns out she wrote other cookbooks too, although Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia (1986, 1987, 2002), remains her best known. It’s based on her decades of life wandering the hillsides of these places, both alone and in the company of the peasant women and children who were able to teach her to identify the hundreds of wild leaves, roots, fruits and mushrooms that constituted a huge portion of daily fare before the consumerist world started to replace the old ways in the 1960s.
Her biographer, Adam Federman, had a lot of sources to work from. Patience Gray befriended many people, with whom she corresponded prolifically. Many of those letters survive, as does all her journalism, as well as her and Mommens’ private papers, photographs and recorded BBC interviews. Her son and daughter, Nick and Miranda, and various family members, colleagues, friends and children of friends all shared memories with Federman, not all of them flattering. With her unusual life came some self-interested attitudes and actions, many hurtful and therefore not forgotten.
As a reader, I found myself being simultaneously impatient with her egotistic impracticality, especially about money, but appreciative of her single-minded insistence on honouring a vanishing food culture by living it with Mommens. However, as an experienced copy editor, I found myself sometimes confused in places where Federman leaves out explanatory details, such as the title of a very small handmade book of historical Catalan recipes that Gray wrote in 1969 to honour a friend (and it’s not included in the bibliography, nor on Wikipedia). He is not always clear about which friend he was referring to; he sometimes skips around time periods and locations.
Federman does all this enough to exasperate me, but nonetheless he evokes an extraordinary person, life partnership, era and place with skillful comprehension that is at times thrilling. The reader journeys toward Honey from a Weed and why it’s considered one of the greatest 20th-century cookbooks.
I thus see Gray’s life in her wrinkled, sun-brown, wise-woman face, but now wanting to read her own words. I’ve ordered her book from the library; I’ll let you know in the next issue what I learn.
*Petits Propos Culinaires: Food, Cookery, Cookery Books
Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada, ed. Elizabeth Baird & Bridget Wranich (Whitecap Books, 2018). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
In the world of culinary history, there is a certain divide between the academic stream of primarily textual researchers and those who actually cook from historic recipes, often in the context of interpretation at museums and historic houses. Like its predecessor Setting a Fine Table, which covers recipes of the later Georgian period (likewise produced at Fort York National Historic Site), Recipes for Victory doesn’t so much cross this divide as ignore it entirely, with the result of offering a unique view into the period of the Great War as seen from a Canadian perspective through the lens of food.
There are few if any such thorough guides to First World War cooking. The text—including articles by Toronto’s Chief Curator Wayne Reeves, Program Development Officer Kevin Hebib of Fort York and retired Parks Canada Military Curator David Webb—is a fine example of rigorous scholarship presented in language that would be easy for the average high-school student to read.
The contributors have mined military attestation records, contemporary newspapers, personal letters and notebooks, genealogical sources and, of course, cookbooks of the period to create a compelling historical account of cooking and eating at home, overseas and on the battle lines. The book contains plenty of engaging stories of individual soldiers and cooks, as well as copious historical images and photos of food prepared from the recipes.
Reading through accounts of the time, I found myself experiencing low-level anxiety as I pictured myself trying to churn out meals—perhaps for 50 to 100 soldiers at a time—using makeshift equipment cobbled from jerrycans, canteen tins, sheet metal and raw earth. I imagined myself surviving on the meagre soldiers’ fare. Although the authors take pains to point out that the stereotypical bully beef and hard tack were seldom the only food available, there was certainly deprivation in terms of taste and quality, if not calories. (The book dwells on the importance of baked gifts from home, offering recipes for durable cakes that could be shipped, gladdening the hearts of their recipients.)
Even at home, the strain would have been considerable. Apart from constant injunctions to stretch food, use less appealing ingredients and avoid waste, by 1918, the book tells us, Canadian homemakers faced jail or imprisonment for icing cakes or stocking more than 15 days’ flour or sugar at home: a true hardship at a time when most still did a lot of baking!
Nonetheless, ingenuity found a way. No sugar? Use dates! Flour in short supply? Make delicious potato-based breads! Along with trench fare, Recipes for Victory provides instructions for the sweet treats that continued to be served at Canadian tea parties and other such gatherings despite (or because of) the looming shadow of war. They come from well-known cookbooks of the time, recipes created by the companies that sold cookware and ingredients, government pamphlets and compilations by home cooks such as The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book by the Women’s Patriotic League of Brockville, Ontario (1918). Many of the recipes are sourced from Aunt Hanna’s War-Time and Peace-Time Recipes (Toronto, 1918), a fundraising cookbook published by the Ladies of Ward 2 Patriotic Association of Toronto, with proceeds going toward the purchase of a motor ambulance.
Each recipe is presented in its original version as well as in an adaptation for the modern kitchen, all meticulously tested at Fort York by the Volunteer Historic Cooks (most of them members of the CHC, including the editors themselves, as well as Mark D’Aguilar, Brenda Dalglish, John Hammond, Jan Main, Peggy Mooney and Sherry Murphy). Mark D’Aguilar and Melissa Beynon contributed photography. It should be noted that our own Julia Armstrong, who proofreads this newsletter, was responsible for copy editing and proofreading Recipes for Victory—an impressive achievement.
In sum, this book is a priceless resource for anyone wishing to recreate WWI-era cookery; I know of no other that offers such a wide range of recipes faithfully redeveloped for today’s cooks of all skill levels. Its subtitle is clever, because ultimately Recipes for Victory is not just about food of the Great War, but also great war food.
I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg (Penguin Random House, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
Bracing, caustic, perceptive and often funny. Wonderful too, from her in-your-face title through to the last pages outlining the vision for what would become her popular Grey Gardens restaurant in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Jen Agg has penned a substantial no-holds-barred account of her so far 40-plus years, from happy Scarborough childhood to rebellious teen to neophyte bartender to naïve restaurateur to high-profile businesswoman. She experiences life wholly and vividly. I loved this memoir by one of Toronto’s best-known, most innovative restaurateurs.
Agg is the force of nature behind The Black Hoof (charcuterie), Cocktail Bar (self-explanatory), Rhum Corner (Caribbean food, rum cocktails), Grey Gardens (wine bar, seafood) and, in Montreal, Agrikol (Haitian food and cocktails). Her most recent place is Le Swan (French bistro). She gives full credit to her skilled front-of-house and kitchen staff, and her artist husband, Roland Jean, but in truth she’s the fiery visionary.
Her personal style is fully reflected in her writing style—bland she ain’t. Witty, humane, potty-mouthed, decisive, blunt, jubilant, intense, intelligent, acutely self-aware, critical, bawdy, impatient, motherly. Shouty and opinionated too, as she gleefully admits. Outspoken in the best of ways—speaking out on behalf of women in the restaurant industry, challenging long-held sexist attitudes and actions. She views the world through joyful and wrathful feminist eyes. My only complaint: there’s no index.
Agg writes about the chronology of her restaurants as she learns, sometimes the hard way via bankruptcy and toxic partnerships, to become an effective entrepreneur within a largely male environment. She adds in life lessons about being a daughter, wife, stepmother, good friend, bad friend, den mother to various staff, and about becoming unapologetically herself. She doesn’t let herself off the hook about the many questionable decisions made along the way, but neither does she downplay her innovative successes. For those seeking case studies about what to do and what not to do while creating new restaurants, here are some real stories.
A cracking good read.
Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change by Scott Kennedy (Dundurn Press, 2017). Reviewed by Laura Reilly, pictured above.
This interesting book is not a cookbook. It is a history of the development and eventual demise of the abundant farms and small Ontario communities that were established in Don Mills and surrounding North York in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a brief introduction and informative background chapter, each of the subsequent 27 chapters focuses on a farm in the area. Each farm reveals an intriguing story that readers may have some familiarity with.
There is the story of the Maryvale Farm, owned by Frank and Ellen O’Connor. They are the founders of the Laura Secord Candy Company, which they started in 1913 with a bit of savings and a candy recipe. The Oriole Lodge Farm became a model farm under the care of George Stewart Henry, who “helped form the Farmer’s Dairy, a co-operative created to ensure fair prices for the farmers.” Miner-turned-farmer F.M. Connell raised Ayrshire cattle, which produced milk that children with dairy allergies could tolerate.
The history of early Ontario settlement is woven into the accounts of the expansion and development of the most productive farms and farmlands (Class 1 farmland) in Ontario, which are now entirely covered by urban features: shopping malls, parks, roads and residential neighbourhoods. Descriptions of local families, property ownership, architecture, politics, community networks, agricultural practices, education and religion ebb and flow throughout the narrative.
Culinary historians will find the book of interest because of the descriptions of what was raised and grown on these farms, which supplied food to Toronto and area. Local seasonal supplies (“wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, turnips, apples”) provided the foundation for recipes created and adapted in Ontario homes and institutions.
The material is very well researched and supported with comprehensive notes and a bibliography and index. The author writes in a friendly and open manner that easily engages the reader. The lively text is accompanied by relevant photographs from different time periods. The combination of historical facts and Scott Kennedy’s opinions makes for entertaining and thought-provoking reading.
Rose Murray’s Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook: Easy, Feel-Good Food for Family and Friends (Whitecap, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, pictured above.
I thoroughly enjoyed leafing through CHC member Rose Murray’s latest Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook, and I think most cooks will find the recipes therein easy, comforting and delicious as well. I will definitely buy this book to have on hand when my family and I need a change from my usual cooking, or when I want a variation on something that I already make.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes that Murray shares in each chapter, and the pointers provided with each recipe. Her memories of cooking with her family are poignant and sweet, and the information on how to serve, when to serve, and special garnishes for plain dishes are very welcome. Murray also borrows a few recipes from friends, such as Elizabeth Baird’s Chorizo and Chicken Paella and Monda Rosenberg’s Easy Spicy Lasagna. These recipes remind one that although the book is meant for home cooks looking to make easy comfort food, it is also based on the author’s deep experience of creating many books for the Canadian cook.
The beautiful photos make the dishes seem very accessible. Indeed, in the acknowledgments, Murray thanks the Light Imaging Production team for “making the food in the book look like mine.”
I would highly recommend this book to anyone new to cooking, and as a gift for those who love cooking with local Canadian ingredients.
Provence to Pondicherry by Tessa Kiros (Quadrille Publications, 2017), reviewed by Gary Gilman, pictured above.
Tessa Kiros is a well-known culinary and travel writer who has focused on Mediterranean cuisines. The author was born in the UK and raised in South Africa, and now lives in Tuscany, Italy. The book seeks to show how French cooking and culinary techniques influenced food in territories formerly under French rule—in this case Guadeloupe, Vietnam, La Réunion, and Pondicherry in India.
The book handles the political history well but lightly: the prime focus is flora and fauna, food, peoples and cooks. In a word, this is not a work of political or social history but a popular work on food and travel. The book’s design has flair, with a cover that evokes a somewhat distressed 19th-century French volume.
The photography, by Manos Chatzikonstantis, is superb. It is often presented in a colourful “picture book” collage that complements the narrative. The combination gives a palpable sense of the areas visited. The narrative points to the various elements that together make a cuisine and culture: not just produce of land and waters, not just kitchen savvy, but also weather, architecture, what people wear.
French pays such as Normandy and Provence get close attention as the author asserts that they influenced the foodways of distant lands. The link results, she suggests, from ships having departed their ports to discover, settle and provision new colonies. Classic cream-based dishes from Normandy abound, as well as less familiar French recipes, to show connections to foreign recipes.
The author gives a mussels recipe from each area surveyed, thus five or six of them, which allows one to “compare and contrast.” There are many good travel observations, often of a lyrical turn. One, aptly underscored by a Kodachrome-like photo, describes a pleasing dissonance of brightly coloured plastic chairs and old weathered walls in a Vietnamese city.
Despite the inspirations of French cooking, the former colonies’ foods often exhibit a unique local character. A bananas-and-rum dish suggests this, as does the way the French-inspired wheat loaf is used with local ingredients and techniques in Vietnam. Another example: a white fish of Guadeloupe’s waters bathed in lime juice.
Kiros makes the point with regard to Provence that almost any element of its cuisine will match another, even when chosen at random. Her book shows that, in general, the ingredients and methods of La Francophonie, as widespread and diverse as they may be, can combine to similar effect. Somehow, things in a cuisine system just “fit” over time, a slow process of adaptation and accretion. (In a different but parallel context, one thinks of the Anglo-Indian kedgeree, or generic British “curries.”)
One hopes that a second volume will follow, covering areas settled by the French that are not canvassed in Provence to Pondicherry. Louisiana and Quebec in particular would be ideal for this treatment.
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro (Viking, 2004). Reviewed by Sonja Pushchak, pictured above.
If you find yourself picking through frosty-furry boxes of lasagna and butter chicken, hating yourself for having neither the time nor the inclination to cook, you can relax. We’re not the first generation to fall prey to the narcotizing effect of convenience food.
And stop thinking that the servitude of heat-and-serve was an industry response to consumer demand. No matter how much the corporate food world wants you to believe it’s really you that’s the customer, Something from the Oven reminds us that this prickly invention sprang from a cluster of wartime technologies looking for a permanent home.
Ever had a frozen entrée that made you think of expired field rations? Surprise! Fighting during the Second World War was challenging in terms of feeding the mobilized, so American factories retooled to produce assembly-line meals impervious to battlefield conditions. At war’s end, the relative inconvenience of a peacetime market and the distasteful expense of disassembling facilities got industry think-tanks busy devising processed products for civilians. Trays of airline sustenance, sometimes called food, were lateral no-brainers. But several other débuted shortcut products, such as concentrated mineral water (“just add water”) and canned hamburgers, went down in flames—no pun intended.
Eventually the industry got hip, cultivating astonishing allies in the war against scratch cuisine. Culinary professionals James Beard and Dionne Lucas were just two of the people who stopped casting deprecating glances at mixes just in time to sign lucrative spokesperson contracts. Luckily, Julia Child swept in on the backlash, and I’ll leave you to judge Masterchef’s deftly edited high tragedy of the underdone.
Available almost immediately when you place it on hold at your local library, Something from the Oven (2004) will feed your understanding of how we arrived at contemporary habits of mastication, especially while waiting for the microwave to ding so we could stir halfway through. For those interested in buying Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book, used copies start around $10.19; new copies start around $20 for softcover; and hardcover copies, courtesy of the bizarre pricing practices of the Internet, are $400.
France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt (Thames & Hudson, 2017). Reviewed by Sonja Pushchak (pictured above)
Well, Julia. Julia Child joined the ranks of extraordinary women recognized by a first name long ago. Her culinary philosophy, exuberantly launched with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, championed making over heating-and-serving in an era queasy with TV-dinnerism. By now, everyone who knows cooking has bought or read something by Julia. For Julia-philes, the pursuit of a library that encompasses her life, wit and expertise is something never quite finished.
You might expect France Is a Feast to be another cookbook, orchestrated to awe with gastronomic delights overlooked by her other publications. Not quite. Husband Paul is first in the subtitle because it’s his passionate devotion to photographing postwar France that provides the book’s purpose. How he seems to have captured it, if you’re a fan of Hollywood musicals, shares curious similarities with An American in Paris (1951). I’m just guessing, but the image opposite the title page looks a lot like the lamplit staircase that Leslie Caron descends to be swept into the arms of Gene Kelly. Paul Child, despite the analytical seriousness of his artist statements, prefigures Vincente Minelli’s vision in bringing that film to fruition: a desire to selectively create a magical French landscape; part materiality, part mind.
And that, if you amble along the book’s charming avenues while reading Paul’s letters, just about sums up how the two feel about their adopted home. From the moment Paul and Julia step off the boat and head for La Couronne, France’s oldest restaurant, for a lunch of oysters, Dover sole in “sputtering butter,” salad and local cheese, both husband and wife are wholeheartedly entranced and remain so for the years that Paul occupies various diplomatic posts for the US Information Service.
France Is a Feast is a journal with personality, ambitiously weaving the heady early days of bistro-hopping that feed Paul’s cultured soul and propel Julia toward a now legendary career with Paul’s many shots of Paris, Marseilles and Julia as you haven’t yet pictured her (in shorts, sundresses and cocktail ensembles). In an almost indispensable complement to My Life in France (2006), authors Alex Prud’homme and Katie Pratt have crafted this text as treasured partner Paul’s story, where haute and hardship, American pluck and French tradition converge to shape a diplomat’s career and the lives of a thoroughly dynamic couple.
The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World by Laura Kumin (Post Hill Press, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Hamilton Cookbook chronicles the life of American founding father and Revolutionary hero Alexander Hamilton, with a specific focus on eating and drinking during the late 1700s. Hamilton’s life was relatively short but fairly action-packed, so the historical description that comprises the first two chapters is very interesting reading.
The success of Hamilton, the Broadway musical, may have inspired Kumin to write the book, but she has been very thorough in creating a context for her theme, drawing on original historical texts such as Hamilton’s letters to his friends and fellow founding fathers. She also draws on cookbooks that were popular during Hamilton’s lifetime, many of which will be very familiar to culinary historians, such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy and The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs. Ice cream for dessert was a particular favourite of Hamilton’s family, and he was apparently extremely pleased to have introduced George and Martha Washington to the treat at a dinner in 1789.
Kumin’s explanations of how the meals were cooked, and by whom, includes a discussion of the fact that most middle- and upper-class houses would have had slaves, indentured servants or servants to help with various chores. Chapter 6 is a compendium of original and adapted recipes; the originals are reprinted from cookbooks of the time, and Kumin’s adaptations of them are in the spirit of the original versions. All of the day’s meals are covered in the recipe contents, and none of the recipes look too complicated or difficult for a home cook.
Kumin is an experienced food writer, cooking coach and author of the website MotherWouldKnow.com, which encourages readers to become confident home cooks. She also writes for the website Jewish Food Experience, which endeavours to “bring people together through the universal language of Jewish food.”
Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen (University of Manitoba Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong (pictured above)Lots has been written about iconic Canadian dishes such as butter tarts and regional specialties like Montreal bagels and saskatoon berry pie. Now author and University of Winnipeg associate professor Janis Thiessen gives us the scoop on the origins of equally iconic Canadian snack brands.
The story of Hawkins Cheezies, a family-based business since its founding, starts with the company’s development in the United States and eventual move to Tweed, Ontario, in 1949, and then to Belleville in 1956. Founding owner W.T. Hawkins and Jim Marker developed a technique of extruding cornmeal into various shapes that were cooked in vegetable shortening and then coated with aged cheddar cheese. Fifty-two years later, a small team of employees in Belleville continues the tradition using the original equipment, producing just enough bags to satisfy the market without having to expand.
Old Dutch potato chips, with the windmill on the bag, have been a Winnipeg success story since 1954. Western Canadians who grew up with Old Dutch consider them to be the only chip worth eating; those who move away enlist family members to send supplies. You’ll also read about Ganong, established in New Brunswick in 1893—Canada’s oldest independent family-operated chocolate business.
By digging through archives and business records and conducting oral histories with manufacturers, employees and others, Thiessen has uncovered fascinating details about how these companies started, how they have marketed their products through the years, and their struggles through labour disputes, plant fires and marketplace competition. The result is a thoroughly researched and well-written social and business history in which Thiessen touches on all her academic interests: 20th-century labour studies as well as food and oral history. Researchers and general readers alike will find much to munch on in this celebration of snacks.
Madrid: A Culinary History by Maria Paz Moreno (Big City Food Biographies, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Big City Food Biographies are intended to celebrate the food history of a city that is a culinary destination. The other three cities highlighted so far (New Orleans, San Francisco and New York City) are all in the United States, so Madrid is a bit of an anomaly.
In her introduction, Paz Moreno confesses that she is not from Madrid, and for a long time did not even like the city all that much. Until, that is, she was introduced to its delights by her brother-in-law, who organized a memorable tapas and wine tour of old Madrid for her and her husband.
Tapas are a tradition in Madrid, and Paz Moreno explains how these welcoming “small bites” became Madrid’s signature. Their name is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover,” and a common explanation is that the “top,” or tapa, would cover a drink to protect it from flies. Eventually, it became a courtesy for the bar or tavern to serve a (salty) snack on the cover. There are several other theories (mostly involving various kings of Spain) for the tradition of tapas, but this is the most common, and the most convincing.
Paz Moreno’s discussion of the history of food procurement, preparation and eating in Madrid follows the fairly traditional linear path of a historical account. The Romans, Iberians, Celtiberians, Moors, Jews and eventually the Christians who reclaimed the city from the Moors all contributed to the multi-ethnic mix that is madrileño cooking today. Madrid is well written and clearly well researched, although oddly, At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell (2017, reviewed in this newsletter last year) is not cited.
The best part of the book is, in fact, its last three chapters, which deal with historic Spanish cookbooks, historic eating establishments (restaurants, tabernas and cafés) and, finally, Madrid’s traditional dishes. It also includes recipes from some noteworthy eating establishments. The recipes are a nice addition, as always, to a book about food history.
Gifts of the Gods: A History of Food in Greece by Andrew & Rachel Dalby (Reaktion Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
Reaktion Books, the UK-based publisher of the Edible series of food history books, has launched a new series called Food and Nations: longer and more thorough examinations of the culinary history of various countries, starting with Al Dente (which covers Italy), Beyond Bratwurst (Germany), Feasts and Fasts (India), Rice and Baguette (Vietnam) and A Rich and Fertile Land (America), as well as the title under discussion here.
Andrew Dalby is a linguist, classicist and professor at the University of Westminster who has already written a number of books about the food and drink of Greece, Byzantium and Rome, as well as philological works and—somewhat surprisingly—a book about the social impacts of Wikipedia. Rachel Dalby is his daughter, a long-time resident of Greece, who runs a restaurant on Paros. So we know we’re in good hands.
There’s a lot of textual and archaeological evidence for Greek culinary history, and the authors begin right back in the Stone Age with a 12,000 BC site called the Franchthi cave, an opportunity to discuss the many food resources that Greece has been blessed with from earliest times. The discussion moves more or less chronologically through the Bronze Age, classical Athens, medieval Constantinople and the periods of Genoese, Venetian and Ottoman rule before it doubles back to consider the evolution of particular foods and beverages throughout the full sweep of history.
The authors mine Greek philosophy, Roman comedy, ancient texts on cooking and medicine, the memoirs of travellers from Byzantine and Victorian times and the works of more modern writers like Lawrence Durrell for evidence about everyday cooking, the food of the monasteries, seasonal customs and foreigners’ mixed reactions to Greek specialties like resin-flavoured wines, sheep’s eyeballs and even yogurt (“it is hard to remember now how unfamiliar it used to be”).
We learn about silphion, a delightful resin that resembled fennel and was so prized as a flavouring in the classical period that it was harvested to utter extinction. We discover volvoi, the edible bulbs of the tassel hyacinth, which can be pickled or mashed with oil like chickpeas. Then there’s salepi, the hot, sweet, spiced drink made from orchid roots that was known to Georgian London as “saloop.” And there’s an explanation as to why such a quintessentially Greek dish as moussaka includes a distinctly French béchamel topping.
As someone with a background in ancient languages, I enjoyed the frequent reminders of word origins like our “apricot” through Arabic al burquq, Greek brekokion and Latin praecocium (for “precocious” or “early-fruiting”). I was captivated by the evocation of the markets of Constantinople, with their “saffron, scammony, squinanth and smoked sturgeon.” I was struck by a repeated observation that, although we may think of souvlaki and roast lamb as key Greek dishes, much of Greek cuisine has typically been light on meat, and the area’s poorest inhabitants subsisted for centuries largely on a vegan diet.
And are there recipes? Yes: brief, practical instructions for recreating some of the ancient, traditional and modern foods that are so capably covered in this satisfyingly substantial survey, which is, to the best of my knowledge, the most comprehensive recent work on this topic.
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2014). Reviewed by Michael Gallant (pictured above)
James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton followed up her first book, Blood, Bones and Butter, with Prune, a cookbook titled both for her childhood nickname and the name of her successful NYC restaurant. Born to a French mother, Hamilton grew up eating meals that were different from those of most of her peers in rural Hope, Pennsylvania. Her mother taught her not to waste and to forage for wild foods in the nearby streams and forests. She also maintained a kitchen garden, and what was bought from the store was not the norm: oxtail, kidneys, olives and capers.
Hamilton’s introduction to professional cooking came while she was vagabonding about Europe, followed by a few years working in large-scale U.S. catering companies. Her decision to open her own restaurant emerged from a deep commitment to tasteful, simple cooking. Thus Prune is both a recipe book and an homage to her childhood and her development as a chef.
A recurring theme in her kitchen is simplicity and love of simple garnishes like lemon and parsley. Her recipes are disarmingly unassuming (as in Triscuits with sardines). A whole chapter is dedicated to reducing kitchen waste; see what she does with Parmesan rinds!
If you have already become a fan of Hamilton’s writing, you will also enjoy her profile in the fourth season of the NETFLIX series Mind of a Chef.
The Canadian Receipt Book, Containing over 500 Valuable Receipts for the Farmer and the Housewife, First Published in 1867, ed. Jen Rubio with a preface by Melissa McAfee (Rock’s Mills Press, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
A facsimile of an 1867 publication by the Ottawa Citizen, with a useful new index and a short preface by Melissa McAfee, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Guelph. The original title page notes that “the very best authorities on the various subjects have been consulted in compiling,” and indeed they have—to the extent that the work would today be considered a shameless act of plagiarism.
The “receipts” (recipes or instructions) cover not only cooking, but also household cleaning and repairs, animal husbandry and beekeeping. McAfee rightly surmises that the culinary recipes “appear to be of British origin,” as pages 6 to 48 have been lifted verbatim from Maria Rundell’s 1806 classic A New System of Domestic Cookery.
It’s interesting that many of Rundell’s recipes were still considered current 60 years after they were first published. When compared with an 1816 edition of Rundell’s book, very few changes are evident. These might have been tweaks by the Ottawa compilers, or by some intermediate republisher. They include a recipe for pickled “walnuts” changed to “butternuts,” one for “damsons” changed to “plums,” and what seems to be simply an error, in which a recipe that appears directly below “A Good Pound Cake” and titled “Another Way” is not a pound cake recipe at all, but Rundell’s instructions for Queen Cakes. (The direction to bake them in “small pattypans” is a bit of a giveaway.)
The rest of the food-related receipts have a very different voice. Instead of being presented in Rundell’s prim and precise tone, they’re in the folksy manner of Alvin Wood Chase, author of the—apparently extremely popular—Dr. Chase’s Recipes, first published in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1864. He gives advice on such topics as food preservation, pest control and the making of homemade dyes and glues. His affable personality is evidenced in his jocular directions for candying watermelon rind to stand in for candied citron in baking: “Call in the neighbours, to help eat about a dozen good sized melons; and you will have enough for the experiment. And if the doctor is near, he will help without a fee.”
Pages 138 to 172 of the Canadian Receipt Book come straight from Dr. Chase. Online sleuthing reveals that the entire beekeeping section is taken from Beekeeping for the Many by J.H. Payne (London, 1852), and much of the farming advice is abridged from The Family Farm and Garden and the Domestic Animals, edited by E.G. Storke (Auburn, NY, 1859). No doubt further exploration would show the entire book to be reprinted from other publications without acknowledgement.
Whatever one may think of the manner of compiling The Canadian Receipt Book—and despite the fact that none of the sources actually seem to be Canadian—it’s a useful little compendium for anyone wishing to imagine life in Canada’s Confederation year. Some of the domestic tips would make good museum workshops or demonstrations (like the instructions on making china glue with oyster shells and egg whites, or the notes on varnishing straw hats black). Many would however not be considered safe today, like the one that recommends handling strychnine in your bare hands to prepare rat poison.
Also, on almost every second page there are advertisements for Ottawa businesses that will be of interest to local area historians. For instance, one shows an engraving of a long-vanished business at 14 Rideau Street. All in all, a valuable addition to the resources for Canadian historians, culinary and otherwise.
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin Random House, 2012). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
Birdseye is the story of a man who is not well known today but who revolutionized the frozen food industry in America. Kurlansky examines how Clarence Birdseye, a thoroughly American inventor and adventurer of the early 20th century, changed the history of food in North America. The book has also been edited and abridged for younger readers, and is published as Frozen in Time: Clarence Birdseye’s Outrageous Idea about Frozen Food.
Not having read any other books by Kurlansky, I was not sure what to expect, since the others he has written seem to be about one thing: salt or cod, for example, or paper. He has also written many books and articles about his varied professions (actor, playwright, commercial fisherman, dock worker, paralegal, cook and pastry chef) as well as about the many places in which he has travelled.
Birdseye is not a new book. I read it hoping for a story about a really interesting personality who changed American history, but I was rather disappointed. Birdseye seems to have defied Kurlansky’s ability to explain the psychology of the man, in spite of his copious research, and Birdseye’s lifelong habit of writing everything down. The book is really a “yarn” about an insatiably curious man who ate pretty much any kind of animal or vegetable he came across, and in the process invented flash freezing. Birdseye was clearly a genius, responsible for more than 300 patents during his lifetime. He also foresaw the beginnings of the globalization of the food industry.
Kurlansky writes about Birdseye’s business dealings, his family life and his time in Labrador (where he met the more famous Dr. Grenfell), but Birdseye comes across as an outline rather than as a real person. I would recommend the book for readers who are just beginning to learn about the history of the food industry in North America, but not for more sophisticated readers who want to know about Clarence Birdseye’s life and works.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2012). Reviewed by Michael Gallant (pictured above)
I read somewhere recently that the sign of a good book is that you felt it was too short. If so, Gabrielle Hamilton is a gifted writer, and her book is well worth the read. Hamilton is the chef-owner of a restaurant in NYC called Prune. She also writes a monthly column for the New York Times.
The author first takes you through her childhood and brilliantly outlines her parents’ eroding marriage. She later kicked around Europe and the Mediterranean, learning about the food, the terroir and the people. She returned to America and ended up working for numerous catering companies. Eventually, she had the opportunity to open a small restaurant and to strike out on her own. She vividly explains the challenges of being a small business owner: suppliers, staffing, repairs and maintenance, and the eventual toll it took on a personal relationship.
The latter third of her book outlines her subsequent marriage, children and their annual trek to Italy, the home of her in-laws. It is the saddest part of the book—once again, she is questioning the reality of her marriage, her relationship with her in-laws and where her life is going.
I’ve been deliberately cheap with detail, as I don’t want to ruin the story! Happy reading!
The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich - A Faithful Recreation of the Original 1909 Edition by Eva Greene Fuller (The Harvest Commission, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong (pictured above)
The Harvest Commission, a new Canadian publishing company “devoted to readers obsessed with excellent ingredients, cooking, farming, and food ethics,” has issued a 182-page softcover reprint of a cookbook published in 1909 in Chicago. The interior pages are printed exactly as in the original (there are no images). Why reproduce 400 sandwich recipes? As the publisher says, “a glimpse into a century-old pantry is both inspiring and entertaining.”
Indeed, some of Eva Greene Fuller’s titles are amusing, such as the unfortunately named Cannibal Sandwich (chopped raw beef and onions!). And I did chuckle at the notion that instructions for a Mustard Sandwich are necessary. Other entries are surprising, such as the Nasturtium Sandwich (white bread spread with mayonnaise dressing, topped with nasturtium blossoms, and rolled up). Or how about thin slices of orange served on bread and dusted with powdered sugar?
The book is organized into sections: Fish, Eggs, Salad, Meat, Cheese, Nut, Sweet, Miscellaneous, Canapés. As the publisher admits on the back cover, some fillings will not appeal to modern-day readers, which I found to be true (e.g., creamed codfish). But then another entry triggered a happy childhood memory of my grandmother serving a snack of brown sugar sprinkled on lightly buttered bread (here called the School Sandwich). White, rye, wheat and Boston brown bread are commonly listed, and I was intrigued to see a mention of “gluten bread” in a recipe labelled Dyspeptic Sandwich. In the sweets chapter are offerings such as whipped cream enveloped by ladyfingers.
Some commentary on the original book and its “up-to-date” ingredients, as well as a culinary historian’s take on the popularity of sandwiches, would have been welcome introductions to this collection. Still, there is lots here to inspire if you’re looking for ideas for “dainty” nibbles to serve at a bridal shower or afternoon tea, including pairings such as walnut and fig or crab meat simmered in sherry. For such special occasions, the author provided a tip for early-20th-century readers to bake their own bread “in pound baking powder cans. These should be only half filled, and then allowed to rise before baking. You then have a round slice without crust.” It would be fun to choose some of Eva’s recipes for hosting an evening themed around historic party games and sandwich sampling.
Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food by Patric Kuh (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
A deceptively simple book that traces the renaissance of artisan food in America from the late 1970s to today’s expectation that hand-made bread, aged cheese, small-still bourbon, craft beer and homemade tacos will be readily available—at least in any mid-sized urban centre of the Unites States (and Canada).
Patric Kuh is an award-winning restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine. He writes for Gourmet, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Salon and Food & Wine, and he is also the author of Last Days of Haute Cuisine, a history of the American restaurant business, which won the James Beard Award for Writing on Food in 2002. A former restaurant cook, Kuh became the front-of-house manager for the upscale South Bay steakhouse The Arthur J. in November 2017.
Kuh traces the advent of industrial food in America from the end of WWII and the transfer of wartime industrial processes to food producers. The beginnings of “craft” and “artisan” food are attributed to a number of food pioneers who wished to reclaim them from the economies of scale that had produced the bland, homogenized, nutrition-poor and tasteless staples eaten by the majority of Americans. These bakers, cheesemakers, brewers and delicatessen owners wanted to disconnect from the standardized products then sold in supermarkets by producing unique, flavourful foodstuffs that were not widely available, unless one happened to know someone who made a product themselves and would either give it to you or sell it to you under the table.
Each chapter in the book deals with foods we recognize as “artisan-produced”: cheese, bread, bourbon, beer, barbecued meat and so on, but also skilfully weaves the history of industrial food production versus the new artisan breed of food producers in and around the narrative. Chapter titles are slightly odd because of this; for example, “To Land, To Craft, To Place, To Market, To Table.” But this does not detract from the fascinating trail, particularly through New York City, that Kuh follows in his quest for the early antecedents of artisan food. Anyone who is interested in food history in North America and the current fascination with handcrafted food should read this book.
Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello (University of Illinois Press, 2017). Reviewed by Susan Peters (pictured above)
Baking powder is a simple pantry staple to which we rarely give a second thought. This dry chemical leavening agent, first patented in 1856, is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and weak acid salt used to improve the volume or lighten the texture of baked goods. Most of us, when baking, simply reach for it without wondering about its origins and evolution. It was essentially created in an effort to bypass yeast, to produce even-textured baked products more easily, quickly and without the resulting taste that yeast can impart to the finished product.
While we as consumers trust that the baking soda in our cupboard is a safe and effective product, this was not the case for our ancestors. This book is a testimony to the view that “Business is war. Cooking is chemistry. Food is political.” It’s a scholarly examination of 100 years of war between competing businesses. Linda Civitello, a professor of food history in Southern California, examines not only the history of alternative leavening agents, but also the history of bread making and of those who made it.
Baking Powder Wars follows four major baking powder producers in 19th-century America—Rumford, Royal, Calumet and Clabber Girl—although hundreds of small companies all clamoured for a piece of the pie. Civitello examines an evolution of cookery books through the ages and also looks at who was doing the cooking. The book scrutinizes not only what was being prepared, but also the ingredients and where they would have been sourced throughout various eras.
While Civitello does look at the culinary resources of Europe and the U.K., the focus is on America. She looks in depth at the individuals who were conducting the experiments to invent the best leavening agent. Thus, this is the story of men competing with each other to come up with the most stable form of leavening agent, and to be able to get rich producing it. It is also a story of the evolution of marketing and advertising through the 1800s and 1900s. Each of these companies employed advertising images that would today be deemed shocking and racist. Many early versions of baking powder contained chemicals we now know to be very harmful when consumed.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in culinary history, including the social history of gender roles in food preparation. Civitello lays out the background in which the baking powder wars erupted and explains the differences between the various leavening agents. It also reads as a crime story when looking at all the acts of industrial espionage among the various companies represented. You will never look at that simple container of baking powder the same way again.
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher (Oxford University Press, 2012). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco is an entertaining read and quite obviously the work of a scholar whose knowledge of Mexican food, food politics and food history is encyclopedic. The book’s central theme is that tacos, an Americanized version of Mexican food, became globalized through the fast-food industry’s adoption of Mexican-American dishes and the migration of Mexican workers to America. Along the way, Mexicans themselves rediscovered their “ancestral” foods.
Planet Taco begins with an exploration of the origins of maize and its use in Mexican Indian food throughout Mexico and Central America. Corn, chiles and chocolate were the foods transported to Europe and Asia by Europeans who first came to the Americas, and they had very distinct effects on global cuisines. Corn, in particular, became a ubiquitous crop because it was easy to grow in inhospitable environments, but because the knowledge of its admixture with limestone or wood ash to release niacin—called “nixtamalization”—was not transferred along with the seeds, it also became the source of a wasting disease called pellagra.
Mexican food traditions were rapidly transformed, first by the invasion of Spain, and the subsequent blending of cultures, and then by the aspirations of the Mexican elite and middle class. Pilcher explores the tension between “authentic” Mexican foods—usually a mestizo version of what people ate at home—and what was still considered peasant food. The working class, peasants and rural Mexicans still ate corn tortillas, usually with beans and chiles, and, as Mexican workers began to move across the American border, their food went with them. The chapter on the Chili Queens of San Antonio, a prominent mining centre where migrant workers congregated, illustrates the attraction and repulsion exercised by “hot” foreign foods on the American psyche.
The globalization of Mexican foods took place after WWII, with the expansion of mechanized tortilla-making and the widespread acceptance of canned chili con carne. Entrepreneurs such as Glen Bell (of Taco Bell fame) capitalized on the increasingly favourable reception of Mexican-American food. As with many “traditional” cuisines, chefs and restaurateurs also capitalized on this new and exotic fare, and transformed “Mexican” cooking into a desirable commodity. In the 1980s, fashionable restaurants and hostesses adopted Mexican cooking as the most authentic and healthy cooking in the world. Its rapid spread to Europe, Asia and Australia was also facilitated by surfer culture.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves Mexican food in general and wants to know how tacos became a food you can eat pretty much anywhere in the world.
The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy by HP Newquist (Viking Books / Penguin Random House, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Book of Chocolate is eclectic. Although it is ostensibly about the “Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy,” it actually examines how an exotic commodity from South and Central America became first a European luxury and later an American staple. Where chocolate comes from, how it was made palatable to Europeans and how it eventually made its way into soldiers’ rations are all discussed in the book.
Whether you call it cocoa or cacao, chocolate has earned its place in the canon of amazingly delicious foods. And as “one of the most complex chemical combinations known to man,” with more than 600 known chemical compounds in raw chocolate, it is also clearly a miracle food.
A subject that is not discussed by the author is the recent DNA sequencing and the release of information about the genome of cacao by scientists from Mars and Hershey, in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture. The ultimate goal of the sequencing is to freely allow anyone studying the genome to improve current chocolate varieties for a higher resistance to disease, more robust growth and better taste.
The book does discuss the not-so-sweet side of chocolate, in that, on some African plantations, where most of the world’s cacao is produced, children may work for little or no pay. This information has been the subject of a number of news reports, creating pressure on some chocolate companies to examine the work practices of their producers. Fair Trade chocolate claims to source the cacao from plantations that pay their workers a fair price for their labour.
HP Newquist has written over 20 books on a great variety of scientific subjects and is clearly a good researcher. His writing is clear and concise, and aimed at a general lay audience rather than children, although his books are obviously meant to appeal to school librarians. For this book he spent time at a cocoa plantation, learned how to make chocolate and sampled chocolate all over the world.
I would recommend this book as light reading, or as an introductory source for a school project.
The National Trust Book of Scones: 50 Delicious Recipes and Some Curious Crumbs of History by Sarah Clelland (National Trust Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
At this festive season of the year, even those of us with little direct connection to the UK (my last ancestors to cross the pond cast off 182 years ago) are once more reminded of the charm of an English Christmas, with holly and ivy and carols—and especially traditional baking. Well, you can’t get more British than a book of 50 scone recipes from historic houses!
This book arose from a personal quest that author Sarah Clelland set herself: to visit every one of the 500 National Trust sites, which include venerable family estates, as well as cottages, castles, post offices, foundries and lighthouses. Part of her goal was to collect a bit of lore and eat a scone in every single one; along the way was born her National Trust Scone blog, in which she charted her journey.
You might think that every scone is alike, but you’d be wrong. There are sweet ones and savoury ones: the simple, the fancy, the fruity and the festive. There’s a whole chapter devoted to chocolate scones. Of course, there are some typically British oddities, like the Wet Nelly Scones from Liverpool’s Speke Hall. These are made with crumbled, day-old Wet Nellies, which Clelland describes as “a moist version of a fruit cake known as Nelson cake. It was originally made from broken biscuits and pastry remnants; dried fruit was added and the mixture was soaked in syrup.”
From the Surrey estate Polesden Lacey (seen in numerous television productions like Agatha Christie’s Marple and Midsomer Murders) come Earl Grey Scones, made with tea-infused milk. Bodiam Castle in East Sussex—a setting for the Doctor Who series and the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail—contributes scrummy-sounding Raspberry and White Chocolate Scones. Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, which stood in for rooms in Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate in the classic 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, is the home of Stilton and Cranberry Scones.
This is a pretty book, with a clear layout, page borders that resemble antique wallpapers in pastel shades, and charming watercolour scone portraits by Amy Holliday. As a scone aficionado myself, I’m looking forward to some holiday baking time, when I can dig into this scone compendium at my leisure.
At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
At the First Table is about food consumption, exchange and manners, and how social identity was created and maintained during the Early Modern period in Spain. Early Modern Europe was the period between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roughly the late 15th century to the late 18th century, so in Spain, this period spanned the time between feudalism and the beginnings of globalism. It was also the era when the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World brought back new foods to Spain, such as chilies and chocolate, and the Spanish Inquisition began to apply charges of heresy to un-Christian practices, including foodways.
The book is both a scholarly and accessible read, which clearly articulates the links between Basic Food Practices and Beliefs; Social Groups and Collective Identity; Status and Change; and Vice and Virtue (all chapter headings). Campbell’s research into such archival resources as cookbooks, court and monastery kitchen lists, and municipal records, show how the divisions between social classes, identities and status changed over time with the introduction of hidalguia (nobles who were made, rather than born) and for merchants who could afford to buy privilege and set a fine table.
Using food customs and privileges to dissect social change in Spain is an interesting read. I would recommend this short book (178 pages) to people who have read more general books about European foodways and who are interested in how Spain differed from other countries. The Notes and Glossary at the end of the book are a useful addition for readers unfamiliar with Spanish terms.
Dinner with Dickens, Recipes Inspired by the Life and Work of Charles Dickens by Pen Vogler (CICO Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
No lightweight picture book, Dinner with Dickens is a satisfying excursion into the work and life of one of the best-loved English authors. Pen Vogler (also the author of Dinner with Mr. Darcy) has done her homework, both on the author himself and on the culinary writing of his time.
Full disclosure: I’m a Dickens fan who had eagerly read all his novels (and several biographies) before I turned 18. I was prepared to find that this book might offer a few quotations from his writing, framed in curlicues, next to ersatz Victorian dishes. Instead, Vogler delivers thoughtful and well-informed commentary on his life and work, especially as it had to do with his ideas of family, social responsibility and—of course—Christmas.
One of the things I had completely missed is that Dickens’ wife, Catherine, was a cookbook author. She’s often maligned as a dull woman who was not his intellectual equal; however, in 1851, she penned a book called What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck. A number of recipes from this book and some insightful thoughts on the marriage are included in Dinner with Dickens, along with others from such classics as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy of 1747; William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle, first published in 1821, and books from later writers like Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton (who enjoyed Dickens’ writing enough to name a dish for one of his characters).
The book is divided into thematic sections that match episodes from Dickens’ writing; for example, Christmas foods are discussed with reference to both Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. A full range of earlier and later Victorian recipes is included, from snacks to dinner entrees to desserts. Vogler covers all the expected items: the Cratchits’ roast goose and Christmas pudding, Scrooge’s Smoking Bishop, the Pickwick libations, and—yes—Oliver Twist’s workhouse gruel, from a cookbook of the period for charity workers.
In most cases, Vogler reproduces an original recipe along with a modern adaptation. Some are almost the same in both versions; in others, Vogler works around ingredients that are no longer easy to find, like isinglass (used for thickening). A few are fairly free adaptations or even modern versions, but Vogler makes it quite clear which is which.
Dining with Dickens would make an excellent starter book for someone interested in learning how to use 19th-century recipes, as it provides an introduction to some of the most important cookbooks of the period, notes on adapting period techniques, and sumptuously staged photos of just about every mouthwatering dish in the whole book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France: Recipes Inspired by the Cafés and Bars of Fitzgerald’s Paris and the Riviera in the 1920s by Carol Hilker (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2016). Reviewed by Shirley Lum, Toronto (pictured above).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France is a culinary tour to Paris and the French Riviera in the 1920s, a time when American and Canadian writers and artists flocked to the Continent.
After working as a pastry chef in California for four years, author Carol Hilker returned home to Chicago to retire into food writing full time. She is the author of the hugely popular Dirty Food, among other books. Here, she has collected over 60 recipes inspired by the decadent food and drink enjoyed by Fitzgerald and his fellow expatriates, including Ernest Hemingway (who also worked in Toronto), Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter.
Food historians will love being able to recreate the simple yet traditional French breakfasts, lunches, hors d’oeuvres, soups and salads, dinners, dessert dishes and drinks savoured by Fitzgerald and the other expatriates. Each chapter is supplemented with a “feature” page, providing readers with rich and brief historical/social context: The Americans in Paris, Fitzgerald’s Riviera, The Jazz Age, The Cafés—A Home from Home, and the famous French chefs of 1920s Paris.
Fans of Fitzgerald will find themselves transported to a Parisian appartement to breakfast on Fitzgerald’s Ham and Eggs accompanied by a Bloody Mary, or they can imagine themselves in a Montparnasse café supping on French Onion Soup and Salade Lyonnaise, or be inspired to throw a party to rival The Great Gatsby’s most glamorous soirée and serve Harlequin Salad and Gin Rickeys. Cheers!
Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum (Coach House Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood, Toronto (pictured above).
A new addition to Coach House Books’ Exploded Views, a gently provocative series of extended essays, Curry is as much about literary taste as it is about the flavour of spice blends.
Ruthnum, a Toronto journalist and fiction writer with Mauritian family roots, draws upon his own background as well as cookbooks, movies and fiction to explore images of South Asian cultural identity. “In the steadily building mass of South Asian diasporic writing and discussion of identity, curry is an abiding metaphor for connection, nostalgia, homecoming, and distance from family and country,” he writes. Thus, the early sections of the book explore literary and real-life evocations of curry, from its historical roots to “the worldwide outbreak of turmeric lattes in 2016.”
He notes that the idea of curry is itself a construct, since “[e]ven the most commonly understood characteristic of curry [its heat] came to be by way of the machinations of international trade and colonialism.” He examines recipes and literary descriptions of South Asian food, considering reappearing tropes, like the mother who withholds her recipes from the rest of her family and the expat who experiences alienation from, or reconnection to, the homeland culture through food.
Such tropes are often to be found in the genre of writing that, when he was younger, Ruthnum dismissed as “currybooks”: lightweight fiction written for “non-South Asian readers and nostalgic brown readers” that often conjures up an imagined India (or, as it might be, Pakistan) in terms of sentimental cliché. The later parts of the book are devoted to a more thorough discussion of these types of publications, as well as some that break this mold and others that, like the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, construct a privileged outsider’s artificial version of South Asian culture.
Here, Ruthnum moves from the specific to a more universal examination of what it means to be South Asian in Europe or North America, and beyond that, to question ideas like “authenticity” (is it even a worthwhile concept in a creolized world?)
Although it is only partly about food, Curry will intrigue anyone interested in culinary history with the way it dissects the connections between our ideas about food and our other cultural preconceptions.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History of the Old South by Michael Twitty (Harper Collins, 2017). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
The Cooking Gene is a unique interpretation of culinary traditions in the Southern United States. While author Michael Twitty’s focus is on the origins of the cuisine in the American South, his examination illustrates how culinary history is a two-way street. It is continuously evolving, adapting and integrating into a local culture. The culture, in turn, continues to influence those who experience it, thus creating yet further changes to these adaptions. In other words, culinary history is forever evolving.
Twitty brings to this study a background in ethno-cultural history. He is known for his blog Afroculinaria, which discusses African foodways and culture of the Old South. This book is essentially a personal memoir. It is a narrative which melds investigation into genealogical research, DNA of ethnicity, archival research and culinary history all in one. Twitty has embraced oral history, as well as archival records. Of course, while he emphasizes his own personal roots, his ancestors did not live in a vacuum.
While examining the story of his ancestors, he shows them within their historic or cultural context. Of course, a study of the forced migration of enslaved peoples from Africa deals with a very complex mix of individual cultural groups. Although one can never be entirely sure of their cultural mix, at least modern methods of genetic DNA testing for ethnicity can help to narrow things down a little. Twitty explains in detail his own personal DNA ethnicity results, as a basis for the cultural groups he is most interested in studying. While his focus is on the ethnic groups he has a connection with, he does look at the cultural influences from all the different groups noted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This book is a great read for anyone interested in examining foodways and their evolution within history. It is also very useful for those interested in the cultural ethnicity of the slave trade. It is especially of interest to anyone examining the Old South of the Antebellum period. Twitty’s use of research from various non-traditional resources helps give a balanced and full interpretation of the culinary history of this region. While he explains methodologies of preparing certain traditional foods, he does so from the vantage point of someone who himself cooks with these methods. As a culinary historical interpreter, he brings this aspect of culture alive.
Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, edited by Kristine Kowalchuk (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
Preserving on Paper is a critical edition of three receipt books housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Editor Kristine Kowalchuk, who holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta and is an instructor of critical reading and writing at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, has compiled a volume that will appeal to enthusiasts of culinary history, book and print culture, and literary criticism.
The Englishwomen to whom the manuscripts are attributed (which date from about 1640 to 1750) carefully recorded culinary recipes, medical remedies and household tips. Kowalchuk provides transcriptions that preserve the “richness” and “peculiarities” of the original texts, but with emendations, informative footnotes and a comprehensive glossary of terms that make them accessible to modern readers.
While the recipes are fascinating to peruse (and much easier to decipher than they would be in their handwritten form), they would mean little without Kowalchuk’s 52-page “Historical Introduction.” I learned so much from this background text and highly recommend it as an introduction to understanding not only the genre of receipt books but also aspects of the culture of the period and the reasons recipes were recorded.
As Kowalchuk explains, food and medical preparations were not seen as separate entities in this period. For example, in the manuscript attributed to Mary Granville and her daughter Anne Granville D’Ewes, one finds entries that range from “To make minced pyes” to “A Drinke for the Ricketts.” Taking an analytical approach to the texts, Kowalchuk argues that the receipt book represents an important form of women’s writing that has been largely overlooked. As she also asserts, such collections prove that literacy was not necessarily as limited to upper-class women as some scholars have suggested.
These women were recordkeepers, gathering knowledge and passing it from one generation to the next. Because “the sharing of food was so intricately tied to conceptions of utopia in the late medieval and Renaissance periods” and “folk culture recognized eating as an overcoming of mortality,” Kowalchuk cautions against “forcing our own assumptions on receipt books” (such as the concept of a published cookbook written by one author). The texts in question were “carriers of an entire world view that was very different from our own; they preserve different meaning.”
All cooks will enjoy reading what the editor discovered and understood more fully after making select dishes for a 17th-century dinner party for friends. Hosting a similar meal using some of these receipts would be a delightful project for CHC members to undertake and recount in this newsletter.
The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about Eating from Prehistory to the Present by Christine A. Hastorf (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Christine A. Hastorf is well known to archaeologists for her contributions to paleoethnobotany, agriculture, meaning and the everyday, food studies, political economy and ritual in societies of the Andean region of South America. She has done fieldwork in Mexico, California, New Mexico, Italy, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Turkey (at the site of Çatalhöyük). She currently directs an archaeological project on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.
This book is written for academics, or for people who have at least a working knowledge of past and current anthropological thought about food in the context of culture. Examples of pertinent fieldwork studies illustrate the author’s points, and many of them are taken from her own fieldwork. In her introduction, Hastorf writes that the book is a “meditation on thinking about eating.”
Imagining the past through interpretative insights about culture is called “postprocessual” thinking in archaeology. It was first proposed as a radical departure from processual (scientific) archaeology by archaeologists from the United Kingdom, who emphasized the subjectivity of archaeological interpretation. Hastorf was married to Ian Hodder, one of the early proponents of postprocessual archaeology, and has undoubtedly adopted many of the tenets of postprocessualism.
As an example of this way of thinking, the first chapter of the book is entitled “The Social Life of Food,” echoing The Social Life of Things, a book edited by social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai at Cambridge in 1988. The essays in his book examine how taste, trade and desire for specific things are regulated by social and political mechanisms. Similarly, Hastorf examines how social and political mechanisms, such as gender, hierarchy and the concept of family, affect eating and food resources.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Christine Hastorf’s work and have read many of her articles and books with great pleasure. As a former archaeologist, I am always game for a well-written scientific examination of gender and plants, and the ways that humans perceive both in the context of culture. Thus, I was looking forward to reading this book and was not disappointed, although it is pretty dense.
The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, edited by Roxanne Swentzell & Patrician M. Perea (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Toronto (pictured above).
This book examines the Pueblo Food Experience Project, which was carried out with the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. The project involved many members of the Pueblo Indigenous community in New Mexico and was essentially an exploration of how their ancestors lived. It had been observed that owing to the trend towards a westernization of the culture, traditional ways had fallen out of use. The community had become reliant on processed foods that offered little in the way of nutrition. As a result, the community experienced a crisis of diseases such as diabetes.
The community had not thrived under the so-called modern processed diet, and the lack of connection with the land had resulted in not only poor health but also a starvation of the spirit. The people had lost their connection to the land and their ability to survive in balance with nature.
The project began with health exams and blood work for volunteers who had committed to consuming only the foods that their ancestors would have known prior to contact with Europeans. This essentially meant living off the land: they relearned traditional ways of hunting, gathering and farming, and examined how their ancestors had lived sustainably in the Southwest.
The community found great improvement in their members’ health as well as a profound sense of empowerment. They learned how to live in harmony with their environment and within a community that respects the nourishment of all. This book essentially documents their communal journey to well-being, with essays contributed by various members of the project.
The book includes a history of Pueblo traditional foodways. It examines how the diet evolved in response to external factors such as climate change, migration and western cultural influences. It also illustrates how the “modern American diet” had a detrimental effect on the Pueblo peoples—not only their health, but also their spirit. There are articles about the traditional methodologies that were adopted, such as communal gathering of salt from salt lakes.
The journey continues with discussions about traditional farming techniques and hunting. It was the improvement in health that most impressed some members of the community. That, in turn, enticed more people to participate in the study. The journey to reducing reliance on modern conveniences was a challenge for some, but in the end the payoffs were profound.
The second half of the book provides recipes for this whole-food, largely plant-based diet. While some ingredients are a little challenging to obtain in Canada—such as buffalo tongue, prickly pear, grasshoppers and pinon—a lot of the recipes are enticing.
This book is a gem for anyone interested in traditional Indigenous cultures and foodways. Students of Indigenous studies would find this a very useful account. We can also learn from the experiment about how our “modern” diet is not doing us any favours with respect to our health. I certainly recommend it for students of nutrition as well.
Brewing Revolution, Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton (Harbour Publishing, 2016). Reviewed by Sarah Hood, Toronto (pictured above).
The last quarter of the 20th century saw a sea change in food attitudes, as those consumers who had gladly embraced the convenience, economy and abundance of mass-produced food and beverages changed their tack and began to seek out small producers, traditional manufacturing methods and unadulterated recipes. For the brewing industry in Canada, the early 1980s were a turning point, largely due to the efforts of one man: Frank Appleton.
His memoir, Brewing Revolution, tells how he left his position with one of the “Big Three” brewers to help found the Horseshoe Bay Brewery in Vancouver in 1982. It was one of few craft breweries in North America at the time (San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer was another pioneer). Although Canada had once had numerous small brands, they had either died out or been absorbed into Labatt, Molson or Carling. Appleton recounts how the tide turned in the ’80s as a trickle of small brewery and brewpub openings soon became a steady stream and, eventually, a “tsunami” of “real beer,” made in relatively small batches using traditional methods.
He emphasizes that craft breweries have a freedom the larger concerns simply can’t match to test a batch of anything they choose: a high-alcohol maple-pumpkin beer? Why not! A light, pink raspberry beer for summer sipping? Sure.
Appleton’s chatty accounts of the early days of the craft beer renaissance read like a series of highly specialized adventure tales, as he searches for perfect tank-welding techniques, squeezes brewing equipment into oddly configured spaces, confronts the challenges of designing breweries across national boundaries and combats the rogue micro-organisms that creep into the hoses and vats of unsuspecting brewers.
In the final chapters, he skims through some basic beer know-how, discussing technical topics like “yeast washing” and “stuck fermentation” clearly enough for the lay person to understand them.
Focused mainly on British Columbia, the book doesn’t cover the founding of other pioneer craft breweries (like Ontario’s Brick Brewing, Amsterdam Brewpub and Creemore Springs, or Quebec’s Unibroue, for example). It does dish some dirt on the corners cut by large-scale breweries—such as using significant proportions of corn in their recipes—as well as on the questionable marketing strategies of some who present themselves as craft concerns while not actually being so.
All in all, an engaging read, with enough of both brewing wisdom and cautionary tales to intrigue anyone who’s ever thought it might be nice to brew some beer of their own.
Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey, by Lenore Newman, foreword by Sarah Elton (University of Regina Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
What is Canadian cuisine? Lenore Newman’s research quest took her on a four-year journey through a vast amount of literature and across the country by plane, train, ferry and more than 40,000 kilometres of roads. From Charlottetown to Chinatown, from dulse to doughnuts, from Saskatoon berries to salmon, Newman shares a comprehensive and satisfying mélange of history and insight as well as her own memories and discoveries. Her academic background (Newman holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia) and engaging first-person writing style have yielded a book that is both a scholarly reference and a treat to curl up with.
Part I sets the scene with what Newman refers to as the “sideboard diplomacy” that played an essential role in the nation’s founding—it seems that feasting together brought the Fathers of Confederation together. As Newman goes on to discuss, unlike many countries, we may have few truly Canadian recipes, but our cuisine is “extremely rich and varied,” and is underscored by characteristics that are worthy of flag waving.
For one, we are ahead of other nations when it comes to putting fresh, local ingredients at the forefront, and we have a deep appreciation of the seasonality of food. Second, our cultural mosaic has resulted in the introduction of many diasporic influences on our tables, and “the combinations that emerge from those flavours are increasingly framed as Canadian rather than hyphenated dishes.”
From this trend has emerged what Newman calls a Canadian creole. Her research confirms that our cuisine is “particularly grounded in the regions,” and in Part II she shares examples organized geographically, with stops in Montreal for a deli sandwich, the coast of B.C. for a Nanaimo bar, Yellowknife for Arctic char and elsewhere. Some may feel that this section surveys too much ground too quickly—but this is perhaps inevitable as it is a challenge to cover a country as vast as ours within the confines of one book.
In the final section, Newman looks ahead, discussing the growth in public markets, foods eaten on the road, and the impact of climate change on some of our iconic ingredients, such as maple syrup. Here, she circles back to earlier discussions of the failure of the cod industry (which she finds difficult to talk about as the daughter of a Newfoundland fisherman) and the reason for the book’s title: “Cod tongues are a monument to the fragility of culinary cultures grounded in wild stocks.”
While she expresses concern about projections for the salmon fishery, increasing loss of farmland, and the consequences of overpicking wild leeks and more, she is also excited about the innovations to come. Newman admits that this voyage of discovery changed how she views the country, food, and herself. Without a doubt, her book will inspire readers to embark on new culinary adventures of their own. There is a lot to celebrate and savour.
King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from around the World, by Joan Nathan, foreword by Alice Waters (Knopf, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
I put off reviewing Joan Nathan’s new book until I could try some new recipes for the Passover holiday. I made Slow-Cooked Brisket with Red Wine, Vinegar and Mustard, which was absolutely delicious, and Joan’s matzoh balls (for chicken soup with matzoh balls), which were a revelation! Who knew you could put dill and ginger in matzoh balls and make them taste amazing?
Nathan is an award-winning American cookbook author and newspaper journalist who has produced TV documentaries on the subject of Jewish cuisine. She has written ten cookbooks (six about Jewish cuisine and two about Israeli cuisine) over 40 years, and her unofficial title is “the Queen of American Jewish cooking.” Nathan’s goal is to preserve Jewish traditions by interviewing cooks and documenting their recipes and stories for posterity.
King Solomon’s Table continues Nathan’s quest for Jewish recipes around the world, complete with anecdotes from the cooks she interviews. The conceit of the book, that “the biblical King Solomon is said to have sent emissaries on land and sea to all corners of the ancient world, initiating a mass cross-pollination of culinary cultures that continues to bear fruit today” works to the extent that the 170 recipes reflect the incredible breadth and depth of Jewish cooking. The anecdotes that accompany them are interesting, often very personal, and amply illustrate what the Jewish diaspora has done for food.
The only quibble I have is the number of recipes for haroseth, the sweet mixture of nuts and fruit that represents the mortar mixed by Jewish slaves for the Egyptian pharaoh’s city-building. Haroseth is only served at the Passover Seder (the Jewish High Holiday in spring), yet there are five recipes for this side dish in the book.
That is a minor quibble, however, as the text and colour images are both outstanding and instructive, as one would expect in a hardcover cookbook of this calibre. This would make a lovely gift for someone who wants to try new recipes for the High Holidays or simply wants to know more about Jewish cooking. Highly recommended!
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman & Andrew Coe (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
An exploration of arguably the greatest dietary crisis every experienced in America. Since a crisis in malnutrition is rooted in its causes, it obviously examines the historic and political context from which the Great Depression developed.
Ziegelman and Coe come to this project with a background in culinary history research. Ziegleman is also the author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and she has curated food-themed exhibits in New York’s Tenement Museum. Coe specializes in food history; he has also written Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States and has been involved in several documentaries.
In this book, the authors examine the economic and environmental causes that shaped how Americans ate during the Depression. While their focus is on American history and the impact of political decisions on U.S. citizens, there is some comparison to Canada. While our politicians may have made different decisions about how to deal with the environmental crisis of drought and crop failure, the root causes of the crisis were the same for both countries.
Our Prairies suffered the same successive droughts and subsequent plagues of locusts. Our western farmers were starving like their American counterparts. Masses of people were losing their jobs in the cities, and the stock market crash also affected both countries.
The barter-for-food system reached its height when people were trying to trade something that they had for food, any food. I was fascinated with the investigation into the daily rituals of a prairie farmer’s wife versus a labourer in a city with respect to how they put food on their table.
This book also offers a history and evolution of culinary tools. Rural and city cooking are compared with respect to elements such as access to vegetables, fruit or soda fountains. The evolution of tools and equipment like electric mixers, refrigerators and electric ranges is discussed. Each had an impact on daily life. The evolution of the technology to preserve foods had a huge impact on health, especially in the height of the Depression, when food was scarce.
The greatest part of this book is an examination of how the Great Depression was a period of despair for so many people in America. Between droughts that resulted in a lack of agricultural productivity and a lack of prosperity and jobs due to the economic crash, a great many people in America became quite desperate. Malnutrition and starvation were huge problems during this era. With widespread need, government-sponsored social welfare was developed, with a realization that a country must care for its vulnerable citizens.
I did enjoy how the authors have put the Great Depression into an historical context. Nothing happens in isolation; it is, therefore, valuable to learn how dietary circumstances in America developed from the First World War through the 1920s and ’30s. This rich social history of how life circumstances affect diet and the result of diet on health is a very enlightening read.
Tasting Rome, Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill (Clarkson Potter/The Crown Publishing Group, 2016). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
It’s wholly apparent that the authors of the IACP Award Winner for Best International Cookbook 2017 are in love with their adopted city as they explain to readers their preference for exploring Rome from an unconventional viewpoint: “The cobblestoned streets, baroque fountains, pastel palaces, and lively piazzas have obvious appeal. They’re easy to love but we’re more drawn to the city’s surreal bits like the pasta-factory-turned-opera-warehouse next to a giant ruin.”
Their approach utilizes Rome’s food and drink as a vehicle to explore the city’s non-touristic side—like highlighting the working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio versus the expected sights. The chapter on Testaccio (a former meat-packing district) opens with a recipe for Fettucine con rigaglie di pollo—a chicken innards ragù—then follows with an informative history and overview of this colourful district known as Quinto Quarter.
Parla and Gill showcase the best of the city’s cuisine by emphasizing dishes and locales known only to Rome’s residents. They connect traditional and classic dishes with updated versions while showcasing favourite recipes prepared at neighbourhood trattorias or in home kitchens. Carbonara, for example, a classic mid-20th-century dish, varies widely from one home cook and another, and inevitably passionate discussions ensue regarding which recipe or ingredients are correct.
Tasting Rome is an entertaining history lesson, as most recipes are introduced with a historical morsel. The cookbook includes original and adapted recipes with generous dessert and drinks chapters. It’s like a visual travelogue; matte photographs of lopsided tomatoes, graffitied walls and ancient architecture adorn the pages. These visuals enhance the backstory of this culinarian’s city, waiting to be explored the Tasting Rome way.
Chillies: A Global History by Anne Arndt Anderson (Edible—Reaktion Books 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
As with the other volumes in this series (Edible), this mini-book covers a lot of ground. It is better written than many of the other volumes, and the illustrations are well chosen. The author has also written two other books: Portland, a Food Biography (2014) and Breakfast: A History (2013).
Chillies (or chilies) are pervasive and, surprisingly, not as deeply rooted as one would expect in the many world food traditions in which they appear. Cuisines that we would normally think of as having always been spicy, such as northern Chinese dishes or south Indian curries, originally used pepper (black pepper, or Piper nigrum) as their main spice. With the introduction of chillies to Europe and Asia through trade and conquest, the spiciness of capsaicin—the active chemical component of chili peppers—has become an integral part of these food traditions.
All of this hot food begins with the capsicum peppers grown in the Americas. Capsicum belongs to the nightshade, or Solanaceae, family and, like tomatoes (a nightshade plant that has also become an ubiquitous item in many world cuisines), probably originated somewhere in Mexico, Central America or northern South America. Chilli peppers have probably been domesticated several times, but they made their way into food history after the Spanish and Portuguese came to the Americas.
This book traces the taxonomy and ecology of chillies, their introduction into world cuisine, their possible healing properties and their association with North American machismo and sexuality. Chili con carne, “devilled” foods and hot sauces are all part of this theme. One of the most interesting sections of the book mentions the “Chili Queens”—the Latina women who served their homemade food from wooden stands to Texas ranch hands in the plazas of San Antonio during the late 19th century.
It concludes with an appendix (the lyrics to a song about Tabasco) and a selection of historical and modern recipes from around the world. References, websites and associations for chilli aficionados will encourage more research into the myriad uses for this special plant.
Food and Museums, edited by Nina Levent & Irina D. Mihalache (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
The editors of this academic volume set out to “observe and identify intersections between museums and food so that [they] could share accounts of shifting museological and artistic practices in light of food’s increasing presence in museums.” Their work represents the first time that expertise about food and museums has been organized in one collection. Levent is the founding director of Sapar Contemporary Gallery + Incubator in New York City, and Mihalache is an assistant professor of museum studies in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.
Food and Museums provides a platter of small bites: each chapter is short, in a format that ranges from scholarly discussion to case study to Q & A; topics are as varied as the locations and endeavours of the curators, scholars and practitioners who contributed. The editors have grouped the content into five main sections, and the liberal use of subheadings further allows the reader to sample here and there.
After an introduction of theoretical concepts come sections on audience engagement, collecting and exhibiting, and restaurants in museums. The final section examines historical and contemporary ways artists have interacted with and represented food. The authors were sure to incorporate practical advice where possible. Case in point: their interviews with the historic cooks (and CHC members) of Fort York National Historic Site and Campbell House Museum in Toronto. Some of the elements within chapters and the occasional recipes offered might have been better presented as sidebars, but the basic graphic design did not allow for this. Small images appear throughout; unfortunately, only the attractive cover, which depicts a food collection mounted in a display case, is in colour.
Levent and Mihalache have admirably tapped experts from different countries. There is good representation from Canadian scholars. The editors recognize some gaps, such as Indigenous food culture in museums, and wish they could have added interviews with the public. These areas provide opportunities for further exploration. In the meantime, this welcome collection provides an array of best practices and critical thinking to guide those working to present history and culture using food, to engage audiences through sensory experiences—and even to enhance visits to the café.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi (HarperCollins, 2015). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
An exploration of the foods we love: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer, bread (and octopus?), as well as the foods we overconsume: 30 species provide 95% of our global calories. This book presents the necessity to take responsibility now for our food supply, utilizing agrobiodiversity to ensure global food security: “Eating is an agricultural act.”
With the paperback release, award-winning author Simran Sethi is back on the speaker circuit. As an author, journalist and educator specializing in food sustainability, Sethi has presented at and moderated events throughout the world. She has been named an environmental messenger by Vanity Fair, a top-10 eco hero of the planet by The Independent and one of the top eight women saving the planet by Marie Claire.
As excited as I was to delve into Sethi’s chapters on wine, coffee, beer and bread, I skipped to the final chapter, because its Octopus heading piqued my curiosity. It turns out the octopus (a three-hearted marine mollusc) provides a transcendent experience for the author in many ways. To expand further would demand a spoiler alert.
Sethi shines at taking what could be considered a dry subject and building a narrative around it that leaves the reader wanting more. Her book is like a compilation of short stories; Sethi’s journey to six continents takes her (and the reader) on a tasty adventure that blends scientific research with love and soul. For the author, it’s a journey of personal discovery, healing and new-found awareness.
Exceptionally informative, Sethi explores farming practices, culture and history, flavours and tastings, as well as personal anecdotes and insights. Included are well-organized end notes, colourful flavour guides, a Coffee Cupping Form and infographics like the Grain Characteristics of Bread.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate—although heavily fact-laden—will suit foodies, environmentalists, and globetrotters (to name a few), as Sethi tells a fine tale.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova (Workman Publishing, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Elaine Khosrova’s book is the result of years of research into the alchemical marvel that is butter—its provenance, antiquity and uses, and how it came to be a staple in many types of cuisine.
Khosrova is a true culinary historian, specializing in stories about food and gastronomic culture. A former pastry chef, she began her career in food publishing at Country Livingmagazine and then moved on to Healthy Living, Classic American Home and Santémagazines. Khosrova is also the founding editor-in-chief of culture magazine, a national consumer magazine about specialty cheese, featuring cheese recipes that make your mouth water. In 2013, she left the magazine to pursue her research about butter around the world.
Butter is made from the butterfat that is found as a liquid suspension in milk, mainly cow’s milk, but Khosrova begins and ends the book with stories about yak and water buffalo milk to show how butter is still being made in Asian cultures using ancient methods. Other kinds of butter are discussed along the way, but cow’s milk is her main focus, because it is the most commonly used component in countries that count butter as a staple.
Butter is thoroughly researched here, both its chemical and physical properties as well as its metaphysical and spiritual connotations. In Europe, butter was mostly made by women who were independent producers, contributing greatly to their household’s income. Dairying gave way, eventually, to industrial processes created by men, but nowadays there are still small-batch dairies that produce artisan butter the way it was originally made.
In her final chapter, Khosrova explores the use of butter as an ingredient in rich sauces that make up most of the French chef’s repertoire. She explains why and how butter is used in baking, and why butter that is high in butterfat works better in most recipes. The recipes provided have clearly been tested by the author and add a do-it-yourself aspect that completes the book. I highly recommend Butter, both as a good read and as a thorough treatise about a common ingredient.
Onions and Garlic: A Global History by Martha Jay (The Edible Series, Reaktion Books, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Like the other books in the Edible Series, Onions and Garlic is a general historical survey aimed at a non-specialist audience. It is entertaining and short, and is rather better written and edited than some of the others in the series. The book focuses on the allium family, with more emphasis on onions than garlic.
Almost every culture uses onions and garlic to flavour food, and onions are in fact the second most important horticultural crop in the world after tomatoes. China grows the most onions, followed by India, the US, Egypt and Iran, according to 2010 statistics released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Libyans eat the most onions, on average 33.6 kg (74 lb) each.
Both onions and garlic, like many staple crops eaten around the world today, probably originated in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is considered the “Cradle of Civilization,” and is the place where wheat, barley, goats, sheep and cattle were first domesticated. We know about these crops from the cuneiform tablets that were the first form of writing to emerge from ancient civilizations, wherein early commodities were recorded for accounting purposes. A few ancient recipes survive from these early times, among them dishes that include onions, garlic and leeks.
The word for “leek” in Ancient Egyptian was also the word for all vegetables—Herodotus recorded that inscriptions on the Great Pyramid at Giza detailed how much was spent on onions, leeks and radishes to be fed to the workmen—and indeed the word “leac-tun” in Old English means vegetable garden, and “leac-ward” gardener. And, of course, the humble leek is the symbol of Wales.
Jay’s discussion of the use of various types of alliums is interesting, with excursions to the medieval onion and the improvement of breeds of onions, as well as an examination of folklore with regard to garlic’s anti-vampire properties.
“Onions at War” is also the subject of an online article by Jay, which explores the role of onion growing in Britain and includes a section on “onion johnnies”—the young men from Brittany who sold onions door-to-door on bicycles until just before the Second World War. Finally, the photos and paintings that accompany the writing are excellent illustrations, and are a nice compliment to the text.
Tea with Jane Austen by Pen Vogler (Ryland, Peters & Small, November 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
Fans of Jane Austen will delight in this collection of recipes of the Regency era, updated for modern cooks. The book begins with a brief introduction to the history of tea and its important place within Jane Austen’s world. Austen loved tea and her special “tea things,” as she called them. Just as Austen loved to drink and serve tea to her family and guests, the characters in her novels are also depicted in a social setting imbued with the customs of tea, cakes and gossip.
Vogler looks at various treats referred to either in Austen’s personal correspondence or in her novels. Some recipes are gleaned from contemporary Regency sources; in each case, the recipe is updated using today’s culinary methodology and standardized ingredients.
Relying on her strong background in culinary history, Vogler presents a delightful collection. With her wealth of experience recreating and researching culinary history for the BBC, her previous work, Dinner with Mr Darcy (2013), laid a foundation for the examination of Austen’s life and work as a resource for culinary historians. In this book, the author goes beyond simply providing recipes; for each one, she also offers a little history of the availability of a key ingredient and the evolution of methodologies during the Regency era, so as to put all into its proper context.
I would definitely recommend this book to any fan of Jane Austen or her work. I know that I will certainly be trying out many of the recipes. The book also serves as a resource for anyone interested in the culinary history of the mid 1700s to 1845. While it is a small volume, it is jam-packed with delights. One recipe in particular that looks enticing is Buttered Apple Tart, a happy marriage between custard and apple tart. Other tasty treats include Bath Buns, Rout Cakes (as described in Emma) and dainty lemon cheesecakes.
Apparently, Jane Austen is credited with the first written reference to a sponge cake, in her personal correspondence to her sister. So when you enjoy a lovely sponge cake, you can associate Jane Austen with its name.
100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today by Stephen Le (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
A surprisingly easy and accessible read, aimed at a popular audience. After his Vietnamese mother died of cancer in her 60s, Stephen Le, currently a visiting professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, decided to throw himself into researching ancestral diets and lifestyles and learning about risk factors behind breast cancer and other diseases commonly associated with Western civilization.
In this book, Le sets out to demystify many of the ideas that are taken for granted about which foods are healthy and which foods are not, and how much physical exercise human beings need in order to stay healthy and live a long time. His three steps to improving the health of anyone living in modern society are:
- Keep moving: Physical and mental activity, such as routine walking and intellectual stimulation, will help you to live longer and be healthier while you live.
- Eat less meat and dairy when younger, and avoid sugar and deep-fried foods: Hormonal activity, such as that of insulin and IGF-1, goes haywire when we consume a lot of animal protein and sugary and fried foods.
- Eat traditionally: Traditional diets took centuries to develop and are based on how well certain combinations of food support health and how good ingredients taste together. (Culinary historians will find this conclusion particularly interesting.)
Le explores his thesis through such chapters as “The Irony of Insects,” “The Games Fruits Play,” “The Paradox of Fish,” and other interesting discussions—all interwoven with personal anecdotes about his adventures in pursuing and eating strange foods around the world. His chapter on “The Future of Food” explores sustainable food practices, but it also looks at competing claims of specific types of diets, such as the Paleo diet, whose followers eat only high-protein and low-carb foods.
The afterword spells out “Rules to Eat and Live By,” including the previously mentioned “Keep Moving.” Interestingly, a recent article in the New York Times (“Born to Move” by Gretchen Reynolds) concurs; it cites a new study published in the American Journal of Human Biology conducted on a group of modern hunter-gatherers. It showed that most of their activity was moderate and continuous, rather than vigorous; as a result, they typically had low blood pressure and excellent cholesterol profiles across their life spans, even deep into old age. Clearly, we still have much to learn from the history of thought about diet and lifestyle.
Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books, 2016). Reviewed by Shirley Lum, Toronto (pictured above).
CHC members who missed hearing keynote speaker Naomi Duguid talk about citrus in the Persian kitchen at the sold-out 2016 Mad For Marmalade, Crazy For Citrus! will rejoice over this much-anticipated cookbook.
Duguid’s latest endeavour is a cultural ambassador’s treasure box in the guise of a part travel essay and part recipe journal. Astonishing flavours, riveting tales and ancient food history come alive in her collection of nearly 125 recipes from the heart of the Persian Empire.
Food historians, academics and general readers will love that she writes not only about the people and food of the Persian culinary region, but also about immediately neighbouring countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kurdistan. She points out that people speak many different languages and follow many different religions, but at the same time share a rich food history marked by Persian influences dating back to the ancient time of Cyrus and Darius. That history continues to have an impact in the modern era.
The author sets out to “engage” the cook within us, using home cook–friendly recipes, while guiding the reader effortlessly through the chapters. Intrigue begins with the opening line of the introduction: “On the wall of my office, I have a map that shows the Persian Empire under Darius the Great, who died in 486 BC.”
Persia. The very name evokes magic and mystery. Rodica Prato’s hand-drawn maps will help familiarize readers with place names and geographical connections to this culinary paradise. The table of contents and index are well structured. Recipes are organized by common elements: Flavours and Condiments; Soup Paradise; Grilled Meat and Poultry; Stovetop Meat and Poultry, and A Wealth of Fruit.
Those who enjoy immersing themselves in culture, history and geography will love the annotated bibliography’s extensive list of helpful sources that the author personally found interesting and inspiring, from cookbooks and novels to movies and websites. The glossary is extremely useful should readers come across an unfamiliar ingredient, term or name. Words like moraba and merabesse may buzz once apricot jam season arrives across Canada.
This breakthrough book would make a useful educational tool in the classroom and a great gift for anyone, whether they’re familiar with the culture or not. It will generate inspirational conversations over shared delicious food and drinks with both friends and strangers.
Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams (Reaktion Books Edible Series, 2015). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Agave is a very strange plant: one of the conclusions that Ian Williams comes to in his investigation of the growing habits of the plant that produces pulque, tequila, mescal and a number of other spirits of Mexico. At this season of Mexico’s fall festival, otherwise known as el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, our interest was piqued by this book.
Agave, also known as the century plant in English, or maguey in Spanish, is not a cactus, although it does resemble cacti in retaining water in anticipation of drought and in having spines to ward off marauding animals. It reproduces in three ways: through seedlings, through runners with “babies” that spread from its base, and through an ecstatic flowering and seeding that take place when the plant is seven years old. It is pollinated by bats, which feed on the flowering plants at night. It is no wonder that the ancient peoples who depended on local plants for their livelihood called it “400 Rabbits.”
Tequila is mainly made in the state of Jalisco, where Agave tequilana “Weber Azul” (Blue Weber) grows on the arid volcanic soils of the foothills of Mount Tequila, near Guadalajara, and not far from the tourism centre of Puerto Vallarta in northwestern Mexico. Various kinds of alcohol are made by roasting the piña (heart) of the agave plant, but it is unclear whether the distilling of this liquor was invented by indigenous Mexicans or by the Spanish conquerors.
The coat of arms of the municipality of Tequila features the tower of the main church, the chimneys of the distilleries, rows of agave plants and Mount Tequila. Tequila is, of course, the town’s main industry, and the name “tequila” is protected and highly regulated by the Spanish government under the NOM, or Official Mexican Standard. Tequila can only be made with one variety of agave (the Weber Azul mentioned above), and makers of all other types of similar liquor are forbidden from using the name.
Mescal has also become trendy, and is well on its way to becoming as protected and regulated as tequila. Williams calls tequila the “spirit of the future” for its sustainability and socially conscious production methods, but its powerful yet subtle taste has also made it popular. This book’s explanation of how a once rather down-market product became a global favourite is worth reading.
Melon: A Global History by Sylvia Lovegren (Reaktion Books Edible Series, May 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
A sumptuous read from beginning to end. In fact, prompted by the author’s description on the first page, I bought a charentais melon at an astronomical price at the farmers’ market, and it was, as advertised, incredibly delicious.
Lovegren, author of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, and a long-standing member of the Culinary Historians of Canada, draws on her extensive research skills to explore the complicated history and biology of the fruit, which, like cucumbers and squash, is a member of the family of Cucurbitaceae.
Melons come in many shapes, sizes and flavours—bitter melon is eaten as a vegetable in India, and sweet melons were cultivated as delicacies in the gardens of the Ottoman Turks. Today, melons are cultivated all over the world, some solely for their seeds, which are eaten as a protein-rich, crunchy snack.
Lovegren’s often humorous asides, anecdotes and folktales add a great deal to the book, which takes the reader from southern Africa, where watermelon originated, to southern Asia, where muskmelons still grow wild. Brought from the Old World to the New World early on, both types flourish here and have became an integral part of the local diet.
The photos add a great deal and are nicely reproduced, but one might wish that they were larger so as to really capture the details, particularly in the black-and-white prints of some quite ancient manuscripts. Finally, recipes add a tasty end to the book, and are a useful reminder that melon—fresh, cooked, preserved—is found in virtually every society in the world.
Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate by Robert Dirks, Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
The period of the late 1800s and early 1900s is known as Gilded Age, satirist Mark Twain’s reference to the veneer of opulence adorning the upper class and cloaking the reality of poverty. This was a time when America’s increasing economic prosperity put more wealth in the hands of a few. The disproportion between the lavish dinner parties of the rich and the modest meals of “ordinary” people could not have been greater.
It is fascinating and surprising to learn that food consumption and dietary studies were being pioneered in the United States at this time. Author Robert Dirks, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Illinois State University, unearthed an extensive series of early 20th-century food inventories (mainly of poor and middle-class subjects) that were authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In this book, Dirks reveals how the scientists undertook the field research. He discusses their discoveries about the eating habits of mountaineers, African Americans, city tenement dwellers, immigrants and others. Accompanying tables summarize the dietaries of the populations in question—that is, the kinds of foods available to and eaten by them. In some cases, the lack of variety is astonishing: in 1904 in East Tennessee, cornmeal, wheat flour, lard and salt pork accounted for three-quarters of the weekly household diet.
Tables showing average nutritional values of the dietaries—for example, the percentage of animal products and vegetables consumed, the percentage of energy derived from fat, and so on—can be challenging to understand, but the main revelations are explained by Dirks in his very readable style, making the book accessible to all.
Also included are 12 recipes from era sources, complete with historical background and instructions (roasted possum, anyone?). Chapter 4 looks at the “Rich and Poor and the Seasonality of Diet,” and a final section examines other contrasts in consumption: between North and South, East and West; immigrant labourers and lumberjacks; and men and women. The latter discussion is based on only one group of students at a particular institution, so the scope is more limited than one might have hoped. Some concluding insight into how government officials acted upon the findings, if at all, would have been welcome. An extensive bibliography is included.
By viewing this early 20th-century data through the lens of contemporary nutrition knowledge and social history, Dirks provides several snapshots of the everyday meals eaten by poor and middle-class Americans in various locations and situations. Perhaps some long-buried Canadian sources would provide similar opportunities for scholarly commentary.
Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain by Carolyn A. Nadeau (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Carolyn Nadeau’s book is a scholarly investigation of discourse about food and social values during the era of Don Quixote (which turns 400 this year). Her critical examination of significant food practices draws on the work of sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and sociologist/food historian Stephen Mennell. Nadeau holds that food descriptions from early modern Spain “uncover food’s role as a cultural and social force that defines identity in terms of class, region, ethnicity, nutrition, and celebration.”
Nadeau examines the first cookbook written in Spain: Ruperto de Nola’s Catalan Libre de coch, which was translated into Castilian Spanish in 1525. It contains recipes and medical advice along with advice for young men seeking service in a noble household.
The next major Spanish cookbook was Francisco Martinez Montiño’s Arte de cocina, pastelería vizcochería y conservaría (1611). Martinez Montiño was employed in the kitchens of two Spanish kings, and his work was the most published pre-20th-century Spanish cookbook, with over 25 editions.
Social influences on early modern Spanish cooking are next examined. Nadeau concludes that meat was more important than vegetables, and certain types, such as lamb and veal, went to the more privileged members of society. Salads, vegetables and New World contributions to Spanish fare are examined together—including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and chocolate, adopted during the mid-16th century and now indispensable in Spanish cooking.
Nadeau determines that Jewish and Muslim influences on eating habits not only affected how food practices play into social segregation, but also contributed significantly to the cooking styles and ingredients in modern Spanish recipes and cuisine.
Throughout, Nadeau discusses food as literary metaphor in Cervantes, Quevedo and other Spanish works. For example, in the theatrics of food and celebration, poultry not only occupies a central role at banquets and fiestas, but is also a sexual metaphor. Nadeau ends with a call to other scholars to continue her examination of the ways writers play with their food.
A few recipes in English and Spanish are included, but this is primarily an academic work: not a light read, but an interesting look at how food becomes part of culture and vice versa.
Fats: A Global History by Michelle Phillipov (Reaktion Books Edible Series, May 2016). Reviewed by Dana Moran, Ottawa.
Michelle Phillipov, a senior lecturer in Journalism, Media and Communications at the University of Tasmania, is known for her expertise in death metal music and her authorship of the book Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. Her more recent research considers the ways in which the rise of the celebrity chef and the proliferation of television cooking shows are changing our relationship with food. These cultural changes have informed the lens through which she examines Fats.
Like every volume of the Edible Series, Fats packs a lot in. Although these are historical surveys, this one contains enough information on how popular culture has influenced our consumption of fat to delight even a specialist. With chapters on cooking with fats, nutritional science, the manufacture of fats and fats in popular culture, this book concentrates mainly on recent history. Although a nod is given to fats in earlier times in chapter 1, this book will be of most interest to those who study the 20th century.
Even where the historical land of Cockaigne—a gastronomic paradise—is mentioned, a comparison to the 20th-century African-American Diddy Wah Diddy follows shortly thereafter, with contemporary cultural representations of it. That said, this is a pleasurable read with a well-thought-out structure that describes in detail how the distant past has influenced the present ideology surrounding fat. The book’s colour plates complement the text nicely; so nicely, in fact, that you can use the pictures as a page reference for the content. As with other books in the Edible Series, the recipes at the end seem to be an afterthought, and might better have been integrated into the text, or at least referenced therein.
Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition by Vicky Straker (Amberley Publishing, November 2015). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
This book provides an overview of afternoon tea: its history, rituals and traditions. Vicky Straker (also the author of Bicycles, Bloomers and Great War Rationing Recipes) succeeds by providing well-researched content that left me wanting more—especially regarding juicy bits like the dangerous, seedy side of tea culture.
With engaging snippets on tea and temperance, tea smuggling, tea tax and the Boston Tea Party, and such chapters as “Expectations of a Mistress” and “The Lost Art of Tea Taking,” the author gives the reader a delightful historical survey. It’s impressive how much detail she manages to present in barely 100 pages.
For example, in chapter 3, “How to Dress for Tea,” Straker explains the evolution of afternoon tea fashions, from the Victorian-era corseted formal attire to the more relaxed Edwardian approach: “The tea dress, tea gown, ‘teagie’ or ‘robe d’intérieur’ was styled on the dressing gown, its natural relation, being worn indoors at a time when comfort was paramount.” She then expands on the fascinating social and political influences behind these fashions.
Straker’s research focuses primarily on the importance of tea for the British aristocracy, the middle class and the high bourgeois as well as the inevitable snobbery and contrasts that existed between these levels of society. The chapter “From the Other Side of the Coin” discusses tea culture from the servant’s perspective. There is a solid bibliography; many well-known texts are cited regarding afternoon tea protocol—including Anne of Green Gables and Howard’s End.
One-third of Afternoon Tea is given over to historical images, many in colour. Another third is dedicated to recipes. Included are the usual suspects (Eccles cakes, scones and Sally Lunn cake) as well as directions for brewing tea and coffee. A bonus is a recipe for Afternoon Tea Biscuits by the author’s great-great-grandmother, Dorothy Peel, who was integral to the teaching of cooking skills to millions of women during the Second World War and the inspiration for the author’s passionate interest in Edwardian cookery.