Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: Twain’s Feast by Andrew Beahrs

September 20, 2010

Review by Liz Williams

Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs, Penguin Press 2010

The sub-genre of food memoir that is the culinary journey has become popular of late.  Not a retrospective look at where life has brought the writer – not that journey – but rather more a travelogue of planned travel.  There are fine examples of such books, notably Coming Home to Eat by Gary Nabhan, but others have defined a goal and eaten their way to it in ways that seem forced and narcissistic. Andrew Beahrs has set a goal in Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens to eat through the regional American foods pined for by Samuel Clemens in A Tramp Abroad and other works.  It is an example of the former.

Twain is very much present in this book.  His very strong opinions about American food – especially as contrasted with European food – are appealing and obviously heartfelt.  Beahrs allows Twain’s writings and thoughts to be paramount, even as he recounts his own experiences with each of the foods he has chosen to explore.

Beahrs participates in each of the dishes either by cooking the food (as he does with the steak at breakfast or preparing raccoon in Gillett, Arkansas) or cultivating it (as he does the San Francisco Bay oysters).  He also explores the relationship of the food to Twain’s life, and the historical and cultural context of the dishes.

Beahrs makes you appreciate America’s table.  The bounty that we have lost to homogenization and commercialization is apparent.  It was becoming obvious to Twain as well.  We no longer have lives with the time to appreciate these delights daily.  But what a pleasure it is to explore them now and again.

Beahr isn’t just reading or researching the past – he is living it.  Beahr makes the connection to the past real and tangible by actually eating it.  He makes eating an integral part of the process of understanding the past.  It has made me ready to find a terrapin or a raccoon and begin cooking.

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Book Review: The Republic of Barbecue

August 5, 2010

Review by Jonathan Estuart

Image courtesy of University of Texas Press.

With all this oil spill/disaster/criminal neglect business going on, it’s depressing to see the seafood staples of Louisiana cuisine go scarce. Maybe that is why it’s so comforting to see another southern mainstay, the Texas barbecue, get so much love in Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket (By Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt, UT Press, 2009).

Republic of Barbecue is not a cookbook. Instead, it’s a celebration — something New Orleanians know entirely too well — of the religion surrounding Texans and their meats. Starting in Austin, the book takes author Elizabeth Engelhardt and her team of University of Texas students on what looks to be the most delicious adventure across Central Texas. There aren’t many recipes in here, since most of the foods fall under the category of ancient family secrets. Instead, it’s a collection of essays and stories: the former muses on all the traditions surrounding Texas barbeculture and the latter offer a close look at the inner workings of the small business barbecue masters. From an essay on the modern attempts at “green” environmentally-friendly barbecue to the everyday schedule of a typical pit master, this book satisfies the mind and the stomach of anyone who yearns for a good brisket and maybe a side of beans. If anything else, Republic of Barbecue is a fantastic roadmap of barbecue country and the many must see dives and restaurants that any foodie interested in the Texas’ religion of meats should stop at.

……

Jonathan Estuart is a Tulane student, the Views Editor of the Tulane Hullabaloo, and a SoFAB summer intern.

Book Review: Hungry Town

July 6, 2010

Review by Liz Williams of Hungry Town by Tom Fitzmorris

Although it is billed on the cover as “A Culinary History of New Orleans:  The City Where Food is Almost Everything” Tom Fitzmorris’ book is really an exploration of the last 40 years or so of the development of the modern New Orleans table.  I wasn’t disappointed to learn that the entire history of eating in New Orleans isn’t contained between those covers.  I have lived through the changes that he describes and enjoyed both his perspective and the nostalgic reminders.

Hungry Town is also a very personal book.  It tells the story of Fitzmorris’ development as a radio personality and food writer.  His genesis from person who just knows what he likes to someone who really knows about food and knows what he likes, is fascinating.  The close relationships that he has developed with chefs and restaurant owners, their influence on him and on his taste, and the influences of other things on his maturing palate are detailed with a friendly insouciance.  This isn’t namedropping.  Fitzmorris really grew up professionally with all of the well known names in his book.

Fitzmorris also relates his very important role in reporting on the return of restaurants to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The website that he used to do that reporting is still going strong.  Fitzmorris has a wry sense of humor which serves him well when he writes about himself and his role in re-establishing the cultural identity of New Orleans.

If you are a follower of the New Orleans food scene, you should definitely read this book.  It is an easy and very pleasant read.  The bonus in the book is that there are recipes, including Fitzmorris’ own version of Oysters Rockefeller, which he says Bernard Guste, from the family that still owns Antoine’s, has called embarrassingly close to the original.

Book Review: Put ’em Up

June 8, 2010

Reviewed by Amy Cotter

In Put ’em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook, Sherri Brooks Vinton holds your hand and walks you through the time-honored tradition of home food preservation.  She begins by acknowledging the rumors that home preservation is time-consuming and dangerous, and goes on to successfully dispel them.  Vinton describes why home preservation is worthwhile, then directs us in the selection of food to preserve.  The first half of the book contains techniques.  Preserving one’s own food is a two step process, so Vinton starts with step one: food preparation methods.  Keeping with the theme of the book, this section is user friendly with sections on equipment, key ingredients, and step-by-step instructions complete with illustrations describing processes like blanching and making fermented pickles.  Step two of home preservation is the preservation aspect, and this section also contains useful sections and illustrations.  Vinton thoughtfully includes sections titled, “Trouble” and “Things That Look Bad but Aren’t Dangerous,” which are very helpful.

Of course, the second half of the book is recipes.  It is organized by type of produce, so that you can identify what you have too much of and then find recipes geared specifically toward preserving it.  The range of produce spans from traditional fruit and vegetables to spices, herbs, and more regional items like ramps and scapes.  Since techniques for preservation have already been taught, the recipes section is able to encompass far more options, including traditional jams and jellies, and less typically imagined items like Vin d’Orange.  This lively book uses family anecdotes, easy to follow instructions, and delicious recipe recommendations to convince us to return to the tradition of home preservation.

Book Review: The American Beach Cookbook

May 11, 2010

review by Stephanie Jane Carter

The American Beach Cookbook

By Marsha Dean Phelts

University Press of Florida

Details: 320 pages     6 x 9
Paper:
$19.95   ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-3210-8
Pubdate:
3/30/2008

The American Beach Cookbook, by Marsha Dean Phelts, celebrates the food, drink, and culture of American Beach on Amelia Island in Florida.  The Afro-American Life Insurance Company, started by the first African American millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis,  purchased the beach in 1935 to ensure that African Americans had unrestricted access to the Florida Coastlines.

The American Beach Cookbook gives us unrestricted access to the food and beverage that is at the heart of the party, along with vintage photos, maps, and anecdotes.  Even if you can’t make the party, you can relish in American Beach resident and historian Marsha Phelt’s community recipes for Grannie’s Tomato Gravy (click here for recipe), Jalapeno Hoecakes, Sweet Potato Pone, Big Mama’s Tea Cakes, He Shorty’s Pigs Feet in BBQ Sauce, and Mrs. Mary’s Sweet Tomato Pie.

Whether your plans this summer are to visit the beach or not, this cookbook should be in your kitchen.  Filled with recipes that aren’t fussy, it is a cookbook that puts celebration and community in the substance of each recipe.  The National Historic Register added American Beach to the list in 2002.

Book Review: Cornbread Nation 5 – The Best of Southern Food Writing

April 1, 2010

Review by: Liz Williams

Edited by Fred W. Sauceman

General Editor, John T. Edge

UGA Press.  Published in association with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi
Page count: 328 pp.
16 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9.25

Once again the University of Georgia Press has gathered together what it calls “the best of Southern food writing.”  This year that task fell to Fred W. Sauceman, an expert in the foodways of Appalachia, who has reached far and wide to not only spotlight good writing, but also good storytelling.  And he has also gathered writing that extols Southern foodways of all types:  the high and the low, the familiar and the obscure.  This book is a good read.

Sauceman asks whether Southern food is endangered or enduring.  I think that it is enduring and evolving, if this book is any indication.  Are some things lost?  Sure.  But there are new things being explored.

One thing that is lost is White Lily flour in Knoxville, written about with objective affection by Jack Neely.  An article by John Shelton Reed about the origins of the word barbecue is elucidating and provocative.  And Marcie Cohen Ferris’ defense of the study of Southern food is fierce.  Each of these pieces is a joy to read – and to look at.  It contains a terrific photo essay by Amy Evans about immigrants in the South.  And the pieces are short.  The book lends itself to a short read.  I like that it about it.  Sometimes there isn’t time to read for a long time.  This book gives you a satisfying short sip.

This book reeks of the smells of the South.  It makes your mouth water over the tastes of the South.  It satisfies your mind and your senses.  You will want it on your shelf to return to it many times.

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Join the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Cornbread Nation 5, and the Oxford American for a symposium exploring food journalism and celebrating the release of Cornbread Nation 5 and the Food Issue of the Oxford American on April 17 at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.  Meet some of the featured writers in Cornbread Nation 5!  To learn more, click HERE!

Book Review: The P & J Oyster Cookbook

March 17, 2010

By Stephanie Jane Carter


THE P&J OYSTER COOKBOOK
By Kit Wohl and the Sunseri Family
224 pp.  10 x 10  100 color photos  Index
978-1-58980-649-8

Do you love the Oyster Roast at Cochon?  I have that recipe.  Would you like to know how Dickie Brennan, the man behind the Bourbon House, shoots oysters?  I can tell you.  Are you curious how the Sunseri family of the 130 year-old P&J Oyster Company, prepares oysters?  They must know how, right?  I have 28 of their recipes and they definitely know how to prepare oysters.  If you have a favorite oyster dish at a restaurant in New Orleans, there is a very good chance the recipe is in the P&J Oyster Cookbook, by Kit Wohl and the Sunseri Family.  The P&J Oyster Cookbook celebrates the venerable, salty, fatty, delicious Gulf Coast oyster and appears to define the P&J Oyster family and community as the entire P&J oyster-loving community, which appears to be the entire New Orleans community.  This is evidenced in the 220 glossy pages of oyster recipes from journalists, cookbook authors, “cheerful souls,” Sunseri family members, and over 50 New Orleans varsity level chefs and restaurateurs.  The ambition it took to compile all of these recipes was an admirable and successful feat by Kit Wohl.

For more than 130 years, the P&J Oyster Company, the oldest business of its kind in the United States, has been cultivating, harvesting, and distributing fresh Gulf Coast oysters.  The company, located at the corner of North Rampart and Toulouse in the French Quarter, has been lovingly embraced by the surrounding community for as long as it has been open.  According to the book, Chef Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” has never allowed any other oyster in her kitchen.  GW Fins, which flies seafood in from all over the world, only uses the local P&J oyster.  If the shrimp-dish naming scene in Forrest Gump were to be filmed using this delicious bivalve instead of shrimp, this is the book they would want to have on hand.  The photography in the book is oddly charming, presenting fuzzy oyster delicacies retreating and emerging from clean, white space.  The book is divided into the following chapters and every chapter is packed with enticing recipes.

Raw – featuring a recipe for raw oysters on the half shell with no less than three paragraphs of instruction, proving the seriousness with which this subject is treated.  It moves on to other raw preparations (oysters with granités, oyster shooters, oyster shooters with granités, etc)

Grilled – which includes Cochon’s delicious Roasted Oysters with Crushed Herbs, Garlic, and Chiles.

Fried – featuring 19 ways to fry them.

Baked – featuring the classic Rockefeller which was originally made with P&J Oysters, Oyster Biscuit Pudding from Café Adelaide, and 23 other ways to bake them

Soups, Stews, and Gumbos – Like Rockefeller?  Try the Rockefeller Bisque in this section.

Casseroles, Pastas, and Pies –  including GW Fins’ savory Oyster and Mushroom Tart that Chef Flynn once demonstrated at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.  Sal Sunseri, of P&J Oysters, accompanied him and shucked oysters.  Thanks to Sal, we all also know the proper way to eat an oyster on the half shell (slurp it out from above so that you get all of the juices and none of the grit from the shell)

Gratins, Stuffings, and Dressings – Oysters Marie Laveau, P&J’s Oyster, Sausage, and Pecan Dressing, and others

Stocks, Sauces, and Seasonings – to accompany some of the dishes

There are so many wonderful recipes in this book that I really hate to say anything critical about it.  So much of the New Orleans community contributed valuable insight into how to prepare the venerable bivalve and the book could have been perfect.

That said, it is a shame that that community did not include an editor.  It is clear that the recipes in this book were written by many different people with different vocabularies and different expectations of the audience’s cooking ability.  One example of the sloppy editing is found in the confounding recipe for a “Glace de Viande with Veal” that calls for either beef bones or veal.  (Really? How does that work exactly?)  The recipe also includes 12 other ingredients and without instruction on what to do with them.  There are a few other editorial lapses, but none that can’t be noticed without reading the recipe before you start cooking (which a good cook does anyway).

Even with the editorial shortfalls, the P&J Oyster Cookbook remains a dedicated, powerful, delicious, and ultimately sublime tribute to an institution and product that helps define and enhance New Orleans culture.  This book, full of 93 oyster recipes, is still wonderful.  These chefs, cheerful souls, and writers show that we consider P&J Company our family too.  At any rate, I love this cookbook and I think you should have it.  Just grab a red pen and be ready to edit it yourself.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has a limited number of autographed copies of the P&J Oyster Cookbook for sale.  They are available by calling 504-569-0405.

*Thank God.  No Gulf Coast oyster ban.

The Underground Gourmet’s Platonic Legacy

March 17, 2010

by Faine E. Greenwood

New Orleans lost one of its longest-standing food legends in January with the passing of 78-year-old Richard H. Collin, otherwise known as the Underground Gourmet. Collin died in Birmingham, where he relocated after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But the Philadelphia-born Collin was a consummate New Orleans man, and his contribution to the food culture of the city was defined by his game-changing “Underground Gourmet” guidebook to the city.  Arguably the city’s first real restaurant critic, beginning at the New Orleans States-Item in 1972, Collin’s legacy will loom large in NOLA’s culinary world for a long time to come.

The first Underground Gourmet New Orleans guidebooks first appeared in 1970, as part of a series originating in New York City, published by Simon and Schuster. The ambitious and food-obsessed Collin wrote to the publishing company to ask if he might do a New Orleans version, and to his surprise, the publishers awarded the as-yet-unproven restaurant critic the contract.

Collin enthusiastically rose to the challenge, tirelessly researching, eating, and exploring the food of his adopted city, drawing from luxury epicurean palaces, low-rent poboy joints, and ethnic restaurants in almost equal numbers.  The resulting guide was written in Collin’s characteristically laissez-faire style, perfectly suited to the character of the Crescent City – the book proved an immediate success. Opinionated, hyper-intelligent, and adventurous, the Underground Gourmet books provided a fantastic introduction to the city’s food for tourists and locals alike.

Collin was an adventurous eater. His book was one of the first to devote attention and affection to the city’s smaller hole-in-the-wall restaurants, moving beyond the traditional French-Creole stalwarts into the soul food joints, poboy houses, and working man’s lunch-spots of the general public.  Collins didn’t mince words or hang fire on lousy restaurants, either: one chapter is, after all, entitled “The Great Center City Disaster Area,” enumerating Collin’s justifiable disdain for the poor food served to the business lunch set (one can only hope that matters have improved). Collin’s disapproving descriptions include such damnations as “Keystone Kops levels of amateurism,” “watery Northern coffee,” and just plain “absolutely awful.”

But Collin’s praise could be as potent as his criticism: when a restaurant really got something right, The Underground Gourmet’s enthusiasm was marvelously obvious.  As he explained in the introduction to the guide, he approached restaurants as an “incurable optimist,” and was capable of waxing rhapsodic about a “heady” shrimp remoulade at Galatoire’s, an “exquisite” raw oyster, or a “beautiful” dish of butter-soaked barbecued shrimp at Pascal’s Manale.  Needless to say, New Orleans restaurateurs of the era quickly learned to both respect and fear the Underground Gourmet’s criticism.

New Orleans food buffs of all stripes will appreciate a browse-through of the easy to find 1973 revised edition of the guide: the book provides a fascinating time capsule into what New Orleans cuisine was and represented in that particular era, and Collin’s remarks on still-existent restaurants are illuminating and often highly entertaining. Antoine’s, Pascal’s Manale, the Camellia Grille and other modern-day stalwarts are addressed here, as well as a cotorie of gone-but-not-forgotten eating emporiums, some dearly missed and some not so much. Collin’s dining world in 1970’s New Orleans contained considerably more aspics and “tropique” salads then our own does, and startlingly cheaper prices. One cannot help but long for the days when you could still order a nice sirloin steak for the princely sum of $5.50. (One also wonders where the remarkable assemblage of fine Chinese restaurants the city used to possess has gone).

Collin’s notion of a “platonic” dish was perhaps his trademark eating thesis and the most fascinating idea to come out of his food writing:  to the Underground Gourmet, a  “platonic dish” was “the best imaginable realization of a particular dish,” a preparation that perfectly captured the essence of New Orleans cuisine, a dish that could not (and would not) be equaled anywhere else or in any other locale. Commander’s Palace’s Oysters Bienville, Galatoire’s Trout Meuniere Amandine, and Casamento’s New Orleans Oyster Loaf were all awarded this philosophically-meaningful honor: Collin’s was not afraid to make it clear when a dish did meet his always-stringent expectations.

Richard Collin’s wife, Rima, was herself a formidable food authority. A former Fulbright scholar in France, she founded the New Orleans Cooking School in 1980, and provided counsel, advice, and delicious food to her husband for the entirety of their long and prosperous marriage. The two self-described “oddball academics” worked well together inside and outside the home: Richard and Rima authored the classic New Orleans Cookbook in 1975, an ambitious tome that gathered what the couple felt to be the most authentic Creole recipes in existence. The two tirelessly researched the book’s contributions, attempting to gather, test, and perfect “platonic” versions of iconic Creole preparations, ranging from gumbos to oyster loaves to baked quail and other classic Creole specialties.  Their efforts paid off. The resulting two hundred and eighty-eight recipes included remain excellent examples of real-deal Creole cuisine, a quality the public immediately recognized upon the book’s release. The Collin’s couple’s “New Orleans Cookbook” remains in print to this day and is estimated to have sold over 100,000 copies. Another little known fact: the book was edited by legendary editor Judith Jones, best known (of course) for her work with Julia Child.

Richard and Rima Collin also collaborated on “The Pleasures of Seafood,” an extensive treatment of seafood preparations from around the world. After Rima’s passing in 1998, Collin wrote the 2002 “Travels with Rima,” a celebratory and poignant elegy in travelogue form, a book that remains a testament both to the couple’s love and to their shared adventuresome spirit.

Collin’s expertise ranged further than food. He served as a well-loved emeritus professor of history at UNO, and was a highly regarded Theodore Roosevelt scholar, publishing Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean in 1990. He delighted in travel (especially with Rima), the opera, and fine art, as well as the many delights of his native Crescent City.  Collin’s life was not one lived without a consideration of pleasure.

The multi-faceted and multi-talented Richard H. Collin will doubtless be fondly remembered and revered for his contribution to New Orleans’s food culture. Let us hope that the Underground Gourmet’s platonic dishes will be enjoyed in the city he loved for a long time to come.

Book Review: Abita Beer: Cooking Louisiana True

February 1, 2010

Reviewed by Stephanie Jane Carter

While much of the nation is breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays are over, there are no signs of the holidays stopping for several more months in Louisiana.  The Saints play their first Super Bowl on February 7 and the “Who Dat Nation” has been twinkling black and gold.  Along with this event, Mardi Gras parades are already rolling.  Football and Mardi Gras make most of us thirsty for some Abita Beer.  However, Abita Beer: Cooking Louisiana True ($34/Hardcover/184pp/9780615238647) is a cookbook that will make us hungry for it too.

Cooking Louisiana True features over 80 photographs by Jackson Hill, who currently has a photography exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.  Marcelle Bienvenu, cookbook author and food writer for the Times Picayune, tested the recipes.  The result is a book that looks as good as the food in it tastes.

The book opens with a history of Abita Beer and of beer in New Orleans, nodding toward other renowned breweries like Jax, Falstaff, and Dixie.  It offers helpful information such as how to enjoy beer, how to make it, and how to serve it.  Perhaps the most fun part of this section is the beer flavor wheel and the color and bitterness comparison chart.  It demonstrates what a lot of Americans have only begun to appreciate, that beer can be tasted and enjoyed much the same way wine is.  Is the beer hoppy?  Is it dry-hop, kettle-hop, or hop oil you are tasting?  Is it sulfidic?  What kind of sulfidic?  Shrimp-like or burnt rubber?

The recipes in Abita Beer: Cooking Louisiana True were contributed by a variety of people, mostly professional chefs.  The Turbodog Ice Cream is balanced in flavor and velvet in texture.  Even though it is a beer ice cream recipe in a beer cookbook, the flavor is not aggressive in the beer flavor, offering strong hints of vanilla as well.  Abita Beer-Battered Tempura Soft Shell Crabs offer a great opportunity to bridge food and beverage.  There is hardly anything as satisfying as a cold beer and fried seafood.  The book offers some surprising recipes, like New Orleans BBQ Shrimp Shortcakes with Abita Amber Cream.   Also featured are the obligatory (and delightful) beer recipes, beer bread and mussels.

Ultimately, this is a great cookbook for anyone who loves Abita Beer, or well, good food.

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The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has a limited number of autographed copies of Abita Beer: Cooking Louisiana True. Click here to visit the museum store…

Book Review: DamGoodSweet

November 10, 2009

Review by: Liz Williams

DamGoodSweet by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel

$25, The Taunton Press

I am one of those people born without a serious sweet tooth.  I enjoy a sweet treat, but given a choice between another piece of fried chicken or a piece of pie, I will probably choose the chicken.  Given this handicap, a sweets cookbook had better be damn good to get my attention.

Despite a reference to N’Awlins (one of my pet peeves) I was charmed by this personal book.  Guas manages to be traditional,  nostalgic, and modern.  And the book doesn’t dumb down recipes for the home cook.  For example, the éclair recipe instructs the cook to use a pastry bag.  It even allows the cook to use his or her own judgment in filling the éclairs.  I appreciate that.

The instructions are clear, but the writing is sassy and personal.  This is David’s experience of New Orleans, not the generic version.  And when he deviates from tradition, he owns it.

My favorite recipe is the Double Chocolate Bread Pudding with Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce.  I love the idea of using leftover king cake in a bread pudding – why not?  The caramel sauce is easy to make and delicious.

His king cake recipe is traditional, as is the pecan pie.  His Chocolate Cupped Cakes with Coffee and Chicory are marvelous and modern.  For a person who isn’t naturally a sweets lover, this book is one from which I will actually cook.  Cane Syrup Snaps with hot sauce.  I love it!