Archive for the ‘History’ 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.

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: 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.

Out of the East (Paul Freedman) – Book Review

October 13, 2009

By Liz Williams

Out of the East

Out of the East

I have always thought that it was fascinating that spices drove the exploration of the world.  These tiny, aromatic, and exotic bits of organic matter inflamed the senses, inspired greed and adventure, were the cause of political intrigue and economic upheaval, and changed religion and science.  They were powerful.

Ironically some of these spices, like galangal, are not in everyday use in our kitchens.  Other spices sit quietly on our shelves awaiting use in a carrot cake or a special meal.  Spices have lost their power to inflame and inspire the imagination.  It is hard to imagine today the loss of life and the fortunes made in their pursuit.

These are the major themes of Paul Freedman’s thoroughly readable, yet scholarly, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Freedman gives us insight into issues and concerns of medieval European society that remind us that we are still immersed in the same issues and concerns of our human condition.  Today we may be pursuing a cheaper source of labor in another land, establishing call centers in the land of spices, but we are still looking for more, cheaper and better.  We still want the next new thing.  It is comforting to see that food was trendy then, as it is now.

What is most interesting to me is that spices changed the known world.  This was not exploration for the sake of knowledge, as say the space program purports to be.  This was exploration designed to make fortunes and create political power by obtaining spice, the real world Dune. Freedman gives us the keys to medieval thought, commerce, politics and religion.  It is a book that should be read with mulled wine.  I was inspired to fix a lamb tagine.  I wanted to clean out my spice cabinet and make sure that everything in it was fresh and powerful in honor of those who explored the world for me centuries ago.

This book will inspire you to think about the power of food.  We take it for granted, but it is the stuff of imagination as well as life.  Freedman reminds us of this important fact.

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Meet Paul Freedman during the First Annual Food Symposium and Literary Feast, October 24, 2009 at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.  Click here for more information and tickets.  http://www.southernfood.org/content/index.php?id=636