Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ 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.

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

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!

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

Waiter Rant

August 10, 2009

Waiter Rant

Waiter Rant

review by:  Stephanie Jane Carter

Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica

  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • ISBN-13: 9780061256691
  • 336pp

Waiter Rant, by Steve Dublanica, may not represent your specific experience in restaurants, but it will be difficult to make it through the book without at least one (I’m guessing many) moments where the reader, whether diner or waiter or cook, experiences the feeling that Dublanica may be working at a restaurant they know.  Based on a wildly popular blog by the same name as the book, the blog was written anonymously to protect Dublanica from getting into trouble with his restaurant and its patrons as he literally rants about his patrons and experiences as a waiter.  While that may be the reason for the preliminary anonymity, it also reflects the everyman aspect of the book and blog.   It isn’t completely about Dublanica’s experience; it is about a common experience.  This may constitute much of the entertainment in reading the book.

That said, peppered throughout Waiter Rant are Dublanica’s personal reflections on being a waiter, beginning with that first dizzy moment where one feels that being a waiter is being part of a wild, exciting, sarcastic club, and ending with a feeling of resentment and existentialist reflection on the past nine years.  This is the narrative that ties the book together.  Each experience he reports could easily be anyone’s experience.  But he quietly includes his own struggle with his role as excited newcomer, waiter, manager, and someone who wants something else.  It may be your feelings, or it may not.  This is where Dublanica lends himself to the book.  By the end of the book, I felt like he was someone I knew from the restaurant, an everyman and an individual.

One of the drawbacks of the book is that it feels very much like a blog.  There are plenty of typos and bad grammar, like a blog.  The flow of the book is not always not fluid.  A second drawback is that the reader often has the sense that Dublanica is holding back at the expense of “character” development.  In an interview, Dublanica says, “When I wrote my blog, I didn’t want to get fired, so I made quite a few changes. Say a big, fat bald man came in complaining about some nonsense. I might say it was a thin yuppie guy in a turtleneck…”  While the diner he pokes fun at could be anyone, many of Dublanica’s colleagues would immediately recognize their behavior and Dublanica’s portrayal of them, even if he changed their body type and clothing.  Many of his colleagues knew about the blog.  Perhaps because of that, the reader gets a sense that Dublanica is holding back.

Dublanica may skimp on details to save his butt.  On the other hand, the thing that Dublanica does not hold back on is himself and that, along with the feeling of enduring a common experience,  makes is it an interesting book to read. Waiter Rant is a quick, easy, fun book to read.  Summer is not quite over yet and there is still time to spend a day at the pool enjoying Waiter Rant.  And, the softback version just came out!

Related:

Economy takes a Bite Out of Tips for Waitstaff

The Restaurant in Waiter Rant is Revealed

Interview with Steve Dublanica

The Blog!  www.waiterrant.net

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World

July 10, 2009

Book Review by C. Smith

Book by Dan Koeppel

At the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, we are preparing to create a dynamic new exhibit that focuses on the banana. We are researching bananas and have found a great book to pass onto anyone else who is interested in the subject.

You should be interested in the fate of the banana because it is the most cultivated fruit in the world.  Actually, Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. In fact, bananas are the fourth most cultivated crop in the word, behind rice, corn and wheat.

However, bananas are in big-time trouble and scientists are concerned if the banana will survive. Every banana we buy is a genetic duplicate of every other banana. It’s the identical nature of the fruit that makes it so easy to grow and transport. It’s also what makes the plant so susceptible to blights that can wipe out an entire crop.

Dan Koeppel’s book, “Banana, The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” is a great read. It covers all the territory — history, science, cultivation, culture and the sad history of the American companies that became the epitome of colonialism.

The author is at his best when he discusses the urgent need to solve the plight of the banana. He explains scientific concepts in a manner easy for anyone to understand. Koeppel’s writing style makes the book an easy read.

If you are looking for a good, solid book about bananas, one that provides a logical overview of the banana and the banana industry, this is a great read.