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I had an epiphany this morning.

As I sat at the red light in light traffic in my car after dropping off the kids at school, I realized I’d forgotten to throw on a coat.

And in that exact moment, as the radio blasted Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ loud enough to be heard by anyone close enough and as I sat there with it blasting dressed in my fabulous pink bathrobe, I realized that I looked ridiculous.

Thank goodness there is a recovery plan for these sorts of epiphanic moments, the basis of which is one three-syllable word: Chocolate.

Francois Payard’s ‘Chocolate Epiphany’ is the best book to consult, and I’ll tell you why.

How many times have you looked at a cookbook to find exactly the same recipes as the last cookbook only written with different names and different recipe formats?

I find this happens more often than not.

Unless the book is one of the few designed to be at the forefront of cutting-edge (haute – sorry, these things cost money) cuisine (though it won’t be called ‘haute cuisine‘ for the term is passe) the recipes circle around each other – distinguishing themselves pretty much by a sense of style or by a hint of one or two small-yet-intelligent differences created by the author.

Cookbooks specializing in chocolate can often seem to be repetitive even more often than other cookbooks, for the genre is limited.

‘Chocolate Epiphany’ has more to say (on a variety of levels) than any other chocolate-based cookbook I’ve recently seen.

Try these on for size: Kougin Amanns – distinguished by Payard morphing the recipe into one with chocolate imbued throughout . .  . Chocolate Pavlovas with Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse – the pavlova shaped into a two-piece half-sphered ball which is then filled to break open with the touch of a fork to utter the syllables of its filling . . . a Honey and Saffron Apple Tart with Chocolate Chiboust, startling in the conceptualization of flavors . . . a Gateau de Crepes with Green Tea Ice Cream . . . and a Chocolate Paris-Brest which makes one wonder why the Paris-Brest was not made chocolate in the first place.

I’m off on the road to recovery – pink bathrobe and all. It doesn’t mind a splash or two of chocolate on it – and seriously, neither do I.

The only remaining question is what music to blast to best suit Orange Custards with Dark Chocolate Foam.

I’ll definitely get dressed up nice to eat my chocolate recovery prescription, though. Then I’ll wait for my next epiphany.

Hopefully it won’t be yet another one where I feel ridiculous.

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Edible – An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants by National Geographic Society 2008, Foreword by Deborah Madison

Edible, an Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants is a gorgeous book. The collection of food plants included in this volume goes far beyond what one would expect – it is thorough and full of amazements, even for the jaded peruser of All Things Fruit or Vegetable.

I once owned a similar book. It was an encyclopedia-like very large book. The illustrations were pen and ink, with watercolor. There was something fairy-tale-like about it. To stare directly and closely at a fruit or vegetable, to consume it with one’s eyes . . . it can be like entering another world.

In Edible, each plant is illustrated by a photograph – which may be even better than viewing the plants artistically rendered by hand, for certain purposes. The book is precise, scientific, exact, and demanding of the reader. This is not a book to sit down and read in one sitting.

The first section of the book gives a general history: ‘From Plants to Food‘. My only problem with this part of the book is that it reminded me of a high-school textbook due to the format, general structure and writing style. Well – let’s just leave it at that.

The good stuff starts with the second section: ‘A Directory of Edible Plants‘. Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Nuts, Herbs, Spices, Plants Used as Beverages, and Plant Sugars and Other Products are the sub-categories. This section is 173 pages long.

Each plant is shown with common name followed by Latin name accompanied by a fabulous – yes I mean fabulous – photograph. Then the following facts are essayed: Historic Origins, Botanical Facts, Culinary Fare.

Proso Millet, Hyacinth Bean, Marsh Samphire, Mombin, Ice-Cream Bean, Bilimbi, Quandong. Poetry? Perhaps. Edible, too.

The book finishes up with a reference section of nutritional tables.

The foreword is by Deborah Madison, who should need no introduction to anyone who browses the food world for excellence.  The last line she writes is –

I mean, who knew that when the shell of the pistachio is split, it’s said to be laughing?

I didn’t. But I do know that curling up with this book makes me smile with pleasure, just like a happy pistachio.

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It startled me to see The Fireside Cook Book peering out from the bookstore shelf. The biggest surprise was how very new the book looked. The editions I’ve seen have been battered and worn, food-speckled, and with the non-shiny essence of the year 1949 – the date when The Fireside Cook Book was published for the very first time.

The new edition is red and green and yellow-brown and bright, and the illustrations – tossed in as if by a mad generous cook into a huge happy salad – are a look into another age of cookbooks.

Playful line drawings seem to be on almost every page, each one broadly drawn and colorful: An enigmatically smiling woman holds a garden spade as she bends over the earth almost-bursting out of her clothes while planting cauliflower in a garden as a little bird sits nearby watching her closely . . . a black-coated coachman throws delicately curled reins around the neck of a lime-avocado-green horse resembling a Lippanzauer as it pulls along a Cinderella-story coach labelled (writ large and bold and even saucily) SAUCES, and there upon the top of the coach sit the sauces in their jugs and bottles, merrily bumping along.

It all sounds just too precious. But it’s not. The book’s content crunches any initial questioning thoughts of ‘just too precious’ into a puff-ball which disappears with a slight ‘pouff!’ noise somewhere never to be seen again in the 1217 recipes on the 306 pages.

In this book are recipes, menu planning ideas, information on food purchasing, notes on seasonal cooking, the food of other lands and more. The recipes are written by someone who knows them too well to make a great fuss over them, someone who knows that any recipe ultimately answers to the cook, not the other way around – where cooks answer to the recipes which have somehow transformed themselves into pettily demanding divas. And yet the recipes in this book are far from unsophisticated.

This is not a specialist cookbook, though specialized ingredients and methods can be found in any given section. Beard’s mention of chayote, in 1949, is an interesting example of how very unassumably forward-looking he was.

Mark Bittman writes the foreword, and at the end of it comments:

“The man was born to teach cooking”.

I’m glad he wrote this, for the book jacket bio draws a strong picture of the other aspects of Beard: the well-qualified expert; the world-traveller; and the man who was quite intensely industry-connected.

My vision of Jim Beard (drawn from stories told to me by those who knew and worked with him during his later years in Manhattan) is in alignment with Bittman’s comment. I imagine him as consummate teacher first, bon vivant second, and writer through it all.

‘American Cookery’ is still my favorite book by Beard, but The Fireside Cook Book – this bright new edition – is coming right up close behind it as a very near second for my affections in the world of his writings.

Bread of a day, wine of a year, a friend of thirty years. I’ve always loved that saying. Maybe I’ll tag on to the end of it ‘a book of sixty years’.

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(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)

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Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Here’s my favorite bit of the book – it comes from the chapter titled ‘The Edible Earth’ and the subject is wheat, which the author has nick-named ‘The World Conquerer’:

No relief of the Triumph of Progress, of the kind which often decorates the tympana of our academies and institutions, would be complete without some ears or sheaves. Yet I can imagine a world in which this perception will seem laughable. A few years ago, I invented creatures of fantasy whom I called the Galactic Museum Keepers, and invited the reader to picture them, as they look back at our world in a remote future, from an immense distance of time and space, where, with a degree of objectivity unattainable by us – who are enmeshed in history – they will see our past quite differently from the way we see it ourselves. They will classify us, perhaps, as puny parasites, victims of feeble self-delusion, whom wheat cleverly exploited to spread itself around the world. Or else they will see us in an almost symbiotic relationship with edible grasses, as mutual parasites, dependent on each other and colonizing the world together.

I’d love to go on quoting, but I’d have to go on forever.

Fernandez-Armesto writes of cannibalism and of the family dinner table. Not in the same sentence, of course.

He writes of Nenets who ‘chomp living lice lifted from their own bodies “like candy” ‘. Of the claim that ‘the only objectively verifiable fact which sets our species apart from others is that we cannot successfully mate with them’, of meals that can become ‘sacrificial sharings, love feasts, ritual acts, occasions for the magical transformations wrought by fire’. And this is all before page 12.

The forging of community through food is explored (and I’m not sure I agree with his final conclusions about this but that’s part of the fun of it all, isn’t it?).

I thought of locavores when reading in the chapter ‘Food and Rank’ that

Diversity in diet is a function of distance: it attains impressive proportions when the products of different climates and eco-niches are united on the same table. For most of history, long-range trade has been a small-scale, hazardous, costly adventure; so diversity of diet has been a privilege of wealth or a reward of rank.

Have locavores flipped this thing over in terms of social rank today?

Crop yield comparisons, the ‘Green Revolution’, industrialized food and hygiene, non-eating and discussion of the Campbells soup can as postmodernist icon (another place where I had some questions about his conclusion but my head is spinning at the moment just trying to even list the ideas to think of so far, the few I’ve pulled out from this marvelous, dancing history book).

Books with lots of facts and research are often written with little index cards spread all over the place, to create the architecture, to keep the structure in mind, to remember what to write.

But I can not believe it with this book. The way it swoops around and sings, the way it gives off sparks within the gathered thoughts – makes me think that the author not only knows his subject incredibly well but that it’s just possible he’s been blessed with a photographic memory.

To end . . . from the frontspiece of the book, by Wordsworth:

And oft I thought (my fancy was so strong)
That I, at last, a resting place had found;
“Here I will dwell,” said I, “my whole life long,
Roaming the illimitable waters round;
Here I will live, of all but heaven disowned,
And end my days upon the peaceful flood.” –
To break my dream the vessel reached its bound;
And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.

I wonder if Wordsworth’s dusky hunger and sense of loss would have been salved by the glowing ball of light that is this book.

I’d guess . . . yes.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

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(This is part 2 of 3 posts.)

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Plod, plod, plod.

Plodding is a fact of life.

Everyone does it. There are those who embrace plodding as the most virtuous and acceptable way to live. Within this form of thinking, the idea of stepping out of the circle of plodding to do a little jig or a mad pirouette or a sudden break-dance is a nefarious idea.

I’m rather anti-plod myself. Although I plod often enough and know that life requires plodding, I also believe that if one can escape it, one should.

The writing of history often starts off with a traditional form. It’s called a time-line, and the thought of time-lines (outside of the idea of memorizing facts, which is not the highest calling I personally can think of) leaves me feeling a deep despair.

Open the book and there they are – the march of history goes forward from beginning to end, measured out by time. My mind goes to thoughts of Alfred Prufrock.

I opened the pages of ‘Near a Thousand Tables’ and there was no time-line.

Instead, there was a dance. A dance of ideas, a whirling through history viewed as concepts plucked in gathered handfuls. History not viewed straight-line but rather as a sea.

Instead of ‘And at the beginning there was . . . ‘, there is this: The Invention of Cooking. Followed by (gasp) (see me doing a little dance myself) The Meaning of Eating – Food as Rite and Magic. Then Breeding to Eat; The Edible Earth; Food and Rank; The Edible Horizon; Challenging Evolution; and finally Feeding the Giants.

He’s not coloring within the lines.
Thank goodness I do not have to think of Alfred Prufrock.
Halleliuija!
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Though I would like to write more on this, at the moment I must go plod at some usual things. My mind is filled with dance and the sea, though – and if I have the least chance to set in a bit of anti-plod here and there, I will.

And I’ll also come back to write more on this dancing book of food history in the next post.

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Sorry, dudes. I think it already happened.

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(This is part 1 of 3 posts.)

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‘Near a Thousand Tables’ is a very different book within the genre of food history than I’ve ever seen or read before. There may be books equal to (or similar to) it – my reading on food history is only a small part of the other sorts of reading I do so I may have missed something like it along the way. If so, I rue it. There should be more books like this.

Let me set my placement as ‘food history reader’ so my thoughts on this book can be weighed and measured knowing that stance:

* The first food history book I ever read (aside from grammar school lessons on turkeys and pumpkins et al) was Larousse Gastronomique. The volume was the 1971 edition. Though Larousse is not defined exactly as a ‘food-history’ book there exists within it a tremendous amount of food history nonetheless. The reading of it (in my mind at the time) was as preparation to be a chef – the idea of which was a vague stirring inside me. I read each entry from A to Z and loved it. In retrospect (in view of the marketplace for these sorts of things) it’s shame I didn’t read it now instead of then and try to sell a book based upon following the entries! But I can not read that thing from A to Z again.

* Masses of Gourmet Magazines, from the years anywhere between 1960 and 1990. The writers during those years of Gourmet often wrote of food history under the guise of merely writing of gourmet food. Somewhere around 1990 this sort of writing disappeared from Gourmet – swallowed below the wide swaths of surface food: how to cook and what to cook to be a gourmet cook par excellence, where to travel, what to buy for the kitchen. I can understand how this happened – the foodie revolution had begun and as a group-in-general foodies are interested in the ‘now’ of things: what’s hot and what’s not. The urge was for a fashion statement and Gourmet shifted its tone to suit the readers. I’m glad it did, and glad it survived. In recent years, Ruth Reichl has been gently and intelligently re-shaping the magazine to be more than just an ephemeral statement about acquisition and food fashion. Today Gourmet has morphed back from being a rainbow-colored gigantic lollipop wrapped in shiny cellophane with a nice big stick to hold tightly while waving around in the grip of a well-manicured hand, into something more than that. Thank goodness.

* Waverly Root – and how he has come under attack in later years! James Beard – who is not as well known for his writings as he is for the charitable Foundation created with his name whose Board often appears to be trying to figure out how to handle or mis-handle the fairly decent lashings of money they manage to gather. MFK Fisher – who writes of food history almost by default as she writes, as she does write to entertain and story-tell, to gather her audience close with their ears eagerly perked. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. Roy Andries de Groot, Evan Jones. The Settlement Cookbook. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Marion Cunningham. Patricia Bunning Stevens. Margaret Visser, Charles Perry, John Egerton, Sherrie Inness, Rachel Laudan, Clifford Wright, Paula Wolfert, Madeleine Pelner-Cosman. And so many more I can not remember at the moment. These readings come from this part of the globe and not other parts of the globe solely due to the fact that I can only read my native language (English) (as opposed to other languages) at a level that allows the understanding of any subliminal intonations in the text (or as many as a general reader might try to find, anyway). I dearly love the writings of all the above authors. And aside from love which is a fanciful thing, I respect them all immensely.

* Cambridge ‘World History of Food’ sits on my bookshelf, as do the Oxford ‘Companion to Food’ and Oxford ‘Food and Drink in America’. All great reference books, but I’m unsure how much I really ‘learn’ from them as I dread to pull them off the shelf for fear of falling asleep due to the generally dry academic writing styles and the length of the entries. I am not a true scholar, in this sense.

That’s where I’m coming from as a reader. Add the fact that I also have a strong aversion to reading things wherein the author appears to have pulled out a bunch of facts from somewhere and plopped them down like a lesson plan on to the page with little or no value added: no creative POV to take the thing to the next level – or alternately, if the author’s voice is not the sort that would independently charm me into not really caring if there were a next level added or not.

Having said all that, I am madly in love with ‘Near a Thousand Tables’.

In the next post I’ll tell you why – and tell you of my respect for the book too. Right now I’ve ranted on for so long that it is past time to go make breakfast – or be charged with Treason by my children. Treason by Reason of Blogging.
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P.S. In my urge to rush off to feed these obviously-starving-to-death children I forgot to add a very important something (or rather someone) – Reay Tannahill. Her book ‘Food in History’ is my very favorite food history book in the world till now.

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“Graaack graaaak gracccck!” The noise was right outside my bedroom window. “Griink griiiiiink!” It was insistent and loud and it was 5 in the morning, still dark out. I stumbled from bed and opened the window, and the storm window, and grabbed the tree branch and shook it as hard as I could then went back to bed.

“Grick grick grick!” The stupid noise continued. My own fault, really. I’d forgotten that a week ago today was Roald Dahl Day – the day given over to celebrating all that is Of Dahl – and this monstrous cricket had come along to remind me, appropriately enough while I was sleeping.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. James and the Giant Peach. The Twits. People know Dahl mostly from his children’s stories but there is more to Dahl than just nursery rhymes.

In my own way I was celebrating Roald Dahl Day last week, though I didn’t realize it was a formal celebration at the time. It was in the best way, too – I was right in the middle of reading a generous collection of his stories written for “grown-ups”, precisely titled: The Best of Roald Dahl.

Food (and the ways we think about it and feel about it) is alive in Dahl’s writing. It can come dangerously (and thrillingly) close to being a living breathing protagonist in some way. Taste is a story of Richard Pratt, the famous gourmet and president of the Epicures – and what happens when he decides to place a little bet on his superior wine knowledge at a dinner party. Lamb to the Slaughter features a leg of lamb as a vital part of the story (and that’s all I’ll say!). Royal Jelly is about exactly that – the foodstuff we know of as royal jelly is very important in this little tale. Royal Jelly may be my favorite story of all, for it wanders into the territory of the fantastic. It is a genre story perhaps way before its time. I’m not sure in saying that, for my knowledge of the history of genre writing is not too secure but scattered – but from the readings I’ve done this is a stand-out for any time period. Georgy Porgy again speaks of eating (and of being eaten, too). Pig would seem to be an all-out call to action for vegetarianism, and I’ve seen it read that way. But to me Pig is not discussion of food politics. It is actually more than that. It surpasses any generalized specific rhetoric, as any great piece of fiction must do – indeed as any great story of anything at all must do. The Boy Who Talked With Animals starts off with a giant turtle ready to be made into a giant turtle soup.

There’s more. These are just the most focused food parts.

Roald is so edible. I’m so glad there’s a day just to celebrate him. Now excuse me, I must go cook this giant cricket.

Wiki on Dahl

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (there is a “More Revolting Recipes” book also but I much prefer this first one of the set)

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