Posts Tagged ‘Food Literature’

Postscript: A selection from Betty MacDonald’s classic book The Egg and I was one of the featured works included in Molly O’Neills’ American Food Writing – An Anthology with Classic Recipes.

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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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(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)


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.)


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.

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.


Sorry, dudes. I think it already happened.

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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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