Category Archives: Books

Food and Power

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I read a lot of food history books, and I generally enjoy them, but occasionally, one impresses me more than others I’ve read. While good writing always gets my attention, a different approach can be really captivating. And so it is perhaps not surprising that I found Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History to be a particularly good read. It is very well written, but the thing that sets it apart is that, while most food histories seem to focus on a single item (including my own book, Midwest Maize), a specific period, or a specific country, Laudan’s book takes the novel approach of tracing cuisine by the progress of history’s great empires. Equally importantly, Laudan also draws a clear distinction between humble cuisine and high cuisine, once that division occurred in society.

Of course, in the context of history, this approach makes a lot of sense. A conquering people generally either introduced their ideas into conquered countries, or they adopted what they found in the places they invaded. Controlling or mandating cuisine became a political tool. Plus people in power have, for at least a couple of millennia, eaten better than the man on the street—though modern cuisine (since 1810) adds to this “middling cuisine,” the food of those who are neither rulers nor peasants—i.e., the middle class.

Of course, there have been a lot of empires, and the book could end up with hundreds of chapters, so Laudan further divides the topic by major influences (such as the agricultural revolution or the rise of Buddhism) and time periods. With a timeline running across more than 20,000 years, the book is definitely ambitious, but it offers wonderful insight into how cooking has developed from the first boiled-grain gruels into the sophisticated international cuisines of today.

The book is massively well documented, should you wish to track down the sources of some of her information. It is the kind of book that could be used simply for reference of a period of interest, or read through, as one watches history unfold through the meals that made civilizations possible and cultures identifiable.

So if you’re interested in food history, or the history of the impact of the world’s great empires on food and food’s impact on politics through history, I definitely recommend Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire.

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Nathalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Nathalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Grand Opening: Read It and Eat

So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time


Last night, I attended the grand opening of a new bookstore in Chicago — a bookstore dedicated to food. It is named, appropriately, Read It & Eat. The handsome, bright venue is dominated by pristinely white shelves crammed with cookbooks, food histories, food literature, volumes on food and culture, works on food and science (have to get Harold McGee in there), food fiction — thousands of books — but there is also a spiffy kitchen along one wall, for doing demos and teaching classes. So definitely food-centric — and deliriously fun for those who love food and books.
Test and demo kitchen

Test and demo kitchen


For the opening, Mindy Segal was on hand, signing copies of her new book, Cookie Love. The bonus here was that she also supplied some of the cookies featured in the book. Impressively elegant sweets. Saw a lot of friends there, including Patty Erd of The Spice House, Catherine Lambrecht, creator of LTHforum.com and the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and guiding spirit of Culinary Historian of Chicago, and Scott Warner, president of Culinary Historians. But all those who crowded the new shop were clearly enthusiasts. It looked as though as many were buying books as were enjoying the cookies, wine, and chatting with other book lovers. A highlight among many highlights for me was, of course, seeing my own book–Midwest Maize–on the shelf.

The bookstore is the brainchild of Esther Dairiam, who was inspired by a splendid culinary bookstore in Paris. She hoped that Chicago, among the country’s most food-centric locations, would be a good place to try to create something similar, but with the addition of the kitchen facilities, to create a more complete food experience.

Read It & Eat is located at 2142 N. Halstead, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. If you’re in the area, it is definitely worth visiting.

Well-labeled shelves

Well-labeled shelves


It’s a great concept well executed. I hope they do splendidly well.

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Midwest Maize

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I have a new book coming out and a new blog to support it. The book is Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. The book combines a lot of fun factoids (like do you know the connection between corn and vampires?), but also covers the sweeping saga of how a weed from Mexico was bred into a powerhouse grain that spanned the globe and pretty much created the Midwest. The book also covers the transformation of the world over the last 150 years, from horses used in farming and cooking over fireplaces to the introduction of farming machines, kitchen stoves, and frozen food, to the remarkable farm-to-table dynamic we have today.

The new blog will not duplicate info from the book, but will rather take you along on my travels as I researched the book and adding all the stuff I have learned and am learning that I think might be of interest, from cool tourist destinations to great chefs to fabulous farmers and more. (More info on the blog: http://www.midwestmaize.com — hope you’ll visit.)

The book won’t be out (from the University of Illinois Press) until February 2015, but it is available for pre-order at Amazon, if you want to lock in the current price. However, the blog is alive now.

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Maria’s Ancient Grains

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Back in March, I mentioned that I was again working with Maria Baez Kijac, author of the award-winning and impressively comprehensive cookbook, The South American Table. This time, the topic was “ancient grains”–those super grains of Latin America that are so newsworthy these days. It was great to be working with Maria again–and the best part of working with Maria, since she tests all the recipes multiple times, is getting to try all the foods. So I can say with certainty that these recipes work and are mighty good. Of course, they also have the benefits of being gluten free and packed with nutrients from the super grains. Maria also includes tips everywhere as to how to alter recipes to personalize them.

But eventually the fun, and the taste testing, came to an end, the book went to press–and now it’s out. Cooking with Ancient Grains is now available for those interested in how to utilize these “nutrition powerhouses,” as Maria calls them.

One thing I did note of interest (though possibly only to me) is that one my favorite recipes, the mushroom and watercress soup, doesn’t look in the photo like it does in Maria’s kitchen. If you get the book and decide to try this recipe, follow Maria’s instructions, not the photo–because in the photo, the mushrooms are sliced (which probably helps confirm for viewers that it’s mushroom soup), but in Maria’s soup, they are chopped. It always seemed to me as though the mushroom taste was magnified by the greater surface area presented by the chopped mushrooms. That said, it’s probably great no matter what you do with the mushrooms. I also loved the salads, especially the quinoa, black rice, and smoked salmon salad, and all the salad dressings. And the raw tomatillo and avocado dip. In fact, though one always has favorites, I can’t say that I ever tried anything I didn’t like.

Because Maria includes detailed info about how to work with the grains, preparing them and how to use them in your own recipes, this is a useful resource if you’re new to quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia. And because the recipes are collected from Maria’s extensive travel, they’ll probably be of interest even if you’re already familiar with these grains.

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New Favorite Book Store

Ojai-bookstore
When I headed for Southern California last autumn, I had a good idea what I was going to do: for work, visit an olive oil farm, do some research, and connect with some business associates, and for fun, attend my college reunion. One of things I hadn’t planned on was running across an incredible store for secondhand books.

Bart’s Books dates to 1964. It bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, though I find it hard to imagine it has too much competition in the “outdoor” category. Bart’s has nearly a million books crammed into a maze of al fresco book shelves. Attractive seating areas with umbrellas for shade on sunny days and brick ovens for warmth when the weather turns chilly invite hanging around. The variety of titles is stunning. There is actually a small house at the center of the sprawling “store,” but even it is filled with books (cookbooks in the kitchen and dining room, of course).

If you find yourself in Southern California, I encourage you to at least consider a side trip to Ojai–a charming, mountain-cradled town filled with artists and surrounded by orange, avocado, and olive orchards. And if you love books, then definitely seek out Bart’s Books. You never know what treasures you might find, but even if you find nothing you need, you will have been to one of only a handful of bookstores that might be considered destinations.
Ojai-bookstore2

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Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed by the lovely folks at InPrint Radio. This is a station that features Midwest writers, not just to promote the writer’s work, but also to encourage other writers. InPrint Radio is operated by a Rockford, Illinois-based writers group, also called InPrint. I don’t actually live anywhere near Rockford, but sometimes encouraging other writers is worth a long drive.

Because this is an interview geared for writes, rather than for the book-buying public, we spend a lot more time talking about things that would help other writers, from guidelines about editing to newer options for publishing to rules for writing and even ways to stay motivated. Which is not to say we don’t talk about my work. Waltzing Australia, which is supported by my other blog, gets a bit of time, as does my next book, on the history of corn, which won’t be out for a few more months yet, and general comments on my life as a writer. But the intention is definitely to encourage and guide other writers. Hope you find something useful.

In Print Radio, Episode 42

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Sheilah Kaufman Cooks

My dad was great at finding interesting people and bringing them into our lives. At least a few decades ago, he met Sheilah Kaufman while on a business trip. He was working for a food company and Sheilah’s career also revolved around food. She was a cooking instructor and cookbook author. While Sheilah lived on the East Coast and we lived in the Midwest, travel, especially hers, brought us into fairly regular contact. She is closer to my age than to my dad’s, and we became friends over the years, drawn together by a mutual love of food history and cooking.

I always loved Sheilah’s idea of what she called “fearless, fussless cooking”–that is, recipes that didn’t take over your whole life, with lots of options for making things ahead, so one could enjoy one’s own parties. Granted, there are days I want a recipe to fill the entire day, or several days, but one can’t live like that, at least if one needs to earn a living.

From Sephardic cooking to general cookbooks to an entire book of recipes that use bread (titled, appropriately, Upper Crusts), Sheilah’s cookbooks covered a fairly wide range of specialties. It was fun to see the books as they came out, and I found a number of recipes in her books that have become favorites.

This last weekend, I connected with Sheilah again, this time at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). We’re both members, but Sheilah’s connection is a little stronger: she’s one of the organization’s founders. Aside from being there to network, she was also carrying her newest cookbook, a handsome and impressive tome titled The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories, which Sheilah co-authored with the wife of the Turkish ambassador. (Sheilah lives near Washington, D.C., so ambassadors are not so hard to come by.) If you want to try out a few recipes before buying, you’re in luck. Sheilah has a website that offers samples from this and other works. Check out Cooking With Sheilah. It’s a great resource–as is Sheilah herself.
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Ancient Grains

It has been several years since I worked with Maria Kijac on her highly acclaimed cookbook, The South American Table, but for the last eight months, we have been working together again, this time on a cookbook that focuses on the ancient grains of Latin America: quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia seeds. These “super grains” (which are really seeds, rather than true grains) offer many benefits, including a full complement of essential amino acids, which no cereal grain offers. Because quinoa is the most easily obtained of these grains, there are more recipes using quinoa, but because chia is the greatest powerhouse of the group, Maria has found plenty of recipes to feature this astonishing grain (which has more antioxidants than blueberries and more Omega 3 fatty acids than salmon). Because of their remarkable health and energy benefits, these grains were considered sacred among the ancient people of Latin America, from the Inca of the Andes Mountains region to the Aztecs of central Mexico.

I can’t share with you any of Maria’s recipes (or the joy of testing them while we worked together), but I can share a quinoa recipe I developed for an outing with friends a couple of years ago. It has a lot of big flavors, plus the high fiber and other nutritional benefits of quinoa.

The dried mushrooms I used were the Gourmet Mushroom Blend from Manitou Trading Co. The blend included morels, porcini, Brazilian caps, ivory portabellas, shiitakes, and oyster mushrooms.

I think you’ll like it.

Mushroom Quiona
5 to 6 ounces dried mushrooms
1/2 lb. slab bacon
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 cups quinoa
enough chicken broth to make up four cups liquid with the mushroom soaking liquid
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the mushrooms overnight in water to cover. (I poured hot water over the mushrooms, let it cool, and then put it in the fridge till the next day.)

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Chop the mushrooms roughly and set aside.

Cut the bacon into lardons (blocks about 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x thickness of slab of bacon). Fry in large pot until they begin getting crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Sauté the onions in the fat from the bacon. When onions are translucent, stir in the quinoa. (NOTE: Check the package of quinoa. Some is prewashed. If it isn’t prewashed, the instructions will instruct you to rinse the grain. You definitely want to rinse any unwashed quinoa. If you bought bulk and there are no instructions, taste a bit of the uncooked quinoa. If it tastes soapy, then rinse it thoroughly before cooking. Or, to be really safe, just go ahead and put it in a strainer and rinse it. Quinoa seeds produce a protective coating of saponins, which are bitter and will ruin the taste of the dish if the quinoa is not rinsed well.)

Stir the quinoa into the onion and fat, to coat the grains. Add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and chicken broth, combined to make four cups liquid. Cook for twenty minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender. Stir in the bacon and chopped mushrooms. Season to taste. Enjoy.

(Note: if slab bacon is not readily available, get the thickest cut bacon you can find, and cut it into 1/2 inch pieces).

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Maine Home Cooking

One of the fun things about being a food historian is that it brings you into contact with other people who share your passion. I realize that is probably true of any serious pursuit–birds of a feather, as they say–but I have been delighted with the many acquaintances and friends I’ve made as I study and search for the foundations of what we eat today.

One of those friends is Sandra Oliver. I first connected with her via the magazine she edited and published for many years: Food History News. What an awesome effort that was–one of the only magazines where I’ve kept every issue and even bought back issues published before I first subscribed. Since then, I’ve met her at food history conferences and kept up a correspondence online. She is a remarkable resource, because she has dug deeper into her specialty than anyone else I know.

Besides the newsletter, consulting work, columns in several magazines and papers, and teaching cooking, Sandra also writes books. I have a couple of her works, and they are gems. Her enthusiasm for her topics is matched by the thoroughness of her research. So when I learned that she had a new book coming out, I figured it was worth letting the world know.

If you are an enthusiast for tradition, New England, American regional cooking, culinary history, Maine, good food, or any combination of those, then Maine Home Cooking is probably a book that probably belongs on your book shelf. Hundreds of recipes cover a range from from classic tried-and-true dishes to new uses for traditional ingredients. It is a cookbook that you can actually use, written for the home cook.

And because I mentioned other books and food history, I should probably offer those titles as well, in case you’re interested. Sandra’s other books include Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century, The Food of Colonial and Federal America, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie, which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin.

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