Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Righteous Porkchop

In recent years, I’ve read a number of books on animal agriculture and Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman is only the latest.  I was intrigued by the title, but I feared that it might be a repeat of earlier information, and I would become bored or would be made to feel really guilty.  However, this was not the case.

Hahn Niman has a great writing style and a unique perspective. She’s a vegetarian environmental lawyer who, while crusading against factory farms, falls in love with a cattle rancher, Bill Niman (founder of natural meat company Niman Ranch).  Sounds like a movie, right?
Her book is both informative and entertaining.  It includes clear and authoritative explanations of the environmental and health consequences of factory farming.  In fact, I understand more about the industry than I ever have.  But, it isn’t just a litany of dry facts.  All the information is interwoven with details from Hahn Niman’s personal life story and anecdotes from her career.
She also engages the reader to consider the ethical considerations of animal agriculture.  Without coming across as smug or preachy, Hahn Niman provides a thoughtful treatise and gives advice on how to proceed to more mindful eating in your own life.  She doesn’t criticize meat eaters, but asks consumers to be more thoughtful in their purchase decisions.
I appreciate that the book addresses and answers the argument that only industrialized agriculture can produce enough food to feed a growing population.  I’ve never believed that was true.  Plus, she provides examples of animal producers who have embraced husbandry and shows that it is possible to make a profit raising animals ethically.  I’m glad these individuals who care about animals, and yet eat meat, are not treated as villains.
If you are interested in learning more about what you eat without feeling like a bad guy for your current choices, then this is the book for you.  I think you’ll feel more inspired to make friends with a local farmer, too.

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Book Review: As Always, Julia

I’m always intrigued to learn more about public personalities…you know there is always more to the inner person than what you see on the screen or through their writing.  Julia Child is no different.  There is more to learn about Julia Child beyond watching the Julie and Julia movie or her shows on PBS.  To know Child as a person, I recommend you read As Always, Julia: The Letters of Juila Child and Avis DeVoto (her friend and unofficial literary agent) edited by food historian Joan Reardon.


This charming book is a series of more than 200 letters between Child and DeVoto that began in March 1952 with a fan letter from Julia to Avis’s husband, Bernard DeVoto.  Child read his article in Harper’s magazine and agreed with his frustration on the sharpness of American stainless steel knives.  She sends him a gift of a French knife.  Avis responds because Bernard is busy preparing for a long trip.  The exchange of letters begins, and within a few short months the salutations switch from Mrs. Child and Mrs. DeVoto to Dear Julia and My Dear Avis.

This is a book that you can read at a leisurely pace.  I mean, because is is an exchange of letters you can read just a few pages at a time and you won’t lose the thread of the story.   However, I actually found it quite riveting, and read it quickly.  I appreciated learning about these smart women and the development of their friendship, but as a fan of history I certainly enjoyed the details of their daily life.  They constantly discuss politics which in the midst of the McCarthy era is fascinating.  And, set in a pre-Betty Friedan time, these intelligent, accomplished women did see themselves as housewives, but were simultaneously pursuing serious work.  It is a snapshot of an earlier time in feminism, but some of their feelings toward marriage, sex, and parenting can still ring true today.
You also read about the development of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.  We are privy to her cooking experiments, negotiations with publishers and partners, and research into cooking equipment available to American homemakers.  Julia relied greatly on Avis for information about ingredients in American markets, and for advice on publishing.  Avis was the book’s and Julia’s number one cheerleader.
I found it heartening to read that even the great Julia Child had self-doubt and relied on the support of friends to continue.  She felt there were so many individuals more qualified than her that were already published that she sometimes needed to be reminded that she was creating a new path.  It is reassuring to know that she was only human.

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Book Review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Before the holidays I finished an interesting book by frequent New York Times Magazine contributor, Paul Greenberg, entitled Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.  Greenberg is a lifelong fisherman and he clearly struggles with the contradiction of saving fish and their environment, but writing with passion about the thrill of hunting them.

The book is divided into chapters on salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna – the four fish most prized by consumers and therefore facing drastic reductions to their wild stock.  Each section describes basically the same cycle.  There were times of abundance, when fish found plenty of prey and nutrients and could freely follow their patterns of migration.  As Greenberg put it wild fish seemed to be “a crop, harvested from the sea, that magically grew itself back every year.  A crop that never required planting.”  Then came pollution and changes in water temperatures, along with blockages to spawning routes, and of course, overfishing.  He writes of the drastic decrease of wild populations, the depredations of industrial fishing, and the uncertain efforts to slow the decline by setting catch limits and closing some historic fishing grounds.
Greenberg also examines fish farming, which accounts for most of the salmon and sea bass now sold.  He details their unsuccessful efforts to deal with the problems of pollution, genetic contamination that threaten wild stocks, and the question of flavor differences.
He acknowledges that mounting food demand is inevitable.  In fact, the world’s per capita consumption of fish has increased from 20 pounds in the 1960s to 36 pounds in recent years.  The oceans cannot keep up with our demands.  He reluctantly concedes that the solution is fish farming, because otherwise, the pressure on wild stocks will be uncontainable.  However, he argues that farming should shift from the four premium fish where it squeezes the wild population, to other species.  One example Greenberg provided is tilapia.  These fish breed in fresh water, multiply rapidly, and live on a vegetarian diet, thereby reducing the need for the industrial harvesting of the tiny marine life that salmon, cod, bass, and tuna require.
Greenberg also addressed an issue of concern to many contentious eaters.  Which fish can we eat without guilt?    Unfortunately, this is a question not easily answered by looking at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood-watch card.  In truth, he shows, there is rarely such a thing as a good wild fish for any of us to eat, at least not if all of us eat it.
Greenberg lays out the grim realities, but he still manages to sound hopeful about the future of fish, and I feel as though I almost met some of the innovators Greenberg describes who are attempting to deal with the scarcities.
But. for all his defense of innovation and farming, Greenberg without a doubt sides with wild fish.  In the case of tuna he calls for the kind of ban that has been applied to whales.  “The passion to save the bluefin is as strong as the one to kill them, and these dual passions are often contained within the body of a single fisherman.”
He describes the tension between seeing fish as wildlife versus food.  “Wild fish did not come into this world just to be our food,” he argues.  “They came into this world to pursue their own individual destinies.  If we hunt them and eat them, we must hunt them with care and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation.  We must come to understand that eating the last wild food is, above all, a privilege.”
Four Fish is a marvelous exploration of that contradiction, and it is a necessary book for anyone truly interested in what we take from the sea to eat.

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Book Review: Meat A Love Story by Susan Bourette

My husband pointed out that I haven’t written a book review in a while.  He’s right.  Even though  I’ve read plenty of food-related books over the past few weeks, I have not posted any entries on them.  Let me try and rectify that…Please note that not all reviews have to be recommendations.

The book begins with Toronto-based journalist Susan Bourette working undercover in a slaughterhouse.  Not surprisingly, Bourette finds this to be an unpleasant experience.  The purpose of sharing her experience is not really to incite policy change, like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, but more to explain why she’s written a book about meat.

The slaughterhouse experience makes Bourette become a vegetarian like her boyfriend, Gare.  (His saintly vegetarianism is pointed out every few pages, and it was a little annoying to me.)  However, Bourette can’t cut it as a vegetarian, and she continues to crave cheeseburgers.  So, the book details her attempt to determine how to enjoy meat without guilt and visions of the slaughterhouse.  I’ve read other takes on this concept, but was willing to hear her out and give this book a chance.  Problem is – I don’t think she really accomplished this.

Besides the fact that the guilt-free-meat-eating thing has already been done by other authors, Bourette doesn’t really do anything.  She takes all these trips to a fancy New York City butcher, a hunting camp, Alaska for whale blubber, a conference of raw meat fanatics, a South Texas ranch, the farm for Blue Hill Restaurant, and a top-line steakhouse.   Even though she lists her goals for each journey, Bourette is unsuccessful at butchering; she can’t manage to shoot a deer; she spits out the sacred whale blubber in front of her hosts (offensive!); she doesn’t like the beef in South Texas; and she refuses to eat any raw meat.  She does, however, eat the expensive Berkshire pork at Blue Hill (although she doesn’t think it is good enough to justify the focus on animal welfare), and she manages to eat three (!) steaks at the steakhouse.

If I were her, I would have felt some guilt or embarrassment about my lack of success, but perhaps Bourette’s editor believed that the author-going-outside-her-comfort-zone-and-failing thing hasn’t been done enough.  Combining that concept with carnivore chic and you’ve got a sale!  Guess there is still hope for any of us to get our own food adventures published…

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Book Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander

In his new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, William Alexander describes the year he spent baking a loaf of bread each week in an attempt to replicate a loaf of peasant bread he once tasted. In living out this obsession, he grows and grinds his own wheat, wins second place in a New York State Fair bread contest, and travels to a 1,300-year-old monastery in Normandy to help them restore their practice of bread baking.

This is not a cookbook, and I don’t recommend this book to new bakers.  But, it is well written and I found it to be sympathetic to the travails of home bread bakers searching for the perfect loaf.  Alexander has an interesting sense of humor and I appreciated reading his reflections on the process and particularly about his time with the monks of l’Abbaye Saint-Wandrille.
My mouth watered and I felt a strong desire to return to the kitchen as I read about his ritual of weekly baking, the meditative state achieved in kneading, and the nearly universal positive response to the aroma of fresh baked bread.  I also enjoyed reading his tangents into understanding enriched flour, the disease pellagra, milling wheat, and the images of bread in Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting.
I found, however, that Alexander seemed to make things more complicated than they needed to be and he was often surprised by what are usually seen as simple techniques, like the use of steam and high temperature in baking.  But, I suppose that will happen with a six thousand year old staple of human civilization that consists of a minimum of 4 ingredients, yet has thousands of techniques and variations.  He also seemed to take a while to realize that the definition of the perfect loaf varies around the world and from person to person.
Some of his quest was a bit trite.  I feel as though I’ve already read several other accounts of urban (within NY Times local delivery radius) New Yorkers and their humorous, but likely obsessive adventures in gastronomy.  The difference here was my shared passion for good bread, so I was more tolerant, I guess. I also didn’t care to have so many reports on his marital sex life.  I remember thinking that his high school and college age children must be pretty embarrassed.  I hope his wife was okay with it.
If you enjoy baking bread or reading about obsessive behavior, then I think you will find this an entertaining book.

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Book Review: A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

I just finished a charming book – A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.   I was introduced to Wizenberg’s writing through Bon Appétit where she is a regular contributor, but she is also the author of the blog, Orangette.

The book is a story of her life told through her love of food and cooking.  It is in the same format as her blog – favorite recipes paired with personal reflections, but with a much tighter narrative.  Without straining for connections, Wizenberg describes how food has been woven into her personal experiences: the death of her father, her decision to bypass a career in academia, young romances, and her marriage.  Some of these reflections are clearly difficult and you almost sense a great need on her part to tell the story.
Wizenberg draws you in and makes you feel a part of the story.  However, some of the chapters are a bit too short and don’t provide much substance or deepen our understanding of the author.  I left those sections not entirely satisfied with the happily ever after tone. 
I found most of the memoir to be relatable to the under-40 crowd and I’m intrigued by most of the 50 recipes.  As it turns out, my mother is reading it now, too, and thinks it is entertaining.  Overall, the book is a pleasant, quick read that would be a nice treat over a weekend.

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Book Review: Talking with My Mouth Full

 In Talking with My Mouth Full, Bonny Wolf, food commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday,  writes about regional and family food traditions.  She includes stories about birthday cakes and dinner parties, Jell-O and meatloaf, crabcakes and Bundt cakes. Each chapter has recipes used by the author and her family and friends.
Her stories are not just about what people eat, but why they eat: for comfort and companionship; to nurture; to mark the seasons and to celebrate important events; and to connect with family and friends and with ancestors.
While she doesn’t really break any new ground, her light-hearted essays make her kitchen experiences come alive for the reader. You feel her enthusiasm for kugel, wild rice, popovers, and pickled antipasto. She is well-traveled, but isn’t a food snob and still appreciates simple, traditional, regional cuisine.  I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of Mid-Atlantic traditions and the public markets in Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland.  I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to experience them first-hand.  The only essay in which I felt a bit of defensiveness toward was the chapter on Texas cuisine, but it didn’t lessen my overall enjoyment of the book.
Wolf provides some helpful instructional pieces, as well, on how to recover from dinner parties gone astray and how to roast chicken.  It was easy to relate to these common issues, and she makes them seem very manageable.
I recommend you check out the book.  I think you will find both her writing and recipes refreshingly accessible.

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Book Review: How to Pick a Peach

I grew up eating fruits and vegetables from our family gardens or from a local farmer’s market. Frankly, it spoiled me.  My palate knows what a vegetable should taste like and knows how good freshly picked fruit can be.  Because of that lucky experience, I’ve never really been satisfied with produce from the grocery store. Russ Parson’s How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table helps me understand why.

Parsons, food editor for the LA Times, explains the reasoning behind buying produce locally and in-season.  He details the conflict between growing produce for sturdiness in shipping instead of flavor, and it is clear what we are missing in the grocery stores.  Within commercial agriculture the author writes, “there are significant rewards for growing more fruit, but there are precious few for growing better fruit.”  Farmers who have the talent to grow flavorful produce and put in the effort to keep them that way, are almost forced to go outside the normal supply chain, usually farmers’ markets to sell directly to the consumer.

The book doesn’t include every single fruit or vegetable, but it hits on good number of them.  Organized by season, the book includes an interesting short history on each item and describes various farming trends.  I was intrigued that several examples of marketplace success of imported fruit altered how our domestic farmers grew some types of produce, especially tomatoes and apples.  There is still hope for folks who can’t buy directly from the farmer.

Parsons helps arm his readers with some basic information about how to choose produce, how to store them once they are home, and then shares suggestions on basic preparation. I appreciated understanding the science behind how certain growing,  storing, and cooking methods contribute to the flavor and texture of my food.

If you start with good ingredients you can finish with great tasting food.  This book was fun to read and will serve me well as a useful reference.  I’m ready to hit the farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms, but I’m also willing to start telling grocery produce managers what I want to see.  I hope you’ll join me.http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=acoo-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B002CMLR9M&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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Book Review: United States of Arugula

Never before has a civilization had so much access to so great a variety of foodstuffs. David Kamp knows how we came to be here. In The United States of Arugula: How We Became A Gourmet Nation, Kamp examines how we went from a nation of Jell-O salads and Shake N’Bake to the gourmet-loving country we are today.

The United States of Arugula chronicles America’s biggest and most influential culinary personalities and describes the dramatically changes to the landscape of American food. The stars of the story are food pioneers Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, or as he refers to them, “the Big Three”. Kamp supplies an engaging account of their careers and explains how they shaped much of what we know of cooking today. Each paved the way for those who followed – Child as the early TV pioneer who made French-style cooking accessible to housewives across the country; Beard as the author of several best-selling cookbooks, some still considered definitive; and Claiborne as the first food critic for the New York Times and also a cookbook author – all redefining our views of gastronomy over the years.

Kamp continues the attention on the personalities that dominate the culinary world with several pages on Alice Waters and her focus on fresh and seasonal cuisine that created a shift from technique to ingredients. The revolution she started with her menus at the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant also induced a perceptual geographic shift from the East to the West Coast, and contributed to organic produce and free-range chickens entering our collective conversations. We also learn how Whole Foods, Zabar’s, Dean & DeLuca, and Williams Sonoma got started and find out that Peet’s Coffee in the Bay Area led to Starbucks across the country. Chefs Jeremiah Tower, Thomas Keller, and Wolfgang Puck make cameo appearances.

I most enjoyed the book when Kamp makes parallels between culinary trends and the consumerism that has evolved since World War II. He shows how the prevailing French influence was not accidental, as it came about with the influx of kitchen workers from France after the war and continues today to what kitchenware we purchase. Leveraging the writings of others who recognized aspects of the same phenomenon, the author accurately shows how food has become a status symbol on our culture for the good life to which we aspire.

In the book’s final section, the advent of the Food Network is seen as a touchstone for this pervasive thinking, as a new set of celebrity chefs – Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Rachael Ray among them – instruct us on what we should be doing to maximize our enjoyment of cooking in the kitchen.

This is certainly a fun read for any foodie, and author David Kamp, a writer who contributes to Vanity Fair and GQ, does an entertaining job of providing both a historical perspective and a current look at the culinary industry.

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