A few good books on food
For a season’s worth of readings and gifting our food writers round up some new books on food and cooking.
A NEW SPIN ON THE CLASSICS
IN Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised (Simon & Schuster), Tamar Adler — a James Beard Award-winning chef who sharpened her knives at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, and her pen at Harper’s, The New York Times, Vogue, and Mother Jones — has assembled a lively and literate cookbook that delves into food history, quotes poetry, and updates more than 100 classic dishes in 249 conversational pages.
Her goal, Adler says, was to revitalize “certain particularly old preparations that are nearly extinct, or very far down the dark hallway, toes up — to help them back to their wobbly feet. … In other words, though I did not mean specifically to make a book of old-fashioned dishes for faster times, that is what it became.”
Although the book offers eight seasonal menus — with wine pairings by sommelier Juliette Pope — the recipes themselves follow the traditional trajectory of a meal from hors d’oeuvres to dessert. Some titles, like “La Bonne Soupe,” are easy to decipher; others, like “On Poverty and Oysters,” need the chapter-opening quote (here from Charles Dickens) to make sense.
Many recipes have indeed been simplified, requiring less butter or wine and fewer ingredients than the originals: It takes less than 15 minutes to produce Petits Pois à la Française with either fresh or frozen peas, while a take on traditional coq au vin morphs into Chicken in Leftover Wine, which Adler says leaves the “submerged bird tasting as if it got taken to a party, saturated in the complexities of wine and a night on the town.” A recipe for Four-Day Spinach, though, belies the formula by slowly coaxing a full pound of butter into three to four pounds of spinach over that amount of days, while a cocktail she calls “The Best Drink in the World” requires one to first make a House Vin D’Orange (a process that takes a month or more) before combining the liqueur with mescal (or scotch or rye) and Amarena cherries. While even non-cooks could enjoy reading
Something Old, Something New for its lyrical prose, sly wit, and precise food histories, the recipes have me wanting to get to the kitchen, the Best Drink in the World firmly in hand. — Patricia West-Barker
THE WORLD’S OLDEST SEED BANK
Ahundred and two years ago, Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov made an expedition to Iran and Pamir. It was the first of his more than 100 treks through 65 nations over the next two and a half decades, with the mission to document, collect, and help propagate the staple food crops of the Earth. He visited North America, including New Mexico, in the 1920s and ’30s in order to bring plants and seeds back to Russia.
Vavilov was haunted by the specter of a world catastrophe that would drastically reduce biodiversity. That concern is echoed by Swiss photographer Mario del Curto, author of Seeds of the Earth: The Vavilov Institute (Till Schaap). Del Corto’s beautiful book — 320 pages and more than 175 photographs, many of them two pages wide — tells the story of the tireless Russian researcher and the world’s oldest seed bank at the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg.
Vavilov focused on food plants, finding that they were concentrated in a relatively narrow belt of the world’s continents. By 1940, he had narrowed the centers of origin of our cultivated plants to seven:
China and Korea; India, Myanmar, and the Malaysia region; Central Asia; Ethiopia; the Middle East; the Mediterranean; South America; and Mexico-Central America. His life’s work is told in the institute’s bank of approximately 330,000 plant species.
Vavilov had the support of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin and became the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Geographic Society and was in demand as a lecturer. He possessed “a charismatic speaking style and competency in over a dozen languages,” according to an essay in the 2008 book Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine by Arizona ethnobiologist and Vavilov Medal awardee Gary Paul Nabhan, who retraced Vavilov’s footsteps in 15 countries.
However, in 1939, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin said Vavilov was only a man “who tinkers with flowers, leaves, grafts, and other botanical nonsense instead of helping agriculture.” The man who Nabhan calls “the harvester of life” was imprisoned and died of starvation in a basement cell in 1943. Esteem for his contributions was resurrected in the 1950s, but del Curto emphasizes that the Vavilov Institute and its 11 research stations remain under threat from lack of resources for modernization, and salaries are so low that the aging scientists are having difficulty finding successors. — Paul Weideman
THROUGH SOURDOUGH, A SWEET SPOT
Many of us have lost our trust that everything will turn out well in the end,” writes Martina Goernemann in Sourdough: Four Days to Happiness (Prestel). In her quest for “a tool to help me get back into balance,” the German journalist, author, and blogger turned to sourdough bread.
“I’m not a baker … so I could not write a book about recipes,” she explains in a video on questfor sourdough.com. “I wanted to meet people who are working with sourdough.” The result was a journey, across Europe and to the United States, with her sourdough starter, Vitus (she named it!), as her traveling companion. What she gleaned from her travels were “beautiful stories about how sourdough can make you happy.” Photographer Barbara Simon documented the trip in images that are stylish, mouthwatering, and endearing.
The book consists of profiles of various sourdough fans, from professional bakers to hobbyists. She visits Karl De Smedt, librarian of the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library; Stefan Heins, who convinced the sisters at the Dominican Order of Wettenhausen Abbey in Bavaria to revive their basement bakery; Pablo Puluke Giet, a former troubled kid from Fürstenfeldbruck, who came to sourdough while working for a bakery in LA and is now a master craftsman; Dr. Barbara Caracciolo, who traded her dissertation for dough in a bakery near Stockholm; sourdough expert Stefan Cappelle and his wife Katrijn, who adopted their children Anil and Lais from Sri Lanka; Patricia Riekel, former editor and publisher of Bunte, Germany’s equivalent of People magazine; Josef Sellmair, who makes bread with beer from the world’s oldest brewery; and Maine resident John Whalley, who paints a portrait of Vitus that’s worthy of the Dutch Masters. Goernemann bakes with her new sourdough buddies, and each contributes a regional element to Vitus, making him a sourdough citizen of the world.
Goernemann has a light-hearted, conversational tone; gives the book’s sections titles like “Patience,” “Trust,” “Generosity,” and “Tranquility”; and begins each one with an imagined conversation with Vitus. She actually does offer recipes — including “patience rolls” (made with a chamomile infusion), Belgian papadams, and mustard for pretzels — as well as tips for storing starter and bread, thoughts on milling your own flour, a consideration of “hands versus appliances,” and motherly words of encouragement. “What can we do when daily life weighs on us like a stone?” she asks. She answers herself with meditational interludes on bread and happiness. — Laurel Gladden
THE DOWN-HOME GIRL
Rick Bragg’s mother Margaret laughed out loud the first time she heard the phrase “farm-totable.” As Bragg writes in his rhapsodic ode to her singular Alabama cuisine, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (Knopf), “They had it in her day, too; they called it a flatbed truck.”
The bestselling author of All Over but the Shoutin’ returns in this food memoir to pay tribute to the storied traditions and vanishing history of Southern cooking by way of telling the story of Margaret Bragg, a woman who doesn’t own even one cookbook, measuring cup, or measuring spoon, who “cooks in dabs, and smidgens, and tads, and a measurement she mysteriously refers to as ‘you know, hon, just some .’”
Margaret, whose portrayal here amounts to homespun hagiography, mixes with a bent fork and a big spoon and brags that she’s worn out 18 stoves in her day. Come spring, just like in the 1969 hit song by Tony Joe White, she trawls the ditches near her property with a brown paper bag under her arm, looking to pick a mess of weeds that she alchemizes into poke salad with the help of bacon grease, eggs, sugar, and salt. When Bragg sang her “Polk Salad Annie” for the first time, she shook her head. “Never heard it,” she replied. “Are they makin’ fun of us?”
Bragg’s is a book to be slowly savored as the reader luxuriates in his rollicking storytelling, good-ol’-boy lexicon, and clear love for his subject. Each chapter folds in a few down-home recipes passed down from Bragg’s ancestors. “Salt Is Good” takes up cream sausage gravy, buttered grits with a touch of cheese, sliced tomato, and the perfect fried egg; “A Ham Hock Don’t Call for Help” gets into pan-roasted pig’s feet with homemade barbecue sauce and chunky potato salad; “Still Hard Times for an Honest Man” details vegetable soup with a short-rib base.
Tried-and-true home recipes like Margaret’s are closely guarded in family binders under lock and key all over the South. We should count ourselves extremely fortunate that Bragg has decided to throw open the ancestral coffers and bestow these heirlooms upon us, along with a collection of indelible and delicious stories. — Molly Boyle