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.

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -


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


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


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


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

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