All year I’ve been dragging on my reading for the Foodie’s Reading Challenge. In the later part of the year I even started to wonder why I’d joined. And then I started reading for it. (Inspired by Dewey’s Read-a-Thon.)

This is why I join challenges; they seem to keep my priorities in place when I can’t do it myself. Because I love this reading, but I wasn’t making time for it.

So I’m not sure if I’ll be able to squeeze in enough reading to meet my goal of being a glutton (hee hee), but I’m gobbling as fast as I can. Each of these three is a worthwhile read.

Counterpoint Press, 2009

Wendell Berry’s
Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

This is a collection of 25 short pieces, drawn together with an introduction by Michael Pollan.

Pollan issues a fantastic invitation to the work, observing that “to read the essays in this sparkling anthology…is to realize just how little of what we are saying and hearing today Wendell Berry hasn’t already said, bracingly, before”.

And he includes himself in that ‘we’. He describes it as a humbling process, visiting these works, many of them from the 1970s and 1980s, realizing that maybe only one or two things that he wrote himself had diverged from what Berry was saying years and years ago.

So if you’ve read Michael Pollan, chances are that you’ll have an appreciation of Wendell Berry’s work too. (He also calls out Frances Moore Lappé, Barry Commoner, and Joan Gussow.)

One could read this collection for its prophetic value. But what draws me to it all-the-more is the tone of it.

As Pollan observes, even though he has done an “unerring job over the past forty years of showing us precisely where the errors of our ways will lead”, even so, “his prose never screams or squints in rage”.

Berry’s style is “patient and logical”, as “plumb and square and scrupulous, as well-planed woodwork”.

Whether they are pieces on the traditional model of the family farm, on the question of sustainability, on the matter of industrial food production, on the pleasures of eating (lots of that, secured with snippets from his novels): Berry’s tone is solid and inviting.

“The Proudfoot family gatherings were famous. As feast, as collections and concentrations of good things, they were unequaled. Especially in summer there was nothing like them, for then there would be old ham and fried chicken and gravy, and two or three kinds of fish, and  hot biscuits and three kind of cornbread, and potatoes and beans and roasting ears and carrots and beets and onions, ad corn pudding and corn creamed and fried, and cabbage boiled and scalloped, and tomatoes stewed and sliced, and fresh cucumbers soaked in vinegar, and three or four kinds of pickles, and if it was late enough in the summer there would be watermelons and muskmelons, and there would be pies and cakes and cobblers and dumplings, and milk and coffee by the gallon. And there would be, too, half a dozen or so gallon or half-gallon stone jugs making their way from one adult male to another as surreptitious as moles. For in those days the Proudfoot homeplace, with its broad cornfields in the creek bottom, was famous also for the excellence of its whiskey.”

Smithsonian Books, 2010

Companion Reads:
Wendell Berry’s Nathan Coulter (1960; first of Port William novels)
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007)
Marion Nestle’s What to Eat (2006)

Jane Ziegelman’s
97 Orchard: An Edible Historyof Five Immigrant Families
in One New York Tenement

Since I picked this up, I feel like I see references to Orchard Street everywhere, but this was my official introduction to the neighbourhood. Jane Ziegelman tells the story of five immigrant families who resided at this address between 1863 and 1935.

Each segment is presented in a tremendously accessible tone; it’s easy to imagine the scene that she sketches, and you can almost smell the dishes for which recipes are included. (I’ve listed some of the recipes for each family, but just a sample; Ziegelman presents a good number for each family.) The photographs and supporting documents also help to bring the neighbourhood off the page.

“A large part of this story takes place in the immigrant kitchen. For many immigrants, this was a small, often windowless room in a five- or six-story brick tenement.” Be it German, Irish, German Jew, Russian-Lithuanian Jew or Italian: the kitchens were stuffed with smells and flavours and life.

The Glockner Family: Green Dumplings, Egg Noodles, Herring Salad, Boiled Sauerkraut, Kranzkuchen (Coffee Cake), German Pancakes

“In a pre-Cuisinart world, the chopping of that much cabbage was a daunting project, so women enlisted the help of an itinerant tradesman known as a krauthobler or ‘cabbage shaver’. With a tool desined specifically for the task — it worked like a French mandolin, the blades set into a wooden board — the krauthobler went door to door, literally shaving cabbages into thread-like strands. The cost was a penny a head.”

The Moore Family: Cheap Pudding, Fish Hash, Oyster Patties,

“The Irish [in Ireland] boiled their potatoes in large three-legged pots that stood over an open peat-fire. In between meals, women used their potato pots (in the west of Ireland, they were known as ‘bilers’) for washing. After the meal, it was a trough for the family pig, who received the peels.”

The Gumpertz Family: Stewed Fish, Stuffed Pike, White Bean Soup, Lentil Soup

“Noodles and potatoes were largely interchangeable in the Jewish kitchen, receiving many of the same treatments. Both foods, for example, could be savory or sweet, cooked with liver and onion on one hand, or sugar and cinnamon on the other. Like noodles, potatoes were sometimes paired with fruit.”

The Rogarshevsky Family: Stuffed Cabbage, Krupnik, Dill Pickles, Challah, Cranberry Strudel, Vegetarian Chopped Liver

“Transactions within the tenement were most often cashless. Neighbors exchanged gifts of food as part of an improvised bartering system in which the poor gave to the truly destitute, or, in many cases, to families struck by tragedy: a death, sickness, a lost job. In return for her edible gifts, the tenement homemaker received the same consideration whenever her luck was down — and no one in the tenements was immune from a run of bad luck.”

The Baldizzi Family: Croccante (Almond Brittle), Zucchini Frittata, Spaghette con Aglio e Olio, Eggplants in the Oven, Christmas Baccala (Salt Cod)

“For All Souls Day, when ancestral spirits deigned to visit the living, Mrs. Baldizzi gave the kids a tray piled with the candied almonds known as confetti, torrone, Indian nuts, and Josephine’s personal favorite, one-cent Hooten Bars. That night, the children would slip the tray under the bed, in case the spirits should arrive hungry. The next day, after the ancestors had presumably helped themselves, it was the children’s turn.”

Companion Reads:
Linda Granfield’s 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life (2001)
Andrew S. Dolkart’s Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street (2006)
William Grimes’ Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (2009)

Harvill Press, 2000

Andreas Staïkos’ Les Liaisons Culinaires (1997)
Trans. Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
Illus. Jeff Fisher

In the hands of Andreas Staïkos kitchen work takes on the edge of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for just as in Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel, love and sex and cruelty and retaliation get all stirred up together.

It begins very simply.

“It was the delicate cooking smells wafting from the open balcony doors of adjoining flats on the sixth floor of 18 Averof Street which brought Damocles Dimou and Dimitris Isavridis together.”

And with a playful note, with the first chapter titled Perfidious Parsley.

Oh, well it sounds playful, doesn’t it? If you don’t realize that ‘perfidious’ means ‘deceitful’.

And that’s rather the way with Les Liaisons Culinaires. There is a sense of light-heartedness throughout the fight to the death. (Although there is nothing ‘light’ about the recipes.)

For Damocles and Dimitris are duelling (just as Valmont and Danceny duel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses).

Each is determined to have Nana’s attentions and devotion, but they also use their skills in the kitchen as weapons with which to deliver the blows.

“Dimitris had been in the kitchen since morning, making tiny, bite-sized stuffed vine leaves to delight Nana’s Epicurean palate. Vine leaves stuffed with long-grain rice, onion, a hint of garlic and fresh herbs, all luxuriating in the firm caress of the cool, green leaves.”

It’s a sensory affair; none of the characters is particularly likeable, but you can’t help but want to know how it all turns out in the end.