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'Books That Cook' Is for the Literary Foodie Whose Reading Tastes Are of a Scholarly Bent

As food studies enters academia, texts are required to populate the curricula. That doesn't mean lay readers can't enjoy them, too.

Books That Cook

Publisher: New York University Press
Length: 343 pages
Author: Jennifer Cognard-Black, Melissa A. Goldthwaite (eds.)
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08

Books That Cook is an anthology of food writings culled under the rubric of food studies. The collection is designed for undergraduate classroom teaching, aimed at audiences it assumes know little or nothing about food writing or its authors.

Anthologies are by their nature tricky, uneven beasts. And although editors Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite organize Books That Cook “like a cookbook”, from “Starters” to “Desserts”, the entries are so disparate that the book is best approached as a buffet: sample the choice bits.

Some excerpts suffer being tugged from their contexts. Examples include Thomas Fox Averill’s “Puffballs: Finding the Inside” from Secrets of the Tsil Café, which fails to make sense as a short fiction piece. Ntozake Shange’s “All It Took Was a Road/Surprises of Urban Renewal”, from If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, suffers the same malady.

Books That Cook is dotted with poetry; some, from established poets like Sharon Olds, is elegant and inventive. Sherman Alexie’s contribution is, as ever, a white-hot howl of rage. Other entries appear to be words aligned to a right or middle margin and title poems. I fervently wish for laws against further poetry on the summer tomato’s bounty, including all related adjectives (munificence, red-ripe gifts, yada, yada) and anything more about eggs: their ovoid mysteries, their allusions to womanhood, o delicate of shell. Enough.

Of the eight fiction pieces in Books That Cook, two clock in from widely-known fiction writers Nora Ephron and Fannie Flagg. The remainder are less compelling, and not as strong as the nonfiction entries.

As noted above, Books That Cook is structured in cookbook narrative, beginning with, well, beginnings. In “Starters”, the editors offer a selection from Amelia Simmons who, in 1796, published the first known book of American cookery. In this fascinating excerpt, Simmons cannot address choosing good meat without first discussing a young woman’s deportment. Should that young woman be an orphan, thrown upon the mercy of relatives, she must exhibit tremendous self-control—“purity”—at all times. Only then can she turn to “Directions for Catering”.

Equally fascinating in the “Bread, Polenta, and Pasta” section is Lydia Maria Child who, in 1829, published the American Frugal Housewife. Child, also a noted abolitionist and writer who wrote “Over the River and Through the Wood”, is puritanical regarding children, suggesting they be put to work by age six knitting, braiding, weeding, and matting. Further, everyone should keep exact financial records and never live “beyond the income of which he is certain.” Her parsimony was such that she gives recipes for making yeast. Urban farmers, weep.

Fannie Merritt Farmer’s treatise on eggs is so wholly misguided, so terribly stern, albeit well-meaning, that it’s a wonder she didn’t scare off the home cooks she intended to edify. Where exactly she learned eggs are “14.9% protiened content” would be interesting to know. But recipes for Buttered Eggs with Tomatoes or Fried Eggs stand the test of time nicely.

In a more contemporary vein, Ellen Meloy, aunt of writer Maile, gently tweaks righteous locavores with “Eat Your Pets”, a commentary on true locavorism in the Utah Desert. The Fremont Indians ate “darkling beetles, mariposa bulbs, chukars, wild onions, prickly pear cacti. They wore the desert: they ate it.”

There's a welcome excerpt from Teresa Lust’s Pass the Polenta, and just when you so much reading about Louisiana had your mind wandering, Sara Roahen's pens a lovely paean to New Orleans with “Turkey Bone Gumbo”. I can't imagine ever tiring of Julia Child or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and was charmed anew by Alice B.Toklas’s “The Vegetable Gardens At Bilignin”. Toklas and Gertrude Stein summered at Bilignin for 14 years. During that time Toklas, already a fine cook, became a passionate gardener. Of preparing string beans, she writes: “These are very nice ways to cook string beans but they interfere with the poor vegetable’s leading a life of its own.” Of salsify, beets, and Jerusalem artichoke, she writes: “They were planted each year, though one wondered why.”

The excerpt from Ephron’s Heartburn is about mashed potatoes. Who else could bring Nixon into a food essay? Read. Laugh. Weep. Make yourself mashed potatoes with too much butter in memory of Ephron (and maybe in memory of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, too, in honor of lost comedians. If you cry into the potatoes, you won’t need to salt them.).

What’s a food anthology without Laurie Colwin? The authors selected “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir”. For Colwin, solace after a repulsive dinner also meant potatoes, specifically, Rostï, Swedish potato pancakes, which Colwin writes are highly indigestible vehicles for large amounts of butter. They are intended, like Ephron’s potatoes, to soothe the soul. Worry about your cholesterol later.

The snappy Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, who wrote the seminal Vibration Cooking: Or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, writes “White people act like they invented food”. She goes on to suggest we ditch all our kitchen equipment, save the cast iron: “Can’t no Teflon fry no fried chicken.” Amen to that. She measures nothing, cooking by “vibration”, what the French call “au pif”; literally, “by the nose”, by hand, taste, common sense. Smart-Grosvenor also drolly observes one can make a number of accurate inferences about a person’s sexuality by the way food is approached.

Deborah Thompson’s heartrending piece is the book’s shortest. Her husband, Raju, is dead. Her mother-in-law or, as she now calls herself, “culture-in-law”, is explaining how to prepare Moong Dal. She interrupts herself in the midst of a precise recounting of ingredients and method to inquire about her son’s clothing, his books. Has Thompson given them away? The implied response says it all; “Now it is only remembering.”

Judith Moore, another expert dispatcher from grief’s faultlines, whose deserved fame arrived late in life, steps away from the bitter self-hatred evidenced in Never Eat Your Heart Out and Fat Girl, blistering books both, for a lovely reminiscence titled “Pie”. Baking a pie makes Moore feel she is: “handmaiden to a miracle”.

There’s more: E.J. Levy’s piece on mushroom hunting and men, with its careful metaphors, the necessary Alice Waters piece, this one from The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s entry on the sexual politics of Chinese Malaysian food.

Books That Cook is a niche book, of interest to the food studies student or the literary foodie whose reading tastes (no pun intended) are of a scholarly bent. For these individuals, Books That Cook offers lively, varied reading. As any devoted cook will tell you, one never reaches the end of new foods to try, new dishes to cook, or new cuisines to explore. The cultural growth of serious interest in food leading to academic books like this is a welcome one. Despite a few missteps, this is a collection well worth the devoted food reader’s time.


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