Tag Archives: Food Writing

Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking (2013)

51M7OxYdMNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_In this book, part memoir, part cookbook, Anya Von Bremzen traces her family’s history living in Russia (then the Soviet Union) by discussing the type of food they ate. She starts with her maternal grandparents living in Russia in the 1920s but jumps back and forth in time and space between her homeland and 1980s Philadelphia where she and her mother immigrated to. At the end of each chapter Von Bremzen depicts a dinner party her mother is hosting in the present day, where she and Anya are attempting to cook through the history of Soviet food.

Unsurprisingly there is a lot of hardship throughout the book, especially when Anya is discussing life in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In addition to the food rations, Von Bremzen also discusses the indoctrination of Soviet youth and how her mother was once a proud Soviet citizen before becoming disillusioned with the system. The depictions of the meals are vivid, although I could have definitely used a glossary; I had a hard time keeping all the Russian terms straight and knowing what was what.

At the end of the book Von Bremzen has included a number of recipes discussed in the book and I am looking forward to trying my hand at at least one of them. I had been familiar with Russian cuisine from its imperial age (Thanks Anna Karenina), but know less about Soviet cooking. I love food and think that cooking another culture’s cuisine is the perfect way to get to know them.

Recommended Listening:

This podcast from The Table Set that discusses hosting a Russian themed dinner party. 

Recipe To Try:

An adaptation of Anya Von Bremen’s pirozhki recipe from the tasting table.

A video showing the AV Club sampling Soviet Sodas.

 

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Michael Gibney – Sous Chef (2014)

18142414Continuing with my love of food writing I picked up Michael Gibney’s Sous Chef and liked it almost immediately. Gibney blends his journalistic style of writing into the Anthony Bourdain-world of being a chef that Gibney inhabits. This is by no means the first account of what it’s like to work in a kitchen of a restaurant, nor do I think it will be the last, but Gibney presents his story in a creative way telling the story in the form of “24-hours on the line.”

Gibney takes the reader through every stage of his day from ordering food to kitchen prep to staff tastings and finally closing and after work activities, giving a glimpse into the effect that the job can, and does have, on his personal life. Working such insane and unpredictable hours make it difficult to maintain friendships with people who don’t work in the industry. As Gibney writes however, he enjoys the people he does work with and the strong sense of camaraderie comes through in his writing.

The only complaint I have is the overuse of jargon. I can forgive this though, Gibney is a chef and writing with the terms he uses on a daily basis makes this an authentic experience. There’s also a glossary of terms at the back which was helpful. While this book isn’t a huge game changer it’s a quick paced and enjoyable look at the life of a sous chef.

Anthony Bourdain – A Cook’s Tour (2001)

A_Cooks_Tour_bookA Cook’s Tour is Bourdain’s second book, a follow up to his successful Kitchen Confidential, and counterpart to his television show by the same name. In this piece of writing Bourdain tries to maintain his disdain for celebrity chefs and those who he believes to have “sold out,” (he harbours a very specific hatred for Jamie Oliver, which despite liking Jamie Oliver, I totally understand). This holier-than-thou attitude comes off as being a bit disingenuous however, since Bourdain at the time of this book, was a growing celebrity.

Bourdain makes up for this though by establishing a “rogue chef” persona that he has come to be known by today. Bourdain travels everywhere writing extensively about the different cities he’s been to and the local cuisine’s he’s tried. He writes at length about his love for Vietnam and Cambodia and mentions his admiration for both the people and the food. Bourdain has also just reinforced my desire to travel to Spain and Portugal simply to eat. This book is part food writing and part adventure writing. If it doesn’t give you Wanderlust, I’m not sure what will.

Michael Pollan – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)

CookedHaving been a huge fan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I decided to read another book penned by Michael Pollan. While his previous work was more of an investigative piece, this book is more about the history and science surrounding the way we eat. Split into four section, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, Pollan speaks about how important these four elements are to the way we cook our food.

He begins with fire, writing about the ways in which humans learned to cook with fire and the religious importance that fire held in traditional societies, especially when it came to animal sacrifice. He mentions the cooking hypothesis, the idea that cooking is what makes us different from animals, and talks at great length about the history of BBQ, from the racial tensions imbedded in the idea of “Southern BBQ,” to the ethical treatment of pigs, tying this work to his research in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

While cooking with fire, especially smoking meat and BBQ with the highly ritualized pitmaster, has a more masculine tone, the second section of this book looks at the types of cooking deemed more feminine, mostly cooking with water. Not only does cooking with water often take more time (braises, stews, and other slow forms of cooking), but it is also more often then not carried out within the confines of a kitchen, as opposed to cooking with fire which takes place outside. The use of pots and pans for cooking is an important step in human evolution, but also brought cooking into the feminine domain.

The last two sections of Air and Earth focuses more on the science of food and how the food we eat embodies both life and death. With Air Pollan talks about making bread and how tricky it is to develop a “starter” in order to bring bread to life. This section also got very scientific dealing with the differences between whole grain and white grain, to how gluten intolerances work. Since I am obsessed with fermentation, I loved the Earth section, especially when Pollan learns to make cheese with the cheese nun. Foods like cheese and yogurt and other things created from bacterial cultures are essentially decaying, and remind us of our own mortality.

I really love the way Pollan writes, and his breakdown of this book into four elemental sections works to his advantage. Each section is accompanied by its own list of resources and recipe, which I will be trying soon. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the history or science behind the way we cook.

Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation (2001)

Fast Food NationEric Schlosser’s book is often lauded by food studies scholars as being a foundational text in the field, and it is easy to see why. Predating Supersize Me by a number of years, Schlosser was the first to really expose the Fast Food Industry for what it is.

Schlosser begins his book with a history of the “Founding Fathers,” men like Carl Kochner (of Carl Jr’s), the McDonald brothers and Colonel Sanders, who made their fortunes by inventing and reinventing the fast food industry bringing us to where we are today. It’s interesting that all these men started their businesses around the same time, the post-war 1950s in response to changing social and cultural patterns. Schlosser spends a chapter looking at the history, but it is something that bears further investigation.

The bulk of Schlosser’s work is looking at the problems that exist within the industry. He dedicates chapters to concerns about the environment and animal welfare, as well as the exploitation of human labour from teenagers working for minimum wage in the restaurants to working conditions in slaughterhouses. Some of it was difficult to read, but I think Schlosser intended it to be that way.

This book is great, and one of the best things about it is that since it was written in the late 1990s, it’s very easy to see how far the fast food industry has come. It is by no means perfect, and there are obviously still many problems and not all chains are a like. Since the book was published however, many restaurants have undergone rebranding and have started to offer “healthier” alternatives such as salads as well as committing to environmental causes. Working conditions in both restaurants and processing plants remain a huge issue however and debates about minimum wage have danced around news feeds for a number of years now. Most recently McDonalds has reported a loss off profits this year. With new movements towards local and organic foods, the fast food industry is going to have to start coming up with more ways to compete.

While Schlosser’s book has shown us how far the fast food industry has come, it is very clear that the industry still has a long way to go.

David Sax – The Tastemakers (2014)

TastemakersI have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with food writing. I love to eat, and I love to read so for me, books like this are really the best of both worlds. I loved this book, not just because it was informative, well written, and so interesting to read, but because David Sax is from Toronto (Shout out to Amaya for trying to rise above the notion that Indian Food is only good for cheap-take out). It’s always fun to read about places that you actually recognize, especially in a book about food trends where a majority of the focus might be on places like New York and LA.

Sax takes the reader on a journey through the life of food trends, how they are born, why some catch on more than others, the factors involved with making a food trend, the money, the politics, and eventually the death of trends. He interviews people who predict trends, food writes, chefs, and heads of corporations like Whole Foods to gain a better understanding of how food trends work.

He starts by introducing us to cupcakes, and the rise of “cupcakeries,” which everyone will be familiar with. Taking off after 9/11 he mentions that the cupcake boom was due to the American search for comfort and safety after the attacks on New York, and what could possibly be safer than a cupcake? Cupcakes also became tied to a certain type of lifestyle after “Magnolia” appeared in an episode of Sex and the City. He talks to a cultivator of exotic Black Rice and a family growing Red Prince Apples in Ontario discussing the risks involved with trying to start an agricultural trend, (an entire species can be wiped out due to mother nature). He also profiles the popularity of chia seeds and how health fads come and go.

When looking at how food trends break out, Sax takes us to the Fancy Food show, a trade show that I would love to attend, and sits in on focus group meetings for marketing and naming new products. (Canola oil was originally called Rapeseed oil before everyone realized that it would never sell with a name like that). He then looks at the importance of food trends such as how food trends have the power to open people’s minds to different cultures, affect legislative change, and of course money, using the popularity of Bacon as an example for how that food trend has entirely reshaped the market for pork bellies.

All through Sax’s writing it becomes clear that food trends are a relatively new phenomenon simply due to the media. We have an entire network devoted to food where chefs compete in T.V shows to be the most creative, and shows like Eat St. and Diners Drive-Ins and Dives help propel food trends. Would cupcakes have become a major trend if it wasn’t so easy to take an instagram photo of a perfectly iced cupcake and upload it for the world? Maybe, but we won’t know for sure.

Sax points out that while there are down-sides to food trends, such as the constant one-upmanship and desire to be as outrageous as possible, (You need only visit the CNE to understand, in fact Sax uses the Cronut burger fiasco of 2013 to illustrate just how fragile food trends can be) food trends are also an expression of the creativity and democracy associated with North America. He writes that the Cronut never would have taken off in Paris, nor would the Ramen Burger have become popular in Japan. It is in North America that we allow food trends to grow and thrive be it for better, or for worse.

Rating 5/5

Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)

OmnivoresDilemma

In this book about how humans eat, Pollan provides a solid look at the history and the different traditions which have brought us (North Americans) to where we are today in terms of the food we consume. Pollan does his best to include a good overview of the different “food systems” active on the continent; industrial food, organic food, and food we forage ourselves. The end product is a critique of the American way of eating.

In recent years there have been a number of documentaries and books critical of the fast food industry, (Supersize Me, Food Inc., Fast Food Nation, etc.) but Pollan goes into even more detail looking at the history of corn in American to the way animals are treated. Corn is the cornerstone of the industrial food market as it has changed the way animals, as well as humans eat. Animals evolved to eat grass, but more than half of a feedlot’s cow’s food comes from corn. That cows become sick from eating too much corn is just one example of the many abuses feedlot animals experience.

Pollan also writes at length about the industrial-organic complex, which for me was a real eye-opener. Pollan uses Whole Foods as a proxy to write about how the marketing geniuses peddle an irresistible commodity: self-satisfaction. Because “Organic” or “free-range” is not regulated, companies and businesses can practically slap a label on anything they choose. He found that the “free-range” chicken on offer, actually hails from a confinement operation, and one box of California-produced organic lettuce requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to process and ship to the East Coast.

In contrast to the industrial-organic complex, Pollan also interviews local farmers and people who forage food themselves. For one of his meals he kills a pig himself and describes the experience as almost religious; having killed the animal with his own hands, Pollan wanted to honour it by making it delicious to eat.

This book was eye-opening. While I had some knowledge about the fast food industry the information Pollan provides about the industrial-organic food complex was really shocking. I will be thinking twice next before buying anything labeled organic, and my try instead to shop locally at markets.