Tag Archives: Food

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.

 

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.

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.

11998508_10153285954544081_697761142_n

Recipes – New England Fried Clams

Empire Falls by Richard Russo might be one of my favourite, if not absolute favourite, summer reads. Russo is a great story teller, and the setting of a sleepy New England town combined with flashbacks to Miles Roby’s summers with his mother in Martha’s Vineyard make this novel well suited to beach reading.

11944950_10153285954584081_1641026063_n

In the flashback scenes Mile’s remembers eating steamed clams at a diner and how they were unlike anything he had ever had before. As summer is winding down I decided to try my hand at making New England style fried, rather than steamed, clams. I followed a recipe from this site, but used evaporated milk rather than buttermilk as I find it coats things better.

12000159_10153285954679081_698181199_n

Recipe

For the Fry Mix

  • 1 cup corn flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

For the clams

  • 1 1/2 pounds of shucked whole-belly steamer clams
  • About 6 cups peanut, canola, or other vegetable oil, for deep-frying
  • 1 cup evaporated milk

11997005_10153285954899081_1688568738_n

Directions

To make the new england style fry mix, combine the flours, salt, and both peppers in a large mixing bowl and mix well.

Fry the clams

  • Heat 3 inches of oil to 375°F in a frying pan oven over medium heat.
  • While the oil is heating, pour the evaporated milk into a large bowl, and put the fry mix in another.
  • Drop the clams into the evaporated milk and stir gently.
  • Use a slotted spoon to lift the clams out of the evaporated milk and into the fry mix. Toss gently to coat.
  • Fry the clams in batches, about 1-2 minutes a side or until golden brown.
  • Serve with tartar or cocktail sauce.

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.

Psyche Williams-Forson – Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs (2006)

BuildingHousesOutofChickenLegsWhile I was expecting this book to be more in line with the “food writing” that I like reading, it contained much more cultural/race/gender theory than I was expecting, and quite frankly, could handle.

Williams-Forson starts off very strong, asking the important questions of why it is often assumed that African Americans love fried chicken and the damage that this stereotype does to African Americans, particularly women. She outlines the history of African American’s perceived attachment to chicken and traces this view from the height of slavery, when it was assumed that all slaves were chicken thieves, up to Chris Rock’s stand-up routines.

The stereotype is damaging to African Americans, especially women, who are often seen as the producers of fried chicken, but Williams-Forson does mention cases where African American women use fried chicken to empower themselves. She moves past the image of the “Mammy” that many are familiar with and instead explores how women, especially while preparing food for Church gatherings, reclaimed their role as the providers of food.

The first chapters, the ones outlining the history of African American’s perceived ties to fried chicken appealed to me the most. They were the most straightforward, and, for me as someone who studies history, easy to follow. Williams-Forson then wades through some difficult concepts and does her best to show the reader how damanging sterotypes can be, and how African American’s, especially women, attempt to move past them. Unfortunatley a lot of her main points were lost on me, especially when she began to talk about the work of Kara Walker. Still I believe that this is an important book, not necessarily for scholars of food history, but for anyone studying African American history, or histories of race and gender.

2015-05-30 15.54.42

Recipe – Kiev-Style Raspberry Jam

I will just say this, it took me forever to get through. In Gilmore Girls, Dean complains to Rory about this book (teasingly) blaming her for wasting his time with it. I don’t really blame Dean at all. The book is long, dense and the names confused me more often than not. The characters are also not that likeable.

However it is easy to see why this book is widely regarded as the “best novel ever written.” It deals with important themes, especially those of fidelity, family, marriage and society. Anna is a tragic character and is a reflection of her time; after falling in love with another man and leaving her husband Anna loses everything else so dear to her, her son, her friends, and her social standing. Despite the fact that I found Anna unlikeable, I was still able to sympathize with her and see her as a woman trapped.

The book also depicts Russian high society prior to the Revolution. My favourite parts of the book were when we saw Kitty and Levin in their country estate. I loved the scene where while making jam, all the women involved had different opinions on how “properly” to make jam. Out of the whole book, I felt that this was the most relatable scene, mothers, grandmothers and daughter all with different opinions on the “proper” way to do something.

So I decided to try my hand at making a Russian, or Kiev-style, jam. Essentially the defining characteristic is that it is made without water. This is the method that Kitty introduces to her new mother-in-law who is skeptical.

Fresh Raspberries

Fresh Raspberries

On the terrace were assembled all the ladies of the party. They always liked sitting there after dinner, and that day they had work to do there too. Besides the sewing and knitting of baby-clothes, with which all of them were busy, that afternoon jam was being made on the terrace by a method new to Agafea Mihalovna, without the addition of water. Kitty had introduced this new method, which had been in use in her home. Agafea Mihalovna, to whom the task of jam-making had always been intrusted, considering that what had been done in the Levin household could not be amiss, had nevertheless put water with the strawberries, maintaining that the jam could not be made without it. She had been caught in the act, and was now making jam before everyone, and it was to be proved to her conclusively that jam could be very well made without water.” (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Part VI, Chapter II)

2015-05-18 12.02.09

Cover with sugar, lemon juice, and vodka and refrigerate for at least three hours

I don’t blame poor Agafea Mihalovna, I too was skeptical, but it turns out that jam can indeed be made without water. This method produces a jam that is much more like fruit preserves, as the structural integrity of the fruit is maintained.

Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved

Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved

2015-05-18 15.51.39The jam is perfect spread on a scone or roll of bread served with some good Russian tea. The Russia tea ceremony is quite intricate and involves a special brewing pot called a Samovar. Lacking in resources I settled for a cup of Four Red Fruit tea from Kusmi, a tea company originating from St. Petersburg.

Recipe
3 cups raspberries
2 ½ cups sugar
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
¼ cup of vodka

  1. Place raspberries in a pot and cover with vodka, sugar, and lemon juice. Refrigerate overnight or for at least three hours
  2. Prior to cooking jam sterilize your jars either by boiling them or placing them in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes.
  3. Place pot on stove and cook over medium heat. Stir occasionally until sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. The raspberries with give off a heavy fragrance and the liquid in the pot will darken
  5. Simmer for 15-20 stirring the mixture occasionally.
  6. Remove from heat and jar your jam
  7. Remember to place the full jars into a pot of boiling water in order to seal them properly.