July 30, 2009

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Eat, read, love
Books in praise of American/French/farm-fresh food
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

It’s easy to get all mushy over food.

The best meal ever, the food Mom used to make, the food you grow and then make. How much lovey-dovey, ode-to-a-turkey type writing you can take probably depends on how many kitchen implements and strange ingredients you’ve purchased for no good reason and how many hours of Iron Chef you can watch in one sitting. Personally, I’d empty out the Williams-Sonoma if my credit card allowed and I could (and have) easily spend hours engrossed by the Food Network. Thusly, I have a high tolerance for food-lust and it is with that mindset that I tucked in to the crop of recent non-cookbook food book releases.

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky (2009, Riverhead Books, 397 pages) is a good companion to the movie Food, Inc. or, for that matter, to Hippo’s recent interview with Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg. When he talked about how, prior to the mid 20th century, everyone ate organic all the time, you might start wondering exactly what that was like. Before the giant chicken farms, national fast food chains and frozen pizza, how did we eat? Food of a Younger Land answers that question with notes sent to us from the past in the form of essays collected by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project in the late 1930s. America Eats was going be a published collection of essays from writers’ projects across the country with a deadline of late November 1941, Kurlansky writes. The deadline passed and within a few weeks the country was at war, which led to an eventual reorganization of the WPA and a shelving of America Eats. Kurlansky dug up some of the items meant for that project and presents a snapshot of the country’s culinary traditions at the time, featuring essays from people you’ve never heard of and a few from literary stars (Zora Neal Hurston’s piece called “Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” for example). All regions and their quirks are represented, though not all states (sadly, no essays from New Hampshire). This is not necessarily a book you’ll find yourself reading from beginning to end in order; this is the kind of collection you’ll thumb through, stopping at different pieces on different occasions, immersing yourself in, for example, the collection of chowder essays and recipes.

Were someone to go back now and write about the vanishing of that pre-war eating, the book might look something like Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France by Michael Steinberger (2009, Bloomsbury, 241 pages), which morns the loss of the food of a younger French land. A culinary Francophile, Steinberger  points to problems in France (such as economic stagnation that has pushed innovative chefs out of the country) and successes in places like Spain, London and New York City as the cause of France’s tumble from its one-time spot at the top of the food world. Steinberger returns to the scene of some great past meals and finds some shabby restaurants serving shabby food. Step by step, he lays out a case for how and why French food got the way it did (while, somehow, still getting you interested in French food — even after the book I wanted to board a plane to get some of that Paris magic while it still exists). And, before you start crying into your baguette, he does report on some of the people who are fighting the tide to keep French culinary  traditions alive.

And perhaps somewhere, in some abandoned lot in some Paris suburb, a future master of revived French cuisine is watching as his parents tend a plot filled with vegetables, chickens and rabbits as Novella Carpenter does in Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009, Penguin Press, 276 pages). The daughter of back-to-the-land types, Carpenter likes life in the city (specifically, very urban Oakland) but also likes to farm. She squat-farms in the abandoned lot next to her apartment, constantly at risk of losing her harvest to a condo-developer or to produce-purloining neighbors. After mastering the “easy” stuff — vegetables, a bee hive — she adds chickens, turkeys, rabbits and eventually pigs. It is, well, kinda insane but also a hoot to read about, and Carpenter is a capable farmer — chickens in the city don’t seem as crazy in her hands as they might in mine. What is perhaps most refreshing about her story is that she isn’t a yuppie locavore — she’s a dirt addict. She might talk a good game about the politics of urban farming and introducing local youth to old-fashioned food production, but she’s also clearly genuinely hooked on growing things. Her farm doesn’t sound pretty but it does sound productive and her various experiments in growing flora and fauna take you back to that Gary Hirshberg principle that everybody used to eat organic. Heirloom fruits and fresh eggs aren’t just for the well-heeled, they’re for everybody, no matter where you live.

All three of these books are, at heart, romances with food. They make you appreciate what you eat and they show you how your salad, crispy pork, bottle of wine or bean supper isn’t just one meal but is connected to a whole tradition and history and to a future that, even in the darkest of times, is hard not to feel optimistic about. The Food of a Younger Land: B; Au Revior to All That: B; Farm City: A-