June 24, 2011
Whether they’re chef’s memoirs or profiles of the workers who toil at every stage of the food system—from pollinating crops to ringing up your convenience store coffee—the common thread among these recent releases is that the best food stories are really about people. Here’s what I’ve been reading this summer:
The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America by Hannah Nordhaus
I’ve read articles about colony collapse disorder, so I thought I knew as much as I wanted or needed to know. But Nordhaus’s book is about a lot more than the mysterious mass die-off of honey bees that began five years ago. It’s also a profile of John Miller—a large-scale beekeeper and colorful character who trucks his hives around the country—and a fascinating peek into the precarious business of keeping the nation’s crops pollinated. Long before CCD, America’s beekeepers had to contend with devastating hive-killing diseases and pests like the varroa mite. “Today, thanks to the varroa mite, the European honey bee is, in most of the world, a domesticated creature, and one on life support, at that,” Nordhaus writes. “Without beekeepers, Western honey bees would not survive.”
Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Culinary school isn’t the only—or even the best—route to becoming an acclaimed chef. In this well-written memoir, Hamilton, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for best chef in New York City, traces the unconventional education that eventually led to her popular East Village restaurant, Prune: The grand parties her French mother and bon vivant father threw on their rural Pennsylvania land, with whole lambs roasting over an open fire. Dishwashing, waitressing and eventually working in a kitchen as a young teenager left to her own devices after her parents split. The deep hunger—and even deeper satiation—she experienced while traveling and working in Europe, often on zero dollars a day. The years of churning out food in mediocre catering and restaurant jobs. Somehow it all added up to success—and a very good read.
Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz
Aside from divorced parents, the resume of the man behind Chicago’s Alinea—frequently cited as one of the best and most creative restaurants in the country—is different in nearly every way from Hamilton’s. Achatz was born into a restaurant family and had an unrelenting drive to be a great chef from an early age. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked under Thomas Keller at the beloved California restaurant the French Laundry before striking out on his own to explore the burgeoning molecular gastronomy style—now more commonly called modernist cuisine—pioneered by Spain’s Ferran Adrià. At the top of his game, he was diagnosed with cancer, which destroyed his ability to taste his own food but not his ambition.
Love in a Dish … and Other Culinary Delights by M.F K. Fisher
An Extravagant Appetite: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher by Anne Zimmerman
Two new releases relating to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher shed light on an influential 20th-century food writer whose succulent prose is revered in both culinary and literary circles. If you are unfamiliar with her work or want to refresh your memory, start with Love in a Dish, a short selection of her writings from throughout her career. These include a hilariously uncomfortable account of being the only customer in a Burgundy restaurant, where the accomplished chef and overzealous waitress won’t take no for an answer, and a lyrical musing on the pleasures of shellfish.
Zimmerman, who selected and introduces the collection, also wrote a biography of Fisher. She describes a childhood of alternating deprivation, when her domineering grandmother, who disapproved of sumptuous food, was at the table, and secret pleasures, like cocoa toast for dinner, when Grandma was gone. Later there was a disappointing and ultimately doomed marriage that brought her to France, where her gastronomic education truly began, two more marriages—one ending in her husband’s suicide—and, of course, a writing career that gave expression to her hungers, both literal and metaphorical.
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain
In a follow-up to the 2001 behind-the-sauté-pan tell-all Kitchen Confidential, which turned him into a TV celebrity with the world’s most enviable job, the cantankerous Bourdain rails against his usual foes—well-meaning but ignorant idealists, scummy restaurant reviewers, vegetarians—updates the status of characters from his first memoir, and talks about how fame, getting older, and becoming a father have changed him.
My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe
It takes chutzpah to buy a Brooklyn deli, as Howe and his wife did as a gift to her Korean immigrant parents. It takes a fine writer like Howe to find the humor in the absurd situation that follows, when the business is struggling and he must follow his day job as an editor of one of the most prestigious literary magazines in the country, The Paris Review, with night shifts behind the cash register. Negotiating the price of a cup of coffee, Willy Lomanesque suppliers and police stings targeting underage-tobacco sales proves more challenging than he could have imagined. The description of Howe’s famous and endearingly quirky boss at the magazine, George Plimpton—whose reaction to the news that Howe will be moonlighting at a convenience store is, “Wonderful. Enchanting. … Let me be your stocker. Just for a day”—is worth the price of the book alone.
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