Brain Pickings

5½ Favorite Food Books of 2012

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From Thomas Jefferson to the secret history of coffee, by way of urban farming and Downton Abbey.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, children’s books, history books, and graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s favorite food-related reads. (Catch up on last year’s omnibus here.)

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S CREME BRÛLÉE

If you, like me, believed that Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, you’re off — nearly two centuries off. It turns out we owe the feat to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James “Jame” Hemmings, to apprentice him to one of France’s finest chefs. In exchange for going along with the plan, Jefferson would grant Jame his freedom. “Thus began the most interesting and influential culinary partnership in American history,” writes Thomas J. Craughwell in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (UK; public library). But perhaps most fascinating in Craughwell’s account is the role Jefferson played in championing vegetables and minimal animal products more than 200 years before Michael Pollan, popularizing indispensable plant species previously thought inedible, and even pioneering modern-day buzzword concepts like urban farming.

For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:

I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.

And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:

In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways, including the intersection of food and aesthetics and the notion of edible architecture:

The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.

So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:

There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.

More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:

He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.

He also had a soft spot for cabbage:

[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's maître d'hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from his slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.

His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:

In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.

In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.

boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.

pour in three times through a flannel strainer.

it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.

an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.

the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.

The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.

Originally featured in November.

URBAN FARMS

In Urban Farms (UK; public library), writer and editor Sarah C. Rich, who also happens to be a dear friend, explores the state and future of urban farming at the intersection of food politics, sustainability, and the DIY movement through the stories of 16 bleeding-edge urban farms and the brilliant, wholehearted people behind them. Covering farms as diverse as a vast compound enlisting multiple ecosystems and the rooftop of a ghost duplex on a dead-end street, the tome features lavish photographs by Matthew Benson that instantly transport you to the richest, freshest core of urban farming. Alongside the absorbing profiles are intelligent tips on beekeeping, composting, canning, and more ways of practical engagement.

Sarah writes in the introduction:

Urban farming is a uniquely powerful tool of change, in that it can simultaneously reshape the places where we live and the way we eat. It is also uniquely accessible — available to grassroots change agents and high-ranking policymakers alike.

THE BEST ILLUSTRATED COCKTAILS

From brother-sister creative duo Nate Padavick and Salli Swindell, the fine folks who brought us They Draw & Cook, comes The Best Illustrated Cocktail Recipes: Created by Artists from Around the World (UK) — a compendium of 24 wonderfully illustrated libations, from timeless classics to kooky holiday concoctions, a kind of modern-day visual equivalent to the 1930 gem The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Also from the series, out this season: The Colorful Vegetarian: 30 Colorfully Illustrated Recipes.

THE UNOFFICIAL DOWNTON ABBEY COOKBOOK

With a documented soft spot for cross-disciplinary cookbooks and the intersection of food and fiction, I was instantly adrool over The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook: From Lady Mary’s Crab Canapes to Mrs. Patmore’s Christmas Pudding (UK; public library) by baker and writer Emily Ansara Baines, who brings us “more than 150 recipes from upstairs and downstairs.” Whether you’re in the mood for Mr. Bates’ chicken and mushroom pie or Sybil’s ginger nut biscuits, each delicious bite of these surprisingly approachable dishes is a tiny time machine that transports you right back to the post-Edwardian era.

And for the hopeless tea-lovers among us, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tea time. (Mrs. Isobel Crawley’s smoked salmon tea sandwiches — enough said.)

For a warm-up, watch the Dowager Countess make a proper cup of tea in between essential gossip:

Complement with the vintage gem John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets.

Originally featured in September.

A SECRET HISTORY OF COFFEE, COCA & COLA

From Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep, comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) — a fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, tracing the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, within a larger subtext of the role of prohibition in modern culture. (It was also among the year’s best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction.)

Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:

At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.

Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.

Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.

Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
1886.

But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.

The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.

Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:

The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?

“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.

Originally featured earlier this month.

BONUS: APPETITE FOR LIFE

In 1997, Noël Riley Fitch released the only authorized biography of legendary chef Julia Child, based on her private diaries and letters, her personal archives, and a number of exclusive interviews. The result was an intimate glimpse of the icon’s culinary mastery and personal life, from how she arrived at her calling to the secrets of a fifty-year marriage. Though not officially a new release and not exactly a “food book” per se, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child (UK; public library) was published in a new paperback edition this year, in time for Child’s centennial.

Fitch writes in the 2012 introduction:

She strove to be fun-loving and spontaneous, just like her mother. Yet she also wrote otherwise: ‘It’s the discipline. That is the thing.’ She would deliberately cultivate a protective detachment.

[…]

Looking back on Julia’s remarkable life as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of her birth, it is clear that she belongs in the pantheon of great American teachers. She taught with panache, careful preparation, and a seemingly casual air that gave confidence to every cook. That she was occasionally personally clumsy only validated and amused her television ‘students.’ The became in everyday life the Julia she had been on camera. Her professional and personal life have much to teach us today.

Complement with the fantastic As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, which gave us Child’s timeless lessons in friendship, self-publishing entrepreneurship, and perseverance in the face of rejection.

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