Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘food’

24 APRIL, 2013

How Cooking Civilized Us: Michael Pollan on Food as Social Glue and Anti-Corporate Activism

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What the four elements have to do with corporate exploitation and the story arc of culinary craft.

In 2006, Michael Pollan penned what became the most important food politics book of the past half-century, which spawned everything from a motion graphics tribute to an exquisite sequel illustrated by Maira Kalman. Now, Pollan returns with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (public library) — a powerful manifesto for reclaiming food in a way that liberates us from our reliance on consumer culture while at the same time strengthening our shared sense of belonging and connection. At the heart of his case is the conviction that cooking — as well as understanding the ecosystem which food occupies — is not only one of the most interesting things we do, but also one of the most human.

Intrigued by the disconnect between the dramatic drop of home cooking in the past fifty years and the increased interest that has turned food preparation into a spectator sport elevating professional chefs into celebrity status, Pollan sets out to investigate what he terms “the Cooking Paradox” and emerges with several hypotheses. First, he traces the age-old roots of our culinary voyeurism, lingering over the nostalgic memories of watching his mother cook as he considers the narrative arc of cooking:

In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same — mageiros — and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming more than the sum of its ordinary parts. And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Pollan goes even deeper, down to our very evolutionary underpinnings. While some scientists have pointed to music and maps as the holy grails of civilization, Pollan turns to anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has argued that cooking is the act with which culture begins, to explain why watching food being made would mesmerize and stir us so profoundly:

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing— as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy. Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals. Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.

But more than mere physical sustenance, the pivotal role cooking played in our evolution as a species was in providing the social glue that came with shared meal occasions:

Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. … But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.

Even more than that, Pollan argues, as we grew accustomed to cooked food and our cognitive capacity expanded “at the expense of our digestive capacity,” uncooked food was no longer an option, essentially baking cooking into our very biology. Pollan offers an apt aphoristic analogy:

What Winston Churchill once said of architecture — “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us” — might also be said of cooking. First we cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.

But since with any dependency comes a dangerous opportunity for exploitation, we have paid for our evolved taste and the rise of industrial cooking — which is where we’re reminded of Pollan’s razor-sharp political awareness:

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

[…]

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

And in some grim turn of cosmic irony, this contradiction has permeated our relationship with the natural world from which we evolved, funneling us further and further into a world where simulacra fill in for the real thing:

Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing — what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Pollan’s approach to cooking, his remedy to the worrisome disconnect, is guided by the four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — to each of which a section of the book is dedicated. In fact, he likens cooking to a kind of alchemy that both encompasses and transcends science:

The fact that modern science has dismissed the classical elements, reducing them to still more elemental substances and forces — water to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen; fire to a process of rapid oxidation, etc. — hasn’t really changed our lived experience of nature or the way we imagine it. Science may have replaced the big four with a periodic table of 118 elements, and then reduced each of those to ever-tinier particles, but our senses and our dreams have yet to get the news.

To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology. Yet, beginning with fire, I found that the older, prescientific elements figure largely — hugely, in fact — in apprehending the main transformations that comprise cooking, each in its own way. Each element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature, but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of work, and a different mood.

Though Cooked is essentially a how-to book, it is also very much a kind of systems-thinking blueprint that illuminates the many interrelated processes, technologies, and social forces that propel and permeate food. To understand those is to reclaim an essential kind of knowledge that we’ve all but forsaken:

Nowadays, only a small handful of cooking’s technologies seem within the reach of our competence. This represents not only a loss of knowledge, but a loss of a kind of power, too. And it is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.

When that happens — when we no longer have any direct personal knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made — food will have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals, from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming mere fuel or pure image.

Driving this deterioration of essential knowledge, Pollan contends, is the same byproduct of capitalism that Buckminster Fuller admonished against and that cheats us of doing fulfilling work: specialization. He writes:

Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.”

But besides the point of vulnerability which this learned helplessness creates for corporations to exploit, Pollan argues, the most troublesome problem with this division of labor is how, in disconnecting us from the connectedness of everything, it blinds us to our individual responsibility for the consequences of even our most mundane actions:

Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Pollan sees cooking as the connective tissue between us and the rest of the ecosystem we inhabit, the vital antidote to this fragmented, compartmentalized inclination of modern life:

Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions.

Thus, Cooked is at once a philosophical journey into the depths of that transformation and practical handbook for tilting the ratio back to its natural, satisfying balance.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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17 APRIL, 2013

The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook: A Rare 1961 Treasure Trove of Unusual Recipes and Creative Wit

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“Permit two egg yolks to recline.”

There is indisputable charm to cookbooks inspired by modern art, literature, and science, and the authentic recipes of favorite poets hold a special allure, but none come close to the magnificent The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook (public library) — a lavish 350-page vintage tome, illustrated with 19th-century engravings and original drawings by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Osborn, and Alexandre Istrati. Originally published in 1961, it features 220 recipes and 30 courses by 55 painters, 61 novelists, 15 sculptors, and 19 poets, including such luminaries as Man Ray, John Keats, Marcel Duchamp, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Harper Lee, Irving Stone, William Styron, and Georges Simenon. The diverse contributors take the assignment with various degrees of seriousness, some sharing their recipes in earnest and others using the cookbook as a canvas for wit and creative deviation — but all having invariable and obvious fun with the project.

The foreword comes from none other than Alice B. Toklas, who knows a thing or two about literary cookbooks. She offers three of her favorite famous concoctions, among which an omelet recipe which George Sand once sent Victor Hugo:

OMELETTE AURORE

Beat 8 eggs with a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 3 tablespoons heavy cream. Prepare the omelet in the usual manner. Before folding it, place on it 1 cup diced candied fruit and small pieces of marrons glacés which have soaked for several hours in 2 tablespoons of curaçao. Fold the omelet to keep the fruit in place, on a fireproof serving dish. Surround with marrons glacés and candied cherries. cover at once with frangipani cream made by stirring 2 whole eggs and 3 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until they are pale lemon-colored. Then add 1 cup of flour and a pinch of salt, stirring until it is perfectly smooth. Add 2 cups of milk and mix well. Put the mixture in a saucepan over the lowest heat and stir until it is quite thick. It must not boil. Be careful that the cream does not become attached to the bottom or sides of the saucepan. When it has thickened remove it from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter and 3 powered macaroons. Stir and mix well. Pour the sauce over the omelet and sprinkle ¼ cup diced angelica over the top. Then sprinkle 6 powered macaroons on top and, finally, 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Place the omelet in a preheated 550-degree oven only long enough to brown it lightly.

Tucked inside my original edition was also a flyer featuring several beautifully typeset teaser cards.

Irving Stone speaks to the life-anchoring power of a writerly routine and outlines “The Perfect Writer’s Luncheon”:

I am one of those writers who, as he gets halfway through a long book, decides that there is nothing he can possibly eat that will agree with him. I start out at page 1, line 1, weighing some 170 pounds, and a quarter of a million words later, in seventh draft and ready for the printer, I have come down to 145 pounds. With particularly long books, I get so thin that there is nothing around my hips to hold up my slacks; and, during the last chapters I find it nearly impossible to write sitting down because there is no flesh left to sit on.

As a consequence I have evolved the perfect writer’s luncheon, and I have not deviated from it in thirty-five years. My sole and complete lunch consists of an American cheese sandwich on toast and a dish of tea. There are times when the monotony of this lunch is almost unbearable. However, during the last year of the writing of each book, if I attempt to substitute a tongue or beef sandwich, or even a piece of chicken, I am so distressed that I am unable to set down a line during the afternoon.

By a rough estimate, I think I have eaten ten thousand cheese sandwiches during my thirty-five years of concentrated writing. They reached their point of diminishing returns twenty-five years ago, but when one has to make a decision between dietary ennui or indigestion — what choice is there?

2 slices of white bread — dull, factory-baked, full-of-air, unadorned kind.
1 slice pasteurized American cheese — presliced too thin, to be sure no pimento mixed in, too exciting.

Toast bread, lay cheese on one slice, cover with the other. On festive, daring occasions put open face in oven for a few minutes to get holiday change.

Beloved author and anti-censorship opinionator Harper Lee shares her tongue-in-cheek recipe for “Crackling Bread”:

First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:

1 ½ cups water-ground white meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk

Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).

Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

Denise Levertov, an all-time favorite poet, presents her signature unnamed dessert:

This is a dessert I invented. No name attached.

Mix
equal quantities of:
Sour cream
Tart applesauce
Mashed bananas

Add:
Maple syrup to taste
(If you put too much,
add a little lemon juice)

Top
with: Sliced bananas and walnuts

Creative culture icon Marcel Duchamp reveals his secret to Steak Tartare:

Let me begin by saying, ma chere. that Steak Tartare, alias Bitteck Tartare, also known as Steck Tartare, is in no way related to tartar sauce. The steak to which I refer originated with the Cossacks in Siberia, and it can be prepared on horseback, at swift gallop, if conditions make this a necessity.

Indications: Chop one half pound (per person) of the very best beef obtainable, and shape carefully with artistry into a bird’s nest. Place on porcelain plate of a solid color — ivory is the best setting — so that no pattern will disturb the distribution of ingredients. In hollow center of nest, permit two egg yolks to recline. Like a wreath surrounding the nest of chopped meat, arrange on border of plate in small, separate bouquets:

Chopped raw white onion
Bright green capers
Curled silvers of anchovy
Fresh parsley, chopped fine
Black olives minutely chopped in company with yellow celery leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Each guest , with his plate before him, lifts his fork and blends the ingredients with the egg yolks and meat. In center of table: Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and bottles of vin rosé.

Legendary photographer and Dadaism godfather Man Ray takes a liberty of defiant proportions with his “Menu for a Dadaist Day”:

Le Petit Dejeuner.

Take a wooden panel of an inch or less thickness, 16 to 20 inches in size. Gather the brightly colored wooden blocks left by children on the floors of playrooms and paste or screw them on the panel.

Déjeuner.

Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.

Dîner.

Gather wooden darning eggs, one per person. If the variety without handles cannot be found, remove the handles. Pierce lengthwise so that skewers can be inserted in each darning egg. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane.

Anna Tolstoy, dedicated biographer of her father, serves up her Russian Mint Cookies:

Mix well. Make balls the size of an apricot. Heat stove — 350 degrees. Bake for 12-15 minutes till bottom of cookies gets light brown. Keep in closed jar or in a bag in the refrigerator.

2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Boil and cool off
Add:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (any kind)
1 teaspoon baking ammonia (must be ground into powder)
25-30 drops peppermint oil
5 ½ cups white flour

Complement The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook with the legendary Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and the delightful John Keats’s Porridge, then wash down with some artful parody of famous writers’ imaginary recipes.

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16 APRIL, 2013

Modern Art Desserts: From Mondrian Cake to Matisse Parfait

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Edible masterpieces from the pastry chef at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As a lover of modern art, Mondrian-inspired creative projects, and unusual cookbooks, I was instantly enamored with Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art (public library) by Caitlin Freeman, pastry chef at the Blue Bottle café at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s, which she roams for inspiration, then translates the artwork into edible masterpieces. From Matisse parfait to Mondrian cake to Frida wedding cookies to Fuller hot chocolate, the recipes hit the spot for art-lovers and foodies alike, adding an extra layer of whimsical delight to the art of dessert.

The story of the Blue Bottle café is itself a heartening tale of modern creativity. It was founded by Freeman’s husband, James — a former professional clarinet player and hobbyist coffee-roaster — in 2002, after he started experimenting with roasting coffee at home and began selling his drinks at Bay Area farmers’ markets. A few years later, he dreamed up a cafe at Rooftop Garden of the SFMoMA and approached them with the idea. The museum loved it. Meanwhile, Caitlin had just sold her own pastry business, so the timing was perfect for her to bring her talents to the newborn venture. The rest, as they say, is modern history.

Mondrian cake

Donald Judd tomato soup

Rothko dessert

Modern Art Desserts is, in both the punniest and least punny way possible, an absolute treat.

Photographs via Kobini

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04 MARCH, 2013

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Illustrated

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Love, loss, and the conquest of French cuisine.

Gertrude Stein reached fame late in life with her self-published 1932 memoirs titled — in the author’s characteristic fashion of this-means-that semantic semantic subterfuge — The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, after the love of Stein’s life. The two had met in 1907, the day Toklas arrived in Paris, and remained together for 39 years, until Stein’s death in 1946. But Toklas herself left a memorable imprint on twentieth-century culture, beyond her role as Stein’s lifelong partner.

I was recently fortunate enough to find a copy of the handsome out-of-print 1993 Folio Society edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (public library) — a precursor to such classics as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, originally published in 1954 and written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography. The cookbook had been Toklas’s lifelong dream but, intimidated by Stein’s literary prowess, she never ventured into writing herself during Stein’s lifetime. Finally, at the age of 75 and long widowed, Toklas wrote the book over the course of four months, while battling hepatitis, with a rigorous writing routine that allowed “no telephone calls and no door bells answered.”

The Folio edition, which comes bound in silver leather and tucked in a hard slip-case, features gorgeous drawings by artist Natacha Ledwidge.

English biographer Diana Souhami writes in the introduction:

From the time of her childhood in San Francisco, Alice collected recipes. When life became ‘too black’ she read cookbooks an was ‘immediately lost to everything outside.’ She did not keep diaries, but recipes nudged her excellent memory and through them she conjured recollections of place, time and extraordinary company. A leisured hedonism pervades her Cookbook, an assumption that few things are more important than lunch, that there are, after all, only 365 of them in a year and that a bad one is a waste. Cooking was, she said, an art on a par with painting.

Yet despite her passion for culinary art, Toklas herself, not even five feet tall and weighing 100 pounds, was a light and picky eater. She derived her pleasure from her role as a critic rather than consumer of food. Souhami observes the curious yin-yang of Stein and Toklas’s gustatory dispositions:

[Alice] was a critic and connoisseur, more interested in preparing food, tasting it and passing comment on it, than in consuming it. Gertrude Stein’s appetite, by comparison, was prodigious. She loved eating, and in her autobiographical book, The Making of Americans, called it one of the main pleasures of her childhood — the other was reading.

One thing that comes through, subtly but unmistakably, in the narrative surrounding the recipes is the extraordinary bond and remarkable devotion between Toklas and Stein, who seemed to operate as the two halves of one graceful organism. From the day they met until Stein’s death, the two were never apart. Souhami writes:

They never travelled without each other, or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects. They regarded themselves as married. … In the stack of Gertrude’s manuscripts, most of them rejected by publishers until after her death, she wrote often of her love for Alice, whom she called her kitten, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster and wife. When separated from Alice she felt low in her mind. And Alice, towards the end of her own long life, said that from the moment they met, ‘It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then.’

[…]

In her Cookbook, written after out of a total of twenty years of lonely widowhood, Alice gives a gentle, teasing picture of the woman for whom most of the recipes were prepared. Gertrude, she says, was ‘always cheerful, agreeable and curious,’ did not like to see people working, had no time for officials or bureaucracy, liked American food and was good at finding mushrooms in fields. She never learned to reverse Auntie the car and spent a great deal of time changing spark-plugs. She disliked wasps, hornets, bees, spiders, centipedes and bats, and Alice would get rid of them with ‘determination, newspapers, a broom and pincers.’

Even though Alice spent the vast majority of her energies serving Gertrude’s genius — she cooked, typed Stein’s manuscripts, made housekeeping arrangements, sewed, shampooed the dog, and rose before dawn to pick wild strawberries for Gertrude’s breakfast ‘before the sun kissed them’ — Sohuami assures:

There was nothing demeaning in her apparent servitude. She was the power behind the throne, the uncompromising promoter of Gertrude’s talent and the manager of both their lives. She shaped their fame and promoted their public image. Those who wanted to see Gertrude were first checked out by Alice, and if Alice did not approve, they were turned away. It was she who selected the motto ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ to appear in a circle on Gertrude’s stationery. Gertrude first used the words in a poem called ‘Sacred Emily.’ Above everything, Alice ensured that the quality of their daily life was orderly and agreeable. She cultivated the art of enjoyable living. Food, friendship, travel, painting, literature and conversation were its main ingredients.

But success, at least by way of cultural acclaim, came late in Stein’s life — by the time of her first bestseller, she was 58. Having just reached the zenith of her fame, Stein succumbed to cancer, leaving Alice widowed and heartbroken. Despite her own devastation, however, Alice once again put her love of Gertrude first: Per Stein’s will, Alice was free to sell anything she wished from Gertrude’s voluminous and prized art collection, valued at $6 million by 1967; but she knew how important these pictures were to Gertrude, so she set out to do anything she could to survive while keeping the collection intact. The Cookbook might have been her lifelong dream, but its ultimate manifestation was a survivalist business decision, its publication a source of income above all else. That it went on to become a cultural classic in its own right was, as far as Alice might be posthumously concerned, a side of fortuitous chance, sprinkled with kismet.

Timid as she might have been in appearance and eating habits, Toklas was unafraid of having a commanding point of view when it came to the theory and practice of cuisine:

To cook as the French do one must respect the quality and flavour of the ingredients. Exaggeration is not admissible. Flavours are not all amalgamative. These qualities are not purchasable but may be cultivated. The haute cuisine has arrived at the enviable state of reacting instinctively to these known principles.

For mussels, noting that “if one likes mussels at all one likes them madly,” Toklas offers a fennel sauce:

The mussels can be served cold with a

FENNEL SAUCE

made by adding 1 whole fennel, cooked covered in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, removed from water, drained, pressed and wiped dry. Then chop very fine and add to a sauce mousseline.

Much of the book uses the recipes as anchors for autobiographical and historical narratives. Her hot chocolate recipe, for instance, is served amidst the context of the war-torn Paris in the latter part of WWI in 1917, where Stein and Toklas volunteered to drive food and wood to hospitals in their ancient Model T Ford, lovingly nicknamed Auntie after Stein’s Aunt Puline:

Aunt Pauline had been militarised and so could be requisitioned for any use connected with the wounded. Gertrude Stein evacuated the wounded who came into [the luxury hotel] Nîmes on the ambulance trains. Material from our unit organised and supplied a small first-aid operating room. The Red Cross nuns in the best French manner served in large bowls to the wounded piping

HOT CHOCOLATE

3 ozs melted chocolate to 1 quart hot milk. Bring to a boil and simmer for ½ hour. Then beat for 5 minutes. The nuns made huge quantities in copper cauldrons, so that the whisk they used was huge and heavy. We all took turns beating.

Aunt Pauline was succeeded by Lady Godiva, thusly named because she came to Toklas and Stein stripped of everything on her dashboard, naked in the way only an open two-seater Ford could be in post-WWI France.

A chapter titled “Recipes from Friends” invites contributions from Stein and Toklas’s social circle. Several come from poet Mary Oliver, at the time in her late teens, in a delightful micro-predecessor to the 1973 gem John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets. In one, Oliver offers:

PILAW STELLA MARIS DE PORTO FINO

Cut up one small octopus, remove bone from interior. Dip particles in honey, roll in paprika, then plunge in batter mixed with garlic. Boil in olive oil. Serve with rice; with a sauce made with tomatoes over it, white wine, green peppers and finely diced mushrooms.

Morocco-based painter and writer Brion Gysin, a friend of Gertrude’s in the 1930s, wrote in with a recipe for hashish fudge, complete with notes on growing cannabis at home. Naively, Alice included it and a publicity crisis ensued. Harpers, the book’s publisher, eventually sent a telegram to the Attorney-General to check if they were in legal trouble and, if so, whether they should halt the printing. (They were not; they did not.) Some even argued Alice had included the recipe as a publicity stunt.

HASHISH FUDGE
(which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of paradise — of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé‘.

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of Cannabis sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

Obtaining the Cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as Cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognised, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called Cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.

The tome is a gem in its entirety, full of mouthwatering recipes from the golden age of cooking and fascinating vignettes from the lives of Toklas and Stein against a broader cultural and historical backdrop. Even if you can’t get a hold of the Folio edition, the classic one is well worth a read.

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18 DECEMBER, 2012

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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