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Link to this review in the form of a comic strip by guest tagged coffee table bookcookbook

The Table Comes First

Link to this review by wally tagged cookbooknonfiction

It’s deeply human to think about our food, but never before have we spent so much time considering everything from the ethics of what we eat to the history of vanished spices, the intersection of manners and morality, and all the possible cookbook styles out there.  Gopnik explores all of this and more in a dense little book that reads like a long dinner table conversation.

Why I picked it up: I loved his Paris to the Moon, which detailed Gopnik’s life as an American writer living in Paris with his wife and son. His essays on French and American culture, and his love for both, were smart and to the point.

Why I finished it: Whether talking about the history of the restaurant (originally a broth that would “restore” your health), the original food writers of post-Revolution France, or modern cooking techniques and tastes, he kept me interested with perfectly cited details, flashes of understated wit, and lines of thought that cascade to a concluding phrase that made me sit back and reflect with a glass of wine.

I’d give it to: Heidi, who is definitely a foodie, but who also would love the aphoristic turns of phrase that Gopnik garnishes the book with, like this one about the futility of asking a professional chef for a recipe: “The recipe is to spend your life cooking.”

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Link to this review by ang tagged cookbook

Deb Perelman gives it to you straight. She won’t ask you to comb the city looking for obscure ingredients or require you to learn complicated cooking techniques; she will tell you to take vegetables and “roast the heck out of them.” She won’t insist that you invest in specialized tools; she’ll instruct you to choose a “skillet heavy enough so you fear dropping it on your toes.” Working out of a tiny kitchen, with a toddler underfoot, she understands that money, time, and space are precious. She isn’t about to waste them by being fussy and pretentious.

Most of these recipes evolve from Perelman eating something and then asking herself, “What if?” As she reverse-engineers a dish or modifies a recipe to make it as simple and delicious as possible, she documents the process. The result is this collection of 105 recipes, each accompanied by an anecdote and gorgeous photographs.

Why I picked it up: This book was the only thing my daughter wanted for her sixteenth birthday. Not a car, or an expensive gadget, or a pony — just this cookbook. When she unwrapped it, all other festivities ceased, and she curled up on the couch to read. A few days later, when she convinced her dad to make an eight-hour road trip (on a school night) so that she could meet Perelman and get her book signed, I knew it must be special.

Why I finished it: I was already a fan of her award-winning blog, so I knew the recipes wouldn’t disappoint. What kept me turning pages was the way the recipes read like letters from a friend (a sarcastic, hilarious, neurotic friend). As she dropped Buffy references, questioned her past choices regarding boys and haircuts, and concocted beverages based on Seussian rhymes, a connection developed. She seems like exactly the sort who’d come over to bake a batch of Gooey Cinnamon Squares (the love child of a St. Louis gooey butter cake and a snickerdoodle) then help you eat the entire pan and hide the evidence.

I’d give it to: Theresa, who also photographs her food. She’ll love discovering the alternate cover hidden beneath the dust jacket, which showcases some of the beautiful photos. And, like a true friend, I’ve already bookmarked the Marbled Pumpkin Gingersnap Tart recipe for her.

Gulp Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Link to this review by flemtastic tagged nonfictionliterary

Roach calls the journey that food takes through the alimentary system “the moist ballet,” a dance which is ruined when any part of the process breaks down. While one may prefer not to discuss what happens to food once it passes our teeth, she has no such compunctions. The book follows the digestive tract, but not obsessively so, with chapters on saliva, eating oneself to death, organs/offal, and flatulence. As always she takes time to explore interesting side stories (Elvis Presley’s megacolon, National Hairball Awareness Day (April 27)) and experiences (tasting cat food additives along with other unfamiliar foods, literally putting her hand into a cow’s stomach to feel the muscles crushing its food).

Why I picked it up: Mary Roach is the author of popular, fun-to-read science books:  Bonk (human sex, complete with embarrassing noises), Stiff (cadavers, with a chapter on those left to rot intentionally to help solve crimes), and Packing for Mars (the rigors of real space travel, including what would happen to an astronaut in space without a suit).

Why I finished it: Lucky for us, much has been learned since the days when doctors, who did not understand digestion and excretion, used mercury to treat constipation. One of the great leaps forward was when physicians studied patient Alexis St. Martin after a fistula (hole) in his abdomen healed open. His doctor, who wrote extensively about the case, had an unprecedented, direct route to St. Martin’s stomach. He took the opportunity to dangle different foods tied onto a string directly into St. Martin’s stomach to learn how it functioned and broke them down. Roach’s writing about this and other stories was subtly hilarious. In a passage about altering the smell of canine fecal matter by using different ingredients in dog food, she noted that there is a panel of nine unfortunate humans tasked with “detecting differences in intensity of the stool odor by sniffing the odor through a port.” She discussed a video game for children who have difficulty controlling their sphincters; while playing they clench and unclench to control a paddle and destroy blocks (think Breakout). I giggled when reading about her interview with prison guards about the holding capacities of inmates’ rectums. One inmate, known as “Office Depot,” was caught smuggling two boxes of staples, a pencil sharpener, sharpener blades, and three jumbo binder rings. (Yes, all at the same time).  

I’d give it to: Richard, who would love that Roach’s sense of humor shines through in the exhaustive footnotes at the end of each chapter, too. In one she mentioned that French sewer workers, who went barefoot in Paris’s sewers, often had elevated rates of liver cancer. Many were known to drink to excess and, as Roach noted, “…who can blame them.”

Frontera Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks

Link to this review by danritchie tagged cookbook

Chicago restaurant owner Rick Bayless shares his passion for creative cocktails and tasty varieties of guacamole that can add to any Mexican meal. For his guacamole recipes, he even suggests the most appropriate chip to accompany the dip. Each step and ingredient is explained in detail, and in some cases modifications are suggested for different budgets.

Why I picked it up: Margaritas and guacamole are the base of my food pyramid. 

Why I finished it: There is a lot more to this collection that just great recipes. The science of mixology, including how to choose and prepare the most appropriate ingredients, as well as brief informative sections like the one that explains how tequila is made and the difference between it and mescal.

I’d give it to: My barfly friend, Jon, who is on a lifelong, daily quest to find the ultimate margarita. He will enjoy the variety of recipes, as well as those with unexpected ingredients, like Guacamole with Strawberries and Habanero with jicama chips, and I know he’ll love the Oaxacan Gold Margarita made with mezcal (I did).

The Truck Food Cookbook

Link to this review by darcy tagged nonfictioncookbook

Food writer John T. Edge has visited food trucks across the U.S. He shares recipes, cooking techniques, and tips on the operations of a mobile restaurant.

Why I picked it up: My recent obsession with food trucks has been costing a lot of money. When I noticed this book on the shelves at the library I hoped I’d find some new recipes to make dinnertime a little more interesting.

Why I finished it: There are recipes in this book that are very approachable and can be made easily. I loved the simple one for Cheater’s Horchata from Tacos el Galuzo (in Los Angeles), since horchata is one of my favorite drinks. The chapters group the recipes by food type and have great titles such as “Waffles and Their Kin” and “Tacopalooza.”

The beginning of each chapter has a description of the food truck culture in a variety of cities and the kinds of food being served. I’m familiar with several of the Seattle-area food trucks such as El Camión and Dante’s Inferno Dogs. I first encountered Dante’s after leaving a late show one night at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard. I’d never had cream cheese and grilled onions on a vegetarian sausage, but I’ve eaten them that way ever since. Needless to say I loved the photo in the book that shows the chef applying cream cheese with a caulking gun. 

I’d give it to: My husband, Dan, who first introduced me to the idea of “roach coaches,” the food trucks that served his construction sites in Southern California. Because many of the recipes in the book are made in a small space, I think Dan can easily use a few on our next camping trip. He likes to make big, one pot meals, so the Roots Jambalaya recipe from Trey at The Swamp Shack (Portland, OR) will make him especially happy because it’s easy, healthy, and doesn’t have any green bell peppers.

Salt Sugar Fat How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Link to this review by flemtastic tagged sciencehistorynonfiction

In 1999, eleven CEOs from the giants of the processed food industry held a secret meeting because they perceived a threat to their business models from the U.S. obesity epidemic. The CEO of Philip Morris, the tobacco company that had recently acquired Kraft Foods, told the other CEOs about his company’s experience with the 385 billion dollar settlement over smoking liability and warned them that obesity might make their foods the next battleground. Unfortunately, nothing came of the meeting — they couldn’t unanimously agree to make major changes in the salt, sugar and fat content of their processed foods. (Fear of losing market share kept individual companies from making such changes themselves.)

Salt, sugar and fat, are integral to processed, mass-market, ready-to-eat foods. They are added for taste, preservation, baking chemistry, and their effect on the finished look of a product. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into R&D and market research so that food scientists and executives understand what consumers want and what their habits are. There are even mathematical models and testing that calculate “mouthfeel.”  The author, after speaking with industry scientists, notes that “If sugar is the methamphetamine of processed food ingredients with its high-speed, blunt assault on our brains, then fat is the opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are less obvious, but no less powerful.” Even though the companies understand their products’ impact on obesity, they deliver what will sell the most but not what is best for customers.  Moss notes that most CEOs don’t eat their own products because they are aware of their harmful effects. (One former food CEO said he was not a fan of big government, but that regulation of the processed food industry might be the only way to effect a reduction in salt, sugar and fat, because all manufacturers would be in the same boat.)

Development of several successful food products is tracked from the concept stage through manufacturing and taste testing and on into marketing, including Tang and Lunchables, which are still considered home-runs.  The author also explains how some famous products filled needs that consumers didn’t even know they had, like Pop Tarts, which were created when an executive tried to fulfill his child’s desire to eat cake for breakfast.

Why I picked it up: Moss was given the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his writing on contaminated hamburger and food safety issues. And I was hoping this would be a literary version of Super Size Me. As a lifelong vegetarian, non-drinker, and non-smoker, I certainly have some health-related street cred, but I also have struggled with my weight.  I wanted this book to enlighten me about what to eat.

Why I finished it: Holy Crap!  We are in trouble as a nation!  There are men and women out there in labs right now calculating the “bliss point” of foods — the amount of sugar it takes to get the maximum response from consumers.  Americans eat the equivalent of seventy-one pounds of sugar a year. That’s twenty-two teaspoons a day!

I learned interesting food history tidbits. Mr. Kellogg, of Kellogg’s cereal fame, ran a sanitarium for healthy eating where a certain Mr. Post of Post Cereals fame was a patient. One food scientist “won” an Ig Nobel Prize for his research on the sound of crunchy chips. (The industry knows that a crunch-factor of four pounds per square inch provides the most pleasing mouthfeel.)

I’d give it to: Gina, who eats a macrobiotic diet and fresh, unprocessed foods, because I think she would like Moss’ well-researched panoply of industry tricks. Food companies well know that the body is not able to register fat content and give a warning like it does with sugar, and have adjusted their recipes, cutting sugar and adding fat, to maintain their products’ appeal.

Play With Your Food

Link to this review by geneambaum tagged artcoffee table booknonfiction

Joost Elffers transforms fruits and vegetables into faces, animals, insects, and other things using a knife and a few well-placed beans, stems, and nuts. The shapes are always suggested by the fruits and veggies themselves.

The front essay on creativity encourages readers to explore the world around them. The final section includes tips about raw materials and ingredients. In between are amazing photos of Elffer’s work: maniacal pumpkins, grinning leeks, and the sweetest bok choy lion ever.

Why I picked it up: I loved Elffers’ books Food Play and Play With Your Pumpkins.

Why I finished it: Elffers’ insects are brilliant. He transforms artichoke leaves, peanuts, pea pods, grapes, and okra into bugs with the addition of stems and hairs. The only downside is that next time I’m in our garden, I’ll probably see bugs everywhere.

I’d give it to: My daughter, Gigi. She’s always decorating cupcakes with different candies. I think this would help her see the beauty in the chaotic swirls of frosting, and allow her to do more with them than just try for geometrically perfect cupcakes. Plus I’m hoping she’ll help me freak her grandmother out next April Fools’ Day with well-placed “bugs” that we can both eat as soon as we “catch” them.

Tiny Food Party! Bite-Size Recipes for Miniature Meals

Link to this review by dawnrutherford tagged cookbook

A cookbook filled with recipes for tiny food items and party ideas for when to serve them.

Why I picked it up: Admittedly, for the squee! factor. Itsy bitsy tiny foods! 

Why I finished it: In my ongoing quest for better health, I’ve decided to try to eat smaller versions of delicious things that are bad for me, like corn dogs and Mini Homemade Pop-Tarts. And I’m cheap, so I’m excited about the miniature cocktails (even if I’ll probably drink more of them). I’ve gone nuts looking at the Pinterest page to plan my very own movie- and potluck-themed We Might Be Giants party.

I’d give it to: Jenn, who would love to make these little treats with her daughter, and because they would have a very good excuse to raise some quail because their eggs are essential for Itty-Bitty Country-Style Eggs Benedict.

Relish My Life in the Kitchen

Link to this review by geneambaum tagged graphic novelbiographycoming of agecookbook

Autobiographical episodes “crammed with the taste-memories that draw them up” into Knisley’s mind include time in the kitchen and helping to cater with her mother (a chef), eating outrageously good food with her father (a foodie), and her own attempts to learn to cook.

Why I picked it up: I loved Knisley’s French Milk so much that I’ve bought everything that I’ve seen her sell at comic shows over the last few years, including this amazing Wonder Women poster, which is hanging in my daughter’s bedroom.

Why I finished it: It was easy it is to identify with someone who loves the same food I do (and who can make me realize how good it is), though it’s also dangerous; I had to put this book down more than once and go make myself a snack. And I was laughing at her parents horror at Knisley’s need to (only occasionally) eat fast food and junk. By the time of her profound discovery of Lucky Charms in middle school, she had sense enough to know not to tell her parents about what she had eaten at her friend’s house.

I’d give it to: Mike, who doesn’t like too cook, but would be inspired to try by the easy-to-follow, illustrated recipes for marinated lamb, the best chocolate chip cookies, huevos rancheros, and sangria. (There are other recipes, too.)

Bébé Gourmet 100 French-Inspired Baby Food Recipes for Raising an Adventurous Eater

Link to this review by danritchie tagged cookbook

This is an incredibly varied collection of recipes meant to establish an appreciation for all types of nutritious, healthy foods. Beginning with purees and compotes at age four months and progressing through first lunches, dinners, sweets, and on to big kid meals, the author provides quick, easy-to-make, French-inspired meals using all-natural ingredients.

Why I picked it up: This cookbook caught my eye because I want my grandkids to be healthy.

Why I finished it: In addition to enjoying the eclectic smorgasbord of ingredients, I enjoyed the “yummy tips” at the end of each recipe, many of which included options for adult versions. Most of the big kids meals would also appeal to adults, especially the lemon-yogurt cake and toasted food pockets (a sort of sandwich with fillings like fig and honey or mango and lychee).

I’d give it to: My oldest daughter, Megan, who, with her husband Mike, is raising energetic twin daughters. It will help them carry out their philosophy of exposing the kids to a broad spectrum of flavors, and this collection should help them provide a diverse, yummy diet.

The Drunken Botanist The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks

Link to this review by flemtastic tagged literarynonfiction

This is a cookbook of sorts, with over fifty recipes for famous drinks and cocktails from around the world. It is also a history of the human effort to discover whether a tolerable alcohol can be made from anything that will ferment. (While it provides details about fermentation and processes for isolating alcohol, there’s no step-by-step instructions for setting up your own still.) Amy Stewart methodically and entertainingly covers alcohol in both popular drinks and eclectic drinks I’d never heard of like Ugandan banana beer, Peruvian corn beer, and Mao-Tai, a sorghum-based alcohol that Nixon drank with Chairman Mao on his famous visit to China. Not all plant-based products make good liquor, though. Stewart warns off would-be distillers about plants that are either toxic or known carcinogens, like several species of ferns that can cause epileptic seizures and the Tonka bean, which contains a strong blood-thinner.

Why I picked it up: I really liked Stewart’s breezy, conversational style in Flower Confidential. Plus I don’t drink, so how else am I going to learn about this stuff?

Why I finished it: I will now be a fount of information about how whisky picks up its smoky flavor from the barrels it ages in, how two percent evaporates through the barrel (this is called the “Angels’ share”), and how the members of the doomed Jamestown Settlement spent time making corn whisky when they should have been preparing for whatever wiped out their settlement. Our forefathers also were alcohol-making fools.  Ben Franklin wrote about and made cornstalk liquor, and George Washington, immediately after his second term as President, had the largest rye distillery in the nation!  But possibly the coolest thing I learned was how the proofing system was founded. In the British navy, every man was due a daily tot of grog to help stave off scurvy.  The sailors often accused the quartermaster of watering down the grog to save money or stores, so the proof test was developed where a bit of gunpowder was mixed with the grog and ignited in the presence of the men. If there was at least fifty-seven percent alcohol, the gunpowder would burn; if not, it was watered down.

I’d give it to: Ben and Sugar, a couple of food lovers who enjoy cooking so much they put on huge dinners several times a year. Ben mixes drinks with real flair, and I think he’d love to be able to explain the provenance of each liquor he uses.

Eat Like a Dinosaur Recipe & Guidebook for Gluten-Free Kids

Link to this review by saracole tagged cookbooknonfiction

This book is part cookbook and part information about why families, and especially children, should follow a paleolithic diet (a hunter-gatherer diet composed mostly of meat and veggies). It begins with the story of the family who wrote the book and includes their advice on how to introduce the new way of eating to kids. The second chapter is a children’s story, “Eat Like a Dinosaur,” explaining the diet and the transition to kids with plenty of pictures. Finally there are about fifty pages of recipes that include appealing pictures.

Why I picked it up: In a paleo-book-addled frenzy, I scanned through a box of books and mistakenly thought this was written by one of my favorite bloggers, Elana Amsterdam. (The authors are Stacy Toth and Matthew McCarry of Paleo Parents. In my defense, Elana did write the forward, and her picture appears on one of the very first pages.)

Why I finished it: My nine-year-old daughter turns out to be the one who keeps coming back to the book. I left it out on the counter to remind myself to include the recipes in my weekly meal planning. The cute story and bright, cheery pictures caught her attention, and she started leafing through it. The recipes work well for her because the ingredients and directions are simple, and the font they’re written in is large enough for any young reader. Now she enjoys using her book to cook alongside me while I prepare meals.

I’d give it to: Terra, who is still working to win her eleven-year-old over to her family’s new paleo diet. While I think there are better books out there for adults, I’m sure the option of making her own mini egg pizzas, nut granola, and pumpkin cider “lattes” would help convince her it’s a good move.

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