Food Writing Worth Reading: What’s on My Bookshelf Now

11 Oct

One of my only regrets this summer was not finding enough time to read. It remains one of the great pleasures of my life. I still remember the long ago thrill at age six of being able to read myself  “a big kid’s book” (or one without a photo on every page). I had checked out Beverley Cleary’s Socks from the public library. I spent the remainder of the day reading through its 160 pages by myself. From that point, I knew I was hooked.

My internship this fall has certainly been demanding on a physical level; it makes me want to curl up even more with a good book at the close of a day. Or bring a book to read during my train commute; I spend just enough time on the T to get absorbed without fear of interruption. (Of course, this works even better on the D line where I am more likely to get a seat.)

The Harvard Bookstore (still going strong after more than 75 years in business) has become a bit of a haunt for the purpose of perusing new candidates. The basement is dedicated to an impressive array of used and remainder books, quite a few of which are food-related (everything from cookbooks to food memoirs). These days, I suppose you could have worse habits than buying used books; the place and its prices are hard to resist.

So here are a couple of recommendations based on my recent reading:

  • Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber

In Diana Abu-Jaber’s recent novel, pastry chef Avis and her real estate attorney husband struggle to hold their family together after their teenage daughter, Felice, inexplicably runs away from home. Chapters are written from alternating points of view of the different family members and Miami itself is not just a setting, but a major character in the novel.

This novel is not food writing in the typical sense; but food, the act of creating it and of using it to alienate, feed, nourish, or enchant others is particularly central to the plot line. One of the biggest transformations in the novel involves the abandoned mother Avis; an unexpected friendship teaches her how to approach her art as a communal and generous act rather than an insular and self-centered one.

What is more is every sentence is a stunner in this novel. And when Abu-Jaber does describe pastries, she does so lovingly and with great authority. You can hungrily picture “each pastry as unique as a snowflake, just as fleeting on the tongue: pellucid jams colored cobalt and lavender, biscuits light as eiderdown.”

I have not read Abu-Jaber’s memoir of her childhood, The Language of Baklava; this novel makes me eager to acquaint myself with her earlier work.

  • Stuffed by Patricia Volk

If Abu-Jaber’s novel was a heartbreaker, Patricia Volk’s 2001 memoir was rollicking fun. In each chapter, which is named for some significant food memory in her life, Volk gives us vivid miniature portraits of her quirky family members. I read some goodreads.com reviews before delving into my copy of Stuffed (purchased at the HBS for a mere $7). There, I saw some sour grapes about how Volk “brags” about her family members. I don’t get it. Yes, Volk is proud of some of their accomplishments; but she is also extremely forthcoming about their faults. She writes with humor, but also sympathy and warmth, about their various foibles.  She is a good daughter and a good sister; in short, she’s a person I’d like to meet.

This memoir meanders, but that is the whole point. When you have a background as interesting as Volk’s and a family as peopled with peculiar yet endearing characters, you can afford to meander. If hard pressed to pick a couple of favorite chapters, I’d have to choose for my top three Hersheyettes (about Volk’s sister, Jo Ann, who has been on every diet imaginable and whose skeleton weighs 117 pounds); Butter Cookies (re: Aunt Ruthie, whose “Yiddish charm” and professional advice disarm the ex-paratrooper that held her hostage); and Hash (about her mother’s housekeeper, Mattie Weems Watts, eater of “Velveeta on a teaspoon dunked in coffee with cream and sugar” for breakfast).

  • The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman

I’m midway through Washingtonian Food and Wine Editor Todd Kliman’s homage to the Norton grape, a true American original. Kliman’s book gives us a witty and entertaining American viticultural history, beginning with the first days of the colonies, Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with the vine, and the once-suicidal doctor who crossed varieties to create Norton’s Virginia Seedling.

The tale that he spins is perhaps best summed up by the following:

In the novel, there was Twain’s crudely vernacular first person; in poetry, Whitman’s ragged, exuberant lines; in music, the emergence of an exciting new sound that improbably set the formal harmonies of European balladry with percussive African rhythms . . . Norton, departing from familiar models, was their counterpart in wine: earthy, bold, and wild on the tongue, sometimes overlooked and often misunderstood, a melange of . . . Europe and America, that was, ultimately, nothing so much as itself.

I think the most suprising and intriguing portion of Kliman’s tale so far is the prominent role that the town of Hermann, Missouri played in America’s wine industry during the mid to late 19th century.  I know, you are scratching your head at the mention of Missouri, but before California was king, “Missouri lead the nation in wine production. Of the more than 320,000 gallons produced in the state [during 1870], Gasconade County accounted for approximately 200,000. And of those, [the Hermann winery] Poeschel & Scherer was responsible for perhaps 50,000.”

I feel like I’m on a fun road trip with Kliman as he gets to the root of why the Norton grape’s popularity died on the vine.

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If you are a Bostonian excited about books like I am, no doubt you are looking forward to next weekend’s free Boston Book Festival in Copley Square.  Lots of writers and presentations and many literary genres will be represented at what is New England’s largest literary festival. If you enjoy food writing, check out Eat Your Words at noon. This session, sponsored by Boston Magazine, will feature food historian and cookbook author, Joan Nathan,  journalist and elBulli (formerly the world’s best restaurant until it closed its doors and became a culinary foundation) biographer Lisa Abend, among others  in the Boston Public Library’s Washington Room. Maybe I will see you there!

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One Response to “Food Writing Worth Reading: What’s on My Bookshelf Now”

  1. TNWT October 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    I’m glad to see others enjoying the wild Norton grape ride through history in Todd Kliman’s The Wild Vine. Your summary gets to the heart of this grape/wine. Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer and Norton fan, describes the wine as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses. [The wine is] probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident. There are an increasing number of Nortons that taste modern, clean and even sleek.” I really like how Kim , a Madison, WI journalist stated an introduction to Norton wines as “I love the way [Norton] wine becomes an example of what it means to be American, a symbol of a country and a culture” after reading Todd Kliman’s The Wild Vine.

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