Monday, May 30, 2005

Back from Vacation!

I know, I know, it's been a while, but CameraMan and I hadn't taken a vacation since we got married last year. So, it was time to get away - we managed to carve away a week from work, the new house, the kitten, friends and family commitments, and the constant call of the kitchen to make our way to the Lighthouse Reef Resort on the Lighthouse Atoll in Belize. Let me tell you, this is just what I needed! One glorious week of scuba diving three times a day, reading, eating, and snuggling with CameraMan! The weather was divine, there were only five other guests, which meant we basically had the entire island to ourselves, the scuba was brilliant, and I got through five (!) books!

A quick review, then, and I promise I'll be back soon to post the results of my first foray into Belizian cooking. The cook, Lucy, gave me her recipe for tortillas, which CameraMan fell in love with while we were there, as well as for stuffed chocho (choyote squash) and for her sizzlin' hot habanero salsa. So once I get my act together (okay, it probably won't be too quick, since I have to go to Chicago this week for work), I'll give them a whirl and share the wealth.

On to the book reviews then, and I think you'll be happy to read about them. I read three books I'd consider relevant to the food blogging world: You: The Owner's Manual by Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten, and Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg.

You: An Owner's Manual: Great book! Exceptionally accessible, even to those of us with little to know science background. The premise is, if you don't understand how your body inherently funtions, how should you know how to best take care of it. I agree with this - it's much like reading On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee to understand the science behind food or Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child to understand the techniques required to achieve French culinary excellence. Without guidance, in readable, comprehensible terminology, how can one expect to perform? You is broken into chapters detailing each area of the body, how it interacts with other areas of the body, what can affect it, what nutrients will help it perform optimally, and how aging changes it. You receive all of this information in a comedic, almost irreverant tone, with physiologically correct diagrams adorned by their internal host, a gnome-looking little guy, pointing out bits of interest. From skin to heart, eyes to gastrointesinal tract, Oz and Roizen help you learn about yourself and how to really treat yourself well. They promote exercise, healthy foods in moderation, moderate drinking (yes - they infact suggest a glass of wine each night with dinner is important to optimal health) and plenty of rest. At the end of the book, there is a ten-day diet to help you try out some of their nutritional guidelines and see whether you feel better - dessert is included three times a week, and there's plenty of variety. I'd recommend reading this to get a better sense for what's going on in there. Afterall, we're spending enough time feeding, watering, and moving our bodies - we may as well know what's going on behind the scenes.

It Must Have Been Something I Ate: I know I'm going to be crucified for this. I do. But I must be honest with you, dear readers, because there is no sense reading a blog if not to understand the writer's true perspective. Jeffrey Steingaten taught me, if nothing else, that this is important, nay, critical, when you are trying to convey your wisdom upon the masses. And so I say unto ye... I hate this man. Hate.

Yes, it's a strong word, but I have never read a book that left me recoiling from the author as much as Steingarten's It Must Have Been Something I Ate. A collection of food musings by Vogue's most notorious food critic, the premise is we are able to journey on with Steingarten as he eats his way across the globe, learning, perfecting, and experiencing food as though it was the only meaning life had to offer. In this, I enjoyed the book. Steingarten reviews foods I would never have considered, from homemade boudin noir to turducken. I loved reading about the gastronomic lengths he went to for his dog, Sky King, in allowing man's best friend to eat at least as well as man himself. I related to his search for the perfect baguette, his mourning the loss of the delicious, mouthwatering delight that French boulangerie turned out years ago. I giggled as I pictured him sitting in a dinghy, waiting for the sea urchin diver to surface with fresh urchins, green as the surrounding kombu. I cannot tell you that I did not enjoy some of the stories, dear reader, so please do not think I am without a sense of humor.

However, I was so repulsed by his article on phen-fen (beginning pp 126 of the soft-cover edition, and including such choice lines as, "My Spanish was not good enough to figure out the problem, but it struck me as sad that drugstores in northern Mexico are so terrified by the Drug Enforcement Administration..." and "Of what conceivable use is a diet drug that may help a poor 350 pound man or woman lose ten pounds once in a lifetime? Everybody knows that diet drugs will inevitably and predominantly be taken over extended periods of time by the borderline obese, whose genes cause them to gain weight much more easily than they can take it off. Nice, normal, average people like me.") that I nearly stopped reading right there. Steingarten had the gaul to mock Americans who believe that consuming MSG gives them headaches and scorned those who claimed food allergies, and in the same book whined like a four year old whose candy fell on the floor when his beloved phen-fen took away his miracle cure to his mammouth girth. He goes so far as to say, "When it comes to phony food allergies and intolerances, I am not an unbiased observer." He's quite correct - he is the most biased, obnoxious example of a hypocrit I've ever read.

In addition to offending me with his duplicity, he managed a second slap in the face with his chauvinism. In the same article describing his lust for phen-fen, he slams one out of the park with the following line, "After two and a half years on fen/phen, my BMI was down to 26.5, well out of the danger zone but still above the optimum, which is 21, though I feel that some girls can be awfully attractive at a BMI of 19, which translates as five feet four inches and 110 pounds or six feet and 140, both of which are still presumably above Kate Moss levels." Let that sink in a moment, won't you? He also exonerates fashion magazines from responsibility for promoting unrealistic physical expectations ("And you cannot blame magazines like Vogue for ingecting us with an exaggerated concern about looking too chubby. Men have it worse than women."), and makes inappropriate comments about underage girls ("Instead of being surrounded by bewitching 16-year-old girls dressed as organic carrots and Japanese cucumbers in really short skirts, as you would see at American trade and agricultural fairs..."). The book is riddled with examples - you can discover them yourself, should you decide to read it. But as for me, I think I will take a pass. I can't, in good conscience, continue to support a man who so completely represents a state of mind and attitude so completely and totally aborhent to me, no matter how interesting his review of coq au vin might be.

Oh, and he's dead wrong on coffee. I'd skip it if I were you.

Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress: This one started off strong. Debra Ginsberg has an easy, relatable writing style that was at once engaging and interesting. The book begins with her first exposure to waiting, starting with experiences shared with her by her father and continuing to her first few jobs - first at a lunchonette, then eventually at a national park, and so on. Her antecedotes are amusing, you get caught up in her feelings, and although some of the dialogue is a little canned, you're interested in what will happen next. This continues through the middle of the book, where she describes her experiences in an upscale dining hall whose patronage is primarily octagenarians, a small Italian cafe, and a larger Italian restaurant. She doesn't hold back, outing restaurant managers, staff, and clients from tale to tale, discussing sex, food, pregnancy, and social standing. It's good fun.

And then it all falls apart with only three chapters to go. At once, she decides to depart from her storytelling and embark on a more academic study on film, feminism, and waitressing. And she totally lost me. I thought it might have just been the fact that I was on vacation, not willing to think as hard as perhaps I normally would, but when CameraMan took his turn at Waiting on the flight home, he stopped at that chapter, turned to me and said, "What the heck? Where'd this come from?" To be honest, we both skipped it after the first few pages, but even returning after the chapter completed, the mood was gone. The rest was dry, wooden, and uninteresting. Disappointing. Unless you're heavily invested not only in finding out about waitressing, but also feminist subculture and women's rights, it's going to happen to you too.

Instead of WaitingI'd recommend Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential or Hotel Babylon by Imagene Edward-Jones for a more entertaining read. I've also heard good things about Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, but haven't read it yet, since it's in hardcover and expensive.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Most Maligned Food in America?

I picked up the latest Bon Appetit at CVS today on my lunch break, hoping to get a bit of a foodie fix, and I was delighted to find the 2005 edition of 'How America Eats' is included! I really enjoy seeing how I stack up with my region as well as the rest of the country. Some of the articules are available online, but I suggest you go out and grab a copy, because it really is a fun read.

One of the interesting tidbits I picked up was that the country hates caldoons. To be honest with you, I had never even heard of a cardoon, let alone eaten one, so it was surprising to me that it came up on the 'ick-list'...especially since all it seems to be is a cross between artichokes and celery. A textural element to a dish, but hardly something with a flavor to get exercised over.

Equally baffling was our distates for quail eggs. A quail egg tastes just like a normal egg. It's just small. Regular eggs weren't hated upon, so why hate on the quail? It's weird.

There were positives to note, however. Salsa remains America's number one condiment, having knocked out King Ketchup only within the past decade. Artisanal food is still in, which I hope will stay with us for a long time, since it helps with the mundanity in my day-to-day diet (so what if I eat a spinach and tomato salad with greek yogurt every day, if each day I try a different heirloom tomato??). Equally pleasing is the fact that supersizing and fast-food is out - are you listening, McDonalds - in favor of small plates (tapas anyone?) and family dinners. Who knows, soon we may actually become reacquainted with the lost art of conversation.

I won't hold my breath.

I don't know. I guess I'm just weird, even when compared to other people who share my interest in food like the audience reading and writing to Bon Appetit. My personal tastes seem to be more geared toward the South (likes: challenging recipes and food TV, hates: rice cakes and nutrition bars) than Northeast (likes: family dinners and pasta machines, hates: jerky and edamame). Of course the Midwest splurges describe me best: lobster, lobster, and more lobster! It just goes to show you - we might try and regionalize, but when it comes right down to it, we're a global nation, folks!