Ink: March 2015

Book Reviews of The Language of Food, The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries, and Bitter: A taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.

March 7, 2015

InkIssue 11: March/April 2015
The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries, By Ben Towill and Phil Winser (Rizzoli, 2014)

The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries, By Ben Towill and Phil Winser (Rizzoli, 2014)

The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries

By Ben Towill and Phil Winser

(Rizzoli, 2014)

Ben Towill and Phil Winser were buddies growing up in the United Kingdom but have made their names as restaurateurs and creative forces in New York City in the past few years. In addition to owning The Fat Radish, a popular greenmarket-centric outpost on the Lower East Side, the two own Silkstone, an agency that designs food events, as well as two additional restaurants called Leadbelly and East Pole. Towill made headlines last summer by biking across the United States and “talking to people about food”—he blogged about picking veggies from strangers’ gardens in Kentucky coal country and foraging for wild blackberries in Oregon, among other adventures, in T Style Magazine.

Somewhere amidst all this, Towill and Wisner managed to write a cookbook, along with the help of their Fat Radish chef Nick Wilber and author Julia Turshen (she co-authored Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good). There’s no real genre or culinary theme for the book, but it’s all food that you’d want to eat, and mostly simple to prepare.

Some recipes are influenced by the authors’ English origins, such as Stewed Rhubarb with Yogurt, Scotch Eggs, Brown Rice Kedgeree (hailing from colonial India), Brussels Sprout Bubble and Squeak, and something called a Branston Pickle—an intriguing mixture of vegetables, dates, vinegar, brown sugar, and mustard seeds boiled together until softened. The “pickle” is then puréed and spread on bread with clothbound cheddar for a sumptuous and piquant grilled cheese.

The other recipes are a mélange, drawing from a variety of culinary genres. The Miso Glazed Turnips play on the popular dish miso-glazed black cod. The Sweet Corn and Cherry Tomato Succotash with Crab recall summers in New England. The Fat Radish Plate, featuring steamed kabocha squash, kale, adzuki beans, hijiki, carrot ginger purée, and tahini dressing seems like something out of the ‘70s vegetarian health craze.

Despite the lack of cohesiveness, Fat Radish superbly embodies what is known amorphously as New American. Each recipe draws on time-honored techniques, incorporates the best produce of the season, and strikes the right balance between simplicity and creativity.

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes By Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, 2014)

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, By Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, 2014)

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes

By Jennifer McLagan

(Ten Speed Press, 2014)

We overcome our natural dislike of all things bitter if what we are putting in our mouths has a psychoactive effect.” —Russell Keast.

Thus begins Jennifer McLagan’s chapter on beer, tea, coffee, and aperitifs such as Campari and Fernet-Branca. Most adults have become accustomed to bitter flavors in our pursuit of such effects (relaxation, intoxication, alertness). But as children, most of us were reluctant to consume these strange, dark, tannic, puckery, and sour foods and drinks. Many remember the first time taking a timid taste of Mom and Dad’s coffee or beer. Yech! In adulthood, though, most of us can’t imagine starting the day without a coffee or tea.

McLagan, in her ode to all foods bitter (primarily greens, coffee, tea, and beer and liquor), explains that this aversion has an evolutionary purpose. We are endowed with many taste buds, which are “adept at detecting bitterness” as tastes often indicate toxins in nature. Babies have more taste buds, she explains, as small amounts of toxins can kill them.

Single dish, single ingredient, and single genre cookbooks sometimes have limited appeal or can feel kitschy, but Bitter avoids this by encompassing a wide variety of recipes and cooking techniques that feel fresh. McLagan’s accompanying text piques interest by providing a historical palette for the ingredients.

A Dandelion Salad with Hot Bacon and Mustard Dressing recipe is accompanied by an etymological lesson. “Dandelion” comes from a French expression “dents de lion” or lion’s teeth. A French nickname for dandelion, “pissenlit” means “piss in the bed” owing to the weed’s diuretic tendencies. The recipe, McLagan explains, uses hot fat to temper the extreme bitterness in the greens.

In other dishes, McLagan does not advocate for any mitigation of the bitter flavor at all. These dishes range from the unusual, like Turnip Ice Cream, or Beer Jelly—made with wheat beer and served on a cheese plate—to more the familiar, like Rapini Braised with Garlic and Chile, or Arugula Pizza.

The common thread throughout the book is a cultivation of a core desire for the forbidden, acquired, and complex tastes of bitter foods. Though bitter flavor profiles can be at first hard to swallow, they have become necessary elements of human bonding—there is just something about sharing a cup of coffee or toasting a mug of beer with one’s friends. Perhaps it’s that, as we grow older, we learn that the bitter in life can at times be more interesting than the sweet.

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, By Dan Jurafsky (Norton, 2014)

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, By Dan Jurafsky (Norton, 2014)

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu

By Dan Jurafsky

(Norton, 2014)

Macaroon, macaron—same thing, right? Not so. Dan Jurafsky, an inquisitive linguist based in San Francisco, will explain to you in great detail the difference between the two, and how their origins are intertwined. An abbreviated version: The trendy French macarons (two airy almond-based cookies smashed together with ganache in between) are descendants of medieval Arab confections brought to Sicily in the year 827. The chewier cousin of the macaron, the coconut macaroon, spun off in America in the 1800s when exotic foods, like coconuts, became a fad.

Along with detailed origin stories of food names, Jurafsky illustrates the stories behind them with tangential but colorful historical notes. In the coconut macaroon discussion, for example, he includes Emily Dickinson’s recipe for Coconut Cake, which was reportedly written on the back of her poem, “The Things That Can Never Come Back, Are Several.”

Ever wondered why we call a celebratory drink a “toast?” Jurafsky has an answer for that, too. It’s comically literal. In the Elizabethan period, partygoers would put spiced toast in their wine. This is also where the phrase “toast of the town” originates. Toasts soaked in wines and ales were also common in the Middle Ages, adding calories and nutrients to “sops” and “pottages.” Jurafsky cites The Canterbury Tales to illustrate: The character called the Franklin loved to have a “sop” in his morning wine. “Sop,” Jurafsky explains, is also a linguistic precursor to the modern words “soup” and “supper.”

In other chapters, Jurafsky studies modern menus and commercial food products to reflect on the relationships between restaurateurs, diners, advertisers, and consumers. Fancy potato chip brands tout the health benefits of “all natural” potato chips to appeal to the wealthy, while cheaper brands convey tradition: “Time-honored traditions,” “Classic American snacks,” and “85-year-old recipes.”

Jurafsky’s statistical surveys reveal sociological idiosyncrasies in our relationship with food. Diners reviewing inexpensive restaurants online frequently use language associated with drug use to describe their experience (“These cupcakes are like crack.”) Reviewing more expensive restaurants, diners would still exaggerate, but they preferred sexual innuendo (“The apple tarty ice cream pastry caramely thing was just orgasmic.”)

Throughout, Jurafsky delivers an educational, amusing, and eye-opening read. His meticulous research is admirable, and his habit of looking at the world through the lens of food makes reading history more palatable for the layperson. The hungry layperson, that is. ✜

Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale, and pork belly.

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