An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. By Tamar Adler (Scribner, 2011)
This is unquestionably the era of the foodie. Surrounded by talk of “cronuts” or molecular gastronomy, it’s easy to get swept away and spend your entire budget on truffle butter and grass-fed rib eyes. But Tamar Adler tells us that we can eat like kings without spending a fortune.
As a young editor at Harper’s, Adler drifted into the kitchen at New York’s Prune, where she studied under chef Gabrielle Hamilton. She cooked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and now works for Waters’ Edible Schoolyards. Despite her formidable experience, An Everlasting Meal champions cooking at home. Adler clearly prefers simple, humble meals made with inexpensive local ingredients—scraps and all.
Not a cookbook per se, An Everlasting Meal is divided into sections on subjects such as “How to Find a Fortune,” where Adler instructs on how to turn homely onions into “golden jam,” and how to use one inexpensive bunch of celery to make rich stock, piquant salsa verde, and sumptuous pasta fritatta. Aside from her “tip-to-tail” approach to vegetables and meats alike, Adler lives and dies by farm fresh eggs, olive oil and “day-old” bread.
Her chapter on beans is especially lovely. A description of when a bean is done—“the mere flutter of your breath should disturb its skin right off”—reveals both how seriously Adler feels about beans and how she can seriously write. Adler encourages thoughtfully composing meals without any hurry, taking time to taste and season and utilize the senses. Her method is the antithesis of “30 Minute Meals,” and you’ll want to relish the book to pick up each flavorful crumb. Like Adler’s modest, unpolished meals themselves, this book is destined to be dog-eared, worn, and well-loved.
The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese. By Kathe Lison (Broadway Books, 2013)
Part travelogue and part cheese history, The Whole Fromage is a delightful read. I’ll admit being a skeptic initially: Lison is a Wisconsin native living in Tucson; what business does she have writing about French cheese?
I was soon convinced. Lison wins the reader with her humor-spiked storytelling and insatiable curiosity. She brings the world of French cheese alive as she explains that cheeses, the good ones anyhow, actually are alive. “Never put them in the freezer. That would be an act of murder,” she writes, quoting legendary tastemaker Pierre Andouët.
While her book is enjoyable as a travel story (and will likely prompt the reader to Google “Paris plane tickets” obsessively), Lison brings the story home by exploring the American ban on unpasteurized cheese, of which her French sources aren’t bashful in their condemnation. “You need des écoles du goeût”—schools where people can learn how to taste—one country cheesemaker told her.
Perhaps it’s true—Americans would choose bland, bagged spinach over a finely crafted cheese when asked which is the healthier choice. But one wonders, as Lison describes the tradition of hand-making pure cheeses in caves and carting them directly to market, whether our health concerns have dulled our tastebuds.
Even in France, though, modernity creeps in on Lison’s bucolic vision. In one scene, having thought she had found the lone elusive cheesemaker who still hand-milked cows in the Salers region, Lison spies, to her horror, a portable milking machine attached to a cow’s udders.
In terms of taste, however, Lison exuberantly reports that French cheeses haven’t suffered. She mouth-wateringly describes a “luminous” wedge of Beaufort as having a “light odor of hazelnuts and yeast sifted from the folds,” studded with
“lovely, crunchy crystals… like bits of candied cheese.”
Even if we Tucsonans can’t gorge ourselves on luminous French cheese, we can live vicariously through Lison’s evocative, informative and romantic ode to dairy’s finest form.
Food, Genes, and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins. By Gary Paul Nabhan (Island Press, 2nd edition, 2013)
More than any other tome I’ve cracked open in public, people inquired about this book, asking whether it unlocked the secrets to weight loss. This curiosity reveals some peculiar modern desire of wanting to be told how to eat, as if there were some magic formula to svelteness.
But this isn’t a diet book. Unlike the Paleo craze, Nabhan doesn’t adhere to a formula by which all people can live healthfully. The University of Arizona professor (and editorial chair of this magazine) is more concerned with pressing world health concerns, particularly those threatening indigenous populations, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Through fastidious research, Nabhan demonstrates how our origins, migration patterns, and modern food systems affect health. He recounts intriguing case studies, such as why eating fava beans protects some from malaria while it causes anemia in others, and why French and Americans who adopt a Mediterranean diet laden with olive oil don’t get the same benefits as the exceedingly healthy Cretans. “There is a context to the way the folks of Spili live and pray, eat and fast, that cannot just be extracted and plopped down in another land to gain the same benefits,” he explains. “We cannot facilely assume that their cuisine will do as much for our genotypes as it does to their genotypes.”
The book also explores success stories of indigenous populations reconnecting with the land in order to improve their health. Native Hawaiians plagued with heart disease experienced a health boon when they began growing taro plants and making the nutritious traditional dish called “poi.”
While it doesn’t provide guidelines on how to eat, this book gets to the heart of how food profoundly affects the human condition. Nabhan promotes the idea of reconnecting with ancient foodways in order to heal. On Hawaiian ancestors, he writes, “They knew that food without mana—that is, without life force—is not going to support anyone’s health.”