A handful and a half of good reads, recent and not, to amuse, educate, and entertain you
CAUGHT: time . place . fish by Glen Libby, photos by Antonia Small
(Wrack Line Books, 2016)
What caught my eye first was the book's cover—a darkly brooding, black-and-white photo, a cluster of fish nets, and the plain, unadulterated title: CAUGHT. Look below the title and you see a name well-known on the coast of Maine, Glen Libby. A Port Clyde fisherman of venerable reputation, Libby is the principal organizer of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a cooperative of fishermen seeking a way to make the effort—time-consuming, costly, and, yes, not a little dangerous—worthwhile. The solution? An outreach similar to Community Supported Agriculture, only it was called Community Supported Fisheries. And in the event, it helped to revive one dying economic niche on the coast of Maine, maintain one small fishing port, and keep the whole damned once-working waterfront from being swamped by T-shirt shops and ice cream stands. The book is lavishly if starkly illustrated with black-and-white photographs by Antonia Small.
—Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter
The backyard (or front grass; even the fire escape) beckons these dire days as many of us dream of a chicken coop, sunlight-and-soil-rich-raised beds, perhaps beehives or a goat to milk for chèvre. Carpenter draws extensively on her hippie Pacific Northwest homesteader roots in this accessible DIY memoir of surviving 2009’s financial crisis, along the way shaking us out of our “learned helplessness” blues. If she can cultivate a lead-contaminated inner-city lot, you can, too, never mind your town’s restrictive livestock ordinances. Farm City unfolds in three parts: on raising Harold the Thanksgiving “Turkey,” dumpster diving for “Rabbit” feed, as fancy restaurants clamored for that chicken-like meat. Finally, there is “Pig,” tales of a salumi apprenticeship much-peppered with her Oakland neighbors, including Vietnamese monks, 4-H kids, pot-growers, and a tequila-slinging speakeasy operator. “My deck looked like a third-world country. And I liked it,” wrote produce-proud Carpenter—and you will, too
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson
(Basic Books, 2015)
I reconsidered how to introduce solid foods to my second son upon hearing an NPR interview with this respected British food historian. Forget that common rice cereal debut after six months of exclusive breastfeeding. First Bite encourages parents to instead prime their baby’s palate with bitter vegetables and other acquired tastes when they are four to seven months old, a fleeting window when babes appear most receptive to new flavors. Particularly captivating were her descriptions of pediatrician Clara Barton’s 1920s–'30s experiments on children’s first appetites, letting babies enthusiastically self-feed on a smorgasbord of 34 wholesome foods, including brains and kidneys. “Without any preconceived notions about what foods were suitable for them, the babies showed enthusiasm for everything from bone marrow to turnips,” Wilson writes. “They didn’t realize they weren’t supposed to like beets or organ meats.” First Bite probes how one’s parenting style (uninvolved, authoritarian, indulgent, or authoritative; the last ideal for its high warmth and high demands) shapes a child’s lifelong eating habits.
Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian
(Atlantic Books, London, 2012)
This book is full of quirky, sing-song vignettes telling of customs practiced along India’s vast coastline. Subramanian works in the cultural diversity of his home continent with stories about the fiery cuisine of Kerala’s toddy shops; the pride encompassing the ancient art of fishing boat building in Gujarat; the practice of swallowing whole (small) fish as a remedy for asthma in Hyderabad; and the preparation, process of preparing and eating (as well as the fish counterfeiting) of West Bengal’s prized river fish, the hilsa. This is one of those books that is easily taken in doses as other summer fun allows for down time.
—Christine Burns Rudalevige
Life Without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber
Like many—maybe all?—books about food, Life Without a Recipe is actually about desire, in this case for a writing life, for a true partner, for the child with whom Diana Abu-Jaber cracks eggs in the opening to her 2016 memoir. And, yes, of course, for the meals that sate at least some of her appetites along the way. As the story winds from Abu-Jaber’s Jordanian-American childhood to the eventual arrival of her daughter, you want to gobble it up, find out what happens next. But Abu-Jaber’s rich, swirling sentences demand that you slow down and savor them. “If the world is the water, the table is a raft,” she writes. “Place your hands on it and hold on.”
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
(Picador, New York, 2006)
This book has everything a work of historical fiction should have to make it a great beach read: exotic setting, a wave of grisly murders, a resourceful eunuch, and fabulous food. Set in 1836 in Istanbul just as the sultan is poised to announce sweeping political change for the whole of the Ottoman Empire, this is the first in a series of novels by Jason Goodwin that features Investigator Yashim. The main character’s sexual circumstance allows him access to the great halls of the empire, its streets and its seraglios, giving the reader an understanding of time and place. And his everyday culinary prowess sprinkles the book’s pages with well-explained and well-prepared food that provides a sense of Turkish culture. Goodwin went on to write four more books that feature Yashim (The Snake Stone, The Baklava Club, The Bellini Card, and An Evil Eye) and a cookbook called Yashim Cooks Istanbul published in November 2017.
—Christine Burns Rudalevige
Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food, edited by Leslie Miller
(Seal Press, 2003)
The title might sound like a self-help book, but Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food is a collection of nonfiction stories from women who don’t shy away from a basket of fries, a good cocktail hour, or a comforting bowl of tapioca. In fact, the cover art for the book is an image of a woman’s hand holding a fry dipped in aioli. The title initially grabbed me back in the early 2000s when the Atkins diet was all the rave—it seemed like everyone was talking about the danger of carbs. Meanwhile, I was in college trying to figure out how to embrace my deep love of food and eating. Cheryl Strayed even has a piece in the book (a decade before her hiking memoir, Wild, hit shelves).