It turns out that we’re on a bit of a nonfiction kick with the food books. I’m half sorry about that, but don’t worry, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of mostly fiction next month. Today, though, I can’t resist talking about these two books.
Peter Menzel is a documentary photographer who travels around the world and takes pictures of people with their stuff. His other (probably most famous) book is called Material World, and it’s full of photos of people around the world surrounded by everything they own.
For his books on food, Menzel teamed up with Faith D’Aluisio to take a look at what people around the world eat. What the World Eats documents families surrounded by their weekly food, along with grocery lists, a financial breakdown, recipes, interviews about favorite foods, and information about who does the cooking and how the family sits down to eat. What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets does the same thing, but focuses on individuals and their daily food. Each book features people from Greenland to Mali to the United States and everywhere in between. There are brief statistical interludes about food consumption around the world and vignettes on local traditions (my favorite is the street food gallery in What the World Eats).
I’m always a little bit hesitant to recommend super gifty coffee table books, but these are worth it. I’ll say the same thing about them that I would about a really good novel: you won’t want to put them down.
From What I Eat: an Egyptian camel broker
From What the World Eats: an American family
(I’ve just discovered that What the World Eats is actually based on another book by the same author called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. But I’ve never actually seen Hungry Planet in the wild, so I’m not sure what the difference is, apart from the fact that it’s meant for grownups and What the World Eats is meant for kids.)
I believe I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m a sucker for poetic prose. And even if I haven’t mentioned it, the fact has probably become fairly obvious by now. Of course I enjoy a good story and good characters, but in order for me to really love a book, I need to love the writing.
This is what Here and Nowhere Else does best. Not that it does other things badly—on the contrary, I’d say it succeeds admirably on many levels—but in my opinion, its greatest accomplishment is its prose. A taste:
When occasional terns stray inland on the last reaches of an ocean wind, my father simply sees the same white birds he has seen for eighty years. Birds he knows from here and nowhere else. They eddy over the fields, higher than hawks, glinting and white as salt itself.
You wouldn’t know it from that passage, but this book is about food, I swear. It’s the meandering memoir of a year on a small farm in Western Massachusetts. The farm belongs to Jane Brox’s parents, and at the time the book takes place, Jane has only recently returned to live there after many years away.
At its core, I’d say that Here and Nowhere Else is a meditation on homecoming, on recommitment to a life you thought you’d left behind. But because Jane’s story is the story of a farm, it’s also a story of food, one told so well that it will make you want to move to the country and get your hands dirty.
There are A TON of picture books about food. So today was really hard. But life is about hard choices, and so I had to narrow it down. I figured I could probably get away with featuring a bunch of books, though, if I found some sort of cohesive theme. And so here are five picture books about families and food and tradition:
Applesauce Season is narrated by a boy who really, really loves applesauce (I mean, so say we all). All fall, he and his family go apple picking and turn those apples into sauce… and all fall, the applesauce changes as different types of apples come into season. It will make you want to boil up some November applesauce (and conveniently there’s a recipe in the back that will help you do just that).
Or you can grow some vegetable soup in (you guessed it) Growing Vegetable Soup. This is serious farm-to-table fare: a girl and her dad plant a vegetable garden, raise their crops, harvest them, and turn them into dinner.
You could join Maria’s family for a (accidentally gigantic) home-cooked meal in Too Many Tamales, a family holiday food story about a beautiful ring, a gaggle of cousins, and a very forgiving mother.
Or go to a dim sum restaurant in Dim Sum for Everyone. Each person gets to choose their own favorite kind of dim sum from the carts that go by, and they all share the buns and dumplings with the rest of the family.
Or, just throw all caution and propriety to the wind and turn your son into a pizza, like Pete’s dad in Pete’s A Pizza. No matter what, dinner will be served.
Given my fairly standard level of apple enthusiasm, I didn’t expect to have much of a reaction to Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character. I’d flipped through it a couple of times before and noticed that it really is a gorgeous book, but I hadn’t bothered to actually read any of the text. A mistake. Because, yes, this book is pretty. It’s a top-notch physical object, with its lovely cloth binding, glossy pages, and beautiful photographs. But what it really has going for it, like most great books, are its words. And when I finally got around to actually reading them, well, I couldn’t stop. Reading them. Aloud. To everyone I know.
A couple of random examples (only a couple—I’m restraining myself):
“Seemingly designed by a team of lab technicians and focus groups, Honeycrisp doesn’t crunch like normal crisp apples; it shatters in your mouth like an apple-flavored Cheeto.”
“Granite Beauty is like the Charles Bukowski of the apple world. It gives the feeling of a dissolute existence brought on by life too deeply felt. The network of pale scarring across the surface, as if you were viewing the Badlands from a plane; the strangely oily skin; the air of noble ruin; Mickey Rourke will play it in the film adaptation.”
“It is tart and tangy with a mysterious bit of archaic funk, like the yeasty smell in the cupboards of your grandparents’ summer home.”
Apples of Uncommon Character is overflowing with gems like these. Obviously, Rowan Jacobsen knows how to turn a phrase. He’s written a book about apples, but you don’t have to care about apples to love it. You only have to care about words. Just don’t be surprised if, by the end, you find yourself caring about apples a little bit, too.
When I told my roommate I was about to go write a blog post about Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day, she grabbed it out of my hands, turned to the recipe for Broccoli Gribiche and couldn’t say anything but, “It’s phenomenal. It’s amazing. It. Is. So. Good.” That is a direct quote.
This book is really good at taking things you eat every day and teaching you how to make them even better. There’s literally a recipe for oatmeal in here. Heidi Swanson tells you the best method for cooking the oatmeal and exactly what to put in it to make it delicious. And then—and this is the best part—you remember that she’s not actually in your kitchen, and you can take or leave her advice as you please. You can follow the recipes exactly as they’re written, or you can check out her ideas and then mix and match and substitute to your palate’s content.
My favorite recipe in this book is for a thing Swanson just calls “Kale Salad.” Sounds simple, right? Here are the ingredients:
extra virgin olive oil
toasted sesame oil
shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
unsweetened large-flake coconut
farro or other whole grain
Okay, so the first time I made this I specially bought tamari and searched Trader Joe’s high and low for unsweetened large-flake coconut and went to Whole Foods to get farro out of the bulk food aisle. And it was amazing. And then the second time, I didn’t have tamari… so I just used soy sauce. I didn’t have farro… so I just used quinoa. And it turns out regular unsweetened shredded coconut from Kroger works just fine. And you know what? It was just as good (and, in the case of the quinoa, better).
So play with these recipes and enjoy!
(Fair warning, though: the narrative bits of this book are completely insufferable. It begins, “I live in a modest six-room flat with twelve-foot ceilings on the second floor of a Victorian apartment in the middle of San Francisco.” I mean. Come on.)
So this was never part of the plan, but as it turns out, when you’re in a streak of fittingly seasonal themes, it’s hard to resist keeping it going. This is especially true when a brilliant, bookish friend and colleague points out that it’s November, month of Thanksgiving, and though you’ve already done homes and family, you haven’t yet tackled food. And so the seasonal themes continue, and this month, food it is.
Here at Read Five, we’re very fond of food. And, as you’ve probably already figured out, we’re also very fond of books. There aren’t really book-y foods as far as I know (I’m sure the internet would prove me wrong), but there are plenty of foodie books out there, from food writing and cookbooks to that novelist who just can’t resist describing every meal in endless, mouth-watering detail. What follows are some of our favorites, and we can only hope that by the time the 27th rolls around, we’ll have succeeded in making all of us very, very hungry.
This month we’re linking to Park Slope’s Community Bookstore, which is Dana’s new neighborhood haunt!