I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading during the month of March. Much of it revolves around food, but there are books of theology and detective fiction. As I’ve been reading I’m discovering that not everything I’ve read, allows for the longer-form posts that I’m trying to write. So beginning this month, I plan on doing a reading roundup.
I still intend on doing some of the longer posts such as finishing of the trilogy of posts that I began with Holy Hungry, and I will in the next week or so be posting my thoughts on Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, series. However, I hope at the end of each month to post some reflections on the various books I’ve completed in that month.
Bound to the Fire: Kelley Fanto Deetz
Bound to the Fire is one of the more recent publications that examines the complicated and tangled roots of Southern cuisine and culture, and the role that slaves played in creating that cuisine and culture.
I’ve written about two such books, John T. Edge’s, Potlikker Papers, and The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty. The more I read such books the more compelling I find them. Deetz’s Bound to the Fire adds another strand of complexity and understanding of this history.
Unlike many books on the subject that focus primarily on the food and foodways, Deetz has written a scholarly and accessible little book that focuses on the cooks and the physical spaces they occupied. This helps to point out the immense physical challenges that such cooking had, and all in the cause of making the slave owner look civilized and gentille.
Among the parts of this story that stand out, is the character and dignity of the cooks, along with the ways in which they carried out small and sometimes larger acts of resistance against their owners.
Another aspect of this history that caught my eye was the way that the cooking practices evolved with the evolutions of slavery. How, over time, the kitchens were moved outside of the houses, and how the houses themselves were designed in such a way as to keep the slaves out of sight, and perpetuate among other things, the belief of the hard working mistress who effortlessly pulled off fabulous dinners, and the unfitness of the slaves to mix with the white householders.
Bound to the Fire is a good, thoughtful, and sobering addition to your culinary bookshelf.
When French Women Cook, Madeleine Kamman
One thing that reading the Bruno series has done for me is that it has got me reading a lot more about French cooking. When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir, by Madeleine Kamman, is one of the books that I’ve read over the last little while. This is also a book that I’ve picked up at the Winnipeg Public Library’s ongoing books sale. I can pick up a bagful of books for $6.00 and I find if I go every few months I can pick up quite a good haul cheaply. Last time I went, I managed to pick up 14 books for my $6.00.
Food and cooking, and particularly food writing is a later in life interest of mine, so often the people whose work I am reading are people that I have never heard about but have had long lives in and made significant contributions to our understanding and enjoyment of food. Kamman is one such writer.
Kamman built as substantial reputation for herself as a chef and instructor over many years. When French Women Cook, is in many ways a tribute and homage to the women who formed Kamman, and many other great French chefs. There are eight women profiled in the book, all of whom were great and noted French chefs. It looks back to a time when, As Kamman states:
the starts in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity, but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience.
Each chapter gives a short biography of the women whom it is titled for, and then gives a series of recipes for which each is renowned.
Although the original was published over 40 years ago, this book still makes for a good read. As the revelations surround Mario Batali and others have shown us, women still do not get the proper credit and respect as professional chefs that they deserve. When French Women Cook gives some great historical background on the subject of women and great cooking.
The Gourmands’ Way, Justin Spring
The Gourmands’ Way, by Justin Spring, came to my mind through another one of my library habits, which is checking the New and Noted section for interesting food books.
The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of A New Gastronomy, tells the stories of how six American writers, in post WWII Paris transformed the American publics understanding and appreciation for French Cuisine and Wine.
The six Americans are: Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A. J. Liebling, Richard Olney, and Alice B. Toklas. Of the six I’ve either watched or read, Child, Fisher and Liebling. I know of Toklas, and had never heard of Lichine and Olney.
You may notice a theme in my reading. One of the elements in this book that connects with my Bruno reading is that it looks at the way in which the six writers chronicled translated French Cuisine to the American public. In the same way Martin Walker is doing the same with for the reading public from a Scottish/British perspective.
The Gourmands’ Way does a great job in describing how the lives of these six individuals intersected, but even more does a great job in describing the unique contributions that each brought to the American food and wine scene.
Lichine’s story is the one that stood out most to me. Most notably the way in which he essentially created the demand for French wine among the general American populace. Pedagogue, promoter, and purveyor, he used his vast networking skills to sell French wine to America, and to profit from that sale. Create the demand that you wish to fill. The complete American entrepreneur. Next time I purchase a reasonably priced, enjoyable bottle of French vintage, I’ll give a silent nod of thanks to Lichine.
Olney is another character that I was unfamiliar with before I read this book. Of all the characters written about here, he seems the one who was most able to embrace life in France and find contentment in his later years. He of all the individuals profiled also seems to be the one who was least concerned with making his work amenable to American tastes and practices.
Olney and Toklas together seems to capture a certain generosity towards others in the way they approached cooking. Although neither was well off financially, and Toklas had times when her finances were very poor, both operated tables where everyone was welcome, with advance warning or not.
This theme of the loss of connection with France seems to repeat itself over and over in many of these books. Even Kamman, writing in 1976, stated that the France she grew up in no longer existed. Child left France many years before her death, as did M.F.K. Fisher, and Liebling’s final trip to France may have been the saddest of all(page 273).
There is much other sadness in this book, particularly in Lichine’s story. Although it’s perhaps more bittersweet, as he achieved his dream wealth, but at the expense of his reputation for wine excellence.
Spring’s research for The Gourmands’ Way is meticulous and thorough. His ability to move from one individual to another and back through different years and adventures allows the reader to understand the grand sweep of that relativity short period of time where France and French cuisine came to dominate the American mind and airwaves.
One thing about the book that I found hard to deal with was the tone at times seemed to be overly gossipy. This is not surprising, in that the more food writing I read, the more I realize the tabloid-esque quality of much of the food world, and there are definitely rivalries there that would spawn such writing (M.F.K. Fisher and Richard Olney spring readily to mind), but there are few places where I wish The Gourmands’ Way dialed it back a little.
The Gourmands’ Way does a terrific job of capturing an era in American Gastronomy. A great addition to your culinary bookshelf.
Provence 1970 – Luke Barr
It’s interesting how the order in which you read books can colour your appreciation of them. I read Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste after I read the Gourmands’ Way. Both books cover a lot of the same ground, but Barr’s book is the reflections of M.F.K. Fisher’s grand-nephew skews quite in her favour in a way that Spring’s book doesn’t.
This is particularly true in Barr’s treatment of Richard Olney, who, if not the villain of the book comes across as very snobbish and somehow less worthy of emulation than the others figures featured in the title. However, even at that, there is an appreciation for Olney’s genius that can’t help but come through.
On the whole I found the book fairly enjoyable. It would be more of beach reading book for me, and I’m inclined to take some of the things written in the book, with a grain of salt. For example, Barr pretty much glosses over the whole Time-Life Foods of the World fiasco (313ff). Still a worthwhile, but not essential, addition to your culinary library.
This is not the end of my French food reading. I still have several books from that era on my shelf. Maybe I’ll be able to get through the rest of them by the end of April
Reinvention, Mark Whittall
My last book for this month is definitely out of the range of the rest. Earlier this month, I attended a preaching seminar featuring Rev. Mark Whittall from St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Ottawa. While there I purchased two of his books: Reinvention: Stories from an Urban Church, and Reimagine: Preaching in the Present Tense.
I’ve yet to get into the preaching book, but I’ve also purchased copies of Reinvention St. Philip’s for the vestry to read and study together. Reinvention chronicles what happened when the Diocese of Ottawa decided to plant a church in a building where the congregation had left after the Diocese had voted to permit same-sex blessings.
The main strength of this book is that is a book about looking and listening. Whittal takes the reader through the many steps that were involved in establishing a new community of believers in that location. At the heart of that process was looking and listening to the neighbourhood. Finding ways to connect with the people who were right next door to the church.
The were of course all sorts of challenges. Some related to an old building. Some related to a day program for the homeless, that would be sharing the building with the parish.
ReInvention isn’t intended to be a blueprint for planting a church. Instead, it’s intended to stimulate conversations that can help any church find new ways of looking at the world around them. Of seeing where God is already active in the lives of their community and connecting to that activity.
Well, that’s my reading list for the month of March. If you have any questions about any of the books, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Likewise, if you have any suggestions for books that I might wish to read, leave those as well.