Friday, June 10, 2011

Spring Reads: Three Food Memoirs and One Cookbook

Book Reviews

This photo could be called shameless product placement. Check out all the books from my writing group and my two favorite farmer memoirs, but I'm always on the lookout for the next page-turner memoir or inspiring cookbook.

I'd like to share my take on three food memoirs and one cookbook that recently crossed my path.

One caveat for those new to this blog: I'm a vegetarian and before I get a chef or farmer memoir, I usually check it out from the library first. Most these books were written with the average carnivore in mind, and ever since Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential dissed vegetarians and raised the bar for in-your-face how-to-kill-and-cut-up-animal descriptions, I find it's best to check food memoirs out of the library before investing money. In other words, try not to get caught up in the buzz; think before you buy.

I still have visions of Bourdain shooting machine guns with wacko, right-wing, has-been rocker Ted Nugent on YouTube and after he referred to Nugent with his wall of deer heads as an "environmentalist," I chucked my used copy of Kitchen Confidential in the Goodwill pile. But Bourdain doesn't court the vegetarian crowd, and neither did these three memoir writers.

That said, I'll do my best to be impartial in my reviews, but you know which side of the river I'm standing on.

Growing a Farmer: How I learned to Live off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister (2011, W.W. Norton and Co.)

I learned about Kurtwood Farms just last year when the buzz for the book started. The buzz turned into a roar and that combined with the fact Kurtwood Farms is on Vashion Island. I knew, I wouldn't be number one on the library waiting list. I signed on anyway and patiently waited while 38 people read the book first. When the book came in, I couldn't wait to dig in.

Kurt was previously a Seattle restaurateur with dreams of escaping the city, buying a farm and making a living off the land. Through on-the-farm-trial-and-error learning Timmermeister discovered that dream jobs can also disappoint. He documented his failure of raising bees and growing vegetables for market and I admired his perservance as he tried out various farm-business models that would pay the bills. He settled on farmstead cheese and hosting farm dinners.

I skimmed the main chapter on butchering and I took umbrage at the author's contention that pigs "are not capable of anything more complex than trying to get more food and water." Is that a lame excuse for eating meat? If that's what he really thinks, maybe he should talk to Jonathan Balcome who wrote Second Nature, a book that details fascinating studies that reveal many intriguing mental capacities of animals. Turns out, even fruit flies and fish have more complex capabilities than we'd ever imagined Mr. Timmermeister.

The real disappointment of this book was Timmermeister's overwhelminly passive narrative voice that lulled me to sleep every time I started reading. And chapters as categories? Is this a-how- to-farm book or food memoir? I wanted to be inspired but a memoir without story floats along like a dead body. (Try Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken or Seabiscuit and you'll be sucked in by narrative that won't let you put the book down.) Okay maybe I expected too much, after all Timmermeister is a farmer first. At one point, I found myself resisting the urge to count how many times the word "are" appeared on page after page and I wanted to shout--what happened to copy editors? The really shocking part about this is his publishing company publishes college textbooks. Good luck inspiring the next generation.

A Wall Street Journal reviewer also noted that Timmermeister went into too much detail. "We may not all need to know how to cure bloat in a cow's digestive tract." (TMI Mr. Timmermeister) So pick this book up if you like, but I'll return my copy to the sea of library books and let the next person on the list have a go at it.

I discovered this book on the shelf when I got Growing a Farmer and I like a good quest story, it sounded like a fun read and I checked it out. I love the library!

The story is about Margaret Hathaway and her fiance who tire of city life and decide to try their hand at goat farming but before they commit to this life change, they immerse themselves in the world of goats.

I'd hoped was that the authors wouldn't graphically describe dismembering a goat or stop at goat stockyards, but they did, and at just about every stop across the country, they sampled some recipe laden with goat meat. In fact, there was so much goat meat served up in this book, I was relieved when Hathaway finally described the omelettes instead of goat burgers.

This book was mostly funny. Who knew there was such a quirky goat subculture lurking around us? Like obsessed dog or cat show people, goat people ponied up money for goat-themed jewelery, novelty t-shirt, belt buckles, bumper stickers, gift bags and totes at the Annual Dairy and Goat Association Conference. On the last evening of the conference Hathaway and her fiance attended a goat-themed costume ball. Odd ball and obsessive, yet strangly entertaining.

They traveled the country visiting goat farms and auctions, but the most surprising and best part of the book was when Hathaway and her fiance visited Quillisacut Farm School in eastern Washington. You know the Chefs on the Farm book from a few years ago. They were so impressed with the sustainable approach of this farm, they decided to model their own farm after it. The numerous goat meat descriptions were tedious; seriously do people really care about goat meat? If you skim the meat sections, this book can be a fun journey. Check it out (at the library.)

The title alone said "this is a carnivore party; vegetarians stay home," but the buzz for this book was so loud and everyone said the narrative was so compelling, I lost my head and impulsively ordered a copy before I realized I'd just purchased a carnivore memoir that I wouldn't keep. I convinced myself I could skim the meat-centric parts, but little did I know they'd turn up like cow patties in a pasture.

I'd wanted to like this book and initially Hamilton's story pulled me in. Turns out this chef/owner of a small critically acclaimed New York restaurant Prune is also a gifted writer. She begins her story with the annual party her parents threw when she was a child, but at age 12, her parents split up and the "hero's quest story begins." I found her prose enchanting, but like Bourdain she wedges in slings for vegetarians, most of whom probably won't read this book anyway. Check this one:

"The only person from the co-op who's been with us from the beginning and still with us today is a renter; an elderly woman who looks like she's been avoiding animal protein for so long that her skin is now tissue paper and her hair is a brittle as shredded wheat."

Come on, is this woman's brittle hair because she ate too many vegetables and not enough burgers?

The second half of the book flew off course. It disappointed and puzzled me, but now as I read reviews like this one from the Wall Street Journal that says the last word in the title should be "bitter not butter," I realize halfway through the book Hamilton shifted into a self-absorbed mode talking about her loveless "complex" marriage to an Italian man and the summers she spent with her Italian in-laws.

My suggestion: peruse the over 400 reviews at Good Reads and decide for yourself whether this book is worth putting on your "must read" list.

All these reviews put my Assistant to sleep, but stay awake dear reader, the best book I saved for last.
Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson (2011, Ten Speed Press)

A year ago when I started to market my book and began looking at blogs, I found 101 Cookbooks, Heidi Swanson's popular food blog. I became enchanted with the pictures, compelling stories and vegetarian recipes. Her posts inspire many comments and sometimes I even find myself joining the chorus of comments along with this farmer blogger from Vashon Island.

I put her cookbook on my wish list, and then one day I passed the book in a store, thumbed through it and put it in my cart. I wasn't disappointed with this purchase. The recipes are clever and health oriented, and even though some recipes contain cheese, she offers plenty of ideas for inspiration. I mean really, roasted strawberries? I've got to try these as soon as local strawberries arrive. Super Natural Every Day is divided like my book, into sections--breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, drinks, treats and accompaniments. And my only disappointment with this book was there weren't enough soup recipes. Luckily her blog fills that gap.

And when I'm searching for online inspiration, Swanson's blog is one of the first places I look. Here is one recipe for multigrain waffles that intrigued my Cooking Assistant. I don't buy that many cookbooks, maybe one or two a year. This book definitely gets 4 paws up.


Sharon Morris said...

This is wonderful Deb. It had me lol more than once and now I'm going to look up Heide's blog. Looks like Vashon is an important destination in the local foodie world--you need to visit us more often.

ddzeller said...

I'm glad you liked it Sharon, I think maybe memoir food writers might want to consider the vegetarian bloggers who may end up reviewing their books. Love Tom from Tall Clover on Vashon, a great foodie destination. I hope to get over there soon.