Monday, August 10, 2009

Wannabe Foodie

Some people gravitate toward books about cooking and baking. I gravitate toward the cooking and baking. Reading about it just makes me hungry, so I tend to avoid such books. Finding three books in a row about food that were all fascinating, entertaining and educational, well, it had to be Fate. (Let's hope that Fate holds onto that "e," else the next round will be diet and exercise books.)

The Cracker Kitchen by Janis Owens (641.5975 OWE Main and Avoca)
While there are a lot of Southern cookbooks and even down-home Southern cookbooks, not many boast an introduction by Pat Conroy. Yes, THAT Pat Conroy, author of Prince of Tides, Lords of Discipline and Beach Music. Pat does have his own cookbook, but I have to say that his isn’t nearly as funny, or maybe Pat just didn’t have a blonde friend who was concerned about dark roots in the afterlife. Anyway, this is one really great cookbook with easy recipes that sound delicious and in some cases familiar. For example, the “Cream Cheese Vanilla Frosting” is pretty much standard but I did enjoy the instructions to “Let a favorite child lick the bowl or if there isn’t a favorite child, lick it yourself.” Made me want to go home and fix up a bowl of frosting right then and there.

Even better is the way the book is divided up partly by seasons (which can be summarized as Church, Dog Days, Football and Winter) with a couple of extra chapters thrown in to cover “Things in a Jar” and “The Cracker Pantry.” There are a few recipes for wild game (including rattlesnake, which the author suggests that you buy commercially raised and pre-deceased instead of risking a trip to either the Pearly Gates or a visit to your local ICU). There’s also a recipe for possum which she admits she doesn’t eat but neither does she look down on those who do and if you’re serving possum, just let her know and she’ll pick up a chicken sandwich on the way over.

I might as well confess that I was too busy laughing over the Cracker Cookbook to try any recipes from it. 'Specially not the ones involving wild game. I'd rather read than cook. Note that I didn't say "read than eat" because that would be a down and out lie. I just want someone else to fix it for me, because some dishes are better when you don't know exactly what went into their making. For example, in one of the Sweet Potato Queen books there was a recipe for garlic bread which involved a pound or two of butter and a pound or two of cheese and given the SPQs and their recipes, and probably a pound or two of bacon. Knowing that would have prohibited me from tasting the finished product, whereas if someone were to offer me a slice I'd take it, figuring, "Gee, it's garlic bread, how many calories could it possibly be?"
This is a mighty fine book for cookin’ and readin’ and the Reference Staff requests that you check this book out quickly so that Jeanne will stop reading aloud from it and annoying them all while they are trying to work.

Janis Owens is a novelist, best known for her Catts Family series.

The Food of a Younger Land edited by Mark Kurlansky (394.12 FOO Main)
In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Federal Writers’ Project had talented writers such as Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurtson produce essays on various aspects of American culture, including food. Remember, this was a time before chain restaurants when regional tastes dominated and most meals were made at home with local, seasonal ingredients so that meals were much less homogeneous and more a reflection of local culture. This isn’t a cookbook; a few recipes are given, but most of the text tries to place the food, its preparation and consumption, as part of the social framework. The essays are divided up by region; many are more oral history than analysis, though some authors try to provide an historical and geographical context. Some are little more than notes, such as the paragraph on the “Coca-Cola Parties in Georgia” (which served as an informal social gathering for younger women) or a description of the workings of the “Automat.” I liked the list of New York soda-luncheonette slang (I’m trying to imagine how a “deep one through Georgia” would taste.) Other selections wander farther afield and read like short stories, such as “Alabama Footwashing at Lonely Dale,” in which a most worthy cook hands out her version of justice.

Some ingredients we may find unsettling; some details appear stereotypical or condescending but are accurate reflections of the times and attitudes. Kurlansky thought long and hard about whether to exclude or heavily edit, but in the end he felt to do so would be to misrepresent the time period.
The recipes that are offered lack some details such as cooking temperature or require ingredients not generally found at the local supermarket. They also tend toward – well, let’s just say The American Heart Association might not approve, such as the barbecue sauce which calls for a pint of Wesson oil AND two pounds of butter. Hmmm. Make that “definitely would not approve.” I personally want to at least gaze upon a Sally White cake, with its pound of butter, pound of flour, one and a half pounds of sugar, two pounds of almonds, two coconuts, dozen eggs, two pounds of citron, a glass of sherry and another of brandy—I think I gained a pound just by typing this far. It must be a wonder to behold. On the other hand, I was startled to find that a can of mushroom soup was a standard ingredient even then.
All in all a fascinating look at “the way we were.”

Mark Kurlansky is the bestselling author of Cod and Salt, both of which looked at how foodstuffs affected world history.

The Ungarnished Truth: A Cooking Contest Memoir by Ellie Mathews (641.5 MAT Main)
This book came about as a result of the Online Book Club offered on the Library’s homepage. There you can sign up to receive daily emails containing excerpts from books in various categories: romance, thrillers, science fiction, mystery, non-fiction, etc. Not only is it a good way to test drive a book without commitment, I’ve found new authors and sampled books I would never have picked up otherwise.

Ellie Mathews is a frugal, no-nonsense sort of lady who enjoys experimenting with food and who likes to use on-hand ingredients. Never a flashy sort of cook, she nonetheless begins entering cooking contests with modest success. She finds the experiences interesting and encouraging and so decides to enter the Big One: the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I guess I’d had the vague idea that such contest winners were people who lived to cook, Martha Stewart-type perfectionists who worked in spotless kitchens with expensive gadgets, so discovering that Ms. Mathews was none of these things came as a bit of a surprise. This isn’t an expose of contests, no cut-throat shenanigans or cooking sabotage, nor is it a starry-eyed view, but a down-to-earth description of what goes on. Mathews comes off as almost apologetic that she didn’t react as the over-the-top contest winner, but that simply isn’t her style.

Reading this book made me think I could almost enter a cooking contest. I pop popcorn in olive oil which makes for an interesting flavor but always sets off the smoke alarm. How much do you suppose the judges would deduct for that?

Ellie Mathews is a writer and cooking contest participant. Her “Salsa Couscous Chicken” won the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off competition and yes, the recipe is included.

My, that was certainly longer than I anticipated. I think I need a snack now.

Reviews by Jeanne

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