Articles in Book Reviews

Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the New York Times this summer about the controversial Polish ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. I was just arriving in London, en route to Paris, and thought to myself, “Isn’t this what happened in the 1930s when Hitler came to power and began dismantling Jewish culture in Europe?”

As described in Dan Bilefsky’s article, “Polish Jews Fight Ban on Religious Slaughter of Animals,” the warring factions in the dispute compose the oddest collection of bedfellows one can imagine. At least in the 1930s you had relatively clear-cut sides in Poland: fascists vs. Jews.

Defending religious ritual slaughter that uses a special razor-sharp knife for the task, you have, according to Bilefsky’s article, Polish Jews and Muslims (halal slaughter is similar to kosher) teamed up with the Catholic church — in fact, Pope Francis himself is involved. Hard to imagine the West’s three major, and often feuding, religions getting together on the same side of anything.

Supporting the ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the name of so-called “humane slaughter” — using a special “captive bolt” gun that stuns the animal into unconsciousness before slaughter — you have Polish animal welfare advocates, assorted leftists and right-wing nationalists (read neo-fascists). This latter group is, of course, happy to see Jews and other minorities in Poland lose out again.

Here’s the wrinkle: Ritual slaughter in Europe is legally exempt from the requirement of pre-slaughter stunning. The exemption, agreed to by the European Union in 1979, acknowledges the human right of religious minorities to carry out animal slaughter according to ancient traditions.

So the ban in Poland actually violates a legal exemption that appears to trump Poland’s ban. A pending ruling from Poland’s highest constitutional court will seek to resolve this dispute. In the meantime, the two sides are fighting it out in the court of public opinion, if not in the streets of Warsaw.

Déjà vu all over again

After reading the Times’ piece and an update on the ban in the Wall Street Journal, I began looking more deeply into the question of humane animal slaughter and its complex and eerie history.

In the early 1930s, efforts were made in Europe, especially in Germany to restrict ritual slaughter, at least ostensibly, in the name of animal welfare. In Great Britain, The Slaughter of Animals Act of 1933 required the electrical stunning of animals before slaughter. The exemption for religious slaughter that existed at that time was challenged by fascists, including British veterinarian Arnold S. Leese. In his 1938 paper “The Legalised Cruelty of Shechita: The Jewish Method of Cattle-Slaughter,” Leese states:

The Aryan or Christian has decided that his cattle shall be stunned first so that they will not feel the anguish of the cut and the awful struggle against death which follows it. The Jew and the Mahomedan claim and receive exemption by British law from following the Briton’s example.

Leese goes on to say that in a future fascist Britain, the exemption would be overturned.

The anguish of the cut

Going further back in history, one is reminded that the invention of the guillotine was considered humane in its day, a revolutionary technology designed to limit suffering in beheadings. The French Revolution’s bloody Terror was “revolutionary” in more ways than one.

And a razor-sharp metal knife must have been considered revolutionary (and humane) in ancient times. In Jewish dietary code, it is required that the blade of the shochet’s knife (the chalef) be extremely sharp and long enough to sever both carotid arteries with one smooth and decisive cut, thus causing near instantaneous unconsciousness, or “insensibility” as science likes to describe the loss of awareness (and pain) of animals being slaughtered.

Temple Grandin to the rescue

In all the recent coverage of the Polish ban on ritual slaughter, the one perspective curiously missing is that of science. Science is not my usual default position, but in this case, it’s the essential “objective” dimension in the debate over animal welfare and pain-free slaughter.

Who better, then, to provide the science than Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority on humane slaughter and, it must be noted, an unrepentant meat eater. Her personal story, including her triumph over autism, is well-known by now, following the recent release of the film “Temple Grandin.”

Grandin’s disability seems to be her virtue: objectivity. Typical of autism, Grandin has had difficulties with social interaction with humans, but her empathy for animals is uncanny and poignant. For much of her life, she hugged cows, not humans.

While her idiosyncratic personality may raise some eyebrows, no one can challenge Grandin’s credentials as a scientist — she has revolutionized the meat processing industry with her cattle management systems that keep the animals as comfortable as possible as they approach the inevitable. Her innovations are based on the insight that happy (stress-free) animals and pain-free slaughter guarantees better tasting meat for the consumer and more profits for the meat industry.

So when Grandin studied properly managed traditional ritual slaughter and compared it to modern technological slaughter she came to the following conclusion in a 1994 paper, “Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists”:

Kosher slaughter performed with the long, straight, razor-sharp knife does not appear to be painful … One can conclude that it is probably less distressful than poorly performed captive-bolt or electrical stunning methods, which release large amounts of epinephrine …

Elsewhere she has noted that properly handled cattle appear not to be aware during ritual slaughter that their throats have been cut. Grandin appears to be constitutionally incapable of anthropomorphism.

It’s still unclear how the Polish brouhaha (moohaha?) will be resolved in the courts, though a decision is expected soon. The forces arrayed in this story are ideological and emotional and tied to very old prejudices. But I’d like to think that Grandin’s approach, call it scientific empathy, will contribute once and for all to an end to these provocative bans on ritual slaughter and, at the same time, lead to increasingly well-managed ritual slaughter practices that guarantee animals the best of both worlds, here and in transition to the other.

Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

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D.O.M. chef Alex Atala with fellow Brazilian chef Teresa Corção of O Navegador in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Sara Franklin

It’s rare these days to pick up a cookbook and peek into an entirely different world. A new language; new colors and shapes; sensations with which we aren’t familiar; and, of course, new tastes. “D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” (Phaidon, September 2013) by acclaimed Chef Alex Atala of São Paulo, Brazil, is an exception, an exciting — and, if I may, an exotic — exception.

Atala, chef/owner of D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil, has consistently been rated as one of the world’s best chefs in recent years. He grew up in Brazil, then moved to Europe, where he worked in construction and as a DJ. The next chapter of his story seems almost predictable these days — like so many chefs, he “fell” into cooking. He became deeply interested in the modern experimentation emerging from Spain’s elite restaurants, but also built a skill base in classic French technique. And then, at last, he returned home.

Since beginning his life as a chef back in Brazil, Atala has been tirelessly interested in excavating indigenous Brazilian ingredients and bringing them into view in the world of fine dining. Though he has published a number of gorgeous volumes in Brazil, this is his first book in English and released by a non-Brazilian publisher. In addition to acting as an entry point to the emerging scene of contemporary Brazilian cuisine, the book acts as a political statement, a flag staked in the ground of place and identity that asserts Brazilian cuisine as a distinct entity. The title, “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients,” is a pointed one — these ingredients have been used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, but have long been ignored in the realm of haute cuisine. The book is historical tribute, but devoid of nostalgia; Atala’s cooking is decidedly modern.

Before I go any further, let it be known: “D.O.M.” is not destined to become the workhorse of the adventurous home cook. Indeed, it may not even be a book intended for chefs. Like so many of Phaidon’s books, it is a thing to read and see. Many of the recipes give incomplete instructions for how to prepare recipes or their various components. And, truth be told, having observed Atala in his kitchen on a cookbook research trip last summer, I wouldn’t want to attempt what he and his staff do in my Brooklyn kitchen. For one, I’m not that skilled a cook. Second, and more important, the ingredients that make Atala’s cooking so exceptional simply aren’t available here in the U.S., even in my home city of New York.

Europe, West Africa influences in Brazilian cuisine

Brazilian food today is an amalgam of influences. Portugal and West Africa have played major roles since colonial contact and are still seen prominently. The fluffy white breads and taste for custardy sweets have lasted from the Portuguese, and stews and many ingredients from West Africa — okra, yams and collards, to name a few — have deeply embedded themselves into the Brazilian culinary identity. Spain’s influence is seen both in the spices that traveled along the old Moorish trade routes and the intermingling of Brazil’s own foods with those of other Central and South American countries formerly under the crown’s control. In the 20th century, Italian, Japanese, Arabic and German influences have come to play prominent roles as well. But indigenous ingredients still reign. Brazil’s diversity of fruits — coconut, papaya, jackfruit, guava and a whole host of drippy sweet tropical fruits — have always been abundant. Hearts of palm are a Brazilian specialty — often served fresh, rarely canned. There are fish — both freshwater specimens from the Amazon region and oceanic varieties from Brazil’s vast stretch of coastline — wild game and tree nuts, too. Perhaps most important is manioc (otherwise known as yuca or cassava), a starchy tuber indigenous to the Amazon basin that serves as the basis for all manner of dishes, acting as a thickener in stews, ground into flour for baking, meal for pone and toasted into a sandy condiment called farofa.

A cook’s manual it may not be. But “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” is many things, among them an artist’s statement, and a business card; a beautiful volume, filled with full-page photos from across Brazil — urban and rural, arid and lushly forested — and a love letter to Atala’s native land. It serves an encyclopedia of sorts, introducing American readers to the ingredients for which Atala has become famous — foods indigenous to Brazil known barely, if at all, outside of Brazil.

Salt-baked yellow manioc. Credit: Sara Franklin

Salt-baked yellow manioc. Credit: Sara Franklin

It is, too, a testament to a cultural moment. With tourism booming, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics fast approaching, and its national economy steadily on the rise, Brazil is, at last, emerging on the world stage on its own terms. Since the first colonial ship docked in Brazil’s ports in the 1500s, cultural sophistication has been code for European. Especially when it comes to food. Until very recently, fine dining in Brazil meant French and Portuguese fare would be on the menu. But Atala’s restaurant — along with those belonging to a handful of other trailblazing Brazilian chefs — is helping to change that. D.O.M., the restaurant, and “D.O.M.,” the book, are meant to help introduce some of the foods unique to Brazil to a wider audience. It is also a book of sensual enticements. I, for one, even after years of traveling to and eating in Brazil, still swoon at the sound of words like coxinha, jambu, tucupi and jabuticaba – all foods that I first encountered in Brazil and which now, to me, taste as distinctly of the place as they sound — rolling off the tongue.

As far as I know, cooking that represents Brazil’s singular gifts has yet to appear in restaurants in New York, or elsewhere outside of Brazil for that matter. We live in an age of seemingly endless culinary curiosity, ready global appetites, and demand for food attached to place. Why Brazil hasn’t yet had its Andy Ricker, its Sean Brock or its Madhur Jaffrey is a mystery to me, but perhaps Brazil’s moment has finally arrived. Until Brazilian food can come to us, Atala’s new book is just the armchair passport we need to dream, to imagine, to learn and — almost — to taste.

Top photo: D.O.M. Chef Alex Atala with fellow Brazilian chef Teresa Corção of O Navegador in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Sara Franklin

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Good writing about food is not different from good writing more generally, but cookbooks written by established literary figures can be especially satisfying. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House,” the work of Roald Dahl and his wife, Felicity, is one such book that I return to from time to time, for it shows not only his consistent interest in food but a tender side not often revealed in Dahl’s other work.

In much of his writing, his approach to food is mischievous if not downright wicked as when gluttonous children are punished in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and in “Matilda.” That novel is now a current Broadway hit musical, where a naughty, greedy child is made to eat an entire chocolate cake by himself, with success I might add.

But my favorite wicked food moment in Dahl occurs in his short story “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a pregnant, loving wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb just after he announces he is leaving her. She gets away with the crime by getting rid of the evidence, cooking the meat and serving it to the four investigating policemen she invites to dinner.

Although I am happy to point out that “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” is not entirely free of Dahl’s biting humor, its purpose is to honor and celebrate the lives of the author’s extended family and friends through family recipes that connect people the Dahls loved to the couple’s favorite dishes. Writing such a book was a process of gathering-in so that the cookbook was a summary of what meant the most to Roald Dahl just before he died in fall 1990. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” was published posthumously.

Dahl’s was a household where food was respected and enjoyed and where paying tribute to meaningful dishes was essential. Because the book is so personal, its recipes are eclectic, ranging as they do from Dahl’s mother’s chicken concoction that contains canned potatoes and frozen peas to the complicated latticed lamb and apricot roulade with onion sauce, a dish that calls for a long list of ingredients that include puff pastry, chopped almonds and Middle Eastern spices. What limits the book as a cookbook — recipes sometimes chosen for their sentimental value — is also its greatest strength as a personal statement about love of family.

Famous last meals

Occasionally pulling back from too much sentiment, Dahl threw in a chapter called “The Hangman’s Suppers,” which reminds us that back in the days when convicted murderers were hanged in England, they were allowed to request a last meal. Dahl asked well-known friends what they would order for their last meal were they to face the hangman.

Actor Dustin Hoffman didn’t think he would have much of an appetite, but for the sake of the game chose mother’s milk. “Might as well go out the way I came in,” he said. Writer John le Carré was also transported back in time and ordered up a nursery meal that includes bread and butter pudding served, he hoped, by a young and pretty nanny.

Mystery writer P.D. James provided so complete a menu with proper wines that I suspect she had previously given the question serious thought. She went so far as to order two desserts because she figured she would no longer have to worry about her weight.

And, this being Dahl, his love of chocolate is deliciously dramatized in his elaborate discussion of British candies that were invented in the 1930s, including such classics as Mars Bars, Kit Kats and Smarties. He likened this golden age of chocolate to what in music would be compositions by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and in literature to the masterpieces of Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.

He ends his disquisition by declaring, “If I were a headmaster, I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.”

Always end a meal with chocolate

Such devilish perceptions enhance this food memoir, a genre that can be tiresome in the hands of people who take themselves too seriously. Roald Dahl’s voice keeps the tone of this book lively and entertaining, but at the same time pays homage to the people who have meant the most to him, and food is his vehicle for expressing both love and his roguish humor. That’s the thing about good writers writing about food. They can take us anywhere.

Although so many of Dahl’s books remain popular, “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” has gone largely unnoticed, probably because it is a cookbook and assumed by many to be unimportant. Bad enough to miss out on the insights provided by his descriptions of food, but to miss out on the colorful autobiographical writing and amusing anecdotes found here is a sad loss indeed.

The book reminded me that although critical evaluations of the lives of women automatically take into account their personal side, the same is not true for men. It is therefore all the more refreshing to find descriptions of Roald Dahl holding forth at a festive old pine table 12 feet long and 3 feet wide, covered with quantities of such sumptuous foods as Norwegian prawns, lobster, caviar and roast beef. At the end of the meal he would produce a battered box stuffed with chocolate goodies and announce, “Treats!” It is the only way to end a decent meal.

Top: “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” and other books from Roald Dahl. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Grand Forks is a small middle-American town in North Dakota that was pinned onto the pop culture map last year by a single restaurant review in a local newspaper. When an earnest review of an Olive Garden restaurant went viral on the Internet, the seasoned reporter who penned the story was probably the most surprised of all.

At age 87, columnist Marilyn Hagerty has been reporting stories of local interest in the Grand Forks Herald for 56 years. But that March 2012 review won her recognition beyond her hometown audience. The compilation of her work spanning 26 of those years, entitled “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” is the delightful result of her overnight success.

My affection for this new book does not stem from defending against supercilious foodies who derided her Olive Garden review, nor jumping on the bandwagon of those who backed her up, like the culinary master of sarcastic retort, Anthony Bourdain. It is much more personal than that. I like her writing style and I can identify all too well with her subject matter.

For starters, Hagerty’s first-person voice is full of next-door neighbor character that makes this book fun to read. It’s not often that I break into a chuckle when I’m deep into a cookbook. With every review, she paints a clear picture of the setting, the food and her “Constant Companion,” her meat-eating husband of 64 years. It’s clear from her uncluttered prose that she must have been drawn more to Hemingway than Jane Austen in her formative years. Food journalists everywhere should take a lesson from this.

Describing a local burger joint in 1987, Hagerty wrote:

“You give your order at the counter. They ask your name. You take a seat. They call your name. You pick up your burger and proceed to an extensive topping bar. You take your malt — in the metal can. You eat your burger, your fries and your malt. This is a happy place. This is Topper’s.”

Over the years, Hagerty visited and ate at every local eatery within driving distance of her small hometown, starting with mom-and-pop places popular in the mid-20th century and gradually shifting to well-known national chains and fast-food outlets. Sadly, updated annotations to the reprinted reviews reveal that many of the independent establishments, like Topper’s, are no longer in business. It’s a sign of the times in much of the country, but not everywhere — as I can attest.

‘Grand Forks’ a reminder of home

I spend my summers in a place eerily similar to the Grand Forks of Hagerty’s early work. These places still exist. I live down the street from purely local eateries such as Wimpy’s coffee shop and Bunny’s Custard. There is no McDonald’s, no Starbucks and no other ubiquitous brands unless you count the Subway franchise that pays rent to the corner gas station. Most mom and pop restaurants in town have been in business since I was too young to order on my own.

But years ago, I moved away to expand my culinary horizons and gain exposure to other life experiences. It was not until I had the privilege of reading through Hagerty’s disarming book that I looked at my own backyard in an entirely different light.

In succession, her reviews paint a disappearing landscape of regional fare, blanketed over by the monotonous menus of the chain restaurants. Although it may have been an unintentional long-term project, Hagerty’s new book documents this glacial shift. Some books enlighten because they broaden your horizons. This one simply shined a light on what was already within eyesight and reminded me to enjoy it while I still can.

Top photo composite:

Author Marilyn Hagerty. Credit: John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald

Book jacket courtesy of Ecco Books

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Can chefs change the way we eat? The Chefs Collaborative is taking a stab at promoting sustainability with a new cookbook of recipes gathered from America’s most notable chef-activists.

Celebrity chefs have a long tradition as tastemakers. It began with Julia Child, the French Chef who influenced Americans’ purchasing decisions about everything from pots and pans to whole chickens. More than 30 years ago another Californian, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introduced us to mesclun. This baby lettuce mix is now available in every supermarket and served in restaurants across the nation. In today’s television food culture, celebrities such as  Anthony Bourdain and David Chang tempt us with their daring and globetrotting to try foods that are ever more exotic. Meanwhile, another group of chefs in America is influencing another, less flashy but significant trend: responsible eating.

These chefs are members of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to creating a more sustainable food supply. Working in restaurants across the country, they lead by example: celebrating seasonal, locally produced foods on their menus and advocating for farming and fishing communities. For its 20th anniversary, the organization released its first cookbook, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook: Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs.” Few of the 115 chef contributors are celebrities of TV fame. Instead, they are community leaders who are drawing attention to critical food issues by what they choose to put on the plate.

‘Think like a chef’ with Chefs Collaborative Cookbook

The recipes in this seductively photographed cookbook are grouped in four categories — vegetable and fruits, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, and dairy and eggs. While I expected the recipes to be organized seasonally, this approach made page-turning like armchair-traveling through the seasons. Reading through each recipe inspired me to “think like a chef,” considering how each contributor selected ingredients and flavors together with attention to seasonality, yes, but deliciousness, too.

Another novelty is that this chef-driven book is not cheffy at all. Certainly the glossy pages include luxury ingredients and multiple steps, but this collection is not intended to dazzle or bewilder with culinary alchemy or sleight of hand. Not one to languor on the coffee table, this chef book is enticing, instructive and very approachable.

Take the recipe for turnip soup from Dan Barber. The chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is the role model of the sustainable chef. Dining at his Upstate New York destination restaurant-farm-education center was dubbed “a life-changing experience” by Food and Wine.

Turnip soup: There may be no flash to this pea-green fall soup recipe, but there is more than meets the eye. For one, the ingredient list is a carefully selected assemblage of leeks, parsnips, purple-topped turnips plus uncommon parsley root (for which Barber offers a substitution). There is also attentive cooking technique: “Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables” and a teaching note about how parsnips and turnips will be sweeter if harvested after the first frost. Though summer had not yet arrived, I yearned for fall immediately.

Helpful color-coded sections

While the recipes keep the teaching light and informal, other sections of this book offer more hard-hitting resources for study. Interspersed throughout the book, robin’s-egg blue pages called “Breaking It Down” deliver encyclopedic listings demystifying the myriad labels for beef, poultry, seafood, eggs and more, delivering essential understanding for making purchasing decisions today. Other goldenrod-colored pages offer nuts-and-bolts information on topics ranging from using every part of the vegetable to understanding grain varieties to exploring various fish-catching methods. It raises serious issues without being overbearing.

The strength of this book is the variety, including all the highly regarded chefs it introduced me to who work and cook beyond my region. In a series of moss-colored pages titled “Straight Talk,” I read many of them muse about their essential pantry items, their favorite bean varieties, and how they decide between local or organic, among other topics. These read like conversations with the chefs themselves, and I would have welcomed more of them.

As a whole, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” offers insights into the complex web of decisions involved in cooking responsibly and eating mindfully. Without great fanfare, these tastemakers — the contributors and chefs in the Chefs Collaborative — are notable for leading the way to a more sustainable and exemplary way of eating.

Turnip Soup

Serves 4 to 6

If you make this soup with turnips and parsnips harvested after the first freeze, it will be noticeably sweeter. When exposed to cold weather, root vegetables convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cell structure from freezing. Their survival tactic is our reward.

Parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley, is a pungent cross between celery and parsley. If you have trouble finding it, substitute 1 cup of peeled, thinly sliced celery root and an additional 2 tablespoons of parsley leaves.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (about ½ cup)

1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped

2 medium purple-top turnips (about ¾ pound), peeled, halved and thinly sliced

1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced

1 parsley root, peeled and thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought)

1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

½ cup picked fresh chervil leaves

¼ cup picked pale yellow celery leaves (from the core)

Directions

1. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly without browning, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the turnips, parsnips, and parsley root and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine well with the leeks and onions, cover, and continue to cook slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables become very soft. Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables.

3. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches, adding some of the parsley, chervil and celery leaves each time. Make sure each batch is very smooth, then combine and strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill in an ice bath to preserve the soup’s bright color and fresh flavor. Reheat to serve, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.

Top photo composite: “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” and Dan Barber’s turnip soup. Credits: Courtesy of The Taunton Press

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Author Patricia Tanumihardja and

It used to be that Asian foods served in American restaurants had to be Anglicized into submission, leading to such hybrid creations as fried chicken coated in lollipop-sweet lemon sauce or California rolls stuffed with avocado, crab and mayo. But nowadays sophisticated diners enjoy the real stuff with a passion, tweeting news of the best Uyghur barbecue or the freshest pho in town.

Even fervent fans of Asian food rarely get to know the comfort food made in the homes of Asians whose families have been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. Other than in ethnically diverse places such as  Hawaii, this subject has been strangely overlooked — until this book came along.

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” is a compilation of recipes by home cooks whose bloodlines lead back to Korea, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and India. What they cook in the U.S. has often morphed into something new and exciting, dishes that take advantage of American ingredients and kitchens while satisfying the palates of their children and grandchildren. First released as a hardback in October 2009, “Asian Grandmothers” was recently issued in paperback just as the hardback edition was about to sell out.

Author Patricia Tanumihardja was born to Indonesian parents and grew up in multicultural Singapore before settling in the States. She has worked as a food journalist and created an iPhone app glossary, “Asian Ingredients 101.” The book, her first, had its origins in a blog, where she recorded interviews with and recipes from grandmothers as well as aunts, mothers, fathers and “anyone who had a family recipe to share,” she explained in a note. “Several recipes were also from my mom and her mom, and a few were mine.” In addition, she found a few of the recipes in old cookbooks.

And so, with this book, Tanumihardja has cracked open the door to some of those mysterious kitchens, allowing non-Asians to finally enjoy all sorts of dishes that rarely appear in restaurants and which — at least up until now — could only be tasted when a friend’s popo or lola or ba ngoai would carry something insanely aromatic to a table surrounded by family and the occasional hungry friend.

That has happened to me over the years. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then attended the University of Hawaii. An invite home for dinner or a party meant that I soon would be happily munching on chewy fried chicken coated in rice powder, siphoning down slithery japchae noodles, or weeping tears of joy and pain over the insanely hot sausages my Lao friends brought to college parties. (Recipes for all those delights are included in this cookbook, although as might be expected with food designed to feed one’s offspring, this book’s Lao grandma considerably toned down the heat of her sausages.) For someone who was raised on tuna fish casserole and meatloaf, these were revelations of a whole new sensory spectrum.

The author makes the reader feel as if these Asian grandmothers were in the kitchen too, happy to offer the little asides, like “don’t worry if the custard falls a little” or “cilantro changes its flavor when it comes into contact with steel, so pick the leaves off the stems,” that make you feel part of an extended family. And it perhaps is this intimacy that makes me feel as if I finally have a permanent seat at those old friends’ family tables.

The recipes are a smorgasbord of some familiar and not-so-familiar foods, with some wonderful takes on old classics. For example, there’s the perfect recipe for chicken adobo, one that tasted rich and tart as it should, but also mellow and tropical thanks to the suggested addition of coconut milk. We devoured it along with bowls of the garlic fried rice that — as promised — were the perfect accompaniment.

“Asian Grandmothers” is a book to treasure, and all the recipes I tried worked perfectly. On a warm spring evening, following that chicken adobo dinner, I treated some friends to tall glasses of the Vietnamese classic parfait called che ba mau, which layers sweet beans with tapioca, crushed ice and fragrant homemade pandan syrup. We dug down into the colorful layers as we watched the sun set, sucking up the sweet liquid through thick straws. Hot Pakistani chai (the best spiced tea I’ve ever had, by the way) followed, and it would be difficult for anyone not to feel absolute contentment — and for some of us, nostalgia — after a meal like that.

Top photo composite:

“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.” Courtesy of Sasquatch Books

Author Patricia Tanumihardja. Credit: Mars Tanumihardja

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Soave vineyards. Credit: jkk at nl.wikipedia

Soave is a victim of its own success. It’s one of the best known Italian white wines, a familiar name that features on every wine list and consequently is often taken for granted, without any real appreciation of its true quality. However, the best Soave is a wine of great character and individuality, whose quality has improved enormously over the past decade or so.

The village of Soave is a delight to visit. You fly into Verona, the magical city of Romeo and Juliet, and Soave is a short drive away. It is dominated by the ruins of a medieval castle and its old walls remain intact, with a gate on each side. There are cheerful cafes and restaurants and an enoteca with an extensive selection of bottles from the best wine growers. The vineyards, which lie to the north of the village, come almost up to its walls. They rise dramatically to some 400 meters (1,312 feet) on hillsides of limestone or basalt, on a row of extinct volcanoes.

The best vineyards are recognized as Soave Classico, and form the heart of the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata, or controlled designation of origin), which was created in 1968. However, about 10 years ago, local bureaucracy decided that Soave would benefit from lower yields and higher alcohol levels, and the DOCG  (which is “guaranteed” as well as controlled) of Soave Superiore was created, but it did not necessarily come from the Classico vineyards. This move caused friction among the wine growers, and confusion amongst wine drinkers, and these days Soave Superiore as a category is very much less significant than Soave Classico, despite being a DOCG.

The principal, and in most cases, only grape variety is Garganega, an intriguing variety that is related to Cataratto and Albana. It is not especially aromatic; it ripens late and can be quite temperamental in the vineyard, but it likes the cooler nights of higher altitude vineyards, which help retain the freshness in the grapes. And in the cellar, it responds well to variations in vinification techniques. Simple Soave enjoys a straightforward cool fermentation, but in the search for more depth of flavor for Soave Classico and the growing number of crus, or recognized single vineyards within Soave, the wine growers have experimented. The wines benefit from some skin contact, and some aging on the lees, with bâtonnage, the process of stirring up the lees. Further options include fermentation in wood and aging in oak, in small barrels or larger botti. The use of oak needs great care; Soave does not have the weight and body for the use of new oak in any quantity, but the subtle use of old oak certainly adds an extra dimension to the wine.

Garganega may be blended with up to 20% of other grape varieties, most commonly Trebbiano di Soave. This grape variety has nothing at all to do with the generally uninspiring Trebbiano di Toscana, but is akin to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, with some attractive floral flavours.

Proliferation of crus

The other qualitative move has been the recognition of numerous crus or individual vineyards, which can feature on a label. Inspired by the use of crus in Burgundy, the very first appeared in the 1980s and these days there are well over 50 crus, which demonstrate the very best of Soave. Look for wines like Cà Visco from Coffele, Le Rive and Monte Carbonare from Suavia, Runcata from Dal Cero, Motto Piane from Fattori, and Il Casale from Vicentini, to name but a handful.

The versatility of Garganega also extends to its ability to create delicious sweet wines, in the form of Recioto di Soave. Italians are masters supreme of the art of appassimento, whereby ripe, healthy grapes are dried for several weeks, if not months, in a barn or warehouse where air flow and humidity are carefully controlled. The grapes are picked at the beginning of the harvest while they still retain a good level of acidity and are pressed in January or February, by which time they have lost 40% of their original weight. A slow fermentation, usually in an oak barrel, follows, and the result is a deliciously ripe and unctuous wine — but always with a refreshing streak of acidity, to avoid a cloying finish.

One of the problems of Soave for the consumer is the considerable range of price and quality. You can find Soave in an Italian supermarket for 2 euros ($2.60), while some of the finest Soave will reach 25 euros ($32) or more. And there is a world of difference between the two. The best Soave comes from the Classico heart of the region, from one of the crus, and from a reputable wine grower. The name on the label is the key to quality. And drinkability is a key characteristic. Often the best wines are refreshingly light in alcohol, rarely passing 13%. They have a firm acidity, with a striking volcanic minerality, fully justifying their reputation as among Italy’s best known and most enjoyable wines.

Top photo: Vineyards in Soave, Italy. Credit: jkk at nl.wikipedia

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Photo: All Gone book cover. Alex Witchel. Credit: Fred R. Conrad

Professional food writers may know more than other people about searing duck breasts à point or detecting hints of locally sourced turpentine in some chef’s spruce-needle sorbet. But do we really understand cooking — the intrinsic humanity of the act — any better than anybody else? Not on your life. I’ve never seen a book that drove home the point more devastatingly than Alex Witchel’s “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments.”

For the benefit of the very young: Witchel is a longstanding New York Times fixture who at different times dished on the theater scene and became known for celebrity profiles that often reduced the subjects to chunks of shish kebab quivering over the fire. Subsequently the paper turned her loose on the dining beat in a monthly column titled “Feed Me.”

In a startling change of course, her new book relates the dreadful fallout from several unsuspected mini-strokes that her mother suffered in late middle age but that remained undiagnosed until crucial brain functions began disappearing. Over about a decade, the family would watch memory, reason and finally all but a bare shred of identity depart from the woman who used to hold up the sky. A blow-by-blow chronicle of Barbara Witchel’s advancing illness, and its effect on Alex, is one of the two main intertwined narrative threads of the book. The other, a stormy saga tracing aspects of Witchel family dynamics and Alex’s adult life, spans close to 50 years and includes a strong emphasis on food.

“All Gone” can be read as a quasi-sequel to “Girls Only,” Alex Witchel’s 1996 valentine to the loving but prickly mutual irritation society formed by her mother, herself and her much younger sister Phoebe. But it stands on its own as a far fiercer postcard from some unthinkable edge. A relatively mild sample is this theater-of-the-absurd exchange partway through the wrecking process, when Alex tries to bounce the terrible maternal plea “I want you to kill me” back into Barbara’s court:

“She was monumentally offended. ‘Committing suicide is against the Jewish religion!’ she declared.

“I was dumbfounded. ‘So is committing murder!’ ”

Family recipes in ‘All Gone’ not what you might expect

Though food becomes a unifying leitmotiv of the two interwoven stories, it’s emphatically not the kind of food you might expect from anyone with Witchel’s reputation as mistress of the lethally sophisticated putdown. It comes from a different quadrant of her universe, a space where she can hold a sort of mental conversation with a beloved parent no longer able to converse.

And what a parent! Barbara Witchel diligently raised four children and kept a kosher kitchen for a demanding husband while (successively) teaching school, earning two graduate degrees and becoming a college professor. Nobody else’s mother was doing such things in 1960s and ’70s Passaic, N.J., or Scarsdale, N.Y. The woman had a tight ship to run, and her gallantry in running it made her the eternal heroine of Alex (the oldest child, and her deputized lieutenant).

Alex can still taste in memory the standbys and special treats of her mother’s (or occasionally her Witchel grandmother’s) culinary repertoire. She’s able to make the rest of us sense how meatloaf anchored the universe, how Chicken Polynesian hinted at voyages to its very margin. Thirteen selected recipes — the “refreshments” of the sardonic subtitle — appended to the book’s eight chapters document some of the dishes in question, and most will be quite a surprise to anybody expecting chic, sleek “foodie” food.

Alex has presented these pieces of the Witchel culinary heritage pretty much as she remembers them — the rough and ready, shortcut-bolstered labors of a resourceful Jewish wife, mother and career woman who, according to her daughter, treated cooking as a far from welcome duty but understood how to make dinner “the center of the day, its organizing principle.” The recipes are all meant to fit into kosher “meat meals” (ones from which dairy products are excluded). They’re also meant to deliver the fastest possible results with the least possible trouble. Hence the meatloaf bound with canned tomato soup (not cream of tomato) and cornflakes, the nondairy creamer in spinach kugel, the canned tomato combo in Frankfurter Goulash, the mixture of garlic powder and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt used to season a roasting chicken. No clever airbrushing of family snapshots here.

Two recipes stand as telling bookends for everything else, while also pointing to a kind of relay station between past and present generations. The first is the talismanic meatloaf, the Barbara Witchel perennial that Alex instinctively begins re-creating in her own kitchen while watching her mother’s memory and intellect disappear. It’s an attempt to salvage something permanent from chaos, the edible equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The other formula, which concludes the book, is not Barbara’s recipe but one that came to serve the same purpose for Alex, her husband and her cherished stepsons: a mammoth dish of skillet-braised chicken breasts with 80 (yup, you read right) cloves of garlic and enough rosemary to fumigate a hospital ward; three cups of olive oil first go into the cooking and then do duty as a serving sauce.

Anyone who doubts that those two dishes, in unvarnished form, were and are the food of love needs remedial tutoring in family values.

My mother, like Alex’s, cooked the day’s meals not for pleasure or adventure but as an unromantic responsibility that maintained stable, loving order in our small bit of the cosmos. I read “All Gone” marveling that I could ever have looked down on, rather than up to, such an achievement. It’s an honor to meet Barbara Witchel as she was before her mind was ravaged, and celebrate the kind of cooking she stands for.

Top photo composite: “All Gone” book cover. Alex Witchel. Credit: Fred R. Conrad

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