Monday, January 25, 2010

I wish my monkeys were hungry. For things other than syrup, ketchup and popsicles.

I'm struggling a little of late to come up with blog post topics. The days all seem to run together these grey days of winter (though the sun! came! out! today!), and I can't remember much of anything by the time I sit down here in the evening.
I do have two books sitting next to my computer, ones I finished reading recently and keep thinking I should write about. So, even though I'm feeling a little like I've worn out the food/books connection around here lately, I'll share some mini-reviews of these two food related books. I'm sure there's some reason why I've been drawn to this sort of reading lately, something like feeding my soul, but I'm not sure I have the mental energy to go that deep tonight.

I picked this book up at the library. It was on the "New Books" shelf, a location in the library that always gets me, even when I have a backlog of books I really want to get to already. Judging from its subtitle (click the link, I didn't feel like typing it all out), I thought this was going to be a Michael Pollan-esque discussion of eating in our country at a time before factory farms, etc. that kept us locavores by necessity, and that would have been interesting to me. However, what this book actually turned out to be was a collection of lost writings from the Depression era. Seems there was a WPA project that sent writers out to collect information about food traditions in all parts of the country. It was designed to be like some of the travel guides that were written in the same era, but focused on recipes and well loved regional ingredients. It was fascinating for me to read about this program -- the introduction was very well written. Apparently this Kurlansky guy has written other non-fiction stuff: fascinating topics like histories of cod, oysters, and salt, for goodness sakes.
I have always been fascinated by the WPA projects, the art that it generated specifically. It seems like it was such a genius but obvious way to use and encourage the resources of people at our most trying time. I guess I knew that there were writing projects, but they don't seem to get the same attention, and apparently, some of them never came to fruition. The collected writing for this project has been warehoused for decades. Kurlansky didn't edit them as they would have been for the true book; he just picked out some of the most fascinating ones and presents them as is. Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston were on staff, and are represented here.
It was really interesting to read about some food history that has largely died out, like the automats that dispensed food out of little doors when you inserted a dime, and the use of squirrel in stew in the south. There was a whole essay on diner jargon, and lots of dispute between the proper fixins for a clam bake and the correct way to make a clam chowder.
The book is divided up into regions of the country, and while I certainly did not read this entire book, it was exactly the kind of text I love to browse through and discover little tidbits.

Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise An Adventurous Eater by Matthew Amster-Burton

This is the other food book I've read so far this winter. The subtitle kind of explains the idea behind the book. I admit, I was hoping for a little more concrete advice from someone who'd been successful at this endeavor. Because if you're going to write a book, you must have had some success, right? I think he has, because his daughter surely seems to eat more than my own children, though he admits she is pretty much a typical preschooler, very choosy, opinionated, and changeable in her appetites.
I really liked Amster-Burton's style. He's funny and self deprecating, and very aware that his own interest in and time to spend on food is unusual. He goes to the grocery store on average five times a week, and sometimes spends several hours a day cooking. However, he also has days that he has to get food on the table in a half hour, and for that, I found some ways to connect. What I most liked was his attitude that food is something to be shared and enjoyed, not something to fight about.
In addition to discussing their adventures, he also includes real recipes, some of which I've tried. I really adored the Penne with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon, but no one else in my house did. I LOVE brussels sprouts, and HELLO, bacon! But even J. was having none of it, and picked around the green stuff. Cumin-Ginger Carrot Coins were a better sell, but still, I was the only one who really enjoyed them. There are several others I've bookmarked to come back to: I'm intrigued by making my own potstickers, one of my favorite foods on earth, and plan to try out Beer Braised Short Ribs with Wheat Berries, because I'm on a stew kick lately. Also, how cool would it be to make your own pretzels? I really doubt I will, but seriously, cool.
The book also has this cool little section in the back about books about food he's enjoyed sharing with his daughter, and thanks to it, the kids and I checked out the adventures of Irving and Muktuk, Two Bad Bears by Daniel Pinkwater. O. was delighted by the bears, and the fact that they would do anything for blueberry muffins. N. was just intrigued that I was discussing naughtiness in conjunction with bears. "Dose bad bears, Mommy? Why?"

You can check out what Amster-Burton continues to be up to with his little adventurer/daughter Iris on his blog Roots and Grubs. He's also teamed up with Molly Wizenberg of Orangette to do a podcast you can find on iTunes called Spilled Milk. I haven't listened yet, but I'll fill you in when I do.

Have I held forth on my devotion to podcasts here yet? No? Okay. I will. Proof that there are things to blog about and look forward to on these gray winter days.


mep said...

Know what you mean about the new books shelf--I always feel like, "Hey, it's new, I better grab it while I can." The WPA books sounds like a good one for snacking on. There's a Chicago tour that takes people to see WPA murals and such in various schools and buildings. Always thought it would be fun to do that.

Penne with Brussel Sprouts and Bacon sounds wonderful. I'm also intrigued by the idea of making my own pretzels but, like you, probably wouldn't actually try it.

You'll have to tell me more about Podcasts. I'm not into them, but maybe I should be?

Cynthia said...

Ugh...I hear you on the gray winter days:P We finally got some sun, and it's SO cold...brrrrr. Bring on spring. said...

Verrrry gray lately. I enjoyed the sun yesterday, but it's not enough to chip away at the deficiency of sunshine that starts to weigh down on my heart.

March is only a month away! We can make it...

CaraBee said...

I'm sorry, no amount of bacon is going to make brussel sprouts palatable for me. I would love to be able to give my daughter more interesting food, though. I honestly hadn't thought of checking out a book on it. (duh) Mayhap I should get on that.