The premise of The Recipe Club is this: Two fast friends, Lilly and Val, establish a "recipe club" wherein they share recipes via letters they write to each other.
A soft-focus egg graces its cover. A soothing font spells out its title. Its pages feature artsy touches like scans of stained, hand-written recipe cards. The interplay of fonts and scrapbook-type page imagery creates a visually appealing book that stimulates the eye, palate, and interest.
Correspondence between the two spans 1963 to 2003 and begins in 2000 after their relationship founders and dies, possibly because one girl's father paid more attention to her friend than to her. But I cannot reveal the hows or whys. Lilly and Val get in touch via a tentative series of email exchanges and then the book cuts to 1963 when Lilly shares a recipe for chocolate icebox cake with Val and the recipe club is born.
Honestly, I don't know how the book flows through the middle and end. I love the physical book. And the story was interesting, but I thought it might reveal that the girls were no longer friends because their parents became enemies. Perhaps there was an affair. Or perhaps the girls were actually sisters! That was where it led, in my mind, and once planted I could not convince myself otherwise.
I began reading the book, as I'm wont to do, in bed one night. Impossible. It's weight and width turned reading it in bed an odious task. And so, I didn't read it. Thus this is merely a partial review. The book itself is divine and I highly recommend it as an object of beauty. The writing was good, don't get me wrong. Perhaps the story's pacing didn't draw me in and keep me turning pages. If only I was a lap reader. What a wish!
Also, the epistolary form lends itself to interruption, which is perfect for a book interspersed with recipes and invitations and birth announcements. Yet, reading an email message on a computer bores me. Following that format in a book is doubly boring. Both the book's heft and its formatting on the page made it impossible for me to tuck into the story and keep going.
A glance at the index indicates that desserts and sweets comprise the majority of recipes. Most entrees, pastas, poultry, vegetables and sides are staples of traditional American cooking. But the value in this book may lie in its chronology of cultural and political history that the girls experience.
Somehow my piddly professional life as a librarian pales in comparison to the achievements Temra Costa chronicles in Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Despite its California-centrism, Costa's book provides a valuable peek at the various ways in which women are changing the face of agriculture in the USA.
Have you ever read one of those books that makes you consider you're doing the wrong thing with your life? Farmer Jane had that effect on me. Reading the profiles of women devoted to creating alternatives to the food industry's status quo was inspiring and eye-opening and has me yearning to do real work that has a tangible effect upon individuals and my community. I'm just not feeling that as an academic librarian.
Take for instance, Claire Hope Cummings. Besides all her legal work representing the environmental rights of American Indians, she's an excellent journalist and author of Uncertain Peril: Engineering and the Future of Seeds. And then there's Marion Kalb who works with school districts and farmers to incorporate more local foods into cafeteria meals. Mily Trevino-Sauceda is another inspiring woman who leads migrant women farm workers in their quest for better working conditions and wages.
Each profile builds upon the previous one and Costa refers back and forth between profiles, so it's best if you read it from beginning to end. This isn't a reference work that you can thumb through. Oh, I guess you could use the book any way that you choose, but each profile is different and emphasizes the variety of experiences, skills, and accomplishments of each woman in the book. And at the conclusion of each section Costa lists ideas for how you can do something whether you're an eater, a farmer, or a food industry person.
For example, sections of the book reflect each woman's profession. There's a section on women who film, write and blog about food. There are sections covering chefs and restauranteers, CSA farmers, and women who affect policies at the national level. Many work with partners, such as spouses they met while studying agriculture at university. And then there's a mother and two-daughter team that cultivate various parts of their farmland in separate, yet complementary ventures. Most of the women are white, but there are a few Hispanic women and an African-American and an Asian-American woman profiled.
My only disappointment was that so much of the book focused on women living and working in California. If I guessed, I'd say a good half of the profiles reflected women in that state. However, there were a few surprises like a farmer in Oklahoma, Emily Oakley, and Farm 255 a restaurant serving locally-grown fare in Athens, Georgia.
I think my favorite profiles were about women working in urban centers to cultivate vacant lots and provide nourishing food for people without means (finances, transportation) such as Erika Allen, Novella Carpenter, and Willa Rosenthal.
Despite all my likes and dislikes, this book is vital to any person who wants to learn more about sustainable agriculture, whether they be a student, an eater, a scholar, or a professional in the field. It's overview of women's roles, contributions, and accomplishments in this area is important from both cultural and historical standpoints. Really, it's probably the best primer one could read in the field of sustainable agriculture. Never mind it's focus on women. That's rather secondary at times because the meat of the book supports such an important idea: the many arms of sustainable agriculture.
I blame it on the pasta. Not the alcohol as Jamie Foxx does. Addictive song, especially at the skating rink when you're crossing-over at each turn and dipping your shoulders along to the smooth tunes the DJ spins.
What I blame on the pasta is my zaftig figure. Too much macaroni and cheese as a child. I loved carbs. Still do, but I restrict them. It helps that Elsa will not touch mac n cheese; at least, this month. And then after a few rounds of low-carb diets ala Atkins, I cured myself of ordering pasta or cooking it at home.
Receiving Mary Ann Esposito's Ciao Italia: Five-Ingredient Favorites put me in a quandary. How can I review a book when I don't really eat the food it contains? Maybe via muscle memory.
Speaking of rap and food, which Jamie Foxx wasn't, strictly, how could you not like any song featuring ice cream: Ice cream paint job. Gotta love food references in rap.
Back to pasta. Esposito arranges the book typically by anti-pasta, soups, sauces, vegetables, etc. You get the drift. And its conception is based upon the concept of less is more. That's something I appreciate about Jamie Oliver's cookbooks, too (at least his old ones, I haven't bought any in the past few years): Simple ingredients, classic combinations. Plus, making something out of nothing informs the recipes as well. That's an approach Esposito inherited from her grandmother, as most of us did in some form or another. Yet, making the most of nothing can be a challenge when you must begin with the best quality ingredients as Esposito suggests.
Esposito covers pantry, fridge, and freezer ingredients first in an introductory manner that is perfect for the novice, yet tolerable to the seasoned cook. The soup section didn't tempt me, but that's because I prefer Thai soups, period. The black olive sauce caught my eye. I've never tasted one, but her instructions were simple. So simple that it supports her argument for always making fresh sauce rather than using store-bought.
Surprisingly, each dish does not contain pasta. I expected meats to be served on a bed of pasta or as a side. It was a nice surprise. Naturally, I associate pasta with Italian cuisine and reading recipes for potato casserole; peas and eggs; and mushroom, spinach, and cheese tart was refreshing.
Alas, the desserts were unappealing. I'm not a fan of tiramisu, and thankfully Esposito excluded that ubiquitous treat from her book. For whatever reason, the flavor combinations she created didn't stir my stomach into a lusting frenzy. Except for the Poached pears with black peppercorns and vanilla. I'm a sucker for pears.
Gorgeous photography complements the book. Unexpected angles and close ups capture the textures and nuances of each dish with a rustic flair. One strange observation is that the same photograph was used twice. The delicious cauliflower salad displays a range of purple, white, and green cauliflower. Given the cost of illustrations in books, it seems a negligent oversight on someone's part to include the same photo twice. And while I overlooked the poached egg soup in that section of the book, the photograph made my mouth water and I returned to soups with renewed interest.
Unfortunately I am at a disadvantage because this is the first of Esposito's books I've read. I cannot say how it compares to the other ten she wrote. I can say that it's a solid book chockablock with classic advice for beginning cooks or those exploring Italian cuisine for the first time. Her approach to food handling are universal and applicable to almost any situation and cuisine.
First, its a memoir. And I love memoir. Don't you? Don't we all? It is the age of memoir.
Second, the author's relationship with food, her evolution as a foodie, and her experiences with food writers and cooks is covered herein.
And third, recipes!
Sounds like the perfect book to me. Those are three good reasons, but so meaty, are they?
So here's the scoop on Cakewalk:
Kate Moses was a fat kid whose admiration for Abraham Lincoln drew the scorn of her classmates. And she was a tall, awkward, and fat teenager. She was possibly a fat adult, or so she thought. She coped with her miserable family life by foundering herself on Twinkies, Baby Ruths, and cookies and brownies she baked for herself and her brothers.
We all do. Or did, didn't we? Her childhood experiences were poignant: she was fed, dressed, and sheltered by her parents, but their personality faults, poor parenting skills, and fights created a tense atmosphere for Kate and her two brothers no matter whether they lived in Virginia, California or Alaska. It's rather a typical and atypical childhood. We all can relate to some parts.
Moses charts her changing relationship with food within the different phases of her life. She describes her role as sweetheart for a fraternity when she attended the University of the Pacific. It mostly entailed "baking sugar cookies in the shape of the fraternity's vintage fire truck," and spending her personal money to keep the boys fed (223). I particularly enjoyed her years at university studying English in her quest to become a writer and learn from her elders. Novel, article, and short story titles recommended to her by her teachers were items I noted for future reading. Moses revels in her introduction to family life and her apprenticeship to an exceptional cook via her boyfriend Peter's mother, Nell.
From adulthood on, Moses seems happy and on the right path. She's surrounded by Peter's family, her English professors, and has enough distance from her parents to thrive. We learn of Moses' triumphs, such as moving into her own place, becoming a mother, and hiring on at North Point Press. And then we follow her trials such as parting from her husband, her unresolved relationship with her mother, and her struggle as a writer.
Each chapter concludes with a recipe for something sweet. Like Coconut Layer Cake, Peanut Butter Cookies, Rhubarb Crisp, Carrot Cupcakes, and Brown Sugar Pound Cake.
Two of the more famous entries include a Persimmon Parfait following a chapter wherein Moses expounds on her friendship with M.F.K. Fisher--and also includes the recipe for chewy walnut brownies that Fisher "deemed 'delicious'". And I'm ever in search of the perfect cheesecake recipe, so her father's favorite cheesecake is on my list now.
Another writer she broke bread with via her position at North Point was Kay Boyle. Boyle turned stale croissants into a bread pudding during one of Moses' visits and Moses re-creates the recipe and includes it on page 307. Must locate source for old croissants to try what appears to be a most-excellent bread pudding recipe. Yum despite my preference against chocolate.
Moses' recall of the 70s and 80s plus the nuggets of popular culture she drops here and there offer great context for a childhood that a small number of we Generation Xers share: the romance of Luke and Laura on General Hospital, a familiarity with The Preppy Handbook (a collectible @ $91), Lip Smacker, REO Speedwagon, Tiger Beat, Peanuts/Charlie Brown, Tab, Ayds, Archie comic books, Captain & Tennille, America's Bicentennial, Pong, Water Pik shower heads, hand-embroidered jeans, watching Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and watching MASH on television because there were only three stations and no options.
Besides all this, Cakewalk is a masterpiece of writing. Her writing= perfection. The narrative is enjoyable and her voice is fresh; she turns phrases with aplomb better than a short order cook managing hotcakes on a griddle. And commiseration is easy when there's cake involved.
Must start research for trip to Ft. Lauderdale. I understand there's a Hooter's on the property of where we're staying, but I've never eaten at Hooter's and never shall: Wings don't do it for me.
Have you any tips or recommendations for eating in and about Ft. Lauderdale? We'll drive down to the Keys one day, at least, so I'm in the market for your Key ideas, too. But, actually, I may have an excellent resource in hand that answers my questions about eating the Keys.
More to follow, later.
The restaurant I look forward to visiting each year I travel to Florida is the Columbia. We stop by the St. Augustine location. The food is awesome. So is the ambiance. Eventually, I want to visit the flagship location in Tampa. The gift shop at St. Augustine carries such tempting items, especially the cookbook. Since we're headed to Ft. Lauderdale this year, no Columbia in the cards for me.
I learned all about the restaurant's illustrious history from The Columbia Restaurants: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine. It's awesome when a restaurant stays in business for a century. I cannot think of one restaurant in my part of east Tennessee that's been operating for that length of time.
It includes recipes and memories and an incredible amount of photographs. It's arranged by generations and the author, Andrew T. Huse, introduces readers to the restaurant's owners generation by generation beginning with the first generation, Casimiro Hernandez, who came from Havana to Tampa in the early 20th century. Published by the University Press of Florida, this book is no fly-by-night production. It's a substantial piece of Florida and culinary history.
Huse's prose and research provides historical and cultural context for Hernandez's immigration to the USA and the industrialization seen in the Tampa Bay region that allowed the Columbia to flourish. He immerses readers in the Cuban cigar culture, the origins and goals of American saloons, and covers the period of Prohibition.
Facsimiles of checks, newspaper advertisements, and newspaper articles plunge readers into the prices of food in the 1940s during the country's mobilization for war and subsequent food rationing. And the book is filled with personalities that lent the restaurant so much of its reputation. For instance, Huse includes a story about Ferdie Panchero a fourteen-year-old server who had a very bad day on the job. He was new to the job and tried carrying five plates on his arms like the experienced waiters. They spilled to the floor and he returned to the kitchen to place the order again.
Workers like El Rey, a headwaiter, and Lula Mae, the ladies room attendant appear in the book, as well as does Casimiro's daughter Adele whose performances on piano provided entertainment for diners. The photographs appearing in the book are a mixture of family and commercial shots. The commercial shots don't do justice to the dishes created by Columbia chefs. Browsing its pages is like being invited to the family's home to leaf through their scrapbooks and photo albums.
Huse's book is a through study of the Columbia. He charts the development and expansion of its dishes, marketing, locations, merchandise, and entertainment programs. The center section contains recipes sure to satisfy all, including the Original "1905" salad. Naturally, the black bean soup recipe is one I'm bound to whip up. And the inclusion of the White Chocolate Bread Pudding recipe sold me on the book completely as this was perhaps the best bread pudding I've eaten, ever.
Since I'm all about the bread, something I learned was that the Columbia gets all its Cuban Bread from one bakery in Tampa. When they tried making the bread in house, they couldn't replicate the recipe to meet their high standards, so they ended up going with the Tampa bakery. One tidbit from the book is that the bakery supplies Beef O'Brady's with cuban bread for their Cuban sandwich. Happenstance had me at Beef O'Brady's last week and I ordered the Cuban sandwich for the bread alone. Good stuff.
After the recipes Huse takes the reader through 1979 and subsequent chapters share the ups and downs of the Columbia's expansion to other locations like Sarasota. The last chapter includes the spread of Columbia to St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, and Sand Key in Clearwater.