The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
2008 • 320 pages • Twelve
It makes sense that my last read of 2015 (I had no room in my suitcase or laptop backpack for books, quite frankly, which is probably another reason I don’t like traveling) was food-related: I finished it just before visiting my family for the holidays, which always involves executing Christmas dinner with all the professionalism of a mad scientist. (I have an almond cake cooling on the counter as I type. Can you replace olive oil with almond oil one-to-one? I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT!)
Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an exploration of Chinese food in America. Spurred on by the strange and strangely common phenomenon of multiple lottery winners getting their winning number from fortune cookies, Lee, a journalist by trade, uses her investigative chops and her Mandarin language skills to investigate how American Chinese food came to be. Along the way, she encounters truckers who think Chinese restaurants make for more consistent dining experiences than fast food chains, travels to China to find a Chinese Jewish woman to answer the question of why Chinese food is so central to American Jewish culture, and tries to divine the true origin of fortune cookies, among many, many other things.
by Samira Kawash
2013 • 416 pages • Faber & Faber
“Do you have an opaque bag?” I asked the Best Buy employee. “It’s a gift for my dad and I don’t want him to see what it is,” I completely lied, and she handed one over. I immediately stowed my true prize inside—an economy pack of Juicy Fruit gum.
I hid it in my nightstand drawer, alongside my copies of Princess Princess. I had two pieces a day, the better to draw it out. It satisfied both my sweet tooth and my constant, anxious fidget, so I could stop picking at my nail beds or sucking on my teeth and gums. I chewed and chewed until I was left with a flavorless, stiff putty. It was a marvelous week, until I came home from school to find my mother ominously still at the threshold of my bedroom.
It was as if Madame had caught me with a stash of hash. It was immediately confiscated, of course, and a sharp eye was kept on my gum consumption. Later, she began to soften, but I still spent many trips to the grocery store reading ingredients off of gum wrappers to her to make sure they weren’t going to give us cancer. Candy always came into my childhood home with suspicion. (Whereas chocolate was only ever suspect for being milk or, worse, white. Blurgh.)
Samira Kawash opens Candy with a similar story: at a playdate between her son and a friend, another parent implied that she was poisoning her child with a handful of jelly beans. The idea that a little candy—a little kid’s fistful of jelly beans!—could ruin her son’s life sat with Kawash, until she became the Candy Professor and started looking into both the history of candy in America and the history of Americans’ relationship with candy.
by Lucy Knisley
2013 • 192 pages • First Second
Despite my love of cooking, I don’t review cookbooks for this blog. There are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, I don’t actually read that many of them, because the Internet is my main resource for recipes. Secondly, I don’t actually read them the way I consume media. I rifle through them, searching for something I like, and when I finally do alight on a likely candidate, my improvisation is brutal because of my lactose intolerance, laziness, and cheapness. When I look for a recipe for myself, it’s with the specific intent of making it my own.
But when I read food histories or food-centered memoirs, it’s a different story. I’m seized by the urge to recreate a historical dish, to better access the past through my sense of taste, or by the need to go find the pizzeria this book recommends and see if it’s really worth all the praise. Relish’s recipes and recommendations proved all the more tempting for author Lucy Knisley’s clear, clean, and bright artwork. I have bookmarked places to go eat in Chicago because of this book, and I have never been to Chicago nor plan to visit Chicago. I have an ear of corn in my fridge from the farmer’s market, ready for me to eat raw, per Knisley’s fond memories of doing so. I even copied her recipe for sautéed mushrooms down to the letter, but my stomach was being peculiarly tender and refused to digest it.
Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson
2012 • 352 pages • Basic Books
After a year of negotiating shared kitchens, I’m excited by the prospect of stocking my own (incredibly tiny) kitchen from scratch. My own tiny little French press for my coffee; a blender that does not wimp out; and an entire half of a freezer to myself. Simple things, really. I don’t think of myself as a particularly technical cook. I occasionally just ignore calls for more advanced equipment and do my own thing, even (and often) when I’m making medieval recipes. But even what I consider the dead basics—French press; blender; freezer—are pretty advanced, especially in the context of what constituted cooking for the bulk of human history.
Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork opens in much the same fashion, asking us to consider the common wooden spoon as technology that has been developed and improved over centuries. Cooking has long walked a delicate line between conservatism—people unwilling to deviate from tradition—and fads—people rushing to buy the latest thing that promises less time in the kitchen. But it seems odd to consider such basics, like utensils, the kitchen, and available heat sources, as massive leaps in technology. But they absolutely are. As Wilson points out, if you spend all day tending the fire, you’re not going to want to bring water near it if you don’t know that boiling water is useful for cooking.
Consider the Fork is full of little observations like this, in a remarkably orderly fashion. Wilson’s writing style is just as engaging and accessible when she’s talking about wacky kitchen gadget trends (egg beaters were apparently a massive thing back in the 1800s) as it is when she’s reporting from the sides of food historians like Ivan Day, who roasts meat the traditional medieval way. Between sections, Wilson includes notes on specific gadgets, instead of larger trends, although these are a lot fluffier than the meat of the book. And she’s certainly not afraid to include herself, talking about her own kitchen and experiences with cooking gadgetry without ever coming across as too cuddly. (Is this because Wilson is British? It might be because Wilson is British.) Continue reading
A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell
The other day, I made my first omelette.
The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan
Before striking out on my own, I was not the kind of person who could improvise with food. While I adapted recipes right and left to my own nefarious purposes, I always needed to start with a recipe. But a few weeks ago, I, eager for something other than baked eggs, sweet potatoes, and muffins, finally snapped. I, a woman who once cried when I undercooked a chicken breast (even though I could just put it back in the oven), improvised a fish curry with what I had on hand—curry paste, almond milk, frozen vegetables, leftover mushrooms, and some manager’s special salmon. Once finished, I declared it a template for “whatever curry,” so perhaps my days of slavishly following recipes aren’t entirely over. But it’s still a big step for me, towards what Tracie McMillan calls “culinary literacy.”
Best Food Writing 2013 edited by Holly Hughes
While only a few months separate my readings of Best Food Writing 2011 and Best Food Writing 2013, they’re worlds away from each other when it comes to my cooking and my own relationship with food. Providing for myself is quite a different experience from living with my parents or living at school. (There are no endless bowls of apples, for one.) On the one hand, there are some things that I love that I won’t be buying anytime soon, like smoked salmon. On the other hand, I’ve had to get more creative, resulting in baguettes stuffed with veggie puree and almond milk-based curry. (I’m lactose intolerant, so that’s always on hand.) Food is becoming something I have more and more control over, simply because I have to cook constantly. It is no longer a fun hobby I indulged in for friends’ birthdays and the holidays, but something I do everyday.
Best Food Writing 2011 edited by Holly Hughes
I think the reason I like food writing so much is because it’s both personal and, if done correctly, visceral. I say “visceral” instead of “sensual,” because the latter, with all its positive, sexy connotations, would exclude such repulsive magic as Pete Wells’ disappointed letter to Guy Fieri in lieu of a review of his restaurant in Times Square. Even people who aren’t foodies (those exist, right?) have certain foods that mean something to them, even if it’s just how to eat an Oreo. (A stance that can, apparently, start fights. As for myself, I’m in the “fried Oreos” camp.) It’s the relationship between eater and food that fascinates me, thus my interest in historical cooking.
The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison
Oh, to be French and lactose intolerant. Luckily, I see my lone dietary restriction as a hearty challenge to see what diary products are worth suffering the slings and arrows of indigestion for. Milk? Not so much. Baked Brie? Pass me the Lactaid. Lately, while I’ve been cooling my heels in my hometown between academic gigs, I’ve been spending every Saturday morning at our farmer’s market with my mother and mainlining Capra Gia goat cheese. Goat milk is actually easier for people like me to digest, and it is also delicious. When I saw an entire book about not only cheese, but French cheese, I knew I had to honor the motherland and my newfound adoration of goat cheese. (She makes this cranberry chevre that is just… oh man…)
The Times of the Eighties edited by William Grimes
In 2005, MTV ran a program, undoubtedly influenced by the success of That 70s Show, called The 70s House. It was a reality competition where twelve contestants parted with the modern world, lived in a simulcrum of the seventies 24/7, and competed to see who could be “the most 70s”. I never saw it, but when I heard about it, as a tender, awful-haired fourteen-year-old, I daydreamed about the possibility of a The 80s House, which I would undoubtedly dominate. Such a show never surfaced, of course, but something like The Times of the Eighties would have been very useful to prep for my audition. When I saw it on NetGalley, I couldn’t hit the request button fast enough.