The book includes several attractive recipes, including starchless crab cakes bound by eggs. But there’s also solid information framed as first-person mini-adventures in the pursuit of healthy food. The central message reveals why organic produce is more expensive than factory produce — it’s not just a nasty scheme by Whole Paycheck to pick your pockets. The political infrastructure (think: senators of both parties collecting huge contributions to their reelection campaigns) supports agribiz with favorable laws, tax breaks, rare and lax inspections, and monetary subsidies that we pay for with our taxes. Agribiz food is initially cheaper, but we pay in other ways (air and soil pollution, chemical residues in our waters, etc., and E. coli and salmonella). In fact, we pay through the nose for the agri-billionaires to feed us, just not directly at the cash register.
Tom Standage: An Edible History of Humanity, Walker & Company, 288 pp., $16, paperback.
If you avoided anthropology and history in college in favor of fashionable psych or gut-course sociology, this book offers the fun of an ungraded elective on humanity’s development, centering on food in human life from the Neolithic to the now. It’s a rich route into the story of humankind, because nothing matters so much as food. What we eat and how we get it plays a central role in shaping our societies, whether we’re nomadic Kung tribesmen of the Kalahari or urban sophisticates glued to the Food Channel while gobbling Domino’s pizza.
In Standage’s account, hunting and gathering was humankind’s Eden, a life of relative leisure in egalitarian, communal social structures with shared food and minimal personal possessions. Agriculture brought our fall into a life east of Eden, of perpetual labor and anxiety. All too soon, surplus crops bred personal property, then wretchedly unequal social and gender roles, with leaders, warlords, kings, hierarchies, husbands, harems — plus cities and specialized artisans and artists, giving rise to the deadly vices of shoe-shopping and pedicures. Apparently, along with the stability it brings, surplus food breeds greed (and often slavery and war) the way rats breed fleas. A few chapters later, we’re into the Medieval spice routes to Asia, and eventually, the hostility between Christians and Muslims drawn from their spice-route rivalry — and, finally, some chapters later, life as it is today.
You’ll learn that the precious spices (and later, hot peppers from the Americas) were not, as the old canard says, employed to cover up the taste of rotten meat (nothing can do that!) but rather, to rub on the surfaces of meat to preserve it from rot. You’ll also discover that hot-water-bath preserving and canning in metal are products of the Napoleonic Wars. But it’s not all trivia-contest material: The book is a slow thrust through the ages to show us how food took us to where we are.
I do have a few carps, of course, especially in paleoanthropology. For instance, the author says that in nomadic hunting societies, where everybody had to move on foot to follow the game supply, women refrained from childbearing before a move. Did they refrain by using the pill or the IUD? Infanticide was one option, but almost all societies have invented infant-slings (ranging from animal hide to fair-trade organic Pima cotton) to carry babies on moms’ backs. Heavily pregnant women, toddlers, and tribal elders would be much more trouble on a trek (perhaps they were dragged on human-drawn sledges?). So, don’t take this book as a literal Bible of history with every aspect considered — just enjoy it as a survey course, larded with delicious food for thought.
From Terra’s Table, Jeff Rossman, Chefs Press $32.95, 208 pp., hardbound. Available from chefspress.com or at Terra Restaurant, across the street from Trader Joe’s in Hillcrest.
I originally intended to cover only food-writing rather than cookbooks, but then Jeff Rossman, chef-owner of the charming Terra Restaurant in Hillcrest, came out with a cookbook just in time for my deadline. (Official publication date is early November.)
Rossman’s aim is to help you “shop seasonally, cook simply, and taste the food that is grown near your home.” In light of the farm-to-fork movement, many Californians have changed the order of a typical shopping trip: Instead of choosing meats first, we look for the best produce items and then choose proteins. The cookbook encourages this new pattern. It’s organized in chapters according to specific produce (from avocados to root vegetables to vines, then various types of fruits) and finally, an appendix of resources. Almost anything seasonal that you find at the neighborhood farmers’ market, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or even in the supermarket produce bins is likely to occupy a spot here with a few tasty recipes, with or without animal proteins.
Many chef cookbooks are nutsy (unless the chef has a normal human collaborating with recipe-testing, etc.) because restaurant kitchen routines and recipe quantities are so different from those used at home. Happily, Rossman’s recipes are down-to-earth, accompanied by Paul Body’s savory photos. I didn’t have a chance before deadline to try out any of the dishes personally, but I trust my gimlet eye as an ex–cookbook writer and cookbook consultant to spot any strange giraffes in the backyard. I do wish that fewer recipes served six to eight. It’s the old-style standard for cookbooks, but you can’t hold a dinner party every night, and these portions no longer reflect today’s smaller families.
The only serious recipe worries I found involved two preparations for duck, both roasted “hands off” for three hours at 350 degrees, which sounds to me like a recipe for fatty skin and overcooked breast, unless your duck is the size of a Churkendoose. (Most good cooks start off searing duck at about 425º for 20 minutes to render some of the subcutaneous fat and start crisping the skin; then you pour off the rendered fat to avoid a grease fire in the oven and lower the heat, turning the bird at least once, roasting about two hours for a four-pound Muscovy or Moularde.) With the alluring recipe for duck with fruited bread pudding, the steps are all in the wrong order — Rossman first makes the pudding, then starts the stock for the sauce, then roasts the bird. Ouch! First (even a day ahead) should come the stock, then assembling the bread pudding (also a do-ahead possibility), then roasting the duck, and finally baking the pudding alongside the bird; it can cool down a bit to serving temperature as the done duck rests.