Food for Thought
Books on Cuisine Make the Perfect Summer Treat
In our culture, food isn't just for feeding. In addition to firing up metabolisms, it also spawns entire industries, many of which use the subject of food to fuel fantasies of domesticity and comfort, or sparks dreams of far-flung adventures and travel. I know, because I happen to spend an inordinate amount of time browsing through expensive kitchen supply stores, imagining what mornings in a big sunny kitchen with a $300 toaster would be like, believing I could reach self-realization through the art of tart-making if I could only invest the time and the money for a professional-grade pan. For food fantasies, looking at the world through a set of rose-colored highball glasses is good, but reading is a cheaper, more soul-soothing way to feel sated. Americans read their cookbooks more than they actually cook from them, and food-obsessed folks are publishing more books than ever before. Read on to explore some well-done fodder for food-related reading, perhaps lighter than a seasoned reader is used to, but perfect for summer fare.
Penguin Books, $12.95 paper
"I had once hoped that, should I ever be so foolhardy as to write a book of autobiographical nature, I would first have had the good sense to live the life of a pirate, or a bon vivant, which would have allowed me to reflect shamelessly upon a career of grand debauchery or world-class caddishness, so that any account of my exploits would perforce bear a brash and manly title," writes Bob Shacochis, winner of the National Book Award and hilarious gastronome, whose autobiographical effort is, to his great disappointment, appropriately titled Domesticity.
The collection of essays that originally appeared in his GQ column "Dining In" chronicles the experience of a house-husband/writer figure whose main concern is to keep "Miss F," his common-law wife, happy and well fed. Shacochis, a novelist at heart, struck a deal with GQ that he would write about whatever he wanted as long as he tacked a recipe onto the end, and his formula seems to work.
Though the columns always manage to swing back around to the topic of food and most end with at least one recipe (ranging from Keshi Yena to Key Lime Pie), they are mostly meanderings into the personal corners of a happy life, one full of good food, much travel, loyal dogs, and true love.
Shacochis, who has lived everywhere and knows a good deal about cooking for a woman, manages to put an entertaining spin on everything. In one essay, he pontificates for pages on the history of breakfasts: "The ancient peoples of the Mediterranean would snatch a handful of olives and flatbread on their way out the door in the morning, or stop in at the local gruel shop for a quick mug of watery barley...."
Originally published in 1994, Domesticity is not a new book and may not be readily available. However, it's the type of book a food/book lover will read again and again, and it's worth going out of your way to track down a copy.
Under the Tuscan Sun
Broadway Books, $13 paper
Under the Tuscan Sun blossomed from a journal Frances Mayes kept about her summers at Bramasole, an Italian estate in the city of Cortona, Italy. Mayes, a poet, professor, and food and travel writer, and San Franciscan for nine months of the year, filled a diary with musings and memories of an extraordinary summer house she and her partner Ed bought to renovate, a house on a vineyard and olive farm that had not been occupied for 30 years. She weaved her memories into a book which is more poetic prose than a story but a terrific vehicle for "armchair travel" nonetheless: "A woman of about 60 with her daughter and the teenage granddaughter pass by us, strolling, their arms linked, sun on their vibrant faces," Mayes writes. "The three women look peaceful, proud, impressively pleased. There should be a gold coin with their faces on it."
While the book's descriptions of wildflowers, the habits of olives, Tuscan sunlight, and the Roman Road running through the Bramasole property is certainly lyrical enough to hold a reader's interest, the food portion of this book is not to be overlooked. Although they are embedded deeply within the text, Mayes includes two sections of recipes, Winter Kitchen Notes and Summer Kitchen Notes. Not normally a fan of fennel, I gave the Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin With Fennel a try, and it yielded perhaps the most delicious pork on record. On the basis of that dish, I may next be inspired to venture into the confusing world of quail and juniper berries.
Mayes' lust for living is evident in her prose, and Under the Tuscan Sun is definitely a vehicle for living, at least vicariously, and an inspiration to living in the moment.
The Man Who Ate Everything
Alfred Knopf, $27.50 hard
Although I've never seen him, it's easy to predict that Jeffrey Steingarten is a fat, happy guy who'd be a blast to hang out with. It should be said, though, that Steingarten, the food columnist for Vogue, did lose some points when I saw he listed blue food and clams, two of my favorite things, as categories of food he would not deign to eat.
These differences aside, he has done us a great service by dedicating his life to developing his own opinions, at the expense of his waistline, and sharing them with the public. Thanks to him, we members of the general public don't have to throw our own ketchup festivals in which we compare 33 brands, only to discover that Heinz is truly the best. But we do get to read about it; in The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of essays most of which were formerly published in Vogue, Steingarten has orchestrated this and many other experiments for us, and files reports complete with details of his scientific methods.
In regard to the ketchup festival, he writes, "The choice of a tasting medium would be absolutely critical. I worried that eating 33 hamburgers in a row would be impractical, as was, I would soon discover, cutting a single hamburger into 33 equal wedges. I set out to design a miniature hamburger the diameter of a quarter (four millimeters thick)..."
We also don't have to become vegans to get a good perspective on that, or try Le Regime Montignac (a popular French diet) for a month, because he's done it for us. Steingarten reports his findings in a laugh-out-loud way that makes you feel good about indulging and bad about being a vegetarian. He also proves that salad is a dangerous thing, predicting that some future Surgeon General will be motivated to put warning labels on raw vegetables.
In short, Jeffrey Steingarten is an advocate for being fat and happy and for not taking yourself too seriously. People like that are too hard to come by ó I would guess especially on the staff of Vogue.
Longhorn Po-Boys and Falafel
906 Congress Ave., 476-7735
I just discovered Mom's cooking in the unlikeliest of places: a sub shop, known best for its cheap pita-wrapped sandwiches and one of the two falafel options around town. Mom still inspects sandwiches for ample filling and dad always totals your bill, but their recent contributions to the Congress Avenue Longhorn Po-Boys is more than standard sandwich shop routine. Since December, the Abi Habib family has cooked weekday homestyle Lebanese specials that upstage many quick lunches around town.
Po-Boys' Middle Eastern specialties have always distinguished the shop's menu; it is known as much for its dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), its kibbeh-hummus sandwich (ground sirloin, bulgur, onion, pine nuts, hummus), and its grape leaves sandwich (like the name says) as for its regular sub. Always an eclectic restaurant, Po-Boys whet more appetites for ethnic specialties with last year's expansion downtown.
This Congress Avenue store offers homestyle meals that change daily but repeat each week. Monday, kibbeh ($5.99). Tuesday, chicken schawarma ($5.99). Wednesday, kafta and eggplant ($5.99). Thursday, chicken and rice ($5.99). Friday, stuffed vegetables ($4.99). Combination sides of salad or green beans or rice or potatoes or hummus accompany each plate, filling a stomach like an 18" sub.
About schawarma... for me, it's best when perpetually marinated lamb is shaved from a vertical rotisserie, warming a liberally sauced pita. At Po-Boys, a grill-top stands in for a rotisserie, and chicken pieces take the place of thinly sliced meat. But the schawarma sandwich, however unaccustomed, uses essential Middle Eastern garnishes that testify to a comforting authenticity: sauce (tahini), an herb (parsley), and pickles (turnips). And the taste is finessed with judicious seasoning and fresh ingredients.
One test of homecooking, I think, is soup, where the simplest devices are wielded to nourishing, if not delighting, effect. Po-Boys' lentil soup presents an experienced play of Middle Eastern spices -- cardamom, cumin, clove -- in an earth-colored broth floating French lentils and torn spinach (which I mistook for grape leaves, because of the soup's lovely soft sour note).
Wednesday brings meat and potatoes to lunch. Two kafta -- ground beef, parsley, and onion sausage-shaped patties -- crown a plate loaded with vermicelli, rice, and tomato-blanketed potatoes. Though I've always been a French fry devotee, starches generally must earn their place in my sluggish metabolism; the rice and potatoes here do. Bits of vermicelli are fried in oil and butter to show off simply seasoned white rice. A small vinaigrette salad, without room of its own on the nearly capsized platter, leans into a puddle of hummus that rivals any in town.
Friday's stuffed vegetables vary but should not be missed. Cabbage rolls filled with meat and rice play on the combination of brine and earthy spice that makes Middle Eastern food so deliciously straightforward. A side piece of kibbeh, a sirloin and bulgur football-shaped shell enclosing a beef, onion, and pine nut stuffing, tastes almost toasty. Po-Boys dresses much of its food with an assembly of spices from huge jars dad shows to curious patrons.
The Congress Avenue store's interior is notably more interesting than Po-Boys' two other locations (in UT's Union and on Red River), but the atmosphere is decidedly American cafe. No kilims or cushions, no candles or water pipes hang from the walls. The music is choice pop and the crowds hurried. Indeed, its tasteful decor does not scream of authenticity; it lets the food make all the noise.
Po-Boys' mom and pop specials are available only at the Congress Avenue store and only for weekday lunch. óRonna N. Welsh