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Monday, August 5, 2013

ARRT Takes Over the Blog: Food Lit by Melissa Stoeger

Today ARRT Steering committee member Melissa Stoeger shares her expertise with Food Lit by sharing this annotated list of her favorite food memoirs.

But first, a little more about Melissa:
Melissa Stoeger is a Readers’ Advisory librarian at the Deerfield Public Library, the author of Food Lit: A Reader’s Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction, a reviewer of Food Lit for Library Journal, and writes the blog Reading in the Kitchen.

If you want to read more from Melissa click on over to her blog where she continues the work she has done with her book. She regularly writes reviews and posts information about food lit.

Now on to her guest post for today.


I’ve spent the past several years immersing myself in Food Lit books while writing my readers’ advisory guide Food Lit: A Reader’s Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction. I’ve read everything from cookbooks to biographies to food science. But my favorite genre/subgenre is the Personal Endeavor memoir. Also referred to as “schtick lit” or “year of” books, these titles recount an author’s experiences undertaking a new endeavor, project, or hobby. Great examples of this are A. J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy, Judith Levine’s Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, or Sara Bongiorni’s A Year Without ‘Made in China.’ Many of these Personal Endeavor Memoirs are related to food in some way, whether it’s someone’s attempt to raise their own food or learn to cook. Two of the most well-known Personal Endeavor food memoirs are Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. I think this is my favorite genre for the same reasons others enjoy it: I can experience something vicariously through the author. My husband has adamantly refused to let me get chickens for our backyard, so I have to settle for sharing that experience with an author. I can also compare my own experiences with the author. I love baking bread, but am not so good at it. Reading about William Alexander’s endeavor (52 Loaves) to make the perfect loaf is reassuring and insightful.  I’ve also learned about different lifestyles from these memoirs, such as Freeganism and urban foraging. Personal Endeavor food memoirs also usually have a lighter tone and an element of humor, as authors struggle with runaway farm animals or cooking mishaps. There are a number of these memoirs out there, but this is a list of my favorites. 
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan: Today Americans are cooking less and relying more on prepared meals, which has taken a toll on our health, the institution of the shared meal, and our connection to the food we eat. While Pollan is an advocate for cooking and eating locally, he admits that he doesn't cook much himself, or understand the basics of cooking. So he decided to learn. Enlisting the help of experts, he sets out to learn four basic methods of cooking. His grilling education takes him to various barbecue joints and culminates with the building of a barbecue pit in his front yard. He also learns the art of braising from a California chef, consults bread makers when learning to bake bread, and experiments with fermenting by pickling, and making cheese and beer. Pollan packs in bits about human evolution and food history amongst his efforts, making this an informative and effective read.
52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander: Alexander takes learning to bake bread to extreme levels, making one loaf of bread every week for a year, tweaking his ingredients and cooking methods until he reaches perfection. From experimenting with various flours and baking methods to growing his own grain and building an earth oven, there is nothing Alexander won’t try for the perfect loaf. Be sure not to miss Alexander’s other title The $64 Tomato. 
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter:  Urban farming is becoming very popular and there are a number of these memoirs, but this one continues to be my favorite. Carpenter decides to turn the abandoned lot next to her Oakland apartment into an urban farm. She plants a large vegetable garden and raises chickens, ducks, rabbits, bees and even pigs. The farm not only provides her with food but creates unlikely friendships with her neighbors and a sense of community. This is an entertaining tale with interesting characters and humorous adventures.
The Bucolic Plauge: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers by Josh Kilmer-Purcell: Have you ever thought of leaving the city life behind for the ease of country life? New Yorkers Josh and his partner Brent were driving through the countryside when they passed by a fantastic historical mansion. The house happened to be for sale, so on a whim they made an offer. Soon they were owners of a 200-year-old mansion and its surrounding 60 acres. Their weekends suddenly became filled with gardening, canning, picking cherries, collecting eggs and raising goats and chickens. Readers may recognize Josh and Brent as the stars of the television series The Fabulous Beekman Boys.
Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal From Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook by Christopher Kimball: Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book was a widely used cookbook and is considered a classic today. When Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, bought an historic home in Boston and began renovating it back to its original style, he spent time researching the Victorian period. He became interested in the period’s customs, dress, and food and decided to recreate a 12-course meal from Farmer’s cookbook. Those of you who have read Cook’s Illustrated will recognize the magazine’s characteristic attention to detail and quest for perfection. Kimball brings this to his meal, installing traditional Victorian appliances in his home, such as a coal stove, and incorporating traditional dishes such as calves’ head.
The Feast Nearby: How I Lost My Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way By Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (All on $40 a Week) by Robin Mather: Within a week, Mather lost her job as a food writer and her husband announced that he wanted a divorce. Leaving her home in Chicago, Mather took up residence in the couple’s lakeside cottage in Michigan. Now on a strict budget, Mather was no longer able to continue eating at the upscale restaurants she was used to. Determined to continue eating well, she decided that she would stick to a food budget of $40 a week by buying only foods from local growers and farmers, and growing her own food. The quick chapters follow the seasons and she describes the delights of eating seasonally, as well as exploring some of the issues surrounding eating locally. Despite the job loss and divorce at the beginning, her story has a cheerful, lighthearted tone. 
The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine by Steve Rinella: I categorized this title under Extreme Cuisine/Adventure in my book, but I think it also qualifies as a Personal Endeavor memoir. Rinella is an avid outdoorsman and hunter. When he comes across Escoffier’s classic 1903 Le Guide Culinaire, which includes what would now be considered bizarre and exotic ingredients, Rinella decides to recreate a 45-course banquet using Escoffier’s recipes. Rinella embarks on a year-long quest to procure the necessary ingredients, hunting and fishing across the U.S. and Canada. Aside from hunting for typical game like rabbit and antelope, he also catches stingrays and eels, and forages for pigeon eggs and swallows’ nests. His book is an entertaining combination of hunting, cooking, and historical haute cuisine.
The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway: In New York City it is not uncommon to find apartments that are not equipped with kitchens. This is because most New Yorkers eat out for their meals. But New York is an expensive city, and eating out adds up. When Erway added up the money she spent on eating out every day, she realized she could save a lot just by cooking for herself. So, she swore off restaurant eating for two years and began cooking for herself. While her experiences cooking for herself are entertaining, what I liked most about this book is that Erway also investigates new lifestyles, such as urban foraging, underground supper clubs, and freeganism. 
For more delicious reads, please check out my book, Food Lit: A Reader’s Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction, and follow me at my blog, Reading in the Kitchen.

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