Too Many Cooks.

I have new Insider posts up on the Wade Miley-Carson Smith trade and the Hisashi Iwakuma contract. My latest boardgame review over at Paste covers 7 Wonders Duel, the new two-player game that uses the theme and some mechanics from the outstanding original 7 Wonders.

I don’t normally post on books in series, since part of any series’ appeal is the familiarity you get from title to title, but Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, the fifth of what would eventually be his thirty-three novels starring the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe and his milk-swigging sidekick Archie Goodwin. (I’ve now read thirteen of them, plus four books of short stories or novellas.) But this book merited some comment for two reasons, or perhaps two and a half if you consider the new meaning of the book’s title:

The story itself is one of the few that has Wolfe leave his famous brownstone, from which he solves most of the cases that come to him, usually in a climactic scene where all of the suspects gather in his parlor for the Big Reveal. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Goodwin travel to a spa/resort in West Virginia for the festivities of the Quinze Maîtres, a collection of chefs (fifteen in name, with only twelve attending due to the deaths of three since the previous meeting) from around the world who gather every five years for enormous meals, presentations on food, and, in this case, murder. When one of the twelve is killed during a tasting experiment he’s running, Wolfe first has to clear the chef who invited him to the shindig, and eventually solves the murder when the killer takes a shot at Wolfe himself.

Wolfe’s view of the world always involves food and drink (usually cold beer), as he employs a full-time chef, Fritz, and cooks frequently himself, but Stout outdoes himself in the descriptions of the dinners the Maîtres enjoy, as well as the sauce printemps that’s used in the tasting test during which the murder occurs. I found it fascinating to see how different haute cuisine – or, I guess, what Stout considered haute cuisine – looked in 1938, when the book was published, from what it has become now. The sumptuous meals in Too Many Cooks are almost entirely derived from French cuisine, directly or through some translation on the American side of the ocean, with nothing from outside of Europe, and the overemphasis on animal proteins is almost embarrassing to an educated eater today. The test in question is clever, although I wonder how feasible it would be in practice: One chef prepares the same sauce nine different ways, each time omitting one critical ingredient, and the other chefs must taste each sauce once and fill out a card indicating which batch was missing which ingredient. The test is tangential to the main plot, more red herring than essential element, but I also inferred that Stout was having a little fun with his fascination with food.

On the flip side, however, of all of the Nero Wolfe works I’ve read, I don’t think any used the n-word as frequently as Too Many Cooks does, even though most of the time it’s used it comes from the mouth of one of the southern whites in the book – such as the redneck local sheriff who shows up to investigate the murder. This prompted a question in my mind that I’ll pose to the group. In general, I don’t support the idea of bowdlerizing older works of art – film, literature, etc. – to remove language that was in the common vernacular of the time but has since become objectionable or effectively prohibited. This is how people talked and acted, and removing those words or actions (such as the awful blackface scene in Holiday Inn) not only reduces the works’ historical accuracy but has the possibly unintended effect of allowing us to pretend that this crap never happened. At the resort in Too Many Cooks, the kitchen staff members are mostly black, and everyone but Wolfe refers to them in derogatory terms, liberally sprinkled with that odious epithet. In reality, you could clean this text up, removing most of those uses of the term and replacing with less offensive words that still express the racism of the speakers, without materially impacting the text. Failing to replace those words makes the book much less enjoyable to read, and I would guess many if not most African-American readers today would find it unreadable. (Don’t even get me started on Gone With the Wind.) So what would you prefer: Leave these works as they are, as I believe we should, as testaments to our history, or “edit” them to be more culturally sensitive?

Next up: Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts.

Saturday five, 9/12/15.

My one Insider piece from this week included my own scouting notes on prospects Jeff Hoffman, Spencer Adams, Gleyber Torres, and Brad Markey.

Klawchats have returned! They’ll be here on the dish from now on, as ESPN has ended all Sportsnation chats. The first one was on Thursday.

And now, the links…saturdayfive

  • Marlins beat writer Juan Rodriguez is fighting brain cancer, and some of his friends have set up a fund to help support his family.
  • Every Day Should Be Saturday says pay the players, dammit, through a personal essay about what it’s like to be broke.
  • Hand-pulled oyster with activated artichoke, anyone? The man behind the Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator talked to the Village Voice about his creation.
  • The passing of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has led to some touching tributes, including Atul Gawande’s in memoriam piece, which also mentions their shared love of the excellent dystopian short story “The Machine Stops,” available for a buck for your Kindle through that link. It’s never mentioned in discussions of E.M. Forster’s works, but I’d take that over A Passage to India any day.
  • BBC’s Assignment radio program looks at Paraguay’s preteen pregnancy problem, exploring why schoolgirls there are so vulnerable to abuse.
  • Digg interviewed the Food Lab’s Kenji Lopez-Alt ahead of the release of his first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, later this month.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe but I was intrigued enough to share it: Sichuan-spiced dry-brined turkey. Dry brining doesn’t require a giant bucket as a wet brine does, and the recipe calls for spatchcocking (stop laughing) the bird for more even cooking of the white and dark meats.
  • New York has a rare positive story on climate change, arguing that we’ve finally gotten serious about slowing it. One major reason, in the author’s opinion, is the threat of a Republican candidate winning in 2016, as that party steadfastly denies the science on climate change in embarrassing fashion.
  • How did lobster become so commoditized that it’s now on the McDonald’s menu? The New Yorker provides an “unnatural” history of the McLobster, looking at advances in lobster fishery that resemble other types of animal husbandry.
  • If you want to know why baseball is becoming whiter, there’s a simple explanation: youth sports are too damn expensive.
  • Celebrity chef Kerry Simon died this week at age 60 of multiple system atrophy. I first saw Simon on TV maybe fifteen years ago, on a Food Network show where he went to some off-Strip places in Vegas where he said the real chefs would go to eat. One of those places: Firefly, now one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas.

Saturday five, 9/5/15.

I had two Insider pieces this week, one on hypothetical postseason award ballots and one on notable September callups, and then someone else I didn’t expect to see came up after the latter was posted so why do I even do anything.

Klawchats at ESPN.com are indeed dead, as are all chats there, but I think I’ve found a solution that will let me resume the chats here after Labor Day. I’m looking for a little help with a script to clean up the transcripts so I can post them after the fact for everyone to read, so if you’re handy with perl, Python, or the like, please let me know. I’ll keep doing Periscopes, but they don’t work for everyone, including my deaf readers, so I want to make sure I use both media going forward.

My review of the second edition of the boardgame Evolution plus its Flight expansion is up at Paste. You can buy the game for $48 on amazon.

And now, the links…

  • How “Big Egg” has used underhanded and possibly illegal tactics, with the help of the USDA, to try to sabotage Hampton Creek’s vegan mayonnaise. It’s incredibly sleazy.
  • Andrew Zimmern talks about the future of food, from synthetic food replacements to insects as a sustainable protein source.
  • Scientists have discovered a naturally-occurring protein that would help slow the melting of ice cream. I see a problem with this, though: Ice cream tastes better when it’s at the brink of melting, because our taste buds don’t detect flavors in cold or frozen foods that well. That’s why ice cream has to be high in sugar – otherwise it wouldn’t taste sweet.
  • A Chinese writer talks about how the “gross” immigrant food of her upbringing has been culturally appropriated as “trendy.”
  • The programmer adapting the board game Brass into app form has started a blog about the process.
  • Chef Rick Bayless – yep, that’s Skip’s brother – writes about his dismay over the unbanning of GMO corn in Mexico, using culinary and cultural arguments rather than (un)scientific ones.
  • An experiment among Israeli schoolteachers found unconscious gender bias in math grading, bias that affected those kids’ choices as they advanced to higher grades. I know some of you get on me for discussing bias (racism, sexism, etc.) where it isn’t immediately evident, but these issues still exist, especially racism within the white-dominated baseball industry, even though it’s rarely explicit any more.
  • Alton Brown talks to the New York Times about his attitudes about our attitudes about food.
  • A paid anti-GMO shill for the organic agriculture industry was “severed” from Washington State University. Particularly notable are the undisclosed conflicts of interest, the same violation of which the anti-GMO side is accusing Kevin Folta.
  • Why is Missouri executing one death-row prisoner a month?
  • Vaccine denier Dr. Bob Sears – whose license to practice medicine still hasn’t been stripped, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom – is continuing to push his looney-toon, law-breaking agenda on gullible parents.

Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew Lawler’s brand-new book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization doesn’t quite measure up to the bravado of its subtitle – it’s neither epic nor is it a saga – but it is full of fascinating anecdotes on the history and near-future of the bird that is the most important source of animal protein in the world.

Lawler’s story repeatedly takes us back to the modern domesticated chicken’s (Gallus gallus domesticus) ancestral roots in south and southeast Asia, where its distant relative, the red jungle fowl, still lives in remote areas but is under threat from deforestation and human predation. The story of its evolution – yep, I said it – into the tame, flavorless, fast-growing and productive egg-laying creatures we consume today is the strongest narrative thread in the book, as Lawler traces the bird’s move across land and sea, through several crazes of breeding and development, into an industrial revolution that have made chicken popular and cheap. Along the way, however, it’s lost most of its taste and been bred into a bird that suffers greatly during its short life, often unable to stand under the weight of its enormous breasts (stop snickering), as its musculoskeletal system doesn’t grow fast enough to support it by the time it’s shipped off for slaughter.

While the history of the bird was interesting, it’s Lawler’s notes on the present state of the chicken and the issues in the near future of poultry farming that formed the book’s most compelling passages. In a chapter that reminded me of Vice’s tremendous mini-documentary on foie gras, Lawler visits a traditional French chicken farm where the birds are raised as they were a century and a half ago, resulting in meat that’s much more flavorful and tender, but at a much higher cost. That ties into interwoven discussions (little in the book is linear) about animal rights and what might constitute cruelty to birds that appear to be much more intelligent than we typically assume; Lawler writes, “Chickens are excluded from US laws regulating humane treatment of animals raised as food, and there are no international regulations,” although he mentions that the EU bans battery cages and refuses to import US-grown poultry for health and safety reasons.

These digressions lead to the most horrifying aspect of the book – Lawler’s descriptions of the conditions of factory-farmed chicken, and how recent changes may not even be as positive as they seem on the surface. Dr. Janice Siegford at the Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science says that her preliminary research indicates that “cage-free” may not be that much better for the birds than the old-style battery cages that (rightly) earned the ire of animal-rights activists. Cage-free birds are typically reared indoors, in giant aviaries that still keep the birds out of direct sunlight and away from their natural diet, all in the name of encouraging them to lay as many eggs as possible before they wear out after a year or so. Research into hen behavior in various settings seems to point to enhanced cages that grant more room to each bird while still giving them some of the privacy they seem to want while avoiding the violent behavior often exhibited by chickens in close quarters, even in the open environment of the aviary. (Irony alert: Michigan banned homeowners from raising chickens or any livestock in their yards. Gotta protect Big Egg, I guess.)

Lawler’s focus on telling the story leads to some unfortunate choices and mistakes along the way. He gives physical descriptions of the various experts, farmers, and executives he meets – I can’t think of anything less relevant to this story than a description of a professor’s haircut – but then refers to an unnamed paper by “two academics.” He botches an amusing tangent on the myth of the basilisk, which was supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (not a biological impossibility, as he later explains), by placing the creature’s appearance in the wrong Harry Potter book, and later misplaces Mali in sub-Saharan Africa when more than half the country is within that desert. The details themselves are unimportant to the whole narrative, but it’s a distraction that, when I’m reading any non-fiction book, makes me worry there are other mistakes I won’t catch.

In all fairness to Lawler, I wonder to what extent a narrative was pushed on him by his editors, as these food-history books don’t typically lend themselves well to that kind of structure; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt were both very well-received by critics and food-industry folk, but neither has anything resembling a narrative. Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has an actual narrative – the fight between man and fungus – but he had the benefit of working with one of the few foodstuffs that has no genetic diversity whatsoever. Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi is one of the best food books I’ve ever read, but he wove a separate narrative of a session at a sushi-chef school around his story, allowing him to tie together chapters on different fish or sushi-making traditions that otherwise would have been separate essays connected only by theme. Lawler’s book stands up much better in that light, as a series of diverse commentaries and histories connected by a common subject without a unifying thread. It probably doesn’t need one, given how important the chicken and its eggs are to feeding the world, and if anything Lawler could probably write a Pollan-esque sequel expanding on the last few chapters on the future of poultry farming, explaining where that part of the industry needs to go to remain productive while improving the welfare of the birds themselves.

Next up: Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.

My weekly Klawchat transcript is up. I have filed a 2015 draft top 30 ranking, but it’s not up yet.

Harold Dieterle is probably familiar to most of you as the winner of the first season of Top Chef back in 2005, when he was just 28 years old. (I suddenly feel lazy and underachieving.) He’s also a rabid baseball fan, and a fellow Long Islander, so we have followed each other on Twitter for some time and talked both sports and food. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his first cookbook, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, which just came out earlier this month.

The volume is really two books in one: a standard cookbook of recipes, most of which are on the intermediate to expert level, due to techniques or harder-to-obtain ingredients (I’d love to try goat neck, but I’m not even sure where to start to ask for it); and a reference work that really does look like a chef’s “notebook,” which thoughts on how to pick out or use various ingredients from the common to the exotic (I don’t think I’ve ever seen another cookbook discuss huckleberries), and brief sketches of dishes involving each one. Given the size of my collection and the number of recipes here that involve shellfish – to which my wife is allergic – I’ve found the notebook part much more valuable and interesting than the recipes.

I did try a few recipes as I do for any cookbook I review, with mixed results. The pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin was a hit – how could it not be? – as was the side salad of shaved Asian pear and endive with a simple lemon juice/EVOO vinaigrette. My daughter, no fan of salads in general or bitter vegetables in particular, loved it, and has since consumed an Asian pear a day (not a cheap habit, but at least it’s a healthful snack). Getting the pancetta thin enough to wrap the pork was difficult, and I needed more than the 2 ounces of pancetta per tenderloin to get good coverage. The recipe’s rutabaga puree didn’t work out well for me; I had no problem cooking the root vegetable, but needed half to three-quarters of the dairy called for to get the right texture. Some of that is on me for not thinking about adding a little liquid at a time, and some is on the book for measuring everything in volume but not weight. (I’m an absolute stickler on this subject now; I have two scales in my kitchen and I am damn sure going to use them.)

His asparagus gnudi (a hand-shaped pasta made with ricotta in the dough) were outstanding, although anything that dairy-heavy is tricky for my lactose-hating metabolic system … but he also includes a recipe for making your own ricotta, which might allow me to make a form less antagonistic to my stomach, or even to make something fun like goat’s milk ricotta. The recipe called for rolling out the gnudi to 1 1/2 inches thick, but I believe that’s a typo and should be 3/4” instead. The best part of the gnudi recipe was the Parmiggiano-Reggiano broth, made with rinds you can save from the cheese you use or you can buy (for too much money, really) at any decent supermarket or cheese chop); I strained out what was left and had it the next day as a starter soup with some grilled bread. His lemon gnocchi, a side recipe to be served with swordfish confit, worked well as long as I cooked the potato a lot longer than the time the recipe called for – it has you roasting it in the skin, but I might cube and steam it instead to get there faster, even though that preserves more moisture.

I have yet to tackle the dessert section – I need company for that kind of undertaking – but there’s a warm flourless chocolate and peanut butter soufflé cake with coffee crème Anglaise in here, and five varieties of scratch doughnuts, including vanilla, nutella, and foie gras mousse-filled versions.

The notebook pages live throughout the book, next to a recipe that calls for a particular ingredient or technique, at which point Dieterle goes on what reads like a length digression about, say, huckleberries, farro, saffron, goat cheese, sausage (with recipes for five different kinds), or duck fat. It’s like downloading from a chef’s brain – as if you sent in a query that said “tell me what I can do with watermelon” and you get back five recipes, some obvious, some less so (watermelon and jícama chimichurri). He tells you how to make that Parmiggiano broth and four things to do with it. He tells you how to candy, brandy, or pickle cherries. Sunchokes, a vegetable I love and yet never think of cooking, get an entry that describes them and gives four suggestions. He even follows the S’mores recipe with instructions for making your own marshmallows (although it calls for “liquid glucose,” so I’m on the prowl for that too).

The recipes do require a higher skill level than most other cookbooks aimed at the mass market, and you’ve got to be near a major city or a great set of farmers to find all of the ingredients. If you have some experience in the kitchen, however, there’s nothing in here that I found out of reach, and coming up with substitutions or just doing part of one recipe and part of another isn’t hard. It’s an invaluable resource as a reference and idea generator, the way I feel about The Flavor Bible (a book without recipes, listing what ingredients pair well with what other ingredients), another book I turn to repeatedly when I want inspiration more than I want instruction. So if you need me, I’ll be at Whole Foods looking for sunchokes.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Klawchat at 1 pm ET today.

Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses gives a light, high-level history of six beverages that all had an impact on human history or development. I’m a big fan of four of them – beer, distilled spirits, coffee, and tea – and won’t turn down the fifth, wine. Only the last of the six Standage covers, Coca-Cola, seems out of place, both based on my personal tastes (I’ll only drink it if I have a headache and can’t have more coffee) and on its status as a thoroughly artifical beverage protected by trade secrets.

Standage has to stretch on occasion to make some of his historical connections, but in general he’s treading on safe ground, especially with beer and liquor, because their development or discovery had substantial economic impacts on the societies that consumed them. Beer was originally both a natural byproduct of grain storage and a safer alternative to water in an era when bacterial contamination was not understood; liquor, notably rum, drove international trade routes, agricultural production in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the slave trade with native kingdoms in western Africa. Wine was an essential part of the symposion, the Greek ancestor of the cocktail party, where great discussions took place in an atmosphere of convivial drinking … and probably excessive drinking, too, although Plato seems to have left that part out of his Dialogues.

Standage connects coffee to the academic cafe culture of western Europe, particularly London, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the coffee was bad, prepared in large pots in advance and reheated to order, but these cafes, each of which was devoted to a specific subject or area, hosted conversations that led to great advances in areas from science to philosophy. Tea, like coffee, brought medical benefits, especially since water had to be boiled to make the beverage, and became the drink of choice in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a shift that led to the British colonization and development of India (for their own purposes, of course, and only after they’d wiped out the subcontinent’s native textile industry) … as well as playing a role in our own revolution against the crown.

Where Standage lost the plot a little was with his shift to an overtly commercial product, Coca-Cola, which was the product of a handful of accidents and experiments and did, as the legend has it, once contain cocaine – the name comes from its onetime use of both the coca plant and the kola nut (a natural source of caffeine) as flavoring agents. The Coca-Cola company did play a role in the post-World War II trend of globalization, but its role was hardly as essential or as organic as those of the other five beverages in the book, and unlike the other drinks Standage covers, cola has no redeeming health qualities and is unhealthful even in small quantities.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses concludes with a prediction, in Standage’s epilogue, that the next beverage to direct human history will be the first one: water, with the need for clean, reliable water supplies directing political strategies and conflicts over the next century. That could have earned a larger chapter, similar to the discussion of the topic in Empires of Food, as it’s going to be a significant issue all over the world, including in the southern half of the United States. I also wish Standage had spent some time discussing the chemistry of each beverage, or more details of its production; he focuses far more on the history aspect of each drink than the scientific or culinary angles. The idea of “notes” in different beverages, widely used in discussions of wine but popping up more and more in reviews of beers, coffees, and even chocolates, derives from the differing chemical composition of the raw materials, which is usually a function of the soil and temperature where those materials grow. Those specific characteristics help drive the higher ends of the markets for each product, which in turn represents a path for coffee and cocoa farmers (and perhaps farmers of other crops) in developing countries to earn an actual living from their work, the kind of economic development that Standage discusses in a historical context in his six primary sections.

Next up: I’m about a quarter of the way through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m not sure this lawsuit is ever going to be settled.

The Supper of the Lamb.

Robert Farrar Capon was an Episocopal priest who, like me, had an abiding if entirely amateur interest in food and cooking, and he combined both of those passions with his love of writing in the seminal “culinary reflection” The Supper of the Lamb, a peculiar tome that isn’t quite a cookbook, isn’t exactly a book on faith, but weaves them together with some truly superb High-English prose. Capon passed away in September at 88, but this book is now back in print thanks to Modern Library.

While The Supper of the Lamb is more about food than religion, at least superficially, you’re going to get a heavy dose of one if you want to get to the other. Capon’s faith is traditional and unapologetic, and he’ll jump from comments on biodiversity and evolution to marveling over the depth and breadth of God’s creation. In that sense, it’s a narrowly themed book – Capon expounds upon God’s infinite grace, and he’s not going to stop to ask if you’re completely along for the ride.

It’s a ride worth taking even if you’re only interested in the other half, however. Looking at our world and the bounty of edible items within it with a greater sense of wonder will, or should, improve our appreciation of the plate before us, and help us reorient our thinking away from processed and packaged foods and more toward cooking with the foods available in nature. Capon’s approach is no-nonsense – while conceding a few guilty pleasures from the supermarket, he rails against the trend, already evident in the 1960s when he wrote the book, toward outsourcing home-cooking to big corporations and toward a disconnection between us and the things we eat.

The book revolves around the lamb supper of the title, an allusion to the marriage supper of the Lamb found in Revelations 19, and to the central dish of the work, “Lamb for eight persons four times,” a dish that pays homage to the meat (a whole leg of lamb) by using every last bit of flavor it has to offer, including soup made from the bones and trimmings. Capon uses this series of recipes as a departure point for his meditations on faith, grace, and useless kitchen tools.

It’s not, for me at least, a book from which to learn about cooking; if you learn anything from Capon about food, it will be about the philosophy of the kitchen and less about practical tips or techniques. I enjoyed his writing more than any other aspect of the work, though, as Capon was erudite and witty, such as in his praise of the cleaver (even now a scarcely-seen knife in home kitchens_:

A woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman. She breaks upon the eye of the beholder as an epiphany of power, as mistress of a house in which only trifles may be trifled with – and in which she defines the trifles. A man who has seen women only as gentle arrangers of flowers has not seen all that women have to offer. Unsuspected majesties await him.

Capon despises the double boiler, as does Alton Brown today, and he praises wooden utensils, as does Michael Ruhlman, although the two disagree on the utility of the wooden spoon. (Ruhlman prefers wooden spatulas for scraping, and I concur, using silicone spatulas – unavailable at the time of Supper‘s publications – in applications where a spoon might be more functional, such as scraping the bottom of a saucier.) He talks about white and brown stock, how to make them and why you need to do so if you want to cook real food and to not throw away all that flavor in the bones. (One shudders to think at what he’d say about the modern proliferation of boneless, skinless, flavorless chicken breasts.) He speaks in praise of wine and discusses the ideal corkscrew. He goes on – and on – about the making of puff pastry and its highest form of expression, the strudel dough, which seems like an inordinate amount of work even to me, who thinks nothing of curing my own bacon or making my own preserves.

Capon’s techniques were quite modern for his era, with a sound understanding of the science of the kitchen underpinning most of his suggestions, but his dishes read as very dated today. So does the chapter on hosting a proper dinner party, where Capon even argues for asking guests to come in black tie. It was a different era, I suppose, and for that I give thanks.

Next up: I just finished Jasper Fforde’s wonderful young adult novel The Last Dragonslayer, which is pretty much a regular Fforde book without all the swearing, and have moved on to George Eliot’s Adam Bede.

Yes, Chef.

Marcus Samuelsson stands out in the world of celebrity chefs for several reasons – he’s a star here in the United States, but was raised in Sweden, and his cuisine is global in many ways … but he’s black, and that fact alone would make him close to unique in the clique of American celebrity chefs. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but his birth mother died of tuberculosis when Marcus was only about four, after which he and his sister were adopted by a couple in Goteborg, Sweden, where his soccer career stalled out because he was too slight to keep up with his competitors, only to lead to a career in the kitchen that forms the basis for his memoir, Yes, Chef.

Samuelsson came to national prominence during a lengthy run as the executive chef at New York’s Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant that included a casual menu serving traditional Swedish fare and a fine-dining menu where Samuelsson could stretch out and use Swedish cuisine as the basis for a more progressive and comprehensive approach to food. I tried Aquavit shortly before Samuelsson departed and was highly impressed, especially by the fish, both its quality and preparation, including a hot-smoked salmon plate that forever hooked me on smoked fish. He’s also responsible for the best food item Starbucks has ever sold, a chocolate cinnamon “bread” (in the sense that banana bread or Northern corn bread are “breads,” when really they’re just cakes) that was both delicious and paired quite well with coffee, even the stuff they call coffee at Starbucks. The recipe was included in a cookbook only sold at Starbucks locations, although I believe many of that book’s recipes ended up in his The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. His new venture, Red Rooster, has been a huge success despite a slightly off-the-radar location in Harlem, where Samuelsson lives, borrowing the name of a classic restaurant of the area while integrating old and new culinary traditions.

Samuelsson’s life and career follow a somewhat unexpected narrative path: After his very difficult beginning, he finds himself in a comfortable setting, raised by loving adoptive parents in a country where racism existed but not to the extent we face it here. Instead, Samuelsson’s challenges increased after he reached adulthood, facing institutional racism in the kitchen and his own naivete on the business side of cooking, while also watching several friends and colleagues die far too young and eventually finding himself in a little trouble of his own making. He clearly has tremendous drive, as well as a deep passion for food (for flavors, in his words, and in finding new ways to combine them), but there are hints of regret sprinkled throughout the book for what that singlemindedness may have cost him when he was younger, some of which can’t be regained now that his success has given him the flexibility to have a personal life.

The book is written in the first person, in a style evocative enough to put the reader in the kitchens alongside Samuelsson, even though the prose likely came from his friend and co-author Veronica Chambers, who first received widespread plaudits for her own memoir, Mama’s Girl. I was never conscious of the story coming through the second filter of a co-author, even though it’s hard to imagine Samuelsson writing so clearly in what is at best his third language (he seems to speak at least four). First-person narratives can suffer from excessively florid prose, but here Chambers stays out of the way and lets Samuelsson’s story, which is compelling enough to require no embellishment, take center stage.

If Yes, Chef has a flaw, it’s that the treatment of the highs and lows of Samuelsson’s life often feels a little cursory; friends and colleagues die, and we get a page or less of grief, and Marcus has moved on. He’s up for the James Beard Award against some amazing competitors, and then, boom, he’s won it, and we’re on to the next subject. His victory on Top Chef Masters, coming right as he was preparing to cook the first state dinner of Barack Obama’s presidency, receives very little discussion, even though his win that season had its own interesting narrative – he wasn’t near the top in any challenges until the final sprint, like his friend and season three winner Floyd Cardoz. Samuelsson appears to open himself up to the reader at many points of the book, like discussing his daughter (the result of a one-night stand when he was still just 19) or the experience of reconnecting with his extended family in Ethiopia when he was in his 30s, that it’s jarring to see other significant life events receive superficial treatment in a book that could easily have added another 20 pages without feeling long.

The obvious comparison here is to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, another memoir by a successful chef, but one written by a chef with more training in creative writing than in the culinary arts. Hamilton’s prose shines, elevating her story from good to great; Samuelsson’s story is stronger, and might have suffered from Hamilton’s literary flourishes, but could have benefited from the level of introspection she showed in her book. Nothing in Yes, Chef goes as deep as Hamilton’s examination of her marriage to an aloof Italian doctor and, by extension, into his family in Italy, yet a similar treatment of Samuelsson’s visit to Ethiopia would have made the book even more compelling.

Next up: Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, which I read and reviewed in 2010.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

I’ve got my first projection of the first round of this year’s MLB Rule 4 draft up, and chatted on Thursday.

The banana on your table or in your bag right now is a specific variety called the Cavendish, and is genetically identical to every other Cavendish banana in the world, a peculiar trait among comestibles that means that one of our most essential foodstuffs is at risk of being wiped off the commercial market by a fungal disease it can’t fight. Because most banana plants are parthenocarpic (in lay terms, sterile), producing no seeds, humans cultivate bananas by transplanting part of the plant’s underground stem, known as the corm, which means each new plant is a carbon copy of the last one – and therefore the plants have never developed immunity to common fungal diseases that ravage entire plantations. With no help from evolution, the first widely commercialized banana, the Gros Michel, became nonviable as a cash crop, and the same disease is now threatening Cavendish plantations as well.

Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World discusses how we reached this point, going back through the history of the fruit and discussing its importance to subsistence farmers in Africa as well as its economic importance in Asia and Latin America. Now, with Panama disease, a fungal disease that is resistant to fungicide and causes banana plants to wilt by attacking their roots, marching across the globe, there’s a race on to try to genetically engineer a replacement for the Cavendish, one that suits the market’s demands for a portable, sweet fruit that is also resistant to Panama disease, black Sigatoka, and other fungal maladies that can devastate a plantation.

The rise of the banana as a trade good to become the West’s favorite fruit (mangoes are more popular in the rest of the world) has had tragic consequences, from which Koeppel doesn’t shy. The company you know know as Chiquita has a lengthy history of labor abuses in Latin America, including exposing plantation workers to highly toxic pesticides and fungicides; corrupt land deals with autocratic governments that were often put in place by the United States in part to aid Chiquita; and circumventing land-ownership restrictions in former “banana republics” (not just a clothing store!) to maintain strict cartel-like control over the banana trade. The autocratic governments were responsible for oppression, torture, and even genocide of native populations, often while the U.S. stood idly by, content that our economic interests were protected. Chiquita’s sins, and those of its billionaire owner Carl Lindner – also part-owner of the Reds at the time – were documented in a massive expose’ in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998, only to have the paper issue an apology and pay the company $10 million for illegally obtaining voice mails. Chiquita never disproved any of the paper’s claims, and only had to threaten a lawsuit for theft and invasion of privacy before the publisher folded his tent.

Banana farming in other parts of the world, such as Malaysia and Brazil, “only” led to substantial deforestation, while the blight now affecting the Cavendish and that nearly drove its predecessor, the Gros Michel, into extinction is threatening subsistence farmers in developing countries who depend on banana plants as a food source. Koeppel uses that latter point to launch into descriptions of those genetic engineering efforts, with brief thoughts on the anti-GM movement and the rather clear conundrum that our choice is to accept GM bananas or likely live with no bananas at all unless they grow in your backyard.

Koeppel does well to largely keep himself out of the narrative, only appearing to introduce certain characters or to describe his experiences tasting other varieties of bananas, most of which aren’t cultivated for export. (He has special praise for the Lacatan banana, found in the Philippines.) It’s compelling on several levels – as a chronicle of corporate greed and corruption, as the story of how a largely tropical fruit became a global commodity, and of course in the unfinished story of whether scientists can use traditional and modern methods together to craft a disease-resistant replacement for the Cavendish. I loved it because I love popular science books and also love to cook, but this book should be required reading for anyone who likes to eat.

Next up: Alessandro Piperno’s second novel, Persecution.