The Potlikker Papers.

John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute at the University of Mississippi that is dedicated to the study and exploration of southern American culinary traditions, a valuable resource that, among other things, works to keep knowledge of the region’s cuisine from dying out in our era of homogenization and processed food. That background gave me a high expectation for his book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, but it’s not the book I thought I was getting. It may deliver on the promise of its subtitle, but there’s so much emphasis here on the modern south that the prehistory of it, the hundred-plus years before the civil rights movement that inform so much of southern cuisine even today, gets lost in the shuffle.

Southern cuisine itself is more of a catch-all term than a specific style of cooking – there are multiple regional cuisines from the American south, including two, Creole and Cajun, distinct ones just within the state of Louisiana. White and black southerners bring their own traditions, although many foods associated with white or all southerners likely originated as African-American foods. The culinary appropriations, the origins of what we now consider traditional or classical southern cuisine, the subtitutions out of need that became standard … these are the stories I expected to read and want to hear as someone who likes to eat and cook many dishes that at least have some basis in the rich, vegetable-heavy dishes of the south.

That’s not this book, at least; Edge starts in the 1950s and spends nearly all of the book discussing the evolution of southern cuisine from the 1970s forward, bouncing around celebrity chefs (Emeril gets a lot of page time, as does the late Paul Prudhomme) and artisanal farmers (Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, is a well-deserved star of that part of the book), but talking less about history and more about modern figures. The best part of The Potlikker Papers by far is the first section, Freedom Struggles (1950s-1970s), which talks about southern food in the context of the civil rights movement – the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the importance of individual black chefs like Georgia Gilmore, the way white politicians borrowed or fabricated narratives to suit their policy aims, and more. This is a complete story, probably enough to fill an entire volume – how food enabled African-Americans to fight for equal rights and establish economic independence in a white-dominated society that sought to subjugate them by every available method.

After that section, however, Edge’s narrative falls apart and the book devolves into a series of unconnected profiles and vignettes that were neither engaging nor particularly illustrative of anything about modern southern cooking. A chapter on barbecue, for example, that focuses primarily on North Carolina doesn’t tell me much about Q as a cuisine or the region itself (which has a complicated and recently damaging history with hog farming). The final chapter, on the rising influence of Latin American immigrants and chefs on southern cooking, feels tacked on and cursory. If southern cuisine is one big tradition, Edge doesn’t manage to unify it here, and if it’s merely the phylum for a host of individual orders and families, he doesn’t provide the connective thread beyond mere geography. I had high hopes for The Potlikker Papers, but after the first section on the civil rights era, it told me nothing I didn’t already know.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 through Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise.


If you’re here, you almost certainly know I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s work, whether it’s his narrative non-fiction books like The Making of a Chef or his indispensable cookbooks like Ruhlman’s Twenty, Ratio, or Egg. He’s also become a potent voice in the drive to get American consumers, who know more about food than ever before but seem to cook it less for themselves, to reconnect with the sources of their food for the good of our health and our planet. He brings those concerns to his non-fiction work for the first time in his newest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, a work that simultaneously a paean to the American grocery store and a lament over the importance that processed foods play in our diet (and, perhaps, many of our first-world health problems).

Ruhlman does this by revisiting a regional grocery chain from his youth, Heinen’s, which has survived as an independent business when national chains have been snapped up by multinationals. Heinen’s is still run by the grandchildren of its founder, but they take a progressive view of the business and have shown agility larger chains haven’t by being quick to offer organic produce, prepared foods, and craft beers to consumers. The overarching structure of Grocery begins with a brief history of the grocery store – I remember A&P, but had no idea it was once the biggest company in the world – an then takes us department by department, explaining not just what’s in them but how the food (or not-food) gets to the store and how the markets profit off them.

Heinen’s early forays into non-traditional areas for grocers mirrors the industry’s movement as a whole, sometimes foreshadowing changes (like prepared foods, which accounts for between 4 and 8 percent of sales for each Heinen’s store) elsewhere, sometimes lagging, as with organics. Ruhlman specifically cites the changes wrought by Whole Foods, which, depending on your point of view, either found unserved demand for organic items and higher-quality ingredients or created that demand by offering the goods and marketing themselves well; and Wal-mart, which became the country’s main food retailer the day they sold their first box of Cheerios. The industry-wide shifts have allowed medium-sized chains to add value by offering specialty products, like the Lava Lakes lamb Heinen’s offers (with Ruhlman enduring an interesting adventure on the sheep farm to tell us about it) or some artisanal cheeses from makers who could never service a large national account.

Ruhlman’s always at his best when he’s writing first-person accounts, and that’s true even here, as he spends days with various Heinen’s executives and suppliers, as well as going shopping with one of his personal doctors, Dr. Sukol, who has very strong opinions on what is and is not food. That particular chapter is one of several that points out just how much sugar is in processed foods – more on that phrase in a moment – and how eating these “not food” products, in Dr. Sukol’s eyes, may be compromising our health. She says something that has become a sort of mantra for Ruhlman – that food is not “healthy;” we are “healthy,” and food can be nutritious or it can be harmful to our health (or, I’d add, sometimes both). Some of her opinions are based in sound science and others on working hypotheses (e.g., that glyphosate residues harm our intestinal microbiomes, because that chemical targets the shikimate pathway found in microbial metabolism but not in humans). She buys organic to avoid glyphosate and antibiotics, but doesn’t believe GM foods are harmful in and of themselves. She also says something is not food if you look at the ingredients and couldn’t buy them all individually in a grocery store; by that definition, to pick one example, almond milk is not food, even though the unsweetened version is nutritious and is a godsend to people who can’t drink milk.

Heinen’s also employs a full-time doctor to oversee its “wellness” section, and in my view this is where the author could have cast a more skeptical eye, because this “Dr. Todd” sells a lot of bullshit. He’s light on the science, throwing appeals to nature at Ruhlman in between advocacy of useless supplements like turmeric (the tricky chemistry of which means it does nothing useful in the body despite positive results in the test tube). Heinen’s, like all grocery stores – including Whole Foods – makes millions off selling bottled panaceas, nearly all of which do nothing and get by the consumer with vague promises of “promoting” health but no scientific evidence that they do anything at all. Ruhlman does indeed mention their uselessness and his own skepticism of a supplement-based diet, but I would probably have been thrown out of Heinen’s for pointing out all of the woo that Dr. Todd was spinning.

I enjoy when Ruhlman lets a little snark penetrate his thoughtful tone, like when he was behind a shopper at the grocery store who was buying fat-free “half and half,” a product that, ontologically speaking, cannot exist. It’s okay to disdain such abominable food choices – but Ruhlman emphasizes that corporate marketing has contributed to consumer confusion over what’s good for us and even what certain products might contain. (The entire discussion reminded me of bread vendors who made high-fiber breads by adding wood pulp, which almost certainly wasn’t what consumers thought they were consuming.) And the media have contributed to this by jumping on single studies that appear to identify single culprits for all our food-related health woes, first fat, then cholesterol (poor eggs), then salt, and now – although this one may have some legs – sugar, which appears in products under a variety of pseudonyms, including evaporated cane juice, dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, or tapioca syrup. They’re all sugar, and by separating them out in the ingredients, manufacturers can avoid telling you that the #1 component of a product is sugar.

Grocery tends to stick to the very common and widely accepted distinction of processed foods, what Ruhlman describes as being in the center of the store, and the other foods, like meat, dairy, and produce, that are found around the store’s perimeter. (If you’ve heard the advice to shop the edges of the grocery store, those are the departments where you’ll spend your cash.) And I may be overly pedantic on this, but almost everything we eat is processed somehow. Take yogurt: First, it’s processed by bacteria, fermenting milk into yogurt. And second, it’s further processed by man, at least to put it in plastic, but often to add sweeteners, fruits, sometimes gels or gums, and other ingredients. (True Greek yogurt is strained of whey and lacks additional thickeners, but many brands sell “Greek” yogurt that is thickened with pectin or other agents.) The meat you buy at the butcher counter is processed too – a process Ruhlman details, explaining how more of the butchering is done at central locations today rather than in-store as it was a few decades ago. Very little of what we eat is truly “unprocessed.” And there are processed foods in the middle of the store that are quite nutritious – oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, alternative milks (if unsweetened), maybe even dark chocolate. So don’t tell people to avoid “processed foods,” but tell them, as this book encourages, to read the labels and try to understand what you’re buying.

If everyone in America read Grocery, it would cause a cataclysmic shift in our food system. There would still be a market for Oreos and Frosted Flakes, for fast food and donuts and bad coffee, but the book points out how consumer demand can reshape the food production chain, and how retailers can reshape neighborhoods in turn by bringing better food choices to “food deserts,” underserved populations without easy access to quality food. It’s a potent call to action, as well-written as you’d expect from the author of Soul of a Chef, that should change your approach to feeding yourself and your family.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.

The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.

Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.

Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.

One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)

The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?

The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.

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.

America Walks Into a Bar.

I have a post up for Insiders today on keeping faith in some players who had less-than-great years.

Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops is a thoroughly academic look at the history of the watering hole, mostly in the United States but with a brief look at its origins in Europe and in the Near East. Like most histories, it lacks any real narrative thread, but Sismondo does present a clear thesis – that the bar or tavern has had an essential role in the cultural history of the U.S. – and does a great job of backing it up through interesting and often funny anecdotes.

The book is built around discrete chapters, each of which covers a specific movement that either got its start in the taverns or found faster growth through tavern culture, starting with the revolutionary spirit in the U.S. that led to the Stamp Act protests, the Tea Party (the real one, folks), and eventually the American Revolution and the nascent U.S. government. In that era, there were no real town halls or any kind of community center where anyone (meaning any adult man, although occasionally women were admitted) could gather to hear news, exchange information, or tip off the ragtag militia that the British were coming. Even churches would often have to close due to weather, moving their religious services to the local to take advantage of the latter facility’s heating. From there, Sismondo jumps ahead slightly to the abolitionist movement, then bounces through about 150 years of U.S. history, covering the temperance movement (and the Anti-Saloon League), the disaster of Prohibition, and the gay-rights movement that exploded, in literal and metaphorical terms, during a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The challenge for Sismondo isn’t making this interesting – she’s talking about booze and bars, with the frequent injections of sex and violence, so, really, I already have your attention by now – but making her arguments convincing. Some are easy, like the rise of the American revolutionary movement in taverns, because at the time, that’s all there was. If you wanted to associate, you had few options besides the town local. Others are more difficult, such as the speakeasy’s role in advancing women’s rights, because earlier proscriptions on women drinking alongside men or even sharing the same space in a tavern were dropped when all such establishments were banned. The political machines of the 1800s, notably the Tammany Hall regime in New York, certainly rose through the taverns of the age, especially because votes were procured in exchange for booze, but would they have risen without those places? Couldn’t votes be bought in other ways, as they are today here and in other countries? Sismondo makes a strong case, but it’s all anecdotal (as it has to be), so those chapters are more about reader interest than proving a hypothesis.

The interest level can be pretty high, depending on the chapter and subject. Sismondo gives brief portraits of some of the earliest celebrity bartenders, such as Jerry Thomas, and gives a lot of detail on some of the key figures in the Haymarket riot, where anarchists bombed a peaceful pro-labor rally, leading to four executions in a gross miscarriage of justice that further spurred the embryonic American labor movement. We get a sketch of Mary “Texas” Guinan, an actress who owned a speakeasy, the 300 Club, that became one of the most popular during Prohibition and launched careers of the likes of George Raft and Walter Winchell (the latter of whom made his name by printing the gossip Guinan fed him). And there’s a host of amusing stories of Prohibition evasion, much of it tolerated, enabled, or even run by the very folks who were supposed to be enforcing the silly, misguided Volstead Act. My main complaint with the book, though, is that we never seem to get enough of any of these things. The stories are all short, which keeps the book moving, but misses opportunities to add color to its pages with details on the eccentric characters or the devious/comical events that were planned at or took place in the American bar.

Next up: I just finished Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book Alton Brown recommended twice on podcasts earlier this year, and have begun John Williams’ western novel Butcher’s Crossing.

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.

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.

Catching up on recent reads.

For a variety of reasons, I fell behind on book reviews in December, so I’m cheating a little with an omnibus post on everything I read between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I haven’t written up yet, aside from the usual Wodehouse/Christie/Stout stuff I generally don’t cover here. I had pretty mixed feelings on all of these works except the one non-fiction title, which is probably part of why I procrastinated on the reviews – it’s easier to write something quickly when you know which way you’re leaning from the start, but these books had enough positives and negatives to keep me from coming down on either side.

* The longest book I read in that span, and the one most deserving of a longer writeup, is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, part of the TIME 100 and #81 on the Modern Library 100. Tabbed “the great American novel” by Martin Amis, praised by authors from Amis to his father Kingsley to Salman Rushdie to Christopher Hitchens, Augie March is an ambitious, expansive story of its title character’s growth from an impoverished Chicago childhood through one money-chasing scheme after another, including various brushes with the law and materialistic women. It starts slowly, hits a promising note for several hundred pages, and then ends with a gigantic whimper that ruined an otherwise enjoyable serious yet comical read for me.

Augie’s odyssey of self-discovery while he’s trying to make a buck – or a pile of bucks – draws him into various webs of fascinating side characters, a panoply identified by Hitchens as Dickensian, but one I think comes from the broader tradition of picaresque novels (to which Dickens contributed in The Pickwick Papers) and that continues through postmodern works like Ulysses and The Recognitions and later writers like Dawn Powell, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Russo. Augie March even has the peripatetic thread that defines the picaresque novel, even though Augie’s adventures, like his brief but disastrous time in the Navy, rarely encompass the high ambitions of classic picaresque characters.

Augie himself straddles the line between hero and antihero – he’s the protagonist and quite likeable despite his highly fungible morality, in part because he’s got the rags-to-riches vibe about him and in part because he entertains us through one peculiar situation after another – creating a curious ambiguity about Bellow’s point. If this is to be the great American novel, what exactly is Bellow telling us about the American experience? Is the key to the American Dream a refusal to commit oneself to anything – an education, a career, a marriage? Or is he saying the American Dream is an illusion that we can pursue but never catch? I think Bellow was posing the questions without attempting to provide any answers, which works from a thematic perspective but left the conclusion of the plot so open that I felt like I was reading an unfinished work, like The Good Soldier Svejk or Dead Souls.

* I wanted to like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, since I think Lolita is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and while I didn’t enjoy Pale Fire I do recognize how clever it is and that I might not fully appreciate its humor. But Pnin, the story of a fish-out-of-water Russian professor at a fictional university in upstate New York, suffers from Pale Fire‘s problem even more deeply: The target of its parodic efforts is too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. Where Pale Fire satirized technical and literary analysis of poetry, Pnin takes aim at the ivory towers of academic life at private universities, which is probably hilarious if you’re a professor or a grad student but largely went right by me as someone who sleepwalked through college by doing the minimum amount of work required for most of my classes.

* Abbe Provost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut seemed to be stalking me over the last two months, so I had to read it – it appears on Daniel Burt’s revised version of the The Novel 100, then was the subject of allusions in at least two other books I read that time, including Augie March and I think Nicole Krauss’ History of Love as well. Manon Lescaut follows the Chevalier des Grieux as he ruins himself over his obsession with the title character, a young, beautiful, and entirely materialistic woman who throws the Chevalier overboard every time he runs out of money. The two engage in multiple schemes to defraud wealthier men who fall in love (or lust, really) with Manon at first sight, and eventually end up sent to the French colony at New Orleans, where the pattern repeats itself with a less fortunate conclusion. Its controversial status at the time would be lost on any reader today over the age of 12, but its depiction of sexual obsession mixed with several early examples of suspense writing (before either genre really existed in its own right) made it a quick and intense read. Plus now I get the references.

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is another short novel of obsession, also appearing on the Novel 100, this one telling the tale of a man who is so in love with a woman who is betrothed to someone else that he eventually takes his own life. Told through the letters Werther writes to his friend, I found the deterioration of Werther’s mind as his depression deepens to be far more interesting than the pseudo-romantic aspect of a man so in love with another woman that he’d rather die than live without her. He just needed a good therapist. It was by far the shortest novel I had left on the Novel 100 and brought my total read on that list to 80, so it was worth the two hours or less I spent on it.

* Zadie Smith’s On Beauty reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (which I read and didn’t care for that much) in a serious comic novel around a conflict of race rather than class, set in a New England college town in the early 2000s. Smith also sends up the conflict between conservative and liberal academic ideologies (or theologies, more accurately) in one of the subplots that, much like that of Pnin, ended up missing the mark for me, although I could at least recognize glimpses of my alma mater in some of the satire. The novel’s greatest strength is the way Smith defines so many individual characters, especially those of the Belsey family, headed by a white father and an African-American mother and whose children are searching for racial, religious, and cultural identities while their parents try to recover from their father’s inability to keep it in his pants. I couldn’t help but compare On Beauty, which has some brilliant dialogue along with the deep characterizations and is often quite funny, to Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, which produced very mixed feelings in me when I first read it and didn’t fully appreciate (as I think I do now) how Smith was trying to stretch the boundaries of realistic fiction to tell a broad and expansive story. On Beauty, paying homage to a classic work of British literature, feels restrained by the confines of its inspiration when Smith’s imagination is a huge part of why her writing is so appealing, leaving it a good novel, a funny yet smart one that reads quickly, but a slightly unsatisfying one because I know she can do more than this.

* Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World tells the history of that somewhat mundane, unrespected fish, which had a substantial impact on the growth of civilization in Europe and in North America, and which was one of humanity’s first warnings (duly ignored) that we could exhaust a seemingly endless natural resource. Kurlansky’s book Salt turned a similar trick, taking a topic that seemed inherently uninteresting and finding interesting facts and anecdotes to allow him to make the story readable. Cod actually has a stronger narrative thread because Kurlansky can trace the fish’s rise in popularity and commercial value as well as its role in international relations, climaxing in the sudden collapse of cod stocks and the uncertain ending around the fish’s future as a species and a food source. We’re really good at overfishing, because technology has allowed us to catch more fish (as well as species we didn’t intend to catch) which has in turn made fish too cheap to consume. Kurlansky didn’t focus enough on this issue for my tastes, although Cod was published in 1997 when overfishing was seen as more of a fringe environmentalist concern, before celebrity chefs embraced sustainability and began preaching it to the masses.

Empires of Food.

My 2700-word column on the rehab process from Tommy John surgery, with comments from a TJ surgeon, a rehab specialist, and three pitches who had the operation, is now up for Insiders.

The point of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, is a good one: Civilizations, like ours today, have risen during times of plenty, periods where favorable weather and trading booms have led to rapid growth of populations and cities, but that they tend to fall, often catastrophically, when the food supply is interrupted. We are nearing the end, they argue, of an unusually good era for agriculture, but a cataclysm approaches as climate change, irresponsible farming techniques, water waste, and profiteering all catch up to us and put our future food security at risk. These are all issues that we as consumers should consider when deciding what to eat and where to get it, but a book that’s full of histrionic statements like “cancerous is exactly the state of our twenty-first-century global food empire,” factual errors, and serious omissions isn’t the way to argue the point.

The point of Empires of Food is to show readers the history of the food supply and how civilizations rose and fell with their sources of food, and in that regard Fraser and Rimas largely succeed in their efforts. They use the story of Francesco Carletti (link in Italian; Carletti’s memoir, My voyage around the world, is available used on amazon), a Florentine merchant whose disastrous eight-year trip around the world brought him into contact with many trading societies of the late 1500s and early 1600s, as the narrative hook to connect the various chapters, each describing a key variable in the construction of “food empires.” Those variables are fundamental to agriculture, husbandry, and food commerce – water, soil, distribution channels, refrigeration – with the final additions of “blood” (not just war, but subjugation and oppression in prime growing areas of the world) and money before their one chapter with an iota of hope, describing movements toward organic farming, slow food, and fair trade. The framework is here for a powerful wakeup call to anyone willing to step back and examine his larder and his table.

Unfortunately, when it comes to connecting problems to prescriptions, the authors fall back on hysteria and run light on facts. You can’t do an entire chapter on the declining quality of soil, including descriptions of the effects that heavy tilling and overfarming have on soil erosion rates, without even a single mention of no-till farming as a potential solution, even a partial one, to the very real problem at hand. Similarly, you can’t talk about nitrogen loss through waste and erosion without discussing the same problem of phosphorus, an absolute gating factor on the amount of life that this planet can sustain. (Untreated sewage dumped into the ocean sends loads of phosphorus to to the bottom of the sea, where it’s of little use to life on land.)

The authors’ sins aren’t limited to science or agriculture. They openly praise Marxism with nary a mention of the food shortages that have plagued every society that implemented (always via political repression) Marxist economic policies, including famines in North Korea and milk rationing for Cubans over the age of eight. Meanwhile, they excoriate capitalism and misstate Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” by accusing him of advocating cost-plus pricing. Rather than point out how government subsidies can distort market decisions, or argue for taxes that reflect the externalities they (correctly) point out are not reflected in free-market prices, they want to throw capitalism overboard and send us back to the Middle Ages. They’re similarly dismissive of comparative advantage without considering its wealth-generating capabilities – if you want to argue that localism trumps comparative advantage, acknowledge the latter’s benefits and explain why the former is in our best collective interests.

There are even the sort of tiny errors that don’t necessarily affect the larger point of the book but serve to undermine the credibility of the text because checking these facts is so easy yet wasn’t done. The authors repeat the dubious story of Roman commanders salting the earth around Carthage (per Wikipedia, which has a solid source for this, “ no ancient sources exist documenting this. The Carthage story is a later invention, probably modelled on the story of Shechem.”) They also mention the million-plus city of “San Jose, Texas,” which is probably news to the residents of the San Jose in California or to the residents of San Antonio, Texas.

The intent of Empires of Food is a good one, I think – raising awareness of the fragility of our current infrastructure for feeding the world. It’s certainly relevant to me out here in Arizona, where we depend on dwindling water resources and import much of our food because the local environment isn’t ideal for agriculture (and a lot of local farms out here are selling out to developers). But it’s relevant to anyone in the U.S. because, even though we’re not necessarily the world’s greatest offenders (China is the real villain of the book, although the authors seem too skittish to say so explicitly), we are in the best position to do something about it. The problem with the book is that it gets sloppy and devolves too often into a polemic rather than sticking to well-argued advocacy.

Next up: Nearly done with Charles Bukowski’s bizarre twist on the detective novel, Pulp.

Edward Trencom’s Nose.

I’ll be writing up every significant trade or signing over on, including Adrian Gonzalez, Jayson Werth,, Marcum/Lawrie, Mark Reynolds, and
J.J. Putz.

Before moving on to the last two thirds of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, I read the first novel by Giles Milton, whose nonfiction works include one of my favorite books in that genre, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. The novel, Edward Trencom’s Nose:, looked right up my alley, promising in its subtitle a tale “of history, dark intrigue, and cheese.” A historical mystery/detective story revolving around food, by an author I’ve read and liked? Sign me up.

You might infer from the introduction that I did not care for Edward Trencom’s Nose. That is an incomplete inference. It might be the worst novel I’ve read in the last five years. Milton’s sins are many. The book has zero suspense – you don’t find out what’s going on until the final few pages, and the way Milton unfurls the story yields no dramatic tension. The relevance of the food to the plot is minimal, and it seems more like a chance for Milton to flex some cheese knowledge than anything else. The protagonist is an aloof, self-centered idiot, and there is no three-dimensional character to be found in the book’s pages. And while the book’s jacket and reviews promised a funny book – the marketing copy on the back calls it a “mouth-watering blend of Tom Sharpe and P.G. Wodehouse,” for which the Wodehouse estate should sue – the book is terribly unfunny, crowded with obvious, futile attempts at humor and some of the worst descriptions of sex I have ever seen in any book. (Sex in Milton’s world appears to be a foul, violent act; he actually uses the word “pummeled” to describe one particular bout of coitus.)

So, since that book sucked, let me use this space to talk a little about Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, a book I can actually recommend to you without hesitation. The book is the history of that titular spice, one that was once the most expensive foodstuff in the world (an honor that I believe now falls to saffron, at least on a per gram basis) and that played a heavy role in European colonization of the western hemisphere and southeast Asia. When doctors in seventeenth-century England claimed that nutmeg was the only reliable cure for the plague, the spice – itself the dried seed of trees of genus Myristica – became more valuable by weight than gold, spurring a rush to obtain and trade in it … if only anyone could figure out where it came from.

Nutmeg at the time was found only in the Banda Islands (in the Maluku archipelago) of present-day Indonesia, and its best source was a tiny island called Pulorin (or Puloron) by its natives but just called “Run” by Europeans of the time. It was hard to reach, hit twice yearly by powerful monsoons, and populated by unfriendly locals. The Portuguese visited the Spice Islands nearly a century before the English reached Run, but had no luck with the natives and could do little more than trade with middlemen. Beginning around the year 1600, the English and Dutch – who came to Indonesia loaded for bear, and stand accused in this book of some unspeakable acts of violence in the name of securing their nutmeg supply – began a decades-long dispute over Run Island, one that wasn’t settled until the 1660s.

Nathaniel Courthope was a factor in Borneo who led an expedition in 1616 to Run to try to break the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. The islanders warmed to Courthope and the English, only to find themselves subjected to a brutal siege by the Dutch that lasted nearly four years, a feat Milton credits largely to Courthope’s cunning and bravery. The Dutch won the battle eventually – I won’t spoil how – but lost the larger war, eventually securing their hold on Run and all of the Banda Islands in an agreement with the English that ceded New Amsterdam to the occupying English forces. That is, we speak English today in large part because the Dutch wanted a 3 km long island in Indonesia that was the world’s main supply of nutmeg. And, in a bit of a last laugh on the Dutch, to recapture Run after the British briefly held it in 1664, the Dutch pulled a General Sherman on the island, nearly killing their own golden-egg-laying goose.

Courthope makes an ideal hero for a nonfiction book, right up to his hero’s demise, and the story of Dutch brutality against Englishman and native alike should not be lost to history just because now they’re nice people and cheer really loud for their long track speed skaters. Milton sprinkles the story with the history of nutmeg itself (and a little on its poor sibling, mace, the dried aril that covers the nutmeg seed, lacking the potent flavor of the nutmeg proper) and the prior history of the Banda Islands, but the star of the show is Courthope, giving the book some of the narrative greed that I particularly like in my nonfiction reads.

So start with Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and skip the cheese course entirely.