Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Good reads (Καλά διαβάσματα)

I'm tired of recipe books that show you how to cook something. When I buy a book related to food, I want it to tell me much more than how to make something to eat. Here are some food books I managed to read in the past year, which I highly recommend. They all go way beyond the idea of a collection of recipes, and in their own unique way, they all deal with the interaction between food and identity.

Pig in ProvenceA Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan starts off with "A Personal History of Goat Cheese". The first thing that came to my mind was mizithra, the local soft white curd cheese made of goat (and sheep) milk. That particular chapter set the scene of the story of the author's personal relationship with France, French food, and in particular la cuisine provencale. As an American, Georgeanne, made and sold cheese in Provence, using milk produced by her own goats. At first, I could not work out the time period that the book was set in; it felt as if I were reading a book about 21st-century rural Crete. As I continued to read the book, I realised that Georgeanne was describing her life in Provence as she lived it over 30 years ago. My God, I thought, I live in the Greek Provence! Shh, I hushed myself, don't tell too many people, they'll all be clamouring to get in! Provence and Crete both share the Mediterranean climate, so it's no wonder their food and the way it is regarded by the locals bear many similarities.

Product DetailsForgotten Skills Cooking by Darina Allen is a collection of over 700 recipes based on Irish food. Although the landscape and climate are quite different to Crete, both are islands, which is of fundamental nature in the cuisines of both regions, due to their isolation. Self-sufficiency is the norm. Darina explains how use was made of all of nature's offerings in the past, and nothing was taken for granted. In modern Ireland, these skills have passed on to folklore due to modern global trends, but as I pored through the very informative recipes and advice, I realised how lucky I am to be living in a place in the world where foraging skills, game cooking and home cheese-making skills and poultry-raising come as second nature to many of the locals, no matter which level of society they work amongst (they could be civil servants who come home to feed chickens). At the same time, it occurred to me that I don't have enbough time to devote to these forgotten/not-forgotten skills because of my full-time job, but it represents a secret life that I am looking forward to being able to enjoy in later life.
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman is more of a history book than a food book. It tells the stories of five 19th-century immigrant families (none of whose members are of any significance) to New York, who all lived at some point in their life in 97 Orchard Street, a tenement building (which is now a museum). But Jane's main interest in these families is the daily diet of these immigrants, who all left the very poor Old World - Germans, Italians, Russians, Irish and Eastern European Jews - to settle in the New World. The identity of these people was not associated with just language and religion: these early immigrants felt an attachment to the food of their homelands as a display of their identity. Each one of the ethnic groups dealt with had different ways of identifying with the food of their homeland, but ultimately, they were all aimed in the same direction, which was preserving their food identity. This got me thinking about Greek immigration and the food of the Greek diaspora, both in older and more modern times, especially as I read about the foraging of leafy greens by the Italians, the only ethnic group covered in the book that coveted leafy colourful vegetables more than meat/fish and root vegetables!

Food for Free by Richard Mabey is a nifty little book that fits into your pocket, just like your penknife, and both will be useful at the same time when you are foraging. The book contains photographs and easy-to-understand information on a number of commonly seen wild-growing species that we take for granted, but which can actually be used as plant food. It's not only vegetarians that will find this book useful - we all like variety in our meals, and plant-based food complements protein-based meals, providing both colour and nutrients. The plants included in this book are those growing in the UK, so it isn't immediately useful for those of living in the opposite extreme of the EU, but it does provide food for thought about the possibility of producing a similar book on Cretan 'free food'.

Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations (Official Wwii Info Reproductns)Eating for Victory (foreword written by Jill Norman) is a compilation of leaflets handed out to UK citizens by the Ministry of Food during and after World War II to combat food shortages, when less food was imported into the UK, which necessitated food rationing. The recipes contained in these leaflets taught people to waste nothing that could possibly be edible. Because the UK (unlike Greece) was highly industrialised even in those years, most people took it for granted that most of their food would come from a shop and not a garden, but this was suddenly not possible once imports were halted. Of course some of the ideas proposed in those leaflets are obsolete in our times (eg egg substitutes) due to the heavy industrialisation of our food industries, but in these very harsh economic times, some idea of frugal cooking proves useful. Most people will agree that we could all benefit from knowing how to use up leftovers in a creative way, how to replace sugar with naturally occurring sweeteners in other foodstuff and how to ensure the correct daily intake of vitamins from the foods we consume. The basic premise of these leaflets was how to make rationed food last until the next time a person was allowed to purchase them, and the recipes naturally describe 'from-scratch' meals, which are actually more expensive to make these days than mass-produced ready-prepared food, but the book also contains some interesting information about people's health in those days: despite the hardships they faced, the western world was actually generally healthier during the ration times than what it is now...

Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin Modern Classics)
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell is not actually a book about food; it is a book about the lack of food, one of the basic measures of poverty. George Orwell lived among the desperate and poor urban underworld who were often hungry, because they simply did not have access to a decent meal. "Being hungry ... taught me the true value of food," he writes, as he learnt to subsist on stale bread and tea in Britain's poor houses. The paradox was that when he had money to buy food, it was usually because he was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Food inequality is dealt with at various levels in the narrative, and there are still aspects of George Orwell's 1920s experiences that relate to poverty and hunger as they are felt in our own modern times, because neither has been eradicated.

I still like to pick up these books and flick through them. I have my favorite parts in each one, and they all seem to hold some relevance to me no matter how often I read them. I hope I've tempted you to go out and search for these books in your local library or bookstore.

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