Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Paper knowledge (Χάρτινες γνώσεις)

I felt pangs of envy as I eyed my London hosts' bookshelves. They were full of books that I couldn't dream of touching, let alone afford: arty, hard-backed, specialist books that we often like to browse through. My friends don't own e-book readers. They still use the less sustainable form of the printed word. Even more eye-opening was the fact that throughout my train journeys in London, I did not encounter a single person using an e-book reader. Those that were not reading their text messages on their cellphones were reading tangible paper, mostly a free newspaper or a real book. In fact, the book looked like a status symbol: the harder the cover, the higher your status. My e-book reader makes me look poor (and indeed, this is why I bought it in the first place - to get cheap access to reading material in the English language).

Over time, I've convinced myself that I don't really need to buy many paper books now that I have an e-book reader; there's always the internet where we can read whatever we want, convert it to a PDF file and read that on our reader too. It's the same stuff that's in the expensive books that I can't really afford to buy. But the touch of a book does not have the same appeal as an e-book reader - real paper has a luxurious feel to it these days.

PlentyAmong the many titles I found on my friends' bookshelves were also a host of cookery books. I spotted the hard-back copy of Plenty on their shelves, which I'd bought as an e-book for £2.49. "It's really good, isn't it?" they said, and I nodded half-heartedly, although I wondered where they found the time to cook anything from it since they spend very long hours away from home, working and chasing up hobbies, which means very little time to spare for cooking up a fresh Ottolenghi. I also suppose they didn't pick up on the bloopers: "Use Greek black olives of the dry wrinkled variety. Having matured longer on the tree, they are saltier and more robust in flavour." (Black wrinkled olives are saltier because they have had salt added to them to cure them...) The photographs in the book do not jump out of my e-book screen, but the recipes are just as clearly written.

As if their real books were not enough, they had a whole lot of other books lying around the house that were borrowed from the local public library, recent titles containing the latest word so to speak on various topics - and a good number of those books were also food-based. I felt like all my Christmasses had come at once: I had a week to gorge on two science books and four food books! Here are some speed reviews of these titles. The prices are all for the Kindle version of the books (except the first which is only available in paper form).

Home at 7, Dinner at 8. £9.59 Flipping through the book, I noticed a range of enticing meals that relied on a wide range of ingredients. Some of them could be considered exotic, but as the writer explains: "... cooking isn't about getting worried that you are missing a certain ingredient or you can't find what you need in the supermarket. Just go with what you have and take it easy..." But some of the ingredients used need to be have been prepared beforehand or bought in a processed form, eg boiled beetroot and canned beans, neither of which can be used in their natural form in a 'quick' meal. The recipes all stated the preparation time needed to prepare them, and the point of the book was to show how you could cook a meal with a gourmet look very quickly, much in the same way as Jamie Oliver's (in)famous 15- and 30-minute recipes.

My opinion: The time factor in a meal doesn't concern me so much these days, as I find it very easy to prepare a meal in little time. There are many ways of economising on time without scrimping on quality. The appealing photos in this book didn't always remind me of meals that would be enjoyed by the whole family: combinations such as beetroot and broad beans, or tuna with grapefruit and chili are probably a little too avant garde for young eaters. Admittedly, a home-by-7 schedule doesn't often connote a family life... Some recipes stated suspiciously short cooking times for meat dishes, something I've always avoided due to the health issues involved in this kind of cooking style (Jamie Oliver really has a gall to produce such books and then state in an interview that he is getting involved in slow food, and no, he says, he didn't consciously build an empire). In short, the paper book didn't give me any more inspiration to cook better meals than I am already cooking.

The Hairy Dieters. £6.65 This is a spin-off book from a TV series featuring The Hairy Bikers and their comfort food. They have produced a number of books all containing twists on favorite stodgy British recipes (all downed with alcohol of course), from curries to pies to baking. Their latest book - featuring photos of their slimmed-down selves - relies on calorie-counted recipes and tips for how not to over-indulge (including going alcohol-free), topped up by some quirky use of innuendos, like "Pack your lunch box with the ingredients a topless sandwich... That way, your topless sarnie doesn't get a soggie bottom" and 'smart' advice: "If you're hungry between meals, drink lots of water. It has no calories and will help you feel full."

My opinion: This book contains tempting photos of delicious comfort food that bears no resemblance to something you'd eat on a diet, except if you're eating minimal portions. Take the cheese leek and onion pasties for example - the only diet aspect of this recipe is that if you eat only one, you could possibly lose weight. (but you probably wouldn't stop at one alone). The diet advice offered throughout the book is the same kind of tired advice often given in other diet-related literature, so there is nothing new to learn here. Having said all that, the recipes were very family-friendly, the kind of things you can imagine cooking for a young family and everyone enjoying what they were eating and asking for seconds.

Cooking Without Recipes. £5.39 The title grabbed my attention because this is the way I often cook, without specific recipes. The book aims, among other things, to teach you "how to knock something together from the old remnants of your fridge" and to "encourage you to find new ways to shop for, cook and eat the kind of food you love." The book describes in detail the basics involved in setting up your kitchen and a how-to-use section for various kinds of food items (eg individual vegetables). There are no recipes per se, nor are there any photographs. It's probably a good book for the complete amateur who has experienced a life-changing event, and wants to begin cooking for themselves without ever having done it before.

My opinion: The first few pages of the book read a bit like a personal culinary memoir, I almost felt as though I was reading my own blog written by someone else, giving me a deja vu experience. I guess I'm too advanced a creative cook to find this book enthralling. It felt good to read about other like-minded cooks like myself.

What to Eat: Food that's good for your health, pocket and plate. £6.73 Trying to combine health and price in our food is a tricky subject these days. The book starts by dictating to the reader in Pollan-like style how they should eat: "Base your diet on real, unprocessed food; Don't buy food with ingredients you won;t find in a domestic larder; Don't dismiss traditional food knowledge; Practice vegetable-centric eating; Waste nothing - use up every last bit of food you buy; Stick with eat from free-range animals rather than sticking to factory-farmed, but consider reducing the quantity you eat; etc", in other words, the kinds of things I've adopted into my own cooking regime due to my lifestyle rather, ie out of need, rather than due to my belief in morally ethical eating habits. Later chapters discuss the health aspects and ethical considerations of eating various vegetable, meat and dairy products. There are no recipes or photos; some quirky stories surrounding food items are provided to maintain the interest of the reader, who is most likely someone who wants to start eating with a conscience.

My opinion: Books like this one forget the basic reason behind food - we need to eat (cheaply, wherever possible) to live, and in reality, few of us have the luxury or time and money to choose what we eat. Because of where we live and how we live, and the fact that land and cultivation have always been an important part of my husband's life, I take solace in the fact that my food chain is a short one and I can rely on very good quality cheap fresh food all year round, but I also know this is an exception in highly urbanised societies. Heat'n'eats are not popular where I live: we simply don't have the range of ready food at a supermarket that is available in other countries, partly because there is less need for it (hence people are less used to eating a ready meal like a heat and eat). I cook de facto with fresh ingredients, not because I make an effort to find them.
      We don't always have the time to stop and think about what we are eating, as this book demands of its readers. But this creates a kind of snobbery that shouldn't have any place in a highly developed advancing world: What bothers me is the elitism surrounding natural minimally processed food and the overemphasis of elite labelling (eg organic or fairtrade etc). Rural people who often have access to this kind of food, even though they may be resource-rich, are in fact often money-poor, while urban dwellers are often being duped into believing that their food chain is unethical. But even my more 'ethical' eating style does not reflect the way I grew up; we lived in a city, so nearly all of our food was bought; although we did have a vegetable garden, it produced a minimal amount of food (it never matched the degree to production that my current garden produces). So practically everything we ate was bought. I now live in a rural area (coincidentally close to where my parents used to live before they migrated to NZ), and I have the luxury of being closely involved in my food chain. It also helps that I actually liked cooking to begin with, so I've learnt to use the resources around me which are many and varied (I didn't have this possibility available to me in my birth country).
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As I devoured these books one-by-one, I was glad to have had the chance to hold them in my hands, and to see what these books could offer me. They're relatively expensive for the recipes/advice they contain, so I know I could not have the luxury of getting my hands on them (Greek libraries rarely stock such books). I am by no means a perfect cook, nor do I know everything there is to know about food and cooking. But I'm way past the basics, and my food chain is much more ethical than the average urban dweller's. Books like these look good on your book shelf, but they don't really add much to your culinary knowledge; in fact, they contained a lot of information that you could easily get on the web. Many recipes are simply rewrites of well-known recipes with a few quirks in them as a selling point. Dictating a common sense approach to eating will only work when you are preaching to the converted (and possibly those with a bigger wallet). At any rate, many of the ideals can't really be implemented in the urban environment they were intended for, where people work long hours a long distance away from their kitchens. I envisage weekend hobby cooks working their way through the recipes (and bedtime readers nodding off with the bedside lamp on as they wade through the advice sections). Having said that, gastrosexuals will take delight in such books.

More than anything else, these books made me aware of how easy it is to get a book published these days, but how hard it is to make that book have a long-lasting effect. If I ever write a book myself, it will have to contain something new, not just a regurgitation of my blog. I don't just want to copy myself into print.

50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know
Seventeen Equations that Changed the WorldThe two non-food books that I also read while in London were 17 Equations that Changed the World (£7.59) and 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know (£2.99). Both these quirky titles give you the creepy (and again elitist) feeling that you are missing out on learning something utterly essential if you don't read them. But don't despair: get onto Amazon, and click the 'Look Inside' feature for both titles. The contents of each book are listed in detail, and you can look up each equation/mathematical idea, one by one, on the internet. You may not get the particular author's point of view, but the knowledge contained in each book is not denied to you either. The cheaper title is part of a larger series of books compacting other sets of 50 'significant global events' (all books have a 'Look Inside' feature), while the more expensive one has been summarised in a 20-page .doc file, which you can print out and use with your children.

You don't really need paper books these days; they are simply nice to hold in your hands because they have a luxurious feel to them. But once you browse them, you may realise that you already knew their contents, as most avid readers will have been reading the same things over the last decade. Paper books are generally more expensive to buy than e-books; people are no longer blind to this fact. Paper books are still highly desirable among many circles, but there is a snob value related to it, which people will surpass as they view the problem in terms of sustainability. Eventually, you run out of storage space, and these days, there is simply too much to read...

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