American “Tare-wahr” by Rowan Jacobsen (ARC)

There are too many foodie books out at the moment.  A lot of which retread the same territory.  Rowan Jacobsen’s latest attempts to introduce a not-so-new premise (one which the French region of Champagne has managed to convince the world of since 1891) and apply it to the Americas.  He believes that where a food is grown imbues it with unique tastes and characteristics.  So, to play fast and loose with an example in the book:  terroir allows me to argue that the carrots in my backyard taste better than the carrots in your backyard.  Why is this?  Well my soil may be better suited for carrots.  It may contain more (or different) minerals, get more rain, have more direct sunlight… etc., etc.

Terroir isn’t a concept I’m all that crazy about.  It’s too easy to manipulate the idea and use it to create a false perception of value.  While I’m positive that is not Rowan Jacobsen’s intention, there’s many a slip between cup and lip… to which the bottled water industry can happily attest.

Terroir translates as “taste of place” and, as already stated, Jacobsen focuses on the tastes of the Americas (both North & South).   Maple Syrup from Vermont, apples from the Northwest, chocolate from Mexico – he jumps all over the map tracking down the best examples and exploring the reasons why.   At the end of every chapter he provides recipes (which I loved) and information, usually in the form of a website, on where to buy the specific brands he’s endorsing (which kind of belies the book’s claim to be the “perfect companion for any self-respecting locavore”).

This is a curious book and one which I have mixed feelings about.  First off: I don’t recommend reading American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters & Fields from cover to cover.  Skip around.  Individual chapters have absolutely no relation to one another, so it’s easy to jump from honey (pg. 81)  to cheese (pg. 210) to avocados (pg. 150) to salmon (pg. 163) without losing your orientation.   At their best, these chapters read like self-contained articles; which I might have enjoyed as installments in a newspaper, magazine or – better yet – as posts on a blog.  But they don’t lend themselves well  to being collected all in one place or read in a single sitting – particularly packaged as hardcover non-fiction.  In fact, I’m surprised this book wasn’t formatted differently:  for the coffee table; as a softcover pocket travel/guide book; or at least with some illustrations.  It could have made a fantastic holiday gift.

The second reason for my having mixed feelings about American Terroir is that Jacobsen can’t seem to figure out if he wants to be Michael Pollan or John McPhee.  One moment he’s talking about sucrose and glucose breaking down.  (More really than I needed to know).  And then he waxing lyrical, writing about gathering apples on a fall day or recycling that tried-and-true gambit: discussing the relationship between food and sex. (Always risky, in my opinion).

Sex rears its head with regularity in these pages, because most of our calories come from “repurposing” other organisms’ reproductive energy.  The realms of food and sex have been blurred on this planet for millions of years.  Just ask a flower.

There are times when Jacobsen’s writing voice borders on priggishness, like in the passage above.  Or when he says, “Sometimes, like William Faulkner, a thing achieves its best expression in its native landscape.  Sometimes, like Cormac McCarthy, it has to head west to find itself.”  It’s difficult not to roll your eyes between sips of your Pinot Noir.  At the same time, you have to be impressed by that kind of unorthodoxy in a food book.  American Terroir has some highs, but a lot of lows.  In small doses I might not have noticed, let alone been bothered by, the poetic flights and pretensions.   But in a full book, spread over a variety of subjects, Rowan Jacobsen’s idiosyncracies became frustrating.

I liked Jacobsen’s second book, Fruitless Fall, a thorough look at honey, bees and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  His first book, A Geography of Oysters, sounds equally fascinating and won the James Beard Award.  Which is why this new book is such a disappointment.  Rowan Jacobsen writes about topics I want to learn more about.  Which means I, along with other readers, will keep buying and (in most cases) enjoying his books.  If you’re a hardcore fan, then you’ll probably disagree with everything I’ve written.  But if your new to this author - American Terroir isn’t where I recommend you begin the relationship.

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59691 648 7

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Richard C. Morais’ The Hundred-Foot Journey (Advance Review Copy)

The Hundred-Foot Journey is narrated by Hassan Haji.  It is, in essence, a middle-aged chef recounting the story of his rise to Michelin stardom.   We learn of Hassan’s childhood in India and  follow the culinary fortunes of the Haji family as they travel from there to France (by way of England) – eventually finding a new home in the French Alps.  They open a restaurant directly across the street from Madame Mallory, a draconian French hotelier who will become Hassan’s worst enemy and greatest benefactress.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a charming first novel about the collision of two cultures: spangled India against the tasteful restraint of the French countryside; and between conflicting personalities – Papa the showman versus Madame Mallory the ascetic.  But, mostly, it is about Hassan’s struggle to follow his destiny without forsaking his past.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Richard C. Morais counted the late Ismail Merchant (of the legendary Merchant Ivory film company) and the author Kazuo Ishiguro among his close friends.  It made perfect sense.  Much like his friends’ works Morais’ writing contains quiet, subtle touches that might easily be overlooked.  And I couldn’t help but think that if Ismail Merchant were to have made The Hundred-Foot Journey into a film the screen would have been filled with gorgeous vistas of the French countryside.  Ishiguro would have told the tale from Madame Mallory’s perspective – looking back on a life that fell just short of greatness and sorting through the reasons why.  Morais’ story is instead as upbeat as a Bollywood film, and he keeps just the right balance of discovery and nostalgia in his narrator’s voice.  The plot conveys a real sense of the passing time and of place.  And underlying every sentence in The Hundred-Foot Journey is an ever abiding love of food, in all its glory.

Yes, it’s a foodie book.  But like everything else in the novel, Morais’ depictions of food are visceral and earthy.  At the same time they manage to retain a degree of sharp delicacy, due to his precisely worded descriptions .

I watched the famous chef expertly trim the vegetable’s leaves with a pair of scissors, the smart snips of her flashing tool ensuring each ragged leaf of the artichoke was symmetrically aligned and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, like she was tidying up after nature. She then picked up one of the lemons that had been cut in half, and doused each of the artichoke wounds – wherever she had snipped a leaf – with a generous squirt of lemon juice. Artichokes contain acid, cynarin, and this neat trick, I later learned prevented the sap-oozing leaves from discoloring the vegetable around its wound.

Next, Madame Mallory used a heavy and sharp knife to cleanly take of the top of the artichoke with a firm downward crunch of the blade. For a few seconds her head was down again, as she plucked some pink, immature leaves from the plant’s center. Picking up a new utensil, she cut at the inner artichoke and elegantly scooped out the thicket of thistle fuzz called the choke. You could see the satisfaction in her face when she finally and surgically removed the soft prize of the artichoke’s heart and set is aside in a bowl of marinade, already heaped with succulent and mushy cups.

Morais provides his reader with the clean, concise explanations of how a dish is prepared, allowing it to speak for itself unburdened by adjectives.  His writing is all the more powerful because of its austerity.   And while he preserves the inevitable link between love and food within his story  – I was glad to see that he doesn’t fixate on the romantic or sexual, but instead equates it with more familial bonds.  In the end, I felt that Morais was writing about food in a new and different way.  Not the typical “food porn” as described by Anthony Bourdain in the blurb – which to me implies artifice, a need for enhancement and ultimately fantasy.  The food in The Hundred-Foot Journey is honest and authentic.  Morais has done something much more difficult than creating food porn.  He has pin-pointed the beauty in what is real.

All through the month of July I will be reviewing books that share a common element: India.  These will include books by Indian authors, books set in India, or simply books about Indian culture.  The Hundred-Foot Journey seemed like the perfect place to start.  Because don’t most of us first experience a foreign culture in the same way?  Through the discovery and appreciation of its food?

Publisher:  Scribner, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 68407 812 0

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