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BookloverCook Reviews: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

I’ve been cooking and reading a lot lately, but the reading has been better. Thus, I bring you my second review in a row. In all seriousness though, I am really excited to tell you about this book because I just had so much fun reading it.

Delicious! is food world star Ruth Reichl’s highly anticipated first novel, and it was published this week. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy, which is why I’m able to tell you about the 375-page tome so hot on the heels of its publication.

It is the coming of age story of Billie Breslin, a shy and insecure 20-something who we meet just as she has dropped out of college to take an assistant job at a high profile food magazine in New York called Delicious! But not long after she starts this dream job, Delicious! is abruptly shuttered and Billie’s world is turned upside down – again. Out of this event comes a wonderful discovery, however, involving a secret room in the Delicious! library, a mysterious riddle created by a spirited former librarian (!!), and a cache of letters written to the magazine’s most famous employee, James Beard. What ensues opens Billie’s eyes to history, the world and people around her, and most importantly, to herself.

Delicious! cover

If I had to choose one word to describe this book, (which I realize no one is making me do, but just hypothetically) it would be Indulgence. The opening chapters are pure wish fulfillment, as we are swept, along with Billie, into a fantasy job (for any food-lover at least) at a food magazine and a gustatory tour of New York that is a sensory explosion. And the story itself just makes you feel good, like slipping into a warm bath with a glass of wine and a square of dark chocolate after a long day.

If you read for dazzling, literary language, I will caution that there are some clichés and foibles that will give you pause here and there. If, however, you read for a compelling story that keeps up a good clip, for characters who feel like your best friends by the end, for pure enjoyment, then you will eat it up. (Sorry, I just can’t help myself!)

I can see this book appealing to a broad set of readers. If you love food writing you will be enthralled by the first few chapters, and by the time the food writing slows down and the story picks up, you will be too absorbed to notice. Reichl fans that read and enjoyed her memoirs will not be disappointed with her fiction debut. In fact this book made me want to go back and read everything she’s ever written. I predict that fans of genres such as Chick Lit or Women’s Fiction (both terms I hate, but how else to say it?) will like it, and even Romance readers might like it, though it doesn’t necessarily adhere to that form.

As I mentioned in the beginning Delicious! is long, nearly 400 pages. If you can believe it though, one of my criticisms of it is actually that some of the storylines are tied up too quickly at the end. I spent so long reading about them that I was disappointed to have them dispensed with in so few pages. Plus, once I got into the story I truly did not want it to end and I relished every one of its 375 pages.

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BookloverCook Reviews: Slices of Life by Leah Eskin

One of my favorite kinds of books, there have been so many of them over recent years that they might constitute a genre by now, is the food memoir. A book that explores, pokes, prods, and marinates in the connection between food and our internal lives. Because sure, food nourishes our physical bodies, but it also nourishes our souls – or at least it should – and thus the experience of it can be emotional, memorable, important.

Slices of Life by Leah Eskin, published in early April, has this connection at its heart. A compilation of her Chicago Tribune column, “Home on the Range,” this book packs a decade of such exploration into a single volume that can be enjoyed in quick bites or as long, leisurely meals. And speaking of meals, each column includes a recipe – 200 overall. These recipes are, for the most part, very accessible to the home cook. They aren’t fancy or complicated; they are the dependable, comforting fare that you cook for your family, which is, of course, what Eskin was doing during the years she was also writing the column.

Slices of Life

I have to admit that upon first receiving the advance copy of this book to review, I thought I wasn’t going to like it. The idea of a whole book of newspaper columns just didn’t sound like it would be up my alley. As much as I like to read about food, I need a story. Fortunately, Eskin is much more adept with her form than I gave her credit for and this book has a definite story – one that is funny, relatable, and touching.

In a creative and masterful way, Eskin arranges her columns – supplemented here and there by sections of new writing to provide necessary linkages – in a way that I like to think of as a mosaic. Through each essay you get a close-up, intimate view of individual moments and events in her life both big and small: a summer beach trip with her family, the death of her grandmother, a bad haircut, a move across the country, a storm that knocks the power out. And then through reading them all you can pull back and see the big picture of her life with all her identities: as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, pet owner, professional writer, and more. I loved reading one at a time when I could, finding pockets of reading time here and there to read one or two, but I also spent a few multi-hour sessions devouring scores of them.

Another aspect of this book that I admire, as a person who writes and adapts recipes, is Eskin’s recipe writing style. The only thing that can make a recipe “yours” (both figuratively and legally) is unique writing, especially in the method/instructions section. Eskin has this type of unique recipe writing down to a science. Take this recipe for Sparkling Salad, a celebratory dish Eskin includes after a poignant column about a breast cancer scare:

Serves any number (count about two pieces of fruit per person). Scrutinize the fruit drawer; gather all your citrus options. Lots of oranges, plenty of tangerines, some clementines, a grapefruit, a lemon, a lime. Relying on your sharpest knife, cut away the peel and pith of each. Slice into translucently thin rounds. Arrange the circles in a shallow bowl (glass would be traditional). Scatter with a handful of pomegranate seeds, if the arrangement is lacking color. Douse with Champagne. Chill until stunningly cold (if your fridge isn’t up to the task, consider a few minutes in the freezer). This recipe is a descendant of that culinary classic, Orange Ambrosia, also called, endearingly, Bride’s Dessert. In other words, exquisitely simple. Also bracingly delicious. And full of early-morning optimism.

Slices of Life speaks to precisely what I love about food writing and what makes food so important in all our lives. “I write about food,” she says in the Introduction, “so I write about home, about family, and about love. It’s not always Strife or Injustice; it’s rarely Paris. But it is, I’d say, Important.”

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BookloverCook Reviews: Fannie’s Last Supper by Chris Kimball

Mark Bittman called this book, “Part history and part contemporary journalism,” and I would add to that, part food memoir and part cookbook. There’s a lot going on here. Fannie’s Last Supper by Chris Kimball is made up of interweaving stories about Victorian-era Boston, modern-day Boston, and Kimball’s spectacular and somewhat baffling attempt to recreate a high-society Victorian-style meal (complete with many equally baffling recipes). Think Downton Abbey with more historical context and set in Boston in 2009.

Fannie's Last Supper

I love the Victorian era: I love reading about it, watching movies and shows about it, listening to podcasts about it. Really. Love. So, take a book about Victorian history and add in food – recreating Victorian dishes, restoring an authentic Victorian kitchen, etc. – and I should be in heaven, right? Well, in the case of this book, the answer is…sorta.

I’ll get into some more details in a moment, but here’s the thing that I’ve realized about this book as I’ve tried to sort out, with no small amount of incredulity, my tepid reaction to it: much about the Victorian era has no place in our modern world and this book mashes them together in a way that ends up making me a little uncomfortable and ultimately ruins my Victorian fantasies.

This is because the Victorian era was actually pretty terrible for most of the people living in it, and the rest of the people were the upper class (like super upper, upper class). In that sense there is symmetry, unintended I think, in Kimball’s project because he and the friends he invites to his “Victorian-style” dinner are members of today’s upper class. For us normal people though, even though we may love learning about this time and fantasize about the aspects of life that were reserved for the rich, we would want nothing to do with it in reality. So, bringing it into our actual, current reality just feels…icky somehow.

Put another way – the whole book is just really bougy.

For instance, Kimball’s descriptions of buying and living in his “original Victorian bowfront townhouse” in South Boston in the 1990s will make anyone squirm who is conversant in the politics of gentrification. There’s also the sheer amount of money that is thrown at the whole endeavor: buying and restoring an original Victorian coal-turned-wood cook stove, testing and retesting and then preparing the 20+ (!!) recipes on the final menu, paying a staff of professional chefs and waiters to prepare and work the event itself. It is just absurd. Especially when you consider that this was happening in 2009, during the recession. And then to top it all off, a group of twelve elite food-scene celebrities (well, most of them anyway) gorge themselves on this 12-course meal in one Bacchanalian 4-hour evening. Ugh. It is enough to make me feel like putting on drab, olive-colored clothing and cracking open a copy of The Communist Manifesto

To his credit, Kimball does try to preemptively address the obvious criticism that this is “just a bunch of overprivileged gourmands enjoying ridiculous overconsumption” (his words) with an argument about how meaningful it was for the kitchen staff who prepared the meal, followed by a missive about what we’ve lost in our relentless march towards technological advancement. It is undeniable that we’ve lost something with our processed, microwaved food world, and I enjoy bucking those trends by cooking at home. I’ve even been known to make my own butter, cheese, bread, etc. when I feel moved to do so. Let’s not harken back quite so far though, lest we forget that the vast majority of the people doing this (brutal) kitchen work in the Victorian era were poor women who did not really have much of a choice in the matter.

Anyways, as you can tell, I got a little cranky with this book. But despite this, I did not hate it. I actually enjoyed most of it. I think that if Kimball had just left out the big finale, I would have loved it. I loved reading about the history of Boston in this time period, since much of what we get about this time period tends to be of the British variety. I loved reading about the food and marveling over the ingredients and how complicated and labor intensive many of the dishes are to prepare. Even though some of the descriptions are a bit hard for me to stomach as a vegetarian – seriously, who wants to see a whole calf’s head bobbing around in their soup stock?! – I can absolutely appreciate the respect involved in using the whole animal in the way that many of the recipes do. Meat tended to be a luxury during this time and even those that could afford it needed to make it count. It was also interesting to read about Fannie Farmer, a shrewd businesswoman who, though Kimball found most of her recipes to be a bit pedestrian, taught many a middle-class housewife bereft of kitchen servants how to cook.

So, to sum up this too-long-and-semi-ranty post: if you are interested in Victorian and/or food history, you will probably mostly like this book. There’s even a website where you can watch video of the dinner, look at pictures, and get more recipes. Suspend disbelief enough to get through the aspects I complain about above, and it is a sumptuous, nerdy fantasy. If the points I make above really resonate with you, I would consider skimming over the opening chapters and skipping the last chapter entirely. Or, go ahead and read the whole thing and then rant at people about it. 😉

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Ruminating on lunch

I recently reread The Wind in the Willows, which you may have seen if you follow me on Twitter because I’ve talked about it a lot. In addition to being just about the most charming, perfectly lovely book I’ve ever read (even better now that I’m an adult), it has several passages of really appealing descriptions of food.

One in particular, near the beginning when we are just starting to get a feel for the friendly, quirky animals that live in this pastoral world, started me ruminating on the topic of lunch:

“…after a short interval [he] reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket… ‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wiggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘cold tongue cold ham cold beef pickled gherkins salad french rolls cress sandwidges potted meat ginger beer lemonade soda water–‘
‘Oh stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’
‘Do you really think so?’ inquired the Rat seriously ‘it’s only what I always take on these little excursions'”

The Wind in the Willows

Image from books4yourkids.com

Yes, I know I don’t even eat many of the things in Rat’s basket, but for some reason this scene just tickles me. And more to the point, it made me realize that I’ve managed, over the last couple years of grad school-induced austerity, to get into a pretty good habit of making my lunch and bringing it with me (to school, or now, work) as opposed to buying it every day like I did for so long. I am quite proud of this habit – and how often can you say that about a habit? – so it seemed like something worth sharing.

The recipe in my lunch repertoire that I’m most excited to talk about is for a lunch salad. Womp womp. Yes, I know, I know, but hear me out. The problem with lunch salads in my experience is that they are either too virtuous – vegetable-only affairs that leave you hungry, or too heavy – sure it has fried chicken, bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing in it, but it’s a salad! And neither of those are what I want for lunch. This salad is different though: it’s healthy yet filling, but not too heavy, and it has lots of different textures and flavors – veggies, protein, salty olives, crunchy pumpkin seeds, creamy avocado. In short, it’s the perfect lunch salad.

mix-ins

Oh sure, I’ll bring other things for lunch as well. I tend to bring leftovers from dinners during the week, mixed and matched together to create something new. Recently I tried this twist on a tuna salad sandwich and really liked it. While working on this post, I found that one of my favorite food websites put together a list of lunch recipes that take 5 minutes to pack, which I will definitely try out. But where my luncheon basket is concerned, I keep coming back to this salad. It hits all the right spots, and leaves me feeling both satisfied and healthy.

salad

An Ideal Lunch Salad

Adapted from 101cookbooks
Makes 4 lunch-sized salads

The key to getting this salad (or any salad, really) to work with me is prepping it ahead of time. So, on weeks that I want to have this salad for lunch, I spend 10-15 minutes on Sunday evening to get it ready. Assuming you may want to do the same, my instructions below are for this scenario. If you are making this salad for lunch on a weekend, or perhaps a leisurely picnic, then you could obviously prep and mix it all up at once – just make sure to wait on the dressing until right before serving, as with most salads.

Mix-ins:

3 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 small head of broccoli, chopped into florets
1 14 oz can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
15 kalamata or niçoise olives, chopped

Toppings:

1/3 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 small ripe avocado, sliced

Dressing:

1 tablespoon white miso
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1-2 tablespoons (depending on how loose you like your dressing) water or any type of unsweetened milk
a pinch of salt (or more, to taste)

Greens:

2-3 handfuls of whatever greens you prefer (I’ve tried it with spinach, romaine, arugula, mixes – you can’t go wrong)

Prep

Steam the broccoli for about 4 minutes – until it is fork tender, but not mushy.

In a large container, combine all the mix-ins and store in the fridge until ready to assemble your salad.

Toast the pumpkin seeds and store in a separate container on the counter.

Make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients until smooth. Adjust the consistency to your liking by adding as much of the milk/water as desired. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if needed. Store the dressing in a glass container in the fridge.

Assembly

In a med-large container (I use one that holds 1 quart), first lay down a bed of greens. On top of the greens, scoop about 2/3 cup of the mix-ins. Top with 1/4-1/2 of an avocado. (I store the other half of the avocado – pit still in it! – in a container in the fridge and it keeps just fine for a day or two).

Bring the toasted nuts and the dressing with you to work. When you are ready to eat lunch, top the salad with about a tablespoon of toasted seeds and as much dressing as you like. Put the top back on your container and then shake it up – I find this is the best way to distribute the dressing throughout the salad. Enjoy!

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Food Books I Love: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl

Food can stir up memories like almost nothing else. Perhaps it’s because we eat with so many of our senses at once? Take coffee for instance. I hardly ever drink it, I’m more of a tea girl, but the smell of coffee brewing in the morning makes me think of my dad every time. I blink and I’m seven years old, the smell wafting into my bedroom where I’m still warm under the covers and half asleep, knowing he’s up and getting ready to leave for work, waiting for him to come kiss me goodbye, his mustache tickling my cheek and the smell of coffee on his breath.

Or blueberry pancakes. While a lovely idea, the sight, the smell, or (god forbid!) the taste of them will forever start my stomach quivering with the memory of a particularly bad flu I had as a child. I’ll leave it at that.

I’ve talked about this idea before. Here in reference my grandma, and how she is so connected to Italian food in my mind that almost anything with red sauce conjures her up before my very eyes. And here, when I told you about this decidedly un-hip Snickerdoodle, one bite of which drops me in the middle of the kitchen floor in my childhood home.

It’s a theme I can’t help repeating though. It is the key to why food holds such an important place in my life. It turns out I’m not the only one. In the book I just finished reading, Memoir of the Sunday Brunch, food is the center around which Julia Pandl’s family orbits.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch

Her parents own a restaurant and, at the age of 14, Pandl is conscripted into the family business just like her eight (!) brothers and sisters before her. The coming-of-age story that unfolds from this event is punctuated with food: from a scarring breakfast sausage to smoked trout with a hangover to fiscal responsibility as taught by a can of peanuts.

It is certainly cliché to say “I laughed, I cried…,” but I did both. Pandl has an understated, self-effacing, but steady humor that had me chuckling through much of the book. And when fear, loss, and grief creep in and take that humor’s place, as they of course do in life, they are all the more moving for its absence.

The book is broken into two distinct halves. In the first we grow up with Pandl and get to know her family, especially her parents, through the lens of the restaurant, Pandl’s in Bayside. In the second half, we go along for the ride as Pandl wrestles with life, examines her faith, and explores her relationship with her parents. My only slight complaint is that the halves are too starkly different. That one moment I’m surrounded by the warm, comforting smell of brunch in the restaurant and the next I don’t get so much as a pancake for chapters. That is also, I suppose, how life is though. You think you’ve figured out what your life is all about and then it turns out that’s not it at all. The loss of what we think is important can be one of the surest ways to show us what is truly important.

For Pandl and her family, as for me and I’m sure many others, food is the vehicle through which memories are formed. It is the catalyst for them to be shared and related to. Ultimately, however, it is the people we love who are the substance of our memories and the true sustenance of our lives.

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Food Books I Love: the French edition

At any given time since I was 16, you could have called me, quite accurately, a Francophile. Lately though, this interest/mild obsession has been reinvigorated by some lovely books about France and – more importantly – French food.

I can trace my love of all things French back to high school when I made the romantic and wildly impractical decision to take French class instead of Spanish to fulfill my mandatory language credits. Those classes led to my participation in a high school trip to Europe (still not sure how I got my parents to pay for that one). It was three days in each of three cities: Edinburgh, London, and Paris.

Paris was my favorite and those three days are solidly etched in my mind as three of the best days of my life. Could this dramatic distinction be the result of the haze of nostalgia and hyperbole of teenage emotions? Possibly. But I did have a wonderful time.

There was one afternoon in particular that has always shined the brightest in my memory. It involves getting lost, as I often was before the age of smart phones. But this time, as my friends and I wandered the streets of Paris with little to no idea where we were, instead of nervously trying to figure my way back to something I knew and recognized, I embraced the adventure of the unknown.

In my memory, which is vivid if not 100% accurate, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, Paris has put on its finest garb to greet the wide-eyed Alaskan high school students that wandered in its midst. Wandered with only a few francs each, I might add. After a couple of hours blissfully walking the streets looking at everything, but looking for nothing, we happened upon a bakery. Like you do in Paris. I’m not sure if it would have been up to snuff by Parisian standards, but to my taste buds it was ambrosia. We sat at a little round table out in the afternoon sun and shared a couple different pastries between us (remember the dearth of francs), each more delicious than the next.

I sat there outside that pastry shop, in my own version of heaven, and remember imagining myself living this life. Imagining what it would be like if I lived in this neighborhood, in that building up the street where each apartment has its own little balcony – mine would be the one with the overflowing flower pots that left just enough room for someone to stand among them and look out over the city. Imagining that this was my neighborhood bakery and that every evening on my way home from work I would stop in to buy myself a sweet treat for dessert. It was intoxicating, this imagining.

This experience, small (and a tad naïve) though it seems now that I retell it as an adult, was pivotal to me as a teenager on the road to becoming an adult. It opened my eyes to another way of life, to a big world that existed outside of my own experiences. I might have known, in theory, that there was a big world out there that I hadn’t seen, but the reality of it hit me like a smack in the face and left me dumbfounded and grinning.

This one afternoon, My Afternoon in Paris as the file in my brain reads, made me want more of that big world. I talked about this afternoon in college admissions essays, it inspired me to study abroad my junior year, it was one of those moments that shapes your life. And all over some pastries. Some damn good pastries.

The women in the books I review this week are certainly very different, from me and from one another, but they too embraced France, welcomed it into their lives and their imaginations, and it changed them.

My Life in France cover

My Life in France is beloved and iconic chef Julia Child’s autobiography. It spans her life, but really focuses on her time in France while she got her culinary education, both formally at Le Cordon Bleu and informally on the streets of Paris, and spent almost a decade writing her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

After reading this book, I wanted to be Julia Child’s best friend. And I wanted to move to France. Since neither of these things is likely to happen any time soon, I treasure the presence of this book in my life. I can pluck it from my bookshelf (or, ahem, check it out from the public library) any time I want and be instantly transported to Julia’s France – and oh! what a France it is. I defy anyone not to fall in love with the French locales described in this book. The colors, the smells, and, most of all, the tastes of all the places Julia and her beloved husband Paul lived and visited – from Paris to the port city of Marseille – will stay with you long after you finish reading.

And then there is Julia herself, whose character simply bursts off the pages. She has this big, fun, boisterous, passionate personality and you really come to feel as if you know her – as if she is speaking straight to you from across a little, round, Parisian table, telling you her stories.

Many of these stories are about her cookbook, her life’s work, and contain all the right kind of fascinating details about the process of its creation – making you feel like you are a lucky observer peeking into a wonderful, secret world you were never meant to see. Many other stories are personal ones of her life with her husband Paul. Their tender, solid relationship is the part of this book that I was least expecting, but most enjoyed. Their life as described in these pages – despite unavoidable hard times, including a brush with Senator McCarthy and a depressed period of living in Germany – is truly enviable,  full of adventure, laughter, mutual respect, and intense devotion.

This book was also, of course, the inspiration for the Julia-half of the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, written and directed by the late Nora Ephron.

Lunch in Paris cover

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard, is in many ways a similar tale of a woman who finds herself, both physically and symbolically, in France.

Elizabeth falls in love with a French man and moves to Paris where, after some hemming and hawing, she marries him. In many ways, however, this is just the beginning of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to love in the recounting of this early phase of Elizabeth’s relationship with her eventual husband, Gwendal, including some very seductive recipes that I wanted to rush to my kitchen to make immediately.

The parts of Elizabeth’s experience that really spoke to me though, are the ones that go beyond the romantic ideal she seemed to be living. These are the stories about her struggles to build a new life – a stranger in a strange land. Her accounts of the loneliness she felt, how difficult it was to make friends, her attempts to understand French women’s nuanced attitudes toward food and body image, her integration into a new family. All told with an honesty that is inviting, an optimism that is inspiring, and a graceful wisdom that instructs.

The method of sharing her experiences in vignettes can sometimes feel a little choppy, simply because they can make the reader feel like there are parts of the story that are missing and you don’t want to miss one second of this engaging tale. The overall structure of the book is a success though – it is narrative and reads like a novel, but includes recipes at the end of each chapter that pair perfectly with the theme of what preceded.

Don’t forget that you can find reviews and rating for these, and other books for food-lovers on my Good Reads page!

Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I go find a pastry…

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Food Books I Love: The Butcher and the Vegetarian by Tara Austen Weaver

Although this blog is called BookLoverCook, there has been much more cooking than book-loving going on in my posts so far. I figure it’s time to change that since reading holds a place in my heart that is equal to (if not dearer than) cooking. So, I’m going to start sharing some of my favorite food-related books with you. Yes, I love LOTS of other types of books too, but we’re working with a theme here, people.

Each time I do one of these cook-ish-book-ish posts I will tell you about one specific book, but you can also follow my reading and wish-I-were-reading activities on GoodReads by either viewing my entire profile or checking out my bookshelf dedicated to books for food-lovers. And as soon as WordPress gets its s*&^ together and offers the capability, I will also include a little widget for my food-lovers bookshelf from the sidebar of the site. Yay reading!

Rocco loves reading

The book I want to tell you about today is called The Butcher and the Vegetarian by one of my favorite bloggers, Tara Austen Weaver of the blog Tea & Cookies. Tara also happens to live in Seattle and has often inspired me with a well-timed blog post or tweet about our fair but rainy city. I had been meaning to read this book for a while – ever since I first discovered Tara and her wonderful blog – and I was finally able to do it recently over my Spring Break.

The Butcher and the Vegetarian cover

It may not surprise you to hear that I like books that have to do with food, eating, and what food we choose to eat. Despite being happily vegetarian, however, I do not like books that are sensational or too prescriptive when it comes to choosing what to eat, especially when the choice is about whether or not to eat meat. I think that choice is a personal one with no easy answer, so I don’t like authors who try to make it black and white. That is why I thoroughly enjoyed The Butcher and the Vegetarian. Reading it felt like sitting down with a cup of tea and talking with an old friend about an issue that we both care deeply about.

We learn early on that Tara has been a vegetarian since birth – a serious Northern California, 1970’s, brown rice-sprouts-no salt vegetarian. So when her doctor recommends she start eating meat for her health, it presents quite a crisis. Her ensuing quest to figure out not only what she wants to eat, but also what her body wants her to eat – what makes her feel healthy – is honest and deeply personal.

For her, this is no mere intellectual exercise, her poor health demands that she find a diet that works for her, and to do that she has to try everything, from including meat to cutting out dairy (gasp, no cheese!) to eating totally raw. In the process she attempts to understand the implications behind her dietary choices, visiting a cattle yard and a slaughterhouse among other things, and grapples with the ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise.

Such an experiment with one’s own body is not for the faint of heart and I felt, as a reader, honored that Tara was willing to give me such an intimate window into what was a sometimes emotional, sometimes confusing and frustrating, but always hopeful experience.

And luckily, the serious subject matter is balanced out by her voice as a narrator, which is approachable, conversational, and funny. I often laughed out loud while reading about her attempts to order meat in a decidedly unfriendly butcher shop, her surreptitious visit to a meat-only barbecue, and her effort to understand the appeal and mystique behind the male-dominated world of the steak house.

This book was a joy to read, even while forcing me to think differently about issues I thought I already had a pretty firm grasp on. If you are at all interested in food issues – or even if you’re not and you just love a good memoir with a narrator you really get to know – I suggest you give The Butcher and the Vegetarian a read. Tara also recently published a new book called Tales from High Mountain: Stories and Recipes from a Life in Japan, which is currently making its way up my to-read list.

If you have any suggestions of your own for food-related books you think I should read, please let me know in the comments!

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