Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.
In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.
I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.
It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.
So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.
These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.
The same need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.
| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.
Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.
So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.
Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples. Its author, Judith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.
I have been spoiled for choice with so many great new books about food and cooking published or about to be, making it hard to whittle this post down to a reasonably sized list. Some of these cookbooks are already on sale whilst others you are going to have to wait a little while longer for. Part II is on its way.
Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes // Robin Ha
Robin Ha has combined two of my favourite things (graphic art and cooking) and in doing so he’s created a fun way to tackle a cuisine which can seem intimidating to some. Via two to three-page comic strips and colourful renditions of ingredients, the steps required to produce your own Korean meals at home are broken down into achievable and relatable tasks.
The recipes are well-written too, all 60+ of them. There’s easy kimchi and bulgogi (soy and garlic flavoured beef on rice), gimbap (seaweed hand rolls) and lesser known meals such as pine nut porridge (jatjuk), knife noodle soup with clams (bajiirak kalgukso) and acorn jelly salad (dotorimuk) but fear not, there’s plenty of more familiar recipes too with ingredients easily found in most stores. And the graphic ‘what’s in a Korean refrigerator?’ will help demystify things. Robin Ha tells us his story as he goes along, using it to explain the history and culture of Korea and the reasoning behind its culinary techniques. If you are a fan of Lucky Peach, this is for you.
Ingredienti // Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan
Before you cook, you must first know how to shop and if your own parents have not taught you this, let Marcella Hazan step in for them. And even if you consider yourself a veteran in the market and the kitchen, I can guarantee there’s a few tricks you still don’t know about. Ingredienti, co-written and edited by her husband Victor after her death a few years ago is Marcella’s last gift to her fans. And what a gift this simple and elegant manual on how to shop for the best ingredients and prepare the most delicious meals is.
For over sixty years, Marcella Hazan made almost daily visits to the market in order to choose the ingredients of that day’s meal. Ingredienti is underpinned by her belief that in order to cook well, one must first develop affection for ingredients to the degree of seeing them as characters in a wider culinary narrative. There needs to be respect for one’s store cupboard which will then translate into greater confidence in the kitchen.
Ingredients are organized from A to Z and the book also includes sections such as how to store vegetables so they keep well and how the storage time indicates what kind of preparation and recipe they can be used for. The chapter on artichokes is a particular joy in this respect. There’s more advice about how to choose the best pasta and cheese, how to find good olive oil and even guidance on breadcrumbs, that most modest of ingredients which Marcella knew to be transformative when added to a dish of cardoon or baked endive. Her advice applies as much to the large British supermarkets as it does to our tiny farmers markets and the sumptuous markets we explore when on holiday.
The best food writers are able to magic up a conversation between themselves and their readers. Nigella and Diana have this ability and so does Marcella. It is to her husband Victors credit that he can continue this dialogue seamlessly. Her legacy lives on through this last book and her wisdom which is now ours, to hand down to our own children.
The New Mediterranean Table: old world recipes for the modern home // Joyce Goldstein
The New Mediterranean Jewish Table is devoid of glossy photographs and has recipes in prose rather than the traditional bullet-pointed format. If you are a novice cook or prefer a photograph and illustration to give you some idea of what to aim for then this book might not be the one for you. But readers in search of a competently-researched guide to the Jewish culinary diaspora should get out their credit cards now.
Goldstein has a passion for adding a contemporary twist to traditional recipes and meals so we’re not wading through recipes preserved in [kosher] aspic. There’s a great sense of forward movement which reflects the wonderfully diverse contribution Jewish people have made whilst also paying tribute to their ability to protect and preserve their own culture in the face of great tribulation. This is Old World cooking in a New World Kitchen with some flavours ramped up to suit the modern-day palate.. Goldstein challenges the dividing of Jewish culture into two common strands: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, preferring to distinguish between Sephardi and Mediterranean jews. Sephard was the ancient name given to the Iberian Peninsula and jews forced to flee Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition were given the name Sephardim. According to her, this term does not refer to the jews of Italy, the Maghrebi and the Mizrahi who are Mediterranean jews instead.
Taking us through jewish history, its flavours and palate, we arrive at the recipes via an explanation of the jewish holidays which punctuate the calendar. Their organisation is traditional: appetisers and salads such as Persian olives with pomegranate, and walnuts and a mint vinaigrette reflect the popularity of Ottolenghi-style meals with lots of small and colourful plates. I have already cooked a Venetian dish of sweet-and-sour carrots with raisins and pine nuts and bookmarked the thick tranche of fish under a vibrant duvet of green- herbed tahini which originates from Egypt and Lebanon. There’s layered baked dishes with matzo instead of bread which reminds me of the Sardinian taste for pane carasau layered with egg and tomato.
For something heartier, try the Sephardic meatballs offered with seven sauces and sharpened by charoset, served at the Passover Seder and presented in nine different ways. Recipes don’t come in a vacuum either: the scholarship is impressive and Golstein weaves in the history and culture of the Mediterranean Jew, offering the reader sources and bibliography of works in English, French and Italian to facilitate further fact-finding. One example of this is a spicy squash spread called thurshi which originally came from North Africa and turned up in a cookbook about Italian Jewish cooking. “It is likely that the recipe made its way into the Italian Jewish kitchen in Livorno, where many North African Jews settled,” she tells us.
The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club // Marlena De Blasi
In Orvieto, a city just ninety minutes from Rome, hewn from volcanic rock and crowned by an exquisite duomo described by De Blasi as ‘a glittering wedding cake awaiting a bride’, group of four Italian rural women gather in a stone house in the hills above Italy’s Orvieto. There, every Thursday evening—along with their friend, Marlena—they cook together, sit down to a beautiful supper, drink their beloved local wines, and talk. Surrounded by candlelight, good food and friendship, Miranda, Ninucia, Paolina, and Gilda tell their life stories of loves lost and found, of ageing and abandonment, of mafia grudges and family feuds, and of cherished ingredients and recipes whose secrets have been passed down through generations.
This is a book to stimulate all kinds of appetites as we hear stories of preparing pigs testicles, gathering wild asparagus (called Luppoli hops), cooking pasta in red wine and participating in the Vendemmia and the harvesting of olives during the Raccolta until the candles gutter out and the tired ladies drift off to bed. The stories are mined from De Blasi’s 20 years spent living and travelling in Italy and via her inner circle: the author (considered a newcomer, having lived in Orvieto only six years), Ninuccia, Paolina, Gilda and the aged Miranda, the keeper of the local culinary flame, who at the beginning of the book has reached the point where she feels she must hang up her apron.
There’s recipes too which we have come to expect from De Blasi and she effectively conveys a rural way of life which retains many elements virtually unchanged over the centuries. Her writing amusingly depicts the regional competitiveness between the different Italian regions and shows how regional preferences developed and go on to be expressed via food and its preparation. If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and the writings of Frances Mayes, this one is for you.
Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking–Flatbreads, Stuffed Breads, Challahs, Cookies, and the Legendary Chocolate Babka // Uri Scheft (published Oct 2016)
Israeli baking encompasses the influences of so many regions—Morocco, Yemen, Germany, and Georgia, to name a few—and master baker Uri Scheft marries all of these in his well-regarded baked goods sold at his Breads Bakery in New York City and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv. Nutella-filled babkas, potato and shakshuka focaccia, and chocolate rugelach are all regulars. In Breaking Breads, Scheft takes the combined influences of his Scandinavian heritage, his European pastry training, and his Israeli and New York City homes to provide sweet and savory baking recipes that cover European, Israeli, and Middle Eastern favorites. Scheft gives us recipes for classics like challah, babka, and ciabatta—and adds his creative twist as well, showing us how we can do the same at home—and introduces his take on Middle Eastern daily breads like kubaneh and jachnun. The instructions are detailed and the photos explanatory so that anyone can make Scheft’s poppy seed hamantaschen, cheese bourekas, and Jerusalem bagels, among other recipes. If you can’t get enough of Ottolenghi or Honey & Co, this one is for you.
Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites, from Pfeffernüsse to Streuselkuchen // Luissa Weiss (published Oct 2016)
German baking has influenced baking traditions around the world for generations but its been relatively neglected by the publishing world with few mainstream German baking books making waves in the yearly ‘best of’ round-ups. Enter Luisa Weiss, the Berlin-based creator of the adored Wednesday Chef blog and self-taught ambassador of the German baking canon whose latest book ably collates these fine recipes in an easy to follow compendium. I have a brother in Germany and he was sensible enough to move to a village with a decent bakery which gave me plenty of opportunity to press my nose against the glass display cabinets as I tried to memorise its entire contents to recreate at home. Luisa’s book is a useful aide-memoire.
Luisa is not German-born and she discusses her fears about her culinary authority in her introduction but they are unfounded. She’s done a sterling job, sharing with us over 100 rigorously researched and tested recipes, gathered from expert bakers, friends, family, and time-honored sources throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. What caught my eye? Well I’m a sucker for nut-enriched northern European bakes so walnuss zwieback (twice-baked walnut crisps) and nusskuchen (a toasted hazelnut loaf cake) are top of my must-try list. There’s streuselkuchen (streusel cake) and tender flakey strudels and a delicious-sounding heidjertorte (lingonbery buckwheat cream torte) plus tortes with carrots, with every colour of currant and ones studded with dark-red plums.
Savouries aren’t forgotten either and the Swabian parsley cake (peterlingkuschen) sounds intriguing as does a green onion and bacon cake (grünerkuchen) and the sweetened quark buns (quarkbrötchen) appeal too: I often eat brioche with savoury foods because I am weird and I bet these would do just as well. Your baking will be guided by detailed advice and lots of stories about the origins, meaning, and rituals behind the recipes. There’s lovely photographs of Berlin and her Berlin life and of baked goods, such as Elisenlebkuchen, Marmorierter Mohnkuchen, and Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte which should attract more visitors to this rather cool German city.
The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem // Marcus Samuelsson (published Oct 2016)
When the James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, he envisioned more than a restaurant. It would be the heart of his neighborhood and a meet-and-greet for both the downtown and the uptown sets, serving Southern black and cross-cultural food. It would reflect Harlem’s history. Ever since the 1930s, Harlem has been a magnet for more than a million African Americans, a melting pot for Spanish, African, and Caribbean immigrants, and a mecca for artists.
These traditions converge on Rooster’s menu, with brown butter biscuits, chicken and waffle, killer collards, and donuts with sweet potato cream. They’re joined by global-influenced dishes such as jerk bacon and baked beans, Latino pork and plantains, and Chinese steamed bass and fiery noodles. Samuelsson’s Swedish-Ethiopian background shows in Ethiopian spice-crusted lamb, slow-baked blueberry bread with spiced maple syrup, and the Green Viking, sprightly Apple Sorbet with Caramel Sauce.
Interspersed with lyrical essays that convey the flavor of the place and archival and contemporary photos, The Red Rooster Cookbook is as layered as its inheritance.
Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir // Thomas Pecore Weso (Out late summer, 2016)
In this food memoir, named for the manoomin or wild rice that also gives the Menominee tribe its name, tribal member Thomas Pecore Weso takes readers on a cook’s journey through Wisconsin’s northern woods. He connects each food—beaver, trout, blackberry, wild rice, maple sugar, partridge—with colorful individuals who taught him Indigenous values. Cooks will learn from his authentic recipes. Amateur and professional historians will appreciate firsthand stories about reservation life during the mid-twentieth century, when many elders, fluent in the Algonquian language, practiced the old ways.
Weso’s grandfather Moon was considered a medicine man, and his morning prayers were the foundation for all the day’s meals. Weso’s grandmother Jennie “made fire” each morning in a wood-burning stove, and oversaw huge breakfasts of wild game, fish, and fruit pies. As Weso grew up, his uncles taught him to hunt bear, deer, squirrels, raccoons, and even skunks for the daily larder. These recollections are what I loved most because they are filled with love and warmth, with respect for heritage and pride. He remembers foods served at the Menominee fair and the excitement of “sugar bush,” maple sugar gatherings that included dances as well as hard work. There’s memories of wild rice harvesting in the small boats and a fascinating account of how the wild rice plants react and adapt to their location. If you are interested in agri-ecology and want to learn how we as humans can achieve a less damaging relationship with our environment, Weso’s book is for you.
Polska // Zuza Zak
The word ‘Poland’ is derived from ‘pole’ which means field, so for Zuza Zak, author of Polska, her countries name is connected to the earth. Zak has tracked Polish history and heritage to provide a fresh take on a cuisine and nation she fears is often misrepresented.
Kicking off with a useful explanation of Polish history which gave birth to a saying that ‘too much eating and drinking cost us our Poland’, Zak reminds us all that the simple pleasure of eating and drinking is an understandable one in the face of relentless bombardment. She addresses regionality and its influence on cuisine: Pomerania is windswept and coastal with poor soil but it is rich in fish; the Tatra mountains have a history of cultural separatism which has protected their food traditions from outside influences; there’s the wonderful mushroom dishes of the forested and watery Mazury Lake District; and the Russian and eastern influences on Mazowsze which was once a Russian colony.
Seasonality is important: the rich and golden light of a Polish summer gives way to the long and harsh winters where meals are heavily supplemented with preserved foods and in the main, Polish people have retained these rhythms no matter where they live. Breakfast sees people feasting upon cinnamon and apple-filled bakes because apples remained freely available even during the worst of the Communist privations. There’s crunchy rye bread with gzik, a kind of cottage cheese which is served with radishes. chives and yoghurt and is the perfect dacha-style breakfast on a hot morning. Like the Russians, many Poles escape the heat and rent a dacha in the countryside where they can grow their own fruit and vegetables as the Polish peasantry once did: their foodways were rich in folklore.
Bread is of fundamental importance to the Polish people, Zak writes, and bread with salt was a symbolic gift to visitors. Zaha¸ski is the Polish word for a type of party food and alongside her earlier recipes for rye and sourdoughs, Zak includes a chapter on zaha¸ski, cautioning that her father believes that all good versions of it must contain some fat to neutralise the vodka although vodka is no longer obligatory. There’s little cumin babkas on a sea of marinated red peppers, nettle leaves in beer batter with a honey-mustard dip and mama’s gherkins with horseradish and oak leaves.
If you bought and cooked from Mamushka by Olia Hercules then you will enjoy Polska. The two books have much in common in that they challenge stereotypes, highlight foodways that are borne from strife, human resourcefulness and cultural exchange and are packed with delicious recipes whose ingredients are seasonal, easily sourced and grown. Both books make you want to cook, so, job done.
Simple // Diana Henry (Published in Autumn, 2016)
I haven’t been able to get my hands on a review copy of this but deciding to buy any Diana Henry cookbooks is a no-brainer. Judging by her recent food columns and awards, the lady is on bloody fire, professionally, so recommending this book sight-unseen seems a safe-bet. Turkish pasta with caramelized onions, yoghurt and dill and paprika-baked pork chops with beetroot, caraway and sour cream and my current favourite vegetable, a Parmesan-roasted cauliflower with garlic and thyme, sound strong. Some ingredients might sound esoteric if you’re not a keen cook but all are available online and in most decent food stores and her recipe testing has always been stringent, meaning her recipes can be trusted. In a world where some of the most famous cookbooks have page after page of poorly-tested recipes, that attention to detail and respect for her readers is something to be appreciated. Above all , Henry draws you in with her prose which is warm, instructive but not didactic, and encouraging.
(Update: I’ve now read the book and yes, you really should buy it)
Toast Hash Roast Mash: Real Food for Every Time of Day //Dan Doherty
Mr Duck & Waffle is back with his second cookbook and what a beauty it is. Breakfast and brunch are the two meals Doherty sees people getting the most excited about and his new book is studded with easy but impressive ways of feeding ourselves when we’ve just staggered out of bed. He ranges far and wide- India, Brazil, Ireland, the Middle East and Italy have inspired him- and his own late night/ early start lifestyle underpins the book. There’s no laborious instructions or recipes with eleventy billion ingredients and these are meals which can be eaten at any time of day so if you don’t eat breakfast (WHO are these weird folk?), this book will still appeal.
Starting off with toast, we are given recipes for plum jam and a heavenly-sounding chocolate and almond spread which kicks nutella into the tall grass. Further on, there’s maple roasted apple on French toast, custard-soaked brioche, a carrot aperol, black pudding hash and chickpea pancakes (socca, basically) plus a retro-sounding gammon brought up to date with pineapple ketchup. I agree with Dan, breaking the fast is the best meal of the day and one embedded deep into our national DNA. His book is ideal for those of us who go to bed planning what to eat when we wake up.
Squirrel Pie (and other stories): Adventures in Food Across the Globe // Elisabeth Luard
Author of Still Life and Family Life, both brilliant prose food memoirs, and countless cookbooks, Luard remains one of my favourite authors. I have been impatiently awaiting this new book by one of the most travelled writers around and Squirrel Pie doesn’t disappoint in its accounts of the meals she has eaten on her travels and her encounters with the people who cooked them. Luard is not given to purple prose about food or humans and she’s honest, warm and bracing in that classic English way: if you love Jane Grigson, you’ll adore Luard. (I’m a big Grigson fan- where’s her blue plaque btw?) Whether Luard is scouring for snails in Crete or squirrels in Maine, learning how to butcher a kangaroo carcass and gain maximum nutritional value from goanna tail, sampling exotic spices in Ethiopia or tasting oysters in Tasmania, her practised eye and academics brain (she is one of the forces behind the Oxford Food Symposium) means her words can be trusted as a faithful recreation.
There’s practical advice too, borne of her own research and associations with just about everyone working in the culinary field.This book is divided into four landscapes – rivers, islands, deserts and forests -because Luard has determined that geography is the biggest determining factor in what we eat and her divisions reflect the commonalities the people of each region share. And, as she points out, to ignore the diet of necessity because we now benefit from modern accoutrements is to lose what we can ill afford to. The stories are accompanied by over fifty recipes, each one a reflection of its unique place of origin, including macaroni cheese with oysters (and you thought adding lobster was a luxury!) Boston bean-pot, Hawaiian poke, Cretan bouboutie, mung-bean roti, roasted buttered coffee beans, Anzac biscuits and Sardinian lemon macaroons. The sketches are Luard’s too as she was a water-colour artist long before she wrote a recipe- she is one fine and talented woman.
The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes from the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau // Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo, Hugh Amano (Published October 2016)
Aged sixteen I visited Macau and the New Territories and although its a long time ago, I can still remember the food I ate so the publication of Fat Rice which shines a light on the food of this true melting pot of a place is cause for celebration. Based in Chicago, Fat Rice is a cult favourite and its chef-patrons serve up their own unique take on the food of Macau, a country which is just one hour away from Hong Hong and located on the banks of the romantically named Pearl River.
Macau’s modern-day glitz (gambling is legal there and a source of great wealth) belies its rich, centuries-old history as one of the greatest trading ports in the world. Ruled by Portugal from the 1600s until 1999, Macau was a crossroads along the spice route, and a place where travelers from Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and mainland China traded resources, culture, and food–making Macanese cuisine one of the most eclectic and deliciously unique food traditions in the world.
The Adventures of Fat Rice is a fun and whimsical tear through modern-day Macau–and the minds of two wildly creative and James Beard award-winning chefs. As they said in an Eater interview:””The main goal for the book is to be the most comprehensive documentation of Macanese cuisine that there is. Not only the food of Macau, but the food of Macanese people, the Portuguese and Chinese-mixed families that we mainly focus on at Fat Rice. And [it’s also] to show our interpretation of these dishes, and maybe enlighten people as far as the history of food as we know it, through the lens of Macanese cuisine and the other places that Macanese cuisine is influenced by, whether it be Malacca, Malaysia, Brazil, Africa, Japan, or wherever..”
Dishes like Hong Kong French Toast (Macau’s version of dim sum), Po Kok Gai (a Portuguese chicken curry), and the titular Arroz Gordo (if Spanish paella and Chinese fried rice had a baby) are enticingly exotic yet accessible and even playful. Featuring a mish-mash of classic and interpretative dishes, plus comic book-style illustrations and edgy location photography, The Adventures of Fat Rice will be the first book to bring the eclectic, richly satisfying, and previously unheralded food of Macau to the mainstream.
Victuals // Ronni Lundy (Published in the UK, Aug 2016)
Lundy once wrote a book called Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: the Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens which went on to become one of my best-loved cookbooks because of its natural way with the words and the fascinating stories of the people she grew up among. Her words are one of the main reasons why I have become so enamoured with this relatively mysterious region of the USA. It goes without saying that the recipes Lundy chooses are always wonderful and so I am extremely delighted that she is to publish Victuals, out in August 2016.
“The great thing in writing about food (and the secret subtext hidden in many recipes) is its revelation of the voices of people who traditionally have not been consulted when history is told—even their own history. Recipe and cookbooks are where we hear what women’s lives were actually like in different eras, and what constituted daily life for the family. If you want to look at it in those terms, in food we learn the experiences of the humble, the poor and the outcast as well as those who have it made. Food is an easy door into strange cultures and stories,” says Lundy in an interview with Ace Weekly and Victuals is an exploration of the foodways, people, and places of Appalachia which includes over eighty recipes.
The book guides us through the diverse history of food in the Mountain South and beautifully demonstrates the principle of culinary genealogy in action. We explore recipes, traditions and innovations with each chapter covering a food or tradition of the region. The essays introduce readers to their rich histories and the farmers, curers, hunters, and chefs who define the region’s contemporary landscape. Mountainous Appalachia offers a wide range of ingredients and products that can be transformed using traditional methods and creative extension of local foodways by chefs and cooks who have migrated to the region and married their own culinary heritage to that of the Appalachian people.
Our Korean Kitchen // Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo
This isn’t newly published but it might well be new to you and I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet so here it is. London-based Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo have their own Korean kitchen where they have spent considerable time demystifying what is actually a very down to earth foodways for us all so we can have a go ourselves. And they have done a cracking job so I make no apologies for including a second Korean cookbook in this selection.
Back in the eighties, I spent a fair amount of time in South Korea, in Cheju, Busan (some call it Pusan, too) and Seoul. We travelled into the surrounding countryside and I met locals making their own kimchi and I picked weird little wild peaches from trees growing near the beach in Cheju along with quinces. I ate dried squid, grilled my own bulgogi and laughed when my mother inadvertently ate bulls penis and a fish that resembled a giant penis. I have retold this anecdote many a time without stopping to think that I was perpetuating an unfair image of Korean food as wacky with scary ingredients. Generally, it is not like that at all. And anyway, coming from a nation with a tradition of serving up badly-cooked tripe, cheap faggots, school tapioca and Vesta curries made from cardboard and a Jeremy Clarkson concept of India, I was standing on very shaky ground.
Us Brits have much in common with the Koreans. We both adore pickles and know how useful they are for disguising the blandness of winter hunger-gap food (and it gets REALLY cold in Korea at times). Beef is highly-regarded in Korea as it is here and they have a love of comforting things served in bowls, like we do. And Korean Kitchen will show you how to make all of those sexy bowls of bibimbap that you’ve seen on instagram. It’ll show you that kimchi can be made without access to inherited six-feet high stone jars buried in the ground. It will hold your hand through step-by-step instructions and great photography and eventually you will be eating like a [Korean] champ.
Super Sushi Ramen Express// Michael Booth (Published Sept 2016)
“Since the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, chefs from Europe and America have made pilgrimages to Japan to pilfer ingredients, techniques and presentation styles. Nouvelle cuisine was born of that first visit by the chefs of the French Olympic team, while the elaborate, multi-course kaiseki meal remains a key influence on many leading chefs,” Booth wrote in a feature on Japanese food and yes, Japan is a Mecca for the world’s greatest chefs, with more Michelin stars than any other country. Yet its foodways are so often misunderstood and sometimes wilfully.
In this book, food and travel writer Michael Booth writes about moving his family to Japan for a few months in a kind of ‘Fuschia Dunlop-lite’ way. ( I don’t mean this disrespectfully.) Accompanied by two fussy eaters under the age of six, he and his wife travel the length of the country, from bear-infested, beer-loving Hokkaido to snake-infested, seaweed-loving Okinawa. (I am glad that he didn’t neglect the regions of Hokkaido and Okinawa which tend to get overlooked by other writer-visitors.) Booth addresses the unique elements of Japanese cuisine, such as the importance of texture, the principles of Kaiseki, (a simple explanation is that it is a kind of Japanese haute cuisine) and why slurping will make your noodles taste better.
The Booths dine with sumo wrestlers and free-diving, female abalone hunters; they eat snake, get scared by giant crabs and visit a restaurant where customers catch their noodles as they travel downstream in a river. Despite the cultural differences, Booth manages to not depict Japan as a kind of wondrous theme-park full of Hello Kitty, plastic sushi and weird slimy things in buckets and acknowledges that many of their national traditions are in decline as Western influence grows. He meets and interviews people who manage to adapt to the modern world whilst protecting the essence of their craft which is pretty inspiring and he is also good at correcting popular Western misconceptions about Japanese people and their food such as sushi, the use of MSG and what real wasabi is like.
If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.
The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.
Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.
Some might say that pride and pudding are two things my own life has shown a surfeit of but I would argue that in the case of the latter, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. And if I sound a little proud of that, then so be it.
Enter the newly published Pride and Pudding: the history of British puddings by Regula Ysewijn where the authors in-depth exploration of historical cooking texts has led to a rather splendid and faithful recreation of over eighty puddings, both sweet and savoury. By referencing each pudding’s original recipe against an updated version, Regula provides a contextual revival, helping us understand how and why recipes change over time. The bibliography and reference section are manna from heaven, providing the reader with a fine culinary and gastronomic genealogy and I wish more cookbooks did this, even if it invariably results my spending some eleventy billion pounds on yet more books (although my lack of fiscal self-control is hardly Regula’s fault).
The word ‘pudding’ sounds peculiarly English despite an etymological origin ranging from the West Germanic stem *pud- “to swell” which cognates with the Old English puduc ‘a wen’, or its possible origins in the Old French boudin “sausage,” which itself came from the Latin botellus ‘sausage’ and Regula explores this in her introduction. In the modern sense, the word ‘pudding’ had emerged by 1670, as an extension to the method of cooking foods by boiling or steaming them in a bag or sack. The German pudding, French pouding, Swedish pudding and Irish putog all derive from the word and as Regula points out in her foreword, in the eighteenth century when English food was developing its identity once more, pudding was central to its gastronomy and represented a solid challenge to the tyranny of French food which had developed itself as shorthand for all that was refined at table.
Pudding has moved on from the stuffed vegetable recipe outlined in a Book of Cookrye in 1584 and the medieval technique of preparing fish, game birds and other beasts with a large pudding stuffed inside their belly although it took a Frenchman called Francois Maximilian Misson to declare “Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people…ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding.” Regula takes his lyrical tribute and runs with it, having amassed five years of blogging experience in the subject prior to writing her book.
Pride and Pudding begins with a handy guide to the different types of pudding (bread, baked, milk, boiled etc) then launches into a historical account of puddings through the ages, from their first mention in Homer’s The Odyssey where black pudding was prepared for Penelope’s suitors to feast upon as they competed for her hand, through to the Romans, Vikings, Normans and onto the court cooking that was documented in the years following the Hundred Years War when plague, taxes and harvest failures led to widespread famine. Moving onto the Medieval period, Regula tells us about surviving manuscripts which recorded the food of the elite: there’s a jelly made in the shape of a devil, a castle and a priest surrounded by a moat of custard and the first record of a pudding-cloth replacing animal intestines to cook puddings in. The Reformation wrought changes in the kitchen too with elaborate Catholic-associated feasts being replaced by ‘proper, honest cooking’ (the eternal cycle of fashion in food, perhaps) whilst Elizabeth the First’s sweet tooth led to a total lack of patent teeth in her later years. The introduction of refined white sugar during her reign led to a sea-change in its use as sugar was transformed into the highly decorative sweetmeats which graced wealthy tables, and thousands of patissières must have cursed as they nursed burns from sputtering hot pans of sugar.
Moving onto the seventeenth-century, Regula tells us that French food gained dominance in Britain yet despite the prominence of this male chef-dominated cuisine more cookbooks were written by British women than ever before, kicking off with Hannah Wolley’s book, The Queen-Like Closet, published in 1670. Traditional white and black puddings continued to be popular whilst new puddings began to emerge such as Sussex Pond Pudding (1672, by Hannah), the first printed recipe for a Quaking Pudding was published as was the first recorded mention of the Christmas Pudding via Colonel Norwood’s diary record in 1645. As we move into the eighteenth to nineteenth-century and Georgian and Victorian cooking, the focus remains on spectacle with innovation in glassware permitting delicate milk puddings, syllabubs and jellies to be displayed beautifully and if you thought Heston Blumenthal popularised food made to resemble something else, you’d be wrong; the Georgians delighted in creating flummeries that resembled bacon and eggs.
We read of Parson Woodforde’s plum puddings, pease puddings and a pike with a pudding in its belly whilst Hannah Glasse makes the first print mention of the iconic Yorkshire Pud. The Georgian table was pudding heaven and the Victorian street-traders made them available to the lower-classes, selling plum duff and meat puds from steaming-hot baskets. Bookshops sold cookbooks entirely devoted to the pudding alongside Eliza Acton’s tome, Modern Cookery for Private Families, firmly locating the Angel of the Home back inside her kitchen unless she could afford staff.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw the growth of cooking as a leisure activity as an end in itself and the gradual move away from staffed kitchens in all but the grandest of houses. Two World Wars, the easy access to convenience foods and ingredients, the movement of women into the paid workplace, immigration, easy access to foreign travel and the decline in school cookery lessons has led to a period of turbulence in British food as it redefines itself. And our attitude to puddings very much reflects this. There’s our fetish for nursery-school puddings in a search for comfort and identity through shared nostalgia, the regained pride in our culinary past, the rise of chefs as superstars, and the constant need for new recipes to fill acres of space in cookbooks, magazines, online food sites and the many food-related TV programmes. And part of this necessarily involves looking back at where we-and the pudding- has come from.
This is where Regula’s solid research-based approach holds especial good, providing us cooks with context for ingredients and techniques. (The short section on what suet, rennet, gelatine and bone marrow is and what they are used for is both historically grounded and useful.) It is important, as a cook, to know why suet creates lightness in certain puddings and that vegetarian rennet substitutes go back to the time of Homer and are not newfangled. Once you start to take the why on board, you will soon be able to improvise and devise your own recipes as well as cooking your way through Pride and Pudding.
So…what about the pudding recipes? They are categorised into six sections: boiled and steamed; baked and batter puddings; bread puddings, jellies, milk puddings and ices; and lastly, a section for master recipes where you’ll find how to make clotted cream and custard-based sauces alongside various pastries, biscuits and flavoured vinegars. Regula incorporates notes at the base of some of the pages, annotated with a sweet illustration of a pudding spoon. For example, her tort de moy, which is made with bone-marrow, double cream, candied peel, and rosewater among other things, has a suggestion of adding almonds to the infusion used to flavour the custard and her Devonshire white-pot can be cooked using a Dutch oven over a fire with its lid covered in hot coals instead of being placed inside an oven. There’s serving suggestions too.
I’m particularly intrigued by her white-Pot recipe because a few weeks ago, I tweeted about a local bread and butter pudding recipe called Newmarket pudding (basically wailing for help) and Regula replied to me as did another culinary historian, Dr Annie Gray. The white-pot originated in Devon and consists of buttery layers of bread, set with custard and layered with sweet, plump dried fruits. Unlike our modern-day version where slices of bread are sogged in a mixture of sweetened-cream, the white-pot is sogged with a proper cooked custard made from egg-yolk, cream and sugar. It is an extremely luxurious-sounding meal although centuries ago, if you had access to your own cow, the incorporation of cream and butter would not have felt so indulgent and the pudding would have been a good way of using up stale bread. What might have been more of a luxury item would be the dried fruits which feel more prosaic to us, nowadays. Interestingly, the Newmarket pudding of which I mentioned was most likely the same pudding given a local name for no specific historical reason other than someone seeking to re-brand a generic national recipe for their own. The better historical question to ask is not who ‘invented’ Newmarket Pudding but why someone might seek to rename an existing recipe?
There’s in-depth recipes for haggis and black puddings with photographic depictions of their construction and the option of baking the latter in a tray instead of sausage casings. A white pudding sounds especially beautiful baked with saffron, pinhead oats, egg-yolks, dates and currants then served in a single burnished coil with honey, golden or maple syrup which would surely please James Joyce who saw the simple beauty in such a meal. A delicate castle pudding is similar to a pound cake in its ingredient proportions, lightly spiked with citrus from curd, juice or thinly sliced orange rounds. The sambocade, a cheese curd tart flavoured with elderflowers and the daryols, a flower-pot shaped custard tart, both made from hot-water pastry are somewhat sturdier, even rustic in appearance which belies the delicacy of their flavourings. I was particularly keen to make the prune tart whose genealogy includes their being made in Regula’s hometown of Antwerp on Ash Wednesday and it turned out beautifully despite my being unable to obtain’ the fairest Damask prunes’ as specified by Gervaise Markham in The English Housewife. I love prunes and the tablespoon of dark brown sugar added to them really intensifies their sticky dark flavour. If that doesn’t satisfy you then maybe try General Satisfaction, a pudding from Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, 1868. Topped with a froth of beaten egg-white which covers a base containing a layer of raspberry, sponge fingers and cream, this is a mad confection which seems to take the best from many traditional British puddings. Hence the name, maybe?
The batter section has another recipe I have never encountered before, Jersey Wonders, little twists of dough which are browned in lard and look for all the world like tiny pairs of female labia. (I may or may not be selling these to you, based upon that description!) Regula has chosen to not fiddle with the original recipe too much, keeping the sugar proportions roughly the same apart from a dusting of icing sugar. These are next on my list to try alongside the Ypocras jellies whose name comes from the original name for mulled wine back in the Middle Ages although, as she says, mulled wine has been around since Roman times. Mentioned by Chaucer when the first written British recipe appeared, these jellies contain all manner of spices, ‘bruised’ using a pestle and mortar and they look richly festive, perfect for Autumn and Winter feasts when their cardomom, bay, nutmeg, clementine and sloe gin flavours naturally shine (and are in season here in the UK). If you want to inspect a recipe for the mulled wine used in the jelly (also called Hippocras), this website has reprinted a manuscript from 1530 with permission of the British Library and it contains some unusual ingredients such galingale, grains of paradise, cubebs and long pepper (and should you wish to buy long-pepper, Barts Spices sell a decent one). I suspect that Nigella Lawson, no slouch in the alcohol-infused jelly stakes herself will adore this part of the book. In the same section (jellies, milk puddings, ices) you will find all the indulgent flummeries, syllabubs, trifles, possets and bombes you could ever need. Perfect party food all of them, naturally possessed of a comforting glamour, and something that chefs like Heston Blumenthal and the jelly company Bombas & Parr have clearly been inspired by. This is a book whose art direction is as meticulous as its academic research yet at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed by style over substance. The images are Old Masterly in style and cleverly compliment the contemporary twist Regula affords her pudding recipes.
If, like me, you crave a return to a more thoughtful kind of cookbook that entertains while it educates, Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings is out now, published by Murdoch Books in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and Regula’s website also has details of some specially commissioned Pride and Pudding bowls. It’s a wonderful and timeless book and one hell of an achievement.
There’s some really good book releases this spring, rippling with themes universal to us all from parenting and childhood discoveries to the impact of seismic news events and difficult personal choices. Landscape, travel and nature writing is particularly strong this spring and I have chosen books by writers who transcend this genre, weaving together fact and the psychology of place, time and person, creating a conscious form of historiography.
A few of my favourites are set in the American south, and some of you will know that I have a particular yen for the darkness, quirk and rich history of this part of the world. Chandler Alexander’s The Makings of a Fatherless Child is one such story, a compelling coming-of-age tale of a young boy, Amel River who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He contends with a broken home, poverty, a lack of a father and a voice in his head that won’t go away. Whilst stretching his neck towards adulthood, he is aided by a variety of interesting characters which include a two year old child and a drunken stranger. And where would a story set in the Delta be without a drunken stranger? Out now.
My second novel is GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michelle Richardson, a story which laces beauty, love and sweetness with the hardscrabble existence of tobacco farming in Kentucky during the dying days of the sixties. Ruby Lyn Bishop was orphaned at five years of age but has lived since then with her God-fearing uncle Gunnar. As she passes her sixteenth birthday, she is beset with dreams and wishful thinking about her own fortunes after years of making intricate paper fortune-tellers for the townsfolk.If you are a lover of intricate plots set over a small period of time and adore the southern sense of place, this book is for you. Out April 26th.
Fans of Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, have been eagerly awaiting her next novel and in The Summer Before The War, we can once again enjoy the quietly moving and capable storytelling that made her first book so enjoyable. It’s 1914 and the last days of a beautiful Edwardian British summer in East Sussex but a stranger is about to arrive in the village. When Agatha seeks to engage a woman as the new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash is the result, and she is far more free of thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. As the village prepares for the Great War, other conflicts rise to the fore as some very British traditions are tested. Out March 24th.
All families have their myths and legends and when your family is well-known, sorting out the truth from hyperbole and hagiography can be very challenging. The Nicholson family are well-versed in telling their own story and now it is Juliet Nicholson’s turn in her book, A House Full Of Daughters. She converts her previous acceptance of her complicated family history to intricate, questioning research and in the process, tells a vivid story which roams from Malaga in Spain to the salons of fin-de-siècle Washington DC; from an English boarding school during the Second World War and sexy Chelsea in the 1960s to the bankrupt, and decrepit New York City in the eighties. Then there’s the Nicholson women: her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita and her mother’s Tory-conventional background.This is a delicious book. Out March 24th.
Onto a different house and two different families in The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, where, on a snowy Brooklyn night in 1947, two women, sister by marriage and friends by choice, give birth. Helen and Rose are married to brothers Abe and Mort and the two families share a brownstone. Tightly wound around an explosive secret and with complex family dynamics which become known to us over a long period of time, the multiple perspectives can at times feel a little unbalanced but on the whole, this is a highly readable and deft exploration of family life. Out March 8th.
This new anthology of previously published writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard is the sum total of a woman who is relentlessly and forensically alive and in The Abundance, Dillard shines a beautiful light on the everyday, asking us to drop our casual acceptance and re-engage anew with the world around us. She makes us notice through the application of her poets soul, philosophers mind and artists pen and enchants via words which pin down a series of images onto the page: lunar eclipses, leaves, moths to flames and the magnificent sight of birds in flight all catch her eye, and, in turn, ours. As we read, she tasks us to ask ourselves why, how, where and what does the minutiae of my own place in the natural world mean to me? If you’ve never read her, this is the perfect introduction to a writer who is admired by landscape and nature writers everywhere. Out April 7th.
In Rain, Melissa Harrison explores the relationship we have with the weather as she follows the course of four rain showers, over four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. Particularly pertinent to the British who enjoy a good conversation about the weather, Harrison weaves a meditative pathway through all manner of ologies and disciplines: botany and biology; literature and philosophy; geography and psychology to gently encourage us to engage with rain instead of merely grumbling about it. Also included is a meteorological glossary with common terminology such as cloudburst (“sudden, intense rainfall of short duration”) and the esoteric regional words for all things watery from the skies, similar to that employed by Robert MacFarlane in his recent book, Landmarks. Her level-headed gaze ranges from the earthly: germinating seeds and rain-sodden earth, to the sensory [and scientific] delights such weather causes. Her contemplation of petrichor- the particular aroma after a rain shower is particularly delightful. Coined in 1964 by Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, petrichor is derived from two chemical reaction when oils secreted by plants during dry periods are released into the air because of rain. Chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are also released and these two aromatic compounds combine to create petrichor. If you aren’t thoroughly charmed and intrigued by this, then I can’t help you.
I adored The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu Jaber’s previous memoir and in her new memoir,Life Without a Recipe, I am re-acquainted with her funny, warm and poignant writing about creating a family on one’s own terms. As Diana honestly acknowledges, building confidence in one’s own path sometimes takes a mistaken marriage or two—or in her case, three and there are many rows between Bud, her flamboyant, spice-obsessed Arab father and Grace, her sugar-fiend of a German grandmother. Bud and Grace could not agree on anything to do with Diana and her life choices, whether they be food, family, who to love and how to love. Caught between cultures and lavished with contradictory “advice” from both sides of her family, Diana spent years learning how to ignore the well-intentioned prescriptions of others and forging her own, at times imperfect, path. Out April 18th.
Going to NYC soon and want to find out more than the best place to shop? The Chronicles series takes a look at the history behind some of the most fascinating cities in the world and now they have published an edition about this most famous of cities. Each book introduces the major characters that shaped the city, then offers comprehensive walking tours to bring its words to life. In Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattans Landmark Neighborhoods, author James Roman, a native New Yorker, walks us around the many neighbourhoods and amuses us with anecdotes about those quirks of history that have helped shape the city such as which park lies over a sea of unmarked graves. The inclusion of historical maps and photographs helps bring visionaries, risk-takers, dreamers, and schemers such as John Jacob Astor and Gertrude Whitney to life, showing how they left their mark on a city and continue to shape its development after their deaths. Out April 1st.
Helen Stevenson’s memoir Love Like Salt is a poignantly beautiful account of what it is like to be the mother of Clara, a child with a chronic illness. Despite the sadness of her daughters diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, this is an uplifting book which describes how Helen and her family are able to triumph over adversity in many forms. Helen is a translator and she uses her own profession to reinterpret the strange landscape of biology and illness. The story is set against a backdrop of music and art and literature which soars over and beyond the confines of the CF diagnosis and the bullying her daughter experiences at school in France. The family moves back to the UK which is where we leave them, all of us cautiously optimistic that Clara will continue to prevail over this awful disease which, as of yet, remains incurable. Out now.
Remaining with the mother and daughter theme but fictional this time, Jennifer S Brown’s debut novel, called Modern Girls, takes us to New York City in the thirties, at a time when national socialism is on the rise in Europe and women of all ages are starting to define themselves outside of the home. It’s 1935 and Dottie Krasinsky is the epitome of a modern woman, employed as a bookkeeper, a boyfriend in tow, but living still with her Yiddish parents. When she becomes pregnant, she has to face the fact that her options are still very limited. Then there’s Dottie’s mother who is dying to get back some of the fire in her belly, lost to years of childrearing. Her own situation bears uncomfortable parallels with her daughters when she too faces an unwanted pregnancy. Brown has written an eminently readable ages-and-stages story, set in a time when greater freedom and choice loomed tantalisingly close for women. Out April 5th.
Learning about experiences far removed from my own particularly appealed in Anju Joseph’s The Living, although its themes of discipline through work, the pleasures and rewards of long-term friendship and the tension between the joy and tedium of family life are universal. Claire is a young single mother working in one of England’s last surviving shoe factories, her adult life formed by a teenage relationship. Arun, an older man in a western Indian town, makes hand-sewn chappals at home. A recovered alcoholic, now a grandfather, he negotiates the new-found indignities of old age while returning in thought to the extramarital affair he had years earlier. This is a novel which rewards you for looking closer until you can clearly see the eddies and currents that lie beneath waters that seem, upon first glance, to flow seamlessly. Out now.
I have linked to the authors own page, or to the publishers because I will not link to Amazon. Please order these books through your local booksellers, where at all possible. They need our support and our love. All reviews are honest and have not been solicited.
Coming soon: the best food writing and cook books this spring.
I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.
The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.
Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘ by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:
“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”
The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.
The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes, ‘Mama Makes up her Mind’– is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”
More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.
The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.
Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.
Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an autobiographical love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangria‘ and ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.
Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’
The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.
“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.
We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.
It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.
Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:
“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”
The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said
“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”
The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?
There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded.Zora Neale Hurstonin ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.
This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.
The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahenis inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.
The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.
You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.
If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.
The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests, I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location- a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.
Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature.
Food writing & cookery books
My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.
I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.
Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.
Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.
The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.
Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.
In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.
The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.
Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the‘World Atlas of Coffee’by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky, the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.
Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.
One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.
I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendiumby Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.
My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food. Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.
Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.
The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.
It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale. Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort, supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?
The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’sPhoticular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.
Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long.
Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.
Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’s ‘The Diddakoi‘ is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her.Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.
Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults
The Little Tollerpublishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell,Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
In her book ‘Wild’,Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.
I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.
Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.
I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.
Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.
Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.
The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.
Fiction and short stories
Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.
From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”. If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.
‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?
Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book, we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel Joyces ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Bride‘ is named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.
In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.
To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.
During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.
Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz-‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’; The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.
And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adults, the stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.
The red telephone box is a British icon, standing by the roadside often in the most isolated of places, providing phone services at a time when many British homes were not connected. Nowadays they are rarely needed and many have been decommissioned and sold off to private buyers where they sit in back gardens; a nostalgic link to our past.
The village of Lawshall in West Suffolk has retained its red phone box but things are not as they initially appear. The tiny cast iron box opposite Swanfields was purchased by the village for £1 when British Telecom decided it was no longer cost effective to maintain it as a telephone booth. Deciding upon a use for it, the villagers settled upon its conversion into a book swap and community notice board, replacing the old telephone logo with a sign proclaiming its new lease of life and function.
Local library services have taken a beating with the effects of cuts and whilst librarians are keen to emphasise that the phone box is NOT a library per se (they are rightly protective and proud of the profession of Librarians), the book swap is well used and maintained and you will find some eclectic and contemporary books inside. Should you wish to read your newly acquired book nearby, the Swan Inn has been recently refurbished and offers meals alongside well kept ales which carry Cask Marque approval.