Great Books: Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.

cover of Ruby Tandoh's "Eat Up"

It was so good.

Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.

Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.

Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.

The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.

Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

A note: I may also going to write a Jewish commentary on Eat Up after this.

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Great Books: Herring, A Love Story

Cover of book in French
The cover of the book in French, with some of the herring plates portrayed. The image is from Merci.

Firstly, mo’adim le-simkha – a Happy Passover – to all of the readers. I hope you are having a pleasant and joyous Passover!

Anyone who knows me well knows my lifelong obsession with herring – one that I’ve documented for several publications, New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms among them. I eat some form of preserved herring – pickled, smoked, canned, or dried – at least a few times a week, and for long stretches the fish is part of my daily diet. I grew up with herring, and still love it. You should all look forward to a herring series in June.

Now, herring was long part of the Ashkenazi Jewish diet, since at least the Middle Ages. The fish – whose industry, pickling, and trade has encompassed most of Northern and Central Europe for a millennium – was incredibly cheap in its preserved forms across the regions where Yiddish-speaking Jews were settled. Herring was so common that the British-Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant claimed, “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” This herring also produced, in the 19th and 20th century, a whole corpus of artistic media evolved around the fish.

It is this media that Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler profile in their new book, Herring: A Love Story. The book was originally published under the title Hareng, une histoire d’amour  in France – another country which also loves its herring. In the coffee-table book, Rozensztroch and Fidler exhibit the former’s enormous collection of “herring art.” The bulk of this collection are the beautiful, 19th– and 20th-century ceramic serving dishes that factories across Central Europe produced for a rising consumer class that wanted their daily herring plated nicely. Alongside these, you have postcards, posters, stamps, and paintings that depict the fish, its fishing, and its consumption in all its glory. From the herring industry of Iceland to the newfound popularity of herring among many American Jews, the artistic heritage surrounding this fish is celebrated.

I have the English translation from the original French, and the writing between the postcards is, to me and others fluent in both languages, very obviously translated from the French. That aside, the information in the book is fascinating, and the art is beautiful and magnificent. Some of it is also quite funny! I strongly urge you to buy this book, and explore with me the history of the glorious herring.

 

Herring: A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler. New York, Pointed Leaf Press: 2015.

Disponible en français en Europe.

 

Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.

Great Books: We Are What We Eat, by Donna R. Gabaccia

“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)

Everything bagel with chopped herring
Eating an everything bagel with chopped herring – so good. Photo mine, October 2015.

I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?

On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.