It’s been too hot and muggy in my kitchen to cook, and too nice at the beach to stay at home and try. I have issues, of course, with missing out on the August bounty of corn and tomatoes (and green beans, and berries, and peaches…), and my planned blog post on freezing goes still unwritten. In the meantime though, while my stovetop is idle, I’m indulging my love for food by reading about it.

United States of ArugulaThe United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution
This book came to me in an unexpected way: I knew about it from a favorable review it received in the New York Times, but I hadn’t yet picked up a copy of the newly-released paperback edition. One day while perusing Midtown Lunch, one of my favorite food blogs, I saw it offered as contest prize; the challenge: write up a notable food memory from childhood (or beyond childhood, luckily for me, since as a child I didn’t actually eat food). My dazzling prize-winning entry can be found here — scroll down to find the “comment from dave.” But about the book itself: once you get past the goofy title, it’s quite good: rigorously researched, interesting, and written in a sort of quickly paced, breezily intelligent style. It’s an account of how the dominant food culture of the United States transformed, in a very short time, from a narrow, provincial, xeno- and spice-phobic gastronomy to one that embraces an enormous range of cuisines and flavors. Its focus is on three careers that the author considers to be the vanguard of the American Food Revolution: those of Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne.

I’m fascinated by the history of American food culture, which is one reason why I’m enjoying this book so much. To understand the impact of this story you only have to note, as this book’s intro does, that as recently as the eighties, salsa – salsa!! – was to most Americans unknown & exotic. The introductory chapter also recounts a 1939 New York Herald Tribune column that explains to its readers what a pizza (“pronounced ‘peet-za’”) is. For foods that are now so intimately engrained in our daily diets to have been completely unknown so recently really does speak of a huge and rapid transformation: a revolution that surely extends beyond the palate and belly to something you would have to call a national soul.

Slow Food RevolutionSlow Food Revolution: A New Culture for Eating and Living by Carlo Petrini and Gigi Padovani

Speaking of revolution: Slow Food is international, not just American, in scope, but it is a movement that has fiercely caught on in the US, as you can see by the number and range of local chapters on the slow food website. Speaking in terms of “movement” and “revolution,” anachronistic as it may sound, is completely appropriate here: the book shows Slow Food emerging in very much a political spirit, with its roots equally in activism and in a regard for food, wine and conviviality that has to be described as distinctly Italian. It tells of the food at local, traditional Italian festivals, the tribulations and transformations of the Italian wine industry, and the congenial and coalescing force of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini’s charismatic personality. It’s assembled from interviews with Petrini, and can ramble a bit at times, but it gives great insight into the passions behind what has become an influential presence across the international food world.

That, though, is only the book’s first half; the second half, perhaps the more interesting section, contains “Twenty Stories of Presidia and Food Communities” and “Index of the Presidia” — brief accounts of a huge range of local foods, food customs, food producers, ingredients; the indigenous foods and traditions that Slow Food is sworn to protect, from syrup made from heirloom roses in Liguria to breeders of the Old Gloucester Cow, whose milk was made into cheese since the 13th century.

Spice: Flavors of the Eastern MediterraneanSpice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean
I bought this book with money I made from my foray into catering earlier this summer. I’ve yet to actually cook anything from it, especially during these too-hot-to-cook dog days of August, but I’ve been learning a lot from the breadth of its recipes. This is not the how-to-cook-middle-eastern starter cookbook I’d hoped it would be: its recipes lean toward pretty complex preparations. And the book’s novel organization, by different spice groupings (“a map that you can use as you embark on your own spice journey”), seems a little precious to me. And I’m a little dubious of the authenticity of its ‘middle-eastern cuisine as seen through the lens of me and my popular Cambridge restaurant’ approach. But then again I’m also dubious of ‘authenticity’ as a judge of cuisine, since it should, to some extent, take a back seat to whether the food’s good. And there’s no denying that a recipe like “Chickpea & Potato Terrine Stuffed with Pine Nuts, Spinach, Onion and Tahini” sounds pretty damn delicious.

Gourmet Magazine August 2007September 2007 issue of Gourmet Magazine
The entire issue, cover to cover, is devoted to Mexican and Latin cuisine: unlikely places where you’ll find it in the US; recipes for making it at home; interviews with its leading purveyors; and of course beautiful photos of it, as it’s enjoyed by beautiful people.

I can’t wait to try the Arroz con Pollo (p78) and the Pozole Rojo (p96), and if I had a tortilla press I’d sure try the crazy stuffed-tortilla quesadallas (p101). I’m reading this issue cover-to-cover, and don’t ask me to pass my copy along to you when I’m done, ‘cause I’m keeping it. (Disclaimer: yes, I work for the company that makes this magazine; I’m still not giving you my copy though.)