All posts filed under: Book Reviews

The Power of Potlikker

In the antebellum South, “potlikker” referred to the broth that was left over from a pot of greens. The masters ate the greens; slaves got the broth. Today, writes John T. Edge in The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin Press, 2017), locavore chefs use potlikker to give dishes such as poached mountain trout an authentic Southern umami. It turns out potlikker is just one of many foods that form a through line connecting everything from racial equity and cultural appropriation to immigration and food trends. Take the 1955 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, during which people used their own cars to transport African American laborers to work. Drivers needed money for insurance, gas, and tires, but many riders were too hard-pressed to contribute. Cook and midwife Georgia Gilmore organized a club to raise the money by selling home-cooked fried fish and fluted pound cakes. The club inspired more cooks, and together they helped keep cars on the road until the successful end of the 13-month strike. Read more [Appeared in …

The Hidden Lives of Owls

Giving a Hoot

In The Hidden Lives of Owls (Sasquatch Books, August 2016), naturalist Leigh Calvez explores her newfound curiosity about owls—tagging along with wildlife biologists and citizen scientists for a year as they study 11 Pacific Northwest species. This illuminating journey into owl lore, habits, and biology also provides an insightful look at regional efforts to protect the bird and its habitats from human industry and climate change. On one outing, Calvez and a team of forest service “hooters” visit one of central Washington’s few remaining old-growth forests, bushwhacking through dead trees and brush to check on a pair of rare nesting spotted owls. Calvez puts a live mouse on a branch and offers it to the male owl, who delivers it to the female—a sure sign that she is sitting on eggs. “The hope for spotted owls on the eastern slopes of the Cascades rested squarely on this nest,” she writes. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]

Saved by the Birds

When life’s hard decisions are staring you down, the thing to do is procrastinate. Neil Hayward, a shy Englishman living in Boston needs to figure out how to jumpstart his erstwhile career, what to do about his lovely girlfriend, and why, at the ripe age of 39, it seems like the best of life is behind him. Instead, he goes to see a rare Nutting’s flycatcher in Lake Havasu, Arizona. And then a red-flanked bluetail in Vancouver, a gray partridge in Calgary, and ultimately more than 700 birds across North America. Suddenly a small midlife crisis becomes a Big Year of birding—and the subject of his memoir Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year (Bloomsbury USA, June 2016). Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]

The Genius of Birds book cover

Birdbrains

Neurobiologists once thought that birds possessed tiny, reptilian brains hardwired for instinctive responses to the world. Now they know better. In her latest book, The Genius of Birds (Penguin Press, 2016), Jennifer Ackerman explores new research that shows how closely bird brains resemble our own. They, too, have a cerebral-cortex-like system in the forebrain, rapidly firing neurotransmitters, and pathways between the brain regions. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine. Photo credit: Lori Eanes]

Unpacking Our Palates

I AM A FOOD WRITER. At restaurants, I taste as much of the menu as possible. I bring people who are willing to let me eat off their plates. I come to the meal ready to be delighted, to coo over the red kuri purée, and gamely tuck into the Scotch eggs, jellied head cheeses, black corn fungus, whatever you’ve got, yes please. At home, I like to cook and to feed people — the best of my friendships have been established over long-winded meals — and, being a food writer, people like to feed me. Friends bring me bourbon from Kentucky, pork rillette from California, and truffle flour from France. They bring me pocket melons and wonder beans from their gardens, and all kinds of goodies from their kitchens, too — crumbly shortcakes, goat-milk ricotta drizzled with honey, pickled watermelon rind. If it all sounds a little precious, let me say that I’m equally pleased to receive a piece of hot, buttered toast. In the words of Jonathan Richman, I eat with gusto, damn! …

Beth Dooley

In Winter’s Kitchen

In a recent essay in The New York Times, chef Jacques Pépin talked about how meals are fleeting, “You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.” For him, for all of us, ingredients and dishes are forever associated with people and times in our life, and tastes and smells — even the seasons — have the power to evoke those food memories. “These memories are essential for the cook, the food critic, and the writer,” Pépin says. “They enrich your day-to-day life and your relationships with your family and friends.” This quote came to mind reading Beth Dooley’s latest book, In Winter’s Kitchen ($25, Milkweed Editions, 2015), in which she uses food memories, friendship, and family as a way into conversations about our food system. Fans of the local author will be surprised to learn this is not a cookbook — though there are some recipes — but a kind of hybridized memoir. Read more [Appeared in Heavy Table magazine]

Voices of the Wild cover

Voices of the Wild

In the late 1960s, when musician Bernie Krause first wandered into a park to record nature sounds, he had 30-plus pounds of recording equipment and little idea of what he had come to collect. Half a century and 4,500 hours of recordings later, he has written Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes, an introduction to soundscape ecology—the field he helped pioneer. Krause has traveled around the world recording Arctic glaciers, Rwandan mountain gorillas, Sumatran rainforest, Antarctic seals, and more. But more than half of his archive comes from locations that are now “so badly compromised by … human intervention that the habitats are either altogether silent or … can no longer be heard in their original forms.” Read more

Climate Justice

This week in Paris, historical multinational negotiations are taking place in an attempt to reign in climate change and its disastrous impacts. Although the delegates agree that the threat to civilization is real and imminent, and they promise a record reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, their pledges still leave us with a catastrophic 6° F rise in the earth’s temperature by 2100. Delegates also seem to agree that the only way to hold off the worst effects of global warming is to leave a large percentage of the available fossil fuels in the ground and switch to clean sources of energy, but even as they are meeting, House Republicans are trying to pass bills that will block the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions from coal-fired plants. It’s not enough, it’s too slow—and it feels hopeless. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]

Reclaiming real food

One expects a book about giving up processed foods to be essentially a foodie’s journal of gonzo home cooking projects. Megan Kimble’s debutUnprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food serves up plenty of that as she mills wheat berries into flour, boils the salt out of seawater, and strains oat milk from gruel. But wait a minute, isn’t all of that a form of processing? For Kimble, there are processed foods and then there are overly processed foods that are high in mysterious additives and manipulated in ways that she can’t duplicate in her own kitchen. So milk is in, refined sugar is out. Since her goal is to impact not only her health and the environment, but also the local economy, Safeway is also out–and she’ll do it all on a graduate student’s salary of $16,000 a year. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]