Several years ago, Jeffrey Roberts authored the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. His atlas highlighted carefully crafted, locally made cheeses and their makers, who hoped to lure American consumers away from those weirdly orange “pasteurized processed cheese foods” at the big grocery stores. The movement he championed in that first book has succeeded in a big way — now even the grocery store chains offer extensive cheese departments that often stock locally made gourmet cheeses.
With the publication of Salted and Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage and Flavor of America's Preserved Meats, Roberts hopes to provide the same service for locally cured meats. This new book delves into the historical hows and whys of curing meats, then introduces readers to the contemporary farmers, chefs and even bloggers who are champions of naturally made, carefully crafted, cured meats.
Roberts’ book shows readers how unexpected things like weather conditions affected the history of meats: desert versus swamp makes a big difference in how you cure your meats. From tales of ancient China and Egypt to how Native Americans taught explorers to make jerky, and from Italian prosciutto to Jewish corned beef at your favorite deli, Roberts tracks down the origins of cured meats. In the process, he tells the story of the waves of immigrants that brought their food traditions with them when they came to America.
Like this year’s BC Reads selection, Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, Salted and Cured tells the story of America’s melting pot by looking at the ingredients various ethnic groups have brought to our kitchens. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and the works of Michael Pollan should also enjoy this fascinating glimpse into food history and customs.
Sarah Lohman is a historical gastronomist who immerses herself in her work. In Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Lohman selects eight flavors found most frequently in American recipes. (She found 10, but excluded coffee and chocolate because she felt so much had been written about each.) Beginning in archives and searching through economic and scientific records, Lohman studies cookbooks and manuscripts dating back to the 18th century to discover when each of the flavor profiles first appeared in American kitchens and why.
The eight flavors uniting our vast melting pot of a country are black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and Sriracha. Lohman introduces the explorers, merchants, farmers and chefs who influenced our culinary story. Unknown figures dot this fascinating history. John Crowninshield was a New England merchant who traveled to Sumatra in the 1790s in search of black pepper. Edmond Albius was a 12-year-old slave who lived on an island off the coast of Madagascar and discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today. Sriracha was the creation of David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who combined elements of French and Thai cuisine and, using peppers grown on a farm north of Los Angeles, produced a hot sauce whose sales now exceed $60 million.
Recipes, research and illustrations all serve to illuminate the reader on the history of the flavors, each of which comprise a chapter in the book. Lohman also shares her personal adventures with the ingredients, and readers will be compelled to try some of the recipes (updated to modern tastes) such as Thomas Jefferson’s French Vanilla Ice Cream or the Rosemary House Garlic Carrot Cake. In an interview, Lohman noted that researching the book "really upended my idea of these flavors that always stood on the shelf in my kitchen. I would always pick up a pepper grinder or a bottle of vanilla extract and would never think about what it was and where it came from."
Meet Sarah Lohman at the Arbutus Branch on April 13 at 7 p.m. Copies of her book will be available for sale at a book signing following the program. Don’t come hungry! This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Ian Purkayastha’s background is unusual for a powerful player in the world of fine dining. He shares his remarkable story and the crazy adventures along the way in Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground. The son of an Indian immigrant father and a Texan mother, Ian was 15 when his family left Houston for rural Arkansas. While he'd always loved cooking and eating well, it was his uncle, an avid outdoorsman, who taught him how to forage for wild mushrooms. When he first tasted a black truffle ravioli dish with foie gras sauce, he was instantly obsessed with the earthy, unusual truffle flavor.
Truffle Boy is part coming-of-age story, part elite restaurant tell-all, part travelogue. Readers journey with Ian from Manhattan to Oregon, from Serbia to Hungary. The characters met along this adventure are larger than life, ranging from shady businessmen to raving chefs to colorful gypsies. Despite setbacks and failures, Ian rebounds and achieves astonishing success at a young age in a ruthless world. He now owns Regalis, a specialty food company, which sells not only truffles but also caviar, wild mushrooms, Wagyu beef and other nearly unobtainable ingredients demanded by his Michelin-starred clients.
In a recent interview, Ian encouraged those who haven’t tried this delicacy to do so. “I would say if someone is wanting to try an ingredient that literally smells like nothing else you've ever had, then the truffle is the ingredient for them. Truffles have been, you know, lustful and highly regarded for centuries for having this intoxicating aroma and flavor. So I would definitely encourage interested, adventuresome eaters to seek out truffles.”
Meet Ian Purkayastha at the Towson Branch on April 9 at 2 p.m., where he will be in conversation with Doug Wetzel, the executive chef at Gertrude’s at the BMA. This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Even novice chefs won’t be intimidated by Korean cooking thanks to Robin Ha’s inventive and colorful introduction to the basics behind this challenging cuisine. In Cook Korean!, Ha instructs the readers in a charming and unique graphic novel format containing recipes and ingredient profiles narrated by a lively character named Dengki.
Vibrant, humorous comics illustrate all the steps and ingredients necessary for 64 recipes. Her presentation is concise, with no more than two pages devoted to any one recipe. The book is divided into 10 sections with subjects ranging from snacks to street food to, of course, kimchi. Even those unfamiliar with Korean food have probably heard of kimchi, which Ha calls "an indispensable part of any Korean meal." This cookbook stands out from others because of the illustrations, but also because Ha shares cultural context in an introduction to each section, in addition to listing recipes.
Ha, a professional cartoonist and amateur chef, gained online popularity for her Tumblr, Banchan in Two Pages, a weekly comic with illustrated instructions on how to make specific Korean dishes. Ha spent more time drawing comics for Marvel than in the kitchen and is not a graduate of culinary school. She started cooking as an adult when friends asked her to cook Korean food for them. She wants you to know if she can cook Korean, so can you. "I know what it's like to be afraid of cooking, because I was like that most of my life," she says.
Meet Robin Ha at the Catonsville Branch tonight, April 4, at 6:30 p.m., where she will talk about her book, her art and her love of food. This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Although many readers still retain mental scars from Shirley Jackson’s chilling story The Lottery, fewer are familiar with the woman who wrote it. For those readers, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life tells the story of one of America’s most controversial and tragically short-lived authors.
Who is Shirley Jackson? Even her fans can’t agree on that. Was she a serious writer of literary fiction such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Was she a practicing witch who wrote ghost stories like The Haunting of Hill House? Or was she the musing housewife who wrote humorous essays like Life Among the Savages? This fractured identity would suit one of her characters, who were often women pushed to their mental limits by society. And Jackson was not without her demons. She felt the judgment of others sharply — her two most vocal critics were her mother and her husband, which unfortunately would lead to her agoraphobia late in life. But Franklin’s biography doesn’t make the mistake of confusing Jackson with her characters. Instead, it presents her as a modern master whose talents harnessed, but were not indebted to, her demons.
Franklin’s book is not without it’s shades of light. We’re also treated to samples of the cartoons that Jackson drew of herself and others (yet another side of her creativity) and stories of Jackson’s troublemaking sense of humor (she would frequently present herself as a witch to the press and claim to have cast spells on critics of her work). It’s a biography worthy of one of America’s best and most debated writers. And it pairs well with The Lottery: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, a visual retelling of her most famous story by artist Miles Hyman, Jackson’s grandson.
I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.