Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite
Published by: New York University Press
Published on: August 1, 2014
Page Count: 384
Genre: Nonfiction, food (what else?)
My Reading Format: ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Kindle ebook and hardcover

My Review: 

Books That Cook is set up like a cooking anthology: a collection of writings bound by one theme, food, and specifically, American food. The book is grouped by sections, and each section is titled the way one would work his or her way through a meal: invocation; starters; bread, polenta, and pasta; eggs; main dishes; side dishes; and desserts. Then, within each section a writer has included a personal anecdote that is focused around food and in most cases a recipe follows.    

I like the idea of the book. I am interested in food memories and the stories about family and friends sitting around a table together to enjoy a particular dish. When I think of my maternal grandmother’s delicious cakes, it makes me think of all the family dinners and birthday celebrations we had that ended with a slice of caramel cake or pound cake (made from scratch of course) on our plates. When I think of my paternal grandmother, I think of how she’d put mint springs from her yard in our iced tea glasses and that there was often gelatin or tomato aspic as part of a meal. At those big meals there were always a lot of good conversation and a lot of laughs. 

I liked that even though I’m not a food studies scholar, I recognized many of the names of people who had contributed a chapter. I found, though, that I didn’t care for all of the works, particularly by the people I don’t know. Some stories and poems were jarring and it was difficult sometimes to find the food that I thought I was supposed to be reading about. It didn’t always take center stage in each chapter. There were some writers that I was unsure had the credibility to write about food when I couldn’t quite connect the dots between their prose and a food memory. Some chapters didn’t have a recipe included, which would have given some structure and consistency to the work. 

Some of the chapters I thought were very well done and fun to read. For instance, Chapter 21 “American Liver Mush” by Ravi Shankar was a recipe that wasn’t for food but listed ingredients such as “3 cowboys from PRCA rodeos,” “8 Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, packed into 1 minivan” and “1 demographic pie chart from a meeting of Board of Trustees” with add-ins like “an election year, hurricane season” and a clothesline. It was funny and enjoyable to read but I was still left feeling unsure about how it really related to the rest of the collection. In Chapter 26 “The Poet in the Kitchen and The Poem of Chicken Breast with Fettuccine,” no recipe is included but a poem at the end of the chapter makes it feel wrapped up and finished. 

Overall, I like the concept for this book but the structure of the book fell short for me. While I liked all the different voices and perspectives on food, the book lacked cohesiveness. The string that tied each chapter to the next wasn’t strong enough for me. I wanted consistency for each chapter, something like an introduction to the author of that chapter (a short bio establishing their credentials, however formal or informal, for writing about their specific food topic), the writer’s personal connection to the food about which they are writing and then the recipe that corresponds to their story. At one point as I read this book, I made a note in my Kindle file that the whole book is like a vegetable stew: everything is just thrown in, and I like the taste of some of it but not all. 

Two and a half out of five stars

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