Thursday, March 20, 2008

Links Fest

~ No, it's not an April Fool's—Borders is considering putting itself up for sale, finally.

~ The Morning News' Tournament of Books is halfway through the second round. I tanked in Round One, Game Two when I predicted The Savage Detectives would handily beat Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Even though I disagree with the judge's assessment, I will give the Vendela Vida book a shot.

~ If there is such a thing as an afterlife, I hope Geo. J. and Jon Hassler have been reunited. Beloved author Jon Hassler, whose unconquerable will to write became as much admire
d as his novels steeped in small-town Minnesota, died early Thursday of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a Parkinson’s-like disease. He was 74.

Monday, March 17, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Penelope Lively

Today is the birthday of fiction writer Penelope Lively, whom I read for the first time in 2005 when The Photograph was one of the titles for Conversation with Books. I've meant to read more books by her, especially her Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger.

You can read more about her here.

Photo copywrite: Jane Brown

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reading Notes: Omnivore's Dilemma, pp. 123-207

Book group is meeting on Thursday, and I still have half of Omnivore’s Dilemma to read. I had a few opportunities to read over the weekend. On Saturday, I read at Dunn Brothers for almost an hour, trying desperately to drown out the college kids making idle, loud chit-chat. This afternoon I squeezed in another hour while John watched Tiger Woods win the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

In the second section—grass—Pollan visits Polyface Farm, where Joel Salatin, a grass farmer (so-called because grass is the foundation of all agriculture on his farm) raises chickens, cows, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, and vegetables. Pollan examines the early organic movement, which promised alternative modes of production, distribution, and consumption, and introduces organic gardening forefathers, J.I. Rodale and Sir Albert Howard before turning his attention to Big Organic. This $11 billion industry embraces practices that call to question whether industrial organic isn’t a contradiction of terms if the food production is on a large scale or distribution involves traveling great distances (e.g., flying produce to the U.S. from South America).

Pollan eats his second of four meals, one that he prepares from his Whole Foods purchases, a store that Pollan refers to as promoting “supermarket pastoral,” using slick packaging to provide a story for the food items it sells. Pollan traces each food item in the meal to its source—greens (Earthbound Farms), vegetables, free-range chicken (Petaluma Poultry), and asparagus (from Argentina), with ice cream (Stoneybrook Farms) and blackberries for dessert. Most of his meal tasted good, though the asparagus (at $6 a bunch) was best described as tasting like cardboard.

Not surprising, Pollan revels that his industrial organic meal left a deep footprint. The lot of workers on industrial organic farms is not appreciably different from those on nonorganic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts. A CAFO is a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). And, industrial organic farming is “drenched in fossil fuel,” often burning more diesel than their conventional counterparts.

Up next: animals on the grass farm

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

FINISHED: Service Included

It's kind of hard to know what to read after a powerful book such as What Is the What. I wanted to read something with a similar substantial tone, but I wasn’t quite ready for another heady book. One Sunday morning, when the boys woke me up early to watch cartoons with them, I took an opportunity to sample a few pages from each of the books piled on my coffee table. It didn’t take long to get totally hooked by Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included, an account of the author’s time spent as a captain at Thomas Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se.

I had the great fortune to celebrate my most recent birthday at Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant, The French Laundry. In addition to the outstanding meal, I noticed that the service was different from that which we are accustomed to receiving at higher-end restaurants. Unlike the excellent NYC restaurant, Jean-Georges, where a squadron of servers descends upon your table for every single course, administering sauces, cracking pepper, and applying other touches to your plate that, quite frankly, should have been done in the kitchen, the French Laundry’s service is designed so as not to be noticed. Servers are out of your way, but are also attentive to your needs, trying to anticipate what you might want before you have to ask.

In Service Included, Damrosch writes about taking a position as backserver—serving bread, replacing silverware, refilling water glasses—at Per Se, before the restaurant opens to the public. She details the lengthy training she and the staff receive. Her aptitude earns her a quick promotion to captain, presenting the menu and managing the multitude of servers assigned to a number of tables.

The training is intense. Keller is exacting—always described as a perfectionist—and the stakes are high for his new restaurant’s success. In addition to knowing which silver or crystal to set with particular food, the servers can tell any inquiring diner where the tiles covering the floor came from or who sculpted the statue in Central Park marking their view. And Keller has many rules, such as “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave, or perfume are to be worn during service,” and “If you’re going to be more than five minutes late for your shift, you must call—even if it means getting off the subway to do so.”

Damrosch is smart and has a great sense of humor, and both qualities clearly come through in her writing. She leaves tips for diners at the end of most chapters, such as “Please do not ask us what else we do. This implies that (a) we shouldn’t aspire to work in the restaurant business even if it makes us happy and financially stable, (b) that we have loads of time on our hand because ours is such an easy job, and (c) that we are not succeeding in another field.”

And, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s a lovely little romance. Damrosch finds herself drawn to a wine captain who has come from The French Laundry to help with the training. The attraction is mutual, even though he’s come to New York with his girlfriend, who also happens to work for Keller. A messy, forbidden affair ensues, and I found myself rooting for Damrosch, who gets the guy in the end.

Service Included is a great read for anyone who dines in restaurants as well as for anyone who enjoys culinary essays, such as Bill Buford’s Heat or Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

Reading Notes: Omnivore's Dilemma

I started the second section, about grass, but didn’t get to read much last night because I blogged. So in the interlude, I offer impressions of a book I finished a few weeks ago, which will appear above this post.

Monday, March 10, 2008

reading notes on OD section one

Today over lunch, I finished the corn section, one of three food chains Michael Pollan examines in Omnivore’s Dilemma. In a series of short chapters, Pollan introduces us to the following: corn (botanical notes, historical context, uses), a Iowa farmer who grows corn, the government’s farm policies (subsidies), and the corporations that have insinuated corn into places you wouldn’t imagine. Pollan also follows the stream of corn from the Iowa farmer’s field to the grain elevator and beyond to the feedlot where corn comprises the diet of cattle and to processing plant where corn is transformed to HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), ethanol, syrups, starches, and food additives. Finally, Pollan treats his family to a meal at McDonalds, after which he details all the nastiness in their orders, but also the degree to which corn exists in the food they ate.

Of course throughout, there are astonishing and horrifying facts and statistics. The following moved me to sign up the boys for soccer and renew my vow to resist all processed and fast food:
Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese. The disease formerly known as adult-onset diabetes has had to be renamed Type II diabetes since it now occurs so frequently in children. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicts that a child born in 2000 has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes. (An African American child’s chances are two in five.) Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today’s children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents.

These findings are sobering. Fast food appears very rarely in my diet. Still, I couldn’t help but take stock of everything I’d eaten over the weekend, trying to assess the damage. Even though the amount of processed food I ate was minimal, I can’t help but think of it as pure poison. And, I am guilty of caving to the boys' requests for chicken fingers (Tysons—horrors, I know) and macaroni and cheese (often Annie's organic, but sometimes homemade), just because I can't face their objections over trying something new or eating something with onions in it or food that's spicy or obscured by sauce. I'm doing them a disservice and need to find healthier alternatives for their quick meals.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t going to dramatically change my diet, which isn’t perfect but is already grounded in good principles. The book will, however help reinforce healthier eating practices and (hopefully) make it easier to reject the occasional cravings for junk.

Up next: section two—grass.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Reading Notes: The Omnivore's Dilemma

My book group is meeting in two weeks to discuss The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s eater’s manifesto. I’m only on page 64—still in the corn, as it were. I need to read approximately forty pages a day in order to finish the book by the designated date. There, I’ve psyched myself out.

I find it very easy to get bogged down in the details. In this section, I’m fixating on the chemistry of corn, which isn’t important to understand in order to finish the book. Still, I feel like mastering the information as if I was goingn to be quizzed.

So far, I like the way the book is structured, examining the three principal food chains that form the American diet. Pollan’s writing style is accessible, and I am enjoying the way in which he makes and supports his argument.

My coworker Ginny is also reading OD. She assured me that Pollan’s narrative picks up speed once you get past the corn section, so my goal for this evening is to finish it. That’s sixty pages, but who’s counting. I’ve have been reading about the corn farmer, who is the human focus of the section, and his practices, as well as about the absurdities of subsidies and the multinational corporations (Cargill and ADM) that have an extraordinary influence over nearly aspect of corn production.

I am now looking forward to meeting the corn-fed cow.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FINISHED: What Is the What

When I last bothered to post about what I was reading, I was preparing to host my book group. You can read about the food here. Attendance was pretty lame. Just four people came, and I was the only person who had finished reading the book. Even though we’d had two months to finish it, judging by the bookmarks, most had just begun.

Book-group member Suzanne chose What is the What by Dave Eggers, a novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy of the Sudan. This book has been on my shelf ever since Suzanne urged me to read it earlier in '07, and it's on my 40 at 40 list. Back in '07 though I bought the very cool McSweeney's edition, which has an unusual trim size (if I had to guess, it's 7 x 9 rather than 6 x 9) and paper over boards—a book that feels good in your hands, reassuring you that e-books could never take the place of printed books. I love what McSweeney's is doing with book design and graphics and fonts.

About the novel: Deng, with thousands of other young boys, was forced from his village during Sudan’s protracted civil war. As part of a large group, he marched to Ethiopia and, eventually, to Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp. The story alternates between the present day, when Deng is living in Atlanta, studying and working odd jobs so that he may go to college, and his life as a refugee in Africa, where he has witnessed war, famine, disease, and lion attacks. In the States, Deng is held up in his own home at gunpoint and burgled. He also experiences indifference and is put off by bureaucracy. And, the larger question becomes Was Deng better off in Africa. Is the U.S. really the “land of opportunity”? And, if so, for whom?

Eggers does a remarkable job of telling Deng’s story. It’s deep and provocative yet handled with a great sensitivity and leavened with humor. Eggers, who came to attention with his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, pretty much proves he’s a staggering genius. I would write more on this point and why this book is so important but I’m still mulling, but I do recommend that everyone read it, if for no other reason than it’s really well written.

The host gets to pick the group's next read. Way back in early December, Suzanne and I were talking about books on our TBR lists. While we had many in common, one stood out as an obvious choice for the book group, best read with the support of others and discussion worthy: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.