I have a nightstand problem.
Sadly, the nightstand by my side of the bed is rarely as neat as this stack of books is. I like to splay open my books to save my place (even though my eyes always remember the exact page and paragraph where I stopped reading the last time). And I seem physically incapable of reading one book at a time. I hear that other people do this — pick out a book, read it all the way through, put it back on the shelf with a contented sigh, then find another book to read. Really? Do you do this? I always have at least five books going at once. Always.
Time to read? Not much. With a kid, this website, a cookbook-in-the-making, and a thousand emails to answer, I rarely gave myself the time to sprawl out on the couch and drink in words. But this past year, I gave myself a gift. I made myself time to read. Sure, I’ve read every night of my life before I go to sleep. Even in earlier days, if I crawled into bed at 4 am, bleary-eyed, I still turned on the lamp next to the bed and read a paragraph before I passed out. So I have 15 minutes or so of reading before my eyes grow too heavy to focus on the page. But I need more than that. This past year I realized that unless I made the time, I would miss reading the rest of my life. There’s always another reason to do another kind of work. I’m a writer. I need to read. So now, it’s at least half an hour of reading a day, quiet time, rapidly running across sentences and stopping sometimes to hear them again.
With more reading time, and more books piled up sideways on the nightstand, I came up with a tall stack of non-fiction books I’d love to share with you.
It is a few days until that holiday, after all. If you’re looking for books for presents, I think you might like some of these.
Who In This Room: the Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition by Katherine Malmo
Before I tell you about Katherine’s incredible book, may I go on a small rant about subtitles? When did publishing begin to think that a snappy title on a book needed a 27-word subtitle that explains the entire book? Most of them are about loss or loving or learning or gaining. What would literature be like if the publishers had insisted on subtitles. The Grapes of Wrath: In Which the Joads Travel Across the Country, Lose a Few Family Members to Death or Prison, and Learn to Find Their Gumption Again. Or, Hamlet: The Young Dane Who Thought Too Much and the People Who Goaded Him Into Thinking More. Ulysses: We’re Not Sure What It’s About But It’s Great Literature. It’s like every book has to have one of those dreadful movie previews that tell the entire movie in three minutes, leaving no need to see the thing in its entirety.
The fact that Katherine Malmo’s subtitle (The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition) is the most absurd and precise at the same time tells you a bit why I loved this book so much. Katherine was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer at the age of 31. Far too young. Far too inexplicable. As soon as she finished chemotherapy, she began writing about her experience. Too close to it to write about it fully, she began writing it with the thin veil of fiction, calling the character Kate. As she healed —partly from the writing, I’m sure — she grew more bare and clearly writing her own story. Rather than going back and making it one voice, this book is a series of essays about surviving this cancer. The depth of this slim volume is incredible.
It’s pretty easy now for breast cancer stories to be swathed in pink, to be about survival and triumph, to have an easily identifiable arc. Katherine’s book is like flint, like hard rock on frozen water. There’s no sentimentality here. But there’s no self-pity and wallowing in the details either. It’s even funny in some parts. It’s clear and strong and utterly horrifying. It’s art, not a memoir.
“This tumor is not a virus, not something you caught; these cancer cells are not foreign intruders. This is your own creation — a cluster of cells that developed abnormally, multiplying beyond your control. Perhaps your immune system was overtaxed. When treatment is over, you want every bit of energy to go toward fighting stray cancer cells, not dealing with cancer that may or may not be taking hold in your other breast.
On your thirty-second birthday, over a cup of onion confit at your favorite restaurant, you say to your husband, ‘I think the right breast has to go.’ Then, ‘How’d you end up with a bald, breastless wife at the age of thirty-two?’
He says, ‘Don’t worry, Babe, I’ve always been more of an ass man myself.’”
If you know someone who has breast cancer, survived breast cancer, or loves someone with breast cancer, buy this book.
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Taste and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
When I was a kid, my father loved to ask imponderable questions of us to start a conversation. Perhaps his favorite, and my most terrifying was this: if you had to lose any of your senses, which one would it be? My stomach clutched at itself, thinking of losing my sight. The sun, Mike Kelly’s profile, lights on the Christmas tree? I couldn’t live without them. I lived for music, and I still do. No more Beatles? Or Stevie Wonder? Or John Denver? Touch. No, I want that too. I wanted to brush my fingers against the leaves of the eucalyptus tree, plunge them into cool chlorinated water, and shiver against the cold of an air-conditioned room after sitting in the hot sun all afternoon. I wanted touch too.
But finally, I always came up with the same answer. Smell. That’s the one I could not live without. Not only because smells are so intently evocative, so primal and beyond words for the way they harken back memories. But also because when you lose your sense of smell, you lose your taste. So I offered up sight (Stevie Wonder is blind, after all), so that I wouldn’t have to lose my smell.
Molly Birnbaum lost her sense of smell — and much of her taste — after a terrible car accident that nearly left her dead. Grateful to be alive? Sure. I guess. But she had been training to be a chef, finding her path in her early 20s, just about to go off to the CIA. Who was she now without this deep-seated part of herself?
“For me, the slow drip of the summer turning into fall had always held the strongest allure of all the New England seasons. Autumn never failed to feel new, reminiscent of crisp notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils. Tart apples, hot cider, and the smell of pumpkin seeds roasting in the kitchen made me feel new. I had been apple picking every year in the orchards near my childhood home, breathing in the scent of wet earth and fermented apples left to fall. Halloween had smelled of chocolate and peanut butter, the staccato burst of fruit lurking under the caramel-coated globe. Autumn was when my family began to build fires in the fireplace, the sweet smell of smoke and burning wood inviting me in for warmth.
But without smell, the world around me seemed suddenly strange and stagnant. It was as if I was watching myself in a movie, present but not wholly interested but not engaged.”
I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that Molly shook herself from that torpor eventually. She could have written a book otherwise. Part of her recovery is investigation: how does smell work, why do people lose it, what strides have been taken in this underfunded study. She interviews and researches and shares that knowledge with us. I feel like I learned more about the olfactory sense than I had ever known by reading this memoir-investigative piece.
But mostly, after finishing Season to Taste, I went around sniffing at the air every few feet I walked. I wanted to breathe it all in, and out, to appreciate again what I had forgotten before. That being here is enough. Sometimes it takes a major, life-altering accident to realize. Or reading the book about the recovery from that accident.
Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister
There has been a lot of idolization of farmers lately. Have you noticed that? I adore farmers. And I’m a bit guilty of that gauzy-lens, fuzzy-focus way of looking at what they do as well. Now that I have read Growing a Farmer (and now that I know Kurt personally), I’ve stopped talking about return to the land or buying local. I’m just grateful when my farmer hands me a bunch of kale.
Kurt Timmermeister was a restaurant owner in Seattle for years. He owned a sort of cozy French-style placed called Café Septieme in Capitol Hill. (My friend Gabe and I used to end up there late in the evening, often, sharing some kind of dark chocolate cake and glasses of milk, back when I thought I could eat gluten.) It was hip, moodily dark, and constantly packed. How did Kurt go from there to milking cows just after dawn, by himself, on a small farm on Vashon Island?
That’s what Growing a Farmer is about.
“Kurtwood Farms first growing season ended on a sour note: we failed to crack the challenge of the vegetable farm. Matt quickly quit to work on another farm on the island and I could hardly blame him; he hadn’t made very much money. Our harvest had been thinner than either of us had expected. I had argued against taking disfigured, insect-eaten leeks to market and for reserving the the best produce for subscription boxes, and as a result Matt made less money each week at the farmers’ market. I had my restaurant income to fall back on but vegetable sales were Matt’s sole livelihood.…
My goals of making this farm sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable would be a process of selection and elimination: trying out sheep and goats, pigs and cows, bees and chickens, vegetables and fruits. I was excited; I wanted everything; and as much as possible, I would crack this nut.”
That’s Kurt, and the journey of this book, in a nutshell. He doesn’t try to hide how many mistakes he made along the way. His spare prose doesn’t draw attention to himself. It’s that mystery he’s trying to solve: how to take a weekend home into a sustainable farm. His language is unflinching, funny, and tremendously engaging. I could have read his stories of collecting honey from the bees for another 100 pages.
I should say that I know Kurt now. He’s a friend, someone I dig. We connect as writers, and we talk fast as we stand in the gorgeous kitchen building he built on the farm (right next to the loghouse where he lives, built in 1881, the oldest-standing building on this island), talking about the weird world of the internet and the people who fascinate us. I’ve been to dinner there. I bring him pie. And always, I eat his cheese eagerly.
I’d heard about him for year, about his Sunday suppers and his cows. Somehow, we never met, even though we had friends in common. Plus, we live 10 minutes from each other. But it wasn’t until I read his book — his smart, honestly eloquent book about running a farm and every thought that has to go into it — that I pushed through the shyness and insisted on meeting him. I’m so glad I did.
You can meet Kurt through this book too. I hope you do. If you truly want to know where your food comes from, this book is a good place to start.
I will never eat another tomato grown in Florida after reading this book.
Barry Estabrook wrote a searing piece about the slave-labor situations for tomato pickers in one county in Florida when Gourmet magazine still existed. I remember sitting on the couch, reading as fast as I could, one leg tucked under another, not moving. I came up blinking, shaking my head. Here? That happens here?
That piece drew such attention that it changed some of the situation there. However, there’s still plenty of work to do.
When did we, as a culture, decide that we need little diced tomatoes on our salads all year long? Especially when they’re pale and tasteless. Do we just need dots of red on our salads, slices of mealiness on our sandwiches, little smears of pale pink on our pizzas? Have you ever thought about what this need for tomatoes in every month of the year has done to the way we raise tomatoes in this country?
“I was mindlessly driving along the flat, straight pavement of I-75, when I came up behind one of those gravel trucks that seem to be everywhere in southwest Florida’s rush to convert pine woods and cypress stands into gated communities and shopping malls. But as I drew closer, I saw that the tractor trailer was top heavy with what seemed to be Green Smith apples. When I pulled out to pass, three of them sailed off the truck, narrowly missing my windshield. Chastened, I eased back into my lane and let the truck get several car lengths ahead. Every time it hit the slightest bump, more of those orbs would tumble off. At the first stoplight, I got a closer look. The shoulder of the road was littered with green tomatoes so plasticine and so identical they look like they could have been stamped out by a machine. Most looked smooth and unblemished. A few had cracks in their skins. Not one was smashed. A ten-foot drop followed by a sixty-mile-per-hour impact with pavement is no big deal to a modern, agribusiness tomato.”
After reading Tomatoland, I started walking my talk more. I won’t eat any fresh tomatoes anymore, not until it’s summer and they’re actually in season.
Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time by Georgia Pellegrini
I bet you’ve never read another food memoir that has recipes for coot legs in sherry, quail kebabs, or braised javelina haunch. Then again, you’ve never read another book like Girl Hunter.
Georgia Pellegrini is one heck of a good writer. After reading her first book, Food Heroes, I knew I’d read anything she wrote. However, I did not expect the next book to be about hunting for her own meat. Georgia went from formal culinary training to cooking at some of the better restaurants in the country, to standing in a field in the early morning in Arkansas, about to shoot an animal. Her stories and prose are just that unexpected. This book keeps you thinking without being ponderous.
This book is equal parts history, research, and personal narrative. The author, Andrew Beahrs, read a menu Mark Twain concocted when he was in Europe, desperately nostalgic for American regional cooking. Black bass from the Mississippi. Lake trout, from Tahoe. Hot biscuits, Southern style. Beahrs traces the footsteps of Twain by going to those places, revealing something about one of America’s greatest writers. But it’s really the food that’s the star here, as well as where that food grows.
“The cold, upswelled water that makes the fog full of detritus, decomposed fish, rotted plankton, and whatever else has drifted to the ocean bottom — all now broken down into particles fine enough to billow back to the surface on a rising current. When these nutrients combine with sunlight, the ocean explodes with plankton; if you scuba dive in the upper reaches of an upwelling zone, you can barely see your hands through the green, almost greasy water. And plankton is everything — plankton is it. Upwelled nutrients, and the plankton they support, are the foundation of all California marine life, from fish to whales to the Farallon islands murres whose nests were once so busily robbed.”
Although we do hear about Beahrs and his adventures in the book, it’s clear that it’s the regional sense of the places he visits, and how Twain led him here, which interests him most of all.
And quickly — because this is growing epic length — let me tell you about the last few a little more quickly.
97 Orchard: An Edible HIstory of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman is fascinating history told through food. Life on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century was a crazy melting post of immigrants. It’s easy to study that culture through politics or party affiliations, but Ziegelman shows an incredible story of the lives of these people through the dishes they brought from the countries they left to come here.
Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton is possibly one of my favorite memoirs of all time, mostly because it is so utterly imperfect. Hamilton, who owns Prune (one of our favorite restaurants in New York) is unflinching. She doesn’t give herself a Hollywood shine, that’s for sure. She’s often angry, stubborn, hungry grumpy, and almost inexplicable to the reader. But damn that woman can write. I loved any passages where she wrote about her life as a chef — I’m pretty sure I read all of them to Danny while we lay in bed — and how she felt about food. But her failed relationships are brutal on the page. And you can’t look away. The book didn’t end neatly. I won’t say more, but I know that many were disappointed in the ending. To me, it was the perfect imperfect, left-hanging-open that was the only way to end this extraordinary book.
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn (the name changed after I received that advance copy up there, which was called Changing Courses) is part memoir, part cooking class, and all earnest. Kat wants to take the skills she learned at Le Cordon Bleu and put them into the homes of ordinary people. What she teaches them, mostly, is confidence in the kitchen. And that’s all we need. It’s didactic — don’t look for lyricism — but that’s the point. Kat wants to teach the world to cook.
Fed Up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches — and How We Can Change Them! by Sarah Wu is a great book for anyone who is waking up to how atrocious school lunches can be. Sarah Wu, also known as Mrs. Q on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch, ate school lunch with her students every day for a year. Need I even say how gross most of the food was? When it was edible, she was pleasantly surprised. The book is lovely, even if a little slight. If you’re well versed in the politics of school lunch, this book is great to remember what it’s like to be a beginner again. And if you’re wondering what your kids are eating at school, and starting to question it, you need to read this book.
So, those were the best for me this year. But, I still have that nightstand problem. I still need more books splayed open upon it. So I’d love to hear. What were your favorites this year?
p.s. I thought about doing a cookbook roundup, but everyone is doing a cookbook roundup right now. We’ve been telling you our favorite cookbooks all year. In a few days, some of my favorite fiction books of the year, along with a recipe for ginger cookies.