Category Archives: books


Yep! Hot off the press, just released Tuesday night: Alice Waters’ latest. I am happy, as simple food is what I love. It’s a fairly basic cookbook, actually. But consider the source: in her talented hands, and with her instructions, simple magic can happen in anyone’s kitchen.

But what you’re looking at, of course, is a bribe.

You see, Tom leaves for London on Tuesday. Alone. Without us! So he needs to do some things to curry my favor.

He’s going to be in an art fair–slash–show there. It’s his profession’s version of a convention, I suppose; in such an instance I am glad I am not going, conventions being what they are. (I would never drag him to an AIA convention.) But then, London is a place where the child and I could have plenty of fun…with or without him.

As it is, we’ll see what trouble we can get in at home…

Books on food

Meredith, bless her heart, asked for some of my favorite culinary reads. So I did a quick gleaning, and scooped up “something for everyone” in this pile. She wanted ten, but I’m giving you eleven.

Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher: any and all essays, but a good place to start would be The Art of Eating. She is able to limn the most attendant details: if you read her, you are seated across the table from her.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison: Italian Days. This is another instance of food plus autobiography. BGH returns to Italy in her 50s. I did not want this to end.

Julia Child: My Life in France. Like the previous two books, this is personal history. This is a love story, though: love of food, love of France, love of her husband. Child is just as witty and charming as ever, willing to make mistakes and quick to laugh about them. Now, if I could only find out if her pot/pan shop is still open somewhere after Les Halles closed…

Eat = Memory, so I cannot in good conscience overlook Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: Remembrance of Things Past. If you have a lot of time on your hand, you should try this.

Paul Bertolli: Cooking By Hand. Bertolli is a former chef of Chez Panisse, and now mostly makes sausage. I admire his passion, and the depth he takes with his subjects. This book handles balsamic vinegar, sausage, and pasta-making to a depth that will astound you.


Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel. What the hell am I thinking, including a book about the rise and fall of civilizations in a list of culinary books? The social history of food is directly tied to the success or failure of any civilization. The cultivation of grain, the domestication of animals, the migration of peoples: it is all here.

Michael Pollan: The Botany of Desire. Pollan, who’s well-known thanks to his recent book, has actually been around for quite a while, writing his little heart out. This book’s my favorite of his, covering the history of apples, potatoes, tulips and…pot.

The Oxford Companion to Food
. Everything, and I mean it, is in this book.

Studies, Polemics, or A Bunch Of Food Nags
These books will hopefully make you think about what you eat.

Peter Singer and Jim Mason: The Way We Eat (hardback) or The Ethics of What We Eat (paperback): Why our Food Choices Matter. Singer is the preeminent philosopher and ethicist best known for his work in applied ethics (i.e., weighing life choices) and animal liberation. That said, this book will give you a lot to think about regarding food choice: local versus organic, farmed fish versus wild…it’s all here. And you won’t turn vegan after reading it.

Want to figure out how to negotiate the fraught aisles of your grocery store? Marion Nestle’s What To Eat will show you just how very devious stores and food companies really are.

Nina Planck throws bombs, too. Her book Real Food is one I turn to often, mainly because I cannot readily remember which oil I should grab for what purpose: this book is the best one I have found to decipher the mono- versus polysaturated fats. It is an interesting read.

Book sales

Tom hit a library sale yesterday and this was his take for me.

Now that we have a kid, library sales are our book-gathering method of choice. There’s a lot more bang for your buck there, and, let’s face it, with a few exceptions, children’s literature is a fleeting thing, captured and consumed.

I give him vague directions (“Oh, anything gardening, I guess”) and he usually nabs something that contains a few gems, a few pearls of wisdom. The Gourmet mags were a fluke. They are from the 1950s, and, without exaggeration, a good 25% of the pages are liquor ads! All of a sudden, all those John Cheever stories make complete sense. I can just imagine Pauline Hausfrau setting her ruffled apron afire while making crepes Suzette, fortified, as she was, by all those cocktails.

The gardening books are always fun reads, especially old issues of Organic Gardening. I usually can glean some earthen tidbits from all of these books. And, if not, our own library sale is in about a month, so we can recycle the duds.

Eleanor Perenyi

I’m stepping away from the garden for a few days (going to DEEtroit, especially to hit my favorite spice shop downtown), so I thought I would leave you with words that are not my own. (I feel I’ve been overly wordy lately anyway.)

Eleanor Perenyi has not written enough on gardening, in my mind; she is my favorite writer on the garden, though. I tried to find her take on peonies, as she had said something profound about their ability to drop their petals “like prom dresses atop the grand piano,” or some such; don’t quote me. But instead I found this paragraph on vegetables. Please note the date, and her sentiments.

“All that has changed. I am a full-time resident now and not as hell-bent as I used to be. I have cut down on many things, but nothing short of total decrepitude could make me decide to give up the vegetables. Ordinary greed comes into it, of course, and the bolstering of insecurities: Scarlett O’Hara grubbing for yams evidently made more of an impression than I realized at the time. But most of all they bewitch me with their textures, infinitely varied forms, even their sounds–the silky rustle of cabbages, the rattle of peas in their pods. Whether in orderly rows in the garden or lying in a heap on the kitchen table, they are almost too beautiful to eat, which at least proves that one isn’t just a hog. Given the aesthetic choice, I prefer vegetables to fruits or flowers. I am hardly the first to experience this half-worshipful emotion (think what Chardin could do with a scallion or a plum), but it is undoubtedly sharpened by the premonition that I may be the last. The seven-year-old-son of one of my garden helpers brought this home to me the other day. An intelligent child, he wanted to know what were the pea pods he saw lying in the compost heap. I explained. Still a blank, and it came to me that although he knew perfectly well what peas were, he had supposed they came out of a cardboard box, frozen. And there will soon be many more of him than me. Already I am something of a freak in the community on account of my vegetables, herbs and fruits. I foresee the day when I graduate from freak to witch.” from Green Thoughts: a Writer in the Garden, 1981.

A book review

Two things I am taking away from this book of letters:

1. Hellebores. They’re something I’ve only admired in OPG (Other People’s Gardens).

2. A great thankfulness that Civil Rights has passed in this country.

Yes, cantankerous me: wouldn’t it be LOVELY if I could just revel in these letters for their breadth of gardening knowledge? Well, whether it’s simply cultural oversight of a Yankee gardener with “hired men” or a Southern gardener with “half grown Negro boy[s]”…I seriously wonder if we can really consider these two women gardeners in the sense that we understand the term. (Especially Katharine White, who never deigned to even get out of a dress and heels.) I guess instead I will blame the editor, who did a fine job of delineating the silver spoon set but neglects to mention the hired help by name. It especially galled me when the editor saw fit to mention who Elizabeth’s mother’s doctor was, yet in the same paragraph, the ONLY place where he’s mentioned, she doesn’t cite Elizabeth’s gardener. “All saying things can’t be done, that my yardman, Willie, and I have been doing for years without a fuss.” [p. 76,Beacon Press ppb edition]

Okay, THAT is out of the way. Elizabeth Lawrence, if I were to rank them, is more bona fide a dirt digger. She wrote a gardening column for The Charlotte Observer and also had a landscape consulting business. Her personality comes through loud and clear in her letters, which describe a somewhat one-sided “friendship” between these two women. Katharine S. White (wife of E.B. “Andy” White, of Charlotte’s Web fame and a lot more) was an editor at The New Yorker who on occasion wrote a mostly gardening-related column for the same magazine. She had a large flower garden at their farm in Maine.

As a historical document, this batch of letters describes well how plantgrowing moved from one of local nurseries with local specialties to national nurseries with, as we know now, nothing local. This trend was helped somewhat by Katharine’s New Yorker articles about mail-order nurseries. (Katharine relied heavily in writing these articles upon the expertise of people like Elizabeth.) These letters document the loss of scent in roses, the hardiness of North Carolina daffodils in Maine, and bloom times for plants in December (!!). As such, it makes a very interesting read for those of us who’re plant-happy.

These letters also follow gardening trends, especially the emergence of the horrors of DDT and the re-emergence of chemical-free gardens. I think we were all a bit horrified to read how they describe how their yards were regularly sprayed with DDT and they noticed the loss of certain creatures because of it. (It was The New Yorker that first published chapters of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.)

The letters also describe what happened in their lives, particularly in terms of illness. (It is said that the Whites tended to be hypochondriacs.) Part of me wonders if some “real” gardening, the bend-and-stretch, dig-the-dirt, spread-the-mulch sweatiness that most of us practice wouldn’t have benefited these two, Katharine White especially. But then I also realize these women were very much products of their time, even though they were highly unusual by being fully employed. So getting sweaty in the garden was ONLY acceptable if they did it with their yardmen.

And that makes me wonder. Is my reaction to these women’s gardens a visceral kind of backwards jealosy? I am definitely in the bite-off-as-much-as-I-can-chew camp here on the farm. My vision, of course, is much larger than my time allows. If I had a yardman, or a crew…who knows what I could do. And seeing what these two COULD do, well…

And it is here that I should mention that my husband is in this week’s New Yorker. They mention his New York show, and include a photo (not online, unfortunately, but in the magazine itself). He’ll be in April’s Harper’s, so the ghosts of the Whites are all over this house…

(Thanks again, Carol, for hosting!)

A book review

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Lowenfels, Jeff and Lewis, Wayne; Timber Press, Portland, OR; 2006)

Now, here is a useful book. There was enough handy information that even a seasoned organic gardener like myself could still glean a few kernels of wisdom from it. Here’s the spoiler: “Rule #2 holds that most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils. Rule #3 points out that most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungally dominated soils.”

I also want to use the word “exudates” in a sentence now. Or at least in cocktail conversation. Cocktail conversation that does NOT include compost tea.

Forget about the idea for a second that the average human has a hard time with the concept of a “web.” Maybe it’s New Math (I certainly was a product), but most fields of study are linear in nature, and thus webs are kind of hard to conceptualize. That said, to team with the teeming trillions found in a tablespoon of soil is the stated purpose of this book. They have detours, they kind of get caught up in a few reductivist, or at least quantitative, digressions into these trillions…but I suppose that was important, considering the subject matter.

Here’s the rub, kids: soil is a living thing, or at least the host to trillions of living things. If you did not know that before, then you are probably not a gardener. Most folks know there’re earthworms in the soil. But there’s more to love than your average red wiggler.

There were a couple of things that stood out (i.e., annoyed the crap out of me) while reading this. One: “spouse”=”wife,” we get it. That your wives weren’t that keen about your raids of the pantry for brewing compost tea is your business: don’t lump the rest of us in that category, mainly because there are a lot of single gardeners out there, and there are a lot of wives who garden (ahem.). And two: doesn’t this whole compost tea-brewing obsession seem to any of you to be, well, the graying of your average basement beer brewer? Maybe it’s my particular demographic, but most beer-loving boys I know got into beer-brewing about age 25 or so, or at least when they had their first basement. I also thought the authors were showing their true colors (or at least their woo-woo bona fides) by giving us instructions to make our own fish hydrolysate by adding papain (aka papaya peptidase). Yep. Right there on the top shelf of MY pantry.

And the whole don’t-use-manure-in-your-compost thing because of (eeks!) E. coli. seems really like a lawsuit-avoidance tactic. Your average Nelly Nag down the road is not fed the same gut-turning crap your commercial Bessie is, so I would think this is a bit disingenuous on the authors’ part.

But the biggest apostacy of course is the throw-your-tiller-away dictum. Yes, we now fully understand how continued, twice-yearly tilling breaks the long strands of fungal hyphae. Hmm. Understood; understand. However. If one is to throw down the gantlet like this, I suppose I would’ve appreciated an alternative. My own little circle of hell here is clay soil. Before the tiller, in creating my garden beds, I was out there with a 10-lb. mattock. (Granted, I was a breastfeeding stay-at-home mother at that time so I felt my yin was way off my yang and I needed a butch-ifying outlet. This is also the time I took up with a chainsaw. But enough about me.) So yes, the only time I get out there and chop up the soil is when I bust the sod for new garden beds. Scraping the grass away daintily at the rootline was a hobby I could enjoy in my small city lot. Now, well. Manifest destiny.

And that brings me to the best line(s) of the book: “The organisms in the compost you apply…will spread life as far as they can. It is microbial manifest destiny.”

Eat or be eaten, kiddos. Go out and feed the eaters.

(and thank you, Carol, for your book club!)

Page gardening: Visions of grandeur

The greenhouse bed last fall

So I read another one of this bloke’s books recenly, this one about small-scale vegetable production (as in, sell the things) and somehow I am convinced that my land is being underused. Hmm. Maybe it is possible for me to produce EVERYTHING my family of three needs for a year, and not just 60% of it.

Beware the January garden, in other words. Lots of ideas, no weeds.