Thursday, July 12, 2007

well read, well fed (installment 9) Summer Reading Update

I've managed to read a couple more books from my Summer Reading for Food Lovers list. I'm not getting as much reading in as I'd like, but so far the books have been very good, so no complaints.

Crescent: A Novel by Diana Abu-Jaber

Crescent is the story of Sirine, a California woman whose father was from Iraq and mother from California. She is a cook at a Persian restaurant by a University and lives with her Uncle who is a professor. She is 39 and single. She is intelligent and beautiful. Food is a big part of Sirine's life. It's part of her culture, it reminds her of her parents, who died tragically when she was young. Food also is what her circle of friends is centered on...the restaurant, it's regular patrons, her co-workers, the atmosphere of political/social debate that takes place at it's tables, the new people who show up. Sirine's cooking also is her way of centering herself and expressing herself. The book has mystery, love, lore, culture and great characters. It's lush and sensual, both in its story and its descriptions. Everything you want in a summer book, right? Plus, lots and lots of gorgeous food talk. Here is an excerpt that I particularly like:

He says, "This reminds me."

"It reminds you? Of what?"

He nods. "The kitchen. I never much wanted to be up in my father's orchard. I liked this. I liked the kitchen. The table. Stove. Where the women were always telling stories. My mother and my aunts and the neighbors and-my sister.” He smoothes another sheet.

Sirine butters it, then pours a thick filling of ground walnuts, sugar, and spices over the layers. She strokes her palm over the top to level it. :My mother too," she murmurs. "Well, it was usually just her and me. She talked to me while we worked. Told me stuff."

Han glances at her. "Like what sort of stuff?"

She smiles and shrugs, a little shy. "Oh silly things, like whether you pour hot syrup over cold baklava or cold syrup over hot."
"That's quite serious, that's metaphysical."

She considers this, surprised by the memories that start to come to her-the way her mother's small lessons felt like larger secrets when Sirine was a girl: how instructions in the fine dicing of walnuts and the way to clarify butter were also meditations on hope and devotion. "Yes," she says, a soft, dawning recognition in her voice. "I think so too."
"Oh, definitely. My mother told me that if I knew how to make good baklava I would be irresistible to any woman," he says.
"Ah, so she taught you how to make baklava, "Sirine observes.

"No. So she refused to teach me."

Sirine laughs. "But somehow you learned how to make it anyway. Lucky for me."

"Actually, I'm learning how right this second."

Another layer. Butter. She glances at him, then back at the baklava. "You miss it?"

He looks up. "I miss...? The kitchen? My home?" He accidentally tears a corner of a sheet of dough-it's starting to get dry.”’ I miss my mother's coffee / I miss my mother's bread.'"

Sirine raises her eyebrows.

"It's a poem. Not mine." He grimaces, trying to reattach the dough. "No, I miss everything, Sirine. Absolutely everything."

You can check out another excerpt here. And speaking of Baklava, I'm adding Abu-Jaber's memoir The Language of Baklava to my list of books to read. I enjoy her writing, and I like learning more about Persian/Middle Eastern foods. In fact, I did a little post a long time ago about visiting a local Persian place...take a look back.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

Heat come highly recommended from all over the place. Basically, it's Bill Buford's account of working at Babbo, Mario Batali's restaurant, and his quest to learn more and more about food and cooking. It all started out as research for a feature article on Batali, but the cooking world drew Buford in, and he couldn't seem to learn/cook/sweat enough. It reminded me a lot of Micheal Ruhlman's book Soul of a Chef, in that it became a personal pursuit to find out some vague "secret" into the world/mind of chefs. Buford is funny, and the book shows the side of Batali that you do not see on Iron Chef America or Molto Mario. Mario is a chef, and being such, he is often vulgar and loud and can drink lots. I like him more, now it seems :) Buford also details several trips he took to Italy to work for places there and learn more about specific Italian specialties, such as fresh pasta and sausage and butchering. It's an exciting, often touching, often humorous and darn informative read. There's history lessons, and stories of heartbreak. There are lessons on cuts of meats, and lessons on what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. An eye-opening experience, this book...a reminder that although I love food, I don’t have what it takes to be a professional cook. I would cry a lot.

You can read an excerpt here.

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