Several years ago, Jeffrey Roberts authored the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. His atlas highlighted carefully crafted, locally made cheeses and their makers, who hoped to lure American consumers away from those weirdly orange “pasteurized processed cheese foods” at the big grocery stores. The movement he championed in that first book has succeeded in a big way — now even the grocery store chains offer extensive cheese departments that often stock locally made gourmet cheeses.
With the publication of Salted and Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage and Flavor of America's Preserved Meats, Roberts hopes to provide the same service for locally cured meats. This new book delves into the historical hows and whys of curing meats, then introduces readers to the contemporary farmers, chefs and even bloggers who are champions of naturally made, carefully crafted, cured meats.
Roberts’ book shows readers how unexpected things like weather conditions affected the history of meats: desert versus swamp makes a big difference in how you cure your meats. From tales of ancient China and Egypt to how Native Americans taught explorers to make jerky, and from Italian prosciutto to Jewish corned beef at your favorite deli, Roberts tracks down the origins of cured meats. In the process, he tells the story of the waves of immigrants that brought their food traditions with them when they came to America.
Like this year’s BC Reads selection, Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, Salted and Cured tells the story of America’s melting pot by looking at the ingredients various ethnic groups have brought to our kitchens. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and the works of Michael Pollan should also enjoy this fascinating glimpse into food history and customs.
Sarah Lohman is a historical gastronomist who immerses herself in her work. In Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Lohman selects eight flavors found most frequently in American recipes. (She found 10, but excluded coffee and chocolate because she felt so much had been written about each.) Beginning in archives and searching through economic and scientific records, Lohman studies cookbooks and manuscripts dating back to the 18th century to discover when each of the flavor profiles first appeared in American kitchens and why.
The eight flavors uniting our vast melting pot of a country are black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and Sriracha. Lohman introduces the explorers, merchants, farmers and chefs who influenced our culinary story. Unknown figures dot this fascinating history. John Crowninshield was a New England merchant who traveled to Sumatra in the 1790s in search of black pepper. Edmond Albius was a 12-year-old slave who lived on an island off the coast of Madagascar and discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today. Sriracha was the creation of David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who combined elements of French and Thai cuisine and, using peppers grown on a farm north of Los Angeles, produced a hot sauce whose sales now exceed $60 million.
Recipes, research and illustrations all serve to illuminate the reader on the history of the flavors, each of which comprise a chapter in the book. Lohman also shares her personal adventures with the ingredients, and readers will be compelled to try some of the recipes (updated to modern tastes) such as Thomas Jefferson’s French Vanilla Ice Cream or the Rosemary House Garlic Carrot Cake. In an interview, Lohman noted that researching the book "really upended my idea of these flavors that always stood on the shelf in my kitchen. I would always pick up a pepper grinder or a bottle of vanilla extract and would never think about what it was and where it came from."
Meet Sarah Lohman at the Arbutus Branch on April 13 at 7 p.m. Copies of her book will be available for sale at a book signing following the program. Don’t come hungry! This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Ian Purkayastha’s background is unusual for a powerful player in the world of fine dining. He shares his remarkable story and the crazy adventures along the way in Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground. The son of an Indian immigrant father and a Texan mother, Ian was 15 when his family left Houston for rural Arkansas. While he'd always loved cooking and eating well, it was his uncle, an avid outdoorsman, who taught him how to forage for wild mushrooms. When he first tasted a black truffle ravioli dish with foie gras sauce, he was instantly obsessed with the earthy, unusual truffle flavor.
Truffle Boy is part coming-of-age story, part elite restaurant tell-all, part travelogue. Readers journey with Ian from Manhattan to Oregon, from Serbia to Hungary. The characters met along this adventure are larger than life, ranging from shady businessmen to raving chefs to colorful gypsies. Despite setbacks and failures, Ian rebounds and achieves astonishing success at a young age in a ruthless world. He now owns Regalis, a specialty food company, which sells not only truffles but also caviar, wild mushrooms, Wagyu beef and other nearly unobtainable ingredients demanded by his Michelin-starred clients.
In a recent interview, Ian encouraged those who haven’t tried this delicacy to do so. “I would say if someone is wanting to try an ingredient that literally smells like nothing else you've ever had, then the truffle is the ingredient for them. Truffles have been, you know, lustful and highly regarded for centuries for having this intoxicating aroma and flavor. So I would definitely encourage interested, adventuresome eaters to seek out truffles.”
Meet Ian Purkayastha at the Towson Branch on April 9 at 2 p.m., where he will be in conversation with Doug Wetzel, the executive chef at Gertrude’s at the BMA. This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Even novice chefs won’t be intimidated by Korean cooking thanks to Robin Ha’s inventive and colorful introduction to the basics behind this challenging cuisine. In Cook Korean!, Ha instructs the readers in a charming and unique graphic novel format containing recipes and ingredient profiles narrated by a lively character named Dengki.
Vibrant, humorous comics illustrate all the steps and ingredients necessary for 64 recipes. Her presentation is concise, with no more than two pages devoted to any one recipe. The book is divided into 10 sections with subjects ranging from snacks to street food to, of course, kimchi. Even those unfamiliar with Korean food have probably heard of kimchi, which Ha calls "an indispensable part of any Korean meal." This cookbook stands out from others because of the illustrations, but also because Ha shares cultural context in an introduction to each section, in addition to listing recipes.
Ha, a professional cartoonist and amateur chef, gained online popularity for her Tumblr, Banchan in Two Pages, a weekly comic with illustrated instructions on how to make specific Korean dishes. Ha spent more time drawing comics for Marvel than in the kitchen and is not a graduate of culinary school. She started cooking as an adult when friends asked her to cook Korean food for them. She wants you to know if she can cook Korean, so can you. "I know what it's like to be afraid of cooking, because I was like that most of my life," she says.
Meet Robin Ha at the Catonsville Branch tonight, April 4, at 6:30 p.m., where she will talk about her book, her art and her love of food. This program is just one of the many events scheduled for BC Reads: Eat Up!, BCPL’s month-long community discussion promoting reading and the arts.
Although many readers still retain mental scars from Shirley Jackson’s chilling story The Lottery, fewer are familiar with the woman who wrote it. For those readers, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life tells the story of one of America’s most controversial and tragically short-lived authors.
Who is Shirley Jackson? Even her fans can’t agree on that. Was she a serious writer of literary fiction such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Was she a practicing witch who wrote ghost stories like The Haunting of Hill House? Or was she the musing housewife who wrote humorous essays like Life Among the Savages? This fractured identity would suit one of her characters, who were often women pushed to their mental limits by society. And Jackson was not without her demons. She felt the judgment of others sharply — her two most vocal critics were her mother and her husband, which unfortunately would lead to her agoraphobia late in life. But Franklin’s biography doesn’t make the mistake of confusing Jackson with her characters. Instead, it presents her as a modern master whose talents harnessed, but were not indebted to, her demons.
Franklin’s book is not without it’s shades of light. We’re also treated to samples of the cartoons that Jackson drew of herself and others (yet another side of her creativity) and stories of Jackson’s troublemaking sense of humor (she would frequently present herself as a witch to the press and claim to have cast spells on critics of her work). It’s a biography worthy of one of America’s best and most debated writers. And it pairs well with The Lottery: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, a visual retelling of her most famous story by artist Miles Hyman, Jackson’s grandson.
Robert Brockway’s The Empty Ones is a punk rock take on a weird and spooky world full of butt kicking, hard drinking and surprising emotional investment. This book will turn the volume up to 11, and follow it up with a punch straight to the heart when you least expect it.
A continuation to the first book in the series, The Unnoticeables, this book picks up shortly thereafter. Telling the next step for our rough–around-the-edges “heroes,” it also tells a little more of their history. Brockway does a great job of gradually revealing the mysteries of its world and the nature of the eldritch enemies his characters face while darkly foreshadowing the future ahead of them. The ending completes a satisfying story while setting up the next chapter, leaving readers excitedly waiting for the third and final volume of the series.
Readers who enjoy more bizarre humor and “out there” fiction will enjoy it for sure; this book is weird and there’s just no way around it. Joyously counter-culture and unrelentingly vicious at points, it balances this with surprising heart and depth of character in ways you won’t always expect. It’s is a heck of a ride that readers may just need to strap in for and enjoy. Brockway also does a good job of capturing the unique feeling of the exhaustion you get when it feels like the world has nothing but further misfortune for you, no matter what you do — but you push on anyway.
I highly recommend reading The Unnoticeables before starting on this one — the mythos is convoluted enough that it could be a little confusing to try and jump in midstream. If you enjoyed this title, you should also try David Wong’s John Dies at the End, which similarly is a story full of strange humor and surprisingly dark moments. Both Wong and Brockway write for the internet humor site Cracked, and they share an esoteric style of writing. Readers might enjoy other stories of magic and adventure, such as Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Daniel Polansky’s Low Town.
Katherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.
Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.
Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.
When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.
His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.
Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.
The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.
Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.
Warren Ellis has a dark view of the future, and he wants to give you the inside scoop. In his newest book Normal, the prolific author of dozens of graphic novels shares his creepy and worryingly plausible view of the future of surveillance and technology in the world.
The book begins at Normal Head, an isolated facility in the Pacific Northwest. Normal is where futurists, people whose job it is to look forward and prepare for catastrophes, go to recover when the pressures of their jobs drive them to depression, exhaustion and madness. The protagonist is a newly arrived patient who investigates a strange disappearance of another patient at the facility.
While not being an uplifting tale, the book does present an interesting take on where the future of technology may head. Normal is almost more an education on problems humanity may face in the future than a story. It stares unblinkingly at a future that the reader may feel is implausible, but can’t entirely dismiss as impossible. Though it sounds grim, the book is full of memorable and funny — if bizarre — characters, each defined by their quirks and their fears.
Overall the book is a great read, especially for fans of speculative, near-future sci-fi. Not truly dystopian, it shows how we got from present day to a world destroyed. Normal is weird and quirky and dark but ultimately delightful.
Readers who enjoyed this are also likely to enjoy some of Ellis’ other works, such as Trees, a graphic novel set in a near future where our world has been irrevocably changed by massive technological columns (the titular Trees) from space. They might also enjoy Transmetropolitan, another graphic novel by Ellis that is set in the full on dystopian future, though that series is a good deal more crude and adult than this book. For something a little more hopeful, though no less dark, readers could also try Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. This book, also set in the near future, discusses the dangers of government surveillance through the eyes of a teenager living in San Francisco in the wake of a terrorist attack.
I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.