Book Corner 2019.03

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Eat a Little Better by Sam Kass

I didn’t realize this was basically a cookbook when I bought it for my Kindle; I thought it was just a food philosophy book by the Obamas’ personal chef. Happily, it is a recipe book but ALSO a book about food, and food policy, and cooking for the Obamas.  It made a nice sequel to the Michelle memoir.

I loved Kass’ philosophy, summed up in the subtitle: Eat a little better. Just a little better.  Marginal improvements!  One less meat dish, one more whole grain, whatever works for you; and it will add up.

And I liked his emphasis on finding ways of cooking that work for real-life families, peppered with anecdotes of what Sasha & Malia (& Barack) liked and what they turned up their noses at. (Michelle just seemed so thrilled to have someone cook for her family, she loved everything.)  However, that particular emphasis seemed to wane as the book went on.  We started out with a philosophy of ease and simplicity and lots of great, simple ideas for cooking vegetables; and ended with soaking beans and sprouting lentils and a recipe for “Couscous with Olives, Piquillo Peppers, and Pine Nuts.”  A real crowd-pleaser for the pre-teen set, I’m sure.

Sam Kass wasn’t just the Obama cook. A chef trained in Europe, he was also President Obama’s senior advisor for nutrition policy and Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” executive director.  I liked hearing about his experiences trying to write policy, and his digs (har har) at the potato lobby.  I liked hearing everything he had to say.  Great read.

Book Corner 2019.02

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Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover

Did we really need another GLASS CASTLE so soon?
It kept me reading – you can’t help but root for her.  But it got so repetitive.  How many times can we mentally scream, “NO, TARA, NO!”  No, do NOT go get another ice cream with the guy who broke your toe and habitually shoves your head in the toilet!  This will not end well!  How many times can we think, “OK, now she’s starting to get it, finally!” and then read “So I went home for Christmas.”  You WHAT?!  “STOP GOING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, TARA!!”

Best takeway came on the penultimate page: “Guilt is never about THEM.  Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness.”

Book Corner #1 of 2019

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Grocery: The Buying & Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman

∗∗∗∗½

A little hard to be objective – I thought all this time I was the only one! I LOVE grocery shopping! It is without exaggeration the highlight of my week. I can fathom that some people might not love it, but consider it a “chore”? Would rather sit at home and click things online and have them delivered? Just suck all the joy out of life, why don’t you!

And not only that, but Ruhlman traces his love of grocery shopping back to supermarket visits with his Dad – ME TOO! Periodic mass grocery shopping for the household was my Dad’s task, too, and I loved being his helper. He made everything a game; and it didn’t hurt that he too had a liberal hand in allowing me to toss into the cart any manner of dessert and snack items I wanted (because he loved them too). He did occasionally raise a very feeble protest against the sugary cereals me and my sibs insisted on eating – but he lost that battle one time when he brought home Whole Wheat Total and tried to claim it was “all they had.” We refused to eat it. We probably ate donuts or instant breakfast or pop-tarts instead.

But I should get back to the book. It has history, it has plenty of cultural and nutritional commentary, it has a big focus on the small Cleveland chain of grocery stores patronized by Ruhlman throughout his life, but it also has further digressions where Ruhlman channels his inner Michael Pollan to take us on in-depth exposes, interviews with experts, and adventures which reveal the underside of the simple act of grocery shopping.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout almost all of it… though I have to admit he lost me a couple of times, such as when he spent a chapter on supplements. Supplements!? Who cares! That’s not food! And likewise when he spent a chapter traipsing through the woods with some dippy guy who talked about how we absorb healing chemicals just by being present in the forest. Again… THAT’S NOT FOOD.

And I’m sorry, one more quibble. As I said, I did appreciate his talking about his experiences with his Dad. But I think that in place of the endless “My Year Of…” books we were subject to a decade ago, now we all have to deal with “Coming to Terms with the Death of My Parent When You Thought All You Were Going to Learn about was Hawks/Whales/Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail/Supermarkets.” Every non-fiction book these days seems to have to have a connection to the author’s dead mother or father. I know, it sucks to lose your parents. Lots of things remind you of them. By all means, tell me about dear old Mom/Dad. But then they always get so maudlin and overwrought about it! S/he’s dead, I know, it’s very sad. That’s exactly why you don’t have to tell me that much about it. Ever heard of “nuff said’?

So, indeed, supermarkets ARE amazing. He references a New York Times Magazine article from 1996 that I distinctly remember reading and trying to share with my friends; similar to this book, it talked at lengths about the modern miracle that is the supermarket, and engaged in some cultural commentary and comparison as the writer visited some other styles of food procurement, such as some kind of farmer’s market/open-air market in Spain, if I remember correctly… and that was cool too. Farmer’s markets are awesome too. But that doesn’t detract at all from my love of the supermarket. The friends with whom I tried to share my excitement over this article, were, I recall, definitely non-plussed, unfortunately.

Ruhlman also weighs in here and there with his opinions on best nutritional practices, which are nicely inconsistent. He has a beef against the misguided notions that eggs are bad for you and fat is bad for you (I forget which one of those gets his goat the most). He has plenty bad to say about processed food, but also doesn’t hesitate to tell us all the less-than-chef-worthy things he loved in his childhood and to which he still doesn’t seem totally averse.

My biggest takeaway was a quote from one of his interviewees, on the topic of how bad processed food is, and restaurant food is, and practically everything is, unless you bring it home and cook it yourself… bad for you inherently healthwise, and bad for you because its convenience leads you to eat too much of it. The quote was, more or less: “You want a diet? Eat anything you want – but cook it yourself.” I love it! I could eat cookies and brownies and pasta Bolognese and all my favorites, so long as I cooked them myself, which would be a joy anyway. But I’d miss my frequent restaurant meals. And occasional Chinese/Vietnamese takeout. And occasional pizza. And… so this really wouldn’t work for me.

What a joy this book was! I can hardly shut up about it. And I just ended up liking Ruhlman enough to want to read more by him – it seems he’s written a lot. I see lots of food books coming into my Kindle in the year ahead!

Three Book Corners

 

100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Now by Stephen Le

More informative and entertaining than your average “I traveled here to learn this and had this adventure, then I traveled there and had that adventure” books that are more travelogue than honest attempts to teach you what you thought you were there to learn… Click here for more of this, and two more Tytania book reviews!

Book Corner

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

Takeaways:
– She really didn’t want it – the presidency, and its impact on her family.
– She is so, so, so devoted to her daughters.
– She loves Barack.
– Barack is a great guy, and so, so, so devoted to his daughters.

Extraordinary parenting under extraordinary circumstances.

And the other major takeaway is the humility.  She gets it from her mother (a great character), who always brushed aside over-glowing compliments on the accomplishments of her two kids, Craig and Michelle, with: they’re not special.  “The South Side is full of kids like that.”  Michelle repeats it – thinking of her grade school classmates, “I wasn’t any better than them.”  She was just lucky, lucky to have an advocate in her mother, who yanked her out of a bad classroom; and lucky not to get randomly shot in a drive-by, like kids in her old neighborhood need to fear today.

Quibbles?  Maybe Barack comes across as a little TOO perfect here, but, see point three.  She is – they are – obviously still in love.  She mentions the little “fist bump” she once gave him during some nationally televised appearance, and I remember it – such an intimate little moment.

And hey, maybe he IS perfect.  Sure holding up as pretty well, as a president, in hindsight, and in comparison.

Book Corner

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The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I’m so “done” with happiness.  I think I’ll seek out some books about finding curmudgeonliness next.
No, seriously, I’m afraid I won’t be able to give this book a fair review, because I don’t exactly remember what led me to obtain and read it, and I’m not really that interested in happiness anymore… I’m kind of there, not meaning I’m happy all the time, but I kinda know everything there is to know about my own happiness, now, after half a century.
So the book – it’s fine.  It’s one woman’s one-year project.  (Yet another “My Year of…”)  At least she wasn’t surreptitiously trying to come to terms with the death of a parent or anything like that.
She tries so many things, you’re bound to come across a couple of good ideas to apply to your own life.
God, I felt bad for her husband, though.  Is this what married-with-children life is like?  The abyss was one scene where her two little girls were fighting, and she discovers her husband upstairs taking a nap.  She wakes him up and says, “This is your problem! You need to fix this!”  Kill me now, I can imagine him thinking.
She sprinkles in scenes like this where she is decidedly NOT happy, which always starts to feel like a nice, humanizing, relatable touch – but then they always end with a sappy, happy ending.  You’re missing the point of showing us your less-than-perfect side, Gretchen.
But hey!  This is supposed to be a HAPPY book…  why all of this, who woke who from a nap, and who failed to live down to my imperfect expectations..  I’m sorry, though, I’m failing to come up with one excellent life lesson that I can apply to my life going forward, except to really and truly this time STOP with the happiness books.