nonfiction

Book Review: Hand Made: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Made-from-Scratch Living by Melissa K. Norris

I’m a homemaker- not necessarily by choice, but that’s just kind of how things ended up, so I do my best to lean into my role. I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I clean constantly (and make my own cleaning products), I craft (for myself, as gifts, and for charity), and I try to do everything I can in the most frugal and most earth-friendly ways. But I get burned out from time to time, as we all do, and a little inspiration is nice. Sometimes that comes in the form of blogs; other times, I pick up a homemaking book. That’s how Hand Made: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Made-from-Scratch Living by Melissa K. Norris (Ten Peaks Press, 2017) ended up on my TBR. We all need a little boost now and then, right?

Home Made focuses mainly on the kitchen, taking inspiration from the pluck and grit of those who weathered the Great Depression, cooking from scratch with the basic ingredients that most of us have on hand and making use of leftovers, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. If you’ve ever felt intimidated by making your own fermented foods, such as fermented veggies, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, this book has a great section with clear instructions on getting started. And there are recipes- comfort foods, such as chicken and dumplings; homemade cakes and pies; pizzas and pastas; and plenty more. There’s a shorter section on medicinal herbs, and a brief primer on two different kinds of soap-making. This is a decent homemaking book.

What I didn’t love about it was the unexpected Christian content. I’m all for people participating in whatever faith they want as they choose- if you find what works for you, that’s awesome, and I’m truly happy for you. But in terms of this book, I just wanted some inspiration to wash my floors a little more often; I wasn’t looking for a diatribe on how I needed Jesus (I’m good, thanks). There were occasionally several pages at a time with nothing but the author’s particular take on Christianity (which I flipped past; I almost never do this in books. I will occasionally read books marked as Christian, though I’m Jewish- Rachel Held Evans, may her memory be a blessing, was a wonderful author and advocate for her faith, and I’ve even read a few Christian novels that were just fine. I’m truly not opposed to wading through some Christian content; I can even find inspiration in others’ heartfelt commitment to their faith- Mister Rogers, anyone???). I enjoyed the stories about her life, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting and didn’t enjoy the leap from reading about Christmas lights to a multiple-page musing about how Jesus is the light of the world, and how Jesus makes us better homemakers. This Jewish woman isn’t interested, but thanks anyway.

You’ll probably enjoy this book more if you’re Christian and are looking for a faith-based book to inspire your homemaking. If you’re not Ms. Norris’s particular brand of religious, know that this isn’t at all a bad book; just be prepared to flip past a lot of pages. The recipes are really good, however. I wrote down quite a few of them and used Friday’s leftover challah (my Jewish readers are probably going, ‘What’s leftover challah???’) to make chocolate bread pudding from this book, which was absolutely delicious, and I’ll be making this on a regular basis. There’s also a Pumpkin Bread Pudding recipe that looked incredible, so I’m looking forward to trying that as well.

To sum it up- this book is probably more fully enjoyable for Christian readers, but it does contain some great recipes.

Visit Melissa K. Norris’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Reading lists are both the best thing ever and the bane of my TBR. I don’t know that I’ve been able to look at many lists titled things like, “100 Books Coming Out This Year That You Can’t Miss!” or “You Will Literally Die If You Don’t Read These Books!” without my TBR growing exponentially. It’s really the best problem to have, isn’t it? It was a reading list that introduced me to Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Penguin Group, 1997). The premise had me hitting that want-to-read button immediately, and interlibrary loan delivered the book into my hands- in a stack of other interlibrary loan books, of course, because, as we know, everything always comes in at once!

It’s not until she’s an adult and has children of her own that Elizabeth Ehrlich begins deeply pondering what her Jewish identity means. Never fully identifying with the religious aspects, she turns to the kitchen of her mother-in-law Miriam, a Holocaust survivor who still maintains a kosher kitchen and cooks nearly everything from scratch. Homemade noodles, chopped liver, all the dishes that Elizabeth remembers her grandmothers laboring over appear on Miriam’s table, and Elizabeth wants to know more. Something in these old ways calls out to her, and at Miriam’s side, she begins to learn and ponder the traditions that have been passed down for millennia through her family. Little by little, she moves toward a kosher kitchen, toward trying out the religious aspects of Judaism, seeing what fits, seeing where she belongs, all the while recounting the stories of her family members- mostly women, but some of the men as well. These people lived through some of the worst violence humanity has ever perpetrated on their fellow men; the miracle of their survival pushes Elizabeth to look deeper, work harder, to create something to pass down to her children. Even if they ultimately reject it, giving them something from which to turn away- and maybe return to one day- feels right.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Miriam and Ms. Ehrlich’s bubbes and her mother are women of valor, women who experienced horrors, who weren’t given many options in their lives, but who persevered anyway, doing the best they could with what they had. They exemplified hard work and honor, working both in and outside the home, without many of the tools we take for granted. Seeing all they did without many of the luxuries I own really made me think while I was reading this.

I deeply identified with Ms. Ehrlich’s draw toward certain aspects of Judaism, that pull without fully understanding the why of it. Sometimes you just feel moved toward something that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense- it’s a bit like falling in love, I think. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. When she was faced with the daunting task of kashering her kitchen and living a kosher life, she was somewhat dismayed by all the extra work it will take, all the time and emotional labor necessary to remember which sponge is used for wiping up meat spills and which for dairy, all the strength it takes to tell her children no, that we don’t eat that, and then cooking after a long day at work. But still she felt drawn to do it, even knowing the difficulties, and that is something I understood and felt on a visceral level. (Not for the exact same reasons- I’m vegetarian, so that cuts out like 99% of the problem right there, and I live in a house with three non-religious, occasional meat-eaters, so unless I wanted to maintain my own set of pots and pans and dishes, keeping a kosher kitchen wouldn’t really be possible for me. I *could*, but I don’t know that anyone else in the house would remember which dishes were just mine, and I’d end up having to re-kasher them like twelve times a day…)

She’s hard on herself, seeing all the ways she falls short of Miriam’s ideal, but still forging ahead and jumping in with both feet, which I found deeply admirable. So often, we shy away from what intimidates us- I know I’m guilty of this- especially when we know that perfection is unattainable. But she begins anyway, taking the steps to live the life she feels drawn to, and that’s a message to live by.

I wonder if Miriam ever felt intimidated by the older women in her life, if she ever felt that her cooking, her kitchen, wouldn’t measure up. Will Ms. Ehrlich’s grandchildren feel the same as they observe her preparing Miriam’s recipes? Do we all feel like this to some degree, that we’ll never be the strong, capable women our foremothers were? This book raised a lot of questions about how we connect to our pasts and what we carry with us into our futures, what we pass down, and I’m glad this ended up on my TBR. I don’t know that I’ll try any of the recipes in it- some of them sound absolutely delicious, but in terms of heart-healthy cooking, they’re not something I would normally make (thank you SO much, genetic cholesterol levels!). Perhaps one day, I’ll get up the courage…

I don’t see any websites or contact information for Elizabeth Ehrlich; if you’re aware of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll amend this post. Miriam’s Kitchen is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

nonfiction

Book Review: Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk

What does your pantry look like? Do you have a dusty can of beans from a year when One Direction was still together, a package of an ingredient you’ve never used and are too intimidated by to open, and not much else? Or are you like me, with a few months’ worth of food stashed away in various corners of the house? This past year has shown us the importance of being prepared for tough times- job losses, shortages, weather events that cut off power and access to stores, all that and more has plagued us (pun intended) as a society, and being prepared for these terrible events isn’t a bad idea. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk (New Society Publishers, 2009) has been on my TBR for a while; it piqued my interested because having a fully-stocked pantry has always been important to me (mostly because I’m lazy and don’t ever want to have to make an emergency run for a missing ingredient!). This seemed right up my alley, so I requested it via interlibrary loan.

Think about this past year, when toilet paper, hand sanitizer, yeast, garlic, and various other products were nowhere to be found on store shelves. How did you fare? Having a well-stocked pantry in trying times could alleviate stress and get you through rough patches caused by job loss, weather events, power outages, economic downturns, illness, pandemics, and all the other chaos that disrupts daily life and may make getting to the store or procuring sustenance for your family difficult or impossible. Changing your diet to one more sustainable to your location, gardening, obtaining food and supplies from more local and sustainable sources, and preserving this food in a variety of ways are all suggestions that Ms. Astyk has for creating a better-prepared life.

It’s a lot of work, true, but so is pretty much anything worth doing, she argues, and stocking your pantry is never something you’ll regret if things go sideways. With in-depth discussions on gardening, locating storage space no matter where you live, recipes, the ups and downs of various forms of preservation, and more, Sharon Astyk has created a basic primer for anyone interested in living a prepared life.

This is a pretty good book for anyone starting out on the journey of planning and stocking their pantry. She lays out some pretty compelling arguments for the need for keeping your larder stocked, and a lot of the scenarios she frets about have actually taken place in the years since the book was published. Her pleas to her readers about the necessity of storing water don’t seem so wild after this year’s devastating winter storms in Texas that saw residents without running water for ages, and storing pantry food isn’t at all far-fetched after seeing the shortages on grocery store shelves during this past year. (I keep at least two full boxes of toilet paper from Sam’s Club in the basement at all times; it wasn’t even something I had to think about last year as I watched people all over the country scramble for even the rough stuff. The only thing I lacked was an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, but that’s because it wasn’t something I normally use. Now, though, I’ll always have some on hand!) Some of the Goodreads reviews seem to view her as a kind of out-there prepper, but I have to wonder how those people handled the crises this past year.

If you’ve been serious about storing and preserving for a while, there’s probably not much to learn here, but this is a great resource for anyone who has realized that maybe it’s not so bad to keep a three-month (or longer) supply of food on hand. Ms. Astyk covers all of the why, along with some of the how, and provides a few recipes along the way. This was a nice reminder of why I shop the way I do, and why my kitchen resembles a small overflowing grocery store.

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.

cookbook · Massimo Bottura · nonfiction

Bread is Gold- Massimo Bottura and Friends

Everyone has a few subjects they love reading about and will devour every single book that comes out about that subject. One of those subjects for me is food waste, and so when I heard about Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef and restaurateur behind Osteria Francescana, I slapped it on my TBR list.

The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Bottura (who was featured in the documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which I saw last year and highly recommend) tells the story of how his nonprofit organization Food for Soul, along with David Hertz’s Gastromotiva, opened the Refettorio Gastromotiva, a community kitchen that combined feeding the local needy population (along with others who weren’t needy) and combatting food waste. Another Refettorio was later opened in Milan, and then one in London.

How the Refettorio works is this: a well-known chef, often one that runs a Michelin-starred restaurant, is invited to come cook for a day or two, using only the ingredients on hand and anything specialized they bring with from their home country. And as the Refettorio receives shipments of about-to-expire food from different sources every day, the pantry contents can vary widely. If you’ve ever seen the show Chopped! on the Food Network, it’s like that. Chefs have to work with shipments of fish and dairy that need to be used that day; ridiculous quantities of brown bananas and wilting produce; tropical fruit and other luxury items that supermarkets couldn’t sell; varying amounts of meat, from an overabundance to none at all; and 4372899473284732984832 tons of stale bread. What comes out of the Refettorio is miraculous, meals that are fit for any upscale restaurant, made strictly out of ingredients that had been destined for the trashbin.

Each text-filled page is a story of a chef who came to cook at the Refettorio, their life story, what they cooked during their time there, and the challenges they faced (sometimes the daily shipment was less than abundant). If you enjoy food writing, you’ll probably enjoy their stories. The photographs that follow each text section are lovely, showcasing the ingredients they received and the stunning culinary masterpieces they became, and each section contains recipes for everything the chefs prepared.

This book is part story, part cookbook, and part inspiration. Food waste is an enormous social, political, and ecological issue, and anything that can challenge people to think creatively about the food in their refrigerators and pantries is a good thing, I think. For me, this book serves mostly as inspiration, as I’m usually pretty careful with our food and we waste almost nothing. I do, however, need the occasional kick in the pants to get me thinking in creative ways about how to use what we have. I’m becoming a little more comfortable cooking without a recipe these days (although I’m nowhere near the level of the chefs featured in this book!), and I’ve got plans for a few different meals thanks to reading about the ingenuity that takes place on a daily basis at the Refettorio. (I did, however, write down the recipe for Stale Bread Gnocchi. The vast majority of my bread ends go in the freezer, where I wait until I have enough, and then I toss them in the oven until they’re crunchy and pulverize them in the food processor to make bread crumbs. I’m pretty backed up on bread ends right now, though, and I have an excess of bread crumbs, so this recipe looks like just what I need!)

While there are better books out there for tackling the immediate issue of food waste (and I have plans for a future post about those books!), this is a good book to keep around as a reminder of the importance of using what you have before it goes bad, and an excellent example of the people who are working every day on a massive scale to do just that.

Do you have an interest in food waste? What are the subjects that make you immediately drop whatever it is you were reading before and pick up the new book that covers that topic?

Follow Massimo Bottura on Twitter here.

Follow him on Instagram here.