food · food history · nonfiction

Better Than Homemade- Carolyn Wyman

Food history! The history of food has always fascinated me. Books on cooking trends, food usage and availability, food justice, wartime rationing, and other food-related topics are absolutely my jam (hehehe. Jam. Get it?). And while I’m not exactly a foodie, I’m far from a ‘Break out the processed foods, guys!’ kind of gal. I cook probably about 90% of what we eat from scratch (right down to bread, yogurt, jam/preserves, veggie burgers, etc). I haven’t yet mastered tortillas and my granola bars have been crumbly in the past, but I’m comfortable in the kitchen and love trying new things. That said, Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat by Carolyn Wyman (Quirk Books, 2014) absolutely belonged on my TBR list, because, well, FOOD.

The second World War changed so much all over the world, and American food culture wasn’t exempt from these shifts. Food preservation technology had advanced, thanks to the need to store and ship food to the troops overseas, and the food industry poured a lot of effort into making the American public more comfortable with processed foods in an attempt to unload their leftover stock (and increase profits, of course). Processed foods were celebrated as time savers, as healthier alternatives to fresh (yes, really! Why have the vitamins that are actually in a certain food when you can strip them all out, then spray on a synthetic version? Looking at you, white bread…), and as technological breakthroughs for the modern home. Better Than Homemade brings this era to life in an examination of beloved (mostly) American products that revolutionized- and not necessarily a good way!- the way we eat.

Warning: you may see large portions of your childhood displayed in these colorful pages. Cheez-Whiz, spray cheese, Velveeta, Kool-Aid, snack cakes, the history of all these products and evolution of American food culture are laid out in this easy and fun-to-read book. It’s nostalgia between two covers, although you might be squinting at some of the products in a queasy haze, thankful that your tastes have grown and expanded.

I really enjoyed reading the brief histories of the companies who made some of my favorite childhood foods and viewing the different product packaging (it was kind of neat to recognize the labels and packages from my childhood on the pages that featured a lineup of product packaging). I don’t use many of these products any more- I do keep potato flakes around for a certain bread recipe; I keep a tube of refrigerated biscuits in the fridge for breakfast sandwiches; I do use cooking spray, occasionally I’ll spring for some Aldi-brand Tater Tots, and I still have some seriously ancient boxes of Jell-o in the pantry- but I ate Hamburger Helper, canned pasta in various forms, boxed macaroni and cheese, and crescent rolls as a kid, and my mother still uses Minute Rice, so reading through this book was a food-related stroll back through my younger days, days with far less concern for my own nutrition.

The funniest part of this book was turning the page, seeing a product I hadn’t thought about in years, and then having the television jingle from a commercial the company put out in 1987 run through my head. Like, SERIOUSLY, brain? There isn’t any better use for the brain cells storing that song??? This is why I did so badly in high school chemistry, you guys; my brain is too busy keeping a death grip on the Carnation Instant Breakfast jingle from when I was nine years old, and the rest of me is over here wondering what it was I came into the kitchen for…

If you’re interested in the intersection of food history and pop culture, or you’re my age (39 today!) or older and feel like revisiting the foods you ate growing up, a serving of Better Than Homemade just might hit the spot. 😉

Visit Carolyn Wyman’s website here.

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An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace- Tamar Adler

Over the past two years of reading down my Goodreads TBR (it started at a terrifying 332 books; after reading over 200 books and purging about 50, and of course adding a few along the way, it’s now down to a more respectable 65, which is a lot more manageable), one of things I’ve learned about myself is that I enjoy reading books about food. I would have said differently before the start of this project, but a peek through the lists of books I’ve read the past few years says otherwise. I cook almost every night of the week and occasionally at lunchtime as well, so I’m always looking for better, more efficient means of using the resources I have available to me. Thus, when a like-minded friend suggested An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, I added it to that TBR list.

This book is not so much cookbook as it is the musings of a woman who truly knows her way around food. While there are a handful of “1/4 cup this, 2 T that” type recipes, it’s more a treatise on learning to cook without recipes. Ms. Adler is a proponent of cooking by taste, adding a dash of this and a splash of that (probably olive oil; there’s a lot of olive oil-usage in this book) in order to come up with dinner. No need to buy specialty ingredients; she makes the case that a perfectly acceptable and possibly wonderful meal can be found even when the shelves are looking a bit bare. Almost anything can go into an omelet (and this is something I agree with. I’ve made curry omelets, chili omelets, leftover vegetable omelets…); anything can be mashed and spread on toast; and if it’s edible, it can become a soup of some sort.

This book is probably best read a little at a time, or read for certain chapters (I was a big fan of the chapter titled How to Chase Your Tail, about using up odds and ends and preventing food waste), as reading it straight front to back makes it a bit dry and somewhat overwhelming. She does tend to wax a bit poetic on cooking, turning boiling water and cooking dry beans into subjects worthy of deep contemplation, which isn’t a style I particularly enjoy. If you’re looking for a bit more accessibility when it comes to learning to cook, I would recommend Kathleen Flinn’s The Kitchen Counter Cooking School first; Ms. Flinn rounds up a group of women who can barely boil water and soon has them carving up entire chickens, baking their own bread, and creating gourmet meals from simple ingredients. That book has the immediacy and the friendliness that this one lacks. That’s not to say that An Everlasting Meal isn’t an enjoyable read, but it does skew a bit towards to the more flowery when it comes to food writing. It’s definitely full of inspiration, though, and makes cooking without a recipe seem simple. (I’m not quite a foodie and am not nearly as comfortable as Ms. Adler in cooking without a recipe, but I try, mostly with success!)

It did inspire me to clean out my refrigerator, however! It needed it, and I had a weird, life-stress day on Friday, so I burned off that nervous energy in part by overhauling my refrigerator, an important step in preventing food waste. (The more of your fridge you can’t see, the bigger the chance you’ll let something get away from you.) My fridge is sparkling clean now and I’m ready to create some delicious new dishes out of my fabulously stocked kitchen.

Do you enjoy books about food? How comfortable are you when it comes to creating meals without recipes?

Visit Tamar Adler’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.