We are what we read: three new books about food

Take your pick from tomes about the rising popularity of Italian cooking, the virtues of 'eating in,' or the transformation of a Capitol Hill restaurateur into a rural farmer and cheesemaker.

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Take your pick from tomes about the rising popularity of Italian cooking, the virtues of 'eating in,' or the transformation of a Capitol Hill restaurateur into a rural farmer and cheesemaker.

Three recent books provide us with quite different ways of looking at the most fundamental element of life: what we eat. This is especially relevant as we approach Earth Day (April 22) and as we consider that everything we eat comes from the land. The most ambitious book tells the story of America's slow romance with Italy, the most frustrating grew out of a blog about eating at home, and the most satisfying is the memoir of a Seattle restaurateur turned farmer.

* * * 

Italian food, says John Mariani, has conquered the world. Maybe not the entire globe, but there's little doubt that pizza has become as American as apple pie. Not since Waverly Root wrote The Food of Italy in 1953 has there been such a comprehensive look at the contribution Italian cuisine has made to the American way of eating. Mariani's How Italian Food Conquered the World probably overstates the geography of the conquest (Italian cuisine is popular in Japan, but has made few inroads in the rest of Asia, Africa, or South America).

Still, there's no denying that Italian food has become enormously popular in Europe and North America, and very quickly, too, considering that 100 years ago pasta was considered street food prepared by peasants, to be eaten with the fingers. (Don't believe it? The book has pictures!)

Of the 5 million immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the 30 years before the First World War, 80 percent came from southern Italy. At the end of the war, one of every four immigrants who lived in the U.S. had been born in Sicily, having left to escape the grinding poverty of farm life as contadini.

Booker T. Washington, visiting Sicily in 1910, found children working in the mines like slaves, while millions of Italian emigrants, most of them ex-farmers, were lucky to make $10 a week in hostile American cities. Despite the terrible conditions in their homeland, half who tried life in America would return. Those who remained would transform those tenement enclaves into Little Italys.

By 1929, there were more pasta factories in the U.S. than any other country outside of Italy. The first canned sauces were Italian marinara, the classic red tomato sauce. Still, not until 1905 was there a pizzeria in New York, and newspapers in the late 1930s were still explaining that pizza pie wasn't pie.

Seattle, for its part, never had a true “Little Italy” neighborhood, but it did have “Garlic Gulch,” the Rainier Valley, of which Remo Borracchini's bakery is the last remaining vestige. Vito's and the Rosellini restaurants were located closer to downtown. An immigrant named Angelo Merlino opened Seattle's first Italian grocery store; his grandson Armandino Batali would open Salumi after retiring from Boeing. And Armandino's son Mario Batali — well, Mario's version of Italian cooking conquered New York.

Mariani is considered something of a throwback, an old-fashioned, magazine-feature food writer (Esquire's annual Best New Restaurants list, for example). Gossipy, chummy with his subjects, he also does extensive, footnoted research (though occasionally inaccurate; the Roman vomitariums were amphitheater exits, not facilities for purging banquet overdoses). He catalogs the Italian names of California wine makers (Gallo, Italian Swiss Colony, Martini, Sebastiani, Trinchero, Mondavi), Italian wines sold in the U.S. (Lambrusco, Riunite, Chill-a-Cella), and Italian-American purveyors of processed food (Hector Boiardi, who became known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, along with Rice-A-Roni, Spaghetti Os).

There's a fascinating condensed history on Esquire's blog. Some of the highlights:

There was no Italian pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, even though “La Dolce Vita” had, four years earlier, begun a half-century media campaign orchestrated by the Italian Trade Commission to glamorize the Italian way of life. Julia Child never mentioned olive oil, but Rachael Ray has made the acronym EVOO part of the language. Fed Ex eventually made overnight delivery of real Parmigiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma possible. The book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun whipped up fresh appetites for the Italian experience; Olive Garden even promised dinners prepared by chefs who had studied in the village of Riserva di Fizzano.

In Chicago, a travel agent named Karen Herbst put together a loose network of home-based cooking schools in Italy under the name of The International Kitchen, creating a new category of leisure activity for American vacationers. (Disclosure: I'm the company's director of wine tours.) The carbohydrate phobia induced by the Atkins diet was barely a speed bump in America's love affair with pasta. “Ciao Italiano,” on PBS with Mary Ann Esposito, is the longest-running cooking series on American television. Playwright Neil Simon says that the love of Italian food is a law of the universe. Calvin Trillin suggests replacing the Thanksgiving turkey with spaghetti carbonara.

* * * 

Cathy Erway is the opposite of Mariani, throwing herself into a first-person blog, NotEatingOutInNY.com. While not as sappy and pretentious as Julie Powell's "The Julia Project," its premise is no less annoying: "Look at me, I'm going to do something no one like me, who has a decent job and lives in New York, has ever done before: I'm not going to eat out, I'm not going to order in, I'm going to cook all my meals at home for the next two years."

She dutifully types out recipes, doubts and triumphs, concerns about her social life, and, mission accomplished, writes a book about her experience: The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. How do you not eat out if you're on a date? Make dinner together at home, and organize supper clubs.

Early on, Erway quotes Mariani's claim (in America Eats Out) that American restaurants all seem to have a gimmick (or, more likely, a recognizable theme). But staying home is Erway's own gimmick. She doesn't exactly "dumpster-dive," but she comes close, calling her quest "urban foraging."

She gets off a couple of good lines along the way: "The world is our oyster bar" and "Little lamb meatball, who made thee?" But overall, Not Eating Out suffers from a tedious writing style and a treacly moralism, part Thoreau and part Holden Caulfield. Is this a coming-of-age memoir, an anti-materialist manifesto, or a chirpy cookbook? Erway's many admirers claim it's all three (SeriousEats.com even named it one of 2010's top 10 cookbooks), but that's asking a lot more than this delivers. Better by far is her new blog, LunchAtSixPoint.com, about urban gardening and "reviving the working class lunch." It's still a bit too chirpy and self-conscious for my taste, but Erway has lost the preachy tone.

* * *

What does deliver is Kurt Timmermeister's The Growing of a Farmer.

Anyone who's lived in Seattle for the past couple of decades has seen the evolution of Capitol Hill, has watched Broadway transform itself from a battle-scarred no-man's land and freak show to an increasingly gentrified thoroughfare. Anchoring Broadway for much of that time was Café Septième, which its owner, Kurt Timmermeister, had moved up the hill from Belltown (where it was replaced by Marjorie's and then Buckley's).

Septième became a Capitol Hill institution, whether for morning coffee and pastries or nighttime drinks and steaks. The usual complaints: One customer's leisurely dinner would be another's nightmare, but Septième also provided work for a squad of servers who would later move into full-time writing, chief among them Dan Savage.

The best parts of Timmermeister's book read like “procedurals,” in the same way that the first look at Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (excerpted as "Annals of Gastronomy, Hell's Kitchen") made such an impact in The New Yorker exactly 11 years ago this week. (And how far we've all come since those innocent, pre-Food Channel days!)  

Consider, for example, the chapters on killing chickens or slaughtering pigs. Farming isn't just about deracinating vegetables or tugging at udders; it's about slitting throats, too. We may buy pork chops on styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, but Timmermeister knows better. “I feel that food is intrinsically good. Food is from the earth. It provides us with nutrition to live. It is the source of all life, it has the power to make us healthy.”

Standing in opposition, symbolically and practically, are the public-health authorities. “Their view,” he writes, “is that food is intrinsically dangerous.” Rather than fight the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, he stops selling raw milk and raw butter.

How did Timmermeister get from Broadway to a self-sufficient, 12-acre farm, two-thirds of it pastureland, on Vashon Island? The journey unfolds over two decades as the urbanite becomes, first, a suburban homesteader then a cautious gardener, before selling Septième and acquiring, in its stead, a Jersey cow named Dinah. His days become defined by the bookends of a farm — morning chores and evening chores. The four dozen birds and beasts (chickens, ducks, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs) on his property have to be milked, watered, and fed. He has no farmhouse wife to help, no farmhouse kids, only a Mexican laborer (without whom, it's clear, the place would fall apart).

Craigslist is a huge help (for used tractor parts, for baby pig “weaners”). Two-day-old chicks come by U.S. Mail. When it's time for the chickens to be dispatched, the wings get fed to the pigs, “smart, attentive, aggressive, stubborn and charming.” Before Timmermeister brings himself to the painful business of killing a pig, he takes the reader through the agony and the joy of buying a gun. The dairy prospers as Kurtwood Farms, as it's now known, begins to produce a highly regarded, creamy cows-milk cheese called Dinah.

And once a week, Timmermeister opens his kitchen table to a dozen visitors for a farmhouse dinner, a multicourse feast produced almost entirely from his own land (exceptions made for flour and salt). And yes, there's plenty of farmhouse butter.

The books:

  • How Italian Food Conquered the World, John F. Mariani, Palgrave Macmillan, 270 pages, $25.
  • The Art of Eating In, Cathy Erway, Gotham Books/Penguin, 320 pages, $16.
  • Growing a Farmer, Kurt Timmermeister, W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $24.95.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).