Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 14: The Meaning of Food and Preparing it Fearlessly

Welcome to Day 14 of our 24 Days of Books. I don't know about you, but I'm getting hungry! Here are a couple of terrific books for the foodies in your life:

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik. With his usual charm and depth of knowledge, Gopnik takes us on a beguiling journey in search of the meaning of food in our lives as he charts America’s recent and rapid evolution from commendably aware eaters to manic, compulsive gastronomes. It is a journey that begins in eighteenth-century France—the birthplace of our modern tastes (and, by no coincidence, of the restaurant)—and carries us to the kitchens of the White House, the molecular meccas of Barcelona, and beyond.

 What goes on the table has never mattered to us as much as what goes on around the table—the scene of families, friends, and lovers, coming together or breaking apart; conversation across the simplest or grandest board. While Gopnik's book is packed with information, it's lightened by the many personal anecdotes and reflections.

Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune says of the author, "Gopnik would surely be the world’s greatest dinner guest; he can make any subject fascinating, and always backs up his curiosity with unhurried research and an acute eye for the telling detail." Based on my reading of his previous books, I would certainly concur on the dinner guest comment! And Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks fame) says, "“Adam Gopnik brilliantly weaves together the history, philosophy, and culture of food with his deep passion for cooking and the shared pleasures of the table. Anyone who roasts a chicken at home or eats chocolate mousse in a restaurant will be forever changed by this book. I loved it."

Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. During his tenure at the magazine, he has written fiction and humor pieces, book reviews, profiles, reporting pieces, and more than a hundred stories for The Talk of the Town and Comment.In 1995, Gopnik moved to Paris and began writing the Paris Journal column for the magazine. My favorite book of his is Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York, which talks about life in New York and about raising two children there (and about his daughter Olivia's imaginary playmate Charlie Ravioli, who is usually too busy to take her calls).

While I will certainly read Gopnik's book because I'm such a big fan of his writing, today's second book is one that is crying out to be read by me, because I definitely need to learn what it has to offer. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn offers exactly what the subtitle promises. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Flinn returned with no idea what to do next until one day at a supermarket she watched a woman loading her cart with ultraprocessed foods. Flinn's "chefternal" instinct kicked in: she persuaded the stranger to reload with fresh foods, offering her simple recipes for healthy, easy meals.

Inspired by this chance encounter, Flinn gathered a group of volunteers who felt intimidated by cooking. She investigated the items in their pantries, catalogued the contents of their refrigerators and freezers, inquired about what they bought and threw away, and sampled what they routinely prepared. Armed with this background knowledge, Flinn enlisted the aid of top culinary professionals to offer classes on fundamentals of cooking, from chopping and braising to preparing vinaigrette. In each class she taught her students how to choose and cook food that's delicious, healthier for them, and better for the planet.

Her students varied in age and circumstances, yet all of them found a common missing ingredient in their lives: confidence in the kitchen and confidence in themselves.

Here is what some of the reviewers had to say about The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: "Flinn guides you patiently in the kitchen like the mom you always wish you'd had to learn to cook from." "This title provides encouragement where the others offer direction. A mash-up of inspiration and reference, it will appeal to readers who enjoy a story with their instruction." "If you are going to read one book to change your diet and your life, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is it." Wow. Sign me up!

Flinn has been a writer for more than twenty years, with her work appearing in dozens of publications around the world. Her first book, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, which recounted her experience earning a diplome de cuisine at the venerable Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, was a finalist in the Washington State Book Awards. She and her husband divide their time between Seattle and Florida.

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