Saturday, September 05, 2015

manly meat-eating

Eating meat, some have noted, is a way of asserting masculinity. After all, some men may not cook at all, but they certainly won't hesitate to fire up a grill and burn some burgers into little hockey pucks or dry out some chicken (what L refers to as crimes against meat). In his book Cooked, Michael Pollan pointed out the male-dominated nature of meat-cookery, demonstrated most fully by barbecue competitions and the enthusiasm by which most men exhibit at the chance to eat, say, a steak. There's probably a reason some men I've encountered are horrified by the thought of being a vegetarian, and why more women then men are willing to adopt that lifestyle.

Of course, there are exceptions, but in a culture that values cisgendered expressions of identity, meat-eating becomes a way for (some) men to perform masculinity or assert their manliness through their food choices.

Image result for year of the cowI set up this background to talk a bit more about the latest cooking memoir book I've sped through: Jared Stone's Year of the Cow. Here is a book that meets the requirements to belong to the genre I've been examining, yet he's the first male writer to be added to that list.

Of course, however, his foray into an overwhelmingly woman-dominated literary genre is by buying a whole cow and writing about how he cooked it and the impacts it had on his family.

I mean, just look at how the reviews discuss his book:
A high-octane, thinking-man’s account of one guy’s quest to find meaning in life by cooking a grass-fed steer. The food descriptions and recipes could tempt even a vegan to order steak. You’ll never look at feedlot meat the same way.”— Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and host of PBS’s Primal Grill.
I mean, "high-octane" and "thinking-man's"  and all that celebrating of meat. It fairly screams masculinity at the top of its lungs. And of course, Stone is a writer interested in domesticity--he talks about the delicious food he cooks, he shares his family life with his readers as he and his wife strive to raise their growing family in a high-pressure, busy, hectic world, and he gives recipes to celebrate the extraordinary cow he has purchased.

But some of the similarities with these the types of memoirs written by women fall away under closer examination. Stone focuses a lot of the book to talking about his health and to physical achievements like running barefoot and climbing a mountain. He talks about his career and other pursuits. He cooks a whole cow, for god's sake. While the memoirs written by women also frequently employ a gimicky catch in a bid to grab readers' attentions (and it works well enough, even for me), the focus on meat is one that marks this book as particularly and distinctly masculine.

Which isn't to say that women can't write books about meat--after all, Julie Powell wrote Cleaving about learning butchery. But there it's a foray into a unusual place for women, and she connects her exploration of this world of meat with the challenges to her marriage. (Excuse me while I go download this book to read--the critics eviscerate it in their reviews. I wonder why?)

Stone doesn't ever dig as deeply into these personal relationships. There's not a lot about his past--a theme that features prominently in the memoirs I've been reading--he doesn't talk much about how he fell in love with his wife (another common theme in other cooking memoirs), and there's not really much of a quest for home. He could have talked about the impact of his cooking a lot on his marriage, the ways that the cow alters his relationship and domestic responsibilities, any of these things...yet, a lot of the book is dedicated to his pursuit of better health.

Ultimately, Stone writes an engaging book that reminds readers that our food choices matter. And I think it is an interesting enough book to include in my research as I examine the gendered nature of these kinds of books and what they say about gender roles in cooking, in domesticity, and in the consumers of these texts.

Friday, September 04, 2015

why the strange font choice?

If there's one thing I can't seem to get past, it's the fact that this book I just finished is making strange use of italics. Here, let me show you a picture:

Image result for life from scratch

What on earth is going on here? Why does each section and each chapter title have one letter italicized? Why would someone do that to me? Don't they realize I'm teaching a document design course, and even if I weren't, I'd still find it alarming?

Here's the deal: given my puzzling over the damn font, I focus on that in my discussion rather than telling you about this vaguely interesting book I just finished. I say vaguely interesting because it's enjoyable, but much like the wine I'm currently enjoying, it doesn't stand out in my mind like the magnificent Poor Man's Feast. Daaaaaaamn was that book was good.

I digress.

Sasha Martin sets out to tell the motivations behind her blog, Global Table Adventure, and ends up telling us the story of her rough and fractured childhood. When her mother is compelled to give them up to be raised by friends who seemingly have a more stable home, it sets off a series of tragedies, not to mention the fear and uncertainly young Sasha experiences. She begins to find her way through cooking and eating, rooting her to the happier moments of her poverty-stricken childhood, where pouring cranberry juice on cereal became a treat, not a moment of desperate necessity.

These stories are compelling, and she weaves the recipes and food memories of her young life and her growing up, marriage, and the birth of her daughter. In her later discovery of a measure of happiness and successful relationships, she begins cooking the world, an act that brings her back to the past, joyful and painful memories alike.

Overall, Martin's book has memorable moments and interesting stories, and it ends full of optimism and joy, not to mention some tantalizing recipes, like Cambodian Grilled Eggs that L and I are fascinated by. But it's the strange font that I can't get out of my head. Perhaps I shall inquire of the publisher or the author why they chose to format the titles like that...

Monday, August 31, 2015

more books about food

I have a research project in mind, and it is giving me the perfect excuse to read endless numbers of cooking memoirs and other books about food. Here are a few I've read lately:

Image result for poor man's feastPoor Man's Feast is Elissa Altman's lovely memoir about falling in love and the food that accompanied that process. Altman's upbringing involved fancy, fancy food, and she is in love with tall food and expensive ingredients and elaborate cooking, yet Susan cooks simply yet in ways that nourish more fully. These memoir explores what it means to eat well, and Altman gently mocks the tall, ridiculously overpriced meals while also revealing her family history. The book is primarily about food and love. I highly recommend reading this one: the recipes it contains are mouthwatering (I was craving tomato sandwiches for days), and the writing is outstanding. Altman also keeps a blog, Poor Man's Feast, which I intend to read after devouring this incredible memoir.
Image result for bon appetempt
The second book I happily plowed through was Bon Appetempt: A Coming of Age Story by Amelia Morris. Morris also began her memoir in blog format, creating Bon Appetempt as an avenue to mock the notion of perfection. (She would post a picture of a food-styled recipe, then her own less successful, though delicious, attempt). The memoir focuses on Morris's coming-of-age, her transition from six-year-old wrestler, to awkward teen, to adult and mother. She gives us the story of her family, often wonderful and supportive but also dysfunctional and troubled, and how she worked to make it as a writer in LA, more often failing (and flailing) than succeeding. Morris's voice is engaging and funny, and while there are moments of gravity throughout the text, the overall message is full of love and delight. And this book's recipes also add to the story and are things you'd actually enjoy eating, rooted as they are in specific moments of time in Morris's life.

Image result for four kitchensFinally, Lauren Shockey's Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris was one book that is the exception that proves the rule about the cooking memoirs I'm most interested in looking at. Originally, I grabbed the book because it looked interesting, but I didn't think it would match what I've been examining in other cooking memoirs, memoirs that often start out as blogs written by women who are not trained chefs but who link their memories to the food they ate or cooked. These memoirs invite their reader to eat with them, to share their table and their memories. Shockey's book starts off a little gimicky--she wants to learn about food, so she takes a year to cook in four professional kitchens around the world. Unlike the other texts, there is no love interest; however, like the other memoirs, there is a yearning to connect with food and feed people. Shockey may be trained as a chef, but her heart is not in professional cooking. Instead, it's in the food she makes at home for other people, the joy of sharing a table with friends and family. The recipes she shares are mostly disconnected from the restaurants that she inhabits for the year, though she does translate professional cooking in an accessible way for the reader, making her book in line with the other cooking memoirs I have been reading. Shockey's book, while not as well written as the other two, was an enjoyable read, and allowed me to journey with her as she explored the wide world of food in Vietnam, Israel, France, and New York. It was culinary tourism from my couch, and her recipes enable me to perhaps replicate the food experiences she had as she traveled from place to place, meeting incredible people and eating amazing food.

I have many, many more books to explore, but I wanted to share the books I've been reading (and very much enjoying) if you're also interested in these kinds of memoirs. It turns out there's a pretty significant market for them, and, like these writers, I hope to transform my interests in food and writing into my research and work.