From Soul Food to Medieval Recipes: A few new and old books that tantalize the taste buds for all walks of life
People mistakenly believe the first of an artistic endeavor is the hardest: the first book, the first film, the first album. It is not. The second project, the follow-up, is the most difficult and terrifying to complete. With the first work there is all the excitement of the new, backed by the drive to prove you can. With the second comes the terror that you won’t live up to the first, let alone surpass it. Stephanie Tyson’s first book, “Well, Shut My Mouth! The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook” would be a tough act for anyone to follow. “Soul Food Odyssey” is different and, in its own lovely way, not a declaration of purpose as much as an invitation to join Tyson on her journey to rediscover soul food.
Soul Food Odyssey
Stephanie L. Tyson
John F. Blair Publishers, 2015 (167 pages)
Really, I want cookbooks and recipes that make me salivate when I read them, photography that is gorgeous and some prose to connect me to the writer. Compared to the last food book that John Blair Publishers sent me, this is a perfect 10! I just wish they had put the same kind of money in the cover design and food photography as they did for the “Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes From the Carolina Coast”—which looks more appealing but doesn’t come close to this one on the salivation scale. The interior pictures are an improvement over the cover, but still no where near the quality of composition of layout seen in the “Chefs of the Coast.” The cover almost looks like something produced on a later version of Print Shop for Apple rather than the legitimately commercial work that “Soul Food Odyssey” is.
The meat of the book far outweighs the lack of fancy dressing. In an odd way, it is a good metaphor for soul food: It might not look the most beautiful styled cuisine ever to grace a plate, but it is filling where it counts.
Part of what I love is that Tyson’s writing style is so direct and unpretentious. She has a thing to say and she says it. But she is actually discovering what she is saying as she writes. Tyson begins by telling us about her food story, and as she moves into the uncharted territory of discovery, she doesn’t strangle her prose by trying to make it fit a mold. Even when she’s describing dishes from decades ago, she has her audience’s full attention.
I was taking notes about places to eat in the Triangle and people to look for. Tyson makes every plate of food she describes sound like something real that a diner could eat on an average Wednesday afternoon. More than that, she speaks back to the upscale, bourgeois “noueveau Southern” phenomenon. Or as my mother would put it: “I don’t go out to eat to pay $30 for grits.” She doesn’t hide from stereotypes or realities of soul food. For instance, the first recipe in the book is for chitterlings (or as we say in the South, “chit’lins”), with instructions on how to clean them really well. There is no dancing around here; she talks about finally learning the secrets of the chitterling world late in life. But she removes the intimidation with clear photography and good directions. I even started thinking, “Well, my grandfather was a butcher, I bet I could do this…” For a woman who has never cooked pork chops, that is a leap.
Even better: the simplicity of the recipes as the book progresses. I made her mac ‘n’ cheese—twice. It sounded so good on the page that I couldn’t resist. There are wonderful poems, odes to food really, that Tyson sprinkles throughout the book, too. They’re lovely little nuggets just awaiting the reader. I especially like the one in the bread section.
Really, what the book is about is coming to terms with what nourishment means: to nourish a family in both body and soul. Sometimes that is hard, but it is essential for a full life. Tyson looks at the realities of food distribution throughout American history head on: Slaves got the least desirable leftovers form which to fashion food that had to stretch and last. But does that mean that we can’t celebrate the near miraculous and inventive ways soul food evolved to make the least desirable part of an animal mouth-watering to eat?
I will say I was surprised at how little lard appeared in the recipes, especially in the desserts section. The desserts were decadent, inspiring and much more interesting than anything out of a box. But the fat that from-scratch desserts utilized in my childhood was a sweetened lard, so that is what I expected to see.
Also, cakes and pies were highly labor-intensive projects that were the better part of a day to prepare. “Soul Food Odyssey” shines a light of devotion on dessert as a way to share the sweetness of life, without making it so miserable to prepare. It is partly sweetness philosophy and partly attitude adjustment toward the amount of work involved.
If Tyson shares anything concrete, it is the techniques she has learned from friends and family for preparing soul food that is approachable and filling. Her bare curiosity and inquisitiveness makes the book much more interesting than it would have been from a self-proclaimed authority. Rare is the author who can invite readers on a journey that simultaneously excites their minds and bellies.
Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal
Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite
New York University Press, 2014, 343 pages
Structured as an order of a meal beginning with an invocation and ending with dessert and a toast, “Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal” leaves the reader disappointed and contemplating the possibility of getting a drive-through meal on the way home. I bought this book hoping for a collection of passages, and maybe recipes or recreations of famous meals from literature. That it turned out to be something else, I could forgive. That it cannot make up its mind what it wants to be, I cannot.
The forward by Marion Nestle makes a bid to place food writing and food studies firmly in the academic sphere; indeed, this book is published by NYU Press. But it is not an academic work by most standards. Nor, to be blunt, is it interesting or original enough to be intended for the commercial market. So that’s the problem: The book is boring. The selections are all the standard greatest stars of the food world: Julia Childs, James Beard, Alice Waters, etc. Not only are they people whose work is overly familiar, somehow the editors have managed to suck all the zest out of the writer’s work. At no point, while slogging miserably through this book, did I find myself either incredibly hungry or inspired to cook. It does have a pretty cover with appealing pastel colors and nice still life, like food motifs. It would look very sophisticated on the shelf. But if 343 pages about food neither makes you salivate nor fantasize about your newly renovated kitchen, then something is wrong.
A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Companion
Cookbook of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’
By Chelsea Monroe-Cassell and Sariann Lehrer
Bantam Books 2012, 224 pages
“A Feast of Ice and Fire” developed from the authors’ blog, Inn at the Crossroads, is devoted to the food of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones).” There is so much to love about this book, it is hard to know where to begin. Essentially, they have pulled almost every food reference out of numerous books and figured out how to make it real, from descriptions of drinks and soldiers’ breakfasts, to full banquets. Also, they researched medieval recipes and cooking techniques to bring the food of fictional countries to life.
Each recipe begins with a passage quoted in which the food is mentioned. Then they print the original recipe the authors have unearthed, frequently followed by a modernized adaptation (few cooks around here keep boar’s meat or pigeon handy, for example). The recipes are fascinating, clear, easy to reproduce in a home kitchen and absolutely inspiring to read. The photography is mouth-watering. This book embodies food porn.
Any reader interested in Martin’s world, medieval history, role-playing or even just the role that food plays in depicting culture should read this book. Chapter titles include: “Stocking a Medieval Kitchen” and “Feasting in Style.” Like a cookbook for ethnic food, the recipes are broken down by region: “The Wall,” “The North,” “The South,” “King’s Landing,” “Dorne,” and “Across the Narrow Sea.” I recommend this as a holiday gift for any foodie friends.