book reviews

Giveaway! Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid

by Caroline

I love food and cooking, love raising and feeding my kids, love to write. Sometimes, as in this blog, those interests intersect and I get to write about the food I feed my kids. Sometimes, almost even better, I get to read about someone else doing all of that. This is one of the many pleasures of Melanie Rehak’s new memoir, Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

A few years before her first son, Jules, was born, Rehak began to read more about food and food production – she read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and Wendell Berry – and the more she read the more she wanted to learn, first hand, about the food she bought and cooked each day. That growing interest , coupled – at the birth of her child – with a growing person for whom she was (with her husband) responsible for feeding, brought her curiosity to a head:

“What really happened…was the unavoidable collision of two worlds of information—parenting and eating. To begin with, there, in the form of my baby son, was an actual person for whom I wanted to leave the planet in decent condition. That goal was no longer just a noble abstraction. Then there was the amazing fact that I had before me in a highchair someone who had literally never tasted anything, whose body had yet to be tainted by MSG in bad Chinese take-out, or clogged by palm oil ‘butter’ on movie theater popcorn, or compromised by pesticide residue. I was unprepared for both the sheer weirdness of this – was it possible that I actually knew a person who had never eaten chocolate?—and the huge responsibility I felt to get it right. . . .Some part of me resented the fact that something that should have been a pure pleasure, teaching a person to eat, was now so complicated. ”

Oh, Melanie, I hear you.

Now, some of us would spend more time at the library or bookstore, reading everything we could get a hold of about food, nutrition, parenting. Others might just throw their hands up in confusion and defeat, and continue feeding their kids the way, for better or worse, they were fed themselves. Some of us join CSAs, buy local, visit farms. But most of us don’t make the decision Rehak did, which was to volunteer to cook at a local restaurant, Brooklyn’s applewood (yes, applewood, “the lower case a,” Rehak writes, “being a choice the owners hoped would convey plenty in contrast to the sharp, aggressive point of the capital A they had foregone.” A small point, but to me, unfortunately, it never looked like a proper name no matter how many times I read it in this book, and always like a typo). She decides the best way to learn about food is to make it herself, in a small, family-run restaurant whose generous and amazingly accommodating owners, David and Laura Shea (the parents of two young children themselves) buy their restaurant’s meat and produce from small local farms. She also visits those food producers –a cheesemaker, a farmer, a fisherman, a food distributor – riding along in their tractors and trucks and seasick-inducing boats, not just taking notes, but hauling and picking and cleaning – to get a better understanding of the exhausting labor behind writing the restaurant’s menu each night. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes tour, and Rehak’s prose brings these individuals vividly to life.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is offering ten free copies of Eating for Beginners to Learning to Eat readers. Just leave a comment below saying why’d you be interested in reading the book; the first ten to comment get a book!

Edited to add: For any of you on Goodreads, Melanie Rehak is participating in a Q&A there for the next couple weeks, so click on over to contribute!

Review: In the Kitchen, by Dona Schwartz

by Caroline

Lisa lives in a modernist Eichler house, with glass doors opening from its bright, efficient kitchen to a sunny back yard with citrus trees and a generous picnic bench. I live in a renovated San Francisco Edwardian, with a cork-floored kitchen, a maple island and deep red tile fired in a local pottery studio. My kitchen, with its adjoining family room, is the heart of my home, the center of all our many gatherings, and I expect Lisa feels the same way about hers. So when the opportunity arose to review the new photography collection by Dona Schwartz, In the Kitchen, I jumped at the chance. After all, cookbooks overflow my kitchen bookshelves and spill into the living room; why not add a kitchen coffee table book to the mix?

But In the Kitchen, while gorgeous, doesn’t quite fit with the glossy art books. Turning the pages of its color portraits, interspersed with poems by Marion Winik, is like stepping into a documentary film; these are not posed family pictures, nor do they focus exclusively on significant moments in the life of her blended family of eight, which includes her partner, Ken, and their respective three children, ranging in age here from 10 to 21. Instead, Schwartz learned “to create photographs with one hand while wielding a spatula with the other,” and the result is a beautifully intimate portrayal of family life.

Inspector, 2005

The project began on Schwartz’ birthday in 2002, when, with the kids giving her the night off to make a celebration dinner and cake, she found herself at loose ends; her normal role in the kitchen having been happily supplanted by her kids, she decided to get the camera out so that she could still be a part of the action. Schwartz’ professional role as a photographic artist was already firmly established; her earlier books, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press,1992) and Contesting the Superbowl (Routledge, 1997) are fascinating photographic ethnographies. But turning the camera onto her own family that evening piqued her interest and although, as she says in her introduction, “doing mom work and photographic work at the same time made my life in the kitchen more harried,” she discovers an interesting story unfolding before her eyes: her widowed mother moves close by and becomes a regular fixture in the kitchen (and a reluctant subject in the photos); Schwartz and her boyfriend Ken move in together and blend their families, a move that suspends the photography project for months. “When I next looked through the viewfinder, I confronted a new family,” writes Schwartz, and so “changing my lens to allow for a wider angle of view, the project came to encompass the process of becoming a family, or, more accurately, blending two to become…to become what? (One big happy family? Ken and I were hopeful.)”

Grilled Chicken, 2004

She and Ken devise a “blueprint” for their approach to parenting this new family, and family dinner is a key part of bringing the disparate personalities together; they vow to eat dinner together every night, at least during the school week, and then face a new challenge:

“One was a vegetarian, while one cared little for food in general. All took turns as contrarians. One week some of them like red meat, the next week it was anathema to a new subset. Let’s all make pizza! Everyone likes pizza, right? We’d try again. Tastes changed week by week, and forgetting who like what could be unforgivable: ‘You don’t even know what your own kid likes?!’ Trying to find something that everyone would eat was nearly impossible, and even finding a customizable menu was a challenge.”

Fried Egg, 2004

But they eat. They cook! This book is gorgeous evidence of their cooking. What’s depicted in these pages is not necessarily fancy: eggs are fried, onions sautéed, cookie dough dropped onto sheets. It’s family cooking. One of my favorite pictures shows two brothers, side by side at the stove, holding upended containers — one tin of olive oil, one a bottle of ketchup – over their respective frying pans. On the facing page, the youngest child, Lara, arranges a bright yellow plate with a simple sliced tomato and mozzarella salad while her step-sister, Chelsea, leans against the counter eating a green bean. Another wonderful picture shows two at the stove with spatulas in hand, one sautéing green beans, the other with a tomatoe-y pan of onions, with Eric standing in the background, munching cereal from a box. The image is framed to concentrate our attention entirely on the active elbows and wrists as they stir and snack, the satisfying parallel composition of forearms, skillet handles and spatulas offering a coherent respite in the midst of chaotic family life.

Cinnamon Life, 2004

Blending a family can’t be easy — Schwartz admits, “Try as [the kids] might to remove dinner from the list of obligatory rites, Ken and I held fast, and medicated the indigestion our decision often produced”– but there’s a lovely unity in these photographs, a comfortable feeling of togetherness.

Cherry Coke, 2004

Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall and watch my family when I’m not around. I know my presence – even when I’m not directly involved in their activities – affects them, and I’d love that impossible glimpse of them on their own. Looking at Dona Schwartz’ family photos makes me think anew of this problem; she’s not in the images, and so it might be easy to think of the pictures simply as the result of her camera, but they are equally the result of a mother’s sensitive observation. As Alison Nordstrom writes in her preface to the book, “This family is what it is because she is part of it; it may even be what it is because she has photographed it.”

The family — like all families, always in a bit of flux — changed again while the pictures were being taken. Her mother suddenly died (a gathering after her funeral is depicted in these pages, though the only sign of the event is the family’s uncharacteristically dark and formal clothes; captions at the back of book make the occasions clear), and two more kids moved out, joining the two already off at college as occasional visitors home. After two years of pictures, Schwartz writes, “When I looked through the viewfinder there were fewer teenagers and I saw them less often.. . . I came to realize our kitchen moment was passing.”

In the Kitchen offers such a beautiful look at her family’s “kitchen moment,” it makes me grateful that I can expect many more years of my family home and gathered in the kitchen, but also optimistic that even after this intense period of our own kitchen moment has passed, it will occasionally, if temporarily, recur again. As for Schwartz, she writes, “I no longer actively scrutinize or assess, no longer search for clues to emergent identity. I rarely experience the pleasure of framing a telling kitchen-moment I have discovered and rendered visible in a photograph. I now seek these picture pleasures elsewhere. Instead I can often kick back, go with the flow, and watch our family cook.”

all images copyright Dona Schwartz