Tuesdays are Tart Days.
After two days of prepping, making my fillings and setting up my mise en place, I walk in to the bakery of Tuesday, put my stuff down, put on my apron, and prepare to spend the first few hours of my day making upwards of 300 individual 4-inch tarts.
If my mise en place is perfect, I barely have to move. I can just pull down tray after tray, piping or scoop the fillings with an automatic motion, and slip into The Zone. I might perk up to answer questions, take in orders, or help out another baker, but otherwise I’m in my own world.
It’s a perfect time to get some reading in.
Keeping Your Mind Busy
While definitely not something all cooks can do- especially not line cooks, who need their full attention on what they are handling each minute- I do enjoy putting on one earphone and listening to audiobooks while I’m doing simple, repetitive work in the kitchen. I’ve lived with myself enough to know that without something to engage my brain, I’ll lose focus, daydream, and slow down. In addition, while I do enjoy the company of my coworkers, keeping my mind on my work and a headphone in leads to less distractions and a LOT less angry looks from the boss.
Having an audiobook or podcast going makes repetitive, automatic tasks go much more smoothly and quickly, and thanks to services like Libby, I can enjoy my local libraries collection of food writing just by downloading whatever looks interesting.
What Has The BHB Been Reading Lately?
We Fed An Island by Jose Andres with Richard Wolffe
In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico, claiming lives and laying waste to the islands infrastructure. Amid the chaos of the Trump administration’s response and those of big-name emergency management organizations, Jose Andres got a couple friends together, took out as much money as they could from the airport ATMs, and hopped a plane from Washington DC to Puerto Rico with two goals: help the people and feed them.
“We Fed An Island” is Andres’ story of what he saw and did on the island, and how he built a food aid program using as many local personnel, suppliers, and producers as possible- understanding that internal economic support was as important as feeding the hungry, and that what you fed them was just as important as the act. Along the way, he reflects on the profiteering of certain organizations, colorful characters, and the bloated bureaucracy that comes from agencies trying to get the best deal, best press, and not step on anyone’s toes rather than performing aid work.
In places heartwarming, heart-wrenching, and teeth-grinding, We Fed An Island will introduce you to the byzantine world of international aide from the perspective of one chef with a good heart.
Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr
It’s always entertaining to imagine what it looked like during momentous occasions that happened behind closed doors. We wonder what it would be like to be a fly on the wall when the “tastemakers” of the world meet up, bounce ideas off each other, and walk away with ideas that will change the direction of the world forever.
In the notebooks and letters of his great aunt, the legendary M.F.K. Fisher, Luke Barr pulls back the curtain on just such a moment. In late 1969- early 1970, luminaries Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, Richard Olney, and others all found themselves hanging out Provence, France. All of them were at the peak of their prestige and fame, and wondering what to do next. Over the course of 10 weeks, these sages of American foodways would laugh, drink, dine, cook, party, and talk- then come away with a decision to guide American cuisine toward its own destiny, away from the “everything good and classy is French” ethos that they themselves had popularized.
If you are curious at all about not just culinary history but culinary historiography, this is an engaging look into the minds of the late 20th Century tastemakers.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
When it comes to studying history, context is everything. Small things suddenly become fashionable, or a change in the climate makes a certain crop scarce, and trajectory of larger human events is suddenly set in motion. In A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage looks at the trajectory of human development and culture through the history and meaning of six particular beverages- Beer, Wine, Liquor, Tea, Coffee, and Cola.
Through the use and popularity of each, Standage takes the reader from the earliest civilizations discovering beer my accident to the Greek and Roman social customs around wine. We see the role of liquor in the Age of Exploration and American independence, the coffeehouses that fueled the Age of Enlightenment, and the thirst for tea that became synonymous with the British Empire- culiminating in the consumerist monoculture of our current day embodied by Coca Cola.
Coming To My Senses by Alice Waters
Through her restaurant Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has set herself up as the godmother of organic, locavore, and seasonal cooking. In her autobiography, Waters reflects on her upbringing during World War II and her parents planting “victory gardens” in the backyard, her disgust with the 1950s “cooking is drudgery,” “convenience” ethos she was surrounded with, the food she made for friends in college. She also reflects widely on her travels abroad (on the dime of her loving and patient parents) to become a teacher, then a food writer, and finally- almost accidentally- a restauranteur.
While I found myself grinding my teeth at the fact that for most of her life, Waters was pretty much that Entitled White Hippy Chick mooching off her parents and just having everything work out, I did appreciate the parts where she expounded on her philosophy of what it means to eat well, to be surrounded by beauty, and too seek out beauty in the world. It was also a treat to hear about her exchanges with other chefs of the time, and what things influenced her development.
You might find your eyes rolling a bit at the youthful Alice’s seemingly consequence-free escapades, but are some thoughtful bits to chew on throughout.
Dirt by Bill Buford
This book took me a little while to get into, and I even put it down for a while while I read some of the other books on this list. Follow me on this one:
A fiction editor and occasional food writer living in New York decides he wants to get to the bottom of what makes French cooking so important and unique. After using his connections and friendships with luminary chefs like Michel Richert and Daniel Bolud, he does a couple stages in their kitchens and thinks he’s got it. Then they tell him “No, not even close. If you really want to know, you’ve got to work in Lyon like we did. That’s the heart of French cooking.”
So Bill Buford springs the idea on his wife, holding their newborn twins, and says he’s gonna wander off to France for a few months and he’ll be back- to which she replies “Like hell you are- WE are moving to France.”
After you get passed the chapters where Buford clumsily tries to make his wild plan work out while his immensely patient and long-suffering wife does the footwork of actually building a life for them in Lyon, you finally get a humourous, heartwarming, and sometimes tragic story of learning the truths of French cooking. Buford dissects the history of French foodways and their connection with Italy. He sits down with Paul Bocuse and hear the legends of the Lyonnaise kitchen, and sees the brutality of them firsthand staging at La Mere Brazier.
Buford puts faces to ideas and names to places in a book about where French cuisine was born, who’s keeping it alive, and at what cost.
That’s about it for this book dump, but if you have any titles you think I should pick up next, drop them in the comments!