Book Reviews: Back To Basics

by Matt on July 31, 2010

I’m thrilled to bring you another installment of book reviews from my dear friend Kristina Gill. This week we’re heading back to the basics. And I’m not just saying this as an upcoming author but it makes me so happy that so many of us are book lovers. I’ve really grown to love K’s reviews and am fortunate to share them with you. Take it away, Kristina!

Getting back to basics

Within a 10 mile radius of where I live there are beekeepers, wine growers, olive presses, cheese producers, working farms.  We buy 70% of our food from these local producers during spring, fall, and winter, and 100% in the summer.  I buy my olive oil from the farmer who lives across the street from me.  And yes, I am also surrounded by many supermarkets within the same ten mile radius.  Still, I prefer to eat locally because I can see where the food comes from, from seed to harvest, from birth to prosciutto sandwich etc.

I learned about being self-sufficient from my grandmother, who grew up in rural Alabama.  Though she moved to the city as an adult, she made sure she had a yard big enough for fruit trees and a vegetable garden.  I always thought she was a magician because I always saw food on the table, but never saw where it came from.  Later I learned that in addition to the refrigerator and freezer in the house, there was also a deep freeze in the utility house.  She preserved, froze, and ate what she got from her garden.  What she couldn’t produce on her own of course she bought. I went to my first farmer’s market with her.  She did supplement her home grown food with supermarket purchases, but I remember her always out in the garden with her large floppy hat.  In part because of these memories, I’ve always carried a tremendous amount of respect for people who grow and eat their own food.

Eating and growing locally seems to have a romantic connotation and is quite “fashionable” in the United States these days, but it is a vocation for much of the world, and for a large number of these growers it is barely subsistence.  This week’s book reviews draw on eating locally and the people in the developed world who dedicate their lives to producing food.  Whether for vocation, or necessity, it is a lot of hard work.  Though they have only recently come into the spotlight, their greatest satisfaction is in knowing that the food they’ve produced is truly enjoyed.  With these books, perhaps you’ll be able to make yourself and some of your favorite local producers quite happy.

edible:  A Celebration of Local Foods by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian (Wiley 2010;  photography by Carole Topalian) Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian are the co-founders of Edible Communities, a family of magazines nationwide which celebrate the local foods and people who produce them. This book celebrates the local foods movement, capturing the best of what is featured in the Edible Communities magazines,  divided into regions and told through Edible Stories, and concludes with chapters of recipes, divided seasonally, of course.  I flipped right to the Southeast section and started to read about Tennessee, and every state my family lives in.  If you like personal stories, you will love this book.  I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but take for granted that they will be good because they are based on the seasonal harvests of the different regions of the United States.  Reading through the various chapters of this book I am learning so much about the food we produce in the United States, and the issues confronting the producers.  I find it fascinating and am really sorry that I have been out of the United States so long that I only learned about the Edible Communities through this book.  In the back of the book is the comprehensive listing of all the websites for the communities.  I consider this one of the best all around food books I’ve seen this year.  You can find podcasts by the Edible Communities as well.

The Italian Farmer’s Table:  Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Northern Italy by Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino (2010 Morriss Book Publishing photography by Melissa Pellegrino) Matthew and Melissa, a husband and wife team, took a year to live in Italy and produce this cookbook, a dream they both had since they met in Italy.  They were able to produce the book by living and working in Northern Italy at agriturismi, working farms and guest houses.  The book presents recipes from these farms in the regions north of (and including) Emilia-Romagna.  Matthew and Melissa captured some of my favorite recipes, like the bigoli con ragu di anatra (pasta with duck ragu), Polentina con Ragu di Maiale e Noci (shaped polenta forms with ground pork and walnut ragu), Torta di Mele (Apple Cake),  and many others which are so seasonal and local, that you would not ever find them in Italy outside of the region of origin, sometimes not even outside of the town where a particular recipe or vegetable/fruit is harvested.  Each chapter introduces a different agriturismo and its recipes (you can’t get any more authentic than this), and the chapters are dotted with stories and facts about the producers and the areas in which they live.  Quite impressive coverage, and a great first book!

The Real Food Companion by Matthew Evans (2010 Murdoch; photography by Alan Benson) Oooops they did it again.  Murdoch has made another amazingly beautiful book shot by none other than Alan Benson!   Matthew Evans, chef and food critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, has written a gigantic volume on food, the ethics of food choices, the importance of eating local food, and recipes which bring out the best of the food’s flavor.  The book is divided into chapters based on food type (meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, seafood, poultry & eggs, etc).  Each chapter opens with a description of the food type and how to select the best ones.  Evans has gone back to basics with a collection of recipes which are neither difficult nor time intensive, in fact they seem almost intuitive to me and reading through them you can really begin to see how a certain dish or way of preparing seasonal foods could indeed grow out of eating ingredients when they are available.  This is a good book for someone who loves beautiful images to accompany beautiful recipes.  It’s also a good gift book for someone who doesn’t want to amass a library of cookbooks, but would like a few quality books with lots of great recipes.

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons by Richard Corrigan with Sheila Keating (2008 Fourth Estate; photography by Kristin Perers) Even though I opened this week’s reviews with a backhanded slap at treating food as anything other than a necessity for survival, I have to say that there is indeed something so very dreamy about Richard Corrigan’s book.  Irish-born Corrigan is a fanatic about farm-to-fork eating, and his upbringing on a farm transpires in his writing and knowledge of ingredients and combinations to make the best tasting food ever.  As someone who does not believe in waste, Corrigan gives you your fair share of kidneys and liver and the likes, so don’t say you weren’t warned!  However, this beautifully photographed book is as much about the food as it is about its origins, the farmers, fishermen, butchers, et al with whom he works, and how to prepare their food.  It’s a perfect balance of prose and unpretentious recipes, a little British, a little Irish, with a touch of Italian here and there.  The narrative and recipes are so finely woven, in fact the book seems more like a diary than a cookbook even in its design.  I absolutely love it, and often visit it on my bookshelf just to be reminded of the good food and producers there are out there and what I should be looking for when I shop for our food.  (And to make the oat cookies that my husband loves so much).

The Blackberry Farm Cookbook:  Four Seasons of Great Food and the Good Life by Sam Beall  (2009 Clarkson Potter; photography by beall+thomas photography) You didn’t really think I’d let you get away without a little bit about Tennessee, my home state, and home to Blackberry Farm, did you??  This is the cookbook and story of Blackberry Farm and is a beautiful book in its own right, but a great treasure of Southern recipes starting with blackberry cobbler, peach shortcake and running the gamut of coleslaw, barbecue (ribs and sauces), fried chicken, biscuits, greens, cornbread, chess pie, and then more ‘inventive’ dishes which all draw on ingredients harvested on the farm itself.  Of course I feel compelled to say that this is but one version of Southern cooking and if you’re really interested in our food, you should also try out some traditional Black Southern recipes in books by Edna Lewis, for example.   But this book holds its own, and was a very welcome book to the cookbook market not only for its focus on Tennessee, but also for the story of a working farm and the food it produces over each season.  The book is so beautiful you may not want to risk getting it dirty in the kitchen, but it is totally worth using!

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie W. July 31, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Thanks so much for this… so helpful to see a number of reviews like this all in one place. I read Edible San Diego when it comes out… didn’t realize it was part of a network. I’ll have to check out the book.

Tina August 1, 2010 at 6:01 am

Nice list! gotta go check them out! thanks!!

zbcgs August 2, 2010 at 6:33 am

Getting back to basics. i have a dream life.

Kristina August 2, 2010 at 11:30 am

I’ve been eying the Blackberry Farms cookbook. As much as I’d love to eat there, I think this cookbook might be more in line with my budget.

Laura August 2, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I can’t believe your story about your grandmother. My Granny and Poppy lived in the country in Alabama and had an acre garden that definitely filled up the Sunday dinner table. That is where I grew to love fried okra with green tomatoes and creamed corn. To this day I cannot get enough of it, of course, it is definitely not the same as hers, but I will keep trying. They had a freezer in their garage that I have never seen the likes of since then. I took it all for granted then because that is just the way it always was and then I grew up. Thank for triggering that memory. I love that.

I will definitely check out the books. They look interesting.

molly August 2, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Dang, there are some mighty fine looking titles here. That Corrigan number is calling to me as I type…

dining tables August 3, 2010 at 1:28 am

I was looking for his review. I want to read all the good comments about this book. I want to make sure that this book is worth to buy and read.

Toni August 3, 2010 at 9:25 am

The cover of Blackberry Farm is enough to peak my interest, but your review really does it. Definitely on my list now!

marla {family fresh cooking} August 3, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Kristina, thanks for bringing our attention tho these wonderful books and the essential pleasures derived from eating locally grown food. I spent a great deal of my childhood on an organic dairy farm in the UK. If we needed milk, veggies, eggs and fruit it was all right outside in the pasture. Those were some good times and great memories.

Honey August 3, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Hi Matt! Love your work, just wanted to say. I’ll stop stalking your blog now. Kidding!

Pam @ best Kitchen cookware August 3, 2010 at 8:44 pm


I came from your old typepad site first, this looks very neat! I love the pictures and stories. I like back to basics cookbooks and I think it is important we remember these as sometimes I try to make fancy meal but simple basic meals always have worked.

ann August 4, 2010 at 5:50 am

A very nice selection. I may have to hit the book store today. Until I have it in hand and feel it, look at it I am never sure it is right for me. But the Blackberry farm book has totally peaked my interest! cheers.

annoyed August 4, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Where’s your F’ing search? A lovely articled linked your old site, I come here to find no search. Outta here!

Matt August 5, 2010 at 11:35 am

Dear Annoyed, have a good time somewhere else! Cheers! :)

kristina August 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

@Laura – I was talking to my aunts yesterday about how summer corn reminded me of my grandmother. They said that when they were little, they had CORN in the garden AND a chicken coup! But that by the time I came along, there were fewer plants. That yard is not even half an acre! They said that what items they didn’t grow, they traded for with other members at church.

Things had obviously changed by the time I came along, but that’s community, isn’t it?!

Liz at Butter and Onions August 6, 2010 at 8:57 am

Thanks for giving me many more reasons to buy more cookbooks. I live in a part of the country that loves its local food, and I confess I fall short of really diving deep into the local food culture.

parisbreakfast August 7, 2010 at 3:06 am

Lovely to see and meet you at the Martha Do Matt!
These books look gorge! Merci
Yr pic is up at Paris Breakfast!!
Please crit me :)

Terry C August 7, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Hi, Matt ~~ Not a comment on the reviews, but on your website, which I just discovered this past week. I just wanted to say how impressed I am, not just with your photography and food stories and presentation, but even more with who you are as a human being, and how your personality, sense of humor, and obvious caring shine through. Thank you for giving me some very uplifting moments in a week when I really needed them, and for reminding all of us what is really important in life.

the Success Ladder August 8, 2010 at 9:20 am

Thank you very much for sharing this. Please keep up the good work.

bob August 14, 2010 at 11:46 am

i want every single one. thank you so much for all the info!!

Lynn August 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I love the Edible book, too. I subscribe to Edible Allegheny, and devour it the day it comes. (I should savor it, but I just can’t wait.) The photography is eye candy, and the stories of the eat-local heroes are inspirational. I was glad that I could experience more of articles from the Edible Communities magazines that are out of my area. Thanks for sharing.

Cortney Kue February 13, 2011 at 6:56 am

Now, that’s a good start but i’m going to explore that a touch more. Will show you what else i’ve found.

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