The SFPFS Blog

Book club report: Yes, Chef

by Kathy Lassen-Hahne

On November 14, at the lovely home of Barbara Shenson in Foster City, the San Francisco Professional Food Society Book Club embarked on a worldwide voyage of far-reaching destinations, social introspection and amazing tastes — inspired by Marcus Samuelsson’s Memoir Yes, Chef.

The discussion opened with Kara Nielsen’s canvassing those members who were originally reticent to read the selected title due to an overload of Marcus Samuelsson in the media and his well-known personal history. Were their minds changed? The answer was a resounding “yes,” with unanimous agreement from all present that this is a very compelling memoir (as opposed to the other suggested mystery story, Nightwatch; all thumbs down). Some noted that the skillful editing/co-writing by Veronica Chambers really contributed to making Yes, Chef so engrossing.

The story begins in Ethiopia where the author was born into poverty, afflicted with tuberculosis and then adopted, along with his older sister, by a Swedish family from Goteborg, Sweden, following the death of his mother. With his innate culinary talent and teachings by his Swedish grandmother, Marcus studied culinary arts at a vocational high school and climbed the professional chef ladder by cooking at restaurants and hotels in Sweden, Switzerland and Austria. He made several journeys as culinary staff on cruise ships that opened his eyes and palates to the flavors of the world.

He eventually landed in Manhattan at Aquavit, owned by a fellow Swede. His hard work, passion, experimentation to create signature dishes and continuous search for excellence were rewarded when he became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star rating from The New York Times at Aquavit.

His success continued as he went on to open other restaurants, compete on Top Chef Masters and even prepare President Obama’s first state dinner for the prime minister of India. After a harrowing episode where he had to “buy back” his name from the owner of Aquavit, he now owns and runs the Red Rooster in Harlem, where he celebrates the roots of American cuisine and diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood.

Not until arriving in New York did he confront true racial discrimination. Like Barak Obama, Marcus Samuelsson was too black for some, too white for others. “A hundred years ago black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen. These days, we have to fight to get in.”

Besides Samuelsson’s professional story, equally fascinating is his personal story, which includes his lifelong issues with race, including being taunted as a school child in Sweden, being refused work in kitchens in Europe and integrating as a black, but not African-American, chef in New York City. There is also the story of his relationship with Ethiopia and Africa, and his reunion with his birth father and siblings there. Samuelsson also fathered a daughter with a young woman in Austria at 20 and then waited years to meet her. The interesting social note here: his Swedish mother immediately embraced and supported his daughter Zoe, even though Marcus did not meet her until she was a teenager. We also learned about his glamorous Ethiopian-born, European-raised wife Maya Haile and their nuptials in their native country.

A recent Wall Street Journal article featured a story on Marcus Samuelsson and potluck dinners.

Our discussion was of course accompanied by an array of delicious dishes, including Scandi breads, Smorrebrod, Gravlaks with sweet Mustard Sauce, Parsley Root Soup with apples and walnuts, Lentil Stew with Berbere spices, Red Lentil Hummus with Berbere spices, Swedish Meatballs, Lingonberry Sauce, Roasted Vegetables, a Swedish Aunt’s Dream Cookies and the classic Swedish Princess Cake from San Francisco’s Schubert’s Bakery. (N.B. Berbere is a key ingredient in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, korarima, rue, white and black pepper and fenugreek.) It was a perfect feast over which to discuss a fascinating, human and compelling memoir.

Book Club Report

by Rodger Helwig

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan

From field to plate is the subject of The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, a groundbreaking book enthusiastically endorsed by all who attended the SFPFS book club meeting on August 2.

During a lively and passionate discussion, we all agreed that McMillan did an amazing job of documenting the human cost of America’s cheap food, while painting an unflinching portrait of the nation’s food workers.

In 2009, award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan set out on an undercover journey to see what it takes for Americans to eat well. For almost a year she worked at below- to minimum-wage jobs, picking grapes and garlic in the fields of California, stocking produce at Walmart and working the line at Applebee’s.

In this well-written, intelligent book she documents the lives and foodways of the people she worked with along the way, as well as detailing how she personally attempted to get by on meager wages.

Her mission was to answer two questions: Why do we eat the way we do? How can we change it?

As she said in a Huffington Post interview, “Most writing about food in the U.S. has come from a gourmet tradition. Very few people dedicate serious reporting to how the food system works.”

Some of her observations:

• Food workers are, in terms of money and time, among the least able to eat well in America. Most are too exhausted to cook wholesome meals and instead eat junk food that makes them hungrier.

• Increasing farm wages by 40 percent would only increase the average family’s produce bill by about $16 a year.

• While 84 percent of produce in America is purchased at supermarkets, many large metropolitan cities have a paucity of these stores. Detroit, a city of 700,000, is without a single store from a national grocery chain

• “Walmart’s produce section is nothing less than an expansive life-support system,” said McMillan. “Most days, when it comes to vegetables, it was like putting lipstick on corpses.”

What does McMillan offer in the way of solutions to these problems?

She argues for small changes, like cooking classes to demystify eating well, and coupons for saving on fresh foods, which is better and cheaper than eating processed food or eating out.

She believes that cooking is a big part of self-sufficiency, and we need to be teaching it to kids. That it’s not only good to know how to feed your self, but it’s also a practical way to learn math and science.

McMillan also feels that “Changing what’s on our plate simply isn’t feasible without changing far more. Wages, health care, work hours and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop.”

May Meeting of Book Club SIG

Books: Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, edited by Matt McAllester.
The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, by Laura Schenone.

Twelve lucky readers gathered at the test kitchen of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park for the quarterly meeting of the book club in May. Our host, Amy Machnak, Sunset’s recipes editor, toured us through the beautiful Cliff May-designed campus before we sat down for a discussion and a tasty potluck feast of dishes inspired by the two books we read.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken by Laura Schenone is the memoir of an Italian-American woman who searched for her roots by researching the origins of her family’s treasured ravioli recipe. She went to great lengths, geographically and otherwise, to track down every element of the recipe, including the presumably American addition of cream cheese and the unusual element of uncooked meat filling. Along the way, we were privy to her family’s personal tribulations (both recent and ancient) in depth, prompting at least one of our members to question whether it’s worth reading any more memoirs. Indeed, although we could feel the author’s enthusiasm for piecing together the puzzle of her family’s history and food traditions, we agreed that this book might have made a better long-form article, and could have profited from editing.

Interesting sections of the book included the profiles of some purveyors of regional Italian ingredients such as chestnut flour, as well as of the nonnas who demonstrated the dough-rolling and flipping techniques essential to making the ravioli. We discussed what it is that drives us to resurrect, reclaim, and authenticate recipes from our own family traditions.

Some of the foods we brought to the potluck inspired by this book were pasta with walnut pesto, a chickpea flour frittata, ravioli, pan dulce, and chard torta.

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, edited by Matt McAllester, is a collection of essays by war correspondents concerning food in the context of wartime. In contrast to the food writing of abundance and lush description that we are used to reading in the book club, this book presented food in the context of severe deprivation and situations of danger or duress. Many of the stories were disturbing and all of them made us appreciate the abundance of food that we enjoy in the USA. Our eyes were opened to the serious lack of food in countries ravaged by war or by crazy or corrupt leaders. This was not typical “food writing,” because in many cases there was not much food to write about and the writers generally shared the same deprivation diet as those they were writing about. Food in most cases was a matter of survival, with no room for fussing about “whether a recipe worked out.”

The international locales in this book inspired our potluck dishes, including hummus and pita, baba ganoush, burek, Irish stew, and Pakistani coconut burfi.

We finished by celebrating a member’s birthday in American style, with abundant cakes, including chocolate, almond, and lemon.

SFPFS February 2012 Book Club

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik
by Frankie Whitman

Book: The Table Comes First by Adam GopnikI was randomly selected to provide this write-up of the SFPFS recent book club SIG. While random, it was appropriate — I was the person who recommended it, having gone to see Gopnik last October in conversation about the book. And, alas, I was one of the very few, or maybe the only person who actually read the book in its entirety. And perhaps that statement sums it up for the book club. Our group was highly critical of this book.

Others have not been so harsh. For example, a review in The Atlantic had this to say:
“It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style. …Deeply fascinating and absorbingly written, The Table Comes First is the kind of read you’ll want to devour in one sitting, despite its Thanksgiving-sized 320-page heft.”

And in Slate, in an article titled “Stirring the Pot” (sound familiar?) by Laura Shapiro, she wrote, “I wish this book, The Table Comes First, didn’t have to be a book. I wish it could be a dinner table, instead, with maybe six people sitting around it—not in a jammed-full New York restaurant where everyone is bellowing over the sound system but in somebody’s home, where we’ve all been invited to eat and talk. And I wish Adam Gopnik were at the table, leaning forward intently as the plates come and go, yakking away happily about food and history and Paris and cookbooks and life, just as he does in these pages.”

In truth, not all reviewers loved the book, but none were as critical as our little group. Gopnik is a sort of Renaissance man and so has lots to say about everything. And words are his passion. However, we seemed to agree that the book needed a good editing and could only imagine that his editor was someone just out of college who was afraid to criticize this famous and revered essayist.

We also thought it curious that there were no acknowledgements. Really?

But here were some interesting take-aways:

• Two of the biggest differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking are heat and salt.
• Two secret ingredients that make anything taste better, “but not together, of course,” are anchovies and bacon.

We’ll save you a lot of work: read the book as essays, and pick your essays carefully. They are not all satisfying. We liked his chapter on the whole locavore movement, “Near or Far?” I personally loved the chapter on desserts and El Bulli titled “Endings.” And the chapter on our latest fixation on meat titled “Meat or Vegetable?” was entertaining and worth reading.

So don’t give up. There are some gems here. And there are several copies of the book floating around from book club members who would be delighted to share—or even get the book off their bookshelf!

Book Club: Farm City


The Book Club SIG held its winter quarterly meeting on January 12, 2011, at Pho 84 in downtown Oakland, an appropriate place for discussing Novella Carpenter’s Farm City. Novella is a fascinating character who lives in downtown Oakland and runs a farm on an abandoned lot. In her book she related her trials and travails raising poultry, rabbits — and even hogs — and her experiments in living off a plot of reclaimed soil in the most unlikely urban location.

While slurping pho and gobbling tasty imperial rolls, 12 book club participants managed to discuss the book (at least with their immediate neighbors). Some said they were inspired to investigate beekeeping; others reported a newfound appreciation and understanding of Oakland. Some mentioned they felt that the author had conveyed little about the hard work and expense involved in farming a city block. Mostly, members enjoyed the book and Novella’s voice and philosophical ponderings, and found it a fun, informative and timely quick read.

Next book: 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families Living in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman; meeting in S.F. on Wednesday, April 6. RSVP on Facebook Event page; limit 12.

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by Kara Neilsen