Russ Parson’s How to Read a French Fry is an outstanding introduction to the science of cooking and I enjoyed reading it immensely. So when his latest book, How to Pick a Peach:The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table, was released I was looking forward to reading it as well. Interviews with Parsons on All Things Considered and The Splendid Table further whetted my appetite for the book. Sadly, when I finally read it I was disappointed.
Not greatly disappointed, less so as I continued reading, and I’m glad I stuck with it, but whereas French Fry delved into six essential and limited cooking topics in depth, providing lots of fun trivia and asides, in Pick a Peach the author addresses a significant part of the vegetable and fruit world. If French Fry was a tutorial, Pick a Peach is an encyclopedia. Which is, in fact, its value. It’s just not what I was anticipating.
Parsons is a food and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and one of the most popular and admired writers in the business. A journalist by training, he has been writing about food and wine for 20 years. He brings the fact-oriented sensibility that is typical of his trade to his writing along with the less typical eye for a telling detail that genuinely creates an image in your mind. He writes: “Asparagus lovers will argue about the merits of fat or thin spears. They’ll debate the necessity of peeling. They’ll quibble over methods for removing the spear’s tough base. … Fans will even argue about their beloved vegetable’s effect on their urine.” Without even knowing an asparagus lover the reader can tell they (or perhaps I should say “we”) are passionate and somewhat daft.
Nevertheless, the book remains essentially a reference containing 31 chapters spread among sections for each season. Some chapters cover a single fruit or vegetable, cherries for instance, while others cover a collection of related items such as root vegetables. Each chapter begins with a two- to three-page general introduction to its subject covering its general characteristics and history, any unusual characteristics and those of particular significance to cooks, and anything else that seems appropriate. This introduction is followed by a concise one-page bullet list of: “where they’re grown,” “how to choose,” “how to store,” “how to prepare,” and “one simple dish.” The chapter ends with two or three more complicated recipes — a feature that echoes How to Read a French Fry.
How to Pick a Peach also includes additional sidebars of a more general nature. These include “what to refrigerate” (and if you thought “everything,” think again), “reliable soufflés,” and “when it’s OK to buy unripe fruit.”
I consider myself knowledgeable about fruits and vegetables. Certainly more so than most people, but I still learned in reading the book that although sniffing a cantaloupe will tell you whether it’s ripe or not, sniffing a honeydew won’t tell you squat: I can quit trying. I also learned (in a different sidebar) that honeydews don’t continue to ripen after picking — although they will soften.
All in all, I’m pleased with How to Pick a Peach and consider it an essential part of my library. If you cook, if you buy fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s a valuable asset. You needn’t read it cover to cover as I did (frankly, it lacks a cohesive story line and consistant character development) but instead read about the current season’s offerings. If you’re going to take the time to shop, you might as well make sure you’re getting the best value you can in terms of flavor both when you buy those sweet cherries and after you get them home. And a tip: refrigerate the cherries in the coldest part of your refrigerator, they’ll keep two to three weeks.