Ratio: A Review

Have you noticed how the more succinct a book’s title is the longer the sub-title is? An example is Michael Ruhlman’s new book on cooking titled Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. I’m sure this title to sub-title ratio is more a publisher’s call than the author’s, but it was the first thing that struck me on receiving the book.

Ruhlman’s Ratio

Ruhlman has long ranted against recipes (and cookbooks) as such and in favor of – that’s right – ratios instead. “We have been trained in America to believe that we can’t cook unless we have a recipe in hand. I am not saying recipes are bad or wrong – I use them all the time; there are plenty of recipes in the new book – but when we rely completely on recipes, we cooks do ourselves a grave disservice,” Ruhlman writes on his blog. “We remain chained to the ground, we remain dependent on our chains. When you are dependent on recipes, you are a factory worker on the assembly line; when you possess ratios and basic technique, you own the company.”

Ruhlman is right. In the book’s introduction he defines a culinary ratio as, “a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients to another.” For example, his ratio for vinaigrette is three parts oil to one part vinegar – which is the same basic ratio I use. One of the great things about cooking ratios that they make it easy to scale to suit the crowd. So if I’m whipping up a vinaigrette for myself I’ll use three teaspoons of oil and one teaspoon of vinegar (or other acid) plus flavorings. If I’m serving salad to a dozen people I bump the quantities to three quarters cup of oil and one quarter cup of acid.

It’s not always that simple (nor does the author claim it is). You still need to know how adding mustard to vinaigrette will affect it or what sorts of herbs go best with red wine vinegar (thyme, parsley, sometimes shallots). If you’re baking bread it helps to know that substituting some milk (or sour cream) for the water will produce a more tender result. But having some basic ratios as a starting point will provide a tremendous boost to your culinary endeavors and reduce the guess-work (and number of mistakes) you’ll make when experimenting.

In 230 pages, Ratio covers doughs and batters, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards and provides 33 basic ratios. In addition, Ruhlman offers suggestions for variations and it is perhaps the variations – “Cream Soups Using Any Green Vegetable,” for example – that provide the greatest value because they teach how to make use of the ratios in practice.

Being Critical of Daschle’s “Critical”

Like legions of other health care policy wonks when I discovered that former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle was going to be Obama’s point guy on health care, I sent off for a copy of his book Critical. It’s a fast and easy read, but in its examination of the problem it doesn’t add much to superior books on what’s wrong with health care.

First, the former Senate Majority Leader promotes himself as a scholar of failed attempts at health reform past, and of course a witness to the most recent attempt. He’s been here, and seen this done wrong.


But the actual coverage solution Daschle proposes is to essentially expand the insurance program that covers federal government workers (something called the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program) with some improvements made by states like Massachusetts and to impose a pay (the government) or play (by providing insurance) option on employers. Daschle would also expand Medicaid and the current insurance for poor children – and then add an individual mandate with subsidies to those who can’t afford to buy-in to FEBHP.

This package is tied together, sort of, by a Federal Health Board.

Daschle lucky that he didn’t call this board Fannie Med, but he’s a victim of poor timing as he links his health board’s success to the accomplishments of the Federal Reserve at a time when that “success” is looking, shall we say, shaky.

The main role of the Federal Health Board would be as a cost-effectiveness review organization with teeth since that Medicare, Medicaid and the (newly expanded) federal employees benefit plan would all be bound to follow its guidelines. So essentially he’s advocating the creation of a national health insurance benefits package with federal supervision on rates and practices.

Critics on the loony right (old reliable Sally Pipes there in the Wall Street Journal) will call this rationing. More thinking critics will call it the slow emanation of a messy single payer system. That’s essentially what it’ll turn out to be as the private plans toss the worse (and most expensive) health risks into the federally supported pool and employers steadily get priced out of providing health benefits. Daschle, would be happiest with a U.K.-style single payer with a trade up option, but dismisses that course as unrealistic for the U.S. He also dismisses as unrealistic moderate attempts by Sen. Ron Wyden attempts to decouple health care insurance from employment and create a truer “market” based on social insurance (which is closer to the Dutch model).

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Review: The Science of Good Food

Back in 1990 my father gave me a copy of Harold McGee’s The Curious Cook for Christmas and reading it was a revelatory experience. Although I’d been cooking for many years and was aware that cooking involved elements of science, I had no idea how much science – particularly physics and biology – was involved in the creation of a good meal.

Since then I’ve built a small library of books on the science of food and cooking. It includes McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise, and Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy. These have all had a positive effect on my cooking. Knowing the temperature at which collagen melts has greatly improved my stews and braises, while knowing the effect of acids on beans has led to greater control over the texture of my baked beans.

The publisher, Robert Rose, recently released a book named The Science of Good Food by David Joachim and Andrew Scloss. At 600 pages it’s a massive compendium of facts about food and cooking starting with acid and ending with wine. Among the topics covered are carcinogens, frying, types of game meat (the book reports raccoon tastes like pork), and the anatomy of a bivalve.

The book’s dictionary-like entries range from a page to multiple pages, for example wine covers six and a half pages and touches on cooking with wine, how wine is made, wine vinegar, and the effect of the environment on wine’s taste – what the French call terroir.

Each topic is divided up into sub-sections named “What It Is,” “What It Does” and “How It Works.” But this rather arbitrary organization doesn’t always make sense. For example, under thistles “What It Is” states, “Comprising more than 300 species, thistles are plants characterized by their prickly leaves or stems,” which is fine but in “What It Does” you get, “Artichokes and cardoons belong to the same thistle genus and share several attributes.” That doesn’t really strike me as good description of what a thistle does.

Spaced throughout are a number of sidebars with titles like “Kitchen Wisdom”, “Fast Facts”, and “Science Wise”. The Kitchen Wisdom sidebar on oil offers a tip on cleaning up spills (sprinkle flour on it) and the Fast Facts note that toasted sesame oil is less likely to turn rancid than most oils. A Science Wise note on molecular gastronomy says that you can improve cheap whiskey by adding a few drops of vanilla to a bottle. This entry also contains a recipe for making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Although this isn’t a cookbook, there are quite a number of recipes spread throughout.

The Science of Good Food covers more territory than On Food and Cooking and offers less depth; it’s intended for home cooks with easy-to-understand entries. And Robert Rose also sells The Food Encyclopedia which would be a good companion to Good Food, offering shorter and more specific topics for the home cook.

These books are valuable – I think every cook should have some understanding of the chemistry, physics, and biology of food and cooking. If you know about umami and its natural sources then adding a touch of anchovy paste to tomato sauce makes perfect sense. Understanding Maillard reactions will help you when roasting or grilling meats – or even baking bread.

This knowledge – of science – will make you a far better and more flexible chef.

Reading Periodically

I just renewed my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated, my favorite cooking magazine. For years and years before the World Wide Web and before cookbooks had become one of the largest categories in book stores I subscribed to Gourmet and Bon Appetit, because those magazines were the best bets for a varied collection of recipes. In those days the first step I took in planning a dinner party was to sit in the middle of the living room floor with all my back issues and a note pad and go through every issue – often multiple times – putting together a menu.

I didn’t actually read those magazines. They’d arrive in the mail, I’d scan all the recipes, flag one or two to try, and after trying them file the issue away. The editorial content on parties in the Hamptons or three-star restaurants in Vienna didn’t interest me.

But in 1993, I received a copy of the charter issue of Cook’s Illustrated and fell completely in love. This was a cooking magazine. The authors explained what they tried, what they ended up with, why the end result worked, and the recipes were, er, spot on. Furthermore, the reviews clearly explained what they were looking for in a sauce pan or tomato sauce. In other words, these were reviews in the tradition of Consumer Reports and the kind of analysis I’d been taught to write when reviewing software. It was – and remains – a magazine for and by cooks without the froo-froo travelogues and parties. I subscribed immediately and, 15 years later, it’s still my favorite cooking magazine.

I confess, I don’t rely on CI as much as I once did, in large part because I’ve learned so much over the years from the magazine. But I still read almost every bit of the magazine as soon as it arrives. Some folks object to CI’s rather dry tone and pedantic attention to detail (no pictures!) but if you want to improve your cooking you can’t do better than subscribing to Cook’s Illustrated.

I also subscribe to Cuisine at Home. Like CI, Cuisine is bi-monthly, unlike CI it provides neither the technical depth nor recipes that are as consistently useful. Nevertheless, I do occasionally use recipes from it (albeit usually with some tweaking) and even a few of my favorite recipes began on the pages of Cuisine. I’ve been a subscriber for about six years.

My other long-term subscription is to Fine Cooking. Again, it’s bi-monthly, but unlike the other two magazines it includes advertising. FC’s production values are excellent, it’s just plain fun to flip through looking at all the food porn (pictures!). In terms of technical content it falls between CI and Cuisine and I think the recipes are generally as good as Cook’s Illustrated.

I’ve twice subscribed to Cooking Light but I’ve never received an issue. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but most recently they wanted me to pay for the subscription before sending an issue – at least I kept getting bills and never got a copy, and I wasn’t going to buy a pig in a poke.

I also regularly try a year’s subscription to the likes of Gourmet, Saveur, and Food and Wine. Currently I get Bon Appetit again. But these magazines simply don’t hold my interest. They are cocktail table publications, intended more to impress guests than provide tools for work-a-day cooks.

If you, like me, are truly obsessed then the food magazine for you is the Art of Eating. If you want to impress a real foodie, have AoE on your coffee table. And if you’re just a food wacko, you’ll read a few pages each night before going to sleep to stretch it out as long as possible. This quarterly publication edited by a former plumber named Edward Behr happily devotes 8,000 words on the cheeses produced in a single valley in France, dwelling in detail on how the product from the northern side of the valley differs from that on the southern.

Readers know I’m not an inverse food snob – I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy dream vacations where I got to cook for friends and family in Spain and Italy. And I’d love nothing more than a couple of weeks spent cooking in Southern France, Greece or Morocco. When I do dinner parties for myself or clients I give a great deal of thought to presentation – and love having the opportunity to do so. But I prefer the work – and the creativity – involved in doing the cooking and presentation myself rather than copying a magazine’s efforts for my table.

Review: Free Lunch

Few of the books I’ve read lately have been quite as staggering as Free Lunch, from former New York Times investigative reporter David Cay Johnston who, heroically, made his career writing about – brace yourselves – the U.S. tax code. Free Lunch is a fabulous book by a veteran investigative reporter giving you his life’s work–a look at how corporations and wealthy Americans have profited, again and again, at the expense of you and me.

Johnston’s best known for his exhaustive investigations at the Times into how corporations and very very rich individuals subvert U.S. tax law so that they pay less to the government, while the rest of us pay more. But in this book – written after he’s free of the “responsibility” of being a Times reporter – he gets almost biblical in calling out the cheats, crooks and murderers.

“Free Lunch”

And when I say murderers, I’m not fooling. In that case, Johnston is talking about John Snow, President George W. Bush’s former Treasury Department secretary – the one who did such a great job regulating the sub-prime mortgage market back around the turn of the century that the potential for a credit and housing collapse in the latter part of this decade was avoided…Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Snow was CEO of CSX Corp. the railroad which, Johnston shows, sucked entirely off the public teat, and systematically and knowingly reduced the amount it spent on train and passenger safety – and also subverted the safety inspectors who were supposed to enforce the law – to the point that train crashes and railraod passenger deaths dramatically increased. Even worse, when CSX was successfully sued by the wife of a Miami cop who died in a crash, somehow the company managed to get Amtrak – the government-supported train service – to pay the penalities demanded by the court, not the CSX’s CEO or the shareholders. Yup, you and me paid for it. That of course didn’t stop Snow from raking tens of millions off CSX over his tenure, even as the stock price fell.

My usual bailiwick, health care is not spared Johnston’s wrathful scrutiny. I was amused last year when Bob Gumbiner who made tens of millions converting FHP International Corp., from a non-profit HMO to a for-profit sent me his book proclaiming that a single-payer socialized system was the answer for America. Johnston reminds us how Gumbiner essentially defrauded the state of California out of about $200 million (in 1986 dollars!) when he bought FHP on the cheap. Same with Wellpoint CEO Len Schaeffer, who’s initial attempts to pay nothing when Wellpoint/Blue Cross converted from non-profit to profit-making insurance company were eventually at least partially blocked.

It’s good to know that in the course of Schaeffer, Gumbiner and others like United HealthGroup CEO and options cheat Bill McGuire becoming gazillionaires, the health care system became cheaper and all the problems with access got fixed….Oh wait. Nevermind.

But it’s not just large corporations that feel Johnston’s wrath. He goes after the welfare queens who run sports teams (George Steinbrenner, George W. Bush) and the politicians who tax the poor and middle class to pay them huge subsidies. In fact organized sports in the U.S. makes a profit for their owners that is less than the amount of public subsidies they receives for stadium construction and other “incentive” tax breaks. That’s right – we’re all paying for the billions those owners make, often in the name of urban renewal or economic redevelopment.

Johnston presents a long line of industries and individuals who have lobbied to change the rules that benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. You think Warren Buffet is some cuddly grandfather who gets a free pass cause he’s a Democrat who’s giving it all away to charity? Not in Johnston’s world. Johnston shows how lobbyists for electric utilities Buffet owned systematically went after municipalities in Iowa and prevented them from competing with him in the power business. Buffett didn’t stop the municipally-owned power utilities in the free market; he stopped them by paying off politicians.

This is part of Johnston’s look at de-regulated electricity “markets” – the kind brought to you by Enron and its “kept” politicians which were systematically rigged against consumers. It was news to me but he shows that there’s theoretical and actual proof that municipally-owned plants are cheaper (and more reliable) sources of electricity. Something, by the way, that the residents of Sacramento, Palo Alto and Los Angeles know and that those in San Francisco would like to find out … which is why PG&E’s ads against the public power initiative on the ballot in my home town have started two full months before the election.

That pattern is repeated over and over again in the book. Under the cover of obfuscation and with the co-operation of an emasculated corporate-dominated media, politicians at the state and federal level take campaign contributions to do the bidding of wealthy men and corporations who, in return, do anything they can to suck more from the public teat and to avoid paying their fair share. The final tally: The richest 400 families in America, making over $100 million annually, pay a lower proportion of their income in tax than the rest of us.

Johnston ends the book laying out the income data. And although we know it, it’s staggering. All of the gains in the last thirty years have gone to the top 10% income bracket. Everyone else has seen their incomes go down in real terms and of course their share of the nation’s wealth plummet. But wait there’s more (a catch phrase Johnston likes!). The bottom half of the top 10% are standing still and it’s only the top 5% who have gained, and most of that gain is in the top 1% and most of that gain is in the top 0.1%.

After 35 years of “free marketeers” running their own version of corporate welfare, we are a nation that has an income distribution that looks like Mexico, Russia or Brazil. Or like France before 1789.

Revolution anyone?

Review: Spanish Road Trip

I first fell in love with Spanish food while attending a programming trade show in Washington, DC. Some friends and I had dinner At Jaleo’s, a tapas bar. Prior to that I’d had Americanized paella, which my mother occasionally made when I was growing up, but that was the extent of my experience with Spanish food. Then in 1997 two weeks with my family in a villa on the Costa del Sol confirmed my passion for this simple cuisine.

Consequently when I was recently offered a review copy of Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, I jumped at it. This is a companion volume to a PBS series in which chef Mario Batali, food writer Mark Bittman, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols tour Spain exploring it’s art, culture, and food.

Because Batali is a chef and Bittman a food writer I assumed the book would essentially be a cookbook with some narrative related to the TV show woven through it. But it’s not. There are indeed about 70 recipes in it of which some are traditional Spanish fare, others more modern dishes, and some are recipes invented by the four participants. But as the dust jacket notes, it’s more like a scrapbook.

In the introduction Batali writes: “I must say that my truest roots in the world of food are still deep in the heart of Castile where my family traveled simply but comfortably with a constant eye on the best place for a tortilla Espanola or a pincho moruno.” It turns out he lived with his family in Spain while he was growing up. It also turns out he owns two Spanish restaurants in New York, something I didn’t know having thought he was purely an Italian chef.

The book is organized by the routes they took through Spain so, for instance, the first section is named “From Madrid to Toledo.” The section then consists of short descriptions of Madrid and Toledo, photographs of hanging hams and Batali and Paltrow in a restaurant, a description of the restaurant and it’s owner, assorted chunks of dialog and random thoughts, a few recipes, and a description of a birthday dinner. In short, each section is a diverse hodgepodge of elements related to each other primarily by geographic proximity.

The problem with the book is that if you don’t care that Batali is a celebrity chef and Paltrow is a famous actress then a lot of the material isn’t particularly interesting. A photograph of Paltrow and Bittman standing over a paella pan is less interesting than the same photo would be if the people were native Spanish herders. And a quote by a restaurant owner – “Everyone has eaten here but the Pope, he’s too busy.” – is more amusing than a silly exchange between Bittman and Bassols.

I did try a few recipes. The recipe for escabeche is good as is the one for pisto manchego but the empanada recipe doesn’t even look good and using puff pastry is just wrong.

All in all, I’m disappointed in the book. As I mentioned, my expectation was that it would be a collection of recipes for one of my favorite foods with some narrative to knit the food together. But despite the recipes it really isn’t a cookbook and the narrative is more like a collection of random elements probably better conveyed in the television series. It is handsome in its way and would look nice on a coffee table but I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

Pisto Manchego

Adapted from Spain: A Culinary Road Trip

4 ripe plum tomatoes
2 sm Japanese eggplants
4 red bell peppers
2 sm red onions – not peeled
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 375F.

Coat tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers with 2 tablespoons of oil and arrange on a baking sheet with onions. Roast for 45 minutes to an hour until onions are tender. Cool until you can handle the vegetables.

Remove skins from tomatoes and seed and core peppers. Cut the eggplants in half and scoop out the flesh. Peel, trim, and cut up the onions then coarsely chop vegetables with remaining oil in a food processor. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

Serve on toasted coarse bread.

Literary Tapas: A Chef’s Selection

When I started writing about food I immediately started reading what other people wrote about food – primarily as a way to learn how to write about food myself. One of the first books I picked up was Best Food Writing 2001 and I was amazed at how many different ways there are to write about food, how many different ways there are to think about food, and how food can be such an easily conveyed metaphor for thinking about the rest of our lives. I’ve been studying the masters ever since.

At the moment I’m half-way through Best Food-Writing 2008 edited by Holly Hughes and with the lazy days of summer on the way, it seems to me that now is as good a time as any to contemplate those who contemplate food, cooking and everything else that goes on in a proper kitchen.

I’ve long been a fan of John Thorne, author of Serious Pig, Pot on the Fire, and Simple Cooking. This is great food writing with much the same sensibility as the best food blogs – focused on food and cooking and yet much more than that. He writes with marvelous evocativeness and a certain dourness – for this Southerner, anyway – that’s reflective of his New England heritage. Best of all, I’ve learned a great deal about my cooking style and attitudes from reading about his and his focus on simplicity. A perfect clam chowder is about less rather than more.

I’ve been meaning to read America’s first great food writer, M.F.K. Fisher for years. Last winter I finally began. Since January I’ve read The Gastronomical Me and How to Cook a Wolf. She really does deserve her reputation. In How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s book on cooking – and living – well with very little, she writes: “There are many ways to love a vegetable. The most sensible way is to love it well-treated. Then you can eat it with the comfortable knowledge that you will be a better man for it, in your spirit and in your body too, and will ever have to worry about your own love being a vegetable”.

You read Fisher, not so much for recipes, as for philosophies. You read a chapter, or a page, or a sentence, and then put the book down to ponder a moment. Sometimes to ponder what she wrote, and other times to ponder what might be fun or interesting or surprising to do with that last bit of hard salami in the refrigerator.

But when my head became too full of darkly ambitious thoughts about food and cooking, I turned to Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer for Vogue.

Why a magazine like Vogue needs a food writer, and how it ended up choosing a lawyer to do the writing baffles me. But Steingarten is tremendous fun to read. He combines passion for food and cooking with what I can only describe as a lawyerly sense of humor. His rants about things like food allergies and raves about things like blood sausage leave your jaws aching with a grin. The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate are a perfect antidote to Fisher’s more serious reflections.

Along the way I’ve read Jaques Pepin’s The Apprentice. A genuine likeability shines through this famous chef’s autobiography and leaves you very much wanting to have a meal and a glass of wine with him. And currently I’m reading Calvin Trillin’s Feeding a Yen with The Tummy Trilogy yet to go. I’ve long been a fan of Trillin’s wry and often acerbic political wit, but somehow I had never read his food musings which are more self-deprecating than passionate, mostly when it comes to his own tastes: “One morning, late in the week, I held out until almost eleven before I bought my first helping of macaroni pie, and found myself boasting to Alice about my willpower.”

I first turned to these books to learn how the writing should be done. But since then I’ve grown to love the collections of essays. They stimulate far more than your appetite, although many of them do that as well, and they’re perfect for reading in short bursts – say, at the beach.

Book Review: Bananas

“Yes we have no bananas,
Yes we have no bananas today.” – 1923 novelty song

Many years ago, as a teenager, I ate lunch in an Indonesian household on most Fridays. The meal always featured a huge platter of what I thought at the time were fried potatoes. They were highly spiced and slightly sweet and I adored them. But as a callow youth I didn’t think to ask anything more about them. Some 20 years later I was reading an article on plantains and realized that’s what I had been eating. I ran out to the grocery store, bought a plantain, sliced it into rounds, doused them with curry powder and a touch of sugar, and fried them. Yep, that was it.

I was reminded of my plantain experience when I first heard author Dan Koeppel interviewed on All Things Considered a couple of weeks ago. Koeppel has recently publish a book, Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

A few days after receiving the book, I started reading it. At 1:00 the next morning I forced myself to put it down and go to sleep having read half its 260 pages at a sitting. Koeppel weaves together a story that reminds me of a basket: A strand of science appears, and then disappears behind a strand of politics. It reappears then ducks behind a strand of history. Somehow Koeppel intertwines the strands creating a consistent, comprehensive, and highly readable whole.

What initially caught my attention in the NPR interview was Koeppel’s focus on monoculture. It’s topic I addressed in “Send in the Clones” and in other columns. It comes up a lot when you talk about bananas.

Edible bananas are all seedless, so they procreate asexually. That means the banana you ate last week was probably genetically identical to the banana you ate today and, in fact, most of the bananas you’ve eaten. This is monoculture – everything is the same. And because bananas are clones of each other they’re particularly vulnerable. Worse, because domestic (as opposed to wild) bananas are uniformly seedless they’re almost impossible to crossbreed in a search for disease resistance – and there are several diseases (Panama disease and Brushy Top being the worst) currently sweeping through the banana plantations around the world. In a practical sense the fate of the world’s most popular fruit may be extinction within the next 20 or so years. Seriously.

Koeppel focuses on this possible extinction, but delves into banana republics (at one time the modern Chiquita company owned 70 percent of the arable land in Guatemala), the spread of domestic bananas from Southeast Asia throughout the world, and it’s importance as a staple food in Asia and Africa – there are people who will starve to death without bananas.

I spoke to Koeppel and he describes himself as having the broadest knowledge of bananas of anyone in the world, but is quick to assert his knowledge is “only two inches deep.” He speaks of some of the banana researchers with great respect. Since the book was released he has been inundated with emails from banana researchers picking nits with his attempt to simplify and make understandable some highly complex issues. Just as he might object to some of the simplifications I’ve made here.

Koeppel set out to write a science book and was surprised to find food people (he was recently interviewed by Lynne Rossetto Kasper on Splendid Table) drawn to his book. But in addition to foodies and science geeks, political and anthropological buffs will also appreciate this extraordinarily well-written book.

Review: the Art of Eating

Although I seldom buy cookbooks anymore, I do subscribe to food magazines. The magazines offer loads of ideas even if I don’t follow a specific recipe. That’s also why I publish recipes on my blog, Seriously Good. It isn’t that I expect a reader to follow the recipe explicitly – in fact I post a disclaimer warning against doing so – but I hope someone may find my use of cornmeal in pancakes or the addition of juniper berries to beef stew worthwhile.

My favorite cooking magazine is Cooks Illustrated and I’ve been a subscriber since issue three. CI is the ultimate techie cook’s rag. They test every recipe six ways from Sunday, carefully track down the science behind what works and what doesn’t, and the recipes themselves are excellent: basic, dependable, and easily modified.

But my favorite food magazine is the Art of Eating. It began as a newsletter in November of 1986, when a Vermont carpenter named Edward Behr was casting about for something else to do. A friend pointed out his fascination with food and AoE was born.

AoE has no advertising and so is funded entirely by it’s 6000 or so subscribers (although it also has a limited newsstand presence). In other words, it’s still essentially a newsletter – but what a newsletter. It’s printed on heavy stock, edited with great care and skill, and beautifully illustrated with black and white photos and line drawings. Behr is still the editor/publisher and the magazine is still very much a personal work, just as The New Yorker was back in the days of Harold Ross.

Behr is fascinated by questions such as why the basil in his kitchen window tastes better than the basil in his garden (which led to a lengthy exploration of Ligurian basil) or more recently a 25 page-long exploration of southern Italian wines. Like CI it’s a magazine for those interested in fundamentals – food techies – but unlike CI it’s intended as much for serious eaters (and drinkers) as cooks.

I also subscribe to Cuisine at Home – a magazine that is, at best, uneven – as well as Fine Cooking, an – er – fine magazine. Every year or so I go back and pick up a subscription to one of the big glossies: Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet, but it never lasts.

I consider the glossies more life style rags than cooking or food magazines. Perhaps I’d enjoy them more if I made regular trips to Costa del Sol, owned a “cottage” in the Hamptons, and skied at Lake Tahoe, but I don’t and for the most part I’m no longer interested in the sort of food featured in these publications (although I once was). I’m much more interested in Bacon and Egg Pastries (Cuisine at Home) than Radish, Parsley, and Lemon-butter Tea Sandwiches (Food & Wine).

I’m also interested in how wine is engineered (structured), the latest research on taste buds and umami, and how Olympia oysters are farmed. AoE has offered recent articles on each these topics.

I have a love/hate relationship with AoE, being a hard-core foodie. The long, detailed articles can require a lot of attention – something I have in short supply these days – and I’ve learned that once I begin reading an issue I’m committed until the end. And I’m always surprised to reach the end. Unlike Cooks Illustrated or Newsweek, this magazine demands focus and dedication. You read it not for pleasure, but because you care about food. You read it because you want to know more about food. You read it because the writers share your passion. You read it because, at least in my case, you feel it’s essential.

Review: An Uncertain Inheritance

After reading Uncertain Inheritance, An: Writers on Caring for Family
it’s clear there are a few things we should probably all have lined up, just in case, to make it easier to deal with serious illness:
1. Lots of money.
2. Lots of competent, loving family members and/or friends.
3. Immortality.

The recently published book, edited by Nell Casey, is a collection of beautifully written essays on a not-so-pretty subject. Writers talk about all sorts of scenarios of caring for the ill – caring for sick parents or partners or siblings or children, or being cared for themselves.

Oh yes, of course I went through the boxes of tissues reading this one. The pieces make a strong emotional connection; which ones strike you most might depend on your circumstances or imagination. I had to read Ann Hood’s essay about her daughter’s death through squinched-up eyes. Susan Lehman’s piece about her mother’s sickness and death, and what it meant for her kids, allowed for a welcome surfacing for air with its, yes, at times humorous, tone.

The writers convey the emotional chaos that hits when people are sick, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We are mortal and sickness strikes our bodies; number three on that list just isn’t happening any time soon.
So what about the money and supportive loved ones? Well line them up. Or hope that your loved ones have their resources in place. Because what’s noticeable in many of the stories is the importance of arranging the details – the heavy dailyness of life when you’re caring for someone sick, much like caring for an infant, although with a completely different emotional overlay. Food and sleep and going out and using the bathroom, and the very confusing details of medicine and treatment, all need to be thought out and taken into account every day.

This is tough even if you have a lot of what are currently considered the best resources, of insurance and money; but if they’re lacking at all, caring for the sick person sounds an even more overwhelming task. Caregivers get depressed and poor and sick themselves, and it’s no wonder.

Obviously there should be a better way. Sickness shouldn’t be a path to bankruptcy, nor should money or luck dictate the level of humane and appropriate caring you receive when you’re sick. Even with decent insurance for the sick person, it seems as if caretakers have to step in as patient advocates and organizers of the different services – finding home care, for example, or making sure medicines don’t conflict or just making sure the sick person gets what medical attention is needed.

It’s the same problem as with caring for a child; our current system relies on a mythical, anachronistic view – there’s a big happy family living all together, with mom in the kitchen running the home front all day. Sure there are day care and after-school programs, but are they affordable and any good? And does it make life easier or are you constantly cobbling together a solution? With illness, there’s help – chores and caring – the sick person needs beyond what the medical system is generally set up to provide; if the person is lucky a relative or friend steps in. But really, mom’s out at work these days, just like dad, so who can take care of grandma, especially when she lives on the other side of the country? Getting everyone covered access to health care is just a first step. We also need to support the family caretaker who fills in the gaps in what a sick person needs, or create an ideal system with well-trained professionals to cover those needs.

The book though, is about individual’s personal stories, not the system overall. The writers are sharing their thoughts and feelings about what it’s like to help family through a sickness – insights that are shared relatively little in writing compared with the degree to which many of us go through the same thing, as helper or helped.