Summer Explorations

This Week’s Hot Reads: June 24, 2013

From the history of eggs Benedict to the astronauts’ earthbound wives to a pot-fueled county in California, five books to read this week.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes By William Sitwell

The history of eggs Benedict and other foodie stories told in delicious nuggets.

The recipes in Sitwell’s charming compendium are tacked as headers over short, digestible chapters about signal culinary developments in the last 4,000 years—including my personal favorite, the proliferation of cheese fondue parties in the 1970s, a tent-pole memory of my childhood thanks largely to the different-colored nubs on the fondue forks. Sitwell’s selected recipe for cheese fondue comes courtesy of Betty Crocker, the “reliable, practical and safe persona” who dominated Middle American kitchens in the 20th century and who offers helpful instructions about preparation (“If fondue has been prepared on a range, transfer fondue pot to source of heat at table and adjust heat to keep fondue just bubbling.”). Sitwell, a food writer and editor who contributes to the BBC food-themed quiz show A Question of Taste, knows that a little recipe-reading can go a long way. He prefers to focus his witty, conversational style on the history of food, with page references that take you back and forth in time. (After all, what’s the story behind eggs Benedict without a primer on the creation of Hollandaise sauce?) Foodies and trivia buffs might already know about the genesis of well-known offerings, such as the sandwich, but it’s worth remembering how culinary revolutions were viewed in their time. For instance, the rise of the fork: “To the English forks were over-refined and that the Italians used them was just another example of their being, as another contemporary put it, ‘effeminate sodomites.’”

—Cameron Martin

The Rest of Us By Jessica Lott

A promising novel about romance revisited as careers stall.

Jessica Lott's second novel is built around a romance between an older man and younger woman who had an affair when he was a professor and she his student. Rhinehart, a famous poet, comes back into Terry's life when she reads his obituary in The New York Times, then, incredibly, bumps into him at a department store. (As it turns out, the obituary was published in error.) But The Rest of Us is about renewal in a larger sense. Since their breakup, Rhinehart has given up poetry for criticism, and though she works as an assistant, Terry hasn't taken her own photographs in years. When she says, "I never realized how difficult it would be to start again," Terry could be talking about their relationship or her struggle to create art. A subplot about Rhinehart's search for his family in Ukraine feels esoteric and makes the novel unnecessarily long, but Lott's talent for poetic language ("live wire of dissatisfaction," "the brilliant, cold truth of us," "the shaggy beard of an untrimmed yew"), her realistic depiction of the plight of the female artist, and the difficulty of female friendships prove her to be a promising new voice in fiction.

–Jessica Ferri

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England By Ian Mortimer

What your life would be like if you and Shakespeare had the same mother.

Mortimer, author of 2008’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, once again spirits readers away to a distant English era. Wisely (or perhaps lazily?) he uses most of the same chapter headings, including “The Landscape,” “The People,” “Basic Essentials,” “What to Wear,” “Traveling,” “Where to Stay,” and “What to Eat and Drink.” As such, it’s an entertaining history that doesn’t have to be read in the order it’s presented. I, for one, was far more interested to skip ahead to the section on “Religion,” since this was the era in which the Church of England became entrenched and Catholics were on the run, and rather less interested in what Catholics might be wearing when they were burned at the stake. Still, you’ll want to read every section eventually, not least because Mortimer disguises any hint of pedantry with a consistently cheeky delivery. For instance in the section on “makeup and perfume” (not an entry I would have readily turned to) he shares an exotic aromatic recipe from someone named Sir Hugh Plat: “Take an ounce of the finest garden mold, cleaned and steeped seven days in change of rosewater: then take the best ladanum [a gum resin], benzoin, both storaxes, ambergris, civet and musk: incorporate them together and work them into what form you please. Then if your breath be not too valiant, it will make you smell as sweet as any lady’s dog.” Mortimer’s immersive tour of the Elizabethan age—1558 to 1603—is like they said of London in that era: “Engages all your senses.”

—Cameron Martin

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Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier By Emily Brady

Welcome to the California county that pot made infamous.

Pot the happy hippie drug? Only when you consider that no one has ever overdosed on bong hits. But plenty of people have been killed—and plenty of lives ruined—because of the illegal trade of marijuana. Humboldt County in Northern California has been the epicenter of marijuana cultivation in the United States since the 1960s, and Brady focuses on a pivotal moment in time: California’s 2010 statewide initiative to legalize marijuana, Proposition 19, the Tax and Regulate Cannabis Act. Brady, a Northern Californian native, interviews hundreds of people, but she homes in on the effects it will have on four individuals in particular: Mare, a 70-year-old “marijuana moonshiner,” who hopes voters will legalize the drug and remove the stigma associated with growing; Crockett, a 35-year-old drug dealer who worries that legalizing the drug will kill the black market and crush his livelihood; 23-year-old Emma Worldpeace, who grew up in Humboldt County and has come to notice that a lot of her friends and acquaintances die in odd, violent ways, and she wonders what this has to do with pot; and Bob, the Humboldt County sheriff who thinks the war on pot is a waste of time and wants the drug legalized and regulated. California, which in 1996 passed Proposition 215—making it legal for people to use, possess, and grow pot for medicinal purposes—has recently been leapfrogged in the pot race by Washington and Colorado, which both made recreational use legal last year. But Brady picks the right people—and the right county and state—to show how the longstanding battle over the drug has affected all strata of society.

—Cameron Martin

The Astronaut Wives Club By Lily Koppel

The story of the women who launched their men into space.

Mad Men fans will be drawn to Lily Koppel’s second work of nonfiction, The Astronauts Wives Club, which details the day-to-day lives of the women behind America’s first men in space. But don’t be mislead by the cutesy title and adorable jacket photo. These women did not have it easy. “If you think going to the moon is difficult, try staying at home,” one explained. Not only did their husband’s careers put most of the ambitions for themselves and their family on hold, the press was rabid for a scoop on their front lawns as their husbands launched into the atmosphere. For many, the strain and attention were just too much. As Koppel relates, only one of the marriages from the Apollo missions survived, and eight men lost their lives in the race against Russia to send a man to the moon. It was an unsaid rule that if one of the women heard bad news, she would run to the house of the wife affected, though she couldn’t say anything until the official knock at the door came. This is a remarkable story of perseverance and friendship in a time when women had few rights. The men couldn’t wait to get off the planet, but for these women—their entire world was their husbands.

—Jessica Ferr