Saturday, November 30, 2013
I read seven books about food in October. Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them and Medium Raw were my favorites. The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan was the funniest. The Best Thing I Ever Tasted was a dud, though not terrible.
On the heels of October's food theme, November's theme is liquids. Of course, there will be books about water—I still have an unread shelf full on that topic—but I'll sample a few tastier though less essential fluids as well. I chose liquids instead of drinks because I wanted to leave the door open for, say, gasoline, but since it's the end of the month, I can say that all of the liquids I read about were indeed consumable.
As I wrote in 2011, I often have no idea what he is talking about since I'm not a foodie (my tastes run toward sandwiches, burgers, pizza, and barbecue). The first chapter describes eating a rare French bird whole, which sounds horrid. But that doesn't matter; it's still a good book.
Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them: and 100 Other Myths About Food and Cooking by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
I love this book. It's very informative and often hilarious. The authors breezily run through a series of myths and misconceptions about food, cooking, and diet. They include 25 recipes, which is a good number—easy to skip over (the dishes aren't as fancy as those in How to Read a French Fry, so at least I'd eat many of them, but I'm pretty unlikely to ever cook them).
One night at Rockwell's, my server asked what I was reading. Her follow-up question, naturally, was which shattered myths most surprised me. I hadn't really thought about it, which was obvious from my embarrassingly incoherent answer. Then later that night I read the chapter about peanuts. Most people know peanuts aren't really nuts. For years, my dad couldn't see one without pointing out to everyone that they are legumes. But the authors go a step further and run through a whole list of other "nuts" that aren't. Brazil nuts, cashews, pistachios, pine nuts, and almonds are actually seeds, and macadamia nuts are kernels (they also mention coconuts, but does anybody think coconuts are real nuts?). The next time I went to Rockwell's, I was happy to see the same server and redeem myself by sharing this fascinating information. It was new to her, too.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Look, you're glad you're gone and we're glad you're gone, so just move on already.
Monday, November 04, 2013
When I showed this book to a friend, he laughed and said, "It's all bad!" That's a fair assessment considering how large-scale corporate farming has perverted the food system, and Patel offers plenty of examples. Yet he also explores a few movements that are working to change things. A highlight for me as an Illinoisan is his history of soybeans. They are Illinois' second biggest cash crop (behind corn), and Illinois ranks second among the 50 states in production, but I didn't know much about them.
Although Stuffed & Starved is packed with details, the prose doesn't get too bogged down. Also Patel isn't afraid to reference popular culture (such as a long Monty Python quote). I still wouldn't call it an easy read because it's a lot to digest*, but it's more accessible than the typical book of this depth and breadth.
* I honestly wrote that without thinking of the pun.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
At this point, I wish the Washington Redskins would finally change their name just so I don't have to hear about it anymore. My suggestion? The Washington Foreskins. Then their fans can still yell, "Go skins!" And the hardcore fans, well, I'll leave that to your imagination.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Many of these foods look just awful. Crown Roast of Frankfurters? Molded Asparagus Salad? Yikes! I would have liked to read more about the ingredients because when McClure mentions them, they are ghastly. For example, one of the Slender Quenchers is water, sherry extract, and two beef bouillon cubes. Yum! And as if the food itself isn't enough to laugh at, some photos are staged with ridiculous props such as the Veal Stew surrounded by dominoes and the Chicken Kiev being watched by a pair of canoodling ceramic ducks.
As Sallie Tisdale notes in The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, American tastes were far less international in the 1970s than today, and many of these pseudo-ethnic recipes reflect that. The prime example is Marcy's "Enchilada" (the quotation marks are part of the name on the recipe card), which doesn't look like any enchilada I've ever eaten. McClure writes, "We don't know who Marcy is, only that she thinks 'enchilada' is wacky Mexican talk for 'shit on a shingle.'"
Friday, October 25, 2013
Most of the studies in this book have been published in professional or academic journals, so you may have heard about a few of them in the media:
- Diners were given identical wine, some from bottles labeled as California wine and others labeled as North Dakota wine. Drinkers of "North Dakota" wine ate less food and left the restaurant sooner than the "California" wine drinkers.*
- Tables were rigged with "bottomless" soup bowls that were secretly refilled via a tube in the bottom. Without the empty bowl as a cue, people ate a lot more soup.
- Cafeteria diners sampled a free brownie touted as a potential new menu item. Whether it was served to them on a china dish, a paper plate, or a napkin influenced both the perceived quality of the brownie and how much diners were willing to pay for it (from $1.27 on a china dish to only 53¢ on a napkin).
- In the experiment I found most amazing, they gave 32 people strawberry yogurt to eat in the dark. But actually it was chocolate yogurt. Regardless, 19 people—more than half—said it had a good strawberry taste!
* Hilariously, a woman from Fargo gave this book one star on Amazon (one of three one-star reviews versus 183 five-star reviews) because she felt Wansick was dissing North Dakota. Silly NoDaks!
** I bought it six years ago for the latter.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
The Best Thing I Ever Tasted is a polarizing book. A look at Amazon.com ratings reveals a nearly equal number of one-star and five-star reviews. What's more, there are zero three-star reviews.
Naturally, I would give this book three stars.
When Tisdale writes about the history of food, cooking, and dining, she digs up some really interesting stuff. When she writes about her personal and familial experiences with food, she can be dreadfully boring. It took me an entire week to read this book—a long time for a book that is neither technical nor especially lengthy—and it seemed like longer.
The science parts are really great. The title refers to the five stages of frying oil and how one can tell the age of the oil used by examining the resulting french fry. Parsons also explains why fresh oil is not good for frying and why pouring in a bit of the old makes it better. His description of the chemical processes unleashed by cutting onions made me understand why I like them minced better than sliced. My main disappointment with the science is that I had hoped for more about baking since that's where most of my kitchen experience lies.
But what spoils How to Read a French Fry is the recipes. I would much rather read an entire book about kitchen science instead of so many pages devoted to recipes.* It's not just that I wouldn't cook these dishes; what's worse is that I wouldn't even eat most if someone set them in front of me. It's highfalutin** gourmet snob food. Someone out there must want these recipes, but I think they detract from a book with great potential.
* I didn't actually read the recipes (how boring would that be?), though I did read the introductory paragraph for each.
** For some reason I've encountered that word a lot recently and I've been dying to use it.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
October's theme will be food. I won't be reading cookbooks.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy
The author generally does a good job of explaining things for the layperson, but The Edge of Physics is right on the edge of my comprehension. I don't have a lot of background in quantum physics and string theory so I got lost a few times.
I find it very encouraging that in the three years since this book was published, at least one of the objectives stated within has been achieved: scientists at the Large Hadron Collider detected the Higgs boson in 2012 (and namesake Peter Higgs just won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Francois Englert). Regarding that project, Ananthaswamy offers many fascinating details about the unusual challenges engineers confronted in design and construction.
I like science books about actually doing science more than those that merely report results or explain theories. The Edge of Physics is that kind of book, and it was a great way to end the month.
* An interesting tidbit from The Edge of Physics: Fred Hoyle, the guy who coined the term "big bang" in 1949, actually supported a different theory; he was using the words disparagingly!
Saturday, October 05, 2013
There are so many good parts, but I'll say a bit about nukes. Nuclear power is such an emotional issue for many, and they ignore the science. For example, after the Three Mile Island accident, some residents set up Geiger counters and found radiation levels 30% higher than the national average. But it turns out the radiation comes from uranium in the local soil. Incidentally, this poses a much greater threat than the tiny amount of radiation leakage from the nuclear reactor.* Incredibly, at least one person (quoted in a PBS documentary) thinks radiation from the ground is okay because it is "natural", as if that makes any difference.
Muller suggests building pebble bed reactors, which are much safer than current US reactors, but regulations must be updated to make that possible. He also addresses nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, completely changing my perspective. In brief, just because the radiation will last for thousands of years doesn't mean the containment has to be 100% perfect for that long. I didn't oppose Yucca Mountain, but I accepted some of the arguments from environmentalists (perhaps just NIMBYs). Now I'm upset that the Obama Administration defunded it.
My only complaint about this book is the title. Most people aren't even going to consider running for president (I wouldn't, and I don't even have a job!). Maybe it wouldn't grab as much attention, but Muller should have called it Physics for Voters because anyone who votes should read this book.**
* This anecdote also appears in Armageddon Science.
** "Physics for Future Presidents" is a course Muller teaches at UC-Berkeley, so that's why he used that title for this book.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
I decided to read the paperback because it includes a "new" preface, albeit now six years old. Pearce is a magazine reporter, and like When the Rivers Run Dry, this book sometimes reads more like a collection of articles than a cohesive narrative. I like this approach because it presents a broad survey of what's going on all over the world. The author takes us where the scientists are making observations, doing calculations, and creating models to predict the impact of countless factors on Earth's climate. Overall it is an incredibly complex system.
Pearce makes climate more intriguing than I ever expected, and I learned a heck of a lot from this book. Sometimes he writes with an urgent tone, but that's understandable because 1.) this is serious shit, and 2.) he's been writing about climate for decades, watching the situation become more dire—and our role in causing it more obvious—while many governments and industries do nothing to alter our course.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip Plait
I learned of Plait from General Carlessness years ago and last year read his most recent book, Death from the Skies!, which I found fascinating in a terrifying sort of way. I bought Bad Astronomy before I read Death from the Skies!, but I was a little less interested in it. I remember enough about astronomy that I harbor few of these misconceptions. I think most are ridiculous, and my 13-year-old self probably would have agreed. Seeing stars in broad daylight from the bottom of a well?!?! So I feared that I would merely enjoy Plait's presentation and refutation of each myth without learning much.
I should have known better. I learned a lot from Plait, who definitely knows his stuff. Sometimes, such as regarding the cause of tides, I had a vague notion of how something worked and he explained it clearly with greater detail and consideration of additional factors. Other times, he included some historical background or other enriching information that was new to me. And of course it's fun to read. Plait knows how to speak science to the masses.
One of his rants is misguided, though. Plait rails against advertisers using the phrase "light-years ahead" as in "light-years ahead of the competition." His complaint is that light-year is a measure of distance and that admen are mistakenly using it as a measure of time in place of "years ahead". But I would counter that people say "miles ahead of the competition" so there is nothing wrong with substituting light-years as another unit of distance. Of course it's hyperbole, but it's not scientifically incorrect. He has much firmer footing pointing out other linguistic errors in that chapter, such as meteoric rise and quantum leap.
* Jupiter had 16 known moons in the early 1980s, but now there are 67! Saturn has gone from 17 to 62! Of course, none of those "new" moons are visible to an amateur astronomer anyway.
** I don't regret it enough to get back into it, though. Once I lose interest in something, it never comes back with anything approaching the previous intensity. World War II, Route 66, architecture, photography, county collecting, and historic preservation are further examples of this. I retain a lot of knowledge and enjoy occasionally revisiting those subjects/activities, but the passion is gone. Actually, my biggest regret about losing interest in astronomy when I did is that it happened before I could afford a bigger telescope like the ones my pre-employment self drooled over in Sky & Telescope. By the way, I still have that 3" telescope even though I haven't used it in two decades and perhaps never will again. But now we're discussing my hoarding problem.