Posts Tagged ‘American food’

The following text is an excerpt  from The AtlanticCorby’s Table , 2002.05.01, a book review written by Corby Kummer.   I use this excerpt in classes on Food Writing that I  teach online for UCLA, and at other venues, as an example of how to write an engaging book review and display the essence and motivations of the author.

Corby Kummer’s voice starts here, commenting on Barbara Haber and her book  From Hardtack to Home Fries

Not all women like to cook, of course. But like it or not, most women’s lives are entwined with food.

Barbara Haber.

Barbara Haber.

The recognition that food and everything having to do with it can offer perspective on many aspects of women’s lives led Barbara Haber to build the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe into a powerhouse of women’s studies. In the thirty years since Haber arrived in Cambridge, from Milwaukee by way of the University of Madison with a degree in library studies, the collection has become a magnet for scholars, journalists, and cooks. The Schlesinger is now a national touchstone for anyone interested in food, not just because it houses the books and papers of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and Ella Fitzgerald (an enthusiastic cook, it turns out), among many others, but because Haber herself is so magnetic.

She’s also a terrific speaker. I’ve long gone out of my way to attend any lecture Haber is giving, knowing that whatever the subject I’ll gain insight into a whole culture as well as the women who were active within it. Through first-person accounts, contemporary books and sources, and her own witty and sharp comments, Haber brings times and places alive. Hearing her on the social structure of the harem at Topkapi, for instance, altered my understanding of the cruel beauty of the Ottoman empire. (Haber and I were on the eve of a trip to Turkey organized by Oldways, the Cambridge-based food think tank; everyone should be able to listen to Haber at the start of a journey.)

From Hardtack to Home Fries offers a collection of nine wonderfully readable essays on an unexpected range of topics that have captured Haber’s interest. Every reader will have her or his favorites. I know that Haber herself is particularly proud of her essay on Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, the cook who made famously bad food in the White House of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. More than just a terrible cook, Haber finds in her a woman Mrs. Roosevelt valued as a helpmeet, one who cared about the President’s health and about running a sensible household. Julia Child liked that chapter, too: in a sign of her regard for Haber, she wrote a warm endorsement for the back cover after decades of blanket refusals to blurb any book.

Uniform worn by women who worked for the Harvey Restaurants serving railroad travelers at stops in the western USA.

Uniform worn by women who worked for the Harvey Restaurants serving railroad travelers at stops in the western USA.

My own favorite is a chapter on the Window Shop, a bakery, restaurant, and sui generis social-service agency for genteel Jewish refugees who arrived on the academic shores of Cambridge starting in the late 1930s. The oral and written histories Haber collected yield a portrait of a turbulent and fascinating time, along with a good recipe for Sacher torte. I was also pleased to learn about the Harvey Girls—those white-aproned purveyors of good food and rectitude along the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, in a chapter of special charm that recalls a rough and just-civilizing time in our not-so-distant past. A chapter on the early diet gurus Sylvester Graham and John Henry Kellogg offers a crackling (even snapping and popping) account of an odd turn in American health, which gave us our national breakfast not to mention ideas about diet both sensible and peculiar.

Barbara Haber keeps her focus on women’s relationships to food—especially as it pertains to personal finances. She chronicles how several women found dignity, livelihoods, and their own identities by starting catering businesses and restaurants. A lovely last essay tells how she herself came to collect and study cookbooks; it also shows a touching understanding of her own relationship to her mother. An exceedingly valuable appendix includes notes on the many books mentioned throughout, with a bonus of many more recommendations. These capsule reviews are manna for any aspiring food and social historian. They offer a generous taste of the wealth of knowledge Haber has always freely shared.

There are a few recipes, too—ones I’d like to make. “A modified Graham bread” shows what the health-promoting Sylvester Graham really had in mind: whole grains made appealing and somewhat sweet as a kind of bread, rather than just a sweet cracker for a campfire concoction with marshmallow and chocolate (although really, is there a better dessert than S’mores made over an open fire?). Gekochtes Rindfleisch, or boiled beef, sounds dull, but in the hands of the Viennese émigrés eking out a living at the Window Shop, it was a feast reminiscent of home. A feast it is, with its rich broth and fresh vegetables, and also a way of turning a humble cut into a one-dish meal that can last many days by being served as a soup or main course. Finally, baked fudge is an easy confection that demonstrates why Cleora Butler, the recipe’s author, became a Tulsa legend as a talented businesswoman and cook. Like many of the women Haber discerningly chose, she turned her culinary skills into a way of supporting herself and her family.

—By Corby Kummer




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