Friday, November 26, 2010

Book review: American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen

This is one great book: American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen.  One not too thick, not too dense, not too preachy, not too boring, not too silly, not too detailed, not too American book.  American terroir (not terror, not terrier, but terroir – as in the land and microclimate that give wines special flavors, "the taste of place") is a book that takes us on a tour around North America to ten great food products, and their greatness are because of where they are grown and the history and climate of the place.

Rowan Jacobsen writes in a funny but detailed way, giving you an abundance of history, science, and culture in short but dense sentences that never become a chore to read.  In fact, when I fell asleep reading this at night I was unhappy because I wanted to continue reading it, not go to sleep. This is in stark opposition to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (TOD), which I am struggling to finish after a year of trying to get into it.  I ought to like TOD, because I ought to like Michael Pollan and his work for better food and agriculture in America, but I just don’t like it that much.  This book, this little gem of red rowanberries, this I LOVE! 

The chapters deal with the following ingredients and food products: maple syrup from Vermont, coffee from Panama, apple cider from New England and apples from Washington State, honeys from everywhere, potatoes from Prince Edward Island, wild mushrooms and native plants in southeastern Canada, oysters from Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, avocados from Mexico, Yukon River King Salmon, unusual wines from California, cheese from Vermont, and chocolate from Chiapas in Mexico. 

While reading this book my brain kept constant notes on which people I would recommend each chapter to (coffee to my brother, salmon to my husband, etc.) but in the end, I will have to recommend the whole book to everybody.  There is no best chapter, they are all great.  It is easy reading, but chock-full of great facts and stories. Each chapter ends with a few recipes and a list of suppliers and websites for more information.

Rowan Jacobsen manages to teach the reader a lot of plant genetics, breeding history, soil science, and microbiology without the reader even noticing – we are too busy just enjoying the story.  By highlighting not just the local food and sustainability, but the connection of these foods to the natural places, history of its people, and personal stories, Jacobsen made me want to know more and more about our little corner on this Earth and its connections to the past.

This book was a great surprise and a great find, and I recommend it to anybody – chocolate fanatics, oyster nerds, historians, and food people, grandmothers, teenagers, and husbands, Swedes, and Americans, and any mycologists and farmers out there.  It is just a GREAT book, probably one of the best non-fiction books I have read in 5 years.  (Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham was also great, but this is more mainstream). It seems like many people like this book - I just found some of the reviews here. A new classic, indeed. 

The only thing I missed was a detailed index, please, publishers, don't skip on this.  We need indices! Books on paper don't have Google attached to them.

 Here are some excerpts to give you a feel for the writing style:

(on maple syrup):
"Caramelization is one of those unlikely tricks that reminds you that the world is magical and mysterious. It's the flavor equivalent of using a prism to transform white light into a rainbow. In this case, the prism is heat, which breaks and odorless sugar molecule (sucrose) into a rainbow of delightful aroma compounds."

(on cheese):
"Cheese used to be something that nature did spontaneously, We didn't design the cheese so much as guide it, like an equestrian riding a horse. The cheese powered itself and the cheesemaker gave it some direction."

(on oysters):
"A geoduck looks like something that might owe a lot of money to Jabba the Hutt. A giant clam that burrows so deep that armor becomes superfluous, it maintains a vestigial shell that sticks to its backside like a G-string on a sumo wrestler."

(on apples):
It turns out that, given a choice, people overwhelmingly go for the reddest apple. So growers kept selecting for the reddest. They were not, however, selecting for the tastiest. Eventually, Red Delicious apples eclipsed fire-engine red and reached a color imaginatively described as 'midnight-red'. And most are virtually inedible, with dry flesh and thick skin.  Good-tasting apples have small, tightly packed cells that break apart at first bite, spilling their juice in all directions.  Red Delicious have cottony, dry cells with too much air in between."

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