April 06, 2006

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham

Catsup was developed through a peculiar chain of misunderstandings and reinterpretations; soy-sauce amendments taken from China to India by the East India Company, British naval recipes that advertised themselves principally for long keeping (twenty years on a ship!), tomatoes no earlier than the mid-1700s, possibly introduced by Sephardic Jews who traded with the Americas.

A lot of food history is like that, as is most of this book. Collingham also pays attention to the imitation and the prejudice that food-habits have displayed, especially between Britain and India. She follows curries around the rest of the world, with the odd gap that her knowledge of US curries is limited to the East Coast, principally New York, when their epicenter is more likely Silicon Valley.

I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they look tasty and practical; Bengali potatoes, for instance.

There's a last chapter on how tea-drinking accidentally changed history, but The Empire of Tea covers that better.

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So wrote clew.

April 05, 2006

The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual, Donald E. Hall

I find professionalized humanist writing stuporously dull. It doesn't help that Hall, who probably has enthusiasm and good taste and even a sense of rhythm, provides contrast by quoting Walter Pater and Carlyle and George Eliot. It does help that it's a short book, and I mean that kindly, although I can't make it sound so.

That aside, there's good in this book; it's about how to avoid misery in non-prestigious employment in the humanities without adding to anyone else's grief. Half the advice is a light course in time management, a little like 43Folders but less hilariously obsessive. The other half is how to find the will and alliances needed to fix the problems that cause the misery in the first place. I like the combination. Books on 'problems of the day' often get terrible reviews because the reviewer wanted a survival manual and got a political action plan, or v.v.; Hall's recognition that in any real jam you probably need both is not deep, but until it's broadly noticed it bears repeating.

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So wrote clew.

May 17, 2004

elephas maximus, Stephen Alter

Not a sweepingly organized book, but as every scrap in it relates to the Asian elephant in its habits, biology, conservation, or its appearances in history and myth, it's nowhere a boring one. Alter is just perfectly charmed by elephants.

ISBN: 0151006466

February 09, 2003

Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments, François Delamare & Bernard Guineau

Single-topic histories make a funny map of history in toto, as I collect enough transects to find rickety squares in their intersections, and then sturdy triangles, and eventually mutual contradictions. It is also more trustworthy and less embarrassing than using historical novels as my memory palace, although rarely as vivid.

This Colors has only a little history, but is mostly an excuse for gloriously vivid pictures, themselves often of dyestuffs or pigments - from an ancient Egyptian tomb or Roman shipwreck, or the chemical corporations of the nineteenth century. Some pictures of people dying or printing cloth, too.

Uneasy precedent for hyperneoliberal trade prescriptions: after Germany (with twenty years' work) developed cheap synthetic indigo, Once again whole regions were ruined, this time in India and the Caribbean; the English indigo trade disappeared and the shipping trade of Marseilles, wholly dependent on it, also collapsed. If I were a third-world country being told to abandon local food security in order to specialize in growing export crops - palm oil, say - I'd worry about this. Some Monsanto chemist is thinking about how to synthesize a cheaper replacement from corn or kudzu. if my only foothold in the market is to always be the cheapest option, I think I'd better leave a fair amount of my land in local crops and go for the slower growth method of educating everyone (as Amartya Sen says somewhere, that's least expensive early on, while wages are low) and having the family farm as a fallback when the global economy won't pay to feed the cities. ...My grandfather thinks the same tactic is sensible in the US, because he remembers the Great Depression.

See also: 20,000 Years of Women's Work; Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series, mostly the first books; Mauve.

ISBN 0-8109-2872-8

So wrote clew.

January 12, 2003

Olives, Mort Rosenblum

Olive trees get so old that a whole book could be written about the history that has walked over one set of roots, but this book, while respectfully mentioning the great age of trees and traditions, is really a world-around survey of olive cultivation and fashion. Cultivation is as hard as agriculture generally is, fashion complex: old olive-crushing technology has serious snob appeal.

Politics come into it, too: export conglomerates and controls, label scandals, the difficulty of fitting seasonal work into citified schedules, inheritance that preposterously divides the ownership of groves, and war. Olive trees used to be good things to have around in a siege, as they are said to sometimes grow back from their enormous roots even after being burned down. Tractors and dynamite undo them, though.

Although olives grow well enough on several continents, it seems that Tunisia is the most natural place Rosenblum found them growing; enormous ancient trees on unirrigated, dry, marginal land, outproducing French trees. The oil is good enough to fill Italian blends, and the Tunisians have a clever and low-tech way of picking the olives.

The recipe for olive-onion-mint soda bread is pretty good, although the enormous quantity of onions makes the dough a bit slimy while kneading.

One annoying publisher's failure: no index. Nor are the recipes that begin each chapter named in the table of contents.

So wrote clew.

Randomness, Deborah J. Bennett

This is a pretty little gift book on an important and counterintuitive idea, but I don't think it will quite teach anyone anything useful. Most of it concerns the history of the mathematics of randomness, and not enough sets or works exercises for the reader, or gives examples of how misunderstanding randomness misleads us.

So wrote clew.