Wednesday, September 22, 2021

books about food

Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 2008).
Yes that is an 8 in her name and not a B. Chinese lucky numbers, you know.
The title is misleading. It's Chinese-American food. How different it is from the food in China (which is full of meats with the eyeballs still attached, and the little bony crunchy bits because they're the best part) is largely the point. A lot of the book is like this:
1. Lee becomes curious about some common Chinese-American food: General Tso's chicken, chop suey, fortune cookies.
2. Discovers that it's unknown in China. Nobody there has ever heard of it.
3. Lee goes on road trip to obscure corner of China where the food supposedly originated. Surely they will know.
4. Nobody there has ever heard of it either.
5. So where did it come from? Lee passes on legends, shrugs her shoulders, says "I dunno."

Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
At least Lohman knows the history she's trying to tell, though she also includes a lot of road trips told in the same transcribed-tv-documentary style that Lee uses, as do a lot of other authors of popular non-fiction. Includes chummy visit to the sriracha sauce-maker's pepper grower (frustratingly vague about where it is: it's in Ventura County), published at the exact moment that the two fell out and began famously suing each other. Nor is there anything about the factory's neighbors' odor complaints.
Also unlike Lee's, this book includes a lot of recipes, although most of them generate thoughts of "and where am I supposed to find that?" among their ingredients.
The eight flavors, arranged in the order of their historical introduction to American food, are: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha sauce. Now it's a curious thing, but I've had all of these, and while I don't positively dislike any of them, I'm not wild about them either. The one I'm most positive about is garlic, but it's not that I like garlic but that I like foods with garlic in them. B. likes garlic also, but would brush off several of the others as too spicy. As a result, I have to be very careful about using pepper when cooking; I make my own chili and curry powder blends so as to avoid spiciness, and I'd never use sriracha at home. (I prefer other hot sauces for my own use anyway.) I don't know what MSG tastes like, so I bought a shaker of it and put it on some vegetables. I still couldn't taste anything, but B. hated it.
Lohman also spends a lot of space debunking the notion that MSG gives people headaches. Scientific studies have shown, blah blah. Sounds a lot like the same scientific studies that deny that chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia are things. In all these cases I believe the people who say they're suffering from something, even if we don't know quite what it is. Clearly MSG sensitivity, if that's what it is, is a minority affliction, and the way to track this down is not to test everybody else but to gather together claimed sufferers and try feeding them various things to figure out what exactly it is they're sensitive to.

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