Thursday, August 4, 2011

Remembrance of a young friend, Sam Vincent

Sam died Friday night. As I write this, it's still not 24 hours ago.

I took the news very hard. My daughter called me this morning, sobbing terribly in the phone.

“What is it sweetie? Are you alright? What's the matter?” My heart racing.

“Sam's dead.”


Sam was my daughter's first boyfriend.

“Oh, sweetheart, no!” All day I have felt like I had to vomit.

Sam was 21, two years younger than my daughter. Their love affair had ended by the late tenth or early eleventh grade, but they had renewed a warm friendship over the past months.

Sam's girlfriend of the last few years was Arleen. It was real. My daughter was also her friend. Arleen was killed in a bicycle accident four months ago – she was struck by a car, just before she was to graduate with her nursing degree.

Back in the day I had given Sam a high paying gig, when I was a sucessful caterer. I paid him $100 plus tips for a six hour stint. I did the same thing for a couple of other boys in my daughter's circle. Eventually, they all became line cooks in respectable Bay Area restuarants without having wasted a lot of money on culinary school. This legacy has been a point of pride.

I ran into Sam on the street for the first time in a couple of years just a few of weeks ago. He recognized me immediately, and in a brief second I recognize him. He was so different for the sullen 16 year old I knew from the past. He was beeming, so happy to see me, and the feeling was immediately mutual.

“Sam, I'm so sorry about Arleen.”

“I'm better. I'm in grief counceling now. I'm better.”

“You look great, man!” ('You look exactly like Sean White.' I thought, but with brown hair.)

“Come down to Lalime's on a Thursday night and sit at the counter. I'll send somethings out for you.”

“Okay my friend, I can't wait.”

I didn't make our date, to which I would have also invited my daughter.

Now there isn't any next week.

RIP my young friend. What a terrible accident, what a terrible loss.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Food Literature: 101

When the idea for this essay first struck me I thought, “piece of cake!” My choices in reading have long favored history over fiction and my interest in food has been keen for many years. Consequently, I've read many wonderful books in the area of food history. So what could be easier than recounting here a half-dozen memorable, savory, delightful, and informative titles.
Hmm. Well, I soon discovered that these books I so fondly remembered I actually don't remember with much specific detail. It's more like a warm, fuzzy remembrance, which came into sharp fuzzy relief as I began my attempt to describe them. It isn't easy to pick up a well written, compelling book and read just a snatch here and there; what came before provides important context and what follows begs to be read.

So, in the interest of finishing this growing project, sooner rather than later, certain strategic short-cuts have become necessary. Rather than a review of each of these books, I've come up with a series of “blurbs.” Enough, I hope, to attract you to these worthy works of literature.

Let's start with The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff, preface by Lawrence Durell, which is the only work of fiction on the list. We are dinning on ortolans, woodcock, fois gras, and other dreams, provided for Dodin and guests by his unbelievably talented house-keeper and brilliant chef, Eugenie. We're in 19th century France. The men are the demanding and discerning gourmands, Eugenie the master chef. Then, disaster, she dies. There follow the trials of finding her replacement and a ridiculously delicious fantasy read.
From Durell's preface:

The Portentous, magistral figure of Dodin-Bouffant looms gravely over the Olympus of gastronomy like a sort of Zeus. He is the French Doctor Johnson of the table...
Hovering as the book does between gravity and mockery, it nevertheless hides under its smiling exterior a highly civilized philosophy of the French table and the French heart.”

Next on the list is a memoir. A. J. Leibling is a legendary writer, as his Between Meals demonstrates.

This is a man with a great appetite to whom no one with less girth can measure up, and he proceeds to devour all in sight during his student days in Paris. This is a vivid remembrance of the Paris table between the two World Wars. Food we recollect only faintly now, even though we weren't there.

The early writings of the incomparable M.F.K.Fisher are well know and Consider the Oyster is my favorite, which is understandable given my special fondness for oysters and the literature concerning them. I just counted and I have 21 volumes exclusively on this subject, including this book.
Float like a spat in her lucid, seductive prose and emerge fastened to a great work of literature. Quite the consummate beautiful writer.
The flavor of an oyster depends upon several things. First, if it is fresh and sweet and healthy it will taste good simply .. good, that is, if the taster like oysters.
Then, it will taste like a Chincoteague or a blue point or a mild oyster from the Louisiana bayous or perhaps a metallic tiny Olympia from the Western coast. Or it may have a clear harsh flavor, straight from a stall in a wintry French town, a stall piled herring-bone style with Portugaises and Garennes, green as death to the uninitiated and twice as toothsome. Or it may taste firm and yet fat, like the English oysters from around Plymouth.”

Josephe Wechberg wrote for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and other literary magazines from the 30s thru the 50s. Please read Blue Trout and Black Truffles. I am not misdirecting you. Absorbing yourself in this collection of essays will be time well spent. We find the author recounting the fine art of dining on boiled beef dinners in Vienna (a lost, perhaps never embraced fete here; tour San Francisco and please get back to me on the boiled beef dinners you experience). Then read of the miserable experience of army rations in the Czech army in the first World War; and, after the second War, eating at the establishment of Fernand Point's Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon, in the late 40s.
I would love to quote you a passage form Wechsberg's essay “The Formidable Monsieur Point,” but I can't pick where to start and certainly not where to break off with any economy of space. The whole read is a dream. Get the book.

Monsieur Point, it is now clear, was the father of mid-20th century French haute-cuisine. For reference you should consult The Great Chefs of France by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe. This is a book that should by now appear very dated, published in 1978, but it most certainly does not. All the Michelin 3 star chefs described in this excellent history trained in the kitchen of M. Point: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Michel Guerard, the Haeberlin brothers, Louis Outhier, Raymond Thuilier, the Troisgros brothers, and more. The names, stories and pictures of these greats and their legendary restaurants are all here.

Richard Adams Carey's The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire, is in part a book about the natural history of the sturgeon, but more so of the history of its roe and the money to be made from it and of the tragic predation of the species. This is a very well written account of caviar, its glory and demise, the role of the Russian economic collapse, crime and folly in the destruction of the fishery (most all Caspian caviar is poor now if edible at all due to poaching), and an account of what caviar is desirable now. On the occasion of a few meals at highly regarded restaurants I have been served a course embellished with a tiny decoration of “beluga” or “osetra” caviar. An equivalent amount of squishy mud would have done as well.
The best caviar now comes from the upper Sacramento Valley sturgeon farms, but it didn't show up overnight, so there is also an account of the California industry, the repeated bankruptcies of its history, and the supreme success of it current state. Its product is the very best caviar in the world at a very precious price, but that is me talking, not the book. Yet, it is a very, very good book.

Eel is delicious, to me. Although few of my readers would buy eel at their local fish market (if they have one and were it available there), but the past was very different and even now many Americans love unagi at their local sushi bar. That “eel” is for the most part farm raised and processed in China, and not as savory as it might be; but I get ahead of myself – way ahead. James Prosek's Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish is my favorite book of the last couple of years. This is most certainly a natural history of the eel, but it is so very much more. To date no scientist nor anyone else has observed eels breeding. The best we've done is to narrow down the area wherein they must breed. Salmon, famously, are anadromous: they live in the ocean but they spawn in fresh water rivers connected to the coasts. There are other fishes that behave in this manner. The eel, however, does the opposite: it is catadromous, breeds in the ocean but makes its way up our rivers to live its life in fresh waters for many years; and then to eventually make its way back to the ocean, very far into the ocean, to breed and die. It is difficult for me to convey the broad ranging magic of this book, but perhaps a quote will help. The author has pursued the eel to New Zealand where the giant long-fin eel lives and occupies a central position in the mythology of the Maori.
The old woman insisted it was time for her to feed them anyway, and soon returned from the house with a bit of steak. She tied the steak to a string and we watched her wade out into the shallow pool in her gumboots. As she waved the steak in the current, I saw a few large heads emerge from the watercress, seemingly from nowhere. Giving into a natural reflex, I took a step back.
Don't be afraid,” Beryl said, “they won't harm you. Unless you're holding the food – they might bite you by accident.”
As Beryl lifted the steak on the line out of the water, a huge eel, about as big around as the calf of her leg, lifted its head out, dancing to and fro to keep its body up, not unlike a cobra.
Oh my God!” I said aloud, my mouth agape.
When she lowered the meat into the water, five or six big eels, their heads five to eight inches across the back, vied for a piece. They grabbed on, making loud sucking sounds to try to get an advantage on the steak, and then they rolled their bodies to tear pieces off.”
This book is engaging. You can see something of source material for yourselves. Try and search “New Zealand eels feeding.”

I had included on my list the significant, informative and delightfully entertaining book on the history of American food by Laura Shapiro, Perfection Salad. I cannot, at this late date, do it any of the just accounting it is due. It is feminist history at its very best. A history of American food from its 19th century emigrant beginnings, Shapiro focuses on the social reformers who led the way to the institutionalization of good and sanitary nutritional practice in the schools. Who would have guessed the story of the birth of Home Ec would be so captivating. It is a complete gem of a book, and one that will greatly enlighten you on the subject of American food history. Give it a read and see for yourself.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My trusted, most used, and most dependable cookbooks

Continuing in the spirit of Moe's current cookbook extravaganza, I offer the following contribution. Please note that your purchase of cookbooks of $35 or more in value from Moe's broad selection will award you with a bag of restaurant/food coupons and a sample of excellent chocolates. Also visit our events section on this website to get the details on the cookbook discussion series that will kickoff Wednesday, May 25th with a presentation of favorite cookbooks by Chef Suzanne Drexhagen.

This is my shortlist, books that I truly turn to again and again, which is supplemented by a few other cookbooks that I consult with confidence on occasion.

Jasper White, Lobster at Home. I don't often eat lobster at home, but when I do, I consult this book.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, New Cantonese Cooking. I do cook Chinese food often, and this book is a treasure.

Ellen Schrecker, Mrs. Chang's Szechwan Cookbook. Ditto.

Bill Neal, Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie. The gold standard for baking books, at least for the type of baking I do most often. With astute historical and technical commentary, Neal was a national treasure and this book is a prize.

Paula Wolfert, The Cooking of Southwest France. A technical book with complicated, precise recipes, and a book that taught me more about French cooking, truly taught me through carefully following the suburb instructions, than any other book on the subject. There is much that is wonderful in this book.

Okay, that's the short list.

I will add here an addendum to the shortlist.

For foie gras, best book is Andre Daguin, Foir Gras, Magret and Other Good Food from Gascony.

For pesto, Fred Plotkin, Foods from Paradise. Excellent - always use a mortar and pestle. Same author's Authentic Pasta Book is also a first go to.

Raymond Sokolov, The Saucier's Apprentice. No great cooking without a knowledge of stocks and sauces. This is the bible.

Now, lastly, I will mention a few of my regular reference works. These are books that I don't use frequently but do consult when faced with cooking dishes I rarely cook or may never have cooked.

Jacque Pepin, La Methode, and La Technique (or a revised edition of these two seminal books, The Art of Cooking, 2 volumes). They will instruct you how to do things well.

Bruce Cost, Asian Ingredients. Need to know how to deal with dried fish bladder, or Luffa, or lily buds? Look no further. A knowledgeable and talented chef.
James Beard, American Cookery. Rather than Joy of Cooking, this is where I go when I need to know.

Hong Kong & China Gas, Chinese Cookbook, 1978 edition. Great book, but you need to be familiar with Chinese cooking, ingredients and technique to use it with confidence.

This is clearly a very personal list, but there it is for what it's worth. Bon appetite! Happy cooking!

I'll present a shot list of favorite “food literature” next time.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sometimes I Wake Up Eating!

I mentioned in my profile that I enjoy good food, like many of the citizens of Berkeley. Has anyone not heard of Chez Panisse? Many also know it is located in Berkeley's “gourmet getto,” not far from The Monterey Market (temple of great produce) just a stone's throw from Paul Johnson's Monterey Fish Market. Berkeley is also home of The Cheese Board Cooperative and the Acme Bakery, and world class wine merchants abound in this town, Odd Lots, Paul Marcus Wines, Kermit Lynch, North Berkeley Wine, and many more. Why even I, a mere aspiring bookseller, once worked as pantry chef at the storied Italian restaurant Oliveto, which is next door to Berkeley in Oakland.

Well, it's now the case that the whole San Francisco bay area is a hot bed/oven for food lovers (I have scars from both), and as if in answer to this raging epicurian hunger Moe's currently has a large and wonderful selection of cookbooks and food and wine literature. I do have a passionate interest and some experience in this subject area.

In fact, food and wine books are still pouring into the store, most recently with many thanks to Denis Kelly who permitted me to purchase at will from his extensive food and wine library. (Denis has a prominent place in Berkeley food history. He began Wine For the People in the early 70s at the west end of University Avenue, offering wine making equipment to the general public - grape crushing presses, barrels and the like. Eventually he was to team up with Bruce Aidelle to write Real Beer and Good Eats, Flying Sausages, Hot Links and Country Flavors, and The Complete Meat Cookbook, among others. Denis is a terrific scholar of food/wine and a man with endless tales of the bay area food and wine scene from the early days to the present.)

Allow me to highlight a few of the wonderful books we now have in this genre:

Helen Brown's West Coast Cooking

This is mid-century California cool at it's best, a book reprinted in the wonderful Knopf Cooks American series, and then again reprinted in Ruth Reichel's more recent reprint series of notable food literature of the 20th century.   

We have a copy of the original first edition published by Little, Brown in 1952, a handsome copy with the dust jacket for an affordable $35.

Authenticated American Indian Recipes

Written by Sylvester and Alice Tinker and published by Sam McClain in Pawhuska Oklahoma in 1955. We may infer from this book that Fred Lookout, Principal Chief of the Osage Tribe authenticated these recipes, and taking into account that the book was published in the mid-20th century we won't allow the presence of mid-20th century ingredients to detract from their authenticity.
Okay, this is for the niche collector - the stenciled pressboard cover alone assures this. Scarce!
MM#71086 $50.

Sushi gijutsu kyokasho : edomaezushi hen = [Textbook of Sushi Technique : Tokyo Style]

Written by Katogi Kazunai, this volume is only half the published set (the other half featuring Osaka Style) and the text is completely in Japanese, but the 39 color plates speak volumes in any language and the step by step black & white photo illustrations can function as an excellent guide for any chef with advanced knife skills. Anyway, it's a cool book so I was compelled to add it to this list.
MM#61349 $75.

Moving along to a few beverage related books, have you noticed how these days you can't throw a swizzle-stick without bonking some mixologist on the head? Around here in the 70s you couldn't throw a brick without hitting a psychologist, and then in the early 00s you couldn't throw a ink bottle without giving a graphic artist a black eye. Each of these professional population explosions brought increased competition and at this time the quest for cocktail knowledge is peaking. This is especially true for pre-prohibition era drink books, and we happen to have one published in San Francisco in 1904.

One Hundred and One Beverages

May E. Southworth compiled a number of titles in her 101 series – Entrees, Candies, etc. This book is divided into the following categories: Iced, Summer, Mixed, Hot, Sherbets, Punches, Cordial, Fruit. From Iced we have “Tiger's Milk. To a quart of milk put in a half-gill each of peach-brandy and apple-jack; sweeten with powered sugar, and put in two drops each of oil of cloves, cinnamon and orange, and grate a little nutmeg on the top. Beat the white of an egg to a stiff froth, whip it in and serve a once.” Or in the Hot section you might wish to try a “Morpheus. Boil one tablespoonful of ground oatmeal in one-half pint water; when cooked, add a tablespoonful of honey and one of cream; boil up again and add a glass of whiskey. Strain and serve hot.” More surprises follow.
MM#70761 $200

How about something on wine.

Richard Olney's Yquem.

Published by David Godine in 1986, this first edition of Olney's critically acclaimed book on the legendary Sauternes produced by Chateau d'Yquem is signed both by the author and by the owner of the estate, Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces.
MM#59648 $250.00

E. H. Rixford, The Wine Press and The Cellar. A Manual for the Wine-maker and the Cellar-man
Payot, Upham & Co., San Francisco, 1883

First edition of this rare, influential book, our copy is from the library of Paul De Martini – he signed his name on the copyright page.

Born in Genoa in 1844, De Martini landed in the US in 1861 and made his way to the foot of Mr. Diablo in Clayton and eventually purchased the vineyards previously planted by Joel Clayton in 1872. By the 1880s the De Martini Winery was built and the enterprise matured into one of the most prestigious of 19th century California producers.
MM#71139. $1000.

And finally, for today, a true rarity of importance.

La Salle a Manger – Revue de la table et de l'office. - Chatillon-Plessis [Maurice Dancourt], redacteur en chef,
Au Bureau de l'Art Culinaire, Paris. 1890 -1893

Thirty-six issues from June 1890 to May 1893, complete, all published. Very rare.

This journal was founded by the same group of chefs and gourmands responsible for the professional journal L'Art Culinaire, Dancourt and his friends Phileas Gilbert, Auguste Escoffier & co. Seemingly intended for restauranteurs this short lived publication has all but disappeared from history. In addition to our copy we have been able to locate only one additional set, in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands, and reference to this journal in the secondary scholarly literature seems not to exist. (See Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food, Blackwell, 1985, esp. pp. 169-177). This is very surprising for a publication from the hands of the paragons of late 19th century Parisian haute-cuisine . Approximately 615 pages, illustrated.


Good Lord! Stuffed and sotted; sometimes I go to sleep drinking!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


One of the great benefits of working in the Antiquarian and Fines Arts department of Moe's Books is the frequent appearance of beautiful and rare books, books you have never seen or previously held in your hands. Your job is to inspect them, research them, assign a value to them, describe them, and, although not necessarily part of your job, you get to appreciate and learn from them.
Given my understanding that so many are unhappy with their jobs (ameliorated in some cases by financial recompense), having a compellingly interesting and rewarding job is indeed a fortunate fate, and it is certainly a “perk.”

That I am not earning a ton of money, well, that is certainly an “un-perk,” but hey, at my advanced age I have also learned that life is all about such trade-offs. Living in my lux apartment takes most of my paycheck, yet some things are more important than others. I can't afford to replace my old Saab that blew up more than a year ago but guess what—walking and biking and riding the bus are actually cool. My bus driver Denise is a sweetheart, and Evonne, a regular at my bus stop who is heading to Mount Holyoke after she graduates high school this spring, is an inspiration.

On to books.
A couple of weeks ago we acquired a copy of George Catlin's two volume Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, & Condition of the North American Indians. Catlin, an intrepid graphic artist, joined General William Clark's expedition in the 1830 up the Mississippi and over the next five years undertook five separate expeditions throughout the plains and Rocky Mountains, eventually contacting more than fifty tribes. His sketches record the dress, abodes, activities, and artifacts of the tribes he encountered.

The earliest publication of his work, North American Indian Portfolio, Hunting Scenes and amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of American, is a portfolio of 31 hand-colored lithographs, which now sells for six figures.

Our book is an 1876 printing – it was first published in 1840 and reprinted many time over the following decades. It contains 360 color offset-lithographic plates, which are more sketch-like than the finely finished prints of the earlier portfolio. But the art is charming and informative, and our copy is complete.
The book is expensive in the current market: $4,250, and that value in part derives from the three hundred and sixty color plates the two volumes contain. In fact the charming plates are more valuable sold individually than the value of the book intact. In other words, it is a famous example of a “breaker,” purchased by print sellers, the prints being removed from the volumes and individually sold for a modest price of, say, $25 each. Let's see, $25 x 360 is $9,000. I guess that makes our copy a bargain, but let's hope that a “breaker” doesn't buy it!

This brings us to the next, spectacularly beautiful book, and it is also a book that is featured for its prints. However, these prints are of a completely different order. The book is Select Views of Sicily; Accompanied by an Historical and Descriptive Account published in 1825 by John Weale and printed by J. Moyes in London. The prints are among the most beautiful aquatints ever published. Only close inspection will reveal that they are prints and not fine watercolors.

Our volume contains 35 aquatints. It originally contained 36. Our price for the book, as is, is $5,000.

Being incomplete as it is, and given the beauty of the prints, it is possible the book is destined to be a “breaker,” I say this with some reservations as there are some things a bookseller, like anyone else, can't control.

Until the next time, in the near future, Ken Eastman