Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheese Reads for Summer


Nine months out of the year, I teach writing and so my reading diet is heavy on literary fiction, essays on narrative, and lots of student papers. I love what I do, but when summer rolls around, I love the wild rush of plunging into whatever book I choose.

After graduation last week, I shot off a subscription to The New York Times and began amassing a Jenga-esque pile of books. Here's the dream: coffee on the stoop every morning, with a newspaper on my knees. And when evening comes: a book in bed.

Yeah, I'm going old school. No ipad. No Kindle. I want pages, man.

Here, in no particular order, are the books on my summer table. Most of them relate to cheese. All of them relate to food. And one is on the list because Mr. Cheesemonger Guru recommended it, and I believe in his karmic good grace.



The Master and Margarita
For an amuse bouche: the favorite novel of Di Bruno Bros.' Ezekial Ferguson. If you have ever met Ezekial, you know that he has a devilish cat tattoo on his arm, inspired by this surreal Russian fantasy from the '30s. One chapter is titled "Azazello's Cream," which is why I am passing this off as a cheese book. Here is a delicious sample:
"'Venus!' the hog the hog replied tearfully, as he flew over a brook bubbling between stones, his little hoofs brushing the hazel bushes" (244).


Will Write for Food
Dianne Jacob is a cookbook author, food writer, and blogger. Her advice on developing stories and pitches is spot on, and I especially like her new chapter on blogs (she stresses narrative, good research, proofreading). It's a book I skimmed back in October, but now I plan on delving in for reals. For anyone interested in reviewing: Jacob's explanation of ethics is thought-provoking. Having run the food section of a newspaper, I have to say that I bristle sometimes at how online reviewers approach food. There's a fine line between enthusiasm and ad copy.


The Raw Milk Revolution
This past year, I got interested in the plight of Sally Jackson, who was shut down by the FDA on charges that later appeared to be false. I am all for food safety, but I also want cheese makers to retain the right to produce raw-milk cheese so that people like me can enjoy them.

Journalist Joel Salatin explores this struggle and the legal red tape that has affected cheesemakers over the last decade. Interestingly, Salatin comes from a family of dairy farmers, but he left the business to become a reporter (later becoming an editor for The Wall Street Journal). You'll recognize his name and his current project, Polyface Inc., if you've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Salatin's book opens like this: "I drink raw milk, sold illegally on the underground black market."


Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating
I've never been to Ari Weinzweig's Ann Arbor delicatessen, which is so famous for its cakes and pastrami sandwiches. But I have friends who buzz like Tsetse flies when anyone mentions the "Z" word. I was curious what Ari's spiritual food manifesto might include so I ordered the monster, and when it came in the mail I found myself sucked in by, of all things, rice!

Here's what Ari has to say about rice, ohmigod:
"Buying 'Italian rice,' however is akin to picking up a block of cheese simply labeled 'Cheddar' -- there's a huge variation in quality form one source to the next" (161.
Of course, I read this right after buying a mega ton of arborio, and now I'm living rice regret.


Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge
I feel like a big fat schmuck for not having read this sooner, but the cuteness of the title put me off. Still, every time I open my inbox, some darling stranger asks me if I know how to become a cheesemonger...or if I know of jobs in the cheese world. So, reading this seems to be an imperative. For my advisory role. Or just so I can say something intelligent.

I find it heartening that the world is full of aspiring cheesemongers, and I encourage anyone with a firm grip and a love of cat-fur-like rinds to pursue their dreams. In the meantime, why don't we both read Gordon Edgar? I have a feeling he will school us on more than just cheese. I like this observation:
"In a volatile and gentrifying city like San Francisco, a lot of a neighborhood's character, for better or worse, isn't held together by neighbors, but by the neighborhood corner stores and local business" (190).
I couldn't agree more.


The Year of the Goat
Margaret Hathaway and her beau yearn for life on the farm, so they pack up their New York City apartment and take to the road to get their fix. First stop: Artisanal, to meet Max McCalman and ask him about who makes goat cheese in the U.S. They taste some extraordinary samples, then set off to meet other goat lovers.

I'm half-way through this travel tale, which is especially funny when Hathaway describes the zealous goat breeders she meets at a fair. Here's a taste:

"A cloying floral scent emanates from the chain-link fence that marks the fair's perimeter where a young woman shampoos her goats, scrubbing them until they're covered with a thick lather, then hosing them down and blowing them dry" (34).


Blood, Bones & Butter
This book has gotten so much press, it seems almost silly to mention it and become one more googly-eyed, whisk-waving fan. But it's fantastic -- the best food memoir I've read to date. I listened to the audio version (, where the author handles the narration, and just hearing that ragged edge in Gabrielle Hamilton's voice brought the story to life.

If you've ever wanted to open a restaurant, if you've ever wanted to get your MFA in writing, if you've ever wanted to write a memoir...
"With his right hand, he [Andre Soltner] tapped his left wrist, like a junky searching for a good vein, over and over, causing a little vibration in the pan that pushed the omelette incrementally with every tap up against the lip and then, when cresting, back in over itself until the whole omelette was folded over into thirds, a perfect football shape, absolutely no color on it, just perfectly cooked yellow omelette, and he put the little torpedo onto the plate for lunch" (158).


Homemade Cheese
I'm sitting on a lot of cheese cookbooks, but I've never opened one that offered a recipe for Valencay. Turns out, once you get the right equipment -- like some pyramid-shaped molds and some Penicillum candidum and some charcoal powder, you can go to town. As this book by Janet Hurst points out,
"A refrigerator for chilling wine (a wine cooler) makes an excellent aging environment for this cheese. If you do not have that option, then you can age it in your home refrigerator" (116).
Curious. There's an interesting array of information here, from cheese recipes, to profiles of artisan cheesemakers, to pairing ideas, to aging tips, and resources. For anyone interested in making cheese from scratch -- including blues, Brie, and Manchego -- this appears to be a good launch pad.


Best of the Food Blogs Cooksbook
Boyfriend gave me this book as a present in December. Haven't had a chance to nibble its pages, but I like what I see: Vegetarian Scotch Eggs, Wicked Good Clam Chowdah, and Blueberry Bread Pudding with Soft Curd Cheese.

This is a good introduction to a wide cast of food bloggers. Each recipe is accompanied by a post, along with a short bio. Smack your lips, chiquitas!

And let me know what books are on your summer reading list.


  1. Great suggestions! I've read The Year of the Goat - great read for wanna be goat herds. I've read and re-read the Will Write for Food. On my desk right now. Blood, Bones & Butter I am waiting on from the library. The Zingerman's Guide is great. On my way to Borders today - thanks for the recommendations!

  2. Wow- I love food and reading but I don't bring the two together often. This will be a great start! Thank you!!

  3. One note on The Raw Milk Revolution. I'm pretty sure Salatin is still at Polyface. He's written articles, but I've never seen anything in WSJ

  4. I am so glad you posted these suggestions, since I'm putting together the reading list for my next MFA semester right now. I've been on the fence about reading 'Blood, Bones and Butter' with all of the mega-hype churning around, but you've convinced me for sure. Much appreciated, thank you! And enjoy the thrill of real pages.

  5. Wanted to update you on my progress! I started the Zingerman's Guide and I'm in food nerd heaven. Will Write for Food is waiting for me at the library. Thanks for the great recommendations!

  6. Thanks for the comments and updates, everybody. Please feel free to check in. A number of people responded on Twitter to suggest an online cheese-related book group.