Book Review: American Artisanal: Finding the Country’s Best Real Food, from Cheese to Chocolate
This book is a treasure. We offered it in our Hungry Reader Challenge to the first six readers who cooked a dish or meal from a book they love. Two readers took us up on it (if you feel motivated, send us a submission this weekend and we’ll send you a book). Honestly, of all the books we’re reading right now, this book feels the most suitable prize for a hungry reader.
There are eighteen chapters, each a stand-alone essay focusing on one American food artisan or farmer. The fields are varied – bread, sorbets, antique apples, smoked Alaska salmon, venison, and much more.
The book is a splendid read. Gray tells the story of each artisan largely in their own words through interviews and conversations. You really feel like you’re sitting with the organic tomato grower in his greenhouse or with the bread-baker in her Boston bakery, reminiscing with her husband over how they risked so much to build their business.
Rebecca Gray is a contributor to Saveur and several other prestigious magazines, and she and her husband are avid sportsmen; they edit Gray’s Sporting Journal. She comes across as deeply curious and good-natured, and she is obviously tasting all the food that comes into her hands through researching this book! Gray doesn’t speak dispassionately; she talks of the rich tastes and flavors she experiences as she tries each artisan’s foods.
There’s the story of how mushrooms are grown and how we get wild mushrooms, the history of honeybees, a visit to coffee roasters, and the tale of Tennessee T-Cakes. Deliciousness abounds!
But this isn’t a sentimental look at American food artisans – small in distribution yet idealized by a dreamy writer. No, Gray takes a hard look at the realities of the lives they’ve chosen. She also takes the opportunity to weave in larger stories about American food. The story of how American flour became bleached and bromated, and the artisan bread guild’s long, slow battle to bring back good artisan flour is told briskly – interwoven with one baker’s story. American game-hunting laws, the history of apples in America and fishing in the Northwest all make appearances. This history sweeps in and out in a lively fashion, painting a backdrop to real stories and real lives.
Several themes emerged across all the stories. Do we grow big, or do we stay small? Do we keep our hands in the bread, or hire people to do it for us? Do we buy bigger freezers and get distributors and lose control, or do we stay in New England where we can keep an eye on our sorbets?
The tension between big and small and the very definition of success and what the good life means, to an American artisan, are all in play here, and Gray lets those themes emerge subtly without ruining the stories through heavy-handed politics or moralizing.
Every chapter ends, too, with one or two recipes from the featured farm or artisan. Apple crisp, goat’s milk cheddar risotto cakes, Tupelo honey oatmeal cookies, wild mushroom and potato flan – this is a small treasure trove of excellent recipes too. We’re going to share one later, courtesy of Rizzoli, the publisher.
We love this book; we had been parceling it out in chapter-sized bits at bedtime but we raced through at the end. Read this! It’s fascinating and inspiring. Who knows – you may be the next American artisan.