Food for Thought

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We consume food daily to live, but how often do we think about what we eat and how our favorite recipes were concocted? Delve into the history of food and examine the role food plays within American culture by checking out the following books:

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge – An exploration of Southern cuisine reveals how culinary traditions of the rural, poor South became a keystone of contemporary American cuisine.

100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why it Matters Today by Stephen Le – Traces the development of regional cuisines, created through millennia of ingenious experiments using available plants and animals, to argue that returning to ancestral ways of eating is the first line of defense in protecting health.

The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them by Mina Holland – Perfect for armchair travelers, an exotic tour of the most irresistible cuisines of the world combines such ingredients as recipes, history and culinary wisdom to reveal what people eat and why in 40 cultures.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty – A culinary historian uses the story of his own ancestors, both black and white, to trace the origin of barbecue, soul food, and Southern cuisine, revealing the power of food to bring people together.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan – Recounts the story of the author’s culinary education and the roles of the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth in transforming natural ingredients into delicious meals and drinks.

Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky – Shares the history of milk and how it has played a crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics, and economics around the world.

Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee – Chronicling the Chinese-American food experience, a reporter describes her quest for excellent Chinese cuisine while offering insight into such topics as the contributions of illegal immigrants and the relationship between Jewish people and Chinese food.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook & Eat by Bee Wilson – Traces the history of cooking through a series of engaging cultural anecdotes while demonstrating how technological innovations ranging from the mortar and pestle to the microwave have shaped how and what humans eat.

Fairy Tales for Adults

Who says fairy tales are just for kids? Fairy tales originated from oral storytelling as far back as 6th century BC and were intended for adults. Fairy tales have been found in almost every culture; the first known literary version of Cinderella was written in China around 850 AD.

Listed below are fairy tales for adults- some are re-imagined tales and others incorporate fairy-tale elements. So, read some fairy tales and check off a box on your July Summer Challenge Sheet!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – A young girl, Vasya, is born in a small village in the wilderness of Russia and with the birth, a stranger gives the new father, Pytor, a beautiful necklace, meant for the child. Pytor hides the gift away, unsure of the gift. Vasya grows up to be a rambunctious child and when dark forces threaten their village Vasya discovers that she, armed with the necklace, may be the only one who can help.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – Alaska in 1920 was an unforgiving place to homestead. Jack and Mabel want to have a child, but haven’t been able to and instead have been drifting apart. But during the season’s first snowfall the couple build a child out of snow. The next day the snow child is gone, but they do see a young girl running through the trees. The young girl lives alone in the woods so Jack and Mabel take her in as their own daughter, but not everything about the girl is wonderful as it seems.

Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire – from the author of Wicked, comes the mysterious backstory of the Nutcracker. Discover the story of how the Nutcracker is carved and guides a girl through a dreamland on Christmas Eve.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – Two mythical creatures, Chava and Ahmad, journey through turn-of-the-century New York and form an unlikely friendship. They take human forms and live in the growing immigrant community. But danger is near and threatens them both.

“The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy.”

dearBooks on Tap read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher for the July 5 discussion at Champion Brewery. Not only is it an epistolary novel, it is comprised solely of letters of recommendation from English professor Jason Fitger. Fitger, battling the college’s administration, construction crews, his colleagues, peers and students. Rarely are the letters positive and even more rarely are they effective. However, they are always funny.

Fitger had early success with a roman a clef about his time in high-pressure graduate writing program (The Group) but his later novels were met with poor sales and even poorer reviews. His ex-wife and girlfriend both work on campus and have aligned against him. The English department is a toxic hazard zone due to building construction and has next to no funding, meaning his one promising student may never finish his stunning revision of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Las Vegas bordello. Against this backdrop of strife, Fitger emerges as a cynical, egotistical man who nonetheless defends the humanities and his best students with all the institutional power he has left.

We were surprised that the book, while gimmicky, was grounded and that Schumacher cleverly developed Fitger’s character and motivation. We all came up with a clear mental image of Fitger or his office and college. She also nailed the intra-department rivalries in academia. She also highlights the ways that liberal arts are losing funding and focus to STEM programs. Fitger defends a brilliant Slavic scholar who has lost his funding by asking “Where else can he go?”. While he rails against the ways that his college, and academia in general, doesn’t support the English department, he doesn’t offer quite enough support to the younger adjuncts who have to string together a career with multiple low-paying postings at multiple colleges.

The novel questions the role of mentorship. Fitger was the favorite of the charismatic leader of The Group and it was under his auspices that Fitger’s first novel was shaped and published. However, this favoritism and the way Fitger portrayed his fellow students in print alienated him from his peers. This alienation has consequences decades later. The women in the group refuse to support Fitger and the most talented member of their cohort cannot get published after retreating from writing due to personal tragedy. Fitger’s own mentorship of his students his suspect, as well. He’ll write almost any one a letter of recommendation, but often these are not actually helpful. Darren, the student he most wants to succeed, seems more like a reflection of Fitger himself.  Darren’s suicide was a plot point we agreed didn’t resonate. Due to its format, the book can only develop Fitger’s character, which meant that this cathartic moment fell flat.

Finally, we discussed aging. Fitger’s self-confidence seems to mask his feeling of failure. His later books were flops and we thought that he doesn’t have another one in him, which did make  his mentorship of Darren bittersweet. His love life doesn’t look like it can recover from its latest self-inflicted wound and has alienated many of his colleagues. In the end, it’s his tenured job and love of humanities that keeps him fighting the good fight via all those letters of recommendation.   

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