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Words to Chew On

Vermont writers meet the summer season with culinary and agricultural books


Published June 8, 2011 at 5:56 a.m.

Some people want their summer reading like their scrambled eggs: light and fluffy. Others reach for narratives that are dense, chewy and thoughtful. Whatever your warm-weather pleasure, recent books by Vermont food writers offer something for nearly every taste, from a hefty candy cookbook, to a slim brewing classic, to a stunning food-system exposé. Seven Days samples the crop.

For the cerebral foodie

In 2009, Barry Estabrook wrote an article for Gourmet magazine titled “The Price of Tomatoes,” which uncovered the murky roots of the almost-red fruit we find on grocery produce shelves during the winter. Some of the migrant workers who harvest tomatoes in hot climates live in sweltering, moldy trailers and virtual slavery, he revealed. Estabrook has expanded the James Beard Award-winning piece into the dense but engaging Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, a wholesale indictment of Florida’s billion-dollar tomato industry. After you read it, buying a supermarket tomato may feel like a dirty act.

What Estabrook found in the hot and infertile Florida fields, from which 90 percent of our off-season tomatoes grow, was chemical-soaked stretches of human misery. The Vergennes writer says he initially set out to answer a basic question: Why are so many mass-market tomatoes devoid of flavor? While poking around the muggy climes of the Sunshine State, Estabrook discovered that most tomatoes begin as rock-hard green orbs that are ripened by ethylene gassing — fruits “so plasticine and so identical they could’ve been stamped out by a machine,” he writes. As one grower told Estabrook, “I have not lost one sale due to taste. People just want something red to put in their salad.”

But first, Estabrook narrates the humble tomato’s long, unlikely rise to culinary ubiquity, from its South American origins through selective breeding and industrial-scale production. He breaks down its complex flavor profile and untangles the reasons that tomatoes came to be raised in the sands of Florida. (“Florida just happens to be warm enough,” he writes, “for a tomato to survive the months when we continue to eat them.”)

Most shocking, however, are that these tomatoes are picked by immigrants who are sometimes held against their will in locked quarters and overcharged for rent, food and other services, and who sometimes work under threats and intimidation. Estabrook met a few who escaped, and in his book introduces us to a farmworkers’ union that seems to be the only such organization looking after pickers’ well-being. The author clearly holds the growers he meets (with one exception) in low esteem. Estabrook’s spare language is never preachy, and he serves a tale with as much flavor as the modern industrial tomato lacks.

While Estabrook employs words carefully, Ben Hewitt throws them around like loose change; phrases like “by gum” and “I don’t know about you…” pepper his narrative. Perhaps he adopted his everyman, first-person voice as a counterpoint to the density of his subject matter. Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety is sometimes bleak and saturated with statistics, but Hewitt deftly uses a colorful Dumpster-diving adventure as a springboard into his exploration of the deadly pathogens and virulent bacteria that lurk in our industrial-scale food system.

He points out that food-poisoning cases have skyrocketed in the last three decades, and that federal agencies forbid us from consuming certain foods — such as raw milk — while simultaneously allowing agribusiness behemoths to essentially police themselves.

Hewitt chronicled Hardwick, Vt.’s agripreneurial rise in his 2010 book The Town That Food Saved. In Making Supper Safe, he interviews individuals such as a raw-milk proponent and an epidemiologist who blames the antibiotic-soaked livestock industry for the increase in food-borne bacteria. Pathogen outbreaks, Hewitt suggests, are a “symptom of the tremendous distance that has come between our food and us.” He may be preaching to the choir in Vermont, but Hewitt’s assertions are likely to turn heads elsewhere, if his book can find an audience.

John E. Carroll isn’t a Vermonter — he’s a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire — but the state is featured in his new book in a chapter called “Burlington, Vermont: Capital of the Localvores.”

That book, The Real Dirt: Toward Food Sufficiency and Farm Sustainability in New England, could also be called The Locavore Emperor Has No Clothes. Despite its self-published look (it was actually published by UNH), Carroll’s claims are jarring and important: New England is metaphorical miles from food self-sufficiency, he says, and it’s time to kick into high gear to change that.

New England is “the least food secure area in the country, and thus the most vulnerable,” writes Carroll. Ninety percent of our food arrives by truck, he points out, which renders the region highly dependent on fossil fuel and subject to its rising costs. The era of cheap oil is over, and, accordingly, access to relatively inexpensive food will suffer, he adds.

But all is not lost if we keep our locavore ball rolling. Carroll cites the Victory Gardens of World War II as a model for 21st-century home gardens. “Sustainability is no less a call to patriotism today,” he writes. He also holds up the agricultural commissions that have sprung up in Massachusetts as regional models. And Carroll is downright smitten with Burlington, calling the city’s Food Council a “path-breaking entity.” He celebrates the Intervale, the Burlington Farmers Market, the University of Vermont and the spirit of a city where citizen practice “genuine, in contrast to cosmetic, sustainability.”

The cornerstone of Carroll’s call, though, is the agricultural potential of New England’s land-grant universities — he profiles each in detail, noting strengths and deficiencies. For readers interested in where agriculture is heading — and who have a high tolerance for tiny type, bulleted factoids, and terms such as “demand construction” and “capacity building” — Carroll’s unfussy, academic tome is vital.

For the hungry foodie, or hophead

Sometimes you want to turn off your brain and not think about peak oil, pathogens, labor abuses and dwindling food stores. Sometimes, you just want to eat candy, or at least read about it.

When Gesine Bullock-Prado scribbled “Hot sugar is your friend” into an autographed copy of her new book, Sugar Baby: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking With Sugar, it was an understatement. Bullock-Prado — the former owner of Montpelier bakery Gesine’s Confectionary and the author of a previous baking memoir — is in full-on love with the sweet stuff.

This book is elegantly designed and drop-dead gorgeous; the pastel-infused pages and Tina Rupp’s stunning photographs are so tantalizing that even the most hardened kitchenphobe might be moved to start melting some granules. Bullock-Prado, who says she was born into a family of “candy musicians,” ingeniously structures Sugar Baby according to the forms sugar adopts at various temperatures. The first chapter, for instance, is called “Simple Dissolve to Thread Stage” and is speckled with recipes for such treats as Bittersweet Pudding Pops and Crème Anglaise, “the mother of all pastry sauces.” As the temperature rises, sugar hits its “soft-ball,” “hard-ball” and “hard-crack” stages, and readers are treated to recipes for Fleur de Sel Caramel, Maple Pillows and The-Birthday-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless Cake.

Even with an eye-pleasing layout and clever deconstruction of candy chemistry, it is Bullock-Prado’s effervescent voice that makes Sugar Baby such a fun read. Home cooks struggling not to burn their candy — or themselves — will find breezy directives along the line of “don’t poke hot caramel.”

Chemistry is also a key part of beer making, and, even before celebrity craft brewers came along, the hills of Vermont held earnest home brewers who tackled lagers and ales with vigor. The strangely enchanting little tome Mountain Brew: A High-Spirited Guide to Country Style Beer Making! with Tips on Producing Your Own Ingredients offers a glimpse into that world.

In 1971, author Tim Matson and his girlfriend, Lee Anne Dorr, moved from Manhattan to Thetford, becoming one of the hippie back-to-the-landers invading the state in that era. “Vermont was just magic. It was an amazing place. We were building our own houses, growing our own food and not happy with Budweiser. Everybody hated Budweiser,” says Matson today.

He eventually bought a small farm in Strafford. Matson and his friends watched as Interstate 91 was blasted up the Connecticut River Valley; they grew food, played music and had babies. They also started playing around with yeast, malt, hops and water to create strong, often funky beer, sometimes using wild mint, steak bones and cans of Blue Ribbon malt. “We used to make some pretty horrible beer. That’s part of the fun of Mountain Brew,” says Matson. The book was originally printed in Lebanon, N.H., in 1975.

Matson and Dorr (who doesn’t use her last name in the book) spent a summer collecting the stories and beer recipes of the artists, hippies and scientists they called friends. The result was a 31-page prose poem of sorts — part oral history, part brewing cookbook, and a beguiling glimpse into a wild free-for-all in which people fed home brew to their pigs, hangovers were commonplace and an entire subculture was resisting industrial-scale beer. “The homebrew was bubbling. It made friends with the air. It smelled like a riddle,” write Matson and Dorr in one of the vignettes.

Matson went on to a successful career as a writer and photographer — he shot some of the first photos of the Pilobolus dance company. He and Dorr parted ways, she has since died, and the book sat dormant for 36 years until Matson’s college-age kids asked him if he knew anything about home brewing. So he unearthed the text and republished it through his own press. “Now they know I’m from a golden era,” he says.

Mountain Brew is tongue in cheek at times, subtly sad at others (the book is dedicated to “all of the drunks who didn’t make it home”). It might not be the definitive guide to home brewing, but it’s a sweet keepsake of another age.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel, 240 pages. $19.99.

Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety by Ben Hewitt. Rodale, 288 pages. $24.99.

The Real Dirt: Toward Food Sufficiency and Farm Sustainability in New England by John E. Carroll. University of New Hampshire Press, 136 pages. $15.

Sugar Baby: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking With Sugar by Gesine Bullock-Prado and Tina Rupp. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 252 pages. $29.99.

Mountain Brew: A High-Spirited Guide to Country Style Beer Making! with Tips on Producing Your Own by Tim Matson and Lee Anne. Miller Pond Books, 31 pages. $9.95