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Words to Eat By

A "taste" test of tomes by Vermont foodies

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Nearly every area bookstore has a special shelf for local authors and, each year, Vermont food writers stack that shelf with more volumes. In 2007, Green Mountain writers made waves with books on cheese (The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey Roberts and The Vermont Cheese Book by Ellen Ogden); shellfish (A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen); and localvore cuisine (Cooking with Shelburne Farms by Melissa Pasanen and Rick Gencarelli).

This year they tackled a few new topics, such as terroir (The Taste of Place by Amy Trubek); the fate of the honey- bee (Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen); and life in China (How to Cook a Dragon by Linda Furiya). And there were cookbooks, too, such as Tracey Medeiros’ aptly named Dishing Up Vermont.

One boon — and sometimes bane — of living in Vermont is the intimacy created by the state’s small size. The connections are visible in the entanglements between some of these texts. Jacobsen has written for the Peacham-based food-mag Art of Eating, which is where Trubek first published an essay that she incorporated into her book. And when it comes to terroir, Furiya and Medeiros deliver it in spades. While Furiya’s memoir elucidates cultural differences via cuisine, Medeiros’ cookbook bursts with flavors common across the Vermont landscape.

Hungry for more? Read on . . .

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The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir by Amy B. Trubek, University of California Press, 294 pages. $29.95.

In The Taste of Place, Amy Trubek, an anthropologist and chef, explores the concept of terroir: the idea that where a food is grown impacts the taste of the final product. This is not just because the soil and the sun impart particular flavors, but also because different cultures are apt to process and prepare foods in different ways.

Trubek digs into the origins of the theory — familiar to wine lovers and coffee aficionados — and also argues for applying it to other foodstuffs, such as Vermont maple syrup.

This tome is not for casual foodies or the incurious. With lots of historical information and detail, Trubek digs deeply into cultural traditions to dredge up meaning. She sprinkles bits of agricultural trivia throughout. For example, readers learn that in 1953, Vermont dairy herds were 25 cows in size, on average, “whereas today the average is more than 115 cows.”

The academic language used in the book will also speak to the culinary scholar. For example, in the chapter entitled “Place Matters,” Trubek states: “The codification of cuisine bourgeoise and cuisine regionale was very much a response to the increased urbanization and industrialization of society and truly a product of the epoch.”

At times, though, the author waxes lyrical: “I took a bite and was stunned,” she says of a dessert at L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin. “The nuts were hickory nuts . . . Combined with the penuche, they reminded me of maple-walnut ice cream, but the flavor was more complex, with something of a smoky campfire. The texture of the nuts was more delicate than that of either pecans or walnuts; they were almost flaky.”

For Vermonters, there is the additional pleasure of finding familiar names in the copy: Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm, Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm and the late, great Smokejacks restaurant appear in these pages.

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Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis by Rowan Jacobsen, Bloomsbury, 279 pages. $25.

If I told you that one of the most engaging gastronomic tomes I’ve read all year was about insects, would you believe me? It was, and you should. The book in question is Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, and although the topic — rampant colony collapse disorder in honey-bee populations — is a weighty one, the author’s style and panache make the book a sweet read.

Jacobsen aptly combines serious science with lightweight language to create a story that will appeal to a wide range of audiences. In describing the process of wind pollination, he likens the numerous pollen grains that grasses produce to Internet spam: “You need to send out a million if you hope to get a single hit,” he explains. Later, he compares a bee’s innate sense of direction to a GPS tracker.

Throughout the 11 chapters, Jacobsen convincingly argues that the bee, not the dog, is truly man’s best friend. In his readable, colorful prose, he also compares the productive creatures to migrant workers, marathon runners and the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale. Those are busy bees indeed.

But Jacobsen — the Al Gore of the hive — also paints a chilling picture of a future in which there aren’t enough bees to pollinate the human food supply: “As fall hardened into winter, beekeepers up and down the East Coast watched their hives go from bustling colonies to ghost towns in a matter of weeks, with no sign of why. The mysterious deaths soon spread around the country, then around the world . . . By spring 2007, a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s honey bees were AWOL,” he writes. The culprit? Although nobody knows for sure, chemical pesticides — which, in addition to being toxic themselves, seem to weaken bees to the point where they can’t withstand viruses and pests — appear to warrant the lion’s share of the blame.

Is there hope? Some, but harnessing it requires drastic changes in how agriculture works worldwide, and we have to make those changes pronto. “If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of colony collapse disorder, it’s that many people now understand that agriculture depends on honey bees . . . but our enlightenment can’t end at our dinner plate,” Jacobsen warns.

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How to Cook a Dragon: Living, Loving and Eating in China by Linda Furiya, Seal Press, 317 pages. $16.95.

Linda Furiya was born in Indiana, worked in San Francisco, and spent six years in China, but these days she makes her home in Shelburne, Vermont. In addition to delivering homemade dumplings, teaching cooking classes and making hot-and-sour soup for Open Arms Café, Furiya writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and has two published memoirs.

The more recent, How to Cook a Dragon, centers on her decision, in 1996, to abandon an apartment and a job in California to join then-boyfriend Eric in Beijing. Although the book is more cultural than culinary, the best bits are when Furiya uses food as a metaphor for her emotions — at one point she describes “splitting into two different people, like the white and the yolk of an egg” — and when she talks about exotic dishes that she samples or cooks. The recipes that follow each chapter reinforce how important food is to Furiya throughout her journey.

In one scene, her relationship with her fiancé’s housekeeper deepens over a dish of braised eggplant: “I pondered the fact that she had never really tasted my cooking before. As if reading my mind, she remarked that she had always breathed in the scents of my cooking when I was making dinner . . . Her comment sounded vaguely intimate, as if she were admitting she had a crush on me.”

Unfortunately, Furiya and her husband don’t fare so well. Scenes that include him are difficult to read: In most, he comes off as thoughtless and arrogant. Throughout, she claims that, despite his faults, she loves him for his numerous good qualities, but the reader rarely sees what those are.

Furiya’s pain at the eventual end of her relationship is clearly transmitted, but Beijing’s loss is Vermont’s gain. Reading this book made me crave her dumplings, filled with a blend of pork, crisp vegetables and spices, and dripping with savory juice.

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Dishing Up Vermont: 145 Authentic Recipes from the Green Mountain State by Tracey Medeiros, Storey Publishing, 288 pages. $19.95.

Many cookbooks collect recipes from culinary school graduates, but Dishing Up Vermont is more egalitarian. Here, the dishes come from a diverse group of residents — vegetable growers, dairy farmers, caterers and artisan food producers — some of whom are profiled throughout the book. It’s a snapshot of what Vermonters of all stripes are eating for dinner.

Medeiros used the Vermont Fresh Network as a jumping-off point for her project. The foreword is by Molly Stevens of Williston, an award-winning cookbook author and former VFN president, and the ingredient lists focus on readily available items such as maple syrup, apples, hearty produce and artisan cheeses.

Many of the recipes are elegant yet simple. There’s “Pan-Fried Tempeh with Onions and Garlic” from Rhapsody Natural Foods, a “Baked Apple Pancake” from Champlain Orchards, and “Crostini with Fresh Figs, Blue Cheese, Sage and Balsamic Vinegar” from Dish Catering. All are presented in bite-sized, easy-to-follow steps.

Not surprisingly, many of the more complex offerings come from the area’s chefs. Shawn Casey of The Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Killington offered up “Lump Crab Cakes with Vermont Sweet Peppers.” There’s also a “Beet Salad in Puff Pastry Layers” from Robert Barral of Café Provence in Brandon. Despite some fancy-sounding names, though, few of the recipes will prove onerous to the home cook.

If this book has a weakness, it’s in the design. The profiles of local folks and their businesses are sprinkled throughout the book in a haphazard way and, on some pages, random product pictures appear, looking like clip art. Although the book clearly owes a debt to the VFN, a prominently placed collage of the nonprofit’s green signs — ostensibly taken at restaurants around the state — isn’t a particularly delicious introduction to a book filled with tasty treats.

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