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Seasonal food blog of Chef Deborah at Cuvée at The Greenporter Hotel

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

November 11th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Book Review

A b-Oysterous Bible of Bivalves

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Reading a Mark Kurlansky book is like going out for a couple of beers with your favorite professor. You settle in to a comfortable booth with a frothy pint of anticipation. You tingle with the excitement of entering a more intimate relationship with someone you admire. You enjoy the delicious feeling of being an insider, drinking from the font of specialized knowledge in the very subject that entrances you. And you catch a good buzz. If only you could remember it all….

While Kurlansky has written books for children, books on nonviolence, Basque history, Jewish history and Caribbean history, and has even written a couple of works of nonfiction, it is his research and writing about food that have brought him the most attention. Salt: A World History and Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world are among his best known. They each take a single and basic raw food item and make them the central figure in his narrative of history. As they move across the ages, they encounter, change and are changed by an astonishing number of climates, cities and cultures. His heretofore humble pantry dwellers travel the world, dragging world history in their wake. But his books are also human stories, peppered with anecdotes, seasoned with odd details, and salted with characters of all stripes from the common criminal to Dickens and Thackeray to ladies of leisure and of dubious character.

As a New Yorker born, if not bred, and aficionado of all my state and city’s history, I find Kurlansky’sThe Big Oyster to be my sentimental favorite. And as a voracious consumer of oysters, I really dig the biology; there’s nothing I like better than a whole lot of scientific trivia with which to wash down my bivalves (and impress — or irritate –my dining companions).

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell gives it all. Chapters like “The Fecundity of Bivalvency” and “A Molluscular Life” tell us about the oyster itself, while Part Two: The Shells of Sodom, including “The Crassostreasness of New Yorkers” tells us about the people (The chapter names are a good indication of Kurlansky’s nerdy-clever sense of humor). You must remember that Kurlansky is not the most chronological of historians. The tales he tells are too large and complex for straight lines and his own style is too breezy and far-reaching to resist mixing details from one century into a story about the other. Which brings me back to that beer we were drinking with our professor. The Big Oyster, like many of Kurlansky’s books, is a lecture softened into conversation by the dim lights of evening, warmed by the closeness of like-minded friends, lubricated with a good beverage. It leaps ahead, then doubles back, gives a hint of things to come, then dives headfirst into a deep pool of history, comes back up for air, then meanders back along its timeline. Along the way there are recipes fished from earlier eras, etchings from the 1800s, maps of Manhattan before The Dutch East India Company and the real reason why oysters from the South and the North taste so completely different, even though they are from precisely the same species and genus (Ostreidae Crassostrea virginica).

In the end, it is a deeply satisfying and stimulating experience, one that you try — and fail — to remember every detail of, and go back to time and time again to refresh your spirit and your memory, perhaps ordering a half dozen raw ones from Pipe’s Cove or genuine Blue Points to round out the experience.

-Natalia de Cuba Romero

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky, Ballantine, 2006

The New Taste Of Chocolate: A Cultural History of Cacao with Recipes

A Chocolate Extravaganza – no calories, no kidding!

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Everything I know about chocolate, I learned from Maricel Presilla. Truly. Food writers like me don’t necessarily know everything about the food they are asked to write about, so we rely on the smarts, wisdom, knowledge and research of others. Sometimes — like when I was asked to write a piece for a national magazine on selected indigenous American foods a few years ago – the writer is lucky enough to know where to turn. For my section on chocolate, I knew that Maricel, a cultural anthropologist, a Ph.D. in medieval history, writer, educator, formally trained chef and co-owner of her own award-winning, pan-Latin restaurants, Zafra and Cucharamama in Hoboken, would be the go-to girl. I called her up and sure enough, she had the goods on chocolate. What I didn’t know until we spoke, was that her passion for Theobroma cacao – the tree that is the source of chocolate — is not only intellectual and sensory, but part of her genetic history. As it turns out, Maricel Presilla is the daughter of a cacao producing family in Cuba with chocolate running through her very veins; encountering her is hitting the mother lode of chocolate information. In a conversation – okay, lecture, she is an educator after all – of an hour and a half, which could have gone well into the following year, she took me on a whirlwind tour of cacao history and meaning. Fortunately for every other chocolate lover on earth who can’t just call her up for a chat with the excuse of writing an article, Maricel has also produced an exhaustive and gorgeous book on the topic.

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The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural History of Cacao with Recipes (10 Speed Press 2001) is as sensuous, subtle and intriguing as its subject. In this lushly illustrated, designed and produced volume, she covers it all, from its origins in Latin America, to its discovery and transformation by Europeans, from its social, economic and spiritual significance to her own personal relationship with the magic bean. It is loaded with information, but written and packaged for easy and unhurried enjoyment. You will also learn how to interpret chocolate labels and which form of cacao to buy for which purpose; it has changed the way I look at (and purchase) the chocolate bar. Love chocolate? Love food history? You need this book.

Natalia de Cuba Romero

The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes by Maricel E. Presilla. Ten Speed Press, 2001

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