BOOK REVIEW: Made in Chicago by Monica Eng & David Hammond

Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown BitesMade in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites by Monica Eng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

Chicago is a food city. Once famous for its stockyards and still a major transit point for the products of America’s breadbasket, the city is home to a diverse people, a gathering of migrants and immigrants who brought a wide variety of foods from their homelands and put the necessary twists on them to make them salable to Chicagoans while using available ingredients. This book features entries on thirty foods and beverages that are products of Chicago ingenuity, be they dishes that were wholly invented in the Windy City or one’s that have a distinctive Chicago-style variant. Foodies know exactly what is meant by Chicago-style hot dogs, pizza, or tamales.

If all you know about Chicago cuisine is that ketchup on a hot dog is considered a sin, you’ll learn about some colorfully named Chicago inventions such as: “the Jim Shoe,” “the Big Baby,” and “the Mother-in-Law,” as well as many others that are more prosaically named, if equally calorically dense. One also sees the mark of Chicago’s immigrant story in the Akutagawa, Flaming Saganaki, Gam Pong Chicken Wings, the Maxwell Street Polish, and Chicago Corn Roll Tamales.

Each chapter discusses the nature of the respective dish, its influences, the [often contentious] origin of each item, where one can obtain said dish, and (for most) includes a recipe for making one’s own home variant. So, it’s mostly food history, but with a bit of cookbook, as well. There are pictures throughout, of the foods and in some cases of the location that invented or popularized each dish.

Be forewarned, while Chicago is a city that loves food, it’s not a place that’s wild about nutrition or moderate serving sizes. In fact, I feel certain that many people attempting to consume every item in this book in, say, one month’s time would drop dead of a coronary shortly thereafter (if not during.) Most of these dishes are foods done fast and served with an allowance of fat, sugar, and / or meat suitable for a family (for several days.)

If you’re a traveler (or a Chicagoan) and want to know more about quintessential windy city foods and where you can sample them, you must read this book.


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The Rice Gamut [Haibun]

Terraced rice fields. Some, in rectangular blocks. Others, following valley contours. In the tropics, all stages exist at once: The mirrored surfaces of flooded but unplanted paddies. The orderly stubble of freshly planted fields. The max saturation green fields, densely packed with verdancy. The tawny fields of heavy-headed ripe rice. One may pass all of these (and gradations, thereof) as one walks the narrow lanes that dissect farmland. People, birds, and animals transit the slender paddy levees, lending color to a monotony of vibrancy. Sometimes, a weather-beaten man or woman wades in the field -- feet wide and bent at the waist. Nowadays, people come from far away (sometimes even paying admission) to see these fields -- to see so much green packed under blue skies and to let that photosynthetic glory wash over them. 

mirrored paddy --
flooded but unplanted; a
child studies himself

lush green fields.
crows on the paddy dike
command the eye

tawny rice.
stalks bent under
grain-swollen heads 

Belize City Limerick

There was a chef from Belize City
who tried way too hard to be witty.
He liked to serve pork,
but when it was on fork,
tell his guests it was rat, just not itty-bitty.

NOTE: Gibnut [a.k.a. Paca] is a huge rodent eaten in Belize. It’s been called the “royal rat” because it was once served to Queen Elizabeth II.

Bratislava Limerick

A multiethnic gourmand of Bratislava 
liked to go downstairs for a hot java,
then over to Hungary
for torte topped with berry,
and on to Vienna for a slice of baklava.

BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.


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Kuala Lumpur Limerick

There was a durian seller from K.L.
asked to leave the market 'cause of the smell.
"Buyers 'll find you with ease
from the scent of bad cheese,"
said the contrite landlord in his farewell.

Dreaming Evil Clowns [Spencerian Sonnet]

My lungs were burning as I ran through town,
and tried to escape the streets of cobbled stone
and he from whom I ran, that evil clown,
whose paint obscured a face I once had known,

but how could I know something that's unknown
and, thinking that, I knew it made no sense,
though I knew it true deep within my bones.

Then stirred by eyes so burning and intense,
I picked a pointy stick for my defense,
and chucked it at the creature's beastly heart.
I missed its heart by width of a ten-pence.
The clown, in turn, tossed it back like a dart.

Awaking to sharp pains in my frail chest,
the clown had slayed me, or so I guessed.

BOOK REVIEW: Real Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded by Alex Lewin

Real Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home KitchenReal Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen by Alex Lewin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 21, 2021

This is an expanded edition of a book that explores the process of fermenting a wide range of foods and beverages, including – new to this edition – sourdough bread. It’s a great book for a neophyte such as myself as it covers all the basics without getting too arcane (though it does include natto and some other regional foods that may not be widely familiar.) The book provides step-by-step instructions for making sauerkrauts (and variations such as Kimchi,) yoghurt & kefir, fermented fruit condiments, beverages (alcoholic and non-,) bases / starters (e.g. vinegar,) and sourdough products (including, but not limited to, bread.) It describes some of the challenges one may run up against as well as showing what equipment one will need. It also proposes some of the ways a curious person might experiment with variations.

Color photos are used to clarify the production processes as well as to show appetizing finished products that will whet one’s appetite.

If one is looking to get into a narrow domain of fermentation, e.g. making beer or other alcoholic beverages, one may want to look elsewhere for a more specialized and in-depth guide (of which there are many.) However, this book may introduce one to ideas for brewing adventures one wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

This book is an awesome choice for someone looking to get into or to expand their food fermentation activities. It’s well-organized, beautifully presented, and – as I mentioned – not overwhelming. With the mounting evidence of the benefits of fermented foods, this is a great guide to learn more about how one can best begin producing such foods at home.


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BOOK REVIEW: Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz

Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your MicrobiomeFiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome by Will Bulsiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book advocates a high-fiber (i.e. plant-based) approach to eating. The book pairs a pop-sci dimension (explaining the science of why more fiber and plant-based foods would benefit most readers,) with a self-help dimension that supplies readers with a program by which they can pursue such a diet.

The book explains how the body’s microbiome breaks down fiber, producing Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs,) and discusses all the great things these molecules do for us. Speaking of the body’s microbiome, the book discusses how to keep it operating at its best, explaining all you need to know about prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. It also explores the benefits of fermented foods, and the pros and cons of a range of other foods.

I liked that the book, by-and-large, takes both a scientific / pragmatic approach. For example, Bulsiewicz rejects the hype that everyone needs to abandon gluten (not just those with Celiac Disease.) I can’t say that the book is perfectly scientifically-objective. It does advocate that everyone quit dairy products. The author does present some of the evidence of benefits of dairy, but dismisses these as studies that must be supported by the dairy industry. [While I’m sure the dairy industry does fund studies, I doubt that they have a lock on the scholarly debate, i.e. sending out milk-goons to break the knee-caps of researchers.]

I didn’t find the dietary plan (Ch. 10) to be useful. While I eat a high-fiber / plant-dominant diet, I don’t take the extreme position that all non-plant food must be eliminated. That stance makes some of the recipes impractical. One needs a neighborhood Whole Foods to get some of the ingredients.

That said, the book offers a great explanation of why one should eat more foods that feed one’s microbiome, and it’s an excellent resource for those wishing to learning more.

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