Reading While Eating: Nine Favorite Books from 2017

Paris, family, food writing and strong women. Complicated relationships, historical drama, and artistic personalities. That’s the scope of what we loved best in the reading department in 2017.  This past year, we explored an old city with new eyes thanks to David, Janice, Julia and Jessie. We soul searched with India and Diane, cooked with Clementine and Norah, climbed the symbolic lime tree and walked through the literal golden house.

Every year, we keep track of what we read and watch so that we can share our best-of list here on the blog in the hopes that you’ll discover something new yourself. They aren’t all necessarily new books or movies that came out this year, but they all are things that were newly introduced to us within the past 12 months and they follow a common theme of history in some form or another. The oldest one in this batch dates to the 1940’s (Clementine in the Kitchen) but remains as fresh and engaging as this morning’s breakfast.  The youngest in the batch was published just three months ago (The Golden House) but reads like an old-fashioned classic.

Let’s look…

1. Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell (1959)

If you have ever wondered what the everyday inner workings of a mid-century suburban American house were like then you will love Mrs. Bridge. Told in brief vignettes, it is the story of India Bridge… wife… mother… mid-westerner… who is wanting and watching for something more, anything more, extraordinary to happen to her static, routine life.  In-between family meals, housecleaning, entertaining and her own thinly executed attempts to make life interesting, India shares her thoughts on all the details that make up her society prescribed and approved life.  No moment goes unnoticed from how she sets her table, wears her gloves, communicates with her friends, chooses her clothing and handles her family. It is an intimate look into the mind of a woman processing the boundaries of a life selected for her but necessarily by her. We loved it because it is peppered with familiar 1940s/50’s decorating trends and brand references that we come in contact with a lot in the Vintage Kitchen and because India is an interesting character – conforming whole-heartedly to her boxed-in life while questioning a large lot of it.

2. The Woman I Wanted To Be – Diane Von Furstenberg (2015)

Diane Von Furstenberg invented the wrap dress in the 1970’s which launched her into iconic status in the fashion industry because it is the dress, the only dress, that looks flattering on any and every female body shape regardless of height, weight, age or ethnicity. But before Diane became famous in the American fashion industry she was an everywoman, born in Belgium with artistic interests and a desire to build an authentic life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or how to go about doing it, so she followed intuition, using her natural abilities and talents, likes and dislikes as a guide to figure out her skillset and herself.   She didn’t always get things right but every experience, good or bad led to fine-tuning and deeper understanding.

Diane (center) in 1976 in wearing her famous wrap dress.

The Woman I Wanted To Be spans seven decades of her life but pays particular attention to the years she struggled to define herself – the years before she designed the famous dress and the years after she designed the famous dress. She talks about how lifestyle choices and personal circumstances led to the actual physical creation of her famous piece of clothing, she talks about launching an American business as a foreign woman, she talks about the emptiness she felt as a creative artist following the success of the dress and she talks about being true to herself in an industry that prefers cookie-cutter beauty and constant re-invention.

3. A Paris Year – Janice Macleod (2017)

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

You can never have too much Paris or too much Janice. In her second book about the beautiful city, writer and painter Janice MacLeod takes us on a daily artistic tour of everything that makes Paris perfect from the food to the culture to the climate. Not unlike Diane Von Furstenberg, Janice followed her own inklings of intuition by leaving her unfulfilling corporate life in California and moving to Paris solely based on the hunch that she just might love it. That was the subject of her first book Paris Letters, which details how she made the big move step-by-step. The follow-up, A Paris Year shows us in pictures and words how rewarding that big move proved to be.  In June,  we wrote an in-depth post about the book, including pictures and artwork from the book.  If you are new to the blog, catch up on that post here.

4. A Taste of Paris – David Downie (2017)

Author David Downie wrote a whole entire book about the history of food in France. We featured his phenomenal work here.

We were on a real Paris kick this past year and were lucky enough to be able to review two books about the great city. After reading A Taste of Paris, we were completely blown away by its scope of content and enormous subject matter – the history of food in Paris. Such a noble undertaking! David Downie has an incredible ability to boil this big subject down into an interesting and engaging timeline that will keep you captivated from beginning to end.  Covering the cuisine, the culture and the characters that have contributed to the French food scene since the very beginning, reading this book felt like taking a master history class peppered with fascinating foodie fun facts.  Last September, we discussed our favorite parts of the book. If you missed that post, catch up here.

5. The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (2017)

We aren’t quite finished with this book yet – but we loved it so much we included it here because it is a marvelous treat for any fiction lover. Centering around a New York City neighborhood and the arrival of a mysterious foreign family – Nero Golden and his three grown sons – The Golden House begins with the neighbors’ speculation on all aspects of the newcomers’ lives.  Salman’s writing style is in incredible, particularly the way in which he describes his characters…

“He dressed expensively but there was a loud, animal quality to him which made one think of the Beast of folktale, uneasy in human finery.”

Some critics have compared the character of Nero Golden to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby as a misunderstood modern day man attempting to reinvent himself in a new environment. We’ll come back to this thought once we finish, but in the meantime, if you have a few days off and want to dive into a meaty read, beautifully told and full of layered storylines and fresh characters than this is the book for you. You’ll be enthralled from the first page, we promise!

6. Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange – Amanda Smyth (2009)

In part due to its gorgeous title and exotic tropical setting (the Caribbean island of Tobago), Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange is the fictional story of Celia and her entanglement with three men each of whom dramatically alter the course of her life. Poetic, lyrical and lush in detail, Amanda Smyth blends together seductive elements of nature writing with romantic storytelling for a perfect mid-winter read that will make you feel like you’ve visited the Caribbean without ever leaving home. Similiar to Love In The Time of Cholera, it is packed full of symbolism and romantic themes, so if you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll enjoy Amanda Smyth as well.

7. Clementine In The Kitchen – Samuel Chamberlain (1943)

First published in 1943 under the pen name Phineas Beck, Clementine in the Kitchen tells the true story of the Chamberlain family’s French cook, Clementine, whom the family first meets while living in a small village just outside of Paris. When the Chamberlain’s get transferred to Massachusetts, Clementine is invited to move with them – a big decision for the petite woman who has never left her birthplace. Clementine is a natural in the kitchen in France and the family cannot help but rave about her cuisine to everyone they know. In America though, she is a fish out of water, not understanding the language or the shopping style of her new country. Ingredients are different, convenience foods are popular and daily outdoor market shopping is replaced with weekly trips to that strange place called the indoor supermarket.

How does Clementine cope with all this change? We don’t want to spoil it for you, so you have to read it to find out.  But what we can say is that this book is funny and charming and filled with recipes. The surprise ending, cinematic storyline and ever engaging character of Clementine makes it seem like a perfect candidate for movie adaptation and it offers the added benefit of learning some of the basics of French cooking.  All around an engaging and highly original read that we thoroughly enjoyed. Later this year, we will be featuring a few recipes from this book, so stay tuned.

8. Bon Appetit – Jessie Hartland (2012)

Joie de vivre is a term often associated with the French culture that defines their eternal zest and enthusiasm for life. If ever a book captured that phrase, it would be this one, Bon Appetit by Jessie Hartland. At first glance, you’ll think this is a kids book meant just for the enjoyment of little ones. But don’t be fooled. It is wonderfully inspiring and whimsical for adults as well. Detailing the entire life story of Julia Child in just 45 pages of colorful illustrations and clever text, Jessie Hartland has managed to capture the enigmatic and infectious personality of America’s best-loved cook. You’ll read the whole thing in a jiffy but its infectious positivity will stick with you forever.

9. At Home With Kate – Eileen Considine-Meara (2007)

Norah Considine was Katharine Hepburn’s cook, friend and all around helper for 30 years. At Home with Kate shares, the intimate details of day-to-day life in Kate’s household as Norah prepared meals and planned parties in both her NYC residence and the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut during the last three decades of Kate’s life. Written by Norah’s daughter, Eileen, who first met Kate when she was a teenager helping her mom serve meals during Kate’s dinner parties,  At Home with Kate is an entertaining conglomeration of memoir, biographical sketch and thoughtful retrospection on three women who shared an extraordinary experience.

Norah with her celebrity crush – Robert Wagner, taken in the kitchen of Kate’s Manhattan townhouse. Photo from At Home with Kate by Eileen Considine-Meara.

For all the glamour, independence and mystery surrounding the Old Hollywood film star, Eileen shows us that Katharine Hepburn, in real-life, was a thrifty homebody with a taste for simple foods and quiet dinner parties. We loved that it contained a handful of Kate’s recipes along with the memories too. It was interesting to see that the dishes Kate enjoyed most reflected her unfussy philosophy towards food – meatloaf, brownies, stew, rum cake, steak and a variety of soups.  And it was interesting to learn that it wasn’t all about cooking for Norah – her responsibilities ran the gamut as far as tasks required of her (errands, gardening, cleaning and on-loan cook for some of Kate’s friends, as well) all while Norah was raising five kids of her own and working a minimum of 10 hours a day at Kate’s. In October, we featured Kate’s famous lace cookies, the recipe most often requested by house guests and always kept in constant supply in Kate’s kitchen. Find that recipe here.

Each of the books we listed above have nourished us in one way or another whether it be through imagination, introspection or edibles. Hope our reading while eating selections prove to be equally engaging for you as well. If you have discovered some new favorite books from last year too, please share them with us in the comments section below. We are always on the lookout for something fun to read.

In the meantime, cheers to cozy winter days and culinary creativity!

The City of Lighters and Other Paris Fun Facts

Everyone knows that French food is one of the most well-crafted and esteemed cuisines in the world, but not many people know why or how it came to be. In David Downie’s new book, A Taste of Paris, he dives into the history behind the food with a researcher’s wild abandon for discovery and a humourist’s eye for fun.

Last time we were reading about the City of Light here on the blog, we were exploring it through the paintings and photographs of writer Janice MacLeod in her book, A Paris Year.

Janice and her Paris Year!

This time around, we are deep in the archive vaults of Parisian history alongside author David Downie as he takes us on an epicurean tour of the food that made France famous. Magically, in just 280 pages, David manages to condense centuries worth of feasting into a tidy timeline that begins in 53 B.C. and ends in present day.

“What is thrilling at least to me,” David declares in the starter portion of the book, “is to speculate on how in modified and sometimes-hard-to-recognize forms many foods and food-related habits have survived the ravages of time, the invasions and massacres and floods and fires, the plagues and changes in religion or political and economic systems, and live on in Paris today.”

It is with that keen interest that David dissects how, when, where and why the French have cooked, created, dined and dallied their way to the top of the menu board. Along the way, we learn about colorful characters like…

Queen Caterina de Medici – wife of King Henry II (1519-1589)

Queen Caterina, wife of King Henri II who chewed tobacco leaves to relieve her headaches which started French women’s universal love affair with nicotine.

We also learn about the histories behind an assortment of interesting neighborhoods, buildings, and restaurants that all contributed to the food scene both ancient and modern…

Clockwise from top left: Le Marais historic district, Palace de Versailles, Hotel de Cluny dating to the 1300’s, Verjus restaurant

…and we learn fun facts galore on a myriad of kitchen topics like these…

  1. Butter knives were invented so that people couldn’t pick their teeth at table.
  2. During the Middle Ages, long before the invention of plates,  bread was baked in cutting board shapes and used to hold piles of food for individual eaters. Once the food on top of the bread was consumed, the bread was given to peasants or animals to eat.
  3. Artichokes are considered an aphrodisiac, especially in Italy.
  4. One in three French people smoke (hence the city of lighters!)
  5. In-home cooking spaces in most French houses didn’t exist until the late 18th century.
  6. Below is one of President Obama’s favorite restaurants near the Eiffel Tower…

La Fontaine De Mars

Paris is a city continuously simmering in centuries of tradition. A delightfully unique aspect of David’s book is that he shifts back and forth between present day and the past, so you absorb plenty of history along the way but you also directly understand the correlation between what’s changed and what hasn’t.

While you don’t need to be a European history scholar or a devout foodie in order to tuck into this culinary aspect of the city, it helps if you have a special interest in old world events and a basic understanding of the fine-tuned culture of the Parisian lifestyle because David presents so much interesting, thoughtful information.  You’ll want to marinate in his chapters for a bit instead of rushing through them in one quick read. I was lucky enough to receive this advance copy of the book several months ago. One of the fun aspects of reading it over the summer was keeping Pinterest close-by so that I could look up the people and places of Paris while I was learning about them through David’s eyes.

With a wonderfully engaging voice and an ability to colorfully (and often times humorously) describe a building or a banquet, David treks you around town with insight and intimation. One of my favorite lines in the book came forty pages in when he writes about the 3rd-century Roman bath complex at Cluny as “a charming jumble that looks like a mouthful of broken molars repaired with elaborate fretwork crowns.” Admittedly, I had no idea what the Cluny bath house looked like, but thanks to David’s description I could get a pretty good impression of it.

Other intriguing sections in the book included the eating habits of Versailles’ residents, the symbolic imagery found in The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry,  and the gregarious life surrounding French food writer, Maurice Edmond Sailland a.k.a Curnonsky (1872-1956).

A snippet from the Taste panel of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry created in 1500.

But not everything is champagne and caviar and easily expressed. Amidst all of these fascinating history lessons, David also dives into his own food experience which began in Paris in the 1970’s. With his modern eyes, he retraces his food steps taken four decades ago to see how, and if, the landscape he once personally adored still holds up to the memories he stored. He also talks about the future of French food among the booming explosion of other newly exalted food scenes in other cities. Can Paris hold up to the competition?

Described best as  part guidebook, part history class and part personal memoir, A Taste of Paris pushes you to make notes, take notes, look for more, explore more… which brought me to quickly wish for two things that the book did not have – detailed maps of the areas where David traveled and an index for quick reference.  Then I discovered, as I finished the last page that David does offer both maps and an index of sorts. He and his wife offer walking tours of Paris through his website where they take you on all sorts of off-the-beaten-path adventures. That’s ten times better than a paper map and a list of page numbers! You get the guy (and the guide) in person, all to your yourself!

While we often don’t even think about the fact that millions of people have experienced both good and terrible situations treading upon the very ground we also walk upon so nonchalantly every single day,  David reminds us that the veins of history are deeply wound up in the practices and procedures of our modern lives. That flaky croissant, that steaming cup of hot chocolate, that celebratory pop of champagne were all born a long time ago yet they continue to intrinsically impact us as we move towards the future. In detailing the anatomy of a cuisine, David dissected a city whose culture has influenced a collective conscious of eaters around the world and that is pretty remarkable.

Whether you get the chance to meet up with David in Paris and peruse the food scene together or you simply read about his city in your city, A Taste of Paris is as satisfying as falling in love with a new museum exhibit. It will broaden your point of view, make you think, ask questions, ponder your own country’s evolution of food practices and ultimately make you appreciate how far we have come, as a civilization, from the days of heaping breadboards and kitchen-less houses.

Cheers to David for peeling back the layers of French food culture in such an interesting way!

Find A Taste of Paris available here. Learn more about David and his other Paris based books here. And if you find yourself in the City of Light(ers) take David’s tour and watch the book unfold before your eyes.