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I have been referring regularly to my copy of the Joy of Cooking, a birthday gift from my dear uncle, owner extraordinaire of Normals bookstore in Baltimore. It is a 1970s reprinting of the original 1931 book. It is, unlike many other used cookbooks, surprisingly lacking in stains and bits of 40 year old food. It also is the container of hundreds upon hundreds of recipes.

One of my favorite things about the Joy of Cooking is certainly the key feature it is known for, which is explaining what things are in general before diving into recipes. So if I need explicit instructions on cutting up chicken parts, they are right there (with illustrations), followed by a brief overview of all the ways to cook a chicken. And then a few variations, or what constitutes the recipe portion of that chapter. The same if you need to make a pie crust, or a custard, or chop up a cabbage. Clear, concise instructions. On, as far as I can tell, literally every aspect of cooking.

The one place she is not so clear is on what some of the items she describes are. For example, when perusing the book last week with the HF, we were rather perplexed by the series of recipes for Charlottes. The first was a Charlotte Russe, which I know to be a clothing store aimed at teenage girls who desire to look a little sexy. After perusing the various recipes, I realized Charlottes are apparently those things you get when you soak ladyfingers (a kind of cookie thing) in alcohol. Will be making some of those promptly.

Presumably the people of 1931 knew what Charlottes were. People in 1931 apparently knew a lot of things modern cooking audiences would be very perplexed by. And that, I think, is my favorite part of the Joy of Cooking. She writes for an audience who would see “milk” in a recipe and assume whole, unpasteurized milk. In several recipes she actually makes a note that if you are using pasteurized milk you need to alter the recipe. Hmm, I say, how intriguing- you mean, there is a difference between whole, unpasteurized (raw) milk and pasteurized milk? Funny, that’s what the FDA has been claiming there’s no difference at all, except that all the pathogens have supposedly been killed in the pasteurized version. I wonder how that could be…

Needless to say, any book that suggests using unpasteurized milk might work better for a recipe gets a big thumbs up from my direction. She in general seems to assume you are going to be using ingredients, as in, flour, sugar, whole butter, not “buy a box of cake mix.” I HATE, and by hate I really mean HATE HATE HATE recipes that for an ingredient ask you to buy a box or can of something already prepared. For example, when perusing stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving, half of them had you buy stuffing mix at the store and then doctor it up. Are you kidding? No. When I make bread stuffing, I want to make it from BREAD. I wouldn’t think that would be so hard to understand, but then again, most people shop at the grocery store, so who am I to say.

The Joy of Cooking literally has everything (or so I’m convinced). You can’t just sit down and look through it page by page, because it’s got about 500. And one page might have ten or more recipes on it, if the recipes are variations on a basic concept. But if I have a large quantity of something or another and no idea what to do with it, I am now turning first to Mrs. Joy, because chances are there at least fifteen recipes for it. I’ve already demonstrated this method with cabbage. As HF and I were glancing through it the other night, with me looking for recipes for chicken, we discovered just how extensive the book really is. Not only are there recipes for chicken, and turkey, and lots of them, there are also recipes for: quail, pheasant, mudhen, grouse, etc etc. A few pages on you come across the chapter for small game, which includes recipes for not only rabbits, but squirrels, opossums, raccoons, beavers, armadillos and that standby Eastern Shore favorite, muskrat. According to the Joy of Cooking, beaver tail is actually quite a delicacy, highly prized by Native Americans. The thing I love about this chapter is that the master recipe not only talks about how to cook small game, but includes directions (and diagrams) for skinning, gutting, and otherwise chopping into pieces various small game. There is a special diagram for squirrels, as they are so small. And very special instructions for removing the musk glands from muskrats and beavers. Apparently the key to any small game is to hang it in the cold for several days (HF says this is to remove most of the stink).

For my part, I have told the HF that if he brings me a beaver, I will do my best to cook it up for him. This caused me to picture an image of a pioneer household, with the wife at home baking, when the husband, muddy and cold, suddenly comes in the door with a beaver. He hands it over to the wife, but before doing anything she reaches up for her handy copy of the Joy of Cooking. HA! I do figure that when civilization collapses, if we haven’t quite puzzled out sustainable farming with animals, the book to have is not some crazy survival manual, but the Joy of Cooking. Because if all else fails, at least you will know how to properly cook a beaver.

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So I finally finished the book I was referring to last week. It was a struggle, because, to the end, it wasn’t very well written. Which was a shame, really. I had really high hopes that it would be. In fact, I really, really wanted it to be a well written, informative, inspiring book.

Instead I was mostly irritated by the author’s tendency to contradict himself in every other paragraph. But I’m getting ahead of myself: the book is The Town that Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. It was lent to me by an acquaintance who recently traveled to the town in question, a little rural town not far from Burlington, Vermont. She warned me in advance that the book wasn’t well written, but I plugged away anyway, hoping against hope that here, in these pages, would be the answer I hadn’t even realized I was seeking: how DO you create a viable, localized food system? What does one even look like?

As it turns out, Mr. Hewitt doesn’t know either. That’s the impressive thing about the book. It takes him over 200 pages to come to the conclusion that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what he’s talking about. There are some interesting descriptions of the “characters” that play a role in the town’s emerging ag businesses, but aside from that, this town doesn’t seem so different from our town. A bunch of individuals are all kind of doing their thing, and some people are being successful, and some people aren’t, and some other people (me) are trying to link it all together. This is not to say that he doesn’t have valid thoughts- there are a lot of germs of great ideas within the book. It’s just that, well, if you aren’t sure what the answers to the questions that you’re asking are, maybe you don’t need to write a whole book on it. That’s why I write a blog, after all. I haven’t got things figured out at all yet.

In fact, I found the book rather reflective of the things I typically ask on this blog. What is an appropriate scale for so-called “sustainable” agriculture? Where is the balance between making money and staying local? What about accessibility? What about the people who have been doing this all along?

That question, in particular, was of great interest to me. The author pointed out, and rightly so, that there are plenty of people who have been plugging along, direct marketing their products to neighbors and nearby towns, without any sense of being a part of a “movement”. They probably wouldn’t even call what they do “local foods,” except for the ones (and this is most of the people around here, at least) who have caught on to the trend going on right now, that people will pay premium for things marketed as local foods. But there’s nothing much new about people selling food to the people nearby. What’s new about it is that all these people are suddenly acting like it’s the most amazing thing ever. Suddenly, it has significance. Local foods are going to save the world, didn’t you know?

I appreciated that Mr. Hewitt took the time to ask these kinds of questions, rather than just slamming through a book praising the local foods movement in his area as the saviour of the world. He has no delusions that what they are doing is completely brilliant, completely unlike anything that’s gone before, or even particularly great for the area in general. He addresses both sides of the argument- the messiahs of local foods, and the rest of the world, who continue on shopping at discount supermarkets as if nothing has changed. It’s well worth exploring these concepts, it’s just- well. I’m not sure why he wrote a whole book about it. If he really had been writing just about what his neighbors were doing, how they were starting these small, specialty farms and making lots of money at it, then he could have written a book about that. He didn’t need to ramble on at length about the broader implications. But if he was going to look at the broader implications- well, I would have hoped he would have actually come to some conclusions. Or maybe looked at more than one town.

There are many similarities between his town and ours, though I have to say that at least according to his descriptions, Vermont sounds like a world apart. All these people running around with solar panels on their roofs and eating tofu. That is NOT the case here, that’s for damn certain. And all the farms smaller than 100 acres? It sounds like another planet, if you ask me. I can’t quite puzzle out what all the landowners are doing up there in Vermont, if they aren’t doing local ag and they only have farms averaging 60-90 acres. Every time I tell someone around here that I want about 60 acres or less they look at me like I’ve lost my mind. And I find it really, really, hard to believe that everyone in Vermont is a tofu eating solar panel sporting ex hippie. Indeed, Mr. Hewitt makes reference to this other population (the normal one, I think), but somehow they never seem to enter into the story. And this is something I often fear our own movement lacks. If any movement is only made up of intellectuals, most of whom aren’t even from the area in question (and you aren’t a local here unless you’re at least four generations in), you aren’t going to make much headway, and the “locals” are going to start resenting you pretty early on (as seems to happen in this particular town in Vermont).

If you are completely unfamiliar with the issues that surround local foods, I recommend taking a stab at this book (and skimming heartily). If you’ve been working on these issues for even a few months, however, you aren’t going to find any answers here, and will probably be more irritated with Mr. Hewitt’s tendency to posit a concept and then tear it down in the very next paragraph. It’s like 200 long pages of self-doubt, internal questioning, and the general type of thoughts I at least usually reserve for the time before falling asleep each night, when I lie awake and worry that all this stuff I’ve gotten myself involved in is going nowhere or, worse, is only going to make things worse.

But like I said, I’ve got a blog to talk about those things. If I ever do publish a book on local foods, I’d certainly hope it would be a bit more coherent.

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