The reproductive cycle of the lobster depends, a lot, on the temperature of the water, which is why there are no more lobsters off New York City but the Maine fisheries are booming, or at least they were, as Canadian waters warm up, too. The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery? goes fishing with the Maine lobstermen (the rare women doing that job call themselves lobstermen, too), explains the rather long supply chain from them to our plates, and desserts about climate change. I most enjoyed the visits with the lobstermen. It’s pretty rough sailing, tough and dangerous work, and it also starts ungodly early.
It’s also clear that placing reasonable limits on fishing would help everyone, and some cities have tried to implement local regulations that work surprisingly well, at least if the water temperature would stay constant. And lobstermen have done well expanding their reach into the supply chain, which requires ingenuity and very different skills than those required on the boat.
We take it for granted that our milk contains milk, maple syrup something more than mere corn syrup, and that canned meat won’t kill us. The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century recalls a time when early food manufacturers felt free to sell pretty much anything, in the absence of any legislation. The book describes the difficult fight of a chemist, Dr. Wiley, to research safe products and push for regulations, the 1906 Food and Drug Act, against the strong objections of the food industry. That should make for a great, inspiring story, and there are indeed some delightful moments, as when roomfuls of young men are enlisted to eat their way through doubtful preservatives (well, maybe not so delightful for the young men!). But the pace is slow and the details somewhat mind-numbing.
With JELL-O Girls: A Family History, I was expecting a history of the brand and the book provides some glimpses of it, but it’s really an opportunity for the author to tell the sad story of her mother’s life, molded (pun intended) and limited by the expectations of the time much more than the family inheritance, and ended prematurely in a protracted, wretched bout with cancer. Basically we are reminded that money does not deliver happiness, especially when health is lacking.
Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas is full of interesting tidbits that would make a great trivia quiz: why Icelandic yogurt is so delicious (and is not yogurt at all!); that 14th Century Arabs made a milk and colostrum (!) mixture; that 18th century French physicians recommended ice cream as health food (I’m in!); that cows produce four times as much milk today than in 1942; and that Tibetan yaks serve as snow plows as much as milk producers.
The stories are often interesting, but they seem to be stitched together one after the other, logically perhaps, but in the dry style of a thousand index cards filled in by research assistants. Do research assistants still use index cards? Probably not, but that’s what the book feels like, and the recipes that are interleaved with the text do not dismiss that impression.
Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization ambitiously considers fishing as a source of food from pre-historic times to today. Starting with Neanderthal bands on the banks of the Rhone river, the author reports on the weights and shapes of fish bones (since the rest of the bodies are long gone), and I wonder about how many grad students painstakingly separated tiny bones from the rest of the excavations! We should be very thankful for those bones, and the grass students counting them, since the fish have no antlers or other distinctive features that would indicate their bring consumed otherwise. As we step into the centuries it becomes very obvious that fish has been a very important source of food, and especially protein, through winters, ice ages, and droughts. Interestingly, technology in the form of spears, harpoons, nets of all kinds, boats of course, and basins for raising fish is a surprisingly large part of the story.
I was disappointed by Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America. I expected a historical summary of ice cream in America, perhaps a primer on manufacturing, and plenty of stories about regional specialties — and I did get some bits and pieces here and there, but in a chaotic format. The book starts well, with the confession that the author keeps emergency pints in her freezer in case she needs comfort after an earthquake (she’s a Californian), or more likely a stressful field trip with her kindergartener. But then starts the complaint that repeats throughout the book, that most ice cream shops buy their base. Horror! (Why? Isn’t the ice cream delicious anyway?) Some chapters are tiresome, such as the long descriptions of turf wars between New York ice cream trucks. And the author chooses to use the overdone motif of adding a recipe at the end of each chapter, only to tire of it midway through and stop abruptly.
There are delectable nuggets, most notably that ice cream, properly stored, has no expiration date (a rather useless feature, since ice cream lovers won’t wait too long to finish the tub!) and also a tempting description of Milwaukee’s custard creams. Not enough to my taste. Now where’s that Chunky Monkey?
That innocuous can of baking powder in your kitchen cabinet comes from a long line of chemists (understandably) and also schemers and corporate villains who made consumers believe their competitors sold poison and in the process changed the way home cooks baked. Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking tells all about it, in often excruciating detail.