Category Archives: Companion/Guide

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

food-cooking-mcgee

Holy mother of…. This is a huge book. Nine hundred pages of food. A whole immense chapter dedicated to milk alone. Sugar plums dancing in my head. It could be either a dream or a nightmare.

It was pretty damn amazing. I found myself not feeling like reading it, but once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down.

McGee covers pretty much every food’s composition, history, and even name etymology. I, for one, had no idea the word “avacado” was derived from the native word for “testicle.” (The shape I guess??) Makes me snigger every time I make guacamole. The amount of research this book must have taken… incredible. I read the 2004 updated version–the original 1980’s one was ONLY 724 pages.

But while interesting–this is one beast of a book. Don’t be fooled–you will learn a lot if you stick with it–but it will take a LONG time. It’s less of an instruction manuel, and simply a basic food origin and preparation guide. It will tell you WHY you should add salt to pasta water, but not give you a recipe for vodka sauce. It’s very science and history-based.

The chapters were broken down by basic categories: milk, meat, fruits, vegetables, sauces, grains, etc… Some were more fascinating than others. All were about 70 pages long. The milk and meat were infinitely more page-turning than the fruits and sauces. I caught myself dozing a bit on those….

The two end chapters are dedicated to kitchen utensils and the four molecules that make up all food: fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and water. These should have been in the very beginning instead of the very end because they could have helped with the basic understanding of the rest of the chapters. I don’t get the order, but they were short anyway.

I really recommend this book for all cooks, or even just for people into food history. This is a very educational compendium. It’s like if you took everything Wikipedia had to say about food (that was true) and put it all in one place. Amazing. There should be one in every kitchen!

4 persimmon pastes of 5

 


Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter

So all my Facebook friends know that I love cooking and I try and make something yummy for my boyfriend every night. When I lived in England I cooked up a storm! (The food there actually is gross. And then there’s this… I knew the burgers tasted too gamey…) Well, my mad skills carried over back in the States and I haven’t looked back.

Cooking for Geeks combines two of my greatest loves–science and cooking. From the time I was a little kid I used to go in the kitchen or bathroom and mix random ingredients together to make “potions.” (I still don’t know why my mom wouldn’t drink Listerine/glitter/concealer potion–sheesh).

cooking_geeks_620I figured that CFG would be a cookbook with interesting little Pop Up Video-style notes in the margins talking about why this ingredient reacted to that and blah blah blah. Not really. It was more of a whole book of scientific methods involved in cooking–like the Maillard reaction involved in browning meat–with recipes interspersed here and there.

They also had mini-interviews with well-known geeks who were into cooking, like Adam Savage from Mythbusters. My inner geek glowed.

Potter clearly loves experimenting with food and encourages people to not be afraid to fail in cooking. You have to make some nasty food before you can figure out how to make something truly delicious. (Like the time I cooked chicken IN red wine and got purple, tough meat. Blegh!) After all, he notes, you can always order a pizza.

He talks a lot about food safety and cooking things to the correct temperature–and how long things last before they get dangerously full of microbes. Yikes. I’m a little paranoid now.

I do think that he went a little too in depth with some of the cooking methods–either that or this manuel is clearly not for beginners. A lot of these techniques I will probably never use (who has time to foam an egg?) but they were interesting to read about all the same. I’m never gonna make instant ice cream with dry ice, but hey–whatever floats your boat.

This is NOT a cookbook, but rather a kitchen guide for the scientifically-minded.

Enjoy, fellow geeks!

4 in-oven pizza stones of 5


Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere–Alive by Les Stroud

I was a little trepidatious to start Survive! simply because I’d read 98.6: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin not too long ago and I hated it.  It was longer than necessary and super boring, and I all really learned from it was to bring a bunch of survival objects with me, cover them all in neon tape, and DON’T GO OFF ALONE IN NATURE, STUPID. A long pamphlet would’ve sufficed. 

So it was a pleasant surprise when Les Stroud’s book was written in a much smoother format and he actually told me things that would help me survive.

Uh… Isn’t that the point? Survive-9780061373510

I actually learned things while reading Survive! and on a recent trip to the camping section I recognized several things he’d mentioned in his book–and I knew how they could be used. (This is no mean feat for me because I HATE camping, tools, and fixing anything).

I liked the fact that he included real life anecdotes about people that had used his techniques to survive–like the couple whom, when stranded in their truck in a blizzard, ripped up the seat cushions and fashioned snow shoes out of them. They then used the shoes to walk many miles to safety (and didn’t lose any toes to frostbite!)

He also mentioned some things that I would’ve never thought of until my “survival moment” happened. Like don’t get all emotional about destroying the environment if it will help you live. I could totally see myself not wanting to rip down saplings to build a shelter or feeling horrendously guilty about burning rubber to generate a signal fire. He makes the point that you can use your bleeding heart for nature’s benefit at a later date, right now you are trying to live to see said later date.

Good point.

Stroud reiterated several important pieces of advice throughout the book, including staying hydrated and being extremely careful about eating any unknown plant matter. He said that many people will die of thirst rather than drink from an untreated water source, but really, when it comes down to it, shouldn’t you be willing to take that chance if it’d save your life? He stated that someone’s irrational fear of stomach upset/diarrhea/parasites outweighs the much more realistic fear of dehydration. He argues that if you make it out of your situation alive, you’ll be able to get treated for parasites later. But you’ll never get treated for anything if you weaken and die because you were unwilling to drink from the puddle beside you.

He also said that many people fear starving to death above anything else. They are convinced that by not getting three regular meals a day they are on their way out. This leads them to make stupid decisions about eating native flora and that in and of itself has caused a number of deaths. You can survive for a LONG time without eating, but not very long without drinking. This means don’t go eating that pretty mushroom or strangely-shaped leaf because your stomach is growling. Be smart about it.

This is a must read for everyone, because you never know when you may need some survival skills!

4 stagnant ponds of 5

survivorman-les-stroud


Lyra’s Oxford by Phillip Pullman

I’m going to be short and sweet with this review because I wouldn’t want it to be longer than the book itself. I’m a huge fan of Phillip Pullman’s and I was absolutely obsessed with His Dark Materials series. I loved it. For any of you who have never read The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, or The Amber Spyglass I HIGHLY recommend that you do. They are amazing, fantastical books that explore some pretty deep topics under the guise of children’s literature. In fact, just writing about them makes me want to re-read the series as an adult to see what else I’ll glean from it.

(Also, obviously, don’t judge the book by it’s movie. The Golden Compass’ film adaptation did not do it justice at all…)

All I know is, I wish daemons were real! So so cool! They’re pretty much an outward extension of your soul represented by an animal. They can change form until you reach puberty and your personality has “settled.” Our main character Lyra’s has now settled as a ermine, I believe, but there can be a multitude of choices. Lord Asriel’s was a snow leopard, Ms. Coulter’s was a golden tamarin monkey, and Lee Scoresby’s was a hare.

Witches’ daemons are usually birds and possess the unsettling ability to fly miles and miles away from their masters. (All daemons are on a relatively short “leash” to their humans, as you wouldn’t feel right with your soul running around without you, would you?) They are usually the opposite sex from their companion. Very interesting…

But that being said, Lyra’s Oxford was completely useless. It shouldn’t have even been a stand-alone novel. It was an extremely short story about Lyra and her daemon Pan, as they try to seek help for a witch’s daemon. Very very brief and pretty uninteresting. It takes place two years after the end of The Amber Spyglass and reminded me quite a bit of what Stephenie Meyer did with The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner or what JK Rowling did with The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Kind of just short, useless reminders of an epic series. (Although The Tales of Beedle the Bard did have a purpose, even though it was small…)

The verdict? Skip it.

2 stolen gypsy children of 5


98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin

Sometimes when I get really into stories, I get on little jags and want to be more like the characters I’m reading about. For example, The Hunger Games made me want to learn archery and survival skills. The Rise of Nine made me want to learn karate and get in good shape so I could kick some ass. Twilight made me want to have sex with Edward Cullen.

You get the picture.

So, in going in the same vein as survival skills, I picked up 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by renowned survival expert Cody Lundin. I figured anything with the word “ass” in the title couldn’t be boring to read.

I guess I was wrong….

Lundin’s book mostly goes over what to bring with you if you were suddenly stuck in a “survival scenario.” He’s not talking about surviving a plane crash that dropped you in the middle of the desert or something extreme like that. The book delves more into being fully prepared for anything to happen on a hike or wilderness excursion that you choose to go on. I thought that meant we were going to learn some skills, like knowing the time based off the sun’s position, or how to find water in a random environment. Shoot, even how to build a shelter out of branches would’ve been cool.

But instead, half of the book was devoted to learning about regulating body temperature and staying hydrated. Seriously, is half the book necessary? The other half was devoted to what to keep in your “survival kit.” This was an extremely long and boring section on all the little knick knacks to bring with you in case of an emergency. I get it. Those are things you need to survive. But rather than making a bullet point list of the things you’ll need and a brief description of how to use them–Lundin rambled on in huge paragraphs or chapters for each tiny object. It wasn’t pretty.

I just wish he hadn’t gone into scientific description about temperature regulation and hydration. Yes, tell us the warning signs for hypothermia, hyperthermia, and dehydration. But we don’t need to know what it means on a cellular level.

Honestly, I don’t know anyone past the age of five that isn’t well aware of these things.

And (although this was good advice) he reiterated multiple times about telling someone where you’re going and what time to expect you back before you venture off into the woods alone. Tons of people have died because they’ve tripped along the trail, broken their leg, and died of exposure. Or one of a million other stupid, pointless reasons to die.

Does anyone really go off alone without saying anything anymore? I think Aron Ralston would’ve cleared that whole thing up for us by now….

I’m going to sum the whole book up for you right now: Drink lots of water, stay warm or cool as needed, tell someone where you’re going, have a small survival kit to bring with you–even on a day hike.

I’ll say it again…

Don’t go off alone in nature, stupid. 

(Plus, as a side note, the whole thing reads like a guide your hokey, completely un-hip dad would write. Down to the crazy, 80’s reminscent cartoons. Also, Lundin apparently lives in a tent all the time and doesn’t shower too frequently. I guess that speaks volumes about his love life…)

1 arm you cut off yourself out of 5


Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara was my poolside read of choice over the weekend. Sheesh. Holy long title, Batman. My roommate –whom I have been BFFs with for almost 10 years and lived with for 3–got me this book as a gift after I graduated college. She said she saw it and immediately knew she had to buy it for me. Hahah, very funny. She just knows me too well, I guess!

Although there really is no nudity or drunkenness between Lara’s pages (a fact that I was greatly disappointed about, I might add…) she has built a solid resource for those brave souls willing to display their dirty laundry for all to see. I like that fact that people other than celebrities are getting to share their life stories because–really–do we need to learn ANYTHING else about the Kardashian’s antics? Or Snooki’s? (A big resounding EFF NO is the answer I’m looking for here, people…) These are true stories, as true as a memory can be, that is. Philandering husbands, failing parents, pregnant teenagers, upsetting accidents–anything goes because THIS IS YOUR LIFE.

You just run the risk of everyone you’ve ever cared about hating your guts, that’s all. 

I did enjoy reading this book, and Lara’s writing style presented the facts in a much less boring way than I was anticipating. Most writing guides are so full of the technical stuff that it’s impossible to enjoy them after the first half. I am glad I read this book and am interested in reading her memoir of raising her hellion daughter (since she mentioned it so much,which I will admit became slightly annoying). I love gossip just as much as the next person, which is pretty much what a memoir boils down to. Dramatic, secretive, personal events that were turning points in your life. Now who doesn’t want to nose into someone else’s business, really?

For anyone aspiring to write their own memoir (and totally out their family in the process), this book is for you.

4 naked writers out of 5


The Sookie Stackhouse Companion by Charlaine Harris

So, The Sookie Stackhouse Companion by Charlaine Harris was just released recently and I just finished it today. It includes a short story about Sookie and Sam attending a wedding, a series timeline, recipes from Bon Temps, a FAQ section with Harris, an interview with Alan Ball, and a character dictionary. I thought it would be a great read since I love the series and the show, and I’ve read all the Sookie Stackhouse books to date.

I was wrong.

Charlaine Harris’s companion guide to her series was a total nose-dive in my opinion. I really enjoyed the first 80 pages, which were the short story about Sam’s brother’s shifter wedding. The recipe book was also pretty cool. The rest of it? Absolutely useless.

The FAQ section didn’t jump out at me, as many of the questions seemed like they should have been common sense for a true fan who has read all the books (or even followed the HBO series). Also, Alan Ball’s interview was a total waste of time because he gave indirect, noncommittal answers to almost ever question he was asked and I finished reading the interview with more of a WTF? feeling than an Aha! feeling. I get that you’re the producer/director of a television phenomenon and you don’t want to disclose too much, but come on! This interview is going in an actual book–one that will probably sell hundreds of thousands of copies, if not millions–not some trashy newsstand gossip rag. 

The time line was horrible because it was basically a summary of everything that’d happened in all the books, a plot synopsis for everything. I don’t need to know the exact year, month (down to the day) time line of every thing that’s happened. I know Hurricane Katrina is mentioned in some of the books, and I can fill in the rest for myself from there. *sigh*

The recipe section was cute, because it consisted of reader-submitted recipes that mimicked those mentioned in the series, like Caroline Bellefluer’s famous chocolate cake. And since I LOVE southern cooking, I was all about this.

But, above all… The absolute bane to my existence was the character dictionary. THE BANE TO MY EXISTENCE. I went into it thinking Oh, cool we’ll learn more about the backgrounds of all the stand-out characters.

Then I noticed it was like, 250 pages long.

Whaaa…?

Turns out it’s about every Tom, Dick, and Harry ever mentioned in any one of the books, short stories, or novellas. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. I’m not just talking Jane Bodehouse, the town drunk specific, I’m talking Unidentified Vampire #2 and Unnamed German Shepard Shifter specific. Seriously. Every single person, every single relative of that person, every single brother’s sister’s aunt’s uncle’s cousin’s in-law’s mother. Seriously. If it wasn’t for my book-reading compulsive disorder I would’ve completely ditched the guide at this point. I remember all the main characters and some of the more interesting side ones, and that’s it. That’s all I need to know. I sincerely doubt Harris even remembered all of these herself. That’s how many there were.

If you’re a hard core Sookie fan, then my suggestion is to check this out from the library. Read the short story and write down some of the recipes, but just stop there and turn it back in for the next person to use. For real. I know this sounds harsh, because I love True Blood, but this book was an epic fail in Charlaine Harris’ otherwise long and successful series.

2 of 5 stars