Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Xantolo - I knew there was a name for it!

Well, my goal to read my way through some food and farming books this winter is actually being realized! Every winter I reflect on how as a child, I loved going to the library in the summertime and eagerly joined summer reading programs and filled all my days with reading, reading, reading! Now my summers are filled with other passions - and my lists of book titles pile up waiting for the relaxing days on the other side of the calendar that I will hopefully devote to actually plowing through my list.

During the summer, my reading almost consists almost entirely of passages from all my favorite food magazines, which I scour to find new and exciting ways to cook the bounty from my fields. Predictably, my winter reading this year consists of food writing of the lengthier variety. I wanted to share some wonderful passages and general observations from some of the books I have motored through so far, here at winter's middle. Groundhog day is just around the corner (as a complete and only somewhat related digression: if interested, check out for the craziness that abounds in Punxsutawney, PA this Saturday. It's the 122nd annual prognostication this year! Man! That's one old groundhog! You can start arriving at 3am for the festivities)!

Well, we were gifted Kingsolver's popular book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Spencer's Mom, Nancy this last round of birthdays. Spencer used it as a text for his Urban Agriculture class he taught this fall, and I just finished it this afternoon. I have read all of Barbara Kingsolver's books over many summers and similarly enjoyed this one. I really enjoyed her telling of all undertakings agricultural, particularly agricultural things I have yet to undertake - turkey and chicken raising, for instance. I must say, I did learn a thing or two about asparagus as well - something I have yet to grow. But, I think my most favorite passages from her year of eating locally always had to do with her observations about how food, farming and agriculture is the fabric of family and community. In her chapter on holiday meals and celebrations, this erstwhile Arizonan spent some time explaining the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Being from Colorado, I am keenly aware of this holiday as a celebration of dead loved ones as an invitation for them to walk with us one night of the year, but she introduced me to a sentiment that our language has no word for - it is called Xantolo. Technically, this is what Oaxacans call their Dia de los Muertos celebrations, but Kingsolver elaborates on its more subtle meaning, the one that is at the heart of Di de los Muertos, "People's sadness was not for the departed, but for themselves, and could be addressed through ritual visiting called Xantolo, an ordinary communion between the dead and the living. Mexican tradition still holds that Xantolo is always present in certain places and activities, including wild marigold fields, the cultivation of corn, the preparation of tamales, and pan de muerto. Interestingly, farmers markets are said to be loaded with Xantolo." In Yucatan, it's also known as "the path of the soul through the essence of food." A lightbulb immediately went off for me when I read this! I feel Xantolo all the time when I am doing certain everyday things - sorting and rinsing pinto beans for soaking (me and grandma doing this above), making tortillas from scratch (above pic with dad and sister), even when I am out in my fields doing certain things like planting seeds or transplants or even weeding with a hoe. What comes to mind is the memory of doing these things with those I love, and feeling like I am doing them with them at that moment. I feel like Xantolo not only extends to those that we've lost to death, but to those we are far away from. My Grandmother is living, but she is in Colorado - still, I feel like I am cooking with her when cooking certain things - like Kingsolver's example of making tamales. Anyway, I am happy that I now have a name for those memories that pop up unexpectedly, but thankfully! From a purely critical point of view, I did tire of Kingsolver's literary "zingers" that she uses to punctuate her observations - she can't just explain something for what it is, she just has to use some incredibly unnecessary metaphor or imagery to complete nearly every paragraph. Oh well, it is a fast read loaded like a harvest-time cornucopia full of beautiful kernels of wisdom from which to gain intellectual nourishment (zinger!).

Another very interesting book that I just finished reading is a great read called The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine. It was loaned to me by my friend Kevin who is a pastry chef. This is about a guy who is gifted Auguste Escoffier's book Le Guide Culinaire, and sets off to re-recreate one of the creator of French haute cuisine's famous banquet dinners. The challenge is reproducing the recipes exactly, and he finds that it will take him an entire year to acquire all of the ingredients, and so he sets out to hunt and scavenge all the ingredients himself. This adventure culminates in a 3-day feast of 45 dishes. I particularly enjoyed his tales of hunting for wild boar, fishing in Alaska, and raising squab (baby pigeons). It also reads like a story in Outside Magazine, which makes it a pretty quick read. This book made me jealous for not having any hunting skills (another by-product of the Outside Magazine feel - not feeling as good or athletic or outdoorsy as the guy who wrote the article...), and inspired me to get some - because what is more localvore than hunting your own food? I decided that hunting is an uberlocalvore activity and I plan on making that happen this year. First I must get my hunting license, so I will be relegated to taking the hunter safety class with Boy Scouts earning their badges. I can hardly wait! I can taste my first braised rabbit already!!

The last book I'm going to talk about is Heat : an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. This book is exactly what the title describes. I enter kitchens nearly daily all summer making produce deliveries, and have often wondered what it would be like being on the receiving end of my produce boxes. This book perfectly describes, I think, what that life is like in such great detail that I am convinced of what it is like and have decided that I don't need to work in a kitchen! Admirably, the author decides to take his tutelage in Mario Batali's Babbo kitchen in NYC so seriously, that he decides to fly to Tuscany and apprentice with those that Mario also apprenticed with. This reminded me of how wonderful Italy can be, and made me promise to myself that next time we go to Italy (very likely this October for the next Terra Madre conference), that we stay longer and eat more food directly from farms.

So, there you have it, my not-so-concise report on my recent readings. I have next up on my plate: a full serving of 3 Marion Nestle books: What to Eat, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. Michael Pollan's new book - In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and a re-reading of his The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Michael Ableman's book from last year: Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey In Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It. Better get to it; only 2 and a half more months until the first tilling!

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