My New Year's Resolution is to read more books that do not involve adorable insects driving pickle cars or underpants-clad superheroes telling poop jokes. For a good majority of the people reading this (I'd say 5 out of the 6 of you), I suspect that would hardly constitute a challenge. But trust me, it's a worthy goal within my personal sphere. My other goal is to get a handle on the food shopping and cooking in order to have more time for reading. So my work for the year is here, and has been here for quite some time, huddled in a neglected corner like a freezer-burned chicken.
On my food-as-literature battlefront is the graphic series Oishinbo, a la carte by Tetsu Kariya. Journalist Yamaoka Shiro is entrusted with the task of designing the "Ultimate Menu" for the publishers of the Tozai News to commemorate the newspaper's 100th anniversary. The series builds on the expected cast of characters: handsome but unmotivated anti-hero, beautiful and loyal sidekick, clownish co-worker, forbidding nemesis who also happens to be the hero's father. Think Luke versus Darth Vader, if only the Rebel Alliance was battling the Empire for bragging rights to the finest sashimi in the star system and Obi-Wan Kenobi had lines like, "In the old days, shaving the katsuobushi was the children's job" and "I'd rather DIE than eat a farm-raised sweetfish that has no flavor or scent to it!!" Each installment of the series is specific to a particular food with chapters building to the inevitable "Ultimate" versus "Supreme" menu showdown reminiscent of my favorite Food Network program, Iron Chef. The best thing about Iron Chef was the frequently ridiculous dialog, and Oishinbo does not disappoint with its liberal dashes of awkward Japanese-to-English translation. (Where else will you read the smell of vinegar-soaked kelp described as "touching?")
In one scene, blond women (or the cloned ideal that substitutes for the stereotype of an attractive female lifeform in manga) dressed as cowboys offer sushi at a "California Rice Promotion," triggering a discussion of rice as import commodity versus rice as national identity. The series is rife with nationalistic and egocentric comments about the superiority of Japanese cuisine and details about the featured foods are painstakingly minute. If you like reading about the food and culture of Japan and don't mind doing it in an amusing comic book form, then Oishinbo is indeed "a fascinating, addictive journey." Crave rice balls, you will.
If Yoda was a Crockpot Master, he would be proud of his apprentice Stephanie O'Dea and her book Make it Fast, Cook it Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking. This appealing cookbook is filled withuncomplicated yet tasty-sounding recipes. As a bonus, the recipes are written using gluten-free ingredients with ordinary substitutions suggested and easily made. The book contains no pictures; this does not detract as it might for other sorts of cookery books, and actually makes the book even more appealing with clean lines and most recipes fitting into a single page. (And in the introduction, the author promises that readers can go to her website for pictures and descriptions if desired.) The book began as a personal blogging challenge to use a crockpot every day for a year, and the website contains the entire chronicle of successes and failures. She offers the honest reactions of her three- and six-year-old to the recipes in the book and her own ideas for things she might do differently the next time. She even includes some creative things to do with crockpots and kids that have nothing to do with dinner. Who knew you could make crayons and Shrinky Dinks in a slow cooker?
This resourceful cookbook author is firmly behind the idea of experimentation and using what you have immediately available. I'm thrilled with a book containing recipes I might have ingredients for without requiring a special shopping trip. It is the difference between turning the house upside down with an exhaustive yet fruitless search for flashlight batteries and just using the light-saber Child the Elder left lying on the stairs. It works. And if it doesn't, call for pizza. The Force is with you.
*My sincere apologies to Jedi Master Yoda.