FOOD NOVEMBER 8, 2010
by Rowan Jacobsen
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $17.95
As I write this, I am nibbling on a couple of pieces of organic stone-ground chocolate made from beans from the Dominican Republic. Produced in Somerville, Massachusetts, the chocolate is cited by Rowan Jacobsen in his new book as an example of how a food embodies and expresses its place of origin.
This chocolate offers a new and complex sensation. I would not exactly consider it candy: it is barely sweet, with a grainy, almost chalky texture. It releases a compound of unfamiliar flavors, produces a slight tingling feel on the tongue, and supplies a distinctly agreeable buzz. Jacobsen describes the chocolate as having “an intense nose of dried fruit, especially blueberries, overlaying a foundation of port, nuts, and coffee. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of Amarone, the great Italian wine made from shriveled grapes.” I’m also getting something like aged balsamic vinegar and an alcoholic sting, but the truth is that this chocolate tastes and feels mysterious, like nothing I have ever had before.
Goût de terroir, a French phrase meaning “the taste of place,” originated in wine writing in the seventeenth century, and, for centuries, was used to describe a defect: a wine with earthy, rustic, seemingly unrefined qualities. In recent years, however, wine enthusiasts have come to appreciate the ways in which wine can reveal and exhibit aspects of its origins, tying the product back to the land—and the processes, organic and humanly devised—from which it emerges. Foodies are following suit. “Seeing food through the lens of terroir,” Jacobsen writes, “makes it more colorful, more meaningful, and even, I would argue, more delicious.” Doing so means comprehending the “partnership between person, plant, and environment to bring something unique into the world”: the ways in which a food is shaped by soil and climate, is played upon by micro-organisms such as yeast, fungi, and bacteria (bacteria are responsible for the distinctive flavor of maple syrup), and how human creativity and ingenuity respond to what nature presents.
One cannot help but get a little hungry while perusing Jacobsen’s enchanting book. Part manifesto, part travelogue, part science lesson, and part cookbook, this saliva-inducing work is perhaps best described as erotica—a sensual, titillating, sometimes lewd journey into the best foodstuffs of America (a region which for Jacobsen stretches from the potato fields and mussel ropes of Prince Edward Island in Canada to the coffee and cacao producing rainforests of Central America). Jacobsen seeks to provide “a whole new way of reading the American landscape.” It also serves to pair the pleasure of eating with a reverence for where our food comes from.
In recent years, alerted by a number of food-borne outbreaks of illness and food-production scandals, and by best-selling works by such writers as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Americans have gained a greater awareness of the culinary-industrial complex. For a variety of environmental, health, political, and aesthetic reasons, we are paying more attention to the foods we eat and how they are produced. Across the country, farmer's markets are thriving and the Slow Food and locavore movements are steadily gaining adherents. Jacobsen is attentive to the environmental and health aspects of food production—he is, for example, a strong advocate of shellfish farming due to its sustainability and high nutritional content. But he is, at heart, a sensualist, and his book is about the erotica of food and eating.
America’s relative lack of food traditions, Jacobsen suggests, makes it a veritable old-new land of milk and honey, ripe for exploration and experimentation. “Perhaps because we have less history,” he writes,
because we are immigrants and our connections to the land aren’t so rooted in family ancestry, we are less interested in what the land has been or has meant and are more excited about what it can do. If our terroir is immature, it’s also youthful, with all the energy and exuberance that brings. If you want to tour the museum of old terroir masterpieces, go to France or Italy. If you want to visit the galleries where new artists are trying new things, look around America.
This license makes sense for America’s avant-garde wine and cheese artisans, though it is somewhat misleading, because Jacobsen is interested in exploring such venerable traditions as Alaskan salmon fishing, New England maple syrup production, and Mesoamerican chocolate-making. Still, it does not detract from Jacobsen’s main point: that, in large part, Americans are not aware of the beauty of what they have. The book seeks, in a small way, to remedy this ungrateful ignorance.
American Terroir proceeds briskly as a road trip, as Jacobsen tours North and Central America in search of their most unique flavors. He describes tapping sugar maples in New England and foraging for wild plants and mushrooms in a forest in Quebec, introduces the readers to the mechanics of farming mussels on Prince Edward Island, and rummages for oysters in the early morning at Totten Inlet, Washington. (Jacobsen is also the author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America.) He visits a Yupik Eskimo camp on the Yukon River, chats with a cutting-edge Californian vigneron, and reveals some shocking truths about the wine industry’s manipulation of its products. (Jacobsen’s description of what an accurate wine label should look like, with the various chemical additives and alterations, is equally hilarious and depressing.)
“Food comes heavy with history and meaning,” Jacobsen proclaims early on in the book. Thinking about food in such terms allows us to “[grasp] the connections between things,” to reestablish a relationship with the land and rediscover “the natural rhythms that emerge from a place, which we can detect with our senses, and which, just for an instant, allow us to perceive some of the underlying principles of existence.” Indeed, such a vitalist—one might even say pantheist—sensibility courses through these pages.
Jacobsen revels in the pathetic fallacy: he has a penchant for ascribing intentionality to plants, depicting them as master strategists, creating flowers and flavors to manipulate the behavior of animals, including humans. (One recurrent theme is that many of the most flavorful foods emerge from plants that are stressed by challenging soil or pest damage. This is why Jacobsen is a fan of bio-dynamic wines; in these somewhat neo-pagan vineyards, the plants are forced to work harder, yielding hardier vines and more flavorful fruit.) He regards Pacific salmon as the ocean’s way of impregnating the land. Drinking dry meads, he confesses, “is like eavesdropping on the ardent murmurings between flower and insect.” After his early morning meal of fresh oysters and Willamette Pinot Gris, he muses floridly over a wineglass full of seawater: “The blackness of a quiet October night settled around us as we watched this glowing microcosm, worlds within worlds, and us caught somewhere in the middle, making our lives in the endless flow.”
Each chapter concludes with a few simple recipes that foreground the terroir of the primary ingredient (with useful information on how to obtain the featured ingredient; Jacobsen is not an orthodox locavore). Nature and nurture have already done the hard work of alchemy, so these recipes, such as maple-deglazed venison medallions and slow-roasted salmon, will be a boon for the novice chef, highlighting the ingredients instead of cooking techniques. (Jacobsen mentions the beauty of the “avocado brownie,” but alas, he does not include the recipe in his text.)
Throughout, Jacobsen uncovers various interesting historical nuggets, but his main interest is the experiences of eating in all of its senses—savoring the colors, textures, smells and flavors of the edibles he encounters. He is aware of the limits of food writing: “We tend to describe aromas in terms of other aromas, as language falls short and we grasp at other nouns to try to compensate.” And yet, composed with “energy and exuberance,” his descriptions are vivid, whimsical, sometimes comically off the wall. Some examples to chew on:
The Totten Inlet virginica: “Saltspray, rust, and a picklelike crunch. Then sweetness, nori, and the lingering grassy richness of raw milk. I felt an inner surge of Paleolithic zeal.”
The chanterelle is “the Audrey Hepburn of mushrooms. It may be common, but its scent is beguiling and elusive, slipping away just as you begin to grasp it.”
Chocolate made from beans from Chiapas “has an exotic, worldly smell, like well-oiled teak. Notes of pipe tobacco and Keemun tea make you think of being in a captain’s stateroom on an eighteenth-century trading ship, or maybe an ancient library. There is knowledge in it, some sweet, some bitter.”
Jacobsen’s love of the earth’s bounty is not merely sensual but yields deeper moral insights about the world: “To love food that is real and distinctive—that could not come from anywhere other than where it does—is to love the myriad and dazzling ways that life has adapted to the many landscapes of Earth.” To think about food in this way is to connect with and come to a deeper appreciation of nature and what it provides, of farmers and fishermen and artisans, and of the fellows sitting across the table from you.
In a righteous spirit of fact-checking, I recently enlisted friends and family and dutifully tried to track down and try many of the foods that Jacobsen describes in exquisite detail: wild king salmon, Mexican avocados, light roast single estate Panamanian coffee (brewed by manual pour). It was, of course, a rather pleasant assignment. (I remain somewhat skeptical, though, about his enthusiasm for wine made from the indigenous Norton grape.) At a local restaurant, a friend and I were able to sample the famed Totten Inlet oysters. After sucking down the first silvery mollusk (unadulterated by cocktail sauce), my friend closed her eyes, her face radiating pure joy. When she could finally muster words, she pronounced the oyster—with the hyperbole of erotic satisfaction—“a life-changing experience,” and promptly ordered another half dozen. Did we, too, feel a surge of Paleolithic zeal? I couldn’t tell, but it scarcely seemed to matter.
Jerome Copulsky is assistant professor and director of the Judaic Studies Program at Goucher College.