Sunday, January 9, 2011

Consuming Passions by Michael Lee West

2. Consuming Passions
A Food-Obsessed Life
by Michael Lee West
nonfiction, 1999
first book for the Foodie's Reading Challenge
finished, 1/8/11

2011 marks the fortieth year of our being vegetarians so the Foodie's Reading Challenge is a fun way for me to celebrate. Tom and I were brought up in the fifties and sixties in northern New England where pizza was an unknown, and all vegetables were boiled. My plate was neatly divided into thirds: baked potato, vegetable, and meat. Michael Lee West writes:
I grew up on blue-plate specials - known in café lingo as a meat, bread, and two sides.
I must have been a cradle vegetarian because my early food memories are of pretending to wipe my mouth with a paper napkin and spitting my meat into it. The only beans I ever heard of, and couldn't stand the taste of, were baked beans. There were no grains except bread and spaghetti. There was no culinary history in my family that I ever heard about. I know one of my Grammies made homemade white bread, but that's it. I have no recipes except a few from my mother and no memories of any special foods at extended family get-togethers. My mother also made homemade bread and she squeezed oranges for juice, two things I've continued.

But in 1971, I became a vegetarian and a foodie. The late sixties and early seventies were occasioned in the world by more than hippie life, drugs, anti-war protests, and music. There was also a veritable food explosion. Health food stores sprang up which sold grains and fresh vegetables. We were going to college in Boston, and had an apartment just down the street from The Organic Food Cellar, and the legendary Erewhon Trading Company. We were in food heaven. In the seventies, there were cookbooks to guide us along this new path like Tassajara and Laurel's Kitchen. Food was in. Food was cool. Food was trendy. Tom and I began eating things that we'd never heard of just a few years earlier - brown rice, hummus, tabouli, different ways of cooking potatoes - like potato loaf, and sautéing! Suddenly, I liked vegetables. I ate onions and garlic. My taste buds exploded, and Tom and I became full-fledged foodies.

And so, this Foodie's Reading Challenge is just the ticket. I began with Consuming Passions, which is a combination of family lore and recipes. Here is an example, par excellence, of what a 'foodie' really is. The author is describing her mother.
Along with most Southerners, Mama and I share a deep affection for food. This appears to be hereditary. Last spring my mama was critically ill, and she drifted in and out of consciousness. One time her hands flew out of the covers and bunched around her mouth. Her lips made little smacking noises. Thinking she was having a seizure, I cried, "Mama?"
"I was dreaming about eating cake," she said, cracking open one eye. "It wasn't homemade, but it was Baskin-Robbins chocolate chip with white icing."
This is a book crammed full of delightful writing and stories, including the quotes which begin the chapters. Here are some to whet your appetite (I know - bad pun!):

For a chapter called Sunday Dinners: A Memoir -
Every Sunday, the whole family gathered at Mama Hughes's house in Amite County, Mississippi. They were ferocious eaters and talkers, devouring rumors and innuendo with gusto. Food was their common language, and everyone understood the dialects.
-Aunt Tempe, reminiscing about family dinners, 1991
One called Potato Salad -
Potato salad is our friend. It will never let you down. It's a shame we have to eat it, but that's life.
-Mabel Wauford, spinster and home economics teacher, 1969
And my favorite, from The Cabbage Eating Ghost chapter -
All Southerners are the great-grandchildren of ghosts.
-William Faulkner
There's a chapter on seasoning cast iron which is a primer for anyone who has just bought a new pan. It begins with this quote:
All the mysteries of Southern cooking can be solved in an old black pot.
-Aunt Joyce Forbes, champion bourrée player and divine Cajun cook
Being a huge fan of cast iron pans, I found this chapter fascinating. I took a picture of my own 'black pots.' This is in natural light.

But look what happens when I brought them inside and used the flash. Here you see the real seasoning.

Toward the end of this chapter, Michael Lee West says,
One last recommendation - until your pan develops a smooth, nonstick finish, use it wisely. Everything will want to stick.
I cook everything in my pans, except for scrambled eggs. No matter how well-seasoned the pan, those eggs stick and make it a miserable job to try and clean it. So, scrambled eggs around here are always cooked in the stainless steel frypan which goes right into the dishwasher and cleans up just fine.

Margaret dropped by just as I was finishing the book to pick up some of that baklava, and since Consuming Passions was originally hers, and I knew she had read it several years back, I asked her how she had liked it. She said she loved it, and started talking about one particularly delightful chapter when they go searching for barbeque. This illustrates to me how wonderful a book is if a reader can remember details after having read it years ago.

Barbeque features prominently in the stories. 'The Quest for "Q" is an amazing tale from a 1962 adventure with her parents in the days before interstate highways. They traveled miles and miles on little more than tracks to finally come upon the barbecue pit. And the author tells us:
To this day, I slam on the brakes when I see a barbecue sign.
And then there is Uncle Bun's Barbecue.
The pit was located on Highway 51, better know as the Swamp Road. It was a dangerous highway, low and dippy, lined with ditches. One thing was certain - you didn't want to have car trouble on this road, because the ditches were full of snakes and Lord knew what else.
This particular story includes a tale that I think of as 'Southern gothic.' I don't believe it could happen anywhere else but in the South, or be written by anyone other than a Southerner.

Consuming Passions is a wonderful, wonderful book. I adored every word. I love her family and wish I were a part of it, which I could be for the time I was reading the book.

My friend, Les wasn't nearly as fond of the book as I was, and you may read her review for a differing view.

Although the book is often pretty 'meaty,' I did find a number of recipes I want to try. The one I made while reading the book is:

Mimi's Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450º F.
Butter (or spray with Pam) two 8x8x2-inch square pans.
Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Cut in the cold butter.
When the flour and butter mixture is crumbly, pour in the buttermilk.
Turn the dough onto a floured board and pat down to a 1/2 inch thickness. A light touch is recommended - biscuits don't like a lot of handling. Using a biscuit cutter (or even the top of a child's jelly glass), cut out biscuits.
Heat the glass pans, then add the biscuits (they can touch each other - they like togetherness).
Bake 12-15 minutes or until brown.

MLW's notes: I never sift if I can help it, and have come to believe it is not necessary; but it can't hurt. In fact, it's bound to make your biscuits even better.

My notes: I used salted butter because that's what I had, and because that's all I ever use.
And I did sift just because I love using my sifter.

I didn't have two 8x8 pans or even one, so I used my glass 9x13 pan and it worked great. I made 14 muffins which disappeared in no time.

I shall finally end my rhapsodizing about this terrific book with words from a chapter called Funeral Food.
When you bring food to a neighbor or a friend, you are wisely letting the food fill in the gaps. Sometimes we say all the wrong things, but food knows all languages. It says, I know you are inconsolable. I know you are fragile right now. And I am so sorry for your loss. I am here if you need me. The bringing of food has no denomination and no race. It is concern and sympathy in a Pyrex bowl. In the kindest sort of way, it reminds us that life continues, that we must sustain and nourish it. Funeral cuisine may be an old custom, but it is the ultimate joining of community and food - it is humanity at its finest.
You may visit Michael Lee West's website and blog.


  1. the biscuits look great and this sounds like a great book for you!! We have just started seasoning our first iron skillet!!

  2. You might want to look at a copy because it is more complicated than I thought! Great, great book.

  3. I enjoyed this review greatly. I, being a true, died-in-the-wool for many generations, Southerner the excerpts 'spoke' loudly to me. I will get a copy and read it from cover to cover although I seldom cook anymore I still enjoy reading about food.

  4. This sounds like a good read. These biscuits look yummy. My mouth is watering.

  5. This sounds like a fun book. I've read a travel essay about a person tracking down the best BBQ in Texas. It sounds like it's a quest for many people.

    I'm interested in what the Southern Gothic story is about.

    I'm not 100% foodie, but sometimes I feel like I am by comparison, as many of my friends hardly cook at all.

    One time I was at a luncheon and two new acquaintances were talking about how they would go out of their way to get chicken at a certain hole-in-the-wall shop and I said, "The things we do for the food we love, right?" And they were like, "Right on, sister." Food is such a unifying topic.

  6. This thing about food filling the gaps between neighbours and food speaking every language is very very true - and not only applies to a situation like the loss of a family member. It is also a perfect way to introduce oneself to new neighbours.

  7. This sounds wonderful, Nan. My book club really enjoyed A Homemade Life last summer... sounds like this may be along those lines.
    My brother-in-law has the largest iron skillet I've ever seen and, of course, it has been seasoned to perfection!

  8. I am a Michael Lee West fan, but I've read everything by her that my library owns, unfortunately.

    This reminds me that I need to revisit the books of Bailey White, too. I see by searching your blog that you have read Quite a Year for Plums. I love everything she has written, and I especially like to listen to her reading her books on audio recordings (yes, that "old voice" on a relatively youngish person).

    I really like that quote about not breaking down on the Swamp Road. I had that same feeling when we drove through some parts of the South, especially when I peered nervously out the car window to see the road kill getting stranger and stranger. However, I adore practically every Southern novel I've ever read. I just don't want to get out of the car there. (I'm sure plenty of people might feel the same about my desert Southwest--it's all in what you are used to).

  9. Such a packed post. Delicious. We are almost from about the same era. I don't have memories of many food specialties from my youth except 'Swedish' pancakes which turned out to be the same as crepes, and baked spaghetti, the thought of which makes my husband wince, but which was good. I discovered Julia Child in the 60's which changed my life, but also discovered 'health foods' in 1971, and those two events made a good combo. I didn't understand iron pans until the mid 70s. We are not vegetarian, but eating more and more meatless meals - and our Gourmet Club has been meeting 10 times a year since 1981. Nearly 30 years of serving ourselves! I am going to have to find the book. Thanks for the tip. All your suggestions.

  10. sounds like a great read, but I daren't - too tempting after the annual winter weight gain

    but I did order one of her other books from the library - I think it was Mermaids in the Basement - safer

    I wanted Crazy Ladies, but they didn't have it

  11. Jill, I am so happy for you to be discovering this book. You will love it to pieces. And it may get you cooking again. You may end up with a barbecue pit in your backyard! I loved hearing about your background.

    Lisa, the biscuits were so easy and so delicious. I could live by bread alone quite easily and happily.

    Christy, it was amazing reading about the quest! Oh, and the gothic element contains a murder. But you probably knew that. :<) I love your story. My quest is for french fries. I can remember almost every one I've ever eaten from every place. There's an old friend of mine who primarily remembers me eating FFs. Not the worst reputation to have. :<)

    Librarian, that's so true.

    JoAnn, I'm very interested in A Homemade Life. It sounds so good. Wow - a collection! Does he use different ones for different foods? Michael Lee West does!

    Clair, I haven't read her fiction but fully intend to now! Does your library have the Inter Library Loan program? I have used it a lot and gotten books from all over the country at no cost. It seems like a little miracle to me.
    South and Southwest - both full of scary creatures to me. :<) Although I must admit I am afraid of the ermine we have in the yard now. I know all the stories about if you have an ermine you won't have mice, but I'd rather have a hundred mice than one ermine. I hate to even write the word. :<)
    And oh, Bailey White. I love her to pieces. And wish, wish, wish she would write some more. I've read everything. And yes, there were parts of this book that reminded me of her. The gentle eccentrics- and the kindly acceptance of them. The Fire Department who shows up regularly at Mama's house is a good example.

    Commonweeder, it sure was packed! I couldn't stop myself. And I even deleted some of my draft - like my Blue Plate Special clock. :<)
    Margaret's boyfriend's mother makes me baked spaghetti and I LOVE it. Just sauce and spag. baked in a little casserole dish just for me. A little bit of heaven. :<)
    I love the idea of your Gourmet Club. What a lot of fun this must be.
    You will love this book, I'm sure.

    Janice, you are so funny. I want to read her fiction too.

  12. Nan, those biscuits look sooooo good! Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  13. Thanks for sending me on to Pamela's blog, Nan. That was a fantastic post.

  14. I still love the Tassajara books. Having grown up on a Yankee-influenced "balanced diet" of fairly basic meat, starch, veggie, and salad, it's delightful to explore other ways to eat.

    But my iron skillet still has a long way to go. I just got it last year.

  15. Sherri, they taste as good as they look!

    Kay, you're welcome. I knew you'd like it.

    J.G., and that salad was always white iceberg lettuce. :<)

  16. Hey Nan -

    A bit of history - my wife used to go to Erewhon in Boston when she was teaching at Northeastern in the early 70's. Funny - about a dozen years ago or so, we visited Boston and stopped in at a clothing store on Newberry Street - which she remembered was the original location of the Erewhon store.

    Coming to the counter, she remarked to the cashier - in all innocence - - that this used to be a health food store back in 70's. The cashier replied, "Oh - I wasn't born yet..."

    It was not a fun afternoon after that... :)

    By the way, you do know that Erewhon is Nowhere spelled backwards...althougha bit of an anagram. It's based on a book by the same title about a fictional country.

    Interesting reading this post - I kept relating as much to writing as to cooking.


    "All the mysteries... can be solved in an old black pot."

    "But look what happens when I brought them inside and used the flash. Here you see the real seasoning."

    "...until your pan develops a smooth, nonstick finish, use it wisely. Everything will want to stick."

    The truth, yes? Or maybe I see too many connections in things.

    There I go - hijacking your comments thread. Sorry I'm so wordy this morning...too much daydreaming these days...

    And, by the way, I always sift my flour, together especially with multiple dry ingredients. Just think it makes more for a friendly blend...

    Then again, watch for the directions that say "cup of flour, sifted" or "cup of flour sifted". They're two different things... :)

    There I go again... :)

    - Jeff

  17. Jeff, this was great - not 'hijacking' at all. I love it when people write back like this. It makes the blog more of a conversation.

    Maybe J. and I passed each other in the store. Maybe we even talked. Isn't that so weird to think of. Yeah, Newberry St. is very upscale now. In the early seventies we had a top floor apartment in a great building- kitchen, living room, and bedroom for $395 a month. Unbelievable. I did know that about the spelled backwards thing - and the title from Butler's book, though I've not read it.
    It makes me sad that shopping has taken over the street and the world as a prime activity.
    I do know that about sifted but I never pay attention. And I should. And I will from now on. :<)

  18. Big oops - meant to say:

    Cup of flour, sifted

    Cup of sifted flour

    The first is the full measure of the cup, then you sift it. The second is you sift first, then measure. The volume is only slightly different. But then again, bakers are obsessive chemists... :)

    Yep - by the 90's, Newberry Street had become very much upscale. Still young, but wealthier and hipper. Called it the Fifth Avenue of Boston.

    Things do change...

    - Jeff

  19. Jeff, I knew what you meant about the flour!
    I wonder how much that Newberry St. apt. costs now!

  20. This book sounds like one I'd like to read. I clicked over to our library's website to see if they had a copy and discovered she's written quite a few novels. So thanks for introducing me to a new author..

    I liked reading about your early food history and your move to a vegetarian eating style. Very admirable. Also liked the biscuit.

  21. Margot, I haven't read any of her fiction, but I sure did love this book. Thanks for your nice words.

  22. Consuming Passions is wonderful cooking "history," but to fully appreciate Michael Lee West one must read her fiction, in particular Crazy Ladies and She Flew the Coop. You will laugh your socks off! I have picked up numerous copies of her books to pass along to friends and have received their confirmation of what fun they were to read.

  23. Thanks for the recommendation, mytwocentsworth! I appreciate your enthusiasm.

  24. Was it Mama's Buttermilk Biscuits or Mimi's? I noted Mimi's in my review, but haven't tried the recipe yet. I think I'll give the one you posted a try, though! I've never had good luck with biscuits, but these look wonderful.

    I did try the Better Than Sex Cake and everyone loved it. You can see my notes here.

    And... I received a seasoned cast iron skillet from a friend and have so enjoyed using! But like you, I don't use it for eggs.

  25. Les, you are right! I've changed the name:<)


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