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By Nora Krug
Sunday, November 23, 2008

TASTES LIKE CUBA An Exile's Hunger for Home By Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich | Gotham. 357 pp. $15

When 8-year-old Eduardo Machado arrived in America from Cuba in 1961, he was dumbfounded. The problem was not so much the absence of his parents or the tight quarters of his aunt and uncle's two-room Miami shack; it was the food. "It was an exercise in gustatory sterility," he writes of his Spam-laden meals. Machado, now a playwright who teaches at New York University, had grown up in far more palatable circumstances in Havana. "Exotic imports from Spain like Serrano ham, manchego cheese, and big juicy olives were piled lasciviously on top of one another. There was always cigar smoke, wine, and Pedro Varga or Nat King Cole on the record player," he recalls in his memoir Tastes Like Cuba.

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The plot of Machado's American Dream is complex, taking him from Miami to Los Angeles and finally to New York (where he coached Al Pacino on how to sound Cuban in "Scarface"). It's a story told through the prism of food, with recipes to accompany every chapter: In Havana there's roast pork; in Miami there's Velveeta grilled cheese; in Los Angeles there's "suburban pineapple upside-down cake." At each turn Machado is searching for that elusive flavor of Cuba, that madeleine that will bring him back to 1958, "before everything changed forever."

IMMOVEABLE FEAST A Paris Christmas By John Baxter | Harper Perennial. 270 pp. $13.95

"I can see most of my life as a flight from the horrors of the Australian table," confesses John Baxter, "where meals were less a case of chips with everything than chips instead of everything." In Immoveable Feast, Baxter, a movie critic and biographer of famous filmmakers, pays tribute to the more sophisticated (but equally fattening) cuisine of his adopted country, France.

Of course Baxter is not the first person to venerate French cookery, but here Baxter's reverence is specific: the French Christmas dinner, an occasion he characterizes as a cross between America's Thanksgiving, Russia's May Day, Australia's Anzac Day and a German beer festival. The memoir centers on his attempt to create such a meal for his French wife's family, a mission that takes him to remote corners of the countryside as he tracks down the freshest oysters, the fattiest cut of pork and a cheese with the proper stink and ooze. Baxter's discerning palate is matched by his gift for charming digression: The book abounds in stories about his childhood, tidbits about the history of food and encounters with characters (such as the butcher M. Mortier, a "jovial man with a belly and bushy mustache like Balzac") who seem to have stepped straight out of a French film.

From Our Previous Reviews

· The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Modern Library, $25), Ghalib Lakhnavi's and Abdullah Bilgrami's Indo-Persian Islamic saga, is "based on the swashbuckling life of Amir Hamza, uncle of the Prophet Mohammed" and represents "a marvelous dovetailing of fantasy, history and religion," wrote Diana Abu-Jaber.

· Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love (Three Rivers, $15.95), a collective biography of the Beatles, puts the band in cultural context: "This is a book that deftly leaps from Max Weber and Daniel J. Boorstein to Little Richard and Chuck Berry," Glenn Frankel noted.

· In The Toothpick (Vintage, $15.95), Henry Petroski delves into the history and technology of that little wooden stick in your hors d'oeuvres, recounting "the oddly inspiring story of one man's quixotic mission to put a toothpick in every American's mouth," wrote Joshua Glenn.

· Book World critic Michael Dirda "writes brilliantly, concisely and even convincingly" in Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, $15), a collection of short essays "about a rather iconoclastic and unusual roster of authors whom he regards as 'classic,' " according to Michael Korda.

· "A diary is an antidote to hindsight," remarks the Monty Python comic Michael Palin in his Diaries 1969-1979, (Thomas Dunne, $19.95), a detailed account with enough gossip "to satisfy all but the most ravenous Python addicts," Jonathan Yardley concluded.

Nora Krug is Book World's paperbacks columnist.


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