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3 promising books for October

September 30, 2010

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook by Chris Kimball

Leave it to Christopher Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated, to take Victorian cooking to the extreme. After moving into an 1859 five-story townhouse in Boston’s South End, the chef extraordinaire grew curious about the period, particularly in culinary terms. Using the legendary Fannie Farmer as a guide, Kimball set out to learn bygone techniques, ingredients and recipes, culminating with a 12-course Christmas dinner from the expert’s bestselling work “The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.

Mockturtle soup with fried brain balls, saddle of venison with lyonnaise potatoes and sugared beets, fried baby artichokes, and a trio of molded Victorian jellies only skim the surface of the elaborate 28-recipe dinner. In “Fannie’s Last Supper,” Kimball recreates the famed menu the way they did a century ago: from scratch, food coloring included. He even forgoes the luxury of most modern appliances, and installs an authentic cast iron coal stove into his kitchen.

As Kimball describes the daunting – even for him – task of testing and mastering the recipes, he recounts an American era rich in culinary history. His take is enthusiastic (“the meat would have to be larded, a technique I was eager to test”), frank (on Farmer: “To tart up a recipe, she would simply give it an ersatz French name”), and overall entertaining. Ambitious readers can attempt any of Kimball’s revamped recipes – he includes them in the book.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney

The chapter titles in “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” sound like Indiana Jones movies – “Thieves of Revolution and Empire,” “The Magician in the Red Turban,” “Raising the Buried Treasure” – and they’re just as action-packed. Considered a Renaissance first, a benchmark of artistic grandiosity, the treasure involved is a large 12-panel oil painting, the “Ghent Altarpiece” (also called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”). Since its 1432 completion, the masterpiece has been stolen seven times, more than any other work in history.

Author Noah Charney, a man with the enviable job of studying art crime, chronicles the painting’s dramatic history, from the peaceful early days in Ghent, Belgium, and on through wartime plunders, hunts led by Napoleon, and heroic rescues. During World War II, Hitler was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, perhaps the key to supernatural powers. He wanted it for his personal collection, and would rather see it burned than in the Allied hands. The Nazis indeed got hold of the piece, but before they could pass it on or destroy it, a group of Allied detectives stumbled on a clue that saved the stolen artwork, for the time being at least.

In scrupulous detail, Charney divulges the secrets of the revered painting’s past, and in doing so, gives readers a history lesson on art crime, a still-prospering black market.

Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories by Anna Badkhen

While his wife stuffs grape leaves, a Saddam-provoking writer in Northern Iraq describes solitary jail cells and torture chambers. At a restaurant in Afghanistan, militiamen eat marinated lamb with sharp metal skewers, guns within reach. And so it goes on: baba ghanouj in Jerusalem, herring in Moscow, ugali with sukuma wiki (cornmeal and collard greens) in drought-wrenched Kenya.

Though war correspondent Anna Badkhen has seen, heard, and reported hundreds of unspeakably horrific stories in the past decade, her memoir does not focus on the tragedies in “Peace Meals.” Instead she writes of locals met and meals shared, the “straightforward acts of humanity in lands of terror, conflict, and seemingly intractable grief.”

As she travels, Badkhen embeds herself in the cultures – and ever-present dangers – of war-torn nations. With careful observation, she sees beyond the heartbreaking stories of the families and soldiers, refugees and warlords, she meets. Her eloquent, honest words tell an in-depth history of recent war, and also make known courageous and resourceful people whose actions, or lack thereof, are forced by circumstance.

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