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Austin Chronicle A Pinch of History, A Dash of Memoir

JUNE 14, 1999: 

Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly, Sterling Publishing Company Inc., $24.95 hard

Wine is confusing. Like trying to pick a winning team in Fantasy Football, there are just too many variables. That's what makes wine hard to purchase, and that's also what makes it enjoyable as a hobby.

You can spend your life learning the various intricacies and exceptions that apply to each wine region and to each type of wine. But in the end, it's the generalizations that are the most important: knowing what type of grapes are grown where and what styles to expect from each. You can get this background from just about any book for beginners. However, one trip to Book People will show you that choosing an introductory wine book is almost as confusing as buying wine. Which book is best?

Hugh Johnson's Encyclopedia of Wine is widely hailed as the wine book to have if you have just one. Oz Clarke's The Essential Wine Book isn't far behind, with "I'd drink wine from a tin cup" humility, gorgeous vineyard photos, and authoritative narrative. Wine for Dummies and Oxford Companion to Wine have their followings as well. Yet even with all these to choose from, there is another book that keeps me coming back, a book whose pedagogical structure and engaging trivia molded my earliest knowledge of wine: Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.

Straightforward, lean, and fruity, Zraly's Wine Course teaches the essentials without getting bogged down in details or overweight descriptions. I read an older version of this book while still an aspiring cork dork. Sipping wine in a corner of Dolce Vita, I read the entire book in one night -- a first since college. With nimble writing and a funhouse of facts, Zraly captured my attention for hours.

Zraly, now considered one of the world's greatest wine teachers, is wine director for Windows on the World restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan. He began at Windows as cellar master at the tender age of 25 and built what is now considered to be the best restaurant wine cellar in the nation. From there, he began the Windows on the World Wine School with courses based on his lectures to Windows' waitstaff. Eventually, taped versions of his lectures were molded into the first edition of his book in 1989.

Since the first edition, some things have changed, but the structure is the same. The 1999 edition still begins with a five-page "Prelude to Wine" that covers the basics such as the Zraly-patented explanation of fermentation: "Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide." Moves into a surprisingly strong introductory treatise, "On Tasting Wine." And continues with a textbook-like region-by-region tour of the white and red wines of the world.

Among the candied treats in this minimalist wine adventure are: two-tone charts, famous and favorite wine labels, easy-to-read maps, and reprints of New Yorker cartoons for those of us too young to have seen them the first time. In his portraits of each region, Zraly includes an amusing and informative subsection in which producers as legendary as Trimbach in Alsace and Gaja in Piedmont answer the question: What do you like to eat with your wines?

In the book's dry finish, Zraly employs the help of vibrant, Gen-X sommelier star Andrea Immer to co-write a section on food-and-wine pairing. Finally, a section on "Wine Service in Restaurants," written by the former wine director at Windows on the World, Raymond Wellington, is informative and interesting but lacks Zraly's lemon-fresh, assertive style.

I still reach for Zraly's book when confused about the wines of a region. It's clear and focused, which is the key to the book's refreshing character. And this character, combined with carefully chosen wine essentials, makes Windows on the World Complete Wine Course ahead in the game. --Anthony King


Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy by Frances Mayes, Broadway Books, $25 hard

Like thousands of other American readers with a taste for food and travel books, I was enchanted with Frances Mayes' culinary memoir,Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (ChronicleBooks, $15 paper). The 1996 runaway bestseller lyrically depicted the author's discovery and refurbishment of a long-abandoned villa called Bramasole near the ancient Tuscan hill town of Cortona. A poet and professor of creative writing at San Francisco University, Mayes had spent summers in Italy most of her adult life, staying in rented apartments or villas until she bought Bramasole and made it her second home. Frances Mayes brought Bramasole and rural Italy to vibrant life with her elegantly crafted prose, and like all those other enchanted readers, I hungrily awaited the second installment of her Italian memoirs as I would correspondence from a cherished friend.

The new book, Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, finds Mayes and her companion (and soon-to-be husband) taking sabbaticals from teaching to spend spring and then fall seasons at Bramasole. Many pages are taken up with the extensive research and landscaping of the villa's surrounding flower and vegetable gardens, and most of the remodeling work on the old house is finally accomplished. Between forays into the garden, the couple travels, sensing the Mafia oppression in Sicily and marveling at ancient frescos in rural churches and homes. We encounter some of the author's neighbors by attending their weddings and funerals, and experience with her the languidly seductive tempo of life in Italy. Mayes even shares a hilarious chapter about friends and acquaintances from America, some of whom show up uninvited on her doorstop as though Bramasole were a resort hotel with no rates. It seems I wasn't the only person who dreamed of cultivating her friendship and visiting there.

As long as Mayes remains in Italy gardening, cooking, or enjoying vin santo with her neighbors, as a reader, I'm willing to go along. However, when her story returns to San Francisco, I'm less inclined to follow. While it's somewhat interesting to share in the author's realization that the leisurely pace of life in Italy has inspired her to make changes in more frantic life stateside, the later chapters of the book had me cynically thinking up new subtitles. What about How Writing a Bestselling Book Changed My Life or Writing Bestselling Memoirs Pays Better than Poetry? I don't begrudge Frances Mayes a new home in San Francisco made affordable by the proceeds from her books' sales, but the story of yet another house remodeling job just fell flat. I was eager to return with her to the sun-dappled gardens at Bramasole and take an evening stroll down into town for a gelato. I know all I need to know about the breakneck speed and boring details of American life, Frances; tell me more about the sweet life in Italy. --Virginia B. Wood


Bruculinu, America: Remembrances of Sicilian-American Brooklyn, Told in Stories and Recipes By Vincent Schiavelli, Houghton Mifflin, $24 hard

Thanks to the wonders of Hollywood, we probably know more about the Italian-American immigrant experience than that of any other ethnic group. Or at least we have a popular myth. Somewhere in the cultural consciousness exists an urban world that's equal parts 1930s gangster-noir classic, early Coppola Godfather fable, and sepia-toned Fellini film (but without the dancing midgets). And it looks something like this: Huge families make their way through "the old neighborhood" -- usually somewhere in the inner boroughs of New York City. Schoolkids, clad in frying-pan caps and corduroy knickers, play stickball and sell newspapers on the streetcorners. It's a world where gothic Catholicism and the hint of underworld influence mix on the streets before everybody owned a family automobile. And the food! Multigenerational extended families gather around groaning tables at every meal, celebrating with elaborate feasts and waxing poetic about "the Old Country."

Oh yeah -- and everybody looks like Danny DeVito.

Enter Vincent Schiavelli, the perfect person to lead us into a deeper understanding of Italian-American New York, past the Hollywood myth, mainly because he's an accomplished character actor with countless TV and movie appearances to his credit. As an actor, he's made a career out of playing "tall menacing guy in the Mafia Entourage #2" (you'd know him if you saw him). But Schiavelli also moonlights as an author; he's written two cookbook/memoirs about the culture and cuisine of his Sicilian family, the latest of which is entitled Bruculinu, America.

The book's subtitle, Remembrances of Sicilian-American Brooklyn, Told in Stories and Recipes, gives you a good sense of Bruculinu's narrative structure and culinary orientation. In 17 separate vignette-based chapters, Schiavelli describes his own coming of age in a specific subsection of Brooklyn -- Bushwick, near the Myrtle Avenue el train, to be exact -- during a distinct time frame: the Thirties (when his parent's generation sought to reconcile their Old and New Countries) through the early Sixties (when suburban flight took its toll on "the old neighborhood").

Schiavelli's stories, for the most part, describe the social institutions, cultural rituals, and individual personalities that made up his neighborhood. Split between personal memoir and social history, Bruculinu covers the author's memories of the year's biggest holidays (Easter, Christmas Eve, the local church feast of St. Joseph's Day), punctuated with sketches of less structured events (his grandmother's ritual coffee gatherings, his grandfather's refuge in the Social-Athletic Club, and the Sicilian way of dying).

All 17 episodes are peppered with loving sketches of family members and assorted neighborhood characters and followed by recipes that somehow connect to the preceding story. And not surprisingly, many of the recipes are for dishes prepared by Schiavelli's maternal grandfather, Papa Andrea Coco, who was, in his Mediterranean life, a master chef (monzu) in the service of Sicilian nobility.

The recipes are split between the simple foods of the Italian tradition (fried calamari, roasted leg of lamb, pasta with chickpeas, salted cod) and the more elaborate specialties of his grandfather. In terms of complexity, the recipes run from quick dishes (Sicilian-style omelettes filled with pecorino cheese, a meatless lenten standby) to the time-intensive Tumala d'Andrea (a dramatic risotto-shelled mold filled with well-sauced ziti).

In the course of his memoir, Schiavelli takes us on a street-level tour of Bruculinu, from numbers-running barbers and harmonized doo-wop street gangs to the ever present danger of il malucchiu (the evil eye). Schiavelli also details his family's great love stories, the deathbed miracles of devotion, and the cyclical celebrations that marked their lives.

Throughout the book, Schiavelli always maintains an excruciatingly formal and distant storytelling style, mostly in third person with the occasional snippet of dialogue and liberal attributions of motive. The novelist's convention of letting characters tell their own stories is noticeably absent here, as the author-narrator weaves noble tales of his now-extinct tight-knit community. The formal, unabashedly sentimental tone of his stories imparts a certain gentility to his third-person descriptions -- transplanted Sicilian paisani interacting with overtones of a royal court.

That is, until his subjects actually speak their lines, which are usually limited to snippets of phonetic Brooklynese -- gangster talk straight from RKO central casting. At points, the tonal contrast can be enough to snap your neck back, as in the story regarding a youthful barbershop pornography incident: "Actually, we knew that Al wasn't 'gonna tell no-body about nut-tin." At the end of the story, I'm still not sure which part Schiavelli was exaggerating more, the street lingo or the genteel propriety.

But one makes allowances for memoirs, and this one is no different -- especially considering the wealth of recipes that Bruculinu contains. Now that I've read the book for the story, I'll go back and cook my way through it for the edible experience of Schiavelli's courtly Old Neighborhood.

"Dat wood praably woik out juss poifeck." --Pableaux Johnson


American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a Cuisine by Leslie Brenner, Avon Books, $25 hard

At first glance Leslie Brenner's new book, American Appetite, promises to be a juicy, mouth-watering exploration of American foodways. In it, she traces the evolution of American taste during the 20th century. She begins with a chapter titled "How We Lost Gastronomy," in which she chronicles American gastronomic missteps from Birds-eye frozen veggies to Swanson TV dinners. Add to the mix a heaping spoonful of American xenophobia, two teaspoons of Puritanism, and voilà, the successful eradication of Cuisine. Throughout this discussion, Brenner repeatedly compares American food banality to the colorful traditions of France, which holds the place d'honeur in her critical esteem. In subsequent chapters, she moves on to record the awakening of American food sensibilities from the 1950s to the present day. Julia Child, she writes, gave us an appreciation for French food, while the immigration wave of the 1960s and 1970s sparked the ethnic food craze. Finally, in the consumerist 1990s, exotic food is so pervasive that it has lost its novelty. Food savvy has become simply one more foil wielded by ardent, status-seeking Americans who want to appear chic. Through all this, she argues, true gastronomes are still few and far between. In her final chapters, she grudgingly acknowledges that an American food revolution is finally underway, yet it is still hampered by deeply ingrained American inhibitions. Americans are still afraid of wine and exotic meat, but most importantly, Americans are still ignorant when it comes to using fresh food.

In some ways, Brenner's observations about America's tastes are not far off. And I admit that, as a former caterer, I've often grumbled privately about peoples' unwillingness to try new foods. However, as I was reading, I found myself arguing against her through each stage of her discussion. Her arguments seemed simplistic. In short, I was offended.

On the surface, Brenner's book appears scholarly. In each chapter, she ostensibly supports her views on food with historical background. However, her understanding of history is fundamentally superficial. With little regard for the holistic view, she posits direct causal links between national events and food trends. Although it is clear that Brenner has spent a degree of effort researching cookbooks, interviewing chefs, and talking to restaurateurs, her observations read like a string of elitist clichés. Take, for example "The Protestant work ethic, which ruined food in America for a hundred years, continues to inhibit the food revolution" or "The beginnings of America's love affair with food coincided with the start of the sexual revolution," or even "For the first part of the 20th century, American immigration policy had been shaped by a persistent aversion to foreigners that permeated American culture and substantially shaped the way Americans ate."

Just who are these Americans she is talking about, and how is it that in one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, Brenner sees only sexually repressed and xenophobic Puritans? In this book, she makes sweeping generalizations about what she believes characterizes American taste, and hence, American cuisine for most of this century. The major problem with all of her arguments, though, is that her ideal type (The American Appetite) is simply that: an imagined specimen of American bad taste, narrowly defined in opposition to her own enlightened palate. Like the Ward Cleaver family, her ideal type simply doesn't exist, or if it does, it represents a small segment of American society.

In response to her own views I would argue that, if Americans have no national cuisine, it is not because they've lost their heritage; it is because there is no single homogeneous identity that defines the nation. Americans are Native American, European, African, Asian, South and Central American, and Polynesian. And although a national tradition has yet to develop, certainly there are numerous regional specialties that reflect a deep appreciation for local food heritage. If Americans on the whole seem less interested in the food they eat (than say, the French or Italians), it is not because of the Protestant work ethic. Rather, it is largely because the structure of American society (of which the Protestant work ethic forms only a small part) has always been so very different from that of other nations.

Brenner's sensationalistic generalizations about American attitudes toward food may resonate with some people. However, I suspect that most will be turned off by such thoughtless elitism. In the end, American Appetite reads more like a gossip column for in-the-know foodies than a real exploration of American foodways. Unfortunately, that repast will have to wait for another date. After sinking my teeth into this one, American Appetite left a bad taste in my mouth.-- Rachel Feit


Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, Penguin Books, $11.95 paper

Once upon a time, there was a cod, and the cod spoke Basque ... So begins Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World. In it, Kurlansky chronicles the sprawling cod fishing industry from its beginnings among Basque fisherman in the 11th century to its modern-day moribund health in the now-barren waters of the Northeast Atlantic. Although the Basque were not the first group to fish for cod on a large scale, Kurlansky writes, the Basque method of salt curing vastly expanded the potential market. Before the advent of modern refrigeration, the discovery of saltcod greatly facilitated long-distance ship travel and provided an inexpensive and durable source of protein for much of the world's poor.

A plentiful and versatile fish, cod virtually redefined European markets during the age of exploration. So important was cod to European and American national economies that by the 17th century the issue of fishing rights lay at the cornerstone of wars, treaties, and national alliances. But as with so many of our most precious natural resources, the centuries-old global demand for cod has resulted in its mass destruction. Once cod was so plentiful off the shores of Newfoundland's Grand Banks that sailors reported scooping them up in baskets; today it is virtually extinct.

Part fish tale, part ecological parable, Kurlansky's Cod is essentially a story about connections. It shows us that, long before the Internet and advanced telecommunications systems, the global economy flourished through ship travel, carrying fishy commodities across vast oceans, bridging geographies and creating enormous fortunes for those who won control over the industry. This well-researched history shimmers with idiosyncratic fact. Kurlansky's prose is fast-paced and amiably engaging. Traditional codfish recipes inhabit the final pages of the tale, adding additional folkloric vitality to an already animated landscape. Food lovers and historians alike will take to this book almost like ... a fish to water. --R.F.


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