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Author Archives: Laura Mooney
As a relatively new Nebraska Library Commission employee, I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about the various collections at the Commission, including the impressive book club kits. I’m always curious to see what is being shipped out to libraries across the state on any given week. Knowing my interest in non-fiction, my colleague pointed one of the memoirs in the book club kits: Educated, by Tara Westover. It was not yet on my Libby wish list, so I had to add it, and I later listened to it as an audiobook.
Tara Westover was raised by a fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Her parents coached their children to say they were “homeschooled” if anyone inquired, but in reality Tara spent most of her childhood working alongside her father and brothers in the family scrapyard. Her parents were suspicious of many things in the world outside their secluded family. They rejected formal education and modern medicine, preferring to rely on faith and homeopathy. Her father was obsessed with preparing for the end of times, and compulsively stockpiled food and supplies. He distrusted everything about the government and chastised most outsiders as socialists who were influenced by the Illuminati.
Tara’s childhood was filled with fear and sadness. She experienced horrific violence, shaming, and threats from an older brother. The family culture taught that women should be submissive and modest, and she was frequently shamed or witnessed the shaming of other women. But Tara was also inspired to learn and to leave. She decided to follow in the footsteps of an older brother who was self-motivated to study, take the ACT, and go to college.
Tara’s challenges did not disappear after enrolling at BYU at the age of seventeen. Much of the book deals with her collegiate life and self-discovery. Tara’s journey had many ups and downs as she navigated a world she was unfamiliar with, and she dealt with a lot of push and pull from her family, who disputed her claims of abuse. They have continued to disagree with her perspectives, and her mother later published a book of her own.
Educated covers a lot of heavy topics including abuse, mental illness, and many layers of family trauma. But it is also a story about self-discovery, belonging, and finding a voice, which many readers will likely connect with. Educators and those who work with youth may find inspiration in the power of mentoring those without family support to find opportunities and strive to do the big things they never imagined they could do. Larger themes of facing fears and finding strength also run through the book. One of my favorite things Tara discovers is “books were not tricks and I was not feeble.”
Westover, Tara. Educated. Random House, 2018.
What is American cuisine? Should we use the term “authentic” to describe a recipe or cuisine? These are just two of many questions that Edward Lee explores in his book Buttermilk Graffiti. Much like American cuisine, Buttermilk Graffiti is an amalgamation. Although the book is part memoir and part cookbook, it primarily focuses on the culinary traditions and stories of immigrants. At times it has the feel of a Bourdain-like food travel show, mixed with history and self-reflection. Lee explores the history of place, migration stories, and the personal histories of individuals whose culinary traditions started across the globe. As much as Lee attempts to better understand the vastness of American cuisine, he also explores his own place in American food culture, and shares fifty recipes inspired by the foods he encounters.
If you are unfamiliar with Edward Lee, he is a chef and restaurateur from Louisville, Kentucky. His culinary style has many influences, including his Brooklyn childhood, his Korean heritage, and the two decades he has lived in Kentucky. He entered the television realm by competing on Top Chef in 2011, and was featured on The Mind of a Chef in 2014. Lee published his first cookbook and memoir, Smoke and Pickles, in 2013. His Louisville restaurant 610 Magnolia boasts a modern approach to southern cooking.
Lee is a compelling storyteller and approaches people and their food cultures with curiosity and empathy. As part of this project he visited more than a dozen cities and explored many food traditions and cultures: Nigerian, Vietnamese, German, Scandinavian, Peruvian, Chifa, Cambodian, Uyghur, Arabic, a Kosher deli, and Louisville soul food. He often came away with more questions than answers and will leave you with many things to ponder:
- Does our education in global food depend on global tragedies that bring immigrants to this country?
- Is there some other way that we can honor the foods of other nations without the tragedy?
- When looking for the “authentic” food of a specific culture, are we looking for a nostalgia that doesn’t exist?
- Is cooking the food of others appropriation or learning?
“I wonder if in 100 years Americans will eat bibimbap without knowing where it came from. Isn’t that already happening to foods such as tacos and pizza? Or can we go back and recalibrate these beloved foods every time a new wave of immigrants comes to America?”
Lee reveals the complexity of food traditions and cultures and shows that there is no monolithic or “authentic” version of any particular food. Each chef’s personal story makes their recipe unique. At the same time, he shows connections between individuals and their traditions. The elder Scandinavians he meets in Seattle value the nostalgia of certain foods much like his own father, who was a Korean immigrant.
“You have your own story and your own history, and your own connections to make. There is good food to be discovered everywhere. All it takes are an adventurous palate and an inquisitive mind. You can link both to the foods that sit in your memories.”
At times Lee’s personal stories seem to fall into a familiar pop culture stereotype for chefs, focusing on what’s supposed to be edgy or rebellious. As Buttermilk Graffiti progresses, however, the reader gets a fuller picture of Lee’s life as a son, husband, and father, and what has shaped him as a chef. He shares vulnerable stories and does a lot of personal reflection, including sharing how he has pushed back against what a man of Korean ancestry in America is supposed to be.
Lee is a compelling writer who believes in the power of stories. If you are a fan of food writing and food culture, I think you will find many of these stories powerful and thought provoking as well.
Lee, Edward. Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine. Artisan, 2018.
When the days are short and it’s too cold to spend much time outdoors, what kind of books do you reach for? I often seek out a travel memoir. Those I connect with most inspire me to reminisce about my own travel or pique my interest in learning more about a place I’ve never been. When looking for a new read to get me through the cold and dreary season, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland jumped out at me. Several people have recently told me about their travels to Iceland and suggested I add it to my ultimate travel wish list, so I decided to download the e-book and learn more.
Names for the Sea isn’t exactly a travel memoir. It is the story of a British family living and working in Reykjavik during 2009-2010, and the stories of Icelanders met during their stay. Author Sarah Moss, is a British novelist and professor of literature who dreamed of living and working in a foreign country. A temporary position at the University of Iceland caught her eye. After she accepted the position, Sarah and her family put most of their possessions into storage and moved to Reykjavik. Sarah’s husband and two young children joined her on the adventure. The first chapters of the book revolved around arranging schooling for the children and various issues pertaining to parenting, settling into a new teaching job, and setting up a home in an unfamiliar place. The book is not just a memoir of their daily life. It is also peppered with stories of various Icelanders who provide a fascinating window into Icelandic history and culture. The Moss family stories and Icelandic narratives don’t always fit together seamlessly, and Sarah’s negativity is a bit tiresome at times. The book’s strengths are the Icelanders’ stories and the Moss family’s sporadic interactions with the land and environment.
“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, and falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instinct that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”
Sarah had a difficult time settling into Icelandic life. She seemed crippled by various fears including the worry that everyone saw her as a “foreigner,” and that she didn’t fit in. Her fears limited her activities in Iceland, and seemed to impact some of her perceptions. Nevertheless, she had a lot of curiosity about Icelandic history and culture. Her colleagues helped her set up meetings with various people to learn about topics that included elves and ghosts, farm life, culinary history, poverty, politics, Icelandic knitting, and volcanic eruptions. These conversations seemed a bit forced to me, as the interactions didn’t happen organically, and she often centered herself in the stories a bit too much for my liking. The Icelandic stories are fascinating, however, and they piqued my interest in learning more about their culture.
“And when the milk lorry came it would give you three books for that week, and you’d give him the three books that he gave you last week, from the library, and he’d take those to the next farm, so there’d be a continual march of books around the sveit with the milk lorry.”
Sarah heard riveting accounts of previous volcanic eruptions and the Moss family got to experience their own volcanic event with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. This volcanic eruption is one of the few events that motivated Sarah to travel outside Reykjavik to experience rural Iceland. The family took few opportunities to explore the greater country during their year. Financial constraints were one of the reasons for their lack of exploration. Iceland was in the midst of recovering from a major financial crisis and prices were extremely high. But Sarah also feared driving outside the city and other fears and negativity also seemed to impact her choices. It was not until they decided to leave Iceland and later return for a vacation, that her attitude shifted and she was more willing to explore beyond Reykjavik. Moss seemed much more content in Iceland as a “tourist” rather than trying to fit in as a resident.
Moss’s attitudes and opinions sometimes seemed self-righteous and she never fully reflected on her own biases. Although she acknowledged that fear and the overwhelming feeling of being “foreign” limited her exploration and participation in Icelandic life, her opinions sometimes appeared to be rooted in the biases of being a outsider who was inexperienced with the climate, culture, and negotiating rural environments. This left me questioning if some of her criticisms were well-researched or were instead impacted by her own fears, biases, and what sometimes seemed like jealousy. I think many travelers or people living in a new place where you don’t speak the language can identify with fears and self-doubt, but there were some things about Sarah Moss that I just didn’t connect with. For me the book was a good reminder that although visiting a new place can make you grateful for certain things in your own homeland, it’s important to check one’s own biases. Approaching new people and cultures with empathy and being open to try things outside one’s comfort zone make travel a much more enjoyable experience.
Although I didn’t always connect with Sarah Moss, I really enjoyed this book overall. Seeing a new place through the eyes of an author who is also an outsider often encourages me to reflect on my approach to travel. The Moss family’s story kept me reading and interested in how they would navigate different challenges like the short winter days and unfamiliar foods. Overall, this book was also an intriguing introduction into Icelandic culture and history, and I definitely want to learn more.
Moss, Sarah. Names for the Sea Strangers in Iceland. Catapult, 2013.