Book Review: American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen

Weekend Cooking meme graphicBook: American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen
Genre: Essay
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 2010
Pages: 272

Source: Library

Summary: American Terroir is a series of explorations of various foods, where and how they are produced in North and Central America. We start with maple syrup (in Vermont, of course) and end with chocolate (visiting Chiapas in Mexico and Somerville, Massachusetts, the home of Taza Chocolate that makes bean-to-bar chocolate). Each chapter introduces us to people and settings who care a great deal about the product and the environment in which it’s produced. To a person, they care about sustainability, the continuing ability to grow, raise, or harvest that food now and into the future. For them, it’s not just a desire to be green, it’s the foundation of a long term successful business model.

cover of American Terroir by Rowan JacobsenThoughts: It was refreshing to see this emphasis on sustainability after reading What to Eat by Marion Nestle where I learned that much of the conventional seafood industry treats the world’s fish population as a non-renewable resource, like coal. In other words, their goal is to get as many fish out of the sea as they possibly can before they run out, because that’s how to maximize profits in this quarter. Modern corporations in our modern market economy can’t sacrifice profits now to assure a long-term future. Small businesses, of course, can and do see it differently. Sustainability is a necessity for sustaining their way of life.

In American Terroir, the fish story is about Yukon River salmon which is harvested in a sustainable way because of the efforts of both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the native Alaskans who make the catch. Learning about the lives of Yupik villagers and their fishing practices was my second-favorite story in this book. My first favorite was about an on-line coffee auction (yep, I’m a geek).

But this book isn’t about sustainability. It’s about flavor: the complex and deep flavors of cider made from heirloom apples like the ones planted by Johnny Appleseed, avocados grown in the only place in the world where there are four harvests a year, and cheeses that change flavor with the seasons because of changes in animal feed and available yeasts. There are a few recipes at the end of each of these chapters, but the gold mine for exploring these tastes is in the resource lists. I intend to order some 2012 maple syrup from a small Vermont producer in the next few months just to see what that is like.

I loved the ways that Rowan Jacobsen describes aromas and flavors in this book. Here is one example, a description of the chanterelle mushroom from page 127:

None of this would matter if it weren’t so enchanting. It is the Audrey Hepburn of mushrooms. It may be common, but its scent is beguiling and elusive, slipping away just as you begin to grasp it. We tend to describe aromas in terms of other aromas, as language falls short and we grasp at other nouns to compensate. People like to say that chanterelles smell like apricots, which is mnemonically convenient because of their color. But the smelling circuitry goes straight for the limbic system; memory and emotion are often the best way to capture the essence of the scent. To me, chanterelles smell insistently wistful; they are the wet and mossy trout stream you fished as a kid.

I don’t like mushrooms and I want to give those a try!

Appeal: This is another way of exploring location in food. Of course, none of the products will be “local” for everyone. Not a single one is local for me, although I may investigate local honeys a bit more because of this book. This is more about making the best food in the best locale for that food. By making an effort to appreciate those foods and locales, we create a path for reversing the trend of industrial food imparting the same boring flavors all across the country.

logo for Foodies Read 2 ChallengeChallenges: This is book 5 of my 19 book challenge for Foodies Read 2. Also, check Beth Fish Reads for more participants in Weekend Cooking.

Reviews: I gave this book to my nephew, the wine salesman, after reading Gilion Dumas’ review at Rose City Reader, Review of the Day: American Terroir. When he reported back about how much he enjoyed the book, I added it to my TBR as well.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Signature of Joy Weese Moll

About Joy Weese Moll

a librarian writing about books
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13 Responses to Book Review: American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen

  1. Beth F says:

    I own this and haven’t yet read it. Sounds like something I would like though. The food industry makes me so mad sometimes and it’s so difficult to stay informed. I buy from local producers whenever I can, which generally from May to late October.

  2. JoAnn says:

    This sounds like my kind of book! Over the past few years, we have increased efforts to buy local whenever possible. Hope my library has this one.

  3. Libby says:

    Wow! This is headed for the TBRs. Glad to hear about Alaskan salmon. The last I read of it was Michner’s “Alaska,” which told about the founding of the industry when it was bad bad bad, including its treatment of the native people. :(. Makes me happy to hear of improvements!

  4. Peggy Ann says:

    Very interesting and a lovely cover too

  5. Melanie says:

    The food industry is fascinating to watch, and I’ve been paying a bit more attention after watching Food INC.

  6. Love the comparison to Audrey Hepburn. I’ll look for this book, sounds like a good read. I love the cover as well.

  7. Nan says:

    What a great idea for a book. Sounds fascinating.

  8. I have not read this…but it sounds right up my alley. Adding it to my TBR list, as well- thanks!

  9. This sounds like an interesting book. I definitely buy local. Local and in season product always tastes so good!

  10. Fay says:

    You would think our public library here in ag country would have this book, but no. It looks like a good candidate for inter-library loan.

  11. carol says:

    Sounds like an interesting book, and I love how descriptive that paragraph on chanterelles is.

  12. Sounds very interesting.

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