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06.18.08

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Book Reviews

'The Hakawati' and 'The Taste of Place'


The Hakawati: A Story
Alone, each of the dozen story lines woven together in this gorgeous tapestry of a novel would be a compelling enough tale. That's the payoff for choosing your cast of characters largely from holy books and legend. The Hakawati teems with figures that come equipped with their own harrowing ordeals and sublime triumphs: doddering Abraham and Sarah, Baybers the magnanimous slave-turned-prince, Fatima the voluptuous Persephone figure who ventures to the underworld to confront and ultimately seduce the three-eyed, flame-haired jinni Afreet-Jehanam. There are magic carpets, petty jealousies, grotesque acts of violence and superhuman courage--all the ingredients of a fantastic read, especially if you don't mind the tragicannibalistic elements so beloved of ancient Mediterranean cultures. Rabih Alameddine (I, The Divine) could have constructed a pretty thing from these elements, but into this richly textured matrix he sets the contemporary story of Osama al-Kharrat. The Americanized scion of a wealthy Lebanese family, Osama has returned to Beirut to stand watch over his father's deathbed. As he reconnects with family and reflects on a childhood shaped by civil war, old feuds and idiosyncratic relatives, time and fate collapse. Grandpa was a hakawati (professional storyteller), nicknamed "the exaggerator" by a benefactor; the epithet is now the family name, and in this, his homecoming, the adult Osama steps into the family tradition of fantastical tale-telling, seeing in the faces around him the incarnations of mythopoetic figures. Alameddine's touch with character is knowing and precise; the moderns are modern, with foibles any reader could recognize, while the legendary heroes and rapscallions are drawn more broadly, like the cartoons they are. Where Alameddine flies without a net is in the structure of this book. The narrative bounces madly between present, past and mythic eternity, sometimes spending just a paragraph or two in a setting before blazing off again as if in a crisis of attention deficit. There are so many plots that their dyes begin to run together, but then, that could very well be the point. There is really only one story that matters to any of us: our own. All other plots are embellishment.

(By Rabih Alameddine; Knopf; 513 pages; $25.95 hardback)
Traci Hukill

The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir
"Terroir" is a notoriously difficult word to define. Somehow, it manages to encompass both the natural conditions--soil, geology, hydrology, climate--that make our food possible and the agricultural techniques used to cultivate, harvest and transform crops. These particularities determine distinctive tastes that vary from region to region, from field to field. Thus, terroir can cover everything from wild mushrooms, foraged by serendipity, to wine, which is the end result of sophisticated human manipulation. In their superior culinary vision, the French have championed the notion that terroir crucially links "taste and place," according to nutrition professor Amy B. Trubek's new book. The term, however, is not an ancient one. As Trubek indicates, the French had to actively create and promote the idea, starting in the early 20th century. With the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) system, the French codified and protected traditional agricultural practices by tying them to specific areas; and in the process, they honored an entire way of life. Trubek traces the ways in which the French method has been modified in American winemaking and agriculture. In the United States, terror has come to mean "a less mechanistic and less invasive philosophy of winemaking" as much as a fetish for this hillside's or that valley's grapes. She discusses Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (subject of a recent cover story in Metro Santa Cruz), who considers terroir to be "about more than just geography and climate; it is also about a sensibility, or even a spiritual quest." Moving beyond wine, the book explores the extreme localism of chef Odessa Piper, whose L'Etoile in Madison, Wis., strives to prepare dishes with only local, seasonal ingredients, a daunting task in winter. Trubek sees chefs like Piper as a vital link between small farms and consumers; by educating people to appreciate such oddities as shagbark hickory nuts, chefs can enhance demand for local products and sustainable farming. Taste of place doesn't have to be limited to the small nexus of producers and consumers in one area, Trubek argues. Using Vermont maple syrup, aggressively controlled for quality and carefully marketed nationwide, as an example, Trubek concludes that unique, place-based tastes can be the basis for a revolution in thinking about what we eat and how we produce it: "Because our food and drink come from the earth, they must somehow speak to those origins. This is perhaps the universal element of terroir. If you possess the local knowledge by birth or design, the taste of place can reside anywhere."

(By Amy B. Trubek; University of California Press; 294 pages; $289.95 hardback)
Michael S. Gant


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