"The Oldways Table: Essays & Recipes from the Culinary Think Tank," K. Dun Gifford, Sara Baer-Sinnott, et al

Pros: Fascinating information for food-lovers
Cons: Some recipes could use more kitchen-testing; might seem inaccessible to poorer sections of the populace
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Ten Speed Press


“The Oldways Table” is less of a cookbook and more of a guide to finding and enjoying the most healthy, delicious, and fine foods the world has to offer. The mission of Oldways is “to help consumers make wise choices about eating, drinking, and lifestyle,” and to emphasize “the traditional pleasures of the table.” In some ways this makes it a rather gourmet book with sections on imported cheeses, wines, olive oils, and more, which might make it seem inaccessible to poorer sections of the populace. However, there’s also a great deal of information of use to anyone, discussing various aspects of sustainable food production (ensuring we make food choices that contribute to the availability of food in generations to come), healthy diet and more, all couched in terms of delicious food rather than dense scientific terms.

The book debunks some fads; for instance, it points out that scientific evidence doesn’t back up the claim that farmed fish are less healthy than wild fish, and argues that aquaculture is ultimately a much more sustainable form of food production than the fishing of wild fish. It also displays the fact that the healthiest populations in the world eat a diet heavy in carbohydrates, contrary to Atkins’ suggestions–it’s just that those diets primarily consist of whole grains and are eaten with plenty of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and a raft of fresh produce.

“The Oldways Table” includes many memoir-like interludes filled with enjoyable tales of rustic clambakes or authentic meals in historic cities, and it certainly makes a leisurely and fascinating read. I know far more than I did before about the production of cheese, the difference between processed cheese, unprocessed cheese, and unpasteurized cheese, and so on. It’s interesting to know exactly what goes into making the best of the cured meats of Italy, and what makes them different from region to region.

The recipes themselves are largely simple and quite delicious. There’s a dish of edamame beans, olive oil and sea salt that is positively alchemical in its simple and luscious taste. An eggplant-based soup made us sigh with delight. Unfortunately, while the tastes were delicious, it definitely helps to have plenty of kitchen experience when you make these recipes, as some of them don’t appear to have had much kitchen-testing. For example, the “creamy vanilla bread pudding with cherry compote” is absolutely divine, but the instructions have a few… issues. For starters, the first direction is to preheat the oven, but then before using it you complete another several steps that take about an hour and a half. The recipe calls for “4 to 5 cups cubed white bread (enough to fill a 9 by 13-inch pan)”, yet 4-5 cups of bread wasn’t even close enough to “fill” a 9 x 13 pan, so I had to guess whether the amount was the important part or the filling the pan was the important part (I decided to almost-fill the pan, and it worked out well). When the recipes in a book are kitchen-tested these are the kinds of mistakes that should get caught pretty easily; since the recipes were taken from different cooks and sources, this makes me wonder if the authors who compiled them didn’t bother to kitchen-test and simply assumed they were all correct.

Since the recipes are the lesser part of the book by volume and quality-control, I’d primarily recommend this book to those interested in reading and learning about healthy, sustainable food choices and practices. If you have the experience in the kitchen to trouble-shoot any mistakes you find, then certainly do make the recipes–they’re quite delicious and enjoyable!

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