July 13, 2022 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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 Bread And Tomatoes

Clearly Wordle,  video games and the other vestiges of the pandemic have not ruined summer reading lists. Bookstores,my summer reads publishers, online sites for used books send me suggestions almost hourly.  And I, too, have some lighthearted suggestions for two books to throw into your bag. They make for great reading under an air conditioner or an umbrella. One is on the false economy of raising your own tomatoes, and the other is the same author’s year-long pilgrimage in a quest for a loaf of perfect “Peasant Bread”. The first book speaks to my husband’s  frailties as a gardener to a tee, and the second unfortunately nails my obsessive nature for baking.

An Extreme Sport

64 dolloar tomato book cover from Amazon website72I have a special affinity for books on tomatoes, as I had watched with misgiving when the other person in residence one summer lugged up three ugly planting buckets to my beloved deck, which I have in haphazard non-gardener fashion outfitted with numerous flowering annuals along with rosemary, thyme, basil, mint and verbena. I keep trying with cilantro, but it consistently flops onto the very expensive potting soil with barely a whimper.  Anyway, Mr. Green Thumb was going to grow his own tomatoes for his sacred BLT sandwiches, (Early Girls, of course) a topic I have discussed before. But then he discovered that you had to water regularly, remove the “suckers” (a term I thought was relegated to used car buyers and voters) and search daily  for predators, some of which are pretty gross looking. In the short finish to this story, the tomato plants  died painfully and slowly on his watch, on my otherwise beautiful deck. I  had to dispose of the skeletal plant remains, the dried out soil and the huge ugly containers.

This is probably why I loved reading The $64 Tomato. So yes, it is definitely about tomatoes and their loopy history, but as one critic says,  the author introduces us to organic gardening as an extreme sport. His exhaustive investigations of tools and materials – especially the ones he thought would be inexpensive solutions such as the stirrup  hoe  (we discover that Jethro Tull is not just a rock band) were just hilarious.  As were the adventures of Superchuck, a  groundhog who should have his own Pixar feature. The author’s two children are refreshingly and unapologetically unsympathetic to his passion. His wife, a doctor, probably knows more about the pathogens  in the soil than he does.  It’s all wonderful to read. 

The Way Of  St. James

William Alexander is the most engaging writer in that he weaves incredibly picturesque humor in with some very profound52 Loaves cover image from Amazon website philosophical themes and historical facts. He has written some lively Opinion Columns in the New York Times and occasionally wanders from his garden to let us know how he failed learning French. In his book 52 Loaves, you are treated to his almost religious soujourn to meet up with the Divine Loaf. The opening scene about his travails with airport security over his sourdough starter hooked me immediately. Plus some of the quotes he uses as sub-headers for his chapters are priceless – such as Stephen Colbert’s definition of the difference between an atheist and an agnostic.  But that is not all: Alexander’s jaw-dropping account of why niacin is added to all flours, for example, is just one of many demonstrations that this book is not just out to get a laugh; you will learn some really cool stuff about baking bread that is not included in the other bakers dozens of books I have on my kitchen shelf. 

For me, it started off with the gift of a year of the Master Class series from the Italy Insider. After rooting around the various video classes offered by said masters of their particular universes (and deciding I was never going to become a drummer or a stand-up comic) I landed on the Master Class of Apollonia Poilâne. Let’s just say I stopped counting after I watched her videos more than fifteen times. The famous loaf became my obsession (it was in the first throes of the poillane loaf in KD made with local flourspandemic, after all). After the third or fourth 2 kilo loaf, my husband begged me to cut the recipe in half.

But, like the family of our writer hero, his plea fell on deaf ears. Nothing would impede my search for just the right combination of starter, flours, water and salt.  And, although I had neither the dedication nor the travels of William Alexander, reading through this book has been a source of wonder, laughter and of course renewed interest in pursuing the Perfect Loaf. Fortunately, his epilogue gives us all the information we need to follow his pilgrimage. My husband is praying for Deliverance.


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Jennifer Marie Medicus
4 months ago

I swear some people are truly just gifted with plants. My step mother had a garden with tomatoes amongst other things. And I had a roommate who grew them in the tiny front patch of our town house (I’m sure our neighbors loved it). I promise you that both of them stuck them in the ground, staked them and visited them once a day to do whatever and that was it. I am fortunate to have not killed two plants in the house and the salvia on the stoop is hanging on.

Gretchen Kugel
4 months ago

Ah, The $64 Tomato sounds like a bro-in-law gift…he actually is quite a good gardener and has a great kitchen garden. It helps that he is in California, I think. I personally am champing at the bit waiting for my copy of Dione Lucas’ cookbook mentioned last week. When I was living in London in the 70s, I met a woman who was studying at Le Cordon Bleu (Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downs at the time), and I have their version of Le Cordon Bleu Cookery. It changed everything about cooking for me, junior high Home Ec and the Girl… Read more »