‘Saving the Season’

We often remark upon cookbooks that are as good to read as they are to cook from, but Kevin West’s 2013 text Saving the Season takes the art of the readable cookbook up a literary notch.

Inside its pages are poetry, road trip stories, investigations into such as the history of sugar, an etymological explanation of the word “jam,” short interviews with famous foodies, the pale haze of personal memory, fiction excerpts from writers as diverse as D.H. Lawrence and Herman Melville — a whole glorious hugamug of good writing to match the good eating West promises you’ll master. And yes, there are recipes, too.

Now based in L.A., West is a former features editor for W magazine who has always enjoyed an excellent meal and particularly delights in the fantasy stroll that a walk through a farmers’ market engenders. One day in 2008, in fact, he bought an entire flat of strawberries there on a whim.

Confident cooking for large groups (he’s one of those energetic types who will empty his house of furniture in order to cook and host a wedding reception in his backyard), the sheer amount of strawberries defeated even his feed-everyone imagination. Then he remembered how his Tennessee family “put up” the foods of the season. How hard could strawberry jam be?

Not so hard, at least if you have the correct instruction and understand the underlying chemical reactions and pH levels at play. Once you’ve grokked those rules, strawberry jam gets quick, easy, and more delicious with practice and skill.

Saving the Season is drawn from West’s memories of and investigations into putting up food during every season. He doesn’t garden; he buys from farmers. He doesn’t spend an entire August afternoon sweating over a boiling pot; he does one project at a time, spending perhaps an hour. He doesn’t muck in absolutes; he plays around, seeing what flavor a bay leaf, for example, might add.

One of Saving the Season‘s wonderful open secrets is that putting up — or canning or preserving or whatever your own family tradition calls it — is simple. And it’s always heartening to learn that it won’t kill you.

In fact, the botulism scare is so mythic and prevalent that West starts the book by addressing it within the plane crashes/shark attacks category of scary but unlikely events we choose to needlessly worry over. (It’s sadly true that nursing babies are actually the ones most likely to contract it.) Most fruits and fermented vegetables like pickles can be safely preserved with a boiling water bath.

Meats, mushrooms, dairy, fish, and non-fermented vegetables must be processed in a pressure canner to avoid botulism, but that’s not a method that much interests him. Only one recipe in Saving the Season requires a pressure canner and that’s included merely to discuss the method for using this piece of equipment.

There are a wealth of foods for every season that can be put up and kept for later times without worrying a whit about your health. In fact, they’re guaranteed to improve it, as you control all the ingredients, including the demon sugar and salt.

But West is after more than just a recitation of nice ways to cook strawberries; Saving the Season ponders the many ways that the art and act of cooking connects us as humans. He writes:

“With our canning work, we save more than just a seasonal bounty of produce — although that is the first thing we do. We are also saving an old way of doing things, habits handed down through families and across the years, and in some cases our food-preserving techniques are truly ancient. Equally, we are saving, even in our urban kitchens, a sense of the agricultural cycles. Canning connects us with the past and with the natural cosmos, which is tantamount to saying that canning is a culture — a specific food culture — that is perpetuated with every jar we put up. We ought to be mindful of that, even impassioned by it.”

Saving the Season is nothing if not a call to passions, those that include the homely crafts of sustenance and are inspired by the excellence of artists throughout the ages. Passions which take the odd wander through the farmers’ market, see an impossible amount of berries, and impulsively buys them.

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