$25.00, 272 pages. Hardcover.
Note: Before anything else, I feel it is important to note that the title is not spelled incorrectly, and as such has nothing to do with “terror.” Terroir (with an “i”) is a French word, traditionally applied to wine, which discusses flavor in terms of its attachment to the land. According to the author, it is pronounced “tare-WAHR.”
Each chapter in American Terroir is a different short narrative about Jacobsen’s investigation (geographic, culinary, cultural, and commercial) of a “Flavor of the Land” (terroir). Salmon, cheese, wine, avocado, maple syrup, chocolate, and others are examined with a scientist’s precision and an artist’s eye for meaning. Each one is tied to the geography that produces it in a sustainable, flavorful way. Tradition, culture, history, quantity (or yield), cost, artistry and even taste come in second to sustainability and flavor!
I tried, throughout the journey, to pin Jacobsen (the author) down: Is he an environmentalist? A conservationist? A globalist? Perhaps he’s just a food critic? A travel writer? A culinary chemist? Maybe he’s a locavore? A hometown defender? An enemy of commercial foods? In the end, no label seems to do him, or his book, justice.
Jacobsen goes to great lengths to illuminate our often meager understanding of how food is produced for the United States (and in the United States). Rather than passing moral or ecological judgment on our food processing, Jacobsen offers that more tantalizing critical element: flavor. Each of the sites he visits, and each of the foods he champions, are held up for having the fullest, most robust flavor. Truly flavorful (again, not “tasty” but “flavorful”) foods are also nutritious, somewhat unpredictable, and when they’re sustainable are often economically sound.
Amateur scientists, food-lovers, lovers of the American landscape, and chefs of all breeds will find this book fascinating and perhaps indispensable to their understanding of both food and America. Jacobsen’s writing is clever, intelligent, and humble. He feels like a more confident Bill Bryson or A.J. Jacobs, without their more obsequious habits. For those people who (like me) have never really talked about food–its textures, flavors, and tastes–this book is an introduction to a whole new vocabulary. Tannins and bitterness, acids of all stripes, bacteria and yeast, minerality and succulence, all well-introduced and explained. Jacobsen’s painstaking attention to detail is reminiscent of an aspiring artist lovingly explaining the brush strokes chosen by a master painter. It opens one’s sense of flavor in a way that could only be surpassed by actually sampling the foods Jacobsen writes about–which is, of course, a delicious and encouraged next step for those so inclined.
To that end, each chapter ends with a selection of recipes utilizing the food item under discussion, and a brief list of sources for more information about that particular food and style.
Poorly titled, but great idea, and a delicious, thoughtful read.
Tom Donovan, The Book Nook, 9/10/10
*This review was written from a pre-publication manuscript well in advance of the final draft’s publication.
Many editorial and structural changes may be present between the work discussed in this review and the completed book.