Book Review: Devoured—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are

Devoured CoverWhen I was growing up, I loved taking the quizzes in magazines like All About You and Cosmopolitan. All I had to do was choose scenario A, B or C for, say, 20 questions, and instantly, I had the answers to, “Which celebrity style is most like yours?” and “What kind of friend are you—true blue, fair weather or just an acquaintance?” Pressing questions, friends.

These days, I don’t click on every BuzzFeed quiz that comes across my Facebook news feed. But I still do a double-take when a quiz, magazine article or book promises to reveal to me some secret of my psyche.

This time, the book turned out to be “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” by Sophie Egan (2016). Ms. Egan works for The Culinary Institute of America as its director of programs and culinary nutrition. She also holds impressive degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

What most impressed me about her book, though, was her love for the subject matter. Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book. And she really wanted to share this information with people—everyday people, not just academics. These genuine passions, then, made “Devoured” a compelling and fun read about our culture and its cuisine and eating habits.

Egan begins with an introduction into “the American food psyche” and then notes that “convenience has always been part of our national heritage.” (Yet another thing for Americans to be proud of…) “Devoured” blends psychology, anthropology and various other fields of study.

Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book.

In these early pages, a fact that struck me, because it hit close to home, was this one: “Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, signed legislation crowning yogurt as that state’s official snack. Yes, yogurt is a fan favorite, but this might also have something to do with the fact that Chobani and Fage have major production facilities upstate” (page 34). I didn’t know that yogurt was my state’s official snack (what’s yours?), and was interested to learn that. And once again, I was interested to see a probable connection between business and politics.

I loved Egan’s chapter on “The Democratization of Wine,” and especially her discussion of Trader Joe’s and its “Two-Buck Chuck” here. For those who may not know, Trader Joe’s store-brand wine sells under the label Charles Shaw, which fans nickname “Two-Buck Chuck” because it retails for about $1.99 per bottle. That is, obviously, incredibly cheap for wine, and incredibly cheap in general. A quart of Tropicana costs more than Two-Buck Chuck.

People…love…Two-Buck Chuck. Just like they (we) love Trader Joe’s. Here’s why, according to Egan: “Part of what makes Charles Shaw, like Trader Joe’s itself, so widely appealing and so American is the way it shrugs at refinement…We’re the country of the T-shirt and jeans” (pages 197-218).

That we are, friends: T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

“One of the traits we sought to shed from our British roots during the American Revolution was the snootiness,” Egan writes on page 218, as she sums up the chapter on wine (and Trader Joe’s/Two-Buck Chuck). “So it’s exciting to think that lowering the snobbery of wine—in the wine itself, and in how we market and deliver it—can also boost its sustainability.”

…T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

So, 200 pages in, did I figure out yet who I am, based on what I eat? Two hundred pages in, I would say I’m a fairly average American. (You probably are too.)

After “The Democratization of Wine,” Egan explores stunt foods, such as the Doritos Locos Taco (Taco Bell) and the Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich (Carl’s Jr.). Many folks loved these creations—Jimmy Kimmel said, Egan remarks, “‘Is Carl’s Jr. reading my dream journal?’” (page 231)—but just the thought of them makes me gag. Still, though, I’m a fairly average American, because I’m open to trying new things, including new foods (but hold that Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich, please).

In case you’re keeping track, our America list now includes convenience, T-shirts and jeans, mosaic-ism, and a sense of adventure.

“Just as we collect wine corks or shot glasses, coins or seashells, we collect life experiences,” Egan writes on page 243, adding that “checking off items on our bucket list of personal experiences seems a way of measuring how full a life we’re leading. It’s also about projecting a self-image of having done a lot of exciting things. And for many people, an important component of that experiential résumé is trying new foods.”

Egan’s comment about “projecting a self-image” made me think of a meme I saw floating around the Internet the other day. The meme said something to the effect of, “I’m so old I remember when people ate food without taking pictures of it.” I do wonder if Egan might have spent a little more time on the topic of how social media and self-image-representation may affect Americans’ eating habits.

(For those who are curious, a quick Google search produced this article from The Guardian: “Click plate: how Instagram is changing the way we eat.”)

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read. It touches on everything from Americans’ love for customization (Chapter 3: Having It Our Way) to the contemporary gluten-free trend (Chapter 4: Selling Absence) to the devotion to brunch, or “Secular Church” (Chapter 5). And it concludes with a chapter whose name makes me smile: “The Story of Spaghetti.”

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read.

In “The Story of Spaghetti,” Egan explains why Italian cuisine wins the popularity contest for most Americans: “Italian cuisine has on its side not only easy preparation but also easily accessible ingredients” (page 303)—pasta, sauce, cheese. She notes, “If as a child the first thing you learned to cook on the stove top was Kraft Mac and Cheese, your first encounter with the inside of an oven probably involved a frozen pizza…So Italian American food’s popularity both in and outside the home is what truly sets it apart.”

Egan notes, too, that pasta is a plain, simple food that children will eat. No spices to worry about. And for parents, how easy is it to prepare—just boil some water, right? We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

Our childhood. Nostalgia. Our comfort food.

“When you ask what comfort food means, different people will likely offer different answers,” Egan says. “Perhaps it’s something very simple that doesn’t set your mouth on fire or upset your stomach. But a common thread will surely relate to what we ate as children” (page 301).

Let me be honest here, friends: When I read that line, my eyes teared up.

I thought about my own Italian-American upbringing: my mom’s homemade Christmas ravioli, and the hundreds (really, hundreds) of cookies she makes throughout the year for family members and friends. When my mom comes to visit me these days, she comes with coolers of her meatballs, stromboli and zucchini fritters. She takes care of me still, with the food she nourished me with as a child.

I also thought about my husband and our own two children. Many a Saturday morning, Stanton gets up with the girls so that I can sleep in a little. And many a Saturday morning, when I join them in the kitchen, I find that he’s made cinnamon toast for them—a recipe his mom used to make for him.

“Look what Dad did!” Grace and Anna will exclaim.

We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

What we ate as children, whatever it was—someone who loved us prepared that food. They made it—the cinnamon toast, the ravioli—because they loved us. And even if our tastes have changed over time, that made-with-love food can bring up happy, cared-for memories.

When my daughters are grown, and making Saturday breakfasts of their own, I hope they remember their dad’s cinnamon toast—their grandmother’s cinnamon toast, really—and the love and the history behind it. I hope they remember my mom pulling up with a car trunk full of meatball-stuffed coolers. I hope they remember how much they were loved.

“Nostalgic sentiments tend to be shared by people with a common history,” Egan writes, as she wraps up “Devoured.” “Part of that has to do with geography. For example, Rabobank’s Nicholas Fereday was raised in the UK. He says, ‘You can keep your Reese’s Pieces—they mean nothing to me. But if you put a Cadbury Crème [Egg] in front of me, it would be gone in a minute’” (page 271).

What would be gone in a minute, if someone put it in front of you? Well, friends…that’s who you are.

Photo credit: HarperCollins Publishers

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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The Christmas Presents I Remember

Yesterday morning, Anna and I stopped by our local post office. While Anna munched on crackers and thumbed through a display of bubble mailers, I addressed several flat-rate envelopes and stuck the last of our Christmas presents for family and friends inside. I felt two emotions at the same time—hope, that everyone would like what I’d picked out for them; and relief, that my Christmas shopping and boxing was now (literally!) wrapped up.

For all its festiveness, the end of the year can be a stressful time. Arranging get-togethers and travel plans with loved ones. Finishing work projects. And buying presents. Always…buying…presents.

To be honest, I love picking out presents for people. I especially love doing this for my daughters. Stanton and I are so looking forward to Friday morning, when the girls will open our Christmas presents for them before we drive to my mom and dad’s house in Pennsylvania.

I think Grace will love the blue watch we got her—actually, I know she will, because she told me that’s what she wanted: “a blue watch.” And I can picture Anna’s eyes lighting up when she opens her box of dress-up headpieces. And I picture…ripped wrapping paper on the hardwood floor; hot chocolate with marshmallows in mugs on the coffee table; and staying in our pajamas longer than we ever would on a normal Friday morning.

I thought back to my own childhood. I tried to remember, what were some of my favorite Christmas presents? I thought harder…

christmas-present

What came to mind, instantly—and as clearly as if it had just happened—was my parents’ living room. There was ripped wrapping paper there, too. And my Dad with a big Hefty bag, cleaning up.

I remembered my Dad.

And my Mom. In my memory, my Mom was sitting on the couch, holding a cup of coffee because she’d been up until 2 a.m. wrapping all the presents and baking the last of our Christmas cookies. Although I didn’t know it at the time.

Kids never know, until much later, all the things their moms and dads did for them.

My Dad and my Mom.

My brothers and sister, too—I remembered them. We were all there together. Later that day, my grandparents would come over…and other family and friends…and we’d celebrate Christmas all day long.

I remembered all those things very clearly.

Not one single Christmas present, however, is a clear memory. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!)

Kids never know, until much later, all the things their moms and dads did for them.

Christmas presents are fun—the giving and the getting. They’re especially fun for kids. It’s unfortunate, though, that some of the things related to the fun and festivity of this season can be stressful.

So if you’re feeling stressed right now, friends…if you still haven’t addressed all your Christmas cards (me neither!)…or wrapped your kids’ presents…or crossed off some lingering end-of-year to-do’s…take a breath. Take a moment.

Remember.

What the people you love will remember…is YOU. That you were there.

That you cared.

They love YOU.

Merry Christmas, all. 🙂

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

New Baby in the House: 5 Must-Haves for Your Older Child

I became a mom for the second time about a year ago. My take-two crack at motherhood was a lot different from the first one: I knew what to expect this time around. I also knew the baby products that I did and didn’t need (crucial: diapers, and lots of them; not so much: diaper wipes warmer).

I didn’t know, though, that I needed to invest in some products for another member of the family: my older child, who was 3 when her younger sister arrived on the scene. As it turns out, I spent more time and $$ buying items for my older child rather than my newborn baby, who made do with many of her big sister’s hand-me-downs.

These things helped Numero Uno adjust to life with a sibling. Here you go, second-time moms and dads: five must-haves for your older child once baby comes home.

1. Easy-to-open snacks. The first few weeks after giving birth, you’ll have about two minutes tops to feed your older child breakfast (Cheerios), lunch (more Cheerios), and dinner (hmm…Cheerios?). And she’ll need snacks throughout the day, too.

I found it helpful to keep a variety of easy-to-open snacks, in easy-to-reach shelves in the pantry and refrigerator, handy for my 3-year-old. Think a box of crackers, a bag of Craisins, cheese sticks, and prewashed containers of fruit. This way, you’ll be able to feed and rock the baby to sleep without being interrupted (“Mom!”) to help slice an apple.

2. Activities for home. It can be hard to take your older child to their once-beloved library story time, swim lesson and gymnastics class with a baby in tow, especially in the first month. So plan some home-based activities to keep your kiddo entertained, but more simply at home.

Some examples: My older daughter can play for a long time with figurines such as Calico Critters and the cast from “Doc McStuffins,” setting up scenes and making up stories for them.

She also loves getting dressed up and acting out stories herself. Stores from Barnes & Noble to Party City sell great dress-up gear, for boys and girls alike, that can double as Halloween costumes come fall.

One more idea: a parachute like this one. There are so many things kids can do with a parachute.

New Baby in the House

3. An activity for outside the home. All that being said, it’s nice to have one activity outside the home that’s just for your older child, so that he/she feels special. Since my baby was born, my older daughter has been taking a dance class, which she’s grown to love. She feels special getting outfitted in her tights, leotard and bun, knowing that Mommy and Baby are taking her to something that’s “just for her.” 

4. DVD’s. Because there will be times when you’ll need to know your kiddo won’t run to the nursery just when the baby’s about to fall asleep. You’ll need a tried-and-true “babysitter” that will keep your child’s attention for an extended period of time. Common Sense Media has this great online resource of age-appropriate movie lists. I especially love the section entitled “TV and Movies That Promote Empathy.”

5. Bubble bath. A lot of times, I needed to give my older daughter a bath while holding my baby. In the beginning, Daughter No. 1 pouted because I wasn’t giving her my undivided attention.

Bubble bath, such as this one, helps with this problem. I can quickly wash my older daughter, and then give her some time to play with the bubbles while chilling on the bathroom floor with my baby and counting down to the moment I can enjoy a glass of bubbly myself.

Good luck, moms and dads!

Photo credit: StockSnap.io

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

Motherhood: More Than Skin Deep

“Regardless of how each of us came to be called ‘Mom’—whether by giving birth, adopting, becoming a step-parent, or other journeys —the common thread is that motherhood changes our bodies, minds, and hearts forever,” writes Brooke Meabon of Alamo City Moms Blog. She and her team recently launched the meaningful three-part series Motherhood: More Than Skin Deep in celebration of all these different, though connected, mothers.

I was honored to be asked to participate in Part Two of the three-part series. Please feel welcome to check out my story in Motherhood: More Than Skin Deep, Part Two. I was delighted that 8-week-old Baby G was able to appear with me in one of the photographs.

Brooke asked all the lovely ladies who participated in this project to answer some questions to accompany their stories. Most likely due to space constraints, the entire Q&A’s couldn’t be published. So below, I’ve shared a few additional questions along with my answers.

How would you describe yourself as a mom? affectionate, energetic and sometimes impatient

What do you want your children to tell their children about you? That I not only told them I loved them but showed them I loved them; that I listened to them and took what they had to say seriously; and that I was someone they could turn to and count on.

How do you see your own mother in your mothering style? Food played a big part in my mom’s mothering style; she always made sure that my three siblings and I ate delicious, quality food either at home or at local restaurants. I’m similar in that way. I enjoy cooking and baking for my family and *with* my family, and trying out different eateries, farmers’ markets, and food festivals together. I believe, as my mom did, that good food encourages families to get together, spend time together, and stay close.

Many thanks again to Brooke and Alamo City Moms Blog for including me in their meaningful work here!