Sunday, April 30, 2023

Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House (Alex Prud'homme)

Alex Prud’homme is a culinary historian, authoring several books about Julia Child. His love of storytelling on the importance of cooking in culture shows up in Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House. This book is a chronology of over two dozen administrations and how they used food to entertain and guide policy, and how the subtle (and not-so-subtle) remarks that a President made had national repercussions. 

Prud’homme draws on the remarks Anthony Bourdain made in 2016, stating “there’s nothing more political than food” as inspiration for the book’s material. Taking us back to the 1790’s, the author talks about how a number of the nation’s most consequential decisions were decided over dinners or were food-based in nature. In addition to these, you learn about the tastes of many of the nation’s presidents, like John Adams preferring hard cider every morning and George H.W. Bush making his distaste for broccoli known. With the latter, the nation’s broccoli farmers had a harsh response to his feelings on their crop.

The highlight of Dinner with the President is the recipes at the end, like Dwight Eisenhower’s steak and Lady Bird Johnson’s Texas chili. The book reads part chronology, part cookbook, and part a series of short stories about how our country has used food to entertain, to politicize, and make important decisions. While the author’s politics sometimes seep through into his writing, this book is a worthy look at our country’s culinary path interwoven through the nation’s highest political office.


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants (James Vincent)

Measuring out ingredients for cooking or distances to travel is something we generally take for granted. Most of the world uses metric measurements, with England using a hybrid of Imperial (miles, pounds, and inches) and metric, and the United States and a few others holding onto the Imperial system of measurement. How did these measurements come about and how did the world drift mostly towards one system while a couple of countries held fast to tradition? James Vincent answers those questions in Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants.

Vincent charts the origins and evolution of how humans measure everything, including day length and years. The evolution of the calendar to the current system, an attempt by the French to change the calendar completely on its ear, and why we have 24 hours and 60 minutes is discussed in detail. Ever wondered how the kilogram is calculated or how a meter is measured? This book will answer those questions and more.

Beyond Measure occasionally wades into the torrent of politics, sometimes a bit too far from a balanced perspective where the author’s opinions take over the reader’s journey. However, his enthusiasm for explaining how measurements have been defined and evolved over time and some of the quirkier battles over how we measure, is very enjoyable. Beyond Measure ultimately measures up to provide a good understanding of how we quantify the world around us.


Wednesday, April 19, 2023

It Happened Right Here: America's Pop Culture Landmarks (Chris Epting)

Like Chris Epting, I've always been interested in learning where a big event happened. There's just something about standing in the spot of a big cultural "happening" that is profound to me. I was a big fan of Epting's books in the early 2000s -- James Dean Died Here, Elvis Presley Passed Here, and Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here -- so I was happy to see that he finally came out with another book of this type, It Happened Right Here: America's Pop Culture Landmarks.

If you've ever wanted to find out exactly where big events in music, sports, history, etc. happened, this is your book. Want to know where the house made famous in the Brady Bunch is? Or the dorm room where Facebook was created? It's all in here. What's always most exciting about Epting's books for me is finding out things that happened where I lived. Who knew that I lived very close to where Babe Ruth might have hit baseball's longest ever home run?

If you're at all interested in pop culture, It Happened Right Here is a fascinating read. I strongly recommend any of Epting's books.


Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World's Imagination (Jens Andersen)

Over 80 million kids around the globe receive a box of LEGO blocks annually. LEGO has grown over the decades from a wood toy shop in Denmark into the plastic brick and play material enterprise that is known worldwide. Jens Andersen chronicles the history of LEGO and the family ownership that has driven its growth and success in The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World’s Imagination.

The town of Billund, Denmark, is the home of LEGO. The LEGO Story chronicles the relationship that the company, the Kirk Christiansen family that has owned and steered the company for decades, and the town have had with each other. LEGO wasn’t always successful, suffering through financial crunches and struggles at various times throughout its history. Like any successful family-controlled business, its ability to adapt in bad times and to generational leadership changes has been critical to its success. While forays into hybrid wood and plastic toys and amusement parks ultimately fell by the wayside, LEGO’s ability to pivot to plastic bricks and strategically grow its brand have steered it to become a billion dollar, international enterprise.

Any business lessons to be gleaned through the book are picked up between the lines; however, the book’s history does provide a narrative that shows how a successful enterprise was able to grow and adapt over time. Those lessons, while not screaming at the reader, are easy to see in this historical narrative of a childhood favorite.