Book Review: “American Terroir” by Rowan Jacobsen

November 11, 2010

Preacher, meet choir. I live in Portland, Ore., self-congratulatory hub of social Epicureanism. I am a former owner of urban chickens (1-2 eggs per day, yard-to-plate), married to a fermentation hobbyist; our friends buy meat not by the pound but by the animal, taking delivery on a quarter of a local cow here or half of a pig there. In yonder hill, dale, copse and valley are vines, berries, porcinis and salad greens, respectively, smugly delivered in weekly CSA boxes to rain-dampened porches. Farmers markets are de rigeur. It is not the done thing to buy one’s produce at Safeway. In the building where I work is Oregon’s first USDA-approved meat curing facility, where my husband’s climbing buddy concocts brilliant salumi from possibly magical European recipes. I am already—do not misread this term—what Rowan Jacobsen calls a terroirist.

Jacobsen’s American Terroir is a book that extols the concept of terroir, the specific complexities of edibles produced in a very specific place. Historically the term has been associated with winemaking, but Jacobsen urges Americans to wrest it from the hoity-toity grasp of wine snobs. It applies, he argues, vastly beyond vines and oenophiles.

Part travelogue, part wine journal, part economic-environmental manifesto, American Terroir delivers vignettes, little episodes in Jacobsen’s vision of North American terroirism.

Each chapter is an essay about a product—cheese, wine, maple syrup, oysters—profoundly influenced by its immediate environment. The gritty, salt-of-the-earth farmers and artisans who are portrayed here are the inverse of generalists. Focused and quirky, they are devoted to the specificities of their product: breathing, sleeping and working in tune with the land and its moods. It is, romantically, quite appealing.

These men and women toil within a larger framework of markets and consumerism. Jacobsen shows us the vagaries of coffee and chocolate prices, the difficulties of establishing profitable cheesemaking facilities in Vermont.

Predictably, living-wage co-ops and yeoman farmers are consistently the good guys, multi-nationals that pump out the bland, homogeneous—albeit affordable—drek are the bad guys. In claiming that respect for land and locale, nuanced farming techniques, passion and responsible business practices are Good Ideas, Jacobsen isn’t doing anything new.

Where American Terroir shines is in Jacobsen’s real talent for nearly erotic sensory description and journalistic travel writing. He’s at his best when he gets so excited about the chaos of flavors in a particular Puget Sound oyster that he puts the anti-Walmart dogma stick down for a bit. Then it gets, frankly, interesting.

I learned something. Several things. About how apples become redder the more they sunbathe, about the evolution of flavors during the maple syrup season in New England. Jacobsen peppers his food porn with facts and anecdotes that at times make the book hard to put down.

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

My many thanks again to LibraryThing for their Early Reviewer program, as well as Bloomsbury USA. American Terroir is available now in the U.S.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

3.5 stars
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