Megan Brenn-White

Reading master pastry chef Roland Mesnier's All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, you can't help but wonder how the last five presidents still managed to fit into the Oval Office by the end of their terms. Surprisingly, Mesnier's life before he got to the White House was at least as interesting as the years he spent satisfying the dessert palates of the world's leaders.

Following in his brother's footsteps, Mesnier left his small village at age 14 to enter the traditional French apprenticeship system. With an incredible drive to master new skills, he moved on to some of the world's finest hotels and pastry shops. He cooked in the legendary kitchen of London's Savoy, discovered how to create sugar sculptures despite the intense humidity in Bermuda, introduced an entirely new set of pastries at one of the oldest hotels in the U.S. without the staff even realizing that they'd been retrained and began winning award after award for his work.

From this illustrious beginning, Mesnier moves on to describe the events, the desserts and the people he encounters throughout his White House tenure. Aside from a couple of near-misses (one with a marzipan figure of a sleepy Mexican), Mesnier successfully created extravagant desserts reflecting national cultures, cuisines or historical events, from a chocolate military aircraft carrier for George W. Bush's birthday to five white doves made from lemon sorbet placed on a nest of fresh fruit, each with a sugar olive branch in its beak served to Yitzhak Rabin to signify the Oslo accords. Packing 25 years of desserts into one book can occasionally begin to read like a laundry list, and it's slightly odd to hear someone wonder if a planned barbeque will be cancelled when discussing the early hours of 9/11. But being executive pastry chef at the White House is no ordinary job and Mesnier follows his own golden rule to a tee: Never forget where and for whom you are working. Megan Brenn-White graduated from the chef's training program at the Natural Gourmet School of Cookery and is the author of Bake Me a Cake (HarperCollins).

Reading master pastry chef Roland Mesnier's All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, you can't help but wonder how the last five presidents still managed to fit into the Oval Office by the end of their terms. Surprisingly, Mesnier's life before he got to the White House was at least as interesting […]

Even people from slightly less remote villages in Papau New Guinea could barely imagine visiting the corner of the jungle where Sabine Kuegler grew up. The resident Fayu tribe had been engaged in decades-long civil warfare and all contact with the outside world had been forgotten. Enter a German family with three children under the age of nine and two linguist parents who are intent on documenting the Fayu language. Kuegler would later be trapped between her primitive upbringing and her European heritage; she grew up a true child of the jungle, which is the title of her memoir.

Kuegler learns to speak Fayu, shoot a bow and arrow, and always shake out her boots in case of scorpions. Though her family receives occasional supplies from the outside world, Kuegler eats a local menu: The huge red ants were quite popular and easy to find. . . . Grilled bat wings are nice and crispy. . . . ever-present grubs were another tasty alternative. She witnesses tribal warfare, the process of stealing young girls for wives, massive floods and disease, but in Child of the Jungle she focuses on the benefits of growing up in a tropical paradise.

Admitting in the preface that as an adult she is unhappy and feeling lonely and lost, lives the life of a vagabond seems a completely appropriate reaction to such a huge transition and an honest ending to a story that is incredible and very real at the same time. In spite of the compelling subject, however, the book can be disjointed at times and readers will have their curiosity unsatisfied (save for a short chapter at the end) about Kuegler's transition to a boarding school in Switzerland at age 17. In addition, although her parents were not technically missionaries, they did want to bring peace to the Fayu and their impact on the traditional way of life is completely unquestioned by their daughter. And yet, Child of the Jungle, a bestseller when published in Europe two years ago, is well worth reading.

Megan Brenn-White has written and edited for the Let's Go travel guide series.

Even people from slightly less remote villages in Papau New Guinea could barely imagine visiting the corner of the jungle where Sabine Kuegler grew up. The resident Fayu tribe had been engaged in decades-long civil warfare and all contact with the outside world had been forgotten. Enter a German family with three children under the […]

Marlena de Blasi's new book, The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria, is primarily a story about waiting, albeit waiting in a place most people would be grateful to visit as a tourist. The book begins, as did the genre-defining A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, with the requisite property search, but de Blasi has been living in Italy for years and is married to Fernando, also known as the Venetian, and they navigate the rocky waters of Italian real estate relatively easily. They find an apartment in a decrepit old palazzo (hence the title) owned by the Ubaldini family in Orvieto, apparently one of the least welcoming but most picturesque towns in Italy. The apartment, a former ballroom, is missing a floor and in-fighting among the extended Ubaldini clan has left it vacant for decades, but negotiations are successfully concluded and de Blasi and Fernando move to a temporary apartment as renovations begin. Temporary becomes more than two years and they fill their time with work (de Blasi is a food writer, her husband a retired banker, and they lead small tours of Italy) and getting to know Orvieto and its inhabitants. We meet a hearty peasant woman with prodigal culinary gifts ( Miranda-of-the-Bosoms ), a wise old man who has suffered the loss of his true love, a rundown noble and a quirky pair of shepherds, but they rarely move beyond their typecast roles. Months after moving to Orvieto with no end to the construction in sight, the author writes, I have discarded the notion of control and allowed myself to be seduced by the beauty of the wait. De Blasi may have allowed herself to get too complacent; there is too little depth here to bring the place and the people off of the pages and into our hearts. Still, there are certainly beautiful moments in The Lady in the Palazzo as well as some wonderful descriptions of life as a writer and cook in Italy.

Megan Brenn-White has written and edited for the Let's Go travel guide series and is the author of Bake Me a Cake (HarperCollins).

Marlena de Blasi's new book, The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria, is primarily a story about waiting, albeit waiting in a place most people would be grateful to visit as a tourist. The book begins, as did the genre-defining A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, with the requisite property […]

Between her global culinary adventures, stellar cooking skills, townhouse in SoHo (bought before the boutiques moved in) and healthy family life, it would be easy to hate Colette Rossant if she weren't as likeable as she is. Moving to New York City from her native France in 1955, Rossant tries her hand at teaching French and covering the United Nations for a Belgian publication before the new flavors in her adopted hometown draw her into the kitchen as well as the nether regions of the city, including a growing Chinatown. This eventually leads to cooking demos on the Hudson River, a PBS series on cooking with kids, restaurant reviews for New York Magazine, several cookbooks and many other culinary pursuits. Rossant chronicles these adventures in her latest book, The World in My Kitchen: The Adventures of a (Mostly) French Woman in New York (Atria, $22, 224 pages, ISBN 0743490282). As with Apricots on the Nile, a book describing her colorful childhood in Egypt, and Return to Paris, Rossant finishes each chapter of The World in My Kitchen with recipes reflecting the events and places she describes with such warmth and humor. By the time we reach the present day, Rossant has learned to bake bread with a solar oven in Tanzania, eaten grilled grubs in the Australian outback and impressed VIP Japanese guests at the French Embassy in Tokyo with her fusion cooking. The only problem with this book is, in fact, that the sheer breadth of material covered makes it difficult to get too deep and the real meat of the story sometimes seems tantalizingly out of reach.

Between her global culinary adventures, stellar cooking skills, townhouse in SoHo (bought before the boutiques moved in) and healthy family life, it would be easy to hate Colette Rossant if she weren't as likeable as she is. Moving to New York City from her native France in 1955, Rossant tries her hand at teaching French […]

There's no doubt that John Wood has done incredible things and helped thousands of children. His nonprofit, Room to Read, which started by stocking one library in Nepal, works with communities in six Asian countries to build schools, computer labs and libraries, as well as providing long-term scholarships for young women. Wood's memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, is to some extent an inspirational story of how to create a more meaningful and service-oriented life. There are glimpses of how genuinely touched Wood is by the way his work changes people's lives for the better. But Wood spends most of the time talking about the stellar corporate track he gave up and the masterful ways he uses business techniques learned in that lifetime to run his new venture which is to be expected; this is a business book after all.

It is clear that Wood has simply shifted his Type-A drive for success from selling software to selling a cause. Although there's a fundamental difference between the two, Wood's constant focus on numbers, his ability to close a sale and a management style that has allowed him to build and inspire a global team of hard-working employees and volunteers are just some of the skills that served him so well at Microsoft and that have enabled him to grow his nonprofit so quickly and successfully. When someone leaves a lucrative position with one of the world's foremost companies to start a nonprofit, your inner humanitarian wishes him nothing but the best. When Wood decides to leave Microsoft, he practices his answer to the question What do you do? until he is happy with his description of his new venture. He writes, It was clear that I would be proud to say this. If anyone judged me harshly, I would ignore it. The sad thing for this story is that Wood still seems nearly apologetic for creating a nonprofit that has clearly benefited from all of his particular skills and drive and no one would judge him harshly for that. Megan Brenn-White writes from her home in Brooklyn.

There's no doubt that John Wood has done incredible things and helped thousands of children. His nonprofit, Room to Read, which started by stocking one library in Nepal, works with communities in six Asian countries to build schools, computer labs and libraries, as well as providing long-term scholarships for young women. Wood's memoir, Leaving Microsoft […]

Michael Pollan rates America's dinner menu

Delving deep into the murky underwaters of the modern agricultural complex, The Omnivore's Dilemma is not the kind of book you'll want to read with a fast-food burger and fries in your hand. As the book traces the provenance of four meals industrial, industrial organic, pastoral organic and hunted/gathered you might not even feel comfortable with takeout from the local health food store.

How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? asks best-selling author Michael Pollan in an introduction entitled, Our National Eating Disorder. Faced with a constant barrage of information and an increasingly large distance between the consumers and producers of food, most of us are able to choke down dinner only by willfully forgetting the latest headlines about cancer-causing chemicals or animal conditions at many super-sized farms.

In Pollan's personal quest to shake loose that fog of forgetfulness and lack of real information, he does everything from buying his own cow to helping with the open-air slaughter of pasture-raised chickens to hunting morels in Northern California. This is not a man who's afraid of getting his hands dirty in the quest for better understanding. Along with wonderfully descriptive writing and truly engaging stories and characters, there is a full helping of serious information on the way modern food is produced. This can, occasionally, be a little slow going, but that does not mean it's not worth the effort.

Pollan doesn't suggest that we hunt and gather our own food, the basis of his own (rather fancy) final, perfect meal, but he believes that, if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat. Once we've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, we've bitten the apple of knowledge and we can only hope it was grown on the right kind of farm.

 

Trained chef Megan Brenn-White is the author of Bake Me a Cake (HarperCollins).

Michael Pollan rates America's dinner menu Delving deep into the murky underwaters of the modern agricultural complex, The Omnivore's Dilemma is not the kind of book you'll want to read with a fast-food burger and fries in your hand. As the book traces the provenance of four meals industrial, industrial organic, pastoral organic and hunted/gathered you […]

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