Eric Ball’s new book, “Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right,” has an ingenious premise and covers important topics. Yet in a noticeable number of places, the writing undermines the potential of the book.
It mixes memoir, food writing and accounts of life in upstate New York. Ball, a Saratoga County resident, is an associate professor of cultural studies at Empire State College.
When he was an undergraduate at a northern New York college, he seemed destined for a life in science and technology. He worked in transportation engineering and received a NASA research fellowship.
Then he met a Greek PhD candidate in chemical engineering named Leonidas, who introduced him to an expansive view of hospitality. An excellent cook, Leonidas taught Ball to make Greek recipes from scratch.
‘Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right: Reflections, Rhymes, Rants, and Recipes’
Author: Eric Ball
Published by: SUNY Press, 320 pages
How much: $24.95
More info: Eric Ball will read from his work at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. He will appear for a signing from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady.
Through Leonidas, Ball met his first wife, Penny, a graduate student from Crete. The couple lived on the island of Crete for several years; they divorced because of what appears to have been differences in temperament.
After the divorce, Ball came back to the States. He realized he so loved Greek life that he switched his academic focus to modern Greek studies, pursuing a PhD at Ohio State University,
In Ohio, he met and married a Taiwanese graduate student, Sofia. The two share a love of food, hospitality and exploring different cultures. Since their marriage, they have worked together, cooking wonderful meals with local and imported ingredients. One of the book’s nicest moments is a description of the two preparing an impromptu dinner for relatives. The couple move fluidly and cooperatively through challenging recipes; they delight their guests with the result.
Although food is at the center of the book, “Sustained by Eating” has no recipes. However, it is possible to improve your cooking from Ball’s descriptions of cooking with his wife, friends and relatives. There is a delectable description of Ball and a friend making a spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie, and advice on making distinctively flavored bread with airborne, rather than packaged, yeasts.
For Ball and Sofia, mood and company are almost as important as the food itself. This insight and the cooking information are the strongest parts of the book.
Ball considers how a person’s diet and preferences are shaped by where they live. From his experiences in Crete, Columbus or Washington County, he shows how to find appealing wild or locally grown foods. He cautions readers to approach wild foods carefully; some are lethal.
“Sustained by Eating” has an intriguing chapter about recipes and how people communicate their knowledge of food. As it progresses, Ball matures in his cooking attitude.
He starts out trying to exactly duplicate foods he tasted in Crete, buying field guides to find the American equivalents of fish and plants that his in-laws cooked with. Ball and Sofia find plants common to Cretan and American cooking; they also find Cretan ingredients that are in Chinese cooking.
Ball finally accepts that it is not possible to transplant a regional cuisine 100 percent. He then realizes it is possible to create something equally delightful by combining recipes from elsewhere with local ingredients.
Ball often overwrites. He seems intolerant of people who do not share his beliefs about eating. He spends several pages at various points in the book detailing disagreements with his parents and relatives about food. It’s useful to show that it can be hard to eat with others but he could have made this point a lot faster. He refuses a piece of cake, with unknown ingredients, that a family friend made for his nephew’s 4th birthday.
In the novel “The Silver Linings Playbook,” protagonist Pat Peoples decides that it’s more important to be kind than right. After reading a few of Ball’s family encounters, I wish he had this insight.
Ball offers much appetizing writing and explains why eating “right,” with care for yourself and the places that grow the food, is important to body and soul. However, his case for sustainable, meaningful eating would have been stronger if he wrote more concisely and less waspishly about others when they make different food choices.