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The Mindful Reader: ‘Back of the House’ delves into psyches of the kitchen

Last modified: 2/14/2013 12:32:04 AM
Food writer and clinical psychologist Scott Haas’s website is called “Shrink In the Kitchen” which aptly describes Back of the House: the Secret Life of a Kitchen. Haas spent about 18 months visiting Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Mass., talking with and even working beside James Beard award-winning chef-owner Tony Maws and his staff. Back of the House combines Haas’s knowledge of fine cuisine and the human psyche and his unique experience at Craigie.

Haas has met and written about many top chefs, so he’s able to explain what sets Maws apart. Haas also draws some conclusions about the types of people who make it as chefs, and those who are drawn to cooking and serving. And he offers an homage to the passionate, devoted, offbeat people who create, prepare and serve fine food.

Some observations are unsurprising: chefs frequently feel driven to prove themselves. High-end kitchens draw misfits seeking refuge in all-consuming restaurant life. Fine restaurants are analogous to sports, with tough-minded, sometimes volatile chefs coaching the staff – from utility players to prickly talent – so they anticipate each other’s actions and perform consistently. “Millenials” (also called Generation Y) are often sensitive to criticism, text too much, have trouble focusing even if they work hard and bring personal problems to work.

Not groundbreaking, but interesting, especially as readers meet Craigie’s colorful staff. But when Haas is immersed in the restaurant, he notices how the pastry chef’s work has “immediacy” that is “poetic.” He finds the weighing of pickling spices, “their colors, aromas, and the silent precision of the task . . . mesmerizing.”

He admires chefs’ “spellbinding mix of nerve and despair,” is “moved by the sacrifices they make to take care of others” and is “drawn to their narrative of feeling incomplete.” Readers are drawn in too, as Haas shares rich details from Craigie on Main and the restaurant world.

Haas is clear-eyed in diagnosing Tony Maws’s unconventional success. When Maws describes his inventive style – “I may decide one night to bring out different flavors in the same dish I’ve cooked for months or years” – Haas explains, “This drove his cooks crazy, this pursuit, this lack of a fixed address.” Still Haas, and the cooks, admire his maverick genius.

Back of the House is an interesting mix of immersion journalism, psychological observation and food writing. which gives book clubs much to chew on, especially as Haas gets close to his subjects. Just be sure to serve snacks – this book will make you hungry.

Poetry, fiction and ‘When Doctors Don’t Listen’

The poems in Northwood writer Grace Mattern’s book The Truth About Death are about living with loss. In “Beloved” she tells her late husband, “You are everywhere and nowhere, / all spirit, all bone by now, all bird, / all current of air against our bedroom windows.” In “Anniversary” she writes “Now it’s people who anchor me here, / unexpected people in the ocean of always.” The poems lead from the immediacy of death to more experienced grief. In “New Category,” Mattern writes, “I have moved into a new category / on the financial aid form, widowed.” And a few lines later, “I’m the living yin yang, the love, the quiver / in the middle, it will work or it won’t.” The final poem is a tribute to writing’s cathartic power: “I’m living / on ink, fire on the paper for the millisecond before it dries, / sunlight on water, the constant flow and flash, the center . . .”

Maine native Priscille Sibley’s debut novel, The Promise of Stardust, is a love story complicated by controversy. Neurosurgeon Matt Beaulieu and former astronaut Elle McClure grew up together, pursued separate dreams, returned to Maine, and married. After a freak accident, Matt learns Elle is both brain-dead and pregnant. After witnessing her mother’s death, Elle opposed life support. But Matt decides she’d want to be kept alive until the baby can be safely delivered. His mother, a neonatal nurse and Elle’s godmother, sues. Matt hires his college roommate, a pro-life attorney, to defend his choice. Preparing for court, Matt revisits his bittersweet lifelong relationship with Elle. A thought-provoking, dramatic book for readers who like plot-driven, topical fiction.

In When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, Boston doctors Leana Wen and Joshua Kosowsky explain how patients and physicians can best communicate to avoid “cookbook medicine.” Wen and Kosowsky demystify medical language and practice and offer straightforward tips.

They argue convincingly that clear communication improves accuracy, personalizes medicine and even lowers costs by decreasing unnecessary tests and freeing doctors to diagnose what’s wrong instead of ruling out what isn’t. Other problem-solving situations – considering car or home repair options, resolving workplace or classroom issues, making family decisions – would benefit from the active listening, thoughtful speaking and cooperative decision-making Wen and Kosowsky advocate.

Self-published novels

Concord lawyer Jason Dennis self-published Vivian’s Window, a thriller about best friends Carwyn and Bret, who travel to Europe after finishing graduate school. Carwyn is unaware that through Bret and Bret’s fiancee, he and a woman he’s met have become “tangled in a dangerous web of organized crime, kidnapping, and murder.”

Former Monitor Board of Contributors writer Michael Davidow self-published Split Thirty, an e-book novel. Ad-man Henry Bell is working for the Nixon campaign, has a son missing in Vietnam and is looking for a teenage girl who may be carrying his grandchild. His story is complicated by “stacks o f cash, secret films, and federal investigations . . . bribery, burglary, and blackmail . . . and troubles caused by a cast of advertising misfits.”


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