Book Reviews: Ham: Slices of a Life, Growing A Feast
Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez
1/27/2014

Ham: Slices of a Life by Sam Harris
Gallery Books, $26.00, 304 pages

OK, pay attention.
 
Sometimes, that’s all you need—just someone to watch you, to hear what you’re saying or understand your feelings. A little attention can be a bad-mood squasher, a good-mood enhancer, or just validation.
 
Yes, a minute in the spotlight can do wonders. And as you’ll see in Ham: Slices of a Life by Sam Harris, hogging that spotlight can be even better.
 
From the time he was three years old, growing up in Sand Springs, Okla., Sam Harris embraced the dramatic.
 
For his third Christmas, he received a special overcoat which made him dance. By ten, he had talked his parents into allowing him to be baptized, the after-applause being more important than receiving the Holy Ghost. He loved putting on shows in his parents’ basement, doing local community theatre, and acting in school performances. He was unabashed about his love of the limelight.
 
When he was just 15, his father lied about Harris’ age so Harris could take a summer stage job in St. Louis. A year later, though he’d known for a long time that he was “different,” and though it caused him anguished guilt and family strife, Harris fell in love with another boy on another stage in Nashville .
 
A short time in college proved to Harris that education wouldn’t make his dream come true, so he “hunted out” his stage presence in dark, colorless, largely-empty clubs. Agents and producers “occasionally came slumming,” but little happened until Harris finally found someone who believed in him: his father hired Jerry Blatt, who was Bette Midler’s writer/director, as a gift. Skeptical Harris figured it would be just another disappointment, but Blatt would “become the single most important influence … and the greatest gift my dad, or anyone, ever gave me.”
 
In this memoir, Harris writes about growing up, and how his family had the misfortune to experience home-fires—twice. He writes of falling in love with Mr. Wrong, then meeting his husband, falling in love again, and wanting a child so badly that he couldn’t stand seeing other children. He explains his career and his almost-didn’t-happen appearance on Star Search. He dishes stories of famous friends, on-stage nemeses, alcoholism, being “different,” and being gay.
 
I’m normally not a fan of books that scramble their timelines, but in Ham: Slices of a Life, that bouncing around works. It works well.
 
Maybe that’s because author Sam Harris writes with bouncing-on-your-toes energy, rushing from subject to subject with the occasional lingering moment to ponder things that are important to him. His is an eagerness that’s endearing.
 
Some of the essays in this book are funny. “Liver” will put a new metaphor in your vocabulary. The story of Liza Minelli’s wedding is hilarious, and Harris’ memories of his friend, Jerry, made me get a little teary.
 
With humor, soul-baring, name-dropping, and just the right mix of vulnerability and snarkiness, this book is a definite pleasure to read. If you’re looking for a memoir that you can enjoy, whole-hog, Ham: Slices of a Life should get your attention. 


Growing a Feast: The Chronicle of a Farm-to-Table Meal by Kurt Timmermeister
W.W. Norton, $24.95, 311 pages
 
Tonight, you’re bringing home the bacon.
 
You got it at the grocery store on the way home from work: neat little strips adhered to a rectangle of cardboard, wrapped in plastic. Some bread, a hothouse tomato, a head of lettuce, and you’re set.
 
So where does your food come from?  Go ahead. Point to the grocery store, then read Growing a Feast by Kurt Timmermeister, and follow along with one scrumptious meal…
 
On a Sunday evening not long ago, Kurt Timmermeister decided to have a dinner party for friends. Years before, he’d run a restaurant on his island farm near Seattle , but since he’d closed his French doors to diners, he realized that he missed cooking for a crowd. It would take a lot of preparation—and yet, dinner that night, with its formidable menu, started some two years prior with the birth of a calf.
 
When a heifer is born on a farm, it’s cause for celebration. Heifers grow up to be cows that give milk to make cheese, the main income for Kurtwood Farms. So when Alice (the name given to the calf) was born to a Jersey cow named Dinah, Timmermeister was pleased.
 
Alice was born in later fall, which is usually a quieter time on the farm. Still, there are things to do: as winter replaces fall and spring creeps in, Timmermeister and his hired men tend livestock, and they begin to prepare for the garden by mixing compost with soil and planting seeds in a ramshackle greenhouse. Fruits, vegetables, and meat needed for his dishes are mostly grown on the farm, although Timmermeister sheepishly admits to bartering for some of his seedlings.
 
As summer eases into fall, and then another year passes, Alice matures enough to birth calves of her own. Other livestock have come and gone, Timmermeister made and stored dozens of cheeses in the interim, canned and processed vegetables, and he harvested honey. He also butchered a steer for meat.
 
And on a Sunday afternoon not long ago, final preparations for a lavish meal began…
 
If it’s possible to fall deeply in love with words, I believe I have done so with author Kurt Timmermeister’s.
 
Despite descriptions of hard physical work and chores he’d rather not be doing, there’s a sure lushness to Growing a Feast. Timmermeister shares his gentle life: getting to know his cows, nurturing his formidable garden; and dreaming of the meals that will come from his current efforts.
 
But the bucolic pages of Timmermeister’s book belie the loss, worry, hard decisions, death and necessary destruction that come on a farm. We get mere peeks at the difficult things about agriculture-based life that may shock city readers, but of which farmers are all too familiar.
 
And yet you have to love a book that makes you want to wiggle your bare toes in the grass, eat sumptuously, or try a new, challenging recipe.  I sure did – and if you’re a gardener, farmer, or cook, Growing a Feast is a book you’ll want to bring home, too.
 

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