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The Piglet2012 / First Round, 2012

Truly Mexican: Essential Recipes and Techniques for Authentic Mexican Cooking

Truly Mexican

Roberto Santibanez

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VS
Alice's Cookbook

Alice's Cookbook

Alice Hart

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The Judgment

Caitlin_james_freeman

By James & Caitlin Freeman

Not being a professional writer, or a chef, for that matter, I'm entering this project of reviewing a cookbook with a lot of trepidation. The trepidation is even more intense considering the ironic circumstances I'm placed in: I really need to finish writing a cookbook. Caitlin and I have escaped to Cayucos, California, a charming, sleepy beach town ambiguously located in neither southern nor northern California, far enough away from our daily lives, and with poor enough cell reception that we think staying in her deceased grandparents' bungalow will make for an ideal interruption-free writers' retreat. We're here for the better part of a week with the ostensive purpose of finishing this goddamn book about growing coffee, roasting coffee, serving coffee, and making food that goes really well with coffee whose manuscript, as our editor is so fond of grimly reminding us, is due on Caitlin's birthday. It's not a surprise, this deadline, but it has caused me to discover that there are so many ways not to write. Including judging cookbook competitions. That's why, in spite of our there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I position as future cookbook authors sweating their first reviews, we so eagerly accepted the assignment. Also because Charlotte asked. And it's tough to say no to Charlotte.

The division of labor is thus: Caitlin peruses the cookbooks, shops, cooks, and slides practical and succinct comments in between my blocky and digressive paragraphs. I tap away on my laptop, occasionally working on the book I'm supposed to be working on, make coffee, drink coffee, ask probing questions like "does that font look like Gotham or Futura?" and attempt to summarize our feelings about these books and the food we've eaten from them. Which is to say: write this essay.

Each book considered as an object of desire, curiosity, or repugnance
Alice’s Cookbook
James: The general color palette of the book is an appealingly feminine grey, celadon, and steely Nordic white. That palette is unfortunately betrayed by an over-avuncular approach to typography which ranges from athletic all-caps Times New Roman manifestos in 24-point type, to demure italicized headnotes more or less beseeching us to ignore any part of the following recipe we might find inconvenient, to chapter headings in a Gotham-y grey on celadon, which, in spite of the “you can trust me, I’m Gotham” vibe of the font, gives out curiously un-emphatic advice like “Rhubarb soufflés are not at all difficult to make.”

The photography is shot in what I’m calling “pre-ImClone Martha.” A lot of vintage linen tea towels, flea-market looking pewter dishes, crumbs, twine, and attractively peeling paint. The photos are, strictly speaking, unnecessary to the preparation of any dish – no process shots, and the dishes themselves are so simple that not to a have a photo of the finished product is not going to confuse anyone. The photos are refreshingly free from making the author the center of attention — just a few MFL (My Fabulous Life) shots on the back cover, and the rest is food. While there are not very many photos (I’m fine with that), they do an admirable job of hewing to the palette of the rest of the book.

Caitlin: Digging into the recipes, I began to sense that I fundamentally didn’t want what this book was selling. I understand that there is an industry of how-to guides on looking beautiful and calm while hosting a gathering of fabulous friends in a beautiful house. But my reality is that the kitchen is my workplace, and when faced with a crowd of houseguests in the kitchen, I find myself barking “corner!” and “hot pan!” and rudely shooing them out. I know that I’m just the sort of project that Alice is looking to tackle in this book, but I’d rather just make a reservation for 6, and let someone else stress about feeding a crowd.

Truly Mexican
James: Santibañez’s blurbs, while not without charm, have a certain “just the facts, ma’am” journalistic straightforwardness that I can at least feel informed by. I know where his restaurants are, and how long they’ve been open. There’s nothing tricky, or grandiose, or cringingly ingratiating. I’m relieved. I can just look at the recipes.

The palette of the recipes follows the cover, with a slightly too-tricky code: total cooking times are printed in aquamarine, active cooking times in burnt orange, yields in aubergine, and the Spanish-language name for the dish in umber with a rustic south-of-the-border all cap cactus-y serif font. The head notes and the recipe instructions are in the same handsome, sans-serif font from the cover, the ingredients are printed in an oddly-compressed gargoyle serif bold, and the end notes (what you can do with the sauce, how long the dish keeps, etc) are printed in a lighter version of the ingredient font. As opposed to Alice’s Cookbook with its meandering permissive-parent approach to the layout of the book, I appreciated the consistency and Marlboro-man reliability of the recipe layout of Truly Mexican. After looking at a few recipes, I knew what to do, and if you’re treating your cookbook like a tool, then what else do you need?

The photography of Truly Mexican also falls into the lifestyle category. There are a few process shots, a few shots of roasted peppers that might be helpful if we’re afraid of burning anything, but for the most part, they match the pulsingly over-vibrant and corny mid nineties food mag aesthetic set all too well by the cover shot. So much stoneware and cast iron, artful and self-conscious messes next to perfectly composed plates, it’s as though there were a contest in which a Mexican cookbook had to be easily distinguishable from an Italian cookbook from a distance of twenty feet. Santibañez wins.

Caitlin: Looking through this book, I began to feel panicky about how I might possibly put together dinner. Each meal would require 3-4 different recipes, and there wasn’t a clear guide to help me narrow down which adobo I should pair with which meat, which guacamole was the one on the cover, or whether or not I actually needed guacamole for our dinner. I was intimidated by the ingredients and freaked out by the need for multiple recipes to complete one meal — and the fact that every part of it was out of my cooking comfort zone.

Cooking and eating
Alice’s Cookbook
James: Caitlin chose four recipes — breakfast and dinner: Apple and Almond Muesli; Buttery Apple, Honey and Polenta Loaf Cake; Giant Yorkshire Pudding; and Slow-cooked Pork, Apples, and Caraway.

Every time Caitlin and I end up in a not too spectacular European hotel basement breakfast buffet, jet lagged, and looking helplessly for the spoons, I wonder about muesli. "Uncooked oats" I think to myself. "Why is that so great?" I feel like a vulgarian, but I just don't get muesli, and I assume that if I were more European, somehow, that if I drove a 6 speed manual- transmission diesel, had rectangular glasses, or took August off, that I would understand, and presumably appreciate uncooked oats. But Alice has cracked the code. Her genius idea of soaking the oats overnight in apple juice uses the acidity of the apple juice to "cook" the oats, in much the same way that lemon juice cooks raw fish, creating a sort of oat ceviche by the next morning. Adding nuts, honey and grated apples creates one of those perfect European moments of culinary self deception, wherein we manage to convince ourselves that something delicious and absolutely packed with fat and calories is actually good for us, and that we should strongly consider eating it more often. And take August off.

Speaking of fat and calories, the giant Yorkshire pudding, which accompanied our stew the evening after our delightful muesli, was a sodden mess. Sure, it was warm and fatty and puffy, but it cooled off fast, and cold it was a little like seeing a deflated volleyball on our plate.

Apples, pork and caraway are three of my favorite things to eat, so I had high hopes when the stew came out. But it was grey! Curiously, the italicized head notes to the recipe say “you can use all stock instead of a stock and cider mixture if you wish.” These notes are peppered throughout the book. They got under my skin like a guitar-store noodler playing “Stairway to Heaven.”

I know I can use all stock instead of cider, but which is more delicious? The whole point of buying a cookbook is to have an expert show me the path. I don’t want breezy permission in print to follow my bliss. I am paying for constraints and expert advice.

“I’m not a fan of nuts in my brownies, but don’t let that stop you from throwing in a handful of chopped pecans or walnuts”

“If the recipe below seems like too much work, just follow the first paragraph to prepare plain basmati rice.”

“Leaving the bacon out will make this vegetarian friendly.”

Caitlin: Looking for something not “meant for a crowd”, the first recipe I made was the muesli. Fresh, cozy, delicious and easy, I could easily imagine James and I eating this muesli every day for the rest of our lives. I could already picture us, retired and old, snacking on muesli after a leisurely game of tennis in the Southern California sunshine. With this enthusiasm, I couldn’t wait to make the apple honey cake for our afternoon coffee and tea. Once working on the recipe, I started to panic at the flippant instructions for baking a cake, and the nervousness I felt at trying to follow her vague instructions. “But I’m a professional,” I assured myself, “it’s my job to know how to bake a cake.” Once out of the oven, it seemed that everything would be just fine, maybe even delicious.

Our reaction? We picked at the slices of cake on our plates and tossed the remainder straight into the garbage. Wet, sour, wrong.

Truly Mexican
James: Caitlin chose eight recipes: Corn Tortillas; Cooked Green Salsa con Epazote; Chilaquiles; Classic Guacamole; Basic Ancho Adobo; Fast Mashed Canned Pinto Beans; Beef in Adobo; and Mexican Red Rice.

Caitlin and I eat at really good Mexican places in San Francisco but we are used to purchasing our Mexican food ready-made, instead of making it ourselves. So we came to this book beginners in constructing home-made Mexican food. Undaunted, Caitlin chose some likely recipes, found a Mexican grocery nearby, and went to work. And what work it was! The only possible misfire was the rice. Everything else was easy to construct, as time consuming as advertised, beautiful to look at and completely delicious. As we have learned from our own project, it’s actually very difficult to write a recipe in such a way that the moments of confusion are minimized, and whose result is appealing to look at and satisfies the desire (the aspiration!) of the home cook to make something which suggests the skill of the trained chef. Santibañez has done a laudable job of making delicious, beautiful to look at Mexican food no harder than following a few simple instructions.

Caitlin: I put off cooking from this book for as long as possible. I was intimidated by how hard everything seemed, uninspired by the way it looked, and totally unfamiliar with the techniques and ingredients. Once I had all ingredients on hand and committed myself to reading the recipes step-by-step, I discovered that these recipes were totally do-able and absolutely stupendous to eat. We spent the next two days marveling at what a genius I was with Mexican food. From incredible sauces, to the best guacamole I’ve had in my life (from my hands or the hands of any other), to the excitement of making my own corn tortillas, I felt like I had entered a whole new realm of cooking, and knew these recipes would be folded into our daily home cooking. And they have. I am using this book more regularly than I’ve ever used another cookbook (baking books excepted), and find myself whipping up batches of Salsa Verde to store away in the freezer or throwing together a batch of corn tortillas for a Tuesday supper.

Declaring a winner
The winner by a wide margin is Truly Mexican. It wasn’t a tough choice. I appreciated the book the more we ate from it and learned an important lesson about how valuing the cool or beautiful can stand in the way of valuing the excellent. We have so many recipes that we will never make, I am constantly perplexed by my own desire to purchase more cookbooks. But purchase them I do, and from here on out, I’ll try to see past the stylish pictures and the pouty, aloof typography towards some intrinsic evaluation of actually cooking and eating the food.

And the winner is…

Truly Mexican: Essential Recipes and Techniques for Authentic Mexican Cooking

Truly Mexican: Essential Recipes and Techniques for Authentic Mexican Cooking

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Do you Agree? (39 comments)

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about 2 years ago davidpdx

Had not tried much Mexican cooking up to now. Review stimulated to buy "Truly Mexican" a few days ago. Terrific book. Made a couple of adobo sauces that were outstanding for depth of flavor. Tried "Pork in Adobo" last night for a dinner party, and it was excellent. Looking forward to more.

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about 2 years ago Fuggle Antics

For what its worth, on recommendation I've just cooked two of Alice's recipes for a frosty January dinner party and both were exceptional. Her light tone makes me feel creative and made following the recipes a doddle. The results were praised by all who came. Well done Alice, and well done me!

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about 2 years ago Bobsiloula

I love Alice's Cookbook. She writes my kind of book and I love her relaxed approach to food. Cooking is meant to be fun after all!

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about 2 years ago Shepherd's Pie

A funny review, this - as in odd. I wouldn't dream of quibbling with the Freemans' knowledge of typefaces, which is clearly second to none, and I can't comment on Truly Mexican, as I haven't got hold of it yet.

However, I already own Alice's Cookbook (a present from an enthusiastic friend, who delights in new culinary 'finds') and my copy is food-spattered and floury-fingerprinted from being consulted. It's never let me down. The recipe for caramelised baby roots, feta and sweet lemon dressing has become a colourful staple in our Sunday lunches. Salt-roast spuds with smashed herb creme fraiche are dead simple and delicious. The stickiest gingerbread is, I'm beginning to suspect, the reason my friends come around at all.

So I found it hard to agree with (and wasn't terribly amused by) the reviewers' comments. The apple and honey cake? Delicious every time I've made it.

Baffled.

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about 2 years ago Shabba delights in food

I will be objective and fair.. I have not read Truly Mexican, so I can't judge its merits. I have no reason to doubt it as an entertaining and useful book. I have worked as a professional chef for over 15 years and have worked in over 5 different countries and was looking to buy my daughter a cookery book with a little sparkle, that she would both enjoy and, importantly, actually use, I couldn't disagree more with the comments above on Alice's Cook Book. We have used ALL these recipes on multiple occasions and never, not once, have they failed to work. I also must admit I rather like them. So in short...

Alice's Cook Book is fantastic and I'd recommend it to anyone. I'm sure Truly Mexican is also great.

As Confucius almost said "When you see a worthy recipe, endeavour to emulate it... when you see an unworthy recepe, then examine your own cooking skills!"

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about 2 years ago Shabba delights in food

I will be objective and fair.. I have not read Truly Mexican, so I can not judge it's merits. I have no reason to doubt it as an entertaining and useful book. I have worked as a professional chef for over 15 years and have worked in over 5 different countires and was looking to buy my daughter a cookery book with a little sparkle, that she would both enjoy and, importantly, actually use, I couldn't disagree more with the comments above on Alice's Cook Book. We have used ALL these recepies on multiple occaisions and never, not once, have they failed to work. I also must admit I rather like them. So in short...

Alice's Cook Book is fantastic and I'd reccommend it to anyone. I'm sure Truly Mexican is also great.

As Confucius almost said "When you see a worthy recepie, endeavour to emulate it... when you see an unworthy recepie, then examine your own cooking skills!"

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about 2 years ago Shabba delights in food

I will be objective and fair.. I have not read Truly Mexican, so I can not judge it's merits. I have no reason to doubt it as an entertaining and useful book. I have worked as a professional chef for over 15 years and have worked in over 5 different countires and was looking to buy my daughter a cookery book with a little sparkle, that she would both enjoy and, importantly, actually use, I couldn't disagree more with the comments above on Alice's Cook Book. We have used ALL these recepies on multiple occaisions and never, not once, have they failed to work. I also must admit I rather like them. So in short...

Alice's Cook Book is fantastic and I'd reccommend it to anyone. I'm sure Truly Mexican is also great.

As Confucius almost said "When you see a worthy recepie, endeavour to emulate it... when you see an unworthy recepie, then examine your own cooking skills!"

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about 2 years ago William Warbler

I really enjoyed reading this review and hearing the reactions of two people deep in the throws of writing a book. I read James' review as someone so deep in the book process that every microscopic part of the book was something to be analyzed and considered. I think his writing is witty and engaging.

As a disclaimer, I have some experience working with Caitlin. As a recipe tester for this book they are writing. I didn't know (and still haven't met) either Freeman, but Blue Bottle posted on facebook looking for help in testing recipes, and I responded. In the process of testing her recipes, I found an engaging woman who was entirely focused on publishing exacting, perfect, and easy-to-follow recipes. With any hiccup I had, she would take my experience, ask a lot of questions, and inform me how she was going to make the recipe better for publishing. And I know she was doing this same process with about 75 other recipe testers.

I see her neuroticism and stress level in this review as the work of a very talented chef in the process of trying to avoid those feelings in the readers she is looking to reach. I'm just sorry that commenters think that stress over perfection and the expectation of clear instructions is being read as mean spirited or neurotic. I mean, come on, how can the woman who makes these desserts be anything less than exacting and a perfectionist?

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about 2 years ago Try hard cook

I think James and Caitlin should focus less on promoting themselves and their own future book and more on what they're meant to be reviewing. I think both the books are great - I really like the recipe for Chilaquiles they mention, but I particularly like Alice's cookbook. I haven't tried the offending apple cake but I've made delicious peach and vanilla tart and it worked a treat. Slightly bewildered by their mistrust of swiss bircher muesli too... I think judges should try less hard to be funny, especially at the expense of the new voices they should be celebrating.

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about 2 years ago jay52

I've used Alice Hart's cookbook a number of times and always found the recipes to be delicious. I've even made the Polenta loaf cake, from this review, a few times and it's always turned out great.

I'm also a bit confused with the coments on the design of this book, it was one of the things that made me pic up the book in the first palce. Each to their own i suppose.

One thing i did think. Maybe Caitlin needs to stop drinking all that coffee. She sounds way too edgy and nervous!! maybe mix in a decaf once in a while

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about 2 years ago Sysco

As I read this review I was shaking my head alot.

For the information of the judges you dont eat yorkshire puddings cold! The fact that these judges did means that all other comments about the results of what was cooked as part of this review should be disregarded.

This review is a bit like asking someone who tries to put some skis on backwards to review a pair of skis.

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about 2 years ago DJ Comuzio

Wow! Wouldn't Woody Allen have a field day with these two. They're like caricatures of themselves. I'm going to use them as character models in a short story!

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about 2 years ago Glyn Grills

Good grief! What a strange appraisal of Alice's Cookbook. These comments are not at all even-handed or constructive. As the judges have chosen to make their (rather bitter? they read very sourly anyway) subjective judgments, I have no comment to make on that. They obviously don't like the tone of the book. However, I own this book and I LOVE IT! That aside, I don't know what went wrong in the judges' kitchen. That Yorkshire pudding recipe works fore me every time and is my go-to recipe for that. Of course they deflate when they're cold!!!! You eat them when they're hot! I have made and loved the pork stew, and mine wasn't grey. And that cake is lovely, not at all sour. I have no understanding of what can have happened to make the recipes come out the way they did for the judges. In fact, I don't believe it. What a disappointment to read such a downbeat, mean-spirited review of a rookie author's book. I can only hope reviewers of the judges' first book are a little more fair-handed.

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about 2 years ago Matthewrmt

I love Truly Mexican. The Blackberry Mole was inspired, unique, and delicious! Glad one of my favorite Mexican cookbooks won. With pride, I store right next to my Rick Bayless cookbooks.

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about 2 years ago Peony11

This article was a hoot. I appreciate how the Freeman's went about their task in reviewing two very different books. Their mixing bowl of commitment, reluctance, honesty, skill and humor reminded my husband and me of our first attempt at a classical Indian meal. Am also interested in how Truly Mexican compares with Rick Bayless' work, another culinary adventure we had. We wait until we invite people over before we try out cuisines.

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about 2 years ago astackofdishes

Thoroughly enjoyed reading these reviews. Delightful. I love this tournament, though IMO, if you get a cookbook published, you've already won.

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about 2 years ago garlic&lemon

Having faced many writing deadlines, I appreciated James' distractions with fonts, type colors, page lay-outs, and ruminations about the meanings of style. I was initially surprised that they decided to be so candid about their own upcoming deadline, but then found them hilarious.(Been there, done all that!) Having swooned over the pastries at Miette in trips to San Francisco, I think Caitlin was being far too modest about her cooking abilities. At any rate, it was refreshing to find reviewers saying they learned a lot and broke through misconceptions. I, too, was initially startled by the loud colors on the front of Truly Mexican. Hey we are not always so loud and colorful. Isn't that a stereotype? Anyway, glad the food from the book is delicious! Now, I wonder how it compares to Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless?

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about 2 years ago Speckledrooster

There is nothing more boring than a review that doesn't have a clear point of view. This review isn't negative it's honest.

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about 2 years ago Liia

I think these reviews are very well written, especially for people who confess to a lack of experience in that area. The point of a review is to be honest, and if that requires one to sound harsh, so be it--what is this about protecting artists' self esteem? Ridiculous. As a writer myself, I expect to receive harsh criticism in the hopes of making a better work in the future.

Dorothy Parker used to write things in her reviews such as "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force" and that Katharine Hepburn "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Obviously, being nice is not necessary in writing a review; in fact it is absurd. Reviews are not therapy sessions; they are not meant to boost the self esteem of those who are being reviewed.

Keep writing, James and Caitlin!

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about 2 years ago apronjilly

Can't speak for Truly Mexican first-hand (yet) but I already own Alice's Cookbook and have found it to be charming, useful and nicely laid out. I like the different fonts for example! Perhaps its relaxed style wasn't just didn't appeal to these judges? Anyway, some of their words do seem a bit harsh - I've made the brownie recipe countless times and have not had any problems elsewhere.
Well done to both books for getting this far and good luck to the winner of this round!

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about 2 years ago Fcyparc

After reading both the un-constructive and, let's face it, rather jealous-sounding reviews above, i feel that these judges seem like they know nothing about cooking or food writing.
This isn't constructive criticism this is an all out ridiculous review. Americans obviously don't understand the way many dishes/foods are cooked and therefore believe that if they cannot do it it is wrong. Why these two have been selected as judges i do not know!
This review is a total waste of time and i can only hope that your book has more professional reviews. Stick to coffee making i think!

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about 2 years ago ChezShea

Post Script:
Are you ALL from New York?
ss

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about 2 years ago ChezShea

I agree with Kassie. Below:

I thought for a moment I was reading a judgement from America or Britain's got Talent ...both.known for "less" than constructive criticism.Why be so hard on these "artists"? Neither would be in the running without unusual talent. I'm sure your cooking has a "hangnail" or two that needs trimming. PLEASE don't be so NEGATIVE.
Artists need their self-esteem to thrive and produce. "nuff said".

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about 2 years ago Kassie

Why did you get a judge who is stressed out and neurotic about cooking? or at least claims to be in just about every paragraph. These reviews were totally annoying. I assume that these people are professionals and should be able to provide constructive criticism, not this silly nonsense. UGH!

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about 2 years ago charlotte au chocolat

I agree. I was surprised to read the bios and find out that Caitlin is a "resident pastry chef" and has "made a name for herself creating simple and lovely cakes". I wish her love of food (which I assume from her bio) would have made its way into her/their review.

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about 2 years ago Shalini

I meant writing or reading! Thanks.

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about 2 years ago Shalini

This is a wonderfully written and hilarious review of these two cookbooks. James and Caitlin's personalities totally come through in her brevity and his prose about the personality of fonts. This really helps anyone writing (or writing) a book on what the reader wants to see, read and experience. I too want to get Truly Mexican and whip up my own corn tortillas, adobo sauce and the best guacamole I'll ever eat. Thanks!

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about 2 years ago Gita

I read about your company one morning and happened to go to the Ferry Building in San Francisco and saw the Blue Bottle coffee sign and went in to have a cup of coffee and really liked it. Brought home some grounds and enjoying it for breakfast.

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about 2 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

I don't really care for the Freeman's writing style. Yes, some parts are hilarious, but overall I think their writing style should be the one on review. Will not be purchasing their upcoming book! Cooking Mexican food is rather simple, you just need to find someone who was born in Mexico and is willing to teach you. That's what I have done and now I feel confident cooking authentic Mexican food.

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about 2 years ago Midge

So glad others are just as perplexed by muesli! What a fun review; the Freemans have sold me on Truly Mexican and their own cookbook.

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about 2 years ago Mike Free

I have Truly Mexican and love it. Everything I've made from it has been delicious. Hilarious reviews.

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about 2 years ago SKK

First of all, I now cannot wait to purchase Freeman's "goddamn book about growing coffee, roasting coffee, serving coffee, and making food that goes really well with coffee whose manuscript, as our editor is so fond of grimly reminding us, is due on Caitlin's birthday".

Secondly, don't recall ever laughing so much while reading a book review, let alone a cookbook review! Ordering 'Truly Mexican'.

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about 2 years ago OzzyCT

A waste of time. Mr. Freeman should add to his cliche-ridden description of Europeans the well-known fact that muesli is usually soaked overnight, so no genius idea here.

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about 2 years ago leftoverquiche

Agree.

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about 2 years ago charlotte au chocolat

yup.

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about 2 years ago mtrelaun

“I don’t want breezy permission in print to follow my bliss.” Oh, how I love the Freemans!

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about 2 years ago gluttonforlife

Hilarious! Never mind these two cookbooks, I don't even drink coffee and I can't wait for the one written by James & Caitlin!

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about 2 years ago DJ Comuzio

Tell me you're not serious. Hilarious? Well, I DID start out thinking they were writing a parody and I was amusing myself with that thought for about 30 seconds, but no, I decided they're not that clever.

Chris_in_oslo

about 2 years ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

I'm intimidated by cooking Mexican food. Will it be too hot? Too mild? A mess? Take so much longer than I thought that we never get to dinner? I just ordered Truly Mexican. Thanks!