Customer Review

63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good book, but does not have 'Everything'!, March 9, 2006
This review is from: Melissa's Great Book of Produce: Everything You Need to Know about Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (Hardcover)
`melissa's great book of produce' by Cathy Thomas is named after the produce wholesaler, Melissa's, who is best known, at least on the east coast, by their displays of dried fruits, vegetables, and spices in your local megamart produce section. Ms. Thomas is not an employee of Melissa's, but she received a great bit of assistance from the Melissa principals in writing the book.

For starters, the author set herself up for heavier than necessary criticism by subtitling the book, `Everything you need to know about fresh fruits and vegetables', because the book clearly does not have EVERYTHING you need to know. This is mostly because the book is oriented toward the casual user rather than the person wishing to use the book as a reference source.

To evaluate whether this book contains `EVERYTHING' you need to know, I compared it to the most authoritative popular book on vegetables, Elizabeth Schneider's `Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini'. The very first thing you notice, looking at the entries for `A' is that while Ms. Thomas covers but two main vegetable names, Ms. Schneider covers seven. One may not miss the entries for Amaranth, Arracacha, or Arrowhead, but we are certain to be put out by the absence of entries for Asparagus or Arugula! Since I agree with Ms. Thomas' organization by division into fruit and vegetable by use rather than by strict botanical classification, I did check in the fruits section for `asparagus' and `arugula', but neither were there either. What is even odder, neither were in the index either, and I looked for both `arugula' and `rocket', the Brits' name for the peppery herb.

The next thing I missed was the scientific name for each plant, at least for the most common representative(s) if there is more than one, as there are for thinks like beans, berries, and mushrooms. This may be just a bit too academic a requirement for some, until you want to start comparing information in two different books on the same species. And, virtually every important book on raw ingredients I can think of (Bruce Cost's `Asian Ingredients' and Jill Norman's books on herbs and spices) gives us the two part Latin scientific name. Another lesser bit of information I miss is the names of vegetables in various different languages. The best example of where this is useful is in the confusion between rocket and arugula, courgettes and zucchini, and aubergines and eggplant. At the very least, the French, Italian, and Spanish names should be given, plus the English alternatives, when the Brits use a different word from us Yankees.

Comparing the article in both Schneider and Thomas on artichokes, my first impression is the much greater variety and quality of photographs in Schneider's book. For artichokes, this is especially important, as the techniques required to extract the hearts from the artichokes are not nearly as well done in words as they are with an accompanying set of photographs, especially if you have never before approached an artichoke in the flesh. I will give Ms. Thomas points for giving us sections on the most basic methods for preparing various species, but I find some lapses here and there. In the article on bananas, for example, Ms. Thomas wisely repeats the useful information on how to freeze bananas, but she neglects to say whether we are to peel the bananas before freezing. Other writers have been much clearer on this point.

Both books give recipes for the most common varieties of vegetable, but Schneider gives more and longer recipes. In this shorter book, Thomas would have been better off giving more general information.

In general, I was not entirely happy with how Thomas' book was organized. Many things were grouped under a common heading that other books might put in separate articles. For example, Thomas groups thirteen (13) different mushroom varieties under `Mushroom' while Schneider gives sixteen (16) different articles on varieties of fungus, including truffles, for which Thomas has no entry at all. One problem with this organization is that within each general article, there is detailed information that is also grouped. For example, if you need to know the special cleaning requirements of morels or the fact that shiitake mushroom stems are best thrown into the stock pot, you need to wade through all the stuff on every other kind of mushroom. This organization is most noisome when it comes to nutritional information, which is unfortunate, as many other books don't include this stuff. I think Ms. Thomas would have done well to present all the nutritional information in a table at the back of the book, since if I want to find foods with a good source of vitamin D, I could find it much more easily than by wading through the whole book.

This is not to say this book does not have its good points. For starters, in the course of this comparison, I discovered that Schneider's highly praised book has NO entry for cabbage (although it does have a chapter on Chinese cabbage and several other Brassicas)! Also, Schneider refers us elsewhere on the very large subject of chillis (sic) (species Capsicum), as she claims this subject deserves its own book. This, Thomas' selection of main article subjects is a bit more in tune with the non-scholarly reader. The greatest virtue of this book, which is exactly what the author had in mind, is that it is a good way to find out what to do with the wealth of new produce types showing up in our markets today.

The book does not live up to its title, as some important produce types are left out, but if you can have only one book on your shelves for `produce', this one is worth it, especially if you can get it at a good discount.
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