March 26, 2008

Book Review: He Said Beer, She Said Wine

I recently received a review copy of He Said Beer, She Said Wine and was really excited to get into it. I love wine, and usually have a dozen or so bottles at any given time. I try to run the gamut, having everything from sweet Riesling and Dry Gewurtztraminer to robust Cabernet and Syrah. A lot of my friends, however, are into beer (and scotch, but that's another story). Usually the only beer I have in my house is the Corona I like, the Guiness my husband likes, and whatever said friends have left behind from their last visit. In fact, there's a bottle of Chimay in the fridge door, and a few other miscellaneous bottles that roll around in the produce drawers.
      (Don't fret, I have produce, I just don't keep most of it in the refrigerator!)
After the above confession, I wouldn't be too surprised if author who covered the beer-half of the book (Sam Calagione, who bears a passing resemblance to David Duchovny) were to come here and bash me over the head with a hefty bottle of XX Bitter Golden Ale. I was looking forward to a crash course in beer varieties without my head exploding like a Heinekin left in the hot sun.
So the first impression of this book is made by the gorgeous food photography. I could lick the pages. I sat down with the book after dinner a couple nights, and found my self hungry again. And thirsty: the beverages are photographed in well-lit glassware appropriate to the contents. Also, the design of the book in general is, for lack of a better word, cute, and I don't mean that disparagingly. The pages that talk about fish pairings are bordered with fishnet. The cheese pages are bordered with woodgrain, to invoke a cheeseboard. The page numbers are adorned with either beer bottlecaps or rings of wine-stain (which is a curious choice), or both bottlecaps and stains, to indicate whether the page discusses either or both. A final note on the design, which you might find petty, is that the body copy is in a fine-lined sans-serif font, (which means straight lines and curves, without embellishment, like this), instead of a serif font (that has little thingamajigs on the ends of each line, like this). To me, the sans-serif font makes it sort of difficult to read on paper. I'm not even 40 and I found myself squinting. I'll forgo critique of the myriad of font choices, because only a handful of people will feel the same pain.
Next, to the characters: Marnie and Sam each have impressive resumes, and each is extremely qualified to handle his/her section. Marnie is pictured in plain-yet-elegant dresses with a smart haircut (my hair will never lay that flat!). She looks like she'd have a great laugh. Sam is shown in untucked, spread-collar shirts and dockers, looking very much like the kind of guy who'd be as comfortable tending bar as bellying up to one. I mean this in a good way. The book is based, of course, on the He-Says-She-Says of which libation is more appropriate for a given food, and that feeling seasons each section.
On to the content! we start with a "primer" for each beverage. How they came to be, what they're made from, and the ingredients and techniques used to produce the individuality of each drink. Well done, and very appropriate for a newbie or a not-so-seasoned aficionado.
Then, they go food-by-food, picking out a couple items from each genre (for spicy foods, they choose chorizo, kung pao chicken, get the idea) and pair those choices with wines and beers. Throughout, there are graphs and charts and tables and grids, and that gives the impression of a textbook. I think that many people appreciate an graphical approach than column after column of dry text. Even though they DO include that archaic tongue map. Twice. (sigh)The part of the book that does the least for me is the "Which Drink Wins" section that follows each food category. Each author says a paragraph extolling the virtues of his or her preferred drink, while degrading that of the other. Here's one of the first examples. The following transcription is truncated, I grant you, but it sounds like a playground argument of "my dad can beat up your dad".
      Marnie: ...there's a reason we have 'wine and cheese' parties and not 'beer and cheese' parties.
      Sam: we DO have beer and cheese parties. What do you serve with pizza... Pizza is nothing more than a giant melted cheese sandwich.
      Marnie: We're talking about real cheese, not 'cheez' with a 'z'.
Also, esoteric as it may be, I will mention that I felt the layout of this feature is dizzying. Bold, all-caps, serif, sans-serif, script font, headline fonts...the typographer must have been drinking both beer AND wine when setting this one up. Again, I'm sure I'm in the minority of people who even notice.
The last part is The Great Debate At Home, which includes recipes and specific beverage selections, as well as detailed instructions as to how to do your own side-by-side evaluation.
Actually the REAL last part is the makeup -slash- confession by each author that maybe (wine/beer) is not the end-all be-all of beverages, and that perhaps a good (beer/wine) does have its place at the table.
So what's my final verdict? I feel it serves its pupose excellently... provided its purpose is to give someone a more-than-basic overview of how to match foods and wines. Take away the debate and the textbook aspect, and I'd be inclined to see this as a coffee-table book, something to be paged through casually while ogling the food porn and making you lust for a glass of something... anything... But with those essential parts, you get a fun, uncomplicated and very approachable book that will do its best to encourage you to be more adventurous with what you eat & drink.
I might even have to crack open that Chimay to enjoy with the roast beef I'll be having for dinner!