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Just finished reading The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome/the Pope because he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one, too!

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on March 26th, 2013.

laurie_colwin_and_books

The world lost a wonderful writer when Laurie Colwin died in 1992, very young (48) to a heart attack. I remember opening my issue of Gourmet that month to read the unbelievable news that Colwin had died suddenly. There was no explanation about what happened. I’d been a fan of her writing for many, many years. I adored her essays in the magazine, and had purchased her first food essay collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries). I loved the stories – most of them were from her many years of writing for Gourmet. Her writing style was so witty, folksy, down to earth. But loving, and matter-of-fact. She shared simple recipes, but with a charm and verve that made you just want to go right to the kitchen and make her beef stew. Or her gingerbread. Or her creamed spinach with jalapenos.

Recently I moved some of my cookbooks and other books related to cooking from my kitchen/family room area to my upstairs office. Books I don’t refer to with any frequency made the transition along with various cookbooks I can’t bear to part with, but don’t use much. When I came upon the Home Cooking book, I decided to set it aside and it’s been sitting in the book rack in one of our bathrooms for about 2-3 months. Even my DH has picked it up from time to time and enjoyed reading a story. I’ve just finished reading it from cover to cover, with a renewed enthusiasm for making some of her recipes (of which there are few). There are several quotes that I found so humorous, so I decided to share some with you. I don’t think I’m allowed to completely write one of her essays here, but bits and pieces are okay, I think. Perhaps they’ll pique your interest – enough to buy the book yourself.

In the Forward of the book, Colwin wrote a little explanation about her love of food and socializing in the presence of food.

Unless you live alone in a cave or hermitage, cooking and eating are social activities; even hermit monks have one communal meal a month. The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only kind of social life worth participating in.

No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. In my kitchen I rely on Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, the numerous contributors to The Charleston Receipts, and Margaret Costa (author of an English book entitled The Four Seasons Cookery Book).

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.

Perhaps Colwin’s most famous essay is the one entitled “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” It is, without a doubt, my favorite food essay ever, and I’ve opened this book more than once just to read this chapter. Colwin was young and an aspiring writer back then, and had to economize in order to even live in New York City. She rented an apartment that would likely drive a normal person off the edge, but to Colwin, it had charm in spades. Here’s what she wrote:

For eight years I lived in a one-room apartment a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia. It is lucky I never met Wilt Chamberlain because if I had invited him in for coffee he would have been unable to spread his arms in my room which was roughly seven by twenty.

I had enough space for a twin-sized bed, a very small night table, and a desk. This desk, which I use to this day, was meant for a child of, say, eleven. At the foot of my bed was a low table that would have been a coffee table in a normal apartment. In mine it served as a lamp stand, and beneath it was a basket containing my sheets and towels. Next to a small fireplace, which had an excellent draw, was a wicker armchair and an ungainly wicker footstool which often served as a table of sorts.

Instead of a kitchen, this minute apartment featured a metal counter. Underneath was a refrigerator the size of a child’s playhouse. On top was what I called the stove but which was only two electric burners – in short, a hot plate.

Many people found this place charming, at least for five minutes or so. Many thought I must be insane to live in so small a space, but I loved my apartment and found it the coziest place on earth.

My cupboard shelves were so narrow that I had to stand my dinner plates on end. I did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet . . .

When I was alone I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over I ate it cold the next day with bread. . .

In this tunnel-like dollhouse of an apartment, Colwin often entertained, but only a party of three. Four made impossible logistics. She often served soup – a one pot wonder. Usually she brought in dessert. I’ve tried to envision an apartment 7 feet wide by 20 feet long, which had to have included a bathroom of sorts, thereby leaving very little space left for living. Yet Colwin found it absolutely comforting and homey. She always preferred to eat at home rather than go out – she was a champion of good old-fashioned kinds of home cooking. Nothing fancy was her motto. One of her mantras was about salt – lots of it – and seasoning everything with celery salt too.

Eventually Colwin married – moved into a more normal sized house – and had a daughter. She continued to write. Including numerous novels. Here’s a link to her many published works. None is available on the Kindle.

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  1. Lee

    said on March 27th, 2013:

    Thank you for this….I feel exactly the same about Laurie and have reread her food essays more times than I can count! Xo
    I wish I owned all of her books – about the only place you can find them is in dusty old used bookstores . . . carolyn t

  2. Ann Webb

    said on April 2nd, 2013:

    I, too, love Laurie Colwin. I think that I have read all of her books, fiction and nonfiction. I keep Home Cooking and More Home Cooking next to my bed, and have for about 10 years! Ann W.

    I was sure there were many Laurie Colwin fans out there. Just last night I found my hard-cover copy of More Home Cooking. I knew I had it, but couldn’t find it! Now I can renew my acquaintance with those stories as well. She was such a witty writer. . . carolyn t

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