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Just 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 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.

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.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

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 December 25th, 2013.

The below came from the blog, Eat Your Books. Just thought you might enjoy a laugh, or a harumph. Meanwhile, I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holiday, whatever it is you’re celebrating today.

Eatocracy has Eat This List: 2014 food trend predictions. Two of their editors each describe 5 trends, along with some honorable mentions. The article has full explanations behind each selection; briefly, they are:

  • Fish collars, heads and trash fish
  • Heirloom beans, peanuts and field peas
  • Haute Jewish deli
  • Reconsidered rice (and no, I don’t know what that means)
  • Raw beef
  • Eating with your hands
  • Housemade hot sauces
  • Parfaits
  • Breakfast for dinner

Over at The Daily Meal, they asked 25 chefs to  Predict the 2014’s Dining and Culinary Trends. We’ll let you look at the complete list, but here are some of the food items that were mentioned:

  • Gourmet tacos
  • Pork
  • Dishes from Sardinia, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Malaysia (SE Asia is hot)
  • Lots of grains and seeds – grits could be big
  • Asian mustard greens
  • Coconut sugar

And then we have the Wall Street Journal, which focused on just one trend in their article, Historical Recipes Are the Next Big Thing. As they write, “In a culinary landscape filled with Szechuan pastrami and cronuts, it can feel like our chefs are slaves to novelty, forever breaking with traditional foodways in favor of dishes inspired by artistic whims and enabled by modern technology. But look past the clamor of innovation and you’ll find some of the country’s most gifted toques quietly engrossed in old cookbooks, viewing the historical record as a treasure trove of ingenious techniques and preparations.”

However, as they explain later in the article, “The trend doesn’t stem from fetishizing the past so much as from the deeply held conviction that, when it comes to cookery, time-honored methods often trump personal innovation.” And, as  Adam Leonti (chef of  Vetri in Philadelphia)  points out, “Recipes from the past tend to lack the precise details we see in today’s texts…and that provides opportunities for creative thinking and experimentation.”

So if you want to be au courant,  dig out those old cookbooks and see which recipes trigger your curiosity. Sometimes the old is new again.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on December 26th, 2013:

    Coconut sugar? I wouldn’t mind Grits though after eating them at 82 Queen in Charleston. Cod cheeks are delicious but I am not sure about trash fish. Raw beef is quite popular here as Carpaccio in Italian restaurants.

    If you ever find out about reconsidered rice, I hope you will share?

    It is definitely Merry Christmas here, or as I prefer, Merry Yule!

    It’s the day after Christmas here, and we’re supposed to have temperatures into the mid-80’s today. Way, way too warm for December. It’s been as low as the 40’s and now in the 80s. My guess is that the foodies (the experts) are asking the Dept. of Agriculture, or the FDA to “reconsider” white rice as a healthy food. It’s the arsenic (was that what it was?) they’ve found coming from the ground water that contaminates rice fields. A lot of rice is grown here in California, way up north near Sacramento. . . carolyn t

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