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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

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 Books, on May 8th, 2016.

Visiting the library some weeks ago (getting books on tape to play in the car while I took a 5-day road trip to Northern California to visit family) I decided to look at new books on the shelves. And here was this book with an unusual title, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge by Becky Libourel Diamond. She’s a journalist and food historian.

On Saturday evening, the 19th instant [1851] thirty gentlemen sat down to a dinner at J. W. Parkinson’s, South Eighth St. below Chestnut [Philadelphia], which for magnificence outvied anything ever seen in the United States. . . . Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 1851.

Perhaps the richest, most elegant, elaborate and poetical entertainment ever gotten up in this country, was achieved in this city last week by the accomplished confectioner and caterer, James W. Parkinson. . . . American Courier, April, 1851.

At 6:00 am, the morning of April 20th, the satiated group of men finally decamped. It had been an extraordinary evening, with 17 courses served. [I can’t imagine sitting down for an all-night eating of that many courses.] It had come about as a bet, a wager, that no Philadelphians could possible prepare as sumptuous a meal as New Yorkers (the guests were half from each city).

1 – OYSTERS – Raw,  on the half shell – Nearly every first class dinner back then started with oysters, and the Philadelphia area was loaded with oyster reefs. They would have been served with bottles of sweet Sauternes. Since the early to mid-1900s, as many of you know, the oyster business disappeared. So very sad. My DH’s (dear husband’s) family was from Bivalve, New Jersey, (also Mauricetown, pronounced like morris-town) which was one of the hubs of the oyster business back in the day (20s, 30s and 40s). In the 1950s the oyster population developed a deadly parasite called MSX, which wiped out nearly all the oyster business in the Delaware Bay.

2 – SOUPS – Green Turtle and Potage a la Reine [a type of French chicken soup] – The book goes into much detail about the purveyors of turtles (mostly the Caribbean) and in what high demand they were. Over-fishing also nearly ended turtle soup as a delicacy except perhaps IN the Caribbean. Some restaurants in Philadelphia still offer turtle soup made from a local snapping turtle harvested on Pennsylvania shores. The turtle soup was usually served with sherry or Madeira; Parkinson apparently served both soups with Cognac.

3 – FISH – Fresh Salmon with Lobster Sauce and Baked Rock [a striped bass], a la Chambord – the salmon came from Maine. The bass was caught by privately hired anglers who were sent to Virginia the day before and rushed the fish back to the restaurant; it was stuffed with forcemeat, larded with bacon, braised in white wine and seasoning, finished off with decorative skewers of fish quenelles and cooked crawfish, then served with a rich Chambord and Espagnole sauce. Apparently James Beard described this recipe as one of the most elaborate dishes in all of cookery. This course was served with a Riesling from the area of Steinberg, Germany (founded by Cistercian monks mostly).

4 – BOILED – Turkey, Celery and Oyster Sauce; Chicken and Egg Sauce; and Beef Tongues – Much of this chapter of information was about the early-times methods of cooking meat (boiling), even tracing back to the Pilgrims. This course was served with Champagne, Haut Brion and Cote Roti.

5 – COLD DISHES – [this one’s a lot to read . . .] Galantine de Dinde a la Gelee; Jambon Decore; Salade a la Russe en bordure de Gelee; aspic huitres; Boeuf a la Mode; Mayonnaise of Lobster, Salad de Volaille, a la Mode Anglaise; Aspic de Volaille aux Truffles. What all that most likely says is: tenderloin of beef garnished with vegetables, boned turkey and capon, ham stuffed with pistachios and truffles, aspics, pates and terrines of all kinds, foie gras, smoked tongue well glazed and dressed in pyramid form, chicken mayonnaise, ducks’ livers a la Toulouse, young rabbit a la mode, and salad a la russe. Everything was sculpted and presented in high form (mostly prepared by the young chefs), and prepared some in advance. All these were served with an Amontillado (pale sherry) from Spain.

6 – ENTRÉE #1 – Filet of Beef with Mushrooms; Vol-au-vent; Veal with Tomato Sauce, Lamb Cutlets; and Chicken Croquettes – Although it was designated as an entrée, meals back then weren’t what we’d would call an entrée (the main course) but a side dish, really. And they probably weren’t served with anything else – maybe just a bite of two of each with its own sauce or gravy.

7 – ENTRÉE #2 – Braised Pigeon with Madeira Sauce; Lamb Chops Milanaise; Chicken; Turtle Steak, Chicken Fricasee; and Calipash, a presentation of turtle hearts and livers – most often all the entrees served all together, but Parkinson veered off course here. Wines served with both of these entrée courses was champagne by Moet.

8 – ROAST – Spring Chicken on Toast, Spring Lamb with Mint Sauce – it seems that all the food up to this point was leading up to THIS, the most important course of all, the roast! The meat was likely roasted on a spit. Wine served here was a Moselle from Scharzberg, Koblenz.

9 – PIECES MONTEES and VEGETABLES – [elaborate sugar sculptures served alongside garden vegetables] – seems very odd to our modern sensibilities, but it was all high art of the time

10 – COUP DU MILIEU – Sorbets – made from nothing less than Hungarian Tokaji wine. It was a sorbet never eaten before, Parkinson’s idea, and was noted as quite magical by the diners.

11 – GAME – Jack Snipe; teal duck, woodcock, plover, rice birds, celery hearts and Saratoga potatoes – all the small game birds were done on an early version of a rotisserie, and they’d have been studded with lard. This course was served with a pale rose wine.

12 – DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN – the terrapin was a common enough turtle found in brackish waters along the Eastern Shore. They were also called “bay tortoise.” It was probably a sort of stew with a creamy sauce. And it was served with roasted potatoes. This course was again, served with Amontillado sherry from Spain.

13 – PASTRY – Puddings, Pies, Meringues, Cakes, Creams and Cookies – too many to name here. Parkinson was quite fond of both lemon pudding and coconut pudding, both served at this meal. There are pages and pages in this chapter about the style of preparing and serving all kinds of special sweet treats from that era. The sweets were served with old, mellow sherry, Madeira and Port.

14 – CONFECTIONERY – Mint Drops, Raspberry Balls, Chinese Almonds, Nougat, Cream Candy, Burnt Almonds, Port Wine Drops, Sugar-Coated Celery Seed and Brandy Drops – all things to showcase Parkinson’s skill in the kitchen.

15 – ICE CREAMS AND WATER ICES – Biscuits Glace, Caramel, Harlequin, Lemon, Buttercream, Vanilla, Strawberry, Orange Water Ice, Champagne Frapee – all innovative items (so the book says) from Parkinson’s kitchen. He was most definitely ahead of his time

16 – FRUITS AND NUTS – Apples, Figs, Walnuts, Pecans, Orange, Raisins, Almonds and Filberts – some of the explanation in this chapter is about the etiquette of eating fresh fruit at the table. Kind of hilarious, really. The wines served here were Rhenish Marcobrunn and a Medoc (highly tannic).

17 – CAFÉ NOIR – Black Coffee, Maraschino and Curacao (liqueurs) – back in this time, in a fine restaurant, only really strong, robust coffee was served using a French Press (still a highly prized method – I had some that way just last week). It was thought that a strong cup of coffee at the end of a meal enhanced digestion.

When it was all said and done, the diners smoked cigars, probably groaning, and were eventually escorted to their carriages and off to their homes or to a local hotel to sleep off the calories. Oh my.

A really interesting book – each of the courses comprised a chapter in the book, and each chapter is about 5-12 pages long, depending on the complexity of it. You learn history, the how and wherefores of acquiring such food then and now, and about the presentation itself. Astounding meal for sure!

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on May 8th, 2016:

    Good grief, I can’t imagine anyone managing to eat even half of that!

    I know . . . me, either. In fact it almost made me ill thinking about it! But perhaps they really served small portions, and there was plenty of digestion time between every course. That might have been the only way to keep eating all that much food. It was the staying awake and talkative all night long that would have been my problem – I always need my sleep!! . . . carolyn t

  2. hddonna

    said on May 9th, 2016:

    Fascinating! Must look for this one. Even much simpler menus from the era make my eyes glaze over–it’s hard to even contemplate so many dishes.

    I guess that’s why I kept reading – the author kept me engaged all through it with her informative essays about the different foods, the sourcing of them, and the presentation sometimes. She had no recipes, but only general ideas about the methods. A very fascinating read . . . carolyn t

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