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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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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