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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 Appetizers, on September 8th, 2007.

Story telling seems to be the order of the day with this recipe. From the journal of Carolyn’s life. I can hardly write up this recipe without explaining how I came to make this dish, let alone how I knew about it. I actually spent about a month in the Philippines in 1965. My first husband was a Navy Officer and just before the start of the Vietnam war, I embarked on a trip around Asia, trying to meet up with the aircraft carrier he was on. But the war intervened. I had the choice to go home, but decided I was up to the challenge of traveling around and finding my way. The air ticket was paid for, and I knew I could stay very economically on the military bases around Asia.

International travel was new to me – very new. I was 24 at the time with the ink barely dry on my passport. And likely I was very naive as well. With hat, gloves, raincoat, high heels (that was simply the way people traveled back then) and suitcase (with no wheels) in hand, I first went to Hawaii and then on to Japan. Stayed there for about 2 months – alone – on a U.S. Navy base. In a family barracks with a bathroom down the hall. But the price was right. A dollar a day it cost me to live there. (There are some nice perks to being part of the U.S. military “family.”) Bus service traversed the base and I could shop in the military exchange, use the library, go to the movies for a quarter, attend wives’ functions at the officer’s club if I cared to, and venture out the gate of the base and explore the town of Yokusaka. I attended free Japanese language classes and befriended the very kind Japanese teacher who invited me to her home one evening. That’s when I first ate gyoza, a staple of the Japanese cuisine. Now you can buy it at Trader Joe’s, of all things! I could also eat at the two officer’s club restaurants on base. I couldn’t cook at the barracks where I stayed, so I ate out 3 meals a day. Fortunately, it didn’t cost much. And the food was good. I went into Tokyo a couple of times, took a tour, also took a 2-day military-run tour to Mt. Fuji, which I enjoyed very much. But most days and most hours of every day I was alone.

To entertain myself. I did a lot of reading and letter-writing to my family at home.Eventually the ship headed for the Philippines and I flew to Manila. I arrived late in the afternoon, after a very rocky flight on Air France, where the pilots received multiple trays of wine into the cockpit (permitted at the time). I discovered that I’d missed the three-times-a-week flight to the U.S. Navy base I needed to get to. At that point I was standing in the air terminal in Manila. It was hotter than hell. And humid. And I was very, very alone.I’d gone to an information desk and they had no suggestions. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t like the thought of finding a hotel in Manila to stay for 3 days until the next flight went out. I was a little scared and very unsure of myself. But I’d read that if you’re in a foreign place and you have a problem, perhaps the American Embassy can help. I could have phoned the Embassy, but no, I took a taxi there. In my high heels, my hat, my gloves, my suitcase and my very sweaty body. Maybe all that dressed-up paraphernalia helped me, since a kind secretary took pity on me and offered to drive me to the bus terminal.

That bus trip, in itself, is another very engrossing story, but it would take another 5 paragraphs to tell it. Let’s just say that I sat behind the driver. Passengers of all ages, shapes and sizes piled on, with their cages of live chickens hanging out the windows, luggage stacked on top of the bus, and off we went. It t’was the most frightening bus journey I’ve ever made in my entire life. And eventually, 3-4 hours later I arrived in the base-side town of Olangapo. It was about midnight.

I was totally unprepared for Olangapo. It’s a very un-Filipino-like town with little except bars and houses of prostitution. I count myself lucky that I eventually made it through the town in a taxi, to the gate of the military base. It was a Friday night and raucous American sailors were doing their best to spend their money, get drunk and make merry, I suppose. At one point, stopped at a light, a bunch of them approached the taxi (spotting me, a young blonde woman, alone, inside) and rocked the taxi, hitting the windows with their fists. They wanted me to come join their revelry. They hadn’t seen an American woman in awhile, I suppose, and they wanted inside the car. I was absolutely scared to DEATH. The taxi driver jumped the light and he drove hell-for-leather through the rest of town. On directions from the driver, I ducked down in the seat in the blocks to follow so the sailors couldn’t see me, and finally the driver delivered me at the bridge. I was shaking like a leaf. Big time. It was now about 12:30 am. Thinking back on it, I should have heavily tipped the taxi driver. I didn’t even think of giving him more than a regular tip. So, out I got from the taxi. Still with my suitcase, high heels, raincoat, hat and gloves. Picturing myself just makes me laugh now. I had to drag myself about 150 feet or so across a pedestrian-only bridge to approach the gate. There were no problems crossing the bridge – good thing! Everybody was already in town. Whew.

A couple of other wives I knew were already billeted there, so I tagged along with them. We had very slow days – breakfast at the officer’s club, lounge by the pool most of the day, dinner at the officer’s club, sleep. Repeat and repeat. I did see my then-husband some, but not much. I stuck like glue to the two other wives who were more worldly than I. Both had been Pan Am stews for some years so were far more well traveled than I. And they had friends everywhere in the world.

lumpiaSo now, we finally get to the focus of the food blog story. The lumpia. Perhaps lumpia are meant to be a main dish, but we had them only as an appetizer at the two officer’s clubs. And at the pool. And we wives ordered them every single day for lunch. I just l-o-v-e-d them. They’re similar to the Chinese style egg rolls that you know and enjoy, but slightly different. I liked dipping each one into the sauce that accompanied them. I was able, finally, to get somebody to tell me that they put maraschino cherry juice in the sauce. How odd, I thought. But, when you consider the number of maraschino cherries an officer’s club bar goes through, they were certainly resourceful coming up with a use for all that brilliant red, highly charged Red Dye cherry juice. No other recipe I’ve ever seen for them uses that ingredient. Not surprising, I guess.

Eventually, after that 5-month trip (I also went on to Hong Kong, back to Japan for another month’s stay, then home) I found a recipe for lumpia. I knew they were made with vegetables, minced up, julienned really, with shrimp, pork and chicken. I haven’t made them in many years. But they’re awfully darned good. If you don’t mind the prep and the fact that they’re deep fried.

I actually believe that trip I made gave me the lifetime urge to travel and I haven’t stopped since. But think about the maraschino cherry juice when you make this. And one frightened young woman taking a hair-raising bus ride across part of the Philippines, then a taxi ride through Olangapo.
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Lumpia (Filipino style egg rolls)

Servings: 12

About 60 pieces wonton wrappers
1 pound ground pork
1 cup cooked chicken — or turkey
1 large garlic clove — minced
1 cup shrimp — NOT canned
1 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup onion — minced
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons maraschino cherry juice
1 1/2 tablespoons ketchup
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. In a medium-sized skillet, cook pork, onion and garlic in a little butter or oil for about 5 minutes. Add shrimp and bean sprouts and cook just a few minutes more. Set aside to cool for 10-15 minutes.
2. Place about a tablespoon of meat mixture in center of a won ton skin, fold in sides about 1/2 inch and roll up into a shape similar to a Tootsie Roll. Moisten last edge with water to seal and set aside while assembling others. Don’t let egg rolls touch each other or they’ll stick.
3. Deep fry lumpia for about 3-4 minutes until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool for about 5 minutes before serving as they’re too hot to eat. Serve with special dipping sauce.
4. DIPPING SAUCE: Bring water, juice and ketchup to a boil; add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Add 1/3 cup of vinegar and cook 1 minute longer. Blend cornstarch into remaining vinegar and add to mixture. Do not boil, but heat until thickened and clear. Makes about 1-1/2 cups of sauce. If you don’t have maraschino cherry juice, you may substitute pineapple juice, but add some red food coloring to it.
Per Serving: 202 Calories; 9g Fat (40.3% calories from fat); 15g Protein; 15g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 68mg Cholesterol; 454mg Sodium.

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  1. Erika W.

    said on September 12th, 2007:

    What a neat story. I have a Filipino aunt who’s lumpia are to die for- but very different than what you have here. I imagine the lumpia changed depending on where in the Philippines it came from. My aunt’s version is peasant food- made simply from ground beef, carrots, celery, onion, seasonings, and dipped only in ketchup.

    Your dipping sauce is very interesting! I may have to buy some cherries just to try it.

  2. Carolyn T

    said on September 12th, 2007:

    Erika – over the years I always scan any recipe I see for lumpia. And yes, they’re all different. Different meat. Different vegies, I guess. And certainly, the sauce is always very different – sometimes soy sauce type ones. Others were thicker like catsup, also. All over the Philippines when I ordered them they had pork and shrimp in them. I wondered if it was actually wild boar instead of pork, since there are lots of them prowling the landscape. It was always delicious, though.

  3. Anonymous

    said on September 17th, 2007:

    Okay, so I worked with a girl who is filipino, and she would bring lumpia to every pot luck. It was my favorite and I could NEVER get enough. I tried to make this over the weekend, and it didn’t come out quite the way I had intended. I had my daughter help me “roll” the skins, but it wasn’t working right. I think I should have bought the bigger skins. We ended up forming them as triangles. We fried them, and made the sauce. Everyone LOVED them. I had a lot of left over meat mixture, so I will make a rice of some sort to accomodate. It won’t be too long before I try this one again.

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