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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 Soups, on May 9th, 2007.

A short time warp to 1981. Dave and I were on our first trip to England. At a small pub and restaurant in Ilminster, Somerset, an older gentleman simply pulled up a chair as we were served our dinner. Friendly sort, he was. Said he enjoyed hearing Yanks talk. Shortly, he called over to the bartender and asked him to phone his wife to come join us, which she did. That began a friendship that has withstood the years. Jimmy (a retired RAF Wing Commander) had a hundred and one WW II war stories to tell. Pamela, who had also served in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ground transport wing of the RAF, had an equal number of stories to tell, and among other things, she was a professional chef. To this day, we still discuss food whenever we talk. Either in person, or on the phone. Sadly, Jimmy passed away a few years ago. But we have visited them and now her many, many times over those years.

But the summer of 1990, when two of our children were nearly graduated from college, we took them to England and Ireland for a few weeks and included a visit to Jimmy & Pam. The weather was fair that day, the sun shone brightly, and we enjoyed a multi-course luncheon on the back lawn. It was glorious. It was magical. It was memorable. They were so happy to meet our children. We were so proud to show them off. They were so delighted it was a pretty day. We were thrilled to enjoy Pam’s cooking again. Jimmy was in rare form, warbling on about his military past (mostly he ferried planes from Canada to England) to our kids, and Pamela had outdone herself with an elegant meal. We had a Pimm’s, with fresh cucumber, mint and raspberries (pronounced raws-brees) on special twigs in each drink. We had a summer pud(ding), a very seasonal treat only available in mid-summer when berries are at their peak. Our daughter vividly remembers that summer pud to this day. A summer pudding is made in a large round bowl, with layers of soft de-crusted white bread, sugar and fresh berries. It sits for 24 hours while the berries give up their juice to soak into the bread, then it’s unmolded onto a platter and served with whipped cream. And, naturally, we had some good English tea. The main dish was a large, cold poached salmon elegantly festooned with layered, thinly shaved cucumber slices to resemble fish scales. What was almost comical was that our daughter didn’t eat fish. So poor Pamela insisted on returning to the kitchen to cook her an egg.

It’s the soup that has become one of my regulars and it may be one of the very simplest recipes I make. When the weather turns hot (it will be in the mid-90’s in Southern California today), I remember this soup, which is so refreshing. As long as you have the frozen peas (only the very best will do, the smaller the better), consommé or beef stock, the half-cream (that’s half and half in British-speak), and the fresh mint from the garden you’re in business. Allow to chill thoroughly before serving. You can make this with fat-free half and half, although most of those products contain some sugar or sweetener, which doesn’t always taste as good as a natural dairy product in a savory soup. Sometimes I add a splash of cream sherry to the mixture too.
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Cold Green Pea Soup

Recipe: From my dear friend, Pamela J., England
Servings: 6
NOTES: This is very refreshing, either summer or winter, and oh, so easy. You can add a splash of cream sherry to the mixture if you like it.
Yield: 4 cups

1 pound frozen peas — defrosted, or rinsed briefly in hot water
12 ounces canned consommé or beef broth
1 cup half and half
2 tablespoons fresh mint
3 tablespoons sour cream or créme fraiche

Place defrosted peas in a blender with the consomme and mint. Purée it until it is completely smooth then add the cream. Pour into a container and chill for several hours. Serve with a small dollop of sour cream, and sprinkle with additional mint or chopped chives. Taste for seasoning.
Per Serving: 134 Calories; 6g Fat (42.4% calories from fat); 7g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 18mg Cholesterol; 255mg Sodium.

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