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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 Cookbooks, on May 22nd, 2011.

As I explained yesterday, my friend Linda gave me this cookbook for Christmas. I’ve been so intrigued by not only the 12-page introduction to the book, but I’ve yellow-stickied about 40-50 recipes in it so far, and I’m only about a third of the way through.

Yesterday I posted the initial story about the Introduction. Here’s the continuing saga . . . the final phase of compiling recipes for this 1,104 recipe book (932 pages long), after she’d tested 400 recipe recommendations from readers (that took 2 years), and tested another 400 recipes spanning the 1850-1950 range, was to research the Dining section of every issue and the Magazine food columns too. She’s glad she did, because she added lots of other recipes to the book, including favorites like Stuck-Pot Rice with Yogurt and Spices (p. 351), Thomas Keller’s Gazpacho (p. 146), and Tangerine Sherbet (p. 734). Numerous stories about Craig Claiborne had her reading recipes from these other sources. In about 1974 Claiborne began cooking with Pierre Franey – once a week the two men would cook in Claiborne’s kitchen at his home in the Hamptons. Franey did the cooking and Claiborne sat at his trusty IBM Selectric typewriter and made notes which went into the weekly column. As the story goes, the parties they threw there were legendary, including the one where so many people stood on Claiborne’s deck that it collapsed.

New, up and coming chefs’ names began appearing in the paper – Alice Waters, Emeril Legasse, and then Mark Bittman. As Amanda read the recipes she tried to provide balance in the cookbook – the book couldn’t be all Osso Buco and chocolate mousse, so she added recipes for Oriental Watercress Soup (p. 111), Charleston Coconut Sweeties (p. 683) and Tuna Curry (p. 435), for instance.

Her test for whether a recipe would go in the book was simple: once she made it, would she make it again? In making sure she made raspberry granita 3 times, baked Teddie’s apple cake 4+ times, and she made stewed fennel at least 6 times.

Amanda does explain that almost none of the recipes originated at the New York Times. They were someone else’s recipe –whether it was Aunt Mable’s poundcake or a famous chef’s rendition of Cornish game hen. She phrases it thus: the newspaper was just a waystation for recipes, which pass through on their way from chefs and home cooks to readers. Therefore the archive (the cookbook) is a mish-mash of traditional, innovative and everything in between.

She notes, though, that in the process or writing the book several significant things changed:

  1. The main improvement has been intensity of flavor. Recipes are much more aggressively seasoned now, with layers of herbs and spices.
  2. Cayenne was the only chile-based heat up until about 1970; chiles, in many varieties, are now commonplace.
  3. Meats, especially chicken, cook nearly twice as fast as they did 100 years ago because animals are raised more quickly and exercise less, which renders their meat more tender.
  4. Egg yolks have either shrunk or lost their binding strength – old custard recipes that called for 3 yolks generally needed 5 to 6 “modern” egg yolks to set.

Sometimes she left the language of the day in the recipe. Other times she had to update the instructions or she added Notes for clarity. I just love reading Amanda’s notes – not only is she a very good writer, but she’s interesting and finds humor in the kitchen. Some recipes contain no headnotes, others contain a lengthy one. A few recipes include comments left by readers, or from the 6,000 responses she received to her query. They often suggest other changes they’ve made. Each and every recipe includes the date, origin of the recipe and the title of the column. What there is not in this cookbook are photographs of any of the food. With 1,104 recipes, it would have been a Herculean task to photograph them all as well as test them. I do love photos of the food, but the written word will give you a pretty good clue as to whether you want to tackle a recipe.

Needless to say, I’ve been very impressed with the cookbook. So far I’ve made just a couple of the recipes in the book – the Summer-Squash Casserole I made a couple of weeks ago was one of them. It was sensational. Next on my radar is to try the 1948 recipe for Green Goddess dressing. Stay tuned tomorrow – I’m going to give you the recipe for the number one requested dessert, the Purple Plum Torte.

This is Part II of this series. If you are motivated to buy the book, here’s the link. It’s a bargain at $23.52 at The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century.

As a result of Amanda’s and Merrill’s collaboration on this cookbook, (they’re now business partners too) they have a blog called Food52, in case you’re interested in following their food travels.

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