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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.


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 21st, 2011.

My friend Linda T and I exchange Christmas gifts each year, and we’ve gotten into the habit of giving one another a new cookbook. And this is the one she gave me this last December. What a gem it is, at 930+ pages. When I opened it she said “you’ve got to read the Introduction first – it’s really interesting.” Dutifully I did, and within a few short paragraphs I’d retrieved my little pad of pink stickies and began putting them on the recipe pages referred to in this Introduction. This section of the book is about 12 pages long and mostly gives a detailed explanation about how the book came into being, but mostly it’s about how Amanda Hesser and her assistant Merrill Stubbs accomplished the project.

It started one day in 2004 when Hesser was having lunch with a colleague at the Times. They were discussing what their next projects were. In talking over how food and recipe interests have changed over the decades a germ of an idea was born in Hesser’s head. She wanted to write a book that encompassed 150 years of the New York Times food writing (recipes). Not the time just since Craig Claiborne wrote his book, or any number of books since then. No, she wanted to go way back into the paper’s history and chronicle the best.

Her first step was to put a journalist’s query into the newspaper and the magazine, asking readers to send her a note (letter or email) about their favorite recipes published in the New York Times. She received nothing less than 6,000 replies! Yikes! It was there that she learned about Craig Claiborne’s Paella (p. 309) that took him 6 years to perfect; about Le Cirque’s Spaghetti Primavera (p. 314) that no fewer than 3 people claimed to have invented themselves; and a Forget-It Meringue Torte (p. 823) a meringue cake that “billows like a jib in the oven.”

The respondents mentioned recipes having saved marriages, or reminded them of their lost youth, or something that symbolized family gatherings. Once the list had been collated (on an elaborate spreadsheet, obviously) there were 145 single-spaced pages of recipe suggestions. Four of the top five recipes were desserts (in a couple of days I’ll share with you the #1 recipe – the most frequently requested recipe at the newspaper.

Those top 5 recipes are (and if you’re anxious to know about each recipe, just click the link – I found all of them online, but not necessarily from the New York Times’ website):

Purple Plum Torte (265 votes; p. 763)
David Eyre’s Pancakes (80 votes; p. 813)
Teddie’s Apple Cake (37 votes; p. 752)
Chocolate Dump-It Cake (24 votes; p. 781) and
Ed Giobbi’s Lasagna (23 votes; but the Lasagna on p. 342 edged out this winner)

For two full years, Amanda and Merrill began cooking together in the evenings to test the 400 recipes that they culled from the list. A few times each week they’d gather at Amanda’s home, cook, test, note-take, serve dinner about 10:30. The 3 of them (including Amanda’s husband) would weigh in on each dish and recipes were tweaked and adjusted until they got them just right. So, that 2-year stint covered the years from about 1950 to about 2004. Along the way they observed that we sort of stopped making extravagant desserts. We learned how to cook pasta correctly and how to sauce it properly. We also learned about roasting vegetables. We also left German food (mostly) behind, and we “largely failed to adopt Chinese cooking at home.” Yup.

The Introduction includes some very interesting food-related timelines, starting with 1860, when the first refrigerated car carrying strawberries were transported on the Illinois Central Railroad. In the 1920’s White Castle promoted hamburgers and its cleanliness. By minimizing its seating area, the chain established the notion of “take-out.” In 1930 the Boston Oyster House at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago popularized its “salad bar,” a concept that really didn’t catch on until the 70’s.

She assumed some readers would be mightily upset that their favorites weren’t included in the cookbook (including a recipe for “clams possilipo” that eluded the searchers – nobody could find the original recipe – so I assume they couldn’t include it because they couldn’t actually prove it was published in the Times), but Amanda hoped the inclusion of Cucumbers in Cream (p. 225) and Fontainebleau (a kind of dessert cheese, p. 829) would make up for it.

This is Part I of this series. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the next stage of the cookbook writing. It’s just as interesting. 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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  1. Gloria

    said on May 21st, 2011:

    Great post Carolyn! I look forward to Part 2 and seeing the number 1 recipe. This sounds like a fabulous book I need to put on my wish list.

    You absolutely DO need this book. I’m so enjoying reading each and every recipe (not necessarily what I do with every cookbook I buy) because Amanda Hesser tells the most interesting stories – well, really, it’s the readers or the authors of the recipes who do. She just elaborates on them. . . carolyn t

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