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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 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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