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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

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.

Scroll down to the bottom to view my Blogroll

Posted in Utensils, on August 10th, 2011.

bob_kramer

Until a few months ago I’d never heard of Bob Kramer. First I read about him in one of my cooking magazines. And then I noticed he was teaching a class at Sur la Table. My DH is the one who carves meat and sharpens the knives most of the time. Though, I’m the one who bought the Furi knives a few years ago – stainless steel ones – and also purchased a knife sharpening system from Furi too. Those I use in my everyday cooking. But we – neither one of us – seem to have perfected the sharpening process very well. Some months ago Dave spent an hour or more with all the equipment out on the kitchen counter trying to get a good edge on my most favored knives. Unsuccessfully.

So, when I saw the Bob Kramer knife and sharpening class at Sur la Table, I signed us up for it. This was not a cheap expedition, I’ll tell you. The class was $100 apiece, so we decided to make that our birthday presents to each other.

Also, I’ll tell you that I have lots of knives in my kitchen. Years and years ago (this would have been the early 1970’s) I’d acquired a full set of Cutco stainless steel knives. They’re very good knives, and they’ve been a sturdy go-to group all these years. I have nearly every knife they make. Once you have Cutco knives, you can send them back to the factory to be re-sharpened (no charge except for the shipping to them). But it takes a couple of weeks to get them back. A nuisance, for sure. I try to remember to do it when we’re about to leave on a vacation. That way I won’t miss them so much! In the meantime, though, I mentioned above, I bought a couple of Furi knives too – the Santoku style. And those have been my day to day knives for mincing and chopping.

This Bob Kramer class, though, was fascinating. I was riveted to his every word (he’s a great story-teller) as he shared his life history and how he came to be a knife maker. A custom knife maker. But he also (now) has contracted with Henckels to make a specialized line of knives, using his lifetime knowledge of how to construct a knife (including the forging aspect of it) and sells them at Sur la Table. Some years ago he even spent time at a steel forge so he would really understand the composition of steel and the process of hand forging. He came to the conclusion after years of work that carbon steel is the only way to go to make a knife and keep it sharp.

bob_kramer_knivesHe didn’t disparage stainless knives at all; he just doesn’t use them. He finds them much harder to hone an edge, and the edge doesn’t hold as long as knives made with carbon steel. The only problem is that carbon steel will stain and discolor. He suggested that whenever you’re using a carbon steel knife keep a dry cloth next to your cutting board and use it frequently to keep the knife dry. Even water will stain a carbon steel.

Kramer also sells a line of stones (sharpening stones). His are water stones (not oil, as some are), and you can buy several types. We bought one. I learned a lot about stones during the class. I remember watching my dad sharpen knives for my mother when I was a child. He’d spit on the stone and use the same round motion Bob Kramer uses. The trick is the angle. We learned that most knife sharpening units (the free standing types you pull a knife through) are set to sharpen at about 20° tilt. He recommended about 12-15°. He also explained that to get an edge you need to exert about 4-6 pounds of pressure on the knife. How do you know? Simple! Get out your kitchen scale, set a soft surface on it (like a towel), zero out the weight, then press the knife blade onto the scale until you reach 4-6 pounds. It’s a whole lot more pressure than you think. It’s clear to me that whenever I’ve sharpened knives before I’ve never exerted enough pressure on the blade.

He also talked about testing the burr. That’s the little tiny edge (bend) that develops from using your knives on a hard surface (cutting boards). The chopping motion eventually curls the edge over slightly. And as long as there’s a burr, you’ll never get the knife sharp. I knew that part – from another class I took some years ago, and at that time I bought a Chantry which I’ve used with regularity ever since. Successfully. But now that I know more about better sharpening methods (using the water stone) I’ll probably retire my Chantry.

In the process of sharpening he tested each blade periodically – he did the magazine test, he calls it – you take a page out of a magazine, or a piece of newsprint and cut with the knife. If it doesn’t slice right through it, it’s not sharp enough. Back to the stone it went. And he tested it at several places on the knife edge – you want that sharpness the full length of the blade. If you use a larger, longer knife for chopping, and you  use the pivot method (leaving the knife point down, just picking up the back end and moving it over to continue chopping) or something close to it, you know that the bulk of the cutting action is done toward the rear – nearer the handle end of the blade. And all the way to the rear end of it too.

In demonstrating the sharpening process (with the wet stone he’d soaked in water for about 20 minutes), after he’d finished sharpening each knife, he took them a couple of feet away where he had taped down a regular, ordinary piece of cardboard. Probably about 6 x 14 inches long, approximately. He gently massaged the knife on the cardboard – just like he was honing with the stone. That smooths out the edge. Cleans it, too, of any steel shavings. Then he wiped it very clean with a cloth. All of his knives are stored with a knife guard too. Good thing since they were razor sharp when he got done! You can buy those at Sur la Table also.

The knives he manufactures have a few unique characteristics. All things he learned over the years of professional cooking he did, and during the years he ran a knife sharpening business (mostly for restaurant chefs) in Seattle (he doesn’t have time for that anymore). He makes all of his knives with wider blades, because he (like most cooks) uses the flat side of the blade to carry mounds of food to a bowl or cooktop. He also rounds the top of the blade (the non-cutting edge) because he learned that most professional chefs develop a mean callus from constant pressure on that part of the blade. Made sense to me! He also constructs a heftier handle. He does make custom knives (now he does an auction on his website for them – you don’t even want to know how much they sell for – but they’re stunningly beautiful) and makes different shapes of handles with different woods. This line of knives at Sur la Table, though, all have the black handles as you’ll see in the photo above.

imageThere were lots of questions at the end, which he was happy to answer. One was meaningful to me – he recommended using an end grain wood cutting board.  Here’s a photo of the Boos brand available at Williams-Sonoma, although you can find them at numerous kitchenware stores.  You can tell they’re an end grain because it has a checkerboard look to it – each square is an end cut of wood. The point is that chopping is what’s hard on a knife, obviously. An end-grain board is softer because the knife blade will be cushioned slightly by the grain itself. He also said that bamboo boards are inherently soft, so they’re okay too. He particularly discouraged us from using the type of boards I use all the time – I have several of them, the Epicurean line (I bought them because they have a very tight grain, they’re actually some kind of wood composite, can go in the dishwasher and supposedly inhibit bacteria growth). Unfortunately, for just those reasons, the surface is extremely hard, so it’s hard on knives. I don’t own an end grain board, so guess that will need to be added to my wish list in the future.

My DH had said before we went to the class, that he thought we should buy one of the knives. We did. I’d really liked to have purchased two of them, but they’re pricey. Beyond pricey, so one will be fine for now. If you want to learn more about his sharpening techniques, he has videos with better explanations than I’ve given you. Click on over to the sharpening page on his website for that.

If you have a Sur la Table store near you, you might look to see if Bob Kramer is teaching there. I’d definitely recommend the class. You’re going to want to buy one of his knives, though, so take your checkbook or credit card!

Two years ago: Sizzling Rib Eyes with Red Pepper Sauce
Four years ago: Goat Cheese Chive Muffins

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