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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 Appetizers, on September 5th, 2008.

south seas salsa with an Asian twist

When I think South Seas, I think Caribbean, not Asia. And yet, this salsa is titled South Seas. Maybe Hugh Carpenter, the creator of this recipe, was thinking more of South China Seas. That would be more logical since it contains ingredients that might be more Vietnamese or Thai-like. But, whatever it is, I was blown away by its flavor. I liked it a lot. It’s very similar to a traditional Mexican salsa, but it has some elusive tastes (probably the fish sauce, the basil) that blend in beautifully with the regular ingredients (tomatoes, onions, cilantro, garlic, lime juice). Our son said I should have served this with rice crackers (do they make rice chips?). But I had tortilla chips. And hey, we’re Southern California. We can serve this with corn-based chips! That’s fusion, right?

My daughter Dana was helping in the kitchen, so I assigned her this task. It came together quickly, especially if you have an Alligator Chopper to mince the tomatoes. But it can be made in the food processor easily enough too. I’ll be making this again, to go along with the right meal. The recipe comes from Hugh Carpenter’s book Chopstix – his take on quick Asian food. If you aren’t enamored with fish sauce, substitute soy sauce. I liked the fish sauce in it. When you smell bottled fish sauce, it’s nothing short of awful. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s a necessity for several Asian cuisines, and it pops up now and then in other recipe places. So I always keep it on hand. I recently bought my second bottle of it – it’s taken me over 15 years to use up the first bottle, so you can see I don’t use it all that often. And, you never use very much of it anyway.
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South Seas Salsa

Recipe: Hugh Carpenter, Chopstix cookbook
Servings: 8

1 pound tomatoes — vine-ripened
1 cup green onions — minced
1/3 cup basil — fresh, chopped
1/3 cup mint — fresh, chopped
1/3 cup cilantro — fresh, minced
3 whole garlic cloves — minced
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons safflower oil — or olive oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce — or soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons hot chili sauce

1. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds; chop with a knife or in a food processor (or an Alligator chopper if you have one). Chop together the green onions, basil, mint and cilantro using a knife or food processor. Combine with the remaining ingredients.
2. Do not refrigerate the salsa if serving that day; if prepared a day in advance, bring the salsa to room temp before serving. Serve with tortilla chips.
Per Serving: 77 Calories; 4g Fat (46.5% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 10g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 1mg Cholesterol; 23mg Sodium.

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