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me_in_paris_198That’s me, on a trip, in a Paris restaurant.
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On a recent road trip, I listened to 2 books on CD that I checked out of the library. With long stretches of highway with nothing to occupy my time, I love doing books on CD. The better of the 2 was definitely Frances Mayes’ new memoir, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. She narrates the story herself, and I just loved hearing her southern accent all the way through, her lilting, slow manner of speaking. She tells the story of her youth, from as young as she can remember to about age 25 or so, with most of it her coming-of-age in her teens. Her parents were alcoholics. Her older sisters were away at college. She wasn’t from a wealthy family exactly, but there was some money, a maid that she loved dearly who protected her from her parents sometimes. A grandmother figures large for some of the years. Her thought processes are normal, although she says from the get-go that she always felt she was different than most people, not a traditionalist for sure. Having read her other books, I never picked up on all the angst she experienced as a young woman, a girl, really. I absolutely LOVED the book. Mayes has a gift of prose – of a kind you don’t often read – she uses amazing language and phrases, adverbs and adjectives. Describes scenes so well and with such detail you just know you’re right there beside her.  Didn’t want it to end. As I reached across to the passenger seat to pull out the last CD I was sad, knowing the story was coming to an end. Because she ended it at about age 25, I suspect there may be another book in her future. For several days after I listened to this book I could hear Mayes’ southern accent in my head (like I hear memorable music when I attend a concert or sing a hymn or praise song at church). Her voice resonated in my head. If you enjoy memoirs, and reading about a kind of a crazy family, AND you like Frances Mayes, well, then, you’ll like this book for sure.

The other book, that I am sorry to say I cannot recommend is Sue Miller’s book, The Senator’s Wife (Vintage Contemporaries). Reading the back of the CD box I wasn’t sure, but I took it anyway. And at first I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue listening to it (when the young woman digs into her neighbor’s personal letters when she’s supposedly taking in the mail and watering plants), then got engrossed in the story. It’s about a young couple who move to a new house, part of a duplex in New England. Their next door neighbor is the aging and somewhat estranged wife of a Washington Senator. The young woman is far too curious about her neighbor and her neighbor’s marriage, what there is of it, although she cares about her neighbor a lot. The chapters switch back and forth between the young wife and the aging woman next door with their personal daily trivia, interspersed with some drama on both sides. The Senator is a philanderer, hence the partial estrangement. The young woman has a baby and consequently spends lots of time at home, overwhelmed with motherhood, hoping for something to change her life. When the Senator has a stroke and returns “home” for his “wife” to care for him (her choice) the plot thickens. The young wife is asked to babysit, so to speak, for an hour or so once a week for the old man, and that’s when, something happens that sickened me. I disliked this young woman and felt her behavior was just so disappointing. I couldn’t continue. If you like that sort of thing, then maybe you’d like the book. I was on the last CD when the story took this turn, and I was sorry I’d wasted so many hours on it to get there. Friendship isn’t about betrayal – it isn’t a friendship then. If any of you have read this already and want to comment, send me an email. Go to my contact page above.

Read Maude by Donna Mabry. It’s a true story (but written as a novel) about the author’s grandmother, Maude. It takes place from the early 1900s to her death in the 1960s. She lived a hard, hard life (mostly in Detroit), and there’s information that even takes me back to things I vaguely remember about my own grandmother’s life. I was fascinated. I won’t say that I couldn’t put it down, but I looked forward each night to read what was going to happen next. It’s hard to tell you much about the book without revealing too much of the story – I won’t call it a happy book, because there is much sadness within its pages, but you admire Maude for what she did, the role she played, her inherent grit. But I wanted to smack her 2nd husband! A good read, though.

While I was on my 3-week trip to Europe, I read 5 books. Of them all, Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse by Robin Hutton, was by far the best story, a true story about an American Marine. Many books have been written about Sgt Reckless, this rather nondescript, small Mongolian mare that was purchased by American forces in Korea in the height of the war. She was reared as a race horse, but she spent her career as an heroic soldier for our military, saving countless lives as she willingly delivered munitions from one place to another. Everyone who came in contact with her loved her. She became a regular soldier, mostly so they could requisition food for her. Sometimes she survived on next to nothing to eat. She aimed to please, and please she did, as in one 24-hour period she ferried ammunition up steep slopes (too steep for soldiers to climb) and she did it all by herself. When the Marines unloaded her cargo, she immediately worked her way down for more. She knew what she was supposed to do. She was highly intelligent, amazing many people over the course of her life. If you love animal stories, you’ll love this one. Have a Kleenex box nearby.

Another really riveting story, one I could hardly put down, is The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. My friend Joan recommended this one to me. Most likely  you’ve never read anything about Chinese immigrants living in South Vietnam during the war there, right? Neither had I. And you have to keep track of who is who, and the politics of the time. The Vietnamese don’t like Chinese people, so there’s that going on. The Chinese man runs an English school somewhere near Saigon. He has a right hand man who may or may not be what he appears to be. The Chinese man has a son who gets himself into trouble. Oh, webs woven every which way. As I said, I could hardly put it down. Will make a very good book club read.

IN THE POWDER ROOM: The guest half-bath in my house has a little tiny table with a pile of books that I change every now and then. They’re books that might pique someone’s interest even if for a very short read. The Art of Travel, a collection of essays about traveling (it’s not a how-to), gathering a variety of stories of some historic authors and where and why they traveled; The Greatest Stories Never Told; and Sara Midda’s South of France; also Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages (just the cutest book – with a miscellany of things – letters, grocery lists, notes, reminders, confessions the author discovered hidden inside the books he purchased for his used bookstore).

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small engraved sterling silver tea spoons that I use to taste as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Cookbooks, on July 18th, 2007.

These are all cookbooks. And I have another 5-8 more books sitting around in different places in my kitchen too. Once upon a time I was able to decoratively arrange my cookbooks – some standing up, a few short piles in strategic places lying flat. That was a long time ago. I haven’t counted all my cookbooks, but they surely number over 100. And I have no more room in the cabinet. None whatsoever. Some years ago I did perform a necessary purge. I simply had to get rid of some of them. It was agonizingly difficult. Even though there are many of these that I never refer to anymore, one just never knows. Maybe tomorrow would be the day I need that very book I just gave away.

But then, I’m that way about all books. Not wanting to get rid of them. With my non-cook book collections, my desire is to keep them all. Tattered paperback or brand new hardbacks. No matter. I like them all surrounding me. My biographies collection resides in our downstairs guest room. I always know where to find them. Non-fiction fills another book case in my office upstairs. And the fiction, the largest by far, fills all of the other bookshelves in the office. I like to gaze at those spines now and then and recollect how much I enjoyed reading the pages in between. I like looking at the multiple books I own by a few authors, like Anita Brookner, Ludlum, Rutherford. I do loan them out now and then. Sometimes I get them back. Not always, even though I tell the borrower I want them back. I don’t keep a log, so don’t remember who I gave them to. But that’s okay, as long as somebody is reading them. A friend once asked me why I kept my novels. She, a librarian, doesn’t keep any. I marveled at her ability to give them away, or just borrow them from the library. She asked me, do you ever read them a second time? Well, no I don’t. Why keep them, then? Why indeed. But I do.

But cookbooks. I DO refer to them. I have a 12-volume cookbook encyclopedia – the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. It was given to me back in the 1960’s by my former father-in-law. He had an in with the publisher. I still refer to those books time and time again. I don’t much use the recipes, but I look up information. It’s full of advice about how long you can keep things, calorie counts, methods of cooking and really basic information about the origin of foods, spices, ingredients. And of course, it contains lots of recipes. The books, although published in 1966, are worth a bit if you have the whole set (I do). A whopping $74.99. But I can’t part with them. Even at that price.

I have cookbooks that reflect a bygone era – like Vincent & Mary Price’s large volume about cooking, A Treasury of Great Recipes. Published back in the late 1960’s the mostly French recipes are heavy with butter and cream and sauces. I could sell it for $20 on ebay. But no, I’ll hold onto it, thank you. Why? I really don’t know. Likely I’ll never make a single one of the recipes in it. I don’t know that I ever have. But I choose to keep it. I like it’s large shape. Heavy, padded cover, even. And it contains lots of photographs of Vincent Price’s home and kitchen. Not that I was a fan of his acting. I wasn’t. But, I just like glancing at the book now and then.

Then, as with most cooks of my generation, I have a copy of the Joy of Cooking. It was by far the most popular cookbook of the 1960’s. I still have my copy, food spattered and all. I rarely refer to it anymore, but I don’t want to give it away, either. A couple of years ago I read the biography of Irma S. Rombauer, Stand Facing the Stove. In it you learn about her life, of course, but many interesting stories about how the publisher of Joy took such unfair advantage of Irma in the publishing of the cookbook. But it was revealing too, because Irma Rombauer really didn’t have much of an interest in cooking, certainly no love for it, but she saw a need and thought she could, with a great deal of work, create a cookbook that would be useful and sale-able. She was a single mother (her husband committed suicide) who had never worked, and needed to provide a living for her family. Unfortunately, she saw very little of the earnings from the printing and reprinting of her book and the multitude of other books Bobbs-Merrill printed using the names of Irma and her daughter. The publisher took grave and unfair advantage of her naivete. Versions written after 1976 were compiled by the publisher and the Rombauer family was not consulted.

In 2006, however, the Rombauer family rewrote the original Joy in its new 75th Anniversary Edition. I have a hankering to get that version, although I don’t know that I’ll be willing to forgo my old spattered copy. Numerous famous chefs were consulted and wrote some parts of this new book, bringing it fully up to date.

One of the things some food bloggers do is present a list of favorite cookbooks. I have several, but I must tell you that when I’m searching for something new to cook, I may consult 10-20 of my cookbooks before I decide. Or I may combine two or three recipes from different books. So what I will give you is a list of the books that I seem to refer to more often than others. Maybe I’ll create a sidebar box for this list too.

The Silver Palate Cookbook (the original one, 1982), Lukins & Rosso. The original book that I have is out of print, but click on the title and you’ll get to the 25th anniversary edition.

Thrill of the Grill, Chris Schlesinger. Available at a bargain price at Amazon, through their used book resellers.

Barefoot Contessa at Home, Ina Garten. You may still be able to buy this at Costco. It’s been out for several years, but she’s very popular and they’ve done umpteen reprintings.

Weir Cooking in the City, Joanne Weir. She’s one of my favorite cooking class instructors, but rarely comes to Southern California. She has a cooking show on PBS that I Tivo whenever it’s on. She’s much more out-there and fun in person than she is on the show. She says the producers make her tone down her crazy, vivacious personality. One day, Cherrie and I are going to take one of her week-long classes in Tuscany. She has her own website.

A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma, Michelle Anna Jordan. A smallish paperback book from a former caterer in Sonoma. I have several recipes from this book that are favorites. There is a new edition – if you click on the book title link, you’ll get to it.

Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Paula Wolfert. More a wintertime kind of reference, but everything I’ve cooked from this book has been wonderful. She’s a well known writer and author who lives in Europe, although she’s American.

Barbecue! Bible (new), Steve Raichlen. I bought this at Costco recently for $11.99, and have referred to it many times, so I think this will become a favorite.

Baking: From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan. I think I’ve written about Dorie before. She’s quite a globetrotter, but a baker extraordinaire. She has her own blog, and I love reading her stories. If I want to bake something, this is my go-to book now.

Another day I’m going to write up my favorite food writing books (enjoyed more for the reading than for the recipes). I have a bunch of those too. But if you know me, you know that already! I’m one of Amazon’s best friend!
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