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Am still reading The Rent Collector by Camron Wright. Oh my. This book has so many layers: (1) the young, impoverished couple and their infant son who live, literally, in a dump in Cambodia and about the precarious structure, if you can even call it that, that comprises their “house” in the midst and perched on top of trash; (2) the woman who collects the rent (hence the title and yes, people have to PAY to live there); (3) the young son’s chronic illness; (4) how they make a living out of collecting and selling trash; and (4) the life saving grace and wisdom imparted by characters in the book as the young mother begins to learn to read. If you decide to read this book, please don’t stop at about page 15-20, thinking you just don’t know if you want to read about this. Please continue. It’s so worth it. Have a highlighter pen in your hand because you’ll find so many quotes you will want to remember. Believe it or not, there is also quite a bit in this about literature.

Recently finished C.J. Box’s book The Disappeared (A Joe Pickett Novel). I just love Box’s novels. They take place in present day semi-wild west, and chronicle the fish and game warden, Joe Pickett, as he unravels another crime in his territory. A woman has disappeared, and the governor has asked him to figure it out. He does, but the tale meanders through multiple layers of intriguing story. His books are riveting. Men and women enjoy his books – so if you have a fellow in your life or family that would enjoy an intriguing book (this is not espionage) then gift him one of Box’s books.

Also finished Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. About a dysfunctional family, through and through. I picked this up from amazon from someone who read the book, named “McReader,” and she says: “Set in the 70s, the story follows a Chinese American blended family in Ohio. When Lydia [the daughter] is found floating in the lake, her family is forced to analyze what put her there. Was it pressure from her family to succeed? Was it pressure to fit in? Was it a crime of passion or convenience? I was spellbound reading the last half of this book. I loved each flawed family member, especially Hannah,. While the story went where I hoped it would go, I was not disappointed at all with the progression. It was also quite insightful on the prejudices that society had about Chinese Americans still during that timeframe and how careful parents have to be to put their dreams onto their children.” Such a good book and definitely worth reading. Would be a good book club read. You’ll be hearing more from this author. Am currently reading her next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

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 and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. 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-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.


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 Books, on March 12th, 2014.

A couple of weeks ago I attended an all-day book event. An annual affair put on by the Literary Women of Long Beach. If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket ($80 per – they allow 800 people to attend and they sell out almost immediately) you’ll be book-blessed for sure. All the proceeds of this yearly event go to the Long Beach Public Library. This was the 2nd year I’ve been able to go, and again, I came home inspired by the (women) author’s speeches and in awe of their writing abilities AND their poise at the podium. I’d only heard of two of the authors prior to the gathering, but I came away wanting to know more about each and every one of them.

Here’s the list – I’m not suggesting these are great book reads for everyone, but I’m planning to read some of them. Here they are:

Denise Kiernan – she’s written a best-seller entitled The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. A documentary (book) about The (1944) Manhattan Project (Oak Ridge, Tennessee), an ultra-secret project to enrich uranium which went into the atomic bomb. Kiernan weaves the story of 2 women (and others) who lived there, who didn’t know until 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, what they’d helped accomplish. Even the people who lived and worked there (in a locked compound) didn’t know what the overall project was about. Her talk, including some very funny stories about the centenarians she interviewed, was riveting. (I will tell you that 2 at my table had read this book, and although they enjoyed the beginning with the stories of the 2 women, neither of them particularly liked the 2nd half.)

Then there was Karen Connelly. A Canadian, she has written a number of things (including recently a book of poetry) but she’s more noted for her edgy books about Burma. In her speech she talked about her love of travel – she has a very indulgent husband, as she travels to the nether regions of the world, sometimes dangerous places. But Burma (Myanmar) has stolen a part of her heart. She’s a woman with a message (oppression, poverty, race relations and gender politics) and uses her novels to raise our awareness. Burmese Lessons is her most recent one. She also wrote The Lizard Cage. A couple of women at my table had read Burmese Lessons and were more than turned off by the over-the-top sex in it. She explained in her speech that her intense affair with a man who is a Burmese revolutionary was the genesis of the book, and that the explicit sex chronicled her relationship with him.

amanda_coplinEveryone attending this literary event chose to go to a break-out session with one of three authors. Mine was Amanda Coplin, a young debut author. She grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, the land of orchards and harvests of fruit. Hence her book, The Orchardist: A Novel. It has an unusual premise – it takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Picture a man who borders on ugly, who is lonely but plodding along on his ranch in central Washington State. Enter two young teenage girls, both pregnant prostitutes, who hide out in the orchard. From that plays out a very intriguing story. Amanda shared how these characters had been inhabiting her brain for a long time before she put pen to paper. The man, the orchardist, is much like her beloved deceased step-grandfather, who helped raise her. Several in our group had read this book and highly recommended it. I have it on my Kindle and will read it eventually. Amanda was a very likable speaker with wonderful stories to tell.

The next talk was with Madeline Miller. Her recent book is The Song of Achilles: A Novel. She’s a student (and teacher) of the Classics. For the last 10 years she’s tutored and taught Latin, Greek and madeline_millerShakespeare to high school students. In describing how she came to write this book she explained she was intrigued by some mention of Petroclus, Achilles’ best friend in The Iliad. So Miller worked for years writing, re-telling Homer’s tale of Achilles from the voice of this friend (lover), Petroclus. No question Miller is a scholar. No question Miller is passionate about her subject. She’s devoted years to studying languages and classic literature. This book has been translated in 23 languages. Although I was very interested in her speech, I don’t know that I’m up to the challenge of reading a book (sorry, a novel) about The Iliad.

Lastly, we heard from Susan Orlean. This woman was very impressive. Very knowledgeable about susan_orleannumerous subjects. She’s a staff writer at The New Yorker. She’s written essays most of her adult life, mostly on non-fiction subjects. She wrote the bestseller (that became a movie, Adaptation) The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. She talked about being inspired to live life outside our box, our boundaries, to learn. Education is a key element in her life since she has written about such esoteric subjects as taxidermy, women surfers, the subject of “permanence,” and female bullfighters. Her journey – the point when she discovers some subject she wants to investigate – that’s her student phase. Then she reads and researches – that’s her discovery stage. Then she assumes the role of teacher – by writing about that subject. She’s not an expert at it, but finds more than enough fodder to write an in-depth essay (or maybe a book). If she writes for The New Yorker, you know she’s one very sharp woman. She’s also written the definitive book about Rin Tin Tin – Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. She’s written numerous other books – go to her web page if you’re interested. Here’s a link to a search I did at The New Yorker, if you’re interested in looking at any of her essays there. She’s just about finished writing a brand new book called The Library Book. She said it was available for pre-order, but I can’t find any online mention of it. This new book is an in-depth history of the Los Angeles Public Library. And no, she doesn’t live in L.A.

Posted in Books, Cookbooks, on June 6th, 2013.


I have such an admiration for Julia Child. So, no surprise that I wanted to read this new biography of her.

The author, Bob Spitz, was an unknown to me. He has made a name for himself in the book world. He published a 1000-page tome of The Beatles: The Biography. He’s written for several magazines as well, and now, with this newest book in his repertoire,  Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child he’ll likely continue in the genre. BTW, “Dearie” refers to the word Julia used for almost everyone – from waiters to bellhops or close friends. She called almost everyone “dearie.”

Bob Spitz was a huge fan of Julia Child, which led him to write this book. In the acknowledgements he says:  The genesis of this book sprang from my amazing luck, traveling with Julia Child in Sicily in 1992. For several weeks we crisscrossed the island, eating, of course, but talking every chance we got. She was already a beloved icon, larger than life in so many different ways, but perhaps the most down-to-earth celebrity I’d ever encountered. Inasmuch as I was writing about her for several magazines, we were on the record throughout the trip, but she never held back from speaking her mind, never shied from a tough opinion, never pulled her punches, never blinked She was exactly like her TV persona: warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible, and most of all, real. If I have to admit to one prejudice confronting this book, it is that I had a powerful crush on her. Sorry. Deal with it.

julia_child_monoprintFrom the first page I found myself picking it up at odd times because I found the story compelling. Bob Spitz writes interesting narratives. He gives you the facts, straight, and yet you can feel the drama behind so many events in Julia’s life. I found the history of Julia McWilliams, from nearby Pasadena, a daughter of a privileged family, quite fascinating. Her father rarely ever gave her an encouraging word – and maybe because from the get-go Julia was a kind of a maverick. She didn’t follow in her father’s ultra-conservative political path, and was forever ridiculed for it. She wasn’t driven to get good grades particularly, never felt herself a scholar, went to Smith College where she spent more time drinking and carousing than she did studying. Yet she graduated. At loose ends after that, she had no direction in her life, and her father, the ever present critic, didn’t encourage her much. Money wasn’t an issue. She did live in New York for awhile, took a menial job (about all she could find), but wasn’t particularly happy. She was a socialite, but not a fluttering butterfly. She wanted some meaning to her life, but just couldn’t quite figure out what or where it was. Her mother died and Julia ended up moving home to Pasadena as a companion to her father and she resumed her socialite role in her home town. He was not ailing, but she and her 2 siblings felt Dad needed some watching over.

julia_and_paulWhen war loomed, she joined the OSS, eventually going to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). And later to China. She met Paul Child, a very scholarly type, who was also with the OSS. They were friends for a year or more, and then their relationship bloomed. Julia never felt she was Paul’s mental equal. Although he didn’t attend college, he was extremely well read and could debate philosophy, politics, poetry and social culture with the best of them. They married eventually (much to her Dad’s dismay because Paul Child was a social liberal, as was Julia, but Paul more so). These facts rankled Julia’s father until the end of his days. Family dinners were always fraught with argument about politics, so much so that Julia did her best to avoid visiting home at almost all cost. Julia and Paul were devoted to each other for life.

The picture below is Julia’s reconstructed Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian (I believe). Note the distinctive pegboard, something she and Paul worked out so they’d always know where everything was kept in every Julia kitchen. julias_kitchen_cambridgeHaving already read Julia’s grand-nephew’s biography of Julia’s years in France, My Life in France, I enjoyed reading this new book, Julia’s full-life history. I’ve come away with so much more respect for Julia. Her years of cooking in Paris, making recipes over and over and over until she felt they were perfect, has to be a testament to her tenacity. And her tendency to be a perfectionist. Actually, last night I went online and ordered the DVD set of The French Chef: Julia Child 10-Disc CollectionTV series Julia did. (It contains an interview with Julia, and supposedly all the recipes that accompanied all the shows.) Having read this new book, and knowing the kind of labor of love she put into the making of the shows – and more importantly – how she revised the long and tedious French recipes from her first book of the 2-book series Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2 Volume Set) I wonder if I’ll be more intrigued to try more of her recipes.  I only own one of her cookbooks, and have cooked very few recipes from it.

Julia was a a fount of energy. Again and again through the book I read of her incredibly long hours in the kitchen from when she began cooking in Paris to her last days, almost. What I found new and interesting were:

  • the life-long feud between Julia and Madeleine Kamman – you can read more about it here; she also didn’t get along all that well with Jacque Pepin either! Even though they co-hosted a series of cooking demonstrations for TV, behind the façade of smiles, they didn’t like each other much;
  • Julia loved-loved men; even in her declining years she had a boyfriend, of sorts, even while her beloved husband Paul resided in a special home where he could be well cared for; whether any hanky-panky went on, I don’t know; this book doesn’t indicate so; Julia adored Paul unflinchingly, yet she craved male companionship once Paul wasn’t around;
  • although most everyone who ever watched Julia knows she had an irreverent side – she could laugh at herself and others, but was a natural in front of the TV camera; she also could use that biting tongue now and then. She had a stubborn streak. So, I didn’t know that Julia walked off the stage of a little cooking segment she did with Regis and Kathy Lee because Kathy Lee refused to get in and help – and get her hands dirty. It was arranged and agreed upon, but once the camera started rolling, Kathy Lee refused. At the break, Julia and her team walked out;
  • learning about her very assertive, abrasive lawyer she hired some way down her career path – she adored him – but oh, he made people mad. Yet he protected Julia’s interests, which was his purpose – I’d never heard about him before;
  • how hard Julia worked (with Paul, and with her editors, and her attorney) to keep her momentum once she reached the pinnacle; Julia was ahead of her time, I think, in knowing and understanding that she had to stay front and center or people (us home cooks) would forget her.

julia_kitchenThe photo at right – I think – was in Julia’s Provence kitchen, where she spent months working on the recipes for the Mastering manuscript. Note her “signature” neck scarf.

The author is a good story-teller, for sure. There were some times that he used colloquialisms that bordered on hip, trite or trendy. They seemed a bit strange in a biography. Since he’s been a magazine journalist, perhaps that’s why. Yet I found the book a page-turner when, in fact, there was nothing about Julia’s life that gave it that kind of intrigue. I found it interesting that many culinary professionals (back in the 60s and 70s) ridiculed Julia for calling herself a chef – she never cooked in a restaurant so she had no right to the title. She never called herself that – the TV show folks devised the title of the show. And yet, I think she was every bit a chef as any restaurant one just because of the dedication to her craft. Her recipes have stood the test of time, obviously!

So overall, I found the book very readable. Am sorry I never took the opportunity to meet Julia Child when I could have at her many book signings or classes. During her 80th birthday celebrations she attended a cooking class in her honor at a restaurant near us, but the tariff was $500 for the privilege. I just couldn’t – wouldn’t – pay that much, as much as I wanted to meet her! But I lived her life vicariously through this very fascinating biography. If you’re anything of a Julia fan, you’ll be glad to have read it.

Posted in Books, on August 9th, 2012.


A few months ago I read something online about the book Yes, Chef: A Memoir. It’s written by Marcus Samuelsson, a man with an unusual background, but with a passion for food in general and specifically combining herbs and spices from cross-cultures. His route to chef success took many interesting twists and turns, although he might not say so. He says all he was doing was “chasing flavors.” It wasn’t until I got to the afterword that I learned the book was actually written (obviously from lengthy interviews) by Veronica Chambers. She’s a brilliant writer, no question. All through the reading of it I was amazed at Samuelsson’s command of the English language, only to find out it wasn’t really his voice at all. That isn’t said as a criticism at all – his story is so fascinating and she just tells it so vividly.

Well, here’s more about the story. But I don’t want to give away everything about it – if you enjoy reading chef memoirs you’ll want to read this one. Marcus was born in Ethiopia. Somewhere around age 2 he, his 4-year old sister and his mother all contracted TB. His mother knew their only hope was to walk 75 miles to Addis Ababa for treatment. They did get there – the children survived; their mother did not. It took a year or more of recovering his health before the orphanage found homes for the two – in, of all places, Sweden.  Nothing was known about the children’s father. There were thousands of people with TB; thousands died. Marcus and his sister were the lucky ones.

yes_chef_bookThe next chapter of his life, then, began in Goteborg where he grew up in a very loving Swedish family, eating Swedish delicacies, mostly from his Swedish grandmother’s kitchen. His mother (his Swedish mother) didn’t cook much. Marcus credits a great deal of his interest and later passion about food to his Swedish grandmother, Helga. He was a typical boy, and passionate about soccer; he even thought maybe he could make a career of the game. He didn’t experience any real discrimination (from the color of his skin) until he was nearly an adult. He was trained in a Swedish culinary school, and was fortunate to then work in Switzerland, in France, on a cruise ship for a few stints (grueling), and finally in New York.

He describes his arrival in New York as feeling at “home.” People everywhere had his skin color. People didn’t stare at him at all. He fit in for the first time in his life. To say that Marcus Samuelsson is driven is almost an understatement. The man hardly knows how to rest, I think. Or maybe that’s just the impression I got – being a chef is a 24/7 hour job. He made his name famous once he became head chef at Aquavit, the classic Swedish restaurant in NYC. He was given a chance and prevailed at every rung of the ladder. The restaurant got plenty of press and stars after he took over the kitchen there. Eventually, as with many chefs, he struck out on his own and currently runs his own restaurant in Harlem, call the Red Rooster, on Lennox Avenue.  I don’t know if I’m ever going to visit New York City again, but I’ll tell you, I’m goin’ there if I do. They serve soul food, comfort food.

I was enchanted with this story, right up until the very last sentence. I didn’t want it to end. There isn’t a single recipe in the book; it’s all life story and a fascinating one at that. Marcus eventually marcus_and_mayafinds his father in Ethiopia, and countless relatives he never knew he had. His Swedish mother accompanied him on his first trip to Addis Ababa. His cooking reflects the herbs and spices from the traveling he’s done in his life (all working as a kitchen underling) and he includes them into his cooking style. I was intrigued to read about berbere, every Ethiopian woman’s favorite hot pepper seasoning comprised of about 15 spices. When he first tasted it he felt it was part of his DNA – he knew it. He’s married (toward the end of the book he tells of meeting an Ethiopian model and he was smitten the moment he saw her; they’re pictured at left). And he’s living his dream of running a restaurant kitchen totally his way! Read the book, okay?

Posted in Books, on June 27th, 2012.


Would I have purposely picked up this non-fiction book at a book store? No. Would I have bought it at a garage sale? No. Would I have sought it out on a library shelf? No. I’d probably never have read this book, period, if it hadn’t been an assignment in one of my book groups. Botany is certainly not a subject I pursue. Even gardening doesn’t pique my interest much. But it’s just for books like this that I treasure the reading I do in both of my book clubs.

And actually, once I started reading The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe , it took me awhile to get into it. I didn’t begin reading it until about a week before I needed to finish it, but fortunately, it’s easy reading and once I did get into it, it took ahold of me and I could hardly put it down. I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a page-turner, but it was extremely interesting.

Jeanne Baret was a French woman. Learned (probably by her Huguenot mother) , but not a scholar. She was an “herb woman,” an acceptable profession of the time (although not much of a money-making one), who worked with one or more physicians to collect, dry, process and package herbs as medicine. In the 1740’s (when she was in her 20’s) she was employed as a housekeeper to Philibert Commerson, a physician by training, but a botanist by choice, and one of some renown. When his wife died in childbirth, Baret stayed on, and it is well presumed she became his lover. She bore a child in 1764 (presumed to be Commerson’s; the child was given up for adoption and died 2 years later). Commerson never married her. Refused to.

The meat of the story is about a voyage Baret took as Commerson’s assistant, as they circumnavigated the world (with financial aid from the Queen of Sweden) to locate, cut, dry, save, and write about all the flora and fauna they discovered. They boarded a French Navy ship – so therefore Baret had to disguise herself as a man since it was verboten for a woman to even be on a Navy ship. This drawing at right purports to be Jeanne Baret, but according to the reviewer in my book club, this style of dress was not common anywhere for at least a near century. But it does portray a woman disguising herself as a man.

I don’t want to give away all the details of this history. You got it, right, this is a true story. The author, Glynis Ridley, is a professor of 18th century everything at the University of Louisville (Kentucky). She IMG_0530obviously spent years doing research about this bit of history, and her aim, obviously, was to bring to light the amazing accomplishments of a woman history forgot. A woman Commerson didn’t value enough to give any credit for the 60 crates of flora and fauna and much of the documentation as well that mostly she collected (Commerson was not physically well enough through most of the 3+ years voyage).  Jeanne Baret was forgotten by the French government too.

In the process of reading the book you’ll learn some about botany (that part’s not tedious at all). You’ll learn about how bougainvillea got its name (pictured above our yard – and the colorful part is actually leaves, not flowers – see how much I knew about it – see a closeup at right). You’ll learn some about Baret’s struggles as a lower-class passenger on a Navy ship (not a pleasant one even though she mostly shared Commerson’s cabin throughout the voyage). About the difficult voyage itself. About Montevideo, a bit about Rio, the Straits of Magellan, Cape Horn, then Tahiti, and the Great Barrier Reef (they somehow “missed” the Australian continent – it must have been cloudy that day). After what the author believes was a gang rape by some of the crew and one or more officers of the ship during a collecting afternoon on a tiny island in the South Atlantic, Baret and Commerson departed the ship in Mauritius. And it’s here I’ll quit telling you what happened. You need to read it for yourself.

I can’t imagine how Baret could have given up her child to a foundling home. Obviously she was deliriously in love with Commerson. That’s the only rationalization I can fathom. That and the fact she was penniless and depended solely on Commerson for her livelihood. And if he was going on a voyage, she must have believed that was her only option, to give up the child and accompany him.

If you have eclectic reading habits, you’ll like this book. If you like to at least give a silent hurrah to a real heroine of the 18th century (not only because she performed all the botany detail, but because she was the first known woman to circumnavigate the world, albeit disguised as a man), and an unsung heroine for sure, then you’ll want to read the book. I learned a lot. Am ever so glad I read it.

Posted in Books, on June 2nd, 2012.

mfkfisher This is a post about the late M.F.K. Fisher, a renowned food writer of the first order. If you’re not interested in the biographical part, skip down to the bottom and at least read the indented paragraphs, quoted from one of her books, about How To Un-Seduce [a man]. I found the quote very witty.

Some of you who are considerably younger than I may not have ever heard of M.F.K. Fisher. Her full name was Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and just “Fisher” to her friends. She was born in 1908 and died in 1992 from Parkinson’s Disease. What she was, was a venerable food writer of a couple of generations back. I own most of her food related books (well, almost all her books are food related but there are some I don’t own and a few that aren’t really essays about food). She was more a writer than a cook, although she certainly was a good cook in her own right. Photo credit unknown.

M.F.K. Fisher didn’t work in restaurants, but wrote books for herself (including an English translation of Brillat-Savarin’s tome), for magazines (both food and travel) and lived in many places around the world – mostly France – before finally, in her later years, settling in Glen Ellen, California (wine country, a few miles north of Sonoma). She was married three times. The first time (Al Fisher) to a man who, some years later, developed intimacy issues (both physical and relationship types, so she was quoted as saying many years later), so when she had an affair with someone else he was hurt, but he couldn’t do or say much about it. She divorced him and married the other man (Dillwyn Parrish). They had many good years together, but while living in France he developed a very debilitating illness and eventually commit suicide in 1941. She wrote more books and some movie dramas. In 1944 she had a child and never revealed the father’s name. Later on she met and after a whirlwind romance married yet another man (Donald Friede), but that marriage didn’t last. She spent the rest of her days without any further husbands, but I suspect she wasn’t lonely for companionship. She continued to write clear into her 80’s. I tried to research anything I could about her daughter, but didn’t find sufficient info.

In the late 1980’s I recall reading an article in one of the food magazines (either Gourmet or Bon Appetit) about Fisher’s retirement. I’d read a couple of her books at that time and really liked her writing style. About then I began looking for her books in used book stores. She writes prose but with a lot of food relationship stories and with lots of food jargon thrown in. Her essays graced the pages of numerous magazines, many of them not food related. Sometimes her essays included a recipe; sometimes not. In any case, as I looked at the 1980’s photos of her in this article, in her charming-looking little house in Glen Ellen, I remember the writer was particularly taken with Fisher, and happily shared a light lunch with her. And particularly how he savored the fresh fruit she served for dessert (one of her favorite things for dessert anytime). I wished that I could have met her – especially since she died just a few years later.

So, you wonder where this story is going? Well, I got an email from one of my readers (thank you, Donna) who told me about a marinade she has used for years, but originally was from M.F.K. Fisher. (More on that in another post – I’m going to have to try it and then I’ll tell that story.)  She told me which book, and I was surprised to find that I did have the book, but had never read it. In doing so – after reading the chapter about the marinade – I kept going. And came across such a hilarious couple of paragraphs I decided I should share it with all of you.

It’s in her book, An Alphabet for Gourmets. Or, if you’re interested in the book, you might try reading the 5 best of M.F.K. Fisher, contained in the compendium The Art of Eating (the other 4 books are: How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me). Used copies are very inexpensive if you’re so inclined. Anyway, in the Alphabet book she writes in her chapter called W is for Wanton, about the art of using food for seduction. And she tells one story after another, including one about what she would serve if she were trying to seduce a man. But the one that tickled my funny bone was the section about what she would serve to a man if she were trying to stem, or totally deflate desire (she suggests among others to serve kidneys, okra or avocado, for example), or as she suggests the title at the end of it, HOW TO UN-SEDUCE. Here it is:

[This is the preface to this small bit of the essay, which you need to read to set the stage for the paragraphs that follow]: I myself, imagining one man I would like to woo, can easily invent a menu that would floor him like a stunned ox, and turn him, no matter how unwittingly on his part, into a slumberous lump of masculine inactivity. It is based on what I already know of his physical reactions, as any such plan must be.

I would serve one too many martinis, that is, about three. Then while his appetite raged, thus whipped with alcohol, I would have generous, rich, salty Italian hors d’oeuvres: prosciutto, little chilled marinated shrimps, olives stuffed with anchovy, spiced and pickled tomatoes – things that would lead him on. Next would come something he no longer wanted, but could not resist, something like a ragout of venison, or squabs stuffed with mushrooms and wild rice, and plenty of red wine, sure danger after the cocktails and the highly salted appetizers. I would waste no time on a salad, unless perhaps a freakish rich one treacherously containing truffles and new potatoes. The dessert would be cold, superficially refreshing and tempting, but venomous: a chilled bowl of figs soaked in kirsch, with heavy cream. There would be a small bottle of a Sauterne, sly and icy, or a judicious bit of champagne, and then a small cup of coffee so black and bitter that my victim could not down it, even therapeutically.

All of this would be beautiful fare in itself and in another part of time and space. Here and now it would be sure poison – given the right man. I would, to put it mildly, rest inviolate.

What a hideous plan [she writes]. . . . . M.F.K. Fisher in The Alphabet for Gourmets

Can you see why I enjoy reading her words? She had a true gift of writing, a delightful wit, a gift of story-telling, a gift for the turn of phrase and particularly the judicious use of words. Most of the above biographical information about M.F.K. Fisher came from wikipedia. Another source I used (from Harvard University) had some different information, including a different birth date of her daughter which said she was Friede’s. The daughter had several children, so hopefully the author’s gene will have been preserved and will reappear sometime. And again, the image I used at top, obviously one taken at her home in Glen Ellen in her library or maybe her living room, has no credit because I couldn’t find one, although I saw similar images on the web credited to the New York Times. Over the years I’ve learned something about myself – that when I read a book (and enjoy/love it) I’m intrigued with the how and why. How did the author come to write it, why did he/she write it. Where did he/she write it. You know, that kind of thing. So finding the different birth date of her daughter and the fact that her birth certificate did not include Friede’s name was intriguing. More factlets worth pursuing if I were a true researcher. Anyway, to sum up, I’m a great admirer of M.F.K. Fisher and I need to read all of her most well-known books for sure!

Posted in Books, on April 15th, 2012.

imageUntil a week ago I’d not heard of Bonny Wolf. She’s a journalist (mostly food, maybe all food related) and writes for several newspapers and magazines. She’s also on NPR. Her 2006 book Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories is just so utterly charming and funny that I had to tell you about it.

Bonny is near my age, I would guess. She mentions that she got married in 1972 and bought a 3-ring blue binder where she carefully pasted recipes, divided by categories, adding more as time went by. Finally, it got so thick she couldn’t close the binder, so she graduated to stuffing everything in a gift bag. Before she knew it nearly 20 years had gone by and her recipe bag was out of control! So one day she bit the bullet and started sorting. As she sat there going through recipe after recipe:

“I ran into my great-aunts, a few cousins, old family friends, childhood friends, adult friends and friends from whom I’ve been separated for decades. I followed myself from Minneapolis (fifteen recipes using wild rice) to Baltimore (crab cakes several ways) to New Jersey (Hungarian chicken paprika) to Texas (real chili) to Washington, D.C. (the spring shad roe ritual). I revisited small and big life events – the birth of my son and subsequent birthday parties (chicken a la king and Texas sheet cake), the early years of entertaining (five different recipes for “quiche for a crowd” and the chicken divan that was my first dinner party dish), years of travel (chicken mole and sticky toffee pudding), my husband’s surprise thirtieth birthday party in a log cabin on the Raritan River (six food long sandwiches using lettuce from our tiny garden).”

Just that paragraph had me hooked. She goes on  – here are the beginnings of a few other paragraphs:

“I remember my fancy drinks period . . .”

“The food of Mexico held my interest for years . . .”

“Judging from the huge numbers of recipes for egg dishes – stratas, omelets, baked eggs – I have spent more than thirty years in search of dishes to serve for brunch. I still haven’t found just the right one.”

The words go on. I was in stitches. Obviously my culinary past somewhat mirrors that of Bonny Wolf. She mentions making Chicken Divan. My gosh. I haven’t made that in 30 years, I don’t suppose. It was the rage at one time. It’s really good. Maybe it should be resurrected!

Anyway, I sat down intending to just glance through the book, and an hour or so later I came up for air, knowing that I was going to be copying numerous recipes from her book. At the end of each chapter she gives you just a smattering of her recipes (related to the chapter subject) – some truly her own, but mostly they’re ones she gathered – like the Chocolate Pistachio Cake that she grew up eating (her mother’s recipe) in the Bundt Cake chapter. There’s a chapter on antipasto, toast, kitchen tools, aprons, jell-O, breakfasts, dinner disasters, chicken, potluck, shad, vegetarian (her son was one for several years), even Chinese [food]. All the way through, I was laughing. Sometimes nearly belly laughs. Bonny Wolf is a very creative writer – she knows how to build up your interest by reminiscing and you feel you’re right there beside her.  I loved-loved her stories. I savored every word. It’s available in paperback if you’re interested. And I’ll be making some of her recipes – the first one on the docket is the Chocolate Pistachio Cake. Coming soon to a blog near you . . .

Posted in Books, Essays, on March 18th, 2012.


First I must tell you I actually haven’t read this book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil . I have 3 books going right now and there’s definitely not time in the near future for me to add another. But I would like to read it (I’ve ordered it actually), especially after reading the review of it in the Los Angeles Times  last weekend. It’s the review that prompted me to go searching further on the subject. And to write up this post about it.

If you do a search for the title of the book you’ll find any number of links, to amazon of course, but also to NPR who did a review of it. Also a couple of naysayers who have olive oil blogs or websites. And I’m no expert – I’m only telling you about what I read in the article in the Times.

Russ Parsons (the Time’ reviewer), a long time writer for the newspaper, and major food/recipe contributor, is someone I trust. I like the way he writes. I like what he writes. In this article he talked about how, in 1985, he heard from a friend who had just returned from Tuscany, that there had been a major freeze there, which cracked most of the producing olive trees in half, killing them. So Parsons jumped to the conclusion that there would [surely] be a deep shortage of Tuscan olive oil the following year. Indeed, the Tuscan trees were devastated. But that next year, using a little-known fact about the agricultural system in Italy, the olive oil producers in Tuscany merely imported oil from Spain and Algeria. It didn’t matter how much “real” Tuscan oil was in the can or bottle – they could use mostly Spanish and Algerian for that matter and still call it extra virgin Italian (Tuscan) olive oil. It’s also supposed that there was a lot – a LOT of cottonseed oil added to the olive oil too (also okay by Italian regulations).

What we may know as “light” olive oil is actually (most likely anyway) low grade olive oil mixed with cottonseed oil to thin it out, making it less olive-y, less pungent. So why not just use vegetable oil? Indeed!

So based on that, I’m paying heed to Mueller’s points. So who is Tom Mueller? He’s a writer for the New Yorker,  but he lives in Liguria amidst his large olive tree farm. Over the years, he obviously has done a lot of research about olive oil – probably a real eye-opener when he discovered that the Italian rules are rather lax about the derivation of their olive oil. And incidentally, that phrase about “first press” or “cold press” oils – that’s all bunk, because really nobody actually uses an olive press anymore – they use more modern equipment.

I did a bit of sleuthing and found this quote from his very interesting website.

[During the writing of the book, I] immersed myself in olive oil. I’ve traveled on 4 continents, meeting olive millers and oil-bottlers, lipid chemists and fraud investigators, oil-making monks and oil crooks, chefs and government regulators and oil sommeliers, as well as countless eager consumers, some of them life-long experts, others enjoying their first taste of great oil. In the process I’ve learned a lot about one of humankind’s most magnificent foods, this essence of health and flavor. I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts.

The book, I’m supposing from the article, tells you which olive oil producers are the fraudsters (his word) and which are reputable. We all know we can buy very expensive olive oil, and we can buy the cheap stuff at the grocery store. Those cheap brands likely contain a significant amount of cottonseed oil and little actual olive oil. Price doesn’t always indicate quality, either, although it should go some distance that way. If I paraphrase the article, it does indicate you should choose an extra virgin olive oil that indicates an expiration date – the better producers do that – they’ll provide a lot number and a use-by date.

Until the book arrives and I have time to read it, I’ll just have to use my trusted brands. I think I read recently that Costco’s Kirkland brand is a fairly good olive oil – I use it for some things. I have several others than are better oils. I also visit a little olive oil store about 20 miles from our house (they carry just oils and vinegars, under their own labels, mostly infused with herbs, spices, and fruits). You probably know already that you don’t need to use EVOO for frying – you never garner the flavor from it for frying – use a vegetable oil (in fact my most recent Cook’s Illustrated, they tested brands of oil and Crisco’s Natural Blend was the clear #1. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in any market. Anyway, their test was preparing home made mayonnaise and using the oil for frying. All the oils preformed differently depending on the use, but this one, the Crisco Natural Blend, brought the best flavor to the mayo, as well as frying. Anyway, don’t waste good EVOO for anything unless the flavor is going to come through. You’re paying for that flavor, be it bland or peppery, herby or floral, and you might as well taste it. So that would mean relatively plain salad dressings or drizzles on things. Don’t use it for frying, for baking, or in your favorite carrot cake. Use a very bland oil instead, like the one above. So there’s your olive oil lesson for the day!

Posted in Books, on January 26th, 2012.

Not every book I read ends up as an actual blog post. Most of them flit through my sidebar over on the left on my home page. Lots of books  get an honorable mention and a short write-up there and I don’t necessarily mention them here. So if you don’t actually GO to my website you’d not even know that I’ve read 5 books since Christmas. And this book I’m telling you about today isn’t one of the best written of books I’ve ever read, but it’s interesting. It’s about a subject you’d not find on very many blogs. But obviously, if I’m writing a blog post about it I found it noteworthy.

imageNeil White, the author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts , has written a memoir of a year he spent in a prison in Louisiana. That, in itself, would hardly make this book noteworthy. But there’s a whole lot more to the story than that. Let me give you the background.

The author, prior to being sentenced to a year at this prison, was a highly successful entrepreneur. A college graduate. Smart. Likely he has some charisma thrown in too. The son of very successful parents. He was a hard worker. He was married with two young children. He led the kind of life lots of people would aspire to – he had a beautiful home, went on lavish vacations, had nice cars, dined out regularly in the best restaurants, and was well recognized in his town – lots of people wanted to know him. He thrived on the attention and accolades. He saw himself as a rising “star” in the media world. After starting up a newspaper in a medium-sized southern city (it failed, actually) he decided to become a magazine publisher. He was good at that. He was able to sell advertising – he was exceedingly good with people. There’s that charisma thing, I’m sure, although he never mentions that word. He’s an idea man too. Always thinking about where he’s going to make his name, where he’d make his “big break,” to get into the big time. He was never quite satisfied with where he was (career-wise). One more magazine, one more something. All requiring more cash to start and run. He borrowed money. He asked friends and family members to invest in his dream. They did. They believed in him. Saw no red flags.

Obviously, he wasn’t quite as good at looking at the bottom line. A few people (companies) couldn’t quite pay their advertising bills. The problem was, Neil had already spent or used the money. He factored his income in the publishing business (a common enough tactic for small companies, although not always wise); he borrowed money from Peter to pay Paul. I’d not realized until I read this book what “kiting checks” really meant (it’s fraud). He’d write checks from one account to pay another, and likewise that one to pay yet another. When you do it with different banks, it may take awhile for someone to catch on, especially since he’d do most of the transacting minutes before the close of the day. He’d convinced himself he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He got caught (rightly so) and was sentenced to a year in this low-level, minimum security prison called Carville, in Louisiana. He lost absolutely everything.

To say that Neil White had a big ego is an understatement. When he reported for his year of incarceration, he still had a pretty big ego going. He was embarrassed about what happened. He felt badly for his wife and children (and on the advice of a therapist he and his wife decided to tell their two children that Daddy was going to “camp”). He had duped a lot of people, many family members included, who all lost money in their misguided belief in him. In prison he felt like he didn’t belong – the business-dandy that he was, was “above” these uneducated prisoners from all walks of life. He never had worn an un-ironed shirt. He had been obsessive about cologne and cleanliness. He had to adjust to wrinkled uniforms, no privacy, no doors anywhere, lights on 24-hours a day. Yet within days he was already mentally scheming how he was going to do an exposé about prison life at Carville.  How would he do that? Well, he discovered right off, that this prison also housed (not imprisoned) the last survivors in the United States who have Hansen’s Disease (leprosy).

Because I think you should read this book, I don’t want to give away everything about the story. Here I’ve shared quite a bit about the author’s background. And hardly anything about the facts of leprosy, its progression, the medication now used to stop its advancement. Or about the people who live at Carville. I am telling you about the author’s abhorrence of catching the disease had him holding his breath sometimes – this, when we first arrived at the prison. And yet, eventually, with time, he learns more about the disease and befriends several of the patients and inmates in the prison. (There are inmates – like him – and patients like those with leprosy – and also there were inmate patients – prisoners who were too ill to be in some other prisons). There was a separation between the groups, but because it was a minimum security prison, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out ways to get around the rules about not fraternizing. Most of the inmates wanted nothing to do with the Hansen’s patients. They stayed clear of them for fear they’d “catch” it.

During the year, Neil White learns a whole lot about himself. Discovers how much he cares about these people – the Hansen’s patients, particularly a few special ones. They teach him a lot about life; they make him look into himself for answers; fortunately for him, he listens to them, although he’s hard-headed. It would be easy to dismiss this book as an ex-con’s way of making a living after his release, but you’d be missing the gist of the story, which is about Hansen’s Disease and what happens to all of the people who live there. These people who have no other home. It’s a story that needed telling, even if it is cloaked in a small book about one man’s prison journey. If you don’t read this book you’ll miss out on the redeeming value this book offers you, a friend, or someone in your family, perhaps, who has made a wrong-turn in life. In the process you’ll learn a whole lot about leprosy, which is something everyone should better understand. If you go to Neil White’s website, you can see a few photos of the prison. This book may not be for everyone. And, of course, since it’s a memoir, there’s no way of knowing whether everything he recounts in the book, is true. Neil White talks about that in the book – about how he was told by several people to not believe what both inmates and Hansen’s patients had told him. That they embellish or outright lie. Since truth became an important word to Neil White during his year, I’d like to think this book speaks it. I’m very glad I read it.

National Hansen’s Disease Museum (Wikipedia)

Karen’s Orphans and Forgotten Residents

Posted in Books, Uncategorized, on November 28th, 2011.

last_chinese_chef_book_coverAwhile ago a friend told me to read the book The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel by Nicole Mones (who also wrote Lost in Translation).

I promptly visited the bookstore and bought a hard copy. Usually I read books on my Kindle, but this time, since it was about cooking, I assumed I might want the actual book in hand. It’s been on my bedside table for a couple of months and I’d just had too many other books to read first. When I started reading this one, though, a day or two ago, I could hardy put it down.

The book was enchanting. And I know next to nothing about Chinese cooking. I used to eat Chinese with some regularity. BUT. Then I married a diabetic, and we did eat Chinese food occasionally, but once the medical world figured out that counting carbs in a meal was what spelled the secret to diabetic control, well, going to Chinese restaurants became a very risky proposition. When I cook anything Asian at home I have to put the recipe into my MasterCook program and guesstimate how large a serving he will have so I can tell him how many carbs he’s eating. And it’s never precise unless you literally measure out each serving.

We live in an area where there are some well-renowned Chinese restaurants (in the San Gabriel Valley mostly, east of downtown Los Angeles, about 40 miles north of where we live). I’ve never been to any of them. I’d like to. But it would be difficult for my DH as no waiter can ever tell him how many carbs are in  any meal we eat out, Chinese or any other food for that matter. It’s always a guessing game.

All that said, what it means is that I don’t know much about Chinese cuisine, other than a few very lame Chinese-American dishes that I make now and then. What makes it hard is the use of unusual sauces and additions. If it’s just meat and veggies – no problem. But usually there’s a sauce involved, as with most other Asian cuisines.. Many of the contain sugar – like oyster sauce, or kung pao sauce, etc. Very unpredictable, is what it is!  Sometimes I go out for Thai when my DH is away for an evening. I relish the opportunity.

THE BOOK: So, when I started to read this book, I was mesmerized right away by it. It IS a novel; but you get engrossed in the story almost immediately. A middle-aged woman finds out a year after her husband’s sudden death (from an accident) that a woman in China claims her daughter is her husband’s, conceived from a one-night-stand some years before. A claim is made against the husband’s estate (because he worked on occasional for a few weeks at a time in China). The couple was childless, supposedly a mutual decision between husband-wife. The news is devastating to the widow, who begins to question everything she ever thought she had in her marriage. She goes to China to find out the truth, and also goes there with a purpose (she’s a writer) to follow a Chinese-American chef who is competing in a nationwide culinary competition.

Part of the book is about her determining the truth (through DNA), and part of the book is about this Chinese-American chef in the competition. He speaks English, since he grew up in America, yet he has a strong Chinese culinary heritage (supposedly the grandson of a very famous Imperial Dynasty chef – before the Cultural Revolution). An attraction develops between these two people, yet the story is studded with interesting facts and quotations from the (fictitious) book written by the grandfather, this dynastic chef. Visits to Chinese family ensue, frantic cooking takes place prior to the competition, and in between encounters with the chef and his family, the widow makes her way around discovering facts about her husband’s affair.

What I learned by reading this book was all about the symbolism in Chinese cooking. About how every dish allows the soul to shine through. Quotes (supposedly from the cookbook/book written by the grandfather) scatter throughout, and some famous (real) Chinese poetry too. The quote I liked the best is this from the fictitious book:

The major cuisines of China were brought into being for different purposes, and for different kinds of diners. Beijing food was the cuisine of officials and rulers, up to the Emperor. Shanghai food was created for the wealthy traders and merchants. From Sichuan came the food of the common people, for as we all know, some of the best-known Sichuan dishes originated in street stalls. Then there is Hangzhou, whence came the cuisine of the literati. This is food that takes poetry as its principal inspiration. From commemorating great poems of the past to dining on candlelit barges afloat upon the West Lake where wine is drunk and new poems are created. Hangzhou cuisine strives always to delight men of letters. The aesthetic symmetry between food and literature is a pattern without end. . . . . Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef

But remember, this is a work of fiction. As I read the quotes/anchors at the beginning of each chapter (all from this fictitious book written by the grandfather) I was quite charmed by the writer’s (Nicole Mones) creativity. I was so prepared to believe what this Imperial chef had written. His mantras. His lessons regarding his country’s cuisine. In the end, it’s a bit of a love story too. Beautifully written and crafted. Even if you don’t have a lot of interest in Chinese cooking, I think you’ll find this book very enlightening. Very educational without feeling like it is, and immensely entertaining.

Posted in Books, on November 19th, 2011.

tractor wheels and high heelsReally, I wasn’t sure I’d ever read Ree Drummond’s book (memoir),  her story of meeting and marrying Marlboro Man. Yes, I was interested, although over the years I’d read parts of her story on her blog, which I’ve been following for several years. To buy it, well, maybe not. BUT, she’s pretty amazing – that I knew. She’s a very clever writer. She’s pretty. Cute. And after reading her blog for so long, I feel like I know her. Like she could be a friend of mine – except that she lives in the middle of nowhere near Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Not exactly a place close to anybody’s radar. But I feel like I could just walk into her kitchen and be right at home. And she’d serve me a glass of her iced coffee (she says she drinks gallons every day), introduce me to her 4 children who would be quietly (ha) studying at their desks as she’s homeschooling them, while she’s whipping up a dinner for 20, taking 4000 photos, writing a post for her blog, Photoshop’ing all 4000 of those photos, and pulling on several different pairs of her infamous cowboy boots. I’d meet Charlie (the basset hound) who would be lounging on the leather sofa. She’s written a book about Charlie too. And, of course, meeting Marlboro Man, her very handsome husband. What this woman is, is a marketing genius. But it’s all surrounded in her homespun, self-deprecating voice – that voice – a person –  who could be your next door neighbor, your cousin down the street, or your best friend from high school. I love all that about her. She has a HUGE following. I mean huge.

Her recent episodes on the Food Network were very fun. Seeing her live, in her own element, at the Lodge, the house her husband’s family uses for guests and events. Seeing her husband (shy) and her 4 kids (adorable), and numerous members of her extended family was great. I have her first cookbook – The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl. Actually I don’t know that I’ve cooked anything from the book. But I loved the photos of their cattle ranch. I’ve thought about buying the book about Charlie (a children’s story) – Charlie the Ranch Dog for my grandson. But he favors cats since that’s what they have in their house. She’s also written a sequel cookbook – The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier that will be released in 2012. Did you hear me say she’s a marketing genius? But she also gives away oodles of stuff from her blog. And I shouldn’t forget to mention her comprehensive Tasty Kitchen website too.

So anyway, I was at the library recently, and there was her book The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–A Love Story –  right there on the shelf. I glanced through it (no photos). Oh well, I took it home anyway. But first, I needed to read the new Philippa Gregory book – The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel (The Cousins’ War), which I rented from the library actually, and had to return in a week. By the way, that is one fascinating story, revolving around the reign of King Henry VI, England’s boy king, his wives, and told from the voice of one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting (a real person, though there’s never been anything written about her). It was such a good story I found myself going to my computer several times to read online about the actual history of that period (c. 1450). This is a brand new hardback book, and since buying books on my Kindle these days are getting more and more pricey, I decided to try the library. The week cost me $1.50.

Once I finished the above book I opened up Ree’s memoir and started reading. And I read. And I read. I don’t read romance novels except on very rare occasions. But then, this isn’t a novel – it’s a memoir of her own life, about a year in her life. It’s spicy and steamy without any graphic detail. It’s LOL funny. A few nights ago I was lying in bed reading – again, I could hardly put it down – and was laughing and laughing and laughing. My DH thought I was nuts – although he knows all about Ree Drummond because I told him about her – and he watched all of the Food Network episodes. In her book, though, you’ll read about linguine with clam sauce. About Ladd’s starched blue denim shirts, his Wranglers, and his chaps. About their dates (let me tell you, there really isn’t much to do near Pawhuska Oklahoma!). About their wedding, their honeymoon, and a whole lot about her first pregnancy. And all from her hysterically funny voice. I finished it last night and didn’t want it to end. It’s a good thing I have her blog to go to, that’s all I can say.

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