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You’ve got to read Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book –Take Me With You. What a story.  From Amazon’s description: August Shroeder, a burned-out teacher, has been sober since his nineteen-year-old son died. Every year he’s spent the summer on the road, but making it to Yellowstone this year means everything. The plan had been to travel there with his son, but now August is making the trip with Philip’s ashes instead. An unexpected twist of fate lands August with two extra passengers for his journey, two half-orphans with nowhere else to go. What none of them could have known was how transformative both the trip—and the bonds that develop between them—would prove, driving each to create a new destiny together. Have a tissue handy at the end. It’s such a charming, sweet story. You’ll fall in love with the young boys, and fall in love with them again 10 years later.

One of my book clubs occasionally reads a kind of edgy book. This is one of them. By Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: A Novel is a book set in an age not dissimilar to our own and in current time, but something bad has happened in the world. Something never divulged, although symptoms of a civil war are mentioned. A unmarried couple, Nadia and Saeed, are given the opportunity (as others are, as well) to go through a door (this is the exit part of the title) and to another place in the world – it takes but a second – to go through the special door. They go to England (London), to a palatial mansion. Sometimes the power grid is sketchy. Another door. And yet another. And finally to Marin County (north of San Francisco). You follow along with the ups and downs of the chaste relationship of the two, this couple from a house to living on the streets. And the eventual dissolution of the relationship too. I wasn’t enamored with the book, but after listening to the review of it and hearing others talk about it, I suppose there’s more to this story than it might appear. Hope is the word that comes to mind. The book is strange, but it won the Los Angeles Times book award in 2017. It’s received lots of press. It made for some very interesting discussion at our book club meeting.

The Last Letter from Your Lover: A Novel by JoJo Moyes. Story: Jennifer Stirling wakes up in hospital, having had a traumatic car accident. She’s introduced to her husband, of whom she has no recollection, and is sent home with him eventually, to a life she neither remembers or embraces readily. But this is the life she was raised to have, so surely it must be worth living, underneath the strange, muted tones of her daily existence. Jennifer goes through the motions, accepts what she is told is her life and all seems to bob along well enough, except when she finds a letter that isn’t her husband’s handwriting, and is clearly a link to someone she has been involved with, but whom? London, France, Africa and America all come into play in this story of a woman piecing back together her life in effort to understand what she has lost, and what she threw away. There is a bit of a time-hop from 1964 to 2003. . . from a reviewer on amazon.  I loved this book from page one to the end. There’s some bit of mystery and you so get into the head of Jennifer Stirling. I could hardly put it down. Great read.

Francine Rivers, an author relatively new to me, but much admired, is most known for this: Mark of the Lion : A Voice in the Wind, An Echo in the Darkness, As Sure As the Dawn (Vol 1-3) It’s a trilogy. The first 2 books are about Hadassah, a young woman in the time of the Roman Empire. When Jerusalem was overrun and destroyed, the Christians still alive were sent off and away, separated and derided and abused. Hadassah was one of them. She’s a slave to a wealthy family and it takes 2 of the books to read before the son of the family finally realizes that he’s in love with Hadassah. If  you’re a Christian, you’ll learn a whole lot more about the time following Christ’s crucifixion, about the lot of the struggling Christian community. The 3rd book in the trilogy is about a gladiator who is part of book 1 and 2, but not a main character. You’ll learn about his life too, after he regains his freedom from the fighting ring and the battle of his soul. These books are a fabulous read. Can’t say enough good things about them all. I’ve never been a huge fan of old-world Roman Empire reading, but this one was altogether different. Very worth reading.

Amy Belding Brown wrote this book: Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America, a true accounting in 1676, of Mary Rowlandson, a woman who was captured by Native Americans.  Even before she was captured on a winter day of violence and terror, she sometimes found herself in conflict with her rigid Puritan community. Now, her home destroyed, her children lost to her, she has been sold into the service of a powerful woman tribal leader, made a pawn in the ongoing bloody struggle between English settlers and native people. Battling cold, hunger, and exhaustion, Mary witnesses harrowing brutality but also unexpected kindness. To her confused surprise, she is drawn to her captors’ open and straightforward way of life, a feeling further complicated by her attraction to a generous, protective English-speaking native known as James Printer. The story is riveting, and perplexing once she is traded back to her home. You’ll see a different side to the Indian problem back then and find yourself conflicted. An excellent read.

Taylor Caldwell was a prolific writer, and one I read when I was younger. She died in 1980, and this book, her last, Answer As a Man certainly delivers as her others did. All his life, Jason Garrity has had to battle intolerance and injustice in his quest for power, money, and love. His new hotel will give him financial security, the means to support a loving family and become an upstanding citizen. When family secrets and financial greed combine to destroy his dreams, his rigid moral convictions are suddenly brought into question. . . from Goodreads. Caldwell believed the banking industry was way too powerful, and often took aim at it, as she did in this book. It chronicles the life of a very poor, impoverished Irish immigrant to the U.S. He was an upstanding citizen, God-fearing, but maybe naive in some respects. Good book if you enjoy very deep character study.

Another book by Diney Costeloe, Miss Mary’s Daughter. When a young women is suddenly left with no family and no job or income, she’s astounded to learn that she’s actually a granddaughter of a “grand” family in Ye Olde England. She’s very independent (at least I thought so, for the time period), but is willing to investigate this new family of hers. There are many twists and turns – is she going to inherit the family home – or is the man who has been caring for the home and his daughter the logical inheritors. There’s a villain who nearly sweeps her off her feet, much intrigue from many characters. Well developed plot with a happy ending. A good read.

Celeste Ng is a hot new author. I read another of her books (see below) but this time I read Little Fires Everywhere. There are so many various characters and plots in this book, as in her others. This book focuses on a Chinese baby abandoned at a fire station and the subsequent court battle when the single mother surfaces six months later to try to reclaim her daughter from the family in the process of adopting her. Emotions well up, waxing and waning on both sides of the issue. You may even find yourself changing your own mind about the right or wrong of a child raised with a natural-born mother (albeit late to the raising) or the mother the child has known since near birth. Ng likes to write books with lots of grit and thorny issues. Although a good read, I liked Everything I Never Told You better than this one.

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 Essays, on March 26th, 2013.


The world lost a wonderful writer when Laurie Colwin died in 1992, very young (48) to a heart attack. I remember opening my issue of Gourmet that month to read the unbelievable news that Colwin had died suddenly. There was no explanation about what happened. I’d been a fan of her writing for many, many years. I adored her essays in the magazine, and had purchased her first food essay collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries). I loved the stories – most of them were from her many years of writing for Gourmet. Her writing style was so witty, folksy, down to earth. But loving, and matter-of-fact. She shared simple recipes, but with a charm and verve that made you just want to go right to the kitchen and make her beef stew. Or her gingerbread. Or her creamed spinach with jalapenos.

Recently I moved some of my cookbooks and other books related to cooking from my kitchen/family room area to my upstairs office. Books I don’t refer to with any frequency made the transition along with various cookbooks I can’t bear to part with, but don’t use much. When I came upon the Home Cooking book, I decided to set it aside and it’s been sitting in the book rack in one of our bathrooms for about 2-3 months. Even my DH has picked it up from time to time and enjoyed reading a story. I’ve just finished reading it from cover to cover, with a renewed enthusiasm for making some of her recipes (of which there are few). There are several quotes that I found so humorous, so I decided to share some with you. I don’t think I’m allowed to completely write one of her essays here, but bits and pieces are okay, I think. Perhaps they’ll pique your interest – enough to buy the book yourself.

In the Forward of the book, Colwin wrote a little explanation about her love of food and socializing in the presence of food.

Unless you live alone in a cave or hermitage, cooking and eating are social activities; even hermit monks have one communal meal a month. The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only kind of social life worth participating in.

No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. In my kitchen I rely on Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, the numerous contributors to The Charleston Receipts, and Margaret Costa (author of an English book entitled The Four Seasons Cookery Book).

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.

Perhaps Colwin’s most famous essay is the one entitled “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” It is, without a doubt, my favorite food essay ever, and I’ve opened this book more than once just to read this chapter. Colwin was young and an aspiring writer back then, and had to economize in order to even live in New York City. She rented an apartment that would likely drive a normal person off the edge, but to Colwin, it had charm in spades. Here’s what she wrote:

For eight years I lived in a one-room apartment a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia. It is lucky I never met Wilt Chamberlain because if I had invited him in for coffee he would have been unable to spread his arms in my room which was roughly seven by twenty.

I had enough space for a twin-sized bed, a very small night table, and a desk. This desk, which I use to this day, was meant for a child of, say, eleven. At the foot of my bed was a low table that would have been a coffee table in a normal apartment. In mine it served as a lamp stand, and beneath it was a basket containing my sheets and towels. Next to a small fireplace, which had an excellent draw, was a wicker armchair and an ungainly wicker footstool which often served as a table of sorts.

Instead of a kitchen, this minute apartment featured a metal counter. Underneath was a refrigerator the size of a child’s playhouse. On top was what I called the stove but which was only two electric burners – in short, a hot plate.

Many people found this place charming, at least for five minutes or so. Many thought I must be insane to live in so small a space, but I loved my apartment and found it the coziest place on earth.

My cupboard shelves were so narrow that I had to stand my dinner plates on end. I did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet . . .

When I was alone I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over I ate it cold the next day with bread. . .

In this tunnel-like dollhouse of an apartment, Colwin often entertained, but only a party of three. Four made impossible logistics. She often served soup – a one pot wonder. Usually she brought in dessert. I’ve tried to envision an apartment 7 feet wide by 20 feet long, which had to have included a bathroom of sorts, thereby leaving very little space left for living. Yet Colwin found it absolutely comforting and homey. She always preferred to eat at home rather than go out – she was a champion of good old-fashioned kinds of home cooking. Nothing fancy was her motto. One of her mantras was about salt – lots of it – and seasoning everything with celery salt too.

Eventually Colwin married – moved into a more normal sized house – and had a daughter. She continued to write. Including numerous novels. Here’s a link to her many published works. None is available on the Kindle.

Posted in Essays, on February 11th, 2013.

I’ve just gotten around to reading the January 2013 issue of Bon Appetit. It’s a very interesting issue with some edgy ideas I certainly found thought-provoking, so I’m sharing them with you. They call it the “The Cooking School” issue. That doesn’t mean a list of cooking schools to go to, or places that hold cooking classes. No, the subtitle is about learning to master some of the basic cooking school techniques. Particularly it’s about pan roasts, salads, braises, sauces and salted sweets. Normally I wouldn’t even give that a passing glance, other than breezing by some of the recipe titles, since I (think I) already know how to pan roast, braise, sauce and make sweets. But even I – an experienced home cook – found the articles interesting, informative, very explanatory – and the recipes are different.

After reading the issue, almost cover to cover, I tried a salted chocolate chunk cookie (I will share it in a day or two, even though it didn’t hit my CC cookie buttons particularly – but it might hit yours). Anyway, I will share another recipe from this cooking school section, but what I wanted to talk about was the section on salads. The title page of the sub-chapter on salads says:

Skip the lettuce and tomato. Instead, follow the lead of today’s hottest restaurants by making crisp, vibrant shaved-vegetable salads without a mesclun green in sight.

Next to that was a carrot salad that looked like the carrot pieces were shaved and crisp-roasted (actually they weren’t baked at all, but they were crisp-curled in ice water). Here’s the more thorough preface:

For years, you couldn’t go to a four-star restaurant without getting a forkful of mâche. Then there was a love affair with arugula. And we still have feelings for kale. But these days, the salads we really can’t resist don’t even have the very thing that used to define salads: the greens. Like many of the country’s most inventive chefs, we’re replacing them with other, less obvious vegetables (and nuts and herbs and seeds). Mandoline in hand, we’re shaving sturdy produce into ribbons and coins, adding outside-the-salad-bar complements, and dressing them lightly in simple vinaigrettes. The results are delicate, yet packed with bite – and without question, far more dynamic than any bowl of romaine and Ranch could ever be.

No, that’s not my baby picture . . . I just had to make a point here – I’m not crying buckets – yet – because I’ll still be making salads with greens no matter what the food experts or trends have to say. Not that I won’t dip my big toe into the arena of these newer salads, but I still love arugula, and kale and romaine. Ranch? Not so much.

On one of the pages of this multi-page chapter there is a chart of what to put in these new veggie-centric salads. It’s divided into 3 sections:

  • Foundation (thinly slice one or two of these): fennel, cucumber, celery, beets, radishes and celery root
  • Dimension (add smaller quantity of one or two of these to lend character): coarse breadcrumbs, apple, cumin seeds, red onion, Parmesan, pepitas
  • Finish (a bright element – like lots of fresh herbs): parsley, celery leaves, watercress

Lastly, I’ll share one more sidebar on one of the pages. Here’s what it said:

Balsamic is not king – and other truths about vinaigrette (3 rules for dressing a 2013 salad): (1) Rethink your vinegar [no more balsamic, instead use sherry vinegar and champagne vinegar]; (2) Easy on the oil [no more 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar; instead lean toward 2:1 which will work with the more subtle sherry and champagne vinegars since they’re much milder, less acidic; if you find them too astringent, just add a bit more oil, but not back up to the 3:1 we have been used to.]; (3) Hands, not tongs: use your hands, not tongs . . . as it’s the best way to tell if the salad is over- or under-dressed.

I’m not so sure this will work for me, although I have pretty much stopped using balsamic vinegar in salad dressings – they’re too much, too heavy and often too acidic, even though I use better balsamics (i.e., more expensive). I use it in other things, but rarely in salads anymore. I’m also not so sure I can handle the acidity of a 2:1 oil to acid ratio in a salad dressing. That’s going to be very astringent. It might depend on the brand of sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar. I’ll have to test a few salads and see what I think.

As I write this, I’m going to make a different salad from the issue – a celery salad with celery root and horseradish. Most likely I’ll post it. I happen to love celery leaves and they’re dominant in this particular salad.

Posted in Essays, on October 5th, 2012.


We were on our recent trip, and in a hotel where we had a TV. I’d flipped on Good Morning America, I think it was. And they explained in a very short blurb that rice contains arsenic. More than we’d ever thought. And more than we should be eating. That was about it. A week later, I mentioned it to my cousin Gary, who consumes a lot of rice and rice products (because he’s gluten intolerant). His jaw dropped. Really? he said. Yup, really, but I didn’t have much detail.

Once home I found what was probably the genesis of the news item – an article in Consumer Reports. It’s in the November 2012 issue which you can read here. I’ll give you a synopsis. And if you read nothing more than this: the scientists say we should not consume more than 2 portions of rice per week. A portion is 1/2 cup for an adult. Or 1 full cup a week. And that’s a combination of all rice products. The level of arsenic varies greatly by type and by brand. Inorganic arsenic is known as a carcinogen. Bad news. And particularly worrisome are rice-based baby cereals. They’re not the worst, but then infants don’t eat much quantity of any cereal. Down at the bottom of this post I’ll give you some bullet points with recommendations.

So, here’s what happened . . . back in January Consumer Reports published an article about the level of arsenic in apple and grape juices. That was the original arsenic eye-opener. The folks at CR thought maybe they should do some more scientific study about arsenic in other foods. They chose rice, and they tested over 200 brands of rice products (everything from common white rice to rice syrups, rice cereals, baby food, rice pasta and rice crackers – my cousin is gluten intolerant, so he eats a lot of rice crackers and other rice-based products – hence my concern for him).

The scientific part of it – there are two types of arsenic that we consume in food – inorganic and organic. It’s the inorganic we need to be more concerned about, although the FDA and EPA both say there are no safe arsenic levels. Period. Scientists think the arsenic has increased because of insecticides that have been used in the past hundred years. Here’s what the article says:

. . . The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960’s. Residues from the decades of use of lead arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980’s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.

I’m sorry folks. I’m just stunned. Ashamed. Angry. Angry that the gosh-darned profit engines of food commerce will, at every juncture, choose to promote growth and therefore profit (in vegetables and grains and in meat production) to the possible detriment of our health. Doesn’t it seem logical that arsenic in anything, at any level, is not good for us? For gosh sakes, it’s a POISON! So even though arsenic-enhanced insecticide was banned in the 1980’s, the ground still contains it and it passes through into crops grown in that same soil. AND, animal feed still does contain arsenic and it’s allowed. How come? And of course, chicken farmers have all that chicken poop they consider a product as well, and it’s made into fertilizer, yet IT contains higher levels of arsenic. It goes back into the ground for our food.

I also don’t like GM (genetically modified) food. I wrote up an essay about genetically modified seed a couple of years ago about Monsanto, and the genetically modified corn and canola seed that is almost everything we eat now. Monsanto is a weasel of a company. And they wield great power. Scary power. Here in California, we are voting on a proposition next month about whether food labeling must state if something is a GM product. Obviously I’m voting for that. Most people, when questioned, probably would choose not to eat GM corn; yet it’s very pervasive and I’m guilty of not asking the corner farmstand employee whether the corn I buy there is GM or not. The produce man in my market has no idea. He doesn’t care. He just preps the produce. However, more people are paying attention (I think and hope) to where food products come from. Last night my DH and I were at Costco and he was looking at a frozen case of shellfish. I walked right on by because in past trips I know the shrimp came from Vietnam. I’m not buying shrimp from Vietnam. Articles I’ve read tell me for health’s sake, I should buy only shrimp manufactured in U.S. waters. I’m all for that. But they’re very hard to find! The lobster in the case was from Brazil. I don’t know anything about lobster farming or trapping in Brazil. They were beautiful things – and expensive I might add. We bought none of them. We did buy fresh halibut from Alaska, though. New recipe coming up soon.

I’m sorry, I got sidetracked there. We’re talking about arsenic in rice. I’ll get back to that now. The bottom line is that in an extensive study CR did, people who ate more rice – logically – tested high for arsenic in their systems. Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers (lung and bladder first and foremost). Organic arsenic, so far as scientists know, is not harmful. We eat it in several types of seafood, actually, so in the tests, they eliminated any results from people who had eaten seafood within 24 hours of the urine test used. Over a lifetime of eating rice (and in many countries eating rice is a 3-times a day national pastime) this could cause significant cancers.


  1. If you’re pregnant, cut way, way down on rice in any way, shape or form. Adults, it is suggested, should eat no more than 2 servings (so about 1 cup total) per WEEK. That includes rice cakes, rice cereals, rice drinks, rice pasta, rice cakes.
  2. Consumer Reports recommends you find out about your drinking water – if you’re on public water, you’re okay generally. Only if you use a well water or other sources, should you have the water tested for arsenic.
  3. Change the way you cook rice – rinse it thoroughly in any case and discard that drained water. Use more water than called for when you cook it (that removes more of the arsenic to that cooking water that you’d also discard). They recommend using 6 cups of water for every cup of rice. That will remove about 30% of the arsenic in the rice. Yes, you wash away some of the nutrients, but it’s safer for eating.
  4. Don’t eat brown rice – it has higher doses of arsenic than white rice – because much of the arsenic is held in the outer layers of the grain. Remember, rice is grown in a specialized pond and the rice leeches stuff from the underlying soil.

Consumer Reports has made a bunch of recommendations to the USDA, FDA and EPA, including: (1) the industry needs to set a standard for arsenic in rice [there is none at this time]; (2) producers should develop rice types that don’t “take up” so much arsenic from the water/soil, and then use the one(s) that perform the best; (3) the EPA should phase out all pesticides [period] that contain arsenic; (4) the USDA and EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden fertilizers and manure; (5) the FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals. To learn more about this part, go to the main article (at the bottom). Of course, the U.S. Rice Federation is vehemently arguing that arsenic in our rice is way overblown as a health risk. I’m sorry, ANY arsenic in my rice is too much.

If you go to the article, you can review the entire chart about the rice products they tested. I’m going to give you a short list, though, of the products that were high (bad) that you should, for now, avoid (in my opinion anyway). And I’ll give you the names of the rice products that were better than others. No rice products were free of arsenic. If you eat any rice products at all, you’re ingesting arsenic. No way around it. Rice raised in the American South has higher levels than others – probably because of the years and years of insecticides used on that same land. It appears that rice from Indian and Thailand have lower levels, but CR didn’t test some of the more obscure brands I see in my local Indian store.

Lundberg, the small company here in California, that raises a lot of rice, has, generally, lower levels of arsenic in their products. There was one exception. But their company (and the CEO, Grant Lundberg) is investing lots of resources to test all of their products more extensively. Good for them. They may be one of the first on the bandwagon to improve the problem.

Here’s a list from Consumer Reports with THE BAD ONES – higher incidences of arsenic in their products (listed in rice type order, then alpha order, not the level of arsenic). Some had lower ratings, but CR used 3 tests of each product from different packages and some showed varying results. The ones in red had the highest levels: RICE: 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods); Cajun Country Enriched Long Grain; Cajun Country Popcorn Long Grain; Canilla Extra Long Grain Enriched; Carolina Whole Grain Brown; Della Basmati Brown; Doguet’s Brown; Goya Enriched Medium Grain; Great Value Brown (Walmart); Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown (this one had the highest number of all); Lundberg Short Grain Brown; Martin Long Grain Brown; Texas Best Organics Long Grain Brown; Uncle Ben’s Original Enriched Parboiled Long Grain; and Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Brown. INFANT CEREAL: None exceeded 5 micrograms per liter, but of the 4 types listed, two were higher – Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice and Gerber Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Farina Creamy White. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Barbara’s Brown Rice Crisps. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Suzie’s Whole Grain Thin Cakes. RICE PASTA: DeBoles Rice Spirals, Tinkyada Brown Rice Pasta Shells and Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Rice Fusilli. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic Brown. RICE DRINKS: neither tested brands exceeded the arsenic levels for concern. RICE SYRUP: Lundberg Sweet Dreams Eco-Farmed Brown and their Organic Brown (both). RICE VINEGAR: only one brand tested and it is very low.

Now, here’s the list of THE BETTER ONES – lower incidence of arsenic, not necessarily healthy levels, but still beneath the 5 micrograms considered a level of concern: RICE: there are about 20+ brands listed – I’m only listing the ones that had the lowest incidence – seek them out if you can – Archer Farms Organic Basmati (Target – it’s from India), 365 Everyday Value Organic Indian Basmati White (Whole Foods, from India), Archer Farms Organic Jasmine (Target, and it’s from Thailand), Lundberg California White Basmati (California), Martin Long Grain Enriched (Missouri), and Trader Joe’s White Basmati (India). INFANT CEREAL: Beech-Nut Homestyle Rice and Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Organicv Brown Rice Farina Creamy Rice and Cream of Rice. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Arrowhead Mills Organic Sweetened Rice Flakes, General Mills Rice Chex Gluten Free, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Gluten Free and Trader Joe’s Crisp Rice Cereal. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Asian Gourmet Plain Rice Crackers, Edward & Sons Organic Brown Rice Snaps Unsalted Plain Rice Cracker, Lundberg Brown Rice Organic Rice Cake, Quaker Lightly Salted Rice Cake. RICE PASTA: Annie Chun’s Maifun Rice Noodles. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic White and Goya Enriched. RICE DRINKS: Pacific Rice Low Fat Plain Beverage and Rice Dream Classic Original Rice Drink. RICE VINEGAR: Asian Gourmet Plain.

So what’s all that say . . . well, that we shouldn’t eat as much rice as we thought we could. Eat white rice. Be extra careful about feeding rice products to infants. Pregnant moms should be extra careful too.

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 Essays, on May 23rd, 2010.

A friend of mine in my book club told us this story the other day. It was so funny – yet not so funny – I decided I had to share it with you.

My friend’s daughter works at a local bank. Her best friend at the bank has a mid-20’s aged son who is autistic. I guess the son has never really been able to do much – he’s unable to work – but he manages. Mostly he stays at home while his mom works. [And I would guess the son watches a fair amount of cartoons and/or he reads.] Anyway, one day last week she got a frantic phone call from her son.

“Mom, Mom,” he said, “. . . come quick, I caught a troll!!!!” She, naturally, said “WHAT?” What do you mean, you caught a troll? He said again, “Mom, I caught a troll.”

She was able to leave work and drove like crazy to her home. As she turned the corner onto her street she went into complete panic mode when she saw her house surrounded by police cars. She screeched to a halt, and ran out of the car. The police, at first, wouldn’t let her pass until she identified herself. She ran into the house to find out that this is what happened. . . .

Earlier, when the doorbell rang, her son had answered the door. The dwarf/little person at the door was a 2010 census taker. The autistic son grabbed the little person and dropped him in a closet in the house. Then he quickly shut the door and put a chair under the knob so the “troll” couldn’t get out. Then he called his mother!

Fortunately, the unharmed census taker had the presence of mind to have his cell phone on him and he called 9-1-1. The police arrived. The census taker was very gracious and decided, once he understood what had happened, not to press charges. True story.

Posted in Essays, on May 22nd, 2010.

My friend Cherrie was telling me a week or so ago about how much she enjoys reading Saveur magazine. Now I’d not ever read it, so I bought an issue. And have now subscribed. Cherrie was telling me that her hubby Bud reads it from cover to cover whenever it arrives. Usually before Cherrie gets to read it. And that he’d really enjoyed the May issue’s story about refrigerators, written by Sara Dickerman. All the info comes from her article. (He was also intrigued by the article about mac and cheese and they’ve already made one of those recipes to great praise, apparently.)

Sure enough. He’s right. I found the article just fascinating. I wanted to snap photos of the page with pictures of all the old refrigerators on it, but I don’t want to get in trouble with the photo police. So I went online and found a couple of images that were on lots of sites, so figured they were safe to use.

Not only did I enjoy reading about the timeline of the refrigerator, but they included a blurb at the end about the misinformation regarding food storage in today’s refrigerators. I learned a thing or two.

So here’s your history lesson about fridges:

7th Century AD – icehouses were known to exist in Persia – cold stream water was routed into dome-shaped, tile lined huts

1803 – the engineer Thomas Moore coined the word “refrigerator”

1810s – Zinc or tin lined wood cabinets (ice boxes) become the forerunners of today’s fridge – home ice delivery made it possible – with a compartment for the ice and a tray below to catch the melt-off

1926 – Clarence Birdseye invented the blast freezer and his frozen vegetables and fruits zoomed in popularity – they produced over 500 tons a year

1927 – GE sells the first home fridge equipped with a round compressor that sat atop each unit – it cooled with sulfur dioxide

1933 – a fellow named Guy Tinkham (an engineer) invented the flexible ice cube tray at a cost of 50 cents

1933 – Crosley Radio Corp introduced the “Shelvador,” with shelves in the door, increasing space inside the fridge by 50%, they claimed

1947 – fridges with separate freezer units came on the market

1949 – the first self-defrosting units were introduced

1955 – Kelvinator introduced the Foodarama, the first side-by-side unit (8 feet wide!), which also had a non-refrigerated drawer for bananas – and supposedly it also had a built-in plastic-wrap dispenser [you ever see one of those? I haven’t]

1970’s – Fridges started adding crisper drawers, lazy Susan’s, butter compartments, and the interiors became plastic – oh yes, colors like avocado green and harvest gold were popular (yup, I had one of those)

2000s – we’re demanding more compartmentalized fridges, and the way of the future, apparently, is separate units (not necessarily put together in one place) which all cool at different temps (like meat, cheese, produce etc) – in my kitchen I have a separate refrigerator and freezer (both big) and a 2-drawer under-the-counter refrigerator unit where we store beverages and overflow from the refrigerator – AND we have a 2nd more traditional refrigerator in the garage with a bottom drawer freezer, which is where I store all of my frozen meat

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

And here’s the definitive guide to how to store food in today’s fridge:

Butter shouldn’t be kept in the butter compartment – it’s too warm – it should be in the coldest place which is the front of the top shelf [I don’t think that’s where I want to store butter . . . it would be in the way of everything for me]

Leftovers should also be kept in the coldest spots – either top shelf front, or middle shelf rear [actually I do store leftovers in that area]

Meat – only goes in the meat drawer if you have one – should be kept the coldest [we have a middle, wide drawer, but it has grids that are open to the whole refrigerator . . . it’s where I store cheese, and as I learned that’s not where I should be storing cheese . . . sigh]

Crisper drawer – good for greens, produce of most types AND cheese – it’s moist (good) [well, good thing the crisper drawer is for keeping things crisp since that IS where I keep all my produce, but not cheese]

Herbs – believe it or not, THEY should go in the butter compartment (warmer spot) [wow, this was a big surprise – I keep herbs in the crisper – and actually my DH stores his injectable insulin in the egg compartment because I already knew we aren’t supposed to put eggs in those egg depressions in the fridge – they’re supposed to be left in the boxes and stored on a fridge main shelf area]

Drinks and condiments – in the door (that’s a warm spot) [yes, I do store bunches of bottles of condiments in the door, plus milk, cream, juices . . . spot on that one]

Cold-sensitive veggies (like mushrooms, corn) – should be kept in the warmest spot in the fridge – that’s the front of the bottom shelf [this was a revelation – maybe this is why mushrooms don’t keep very long in my fridge because they get too cold in the crisper – maybe they’d be best in the butter compartment . . . ]

That’s it, folks. Hope you enjoyed this little lesson in refrigeration . . .

A year ago: Seven sins of chocolate (a book)
Two years ago: Cream of Cucumber Soup (my friend Jackie’s recipe, SO good)
Three years ago: Apricot Ice Cream

Posted in Essays, on March 17th, 2010.

Recent discoveries show us that practically everything we think we know about the science of taste is wrong, wrong, wrong.

. . . by Bruce Feiler, from Gourmet, July 2008

Having just told you how I learned about the different taste receptors in the mouth (and tongue) at my first wine tasting class back in the late 1970’s, and how they affect my perception of wine taste, I ran across this article in a 2008 Gourmet article, which completely counters most of what I learned. (I’m still trying to go through a stack of magazines collecting dust in my family room.) All of this post comes from Bruce Feiler’s article.

So why this change? The human genome. But, of course. Scientists are only now discovering new information about us humans. Off the head of a pin. Hard to comprehend. And what they’ve found is that flavor chemistry is all over. It’s about how those chemicals interact with our bodies – like the fact that one person likes the taste of cilantro, for instance, and other people think it tastes like soap.

Up until recently all the food scientists worked on two basic truths: (1) there are four basic tastes – bitter, sweet, sour and salt (and they added umami later); and (2) different tastes are detected on different parts of the tongue – the “taste map,” they called it. I wrote up a previous post about those tastes. What they’ve determined is that we taste everything, everywhere in our mouths. And scientists are debunking #1 above too.

Mr. Feiler talked with biochemists, geneticists, sensory specialists and food psychologists. Consumers (like us) use the words flavor and taste interchangeably. Scientists do not. What’s important is that the tongue and mouth, assisted by the nose, are considered the body’s primary defense against poison. Ah. The human body tastes faster than it can touching, seeing or hearing – yes, we detect taste in as little as 1.5 thousands of a second, compared with 2.4 thousandths for touch, and 1.3 hundredths of a second for hearing and vision.

To be tasted a chemical must be dissolved in saliva and come in contact with tiny receptors that are grouped together in buds (taste buds, right?). They’re not just on the tongue but all over the inside of our mouths. They convert the chemical into a nerve impulse, which gets transmitted to the brain. Apparently the number of taste receptors we have has yet to be determined. Terry Acree of Cornell says it will likely be around 40 – a fixed number. Olfaction receptors, on the other hand, is much higher, around 300.

Now here’s some chemistry stuff – or the biological part – molecular biology has allowed scientists to identify which proteins, in which receptors, send which signals to the brain. Only one receptor can identify sweet . . .  but more than 20 receptors detect tastes that are bitter. Because scientists are identifying the chain of messages (receptors to the brain) they can begin to manipulate the “conversation.”

When I first read this I thought, uh-oh. We’re going to start doing unnatural things to food (well, yes, they are). It’s not exactly like genetically modifying corn (see my essay about Monsanto if you’re interested), but it’s not too far off. What Feiler did was participate in a taste test of tomato juice. He drank 4 types: (1) V-8 juice with 480 milligrams of sodium; (2) low-sodium V-8 (doubling the amount of potassium chloride, thereby cutting the amount of sodium by about two-thirds); (3) and (4) were tomato juices containing low-sodium V-8 mixed with different amounts of Betra (something that is designed to block the unpleasant aftertaste of potassium chloride). Betra is a new substance made by Redpoint Bio, a very small company in New Jersey (located in an area called the Flavor Corridor). Betra therefore, blocks that taste of potassium chloride, which is fairy awful IMHO. So I like the thought of blocking that taste, but I wonder about what that will do to our bodies over time.

The bottom line is that we all taste things differently. So suppose I serve a French, succulent long-slow-baked beef pot roast to a group of friends. If you went around the table and asked them to be brutally frank, I’d probably hear mostly good remarks, hopefully because it was prepared well. Maybe I’d hear some raves about it. But there would likely be a couple of people who would say something negative – or maybe just “it was okay,” or didn’t have much flavor. Or even, “I don’t like beef.” We’re not talking texture here, but flavor.  So even though we all have the same number of receptors, how the brain interprets what those receptors transmit can be very different (even among family members).

Did you know there are people referred to as “supertasters?” They experience almost all taste with more intensity – sugar is more sweet, Brussels sprouts more bitter, chiles hotter. Supertasters happen to also dislike plants with higher degrees of toxicity.

Now you throw into the equation culture. And they’ve identified – so far – about a dozen haplotypes (collections of persistent mutations within a particular population). How that plays out is, for instance, with lactose intolerance. Many African and Asian peoples can’t produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down sugars in milk. Yet lactose intolerance is almost unheard of in European populations – people with traditions of herding and milking.

Where this leads us is that eventually every one of us will have our own food type (like a blood type). Hence the photos throughout the Gourmet article of people’s name tags – they said things like Joe – I am pumpernickel negative (meaning he can’t stand to eat it); or Stephanie – I am broccoli positive (meaning she adores it, I suppose); and lastly Frank – I am truffle negative.

Food companies are scrambling to find additives (see, this is where I don’t like the sound of this) that might improve or block particular flavors. Guess who’s paying for the research? Nestle, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup. They want to know how to enhance the taste of sugar or salt in their packaged foods. For products that would trick the taste receptors into perceiving ingredients that aren’t there. Like sugar (expensive, and not so good for us) and salt (definitely not very good for us in the quantities most food processors use). And because the amount of this additive would be so small it could be listed on the label as “artificial flavors,” and the label wouldn’t tell you that it contains these bio-products. That part worries me a lot.

So how did the author do on the tomato juice taste test? He knew right away which one was the full-sodium V-8. The 2nd one with potassium chloride had a tinny, artificial taste, he thought (I agree, and I don’t buy it; I don’t buy V-8 either because of the high sodium). The other two, containing the bitter-flavor blocker, tasted more satisfying. The scientists can even figure out in the laboratory exactly how we’re going to like products containing these blockers. No taste tests needed – they do it all with test tubes and droplets of things.

The proponents of this (including many famous chefs like Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London) use chemistry and biology all the time in their chef-ing. At the London restaurant Blumenthal serves beet jelly and bacon and egg ice cream. He’s really into savory ice creams and sugar is a vital ingredient. So if the scientists have their way, the sugar would BE there, but they’d put in a sugar-blocker so we wouldn’t TASTE the sugar. Hocus-pocus, with chemistry. I’m just not convinced we should be doing this.

At the end of the article they included a short explanation about the human genome project:

Humans are 99.9% identical to one another – and to the archetype mapped and sequenced by the international Human Genome Projects (which had nothing to do with genetic engineering). The nucleus of each cell in our bodies (except mature red blood cells) contains the entire genome, and the genome’s DNA (composed of 3 billion chemical components) is arranged in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which in turn contain 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Genes only comprise about 2% of the genome; the rest serves other functions, including regulating the production of proteins, the molecules that perform most of the work of the cell. By isolating each taste receptor of the human genome, scientists can now begin to see how they react to every flavor known to humankind.

– – – – – – – – – –

And, I do happen to be peppermint negative. Almost makes me sick to my stomach. No red and white striped candy canes for me! Or mint chocolate ice cream either. And I’m mostly liver negative too – except duck liver (foix gras).

Recipes, from my archives, having nothing whatsoever to do with genomes or genes, or flavor-blockers:

A year ago today: Steak (beer marinated) with creamy peppercorn sauce
Two years ago today: Mace Cake

Posted in Essays, on March 12th, 2010.


You see, my DH, Dave, has this book that lives in “his” bathroom. We have two bathrooms on our main living level. The half bath is where lots of people visit . . . but the full bath is really for guests who stay in the bedroom close by. Dave considers that bathroom “his.” And in that bathroom lives this book, Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader (Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader).  It resides on the floor just next to the  . . . ahem . . . throne. It contains a jillion snippets of stories, articles, jokes, and general miscellaneous information, suitable for a short read. My cousin Gary gave a similar book to Dave one Christmas, and it finally was so tattered and used it needed to be replaced, so last year I bought him a newer one. Thus.

So my DH brought the book out to me, as I was sitting at my kitchen computer (which I’ll just mention here, is brand new about 3 months ago and it’s already crashed and died this week, so I’m currently typing on my mini-laptop that I usually take on trips). Anyway, I was writing up a post, and he said “do you want to know how eBay got started? It’s not what you think.” I said “sure.” It was interesting. Enough so that I thought I’d share it with you.

The general myth about eBay is that Pierre Omidyar (the genius who did start e-Bay) was talking with his then fiancée (now his wife) Pamela, who was a collector and trader of PEZ candy dispensers and she said something like “wouldn’t it be great if there was a place online where people could trade?”

The real story is somewhat different. Pierre Omidyar is French-Persian, and moved to the U.S. from Paris when he was six years old. His father was attending a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University. Young Omidyar, became positively enchanted with computers and programming. Having graduated from Tufts University in Boston with a degree in computer science, he moved to Santa Clara, California. He did work as a programmer for awhile, then he and some friends started Ink Development Corp, and pen-based computer company. But he veered the company off to an area he thought would be a hot item – internet shopping. And he came up with the name eShop. It was successful (mildly so, enough that Microsoft eventually bought it). Omidyar then decided he wanted to look into starting an internet auction site. He thought that bidding on an object would create more interest, some excitement too. You can look at a more graphic history of Omidyar (and eBay) on eBay’s website.

Over Labor Day weekend in 1995, he stayed home, holed up, and wrote the computer code for an auction-based website. On September 3rd, 1995 he launched it – as ugly, clunky and awkward as it was – merely adding it to an existing website he had already for his internet consulting business. The address of that site was the company’s name, Echo Bay Technology Group. Omidyar tried to register his new “business” as EchoBay, but it was already taken by a Canadian gold mining company, so he shortened it and eBay was born.

At this point eBay was just a hobby for Omidyar. He was still working full time at his day job – until his internet provider forced him to change from a private account to a commercial one because of the volume of traffic. His fees went from $30/month to $250/month. So, he decided to start charging users a small fee – thinking that he’d hear a backlash about it. Not so – checks began arriving. So many checks he had to hire an employee to handle all the payments. By March of 1996 Auction-Web’s monthly revenue was up to $1,000. April it was $2500. May $5000. June it leaped to $10,000. That’s when he quit his day job.

Next he hired a computer geek, Jeff Skoll, who happened to have a master’s degree in Business Administration from Stanford. What he did first was make this auction web thing a stand-alone site. Up until then it still shared a website for his consulting business, and a site about the Ebola virus (yes, really). Early on, Omidyar had done just a little bit of “advertising,” if you could call it that, by mentioning his auction website on some bulletin boards. So he added a bulletin board at eBay too. Some people began asking questions on the bulletin boards – about how to use eBay, mostly answered by other, more experienced users. Thus giving eBay it’s own (free) tech support. One of the early bulletin board gurus was a man who called himself “Uncle Griff.” A curious questioner once asked him what he looked like. He responded, “I’m wearing a lovely flower print dress and I just got done milking the cows,” which put Griff (Jim Griffiths by name) into eBay lore as their “cross-dressing bachelor dairy farmer who likes to answer questions.” Uncle Griff was so respected on the bulletin boards that finally Skoll hired him as their first tech support employee.

The company was so successful it went public in 1998 – eBay was worth $2 billion that day. By 1999 it was worth over $8 billion. And somewhere in there Meg Whitman (currently hoping to run for Governor in our state) held the CEO reins for some years. What made eBay a bit more unique is that they kept updating the model – adding the feedback feature (rating the sellers) in 1998; then adding PayPal in 2002.

Omidyar and his wife Pamela are worth more than $7 billion (maybe not so much now since this book was published – I haven’t gone to look up the stock’s worth) and they devote most of their time to Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organization that helps poor people around the world get into business. They’ve pledged to give away all but 1% of their fortune over the next 18 years. Omidyar says: “My mother taught me to treat other people the way I want to be treated and to have respect for other people. Those are just good basic values to have in a crowded world.”

Amen. This certain was a departure from my usual food stories, but I hope you enjoyed reading about this as much as I did . . . Carolyn T

Posted in Essays, wine, on March 3rd, 2010.

wine cellar racksThere’s another photo of our wine cellar – different angle. With a few empty wooden wine boxes on the lower shelves (they did contain wine, but we just keep them there for the looks). And if you have sharp eyes you’ll see on the left side a couple of little boxes of ScharffenBerger chocolate. I really need to bring those upstairs because they’ve likely oxidized down there in the wine cellar.

Back in my early wine-drinking heyday of the 1980’s I did drink Chardonnay. But I never really liked it – it’s too acidic for me. With the exception of one label – Kistler. That’s it. The only one, and a bottle of Kistler Chard today will set you back about $50. I think we have one bottle in our wine cellar, and it’s about 15 years old. We should be drinking it. Soon.

I also like Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Cloudy Bay (from New Zealand). And Fume Blanc from Ferrari-Carano. My DH keeps reminding me that I have a stash of Cloudy Bay (a very fresh, clean white wine from New Zealand) in the wine cellar that I need to drink.

Once in awhile we will enjoy a Riesling, as long as it’s not too sweet or acidic. Grey Riesling can be very dry, actually, so you can run the gamut of sweet to tart and low to high acid in that wine type. You can also have a sweeter Riesling that has a lot of acid. The kind that almost gives me sores on the inside of my mouth like I’ve overdosed on fresh pineapple (that happened to me once when we were in Hawaii – I had no idea that eating too much pineapple could cause mouth sores, did you? I mean, I didn’t eat THAT much!). Anyway, I seem to have a narrow spectrum of wines that appeal to me. My hubby calls me a cheap date these days. Most often when we go out I don’t even order wine.

But then there’s champagne. But I’m going to write up a separate essay about champagne, or sparkling wine .  . .

So now, down to the subject at hand. What do I use when I’m cooking:

WHITE WINE: If we happen to have some open, I’ll use that. But usually we don’t, because neither of us drink much white wine. So I go to other options. If I don’t have Vermouth available, then I’ll go hunting in the wine cellar for something – generally we have some generic kinds of white – maybe a bottle of Chardonnay (usually because somebody gave it to us since we don’t buy it). That works. Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc are both almost herbal wines – they’re made from grapes – that’s not what I mean – but when you stick your nose into the glass you’ll almost smell an herb garden. I won’t use Riesling in cooking – generally it’s too sweet, and since most Rieslings are on the acidic side (even though sweet) you can’t add lemon juice with that to make it so. Just don’t use Riesling in cooking. But here’s what I DO use:

DRY VERMOUTH: First of all, I keep a bottle of Vermouth quite close to my stove. It’s nothing very expensive – somewhere I was told that Trader Joe’s vermouth is actually quite good. The best thing about Vermouth is that even though you open the bottle, it doesn’t deteriorate – it stays the same forever. With a normal bottle of wine you’d have to drink it or use it within a fairly reasonable time. Most likely Vermouth has been stabilized with some neutral spirits so it doesn’t spoil. That’s why it has a long shelf life, even when it’s been opened.

SUBSTITUTIONS: If I had neither a generic white wine or vermouth, I’d use some chicken broth. Maybe with a little added fresh squeezed lemon juice. Or if the dish could handle it, I’d use half apple juice, half water with a little lemon juice. I store a container of frozen apple juice concentrate in the freezer just for things like that. I also keep small cans of pineapple juice in the pantry to use in marinades and things like that. The other option is VERJUS – (means green juice) an unfermented grape juice from under ripe grapes. A perfect solution, I think, although it’s a bit hard to find and not inexpensive. It contains NO alcohol. And it’s on the tart side (some cooks use it in lieu of vinegar), so be careful. Use less than the quantity called for in your recipe and taste it before adding more.

There are resources abounding around the internet on this subject:

Gourmet Sleuth Home Cooking – this site has an amazing list of substitutions for oodles of alcoholic beverages, including liqueurs.

Posted in Essays, wine, on February 26th, 2010.

wine cellar

The above is our wine cellar. It’s about 10 x 8, I’d guess, with room for the small table you see, although we’ve yet to sit down there except to catalog some wine (the room is below ground) and sip something because it’s too gosh-darned cold. We have a special refrigeration unit that keeps the wine cellar at a consistent 58. There’s also a little low cubbyhole off to the left (out of view) that can hold about another 8 cases of boxed wine. The cellar itself (with more shelving over on the left side) holds about 900 bottles. You can see that it’s nearly full. Everything you see above is red wine. White is over on the left side, and it’s only about half full since we drink so little white wine.

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