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Here are the tastingspoons players. I’m in the middle (Carolyn). Daughter Sara on the right, and daughter-in-law Karen on the left. I started the blog in 2007, as a way to share recipes with my family. Now in 2021, I’ll still participate, but the two daughters are going to do more posting from here on out – well, I hope that’s not wishful thinking. They both lead very busy lives, so we’ll see.

We participate in an amazon program that rewards a little tiny $ something (pennies, really) if you purchase any books recommended (below), or buy products occasionally mentioned on the blog with an amazon link. 

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BOOK READING (from Carolyn):

I wrote up a post about this book: Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York by Tom Roston. Go read the full write-up if you’re interested. The book is a complete history of the famous restaurant on the 107th floor of one of the Twin Towers. It tells a detailed chronology of its inception, and all the various  parts that had to come together every day, three meals a day, plus some, to make a mammoth food machine run. I have no background in the restaurant biz, but found the story very interesting. Would make a great gift.

Also recently finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. The book goes backwards and forwards in time, from the 1600s in London with the day-to-day lives of a group of Jews (who had to be very careful about how they worshiped) to current day as an old house is discovered to hold a treasure-trove of historical papers. The story is mostly about a young woman, educated, a Jew, who is the scribe (in secret) to an aging religious leader (in a time when women would have been verboten to hold such a position). And about her own curiosity about her religion and how she eventually begins writing letters (using a male pseudonym) to various Jewish leaders abroad, questioning their religious beliefs. The book is extraordinarily long – not that that kept me from turning a single page! – and complex with the cast of characters from the 1600s and the cast in today’s world of highly competitive experts analyzing the ancient papers. Altogether riveting book. Loved it from beginning to end.

I’m forever reading historical novels. The Lost Jewels: A Novel by Kirsty Manning is a mystery of sorts, going back in time in London in the time of aristocrats and their jewels (pearls, diamonds, gems of all kinds) sometimes made it into the hands of the digger or a maid. Then to current time as a young woman tries to ferret her family history and particularly about some old-old jewelry that they can’t quite figure out – how the grandmother came to have them. Fascinating tale.

Not for the faint of heart, Boat of Stone: A Novel by Maureen Earl tells the true tale of some misplaced Jews at the tale-end of WWII who ended up on Mauritius, held captive in a woe begotten prison. It’s about Jewish history, about relationships, and certainly a lot about the starvation and mistreatment (and many died there) of this boat load of people who never should have been sent there. So very sad, but it has bright and hopeful moments toward the end when many of them finally made it to Tel Aviv, their original destination.

Colleen Hoover has written quite a book, It Ends with Us: A Novel, with a love story being the central theme, but again, this book is not for everyone – it can be an awakening for any reader not acquainted with domestic violence and how such injury can emerge as innocent (sort of) but then become something else. There is graphic detail here (was it really necessary? not sure of the answer) so if you don’t like that sort of thing, you might want to pass on this – or else skip by those details when you read it. Women have been victims in so many ways for so many centuries, and it’s hard to read that it’s still a common thing in today’s society.

Barbara Delinsky writes current day fiction. Coast Road is really sweet story. Jack (ex-husband) is called away from his career to care for his two daughters when his ex (Rachel) has an accident and is in a coma. Over the course of weeks, he spends time with his daughters (he was an occasional dad). He also spends a lot of time at his ex’s bedside, getting to know her friends. Through them he learns what went wrong in their marriage. I don’t want to spoil the story. I liked it a lot.

Christina Baker Kline has written quite a story about Tasmania. You may, or may not, remember that my DH and I visited Tasmania about 10 years ago (loved it) and having read a lot about Botany Bay and the thousands of criminal exiles from Britain who were shipped there as slave labor in the 1800s. This book tells a different story. The Exiles: A Novel. This one mostly from a few women who were sentenced to Tasmania. There is plenty of cruelty on several fronts, but there is also kindness and salvation for some. Really good read.

Erin Bartels wrote quite a complex story in The Words between Us: A Novel. We go alongside a young girl as she goes to high school, trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to be anonymous (because her mother and father are both in prison), taking on a fake name. She meets a guy and they share a bond of reading and some romance. Years go by and she’s now owner of a failing independent bookstore (and married, or separated) and suddenly begins receiving a used book (that she recognizes) every day from a different place in the country. A message for sure, but where will it lead? Yes, it’s a romance. Lots of introspection going on. Enjoyed it.

Marion Kummerow wrote an amazing WWII novel. Not Without My Sister. If you don’t like concentration camp stories, pass on this one, but it’s very riveting, much of it at Bergen-Belsen. Two sisters (17 and 4) are separated at the camp. The story switches back and forth between the two sisters’ situations, and yes, the horror of the camp(s), the starvation, the cruelty. But, even though I’m giving away the ending . . . they do get back together again. The story is all about the in between times. Excellent book.

Nicolas Barreau’s novel Love Letters from Montmartre: A Novel  is very poignant, very sweet book. Seems like I’ve read several books lately about grieving; this one has a charming ending, but as anyone who has gone through a grave loss of someone dear knows, you can’t predict day to day, week to week. “Snap out of it,” people say, thinking they’re helping. This book is about a young man, who is a young father also, loses his beloved wife. He’s barely functioning, trying to get through a day, taking care of his young son. And visiting the cemetery (the one in Montmartre, Paris). There are several peripheral characters (his son, a neighbor and best friend of his departed wife, a good fellow friend too, plus a young woman he befriends at the cemetery). Before his wife’s death she asks him to write 33 letters to her after she’s gone, and to put them in a special box hidden in the cemetery monument. And that begins the story.

Another very quirky book, that happens to contain a lot of historical truth is The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World: A Novel by Harry N. Abrams. Set in Japan just after the tsunami 10 years ago when 18,000 people died. At a private park miles away, some very special people installed a phone booth, with a phone (that didn’t work) at the edge of the park, and the survivors of the tsunami began wending their way there to “talk” to their deceased loved ones. Very poignant story.

As you’ve read here many times, I marvel at authors who come up with unusual premises for their books. This one Meet Me in Monaco: A Novel of Grace Kelly’s Royal Wedding. And yes, it IS somewhat about Grace Kelly’s wedding, but most of the novel is about a young woman perfume designer, Sophie, who accidentally rescues Grace Kelly from the relentless photographers who hound her every move.

No question, the most quirky book I’ve read of late, a recommendation from my friend Karen, West with Giraffes: A Novel by Lynda Rutledge. Back in the 1930s a small group of giraffes were brought across the Atlantic from Africa to New York, destined for the then-growing San Diego Zoo. The story is of their journey across the United States in the care of two oh-so-different people, both with a mission.

Also a kind of quirky book by Beth Miller, The Missing Letters of Mrs. Bright. Picture a middle-aged woman, slogging through life with a not-very-attentive husband, grown children, and one day she decides to leave. Completely. Packs up and leaves.

Katherine Center’s book, Things You Save in a Fire: A Novel is certainly vivid. There aren’t very many women firefighters out there in the world – this is about one.

Riveting story of post-WWII- Japan in Ana Johns novel, The Woman in the White Kimono: A Novel. About a young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American serviceman.

Also read Rishi Reddi’s novel, Passage West: A Novel with a very different take on the migration of Indians (East India) to the California agricultural lands east of San Diego during the 1920s and 30s.

Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but the Mary Morris book, A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime tells the true day to day life of a young Irish girl who becomes a nurse, in England, France and Belgium in the midst of WWII and immediately after the war.

Could hardly put down Krueger’s book, This Tender Land: A Novel. Tells the harrowing story of a young boy, Odie, (and his brother Albert) who became orphans back in the 30s. At first there is a boarding school, part of an Indian (Native American) agreement, though they are not Indian. They escape, and they are “on the run.”

Just finished Kristin Hannah’s latest book, The Four Winds: A Novel. What a story. One I’ve never read about, although I certainly have heard about the “dust bowl” years when there was a steady migration of down-and-out farmers from the Midwest, to California, for what they hoped to be the American Dream. It tells the story of one particular family, the Martinellis, the grandparents, their son, his wife, and their two children.

Brit Bennett has written quite a book, The Vanishing Half: A Novel. It’s a novel, yet I’m sure there are such real-life situations. Twin girls are born to a young black woman in the South. Into a town (that probably doesn’t exist) that prides itself on being light-skinned blacks.

What a book. The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel by Marie Benedict. A novelized biography of Hedy Lamarr, the famous actress.  Very much worth reading.

Also read The Secret of the Chateau: Gripping and heartbreaking historical fiction with a mystery at its heart by Kathleen McGurl. There are two stories here. The historical part is just prior to and up to the French Revolution, and the second in current day as a group of friends purchase a crumbling chateau. Very interesting. I love historical novels like this, and this one in particular does have quite a mystery involved, too.

Also finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s recent book, The Book of Longings: A Novel. It is a book that might challenge some Christian readers, as it tells the tale of Jesus marrying a woman named Mary. I loved the book from the first word to the last one. The book is believable to me, even though the Bible never says one way or the other that Jesus ever married. It’s been presumed he never did. But maybe he did?

Jeanine Cummins has written an eye-opener, American Dirt. A must read. Oh my goodness. I will never, ever, ever look at Mexican (and further southern) migrants, particularly those who are victims of the vicious cartels, without sympathy. It tells the story of a woman and her young son, who were lucky enough to hide when the cartel murdered every member of her family – her husband, her mother, and many others. It’s about her journey and escape to America.

Also read JoJo Moyes’ book, The Giver of Stars. Oh gosh, what a GREAT book. Alice joins the Horseback Librarians in the rural south.

Frances Liardet has written a blockbuster tale, We Must Be Brave. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Although the scene is WWII England, this book is not really about the war. It’s about the people at home, waiting it out, struggling with enough food, clothing and enough heat.

William Kent Krueger wrote Ordinary Grace. From amazon: a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God. It’s a coming of age story.

Follow the River: A Novel by James Alexander Thom. This one is also based on the history of a woman (married, pregnant) who was captured by the Shawnee, during the early settlement days east of the Ohio River, about 1755. And her eventual escape.

A Column of Fire: A Novel by Ken Follett. It takes place in the 1500s, in England, and has everything to do with the war between the Catholics and the Protestants, that raged throughout Europe during that time, culminating in the Spanish Inquisition.

My Name Is Resolute by Nancy Turner. She’s the author of another book of some renown, These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 (P.S.). Resolute is what I’m discussing here. It’s fiction, but based some on a true story. Resolute, as a young girl from a privileged life on a plantation in Jamaica, was taken captive by slavers, eventually ended up in Colonial America.

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. This is a memoir, so a true story, of a young man growing up in the Lake District of Northern England, who becomes a shepherd. Not just any-old shepherd – actually a well educated one. He knows how to weave a story.

 

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 September 15th, 2021.

A post from Carolyn. I don’t know about you, but over this last week, reliving the events of 9/11 have been heartwrenching. Will we ever un-see the devastation of those planes plunging into the Twin Towers? I doubt it. I remember being riveted to the TV that day back in 2001, wanting to know more and feeling further wrenched when we did, with the tumbling-down of both buildings. Knowing about all the people stuck on those upper floors. Seeing firefighters entering both buildings, seeing people streaming out, some covered in muck. On Sept. 12th (last week) I watched a documentary about it all, and found myself sobbing as I again felt the surreal impact of those planes as I watched TV. I cried and cried.

For a long, long time after 9/11 I couldn’t read a book about it. It was too painful. But I kept up with whatever news came about, but I couldn’t bring myself to read a book, and there were many. I was so proud of our country and the coming together we did as a nation. And here it is, 20 years later, and as I perused a table at my local library, there was a book about Windows on the World – the restaurant. I picked it up – I think I was the first person to check out the book.

This book, The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York isn’t just about what happened on 9/11 (in fact, only 10-15 pages of it, at the end, explains much about the people who were already at work that tragic morning and ended up stuck on the 106th and 107th floors) but the book is about the entire life-history of the restaurant itself. And the people who ran it and worked there.

It is about its inception, how the name came about, who designed it, the architecture of the building itself, to the architecture/design within the many restaurants in the Twin Towers, all operating under the same umbrella. Even down to the little things like the silverware and dishes. About the hundreds of people who worked there, from the chefs, sous-chefs, captains, waiters, busboys, delivery folk, the wine guy, and a lot about Joe Baum, the guy who conceived the restaurant and brought it into being with long and detailed negotiations with the Port Authority who actually financed and owned the buildings. James Beard played a major consulting role at Windows, did you know that? Imagine the procuring of all the food, and how it was stored. And it’s about the electric ranges (yes, electric – that was quite interesting – the Port Authority felt pumping gas up 107 floors was too dangerous and they were probably right), and about the charcoal grill that was allowed. About the menus, and the various food tastings that took place over the many decades. About the food reviews from various newspapers, the ups and downs of relationships – who was in charge, who gave the orders, and the various in-fighting that occurred.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so have no first-hand knowledge of the hierarchy of a restaurant other than what I’ve picked up by reading Anthony Bourdain (gee, I miss that TV show of his too) and from watching the Food Network. Even if you come from a restaurant background, I expect this Windows book would be delightful reading. I always wanted to eat at Windows but never did. Not sure why – just never got around to it. (Of course, living in California had something to do with that!).

The writer of the book, Tom Roston, did a masterful job of bringing all the disparate parts of the story together, with enough personal-interest stories about the people, to make you want to keep reading. I think this book would make a great gift if you have someone in your family in the restaurant business. Or read it yourself if you have interest in Windows. Maybe you did eat there and have good memories of it. Well worth reading. I devoured it. There are no recipes in the book, just so you know, although there were mentions of a famous Venice Wine Cake (a well kept secret by Rozanne Gold, and never on a Windows’ menu) and a variety of comfort foods like Irish Stew, and plenty of international foods that lived a long or short life on the Windows’ menus. Also an interesting story about Blue Trout. All very interesting.

Posted in Books, on January 15th, 2019.

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Oh my goodness. Where does one begin explaining this book. It’s positively mesmerizing. I could hardly put it down. I wanted to snatch up my Kindle at all hours or day and evening to find out what was going to happen next. My favorite kind of read.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a treasure. Not only the story itself – about a girl (very young) who is basically abandoned by her mother first, then a couple of  years later by her drunken and abusive father, yet she survives by herself, living on the edge of civilization (in the hinter marshland in North Carolina near the ocean), yet only a mile or so from a small town. In a primitive shack. But that’s not really the story. From the time Kya was a child she was interested in the wildlife in the marshy lands near her home. She became one with nature – the birds would mingle like one with her. She collected things, she observed the birds, lizards and insects in how they lived, mated, died. She collected shells and weeds and flowers. And she learned to harvest some food. And sell mollusks to buy more food to survive. She didn’t go to school.

Oh, but I’m giving away the story, and I can’t do that. You just have to read this book. The author is a naturalist/scientist by profession and has written other books, like Cry of the Kalahari. Many years of Owens’ life she and her husband lived in Africa, as scientists, studying the desert. I have that book on my Kindle and haven’t ever read it. I bought it to read while I was on safari some years ago, and never got around to it. Shame on me! I will now.

The author has a way with words – they’re lyrical – they’re poetic – they’re haunting. I highlighted many paragraphs on my Kindle to go back and read again later. Such beautiful writing. If you enjoy that kind of read, you’ll be doubly happy reading this book.

It’s difficult to categorize this book – probably 60% of it is about Kya’s growing up, her coming of age, and she does make a couple of friends. I can’t tell you more. There is a murder mystery involved, but this book is nothing like a common mystery novel. There’s also some poetry intermingled in the text. I must thank my reader Peg K for recommending this book to me. Thank you so much, Peg, for the suggestion. This has leaped up in my own list of favorites. I almost want to buy the hardcover just so I have it in my book collection. The book was published in 2018, so it’s still pricey in any form if you purchase it. Maybe you can find it at the library. Put it on your amazon wish list. But you’ve got to read it. Reese Witherspoon is going to produce a movie – I can’t wait.

Posted in Books, on November 12th, 2018.

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In case you might be thinking about a book to give to someone in your life who is a book lover, THIS is the book for you! Or for her/him.

The Library Book – I bought my copy at Costco, but so I hear, it’s mostly sold out already. I’m glad I have the hard copy. It’s a book I want in my personal collection.

Back in 1986, the main library in downtown Los Angeles nearly burned to the ground. It was a catastrophic event. As thousands of books burned, microfiche files, precious collections, people from all over were affected. The day after the fire, with smoke still eddying from here and there, hundreds of people (not experts, not fire authority employees, just ordinary people who wanted to help) came to the library and with thousands of books at peril from smoke or water damage (mold) people lined up and thousands of books were packed into boxes and carted to places all over the city. Some into restaurant refrigerators or purveyor’s walk-ins (to keep mold from forming) and others just to have a place to keep them until the city could figure out what to do.Image result for los angeles public library fire I smiled at the thought of boxes of books sharing the shelves with leeks and tomatoes, saffron and cream.

Susan Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) has written an amazing book about the library fire. From nearly the first page I was taken in with Orlean’s lyrical writing, her adept use of words and phrases, conjuring up the devastation, the fire itself, and the aftermath. And the mind of the man who allegedly started the fire, Harry Peak. Never convicted of the crime, even his mostly wasted life is explored in this book.

Image result for los angeles public libraryYou might think, what could I possibly learn from reading a book about a fire? But this was no ordinary fire since tens of thousands of books burned, countless thousands more suffered severe damage from the smoke and/or water. You’ll learn all about how fire works – the physics of fire and what it can do it an old-old building like the library. And you’ll learn about all of the various one-of-a-kind collections the library had. Many now gone.

You’ll learn about the employees, who all survived the fire. The library had periodic fire false alarms –  everyone went outside until the fire department came to explain about yet another false alarm. But this time it was for real, and the heartbreak was palpable as everyone watched the library go up in fire, smoke and water.

Many years ago I was privileged to take a tour of the Los Angeles Central Library – after it was rebuilt. It’s very impressive. As is this book.

Posted in Books, on September 30th, 2017.

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If you’re not a reader, you may want to skip on over this post, as it’s all about a book. A marvelous book. However, If you aren’t a reader, but know someone who IS a reader of literature, then buy the book as a gift.

Pat Conroy was not exactly a prolific writer – he wrote a number of books, but they took him years to complete as he threw so much of himself into all of his writing. There was always travail and angst with each one. Sadly, Pat Conroy died in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. His wife collected a bunch of his writings, speeches, articles, etc. and published a book posthumously, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life I’ve ordered that one, but haven’t read it.

To understand Pat Conroy means a journey through a very tumultuous military brat childhood being abused both emotionally and physically by his tyrannical father, a Marine fighter pilot. His mother and most of his siblings received the same. He wrote a novel about his upbringing, about his father –The Great Santini: A Novel – which angered legions of people in his life, including his family, because up to that point they’d all been stoically silent about the father’s abuse. To understand Pat Conroy means watching how he elevated himself out of the miasma of his childhood, not always successfully. He suffered from depression. He had a hard time writing sometimes, though he was gifted from the get-go. Teachers took him under their wings, mentors mentored him. He was married three times, and he suffered terribly from the breakup of the first two.

I don’t remember which of his books I read first. It might have been Beach Music: A Novel. Then I read several of his other books. I even owned his cookbook, The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life, but I think I discarded it in my last iteration of giving away books (one of about 400 last year). His cookbook was fun to read, but I found that the Southern cooking style he used was too heavy and fat-laden for me to experience much in my own kitchen. But his novels. Oh my goodness. What treasures they are.

And this book, My Reading Life, is a treasure beyond compare. What Conroy did in this book was tell stories about the people in his life who influenced his reading. It began with his mother, who never got to go to college, but she was a reader and instilled it in her children. One of Conroy’s sisters is a poet and poetry looms large in this book too (sadly, I’ve never been much of a fan of poetry except for Billy Collins).  And it included early teachers, then later on men and women who came into his life and recommended books. As an example, he said that the first page of Look Homeward, Angel was the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. That got my attention and I’m going to look for a used copy of that book soon. The Russians also captured his attention – War and Peace (Vintage Classics) was a particular favorite of his because of the writing style. He read that book over and over during his life, gleaning gems to help him in his own writing (as have countless other authors). Conroy was a master story-teller. About his family and even his closest friends. I laughed out loud so many times as I read this book. I attached little plastic flags in many places so I can go back and re-read them. One was about a praying mantis he observed and his mother’s very clever one liner. Oh so very funny. Then about the Japanese man, Mr. Hara, who’d had his passport stolen (this was in Paris while Conroy was trying to finish one of his books) whose English was “velly bad.” I roared reading that one. And about a librarian in a Beaufort elementary school who was not a mentor (Conroy escaped into the library at lunchtime because he knew no one and wanted to hide – – and yes, he wanted to read). He got the last laugh with her too once he became a teacher at that school.

I just can’t recommend enough that everyone who enjoys reading, should read this book. I must thank my friend, Jean P, who recommended we read this book in one of my 3 book clubs. I’m so sad that cancer has stilled Conroy’s voice forever.

Posted in Books, on July 11th, 2016.

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You can always check on my most recent book reading on the left sidebar of my blog. I usually keep about the last 3-4, maybe 5 books I’ve read with a short blurb about it. Once they’re gone from that place, the list is gone – I don’t keep a running log of the books I read. I should have started that years ago, but I didn’t, and somehow, at my age, I’m not about to start now. I update the sidebar every month or so.

Having just read The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo, I thought I’d actually write a post about it. One of my book clubs read the book, and we were meeting at one of our members’ homes. Peggy and her husband (along with their son) own a great little eclectic coffee store and small vegetarian restaurant (combined) in Orange, near where I leave. It’s called Mead’s Green Door. And within the same building is a cute, little fancy cake establishment, called Creative Cakes.

Product DetailsI think I heard that Peggy and Gary (her husband) bought Creative Cakes recently – as if they need more things to do. Oh my goodness. But what was fun, was that Peggy had an adorable cake at our book club meeting, all about this book. Peggy is a superb baker, so I’m not sure if she made the cake, of if she had the employees at Creative Cakes make it – it was SO delicious.

Isn’t it cute, though? Notice that the color scheme on the cake comes from the book’s cover. We hated to cut into that cake it was so adorable!

Anyway, the book . . . it’s about Cuba and weaves an intricate tale spanning a lifetime of the woman pictured. She lived during very tumultuous times in Cuba, including the Spanish revolution in the early 1900s. Her life was hard. Very hard. Certainly, this book is about relationships (what novel isn’t?). She has a loving, but troubled one, with her mother. She found love, but it was a somewhat taboo relationship – he was a rebel and he was black. Not common, most likely, in Cuba at that time. From Amazon, it says: “Maria Sirena tells stories. She does it for money—she was a favorite in the cigar factory where she worked as a lettora—and for love, spinning distant_marvels_cake_topgossamer tales out of her own past for the benefit of friends, neighbors, and family.” A lettora was a “reader” or a storyteller, and although she began reading from books to the workers in the cigar factory, she eventually began telling the story of her life over the course of time. And in the book, decades later, living alone in one of Cuba’s coastal villages, a hurricane is headed toward them. Maria is old, and really doesn’t want to go to a safe house to weather the hurricane, but she’s swept there anyway by officials, despite her protests, to spend many days in an old, abandoned, but sturdy palace near her home. And it’s here that the myriad women housed there during the hurricane and its aftermath, begin telling stories of their lives. And Maria tells hers. And quite a story it is. Chapters go back in time as she re-lives the many escapades of her youth. And finally unburdens her own soul in the telling.

It was a wonderful book – you feel great compassion for Maria Sirena (from the older woman’s voice, you learn that she’s ill and likely dying, but that’s only a tiny backdrop), the struggles she had, the great love she experienced. Worth reading for sure.

Posted in Books, on May 8th, 2016.

Visiting the library some weeks ago (getting books on tape to play in the car while I took a 5-day road trip to Northern California to visit family) I decided to look at new books on the shelves. And here was this book with an unusual title, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge by Becky Libourel Diamond. She’s a journalist and food historian.

On Saturday evening, the 19th instant [1851] thirty gentlemen sat down to a dinner at J. W. Parkinson’s, South Eighth St. below Chestnut [Philadelphia], which for magnificence outvied anything ever seen in the United States. . . . Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 1851.

Perhaps the richest, most elegant, elaborate and poetical entertainment ever gotten up in this country, was achieved in this city last week by the accomplished confectioner and caterer, James W. Parkinson. . . . American Courier, April, 1851.

At 6:00 am, the morning of April 20th, the satiated group of men finally decamped. It had been an extraordinary evening, with 17 courses served. [I can’t imagine sitting down for an all-night eating of that many courses.] It had come about as a bet, a wager, that no Philadelphians could possible prepare as sumptuous a meal as New Yorkers (the guests were half from each city).

1 – OYSTERS – Raw,  on the half shell – Nearly every first class dinner back then started with oysters, and the Philadelphia area was loaded with oyster reefs. They would have been served with bottles of sweet Sauternes. Since the early to mid-1900s, as many of you know, the oyster business disappeared. So very sad. My DH’s (dear husband’s) family was from Bivalve, New Jersey, (also Mauricetown, pronounced like morris-town) which was one of the hubs of the oyster business back in the day (20s, 30s and 40s). In the 1950s the oyster population developed a deadly parasite called MSX, which wiped out nearly all the oyster business in the Delaware Bay.

2 – SOUPS – Green Turtle and Potage a la Reine [a type of French chicken soup] – The book goes into much detail about the purveyors of turtles (mostly the Caribbean) and in what high demand they were. Over-fishing also nearly ended turtle soup as a delicacy except perhaps IN the Caribbean. Some restaurants in Philadelphia still offer turtle soup made from a local snapping turtle harvested on Pennsylvania shores. The turtle soup was usually served with sherry or Madeira; Parkinson apparently served both soups with Cognac.

3 – FISH – Fresh Salmon with Lobster Sauce and Baked Rock [a striped bass], a la Chambord – the salmon came from Maine. The bass was caught by privately hired anglers who were sent to Virginia the day before and rushed the fish back to the restaurant; it was stuffed with forcemeat, larded with bacon, braised in white wine and seasoning, finished off with decorative skewers of fish quenelles and cooked crawfish, then served with a rich Chambord and Espagnole sauce. Apparently James Beard described this recipe as one of the most elaborate dishes in all of cookery. This course was served with a Riesling from the area of Steinberg, Germany (founded by Cistercian monks mostly).

4 – BOILED – Turkey, Celery and Oyster Sauce; Chicken and Egg Sauce; and Beef Tongues – Much of this chapter of information was about the early-times methods of cooking meat (boiling), even tracing back to the Pilgrims. This course was served with Champagne, Haut Brion and Cote Roti.

5 – COLD DISHES – [this one’s a lot to read . . .] Galantine de Dinde a la Gelee; Jambon Decore; Salade a la Russe en bordure de Gelee; aspic huitres; Boeuf a la Mode; Mayonnaise of Lobster, Salad de Volaille, a la Mode Anglaise; Aspic de Volaille aux Truffles. What all that most likely says is: tenderloin of beef garnished with vegetables, boned turkey and capon, ham stuffed with pistachios and truffles, aspics, pates and terrines of all kinds, foie gras, smoked tongue well glazed and dressed in pyramid form, chicken mayonnaise, ducks’ livers a la Toulouse, young rabbit a la mode, and salad a la russe. Everything was sculpted and presented in high form (mostly prepared by the young chefs), and prepared some in advance. All these were served with an Amontillado (pale sherry) from Spain.

6 – ENTRÉE #1 – Filet of Beef with Mushrooms; Vol-au-vent; Veal with Tomato Sauce, Lamb Cutlets; and Chicken Croquettes – Although it was designated as an entrée, meals back then weren’t what we’d would call an entrée (the main course) but a side dish, really. And they probably weren’t served with anything else – maybe just a bite of two of each with its own sauce or gravy.

7 – ENTRÉE #2 – Braised Pigeon with Madeira Sauce; Lamb Chops Milanaise; Chicken; Turtle Steak, Chicken Fricasee; and Calipash, a presentation of turtle hearts and livers – most often all the entrees served all together, but Parkinson veered off course here. Wines served with both of these entrée courses was champagne by Moet.

8 – ROAST – Spring Chicken on Toast, Spring Lamb with Mint Sauce – it seems that all the food up to this point was leading up to THIS, the most important course of all, the roast! The meat was likely roasted on a spit. Wine served here was a Moselle from Scharzberg, Koblenz.

9 – PIECES MONTEES and VEGETABLES – [elaborate sugar sculptures served alongside garden vegetables] – seems very odd to our modern sensibilities, but it was all high art of the time

10 – COUP DU MILIEU – Sorbets – made from nothing less than Hungarian Tokaji wine. It was a sorbet never eaten before, Parkinson’s idea, and was noted as quite magical by the diners.

11 – GAME – Jack Snipe; teal duck, woodcock, plover, rice birds, celery hearts and Saratoga potatoes – all the small game birds were done on an early version of a rotisserie, and they’d have been studded with lard. This course was served with a pale rose wine.

12 – DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN – the terrapin was a common enough turtle found in brackish waters along the Eastern Shore. They were also called “bay tortoise.” It was probably a sort of stew with a creamy sauce. And it was served with roasted potatoes. This course was again, served with Amontillado sherry from Spain.

13 – PASTRY – Puddings, Pies, Meringues, Cakes, Creams and Cookies – too many to name here. Parkinson was quite fond of both lemon pudding and coconut pudding, both served at this meal. There are pages and pages in this chapter about the style of preparing and serving all kinds of special sweet treats from that era. The sweets were served with old, mellow sherry, Madeira and Port.

14 – CONFECTIONERY – Mint Drops, Raspberry Balls, Chinese Almonds, Nougat, Cream Candy, Burnt Almonds, Port Wine Drops, Sugar-Coated Celery Seed and Brandy Drops – all things to showcase Parkinson’s skill in the kitchen.

15 – ICE CREAMS AND WATER ICES – Biscuits Glace, Caramel, Harlequin, Lemon, Buttercream, Vanilla, Strawberry, Orange Water Ice, Champagne Frapee – all innovative items (so the book says) from Parkinson’s kitchen. He was most definitely ahead of his time

16 – FRUITS AND NUTS – Apples, Figs, Walnuts, Pecans, Orange, Raisins, Almonds and Filberts – some of the explanation in this chapter is about the etiquette of eating fresh fruit at the table. Kind of hilarious, really. The wines served here were Rhenish Marcobrunn and a Medoc (highly tannic).

17 – CAFÉ NOIR – Black Coffee, Maraschino and Curacao (liqueurs) – back in this time, in a fine restaurant, only really strong, robust coffee was served using a French Press (still a highly prized method – I had some that way just last week). It was thought that a strong cup of coffee at the end of a meal enhanced digestion.

When it was all said and done, the diners smoked cigars, probably groaning, and were eventually escorted to their carriages and off to their homes or to a local hotel to sleep off the calories. Oh my.

A really interesting book – each of the courses comprised a chapter in the book, and each chapter is about 5-12 pages long, depending on the complexity of it. You learn history, the how and wherefores of acquiring such food then and now, and about the presentation itself. Astounding meal for sure!

Posted in Books, on July 14th, 2015.

lusitania_image

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 has held a traumatic place in history. It was a relatively newly built passenger liner and despite direct threats from the Germans that they could/would sink any military or merchant vessel, the Cunard line felt that cruise ships would be left alone and not bothered by the warring nations. Pipe dream, that.

Probably I’d never have read this book if it hadn’t been chosen by one of my book clubs. But that’s one of the joys of belonging to a book club with people of varied interests – you’re asked to read books that you might not ordinarily choose.

Erik Larson is the very well-respected author of several books, most notably The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. What Larson does is collect the facts, copious amounts of them, and cull them down to write a very engaging story – the truth – about what really happened. Many information archives (both British and German) are now available for public perusal, and that in itself makes for very interesting reading, dead_wake_book_imagetelling the true minute by minute action that occurred that fateful day off the Ireland coast when 1,198 people were drowned in the very rapid sinking of this flagship of the Cunard line. And the weeks leading up to the sinking. Many people survived, and its from them that even more information is known about exactly what happened on different decks or sides of the ship. About who acted well, and who didn’t. The Captain of the ship was presumed drowned, as he stayed with the ship until the ship sunk below the surface. He never expected to live, and only came to hours later. His career was marred because no one stood up for him, to share that he had no knowledge. It wasn’t his fault. Cunard had instructed the ship to reduce speed to save fuel (when speed could have saved them, yet the Captain did as he was instructed). No one told him to go north to avoid detection. A big snafu from everyone around.

Reading such a book now, with the kind of technology we have from radar and sonar, and satellite, makes this book and the lack of knowledge for both the ship and the U-Boat amazing reading. I was riveted to the chronology, the messages (or lack thereof) between the Admiralty, the Cunard line to its Captain and the secret department in the British military who were deciphering coded messages from the U-Boats. Yet the information was never shared with the merchant ship for fear of disclosing the fact that the Brits knew of their intent. It could have changed the course of the war had they known. The woman who reviewed the book for us made a really interesting comparison about the sinking of the Titanic vs. the sinking of the Lusitania. So different in every aspect. Made for very interesting contemplation.

The book is on the best seller list, and rightly so. It’s a really good read, though the part detailing the passengers who drowned, fell overboard or had any variety of accidents in trying to save themselves was heartbreaking to read. If you buy this, be sure to scan through the last 40-50 pages of footnotes – they make fascinating reading all by themselves. It tells you, again, how thorough Larson was in researching the material.

Posted in Books, on March 12th, 2015.

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About a  year ago I wrote up something about a book – one I’d read that I just loved. One that a friend had recommended to me and since I’ve trusted her suggestions in the past, I bought a used copy and and fell in love with it in the first chapter. That book was written by Nevil Shute – Trustee from the Toolroom. Of all the books I’ve read in the last several years, it was/is a standout. The book is hard to get – the books are almost collector’s items – Shute’s books are no longer in print, so hardbacks are a bit on the precious side. Libraries have them, though, and most, if not all, are available on Kindle. Nevil Shute died in 1960, unfortunately. I never wrote up a post about that book; it just appeared on my left sidebar after I read it, and I raved about it.

Recently, though, I was reviewing my notes on to-read-books (my list is incredibly long, and I keep a running litany on Evernote, on my iPhone) I was reminded of this book on my master list. This one is also by Nevil Shute. Several people told me it was very good. A Town Like Alice (Vintage International) is a walk down a history road, partly in Malaya, and partly in Australia. Shute was an Aussie, and the country or its people populated many of his books. I haven’t researched this, but my understanding is that really the events happened in Sumatra, but Shute decided for some reason to re-write it for Malaya. It doesn’t really make any difference, because it’s about the Japanese invasion anyway.

What I’ve learned is that I really like Nevil Shute’s writing. It’s easy reading. It’s very descriptive, and you get a real sense of place as  you read his books. He also does magnificent character studies. And he keeps you wondering where the story is going next. That was particularly the case with the Toolroom book, which was almost a mystery in a way, but not like today’s mysteries. This book isn’t a mystery, either. It’s really a love story, but you don’t discover it’s a love story until you’re nearly half way through the book. It’s not sappy, or pulp fiction. It’s literature.

The heroine is a feisty young English woman who has a very interesting youth, partly living in Malaya. The story is told from the voice of her attorney. A bit of a fusty older, single Londoner, you sense his wistfulness of what might have been had he been younger. But the story is really about the woman . . you learn about her parents and her brother. Suffice to say that she’s in Malaya (now Malaysia, I assume, although I’ve not consulted a map) when the Japanese invade and she’s taken prisoner. I’ll say no more about that, except that she meets a young Aussie man during this time period and never forgets him. His story is deep, poignant and excruciating.

Without giving away the plot, I’ll not give you any additional info, except that this book is such a good one. The “Alice” refers to Alice Springs in central outback Australia (I’ve been there). When I suggest you’ll feel a sense of place,  you truly will understand the Aussie outback a whole lot better when you’ve read this book. It’s a real winner. You’ll feel the same way about the Malaya jungle too. And you’ll be led along a very interesting story line that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

Posted in Books, on February 28th, 2015.

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9781250007810.jpgOnly once in awhile do I write an actual blog post about a book – when a book is particularly worthy. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you already know that my reading list is on the left sidebar of my home page. That’s where I write up blurbs of what I’m currently reading, or have just finished reading – about the last 2-4 of them.

For now I don’t own any animals, but for most of my life I’ve had a dog. You can be a dog or a cat lover and not be enamored with the entire animal kingdom, I guess, but I’m a sucker for a good animal story. And oh yes, this one is wonderful. True story. I watch Nature on PBS. On occasion I’ll just turn on Animal Planet and leave it on.

Well, anyway, a couple of friends recommended this book, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild , by Lawrence Anthony, and I’m so glad they did. Just now, as I’ve been finding these two photos did I realize that Anthony died in 2012. Much too young (age 61, heart attack).

Anthony devoted his entire adult life to the conservation of the African animal kingdom. He was a native to South Africa. A very gentle man, he always preferred to let the wild animals be wild, to do their predatory thing, because that’s what animals do in the wild. Thula Thula is the gigantic game reserve (preserve) he founded in Zululand (that’s in South Africa) many years ago. It took him decades to introduce the animals back into the area as they’d been hunted to extinction in that part of South Africa.

His story about this elephant herd began when he received a frantic phone call asking him to “take” a herd of wild elephant from another reserve, that were “difficult.” He did, and the book documents the extremely dangerous process of even transporting elephants across many hundreds of miles, and acclimating them to this new area. It’s a fascinating story. Every page.

In the photo above (the book cover) I’m assuming the photo is of Nana, the matriarch of the herd, and the astounding friendship he had with her and the herd. Understand, this herd was never tamed, they were strictly wild elephant, and subject to their own trials and tribulations, but Nana and a couple of the other elephants became his friends. He was extremely cautious around them and only rarely did he allow or did they approach him without an electric fence between them, but often Nana would put her trunk over the top of the wire and smell and fondle his face and chest – a sign of friendship. He didn’t exactly “whisper” with them (as the title says), but he talked to them, called to them (and they would usually come), calmed them (normally his voice would immediately relax the herd). With a huge 5,000 square mile preserve, he had to go to find them first, then he’d stop the Land Rover and call to them. Only on a rare occasion would he be out on the open ground (as the book cover shows) without the protection of the sturdy Land Rover (it probably was just to the left of him). He and his wife built a safari lodge on the reserve, and that helps keep the reserve in operation. Some of the story is also about the verbal battle(s) between the native people who think that any wild animals can be hunted for meat, and the poachers who still encroach and kill for the tusks or even the thrill of the kill. Gradually, though, with friendships between the conservationists and the native tribal chiefs, they’ve carved out a huge chunk of land that now comprises a bigger area for all kinds of wildlife.

Anthony wrote several books – one about the saving of most of the animals in the Baghdad Zoo – that book’s called Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. He also wrote a book (his last one) about the white rhino – The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures. I haven’t read either of those, but I sure do recommend this one. It’s a touching story and well written (he had a co-author, so I assume he’s the so-called ghost writer, but his name was also listed.

When Anthony died, the herd “knew.” Amazing. The entire herd came to the house and crowded as close as they could get beyond the fence and mourned him. Elephants do mourn – they actually weep and they communicate with each other through specific rumblings in their digestive systems (yes, really). When Anthony would be gone on business trips, the elephants would be invisible to the family and the game reserve crew for days or weeks, but before he returned (how could they possibly know?) they would be gather at the fence to greet him. But they knew. That happened over and over again. Anthony truly believed Nana could understand him in some way. Beautiful book and amazing story.

Posted in Books, on February 14th, 2015.

It was quite a long time ago Houghton Miflin sent this book to me, asking that if I liked it, would I mention it on my blog. I said sure. Then my DH Dave died, and the first month I could hardly read, period. Somehow or another I put the book aside, not in a place I noticed. Months went by. I was finally able to read again, but I forgot all about this book hiding under something in my office.

I’m rectifying that right now. I wouldn’t even mention it if the book wasn’t a good one.  I unearthed it and read it again. It’s a very good book. Mones did a prodigious amount of research about what Shanghai was like during the 1930s. And she wove a fascinating story in the midst of it.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones has a very interesting premise. It’s about a man – a black man – from the South – who is offered a job (hard to get in the best of times in the American South in the 30s) in Shanghai, to work at one of the more upper-crust Chinese nightclubs. Thomas Greene is an accomplished pianist, but a classically trained one, and this job is to play jazz with an existing musical orchestra, all African Americans. He knows next to nothing about jazz, but he agrees to go, and the powers-that-be don’t know he’s clueless about jazz. Black musicians in Shanghai, back then, were not exactly common, but black people in general were a bit scarce. And respected, actually. He is given the use of a house, with servants, and hardly knows what to do or say to them. He’s embarrassed to have them wait on him hand and foot.

Greene navigates his way through the music (that in itself, if you have an interest in music, is worth reading), the relationships with his orchestra (tenuous at first) and making friends along the way. There is much about the gritty side of Shanghai as well as the incredible wealth there too. Some I’d read before – from the nonfiction book called The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.

My former father-in-law was, in his younger years, an entertainer. He was a pianist, an accomplished one, though not classically trained. He could sit down at any piano and just make music, threading known tunes with his own. He and a friend, a singer, also lived in Shanghai in the 1930s. He and his singing partner sang in nightclubs too, so this story certainly resonated with me, from hearing the stories my father-in-law tell the family about that period.

When I read Caldwell’s book a few years ago I was quite enchanted with what Shanghai must have been like. And that book was excellent. This book, although it’s a novel, is based on fact  – many black musicians lived and performed in Shanghai during that time. They lived high, drank high, played high. Drugs were rampant. Morals weren’t so cherished. But the visual descriptions of Shanghai are vivid – I felt like Mones was leading me by the hand, down the streets, up the stairs you see on the cover photograph, pointing out the opium dens, the food vendors, the laundry hanging out the windows. Reminding me not to go to certain areas (there were invisible borders within the downtown area and some weren’t safe to cross) because of crime. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, the complexion of the city takes a whole new slant. Many expats escaped; some did not. Some stayed because they didn’t have the money. Some thought they could survive it. It’s riveting: the chaos, the fear, the inability to hardly survive if you didn’t have money. Greene loses his job and barely survives. It’s the story of his will to live, and the caring of friends too.

I’d read one of Mones’ other books, The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel. So I knew her writing style – detailed, and how it draws you into the story. I recommend both, but this new one was particularly enchanting. Highly recommended.

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