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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 November 17th, 2014.

Each year one of my book groups gets together (this year at my home) and we go around the room and each person shares something about a book, or more than one, that they think might make a good Christmas gift. All the women are 60+. I love this particular meeting because we aren’t there to discuss a specific book we’ve all read, but just to share ideas. I love to give books as gifts – not only because I try to nurture reading as a pastime to everyone I know or meet, but sometimes the ideas that come from this group get me outside my box. Also a good thing. So, I thought I’d share this year’s suggested books. Understand, please, I haven’t read but a few, and I’ll say so below.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t really keep up with all the books that get published. It’s overwhelming. To keep track, I use an app on my phone called Evernote, a note-taking app. One of my note-taking sections on Evernote is “Books.” This is where I add a title or an author when I’m out and about. Perhaps someone has told me about a book. I know I’ll never remember the title, so I just whip out my iPhone and add it to Evernote. That list is SO long, I wonder if I’ll ever winnow it down. Why? Because I keep adding more and more. It’s enough that I try to keep up with the reading in 3 book groups. If it weren’t for the fact that some reading in the 3 groups overlap, I’d never be able to manage it. Generally, now, I read when I go to bed, for about 30-45 minutes. Unless I’m stuck at home for some other reason, I don’t read books during the daytime. Unless I’m under the gun and need to finish something before one of the meetings.

The links below go to amazon, and if you happen to order a book, amazon gives me a few cents. It’s no big deal one way or the other. Once in awhile I get a dollar or two – it’s by month, I think, and orders have to reach some minimum threshold (most of the time I don’t meet the minimums), then they credit my amazon account. So, here’s the list:

A Redbird Christmas: A Novel by Fannie Flagg. It’s not one of her newer books, but it’s apparently a very cute story and a red bird figures significantly in the story. There’s faith in the book. It takes place in the American South.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel (A Mitford Novel) by Jan Karon. Two of the gals were currently reading the book and loving every page.

Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten. This is her newest one. It was passed around our group, and even though I don’t need another cookbook, I just may have to get it anyway.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. He writes the most interesting narrative books. Several in our group had heard of it, and also mentioned that their husbands had read it and liked it a lot. This isn’t a new book.

Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I’ve read two of O’Reilly’s books, and been very impressed. Most of the research is done by Mr. Dugard, a history wizard as far as I’m concerned. Two in our group had already read this and liked it very much. It’s all history. Period. It’s not political, even though O’Reilly is a political commentator.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Hillenbrand. What a book. You could hardly have existed without hearing people talk about this book. Great book for a man, too. I read it some months ago. I wish Dave had read it – he would have loved it.

Mean Streak by Sandra Brown. Although her books have some romance to them, she also weaves, always, a very good mystery in with it. Light reading.

Gray Mountain: A Novel by John Grisham. Two in our group had already read this one, his newest. Always good for a page-turning read.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel by Nancy Horan. I’ll for-sure have to get this one on my Kindle as I really liked her other book about Frank Lloyd Wright. This one is about Robert Louis Stevenson and his love, a woman 10 years his senior.

Mud Pies and Other Recipes (New York Review Children’s Collection)– this is a children’s book (5-9 year old girls it says). Originally written decades ago, it’s been re-published by, as you can read above, the New York Review Children’s Collection. It has stories, but also some “recipes.”  It has a 5-star rating on amazon.

Peter Pan Picture Book: Shape Book – also a children’s book. It’s for very young readers, or even pre-readers. One of our members brought the whole collection of these books. They’re short, maybe 10-12 pages each, and this is just one of them. If you’re interested in others, google “shape book” and you’ll find the others in the series. If you’re an artist, you’ll really appreciate the exquisite 4-color art which are reproductions from old nursery rhymes and stories of old. Very sweet book.

For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxes – the title is pretty self-explanatory. Was mentioned as a good book for a man, though the gal said she liked reading it very much herself, then she passed it on to her husband.

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life As this book was discussed, the gal who recommended it explained that this book is often suggested to people who are not-so-sure they believe in miracles  – or even for people who are non-believers. The author (who also wrote the recent definitive book on Bonhoefer) is analytical, yet he’s a believer. There’s a scientific element to this book which might appeal to some. One review read: “ . . . will blow your mind with stories of phenomena beyond anything we might classify as merely natural. And he will bless your heart with what can happen in your life personally as you read stories of people (very smart people I might add) who “extra-ordinarily” encountered God’s majestic purpose converging with their daily lives, stunning and humbling them forever.” I’ll be buying this book, probably in hardback just for my own reading.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympicsby Daniel James Brown. I read this book several months ago and wrote it up on my sidebar. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. Great book for men and women. The one word description: teamwork.

An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir – Phyllis Chesler is a PhD and Jewish. She married a Westernized Afghani who was attending graduate school with her. She did it with eyes closed (obviously), trusted him and his family when she moved to Kabul. At which point she lost everything – her American passport and any form of freedom. Not a book you’d give every woman as there is certainly a message here, but it’s an eye-opening reveal about day to day Islamic life. She escaped eventually, but she’s forever scarred.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart. This is a book I recommended. Not for every reader. My friend Darlene gave me the autographed book for my birthday. It’s a dense book about the history, the botany, and the uses of every kind of natural flora and fauna which contribute to the making of spirits. So, for instance – agave, juniper, grains of paradise (a very special pepper), casava, prickly pear. Very interesting reading. If you don’t drink spirits, I’d not buy this. If you’re a gardener and interested in such things, it would make a good read or a gift. Amy Stewart has also written several other books about poisonous plants and about the life of the earthworm. Just google her name on amazon and you’ll see them all. If you have family members who are particular interested in bugs, there are a couple that would make a great gift.

Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home by Marcus Samuelsson. I think I wrote up something about this on my blog already. This is his most recent cookbook and it’s chock-full of stories about all the recipes. For being a native Nigerian, but raised in Sweden, Marcus has certainly embraced our American foods and I’m glad of it! The recipe for the mac ‘n cheese that my granddaughter ate at his restaurant in Harlem when we were there in July, is in the cookbook. Haven’t tried it yet.

Christmas Memories Book – one member of the group forgot to bring it, but she shared with us about a gift that she bought many years ago when her first child was born. It’s a method of keeping memories alive of every Christmas in your family. You fill in who was there, what was special that year, gifts given, what you had for breakfast or dinner, and other little bits of trivia that contribute to your family’s Christmas traditions. And a place for a photo or two. The link is to the only one I found on amazon that seemed to be similar to hers which she purchased 30+ years ago. She has completely filled the book and had to move on to another one, different size and shape because she couldn’t find one like the first one. Anyway, it was a sweet idea, particularly for a young family, just married or on the arrival of their first child.

Photo at top from The Guardian, found through Google images

Posted in Books, on October 13th, 2014.

You may have said to yourself, “I’m tired of reading stories about World War II.” I have friends who have stated that flatly, meaning they’re done with them. They’ll be missing a really good tale, a sweet tale, and one that’s certainly way out of the usual norm of a novel about that war.

This story isn’t about the warfare. Without giving away the story, let’s just start with a young girl, in her early teens, who is blind. She lives with her father in Paris, and then the war comes to their lives. The father works at a museum, and the powers-that-be decide to try to hide most of the treasures, the biggest, most valuable treasures. A particular diamond, a huge diamond with an interesting story in and of itself, has so much value that a gemologist is asked to make a replica of the diamond from glass. A total of 3 replicas are made and 4 people are asked to care for the 4 “diamonds”. None knows which one has the real diamond, but they’re asked to keep each one safe.

Eventually, when the Germans begin nosing around trying to locate the missing diamond, the father and daughter flee to St. Malo, a small town a few miles from Mont St. Michel, that gorgeous beehive of a town built on top of a rock on the coast of Brittany. They move into a home of relatives there.

Meanwhile, there’s a young German boy who is very bright. He’s recruited to join Hitler’s army. His skill is with radios. He’s not exactly a zealot – in fact he’s not – he’s a gentle boy – but as with so many young people back then, you did what you were told. Eventually his skill was noticed by others and he gains a reputation for locating resistance fighters (in hiding) who send short radio transmissions to the Allies. Systematically he and his helpers find and take out many such transmitters and the people who use them.

There’s one more little tidbit I must tell you . . . the dear father of the young girl is good with small things, models and such. He had built a small replica of the neighborhood where they lived in Paris so his blind daughter could find her way to the bakery or other places. Each little model home, although many stories high, was built as a separate piece and they’d be lined up side by side. From studying the models, and with her father’s help, she learned to walk alone, with her cane, past 4 storm drains, left at the third cross street, or whatever, to find her way. When they moved to St. Malo, her father began building a new replica of that village. Mostly they stayed in hiding, as most people did. Her uncle, who was also good with radios, began helping the resistance.

Her father, of course, has the diamond. Or he has one of the diamonds. The young blind girl is resourceful. Very bright too. Knows the little model of her village. Reads Braille, what few books that were available back then. You can tell from what I’ve said that there’s a little collision of events, the boy who is hunting for radio resistance fighters, a German colonel who is hunting for the diamonds, and the one little house in St. Malo. Do read this book: All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr. Worth reading. It’s a love story too. Trust me.

Posted in Books, Travel, on August 6th, 2014.

Product DetailsWhile I was on this recent trip, I did quite a bit of reading. Every night, trip or not, like clockwork, I read for 20-30 minutes before I fall asleep. And because I’m having a problem with my foot (did I say I have a stone bruise on my heel from wading in the river on the camping trip a few weeks ago?) I had to rest my poor heel sometimes in one museum or another. My Kindle went with me in my purse throughout the trip so I always could sit and read if I could find a place to sit. (I’m seeing my GP this week about my heel, though I’ve read there’s not a lot that can be done for stone bruises.)

I’ll be writing up several books in my left sidebar, as I always do, about my most recent good reads. There will be at least three, of which this is one. But I decided to do a post about it because it was just so interesting.

You knew, of course, that Louis Comfort Tiffany was the Tiffany glass and lamp man. Right? You knew that, of course you did!? Tiffany and Co., the jeweler that we all know, was his father’s, Charles Lewis Tiffany. You’ll learn everything you never thought you’d care to know about the making of stained glass windows and lamps if you read this book. But it’s not boring in the least.

Susan Vreeland, the author, has written several books, the most notable probably Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She also wrote Luncheon of the Boating Party. I think her newest book, this one, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel is her best one yet. Just an FYI: she has another book soon to be released called Lisette’s List: A Novel. The latter can be pre-ordered. I just did.

The setting of this Tiffany novel is the design studio and glass factory owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany. He’s middle-aged, married with daughters, wealthy (mostly from his parents) and he is somewhat of an art visionary. With little or no financial sense – he’d always had money and thought nothing of spending more, never giving a second thought to whether it would be there forever.

The heroine in the book is Clara Driscoll. She’s a no-nonsense kind of frugal woman with a big independent streak in her and a sad marital past who needs a job. She works for Tiffany, and over the course of many years, she begins to help with designs. Mr. Tiffany grants her some leniency with her ideas, and eventually she takes on the project of designing the first Tiffany lamp, with the very iconic upside-down tulip shape we all recognize. But transforming the idea on paper into a practical thing, a lamp, first a oil-burning one, later electric ones, was far from an easy task. That’s what you’ll learn in this book, about how leaded glass is made, and about the very unique ways in which glass makers can create shades, forms and textures. In that respect, I found the book especially fascinating.

The story along with it – Clara’s life – and her very slow escalation into a position of supervision within the design, window and lamp making department is also very interesting. When I began reading I assumed the book was based on complete fact. It’s not exactly. Vreeland took some liberties to make it a more interesting and riveting story. Tiffany, a kind of old-school stuffy man, made one particular strict policy in his company – he didn’t permit any married women. Period. Hard to believe, but that part’s true. Once you were discovered, you were out. Clara weaves her way in and out of a couple of relationships and a near second marriage, that makes for almost an air of mystery. It’s a charming story from beginning to end. Whether Clara Driscoll really did design the Tiffany lamp? Well, that’s up to speculation, although Vreeland read Driscoll’s letter collection in which she describes in detail how she did it, so probably it is true. And whether she actually led a mini-revolt within the company regarding the male-only glass making trade union (which tried to shut down the women-only lamp making department that was non-union), isn’t known either. She lived in a boarding house, which has its own sub-set of stories to go along with it, and also made for fun reading. All of it together makes for a good story.

So, when my granddaughter Sabrina and I were in New York last week, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve visited it many times in the past, but Sabrina had never been and she happily went off on her own. Once I’d seen the Impressionists again (I never tire of them) and a few other oils, I went downstairs to the café for a coffee and a place to sit and rest my aching heel. As I was walking down the stairs, lo and behold, there in front of me was a 3-piece panel of Tiffany glass. Flowers and greenery, as nearly all of them are. I walked right up to it and read the tiny little card of info. Clara Driscoll’s name was not associated with that one. In fact, I believe in the Afterword of the book, Vreeland says that none of the Tiffany glass designs (windows or lamps) were specifically credited to Clara, but Vreeland’s research indicated significant hints about her contribution to the lamp-making. Driscoll never did receive the recognition she craved. Elsewhere in the NYC area there are two more museums with oodles of Tiffany glass. I wished I’d had time to visit both of them. I’d never have thought of doing so had I not read this book. Next time.

If you like Vreeland’s style of writing (I certainly do) then this book will be good reading. I certainly thought it was. You’ll come away from it with a whole new appreciation for the intricacies of creating leaded glass in whatever form you see.

Posted in Books, on March 12th, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dearie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, on August 9th, 2012.

marcus_samuelsson

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, on June 27th, 2012.

jeanne_baret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, on June 2nd, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, on April 15th, 2012.

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

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

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

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

“I remember my fancy drinks period . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

extravirginitybook

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!

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