Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"A Kipper With My Tea"

Alan Davidson (1924-2003) began his career as a diplomat. While serving in various exotic locations in North Africa and Asia, he became interested in fish. First he wrote some essays and eventually three widely respected books about various food fish and how they are prepared in various places. Eventually, he became a leader in the emerging field of culinary history.

This month's selection for my culinary book club was Davidson's selected essays titled A Kipper With My Tea. Two members of our group were friends of Davidson, and remembered his visits to Ann Arbor; on one occasion, he stayed at their home.

The discussion this evening was wide-ranging, not especially limited to the book. All of us had favorites among the essays and also some less-than-favorite choices. We all liked his historical essay on the history of British cookbooks, his discussion of the culinary works of Alexander Dumas, and some of the essays on fish.

I especially liked his essay titled "Hallo, Halo-Halo." Halo-halo is the Filipino version of shave ice, which entered American consciousness because President Obama is fond of the Hawaiian version, which includes the snow-like shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, syrup, and ice cream. (I just put in that sentence because I want to write "President Obama" one more time.)

In Hawaii: a shave-ice machine shaves the ice block into a sort of 
snow, which the operator forms into a snow-ball. 
Davidson's description of Filipino halo-halo is vivid and also fascinating, because of the ingredients which would be unexpected in an ice-cream confection in America or Europe:
"A symbol of the Filipino joy in eating is the dessert-cum-drink called halo-halo. The name is Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) for 'mix-mix.' ... Halo-halo was born when ice came to the Philippines, in the 1920s. Its badge is a mound of shaved ice at the top of a tall sundae glass. Below the ice sits a scoop of ice cream. Below that are the cooked fruits: cubes of sweet potato and of saba banana, slivers of jackfruit, red beans, spoonfuls of purple yam jam, cubes of gulaman (agar-agar gelatin) bathed in coconut milk, sugar-palm seeds and chickpeas. ... You can have as many different layers as you please, but you still have an ordinary halo-halo unless you add the three requirements for a 'special:' leche flan (egg-yolk custard, top Filipino dessert), makapuno (the rare kind of coconut which is full of soft meat because of a recessive gene), and a sprinkling of sugar and toasted pinipig (whole-rice flakes)." (p. 213-214)

A terrifying trip

Next month, I'm planning to go on a one-week trip to see and photograph birds, wildlife, and local people along the upper Amazon River in Peru. A few years ago I had read Ann Patchett's book State of Wonder, which takes place mainly along the Amazon River in a similar area but in Brazil. Because I'm going there, I just reread it.

Bad idea! Marina, the protagonist of the novel has a terrifying trip in which she experiences many of my worst travel fears. Reviews praise the details of the nature descriptions in State of Wonder, but a lot of them are unnerving: several types of dangerous snakes, biting insects, invasive parasitic worms, hostile monkeys, many undiagnosable fevers, and more.

In Peru, Marina's destination is a village where there's a medical experiment taking place; she needs to search for a colleague who has died of fever. While trying to find a way to get to the village, Marina attends an opera performance in Manaus -- Orpheus by Gluck. She realizes that she is about to descend into Hell like Orpheus, who went in search of his wife. She's attempting to rescue her colleague or at least find out the details of his death. It's a great premise for fiction, but not a good thing for me to read when preparing to travel.

While flying from Minnesota, Marina lost her checked suitcase full of necessities. She travels to the village on a makeshift pontoon boat piloted by a deaf 12-year old, and on this boat she also loses the replacement suitcase.  Marina has horrific nightmares due to a bad reaction to malaria preventatives -- which I'm about to start taking. In the village she sleeps in a hut shared with the 12-year-old.

Food for the medical research staff consists mainly of canned foods like apricots, corned beef hash, and tuna which are imported on the makeshift pontoon boat. The villagers themselves eat completely repulsive foods. There's no internet, phone service, or even mail pickup or delivery -- the village has virtually no contact with the outside world. Members of a neighboring tribe are very dangerous users of poisoned arrows who attack visitors. Marina suffers from the heat and insects, has little opportunity to bathe, and experiences lots of other problems that I hope will not occur on a Lindblad boat next month.

It's actually a great book full of fascinating ideas about civilization, medicine, and human interactions --  if you don't take it personally. I shouldn't have been reading this!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Useful List of Substitutions

A beautiful cake baked by Alice who is a much better baker than I am!
What baker doesn't sometimes want to substitute one ingredient for another? Maybe your motive is health, a diet fad, or an allergy, but some subs work better than others, as many of us have found out.

Do you want to bake a cake, but you don't have cake flour? You can make your own: use a ratio of "14 tablespoons all-purpose flour whisked with 2 tablespoons cornstarch."

Do you want to use avocado in place of something or other as suggested widely across internet sites? Maybe it will work, maybe be a disaster. In baking, mostly the latter, though I once saw a cooking demo that used avocado in a chocolate mousse and was unexpectedly delicious! (It wasn't a substitution, though, it was a carefully thought-out recipe, which is a little off topic here.)

Useful website "Food 52" is currently featuring a list of substitutions from plausible to impossible: "10 Baking Ingredient Swaps That Won't Fail You (or Your Cake)" by Sarah Jampel. Most useful, it has a list of goals that you should be aware of when you substitute. Will you change the ratio of wet to dry ingredients? Will you alter the fat content in a significant way? Do you need to understand the chemistry? Really helpful!

When I remember to check Food 52, I often find intriguing suggestions. This article also talks about equivalences of various types of sugar. It mentions the frequent use of applesauce as a replacement ingredient. And lists several fermented milk products like buttermilk, for which my mother's chocolate cake substitution, milk with a few drops of lemon juice, is approved!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Chicken with olives and preserved lemon, and a new tablecloth

Winter days call for some new cheery things. Last week, I decided to order a new tablecloth decorated with colorful birds. When it arrived from, I decided to invite a few friends to its premiere. We haven't yet identified most of these birds, but we're working on it, and so is one of our guests. We hope these illustrations turn out to be real birds, not just "realistic" as the description said. Update: we've identified most of the birds -- details on Len's Flickr Page here -- click on each photo; bird ids are included in the labels.

A cardinal and a painted bunting are two birds we recognize.
The salad in the photo is green beans, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes.
The main course was chicken with preserved lemons and green olives,
based on a Moroccan recipe by Paula Wolfert.
We served dinner on glass plates so the birdies showed through.

Dessert: sliced oranges, Murcott tangerines, and satsumas with a hint of
rosewater and cinnamon. Also Moroccan style.

Strange interlude: interpreting the grease marks on the stove:

After I browned the chicken, I noticed that my stovetop (left) was marked with a circle that looked like a famous zen illustration (right). Maybe it was just some grease that spilled. But maybe my stove was saying this: "when the duality of self and reality has been overcome not only is reality forgotten, but so is the self; the circle symbolizes the all-encompassing emptiness that constitutes the ground of all things. Now, in the awareness of unceasing transformation and total interconnectedness in every experience one is freed from all craving and hatred for the other. In this freedom there is a sense of the wholeness and perfection of ordinary things." (source)

Friday, January 13, 2017

"Midnight at the Pera Palace"

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul covers a wide range of topics. One that I found interesting was the subject of public dining places in Istanbul history. Author Charles King writes:
"Until well into the twentieth century, a home-cooked meal was a rarity. "This mode of dining was almost exclusively the purview of the wealthy, who could afford a permanent kitchen in their villa or mansion, one of more servants to go to the market, and a cook to prepare the food. Average Istanbullus got their food in groups... Given the need for food that was easily prepared and easily served to large groups, simplicity was key. ... That is why so many of the memoirists of everyday life in Istanbul are most wistful when they recall a noted baker, the purveyor of an especially good yogurt, or a well-shaded teahouse. A traveler today can go from a morning simit, ... to a grilled fish or stew at midday, to a sludge-bottomed coffee in the afternoon and still approximate the foodways ... of average Istanbullus of the past." (p. 143-144)

A city full of wonderful culture
and colorful characters.
Poet Nazim Hikmet
on a stamp.
He wrote a poem titled
"Gioconda and Si-Ya-U"
in which Mona Lisa runs off
with a Chinese Revolutionary.
During the first half of the twentieth century the city of Istanbul drastically changed not just once, but several times. A republic replaced the Caliphate, and citizenship replaced traditional communitarian government under Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious law.

Midnight at the Pera Palace brings these changes to life by describing political events, ever-present espionage, several waves of refugees, changing awareness of history, and cultural trends like jazz, avant-garde poetry (especially the poet Nazim Hikmet), folk music, restaurants and clubs, and much more.

Above all, Istanbul changed from a city that looked to Europe and had a very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population to one that was dominantly Turkish and Muslim, but with a secular government. The invention of Turkish nationalism under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the backbone of the changes, including negatives (above all, the Armenian genocide) and positives (e.g. the development of rights for women, including the end of polygamy). However, politics is far from the only focus of the book.

The Pera Palace of the book's title began as a luxury hotel in the best neighborhood of Istanbul. Diplomats, foreign journalists, and tourists like Agatha Christie (and fictionally, Hercule Poirot) stayed there. Socially, King relates, it was a center for jazz and other entertainment, western style as well as upcoming Turkish jazz. Spies and other agents met in its public spaces. White Russians fleeing the Revolution stayed there if they could afford it. Subsequently, its Greek owner was displaced as part of the expulsion of much of the native Greek population. Along with much property that belonged to former Greek residents, it was confiscated and turned over to a Muslim. Soon thereafter, its upkeep deteriorated, the location became less prestigious, and its status began to decline.

The historic hotel nevertheless continued to be a center of activity through World War II. In this era, we learn, Istanbul was a critical location because of Turkey's resolute neutrality and strategic location. Notably, early in the war the Pera Palace suffered major destruction from a suitcase bomb planted among the luggage of British diplomats who had just been expelled from Bulgaria. Later, it housed one of the major players in the effort to save Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

On our visit to Istanbul in 2006, we visited an island that
I think was the temporary home of Trotsky.
I was surprised to discover some of the very famous and accomplished people who spent time in Istanbul -- and sometimes in the Pera Palace -- in these years. Trotsky lived in Istanbul on one step of his exile. A young reporter for the Toronto Star named Ernest Hemingway reported from Istanbul during World War I. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a member of the Papal delegation there in the 1920s through 40s spent much effort trying to help fleeing European Jews, enabling them to go through Turkey to safety: Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII. Many members of the Joint Distribution Committee and other international rescue organizations were in Istanbul then, also trying to save European Jews: for example, Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem. Art historians came to Istanbul among other things to restore the plastered-over Christian mosaics in Santa Sophia.

Mosaic of John the Baptist from Santa Sophia, revealed in restorations allowed by
Mustafa Kemal's secularization. Charles King presents a fascinating discussion of
the meaning of this work of art in the context of the historic building, built and
decorated as a church, later a mosque, and restored as a museum.
Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper that supported Mustafa Kemal's secularism,
sponsored a Miss Turkey contest -- this is Keriman Halis who became first
Miss Turkey, then Miss Universe of 1932. King also describes several Turkish
feminists who participated in the development of women's rights in the new republic.
This richly detailed book has much more than I've been able to indicate, and I enjoyed reading it. Though written recently, it does not make explicit comparisons of historic events to recent events or trends, and in fact barely mentions the modern politics of Istanbul and Turkey in general.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aromas and Tastes in Shafak's Istanbul

"Jahan trod behind Balaban. At each step the street smells intensified -- traces of jasmine mingling with the tang of the sea and the whiffs of food, briny and garlicky. Tamers learned a lot from their animals and there was one thing Chota [the elephant] had hammered into him: how to sniff better. So he paid more attention to these scents in the breeze, and after a while he caught a hint of perfumed oils from a house nearby." (The Architect's Apprentice, p. 211)
"Balaban's Gypsies, recently back from Thrace, would soon be heading southwards. Jahan decided to visit them before they left. They welcomed him like a long-lost brother. Tamarind sherbets were served, mouth-watering aromas surrounded them -- sour-grape molasses, goat's cheese, spinach pide, roasted meat." (p. 254)
The world of Jahan, title character in Elif Shafek's novel The Architect's Apprentice, was full of aromas and smells both pleasant and unpleasant. On his arrival with Chota the elephant at the Sultan's palace, he smelled a "putrid smell," and caught sight of "three gibbets ... Mounted on each was a severed head, silently rotting away...." Other aromas of death appear throughout the novel, along with more pleasant ones.

After observing the evidence of executions outside the gates of his new home, Jahan entered the area of the palace where he and his elephant were to live. A more experienced trainer, seeing the elephant's poor condition after his sea voyage, applied "some foul-smelling ointment to Chota's lumps, and wrapped his trunk with burlap full of crushed leaves and a fragrant resin that Jahan later on learned was called myrrh." (p. 29-31)

Aromas seemed to come up especially frequently when Jahan visited his Gypsy friends and their leader Balaban (as in the quotes above). At the end of the book one of the unexplained parts of his life becomes clear to him when he follows a special odor and links it to two of the characters that he had trusted, but shouldn't have -- but no details or I'd spoil it for you. And you should read it!

Istanbul as we saw it from a ferry boat during our trip in 2006.
Throughout the novel, foods often reveal the privileges of the palace where Jahan lived with the other animal tamers, and where he worked with the other apprentices of Sinan, the great architect. Food descriptions also indicate the privations during a siege when the elephant was part of the military effort, and illustrate Jahan's experiences in the harem and in brothels, and provide clues to many other circumstances. 

So many examples -- here are just a few:
"Along with her smile [Mihrimah] brought treats for the elephant -- not pears and apples but royal delicacies: figs with clotted cream and violet sherbet, marzipan topped with rose-petal jam or honeyed chestnuts, the last of which, Jahan knew, cost at least four aspers an okka." (p. 43)
"... he entered Mihrimah's mansion on the shores of the Bosphorus... Ordering dish after dish, she urged him to taste everything. Stewed mutton, stuffed vine leaves, prunes in syrup, sugared almonds of various colours. There was something on a tiny plate Jahan had never had before -- caviar." (p. 203)
"The festivities [for the circumcision of two princes] had been going on for days... Confectioners paraded with sugar-sculptures of man-eating sea creatures and birds with feathers of every colour. Up and down the streets, giant frames of flowers were displayed. So many sheep were butchered that the creek behind the slaughterhouses ran crimson. Pageboys scurried about, humping trays of rice dripping with fat from sheep's tails. those who'd had their bellies filled and quenched their thirst with sherbet were treated to zerde [rice sweetened with saffron and honey]. For once, the poor and the rich tucked into the same dishes." (p. 107-108)
"Stubborn and staunch, the count and his soldiers defended their citadel [at Szigetvar]. Days turned into weeks.... For food they had roasted millet, nuts, dried meat and a piece of hard mare's-milk cheese each. The flocks of sheep and goats that they had brought from Istanbul were waiting, ready to be slaughtered. How the enemy withstood the hunger and their diminishing numbers, Jahan could not say." (p. 232)
Perhaps the most dramatic of these descriptions is the one opportunity that the humble Jahan has to actually partake of a banquet given by the Sultan himself:
"Meanwhile the rest of the guests, including Jahan, were led into smaller rooms.... They were served wheat soup with a hunk of dark bread, which was so filling Jahan could have stopped eating there and then. But as soon as the crocks were taken away they were brought vine leaves  stuffed with meat, rice with pine nuts, chicken kebab, chicken with mushrooms, buttered lamb, fried pigeons, roasted partridges, lamb's feet, goose stuffed with apples, brined anchovies, a huge red fish from icy waters up north, borek with shredded meat, egg with onions. They were served hoshaf in bowls and lemonade in pitchers. His appetite now piqued by the delicious smells, Jahan tasted every dish... Then came the desserts: almond baklava, pear baked with ambergris, cherry pudding, ice-crushed sweetened wild strawberries and heaps of honeyed figs." (p. 280)
Oh how I enjoyed this delightful book! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Magical Istanbul Now and Past: My Jumbled Impressions

The architect Sinan (1489-1588) designed and built some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. He also inspired others, including the famous Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet mosque, depicted above, which was designed and built by the architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa, a student of Sinan just after Sinan's lifetime, in the style Sinan invented.

Sinan was a featured character in the novel The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak.  I was reading the novel when I saw the above photo of the Blue Mosque.  So my thoughts of Istanbul past and present are very mingled: my enjoyment of this rare and myth-like book... my memories of the fabulous sights I saw during my two trips to Istanbul... and the beautiful collection of photos taken in a rare snowstorm this week.

The snowstorm photos were posted on Facebook here  by Seref Ozen, a dealer in fabulous rugs. We visited his shop near this mosque in 2006, and I became his Facebook friend soon after that. The Istanbul that exists today, like the city in the novel is a magical place, unfortunately also full of problems maybe not that different from the ones in the novel.

Mihrimah's Mosque, designed and built by Sinan, is one of the many buildings discussed in The Architect's Apprentice.
On our 2006 visit, this mosque was closed because of earthquake damage, but we saw this view of the exterior.
Mihrimah was the daughter of Sultan Suliman the Magnificent and wife of the Sultan's official Rüstem Pasha. She plays a major role in the fictitious tale told by Elif Shafak. In the novel, the architect's apprentice, named Jahan, has an ongoing relationship with Mihrimah throughout her life -- entirely invented, and entirely wonderful to read. He's actively involved in the building of a number of Sinan's masterpieces, including the two depicted here. He's also the trainer and caregiver of a very intelligent white elephant, who becomes an endearing character in the tale.

I loved the plot, the human characters, the animal characters, and the descriptions in this novel, which is so charming that the reader doesn't have to stop and think about whether it's true to historical fact -- other than imagining the beautiful sights, aromas, and relationships, in the magical city of Istanbul.

Interior of the Rustem Pasha mosque: also by Sinan.
Photo from our 2006 visit.
I might write another post about the fantastic food writings in this novel, but for now, this is what I'm thinking about.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Escaping the Deep Cold of a Michigan Winter


The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) is currently running an exhibit of Tibetan book covers, a type of art of which I was previously 100% unaware. Tibetan books consisted of a stack of unbound leaves of paper, which were evidently long and narrow -- none appeared in the exhibit. A book was stored between two decorated pieces of wood, and bound together to keep the entire book intact. Elaborate carved and painted decorations appeared on both sides of each piece of wood; sometimes elaborate designs were made to face the paper, in respect of the texts as well as facing outward. We were very fascinated, and Len took a number of close-ups of the carvings (above).

From the UMMA Website an image of an entire cover: "Shakyamuni, outer face, upper book cover, vol. 1,
Tibet, 14th–15th century, wood with traces of paint and gilding." Size: around 24 inches long.
In the libraries of Tibetan monasteries, each book bound in its covers would be stored in a kind of cubby-hole, and removed when it was to be read. During the cultural revolution, many of the covers were treated as trash and used as chopping blocks in kitchens. The documentation of the exhibit included no information about how these beautiful objects were recovered, restored, and collected by the private MacLean Collection.

This is what the documentation says:
"Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection is the first major exhibition to examine the subject of Tibetan book covers. For Tibetan Buddhists, books are a divine presence in which the Buddha lives and reveals himself, and they are venerated and handled with the utmost respect. The exhibition features thirty-three book covers dating from the eleventh to the eighteenth century that represent the glorious iconographic array and non-figural decoration typical of these sacred items. The majority of covers in the exhibition are Tibetan Buddhist, but the exhibition also includes a rare Bon-religion cover and two covers from Mongolia, as well as an important pair of covers produced circa 1411 for the Chinese Ming emperor Yongle. Protecting Wisdom presents a stunning visual display that illuminates a virtually unknown type of art, one that will charm and intrigue both those familiar and unfamiliar with Tibetan art." (source)
The entire exhibit was incredibly intriguing, as I had no previous exposure to this type of Tibetan art. We did not purchase a catalog, which might have more information. My web search didn't turn up much info either, except that the exhibit previously appeared in Dallas.

During the deeply cold weekend, we also tried a small Chinese dumpling restaurant. The dumplings are quite good and varied: we had tried them before as take-out, and like the lamb, beef, and pork fillings. However, the restaurant leaves much to be desired in the aspect of service. Suffice to say, we might get take-out but won't be eating-in there again!
Dumpling presentation: toss them on a plate. Your customers have been
waiting so long they won't care anyway.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

"Captivity" -- Boring, Superficial, and Inaccurate

György Spiró's long and rambling book Captivity relates the story of a hapless Roman Jew at the very beginning of the current era. The reviews of this novel were positive, so I decided to read it even though it's almost 900 pages long. I realized early on that I didn't like it, but I've given up on several books recently so I gritted my teeth and determined to finish this one. I do not feel even a little bit rewarded for my persistence. I recommend avoiding it. Here are three reasons:

First: the book is boring.

Uri, the central character, might have been developed in an interesting or mildly appealing way if the author had really been interested in him. However, the author seemed to have as an actual goal to write an unbearably complete (though not particularly well researched) description of life in the Roman Empire in three important places: Rome, Judea, and Alexandria. The political intrigues of the day -- emperor by emperor, corrupt scandal by corrupt scandal, Jewish persecution by Jewish persecution -- are described endlessly.

Ultimately, the whole narrative seems to be pretty pointless. There are clever references to events and people that aren't spelled out, so that if you know a little bit you can conclude that you are smart -- for example, an indirect reference to the historian Josephus towards the end of the book. I didn't think this offset how boring it was.

Second: the book is inaccurate.

Maybe you will think that it's worth getting on with a book like this because at least you will learn some history. Unfortunately, you would be much better off with a real history book. This one is full of trivial mistakes and careless oversights. I'm not an expert at all, but I saw enough to be very doubtful that the book can be trusted. I have no interest in checking the details about the lives of the emperors and their agents, or in checking the long descriptions of the Jewish neighborhood in Rome, or of life in Judea, but I noticed problems with a few areas that I've read about in the past. In some cases I think the author didn't know much more than what you could learn from a tour guide at the antiquities in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Rome, or Ostia Antiqua.

As in many historical novels, the author is careless with food details. The setting is the Roman Empire in the first century. But the characters eat oranges and grapefruit. Oranges existed in China at the time, though probably not in the Roman Empire. Grapefruit, however, is a cultivar developed in the Caribbean (like, after Columbus's voyages) and first noted in 1750. So maybe it existed by 1700 at the earliest. For quite a while it was called shaddock, later grapefruit, so the word is really wrong. There are other howlers about food ways as well -- this is just an example.

The details of Jewish customs of the era are also a bit sloppy. For example, Uri is supposed to have had a Bar Mitzvahs at the age of 13 towards the beginning of the book, and his son has one towards the end of the book. I don't think so. This custom arose in the Middle Ages, not before the fall of the Temple. I think the author didn't bother to research which Jewish customs, especially sabbath customs and burial customs like the saying of the Kaddish, arose later than the era described in the book -- often much later.

The lack of attention to detail in any particular area might be insignificant, but many suspicious errors eventually add up -- I don't have confidence in the whole.

Third: the book is superficial.

Uri, the main character in Captivity, is kind of a schlemiel who turns up in all kinds of situations contrived to be of great interest to modern readers. Sometimes the character tries to understand all his missed opportunities, including what he thinks he should have done when visiting Jerusalem and Alexandria. At one point these are his quoted thoughts:
"You’ll find no bigger impostor than me in the land of the living! Such a nonsensical gaffe! I was almost executed in Jerusalem as a supposed spy of Agrippa’s, whereas here I was pampered and sucked up to as long as that tool, that despicable Agrippa, that quarter-Jewish political vermin whom I never saw in my life, remained alive and heir presumptive of the Great Jewish Kingdom." (p. 514)
One reviewer even compared Uri to Woody Allen's Zelig. No way -- Zelig is a comic film, and it doesn't go on and on about the background. This is exactly the problem: a poorly-developed pathetic character, a contrived plot, enormous amounts of background detail that don't advance anything at all, and lots of coincidences so that the author can tell you what he thinks you want to know. Not a shred of humor!

Though Captivity is centered on Jewish life in the Roman Empire I think the book is substantially aimed at Christians who are curious about the life and times of Jesus. Indeed in the last 20 or 30% of the book, the "Nazarene" sect begins to show up, though the central character never becomes one of them. And one of the little indirect hints is the appearance of Jesus (unnamed) and two thieves in the prison cell where Uri is being held just before one particular Passover in Jerusalem, though Uri gets out and makes the acquaintance of Pontius Pilate, while the others...

I'll admit this: the author doesn't totally pander to the Christian reader, though he does go into quite a lot of detail about the beliefs of the early Christians. In fact, maybe the author overdoes the extent of Christian beliefs that he claims were established this early in history.

Just before the end of the book, Uri discusses the Nazarenes with an old friend and lover:
“It’s a simple religion,” she said. “It will win through.” ...
“It’s a dangerous religion,” he said. “It’s going to cause hideous problems.” (p. 852)

The jetty at the site of the port of Caesarea -- founded by the Romans, used in the middle ages and the Crusader era. After a
long period of disuse it was restored in the 19th century and is now an archaeology park. From our trip last summer.
In the novel Captivity, this is one of the locations where Uri travels during his stay in Judea.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Yellowtail Snapper with Moroccan Spice

Yellowtail snapper was featured today at Whole Foods, so I bought one. I decided to cook it with some Moroccan-style spices, onions, tomatoes, dried apricots, and preserved lemon.

My newest spice: Ras El Hanout. I made the preserved lemons
last November -- lemons in salt and lemon juice. I also used some
slow-roasted tomatoes from the farmers' market, frozen last August.
Olives and pomegranate seeds were the garnish.  
After cooking the spices and vegetables for quite a while, I added the fish.
The fish and some couscous with the tomato sauce. Also a bit of Len's bread from last night.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Fresh Bread

Two crusty loaves of French bread -- perfect for a very cold day.

Len started baking soon after lunch, and the bread was ready for dinner. He found a modified version of Julia Child's French bread recipe online. At the upper left above, you can see the dough rising near a heat register. The other images show the kneading, forming, and slashing of the dough, and the addition of water to a pan beneath the oven rack where the loaves were about to bake. The steam from the water in the pan creates the exceptional and tasty crust on the loaves.

The snow wasn't deep, but it was just the kind of day to stay in and bake.

A number of years ago, Len baked bread often, but this was his first try for a long time. He seemed to remember much of what had to be done! I hope he'll do it again.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"During the Reign of the Queen of Persia"

Northern Ohio, the 1950s, a family living on a farm just beyond a town and not very far from Cleveland: this is the setting of Joan Chase's novel During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It's a pretty typical book from the early 1980s, a time of colorful family dramas full of slightly eccentric grandparents, aunts, ex-husbands, adolescents, pesky little kids, unfaithful lovers, responsible uncles, irresponsible uncles. Many of these novels have now been forgotten, abandoned by readers who once loved them.

The characters in this book are at the same time familiar and original. I'm struck especially by the very high level of hostility that pervades the dynamics here -- the children resent much about one another, the adults have many conflicts and lots of baggage, the grandparents are hostile to each other and often to their daughters and grandchildren. Family members come and go, finding jobs or dreams in New York or Illinois or Texas, but all the action occurs on the Ohio farm.

Feeding the family plays an important role in the lives of the older family members. Not too surprisingly, there's a lot of hostility in the way food is distributed and consumed. Uncle Dan, for example, has a market in town, and brings home steaks and other nice delicacies just for his wife and two daughters. The other children (nieces) watch from an adjacent room, having been fed inferior food at an earlier dinner time. Here's a description of dinner for the not-so-favored children, and how their grandmother (hurrying to get to her nightly bingo game or movie) interacted with her own dinner:
"Gram was proud of what she'd survived; once she turned eighty she boasted of her age... She poured water on the chops to stop the burning and clamped on a lid, opened green beans she'd canned the last year she'd had a garden -- they had to boil fifteen minutes and she'd wait for that. She'd known more than one family  that had died, every last one, from a taste of spoiled green beans. Everything was now frying and boiling at top speed. Sow-bellied, spike-legged, there was something about her tough management of the supper that  stirred like an exuberant passion that had not been so much used up as outlived. 
"We tried to eat what she'd cooked, working down small bits of the hard dry pork with lots of milk. Gram ignored the meat and ate through a plate of green beans with vinegar ladled on it and then cut herself two slabs of the white Dutch loaf. Its powdery dusting of flour sprinkled the table and her front; she cut it, cradling it in her  arms, sawing the iron butcher knife back and forth across the front of her sunken breasts, squeezing the bread against herself. ... The country butter had little specks of white whey. The bread was so soft we hardly had to chew it. Maybe it was because Gram had lived so long and had so much trouble that she subsisted almost entirely on these soft white loaves." (p. 48-49)
During the first chapter of the book, when the above scene takes place, the four granddaughters/ nieces are adolescents. Their grandfather had died some time before, and the family was no longer running an active farm.

Ritz Ad: 1951
During the second chapter, we go back to when the four girls were younger, and Grandfather was alive and running an active farm. His food preferences show his eccentricity and in my opinion reflect his hostility to a lot of the life they lead:
"Grandad ... finished his cornflakes, then filled the bowl with Ritz crackers and dumped his coffee over them. They bloated and dissolved. Gram said he'd been feeding pigs so long he ate like one. ... Since no one was there to care, we made ourselves sugar sandwiches on white bread and went onto the back porch to eat." (p. 90) 
The book is readable, and the characters are vivid at times, but there's something dated about the book as a whole. I can't quite say why I find it so retro!

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Historic Kitchens and Banquets

"The Edible Monument" is the name of an exhibit currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This exhibit includes about 140 prints, rare books and serving manuals from the Getty Research Institute collection and private collections, as well as a very impressive sugar sculpture made by modern food artist Ivan Day. This sculpture, titled "Palace of Circe," is based on an 18th century print. "The figures were meant to impart the consequences of gluttony with a story about the ancient Greek hero Ulysses. When he landed on the island of Aeaea, his men were so greedy that the sorceress Circe turned them into pigs."

Ivan Day, "Palace of Circe," 2015. The original would have been used
to decorate a banquet table. The source dates to 1776. 
During our visit to the museum last week, I enjoyed the major items in this exhibit, which were images of decorated tables and banquet scenes from the 16th through early 19th century. I particularly was fascinated by a side room where several books showed images of kitchens, food shops, and food-preparation tools from these early times.

"The Food Shop" by Abraham Bosse, Netherlands, 1600s.
"The Butcher" by A-J de Fehrt, Paris, 1763.
"Room next to the kitchen and scullery," Venice, 1570.
"Outdoor kitchen with carving tools," Venice, 1596.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Have a great year!

Enjoy New Year's Eve 2017 as Mona Lisa celebrates... and recovers. Images from a blog post I did long ago:


Friday, December 30, 2016

Funny Little Food Essays

"Edible history is the most vivid testimony to vanished empires. ... Artifacts and institutions disappear, but the gastronomic archaeologist will still be able to trace the influence of India in the English addition to curry, and to find, as I did, that the most poignant evidence of our former glory is the survival of porridge in Pakistan." -- A Pike in the Basement, p. 57.

Sometime in the 1980's British wine merchant and writer Simon Loftus wrote "tales of a hungry traveller" (to spell it Britishly). He did go to a lot of places. Some in the depths of Asia. Some in the Deep South of the USA where his friend Calvin Trillin sent him in search of barbecue and catfish. He explains the word for hot food to use when ordering in Greece, and describes nightmarish train trips through obscure parts of the world. He also dined, sometimes with disdain, at widely acclaimed restaurants in big and famous cities like Paris, New York, Las Vegas, or London. He always has something clever (almost too clever) to say about the food and -- especially in the case of pretentious big-city restaurants -- about the people who served it.

In every case, he offers some sort of recipe connected to his tale. At times the recipe choice is bizarre, as in the case of a memoir of a duck named Donald. House pet Donald Duck was chummy with the family's pet cat during Loftus's childhood. Unfortunately Donald was killed by an aggressive pet dachshund. The recipe for this chapter explains how to bone, stuff, and roast a duck. Similarly, Loftus offers a long description (mainly quoted from an early 19th century memoir) of a pig that was trained to "point" to game, helping hunters just as a pointer dog would do, and demonstrating its great loyalty and intelligence. The recipe for this chapter: a sausage and bacon casserole. Oh well. I guess if you're an omnivore, you're an omnivore.

It's a mildly amusing book to read, not too long, the kind of little articles that once appeared in magazines like the late lamented Gourmet. If Loftus first published these essays one by one, I wasn't able to discover it. The illustrations -- black and white woodcuts -- are also amusing. A nice little book for a cold winter vacation day at the end of the year.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Chocolate, Tea, and Coffee at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"From Novelty to Necessity: This exhibit takes you back 400 years to the time when COFFEE, TEA, and CHOCOLATE were first introduced in Europe." So reads a poster as you enter a fantastic art exhibit currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

"Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate" offers excitement to all five senses, not just the usual museum-goers' activity of seeing art. As we toured the exhibit today, we looked at maps and historic information. We viewed a wide variety of paintings, prints, artifacts, and tableware related to the three beverages. We smelled some coffee beans in one display. We listened to the background music: Bach's Coffee Cantata. And in the final gallery we enjoyed tasting some historic chocolate concoctions. 

Using my camera, the kind ticket-taker who admitted us to the exhibit even photographed us with our friends Elaine and Bob. On the gallery wall was a sign that said photography was not only permitted, it was encouraged. So...

Large blow-up posters of early illustrations showed historic coffee drinking events.
Smelling and seeing coffee beans.
"Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana," by Carle Van Loo, 1755. Two women with different levels of power
each have their hands on a cup of coffee, which was a new luxury product associated with the Turkish Empire.
"On the left, an African woman serving coffee is a reminder of two colonial commodities: coffee and enslaved people."
The exhibit had quite a few things to say about the role of slavery and colonialism in the rise of the three beverages.

A coffee grinder that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour.
A porcelain sultan riding an elephant, and a little Turkish coffee cup.
A bust of Joseph Addison whose newspaper, I learned, was one of the influences
encouraging English people to consume coffee.
"The Strong Family," (1732, detail showing tea table)
The exhibit included several wall-sized maps.
An amazing Sèvres tea and coffee service (1842-43)
Samples of chocolate from early recipes.
Outside the DIA cafe where we were about to have lunch: chocolate Christmas decorations.