Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Imagining a Banquet

Did you ever try to imagine what it would be like at a medieval banquet? Do you enjoy reading reviews of famous but unattainable restaurants like El Bulli in Spain or the trendiest spots in New York? Do you read recipes just to imagine what the food might taste like? Do you like to watch extreme cooking shows, things no one does at home, on food TV? Maybe you have heard of the art works made of meat, that rot in art galleries -- or Lady Gaga's meat dress.  

Centuries ago in Japan, people loved books that created imaginary situations like these modern ones. The fascinating book Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan by Eric C. Rath documents a variety of this popular literature, as well as describing various private manuscripts that were written by early chefs and food workers in noble houses.

Shown on the cover (left) is a special knife artist in early Japan, performing a ritual of slicing up a crane with a special knife and long metal chopsticks. High nobles watched -- but the final display of raw meat or in many cases fish was for looking only, never for eating. Rath documents this knife-ceremony in the second chapter of his book, "Of Knives and Men." (Rath, p. 38-51)

Early banquets were highly ritualized, with prescribed numbers of dishes on prescribed numbers of food trays set before a noble diner such as a visiting feudal overlord. In many such events, the foods on the ritual dishes in their ritual locations weren't even really edible: for example they would serve dried abalone strings that needed hours of reconstituting before actually eating them. The polite way to react -- pretending to eat a bit and then hiding it in one's sleeve -- was documented in the books that were not only cookbooks but also etiquette books. Rath repeated one rather funny piece of advice: to pretend to eat and then hide the bit of food in a nose-wiping paper, in other words, wad up this inedible thing in a piece of kleenex!

A bit after the meat-carving rituals were popular, many culinary books, illustrated by wood-block prints, were best sellers, although the menus and recipes (or partial recipes) within them were only possible for nobles to eat. Laws prevented even fairly wealthy people from purchasing many of the luxury foods required -- ordinary readers of the books couldn't have afforded a staff of over 200 cooks, servers, and helpers as suggested in the instructions for such banquets. A few of the ideas may have been usable for upper class weddings or other special events, but mostly the hundreds of thousands of book buyers just wanted the fantasy.

Early Japanese cookbooks, Rath points out, sometimes explored a single food, beginning in 1782 with One Hundred Tricks with Tofu. The two-volume Secret Digest of Exceptional Radish Dishes throughout the Land, for example, was written by Kidodo, author of several such works. Secret Digest explores daikon radishes from many perspectives, including religious uses and radish lore, ways to cook or prepare the food, ways to make decorative flower-like arrangements of the radishes, and history of the dishes. (Rath, p. 177)

Food and Fantasy is illustrated with wonderful prints
from the early cookbooks. This shows "Noh actors crowned
with food headdresses" from Text for Banquets, 18th century.
(Fig. 7 p. 122)
Other books were obviously satiric, describing impossible foods, like a book called Fish Trap of Recipes which claimed not to be about cooking but "just a manual for someone seeking to create fanciful menus." (Rath, p. 161). One book created a fusion of foods and Noh drama, somehow lining up the dishes with the traditional characters and events of the opera-like plays. The author of Delicacies from the Mountains and Seas invented recipes using mythical creatures like "the nine-tail fox, the Zhu bird, an owl with human hands, and the Tuan-fish -- a carp that oinks like a pig." (Rath, p. 169) Also, actual foods were given fanciful names to distract people from the repetitiveness of every-day dining. Rice, miso soup, and pickles were served at almost every meal, with little variety within each category, and an occasional dish of vegetables, tofu, or grilled fish. (Rath, p. 118)

This wonderful book makes me think about the famous anthropologist Levi-Strauss, who said about the totems of primitive tribes that food could not only be good to eat, but also could be good to think. (There's a lot of discussion over just what he meant and how to translate his words, but that's not important now.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stuff I like at Trader Joe's

When you get to Trader Joe's, a seasonal display usually greets you before you reach the door.
TJ's tweaks lots of products to fit the theme: this month is pumpkin spice, of course.
I haven't tried the Halloween Joe-Joe's but like many people, I can't wait for the peppermint ones they do for Christmas!
So what do I like best at Trader Joe's?
The California Slab Apricots are the tastiest dried fruit
I know of. Last week they ran out and I feared it was a disaster!
Luckily it was temporary -- though TJ's often discontinues
products without explanation.
Marinated artichoke hearts are less expensive and no different
than more expensive ones -- I haven't tried the cherry peppers yet.
Cereal -- another delicious and cost-conscious item from TJ.
Consumer Reports recently tested various O-shaped cereal and wrote: "The winner of these tests? Trader Joe’s version, called Joe-Os, which had slightly lower flavor ratings than Cheerios, but is much cheaper. It’s interesting to note that Trader Joe’s 'Honey Nut O’s' have ground almonds, while the General Mills version doesn’t." (See "Different Brands Of O-Shaped, Oat-Based Cereals Don’t Taste Alike," by Laura Northrup, September 22, 2014)

Chocolate-covered EVERYTHING is the TJ mark of distinction. The "pound plus"
chocolate bars are good too, even though it's just chocolate covered chocolate.
Hard to resist almost any candy they sell.
I like this mango chutney. Also at a good price.
TJ's salsa and "Cowboy Caviar" are both too tempting,
especially with TJ's blue corn chips.
Oddly enough, TJ's sells very useful dish rags.
I like many kinds of cookies and other sweets at TJ's -- especially the vanilla wafers and ginger snaps.
The crystallized candied ginger is a great price, fun to eat if you like HOT candy, and a useful ingredient...
... and as I said ... the Joe-Joe's
Coffee Bean Blast is my favorite of TJ's ice creams.
Zesty red juice! Nice for breakfast. Handy ingredient, too.
TJ's has lots of other good stuff too -- though I don't really like the produce -- it's mostly plastic-wrapped items from distant fields, never local. There's even free coffee. I'm amused that most parties I go to have one or more of the TJ frozen snacks, cakes, or dips for refreshments. I rarely buy them, though, as they really aren't what I see as everyday foods.

The samples on offer provide a hint of what to do with various
mixes and ready-made stuff. Today was pumpkin spice
corn bread with bacon. Seasonal, of course.
It's entertaining to shop at TJ's unless you don't like suddenly realizing that you have a huge pile of chocolate-covered everything in your basket along with the milk, bread, and soup you came for. I consider myself lucky that TJ's is less than a mile from my house. I could walk there but I couldn't carry all those extra cookies.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Food Safety and its History

I just read two more books about the American diet.

Fizz: How Soda Shook UP the World by Tristan Donovan is a comparatively light read, beginning with Joseph Priestly's discovery of how to add CO2 bubbles to water in the 18th century. People immediately LOVED soda as shown by rapid improvements in soda-making technology and the following rise of the soda fountain as a social and dining institution. And of course Donovan ends the book with a series of wars between Coke and Pepsi. In case you are wondering, Fizz is only about artificial bubbles -- naturally carbonated spring water and natural bubbles from fermentation in beer or sparkling wine were long known and loved before artificial carbonation. This is my next culinary history reading group selection, so I will return to it.

Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is more challenging to read as its main focus is food chemistry and the history of highly processed foods. Warner, a journalist, interviewed many food scientists as well as doing other research for the book. The most memorable thing about the scientists is their compartmentalized lives -- they are passionate about creating new artificial additives or flavorings, but they themselves buy, eat, and feed their children much less processed foods than they invent.

Warner isn't really against food additives across the board: just very suspicious of the proliferation, without government supervision, of so many of them. If a food company says an additive is safe, that puts them in the right when they use it. They don't even have to tell the FDA it's there. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Dr. Harvey Wiley
From FDA Website
Both books have quite a lot to say about the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley (1844-1930), who for many years was chief chemist  of the Department of Agriculture, and who was responsible for the original food and drug laws of the United States and for Good Housekeeping magazine's approval process. Wiley definitely hated CocaCola and other soft drinks, and tried to put them out of business because he thought they were deeply harmful.

Wiley also supervised tests of a number of food additives -- including testing large quantities on volunteers in his "poison squad," to establish safe or unsafe doses. (Human subjects research that could never be repeated today!) Wiley tried to have the government regulate additives. Though he made quite a lot of progress in establishing food safety in the US, our current state of affairs might be beyond his worst nightmares!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ten favorite items to buy at Whole Foods

Why do I like to shop at Whole Foods? To start with: it's very close to my house, closer in fact than any store but Trader Joe's (where I also like to shop -- I'll be writing about it soon!)

Here are ten types of foods I actually prefer from Whole Foods:

Trail Mixes: these taste better and fresher to me
than the ones from other stores.
Fish: Whole Foods policy is to sell only fish that are
caught in a responsible way. So I don't have to do that research.
I also like the freshness -- they WILL tell you
when each item arrived in the store. Some stores won't.
Same goes for canned sardines, tuna, etc.
I like the meat, despite the prices which can be high.
Air Chilled Chicken is hard to find anywhere but Whole Foods -- I have bought it in their stores in California too.
It's better because the process doesn't leave the chicken watery and prone to mess up a nice sauteed chicken dish.
Air chilling might be more sanitary, too, instead of putting all the newly-slaughtered chickens in the same water bath.
I like both the bulk and packaged sausages, which
do not contain nitrites.
I enjoy the olive bar.
Good wine selection
Nice breads, including weekly sales. Though the dough is made and
formed elsewhere, breads are baked fresh in the store (as at most supermarkets)
Whole Foods has a wide range of quality, price, and sizes in oils and vinegars.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Reading and Cooking

Stuffed Eggplant
The other day, I bought some small, oddly streaky-colored eggplants and then made them into stuffed eggplant flavored with pine nuts, raisins, onions, lemon, and dill. They looked better before I stuffed them -- but I'm pretty sure the taste was better after I cooked them.

Recent Reading
I've been reading a lot recently, and I don't think I'll be energetic enough to write detailed reviews of the books I've read. The book Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk was one of the best books I've recently encountered, while Sandra Gilbert's The Culinary Imagination was one of the worst!

Paleofantasy summarizes the scientific literature, especially evolutionary biology, to clarify for the layman whether real science supports best-seller hype. It explores many claims made about human needs to return to an earlier "paleo" era -- including the "paleo" diet, myths about running barefoot or in little toe-shaped shoes, and other claims. Zuk demolishes all the faddish nonsense, and provides a fascinating study of what's really known about our ancient ancestors and about human evolution. Bottom line: humans have evolved since the stone age, and are still evolving. Most of the best-selling diet books are poppycock.

The Culinary Imagination is incoherent, repetitive, and full of cliches. The author pretends to show some sort of big ideas about food in literature. I think she must have fooled the people who blurbed the book. But maybe -- not being food writers -- they didn't know how boring it is to read one more discussion of Proust and the madeline that adds nothing to the many earlier discussions. And so on for many other unimaginative literary selections. I didn't think I had any language peeves, but Gilbert's insistence on the word "foodoir" for a food memoir really irked me. Though her own brief recollections were the only thing that was less-than-hackneyed in the book, they just weren't enough to make up for all the pretentious blather.

Finally, my culinary reading group this week read Aaron Bobrow-Strain's White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. In a rare consensus, we totally agreed that it's a great book. We liked the way it focused on just the mass-production of bread and the repeated condemnation of industrial baked goods throughout the last 200 years. I wrote about this book previously, see Bread and Milk Politics.

Rolls I baked, inspired by reading White Bread.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Words and Foods: Ciabatta Bread

Maybe it was the influence of the book The Language of Food, maybe just one of those conversations... but I found myself wondering what ciabatta bread was named for. Maybe it would be one of those fascinating historic trails like those in the book. Anyway, as I was toasting some odd-shaped slices of a Whole Foods ciabatta bread, I googled it. Ancient word root trail? Nope?

In Italian "ciabatta" evidently means slipper, I discovered. Some people don't get the connection, but I looked at my feet:
My slippers
Ciabbata bread (source with recipe )
What about that ancient trail to a prehistoric origin and deeply meaningful linguistic background? Sorry -- the long and fascinating history of ciabatta bread goes back to 1982. Italian bakers were desperate because imported French loaves were eating their lunch -- actually sort of the other way around, baguettes were being eaten for lunch instead of Italian bread. From the Guardian:
"July, 1982 ... at a mill in Adria, a town near Venice, a small band of dedicated flour experts talk dough. One of their number, Arnaldo Cavallari, a miller in his late forties, is especially excited. For years, Rome could only look on, horrified, as large-scale baguette imports from France threatened to monopolise the lucrative sandwich market in Italy. It was time to hit back with an equally commercially viable product. After weeks spent testing new dough mixes and bake-times, refining and adapting existing regional loaves and using his own mineral- and gluten-rich flour, Cavallari came up with Italy's very own dedicated snack bread. He called it Ciabatta Polesano. It was hailed as the bread that saved Italy, and rocked the sandwich world." (source)
Ciabatta has its characteristic floppy shape because it is made from a very wet dough, invented by Cavallari. It's become a widely popular sandwich bread in Italy, England, and the US -- theoretically bakeries who use the name ciabatta have to license the name from his bakery, but I have no idea if they really do.

Some dispute Cavallari's claims to the invention of ciabatta. They suggest the existence of similar traditional loaves in various parts of Italy. However, there are no proofs of the name being used earlier, it seems. In 1992, the New York Times described ciabatta as a recently-introduced faddish bread in New York, mentioning its wide popularity in England, but not its history -- see "DE GUSTIBUS; So What if It Looks Like an Old Shoe? Ciabatta Is Loved" by Florence Fabricant.

That's about all I can find -- the Wikipedia article and the Food Timeline don't have anything else! So much for historic depth.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Food Grammar

I just read this book: The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. The author is a linguistics professor at Stanford, a resident of San Francisco, a man who loves lots of different foods and food history. I think I found the book enjoyable because it combines several things I love with new ideas. I especially enjoyed the author's willingness to share lots of personal experiences about his wife, grandparents, and neighbors and what they all eat.

Here's what I love that is in the book and what I found new:

First, I love reading about food. Jurafsky names so many books I've read that I find it amazing. For example, his chapter on ice cream cites Elizabeth David's Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices, which I read recently. His chapter on why the Chinese don't do dessert cites my old favorite Jennifer 8 Lee's Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

I loved learning Jurafsky's explanation of food words also -- like his reasons why ice cream names sound the way they do. He explains how new-fangled ice cream flavors often violate our culinary "grammar," for example by putting bacon into ice cream when meat is not part of the syntax of an American dessert.

Jurafsky is passionate about food history.  I love it too! For example, Jurafsky provides a fascinating history of the relationship of the words "macaroon," "macaron," and "macaroni." At first, macaroon and macaron were the same -- that was back when spelling was somewhat a matter of personal choice. But the spelling and the ingredients diverged some time in the 19th century. The French stuck to tradition going back to at least the Renaissance, and used almonds in the macarons. In America, a coconut craze inspired the changeover to the sticky coconut macaroons, which were enthusiastically made part of Jewish Passover cuisine because they have no flour. (Which reminds me -- he had a fascinating discussion of the history of the words "flower" and "flour" too, but I don't think I'll try to elaborate on it.) And the word "macaroni" has the same root meaning pasta. But it also meant someone who ate exotic Italian food like macaroni, so 200 years ago or so meant a dandy like Yankee Doodle with a fancy hair style. So complicated. So amusing!

The Language of Food is full of detailed observations about language in the style of my favorite blog, Language Log -- another source that Jurafsky cites. Studying the frequency and meaning of words as the language changes has very recently emerged as more possible than it used to be. Research is now facilitated by availability of statistical modeling codes and by databases of language from google. Language Log bloggers frequently test their hypotheses about words and usage by this means, and Jurafsky does some fascinating experiments (and cites those of other linguists) to show some wonderful things about how menu writers and food ads choose their words. In fact, I learned about Jurafsky's book from a blog post by Language Log writer Arnold Zwicky.

The language of menu writers is one area where Jurafsky gets results from this type of statistical research. My favorite language analysis in the book was about junk food. Jurafsky does for the language on a potato chip bag what Michael Moss did in Salt Sugar Fat for the nutritional content of the chips inside -- they both expose the manufacturers' manipulation of the consumer. (Salt Sugar Fat is another of the books that I have read and Jurafsky mentions). Packages of fancy premium chips, Jurafsky shows, display far more claims about how healthy they are than packages of cheaper chips. In fact, Jurafsky calculates exactly how much you'll pay extra for an ounce of chips that says it has "no trans fats." The chips inside these bags aren't even much different from one another, just the claims.

Anyway it's a fun read, right from the start when he talks about Ketchup and how the both the word (with its many spellings) and the substance (with its originally many flavors, now only tomato) came into our linguistic and culinary vocabularies.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hunger 100 Years Ago


Recently at the Toledo Museum of Art we saw a very impressive exhibit, "The Great War: Art on the Front Line." In thinking about hunger in our own time (yesterday's post) I was thinking about much worse times, for example these artists' visions of the horrors of the war that started 100 years ago. The online catalog for the exhibit provides a great deal of food for thought.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Hungry People in our Country

Food insecurity -- that is, lack of access to adequate food because of too little money and other resources -- has declined ever-so-slightly in the past few years, according to a study released last week by the USDA.
"In 2013, 85.7 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year. The remaining 14.3 percent (17.5 million households) were food insecure. Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. The change from 2012 (14.5 percent) was not statistically significant; however, the cumulative decline from 2011 (14.9 percent) was statistically significant."
Children suffer greatly when their families are food insecure, obviously. Approximately 10% of households with children, 3.8 million households, suffered from food insecurity at some time during the year (unchanged from 2011 through 2013).

I try to empathize with the families who suffer this way. I am a privileged person; it's very difficult for me to imagine what it means to be food insecure. Even the types of food articles I read obstruct my view of what it means to be so poor. It's common to read that many health problems -- particularly obesity -- would be reduced if more people cooked at home.

What does such advice mean to people who can't buy enough food? I consider this statistic from the study: "The typical food-secure household spent 30 percent more for food than the typical food-insecure household of the same size and composition, including food purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly the Food Stamp Program)."

Illustration from "The Joy of Cooking?"
One entirely different article that I read recently emphasizes how well-meaning pundits who suggest home cooking as a remedy are blind to the real problems of others. "The Joy of Cooking?" by Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton is based on interviews with "150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life" and on close observations of 12 working-class and poor families. The authors stressed this: "something that often gets overlooked: cooking is fraught." (I learned of this article here.)

"The Joy of Cooking?" provides a large number of detailed examples about the difficulties that poor mothers (yes, it's almost always mothers) face in trying to comply with the message "that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families."

The authors documented that many very poor families lack adequate kitchen equipment or supplies of decent foods. They described working poor families who worked several jobs, rarely found enough time to cook and eat together or to shop frequently, and though they had basic foods, often couldn't afford the recommended healthier foods like fruit and vegetables. For example, Leanne worked for a fast food corporation "in an urban area that lacked reliable public transportation. Sometimes, Leanne would take a taxi to work only to find out that business was slow and she was not needed. At other times, she was asked to work late. Because of this, Leanne and her family had no set meal time: cooking and eating were often catch-as-catch-can."

The poorest family they described was "a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink."

But even several of the study's better-off working families with decent homes had high anxiety about cooking, about their children who didn't like the recommended foods, and who experienced a sense of frustration at "the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives."

I've read a variety of histories of American ways to cope with poverty and food insecurity. I don't think we are doing very well! I was wondering if the Settlement House movement of that began in the late 19th century as a way to help very poor immigrant families managed to address some of the same problems. They taught cooking skills and basic nutrition as it was then seen to immigrant women and their daughters (at that time no one even questioned that women did the family's food preparation). They did seem to assume that their students had kitchens at home. Maybe they were condescending to their clients, and surely they had no respect for ethnic foodways -- but I wonder if they had a better idea?

The Settlement House movement still exists a little bit, I gather. For example, a program called "Cooking for Healthy Communities" is sponsored by United Neighborhood Houses and The Children’s Aid Society in New York. The program "is training cooks from UNH member agencies in nutrition and healthy meal preparation, focusing on cooking with fresh, whole ingredients. Thirty programs from 17 settlement houses participated in the first training program, including cooks from senior centers, child care centers, homeless shelters, and HIV/AIDS service programs. By helping cooks to prepare healthier meals, the project has built community capacity to prevent diet-related diseases in City neighborhoods at greatest risk."

My grasp of the whole situation is limited, but my goal is to develop more empathy, to go beyond the well-meaning articles and advice that neglects many impoverished families' reality. To quote "The Joy of Cooking?" about the widespread emphasis on cooking that isn't really helpful to many who lack time, money, and other resources:
"In the fight to combat rising obesity rates, modern-day food gurus advocate a return to the kitchen. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, and America’s most influential 'foodie-intellectual,' tells us that the path to reforming the food system 'passes right through the kitchen.” New York Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman agrees, saying the goal should be 'to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden.' Magazines such as Good Housekeeping and television personalities like Rachael Ray offer practical cooking advice to get Americans into the kitchen, publishing recipes for 30-minute meals and meals that can be made in the slow-cooker. First lady Michelle Obama has also been influential in popularizing public health messages that emphasize the role that mothers play when it comes to helping children make healthy choices."
How sad that for many this is an impossible dream.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

What do American Gods Eat?

Of course I mean the food of the gods of Neil Gaiman's great book American Gods. I just enjoyed rereading this for around the third time. I don't reread many books, and in this case, I was gratified at the way I could focus on some of the details because I wasn't distracted by wanting to know how the plot wrapped up.*

Gaiman is a highly inventive writer, with lots of variation in his choice of details, and in how he portrays the characters' reactions to minor events. Of course I was especially interested in what and where the central character Shadow and all the gods ate. Being a typical midwestern American, Shadow tends to eat hamburgers and fries, sometimes with a bowl of chili. Or an "all day full breakfast -- it came with hush puppies." (p. 192) 

Shadow generally likes basic midwestern food, whatever the region -- if it's not badly cooked. As he roamed he shared a funeral meal for a black woman while briefly staying with some Egyptian gods of the dead in Cairo, Illinois. That meal included  a kitchen filled with "tubs and with saucepans and with Tupperware." And "a table... laden high with coleslaw and beans and cornmeal hush puppies and chicken and ribs and black-eyed peas." (p. 222)

A depressing Christmas lunch takes place at a "hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned peas. From the way he attacked it, and the way he smacked his lips, Wednesday seemed to be enjoying the food." Wednesday's real enthusiasm, though, turns out to be for the underage waitress. (p. 234)

Michigan Pasties (source)
While hiding out in a Wisconsin town near Ironwood, MI in the Upper Peninsula, Shadow meets Mabel, who has a diner. She offers him a pasty: "Shadow had no idea what a pasty was, but he said that would be fine, and in a few moments Mabel returned with a plate with what looked like a folded-over pie on it... . Shadow ... bit into it: it was warm and filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions. 'First pasty I've ever had,' he said. 'It's real good.'" (p. 266)

More myth-like was Shadow and Wednesday's earlier meal in Chicago, cooked by a woman named Zorya Vechernayaya, shared with her sisters, also named Zorya, and their relative Czernobog, a god so obscure I had to look him up -- he's Slavic. His bargain with Shadow, made during the meal, is important. There's an absent relative named Bielebog too. 

But I'm focused on the food. The meal took place at a small table in the living room of the small apartment:
"Zorya Vechernayaya took five wooden bowls and placed an unpeeled boiled potato in each, then ladled in a healthy serving of a ferociously crimson borscht. She plopped a spoonful of white sour cream in, and handed the bowls to each of them... The borscht was vinegary and tasted like pickled beets. The boiled potato was mealy.  
"The next course was a leathery pot roast, accompanied by greens of some description -- although they had been boiled so long and so thoroughly that they were no longer by any stretch of the imagination greens, and were well on their way to becoming browns. 
"Then there were cabbage leaves  stuffed with ground meat and rice, cabbage leaves of such a toughness that they were almost impossible to cut without spattering gound meat and rice all over the carpet... At the end of the meal Shadow was still hungry. Prison food had been pretty bad, and prison food was better than this. 
"'Good food,' said Wednesday, who had cleaned his plate with every evidence of enjoyment." (p. 84-85)
On another jaunt with Wednesday, Shadow finds himself in San Francisco. A beautiful woman named Easter offers them: "Eggs, roast chicken, chicken curry, chicken salad, and ... lapin -- rabbit, actually, but cold rabbit is a delight, and in that bowl over there is jugged hare." And says: "On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation." But Wednesday remarks that despite the continuation of some practices, even hunting eggs, they no longer know who Easter herself is. (p. 309-310)

Some of Shadow's acquaintances have more complicated foodways -- for example two sisters who invite him to dinner next door to his Wisconsin  hideout. Marguerite offers Shadow "a steaming bowl of spaghetti... crusty garlic bread, thick red sauce, spicy meatballs." To his compliment she replies that its "from the Corsican side of the family." He wonders, "I thought you were Native American." She describes her parents, and how her sister was born after they split up. And her sister adds, "my mom's family were European Jewish... from one of those places that used to be communist and now are just chaos. I think she liked the idea of being married to a Cherokee. Fry bread and chopped liver." (p. 390)

6th century bronze with dancing Odin --
used as a die for decorating Viking helmets (source)
Gaiman uses tons of other devices for portraying his enormous cast of characters. I've selected food because I always select food -- and his descriptions are  so enjoyable to read. He seems to nail something essential every time, and he doesn't neglect to mention, often, the process of cleaning up the dishes and pots and pans that were used for cooking and serving. Fantasy, yes, but rooted very much in this real world.

* If you haven't read American Gods -- which by the way will soon be a TV series as well as my book club's September selection -- here's my excessively brief summary:
At the beginning, a man named Shadow is in jail. He's made time pass by practicing coin tricks and also has learned to keep himself safe. Shadow gets out two days early because his wife Laura has been killed in a freeway accident. Soon after her funeral Laura is brought back from the dead -- or at least she's re-animated even though still dead. Thus she plays a significant role in Shadow's adventures. 
Immediately after his release, even before he gets home for Laura's funeral, events begin to have a surrealist (or maybe magical realist) tinge, particularly his encounter with a Mr. Wednesday, later revealed to be the Norse god known as Odin, Votan, or the All-Father. Mr. Wednesday's associate, a leprechaun, demonstrates some really impressive coin tricks -- first indication that not all is realistic. He makes a bargain to work for Wednesday -- and later makes a few other bargains as well.
In a complicated series of plot twists Shadow encounters many more mythological figures from Norse, American Indian, Eastern European (including a Rabbi with a Golem), Asian (especially the Indians Kali and Ganesha, who likes to cook), African (above all, Mr.Nancy who is the spider god Anansi) and other traditions. The gods generally express their frustration at having lost their worshippers. In the New World their godly powers only serve them for rather mundane survival. Mr. Wednesday, for example, needing money, involves Shadow in an ingenious bank robbery.

All of these gods are roughly connected to one another, and they are especially aware of the sacred sites America offers: sites that are mainly known to the general public as roadside attractions. All the gods and minor mythological characters are nervously expecting "a storm." As Shadow becomes more and more aware of this, he has dramatic dreams, including one dream of the mighty thunderbirds of Indian myth. His dream is so dramatic that all the sacred or formerly sacred figures can sense what is happening in it.
  
Shadow's dreamlike states become strongly part of his reality as he becomes increasingly aware of who all the gods are, what they are up to, and what it has to do with him and the un-dead Laura. Shadow ultimately participates in a final battle among the gods on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. It's a fascinating plot, and I've scarcely summarized any of the nearly 600 exciting pages.

Monday, September 01, 2014

What's in your lunchbox?

Mona Lisa Lunchbox -- $47.95
Back to school this week! I'm again thinking of kids and their lunches... at right is a very pricy Mona Lisa lunchbox, that for me suggests a lot of gaps between what kids need and what they might want. Clearly kids need healthy food and often want junk. (My own family is an exception of course.)

In a study published this summer, photos of the contents of 600 lunches packed for children in third and fourth grade in several Massachusetts schools revealed rather depressing facts: home-packed lunches were like many over-rated things in the old joke.

“When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” according to Jeanne Goldberg, a researcher at Tufts University and a senior author of the study of the lunchbox contents.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else. ... Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.”

"This study points to the need to help parents find ways to build nutrition into the packed-lunch routine. The researchers acknowledge that this is a challenge that will require creative approaches to packing lunch boxes with affordable, easy-to-prepare, and healthy options while at the same time creating a demand for these options among children." (source)

Government guidelines now require among other things that school lunches include fruit and vegetables, and avoid sugary drinks -- unlike the home-packed lunches on average. Kids and parents complain and threaten, but follow-up studies of the changed school lunch suggest that kids get used to it, and actually eat healthier meals: eventually. From a commentator at CalorieLab, here's a key observation: "There are a number of things the kids probably don’t like about school in addition to healthy lunches, such as the teachers, tests and homework, but their wishes are not our command. Please tell me I don’t have to explain why letting children make their own food decisions is nuts." (source)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's Hot? What's MEH?

The Guardian food blog, "Word of Mouth" today has a particularly interesting collection of posts about food trends. In particular, "Seasonal eating: does it matter?" presents an intriguing set of statistics: the vast majority in England don't know when seasonal foods are in season. (Aside: I checked the website pickyourown.org -- I do know what's in season near me. And I've chosen a couple of my own photos from past posts to illustrate my reactions to what I've read there.)

Ann Arbor Farmer's Market
Does seasonal produce matter? Well, one quoted restaurant owner said "there's always something in season somewhere." Many of the people who don't know what's in season, says the article, actually can't taste the difference between fresh/local or imported produce anyway -- at least not in this British survey.

Why else doesn't it matter? There's the tricky discussion of food miles and carbon footprint; that is, eco-responsibility. This has been debated endlessly and at least in England doesn't seem to be of any significance. The author says: "Unless you live in an asparagus-producing part of the country – the Vale of Evesham, say – then the ecological impact of Peruvian versus British asparagus is vanishingly small. If you drive to the supermarket it is nixed altogether, if not tipped in favour of Paddington Bear's homeland."

On another topic, Word of Mouth's recurring feature titled (misleadingly) "How to eat" currently features the burrito. Contributor Tony Naylor presents what I see as a completely English view of the burrito, which appears to have just made it into the mainstream English food consciousness. "The burrito is not breakfast material," he writes, listing why he doesn't like eggs and all those other ingredients mushed together, instead of properly, Britishly, segregated. "Instead," he writes, "it is best eaten at lunch or early evening, and comes into its own when you are rushing to meet your mates after work for a drink. ... It is the perfect pre-beer food."

"Molcajete Mexicano" at Spicy Tacos, Brighton, Colo.
See what I mean? He goes on and on, finally giving one last jab at how he doesn't like Mexican beer.

A few posts down the blog, we get to the main point: "Want more than tacky Tex-Mex? Then prepare for a real Mexican wave." Writer Trevor Baker surveys the upcoming Mexican restaurant trend in London and maybe a few places elsewhere in England. The post is illustrated with a photo that looks like publicity for a kit from an American supermarket: hard-shell tortillas, red kidney beans, tiny unmelted rectangles of bright yellow cheese, a glimpse of ground meat and sour cream. No one's idea of food from actual Mexcio, even if you are blissfully unaware of the many nuances of Mexico's regional cuisines. It's totally the US version!

The author isn't very aware of which trends or even which chain restaurants are Mexican and which are from the US. Chipotle is often mentioned as a new-to-Britain chain, but not the fact that it was founded by Anglo San Franciscans, not by Mexicans. Trevor Baker doesn't seem to care, it's all lumped together with the trendiest news possible: Albert Adrià the brother of Ferran Adrià the Spanish food sensation is about to open a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. Earthshaking news for foodies!

And from London Tarun Mahrotri, an ex-banker with an Indian background has opened a Mexican restaurant called. Peyote. Along with a few other very expensive newcomers, he sees changeover from the past when in England Mexican was "just bad Tex-Mex hen-party places." The whole article reflects attitudes like this, though Baker does pay lip service to the idea that chefs trained in Mexico might have something to offer: "it seems likely that we will need more actual Mexicans leading the way."

Other posts on Word of Mouth at the moment include a set of instructions for "the perfect prawn cocktail" and for "perfect vegetable lasagne," a discussion of the science of mixed drinks, and a screed on the failure of "the British food revival." According to the post's author Thomas Hobbs, a few high-end British places are successful in London. But, he says, "Outside London, the average town or city is filled with curry houses and chain restaurants offering Italian cuisine. British dishes are on 9% of restaurant menus, behind Italian (25%) and American (12%), and are only just in front of Japanese and Mexican (both 6%), according to Horizons."

The most amusing post was titled "Global leftovers: what Airbnb guests bring to your fridge." While Koreans came with all sorts of prepackaged foods, French guests didn't use the fridge at all -- they just spent all their time making love, says author Henrietta Clancy. Several guests left slightly-used bottles of olive oil or other good ingredients, while the Koreans left a silver chopstick in the dishwasher, requiring a costly service call. Very amusing.

 The Airbnb article was just a little less amusing than the best food article I've read all week (but not in the Guardian). This was "My Week on the All-Emoji Diet" by Kelsey Rexroat. A quote of what the author ate one day:

Breakfast: green tea with honey (“honey pot”), red apple; lunch: roasted sweet potato with eggplant (“aubergine”) and tomato, chocolate bar; dinner: oden, fish cake, sake, shaved ice.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“What Happened to Anna K.” (with spoilers)

What nerve would it take to repurpose Anna Karenina into a 21st century novel?!

What Happened to Anna K. is a novel that just exactly does that. Author Irina Reyn takes advantage of the extremely traditional and constricted ways of the Bukharian-Jewish-Russian immigrant community in Rego Park, Queens, as a setting for her parallel to Tolstoy’s novel. I think she pulled it off, and I admire her accomplishment.

For Reyn’s Anna: “Bukharians remained exotic ... even if her own mother had been an exiled Bukharian in Moscow, so happily Sovietized that she had no desire to return to Uzbekistan.” Anna’s cousin Katia, in contrast, has a father (Anna’s uncle) who’s also Sovietized, but her mother married him directly from her home in Samarkand.

When they all get to New York, the two families join a community whose values are a perfect setting for Reyn’s nineteenth century novel that takes place in the present. Anna wonders how her fellow-immigrants could be “so pious, so earnest, especially compared with Russians whose post-Soviet cynicism drowned out religions, politics, nations.” But they are. (p. 39)

Anna is a complex character with ambitions and a great need to get out of Rego Park, out of Queens. At the beginning of the novel, she’s 37 years old and has had a job and an apartment on her own in Manhattan for ages, after having graduated from one of the NY public colleges. At the desperate urging of her parents, she finally agrees to marry a rich Russian without much in common with her. Her husband offers oodles of possessions and elegant clothing, dinners at expensive restaurants, and all the trappings of new wealth. She has a little boy named Serge, not Sergei like Tolstoy’s Anna’s son. Serge is named for Serge Gainsbourg, because Anna K. is a fan of French culture and film. But all in all, Anna is NOT HAPPY!

Cousin Katia, many years younger than Anna, is a simple character, a conformist who almost fails all her classes at college. She’s just not that bright. Her reputation has been ruined among the Bukharians by some mean boys, and so she dates an older totally American Jewish writing instructor (only an adjunct) – against all the norms of family etc.

Just on the occasion when Katia believes that her boyfriend will propose marriage, hoping her family will accept her terrible departure from their norms and expectations, Anna swoops in, steals the boyfriend’s affection, and moves in with him, abandoning her husband and child. Just like Tolstoy’s heroine, Anna accepts being an outcast from her community. Of course they live in his tiny Manhattan apartment, not in a palace like Tolstoy’s Anna, but the disapproval and isolation she experiences is just as severe.

Katia, meanwhile, accepts the next Bukharian to come along, a nice dull guy who has had a crush on her since high school, who works in a pharmacy, and who satisfied community requirements except that of course rich is better than lower middle class. Her life is rather simple: as her parents wished. Katia’s husband’s only saving feature is that he’s even more obsessed with French films than Anna. Little Katia has no understanding of his interest. The lives of Katia, her husband, and Anna continue to intertwine as the novel progresses. I’m sure you can guess what finally did happen to Anna K.

Food plays a creative role in this novel, as it did in the other Russian-Jewish-New York-immigrant books I’ve recently reviewed (here, here, here). It only took until page 29 to get to “plates of Salat Olivier, vinaigrette, herring, and smoked fish” – in this case served at a fancy French restaurant called Fabergé, beloved by the Russians. The French part? “Bottles of Merlot on the table, the hors d’oeuvres (rather than zakuski) that peppered the lazy Susan, the coq au vin (easily mistaken for roasted kuritza) glistening as the centerpiece.” And on p. 231, almost at the end of the book, Americanization takes the form of “Okra in Baklazhanovaia ikra? Shrimp in Salat Olivier? Chocolate chips in rugelach? Why not?”

I don’t even know all the referenced Russian dishes, but I like the way that Reyn connects foods with multiple cultural experiences – there’s lots more of this. Particularly I liked the way that in a writing class Anna once took, her peer-critics loved her “memory piece” -- but “More ethnic details, the class sighed, more food, more indigenous scenes.” (p. 25) The instructor is an amusing caricature of a not-so-successful writer who teaches others what he isn’t so good at himself. Also, he’s a precursor of David, the writing instructor who is Anna’s downfall. And, we see, according to received wisdom, ethnic-based writing must include food!


Just this week, I’ve read two reviews of yet another book from the Russian-Jewish-immigrant community -- what the New York Times review by John Williams calls “Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s brilliant and often funny first novel, ‘Panic in a Suitcase.’” Will I read it? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve had enough of this genre!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

More Dutch Food

Lunch at the Rijksmuseum Cafe, Amsterdam
Yes, the one-euro hamburger seems less than 3 inches
in diameter, and the medium coke is around 4 oz.
(I came for the wireless, I stayed for the burger.) 
Hotel breakfast: there was much more than this!

Breakfast at "Bagels and Beans" a chain that's everywhere we went.
Coffee at a cafe in Delft. 
Rijstaffel: an Indonesian-style buffet meal that's been popular for a long time in Holland.
Ours was on the boat that took us around the canals for a beautiful evening cruise.

Joachim Beuchkelaer: detail from "Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus," 1560-1565

Market in the church square, Delft.