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 -- 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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cheese! And other good Dutch food.

Paulus Potter's impressive image of cattle in Mauritshuis.
Larger than life-size, the bull dominates the entire room of the museum.

Dairy cows are part of the Dutch landscape, and have been for centuries. I love Dutch cheese, and I love to look at the cheese shops and market stalls that sell small, medium, and huge Dutch cheeses. The airport has its own brand of cheese to sell to departing tourists -- of course we couldn't resist and came home from last week's stay in Holland with a wedge of cumin-flavored gouda.

Cheese in a painting by Clara Peeters, 1615.

A cheese shop in Delft
All kinds of Dutch seafood, especially herring, make a particularly delicious meal or snack.
A classic painting of a kitchen by Adriaen Brouwer
shows delicious chickens
roasting on a spit -- you still see them at markets.
I enjoyed the delicious bird in the photo at a restaurant in Amsterdam last week (actually a guinea fowl, not a chicken). Just about every meal we ate was delightful! And the correspondences with paintings in the museums was an added amusement.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mauritshuis, The Hague

Wall sconce at Mauritshuis
Today two friends and I visited The Hague, which is only a short bus ride from the hotel where we are staying in Leiden. We spent several hours at the Mauritshuis, a small museum dedicated mainly to painting from the Dutch Golden Age. Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is no doubt the most famous of the works on display. You have surely seen many reproductions of it. Several excellent paintings by Rembrandt, Paulus Potter, Jan Steen, and many others make up this fine ensemble. I'm not posting pictures of these well-known paintings, but the Mauritshuis link will take you to the website where they are on view.

I find the depictions of food in the art of that era to be irresistible. Here are a few examples I took from the much more obscure but nevertheless remarkable paintings in the collection:

Detail from Clara Peeters, "Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels" (c. 1615)
Detail from Jan Brueghel I & Hendrik van Balen,
"Garland of fruit surrounding a Depiction of Cybele" (1620-1622)
Detail from Joachim Beuckelaer, "Kitchen Scene..." (c. 1560-1565)
For comparison: cauliflower at market today

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mussels for dinner

Waiting for fries to go with the mussels for dinner.
We have loved every meal we have eaten here in Amsterdam!

Friday, August 08, 2014

"Little Failure" by Gary Shteyngart

">Look. Hear. Taste. Smell. Feel." So reads the status line in computer games composed by a pre-adolescent Gary Shteyngart and his best friend. It could be the motto of his memoir, Little Failure. His life is a sensory experience, colorful, buzzing, savory, aromatic. (p. 204)

Shteyngart's memoir describes food constantly. Even in comparison to the other Russian food books I've written up recently, it's amazingly full of observations about what he ate in Russia, in New York, and during his transition on the way. Anecdotes about food -- often very funny-- offer effective support for his presentation of a difficult childhood and complicated later life. Although he was only around 6 years old when he and his parents arrived in New York, his childhood memories are very detailed.

Characterizing his current life as a writer in New York at the beginning of the book, he mentions how he courted "gastric disaster by eating two portions of Wall Street vindaloo." Working on his first novel he had "learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive." (p. 4-5)

About his early life in Russia, he says "The hunger is strong in me. And it is strong for meats. 'Doctor's kolbasa,' a soft Russian mortadella substitute; then, as my teeth grow in complexity, vetchina, or Russian ham, and buzhenina, dangerously chewy cold baked pork, a taste of which will linger on the tongue for hours." He loves sweetened condensed milk: "'Milk, whole, condensed, with sugar' might be the first five words I try to read in Russian." (p. 23)

His memories zigzag back and forth from his present and recent past in New York to his childhood in Russia and his school days in New York. Various events trigger the memories -- a family Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, with "a garlicky, wet turkey... and a dessert made out of a dozen matzhos, a gallon of cream and amaretto liqueur, and a tub of raspberries." (p. 27)

Hunger stalked his past, both his own and that of his grandparents and great-grandparents, who lived in the shtetls of Belarus and Ukraine. In the Ukranian town of Chemirovers, he mentions, "my father's paternal grandfather was killed for no good reason in the 1920s. My father's grandmother was left to fend for herself and a family of five children. There was not enough to eat." (p. 33)  He describes what his mother, his grandmother, and his father fed him as a child -- and how their background included incredible hard times during wars, persecutions of Jews, shortages of food and other goods, and outright famines, even as they migrated to Leningrad, the big city.

He hints at the level of antisemitism his family experienced up until their departure in the late 1970s, as well as at ordinary problems with living in the Soviet Union. Just before they left, his mother was buying ham, and complained more uninhibitedly than usual about being given only fat. The clerk, stereotyping her, says "When you move to Israel they'll slice the ham for you without fat." His mother, in her first "brave and truthful words ... in thirty years of careful Soviet life," answers "Yes... but all you will ever have is the fat." Irony all around, notes Shteyngart. (p. 47)

New York, in contrast offers the adult Shteyngart a meal at "the View, the revolving restaurant of  the Marriott Marquis in Times Square" where he and his parents celebrate his mother's birthday with "something truffled." While eating, his father tells Shteyngart how Russian bloggers dislike his first published novel, insulting him and pretending to be joking. (p. 39)

Shteyngart doesn't spare us the standard memories of terrible-quality Soviet food; for instance, cheese. He includes the standard mention of endless lines: "before yoga," he says, "waiting in line for an eggplant for three hours could constitute a meditative experience." (p. 70) But his memoir isn't just another standard retelling of the immigrant's experience -- I only mention the originality and how I enjoyed it, I'm not going to try to reproduce it. As he describes his childhood and family background, he makes one understand how he became a ferocious patriot of Soviet Russia, and how these feelings had to be overcome as he understood their history and their new reality.

A humorous and remarkably original area is his description of the family's experiences adapting to Western food. Despite the frequency with which I've heard how others did this (both in writing and from acquaintances) I enjoyed the details he chose, such as the Knorr mushroom soup packet they prepare and eat in Rome, first long stop on their journey west and his father's comparison to real Leningrad forest mushrooms in soup with sour cream... "Already the nostalgia." (p. 85) 

After a bit of assimilation into Orthodox Jewish New York, he enjoys his father's tale called "Planet of the Yids" where a "Hebraic corner of the Andromeda Galaxy [is] constantly besieged by gentile spacemen who attack it with space torpedoes filled with highly unkosher but oh-so-delicious Russian salo, which is salted raw pork fat, lard, a lumpy cousin of the French suet." (p. 142)

When Shteyngart describes his high school and college years in the second half of the book, there's more about his quests for sex and friendship and about drugs and alcohol than about food. I haven't finished the book: I expect to finish on a plane tonight. So I thought I would write about only what's done. I'm really looking forward to the rest, and will update here if there's something unexpected in the rest of the book -- I don't think I've seen a reference yet to Salad Olivier.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

"A Replacement Life" by Boris Fishman

"Berta conveyed her condolences the only way that she could. Two foldout tables in Grandfather's living room heaved with plates rimmed in gold filigree: duck with prunes; pickled watermelon, potato pancakes with dill, garlic, and farmer cheese. A dropped fork or a glass emptied of Berta's trademark cranberry water sent her bulleting into the kitchen with startling litheness."

Mourners ate well in Boris Fishman's book A Replacement Life. Slava, the main character, in response to seeing this table, thinks back to other meals at one of the same tables, prepared by other helpers than Berta, "uniformly ambrosial, as if they all attended the same Soviet Culinary School No. 1."

He thinks of "Stewed eggplant; chicken steaks in egg batter; marinated peppers with buckwheat honey; herring under potatoes, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise; bow-tie pasta with kasha, caramelized onions, and garlic; ponchiki with mixed-fruit preserves; pickled cabbage; pickled eggplant; meat in aspic; beet salad with garlic and mayonnaise; kidney beans with walnuts; kharcho and solyanka; fried cauliflower; whitefish under stewed carrots; salmon soup; kidney beans with the walnuts swapped out for caramelized onions; sour cabbage with beef; pea soup with corn, vermicelli and fried onions." (Kindle locations 318-331)

Feasts of Russian foods were served in the homes of immigrants who had fled from Soviet collective life to freedom in New York, or so it might seem. The Brooklyn where they lived "was as ugly as the rows of apartment blocks they had left behind in the Soviet Union. Perhaps that was why they lived here." (loc. 4665)

The other day, I mentioned how Soviet food plays such a large role in numerous recent books by Russian-Jewish-American authors. Obviously, A Replacement Life is no different. Eventually Fishman gets to everyone's favorite Soviet dish, salad Olivier: "Galochka, who was setting a plate of herring in oil on a lacy tablecloth, looked up. The girls were working with daunting facility. One was setting the table with gold-rimmed plates, another following with filigreed thimbles, and a third unloding powls of salad Olivier and boiled potatoes." (loc. 2376)

Along with the food lots of vodka and other strong drink flow, as the events of the story proceed. Food is only one reflection of the attitudes expressed by Slava's relatives and their extended circle of relations and lifelong friends and friendly enemies, old rivals, and arms-length loved ones. Slava gets into the middle of their complex nets. At the beginning of the story, he's temporarily escaped them, but the death of his grandmother and the mourning rituals (including the food in the first quote) bring him back.

Though he has a mainstream job and a 100% American girlfriend, the novel begins when Slava is suddenly enveloped in everything about them, particularly in the stories of their past. Just as his grandmother dies, the older members of this Jewish immigrant circle have all found out that they might be eligible for reparations money from Germany -- if they can prove that they suffered in certain ways during World War II. Slava is enlisted to tell their stories and to embellish or even outright invent them if that's what it takes. Everyone suffered, but they weren't necessarily in a Concentration Camp, didn't necessarily fit the stringent criteria required to qualify for the money.

Slava tries to help them create narratives that will be convincing and fit the criteria -- not necessarily honestly. What really happens as he works with them is that after years of silence, a large number of stories are suddenly brought out of hiding -- especially the stories of Slava's grandmother that she never told while living.

As Slava does his research, also looking up information in the library, he becomes aware of much that had been suppressed, as well as dealing with his conscience about the dishonesty in what he's doing. The result is a very penetrating treatment of the history of Soviet Jews in World War II. Perhaps Fishman's readers are familiar with the stories of Jewish city or village dwellers who tried to join the Russian or Belarusian or Polish partisans against the Nazis, but were often rejected or betrayed by the Christian partisans. Perhaps these stories are news to them. (I heard a number of lectures on this subject a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by what Fishman created out of various historical elements.)

It's a very interesting tale, with lots of vivid characters and lots of connections between modern life and history. You could look at it as a study of memories and personal history and how grandchildren find or might find out about their seemingly ordinary grandparents. Or as a story about what's true and what's made up. I'm not going to belabor any of this. It's a readable and enjoyable book -- and by the way, it's very funny.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Curnonsky and Rouff

Curnonsky (pseudonym of Maurice Edmond Sailland,1872-1956) and Marcel Rouff (1877-1936) were gourmands who traveled around France in the early 1920s and wrote a series of guidebooks. The following illustrations are screen shots of a few that have been for sale on the internet ... most of them no longer available. I'd love to see some of these guides and read about the "culinary marvels and good inns of France."

I would especially like to see this one,
and find out where they liked to eat in Paris.

During my recent research on Edouard de Pomiane's cookbooks and culinary influence, I came across Curnonsky in various lists of cookbooks and especially because of Curnonsky's election as "Prince of Gourmands" and because of his many accomplishments after his travels and publications with Rouff. I might follow up by studying more of gastronomic history between the two world wars.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The New Magic Barrel

Russian-Jewish immigrants are writing some really fascinating books these days! Here's a new one, published this week: Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. Since I preordered it, I was able to read it yesterday. I'm not really accustomed to reading graphic novels, so I probably read too fast -- but I completely enjoyed the story of Lena Finkle's efforts to find love in a baffling world, and the visual nature of the presentation.

Almost every book by Russian-Jewish immigrants that I've read has a lot of food themes. Anya von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and Lara Vapnyar's Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love focus almost entirely on food in various contexts.

Here's one fun thing about Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: the author doesn't get all nostalgic about Russian foods. The title character/narrator and her lover  -- a not-Jewish man from a wealthy American family who hates money -- go out for very cheap Chinese dumplings. They eat burritos and pizza, also very cheap. But no Salad Olivier! No cabbage in any form! No Soviet food!

I'm impressed that Ulinich's character  is so assimilated in so many aspects of her life -- but still focused as well on her childhood in Russia. I enjoyed everything about her love stories and about her relationships with her two husbands, her Russian lover from her childhood (who keeps showing up again), her rich American lover, her less successful OKCupid dates, and her all-too-Russian mother and all-too-American daughters. I appreciated her references to classic Russian and other literature, including obviously to Bernard Malamud's Magic Barrel. The foods are a detail, but they reinforce the theme of how thoroughly American her life has become.

I want to follow up with more Russian-immigrant fiction. Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan and some of his New Yorker stories were great, and I want to read his more recent books. A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman also tempts me.