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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Paris in your dreams

"Paris Plages"
The blogging event "Paris in July" is coming to an end, so I'm thinking of what I'd like to be doing if I were in Paris right now. The New York Times today has an article about a beautiful recreation area that has replaced the old highway on the quay along the river. In Paris, a Playful Path Along the Seine  describes the "Berges de Seine (Banks of the Seine), a 1.4-mile pedestrian promenade packed with recreational activities, restaurants and bars, and creative patches of blooming flowers, plants and trees." 

Berges de Seine combines with the annual creation of a sandy beach where people can sit in deck chairs or swim in a pool, shown above from a promotional video. Of course it's all wildly popular. I'd love to stroll along watching people or getting a drink from the "Buvette." It would be wonderful to be in Paris long enough to relax for a day, have a picnic, and skip museum lines and metro rides, wouldn't it?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Colette's Life

I have just read Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Besides many details of Colette's life that I had never learned before, the book was full of wonderful historic, cultural, and social background about Paris, the two World Wars, and the artistic environment in which Colette lived.

Especially interesting was that each of her three husbands came from a different social and political stratum of French life, and each influenced her writing and her choices in a different way. Her liaisons with many prominent lesbians of the era were also an influence, and her early dependence (on husbands, lovers, and her mother) and her eventual attainment of independence were portrayed in a fascinating way. Thurman wrote quite early in the book that Colette was an entrepreneur "whose notion of a bottom line would never be Virginia Woolf's five hundred a year and a room of one's own, but fifty thousand a year and a villa of one's own, with a great chef, a big garden, and a pretty boy."

I had known that Willy, her first husband, married her when she was a girl and then managed to get her to write the Claudine books, which he published as his own. Willy was connected to a number of prominent literary people in Paris in the 1890s and pre-war era, and enjoyed a strong but entirely undeserved reputation, as almost everything published in his name was ghost-written by some other author. He at most edited these works; in the case of the Claudine books, he influenced Colette a lot at first, but she found her own voice. By the end of her marriage, she wanted independence and recognition, and no longer needed his help.

Her second husband, Henri de Jouvenel, had a much higher social position than she did or than her first husband did. He was a prominent editor and became a politician who held various national offices in French legislative and diplomatic circles. She did little to assist him in his political activities: though she sometimes appeared at official social functions, she resented the time away from her writing.

Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, was much younger than Colette, and was a caregiver and gatekeeper, protecting her from journalists, fans, and curiosity seekers in her old age. During the Nazi occupation, because he was Jewish, he was sent to a concentration camp. He was released from custody, then exiled to unoccupied France, and eventually lived in hiding in Paris in order to be near her. All during this time Colette was writing for pro-Nazi journals and was ignoring what was going on. A very sad story, but she chose to be blind to many unpleasant and repugnant things going on around her. Thurman's treatment of her life and attitudes is extremely penetrating and was totally revealing to me, as I had little idea of the details of the betrayal of many intellectuals in Paris in those years, only a general idea.

About Colette's reaction during the occupation, Thurman writes: "Colette's reluctance to take any sort of stand, even privately, or to voice any sentiment of outrage at the persecutions, even in her letters, is a symptom of that moral lethargy she admits so candidly.... 'I was born under the sign of passivity,' she writes then." (p. 456)

I chose this book because of my my current research project about food writer and molecular biologist Edouard de Pomiane. I've read several books of social and culinary history and several memoirs about life in Paris during his lifetime: the lifetime of both Colette and Pomiane (born in 1873 and 1875).

The number of different intellectual and political currents of the time, the interactions and cross-pollinations of the era are amazing. Here are two of the huge number of examples of connections between Colette and contemporary figures that I learned from Thurman's book:
  • Food writer Curnonsky (pseudonym of Frenchman Maurice Edmond Sailland), became famous in the 1920s, first for guidebooks to regional French food and later as elected "Prince of Gourmands." Earlier in his life, he was one of the many young writers who ghost-wrote books for Willy, Colette's first husband. Later Willy, Colette, and Curnonsky were all members of a group called "The Farm," which included Alfred Jarry, Sarah Bernhardt, and a number of other creative Paris people.
  • Cookbook author and chef Raymond Oliver was chef of Le Grand Véfour restaurant in the Palais Royal in the 1940s. Colette, at the end of her life, lived in an apartment upstairs; she was ill and unable to go out often. Thurman writes that Oliver: "made Colette's favorite dishes -- cassoulet, blanquette a l'ancienne, colibiac of salmon -- and he would often have a portion of something special, such as a lark pie or a pot of apricot jam, sent up to her. On dark winter afternoons, in the lull between lunch and dinner, Oliver himself would come to visit, uncorking a bottle of old champagne and a store of equally fresh gossip." (p. 490)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Restaurant Cooking and "Fait Maison"

Unagi terrine -- Pacific Rim Restaurant, Ann Arbor
I have two food experiences on my mind today.

First experience: last night, we ate at Pacific Rim restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. Every dish was delightful. You see above the Japanese-style eel (unagi) appetizer, topped with seaweed. Under the quite generous portion of fish: a layer of avocado slices on a timbal of rice. The sauce was similar to that served with unagi sushi. I asked about the eel, which is smoked: the restaurant receives it vacuum packed. Each separate ingredient was delicious alone and in combination with all the other tastes. And in my opinion, the presentation was perfectly matched to the food -- not too showy, but genuinely attractive. I'm not usually so effusive, but this dish was a masterpiece.

Second experience: Reading recent news stories about a new law just taking effect in France. In the New York Times today are two stories: "Made in House? Prove It" by Elaine Sciolino and "French Food Goes Down" by Mark Bittman. The Guardian covered this news last week in "Will France's 'fait maison' law save its culinary reputation?" The law is complicated, and if you want to know the details, by all means follow one of these links.

In sum: the new French law requires that restaurants there disclose whether they actually prepare dishes in the kitchen, or buy them from mass-production gourmet food facilities and simply reheat or even microwave them. Actually, the law is very weak, allowing many dubious practices to continue. And if a restaurant says nothing, it's assumed that they obtain the food from suppliers of some sort. If restaurants want to indicate that they make it in house, they are permitted to display a symbol designating that they DO. (So French, no?)

"Rich sablefish marinated in miso and sake, pan roasted
with a soy-tamarind sauce and served over sautéed
nappa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and Korean vermicelli noodles"
-- description from the Pacific Rim menu
You can see above my choice of a main course last night. The sablefish, an Alaskan-caught species which the restaurant receives fresh, has a delicate and velvety texture, and was delicious with the soy-tamarind sauce. The vegetables were also delicious. I'm persuaded that every vegetable came into the Pacific Rim kitchen raw and un-shredded (though I didn't ask if that was the case).

Here's what puzzles me: if a little restaurant in a little town like this can make all these house-prepared dishes with skill and imagination -- what's the matter with the French? They invented most of the ideas used in American restaurants, though it's true this Asian-fusion cuisine is not due directly to French chefs.

Hamachi (yellowtail) served
with soba noodles, watercress-daikon salad and a soy-ginger vinaigrette

Len ordered a completely different fish with a different preparation -- Hamachi with soba noodles. We shared both dishes. All so imaginative and delicious!

A quote from the Guardian article: "A survey carried out by French catering union Synhorcat suggested 31% of restaurants (not including cafeterias, bars and fast food outlets) used industrially prepared foods. Others claim the proportion is much higher – Xavier Denamur, restaurateur and fresh-food campaigner and filmmaker, carried out his own personal survey, which took him to dozens of restaurants throughout France. He believes closer to three quarters of restaurants relied on industrially produced food."

A quote from Sciolino: "...there is broad consensus that consumers need to be warned when their boeuf bourguignon has been vacuum-packed with chemical additives, or their escargots à la Bourgogne made with soy filler and rehydrated garlic."

Everyone doubts that this new law will really work the way consumers wish it would, especially because the food processing industry has stonewalled effective regulation, but also because the rules are pretty weak and inconsistent and there won't be enough inspections to even see who's telling the truth.

Having heard Lenny mention that it was my birthday, the waitress brought this fabulous warm chocolate cake.
Obviously, the Asian fusion theme isn't part of the dessert menu!
Bittman says: "By relying increasingly over the years on fast and pre-prepared food in most arenas of our lives, we — including, at this point, the celebrated French — have allowed un-fresh food to take over. There are exceptions, of course — part of my work is looking for them — but that’s exactly what they are. The fait maison logo does nothing to address the fact that chains and pre-prepared food now dominate the restaurant industry globally. And whether it’s a chain, school, hospital, workplace, prison or restaurant, there’s only occasionally reason to expect fresh ingredients prepared on the premises."

I'm not really persuaded that Bittman's pessimism is justified. Last night wasn't the only good meal I've eaten recently. But I guess I'm just very lucky to have access and afford such foods.

The "fait maison" logo

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pomiane in Montmartre

Old postcard of Montmartre in 1890
Edouard de Pomiane was born in Montmartre in 1875 at 28 rue des Abbesses. From time to time, in his radio broadcasts and his cookbooks, he provided brief memoirs of  his childhood in what was then a semi-rural area of Paris. He wrote:
Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, 1885
Public domain image from Wikipedia
"Looking back on my childhood, I remember the delicious golden galette I ate from time to time at the Moulin  de la Galette on the summit of my dear Butte Montmartre. There was a garden round the windmill with arbours and a showcase with cardboard pastrycooks rolling out sheets of dough ... I knew the Moulin de la Galette when Montmartre still had its vineyards, its streams and its fields of oats. 
"Do you know that in 1830 there were still twenty windmills on top of the Butte Montmartre? And do you know that on 30 March 1814 Pierre-Charles Debray, the miller who owned all these mills, fired the last cannon shot which, alas, did not halt the charge of the Russian troops. ... Perhaps my digression  has wearied you, and I ask your forgiveness. When I think of my dear Butte Montmartre of long ago I could go on and on..." (Cooking with Pomiane, p 243-244)
The Sundays of Pomiane's boyhood were special with exceptional treats to eat. He particularly remembered friands, which were small stuffed pastry rolls made in charcutrie shops, and delivered to homes in "shining metal containers" along with piping hot cutlets, sausages, and black puddings. After lunch, "the children went to play on the Butte at the edge of the fields of oats which grew where the busy rue Caulaincourt now runs. As they were wearing their Sunday clothes, they were not allowed to paddle in the streams which flowed all about the Butte Montmartre of my childhood." (Cooking with Pomiane, p. 58)

Life had not been perfectly idyllic for Pomiane's parents, who were of Polish origin, and whose name was Pozerski. (He later used his alternate Polish surname, Pomiane, as a pen name for his cooking publications, and I use it exclusively, for consistency.) Both parents had participated in the Polish revolution against Russia in 1863, and both were arrested. His father served time in Siberia -- where he was Dostoevski's only Polish friend. His mother, who was the daughter of a Russian general and a Polish woman, was condemned to death. She escaped to Paris; his father eventually escaped also, and joined her there.

The Pozerskis' first son starved to death during the Paris Commune in 1871. Pomiane's sister was born in 1873, and he in 1875. Pomiane attended a Polish primary school, and then continued his education at the Lycée Condorcet, a French secondary school and continued with scientific and medical studies at the University of Paris and various laboratories. These facts of his life appear in both Ginette Mathieu's book A Table avec Edouard de Pomiane, p. 9, and in his official biography at the Institut Pasteur where he was employed as a scientist. The preface to the English edition of Pomiane's The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes claims that he was born before his parents left Poland, but this is contradictory to many other facts of his life.

As Pomiane became a scientist, a food writer, a radio personality, and a recognized expert on both biology and cuisine, he appears to have been grounded in his early experiences as a French boy with a dual French and Polish identity. He often offered recipes from Polish and other cuisines as a supplement to the fairly classic French family cooking that he documented. During World War I, he was in an ambulance company and often tried to help find and prepare food for the troops as well as treating the wounded. During World War II, he wrote several books about how to deal with the extreme deprivation caused by the occupation of Paris, and how to make the best of very sparse available rationed food. While I have not seen any direct reference in Pomiane's own writings to the misfortunes of his parents prior to his birth, I wonder if he saw in his life a repetition of some of their experiences.

Note: this is one of a series of blog posts I've been writing about Edouard de Pomiane, French food writer and broadcast journalist -- he was the first person to have a cooking show on radio, in 1923. Pomiane spent his entire life in Paris, so I'm linking this post to the ongoing blog event "Paris in July." For more of my Pomiane posts, click on the "Pomiane" label.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre"

1922 edition:
Still available from
Edouard de Pomiane's first food book was Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre: Essai de Gastronomie Théorique (eat well to live well: an essay in theoretic gastronomy) published in 1922. It's never been translated into English and was reissued only once in 1948 to my knowledge. Pomiane's other books have been more influential and better liked: his French Cooking in 10 Minutes has been in print in English for over 50 years and is cited frequently in popular articles about cooking.

I found to my surprise, when I received my copy of Bien Manger, that it is not in fact a cookbook, but a book about gastronomy and gastrotechnie (Pomiane's word for food science), about French and international foodways, about nutrition, and about a number of other subjects. Pomiane expanded on many of these topics in his later cookbooks and in his radio broadcasts, which he began in 1923.

Most impressive about Pomiane's works is his ability to see his subject matter from several points of view at once. When he eats, he is a gastronome, a lover of food, a French gourmet. When he cooks he is an excellent amateur in the tradition of French home cooking and hosting dinners for friends. He never forgets that he is also a physician and a scientific researcher -- as the then-famous food writer Ali-Bab (Henri Babinski) says in the preface to Bien Manger: Pomiane is before all else "un savant biologiste" -- an expert biological scientist. But he is also a doctor, and in a general way, says Ali-Bab doctors fear no one in the area of gourmandise. He praises Pomiane for not proposing the traditional scientific solution to the general question of food: for Pomiane, there's no joy in thinking of a pill to replace all nutrients efficiently. For Pomiane, in my view, there's joy in food, cooking, eating, and understanding the processes.

Most of Pomiane's topics are still of interest to readers, though we now, of course, want to read about the state of the art today, not 90 years ago. The science Pomiane called gastrotechnie has in the last 25 years or so become identified with the modern area called molecular gastronomy, which combines science and cuisine, and whose practitioners include both laboratory scientists and famous chefs. In many of their works, Pomiane is acknowledged as a precursor of their activity. When reading Bien Manger, it's interesting to contemplate how he compares to this recent intellectual trend.

The first third of the book treats the science of cooking and choosing food. Pomiane describes his area of research, that is, the processes of digestion. He treats the chemistry of cooking, the composition of nutritional elements in food (remember, vitamins were a pretty recent discovery at that time), the idea of a balanced diet, and the choices of foods in the order that they appear in a traditional French meal. He gives a charming treatment of what people in various places drink with food (red wine? white wine? beer? water?...).

To contrast with his French-centered discussion, he then offers a chapter about food traditions outside France: a little anthropology to balance all the hard science, I guess. He greatly admired the food of  his own ancestors in Poland and Russia, as well as the foods of Italy and a few other countries. In later works he covers North and South American foodways in addition to those of Europe -- but not here.

The remainder of the book is about cooking. First, "Les Grands Principes Culinaires" (major culinary principles) -- twelve cooking methods, or principles, including boiling, grilling, roasting, braising, frying, and more, ending with pastry-making. A few years later, in La Cuisine en six leçons (cooking in six lessons) Pomiane used some of these principles as the basis for an elementary cookbook. Here, he explains them in detail.

I found the discussion of the chemistry of mayonnaise, an example of the principle of using emulsions in cooking, especially interesting. Pomiane tried to present some very new physical chemistry discoveries about emulsions at the molecular level. He tried to explain exactly, scientifically, what happens when you beat egg yolk and oil together -- a daunting undertaking. I find it ironic that some molecular cuisine writers of the current era are critical of Pomiane because he didn't get this science right by today's standards -- I'm pretty unwilling to accept criticism of someone who didn't know about things that hadn't yet been discovered. (Herve This, I'm looking at  you). In a footnote Pomiane acknowledged a collaborator on this chapter, Marcel Houdard, a young and promising chemist who had died as a result of experiments with radium!

The last three chapters of Bien Manger cover basic foodstuffs (like milk, butter, eggs, meats...), fermented foods (including a discussion of microbial actions), and conserving food by various methods including sterilization, freezing, preserving in alcohol or acid, smoking, and more.

At the beginning of the book, Pomiane asks: Is gastronomy an art or a science? As an art, Pomiane says, gastronomy allows us to find joy in eating. As a science, he implies, we find joy in understanding the processes of cooking and even digesting. I think these appealing ideas permeate the book.

Pomiane's contemporary Curnonsky identified four types of French cookery: "La Haute Cuisine, la cuisine Bourgeoise, la cuisine Régionale, et la cuisine Improvisée" -- quoted in Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking, p.15. I doubt if you need a translation as these terms have been adopted into English. Pomiane's numerous books, beginning with Bien Manger, covered all of these and more.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why Welsh Rarebit?

Yes, it's an American dish...
so American that we can buy it in a box
and not bother melting cheese ourselves.
A little mystery: why did French food writer Edouard de Pomiane classify welsh rarebit as a typical American dish? Specifically in his Radio Cuisine, a book of transcripts of his popular 1920s radio show, welsh rarebit appears in the broadcast titled "A little American Cuisine." Also included: clam chowder and beef cube steak. His welsh rarebit recipe includes beer, cheddar cheese, mustard, and fresh-ground pepper, which are melted, poured over toast, and grilled briefly to brown the top.

Welsh rarebit was the only American recipe given in the book A Table avec Edouard de Pomiane, compiled by Ginette Mathiot from these same radio broadcasts. Many other cuisines were represented in Mathiot's extensive section titled "Recettes Étrangères" (foreign recipes). The Russian recipes, for example, were Koulibiak, borscht, and four others, all of which Pomiane quite liked and mentioned often. Of six British recipes, two are for curry, one for Christmas pudding. There are Turkish dolmas, pilaf, and two eggplant recipes; several South American countries are also represented by one recipe each.

Pomiane's view of what was typical, as shown in the various transcripts and re-writings of his radio programs, is quite interesting. Earlier, in Pomiane's first book titled Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre (eat well to live well) he has an interesting section on international foodways, but no mention of America or welsh rarebit at all, nor does the much later English-language adaptation Cooking with Pomiane mention this example of American food. Pomiane traveled widely in Europe and in the various provinces of France, always collecting recipes; however, in his broadcast about American food, he said he had never been to America, perhaps a reason why he provided such a small number of recipes.

Welsh rarebit seemed an obscure choice, so I've checked a few sources to see if I can understand why Pomiane considered it typical. I found some clues as to its popularity and iconic status in America of the decades before World War II and also some clues about its recognition in France at that time.

Laura Shapiro's biography of Julia Child supports the idea that welsh rarebit was a typical American supper dish. During Child's girlhood in California in the 20s, according to Shapiro, Child remembered eating "good, plain New England food." Shapiro says: "The family always employed a cook, and only on her night out would Julia's mother step into the kitchen to make baking powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit. ... The truth was, food hadn't been important to her when she was growing up." (Shapiro, Julia Child, p. 1)

Recipes for welsh rarebit appeared in the 1918 Fanny Farmer, in early editions of the Joy of Cooking, and the 1921 Settlement Cookbook. They still appear in many cooking columns, food TV shows, and so on, though I'm not convinced that they are any longer as iconically American as they once were.

Welsh rarebit as an example of American cuisine had appeared in Paris by the end of the 18th century. Specifically, Brillat-Savarin brought the recipe back to France from America after a period of exile during the French Revolution, according to a New York Times article: "His poverty and anguish during his two years in New York and its vicinity did not prevent him from visiting Fraunces and other good taverns and bringing back to France a recipe for welsh rarebit. ("Americans Hear Tribute to Savarin" by May Birkhead, NYT, Sept. 18, 1927).

Another article, "Step by Step Paris Becomes American," published July 8, 1928, in the New York Times also mentioned the dish: "... the Champs Elysees retains one special feature. It is one of the few streets in Paris in which one cannot eat outdoors... One may still drink... One may not eat a meal, but he may eat a sandwich or a Welsh rarebit." The article stresses many emerging similarities between Paris and New York in the late 1920s. Its subtitle was "Strollers Wonder Whether They are in Boulevard or Broadway Surroundings."

I think I have answered my own questions of why welsh rarebit might have seemed typically American to Pomiane, and of whether it was a popular dish in America at the time he wrote. And I've only spent a little time looking for examples -- I imagine there are many more.

As you know if you follow this blog, I'm working on a project about Edouard de Pomiane, and that is why this somewhat peculiar subject occurred to me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Question for Food Bloggers: "Camera Cuisine"

Can food be too pretty? Does photogenic food -- plates that look good on Twitter, Instagram, or a blog -- necessarily taste good? Is it worth more? Or do elaborate food arrangements leave normally hot food cold? Does the possibility of an online photo inspire chefs and cooks to think more deeply about how food looks than how it tastes?

Two recent articles discuss these questions:

In the Guardian: "Why does artistically presented food taste better?" 

Writer Amy Fleming cites a study (haha) showing "that an artful plate of food tastes better – perhaps due to the effort that has been put in, or maybe for more complex reasons."

From the Guardian article: Kandinsky painting, left.
Kandinsky-inspired salad, right. 
Charles Michel, a chef who now works at the Crossmodal laboratory at Oxford University designed an experiment to present a salad with many ingredients in three ways: with the ingredients separated, with the ingredients tossed, and with their arrangement inspired by a Kandinsky painting!

Result: the participants deemed the Kandinsky salad as more complex, artistic, appealing and tasty. They were willing to pay more for it, too.

Several of the comments on this article pointed out something important: TV chefs ONLY have to worry about what food looks like. Their audience can neither taste nor smell their creations. This really skews their motivation, right? And maybe skews food standards.

In the New York Times: "Your Eyes Are Happier Than Your Stomach:Dishes Worthy of Instagram, but Not Your Appetite.

Former restaurant critic Pete Wells presents his viewpoint on the same question with a slightly different twist. The emphasis on photos of food posted online, and the growing technology of low-light small cameras for instant online sharing has, he believes, "deeply changed food photography, of course. But it’s changing food, too." And not for the better. He calls it "Camera Cuisine."

Wells is mainly interested in high-profile very trendy internationally-known chefs, not in home cooks or food bloggers. He says: "At the influential handful of restaurants pursuing a contemporary style, each plate plays to two audiences. One is you, with your napkin in your lap. The other is a global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room."

Wells offers as an example the followers of the famous restaurant of chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Under his influence: "Ingredients, invariably arranged on earthenware or wood or stone, seem to have washed in on a wave or blown in on a forest breeze."

But, asks Wells, are these followers trying to create a look or a flavor? Few of them have actually eaten in Redzepi's extremely exclusive restaurant. (Another article, "Noma restaurant creates garden as buffer zone against gawkers" recently described exterior landscaping meant to discourage crowds of wannabe diners rubber necking into the windows because hardly anyone ever gets one of the very few tables). Wells writes of this derivative cuisine:
"Not all the time, but often enough, the flavors aren’t as vivid as the image; they’re spectral, washed-out. Foraged plants and other ingredients sometimes seem chosen for size and color more than for taste. That borage flower or sweet potato leaf is almost never dressed in a vinaigrette, which would make it tastier but may also create a distracting glare for the lens and cause it to droop before its photo op."
Wells is very aware of the effect of image on the taste of beautiful food. He's very aware that involved "plating" leads to delivering cold food to the table. In fact, hot food isn't as important to these camera-aware chefs as it used to be. Everyone loves a steak -- not a very photogenic dish, he points out. He says that cooks used to shout: "I’ve got hot food!" And servers were supposed "to get plates to the table right now."

Now, not so much -- if food gets cold while being plated, too bad, implies Wells. It's interesting that the experimental art-inspired plate of food that Amy Fleming described was a salad, so the question of serving hot food was avoided completely! I wonder what would have happened if the experimenter had arranged a steak and baked potato according to a Kandinsky painting.

What does this have to do with food bloggers? A lot, I think. We and our readers form our expectations in the context of the high-level activities by food journalists, food stylists, and the restaurants that make the most splash. Food bloggers who invent recipes or try recipes from cookbooks have to be the recipe author, the chef, the food stylist, the server, the photographer, and also the taster, while these functions are better distributed in magazines and restaurants. So if we cook a modest meal, serve it hot, and take a slap-dash photo of something downright delicious, that's understandable, and if we spend a lot of time "plating" maybe it won't taste as good. The choice is ours, but we can choose mindfully. (I am ignoring those bloggers who repost someone else's photos without attribution.)

The expectations spread through other blogging possibilities. Food bloggers don't just write about what they cook. Many food bloggers describe and take photos of restaurant food, recipes from the mainstream press or published cookbooks, food publications or ads from the recent or distant past, and other food subjects. Besides blogging, they also post on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Is it better to find beautiful food and take a beautiful photo? Or to find delicious food that doesn't lend itself to visual perfection? We are in the same situation as TV chefs: no one can smell or taste what we write about. But I wonder if that means we have to forget the flavor and just make things look good?