Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Pizza?


Look! Mona Lisa is eating pizza. Of course: they are both quintessentially Italian. What could be more appropriate? Well, stickler that I am, I recall that Mona Lisa lived just exactly at the time of Columbus. Tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers -- all garnishing the slice in her hand -- are from the New World. They took years, even centuries, to become European favorites. So her pizza was very different -- if she had pizza. But that's the thing about the image of Mona Lisa. It has meanings all its own, and when you see it on a restaurant sign -- it means what it means.

These photos are new illustrations of what I was saying in earlier posts: Mona Lisa: Renaissance Pasta or, What Did Mona Lisa Eat? and What Mona Lisa Didn't Eat





Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Featuring: My Cookbooks

A while back I submitted a photo of my cookbooks to the blog Omnivoracious: Amazon's Books Blog. They are featuring it now -- see the post Guest Bookshelf: Mae Sander. Most of the earlier book photos have been up for around a month, so check out mine. It's at the top of the page, used as a banner.

When I submitted it early in March, I also posted the same photo here: One Book Shelf. I have posted several other bookshelf photos: Food Bookshelves, Second Part and Another Bookshelf.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

More Graduation


The celebration continued after the Engineering Graduation ceremony, with dinner at Bella Ciao Restaurant. The food was delicious, and I photographed almost every dish. I ate the green salad, duck breast, and rich chocolate cake with a tiny scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream. Definitely one of my favorite restaurants. The photos that I took show everyone in the party but me (of course). The top photo shows Adam with his parents and grandparents.


Graduation

In the Michigan Diag this morning, 30,000 chairs were filled with graduates and their families. I took this picture of a few of the chairs during the set-up procedure, which lasted all of last week. Our graduate's family watched the Webcast. Meanwhile, I was putting the finishing touches on lunch:
A classic: salade nicoise.
In the larger bowl: the pommes a l'huile (french potato salad), grilled tuna (underneath), lettuce (still further down in the bowl), tomatoes, black olives, and quartered hard-boiled eggs. In the slightly smaller bowl: marinated green beans, asparagus, and colored peppers. This is just what I recall from long-ago stays in France and from Julia Child -- except for the asparagus, which just looked too good.

Here's Adam on the way to the Engineering Graduation in Chrysler Arena this afternoon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Salt Demons, Guardians, and Inventors

Roguszys is the guardian spirit of pickling in Lithuania. The Onondaga tribe in New York avoided a particular salt spring because its fetid quality was caused by a demon. Many North American tribes had female salt deities; for them, salt-gathering was a religious ritual, and salt gatherers first became members of a cult. In the Bible, Lot's wife's punishment was to become a pillar of salt near the saltiest location on earth: the Dead Sea.

In Mexico, Vixtociatl, sister of the Aztec rain gods, discovered salt and invented salt-making. She had "ears of gold, yellow clothes, an iridescent green plumage, and a fishnet skirt." At ritual celebrations "she carried a shield trimmed with eagle, parrot, and quetzal feathers, and she beat time with a cane topped by incense-filled paper flowers." The Chibecha in the highlands near modern Bogota respected the "salt lords" who honored the gods twice a year "abstaining from sex and salt."

In rereading Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, I was amazed to learn about the wide variety of religious belief and ritual associated with salt and salt-making. In 1930, Gandhi channeled the Indian resentment against British salt restrictions by his famous march to the sea, where he broke the law by merely picking up a handful of salt crust. His method and his moral basis were founded in his fundamental spiritual view that humans have a right to use salt.

While salt is a naturally occurring mineral, I also was surprised to learn how much expertise has been applied to its manufacture and use. In Germany in the Middle Ages, a salt maker was in charge of boiling brine, removing impurities, and overseeing the process of crystallization of salt. This master salter had two assistants. Their salt processing worked 24 hours a day to produce the valued product. Expertise was also needed in using salt to make salt pork, bacon, salt beef, and pickled vegetables.

Salt fish -- especially cod -- was a critical foodstuff in early modern times. Basque, Portuguese, English, and French users and fishing fleets were involved. Large-scale explorations located new fishing locations, and hundreds of fishing vessels filled with salt went out to catch cod and return with valuable salt cod. A "master salter" on each ship figured out how the fish they caught were to be salted and dried: "Both under- and oversalting could ruin a catch."

In Alsace, sauerkraut was an important preserved food. A surkrutschneider -- literally "sauerkraut tailor" -- was the expert who chopped the cabbage and preserved according to his own secret recipes. This sauerkraut was made in barrels with salt, "anise seeds, bay leaves, elderberries, fennel, horseradish, savory, cloves, cumin, and other herbs and spices." It was a dish for special occasions, later to become a staple of specialized restaurants throughout France.

Kurlansky's book is a trove of information on the minutiae of salt production and use throughout history on every continent. Its importance in war is another fact I've never thought about: before modern techniques of food preservation, armies required large amounts of salted meat as provisions. Thus, a critical war strategy in the Civil War was for the Union armies to destroy Southern salt production facilities and access to imported salt. In response: smuggling and cottage industries. Very interesting!

Information on salt spirits and gods: Kurlansky pp. 175, 202-3, 240. Experts: p. 120, 150, 167.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Can we do anything for Earth Day?

I have been thinking about whether there's any single thing we can do to alleviate all the risks and threats to our planet's future well-being. Clearly, nothing works if it lasts only a day, so we are faced with another challenge at making workable resolutions. Even that challenge is formidable. How can we act to save a penguin in Antarctica? How can we act to reduce the disappearance of the South American and Asian rain forests? I don't know.

I'm thinking about hunger and threats to the lives of people in far-away places. The people in Haiti who are left with mud patties, because the smallest amount of grain is unattainable. The people in Bangladesh who live below the water line during big storms. The Australians with their 10-year drought. We have so many choices, and they aren't even able to think about a bigger picture. What can we do? I don't know.

I think for myself, the challenge is to act responsibly where I can, even if I don't see how my own action can save anything. Drive less. Buy less. Eat food grown with less pesticide. But this isn't clearly going to work, even if many other fortunate Americans do it as well as me. I don't know.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ready for the Seder Tonight


For an explanation see the story blog: "Passover Starts Tomorrow".

Friday, April 18, 2008

Soup

How to Make Terrible Matzoh Balls

I'm making matzoh balls today. The dough is resting. I looked up my notes, and found that I have recorded some ways to court failure with matzoh balls:
  1. Don’t let the dough rest long enough. The recommended 15 minute waiting time for the dough to condition itself is not long enough. If you wait only 15 minutes you will have hard matzoh balls, as the fat & moisture won't be absorbed enough. If you wait longer, the result will be better.
  2. To make the matzoh balls fall apart, put them in water that’s only simmering instead of very hot -- at a rapid boil.
  3. Take the lid off the pot often to let the steam out. Letting steam escape helps to prevent the matzoh balls from getting light and well-cooked inside. Leaving the lid on makes them lighter and fluffier.
  4. Don't boil them long enough. The time on the package is just enough. A little more is ok too. If you want them to be hard and undercooked, take them out sooner.
  5. Leave the cooked matzoh balls in the broth for the soup for a long time. They will absorb the liquid and you won't have enough broth to serve all your guests.
I'll let you know how they come out, and post a photo if they don't get eaten up too fast. We are having them as a stand-alone treat tonight as there are really too many dishes planned at the Seder.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Food Section

On Wednesday, the newspapers that I read online each publish a weekly food section. I guess this is an old newspaper tradition, and originates in the advertising-driven needs of a daily print edition. The NT Times and LA Times have some incredibly good food writers. In today's LA Times is a particularly wonderful article on intertwined cuisine: Expat comfort food: The quirky mix at L.A.'s Hong Kong-style coffee shops.

The author, Linda Burum, cites menu items as diverse as "roast beef dinner, with fresh veggies and a bacon-bit garnished baked potato, ... freshly made, hot cabbage borscht, ... French onion soup topped with a flaky pastry crust and decent Chinese shrimp dumplings in broth."

Burum explains why these cafes in LA serve Russian dishes along with adaptations of Chinese foods and of the English foods that came from the fact that Hong Kong was an English enclave, founded as an English trading city:
"The saga of their predecessors, the Hong Kong coffee shops that evolved from that city's once-ubiquitous Russian cafes, would make great TV melodrama.

"Russian refugees fleeing the Bolshevik regime after 1917 settled in Shanghai, where their cafes thrived in the European concessions. In 1949, in the wake of mainland Communist takeovers, the Russians fled again, this time to Hong Kong, where Chinese from all over the mainland crowded the city as well."

In contrast, in today's NY Times Food Section are a number of articles about surveys establishing the food preferences correlated to voting patterns. So supporters of Hillary Clinton shop at Whole Foods and like Kashi cereal; Obama supporters like Boca burgers, olive oil, and Panera; and McCain supporters shop at Safeway and like crunchy chocolate chip cookies. Political operatives who were interviewed mainly said they didn't know how to make use of this info.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Go Look at Mona Lisa Potato

When I wrote about The Year of the Potato a few days ago, I didn't dream that it could be the year of the Mona Lisa Potato. But a website creator in France has honored this UN commemorative with great imagination by creating a fabulous painting: Mona Lisa Potatoes. This website (cited by blogger El Papou) also refers to a potato variety called Mona Lisa.

I asked myself, is this potato variety authentic? Well, google refers to an article about how this variety resists viruses. So there you are. Moreover, here's a quote from an article by Medwin Williams of the National Vegetable Society called "Seed Catalogues - Potato Lists" --

"Though not new by any means, they have re introduced an old favourite of mine called Mona Lisa which also used to be a firm favourite with the late Brython Stenner. Mona Lisa is a Dutch variety and what I liked about it at the time was the weight and consistency of the yield. The colour is creamy white and the shape is oval but more often has a tendency towards a pear sort of shape where the sprouting end, or the rose end, is much wider than the other end. The shape didn't prove to be a problem at all as it"s very consistent from haulm to haulm giving you plenty of potatoes to have a good selection from."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Another View of Food Insecurity -- It's for Somebody Else

From today's New York Times article Despite Tough Times, Ultrarich Keep Spending--
"'When times get tough, the smart spend money,” said David Monn, an event planner who is organizing a black-tie party on May 10 for dignitaries and recent purchasers of apartments at the Plaza Hotel; the average price there was $7 million. 'Short of our country going on food stamps, I don’t think we’re doing anything differently.'"

AND, in news from the other side -- from the Washington Post, School Nutrition Plans Unravel--
"Sharp rises in the cost of milk, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables are hitting cafeterias across the country, forcing cash-strapped schools to raise prices or pinch pennies by serving more economical dishes. Some school officials on a mission to help fight childhood obesity say it's becoming harder to fill students' plates with healthy, low-fat foods."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Artists

Among the many artworks at the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was on the lookout for something to do with food. On today's visit we concentrated on the modern and late 19th century European galleries, and a few Asian works. A small collection of ceramic tea bowls from Japan made me think of the tea ceremony and associated kaiseki dinners. Matisse's tea party evokes related thoughts, with its exotic and somewhat dubious atmosphere. Jeff Koons' work "Bread with Egg" is an odd one -- but no doubt in some way, it's about food. The old masters in other parts of the museum were much more directly engaged with depictions of food. I wonder about this.



Dining with Exotic Policemen

Like a Tony Hillerman novel set on the Indian reservation or a Georges Simenon novel set in mid-20th-century Paris, Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery novel Death of a Red Heroine (2000) paints an amazingly detailed portrait of a social reality. Details of the political and economic constraints in which Qiu’s Detective Chen works appear without interrupting Chen’s quest to solve a brutal murder mystery. He works obsessively, but like Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn or Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Qiu has to stop to eat. As a result, food is a key in Qiu’s presentation of social reality.

Chen, recently appointed director of his small unit on the Shanghai police, begins his police work with only a few sketchy clues about the death of Guan – a well-known figure whose image and personality had been widely used in propaganda by the Communist regime. The year is 1990, and the events at Tiananmen Square are vividly remembered by all the participants, as are many earlier repressions and political upheavals in China. Political men are trying to make a career in new circumstances, free market economics are competing with old Communist control, and everyone looks over his shoulder in fear.

We meet Chen at his housewarming party for his new apartment – at the end of the party, he receives the phone call informing him of the murder he will investigate throughout the novel. Through describing this party, the author – writing in English for a western audience – puts us readers on notice that we haven’t learned everything about Chinese food by eating in Chinese restaurants. And by implication, that we have much to learn about a detective in Shanghai in an era of complex political maneuvering.

Chen’s guest, an old friend nicknamed “Overseas Chinese” Lu, is bringing a contribution to the banquet: a dish called Beggar’s Chicken cooked with “nothing but Yellow Mountains pine needles.” With it, Chen prepares to serve iced beer to his guests. Another guest brings a huge pine nut cake. The details of the food accompany a description of the apartment, small and poor to a Western reader, a luxury to residents of China. And at the end of the evening, Lu asks Chen to back him in financing a free-enterprise endeavor: he’s starting a restaurant. As it’s a tightly plotted book, Lu and his restaurant will play a role in the solution of the murder and conviction of the perp – but we are only on page 9.

And even before this, the two men who discovered the victim’s body had been fishing in a remote waterway. Alas, they had to report their grizzly find. So they missed the delicious soup they had imagined making from their freshly-caught fish. Food! A great device!

As he relentlessly pursues his investigation, Chen often stops for a meal. His deputy Li and Li's wife give him a special crab banquet. He stops in small locations. The readers learn of personal relationships, economic realities, and the challenges of police work through some of these meals. And as in so many police procedurals, even the contents of the victim's stomach -- her last meal -- is an important clue leading to her murderer.

The most remarkable and exotic such meal occurs during his risky trip to Guangzhou to find a key witness. Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou was much more westernized than Chen’s native Shanghai, and had become very expensive and in Communist terms corrupt. When he fails to get the assistance of the local police, Chen accepts help from a rich businessman named Ouyang, who cultivates Chen’s acquaintance because in addition to being a policeman, Chen is a successful poet. (Poetry is discussed as much as food in creating atmosphere for this unusual book.)

Ouyang treats Chen to dinner in a luxury restaurant run by a private entrepreneur. In contrast, on his police budget plus what he can afford out-of-pocket, Chen can hardly eat at street stalls in this go-go city. Here are some highlights from the description of the meal. You can see how this sets the exotic atmosphere:
“A big coal-burning stove and two small ones comprised the open kitchen. Its only sign was a red paper lantern….Beneath it were live eels, frogs, clams, and fish squirming and swimming in water-filled wooden basins and buckets. There was also an impressive glass cage with several snakes of various sizes and shapes. Customers could choose, and have their choice cooked in a specified way.

“A middle-aged woman was peeling a water snake by the cage. With its head chopped off, the snake was still twitching in a wooden basin, but in a couple of minutes, a coil of white meat would be steamed in a brown earthware pot. …

“In Guangzhou, Chen had heard, there was nothing with four legs that people had not found a way to turn into a delicacy. And he was witnessing such a miracle: Omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark’s fin soup, a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat.

“’Just a few simple dishes, sidestreet cooking,’ Ouyang said, raising his chopsticks, and shaking his head in apology.” (pages 261-262)

So you see. It’s not Joe Leaphorn’s wife’s Indian style stew. It’s not the savory offerings of Madame Maigret. It’s not the mannered Boston food of Robert Parker’s Spenser. An entirely special range of culinary details animate this very readable and enjoyable book. These details heighten the suspense, never detracting from the building tension over the detective’s case. The examples I’ve given – and many others -- help us understand the social conflicts and political atmosphere created by the author.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Another Bookshelf

Continuing my project of documenting my food and cooking books, here are the five shelves of the bookcase in the dining room. I'm not going to try to catalog all the books today, but if you click on the photos, you can see much more detail.

Top shelf: food history books, such as works by Waverley Root, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichel.

Second shelf: quite a few good books! The Splendid Table at far right is an admirable book, but its recipes defeat me with their complexity.

Third shelf: many Sunset books (which I like despite the contempt that many foodies have for them). Far right: the Larousse Gastronomiqe.

Next shelf: not really food books, but note the complete Harry Potter in editions from all over the place!

Bottom shelf: mainly library books and books about Shakespeare. Far right: Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels -- a childhood favorite. These are mostly not food books, except for the library books at left, which include The Magic Harvest and Paradox of Plenty.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Chinese Dinner -- At Last

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
Ever since I've become a fan of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee, I've been longing for some really good Chinese food. Last night at Gourmet Garden, I finally had something really good. The duck, eggplant dumplings (using eggplant as the wrapper), and whole fish were especially good. No photo of the eggplant: we ate it too fast!

I started with a Coke, which came in a glass that had the American Coke logo on one side and the Chinese logo (I assume) on the other side.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More News of Food Insecurity

The global price of rice -- staple food for half the world's population -- is climbing, and has been at record levels this week, double the price it was a year ago. Worldwide food insecurity is growing as a result. According to an article in Bloomberg.com (referenced by Krugman):
"China, Egypt, Vietnam and India, accounting for more than a third of global rice exports, curbed sales this year to protect domestic stockpiles. The World Bank in Washington says 33 nations from Mexico to Yemen may face 'social unrest' after food and energy costs increased for six consecutive years. ...

"Wheat traded in Chicago has more than tripled in three years, also threatening social stability. As many as seven people died from exhaustion or in fights while waiting in bread lines in Egypt, according to police reports. Pakistan sent troops to guard flour mills in January." (See: Rice jumps to record...)

The Bloomberg article cited a report from United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which described an appeal for funds from donor nations to try to help Haiti, where riots have already begun, and other trouble-spots. Unrest has already broken out in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.

"'What we see in Haiti is what we’re seeing in many of our operations around the world – rising prices that mean less food for the hungry. A new face of hunger is emerging: even where food is available on the shelves, there are now more and more people who simply cannot afford it,' said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

"'Riots in Haiti underline the additional need for lifesaving food assistance,' Ms. Sheeran said. 'At this critical time, we need to stand with the people of Haiti and other countries hardest hit by rising food prices.'" (See: Surge in food prices could lead to increased unrest, warns senior UN aid official)

The WFP has a $500 million gap in available funding, "caused by the global spike in food and fuel prices, which have increased by an estimated 55 per cent since last June." The amount needed to help Haiti is $96 million, of which the agency has received only $12.4 million.

Update April 10. I wrote this yesterday. Today's NYT editorial The World Food Crisis summarizes the situation and concludes:

"Industrial nations are not generous, unfortunately. Overseas aid by rich countries fell 8.4 percent last year from 2006. Developed nations would have to increase their aid budgets by 35 percent over the next three years just to meet the commitments they made in 2005.

"They must not let this target slip. Continued growth of the middle class in China and India, the push for renewable fuels and anticipated damage to agricultural production caused by global warming mean that food prices are likely to stay high. Millions of people, mainly in developing countries, could need aid to avoid malnutrition. Rich countries’ energy policies helped create the problem. Now those countries should help solve it."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Dinner

These are Michigan-grown lamb chops. The squash, I'm afraid, is from Mexico. Florida strawberries, Spanish wine. The rhubarb in the sauce at the very edge of the photo is probably from California or Mexico: no label.

To be complete, the place mats are Israeli, the straw trivets are from Vietnam.

I can't even guess where the glasses were made. The steak knives are from China. The flatware is WMF, a German brand, but was made in Japan.

This is the Year of the Potato

"Monday, potatoes; Tuesday potatoes; Wednesday potatoes..."

The old Yiddish song reflected the nutritional basis sustaining people in the shtetl. My father told us how his mother walled up a potato-filled room just as World War I was about to start, and this kept them from starvation. (I've written about this before.)

I didn't find the old song on the official United Nations IYP website: International Year of the Potato 2008. But in some places, the song's underlying theme of hunger and scarcity may soon have new meaning. "Food security in developing countries is a really big problem — bigger, in human impact, than the financial crisis in the United States," says Paul Krugman. (He has been discussing food insecurity in his blog at You say potato, I say potato, Grains gone wild, and in recent NYT columns.)

Peru is the native home of potato cultivation. They have grown them for 7000 years and now grow thousands of varieties, compared to no more than 5 or 10 grown around here. With the global price of grain increasing as it recently has, they may return to much more dependence on potatoes. “Peru needs to re-identify with the potato, because we have turned our back on it for too long,” says Alan García, Peru's President. “He also wants barracks, hospitals and prisons to start serving chuño, a naturally freeze-dried potato that is traditionally eaten by Andean Indians. Boiled chuño and cheese are said to have replaced sandwiches at cabinet meetings.” (For more details, see Llamas and mash in the Economist.)

I'm proud to be from a potato-producing state, descended from people whose survival depended on potatoes. Besides my own history, I've read about the Irish potato famine; I've learned about potatoes in Indian food; I've followed the history of potatoes as a staple into France by the trickery of Mr. Parmentier, and about their use in the foods of Italy. A recent episode of the show Lidia's Italy on PBS showed her cooking a combination of macaroni and potatoes, with a little bacon, which I would guess was designed to provide an affordable meal for hungry adolescents. Like many super nutritious dishes, it looked good, but too caloric for me.

Potatoes are a marvel, combining sustenance with delicious taste. Manna must have been made of potatoes.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What Mona Lisa Didn't Eat


Why didn't Mona Lisa have any chocolate? Well, only the Mayans and Aztecs knew about chocolate before the exploration of Mexico. To read about what she did eat, see my earlier post -- Mona Lisa: By Request -- Renaissance Pasta or, What Did Mona Lisa Eat?

If you are interested in chocolate and how it was discovered, see Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (1998). Coe describes how, on August 15, 1502 (a very short time before Leonardo painted Mona Lisa) Columbus and his men captured a "tremendous dugout canoe ... as long as a galley." This huge boat (possibly as much as 164 feet in length) appeared to have been from Yucatan. It was rowed by slaves; the cargo included cotton garments, flat war clubs and other weapons, and many foods, including a type of "almonds" that were later found to be used as a medium of exchange in Mexico -- that is, cocoa beans. Columbus never learned what the Mayans used the "almonds" for, other than money.

Years later -- 1517 or 1519 -- subsequent explorers learned of the native cocoa-based beverage, which was bitter and sometimes flavored with that other new-world flavor, hot chili peppers. During this first contact with chocolate, they were "baffled and often repelled by the stuff in the form of drink." Even in 1575, a historian of these voyages called it "more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity." (Quotes are from p. 106-109 of The True History of Chocolate.)

If Mona Lisa had lived to be 120, she never would have seen anything like a modern chocolate bar. The evolution of chocolate from a bitter drink to a sweet, chewable chocolate bar began with brittle and dry candies in the 18th century, but these weren't smooth or made in molds. Not until 1828 did Van Houten invent the process for making chocolate into cocoa, and 1847 is the date of the earliest chocolate bars -- according to Coe, "the world's first true eating chocolate." (p. 243)

The item in the picture here isn't the first chocolate bar I've seen with Mona Lisa on it. Her face, I think, signals quality, a masterpiece, the ultimate -- but doesn't signal anything she or Leonardo could have experienced.