Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not a turkey dinner

We drove through rain and snow and sleet and are now back home. Here is last night's family dinner, and now I'll go back to blogging about food history and what not.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Weekend Wrap-Up

Arny and Tracy have now left here, so we wrapped up the reunion with a group shot. More to come.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Delia's Kitchen

Of course I have to have one picture dedicated to a kitchen. Aparna and Joel's kitchen has been featured throughout the day of "live blogging" (if it's ok to call it that). But here's a good pic of Delia making eggs.


Well, we waited quite a while between courses, because we had a HUGE chocolate cake, 2 apple pies, 1 pecan pie, a trifle, and fruit. I only tried apple pie and trifle, but maybe pecan pie will be breakfast or at least lunch. What a great dinner! So lucky that Joel and Aparna decided to locate centrally to all of us. And my best to all of you who couldn't be here and are reading this today!


The Mayflower

The turkey is out of the oven

Lenny is making gravy,
... and Delia is up from her nap.

Pre-Dinner Snack

There had to be one Mona Lisa!

From our walk

The neighborhood is full of interesting houses.

The table is set

While loading these photos, I also was called away briefly to explain how to make the carrots for the carrots with candied pecans. The recipe says to boil them, but now I steam them in the microwave, so it's totally last minute. Elaine and Joel made the pecans last night. The turkey seems to be almost done.

We walk around the neighborhood

...meanwhile, Joel is laboring over a hot stove.

Live from Pittsburgh

We arrived here at Joel and Aparna's around an hour ago. The turkey is already around half done. Elaine, Larry, Tracy and Arny had already arrived; Evelyn, Tom, Miriam and Alice were a little after us. So here are the first photos of what's going on here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Two Best Thanksgiving Articles

Every year all food writers, food magazines, and newspaper food sections provide a ton of coverage of Thanksgiving, including its history and what you can cook. Naturally I've read a ton of these articles. This year I have two favorites.

From Slate I like: "Thanksgiving? No Thanks! Why food writers secretly hate the November feast" by Regina Schrambling. She writes:
"What makes me totally crazy is the persistent pressure to reinvent a wheel that has been going around quite nicely for more than 200 years. Every fall, writers and editors have to knock themselves out to come up with a gimmick—fast turkey, slow turkey, brined turkey, unbrined turkey—when the meal essentially has to stay the same. ...

"The more we make ourselves insane in mucking with the classics, the nuttier we make our audience. Every story purporting to take the stress out of the day actually reinforces the notion that the easiest feast of the year is the most harrowing. When you think about it, Thanksgiving is not so different from a roast chicken dinner with sides. You can't screw it up; there are too many saving graces for even an under- or overcooked turkey. But that's not the message anyone absorbs from all the magazines and newspapers with their absurdly perfect birds garnished with overkill."
And from the New York Times: "Where the Wild Things Were" by Andrew Beahrs. This op-ed is about Mark Twain's thoughts on food, and particularly about the way that game and other wild food has virtually disappeared from the American diet and the Thanksgiving table. Beahrs writes:
"Twain listed cranberry sauce, 'Thanksgiving style' roast turkey and the celery essential to poultry stuffing. But he surrounded these traditional holiday dishes with roast wild turkey, frogs and woodcock. Along with hot biscuits, broiled chicken and stewed tomatoes, Twain wanted turtle soup, possum and canvasback ducks fattened by Chesapeake Bay wild celery. ...

"Even some farmed foods had recent wild roots, such as the cranberries first cultivated a mere half-century earlier. Though the majority of foods in Twain’s day were domestic, the wild ones were distinct and wonderful, rooting meals in the natural world as cultivated things never could. His menu celebrated the amazingly varied landscapes of an entire nation. Shad from Connecticut, mussels from San Francisco, brook trout from the Sierras and partridges from Missouri all found their place alongside apple dumplings, Southern-style egg bread, ...

"We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives."

I hope everyone has a very happy Thanksgiving. I've just baked two stuffed pumpkins, which will be my contribution tomorrow along with some cranberry chutney I've been aging for several weeks.

Update on cookbooks I don't want

I just read a review in Gourmet called The Lord is my Chef of three of the cookbooks I don't want (see earlier post which I wrote before I read this). The author, Laura Shapiro, agrees with me, but in all fairness, did a much better job of actually reading the books in detail. Here are some choice quotes:
I’ve been gazing, awestruck, at some of the famous-chef cookbooks that have appeared this season, trying to figure out what purpose they might serve in, say, my kitchen; and I finally realized my thinking was all wrong. Even the term “cookbook” is probably a stretch. These massive totems belong over in the Religion section of the bookstore. Or the shelf labeled Occult. Or maybe there’s a corner devoted to Irreproducible Results. ...

It’s no accident that these particular books come from restaurants devoted to what I’ve termed “techno-cuisine” and others call “experimental” cuisine, or “hypermodern” cuisine. You know what I mean—food that’s been chemically processed and redesigned beyond recognition, served in dozens of arduous little courses over many hours and costing hundreds of dollars. The fans and practitioners of this cuisine love to talk about the chemical properties of the ingredients and the complex physiology of taste; but what they’re really doing is creating the first common ground between science and faith. Nobody goes to one of these restaurants to eat dinner with friends. Nobody just drops in. You can’t, for these places are difficult to reach—so remote from our everyday culinary expectations that you have to reserve months, maybe a year, ahead of time. These aren’t places for skeptics and infidels. When at last you sit at a table waiting to consume a feather made of apricot pulp, radish skins, and cotton candy, suspended over your mouth by an attentive waiter, you do so in the sure and certain belief that you’re about to be transported to realms undreamed of in the world of mere food.

I don’t want to give the impression that these chefs are too lofty to distribute recipes, however. Far from it! Their books are packed with recipes, each written up in solemn and precise detail. Here are such classics of the ritual as beet spheres and gin-compressed rhubarb (Alinea), spherical-I green olives served on a medicine spoon (El Bulli), and a flaming sorbet (Fat Duck), all perfectly achievable in a home kitchen. Or so the masters claim. Ye of little faith, go eat Ring Dings.

Don't miss this great description which captures what I was trying to get at, but much better than I could!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Japanese Traditional Food

I am reading a wonderful and fascinating book: The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking: A Traditional Diet for Today's World by Gaku Homma. The book was published in 1991, and is now out of print -- too bad, I think it should be a classic.

Homma grew up in the Japanese countryside after World War II, experiencing the last phase of real folk life in Japan. He has worked in a museum of folk art, practiced and taught Aikido, and ran a Japanese restaurant in Colorado. The book systematically covers food traditions from Japanese history, explaining the origins of many Japanese products and how farmers processed them. The author is very opinionated on the problems caused by civilization, and I think he overgeneralizes on the bad habits of Americans, but the information in the book is fantastic.

The descriptions of food preparation and life in the Japanese countryside make very good reading. Here's a sample passage:
"Preserving the vegetables of autumn harvest is a very important task in rural Japan. As previously mentioned, some vegetables are dried or buried in holes lined with rice straw, but mostly the vegetables are pickled.

"In autumn during October and November, about the time the persimmons turn red and ripe, the work in the rice fields is almost completed. If you took a walk through the countryside at this time of year, you could see the farming women down at the creekside, each with hundreds of daikon (Japanese white radishes) piled by their sides. ... These women, armed only with a brush made of rice straw, wash each daikon in the icy waters of the creek.

"The daikon were usually dried before pickling. The radishes were tied into groups with rice-staw rope... and dried on large scaffolds....

"Because the autumn leaves had already fallen, the countryside was painted with only the colors of the red persimmons and the walls of hanging white daikon. This image heralded the coming of winter." (p. 65)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cookbooks I DO NOT WANT

Here are 5 cookbooks I DO NOT WANT TO OWN:
Why not? I've read the reviews. All five are about cooking things for which I have no appetite whatsoever using equipment I find very unappealing. Vacuum pumps? Industrial foam makers? Dewars full of liquid nitrogen? Maybe I'm prejudiced -- I have never tasted any of this cuisine, just read descriptions by the idol-worshipers. I dread the day when some poor provincial second-rater tries to re-create it at a restaurant around here.

If you are going to spend all that effort to make perfectly good food into something else, leave me behind with Julia Child. I think that food like that was better when it was "Futurist" and thought to be ironic. Maybe irony is a dish best tasted not at all.

Here's a recently reissued book that I'd like to read:
  • Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point (original on the right, reissue on the left)

The World of Peppers

Peppers come in two vastly different varieties: old-world peppercorns from a tree, and capsaicin peppers from a new-world vine. As anyone knows, the principal effect of adding pepper to food is to create heat, but beyond that, peppers come in many flavors. Old-world peppercorns (or berries) are mainly classified by color, which determines their flavor. New-world pepper pods come in a huge variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and heat. The Scoville scale rates them numerically for degree of heat, from zero for bell peppers, 100 for pimentos, up to habaneros – as much as 350,000.

Out of curiosity, I started mentally listing the various types and flavors of peppers and pepper blends I have either eaten or only heard about. In my experience cooking and eating, I’ve definitely grasped how much difference it makes to use the right pepper as an ingredient, and I’m very curious to try more varieties – though personally, I’m no longer fond of the very hottest varieties. I decided to make a list with some links to wider sources of information.

Lydia at The Perfect Pantry got me started on this, so I have referenced a number of her posts about specific types of peppers. She provides many recipes, in case you need more inspiration.

Old-World Pepper Types
Peppercorns were the most important item in the spice trade from the far East, beginning in Antiquity. At times peppercorns were worth more than gold. Today says Lydia: “India and Malaysia produce the best black pepper varieties: Malabar, Tellicherry, and Sarawak. From Indonesia we get Muntok, considered the highest-grade white pepper. Brazil and Vietnam also contribute to the world supply.”

Black Pepper: this is the generic pepper you find in a shaker on a restaurant table or would have had in the 1950s before we got so picky. Now it may be labeled with a country of origin or other special designation. Szechuan peppercorns are recommended for Chinese food (I haven’t tried them). Tellicherry black peppercorns have a single origin. When I can find Tellicherry pepper, I use it as it is definitely a more complex flavor. However I don’t think there are specialized recipes for its use.

Green Peppercorns are unripe pepper berries from the tree. They were one of the first specialty peppers; they were a fad in the early 1970s, when they were packed in cans, still soft, not dried. I remember the first time I tasted them, at the home of my friend Michelle in Paris. In this form, they are [still] delicious in fish or veal recipes. You can now also buy them dried.

Pink Peppercorns are a bit milder than black. I’ve mainly seen them in mixtures, so I can’t say much about their specific taste.

White Peppercorns -- actually kind of gray in color -- used to be the choice of ground pepper for flavoring white sauces or light-colored food, in order to avoid black specks. It was recently the subject of an entire column in the New York Times by Harold McGee. In his blog, McGee writes: “Fresh peppercorns are small fruits. They consist of a large, light-colored seed surrounded by a thin fleshy layer, which turns from green to red as the peppercorn ripens. When the still-green peppercorn is harvested and dried, the outer layer turns black: hence black pepper. To make white pepper, the producers pick the peppercorns when they're ripe and the outer layer soft, put them into bags or barrels, and submerge them in water to ferment for as much as two weeks. The outer fleshy layer rots away, and the light seeds are then dried.” He explains how the process sometimes results in off-flavors, which may be a problem if one uses too much white pepper.

New-World Pepper Types
Columbus discovered America because he was looking for pepper and gold; he definitely struck pepper! Very quickly after he brought them back to Spain, new-world peppers were quickly tried, loved, adopted, and integrated into almost every cuisine on earth. New varieties were developed and cultivated in specific places (and continue to be developed), and as a result, many of the types of peppers are now native to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As for the world's hottest peppers, they seem to be varieties from India; I haven't listed them because I don't really know anything about them.

Here are some pepper types including a few blends and sauces:

Adobo sauce: Lydia writes: “Chipotles (pronounced chee-POT-lays) are smoked jalapeño peppers, originally from Mexico and used extensively in the cuisines of Mexico and the southwestern United States. The husky flavor of the chile hints of chocolate and coffee, and the adobo sauce, originally used as a preservative, typically contains tomato puree, paprika, salt, onions, oil, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and oregano.”

Aleppo pepper. From Lydia: “Native to Northern Syria and Turkey, Aleppo (also known as halaby) peppers are sun-dried, seeded and crushed into small flakes. The pepper is a deep red, almost eggplant, color with a high oil content; the flavor is mildly spicy and fruity, with a hint of smokiness.”

Cayenne pepper is a very hot variety of ground pepper. It used to be the main ingredient whenever you wanted to crank up the heat of a dish; I rarely use it any more because there are so many more complex and delicious possibilities.

Chile powder is anyone’s blend of ground chilies and other spices. I bought some at a farmers’ market in New Mexico once that was fabulous (see photo at top of page). I usually use Ellen’s recipe for Texas-style chile powder if I blend my own. It’s a basic ingredient in basic Mexican, Tex-Mex and similar dishes. You know this!

Chipotle peppers are one of the less-hot Mexican and US Southwestern varieties, not too hot but with a kind of smoky taste. I’ve recently been very fond of Tabasco brand Chipotle pepper sauce. Also see Adobo Sauce above.

Habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers are the hottest peppers I know from my own experience. I have promised never to put them in Lenny’s food again. In fact, I have lost my ability to eat them much. Modern-day Mayans (in the Yucatan) love them: there are stories about Mayans who do not feel that a meal is complete – even breakfast – without them.

Jalapeno peppers are the most common variety of Mexican peppers: small, dark green, very shiny (or canned). They are the standard for salsa and garnishes in Mexican restaurants. They definitely appear on mass-produced Mexican food such as nachos.

Paprika is made from certain varieties of dried peppers, and may be smoked or aged.
Hungarian paprika or Szeged paprika can be mild or hot, and has a very nice. distinctive flavor. My Hungarian cookbooks definitely call for it in many recipes.

Spanish paprika, or pimenton, has received a lot of attention recently. I tried the mild kind, which in fact is a pretty strong flavor, though not that hot. Lydia says: “Like cumin but a bit sweeter, pimentón imparts a slightly smoky flavor to any dish.”
Poblano peppers – another Mexican variety that’s mild enough for northern tastes. It’s small and I’ve seen it both green and fresh, and red, wrinkled and dried.

Tabasco sauce is a proprietary brand of Louisiana hot sauce made from a proprietary variety of peppers. In the book Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, there’s a detailed history of this brand, the family that manufactures it, and their long struggle to protect their trademarks. The sauce is so well-known that I don’t have to say any more.

Urfa peppers – a post from Lydia at The Perfect Pantry today introduced me to this type of Turkish dried pepper, which I haven’t tried. However, this inspired me to try to explore the world of peppers here!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Liberation" meets "Wall•E"

To follow up my reading of the book Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery, I watched Wall•E -- just out on DVD. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it is a little different here. Masses of detail and flashbacks to our world abound, of course, but all visual. Not to mention reminders of other ends-of-the-world, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, commemorated by musical references: the Blue Danube; Also Sprach Zarathustra, what else could you want?

A much more important fate: living on shakes. The descendants of the no-doubt brave astronauts of the 21st century really enjoy their food, unlike the poor victims of financial meltdown in Liberation.

But to continue what I was saying about Liberation, of course there is a plot concerning "the slick six," formerly a clever and effective criminal gang, and its most colorful character Marco. In the novel's present, after the financial meltdown, they challenge and defeat the overlord who runs New York and the slave trade. Well and good.

But Marco's road trip constantly seems to be interrupted, rather than enhanced, by the wealth of images and emerging political alternatives of the imagined future. Instead of providing just the necessary context for his adventures, the author provides us every detail that he imagined in working out how a financial catastrophe (maybe such as the one we're in now) would change the country. The examples I gave, of food visions without actual eating, suggest this discrepancy.

In short, I felt as if I was reading two books at once. One a serious vision of the meltdown. The other a normal sci-fi adventure set in a disfunctional future. Wall•E is just a reminder that a good story can use the details of a vision without being swamped.

Oh -- did I mention that Wall•E is funny? And Liberation is Deadly Serious?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Adventures of the Slick Six

A review of Liberation: being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America by Brian Francis Slattery.

What if a financial collapse took out the dollar entirely. What if all commerce, industry, transportation, and communication in the US went out with the dollar? The result would surely resemble the disrupted society of Slattery's Liberation. However, I think a novelist actually writing post-collapse would create a very different book from this one.

Suppose that a writer in person confronted mass starvation, joblessness, and breakdown of all effective laws, disappearance of gasoline, electricity, TV signals, and water. Suppose that the writer realized that either all political authority was consolidated in criminals or all social control disappeared into anarchy. Suppose this writer had experienced desperate people selling themselves into a newly instituted slavery. Suppose his friends had suffered even worse fates than he. Could he then do so much fine writing, heaping on details of many sorts, but rarely evoking the gut reaction of a real human being? I would expect a more dramatic rendition of this experience.

Well, that's speculation, but as I read this book, I wished for more action, a tighter plot, and less discursive writing. I wished that the writer had indeed imagined all these details, but had transformed his hypothetical experience into a more coherent type of fiction. While a road trip is a good way to show the reader how one imagines a variety of results of the hypothetical economic meltdown, I wished it had resulted in more human interaction and feelings.

As is my habit, I was particularly interested in how Slattery used food within the long and detailed passages about the old and new economies of his distopia. What struck me most, was that the characters in the book never seemed to be described in the actual act of eating. Starvation constantly threatened individuals who didn't have the skills to trade, barter, steal, trick, or brutalize their way through the terrible economy. But no one ever just ate a meal.

Flashbacks where food figures occur to characters in moments of torment or reverie. Even in pleasant memories, food seems more like a commodity than an experience:
"It's a bad joke, a bad dream... he is back in his past, in the arms of his ex at the state fair, among funnel cake and painted signs, the screams of children, the blinking lights of amusement park rides. He is in his mother's kitchen in Phoenix, a steaming tamale in his hand; he peels back the husk to reveal the warm flesh beneath, cornmeal and jalapeno peppers, the tang of chorizo." (p. 223)

"Now and again there's a twinge... A sausage cooked over a fire under a full moon, crashing waves. But it happens less and less all the time." (p. 267)

"Ralph Morrison was running a supermarket near Black Mountain when the dollar fell... Vegetables from Mexico, twice as much as they were the day before. Those fancy peppers from Holland, unattainable. He bought what he could, put it on the shelf with new stickers. ... People started coming in with pocketbooks full of bills, then shopping bags. Came out with seven cans of green beans, a carton of milk." (p. 91)

"She supposes it's better now; but sometimes she misses those colors... She misses candy bars, Twinkies, and Mallomars." (p. 274)
In the new, economically melted-down times, food varies from a pleasant diversion to a horrible nightmare. Here are some examples, with a bit of the context, though the descriptive passages where these crumbs of food writing appear are quite long and full of other things as well:
"The Angeleno sky fills with angry buzzing as they rise from mansion backyards and alight on the roofs of offices or the parking lots of restaurants that have turned salt cod and beef jerk into delicacies." (p. 145)

"The burger and beer place is now a chicken joint called Rusty's Avian Clearinghouse, serving every part of the bird -- if you'll eat it, we'll fry it, they say -- along with shots of grain alcohol that you can cut with the sugar-water squatting in a plastic milk jug on the counter." (p. 122)

"The slave markets are social events, with electricity, strings of Christmas lights... carts with yellow umbrellas selling curried mutton and green beans, tamales with chiles; horses clapping their hooves against the ground, sweating in the heat while clowns on stilts with pump accordions let a flock of balloons escape into the sky." (p. 56)

"The shirt was stained with grease and sweat, flecks of blood from three weeks before when he and Kari had cornered a dog, slaughtered it, and eaten it after roasting it on a spit over a burning, hacked-up door." (p. 134)

"Their cat complained about the lack of canned salmon; the couple looked at each other and wondered when they might have to eat him." (p. 120)
These excerpts on one theme are a clue, I think, to the way this novel is constructed from masses of detail trying to help imagine a catastrophe that would be too big for any one person to grasp. It's notable that the book was in print just before the current economic downturn made it especially painful to imagine such a collapse.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Texas BBQ

My friends Olga and David once took us to a real Texas Barbecue place outside Austin. Fascinating. Delicious.

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite food writers, has a new article about a place near Austin in the current New Yorker: The best Texas BBQ in the world.
I haven't read any food articles by Calvin Trillin recently. This one isn't quite as amusing as his classic stuff from 20 or 30 years ago, but it's pretty good and I definitely recommend it.

I'm putting in my photo from Texas, taken in 2005. I think this place was much more formal than the one described in the article. I don't recall its name. [Update -- it seems to be the Salt Lick and is in Dripping Springs. Thanks, Ellen!]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I live in a Ro*Tel State

Over at The Perfect Pantry, Lydia wrote today about Ro*Tel Tomatoes. "Either you live in a Ro*Tel state, or you live somewhere else," she wrote in this post on her blog:

Diced tomatoes with green chile

The various things she said you could do with this product -- which I haven't bought for years -- sounded so good that on my trip to the grocery store, I located the Ro*Tel shelf and bought a can of them. Now I get to pick which recipe to make.

So Michigan is pretty bad right now. Our (admittedly over-the-hill) rep just lost his committee chairmanship to a Californian. The heads of the auto industry just flew to DC in their private jets and convinced congress they deserve whatever fate they get, no bailout. But we have Ro*Tel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Online Life

The pictorial archives of Life Magazine have just been made available on google images! I tried looking at the food photos from the 1940s, and found these pictures on the care and use of electrical appliances of that era. Fun, fun, fun!

As a lover of pictures (and a childhood reader of Life, but who wasn't) -- I'm really excited about what access to this archive can deliver. And as a user of Google's image search I expect one really great improvement: the archive must have been professionally indexed. As a result, I hope this will make searching much more efficient. Google image searches until now have depended on the source of the image to provide (almost randomly in some cases) an appropriate tag for the subject of the picture.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Food Safety

Poison in your food? If you obsess about it, you probably have a mental problem. At least that's how it used to be. Now it's a real problem. Can you avoid dangerous food by reading the origin labels and avoiding anything from China? Evidently not. Consider this:
"For all the outrage about Chinese melamine, what American consumers and government agencies have studiously failed to scrutinize is how much melamine has pervaded our own food system. In casting stones, we’ve forgotten that our own house has more than its share of exposed glass."
This paragraph introduces an op-ed in today's New York Times: Home-Grown Melamine Problem, which reviews the many sources of melamine in American food products that don't come from China. American agribusiness seems free from intentional adulteration such as the high-profile baby milk scandal that killed several Chinese babies; nevertheless melamine appears in fertilizer and other products that could taint our food. The author concludes:
"We can seek out organic foods, which are grown with fertilizer without melamine — unless that fertilizer was composted with manure from animals fed melamine-laden feed ... .

"We could further protect ourselves by choosing meat from grass-fed or truly free-range animals, assuming the grass was not fertilized with a conventional product (something that’s also very hard to know).

"But as all the caveats above indicate, these precautions will only go so far. Melamine, after all, points to the much larger relationship between industrial waste and American food production. Regulations might be lax when it comes to animal feed and fertilizer in China, but take a closer look at similar regulations in the United States and it becomes clear that they’re vague enough to allow industries to “recycle” much of their waste into fertilizer and other products that form the basis of our domestic food supply.

"As a result, toxic chemicals routinely enter our agricultural system through the back channels of this under-explored but insidious relationship.

"... the United States should seize upon the melamine scandal as an opportunity to pass federal fertilizer standards backed by consistent testing for this compound, which could very well be hidden in plain sight."

Sunday, November 16, 2008


After weeks of reading classic cookbooks and autobiographies from the 20th century, I decided to make a retro dinner: duck roasted and sauced according to the instructions in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child in her purest form. Last night, six of us ate the best from the two newly-roasted birds with crisp-tender broccoli and carrots, cranberry chutney, and a bit of crusty bread. Today, Lenny finished carving. Now my slow cooker is processing the bones and pan vegetables into duck stock, and we'll be eating various duck leftovers all week, perhaps.