Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gorilla Salad

At the San Diego Wild Animal Park today, we arrived at the gorilla enclosure just as the keeper was about to feed each gorilla a head of lettuce. She got their attention, one by one, and then threw them each their portion.

A mother rhino was also eating as our safari train drove by. The animals are mostly in very huge pens.

Giraffes, our tour guide explained, drink rather rarely, so she suggested we take a good look at this baby giraffe who was taking a drink.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Depicting food

The New York Times is running a review, and supplementary slide show, about the artist Pierre Bonnard titled: Bonnard Late in Life, Searching for the Light.

Many of the paintings in the slide show depicted meals: a table, food, someone eating; they have words in the titles like Dinner or Breakfast. The reviewer discussed all the pictures with regard to their composition and color. I find the choice of food as a repeated subject (at least in this selection) to be quite interesting.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Night and Day

Inspired by reading Alison Light's book (see previous post), I decided to try one of Virginia Woolf's more obscure novels, Night and Day. Light pointed out how rarely Woolf acknowledged that servants were creating the environment in which Woolf's highly refined and perhaps excessively complex and sensitive characters lived.

In reading Night and Day, I found that I agreed with this observation. Exactly one servant in the entire book has a name: Dorothy, the maid of the poor but loveable family of Ralph, one of the suitors of the main character Katherine. (p. 325) Only occasionally is a servant even mentioned: Ralph has a fantasy of renting a cottage; when asked if he will live alone, he says "Some old woman would do for me, I suppose." (p. 192) Later he says "I shhall write a book and curse my charwoman -- if happiness consists in that." (p. 206)

Food, too is rarely of importance. At tea time, Katherine or another hostess often pours tea and slices a cake. Once, a mention is made of lunch hour. Ralph doesn't spend all his time "in consumption of food," but feeds bread crumbs to sparrows and gives a coin to beggar children. (p. 140) In another scene, an inn was actually characterized by the food that it served -- this was I think a unique mention of a menu: "For over a hundred and fifty years hot joints, potatoes, greens, and apple puddings had been served to generations of country gentlemen...." (p. 197)

Light quite effectively discusses how Woolf avoided talking about servants; studying the manuscripts, she found often that more detail about servants had appeared in early drafts of several books, but that Woolf often gave up trying to portray people that she didn't feel confident about understanding. There's a coldness towards all but a very narrow class of people that characterizes the portraits in Night and Day. I think it makes me feel less sympathetic to what Woolf may have been trying to do in the book. In the end, I find the sensibilities of these people somewhat tedious.

Night and Day is an early book that is not considered to represent Woolf's contribution to modern literature, so now I think I may read one of the better regarded ones.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Virginia Woolf's Kitchen

I just read the book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light. It's a very subtle, scholarly, and complex study of Virginia Woolf's relationships with the servants who took care of her and tended her household throughout her life. It's also a remarkable history of the drastic change in domestic life in England during her lifetime. I can hardly do it justice by extracting a few of the raw facts that come from it, but that's what I propose to do.

What was a kitchen like during Virginia Woolf's childhood? First of all, upper class people like her family never went down into the uncomfortable basements where the kitchens were located -- all cooking and cleaning was done by servants. A cold water tap from a tank may have been available, but water usually was carried in (especially in country homes). Municipal water supplies were far in the future.

On a wood or coal-fired stove, with no heat control, water was heated for cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, and bathing. Cleanliness was a problem, and washing up, cleaning surfaces, pots, floors, and stoves were an immense task. Sand was used for scrubbing out pots and working on grease. Detergent was not invented yet either. Refrigeration wasn't much available either, so servants frequently had to go out to buy fresh food such as milk, cream, and meat.

As Virginia Woolf matured, social change combined with technology to change kitchen life. Workers from lower classes could find other jobs, and thus became less willing to do all the hard labor. In 1926, the Woolfs installed a "self-setting range with cast iron sides & back" and a "hot-water boiler and tank." (p. 175) Eventually she obtained a fridge -- which depended on electricty, not necessarily a given.

Some history:
"Even by 1945, only 20 per cent of British homes had an electric cooker 15 per cent had a water-heater, 4 per cent a washing machine, and a mere 2 percent a fridge. ... some might have a fitted cabinet with a fold-down flap, but most kitchens still had a table in the centre and a dusty dresser for the crocks. Equipment mostly dated back to the last century. There might be aluminium pans rather than those heavy iron or copper ones, and a sink that whas white enamel rather than cement, with a few white tiles for a splashback if you were lucky." (p. 181-182)

Virginia Woolf was very dependent in her earlier life for servants to cook for her and even coax her to eat. (This had to do with her mental problems, which included various eating disorders, treated at length in the book.) My usual approach would be to ask What did Virginia Woolf eat? or What did she cook? The book also answers them in fascinating ways. As her life went on, she seemed to question her relationship with servants, and she became more interested in learning to cook, which was also a very interesting thing:
"Over the years she graduated to making soups, pies and roasts, rice pudding, curry; sometimes she'd rustle up a scratch supper -- 'macaroni cheese and bacon fry' -- baked haddock was a favourite standby." (p. 233)
The author does a fascinating job of connecting the domestic life depicted in Virginia Woolf's diaries, her letters, and many more general sources with the content of her works and with her approach to writing. It also creates a wonderful account of her relationship with a wide variety of people in her life -- including the often ignored servants, who receive individual biographical sketches. If this fascinates you as it does me, I recommend the book most strongly.

The Lighthouse Keeper's Kitchen

The Point Loma Lighthouse was built in 1855, and was in use until around a century ago, when a new one was built. It's been restored recently -- the lighthouse keeper's kitchen and living quarters were in the lighthouse building itself. The documentation mentions the "simple" life -- this is really like a joke: they had to haul all supplies up in a wagon, carry water, chop wood, and all kinds of things that the word "simple" just doesn't really cover.

The lighthouse stands in the Cabrillo National Monument. The monument commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 was the first European to land on what is now the West Coast of the United States. It's surrounded by a military base.

One of the original lights is in the lighthouse:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fish for Lunch

The volunteer at the nature center at Bataquitos Lagoon suggested a fish restaurant named Pelly's, which is in a shopping center quite near the lagoon. We would never have found it, and were really delighted -- it's a combination fish market and informal dining place, sharing outdoor tables with a Starbucks and a Subway. Our fish salad and sandwich were really delicious.

To see the photos of lagoons, birds, beaches, marshes... check today's post at Maetravels.

Friday, January 23, 2009

La Jolla Coffee Time

Pannikin Cafe in La Jolla clearly pre-dates the current trend of mass-market coffee houses. First, it has a homey atmosphere inside -- including a working fireplace -- and tiered seating outside with trees and begging sparrows. The glass cases in front of the coffee machines are full of what appear to be freshly-made pastries of the hippie variety: made with whole grain flour, rough sugar, and the like. Also monster cookies that may have just come out of the oven -- they were still on the pan. It's hard to pin down, but the pastries look like the kind that used to show up at potlucks in the 70s. I opted for the not-so-retro croissant.

I'm grateful to my friend for suggesting this as a meeting place, where we sat and talked for quite a bit of the afternoon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How do you like them onions?

What with enjoying my temporary stay in California and watching the Inauguration, I'm not doing any food reading, writing, or other than basic cooking this week. See my travel blog for that.

But I'm still reading food bits online: the L.A.Times writer Russ Parsons today had a really interesting combination of a recipe with a chemistry lesson -- Slow cook onions, and the results are delicious -- telling all about onions and how to caramelize them.

Interesting stuff:
Though the word "caramelized" is associated with sweetness (it refers specifically to sugar browning, after all), you don't want to do this with so-called "sweet onions" such as Vidalias or Mauis. That's because those onions aren't actually sweeter than regular onions.

That might sound weird, but it's all part of the peculiar world of onion chemistry. The flavor of onions derives primarily from two factors -- the amount of sugar they contain and the amount of sulfuric "burn" they give you.

The so-called sweet onions actually just contain less of those sulfurous compounds than regular onions. This makes them taste sweeter when they're raw ... But they also contain less sugar than regular onions, and because those acrid sulfurous compounds pretty much go away when heated, sweet onions turn bland as water after cooking.

The bottom line is, regular brown storage onions will make better caramelized onions than pricey sweet onions.

As for crying while you cut up 5 pounds of onions: he says you'll cry.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Animals Eat & Drink

The WineSellar and Brasserie

I admit that restaurants with puns in their names worry me a little, so "WineSellar and Brasserie" bothered me. However, we had an excellent meal. I started with a squash soup, and continued with the lovely scallops shown above.
Lenny started with an Indian-spiced version of the scallops, including date chutney which I admired. He had the salmon with French green lentils, above, for a main course. Both my soup and his salmon included some delicious wild mushrooms.

Lenny's dessert, rice pudding, was topped with a sugar crust of the creme brulee variety, and garnished with fabulous cherries. I had the port-sauced pear halves with vanilla ice cream. The sauce was lightly flavored with black pepper -- quite nice. A shortbread wedge was good too as were the tiny madelines served at the very end with the check. The waiter didn't know how to pronounced the name; I didn't mind and certainly didn't correct him: he was quite good natured and appropriately attentive throughout the meal.

The restaurant is located in a warehouse in an industrial park in what seems to be an obscure part of town even for locals -- and the floor beneath the very well-appointed restaurant is a very bare-bones wine shop with all the wine in crates on a poorly painted cement floor. So the atmosphere is eerie. We only found it because a colleague of Lenny's suggested it.

To make our destination seem even more strangely located, our GPS ordered us to go there by a very indirect route. Plus all those miles and miles of hotels, businesses, condos, and retail shopping centers were empty desert last time we looked.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two Good Things

There's a Mexican lunch place near the beach -- we took our lunch down to eat by the water. The Pacific is incredibly calm, and there's an unseasonable heat wave right now. It was also like this yesterday, and I took the following pictures.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Nat's Kitchen Project -- Chelsea, MI

Above is Nat's new kitchen, which he's been working on for months. (or is it years?)

This is the work-in-progress. We are looking forward to visiting him at the lake next summer and seeing the completed project.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Dining Room

The dining room, kitchen, and laundry room of our condo are on the middle level, above the garage. The kitchen has a large south-facing window that gets sunshine during the day. I've been cooking all our meals since we arrived: after 2 weeks of travel, eating in restaurants or in our hosts' homes, it's nice to cook for a change.

At right and on the set table above, you can see our dinner tonight, as well as the table setting that comes with the condo. We had Nile brand instant soup (it's surprisingly good), raw vegetables, and sandwiches made from last night's leftovers: pot roast and cooked apple slices. To drink -- water from the filtered spigot in the wonderful refrigerator.

Elaine and I made the same roast a couple of weeks ago when I was staying with her. Pork now is very similar to veal roast from years ago: not very fat! So I brown the roast and bake it slowly in a tightly covered casserole, with a few herbs and slightly-browned onions and carrots but no liquid. This method keeps the meat quite moist, and does not require a lot of undivided attention during the hour and a half or 2 hours of oven cooking. Other roasting vegetables like celery would be good in the pot as well. The liquid from the vegetables and meat becomes a very nice light sauce.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Stalin's Ghost

Martin Cruz Smith creates atmosphere as well as mystery and danger around his Moscow detective Arkady Renko. Muscovites in the post-communist world combine modern ways with their old Russian habits -- the mixing of cultures makes them gullible to con men such as the brutal criminals (simultaneously politicians) that Renko combats in Stalin's Ghost.

Food characterizes criminal types and other types. In the apartment where Arkady encounters the first murdered body, he sees "newspapers, pizza boxes, and KFC tubs" along with blood and death (p. 35).

In contrast, a few pages later, is Arkady's own place where he and his girl friend Eva "had slept the day away next to a tray crammed with bread, strawberry jam, and tea." (p. 43) And later: "They ate in bed. Brown bread, mushrooms, pickles, sausage, and vodka." (p. 48)

Hunger stalks the street people; those who have money enjoy excesses of luxury. A suspicious American businessman eats cereal in a fancy hotel while his Russian "protection" was "starting his day with steak and a stack of blini." Arkady joins them for coffee. (p. 94-95) The Golden Khan, a "club for millionaires," features "steak tartare, naturally, and the most expensive wine list in Moscow." (p. 146) But when Arkady travels outside Moscow, he finds "No Mercedes, no Bolshoi, no sushi, no paved-over world; instead geese, apples rolling off a horse cart." (p. 207) Arkady consumes "a pirog he bought at a kiosk" (p. 212).

These brief mentions of food occur throughout the long and complex tale of deception about a sighting of Stalin's ghost, provincial politics, and a murder mystery. The final clue is in a photograph of a massacre that had happened ages before: around a campfire Chechens had been killed: "Skewers of meat, flatbread and bowls of pilaf were scattered with them." The perpetrators also held kabobs in their hands, an image that confirms their guilt. (p. 274)

Monday, January 05, 2009

My New Kitchen

We moved into our new condo in La Jolla today. We're ready for our six-month stay. First thing, here's our kitchen, just after I went to Whole Foods.
We have the refrigerator of my dreams: a French-door, bottom-freezer model. The owner just bought it. You can see my milk, eggs, and produce.
Here are the groceries I bought, stacked up before I put them into the cupboards and the large pantry. Right now, it's dinner time, and I'm going upstairs to make some of the food. It's a 4 level condo: the study and living room on the first level, dining room, kitchen, and laundry on the second level, bedrooms on the third level, garage on the lowest level.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

California Dining

After driving for around 4 hours out of Tucson, we stopped in El Centro, CA, for gas. I noticed "Mexicali Taco" opposite the gas station. The sign said they had menudo on Saturday and Sunday. I'm interested in trying all sorts of special foods...
Menudo is very special. If you really want to know, it has a very repulsive odor. I was able to eat some of it by putting lemon and chopped onion in it. The posole (dried corn) is not bad, but still has that tripe taste -- if you didn't know it, menudo is tripe, which is big chunks of pig intestine. OK, it's pretty bad. The tortillas in the foil wrap were beautiful fresh ones, though, and the enchilada and burrito were very good. Menudo is evidently a very special taste. And I don't share it.
Here is a view of the counter. Click on the picture to see if you can read the guy's t-shirt.

Now we are in La Jolla, and had dinner at a very different type of place, a bistro with arugula and grilled chicken salad, Vigonier wine, and spaghetti with clam sauce.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Fortis Restaurant, El Paso, Texas

We had very delicious food at Fortis. We went there at the recommendation of the staff of the motel. We would never have found it as it's several miles from the motel on a dark street behind not one but two high chain-link fences. The building looks very small, but has many dining rooms and bar areas. As we were finishing, a singer began singing -- all her announcements were in Spanish, and the other patrons all sang along. In short, we lucked out.

Tex Mex Dinner

Here's what we ate at a favorite restaurant of Myrtle and Howard last night. Chalupas and shrimp tacos.

See Maetravels for more photos of our stay in Fort Worth and our cross-country trip.