Friday, February 27, 2009


I prefer shopping for food to shopping for clothes, though earlier this week I made an expedition to the vintage and consignment shops of La Jolla, to see what a very upscale community might support in this area. One designer-oriented shop had prices exceeding that at Macy's -- a whole section of Chanel. But I'm just not that into it -- I preferred my brief look through the upscale grocery store on the same street as the shops (it disappointed me).

Linda Grant, an English author that I enjoy, writes a great deal about clothing and shopping. She published an article about shopping in today's Guardian: Balm for the soul. As she usually does, Grant looks at every aspect of her subject -- the history of the word shopping, the politics of the activity, and the pleasure she and others get from it. She says:

Most hostile responses to shopping see it as an act of acquisition, of avarice and greed for things that we do not need but advertising and marketing have made us think we want, a condition that Marx called "false consciousness". We are dupes, and only the strong individualist can hold out against mass consumption. And there are others, of course, who truthfully say that they have no political objection to shopping but they just can't stand it as an activity and regard it as a waste of time.

Against whom I would set those of us who regard it as a pleasure.
Recently I reread Linda Grant's book When I Lived in Modern Times, and I often read her blog. I recommend her work!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Santa Barbara Farmers Market

Food from every season and many climates appears at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. Citrus fruit, early strawberries, dates, olives, dried figs and apricots, field vegetables including asparagus, pumpkins, oysters, apples, mushrooms, potted roses, cut flowers, herbs, honey, lamb, and many other products are displayed in beautiful piles and decorative baskets.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Arts and Letters, Santa Barbara

We met Barbara for lunch at a place called Arts and Letters, a combination art gallery and open-air cafe with a fountain in the center. We continued with a walk at the beach -- I put Barbara's beach photo before the lunch photos. The lamb salad with spinach, pepper, cherry tomato, and goat cheese (left) was lovely.

Opal, Santa Barbara

We had dinner at a delightful restaurant called Opel. It's decorated with old French posters, including the one for Opel cigarettes (but of course there's no smoking in the restaurant, this is 21st century California). We had salad, pizza from the imposing pizza oven, stuffed chicken breast, and beautiful desserts -- mine was named "Water for Chocolate" though I don't know why.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Septembers of Shiraz

Prison food...fancy French chocolates rejected because they are not kosher...remembered feasts...tea in delicate glasses and a missing silver forced on refugees as they slip across the border to freedom... As in many books, the details of eating, serving, cooking, and dealing with food in tense situations contributes to realizing a life that should be nearly unimaginable to a comfortable reader in a democratic, law-abiding society.

The Septembers of Shiraz
discusses painful topics, and it's hard to keep reading sometimes. But ultimately it's not a completely dark book. It takes place in 1980 or 1981, at the time of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their terrorizing of the Iranian population.

The members of one family, the Amin family, are in three places: the father, in a prison without a trial, the mother and her 1o year old daughter in their luxurious house, and the son in New York, facing a life on his own without money from home.

The Amins are Jews, and the father's identity as a Jew, as well as his possessions and business success, inspire his captors to torture him. The accusation of being a spy for Israel is scarcely discussed except by his tormentors, its so out of keeping with his entire life. His fellow victims sometimes don't survive -- they are mainly Muslim, and also accused of non-revolutionary lives or of virtually nothing. This isn't the first prison book I've read -- it compares favorably with similar tales of arbitrary power exercised by petty tyrannical thugs avenging their sordid past. Yet sometimes the author seems to understand the resentment and anger built up under a truly unequal society of the past.

The son, with virtually no feeling for his religion, ends up living with Hassids in Brooklyn. Though attacted to the daughter, he realizes that he can't accept their way of life. He doesn't know what will become of him, removed from his real culture.

As I read, I thought about Roshanek, an Iranian refugee just the age of the one in the story. In approximately the year described in the book, Roshanek was a member of the Girl Scout Troop I led. She had escaped with her mother and brothers; her father had been murdered by the revolutionaries. I never found out very much about her story. Perhaps this book offers me a belated insight -- though her family were Muslim, not Jewish, the effect on the child was surely similar.

The author, Dalia Sofer, conveys the entire story seamlessly. Memories, investigations, interactions with servants and questioning by the revolutionaries -- the story emerges naturally from the author's choice of events.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Backwards Day

In Junior High, Backwards Day was the day everyone wore their clothes backwards. My sister, Elaine, wrote me that I should make a blog post on a kind of Backwards Day in today's New York Times cooking section in two ironically contrasting articles.

She suggested that I should check up on Ending the Day Where It Began about "upscale restaurants that serve desserts that are variations of breakfast favorites. The desserts included using the milk from the bottom of a cereal bowl (after the fruit loops or whatever had soaked in it) to flavor panna cotta." I think she may share my memory that we were forced to eat up all the milk in the bottom of our cereal bowls when we were kids. I for one did not like it. The author quotes Pichet Ong, the chef and owner at the trendy restaurant P*ong:
“It makes sense to use the same ingredient pantry for breakfast and dessert,” said Mr. Ong, who tops chocolate-oatmeal cupcakes with browned-butter butter cream frosting with bacon fat and maple syrup. The distinction between muffins and cupcakes, he said, can be just a little sugar and vanilla.
Then, there's Your Morning Pizza -- suggesting that one should eat savory dinner food for breakfast instead of sweet cereal, pancakes, and donuts. The author mentions pizza of course and also polenta, "black olives, quinoa, miso, dried tomatoes, sesame oil, bok choy, wheat berries, roasted carrots." No thanks. I'll stick with smoked fish when I don't want oatmeal with brown sugar or dry cereal. Never did like donuts that much for breakfast OR dinner.

Thanks, Elaine!

And they don't mean popcorn

I just read some reviews of the Berlinale Film Festival. One featured subject at the festival is food films. Ten feature-length films and several shorts were shown, and I hope that I get to see some of them eventually!

In the Telegraph, author Florence Waters reviewed the centerpiece of the festival, the film Food Inc. She described it as: "an exposé documentary which criticises how the omnipotent food industry is crippling American society." (See Losing my appetite at the Berlinale Film Festival.) Writers Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), who are in the film, and others participated in the festival event.

In the L.A.Times, I enjoyed the overall review Food-themed films at the Berlinale festival by Nathalie Jordi, who wrote about the mainly-serious and political films that make up the bulk of the choices. She added:
Three lighthearted features completed the lineup. Gianni di Gregorio's "Pranzo di Ferragosto" is an endearing comedy shot in dreamy, torpid Rome about a long-suffering protagonist whose buddies dump their mothers on him for the weekend. Min Gyu-dong's "Antique" is a murder mystery-cum-psychedelic musical set in a Korean cake shop maintained by a gay pâtissier, a child abuse victim and a boxer. I overheard one viewer disparage Joaquin Oristrell's "Dieta Mediterránea," about a Michelin-starred ménage a trois, as a "moronic sexcapade," but I preferred Oristrell's pat description of it as "a story about love, sex, family, friendship and food."

Googling around, I found quite a few other reviews of the films, though the concentration was on Food Inc.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Baking in an unfamiliar kitchen

I don't really have all the ingredients for baking here, so I found a recipe on the web that uses frozen puff pastry instead of making my own. And I made apple strudel. The recipe includes graham cracker crumbs and a few almonds along with apples, dried cranberries, and dried cherries. I liked it, and the guests also seemed to like it.

The first course was squash soup with dried mushrooms. The second course was roast chicken with salad made from snow peas, baby bok choy, lettuce, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and the usual other ingredients. You can see the salad in the background of the soup pic.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Yesterday we ate lunch on the deck of a home where our friend Eshel is staying not far from us in La Jolla. He had driven to a favorite fish market for smoked tuna and salmon. His view is remarkable -- the house overlooks a wildlife preserve in which a stream runs down to the ocean near Blacks Beach.

In other lunch news, at the zoo a few days ago we saw the pandas waiting to be fed. They were sniffing the trap door through which the food would soon be delivered. Not far from the pandas, a brown bear was gnawing on a large bone. The exotic water birds in their pond were grabbing the small fish tossed to them by the zookeeper. The captive birds have clipped wings, so they can't fly. But wild egrets hang around, hoping to swoop in on the fish with their highly functional wings. We saw them a little later on top of the vulture cages above the pond eating their ill-gotten gains. The bird in the picture is an exotic stork, eating its fish.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Influential Books

What are the most influential food books in American history, or for that matter in European history? I wondered this as I read Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America. Its author Jay Parini made a selection that shows what he thinks are the key issues of American history. He stopped in 1963, so he also didn't have to face the growing influence of TV and movies instead of books, or their combined influence (as with Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth).

One thing I'm sure of: anyone's list of influential food books would include Julia Child's books and combine them with her TV shows. And what could be a better indication of her importance than the presence of Julia Child's kitchen in the Smithsonian, which I saw last Sunday? (And photographed as shown.)

Julia Child of course not only changed the way people cook, she changed the way cooking shows were done on TV. This is an example of Parini's purity: he picked only books that had influence on intellectual thought, not on TV shows. (Well, intellectual except for his eccentric choice of Dale Carnegie and the creation of the self-help genre, but I'll skip that for now.)

I think there were several influential food and cooking books in the 19th century, and probably before that too, but the works on food history that I've read usually take a broader perspective about food. Rather than books, they focus on new food products and things like the Columbian exchange of produce between the Old and New Worlds. But I wonder: did some books play a role in this spread of new food in the Early Modern era?

In England in the 1940s and 50s, Elizabeth David was widely influential, but the biography of her that I read wasn't really that detailed: it talked about her life, but assumed you knew how her influence had happened. This is oddly similar to the way Parini just tells you the books were influential. I wonder how influential M.F.K.Fisher was, as well.

I have more questions than answers about the significance of food books. Would The Omnivore's Dilemma qualify as an influential book? Diet for a Small Planet? In his longer list of 100 books, Parini lists two food books: The Joy of Cooking and Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution. That doesn't help me at all.

To go back to Parini: he felt that women were marginal for most of American history; he's old-fashioned enough to think of food as a women's thing, too. So I guess it's no surprise that food books aren't on his radar screen.

For example, as I pointed out in my earlier discussion, in his description of the Federalist Papers he says "it is almost as if women did not exist at this time." (p. 35) As I read, I wondered if you could ever choose a short list of influential books without being eccentric and subjective. I think personal interest drives Parini's focus on the development of certain male characters. It's Parini who is fascinated by William Bradford's puritan, Benjamin Franklin's self-made man, Henry David Thoreau's nature lover, Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists' political man, Huckleberry Finn's wild child becoming a moral man, Jack Kerouac's beatnik, and even on the type of person created by Benjamin Spock's parenting advice.

At my other blog today, I discussed my reaction to Parini's book. In brief, I think he picked books that reinforced his personal opinions and tastes, and claimed that they were the most influential. Maybe anyone would do it. He made an interesting case for the importance of each book. But I think his interests completely determined what he meant by influential. If your interests are different, you'll think of other books. Maybe some food books would even be on the master list.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dim Sum, Falls Church, VA

Sunday we had Dim Sum on the way to the Smithsonian and the White House (outside of the fence). The clams in the first and the fried shrimp in the second picture were really delicious, and the pineapple buns are very special. I wish I could get all this any time I want.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Another Detective Eats Breakfast

"My name is Nate the Great. I am a detective. I work alone. Let me tell you about my last case: I had just eaten breakfast. It was a good breakfast. Pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk and pancakes. I like pancakes. The telephone rang."
So begins Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Like the other great detectives in books by Tony Hillerman, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett and other famous authors, Nate's breakfast tells you much about the detective himself, not merely a love of pancakes, but a whole detective attitude. Miriam read Nate the Great to me and Alice and I was delighted to find another detective in the breakfast tradition. I've blogged about this before.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

More Chocolate News

Again, from the L.A.Times: "Special valentine gift for See's?" -- including the neat vintage photo.

The article reports on a recent request to designate the original home of See's Candies in L.A. as a historic landmark. It provides a detailed history of See's Candies and its founder Charles Alexander See. In the photo is a "sidecar-equipped Indian motorcycle," one of several used for delivering chocolate.

The logo and black and white decorations haven't changed, and to me, the sight of See's represents a special California treat. I associate See's with our graduate-school years in Berkeley. At that time, a See's store on Telegraph Avenue was a favorite place. When you went in to buy a small amount of chocolate (or a whole box) they offered a free sample to introduce the flavor of the day.

A few days ago, in La Jolla, we went to a friend's home for dinner, and decided to stop at the See's store in the nearest mall for some candy as a gift. Yes, See's still offers that taster. Back home in Michigan, See's has a kiosk selling boxed candy during the Christmas holiday season. But no glass cases full of visible candy, and definitely no samples. What nostalgia! By coincidence, Lydia at the Perfect Pantry also just wrote a blog post about See's: Dark chocolate, and a sweet giveaway.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Chocolate News

I am fond of the history of chocolate, which I've posted about in the past. The L.A.Times today has an article about discovery of chocolate residue on pottery from Indian ruins at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, NM. The artifacts date from around the year 1000. Evidently there was trade in chocolate quite a lot earlier than previously observed. The article, Signs of chocolate found in Southwest much earlier, states:
"In a study published Monday, scientists said they had found traces of theobromine, the chemical that serves as a distinct marker for cacao, on pottery shards found in a multistory pueblo in northwestern New Mexico. ... The nearest source for the cacao, which was made into a bitter beverage used in religious and other rituals, was more than 1,200 miles to the south in Mexico."

The Spice Perspective

The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice looks at history from the perspective of flavor. Author Michael Krondl begins with an unfortunately bland introduction -- from which I basically learned nothing. Luckily, I decided to keep reading, and when he began the real deal, it was much better.

Venice was his first city. He begins by describing a contemporary chef who tries to reproduce historical tastes from the age of great power, when Venice owned the spice trade -- and when meals throughout Europe were far spicier even than most modern meals.

As the book proceeds, we learn a great deal about the political, military, commercial, medical, and culinary factors that created the diet of Europeans in the Early Modern age and more recently. What's important, to me, is that Krondl is a vivid writer -- at least after his initial boring intro. He portrays the rapacious and genocidal actions of the Dutch (despite their home-base republican government) in colonizing Indonesia, the corporate approach of the Venetians to capitalizing the spice trade with Egypt, and the application of absolute royal power of the Portuguese kings in finding spice routes around Africa. Simultaneously, he's very informative about the role of cooks, cookbooks, doctors, and theories of diet and health, as they developed over time.

The role of religious thought -- from the conversionary aim of Portuguese voyages to the stiff calvinism of the Dutch -- provides background to the motivation of voyages. He compares Portuguese Jesuits' forced conversion of Hindus, cemented by force-feeding them beef with the auto-da-fes in Lisbon where refusal to eat pork condemned converted Jews. (p.151) Later, he points out the role of fleeing Jews transferred skills from Portugal to Amsterdam.

Krondl also effectively describes his own voyages to the three cities and to the places where spice was grown; he interviews modern farmers, spice sellers, and many others. In Amsterdam, he says, you can still detect the smell "of nutmeg and cloves seeping out from the beams when they tear apart former spice depots to renovate them into trendy lofts." (p. 192) "At the edge of the Nieuwemarkt, you can still detect a hint of spice in the air in an old house that leans gently towrads the Kloveniersburgwal Canal, as if tired out by standing here so long." (p. 237)

Throughout the book, Krondl compares modern, medieval, and renaissance taste in spice for food. Pleasant reading.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Local Food, California in Winter

We had a wonderful trip to the local Farmer's Market in downtown La Jolla. All kinds of fruit and vegetable produce, from oranges and olives to salad grow near here. The only problem: an MC playing oldies but baddies that we didn't much like. The setting is gorgeous: behind the stalls is a large school playing-field, and behind that, the green hills of the city.

I bought sugar peas, artichokes, and tomatoes from the guy in the photo above. He lives around 25 miles from here, he said.
Besides produce stalls, the market has a number of food stalls from all kinds of cuisines. We talked to an Egyptian woman, who had not brought any ful -- a dish I'd love to try. She had falafel, which as far as I know was invented in Egypt and later spread around the whole Middle East. Many vendors go from market to market -- the Egyptian lady serves dinner one night a week at the Oceanside market, for example.

Flowers, potted plants, bonsai trees, cheap clothing (what a very similar French market would call fripes, I think), crafts and jewelery, and even oriental rugs were available.

Here are some of the foods waiting for our lunch: