Saturday, February 26, 2011

Galway Ireland, Markets


Yesterday we visited the market in a very small town, Moycullen, a few miles from Galway where Arny and Tracy live. Irish potatoes, turnips, carrots, farmhouse cheese, honey, and a few other items are available now, though it's pretty bleak weather for farming. These are not farmers markets -- most of the fruit, vegetables, and other products are imported and are clearly so labeled.


The crepe maker used a big round griddle and a roller to make thin French-style crepes filled with a variety of choices including nutella.


Real Irish turnips.

The following photos are of the Galway market where we shopped this morning. Same sort of thing: many resellers of local and international foods, clothing, pottery, and many market goods.



In the foreground, a donut seller. Second stall: a bagel seller whose bagels Tracy loves -- you can just make out Tracy buying bagels. I reminded her that her mother once said "they shouldn't have fruit," but she did buy some with raisins. We enjoyed them for lunch.

The fish stall included a wide variety of fish and lots of local oysters that mainly come from a bit south of here, a town we passed on our way from Shannon Airport yesterday.

Next: carrots and parsnips with bits of the Old Sod clinging to them.


Friday, February 25, 2011


Here's something we haven't seen in a while: a hot airline meal from a still-functioning airplane kitchen. Just the same as the meals in the past when you saw them on every flight. Strange puree (potato? applesauce? a mixture?) and orangish gravy over a small slice of rubbery chicken breast, off-green beans (canned?), salad, small cello-covered brownie, cheese, crackers. But Delta did include it in the price of the ticket. Since they woke me up to give it to me, I ate some of it. Then we were wakened again by a woman whose mother couldn't wake up -- we heard increasingly urgent and loud calls, "Mom, Mom, Help, Help." No doctor responded to the subsequent call, but the stewardess nobly gave the woman oxygen and got her to wake up and the drama was over. Then we were wakened an hour later for breakfast and landing at Shannon airport. Not much sleep.

Ireland looks beautiful and green, with strange slanting winter sunlight. We walked along Galway Bay in a very stiff wind. I hope to post much more beautiful photos than this!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Empty Tureen

"Murder by Death" is a fantastic spoof of detective fiction, especially the detective movie and the country house genre. We watched it last night through the brand-new streaming video offering. (See "Amazon adds streaming video to Prime subscriptions in a bid to rival Netflix, Hulu" for details on the new service.)

In "Murder by Death" Peter Sellers sends up Charlie Chan (made me laugh out loud over and over). Elsa Lanchester parodies Miss Marple. Peter Falk plays an amalgam of Humphry Bogart roles, especially Sam Spade, making you realize where Colombo got some of his mannerisms. David Niven and Maggie Smith play the Charlstons, Dick and Dora, who have a dog just like Asta in "The Thin Man." Truman Capote is the madman who invites them all to his strange mansion, reached via a bridge that's falling down, etc. I loved every minute.

Now what do you do to parody the constant use of food in murder mysteries? Well, the blind butler, played by Alec Guinness, hires a new maid, who is deaf and dumb. No communication. No dinner. She sits idly in the kitchen while he gives her instructions that she doesn't hear. He brings in an empty tureen and pantomimes serving soup. Perfect!

Great movie. Great idea from

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I still don't want to read them

A few days ago I read an article by B. R. Myers in the current Atlantic, and commented that I wouldn't want to read several of the authors whose work he cited (Food Books I'm Not Going to Read). Now another Atlantic writer, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a proponent of the food movement, has written an answer: Defending 'Foodies': A Rancher Takes a Bite out of B. R. Myers. She's quite upset about the broad-brush condemnation of "foodies" as self-indulgent, cruel, and out-of-touch. I have no doubt that there is a larger food-reform movement that supports more responsible agriculture and more healthful food choices. But I think she missed the point that there's a fringe of writers whose position has become so extreme. (And if I remember correctly some of her writing in the Atlantic is sometimes a bit extreme itself, as writing goes.)

I take her point as stated here:
"Myers utterly fails to establish any connection between the statements and behaviors he cites and the broad food movement sweeping this country. In fact, there isn't one. None of us who care about food system reform and healthful, ethical eating would defend such excesses, and we certainly are not inspired by them. Fundamental to today's American food movement is holistic thinking and respect—knowing where your food comes from, understanding its history before reaching your plate, and savoring it with family and friends."
Of course Myers' examples of extreme self-indulgence and elitism don't reflect on everyone who proposes changes to the overall picture of American food production, delivery, and consumption. But I think her defense of foodies is just as extreme as Myers' attack, and just as misplaced. For example she cites a writer who says: "growing one's own food is not drudgery at all." Gosh, what a put-down of farmers. Maybe if what you grow is one incredibly productive little cherry tomato plant... never mind.

And I'm still not going to read those new books -- I think Myers has a good point there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Good Luck, David

Len's student has completed his thesis, and he defended it today. As we've done for every student who finished his degree, we had a congratulatory party with a cake to celebrate David's next endeavor: a job at Google. He will start there after the end of the semester. As you can see, I'm not the world's slickest cake decorator, but I tried to pick up on the Google theme colors.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Food Books I'm Not Going to Read

The Atlantic has a review of several recently-published foodie books: The Moral Crusade Against Foodies: Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony by B. R. Myers. The author is very turned off by the foodies and their poses, as the article's title suggests.

A few of the many foodie-writer crimes attested:
  • First: "these people really do live to eat" -- and often to overeat, writes Myers.
  • Despite lip service to the contrary, they are often cruel to animals, and go as far as to participate enthusiastically in cruel slaughter of animals they are about to eat. One example: "Steingarten tells of watching four people hold down a struggling, groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner."
  • Foodies don't respect food traditions of others, especially when the traditions involve avoidance of specific foods: "Most of us consider it a virtue to maintain our principles in the face of social pressure, but in the involuted world of gourmet morals, constancy is rudeness. One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons."
  • Moral or ethical consistency is lacking, despite professions of same. An "affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction." They nevertheless claim moral superiority to those who merely eat to live: "the guilty smirkiness that once marked [their] default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing."
There's lots more. I accept the conclusion that foodie writers are a sorry lot. I'm not a big fan of most of these writers anyway -- though I think the author is too hard on Michael Pollan and maybe Alice Waters. I think that the interesting writing about food these days is in blogs and in fiction. I've tried some of the reviewed writers' earlier books or articles (Steingarten, Severson, Bourdain), and for the most part had already lost interest in what they have to say. Now I feel really free to skip them.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Tea



My book club's meeting this afternoon was a semi-planned meal. Nine of the ten of us brought food and drink -- I was the odd one and brought the plates, napkins, etc. The combination of sandwiches, hummus, deviled eggs, vegetables, fruit, and sweets was wonderful. We also created our book list and meeting schedule for the next year. I'm looking forward to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Shiff, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and eight more.

Happy Birthday Alice!

From the Harry Potter cookbook: the cake Hagrid made Harry when he was eleven. Converted to a cake for Alice the Harry Potter fan:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pamuk's "Museum of Innocence"

Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, The Museum of Innocence, is the complex story of a man's obsession with a woman and all objects that he associates with her. It is also a very revealing exploration of Turkish life in a modernizing world -- the action takes place between 1975 and about 1985, before the current Islamist political success (and in some ways indirectly comments on this trend).

The story is told by the obsessive central character, and is entirely from his perspective. For him, ideas from Europe and old behaviors from the conservative past complicate the relationships between men and women as well as the function of family life. The narrator and his friends and family enjoy wealth, education, European fashions, and the results of the 80 year modernizing tradition of reform dating back to Ataturk. They look down on backwards and unsophisticated (and often poorer) families in which women still cover their heads.

However, the narrator senses in himself and others a tendency to want women to be both modern and sexually liberated and at the same time to be willing to play more traditional roles as wives, mothers, girl friends, and even as workers. The women in his view are aware that some men, having slept with their fiancees prior to marriage, never really respect them after marriage, and in condemning them find an excuse to bully them later.

They discuss a variety of such ideas. "Do you people know why boys in this country never learn how to flirt with girls?" asks the narrator's brother. "There's nowhere to flirt. We don't even have our own word for 'flirt.'" (Kindle location 2491)

The narrator has both a fiancee and a beloved. The beloved is a poor family connection whose reputation was ruined by her having participated in a beauty contest; she works selling imported clothing and other stylish items in a fashionable boutique. Her job further reduces her status in the world of wealth and class to which the narrator belongs; when he wants to insult her he refers to her as a "shop girl." His fiancee, however, is beautiful, has studied in Paris, and has a very wealthy family. Through weakness, he lets both affairs proceed, until the beloved runs away from him and marries in desperation.

The narrator's obsession first leads him to hole up in an old wooden vacation house on the Bosphorus with his fiancee, and finally leads him to spend virtually every evening for 8 years having dinner at the home of the beloved along with her parents and her husband; occasionally he also eats with his own widowed mother or in a restaurant. The plot is complicated -- but through these dinners we get a picture of Turkish family life even in such a strange and fraught relationship. (There's no question that this triangle is disfunctional, not a cultural thing.)

As usual, I paid a lot of attention to the many precise descriptions of the menus at the homes and restaurants. I'm a lover of Turkish food, so I especially enjoyed the food details, as well as enjoying the memories of my own trip to Istanbul: above, a photo of the Bosphorus from our hotel window.

From the old house with his fiancee, the narrator could see the ferry boat on the Bosphorus leaving the dock, "and there at the wheel we would see the mustached captain with his cap; so close that he could see the crackling mackerel at our table, and the eggplant puree and fritters, the white cheese, the melon and raki, he would cry, 'Good appetite.'" Then, in the morning "we would go to the Ferry Station Coffeehouse for tea with simits -- sesame rolls --- ... we wold cultivate the peppers and tomatoes in the garden; toward noon we would rush over to the fishing boats just returned with fresh fish to buy greay mullet and sea bream...." (Kindle location 3785-96)

Or later, at dinner with his beloved and her family "we ate macaroni with meat sauce, yogurt with cucumbers and garlic, tomato salad, white cheese and then the ice cream I'd brought ... and put straight into the freezer on arrival." (Kindle location 7810)

The boutique where his beloved once worked becomes a food import shop: "coils of Italian salamis were now hanging, and wheels of hard yellow cheese, as well as the European brands of bottled salad dressings, the pastas and soft drinks just entering the Turkish market." (Kindle location 8477)

The long tale of the narrator's obsession builds up by way of details about many things; the varied choices of food descriptions illustrate how this story is told. I can't begin to do justice to the depth and complexity of the author's presentation of a singular character in a setting that's so familiar to the author but so exotic to the reader. I think I found it more readable than any of Pamuk's previous books, which I have always enjoyed.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Analyzing the New Food Guidelines

More and more critics and writers are commenting on the new food guidelines, some constructively, some not so much. I haven't read them: they are enormously long. However, I found this article on the constructive side: The War on Pizza: The federal food police single out the sacred slice—and pick a smart fight.

Author Jane Black points out that "pages 25 through 27 of the USDA’s report" explain that pizza "is Americans’ No. 2 source of saturated fat and solid fats, .... Pizza is also the No. 3 source of sodium, beating out cold cuts and even bacon. After 'grain-based desserts' like cakes and doughnuts, it’s the second-biggest source of calories for children and adolescents in a generation that has so far distinguished itself only on the scales."

So, she concludes, pizza deserves to be criticized, and it's far from unamerican to suggest that we could do well to reduce our pizza portion size. Her conclusion: "This isn’t a White House plot to take away your pizza. It’s an effort, and an uphill one at that, to save us from ourselves."

Lenny has been making a delicious version of pizza with thin crust, feta cheese, and just a smear of tomato paste and olive oil on the crust. It's closer to the yuppie pizzas that were at one time trendy in LA -- I think originally introduced by Wolfgang Puck when he was more a chef and less a big-food personage. Sadly, even this delicious though spartan version has loads of calories.

Dear government,
It's just too easy to eat more pizza instead of less.
Respectfully, Mae

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Chicago: Hog Butcher and Stacker of Wheat

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon is a long but very readable book about the economic history of Chicago. The author documents many innovations that arose in Chicago between its founding in the 1830s and the end of the nineteenth century, with an emphasis on the interaction between the city and "the Great West." The central theme of the book is the unity of urban activities in Chicago and the agricultural development of the plains, woods, and farms that produced the raw materials.

Two sections of the book, concerning the grain trade (including the invention the grain elevator and the development of a futures market at the Chicago Board of Trade) and the meat trade (including the creation of the Chicago stockyards and the meat packing industry), were especially interesting. Railroads and the telegraph contributed to the development of nationwide markets by speeding up communication as well as transport of commodities. This discussion illuminates the early development of what's now viewed as industrialization of the food industry.

A romantic view of the life and productivity of the farmer as contrasted to the rapacious and perhaps parasitic role of wholesalers was at least as common in the nineteenth century as it is now. Cronon makes clear that the efficiency of the markets and inventions of the nineteenth century were essential to enable the farmers to get their produce to consumers. He constantly points out how the word "natural" was used to mean a wide variety of things, many of them far from the usual meaning of the word.

The railroad was one of the central enablers for this agricultural industry. Cronon writes:
"Railroads were more than just natural; their power to transform landscapes partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy that was beyond human influence or knowledge." (Kindle location 1697)
In the case of the grain trade, efficiency came from the combination of grain elevators near the lakefront where boats left for the East, railroads that stopped near to farms to pick up the grain, and the Board of Trade's development of a grading system to ensure quality of grain; these elements allowed wholesalers to combine the same grade of wheat from many farmers. Rail transport replaced wagons quickly. By 1852, twice as much wheat came by rail than by wagon.
"In 1860, Chicago received almost a hundred times more wheat by rail than by wagon; ten years later, no one even bothered to keep statistics on the latter." (Kindle location 1764)
The resulting stream of grain could be loaded from the steam and gravity-powered grain elevator onto rail or water transport with far less human labor than had been required to handle separate bags of grain. Instead of using their horses to pull wagons to market, farmers could use them to increase their production of grain. Improved communication let farmers know when the grain might more cost-effectively be fed to cattle instead of sent to market. And the cattle market, including the Chicago stockyards and meat packing plants also emerged with added efficiencies due to rail transport. Cronon documents the changing meat trade just as interestingly as he did the grain trade.

Of course I was thinking of the Carl Sandburg Poem:
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders...

Paul Krugman recommended this book; in fact, he mentioned that he was reading it on a Kindle, as I did. I'm glad I took his advice. However, the Kindle edition has quite a few unfortunate errors in the text due to (I suspect) careless checking after it was scanned. Also, the Kindle edition retains the placement of illustrations in two groups as is always done with hardcopy books; the handling of the captions for these illustrations was also very awkward. Maybe eventually electronic books will take advantage of their potential to more logically arrange illustrations.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

More Statistics

I'm really interested in understanding why world food prices have gone up, as I've read in several news articles in the last few days. Paul Krugman's blog today offered an economics explanation. He writes:
"Overall grain production is down — and it’s down substantially more when you take account of a growing world population. Wheat production ... is way down.

"You might ask why a production shortfall of 5 percent leads to a doubling of prices. Part of the answer is that some kinds of demand are growing faster than population — in particular, China is becoming a growing importer of feed to meet the demand for meat. But the main point is that the demand for grain is highly price-inelastic: it takes big price rises to induce people to consume less, yet collectively that’s what they must do given the shortfall in production.

"Why is production down? Most of the decline in world wheat production, and about half of the total decline in grain production, has taken place in the former Soviet Union — mainly Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And we know what that’s about: an incredible, unprecedented heat wave." -- Soaring Food Prices

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Cooking Cartoon from xkcd

xkcd cartoon


News from the Guardian:
"Food prices hit record high: UN food price index up 3.4% from December, the highest level since the organisation started measuring food prices in 1990"

Also interesting, same source:
"Science in the kitchen: We need to know the science behind rubbery eggs and wind-inducing beans, says US food writer Harold McGee. It'll make us better cooks."
-- McGee is one of my favorites, and this is a great overview of his life & work.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In Real Life

Some important government pronouncement on food just told us to eat less. Marion Nestle approves -- see 2010 Dietary Guidelines Finally Get Tough on Obesity and Getting Beyond Jargon: A Close Look at the New Dietary Guidelines.

There are lots of open questions. Most people with a weight problem already know that they eat too much. The government didn't need to do research on their behalf. They also know that the diet industry only helps around 10% of them, and that most weight loss is temporary. And that doctors don't have any really effective strategies. Nor does the government.

Then there's another little detail, as stated in the L.A.Times: "The fast-food industry didn't get the memo" --
'Eat less,' U.S. says as chains super-size their fast food 'Eat less,' U.S. says as chains super-size their fast food

The article offers a ton of details on how fast food chains aren't on the same page as the government. If they were, fast-food representatives told the reporter, they'd be out of business. So here comes another litany of menu choices with thousands of calories and oodles of all the things the government says not to eat, including (though named only by Marion Nestle) the SOFAS -- SOlid Fats and Added Sugars. People want strong tastes: that means salt and sugar. People want good value: that means huge portions. Meat. Cheese. Gallons of coke. Fries.

Well, tomorrow is Groundhog Day and again I'm thinking of that movie about being trapped in the same repeating nightmare over and over. Which reminds me that we're having a blizzard so there's not a chance that the Groundhog will see his shadow; probably no groundhog in most of the country will even be able to get out of his hole. But that's irrelevant to fast food.