Thursday, November 24, 2011

Finally, Pie

First, add whipped cream:

Everyone together

Waiting for Pi(e)


Four kinds of chutney (cranberry, plum and mango-cranberry) and regular cranberry sauce, along with other traditional food --

The set table --

Ready to eat --

Chocolate Pie

Note: apple pies were made yesterday. Banana cream pie was made later.

Peeling Potatoes

Turkey Prep

Bread, apple, onion, fresh sage .... chopped by Alice and Elaine.

Adding eggs and stock, then stuffing the bird --

More prep, and meanwhile:

Thanksgiving Aprons

Here we are: Elaine and I, starting on Thanksgiving Dinner at Aparna's house in our new aprons. Thank you, Kappu!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

" My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner"

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir by Meir Shalev is a delicious depiction of Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. A moshav is a type of collective farm that's far less communal than a kibbutz. The early Israeli pioneers who preferred to live in separate homes for individual families frequently chose life on a moshav instead of the demanding shared kibbutz life. Nahalal was one of the first, perhaps the very first, moshav, founded by Russian Jews in the 1920s. In the course of his memoir, Shalev depicts life on the moshav throughout its history, and even provides background about the Russian villages where the founders came from.

I especially enjoyed Shalev's memoir because I've visited the Moshav and met some of the present-day inhabitants. I was even given a tour of the cemetery where his parents are buried: a location that figures in several scenes in his memoir. At right is a photo that I took on that visit.

For our visit, we drove on the most recently built tollway from our temporary apartment in Rehovot up to Nahalal. In contrast, Shalev's earliest childhood trips to Nahalal in the 1950s were via the milk tanker that delivered milk from the moshav's cows to the dairy in Jerusalem. Though his grandparents were founders of the moshav, his mother had moved to Jerusalem where his father was a teacher and a poet, so the milk-truck driver would take him back to visit his grandmother and other relatives. Later, he traveled by train, a long and complicated route. His descriptions of train travel are vivid and amusing, right down to the sandwiches with tomato but with the salt packed separately so that the tomatoes wouldn't get mushy and to the last few miles when he and his mother and sisters would travel by horse-drawn cart.

Here's my favorite passage about a story his grandfather told about life before going to Israel:
"In the shop that his family had 'back there' in Makarov, in Ukraine, 'we sold products for the body, products for the soul, and products for between the two.' When I asked him what he meant by that, he explained. 'Products for the body were axes and hoes and boots for the Ukrainian farmers. Products for the soul were tallises, tefillin, and prayer books for the Jews.'

"Then he fell silent and stared at me in order to get me to ask what the products in betwen the two were.

'"Grandpa,' I said, 'and what were the products in between the two?'
"In between the two," he chuckled, 'is selyodka, herring. It's for both the body and the soul.'"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Adam

On 11-11-11, Adam turns 25. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Strange Burst of Efficiency

Sometimes I buy frozen packages of meatballs from Trader Joe's, but today I decided to make a whole lot of meatballs and freeze some. This is very unusual for me! My freezer is usually full of convenience food, bread, and ice packs of various sorts. (We threw out the 8 year old rolls of photo film when we installed our new refrigerator last month.)

For my meatballs, I used 2 lb. of grass-fed ground beef (the leanest) and a pound of whatever ecologically green ground pork Whole Foods had to offer. As a result, I did not spend less per meatball than at TJ's. But that's not what was driving me, anyway. I wanted to have some home-made meatballs in the freezer.

Above you can see one of the 2 trays of meat balls before I put them in the oven. And below, the still steaming meatballs just as they came out. This was the tray that went into 2 freezer boxes:

For dinner, I simmered the other tray of baked meatballs in some tomato sauce (this was from Trader Joe's but I added a dash of sugar and balsamic vinegar to it). We ate around half of it for dinner; I thought it was good:

To make meatballs I use 1 egg and one-half to one small, finely chopped onion per pound of meat. Today I put in panko crumbs (I sometimes use other starchy stuff such as matzoh meal or oatmeal), parsley flakes, herbs de Provence, and a squeeze of tomato paste from my handy tomato paste tube. Sometimes I flavor them differently. Always salt and pepper, though. I don't measure all the seasonings, just eyeball it and feel it to see if it needs more crumbs. I mix it up thoroughly, gently form meat balls tucking the onion pieces inside the meat so they don't separate while cooking. I bake them at 475° for 12 minutes (less if they are to be simmered in sauce). Some of the frozen ones might end up in cardamom flavored white sauce or in some other arrangement.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


I just read Candy Freak by Steve Almond. The book, as suggested by its title, is about Steve Almond's obsessions with candy bars. He spends a lot of time describing his childhood experiences with candy bars, but the main topic of each chapter is the exploration of candy bar factories, especially the small regional ones that make little-known candy bars with imaginative names. I've never heard of many of the brands he features, much less tasted them, but I googled around for photos to help myself imagine what he was talking about.

Almond is obsessed by the fate of these obscure candy bars, a sad declining fate which is pretty much sealed. Mars, Hershey, and Nestle pay tens of thousands of dollars to super markets and other mainstream candy sellers for the shelf space for their products (which Almond seems to have nothing against, just that they won't let him tour their factories). No matter how good or how locally popular obscure candy bars may be, the small and often eccentric manufacturers can't afford these fees. So they are sold in gas stations or dollar stores or mom-and-pop places where only candy freaks like the author or neighborhood kids or whatever will buy them.

Almond is therefore very sad. He's a sad man, and he slowly introduces the reader to any number of sources of sadness and freaking out in his life. I don't want to go into this area of the book -- too depressing. Candy bars for him are an escape from what could be seen as neurotic self-absorption and messed-up memories. He calls his existential state "the loneliness, the creeping sense of failure," and he harbors the hope that "the pleasures of candy would help me beat a path from my despair." (p. 155) Jeez. For this he embarked on a nation-wide tour of candy factories.

Mostly, it's a very freaky book, but unlike a lot of books, it isn't guilty of misrepresenting itself: Candy Freak. Yes.

The greatest writerly skill Almond displays is describing tastes of candy bars.

He bites into one and writes: "The dark chocolate shell gave way to an intense burst of sweet, chewy fruit. The texture was soft enough to yield to the teeth, yet firm enough to absorb the musky undertones of the chocolate." This candy bar turns out to be "a dried cherry, infused with raspberry and covered in a Select Origin 75 percent dark chocolate." (p. 104) Yes, a premium post-modern chocolate bar, photo at right.

But Almond is just as rapturous about dozens of other candy bars that have been manufactured pretty much the same way and on the same antique equipment for nearly a century, and are still made by the descendants of the founding candy-makers. And he describes each factory and each owner in great and remarkably varied detail.

For me, this is the worst week of the year to hear about all these candy bars, because Monday was Halloween, and I spent at least the last 2 weeks in October on a kind of Snickers and Butterfinger bender. Honest -- I only ate one Snickers bar between last Halloween and this October, and that was on the road when we stopped at a gas station that didn't really have any real food. But I digress from Almond's talents, and his great success in documenting the last of the small-scale candy makers. For this, he is in fact widely recognized and often quoted. Freaky!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Way Out West


The La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe New Mexico, the splendid accommodations at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Union Station in St. Louis, and the coffee shop in the Petrified Forest National Monument (now a museum -- see photo above) all have impressed me greatly at the various times in my life when I've experienced them. I just read a book that puts them all together: they were originally designed and developed by Fred Harvey. Author Stephen Fried's Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West -- One Meal at a Time is a good read. It successfully combines the biography of the man Fred Harvey (1835-1901), the historic development of the American west, and the history of the once-famous hospitality company, also named Fred Harvey, that he founded and that continued for decades under the management of his family after his death.

I knew two basic things about Fred Harvey before I read the book. First, I was aware that there were many restaurants and hotels by that name at some time in the past, which turns out to have been the era of development of tourism along the route of the Santa Fe railroad. Second, I understood that Fred Harvey Indian stores had traded for some of the highest quality rugs, pottery, and other artifacts, and had encouraged the Indians to develop their craft traditions.

Here are several additional interesting things I learned about the man and his company:

Harvey began by creating a chain of restaurants along the rail lines, where travelers could buy reliable meals without being cheated. He continued by improving the food and service in a number of ways, and by working with Pullman to develop dining cars when train technology made it possible to walk from car to car, and made the interiors of the trains more pleasant. His endeavor included many measures to ensure consistent quality, making Fred Harvey the first restaurant chain and a model for some that followed.

At the end of his life, Harvey and his sons began to expand into tourist hotels, and particularly to create the still-amazing hotels and tourist facilities at the Grand Canyon, the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, and a few other spectacular places. They also took over all concessions at central rail terminals such as the Union Station in St.Louis that I remember. After the Depression, the only profitable part of the company was at the Grand Canyon, and the rest slowly shut down.

The Harvey company was ahead of its time in hiring women. The wait staff of the restaurants from quite early-on was entirely female, in jobs that had previously been mainly for men. These waitresses received intense training and promised to remain in service for a certain time (after which they often married the men on the frontier where they worked). Known as "Harvey Girls," they wore super-clean white aprons, and upheld the high standards set by Fred Harvey.

Women were hired not only as waitresses, but also in other roles unusual for that era. Mary Colter (1869-1958) was the chief architect and designer of the truly innovative buildings and interiors for the restaurants, gift shops, and tourist hotels for the chain. Beginning in 1902 she was the main visionary in developing what now seems to be a classic southwest style of architecture. Ironically, though, the women in the family were shut out of management by one inflexible member of the Harvey male line.

Finally, in 1946, the Fred Harvey heirs cooperated with the making of "The Harvey Girls," a Judy Garland movie about the early days of the chain. The movie was extremely popular (the book notes that it made more money in its initial year than the Santa Fe railroad, which was sliding into oblivion by then). The best-known song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," won an Academy Award. Like many films, this one cemented the collective memory of an era that was just about finished. I admit that I had not heard of the movie, though I do know the song.

I loved the book. Its appendix includes recipes from published Fred Harvey cookbooks and from surviving manuscripts used by the cooks in the restaurants, many of whom were brought over from Europe to innovate combinations of classic recipes with southwest cuisine -- especially at the La Fonda in Santa Fe. (In other words, the Coyote Cafe wasn't the first to put Santa Fe on the culinary map.) I may try some of them!