Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Another visit to the Farmers' Market

I'm a very faithful customer of the Santa Barbara Farmers' Market, which meets at different places on different days. The biggest market is on Saturday morning in a commuter parking lot downtown. The Tuesday market is set up on State Street, the main commercial downtown street (just a few blocks from the Saturday market). Other days, the market meets in a shopping-center parking lot in Goleta, in Montecito, in Carpinteria, and in Solvang, all smaller towns in the county. I've been to Goleta and Carpinteria, which don't have as many vendors as the downtown markets.

The organizing body is made up of the farmers and others who sell at these markets, so you see the same faces rotating through all the different markets. The range of produce is amazing, because these growers come from so many different climate zones. Farms within Santa Barbara and quite nearby grow strawberries, avocados, and a few other crops. There are pistachio, walnut, and almond growers inland in locations like Ojai. Dates are brought in from the desert. Olive oil comes from olives growing not far from here. Yesterday I saw the first ripe figs from the Central Valley, which also produces conventional produce like raspberries, broccoli, onions, radishes, leeks, herbs, corn, garlic, tomatoes, and so on. Elsewhere, orchards produce apricots, peaches, plums, and more exotic fruits. Vendors come as far as several hours to these markets each week.

A few photos from yesterday in downtown Santa Barbara:

market 7

market 6

market 4

market 2

market 5

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Henry James Refinement

I have been reading two complementary books:

The Ambassadors by Henry James 

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick 

I'm kind of a fan of Ozick, and when I learned that this recent work of hers was in some way based on The Ambassadors, I decided to read both. Indeed, thematically they have much in common, and there's a lot I could say about them, but for the moment, I'm just going to talk about the way that the two authors use food in their narratives. I think it helps to pinpoint why I like Ozick but I'm infuriated by James.

Unsympathetic, self-absorbed, idly rich, status-conscious, easily impressed (by European pretensions), egocentric characters abound in The Ambassadors. I'm really not sure if James saw them that way, or if he just admired people who were self-absorbed, idly rich, egocentric, and gullible about European pretensions. I'm sure he didn't view them as shallow, but that's how they seem to me when all is said and done. Mostly James's characters talk and talk and talk, though occasionally they go out into the countryside or stop for a meal, continuing to be self-absorbed etc. all the time.

At one meal, a character named Madame de Vionnet -- whose own background is unclear, but who is married into a vaguely identified titled family -- sits opposite Strether, the novel's central character (who is the most extremely self-absorbed, idle, status-conscious, and easily impressed of them all). She looks at him "over their intensely white table-linen, their omelette aux tomates, their bottle of straw-colored Chablis."

A few paragraphs later we hear 

"If all the accidents were to fight on her side ... he could only give himself up. This was what he had done in privately deciding then and there to propose she should breakfast with him. What did the success of his proposal in fact resemble but the smash in which a regular runaway properly ends? The smash was their walk, their dejeuner, their omelette, the Chablis, the place, the view, their present talk and his present pleasure in it -- to say nothing, wonder of wonders, of her own." (Kindle location 4188, Cambridge Edition)
As the novel winds up, Strether goes to see a young man named Chad, another self-absorbed and easily manipulated character. Upon entering Chad's rooms, he finds a table where Chad has recently eaten. It contained 
"a supper of light cold clever French things, which one could see the remains of there in the circle of the lamp, pretty and ultra-Parisian, he had come into the air again for a smoke, was occupied at the moment of Strether's approach in what might have been called taking up his life afresh. His life, his life!..." (Kindle location 8061)
The last sections of The Ambassadors consist of Strether's endless final interactions with various women who have influence over either Chad or Strether himself. At a critical one, Strether meets with Maria Gostrey, a character who seems to provide him with some sort of link to reality (perhaps):
"He came back to his breakfast; he partook presently of the charming melon, which she liberally cut for him; and it was only after this that he met her question.... She waited, she watched, she served him and amused him ... "  (Kindle location 8258)
This little detail leads up to a critical interchange between them, where he tells her he will leave her instead of making a commitment to her that she had been angling for.

Excuse me if these quotes seem long-winded. Henry James IS long-winded. As I see it, highly refined bits of food sustain the characters in long bouts of navel-gazing and constantly worrying about commitment that in fact are sort of maddening. Strether is 55 years old, for crying out loud!

The level of detail that's allusive but very unspecific is characteristic of the novel as a whole. It's why I can't believe I ever read anything by Henry James.

Cynthia Ozick's characters are more human and sympathetic than those of James (not one of whom I like at all!) The thematic similarity of the novels is not in my view based on a similarity of characters' temperament or personality or values, but on the way that one character becomes an "ambassador" between others. In a way, Ozick's commentary makes James's exploration of the topic of ambassadorship have a wider meaning, borrowing the most interesting of his ideas.

Ozick does not go for the extreme subtlety that James gives this thought -- especially as he makes all the events and conversations take place in Paris, and never directly describes or quotes the woman behind all the machinations. Her depiction of all the characters (the sender of "messages," the "ambassador," and the recipients of the "messages") in my opinion gives her book more depth, but I'm sure lots of critics and James-lovers would disagree.

Food also isn't seen the same etherial way. It's pretty down-to-earth. One big reason is that many of the characters in Ozick's novel live in middle class America or in not-even-genteel poverty as exiles or displaced persons in Europe. (The events take place in 1952: one character is literally a D.P. whose former life and family were destroyed by time in concentration camps.) So right at the beginning, when the central character, Bea Nightingale, searches Paris for her renegade nephew, she finds a cafe with "odors of eggs and coffee all around." (p. 6)

Many more flashback memories occur in Ozick's novel than in James's. This is another way I think the novel is more rooted in real life, not just some sort of rich person's imaginary world.

Bea remembers a wedding of her best friend where she had been with her future (now ex) husband:
"They were standing side by side near an ice sculpture -- twin mermaids embracing -- at the base of which lay wide oval platters of sliced melon, layer upon layer of pink, orange, green, studded with swollen strawberries still attached to their leafy stems. The strawberries resembled surgically removed organs freshly lifted from the gash in an anaesthetized belly." (p. 27)
Maybe Ozick's characters are portrayed as a bit vulgar, in contrast to the excessively refined James characters. But she knows what they are. She doesn't admire them for everything, though she communicates a level of sympathy that I as a reader can share.

Ozick says the young man who is to be "rescued" by the ambassador from home is "a luftmentch" which she defines as "an inconsequential person, an impracticality made of air." (p. 96) This would be a good epithet for the young man in the James book, too -- in fact for several of them.

Monday, June 25, 2012



It's still early in the growing season for the 2012 vintage, but we saw vines spreading their tendrils and also very green bunches of tiny grapes in the vineyards we visited today. I believe the vines pictured here will produce the grapes for several types of white wine.


We returned to the Santa Barbara wine country to try the wines from some new wineries. We wanted to buy a few bottles for the remainder of our stay here. Two wineries that we liked: Firestone and Gainey. The tasting rooms at Gainey are especially picturesque, as they are also the storage rooms for large and small casks of wine and huge shelves of bottles.



At the end of the day, just as the sun was dropping behind the cliffs, we spent a moment at Arroyo Burro beach as we often do. It's only a few minutes from our apartment.

 arroyo-burro 2

Monday, June 18, 2012

Artichokes for Louise's Picnic Game

Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations is organizing a big virtual picnic among all her blogger contacts. I'm participating in this picnic; my contribution, representing the letter A, will be steamed artichokes with mayonnaise. While I'm at it, I'll also put in some asparagus, and avocados from the fabulous Santa Barbara Farmers' Market.

Last Saturday I wrote about cooking artichokes -- see this post:


I described how I begin by trimming the sharply-pointed leaves, then I steam the artichokes and cool them off. If you picnic with me, don't forget -- whole steamed fresh artichokes must be eaten with care by scraping the soft part from each leaf with one's teeth. Artichokes are the only food I know of where instructions for eating them are as important as instructions for cooking them! If you are fearful, you can buy jars with just the soft interior leaves, marinated and ready to put in a salad, but it's nowhere near as fun as working with the big, tough thistle just off the stalk:

I just love seeing all the different kinds of artichokes in the market, and I'm equally excited about avocados and asparagus. I also steam the asparagus, and serve it chilled with vinaigrette for a picnic (or fresh from the steamer with butter.) Here's what you can see at the market here:

The avocado vendor:

I guess being away from home, where artichokes and avocados don't grow, makes me appreciate this all the more. I eat ripe avocados with lemon juice and salt, but of course they too can be made fancy or added to salads. And of course there's always guacamole, but it doesn't start with my letter A.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Witch of Endor Ate Here


I've heard that the Witch of Endor has moved to Ojai, California, and lives or at least hangs out in an antique shop there. Or so says Michael Scott the author of The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. Earlier today, we were in Ojai for lunch in the sun at a nice little Mexican restaurant. We had standard, tasty Cal-Mex food starting with the usual chips and salsa, and continuing with platters of tamales and pupusas with a side of beans and rice. Nothing out of the ordinary, but we enjoyed ourselves.

We also walked down Main Street near Libby Park, location of the witch's shop. We poked around in the shopping arcades across the street, looked in some galleries, and a went to a large bookstore, but didn't see any witches. However, I suspect that a modern witch would rather eat Mexican food than hummus, olives, eggplant salad, and pita, which is what she'd get nowadays in a sunny outdoor restaurant in Endor in the Jezreel Valley where she came from. In Biblical days she might have had bread, dates, and some kind of soft white cheese, I guess. I don't know what Biblical witches ate.

We didn't hear about Sott's witch until we got home, anyway, or we would have checked a few more antique shops. We found out that Evelyn and Tom were watching us on "Find my friends." When they saw that we were in Ojai they were quite surprised as they weren't sure whether Scott had invented Ojai itself, as well as the witch's antique shop.


The Santa Barbara Farmers' Market offers a splendid selection of produce, including many vegetables and fruits that simply don't grow back home in Michigan. The artichokes are especially fascinating -- it's really quite a pleasure to choose from several sizes and varieties.

Cooking artichokes isn't all that difficult if you have a steamer, and my small kitchen here fortunately does have one. After trimming the tips of the leaves with a scissors and peeling the stems, I steamed my artichokes until they were quite soft.

Above: trimmed artichokes in the steamer basket. Below: cooked artichokes ready for us to remove one leaf at a time and dip each leaf into mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

The first time I ever tried to eat an artichoke was with my parents and siblings. None of us had ever tasted or seen one. We tried to eat the whole thing, and after chewing away at the fibrous outer leaves for a while, concluded that they weren't much good. I think that happened to lots of midwesterners who had no background in these Mediterranean exotica. What surprises me is that my parents were even willing to try something that unusual. We normally stuck to our old favorite vegetables, many frozen or even from cans.

On my first visit to France, someone gave me a lesson in how to take each leaf from the whole artichoke, dip it in sauce, and scrape the soft part with my teeth until I reached the entirely-edible inner leaves. I've been an artichoke fan ever since. I like the way they make other food taste sweet.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Zen Potluck

 My yoga studio offered a potluck for students and instructors last night. Most of those in attendance were instructors, and most of them didn't bring any potluck contribution. So the meal consisted of kale salad, tofu-cucumber thingies on toothpicks, a small fruit salad, some biscotti, and the beautiful pie above, made by an instructor named Rachel. I brought the fruit salad and biscotti. Everyone seemed quite content with that amount of food. I guess it's very Zen.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What did Magellan and his sailors eat?

"Real bread" was the first food that the 18 survivors of Magellan's circumnavigation of the world ate upon returning home. Their fleet's one remaining ship had finally landed at the mouth of the Gualquivir in Spain. For three years, they had been at sea, having left the Guadalquivir with five ships and 265 men. After spending months out of sight of land, taking sides in a failed mutiny, witnessing the death of their leader Magellan and many other comrades, and exploring new territories in South America and the Pacific, their privations were over and they kissed the earth as they landed.

"For years they had not fingered the soft, aromatic crumb; for years they had not known the flavours of the wine, the meat and the fruit of their homeland," wrote Stefan Zweig at the end of his account of Magellan's voyage. Zweig's Magellan is an imaginative and dramatically written account of this, the first voyage around the world. He published it in 1938, but like many of his works, it's been reissued recently.

Zweig depicted Magellan as a taciturn hero, who acted boldly but never without forethought, except perhaps in the instance of the one fatal mistake that led to his death. Zweig was as admiring of and interested in Magellan's long and careful preparation for the voyage into the unknown as he is in the voyage itself.  He detailed first the patient preparation of food, ships, and supplies, then the alternation of plenty and famine as the five, then four, eventually only one ship, the Victoria, (shown below in an image from Wikimedia, from a 1590 map) circled the globe.

Just decades after Columbus's discovery, when ocean voyages were extremely long, basic ship's provisions mainly consisted of biscuit (a long-lasting hard bread that was the mainstay of all ocean trips until modern times). Magellan's ships also carried beans, lentils, oil, salt pork, cheese, dried fish, and other staples. A few cows would provide milk for the start of the voyage; along with a few pigs, there could be fresh meat -- though not for long.  In both the text and in an appendix, Zweig lists the amounts and the cost of all these provisions, illustrating Magellan's careful record-keeping and planning.

Wine was to be served with two meals a day during the voyage: Magellan laid in hundreds of casks and bottles. Obviously he also provided what he hoped would be adequate supplies of drinking water -- though the ships' reservoirs often became foul and the water after long days at sea became nearly undrinkable.

Magellan wanted his men to eat well. To the staple supplies he added intriguing extras: sugar, vinegar, garlic, onions, raisins, figs, almonds, honey, currants, capers, salt, rice, mustard, quince paste, and flour. What were the cooks' recipes to be made from these tasty additions to ordinary ships' provisions? I'm sure no one made any record of such a thing.

Preparing to sail around the world -- which had never been done before -- Magellan knew that his would be the longest voyage ever planned. He expected few opportunities for re-supplying his five ships. In fact, he believed the strait between the Atlantic and the Pacific to be far closer to the equator than the Strait of Magellan, which he discovered. And he found the Pacific Ocean to be much vaster than expected as well.

Consequently, the enormous food supplies were inadequate. As the five ships finished the voyage down the coast of South America, a mutiny and the desertion of one of the ships helped to deplete the supplies. Magellan's underlings, when they traitorously took over one of the ships, opened the stores to the crew to buy their loyalty. By that time, perhaps the most luxurious foods like figs, raisins, currants, and almonds had already been used up -- rations had already been cut significantly.

After coming through the newly discovered strait, the remaining ships had an agonizingly long reach across the Pacific. The crews experienced first hunger, then scurvy and other forms of malnutrition, and finally (in many cases) death by starvation. The biscuit, unpalatable when fresh, crumbled and turned to dust; however, it was the only nutrition available. The sailors eked it out with sawdust and with the meat of the ship's rats, which became a delicacy. They soaked, boiled, and ate some of the rigging as well.

In contrast, when the starving remnant reached the Philippines, the welcoming king of Cebu Island offered them feasts of sweet tropical fruit and other delicacies. Bananas, palm wine, coconuts, exotic vegetables, and roasted fish with fresh ginger --good food and fresh water brought them back to life. As they visited various islands, including the Spice Islands that had always been their goal, they learned to enjoy these treats. Though Magellan was already dead, they claimed the islands for the king of Spain as they had meant to do.

While making their way back to Europe, the voyagers suffered again. By this time, 1520, the route from the Spice Islands through the Indian Ocean and around Africa was well known. Politics, however, made the excruciatingly long trip from the Spice Islands back to Spain even more frustratingly hunger-ridden than the Pacific crossing. Magellan, a Portuguese by origin, had been rejected by his own king, and thus was sailing for Spain. All the ports were Portuguese, and his ships and men were labeled pirates in Portuguese territory -- a price was on every head.

Thus, the survivors had to hurry across the seas without going into port except once, on a ruse. By the time the last 18 sailors once more tasted the bread and wine of their homeland, they had been starving for months since their days of feasting. Moreover, they were starving within a ship loaded with exotic and unimaginably valuable spices that could do no more for their hunger than the ocean did for their thirst, according to Zweig's narrative.

Obviously, most of Magellan is about non-food issues -- though the motive Zweig cited on the very first page, and which persisted throughout the voyage, was to create a proprietary Spanish trade route to the Spice Islands to obtain rare spices for European use. I've concentrated on the issues of eating and starving that were the undercurrent throughout.


I'm writing beside a very calm Pacific Ocean beach, thinking of the naked terror that other parts of these waters must have delivered to Magellan and his crew. Cormorants roost in the trees and tiny sailboats dash around the harbor. So different!

Two very interesting things in Magellan that are not related to food are:
  • Magellan had a Philippino slave who traveled with the ships and was intended to be an interpreter. When the ship landed in his land of origin, he thus became the very first man ever to circle the globe. (He also was caught up in the nasty aftermath of Magellan's death at the hands of a rival to the Philippine king who welcomed the voyagers, and thus remained in his own country when the ships left.)
  • Upon their first stop at a port on the African coast, when they were almost back to Spain, the surviving sailors discovered the paradox that their carefully maintained ship logs recorded the day of the week as Wednesday, but the local date was Thursday. Being the first men to make a full trip around the world, they discovered that you need an international dateline (to explain it with an anachronism). Zweig says this was incredible to the people of that era: "as exciting to the humanists of the sixteenth century as has been the theory of relativity to those of our own generation."

I enjoyed Zweig's book and its rather retro style of writing historic narrative. My only reservation is that he sometimes overuses Homeric similes.