Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Inspector Imanishi Eats Sushi

The following quotations all come from Inspector Imanishi Investigates, a fascinating detective story set in Tokyo and other parts of Japan around 1960, and published in 1961. As many detective authors do, the author Seicho Matsumoto includes many details of the meals that the inspector eats as a murder investigation drags on for months. I was especially surprised to find how often sushi shops were mentioned.
"He felt hungry. He spied a sushi shop that was still open. He asked his wife, 'Shall we have a few bites of sushi?'  His wife peeked into the shop and said unenthusiastically, 'Let’s not. It’s ridiculous to spend money like that. I’ll cook something special tomorrow.'" (Kindle Locations 1826-1829) 
Imanishi came out of the back street. The sushi shop was getting ready for business. A young man was hanging the shop curtain outside to let customers know that it was open. The man with the beret might have stopped in there to have some sushi. ... 'Sorry to bother you when you’re so busy. I came in because I wanted to ask you something.' 'Yes, sir, what is it?' The sushi master took off his headband. ...'Did a tall man in a beret come here to eat some sushi toward the end of last month, late at night?'... "Hm. Did he eat some sushi?' 'Yes. It was around eleven.' (Kindle Locations 2449-2471) 
"Emiko brought out some sashimi, poached turbot, and pickles from the kitchen and placed them on the dining table. 'What is this fish?' Sekigawa asked, looking at the sashimi. 'It’s sea bass. I went to a sushi shop and asked them to prepare it. They said it’s the season for sea bass.' (Kindle Locations 883-886) 
"For a while, there was only the sound of the two men slurping soba noodles." (Kindle Locations 2865-2866)
"They entered a narrow bar that served steaming hot oden, vegetables and dumplings simmered in a flavorful broth. It was early in the evening and there were few customers." (Kindle Locations 1065-1066)
From all these descriptions, a reader can gain quite a lot of insight into the foodways of the time. Imanishi's sympathetic wife often gives him a late-night meal of tea poured over rice or salted fish. When he eats out with a fellow-detective, they eat curry and rice or cake and coffee. Other choices include miso soup with rice, or Chinese noodles and won-ton, or sukiyaki. In a rural part of Japan, after a long train journy, he finds that dried noodles were a local specialty -- "Rows of noodles were hung to dry next to the noodle-makers’ houses." (Kindle Location 455).

Imanishi came from a poor family. He grew up in a time of extreme hardship during World War II. When he smokes he cuts the cigarettes in half and smokes only half at a time. Once on a train, he eats a box lunch, and says to a fellow detective traveling with him: “Each time I eat one of these box lunches I’m reminded that it was my childhood dream to have one. It was almost impossible to get my mother to buy me one. They must have cost about thirty sen in those days.”(Kindle Locations 655-656)

The narrative covers the intertwined lives of inspector Imanishi and of the suspicious characters he investigates, and of course his eventual surprising discovery about which one of them was the criminal and why he chose his victims. The detecting part of the novel follows the conventions one usually finds in western detective fiction. However, a western reader today might be very unfamiliar with the urban environment, the artistic ambitions of the suspect characters (who belong to a group of writers, artists, and musicians called "Nouveau"), the many local accents in the Japanese countryside, the social customs, and the levels of respect and politeness all efficiently sketched out in the novel. I find the details about the foods they ate to be especially enlightening in trying to imagine this now-exotic situation.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"South of Hell"

Google Map screen shot: from Ann Arbor to Hell, MI.
The detective novel South of Hell takes place in Hell (that is, Hell, Michigan, the actual place on the map) and in Ann Arbor. I was looking for Ann Arbor restaurants in literature, and I really found them here! In fact, there were so many well-known Ann Arbor dining places that the net result seemed a bit of a cliche.

Private Investigator Louis Kincaid and detective Shockey, a member of the Ann Arbor police, who are main characters in the story, first meet at locally famous Ann Arbor greasy-spoon Krazy Jim's, complete with its sign "Cheaper than food."  Poor Louis Kincaid is  unfamiliar with Krazy's famous eccentricities and he fails to successfully order a cheeseburger and fries: he receives only a hamburger from a spatula-wielding counter-woman, because at Krazy's you had to ask for cheese last. Kincaid asks Shockey "Why do you come here?" When he bites into the burger, though, Louis finds that "It was delicious. Even without the cheese." (p.  17-19)

I've never understood, myself, why people went there, having never been much of a fan of the greasy food or the bullying counter helpers. I don't even know what you were required to do to get fries there. And of course the funny little building that housed this campus-area diner for generations of students has now been torn down, and Krazy's is now at a more remote location. But this starting point means the author has established credibility as an Ann Arbor expert, I guess.

Later, after Kincaid eats his unfortunately cheeseless burger, he reflects:
"He was thinking about the woman with the spatula back at Krazy Jim's and the look on her face when he screwed up his order, like she knew he didn't belong there. 
"How did she know? 
"In  his four years as a student here, he had never once set foot in Krazy Jim's, had never gone to any of the student hangouts. No fried eggs at Angelo's after pulling an all-nighter, no sangria at Dominick's with a Sigma Kappa beauty, no winter-refuge pizza at the Cottage Inn, no postgame brews at the Brown Jug. 
"He had never felt comfortable in those places. The only place he could remember going to more than once was the old Fleetwood Diner. There he could sit in silence with his books, watching the bums and cops just coming off shift as he sipped dark chocolate milk made to order with Hershey's syrup. No one bothered him there. He never felt out of place there." (p. 30)

Kincaid, as you might guess from this passage, has always felt himself to be an outsider, which evidently is because he is black. He had been accepted to Michigan Law school, but had decided to become a policeman, though he had lost his job and eventually in the book it's clear that he can never come back to work in Michigan. The details of his prior experiences are in books 1-8 of the series, of which this is book 9.

To make sure that no famous Ann Arbor food joint is missed, eventually Kincaid eats at the Old Town bar, and on another occasion, has a hot dog and french fries at Zingerman's deli. I think the author was in error about the fries, which I don't recall ever seeing at Zingerman's -- and which aren't on their current menu of potato-sides: they only offer knishes, latkes, and several types of potato salad. It makes me wonder if the authors just read some memoir of Ann Arbor student life, and never really experienced all these locally well-loved places.

Besides the characters' experiences and memories of all the most popular Ann Arbor diners, delis, flashbacks to the farmer's market, and a few bars and hotel dives complete with Big 10 paraphernalia, Hell also offers a brief description of the commercial establishments of Hell, MI. including the Brimstone Cafe and Devil's Lair. Readers also get quite a lot of description of the campus and the countryside, which are a welcome distraction from the gratuitous violence and repetitive personal relationships -- something like four cases of unknown fathers in one book? Puhleeze!

The Louis Kincaid books by P.J.Parrish (a pseudonym for two collaborating Detroit-born authors) are not particularly well-known as far as I can tell from googling. I wasn't very impressed by anything in Hell except the extensive research on peak dining experiences in Ann Arbor. If I explained my distaste for the novel, I'd be giving away too much of the plot, and though my opinion of it is quite low, I won't spoil it for anyone else. I definitely won't be reading the eight previous novels in the series, nor any of the subsequent ones either.

I've definitely driven from Ann Arbor to Hell and back, and I can warn you that if you want to go there, be sure to use a map because the road signs are sure as hell stolen as soon as they are replaced.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Stinky Feet Cheese"

For a long time, I have wondered about foods that are politely viewed as an "acquired taste." Or impolitely classified as "stinky" or worse, like the "stinky feet cheese" on the tables in an Italian restaurant that kids teased about when I was much younger.

Once you acquire a taste for Italian cheese or blue, ultra-strong coffee, Vegemite, caviar, fermented fish sauce, sauerkraut, raw blubber, peanut butter, or many other distinctive flavors, you might really savor them. But people who grew up with different tastes and different foods probably find your choices unappetizing or disgusting. I've been observing lately that certain tastes are really hard to acquire and they really disgust people who don't share them. It seems to me that these flavors are very frequently the result of fermentation -- Korean kim chee or British Marmite, for example.

A very wonderful book titled What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert offers an explanation into this question I've been thinking about. He says that acquiring these challenging tastes is a signal of belonging to your own national or ethnic group:
"Every culture has a foul-smelling food for membership. You are not really Taiwanese unless you eat 'stinky tofu' (chunks of fermented soybean curd). You are not really Icelandic unless you eat harkarl (rotten shark meat). Real Japanese eat natto (a gluey mass of fermented soybeans that smells like creosote). Then there is the fabulously stinky durian, or jackfruit, of southeast Asia. Singapore being Singapore, one is allowed to eat its sweet, custardy innards, but it is illegal to carry it on public transportation. I’m personally a big fan of kimchi, the national condiment of Korea. It’s made from fermented Chinese cabbage, garlic, fish sauce, and lots of red pepper. It packs a punch— a bottle of it once exploded in my refrigerator. Its postingestive consequences are spectacular: the humorist P. J. O’Rourke described them as 'a miasma of eyeglass-fogging kimchi breath, throat-searing kimchi burps, and terrible, pants-splitting kimchi farts.'" (What the Nose Knows, Kindle Locations 1634-1641).
Michael Pollan's book Cooked agrees with this idea, pointing out that "as much as a third of the food in the world's diet is produced in a process involving fermentation." He names "coffee, chocolate, vanilla, bread, cheese, wine and beer, yogurt, ketchup and most other condiments, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, certain teas, corned beef and pastrami, prosciutto and salami," and says "Fermented foods are typically both strongly flavored and strongly prized in their cultures." (p. 304) And he elaborates:
"What's curious is how culturally specific so many of the flavors of fermentation turn out to be. Unlike sweetness or umami these are not the kinds of simple flavors humans are hardwired to like. To the contrary, these are 'acquired tastes,' by which we mean that to enjoy them we often must overcome a hardwired aversion, something it usually takes the force of culture, and probably repeated exposure as a child, to achieve. The most common term children and adults alike will use to describe the fermented foods of another culture is some variation on the word 'rotten.' A wrinkle of the nose is how we react to both rottenness and foreignness. Many of these foods occupy a biological frontier -- on the edge of decomposition -- that turns out to be a well-patrolled cultural frontier as well." (Cooked, p. 309)
I like this explanation of acquired tastes very much, and feel as if it answers the question I've been pondering, about why people so often hate the fermented foods of other cultures than their own. And more generally, I've enjoyed reading both of these complex and fascinating books, which offer a vast number of insights about food, aromas, tastes, cooking, and chemistry. Obviously there's far more to learn from them than just what's in these brief quotes.

Also, by the way: the "stinky feet cheese" that my friends teased about when I was a kid -- it was grated Parmesan in a shaker. As I said, the local Italian restaurant where we encountered this cheese was the place where we were all also acquiring a taste for pizza. You might be astounded to hear that most of our parents had never tried pizza, so eating pizza was a sign of membership in our own adolescent peer group. That was long ago, now pizza is practically global.

Well, sort of global: millions of people in China think that ALL cheese is disgusting food for westerners and that the western diet makes them smell funny if not downright bad. Or as Pollan states it: the Chinese regard stinky cheeses "so disgusting as to be utterly incomprehensible as food." (Cooked, p. 369)

But the cheese in those shakers? By Italian standards, it was rancid from sitting out on the tables of the restaurant for ages after it had been grated. Real freshly-grated Parmesan isn't stinky like that at all. Or at least I don't think so -- maybe it wasn't rancid but I'm just used to it now. Tastes change, right?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Autumn: Not Quite Here

Most of the trees are still solid green. Maple twirlers are all around. Only a very few leaves have turned. Just a few red branches on the sticker bushes, along with the very bitter, probably poisonous berries that I remember from when I was so young I must have tasted them (and survived). Not food! And just a few leaves on the viburnum, which soon will be all vivid pink. The google doodle today is all fall squashes, I guess it's time to eat fall vegetables...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bread and Wonder Bread

"Whole -grain bread has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Actually, that renaissance got a first, false start during the 1960s, when the counterculture, steeped in romantic ideas about 'natural food,' seized on white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with modern civilization. Brown bread, being less processed than white, was clearly what nature intended us to eat. They probably should have stopped there, but did not, alas. Baking and eating brown bread also became a political act: a way to express one's solidarity with the world's brown peoples (seriously), and to protest the 'white bread' values of one's parents, who likely served Wonder Bread at home. These ideals resulted in the production of some uncompromising and notably bricklike loaves of dark, seedy bread, which probably set back the revival of whole-grain baking a generation." -- (Cooked, p. 263)
In Cooked Michael Pollan writes about his efforts to learn to bake delicious, crusty, naturally-leavened bread, as well as about barbecuing and braising meat, fermenting vegetables, and about cooking in general. He discusses the history of white bread in America, and mentions that Wonder Bread and its competitors dominated the diet of Americans in the 1950s, as well as this interesting observation about 1960's "hippie texture" bread, which I remember with no pleasure at all.

In our family, Wonder Bread was the children’s bread. My sister, brother, and I, as we grew up in the fifties, ate Wonder Bread toasted for breakfast, and our bag lunches always contained sandwiches: peanut butter, tuna, sliced meat, yellow cheese or maybe cream cheese with walnuts on Wonder Bread. At dinner we ate bread too – my parents felt that bread was an essential part of every meal. I sometimes ate the slightly rubbery brownish Wonder crusts first and then squeezed and rolled the soft white center into a solid ball, which had an interesting texture in my mouth.

Even the wrappers of Wonder Bread, which constantly boasted of higher numbers of ways it “built strong bodies,” were for children. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, my friend Judy took one of the brightly colored Wonder Bread wax-paper wrappings to the playground at school and slid down the sliding board with it under her bottom. The wax made the slide really slippery – surprising the other kids when they slid down. Or maybe she just told me she wanted to do this, and didn’t really do it. I don’t know.

For our parents, Wonder Bread was at best unappealing, and I seriously doubt that they believed all its claims to foster growth in their children. Once or twice a week my father went to a Jewish bakery called Pratzel’s, which was a few blocks from our home in University City, MO. He always bought rye bread, which was what he liked to eat. He had several slices of rye bread with breakfast and dinner. I have no memory at all of what he ate for lunch most days, though corned beef on rye with a half-sour pickle might have been his Saturday choice.

This bakery rye was the closest to the bread of his childhood when rye bread was the main food, or even the only food, for almost all meals. Even for Passover, my radical father bought several loaves and kept them in the freezer so he wouldn’t have to resort to Wonder Bread, or for that matter, to matzoh.

Pratzel's made a number of other baked goods, which we ate as occasional treats: pumpernickel, a white bread called “buttercrust,” jelly donuts, bagels, kaiser rolls with a crisp crust, challah, cylindrical cinnamon bread made from a challah-like dough, cheese or jelly-filled Danish, and coffee cake or stollen. But rye bread was most important among all these choices.

My father didn’t just prefer Pratzel’s bread to grocery-store bread. He vastly preferred their baked goods to those from other Jewish bakeries. Each loaf of Pratzel’s rye bread had a Union Label on the heel of the bread, which I remember in a sort of schematic way; it was red and blue. It wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of union politics, not only taste, played a role in my father’s bakery preference. He had a lot of politics in his background. 

As we grew a little older, our taste in bread moved much closer to our parents’ taste, and we began eating the same bread that they did. I think by the time we were teenagers, the flamboyant red, blue, and yellow bubbles on the Wonder Bread package no longer appeared in the white metal flower-decorated Bread Box in my mother’s pantry. Just the white paper bags – or later plastic bags – containing real Jewish rye and other real bread. As a result, I didn't experience the sixties bread folly in anything like the same way that a lot of people did!

In Pollan's long and very readable narrative about bread in Cooked, he visited a Wonder Bread factory and several small-scale artisan bakeries, but he never visited any old-style ethnic bakeries like Pratzel's, though it would have been possible for him to do so. As it happens, Pratzel's Bakery remained in business until the fall of 2012, closing after almost 100 years of baking. Wonder Bread, a brand founded in 1921, was owned by several baking companies in its long history. When the Hostess corporation went out of business, coincidentally also in the fall of 2012, Wonder Bread was one of the brands that disappeared from supermarket and convenience store shelves -- but it came back around a year later.

I've written about some of our family food choices, including bread, before. Other blog posts on Wonder Bread and bread history:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Binge Reading the Peter Diamond Books

Diamond ordered a Cornish pasty and a double helping of chips ... . “One useful tip I learned early on in my police career: never go past a food outlet or a toilet. It might be the last you see all day.” 
“I had a good breakfast,” Leaman said. 
“So did I. That was two hours ago.” -- The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey, p. 110) 
Mystery author Peter Lovesey has written 15 books about a police detective in Bath, England, named Peter Diamond. According to my account, on July 18 I bought The Last Detective, which is Book 1 in the series, published around 1992. Last night, I finished the most recent one, Down among the Dead Men, which was published this July. I last read books by this author some years ago, when he was writing historical mysteries about a 19th century detective.

If there wasn't so much variety and inventiveness within these books I definitely wouldn't have kept on reading. As I always do, I paid attention to what the characters ate, and tried to notice how, and if, eating and food contributed to their characterization and the flow of the plot of each novel. As in many detective stories, meals often punctuate the action and serve to help show that time is passing throughout days of detecting. Peter Diamond loves pub food such as burgers, bangers and mash, meat pies with chips, a beef sandwich, a full English breakfast, and the like.

In many, but not all, of the books, the canteen at the police headquarters (called his "nick") is the source of a lot of Peter Diamond's meals, though sometimes he's ambushed by one or another colleagues whom he doesn't want to see. He has a friendly relationship with the women who work there. The food is very English:
“He ambled down to the canteen for some supper. Baked beans, bacon, fried eggs, chips and toast, with a mug of tea. 
'You’re a credit to us, Mr. Diamond,'  the manageress told him.  
'Stoking up,' he said. 'Heavy session in prospect.'" (Upon a Dark Night p. 211).
Peter Diamond's relationships with women are important in every book. His wife Steph is tragically murdered at the beginning of one book; he mourns for her throughout the rest of the books. Her cooking was a comfort against the many stresses of his job: "After viewing the corpse, Diamond went home briefly. Steph offered to cook his usual bacon and eggs, but he didn’t fancy anything except a black coffee. (Bloodhounds, Kindle Locations 4264-4265). After she dies, he often settles for "for his staple fare of baked beans on toast," or he's left with "microwaving a TV dinner" (Stagestruck, p. 147 & 144).

His boss Georgina in the later books is vain and not very talented as a police official, and he has to constantly trick her into thinking she had come up with his ideas and solutions. Avoiding the pain of having a meal with Georgina plays a big role in the final book, when she sets herself up as his partner in solving a crime wave.

His girlfriend Paloma, a successful businesswoman that he meets after his wife dies, often listens to his thoughts and helps him gain insight from what he's observed. At "an evening in with Paloma at her house on Lyncombe Hill," he enjoys "a supper of baked salmon and asparagus helped down with Prosecco. He didn’t mind discussing his work with Paloma." (The Stone Wife, p. 121).

Paloma's upscale tastes often contrast to what he orders, as do those of Georgina: "... their appetites weren’t affected. They tucked into the char-grilled rib-eye steak with black pudding butter, fries and salad (his) and vegetarian bake with salad leaves ([Paloma's])," or when he just can't avoid eating with Georgina again: "The food arrived, sausages and mash for Diamond, lemon sole for Georgina." (Down among the Dead Men, p. 54 & 83).

Lots of fun. I recommend that you read one or a few or all of these amusing books, though maybe 2 months is a rather short time period in which to do it! Yes, I insanely read all of them in the order in which they were published. (If you like historical fiction, I recommend the earlier ones, which have plot elements about Jane Austen and other famous historical figures that lived in Bath.) Yes, they take place at approximately the time they were written, with occasional references to previous cases. No, I can't remember all the plots even though I just read them all. Yes, the detective does age somewhat as the series moves forward, though after his 50th birthday he hasn't changed much. No, I didn't exactly mean to do this crazy thing. links to all of them: HERE.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

So much wonderful coffee, too little time

Freshly roasted coffee is a luxury! Happily, it's a luxury that's available in many forms from many roasters here in the Ann Arbor area. Quite close to where I live is Roos Roast, which is where I have been buying most of my coffee for the last couple of years. Also, I've tried locally roasted coffee from Zingerman's and Whole Foods, and I plan to try Hyperion Coffee from Ypsilanti and maybe some of the others. On my recent trip to Kona, I purchased some coffee directly from a farmer at their farmers' market -- I wish there was Michigan-grown coffee!

The Roos Roast coffee roasting machine: The Loring Smart Roaster™--
for details check their website HERE.
Choices of coffee to be roasted are fascinating. The differing flavor of a medium roast and a dark roast both appeal to me a great deal. I finally looked up the range of coffee varieties, and learned that most coffee is of the type Arabica, which is most widely grown, including in Kona. The differences in coffee from different places is due to differing growing conditions -- a warm tropical climate is basic, but there are a lot of possibilities. A few locales, like Honduras, according to the man who showed me the Loring, do grow slightly different varietals. Robusta, the second-most grown coffee varietal, is considered inferior, and is not used for premium roasts like the ones I'm talking about.

The Roos Roast coffee bar where you can try their many choices:
different roasts and several single-origin coffees, all organic, and
all produced with fair conditions for workers.
I wish I had the nerves/stamina to go around to different roasters and different coffee specialists in town and try a cup of every type of roast, and of all the different single-origin coffees, like the Honduran or Ethiopian coffee at Roos Roast, and the various light, medium, and dark roasts of each roaster. Alas, I just can't drink that much, so I guess I'll be continuing with my French Press at breakfast, making whichever one I've bought for the week.

In my kitchen, September 17, 2015.
The Roos Roast's Loring again: it's very efficient,
and produces a minimum of smoke..

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Throw your food across the kitchen and also throw this book ...

Tamar Adler's cookbook and kitchen meditation is titled An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Her writing has a distinctive style: it's very poetic, but entirely, all 200+ pages, are in the second-person; that is, addressed to "you" the reader.

All of the book is couched as advice. Every statement tells what you must do. After reading for a while, I think that you (and I know that I) started to rebel. Also, it's too fake: she pretends it's simple cooking when it's totally complex and overdone. Excessive!

Advice to Tamar Adler in return for her kind suggestions:
  • When you tell me I must poach an egg, and go on and on about the joys I will feel, and about the little spoonfuls of vinegar I must put in the water, and about yet more joys, eventually I think about throwing the eggs instead of poaching them.
  • When you tell me at great length how I must boil my vegetables until they are soft (and I guess poetic), I think about stir-fry. 
  • When you tell me I must purchase economy cuts of meat, select a few miscellaneous pounds of same from one species (that would be a cow, a pig, or a chicken) and braise them, I think about cooking kebabs on my Weber grill. I do braise things but I don't like to be pushed around.
  • You say I should save the brine from used-up pickle jars and you continue: "I would like to smartly advise you to label and date your potions well, so that you know their vintages and contents." I can't even laugh. (p. 60) 
  • And I don't want to count the number of times you discussed filling numerous jars with lots of things. Like your little glass jars of "cranberry beans, inky black beans, turtle beans, speckled Jacob's cattle beans, and plain burnt umber kidneys [dear Tamar, I hope you mean kidney beans]." (p. 109)
  • You wax poetic about fresh herbs -- "Once parsley, or its fellow soft herbs -- basil, chives, tarragon, dill, and cilantro -- have been quickly chopped, throw a generous handful directly over your rice or potatoes or pasta, and watch the meal begin to prickle with feeling." This gives me a prickly feeling that makes me want to stop reading and go check my crisper where several bunches of herbs from the farmers market might be wilting or rotting. But I keep reading. (p. 70)
  • When you get too poetic and complicated, I want to read Julia Child. Here's an example of too poetic:

    "For people who say that bacon is a vegetable: cook sliced garlic over very low heat in butter and a little water until it is completely tender and stewed. Top toasts thickly with stewed garlic, then very thinly sliced bacon or pancetta. Cook each toast under a broiler until the meat is crisp and its fat has seeped into the bread."
  • Listen, Tamar, bacon doesn't need that kind of help, you are making me think about that dog food commercial where the dog ran around the house saying "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" You are just making everything too complicated.

Book selection for this month's
Culinary reading group.
Hearing from Tamar that I must cook everything very carefully by very old-fashioned methods in my own kitchen makes me think about MacDonald's. In fact, I just also finished Eric Schlosser's book Chew on This which would normally make me want to stay away from MacDonald's.  In contrast to Everlasting, Shlosser isn't didactic at all: that's one of his strengths. Chew on This really suggests how to make choices.

I don't want to do EVERYTHING the hard way as Tamar preaches. I want to make compromises, and I want lots of different flavors and styles of food, not just what I can make by taking huge pains with slowly preparing hard-to-use vegetables, farmers' local eggs, and cheap cuts of meat. (Note: some of these aren't even cheap any more because books like this have made them trendy. I won't even talk about trendy which is another flaw of Everlasting.)

I might like many of the recipes that appear in Everlasting. I might even be able to learn some things. But it's too didactic. I rebel instead of learning. I heard of Everlasting because it's being excerpted in The Guardian. LINK HERE. A few excerpts are all you need -- I wish I hadn't bothered to buy the book, but just read these. They don't make you want to do violence to anything at all in your kitchen.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arbana, 1944

Ross MacDonald's early spy-mystery The Dark Tunnel (alternate title I Die Slowly) is set at Midwestern University in Arbana, Michigan, near Detroit, in 1944.

"Although it bears a certain physical resemblance to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Midwestern University is, like all the characters in this story, a figment of the author's imagination," reads the disclaimer right after the copyright page.

Yeah, right.

You can still follow the path of the brave narrator as he flees from both an evil cross-dressing Nazi spy and the local police who believe the frame-up job that's been done to him. Despite decades of growth and development in my town, Ann Arbor, I recognize the campus buildings, the museum just to the north, the steam tunnels, the power plant, the hospital on a hill, and the rural area to the east (no longer rural now) where the narrator tries to hide in a seedy roadhouse full of drunks.

I reread this obscure tale a few years ago because I had forgotten most of it. (This post is an update of one I did in 2010.) I found it very readable and suspenseful. I had always thought the seedy roadhouse in the story was identifiable as a still-existing restaurant east of Ann Arbor. I'm not so sure any more. I don't think the distance the narrator runs after going past the hospital is necessarily far enough to get to Dixboro Road. Anyway, I was hoping the narrator would describe a little more about the place and what he ate there -- all he orders is a fried-egg sandwich for thirty-five cents, served on a cracked plate along with some whiskey. And then he goes on fleeing and trying to solve the mystery of who is spying and who killed his friend and made it look like suicide.

The narrator eats one other egg while being held prisoner in the University hospital, and then is let go by an FBI agent who believes his story. He continues to help the FBI agent chase down the spy ring. Later he ends up in another hospital in Northern Ontario where he eats "a good dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes and gravy and a quarter of a lemon pie" while waiting to finally do in the villain. Interesting menu. There are all kinds of interesting historical attitudes and details in the book, as well as the descriptions of "Arbana" which are so recognizable.

This book doesn't have a lot a lot about food compared to some mystery stories, especially some very recent ones that could almost double as cookbooks. When I read, I usually look for food details and how the author uses them, along with whatever else is interesting. To see all my blog posts about food in detective fiction, including this one, click HERE.

The Dark Tunnel was originally published under MacDonald's real name, Kenneth Millar, under the title I Die Slowly -- I located the image of an early paperback edition (right/above), as well as of two more current editions (top). Subsequently the author moved to California, writing a large number of successful books under the Ross MacDonald pseudonym. This is the only mystery I've read that takes place in Ann Arbor, and I might try to find more.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ann Arbor Pastry Chef

A dessert-tasting menu where you eat 5 or more pastries and no entree at all ... a culinary school dedicated to sweets ... a "naked" wedding cake decorated with berries but not a bit of frosting ... and many more experiences and ideas that were entirely new to me were topics of a conversation I had with Marybeth King, head pastry chef at Weber's Restaurant and catering in Ann Arbor.

Marybeth makes sure to find out what people want, sometimes by long conversations, sometimes when they bring in a picture. One popular trend this summer and fall, she told me, is to have a wedding cake that's traditional on one side, but when you check the other side, it has a surprise theme. The Batman cake in the photo above is a recent example of this type of cake. I don't know much about cakes and cake decorating, so I was totally fascinated to learn about all the different cakes made by Marybeth and her assistants in Weber's pastry kitchen.

"Chalkboard" cakes, iced black with white "chalk" writing on them, are also currently popular. The cake above is one of several demo cakes she baked during the summer to help customers at Weber's figure out just what type of cake they'd like to order. She gets ideas from visiting pastry shops in various cities, looking at ads, and exploring Pinterest, as well as from the photos and descriptions that her customers bring in. And when she can, she learns by ordering the dessert-and-pastry tasting menus I mentioned earlier, which she has found at restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

Marybeth has a life-long dedication to her profession. Before working at Weber's she worked briefly at the Gandy Dancer, worked at Moveable Feast, and other restaurant jobs. Even in high school she managed to get jobs in the school cafeteria and at a local pastry shop. She constantly improves her skills -- at a class at a specialized culinary school in Chicago this spring, she made the cake in the photo above. These were her first figurines made from fondant and gum paste, two ingredients in the tool box of professional cake bakers.

A couple planning a wedding recently asked her for a "naked cake" -- another current trend. "I had never heard the term," says Marybeth, "but I knew what they meant immediately, and the cake in the picture turned out to be exactly what they wanted." 

Marybeth's cakes come in a wide variety of flavors, as well as being decorated to satisfy her customers. She has a huge number of recipes, many of which she knows by heart, she says. She makes her own fondant from marshmallows, which makes it taste better than ready-made fondant. 

Customers can order Marybeth's cakes for events at Weber's, for events that Weber's caters, or just for their own event independent of Weber's. She's proud of Weber's anniversary program, which offers a six-inch "top layer" to any couple having dinner to celebrate the anniversary of their Weber's wedding. She usually bakes a duplicate of their original wedding-cake top for their first anniversary, but says that some couples who come back year after year sample many of her newer creations too. In addition, she's happy that the cakes she bakes are available at a wide price range, offering good choices to the customers, whatever their celebration is about.

Owls are very popular currently, says Marybeth. The cake on the left was for a baby shower, and the cake on the right was the product of a professional class she took in Chicago. The interior structure of this cake is particularly intricate, and the class included instructions on how to do it right. For simpler cakes, like the "naked" cake, layers are held together with straws, Marybeth explained to me. "Black straws," she says, "so they aren't accidentally served in a piece of cake."

"Retro Barbie" -- a wedding shower cake.
"Alice" for a customer who asked for red-white-and-black.
"My pride and joy" says Marybeth -- another cake from a Chicago class, taught by Marina Sousa,
a pastry chef who has been on TV. "I don't watch much food TV,"
says Mary Beth. "Too much of a busman's holiday."
Baking and cooking are Marybeth's lifelong passions, but recently she discovered an activity she loves almost as much: writing fiction. Participating in NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) she's written six novels, and also completed some children's stories and short stories. I met Marybeth in a writers' Meetup Group, and loved finding out about her delicious profession! And I'm grateful to her for sharing all these cake photos!

Monday, September 07, 2015


Natsume Soseki's novel Botchan has been very popular for over 100 years. It was published in 1906, and the main action takes place during the war between Japan and China in 1894-1895. Botchan is a comic novel, which vastly amused its Japanese readers at the time. Its popularity is suggested by the large number of editions even in English -- a Google screen-shot showing just a few of them is above.

Kodansha edition of Botchan.
Natsume Soseki lived from 1867 to 1916.
For me, the fascination of this short book is in the details of daily life and relationships in that long-ago and far-away Japan. The narrator -- a native of Tokyo -- first describes his early life as a wild boy. After attending some sort of secondary school, he takes a fairly undesirable job as a teacher in a rural village school.

While Western novels I've read about rebellions against society often take place in schools, the rebels are usually the kids. In Botchan, the pupils are rowdy, disrespectful, and undisciplined, but not socially aware. Here, it's the teacher/narrator who is a rebel, making fun of his colleagues, giving them comic nicknames, spying on them, sometimes refusing to cooperate, and all the while tangling with his students in quite an undignified way. And he's constantly in need of money!

In the background, the narrator's family retainer, an aging woman servant named Kiyo, is completely loyal to him and even sends him money from the job she gets after the narrator's parents die and his brother deserts him.

One fascinating element of the novel is the descriptions of what the narrator ate -- which was usually inadequate, unappealing, or boring -- and what he daydreamed about eating. When he first gets to the school, he tries to go out for tempura or dumplings, but the students mercilessly make fun of him for these indulgences; he doesn't seem to know why, and I am not sure either -- they just have it in for him. So he stops going out and eats the food provided by his landlady, which is mainly sweet potatoes. Some quotations:
"I sat down for supper. I looked in the dish on the tray, and saw the same old sweet potatoes again to-night. This new boarding house was more polite and considerate and refined than the Ikagins, but the grub was too poor stuff and that was one drawback. It was sweet potato yesterday, so it was the day before yesterday, and here it is again to-night. True, I declared myself very fond of sweet potatoes, but if I am fed with sweet potatoes with such insistency, I may soon have to quit this dear old world. I can't be laughing at Hubbard Squash [nickname for one of his colleagues]; I shall become Sweet Potato myself before long. 
If it were Kiyo she would surely serve me with my favorite sliced tunny or fried kamaboko, but nothing doing with a tight, poor samurai. It seems best that I live with Kiyo. If I have to stay long in the school, I believe I would call her from Tokyo. Don't eat tempura, don't eat dango [dumplings], and then get turned yellow by feeding on sweet potatoes only, in the boarding house. That's for an educator, and his place is really a hard one. I think even the priests of the Zen sect are enjoying better feed. I cleaned up the sweet potatoes, then took out two raw eggs from the drawer of my desk, broke them on the edge of the rice bowl, to tide it over. I have to get nourishment by eating raw eggs or something, or how can I stand the teaching of twenty one hours a week?" (Kindle Locations 1128-1138)
For the victory celebration when the war ends, one of the narrator's fellow teachers, nicknamed Porcupine, brings him some beef:
"...he took out a package covered with a bamboo-wrapper, and threw it down in the center of the room. I had been denied the pleasure of patronizing the noodle house or dango shop, on top of getting sick of the sweet potatoes and tofu, and I welcomed the suggestion with 'That's fine,' and began cooking it with a frying pan and some sugar borrowed from the old lady. Porcupine, munching the beef to the full capacity of his mouth, asked me if I knew Red Shirt having a favorite geisha." (Kindle Locations 1616-1621) 
The humor in Botchan, is difficult for a modern reader, or at least I find it so. I read it alternately in translations by an anonymous translator not long after the original publication (Kindle edition based on 1918 translation), and one from 1971 translated by Alan Turney, published by Kodansha. The text is obviously full of dialect humor, poking fun at specific customs and regional differences, and, according to the introductions to both editions, full of puns. Challenging to English readers and translators!

Here's a sample of the translation differences. Attending a farewell banquet for one of his fellow teachers, the narrator finds the food unacceptable:
"After the exchange of addresses, a sizzling sound was heard here and there, and I too tried the soup which tasted like anything but soup. There was kamaboko in the kuchitori dish, but instead of being snow white as it should be, it looked grayish, and was more like a poorly cooked chikuwa. The sliced tunny was there, but not having been sliced fine, passed the throat like so many pieces of chopped raw tunny. Those around me, however, ate with ravenous appetite. They have not tasted, I guess, the real Yedo dinner."(Kindle Locations 1473-1477).
Same passage from the other translation, which shows you how hard it must be to render into English:
"As soon as the speeches were finished, the sound of sucking and slurping arose on all sides. I followed suit and tried some of the soup, but it was dreadful. Some hashed fish had been served with the soup. It was so dark that I thought they must have bought the cheapest kind of fish and then made a mess of preparing it. There was also a dish of sliced raw fish. Instead of being cut finely, however, it was in great slabs. It was like eating raw tuna steaks. Nevertheless, the people around me seemed to be enjoying the food. they'd probably never tasted Tokyo cooking." (Kodansha edition, p. 131-132)
Although it may have seemed funnier to Japanese readers a century ago than it does now to an American reader, there's much to enjoy and to learn in Botchan!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Fresh, Local Indiana Shrimp (No kidding)

Indiana-farmed shrimp ready for our lunch!
Fresh shrimp are a delicious treat. Here in Indiana, as you can guess, there don't happen to be any boats bringing in shrimp. However RDM Aquaculture in Benton County raises shrimp inside a series of large barns out on a big Indiana farm. We took a tour of the barns, bought our lunch, and then went back to Elaine and Larry's house where we're visiting for the long weekend (maybe 15 miles from the shrimp farm) and cooked them. Totally fresh -- peel and eat!

A barn with vats for raising shrimp.
Shrimp farms in Southeast Asia are environmental disasters -- they destroy mangrove swamps to get a place to raise the shrimp, they cause terrible pollution and ruin the locale, and then they move on and do it again.

Not so in Indiana! The local method of shrimp farming produces no wastewater -- water and salt are added to the tanks where the shrimp are raised, but does not discard any water. Obviously, this is a very small-scale operation compared to those in Asia.

Our purchase ready to be bagged: around 1.5 pounds of still-alive shrimp.
The RDM shrimp farm sells to other shrimp farms and sells retail at the farm. Hatchlings from a farm in Florida come in at 11 days old, and are raised in a series of barns full of tanks (which actually appear to be repurposed backyard swimming pools). They've set up a few other shrimp farms which buy the intermediate-sized shrimp from them and then finish growing them. The customer-ready shrimp are all sold at retail at the shrimp farm to people like us. When we arrived, there were other customers, and a couple were waiting in line as they weighed and bagged our shrimp, which as I say, we immediately took home, cooked them, and ate them.

Worker preparing food, testing, or whatever.

I make it a point to avoid eating farm-raised shrimp from Asia, both for ecological reasons and for health reasons. I eat shrimp only if I know where they came from -- for example, from day boats in Santa Barbara, or from other clearly labeled wild shrimp sources. I felt extremely lucky to have these sweet and delicious shrimp for lunch!

Friday, September 04, 2015

Parking Lot Farm Stand, West Lafayette

Superb tomatoes in crates on the sidewalk, bagged corn, peppers..... 
This farm sends its produce into town. Open every day until sold out. 
Before stopping at the Farm Stand we spent a few hours birdwatching at the Celery Bog, a local wildlife area with wonderful wildlife:
American Bittern at the Celery Bog.
Herons in the early morning light, water reflecting the sun making it look very atmospheric!
Len's Flickr photos include more -- click on the image below to see them.

celery_bog 4