Thursday, August 17, 2017

Poké and other Chicago Treats and Trends

Poke Poké is a new restaurant in Chicago which follows what I understand to be a hot new trend! We've seen the traditional Hawaiian version in grocery-store counters and local eateries in Hawaii, though I don't recall trying any on our many visits to the Big Island and elsewhere. The title of a Washington Post article says it all: "Hawaiian poke has never been trendier. But the mainland is ruining it."

Publicity photo from Poke Poké restaurant in the Palmer House building in Chicago.

Neon Signage in the restaurant -- Miriam's photos.
We all enjoyed various poké bowls for lunch as we were about to drive back from Chicago to Michigan last Sunday. I had a vegetarian bowl with some quite delicious sauces. Authentic? Well, I really don't care about that as much as Maura Judkis, the WaPo writer!

"It’s not just that poke tastes better when you’re in Hawaii," says Judkis. "It’s that mainland restaurateurs, bandwagoning on what they see as the biggest trend of the year, have changed it into something altogether different — something that people from Hawaii say doesn’t respect their cultural heritage. It plays into an impassioned debate in the food world now about whether a dish prepared outside its original context is an homage or crosses the line into appropriation."

I find that debate pretty tired. Trends are trends, and poke from Hawaii was already a type of fusion cooking with ingredients and flavors from several sources. According to The Food of Paradise, Rachel Laudan's encyclopedic book on Hawaiian cuisine, "Hawaii's unique contribution to fish cuisine... is considered to be poke." (p. 37)

However, the first appearance of poke in Hawaiian cookbooks and references, Laudan says, was in the 1970s; Hawaiians who left the island prior to that did not remember it, though earlier raw fish preparations like lomi and also sushi were known and probably influenced the invention of poke. Laudan says: "The Hawaiians contributed the name and he seasoning with salt and seaweed" as well as the natural love of the local ocean fish, "the Japanese contributed seasonings of soy sauce and the preference for deep-ocean fish," while other Asian and local influences contributed flavors like hot sauce, sesame oil, green onions, and more. (p. 38)

Besides our trendy lunch, we had a very enjoyable dinner on Saturday night at a gastropub called The Gage. Here are a few of our menu choices -- all good!

Thai curry. My main course was trout with delicious roasted vegetables. Len had halibut.
Venison burger and fries (and Evelyn's shirt). 
Strawberry-rhubarb cheesecake.

A sundae with chocolate chips and a chocolate chip cookie. Our third dessert: chocolate creme brulee.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Colorful Chicago

Red rug in front of the Peacock Door, Palmer House Hilton Hotel where we stayed in Chicago last weekend.
Crown Fountain, Millenium Park, bathed with color at night...
By day: boy in red playing in the water at the Crown Fountain.
"Flamingo" by Alexander Calder, Federal Plaza.
"Flamingo" viewed from 103 stories high on the SkyDeck at the Willis Tower.
Red curtain, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. 
At the Art Institute, several paintings and Chagall's famous stained-glass windows impressed me with their use of vivid primary colors.

One of the Chagall windows.

Gino Severini, "Still Life (Centrifugal Expansion of Colors)."
Alexis Jawlensky, "Girl with the Green Face."

Otto Dix, "Pregnant Woman."
Max Pechstein, "The Red House." 
Lyonel Feininger, "Carnival in Arcueil."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Arsenic and Strychnine at the Reform Club

"Alexis Soyer (1810–1858) deserves to be far better known than he is. ... He was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant, inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist. In style, one might describe him as part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver." So writes M.J. Carter (Miranda Carter, born 1965) in the "Historical Afterward" to her mystery novel The Devil's Feast, published earlier this year. Soyer, a chef from Paris, is best known for creating the kitchen and the brilliant meals and banquets at the Reform Club in London.

While most historians might create a straightforward biography of such an underrated figure, Carter did something more creative. Although no crimes are recorded in the history of the real Reform Club, Carter's version of Soyer is plagued by a mysterious poisoner. Under the pressure of an upcoming banquet of great importance, the mystery is investigated by two Victorian detectives: the narrator, a Captain Avery, and his shadowy and less-socially-acceptable colleague, a man by the name of Blake. These characters also featured in Carter's two earlier mysteries, which I haven't read.

In The Devil's Feast events proceed very quickly. The two detectives must establish a motive for the poisonings, as well as try to find the culprit in the complex social atmosphere of the Reform Club, which was a political club of great importance in Parliamentary politics in 1840s London. Besides detecting, the two have to protect themselves from various plots against their own lives and freedom. Thus there's quite a bit about politics in the novel, as well as brief portrayals of some of the still-famous real-life members of the club and their political machinations.

Above all, Carter's detectives must learn all they can about Soyer's kitchens and menus at the Reform Club -- Who prepared each dish that the victims ate? What is the hierarchy in the kitchen? What equipment and utensils were used? What was the food like? Which tradesmen supplied the raw materials? Were bills paid on time? Carter's details were very fascinating -- we learn lots about the food and how it was prepared. My reaction is that the combination of accurate descriptions with a need to know how they work because of the mystery makes this a really exciting book to read.

Here are some of my favorite food quotes from the extremely numerous passages in the novel, beginning with the first meal Soyer serves to Avery, the narrator:
"A waiter served each of us with a morsel of lobster in a buttery sauce flavored very gently with Indian spices laid inside a small, crisp, layered pastry case or vol-au-vent. ... a soup of early asparagus, light yet intensely flavorful, then turbot in a delicate pink sauce of lobster roe, then a whole salmon trout, remarkably suspended in aspic as if at the moment just before it took the hook.... 
"After this there was a warm terrine of quail and chicken; peas stewed with lettuces; small, buttery omelets flavored with herbs; and a delicious dish of tripe between unctuous layers of leeks, onions and carrots, which I would have thought would be far too rustic for the Reform’s table. From Soyer’s special cupboard, bottle after exquisite bottle emerged." (p. 39-41)
And another meal:
"The fare was simpler than Soyer’s dinner, but no less satisfying for that. A velvety vegetable soup, followed by three small plates of French olives, anchovy filets and crisp, bitter radishes with butter. Jerrold and Mayhew ordered roast beef served with early spring vegetables, some small potatoes basted in butter and chopped herbs, and I chose Soyer’s famous dish, lamb cutlets à la Reform, as well as a late winter salad of herbs and cress. Percy, who periodically patrolled the Coffee Room, came to carve their beef, a great roast of which rolled up on a silver platter, his knife sliding through the meat like a diver penetrating water." (p. 162). 
Soyer's provides to Avery information on some of the kitchen workings, including his own inventions:
"The staff are divided into sections. One, for example, prepares sauces, another roasts, another sees to the grilling and frying of meats, another prepares fish, another the soups and vegetables; another, known as the garde manger, prepares cold savories, such as aspics, terrines, hams and salads; and, finally, we have the pâtissier for sweets, desserts, ices and special cakes, as well as our own baker. Heat, light and ice are produced with the help of our six-horse-power steam engine, which sits in a purpose-built room well below the kitchens. We have gas pipes throughout the kitchen and the club. I can tell you that the club spent the sum of six hundred and seventy-four pounds on pots, pans, knives and utensils." (pp. 62-63). 
But Soyer's also a realist about the staff:
"Bah! Any kitchen is thus. Every apprentice wishes to be a commis, every commis to be a cuisinier, every cuisinier to be a chef de partie. That is what galvanizes the kitchen, making each strive to do better. Those with real talent rise over the heads of the others. It is conflict, it is life."(p. 195). 
I particularly enjoyed a description of Soyer preparing an omelette aux fines herbs -- here's an excerpt:
"It occurred to me that I had never seen Soyer cook. He took a long phosphorous match and placed it against a pipe in one of the compartments on the top of the vast stove. In a moment, a flame danced up. He did the same with a second compartment, and set a frying pan on each. With nonchalant elegance, he cracked a dozen eggs one by one into a white china bowl, then filled his fingers with salt from one of the little crocks nearby and cast it across the mixture. He did the same with a pinch of ground pepper, then poured from a jug a stream of thick cream into the eggs. He beat them briskly with a fork in wide circles.... The eggs seemed almost to leap into the air as the whisk lifted them up and brought them back into the bowl. ... For a few seconds he simply watched the mixture settle, then he added a pinch of herbs to both and began carefully to agitate the pans, one and then the other, and, taking up a metal tool rather like a flat spade, worked quickly around the edges of each, prodding, scooping and tucking. After some minutes he picked up each pan and tapped it on the stove... .  
"He set down the pans where the flame had been. The egg mixture continued to sizzle and steam. When the hissing ceased, he took his metal tool and folded each omelet upon itself. Then he tipped each pan, letting the concoction slip elegantly onto a large blue plate. This he brought to the table: two perfect, soft, unblemished yellow semicircles, smooth and shiny as porcelain." (pp. 237-238). 
The final scene in the Reform Club kitchen takes place during a very important banquet for a visiting dignitary -- amid the fear that the poisoner will strike again. As a result, Avery and several high-placed members of the club volunteer to taste the dishes that are being prepared and thus attempt to prevent another disastrous tragedy. Thus the food is tasted with both fear and enjoyment, and the descriptions become amazingly vivid!
"The sense that every mouthful might be one’s last added a kind of zest to the occasion, and I sat down with a peculiar sense of anticipation. I was reminded of the battlefield in the moment before a skirmish. ...
"We began with the soups. For me, potage à la Victoria, a pale golden, thickened veal broth garnished with parsley and cockscomb seeds. My spoon trembled slightly as I brought it to my lips. I grinned and took it. It seemed to me the acme of warmth and meaty fragrance; made the more so, I suspected, by the lingering sense of danger. I took another mouthful." (p 372)
Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is a triumph for the detectives. If you are a lover of mystery AND good food writing, don't miss this!

A brush with fine dining: Chicago's Palmer House Hilton last Saturday.
Not the Reform Club, but I loved seeing the waiters lining up on the stairs to welcome a wedding party.
My culinary reading group read a biography of Soyer, Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef. by Ruth Cowen. The Devil's Feast was much less historical but much more fun to read! To conclude, here is a more complete quotation of Carter's brief sketch of the life of Alexis Soyer.
"Alexis Soyer (1810– 1858) deserves to be far better known than he is. ... He was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant, inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist. In style, one might describe him as part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver. He had a line in crazy (and, to our palates, probably slightly disgusting) fantasy dishes (for example, desserts made to look like roast lamb with all the trimmings) and, at the same time, a genuine mission to educate the British— the British poor, in particular— to eat better and more nutritiously. From his early thirties, he was in London and involved in improving the food in hospitals and workhouses. He published a series of best-selling cookery books ... .  
"He was a champion of seasonal and simple dishes: the energetically sociable writer W. M. Thackeray would cancel prior arrangements in order to eat his bacon and beans. ... Soyer was also, for his time, unusually generous to female cooks. He said he liked having them in his kitchen; they were better tempered and less dramatic than men.
"He comes over as an irrepressible, joyous, sometimes ridiculous figure, manically energetic, dreadfully sycophantic to the rich and titled (who were often unpleasantly snooty in return), appallingly pretentious (he called the gas stove he invented the Phidomageireion— apparently, Greek for “thrifty kitchen”) and barely literate— in English, at least, relying on a series of secretaries to transcribe his words. He seems to have been terrible with money.  
"He was also a brilliant logistician, inventor and innovator on a grand scale. In 1855, he went out to the Crimean War at his own expense to overhaul the desperate state of army catering, and ended up completely reorganizing the entire provisioning of the British Army. ...  It is, perhaps, not surprising that he died aged only forty-eight, in 1858." (The Devil's Feast pp. 413-415). 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Chicago Light and Darkness

Sunday morning in Chicago: a view from the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).
Chandelier in the Empire Room of Palmer House Hilton Hotel where we stayed.
Wall sconce, Palmer House lobby/bar.
Chagall's stained glass windows, Art Institute.

Sunlight on the fountain in the courtyard of the Art Institute.

View from a window of the Art Institute.

Night view of the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, designed by Jaume Plensa.

As we walked through Millennium Park we heard music -- Tchaikovsky. It was a free classical concert in
the Pritzker Pavillion, attended by a huge crowd. We listened for a few minutes and continued around the park.
"Cloud Gate" -- also called "the bean" -- a sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park.
Day and night it reflects the admiring and fascinated crowds and the facing skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue.

In 24 hours we saw quite a bit, ate several good meals, and walked until I, at least, was ready to drop. I will be posting more photos of the Art Institute, the food, and the Willis Tower -- especially the glass-bottom balconies where one is suspended 103 stories above the ground.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Thai Rolled Ice Cream

How can I be so far behind the curve? I just found out that Thai rolled ice cream is a thing. There's even a shop called "Sweeting" right around here that makes it on a special piece of equipment that looks like a frozen griddle. Ice cream flavors, made while you watch, include matcha, red bean, banana-nutella, mango, chocolate, and others.

The Thai ice cream griddle -- very cold! The two spatulas
are used to chop up the fruit or other mix-ins with around a
cup of condensed milk. It freezes quickly.
It's a little like the "mix-in" ice cream that was a craze in the 80s -- but I shouldn't compare it to anything old, it's a new thing. Well only a couple years old according to internet sources. There's a reference to a Thai ice cream stand in Phuket, Thailand from 2013, and somehow it's been spreading in the US and who knows where else ever since. I just tried it ...

After mixing it, the ice-cream man spreads it in a very thin layer and rolls up little ice-cream rolls.
He lifts each one with tongs and arranges them in a dish.
Here's my Mango Tango Thai rolled ice cream with a small raspberry macaron on the side. Optional toppings (which I didn't
try) include tapioca bubbles as in bubble tea, syrups as in regular ice cream sundaes, and other choices.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Ann Arbor Amusements

We kayaked down the Huron River. The swans were rather tame!
Another classic film at the Michigan Theater: Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie."
We also rented "Psycho" from last weekend. What a great director!
The summer classic film series, of which we saw two of the offerings.
The magnificent lobby ceiling with the balcony.
Tuesday night BOTH of the Michigan Theater's organs were being played.
Before the movie: dinner at the Slurping Turtle across the street from the theater. They offer a variety of noodle bowls.
Slurping Turtle's steamed buns are delicious! Sometimes I order three of them for my dinner.
Sushi was my main course. The roll contents: eel and cucumber.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017


"People argued, haggled, shouted, sang. They hawked and touted their wares, and loudly declaimed the superiority of their merchandise. ... Richard could smell food. All kinds of food: the smells of curries and spices seemed to predominate, with, beneath them, the smells of grilling meats and mushrooms. Stalls had been set up all through the shop, next to, or even on, counters that, during the day, had sold perfume, or watches, or amber, or silk scarves. Everybody was buying. Everybody was selling. Richard listened to the market cries as he began to wander through the crowds.

'"Lovely fresh dreams. First-class nightmares. We got ’em. Get yer lovely nightmares here.'

"'Weapons! Arm yourself! Defend your cellar, cave or hole! You want to hit ’em? We got ’em. Come on, darling, come on over here . . .'

"'Rubbish!' screamed a fat, elderly woman, in Richard’s ear, as he passed her malodorous stall.

"'Junk!' she continued. “Garbage! Trash! Offal! Debris! Come and get it! Nothing whole or undamaged! ...

"And every few stalls there would be somebody selling food. Some of them had food cooking over open fires: curries, and potatoes, and chestnuts, and huge mushrooms, and exotic breads. Richard found himself wondering why the smoke from the fires didn’t set off the building’s sprinkler system. ...

"Another whiff of cooking food wafted across the floor, and Richard, who had managed to forget how hungry he was ever since he had declined the prime cut of roast cat— he could not think how many hours before— now found his mouth watering, and his thinking processes beginning to grind to a halt.

"The iron-haired woman running the next food stall he came to did not reach to Richard’s waist. When Richard tried to talk to her, she shook her head, drew a finger across her lips. She could not talk, or did not talk, or did not want to talk. Richard found himself conducting the negotiations for a cottage cheese and lettuce sandwich, and a cup of what looked and smelled like a form of home-brewed lemonade, in dumb-show. His food cost him a ballpoint pen, and a book of matches he had forgotten he had. The little woman must have felt that she had got by far the better of the deal, for, as he took his food, she threw in a couple of small, nutty biscuits.

"Richard stood in the middle of the throng, listening to the music— someone was, for no reason that Richard could easily discern, singing the lyrics of “Greensleeves” to the tune of “Great Balls of Fire”— watching the bizarre bazaar unfold around him, and eating his sandwiches. He realized as he finished the last of the sandwiches that he had no idea how anything he had just eaten had tasted, and he resolved to slow down, and chew the biscuits more slowly. He sipped the lemonade, making it last." (Neverwhere, Author's Preferred Text, pp. 118-121)
This long quote from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere suggests the exceptional way that the author uses food in his vivid descriptions during the unexpected and uncanny adventures of Richard, the central character. Food provides one of the ways of highlighting connections between the very strange dual worlds of London that Richard discovers. As one of the inhabitants of the unseen part of London explained to him:
"There’s London Above— that’s where you lived— and then there’s London Below— the Underside— inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world." (p. 135). 
Some of the strangest characters in the shadowy and menacing London Below nevertheless crave the food of London above. For example, a sort of ancient knight does the following:
"Dagvard walked over to a vending machine on the side of the platform. He took off his helmet. Then he rapped, with one mailed glove, on the side of the machine. “Orders from the Earl,” he said. “Choc’lits.” A ratcheting whirr came from deep in the guts of the machine, and it began to spit out dozens of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bars, one after another. Dagvard held his metal helmet below the opening to catch them. The doors began to close." (p. 167)
Some of the foods are not quite so normal, though:
"The last smudge of orange sun faded into nocturnal purple. The old man covered the cages, so the birds could get beauty sleep. They grumbled, then slept. Old Bailey scratched his nose, after which he went into his tent, and fetched a blackened stewpot, some water, some carrots and potatoes, and salt, and a well-hanged pair of dead, plucked starlings. He walked out onto the roof, lit a small fire in a soot-blackened coffee can, and was putting his stew on to cook when he became aware that someone was watching him from the shadows by a chimney stack." (pp. 176-177).
The Lady Door, whose rescue from the extremely evil angel Islington is Richard's main accomplishment, is the last member of a prominent and un-natural family of London Below. But she also loves to eat -- at a fancy party in the British Museum, which Richard and Door sneak into, she devours huge plates of fancy hors d'oeuvres. Another time, she craves curry from one of the surreal underground fairs and markets:
"'Will you go and find us some food? Please?'... 'Curry, please. And get me some poppadoms, please. Spicy ones.' ... Door wiped the last of the curry from her bowl with her fingers, and licked them." (p. 290-302)
And when Richard finally returns to his normal life in London Above, he echoes this:
"He bought a takeaway curry from the Indian restaurant across the road, and sat on the carpeted floor of his new flat, and ate it, and wondered if he had ever really eaten curry late at night in a street market held on the deck of a gunship moored by Tower Bridge. It did not seem very likely, now he came to think of it." (p. 382). 
Few fantasy books that I've read offer anything remotely like the food descriptions that Gaiman provides. His characters stop for meals or quick snacks even during mysterious, violent, or totally surreal adventures. Eating -- as well as many other keenly observed actions -- anchor the characters and their bizarre circumstances in an underlying reality. While the constant challenges and mysterious menaces to the characters are plotted in a gripping way, I find Gaiman's uses of everyday detail, especially food, very appealing.

In any case -- whenever I read or watch films, I always try to see how authors and directors use food as a device for creating their stories of fantasy, realism, crime detection, sci-fi, romance, horror, or whatever. And I much admire the imaginative uses of food to create character, atmosphere, or suspense.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Classic Theater, Classic Movie

 Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" appeared Tuesday night on the really big screen at the Michigan Theater. What an awesome film! Exciting in every way -- plot, visuals, characters, scenery, suspense, and more. The final scene on Mount Rushmore is one of the most memorable movie moments ever.

Before the film started, an organist played a concert on the theater organ, which rises from the floor and then sinks back down as he plays his last notes. One of the pieces he played was the theme from Alfred Hitchcock's TV show -- "The Funeral March of a Marionette" by Charles Gounod. Then the lights went down...

So glad Miriam got to experience this!

"The Godfather"

"The Godfather" -- which we just watched in our Classic Film streak -- was better than I remembered it. I hadn't seen it in quite a long time. Obviously, most people have seen it so many times since its release in 1972 that my readers will surely know what I'm about to say about it. (Unless you think I'm going to insist that this is a food blog so I have to comment about the famous spaghetti recipe.)

My favorite scene was at the end. Michael Corleone attends the Baptism of his newborn niece, becoming her actual Godfather. The church ritual includes his swearing that he renounces Satan. Intense drama comes from the interspersed scenes of Michael's "family" preparing to consolidate his power over the Mafia world and become a Godfather like his own father.

The tiny baby being Baptized was played by Sofia Coppola,
daughter of the director. So cute. So innocent. 
As we watch the Baptism, with its droning priest and Michael's strong-voiced promises,
we also see the images of the preparation of guns and whatever it takes to prepare the many assassins.
And at the end, as Michael has fully promised to renounce Satan, we see all his enemies murdered.
Violence! Innocence! You can almost smell the incense. And the gunpowder.
One of many thoughts circulating on social media right now: "If the Corleone family is running the government, you want Michael in charge... and right now, we've got Fredo. "