Friday, March 31, 2017

Kitchen Miscellany for the first of April

Smiles in my kitchen -- the Mona Lisa winkie is new this month. I think Mona says "April Fool." THANKS, CAROL!
Left of Mona: a couple of years ago, Miriam and Alice made the collage of themselves smiling at various ages.
The oldest item in my kitchen: a pencil sharpener that somehow
always moves when I do. I think I've been sharpening pencils
with it since I was in around third grade.
Food production: what a kitchen is for. Here's a pizza that I made,
topped with smoked salmon, cheese, olives, onions, and sauce.
My kitchen bookcase has all kinds of odds and ends in front of the books.
The kitchen witch on top of the bookcase -- I've had her
for years, usually feature her for Halloween.
A little Ganesha figure in front of the books.
Ganesha is known to remove obstacles -- good in a kitchen!
A blue thing from my tour of the Jiffy Mix plant.
My new markers from Ikea. I've colored in a couple of
pages in my coloring book with them.
Most uninteresting new item: magnetic chip clips.
Waiting in a grocery bag: Passover foods for the coming holiday.
Passover starts April 10. I'm just starting to get ready.
More posts about Passover will be coming soon.
"In My Kitchen this Month" is a blogger event that's recently been hosted by Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things. Unfortunately, in Australia where Lizzy lives, there's been a devastating hurricane. Thinking of this disaster, she has posted an appeal for contributions from other Australians to help those in need as a result of the storm. Fortunately, she lives in an area that was not affected.

"I know that many thousands of others, friends included, have lost everything, so publishing a bunch of photos showcasing (showing off) new stuff in my kitchen doesn't sit well with me right now," she wrote.

I respect Lizzy and the Australians who come together to help victims at a time like this -- here in the US, we do the same after disasters of all sorts. She's continuing to link to other writers' In My Kitchen posts, and I'll be sending this her way, as several other bloggers have already done.

Myths, History, Science: "The Story of Corn"

The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell was first published in 1992 in a beautifully designed edition with many illustrations. Books about a single food topic have become very popular more recently: this was one of the first of its type. Mark Kurlansky's book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which was published in 1997, is often credited with "inventing" this genre, but it was far from the earliest such book, and though I enjoyed Cod, I don't know why he gets the credit.

The Story of Corn is reasonably well-organized, extremely detailed to the point of being encyclopedic, and not at all badly written. It describes and illustrates everything you could think of from the Maya corn gods to modern advertisements and agricultural issues.

Images come from a wide variety of times, places, and sources.
This 19th C. drawing shows a woman in Eastern Europe stirring a pot of mush,
also called mamaliga, pulszka, or polenta. 
Each chapter begins with a very beautiful page, often incorporating drawings from pre-Columbian Indian art.
The Story of Corn remains in print, reissued by the University of New Mexico press. The description from calls the book "a unique compendium, drawing upon history and mythology, science and art, anecdote and image, personal narrative and epic to tell the extraordinary story of the grain that built the New World."

The wide-format pages allow for lots of white space and illustrations.
I find only one thing wrong with this book: it's boring. At least that's my gut feeling. I read half of it, put it down, and I just can't seem to pick it up again. Classics can be like that.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Wordy Wednesday: Inside the Dictionary

Just published on March 14:
Word by Word by Kory Stamper.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer, whose definitions and other work appear anonymously in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. I already knew that outside of producing dictionary entries she writes in a delightful way because she has a very readable blog titled "Harmless Drudgery." Stamper's new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is every bit as enjoyable.

Each chapter of Word by Word focuses on a single word. Mostly, Stamper illustrates how the dictionary is created by examining the process that she and her colleagues followed when composing entry for that word. Here are a few of these chapter titles:

  • IRREGARDLESS: On Wrong Words
  • SURFBOARD: On Defining
  • TAKE: On Small Words
  • BITCH: On Bad Words
  • NUCLEAR: On Proununciation
  • MARRIAGE: On Authority and the Dictionary

  • In some cases, Stamper covers more than just the process of creating these entries. A lexicographer's job at Merriam-Webster also includes answering mail from critics and other members of the public, and her material includes quite a bit on the expectations expressed in the letters she and her colleagues have had to answer.

    Most interestingly, in the chapter titled "MARRIAGE" Stamper describes the furor that erupted at a certain point when opponents of gay marriage discovered that a few years earlier an edition of Merriam-Webster had expanded the definition of marriage to include marriage between members of the same sex. Over 500 angry emails filled her inbox, which made her quite desperate. She found consolation in humor -- her own, and that of Stephen Colbert, who covered the flap on his late-night show. For one thing, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in most states at the time, so the complainers were afraid that including same-sex marriage in the dictionary would influence the courts to legalize it. Thus in this chapter Stamper included a fascinating survey of how much the members of the Supreme Court use dictionaries in their decisions, of just what they use them for (mostly for confirming their already-made decisions), and of which editions and which dictionaries they use.

    One of the many things I learned from the book is the source of her blog's title "Harmless Drudgery." Samuel Johnson, one of the most famous dictionary writers ever, defined the word "lexicographer" as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge." Stamper continually describes the characteristics of the lexicographers who occupy the cubicles at Merriam-Webster. Their most frequent trait is that they are shy people who almost always maintain silence during their work day, and who do not wish for a lot of human contact: their life it seems is in the words they work with.

    Despite their shy and retiring personalities, the lexicographers find themselves working for a company that wants good publicity for their work: dictionaries. From the days of Noah Webster, whose heirs they feel they are, Merriam-Webster and other dictionary companies, says Stamper, have "had no problem setting themselves up as  an authority on life, the universe, and everything... because doing so ultimately sold books. Actual human lexicographers, on the other hand, would rather hide under their desks than be reckoned culture makers. In fact, and in spite of their publishing house's own marketing copy, they have been deliberately avoiding the cultural fray since at least the mid-nineteenth century." (p. 248)

    Stamper succeeds in making lexicographers, their work, and the history of dictionaries into a fascinating and sympathetic subject for her book -- it's a good read for anyone who likes words.

    This is Wordy Wednesday, but if I were observing Wordless Wednesday I would have posted this photo of late winter in Michigan.

    Saturday, March 25, 2017

    Tagine of Lamb with Dates: a Recipe by Paula Wolfert

    After slowly simmering lamb with spices. butter, and onions, you transfer the nearly-finished tagine to a serving dish,
    surround it with dates, and sprinkle them with cinnamon. You finish it in a very hot oven, which slightly crisps the dates.
    The photo shows the result, as I served it for our dinner this evening.

    My copy of Paula Wolfert's Couscous.

    Paula Wolfert has been in the news this week, including an interview in the New York Times (link), and a review of a new book about her in Food 52 (link).

    I read both articles with pleasure, and decided it was time to try another recipe from Wolfert's book Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco. I chose Tagine of Lamb with Dates. The combination of onions, garlic, saffron, cilantro, pepper, and ginger really appealed to me, and for once, I followed the recipe pretty faithfully, except for scaling down the quantity to make it appropriate for only two of us.

    Both of the inspiring articles were frank and detailed about the fact that Wolfert is suffering from Altzheimer's, and no longer can write or cook in the way she was famous for. Mayukh Sen his Food 52 article "Who is Paula Wolfert? A New Biography Gives an Answer," was also interested in introducing Wolfert to his readers, whom he feels might not be familiar with her work. While I had heard of her long ago, I admit that I only recently began experimenting with her recipes, such as the one I did tonight.

    Before I cut up the lamb, I assembled all the ingredients.
    Accompanying our tagine: salad of small tomatoes, cucumber, chopped preserved lemon, lemon juice, cilantro, and olive oil.

    "Wolfert, author of nine cookbooks, was an early champion of Mediterranean foods in a time when their ingredients went unnoticed in American kitchens, beginning with 1973’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," wrote Sen. His article interestingly describes how Emily Kaiser Thelin worked on the new biography, titled Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life (cover at right).

    Sen describes Wolfert's reputation thus:
    "Though many American home cooks have been singing Wolfert’s gospel for decades, she isn’t discussed nearly enough as she should be. She's existed in the shadow of men like Yottam Ottolenghi, her spiritual successor, even though she tilled the ground he now walks on. Her lack of name recognition is incommensurate with her legacy, and with time and distance, it’s become easier to see how this happened. When Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Mediterranean came out in 1994, Wolfert toured the country, shoving hulking jars of Marash chile flakes under chef’s noses, going to bat for meze and pomegranate molasses. 'She was like a community organizer, lobbying for the region...,' Thelin claims. This was her modus operandi: She’d get these foods on your plate no matter what, cheerleading for them as loudly as she could."
    And from the New York Times article "Her Memory Fading, Paula Wolfert Fights Back With Food" by Kim Severson --
    "It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ms. Wolfert’s work, which introduced couscous and other classic Mediterranean dishes to generations of cooks. The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called her 'one of the leading lights in contemporary gastronomy.' She made Alice Waters fall in love with chicken cooked with preserved lemons and olives in a tagine, and primed America for the Middle Eastern flavors of Yotam Ottolenghi, who remains a fan. The British chef Fergus Henderson chose her cassoulet as his favorite recipe of all time.

    "A whole murderers’ row of great American chefs — Thomas Keller, David Kinch, Judy Rodgers — has said how much her work mattered. 'I have always treasured and loved the vigor of her passionate and intellectual approach to authenticity,' Mario Batali said."

    Finding General Tso and his Chicken

    "The Search for General Tso" is a documentary film about the ubiquitous chicken dish that's been popular in American restaurants since the 1970s. It describes the history of Chinese immigration into the United States beginning with the California Gold Rush. It traces the persecution and abuse of Chinese immigrants at various times in our history, the development of Chinese-American food and American Chinese restaurants, and some of the actual traditions of Chinese food in China. It even briefly summarizes the way that Jewish New Yorkers often habitually ate Chinese food on Sunday and on Christmas. Interviews with American food writers, chefs, owners of Chinese restaurants, and various people in China and Taiwan provide a variety of facts and opinions about Chinese food and American history. We watched it on Netflix.

    The movie includes lots of local color!

    Several scenes are in Hunan Province where the original General Tso lived
    during the 19th century. He is remembered fondly: he never lost a battle.
    Almost every American city and town has a Chinese restaurant.
    And virtually all of them serve General Tso's chicken.
    Owners from many small towns were interviewed about their family history.
    Adapting to American taste was a matter of survival for the restaurants in American cities where Chinese food
    was unfamiliar and the restaurant's owners were often the only Chinese people in the area.
    The inventor of the dish was a Chef Peng in Taiwan in the 1960s. The original dish was less sweet than the eventual
    American-Chinese version, and did not have broccoli, which is not known in China.
    The producer of "The Search for General Tso," which was released in 2014, was Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book that I also enjoyed very much.

    Friday, March 24, 2017

    What I've been cooking

    Chocolate Fudge Pie in the oven.
    Last week I wrote about pie for Pi Day (here: Pi Day Discovery and Zingerman's Pie). This week, I tried the recipe for Cruchon's Fudge Pie that was in that post. This recipe, which I found online, didn't specify what size pie was intended. Fortunately, I guessed that the original proportions were for a large pie, so I scaled down for the small pie (7" or 8") illustrated above. The texture of the fudge filling was very nice, and it tasted quite good.

    Browning potatoes & carrots for corned beef hash.
    Corned beef hash made from the Saint Patrick's Day corned beef, browned onions, hash brown potatoes, and a few carrots.

    One more corned beef dinner: sandwiches with turkey, corned beef, and cole slaw on Zingerman's bread.
    The slaw ingredients were chopped cabbage, grated carrots & ginger root, mayo, keffir, a dash of hot sauce, & caraway seed.

    I rarely write up the meals that we eat on an everyday basis. This week I decided to describe some of the simple meals we ate. Two of our dinners were salmon broiled on skewers with portobello mushroom quarters one night, and broiled flank steak with heart-of-palm salad including olives, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes on another night. The best lunch I made consisted of a tabbouleh salad containing parsley, bulgar, tomatoes, lemon juice, and olive oil (recipe amalgamated from several online sources) and home-made hummus from chickpeas, tahini, and Trader Joe's pickled red peppers.

    Thursday, March 23, 2017

    A Psychological Thriller in Japan

    A Quiet Place by Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto (1909–1992) is classified as a "psychological thriller." It's entirely centered on one character: Tsuneo Asai and his reaction to the sudden death of his wife Eiko. Because she already suffered from heart disease, her death in itself was not shocking, and Asai and her family perform the standard Japanese funeral rites. Of course for the American reader, these and other unfamiliar Japanese customs in the book create fascinating reading, but the point of the book is not to offer anthropological study, but to set up for a tale of suspense and action.

    What disturbed Asai, once he dealt with the formalities, was that Eiko had died while walking on a strange street in Tokyo far from her home and far from the other Tokyo locations that he was aware she often visited. She had entered a small shop on the street when she became ill, but he soon learns that the shop owner had no idea of who she was or why she was walking by.

    Asai thought he knew about all Eiko's daily activities, such as taking a class in writing haiku, so he feels a need to know what she had been doing in this neighborhood of beautiful and expensive homes mixed (strangely) with "couples hotels" where lovers could meet for a short or long assignation. At first Asai anonymously hires a detective firm to investigate the circumstances, but soon becomes involved in his own investigations, and immerses himself in a project of discovery that goes off the deep end. The plot  and character development that follow are extraordinary, but further discussion would be a very terrible spoiler, and you should read this book for yourself!

    From the very beginning of the book we learn that Asai is much more dedicated as a "salaryman" than as a husband. His first thoughts on receiving the call from his wife's shocked and grieving sister and father are on his obligation to spare the business sensibilities of his superior in the government bureaucracy where he works and the feelings of their clients with whom he is having dinner. They seem more concerned about the loss of his wife, in a way, than he does.

    While the foods being consumed at this and other meals in the tale is briefly described or at least listed, the real role of food in this novel is unusual and interesting. Asai's job in a government office is promoting agriculture in rural Japan. His education in a small college put him at a disadvantage in competition with other more prestigiously educated and socially privileged colleagues, so he worked extremely hard to become an expert at helping traditional rice farmers make a transition to production of beef and other more valuable commodities, as well as understanding the meat-packing industry and working with plant owners. His lectures and consultations were very well-received and in high demand. This paragraph explains:
    "Asai made an effort to throw himself into his work. He was sent to Ishikawa and Yamanashi on government business. Farmers in both prefectures were interested in moving away from the cultivation of rice and developing their meat-processing industry. Asai went on a week’s tour, invited by local agricultural cooperatives to give lectures on the meat industry in their town or village. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had been trying to deal with the national rice surplus by getting farmers to reduce the acreage devoted to the cultivation of rice, but they knew their measures were inefficient. Local farming families also knew that this policy was doing nothing to improve their prospects. In the current recession, the present system of food control was just not working, and the future looked grim. The farmers felt that the recent trend of leaving the countryside in the off season to find outside work was not what their job should be about. Lately, even the women were being forced to go to the cities to find jobs to supplement their falling income." (Kindle Locations 1658-1665). 
    Asai's ambition and commitment to his job motivated much of  his action in the book, and the description of this "salaryman" ethic was one of the most fascinating parts of the psychological portrait.

    I wrote about another novel by Matsumoto a couple of years ago here: Inspector Imanishi Eats Sushi. He was a very prolific author, although only a few of his works have been translated into English, and this translation dates only to 2016. I hope to read more!

    Tuesday, March 21, 2017

    FDA Guidelines

    The politicization of diet guidelines, the role of big food and big agriculture in determining what the FDA can say, and the disputes overall about what people should eat -- everything is so troublesome! Maddening, in fact. The conclusion, often, that your mother was right, you should eat your vegetables and leave it at that, is tempting. I rarely comment on this because it's so Byzantine.

    I think this very old (2014) article from the Onion is very helpful or at least enlightening. Directly quoted (in fact lifted) from the Onion HERE.

    FDA Recommends At Least 3 Servings Of Foods With Word ‘Fruit’ On Box

    SILVER SPRING, MD—In an effort to get Americans to at least go through the motions of a healthier diet, the Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that it is now recommending individuals consume three servings of foods every day that simply include the word “fruit” on the box. “Though we have in the past advised eating a minimum of three pieces of actual fruit per day, it is now acceptable to eat any food labeled with the word ‘fruit,’ including variations such as ‘fruity,’ ‘fruit-a-licious,’ or ‘fruit-blasted,’” FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters, also noting that sweetened cereal or gummies shaped like fruit are entirely permissible under the agency’s new guidelines. “If it smells somewhat like fruit, or even if there’s a cartoon strawberry or orange on the wrapper, that’s sufficient at this point.” The FDA’s new recommendations are expected to be followed up by other guidelines under which anything successfully chewed and swallowed can now be considered a vegetable.

    Saturday, March 18, 2017

    Seeing with an iPhone

    Today at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, we visited the 2017 Ann Arbor Orchid Festival. Several orchid societies presented carefully arranged displays of their members' orchid plants. I was concentrating on getting close-up photos of the orchids, but the photos weren't really that interesting. So I moved on, and tried to see how other people were experiencing the orchid displays. Many were doing so with their iPhones.

    Friday, March 17, 2017

    Happy Saint Patrick's Day

    Evening update: here's the dinner: corned beef, cabbage (braised,
    not boiled in the cooking water), and some pickled peppers
    and carrots.
     For the first time in ages, I decided to make corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick's Day. I'll be simmering the corned beef much of the afternoon, and I'm looking forward to having it for dinner.

    Since it's Saint Patrick's Day, I was thinking about Irish food. Yes, there is corned beef in Ireland, but now there's also a very exciting range of other foods and quite a wonderful twenty-first century cuisine. Without any details, I present here some images of delicious things we've tried in Ireland, especially fish and oysters:

    Plaice with little potatoes, snow peas, and other vegetables.
    Lemon Tart

    Fish & Chips.


    Thinking of Ireland, I feel one should not forget the worst phase of Irish history: the potato famine of the nineteenth century. In Dublin in 1997, a very moving memorial to the Irish famine victims was created by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. Two photos of this collection of statues:

    Galway, Ireland, a few hours ago: the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Photo by my brother, with whom we also ate all those meals!