Monday, December 06, 2021

Mona Lisa and Wine

My hobby for a long time has been collecting parodies and reworkings of the Mona Lisa. It's been a while since I added to my collection or posted anything, but I decided to look for new material. Here are a few images I found online in various places. So many people collect and post Mona Lisa images online that the same ones come up over and over, often attributed to different people and often modified a lot or a little. As a result, I'll just show you the images -- that's all!


One more Mona Lisa that's not wine-related, but comes from a famous painter with a clear source:

Jasper Johns, "Racing Thoughts" (1983)

I'm sharing this with all the bloggers at Elizabeth's weekly event where all the participants feature a drink!

Sunday, December 05, 2021

North Carolina Murals

A few murals to share with Sami and the many bloggers who post photos of street art and other wall paintings each week at

From our trip last month: this mural was near our hotel in the town of Kill Devil Hill.

A mural near the ferry terminal in Cape Hatteras.

Cape Hatteras.

Cape Hatteras is a Mecca for wind surfers and kite surfers, and we watched them
as they were skillfully being blown into the air.

Mural on the wall of a lovely restaurant where we ate on the last night we were in North Carolina.

… and the dessert selection at the restaurant.

Photos © 2021 mae sander.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

“The Bride’s Kimono”

Sujata Massey has written mystery novels set in many places. Her amateur detective Rei Shimura is an American who lives in Tokyo where she has an antique business. Massey has been writing these novels for a long time, and the one I read this week (the fifth in the series) was published in 2001, which makes it read almost like a historical novel. 

In The Bride’s Kimono, Rei flies to the US in order to deliver some very valuable antique kimonos from a Tokyo museum to one in Washington, D.C. She also has agreed to give a lecture about the history of the kimonos: the description of the research she does is very interesting, though of course I have no way to know if it’s accurate. It does make reading enjoyable.

Rei has naively made a reservation at a hotel near a large shopping mall outside of the city, because she found  a cheap group tour for Japanese women who wanted to shop (and wanted nothing else). As a result, the novel is full of references to fashion labels and fashionable styles, which is kind of retro. Another retro thing: the descriptions of airports, where the passengers can be accompanied to the gate by the people seeing them off: no security for boarding planes!

I was very amused at the descriptions of various places in the areas of Washington and Virginia that I'm rather familiar with, including the huge shopping mall which I suspect is based on Tyson's Corner. Not surprisingly, the author somewhat rearranges the geography of the area to suit the needs of her plot.

Of course there's a big mystery plot -- one of the women in the group disappears, and Rei has to investigate what happened to her. Also, one of the very valuable kimonos disappears from Rei's hotel room, and its disappearance is linked to the disappearing young woman, as well as to Rei’s complicated relationships with the people who run the museums in Washington and Tokyo. Lots of action and danger ensue.

Rei’s relationships with two men in her life play a big role in the book, including their various choices of where to eat. There’s Takeo, a Japanese man whose very rich father allows him to lead a fairly isolated and idle life style — as he doesn’t like to go out, Rei and Takeo usually stay at his Japanese-style house, where a big night includes a corn-and-octopus pizza. For various reasons, he shows up in Washington but instead of this rather simple Japanese-Italian dish he wants upscale French food. 

Then there’s her earlier boyfriend Hugh Glendinning, the Scottish lawyer that she had lived with in Tokyo earlier in the series of books. Hugh turns out to now live in Washington and have a connection to the museum where she’s working. Hugh takes her to one of his favorite restaurants:

"Hugh waved me into a plain glass door labeled EL RINCON ESPAÑOL. The owner beamed at him when he walked in, and the waiter called him by his first name. Within a minute we were ensconced at a cozy table with a carafe of a zesty Rioja between us. A short while later the waiter brought a savory pancake of egg and potato, a bowl of mushrooms marinated in garlic and wine, and slivers of a salty hard white cheese with some crusty rolls. 'This is so good,' I said, relaxing for the first time all day. 'I was looking forward to coming to America to eat all the ethnic food I can’t find in Japan.'" (p. 136). 

In my favorite food description of the novel, Rei eats in an Italian restaurant with a couple of Japanese acquaintances who order a variety of dishes: "sautéed lamb chops with mushrooms over a mint risotto ... a Milanese-style breaded veal chop served with a tomato salad... homemade mozzarella cloaking my eggplant-filled mezzelune pasta... a giant chocolate truffle." (p. 259).

There's plenty of suspense along with the details of food, travel, art history, and both good and evil characters in this book. The Rei Shimura series includes quite a few more novels, with the most recent published in 2014. Will I read more of them? I just don't know! Author Sujata Massey has also written three novels set in India around 100 years ago, about a woman lawyer and detective -- I've read all three of these, and hope Massey will write more of them.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

Friday, December 03, 2021

“The Island of Missing Trees”

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published 2021.

Many chapters of this painful and beautiful novel are narrated by a very special fig tree. She (yes, fig trees are female) contributes in a major way to the plot of the novel. The human family at the center of the book is tormented by the complex background of their native Cyprus, a violently divided society with vast hostility between the Turkish and the Greek populations. The fig tree, a fascinating character, bears witness to the family story, and also explains a great deal of natural history and botany as seen by a tree. We learn about the consciousness of plants, and her own very long history. Here is her introduction:
"I am a Ficus carica, known as the edible common fig, though I can assure you there’s nothing common about me. I am a proud member of the great mulberry family of Moraceae from the kingdom of Plantae. Originating in Asia Minor, I can be found across a vast geography from California to Portugal and Lebanon, from the shores of the Black Sea to the hills of Afghanistan and the valleys of India. (p. 23)

Our fig tree originally lived in the central room of a beautiful tavern in Cyprus called The Happy Fig. Says the tree:

"Every visitor to Cyprus wanted to dine here – and taste its famous stuffed courgette flowers followed by chicken souvlaki, cooked over open-air charcoal – if they were so lucky as to find a table. In this very spot was offered the best food, the best music, the best wine and the best dessert, speciality of the house – oven-roasted figs with honey and aniseed ice cream. But there was something else to the place, too, so said its regular customers: it made one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows. I was tall, robust, self-confident and, surprisingly for my age, still laden with rich, sweet figs, each giving off a perfumed scent." (pp. 54-55).

Other trees, plants, insects, and an entire life under and around growing plants all occupy the thoughts of the fig tree. For example: "Figs are sensual, soft, mysterious, emotional, lyrical, spiritual, self-contained and introverted. Carobs like things to be unsentimental, material, practical, measurable." (p. 119). 

The fig-tree narrator was grown from a cutting of the original tree and replanted in a garden in England. She has great powers of observation about the human family who live with her and tend to her. The family's complex story is also narrated by an omniscient voice alternating with that of the fig tree. A strange book -- but very effectively written. 

The principal human character in the story is Ada, a British teenager with a lot of baggage from her Cypriot origins. Her ethnically Turkish mother and Greek father were secret teenage lovers during the civil war that raged in Cyprus in the 1970s. The omniscient narrator goes back and forth among the stories of their nearly-doomed love affair in 1974, the horrors of civil war and ethnic cleansing, and their long separation. The book begins with the daughter, a high-school student in the late 2010s, so we know that the separated lovers were eventually reunited: but the details would be a spoiler here.

Horrors of the Cypriot civil war and its aftermath haunt the entire novel -- including the consciousness of the fig tree. Both Greek and Turkish citizens disappeared in the fighting and terrorist actions. Their families mourned without being able to bury their dead. This loss is a major theme, and the author also connects the Cypriot struggle to other twentieth century wars that caused similar suffering and loss. These wars and their victims seem endless: people who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the Guatemala war in the 1990s, bodies hidden during the brutal Argentine regime of the 1980s, bodies or even living people thrown from planes during the regime of Pinochet in Chile, victims of the Nazi era in Germany, as well as of more recent wars in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Iraq. It's a brutal book -- but also beautiful. 

Ada learns much about her ancestors in Cyprus from her aunt, who has never before visited her in England. Throughout the novel, the culture is explained in terms of food. Here is just one of numerous food descriptions that I enjoyed:

"When Ada woke up the next morning, the house was filled with unusual smells. Her aunt had prepared breakfast – or a banquet, more like it. Grilled halloumi with za’atar, baked feta with honey, sesame halva, stuffed tomatoes, green olives with fennel, bread rolls with black olive spread, fried peppers, spicy sausage, spinach börek, puff-pastry cheese straws, pomegranate molasses with tahini, hawthorn jelly, quince jam and a large pan of poached eggs with garlic yogurt were all neatly arrayed on the table." (p. 67).  

I have read several other books by Elif Shafak, a Turkish-British writer, and I consider her to be a master of wonderful and magical narratives and of incredibly creative ways to include food in a novel. I'm intrigued by so much in the book. For example, by references to the poet Cavafy, by descriptions of the birds and butterflies that live in the beautiful natural worlds of both Cyprus and England, and by the convincing portrayal of so many characters -- including the fig tree.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

What’s Cooking?

Delicata squash with piccadillo ingredients.

As this is a food blog, I thought I would post what I’ve been cooking. I’ve been making lots of semi-easy dishes with short prep times, but with fresh vegetables. When we returned from our long trip over the holiday, I shopped at Trader Joe's, which is a good place to buy things that are ready to eat, but not too unhealthy. Note that Trader Joe doesn't pay me to mention them: for that matter, TJ doesn't pay anyone else either.

Recipes? Well, I don't use real recipes with detailed measurements very much, so I'll just describe the ingredients I used. The delicata squash shown above has the advantage of a tender, edible skin -- and they often have a pile of them at Trader Joe's. I peeled and sliced the squash into little half-moon shapes, and sautéed it in butter, Then I added a sliced onion, a jalapeño, some red bell pepper, and browned them. Finally I added cumin, cinnamon, ground coriander, raisins, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of tomato paste. I cooked the mixture until the squash was very soft, and served it on little tortillas that had been browned with a slice of cheese. Real Mexican and South American piccadillo fillings normally include ground beef or chicken, but the squash worked well.

Trader Joe’s Stir-Fry

Lazy cooking — but not too lazy. The chicken is TJ's pre-cooked sliced chicken breast, the broccolini comes in a package ready to rinse and add to the pot. I did chop some fresh garlic and ginger, slice a red onion, and wash a package of mushrooms for the dish. I stir-fried first the ginger and garlic, then the onions, then the other vegetables. Then I added some broth, Chinese five-spice blend, and soy sauce, and cooked the mixture for 5 minutes. Finally some corn starch mixed with water to thicken the sauce, and the ready-to-eat chicken, briefly warmed in the pan. An easy dinner.

Some food that I made in Fairfax last weekend; hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise and tuna-white bean salad.

These are two very simple dishes that I like to make when there's not a lot of time. You can find dozens of tuna and white bean salad recipes online if you want more details -- and I've posted about my versions of this classic several times as well. In this salad, I used canned tuna (the Wild Planet brand because it's supposed to be ecologically responsible) and cannellini beans. I added chopped celery, chopped dill pickles, cilantro, and green onion, as well as oil and vinegar. When I make it at home, I vary it with tomato or lettuce or cucumber or carrots.

Blog post and photos © 2021 mae sander.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November Meals and Kitchen Scenes

New in my kitchen: a tiny ceramic bowl that Evelyn made.
We are now back in Ann Arbor after 10 days of travel.

November Holidays

The highlight of November meals: Thanksgiving Dinner in Fairfax, VA.

A second highlight of November: potato pancakes for Chanukah.
also in Evelyn’s kitchen in Fairfax, VA.

New in My Ann Arbor Kitchen

A new omelet pan

New storage containers:
We discarded many old plastic ones.

A San Francisco potholder: gift from Evelyn’s trip.

A few foods from my Ann Arbor Kitchen.

“National Sandwich Day” — a cracker sandwich.

A cracker sandwich may not technically be a sandwich.
How about tuna sliders? Some people think that a bun cannot make a sandwich.
Sandwich purists insist that the outermost layers must be slices of bread.

Cranberry sauce to bring to Fairfax for Thanksgiving.

Pancakes on my griddle: I make these very often, using sourdough discard.

Len’s bread with cream cheese and smoked salmon to take to a party.

A few food highlights from our trip to the Outer Banks.

Grilled shrimp — the day boats were bringing in shrimp.

Crab cakes. We also had several kinds of fish in the lovely restaurants there.

Maybe the last picnic of 2021!

 New Magnets on the Refrigerator (Of Course)

Blog post to share with Sherry and participating bloggers at “In My Kitchen
 © 2021 mae sander.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

First Night of Chanukah

Chanukah this year begins during Thanksgiving weekend. We actually advanced the celebration a little
to enjoy it before Miriam and Alice headed back to college.

Frying the latkes — that is, potato pancakes.
These are the traditional Chanukah food in our tradition.
There’s also a tradition of eating jelly donuts.

We ate the latkes with leftover duck from Thanksgiving.
We also drank wine, and filtered water.

 Blog post and photos © 2021 mae sander.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Oil Palm and History

"... common Western misperceptions ... saw Africa as a fertile, untapped continent; Africans as untapped labor ready to work for low wages; and oil palms as a natural and largely wasted resource. Beyond indulging in racist caricatures, Europeans and Americans misread oil palms as evidence of Africa’s natural bounty—trees planted by God in a garden of Eden—rather than as signs of intensive agricultural activity in the recent past. Across Africa’s Atlantic littoral, centuries of slaving, warfare, disease, migration, and a changing climate had radically modified demography and land-use patterns, creating new villages and palm groves and leaving others abandoned. Settlers and traders weren’t stepping into a primordial forest, but a landscape with a long history of human occupation."  (Oil Palm, p. 43). 

Oil Palm: A Global History
by Jonathan E. Robins. (Published 2021)
The economics of the slave trade in Africa, the Caribbean, and the American colonies that later became the USA is a fascinating story. The relationship of slavery and the sugar trade was studied in the famous book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz (1986). Now there's a new book that connects the slave trade to another commodity: palm oil. 

This important product comes from a few species of palm trees that originated in Africa and are now grown throughout the tropics. The valuable oil is extracted from both tree sap and from the kernel, or fruit of the tree. From the 1500s and 1600s, as Europeans explored the cities and farms of Africa, they adopted palm oil that from the trees that were already being cultivated and tapped by the people of Africa. Over time, the use of palm oil by Europeans, Caribbean people, and North Americans became more and more important.

The book describes European exploitation of African people and products, especially the slave trade and the palm oil trade:
“Defining slavery in the historical record isn’t straightforward. Like societies around the world, African societies practiced many forms of 'unfreedom' and dependency. Reports from Europeans 'anxious to eliminate slavery, and not always familiar with the intricacies of local usage,' tended to use the word 'slave' as a catchall. People who would be better described as pawns, serfs, or servants all fell under the same 'slave' label.” (p. 52) 
“Before abolition, most palm oil rode along with the slave trade in the most literal sense. A surviving freight bill for the Hawke offers one example: the vessel loaded 359 captives at Gallinhas and Bassa and discharged 328 survivors at Dominica in 1777. On the return trip to Liverpool, the vessel brought back six puncheons of palm oil.” (p 75)
Palm oil has a long history, and remains one of today's very important commodities: "No other plant supplies as much fat today as the oil palm. Palm oil is usually the cheapest material available for food, soap, and a host of chemical industries." (p. 9). 

It's easy to be unaware of the prevalent use of palm oil both now and in the 19th century. Over time, it was adopted for use in food and cosmetics. However, product labels did not always list what type of fat was used, so consumers were often unaware of the source. It was cheaper than other fats used to make candles as well as soap, which was badly needed by factory workers in dirty conditions.  Palm oil became critical as well in industrial development — especially providing lubricants and grease for increasingly important factory machinery and railroad equipment (later replaced by petroleum products). Pure glycerin from palm oil also became an important component of Nitroglycerin — thus being critical to the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel. 
A 19th century ad for palm-oil candles, showing the relationship to both slave and free African labor. (p, 82)

In food, palm oil became a key ingredient. The oil derived from the palm kernel provided an important substitute for lard and other solid shortenings, especially useful in development of margarine and replacements for other fats: "Hydrogenation allowed companies to purify palm oil and adjust its consistency, fine-tuning fat blends for winter or summer temperatures." (p. 93). Palm oil from both sap and kernel became an element in fertilizer and in animal feed as well. It also played a role in the manufacture of tin cans (removing the acid that was used to coat sheets of metal), and thus important in the increasing use of canned food in the 1920s and after. 

Throughout the European colonial era in African countries, palm oil was an important commercial product, and attitudes of the colonial Europeans towards its extraction were always somewhat unaware of reality. Specifically, the planted oil palms were frequently viewed as natural elements of a forest, rather than recognizing that they were planted by human activity:
"Africa’s palm groves reflected generations of farming and management of the landscape. They were neither completely natural nor entirely human built, but rather emerged as 'a cultural creation and a lived environment.'” (p. 120).
This unrealistic view was consistent with an overall degrading attitude towards African natives. Labor was undervalued, and despite the abolition of slavery, the colonialists failed to appreciate the skills of workers who climbed the trees, tapped the sap, gathered the kernels, and produced usable oil -- all examples of heavy and exhausting work. Early efforts to mechanize the extraction process were slow to become useful or to be accepted. Similarly, colonial efforts to improve the type of palm that was planted or to change cultivation methods were also unrealistic. Further, these met with resistance because they were contrary to the interests of the native people, whose most important crops were foods like rice.

A palm wine cup from the Congo.
(Toledo Museum of Art, my photo)

My only knowledge of oil palms in African life to this point has been the novel The Palm Wine Drinkard, by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. This is a wonderful folk-tale style story, published in 1952. Palm wine, a naturally alcoholic sap from oil palms that lasts only a day after being tapped, is another product of these remarkable trees. As I read, I was very glad to learn much more about the history of several African societies.

In the middle of the twentieth century, changes in economics and international politics and commerce caused the colonial powers to transfer the majority of oil production from Africa to new plantations in Southeast Asia. During and after World War II, oil-containing foods were critical to the war and recovery efforts. Tropical Asian sites became and still remain the world's main producers of palm oil, now also grown in Central and South America.

In the late twentieth century, highly-processed palm oil became a source of fat for industrial food production in a globalized world. Oil palms currently supply an amazing percentage of nutritional fats worldwide: palm oil is everywhere in food, though rarely recognized. Using hydrogenated palm oil:
"Food technologists created flaky pastries that stayed tender and crisp for days; powders that stirred into coffee as 'cream;' boxed biscuit and cake mixes that lasted for months on shelves—just add milk and eggs. Instant noodles ready with a cup of hot water; peanut butter that you never, ever have to stir oil back into: these were the miracles of modern convenience food, made possible by refining, fractionating, and hydrogenating fats like palm oil. ... No one ever bought a stick of palmitin or a jar of diglycerides in a supermarket, but they ate them nonetheless in packaged foods." (p. 197)

Palm oil: used in a Snickers Bar and so many other foods!
From the last decades of the twentieth century until the present, food politics, food safety analysis, and fear of a variety of medical risks caused a series of controversies over tropical oils, trans fat, and a variety of other products. Palm oil: is it good food or poison? "By the 2000s, regulators around the world banned trans fats outright. With consumers unwilling to return to animal fats, palm oil was the only cost-effective solution." (p. 208). 

Beyond food safety issues, the ecological role of palm plantations concerns many analysts. They worry about the destruction of wild animals, about an endless cycle of pests and pesticides, and about issues of deforestation. Oil palms: are they a sustainable crop or a source of environmental and habitat destruction? Also, as in the past, concern arises over mistreatment of laborers and displacement of traditional farmers from lands being converted to oil-palm cultivation.

Globalization is the final topic of the book Oil Palm. The author writes:

"Palm oil rode on earlier waves of globalization, back to the first casks shipped from Africa half a millennium ago. Long-distance trade linked Africa’s oil palms with industries and ecologies across the globe in the nineteenth century. The colonial plantation complex sent capital, people, and plants shuttling around the globe, along with palm oil and kernels. The recent era of globalization is in some ways a return to form for the oil palm industry, after a postcolonial interlude dominated by development-minded states. In this new political and economic context, old plantation firms became multinational agribusinesses; the roles once filled by 'coolie' labor were taken up by undocumented migrants. Capital poured into tropical regions as raw materials flowed out." (p. 245). 

 Jonathan E. Robins has written a very readable book, which looks at the oil palm from a remarkably varied number of viewpoints -- history, nutrition, globalization, politics, labor issues, and many more. Above all, he shows the importance of this often-overlooked commodity on modern life. What an interesting book is Oil Palm!

Review © 2021 mae sander,

Friday, November 26, 2021

Washington: the Hirshhorn Museum



We loved the special exhibit by multi-media artist Laurie Anderson.
It is very hard to describe, but my favorite was a huge room with walls and floor all
painted with black and white images, quotations, and observations.

... and cake.

It's been a long time since I was able to visit a museum with a fascinating contemporary art exhibit. I've been so quarantined! So this was a wonderful treat, going with Len and Evelyn for just a few hours and no pressure. The Capitol Mall was crowded but fortunately not many people were in the Hirshhorn this morning.

We also viewed an exhibit of works by one of my favorite early 20th century
artists, Marcel Duchamp. These are two portraits of the artist.

The Hirshhorn Museum is in a very interesting building, which is now under
construction and thus covered with huge draperies.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.