Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Our Haunted Neigborhood

There won't be much trick-or-treating this year, as the pandemic is going through a resurgence, so who wants all those little hands in the candy bowls? However, many of our neighbors are decorating their homes and gardens with wonderful imaginative Halloween figures. A few ghosts:

Can you find the ghost hiding in the bushes?

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae sander.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist

 “The Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist” (Hard Times, p. 204)

Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a very old classic, published in 1854. Tired of reading books and newspaper stories about the difficulties of our own hard times, I thought I would escape by rereading something familiar and distant. I quickly realized that the central contrast in society depicted in Hard Times is still going on. 

This contrast lies in Dickens' depiction of a banker and a politician on one side of things and several innocent characters, such as a pure young middle-class woman, an honest working man, and a virtuous working woman. There are questions of how children should be educated, and how society should treat people at all levels. There are a few evil characters, a few circus performers with honest hardworking dogs, a demagogue stirring up the factory "hands," and other colorful, Dickensian characters. They live in Coketown, a miserable manufacturing city in the grimy north of England.

Dickens as always creates characters and situations that exhibit extreme individuality to the point of caricature, including rather satiric names such as Mr. Gradgrind the merchant-become-politician or Mrs. Sparsit, a busy-body spinster of reduced funds, or Mr. McChoakumchild, a schoolmaster. These characters are highly typical of their social classes, highly susceptible to pretensions of various kinds about their place in society, and subject to the extremes of belief, fanaticism, and lack of empathy to others. They could just as well be types to exemplify our own society — especially the banker! There’s not a chance that I could feel any sense of escape from our current reality by reading this book.

I don’t want to belabor the points of similarity between these characters and the miserable specimens that populate our own news feed these days, but I’ll just quote a conversation between Mr. Bounderby, the banker, and Mr. Harthouse, a visitor who has just arrived in Coketown:

"‘Coketown, sir,’ said Bounderby, obstinately taking a chair, ‘is not the kind of place you have been accustomed to.  Therefore, if you will allow me—or whether you will or not, for I am a plain man—I’ll tell you something about it before we go any further.’

"Mr. Harthouse would be charmed.

"‘Don’t be too sure of that,’ said Bounderby.  ‘I don’t promise it.  First of all, you see our smoke.  That’s meat and drink to us.  It’s the healthiest thing in the world in all respects, and particularly for the lungs.  If you are one of those who want us to consume it, I differ from you.  We are not going to wear the bottoms of our boilers out any faster than we wear ’em out now, for all the humbugging sentiment in Great Britain and Ireland.’

"By way of ‘going in’ to the fullest extent, Mr. Harthouse rejoined, ‘Mr. Bounderby, I assure you I am entirely and completely of your way of thinking.  On conviction.’

"‘I am glad to hear it,’ said Bounderby.  ‘Now, you have heard a lot of talk about the work in our mills, no doubt.  You have?  Very good.  I’ll state the fact of it to you.  It’s the pleasantest work there is, and it’s the lightest work there is, and it’s the best-paid work there is.  More than that, we couldn’t improve the mills themselves, unless we laid down Turkey carpets on the floors.  Which we’re not a-going to do.’

"‘Mr. Bounderby, perfectly right.’

‘Lastly,’ said Bounderby, ‘as to our Hands.  There’s not a Hand in this town, sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life.  That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.  Now, they’re not a-going—none of ’em—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.  And now you know the place.’" (p. 122)

As I read this, I felt as if Mr. Bounderby would be perfectly at home in certain circles of our society, who feel that workers are treated very well -- too well -- and that they only want to lead a good life, a life that should be reserved for bankers and for the upper classes. The only thing that's changed is that the banker wouldn't mention turtle soup and venison.

Hard Times has wonderful characters, a dramatic plot, and plenty of action, and it's also a morality tale. A tale for their time but unfortunately, the tensions, injustices, the self-satisfied successful men, the victimized women, and the few honest people are just the same now as they ever were. The bankers will always be with us.

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

"Drink Me"


A famous tea party: Alice with the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Mad Hatter. (Wikipedia)

In Disney's 1951 version, they drink tea -- lots of tea!

Alice is also well remembered for finding a tiny bottle labeled
"DRINK ME" -- and drinking it! (Wikipedia)

From Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: how Alice drank from the little bottle:
It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not”; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison,” it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

However, this bottle was not marked “poison,” so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off....

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice; “I must be shutting up like a telescope.”

And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden. (source)

Grace Slick's song White Rabbit had quite a different view of Alice's adventures, but that's for another day. (Originally I said Janis Joplin, but that was wrong.) Meanwhile, I'm sharing this unusual drink post with Elizabeth's Altered Book Lover Tuesday event centered on drinks of all kinds.

Blog Post © 2020 mae sander, images as credited.

Scenes from my life

In a shop window near the campus: a Lego Michigan Stadium -- "The Big House."
The real stadium has been idle so far this fall, but maybe not for much longer.

Strangely painted pedestrian control flags.
The street pavement is painted as well, but the number
of people passing by is far less than usual.

Also near campus: a decorated utility box.

A mushroom in the woods.

Fall irises in my neighbor's garden, along with still-colorful flowers and also autumn leaves..

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae sander

Friday, October 16, 2020

Food In Color

Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto is a memoir about what it's like to be a farmer who loves his land, loves his crops, and feels that family farming is the center of his life. "Agriculture in California is only a hundred years old," he writes, and he feels connected to all of this history. (p. 19). The book is about both change and permanence. A special focus is on the way that a wonderful peach variety can become obsolete, undesirable, not meeting standards: and thus he had to bulldoze the trees in his orchard to plant different types of peaches. A sad story.

The author's family farm in the California Central Valley mainly grows peaches and grapes. His parents live nearby, and help with the farm and with their lifetime of experience. He describes the history of his family, their immigration from Japan, their experience being exiled from California to prison camps during World War II, "While Uncle George fought in Europe and died for freedom, his family lived behind barbed wire with tens of thousands of others in the desert of Arizona." (p. 108). 

He describes the family and community traditions that remain alive in the twenty-first century. Community festivals preserve memories from Japan; for example, the summer festival: "Obon celebrates the idea that ancestors return briefly to visit the living, even if only in memory and symbols. Colorful lanterns light the way for spirits to return home, and the dance symbolizes the joy of this spiritual reunion." (pp. 128-129). 

Also his own way of New Year celebration: "Every New Year’s Day we follow Japanese tradition and open our house to family, friends, and neighbors. Guests begin to arrive by late morning, and the first plates are loaded with sushi, teriyaki chicken, tempura vegetables, and shrimp. We toast with sake and talk about the year past and the year to begin." (p. 225). 

What can go wrong for a farmer growing peaches and grapes? He summarizes: "I’ve lost raisin crops, peach harvests, whole trees and vines. I’ve lost money, time, and my labor. I’ve lost my temper, my patience, and, at times, hope. Most of the time, it’s due to things beyond my control, like the weather, market prices, or insects or disease." (p. 64). 

The peaches from Masumoto's orchard may not be desirable to the wholesalers. The old variety that he grows is delicious and beautiful, he believes, but it doesn't sell well: it's too perishable, it's not a popular color, and it's too fuzzy. In short, it's an obsolete variety: "older, fuzzier varieties of peaches having been replaced by new varieties that do not require as much defuzzing."(p. 100). 

He describes his disappointment when he loses a contract to sell his peaches to a manufacturer of baby food: "I believe in the value of organic baby food. Witnessing the birth of my children, holding their tiny, squirming bodies, was a real turning point in my life. My children provide me with perspective. I do not farm solely to make money but rather with the hope of contributing something to them and to the world. The thought of my peaches feeding infants and toddlers adds to my satisfaction. This summer will be a special harvest." (p. 121). 

Weather is always a challenge. The extreme heat of California summer gives way to autumn rainstorms, which come at the wrong time. Untimely rain causes rot and mildew in grapes that are being dried into raisins. He describes his agony witnessing the rain come down and destroy thousands of dollars worth of these emerging raisins as they sit in paper drying trays between the rows of vines.

Weeds invade the vines and the orchard, but the author realizes that herbicides make everything sterile for long years into the future. Over time, he explains, he came to the view that many wildflowers and native grasses belong in his fields along with the crops. He began to appreciate them for their beauty and see that they were harmless. He writes: "I now have very few weeds on my farm. I removed them in a single day using a very simple method. I didn’t even break into a sweat. I simply redefined what I call a weed." (p. 31). 

Insect pests attack the peaches, but he doesn't want to kill them with pesticide. "I’ve learned never to underestimate the ability of pests to adapt," he writes. He consults with a researcher in entomology, and adapts science-based strategies for fighting pests. He learns the hard way that chemical salesmen do not have his interests at heart -- they just want a quick sale of their dubious products. (p. 50). 

Masumoto is not just a certified organic farmer: he is truly committed to natural farming methods and to high quality produce. At the end, he says, "There’s a Chinese proverb that says, 'A journey begins with the first step.' But it never explains when the journey ends. As the new year begins, I realize that what I seek is the satisfaction of growing my peaches the best I can. I relish the fact that people enjoy the taste of my fruit. Perhaps that’s where the journey ends and another begins." (p. 227). 

Reading this book makes me think about eating ripe, freshly-picked peaches, which I love more than any other fruit. Peach season here in Michigan just ended last month, and I ate many wonderful peaches this year. I also had a few quite good peaches from California, though surely not any grown by Masumoto, who sells to local markets and processors. I have never knowingly tasted the variety of peach he describes so lovingly. I suspect that quite different varieties grow in Michigan, but I suspect that many of the local peach farmers are just as dedicated as Masumoto.

I also love paintings that show the beautiful colors of peaches. The outside of a peach can be many shades of pink-to-red-to-orange-to-peach. The pit is nearly always red. The interior of a peach can be so orange that it matches the yolk of an egg or a glass of orange juice -- but not the deeper color of a ripe apricot or a pumpkin! Peach flesh can nearly match the hue of cooked salmon or can be pale and almost greenish white. Some of the leaves that have turned color this week are the color of vivid peach slices. 

Here are a few images of food that somehow I connect to reading Epitaph for a Peach.

Matisse: Still Life with Peaches and Glass

Gauguin: Still Life with Peaches

Fall grilling: orange salmon and orange maple tree.
A reminder of the color of a peach.

Blog post and photos © 2020 mae sander
Art works from Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Beautiful Soup!

 Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish, 
Game, or any other dish?  
Who would not give all else for two 
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup? 
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup? 
 Beau--ootiful Soo--oop! 
 Beau--ootiful Soo--oop! 
 Soo--oop of the e--e--evening, 
 Beautiful, beauti--FUL SOUP!
-- The Mock Turtle's Song 
from Alice in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll
image by John Tenniel

Cellophane noodle soup with cherry tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, and fried onions.
Recipe from Asian Noodles: 86 Classic Recipes from Vietnam, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan by Maki Watenabe.

Fried onions for the soup.

New-Orleans flavored soup with okra and tomatoes.
Wild-caught gulf shrimp: to be added at the last minute.

A bowl of shrimp and okra soup.

 Blog post and photos © 2020 mae sander
Mock Turtle from wikipedia.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Autumnal Reds and Yellows

All photos © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

What we are watching

The Three Penny Opera, 1931, sung in German.
Striking how wooden the acting was, even the famous Lotte Lenya!

The 2020 Great British Baking Show, new episode each Friday, pretty much like all the rest.

Endeavor: still more cases of Inspector Morse. We have been watching
the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Very entertaining!

And reading...

Arkady Renko the Moscow detective
must be in his seventies by now but
Martin Cruz Smith keeps him going.
A disappointing sequel.

Nothing much exciting in all this, though we are enjoying these rather varied choices. Luckily there are still many days with beautiful weather!

Monday, October 12, 2020

"Tokyo Ueno Station"

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, is currently a finalist for the National Book Awards in the category translated fiction. The announcement of the finalists was the first I have heard of this author, and I'm very glad to have learned about her and to have read this work. 

The narrator of Tokyo Ueno Station is a man named Kazu, whose life was filled with tragedy for him and for his family. By the time he narrates the book, he is a kind of a wraith, dead but not dead, affectless and uncomprehending of the trajectory of his life, alienated from all others. He says:
"The only thing I was guilty of was being unable to adjust. I could adapt to any kind of work; it was life itself that I could not adjust to. The pain of life, the sadness . . . and the joy . . ." (p. 164).

Kazu's main connection to his country and society is the fact that he was born the same year as the Emperor, and that his son was born the same day as the son and heir of the Emperor. However, this isn't enough to give serious meaning to the life he led. Extreme poverty in the village where he was born forced him to leave his wife, who thus raised their children alone: he hardly knew them. He found work as a laborer in Tokyo, far from his family, and lived in hostels and eventually on the street while sending what money he could to them. 

Tokyo Ueno Station is a very personal story. It's also a commentary on the way that Japanese society treats its less capable and fortunate members. In a way, it's also an assessment of the human condition. Kind of existential: please pardon me for the cliché! It does all these things with great intensity and impressive skill.

Throughout the narrative, Kazu overhears people talking, and observes brief moments from their lives as he wanders, unnoticed and not really connected to them. Most of this takes place in Ueno Park where he lived for a time in a homeless encampment, and in various railroad stations, Ueno station in particular. He also describes his fellow homeless people who came from all strata of society, for example, the businessmen: "They were like husks, still wearing suits." (p. 84). 

Kazu's alienation from people is underscored by a very interesting way the author presents his stream-of-consciousness: Kazu quotes overheard conversations -- very often about food -- as he sort of floats around in the crowded streets and in the park. Here are some abbreviated examples:

“You know that beef-stew place over there? I went a while back, and they weren’t open.” “They close on Tuesdays, you know.” “We should go sometime for their ‘lightweight’ breakfast special.” (p. 132).

“The other day she took me to this eel place.” “Oh, no, no, eels are out, they’re going extinct, you know. You can’t eat them very often. They’re endangered, and the catch of the young ones is getting smaller every year, so if we don’t let some of the grown eels live, the whole species will die out. I’m not joking.” ... “We both got rice with one grilled eel fillet on top. And without even asking, she sticks her chopsticks in my bowl and takes half my eel. She said one fillet just wasn’t enough for her. Meanwhile I’m left with all this rice and nothing to eat it with, so what else can I do? So there I am, eating rice seasoned with Sichuan pepper. In an eel place.” (p. 94). 

“When I go to her place, chances are she’ll make burgers.” “Really?” “Anyway, she’s always snacking on something— chocolates or sweets.” “They say you really shouldn’t overdo it with chocolate.”...“She’s crazy about marshmallows.” “I can’t eat marshmallows, they stick to my teeth. Honestly, these days I’m turning into an old man. Just give me some dried sardines, you know, the kind some bartenders put out. I eat them like crazy, like they’re candy.” (p. 95-96).

“I’m hungry, Mama.” “You want some of this?” “Don’t want it.” “Well, then Mama’s gonna eat it all.” “No, Mama, don’t!” (p. 9). 

From my visit to Tokyo, December, 2011: a scene near Ueno Park
at a pond often mentioned in the novel.

The reader learns more and more about Kazu's depressing history, and how he and the other homeless people cope with their environment in Ueno Park, which seems so very different from the way a tourist would see it. We once stayed at a guest house very close to the park so I have my own vivid memories and really felt that I gained insight into the story by contrasting my brief impression to the viewpoint of this homeless shadow of a man. 

Kazu describes his experiences of homelessness in painful detail, for example, near the end of the book he writes:

"Since I became homeless, my only interest in ginkgoes was the fruit. Wearing plastic gloves, I picked them up one by one and put them in a plastic bag. When it was full, I took them to the water fountain and washed off the part of the skin that stank. Then I would spread them out on a newspaper to dry before taking them to Ameyoko Market, where I could get seven hundred yen a kilo for them.

"My vision was filled with yellow leaves, whirling in the cold winter wind. The turning of the seasons no longer had anything to do with me— but still, I didn’t want to take my eyes away from that yellow, which seemed to me like a messenger of light. The chirp of the signal for the visually impaired was what made me realize that the light had turned green." (pp. 172-173).  

I'm finding it difficult to do justice to this unusual novel, but I think it's very much worth reading!

Blog post and original photo © 2020 mae sander. 


Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cider and Donuts

On a beautiful day we paid a visit the Dexter Cider Mill.

The Dexter Cider Mill, now open for its annual cider making and
sales of home-made donuts, cider, and other autumn treats.
Dexter, Michigan, is a half-hour's drive from our house in Ann Arbor.

We bought half-a-gallon of cider to take home.

We ate our donuts at the cider mill, sitting on a bench
not near other people.

"Social Distance" sign.

Tables beside the river in back of the Cider Mill.

The Dexter Cider Mill, longest-running cider mill in Michigan, was founded in 1886 by the VanNatter Family. From 1900 to 1986, it was owned and operated by the Otto Wagner family. The current owners, Nancy & Marty Steinhauer and their parents have owned and operated the cider mill since 1986.  (source)

A few miles from the cider mill: a little lake that seems to have no name. 

Another beautiful day: cider and other treats outdoors in our back yard.

Cider, apples, and pineapple upside-down cake
protected by fly screens.

Len's apple bread: flavored with cider and apples 
from the cider mill.

We were celebrating our friend Abby's birthday with this backyard supper.

Cider is the symbol of autumn, at least here in Michigan where we have many apple orchards and traditional cider mills. The Dexter Cider Mill is right on the river. Long ago, it may have used water power, though it no longer has a water wheel or a mill race on the site. I suspect that this very popular seasonal attraction is dangerously crowded on weekends, but we chose a Thursday afternoon, when very few people were present. All seemed quite safe. 

Elizabeth at the blog Altered Book Lover offers a weekly blog event each Tuesday, celebrating beverages. Cider seems like the perfect choice this week!

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.