Saturday, September 22, 2018

Speaking of Pressure Cookers

From E-Bay: my mother's pressure cooker looked pretty much
like this one, including bakelite handles, a jiggly top, and a
metal rack for elevating the food (not shown).
Many bloggers and food publications have been writing about pressure cookers and recipes for using them. Mostly, their pressure cookers are a feature in the latest trendy device, the instant pot. These writers express a lot of surprise and delight -- though there are a few dissenters. Some of the enthusiasts are totally new to pressure cooking, while others have memories of the earlier incarnations of pressure cookers, which were popular in the past.

The Presto Pressure Cooker with a jiggly top that spit out little bursts of steam is the one I most remember from my own childhood. My mother made quite a few dishes in this device, and if memory serves me, she used the appliance manual that's depicted above -- which I conveniently found in facsimile on the website "Hip Cooking."

Unfortunately, my memory of pressure cooking isn't really very nostalgic. Sensations I associate with meals from the pressure cooker:
  • Grey, flavorless food. Except carrots, which stayed orange even when vastly overcooked. 
  • Stringy beef. 
  • Mushy vegetables. Except onions, which became more slimy than mushy.
  • Funny smells.
  • Fear. 
About fear. Would the pot explode? My mother hovered over it watching the steam indicator. She claimed to be waiting for it to finish cooking so she could put it in the sink and run cold water over it according to the manufacturer's instructions from the beginning of the manual. But I think she was really waiting for the catastrophe: green beans on the ceiling. Or worse.

My mother wasn't a bad cook -- I would say the pressure cooker was kind of a lapse. She made really delicious apple pie, classic tuna salad, tasty mashed potatoes, crisp bacon, scrumptious oven-fried chicken, and so on. We ate artisanal bread from a local Jewish bakery, which meant we enjoyed nice toast for breakfast and great sandwiches: yes, I think we made bacon sandwiches on good Jewish rye bread. We sometimes had high-quality T-bone steak -- though it was served well done. I was a lot happier when she discovered frozen vegetables, which were better than either canned or pressure cooked. We liked lots of the foods that were popular in the fifties but may have gone out of fashion -- like Jello and cake-mix layer cake. I guess that the pressure cooked meals were the worst.

To give you an idea of what she would have been pressure cooking, I selected and copied a few recipes from the manual above. I believe my mother made them pretty much as written. I must ask my sister to forgive me for posting these, as I believe she detested them, while I tolerated them without either enthusiasm or disgust.

I'm almost sure she made green beans exactly like this.
I think she followed this recipe except for no green beans. This was a very bland and mushy dish.
After following these instructions, my mother cooked the meat a second time in a sweet-sour sauce.
My father and I liked it. Not so much my sister and brother. My mother never actually told us her food preferences.

Where did the Pressure Cooker come from?

If you ask the Internet this question -- "When was the pressure cooker invented?" -- the answer from the all-knowing Professor Google is:
"In 1679, French physicist Denis Papin, better known for his studies on steam, invented the steam digester in an attempt to reduce the cooking time of food. His airtight cooker used steam pressure to raise the water's boiling point, thus cooking food more quickly."
The National Pressure Cooker Company, maker of Presto cookers, according to Dr. Wikipedia, was founded around the time of the 1939 New York World's Fair where they presented a model similar to the one my mother used in the 1950s. Since then, pressure cookers have been modified and improved several times, mainly with technological safety improvements. Modern ones employ built-in heating elements instead of using the stove top. The current enthusiasts say the new devices also create tastier dishes. I just can't seem to get interested in this extension of my memories.

I eventually gave away both my mother's pressure cooker and the one I received
for a wedding present, as well as the manuals. But now I have an electronic copy.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

J.K.Rowling Strikes Again

I finished reading the latest Cormoran Strike detective tale by Robert Galbraith yesterday. Galbraith, as most people know, is the alter ego of J.K.Rowling, who wanted to start over by using a pseudonym after Harry Potter. She has now published four novels in this series, and I've quite enjoyed them. Dozens of reviews will no doubt be added to those that had already been written before publication, so I'm just going to explore a few things that I really enjoyed in the book.

Lethal White: published last Tuesday.
I love Rowling's sharp eye for detail, for irony, for human weaknesses, and her awareness of how class privilege can create terrible human beings. I love her ear for speech variations, for music (at least in this book where she offers thoughts on listening to pieces as diverse as a Brahms symphony and "Black Trombone" by Serge Gainsbourg), and especially for very odd and wonderfully chosen names of people and places.

Pratt's gentleman's club? Surely, I thought, she made up this wonderful name. No she did not! It's real, and in the acknowledgements, Rowling acknowledges who took her there. However, when Cormoran Strike, in a phone conversation, is invited to meet a client there, his trusty partner Robin says roughly the same thing:
He hung up and returned to the office where Robin was opening and sorting mail. When he told her the upshot of the conversation, she Googled Pratt’s for him.
“I didn’t think places like this still existed,” she said in disbelief, after a minute’s reading off the monitor.  
“Places like what?”  
“It’s a gentleman’s club… very Tory… no women allowed, except as guests of club members at lunchtime… and ‘to avoid confusion,’” Robin read from the Wikipedia page, “‘all male staff members are called George.’”  
“What if they hire a woman?” 
“Apparently they did in the eighties,” said Robin, her expression midway between amusement and disapproval. “They called her Georgina.” (Kindle Locations 1465-1471). 
When he gets to Pratt's (which I Googled too!) he's shown to a dining room by a motherly woman. Through a pass-through he can see a chef carving cold roast beef, and around him:
Here was the very antithesis of the smart restaurants where Strike tailed errant husbands and wives, where the lighting was chosen to complement glass and granite, and sharp-tongued restaurant critics sat like stylish vultures on uncomfortable modern chairs. Pratt’s was dimly lit. Brass picture lights dotted walls papered in dark red, which was largely obscured by stuffed fish in glass cases, hunting prints and political cartoons. In a blue and white tiled niche along one side of the room sat an ancient iron stove. The china plates, the threadbare carpet, the table bearing its homely load of ketchup and mustard all contributed to an ambience of cozy informality, as though a bunch of aristocratic boys had dragged all the things they liked about the grown-up world— its games, its drink and its trophies— down into the basement where Nanny would dole out smiles, comfort and praise." (Kindle Locations 1519-1525). 
His client, Chiswell, a cabinet minister, arrives, a bit late of course:
Once they were seated at the table, which had a stiff, snowy-white tablecloth ... Georgina brought them thick slices of cold roast beef and boiled potatoes. It was English nursery food, plain and unfussy, and none the worse for it. Only when the stewardess had left them in peace, in the dim dining room full of oil paintings and more dead fish, did Chiswell speak again. (Kindle Locations 1552-1555). 
Throughout most of the novel, Strike drinks coffee and beer, eats bacon or deep-fried food -- or tries to abstain in order to control his weight -- and joins friends for Chinese takeout food or a curry. Or this:
Having left in plenty of time, Strike made a detour to a handy McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin and a large coffee, which he consumed at an unwiped table, surrounded by other early Saturday risers. A young man with a boil on the back of his neck was reading the Independent right ahead of Strike.... (Kindle Locations 5068-5071). 
But the wonderfully named (and completely not made-up) Pratt's sets the scene for the novel where Strike and Robin have to deal with many unbearable aristocrats and their vast sense of entitlement. In fact, everything in the book revolves around how their entitlement forms their attitudes and leads them to the crimes that are being detected. In the Harry Potter books, there are wizard families with the same sense of overpowering aristocratic superiority to the more common wizards. Rowling really knows how to use her powers of observation on these rather deficient human specimens, and it makes for very good reading!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Wordless Wednesday: From the Farmer’s Market

...with fresh eggs from an Amish farm.

Leeks vinaigrette.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"The House in Smyrna"

Tatiana Salem Levy is a Brazilian writer and journalist who lives in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. Her novel The House in Smyrna puzzled me! It won the São Paulo Prize for Literature for best debut novel. It's widely translated and widely praised. I enjoyed it somewhat, but in the last analysis, I don't feel as if I understood it.

Long passages in the novel seem to be really happening to the narrator, but then suddenly they turn out to be her imagination. Or don't!

Sometimes she says she's paralyzed, unable to walk or leave her room. Sometimes she speaks in the first person as herself, sometimes she speaks as her mother, or imagines conversations with one person or another. She can't speak Turkish, but when she is (or imagines herself to be) in Istanbul she suddenly becomes able to talk to people. Then she goes to Smyrna searching for her grandfather's old house, and can't talk to her cousins, who all speak in Ladino. She has long erotic encounters with a boyfriend, but they are often interrupted by thoughts, or maybe just descriptions, of other people and places. I've read books like this, but not so over-the-top!

I do like some of the author's imaginative descriptions about her past, about her grandfather's early life and departure from Smyrna to Brazil, about her parents' ordeal in hiding from the Brazilian dictatorship and their exile to Portugal where she was born. But in the end, I craved clarity -- more clarity in the writing, even if the character herself was confused or demented.

Here's a sample of a passage that I enjoyed -- and could follow!
"Last night I had a strange dream. A nightmare. I arrived at my grandfather’s house in Turkey, a big, beautiful, very old house with ornate walls, like an embroidered dress. ...
"Suddenly, I heard a loud creak. It was the door opening. A man of about my father’s age appeared, inviting me in. It’s here, come inside, come into your house. I was surprised. Why was this man speaking Portuguese? Come, he said again. When I entered, the house was full of people, young and old, and they all had something familiar about them. The men were wearing kippahs, and most — but not all — of the women had white scarves draped over their shoulders. They surrounded me, hugging me, welcoming me: This is your home, they said. The table was laden with bread, honey, apples, matzah, wine, boyos, cheese, bourekas, and almonds. Come, take a seat, we’ve made you some treats.  
"I wasn’t hungry, but the smell was so inviting that I couldn’t resist. I started with the cheese and the eggplant bourekas. But I soon realised that I was the only one eating; in fact, I was the only one sitting at the table. As I ate, they all just stood there watching me, as if I were a strange animal, an exotic jungle creature. I stopped chewing and looked for a face that I recognised. I was afraid. They all noticed and began to laugh. I raced to the door, wanting out, certain that I was in the wrong house. Then I heard a deep voice say: This is your family! I tried to open the door, but it was locked again and now I had no key at all. The laughter grew louder and louder, as I screamed: Where’s the key?  
"I woke up drenched with sweat, lying in my bed, in my room, in my apartment." (Kindle Locations 335-353). 
And another I liked, though I don't know if she was really in Istanbul or just imagining that she was there:
"I was ambling along in Istanbul’s scalding heat when I came across a cucumber stall. An elderly man was skilfully peeling them and selling each one for a few cents. Small, medium, and large cucumbers. Whole, with nothing but salt. I was amazed — it was the first time I’d seen anything like it. At the same time, nothing could have been more familiar: salted cucumbers, to be eaten as rabbits eat carrots in cartoons. When I was a girl, I refused to eat lunch or dinner without first having a cucumber, whole, with salt." (Kindle Locations 649-652). 
 It's good to get out of my comfort zone, and read an unusual author. I've read a few other Brazilian works of fiction, especially several novels by Jorge Amado, Moacyr Scliar, and Clarice Lispector. I should read more of them!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ann Arbor Railroad Bridges

Driving north on Main Street I've often noticed this castle-like decoration on the rail overpass.
Makeshift stone towers have been erected all over the area too.
Handprints on the trestles.

An ordinary graffiti artist has also been in the area!
On the other side of the river...

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Chocolate, Women and Empire"

The title Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History sounded like an outstanding possibility for a book! When I read it, though, I found it a bit disappointing, as it's a very narrow academic study of the former Rowntree chocolate enterprise in York, England. The book, which was originally the PhD thesis of author, Emma Roberson, has two main research sources:
  • Interviews with women who worked at the Rowntree plant before it was acquired by Nestle in 1988.
  • A very limited study of the lives of African women who work on the farms in Africa that supply the Rowntree manufacturing endeavor.
This book, which was originally published in 2009, might be useful as input to a more general study of women in industry, of chocolate making, or something else. It had a few interesting bits, especially about the way chocolate was advertised to women and to men who wanted to impress women. But no big thing to say. And it's kind of fuzzy about time -- it jumps around in the 20th century before 1988 in England, but discusses life in Africa in around the year 2000. Only on the last couple of pages does the author acknowledge that Rowntree was acquired by Nestle in 1988 and thus completely changed.

One thing I learned: Rowntree invented the KitKat bar, which is now made by Hershey in the US and by Nestle elsewhere.

Thursday, September 13, 2018


The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories,
hardcover ed. published September 11, 2018.
Kindle edition published earlier.
For a brief time, my life is full of peaches. This is wonderful. Since Monday, I have bought 17 ripe Michigan peaches. There are three of them left. Soon peach season will be finished, and I will have to wait almost a year for another chance to eat them or to make peach cake.

Even the book I am reading, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, seems to be full of peaches. Here is one passage that most wonderfully captures the delight of a peach:
“Sanshirō thanked him and ate a peach. The man seemed to enjoy them very much. He ate several with great abandon and urged Sanshirō to eat more. Sanshirō ate another one. They went on eating, and soon the two of them were talking like old friends. 
“The man remarked that he could well understand why the Taoists had chosen the peach as the fruit of immortality. Mountain ascetics were supposed to live forever on some ethereal essence, and peaches probably came closer to that than anything else. They had a mystifying sort of taste. The stone was interesting too, with its crude shape and all those holes. Sanshirō had never heard this particular view before. Here was a man who said some pretty inane things, he decided. The man spoke of the poet Shiki’s great liking for fruit. His appetite for it was enormous. On one occasion he ate sixteen large persimmons without ill effect. He himself could never match Shiki, the man concluded.” (Natsume Sōseki, “Sanshirō,” p. 87)
This passage from “Sanshirō” seems pretty self-explanatory, without any context needed. In contrast, the story "Peaches" is a bit more vexing: in it the narrator relates a vivid memory about buying peaches with his mother and carrying them home in a pram which he, the author, had used as an infant. The entire short story is concerned with trying to understand the memory, which seems more and more difficult for the narrator to place and verify:
 “My mother had taken me along to the neighbouring town that night to lay in a stock of peaches at an orchard or some such place. She could get better ones than at the local greengrocer’s, and they would be fresh picked. It was probably worth making a special trip and buying enough to fill the pram. 
“Peaches. Fruit like pure, sweet nectar –nothing else. Easily bruised, quick to spoil. And each one heavy, almost unnervingly so. Filled with several dozen of these heavy peaches, the pram must have been more difficult to push than if it had held a live baby. And like the downy skin of a newborn, each could be scuffed and bruised in an instant if my mother did not push the pram slowly and carefully.” (Abe Akira, “Peaches,” p. 191)
The stories in this recently-published anthology include frequent descriptions of food, sometimes quite appetizing, at other times very repellant to the person describing the food as well as to the reader. It's a fascinating look at Japanese literature over the past century or so.

The introduction to this anthology is by Haruki Murakami -- a favorite of mine. This is itself very worth reading: available online here: "Haruki Murakami: A Brief History of Japanese Short Fiction." His description of the story "Peaches," from which I quoted above, is very insightful (of course!) --
"Nothing special happens in 'Peaches' (Momo, 1971). We simply observe the author examining an old memory of his in this contemplative variant of the 'I novel' sometimes known as a 'mental-state novel' (shinkyō shōsetsu). The way the author brings his five senses into play, however, is quite vivid. It’s like watching an old black-and-white film gradually taking on color as the author’s memory assumes concrete shape on the page. The weight and fragrance of the peaches piled into an old pram, the chill of the night air, the croaking of frogs and the creak of the pram’s wheels are all immovable parts of the scene the writer brings back again and again. But then one day he begins to have grave doubts about his memory, and he is thrown into confusion. This fine work is an excellent example of one of the more important forms of Japanese fiction."
I was also impressed by Murakami's summary of another story that I found very compelling for exactly the reasons he states:
"Ohba Minako (1930–2007) was born in Tokyo as the daughter of a naval surgeon and spent her girlhood in Hiroshima Prefecture, where her father was posted. Her experience of the atomic bombing at the age of 14 exposed her to horrific scenes that became a kind of take-off point for her fiction. Her dry, precise style is utterly devoid of ornamentation, and she has been highly praised for the way she uses it to whittle the world down to sharply rendered fragments. In 'The Smile of a Mountain Witch' (Yamauba no bishō, 1976), the ancient Japanese legend of the yamamba or yamauba, a mountain-dwelling hag with supernatural powers, becomes a device for laying bare the life—the often performative life—of a normal contemporary woman. More often than not, the “supernatural beings” perceived by us are nothing more than images of ourselves reflected in a dark mirror. Many women may recognize an aspect of their own lives in the author’s 'mountain witch.' The image of a woman who becomes a hobgoblin in the mountains but is perceived as an ordinary housewife when she lives among people is one of the most important motifs for the feminist Ohba."
Every story in the collection (of which I have read approximately half so far) is splendidly written, and as I think the above quotations suggest, is full of fascinating insights into Japanese literature and culture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

"West of the Revolution"

In 1776, as everyone knows, was the starting moment of the American Revolution. Simultaneously:
  • In 1776, a Spanish colonizing expedition led by José Josquin Moreaga erected tents and built a shelter that housed an altar at the present site of San Francisco, California. The local natives were especially surprised to see the large herds of cattle that the Spaniards brought with them.
  • In 1776, a Russian expedition (which lasted several years) was exploring Alaska. They encountered the Aleut Indians whose small fishing boats were amazingly capable of hunting sea mammals -- vastly superior to their own. Eventually the Russians brought diseases and destruction to the Aleutian peoples.
  • In 1776, according to a dated series of paintings on animal hides, the Lakota Indians, under the leadership of Standing Bull, discovered the Black Hills of South Dakota, which they claimed as sacred ground.
  • In 1776, Spanish explorers Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante set out from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to search for a new route to the Pacific coast. Their efforts were futile -- they were searching for a river, but discovered instead the Great Basin, a vast stretch of desert entirely surrounded by higher ground. Eventually they returned to Santa Fe, unsuccessful.
In the book West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (published 2014), historian Claudio Saunt describes all of these events as well as many more in places like the Mississippi River basin, midwestern Canada, Georgia, and other parts of California. Saunt seems to try to keep modern judgements out of the book, and just to tell the tales of early contacts between the Europeans and the well-established native people. These Europeans were often disastrously unprepared to meet the wilderness. They often would have died of starvation without the assistance of the local inhabitants. Sometimes they encountered hostility and died at the hands of groups who didn't want to be invaded. 

I had always assumed that the vast American continent was gifted with vast riches that for the native people were virtually unlimited. Not so, Saunt explains. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, scarce resources were a problem for the local Yelamu Indians. Saunt explains:
"Scarce resources had led to a long-term trend of resource intensification in the four millennia before  contact. That is, to support a growing population, native peoples increasingly extracted more calories per square mile and exerted more energy in doing so -- to the point that they had destroyed local breeding grounds for certain birds, overhunted large game, and reduced the population of sea mammals. ... 
"Perhaps the surest sign of resource intensification was the dependency on the acorn, as important to Californians as corn was to natives of the Southeast and Southwest. Though acorns are high in fat, oak tree production is sporadic, and toxic tannic acid must be leached out before the nuts are edible, as Spanish soldiers learned from hard-won experience. ... By the time the Spanish laid claim to San Francisco, inhabitants were concentrated in locations where oak trees thrived." (pp. 81-82)
As a result of over-dependence on acorns, the residents of the Bay Area had developed various nutritional deficiency diseases. They engaged in intensive cultivation of gardens and worked hard to extract food from the land. The Spanish introduction of hogs and cattle used their scarce resources, and soon after the take-over, they began to starve. A sad story of violence and extermination followed.

Most of the starvation stories in West of the Revolution are in fact about the Europeans who didn't know how to cope with the rugged American terrain. For example, Domínguez and Escalante came close to starvation as they wandered rather haplessly in the Great Basin. Paiute Indians at first avoided the expedition, but eventually:
"The lost travelers were spared a worse fate when five Paiutes spotted them from atop a mesa. After Escalante and Domínguez approached and 'begged' the Paiutes to guide them to water, the residents took them to an arroyo with two water holes deep within its recesses. The next day, more locals arrived at the camp to sell cactus pear and seeds and furnish them 'vague directions' to a ford on the Colorado. Despite the circumstances of his own party, Escalante was struck by the Paiutes' poverty: they were not horticulturalists and depended on seeds, wild plants, and small game for sustenance." (pp. 110-111)
West of the Revolution definitely takes an unusual point of view in describing history. Although there should have been nothing particularly notable about the year 1776 outside of the small rebellious British part of North America, he makes one see that really a lot was happening right then. Using both modern and antique maps and also explorers' drawings, the book helps one visualize the events and locales. I enjoyed the descriptions of native foods, particularly, learning what the plains Indians ate besides the well-known bison, and much more. As Carolyn Kellogg said in a review in the L.A.Times: "This is a history more terrible than wondrous, a necessary counternarrative to our enlightened Revolution." (source)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

"The Last Runaway"

Tracy Chevalier's book The Last Runaway takes place in a very small Quaker settlement near Oberlin, Ohio, shortly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, but before the Civil War. I enjoyed the historic background of the novel very much, particularly the principal theme of the Quaker community and its struggle with moral decisions about helping the escaping slaves who were passing through their community via the Underground Railway.

I think I enjoyed the book more because I was reading it while driving quite near the area where the main actions took place: we drove the Ohio Turnpike on our way home from our trip last week. I thought about the frontier farmers who were just clearing the area to enable the vast cornfields I saw on either side of the wide, wide road at a speed that they couldn't have imagined at all.

Although I found the characters somewhat stereotyped, the book held my attention, and I appreciated the inclusion of both black and white characters. Honor Bright, the central character, is a committed Quaker who arrives in Ohio from her native England. She accompanies her sister Grace, who is about to marry a man in the small community near Oberlin; unfortunately Grace dies of yellow fever, and Honor must continue alone.

As she struggles to adapt to her new land, Honor has a number of doubts about the moral fibre of the American Quakers she meets. Honor has an unwavering commitment to treating blacks as fully equal humans whose struggle for freedom must be aided at all cost. She finds that the Americans have made compromises to protect themselves from the vicious laws of the land, particularly the Fugitive Slave Act that heavily penalized anyone who refused to help capture an escaped slave. Besides the description of the Quakers' views on slavery and equality of all humans, Chevalier offers a fascinating depiction of Honor's spirituality and Quaker beliefs.

As always, I was particularly interested in descriptions of food, kitchens, and in this book the detail about growing, canning, and preserving food on a small, nearly self-sufficient frontier farm. Some of the descriptions are told in Honor's letters home to England, which make up an interesting part of the narrative. For example, when her only option is living at the home of Adam (whom Grace was to marry), and Adam's late brother's wife Abigail, she found a very disorganized kitchen, which she compared to that of her family in England:
"The kitchen is not so different in principle from that on East Street: there is a hearth, a range, a long table and chairs, a sideboard for crockery and pots, a larder— called a pantry here— for storage. Yet the feeling is entirely different from the East Street kitchen. Partly it is that Abigail is not so well organised as thee, Mother. She does not seem to have 'a place for everything, and everything in its place,' as thee taught me. She stacks wood haphazardly so that it does not dry out, leaves the broom blocking the slops bucket rather than out of the way in the corner, doesn’t wipe up crumbs and so attracts mice, leaves dishes in a jumble on the sideboard rather than neatly stacked. Then too, the range and fireplace take wood instead of coal, so the kitchen smells of wood smoke rather than the deeper earthiness of burning coal. We don’t have to clean up coal dust, but the wood ash can be just as trying, especially when Abigail is clumsy." (p. 75). 
She also described the differences in the crops grown in the vegetable gardens:
"In the garden we are growing many of the vegetables one would find in thy garden, Mother: potatoes, beans, carrots, lettuces, tomatoes. But they are different from what I am used to, even when the varieties are meant to be the same. The potatoes are larger, with more eyes. The carrots are thinner and more tapered— though as tasty. The beans have a smoother skin, and the lettuce leaves grow much faster. Much of the garden is given over to corn." (p. 110). 
At a quilting party, called a "frolic," all the women in the community worked together. At the end, there was a dinner for the women as well as the men who came in from their work, and Honor wrote to her closest English friend:
"As well as ham, there was roast beef, mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes— which have orange flesh and taste more like squash than potato— green beans (which they call ‘string’ beans), fresh corn as well as corn bread, a wide variety of preserves, and many pies, mostly cherry, as they were recently in season. I was most pleased by a bowl of gooseberries, which I had not thought were grown in America. Their simple, fragrant taste reminded me of our garden at home in the summer sun." (p. 128).
About the preparation of produce for winter, Honor wrote:
"If thee could see the pantry here, thee would be amazed at the rows and rows of jars filled with all the food from the garden: beans and peas and cucumbers and tomatoes and squash. The cellar is full of potatoes and turnips and carrots and beets, and apples and pears. The cherries and plums are in syrup or dried. We are now making apple sauce, apple butter, and drying apple rings as well." (p. 192). 
Honor also saw another kitchen at the home of Mrs. Reed, a free black woman who lived in town:
"This kitchen was dark and cluttered, full of the smell of hot oil and spices and the suggestion that something was just about to catch at the bottom of the pot. The range was old and smoky, its surface spattered with oil and the remnants of past stews. The shelves on either side of the range were full of open jars of pepper and salt and cayenne, scattered bay leaves and sprigs of rosemary, bowls of dried leaves and twigs Honor did not recognize, sacks of cornmeal and flour, and bottles full of dark sauces dripping down the sides. Overhead hung a string of dried chili peppers that could not have come from Ohio." (pp. 239-240). 
Domestic details in The Last Runaway are definitely an effective way to tell Honor's story. Her efforts to help the escaping slaves mainly involve providing food to keep them going as they head first for Oberlin, and then for Sandusky where they can get a boat to Canada. Mrs. Reed explained how to provide for the runaways as they went past the farm. (Note that Mrs. Reed's dialect is sharply distinguished in the text, while the American white southerners seem to speak standard English. I think this is a flaw in the style of the novel.) Said Mrs. Reed:
“Get you a crate and put it upside down behind your henhouse. Put a rock on it to weight it down so animals can’t get at it. Put you some victuals there— anything you got. Bread’s best, and dried meat. Apples when they come in. Y’all make peach leather?... That kind o’ thing." (p. 185). 
It is for these acts of kindness and helpfulness that Honor conflicts strongly with her Quaker husband and his family.

From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
"Appliqued and pieced quilt with star of Bethlehem," 1850.
Another compromise also worries Honor: when she marries, her new family does not share her very high standard of making quilts. Sewing is the most absorbing activity that she engages in, and the descriptions in the book are very detailed. Honor prefers patchwork quilting, making elaborate squares or large patterns from small pieces of cloth with intricate work. The Ohio Quakers use the easier technique appliqué instead -- the quilt I pictured uses Honor's favorite motif, the Star of Bethlehem.

Chevalier did provide me with an explanation of something that had always puzzled me. Here it is:
"They say here that the corn should be ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’. Ours is much higher than my knee, and I thought it must be doing exceptionally well, until I was told that it meant one’s knee when mounted on a horse." (p. 111). 
I agree with Carol Birch who reviewed the book in The Guardian in 2013 when it was published: "The Last Runaway is an entertaining read. The important themes of the book – slavery and the resistance movement – are, in spite of some moving encounters, unfortunately far less developed than the Quakers and quilting angle. As a period piece on Ohio life in the 1850s it is admirable, but Tracy Chevalier has written far better books than this." (source)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Birding in Delaware

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Dover, Delaware, has three observation towers with beautiful views of birds.
The towers are around 3 stories high, and shaded by surrounding trees, so it's very pleasant there. Most important: the
very annoying mosquitoes and flies mostly stay lower to the ground.

Views from the tower are spectacular, as the high viewpoint flattens the perspective over the many birds and plants in the water.
While driving through the refuge, we also saw many birds in trees and
in the water, looking from a much lower perspective.
Two shoveler ducks and one gull, viewed from the road that allows access to the wildlife ponds.
Currently it's waterfowl migration season. Later, many geese winter on the ponds which are
maintained for the purpose. The park will close for birding next month, because it will be duck-hunting season.
We also saw lots of wildflowers -- and lots of biting flies and mosquitoes!
A beautiful pond is at the end of one of the roads through the refuge. It's
a very welcome spot, as it was very hot on both days that we visited the refuge.
Besides our two long visits to the wildlife refuge, we went to two beaches in the Dover area. The first was Cape Henlopen State Park, which includes both ocean-side beaches and beaches facing the Delaware Bay. It's not far from the ferry that goes to Cape May, NJ. -- around an hour from Dover.

At Cape Henlopen, we saw many gulls on the beach.
Several important species nest at the point in Cape Henlopen Park,
but not in this season. 
The ocean at Cape Henlopen, where there are also wooded trails, bike trails, and a nature center.
The last morning of our stay, we took a long walk on a different beach, Pickering Beach, the closest one to Dover where we were staying. It's a very obscure location, with around 5 public parking spaces, a small path for access, and many private homes backing up to the sand. We heard that there is a whale skeleton nearby, but it was too hot by the time we would have gone looking for it.

We saw this injured gull (an immature bird) lying in the sand.
We saw the injured gull as we walked down the beach, which ends at a small stream and a wetland. As we returned, we saw a woman sitting in a chair in a makeshift shelter in front of her home on the beach. She was nursing this gull -- giving it water to drink and feeding it pulled pork. The shelter was shielding it from the sun with tarps. She herself was very tanned to the point of having turned her face and neck into a sort of collection of puckered and darkened skin, though she wore a shirt with long sleeves as well as long pants which she said were hot but necessary. She was hoping to restore the gull to health, but she said it had a broken leg. Animal shelters and rescue organizations weren't interested when she called them to take in the gull. We silently suspected there was not much hope for the bird, but she was very hopeful that she could save it.

Dunes at Pickering Beach.
We arrived at Pickering Beach around 7:30 AM because it promised to be another hot day. During the first half of our walk, we saw no other people and on the way back, just the gull-rescue woman and a couple of other walkers. 

Pickering Beach is an important nesting site for horseshoe crabs. It's not the nesting season, but we saw many dead ones.