Friday, January 18, 2019

Litchfield, South Carolina

On the beach at Pawley's Island near where we're staying, we watched little shore birds -- sanderlings -- pecking at jellyfish.
We are enjoying visit to Litchfield-by-the-Sea in South Carolina where my brother Arny and sister-in-law Tracy have rented a spacious condo for the month of January. We arrived on Wednesday, very happy that neither ice storms at home nor shutdowns of government-paid airport services interfered with our flights from Detroit to Atlanta and on to Myrtle Beach airport. (We feel very sorry for the TSA workers and air traffic controllers working without pay, but that's another very long story not for now.)

Southern Food: Rustic Table Restaurant, Pawley's Island.

First southern food: a smashburger with celery-root slaw and onion jam. The six
of us had fried local shrimp, fried green tomatoes, fried oysters and local other treats.
In the book Buttermilk Graffiti, which I've slowly been reading,
author Edward Lee mentions Texas Pete Hot sauce, which was
on the table with the tabasco. I'll write more about this book sometime.

Our companions for the week: Larry, Arny, Tracy, and Elaine.
The Rustic Table is considered one of the best local restaurants, featuring
the cooking of chef Adam Kirby.

Birding: Huntington Beach State Park and Pawley's Island

Herons and egrets are in all the many waterways that criss-cross the low-lying beach communities along highway 17.

We caught sight of a very elusive bird that we had never seen before: you
can just make out this clapper rail in the oyster beds exposed by low tide.
Eventually he obliged us by walking into the water where he was easier to see.

Len got a photo that included his rather big foot!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Big Books

These are the two books I read this week, switching to non-fiction after reading a lot of novels. The only thing these volumes have in common is their size -- they are very large: heavy to hold and challenging to read. I put a mandarin orange in the photo for scale. Briefly, about these books:

Bosh and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life by Joseph Leo Koerner documents the lives and art of these two giants of Northern European painting, and attempts to discover how their works are connected. The explanations are grounded in history, art history, iconography, religious traditions, and many other factors. Illustrations are numerous but tiny. I have seen quite a few of these works in museums in Europe and the US, and have always been fascinated by both painters, so I enjoyed reading the book. However, the subject matter is so difficult that I don't feel I can give any summary!

"Hunters in the Snow," my favorite by Bruegel.
"The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes" a drawing by Bosch
that I had never seen before reading the book. His images always
delight and puzzle me!
Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat is a very ambitious book. Despite its tacit claim to be everything you need to know to create food in almost any cuisine of the world, I found that it was not quite that all-encompassing. It's interesting, but most cooks already have mastered a lot of the techniques that are described, and there are better explanations of the science of cooking. 

To be brief and brutal: I liked the Netflix series based on the book much better than the book itself! Netflix added a lot of travel scenes and interviews with cooks and food producers from Japan, Italy, and elsewhere, which made it much more interesting (blogged here). This is a library book, and we probably won't buy our own copy.

One of Wendy MacNaughton's very clever illustrations from Salt Fat Acid Heat.
One of my next reading projects. This book was a gift
from Jeanie who visited Sunday. Also a very large book!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Lunch With Jeanie and Rick!

Here we are in my living room: me and Jeanie, blogger of The Marmelade Gypsy!
We had a fun afternoon together -- including Rick and Len. At lunch we tasted sesame-semolina bread made by Rick, pain de campagne by Len, and a miche (large sourdough loaf) from Zingerman's bakehouse. They were all fabulous. To go with the bread, we had cheese, chutney, butter, jam, salads, and madeleines that Jeanie made.

Jeanie's Madeleines were delicious.
Ready for lunch: chicken salad, cheese platter, and more on a sunny Sunday.
Grated carrot salad with lemon, cilantro, cumin.

Somehow I didn't get photos of the three lovely breads, which we all found just delicious! After lunch we sat around and talked and listened to CDs and LPs. We all have so much to discuss! Len and I were delighted that Jeanie and Rick could come from Lansing to visit us.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Rock

"The Rock" is a large limestone boulder at the intersection of two major streets in Ann Arbor. It was originally
placed in this small traffic median in 1932, the 200th birthday of George Washington, as a memorial to him.

At some unrecorded date in the 1950s, people started to PAINT THE ROCK.
By now the paint is inches thick, and new designs and messages appear all the time -- as much as several times a week. In the two photo above, taken a few days apart, you can see how earlier messages were painted over.

Messages range from birthday wishes to fraternity and sorority issues
to political statements. Go Michigan! messages are also frequent.
Essentially, the rock is a mural that changes all the time. Therefore, I'm sharing this with the weekly blog event "Mural Monday," hosted by blogger Sami in Perth, Australia. Bloggers from around the world post images of murals they've seen in far-flung places including Australia, France, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, the Philippines, Hong Kong, many states in the US, Canada, Iceland, and more.

In the past, efforts were made to stop people from painting the rock, but now it's entirely tolerated and even expected. So it's no longer necessary to paint it in the dark of night.

The rock in the snow: February, 2017. 
The only time the paint doesn't show!
A photo of the rock in its original form, dated 1932.
Source: The Bentley Historical Library.

This beautifully-painted house faces the rock. In the 1970s it was the headquarters of the "Rainbow People's Party."
For a more detailed history of the Ann Arbor custom of painting the rock, see this article:

The Rock by Grace Shackman

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

More Spice!

Star anise: a somewhat obscure spice.
A conversation about spices, especially about star anise, made me think about using some different spices than usual. I decided the star anise would be a good flavor for my planned main course for dinner tonight: pork chops browned with onion and braised with apple sauce. Experimentally, we dry-brined the chops for several hours with a light coat of salt and sugar before cooking. This did help the chops to become a very nice brown color with deeper flavor.

Tonight's salad of red cabbage and apples. I added another spice: candied ginger
as well as sherry vinegar and a little honey.
Maybe in the New Year I will be writing up one meal a week to document what I cook. Like this.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Food in Science Fiction: Someone Else's Opinion

Understanding the many meanings of food and meals in literature is one of my favorite indoor sports. Aside: I don't care for any outdoor sports at all!

I guess I'm not the only one. Lizzy Saxe has written a very amusing article on this subject for LitHub:



After calling out several famous favorite foods of fictional people and creatures -- like honey and Winnie-the-Pooh  or madeleines and Proust's narrator -- she says "But in modern sci-fi, no one ever seems to have a good meal."

Saxe observes that science-fiction in the 1950s and 1960s often portrayed an abundance of food without exactly explaining where it came from or who cooked it. She hints that this was due to the predominance of male authors who by implication didn't need to know how meals appeared on the tables in their own conventional wife-run homes, so "Robbie the Robot can make anything at any time for anyone."

A next step in the role of food in speculative fiction reflects environmentalism, with awareness of how a planet -- not necessarily earth -- could be ruined by overconsumption, Saxe suggests. She offers examples of stories where food is scarce and a cause of friction or war, stories of starvation and apocalypse, imagined worlds where there are privileged diners and those on scarce rations, and more. She writes: "in imagining the future, writers use food as a symbol not only of hope and good luck, but of death, environmental warning, and class."

Saxe's conclusion is a bit over-optimistic, in my opinion, but it's an interesting conclusion to an article that explores many of the ideas that I'm fond of looking for when I read:
"If science fiction at its best provides a prism through which to examine the present, then we’re being sent a very clear message by authors as far back as Bradbury and as recent as Jemisin. Treating our planet—and each other—with disrespect will be our doom, but if we work hard to take care of both the people and the world around us, we can find ways to keep going in the years to come."
Illustration from the LitHub article. Odd choice, since Star Trek wasn't mentioned.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Bernie Rhodenbarr, Burglar

"I know this is all morally reprehensible and there are days when it bothers me, but there’s no getting around it. My name is Bernie Rhodenbarr and I’m a thief and I love to steal. I just plain love it." (The Burglar in the Closet, Kindle Locations 153-154).
My most recently read Bernie Rhodenbarr novel.
Bernie Rhodenbarr, the likable house-breaker who narrates the crime fiction series by Lawrence Block, is intelligent, well-spoken, honest (as long as you don't count burglary), and a lover of good food, good booze, and beautiful women (but he's respectful). I've read four or five of these light-hearted novels in the past several months, and quite enjoyed them.

Bernie has to be very resourceful, because someone by chance is murdered during almost every one of his break-ins. Once he's burgling someone's New York apartment -- after he cleverly gets past attentive doormen and nosy neighbors or climbs over dangerous roofs -- disaster always seems to strike. The police suspect him whenever this happens, and he finds himself working with or against dishonest cops or bungling plainclothesmen to find the real culprit.

By the way, the details about New York and what it's like to live there are a lot of fun to read, as some of the books were written a number of years ago: The Burglar in the Closet dates from 1978; the most recent one dates from 2013.

Just for fun, here's Bernie's stream-of-consciousness as he waits inside a closet in an apartment from which he's just collected all the jewelry. He's stuck there because the woman whose jewelry he was burgling unexpectedly came home: with a man. He doesn't want to listen to them so he fantasizes what he'll be doing after work; that is, after burgling --
"I hadn’t had the before-dinner drinks and I hadn’t had the dinner either, preferring to postpone that pleasure until I could do it in style and in celebration. I’d been thinking in terms of a latish supper at a little hideaway I know on Cornelia Street in the Village. Those two marts first, of course, and then that cold asparagus soup they do such a good job with, and then the sweetbreads with mushrooms, God, those sweetbreads, and a salad of arugola and spinach with mandarin orange sections, ah yes, and perhaps a half bottle of something nice to go with the sweetbreads. A white wine, of course, but what white wine? It was something to ponder. 
"Then coffee, lots of coffee, all of it black. And of course a postprandial brandy with the coffee. No dessert, no point in overdoing it, got to watch the old waistline even if one’s not quite obsessive enough to jog around Gramercy Park. No dessert, then, but perhaps a second snifter of that brandy just to take the edge off all that coffee and reward oneself for a job well done. ...
"I stood there in the closet and found my thoughts turning inexorably in the direction of alcohol. I thought about the martinis, cold as the Klondike, three hearty ounces of crystal-clear Tanqueray gin with just the most fleeting kiss of Noilly Prat vermouth, a ribbon of twisted lemon peel afloat, the stemmed glass perfectly frosted. Then my mind moved to the wine. Just what white wine would be ideal?" (Kindle Locations 237-249). 
You see what a gourmet Bernie could be. He can afford to indulge when he manages to steal and fence enough jewelry or collectible coins or rare books or other items. In each book I've read, he has a somewhat different objective in his burgling life. In some of the books, he also has an honest profession -- owning a book store. He dabbles in other activities sometimes too, as you can see from some of the titles:
  • The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
  • The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling
  • The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
  • The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
These books are fun to read, and usually rather short as well. Not too many twists and turns of the plot or elaborately-drawn characters that you have to remember. Just a lot of smart remarks about being a burglar. Like this:
"We had a glass of wine each at the gallery, then moved on to an Ethiopian place in Tribeca where you bring your own wine and eat unpronounceable dishes at your peril. We brought a rosé to see if it really does go with anything, and it did, but not terribly well. Our dishes, hers made with chicken and mine with lamb, were identically sauced and hot enough to blister paint. They came with a disc of spongy bread the size of a small pizza, and we tore off hunks of this gooey muck and used it to scoop up mouthfuls of the hot stuff. In the name of ethnic authenticity, a whole lot of New Yorkers are relearning the table manners of messy children." (The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, published 1980. Kindle Locations 1067-1071). 

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Winter Food

Roasted vegetables. Bigger casserole: potatoes, onions, shallots, carrots, garlic. Smaller pan: a local confetti squash.

Day 2: Roasted vegetable soup!
With my immersion blender, I pureed the squash into a few cups of chicken stock to make a thick broth. I cut up the other vegetables and added them to the broth to make an interesting medley. Plus more leftovers: some tabouleh salad was blended with the squash mixture, and some cut up meat patties added for still more texture. Obviously this is not a recipe, since no one including me is likely to have that combination of leftovers again. But the process is repeatable as long as you have compatible leftovers. Never the same soup twice!

Friday, January 04, 2019

"The Witch Elm" by Tana French

The Witch Elm is a very enjoyable book. It's suspenseful with a tightly-wound plot. The main characters, including the narrator, are unusual, believable, mostly sympathetic, but not at all predictable. Descriptions and conversations are wonderfully vivid, including an unusual number of observations not only about what the characters ate, but also about how things in their environment smell --
  • "a huge fragrant bag of Thai takeaway." (p. 91)
  • "the casserole was good, rich with herbs and full of big hearty chunks of beef and potato and carrot" (p. 149)
  • "experimental dinners full of ingredients I didn’t know how to pronounce, let alone what to do with (galangal? teff?)" (p. 156) 
  • "It smelled like him, a faint comforting scent of wet wool and dusty old books and smoky tea." (p. 456). 

Right at the start, the narrator introduces himself -- a very lucky man, he says -- and the Ivy House, in Dublin, where most of the book's action is to take place: he ponders "what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal." (p. 5). At the end of the book, it's up to the reader to evaluate the many times he says how lucky he is! 

The narrator's introduction to Ivy House is an example of much that I like in the writing:
"And of course there was the Ivy House. I don’t think anyone could convince me, even now, that I was anything other than lucky to have the Ivy House. I know it wasn’t that simple, I know all the reasons in intimate, serrated detail; I can lay them out in a neat line, stark and runic as black twigs on snow, and stare at them till I almost convince myself; but all it takes is one whiff of the right smell— jasmine, lapsang souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify— or one sideways shaft of afternoon light at a particular angle, and I’m lost, in thrall all over again." (p. 4). 
The role of the house is fascinating: at the end, it became "this dim house where ivy crisscrossed the windows and all my clothes smelled faintly of mildew." (p. 457).

Reviewing this beautifully constructed book is a terrible challenge because the least discussion of the events in the book would be a real spoiler.  In Stephen King's review of the book in the New York Times, he put it this way: 
"As a reviewer, it’s my job to at least make a scratch at describing the plot of the novel, but as a fellow novelist, I balk at giving more than a few bare details. (In my opinion, the flap copy gives away far too much — when you know everything that’s going to happen in the first 140 pages or so, somebody went overboard.) A good novel, especially one that fits, however uncomfortably, into the mystery genre, is like an expensive Swiss watch. My job is to admire it, not overwind it."
I haven't read the earlier detective novels by Tana French, but they now seem very tempting.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

"The Fifth Season" by N.K.Jemisin

“I read everything. The No 1 thing I tell my read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts.”
So said Roxane Gay in a recent interview with Aida Edemariam titled: Roxane Gay: ‘Public discourse rarely allows for nuance. And see where that’s gotten us.’  According to this article, Gay "reserves a particular ire for those who read only literary fiction;" she particularly likes spy thrillers and romance novels, according to the interview.

I agree with Roxane Gay that a diet of all literary fiction is really tedious, and I really know it because I just read five or six works of literary fiction in a row. Some of them were set in other cultures or in American subcultures, but they were pretty typical of literary fiction.

Would Roxane Gay say to me what she said in the article: "Anybody who tells me, ‘I only read literary fiction,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, you’re an asshole. What are we going to talk about?’" Whatever Roxane Gay thinks, I felt like it was time to read something different, so I read The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin's Hugo Winner.

Unfortunately The Fifth Season didn't satisfy my taste in this type of literature. I prefer sci-fi and fantasy that has a certain type of spontaneity, where a naive character faces an unfamiliar society or other-worldly reality, but faces it from a purely human perspective. Examples -- The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Left Hand of Darkness, Anansi Boys, and Oryx and Crake come to mind. When I think about Dorothy, Bilbo, Katniss, Alice, Harry, Genly Ai, Charles Nancy, Snowman, and various others, I realize that the journey or life experience of every one of them boils down to an intelligent and resourceful central character facing a variety of new situations and challenges in a totally human way. No matter how strange the fantasy or sci-fi situation was, the authors gave these characters courage, empathy, and curiosity. The reader can join them in discovering their worlds. Not so in The Fifth Season.

While The Fifth Season did have a bizarre society and a non-earthly reality, it had far too much other baggage for my taste. Jemisin's characters possessed so many special powers that they simply were not facing their challenges as human beings, but as some other type of creature. Further, they were very well-informed and educated about the natural history, political history, and social history of their world, not at all naive in the same way as the characters in the books I enjoy the most.

I find the book had just way too much made-up stuff. It distracts from the central challenges of the characters. Their planet is full of seismic upheavals: small tremors, earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, and gigantic cracks in the earth. Whole cities are swallowed up. Moreover, there are human-type creatures who can harness these forces or who can trigger them unwittingly. There are other human-type creatures with other powers as well -- too many powers to leave them as really comprehensible individuals.

Their world is very bizarre and unstable, and full of invented technical terms and concepts -- so many of these that the book has an appendix explaining many words like orogene, stillhead, geomest, lorist, and sesuna. (Since these words exist only in this invented world, I'm not going to define them here, even though today could be Wordy Wednesday.) Moreover, this world has a very very complicated history which the characters often discuss -- they learned it in school. There's an appendix with a time line of this history too. For me, this is just too gimmicky.

As always, I look at the way food is used, and here are some examples of how distracting the excess of made-up stuff is, stretching the reader's attention so that the psychological side of things gets overwhelmed (which is probably ok with some readers, it's just the part that I prefer).

Here are some examples of the foods mentioned in The Fifth Season. In the type of book I like, foods evoke pleasure or not, and contribute to the reader's ability to empathize with fictional characters no matter how bizarre their lives. These passages, I feel, demonstrate that the over-use of inventions diminishes the vividness of human experiences:
"You’ve eaten something from your pack: cachebread smeared with salty akaba paste from the jar you stuffed into it a lifetime and a family ago. Akaba keeps well after it’s opened, but not forever, and now that you’ve opened it you’ll have to eat it for the next few meals until it’s gone. That’s okay because you like it." (Kindle Locations 962-964).
"...finding a couple of derminther mela— small melons with a hard shell that burrow underground during a Season, or so the geomests say— and rolling them into the remnants of their fire, which she’s very glad they hadn’t gotten around to smothering yet." (Kindle Locations 1564-1566).
"The station’s buildings hold all the comforts Syen’s been craving: hot water, soft beds, food that isn’t just cachebread and dried meat." (Kindle Locations 1735-1736).
"Room service arrives, bringing a tray of modest but filling local food. Fish is cheap in most Coaster comms, so Syen has treated herself by ordering a temtyr fillet, which is an expensive delicacy back in Yumenes. ... Syenite has a side dish of garlic yams and carmelized silvabees, in addition to her own meal, on a separate smaller plate." (Kindle Locations 1922-1928).
"...people get up for second helpings from the massive pot of spiced shrimp, rice, and smoked sea-bubble that is tonight’s meal." (Kindle Locations 4223-4224).
"... just grabbing a plate of roasted tulifish and braised threeleaf with sweetened barley that must have been stolen from some mainland comm." (Kindle Locations 4422-4423).
Yes, I did find some things to like in this book, but I don't feel that it matches up to my favorites that I mentioned above, or to many others by those same authors. I started with a quote from Roxane Gay that encouraged reading of non-literary fiction. Soon I plan to read something by Roxane Gay herself, though I haven't decided whether to read her fiction or her essays.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Happy New Year

Athens, Greece, welcomes 2019: my favorite fireworks photo from the Guardian New Years collection. (link)

Monday, December 31, 2018

In My Kitchen, December 2018

Happy New Year's Eve!

December has been a busy month in my kitchen -- though I suspect calmer than in many people's kitchens! We hosted a couple of holiday parties, tried some new condiments and gadgets, and received some wonderful gifts, including new tea towels for our extensive collection.

Our colorful Christmas lunch. Not too heavy!
A new flavor: yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that's often compared to citron.
I bought this yuzu paste as well as some Ponzu, which contains yuzu.
Dumplings served with a squeeze of yuzu paste.
Several tubes of squeezable pastes that are convenient to have on hand!
Another yuzu item, though labeled as Citron Tea. We haven't tried it yet.

Anchovy paste adds some nice umami taste to sauces.
More cooking: roast duck for Christmas Eve!
Duck with mushroom sauce. Later, the duck and the stock made from the trimmings
became delicious duck soup!
Another soup: squash and lentils, garnished with cranberry sauce and Sriracha.

New Tea Towels from England

Top of photo: Oyster Catchers: a favorite bird!
Lower part of photo: Bees of Kew Gardens.
"I'd rather be at the Giant's Causeway."
Images of Kew Gardens. All with great thanks to my friend Sheila.

More Bread Making Equipment

A thermometer probe that signals when your bread (or in summer,
your meat on the grill) has reached the desired temperature.
The read-out device, showing the temperature measured by the two
probes, one on the oven shelf, one in the bread.

As mentioned in an earlier post this month, Len has been baking with a new starter from King Arthur. The results have been wonderful. In addition to baking, he is continuing his research on the theory and practice of bread baking. In particular, he's interested in technical articles about the chemical and biological processes that occur while making dough.

Additional new equipment: a really sharp serrated bread knife and special gloves to keep from cutting off any fingers. Bread made with a starter has a fantastic crisp crust that's very dangerous to slice!

Len's pita bread -- made with the starter. I was eating them
as they came out of the oven. They had very good pockets.

Two Delicious Gifts

One friend made spiced pecans.
Another friend brought us this Lebanese Halawa, which is the best we
have ever tasted. Creamy!
I'm especially offering this December wrap-up of my kitchen to all the bloggers who post at "In My Kitchen" hosted each month by Sherry at Sherry's Pickings, a great blog from Australia.