Friday, October 31, 2008

"The World in My Kitchen"

My reading project is underway. Today I read Colette Rossant's The World in My Kitchen. I enjoyed the first several chapters about the early years of her marriage in New York, and how she discovers the city and its many ethnic cuisines. She describes how she and her husband refurbished an old house in the Italian neighborhood of the city, how she found various jobs and learned to find markets with many types of ingredients and developed ways to cook them. She also made some interesting trips with her husband, especially living in Tanzania. I recall this voice from her earlier autobiography, Apricots on the Nile.

At a certain point, though, the narrative suddenly seems to consist more of name dropping than of experiences. Her cooking classes are a big success, and everyone wants to meet her and work with her. She meets every famous food authority from Calvin Trillin to Alice Waters. I don't doubt the truth of what she says, these later chapters just are not as interesting as earlier chapters, nor is the material about her success as interestingly presented as the material about her learning process.

At the end are several chapters about adventurous voyages to exotic places -- they seem like magazine set-pieces. Japan, China, the Australian Outback. There's something a bit too egotistical about these pieces. They just don't have the charm of the early chapters.

So the book is about half good.

Reading List

I went to the library yesterday, and I've also been busy over at in the food and cooking section. I found quite a few books that have been on my long list for a while. The top book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, is the selection for this month's book club, so I need to reread it.

In addition I hope to peruse recipes or read, as appropriate, from these:
  • Judith Jones, My Life in Food
  • John Mc Phee, Oranges
  • Collette Rossant, The World in My Kitchen (I liked Apricots on the Nile, her first autobiography)
  • M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating (contains several of her books, I hope to read at least one)
  • Michael Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking (an Australian, whose earlier works on Australia I found interesting)
  • Malouf and Malouf, Artichoke to Za'atar
  • Jennifer McLagan, Bones
I'll write some brief reviews as I do this -- I hope I have the discipline for the project.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More thoughts on famine

I don't actually think that widespread famine is likely in America and Europe, though unfortunately it's a fact of life in Africa. I have been thinking about the way that political theories can cause hunger, and I've also been thinking about how those in past eras envisioned hard times.

I found a few very powerful images expressing various thoughts on famine. First, to the left, is a poster by the famous artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Mucha is well known for his dreamy women, especially for depicting Sarah Bernhardt in an original style that pretty much defined Art Nouveau. When Mucha heard about the famine in Russia shortly after the Revolution, he created this poster for fund-raising to help the victims.

To go back much further in time, Famine rode a black horse along with the other horsemen of the Biblical apocalypse. War accompanied Famine in this view of man's fate. Even in those distant days, famine was apparently seen as the result of human as well as natural events like crop failure and drought. The words are vivid, and the inspired images in art are vivid.

Finally, I was thinking again of the Irish famine that devastated the population and drove so many Irish people to leave their country, while agricultural products other than potatoes were being exported for the international market. The starving peasants had no right to these products, and no money to buy them. The Irish had been victims before: the most famous creative work concerning them was a couple centuries earlier: Swift's A Modest Proposal. (You can read the entire work here.)

The following images of the apocalypse are by Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1897) and by Durer.

In Dublin in 1997, a very moving memorial to the Irish famine victims of the 19th century was created. Looking for these images introduced me to the sculptor Rowan Gillespie, whose work I hope I'll learn more about.

Thinking of Swift, here are the first paragraphs of his most perfectly ironic Proposal:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Political differences begin with breakfast

I just read an article that explains the difference between the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign in terms of what they serve for breakfast on the campaign trail:
What's the big difference between the two campaigns?"

I'd have to say it's the food. John McCain's campaign serves macho Republican meals. There are cooked breakfasts, chunks of dead animals on sticks and coffee that tastes like coffee. ...

On Mr Obama's plane, by contrast, the breakfasts are designed to keep scribblers lean and liberal. There are little plastic pots of cereal, no doubt rich in vitamins and fibre. There are little tubs of chopped fruit. There are cups of "coffee" that have clearly never met a coffee bean.

The cereal and the fruit I can understand. But what is the point of being a latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving progressive if you can't get a decent cup of coffee?

From the website More Intelligent Life. See: IN THE AIR WITH OBAMA AND MCCAIN -- October 26th 2008.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Renata's Kitchen in Warsaw

I have never been to Warsaw, but some day I hope to visit Renata. I met her when she was in Ann Arbor, and she agreed to send a photo for my series of kitchens.

Hard Times

Locally here in Ann Arbor, statewide in Michigan, and nation-wide, organizations that help feed people in difficult situations are experiencing greater and greater demand. The financial markets seem to crash right on top of the food markets, creating desperation among the most vulnerable.

"While the world's attention has been focused on rescuing investment banks and stock markets from collapse, the global food crisis has worsened, a casualty of the growing financial tumult." So states an article in the Washington Post: Financial Meltdown Worsens Food Crisis: As Global Prices Soar, More People Go Hungry.

Recent globalism -- integration of economies at many levels -- has made many people more dependent on food grown outside their immediate community, outside their region, or outside their country. Population growth is only one of the factors causing this widespread dependence beyond local food supplies. A variety of policies and interests have combined to create a fragile situation.

In reading about the famines of the past, I have found to my amazement that a very large number of them were due to politics and to political theories applied heartlessly. In the 19th century, the famous Irish potato famine started when potato crops failed and stocks of potatoes rotted due to micro-organisms; however, the British rulers of Ireland could have fed the starving Irish people. British politicians believed in the free market, so they declined to do so, and mass starvation and emigration followed. Are we going to see a 21st century re-run? I really don't understand current globalism enough to foresee what is going to happen.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Brad's Birthday Party

Our friend Brad celebrated his 50th birthday tonight with a great party -- he made his favorite vegetarian chili, and we played games. Luckily Alice taught me Cranium, one of the games last weekend. Our team got really easy questions, like "What famous painter kept his journal in mirror writing?" -- how could I, wearing my Mona Lisa socks, miss that one! When I played with Alice she had to draw a toilet. That exact question was asked in our game last night, too -- but it was for all the teams, so three people had to draw it with eyes closed.

Above you can see the huge pot of chili on the stove in Brad and Diane's kitchen. Other guests brought kabobs, salad, and pastry from Zingerman's bakery. (It turns out they make a fabulous lemon tart!) My contribution to the potluck supper part of the party was cornbread.

The recipe:
Spicy Cornbread

½ C. chopped peppers *
1 to 1½ C. scallions or onions, chopped
1½ C. yellow cornmeal
¾ tsp. soda
1 tsp. salt — optional
1 can corn
1½ C. milk OR 12 oz plain yogurt or kefir
3 eggs, beaten well
¾ lb. grated cheese such as cheddar
2 Tb butter (plus more for greasing pan)
4 Tb. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350˚ and generously butter an 11 by 13 inch baking pan. Remove stems, seeds, & pith and chop the peppers. Heat the 2 Tb. butter in a skillet and brown chopped onion and peppers lightly. Drain canned corn thoroughly. Reserve 1/2 of the cheese for topping.

Mix dry ingredients. Add milk, oil, eggs, corn, and half of cheese and mix. Quickly mix in the vegetables and butter from the skillet. Pour mixture into greased baking pan. Top with other half of cheese. Place in 350˚ oven and bake for 40 minutes. May be served warm or at room temperature.

* Peppers can be one of the following three options:
- 3 or 4 fresh hot peppers such as jalapenos, depending on how hot you want it
- a mixture of fresh jalapenos and sweet peppers to make ½ cup
- a small can of Old El Paso peppers.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Road Food

By road food, I wish I had experienced delightful diners with economical American dishes like salisbury steak, meatloaf, chicken salad, tuna sandwiches, iceberg lettuce wedges with thickish pink sauce, and a rotating case of neatly-plated pie and cake slices (with no squiggles of carmel). I wish I meant local specialties (though I once stopped at a promising unbranded diner and discovered that they made potato salad out of instant mashed potatoes in that part of Indiana).

As anyone who has been on the Ohio or Pennsylvania turnpike knows, road-food choices there are different now. Each rest stop has its own selection of fast food. Just a bit back from the turnpike, white stone buildings set at regular intervals once had identical Howard Johnsons in them -- my memory stops at fried clams, which were brown, mainly batter, but with unidentifiable clam morsels deep inside, and the widely-advertised 28 flavors of ice cream. HoJo pioneered predictable, unvarying food, but it was supposed to be good. The 20th century HoJos buildings have mainly been torn down or fully rebuilt to house Sbarro, Burger King, MacDonalds, Starbucks, and nameless vendors of Hershey ice cream.

Along the Ohio turnpike, the buildings are all 21st century; big and round with sort of a dome. Evelyn once called from one to report progress. "Where are you?" I asked -- "Food Court, Ohio," she said. A few of the stops in Ohio have Panera, but that's as good as it gets -- a bagel. If you haven't been along the pikes lately, you can learn what's in the food court by reading the blue panels just before the turnoff. If your car needs gas, though, you just have to suck it up.

Yesterday we made a big mistake: we stopped at one offering only a Hardees with its adjunct, Red Burrito. Horrible! Terrible! Microwaving chunks of avocado and shreds of lettuce should be a criminal act (though I wouldn't want them to arrest the cheerful teenagers and elderly folks who actually commit the final deed). The picture on the website shows some chips and salsa, but I guess the turnpike version inflates the price by omitting them (it would have been overpriced even if edible, which I didn't.)

The sogginess of the burrito wrapper made it seem more like a stale pita than like a tortilla. The chicken chunks were probably past redemption before they were nuked. It didn't help my reaction that 350 miles earlier, without asking me, the smiling retiree behind the counter at Sbarro had microwaved my meatball sandwich and soggyized the so-called submarine roll. I lose.

What lesson can I learn from this? The toll way is carefully engineered to make sure a detour beyond the toll booths will add unacceptable time to the trip. I wouldn't add even a few minutes, for some other kind of fast food. I guess we'll go back to packing our own sandwiches and eating in the car.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Doll House Kitchens

Miriam and Alice's dollhouse has a new kitchen set. In the first photos you can see the stove, table, and the open refrigerator door; in the close-up photo you can see the chicken, bread, apples, and cake inside the refrigerator. The older dollhouse kitchen is in the last photo.

American Indians

This post is from my blog Mae's Real Stories. Since I was describing our lunch, I decided to post it here on the food blog too.

The picture above shows an American Indian yarn picture, made with pieces of yarn. Maybe Alice and Miriam will make some yarn pictures some time.

Yesterday at the Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. we saw many beautiful Indian art and craft works, clothing, and pottery. Miriam and Alice listened to stories on TV sets in a large room. Around this room are smaller rooms showing the history and ideas of many different Indian tribes.

Miriam and Alice looked at some models of Indian boats that were out in the lobby. Then we ate Indian food in the museum cafe. The grownups tried Indian tacos, buffalo stew, purple potato salad (from South America), a trout sandwich, and Indian pudding made from cornmeal. Miriam and Alice's French Fries were really sort of Indian food too.

The Indians of North and South America were the first people in the world to grow and eat potatoes, corn, tomatoes, red & green peppers, chocolate, vanilla, and some kinds of beans and squash. The North American Indians were the first to hunt and eat buffalo meat, because the herds of buffalo lived on the Great Plains here. Indians fished for trout and also hunted other animals. When Europeans came to North and South America, they showed Indians how to grow crops from Europe such as wheat flour for Indian fry bread, sugar for Indian puddings, and fruit like apples and peaches. In the cafe, the foods represent modern Indian dishes from North and South America, including ingredients that once came from both America and Europe.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lisa's Kitchens

Returning to my series on friends' kitchens, here is my friend Lisa's beautiful kitchen. And below: Lisa's dollhouse. The doll kitchen occupies pretty much the entire first floor. Hitty, seated at right, was made by her mother's sister when the two were children. Hitty's kitchen has lots of little things like frying pans and so on. On the bedspread (upstairs) you can read Hitty's name.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lessons from the Depression

The stock market is bouncing around again, but hard times seem to be everyone's current worry. Increasing grocery prices are part of the picture, along with many other uncertainties. My parents lived through the Great Depression, and they never forgot it for long. In the past 10 years, the collective behavior of the American people was against every lesson they taught me from the Depression experience. Specifically, many borrowed huge amounts and thought it was fine to owe more than their houses were worth. They were sure home values would never decrease.

Journalists have mentioned lessons learned and forgotten from the Great Depression; not all their specifics match my memories, though. Here are the five lessons that I think my parents conveyed:
  1. Don't Waste. Save Money. Avoid Debt. Don't buy inessentials or luxuries. Use your car until you save enough cash for a new one. Only losers borrow to buy clothing and furniture. Don't throw away anything that you can use. Eat everything on your plate. Use every leftover. If you don't play with a toy any more, another child should have it. Hand-me-down clothes and used furniture are fine; when you are done with them, pass them on to someone else. If you live beyond your means, you will regret it. Your house might drop in value so you might lose it when you can't make the payments. (I thought this was the one thing that would never happen again. Ouch.)
  2. Be Grateful. If someone hires you, thank them. Don't complain if they underpay you or mistreat you -- a job is a job. If someone gives you an ugly hand-me-down that doesn't fit you, say thank you. Don't complain.
  3. Fear the Future. You might lose your job, your house, your health. Pessimism rules. Stay away from dramatic political statements or actions that can affect your getting a job (a lesson reinforced in the early 50s by McCarthyism, but activists were blacklisted earlier as well).
  4. Rely on Education. Skills are better than investments in material goods or property. A salaried profession is better than self-employment or owning a store. Working for the government is secure and desirable.
  5. Vote Democratic. See fear and gratitude.
As I write them, the parallels to today's world become chillingly evident. I had no idea!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Cheapskate Cuisine"

The British online magazine "More Intelligent Life" recently ran a very nice article titled: A GOOD TIME TO LOVE CHEAPSKATE CUISINE. The author, Elisabeth Luard, begins with a brief history of British favorite leftover dishes, invented to make odds and ends (or as the brits say, bits and bobs) taste good, and continues with a discussion of the ones that are still on the favorites list.
Waste not, want not, as granny knew well. Scraps from the Sunday beef, leftover slivers of fish, the carcass of a chicken, the last helping of pasta, end-bits from the bread bin, parings from the cheeseboard--it's all good stuff when you know how to use it...--many of these Victorian leftover recipes survived because they taste good. The British love plain food (blame the Anglo-Saxons, who believed that if the meat was good all you had to do was turn it on a spit then slap it on a slab of manchet-bread); but they also love anything in white sauce finished with cheese, baked in a pie or topped with mashed potato.
The author continues with a discussion of the irony that many of these are today's favorite takeout foods, available at deli counters or in the "quick chill" departments (another britishism). She notes that not only are people unlikely to take the time, wasted scraps aren't what they used to be:
The Sunday roast comes ready-boned, meaning leftovers are in short supply. Few of us want to fillet our own fish for the sake of the scraps, or even trim our own vegetables for the benefit of the stockpot. And if we find there are still tops on the beetroot or greens on the turnips, how many of us would know to shred them, scald them and toss them in garlic and oil with a squeeze of lemon?
What can one do to foods to make them really taste great? A quick way, points out the author, is to add the mysterious fifth flavor, umami -- glutamate. Also, a cook can add carmelized meat flavors, fat, white sauce, or highly-flavored scraps. Or some chemistry-assisted frozen-food maker can figure it all out so that one can buy these old time favorites, rather than spend all day rescuing the leftovers.

The article focuses on British foods very specifically -- it reminded me of the food you buy at the Marks & Spencer deli counter, things like the pastry in the photo (from the M&S website). On the whole, there's a lot in common among these foods with what you can buy in the store over here -- like the frozen pot pie (in the other photo), which has been with us for a couple of generations. The main difference, I suspect, is that over here we rely less on white sauces and more on tomato-based sauces. The range: from fancy deli foods to inexpensive, mass-produced frozen foods, holds on both sides of the Atlantic.

Read this for a really nice summary of what you can do if you want to make something good out of not much: cheapskate cuisine.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chocolate Cake

Chocolate cake, again! I've been working on the recipe -- see Small or Large Chocolate Cake. This time, I used kefir in the frosting as well as in the batter. It works well: you just need a bit less as it's not as thick as sour cream.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Foodie's Fridge

The food issue of the New York Times Magazine is out this weekend. I haven't read everything, but I loved this:
Inside the Fridge of a Foodie : Five food leaders talk about the eating habits that fuel their professional pursuits.

In it you get an introduction to individuals who run organic farms, raise heritage turkeys and pigs, put up their own produce in pickles, preserves, sauerkraut, etc, and more. They all take you on a tour of their refrigerators and pantries, showing what they eat and what they store.

I'm looking forward to the other articles.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mona Lisa Eclairs

Somehow the famous food shop Fauchon in Paris has figured out how to stencil Mona Lisa's eyes onto an eclair. At their recent two-day eclair festival they had nothing but eclairs, "chic et choc," in the bakery. Vanilla, ice-mint, smoked salmon with baby peas... they made a total of 34 flavors, evidently decorated to match. Fauchon's pastry chefs did the final icing and garnishes in front of the clients. Mona Lisa's flavor is chocolate-almond. The price: 5 euros each!

Le Figaro Madame, the women's section of Figaro, the French newspaper is where I read about the great eclair event, also described on various blogs (where I culled the pictures). A women's section of a newspaper -- quaint, no?

Below you can see something of the stencil technique.
Dorrie Greenspan's blog: Paris: Sweets To Look Forward To, pointed me to the eclair event.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The End of Summer

The first frost hit the area farms this morning. We'll keep having apples and pumpkins, but I'm afraid this visit was our last chance of the year for newly-picked tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. The colors at the Farmers Market this morning, in the slanting autumn light were magnificent. I was especially struck by many-hued pumpkins and squash, Indian corn, and both purple and yellow cauliflowers.