Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Salmonella Again!

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Sam 'n Ella
Sam 'n Ella Who?
Salmonella now in pistachios, black and white pepper, as well as peanuts. It's not a joke. It's horrible. Because there's no way to trace foods, it's now not safe to eat ANY peanut or pistachio products -- the contamination could be anywhere.

Please, please, New Administration, fix our food system!

See these: Pistachio recall expanded, and Spice recall widens after illness scare

Monday, March 30, 2009

Distracted by a Lark

"Buy 4 larks which have already been plucked, cleaned, and wrapped in fat or bacon," wrote Edouard de Pomiane in 1930 in French Cooking in Ten Minues: Adapting to the Rhyth of Modern Life. The availability of larks, his advice to use only a gas stove (without needing to explain why: a coal or wood stove would take too long to fire up), and his description of a slowly enjoyed meal all highlight how times have changed. The ten-minute meal begins quickly, but continues slowly through several separate courses, each small. At the end, he says, you should make a cup of filter coffee:
Fill your cup with the coffee. Lean back in your armchair and put your feet up. Light a cigarette. Take a nice long puff, then blow the smoke to the ceiling. Enjoy the coffee's aroma, take a long sip. Close your eyes. Think about that second puff, that second sip -- you're rich!

In the background, the radio's playing a tango or some jazz. (p. 25)
For most of us, the assumption about smoking is one more gap between life in 1930 and our own present in America. Even during my first trips to France, I experienced this old style. Larks were sometimes available, maybe not so much fresh, but in specialty cans of lark pate -- now prohibited to protect the songbirds. In our earliest student room, we had a coal stove in what the landlord called the kitchen (we used a camp stove, though). After-dinner cigarettes (or during) seemed an eternal French habit -- though smoking is now illegal in restaurants there. And always, the French both at home and in restaurants have served meals slowly, dividing them into 4 courses, savoring them, and eating what seem to be quite small portions. Their horror of McDonalds includes a horror of so much food in just one course and eaten so rapidly.

Yet French Cooking in Ten Minues is an amazingly modern book full of simple but elegant menus and dishes. The recipes for 10-minute soup sound wonderful and imaginative. Pomiane's tips for purchasing unprocessed food that can be ready quickly are impressive. The organization of the cook's time is an essential component of the method, and it sounds highly effective. Pomiane, by profession a medical research doctor, wrote many books and also had a radio cooking show, and was a well-known personality in his era. It's a great pleasure to read and think about the fundamentals of really good food -- that haven't changed.

Will I cook some of the recipes? Yes, I think I'll try them, though I'm not sure I'll do an entire menu. I have a gas stove, though I expect it would fill the entire kitchen of Pomiane's expected cook. He mentioned having two burners: here in my temporary wonderful kitchen I have six. I remember those chilly, tiny, workspace-less French kitchens in which heavenly food could be made.

A couple of articles on the web provide much more Pomianiana -- one by Julian Barnes, a fascinating author, appeared in The Guardian, and another appeared in eGullet, both a few years ago.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lunch by the Pacific

We ate lunch yesterday at a pleasant cafe in Del Mar and then walked down to the beach park, which is bisected by the railroad tracks. When a train went by, two young women mooned the passengers (though they only pulled down their shorts and they still had on bathing suits). We were laughing too hard to photograph that.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My "Local" Coffee

All the experts agree: it's best to eat fresh, local food. But some of us like coffee. And the only place in the USA that coffee grows is Hawaii. So my fresh, local supplier of coffee is the Kona Lisa Coffee Farm near Kona, Hawaii -- whose logo I reproduced above. You can get truly local vegetables and fruits, at least in-season, all over the US. But you have to be imaginative to have a local coffee producer who picks the beans, has them roasted, and then ships it quickly to you. If you are lucky enough to be in Kona, of course you can get this coffee at the Kona Farmer's Market.

I just opened a new package of Kona Lisa coffee this morning. I know it was just roasted a few days ago -- and then mailed to me here in California. (I have often had it mailed home to Michigan, too.) When I opened it, the aroma was fabulous. The beans were glossy with fresh oils that give the best taste. It's for sure 100% Kona coffee, and that's considered one of the best, for good reason.

Kona Lisa coffee is grown on a small farm, which we visited last summer (I wrote about it here): Cornerstone Farms • 83-5475 Painted Church Road • Captain Cook, HI 96704

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Without Us

Reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is kind of like watching a merry-go-round as it circles. You see your friends or children go by every few minutes; you see empty animals go up and down; you can't quite focus your attention (or your camera).

OK, I'll explain this odd metaphor I just indulged in. Weisman covers so much varying material that the book is a little dizzying to read and moves in circles between the familiar and the unfamiliar. He uses some sources that I've read, and some of his material has appeared in the popular press. Other material is new to me.

The book begins with a simple question: what if humans were suddenly to disappear from the entire earth -- what would happen in the short term and in the long term. To answer this, the author tries to establish the facts of what's in place on earth. Cities. Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities. Game reserves. Farms. Oil refineries. The Panama Canal. Public art works. Some of our monuments would go quietly. Others (especially the nuclear ones) would spread destruction.

Another question: has this already happened? Oh, yes. The famous Korean DMZ is an example. So is the area around Chernoble. Most interesting, the chapter titled "The World Without Farms" describes how abandoned agricultural areas have already shown what happens when we abandon our food baskets, as well as exploring how 200 years of developing chemical fertilizers have fed us and changed our environment. It's partly familiar, partly a strange way to look at things. But the human need for food has had a variety of influence on our surroundings, and this is one of the interesting though familiar themes of the book.

Weisman clearly, highlights human impact on the planet by seeing how our changes would endure despite our disappearance. A cautionary tale? Not exactly: the point is blurred by all the dizzying and swirling ideas. A minor distraction: his journalistic style means he tells you about the haircut and clothing style of seemingly every expert he interviews -- but that's a detail.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The "Onion" adds to my airline phobia

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

For someone bothered by the specter of airline delays, tight connections, and being bumped, this is the perfect video. (PS: I have read the Kafka book about this airport.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Candy is Dandy

The New York Times today writes about the effect of economic bad times on the sale of candy-- see: When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls. Candy is much more comforting than ordinary comfort food, evidently:
Many big candy makers are reporting rising sales and surprising profits even as manufacturers of other products are struggling to stay afloat. Cadbury reported a 30 percent rise in profits for 2008 while Nestle’s profits grew by 10.9 percent, according to public filings. Hershey, which struggled for much of 2008, saw profits jump by 8.5 percent in the fourth quarter.
The same thing happened in the 1930s, says the article. No word on whether Liquor is Quicker.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Peruvian Slow Food

We had a superb lunch in Encinitas at a very small, beautifully decorated restaurant. The food is Peruvian-inspired, but includes other South American ideas. The passion fruit tarte for dessert was fabulous. I loved everything.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Company of Liars"

Avoiding starvation is a big challenge when you are wandering around, sometimes avoiding the authorities. Snaring or killing small birds and animals with a sling, gathering a few greens, buying or trading a few beans or grains, or stealing a sheep (a capital crime), and finding fuel to cook the meager gleanings are the main culinary adventures in Karen Maitland's novel Company of Liars.

The work combines medieval scholarship with a suspense tale, though in the afterword, the author admits to various anachronisms (which I noted when it came to the parts about Jewish history). The book is set in England in 1348. A group of wanderers, who for many reasons have no homes, are desperately trying to evade exposure to the pestilence -- the black plague -- that's destroying village after village. They fall in with one another out of convenience and desperation.

Each of the wanderers has his or her own tale to tell -- or to hide. As they become more and more frightened, they basically guess or weasel out one another's stories. The book has many good qualities, but the author's interest in describing a great deal of medieval history sometimes gets in the way of building suspense.

The author does work in a few real medieval dishes in the course of all the starvation, shortages, and hoarding. I thought I would search for some background -- and discovered an interview with Maitland in her hometown newspaper in Lincoln, England (a medieval city that I once visited on a quest to learn about a particular historic character, Aaron of Lincoln). So here's a recipe for one thing the wanderers eat. It begins with a quotation from page 75 of the novel:

Brawn and Sharp Sauce

"The night after we arrived, I made my way to the Angel, a tavern favoured by the more experienced travellers, where you could still get fried brawn and sharp sauce for an honest price.

"In the dim mustard fug of the smoking rushlights, it was hard to make out any man's features and those who frequented that particular tavern preferred it that way."

Fried Brawn, known as Braun Feyez, was made from trimmings of the pig's head, trotters, tail and tongue boiled for hours with onions, spices and herbs. Once the liquid was reduced, the thick mass was left in a cold dish until the meats were set in jelly.

The block of brawn was turned out, sliced and fried in lard or butter.

It was served with a sour vinegar sauce, Gruant Tartez, to offset the rich greasy meat.

From: Cook up a medieval feast, published September 27, 2008

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Mexican St. Patrick's Day

We intended to have a nice, quiet Mexican meal. We figured the crowds would be at the Irish bars. Our food was Mexican. Our beer was Dos Equis. But the small bar area where we were eating swirled with people dressed in green, who obscured the Mexican murals on the walls, and at times made conversation difficult. We enjoyed the experience.

The dish I had is a kind of tostada with cheese, a few beans (just the right number), and a bit of avocado. The menu says they have been making it since 1940, and in fact, I thought I remembered eating at a Mexican restaurant at this location when we lived her during Len's postdoc. The waitress says Yes, it's been there all the time. BUT these are new owners -- just opened under their management two days ago. They were startled to have such a big party, and the kitchen was struggling, but everyone was good-natured, and we decided that we didn't mind waiting thanks to unlimited baskets of chips.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Last week, I posted about the book "An Instance of the Fingerpost". Today at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, we found a sculpture of a fingerpost -- more normally called a signpost. On one side, it had conventional pointers to geographic locations. The other side was more conceptual in its art approach.

Sunset from the terrace of Il Fornaio

Arny's photo.

Il Fornaio

Arny and Tracy treated us to a great meal at Il Fornaio in DelMar, just up the coast from here. The restaurant has a beautiful terrace view, and we arrived at 6:55 just in time to see the sun sink into the ocean. We enjoyed the food, including quite nice desserts -- zabaione and chocolate mousse.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Farmers' Market Lunch

Follow up from Sunday: here's the lunch we made with our farmers' market foods.

La Jolla Farmer's Market

The oyster mushrooms in the front of this picture were really delicious for dinner tonight in an omelet made from eggs that the hens laid a day ago. We enjoyed the white radishes at lunch time, along with tomatoes, ful (from the Egyptian food stand), stuffed grape leaves, and lettuce.

The people who shop at the market are interesting too. Here's some unusual footware:

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hope on the way?

President Obama's weekly address this morning was devoted to food safety. He announced new commitments and new staff for the FDA.

His summary of the problem hits all the important points --
The men and women who inspect our foods and test the safety of our medicines are chemists and physicians, veterinarians and pharmacists. It is because of the work they do each and every day that the United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket or pills at a drugstore. Unlike citizens of so many other countries, Americans can trust that there is a strong system in place to ensure that the medications we give our children will help them get better, not make them sick; and that a family dinner won’t end in a trip to the doctor’s office.

But in recent years, we’ve seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables. In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives – a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job. Worse, these incidents reflect a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year – up from 100 a year in the early 1990s.

Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s also because our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it’s difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together, and solve problems. And it’s also because the FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Food Safety Again

Well, food safety is on my mind, but I'm not the only one. Congress too wants to improve food safety according to this article: Bipartisan Call for Food Safety. It says:
The House has held nearly two dozen food safety hearings over the last year, focusing on contamination in jalapeƱo peppers, peanut butter, pet food, seafood, spinach and tomatoes manufactured both in the United States and abroad.

A panel of experts from consumer groups and the industry largely agreed that broad changes were needed. For industry, the growing number of food-poisoning incidents have become enormously expensive. Thomas E. Stenzel, chief executive of the United Fresh Produce Association, said an entire crop of spinach was discarded in 2006 during a salmonella outbreak.

“In fact,” Mr. Stenzel said, “we now know that the only contaminated product came from one 50-acre farm, packaged in one processing plant and only on one production shift.” Yet spinach sales continue to suffer, he added. [I'm thinking: I can't bring myself to buy peanut butter.]
And Evelyn responded to my earlier post about shopping at Von's not Whole Foods. She reminded me that in the 1970s, I was totally annoyed by the local health food store (health food: an early term for something like organic food). The bread on their shelves was moldy. I pointed this out and the clerk (who pretended to be some kind of medical expert to boot) said that of course it molded, it didn't have any preservative in it. But they still kept it on the shelf for a week. I went back to shopping at the A&P (which used to be the big grocery chain), saying that preservatives were only bad in the long run, spoiled food had immediate and drastic consequences.

Yes, mold and salmonella are both natural. And my life is getting repetitious. Or maybe I'm suffering from failure to learn from experience. Or we are all suffering from that.

"An Instance of the Fingerpost"

The word fingerpost is so obscure*, that most people I've talked to are put off just by the title of Iain Pears' book, An Instance of the Fingerpost. So I begin with the definition: it means a signpost with pointer-shaped indicators that show the direction of nearby towns or cities. These appear on all the roads in the British Isles, and have been in use since the 17th century, at least. By extension, fingerpost means a pointer or proof of any sort.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an exercise in unreliable narrators: four, to be exact. Further, each narrator questions lots more unreliable witnesses in attempting to understand various events. Two of the narrations are by fictitious characters. Two are by historic figures, though the events and narratives are fiction. Each has a very special character, reflected in his writing.

The events in question take place in 1663. The narratives are from later. The principal locale is Oxford, England. One murder and many mysteries about the politics of the Restoration of the King of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell obsess these narrators. A plot summary would require many paragraphs, and never do justice to the continual reverses of this entirely fictitious tale.

Food plays only a small role, but as I always focus on how authors use food, I made it a point to notice its appearance in each narrator's part. I suspect that Pears did his homework, though I think he might exaggerate some of the unattractiveness of English food at the time.

The first narrator is an Italian, Marco da Cola. Pears clearly chose a newcomer to England to open his complex tale in order to introduce all the unfamiliar features of English life, and have an excuse to contrast it with the much more sophisticated refinement of Venice in that era.

"If the climate of England was difficult for a Venetian to become used to, then the food was impossible," Cola writes. "Even the more modest sort habitually eat meat once a month at least, and the English boast that they have no need of sauces to cover up its stringy texture and unpleasant taste... Simply roast it and eat it as God intended, they say, firmly believing that ingeniousness in cooking is sinful and that the Heavenly Host themselves tuck into roast beef and ale for their Sunday repast." Also, he notes a lack of fruit and vegetables, and pressure to drink too much beer. (p. 35)

Cola also describes an Oxford college dining hall and its customs, where the high table is elevated from the floor and so on -- just as it continues today. "As the food is scarcely fit for animals, I suppose it is not surprising that they behave like beasts. They eat off wooden platters, and in the middle of the tables are vast wooden bowls into which they toss the bones... I ended up with food splattered over me from Fellows talking with their mouths full, spraying each other with bits of gristle and half-masticated bread." (p. 74-75)

At a tavern meal, where Cola meets among others the illustrious John Locke, Cola tries the pig's head, which costs tuppence, with unlimited cabbage and beer for a ha'penny. Cola hopes it will be "a nice head roasted with apples and liqueur, and perhaps with a few shrimp as well." But it isn't: it's boiled in vinegar, and he can't even eat it. (p. 99-100)

Viewed by the English narrators, Cola's sensibilities are frivolous or worse -- associated with the hated Catholic religion. His habit of wearing perfume is especially annoying to them: "All dressed up and elaborate so you can't tell what's underneath," remarks a critic of his, "Garlic or incense. It's the same thing." (p. 629)

The three English narrators say much less about food than Cola did, and never find it so disgusting. For example, Wallis, the third narrator, meets Boyle -- two more historical personages that Pears includes in his elaborate plot. "I asked him to visit and gave him a fine meal of oysters, lamb, partridge and pudding and then persuaded him to treat the conversation in the utmost confidence." (p. 455) Usually, though, the others provide no detail: "Then I ate in at an inn, for being a prisoner is hungry work..." (p. 504) For them, food is simply a necessity, or at worst a danger.

An Instance of the Fingerpost makes for challenging but quite enjoyable reading. Lots of layers of detail about a variety of topics, food included, make this a good read. The author's success at creating insanely varied takes on the same events, and using the variation to highlight the insanity of the era in English history, is amazing.

*I thought fingerpost might be in current use in Britain, but my friend -- a highly educated native speaker of British -- calls them signposts and had to look up fingerpost just as I did.

More Bad News about Farming

We are collectively in trouble about food. Yesterday I wrote about how the ideals of organic food growers have been perverted by cynical selling of Federal organic certification to anyone -- including the poison peanut farmers. (This of course is due to the Bush government determination to undermine the effectiveness of any government regulation, but that's another issue entirely.)

Today's NY Times has more bad news: MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has appeared in domestic pigs. This has occurred especially on large farms where the animals are treated and over-treated with antibiotics, encouraging the super-bugs' drug resistance. The disease spreads to humans. In the US, not much tracing is done (again, thanks to lax government action), but in Holland, the connection has been established firmly. In one Ohio town where many pigs are raised, 50 of the 500 people had such an infection; the local doctor who was trying to put the pieces together died suddenly before he could complete his work. See this: Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health by Nicholas Kristof.

Super bugs have even spread to zoos: an LA Times article last week about MRSA in a baby elephant:
An outbreak of antibiotic-resistant skin infections at the San Diego Zoo last year began when a zookeeper infected an elephant calf that was being hand-raised because its mother couldn't care for it, according to a zoo and county health department investigation. The calf, in turn, infected as many as 20 of its human caretakers.
Kristof says he washes his hands very carefully after preparing pork products. I think it's going to take more precautions than that. Our system is very broken, and I fear that farm issues are going to be less pressing than fixing the other broken parts first.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Scandal over the lack of oversight of the organic-certified salmonella-growing peanut plants shakes me. I can't bring myself to go to Whole Foods. The thought of paying a large percentage premium for what I thought was superior food is too disturbing. Yes, the bulk peanut butter in the bins at Whole Foods is on the FDA Product Recall List. (I haven't bought bulk peanut butter, though, since I saw an elderly couple dipping their fingers in the vat for tastes. Hung up, I am.)

I've heard other people saying similar things. "I'll never buy another Clif Bar," for example -- to name a supposedly organic product that was listed in the recall. Or how about Breyer's Tin Roof Sundae ice cream? There's a brand I trust.

Organic certification, it seems, is a matter of money -- that's the painful part, as written up last week in the NY Times -- It’s Organic, but Does That Mean It’s Safer? (March 4, 2009)

Yes, salmonella is organic. That doesn't comfort me at all. I want to know if the chicken I've paid double for was really worth it. If the vegetables are any different than the ones at Von's or Kroger's (depending at which end of the country I'm shopping). Have I been deluded?

Considering this reaction -- along with the downturn in the economy -- I wouldn't buy Whole Foods stock this week!


The L.A. Times food section has an article on reproducing a particular over-the-top salad today. It includes this very interesting info on dried oregano:
It turns out that what we often buy in supermarkets isn't just one sort of oregano, but a blend harvested in its native ranges in the Mediterranean, then sometimes even augmented with a South American sage. Over the years, scientists poking around the contents of bottled oregano have found so many plant genera (16) and species (40) that it led Rutgers University biologist James E. Simon to quip that oregano was more "a flavor and aroma rather than an individual plant."
I had known that oregano wasn't just one plant -- and varied depending on which country/locale it was gathered, if wild or cultivated, etc. But this is even more detailed. I wasn't especially intrigued by the recipe, but the article is here: The mojo of dried oregano by Emily Green.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Kitchen in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

This is Juana, the cook who worked at a fantastic home where my friends Elaine and Bob spent a week's vacation recently. I loved these photos of Juana and her kitchen. She could cook anything -- lots of chicken, as you see in the last photo.

Note: I posted Elaine and Bob's Ann Arbor home kitchen photos when I first started posting lots of kitchen photos last June. See them here: Elaine's Kitchen

Saturday, March 07, 2009

"Friendly Fire"

Miriam's Brownie troop was preparing for a "thinking day" about many countries. Their country is Tanzania. Imagine my surprise when I chose to read A.B. Yehoshua's book Friendly Fire, expecting a book about Israel -- half the action takes place in Tanzania. A few weeks ago, I picked up Miriam when her troop had been getting ready for their presentation, including trying some Tanzanian food. I only smelled it, but as I read about several dinners in this far-away place, the smells came back to me.

Friendly Fire is a many-layered book with several thematic strains. The central figures are a husband and wife, normally inseparable. For the six days of the book's action, they separate as she makes a trip to Tanzania to see her late sister's husband. Meanwhile, her husband is left in charge of his business: designing elevators, and their family: two children, two grandchildren, and an aging and ill father. The problems with elevators making eerie noises plays off against the animist religion and mysterious wild setting in which his wife is visting. Very short vignettes alternately advance the way that the two spouses lives advance during their separation. The writing is masterful.

"Friendly fire" is the term that the husband had unfortunately used years before, during the traumatic moment when he had to inform his wife's sister and brother-in-law of the death in military action of their son. The term and the death haunt all of the characters in the book. For all of them, the term is an obsessive symbol of a variety of issues in their lives. Fire appears repeatedly -- Hanukkah candles, water boilers, African torches, merging with the painful memory of friendly fire.

In Tanzania at the time of the visit, the brother-in-law is working as a financial manager of an all-African dig to learn the origins of the human species. He's also escaping from Israel and his Israeli identity -- two major themes of the book. His summary of his view at the very end of his many efforts to make his sister-in-law understand his determination not to return:
"Here [in Africa] there are no ancient graves and no floor tiles from a destroyed synagogue; no museum with a fragment of a burnt Torah; no testimonies about pogroms and the holocaust. There's no exile here, no Diaspora. There was no Golden Age here, no community that contributed to global culture. They don't fuss about assimilation or extinction, self-hatred or pride, uniqueness or chosenness; no old grandmas pop up suddenly aware of their identity. There's no orthodoxy here or secularism or self-indulgent religiousity, and most of all no nostalgia for anything at all. There's no struggle between tradition and revolution. No rebellion against the forefathers and no new interpretations... The people around me are free and clear of that whole exhausting and confusing tangle." (p. 337-338)
Food is another, minor theme, mainly reinforcing the strangeness in which the woman visitor, Daniela, finds herself. Israeli-style food in a few passages contrasts with the food prepared in the kitchens of the archaeology team. A pita-and-eggplant sandwich greeted her at the airport when she landed -- her brother-in-law's welcome. And before a farewell banquet at the end of the book, cooks offered a taste of an unidentified dish "Here madam, they say, now that you are getting used to the smell and taste of Africa, you are leaving." (p. 310)

In the simultaneous events taking place with her family in Israel, food and hospitality are repeatedly linked -- maybe somewhat mechanically. Coolers full of food are described at the scene of a visit to an army base where many recruits' families are visiting: a conventional description, in my opinion. Despite the sketchy nature though, food descriptions combine with other themes and details to create a strong feeling of contrasting atmosphere in the two locales.

Several friends recommended that I read this book, so I have not read any reviews and don't know what any critics think of it. I think it's fantastic.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fabulous Book

On the airplane today, I read a fabulous food book, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. This novel has well-developed and likeable characters, an exotic setting (modern China and flashbacks to the whole of 20th century China), and two simultaneous plot lines. All good.

What I loved most is that the characters' fascination with Chinese food was expressed by a vast number of vivid food descriptions, historical background about Chinese restaurant culture (most definitely NOT American Chinese restaurants, though), and traditional connections between Chinese food and literature.

Besides being the title of the novel itself, "The Last Chinese Chef" refers to a fictional treatise on Chinese cooking written in 1925; Mones often quotes long passages from this work -- and citations from it also serve as chapter headings. The fictitious author was an authority on the dining habits of the last Imperial court, among other things, so the quotes are really fascinating. The contents of the work seem to be based on honest scholarship, despite being a fiction.

The characters in the book include a Chinese chef, grandson of the author of the fictitious treatise, and a food columnist for Table magazine -- also fictitious, of course, but Mones's bio mentions her having written for Gourmet. Wink, wink. One plot includes the chef's practicing for a cooking contest, describing his efforts to learn to be a classical chef in the grandfather's tradition.

My cousins Bill and Barb liked this book and thought I would too -- they were so right!

Monday, March 02, 2009


I am reading A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich. It's the totally traditional type of history with almost no information about social history, the economy, lower or middle class issues (only the rulers and military leaders count) -- in other words, it's about dead white males -- rich and powerful ones. Just for an example: not a word about the foundation and invention of the Ghetto.

And very little about food other than mentioning that some of the conquests of nearby territory were driven by the need for land on which food could grow. Hurrah! He admits that people ate food! As early as the year 1000, Venice was outgrowing the "patches of productive land" on the nearby islands, and needed to control shipping and mainland territory. (p. 54) And doges were quite early prohibited from accepting gifts of food and wine: "not more than one animal or ten brace of birds at a time." However, they had the right to "apples, cherries, and crabs" from Lombardy and Treviso so we can guess a little about what they ate. (p. 151) Surprisingly, there is very little detail about the spice trade -- just vast histories of the battles that defended it; he does mention the introduction of sugar from the Middle East (p. 270). (So it's the opposite of the book The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, which I read recently.)

I've kept reading Norwich almost to the end because it links to other historic reading I've done. Anyway, I like a challenge. So here are a couple of interesting things.

An eleventh century doge married Princess Maria Argyra, niece of two Byzantine emperors. Her oriental ways astounded the Venetians: she did not deign "to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small peices, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth." So wrote historian Peter Damian. I'm sure this is often mentioned when the complicated history of the fork is discussed; it illustrates how it was in use in Byzantium early -- forgotten in the west -- not introduced or invented at a single moment in history. (p. 60)

Finally, here's a historic detail: at the end of the fifteenth century, Venice had a serious financial crisis: "One of her major private banks, the Garzoni, had failed ... for 200,000 ducats, despite a personal offer of 30,000 fromthe Doge himself in an attempt to save it; and since then another, the Lippomano, had gone the same way, causing a panic-stricken run on banks throughout the city." So we didn't invent the bailout, either, here in 21st century America! (p. 387)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dinner: WhiskNLadle

Searching for a restaurant near us, I found that many people recommended WhiskNLadle in downtown La Jolla. It's very innovative, using local ingredients with amazing flair. Most impressive looking: the dessert with its spun-sugar decoration.

Feeding Time

At the Wild Animal Park today we spent quite a bit of time in the California section. The two condors were especially impressive, reminding us of the time we saw one of the last truly wild California condors in Ventura county.

The local porcupines were eating their favorite food: corn on the cob. The keeper seemed quite unafraid of them.

Later we walked down to the African Safari section, where the lions were chewing on huge bones.