Friday, December 31, 2010

Commissario Brunetti Eats Lunch

Delightful meals eaten during a crime investigation are among my favorite features of detective novels. For Christmas, I received a cookbook based on the novels of Donna Leon and her detective Guido Brunetti of the Venice police. I could make the delicious meals that Brunetti's wife cooks, such as veal liver with polenta (p. 210) -- which sounded so good in Death in a Strange Country. Or see if I could do better than Paola and Guido's daughter Chiara, who struggled to make mushroom-filled ravioli (p. 85) in A Noble Radiance.

I wasn't familiar with this series, so I purchased and read several of Leon's novels on my Kindle. Learning about the detective's favorite food before I read about the detective is really a total reversal! I'm so grateful to my friend Sheila who thought of this gift. Now I have both a Venetian cookbook and a new detective series to love.

Brunetti's wife Paola makes food to rival the French home cooking of Madame Maigret, Simenon's detective. I think her cooking sounds better than the food made by Nero Wolfe and his chef. Brunetti's lunches and snacks in typical little Venetian lunch-counters and bars are different -- but make me recall the local color in Whataburger, where Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn eat in the novels of Tony Hillerman. Leon's novels are a bit mannered but nowhere near the exaggerated style of Robert Parker, whose detectives' food habits come close to parody.

Food in detective fiction -- a glorious tradition!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year


We're back in Ann Arbor, where little birds do not share our breakfast. And we are planning a nice New Year's Eve dinner with a retro menu.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Soufriere Market

The market in Soufriere, the town closest to us (population around 11,000) offers local produce from very small farmers -- mainly people who grow a few vegetables in their back yards. Farmers with more land sell at the larger markets in other towns. Some of the market sellers have just a small piece of cloth with a pile of yams or green onions; others have tables with umbrellas; I did not see any stalls as large as those at the market at home. The most crowded time was early in the morning, we were told, but there were still many sellers and buyers when we arrived at around 8 AM yesterday morning.




A few people were bringing animals to be cut up by a butcher with a machete. The crowds were especially dense around this area, buying goat meat, pork, and fish. Normally the market is on Saturday, but today is Christmas so the market was yesterday instead; we think that meat was especially popular for the holiday.



While we were walking around the market with Bonny, our cab driver, there was a heavy rain shower that made everyone gather under the one or two large open-air shelters; when the rain slowed down, they all went into the open air again. The market is right by the sea, and of course one can see the tall volcanic piton, St. Lucia's most distinctive landmark, beyond the bay from there.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Who loves the food here?

The birds love our breakfast -- especially cheese and butter. We like it too.

In fact we have found the food really exciting. Tonight we had Indian-Caribbean fusion cuisine again. Last night was a big buffet:


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lunch at Anse Chastanet


The waitresses all wear this plaid costume.


The food is delicious. Today for lunch we had fresh grilled kingfish served in small pieces, each one on a slice of potato with a curry flavored sauce.

Our dinner was at an Indian-West Indian restaurant, also belonging to the resort. On the back of the menu is a fascinating summary of immigration from India to the Caribbean, which this brief history points out had a big influence on the cuisine -- despite being seven generations ago and much more. Sadly, indentured Indian laborers were the immediate replacement for the slaves, whose import was stopped in 1838.

On each trip to the Caribbean, we relearn what a complex history these small islands have -- and how thoroughly they have been forgotten. Today we heard about a hurricane that hit here at the end of October, killing several people, and wiping out roads and bridges. They've recovered now. We were amazed since American media didn't seem to cover these events at all: the man who told us about it said he was surprised to find no coverage on CNN, so I don't think we just ignored the news. It just wasn't there.

We haven't eaten lobster, but...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

St. Lucia

We're in St.Lucia -- check for more information and ongoing reports.

As for food: last night after a long day of travel, we ate in the Continental dining room, one of 4 restaurants at our hotel. I'm sure we'll also try the others: a vegetarian cafe, a West-Indian dinint room, and a grill.

The restaurant offers a different selection each night: I ordered fish with potatoes mashed with "salt fish" -- which I recall from reading Cod by Mark Kurlansky is a bit of irony. Salt cod, once was the cheapest type of food; fishing boats in the North Atlantic scooped up huge shoals of cod and dried and salted them for distribution to all parts Europe and European colonies. The lowest quality salt cod was imported to the Caribbean plantations for the slaves (who were sometimes also allowed to grow a few vegetables for their own use after their unthinkable work in sugar cultivation and other tasks, a long sad story). Salt cod and other salt fish have always been among the staples in post-colonial Caribbean cuisine, for many reasons. Now cod have almost been fished out of existence. And one finds salt fish as an ingredient at an elegant tourist restaurant here at Anse Chastanet on a beautiful hillside with a stunning beach. St. Lucia of course is a land of free men and women, slavery a distant memory; but I remember something.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Local Eating

The snow is deep this morning, the roads are slippery, and everything is frozen. Thinking about local produce seems very wishful. However, I've just read a study about greenbelt farming in our local area, which treats a question I often ask myself: if a large number of people wanted to eat local food, would there be enough for them to all make that choice? I am thinking about how the statistics in the article affect my own decisions.

Here are some statistics about the state of Michigan, excerpted from this article:
  • Agriculture is the number 2 industry in Michigan.
  • 56,000 farm parcels cover over 10 million acres of Michigan farmland.
  • In diversity of commercial agriculture, Michigan ranks second to California.

So in terms of eating produce from Michigan, quantity isn't really a problem. In terms of my own experience, one challenge is knowing which products are actually from the state. Dairy products, corn, beans, and fruit are at the top of Michigan farm sales, but Michigan corn, wheat, and soybeans are commodity crops, sold on the national and international market. Some of the corn goes into Ethanol, but I hope that folly will soon be corrected. As a result, we may see manufactured food items that contain Michigan content but have been made non-local by commoditization.

Even in winter, though, I often see Michigan potatoes and apples in the markets. Michigan cherries -- a big crop for the state -- are mainly canned or dried and shipped around. And I always thought that Kellogg's cereals were local: but the last time I purchased Special K the small print (which I read at breakfast) said "Made in Mexico"!!

What about still more local products, from here in Washtenaw County and its immediate neighbors? Of course there's always Jiffy Mix, made right down the road in Chelsea (too bad I don't bake much). Corn, wheat, and soybeans are the largest crops in the immediate area, but local farmers also grow hay, livestock (for meat or dairy), vegetables, fruit, popcorn, and maple syrup. Much is for sale at the farmers' market, which I often write about. The total number of farm operators in the county is 1,984 -- this sounds like a large number, but includes proprietors of all-sized farms.

The progress of the Greenbelt initiative is creating a protective situation for the farms nearest to us, and I am encouraged to know about the way this initiative is working to keep farmland from being made into tracts of houses.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

More on the proposed hummus boycott

From the Forward:

"Where are the principled human rights advocates when it comes to the moral crimes of the Arab world? Boycotts and divestments, we are told, are essential game changers. Yet advocacy groups and college students won’t apply them equally wherever human rights abuses are found.

"Why aren’t the activists who criticize Israel calling for a boycott of Persian rugs from Iran? What about Egyptian cotton, oil from Saudi Arabia and whatever it is that Syria makes other than trouble?

"Now activists are busy using hummus to spackle over the double standards that are abundant when it comes to the Middle East.

"Delegitimization can take many forms — some serious, like the denial of Israel’s existence; and others bizarre, like accusations in recent years by some Lebanese that Israel has stolen their traditional hummus recipes. Apparently, Israelis have no authentic connection to the chickpea, which is just a short culinary step away from saying that they have no connection to the land."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Politics of Falafel and Hummus

I read recently that Israel haters who are promoting boycotts and other actions are campaigning against the Sabra brand of hummus. They accuse its American manufacturers of donating money to Israeli military efforts. This is part of a broader campaign on college campuses which combines old-fashioned antisemitism with modern Israel-baiting.

  • At Princeton, a student referendum to ban Sabra hummus failed with 1,014 students against and 699 students voting for the referendum.
  • At DePaul University in Chicago, Sabra hummus was removed from the campus dining table at the request of the anti-Israel groups, but last week the school requested that their food service reinstate its sale.
The New York Times, reporting on these efforts, quoted Michael Kotzin, of the Jewish United Fund:
“As trivial as the determination of what hummus to serve to university students might seem, there are serious ramifications to this issue. It is clear that this action, following on earlier boycotts of Israeli culture and Israeli academics around the world, is but one component of a global assault on the legitimacy of the State of Israel itself.”
A few years ago, there were flaps over falafel. A false but widely repeated news story stated that the FBI was tracking falafel stands because they were a hotbed of radical terrorism. The FBI website responded with denial: "We at the FBI were surprised to read about a supposed FBI program to monitor the sales of Middle Eastern food products in the San Francisco Bay area in support of counterterrorism intelligence gathering."No one in the FBI had heard of this supposed endeavor, which was widely covered in the press. (I wrote about it in more detail here.)

Further, there's an ongoing dispute over who invented falafel and which Middle Eastern country owns hummus. In a world of so much bad will, even mashed chick peas (fried or dipped) can become completely political.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sausage and Politics

Don't miss this wonderful article in today's New York Times:

If Only Laws Were Like Sausages


The author doesn't merely quote Bismark:
“If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

In other words, the legislative process, though messy and sometimes unappetizing, can produce healthy, wholesome results.

He interviews sausage makers about how their process differs from that of Congress:
“I’m so insulted when people say that lawmaking is like sausage making,” said Stanley A. Feder, president of Simply Sausage, whose plant here turns out 60,000 pounds of links a year.

“With legislation, you can have hundreds of cooks — members of Congress, lobbyists, federal agency officials, state officials,” Mr. Feder said. “In sausage making, you generally have one person, the wurstmeister, who runs the business and makes the decisions.”...

At Simply Sausage, the bones and other inedible, indigestible, unsavory parts are dumped in a big garbage pail and discarded. On Capitol Hill, stale old ideas are recycled year after year.
I'm inspired by new confidence in sausages. But as the article says, I'm afraid that "The legislative meat grinder turns out many strange products."

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Refrigerator Memory

This GE refrigerator with a motor on top and room to sweep underneath was introduced in 1927, but when I was a small child that's what still stood in a corner of the kitchen in my parents' one-bedroom apartment. I may have mentioned it before, but I just noticed the photo on the GE appliance history website. Inside, the tiny freezer compartment could make a few ice cubes, but ice cream wouldn't stay frozen there.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Follow Up Thanksgiving Photo


Joel was missing from the set of Thanksgiving photos I posted before. So here are our hosts, the turkey chef and banana cream pie maker: Joel and Aparna.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Molecular Gastronomy Comes to Ann Arbor



Last night I had a nitrogen shake. At tableside, the waiter stirs liquid nitrogen into a hot ice cream preparation (such as you might put into an ice cream maker, I think). The result is a cold mixture of chocolate and other flavors that you drink with a straw, consistency of a milkshake. I guess nitrogen is tasteless, otherwise we'd smell it all the time when we breathed. I thought when molecular gastronomy reached Ann Arbor I would hate it -- but in fact it was fun. The taste? Not much different from most milkshakes.

My previous posts on molecular gastronomy:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pumpkin Lasagna Recipe by Request


First prepare a medium-sized pumpkin by cutting it in eighths and removing stem, seeds, and stringy interior stuff. Bake the slices on a cookie sheet, skin down, at 350º until it's pretty soft and you can easily peel off the skin. Cut the peeled pieces into 1/2 inch chunks. You will need around 2 or 3 cups of pumpkin -- if you have extra, use it in soup or make it into a side-dish with another meal. The pumpkins in the photo are the two that ended up in my two recipes of lasagna.

2-3 cups cooked pumpkin as described above.
2 or 3 onions, chopped and browned in butter or oil
Around 2/3 of a box of no-boil lasagna noodles
1 lb. of ricotta or farmer's cheese (ricotta makes a sweeter filling)
Optional: additional 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
Around 2-3 cups of shredded cheese that melts nicely (for the topping)
Sage-flavored white sauce (ingredients below)
Sage, basil, salt, and pepper to taste

Make the white sauce (see notes).

Mix ricotta/farmer's cheese/cottage cheese with sage and basil.

Brown the onions. Add sage, salt, pepper, and pumpkin and cook in the butter for a while longer.

Generously coat a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with butter. Layer the ingredients as follows:
  • A layer of sauce
  • A single layer of noodles, touching each other and covering most or all of the surface and coated with more sauce. (Break noodles to make them fit if necessary.)
  • Half of the pumpkin-onion mixture evenly spread over the noodles.
  • Another layer of noodles covered with more sauce.
  • All of the ricotta/farmer's cheese/cottage cheese mixture spread evenly over noodles.
  • Another layer of noodles/sauce.
  • The rest of the pumpkin.
  • More sauce and noodles.
  • ALL the rest of the sauce and a bit more milk if needed.
  • The shredded cheese evenly spread over the top.
After assembling the lasagna, be sure that all the noodles are in liquid sauce -- if not, add a bit of milk. Before putting it in the oven, let the assembled dish rest for around 20 minutes so that the noodles can begin to absorb the sauce.

Cooking time at 400º -- 30 minutes covered with foil followed by 15 minutes uncovered -- enough to brown the cheese. After removing it from the oven, keep the dish at room temperature for around another 15 to 20 minutes so that the cheese and sauce all firm up. Otherwise you will have trouble cutting and serving nice squares (this is true for all lasagna).

  • White sauce ingredients are: 2 -4 Tb butter (can omit butter if browning flour in non-stick pan), 1/3 cup flour, 4 cups milk, around 1 Tb. sage, salt & pepper. Should not be too thick. If you have never made white sauce, you need to look up the standard method of making a roux, adding hot milk, and simmering the sauce.
  • To make onions brown better, add 1 tsp. of balsamic vinegar or a pinch of sugar.
  • The lasagna can be refrigerated after baking and reheated a day or two later.
  • Obviously if you use browned flour only (no butter) in the white sauce, skim milk, non-fat ricotta or farmer's cheese, little butter or oil for browning the onions/pumpkin, and low-fat mozzarella for topping, you can make this an incredibly low-fat lasagna. I did not try making it low-fat.
  • I would NEVER use canned pumpkin for this!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is served --


The chefs:

Lenny making gravy.

Aparna whipping cream to top the pies. Foreground: spinach ready to saute.

Larry carving the turkey.

Elaine cleaning up.

The girls playing.

Happy Thanksgiving

We are all gathered in Pittsburgh, having traveled on dry roads -- some of us yesterday and others, the day before. The turkey cooks are working on the stuffing and stock. We had our traditional breakfast of chocolate cherry bread and cranberry pecan bread which we brought from Zingermans bakehouse (arriving there just one moment before the huge rush began yesterday morning).

In other years, I have photographed the entire process of cooking dinner, eating each meal, and children playing, but this year I think I'll wait and publish a selection at the end of the day to avoid repeating myself. Eating the same ritual meals each year is great, but posting the same photos doesn't seem right.

Happy thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 22, 2010


Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson begins with a discussion of an ancient mosaic from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, a copy of a famous mosaic by Sosos of Pergamum called "Unswept Hall." He says "It is a floor that depicts a floor, closing the gap between art and life.... it is a trick floor, impossible to clean."

I've just begun reading, and I'm intrigued, so I looked up this photo of the mosaic. It's a long book -- it might take me quite a while to get further than page XV !

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What did Cleopatra Eat?

Cleopatra, the most famous queen in history, was proficient in several languages and at least two cultures. She traveled throughout her Egyptian kingdom and went to Rome and other places to advance her dynastic and personal interests.

Cleopatra's first identity came from her ancestors, the Ptolemys: kings and queens of Egypt, descended from a Macedonian general in the army of Alexander the Great. They had ruled Egypt for around 300 years when Cleopatra was born, and always maintained a strong connection to Hellenism -- the Greek culture that Alexander had spread with his military successes, even inventing a synthetic god that combined both Greek and Egyptian god-like qualities. So Cleopatra's first two cultures were Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek.

Further, when Cleopatra was a young queen, Julius Caesar was creating a new empire for Rome, conquering new territories throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. After Julius Caesar's assassination, Mark Anthony became the next Roman conqueror. Cleopatra's sexual conquest of both of these heroes is what she's best known for. Of course.

I was wondering how this multi-cultural experience combined with the incredible wealth and status of an Egyptian queen to result in interesting dining experiences. In one story about her, Pliny says that she dissolved a valuable pearl in a glass of wine and then drank it to demonstrate the extravagance of her hospitality. This isn't cuisine. Several of Cleopatra's Ptolemy forebears were known for their love of eating -- to the extent that they were vastly obese. Much else that one can learn is only generalization. What products were grown? Which were valued highly? What did various customary dining conventions dictate? But I found a few specifics.

Dates from the date palms that grew near the Dead Sea were considered to be the best in the Roman world. During the same era of Roman conquest that brought both Caesar and Mark Antony to Egypt, Rome had begun to dominate Palestine, which was ruled by their client King Herod I. One of Cleopatra's political moves was an attempt to rule the nearby coastline of the Middle East -- she asked to be made queen of the entire region.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, described how Antony made King Herod give Cleopatra his date groves and farms producing sweet balsam, but that he was responsible for managing them and paying her what was due:
When Cleopatra ... accompanied Antony in his expedition to Armenia as far as Euphrates, she ... passed on to Judea, where Herod met her, and farmed of her parts of Arabia, and those revenues that came to her from the region about Jericho. This country bears that balsam, which is the most precious drug that is there, and grows there alone. The place bears also palm trees, both many in number, and those excellent in their kind....

But then, as to the tributes which Herod was to pay Cleopatra for that country which Antony had given her, he acted fairly with her, as deeming it not safe for him to afford any cause for Cleopatra to hate him. (Josephus, Chapter 4)
Surely we can assume that Cleopatra enjoyed eating the greatly prized dates from these orchards that were her own property.

In the matter of wine, the Ptolemys and many immigrant Greeks who had accompanied them to Egypt had added Greek-style vineyards and many other crops to those already grown in the fertile Nile valley and other parts of Egypt, which was far less arid than it is today. Near Alexandria at Lake Mareotis, a highly productive agricultural region yielded a particularly nice wine that was a favorite of Cleopatra, said the Roman poet Horace. Various writers described this wine. Athenæus mentioned that Mareotic wine was "white, its quality excellent, and it is sweet and light with a fragrant bouquet; it is by no means astringent, nor does it affect the head." Virgil said the grapes themselves were white, and Strabo said the wine aged well. Grain, olives, and other fruit were also cultivated in this region, and probably contributed high-quality foods to the royal kitchens.*

The author Lucan (born 39 C.E. -- thus writing around a century after the events he described) wrote in Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars about Caesar and Cleopatra. He included a long description of a banquet which she gave to overwhelm his senses. Among a plethora of details about the physical surroundings, the queen's garments, and "her luxuries, as yet unknown To Roman fashions" are a few hints about the food; in particular, Lucan makes clear that authentic superior Roman wine was preferred to the local vintage: "no juice of Mareot grape But noble vintage of Falernian growth Which in few years in Meroe's vats had foamed, (For such the clime) to ripeness." He also mentions
"On plates of gold They piled the banquet sought in earth and air And from the deepest seas and Nilus' waves, Through all the world; in craving for display, No hunger urging. Frequent birds and beasts, Egypt's high gods, they placed upon the board: In crystal goblets water of the Nile They handed."
Unfortunately, this really doesn't help much. They ate gods? Really. Well, the Egyptians did worship a lot of animals, including fish, mice, crocodiles, and bulls, and their gods often took animal form or had animal heads with human bodies. The Romans found this animal-worship odd -- Roman gods were always human in form. Cleopatra herself went around dressed as Isis, and statues in her likeness were worshiped in temples to Isis.

Plutarch, also around a century after the fact, mentioned eight wild boars being roasted, among other extravagant preparations for only 12 guests at a banquet that Cleopatra was giving for Antony; Plutarch said his grandfather had heard the story from an eye-witness. The still-later classical author Athenaeus wrote quite a long passage about a banquet that Cleopatra gave for Antony, but he didn't name a single specific food -- just talked about the gold dishes and Ethiopian slave boys she handed out as door prizes.**

Cleopatra's suicide is another very famous part of her legend. Her last meal, according to Plutarch, included a basket of figs from the country. And beneath the figs and fig leaves in the basket lay the asp, which she had asked for. Or maybe the asp came in a water jar. This account leaves many open questions, but in any case, that's the end of the story.

So on to the generalizations -- what was available to the richest of rich Egyptians at that time? Scholars have found a few texts establishing elaborate meals, based on tombs where food was provided for a high-status afterlife. Perhaps they give a clue to what the Egyptian queen might eat. Here is one such list of food for a dead woman in ancient times: "a triangular loaf of bread of emmer wheat ...; an unidentified liquid containing some sort of fatty substance; cooked fish; pigeon stew; cooked quail, dressed with its head under one wing; two cooked kidneys; the ribs and legs of beef; a dish containing cut beef; stewed figs; fresh nabk berries; small round cakes sweetened with honey; three jars of some form of cheese; wine."

In ancient Egypt, along with sacred grain priests ate beef and goose from sacrificial animals. Those who could afford more than grain porridge or bread also ate dairy products from sheep and cattle, fruits like pomegranates and figs, other meats, honey from dates, and wild lotus and fish from the Nile. They drank more beer than wine, but probably had both. A list of foods eaten in pre-Hellenistic Egypt adds: filberts, walnuts, pine kernels, olives, peaches, Indian medlars, quinces, pistachios, lentils, and radishes. Roasted papyrus was another delicacy. Cleopatra could have had the opportunity to enjoy such foods.

During the Ptolemy era, new, improved, or expanded crops included sesame, poppy seed, cabbage, lettuce, garlic, chick peas, and cumin, as well as "figs, walnuts, peaches, apricots, plums and olives." The greatest change was in a new type of grain: instead of emmer wheat and barley, the Greeks expanded cultivation of a different type of wheat that they found more desirable for bread. Most of the changes affected cash crops, which enabled Egypt to become a highly profitable breadbasket for Rome; however, the foods that were available give a hint about what Cleopatra could have eaten in Egypt during most of her life. (Lists from Crawford, p. 138-140)

During her long stay in Rome at Caesar's estate in Trastevere, Cleopatra would have lived at least as well as a wealthy Roman, and no doubt eaten the types of foods documented in the many sources about Roman dining and banquets -- especially the many books about the recipe collections of Apicius. This is a subject with a huge literature, so I'm not going to repeat it. Like everything about Cleopatra, what she did in Rome is only known through the speculation of scholars.

* I acquired these citations from various online articles about Cleopatra and Lake Mareotis. The quotes from Flavius Josephus and Lucan come from the Project Gutenberg editions of their works. Other information comes from Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley; "Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt" by Dorothy J. Crawford; and Food and Society in Classical Antiquity by Peter Garnsey.
** Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus, volume I, p. 239.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Empty Plates


Today we went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, not realizing that much of the museum was inaccessible -- many galleries were full of set tables for a gala fundraiser tonight. We were back home long before the no-doubt stunningly dressed crowd arrived to dine beneath the severe images of Diego Rivera's murals. I doubt if many of the diners were going to feel mocked by Rivera's message, though that interpretation wouldn't be wrong. I enjoyed the imagery of empty plates and efficient setting up.



Beyond the Rivera courtyard, we observed many centers of activity that we did not photograph. I peeked into one kitchen where huge piles of lettuce were being made into salad beneath a mural of "Where the Wild Things Are." We saw long tables in the sunlit medieval courtyard. And above all, we enjoyed a normally unavailable view of the Rivera murals from a balcony above -- exceptionally opened to make up for the inconvenience.


I hope that the gala was a great financial success: the DIA needs all the help it can get these days. We rejoined at a higher level of commitment, but we'd never go to a dinner like that.

Monday, November 08, 2010

No Toga Party: What did poor people eat in ancient Rome

Photo and blog post © 2010 mae sander
The Roman banquet is as familiar in American popular culture as the toga party -- though the popular conception of a toga party probably is more rooted in John Belushi than in echoes of classical studies from university life of old. 

Say "Roman Banquet" and what comes to mind? Eggs to apples. Exotic delicacies like roasted hedgehogs and flamingo tongues. Honey-sweetened wine, perhaps deliciously flavored with lead from the glaze of the drinking vessels. Spices brought from all over the Roman Empire and traded from the East. Olive oil. White bread made from the best flour. Produce from the host's country estates, perhaps nearby, perhaps farther off in Sicily or other areas. Slaves to cook, serve, and entertain the guests (all men). 

Most of the people in ancient Rome were very poor. Everyone knows that they had bread and circuses. Archaeology provides a glimpse of the circus, but what about the bread? What did the really poor Romans eat? 

Indeed, the Romans, both rich and poor, ate bread. In the later centuries of the Roman Empire, distribution of grain -- wheat and barley -- to the large poverty-stricken population provided an important part of the diet, at least to the lucky poor who were eligible for free food. Wheat was higher-status than barley -- so poor people were more likely to afford barley when they had to buy their own food. They sometimes made their grain rations into bread, and sometimes into porridge. 

Porridge was lower-status than bread for many reasons, especially because it could be made from the coarser and less desired barley. Because the process of making bread with yeast results in a more nutritious product (the fermentation process makes some nutrients more accessible) those who ate bread were on the whole healthier, as well as richer. 

"Apart from cereals," we learn, "dry legumes, in particular lentils, chickpeas and broad beans, were the main source of protein as of calories in the Mediterranean basin as a whole.... Dry legumes also supplied the amino acids in which wheat and barley were low, and the missing vitamin A. The flour of legumes was commonly blended with wheat flour to make bread." * 

Artisans and other non-upper-class Romans thus ate beans. Street vendors sold a "kind of pudding" made of chickpeas -- I wonder if it was like hummus. Imports from the fertile agricultural regions of Egypt included lentils and chickpeas, as well as the high-quality wheat for which the Nile valley was widely known. Sometimes rich or official benefactors gave out free food at festivals, but this was unusual. One Roman politician spent a fortune showering the crowd at the Circus with chickpeas, beans, and lentils. (I'm thinking of Meg Whitman spending $141.5 million -- except I don't know if the Roman won or lost his election.) 
Garden produce was sometimes affordable to the lower or maybe middle classes, according to literary sources -- cabbage, leeks, beets, onions, garlic. It was a commonplace that poor people drank only water, while those who could afford it, drank wine. High-quality fish and the famous garum fish sauces were food for rich people, but poorer people could sometimes manage to buy or catch some not-so-nice fish from the even-then-polluted Tiber River. Even salt cost money -- spices were only for the rich. 

By late antiquity (3rd-4th centuries) Emperor Aurelian introduced distribution of free pork -- up to 25 kilos per person -- to as many as 120,000 people per year. Like the grain distributions, though, the recipients were often the representatives of larger families, who had to share their portions. Many poor people weren't eligible for any free food, with the result that malnutrition, especially among children, was common. The people of ancient Rome included the upper class rulers, slaves, freedmen (former slaves), artisans, soldiers, small farmers, and a vast number of urban poor. The banquets and refined cuisine that one most often hears about included participants from only a tiny fraction of the large Roman population.

*Information comes from Peter Garnsey, Cities Peasants and Food in Classical Antiquity, 1998, p. 242-245; Jeremy Paterson, "Trade and traders in the Roman world" in Trade, Traders and the Ancient City, ed. Parkins and Smith; and Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity. Photo shows Roman Emperor's villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lunch in Torres Torres: Guest Post by Arny

Arny writes about lunch in a Spanish village:
On Thursday we went to see our friends Adolfo and Fran's place in Torres Torres, where Adolfo grew up. They have spectacularly restored his grandparents' house, which is about 100 years old.

Our mutual friend Ramon picked us up at 12:30 and drove us the 35 miles to the village, pointing out some interesting old buildings and the high-rises of a resort community up the coast a ways from Valencia. Torres Torres is named after two old towers, now in ruins, that sit above the village. I don't know why it's not Dos Torres, but I like Torres Torres better, and it won't get confused with the Lord of the Rings. Both Adolfo and Fran were eager to show us their house, which took 3+ years to renovate.

Here is a picture of Adolfo and Tracy, and part of Ramon, in the kitchen. There is Spanish walnut paneling in front of almost all the appliances and there's an American walnut door because the Spanish walnut can't be made into such a tall (3.5 meter) door.

While Fran made the salad, we walked with Adolfo to pick up the main course, an authentic paella (with chicken and rabbit), from a woman who has been making it for over 40 years. She has a special room with maybe a dozen places that she can cook over a wood fire. There were only 3 going Thursday, but at peak times she does 100 a day.

On the way back, I couldn't resist buying a huge bag of little oranges for 3 Euro. There was a representative bag hanging from the front door of a place a few doors down from Adolfo and Fran's. Ramon showed me that you needed to push the iron door open, take one of the bags on the floor of the entryway, and put the money in the mailbox. We were behind Adolfo on the walk back. He was amused when he saw the oranges, because A. they were from trees owned by the woman who made the paella and B. because he would have given me oranges from his own trees.

The meal was extremely good, and as we were finishing, Adolfo's aunt came by with and for dessert. She brought a very nice apple cake, and Fran brought out a pie-like thing that was basically a whole baked pumpkin.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Regulating a Farmers Market

The L.A. Times is reporting on the fraught issue of regulation of farmers markets:
"Shannon Reid, a market manager for Raw Inspiration, a nonprofit organization that runs 18 markets in Southern California ... told the regulators [from the California Department of Food and Agriculture] that she had caught a vendor repackaging produce from Mexico for sale at one of her markets but had been discouraged by her organization from reporting such violations to authorities. She said that her employer later retaliated against her after she did so anyway."
I am aware of less-serious accusations and ideological quarrels about what is local and self-produced food at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. This makes me think about how difficult it must be to police farmers who claim to be the producers of what they sell. Produce from Mexico is obviously beyond any gray area of local produce.

Issues of what can be claimed to be organic also plague produce sellers. If cheaper produce is mislabeled, its sellers can offer it more cheaply than the real thing, as organic produce is so much more expensive to produce and bring to market.

As a consumer, I can only hope that the regulators are vigilant and honest, and will be receptive to evidence of fraud -- in the L.A. case, the accuser had photos of the vendor repackaging tomatoes, and further, the same vendor had been caught out at similar misdeeds in the past.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Is there such a thing as pumpkin lasagna?


Pumpkin leftovers are a challenge. I made pumpkin soup on Halloween weekend because the pumpkin just looked too good to be a jack-o-lantern. Around half the roasted pumpkin was left from that recipe.

Today I was thinking about pumpkin ravioli, which seems generally flavored with sage and a white sauce. However, I'm too lazy to fool with all that filled dough. It seemed to me that it should be possible to use the same family of foods and flavors in pumpkin lasagna, so I googled it and found that lots of people have thought of this before. I'm not surprised.

I proceeded, using what I had in the house and getting some ideas from this blog post from Sweden: roasted pumpkin lasagna. The essential lasagna layers between the ready-made sheets of pasta were a white sauce (made from browned flour, sage, and milk), farmer's cheese (close enough to ricotta), the roast pumpkin cooked with oil/butter and browned onion, and various cheeses that I had on hand.

The result -- which you see in the middle of the picture -- was quite delicious. We ate quite a bit and also have some in the freezer for another dinner.

UPDATE: I made it again, with slight variations, and we served it the night before Thanksgiving. Here is a real recipe: Pumpkin Lasagna Recipe by Request as I promised to several people.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Joan Nathan at the Book Festival

Joan Nathan's presentation this evening about her book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous was in the form of an interview with Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman's Deli. The two have known each other for many years, and are both very effective speakers, so the audience had a feeling of being in a very interesting discussion between two lovers of food. Especially French food. The discussion ranged widely, covering not only the food, but also the history and origins of the Jews of France, their general reticence, and especially their tendency for a long time to avoid discussion of their Holocaust experiences.

The two speakers had a rather detailed discussion of the Jewish quarter of Paris, the Marais, in which Jews settled some time in the Middle Ages. I especially enjoyed their conversation about two delis owned by the the Finkelsztajns -- now ex-spouses. Florence Finkelsztajn -- whose deli both speakers prefer -- gave Joan Nathan a recipe for her pletzel, a type of biali, on which her deli serves a delicious pickeled beef sandwich. I know I've eaten in the Finkelsztajn deli, but I think it was prior to their divorce when there was just one store. I definitely realize that my experience of Paris and my reading on French Jews has ranged widely, but is very out-of-date.

Before tonight's presentation, a local caterer served an amazing buffet of desserts made from Nathan's recipes, including cheesecake and several other cakes and tortes. The book has been available only since last Tuesday, so this must be a remarkable baker. I hope to find an excuse to make some of the recipes soon.

It was most enjoyable.

A Perfect Description of a Banana

Many of you know me personally, and probably therefore know that I hate bananas. Well, in today's New Yorker, I found the most perfect description of bananas that I've ever seen, Roz Chast's article "Bananas" accompanied by the lovely illustration at right.

For example, Chast says:
"I am disgusted by bananas’ texture. Compare the texture of a banana—mushy, baby-foodish, almost what you would feed a sick person—with the brisk athletic crispness of an apple. And, please, not one of those bulk apples you buy in a plastic bag. Those are mealy and they give all fruit a bad name. It’s no wonder so many kids don’t like fruit, if that’s the only kind of fruit they’ve ever had. I mean like a really good Macoun or Honeycrisp."
This is the best description I've ever heard. Exactly how I feel.

And about banana peel. She mentions a person eating a banana, slowly --
"But watch how the peel starts to drape over the hand. Now the banana is halfway eaten. The peel is now draping over the entire hand. Finally, the person finishes the banana and is left holding this disgusting peel, which is quickly turning brown and smelly! It’s not like an apple core, which you could throw out a car window and think, even though you’d be kidding yourself, Maybe an apple orchard will start here. Or an orange peel, which you wouldn’t throw out a car window, but at least it smells nice. ... The banana peel is garbage of the worst sort, the kind you must get rid of right away. You need to walk quickly to the nearest trash receptacle, throw it in, and then nonchalantly walk away, all the while giving off psychic vibes that you know nothing about it, that it’s somebody else’s peel."

I recommend reading this if you hate bananas. Or if you love bananas and want to know how a banana hater feels. And now don't tell me I'm the only person in the world who hates bananas except for Ladelle.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My New Cookbook

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France

Published last week, Joan Nathan's Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France is now number four on's French cookbook bestseller list -- behind 2 editions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and one other book. It's quite beautiful, with many color photos and historic illustrations.

I spent quite a bit of time reading the narrative parts of the text and looking over the pictures this afternoon (while simultaneously watching the Jon Stewart rally on streaming video). After also looking at the ingredient lists for the recipes, I expect I'm going to have fun trying the recipes. The background on Jewish life and cooking in France is quite enjoyable, though not very detailed. Nathan's recipes represent a wide collection from Jewish cooks she interviewed. I was a little surprised because she did not seem to search out historical recipes from earlier eras: just to find those that still maintain an active place in the living repertoire.

Nathan will be at the Jewish Book Festival in Ann Arbor Monday night to promote the book. I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say about it, and assume she'll tell some more tales of the people she met and the homes, shops, markets, and restaurants she visited.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I always buy Halloween candy that I like, especially little Butterfingers, Snickers, and Hershey's minis. This year I also mixed in some peppermint kisses that are made of that waxy not-even-chocolate white stuff with chips of peppermint. I think they were technically early Christmas candy.

To my surprise, several food writers are taking this stuff seriously. Or sort of seriously: examining the calorie content and comparing nutrition in peanut M&Ms to the nutrition facts about other candy that didn't have that nice peanut protein (here and here). Or describing the taste of the candy with words like "floral" or "toasty, nutty notes." In Our taste test of fine and foul Halloween candies, the author, normally a super-serious food writer at, vacillates in just how serious he's taking the taste test.

I'm going to give a couple pieces of candy each to several hundred kids dressed up in costumes, whose mothers might let them eat it -- or whose mothers might eat it for them. The next block over from us will be closed to car traffic to encourage and protect the trick-or-treaters. This will probably cause even more than the usual hundreds to show up here. I'll be glad to see them. I do not think that the nutritional value of one or another kind of candy is at issue. And if I gave them little boxes of raisins, it would seem mean-spirited. Also, I would miss my minimum annual requirement of Butterfinger bars.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Do You Like Butter?

Miriam and Alice are almost ready for Halloween with their costumes: sticks of butter.


The Jack-o-Lanterns are also ready to light. A maze made of bales of hay was a fun place to play while we were also picking out all the pumpkins:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sunset Memories

Today's New York Times has a great review of the century or more of Sunset Magazine. See this: The Original California Cuisine, Courtesy of Sunset Magazine. In my early days of cooking, I lived first in Berkeley, then La Jolla, and tried many recipes from Sunset. For a year, I worked in an office with a number of clerks and nurses who talked cooking all the time, and they recommended it. I've always regretted that its focus is so totally on the West, while I live here in Michigan. Reading it makes me too sad -- though I continued to subscribe and use the Sunset cookbooks for many years after I moved away from its region. I think my favorite recipe was for a cheesecake with a swirl of chocolate on top. It's been decades since I made that cheesecake.

Sunset was especially my frequent source of Thanksgiving ideas. Since it's coming up, here's one recipe:

Wild Rice and Sourdough Stuffing with Almonds

(Sunset, Nov. 92: for a 17 lb. turkey or a smaller turkey with some in a pan)

1/2 loaf of sourdough bread (1.5 LB loaf)

1/2 c. sliced almonds (1/4 LB by wt)

1 lb. Italian turkey sausage

2 large onions, chopped

1 TB. each rosemary and sage

1 and 1/2 c. wild rice, rinsed and drained

6 c. turkey stock, made the night before from turkey neck etc. (see below)

Night before: cook rice in 4 c. broth: bring to boil in 3 qt. pan, turn down, simmer 60 min, stirring occasionally. Leave in pan overnight on back of stove. Rice will absorb liquid. (When we didn't have enough time, we did this just before making the turkey, with less liquid, and it was not bad.)

Just before stuffing bird: spread bread cubes on rimmed cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 20 min; set aside. Then bake almonds on same sheet for 10 min; set aside with bread. Crumble sausage onto pan and mix with onion and herbs. Cook for 1/2 to 3/4 hr. Discard any fat. Pour remaining 2 c. broth over bread, allow to absorb. Mix all ingredients together, stuff and truss turkey immediately. Original suggests baking dressing in a separate pan, but I stuffed a 17 lb.. turkey, including much stuffing between the skin and the breast and cooked for 5 hours with an aluminum foil tent, first half hour at 425 degrees, remaining at 325. This is as I made it, with adaptations to published recipe. If made in a pan, should have some butter added.

Here are some other recipes that I saved:

Sunset Green Chile Strata

A Sunday Brunch dish.

3/4 LB cheddar, Swiss, or mozzarella

1 LB bulk sausage or ground pork

5-6 slices white bread, buttered & cubed

4 oz can Old El Paso green chilies

4-6 eggs

1-2 cups milk

Salt, pepper, Chile powder

Brown and drain sausage. Shred cheese. Layer half the bread- sausage-chilies-cheese in buttered casserole dish. Repeat layers. Pour mixture of eggs, milk, and spices over all, and let stand over night. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Italian Pickled Vegetables

Made for Evelyn's Recital, 1986 and Evelyn & Tom's Wedding, 2000; these are Evelyn's instructions for making it in 2000, as I long ago gave her the edition of the Sunset Italian Cookbook in which it appears.

12-18 small carrots, about 3/4 in in diameter

1 small bunch celery

2 large red bell peppers

1 large (about 2 lbs) cauliflower

1 cup salt

4 quarts cold water

1 pound onions peeled

(calls for pickling or tiny white, but we cut regular)

2 quarts white vinegar

1/4 cup mustard seeds

2 tablespoons celery seeds

1 small dried hot red chile

2 1/2 cups sugar

Peel carrots; cut in half lengthwise and then into 1 1/2-inch lengths; measure 4 cups. Remove strings from celery; slice lengthwise and then into 1 1/2-inch lengths; measure 3 cups. Remove seeds and stems from peppers and cut into 1-in-wide strips. Break cauliflower into 1 1/2-in-thick flowerets and trim stems.

Stir salt into the cold water until dissolved. Add measured carrots and celery, peppers, cauliflowerets, and onions. Let stand, covered, in refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours; then drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again.

In a 6-quart pot, combine vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, chile, and sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for 3 minutes. Add vegetables and boil until vegetables are almost tender (10 minutes); discard chile.

Store in refrigerator in jars. (They have instructions on canning. We didn't do that though.)

I made it two weeks in advance.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Four Meals"

The novel Four Meals by Meir Shalev portrays several strong-minded characters living in Israel before and soon after Israeli independence. The book is very sensual, describing tastes, smells, the beauty of the landscape, and deep feelings among the characters. It's hard to describe the technique of writing -- reading is almost like looking close up at an impressionist painting and then stepping back and seeing a street scene or a row of trees or a grain field.

Each section of the book describes a meal served to the narrator by Jacob, one of his three possible fathers. The meals take place at very long intervals and different stages of their lives. The food at each meal includes a delicious dessert, a foamy combination of wine, sugar, and eggs that the father learned once from an Italian POW during the war -- a man who made a big impression on him. Tastes and smells echo throughout the book, gathering significance.

The book begins:
"On warm days, a soft smell of milk rises from the walls of my house. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, tiles cover the ground, but from the pores of the walls and the cracks of the floor, the smell rises to me, persists, steals in like the sweat of an ancient love.

"Once my house was a cowshed... And a woman lived in the cowshed, she worked and slept in it, dreamed and wept. And on a bed of sacks she gave birth to her son."
Much is hinted in these initial words, along with a glimpse of the mother's eccentric nature. As the novel proceeds, more and more tastes, smells, and complex Israeli experiences merge into an overall impression of life in that long-ago time.

One taste that recurs is salt. A character named Judith may have been the narrator's half-sister. Or not. But she made cheese and pickles "salty-spicy little cucumbers she pickled in jars in the window of the cowshed ... Many times I have tried to make pickles like hers, and didn't succeed, but I can evoke the memory of their smell in my nose and then I slide my tongue over my teeth... salty salty salty salty salty salty salty ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas..." (p. 132)

Jacob, who cooks the four meals, says "cooking salt is better than table salt that dissolves altogether. But in the soul, love with worry and with hate should be mixed together, and anger with longing with fear with a little joy should be mixed together. Otherwise it cuts you up in pieces." (p. 164)

Much later at another meal Jacob describes how he felt very sorry for Italian who taught him the key recipe: "Not because he escaped from the POW camp... But because he sat down at the table and three fingers he put into the bowl of salt and put some for himself on the palm of his other hand and from there he licked the salt with his tongue just like a cow from her stone in the trough." (p. 262)

Each meal ends with the key dessert: "Jacob boiled a pot of water on the fire, cracked an egg into the palm of his had, slipped the white between his spread fingers, and put the yolk into the bowl. A little wine, a little sugar, and the whisk was gleaming in his had, steam rose, and the warmth emitted the smell of wine in the air." (p. 248)

Finally, the narrator makes the dish for himself "and all at once the rich fragrance of zabaglione rose in the air. ... I stood up and slid my tongue over my top teeth from right to left and from left to right sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews" (p. 282)

The aromas and tastes that support this story, which is at the same time realistic and fairy-tale-like, are presented in a very special way, making it a quite imaginative book.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Buying Honey


Elaine and Larry at the Lafayette Farmers' Market.

Lafayette Farmers' Market




At the market in downtown Lafayette, Indiana, many of the sellers are farmers selling their own produce, but others sell produce from other locations. The tomatoes in the photo, for example, were from nearby in Indiana, but the same farmer was selling Idaho onions. No frost yet -- so lots of beautiful things are still in season that often have disappeared by mid-October.