Sunday, January 31, 2010

Diego Rivera

The murals by Diego Rivera are the centerpiece of the Detroit Art Institute.

Art and Artichokes

The Detroit Art Institute offers a wealth of pictures, sculpture, and decorative arts. Today I was interested in some of the fine chinaware and silver tableware in the collection, and also in still life painting from the Dutch Golden Age. Artichoke paintings are by Frans Snyders and Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh. I was surprised at how many times artichokes were represented -- I also liked the asparagus dishes and the oyster painting, and many others.

Tea in Detail

Recently, my culinary reading group read a very nice tea book; see "Liquid Jade". I decided to look at another book, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. I'm very glad our discussion leader opted for the one we read -- he considered this one, but it was too expensive. It is also a highly technical book about tea cultivation, production, varieties, and tea tasting. Since I'm not a connoisseur, the book is too much for me, and I only scanned it.

Any book has some interesting tidbits, though, and I was struck by various bits on the history of tea-drinking vessels in several cultures. Here is what the book says about a certain type of Chinese teacup:
To complement this new powdered tea, Song emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125) commanded the royal pottery works to create new tea-drinking cups.... Huizong favored deep chocolate-brown, almost black glazed teacups, streaked with fine, thin tan lines. Known as "rabbit hair glaze," this style became very popular as it was said that the black glaze pleasingly offset the color of the froth of the whisked tea. ... These dark cups ... showed off the tea to an advantage. (p. 12-13)
In museums I've often seen these rabbit-hair glazed teacups and found them beautiful. Later I believe the Japanese came to value them also. So this information about their origin appealed to me.

Addendum: this afternoon at the Detroit Institute of Art I photographed a Chinese tea bowl of the era and type described in the above passage (photo at top of blog post). The label reads "Tea Bowl, 960-1279, Stoneware, iron 'hare's fur' glaze; Jian kilns, Fujian province, China."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon"

Jorge Amado's book Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is set in a rural town in the cacao-producing area of Bahia, Brazil, in 1925. Major change occurs in the few months covered in the story. The book's many and varied characters experience political change, social change, and upheavals in personal attitudes. The pace of the book is very leisurely, and it provides a great deal of detail about the social milieu and customs in which the changes take place.

Gabriela, a young girl from the "back country," is the center of the story. Her skin is the color of cinnamon, and her aroma is of cloves. Her beauty and naive charm captivate first the town's men, but eventually even many of the women. She's such a free spirit that she almost seems to serve as a beacon for the changing times.

Nacib, who was brought to the town from Syria at age 4, is the owner of a bar and cafe. Looking for a cook, he hires Gabriela from the "slave market." Soon, he grows to love her and marries her despite her very low status. He then finds that he can't turn her into the refined woman he envisioned. The solution to his dilemma is imaginative and full of irony (but I won't spoil it). Besides Gabriela's attractiveness, she has a nearly superhuman skill: cooking the native dishes of Bahia. I think vivid descriptions of these dishes play a major role in most if not all of Jorge Amado's wonderful books.

Gabriela's first cooking is done for Nacib alone. She brings lunch to his cafe: "'Ah!' he exclaimed, as he inhaled the aroma from the chicken stew, the jerked beef, the rice, the beans, and the banana compote." (p. 153)

Next, she fixes bar snacks for his customers. "Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits." (p. 171)

Nacib becomes more and more dependent on her both for love and for food. "How could he keep the bar going without Gabriela's pastries and appetizers...? And how could he exist without Gabriela's lunches and dinners with their peppery black gravies, or without her steamed manioc with coconut milk for breakfast?" (p. 189)

Finally, after a break with her, Nacib opened a restaurant, trying to forget Gabriela and her perfections. He and his business partner hired a woman from the city as a cook, but she "cooked only unimaginative dishes, hich were nevertheless full of grease and too highly seasoned. Her desserts were too sweet. The appetizers ... were a mess." (p. 400)

Then they hired a French chef. "Fernand ordered outlandishly expensive ingredients. He insisted on canned olives, canned fish, canned hams. The appetizers cost nearly as much as they sold for. ... What a difference, my God, between Fernand's meat patties and the ones Gabriela used to make! His were doughy and stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth. Hers were agreeably piquant and fragile; they melted on the tongue and called for another drink." (p. 404-405)

Besides Nacib and Gabriela, the book describes the planting, harvesting, and selling of cacao; the planters' rivalries; and the hardships of the workers. But most of all, we learn the relationships between many classes and types, through development of a number of vivid individuals. Old men who had ruled by murder and hired violence find themselves unable to win the loyalty of a new type of person. A more democratic way to govern is replacing their rule by bullets. Women who had been put down and treated as slaves experience less progress. Besides Gabriela, there is Gloria, the mistress of a rich man. And also a schoolgirl, a minor character, who escapes to the big city and takes control of her life. At the beginning, a betrayed husband kills his wife and her lover. By the end of the book, many people are seeking a new way to handle such affairs.

And of course, at the end of the book, Gabriela returns to cook in Nacib's restaurant and to remain the free-spirited and beautiful creature she was comfortable being.

Coasting on this one

I was kind of thinking of rereading some J.D.Salinger since he just died. I think I did read Catcher in the Rye again, at least once, since the age of 14 when I first read it. That was probably when Evelyn was around 14. But I have not looked at any Salinger since I started searching every novel and detective story for food themes and ways food advances the plot, the characterization, or the general atmosphere. Further, I do not think I have reread any of the Glass family saga since it was published in book form. My friend Olga and I had gone into the library stacks and searched out these and other Salinger stories in old magazines before they became a book. So I had in fact read them prior to book form. Maybe I never did read them again.

But I'm in luck: I get to coast on Salinger and food, because Diner's Journal in the New York Times started this endeavor with a piece on the chicken sandwich consumed by Franny Glass, specifically "when Franny’s date orders a sophisticated French meal and she has a chicken sandwich that she doesn’t touch."

And they asked readers to contribute food notes from Salinger's collected works -- not to mention the frequent references to drinking. Here are two quotes about Holden Caulfield that I liked from those comments:
"The steaks at Pencey Prep, served each Saturday night so that when students' parents visited the next day and asked how their sons were eating, the honest answer would delight them."

"Holden enjoys a grilled swiss cheese sandwich. I had one today in his honor. Not on rye though."
Thank you, Diner's Journal!

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Mangoes & Curry Leaves"

When this book was published, reviewers made it sound very appealing, but it's huge and expensive so I didn't buy it. At the library today, I browsed into a copy and hauled it home.

Mangoes & Curry Leaves is an enjoyable culinary journey through the Indian sub-continent. I think it reads more like a blog than like a narrative. The two authors have a strong and distinctive point of view, but the vignettes about their lifelong travels in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and so on don't cohere into a single narrative voice.

Unfortunately, the book design gave me problems. The huge page format (around 10" high and 12" wide) is awkward for layout. Some terrible typographic choices make reading challenging (pale yellow type on a red-orange background, with the first line on the page an even paler yellow -- Puh-leeze.)

The contents are organized not geographically but by recipe types, beginning with the chapter on "Chutneys, Salsas & Sambols." Travel bits are interspersed among the recipes and also given as introductions to some recipes (adding to that blog-like feeling). This is another reason why the book doesn't seem very coherent.

All the book's descriptive information about food, along with the recipes, does create a very appetizing read, and often very informative. The names of all the varieties and preparations of plain rice took me by surprise, since rice to me always seems pretty much of a background item. The authors comment on the wide range of fruits, vegetables, and spices in the subcontinent, and how regional differences in climate and varying religious taboos affect the choices, especially of meat. They mention particularly what a large overlap there is with the American diet. Potatoes, they point out, are a staple in India. One finds them much more frequently in the local and even tourist restaurants one encounters than in Indian homes -- but after all, they remark, that's true in North America too.

Since I just obtained and skimmed the book this afternoon, I didn't try any recipes, just daydreamed about getting right back in the car and heading toward the Indian food market, which ironically is very near the library branch where I found the book.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Another Literary Death

I am still feeling sad for Robert B. Parker, and reread Night Passage, the first Jesse Stone detective novel. In it I found a wonderful passage about the food at a yacht club buffet attended by the unsavory town fathers of Paradise, MA -- including "a large molded salad made of lime Jell-O and cabbage; pigs in a blanket; goldfish crackers; ... Ritz crackers..." and lots more including a bowl of "Nuts and Bolts" which is salted cereal bits mixed with pretzels and peanuts.

But my memories of Parker have to be put on the back burner. I just found that J.D.Salinger has died at the age of 91, having been a recluse for close to 60 years. I still have my original-cover paperback of The Catcher in the Rye, which I read in junior high at the recommendation of a neighbor, Mrs. Rosen, who always suggested and loaned me books that no one else would share.

The New York Times has evidently been polishing his obit for years: it's very long and very very complete. See

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

While Steve Jobs Announces...

I am cooking and keeping an eye on the live blogging of the much-hyped iPad. So far my favorite coverage is from The Onion: Frantic Steve Jobs Stays Up All Night Designing Apple Tablet.

From the New York Times BITS blog, I have learned that "The New iPad Looks Like a Big iPhone" and that it has crisp colors, a touch screen, and (so Jobs says) a long battery life -- BITS warns "there’s a long history of power hyperbole in all categories of gadgets."

The reporter promised: "I’m cutting out all of Mr. Jobs’s 'phenomenals' and 'amazings' and 'incredibles,' folks. Just assume they are there." So this is not as good as being there.

Simultaneously, I'm working on the food I bought at Whole Foods this morning. I scaled and oven-grilled a large salmon fillet, and covered it with mayo, lemon, and herbs for tonight's dinner. I cut up a whole chicken -- too good a deal to pass up -- and I'm simmering stock from the backbone, wing tips, and keel bone. I broke up two heads of organic garlic to fit in my garlic jar. And I cooked some baby eggplant with onion, spices, and tomatoes. (Very weird thing: the Dei Fratelli brand canned tomatoes were labeled "Whole Tomatoes" but inside the can I found sliced tomatoes with identifiable bits of celery and pepper. Note to self, buy a different brand of tomatoes next time).

I've learned that Steve Jobs looks thin. There are various apps for doing stuff like photo touch ups and lots of music. And the New York Times is reporting on the iPad app for The New York Times. “We think we captured the essence of reading a newspaper,” sums up what they've done.

Would the iPad be better for what I'm doing right now on the full-sized desktop Mac in my kitchen? I don't know, but maybe it would be easier to clean tomato sauce and other food off of it, as has to be done with this one from time to time when my food prep sloshes over the divider between the counter and the desk. I guess I better check for fish scales. I wonder what they would do to the iPad.

No scales there. I'm mainly done with washing all the pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards. Writes the BITS guy: "Seems like it is living up to the hype, or at least coming close."

"'Isn’t this awesome?' Jobs says. It is, but everything looks good on stage. Nothing ages faster than the future when you get it in your hands."

Finally, they've gotten to the Books app -- "Apple and Amazon are on a collision course." Now this could make a difference to me. I wonder if they will have cookbooks. Again, I hope it's washable. Guess I'm done.

Restaurant Notes

Although I don't dine in the type of places reviewed in major newspapers, I find that reading the restaurant reviews can be very amusing. Today's papers offered some reviews about Asian fusion cooking. Among other things, they illustrated that what seems new might not be really so new.

In the L.A.Times, I read about a new Las Vegas restaurant named Shaboo, where a meal costs $500. "Hot pot cooking goes haute" describes Masayoshi Takayama -- "the sushi chef whose New York restaurant Masa might be the epitome of rarefied Japanese dining in the U.S." He's tweaked the once-humble hot pot menu to include the most exotic and expensive ingredients, and eventually hopes to add solid gold hot pots to cook them in. "A supplemental dessert of white truffle ice cream costs $95. The restaurant's name is a slightly infelicitous play on the words 'shabu' and 'taboo.' Will the 'Viva Elvis' crowd go for it?"

In the N.Y.Times "The Way We Ate: Too Old to Tiki?" compared New York Tiki bars and fake Polynesian restaurants through the ages. From 1964 to 1969, the article notes, a restaurant called the Gauguin Room "served liberally interpreted Polynesian to a Park Avenue crowd. The menu was an anthropological marvel of arbitrary Tahitian references and nonsense pidgin—'Papeete' referred to Cornish game hen, and a chow mein dish was sold as 'Pork Ding Dong'—but apparently it all tasted good, and the cocktails were enormous. Nobody really thought it was authentic, least of all Craig Claiborne, who described the food as a pan-Asian fantasy." The article concludes, "This year, two forthcoming neo-Polynesian ventures ... are banking on the return of our lost innocence, or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief."

And in the ultimate fusion craziness: combining self-indulgent eating with Yoga practice: "When Chocolate and Chakras Collide" describes the spread of this trend, where after Yoga class participants eat a variety of food, not necessarily related to any known Yoga tradition -- "The past decade has produced thousands of new foodies and new yogis, all interested in healthier bodies, clearer consciences and a greener planet. Inevitably, the overlap between the people who love to eat and the people who love to do eagle pose has grown."

I've just begun to take some Yoga classes after a long time away from it. This sounds like a completely terrible idea to me. But I expect it to catch on and come to Ann Arbor in some undignified copy-cat way. We have that problem here. We get the worst of such trends.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"The Apprentice"

In anticipation of a future culinary book discussion, I've been reading The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin. The early chapters capture an era of life in France that I almost experienced, just after World War II, when prosperity returned to Paris and reached into the provinces, but before many elements of life were modernized. The last part of that era, in the mid-60s, corresponds to my first stay there, which has made me permanently curious about life in that time.

Pépin's earliest memories were actually during the war in villages and the countryside. The war affected his childhood , but didn't exert the hardships that many Europeans suffered. Once the war was over, his mother began to buy old dilapidated restaurants, to restore the buildings with the help of his father, a carpenter and a good wine buyer, and to develop clientele. After each restaurant was making money, she would sell and buy a better one. Pépin describes her activities vividly, and creates in the reader an awareness of the many lessons he learned, perhaps above all the lesson of never wasting any edible food no matter how marginal it seemed. For example, she used the dregs at the bottom of wine casks to make wine sauce.

At age thirteen, Pépin took his school-leaving exam and became the lowest apprentice in a restaurant kitchen in Bourg-en-Bresse. I found nothing surprising about his description of apprenticeship, based my on reading other stories of old-style French restaurant life. He experienced long hours, hard work, no pay, occasional harassment, and high expectations on the part of his chef.

The most vivid descriptions deal with Pépin's view of food. He stresses that learning to cook meant watching, imitating, touching, hearing and smelling. No written recipes and few oral instructions characterized his experience. He writes:
By touching a piece of meat, I learned to determine its degree of doneness. Raw meat was spongy, well-done meat hard. I learned precisely how to determine all the stages in between by pushing a finger against the surface of the meat. Hearing was significant, too. The snap of an asparagus spear, the crunch of an apple, the pop of a grape are all indicators of freshness and quality. I learned to listen to the sizzling sound of a chicken roasting in the oven. When le poulet chante (the chicken sings), I knew that the layers of fat had clarified, signifying that the chicken was nearly done. Smell was of importance in recognizing quality. A fresh fish smells of the sea, seaweed, and salt. Fresh meat has a sweet smell, fresh poultry practically no smell at all. Melon, pears, tomatoes, raspberries, oranges and the like each have their own distinctive fragrance when perfectly ripe. (p. 59-60)

After receiving his working papers as a chef, Pépin worked in several famous restaurants in Paris, and was drafted into the French army. Instead of being sent to the war in Algiers, however, he was assigned to be the chef first to a cabinet minister and then to the Prime Minister. From his later perspective as an American chef, he realized the major contrast in attitude of French and Americans towards even the most highly-placed chefs. Unlike chefs at the White House, he received no attention (not even a mention in a magazine, much less an article) as a result of having cooked for Charles DeGaulle.

Pépin's experiences in America (which I haven't finished reading) seem interesting enough, and he did participate in some major restructuring of American tastes and views on food. I suspect that the chapters on his French experiences may end up being my favorites.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


In DINING AT MCLAUNDRY travel writer Mark Vanhoenacker of the Guardian compares a meal he ate at the famous French Laundry in Napa with the other "most internationally renowned" American restaurant: McDonalds. I found his article hilarious. A few highlights:
Both restaurants have a set menu. At McDonald's, they call this their Value Meal, which comes with a soda-pairing. Their Dollar Menu also essentially works as a tasting menu, letting diners sample widely on smaller portions.

...At McDonald's one is not likely to be served such French Laundry delights as a Tajine of Sweetbreads or Confit de Coeur de Veau. ... Yet these are just the sorts of animal parts that fast-food restaurants have long been accused of stuffing into their burgers. Why is offal okay when Thomas Keller uses it? Both restaurants serve impressive pommes frites.

...This is not to diminish the thoughtful criticism that is often lobbed at McDonald's. Many accuse the fast-food chain of enslaving diners with precision-engineered, high-fat, high-salt food that is nearly drug-like in its power to induce a delirious, short-lived “high”, followed by an uncontrollable desire for more. It is just that this pretty much describes the food at the French Laundry, too, just at a considerably higher personal financial cost.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Edible Colors

I was wondering how I developed the images of colors that are most vivid in my mind. I'm sure that like every toddler learning to talk and name colors, I learned to identify apples and tomatoes with the color red, bananas and lemons with yellow, and oranges and carrots with orange. Green beans, peas, celery, and spinach, though familiar on my plate, were probably not mentioned in my color-teaching baby books.

The radio sang to me about J-E-L-L-O which spelled Jello and came in Raspberry, Strawberry, Cherry, Orange, Lemon, and Lime. Our family mainly stuck to raspberry and lemon. Lifesavers came in a 5-flavor pack: red, orange, lemon, green, and grape. Wint-o-green Lifesavers -- in a roll colored dark green -- were themselves white. Another roll offered pale colors like pink grapefruit or apple. Other hard candy and lollipops created other color-flavor associations. But when we ate grapes, they were light green, not deep purple like a Lifesaver or Welsch's Grape Jelly. The dull color of the half of a lime in the limeade at the Kresge lunch counter didn't look or taste like green Jello or a green Lifesaver.*

Crayola crayons were my major source of color knowledge. First were the eight basic crayola colors in one row in a box. They included the rainbow list that I had memorized: red, orange, yellow, green, blue as well as black, white, brown, but they always used the name violet where I had learned to call it purple. Though there was once a plum crayola, there was never a purple crayola, if the website doesn't lie. (But there was a book about Harold and his purple crayon.)

The 48 crayola box became available when I was in early elementary school. (I know this because I'm looking at the history of crayola colors here.) Apricot, salmon, melon, lemon yellow, olive green, and orange crayola colors connected directly with foods. I must have tasted crayons, at least once, but they did not taste like their names at all. Other foods on our table every day didn't appear in the crayon box at all, though their names are also colors -- coffee, cream, eggshell, cocoa. Not to mention one that I saw at school not at home: bubblegum.

Soft drink colors and flavors were even more unlike their food namesakes -- Orange, Grape, Black Cherry, and Cream Soda (which was vivid red). Our family had a color we called "borscht pink" which was not the color of beets, but the color of beet borscht that had been mixed with egg white while hot and then with sour cream while cold -- and thus turned a much pinker, lighter color. My mother once caught sight of a dish of strangely artificial-looking pickle relish at an amusement park food seller's counter; she said one should never eat anything that was that shade of green. She turned out to be right -- a dangerous dye had once been found in similar foods. Eggplant, papaya, mango, watermelon, pineapple, and many other colors named for foods also came into my visual and gustatory vocabulary over time.

I'd be willing to swear that there was a Chartreuse crayola color, but I can't find anything but yellow-green and green-yellow until the 1970 box of seventy colors. I never connected any taste to that color until I visited the Alps and learned about the sharp, medicinal liqueur made at the monastery of the Chartreuse fathers. Obviously also I was an adult when the color words claret, burgundy, chablis, wine, and champagne became meaningful to me.

Many crayola colors connected to other natural objects, plants, or flowers -- lavender, rose, goldenrod, mulberry (we had them on a tree but didn't eat them), sky blue, mahogany, flesh (changed to peach years later for political reasons), brick red, silver, copper, pine green, aquamarine, and so on. Along with magenta, maize, fuchsia, burnt sienna, raw umber, and many other crayola colors, all assumed a firm place in my mental color spectrum. It was years before I learned that maize meant corn, that Sienna and Umbria were regions of Italy with vividly colored dirt, that there were flowers called fuchsias or that turquoise was a stone. I still don't know what magenta comes from -- ok, I googled it, it doesn't refer to anything in my experience to date, it's just a chemical dye. Like mauve.

More color imagery outside of food or crayolas includes stones that give names to colors: amber, jade, ruby, emerald, topaz, lapis lazuli. Lapis is used in Chinese carving, as I learned about in a poem by William Butler Yeats -- in his imagined scene carved in lapis "Every discoloration of the stone,/Every accidental crack or dent,/Seems a water-course or an avalanche/Or lofty slope where it still snows."

I wasn't that old when I learned the lyrics to the Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado's song about letting the punishment fit the crime, condemning "The lady who dyes a chemical yellow. Or stains her gray hair puce, Or pinches her figure, Is painted with vigor. And permanent walnut juice." If there had been a Crayola named "puce" then I might be able to conjure a vivid mental image of the purplish-brown that the lady dyed her hair.

*Here's another strange fact from the web: the list of Jello flavors has grown a great deal since my childhood, while Lifesavers seem to have fewer choices. Jello now includes Berry Blue, Apricot, Strawberry-Banana, Pineapple, and Pina Colada, and many others, but not back then. And Lifesavers have only a few of the choices I recall.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The theme of want and deprivation is infrequent in current art works I'm familiar with. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, it was a different story. I was looking at the small collection at our local museum at the University of Michigan, wondering about the theme of food, food vendors, meals, and the other food themes I often notice. I found nothing (unless you count still life, which I don't). However, here is the picture that captured my attention: "Hunger" by George Grosz, Germany, 1924. His satires, I read in the accompanying documentation, called attention to the unequal effects of the economic downturn of the time. Sometimes his works prompted government censure.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Liquid Jade"

Last night my culinary book club discussed Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West by Beatrice Hohenegger. I enjoyed reading the book -- I liked it well enough to send a copy to my friend Marianna in Berlin.

As I thought about the book before the meeting, I also went looking on the web for information about some of the missing cultures that drink tea -- Russia, Turkey, the Arab world were not represented in Liquid Jade. The author's choices about which countries to cover and which to omit came up in a variety of ways in our discussion.

I enjoyed the discussion even more than the reading. A strong shared impression about Liquid Jade was the sense that it broke into two parts with somewhat different approaches. The early chapters described the legendary discovery of tea, the development of tea growing, and the almost mystical view of tea drinking in China and Japan. These chapters had a much vaguer historic approach than the later chapters, which were more social and politically oriented, as well as describing the content and origin of tea varieties and how tea is processed for consumption. Even author's discussion of tea as a trade commodity is handled differently in the earlier and later parts of the book.

Several people had noticed that the author is a curator of an exhibit about tea, and to that activity attributed her concentration on the material culture of tea -- porcelain cups and saucers, tea pots, etc. Among the many many other books on tea, it was observed, some don't even mention these items, but concentrate on other aspects of tea history, varieties and tastes of tea, and tea-drinking tradition.

The author's politics (which I didn't know but one person said were very left wing) were held responsible for her drastically negative view of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation of workers in the later chapters about the Opium Wars, the introduction of tea-growing to the British colonies of India and Ceylon, the rapacious traders, and the discussion on fair trade in modern agriculture. One response to this in our conversation was that no one could have a positive view of the way the British treated and viewed the "coolies" who worked in the colonial tea industry. We discussed the chapter on a letter from a high Chinese official to Queen Victoria, appealing to her sense of decency and asking her to drop the pushing of opium on the Chinese people. The response was the Opium War which destroyed the Chinese authority over the opium trade and had terrible consequences.

A number of personal stories about tea and our tea-drinking habits added a lot of interest to our discussion. The most amusing story was about a room-mate who wanted to make tea, but needed first some step-by-step instructions on how to boil water in a pot on the stove.

Two of the participants are avid tea drinkers -- one began to try different types of tea as a teenager, the other started with ordinary tea and now has a dedicated tea brewing apparatus, brews a variety of teas, uses distilled water, and has very decided ideas about the process. In connection with this, we engaged in some historic speculation about American availability of tea varieties, and the way that supermarkets in the 1950s reduced and standardized everyone's food -- and maybe tea -- choices.

Several other participants were moderate to indifferent tea drinkers, but had family stories. Two like me, with Russian-Jewish backgrounds, had memories that were corroborated by what I had read on the web and my own experience. Parents or grandparents drank tea from a glass or with jam, and some held a sugar cube in their teeth and strained the tea through it. My own father drank tea with the sugar cube between his teeth sometimes. When I was small, my mother made very strong essence of tea in a little teapot with a tea ball, diluting it with hot water when serving it -- which is what Russians do at the samovar and what orthodox Jews still do to avoid "cooking" on the sabbath. She later converted to tea bags.

One person (if I recall, he's from a typical American Kansas family) mentioned his grandmother's tea offerings: "We had cold Lipton and hot Lipton," he said, and the hot tea was always served with milk, the cold tea always sweetened. Several people mentioned being surprised that the book pointed out that iced tea is strictly American, though some mentioned foreign experiences where they had learned that even Canadians 30 years ago found iced tea utterly bizarre. Some mentioned southerners making tea with a huge amount of sugar, a practice now continued by McDonald's in their Sweet Tea (with 230 calories).

As I read, I also checked through some of my other books to see what I have about tea. I also thought about the sad and beautiful book Yasunari Kawabata's Thousand Cranes, in which the tea ceremony plays a role in creating the post-war atmosphere of loss of traditional culture and modernization.

This book about the tea ceremony in Japan was one example I found on my shelf.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert B. Parker

Robert Parker, author of the Spenser private detective novels and several other mystery series, has died, reports the Washington Post here. Parker's detective Spenser was a lover of good food, and during his searches for clues and witnesses, he often stopped to eat. He enjoyed a good donut with police friends or high-level gourmet food with his girlfriend Susan. I wrote about food as used in one of the Parker books here: Tuna-Noodle Casserole, Literary Version.

Parker was incredibly prolific, and I'll miss his regularly appearing books. According to the Post article Parker "was still at work, and preliminary reports indicated that he died at his desk."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Food Vendors at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"The Vegetable Stall" by Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam,
Dutch about 1620-1698
"The Fruit Vendor" by Pensionante del Saraceni,
Italian, active 1615-20

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Inspired to use my immersion blender, I made split pea, bacon, and vegetable soup tonight, garnished with crisp crumbled bacon.

"The World is Fat"

The World is Fat by Barry Popkin recently came out in paperback, so I bought it & read it. Overall, I found it a bit disappointing, as the insights he offers about the modern diet, the role of soft drinks in obesity, and the decline in exercise throughout the world are very well known. The same material in a similar form appears in many other food books that I've read, and some of them are more amusing or penetrating. His presentations of composite families in middle America, Mexico, Mexican-American Los Angeles, and India are interesting but he really doesn't have the gift of a fantastically vivid writer to bring the somewhat repetitive vignettes to life.

The very rapid changes in India, China, and Mexico that he documents were the most interesting part of the book. "The World is Flat -- and Fat" according to one chapter title. Popkin describes how rapidly -- just in the past 20 to 30 years -- the economies and options for food and work have changed in third-world countries. In contrast, he describes the slower changes in American life. We took more than 100 years for the introduction of packaged and prepared foods, fast-food and dining out as a habit, supermarkets with wide choices, transportation and labor-saving devices permitting a sedentary life-style, and home entertainment via TV and computers. The latter give us something to do while not walking, hauling wood and water, or laboring in the fields -- and also provide us with commercials advertising the modern calorie-rich diet. A time-line of labor saving devices in America, many from the early years of the 20th century, supports the point about the pace of change.

In contrast, much of India has only recently come online on the electric grid, and Mexican women only recently could rely on ready-made tortillas and soft drinks to feed their families. The shock in these countries of adjusting to this changing world is not comparable to anything America went through. Americans responded with a slow increase in average weight. In contrast, one third of Mexican adults were overweight or obese in 1988; the figure increased to 71 percent of women and 65 percent of men in 2006. Diabetes went from obscure to widespread in that short time period. (p. 105)

One very important point Popkin makes throughout the book is that many factors have contributed to statistically increased obesity and related illnesses, both in the US and elsewhere. Specific targets of blame including fast food, sweetened beverages, and lack of exercise are different in different cultures -- always, a collection of factors characterize modern living. While sugary drinks are a major public health problem in Mexico, in China they are comparatively unknown, but other risks are growing. Popkin does not propose any magic bullets either via public health measures or individual choices.

The book's final chapter is an indictment of the food industry's efforts to suppress criticism. They have played an ugly role in recent struggles to regulate the food industry or widely inform people of scientific findings about food in the US and abroad. Because I follow food politics in newspapers and other sources, this wasn't news to me. However, this discussion is definitely comprehensive and useful.

Despite the newness of the book, several recent findings slightly alter my view of the conclusions. For example, there's the disaster of the so-called Smart Choices labeling, where the blue-ribbon panel was co-opted by the food industry -- or sold out. Also, just this week came an announcement that obesity levels in the US have leveled off for the last decade -- American Obesity Rates Have Hit Plateau, C.D.C. Data Suggest -- which he had no way to know.

The issues of food politics and public health measures that may counter a whole collection of dangerous trends are very complex, and clearly it takes a lot of time and effort to follow them. Popkin's book is surely a good way to catch up and review what I've been reading, but doesn't give me any choice but to keep trying.


In the streets of Port-au-Prince, one hears on TV and news stories, people have no food, water, shelter. Many have been sleeping in the streets, side-by-side with the bodies of those who did not survive the earthquake. At night, some sing hymns. It must be the saddest and most eerie sound ever. With the port destroyed and the small airport damaged, it's taking days for food and water to reach the blasted neighborhoods of the city. A few examples of looting -- such as the theft of bags of rice from a supermarket -- have been reported.

What would people in other countries do? Would they starve before they broke into warehouses or markets? Would men push women and children aside to grab supplies from the sporadic deliveries by truck as one TV report showed?

I think here in the US, should such a situation arise, people with guns would be defending their right to be first in line. Those of us who have no guns might be shot for whatever food we have. Isn't that why people defend their right to own guns?

I have a feeling that perhaps the people of Haiti are patient and trusting. But the information is as scarce as anything else. Grasping the extent of the disaster in Haiti is overwhelming. TV news gathering seems to reflect the chaos, not make sense of it.

This morning the NY Times had a graphic map with descriptions of the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and what happened there: The Magnitude of a Disaster.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Opera in the Market

I wish they would do this at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market!

Secret Recipes

One of the Nero Wolfe books I read recently had a sub-plot about Wolfe's quest for a secret recipe of one of the famous chefs in the detective story. This made me think about secret recipes and how they are hyped. I really wonder if having the recipe for a dish one has eaten in a restaurant truly enables the reproduction of that dish in a home kitchen. You have to cut the quantities, and lots of restaurant equipment is more powerful or just different than what one has at home.

I don't just mean a secret ingredient or technique -- some huge percent of recipes claim that something secret about them is for the first time being revealed. And I don't mean the repeating urban legend about the authentic recipe for Mrs.Fields cookies or some recipe from a hotel in New York or more recently, a recipe from Neiman-Marcus (this link to Snopes explodes a whole list of such legends going back 50 years). These were supposedly bought accidentally and then in revenge for the high price disseminated in chain letters (before the internet) and in email chain letters (from the dawn of the internet).

I know that many newspaper food sections and magazines (such as the LA Times and the late, great Gourmet) often obtain and publish restaurant recipes, sometimes with warnings that the necessary adjustment of for home kitchens may produce somewhat different results. Obviously, the publication of a recipe may give some help to a competing restaurant. But I really wonder if a home cook (or even Nero Wolfe's private chef) could truly duplicate the flavor one experienced in a restaurant. Or if the pleasure of eating a dish in a restaurant is irreproducible -- after all the perceived taste may be affected by candle-lit atmosphere, attentiveness of the server, beautiful arrangements of food on the plate, and even the expectations created by special cutlery, china plates, and whatever else contributes to the totality of eating the dish.

The other meaning of secret recipes of course involves commercial products such as Coke or Twinkies. Lots of recipe writers have claimed the ability to reproduce Twinkies -- I don't know why you wouldn't be satisfied to buy Twinkies when you wanted them, but that's not important now. I googled "secret recipe" and found offers of all sorts of books and websites with recipes for commercial products (love them or hate them). I've never seen a home recipe for Coke or Diet Coke, which seems realistic, but there are a huge number of others. As with Twinkies, I really wonder why anyone would bother if you can so easily buy it at Kroger's, 7-11, or anywhere.

"Strange News: The Truth Behind Secret Recipes in Coke, KFC, Etc." by Benjamin Radford is an interesting article I found on the website Live Science. He implies that the idea of a "secret recipe" is mainly an advertising trick. He says: "Coca-cola has one of the most famous secret recipes in the world; ads whimsically claim that only two men know the ingredient list, and describe the dire consequences that would befall the planet if the secret was ever lost, including a hole appearing in the fabric of the universe."

Radford asks this important question: are there really any secrets in this day of sophisticated laboratory analysis and legal requirements for a list that covers all ingredients? He says there may have been real secrets in the past --

But these days, any laboratory worth its sodium chloride can tell pretty much what chemicals and ingredients appear in what quantities of a given sample. It's food science, not rocket science.

In his book "Big Secrets," William Poundstone revealed a laboratory analysis of Kentucky Fried Chicken: "The sample of coating mix was found to contain four and only four ingredients: flour, salt, monosodium glutamate, and black pepper. There were no eleven herbs and spices — no herbs at all in fact... Nothing was found in the sample that couldn't be identified." So much for the "secret." In fact, the chicken's ingredient statement is available on KFC's Web site.

As for the secret of Coke, he says even that is on page 43 of Poundstone's book. I don't know what made me curious about this topic, but here it is.


Before I write any blog posts on other subjects, I feel I should say I'm thinking about the people of Port-au-Prince. Haiti seems to have so many more natural disasters than anywhere else, it's hard to grasp. However, there's nothing I can say. I have seen a number of potential ways to donate money, and many governments (such as the US and Israel) are sending appropriate disaster aid, portable hospitals, and food. What a feeling of helplessness.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What's wrong with High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Yesterday we were having a breakfast conversation about the high fructose corn syrup listed as an ingredient in my favorite breakfast cereals -- even not so sweet ones like bran flakes. It's commonplace to classify that as a problem, but why? What's wrong with HFCS?

First, when you see it on the label it's a proxy for a highly processed food. HFCS is not found in corn. It results from an industrial process using centrifuges and enzymes. This process dates from the 1970s. HFCS is added to soft drinks, fruit juice blends, cereal, baked goods, candy, and almost any processed food you can think of.

What is HFCS? From Jane Brody:
High-fructose corn syrup is made by converting the starch in corn to a substance that is about 90 percent fructose, a sugar that is sweeter than the sugar that fuels the body cells, called glucose, and processed differently by the body. The fructose from corn is then mixed with corn syrup, essentially pure glucose, to produce one of two mixtures called high-fructose corn syrup: 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, which is used to sweeten soft drinks, and 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose, which is used in products like breads, jams and yogurt.

Neither substance is radically different from ordinary sugar, which is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. The main difference is that in high-fructose corn syrup, the two sugar molecules are chemically separated, and in sucrose they are linked. Whether this difference is meaningful to health is still debated. [From "America’s Diet: Too Sweet by the Spoonful" by Jane Brody, NY Times, February 2009.]
What's the worst thing HFCS does? It makes it very easy to consume a lot of calories. It's cheap, up to 70% cheaper than sugar. Manufacturers use it in many sweet beverages, which are often sold in "Big Gulp" or "SuperSize" containers. There's evidence that when you drink your calories you don't as quickly feel as if you've had enough to eat, and if you thus add lots of calories to your diet, you gain weight. The presence in the American diet of HFCS-sweetened beverages may have contributed to a rise in obesity.

HFCS calories may or may not be metabolized exactly the same way as glucose: there is a chemical difference, and fructose is “really not part of our natural diet. Fruit contains only tiny amounts of it. We’ve gone from a few grams of it a day to tablespoons of it," says Dr. Barry M. Popkin, a nutrition professor (cited in the Brody article). According to an editorial "How bad is fructose?" in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (October 2007):
Why is fructose of concern? First, it is sweeter than either glucose or sucrose. In fruit, it serves as a marker for foods that are nutritionally rich. However, in soft drinks and other "sweets," fructose serves to reward sweet taste that provides "calories," often without much else in the way of nutrition. Second, the intake of soft drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or sucrose has risen in parallel with the epidemic of obesity, which suggests a relation. Third, the article in this issue of the Journal and another article published elsewhere last year implicate dietary fructose as a potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Fructose differs in several ways from glucose, the other half of the sucrose (sugar) molecule. Fructose is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract by a different mechanism than that for glucose. Glucose stimulates insulin release from the isolated pancreas, but fructose does not.
There is also evidence of HFCS being associated with heart and kidney disease, as summarized in an article from 2008:
End-stage renal disease rates rose following widespread introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the American diet, supporting speculation that fructose harms the kidney. Sugar-sweetened soda is a primary source of fructose. ...

CONCLUSIONS: Findings suggest that sugary soda consumption may be associated with kidney damage, although moderate consumption of 1 or fewer sodas does not appear to be harmful. Additional studies are needed to assess whether HFCS itself, overall excess intake of sugar, or unmeasured lifestyle and confounding factors are responsible. [From "Sugary soda consumption and albuminuria: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004."]
In another article in the NY Times, "Fructose-Sweetened Beverages Linked to Heart Risks," Nicholas Balakar reports that "a controlled and randomized study has found that drinks sweetened with fructose led to higher blood levels of L.D.L, or 'bad' cholesterol, and triglycerides in overweight test subjects, while drinks sweetened with another sugar, glucose, did not. Both L.D.L. and triglycerides have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease." This study, published in April, 2009, tracked and controlled the food intake of subjects. It studied fructose, not HFCS, but the results suggest that consumption of fructose has serious risks; however, the findings "do not imply that anyone should avoid fruit, which contains only small amounts of fructose and has other important nutritional benefits."

Most of the articles that I read agree that more study is needed to make an unequivocal link between HFCS and disease. As for weight gain: it's no improvement to substitute beverages and foods sweetened with other calorie-equivalent sweeteners such as sugar. I suspect that the small additions of HFCS to packaged breakfast cereal shouldn't stop me from eating one bowl per day.

Very serious public health issues surround the continued consumption of high amounts of sweetened beverages and foods, and the cheap trick that HFCS makes things taste good has implications for the collective weight of the nation. Lots of experts have already said this, and I hope someone listens.

Resolution Accomplished

I have now finished my third Nero Wolfe book, Champagne for One. Although it's published these days in the same volume with Too Many Cooks, it has virtually no food themes at all. It's a pretty conventional private detective story about a relatively ordinary murder in a rich person's home. Rex Stout published Champagne for One 20 years after Too Many Cooks, and includes occasional timely details such as a 1956 model automobile. Interestingly, Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's chef Fritz, the hired team of detectives, and members of the police are all still involved, and seem to be exactly the same ages as before. Further, the eccentric details of Nero Wolfe's life seem unchanged by the flow of time. I think I'll leave additional reading of this mystery series for another time.

Clearly, Rex Stout was always interested in food and though it has no major role, there are occasional mentions of what the characters ate. In particular, Archie eats one very appealing snack while doing surveillance of one of the suspects from a place called Amy's Nook: "I ate five pieces of pie, two rhubarb and one each of apple, green tomato, and chocolate, and drank four glasses of milk and two cups of coffee, while seated at a table by the front window from which I could see the entrance to 87, across the street and up a few doors. ... The pie, incidentally, was more than satisfactory. I would have liked to take a piece home to Fritz." (page 155)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Real Nero Wolfe

Too Many Cooks, published 1938, is the foodiest of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective stories, as far as I can determine. It's an early one: the first Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1934. Wolfe was an experienced private detective who lived in New York. References in the book suggest that his prime of life, before he became obese, sedentary, and crochety, was some time around World War I.

The basics of the story: in April, 1937, a group of 15 international master cooks, "Les Quinze Maitres," are holding a meeting at a resort hotel in West Virginia for a weekend of cooking and discussion. Each one brings one guest. Nero Wolfe and Wolfe's assistant Archie Goodwin, the book's narrator, are both chosen guests. Nero Wolfe's role as invitee is to present a scholarly paper of interest to the chefs. His private agenda is to acquire a secret recipe for saucisse minuit.

Needless to say, Wolf's role turns out to be identifying the murderer of one of the chefs, who dies during a tasting contest with a carving knife in his back. I'll refrain from discussing the murder, and stick to the food part, with only one comment: the racism of Archie Goodwin, and the anti-racist views of his employer were very interesting and maybe, in Wolfe's case, ahead of their time.

The planned title of Wolfe's scholarly paper is Contributions Américaines à la Haute Cuisine. Throughout the book Wolfe's preoccupation with this paper advances the idea that there's a solid and very serious American cuisine beyond family cooking. Another idea ahead of its time, I think.

The first response by one of the chefs, upon hearing the title of the upcoming lecture, sets the stage for the food themes of the book. Hearing the subject of Wolfe's paper, American Contributions to Haute Cuisine, the famous European chef responds:
"Bah! ... There are none. ... I am told there is good family cooking in America; I haven't sampled it. I have heard of the New England boiled dinner and corn pone and clam chowder and milk gravy. ... Those things are to la haute cuisine what sentimental love songs are to Beethoven and Wagner."

"Indeed." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "Have you eaten terrapin stewed with butter and chicken broth and sherry?"


"Have you eaten a planked porterhouse steak, two inches thick, surrendering hot red juice under the knife, garnished with American parsley and slices of fresh limes, encompassed with mashed potatoes... Or the Creole Tripe of New Orleans? Or Missouri Boone County ham, baked with vinegar, molasses Worcestershire, sweet cider and herbs... Or Tennessee Opossum? ... Or Philadelphia Snapper Soup?" (page 7)

Wolfe is passionate about American food and about defending it from its European detractors. Later, during the chefs' meeting, so is the chef who presents an American banquet to his fellows. Much about the circumstances of the banquet is fascinating. In particular, the actual hands-on cooks are all black men in the resort kitchen, directed by the restaurant chef who belongs to the Quinze Maitres, but totally competent and respected.

Another interesting thing in my view is how American cuisine has changed since the book was written. Many of the examples of American food, including the menu for the banquet and material in Wolfe's lecture are essentially obsolete. His discussion of the way American farmers raise remarkably superior meat -- by feeding peanuts to pigs and blueberries to poultry -- completely surprised me.

Here is the banquet menu (copied from page 157):

Les Quinze Maitres
Kanawha Spa, West Virginia,
Thursday, April 8th, 1937

American Dinner
Oysters Baked in the Shell
Terrapin Maryland..........Beaten Biscuits
Pan Broiled Young Turkey
Rice Croquettes with Quince Jelly
Lima Beans in Cream..........Sally Lunn
Avocado Todhunter
Pineapple Sherbet.........Sponge Cake
Wisconsin Dairy Cheese........Black Coffee

The points the author made through Wolfe's opinions, his fictional paper, and this American menu really interested me. I've heard that the same dismissal of the idea of an American Haute Cuisine was still current among chefs and serious food scholars as late as the 1970s. Maybe even since then. I'm sure tons has been written about this book as Rex Stout has quite a following, fan clubs, and for all I know, journals dedicated to him. However, I haven't read anything except the book itself.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

"The Omelet Show"

We've been watching episodes of "The French Chef" on a Netflix DVD, and Len was especially taken by "The Omelet Show." This morning was his second round of making omelets as shown on the show. Watching Julie and Julia was another area of inspiration -- in fact we've been browsing Julia Child's My Life in France too. So we got out the old, stained copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Len's own omelet show began.

First, breaking the eggs -- Julia Child did one egg in each hand. You didn't see Meryl Streep's Julia Child do this! But here's Len:

And the paradigm:
The butter is just finished foaming when eggs go into the pan:

I didn't capture the moment when the eggs flipped (and you didn't see Streep do this either [correction, didn't see her do it right -- she flipped it onto the stove]) but here's the result:


Friday, January 08, 2010

Arbana, 1944

Ross MacDonald's early spy-mystery The Dark Tunnel (original title I Die Slowly) is set at Midwestern University in Arbana, Michigan, near Detroit.

"Although it bears a certain physical resemblance to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Midwestern University is, like all the characters in this story, a figment of the author's imagination," reads the disclaimer right after the copyright page.

Yeah, right.

I can still mentally follow the path of the brave narrator as he flees from both an evil cross-dressing Nazi spy and the local police who believe the frame-up job that's been done to him. Despite 65 years of growth and development, I recognize the campus buildings, the museum just to the north, the steam tunnels, the power plant, the hospital on a hill, and the rural area to the east (no longer rural now) where he tries to hide in a seedy roadhouse full of drunks.

I wanted to reread this obscure tale because I had forgotten most of it. I found it still very readable and suspenseful. I had always thought the seedy roadhouse was identifiable as a still-existing restaurant east of Ann Arbor. I'm not so sure any more. I don't think the distance the narrator runs after going past the hospital is necessarily far enough. I was hoping he would describe a little more about the place and what he ate there -- all he does there is order a fried-egg sandwich for thirty-five cents, served on a cracked plate along with some whiskey. And then go on fleeing and solving the mystery of who is spying and who killed his friend and made it look like suicide.

It's really not a food-themed book; the narrator eats one other egg while being held prisoner in the University hospital, and then is let go by an FBI agent who believes his story. He continues to help the FBI agent chase down the spy ring. Later he ends up in another hospital in Northern Ontario where he eats "a good dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes and gravy and a quarter of a lemon pie" while waiting to finally do in the villain. Interesting menu. There are all kinds of interesting historical attitudes and details in the book, as well as the descriptions of "Arbana" which are so recognizable.

The Dark Tunnel was originally published under MacDonald's real name, Kenneth Millar, under the title I Die Slowly -- I located the image of an early paperback edition (right/above). Subsequently the author moved to California, writing a large number of successful books under his pseudonym.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Windex and a movie... no, not that movie

It's a snowy day, and Len has a bad cold (now being treated, no worries, thanks for the good thoughts). So we watched our current Netflick, Julie and Julia. Finally. I've been wanting to see it since summer.

I liked both story lines and the portrayal of all four major characters. In fact, my only reservation is that Julia Child's TV personality was extreme, but I have a little nagging doubt that she really talked that way all her life, every minute, even in bed. I bet she had a quieter more ordinary side. But let Streep be Streep (which is to say be everyone else larger than life). Yes I loved the part where she and her sister meet in the train station and do jinx just like Miriam and Alice.

As for the Julie part, I enjoyed the cooking efforts as they were presented. I have been a faithful Julia Child follower since the 1960s and my original copy is full of stains, as I've mentioned in a number of posts over the last few months. When something goes wrong I have a near meltdown. Though I've never actually gotten down on the kitchen floor, I knew how Julie felt.

When the movie finished, I went into the kitchen for a minute and THERE WAS A BIG GREY MOUSE CLIMBING DOWN FROM A SHELF IN MY PANTRY. AAAAAAAAAA. I always scream loud when I see a mouse. Lenny came running, got a broom, started thumping. We scared him under the refrigerator. When we moved the fridge he moved along, then ran across the floor and got under the stove. AAAAAAAAAAAA. I screamed again. I took out the drawer and started probing with a broom. Back to the fridge. AAAAAAAAAAAAA. We tried to poke him out with a yardstick. A lot of dust came loose from underneath the fridge (oops, I only move it out and sweep/mop under it, never try to clean the bottom). How to get him out?

WINDEX! I stuck the nozzle into the gap and sprayed. Back to the stove. AAAAAA. Does Windex conquer all? Not quite. If you hear me screaming again, wherever you are, it's because he's out again. We resealed the hole where we think he came in and set traps. And cleaned up the pantry.

UPDATE: We trapped the mouse. He looked smaller when not moving than he did when we were chasing him. We think he was alone, as the other trap stayed empty. Next step: caulk the outside of the house.


European football, Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, the Bible, Walter Benjamin, ancient temples of Aphrodite and other gods, the Cathars, the Templars, Catalan Nationalist plots, politically motivated thugs from Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and lots of other cultural, political, and local color from Catalonia -- the world of detective Pepe Carvalho includes all of them. In the book The Man of My Life these themes alternate with Carvalho's relationships (including fairly graphic love scenes) with two women that he had loved 20 years before, and one younger one, along with their husbands, pimps, sons, and dozens of other characters. And the time frame, the week before the beginning of the new Millenium, seems to have significance but I never quite saw what it was.

What's not very prominent in this bewildering pastiche? There's incredibly little about the murder that the detective is supposed to be solving. Sometimes he seems to be pursuing some clue but it's usually buried in all the references and distractions. Towards the end, among all the sinister plots and intellectual showing off, there's a cursory explanation of the political motive for the crime and the ID of the perpetrator, which had been kind of obvious if not central to all the other goings-on.

Author Manuel Vazquez Montalban is pretty obscure -- and he deserves his obscurity! This book made me really appreciate Dan Brown's ability to focus on a single plot in The Lost Symbol, where 12 hours of action take 500 pages without a deviation from the central conspiracy theory.

Of course, the reason I read the book is that Carvalho is famous (insofar as anyone has heard of him) for his gourmet meals, his choices of restaurants, and his personal cook Biscuter. In The Man of My Life, a number of meals and foods are described in great detail, sometimes for several pages with every nuance of preparation. Like the intellectual, political, conspiratorial, cultural, and sex stuff, the recipes ultimately distract one from whatever might be central to the plot. But they do sound delicious and interesting, even when interspersed with other thoughts. Some examples -- more or less each with a different girl friend and sometimes a bit of politics involved:
  • "...then she allowed herself to be taken for a lobster and rice in ... a restaurant that had stayed faithful to the aesthetics of a fisherman's village... Its owner occasionally called Carvalho when he had espardenyes [sea cucumbers] on the menu because they gave the final touch to a substantial rice dish with squid and browned onion. Margalida obviously liked her food and her drink." (p. 57)
  • "Carvalho had discovered another interesting restaurant in Plaza Real one day when he went looking for a taxidermist's shop he remembered and found it no longer stocked stuffed birds but sardine tarts, terrines of foie gras with quince cooked in port, rice with clams, or vegetable 'brick.' The restaurant was called El Taxidermista and was run by another woman ... Nieves by name... a lifelong republican through all the post-war years... as she confessed to him when she cooked him a special dish of arros amb fesols in naps [rice with beans and turnips]. Perhaps he would take Yes [another girlfriend] to El Taxidermista one day." (p. 115-116)
  • "And along with the truffles they were soon engaged in the inevitable discussion of why white Spanish truffles could not compare with the Italian ones." (p. 135)
  • "Biscuter had insisted on preparing the first course from a recipe he had found in Sobremesa magazine: duck foie gras with winter vegetables and yogurt with fermented grape juice. It was the specialty of a young chef whose name could only be Basque... He showed Carvalho the magazine in which he had found the recipe... Charo [another girlfriend] had promised to bring the turrones for dessert, and Carvalho was in charge of the main course, a boneless carrre of lamb stuffed with Spanish ham and cooked over the embers, garnished with slices of sauted potatoes perfumed with slices of white truffle." (p. 197)
In the case of the meal based on the recipes of the Basque chef, the description of the details of cooking goes on for several pages interspersed with his relationship with Charo etc. The vegetables and herbs included asparagus, leeks, cauliflower, Chinese shitaki mushrooms, spring onions, parsley, thyme, and mint. The marinade includes shallots, olive oil, coriander, black pepper, white wine, lemon zest, mushrooms, raisins, and tomato. And when it's not clear how to use the marinade, Biscuter finds the phone number of the restaurant and asks the chef-recipe author for advice. Finally, Carvalho roasts the lamb and chooses a wine -- Soneto de la Rioja red, which surprises Charo.

Well, I like detective fiction with a good serving of culinary details. But I really prefer when all the details support and advance the story. Montalban's style is just too diffuse for me.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A quiet dinner with word study

We didn't go to Florida as planned for this weekend.
Going on an airplane with a cold? No. We had to wish Jack happy birthday by phone.

So we had a quiet dinner. A pasta casserole with goat cheese and breadcrumb topping. And some blueberries (not quite satisfactory winter ones) and very good shortbread cookies from Whole Foods.

That's when it got interesting. We began wondering why "short pastry" means pastry having a lot of fat, and why "shortening" means fat of all kinds, as in strawberry shortcake, shortnin' bread, or vegetable shortening.

I googled and found a lot of people speculating that shortening refers to the effect of fat on the molecular gluten chains in pastry. The chemical process during the rise and kneading of dough is to form molecular chains that create the texture of bread; with fat present the gluten supposedly forms shorter chains, which changes the texture of the pastry. This explanation of the term short is an obvious anachronism: shortening is an old term, knowledge of gluten molecules comes from modern chemistry. I read more.

McGee's On Food and Cooking says the term shortening has been used since the early 19th century "to mean fats or oils added to baked goods that supposedly 'shorten' or break up masses of gluten, thus weakening the structure and making the final product more tender." (p. 302) McGee says that the repeated folding and rolling of dough with butter between the layers results in "a stack of separated flakes rather than an integrated, breadlike matrix." However, he doesn't really try to explain why the term short is used or where it originated; he focuses on the role of shortening -- liquid or solid -- in bread dough and cake batter.

A more historically oriented write up of the term was in a blog post: The origins of shortening? This traces the use of the word short back several hundred years. The post quotes the following dictionary definition of the word short:
Of edible substances: Friable, easily crumbled. Phrase, to eat short: to break up or crumble in the mouth. a. of crust, pastry, etc. Cf. SHORTBREAD, SHORTCAKE, SHORT CRUST.
In other dictionary examples given, short just means fat, as "1648 GAGE West Ind. 143 This is the Venison of America, whereof I have sometimes eaten, and found it white and short."

The conclusion: the usage of short and shortening for fat in pastry has been used for centuries, and arose from the meaning crumbly, first applied to the ingredient that created crumbly or flaky pastry, later expanded to mean all fats. The recently-described molecular process might create short gluten chains -- McGee, however, says the process isn't well understood, undermining this claim.

Another look at food issues

n the food section of today's L.A. Timesa national conversation about food -- not just the arcane techniques used to prepare it and the luxurious restaurants in which it is served, but, much more important, how it is grown and produced.

Parsons addresses both farmers and reformers, suggesting ways to improve civility and create common goals that could lead to progress. My three favorites out of his twelve points:
  • "Agriculture is a business. Farming without a financial motive is gardening. ... Any plan that places further demands on farmers without an offsetting profit incentive is doomed to fail."
  • "There's no free pass on progress. Just because you've always farmed a certain way does not mean that you are owed the right to continue farming that way in the future. The days of a small or medium-sized farm making a decent profit growing one or two crops and marketing it through the traditional commodity route are long past."
  • "Quality is more expensive than quantity. Farming fruits and vegetables that are not just healthful but also have great flavor takes a lot of time and work and usually means not growing as much as a neighbor who doesn't focus on flavor. So when you're shopping, don't begrudge a good farmer a little higher price -- that's what it takes to keep him in business."
Read them all here:

Civil dialogues about food can lead to understanding and change