Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunny and Windy

Here's a view of the water from the end of a short walk this morning. We had a very easy day. We walked across Key Largo to this very small beach access point among huge fenced-in houses.

After a late breakfast, we got in the car and took a ride down Route 1. We stopped at a historical park where we heard about the railroad that ran through the keys until the famous Labor Day hurricane of 1935 destroyed the tracks. What I learned: the use of mile markers to designate location along Route 1 is the legacy of the railroad, where it's a standard way to indicate location. Also that the bridges survived the hurricane, while the tracks were twisted and thrown around. A train trying to save people was derailed, with horrific loss of life.

Finally we stopped at one of the few bookstores in the area. Near the bookstore I saw two advertising signs on opposite sides of the road:

We had a quiet and very nice dinner -- I couldn't resist another local lobster. First we had smoked fish spread, made from local fish that are smoked at the restaurant.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A straw-wrapped wine bottle

What could be more retro than a straw-wrapped wine bottle? Music by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra? Red and white checked tablecloths? Candles in little jars? Garlic bread and cruets of oil and vinegar? If you know what's more retro than all that, please don't tell me.

The stuffed lobsters we ordered were very good. And we did enjoy the atmosphere. Those were good old days, and the AAA guide knows it.

For what we did before dinner see Everglades and Zombie Vultures ate my T-Top.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Key Largo, not just a great movie

Our expert sources (the AAA guide and iPhone apps) told us to eat at The Fish House. We are predisposed towards any restaurant that also has a fresh fish market and buys from local fisherman. No exception here. Grouper, yellowtail snapper and mahi-mahi were the fresh catch tonight, with a variety of preparations on offer. Key Lime Pie for dessert.

The menu says they've been in business since the founding of the Conch Republic, but the web site says 20 years. Whatever. It's lovely.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Speaking of No-Knead Bread

Sunday evening we were treated to a beautiful meal at some friends' house. It included a loaf of no-knead bread that was incredible. Of course I'd heard about this recently-developed technique for bread-making, and maybe tried someone else's version without discussion. Yesterday the bread-maker/hostess sent me copies of the two articles from 2008 that she relied on. On the same topic: the current blog post, Do You Really Want to Make French Bread? by editor (and now blogger) Judith Jones. AND...

Now Harold McGee has spoken! This week's New York Times column is about the famous no-knead breads, including experimental and theoretical information. Don't miss
The Curious Cook

Better Bread With Less Kneading

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A chef's job

Time magazine recently ran a somewhat surprising article: McDonald's Chef: The Most Influential Cook in America? by John Cloud. The chef, Daniel Coudreaut, grew up in Ossining, N.Y., went to business school, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in new product development at McDonalds since 2004.

Coudreaut's test kitchen at McD's headquarters, according to the article, is beautiful and modern and very unlike any stereotype of McDonald's. He and his staff experiment with new products only for American sales -- McDonald's adapts its products for each major marketing area. The emphasis is on keeping the successful products and building on them: "you don't mess with the fries."
The ivory tower nature of Coudreaut's outfit -- described at length -- upholds the expectation that "every great manufacturing company runs a crazy R&D department, a place where mad scientists get to fiddle with toys and produce one or two breakthroughs a year."

From this test kitchen have come a number of recently developed McDonald's products. The latest is Mac Snack Wrap -- a tortilla filled with "about half the interior of a Big Mac — a single beef patty, three quick squeezes of special sauce, less lettuce, less cheese, fewer pickles, fewer onions." It costs $1.50 and 330 calories. Coudreaut has lots of leeway to play with exotic or specialized ingredients like endive, dried cherries, wine sauces, and celery root, but his products must appeal to typical McDonald's customers. Further, chosen ingredients must be available in unimaginable quantities, and their preparation must be "so simple that a high school dropout can make it." So he has a challenging job despite his apparent freedoms.

Recently, I read the autobiography of Jacques Pepin, the French-trained chef and early TV food personality. (See "The Apprentice" for my thoughts on it.) Coudreaut provides a striking parallel: Pepin, along with another then-famous chef, Pierre Franey, worked for a decade at Howard Johnson's, which was at the time, the 1960s, the largest American fast-food chain. Pepin described his efforts to create more palatable dishes for the mass market. He had to make sure they could be scaled up in quantity and kept consistent in quantity. They had to be distributed and sold at hundreds of restaurants. He also worked in the hope of encouraging Americans to slightly (at least) expand the range of their tastes. If Coudreaut ever writes an autobiography I wonder what comparable things he will say about his leadership of McDonald's test kitchens.

Thanks to Evelyn who told me to read the Time article.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why people like fast food breakfasts

From the Washington Post, an article about the effect of high unemployment on breakfast sales at fast-food chains -- sales are in decline. The unemployed don't have money for a fast-food breakfast, and besides, they don't have to get up and go in the morning. No big surprise, but then there was a very interesting observation:

Cultural historian Barry Glassner said Americans have an unusually complex relationship with food, influenced by convenience and status. We want our food quick and easy, and at the same time we use it to show our rank in the pecking order. Fast-food breakfasts, he said, can fulfill both purposes.

"In America, it's considered a mark of our industriousness that we're very efficient in our meals," said Glassner, a professor at the University of Southern California. "In other times and places, you would be seen as a little crazy."

I never thought about eating fast food as a marker of American industriousness. I just thought we were always in a hurry, and liked to avoid waiting. When he put it this way, it seems obvious, like a lot of ideas that one has not quite formed. I'm re-reading the book Chop Suey by Andrew Coe, tracing Chinese restaurant food in American life -- in the early days of Chinese restaurants, a similar combination of convenience, status, and low prices drew Americans to Chinese restaurants, then often called Chop Suey Houses. I'm not sure that they had yet started eating on the run, though.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


So many ways to eat ginger! I didn't realize I was so crazy about it, and then began to count. In the pantry and refrigerator I found raw ginger root, Chinese candied ginger, crystalized ginger, Lebkuchen from the German Christmas box, English ginger cookies, English ginger preserves, and an ancient (and often refilled) tin of powdered ginger. One small piece of my friend Elaine's gingerbread cake in the freezer didn't get into the photo. More great ginger items are Japanese pickled ginger to eat with sushi, ginger ale, ginger ice cream, chocolate-covered ginger, and good old-fashioned American ginger snaps. In Australia I once ate a ginger candy bar: jellied ginger covered with chocolate.

Its origins are in east Asia, but ginger has definitely traveled widely.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Overused! or, a note from the imperfect pantry

A local Houston food blog called Eating Our Words had an interesting list: The Top 5 Most Over Used Spices, including condiments too. I may be guilty of some of their indicated excesses. So here's the list with my own comments -- if you want to see theirs, click on the link:
  1. Garlic -- I may be guilty when it comes to fresh garlic. The pizza I have in the oven at this very moment is probably way too garlic-heavy. However, I can ignore the bloggers' comment: "Despite what you may think, adding tons of garlic powder doesn't give your dish lots of garlicky flavor." I hate garlic powder or garlic salt. Never have them on hand. I think they taste terrible and in fact not even like fresh garlic.
  2. Lemon Pepper -- I have never used it. But I completely agree with them: if you want the taste of lemon, use lemon! I think I've eaten dishes where someone was guilty.
  3. Sriracha Hot Sauce -- I just bought my first bottle of this last summer. And I'm on my second bottle. Maybe I better pay attention! I have noticed how often it's on the tables at small diner-type restaurants. Maybe it's a fad.
  4. Soy Sauce -- guilty. It's so easy to pour it on. It works in non-Chinese food. It's salty but you can pretend you aren't salting.
  5. Salt -- I try to behave myself with the salt shaker -- see point 4. And I hate anything to be oversalted, which lots of restaurants do. I think I'd put this one at number 1.
I would rather have food be a bit more spicy than bland. That corresponds to several of the commenters over at the Houston blog, who say you can't have too much sriracha or too much garlic, though one lists chili powder as a candidate for overused.

Besides this nice starter list, I think my excesses include herbs de Provence (also in my currently baking pizza) and maybe parsley flakes (ditto). I know I have to keep refilling my jars with these two. Also I might put onions on the list. I put them in everything, and can't help myself. It's an interesting exercise.

After Dinner Update

My pizza actually came out delicious. Not a bit too much garlic. I used 2 chopped garlic cloves, lightly browned in olive oil. Then I simmered it with an 8-oz can of tomato sauce with lots of herbs de Provence, but not too much. And topped the crust, which had been rising, with a few black olives and a few slices of cheese. Last time we ordered delivery pizza we had meatballs so I decided to use some Trader Joe's turkey meatballs as well. It was quite successful.

Odd photographic note: my automatic camera signaled that one of the meatballs was a face.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chirashi Sushi

This sushi came with a beautiful presentation; also delicious -- the vegetable garnish was a welcome surprise. We ate at Sadako, one of many appealing restaurants in our area. On the way we walked by 2 other Japanese restaurants, one Thai, one Vietnamese, and one Chinese restaurants in a total of 4 blocks! I had never been here before, and I was very pleased.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"The Lightning Thief"

The ancient Greek gods live among us, continuing their ancient rivalries and pettiness and breeding with mortals. As in the legends, their half-blood offspring have the potential to become heroic figures in the continuing struggles among the various gods, but first they have to come to terms with their unusual identity. That's the premise of Rick Riordan's very popular kids' series about Percy Jackson, full name, Perseus.

In this, the first of these books, Percy, son of Poseidon, goes on a quest with a satyr and another half-blood, the daughter of Athena. They travel from New York to Los Angeles where, among other things, they discover the entrance to Hades. In their heroic adventures they encounter gods, monsters, furies, heroes: the full mythological treatment. They reprise many of the legends about the original Perseus.

I found that the most interesting elements of the characters are those borrowed from Greek mythology -- the arrogance and abrasiveness of Ares, Athena's jealousies, Posidon's son's ability to gain strength from water and even breathe when under the sea, the desire of the satyr to find where Pan may still live, the dedication of a Centuar who has been a teacher for 3,000 years, the brutal strength of the Minotaur, the spookiness of the River Styx. The half-blooded children were often threatened by the other gods; a summer camp in New England offered them a safe haven and place to discover their heritage. But for the most part, they were reliving myths.

The caretakers at camp fed Percy ambrosia and nectar, which tasted like popcorn and chocolate, to help him recover from injuries he suffered in fighting the Minotaur. Corn and chocolate: new-world foods to underscore how the old gods are now embedded in America. Maybe so. For camp meals, the staff served barbecued meat and burned a bit as a sacrifice to the gods. Percy also liked fast food, and often fell for it when offered by someone like the Medusa.

Percy's realization of how his heroic fighting capabilities was dramatic. His diagnosed ADHD makes him a better sword fighter. Campers' lives included other ironies, as well. They weren't able to adjust to life in modern American schools, and most couldn't learn to read English, because they were "programmed" to read ancient Greek (maybe the least plausible of the implausible things of the book). Some details are amusing. But I found the adventures a bit mechanically done.

The Lightning Thief is readable, but Neil Gaiman's American Gods contained many more original ideas and clever characterizations in using more or less the same premise. I'm a fan of young adult and even kids books, but The Lightning Thief isn't quite complex enough for my taste. I prefer the works of Gaiman, Lewis Carroll, or J.K.Rowling. I'm glad Riordan has found a way to get modern kids to learn the myths, though.

Update on the movie of this book: "The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips says that 'this could be the start of something adequate.'" Great movie recommendation, no?

And another update: my discussion questions for book club:
  1. This question is for the parents/grandparents of kids who like the book. What appealed to the kids? Assuming that they have little or no prior knowledge of Greek myths, how did they react to the embedded tales of heroes, gods, and monsters?
  2. Riordan himself refers to "archetypes" or "primal forces" (p. 86). They've been used in Western lit over and over, high and low (example: French playwright Racine is as high as you can imagine, the TV series on the Labors of Hercules was farce, Neil Gaiman's uses are playful, Ovid's retelling of myths was maybe in the middle.) Riordan uses the Greek gods along with Centaurs, the Minotaur, the Fates, the Furies, the Hellhound, Medusa, the Satyr's search for the Great God Pan, the Oracle, etc. What is so powerful about these? How does he borrow their power for telling a good story? What does he do that's original? Does he add more than a few jokes like Hades being in LA or Ares being a biker? Are there any other treatments of mythological themes you want to compare?
  3. The half-blood kids in the special camp in The Lightning Thief believe that their dyslexia, ADHD, and other "disabilities" are caused by their godly nature. They can't read English because they are "hard wired" for ancient Greek. They fidget because they are always ready for battle and always watching out for whatever. Percy the hero feels completely vindicated when he learns this interpretation of his problems. First, how do you react to this claim? Does it ring true? Second, what about kids reading the book?
  4. Aside from the mythology, this book to some extent follows the format of a road book: characters on the road being followed by bad guys and seeking something. Is this successful? How does it merge into the mythology part?
  5. If you could have a Greek god as a parent which one would you pick?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cooking Chinese Food

This evening I made Chinese food and served it on red plates for Valentine's Day combined with Chinese New Year. I found several recipes online for foods that are supposed to make one live long and prosper.
Above are some of the ingredients for chicken and shitake mushrooms
wrapped in lettuce leaves. The finished dish:

I also made angel hair pasta with a sesame-peanut sauce,
garnished with cilantro, green onion, and lime slices.
And below, the ingredients for steamed fish with aromatics and baby bok choy.

The fish:

I wrote about Chinese traditions for New Years a few days ago; see Chinese Valentine's New Year.

Another Obituary

A mystery author that I've not read, though he is popular with my friends and family: Dick Francis, British mystery writer, dies.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Grim Reality

Little Man, What Now? is a novel by Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Ditzen -- his pen name comes from stories by the brothers Grimm). Written in around 1930, it depicts two years in the life of a pathetic young couple in depression-era Germany. The hapless "little man" of the couple, called Hans Pinneberg, and his wife is called Bunny (in the translation by Eric Sutton). I have known about this novel for a long time, always meaning to read it, and finally, I've done so. (The image is from the now-obscure Hollywood movie based on the book -- I've never seen it.)

When the novel begins, Pinneberg and Bunny, an unmarried couple in their early 20s, are at the gynecologist's office learning that she is pregnant. His job is completely inadequate to support a wife, let alone a baby, but they decide to marry and do what they can. As the German economy declines, he is less and less able to earn a living, and by the end he, Bunny, and the baby are living on a combination of money from the dole and from her earnings from darning and mending. A hut out in the fields beyond the city of Berlin has become their home.

Both of them -- especially Pinneberg -- are naive and simple, and rarely comprehend important signals that would help them to cope with life. Other characters in the novel turn to illegal or quasi-legal money-making methods, or simply steal wood to heat their houses. Some consider various ideologies: nudists, anti-semites, Nazis, and Communists all have their adherents among the folks of Pinneberg and Bunny's acquaintance, but ideology has no place in their outlook. Bunny says she believes in the solidarity of all workers -- they don't however act in solidarity when Pinneberg takes her advice. Satire and irony often soften the harsh observations of this very simply-written book. Eventually, it's made clear that the answer to their desperation is honest work to enable self-respect and a decent human life, without ideology at all. Even gifts of money are useless, in their view; money can only prolong their illusions.

Bunny's skills as a cook are non-existent when she first marries Pinneberg: she tries to make soup from half a pound of peas, a bit of meat, and 5 quarts of water. "It's the water that's the trouble," he explains to her. "The water is too thin." So she leaves the pot on the boil: of course it burns up. (p.76) Later, she learns how to cope, but she has cravings. She buys half a pound of smoked salmon for their dinner, but as she leaves the shop, she ducks into a doorway and eats just one slice from her share. By the time she arrives at home, she's finished it all, and returns weeping with guilt. (p. 104)

Later, though, she makes a careful budget to enable them to live on his decreasing salary. Line items include butter and margarine, eggs, vegetables, meat, sausage and cheese, bread, fish... but of course he loses one job after another, and by the end, she's happy to take mending jobs because the rich people she works for feed her while she's working. And she tells him where he can buy a few cheap bananas and a bit of butter for the baby.

Fallada, I learned, led a difficult life. He stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi years, but was addicted to drugs and committed to a mental institution for some of that time. He wrote several other books that were less well-known in America. It's hard to read this book without thinking he knew all about the future, the war, the disasters, the unravelling of the lives of so many like this little hapless, foolish, but so-human couple.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Reflecting the Sky"

Hong Kong is full of mysteries. In S.J. Rozan's novel Reflecting the Sky, detective Lydia Chin and her partner Bill Smith arrived from New York and within hours were in the midst of a kidnapping case. Before they had a moment's rest they were chasing perps and clues through the colorful streets, back-alleys, outer islands, temples to local gods, night markets, food stalls, high-rise hotels, luxury apartment buildings, modern shopping centers, seedy waterfront businesses, ferry boats crossing the water, film studios, and old colonial homes. They rode the famous mile-long escalator up the mountain. On Hollywood Road, among the internationally know antique shops, they tried to get information about an international triad (or gang) whose smuggling activities might be part of their case.

Bill and Lydia worked with a Hong Kong police officer who grew up in Alabama. A few times, they ate street food like skewered squid with vegetables or delicious meals in a local restaurant. Other times Lydia put up with instant noodles or other convenience food in the police station.

I loved every suspenseful minute of this adventure. Above all, I was captivated because I was in Hong Kong myself at about the same time. One Sunday, we walked into the financial center with its ultra modern sky scrapers and were astonished to find thousands of Filipino nannies sitting on benches, blankets, and folding chairs in groups, talking, eating, giving each other manicures, dancing, listening to boom boxes, and otherwise socializing. In the story, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith visited exactly this meeting place to search for a possible connection in their kidnapping case -- Bill was fortunately fluent in Tagalog so he could get information.

The description of these women, in Lydia's first-person account, made me think of our walk:
And mostly, they were eating. The aromas of roast meats and sauces pungent with unfamiliar spices made my mouth water, and as I watched plastic containers being popped open and paper plates being passed I wondered how many breakfasts I could really eat. (p. 156)
Even the plastic boxes of food being shared by these women on their day off reminded me of my own experience. I visited many of the other locations described in the story, especially a couple of out islands. Here are my photos from a fishing village at the far side of the territory:

Fruit and vegetables at Stanley Market:

For my review of another Lydia Chin mystery see "A Bitter Feast".

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Portion Size

Several newspapers have commented on the FDA efforts to improve nutrition labeling by making food portion sizes more realistic; for example, in the New York Times, One Bowl = 2 Servings. F.D.A. May Fix That. Anyone who reads food labels has occasionally been outraged by small bags of potato chips that contain "1.5 servings," or by a microwaveable bowl of soup with a one-time removable top with "2 servings." (What do you do, take it to work, eat half, and then ask around if anyone would like the second serving?) Or our joke about the mint girl scout cookie boxes that should be labeled "contains two single-serving packs."

Quaker Oatmeal, one of the oldest and most reliable food boxes, has ALWAYS (I mean all my lifetime) had a table of servings beginning with 1 serving equals 1/2 cup oatmeal, 1 cup water, and 1 dash salt, optional; the calorie count in the federally mandated information-box is 1/2 cup, 150 calories. My newest box -- same old cylinder with the Quaker's picture on the logo -- includes the same table of measured amounts, but with a new column in red:
3/4 cup oatmeal
1-1/2 cups water
dash of salt
Never mind the noble pretense -- Quaker Oats is supersizing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chinese Valentine's New Year

This Sunday is both Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year. I am beginning to look for a menu that honors both of them.

The traditional Chinese New Year menus are chosen to bring longevity, riches, peace, wisdom and virtue. Some of the most well-known foods:
  • Fish -- the Chinese word for fish, yue, means abundance so fish bring good fortune and good health. Whole fish are luckier because cutting them up uses a knife or cleaver, which are unlucky implements. However, fish balls (or meat balls) with ingredients chopped before the holiday arrives are also traditional because of the round shape
  • Lettuce -- the word "choy" for green vegetables also means good luck, and lettuce is the luckiest. Other greens like Chinese cabbage or broccoli also appear on New Year's menus. No word on the gangster use of "lettuce" to mean money.
  • Foods representing "gold" -- foods to make you rich are gold in color (oranges, tangerines, pomelos, gourds) or resemble gold bars, especially dumplings or spring rolls. I find this interesting as in many European traditions, gold foods or even edible gold were popular for the same reason.
  • Noodles -- are long, for long life. You have to eat them without cutting them, preferably by slurping.
The Chinese New Year holiday is celebrated over several days, and on some of the other days a large number of other foods are eaten for good luck, including a vegetarian meal; luxurious buffets with shell fish, sea weed, sticky-rice balls, and, lotus-root dishes; elaborate hot-pot meals, and many others.

I don't see much overlap with Valentine Day foods, though wearing red and decorations in red brings luck in Chinese tradition and is also the color for kids on Valentine's Day. Chocolate and heart-shaped candies are not particularly associated with Chinese menus, though there are sweets included in many of the feasts for the holiday.

Addendum: the Valentine Day and Chinese New Year timing is indeed unusual. According to the L.A.Times: "This is a rare convergence -- it's only the third time since 1900 -- and it won't happen again until after 2030."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mimi Sheraton's Life

Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life is more of a memoir of food-writing and restaurant-reviewing experiences than a full autobiography. The chapters on Mimi Sheraton's New York Times reviewing and other celebrity activities were much less interesting than one very surprising chapter titled "The Care and Feeding of Passengers, Patients and Other Captives." In this chapter, she describes a number of projects that made her aware of "the wide gap between genuinely good intentions and bad results," though some of her observations undermine the idea of good intentions.
"I often wonder how any food could possibly be so badly prepared and handled. In noir moments at hospitals or on long flights, I try to figure out how I would go about re-creating the horrors before me. Where would I start? In what diabolical cookbook would one find such recipes? On what ignominious grocery shelf is the special seasoning marked 'Institutional' that is surely used to impart the characteristic flavor and aroma, a combination of chemicals, foodishness, stale sweetness and desolation?" (p. 160)
Sheraton explored the methods and motives of people who provided school lunches and breakfasts, hospital meals (after a two-week hospitalization, she emerged as a consultant), airline meals (back in the day when airlines provided little trays with what appeared to be meals), food in museum cafes, and prison food. She even visited an off-shore oil rig where -- improbably -- the food wasn't so bad. A historic note on food for the British military outposts in the mid-19th century made it clear that the problems she found were far from new.

Her analysis leaves little room for optimism. Lack of funds, need to please people with widely varying tastes and expectations, and many other obstacles seemed to de-rail any of her efforts to make improvements.

As food autobiographies go, this wouldn't be at the top of my list -- I prefer, for example, A. J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, which I think influenced Sheraton's title or Ruth Reichl's several volumes, which I think influenced her restaurant-review chapters. But it was a good read for my very snowy afternoon.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The second-to-last donuts?

Jesse examined the contents of the doughnut box and selected another cinnamon-sugar.
"Moll?" he said, and offered the box.
"My God," Molly said. "keep those away from me, you animal."
Jesse shrugged and pushed the box toward Suit. Suit took out a honey-dip and bit into it. (p. 244)

I know that one more Jesse Stone novel by Robert Parker is about to be published, posthumously. And maybe more are in the publisher's pipeline. But somehow, I feel as if these characters, who speak so tersely and eat so appetizingly, are no longer quite as alive, now that their creator has died. Night and Day, source of this typical little quote, was published in hard-cover a year ago, just now in paperback. Another titled Split Image is coming in a day or two. Maybe there will even be one more with Spenser. But I'm sad that like so many good things, these series are all coming to an end. No more donuts.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Traditional Food

I decided to make chili for dinner. We ate in the living room while watching the annual great event.

My favorite commercial was the one with the eco-police, who shine a light in the kitchen window to catch a guy throwing a banana peel in the wrong garbage can -- composting crime. And who break up a hot-tub party because the water is heated to 105ยบ and arrest a driver at a road block for having a foam coffee cup. Nobody likes the eco-police!

My second-favorite commercials were the Dorritos commercials, especially the one with the dog who puts a no-bark collar on a guy and takes his Dorritos.

My third-favorite had humans in a big pool doing loop-the-loops, jumping through hoops and catching treats in their mouths, just like dolphins in a dolphin show. Very special-effect heavy.

Lucky thing: Whole Foods had a special on almost all the ingredients for the chili.

Alice's Birthday Cake

From the recipe in Tiana's Cookbook.
See today's earlier post for more about New Orleans Cookbooks.
Happy Birthday, Alice!

New Orleans Cookbooks

Louise at the blog Months of Edible Celebrations is celebrating some sporting event today. Evidently one of the teams is from New Orleans, and she wondered if I would write about some New Orleans cookbooks I had mentioned. I don't mind, as long as I don't have to say anything about sports. So here goes.

The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin was first published in 1975, and it's still in print. It begins with lists. First, ingredients -- alphabetical from Absinthe through Tabasco, Tomatoes, and Yam. Second, techniques from Boiling to Smothering. The recipe organization is just as indicative of the unique NOLA cuisine: Chapter 1, Gumbos and Soups; Chapter 2, Red Beans and Rice! and Jambalya; then chapters titled Crabs, Crawfish, Oysters, Shrimp, and so on until Desserts and Drinks.

The illustrations of historic food ads, restaurants, and menus are fascinating, and the descriptions are lushly appealing:
"The steaming aroma of fresh caught crabs, shrimp, and oysters; the smell of butter and flour browning slowly in a large iron pot over an open fire; the sizzle of freshly chopped onions, green peppers, and 'shallots' added at just the moment the flour and butter turn a rich brown; the scent of chicken or duck slowly cooking into the mixture of onions, vegetables, and roux; the taste of good fresh okra or exotic sassafras -- this adds up to a good Louisiana gumbo." (p. 15)
My notes tell me I've made several recipes over the years; for example, in 1981, I tried Fricasseed Wild Duck with Brandy and Wine (p. 153), but noted that I used an ordinary duck -- never having even seen any game that I could cook. I don't really recall making this very interesting recipe. Although the recipes in this book are often challenging, I have always been glad to have this cookbook!

For simpler home cooking, people from Louisiana recommend River Road Recipes, which is published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, LA. It's another book with staying power -- the 50th anniversary edition was published last September; several sequels are also in print. The number of copies was already in the hundreds of thousands when I bought one of 20,000 copies in the forty-fourth printing (November 1976).

My copy of River Road Recipes is yellowed and marked up. First, there's a little red check-mark beside many recipes, indicating the favorites of a woman we met in Baton Rouge (the mother of my brother's college friend). She recommended, for example, the Sauce Meuniere or Remoulade Sauce (p. 119) on trout. Over the years I've tried a large number of cakes and cookies from this book, and found most of them quite nice. Like many charity collections, some of the contributors were much more skilled at cooking, baking, and recipe writing than others.

Both of these books reflect the old-style Creole, Cajun, and New Orleans traditional cooking styles. Just reading through them is a fascinating reprise of one of our rapid trips into the city, when I seem to recall we ate three large meals between noon and evening, because our host wanted us to sample everything we possibly could. The dish that most impressed me was the bread pudding with rum sauce at a little home-style restaurant a bit away from the tourist area, but I've never had another bread pudding that delicious again.

The latest New Orleans cookbook I know about is a spin-off of Disney's latest princess movie.

Tiana's Cookbook: Recipes for Kids,
to our surprise, includes quite a few serious recipes that kids may like to eat, but it takes a grownup to really cook them. Tiana's two most special dishes: beignets, which are deep-fried, or gumbo, which is rather complex, both appear in the book.

There are also some very Disney things such as cupcakes frosted to look like frogs and a cake made in the shape of an alligator, which aren't precisely New Orleans cooking, more like Disney movie cooking. The photo at left shows the gumbo as made by Evelyn, who has been cooking her way through this unexpectedly useful book.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the movie, see: What do princesses eat?

ADDENDUM: About Indianapolis cooking:
  • Louise's wonderful post about Indianapolis food is here: Winning Recipes From The Junior League of Indianapolis.
  • Bobbs Merrill publishers of Indianapolis are responsible for the many editions of The Joy of Cooking.
  • I think the most famous food in Indianapolis was at the 5 Laughner's cafeterias (there were a few elsewhere in Indiana as well). The last one closed in 2000. They had middle-American food like roast beef, fried chicken, and plain sides of mashed potatoes or corn. Googling you can find their cookie recipes -- which appear completely undistinguished. But people loved them. I ate in one once -- it wasn't one of the memorable meals of my life. A long description appeared here: Michael Stern and Jane Stern, A Reporter at Large, “CAFETERIA,” The New Yorker, August 1, 1988, p. 37
  • Maybe this web page -- discovered by my sister who lives in Indiana -- is the last word on Indiana foods: it lists the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich and Indiana Cream Pie (or Hoosier pie) as the specialties of Indiana. They are ambivalent about the corn dog. Maybe it's from somewhere else. But they really have corn!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

"The Janissary Tree"

The Soup Master is one of the many ex-Janissarys in early 19th century Istanbul who play a role in the convoluted plot to overthrow the Sultan whom they had served. Jason Goodwin's book The Janissary Tree develops this fabulous plot with lots of historical detail and local color -- especially about food.

The Janissaries' evil machinations with foreign enemies are thwarted by the clever detective work and heroic actions of Yashim, the eunuch. Yashim was a talented cook, and made dinner for his friend Palweski, the Polish ambassador, every Thursday; when he thought about the mystery, his mind often turned to food analogies.

The Soup Master, similarly, said that there could be only one way to make tripe and onion soup. He refused to add coriander, for example. He said:
"You put coriander in the soup. ... Forget the people who don't like it. You add some beans. Some carrots. ... By the end, you can take out the tripe. Call it soup. Nobody will know any better. ... The Janissaries were like that. Like a recipe that has been quietly changed. In the city I made tripe and onion soup from tripe and onion. But in the barracks, ... they wanted me to believe in a kind of tripe and onion soup made of beans and bacon. In the end, I had to leave." (p. 49)
Once, like the original soup, the Janissaries had been pure and dedicated -- but like the adulterated soup, they had become a corrupt force in society. Interestingly, the Janissaries' official hierarchy included many kitchen titles -- "scullion, baker, pancake maker." Huge cauldrons were a symbol in many of their actions, and played a role in the mystery that Yashim solves. (p. 88)

The Soup Master's analogy helps Yashim to understand what's happening, as the Janissaries, who belong to a heretical Moslem sect, plot to resume the power they had lost a decade before, when the Sultan overthrew their corrupt reign. (Yes, a suspense novel with a conspiratorial sect and a eunuch, but not by Dan Brown -- much better than that!)

Much later, when several murders have been committed, Yashim fully realized that the murders were a prelude to a much bigger plot that he must foil -- he too used food as a metaphor to explain his insight. He explained to his friend Palewski: mezes are "little snacks before the main dish ... a way of calling people's attention to the excellence of the feast to come. ... Sometimes the best mezes are the simplest things. Fresh cucumbers..., sardines from Ortakoy, battered at most, and grilled.. Everything at its peak, in its season: timing, you could say, is everything."

In case Palewski (or the reader) didn't get the point, he continued, "Now take these murders... Taken together, yous see, they weren't an end in themselves. The meal doesn't end with the mezes, does it? The mezes announce the feast. And these killings, like mezes, depend on timing." (p. 171)

"Yashim, my friend," asked Palewski later on, "Are there any aspects of this mystery that don't involve cookery?" (p. 92)

This is a food-lover's mystery story. Cooking sets Yashim's mind free when he's burdened by worries of murder, arson, and insurrection. For one dinner, just after he was asked to help the authorities with the first mysterious event, he peeled and chopped onions, browned them with olive oil, added rice, and then:
He threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste, which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and a plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove. (p. 16)
While the rice cooked, Yashim steamed mussels with dill, and cooked chicken with walnuts and pomegranate juice. On another occasion, he went to the market stall of George, the Greek vegetable vendor. Distracted by the terrible events of his detective work, he allowed George to guide him. George said, "Go, buy some fish. I will give you a sauce. You kebabs the fish, some Spanish onion, peppers. You puts on the sauce. You puts him in the fire. You eats. Go." (p. 108)

Yashim did as George told him. He threaded fish and onions onto skewers, smashed walnuts and garlic to spread on the fish, drizzled the skewers with oil, and put them over embers. He ate the kebabs with white bread, oil, sesame seeds, and a few olives, and made tea. Then he turned his attention back to the mystery.

At another point, preparing for one of Palewski's visits, Yashim purchased meat and pumpkin manti along with sour cream and borek. Manti are filled pastries -- I had to look them up in Binnur's online cookbook. For this meal, Yashim began by making stock from onions, leeks, and garlic, and added some pumpkin with cinnamon and honey. This time, he was interrupted by an intruder. And the boiling stock became a weapon, not a meal. (p. 254, 257) Much later, he did get to eat some manti, though they weren't very good. (p. 292)

You could almost use these descriptions as recipes. When I was in Turkey, I thought it was some of the best food I ever ate, and this book makes me crave the wonderful spicy flavors I remember. In addition, the book takes place among the still-most-famous tourist attractions of Istanbul, adding still more depth and enjoyment to reading it.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Spice: A Broader View

What I found most original in Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner was the chapter titled "Food of the Gods." Greek and Roman temples were full of the aroma of spices, as incense burning in braziers or in perfumes and unguents rubbed on statues and worshipers. The Greek gods from earliest times insisted on aromas of spice and cooked meat -- Paris's promise to Helen is "Wherever you are, the flames will offer up cinnamon, and a sacrificial victim will strike the bloodied earth." (Cited from Ovid p. 228.)

"When Julius Caesar entered Rome in a triumphal procession in 46 B.C., he was flanked by attendants bearing censers of sweet-smelling perfumes." The elite viewed with outrage this appropriation of a ritual that should have been for the gods (p. 230).

In the East, rituals and games dedicated to the gods used cinnamon, spikenard, saffron, myrrh and frankincense. Turner describes Egyptian, Syrian, and Assyrian religious uses of spice, and even mentions an Egyptian spice god about whom little can be discovered.

Biblical references to spices include Exodus 30.22-23, where Moses is told to make a holy anointing oil of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and olive oil (cited p. 241). The queen of Sheba gave spices to King Solomon. Adam longed for the aroma of Paradise. But Jeremiah and Isaiah condemned sacrifices and the use of incense. In both the First and Second Temples, though, spices continued in use as incense and for anointing the priests -- Josephus noted that the high priest was anointed with cinnamon (p. 245). Incense shovels are part of the Temple imagery in later synagogue mosaics.

"Even to this day," Turner states, "Judaism may remain a faint reminder of spices' sacral past. Spices are still used in the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath.... The precise origins of the custom are impossibly obscure; however, it is at least clear that the practice was current by the early third century A.D." (p. 245)

Turner then describes how early Christians rejected the use of aromas of incense and perfumed oil, but the practice soon came back to the church. Later, in the Middle Ages, monks abstained from spiced food as part of their ascetic practices, and often ranted about those who violated their proscriptions. These descriptions of spices as a part of religious practice are definitely the most fascinating part of this book.

Every book about spice seems to have an obligatory chapter on the era of Columbus, the voyages in search of the spice islands of the East, and the conquest of those islands. Every time I read this repetition, I get impatient. Spice begins in the same too predictable way. Turner's next chapters on the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and on Medieval uses of spice were interesting at times -- I did learn a few things from them. Information on early medical uses of spice and traditional uses of spices as aphrodisiacs was relatively unusual. But much of this material also seemed to me a repeat of other books and articles I have read. Only in the last few chapters about spice and religion did the book become really interesting.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

New York is the center of their world...

"Everyone Eats … But that doesn’t make you a restaurant critic" by Robert Sietsema is a history of restaurant reviews in New York, mainly at the New York Times. Craig Claiborne, he says is "generally credited with being the inventor of the modern restaurant review." And Ruth Reichl "turned the restaurant review into a bona fide literary form."

I really wonder about this claim. What about the writers in Gourmet who after the War wrote about restaurants in European cities, for example Joseph Wechsberg? He definitely wrote reviews of literary quality. (I think Reichl republished his work when she was editor of Gourmet). What about food writers in France? Sietsema says that the use of stars to rank restaurants is "another Claiborne innovation that has endured." Claiborne began reviewing in the late 1950s -- the Michelin guides began using stars in the 1920s. But New York is the only place that counts.

Despite its narrow viewpoint, the article has a few interesting points, especially about the way that food bloggers have recently changed the rules and expectations for reviews. In particular, Claiborne insisted on keeping a low profile (anonymity when possible) and on having the Times pay his expenses. He accepted nothing for free. Many food bloggers are in fact food beggars -- they demand free food, drink, and special treatment. At least, they do in New York, where restaurants have responded. Their response, Sietsema points out, includes special events for food writers and other promotional deals. In a sense, the current situation has reduced the state of the reviewers' art to what it was prior to Claiborne: a type of public relations in which the reviewer is a paid shill -- though usually paid in kind. At least in New York. The only place that counts.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Little Bird of Heaven"

A waitress brought a platter of French fries to our table, and another bottle of ale. Daddy roused himself from his music-trance to offer some fries to me... He began to eat with his fingers... I was hungry. I was very hungry. But could not bring myself to eat the thick greasy-salty fries, reheated in a microwave oven behind the bar, doused with ketchup, the kind of food my mother was quick to perceive was likely to be leftovers from other meals, scraped off other customers' plates. (p. 94-95)
Vividly disgusting, gross food impresses the reader with an atmosphere of dead-end hopelessness in Joyce Carol Oates's novel Little Bird of Heaven. At an earlier point in her life, the girl-narrator was about to eat a delicious-looking ice cream cone that her father had bought her, but "I discovered, horribly, that something was inside the tip of the cone: squirmy black weevils." (p. 61)

Oates writes about losers -- characters with no education, bad jobs, a miserable future, few pretensions, little self-respect. She doesn't uplift them with the nobility of poverty or some other high-falutin' authorly way to see them. Sometimes she uses kitchen metaphors to describe them. One character is "a switchblade among breadknives" (p. 158); another has "ice pick eyes" (p. 191)

According to the list in the front of Little Bird of Heaven (published in 2009) Oates has written around 40 novels. Around 35 novels ago, I got tired of all this. But I just tried again. I know how widely-acclaimed her work is, but I had the feeling I had reentered the same books that I put down all those years ago. But the details are indeed vivid, such as the slovenly, cowardly friend of the murder victim:
She reheated hot chocolate in a pan on the stove, and served it to us in heavy chipped mugs with red valentine hearts on them. The rim of my cup was just visibly stained with lipstick... There was a scummy film on the surface of the hot chocolate, but the hot chocolate was delicious. And stale chocolate chip cookies, eagerly dumped out of a package and onto the chipped-pebbles Formica tabletop, delicious too. (p. 118).
This sordid novel of a murder and its terrible effect on innocent adolescents left me with nagging doubts about whether small-town America is really like this. How authentic are the atmosphere of small-town emptiness and futility, of adolescent longing, bullying, and desperation? The story seems too literary, too much like comparable memories and memoirs.

Greasy fries in a disreputable road house, an infested ice-cream cone, wheat flakes with nearly rancid milk (p. 303), scummy hot chocolate -- all reflect an emotional hell that the characters live in. Despite my reservations, the book seems haunting, the same way some of her early books left haunting details in my imagination.