Friday, April 23, 2010

Old wine, new bottles?

The L.A. Times blog "Daily Dish" today described a meal at a very trendy restaurant with a twist: it's based on recipes from the original Fanny Farmer cookbook.


They blog: "It's sort of comforting to know that the woman also known as 'the mother of level measurements,' who published her cookbook in 1896, is inspiring chefs at a restaurant in Hollywood in 2010 to make chicken pot pie and fruit rolypoly's."

Alice's Cookies

Alice used the recipe in her take-home reading book, and made these cookies.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fashion and Nourishment

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant explores both the dark side and the light side of clothing and fashion. In many ways she makes the point that the attraction of fashion and beautiful clothing is not rational, but is based on pleasure. She says: "... we do not choose to eat, say, a chocolate eclair, with the aim of fulfilling our daily calorie quota." Grant compares the pleasures of food and clothing, and various attacks on those who enjoy them:
"We fall victim to a cake because it is delicious. Interestingly the angry rages against unnecessary clothes are seldom replicated in moral campaigns against flambeed cherries or steak au poivre. No one pickets restaurants or rails against the conspicuous waste of unnecessary calories in a three-course meal.... It is pointless fashion, not pointless cuisine, that gets the moralists's goat, and you would have to be pretty dim not to sniff the stench of misogyny that surrounds their outrage." (p. 99)
Do you think you have no interest in clothing and fashion? Linda Grant will show you that there is much more involved than you might guess. All people wear clothes almost every moment of their lives, and make some type of choices of what those clothes are. Clothes, she demonstrates, are never without meaning. She describes how the victims of some of the twentieth century's most horrifying outrages managed their pain by enjoying the beauty of well-made clothing: we can't have depths, she points out, without surfaces. One subject of the book is a woman named Catherine Hill, who survived Auschwitz and became a leader in bringing European high-level fashion to Canada. The depths and surfaces of this woman provide insights into what Grant is saying about the meaning of clothing.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the author's mother, who loved shopping and good clothing. It contrasted so much with my memories of my own mother, who hated shopping and would gladly wear hand-me-downs if she could avoid going to a department store to buy something new. Grant's interest in owning designer clothing and shoes contrasts enormously to my approach. I sit here wearing L.L.Bean jeans, sweater, and turtleneck; Birkenstocks, and cheap socks from Target. I never wear high heels and never have. She wouldn't approve of me at all. But I approve of her: she offers a view of what makes so many people what they are.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food Photos taken more seriously

I read that the Getty Museum in L.A. has a show "Tasteful Pictures" about food photography. From the Getty website: "Spanning the period from the mid-19th century until today, the images highlight important technological and aesthetic innovations as well as matters of taste. "

I was fascinated by a picture of a man delivering bagels by the photographer Weegee. Below is a picture by one of my many favorite artists, Man Ray.

"In 1931 the Paris electric company CPDE commissioned Man Ray to produce a series of images promoting the personal uses of electricity. The resulting portfolio, Électricité , included pictures of the uses of electricity in each room of a house, as in Cuisine (Kitchen). The whimsical print lent a familiarity and friendliness to the mysterious power marketed by CPDE.

"The Électricité portfolio included ten Rayographs reproduced as photogravures. The company released it in an edition of five hundred for distribution to top CPDE executives and special customers. "

I'd love to see this show. The pictures of "Électricité" remind me of a huge mural "La Fée Électricité" by Raoul Dufy. The French Electricity Company commissioned this work in 1937. It's fascinating that they were so aware and supportive of modern art.

Monday, April 19, 2010

ANOTHER article on food blogger photos

Last week the New York Times wrote about food bloggers photographing every bite: From the New York Times Dining and Wine Section. The L.A.Times can't be left behind. See today's: Dinner is the theater as food paparazzi converge.

Upside/downside: "In some ways, the culinary world brought this on itself. As public interest in fine dining has grown, more restaurants have been catering to those appetites in settings far more casual than those of their predecessors. Yet for all that was gained with such expansion, something also was lost: civility."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Lacuna"

Kingsolver's The Lacuna A Novel (The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver)Barbara Kingsolver's recent novel The Lacuna is a fictional biography of a fascinating man, Harrison Shepherd. Several dimensions of Shepherd's life were particularly interesting to me. Shepherd was born in 1916, and the book begins when he was around 8 years old, and continues for about 30 years.

First, we meet him as a boy isolated on a rich man's estate on a Mexican island, where his mother lives with the first of her many lovers. His only friend is Leandro the cook, and Shepherd's education comes from helping this friend in the kitchen. Learning to make pastry allows him to feel a sense of accomplishment. "Cooking in this house is like war," says Leandro. "I am the capitan of bread and you are my sergente mayor. If he throws out your mother you might still have a job, if you can make pan dulce and blandas." The description of the process of making and filling the pastry dough is wonderful. (p. 22)

A few years later, Shepherd is indeed on his own. His dough-making skill obtains him a job mixing plaster -- his fingers knew how to knead a paste to a smooth consistency, which pleased the artist Diego Rivera who was making gesso for murals in Mexico City. Through this introduction, Shepherd becomes a Rivera family servant and helper. He cooks in their kitchen, serves as a private secretary, and has a rather brotherly relationship to Frida Kalho, Rivera's wife.

Shepherd cooks and runs the Rivera's kitchen, and secretly records his memories and experiences. For Lent (which the atheist Riveras celebrate anyway) he makes "lima bean soup, potatoes in green sauce, fried beans." He oversees kitchen maids while the Riveras do politics, thinking that the maids dream perhaps "of a Syndicate of Avocado Mashers." Preparing dinner for politicians is one of Shepherd's memories. Frida demands "chicken escabeche, pork and nopales in pipian sauce, mole poblano. Sweet potatoes mashed with pineapple. Tomato and water cress salad. The pork-rib and tomato stew she calls 'the tablecloth stainer.' At last report she also wants shrimps and marinated pigs' feet. The senora might have to paint portraits of the guests as they come in, and sell them on the way out, to pay the butcher after this fiesta." (p. 130-140)

The historical novel now follows the history of Diego and Frida Rivera. Active in the Mexican Communist party, they become the hosts and protectors of Leon Trotsky who has fled Russia and is being pursued by Stalin's goons. Shepherd becomes the secretary and general aide to Trotsky and his wife, and he nearly witnesses his boss's assassination. Kinglsolver brings the lives of the Riveras and the Trotskys into sharp focus, describing the betrayals and quarrels of the Communist leaders -- another dimension that I much liked.

After Trotsky's death, Shepherd decides to return from Mexico to his other native land: the USA. He settles in Asheville, North Carolina, and becomes a best-selling author, fulfilling his lifelong wish to write about the conquest of Mexico. His books are published at the end of World War II. I enjoyed the descriptions of his life in small-town America during the war, but the end of the story takes a completely different turn. His Communist background and connections attract the attention of the House UnAmerican Activites Committee and the FBI.

Shepherd is hounded and persecuted, the words of his books are taken out of context (in fact out of the mouths of totally fictional Indian characters) and used to prove that he is a demon. Kingsolver makes vivid an era of American history that it's painful to imagine. She doesn't belabor the parallels to certain elements of current politics, but they are also inescapable.

It's a thoroughly good read, and the many historic and emotional settings really held my interest through the whole long book, which I read rather quickly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Anatomy of a Twinkie

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats

"Twinkies' buttery flavor provides the richness we expect from cake and likely also helps to mask their oiliness. Since due to cost and rancidity issues there's no room in a packaged cake like Twinkies for fresh butter, artificial butter is the answer. ... The most surprising thing about it is that it really stinks." In fact, we learn, many flavor chemicals smell "positively awful." Even natural flavors like vanilla have so many different flavor elements that some of them have unappealing notes, at least to some people.

"Memory is also important to taste.... When we eat a favorite snack cake, we expect it to taste exactly as we remember from last time, or from childhood." And we expect it to feel the same. In Twinkie Deconstructed, author Steve Ettlinger provides an ingredient-by-ingredient analysis of just how Twinkies are put together: the flavors of sugar, vanilla, and butter; the texture of filling and cake; and the way the cake stays dry and the filling stays creamy. I sort of reacted to this when I took a bite of the Twinkie, but I could also detect some of the chemical notes in its composition.

In all Ettlinger counted 39 ingredients listed on the package of Twinkies a few years ago. He points out that the recipe subtly changes over time -- my Twinkie box was indeed just a bit different, but of course sugary-buttery cake and creamy vanilla filling predominate. Two of the three main flavors, vanilla and butter, are present only in artificial form, and another expected component, eggs, is mainly there as artificial stabilizers, with maybe 1/500 of a real egg in each Twinkie.

I decided to buy a copy of Twinkie Deconstructed when I celebrated Twinkie Day last week, with my first Twinkie purchase in many years. I found the book quite fascinating. I liked the description of each ingredient's function in creating taste or texture in the baking process, the history of the product or the story of its invention, and the descriptions of how each one is made.

In his quest to deconstruct the Twinkie, the author visited the manufacturing plants where most of them are milled, refined, mined (yes, chemical leavening comes from mines), assembled or derived (mostly from petroleum), and often secretly manufactured (as in the case of vitamins). His sense of panic when deep down in a soda mine was especially memorable. His text lists of other processed foods that use each of the components, especially the artificial ones. Even flour, the least processed ingredient, is a pretty highly processed substance. Did you know that some of the fat in Twinkies is from beef? Me neither. Wow!

Above all, I was very intrigued with a relationship between what Ettlinger found and the article by Harold McGee that I mentioned this morning in my post Why some people hate cilantro. The complexity of flavors Ettlinger describes, such as vanilla or butter, means that they often include flavor elements that may be disgusting to some people, but they are very complex with dozens of elements that are perceived all together. In McGee's article a parallel example is cilantro. Its complex flavors often seem too much like soap or bugs to Americans who are unfamiliar with the herb. Butter is similarly complex, in that it has some very unpleasant elements. People unused to dairy products may focus on this stink rather than on the creamy dairy taste that we learned to love as children -- just as some non-cilantro eaters react to the bad elements of that flavor combination. Lifelong eaters simply don't notice the bad parts -- the undeniable stinkiness of artificial butter is due to the unnatural concentration of some of these elements and the absence of others, and it's used in such small quantities that it doesn't matter.

(Quotes: p. 210, 200; also see News For Curious Cooks: Curious Cook in the New York Times: Cilantro flavor, loved and hated)

Why some people hate cilantro

Harold McGee has done it again! The newest "Curious Cook" column -- "Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault" -- provides a neuroscientist's explanation for why many people deeply hate the smell and (if they get far enough to taste it) the taste of cilantro. He cites Julia Child, for example, as saying that she would throw a sprig of cilantro on the floor if she found it in her food.

Do some people have an inborn ability to detect odors or tastes in cilantro that an appreciator of the herb can't perceive? I, like McGee, was expecting a genetic explanation. That is evidently not the reason. Cilantro, he notes, contains some flavor elements that resemble soap and maybe even bugs. It also has many herb-like flavors. Your collective personal experiences evidently determine how important and yucky you find the soap aroma. If you live in a cilantro eating culture and associate it with childhood food memories, maybe the fresh-herb notes will charm you. If cilantro was a new strange item at some point, you might be overwhelmed and disgusted by the soapy element. So some people hate it and others do not.

"When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability," is the neuroscientist's explanation. "If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs."

Considering how neuroscience can be misused in so many ways (as documented frequently in my favorite blog, Language Log), I find this insight to be really wonderful in its simplicity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mashed Potatoes

I'm impressed by this article: "How to make amazing mashed potatoes" in the food section. The article includes a long discussion of mashed potatoes with a seven-step recipe for what most people consider a no-brainer. It has a long description of various potato types and their starch content, and how to keep the starch from escaping into the mixture and turning your potatoes into library paste.

My father, a connoisseur of potatoes, insisted that his potatoes be cooked in salted water and then dried in the pot before serving. Both of these steps are recommended in this detailed recipe. Also, one is told to use a ricer or a hand-cranked food mill, not a potato masher or any electric device like a food processor.

I'm a little lazy, but I'm convinced that as the article claims, the simplest foods can be made awesome by careful technique.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Good Chinese Food

After all my reading & talking about Chinese food, we went with our friends Alice, Byron, Abby, and Peter to enjoy some of it. We all wanted hot-sour soup, which the restaurant no longer serves in large quantities, just individual servings -- so we ordered six bowls of hot-sour soup. We then had six different dishes including ma-la lamb (quite hot), eggplant dumplings (slices of eggplant stuffed with a shrimp), mango beef, a couple of seafood dishes, and house-special duck with black mushrooms. Each dish is garnished with a vegetable "flower."

No chop suey. It's not on the menu. But chow mein and lo-mein are on the menu -- just in case anyone wants them, I guess. The menu has been revised quite a bit -- there's also no multi-course fixed-price menu, just a la carte items. No more "one from column A, one from column B."

We were talking about the fact that years ago there were no passable Chinese restaurants in Ann Arbor, not even close. So we had all cooked Chinese dishes with ingredients from Chinese grocery stores in Detroit or Windsor -- including our own hot-sour soup. Abby knew someone who had even made her own Peking Duck. Eventually, a restaurant called Old China opened in Ypsilanti that served good Szechuan food.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Cultural Chop Suey

In writing my recent lecture titled "Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?" I learned just how much of an icon chop suey once was in America.

For over a century, "chop suey" was synonymous with Chinese food. A Chop Suey House meant a Chinese restaurant. Other dishes were there for the adventurous diners, but most Americans ate chop suey or chow mein. And maybe soup or an egg roll.

This was the case by the 1890s when Chinese food and all things Chinese became very popular. It continued through the 1920s as chop suey restaurants opened from coast to coast. In the 1940s with China an ally, chop suey was so mainstream that it appeared in the US Army Cookbook. And it didn't end until the 1970s when regional Chinese food such as Hunan and Szechuan cuisine became more dominant.

The details of this history are complex -- the claim that chop suey was invented in 1896 by a Chinese diplomat is an urban legend, as is the claim that it's a joke that Chinese cooks played on Americans. The dish is really a descendant of Cantonese home cooking as documented in the book Chop Suey by Andrew Coe. More on that in a future post.

Chop suey was so culturally embedded that it appeared in all kinds of popular culture. Hopper's picture "Chop Suey" (right/above) is an expression of the amazing popularity of Chop Suey restaurants.

A number of popular songs of several eras from the jazz age to the present mention it as well. Here's a list of the chop suey songs I'm aware of:
  • "Cornet Chop Suey" by Louis Armstrong (1925)
  • "Who'll Chop Your Suey (When I'm Gone)" by Sidney Bechet, performed by Margaret Johnson (1923-1927)
  • "Chop Suey, Chow Mein" by Louis Prima (1953)
  • "Chop Suey" from Flower Drum Song (1959)
  • "Chop Suey" by The Ramones (original version, 1981)
  • "Chop Suey" on the album "Toxicity" by System Of A Down (2001, about drug addiction or suicide. It has been banned at various times. I haven't actually heard it.)
  • ... and incidentally, on the theme of Jews and Chinese restaurants is "Chinese Food On Christmas" by Brandon Walker (2007)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

From today's New York Times Dining and Wine Section

Trends! Sometimes the papers say blogging is obsolete, replaced by some other social medium. Twitter, maybe -- those tiny brief recipes. Or maybe something I haven't heard of. Today in the Dining and Wine section, blogging is back. People who photograph their food. This doesn't mean I'm a trend: they are talking about people who photograph every bite they eat. I'm not sure if they write anything much about it; the implication is that it's more of an obsession than a writing exercise. Anyway, it's a trend:

First the Camera, Then the Fork

The blogger and food diarist Nora Sherman.
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times (center); photographs by Nora Sherman

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Happy Twinkie Day!

Thanks to Louise, I'm aware that this is the day Twinkies were invented in 1930. The funny thing is that I remember thinking they were new when I first ate them as an elementary school child. That was long after 1930. Actually, I liked them. And I bought this package of 10 individually wrapped Twinkies today and ate my first one in years. Despite the mile-long list of industrial ingredients, it tasted pretty good. I assume the other 9 have an infinite shelf life.

Update: after an hour, I decided to have a second Twinkie. It didn't taste as good as the first. All kinds of philosophical thoughts are crowding into my brain in response to this experience.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

What did Mao Eat?

"Chairman Mao adored red-braised pork," Fuchsia Dunlop learned from the dictator's distant relative -- also named Mao. She found Chairman Mao's native village of Shaoshan to be full of such relatives. They still profit, she observed, from a lively tourist industry of Chinese visitors who revere the one-time leader.

Mao's family home was carefully preserved: "no opportunity for communist propaganda is missed." Throughout Shaoshan's province of Hunan and the rest of China, Dunlop found a surprising view of Mao as "the last great leader of China.. ..They smile a little sadly when they reflect on his 'mistake,' the Cultural Revolution, but they forgive him: after all, doesn't everybody make mistakes?"

Dunlop's book Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China combines her experiences traveling, learning Chinese, discovering a wide range of Chinese regional cooking, and exploring villages and cities where Westerners rarely travel. In visiting Mao's home in Shaoshan, she focused on the kitchen with meat-smoking racks over an old wood-burning range and an open fire with a blackened kettle suspended above it. Dunlop talked to a local official about Maoist cookery and collected the red-braised pork recipe with its seasoning of star anise, ginger, and chili. Another tourist might have had a different focus. Hers is always on food.

To the end of his life, she found, Mao's eating habits were those of a Hunanese peasant. He told a Soviet envoy "that you couldn't be a revolutionary if you didn't eat chillies." He disliked Chinese haute cuisine, and preferred rustic dishes such as steamed bacon, smoked fish with chilli, bean curd, cabbage, wild vegetables, and "the coarse grains that were normally the last resort of the rural poor."

Above all, Mao despised those who ate well and wasted food to show off their wealth or power while others went hungry. Throughout the book, Dunlop documents the destruction of Chinese traditional court and restaurant cooking during the Cultural Revolution. She also frequently mentions the mass starvation caused in 1958 by the Great Leap Forward. Peasants were forced into collectives and their cooking pots were melted down to make steel. A mass wave of self-deception and bad faith resulted in a famine during which at least thirty million people died. She often remarked on the lasting impact of these events on the food preferences and habits of people she met.

Dunlop's ability to create a vivid image of history through her own experiences is amazing. Her tour of Mao's home town is only one of many chapters. As she apprenticed in restaurant kitchens, ate at home or in restaurants with many common and not-so-common people, and learned several regional languages, she learned food and culinary customs of China. The combination of food history, political and social history, and personal experience makes her book extremely readable.

(Quotes about Mao: p. 175-179)

Mona Peepsa on the Web -- Happy Easter!

This is Peeps Day among other things, and Peeps belong on this blog because they are edible and some people even view them as food. So I searched the web for Mona Peepsa. Here are a few web gleanings. (There are also a lot of dead links to past Peeps contests.) I enjoy looking at the winners of the many contests, and seeing the creative titles of all the entries.