Friday, August 27, 2010

Food Memoirs: "The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth"

Alpine game such as chamois or wild boar, roasted on an open hearth! Cheese made by hand in a farmhouse! Milk from high mountain pastures! Fresh produce picked at exactly the right moment! Tuna from the Mediterranean! Classic Dauphinois, Savoyard, and Provencal desserts! The best wine vintages of the 1940s, 50s, 60s! or the best wine makers' second-best years!

The joys of dining at the mysterious -- almost mythical -- Auberge of the Flowering Hearth near the Grand Chartreuse Monastery are the only focus of author Roy Andries de Groot's memoir of his experiences there in around 1970. His descriptions are vivid. Every dish sounds luscious. The two old (middle aged?) ladies who run the Auberge drive their station wagon to Burgundy for wine, to their native Provence for special produce and freshly caught fish, and around the local mountainsides for artisan's cheeses.

One of the memorable dinners (actually, they're all memorable) finished thus:
"The cheeses, of strong character, were also ideal -- for the happy purpose of finishing the wine. The first, the famous Saint Nectaire, was a cow's milk cheese from the central mountains of the Auvergne. The best types are still farm-made, but all too many factories are now beginning to dot the valleys and turn out mass quantities of le Saint Nectaire industriel. The best cheeses are matured on rye mats in cool, damp caves. They are best eaten before they are four months old and begin to harden. The young inside flesh is very smooth and creamy -- in my opinion, this is one of the best soft cheese of France." (p. 170)
Read it and wonder: will I ever eat anything like this? Every description brings up that question. In some cases, you could at least use the recipes in the second half of the book. But where would you get small game birds, wild mountain chamois, wild boar, or 1948 vintage wine? Even in France, hunting such animals is no longer legal, and wines of that era, if they exist at all, are in the hands of millionaire collectors.

The book is very enjoyable as an exercise in nostalgia, maybe for something you never had at all. I was close: we spent several months in that region of France at about the time deGroot was there. But we had no money at all so ate only a very few meals cooked in small restaurants. We rode up those mountains a few times on our motor-scooter (a classic Lambretta), but brought our own salami and bread from the student restaurant along for lunch!

Taking a step back, I find it clear that nostalgia for the artisans' food production appears in almost all descriptions of fine meals, especially in France. It drives many food writers today, but the amazing thing is that it was far from new in deGroot's time, either. DeGroot quotes a long passage from Stendhal (a local hero) who visited the Grand Chartreuse in 1837.

In this passage, Stendhal describes how he looked at the simple agriculture in the same valleys where deGroot found his Auberge 130 years later; he compared them with more highly developed regions. "In those areas of sophisticated farming,where one often sees forty ploughs working at the same time in the same field, there is the feeling of a great mass-manufacturing process." In the Alps, according to Stendhal, "one feels only the pure joy of the open land ..." (p. 148)

The feeling that agriculture and good food are changing for the worse is so far from new, that I almost distrust a writer who dwells on it! But there's such great charm in deGroot's descriptions that this is a minor point. He captures the delights of seasonal food at the Auberge. He presents the methods, shopping, and cooking of the two innkeepers throughout a typical year, explaining what's in season and how it tastes.

The book is a wonderful and classic food memoir, idealizing a moment in time and space and still appealing after 40 years. The author writes objectively, impersonally -- he inserts nothing about his personal life other than his love of the food. Most people today find it surprising when they learn that he was blind from injuries suffered during the war, but never once mentioned it. I consider this an indication of how he followed journalistic conventions of that time, very different from most current food-memoir writing.

Online, you can find an Auberge de l'Atre Fleuri in the same town, though I seriously doubt that it's a true descendant of deGroot's original. I'd love to go try it anyway.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We eat our mistakes


We are experimenting with pizza made on the grill. The first try didn't work very well. The crust was hard to manage, though the toppings were great, and I included them in the photo. Tonight we did better. We made the pizzas smaller so they were easier to handle. Just a few more tweaks and we should really have it nailed.

Toppings on the first try: onions, tomato, olives, arugula, capers, and more. Second try: eggplant, tomatoes, sauteed red peppers with garlic & capers. Both times: mozzarella and shaved parmesan cheese. Lots of olive oil. We had all toppings ready to eat before adding them to the pizza, as they don't stay on the fire for long.

Food Memoirs: "Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit"

"The incontrovertible truth is that cou-cou, a dish made from corn that you grind-up, fine-fine-fine, into a meal and cook in water that have okras boil in it, was first cooked in Barbados. From there it spread all over the world."
Austin Clarke's memoir Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit has a very loveable persona as its narrator. Maybe this persona is Austin Clarke, maybe not so much. You can see some of this narrator's character in this little quote from page 100. He writes in Bajan English -- although the real Austin Clarke is a highly educated professor and novelist who has lived in the US and Canada. The character who emerges in the telling reminds me a little of Langston Hughes' Harlem everyman, Simple.*

Clarke's narrator insists that Barbados food culture is superior to that of other Caribbean islands. Virtually every dish he describes is original to Barbados, he claims, despite many examples of parallel (or in his view, derivative) dishes elsewhere. Even those commonly credited elsewhere: "I, though, have a way of cooking jerk pork -- which in truth and in fact was invented in Barbados -- which have some Jamaicans trying to change their citizenship and become Barbadian!" he says on p. 200.

Each chapter of this memoir has a focus on a single dish and how to prepare it. The first thing you learn is how a kitchen could be as simple as "three large stones placed on the ground or on an elevated base made of hard rock or concrete," and a cooking vessel could be as simple as a tin can or three-legged iron pot. (p. 16) But if you are cooking his recipes in a modern kitchen in Toronto or Brooklyn, NY, there are suggestions for you -- in fact, there are quite detailed descriptions of how the narrator pictures your life and your kitchen.

Throughout the recipes, you hear how his mother and her peers cooked them in the 1930s and 1940s when Austin Clarke was a boy in Barbadoes, and how people there viewed each dish and its preparation. As the book proceeds, the narrator describes his feelings about women, about education, about Barbados history and slavery times, about race, and lots of other topics -- up to the last chapter when he describes an encounter with Norman Mailer!

Not only do you learn how to shop for the ingredients, what utensils and cooking pots to use, and how to prepare the food, you also learn what music to listen to and when to take a little drink while you are cooking. After you wash the oxtails for Oxtails with Mushrooms and Rice, you are advised:
"Have a drink at this juncture. A lil red wine, preferable. But since this is Wessindian food, there isn't nothing better than a strong rum. Being a multicultural kind o' man, I myself would make a strong-strong, dry-dry martini to take the chill off my bones. Bombay Gin, no ice, and with four nice, big, green juicy olives. I don't lift a spoon or a pot cover unless I have a drink in my hand." (p. 202)
My favorite chapter is called "Killing a Pig to Make Pork Chops with Onions and Sweet Peppers." Lyric descriptions of the delicious nature of pork chops begin the chapter, and the author clearly lets you know he's heading for a description of the local itinerant butcher and his business slaughtering and butchering a family's one and only pig.

But first, there's a long digression about public dances called brams, where "a man could meet a woman and put some sweet talk on she." If he wanted to treat that woman right, "the only thing was to offer the yourng lady one thing. Not a Coke nor a beer nor a ice cream. Not even a Cadbury chocolate bar nor a pack o' Wrigley's chewing gum. He would offer the lady a pork chop. A pork chop! ... The price of a pork chop sold at a bram was one shilling. The pork chop was golden brown and crispy and hot with fire. It was served plain, by itself, on a piece o' brown paper that quickly became soggy from the grease...." (p. 128-129)

Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit is so skillfully written that you hardly know what's happening to you. Just a wonderful book to read.

*If you haven't read Langston Hughes' stories about Harlem dweller Jesse B. Semple, called Simple, you have a treat in store for you: don't waste any time getting a copy of some -- The Best of Simple by Langston-Hughes

Monday, August 23, 2010


Since Louise is not currently blogging edible celebrations, I felt I should link to an article in the Washington Post today about the 200th anniversary, said to be Wednesday, of the humble tin can (now made of aluminum, steel, plastic-lined metal or whatever).

Evidently August 25 is the date in 1810 when inventor Peter Durand took out the first patent on the tin can, along with various other food preservation containers. The article doesn't say exactly what event occurred on this anniversary, and I haven't found any other explanation. Louise once mentioned August 24 as can opener day, so I'm a bit puzzled. The can opener was not invented until 50 years after the can, and there were some heroic struggles while people waited!

The Washington Post author asks:
"What if gold prospectors relied solely on foraging on their treks out West? What if tinsmiths didn't handcraft 35,000 cans a day for meats and condensed milk during the Civil War? What if Chef Boyardee and Hormel Spam didn't nourish Patton's armies, whose soldiers wore can openers around their necks in communion with their jangling dog tags? What if canned food had never freed the American homemaker from time-consuming dinner duties?"
Wednesday, maybe, we should remember canned tomato soup and a cheese sandwich for childhood lunch. Or Andy Warhol making us revise our view of that can. Maybe we should think about canned fruit, or maybe about Sterno. Here's an article about the history of cans from Modern Mechanix of 1937:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Food Memoirs: "Amarcord: Marcella Remembers"

Passion isn't a characteristic of Marcella Hazan's memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. She mentions that at the age of 84, memories are fluid, sweeping over time and space in no particular order. (Despite this, the book seems well organized and not especially jumpy.) Maybe age also made her somewhat detached and dispassionate about some of her experiences.

Politics is also not of much interest to Hazan. Her description of her family fleeing from their native farm and suffering in World War II completely avoided any statement of which side they were on (so I assume they supported the Italian Fascists). After the war, she was threatened by returning partisans, but avoided punishment. She seemed very distant from all this, as she did when describing her university studies of science and her early life as a teacher.

Hazan's descriptions of her husband seem pale and though she says he was a wonderful person, the reader isn't given a lot of specifics. He was a Sephardic Jew whose parents had immigrated to Italy and then fled to America in 1939, which could be interesting but is never elaborated. His parents didn't accept her, and maybe there was little contact -- but they are basically not characterized in the book. Her husband had lost many family members in the Holocaust -- but this is mentioned as a sort of aside, in explaining why he didn't want to spend time in Germany.

In the introduction, Hazan explained her title Amarcord, which means "I remember" in the dialect of Romagna, as a sort of homage to Fellini's film. She's from the same area of Italy, and her cooking school specialized in the dishes of this region. Clearly, she revised the American view of Italian cuisine, which derived from an immigrant community that had merged many of the regional traditions into an Italian-American style. She wrote:
When I first started to cook after arriving in New York, not even a year into married life, it was as though I were telling a story I had heard as a little girl in another land. To judge how closely my tale corresponded to the original, I had nothing but my memory and my cookbook. I was not acquainted with any other recently arrived Italians.... The so-called Italian food I found in New York at that time -- spaghetti and meatballs; machine-made ravioli with pungent, dark tomato sauce; manicotti; lobster fra diavolo; veal parmesan or alla francese -- resembled only occasionally in name, but never in appearance, taste, or intentions, what I had known at home. (p. 103)
What for her was "normal food" was extremely exotic in 1975 in New York, but she explains how she created Italian cooking classes and later cook books that enabled a new American consciousness of regional Italian food.

Over time, she describes how, in partnership with her husband, she increased her visibility to Americans and thus contributed to a trend of growing interest in authentic cuisines. As they expanded their teaching into schools for Americans held in Bologna and later Venice, she provides an interesting account of her experiences and of her many famous students. Interestingly, she describes how her own interests include a love of Asian foods as well as the cuisine of her native region.

For me, this book was not nearly as enjoyable as Julia Child's book My Life in France, though both of them had the perspective of a person who has outlived many of her contemporaries and feels free to publish critical views of many of her acquaintances. Although I enjoyed her memories, and developed respect for her accomplishments, of which my knowledge was previously vague, I found her lacking in attachment to many things. I liked the book, but it just didn't have the depth or passion to make me really love it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Food Memoirs: "Tastes Like Cuba"

What are the limitations of a food memoir? Eduardo Machado's memoir Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home reads like an object lesson on what you can -- and can't -- do with this genre.

The early chapters are delightful: the foods of Machado's childhood in Cuba effectively illustrate the relationships of his various grandparents and his early feelings of security, belonging, and family loyalties. One grandmother makes "Newspaper Soup" every day -- from a recipe that was long before published in a newspaper and torn out without its proper title. One grandfather, though he lives with his wife, cooks separately -- his job on the docks gives him access to all kinds of imported luxury foods. The author distrusts the food at his Catholic school because of a roomful of taxidermized animals, whose flesh, he fears, is what's for lunch. He loves Cuban tamales from a street vendor:
Piping hot cornmeal, the saltiness of pork, all heightened by the bits of fatback throughout. The skin gave texture while the fat delivered the taste of corn and the pork in swirls of steaming flavor. So much that I ate one every day. (p. 12)
Vivid. Iconic. Just what most food memoirs do best with their subject.

But Castro takes over -- cheered on and supported by Machado's whole family. Disillusionment sets in quickly. The grandfathers lose their jobs and businesses to Castro's policies. The family aren't eating quite as well.

Soon the author and his brother are sent alone to America to live with impoverished and unwelcoming relatives. All they have to eat is Spam and other poverty foods supplied by welfare organizations:
At around five we had a dinner of cold Velveeta cheese sandwiches on white bread with a salad of lettuce and canned garbanzo beans in vegetable oil and distilled vinegar. ... The food tasted more like the chemical processes used to preserve it than any kind of actual flavor. The salad was a disappointing Easter basket, all plastic frills of soggy iceberg covered in wet beans that tasted like metal." (p. 71)
When the brothers' parents arrive from Cuba, finally, their mother manages to make even the low-quality American food taste more like home, which of course reinforces the theme of separation, anxiety, and restoration of the family. His father finds no work in Miami, and quickly accepts an offer from Catholic Social Services to relocate them to Los Angeles, sponsored by well-meaning Americans. (Unfortunately, Machado can't resist making fun of their clothes and some of their habits.) Life becomes much more complicated as the author adapts to life in L.A. -- and food, while still important and iconic, begins to fail as a metaphor for all of his life.

One food experience involved the author's family's road trip from L.A. to Miami, where they decided to visit the relatives who were still there. Crossing the Deep South, they are not recognized to have the white skin privilege that would allow them freely into the public accommodations that they might choose.

"Maybe they thought you were Mexican," says his mother when his father is refused a room at a hotel with a VACANCY sign in Dallas. In Louisiana, "The bathroom signs said WHITES ONLY and there was a long line of black customers waiting to use a ramshackle outhouse way in back. My father had gotten on that long line. I just looked away, unable to believe what I was seeing."

That evening, they rented a tourist cabin in an area that was evidently reserved for blacks. But they had dinner in a whites-only restaurant, making the other customers whisper and making the waitress very nervous. She convinces them to order dessert to go. "That night we felt much safer in the security of our own little porch in the long row of cabins. It's easy to forget injustice as you feast on the glorious flavors of homemade peach and pecan pie. Maybe that's why pies are so popular in the South. They're good when your soul hurts." (p. 165-169)

I think the author's reduction of his family's treatment to a remark about pie was a little too flippant and over-simplified. Maybe it's a limitation of what you can do in a food memoir, though I doubt that. It seemed to me that his idea of injustice was that they should have been treated as whites, not blacks. He doesn't really seem to have any empathy for the real victims of that era. I'm really uncomfortable with this!

The author's high school years involved conflict with his father -- who was becoming very successful as a CPA. Descriptions of food are far from adequate to describe the author's struggle to become an actor, and then, after graduation, his development as a successful playwright. He meets a woman who makes and eats huge, hippie salads, which is interesting, but this isn't enough to express the marriage of the 19 year old author to a 42 year old counter-culture-type. At this point, I think the food memoir genre begins to get in the way of the autobiographical goals. In fact, sometimes I felt as if it was a way to avoid dealing with lots of issues in the author's life.

The second half of the book documents the author's successes writing and having his plays produced. (I must admit that I had never heard of his work, and was aware of this book only via a favorable review in the NYT Book Review some time ago.) The later chapters also describe his development as a gay person, though this is not done with much depth. He seems to have finally settled down with his co-author Michael Domitrovich, but Domitrovich's role as a significant other and co-author is not particularly elaborated.

Only when Machado returns to Cuba to present one of his works in a theater festival does the food theme return effectively, representing his homecoming and coming to terms with his Cuban identity. It's never as clear and iconic as it was in the first few chapters, though. Too bad.

I recently ordered this and two other food memoirs from my long list of books to read. So I'll be adding more to these thoughts. Incidentally, these books were all very heavily discounted -- I wonder if that represents a softening of interest in the subject. Tastes Like Cuba only cost $1.08 (no shipping, I'm an Amazon Prime subscriber) for the hardcover -- I wonder if there will ever be a paperback.

For a completely different point of view about this book, see Tastes Like Cuba - Eduardo Machado - Book Review.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not the Cake Doctor

Cake mix would produce good results even if it was formulated with dried egg in the batter, but manufacturers have found that women feel more creative if they add eggs, not just water. Or so long-ago rumors said. This was part of the commonly-held, probably correct lore that told us that Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and their competitors had determined the formulation of cake mix by a process of laboratory science combined with market research.

I do know that the cake-mix producers did market research, because my mother and I participated in it. I think I was in around fifth or sixth grade at the time. Our neighbor Mrs. Rosen had a job organizing survey participants on a variety of topics. She recruited my mother, who allowed me to help her bake the cakes from the plain white numbered boxes with separate instruction sheets. We followed the instructions, ate the cakes -- with my sister, brother, and father of course, and filled out the questionnaires. I don't remember whether we preferred adding eggs to not adding eggs. I think we did prefer a yellow cake to a white cake. I felt very important to be involved, using my mother's fairly new Mixmaster to beat the batter.

For layer cakes, I still tend to use cake mixes. If I want plain cake layers, I think cake mixes give a fine result. I admit, however, that I'm a bit challenged when it comes to stacking up and frosting the layers. And I don't get fancy about it -- I admire The Cake Doctor only from afar. Her methods require too much skill.

Yesterday I was baking a layer cake for Lenny's birthday. A few seconds after I put the layers together, the top layer slid off the bottom layer.


The room-temperature Trader Joe's lemon curd I used between them was too runny to hold them together. (I love TJ's lemon curd -- the jar lists only good ingredients, unlike some of the lemon curd jars in ordinary grocery stores.)

You can see from the photo that I subsequently put the cake back together with poultry skewers -- clean ones, naturally -- and chilled it, hoping that the lemon curd would stiffen up enough to keep the top layer in its place. I took out each skewer in turn while I applied the cake frosting. (Unlike cake mix and TJ's lemon curd, I think only home made frosting will do. Every time I bake a cake, I scan the splattered pages of my Joy of Cooking til I find the one I want. This time, lemon.)

It worked! When it was time to serve the cake, I pulled the skewers out and the cake stayed put while I sliced it. It was delicious.

Just after I put the cake in the refrigerator with its skewers in place, Ruby called, and I described what I was doing. So she told me a story of how she was once assembling a cake, when the phone rang -- in the old days, she said, when all phones were wired so she was tethered in place across the room from the cake. As she talked, she saw her layers slide from the newly assembled cake onto the floor, but couldn't get there in time to save them. I was lucky -- my layer had only slid onto the edge of the large cake plate and I rescued it quickly.

Also I remembered a few years ago, when I baked a birthday cake for my friend Ellen. That time, the problem wasn't that I failed on the construction but that I missed the right proportions for the frosting. The result looked so childishly frosted that Ellen started to laugh when she looked at it, explaining that her mother also could never get the frosting nicely onto the cake.

This time, I got the frosting right. But I definitely feel challenged when it comes to baking layer cakes.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Michigan Wine

I normally don't have anything to say about wine -- I just like to drink it. But this morning's L.A. Times has an article on top of the front page (if that's what you call the home page of an online newspaper) featuring Michigan's 100 wineries! Also a few from Illinois, but mostly Michigan. The article summarizes the common view that wines from the Midwest are sweet and not very good -- and then describes how they are improving and gaining recognition and fans.

See this: Midwest makes case for its wines

I've had Michigan wine from time to time, though I haven't become a serious customer. Given the terrible economy here, I hope the article predicts great things for this one area of our agriculture.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Black Orchids and Corned-Beef Hash

Nero Wolfe had unusual taste. He grew orchids and experimented with recipes that by modern standards (and probably also those of his own time) were plebeian. In Black Orchids, exotic black orchids serve as a backdrop to murder, and excite a weak point in the sort-of infallible detective.

I don't even know if there's such a thing as a black orchid: the few plants that Nero Wolfe obtained were unique in the whole world so I guess Rex Stout didn't really think there were any. I think orchids look more like the ones in the Botanical Gardens near Hilo that I photographed a few years ago. Nero Wolfe loved the rarity, and for that was willing to do detective work that he might otherwise scorn. He spent a good part of each day in his orchid greenhouses, which play a role in every Nero Wolfe mystery I've read thus far.

Wolfe was willing to go the extra bit for a recipe (in some books, more than a bit). I find it odd that the recipes in the books I've read are not in the least what I would call an exotic. In the book Black Orchids, the great and large detective is seeking a recipe for a perfect corned-beef hash. Lowly corned-beef hash. If it wasn't lowly, why would a cheap restaurant be called a hash house? Well, that's my opinion, not the master's.

Nero Wolfe was delighted when a southern belle named Maryella revealed the secret ingredient for corned beef hash to Wolfe and his cook Fritz. She came into the kitchen (she was involved with some quite dubious characters, but pure, and coming in because she was a witness to something in a case). She leaned over. She peered into the bowl where Wolfe's hands were about to go into a corned-beef mixture and --
"Excuse me," she said... "but corned beef hash is one of my specialties. Nothing in there but meat, is there?"

"As you see," Wolfe grunted.

Wolfe scowled at her. I [that's Archie, Wolfe's sidekick and the narrator] could see he was torn with conflicting emotions. A female in his kitchen was an outrage. A woman criticizing his or Fritz's cooking was an insult. But corned beef hash was one of life's toughest problems, never yet solved by anyone. To tone down the corned flavor and yet preserve its unique quality, to remove the curse of its dryness without making it greasy -- the theories and experiments had gone on for years. He scowled at her, but he didn't order her out. ...

"Now you just calm down." Maryella's hand was on his arm. "It's not ruined, only it's better if it's coarser. That's far too much potatoes for that meat. But if you don't have chitlins you cant ---"

"Chitlins," Wolfe bellowed.

Maryella nodded. "Fresh pig chitlins. That's the secret of it. Fried shallow in olive oil with onion juice."
So the secret ingredient in the plebeian corned-beef hash is the even more plebeian chitlins. Corned-beef hash one of life's toughest problems? Chitlins a cosmic solution? Is Rex Stout playing a joke on all his readers? The book was written before I was born, so I think the cultural and food environment has changed so much that I might never know.

At least one other blogger has commented on Nero Wolfe and his recipes, mentioning a cookbook dedicated to the detective's culinary creations. This blogger even found the delightful cartoon. See: Some Came Running...

As the blog author wrote: "I can still envision the comic possibilities inherent in the spectacle of my cleaning several pounds of pig chitlins for homemade corned-beef hash."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Making a Daube (or Stew)

Daube is one of our favorite French dishes.

This week, Michigan veal was available. I bought a shank that had been sliced with the bone in, and I further cut it into small pieces. I browned it, added vegetables, herbs and a piece of orange rind, simmered, overnight aged it, and then baked it for dinner. The orange rind adds something essential. My friend Michelle showed me how to make this in her kitchen in Provence.

The marrow from inside the bones was really delicious. What fun!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Deep Fried at the Indiana State Fair

Deep fried butter, deep fried Oreos, deep fried Pepsi, deep fried peanut butter cups, Krispy Kreme burgers ...

Jim Venable, a friend of my sister's, sent me these photos of the Indiana State Fair showing Deep Fried Everything. In contrast, a hospital had a booth encouraging people to eat more healthy food!

Jim wrote:
"St Vincent’s did have a large presence at the fair. Which we thought was somewhat ironic given the lack of healthy food. There was one food vendor that offered salads, vegetable kabobs and some low fat turkey sandwiches. Everything else was typical fair fare.

"We started the day healthy with salads and veggies. We were good. But we did allow ourselves to sample the temptations of the deep fried world."

Monday, August 09, 2010

Chicago Dining

Mercat a la Planxa restaurant is nearly across the street from the Chicago Institute of Arts. They specialize in tapas. We had several marvelous dishes: garlic shrimp, jamon serrano; white anchovies with pancetta, goat cheese and pine nuts on flatbread; saffron noodles with clams and squid, lamb brochettes, and green bean salad. It's a mystery to me (and to others I know) why tapas actually seem better in the US than in some parts of Spain. The waitress pointed out that their style is Catalan, which is probably better. Every bite was delicious. I definitely have some experimenting to do -- some of the dishes could probably be recreated in my kitchen. I already have a recipe for garlic shrimp.

Breakfast was at Yolk, which is closer to the Field Museum where we were heading on Sunday morning. In the corner of the collage you can see my waffle with yogurt, granola, and strawberries and a glimpse of Len's French Toast.


We spent 24 hours in Chicago this weekend, driving back and forth from Michigan. Saturday afternoon, we took our time looking at many art works at the Chicago Art Institute. Meanwhile, outside, a rock festival was raging. I remembered many of the art works in the museum from earlier trips, especially the famous icons of Impressionism, but the above image by Van Gough impressed me enormously, and I didn't really recall seeing these "Drinkers" before.

This one also impressed me:

This is a section of a painting of a feast by El Greco. The food on the table looks mighty small for a feast. I wonder how that relates to the recent finding by Brian Wansink that the amount of food in paintings of the Last Supper has constantly increased in major depictions over the years. That result: "portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last one thousand years." (See this.)

Later, I'll add more about the trip, especially about what we ate and our visit to the Field Museum of Natural History.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Famine? Scarcity?

The top story in the New York Times today is Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop. Commodity prices are usually not at the top of my interests. Like most Americans, I assume that prices will vary, but that food will always be affordable, and I don't think about global issues of famine or scarcity. Will all of us become more conscious of these issues as the climate -- both physical and political -- creates new problems of supply of foodstuffs? The article begins with these grim paragraphs:
Russia banned all exports of grain on Thursday after millions of acres of wheat withered in a severe drought, a portentous decision at a time when crop failures caused by heat and flooding span the northern hemisphere.

Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, announced the ban, from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31, saying it was necessary to curb rising prices for food inside Russia, one of the world’s largest wheat exporters, which is suffering the hottest temperatures recorded since record-keeping began more than 130 years ago. Rail cars heaped with fresh grain were already grinding to a halt around Russia, stopped in mid-harvest, and mid-journey from the country’s vast and iconic wheat fields to the main grain exporting ports on the Black Sea.

The decision caused an immediate and sharp rise in the already high global price of wheat. It rose more than 8 percent in early trading on the Chicago Board of Trade on Thursday, after having increased about 90 percent since June because of the drought in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of the European Union, and floods in Canada.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"Food, Inc."

We finally watched "Food, Inc." I've read way too many of the sources to find it surprising -- especially Michael Pollan's books and articles. Despite my familiarity with many of the details, I found many really good issues discussed in it. Impressive: seeing moving pictures of feedlots, CAFOs, slaughterhouses, chicken houses for hundreds of thousands of chickens, and farmers ruined by Monsanto.

I don't like extremists or fanatics, so I would have liked to see a broader range of organic farmers and innovators against mass production. I am suspicious of the claim that Joel Salatin's methods can scale upwards. And I'm ultra-skeptical about the interview with the CEO of Stonybrook Farms (now part of a big agriculture corp) and his pride in the mass-market organic yogurt sold at WalMart. But I have a distrust of hippies who got rich on their hipness, which might be misplaced.

In general, I wish the authors had a vision for how to feed all the people on earth without some of the mass market methods. This is an issue that's frequently avoided. Yes, we put Mexican corn farmers out of business with cheap corn and NAFTA. And it was bad for their economy. What next?

I think my shopping habits already conform to the authors' goals (and yes, I know not everyone can afford to shop the way they suggest). But I think the points about the food industry, lack of regulation, persecution of farmers (such as those who re-use seeds and are pursued by Monsanto), and the corruption of the regulatory process are all very important.

Lenny says the "veggie libel" laws are the worst offense revealed in the film. That term refers to laws that prevent people from criticizing foods, food manufacturers, or growing processes; a set of related laws also prevent people from suing food industries when they are harmed. Oprah's successful defense against being sued for libel against hamburgers around 15 years ago is the best-known example.

On the whole: good film.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

In Season

Tonight for dinner we had a number of dishes that can only be made when their key ingredients are in season. During the long wait from one summer to the next, it's easy to forget what summer fruits and vegetables taste like. Fresh and exciting things I used and made:
  • Chopped tomatoes. The local tomatoes that I bought had a special aroma that you only get when the tomato has been ripened -- almost over-ripened -- on a vine on a farm not far away. Our first course included the tomatoes and a chopped olive salad that was ready-made at Whole Foods, my own cream cheese spread, and herb butter that I made with fresh cilantro.
  • Butterflied leg of lamb, made on the grill using a Julia Child recipe. I think it was a very small lamb, perhaps local but I'm not sure. It was the most tender lamb I've ever had.
  • Green bean salad with dried mushrooms and red pepper and a light vinaigrette -- the green beans now are small, not old & tough. The red peppers are still the industrial green-house version -- I hope that the odd-shaped local pimentos and nonstandard red peppers become available soon. For them, I will have to make it to the Farmers Market.
  • Lettuce salad with Michigan dried cherries, toasted pine nuts, and cherry balsamic vinaigrette. And one touch of Michigan maple syrup.
  • Peach cake (which I described here when I first made it). The very first tree-ripened Michigan peaches are here. They make all the difference. So juicy and soft the "free stones" don't even want to come out. I added a few exceptional-tasting blueberries that came from Western Michigan.
Time to get philosophical. Sorry, I haven't the energy -- I was cooking and preparing vegetables all afternoon.