Sunday, January 30, 2011

Aurelio Zen eats a hamburger

Ratking is the first in a series of police procedurals starring detective Aurelio Zen. The author, Michael Dibdin, continued with around a dozen other Zen novels.

Aurelio Zen is an honest and dedicated crime fighter in the rottenly corrupt atmosphere of Italian politics and policing. In Ratking, he solves a kidnapping, implicating members of the victim's family; however, all the perps get off. Dibdin follows many precedents in crime fiction, including the use of meals to punctuate the pace of the investigation and to illuminate Zen's character and his relationship to the people he interviews. Earlier detectives like Maigret, Hercule Poirot, and even Sherlock Holmes had quirky food preferences; the convention continues in works by Donna Leon (Commissario Guido Brunetti) and Andrea Camilleri (inspector Salvo Montalbano) and many others.

Ratking has one slightly offbeat food theme: during the course of the novel, Aurelio Zen's relationship with his American girlfriend Ellen is hitting a low point. She comes to see him in Perugia, the site of the kidnapping where he is temporarily posted. They go on a picnic, but the weather is bad and they are forced to eat in the car:
"Ellen started to unwrap the food: a mound of ricotta, slices of cooked ham, olives in oil, half a loaf of bread. On a warm sunny day in the open air it might have been idyllic. Eaten off sheets of wrapping paper balanced precariously on their shivering knees, the cheese looked a disgusting white excrescence, the ham pale and sickly, and the olives slimy. Even the wine, a heavy red, was a failure." (p. 182-183)
At the very end, Zen returns to his home base in Rome and Ellen invites him for a simple dinner, where he tells her how he solved the crime. Although she said the food would be simple, he's a bit shocked to see "Findus 100% Beef American-style Hamburgers" on the label of a "shiny packet." She broils the meat and warms some buns. Then:
"She served the hamburgers wrapped in paper napkins, and brought a liter bottle of Peroni beer from the fridge. The hamburgers were an unhappy hybrid of American and European elements. The meat, processed cheese, and ketchup tried to be as cheerfully undemanding as a good hamburger should, but were shouted down by the Dijon mustard, the pungent onions, and the chewy rolls.

"Zen began dismantling his hamburger, eating the more appetizing bits with the fork and discarding the rest." (p. 257-260)
Of course she then tells him her plans for the rest of her life -- which don't include him.

I enjoyed this tightly-plotted and suspenseful novel. I also read Cosi Fan Tutti, a later Dibden-Zen work, but found it a little too contrived, especially the effort to reproduce in modern Naples the plot of the Mozart opera of that title.

My friend Sheila recommended this author, and told me that the Zen novels are currently being made into a BBC TV series in the UK. They will also air on PBS. IMDB lists 3 episodes so far, all this year -- I eagerly hope to watch them.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The History of Rugelach

Joan Nathan can make food sound irresistible -- and her article "A Tale of Two Treats " in Tablet Magazine today really did it. She traces the history of two types of baked goods, rugelach and schnecken, in German, German-Jewish, American-Jewish, and American history. She writes:
Schnecken are the predecessors to the American sticky bun, the sweet roll, the iconic rest-stop treat Cinnabon, and the delectable pecan roll that I used to eat at Drake’s in Ann Arbor, when I studied at the University of Michigan. The popular Settlement Cook Book documents the evolution of this pastry: The first edition of the cookbook, issued in 1901, includes a recipe for “Cinnamon Rolls or Schnecken”; the 1920 book contains two versions, the original and one for “Cold Water Schnecken“; but by the 1940s the Settlement Cook Book had edited the name of the treat down to simply “cinnamon rolls,” and still later editions find the same yeast dough appearing as pecan rolls baked in muffin pans.
I too remember Drake's sandwich shop, a declining favorite in Ann Arbor for many years until it closed in the early 1990s. Sadly I remember most vividly how for its last years, it was so poorly staffed and maintained that a display of Halloween candy corn sat fading in the window throughout all seasons, until it finally closed. Never mind. I loved Nathan's descriptions of delicious pastry.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Mimi Sheraton's Family Ate

Mimi Sheraton grew up in a family that mixed traditional Jewish food with all kinds of American food. Her mother Mrs. Solomon made hot cereal on cold mornings, her own version of chopped liver, hamburger patties with egg and onion in the meat, tomato and herring sandwiches, stuffed chicken neck, sweet-sour salads, and shrimp salad. She made boiled potatoes, challah French toast, Hamantashen, and also Seafood Newburg. Her grandmother was a remarkably skilled baker, but most of her recipes were in her hands and head, and were never recorded.

Mimi Sheraton's brief reminiscences -- like her description of the progression of foods her mother gave her when she was sick in bed -- are very enjoyable, though the recipes are the main content of this book.

My own mother made many of the same dishes -- both the ones from the Jewish tradition and the ones from the American tradition. Like Mrs. Solomon, she even had envelopes full of dog-eared, food-splattered recipes that she wrote down from friends' phone instructions, newspaper and magazine clippings of recipes, and only one cook book. Despite having similar food up-bringings, though, Mimi Sheraton became a highly respected food writer and New York Times restaurant reviewer. And I didn't.

I'm glad I found a nice used copy of From My Mother's Kitchen and added it to my collection. I hope I get around to trying some of the recipes, which reflect a type of home cooking that's often neglected in the spotlights of TV food and celebrity cooking that dominate newer cookbooks.

One more thing: Sheraton generally seems to keep her age a deep dark secret. But she gave it away: she was nine years old when she fell in love with Clark Gable in the movie "It happened one night." The movie appeared in 1934. So now I know.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Never-Ending Domestic Drama

From four stories by Jhumpa Lahiri's collection Unaccustomed Earth, four Indian mothers express themselves by serving Indian food:
"... I would find [my mother] in the kitchen, rolling out dough for luchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me." ("Hell-Heaven," p. 63)

"The dining table had been set since the afternoon. This was my mother's way when she gave parties, though she had never prepared such an elaborate meal in the middle of the week. An hour before you were expected, she turned on the oven. She had heated up a panful of oil and begun to fry thick slices of eggplant to serve with the dal...." ("Once in a Lifetime," p. 231)

"A single place had been set for me ... with translucent luchis piled on a plate, and several smaller bowls containing dal and vegetables arrayed in a semicircle..... I was no longer accustomed to Indian food." ("Year's End," p. 259)

"When Akash [age 3] was younger she had followed her mother's advice to get him used to the taste of Indian food and made the effort to poach chicken and vegetables with cinnamon and cardamom and clove. Now he ate from boxes." ("Unaccustomed Earth," p. 23)
Lahiri has a talent for describing the domestic scenes in Indian immigrant homes in American college towns. In almost every story well-educated and well-paid doctorate-holding fathers, whose careers were established in approximately the 1960s, live with their arranged wives and one or two quickly assimilating children. The children resist their parents' ways, though they rarely make a self-destructive choice. Their pizzas and donuts illustrate their feelings about their silently and servilely cooking mothers who are rarely fulfilled by life in American suburbs. In most of the stories, we learn about both the adolescence and the adult lives of these children, especially about their relationships with lovers -- mainly not Indians. Frequently we learn a bit about their own children, often born when they are far older than their mothers were.

Every story varies a little from the others (and one has a seriously different plot), but when I finished this book and compared it to my memories of the author's other books, I feel as if I was stuck in a repeating trap something like the day that would never end in the movie Groundhog Day. Each iteration just a little different, but somehow the whole never quite changes. Lahiri is a talented writer and I hope she finds a way to use her talent for something new next time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Doris Lessing: Mara and Dann

In Mara’s world, nourishment consists of yellow roots, white tasteless lumps, and dry leaves without specific names; sour milk or milk directly from a large beast, flour bought from a trader and mixed with muddy water and cooked on a hot rock. She occasionally stays with people with somewhat better food. Her first taste of meat is a raw frog that emerges from mud after a rare rainstorm. Mara eventually learns to eat slabs of muscle meat cooked on a fire. But few things have a precise name.

Mara owns a water can and some clothing that never wear out because the materials came from an earlier more sophisticated civilization. All her possessions fit in a sack that she carries as she treks through a dying landscape where rain has ceased to fall.

Dann, Mara’s brother, travels with her most of the way through the book-long journey. He carries a knife and an axe, metal tools that no one seems able to make any more, and defends them against other desperate wanderers. From time to time they are taken into slavery, where at least they receive real meals. Eventually they reach a land where people have copied guns from ancient examples. War and famine follow them everywhere.

Everything about their journey is vivid, but tedious. Doris Lessing is such a wonderful story-teller that I’ve been working through difficult books like this forever, it seems. She must tell you everything about a woman and all her challenges, and you must listen.

Thinking back, I considered how Doris Lessing provided a foundation for feminists of the seventies. Her early works from the fifties and sixties explored the experience of woman in a groundbreaking way. Her characters (almost exclusively women) had lived through World War II in colonial Africa; early marriage as unequals to their often intellectually inferior husbands; desperate desire for education and challenging jobs when none was available, and second-class status in left-wing politics. They had undergone psychoanalysis at the hands of well-meaning and likable other women but it hadn’t made them what they wanted to be. But slowly Doris Lessing’s women emerged into something that I think she wanted them to be. And feminists loved it.

The multi-volume personal history of the fictional character Martha Quest went through all this, and came out in a new world that hadn’t happened yet (though I think it’s now technically in the past). The Four-Gated City, with Martha Quest as a much older woman, was set in a future of Doris Lessing’s devising. The details of that future allowed Lessing to explore aspects of life that weren’t possible in the real world that she had been describing with painful accuracy before.

Doris Lessing continued to create new environments and check out how women would handle them. She wasn’t writing science fiction, just doing thought experiments, is what I would say. Some worked better than others. Virtually all Lessing’s created futures are extremely unpleasant. I haven’t read everything she’s written but I’ve read a lot. War, famine, bad faith in political systems, degeneration of family and civil society, and other extremes all beset her societies -- normal demands of life don't set sufficient extremes. When she removes civilization and its protections, women characters like Mara have to deal with men who are stronger than they are, as well as with the danger of pregnancy from any encounter, willing or not.

Mara and Dann, published in 1999 extends these thought experiments. Mara is the center. She’s born into an aristocratic family somewhere in Africa just as long years of drought destroy any possibility of their continuing to live. Food and water have disappeared as rivers and waterways have dried up, trees died, and animals starved. As a child of seven, Mara must start fending for herself and caring for her younger brother. Both are scarred by their experiences with hostile strangers, then raised by a woman whose dedication to them is somewhat mysterious.

As late adolescents, they begin a long journey north in search of a place where there is comfort, security, food and water. The drought, famine, wars between diverse races and peoples, and the disastrously hostile human and natural environment challenge Mara in ways that Doris Lessing’s characters from the 1950s could never be challenged.

For one thing, she is intellectually deprived, as well as starving and nearly dying of thirst. She has no words for cattle and goats (all are called milk beasts) or crocodiles (called water dragons), no ability to count much above her fingers and toes, no words for human sex organs or sex acts, no identification for plants in her landscape, only guesses about what might poison her, no words for the past or its technologies. She gets occasional glimpses of the civilizations that existed 10 or 15,000 years earlier and clearly produced advanced devices, weapons, transportation, and arts. That would have been us.

Mara and Dann finally reach a farmstead where a settled life seems possible – but like many of Lessing’s tales, this one ends with ambiguity.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the Ancient Romans Ate

A Taste of Ancient Rome

I read Giacosa's A Taste of Ancient Rome quite a few years ago, and recently found a really nice used copy of the hardback edition. So I just reread it. I was amazed that I remembered it so well, but it's totally absorbing.

The author's main message is that most days most Romans ate very very simple food. The banquets with vast numbers of dishes and the over-the-top recipes for flamingo tongues, camel toes, and little song birds were in some cases exaggerated, in others reflective only of very ostentatious events put on by show-offs. Of course I remember the dormice roasted on a stone and coated in poppy seeds and honey: the Romans loved dormice and they fattened them for the table in funny little jars. Of course I remember some of the satiric scenes from literature where the cook would say he forgot to gut a whole roast pig -- and then he'd slit it open to show all kinds of sausages. I have kept these images in mind ever since I first read the book.

Plain wheat, spelt, or barley porridge with vegetables; many egg dishes; flavoring with garum, a fermented fish sauce; ordinary cured olives; and mainly vegetarian foods seem to have been the real Roman diet. They drank water or wine (often spiced in a wide variety of ways). They viewed milk to be the drink for children and people who lived in the country. And quite a few Romans wrote about food, giving this author plenty of material, not just the recipes from the famous Apicius.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"The Food Snob's Dictionary"

I recently read all the definitions in The Food Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge by David Kamp and Marion Rosenfeld.The Food Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge

This is a fun read. The authors list food snob topics from Acme Bread Company to Zingerman's. The overall attitude of the book is by necessity snarky and superior, but I found it bearable since I share a lot of their dismissive analysis of food snob concerns.

I particularly liked the little supplementary lists. For example, "Faux Food Snobbery: Six Foods that Non-Snobs Mistakenly Believe are Snobworthy (and That Snobs Can't Be Bothered With)" -- truffle oil, Earl Grey tea, broccolini, kiwi fruit, Chilean sea bass, and Bell peppers in colors like orange and purple. Or the list of appropriate ways to refer to "Esteemed Food Personages in Conversation with Other Food Snobs," which includes "Bud" for Calvin Trillin and "Simca" for Simone Beck. Or the list of films that "All Food Snobs Must Profess to Have Seen" -- including two of my favorites, Tampopo and Babette's Feast. Actually, I did see most of these, though I doubt if I fit their definition as a food snob.

I was going to cite my favorite definition, but I can't decide which one it is. I'll just mention the entry for the Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, which is renowned because Julia Child used to eat there. The authors write: "Though the torn-canvas roof and lines out the door suggest an enervating exercise in underwhelming reverse chic, the tacos -- made with thick, homemade corn tortillas... -- are actually good." They don't even mention that these tacos are made by an elderly woman while you wait (and the line behind you waits). Or that there are other taquerias in Santa Barbara where the lines are shorter. I was last there in 2003, maybe it's different now.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

What we ate this weekend

Carol made a stunningly gorgeous boeuf en croute for dinner on Friday night; a mushroom sauce and another sauce were also on the menu. She also made a delicious soup, an inventive kale salad, and a nutmeg-flavored cake. A splendid meal! She's simultaneously creative and patient: a winning combination. I don't have anywhere near the patience needed for such things.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The wide, wide world

In the New York Times today: an article about a Brazilian town where eating a particular species of ant is a tradition: Pesticides Threaten Ant-Eating Tradition in Brazil. I appreciated the tone of the article, which describes the ant-hunting methods of the people in the town without prejudice against their choice of food. They enjoy the flavor. That's it. Although I have no particular wish to taste this, I am very interested in how varied human nutrition can be.

I've read other books and articles about foodways that challenge my comfort levels. One is:
Product Details
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
The author, Fuchsia Dunlop, describes her process of learning to cook and eat a number of foods that are unusual in her native England and elsewhere in European food traditions, but completely common and appreciated in China. The reader gets a positive picture of how another culture might differ in a basic way about food.

I've also read a book about Australian natives' annual feast on the Bogong moth. These moths were gathered during their migration. Moth hungers roasted the moths individually on a hot stone; "their peanut-sized abdomens are full of protein, with an oily texture and a taste not unlike roast chestnuts." As many as 500 people from different tribes would gather to eat moths during the season when they were available. People from many tribes also socialized, exchanged goods, and arranged marriages. Needless to say, these customs are no longer possible in modern Australia. (Moth Hunters of the Australian Capital Territory by Josephine Flood, 1996)

It's a wide, wide, world.

UPDATE: For a much more amusing version of weird things people eat, see this.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Food as Architecture

Traditional English Christmas dinner: roast turkey, apricot-bread stuffing, cranberry jelly, vegetables -- that's how it was offered on the menu at the resort restaurant in St.Lucia where we spent Christmas. The turkey and stuffing were quite delicious; the broccoli and carrot a bit uninteresting; I did enjoy my meal.

However, I found myself questioning why such a straightforward tradition needed such an elaborate and not very traditional presentation. The meat was rolled up around the stuffing, the cranberry sauce piled on top. A sprig of rosemary topped the cranberry jelly, its flavor not especially integrated into the food.

Architectural presentations have been a restaurant fad for at least 25 years. At first this style characterized a certain type of edgy restaurant -- I recall being impressed by the sheer height of the decorations at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, for example. Soon everyone was doing it. On the food channel, most demos end with the words "let's plate it up [pause for piling and pouring sauce and picking up a fork]. . .MMMM."

No aspiring chef on TV or in real life would just place the food in neat, separate servings on a dinner plate, large or small. A large single-person platter is normal. On the platter's center stands a tall structure. The supporting layer is usually whole grain or mashed potatoes. Next probably a small wedge of meat topped or decorated with vegetables. Small green sprigs, halves of tiny cherry tomatoes, or other garnishes are applied selectively. In the 80's the garnish was often raspberries, but this trend has mercifully declined. Beyond the tower and the garnish, the vast remainder of the smooth china surface must be adorned with swirls of sauce. (Other than the Christmas turkey, most of my dinners in St.Lucia did have swirls of sauce.)

Cooking shows, blogs, dedicated books, and cooking classes show home cooks how to create food presentations on their own chinaware plates (preferably large, white, and square). When I made the Julia Child recipe for duck a l'orange, it occurred to me that this style had not yet been invented when her book was written in the early 60s, and when I served it, I simply placed the foods on a platter for serving. I've never learned the new way, just the old. Silly me!

How many people study these blogs and shows and serve their family a little cylindrical tower of food with a sprig of rosemary? Or do they eat even traditional feasts from a plate piled to the rim with all good things? A plate that looks sort of like this version of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which is about the same as the English Christmas dinner:

I guess the most extreme presentations in this field are dessert. An article in this week's New Yorker describes the extremest cases -- writer Adam Gopnik explored the architectural trend in dessert. His description: "three upright cylinders—small towers of something wrapped in something—with the tops sliced at an angle; a crumbly landscape of some kind; and a reflecting pool running around the edge."

The food tower fad has been with us a long time. I wonder when it will be superseded by another trend.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Here's to Julia Child

For New Year's Eve I decided to make a very retro dinner: duck a l'orange from the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I neglected Julia's suggestion of simple side dishes and made acorn squash with cranberry relish and kasha to go with it. Our friends Elaine and Bob brought appetizers (spreads from Detroit's fantastic Star Deli) and dessert (a rum cake from a bake sale, made by the wife of the Russian Orthodox priest in town).