Sunday, May 29, 2011

Two Views of Food


In this simple scene, painted around 1660, painter Pieter de Hooch depicts "A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy." Many Dutch painters of the era illustrated the interior of homes of middle class people, showing their daily lives in an idealized way. I love the details of the loaf of bread, the butter, and the glimpses of the scene outside the home.


In contrast: this detail from Aert de Gelder's large portrayal of "The Banquet of Ahasuerus" uses a dining scene to illustrate a decadent and possibly corrupt man -- though of course the viewer knows how the scene is redeemed in the remainder of the book of Esther from which the image is derived. This painting dates from around 20 years after the first.


Nikolaus Knupfer's "Solon before Croesus" (detail above) shows an even more decadent-seeming scene. I'm not sure I understand what the woman's role is in this Greek myth about King Solon, who told Croesus that poor people may be happier than kings. The painting dates from a few years prior to the first one.

Based on these three paintings, which I saw today at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and on many other still-lives, Biblical and mythological paintings, and commonplace interiors from the Dutch Golden Age, I have an idea that the simple lives of ordinary virtuous Dutch people in this era were favorably contrasted with the more luxurious lives of the rich rulers of the past. I believe that this was the era of the Dutch Republic, where egalitarianism was almost achieved for a while.

The Getty museum is situated on a beautiful hilltop with vast views out to sea and towards the mountains. Its many harmonious buildings, outdoor fountains and sculpture, and well-kept gardens are very impressive.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Holy Grail?


After years of procrastination, we finally ate dinner tonight at In-N-Out Burger. We never got around to it during our stay in San Diego in 2009. We are leaving here in just over a week: lucky that we made it this time.

Our expectations were very modest: we had heard that though it's very highly hyped, most level-headed hamburger eaters find the food here just a bit better than MacDonald's. Our expectations were met. AHHHHH.... an ordinary hamburger!


Most of our fellow customers were probably not influenced by Julia Child's admiration for In-N-Out Burger, unlike the foodies lining up at the Super Rica Taqueria. My guess is that most of our fellow customers haven't actually heard of Julia Child at all, since they seem to be mainly high school students, some maybe too young to have even seen "Julie and Julia" (which didn't mention either In-N-Out Burger or Super Rica anyway). I overheard a conversation about falling off a skateboard. Nothing about Julia Child.


So this is it. The Holy Grail, not. Another peak California experience, perhaps.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Ethical Assassin"

The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is a suspense novel in which a naive character, 17-year-old Lemul Altick suddenly finds himself threatened by bizarre criminals and corrupt policemen in the heat and misery of 1980s Florida. Lem -- whose name is coincidentally the same as Swift's Lemuel Gulliver -- grows up and learns a great deal in his strange voyage of saving himself from a variety of dangers. He learns to deal with strange circumstances, with dishonest employers in his job selling encyclopedias door-to-door, with bullying from his age peers and others, and with ambiguity about which people he can believe or trust. It's not quite as excellent as some novels in this style (like by Graham Greene) but it's good.

The "ethical assassin" of the title is a stealthy, weird-looking, and mysterious character named Melford who offers long discourses on veganism and saving animals from human cruelty. Melford insists on the ethical imperative of his views; his persuasiveness pulls in Lem and at least one other character. Despite all the discussion of the wrongs of eating meat, food in the sense that I usually write about it hardly plays a role in this book.

Lem, attempting to skip meat thanks to Melford's discourses, dislikes the dairy-free bowl of oatmeal that's his only choice at an IHOP; he eats fruit when his hunger tempts him otherwise, and he also resists temptation from a girl who tries to lure him to eat a hamburger -- but this book is truly not about food in the style of many works of detective fiction. Melford's obsession with the ethics of eating meat plays a large role in the unfolding suspense -- making the discussions relevant without (in my opinion) turning this into a philosophic novel. It would in fact be perverse to read this as a tract about "meat is murder" though some of the reviewers did read it this way. It's about a bizarre character whose quirk is animal rights.

Lem Altick, like the central characters in Liss's other novels, is a Jew. For Lem, being Jewish has no stated religious or ethical content, it's just one of many taunts from the bullies of his school days and his experiences in the narrative. The extent to which Jewishness has no meaning for Lem is a bit extreme. In Liss's other books, which are set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the key Jewish characters (the ones who have to get themselves out of dangerous and strange situations) are not practicing their religion; they nevertheless are very conscious of its meaning and customs and how it affects the lives of their Jewish relatives. For Lem, it's nothing but another reason to pick on him, like being overweight (which he had been a few years before).

Since the publication of The Ethical Assassin, Liss has returned to publishing historical fiction, and also seems to be collaborating on some graphic novels. I've read the rest of his novels to date, and liked them. I would judge this the weakest though it's a good read. The historical content of the others gives them a greater depth than this one; the variety of really oddball characters in this one doesn't make up for this lack of depth. I'm looking forward to Liss's new historical novel, scheduled to appear in August.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Food in Art: the Norton Simon Museum


First, here is Ganesha the elephant god eating sweets from a basket with his trunk. The documentation on this 6th century sculpture explains that he once ate so much that his stomach burst, and the moon laughed at him. So he threw one of his tusks at the moon -- many Ganesha statues thus show him with only one tusk.


This 13th century fertility goddess is holding a bunch of mangoes, which represent abundance and auspiciousness. The mango is a native Indian fruit. We spent several hours at the Norton Simon museum today looking at sculpture from the Indian subcontinent, including both Buddhist and Hindu art.


Besides its excellent collection of Asian art, the Norton Simon has many beautiful European paintings and a large collection of Degas sculpture. I found two still-life paintings unusual. Above is one by 19th century Dutch artist Jacob Meyer de Haan. I like the large piece of ham. And below Manet's "Still Life with Fish and Shrimp."



Finally a huge painting of a vast number of fruits and vegetables by Frans Snyders. It goes without saying that we also enjoyed a number of works of art with non-food themes. Len took all the photos with his great new camera.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Google the Ingredients?

I liked this article in today's NYT Food Section:

Can Recipe Search Engines Make You a Better Cook? by Julia Moskin.

Like most internet addicts who cook, I often find recipes by web searching. I have been worried because Google's techno-preference for big high-tech food sites became an issue when they released a specialized recipe search a few months ago. So I can't rely on googling as I used to.

Moskin's article suggests somewhat indirectly that cookbooks of known quality are probably a better bet than web searches. Probably true, though what's the fun in that? When Epicurious was new (was that 10 years ago?) it always seemed to be easier and more entertaining to see what those cooking mags had been publishing than to start pulling books off the shelf.

The article points out "Google and Bing searches give preference to big sites because the algorithms are designed by programmers who are not cooks" -- though I seriously wonder if artificial intelligence could be developed that would identify good recipes. The comments in blogged recipes or on Epicurious seem a more likely source of useful info to me. And of course I'm unhappy that the competition for eyeballs is so corrupting -- but I knew that anyway.

So here I am in California and I'm not making anything from a recipe!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Renaud's Patisserie


Renaud's of Santa Barbara seems to be known for croissants and macarons (that's one-o macarons, the kind that are crunchy, not the Passover kind). There was a line out the door!

The owner seems to be a real French baker, and the look is amazingly French. We ate a pain-au-chocolate for second breakfast, and have some macarons and p√Ętes de fruits to take to dinner. Here's what I hope to try the next time I go there:


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Santa Barbara Farmers' Market

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The market is full of wonderful local and often exotic produce -- artichokes, chirimoyas, dates, citrus, greens of all sorts, avocados, strawberries grown just up the road, and early cherries from the Central Valley. There are Japanese, English and conventional cucumbers and many other interesting varieties of vegetables that usually aren't differentiated.

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The prices at this market seem very fair: less expensive than comparable quality in a grocery store -- in the rare cases that you could find comparable quality. Example: two large very fresh heads of lettuce for $1.50, a lower price than not-quite-as-fresh local lettuce at Lazy Acres, not even more than mass-produced lettuce at Albertsons. Fruit was somewhat less expensive per pound than the grocery store items.

Today I read an encouraging article about a comparison of prices at farmers' markets and grocery stores (admittedly in Vermont). The study suggests that the common view that farmers' markets are expensive and elitist is false. It "found that prices at farmers’ markets were lower for many conventionally produced grocery items than they were at supermarkets. For organic items, farmers’ markets beat grocery stores every time hands down."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is expensive sea salt worth its salt?

I've often wondered about the eye-popping prices for things like Himalayan sea salt (for one thing, there's no sea in those mountains) and hand-gathered fleur de sel from France. I've never been energetic enough to buy some and taste-test it -- besides, I'm too cheap. Finally, an article by Harold McGee a couple of weeks ago reported on this topic offering to sort out the "whirlwind of obfuscatory hype" that surrounds the labeling and use of fancy salts.

Here is the bottom line: "different salts do indeed have different tastes, even when the solutions had the same concentration of sodium." That said, "the differences themselves were generally small. ... Tasters significantly preferred chicken broth and bratwurst made with an inexpensive white sea salt over the ones made with kosher salt. Batches of those two foods made with gray sea salt, or sel gris, and fleur de sel fell in between."

Although altogether the reported studies showed that the result of using various types of salt isn't highly significant, McGee still suggests that adventurous or curious cooks might enjoy experimenting. I appreciate his point of view, though I might still be too cheap to pay the eye-popping prices for the most hyped salts.

Saturday, May 07, 2011








Sweet Prawns of Santa Barbara


Fresh local prawns here are very sweet and delicious. We remember buying them from the fish market on the docks years ago. Last night at Opal Restaurant, where I ate this salad with Santa Barbara prawns, the host said that he did not think they had found any for the menu in the ten years he had been working there. So apparently, they are now quite rare, like many desirable foods from the sea, alas. The rest of our meal was also extremely well prepared -- basil-flavored pasta, grilled opah from Hawaii, and chocolate creme brulee.

On a previous visit to Santa Barbara, we also ate at Opal.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Temporary Kitchen in Santa Barbara

Our temporary house has a functional though not luxurious kitchen. The owner is opposed to using microwaves because she says microwaves destroy nutrients and Kirilian photos show that vegetables cooked in a microwave oven are "dead." About this I checked Wikipedia which a few minutes ago stated:
"An experiment in evidence of energy fields generated by living entities involves taking Kirlian contact photographs of a picked leaf at set periods, its gradual withering corresponding with a decline in the strength of the aura. In some experiments, if a section of a leaf was torn away after the first photograph, a faint image of the missing section would remain when a second photograph was taken. ... James Randi has suggested that this effect was due to contamination of the glass plates, which were reused for both the 'before' and 'after' photographs."
I may retrieve the microwave oven from the studio that is part of this house, but at the moment I'm experimenting with no-microwave cooking. I actually have read that the shorter microwave cooking times for steamed vegetables preserve the vitamins better than conventional steaming. So far we've been eating salads anyway.

Meyer Lemons

Our temporary house in Santa Barbara includes a beautiful Meyer lemon tree with the biggest, juciest Meyer lemons I have ever seen. On the tree hang many ripe and unripe fruits as well as a few fragrant blossoms. Beautiful!

I love the taste of Meyer lemons: like an unusually sour Clementine. I have already squeezed some juice into a couple of salads and a sauteed pork dish, and will surely continue to cook with them -- and eat them -- throughout our stay.