Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No pumpkin problem

I've read that the floods in the Northeast are causing a pumpkin shortage. But there's good news! The shortage is local -- pumpkins grow in every state, and they travel well. Says the wonderful Consumer Reports blog The Consumerist --
"That means if New York is having a tough pumpkin season, that's okay, Michigan will come to the rescue! Or California, or Texas! Worst case scenario, you might have to pay a little bit more or not get that mega huge one you usually go for, but isn't a magnificently carved jack-o-lantern worth a dollar more and a size downgrade? Charlie Brown would say yes."

Thursday, September 22, 2011


If you want to make good challah, I learned last night, you need to use good flour, good yeast, and water just the right temperature (not hot!). Recipes vary in proportions, method, and additions such as toppings and fillings. The finished loaf is brushed with egg which can be mixed with honey to make the crust sweet. Some people add chocolate chips, chopped apple, cinnamon-sugar, chopped onion, olives, and more either to the top or within the strands that are then braided.

Here are a few photos of some of the women who were also learning:

Forming strands of dough after first rise:


Shaped dough topped with apples:


My finished loaf, baked after I got home:


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's Just about the Food

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is a venerable event: I suspect it's the Gold Standard for food articles. Lazy me -- I haven't systematically read through the collected proceedings of these annual meetings where the best articles from each year since 1981 have been published. On a recent visit to the library, however, I checked out the 1998 volume, Food in the Arts. I was especially interested to read "Food in the Detective Novel" by Joan P. Alcock, and to learn how a professional food historian approaches the subject that I often return to.

"Food in the Detective Novel" begins with a quote from W.H.Auden's famous article on detective fiction, though in fact he says little about food. Alcock acknowledges that the most basic role of food in crime is "in relation to killing the victim," and the second place goes to "the contents of the stomach" for clues to the time of death. She continues:
"In recent years attention has been paid to the food eaten by the investigator, either as part of the story or to add background verisimilitude. This is evident in the historical whodunits, but it may also be a facet of the investigator. The number of cook/chef investigators is increasing." (p. 13)
After this introduction, the article continues with a survey in chronological order by the setting of the detective stories. Inspector Marcus Didius Falco in ancient Rome is her first example: readers hear of the value of peppercorns, the economics of the oil trade, and the lost herb silphium. She continues by tabulating the food references in detective stories set in the middle ages, such as Brother Cadfael "who is more concerned with growing herbs ... than with his stomach, for his herbs have healing powers." (p. 14) She continues with Renaissance-era detective fiction, such as the protocol and place settings for a feast in the work of Kate Sedley. Alcock points out:
"The feast is described in some detail but phrases such as 'I cannot remember at this distance of time more than a tithe of what was consumed that evening,' seem an attempt to avoid accurate description." (p. 15)
The article proceeds with a study of several series of detective novels set in the Mediterranean, including those of Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Questura:
"Chilled wine is sipped slowly while savouring views over Venice.... Prosecco or Fragolino are aperitifs; Soave is served with chicken and artichokes; Dolcetto with pasta fagioli and cotoletta; brandy or grappa with coffee." (p. 17)
A summary of French detectives' food follows -- "If Madame Maigret has a vice, it is drinking her cup of Balthazar coffee, which she takes every morning." Then the classic English detective novel, "mainly by women writers... Food was of little account in their stories." She finds a few meals of interest in the stories of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the less-famous Gladys Mitchell.

Alcock invents another category for the novels of Conan Doyle, Michael Innes, and Rex Stout: "The Abstemious and the Aesthete." I was surprised that she made no mention of Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Too Many Cooks, published 1938, where the subject is a meeting of 15 international master cooks. In it, Nero Wolfe gives a paper on American food; he consents to attend the meeting only because he wants to obtain a secret recipe.

And Alcock goes on to discuss women detectives, such as the work of Amanda Cross and others (somehow, Miss Marple isn't in this category, but in the Classic English category). She lists the foods eaten by each detective, without being distracted by other features of the tales. Only in her conclusion does she apply what I would think of as literary analysis:
"Other books than detective stories incorporate food, but it is obvious that the frisson between murder and food, between intellectual puzzle-solving and creating of dishes is eminently satisfying. ... The dinner party provides opportunities for endless twists in a murder plot, the murderer awaiting an opportunity, the victim calmly eating, unsuspecting of the final fate." (p. 29)
I wish she had been more explicit about how each author made use of the food details that she catalogued.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Today at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Daniel Spoerri's "Variations d'un Petit Dejuner, 1966" shows a conceptual breakfast; that is, a breakfast that someone has finished eating, and the cigarette they smoked during, or maybe after, the meal. Leftover foil jam pot; check. Coffee and milk pots; check. Used knife and butter wrapper; check. Open and presumably empty sugar packets; check. Cup stained with coffee; check. I suspect these are real crumbs and remnants, an artistic selection from a real hotel tray somewhere.

I've mentioned Spoerri before -- see this post about his work "Use Rembrandt as an Ironing Board," in which I explained why the image was Mona Lisa, not a Rembrandt, on the ironing board. I like him for his humor in both works.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Cookbooks as Literature"

I just read a really good article about cookbook authors: "Soul Food: Cookbooks As Literature" by Maria Bustillos. Included for a detailed review: Alexandre Dumas for his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, Elizabeth David; Irma S. Rombauer, the original author of The Joy of Cooking; and Black Panther activist Bobby Seale for Barbeque'N with Bobby. She mentions others as she describes these favorites. She also singles out a few cookbook authors who provide a less interesting and appealing persona, notably Martha Stewart. Bustillos selects apt quotations and recipes to illustrate her descriptions of these authors, which makes this a very readable and enjoyable piece of writing.

In summing up her ideas on cookboos as literature, Bustillos writes: "Dumas, and Elizabeth David and Julia Child, Marcel Boulestin and Alice B. Toklas and Bobby Seale and so many others, have the eating of soup figured out and a good deal besides; as literary artists and beyond this, as artists of savoir faire, of life itself. Given that one must eat, how then to do it? Historians and philosophers as well as poets tend to come up short where advice on questions urgent and as homely as these is required."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Eats

Last night my book club met at my house to discuss Just Kids by Patti Smith. We found the book very appealing and fascinating, and discussed it non-stop, except for eating the refreshments that I made. One funny memory that she relates in her memoir was of meeting Allen Ginsberg. He appeared just as she realized that she didn't have enough money for her sandwich at the automat -- he bought her the sandwich and a cup of coffee and sat down with her. After a while he asked "Wait, are you a girl?" She's a girl.

"I thought you were a pretty boy," he explained.

"Do I have to pay you for the sandwich?" she asked.

"No, my mistake."

However, food wasn't really a theme of the book. Much of the time in her early life as a New York art scene wannabe, Patti Smith didn't have much to eat. She does often mention eating at the automat -- things like mac and cheese, or a sandwich on a poppy-seed roll. Not much inspiration for refreshments.

Smith mentions that when she and her lover Robert Mapplethorpe had a bit of money they would buy a bag of Mallomars. I decided that would be my one literary menu choice. When I went to the market, though, I found out that Mallomars are seasonal! The chocolate is too melty in summer. So I bought Canadian Whippets, which are similar.

In order to make this a scholarly post, I read the Wikipedia entry on Chocolate-coated marshmallow treats. And learned more than any sane person should know about Mallomars, Whippets, and similar confections from Israel, Denmark, England, and even the Phillipines as well as other places. Turns out Mallomars are really a New York thing: 70% are sold there. If you want to know more, you can read the article and the many places that it diligently links to.

A couple of people suggested that the might like recipes for the non-themed but seasonal food I made for the meeting. First, the healthy parts:

Not-quite caprese salad. Do you get tired of the classic combo: fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, and vinaigrette? I've had it quite often this tomato season. I love it, but wanted some variety for my tomatoes, so I used a goat-cheese log and chopped dill and parsley, and a few black olives too.

Carrot salad, but not cloyingly sweet, rather savory. It's similar to a Moroccan-Jewish (and also Israeli) recipe. Simple: grated carrots and vinaigrette made from oil, lemon juice, rice vinegar, cumin, Spanish smoked paprika, ground coriander, a crushed garlic clove, and a parsley garnish. Around half a teaspoon of each ground spice for around 1/2 cup oil and around 1/4 cup combined lemon juice and vinegar.

Again I made peach-plum cake from the Polish cookbook. For the recipe see this post from last June. Nearby you can see a watermelon and pineapple fruit bowl and the Whippets.

And one more picture of current cooking ...


Tonight: steak on the grill with great grill marks. Thanks, Lenny.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


"Hunger is an unforgivable disease because it is the easiest one to cure. It is devastating to wake up in the morning and look east, west, south and north and see that there is nothing green that you can chew. During a drought everything goes yellow and dry. ...

"Hunger is dehumanizing. It gets to a level where you do not know how you will survive and you will do anything for a simple kernel of corn."

So writes Peter Kimeu in "Remembering a Hungry Childhood" an op-ed in today's New York Times. It's a powerful essay: almost unbearable to read. Such suffering is outside of my own experience and that of almost everyone I know well. Kimeu doesn't ask the reader to take responsibility for his past, but his last words are: "It is incumbent on all of us to band together and fight this very curable disease. No child on earth should ever have to sleep like that."

But what can we do? I feel totally helpless to make a response, as I don't see any reasonable charitable, governmental, or global political measures being offered that would effectively address hunger on a global scale.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day Picnic

South Lake, Michigan, Labor Day 2011 at Nat's house. Too cool to go out on the lake, but we saw two sandhill cranes walking on the beach -- actually the way they lifted their long legs simultaneously looked more like marching than like walking. We had a big picnic which everyone collaborated on. Appetizers from Greek Town; grilled vegetables, peaches, and chicken-sausage skewers; watermelon salad; caprese salad; fresh corn kernels; and dessert of blondies, plum cake, and rosemary shortbread. Did I forget anything? Wine, beer, coffee...


Sausage and chicken skewers with fresh herbs & peaches, ready to grill


Adam, Kaywin, and Lenny grilling.

laborday7665 laborday7659

Indoor cooks Adam and Nat ... missed a photo of Carol making the watermelon salad



Dinner is ready.

laborday7649 laborday7648

Blondies and plum cake.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Saturday, September 03, 2011

What did Inspector French eat?

Freeman Wills Crofts is the creator of Scotland Yard Inspector French, who appears in a number of novels. I heard of his novels in an article by W.H.Auden, published in Harpers in 1948: "The guilty vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict" It's a wonderful study of detective fiction, which presents Auden's ideas on the appeal of murder mysteries as well as analysis of their principal "five elements–-the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives."

Auden says "Completely satisfactory detectives are extremely rare. Indeed, I only know of three: Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), and Father Brown (Chesterton)." I have read all of Sherlock Holmes, and sampled Father Brown. However, Crofts' Inspector French novels, published between 1920 and 1957, were entirely new to me. I was delighted at the possibility of discovering a new detective author, and quickly purchased Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy for my Kindle.

French is an extremely intense detective, and there are virtually no passages in the novel that don't directly advance the plot and help him solve the diabolical crime, which is initially so clever that it appears to be an accident. I completely agree with Auden that this is an author worth reading, though there are aspects of the work that are somewhat dated.

Of course as I read I was looking for the theme I always check in detective fiction: how does the author use food in his narrative? Unlike some of my favorites, Crofts offers no description of what Inspector French eats of of who cooks it for him. This is consistent with the intensity of the narrative. Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy has nothing more detailed than "after breakfast he stood in the hotel coffee room" (p. 72), or "starting out with a stick in his hand and a packet of sandwiches in his pocket" (p. 99), or "at the hotel he dined, and ... asked for a packet of sandwiches" (p. 157) True to the detective writers' commitment that no detail can be left without follow-up, when French takes sandwiches with him you usually hear about when he ate them: "In the small hours he ate his sandwiches, and then he had to fight an overwhelming desire for sleep." (p. 158)

I find it interesting that despite the seeming lack of interest in the details of what French ate, the author uses these meals and snacks just the way that other authors do: to punctuate the days of detecting and contribute to the reader's sense of time passing. Perhaps there is more expansive food description in later books, but that would represent a change in this intensity.

I found Auden's description of Inspector French especially interesting. Auden says:
"His class and culture are the natural ones for a Scotland Yard inspector. (The old Oxonian Inspector is insufferable.) His motive is love of duty. Holmes detects for his own sake and shows the maximum indifference to all feelings except a negative fear of his own. French detects for the sake of the innocent members of society, and is indifferent only to his own feelings and those of the murderer. ... He is exceptional only in his exceptional love of duty which makes him take exceptional pains; he does only what all could do as well if they had the same patient industry (his checking of alibis for tiny flaws which careless hurry had missed). He outwits the murderer, partly because the latter is not quite so painstaking as he, and partly because the murderer must act alone, while he has the help of all the innocent people in the world who are doing their duty (e.g., the post- men, railway clerks, milkmen, etc., who become, accidentally, witnesses to the truth)."
Note: to see all my posts on the topic, click on the label "Food in Detective Fiction" at the bottom of this post.

Friday, September 02, 2011

This Year's Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

I've made slow-roasted tomatoes for the last few years. After a trip to the Ann Arbor farmers' market, I did it again on Wednesday. Above, the ready-to-roast tomatoes.

I cut a huge number of tomatoes in half, garnished them with fresh herbs (this year: tarragon and sage), salted them lightly, drizzled them with olive oil, and roasted them in the oven at 200ยบ for 12 hours. In the past I have also added garlic, but experience has taught me that it's better to add fresh garlic to the recipes where the tomatoes are used -- I'm not happy with the result of freezing it.

Here are the finished tomatoes. Due to poor planning, I had to take them out of the oven at around 4:30 AM. I was going to leave them in the oven until I got up in the morning but the electronic brain in my stove turns out to think you have messed up if you leave it on for more than 12 hours. "Beep... beep... your tomatoes are ready. Get up now!"

Two boxes of tomatoes went into the freezer by 5 AM. That evening, several tomatoes went into lasagna along with some left-over pesto and ricotta, more fresh herbs, and some other stuff. I forgot to take a photo before we ate the well-browned dish, but the photo above shows it ready to go in the oven. I also ate a couple of them on a sandwich this morning. MMMM.

Original recipe from The Perfect Pantry blog here.