Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

Notes on Food Memoirs

The first food memoir?
I suspect that the first food memoir might be The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (born 1755), notably translated by M.F.K. Fisher. Brillat-Savarin's memoir is famous for originating the expression "you are what you eat," as well as for the aphorism "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."

I have enjoyed reading food memoirs for many years, perhaps beginning with A.J.Liebling's memoir Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris and Orwell's memoir of being Down and Out in Paris and London. Early in my food reading experience, I thoroughly enjoyed Calvin Trillin's many memoirs in the New Yorker and in book form -- often also about dining in France. Also, I loved several books about about life in the wider Mediterranean region: an older memoir titled Honey from a Weed and several memoirs by Mary Taylor Simeti, an American who married a Sicilian and has lived there for years.

Two books about becoming a chef especially interested me, the stories of Marcus Samuelsson and Jacques Pépin. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, was adopted by a Swedish family, trained in various parts of Europe, and is now an American celebrity chef (blogged here: "Yes, Chef"). Pépin was one of the last generation to experience the completely traditional chef's apprenticeship beginning at the age of 14; he also ended up in America (blogged here: "The Apprentice").

Recently, I read Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. Sort of a tour-de-force, it manages to present the history of Russia just before, during, and after Communism through a selection of typical meals that might have been served each decade of the 20th century (blogged here: Cuisine without Food). And for a completely different cultural milieu: Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey describes the girlhood in India of this famous woman who has been highly successful both as an actress and a cookbook author (blogged here: "Climbing the Mango Trees").

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other food memoirs, and many lists of favorites from many sources such as 50 from Abe Books or over 700 from Goodreads. Here is my choice of memoirs among which I think we could pick one that would be enjoyable for our book club this year:
  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen -- most  highly recommended.
  • Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
  • Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray
  • Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood by Mary Taylor Simeti
  • Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (note: we read the first of this series, Tender at the Bone, several years ago)
  • Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
  • The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
  • Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
I wrote this originally for my other blog where I'm making lists for my book club's annual selection.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Snow

Pieter Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow makes me glad we don't have to hunt for our dinner in all this snow and cold!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Hungering for America"

The first paragraph of Hungering for America by Hasia Diner presents her basic premise and what she set out to do:
"People," novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "do not love alike." "Neither do they starve alike," he observed in his commentary on Hunger, ... by... Knut Hamsun. ... The comment suggests a relationship between food, scarcity, and the social history of immigration. How people experienced hunger in one place and then recalled its pangs in another had everything to do with who they were, where they came from, and where they went." (Hungering for America, p. 1)
Last night, my culinary book club, sponsored by Motte and Bailey Bookshop, had a far-ranging discussion of this book, which covers three immigrant groups who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Italians, Irish, and Jews. We were all interested in how the book showed that Italian immigrants created a cuisine by combining elements of regional cooking from Italy, and used this food to forge an identity; showed how Jews extended the food rituals and great importance of food in their lives when they came to America; but that the author strongly showed that the Irish came without any strong feelings about food and identity and did not create foods that gave them a sense of identity at all until they had been in the US for nearly100 years.

The chapters that describe each group's pre-immigration situation -- in each case a situation of great food insecurity -- were extremely interesting, we all found. The fact that the Irish starved due to potato blight while their colonial masters were growing and exporting many kinds of food is well known. In earlier days, the author shows, Irish lower classes had had access to at least some of these foods, but in the 18th century were reduced to a diet almost exclusively made up of potatoes. The hostility and almost total separation between the British upper classes, even those who seemed to have become "Irish," and the poor people meant that there was no transfer of  foodways or use of foodways to form an Irish identity; this carried over when the Irish fled the "Great Hunger."

As we discussed the book, we talked about a number of different experiences and observations we have made about immigrant foods in our experiences. We wondered about other ethnic groups, such as Germans, Lithuanians, Swedes, and others -- the very special characteristics of the three groups -- that all experienced. I was recalling my exposure, through Arny and Tracy's Irish sabbatical years, to Irish people now, even during a time of great (though temporary) prosperity. They continue to harbor deep hostility towards those who mistreated them, and remember how their forbears starved. We each remembered a variety of experiences in the places we came from: Southeastern Kansas, the Boston area, near Buffalo, New York, and St. Louis.

Previous posts I have written about Hasia Diner's book:

At one point we talked about the differences that the book noted between Irish saloons, where men went to drink together; German saloons where food was served and families gathered; and Italian restaurants where wine was part of the dining experience. Irish drinking was a recognized problem; Jewish drinking wasn't even mentioned. So I had the opportunity to tell the old joke:
     Q. Why don't Jews drink?
     A. Because it dulls the pain. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Food for the Lorikeets

San Diego Zoo, Lorikeet House (unknown child)


Alice and Miriam


Monday, January 13, 2014

Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch at Gabi's
Yesterday my book group met to have brunch and discuss the book Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl.

The brunch was delicious and the discussion was lively; however, most of us had serious reservations about the book. In my opinion, shared by several others, the book was awkwardly written, repetitive, full of suggestions that didn't go anywhere, and inconsistent in style. There were passages that read like writing workshop exercises, just dropped in place without any explanation. One of my friends pointed out that the theme of brunch that predominated in the beginning chapters, then was forgotten for a while, and made a brief reappearance, contributing to a lack of coherence.

The emotions the author described were raw, clearly showing how she had been a child or young adolescent who didn't know a lot of what was happening to her, and later showing an adult floundering as she dealt with the sad deaths of her parents. Unfortunately, she did little or nothing to shape these emotional passages into a well-written narrative. Some of us felt that an editor would have helped; Gabi, our discussion leader and hostess, had researched the history of the book and thought that the editing gap was due to the original self-publication of the work. That is, Pandl published without editing herself or profiting from a professional editor. Several people in the group, nevertheless, felt that the authenticity of the emotional content made up for the lack of smooth writing. I think we all felt that the book simply failed to live up to expectations for a published memoir -- even one describing confusion and emotional issues.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"On Such a Full Sea"

The New York Times review on January 2 described Chang-Rae Lee's novel On Such a Full Sea as "a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work but to the ranks of 'serious' writers venturing into the realm of dystopian fantasy." The reviewer compared it favorably to similar novels by Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, and Anthony Burgess. I decided to read it.

On Such a Full Sea was a terrible disappointment overall. The author's choice of showing a distopian future by describing a naive member of society making a road trip isn't very original as far as I'm concerned. The traveler's  discovery of a series of enclaves with varying types of people and levels of control by government is predictable. Her encounter with rapacious or pathological expressions of human nature didn't rise above the ordinary. Pointed parallels to the tendencies or dangers of our own society in fact become tedious and a bit hackneyed. I just don't agree with any of the favorable reviews I read.

The naive traveler, a very young woman named Fan, comes from B-Mor, once the city of Baltimore, and she travels west into "The Smokes." The one unusual feature of the novel is the narration by a collective voice representing the people of B-Mor: people who came from "New China" in the nearly-forgotten past and displaced the original inhabitants. The voice relates what "we," the people of B-Mor at some unspecified future time, know about Fan and her journey, and above all how "we" don't know what her motives were or why she made each decision to move on.

The people of B-Mor in this distopian era make a collective living by producing industrial and very hygienic food -- specifically fish raised in tanks and hydroponic, very uniform vegetables -- for more elite towns, where the people are very rich. In B-Mor people like Fan worked very hard and had little imagination or richness to their lives; they appreciated having a schedule: "it helps one to sleep more soundly, to work steadily through one's shift, maybe even to digest the hearty meals, and finally to enjoy all the free time." (p. 2; Kindle location 76)

In fact each part of the region that hasn't been totally ruined makes a living from some collective occupation serving the rich, while out in "The Smokes" poverty and living by hook or crook prevades. Ok, sounds like Hunger Games, but the NYT reviewer didn't stoop to that comparison.

Traveling in search of her disappeared boyfriend Reg, Fan discovers new sorts of people as she grows hungrier and hungrier -- she's pregnant and struggling to hide her condition from each group of people or family that take her in, mostly for terrible motives. The author does a good job using food to distinguish the old inhabitants from the "New China" interlopers, Fan's people. Food enables the author to let the reader know what he thinks of various people: vegetarians who are also murderers, poor people living on the edge, rich people obsessed with cuisine. But it's a bit predictable.

In B-Mor the "New China" people are fond of their native food; a funeral feast illustrates this. "Homemade delicacies" included "Shanxi-style smoked pork belly, stuff you hardly ever see these days. The fatty peppery scent of the dish was absolutely transporting ... but ... it was a cloud you kept wishing would blow away, so you could taste only woe." (p. 28; Kindle location 419)

As the collective "we" describes their view of Fan, sometimes the reader learns more about them; for example as they hear stories about old times "Auntie Virginia poured cups of iced tea to go with the boiled peanuts she'd bring out in a white plastic bowl." (p. 68; Kindle location 927)

During Fan's final adventure, in the poorer places people eat almost exclusively from canned goods and long-lasting food pouches, which are usable as barter as well as edible. Fan often observes them eating right out of the can or pouch. An evening meal in one household in the Smokes "meant sometimes frying up eggs, or game if someone shot or trapped any, but mostly it was heating stuff right in the cans... everyone would share what they had, a potluck of diced carrots and mackerel and kidney beans, and if someone was feeling extra-generous maybe a tin of beef chili or chicken stew." (p. 86; Kindle location 1151)

In contrast, in one of the elite compounds, she's taken to a kind of rogue fair where people dare to eat street food. It's daring to eat this rather than the very pure and artificially grown food like that raised in B-Mor: "you could get Belgian street frites, or a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, or a gravy-sopped plate of chicken and dumplings. They went to Vik's favorite, the Chinese-Korean tent, where he ordered them bowls of chive jajang noodles and a small platter of braised sea cucumber, which Fan could not stop eating." (p. 271; Kindle location 3517)

Fan's final stopping place, in the high-status compound, introduces her to one of the wealthiest families of the tale, where the head of the house believes that "Eating was obviously elementary, it was what people did most of their day, literally taking in the world." He was fascinated by food preparation, and tried to involve all his children in it "from the selection of the ingredients at the village market to the chopping and measuring and cooking (the babies given a strong whiff of everything from ginger slices to cinnamon sticks, after which they'd sometimes cry), the idea being a holistic appreciation through mindful exertions that would result in the best chance for well-being." (p. 343; Kindle location 4436)

Obviously, this noble view of food suggests that the character is out of touch with the lower classes. He too ends up not so nice, but I'll refrain from spoiling the ending. No one is nice in this distopia!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Food Security in 2014

Percent of population that is undernourished, 2012 data -- Wikipedia
Thinking of the grim topic of hunger throughout the world, I have been trying to read about food security and insecurity in the coming year -- a very broad topic. Discussions of inequality in our own society often touch on the consequence, for the poorest Americans, of having too little food and on the political motivation that causes much of the hunger in America. Throughout the world, both climate change and population growth are already affecting food supplies in many areas. Wars and conflicts also can drastically change the distribution of food, as when a dominant group oppresses its traditional or new opponents. Certain conflicts, like those in the horn of Africa and Syria, in fact, may themselves have origins in declining supplies of food and other resources.

Hunger will continue to be widespread in 2014, and growing: "the reality [is] that by 2050, the world will likely have another two billion mouths to feed and face an estimated 70 percent increase in global food demand." source  

First, what is food security? A useful and frequently cited definition from Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:
"Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life." source source
Who are the insecure in the US, and why are they suffering in a country that seems so prosperous? Changes to government aid to the poor (such as reductions in SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps) are a major reason why the poorest people in America are losing ground in the struggle for food security. Poor people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds are suffering; here is one example:
"Even though a large percentage of American Indians receive SNAP benefits, current data suggests that a large percentage of American Indians are food insecure. ... In total, roughly 22 percent of American Indians do not have sufficient food maintain healthy lives." source
Who are the insecure outside the US? Almost every Asian and African country suffers from the threat of food insecurity. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, the Phillipines, North African and sub-Saharan countries, and many others have been the subject of recent news articles about hunger.
"'We should expect much more political destabilisation of countries ...,' says Richard Choularton, a policy officer in the UN's World Food Programme climate change office. 'What is different now from 20 years ago is that far more people are living in places with a higher climatic risk; 650 million people now live in arid or semi-arid areas where floods and droughts and price shocks are expected to have the most impact.
''The recent crises in the Horn of Africa and Sahel may be becoming the new normal. Droughts are expected to become more frequent. Studies suggest anything up to 200 million more food-insecure people by 2050 or an additional 24 million malnourished children. In parts of Africa we already have a protracted and growing humanitarian disaster. Climate change is a creeping disaster.' he said." source
What are some of the consequences of this widespread disaster? In the underdeveloped world, the consequences are simple to grasp: many children and adults tragically starve to death; others experience terrible suffering.

In the US, things aren't quite as grim, but there are consequences. Two examples:
"In the US, chronic food insecurity has been documented to lead to, paradoxically, obesity, especially in women and girls. One theory as to why food insecurity leads to obesity is that episodic periods of food insecurity cause the sufferer to overeat in an attempt by the body to recoup missing calories. The type of food consumed in food insecure households may be another factor: high calorie food made from commodity crops (e.g., fast food and 'junk' food) is often cheaper and easier to access than healthful food with high nutritional value." source
"Poor people with diabetes [in the US] are significantly more likely to go to the hospital for dangerously low blood sugar at the end of the month when food budgets are tight than at the beginning of the month, a new study has found." source
 The subject of food security is broad and complex. I have excerpted just a few quotations to try to grasp the breadth of the problem.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Goodbye, Sunshine

In-N-Out Burger, Carlsbad, California
After a glorious sunny morning in Del Mar, California, yesterday, the six of us checked out of our motel and headed north. We stopped just up the freeway in Carlsbad for our last cultural experience: lunch at In-N-Out Burger. We seem to agree that it's a good burger -- though maybe not quite up to the hype and poetry that it sometimes inspires.

By the time we drove up to our airport hotel near LAX, we had lost the good weather: fog or smog now obscured the blue skies we had enjoyed for 10 days. We said our goodbyes to each other and to California in the evening, preparing to fly back to our separate homes early in the morning. It was still dark when the shuttle dropped us at the airport this morning, so I don't know what the LA weather is today.

We arrived back in Ann Arbor happy with our experience of on-time flights and good luck with lines in the airports. As soon as we got home we had to shovel the snow out of our driveway and get over to Whole Foods to stock up the house in anticipation of a predicted storm that's supposed to drop more and more snow (though the predictions are currently being moderated). So many people had the same idea that there were empty shelves and depleted supplies at the store. But we're ready for whatever storm comes our way tomorrow.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Happy New Year

Sunset on the first evening of the year in Del Mar, California:

... and dinner at Barbarella in La Jolla
(behind the bar a sculpture by Nikki de Saint Phalle)