Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ice Cream News

See this article for a description of really tempting new ice cream arrangements: "Ben & Jerry's Nails It With New Core Ice Cream Flavors." Each pint has two flavors of ice cream and a contrasting core of fudge, jam, or salted caramel:

I love Ben and Jerry's ice cream, even though their original social conscience was probably cast off when the corporation was sold to some big conglomerate. I don't buy it often enough. This new arrangement of multiple flavors really does sound wonderful. A link posted on Facebook by George Takei made me aware of this article.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Banned Book

In India, at the request of backward-looking religious groups, copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger have been pulped. This widely commented action inspired me (and I gather many others) to buy the book. It's a difficult reading choice, but I've read around half the chapters; that is, around 400 of the 780 pages, skipping the middle of the book. This might be all I can manage.

Food in Hindu practice:

As I always do when I read, I've paid attention when the topic of food was mentioned. Obviously, I expected to learn about the history of vegetarianism in the Hindu religion and about the views of cows held by various Hindu groups. No disappointment here, though the case is clear that not all Hindu tradition is a vegetarian tradition, nor even a cow-avoiding tradition. Early animal sacrifice was a part of Hindu practice, replaced in a historical process with balls of rice in place of a sacrificial animal. (p. 244)

In recent times: "The Brahmin priest often sacrifices a goat made of dough and papier-mache... . In Kerala, Nambuduri Brahmins use rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Often the rice cakes that are used in place of the goat are wrapped in leaves, tied to little leashes, and carefully 'suffocated' before they are offered." But sometimes, the vegetarian god lives inside a shrine, while a carnivorous goddess accepts meat sacrifice on the outside. (p. 655-656)

In the Indus valley, very early, beginning around 2300 BCE, inhabitants left traces of their agricultural and culinary activity: "Typical signs include seeds, fruits, sprouts, grain plants, pulses, trees, farm instruments (hoes, primitive plows, mortars and pestles, rakes, harvesting instruments, etc.), seasonal/celestial or astral signs, and even at times anthropomorphized plowed fields. The images... tell us that the winter Indus crop was barley and wheat; the spring crop, peas and lentils; and the summer and the monsoon crops, millets, melons, dates, and fiber plants. They also probably grew rice. ... They ate meat and fish." (p. 70)

Early Hindu gods, like many parallel deities elsewhere, expected to be fed as a part of ritual. "The Vedic gods," writes Doniger, "were light eaters; they consumed only a polite taste of the butter, or the animal offerings, or the expressed juice of the soma plant, and the humans got to eat the leftovers. What was fed to the fire was fed to the gods; in later mythology, when Agni, the god of fire, was impregnated by swallowing semen instead of butter, all the gods became pregnant." (p. 109)

Dogs were especially hated by Hindus, a topic that recurs throughout the book. Doniger constantly presents little stories from Hindu myths to illustrate various points. Here's a story I liked: "A group of dogs asked a Vedic priest, 'Please, sir, we'd like to find some food by singing for our supper. We are really hungry.' He asked them to return the next morning and so the dogs filed in, sliding in slyly as priests slide in slyly in a file, each holding on to the one in front of him. They sat down together and began to hum. then they sang, 'Om! Let's eat! Om! Let's drink. Om! My the gods bring food! Lord of food, bring food! Bring it! Bring it! Om!" Doniger's interpretation: "The author of this text may be poking fun at Brahmins or pleading for more sympathy for dogs (and therefore for the lower castes), or both or none of the above." (p. 189)

Some things I learned: 

Everything about the history of Hinduism is political. This is probably true of most other religions too, but not relevant here. I think a particularly political aspect of the book is the finding that throughout Indian history, "Non-violence is an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence." (p. 10)

Hinduism attained the definition of a religion in the modern sense in modern times, not so much in ancient times when Europeans had already formed what we still call religions, including a sense of identity and moral values based in them. The reasons are complicated -- not just because lots of the sects, beliefs, customs, social factors, and stories/myths were separated into different regional and class-oriented packages. This is so complicated I can't possible summarize it.

The simultaneous development of classes and castes in India also explains a lot about the development of Hinduism. How caste and class are embedded in Hindu myths, tales, and religious thought is important. As many religions do, Hinduism contains a sense that the present is the only time, that truths are permanent and did not emerge in the past, and will not change in the future.

The author's historic approach includes evidence from religious and historic texts, from archaeology including stone inscriptions, from oral and later-written-down-oral traditions, and from reports by travelers from other cultures. The book is organized historically, with each era viewed through whatever such evidence exists. This is challenging for a novice like me: I don't know any of the background that would make it easier to read.

And about those many texts: "There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by 'all Hindus.'" (p. 25) Thus even the identification and attributed importance of the main religious texts of Hinduism is political, as the texts came to seem more important because of the views of the British in India and also foreigners reinterpreting the religion for many purposes. Again, a  historically complex subject.

Things I still would like to know:

In Judaism and Christianity, an important part of the religion is a personal relationship with God. Maybe I'm not reading right, but after all those chapters, I don't feel I have any grasp of how Hindus, modern or historical, relate to their gods. There are occasional references to the topic of religious practice, but I don't feel that I have any real mental image of how a contemporary Hindu family or one in the past would have expressed their religious feelings, whether they engaged in prayer or regular attendance at a worship service, whether they attended temple festivals together, how they educated their children in their religion, and how their ethical and moral lives were related to religion, if at all. I was interested in Doniger's suggestions about how Bollywood films have changed Hinduism, but I need more background.

I have read other accounts of life in Indian families that related to food preparation and food taboos in Hindu kitchens, from which I got more information. I feel I know little about their actual beliefs. This indeed makes it hard to understand the political Hinduism that has led to the book being banned. Maybe this line of questioning just marks my incompetence to understand the point of the book. I don't think the chapters I skipped had more such details. I guess I flunk the quiz.

My reaction to banning the book:

I see why the book offends some Hindus, though I am completely opposed to banning or pulping books under any circumstances, even if they offend me. The book's dry academic style punctuated with flip American and English cultural references might make the book more readable for some, but I found that it also hinted at a lack of respect for the topics. Further, there's a type of relativism expressed in the book, seemingly a type of postmodernism, that would surely annoy a believer. The discussion of women, sexuality, and other controversial topics was the most cited reason that the faithful hated the book, but I think there's more to it than that.

For example:

  • "Hindus continue to drive, like King Vrisha in the Brahmana story, with one foot on the accelerator of eroticism and one foot on the brake of renunciation." (p. 196)
  • "When Rama's brother Bharata is given the throne that should have been Rama's, each of the brothers, like Alphonse and Gaston in the old story, modestly and generously tries to give the kingdom to the other." (p. 302)
  • "We have to be careful how we use history and myth to understand one another. ... I would define a myth as a story that a group of people believe for a long time despite massive evidence that it is not actually true; the spirit of myth is the spirit of Oz: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." (p.   23)
  • "You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that the have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well  together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee [women immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres], and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes, and that they have fought for their equality." (p. 688)
  • "So we say that Sanskrit is older, and the vernaculars younger. But Sanskrit, the language of power, emerged in India from a minority, and at first its power came precisely from its nonintelligibility and unavailablilty, which made it the power of an elite group. Walt Kelly's Pogo used to use the word 'Sam-skrimps' to describe highfalutin double-talk or manipulative twaddle. Many Euro-Americans mispronounce it 'Samscript,' ... " (p. 5)

The British Empire and how it imposed colonialism on India, the American adoption of Hindu thought in some form or another in several eras, and various other Western reactions and definitions are rather central to Doniger's account of Hinduism. Why is Rudyard Kipling so important in the view of the author? Because his presentation of Hindu thought was so influential with Westerners that it also affected Hindu self-definition. But obviously to a practicing Hindu who doesn't want Western thought involved in his private religion I would think the focus on  how the West affected Hindu thought and definition has potential for offense. Only guessing.

UPDATE: More on free speech and its benefits here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Emperors of Chocolate"

Yesterday night: culinary book group again. Book selection: The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret world of Hershey and Mars by Joel Glenn Brenner.

Agreed by the six participants who had read it: the book was great!

Also agreed: the Reese's PB Cups (brought by one of us) were a great way to kick off the discussion.

Reese's Cups and Reese's pieces, Snickers, 3 Musketeers, Hershey Bars, M&Ms, Milky Ways, and many of the other candy bars from these corporations are their best-known products, but we were also surprised to learn that Mars makes pet food and Hershey is a major producer of pasta.

From Time
Any mention of candy bars anywhere is a big deal: in Time magazine this week, there's an article on "The 13 Most Influential Candy Bars of All Time." The Hershey bar, Milky Way, and Snickers, as featured in our book, are all on the list, along with more obscure bars like "Chicken Dinner" which was available from the 1920s to 1960s, with vintage pictures of some of their original labels. This perpetual relevance made Brenner's work all the more fun to read.

This book is a work of profoundly important research, as the author was allowed to interview people and read documents that are now off-limits to journalists or researchers. The author describes culinary history, social history, economic history, food manufacturing history, and more -- and makes them all very appealing to read about. The Emperors of Chocolate is around 15 years old, and we all would have liked to know more about the recent past (some of us googled it) and about the larger chocolate industry. No doubt, this is a classic book.

A few of the things we liked about the book:

  • The historical coverage of the founding of each of the two biggest players in the history and present of candy bars -- Mars and Hershey's. We read how candy making went from small-batch, local production to mass production and mass consumption. Detailed descriptions of the experiments that went into chocolate processing and creating the flavors and colors of the candy were fascinating. Attitudes of European chocolate makers and cognoscenti towards American chocolate are also interesting: mainly, they are contemptuous of the sour flavor of Hershey's milk chocolate. But the book stays pretty much on the topic of the two American dynasties.
  • The personalities and family dynamics of Mars, still a privately held corporation and Hershey, long dominated by Milton Hershey. We were intrigued by the horrible relationship between Forrest Mars, Sr. and his sons and daughter who inherited the company. Also by the relationship of Milton Hershey with his parents and his immediate employees, and his legacy. Though public, much of the Hershey corporate stock is owned by a foundation that he created, which runs a school for orphans or children with difficult family situations.
  • Rivalry of the two companies over time. This story of business and adverising is also compelling. They vied with each other to supply chocolate for the troops in World War II; they cooperated in the creation of M&Ms (the first M is for Mars but the second is for Murrie, a Hershey executive's son -- hired then driven out of Mars when the family wanted to compete rather than take advantage of Hershey), and then they rivaled each other for popularity and for shelf space in supermarkets and anywhere candy is sold. Still do!
  • The blindness of the Mars family to modern business practice because the owners are secretive and neurotic, and some of the slips at Hershey's because they weren't aware of the need to promote their product. Above all, we liked the story of the Mars family's refusal to let M&Ms be used in the film "ET" -- instead as everyone knows, ET ate Reese's Pieces, a Hershey's product, which were just becoming popular and received a huge sales boost from the film.
Next time we are reading Wine and War, which describes the events of World War II in France through the eyes of wine growers, wine merchants, and other French men and women in the wine trade, beginning in about 1939 and proceeding historically as the Nazis conquered France. I've read it before and wrote about here: Wine and War. As always I'm looking forward to another lively discussion.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Big Snowstorm

Fairfax, yesterday: playing in the snow

Eating maple snow

Today: sunny and incredibly warm: all the shoveled places are
getting down to bare pavement.
But there's no school again

Snow tunnel

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Olympic Food

Borscht: from a wonderful article on Russian food to celebrate the
Olympics. See "6 Things to Eat and Drink While Watching the 2014 Olympics"

Sunday, February 09, 2014


"There have been books on potatoes, cod, and chocolate, and histories of cookbooks, restaurants, and cooks. The kitchen and its tools are more or less absent. As a result, half the story is missing. This matters."

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson is about much more than the often repeated history about how nobody used a fork until whenever it was supposed to have been discovered (or maybe re-discovered, since maybe the Romans used forks).

This highly amusing and interesting book talks not only about the fork, but about the spork. It also describes the history of the hearth and various types of cook stoves and spit roasting devices; cook pots and pans and skillets; rice cookers; knives, Chinese cleavers, and other cutting or mincing tools; egg beaters; spoons; the blender; ice boxes and refrigerators; and other interesting devices. The author explores the history of level measurements in the US and of measuring by weight elsewhere. She talks about the history of canning food, and the very slow development of an effective can opener.

Many elements affect the way people eat. One that's explored in a way that's new to me is how the supply of firewood or other fuel affects the way food is cooked. I knew that the combination of Chinese cleaver to cut food in clever small bits and the use of the wok to cook quickly was a response to scarce fuel, and Wilson explores the result of this fact. Less obvious: the habit of roasting huge cuts of meat, even sides of beef or whole smaller animals in an open fire was available in England because fuel was plentiful. However, the supply of cooking fuel in France was less plentiful, so other techniques of cooking became more prevalent. So the French call the English "les Rosbifs."

Wilson discusses how slaves or servants in the kitchen have affected attitudes towards labor-intensive cooking, quoting various people including the Roman philosopher Seneca: "I like food that a household of slaves has not prepared, watching it with envy, that has not been ordered many days in advance or served up by many hands." And in our own time, she points out that we depend on invisible workers far from our own kitchens. "We do not see the hands in the chicken factory that boned the breasts… nor the workers who labored to assemble the parts of our whizzy food processors. We only see a pile of ingredients and a machine ready to do our bidding. Alone in our kitchens, we feel entirely emancipated."

I particularly liked Wilson's awareness in the book of the differences among various social classes when it came to cooking and kitchen equipment. She quotes a great comment from Laura Ingalls Wilder -- "The rich get their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter."

Friday, February 07, 2014

Happy Birthday, Alice

Alice making fudge as a treat for her class

Monday, February 03, 2014

Food in Art and Art in Food

Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy by John Varriano is like a banquet of fascinating concepts. I felt, when reading it, as if I have been waiting for such a book to tell me many things I wanted to learn about the relationship of food and art!

Italian Renaissance cookbooks and books on the art of cooking inform one of the most interesting parts of the study. Varriano compares developments in food theory to developments in art theory. He shows, by many examples, how these two focal points of Renaissance thought are parallel.

Intellectual and culinary currents in the Renaissance are linked in ways I found remarkable. Early paintings used a background of gold, with rather stiff colors and skin tones in the human subjects. Painters slowly developed more naturalistic ways to present human forms -- and in this process, they employed a number of food substances. Egg as a medium for tempera, a number of different oils as a medium for paint, and pigments from foods like saffron provided a variety of effects that the innovative artists explored. Renaissance cooks, meanwhile were also developing new uses for oils, eggs, and of course many other foods. Varriano summarizes these trends:
"By 1500 oil had replaced eggs as artists' binder of choice, whereas cooks continued to choose from an array of possibilities. Whichever method they adopted, it derived from somewhere else -- oil paint from Flanders, cooking oil from Arabia, and butter from northern Europe. Collectively, these ingredients became essential to the creation of Italian Renaissance tastes; indeed, many of the visual and gustatory refinements of the period could not have taken place without them." (p. 159)

Cellini Salt Cellar
Art works were sometimes made directly from foods. Sugar sculptures were popular as a luxurious way to decorate the large and opulent dining tables of the richest Renaissance princes and churchmen. Varriano gives many examples of how the sugar statues were made and decorated with gold or with colors. Some were made in molds that also were used for metal objects of greater permanence. Architectural and other decorative banquet items were also made from cheese, salami, capons and other unexpected foodstuffs. (They really make this weekend's L.A.Times Super Bowl stadium made of various foods look pitiful! )

Tastes and Temptations also discusses the development, in this era, of different types of elegant tableware, including pottery dishes decorated with classical figures and elaborate metalworks. I've seen many of these in art museums, and felt that the description gave me quite a bit of insight into what I've seen. The famous gold salt cellar of Benvenuto Cellini, shown above, is one of these objects.

"The Bean Eater"
Still life paintings, religious paintings of subjects like The Last Supper, and paintings of ordinary people and shopkeepers all provide material for studying food as the subject of art. Each of the author's treatments offered new insights about the paintings under discussion. For example, about Annibale Caracci's work "The Bean Eater," Varriano wrote:
"Judging from the man's garb and demeanor, he is clearly a villino, or country bumpkin. The meal so carefully laid out before him is consistent with the peasant diet... beans, dark bread, a torta da bietola (chard pie), scallions, and red wine -- all foods 'not to be eaten except by those who labor hard.' But in this context, the food probably signifies something more than lower-class humors and appetites."(p. 139)
In fact, scallions "incite the libido... Thus, a link between food, sex, and procreation may underlie the eroticism of many of these Italian genre scenes," continued Varriano. He gave illustrations from various writers about the effect of foods on the humors -- that is, Renaissance health theories, and showed how these theories were reflected in various paintings. All, I find, just fascinating.

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Challah Kugel at kugel-making lesson, January 29,
Jewish Women's Circle
Potato kugel. Lokshen kugel or noodle kugel. Challah kugel. Apple kugel. Yerushalmi kugel. Vegetable kugel. Rice kugel. What do they all have in common? As with almost any Jewish question, every suggested answer to this question has a sort of counter-answer. Yes, but…

Kugel has always been a dish for the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat – at least it was so for Eastern Europen Jews and their descendants in many lands. Traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners often included kugel, as did the foods for Saturday midday meals. On Friday night and Saturday, observant Jews don’t light a fire and don’t prepare or reheat foods, so Shabbat dishes have to be made by Friday afternoon and kept warm on a low, unchanging flame. In other words, a traditional kugel had to be cooked for hours or even overnight without losing its flavor, often in a slow oven.

Yes, but kugel now is also popular with many Jews who don’t observe these restrictions. They make kugel any time, for holidays or potlucks – their kugels most frequently are baked in a hot oven, and have to be taken out while still puffy. Lots of contemporary Jewish cooks would tell you that a kugel is a dish that’s baked, sort of like a casserole.

Yes, but in the past, women made kugel in a frying pan or in a pot on top of the stove. For example, a woman described in a New York Times article a few years ago, “makes her potato kugel without matzo meal and in a pot rather than the usual Pyrex dish so it can finish cooking on the automatic flame.”

In the still-more-distant past, kugels were steamed inside the pot that held the slow-cooked Sabbath stews, often called cholent (though the name varied depending on the time and place). Only slowly did kugel become a stand-alone dish. It seems, in fact, that way back in time there were essentially two types of slow-cooked dishes: cholent, or stew, and kugel, a more solid dish, basically made from a starch bound with eggs.

Kugel could be a very simple dish. Shabbat potato kugel added an egg or two to the daily fare of potatoes and onions that a Jewish family in the shtetl could afford -- like other very poor rural and village people in Poland and Russia in the 19th century. Indeed, almost all kugel recipes include eggs. When people were really poor, putting scarce eggs into a starchy dish was a way to share a few eggs with a large family. So some people say that a kugel has to have eggs. Yes, but somehow the use of eggs doesn’t seem to define the dish, just to contribute to the flavor and texture.

Yes, kugel is a dish for helping a poor family to share a few eggs. But rich people in those shtetls made rich kugels full of eggs. In America, everyone could eat like the rich people in the old world. Like so many foods in America, kugel got richer and richer, so now many American Jews eat kugels with many many eggs, cheese, lots of sugar, and a variety of fruit. While observant Jews distinguish between kugels that could be eaten with meat meals and those ok for dairy meals, that’s no longer important for many Jewish people today.

Apple Kugel at kugel-making lesson
Yes, but now people are health-conscious, and they make new recipes to be healthy by modern standards – with vegetables. Broccoli. Spinach. Apple kugels made with a batter rather than noodles or potatoes are another variation – healthy or not? I don’t know. There are even gluten-free versions.

Raisins were another frequent addition to Eastern European kugels. One bit of evidence for that is the history of Yerushalmi kugel – Yerushalmi means “from Jerusalem.” One story says that Jews who originally came from Lithuania began making it in Safed (Tzfat) in the early 19th century. Yerushalmi kugel is made from caramelized sugar and fine egg noodles, flavored with a strong dose of black pepper. No raisins, but that’s supposedly because they “couldn't afford raisins … so they browned sugar to make their kugels look dark.” Later these Jews were driven out of Safed and settled in Jerusalem where they kept making the kugel. As the name suggests, it’s still very popular in Jerusalem, especially in the Orthodox neighborhoods, where it’s eaten with a slice of pickle.

Yes, but there’s another story: some attribute the Yerushalmi kugel recipe to Rivka Vinegarten, “the curator of Or Chaime Museum in old Jerusalem. Her father, Rabbi Avraham Mordechy Vinegarten, was the last rabbi of the old Jewish quarter at the outbreak of the 1948 war.”

Some rabbis in the 19th century said it wouldn’t be Shabbat without kugel. They felt that kugel was a holy dish, perhaps because of its simple origins among poor people whose lives were seen as holy. Quite a few of these rabbis preferred potato kugel to any other kind. Noodle kugel, called lokshen kugel in Yiddish, was their other primary choice. There are those who limit their definition to just these two kinds of kugel. In any case, kugel was a strictly Jewish dish.

Yes, but I have found so much else about kugel. And I’m going to stop now.