Monday, March 31, 2014

Just Visiting

Friday night we arrived in West Lafayette. Here's what we've been eating as we visit our relatives.
My sister Elaine had made a splendid Julia Child ragout with potatoes and greenbeans to
start our entertaining weekend.
After a day of birdwatching at the rather cold Celery Bog and near the Wabash,
we went to dinner at a nicely decorated Thai restaurant with Elaine, Larry,
and their friends David, and Jenny.
The appetizers were quite delicate. All the dishes were spiced deliciously.
I asked to see a kaffir lime leaf, which was listed as the spice in one or two dishes.
They brought this one. It smells citrusy and tastes like lemon and citronella.
I don't think the flavor was in anything we ordered,
but we loved the duck, mango fried rice, several other dishes, and the dessert of mango mousse. 
We arrived in St.Louis Sunday afternoon, and went to the famous "Hill" Italian
neighborhood for dinner with Len's sister Ruby and brother-in-law Jay.
Finally as we were leaving Indiana we found beautiful sunshine, warm temperatures,
and fields with tiny green plants! It is beautiful here.
The famous St.Louis Italian signature dish: toasted ravioli!
A muskrat in the celery bog. I'll leave all the bird photos to Lenny.
We'll be in St.Louis a couple of days, then head onward towards Santa Barbara. We are so glad to be finished with winter at least for the moment, and hope to avoid bad weather as we continue across the country.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Two Different Worlds

The New York Times Magazine this week offers "THE FOOD AND DRINK ISSUE" -- see it here. Subject matter includes a discussion of restaurants of Paris run by non-French chefs, a portrait of a woman entrepreneur-restauranteur named Barbara Lynch,  another portrait of a 15-year-old upcoming chef (cover story), Mark Bittman writing on restaurants and meals he found memorable, and articles on craft beer and cocktails. Every restaurant mentioned is almost impossible to get into even if you happen to be in one of their locations. Every meal mentioned is beyond the most innovative and trendy world imaginable.

I've been reading a lot of food bloggers' posts recently. Food bloggers mostly write about home cooking, often about their own region or family styles of cooking. Some collect recipes from around the web and recycle them (at least one does this without any attribution at all, but most are more honest than that). They engage in group cooking events in their own far-flung kitchens, where by agreement they all try out recipes from a particular cookbook or author. Some are much more interesting than others. But I feel like they are worlds apart from the NYT magazine, and while not as well-written at times, I think I like the world they mostly represent better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Cumin, Camels, and Caravans": A Review

Gary Paul Nabhan writes very complex books. His latest, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, may be even more complex than the earlier ones I've read. However, I'm finding it very much worth the effort.

Family, identity, travel, political history, cuisine, sensory experience of spices, roles of many ethnic groups, and globalization -- Nabhan covers all these topics in every chapter.

Each chapter begins with a narrative about travel, history, and spice trade. By visiting many locations where ancient spice routes once existed and meeting local contacts, Naban pursued a search for his own identity. His family descended from the ancient Nabateans, a clan that originated in Yemen and now has members worldwide. In each chapter, he searches out other members of his clan when he can, in souks, in run-down neighborhoods, or wherever his guides would take him.

When he finds distant cousins, his interactions are interesting. When he can't find any distant relatives, it's often for a good reason. For example, the possible Nabhan kin he had identified in Tajikistan turned out to be arms dealers working on the Afghan border: not very safe for an American like Nabhan to meet (Kindle location 2929). Despite his affinity for his clan, he's actually a second or third-generation Lebanese American professor, agriculture researcher, and conservationist, and his identity very much reflects these activities and his life in the American Southwest.

As Nabhan visits and follows the spice routes, he presents their history in chronological order. Each chapter advances the historic record of trade and interaction of various ethnic people. Fascinating: as early as ancient Egyptian times, groups who engaged in long-distance trade transformed from rooted agriculturalists to long-distance travelers. Their religions changed, maybe, from beliefs rooted in a locale to belief in more universal deities; especially those of Jews and later Arabs. And skillful spice dealers over time learned to tell tales to make their products more appealing. Nabhan explores many obscure locations in China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Nabhan's consciousness of Jewish role in spice trade especially interested me, for example his references to early Jewish caravan traders in the Middle East, Europe, and China; to medieval travelers like Benjamin of Tudela at the end of the twelfth century; and to the secret Jews after 1492, especially enormously wealthy business woman Dona Gracia Nasi during the sixteenth century. A search for secret Jews descended from Spanish colonialists in the Southwestern US is another line of inquiry in the book.

Following the historic and travel narratives, every chapter includes one or more information boxes about a single spice. Nabhan includes a description of how the spice looks, how it tastes, where it originated, how it spread to various parts of the world, how it grows, and its uses. And spices have so many uses including, obviously, to flavor foods, but also to cure or prevent illness, to add to incense, and to be used in perfume, hair products, or body oil. To illustrate the level of detail: at the end of Chapter 8, "The Crumbling of Convivencia and the Rise of Transnational Guilds," there's a box titled "Coriander - Cilantro" which describes the flavor of coriander leaves as having:
"a citruslike aroma complemented by notes of sage and freshly cut grass. Their pyrazine-rich flavors are warm and somewhat nutty, with floral undertones that have been likened to lemon or orange blossoms. Although the flat parsleylike leaves of the coriander plant are known as cilantro in much of the world today, they have an entirely different flavor, which some people, perhaps by genetic disposition, find agreeable and others repugnant." 
Nabhan continues with the history of coriander, which was first mentioned as "a medical plant in an Egyptian papyrus dating from 2500 to 1550 BCE." He discusses the words used for coriander in various language, and what these words tell us. And concludes by mentioning that "Today, coriander seeds are essential ingredients in Indian curries and garma masala, Yemeni zhoug, Ethiopian berbere, Moroccan ras el hanout, and baharat mixes throughout the Arab world." So much information about just one of the 25 spices he describes in these text boxes! (Kindle location 4076 to 4106)

After the spice descriptions, at the end of every chapter is a recipe chosen for its relation to the themes of history and globalized spice in cuisine. The recipe at the end of the first chapter is particularly a tour de force. This lamb and garbanzo bean stew, he says, "may have emerged at different times in multiple places, but it clearly spread with Arab and Persian influence as far east as Mongolia, and with Jewish and Arab-Berber influence as far west as the Hispanic communities of Mexico."  Nabhan found nearly identical versions of this recipe in two incredibly separated places. The first version he cites was collected in 1939 in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, and elaborated by Paula Wolfert in connection with Moroccan cuisine. The second version he cites was included in a set of medical dietary recipes written down in China by Hu Szu-hui in the early 1300s. Nabhan's introductory chapter presents a number of reasons why the same recipe in two seemingly unrelated times/places was not a coincidence, but a result of the worldwide spice trade that he's exploring. (Kindle location 473)

To summarize my experience: I had to read Nabhan's book Why Some Like it Hot twice to figure out what it was about as I wrote here. I did that with this book too.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Wine and War"

Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Gene Alloway, owner of Motte and Bailey Books and sponsor of our culinary book club, quoted these lines from Julius Caesar last night to illustrate one of the overall themes of our discussion last night. Our book was Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, & the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup. Using the quotation about war being out of control, Gene pointed out that Pétain, leader of occupied France,  thought he could control things by collaboration, which he explicitly encouraged. Pétain thought he could enlist the good will of the Nazis -- our discussion centered around how this did not work, and how the French essentially gave in to Nazi domination, were treated very badly anyway and lost a great deal including huge quantities of wine. Despite expectations, the French people received little in exchange, though some did profit or profiteer from relationships with the Nazi occupiers. We discussed the difference in attitude of the Nazis towards the French and towards people in the east, including the fact that Warsaw was bombed to flat rubble while Paris and Bordeaux were spared.

As I wrote last summer when I first read the book, I found its history of France in World War II very readable. The other participants last night agreed with that -- all quite liked it. What follows here is mainly a repeat of that blog post.

The book is very focused: it sees events 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. Among many demands, the conquerors required the wine growers to provide them with the best of the wine on hand and the best that could be produced in wartime conditions.

First-hand accounts from letters and diaries, occasional newspaper articles, and interviews with survivors provide vivid evidence for the way that French people experienced the conquest and looting of their country and how they struggled against the occupying forces.  Deportations, confiscations of property like vineyards from Jews and others, and the appropriation of food and almost all other necessities to be sent back to Germany come to life in the authors' narrative. The memories of those who spent the war in POW or other camps were especially vivid. Our group also felt that many acts of cowardice and capitulation to the Nazis were brought to life -- whether they were done for purely selfish personal gain or out of a slightly more idealistic desire to protect family and farmland.

As I read each chapter, I realized that the focus on wine was an effective starting point for the discussion of almost every issue of the war. I was especially interested in the slow and penetrating changes in the way that the French viewed Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government. At first, Pétain seemed capable and willing to save France by acceding to Nazi demands, but without much strength. Over time, his collaboration became more and more objectionable and odious. German demands for the best champagnes and wines were among the events that drove increasing numbers of French men and women into resistance -- this part of the book was a major focus of our discussion last night.

Grape growing and wine production in 1939 was little changed from the 19th century. Horses drew plows to weed the rocky soil that grows the best wines. Most tasks were done by hand. Owners were already suffering after bad weather and bad economic times had affected their harvests, thought most chateaux had stores of wine from good years back as far as the 1890s. Labor was essential for pruning, cultivating, and picking; chemicals like copper sulfate and fertilizer ensured that grapes would grow. Once the grapes were harvested, winemaking and bottling required labor and many supplies including sugar, bottles, and corks.

Under the occupation, supplies were scarce or unobtainable, and large numbers of able-bodied laborers were conscripted and sent to work in Germany, or they resisted and were arrested or worse. The book has many interesting details about how the few remaining family members coped, and how they negotiated with the Nazis who demanded that production continue in order to supply their requirements. Of course many of those left to run the vineyards were women, adolescents, or old people, often wounded veterans of World War I. The Epilogue calls 1945, the triumphant harvest after years of bad times, "the last 19th century vintage," because after that, the French modernized their techniques for wine growing and winemaking.

Each family or chateau had cellars that were often complex labyrinths of underground rooms or which were in natural caves. Back doors might open into fields or on hillsides. This made them ideal for hiding weapons, downed British or American airmen, and at times Jewish refugees, and for supporting the emerging resistance network. When the Nazis requisitioned large supplies of wine they often gave its destination -- this was valuable information that could be passed on to British intelligence.

The appointment of many Germans who had been wine merchants in France before the war was the source of much drama in the book, as the Nazi agents made demands on behalf of their overlords. Many in the German high command were wine lovers, though not Hitler. Wine was also used to improve the morale of the troops. Over time, the French figured out ways to hide the best wine. Nevertheless, vast quantities of high-quality wine were confiscated and sent to the East. In Paris, the best restaurants were assured supplies -- only Nazis were allowed to eat there while the French were practically starving. The details of many of these interactions are depicted in a fascinating way.

The cruelty and rapaciousness of the conquerors makes this book a challenging read: it's just too depressing! The entire group agreed with this, but all found it a compelling book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Quesadillas: A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos is both amusing and depressing. The narrator, Orestes, is a boy; he's poor, teased or bullied by his classmates and older brother Aristotle, always at least somewhat hungry, and desperate to understand the political and social world that has deprived him of something -- he doesn't quite know what that is. His family lives in a shack next to a mansion, with the predictable relationship between him and the neighbor's son. His father, a teacher, expresses him self in various ways, including the Classical Greek names of his children.

Orestes' father speaks harshly and crudely to the 7 children in the family -- when the two youngest children, Castor and Pollux, disappear, they aren't quite missed. His mother constantly cries and makes quesadillas from her never-quite-adequate supplies of cheap tortillas and cheese: except when she doesn't have any cheese so she just writes the word "cheese" on a tortilla. Maybe she misses the disappeared children. It's hard to tell.

The real heroes of the story seem to be the quesadillas that the family eats every day. Quesadillas come in several types: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas, and poor-man's quesadillas. And each type has its own political definition. When  mother panic-buys cheese because of inflationary price rises, they have inflationary quesadillas with lots of cheese. Normal quesadillas "were the ones we would have eaten every day if we lived in a normal country -- but if we had been living in a normal country we wouldn't have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas." Poor-man's tacos are the ones that have only the word "cheese" not the actual thing. And so on.

Quesadilla ingredients come from the state-subsidized store, another way the government plays a role in his consciousness. On one occasion during a political demonstration the store runs out of food, to his mother's desperation. Later, when he is offered a whole menu of dishes in a restaurant, the boy still chooses quesadillas over "gorditas and huaraches, tamales and tacos de canasta."

Orestes and Aristotle run away from home, fight, and are separated. Slowly the tale turns from a hardscrabble account of living in a tiny Mexican town in poverty to a surreal account of not-quite-believable adventures. I would say the book starts in one genre and morphs into another, but this doesn't make it hard to read, I think it makes it strong.

Thinking of the book, I made quesadillas.
I'm sure they mean something entirely different to us than to Orestes and his family --
if in fact mine are anything like the quesadillas they ate.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Leaving Costa Rica

Time to wrap up posting on our wonderful Lindblad-National Geographic trip to Panama and Costa Rica. We  made our reservations so late that we had to fly business class on the Costa Rica-Miami leg or our return... so we were treated to this beautiful airline meal. Note the palm hearts in the salad. We wondered if they came from a responsible Costa Rican palm heart plantation. The little bottle is salad dressing!
So much leg room!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Costa Rica Agriculture

Costa Rica has small farms as well as large-scale plantations of bananas and pineapples, the main exports, still under the control of big agriculture from the US. We saw only a few exotic fruits growing in small gardens, while learning a bit about Costa Rica's efforts to obtain their independence from outside business interests.

Above, at top, is one of the most interesting of tropical fruits: the cacao pod in which chocolate berries are found. This pod grows right on the branch, unlike more familiar fruits in northern orchards. It's of course native to Central America, unlike many of the other cultivated food plants.

Middle left is a cashew plant. The nut grows above the fruit -- a relative of poison ivy, which some people react to. Cashews are native to Brazil, but now grow worldwide in tropical climates.

We saw a few banana trees (middle right) and of course the papayas being eaten by a woodpecker as I posted yesterday. Coconuts dropping from trees are actually a hazard if you are walking under them. Barely recognizable at bottom right above: a ginger rhizome. We did not see coffee plants, which grow at higher altitudes than we visited, but it's a major crop -- Costa Rican coffee has a great reputation among coffee lovers. Nor did we see Costa Rica's sugar cane fields.

A pineapple plant -- native to South America
The naturalists on our cruise were passionate about the way that Costa Rican farmers are being educated to value sustainable practices and conservation of resources. At least two naturalists are actively involved in teaching and researching better farming. The palm plant used for hearts of palm, a vegetable that I quite enjoy, is an example of changing resource use. Removing the tender inside of a palm kills it, so the traditional harvesting of naturally growing trees is destructive. In Costa Rica, farmers cultivate fields of palm-hearts, and thus avoid damaging the forest. (We saw some of these palm trees, but they aren't very interesting to look at.)

The areas we visited were mainly national parks dedicated to preserving tropical forests in a natural state, which means we saw little of the actual working farm areas, and learned only a little about agriculture and farming issues. "The main staple food crops grown are white maize, rice, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, yuca, and onions," I read in a profile of Costa Rica here.

A beef cow, which we saw from the bus on the way to the airport --
Costa Rica produces beef, in the lowlands, and dairy cattle at higher locations.
Costa Rica's national bird: the clay-colored robin
A sign that Costa Rica has long been a nation of farmers is their choice of a national bird: the very plain clay-colored robin (also called the clay-colored thrush). Why did they choose it over the extremely flashy, dramatic birds like brightly-marked toucans, green parrots, or scarlet macaws? One of the naturalists explained that it was a bird beloved by the farmers in earlier times, because it sang just before the rainy season started. He remembered hearing from his grandfather, a farmer, how the robin's song provided this valuable prediction.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Birds and Animals Eating

Our ship last week made a stop at a beautiful botanical garden in Costa Rica maintained by an American family who have lived there for some time. In front of their house,  called Casa Orquidea, is a bird feeder, where we saw a number of birds. Many other birds perched and nested in the garden. Len had his long lens, so these are his photos:
Golden-naped woodpecker eating a papaya
Cherrie's tanager at the bird feeder with a banana
Funny little tanager, same banana
Red-legged honeycreeper eating pink berries
At Manuel Antonio National Park, also in Costa Rica, we saw many animals including these:

A raccoon foraging for crumbs in the picnic area.
We heard that some other raccoons had been eating Fritos a while earlier.
A wasp eating a cicada.
We could hear cicadas singing as we hiked through the woods.
A few days later, at the mouth of the Taracoles river, we made our last stop before leaving for the airport. A brief tour on a small flat-bottom boat was intended for watching crocodiles. Luckily we only saw a rather sluggish one along with some ibises and other shore birds looking for food:
White Ibis digging for shellfish
The crocodile, around 18 feet long -- luckily not eating anything or anyone

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cruise Ship Earth

Top two photos show me and a guide using the reusable water bottles supplied on board our ship.
Also: reusable cups and glasses at the bar, unloading the laundry van.
Reusable water bottles for hikes, reusable coffee cups and glasses -- on a ship, avoiding extra trash or even recycling has a high impact. At the start of each Lindblad-National Geographic cruise we've been reminded that drinking water to refill the nice steel bottles in our cabin was freely available, as well as ice to chill it with. There's a policy against bottled water; it's simply not offered. And the kitchen does lots of dishwashing since they don't use disposable glasses, dishes, and cutlery.

Though passengers are given the option to keep the same towels and sheets or to request clean ones, our "technical" stop at a big dock one morning was interesting: a whole van of baled laundry was tossed up to the bridge deck, while a similar quantity was dropped off for washing. Yes, these resources are much more critical on a small ship, but this activity also reminds us what could be doing on our finite planet.

The excellent naturalists on the ship provided a great deal of information about Costa Rica and its policies of forest conservation, encouragement of sustainable agriculture, and development of eco-tourism in a very positive sense. It's assumed that if you sign up with Lindblad you have already given some thought to these issues, made a commitment of some kind, and want to learn more. I found this extremely interesting and worthwhile, and hope to live up to these higher principles.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Kitchen of the National Geographic Sea Lion

I asked Anne Marie, the ship's hotel service manager, if I could watch dinner preparations one night.
There's no public entry to the main galley, thanks to health regulations
(which are very strict as they DON'T want anyone to get sick).
But I could watch through the galley window for a while before dinner one night,
as the boat was moving from Panama towards Costa Rica.
I also watched the preparation of salads, which takes place in the dining room.
Each day there were slight variations in the salad contents.
Pretty impressive to see them all laid out!
The kitchen bakes the bread for each meal. Overall the food was very enjoyable.
A choice of red or white wine comes with each meal. Or you can order a bottle from the wine list.
Salads, ready to serve.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monkeys Eating Fruit

We saw these capuchin (or white-faced) monkeys at Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica last week. I don't know what type of fruit they had plucked, but they seemed to be enjoying their meal.

While visiting this and other parks in Costa Rica and Panama, we really enjoyed seeing several species of monkeys sitting or jumping in the trees. Here's a picture of a squirrel monkey, also in Manuel Antonio park:

Sunday, March 09, 2014


The food on National Geographic-Lindblad cruises is enjoyable, though the real reason to go is the incredible access to wildlife and amazing scenery. We loved seeing the Panama Canal, hiking in primary rain forests, photographing four species of monkeys, snorkeling around a tiny unspoiled island, and finally getting close to a sloth, among many other things. But we came back ravenous every day, and especially liked the different appetizers served before dinner. I rarely brought my camera to meals, but here's one photo, and a few more to come...

... and see my other blog for more about the activities.