Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria, VA

By chance, we parked our car in front of Gadsby's Tavern
in Alexandria and decided to eat lunch here.  We were
attracted by the Colonial ice house which is preserved and visible
through a window under the building.
Look! Behind Len's shoulder is a portrait of George Washington,
who ate here.

The spelling is Colonial. The food itself is pretty modern.
Reuben sandwiches weren't on George Washington's menu for sure!
Before lunch, we were watching birds on the icy Potomac River.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Freer Gallery of Art

At the Freer Gallery: "Breakfast in the Loggia," 1910.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Detail, "Breakfast in the Loggia"
I wonder where these women were, and what they were having for breakfast just over 100 years ago. This painting was hanging in one of my very favorite museums: the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.,  which is part of the Smithsonian. The Freer Gallery houses the collections of Charles L. Freer, a Detroit industrialist and art collector who donated a fabulous collection to the Smithsonian when he died in 1919. Freer's collection was particularly strong in Asian and American arts, especially in the works of James McNeill Whistler. The Sargent painting hangs in a hall near rooms filled with amazing Chinese and Japanese art.

Fruit Stall (1879-1880), Whistler,
from series of etchings of Venice
In the print room this week were a series of etchings of Venice by Whistler. Freer purchased one of each of the entire series of etchings, which the artist printed himself on ancient Chinese paper (if I recall the exhibit documentation correctly). Interestingly, the University of Michigan art museum also owns this series of etchings, which were purchased by a friend of Freer under his influence, and later donated to the Michigan collection.

The Freer Gallery collection is so large that most of the rooms rotate various objects from the collection at various times. The Peacock Room, which was decorated by Whistler, is permanently on display, a remarkable ensemble. He painted elaborate peacocks and other designs directly onto the leather wall-coverings of a Renaissance room with shelves to hold blue-and-white Chinese vases.

I love to go back to the Freer whenever I can, to see new and old favorites.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"The Longshoremen's Noon" and Other Paintings

A workingman's lunch pail from John George Brown (1831-1913):
"The Longshoremen's Noon," 1879
Corcoran Collection now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
These workingmen eating lunch and socializing reminded me strongly of
the books I've been reading about food in America 100 years ago or so.
"The Longshoremen's Noon"
John Sloan, "Yeats at Petitpas'," 1910-1914
Another painting showing diners during the era I've been reading about.
Corcoran Collection, now at the National Gallery. 
The story of John Sloan's painting surprised me: "In 1909 Sloan became close friends with John Butler Yeats, father of the poet. The following year Sloan painted Yeats (second from left) and a group of others around the table in the backyard at Petitpas's, the boarding house where Yeats lived. The French flag above Yeats's head marks the nationality of the three Petitpas sisters who ran the boarding house at 317 West Twenty-ninth Street." -- from "Seeing the City: Sloan's New York."

Picasso: "Le Gourmet," 1901.
National Gallery of Art.
Cezanne: "The Peppermint Bottle," 1893/1895.
National Gallery of Art.
I enjoyed a beautiful visit to the National Gallery of Art yesterday, and as always searched for paintings that go along with my interests in food. The Corcoran Gallery has recently closed and turned its collections over to the National Gallery.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"How the Other Half Ate"

"Any question about cooking was also a question about women’s role in society," wrote Katherine L. Turner in How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (p. 122). The book documents how the poorest layer of American society in the late-19th and early 20th century ate. I learned a great deal about the rise of industrial food, how the poor obtained food, how their kitchens were equipped, and how they prepared meals to be eaten at home or taken to work or school. While immigrants found America a land of plenty, especially a land of abundant meat, the book shows how hunger was often a problem for the poor in the era under discussion.

The author makes parallels between our time and the past quite explicitly: especially the efforts of well-meaning upper-class people to change the diet of the poor, and above all in the way most people saw women's skills and commitment to home cooking "through a prism of gender and morality that obscured the nature of cooking as labor." (p 128)

Attitudes towards food prepared outside the small and inadequate kitchens of the era is interesting. In the 19th century, baking bread was considered a housewife's duty and "baker’s bread was considered 'poor- folksy.'"(p 67) Canned foods were originally very expensive luxuries, allowing rich people to eat out-of-season or rare dishes; eventually they became commonplace or even markers of lower status.

Although it's only one of many themes of the book, I was especially interested in the discussion of how industrial food affected the poor, and especially in the implied and specific comparison to the ongoing problems that still exist. "Industrialization," Turner writes, "served to eliminate the work that men (and children) had once been assigned to do, while at the same time leaving the work of women either untouched or even augmented. Men were released from household work to wage work; women remained behind with their traditional tasks, which were lightened but not materially changed by urban amenities." (p. 125)

As in today's world, industrial food and ready-to-eat food -- often prepared in other women's small-scale kitchens or purchased from pushcart vendors -- made women's work easier. In some communities, less burdensome cooking freed women to earn money outside the home or by doing piecework or taking in boarders inside her home. However, the downside of industrial food was even worse in some communities. Refined white flour or milled cornmeal were seen as luxuries, but were a disaster for nutrition in the South:
"...effects of industrialization on the diet of all rural southerners, and especially on mill workers with poor diets, was the loss of nutrients caused by refining grains. By 1907 the flour and cornmeal that had previously been stone-ground in small local mills was being milled by large commercial roller mills and refined to remove all the germ and bran. The resulting refined flour or meal was extremely popular but caused an epidemic of pellagra. ... Pellagra hit the poorest folks hardest because they lacked a varied diet and depended almost entirely on the refined flour and cornmeal as a source of calories. Pellagra was also worse among the nonworking members of mill families — mothers, young children, and old people — because they received a smaller share of the family’s food." (p. 107)
Piece work in the kitchen.
Turner's chapters on urban food and cooking among the poor and immigrants were also very interesting. The comparison of the middle class and upperclass kitchen to the kitchens of poor people around 100 years ago or more is especially important. In middle and upper class homes, inhabitants desired a separation of the kitchen from the public areas of the home, especially shunning the odors of cooking. Poor families, living in crowded spaces, used the kitchen as the center of life. Among the fascinating photos of early tenement kitchens that illustrate the book, one saw cookstoves, washtubs, beds, home sewing work, and sitting areas all in one room.

I was especially intrigued by How the Other Half Ate because of my recent visit to the New York Tenement Museum, and my recent reading of Robin Shulman's book titled Eat the City and of Laura Shapiro's book: Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, a history of home economics and the Settlement House movement. My culinary book club recently discussed Shapiro's book, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

New York Food Revisited

Puerto Rican immigrants to New York often left back-breaking and overwhelming jobs harvesting or processing sugar cane. Though their lives may have improved, they remembered the taste of cane and many sayings about sugar cane ... a girl is "like sugar cane in February... when the cane is barely mature and the sweetest for plucking.... His machete is blunt, one might say of someone dull. That's worse less than the chaff. He's stingier than the knot of the cane. ... May your cane juice be always sweet."

Sugar played an incredible role in New York City history, not just in the lives of Puerto Ricans, but of many other people who worked in the Domino sugar factory, or much earlier were involved with the sugar trade from the islands to Europe, as well as the well-known distilling of rum from molasses.

A few days ago I wrote about Arthur Schwartz's enjoyable romp through high-end restaurant history in New York -- see my post "The Snob's Guide to New York City Food."

To follow up, I read Robin Shulman's book titled Eat the City: a tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Wine Makers, and Brewers Who Built New York. Obviously, it covers more or less the reverse of Schwartz's book. It's just what I had in mind when I said I was hoping to learn about "supplying food in such a huge city and about just what the people ate and how they cooked it." The sugar cane quotes illustrate how imaginatively this author works with materials on New York's food history (from p. 172-173).

Shulman interlaces two threads in each chapter: long-ago food history and tales of present day artisans. In the past, New York processed its own food -- up until the mid-20th century, for example, cattle and pigs were brought live into the city to a large number of slaughterhouses that served New Yorkers' demand for meat. The original Dutch settlers and their immediate successors raised wheat, wine grapes, vegetables, and many more foods in Manhattan, Long Island, and other areas that now are totally urban. The Diamond sugar factory, large-scale breweries, and other industrial food processors were large employers with customers far beyond the city.

Present-day New Yorkers have resumed bee-keeping, beer-brewing, raising grapes for home-made wine, growing vegetables -- and even sugar cane -- on windowsills, or slaughtering an occasional pig or chicken. Fishing, eeling, or shellfish-gathering, even in waters full of industrial pollution, is something New Yorkers never gave up. Upscale trendy examples of new-type foodies doing things like bee-keeping or winemaking are easy to find. Shulman also covers the way poorer members of minority or immigrant communities supplement their diet by growing food in cans or on rooftops, by fishing and ignoring warnings about the danger of pollutants, and how Harlem residents for a while turned large tracts of burned-out land into vegetable gardens (now mainly reclaimed by developers). The details for each activity are compelling, and I enjoyed every chapter!

Above all, I enjoyed Shulman's treatment of New York's transition from an industrial city to a what is now. New York was "the country's manufacturing center." By mid-19th century Manhattan was
"rimmed with meatpackers, coal yards, gasworks, ink factories, ribbon makers, iron works, breweries, bottling plants, bone boilers, dairies, slaughterhouses, glue factories, stockyards, tar dumps, garbage transfer stations, rubber factories, masonry yards, flour mills, icehouses, lumberyards, sugar houses, distilleries, oil refineries, plumbing supply houses, and elevator and dumbwaiter manufacturers." (p. 236)
The pollution from these now-departed industries stays with New York despite efforts to clean up. The reality of present-day New York is extremely different from that of the past. Now few heavy industrial or manufacturing activities remain -- most people are in white collar, financial, or service jobs. The comparison that emerges from the perspective of raising and foraging foods in this ultra-urban setting makes fascinating reading.

While I was in New York last month, ironically, I missed the discussion of this book by my culinary book club -- but I hear that they all liked it too.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Bowl of Texas Red in Virginia

Ellen and Alec sent us packets of chili spice this year, as they often do. I come close to making their Texas chili recipe -- "a bowl of red" -- though I change it a little each time I make it. This time I made it with Miriam and Alice in their Fairfax, Virginia kitchen, and Alice made a video of the process:

Ellen and Alec's "Texas Red" Chili -- Modified Version
2 to 3 lb. lean beef cubes: trim off fat if necessary
2 chopped onions
3 cloves chopped garlic
Several fresh chopped chilies (such as jalapenos) or 1 can Old El Paso chopped chili peppers
1 to 4 tablespoons of chili spice
8 oz tomato sauce and 8 oz water
1 lb can of tomatoes, cut in pieces or crushed tomatoes

Brown onion and garlic. Add fresh peppers (if using fresh). Remove from pan and put in slow cooker. Add beef and brown. Drain excess fat. Place meat in slow cooker.  In frying pan heat tomato sauce, water, and tomatoes, and canned peppers if using canned. Cook on low for 8-10 hours. Serve with grated cheese. Never beans, I promise.

I wrote about the chili spice in 2006, here: Texas Red.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Best Chocolate Pudding

I wasn't going to bother with another chocolate pudding recipe, but yesterday I made one that was so outstandingly chocolaty I feel the need to share. I tweaked it from a couple of ideas on the web.

Great Pudding

1⁄2 cup brown sugar, packed
4 tbsps cornstarch
3 tbsps cocoa (like Hershey's)
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
dash salt
2 cups skim milk (or any milk)
2 oz. chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla

In a microwaveable container, whisk together milk, brown sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, coffee, and salt.

Microwave on medium-high power in 2 minute increments until mixture comes to a boil and starts to thicken, whisking every 2 minutes. Add chocolate chips and vanilla to hot pudding and whisk until melted -- no further microwaving needed.

The pudding after we ate most of it and
realized the recipe was a keeper. Anyway,
you can see the 2 qt. microwave container.

Chill pudding for 4 hours or more, if you can wait to eat it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Snob's Guide to New York City Food

Food is something New Yorkers eat in a restaurant.

A legendary recipe originates with a famous restaurant chef.

History means, among other things, setting the record straight about who invented famous dishes. Like a Reuben sandwich, Waldorf salad, or chocolate lava cake.

These definitions are central to Arthur Schwartz's book New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes (2004).

More burning questions:
  • Who invented Vichyssoise? 
  • Who popularized Crème brûlée? 
  • When did Delmonico steaks and porter house steaks get their names? 
  • Who invented the egg cream? 
  • Why is Manhattan clam chowder red and New England clam chowder white? 
  • What's a black and white? (Hint: Schwartz says it's NOT a cookie. And usually not very tasty.)
  • About the Reuben Sandwich -- evidently, it was invented in Omaha in the 1920s, not at Reuben's Restaurant!
  • And if you aren't from New York, how important is any of this? (Hint: Schwartz doesn't address this question.)
New York City Food begins with a fascinating summary of the foods of the Indian tribes who lived in Manhattan and Long Island and a summary of cuisine and agriculture in the Dutch colonial era. Most of the book then describes restaurant trends from the 19th to the beginning of the 21st century. Schwartz profiles famous restaurateurs and chefs, describes their establishments, and gives cameos of the wealthiest and glitziest people who ate there. He describes the lives and works of other food writers -- Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Barbara Kafka. He talks a little bit about middle class people, as long as they could afford some sort of restaurants. Food fads through the centuries aren't entirely without interest, and I enjoyed anecdotes about the diners and chefs. But my principal impression is of unimaginable snobbery.

Occasionally Schwartz, a former restaurant reviewer and writer of several cookbooks, acknowledges home cooking, or at least discusses trends like ethnic bakeries, Korean produce stands, or butcher shops. But he's really fixated on dining out and every aspect of restaurant life, not on food as a life-sustaining force or as a means of creating cohesion among families and social groups. That's just not his topic, which I recognize and respect. Consistently, most of the recipes are based on famous New York restaurant dishes, not on home cooking. By the way: I actually read all the way through this book, including the intros to most of the recipes.

I bought this book when I came back from a brief visit to New York City last month, because a tour of the Tenement Museum made me wonder about supplying food in such a huge city and about just what the people ate and how the cooked it. I didn't learn much on this topic from Schwartz.

The people who lived in the tiny 3-room apartments on Orchard Street shopped at pushcarts nearby, and cooked as best they could on coal stoves making their small rooms filthy, smoky, and in summer unbearably hot. The building originally had no indoor plumbing of any kind: there were pit toilets and one water tap in the back yard, shared by over 100 people.

Meanwhile, as I learned from Schwartz's book, wealthy people were eating oysters, steaks, fancy desserts, and many interesting luxury foods at restaurants whose names are still quite famous. I'll have to find another book to learn about poor and even lower-middle-class people. The book I read just isn't the book I hoped for, which isn't the author's fault.

Our guide at the door of the tenement house, built in the 1860s and
inhabited by large families until the 1930s, when it was declared a fire hazard.
The apartments were uninhabited until the museum acquired the building.
The hallway just beyond the door. Two shared toilets in this hallway
were installed after the building had been in use for a number of years. 
The hall is now lit with electric lights. For most of the years when the 
building  was a dwelling, the hallway was lit only by candles or 
lanterns carried by the inhabitants.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Kofta by Ottolenghi

Jerusalem, the cookbook by Ottolenghi has many wonderful recipes.
Tonight I made beef and lamb kofta, that is, meatballs with lots of wonderful spices, onions, garlic, and pine nuts.
Here you can see my nutmeg grater and jars of allspice and cinnamon.
The jars are very old: I refill them from bulk spice shops, and keep track of the date.
Ready for the oven. Rather than fry the meatballs I bake them at 475º F.
Toasted pine nuts and parsley, ready to garnish the meatballs. 
Out of the oven...
Into the tahini and lemon sauce...

And ready to serve, along with some stuffed grape leaves from Trader Joe's.
I made this recipe a couple of years ago and have been meaning to return to Ottolenghi!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine Customs Old and New

2015 Candy Hearts from the Atlantic article
Little chalky-tasting Valentine candy hearts have their messages updated every year, I read this week in an article in the Atlantic. I remember candy hearts from elementary school. They never tasted good, but were a permanent part of the class Valentine party. Also, Raggedy Ann had one sewn inside her chest, giving them extra significance.

The centerpiece of the class Valentine party in my schooldays was a decorated Valentine box made of a cardboard hat box (something that doesn't exist any more). The box had a slot cut in the top, and everyone would put in personally addressed Valentines, which were distributed during the party. Besides the chalky hearts we had lots of home-made cookies.

I think classroom celebrations are still pretty much the same now except the kids probably decorate a box from -- hat boxes being even more obsolete than the hats that were sold in them. Also, in some parts of the country, sweets aren't allowed at school parties, so I guess they can't have candy hearts or homemade cookies either.

I looked up the history of Valentine customs in England in Ronald Hutton's definitive book Stations of the Sun, A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. The earliest Valentine traditions weren't about human lovers, but about birds, who in Chaucer's time were believed to pick their mates on Valentine's Day. Sweet!

For a long time, people picked someone to be their Valentine, but the choice was made randomly. Beginning in the mid-18th century, children in some parts of England went from house to house asking for treats, much like the Halloween custom.
Morrow, morrow, Valentine,
I'll be yours if you'll be mine,
Please to give me a Valentine.
Rhymes like this became part of the tradition: in the morning, children would say the rhymes and receive presents from their families. In some places in the 19th century, the presents were given by "the Valentine Man" or "Father Valentine" an anonymous figure who left "sweets, fruit, pencils, or a book for each child on a window-sill or inside a hallway." (Hutton, p. 149)

Valentine cards became extremely popular in the early 19th century, with the post offices handling traffic far in excess of every-day demand. Towards the end of the century, "mocking, insulting, or 'indecent' Valentines" became popular, driving the more romantic and pretty cards out of favor. By 1914 the tradition of sending cards almost died out, but was revived in the 1920s with influence from America, and Valentine cards have remained popular in England ever since, according to Hutton.

Oh, and the New York Times, in an article in "The Upshot" says that those chalky hearts are "3,777 percent more likely than normal" to be eaten on Valentine's Day than any other day of the year. Champagne, oysters, strawberries, and many things dipped in chocolate are also consumed in larger-than-usual quantities. Sounds good to me. I hope you enjoy your celebration.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Paris in the Fifties" by Stanley Karnow

All the beautiful Paris myths are embodied in Stanley Karnow's book Paris in the Fifties. Existentialists, journalists, politicians both left and right; criminals, their trials, and those that punish them (even the famous operator of the Guillotine), and many other colorful Paris residents populate the chapters of this book. His mother-in-law was writer Nathalie Sarraute He interviewed Hemingway. He sort of rubbed elbows with Sartre and his circle. In fact, Karnow was quite a name dropper!

The New York Times, reviewing the book in 1997, was unenthusiastic:
"Time (the magazine) seldom ran any of Karnow's dispatches as he wrote them, and time (the entity) has been no kinder to his material. Despite the sometimes interesting experiences he chooses to record, most of his reporting is dated. Some is merely superficial (as in his overview of French literature through the ages), some (as in his commentaries on French politics) needs more interpretation than Karnow gives." -- See "American Abroad"

Because he wrote in the 1990s, Karnow chose themes that had lasting relevance, and though I generally agree with the reviewer, I found some things about the book still interesting. Paris in the news in 2015 includes the terrorist murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and Jews at the Kosher supermarket, the trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for participating in a prostitution ring, and of less significance, the release of the newest edition of the Michelin guide. Reading what Karnow had to say made me see deep roots for these events.

For example, his chapter on Poujadism, a now-forgotten right-wing, antisemitic, populist anti-tax movement is interesting. But particularly interesting: that one of the enforcers who worked for the movement was a thug named Jean-Marie LePen, and that that type of political bullying remains a constant in France.

The low birthrate and declining workforce that was of concern then caused France to have increased immigration from its former colonies -- a matter of great concern now, as decaying public housing is crowded with disaffected Muslims. The antisemitism of the right has been overshadowed by direct terrorism against Jews, most recently the murder at the Kosher supermarket.

Most disappointing to me was Karnow's treatment of food in Paris in the fifties. Yes, he documents in detail the menu at events, especially at politicians dinners. He interviewed the nearly 80-year-old food writer Curnonsky and gave a rather unimaginative history of restaurants in France. He lists the names of restaurants where famous people ate. But it's sadly not very vivid.

All in all, Karnow knew what stereotypes readers would bring to a book with this title, and he tried to satisfy their expectations. His earliest chapters about being a poor student and getting to know late-1940s Paris have some appeal, but somehow the book seems flat. Or as the Times reviewer says: "routine and ordinary, perilously close to boring."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Julia Child's Clafouti

Julia Child's famous recipe for clafouti, which she also calls
fruit flan... no fresh cherries in February so I used a jar
of Trader Joe's Dark Morello Cherries, product of Germany.
I love Mastering the Art of French Cooking!
The cherries -- and using the immersion blender to make the batter. 
Out of the oven, waiting for sprinkles of powdered sugar. 
Ready to serve.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nicole Mones: "Night in Shanghai"

War. Love. Jazz. Mozart. Politics. Gangs. Luxury. Poverty. Indentured servitude. Multiple languages and cultures. Frantic refugees. This was Shanghai, 1937 to 1941.

In the novel Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones, all these themes appear. Against a background of well-researched history, it's the fictional tale of a Black American musician, Thomas Greene, who comes from Depression America to play in a Shanghai jazz club, although his background is classical music. His interaction with other Black jazzmen and with musicians and music lovers from all over the world is at the core of the story, along with his awareness of what it meant to be Black in pre-war America, and what it might mean to live in a less racially biased society.

Thomas deals with Chinese gangsters, with committed Communists and supporters of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, and with people just trying to survive: gamblers, rich people, poor people, men, women, Americans, Europeans, and locals. With them he experiences the presence of Japanese troops in the city and the impending invasion and then conquest of Shanghai by Japan.

Shanghai, an international city, had a patchwork of illogical laws that among other things allowed refugees to enter freely. Thus Jews fleeing from the Nazis (with the help of a Chinese embassy bureaucrat in Vienna) found Shanghai virtually the only open country on the planet, requiring no visa to enter and stay. Thomas's experiences include learning of the Nazi persecutions in Europe, the suffering of refugees, their fear for other Jews left behind, and the Japanese refusal to send them to their death.

Author Nicole Mones was originally a food writer, so I trust the historic accuracy of her descriptions of multi-ethnic food that bring the 1930s city in the novel to life. Nanjing Road, she writes, was "the most famous shopping street in Asia and a patchwork of Shanghai's international influences: Parisian bakeries, Balkan dairy shops, and Austrian-style cafes competing with shops dispensing nuts and dried fruits from central Asia." (p. 74)

During his wealthier days, before the war closed down the jazz club, Thomas eats numerous meals in high-end restaurants, where he's aware that in much of America a Black man would never be served. For example he eats: "a rich, milky-white seafood chowder brimming with fish, shrimp, scallops, tofu, thin-sliced sea cucumber, and tangy mustard greens, touched by white pepper. To accompany this they had plates of pungent steeped cucumbers, gluten puffs with winter mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and ma lan tou, a minced salad of a local freshwater weed and savory dry tofu." (p. 95)

At Cafe Louis on Bubbling Well Road "the city's most elegant cakes and chocolates were created by chefs plucked from the tide of skilled Jewish refugees pouring into the city." Thomas's partnership with one refugee musician enables him to survive as they play classical music in hotel lobbies for tips and free European-style meals. (p. 155)

Chinese street food often played a role in the characters' lives. It could be offered in a "giant flat-bottomed pan" that contained "tight-packed rows of chubby pork dumplings with sesame-crisped bottoms." Street vendors also sold food to Thomas's landlords (in his less prosperous days), who brought it up to their attic apartment using ropes and baskets: "Steamed rice cakes made of rugosa rose and white sugar! Shrimp-dumpling and noodle soup! And -- From the east side of the Huangpu River -- beans of five-fold flavor! The basket went down with a few coins, and came up with food." Or simply "hot roasted ginkgo nuts." (p. 209, 152, 245)

An attempted Thanksgiving dinner cooked by an American's Asian wife, during the dark days of Japanese occupation was a desperate effort at hope among those endangered in the war: "a whole roast chicken... as close as they could come to  a turkey" with "rice and eggplant braised in miso, and hot and sour Korean-style cabbage." (p. 255)

A rich gang boss's comfort food, was "xi fan, rice porridge." He served some to his son, who had been brought up in an American boarding school, distancing him from his self-made father. "It was jarring, the hint of family, and Lin [the son] had to remind himself that it was an illusion. ... Lin picked up  his chopsticks and reciprocated by serving the boss with meticulous care, choosing from the onions, peanuts, pork bits, and pickled vegetables on the small condiment plates around the table." (p. 126)

And today, 2015: Shanghai has had enormous appeal to tourists and readers for well over a century. "Concessions" were specified areas of Shanghai that the very weak Imperial government of China had ceded to France, England, and America in the 19th century. Now, even after the long Communist period, these neighborhoods still reflect their history.

"The all-you-can-eat weekend dim sum buffet at Lynn.
The restaurant is located in the French Concession, the popular Shanghai
neighborhood that until the mid-20th century was still considered French soil."
...from L.A.Times article on Shanghai published February 7, 2015.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Zola: "The Masterpiece"

Emile Zola: The Masterpiece, 1885-86
Cover illustration from Auguste Renoir:
"Portrait of Frederic Bazille," 1866.
In his novel The Masterpiece, Emile Zola depicts a group of ambitious young men beginning their careers as painters, sculptors, and writers, particularly Claude Lantier the central figure. Near the beginning, they meet at the home of Pierre Sandoz, an aspiring writer, who holds the group together by hosting a weekly Thursday night dinner party. He's approved the menu proposed by the daily maid, "Skate, and then roast leg of lamb and potatoes?" The dinner party introduces the men, and the level of detail about the dishes served is extraordinary. (p. 56)

As the dinner began, the maid complained bitterly "because it was half-past seven and her lovely joint was drying up in the oven." The first guests were already at the table eating their "excellent onion soup" when another arrived. Conversation continued as she set another place.

"When the skate was served, the vinegar bottle was brought on to the table for those who wanted to give an extra fillip to the black-butter sauce. They attacked the simple meal with great gusto, devouring large quantities of bread, but being careful to put plenty of water with their wine. They had just greeted the leg of lamb with a hearty cheer, and the master of the house had just begun to carve, when the door opened again." As they ate and talked, Zola lets the reader know the interests of the various group members.
"The meal ended in pandemonium, with everyone taking at once. The last course, a choice piece of Brie, was particularly well received, not a trace of it was left. The bread nearly ran out and the wine actually did, so everybody washed the meal down with a good long draught of water, with much smacking of lips and clicking of tongues, accompanied by hearty laughter." (p. 71-73)
Many years later -- almost at the end of the novel -- Sandoz attempts to reunite the members of the group by holding another Thursday night dinner. By this time, he's a wealthy and successful novelist, some of the others are successful artists (though they have sold out) but the protagonist, Claude Lantier, has become, in all eyes including his own, a dismal failure. Just as much detail is provided for this meal, over which Sandoz's wife Harriet presides.
"She had a small staff now: a cook and butler ... She accompanied the cook to the markets and went in person to deal with her suppliers. They were both fond of exotic dishes, and on this occasion they decided on oxtail soup, grilled red mullet, fillet of beef with mushrooms, ravioli a l'italienne, hazel-hens from Russia and a truffle salad, as well as caviar and kilkis [anchovies] for hors d'oeuvre, a praline ice-cream, a little Hungarian cheese, green as an emerald, some fruit and pastries. To drink, simply some decanters of vintage claret, Chambertin with the roast and sparkling Moselle as a change from the same old champagne with the dessert." (p. 321)
Unlike at the first dinner, on this occasion the guests and their wives quarrel relentlessly and and exchange insults. They are scarcely able to notice, much less enjoy the high quality, expensive ingredients, and imaginative choices of dishes and accompanying wines that the Sandozes have provided. Zola describes each course as he did for the earlier dinner, but only to tell us how little they were appreciated. The contrast between the two events in every respect is in my opinion a kind of tour de force -- an extremely interesting use of food to highlight human relationships, perhaps one of the most intense I know of.

Throughout the novel, Zola focuses on the ridicule and antipathy of both the art establishment and the public towards the early works of the Impressionists. Claude Lantier is convinced that he has a new vision for his vocation as a painter, and he tries over and over to be recognized and accepted.

Edouard Manet: "Still Life with Carp," 1864
One of the ridiculed paintings of the era, reminds me of the foods in the novel.
Zola tells of the politically charged way that artists' work is judged for the famous Salon, and describes how Lantier's work is displayed there -- first as a "rejected" artist, then as a accepted, though ungraciously accepted, artist. Zola always offers fascinating details. For example, this description of the Salon in Paris:
"the air was hot and the atmosphere soured by perfume which soon gave way to a predominating smell of wet dog. It was evidently raining outside... for the latest arrivals were very wet, and their heavy garments soon began to steam in the heat of the room. ... Claude saw all the faces emerge from the dusk, all round-eyed and open-mouthed with the same idiotic rapture." (p 284-285)
Lantier's difficulty is not only with the public and mainstream art critics, but also with his inability to complete any painting to his satisfaction. Each effort, he is sure, will be a masterpiece, but he can never actually finish. Zola did not specifically identify Lantier with any particular artist (though he clearly thought of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet whom he was very close to). However, after reading this novel, Cezanne, his lifelong friend from childhood and youth, never spoke to him again. For the modern reader, the key to which artists, exactly, were being described is less intriguing than the two simultaneous themes of Lantier's slow decline and failure, and of the intense political environment for art in that era.

Cezanne: "The Eternal Woman," 1877.
I wondered if this painting contributed to Zola's descriptions of
Lantier's works, which include nude figures in unexpected places.
Lantier's first entry into the Salon, as Zola described it, was very
similar to Manet's famous "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1862-63)
Lantier and his mistress/wife Christine are vibrant characters and their failures and sorrows are remarkable. In addition, Zola's choices of detail for depicting other characters and scenes are irresistible. For example, there's one woman character who throughout the novel is defined by her smell. She was married to an herbalist, who ran "a mysterious little shop which the herbs and spices filled with the fragrance of incense."

Zola writes of her "all-pervading perfume, the strong smell of simples that impregnated her clothes and scented her greasy, always untidy hair -- the sickly sweetness of mallow, the sharpness of elderberry, the bitterness of rhubarb, all dominated by that warm odour of strong peppermint which seemed to be the very breath of her lungs, the breath she breathed into the faces of her men." (p. 62) This aroma follows her even after she leaves the shop and marries, assuming pretensions to much higher status.

As they fall into poverty and want, Claude and Christine Lantier have many meager meals as well as more opulent ones. A single example: once when their food money is exhausted, she pawns a dress and obtains enough for a poor dinner of sorrel soup and potatoes. Lots more descriptions of great meals and impoverished ones appear in the book than I have included here -- I wonder if someone has created a cookbook from them (though I haven't found it).

Zola's book The Belly of Paris is better known than this one for amazing depictions of food and hunger. While The Belly of Paris centers on the market and describes much more food, this too is a Masterpiece of food writing!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Paris Noir"

Soul food in Paris, 1949: Leroy Haynes, an expat American Black, founded a restaurant where French people could taste chitlins, cornbread, red beans and rice, fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Located in Montparnasse, the restaurant was convenient to Americans who moved to the Left Bank, and appealing to adventurous French people. It remained a left-bank institution for 60 years (until 2009), run by Haynes’s widow and a “predominantly” African-American staff after his death in 1985.

Also in the Latin Quarter in the 1940s: Chez Inez, run by another expat Inez Cavanaugh, served soul food and featured jazz and blues: “eager Frenchmen who had never tasted the like” could try corn muffins and home fried chicken. In winter mostly Black American students ate there; in summer American and Scandinavian tourists were made to feel that “they owned the place.”

And in the area of Rue Mouffetard – another left-bank neighborhood – was the Rib Joint, owned by African-American expat, Randy Garrett: “a classic soul-food restaurant serving barbecued ribs, fried chicken, corn bread, and coleslaw. ... Its customers included a mixture of African american tourists and residents, other Americans, Parisians, and foreigners.” The Rib Joint was in business from the 1970s until 1994.

Leroy Haynes at his restaurant
from "Haynes" by Jean Segura
The availability of soul food and soul music offers one of many insights into Black American life in Paris in the twentieth century, as documented in Tyler Stovall's comprehensive history Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996). The expats established a loosely-connected community that included soul food and meeting places, jazz clubs and restaurants. They were highly fascinating to the French, who particularly loved the music, and evidently were willing to try the food. Since American expats mainly lived in hotels without the ability to cook their own meals, the restaurants were especially important.

Black Americans in Paris early in the century particularly enjoyed an atmosphere of French color-blindness that contrasted to the discrimination they experienced in American cities, North or South. Some of them experienced France first as American soldiers in the World Wars when American military segregation was extreme. Some came as students with limited means, or after World War II on the GI Bill or other stipends. Mature writers, musicians, and artists went to Paris looking for creative freedom; others came as unknowns with aspirations and succeeded, or didn’t. In the early years, these expats lived in Montmartre; later the center of this loosely coherent community moved to the Left Bank.

Stovall describes the lives of the most high-profile and successful American Blacks in Paris such as Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Sidney Bechet, Langston Hughes, Romare Beardon, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and quite a few others. American Blacks in Paris included leaders of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, the most exciting jazz musicians of the Jazz Age, or the best in Black American writing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paris Noir also chronicles the lives and motives of many less well-known American Blacks who studied art, established studios, played back-up to the big Jazz names, wrote books or essays, performed in cabarets, or ran restaurants. Some lived ordinary lives, married French spouses, and more or less assimilated into French life.

Stovall covers the major time periods and events of the twentieth century – the chaos of the World Wars;  the excitement of the 1920s when Paris was a draw to Blacks as well as to other Americans; and the appeal of Parisian cultural scene and open atmosphere after World War II. Especially in the earlier years of the century, the French in turn were highly interested in the American Blacks who lived in Paris. American Jazz musicians contributed a modern alternative to traditional popular music in the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1950s. French musicians learned from Americans. French musicians sat in on jazz performances in cafes and concert halls, developing their own style of jazz in turn – notably Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and later Boris Vian.

In the 1930s, when economic depression cut off the livelihood of many expatriates, the Black community declined. After World War II -- the racist Nazi era when Blacks had to leave Paris or be deported to camps – Blacks returned. Especially, the GI Bill recognized several art schools and universities in Europe, providing a new type of opportunities. The 1950s also were the time of French colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria and arrival in Paris of many non-white colonials, with heavy implications for American Black expats.

In the sixties, Americans in Paris were highly aware of civil rights struggles in the US; Paris, the author points out, was also a gateway to awareness of and living in emerging African countries, though that didn’t always work out too well as African countries were far from stable. Black expatriates, like everyone in Paris, were heavily affected by the near-revolution of May 1968.

Throughout the century, many expats retained strong ties to American life. Although some virtually turned their backs on America and its racial problems, others such as James Baldwin, moved back and forth between the two countries, committed to civil-rights activism in the US and to the peace that Paris offered.

Paris Noir wraps up with a summary of events in the 1970s until the early 1990s when Stovall, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and later at UC Berkeley, wrote and published the book. Stovall had many sources, including interviews he conducted with various Paris expats. During this time, the color-blind atmosphere of Paris became more and more of a myth, as mistreatment of large immigrant populations from former French colonies increased.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Paris over the years, and having read quite a bit about Americans in Paris, I found this book particularly appealing. The terrorist murders in Paris in January of this year have focused worldwide attention on the current racial tensions there, so the book (which has been on my list for quite a while) seems especially timely despite having been published 20 years ago. Alas, the apparent color-blind atmosphere that attracted American Blacks through much of the twentieth century is only a memory now, as Paris has gigantic racial and ethnic problems that in many ways dwarf even the situation in America.