Sunday, January 31, 2016

In my Kitchen This Weekend

Whole Foods had a sale on Whole Snappers, so that's what we had for dinner last night.
After filling it with aromatics and wrapping it with lettuce leaves, I roasted
it for around 30 minutes, then removed the fillets and served it... 
We enjoyed eating it, too, with white wine, boiled potatoes, bread & butter, and salad.
Meanwhile, I've been trying to reduce the clutter in the pantry, especially on the floor.
There's still quite a lot of stuff there, but not as much as before my project.
(What looks like a brown stripe on the wall is actually the shadow from the camera's flash.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

High Cuisine, Middle Cuisine, Low Cuisine

A Traiteur now on Rue du Commerce, Paris, 15th arrondissement.
The word traiteur can mean a seller of ready-made food or a caterer.
During two long stays in Paris, I cooked in tiny apartment kitchens, and enjoyed every trip to the many markets and shopping streets in my area. Before digital cameras, I took very few photos, so I've googled a bit to find the above photo of a current traiteur on Rue du Commerce, which was just around the corner from the earlier of our two apartments, and just a few blocks from a later apartment. Here's what I would do when I was living there: I'd look in the windows of the traiteur's shops and get ideas for things I could make myself.

For example, I was startled at the popularity of corn salad, made, I believe, from canned corn with peppers and raisins. Or, contemplating the salads in the traiteur's window, I realized how easy it is to open a can of palm hearts, add some sliced tomatoes and chopped parsley: some traiteurs shocked me by using dried parsley! Of course there are high-end traiteurs (most famously, Fauchon's in Place de la Madeleine) and middle-class traiteurs like the ones on our middle-class shopping street, and even lower-end offerings at supermarkets and the like. Also, open-air markets throughout Paris, such as one quite near Rue du Commerce, have quite a few stalls with the same types of food.

Traiteur Jeusselin on Rue Cler.
A current photo from the street where our friends Chris and Liz lived for many years.
I was thinking about traiteurs in Paris while reading the current Consumer Reports article listed on the cover as "Supermarket Prepared Food Shocker," and titled inside "Under the Plastic Wrap: What's really in supermarket prepared meals?" about ready-made meals at American supermarkets. (March, 2016, pages 38-47)

The prepared food article
does not seem to be available
online at this point, only in paper.
Their review includes such things as rotisserie chicken, salads, mashed potatoes, and many side dishes. It's funny to realize how similar traiteur's foods are to these seemingly innovative supermarket offerings (though rotisserie chickens, ubiquitous in Paris, are not sold by traiteurs, but by poultry butchers). And when I go to Whole Foods, I still do exactly the same thing: looking in the elegant prepared food cases to get ideas for what to buy and assemble in the produce and canned-goods departments!

The Consumer Reports article includes analysis of ready-made foods from a health standpoint -- especially in a section titled "Pass the Salt, Again and Again and Again." They note that not all ingredients are necessarily fresh nor made on the premises; in fact some use canned or bottled products that (obviously) you could buy and use for your own preparations. They also compare prices: typically, as I always suspected, you could make the same dish for half or less than half the price -- or as they say: "The Cost of Convenience is Steep." They have several useful tables, especially one comparing popular prepared meals from Wegman's, Costco, Whole Foods, and a couple of other chains, and a classic Consumer Reports "ratings" section from Wegman's (the top satisfaction rating) to six at the bottom including Target, Walmart, and Aldi.

Frequently seen in traiteur's windows: individual aspics.
This would be harder as a do-it-yourself project!
A salad bar from the website of Traiteur Jeusselin.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Cooking for Cold, Damp Weather

Squash, red pepper, and chicken soup.
The soup!
"Beloved by the British, this rich,
protein-filled dish is traditionally
made with a mashed-potato crust."
-- Epicurious
For dinner tonight, I made soup. I used chopped onion, cubed squash, most of a jar of red peppers, spices, and chicken broth. After browning onions, spices, and squash in butter, I added stock & peppers and simmered the pot until the squash was soft. Then I set aside around 2/3 of the vegetables and pureed the rest with my immersion blender. I put back the reserved vegetables and added chopped up meat from last night's roast chicken. Roasting meat in the oven, simmering soup on the stove -- good choices for cold nights.

I garnished the soup bowls with rings of fresh bell pepper, Greek yogurt, and parsley. And I served those little Trader Joe's gluten-free crackers which are good even if you don't have anything against gluten.

Earlier this week, I cooked lamb shanks in the slow cooker. Bloggers all around have been writing about slow cooker dishes this week: obviously this is the time of year when you want your house to fill with the aromatic steam that this wonderful device produces, whether you're making filling for enchiladas or sloppy Joes, a simmered roast beef, pulled pork, or a meat-and-vegetable stew.

After the lamb slow-cooked overnight until it fell off the bones, I chilled it and skimmed the fat. That evening we ate the resulting lamb stew by itself. The next time around, I made it into shepherd's pie -- with a mound of mashed potatoes in the center (see photo). There are lots of ways to make shepherd's pie -- with beef or lamb, with various vegetables, spiced to taste. Some say the beef version should be called "cottage pie." With lamb, it's an English favorite that links to my reading project featuring detective fiction by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

H.J.Heinz: Food and Progress

"Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted. 
"By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since." -- Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon 
Krugman's point about the book under review is that technological change made enormous differences in American life and the economy between 1870 and 1940. These changes continued to accumulate until around 1970; however, since that time, few really revolutionary inventions have been introduced (yes, that includes the Internet and personal computers, according to these experts). And thus the pace of change has slowed.

The biography is titled The Good Provider:
H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties
, written by Robert C. Alberts
and published in 1973.
I have read only Krugman's review, not Gordon's book, but I found it completely fascinating to think about his points as I read a biography of H. J. Heinz (1844-1919), a "captain of industry." The industrial food processing corporation founded by Heinz contributed to the changes in American life starting just about 1870.

In the 1940s home mentioned in the review, specifically in the pantry, you would have found lots of packaged foods -- those that were being invented in the period of high technological innovation, many of which still exist today. Examples: Post or Kellogg's cereals, Campbell's soup, Jello, Hershey chocolates, Oreos, AND some of Mr. Heinz's 57 varieties of pickles, relishes, catsup, canned beans and more. Like other technological innovations, these made a big difference in the labor people needed to do to put meals on the table, and also to the nation's economy.

The Good Provider: H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties is a fairly fast-paced book (with a few draggy chapters). One appealing feature is that in the early 1970s, when he was researching the book, the author could still interview quite a few people who actually worked for Heinz himself.

As I read, I was struck by the numerous economic and industrial innovations that Heinz introduced in his huge factory in Pittsburgh and throughout his growing food empire -- not just the innovations that made it easier to prepare food in one's home. Here are the ones that I find the most interesting:
  • Heinz developed many mechanized food processing methods, owned plants for making cans and jars to use, and worked with farmers to ensure consistent raw materials for his canning plants.
  • He made sure to develop clear and consistent recipes and methods for his foodstuffs.
  • He developed new concepts in product identity like distinctive containers, logos, and labels.
  • He was a genius at marketing innovations, particularly tastings and giveaways such as little pickle charms that were first introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
  • He built very modern plants, and offered plant tours to convince people of the value of his methods and his care and cleanliness; as time went on he incorporated new methods of quality control and flavor control, hiring scientists to contribute to the effort.
  • He used technology for product distribution, like owning railroad cars.
  • He developed nation-wide and international facilities and distribution of his products.
  • His labor practices were unusually fair; though women workers earned half as much as men, his treatment of women was nevertheless exceptional.
  • He cooperated with the pure food & drug movement rather than opposing it as many other food manufacturers did a century ago (and still do in fact).
Maybe I'll read Gordon's book about the economy and learn about Krugman's summary: "that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication." I'll be curious to learn if the changes in food processing also figure in Gordon's book.

UPDATE, Jan 28: I bought the book by Gordon, and found in his introduction this very interesting quote summarizing the changes in food during the 19th through the mid-20th century:
The Mason jar, invented in 1859 by John Landis Mason, made it possible to preserve food at home. The first canned meats were fed to Northern troops during the Civil War, and during the late nineteenth century a vast array of branded processed foods, from Kellogg’s corn flakes and Borden’s condensed milk to Jell-O, entered American homes. The last step to the modern era, the invention of a method for freezing food, was achieved by Clarence Birdseye in 1916, though his invention had to wait for decades to become practical at home until in the 1950s the electric refrigerator had finally progressed enough to be able to maintain a zero temperature in its freezer compartment. (Kindle Location 242-247).
I plan to continue reading this quite-long book, and will probably blog about it again! 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"The Nine Tailors" -- TV Version

The beginning of the 4-part TV series "The Nine Tailors" --
a 1914 wedding in British upper class splendor.
The TV series "The Nine Tailors," originally broadcast on the BBC in 1974, begins with an opulent wedding. In the impressive reception hall of a fine country mansion, servants are placing the wedding cake and a remarkable collection of sweets on the buffet table. The night after the wedding, which took place in 1914, the mansion's butler and his accomplice steal a £60,000 emerald necklace from one of the guests. Lord Peter Wimsey, played by actor Ian Carmichael, is a guest at the wedding; he chases the fleeing suspect in a fast car.

The first episode of the TV series continues with the experiences of Peter Wimsey in the trenches of Word War I, providing the back-story of his relationship to his incomparable gentleman's gentleman, Bunter. It's a very dramatic and fast-paced hour of drama. Only at the very end of this episode do we go forward 20 years to 1934, when Wimsey and Bunter crash their car into a snowdrift in the same little town -- the point in time where the original novel by Dorothy Sayers begins. I find this rearrangement of flashbacks in the book into an exciting first episode to be very effective and enjoyable.
Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. 
From the second episode onward, the TV drama follows the book quite closely, continuing to dramatize every possible action scene with enthusiasm. In fact, this TV treatment seemed so exciting that we watched all 4 episodes in one night. 

I've already written about my visit to the prototype of the little town and the church that is central to the plot of Sayers' book. I believe that some of the filming was done at that location or at least using a reconstruction of that church. If anything, this treatment an improvement over the book, as the long-winded digressions on bell ringing and other technical subjects were condensed sufficiently to contribute to the plot without retarding the action. Even though I don't find the sound of pealing bells particularly appealing, it's much nicer to hear them than to read about them!

The Five Red Herrings, another Lord Peter Wimsey novel, was also made into a BBC TV series with Ian Carmichael as the detective. I also watched it recently, but did not like it nearly as well -- in fact, I found the acting wooden and dialog too staged, which is odd since it dates from only a year later. The actors in "Nine Tailors" seemed much better suited to their roles, especially the character parts like the Rector, his wife, the doctor, and the eccentric village people.

For all my blog posts about Dorothy Sayers, including this one, click here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Saint Wendreda and the Nine Tailors

Lord Peter Wimsey again! The Nine Tailors is the only Dorothy Sayers mystery that I remember reading in the past, and I decided to read it again. It's quite long for a detective novel, and contains enormous detail about English bell-ringing. The bells are central to the plot, but I eventually found the technical descriptions about them a bit tedious.

If you aren't familiar with the terminology, "tailors" are peals of the bells: it was a tradition to ring the bells of a village church tower nine times to mark a village man's death. Specifically, amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey spends a lot of time in a village where the Rector is obsessed with ringing changes on the bells of the local church. He himself participates in a 9-hour sequence of bell ringing to bring in a New Year; that is, pealing the bells in various mathematical and not necessarily musical sequences. At least now I know why I have never understood what I was hearing when bells ring in the New Year or something -- always sounded like noise to me.

The Nine Tailors also contains quite a bit of description about the architecture and decoration of the church whose bell tower is involved. This, I found more interesting, because I once visited the church that was the prototype for the fictional building. Its main feature is an "angel roof" with 120 wooden sculpted angels at the ends of the hammer beams that support the roof. Friends who were very dedicated Dorothy Sayers fans took us on a tour of places of importance to her novels. Some photos of that tour (March 13, 1999) --

The angel roof of St.Wendreda's church in March, England, prototype of the church in The Nine Tailors. 
Our friends Sheila and John with the key to the angel roof church.
We had to ask at the local pub "The Stars" to obtain the key. 
Churchyard of St. Wendreda's. The keys to the church and the cemetery are both plot elements in The Nine Tailors. 
St. Wendreda's church tower.
Mae and John looking over the church.
To return to the novel: the Rector and the village inhabitants in The Nine Tailors are all very deferential to Lord Peter Wimsey, as Wimsey's family are the local nobility -- his brother is the Duke of Denver, the local area (fictitious). Although the term isn't used, Wimsey is very condescending in the old sense, which meant the way a noble is actually supposed to treat his inferiors. I am rather fascinated by the way the word has evolved from praise for the behavior of a person who was born into a socially superior stratum to criticism for a person who acts as if he was born superior, and expects to be treated as such! This mutual view is reflected, I think, in the way the Rector and his wife offer meals to Wimsey:
  • "Can you eat shepherd's pie?" she asks. "You're sure? The butcher doesn't call today, but there's always cold ham." (p. 51)
  • "The butcher says he has some nice calf's liver today, only I don't know if you can eat it," she says on a later occasion. "Theodore is very fond of liver-and-bacon, though I always think it's rather rich." (p. 187)
  • After singing hymns on Christmas Eve, Wimsey returns to the Rectory with the Rector, his wife, and others "to eat cold roast beef and trifle." Not his usual French-style menu! By this time, Wimsey is being nobly helpful to the locals, and no apology seems needed when they share their meal with him. (p. 377)
The novel's time frame spans an entire year, which allows a vast amount of detail (maybe too much for me) about life in the village while a murder mystery is being solved. I also found the level of detail about the drainage systems in the fens of England to be a bit excessive, though rising water when the sluices are breached causes some of the most exciting scenes in the novel, as well as requiring another type of bell ringing: sounding an alarm. On our tour of the area, we also looked at some of the dykes and sluices that keep the former wetlands from being flooded.

If you decide to read The Nine Tailors expecting the usual pace of detective fiction, you must be quite patient! But tastes vary -- I've become a bit weary of both the pace of these novels and the extreme class-orientation they show. However, I'm planing to watch the TV series that was made of this book in the 1970s.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mysterious Filet of Sole

Last night we dined on Dover sole filet with white wine and mushroom sauce.
In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey eats sole on two occasions. It's mentioned in the other Dorothy Sayers book I read recently, Whose Body. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, a lover of subtle flavors, is also known to eat sole occasionally. 

The cookbooks based on English detective fiction that I've been reading recently offer lots of recipes for sole in various sauces. Having my mind on these detectives, I made my own favorite filet of sole recipe last night. The sole filets -- which I bought from the freezer case at Trader Joe's -- were so thin I could almost see through them, meaning they would cook in just a couple of minutes. To avoid overcooking this delicate fish, I made the sauce first, and then laid the filets on top of the sauce just long enough to cook them.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anonymous Nastiness

"You and Miss Holland and Miss Megan will feel much better after coffee and eggs and bacon. Murder is a nasty business on an empty stomach." (The Moving Finger: Kindle Locations 7850-7851)
Murder is always a nasty business, though in Agatha Christie there's rarely a graphic description of the horrors. In The Moving Finger, details of the murders are even less emphasized than usual. The real mystery here is about the writer of a series of anonymous letters that almost all the central characters in the village receive. Each letter contains an accusation of moral wrongdoing, especially of adultery or illicit relationships; though the villagers don't find these accusations credible, they repeatedly say "Where there's smoke there's fire." In a way, it's amazing that the effect of these essentially deranged accusations have such a strong impact.

Attempts by the characters in the book to understand the nastiness of the person who composed the letters is particularly fascinating. All three of the following explanations were advanced prior to the murders:

The village doctor's explanation: "... the anonymous letter pest arises from one of two causes. Either it’s particular— directed at one particular person or set of people, that is to say it’s motivated, it’s someone who’s got a definite grudge (or thinks they have) and who chooses a particularly nasty and underhand way of working it off. It’s mean and disgusting but it’s not necessarily crazy, and it’s usually fairly easy to trace the writer— a discharged servant, a jealous woman— and so on. But if it’s general, and not particular, then it’s more serious. The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows." (Kindle Locations 6422-6428).

The narrator, Mr. Jerry Burton, a recently transplanted Londoner in the village says: "As I say, they’ve got a screw loose. It satisfies some urge, I suppose. If you’ve been snubbed, or ignored, or frustrated, and your life’s pretty drab and empty, I suppose you get a sense of power from stabbing in the dark at people who are happy and enjoying themselves." (Kindle Locations 6695-6697)

The village vicar's wife speculates: "Blind hatred… yes, blind hatred. But even a blind man might stab to the heart by pure chance… And what would happen then, Mr Burton?" (Kindle Locations 7017-7018)

Almost at the end, the vicar and his wife call in Miss Jane Marple, whose insight allows the capture of the perpetrator. Like most Agatha Christie novels, it's well-plotted, and I won't give away the ending. And like most Agatha Christie novels, there are lots of food scenes, but if I quoted them, it might begin to be repetitive -- for all my blog posts about Agatha Christie including this one, click here.

Attempt to understand trolls from this site.
Each of the efforts to understand the anonymous culprit seemed to me to have a strange resonance with something that's much more recently emerged in our society: comments by anonymous trolls on the Internet! Mean, disgusting, not necessarily crazy, result of frustration at a snub, needing a sense of power, blind hatred... all these motives clearly drive many of the venomous voices that permeate current social media and anonymous sites that encourage nastiness. To quote the Washington Post:
"In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts argued that anonymous comments sections 'have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, factual inaccuracy and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.' In 2012, Buzzfeed’s John Herrman concluded his informal study of online discussion forums by describing YouTube’s anonymous comments section as 'the room with the million monkeys and the million typewriters, but they haven’t even gotten half-way though Hamlet yet because they’re too busy pitching feces at one another.'" -- source: "It's time to end anonymous comments," August 19, 2014.
There are also tons of efforts to explain what makes all those anonymous trolls tick -- it's entertaining that Agatha Christie seems to have had a theory about them so long ago!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Like Water for Chocolate" and "The Last Chinese Chef"

Twice in the past week, groups of people have been astonished that somehow I have never read Like Water for Chocolate, and also have not seen the film. The American edition of the book was published 25 years ago -- how could I have missed it, asked just about everyone at my Culinary History Reading Group on Wednesday. They were comparing it to the book under discussion: The Last Chinese Chef.

Earlier, around a week ago, at a dinner party, the same thing happened: several people insisted that I had to read Like Water for Chocolate when they heard I was reading The Last Chinese Chef -- the books just seem to go together. And in a neat coincidence, when I got home from Culinary Book Group, a package on my doorstep contained Like Water for Chocolate -- a gift from two of my guests. I've now read it thanks to my thoughtful friends.

Both of these books combine their authors' vast knowledge of food and cooking with a romantic story in an exotic setting. The Last Chinese Chef is set in present-day China. It embeds observations of foodways in a very modern love story. The author invented many quotes from a book by a fictional chef from an earlier era as a way to provide historical and sociological background. (I previously wrote about this book here.)

In contrast, Like Water for Chocolate is set in Revolutionary Mexico (around 1910 to 1917), and involves the recipes cooked by the central character, Tita, for her family. While The Last Chinese Chef depicts people and events in a fairly conventional way, Like Water for Chocolate is a work of magical realism, where the intense emotions of the characters are highlighted by mystical or magical happenings. Tita can see and exchange thoughts or speak with dead people, and her feelings have material consequences. At the very beginning, Tita's birth is premature, brought on by her loud crying from the womb; for Tita "laughter was a form of crying." (p. 7)

Food plays both a natural and an imaginative role in Tita's life. In her passionate feelings for her chosen lover, "Tita knew thorough her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn't been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour." (p. 67)

Above all, Tita excels at cooking the foods that have long been traditions in her family. She has strong relationships with the cooks in their rural kitchen, who even after death can "dictate a prehispanic recipe involving rose petals." Through cooking, Tita struggles with her oppressive and hateful mother who was a pro at "dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying, or dominating." (pp. 49 & 97)

In our Culinary History discussion, we talked about the way both books focus on the relationship of food and family: both play a significant role in their respective cultural milieus. In the case of The Last Chinese Chef, this is explicitly contrasted to the way Americans are more alienated from food, especially the way Chinese people do not feel it's right to eat alone. In Like Water for Chocolate, food and family intertwine in many ways, including magically.

Both novels combine theoretical food writing with a strong plot, which some group members like better than others do -- some would prefer to read a simple, strong essay without the fiction. As for me, I found that both authors were quite successful at combining fiction with more theoretical material, and I'm very enthusiastic about both books.

Too bad about the kippers

Herbed scrambled eggs for breakfast, from Jeanine Larmoth, Murder on the Menu, prepared by me (the cook)
served by me (the butler), consumed by me & Len (residents of our fine mansion).
No mysteries here for the moment, unless you count the question of how the stock market will do today.

Here's the recipe I used. Yes, I meant to include Kippers, which I bought yesterday. But ...
Alas, when I looked at the package, I realized that somehow  -- although I bought them yesterday --
these kippers were 6 years out-of-date. I was afraid to open them, and will take them back to Whole Foods!
Note: the scrambled eggs were very good. But I'm afraid we didn't come near to reproducing the atmosphere described by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. I'll try again to make something from one of my mystery cookbooks! 

Next step: watch more TV dramatizations of these mystery stories. I was amused at one scene that I already watched in "Hickory Dickory Dock."  Poirot (played by David Suchet) was having his usual Continental breakfast with his houseguest Inspector Japp, who says "I say Poirot, don't you have any bacon and eggs?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Burned Porridge or Kidneys and Bacon? -- Another Dorothy Sayers Mystery

"Mr. Parker was a bachelor, and occupied a Georgian but inconvenient flat... for which he paid a pound a week. His exertions in the cause of civilization were rewarded, not by the gift of diamond rings from empresses or munificent cheques from grateful Prime Ministers, but by a modest, though sufficient, salary, drawn from the pockets of the British taxpayers. He awoke, after a long day of arduous and inconclusive labor, to the smell of burnt porridge." (Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body, Pocket Book edition, p. 65)
It's easy to see how much Parker, the plain-clothes detective, differs from the very aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey, star of the Dorothy Sayers mystery series. Lord Peter's wealth and privilege allow him to regard detecting as an amusing hobby. He enjoys life in a luxurious flat with an attentive personal servant, his valet Bunter. He can even afford to support Bunter's hobby of photographing crime scenes, buying Bunter cameras and darkroom equipment and leaving the valet's time free to develop his photos, though of course always photos of use to himself. In contrast, Parker can barely afford a decent breakfast.

While Parker is getting ready to eat his porridge -- clumsily prepared by his daily char woman Mrs. Munns -- he contemplates the "sordid absurdity of the human form." Before he gets to the porridge, though, he receives a phone call. It's Bunter with the message: "His lordship says he'd be very glad, sir, if you could make it convenient to step round to breakfast."

Sayers continues: "If the odour of kidneys and bacon had been wafted along the wire, Parker could not have experienced a more vivid sense of consolation." Parker's anticipation highlights difference between an aristocratic and a lower-middle class breakfast. Parker hurried to Lord Peter's flat, viciously saying to Mrs. Munns who was making bad tea: "You can take the porridge home for the family." On the social ladder in an English mystery story, there's always someone lower down. And when Parker arrived at Lord Peter's house, "Mr. Bunter served him with glorious food, incomparable coffee, and the Daily Mail before a blazing fire of wood and coal." (p. 65-66)

The culinary contrast between the social levels of the two detectives had come up the previous day while Parker was continuing his analysis of a complex murder and disappearance and eating "a plate of ham sandwiches and a bottle of Bass." Leaving Parker at work on the case, Lord Peter went to a restaurant named Windham's to meet a friend. I suspect that Sayers believes her readers will recognize this dining establishment; obviously I don't. The menu there clearly doesn't tend towards ham sandwiches and Bass! Lunch at Windham's, in fact, is consommé Polonais; a filet of sole; "the Montrachet '08" about which Lord Peter complains; and a salmis of game, which he declares "not bad." He also complains about a bit of cork in the wine glass. The Montrachet by the way, is from 1908 -- this mystery takes place in 1923! (p. 56-57)

Lord Peter's lifestyle, as portrayed in these small food scenes and throughout the book, might now, nearly 100 years later, be seen as immature and irresponsible. His nonchalance about work led me to suspect that he was very young -- but I now know that in Whose Body he was around 32 years old, just still without mature responsibilities! Moreover, in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (which I wrote about here) he was in his late thirties.

Food characterizes yet another random possible witness: "The Indian Colonel on the first floor was loud but unexpectedly friendly," Parker reports to Lord Peter as they are finishing breakfast. "He gave me Indian curry for supper and some very good whiskey." (p.68)

Monty Python's Cheese Shop didn't have any named cheeses either.
As Whose Body continues, Lord Peter again suffers for the sake of his detecting hobby when he has to eat in Salisbury in a dining establishment not at all up to his standards. "As he sat sadly consuming that impassive pale substance known to the English as 'cheese' unqualified (for there are cheeses which go openly by their names, as Stilton, Camembert, Gruyère, Wensleydale or Gorgonzola, but 'cheese' is cheese and everywhere the same), he inquired of the waiter [about a person of interest in his case]" (p. 80) Reminds me of the Monty Python cheese shop episode.

The most extreme example of food in relation to class concerns the missing man in Parker and Lord Peter's case: Sir Reuben Levy, a Jewish businessman. Levy is married to a woman once known to Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess. Needless to say, the wife's long-ago marriage to a Jew had caused quite a bit of objection among the antisemitic upper class to which she belonged. The Dowager Duchess speaks of this couple at some length:
"I used to know her quite well, you know, dear, ... when she was a girl. Christine Ford, she was then, and I remember so well the dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew. That was before he made his money.... she fell in love with this Mr. Levy and eloped with him. ... I'm sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I'd much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast." (p. 42-43)
Clearly Sayers, like her contemporary Agatha Christie, has a lot of casual antipathy towards Jews, based on half-truths and general prejudice -- and absolutely incorporates food stereotypes into the mix. I really wonder what she was referring to by "that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name." I looked around on the web, and this passage is often quoted but the funny kind of meat is never explained.

From the rest of Sayers' portrayal of the character of Sir Reuben Levy, I would say that the Dowager Duchess reflects the author's own attitudes towards Jews -- purportedly well-meaning, badly-informed, and carelessly prejudiced. Agatha Christie can be even worse. Quite a lot has already been written about the prejudices reflected in these two famous mystery authors, but I'll end my say-so here. I wonder, as a Jew, why I tolerate their outdated bigotry instead of finding some other mysteries to read, or instead of watching the cleaned-up TV versions!

Monday, January 18, 2016

"Stay and have a spot of tea with us" -- More English Detective Gourmandise

"I really think you are one of the nicest people I know. You don't talk rubbish about art, and you don't want your hand held, and your mind always turns on eating and drinking." -- Spoken by Miss Marjorie Phelps to Lord Peter Wimsey in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Pocket Book Edition, p. 79
Peter Wimsey definitely loved food. He used it as metaphor -- "Now my child, What's all this?" he says to a distraught wife, "You're as cold as a pêche Melba. That won't do." (p. 144)

I can't imagine why he chose this comparison! Cold as a peach? Cold as raspberry sauce? I guess he's referring to the ice cream in the dish.

Wimsey's love of food is the subject of discussion in The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook, by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins. They offer recipes for several of the menus originating in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Also, Jeanine Larmoth's Murder on the Menu (which I wrote about here) devotes an entire chapter to "Lord Peter Wimsey: The Moment Wimsicale," and also mentions some of the food highlights from The Unpleasantness.... My choice of this novel, randomly chosen from our mystery shelves, is thus fairly lucky. I have read very few of Sayers's books, and none recently.

During Wimsey's often hurried detecting in The Unpleasantness ..., he constantly stops for meals, accepts a "spot of tea," or refers to meals eaten at some other time. Many dishes are French, or at least they seem to be listed in French on the menus of the restaurants where he eats them. Examples:
  • Saddle of mutton at the Bellona club of which he's served the best cut.
  • Sole Colbert, Apple Charlotte and "light savory to follow."
  • Lobster mayonnaise, meringues and sweet champagne, remembered from a date: "her choice -- oh, lord!" Lobster and champagne evidently don't live up to Wimsey's upper-class standards.
  • Moules marinières.
  • Grilled kippers "at a friend's studio in the early hours" -- though evidently Wimsey doesn't often eat kippers, according to The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.
  • A perdrix aux choux (partridge with cabbage).
  • Breakfast on "a chaste silver tray, containing a Queen Anne coffee-pot and milk-jug, a plate of buttered toast, a delicate china coffee-cup and a small pile of correspondence."
  • Curious little stuffed buns and petits-fours at a studio reception -- recipes for these are included in Ryan and Eakins' cookbook.
  • Dinner ordered for a lady at a fine restaurant: Huitres Musgrave, soup of Tortue Vraie, Filet de Sole, Faisan Rôti with Pommes Byron, a salad ("And, waiter -- be sure the salad is dry and perfectly crisp), and a Soufflé Glace to finish up with. Recipes for this entire menu appear in Ryan and Eakins, though the authors suggest using tinned turtle soup (that would be Tortue Vraie) rather than starting with an entire sea turtle. Now, 35 years on from the book's publication in 1981, the poor turtles are all protected and it would be irresponsible indeed to eat any type of turtle soup!
    (Unpleasantness, pp. 33, 48, 56, 72, 83, 89, 100)
The very noble Wimsey takes high-end food as an entitlement, and has high expectations of what he's served by his very proper valet Bunter (who was his orderly in the war), by his club, and at restaurants. He also has "very definite and highly developed tastes in wine, beer, and spirits" but has no taste for champagne, though when he does drink it, "it is a Pol Roger or Veuve Cliquot." (Wimsey Cookbook, p. 117)

A veteran of World War I, Wimsey is the son of a Duke, born to a family with quite a lot of wealth, taste, and even a coat-of-arms. His youth seems striking to me in this novel. I doubt if he's over 30 years old. Wimsey finds it amusing to solve a murder case, and in fact takes everything with a good deal of humor. Habits of the 1920s seem more pronounced in this work than in contemporary mysteries by Agatha Christie: for example, several of the characters in The Unpleasantness... are averse to using a telephone, considering it a new-fangled upstart.

I close with a very amusing quotation, in response to a lady's remark "Some things are so beastly." Wimsey replies:
"Oh, yes -- quite a lot of things. Birth is beastly -- and death -- and digestion, if it comes to that. Sometimes when I think of what's happening inside me to a beautiful supréme de sole, with the caviare in boats, and the croûtons and the jolly little twists of potato, and all the gadgets -- I could cry, but there it is, don't you know." (Unpleasantness, p. 171)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why do so many English mysteries include food?

Hercule Poirot in the kitchen from the TV version titled "Hickory Dickory Dock"
Food, food, glorious English food! An English murder mystery runs on meals, especially when set in a village vicarage, aristocratic country house, exotic vacation villa, the enclosed environment of a first-class train or seaside hotel, or a mansion bought with the profits from ill-gotten gains of social upstarts.

After the war, in the early 50s, Agatha Christie had to expand her settings; for example in Hickory Dickory Death, the murder victims live in a rooming hostel for students and young professional workers, but their dynamics very much resemble that of aristocratic weekenders at a country house she might have used for a 1930s setting. An Italian cook for the hostel makes dinner of "excellent minestrone... from a big tureen. This was followed by a piping hot dish of spaghetti and meat balls." But dinner is just as much a part of the story as a breakfast in that country house. (p. 23, Pocket Book Edition, first published 1955).

Murder on the Menu by Jeanine Larmoth is a wonderful, rather snarky, study of English murder mysteries, including Christie and the other big names -- Allingham, Marsh, Sayers, Innes, and others. Larmoth creates and explores stereotypes of all the main mystery-story characters: Lords, Ladies, butlers, maids, nannies, village spinsters, cooks, amateur detectives, police inspectors, constables (as distinct from chief constables who are higher class!), ordinary policemen, and so on. Above all, Larmoth describes what they eat.

One of Larmoth's most interesting topics is the question of WHY so much food appears in these fictions. I've often wondered that while writing about food in detective fiction (click on the link for all my posts including this one). Here's what she has to say:
"Hidden within each mystery writer is a gourmet; guiding each stroke of the writer's pen is a chef of chef d'oeuvres. If mysteries contain menus and recipes for murder, happily they contain menus and recipes for meals as well Between shudders of fear and apprehension at a past or coming crime are delightful islands where the principal consideration is the next dish, and the shudders are solely pleasurable. The aroma of herbs or fresh bread rises in the air, ginger cake lurks in the larder, a pan sizzles anticipating Yorkshire pudding, a bottle of burgundy makes a sound Margery Alligham describes... as a 'ghost of a pop; ... a beautiful sound, regretful, grateful, kind.'" -- Murder on the Menu, p. 155
Yet, after all the food scenes, Larmoth continues: "one stops to wonder 'why.' Why, and wherefore, all the food?" She cites Agatha Christie for using food as a hiding place, as a trap, as a test to see if the victim has eaten what he was alleged to have eaten, and as a vehicle, of course, for poison. She lists several more practical reasons in plotting mysteries.

"Food indicates setting," as in a country weekend at a great house, for example. Food descriptions among the detective's activities show the reader "This is not ... a story being told; this is real life. In mysteries, food is, in fact, one of the few means of creating an impression of life... giving a sense of reality." (p. 157)

"The Proof of the Pudding" is the title of Larmoth's last chapter, and her conclusion is:
"When the last fork has been laid on the plate, the last crumb of a treacle tart has been eaten, the last Admirable Eccentric has daubed his mustache with a starched white napkin... the case is definitely proved. Not against the murderer. For a way of life. 
"The case for thin slices of bread and butter with tea, and drapes drawn, before rising in the morning.... The case for buttery muffins, grandmother's receipts, brandy for the fainting, meat pies for the police, curry for poisoning. For butlers serving breath-light soufflés, and solicitously bending over one's chair. ... 
"We have tasted, smelled enjoyed -- for all of these can be done with the imagination. ... The only thing we haven't done is eaten, really eaten. This, for all our authors' care, is up to us. ... There is nothing to do but to step hastily into the kitchen, and serve it forth." (p 253-255)
Published in 1972, Murder on the Menu could be a perfect description of many later TV series about English aristocracy; in fact, it was evidently written at about the same time as the production of "Upstairs Downstairs," the series that began in 1971 and helped define a TV genre.

Most chapters of this book include an impressive set of appropriate recipes -- like "Library Snacks," "The Post-Funeral Lunch," "The Tea-Trolley," or "The All Day Buffet." In reading the recipes, I wonder: exactly how wonderful was the food in those idyllic yet fatal settings? It's often very bland, and the meat recipes sometimes call for hours of simmering or boiling what might be nice cuts of pork, beef, veal, or even a chicken. The recipes given in the book are probably quite authentic, as they were written by Charlotte Turgeon (1912-2009). Note: Turgeon was the translator of the Larousse Gastronomique and other French cookbooks. A college classmate of Julia Child, she remained Child's lifelong friend.

Friday, January 15, 2016

What I've Been Cooking

Tonight, from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem: Roasted sweet potatoes with green onions, peppers, figs, and balsamic reduction.
Served with roast chicken, but could be a vegetarian main course with the optional goat cheese mentioned in the recipe.
Dessert: Pavlova with whipped cream, raspberries, strawberries.
Earlier this week: simple food --
roast turkey salad with grapes, lettuce, mayo, parsley flakes.

Pavlova Recipe
4 large egg whites (for medium eggs use 5 egg whites)
1 1/4 cups white sugar mixed with 2 tsp. cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
8 oz. carton heavy cream whipped with 1/3 c. sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla OR 1 recipe of lemon curd
Fruit for garnish

1.Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Draw a 9-inch circle on the parchment paper with pencil and turn over the paper so it won't get pencil on the cake. Sprinkle the circle lightly with corn starch to avoid sticking.
NOTE: I did it once without cornstarch and it didn't stick.
2.In mixer, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gradually add in the sugar mixture, about 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat until thick and glossy. Gently fold in vanilla extract and lemon juice.
3.Spoon mixture inside the circle drawn on the parchment paper. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, building edge slightly. This should leave a slight depression in the center.
4.Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a wire rack.
NOTE: this recipe skips all the complicated stuff about cooling it in the oven overnight that usually is part of Pavlova instructions.
5.Whip the cream with sugar & vanilla. Or make lemon curd with the leftover egg yolks, allow to cool. Remove the paper, and place meringue on a flat serving plate. Just before serving, fill the center of the meringue with whipped cream or lemon curd and top with fruit: kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, whatever.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mona's Mustache Disappears

Two Mona Lisa coffee mugs, one with mustache. 
Add coffee and her mustache disappears -- almost!
Mug was made by On The Wall Productions, named "Mona Goes Dada."

For comparison: with mustache, with coffee and no mustache.
Let's face it: in the USA, Mona Lisa is part of low culture. In France not so much. 

This is the third in my series about Mona's mustache. I think this will be the end. I'll try to be more serious.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mona Lisa's Mustache Part 2

Ann Arbor News (it used to be a printed newspaper) -- 1992 quiz.
Following up yesterday's post, I searched a few of my many notebooks for Mona Lisa with a mustache. 

The cloning kit advertised above evidently allows you to put mustache genes into Mona Lisa. As usual, I didn't keep any information about where this advertisement appeared. OK, so I'm kind of DaDa.

From Detroit Monthly, no doubt politically relevant
some time in the distant past.
Minneapolis Art Museum showing Soviet Posters. 
Mystery article!
And from the web: These and many more on sale now at Zazzle!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Mona Lisa's Mustache

Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.
For my thoughts on this see:
"Me, Marcel Duchamp, and L.H.O.O.Q."
A serious scholar of Mona Lisa parodies and of the works of Marcel Duchamp recently wrote to me to inquire about the publisher of some Mona Lisa greeting cards and ads I've posted at various times. He's writing a book about Mona Lisa with a mustache. That's his specialty. I'm going to try to find them in my disorderly collections, but really -- I'm not serious! I don't collect Mona Lisa items, in the usual sense, I just assemble things that amuse me. I respect seriousness but don't share it. I understand why I can't say "it's just an ad I cut out of some magazine."

Marcel Duchamp is a good role model. He spent many years pretending to do nothing but play chess, which he evidently did very well. Meanwhile he was secretly creating a very strange and maybe profound work of art that's now in the Philadelphia museum titled: “Étant Donnés: 1. La Chute d’Eau, 2. Le Gaz d’Éclairage.” Was he really that serious? Was he serious when he signed R.Mutt to a urinal and submitted it to an art exhibit? And when he did similar things with other "readymades"?*

Towards the end of his life, Marcel Duchamp remade new editions of his original readymades, since the ones from the 19-teens had been lost. Instead of using a readymade urinal, he had a professional ceramicist make a model -- so it wasn't really readymade, but was "really" a work of art. (I guess.) He sold these for rather large amounts of money. I prefer to think of this as another joke he played on the Art Market. Actual scholars may view things differently.

What my Mona Lisa collection looks like now: in a
frenzy of decluttering, I put most of the stuff into
bankers boxes next to my ironing board.
(You know, use Mona Lisa as an Ironing Board.)
In the spirit of fun with which I've been randomly assembling and never cataloging Mona Lisa items, I ran around the web and found some mustachioed Mona Lisas. I know there are many more, this is really RANDOM! And I'll be doing a second post if I find some more in my bankers boxes full of Mona Lisa items. Meanwhile, here are my web findings, just for fun:

Random, but I own a copy.

I own this one too, even with dust jacket.

 *For a description of the Marcel Duchamp works in Philadelphia, see: "Landscape of Eros, Through the Peephole" from the New York Times archive. We have visited that museum and seen them a few times. Memorably a museum guard watching them once captured their spirit perfectly. He said "Marcel Duchamp was a piece of work."