Sunday, December 31, 2017

In My December Kitchen

December was a busy month in my kitchen as I'm sure it was in yours. I bought myself two new ceramic items from the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild December sale (see note at end), I received some gifts, and I tried a few new food products. So for a change I have good material for this month's sharing with other bloggers known as "In My Kitchen." To see the collective list of blogs that have shared kitchen stories this month, link to Sherry's blog HERE.
My new mug from the Potters' Guild (center), along with some others with similar glazes. The mug on the
far right is made by the same artist as the new one next to it.
Beautifully decorated serving platter from the Potters' Guild sale. This platter is around 10" in diameter.

A small glass knife/spreader, a gift from Evelyn. With some Trader Joe's patè.
New item from Trader Joe's: brined caperberries. Nicely flavored!
Another new food item, which I received as a gift: a 1.5 oz. package of duck fat,
which is shown melting in the pot. Inset: the package that it came in.
It was quite delicious and I would buy it again if I found it.
A mushroom brush -- somehow I've always wanted one.
I haven't had any mushrooms since I bought it, so I
don't know yet if it's as useful as I've expected.
Most fun in my kitchen this month: making Chanukah latkes for 10 people with Carol!
Check out the neat apron, which is identical to the one Carol gave me as a gift. THANKS, CAROL!
She also brought us another jar of Durkee's Special Sauce, an item which I wrote about a couple of months ago.
A few days ago, I summarized the best things I ate in 2017 on a blog post HERE. I hope to keep blogging about food and reading my favorite blogs in the New Year. To all of you:
My best to everyone for the coming year!

Note: About the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild from their website: "The Potters Guild is a cooperative non-profit organization comprising over fifty members who share the responsibility and administration of the studio. The range of work includes functional pottery, sculpture, tile work, and wearable art. Firing techniques include low fire oxidation, raku, smoke firing, as well as high fire reduction. As individual artists, we display our work in galleries, locally, throughout Michigan, and across the United States. The Guild holds two sales per year at the studio (in the spring - late April or early May and early December) and has also participated in the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair since it began in 1959."

Friday, December 29, 2017

Two Books about remote cultures

Two excellent books that I read this week: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The contrasts between them are dramatic: they take place in two very different societies (Turkey and Japan); they are very different in narrative approach (one is a family saga lasting 70 years, the other occurs in one evening); and their characters have very different views of the world even considering the differences in the places they live. Both authors use food in very interesting ways to portray the characters and their exotic (to us) lives. As always, I concentrate on food though there are many other themes that could be highlighted.

Pachinko takes place mainly in Japan, with early episodes in Korea. It traces five generations of a Korean-Japanese family, along with family friends and connections, from 1910 to 1989. In some way, the book is a series of episodes, following a family from grinding poverty in early-twentieth century Korea to more poverty in wartime Japan to affluence in the post-war era.

As Koreans in Japan, the family members experience many aspects of being a highly disdained group without the right to become citizens. The children are bullied in school, while as adults eventually they suffer from a sense of shame and self-hatred or from direct discrimination. In the more recent generations of the family, the men seem fatally destined to earn a living by running or owning Pachinko parlors, despite their early promise as able to accomplish more. Above all, the reader is given insight into their humanity, their ability to do hard work, and for most of them, their determination to be someone despite prejudice against them.

Pachinko especially provides a detailed picture of the lives of women in the family. Their cooking skills are vital to the survival of the family in the worst situations, and the foods they cook and serve are an interesting background to the many complications of their lives. Here's a description from nearly the beginning, when the first generation of the family are working to run a boarding house for very poor fishermen and eke out a living:
"The lodging fees couldn’t go up, because the men were not making any more money, but she still had to feed them the same amount. So from shinbones, she made thick, milky broths and seasoned the garden vegetables for tasty side dishes; she stretched meals from millet and barley and the meager things they had in the larder when there was little money left at the end of the month. When there wasn’t much in the grain sack, she made savory pancakes from bean flour and water. The lodgers brought her fish they couldn’t sell in the market, so when there was an extra pail of crabs or mackerel, she preserved them with spices to supplement the scantier meals that were sure to come." (Kindle Locations 181-186).
And here, at almost the end, when the family are very wealthy, the women are still cooking, this time for a grandson's American girlfriend:
"When the frying pan was hot enough, Sunja poured a scant cup of the scallion pancake batter into it. She checked the edges and lowered the heat. Phoebe was lively and good for the boy, she thought. Her mother used to say a woman’s life was suffering, but that was the last thing she wanted for this sweet girl who had a quick, warm smile for everyone. If she didn’t cook, then so what? If she took good care of Solomon, then nothing else should matter, though she hoped that Phoebe wanted children." (Kindle Locations 6702-6706)
Pachinko is a very rich novel about the cultural and social history of Koreans in Japan in the twentieth century and how they were mistreated. The author's research, including interviews with Korean people in Japan, is very thorough as far as I can tell. Few people are aware of the details of this history -- I knew only the vaguest things about it. A very fascinating book!

Three Daughters of Eve takes place in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016. The central character, Peri, is the dominating consciousness in the book; between the descriptions of what she does for a single evening in Istanbul are flashbacks to her childhood and to her time in Oxford, England, during 2000-2002. Elif Shafak uses food in a very interesting way, as she also did in earlier books that I've read. The entire narrative is framed by a dinner party and how the central character reacts to it. Details of each course of an elaborate and showy meal are listed, mostly at the beginning of each chapter. Example:
"The hors d’œuvres vanished amidst effusive compliments to the chef. Smoked aubergine purée, Circassian chicken with garlic and walnuts, artichoke with broad beans, stuffed courgette flowers, grilled octopus in lemon butter sauce. When she saw the latter, a shadow passed across Peri’s face. She had long stopped regarding octopus as food and pushed it away with her fork, gently. (Kindle Locations 2004-2007). 
The reason for her reaction to octopus comes out slowly as her memories take over: it's a subtle use of a literary motif. The author describes a number of Peri's fellow guests at this over-the-top meal, but names them only by their professions and accomplishments. Example:
"The desserts arrived, served on crystal plates: hazelnut-mousse cake with a chocolate-custard centre and an oven-baked quince with buffalo cream on top. The guests broke into a chorus, half of compliments, half of concern.  
"‘Ah, I must have put on two pounds tonight,’ said the PR woman, patting her belly." (Kindle Locations 2456-2458). 
The wealth of the dinner's host and the pretensions of the other guests in contrast to Peri's background are key themes of the novel. (A comparison with Mrs. Dalloway is tempting, but I'll resist.) The central character's inner thoughts during the dinner contrast these people to those she knew in her early life as a child of not-so-well-off parents. More important, we learn of her lost goals to gain an Oxford degree and her youthful aspirations be something consistent with this education. As the dinner progresses, we find out in detail about the events and relationships that brought her to this place. There's quite a bit of suspense and drama as the novel concludes -- but no spoilers here! I enjoyed reading another book by this accomplished and skillful author.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A few good things I cooked and ate in 2017

January: I tried a recipe for chicken with preserved lemons and green olives,
based on a Moroccan recipe by Paula Wolfert. Featured in the photo:
my birdie tablecloth and potholders, a fun item. Throughout the year,
I've been experimenting with Moroccan spices, especially on chicken.
February: on our fascinating riverboat trip in the Upper Amazon in
Peru, we had beautifully plated and imaginative dinners and lunches,
all quite delicious. The wildlife and scenery were of course spectacular,
and we were delighted to learn about Peruvian gourmet cuisine.
March: at a Moroccan restaurant in Ypsilanti, I tried Bistilla, which
was quite delicious. I've been meaning to go back there. During the year,
I visited several of Ann Arbor/Ypsi's most famous dining places such as
Zingerman's, Angelo's Diner, and the newest, Miss Kim.
Our area indeed has quite a lot of very good and interesting food.
April: I baked chocolate chip cookies... one of the most perfect foods, no?
June: On our birdwatching tour in Arizona, we had dinner at the
Cameron Trading Post. Loved the Navajo Taco on fry bread.
We had just seen a California Condor: a very rare bird!
All year in Ann Arbor: Slurping Turtle's steamed buns are delicious! Sometimes I order three of them for my dinner.
This photo is from August, but I enjoyed them there several times in 2017.
September: on one of our visits to Fairfax, VA, we tried Korean Barbecue with Miriam and Alice.
October: At Garibaldi Glacier, in the far south of Patagonia, staff from the National Geographic Explorer waited for the
Zodiac cruises with hot chocolate. Being served a snack in front of a glacier was definitely one of our most exotic food experiences of the year. The entire trip was fabulous, and I had trouble selecting just one image.
Thanksgiving once again was in Pittsburgh. Here's Delia, about to serve herself.
It's been a good year, with a few fabulous trips and lots of good cooking and eating. Finding a way to sum it up is very hard -- so many of our great experiences weren't about eating, but I've limited my selection here to food and only food. To all of you: best of dining in 2018 and great success at whatever else you do!

And may you enjoy whatever holiday treats you still have
in your homes. I am still very rationing out my
chocolate-covered peppermint Joe-Joe's. They're one of
Trader Joe's very best treats.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Holiday Celebrations

Chanukah latke party.

Polish Christmas party.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Mostly red & green salad!

Friday, December 22, 2017

"Dinner With Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution"

Jonathan Silvertown, in his recently published book Dinner with Darwin, presents a tour of humanity from prehistory to recent times. He explains what hominids -- both humans and pre-humans -- ate while evolution, natural selection, and artificial selection were combining to create both our species and the many species of plants, animals, and even micro-organisms that we gather and/or cultivate for food.

Darwin's name in the title isn't just there because the publisher thought it would boost the book's sales (a temptation many publishers don't resist). There are quite a few references to Darwin's various publications, noting from the start of the book that Darwin's concept, natural selection, is "the process that not only produced our food but also produced us. Our relationships with food demonstrate evolution in ourselves and in what we eat." (p. 3)

The origins of cooking, the processes by which a number of pre-human species developed methods of improving food and crops, and how cooked food changed early hominids is the concern of one early chapter in the book. I was familiar with some of the details Silvertown presents, because of Richard Wrangham's important book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009). The evolution of cooking and its effect on humans took place mainly before humans migrated out of Africa.

In the second chapter, I found material that I haven't read in other books. Silvertown continues his prehistoric coverage by tracing a migration that began around 72,000 years ago. Humans slowly proceeded from the horn of Africa along the south-west coast of the Arabian peninsula, around the coast of Southeast Asia, up the coast of China, across the Bering Strait, and down the West Coast of the Americas until humans reached Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego approximately 10,000 years ago. Generation by generation, what did they eat? Shellfish, especially mussels: "a food almost as timeless as mother's milk." (p. 29) Silvertown describes the mountains of seashells along the route of human migration, eventually quoting Darwin's description of the Tierra del Fuego natives whom he encountered when the Beagle visited there in 1832: "Whenever it is low water, winter of summer, night or day, they must rise to pick shellfish from the rocks." (p. 34) Of course I enjoyed this observation as I was recently in Tierra del Fuego -- though very sadly, the natives Darwin met were the victims of genocide by settlers later in the 19th century, and none of them are still present.

Throughout the book, Silvertown emphasizes not just what is known, but how scientists know it. For example, the history of grain and bread is reflected in a number of Egyptian tombs, in Mesopotamian clay tablets recording a large number of types of bread and flour and cooking techniques, and other evidence from archaeological sites. He also explains why agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent (the modern Middle East): the region was particularly good for the development of so many cultivated crops because its annually varying climate fosters annual plants which set abundant, large seeds at a particular time, and these plants, because of their adaptation to the varying climate, are relatively easy to change by artificial selection. 

Other scientific evidence of evolution in hominids and food species appears throughout the book. Silvertown explains how material left on human teeth found in ancient sites can show just what foods the teeth-owners were consuming, because the build-up of dental plaque can be analyzed by recently developed methods. In the chapter on wine, beer, and the processes of fermentation, Silvertown traces the evolution of the microbes that humans have domesticated in order to create alcoholic beverages and other fermented foods. He describes how naturally occurring toxins in herbs and vegetables evolved by co-evolution with animal and insect predators, and how these were tamed by human agricultural selection, by cooking, and by other food processing. There's also information about how early evolution enabled human sensory organs to detect poisons, and thus allowed us to consume -- and even to enjoy -- nutritious though poisonous plants. Many details about chemical receptors on the tongue, in the nasal apparatus, and elsewhere in the human body are very intriguing. The final chapter is a defense of GMO development, which the author sees as another extension of human ingenuity in evolving crop improvement.

Fascinating maps show the migrations and other information about human history. Here is an example:
Map from Dinner with Darwin, p. 10.
Ma means million of years ago.
Ka means thousands of years ago.
Unlike several of the authors I've recently read on food history and human evolution, Silvertown is a scientist, not a journalist -- he is a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Edinburgh. The science in the book is presented effectively for a non-technical reader, but the author does not talk down to the reader. I admire his approach to his topic: he finds out things by looking at scientific studies, not by interviewing people. I especially appreciate that he isn't a name-dropper! In sum, I found his book both entertaining and very enlightening.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The shortest day of the year

Helios, the sun god. We hope he'll come back soon.

"Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble, 85,8 x 86,3 cm. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany." -- Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds" by Oretta Zanini de Vita

"The region of Lazio is a mosaic invented on paper between 1860 and the 1930s," begins Ernesto di Reno in his introduction to Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita. "With the exception of the Rome metropolitan area, Lazio has always had a markedly rural identity." In this interesting book, the author presents a very complete history of the food of this once rather fragmented region near Rome, even including bits of information about the Etruscans, and lots about the ancient, medieval, and present Romans. Maureen B. Fant is credited as the translator, but she worked with the author to expand the original text, creating an English version that is a somewhat different book than that published in Italian.

Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds begins with a description of the region as it was in Roman times, and describes various local traditions and food ways. We learn about fishing in the Tiber River, about water mills in the river, and about the delivery of water for the city. Outside the urban area, sheep and shepherds were common from early times, along with many other types of agriculture. Separate traditional styles contributed to the cuisine of Rome such as the cuisine of Jews, who from antiquity lived in what became the Roman Ghetto; the cuisine served to the Pope and the large number of priests who lived and worked in the Papal court; and some of the separately-identified cuisines of surrounding localities. Obviously, all relied to a large extent on local produce, as well as imports from the Empire.

From the time of the ancient Romans, both land and water mills provided grain for wheat bread as we know it today, for flatbread made from barley, spelt or millet; and for pasta. Ready-made pasta in numerous shapes, according to the author, has been around "for centuries" but spread when industrial machines made it cheap to make. Pasta was consumed almost daily in soup. And pasta with pecorino cheese, fried pork fat, and perhaps garlic, onions, or herbs was common before tomato products became available towards the end of the 1700s.

I was fascinated about the water mills that supplied the grain for bread and pasta. In the dark ages, after the Goths besieged the city in 537, the water through the aqueducts was cut off:
"In addition to depriving  the people of water, that action brought a halt to all the city's mills. But General Belisarius, in charge of defending the city, had the brilliant idea of mounting mills between pairs of boats anchored to the banks of the Tiber, alongside the Tiber Island, where the current was fastest. For many centuries to come, mills on the Tiber were to be an integral part of the Roman landscape. They proliferated until, by the eighteenth century, they posed real impediments to river traffic, but they remained in use until the end of the nineteenth century.... 
"The mills were anchored to a masonry pylon attached to the riverbank. The pylon also served as a sort of escalator by which to reach the mill, and its resilience helped absorb the movements of the mill when the river was  high. The mill proper was contained in a wooden house atop a large boat anchored with ropes and chains. Between the large boat and the smaller one next to it were the wheels that propelled the mills by their movement in the water. ... It was not rare ... for the fury of the floodwaters to rip the fragile boats from their moorings..." (p. 19-20)
The author continues with details about the regulations applied to the mills and their owners, about the millers' guild established in 1496, and about the guild of the bakers, founded around the same time, who obtained their flour from the mills. Bread, of course, was one of the most important foods of the city throughout this time, with bread-based dishes that were then humble but as the author points out, are now trendy: examples are panzanella, pancotto, and "the now ubiquitous bruschetta." (p. 21)

The chapter on grain and milling is only one example of course, out of a vast wealth of fascinating detail in Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds. So many traditional ingredients --  why did I never realize that Romaine lettuce was from Rome? After around 100 pages of narrative the book continues with recipes. I don't think I will try these recipes, though I find them interesting to read. The reason is that the author and translator make it clear that local ingredients are essential, and often say that substituting other materials will mean that you aren't actually making this recipe.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Chefs Cook for the Neediest Community Members

Celebrity chefs currently and in the past have at times been interested not only in producing food for wealthy diners, but also in addressing social problems with hunger, malnutrition, and deprivation. Some raise money through charity galas; a few have rolled up their sleeves and actually tried to produce appealing meals for the needy. Running such a program involves different skills than running a high-end restaurant, and some of their efforts have been more successful than others. My knowledge of such endeavors comes from Food Gatherers, a centralized organization for collecting and distributing food to the hungry. They run a community kitchen to prep food for distribution and to serve meals directly to hungry people. (Photo of workers in the kitchen at right, from Food Gatherers' website). Learning about local issues has made me aware of what's involved when anyone, celebrity or not, tries to run such a program.

I found several very interesting instances of celebrity chefs who have worked on such programs. It's surprising how much the programs vary with the individual chefs.

Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer is considered one of the earliest celebrity chefs. Soyer, who lived from 1810-1858, is best remembered for his flamboyant cuisine at the Reform Club in London, where his kitchen full of novel inventions was as famous as his creative dishes such as his Reform Club Lamb Cutlets. I'm thinking about him because
Soyer's Irish Soup Kitchen
from The Cork Examiner, February 26, 1847. (source)
my culinary reading group is currently reading a fictitious detective story, The Devil's Feast by M. J. Carter, which is set in the Reform Club (which I reviewed here). This novel includes quite a bit of background about Soyer and his accomplishments including his commitment to develop new ways to feed impoverished workers, specifically, the silk workers who had recently become unemployed. He set up a soup kitchen to provide them with a nourishing soup of his invention, and also wrote pamphlets about the theory of how to feed the hungry.

Looking for more about Soyer's charitable efforts, I found an an article in the Irish Times with a summary of his role in trying to feed the desperate famine victims in Ireland:
"The Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 called for food to be distributed under Sir Robert Peel’s Relief Commission. But with British taxpayers unwilling to pay for Irish needs, the government was overly dependent on private benevolence. Quaker soup kitchens were rarely productive or efficient enough. But Soyer believed he had devised a palatable soup that was easy to prepare, 'of trifling expense' and, if properly administered, capable of helping to arrest the crisis.  
"The key word was 'palatable' – the poor were believed to have simpler alimentary needs than the rich – so the soup required only a leg of meat, dripping, flour, root vegetables, pearl barley and fresh herbs to revitalise. Soyer published his “receipts”, meticulously calculating the price of each ingredient and the measurement needed to minimise waste: 100 tons, he promised with bravura, could be made for just £1." (source)
Soyer's efforts to raise money and create feeding programs for the Irish had mixed success. His recipe for economical soup didn't in fact provide enough calories, and Irish newspapers of the time objected to his over-the-top personal style.

José Andrés

José Andrés cooking in Puerto Rico (New York Times article)
José Andrés, founder of many innovative restaurants in the US, perfectly fits the definition of celebrity chef today -- he received two Michelin stars in the 2016 guide to Washington, D.C., for one of these restaurants along with high praise for Zaytinya, China Chilcano, Jaleo, and Oyamel. Andrés has recently been in the news for his efforts to feed the victims of last summer's hurricane in Puerto Rico; earlier, he created a program to help victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The New York Times, in an article published October 30, 2017, described his efforts:
"Since he hit the ground five days after the hurricane devastated this island of 3.4 million on Sept. 20, he has built a network of kitchens, supply chains and delivery services that as of Monday had served more than 2.2 million warm meals and sandwiches. No other single agency — not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army nor any government entity — has fed more people freshly cooked food since the hurricane, or done it in such a nurturing way. 
"Mr. Andrés’s effort, by all accounts the largest emergency feeding program ever set up by a group of chefs, has started winding down. But it illustrates in dramatic fashion the rise of chefs as valuable players in a realm traditionally left to more-established aid organizations. 
"With an ability to network quickly, organize kitchens in difficult circumstances and marshal raw ingredients and equipment, chef-led groups are creating a model for a more agile, local response to catastrophes." (source)

Narayanan Krishnan

Narayanan Krishnan (From HuffPost)
In India in 2002, Narayanan Krishnan was a rising hotel chef, but left his celebrity job to found a charity, the Akshaya Trust, for feeding and housing the poorest people of the south Indian city of Madurai. In 2010, he was listed as one of CNN's heroes of the year.

Unlike the other chefs I've read about, Krishnan entirely left his celebrity life behind. All his efforts are dedicated to housing, feeding, and trying to bring dignity to the lives of homeless and often mentally ill people -- even cutting their hair.

The most recent article about him that I found was published in the Huffington Post in 2013: "Narayanan Krishnan: Chef Dedicates his Life to Help the Homeless in India." Even the charity's website has not been updated recently, so I don't have any recent information. Unfortunately, he was at one time accused of abuse in his home for poor people, but has been exonerated by an Indian court ruling.

From the HuffPost article:
"The Akshaya Trust is currently building a shelter home for the deserted and helpless and working towards providing medical and water facilities with the help of voluntary donations.  
"Krishnan's day begins early morning at 4 a.m. and finishes at 11p.m. He and his team cover nearly 125 miles in a donated van, routinely working in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Krishnan had approached a team of barbers to help give haircuts to the homeless, however they declined and he decided to take matters into his own hands. 'I decided to attend a hair cutting training school for six months and have done more than three to four thousand haircuts for people on the road.' Krishnan said."

Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura (right) greets diners in his Milan Reffettorio. (Guardian)
At the Milan food expo in 2015, several celebrity chefs were asked to produce a showy meal for homeless people. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena had three Michelin stars, was one of these chosen chefs. His vision for feeding refugees, victims of poverty, and other needy people has developed into a permanent organization, created with the cooperation of Pope Francis and others. His establishments are called Refettorios; besides Italy, one is in Rio and another is currently opening in London. An article, "Massimo Bottura and his global movement to feed the hungry" published in the Guardian in May, 2017, described his efforts.

Using ingredients donated by supermarkets, chefs in these kitchens for feeding poor people do very imaginative and delicious cooking to please their clients. An example from Milan: "aubergine and courgette with mozzarella and parmesan, a cannelloni (the chefs are just rolling the pasta), raspberry ice cream (from a mountain of glorious slightly overripe fruit that has just been delivered)." And: "He looks forward to the challenge of creating his British menus as much as anything, working with what comes through the door each day, spreading the Italian tradition of cucina povera, make do and blend. As we head back inside to prepare for that night’s service he is full of talk of a rice and pumpkin soup he created here recently, from the previous day’s risotto, with the addition of some ginger, the softened crust of parmesan and some leftover herbs."

Feeding the Hungry in My Own City

As the end of the year approaches, I am faced with decisions of how to donate money for many good causes, including feeding hungry people. Food Gatherers, the local organization that collects food and distributes it to a variety of social service organizations, is a very effective Ann Arbor organization, which I've written about several times. Several local organizations rely on volunteer cooks to prepare meals for homeless and underprivileged people; though we don't have any celebrity chefs, we do our best! I hope you will also find a good way to help people who are in need.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Topped with Cheese!

If this is too wordless for you, the photos show some cheese-topped foods that I've cooked recently: stuffed baked potatoes, cornbread (two views), and a frittata with two kinds of cheese. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Candies from Heaven"

Gil Hovav is famous in Israel for his TV and print journalism, especially his cooking shows. As I'm not a consumer of Israeli pop culture, I hadn't heard of him until I read the reviews of his newly-translated memoir, Candies from Heaven (published in English in October, 2017). My favorite review is in Tablet Magazine, here.

Each chapter tells a story about Hovav's childhood in Jerusalem. He completely captures the point of view of "Gili," his childish self. I enjoyed the colorful descriptions of his brother, his parents, his grandparents (living and not), aunts, uncles, cousins, and Aisha,  their "housekeeper," a woman who came from Morocco and always lived in the family apartment because she had never bothered with legal papers. Their conflicts and affections and his childish struggles with understanding them are beautifully described.

As in many families, food was important to Gili's relatives. There were pastries from France, quince candies, chicken soup, packed-lunch sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and many other foods. His aunts, and many others had their special dishes such as Aunt Levana's Carrot Salad or Moroccan Chicken in Paprika and Lemon. I appreciate the simplicity of most of the recipes that follow each chapter -- they actually seem to be real renditions of the foods that were eaten in the chapters.

But Gili's mother was so terrible at cooking that on her one effort to make a Sabbath roast, she messed up so completely that she had her sons take it to a garbage can somewhere and corroborate her story that the dog had eaten it. His father was sometimes so hungry for meat that he would eat the chicken necks that were supposed to be the dog's actual dinner.

Candies from Heaven
is beautifully and amusingly illustrated.
Above all, his grandmother, called Mooma, had recipes. I especially liked the chapter titled "A Morning of Laughing Bourekas" --
"Every Thursday, Mooma made about one hundred bourekas with three different fillings: eggplant, spinach and cheese. Despite the respectable quantity, only about fifty bourekas would survive until Saturday night, when the ancient gang of Ladino speakers – we called them the Sephardi Underground – would convene. The bourekas were actually meant for them, and if there weren’t enough – it would mean big trouble." -- Candies from Heaven, Kindle Locations 3124-3127). 
Of course the small child Gili gets in trouble for his fascination with the bourekas -- he becomes ambitious and tries to shape, fill, and bake them while his grandmother is letting the dough rest. They open up in the oven, instead of staying sealed. And Mooma forgives him and says his ill-formed pastries are smiling at him, not mocking him with laughter.

Hovav's mother had an expression: "I don't envy you." This was a threat -- it always followed something he was about to do but she was warning him not to. I enjoyed the humor in this repeated theme. A few of them:
"Now I would like all of you to be quiet. I’m tired, I took two sleeping pills and want to get a good sleep. If anyone bothers me one more time ... I don’t envy either of you, do you hear me? Quiet, hush!" -- Candies from Heaven, Kindle Locations 929-931.
“Either you get back here this very minute or I don’t envy you. For God’s sake, there’s a policeman here, don’t you see?! He’ll shoot you!” -- Kindle Locations 2854-2856.
"'Stand straight, Moshe, stand straight!' my mother instructed, holding a lit candle. 'Don’t do anything foolish. If you pull your back out again, I don’t envy you. You’ll have to find someone else to feed you and bathe you and serve you for two weeks while you lie in bed and read newspapers.'" -- Kindle Locations 1407-1409.
Gili even picks up this expression when threatening to tattle on his older brother:
"I’ll write in my diary that you refuse to take me, and then Mom will find the diary in its hiding place and read it, and then Mom won’t envy you.” -- Kindle Locations 1110-1111.
I enjoyed reading Candies from Heaven. Almost every major Israeli immigrant group seems to have been part of Hovav's family. His father was from a Yemenite neighborhood. His grandfather was the ultimate Yiddish-speaking Jew, namely Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who created the modern Hebrew language and convinced the settlers around 100 years ago to adopt it -- not Yiddish -- as the language of the newly emerging nation. Collateral relatives came from France, from Sephardic areas like Morocco, from the German Jewish immigrant community, and so on. Because the point of view in the stories is always in the eyes of Gili, the child of six to nine years old, this multi-ethnic environment is taken as normal, not over-hyped.

Hovav manages to make all kinds of things seem totally natural, not forced or literary. Is this for real?  Or is it sort of a work of fiction? That's not an important issue: it's a book that really reads naturally, with lots of very nice food memories, family stories, family rivalries, and all around warmth.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bagels, Lox, Corned Beef, Challah, Rye Bread: What is Jewish food?

"English... has been using [the word] schmaltz for at least eighty years in a sense undreamed of in Yiddish. The earliest metaphorical use given by the OED is from a 1935 article in Vanity Fair that describes schmaltz as 'a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.' ... Schmaltz was the rendered essence of square, and soon came to be applied to any artistic production, musical or not, that was overly sentimental, excessively sweet, and never, ever subtle. If the emotion in sentimentality is unearned, that in schmaltz is indigestible."--(Michael Wex, Rhapsody in Schmaltz, pp 87-88)

Schmaltzy in English today has become a synonym for corny, often applied to bad jokes. Excessively shmaltzy comedy routines and self-conscious, too ethnic, Jewish comedians aren't as popular as they used to be 50 or 60 years ago. The word schmaltz makes me think of cheap jokes that bring up Jewish stereotypes -- old stereotypes that don't even particularly apply to the current generation.

Michael Wex's book Rhapsody in Schmaltz is full of this unfortunate type of humor, often very out of date, so I don't know what younger readers would make of it. I find it hard to believe that the book was just published last year (2016)!  Here's a sample corny sentence: "Goose fat is generally thought of as the tastier, more full-bodied schmaltz, the Jayne Mansfield of kosher cooking, as compared with the Audrey Hepburn that is chicken schmaltz." (p. 79).

Wex also includes quite a few colorful Yiddish sayings that incorporate specific foods into insults, character judgements, or generic folk wisdom. For example, "to fall into a schmaltz mine" in Yiddish means either "to strike it rich" or or "to stumble into an unexpected stroke of good luck: 'I was looking for Archie comics at the swap meet and found a Gutenberg Bible for fifty cents— bin ikh arayngefaln in shmalts-gribl, I fell into the mother lode of chicken fat.' Ironically, someone who does so is often described as having treyfene mazl, unkosher luck, the Yiddish version of 'the luck of the Irish.'" (p. 87). Or this: "'kugel with lard'— kugl mit khazer-shmalts— is used in Yiddish to describe un-Jewish ideas that have been given a superficial coat of Jewishness. ... if Jewish liberals still spoke Yiddish, they’d be using it on Jewish Republicans who use their religious background to justify their social and political ideas." (p. 137).

Rhapsody in Schmaltz also includes some reasonably decent historic discussions about Jewish food in Eastern Europe -- my reason for reading the book was that I expected some real history. Along with the schmaltzy jokes, the history is there; though the long digressions about the Biblical basis of some food customs are a bit tedious, as are explanations of the blessings that religious Jews said over various types of food, and how that affected their attitudes towards the food. Wex says that Sabbath foods are the mainstay of Jewish cuisine, so he spends a large amount of time describing them and how they came to be eaten on this weekly Jewish special day.

My favorite element of the book is the way it explains how some seemingly Jewish foods of great historic longevity are of very recent adoption. Potatoes -- the food my father most remembered from his childhood in the shtetl -- came into Jewish life around 1800 or 1850 when they became staples in Eastern Europe. "Czar Nicholas I, more mindful of the potato’s superior yield and short growing season than of the recent disaster in Ireland, introduced its mass cultivation to his empire and transformed the East European diet." (p. 116). Other foods, like corned beef, unknown in Europe, were bound up with the history of delicatessens in American cities like New York and Montreal.

Wex also covers foods that have been in Jewish life for centuries. For example, "Noodles— specifically egg noodles— are among the oldest Ashkenazi dishes and have occupied a prominent place in Ashkenazi cookery since at least the eleventh century, when they were mentioned under the name frimsls in the High Holiday prayer book of Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry, who died in 1105." (p. 127).

Rhaposdy in Schmaltz explains the role in Jewish life of a huge number of foods. A few of the most entertaining or instructional topics:
  • Bagels, lox, and cream cheese, now completely incorporated into American food ways, used to be a breakfast treat only for Jews and maybe other patrons of Jewish food establishments. Bagels originated in the Yiddish-speaking areas of Eastern Europe. Christian inhabitants of this area also baked and enjoyed bagels, but didn't come to America and start bakeries and delis. Cream cheese, on the other hand, is "a purely American product, invented in upstate New York in 1872." (p. 229).  And lox is somewhere in between, having become associated with bagels late in its history and mainly in New York and other Jewish cities.
  • Corned beef, pastrami, and rye bread, which also started as Jewish deli menu items, are now widely popular in the US. I was most interested to learn from Wex that pastrami and corned beef were strictly American developments in Jewish gastronomy, not at all from Yiddish cuisine. Rye bread in Eastern Europe, he explains, was far different from the product of American Jewish bakeries. "Delicatessen as we know it," he writes in his corny way,  is "the food that kills those who love it best." And an "American variation on a few themes with roots in Europe." (p. 251). 
  • Chicken soup and gefilte fish became stereotyped Jewish foods in the US, though not without a reason. While chicken soup is cooked and enjoyed anywhere that there are chickens (which means everywhere), gefilte fish, Wex explained, was truly a Jewish invention for complicated reasons involving requirements and restrictions on foods eaten for the Sabbath. He also rants and rages because he hates gefilte fish from a jar, which is the only kind most ordinary Jews now less than 85 years old have ever really eaten. I think he missed some of the details of gefilte fish history, which I wrote about in a blog post some time ago here.
  • Cholent and goose were also Sabbath and holiday foods in the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe. Goose, obviously, was the bird Jews ate (and used as a source of schmaltz) before they switched to mainly chicken and sometimes turkey. Cholent, the slow-cooked Sabbath stew, is explained in great detail, for the benefit of his readers who may never have seen it. "Second only to matzoh in antiquity, cholent is the only other Jewish food that might have originated with the Jews themselves," writes Wex (p. 108). The discussion of cholent and its close relatives kugel, kishka, "the stuffed neck of poultry known as a heldzl," calf’s-foot jelly, and the fruit or vegetable stew known as tsimmes all, according to Wex, were close associates of cholent. 
  • Kugel is a noodle pudding or potato casserole with traditional ingredients. "Even non-Jews considered kugel the Jewish food par excellence," Wex writes. "In 1728, Jesuits in Vilna threatened to excommunicate Catholics who ate 'Jewish kugel and other Jewish dishes.'"(p. 132). Like cholent, kugel could also be slow-cooked to allow a hot meal to be served on fire-prohibited holidays and Sabbath. Unlike cholent, kugel has taken on a life of its own in modern America. In my opinion, Wex missed some details about kugel and its Americanization.  I wrote about it a couple of years ago in this blog post. 
  • Challah is the Sabbath bread which seems to be a permanent forever fixture of Jewish Sabbath celebration. In fact, bread was part of the Sabbath ritual from early times, but the specific braided bread made with egg and oil came into Jewish life only around 500 years ago, "adapted from German breads baked for special occasions, especially Sundays." (p. 154).
  • Matzohs and matzoh balls, says Wex, owe a lot to the American entrepreneurs who developed mass-market packaged versions of these and many other Passover foods. He writes of "the matzoh ball, which began as the food of dreams ... only to end in the depressing ubiquity that has made it the main ingredient of too many lousy jokes." (p. 97). 
  • Carrots -- "Whether anchoring a tsimmes, floating in chicken soup, or crowning a piece of gefilte fish, the carrot is among the preeminent Yiddish vegetables, in part because its Yiddish plural form, mern, is identical to the Yiddish verb that means 'to increase.' Along with apples and honey and various other foods, it is eaten on the night of Rosh Hashana as part of a tasting ritual that presents our hopes for the new year in edible forms. ... Carrots are eaten to go along with a supplication that our merits might increase." (pp. 143-144). 
My overall impression is that Wex's book is flawed in its style, but contains lots of good information. I was familiar with quite a bit of the historical material, as I'm really very interested in Jewish food history. There are better sources for some of the specific materials, but he put it together in an effective way. Here to end is Wex's description of some of the best-known Jewish foods in America, illustrating again how he can be both corny and informative at the same time:
"If rugelach and chala have become moderately well known outside of the Jewish community, the bagel has managed the near unimaginable feat of actually becoming American, despite the fact that unless it’s come hot from the oven, this 'unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis,' as it has too often been called, has half the shelf life of a fruit fly, a best-before-date of fifteen minutes prior to purchase. More than any other food discussed in this book, the bagel has been the focus of a great deal of talk about authenticity: Can bagels be frozen without losing their character? Are blueberry or cinnamon-raisin swirl acceptable bagel flavors? Are flavors acceptable at all, and if so, why stop with onion and garlic? Are sesame seeds better than poppy seeds, or should a proper bagel be seedless?" (p. 223)

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Invention of the Cherry Tomato

For a long time, I have accepted the widely publicized "fact" that Israeli scientists invented the cherry tomato. In today's Ha'aretz newspaper from Israel I read that I've been misled. The Israelis didn't invent the cherry tomato -- it's been around for centuries. Claims about its Israeli origin were amplified for propaganda reasons. The bottom line:
"The truth is that Israeli researchers developed modern varieties of the cherry tomato, which has become a commercial product found all over the world, mainly thanks to its long shelf life. Until the 1980s miniature tomatoes were a marginal crop used in dishes mainly as decoration."
Here are links to articles that explain what's real and how the exaggerated claim was propagated:
Caesar salad at an Israeli restaurant: with cherry tomatoes.
I was interested to read these two articles putting things in perspective, and exploring the topic of Israeli self-promotion.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

"Tasty" by John McQuaid: A very satisfactory book!

A few things I learned from Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid (published 2015) --
  • The history of humans cultivating sugarcane -- "the world's primary source of refined sugar for thousands of years" -- began around 6000 BC in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. Extracting sugar from sugarcane required much cooperation from groups of humans. By 2500 years ago, sugar refining in India was becoming "an industrial art," and several forms of candy and sweetener were popular. I was especially fascinated by a myth about the Buddha being given sugar by a group of passing merchants, "a few weeks after his enlightenment." Enlightenment led to rejection of human cravings, and "thanks to his enlightened state, Siddhartha apparently ate the sweet treat with no trace of these cravings [for food, sex, money, and success], just simple enjoyment." (p. 110-111)
  • Perception of hot tastes, especially capsicum chiles, involves a mysterious combination of pain and relief from pain leading to pleasure. The neuroscience of how people react to chilis, especially incredibly hot ones, is described along with the efforts of chili growers to develop the world's hottest chili pepper. The history given here of the century-long scientific effort to understand how tasting chilis work is really amazing, and although I've read about it before, like many chapters in the book it put information together in a most enlightening way. And, we learn: eating chilis might make one live a longer, healthier life. 
  • The famous "map" of tastes on the tongue is entirely false. All taste buds have receptors for the five basic tastes -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. And maybe for fat and starch as well. The often-invoked theory that different regions of the tongue had receptors for different flavors was an error that unfortunately became widely accepted and repeated. The exact way that taste receptors work and their genetic basis is still being discovered.
  • Archaeologists at work at Gesher ben Ya'aquov --
    image from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
    The earliest known kitchen dates from roughly 780,000 years ago. At Gesher ben Ya'aqov in the North of Israel archaeologists found that cave dwellers -- either homo sapiens or a pre-human species -- were cooking grains, acorns, other seeds, olives, fish, deer, elephants, and other foods. "Fire was only the most potent of a whole suite of tools used in food preparation: these early humans had a kitchen. One area was devoted to gutting fish. A space used for processing nuts had hammer-stones and pitted anvils that had been used as bases for smashing the shells of acorns before roasting them." (p. 33)
  • Coffee combines a variety of bitter flavors, brought out by the exact method of selecting beans, roasting them, and extracting the flavors with high-pressure almost-boiling water from an espresso machine. You can separate a shot of espresso into three parts, which separately taste bad but together taste good, at least to coffee lovers! The chapter about bitter tastes, including coffee, explains how people's reaction to bitter flavors -- in coffee or anything else -- is complicated, involving genes, early experiences with food, cultural norms, and more. 
  • Darwin described facial expressions for human reactions (name them) in a way that still has validity. Study of these, especially the "disgust" reaction offers insight into many food-related studies, reinforcing the idea that many human expressions are fairly consistent across ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds.
In reading about the senses of smell and taste, I've become very interested in topics covered by this book, such as neuro-gastronomy and related ways of describing human anatomy, perception, etc. But each book I have read recently has been more or less like the ones before. McQuaid's Tasty is different! I felt that I was learning something new on every page.

Rather than a more usual review, I thought I would just summarize the above interesting things I learned while reading. The book is full of fascinating topics; among them: fermentation and its role in food preparation; global warming and how it will change wine production; ways that the brain perceives tastes, and many more. The organization of the book is in fact very clear and coherent, and this isn't meant to be a summary!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Two Lives: Alice Waters, Julia Child

Alice Waters and Julia Child were absolutely essential in creating American views of food in the twentieth century. Waters' memoir Coming to My Senses, published earlier this fall, describes her life from childhood through the opening of her restaurant Chez Panisse.  While Alice Waters' entire reputation is inseparable from her life in Berkeley, California, she actually grew up in New Jersey and Indiana (near Chicago); her family moved to Los Angeles in time for her last year of high school, and she enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, after a brief time at UC Santa Barbara. She spent time in France and in England as well: I enjoyed her narration of her adventures there.

Alice Waters was born in 1944. Her early life, as she presents it, was typical of middle class Americans of the fifties and sixties, and then she was nurtured in the very radical climate of Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement, the hippies and beatniks of San Francisco, and the heated political atmosphere of protest and opposition to the Viet Nam war. She worked for the election of Bob Sheer to congress, a radical anti-war candidate. (He lost.)

However, she writes:
"Even though I shared a lot of counterculture values, I never connected with the hippie culture of the late 1960s, no question about it. The food in particular. I didn't really have friends who were hippies either -- except maybe my sisters Laura and Susan -- because I was seeking out people who thought about food and culture in a different way. I didn't want anything to do with the hippies' style of health food cooking: a jumble of chopped vegetables tossed together with pasta -- throw in a few bamboo shoots, and call it a Chinese meal. To me, that world was all about stale, dry brown bread and an indiscriminate way of eating cross-legged on couches or on the ground with none of the formality of the table. There was an aesthetic demarcation between the hippies and me, certainly as far as the food was concerned; I thought their approach was absolutely uncivilized, unrefined." (p. 148)
David Goines: Chez Panisse Poster.
Coming to My Senses is a very enjoyable book to read. I particularly admired the way that throughout the narrative of her early life, she is able to jump forward with little observations about how her early experiences influenced her mature life. Very coherently she relates how specific things -- her mother's views, her family's food ways, her educational background... -- informed her accomplishments at Chez Panisse and her still later development as a leader in American cuisine. She has a very broad appreciation of the cultural environment in which she created, and of the reason why the world was ready for her.

Alice Waters also documents her many relationships with a variety of people, some famous, some not-so-famous. These memories are very readable and interesting; for example, her long affair with David Goines, the graphic artist, who provided the art work that is in my mind fused to the era and to my own mental image of Chez Panisse. (I did eat there once in the 1980s, and enjoyed it, though I don't recall the exact menu.)

Importantly, Alice Waters acknowledges how important Julia Child's influence had been on American food views: Chez Panisse presented French cooking in a very novel way, and developed many American twists on the French classics, but American diners in Berkeley were ready for this, according to Alice, because: Julia Child.

As it happens, I also recently read a biography of Julia Child, specifically, a quite old biography, Appetite for Life, by Noël Riley Fitch (published 1997).While Waters is inseparable from California though she grew up in the East, Julia Child, whose reputation is inseparable from Boston and the East, in fact grew up in California. Her early years were spent in Pasadena, where her family lived in a mansion among the wealthiest residents; she attended high school at a boarding school in Marin County, and then went to Smith College. So just the opposite of Alice Waters, in a way.

I enjoyed learning about Julia Child's early life and the whole atmosphere of her California girlhood. She was born in 1912 -- a few years before Alice Waters' mother was born (1916). Appetite for Life is not nearly as successful a book as Coming to My Senses or as Julia Child's own memoir, My Life in France, which I read a few years ago. After Fitch's interesting discussion of Julia Child's family and early life, she tediously presented far too much detail about Julia Child's return to California, early job experiences; her World War II job in China, where she met her husband Paul Child, and so on. Fitch describes the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the development of the French Chef TV shows, and Julia Child's later experiences with great fame and success -- all in way too much detail. Just because Julia Child allowed Fitch access to all the letters, personal notes, professional records, and other closely held materials in her possession, Fitch seemed to think she had to relate every happening, no matter how repetitive. I kept reading until the end, but I'm not sure why. It was more than I wanted to learn.