Monday, April 30, 2018

Reading "Grocery" in My Kitchen

American food, as explained by Michael Ruhlman's book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, makes a very readable and relatable story. (In an earlier post I reviewed this book -- link). Inspired by Ruhlman, I'm going to explore the foods in my own kitchen and how I'm affected by the grocery store options that surround me. Ruhlman says that currently shoppers go to a number of stores, while in the past, most households had one main supermarket where they bought almost everything. At least some shoppers, he says, are much more conscious of where food comes from, how it was raised, and what health benefits it might confer. And grocery store owners, he points out, are very aware of how quickly they have to change as consumer demand changes. I think my experience as a shopper reflects these trends.

To check what drives my purchasing, I'm taking an informal inventory of how I cooked and what ingredients I've had on hand this month. I'm thinking about staple products that I always buy, where they were grown and processed, and which stores they came from, and what's in season. Of course winter isn't quite over here in Michigan -- our last snowfall was less than two weeks ago, so nothing is actually growing right now except in hoop houses!

Now for some details of what I cooked and where I bought the ingredients:

Curried chicken and vegetables. Ingredients: butternut squash from Argus Farm Market,
chicken breasts from Whole Foods (bought as 3 single-pound packages, stored in freezer),
a can of coconut milk from Trader Joe's, other vegetables.
Salmon patties made with frozen salmon from Trader Joe's,
onion from Argus, celery from Whole Foods, eggs, panko
bread crumbs, and spices. Served with hoop house lettuce
from Argus, cucumbers, and lemon from TJ's.
Other food in the freezer besides chicken and salmon includes:
  • Ground lamb from Argus (local producer: Ernst Farms).
  • New Zealand lamb chops from Costco.
  • Ice Cream from Target and TJ's.
  • Bread from Zingerman's Bakehouse.
  • A box of beef ragout that I made a few months ago for later use. Leftovers are always with us, including little boxes and glass dishes in the fridge.
Pantry and fridge ingredients for cornbread: corn meal, baking powder,
flour, butter, egg, sugar. I usually have all of these on hand all the time.
I buy them at any supermarket where I happen to be when I need them.
Using an LA Times recipe, I tried a new sort of cornbread, topped with brûlée sugar.
Interesting recipe: my usual cornbread includes hot peppers while this is a dessert.
A few more items that I almost always have in my pantry:
  • Cereal, cookies, and crackers mostly from Costco, TJ, Target. Not so healthy, but we still eat these items often. Cereal is only the second-most unhealthy food we use. (I think the worst is Diet Coke usually from Costco).
  • Dried fruit. I made some into fruit salad with tangerines to go with the cornbread. I use dried fruit for lots of other dishes as well. Costco sells only impossibly huge quantities of dried fruit so mine comes from TJ and Whole Foods.
  • Nature Valley Granola bars from Walgreen's -- not even a food store, but they always have the best sales!
Pantry and produce items going into a salad: tuna, white beans, olive oil,
vinegar, Campari tomatoes, parsley, celery, lettuce, bell pepper, zatar.
Tuna and white bean salad. With variations, I can almost always make this.
Besides fresh parsley (from TJ's), I used zatar, a Middle-Eastern spice blend which I brought back from Israel last month. Local summer tomatoes and peppers would of course be preferable for any salad -- if they were in season. I also recently made shakshouka, an Israeli dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, for which I used the Israeli spice blend, Hawaij, another spice from my trip. My spice shelf is incredible if I do say so myself!

Ingredients for shakshouka: canned tomatoes, spices, garlic, bell pepper, eggs.
Produce that I have on hand now:
  • Hoop house lettuce and carrots from Argus.
  • Cabbage & celery from Whole Foods. 
  • Campari tomatoes -- my favorite for this time of year. They are small, but bigger than cherry tomatoes, and have a bit more flavor than other winter tomatoes. The same brand -- usually grown in Mexico -- is sold at TJs, Whole Foods, Target, and Costco. Prices and quantities vary!
  • Grapefruit, apples, lemons, bell peppers, & tangerines mostly from TJs and Whole Foods.
Finally, the refrigerator always has orange juice, milk, Diet Coke, eggs, jam, mayonnaise, catsup, mustard, peanut butter, butter, yogurt, industrial and artisanal cheeses, deli meat for sandwiches, and a large variety of other condiments and sauces for Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, American, and other dishes. Just as Ruhlman suggests about my fellow American cooks, I'm brand-conscious on some products and price-conscious on others. Of course, he also discusses the other Americans who aren't cooks, and who shop quite differently.

From the Argus Farm Stop Website.
Ruhlman believes consumers today utilize a number of markets: I think I exceed the number frequented by his typical American. I shop, as my photos and lists indicate, at several different types of food stores which are very conveniently located in my area. Big national chains where I shop include Costco (3.5 miles from my house), Trader Joe's (1 mile), Whole Foods (1.7 miles), Kroger (2.3 miles), and Target (3.6 miles). The Argus Farm Stop (half a mile from my house) is an innovative consignment shop where local farmers and small-scale processors bring products including meat and produce, locally fresh-ground coffee, honey, maple sugar, jams, eggs, dairy products, and various other foods. Zingerman's Bakehouse (located fairly close to Costco) is a local source of very good bread. There's another locally-owned specialty market nearby called The Produce Station where I shop less often. There are no local chain supermarkets here like the family-owned Cleveland chain Ruhlman describes: the last one sold out to Kroger a few years ago.

What's missing in my kitchen that Ruhlman finds most popular with shoppers today? That would be food from the ready-to-eat food counters at Whole Foods, the pre-made foods in Trader Joe's freezer and refrigerator cases, the ready-to-eat foods in almost every food department of Costco, and many types of takeout food. I rarely use these products except when I'm in a temporary vacation rental without a fully stocked kitchen. (I've had more Costco rotisserie chickens in Hawaii than at home.) I'm really not with the times in this respect.

The fact of the matter is that I do look carefully at the things in the deli and the hot food counters at Whole Foods and on the tasting tables at Costco. However, I use these sights and samples as hints for dishes I could cook. I've been doing this for a long time as the Paris Charcutiers offered very similar ready meals during my various long visits there. After purchasing these very appetizing treats, I realized that duplicating a beautiful salad or roast from these elegant counters was far cheaper and the results were often fresher. Same is true here and now!

I'll be sharing this post with a group of other bloggers who write about their kitchens and what they have that's new and different. You can find them all listed at a blogging event called "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by Sherry's Pickings. Check the list here to see inside the kitchens of bloggers on several continents!

Note: none of the markets or product brands I mentioned is sponsoring this post in any way. I never take any money or products or books for any mention on this blog! I respect bloggers who disclose economic connections when they have them, and I avoid blogs where I see obviously unacknowledged financial connections.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Grocery Stores

Recent reading: Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman. Much in it is familiar to habitual readers of food books (like me):
  • Ruhlman's analysis of processed food and what's in it that shouldn't be.
  • His tales of conflict between the profit-driven aspirations of big agriculture and the popular dreams of smaller, more sustainably grown meat and produce.
  • And his discussions of the constantly changing advice and research about what food is good for you. I like his observation on this: "There’s little disagreement that Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume." (p. 80). 
Familiar authors are his frequent sources: Michael Pollan, Marian Nestle, Mark Kurlansky, Eric Schlosser, Calvin Trillin, Richard Wrangham, John McPhee, Michael Moss, Dan Barber, and others -- authors whose books and articles I've read. He has predictable chapters with titles like "No Food is Healthy," "A Few of the Twenty Thousand New Products for Your Consideration," and "The Cooking Animal."

Besides the familiar, however, a lot of the material in the book is different from these previous writers' stories. Refreshingly, the center of his book is Cleveland, Ohio. I'm always annoyed at the New-York-centeredness of so many food books. This is midwestern!

One interesting point: in a medium-size midwestern city -- like Cleveland -- typical American transportation has had a big effect on how people shop:
"One of the under-recognized facts of American real estate development is how our modes of transportation are the fundamental determiners of the way we create our residential and commercial spaces. The advent of the streetcar... brought about the creation of America’s first suburbs— with sidewalks and shopping districts within walking distance.... Spaces that were developed after the automobile became a predominant feature of American life are far from city centers and spread out. It was the automobile, and highways, that led to suburban sprawl. .... 
"'From 1948 to 1963 large chains increased their share of the nation’s grocery business from 35 percent to almost half,' writes Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty. 'As early as 1956, the independent corner grocery store, while still visible, was a relic of the past.'" (pp. 51-52). 
Ruhlman presents his analysis of the grocery business through the experience of one family-owned grocery chain in Cleveland, along with his own memories of how his family shopped for food. Its current owners, the Heinen brothers are his main subject. Grocery also sketches the family background of the buisness -- the Heinens' grandfather and father expanded from a small butcher shop to a small market to a chain of supermarkets. A more general outline of the American retail food business supports the history of the Heinens' stores beginning with A&P and a few other 19th century institutions, and continuing up to recent changes in supply and demand for organic produce, natural meat, and similar goods.

While describing the grocery business from the inside, Ruhlman traveled with the Heinen brothers and some of their employees as they evaluated new trends and products at grocery trade shows. He accompanies them on visits to farms and ranches where owners are trying to return to traditional agricultural practices, and learns about the challenges of non-standard meat ranching. Also, Ruhlman discussed alternative health products with a doctor who advises the Heinens on the pills and supplements that they sell.

A happy memory!
In particular, I enjoyed the description of touring the small-scale cheese makers of Marin County, California, especially one that I remember visiting years ago: "Marin French Cheese, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating cheese maker in the country, dating to 1865." (p. 270). When I can find it, I love their Camembert, called "Rouge et Noir"!

Ruhlman gives a summary the economic challenges of the food industry in America in the context of this one local business. He describes the details of how they make money on each section of the store. I enjoyed learning about the issues that particularly concern the local, family-run business. Unfortunately I can't enjoy the results of such efforts: the family chain where I used to shop was sold to Kroger's several years ago, leaving my town, Ann Arbor, with only national chains.

Personal memories of Ruhlman's lifelong experiences grocery shopping -- much of it done at the Heinen family stores create a vivid background to his descriptions. His own grocery-shopping habits contrast with those of his father in the 1960s through the 1980s. His father loved grocery stores and did much of the shopping for his own family during this time. Among many big changes since then: many people now purchase food for their homes at many stores, and don't stay loyal to one main store as was his father's habit. As a result, owners must constantly find new products and presentations to keep customers coming back.

Like Ruhlman's father, my father did almost all of our family grocery shopping.
Here's a photo of him in 1963, taking bags of groceries out of our Rambler
station wagon. At that time, he was probably shopping at A&P.
In reading Grocery, I noticed a few annoying errors of fact, a few slips of editing -- like in the passage above, Ruhlman says the streetcars became important "in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century" (p. 51) when he clearly means a time much later when electric power had become available. Or he says "granola doesn’t need much (if any) fat"  (p. 81) which doesn't correspond to average granola nutrition facts: its fat calories go up to 50% of the total. Or he says inaccurately: "Whole Foods and the like had a wide range of organic foods (but you couldn’t find Cheerios there)" (p. 17) -- Whole Foods definitely sells Cheerios, which were made non-GMO in 2014 probably just so that Whole Foods would keep selling them.

But on the whole, I liked Ruhlman's book. Some of my favorite passages deal with the remarkably rapid changes in what shoppers want to get from their shopping and their willingness to shop around, as I mentioned. Constant reaction to change is required by his successful example, Heinen's, and other similar stores. Clearly, flexibility and innovation are required if a market is going to stay competitive in their very low-profit business. The Heinen brothers are aware of factors affecting the producers, not just the consumers -- presentation of these factors keeps Ruhlman's narrative interesting. For example when it comes to organic or naturally raised meat, one of their rancher-suppliers says of them:
"Heinen’s gets it. ...They take the majority of the animal, so we can do what we do and raise beef, and we’re not just pulling tenderloins out. They utilize different beef cuts and that helps make us sustainable. So when people talk about sustainability, it’s the chefs and the retail buyer just as much as it’s us on the ranch utilizing the compost." (pp. 190-191). 
Same point made by Dan Barber in The Third Plate, but more convincingly!

So many changes! For example, the implications of hydroponic growing of fruit and vegetables that can be hydroponically grown. Ruhlman lists:
"blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, huckleberries, green beans, tomatoes, coffee, grapes; vine vegetables such as squash, pumpkins, okra, cantaloupe, and watermelons; peanuts, beets, carrots, onions, potatoes; critical grain crops such as barley, corn, wheat, and rice; and of course dozens of leaf lettuces and even more herbs." (pp. 227-228).
Another big change: demand for ready-to-serve food. The grocery counters where people can buy food that requires no kitchen prep whatsoever are taking up more and more space in markets. From rotisserie chickens to pizza ovens to hot food that's equivalent to take-out from a restaurant, his example family chain and most other grocery stores keep developing recipes and specialties to keep their customers coming back. I was fascinated by the economic implications of selling prepared, ready-to-serve foods: according to the Heinlen brothers, it's impossible to actually make a profit on this department of the store, but it's absolutely necessary to have it!

Ruhlman's book also made me think about how fast the grocery business has been changing even since he published the book last year. Grocery appeared before merged with Whole Foods, so he obviously didn't discuss the implications of this merger, which more recent commentators have speculated about quite a lot, and before the meal kit fad which is now going into stores (see my recent post). Who knows what's next?

In a couple of days, I'll be posting a follow-up to this post with observations about food in my kitchen, and how the many issues Ruhlman mentions affect me directly.

Update, July 16, 2018: the follow-up post is Reading "Grocery" in My Kitchen. The Culinary History Reading Group chose Grocery as the July selection.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Meal Kits? Not for me, thanks.

The latest trend in how to buy groceries may be meal kits. As everyone knows, these boxes of pre-measured ingredients plus recipe, delivered by mail or UPS, allow you to cook without premeditation, but with quite a bit of expense and commitment. I've never tried them, and probably never will. I keep a very fully stocked pantry and can follow a recipe (and know many without looking), but the idea interests me anyway.

Many articles have indicated is that instead of being ordered and delivered, meal kits are coming soon to a market near you! Why? Because customers who try meal kit plans usually drop out quickly, so the various food-kit-providers need a new way to sell their product. As the Wall Street Journal says: "Blue Apron Holdings Inc. will try to give its struggling business a boost by selling meal kits in stores, acknowledging that its subscription-only model isn’t enough in an intensifying fight to fill people’s dinner plates." (link)

1944 Kraft Dinner Ad.
Curious about the trend I looked on, to see if their partnership with Whole Foods was trying to fill this niche. I found no Amazon or Whole Foods branded meal kits -- but I was incredibly amused to see a "sponsored" link to the good old days: it offered me Kraft Dinner Mac and Cheese. I guess that actually is a kind of meal kit: everything you need in one box.

This got me to thinking. Twentieth-century food manufacturers really offered lots of "meal kit" products that enabled quick preparations from packaged food and didn't require a fully stocked pantry. Some were complete, some required the addition of meat. (The same is true for some of the meal kits now offered on Amazon.)

For example, from a newsletter for the food industry, I read:
"Meal kits for years have been a way to quickly prepare a family meal. The first packaged meal kit was most likely Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, created in 1937. Hamburger Helper was introduced in 1971 in response to a meat shortage and escalating meat prices." (source)
Curiously, I looked for ads for familiar "meal kits" from the past.

OK, you had to add meat -- but here's a coupon
for seven cents off the price of Hamburger Helper.
Chun King Chop Suey "meal kit" of cans dates from 1940s.
This painfully racist ad for a chop suey kit from La Choy
dates from 1955. My mother was a customer: I remember the little bottles
of soy sauce that would stay in the refrigerator forever. (source)
1960s ad for Rice-a-Roni, invented in the 1950s.
What more can I say?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Last Chance Stuffed Dates with Ground Lamb

A split date stuffed with spiced ground lamb, garnished with parsley, lemon,
and toasted almonds. A creative Israeli recipe!
On our recent trip to Israel, we ate lunch one day near the Dead Sea at a restaurant called "The Last Chance." I ordered a very delicious dish which the menu called "Dates stuffed with meat, tahini, and silan." There was just a hint of tahini, and the ground meat spicing seemed vaguely North African (the restaurant's chef is of Tunisian background). Silan is honey made from dates -- in fact that's the honey that's meant in the Biblical verse about a land of "milk and honey."

When I got home, I searched and searched for a recipe for dates stuffed with meat, but found that dates are sometimes used to stuff lamb roasts; they are often stuffed with cheese or nuts; but the recipe I wanted just didn't show up in any of my cookbooks or web browsings. Finally, in a not-so-obvious page on the restaurant's website I found their actual recipe!

Stuffed date recipe from the restaurant website (link).
Making this recipe required that I do a bit of interpretation: for example, it's not clear about cooking the meat after you add it to the pan, and the spice quantities are pure guess-work. Nevertheless, I tried making the dish as best I could, and the results were satisfying. Adjustments:

  • I did not make an attempt to buy Silan, as it's hard to find. In any case, I thought it was a little too sweet for the meat dish as served in the restaurant. Using pomegranate molasses for garnish was enough sweetener.
  • Besides the spices called for in the recipe, I added a little of the Moroccan seasoning blend Ras el Hanout because I thought I had tasted some of those flavors. 
  • I used ground lamb from a local farm, but this would also work with ground beef.
Ingredients ready to prepare, cook, and assemble.
My serving platter, with the parsley, lemon, and a bit of tahini spread on the
surface as the recipe suggests, and as was done at the restaurant. Mint is
really not in season here so I sprinkled some dried mint on the tahini.
I made sure each date was set on the tahini.
Platter with the stuffed dates and recommended garnishes.

Saturday, April 21, 2018


Sorrel Leaves and Parsley.
Although we've had no nice weather for growing plants outdoors lately, some of the farmers who sell at Argus Farm Stop not far from our house have been growing nice green leaves in their hoop houses or otherwise under glass. Shopping there today I found some sorrel -- a delicious, sour leafy green that's common in parts of Europe but quite hard to find here. I made it into a puree with some parsley, olive oil, and a bit of garlic. All were briefly cooked so that the leafy parts were just wilted, and then pureed with the immersion blender.

Traditionally, sorrel is the main ingredient in the Eastern European soup called Schav, or Green Borscht. I don't recall ever tasting it in my childhood, probably because no sorrel was available: we just had spinach or beet borscht. Sorrel (oseille in French) is also an ingredient in the very famous dish "Saumon à l'oseille façon Troisgros" -- that is, salmon with sorrel puree in the style of the Troisgros brothers, who owned a famous restaurant in Roanne, France, and were pioneers of the Nouvelle Cuisine in the mid-twentieth century.

Our dinner tonight: pan-broiled steak, potatoes in olive oil dressing, and sorrel puree.
Sorrel is mentioned by a variety of French and Russian/Jewish authors -- and one Canadian -- that I've read, including Zola, who considered it a food for poor people. You can see all the times I've read about it or used it (including this one) by clicking here: .

Friday, April 20, 2018

Less is More: Funny in Love, Funny in Food too

Arthur Less, hero (or maybe antihero) of the novel Less, is suffering because he is about to turn 50, his lover is marrying another man, and his most recent novel has been rejected totally by his publisher. A few other things are also bothering him, like his sense of identity as a gay man, especially when one of his trusted confidents tells him he's "a bad gay." The friend elaborates: "It is our duty to show something beautiful from our world. The gay world. But in your books, you make the characters suffer without reward. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were Republican." (Kindle Locations 1717-1718).

To escape all these negatives, and avoid attending his lover's wedding, Less decides to go around the world, including stays in Mexico, Italy, Berlin, Paris, Morocco, India, and Japan. In each place, he's met by surprisingly ordinary people who want to show him around, to hear about his work, sometimes to fall in love with him, and sometimes to share rather varied and not-necessarily typical meals.

Here are a few passages about the exotic places Less visits, and the unexpected meals he eats (a topic I always check!). I think these illustrate the way author Andrew Seen Grer's novel makes this rather sad character believable. The first example: Arthur Less in Mexico:
"They are met by a woman in a long black dress patterned with hibiscus blossoms, their guide, who leads them to one of Mexico City’s markets,...Their guide stands before a table of candied fruits and asks if anyone has allergies or things they will not or cannot eat. Silence. Less wonders if he should mention make-believe foods like bugs and slimy Lovecraftian sea horrors, but she is already leading them between the stalls. Bitter chocolates wrapped in paper, piled in ziggurats ... alongside the butcher’s area of rabbits and baby goats still wearing their fluffy black-and-white “socks” to prove they are not cats, a long glass butcher’s case that for Arthur Less increases in horrors as he moves along it, such that it seems like a contest of will, one he is sure to fail, but luckily they turn down the fish aisle, where somehow his heart grows colder among the gray speckled bodies of octopuses coiled in ampersands, the unnamable orange fish with great staring eyes and sharp teeth, the beaked parrotfish whose flesh, Less is told, is blue and tastes of lobster... (Kindle Locations 664-674).
An airplane meal:
"Shades are being opened to let in the bright sun above the heavy clouds. ... Breakfast; they are about to descend into Frankfurt. And he has just taken a hypnotic. A tray is placed before him: a microwaved croissant with frozen butter and jam. A cup of coffee. Well, he will have to push through. Perhaps the coffee will counteract the sedative. You take an upper for a downer, right? This, Less thinks to himself as he tries to butter the bread with its companion chunk of ice, is how drug addicts think." (Kindle Locations 907-912)
Berlin, where he gives lectures in totally awful German (also a source of great amusement):
"Berlin is all around them, the Fernsehturm rising high in the east like the Times Square New Year’s ball, the lights of Charlottenburg Palace glowing faintly in the west, and all around the glorious junkyard of the city...The Currywurst stands where Turks sift sneezing powder onto fried hot dogs, the subterranean bakeries where the same hot dogs are baked into croissants, the raclette stands where Tyroleans scrape melting cheese onto the bread and ham, decorating it with pickles. The markets already setting up in local squares to sell cheap socks, stolen bicycles, and plastic lamps." (Kindle Locations 1476-1485).
Morocco where he travels with old friends and where his fiftieth birthday takes place:
  "Would you believe Morocco has a Swiss ski town? ... Less and Zohra are alone, seated in the dark scented bar of the alpine resort, in leather club chairs with glasses of local marc, below a crystal chandelier and before a crystal panorama. They have eaten pigeon pie. Mohammed sits at the bar, drinking an energy drink. Gone is his desert costume; he has changed back into a polo shirt and jeans." (Kindle Locations 2217-2230). 
Finally, Arthur Less makes it to Japan, where he has contracted to write reviews of several Kaiseki meals, which all turn out to have the same ingredients, "grilled and simmered and raw plates of butter bean, mugwort, and sea bream." (Kindle Locations 2946-2947). Mostly these highly traditional meals take place in buildings with varying states of charming disrepair; for example the last restaurant where he's trapped by an ancient door and has to break his way out: "The restaurant sits on a rock above the river and is very old and water stained in ways that would delight a painter and trouble a contractor." (Kindle Locations 3001-3002).

A Pulitzer prize for a comic novel is an unusual occurrence -- the last such winner may be from the 1980s. Less -- which won this year -- is indeed funny, as I tried to show with the food quotes.

"Finally, a comic novel gets a Pulitzer Prize. It’s about time." by Ron Charles in the Washington Post emphasized how rare it is for humor to win the Pulitzer fiction prize -- this article also inspired me to read the book. Charles wrote:
"I see you reaching back to the early 1980s for John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Alison Lurie’s “Foreign Affairs,” but their prizes only suggest the duration of this attitude: American critical opinion has been discounting comic novels for decades. (Toole committed suicide thinking his book would never be published.) We celebrate our stand-up comics, we adore our TV sitcoms, and we export our comic movies, but for some reason our funny novels must subsist on a diet of thin praise."
As I read Less, I enjoyed every page. None of the adventures of Less really meet the expectations he had for them, but all are laugh-aloud funny to read about. Finally, at a writers' retreat in India (which actually turns out to be a noisy Christian center), and at a resort where he then goes, he decides that his serious novel about the sorrows of an aging gay man named Swift is to be converted into comedy. His revisions are done this way:
"He simply takes a gloomy event in the plot— say, a market owner dying of cancer— and inverts it, having Swift, out of pity, accept seven fragrant rounds of cheese, which he will then have to carry around San Francisco, growing more rank, throughout the rest of the chapter. In the sordid scene in which Swift takes a bag of cocaine to the hotel bathroom, cutting out a line on the counter, Less merely adds a motion-activated hand dryer and— whirr! A blizzard of indignity! All it takes is a pail thrown out a window, an open manhole, a banana peel. 'Are we losers?' Swift asks of his lover at the end of their ruined vacation, and Less gleefully adds the response: 'Well, baby, we sure ain’t winners.' With a joy bordering on sadism, he degloves every humiliation to show its risible lining. What sport! If only one could do this with life!" (Kindle Locations 2614-2620).
And guess what -- as the reader could guess, that's what Greer did with the novel, says the WaPo article:
"Strangely enough, Greer began this comic masterpiece as a very serious novel about being gay and aging. 'But after a year, I just couldn’t do it,' he says from Italy, where he’s currently working. 'It sounds strange, but what I was writing about was so sad to me that I thought the only way to write about this is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion — closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.'"
I think that this novel is so funny because, obviously, the humor is self-deprecating, the novelist is making fun of himself and how he's too darn serious about living, aging, having aging friends, wanting to be famous -- there's even a meta-meta scene where a former lover of Less wins a Pulitzer prize -- how did he know?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday Word of the Day: Graupel

It's snowing again. The chives from last year have managed a timid reappearance in the pot where they were growing last year, only to be snowed on again. 

With temperatures just around freezing, we sometimes get unusual forms of snow and ice: for example, sometimes the snow forms small, soft pellets instead of normal flakes. A post from Downtown Home and Garden (an outdoor supply store here in Ann Arbor) noted that there's a name for this type of snow: graupel

There might be a few such snow pellets showing in the chive pot. Here's a closer look at some of these pellets on the ground and on our deck:

Graupel seems to fall just when it's around freezing. It often melts off quickly, though sometimes I've seen an accumulation of maybe as much as half-an-inch. An article in the Washington Post, titled "Graupel: The wintry precipitation you’ve never heard of"  says: "The National Weather Service defines graupel as small pellets of ice created when super-cooled water droplets coat, or rime, a snowflake. Graupel pellets are cloudy or white — not clear like sleet — and often are mistaken for small hail." 

The Post also included this table of names for various types of precipitation:

Pullum's Essay Collection
At this point, someone is surely going to mention that English may have several words for snow -- including the obscure graupel -- but the Eskimos have hundreds, if not thousands of words for snow because they know so much more about snow than we do: a myth that just won't die. Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has been trying to correct public misconceptions about this matter for years. In 1989 he wrote an essay titled "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" (available online here) which was later included in a collection of essays by the same name. He wrote:
"Never does a month (or in all probability a week) go by without yet another publication of the familiar claim about the wondrous richness of the Eskimo conceptual scheme: hundreds of words for different grades and types of snow, a lexicographical winter wonderland, the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us. ... The fact is that the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropological linguistics community on itself."
Pullum's essay puts this myth in perspective:
"Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there were a large number of roots for different snow types in some Arctic language, this would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting; it would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact.  
"Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for different fonts (Caslon, Garamond, Helvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough. If these obvious truths of specialization are supposed to be interesting facts about language, thought, and culture, then I'm sorry, but include me out."
Despite Pullum's best efforts, references to the supposedly snow-rich Eskimo vocabulary continue to appear, as well as articles about the origins and truth of this notion. In response to one such claim that appeared in 2013, he wrote a post at Language Log where he says of efforts to correct the myth:
"No one will pay attention to such details now. New Scientist and the Washington Post have announced that Boas [the first anthropologist to mention the topic] claimed there were fifty snow lexemes and that new research has now confirmed this; so everyone will believe that, since they wanted to believe it anyway, and they will keep on repeating the same drivel about things-people-have-multiple-words-for that they have so often repeated in the past. A depressing prospect, but it seems inevitable."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Ten Restaurants that Maybe Didn't Change America That Much

Selection for the next meeting of my culinary book club is Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. The book is organized in ten chapters -- one for each of the selected restaurants -- with an epilogue. I found the last few chapters and the epilogue to be the best part.

Here is Freedman's explanation, from the epilogue, of why American restaurants didn't particularly adopt the fad called molecular gastronomy. This fad involved scientific experimentation with food substances and flavors for shock value and snobbish appeal, most notably at a Spanish restaurant called elBulli:
"... the American food industry has for ages been dedicated to the transformative scientific manipulation of food. Pringles or cornflakes are in their way as startling as any of those 1,846 dishes invented by elBulli. One reason the United States may not have embraced molecular gastronomy is that we already eat lots of peculiar, non-natural, scientifically manipulated products -- they just aren't crafted, complex, or trendy." (p. 422)
What a wonderful idea! Just think of Coca-Cola, whose sweeteners with or without calories most definitely involve far more elaborate scientific procedures than anything those pompous molecular show-offs do. Making high-fructose corn syrup from ordinary corn syrup requires a whole series of enzymes and heat control. NutraSweet (aspartame) uses chemicals called phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartic acid. Or just think of Cheetos and Velveeta. But I digress.

My favorite chapter of all was the description of The Pavillon French restaurant, a New York icon, which has certainly had its share of coverage in earlier books, magazines, and web sources. Freedman's description is insightful and highly amusing because his focus is on the extreme self-absorbtion and exclusive love of celebrities and "important" customers rather than on the food or atmosphere of the restaurant. He writes:
"Le Pavillon and Henri Soulé raised the standards of fine dining, but also adversely affected the reputation of French restaurants. Snobbery, discrimination, and intimidation were majestically deployed by the imperious if often entertaining Soulé, and these imputed characteristics have damaged the reputation of French cuisine in America ever since. French restaurants aspiring to anything higher than bistro steak-and-frites cooking are now exceptionally rare. It is easier to find Indian vegetarian or Ethiopian food in the United States than an actual French restaurant." (p. 294)
So .... the influence of this restaurant was not to popularize its unarguably fine cuisine, but to demean it and make it totally unpopular! Freedman underscores this point in great and enjoyable detail. How did it change America? It made us safe from the extreme New York style snobbery embodied in the restaurant!

Freedman's Figure 51: Lower East Side Restaurants, The New Yorker, 1938.
Along the left side are typical ethnic dishes from the depicted eateries.
Overall, I wonder: did Freedman make the point that he had selected ten truly influential restaurants? I'm not sure he even tried, with one or two exceptions, especially in the last chapter about Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. Around eight of the very detailed chapters, in fact, are general social history of food combined with the story of one typical restaurant, and he often has trouble sticking to the one he chose. In quite a few of the chapters there's little new material -- I've read many of his major sources so it was clear to me that he offers very little that's new or original. One very good thing: the very carefully selected illustrations, including many restaurant menus and relevant New Yorker covers. Interestingly, in the acknowledgements, credit for this feature is given to "picture-researcher Brian Meyer." (p. 450)

Freedman's chapter on one very high-end Chinese restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco was especially disappointing. As with quite a few other restaurants, he's very impressed by success with rich and famous diners, believing that their approval indicates wide influence. In this chapter, he reiterates the history of the Chinese immigrants to the US pretty much as it's been told by Jennifer 8 Lee in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Andrew Coe in Chop Suey. Both of these books demonstrate that the influence of Chinese food in America was from the bottom up -- low-end popular and inexpensive Chinese restaurants really did change America. In a way, it seemed as if he just didn't get it. If The Mandarin was that influential, he wouldn't need to cover more than a century of preliminary popularity of Chinese food, would he?

Far from being influential, most of these restaurants reflected the trends and tastes of the times and cities where they were founded -- mostly New York, which already shows a lack of imagination. Though Freedman shows that they were popular and well-known, he doesn't really demonstrate that they "changed" anything.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"The Blue Mountain" by Meir Shalev: Israeli Natural History


Returning from our recent visit to Israel, I decided to reread The Blue Mountain, a novel by Israeli author Meir Shalev. At the time I read it in 2006, I found that it resonated with my recent experiences visiting the countryside in the Jezreel valley, which lies east of the Sea of Galilee and west of Haifa. The novel combines historical fiction, humor, magical realism, and natural history, creating a portrait of the pioneers who created the State of Israel. The Blue Mountain is centered in a Moshav -- a type of cooperative farm but distinct from the more popular Kibbutz. Shalev grew up in Moshav Nahalal, which we visited at that time, making it especially meaningful. I wrote about that in this review/blog post: "Storks."

A greenfinch at a feeder, Jerusalem Bird Observatory.
A kestrel (type of Falcon).
One of many characters in the novel, Shalev's schoolmaster, Pinness, stands out for his fascination with the natural world, his interest in writers and naturalists such as Luther Burbank and Darwin, and his dedication to teaching the village children about their environment.  Shalev frequently uses birds that nest in Israel or migrate through, as well as other wild and domestic creatures, as a metaphor for the events in his story. Some of the birds appear, as shown, in the photos we took, and this feature of the book seemed very compelling to me.

Bird quotes from The Blue Mountain:

"The air was cool and crisp when I set out, and dewdrops still hung from the leaves... . Greenfinches jumped on the hedgerows along the path, and a pair of falcons tumbled in the air, sporting in high-pitched spirals. A yellow cloud of goldfinches swarmed anxiously over the thistles, their thick, short beaks sounding little squeaks of surprise. ... Pinness told us how Darwin had studied the Galapagos Island chaffinches... Sometimes I would flush a mother lark from her hiding place, and she would run ahead of me and flop around in the stubble like a shrill, lame old woman, soiling her crest in the dirt while luring me away from her nest and camouflaged eggs." (pp. 128-129)

A clamorous reed warbler near the Dead Sea.
"When I was five he once took me to the orange grove to show me a roofed oval nest with a round entrance on one side.

"'This is the nest of the graceful warbler,' he said. 'Its fledglings are gone already. You can stick your hand inside it.'

"The inside of the next was lined with soft, warm down and groundsel seeds.

"'The warbler is our friend because it eats harmful insects said Pinness. 'It has a little body and a long tail'" (p. 189-191)

A Little Owl.
"At my grandmother Feyge's funeral Pinness had noticed two Little Owls, a male and a female, bowing and curtseying to the mourners while curiously regarding them through slit golden eyes.... Several days later he returned to find that the two small birds of prey were nesting among the stone ruins. Scattered on the ground were the slivery skulls of field mice, dry, hardened bird spew, and the wings of devoured grasshoppers. A stench of carrion arose from two little fledglings in a nest, whose white plumage and angry hisses made him think of a pair of Hasidic dwarfs." (p. 267)

A Griffon Vulture.
"With his grey hair and clawing fingers Meshulam resembled an irritable Egyptian vulture." (p. 276)

Black Storks in migration, near Eilat. The storks that nest
in Eastern Europe are White Storks, which also migrate
through the region.
And finally, the paragraph I quoted at the beginning of my earlier review: “I lay on a bed of jonquils, staring up at the sky. Flocks of migrating storks soared overhead, circling like tiny water insects on a clear, transparent pond. Back in the Ukraine, two storks had nested in the chimney of Grandfather’s house. ‘I knew that they visited the Land of Israel each year and came back with a bellyful of the frogs of Canaan,’ Grandfather told me. Were the grandchildren of those storks flying over me now?” (p. 84)

In re-reading The Blue Mountain, I again found strong resonance with my recent experience birdwatching and observing a variety of landscapes and natural history. Besides the birds mentioned in the paragraphs above, many more appear in the narrative, including the barn owl, starlings, swallows, coots, the bee eater, cattle egrets, ostriches, a kite, pigeons, herons, robins, the plover, geese, quail, and more. In addition, passages on insects such as the cicada, on sand crabs, on hyenas and jackals, and on many others reveal the natural environment of the human story. They complement Shalev's descriptions of the challenges that the characters in the book faced in building homes and barns, developing farmlands, learning techniques for raising crops, planting and maintaining orange trees, managing work animals, setting up dairy operations, establishing governance of their cooperative endeavors, coping with an unfamiliar climate, and rearing their children in the new land.

The Cemetery of Moshav Nahalal, from our 2006 visit.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

"Eight Flavors" in My Kitchen

Sarah Lohman's Eight Flavors in my kitchen. Left to right: soy sauce, MSG (in the form of Maggi seasoning), black pepper
(in the form of Rainbow peppercorns), garlic, chili powder (an old jar becuse I usually make it from scratch), curry powder,
vanilla, and Sriracha Hot Sauce.

 "The American kitchen is not static; it’s cumulative, and it evolves. Ten years ago, I had not heard of Sriracha, and now it is in every refrigerator I open (at least, those refrigerators stocked by millennials). And in the next decade, or the next century, our cuisine will continue to change. Which means a new flavor will earn a permanent place in Americans’ hearts and stomachs." Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (pp. 221-222).

Author Sarah Lohman identifies herself as a historic gastronomist: that is, she explores the way that cooks worked in the past, and re-creates old recipes. The eight flavors in the title of her book provide a route into American cooking from Colonial times (when black pepper dominated both sweet and savory recipes) to the present, when we retain the earlier flavors but continue to add new ones. Specifically, Lohman describes how Sriracha, a hot sauce of southeast Asian origin and California manufacture, has spread throughout our kitchens.

In every chapter of this book, I learned new things about the flavor featured there. As illustrated in my photo, I use every one of these flavors in my own cooking -- some more than others. Especially interesting was the idea that wartime exposure to the foods of a region often results in flavors being brought back to the soldiers' home country. Is Sriracha partly due to experience in the Vietnam war? Well, maybe!

A few things I found especially interesting:
  • Although careful well-executed studies have repeatedly found no ill effects from MSG, people still fear it and loath it! I think this is why Maggi seasoning doesn't explicitly name it on the label. The history of the discovery of the "fifth taste" -- umami is a fascinating one, and Lohman provides lots of insight into how adding MSG to food was at first a positive step, but became a problem because of a pervasive but mistaken view of the danger of this substance (which occurs naturally in many foods including human milk).
  • Vanilla, I learned, was rare and expensive until some time in the nineteenth century. Before it became widely available, the flavor that was most used in sweets like cake or cookies was rose water! 
  • Curry powder became popular long before Indian cuisine was well-known or served in restaurants. One chicken dish stands out -- "Country Captain Chicken is a common American curry dish that first showed up in Eliza Leslie’s 1857 cookbook Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. It was a popular dish in port cities of the South, where Americans who had sailed to India would have lived and traded." (p. 92). 
  • Garlic as a culinary flavor (rather than a medical remedy for many ills) became popular only in the twentieth century, as Italian-American food became mainstream and as French cuisine became well-known. "A clove of garlic, the part of the plant we cook with most often, is actually a leaf: a storage vessel that packs away energy for the next growing season. The energy stored in the cloves is in the form of sugar— specifically fructose— which is why a clove tastes sweet when it is cooked slowly and caramelizes when roasted." (p. 150).
Lohman's discussions of food history can be very intriguing. I was familiar with some of the history, such as the evolution of Italian-American food from the variety of Italian regional cuisines belonging to immigrants; the evolution of Chinese-American foods and thus the popularity of soy sauce; and the invention of chili powder and the role of the "Chili Queens" who sold a variety of Mexican street foods and thus popularized Tex-Mex cuisine. (I read about these areas in Hasia Diner's Hungering for America; Gustavo Arellano's Taco USA; and Haiming Liu's From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express -- blogged herehereand here.)

My kitchen is pretty quiet these days, as I recently returned from a long trip and I haven't started cooking very actively to date. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to present a feature of my kitchen for the blogging event titled "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by blogger Sherry. Quite a few very interesting posts have already been added to the April list!

Update, June 20, 2018. My culinary book club read this as our June selection. Everyone seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Favorite sections included the one on vanilla, on black pepper, and on Sriracha.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Airplane Food

We flew from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam, and then on to Detroit in Delta One, a very pleasant way to fly. The seats recline to flat, and though they aren't wide, they are definitely extremely more comfortable than economy seats with no room to stretch at all. The food is also pretty good. My only problem was that the tray table was stuck in its little niche, and after several flight attendants had failed to release it, finally they called a big Chicago Irish steward from the back of the plane. He was very happy to do it, though it never quite went back into its slot.

The appetizer tray. The Thai coconut soup was very good. The "Ginger Marinated Prawns
with Cucumber Relish, Black Sesame Seeds, and Yuzu Mayonnaise" were not as
tasty as the description sounded.  The pumpkin seeds in the green salad were ok.
Beef Tenderloin: too well-done for my taste.
Dessert was an ice cream sundae with chocolate and strawberry sauce, not photo-worthy but enjoyable. I must have slept through the warm chocolate chip cookie snack because I never saw it other than on the very elegant menu printed on very heavy paper. No question: this was way better than any other food I've eaten on a plane recently, including better than in the first-class cabin from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam!

I have one or two more posts with photos from my long stay in Israel, and then I'll be back to my usual blogging!