Thursday, January 31, 2019

New in my Kitchen

First: this wonderful gift -- a Mona Lisa Scrubee. Plus Starry Night too.
Thanks Arny & Tracy!
My kitchen in January has seen a large number of new food items (or items we haven't had for a long time). These come from Trader Joe's, Ikea, Cost Plus World Market, and elsewhere. During our week's trip to South Carolina, we also tried some delicious new foods, but for this post I'll stick to just what's new in my Ann Arbor kitchen. And I'm sharing with the blogger event "In My Kitchen" at Sherry's blog:

From Trader Joe's: Langostino Tails, which were delicious and tender.
From Ikea: mustard with dill.
Quadratini are good cookies! Ate them in 2 days.

Ikea Müsli with raspberries and Keffir.
A few condiments: two salsas, apricot-rose jam, Pickapeppa sauce.
We haven't had Pickapeppa for a while. It has a very good mild pepperiness.
Trader Joe's Harissa Salsa is hot. Is it
Moroccan? I don't know! But good in soup.

New for baking: two bannetons for proofing loaves:

The ridged surface of the banneton impresses a pattern on the loaves
as they rise. These are new in our kitchen for Len's bread-making.
After it rises, the loaf is turned out on a peel and slashed.
Then thrown onto a hot baking stone as quickly as possible.
The finished loaves have a ridged pattern left by the banneton. This batch was amazingly delicious.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Ann Patchett: "Commonwealth"

Ann Patchett's ability to create believable, likeable characters is amazing. In Commonwealth she presents something like 14 vivid characters; maybe more. Her center is a large, blended family with four parents and two or three divorces. The novel spans over 50 years,  meaning that many other partners enter and leave the lives of this huge ménage.

Commonwealth seems to be named for the Commonwealth of Virginia, where we view the critical events in the life of the six children. Besides Virginia, there are scenes in Los Angeles, Chicago, Iowa, New England, Switzerland, and maybe some other places I've overlooked. Further, it's not in precise chronological order, but moves around, sometimes as an ordinary narrative, sometimes as flashbacks.

There are only a bit more than 300 pages for all these developments of time, space, relationships, and themes of love and death and more, including hints that Commonwealth means more than just Virginia. Does this sound like it would make you dizzy? It made me dizzy. But I enjoyed it very much, and in the end it didn't seem that random.

Franny, a daughter of one of the fractured couples, is one of the most in-focus characters in the novel. In fact the first chapter takes place at her parents' home in Los Angeles, where they are celebrating her Christening. There's a free-wheeling atmosphere in this suburban, summery party, where oranges from the back-yard trees are squeezed and mixed with vodka and other booze, and where sandwiches and cookies are devoured by kids and adults.  Of course demons lurk: at the party, Franny's mother meets a colleague of her father and all the children are fated to be shuttled between the resulting rearranged homes.

Food and drinks are always a part of Franny's life. After dropping out of law school, she works as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago (where we stayed a couple of years ago, as it happens: this made the book more vivid for me!) She then lives with a famous writer whose works she loves, perhaps more than she loves him;  he's 32 years older than she is. Another party, in the middle of the book, lasts for weeks during a vacation stay in a mansion in New England.

During this vacation, Franny gets stuck with cooking and shopping for groups of the writer's friends and colleagues, who treat her like a servant and demand that she wait on them, making every one of them a different kind of eggs for breakfast and slaving over dinners while scarcely being noticed. This cringe-inducing sequence of meals is a key to Franny's identity, I think. There are many other keys too as she goes through life relating to her siblings, step-siblings, parents, step-parents, and so on.

The sunny parties in California and the New England vacation house contrast with a wintery party at the end of the novel over 50 years later. Refreshments again are organized by Franny's mother, Beverly, but this time with hired waiters and caterers. The scene at the Christmas party seems to wrap up many of the themes about Franny and her mother that started at the very beginning of the book:
"Franny found her mother at the breakfast table by herself, arranging petits fours on a tray. 
"'You know there are people here who will do that for you,' Franny said.
"Her mother looked up and gave her an exhausted smile. 'I'm hiding for just a minute.' ... 
"Beverly put out the last of the tiny square cakes from the box, pink and yellow and white, each one crowned with a sugared rosette.... 
"Franny picked up a pale-yellow petit four, the color of a newly hatched chick, and ate it in a single bite. It wasn't very good, but it was so pretty that it didn't matter." (p. 311-312)
Palmer House Hilton Hotel where we stayed in Chicago and where Franny worked.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Exploring the Work of Carl Milles

At Brookgreen Gardens in Litchfield, S.C. last week, we enjoyed the outdoor sculpture collections, particularly the Fountain of the Muses by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955). I fondly remember seeing several other Milles fountains. In particular, I remember the Meeting of the Waters, a large fountain in front of the Union Station in St. Louis where I grew up; Sunday Morning, a fountain near the Michigan League in Ann Arbor where I've lived for many years; and a number of works at Cranbrook around 50 miles from Ann Arbor.
A figure from the Fountain of the Muses in Brookgreen Gardens.
This is said to be a spiritual representation of Milles himself.
I also remember that a Milles fountain was in the middle of the dining room in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which strongly impressed me on a visit there when I was in college -- having a work of art inside of a restaurant seemed incredible to me at the time! Out of curiosity, I started looking up these fountains and the life and work of Carl Milles. To my surprise, I learned that the Fountain of the Muses that we saw last week was in fact the same work that was once on display at the Met:
"New Yorkers might well have a sense of nostalgia for his Fountain of the Muses (inspired by the story of the goddess Aganippe), which once lent an air of grandeur to the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Museum of Art but was packed off in 1982 to Brookgreen Gardens outside Charleston, S.C., during a period of reconstruction at the museum." (A Stockholm Sculpture Garden by Gunilla Martensondec, NYT, December 27, 1987)
The Fountain of the Muses in the dining room of the Metropolitan Musuem, 1955. (photo source)
This area of the museum is now the Greek and Roman section as documented in this article:
Redesigning the Met’s Home for Greek and Roman Art
Of course my earliest memories of Milles are of his fountain at Union Station in St.Louis.

This 1940s post card captures the way I remember the Milles Fountain at Union Station. My mother impressed on me
what a wonderful work of art this was! She must have remembered when it was installed in 1940.
"Sunday Morning" on the University of Michigan campus, which I photographed during a recent Ann Arbor Art Fair.

The Triton Fountain by Milles in the courtyard of the Chicago Art Institute. Photo from our visit in 2017.

This photo of the Orpheus Fountain at the Cranbrook Art Museum is courtesy of TripAdvisor.
Milles was on the faculty of the Cranbrook Academy near Detroit from 1931-1951.
Update January 29: I just checked on some of my older photos, and found that I've also seen Milles works at Shaw's Garden in St. Louis: 
"Two Girls Dancing (1914-1917) is Milles’ earliest work in the Garden. Later works Sunglitter (1918) and Orpheus Fountain Figures (Male and Female) (1936) border on the east and west of the three angels with musical instruments, from 1950, in the center basin." (source)
My photo from Shaw's Garden, April, 2011.
Background: the iconic Climatron and some glass
sculptures by Chihully.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Vacation Reading

During our recent vacation, I had quite a bit of time to read, both in airports and while relaxing in the condo where we stayed. Here's a brief summary of the books I read:

Hunger: A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a powerful social critic, and a suffering human being. She's experienced mistreatment and scorn because she's black and because she's very obese. Throughout this memoir, she keeps her focus on how her own pain connects to her experience in American life. As she describes being shunned, ignored, abused, hated, derided, blamed, and disrespected, the reader should cringe! Although many of the specific experiences she describes have been covered by others who were abused because of their race or size, her words are poignant.

Gay probes the causes of her obesity, which she says was a result of her having been raped when she was around 12 years old: she responded by trying to be as unattractive as she could, and she did this by eating to become fat. She describes the sympathy and loyalty of her parents during her lost years in her 20s, when she was very poor and lived in difficult circumstances. A sad and impressive book.

Here's a paragraph that embodies some of the things I'm trying to say:
"When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be. Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes." (Kindle Locations 1107-1110).

The Wine Lover's Daughter: A Memoir by Anne Fadiman

A long time ago, culture could be classified into simplistic pigeon holes: highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. These were very judgmental words! One of the biggest popularizers of middlebrow culture was named Clifton Fadiman (1904-1999). He was the moderator of a popular radio program titled "Information Please" from 1938 to 1951. He chose books for the Book-of-the-Month Club. I believe that he's now mainly forgotten.

In her memoir, Fadiman's daughter Anne Fadiman described his early life in Brooklyn. She discusses his parents who were poorly-educated immigrants, and how he left them behind. (Her grandfather died when she was 10 years old: she met him only once!) She tells how he went to Columbia University and managed to invent himself as a cultural icon. This story is very fascinating.

Anne Fadiman especially explores her father's love of wine, about which he wrote several books. It's details her struggle to love wine as much as her father did. One of the most interesting chapters of the memoir, in fact, is not about him at all, but about her discovery of modern neuroscience of taste and how it enlightened her about her lack of wine love -- and thus her fear that she was not a "good" daughter.

If you want to read only a part of the book this chapter was excerpted in the New Yorker: "How Science Saved Me from Pretending to Love Wine:The fault was not in my stars, nor in myself, but in my fungiform papillae." By Anne Fadiman, September 30, 2017.

Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef's Journey to Discover America's New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee.

This book, I would say, is jut OK. Edward Lee, the author, seems to try too hard to be bold and imaginative. Sometimes I found him to be sort of a shadow of another famous Korean-American chef, David Chang.

Lee travels around America to immigrant communities, and tries to talk to the people who are cooking in ethnic restaurants. Sometimes they refuse to let him in the kitchens, and won't tell him anything. Sometimes they invite him into their homes and workplaces and the bars where they hang out. He tries to understand how they have adapted their native foods to America. Sometimes he seems to get more insights than other times. Sometimes I felt like his writing had too many clichés.

Lee's description of a visit to a Lebanese diner in Louisiana:
"The menu is split into three sections: Southern favorites, Lebanese foods, and Italian dishes such as spaghetti and lasagna. I order something from each section. Tom is impressed by my appetite. He has the girth of a chef who likes to eat and a handlebar moustache that he teases with his fingertips when he speaks. Tom and I talk about the history of Clarksdale, about food and authenticity, about what it means to have a culture sewn so tightly into the fabric of everyday life that it is normal for a white blue-collar worker to come here and ask for his kibbeh on a roll as though he were ordering a cheeseburger. This isn’t Lebanese food anymore, Tom tells me. This is Delta food and, more specifically, Clarksdale food."  (Kindle Locations 2029-2034).
St. Burl's Obituary by Daniel Akst.

This book was supposed to be a selection for my culinary reading group, but I think it's been deferred or replaced. I’m not liking it much — it’s very forced, and the plot gets worse as it goes along.

Burl, the main character, was a very very fat man. Having read Roxane Gay's book, I'm aware of how cruel it is to use a fat person in a book the way this book uses its protagonist. Yes, he does love food, and detailed food descriptions are a major thing in this book. But... But...

An example of how the author uses food and fatness:
"For his own meal he was constrained as usual by fastidiousness, or an overdeveloped sense of propriety. Burl loved barbecue, for example, and fried chicken, but was too self-conscious to eat it in public, imagining himself in the eyes of onlookers as a living Thomas Nast cartoon, or Henry VIII brandishing a drumstick. He settled on smothered rabbit, cooked crisp in an iron skillet but salty and moist on the inside, heaped with sautéed onions and served over grits, with coconut sweet potatoes and greasy, smoky-tasting stringbeans." (Kindle Locations 480-484). 

Friday, January 25, 2019

The End of Our Vacation

On our last night in South Carolina, we were amused by this mural on the wall at the entrance to Bistro 217 in the town of Pawley's Island. We had enjoyed the cuisine at the sister restaurant, Rustic Table, so we decided to eat at the more formal Bistro. (Website for the restaurant: here.)

My dinner: seared scallop salad with goat cheese. The salad menu is below.

As planned, we flew back home Thursday. Luckily, there was a gap in the snow and ice that have been falling on Michigan, and luckily, there were no serious delays.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Leaving South Carolina

Goodbye to beaches.

Goodbye to little towns like this: Georgetown, where the tourist boardwalk
looks over towards a working steel mill!
Goodbye to beach shacks like this -- Big Tuna -- and wonderful seafood.
Goodbye to shrimp & sausage Gumbo with Texas Pete hot sauce!
Goodbye to crabcakes: this one was especially wonderful! BIG TUNA website here.
Goodbye to little birds, shore birds, wading birds, and pelicans.
.... and goodbye to our wonderful hosts and touring companions, Arny and Tracy. And to Elaine and Larry. It's been a great week all together.

If all goes as planned, we'll fly home Thursday. Yesterday the Detroit airport was shut down by an ice storm, and government employees are still loyally working every day without pay. So we hope for good luck traveling!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A South Carolina Farmer's Market

Lee's Farmers Market in Murrell's Inlet South Carolina, offers a wide variety of produce (not necessarily local), as well
as cooked food and deli products imported from New Jersey. Evidently the term "Farmers Market" doesn't mean the
same thing in South Carolina that it means in Michigan, where it denotes a market at which only farmers sell their products.

The definition doesn't matter: Lee's has delicious food and very friendly
workers. You can see that this roast beef had just been cooked in their kitchen.
We bought slices of it for dinner. Wonderful flavor!
This is Daphne who works in the kitchen. She had a deep southern accent. When I mentioned that we were used to
colder weather in Michigan, she said "Ooh whee!"

It was in fact a cold day for walking outside. We repeated our visit to the
marsh walk. A few days ago every seat here was taken by a person drinking beer.

Before our walk, we ate lunch at the River City Café. Good fish sandwich!