Thursday, February 28, 2019

Cooking in My Kitchen

The cookbook Marcella Cucina has been this month's source of new recipes for both of us.
I bought this book fairly recently, though it was published in 1997.
In the kitchen in February not many items are new, but we've been enjoying a number of dishes that we haven't tried before or that we haven't had for a long time. I'm sharing, as usual, with the blogger event "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by the blog Sherry's Pickings -- link here.

In the skillet: Marcella's "Fricasseed Chicken Abruzzi-Style with Rosemary,
White Wine, Cherry Tomatoes, and Olives."
The finished dish after the tomatoes and olives are added.
"Pork Strips with Broccoli and Carrots" made by Len.
The pork dish was quite delicious. Surprisingly, it uses only the stems of the broccoli.
We've also tried some pasta from this interesting and unusual cookbook. Its recipes
are quite different from American Italian restaurant and prepared food.
An old favorite of ours is steak with wine and green peppercorns.
These are pepper berries picked green instead of ripe (black).
They are usually sold in cans, pickled in brine.
The steak: sautéed, sliced and served with tomatoes and cucumbers.
This recipe is not from the cookbook, but as I say, an old favorite.

Using Sourdough Starter

Leftover sourdough starter makes good pancakes! These are savory,
made to serve with sautéed salmon as shown.
We ate the pancakes and fish with Ikea's mustard-dill sauce and veggies.
Another sourdough pancake preparation: sweet ones with fruit in & on them.
The starter was leftover from Len's beautiful loaves.

A few more items in & around the kitchen in February:

Mangos in a custom-moulded plastic container from Costco. They taste very good but I feel guilty about the plastic.

In the display cabinet in the dining room: a new storyteller figurine. 
My new figurine is by a Hopi ceramics maker named Tony Dallas. The faces on these figures are the faces of the mudheads, a type of clown that appears in Hopi ceremonial dances, and which are sometimes depicted in Kachina figures (see below). The small child on the storyteller's right is holding a special type of Indian doll that's flat and made of wood. I photographed my new storyteller with a tumbler figurine by the same artist.

I have a few other storytellers and various southwest Indian figures, which I find very appealing. Storytellers were first made by Helen Cordero of the Cochiti Pueblo in the mid-20th century. They became very popular and are now made by potters from many Pueblos.

A mudhead, or clown, Kachina from the Detroit Institute
of Arts.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


"Famines strike selectively: it is the poor and politically excluded who are its first and principal victims, commonly its only ones. Starvation relentlessly hunts out outsiders and marginalized minorities – or, to phrase it more accurately, those in power administer famines so as to target these people. In a large number of the famines in our catalogue, including all the most recent cases, the victims have been constituencies identified as subversives or enemies of the state. Today's resurgence of xenophobia and resource nationalism across the world bodes ill for the politics of faminogenesis." (Mass Starvation, Kindle Locations 2644-2649).
Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine by Alex de Waal is a difficult book to read. Human suffering, especially that inflicted by other humans, is a very difficult subject. You want to look the other way.

First, a definition:
"A famine is defined as a crisis of mass hunger that causes elevated mortality over a specific period of time." (Kindle Locations 1821-1822).
De Waal, who has been a humanitarian aid worker in Africa for many years, systematically explains what he means by a famine, in statistical a sense, in a political sense, and in terms of what it means to human beings to suffer the impact a famine. He begins with a specific idea:
"the verb ‘to starve’ should be understood primarily in its transitive sense to indicate that some (powerful) people have starved other (powerless) people, leaving them to die – from hunger, disease, exhaustion or violence. Mass starvation ranges from the outcome of recklessness (pursuing actions regardless of the known dangers) through persecution to murder and genocide." (Kindle Locations 529-532). 
Since the early 19th century, De Waal says, no famines occurred due to natural disasters alone; there were always political motives for starving a given population, sometimes taking advantage of a natural event, but not necessarily. De Waal mentions a few points about the 19th century, but provides details about the origins and results of the major famines from 1870 to the present. Some events in the history of famine that I learned in reading are these:
  • "Almost half those who have died in famines since 1870 were Chinese."(Kindle Locations 2390-2391). 
  • "The worst famine in recorded history, and almost certainly the most gigantic ever in terms of sheer loss of life, was Mao Zedong's ‘Great Leap Forward’ famine of 1958–62, which probably killed 25–30 million people." (Kindle Locations 2165-2167). 
  • "Starvation and associated diseases were major killers in the Armenian genocide of 1915–16: of the one million victims, at least 400,000 perished this way. The Armenians’ suffering did not end there: the newly independent Armenian state was stricken by famine in 1919." (Kindle Locations 2084-2086). 
  • "The Hunger Plan" -- Hitler's plan to take all the food in Eastern Europe for the Nazi project -- "is the worst famine crime in the historical record. It was the project of reducing the population of the western Soviet Union by 30 million people in the winter of 1941 by means of starvation, thereby supposedly freeing up their food and farmland to support the Wehrmacht." Hitler's Hunger plan also included quickly eliminating "useless eaters," particularly by murdering the Jews, to make more food available for his troops. (Kindle Locations 739-741). 
  • "Colonial-settler genocide famines in North America and Australia deserve a special place in the history of atrocities. The use of hunger to subjugate the indigenous peoples of the Americas is rarely included in catalogues of famine." (Kindle Locations 1949-1950). 
  • "Europe's most terrible famine of the Victorian era was the Irish potato famine of the 1840s." (Kindle Locations 1998-1999). 
De Waal offers a detailed discussion of recent famines in Africa and the Middle East, including a careful analysis of the extent of the lives lost in each event, the political situations and ethnic rivalries in the various countries, and the role of international aid workers in attempting to alleviate the desperate suffering of the population. I was aware of most of these events, but have never followed them in the kind of detail presented here.

Mass Starvation concludes with some predictions about the future, projecting from current trends that De Waal perceives. While he has some optimism based on international collective efforts against outbreaks of famine in the 1990s to the present, he has a warning about a trend he calls counter-humanitarianism: "an array of political and ideological practices that deny the value system of humanitarianism as such." (Kindle Locations 5189-5191)

Examples of counter-humanitarinaism are the ravages of militant groups like ISIS and several African military groups that disregard any goals -- or lives --  other than those that favor their own objectives. However, he also sees danger in some democratic societies, like ours:
"Counter-humanitarianism is also witnessed in xenophobia and hostility towards asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in general. The tightening of laws and practices concerning refugees in Europe and the United States risks creating very vulnerable populations in countries afflicted by war, transit countries and recipient countries." (Kindle Locations 5240-5242).
In the last sections of the book, De Waal attempts to apply his historic, ecological, and sociological learning to the question of whether climate change might cause massive famine. His discussion is very detailed and supported by many facts. His basic conclusion is that climate change does not mean that massive famine will occur. The reasoning for this is complex but persuasive: I suggest that you read the book to see how he supports this conclusion.

The last paragraph of Mass Starvation is cautiously optimistic:
"Over the seventy years following the end of the Second World War, the multilateral world order presided over an immense and under-celebrated achievement: the near-conquest of mass starvation. That was achieved in parallel with the eclipse of governmental attitudes that regard human life as without value. Despite the recent reverses, this achievement has not unravelled. The final end of great famines is still within our grasp. Mass starvation could be ended for good – if we decide that it is to be so." (Kindle Locations 5460-5463).  
Through my writing of this blog, I express my interests in food, food history, and the meaning of food for a variety of people and cultures. I try to read both fiction and nonfiction to obtain insights into this topic. From time to time I feel that it's necessary also to learn about the results and causes of hunger as it has affected people throughout the ages, and I try to learn more about how food can be weaponized by political and religious fanatics and others. Thus I decided to read this painful book.

A Chinese statue of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) as an Ascetic,
late 1200s-early 1300s. Detroit Institute of Arts.
Somehow my mind relates this to my reading.

Note: I find in interesting that Alex De Waal, author of this book, is the brother of Edmund De Waal, author of The Hare With Amber Eyes.

Monday, February 25, 2019


A Babylonian Dragon: a favorite from the Detroit Institute of Arts, where we often enjoy the collections.

A Chinese Dragon embroidered on an Imperial robe, 1700s-1800s. (DIA)
"Dragon and Tiger," attributed to Maruyama Okyo, Japanese, 1733-1795. (DIA)
Detail of the dragon from the screen by Okyo.

Many wonderful dragon images are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For me, a dragon should have a really goofy looking face, like the one above by Japanese artist Kano Seisen'in Osanobu (1796–1846). I found it in a slide show of dragon images from the Boston museum. I haven't been there in years, but I remember the dragons.

What made me think about dragons? In fact it was this dragon roll at the Slurping Turtle Restaurant in Ann Arbor.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Murals in Ice

Beside a narrow walkway along the river: a painted wall, with ice cascading down the surface.
The wall supports a railroad trestle over the river.
Murals and graffiti on the wall appear to have been done by more than one painter.
This stenciled artwork appears in a number of places in Ann Arbor. I believe these
various simple murals were commissioned in hopes that they would deter unwanted graffiti.
On a highway bridge support a few miles down the river: more of the same stencil art.
To see murals posted by bloggers throughout the world, check Sami's blog each Monday:

Friday, February 22, 2019

The President's (Magic) Hat

"The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details. The thought made him feel slightly dizzy – or was it the fact that he’d drunk a whole bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé?" -- Antoine Laurain, The President's Hat (p. 25).
Do you love novels that capture the real sprit of Paris? My impression is that The President's Hat, a very short novel by Antoine Laurian does just that, and does it mischievously.  The book, written recently and published in 2012, is full of the spirit of a recently bygone time in the late 20th century.

You get the atmosphere of a bistro "with its big red awning, oyster bar outside, and waiters in spotless white aprons." (p. 13). You imbibe the social position of a renowned perfume inventor or a member of the former aristocracy with his home full of inherited antiques. You smell "Sicilian lemon, bergamot, green mandarin, tangerine, cypress, basil, juniper berry, cumin, sandalwood, white musk, ylang-ylang, patchouli, amber and vanilla." with the famous perfumer (p. 67).

You see the contrast between people who appreciated or despised new city projects, summarized thus:
"François Mitterrand knew how to make his mark, earning his place in the history books as well as on the world stage. Sticking a glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, striped columns outside the Palais-Royal and a modern archway in line with the Arc de Triomphe smacked of an utterly anti-conservative, iconoclastic mentality – verging on the punk." (p. 150).
In real Paris, the newspapers that Parisians read (Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération?) can define their outlook on life as well as their politics -- and in Paris, people aren't private about their political views.  Before the infinite choices offered by the internet, only a few TV channels were available, so at certain times of the day or week, you could expect every Parisian family to be watching a particular program: "The Larniers confessed to keeping their set solely for the purposes of watching Apostrophes." (p. 128).

If you want to know things like this, you can read this very funny little novel about a magical hat that is forgotten one evening by none other than Mitterrand, President of France, and then successively worn by several characters who are magically transformed by possessing it.

The first of these lucky individuals is a family man with a humdrum job and an annoying boss. One evening, he manages to dine alone in the bistro with the red awning:
"A meal all on his own, with no wife and no child, awaited him inside. The sort of meal he used to enjoy occasionally before he was married. Back then his salary hadn’t stretched to anywhere as smart as this. But even in the modest establishments he’d frequented, he had always eaten well and never felt the need of company as he savoured andouillette, a decent cut of beef, or a dish of whelks. The fading light held the promise of a bachelor evening. (pp. 13-14).
He orders oysters. He savors the oysters, dipping them in vinegar the French way. He eavesdrops on the conversation at the next table where he's astonished to realize the President of France is dining with friends. As he leaves, he picks up the president's hat, somehow left on the coat rack. Putting on this hat somehow (in this world of magical realism as well as Real Paris) emboldens him; the next day, he's able to shine in an interchange with his superiors and get a much better job.

Not long afterwards, the hat leaves him, and in turn becomes the property of several more typical and unsatisfied Frenchmen and women. More oysters are eaten -- "fines de claire gillardeau, a crab, two types of clam, langoustines, whelks, sea violets, sea urchins, prawns and winkles." More Pouilly-Fuissé is drunk; also Chevalier-Montrachet. (pp. 99-100). Each individual who briefly wears the hat embodies a certain typical French personal uniqueness. The many aromas and flavors and TV programs and political conversations and professional aspirations present a cross-section of life in 1980s France. All in magical fun.

This is my second time reading a novel (in translation) by this very French author: the first was French Rhapsody, which I wrote about here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Michelle Obama: "Becoming"

What a wonderful book: Becoming by Michelle Obama. It's received so much attention that I don't feel the need to review it much, so I'll just say that I read all 428 Kindle pages in virtually one sitting.

The story of her life begins with the words "I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving." (p. 6). Her description of her family and life in South Side Chicago, attending a magnet high school that required hours each day on city buses, going to Ivy League college and law school, working in law and in community development, meeting and marrying Barak Obama, beginning to raise her daughters, participating in Barak's political career, and ending (at least as far as this book goes) in the White House was familiar to me, at least in outline. In fact, her story is probably familiar to anyone who has been reading or watching the news for the last 10 years or so. But her detailed retelling of her life and its challenges seemed to me completely engrossing!

Michelle's outstanding discipline, her values, and her insights into American life and American social issues are the basis of the book as they are the basis of her life -- and worth learning about. In the Epilogue she writes: "I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey." (p. 428). To me, she's anything but ordinary!

Many family photos included in Becoming illustrate the stages of her life. Above: a photo that brings home the history of Michelle Obama's neighborhood. Her caption: "When I began kindergarten in 1969, my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago was made up of a racially diverse mix of middle-class families. But as many better-off families moved to the suburbs— a phenomenon commonly known as “white flight”— the demographics changed fast. By fifth grade, the diversity was gone. ABOVE: My kindergarten class; I’m third row, second from right. BELOW: My fifth-grade class; I’m third row, center. (pp. 280-283).

Another perfect read for African American History Month.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Two Good History Books by Adrian Miller

The selection for this month's meeting of my culinary history reading group is The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed our First Families. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately bought an earlier book by the same author, Adrian Miller. His book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time was also very interesting and full of insights and information that I had not been aware of before. These books are very appropriate for reading this month since February is African American History Month.

The President's Kitchen Cabinet presents a chronological study of African American cooks and kitchen workers who served in the White House, first occupied by John Adams, and the homes of Washington and Jefferson prior to the White House. Miller, in my opinion, did a wonderful job of illustrating certain aspects of American history through the specific individuals in presidential service. Using as much detail as he could find, he presents the conditions of work and the lives of the presidential cooks. Sadly, at times even their names are lost to history, and details are often scarce, but he made the best of it. We get a general picture by learning how these particular African Americans dealt with mainstream white attitudes and prejudices.

Several of the pre-Civil-War presidents brought enslaved African Americans to their kitchens. Until the Truman years, presidents had to pay their own expenses -- so the slave-owners among the early presidents were using the unpaid labor at their disposal rather than hiring employees. But even when kitchen staff were free men and women, they were far from equal to whites. Legal and conventional limitations on African American workers' potential professions and occupations meant that kitchen work was one of the few areas where they were allowed employment. For around a century and a half, kitchen employees were virtually the only black workers in the lives of US presidents: Miller describes how at times, these workers became informants that gave the president an African American point of view, and thus played a political role. Obviously, quite a bit of the historical background is painful to read, but Miller shows how the African American cooks had dignity and high principles despite the evils of American society.

Author Adrian Miller (from
Miller's book Soul Food takes a very different approach to history, but it's just as engaging and interesting as The President's Kitchen Cabinet. Miller's definition of Soul Food is both personal and sociological. He chooses a number of his favorite typical African-American foods, and then works through their history, particularly trying to discover which foods and preparations have deeper roots in West Africa where most African Americans' ancestors came from.

I completely enjoyed the way that Miller combines personal memories, historical narratives and memoirs, published cookbooks and well-known cookbook authors, and what I see as diligent scholarship in looking up the history of these foods. He considers questions of taste, socio-economic status, and whether Soul Food is good or bad for one's health. He also describes many social contexts for Soul Food consumption, such as having the preacher as a guest at a fried-chicken Sunday dinner, or the organization and content of communal meals.

Where he can, Miller connects his chosen food topics to native foods in West Africa. However, he also connects Soul Food favorites to recipes that black workers cooked in southern kitchens: both enslaved workers and later free workers. The favorite desserts he lists (banana pudding, pound cake, and peach cobbler, particularly) all, in his view, have British origins.

Some of the foods he describes are familiar, classic choices that almost anyone associates with Soul Food: for example, fried chicken, fried fish, cornbread, candied yams, greens, and chitlins. Others were a bit of a surprise, like "the most famous dish probably unknown to you" which is roasted possum with sweet potatoes! One chapter is titled "How did Macaroni and Cheese Get So Black?" -- he's right, I had no idea that mac & cheese was a major choice on Soul Food tables. There's also a chapter on hot sauce, which I thought was more generically southern. Or red Kool-Aid, which I had no idea was so central to Soul Food, but which he shows is actually closely related to beverages consumed in West Africa.

My summary really doesn't capture the fascinating way that Miller knits all these different forms of research and experience into a readable book that's full of insights about history, food history, and good eating.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Tampopo: World's Foodiest Film?

A classic comedy from 1985: Tampopo by Juzo Itami.
Not available for streaming anywhere, which is too bad.
Tampopo has one central story, a woman's quest to make the world's best ramen noodles at her little ramen restaurant. It may be the most food-centric film I've ever seen. In addition to the quest, by the woman named Tampopo and a truck driver who volunteers to help her succeed, Juzo Itami's film intersperses numerous short scenes unrelated to the main plot except that they are all about food and how people relate to food, use food as a symbol, use food to relate to others, and more. That sounds pretty heavy but in fact all is comic, in fact some of the funniest food scenes ever. Further, many of the scenes throughout the film are very apt parodies of a variety of film genres: mostly westerns, but sometimes romantic comedy, samurai films and even porn.

At the very beginning a wise Sensei -- teacher -- is instructing a young man how to eat ramen. His advice echoes the
wisdom of the ages: the Japanese way to approach whatever you do. It was undoubtedly funny in 1985, but now its
even more hilarious because it makes a direct hit on the Marie Kondo cleanup philosophy (which is classic Japanese...)

The truck driver who helps with the quest for noodle perfection looks like a cowboy, and many scenes are a direct
visual parody of cowboy movies. But wait! It's a parody of spaghetti westerns by auteurs like Sergio Leone. Where
did Leone get his inspiration (in fact whom did he copy)? He directly imitated the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Deep!
At one point the Clint Eastwood character has to do battle with some bad
guys. Are they from Kurosawa? Sergio Leone? Hollywood? 
The cowboy recruits some experts to help invent the world's best ramen.
They go to great lengths, spying on other ramen chefs, flattering them, and even going through their garbage cans.

A fight with a bad guy.
Finally: the all-new redecorated shop opens and it's a great success. The cowboy drives his truck into the sunset (or somewhere).

Some of the unrelated vignettes are also very funny. For example, this
little boy was wearing a sign saying he only ate natural food.
Of course someone gives him this ice cream.
A vignette that I remembered vividly for all the years since I first saw Tampopo:
A group of refined young ladies are learning to eat Italian pasta the Western
way: they aren't allowed to make a sound. However a huge Italian man nearby
is slurping outrageously! Suddenly so are all the young ladies.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Do Murals Make Us Human?

Throughout the American West, Native Americans created many types of art work. The surviving works, dated long before contact with Europeans and European culture, often consist of petroglyphs etched into the rock faces of cliffs. I've been fascinated to view these works, which are hundreds of years old. A few photos from some of our trips west:
Petroglyphs at McConkie ranch in the Dry Fork Canyon near Vernal, Utah. May, 2016.
Petroglyphs at Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah. We saw these from a riverboat tour in 2003.
More petroglyphs at Canyonlands.
Petroglyphs at the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, 2011.
Petroglyphs by the Hohokum Indians, Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona, 2009.
Unfortunately, this site has been defaced by some modern yahoo carving his initials in the rock. This is a terrible problem!
Long before these American works of art were created, at the very beginning of human history, our predecessors made cave paintings. Little is known about the artists or why they painted, but their works fascinate everyone who encounters them. Because these works are very fragile, it's no longer possible to visit the caves with the actual murals. These works have been found in many locations, and much has been learned about them which I'm not going to try to duplicate here.

Lascaux, France. Cave painting of aurochs, horses, and deer. Dated 17,000 years ago. (Wikipedia Art)
A bison painted on the wall of the Altamira Cave, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain.
Dated 36,000 years ago. (Wikipedia Art)
Each week, at a blog called Colorful World, I enjoy posts from art lovers throughout the world who share murals and street art from their own cities and from their travels. The more I think about these works, the more I see them as the current phase of a great human characteristic: wanting to represent experience through works of art: large works of art! I'm sharing this with these bloggers here: