Sunday, March 31, 2019

Recycling in My Kitchen

"While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle. The recycling companies say they cannot depend on selling used plastic and paper at prices that cover their processing costs, so they are asking municipalities to pay significantly more for their recycling services. Some companies are also charging customers additional 'contamination' fees for recycled material that is mixed in with trash." -- NY Times, "As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling," March 16, 2019.
In my kitchen: lots of containers and packaging that need recycling. Or at least I think they do. The rules for recycling have been changing rapidly. A few years ago, most containers, clean cardboard, and lots of other things were welcomed into the recycling center where they were sorted and sent to manufacturers who paid at least some money. Our city, Ann Arbor, made money out of trash.

As I said in a recent blog post about the history of recycling, expecting too much from recycling was not a sustainable habit for Ann Arbor citizens or anyone throughout the country to have acquired, and many practical recycling problems now plague us. Like many people, I'm worried about the vast quantities of plastic polluting our waterways and endangering fish and wildlife, and about the vast quantities of all kinds of trash piling up in our landfills.

My pantry shelves are full of containers. My understanding: the metal and glass can all be recycled, though glass is
becoming less desirable. The soup packages are recyclable now, but may become more problematic.

Here's one of the mistakes I have learned: you can't recycle the plastic that
wraps the cardboard that contains the Coke cans. It's great that Michigan
requires a 10-cent deposit on cans, and so they are really recycled. But the
rest is up to us: the plastic is trash, not recycling!
How do we buy vegetables? Here's a recent picture of the offerings at Argus Farm Stop, a consignment store where local
farmers bring their produce. In March, there's not a lot of soft fruit, but I did find hoop-house lettuce, carrots and other
root vegetables that I think were saved from last season, and a few other things. You could use your own bags or use
paper or plastic bags that Argus provides. Sadly, plastic bags are one of the most serious problems for recycle centers.
Trader Joe's also offers lots of unpackaged fruit and vegetables, obviously
not local. Some like these are offered unwrapped, others in plastic boxes.
At Costco, there's a lot of packaging that has to be recycled. These light-
weight plastic boxes have a number 1 in the little triangle, so they are
recyclable in Ann Arbor. Maybe better than plastic bags?
Here in my kitchen: plastics marked with the little triangle with a "2" in it.
All bottles and tubs in this plastic are accepted for city recycling. No lids.
Also in my kitchen: plastics with the number 1. "The City of Ann Arbor accepts
all #1 bottle and tub-shaped containers in the curbside recycling program."
My worry: am I putting the wrong things in the bin? Juice cartons are still allowed. My junk mail is ok.
But the big question: can we keep on doing things the same way? Will a lot of this have to go to landfill?
It's hard to avoid what they call "aspirational recycling" -- that is, putting not-recyclable items in the bin with the good stuff. Greasy pizza boxes or take-out containers, any and all plastic bags, disposable beverage cups and their lids, K-cups from pod coffee makers, and the wrong kinds of plastic packaging are the worst offenders. A few mistakes by consumers, well-meaning or not,  can make large amounts of recycling unacceptable. Many cities are being priced out of the market for selling recyclables because of too many mistakes in people's kitchens as well as because as of last January, China has ceased to accept the shiploads of poorly sorted American recycling.
Am I irresponsible for buying these madeleines that are in a box and each
individually packaged? I like them this way because they don't get stale.
"About 25 percent of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted—wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers—into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option. And in the United States, at least, it rarely makes sense to employ people to sort through our recycling so that it can be made into new material, because virgin plastics and paper are still cheaper in comparison." -- The Atlantic, "Is This the End of Recycling?" March 5, 2019.
Winter tomatoes are tasteless, but  the best are Campari tomatoes grown in
hoop houses in Canada. The box definitely protects the fragile fruit.
It's a number 1, but what are the consequences for the environment?
Recyclable? Ann Arbor recycling says yes to numbers 4-7
tubs and containers. Other programs may not accept them.

Much of the US population drinks K-Cup coffee, and most K Cups aren't recyclable. At least I do right in this department.
These are locally roasted beans, packaged in a paper bag, and made into coffee without any filters or waste other
than the coffee grounds. Even K Cups that are said to be recyclable are often too small for the equipment and
cause problems at recycling plants. Something like 40% of coffee drinkers now use K-Cup machines.
Many other environmental issues have become pressing in recent years. Pollution comes from cars, planes, farm animals, careless trash disposal, factory effluent, smoke, and many other sources. I have tried to limit my discussion here to just one small corner of the problem, but a corner where I can actually do something no matter how small.

Every month, bloggers on several continents share what's in their kitchens by posting at Sherry's "In My Kitchen" ( I'm sharing this post with them, and I hope some of them will tell us about recycling issues in their environments.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Recycling Thoughts

The recycling truck still comes to our neighborhood, but the Ann Arbor government is challenged by recycling
problems that have emerged in the last few years. The cost for this service is becoming a real issue.

A Little History

Recycling began with earnest, responsible citizens who aspired to be good stewards of the environment. In Ann Arbor where I live a few dedicated people got a truck and began collecting recyclables in 1977. City dumps were just beginning to fill up and become a problem; some coastal cities still dumped garbage in the ocean, and recycling seemed a good start to making a cleaner world. The era of recycling began at this time.

Did recycling, which started so idealistically, become an enabler that allowed our society to become more and more dependent on excesses of packaging? During the era of recycling, our collective habits grew worse despite our personal efforts. China, which accepted much of this material for re-purposing, recently stopped processing our trash. Our own capacity to make new products from used plastics, paper and glass grew at first, but now has diminished. Landfills are at capacity. Plastics, especially, are a disastrous worldwide problem, polluting the oceans, poisoning fish, and killing wildlife in obscure parts of the planet. Just this month, a dead whale that washed up in the Philippines was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its gut.

Ann Arbor allows individuals to bring in either trash or recycling that can't
be picked up by the neighborhood garbage trucks. Here's a photo from a
long-ago trip to the dump.
Going back 50 years: recycling, created by idealists, looked like an ideal solution. During the 1980s, towns and cities, including ours, developed municipal recycling centers. These accepted newspapers, which most people had delivered to their homes on a daily basis; glass bottles, and aluminum cans.  Manufacturers could buy this waste and turn trash into usable materials like paper products or roofing tiles. "Curbside pickup" became the norm. Plastics became acceptable as well as paper and glass. Recycling became part of virtually all municipal trash collection, whether done by public or private trash services.

In 1987 people throughout the USA had a garbage awakening when a barge loaded with New York City trash was denied access to garbage plants all along the East Coast. It went as as far as Mexico and Belize, but finally had to bring the garbage back to its starting point for incineration. The cost of dumping garbage was accelerating, while people became increasingly consciousness of resulting air and water pollution from mountains of rotting garbage and never-rotting plastic.

During the 1990s, recycling became a habit of virtually everyone in the US. Bottles, cans, yogurt tubs, cardboard boxes, juice cartons, more kinds of paper -- there were constantly new items that could be put in recycling. I think this made us all complacent. Fruit and vegetable packing plants, electronics manufacturers, and many others didn't have to worry that people would criticize them for using more and more plastic containers.

Economists refer to "externalities," that is, costs that society -- not manufacturers -- would be responsible for. Specifically, producers that wrapped every product with plastic packaging didn't have the least responsibility for disposing of the packaging. It wasn't their problem; it was an externality. Garbage disposal seemed kind of magical: both producers and consumers assumed that recycling took care of it. The foreign and domestic markets where we could sell the recyclable materials seemed able to expand indefinitely. Especially: exports of plastics between 1988 and 2016 amounted to 26.7 million tons. (source) It was too good to be true.

By the end of 2017, the destination for large quantities of collected recycling was China. Ships brought giant containers of manufactured goods to America from China; instead of returning empty the ships returned to China filled with recycling. Cheap Chinese labor could deal with it.

"Single stream recycling" allowed us to throw all our household recyclables together for someone else to deal with. Everyone assumed that ubiquitous recycle bins demonstrated that garbage problems were under control. No more idealism -- not even a bit of responsibility for our kitchen waste.

A problem for our time

Protecting soft fruit with plastic packaging is the norm now.
However, disposal of the packaging is a major issue.
Vast quantities of plastic and cardboard are used at Costco.
The corporate policy is to recycle unsaleable food and also
packaging. (Costco Policy Statement Here.)
At the beginning of 2018, China stopped accepting our undisciplined trash. China is a more prosperous country now -- and we are slobs who contaminate our recyclables with food waste, scraps of the wrong materials, and so on, making it hard to deal with. Without China, the consequences of our irresponsibility are painfully obvious. Municipalities that could get at least a little money for the trash in their single stream of recyclables are now beginning to pay more and more to get rid of it. A lot of recycling has nowhere to go but landfills, which are overfilled anyway.

According to NPR: "Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can't handle it."

According to an article in Wired: "This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US."

Somehow the good intentions our society acted on in the 1980s have reached a limit. Allowing more and more products to be over-packaged and taking less individual responsibility for our trash was not sustainable. We're clearly in need of a new solution, both collective and personal. We need to exert the self-discipline and restraint that we lost when recycling became too easy.

Plastic boxes of mandarin oranges at Trader Joe's. Is this reasonable and necessary packaging? I don't know.

Reading About Recycling

A number of recent articles discuss the emerging crisis in recycling.
Coming next: for my once-a-month report titled "In My Kitchen," a more personal post about recycling.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Indian Food in a Mystery Story

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (published 2018) contains a murder mystery, but the major part of the book is more of a social history novel. A young woman named Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in Bombay in 1921. She's exceptional because she had studied law at Oxford, and she is able to do limited law practice in her father's successful law office, though she cannot be fully admitted to the bar.

Her family are members of the Parsi community, a small minority with its own religion, social structure, and customs. The law case that Perveen takes on involves a polygamous Muslim family: specifically, three widows whose husband has died, and who are depending on her father's firm to settle the estate among themselves and their children. Further, Perveen has a good friend, Alice, whose father is a high official in the British government, and who participates in her work on the case.

Under British rule, the traditions of each community are recognized and have the force of law, especially in areas of marriage, divorce, and division of property after a person's death. The plot of the book, including Perveen Mistry's own back story, offers the author a chance to provide a great deal of information about these communities, especially about the very difficult status of women in India under British rule 100 years ago -- including Parsis, Muslims, and even British women like Alice, who wanted freedom and the right to pursue a career.

I loved the background of foods that Perveen loved to eat and that women cooked (sometimes whether they wanted to or not!) There were many food names that were completely unfamiliar to me, and very intriguing. Early in the book Perveen visits a shop where a young girl was working -- a girl she hoped would get an education, but was probably going to end up working for her father's bakery; Perveen wants to buy a special cake called dahitan to bring to her friend Alice, just off the boat from England. The shopkeeper says: "The dahitan were fried an hour ago and are soaking in sweet rose syrup. And of course, there are the cashew and almond fudges, and the pudding and custard cups." (p. 9).

Then there's lunch brought to the law office, that was cooked by John, the Mistrys’ Goan cook. "John had worked hard preparing lamb koftas, a tamarind chicken curry, a thick yellow dal with mustard greens, and caramelized rice. He’d also sent tangy vegetable pickles, fragrant wheat rotlis, and a tin of almond-honey brittle large enough to last a week." (p. 11). This lunch is followed by "delicious tea, a mixture of Darjeeling brewed with milk, cardamon, pepper, and plenty of sugar." (p. 14).

As the story of Perveen's interaction with the widowed clients of the law office proceeds, there are many flashbacks to her now-dissolved marriage a few years before, when she was a young teenager. This was a very fraught story, but I'll just quote the menu of her wedding feast, including a few unfamiliar food names: "The menu contained the requisite succession of Parsi wedding dishes: steamed fish, fried chicken, egg curry, lamb curry, sago crisps, carrot-and-raisin pickle, and an extravagantly seasoned mutton pulao. Dessert was kulfi and lagan nu custard, but Perveen was too full to manage more than a few spoonfuls of each creamy dessert." (p. 139). And during life with her husband's family, she suffered from her mother-in-law's insistence that she labor in their kitchen: "Perhaps your mother’s servants cooked with prepared powders, but here we grind on the curry stone every morning!" (p. 149).

Perveen rarely goes into the kitchen to help when she is living in her parents' home with family including her brother Rustom and sister-in-law Gulnaz. She's mainly occupied with working at the family law firm. But there was one occasion: "Perveen went to the kitchen and saw Gulnaz at the stove. She was tempering cumin seeds and onion, making the tadka that would top a pot of yellow dal Perveen’s mother was stirring. ... The meal was a good one: lamb curry with fenugreek and potatoes, coconut dal, a chicken and tomato curry, and a savory rice pulao." (p. 250-251).

Near the end of the book, Perveen's English friend Alice comes to their home to meet Perveen's mother Camellia and her sister-in-law. John, their cook, serves a lunch of "fish, potato curry, chapatis, dal pulao, and kachumber." The word kachumber especially caught my eye: it's a cucumber and tomato salad with onions and lemon juice; in other words, a salad that I often make myself!

The conversation about this lunch:
“Do you eat like this every day?” Alice was already reaching for her fork and knife.  
“Of course. Will you eat pomfret?” Camellia asked.  
“Yes— but where is the fish?” Alice stared in amazement at the steaming banana-leaf package that John added to her plate.  
“It’s patra ni machhi, a Parsi specialty,” Gulnaz said. “You don’t eat the banana leaf. When you open it, you’ll find a lovely fillet with a coconut spice paste on top.”  
“It’s delicious,” Alice said after a bite. “But did you leave off the chilies for me?”  
“I thought chilies might hurt your stomach,” Camellia said. “Am I wrong?”  
“I was born in Madras and nursed by a Tamil. Bring the chilies!” (p. 333).
Although I was disturbed by the brutal descriptions of how badly women could be treated in Bombay 100 years ago, I found The Widows of Malabar Hill to be a very readable, interesting, and highly informative book. The detective story parts were suspenseful. The social history parts -- though very fascinating -- sometimes seemed a bit out of proportion to the whole.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Update: In Julia Child's Kitchen

Julia Child: from an article published today in the New Yorker.

Last weekend, as I mentioned in my previous post, we visited Julia Child's kitchen in the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. I love Julia Child, love her recipes, and love seeing her exact table, chairs, stove, utensils, and even her garbage can. This exhibit has been on hiatus while the museum was being remodeled.

In today's New Yorker, there's a picture of Julia Child in this kitchen, photographed in her home at some time in the past -- probably quite long ago, as she appears rather young.  See: "The Passionate, Progressive Politics of Julia Child" by Helen Rosner. A very intense article!

Monday, March 25, 2019

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's Superman

It's a bird...

We are visiting Fairfax, Virginia... the herons are roosting in their rookery on an island at Burke Lake near Fairfax.

It's a plane...

Saturday afternoon: the Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport. From the museum tower we watched planes landing.
We also checked out the many wonderful historic planes on display.
Sunday: in front of the Washington Monument.
A beautiful day, perfect for an outdoor food truck lunch.
The Moongate in the gardens at the Smithsonian castle.
At the Moongate garden: Alice, Evelyn, Miriam. This garden is inspired by the garden of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

But wait! It's Superman...

At the Museum of American History, also on the National Mall.
Our national icons are all here! This costume is from the 1950s.
The history museum has been closed for remodeling for several years.
At last, you can see the Ruby Slippers once again. A whole room is
dedicated to them: almost like a shrine.
Even better, you can see Julia Child's kitchen again -- it's been my favorite exhibit in the American History Museum
for a long time. She tested lots of recipes here! We enjoyed watching the accompanying video about Julia Child as well.

Julia Child's restaurant-level range from her kitchen in Cambridge, MA,
now part of the Smithsonian installation. Also almost like a shrine.
Across the National Mall from the American History Museum is the Freer Gallery.
It's also just reopened, so we visited another favorite: the Peacock Room,
which was decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1877 and brought from
its original location in London to the United States by Freer.
All weekend: we're celebrating Miriam's acceptance
into several of her top college choices. She will be
deciding which one to go to soon.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Byzantine Murals

Some of the world's most beautiful murals, I believe, were made by mosaic artists and fresco painters working throughout the Byzantine Empire. Many extraordinary churches were built and decorated in a unique Byzantine style from the early days of Roman Byzantium through the Middle Ages. I'm especially fond of this artwork, and I've made efforts to visit cities where these churches are located in order to enjoy seeing this artwork. I did try to take pictures of the murals which are very large and not always well-lighted, so my photos of the murals are not fantastic. Thus, I've selected some available images, mainly from Wikipedia, to illustrate these historic and wonderful murals. I searched for images of the mosaics that I recall most vividly: I've chosen only one for each city that I've visited. If you are intrigued, you can easily find more.

Palermo, Sicily

King Roger II of Sicily being crowned by Christ. (Wikipedia)
Several churches in Palermo have remarkable murals by Byzantine artists
that were hired by the Norman kings of Sicily in the eleventh century.

Monreale, Sicily

Interior of Monreale Cathedral. Monreale is near Palermo. (Wikipedia)

Ravenna, Italy

The Emperor Justinian and his retinue, San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna. (Tripadvisor)

Venice, Italy

Mosaic: "Noah Releasing the Dove," Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice. (Wikipedia)
In Saint Mark's, there's an entire series of murals illustrating the story of Noah, which I found incredibly impressive.

Istanbul, Turkey

Mosaic from the Chora Church, Istanbul. This is an amazing little church far from the center of the city. (Wikipedia)
Some parts of the church are also decorated with frescos.

An Extremely Brief History 

Mosaic depicting the Emperor Constantine. (Wikipedia)
You probably know this: in the year 330 of the current era, the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium. The city received a new name: Constantinople. The depiction of Constantine is one of the famous mosaics of Hagia Sophia.

At the time, "Barbarians" from northern Europe had taken over much of the Italian peninsula including Rome. However, emperors based in Constantinople continued to rule a substantial part of the empire, including the areas now belonging to Greece, to parts of current Turkey, to Sicily, and to other cities in Italy. Based on ancient Roman traditions, the Byzantines developed unique art and culture during their 1000 year existence. In particular, Roman mosaic art, which had largely been secular, developed into a new and rather different type of Christian art during the long Byzantine era -- as illustrated above.

In 1453, after a long series of territorial losses, the final defeat of Byzantium/Constantinople ended the empire. The Ottoman Turks took over the city and renamed it Istanbul. In the growing Ottoman Empire, Islam became the dominant religion. Though the rulers never prohibited Christian worship, the most famous Byzantine murals, those of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, were covered over by plaster soon after the takeover. The building was converted from a church to a mosque where representative art was prohibited. Today this remarkable building is neither a church nor a mosque, but is kept open as a monument to art and history. I fear that its integrity as a work of art may be endangered by current religious nationalism in Turkey.

For more worldwide murals see the weekly post Monday Murals at Colorful World.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Sweet Little Lies"

"I finished me thirty years in 2012, got me pension, bought this car, and now I have a grand old time driving about the place, listening to the radio, having the craic with folk. And a few pints at the weekend o’ course." (Sweet Little Lies, p. 293).
So explains a former Irish policeman to the police detective from London who is interviewing him about suspects in her murder case. The London detective, named Catrina and called Cat, is the narrator of Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear (first published in Britain in 2017). Like many of the characters in the book, Cat's Irish interviewee speaks in a kind of dialect, which I think is very carefully chosen to be both colorful and understandable. 

Various Irish words and slang words in the book also amused me, but I was especially taken with craic.  Here are a few more times it's used in the novel:
  • "It was Padraigh Foy’s sixtieth, she said, and there’d be free beer and fierce craic in Grogan’s if he fancied it." (p. 94). 
  • “Just a bit of craic, Sergeant. No offense meant.” (p. 260). 
  • "She was just a barmaid in Grogan’s who’d flirt with her own shadow and she must have seen us having the craic a few times." (p. 282).  
Craic, I learned, means gossip and fun -- a good word for wordy Wednesday today! Urban Dictionary defines craic as "Irish word for fun/enjoyment that has been brought into the English language. usu. when mixed with alcohol and/or music. ... Fun doesn't really cut it though. General banter, good times had by all." (source) According to Wikipedia, "The word has an unusual history; the Scots and English crack was borrowed into Irish as craic in the mid-20th century and the Irish spelling was then reborrowed into English." (source)

Besides enjoying the language the author uses, I found Sweet Little Lies to be a wonderful book, full of well-developed and quirky personalities and compelling in its ever-increasing suspense about which of the characters is involved in the murder at hand and why and how they did it. Like all mysteries that I love the most, Sweet Little Lies uses food to advance the story and round out the character development, like these:
"I sit by the fridge. Eat a bag of grated cheese like a packet of crisps. 'Disordered eating,' a counselor called it. 'Often the result of an aloof or aggressive relationship between a father and daughter.' ... I take the cheese, an overripe kiwi and a can of cherry Coke and walk up the two flights to my bedroom." (pp. 88-89). 
"'Tell you what, I’ll get chef to make you something. Anything you want. Peach and honey pancakes, maybe? You could never resist them.' Some things never change. Dad trying to manipulate me with sugar is one of them." (p. 118).
"I ate malt loaf for lunch that day. Four fat wedges slathered thick with real butter. Gran loved to watch people eat, always complaining that the only person who ever called to the house was that scrawny one from the Department of Social Protection and you’d be all day trying to get her to eat a biscuit. 'Not like you,' she’d say, cheerleading me through a plate of ham sandwiches that you wouldn’t give to a wrestler. 'Now you wouldn’t get blown down in a strong wind, my Catrina.'" (p. 6).  
Aromas also contribute to the effectively vivid sense of drama that I enjoyed throughout the book. Cat says, for example: "If domestic smuggery could be bottled it would smell just like this. Topnotes of gingerbread and basenotes of cloves." (p. 218).

As you might imagine, there's also a lot about drink in this book. I liked this:
"'That which does not kill us makes us stronger,' claimed Nietzsche, or Kanye West, depending on your cultural frame of reference, but exorbitant wine consumption must be the one exception because I certainly don’t feel strengthened by last night’s two-bottle bender. I feel annihilated." (p. 197). 
Cat doesn't overdo the philosophy, but when she does, it's good. She describes the neighborhood where she stays in Ireland to do some interviewing:
"There’s also a bookie’s, three pubs and a funeral parlor. Somewhere to eat, somewhere to shop, somewhere to bet, drink and die. A blueprint for a life simply lived." (p. 295). 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

A mural at an outdoor restaurant in downtown Galway, Ireland.
Collage of outdoor art in Connemara, Ireland.

For Saint Patrick's Day, I am reusing these photos from my previous posts about our visits to Ireland in 2016 and 2011. I'm sharing these photos with Mural Monday at Colorful World.

Clonmacnoise National Historic Site, County Offaly, Ireland.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Gingerbread" by Helen Oyeyemi

A very puzzling book, Gingerbread. I'm totally confused by it, but don't feel like rereading it to see if it makes more sense the second time through. I'm not sure I can write a coherent review, but here's a try at it. (If you don't like mine, there was a very coherent one in the New York Times last week.)

Is it fantasy? I suppose so. But it's also a kind of psychological mystery. Who are all the people in the seemingly real and fantasy places? What is their mysterious country of origin -- or maybe alternate reality -- named Druhástrana?

During the course of the book, which is sometimes narrated by one or another character, but sometimes more omniscient, we meet a rather large family with three main characters, Margot, the mother; Harriet, her daughter, and Perdita, Harriet's daughter. They tell each other maybe-real stories, interacting with Perdita's four dolls named Bonnie, Sago, Lollipop, and Prim, who seem to be alive and rather perceptive. We hear a long story about Margot and Harriet's early lives in Druhástrana and the unreal way they arrived in England. We hear a lot about how they make gingerbread from a maybe-magical formula, how they give it to various people. Are we supposed to know that the name Perdita means lost? Are we supposed to think of Shakespeare's character named Perdita in The Winter's Tale, who was rejected, lost, then found? I don't know.

Is gingerbread a real food or some type of magical substance? Right at the beginning, we learn about life in a rural part of Druhástrana, where the peasants are badly mistreated by landlords, and where gingerbread seems to sustain them:
"The gingerbread recipe is one of the lean-year recipes,... lean-year recipes are all about minimizing waste and making that which is indigestible just about edible. None of it tastes good save the gingerbread, which is exactly as delicious as it has to be. Blighted rye was the family’s food of last resort, and the jeopardy in using it was so great that it made Great-Great-Great-Grandma really think about how to take the edge off. Out came the precious ingredients, the warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, the best saved for last. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs. Often that didn’t happen— often the strenuous sifting of the grain expelled just enough ergot to make this an ordinary meal as opposed to a last meal. But just in case, just in case, gingerbread made the difference between choking down risk and swallowing it gladly." (pp. 8-9). 
Eventually, there's even "a gingerbread house, a classic gingerbread house at that, straight out of a story he’d been told as a child." (p. 259).

The time frame of Gingerbread seems to be mainly something like the present -- a time with cell phones, social media, and all the other modern conveniences -- the women of the story still make gingerbread, and it still potentially causes a variety of harm as well as delight. Characters make mysterious trips to Druhástrana, maybe out-of-body trips, maybe some other kind. A mysterious character named Gretel (who eventually seems to have a partner named Hansel)  appears and disappears in the lives of the characters. Gretel has strange eyes: "Gretel’s double pupils were evenly spaced, so it was possible to be disturbed by them without knowing quite what you were getting disturbed by." (p. 97).

Gretel articulates her philosophy: "All that happens when you grow up is that your ethics get completely compromised and you do extremely dodgy things you never imagined doing, apparently for the sake of others. Plus, growing up isn’t in my job description." Asked what her job is, she says: "Changeling." Is that "Changeling as in nonhuman replacement for a human child?" Gretel says: "Changeling as in changeling. We’ve had bad press." (p. 140).

Does this paragraph explain it?
"'Oh,' Harriet says aloud to Perdita, 'what am I thinking? That you went to Druhástrana, that you went there somehow without leaving this bed . . . even though you would have had to leave this bed to get there, Perdita, because as I have been saying all your life, Wikipedia doesn’t get to decide which places have actual geographic existence and which don’t. But OK, playing along for now, I seem to be thinking that you made it across and that Gretel was there. My Gretel. She saw you. She knew who you were, helped you, maybe. She gave you her ring. And she said— now let me see, what is it I’m wishing she’d said: Tell Harriet Lee I am still her friend . . . something like that . . .'" (p. 53). 
There's a lot of mystery in the book, especially around Gretel. She's maybe appearing and disappearing more than one thinks throughout the novel I just don't really get it, but I think that's how it's intended. I guess it's not one of my favorite recent reads. Maybe I'm just distracted by the terrible news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, today -- so horrifying.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Good Eats!

Moroccan chicken with dates -- "Djaj Bil Tmar" from Arabesque by Claudia Roden (p. 59)
We have been trying a number of new recipes recently.
The chicken was Len's creation.
Thickening the sauce. Dates are added for the final few moments of cooking.
Ingredients for the chicken include onion, dates, saffron, cinnamon, fresh ginger,
and oil plus butter for cooking.
Another night Len made a Ragu from The Splendid Table.
Ragu: beef, vegetables, pasta.
Marcella Hazan's very famous tomato sauce uses
only these four ingredients. Len tried the recipe
which is online at the New York Times.
The famous tomato sauce served on ready-made ravioli.
Ready to bake: Len's great onion tart, the classic Provencal dish called Pissaladière.
Pissaladière: hot and delicious.
Lettuce-wrapped salmon filets.
Yakitori chicken with home-made sauce. This was the one time I made dinner from a recipe.
Most recent nights, I've cooked old favorites.