Monday, September 30, 2019

Our Kitchen at the End of Summer

Who remembers drinking from jelly glasses?

This caramel mousse from Costco comes in re-usable drinking glasses. I haven't seen such a thing in ages, but here it is in my kitchen, along with a variety of produce and a few other things that seemed special this month. 

I'm sharing this post about my September kitchen with Australian blogger Sherry, who hosts a collection of links to blog posts from all over the world telling about our various kitchens: 

Maybe the last plums and peaches...

Though it's late for these fruits, I found a few plums, peaches, green heirloom zebra tomatoes, and sweet peppers at the Argus Farm Stop consignment market where farmers bring their produce. Will we find them even one more time? Or will we be eating only autumn and winter vegetables?

Also from Argus: garlic, bacon, broccoli, and lettuce --

I love the garlic from the local garlic farms.
Bacon that was raised and smoked at a farm near us, and frisée lettuce.
Crisp bacon, frisée lettuce, and tomatoes make a great salad.
Broccoli, egg, and pepper salad with not-so-local olives.
After a few days we ate all the produce, and went back for more. This time besides tomatoes (red), peaches, plums and
peppers, we chose delicata squash, apples, and pears. But we know the summer isn't going to last forever.


Pull-apart cinnamon rolls inspired by Bread Week on the 2019 Great
British Baking Show where they did a variety of pull-apart breads.
Len made these because I love them!
Another pull apart: dinner rolls with a combination of black & white sesame seeds.
Len also baked sourdough bread several times. Delicious (though not new).
I've finally settled on a pancake recipe using the sourdough discard. It can
be made sweet or savory. Pancakes in the photo were stuffed with cheese.
I also made a batch with roasted corn and peppers.

On the Refrigerator...

Following my usual habit, I came back from California with a few magnets and post cards.
They will adorn the refrigerator for a few weeks, then I'll move on to some other decoration.

Best Meals in September...

Our most ambitious meals this month did not come from our own kitchen.
We ate them during our trip to California. In this photo:
local sand dabs, a flatfish from the waters of Half Moon Bay.
Also delicious: fish tacos with guacamole, rice, and black beans.
Beyond the dinner plate you can see the shells of Monterey oysters that we
ate as an appetizer. Wonderful!

AND the year 5780 starts today:

All photos and text in this post are copyright © 2019 by mae's food blog: maefood dot blogspot dot com. 
If you read this elsewhere it's been pirated.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

"Discriminating Taste" by S. Margot Finn

A few days ago in I read a very interesting interview titled "'Good taste' is all about class anxiety" by Rachel Sugar. In this interview, author S. Margot Finn talked about several of her unusual ideas about food in modern American life. The central point of the interview:
"In her 2017 book, Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, [Finn] argues that our beliefs about food — which ones are 'good' and which ones aren’t — is a direct result of economic angst. In the late 1970s, the middle class began to stagnate, while the ultra-rich start getting even richer, and almost immediately after that, middle class Americans got really into brie. By cultivating what we eat, and how we eat, and how we talk about what we eat, Finn writes, we can 'perform and embody a desirable class identity.' You may not have actual dollars, but you can certainly develop a very loud appreciation for the merits of certain natural wines."
This book seemed so intriguing that I immediately ordered it and I have now read it. It's based on Finn's PhD thesis in American Culture at the University of Michigan. The academic origin of the book probably accounts for the excessive historical detail, repetition of reasonably commonplace facts about food myths and misconceptions, and pedantic language that seems to me to make it a little tedious to read. However, although the ideas are somewhat buried in verbiage, Discriminating Taste has some interesting and nonconformist propositions about popular trends in food.

A major theme of the book is the lack of consistency in popular ideals about food, in particular the lack of agreement about what foods are more desirable, tastier, healthier, ethically better, or culturally more authentic. The only consistent way these claimed ideals can be unified, Finn implies, is that people who espouse them are using them to establish their moral or social superiority to others. She shows that these are not new ideas, but ones that have recurred in American culture for around 150 years, which is in itself revealing.

I particularly liked her discussion on "The Misguided Pursuit of Authenticity and Exoticism." Why, for example, are Lay's Potato Chips not considered particularly "authentic" while Sriracha hot sauce, invented and manufactured in Southern California, has "an exotic aura which is probably responsible for at least some of its popular cachet"?  Finn concludes:
"Although both Sriracha and the potato chip are American inventions, the spicy condiment with a Thai name that is made by an ethnically Chinese immigrant and is strongly associated with Vietnamese cuisine is distanced from the mainstream in a way that a snack that could be traced to Euro-American figures such as Mary Randolph and Herman W. Lay, or even the bi-racial George Crum, is not." (pp 120-122)
The author's choices of specific examples to illustrate her points about how food is viewed in America is amusing: she relies on long discussions of several mass-market films and advertisements, particularly the wine snobbery depicted in the 2004 film "Sideways;" the attitude towards fine foods and skillful chefs, especially French as illustrated in the 2007 film "Ratatouille;" and the social status and food taste expressed in the famous and highly successful 1980s commercial for Grey Poupon mustard -- "Pardon me, would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?"

Although these examples do express Finn's points about food theories, when I read these ultra-serious analyses of rather obsolete items from popular culture I couldn't really see them in the here and now. I know they are relevant, but I just couldn't sustain the demanded connection to the many recent books I've read about nutrition, environmental implications of what we eat, what's tasty, what's industrial, and all that kind of thing.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, I suggest that you check out Rachel Sugar's interview with Finn, which has a nice but brief summary of the major thoughts in the book. Rather than try to summarize further, I'll end with an example of the academic jargon that mars the book, in this example, a few sentences about the hostility that can be aimed at people who buy organic or gourmet food with food stamps, or about poorer people who imitate the ways of the upper middle class:
"When the moral valence of a cultural sign shifts with the class status of the person, that's probably a good sign that the normative judgment associated with the sign has more to do with social hierarchies than with any real moral logic. Just as the threat of being perceived as a snob helps police nonwealthy people who might aspire to pass as gourmets, the vitriol inspired by the idea of poor people participating in the food movement helps keeps those trends exclusive enough to continue serving as a source of symbolic distinction." (p. 212)

© 2019 Mae E. Sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"The Forty Rules of Love" by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a wonderful and imaginative author, but I think that she over-reached in her book The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi (published 2010). Sometimes the book seems vivid and wonderful, sometimes not so much. No matter what else I think, I admire it for its scholarship about 13th century mystics and the history of Islamic thought and poetry, although I also admire the skill with which the author modernizes the 13th century characters and scenes.

Often as I read, I felt that the novel was far too didactic. Embedded in a story of a 20th century American family is another novel about the 13th century, which Ella, the main character, is reading. There are indeed 40 quotations about love, which are used as little moral or emotional lessons applied to the main characters in both the time frames covered by the novel. Sometimes they fit in well, but often the moralizing seemed forced.

The character Ella was extremely stereotyped: a frustrated Jewish housewife in Massachusetts whose dentist husband has come to totally bore her and whose children are outgrowing her smothering maternal attentions. Her hobby is cooking, and even the meals she prepares seem to me to be quite stereotyped like "honey-roasted duck with sautéed potatoes and caramelized onions on a bed of brown rice" with "white chocolate crème brûlée" for dessert. (p. 346-347)

As Ella reads the embedded novel of 13th century Turkey, she slowly falls in love with its author. After much drama, she abandons her family with pretty predictable consequences. Or as we learn at the beginning of the book: her life had been undistinguished and calm and normal -- "All of which is why no one, including Ella, could explain what was going on when she filed for divorce in the fall of 2008 after twenty years of marriage." (pp. 7-8).

The characters in the 13th century story, which mainly takes place in Konya, Anatolia (modern Turkey) were stereotyped as well. The central characters are two mystics, the famous poet Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams, who are based on historic figures. Shams, destined to form a deep friendship with Rumi, begins with a vision of his own death as he wanders towards Rumi. During one of his adventures, before they met, he presented this list of typical people:
"I roamed the streets, amazed at the mixture of religions, customs, and languages permeating the air. I ran into Gypsy musicians, Arab travelers, Christian pilgrims, Jewish merchants, Buddhist priests, Frankish troubadours, Persian artists, Chinese acrobats, Indian snake charmers, Zoroastrian magicians, and Greek philosophers. In the slave market, I saw concubines with skin white as milk and hefty, dark eunuchs who had seen such atrocities that they had lost their ability to speak. In the bazaar I came across traveling barbers with bloodletting devices, fortune-tellers with crystal balls, and magicians who swallowed fire. There were pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and vagrants who I suspected were runaway soldiers from the last Crusades. I heard people speak Venetian, Frankish, Saxon, Greek, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Hebrew, and several other dialects I couldn’t even distinguish. Despite their seemingly endless differences, all of these people gave off a similar air of incompleteness, of the works in progress that they were... " (p. 132)
Even the food Shams eats seems a bit stereotyped to me. From a different part of his narrative:
"Two serving boys appeared just then, carrying between them a huge tray stacked with plates: freshly grilled goat, dried salted fish, spiced mutton, wheat cakes, chickpeas with meatballs, and lentil soup with sheep’s-tail fat. They went around the hall distributing them, filling the air with the scents of onion, garlic, and spices. When they stopped by my end of the table, I got myself a bowl of steaming soup and some dark bread." (p. 38). 
While the 20th century narrative is written by an omniscient narrator, the 13th century embedded novel is told through the voices of many individuals -- or types! Besides Rumi and Shams, we meet an abused harlot, the hermaphrodite who owns the brothel, a self-righteous teacher in a madrassa, a self-justifying brute who beats up those he deems heretics, a drunkard, a formerly Christian wife (Rumi's), a mystically gifted young girl (Rumi's adopted child), Rumi's good son and his bad son, inhabitants of various dervish academies, and more.

In the case of all these characters, Shafak does a remarkable job of portraying them and adding just enough detail to the types. I would have expected to be confused by so many narrators, but the writing is very clear. For this reason I kept reading and my attention didn't waver, even though the didactic effects bothered me. I felt as if there was a tension between the emotionally clear way the characters came through and the forced use of the 40 quotes and the generalizations about love in their lives.

The main sections of the novel are titled Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and The Void. I am trying to find the significance of these traditional categories to the contents of the novel, but I am not sure how to interpret it. Perhaps I'm just not able to understand the overarching significance of this complex novel. Perhaps it's necessary to know more about the history -- I knew almost nothing.

I'll end with this quote from a review of the novel by Michelle Goldberg:
"The Forty Rules of Love is a terribly frustrating novel, because almost everything about it is wonderful except for the work itself. Its author, Elif Shafak, is an inspiration: As Turkey’s bestselling female writer, she is a brave champion of cosmopolitanism, a sophisticated feminist, and an ambitious novelist who infuses her magical-realist fiction with big, important ideas." ("Lost in Translation," The New Republic, March 25, 2010)
Note: if you need information on the historic background, I recommend this article: "10 Things You Probably Didn't Know about Rumi."

© 2019 Mae E. Sander for maefood-dot-blogspot-dot com

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Monday, September 23, 2019

"Panic in a Suitcase" by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

"They met in Brighton, a neighborhood whose pulse Lamborg made a point to check at least once a year. Pasha professed ignorance, and it was Lamborg who ended up showing Pasha around leading the way to a restaurant-café that served the most delicate blintzes. A rheumatic finger pointed out that over there was the most sinus-excavating plov and here the airiest meringue, while two blocks up stood white vats of the crunchiest pickles. The only men Pasha knew with such an investment in the matter were grotesquely obese -- they ate all day long, did little else -- yet even they were less expert in the field. And here was Lamborg, a chopstick of a man, warning Pasha never to buy Korean carrot salad from Gold Label but only from Taste of Russia, which, on the other hand, used the worst dough for its frozen pelmeni. All in earnestness, not a hint of sarcasm, not a measly grin. ... The only gastronomic wisdom Pasha could muster was that it was truly uncanny how much the food here was like that in Odessa, the only divergence being in abundance. He kept at it until he'd talked himself into admitting how disturbing and pathetic he found Brighton, though he actually didn't feel one way or the other." (Panic in a Suitcase, p. 140-141)
Here's another book about Russian immigrants from the Soviet Union and its aftermath, about their typical complicated and agonized self-examinations, self-doubts, ambivalent feelings towards their own and their adopted countries, and their elaborate family dysfunctions. The novel also deals with Russians' love of poetry and poets and not least of all their complicated digestion and food ways. As do the other novels of these immigrants, this one reflects the tension of people whose expectations of a new land are almost -- but not quite -- fulfilled. They always know about another Russian who is living in a mansion with gold-plated everything instead of a cramped apartment in dumpy Brighton Beach, and when they write home sometimes they even claim that they've achieved this ideal.

The character Pasha -- himself a poet -- and his niece Frida are the main focus of the book, but Pasha's parents, his sister and her husband (Frida's parents), his wives and son, and a few miscellaneous friends all have a role. Pasha is a visitor to Brighton Beach, not an immigrant: he never decides to leave Odessa, and he continues to worship Russian poets, especially the exiled Brodsky. Frida is the opposite: she was such a small child when she left that she hardly remembers Odessa, and it's all new to her when she finally visits. What she finds, not surprisingly, is that the family there is just as mixed up, conflicted, quarrelsome, and dysfunctional as the Americans: maybe even more so.

The tone of this novel is half ironic, half satiric, and half bitter (the halves overlap). The food the characters eat reflects these attitudes, which makes the book somewhat different from other Russian immigrant books where food can be an un-ironic pleasure. For example, they go to a seafood restaurant near an unsatisfactory cottage disappointingly not very near to a vacation lake for a meal that later sickens all of them:
"They all intentionally pointed to different items on the menu but got identical cramy shellfish dishes on giant plates too heavy to take part in their habitual plate-swapping ritual so they just threw white globs of mysterious seafood at each other, finding that their dishes didn't only look the same but tasted the same, too." (p. 77)
Stereotypes go both ways: when Frida lands in Odessa for her first return home since early childhood, and is picked up at the airport:
"A bottle of Coca-Cola awaited in the trunk of Volk's burgundy Volvo. It was practically steaming. From a vest pocket, Volk retrieved a stack of Dixie cups. Sveta Russian-dolled [sic] out the cups on the sun-blazed hood of the car, pouring until the brim caught the froth. They toasted in the parking lot. It was a superb parking lot. There was no painted grid delineating individual spaces, and the cars were strewn about as if abandoned by a giant child called to tea. Frida squinted into the distance, gulping her strange drink. It was a syrup made from the fur of an old grizzly, cooked up in a cauldron on the outskirts of town by a lady who mixed cat food into everything she touched ... " (p. 226-227)
I can't say I found this book as amusing or captivating or even as coherent as I've found several other Russian immigrant novels and other books about the most recent wave of new Americans. In fact, it was at times a bit tedious and unfocused and as in the above passage, overwritten. I prefer the work of Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, Anya Von Bremzen, or Boris Fishman to that of Akhtiorskaya.

© 2019 Mae Sander for mae's food blog

Friday, September 20, 2019

Messages from the Climate Rally, Ann Arbor

Climate Strike, 2019: On the University of Michigan campus, organizers estimated a crowd of 7500. A breathtakingly beautiful day to learn what is going to be lost. The emphasis: the speakers all believe that in 11 more years, the damage will be fully irreversible.

Many of the participants were very young people, including whole classes from elementary, middle schools, and high school, as well as university students. To my surprise, the speakers were mainly very young as well, and the organizer appears to have been a high-school student. Their ages were announced: 15, 14, 13... and they spoke dramatically about how they wanted a future. For these speakers, the 11 year deadline looms in the prime of their lives.

The oldest speaker (as far as I gathered) was a graduate student who enumerated the misdeeds of the university, such as building a new natural-gas fueled power plant that will become a long-term commitment to fossil fuel energy use. He was arrested at a sit-in at the office of the university president last year, protesting the university's refusal to divest endowment funds from fossil fuel industries.

At rallies in the past, speakers have been chosen for their prominence and traditional expertise. I expected to hear from the mayor, our activist state representative, or a university professor. Not at this rally!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

“High on the Hog” by Jessica Harris

Our culinary reading group, sponsored by Motte and Bailey bookshop, met last night to discuss High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica Harris (published 2011). In the photo above, you can see the bookstore setting where we meet. Gene Alloway, owner of Motte and Bailey, is at left. I thought I had included everyone, but unfortunately cut off one participant at far right.

Each of us who read the book liked it very much. Several participants praised the consistent and useful organization and the author's skillful writing. The ten chapters are in chronological order, and each chapter has three parts: a historical/sociological description of Black Americans during the selected era, a description of the foods and foodways that characterized the era, and information about restaurants at the time.

I also liked the many illustrations, the detailed descriptions of foods, and  the way Harris used quotes from many authors, like this one:
"In Harlem, as in other northern communities around the country, the newly arrived had to survive on what African American writer Ralph Ellison called 'shit, grit, and mother wit.'" (p. 174). 
In the chapters on the era of slavery, we were all quite fascinated to learn about the lives of the slaves who worked in the kitchens of the "Big House." We wondered about those who escaped in one way or another, and often became proprietors of restaurants, catering establishments, or food carts in the North. So many new ideas. For example, we were all quite fascinated by the information about Black cowboys and about the responsible role of Blacks as cooks on the cowboy chuck wagons out West.

In previous book selections, we had learned about Hercules, the enslaved cook of George Washington, and about James Hemings, the mixed-race cook who worked for Thomas Jefferson. (Hemings was the half-brother of Jefferson's wife, and brother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson's mistress: the heartlessness of Jefferson's treatment of these enslaved relatives never ceases to amaze us all!) Their stories, and many others, really capture something about the deeply troublesome and immoral aspects of slavery. Here's a very interesting passage about the escape of Hercules (also called Harkless) --
"His escape troubled the Washington family. 'The running off of my cook has been a most inconvenient thing to this family,' wrote Washington, who spared no expense in attempting to find him. No doubt finding it difficult to understand why one such favored slave would leave, Washington charged Frederick Kitt, his former house hold steward in Philadelphia, with finding Hercules and returning his property to him, noting, 'but little doubt remains in my mind of his having gone to Philadelphia, and may yet be found there, if proper measures were employed to discover (unsuspectedly so as not to alarm him) where his haunts are.' Several weeks later, Washington renewed his request to Kitt, stating that any expenses incurred in finding Hercules and returning him to Mount Vernon would be paid by Colonel Clement Biddle, but it was to no avail. Hercules had slipped off into the night. His six-year-old daughter, who remained enslaved at Mount Vernon, expressed thoughts that were probably more representative of those of Uncle Harkless himself. When asked by a guest at Mount Vernon if she were upset to never see her father again, she replied, 'O! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.' Despite our lack of knowledge of him or his dishes, Hercules, the chef who doesn’t even have a last name for history, was more than a grace note to the history of African American chefs. He was the first black chef for the country’s first chief executive." (p. 76). 
Our discussion turned to one interesting twentieth-century phenomenon: the rise of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims or Nation of Islam (NOI). We were interested in the way that the Black Muslims challenged traditional foodways of the American Black community. The following passage illustrates what Harris had to say:
"Pork is haram, or forbidden, to traditional Muslims. Pork, especially the less-noble parts, was also the primary meat fed to enslaved African Americans. Pork in any form was anathema to NOI members, as were collard greens or black-eyed peas seasoned with swine. The refusal of the traditional African American diet of pig and corn was an indictment of its deleterious effects on African American health, but also a backhanded acknowledgment of the cultural resonance that it held for most blacks, albeit one rooted in slavery. Pork had become so emblematic of African American food that the forbidding of it by the Nation of Islam was radical, and the refusal to eat swine immediately differentiated members of the group from many other African Americans as much as the sober dress and bow ties of the men and the hijab-like attire of the women. Forbidding pork made a powerful political statement, but the real culinary hallmark of the Nation was the bean pie— a sweet pie, prepared from the small navy beans that Elijah Muhammad decreed digestible. It was hawked by the dark-suited, bow-tie-wearing followers of the religion along with copies of the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, spreading the Nation’s gospel in both an intellectual and a gustatory manner." (pp. 210-211).
A recipe for this counter-cultural bean pie, along with many more traditional recipes, appears in the recipe section at the end of High on the Hog. A very interesting and enjoyable book!

Text and photos © 2019 by Mae Sander for Mae's Food Blog

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

California Birds

An Albatross at the farthest point of our pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay.
On our trip last week, Len took photos of as many interesting birds as he could, and he's posting them on his Flickr page now. Here are a few of my favorites. You can click on them to get to his Flickr page.

Common Murre.
Golden Eagle.

White Pelicans.
Hermit Warbler.

Monday, September 16, 2019

goodbye california

UPDATE at 9 PM EST: our plane departed & arrived on time, and we are now at home!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Beautiful California

Today at dawn: the headland just north of Half Moon Bay Harbor.

On the path by the water we saw this snail crossing the sand.
The kelp from an earlier high tide was draped on the rocks.
Later, we drove the coast road to Santa Cruz because a rare bird
was on the pier. It's been some time since we drove this way, and
I love every bit of the scenery.
Here's the bird that has strayed here from very far south:
a red-footed booby.

We also stopped to look for birds among the redwoods.

Our last birding: looking at a snowy plover and his friend.

Our birdwatching tour ends with a group dinner tonight. We have been surprised and delighted every day with the highly varied bird and animal life, the wide range of scenery and habitats, and the skill and thoughtfulness of our guides. Here's a link to the organizing company if you want to travel with this very well organized and skillful group:

Text and photos copyright © 2019 by Mae & Len Sander for Mae's blog, 
maefood dot 
If you find this post elsewhere, you are on a pirate website!