Sunday, January 31, 2021

In the Kitchen in January

Political events and unfounded hopes for covid vaccinations have preoccupied my thoughts during January. Because isolation is still necessary, in fact increasingly necessary, we have continued to cook and eat all our meals at home, but without a lot of novelty. New items we have purchased include things like different face masks rather than different kitchen gadgets! The best I can do for "In My Kitchen" is a summary of what we ate during the month.

Len's experiments in baking from The Rye Baker have continued, with lots of delicious rye breads as well as pizza dough and crusty sourdough loaves. As he creates sourdough discard, I try to use it up by making pancakes, both sweet and savory. I've posted plenty of photos of these breads in the past -- here are a few more.

One of Len's great rye breads served with anchovy butter.

Salad and tangerines accompany the bread.

Fresh out of the oven!

A loaf made from light rye flour and "first clear"
wheat flour: new ingredients this month.
Rye bread, eggplant with stir-fry noodles, and grapes for dessert.

Ottolenghi's many fascinating recipes continue to be a favorite choice for adding new flavors and flavor combinations to our diet.
From Ottolenghi's book Jerusalem:
a sheet pan dish: chicken with fennel and tangerines.
The only chicken I cooked in January.

The chicken dish, served with rice. (Recipe here)

From Ottolenghi's Flavor: potatoes and eggs
with gochujang sauce and miso.

Grocery delivery and a few items picked up by a friend continue to be our source of all food. In January, we didn't even order any take-out food -- we ordered from Whole Foods via and we cooked it all in the kitchen. Unfortunately, although the Whole Foods ordering continues to be reliable, Amazon has discontinued Prime Pantry, and the products I was buying from that service are now much more expensive on Amazon, if available at all. In the following photo you can see the last Pantry box awaiting recycling. 

Amazon Prime Pantry:
formerly a great way to get many brand-name foods
like V-8 juice and Hellman's mayo.

Soup has been a welcome lunch food as the weather descends into its most wintery period, though luckily, we had a relatively mild December and first half of January, with snow at near-record lows. Soup is about the least photogenic food I know of, so no pics!

A more cheerful subject: Valentine's Day is coming soon! At the end of the month, we added some Valentine placemats and decor to our table. It's nice to see them during the worsening weather as we fret because the Michigan distribution of vaccine is very slow and uncertain.

On the table: placemats that say "I Love You"
and some bright heart-shaped fairy lights.

The Valentine decor with an exceptional meat meal:
mashed potatoes, yogurt sauce, condiments, AND
lamb chops that I had in the freezer before the pandemic began.
(OK, I should have used them sooner, but they were fine.)

Savory pancakes containing corn and onion, with avocado salad.
Valentine decor again.
"I love you" placemats once more, with salad, rice, and shrimp.

To conclude with a happy thought: one of the flocks of robins that spend the winter in wooded areas
came to our neighborhood last week, and feasted on the berries in a nearby garden.

This blog post © 2021 mae sander, to be shared with “In My Kitchen” hosted by Sherry’s blog.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The World’s Best Wildlife Photos

The Guardian’s photo essays are wonderful.
Here’s an image from Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, of some
Ibex that have become bold because of the lockdown.
Italy, Tibet, Canada, Singapore, South Africa ... the whole world is here
and welcome to those of us who can’t travel or get out of the house..

You can see the entire set of photos here:


Friday, January 29, 2021

How to find a bad restaurant

Right now, restaurants in London, Paris, and most big US cities are dark and dismal places, closed temporarily or unfortunately, often for good. Restaurant critics -- along with chefs, waiters, sommeliers, and so forth -- have had to find other work. The future might hold better luck for them and for us. Maybe we will be able to eat out again in the not-too-distant future, maybe even while traveling to England or France where I've definitely enjoyed many good meals. Meanwhile, I have books to read.

I decided to read the book Dishing it Out: In Search of the Restaurant Experience by Robert Appelbaum, published in 2011, because it had a chapter on Grimod De La Reynière, whom I've been trying to learn about. On the whole, Dishing it Out is dull, pretentious, and full of social science jargon, pedantic literary critics' jargon, superior-minded self-promotion,  and at the same time a strange sort of naivety. The chapter on Grimod wasn't great either. Nothing in the book is as clever as the title -- though several other books on are also called Dishing it Out! 

Briefly: not a good book. Appelbaum's focus is how a variety of authors, beginning with Grimod, have written about food. He judges the works of professional restaurant critics through the ages, and also writes about recent amateur internet-published restaurant criticism. He analyzes novels like Sartre's Nausea and Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast; journalism like that of Michael Pollan; statements of foodies like Alice Waters, and others. He loves words like "civilization" and "culture." Sorry, his insights are not very interesting. 

While Appelbaum denies that he's a restaurant critic, he does describe several experiences that he and his wife had trying to find good restaurants in London, Paris, and other French cities. Mostly, he complains because the combined food, service, and atmosphere never live up to his expectations. This is a bit tedious.

He does accomplish something: his method of picking out restaurants could be a lesson on how to eat badly in London and Paris and probably lots of other places. Here are a few of his documented approaches to ensuring that he will be disappointed:

  • Go to a neighborhood in the chosen city where there might be good restaurants. Or maybe to a neighborhood that had good ones in the past and is now touristy, like Montmartre or the Left Bank in Paris. Wander around until you are becoming exhausted and your wife is complaining because her feet hurt. Finally choose a restaurant in desperation even though you don't think it will be great. It won't.
  • Go to a restaurant with a good reputation, or at least a pretty good one. Order the cheap tourist menu. Make your wife order it too. It will turn out to be poor quality. As you suffer with each bite, watch the other diners in the restaurant -- they are locals who ordered à la carte, and who are enjoying truly delicious and well-prepared-looking dishes.
  • Go to a restaurant that was famous at some time in the past. You might find out that it is now owned by a faceless corporation and it's no longer out-of-the ordinary. Just predictable. 
  • Go to a restaurant in an ethnic community (say, Chinese or other Asian), but order the dishes that are intended for timid non-ethnic customers.  This is probably a route to disappointment anywhere, even in small US cities.
  • Go to a very expensive and highly respected restaurant. You will have very high expectations but a lowish budget. Order your food carefully, but let the waiter manipulate you to order wine and extras that run up your tab to way past what you hoped to pay. You may have enjoyed the food, but you'll regret the experience.
  • Pick a restaurant that has been decorated to look like it has a distinctive historical identity, for example, one that's based on the famous bouchons of Lyons, France. In Lyons or maybe even in Paris itself, there are still restaurants that preserve this tradition -- Appelbaum, however, goes to a fake bouchon in a completely inappropriate area that has completely different traditional restaurants. Try this: you might be lucky with the food. You might not. 
  • Above all, don't follow the advice of guide books or mainstream restaurant critics because, as Appelbaum warns, they are inferior writers who deserve to be analyzed, not used as expert recommenders. Don't research reputations or current status of restaurants -- don't ask local friends where they eat -- don't do anything that would maybe get you a good meal that you could afford!
This snarky review is © 2021 by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Tu BiShvat

Fruits for our Tu Bishevat dinner: olives, raisins, dates, figs, prunes, avocado, apple orange, grapes,  a pomegranate, and tomatoes.
We included both new and old-world species. Our Israeli placemats depict grapes and pomegranates.

The minor Jewish festival of Tu BiShevat began on the evening of January 27 this year, which is the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar. Like many Jewish festivals, Tu BiShevat reflects seasonal agricultural in ancient Israel; specifically it's the "New Year of the Trees" -- that is, the time when trees bloom and when seedlings should be planted. This agricultural new year was distinct from the fall New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of the new calendar year and is also a time of reflection about renewing one's spiritual and moral commitments. This is different! 

”Tu Bishvat” by Israeli Artist Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970) 
(From The Jerusalem Post)

In modern life, the holiday of Tu BiShevat has become a holiday of environmental awareness as well as celebrating fruit and vegetable produce and being a time to start new endeavors. We once attended an Israeli celebration of this holiday, which is secular, but is based on the medieval Jewish and Kabbalist traditions. A platter of fresh and dried fruits and nuts grown in Israel was the main refreshment at the party we attended. Israeli farmers and kibbutz residents for 150 years have planted trees to celebrate the holiday, a custom that they restored from Biblical tradition.

Tu BiShevat customs varied throughout the diaspora, where Jewish communities lived in many climates with varied produce available at that time of year. In northern Europe, where the holiday falls in the coldest part of winter, most of the fruit used in the ritual was dried fruit with maybe a rare and expensive orange in addition to raisins, almonds, dried apricots, and prunes. Religious ritual was founded on the belief that "every piece of fruit–which can be considered the parent generation–holds the seed of the next generation, in other words, the potential for new life. If, when we eat the fruit, which releases the seed, we do so in a holy way–with proper blessing and gratitude–then we are helping God to renew nature, and the flow of life continues." (source) Thus diaspora tradition involved eating a large selection of fruits (as many as 15) and drinking wine along with reciting prescribed prayers. 

From the "seven species"-- pomegranate molasses,
wine, olive oil, dates, figs, and bread (made of wheat/barley).

Thanks to being locked down in my home this year, I've decided to think about what this holiday can mean to me. For example, I'm thinking of the early list of produce in the Biblical tradition: the "seven species" recognized as ritually and practically important to ancient Jewish life, and often associated with the holiday. The "seven species" were wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, which could be eaten alone or used to produce several key foods: bread, wine, olive oil, and date honey, an important sweetener before the introduction of sugar cane.  Modern celebrations add other Israeli produce like carob (also mentioned in the Bible), citrus fruits, apricots, almonds, and other nuts. I find it fascinating that all seven of the Biblical products are still with us, and I have them on hand in one form or another.

Thinking about the Biblical list of traditional produce also makes me think of how cultures on every continent have celebrated important fruits and vegetables, which continue to play an important role in worldwide cuisine and nutrition today. 

  • In North America before European arrival, the "three sisters" -- corn, beans, and squash -- were traditionally listed as a key part of the diet. These and many other cultivated New World species (like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chocolate) have become important culinary elements throughout the world. 
  • In China, a long tradition celebrated "five grains" as a staple of cuisine and diet. The list varied during the thousands of years of Chinese history -- rice, millet, wheat, barley, soy and adzuki beans, sesame, and sorghum appeared on the list at different times. 
  • Another example of key produce items: enslaved Africans brought several important foods on their terrible tragic voyages, and then introduced them to American agriculture. These included rice, okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and others. The African contribution to American and worldwide agriculture is often overlooked, and I've just been learning about it.
jwc 2
Fruit for Tu B' Shevat -- also a dish of bright green olives,
From a celebration I attended in 2013. (link)
Michigan in January is no time to plant trees! But while dreaming of warmer places, and hoping we'll get there soon, we are celebrating like our ancestors -- enjoying fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other produce. And I am thinking about the great assortment of foods from every continent that we can enjoy in our modern world, almost independent of the season. 

Ready to eat: besides the many fruits, we had a glass of wine, a dish of mushrooms, and some bread and butter.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Hunger, Food Safety, and Food Justice

-- New York Times
"On Friday, President Biden signed an executive order that would increase both the amount of federal food assistance for about 12 million people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (also known as food stamps), and the grocery money given to families with school-age children. He has also included more money for food stamps and other federal feeding programs in his proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package."

During the pandemic, I've been extremely aware of many pressing food issues: above all, the skyrocketing food insecurity throughout the country and terrible conditions for workers in meat-packing plants. An article in today's New York Times, "How America’s Food System Could Change Under Biden" by Kim Severson discusses the changes that are already beginning to affect these issues.

The terrible abuse of workers in many industrial food processing plants has concerned me so painfully that we have stopped buying red meat. The disastrous toll of the disease on workers in the huge meat-packing plants that supply most of the meat that's sold in supermarkets in the US is shameful. This issue, "protecting Agriculture Department employees and people who process the nation’s food from the virus" tops the list priorities of Tom Vilsack, who appears to be Biden's choice for Agriculture Secretary (but isn't officially designated).

Hunger relief, along with fighting for social justice and addressing climate change, are among Biden's big issues as well. School lunch programs, support for food pantries, distribution of food boxes to needy families, and many such issues have become especially important as the pandemic has greatly increased poverty: "The number of Americans who face hunger rose by some estimates to more than 50 million in 2020, from about 34 million in 2019." Help for farmers, such as equitable farm subsidies and policies, is another big issue, including support for regional agriculture and improvements in policy regarding organic agriculture. 

All the challenges require improving the situation of the workers at the Department of Agriculture, which has been politicized and made less effective by intentionally destructive policies in the former administration. Agriculture has "a budget of $153 billion and nearly 100,000 employees," and it "runs 29 agencies and offices whose jobs range from feeding the poorest Americans and regulating what public schoolchildren eat to managing forests and helping farmers sell commodities like soybeans abroad." 

Fixing all these problems is a big deal!

For months, I've been worrying about these and other food issues that were made worse by the double impact of terrible government policies and the pandemic. I have new hope!

Blog post © 2021 by mae sander, photo and quotes from article, as attributed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

The area of King's Lynn, England, where the action of The Janus Stone takes place.
I toured that area once, with friends, which makes the novel that much more fun to read!

The Janus Stone, published 2010.

The Janus Stone is the second novel in Elly Griffiths' series of mysteries about forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway and her adventures as an amateur detective and helper of the police. I read the first one a few months ago (briefly blogged here), and I guess I'm hooked!

The setting of The Janus Stone is a variety of picturesque, rural villages near King's Lynn, England. This area has been inhabited for millennia, including iron age people, Roman settlements, and continuous occupation until the present. So archaeologists have lots to excavate -- and forensic archaeologists like Ruth are challenged when mysterious bodies appear, because they could turn out to date from recent times (and thus be candidates for a murder investigation) or from any of the earlier eras. 

Of course that's what's going on in the novel: a body must be identified, and connected to events in the past. Ruth Galloway and her fellow anthropologists and police investigators figure it out, with much drama and with lots of perilous moments for Ruth.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the little villages and their inhabitants, streets, museums, and especially life in pubs and other public places: villages "heavy on antique shops and low on fast-food outlets." (p. 57). 

Ruth and the police, as they investigate the mystery, encounter rich people, middle class people, and marginal people. Ruth's friends include many academics -- tenured and not-so-stably employed -- who work with her in the university where she teaches. Showing who they are with just a few words is a strong point of the author. Some quotes about the people, including, sometimes, what they ate:

  • Nelson, the policeman at the center of the investigation: "All those smug yuppies will soon be saddled with negative equity and serve them right. His own house is mortgaged up to the hilt, of course, but that doesn’t bother him. Nelson was brought up in a council house. For him, a mortgage is a sign of respectability."(pp. 56-57).
  • Ruth and her friend Shona choosing a restaurant: "Shona would want to eat in King’s Lynn, somewhere where she can be sure of extra virgin olive oil and ciabatta. Ruth fancies something a little more rustic. Suddenly, a vision of the Phoenix [a more rural pub] comes into her head— the smell of chicken cooking on the outdoor grill, the view over the hills, the clink of glasses and the hum of conversation." (pp. 158-159).
  • Max, another anthropologist, cooks for Ruth at his temporary home, a boat: "He disappears below to check on the food which, when it appears, is absolutely delicious— chicken in red wine, saffron rice, green salad. ‘You really can cook,’ says Ruth, smiling." (p. 148). 
  • Nelson, visiting the home of Spens, a rich property developer: "Spens ushers him through to the kitchen, which is at the back of the house with windows opening onto the garden. Michelle [Nelson's wife] would die of envy if she saw this kitchen, thinks Nelson. Everything is perfect; from the gleaming surfaces, to the yellow roses on the table, to the blue cushions on the wicker sofa (sofas in the kitchen— that would never happen in Blackpool), to the expensive Italian coffee machine chugging away in the corner." (p. 182). 
  • Judy Johnson, one of the police investigators, preparing for an interview: "At nine o’clock sharp, full of a Full English Breakfast, Judy Johnson presents herself at the convent." (p. 256).
  • Nelson again: "Nelson once spent a holiday in Southport. Long, wet walks along the seafront, a B and B where you got one slice of toast for breakfast and weren’t allowed to touch any of the thousands of knick-knacks grinning evilly from the shelves." (p. 259).
  • Another policeman: "Detective Sergeant David Clough is eating. Nothing new in that. Clough eats almost constantly throughout the working day, starting with a McDonald’s breakfast, moving on through several Mars Bars and a Pot Noodle for lunch, through a sustaining sandwich and cake at tea time before treating himself to a pint and a curry for supper." (p. 292)

This is a fast-paced novel, with suspense and danger and many details about the complicated personal lives of the characters. While details about history and pre-history are invented for purposes of the novel, the overall historic setting appears to be accurate. It's fun and a fast read!

As I indicated, I was once there, briefly, while with friends who were following an itinerary of places that appeared in Dorothy Sayers' novels. I remember the high points of the area. The Guardian had this to say about the town:
"Were King’s Lynn anywhere else in the country but squelched into the remoter end of the Fens, it would be overrun with tourists. ... The wealth of the north Norfolk coast is tantalisingly near, but not quite near enough. That relative remoteness today (I mean, it’s only just over an hour to Cambridge, so it’s hardly Siberia, is it?) has bred an independent spirit: there’s some great local culture behind those pedimented porticoes, and a fair bit of money has been spent on sprucing up the place. Geography favoured King’s Lynn hundreds of years ago, before trade shifted to the Atlantic. That’s why it’s so beautiful today, all cobbles, alleys and warehouses. King’s Lynn was once the biggest port in the country, and its merchants flashed their cash on those 18th-century townhouses. Maybe fortune will smile on it again some day."

Maybe it's just a perfect place as a setting for mystery stories. 

Review © 2021 mae sander.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Inventing Filter Coffee Makers

Silver “à la Belloy” coffee pot, which used the drip method.
Design registered in 1818 (photos from auction site).

The parts of the coffee maker, including a perforated basket for
the boiling water to drip through into the lower serving part.

Jean Baptiste, Count de Belloy (1709-1808) was archbishop of Paris from 1802 to 1808, appointed by Napoleon under an agreement with the Pope. De Belloy's most lasting accomplishment -- for posterity -- was inventing the drip, or filter, coffee maker, which he devised in 1800. Today, as most of us know, drip coffee is most often made using a paper filter rather than the multi-part drip coffee pot with a metal basket.  Before De Belloy's invention, coffee was made by infusing coffee grounds in boiling water (presumably like the current French Press) or by boiling the grounds in water (like today's Turkish coffee). 

Archbishop Belloy's invention is the ancestor of several popular coffee makers in recent use. 

1950s style drip coffee pot (like my mother's).
Same design as the Archbishop's original.

Melitta drip coffee, using a paper filter. Invented in 1908 by Melitta Benz,
who patented the paper filter and founded the Melitta company.
The photo shows my Melitta equipment, which I sometimes still use.

Chemex coffee makers from the Chemex website. The Chemex was invented in 1941
by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm. It was very popular in the 1950s and is still made.

Modern electric drip/filter coffee maker.
The very most recent filter coffee? 

The attribution of this invention to Archbishop de Belloy is mentioned in Grimod De La Reynière's  Almanach, as I learned in my recent reading (blog post here). Shortly afterwards, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, the famous and prolific inventor, worked on a drip coffee pot as well as on a percolator, which uses a different method for making coffee. Another inventor, Parisian tinsmith Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens, also worked on the percolator at around that time. 

An alternate history of the De Belloy drip coffee maker identifies a number of inventors, popularizers, and manufacturers who contributed to this innovation. A nephew of Archbishop De Belloy; the proprietor of a popular coffee shop in the Palais Royal; a pharmacist, chemist and inventor from Rouen named François-Antoine-Henri Descroizilles (1751-1825), and maybe a few more played a role in its invention. See the post "Elevator to Espresso" at The Black Blob Spot for a full exploration of this story. 

I suspect that both the drip coffee pot and the percolator were ideas whose time had come! Increased availability of coffee beans, popularity of coffee shops, developments in metal-working technology, the economic and social aftermath of the French Revolution, and other factors could all have contributed to a flourishing of inventors.

I'm sharing this bit of technological and culinary history with my friends at Elizabeth's weekly blog event celebrating all manner of beverages. 

The text of this post is © 2021 by mae sander, and if you read it elsewhere, it's been stolen!

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Good Old English Country House Mystery

The more it snows (Tiddely pom), 
The more it goes (Tiddely pom), 
The more it goes (Tiddely pom) 
On snowing. 
And nobody knows (Tiddely pom), 
How cold my toes (Tiddely pom), How cold my toes (Tiddely pom), 
Are growing. -- Song of Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne is an author that I've been reading all my life. I remember my father's voice (and also the voice on an old 78 RPM recording we had) reading the beginning of the story about Eeyore's house. Maybe I have remembered right, maybe wrong:
"Now come on. Sit down. I'm going to tell you a story. It's about Pooh who was a little bear, and Christopher Robin who was a little boy. And Piglet who was a little [pause] piglet. ... One day when Pooh Bear had nothing else to do, he thought he would do something, so he went round to Piglet's house to see what Piglet was doing...." 

Winnie-the-Pooh by
A.A. Milne (1882-1956)

It turns out that A.A. Milne also wrote a really amusing country house mystery. How could I have limited my reading to just one of his works? Although this book has probably been reviewed hundreds of times in its almost 100 years, I'll tell you about it.

The Red House Mystery was published in 1922, and has gone through numerous editions. It has every feature you could expect in a mystery involving the monied classes in England at that time. The characters themselves frequently refer to the detecting powers of Holmes and Watson, but it really has a different feel than Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, which were still appearing at the time Milne wrote.  

I suspect that The Red House Mystery may have been one of the first novels to incorporate a number of now-pretty-standard elements. After all, Agatha Christie's first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published only two years earlier, in 1920. And Dorothy Sayers' first detective story, Whose Body? appeared in 1923. 

The setting is "The Red House," a perfect English country house, with "dining-room, library, hall, billiard-room and office rooms” (p. 67) on the first floor, bedrooms and bathrooms above, servants' quarters below, and extensive gardens and woodlands.  A very pleasant-seeming house. As one character says:

“I don’t think I know any house where things are so comfortable. One’s room — the food — drinks — cigars — the way everything’s arranged: All that sort of thing. They look after you awfully well.” (p. 40). 

Typically, the day begins with breakfast -- the expected English breakfast, as served by the maids and eaten by several guests staying in the house. Milne writes: "Let us have a look at them as they came down to that breakfast.... [One guest] inspected the dishes on the side-table, decided carefully on kedgeree, and got to work on it. He had passed on to a sausage by the time of the next arrival. ... [Another guest] greeted them and sat down to toast and tea. Breakfast was not his meal." (p. 8-9)

Later in the day, the action begins: a mysterious murder victim is found lying on the floor of a semi-locked room. A naive never-before-involved-in-detecting amateur happens on the scene just at the moment when the murder takes place. Action! Police called! Superfluous guests sent back to London on the next train. 

Detecting continues apace, over several days. The police are predictable and not-too-bright. There's a discovery of a secret passage in the library. There's a charming young lady who might have been planning to marry one of the people involved. There are the usual number of gardeners, caretakers, parlor maids, and a housekeeper to be interviewed. There are many discrepancies in the evidence. The suspense builds beautifully, with various nighttime adventures and daytime excursions into the nearby village. 

About the amateur detective -- he's very remarkable in being able to concentrate his mind on something he's seen, and recall all the details. He works with a bright but not-so-great-at-detecting companion, and explains his moves. To the companion, he describes his main talent, which is perfect for detecting:
"I have got rather an uncanny habit of recording things unconsciously. You know that game where you look at a tray full of small objects for three minutes, and then turn away and try to make a list of them. It means a devil of a lot of concentration for the ordinary person, if he wants to get his list complete, but in some odd way I manage to do it without concentration at all. I mean that my eyes seem to do it without the brain consciously taking any part." (p. 49).

Of course he solves the mystery, the police having become useless: the ending is really pretty surprising. In short, it's a delightful read. I think it has some of the humor and spontaneity of my childhood favorite stories of Winnie the Pooh. 

Review © 2021 mae sander.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Sunny Day

Decorated garage door in the park shelter.

Someone tried to erase “Black Lives Matter.”

After several weeks of absence, Kathy’s bear came out of hibernation
to celebrate the Inauguration!

© 2021 mae sander

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Nightmare is OVER


The First Robin of 2021


Robins stay in Michigan for the whole winter, but they behave differently than they do in the warmer months. In summer, you often see lone robins or pairs of birds on lawns and trees in urban back yards, where they eat worms and many other things. In contrast, during the winter they flock together and prefer more wooded areas where they can find berries to eat. We saw a huge number of robins flocking around in some trees in town recently. 

I know that many people are very excited to see robins return to their back yards in spring, but I was determined to see some winter robins! I saw one near our house just before New Year's, and finally saw this flock today. (For more robin facts, see this page at the Cornell Laboratory Website.)


Another beautiful bird that stays around here during the winter is the bluebird. While searching for a robin, we saw three of them in a park not far from our house. I love the way that they keep their vivid blue color even in winter.
Three bluebirds in a tree.

The Cornell Laboratory website has an interesting paragraph about what bluebirds eat:
"Insects caught on the ground are a bluebird’s main food for much of the year. Major prey include caterpillars, beetles crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blueberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed, and juniper berries. Rarely, Eastern Bluebirds have been recorded eating salamanders, shrews, snakes, lizards, and tree frogs."

A cold and wintery day.

On another walk: the stream not yet frozen.

And a somewhat more exciting bird on another walk: a Merlin,
which is a type of falcon.

Blog post and all photos © 2021 mae and len sander.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Grimod de La Reynière, Food Critic


"Each volume of the Almanach des Gourmands contained, besides articles of interest to gourmands on the subject of different foods or furnishings for the table, some gourmand literature and a guide to the restaurants and food shops of the capital. In this last essential part of the work Alexandre-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière was the spiritual forefather of any modern reviewer from Egon Ronay to Messrs Gault and Millau." -- A Palate in Revolution: Grimod de La Reynière and the Almanach des Gourmands by Giles MacDonogh (p. 66).
Collaborating with a jury of food reviewers who were also his friends, Alexandre-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière judged the food of Paris and published reviews in his Almanach des Gourmands. The volumes of the Almanac  appeared from 1803 to 1812 in eight volumes. Grimod would solicit food sellers and restaurants to send samples so that the jury of his friends could taste and evaluate the dishes, which he would then write about. Each dish would be sampled separately -- in contrast to the way that aristocratic dinners at the time would load the table with dozens of dishes for each course. The creators of the foods were kept secret from the tasters, to help them with more objective assessment. Wouldn't this be a nice scheme for having catered dinner parties without money?

Gault & Millau, a respected restaurant guide, charges €348 for
a "Plaque Restaurant," available only to those recommended in the guide.
(Screenshot of the plaques and prices from their website)
Like Grimod, food reviewers still rely on a variety of money-making schemes. The publisher of the twenty-first century Gault & Millau guide sells plaques for recommended restaurants to display in their windows. So do dozens of other rating services worldwide, including the prestigious Michelin Guides. 

(Note: in case I was misunderstood, they do not pay for the recommendations in the guide, only for the plaques that they put on the window to advertise the recommendation.)

In the Napoleonic Empire era in Paris, restaurants as we know them were just being invented -- that is, restaurants where you could sit at your own table and order from a selection of dishes made to order by a chef. Grimod was the first food writer to offer restaurant recommendations, which he called a "legitimation." He was also the first critic to offer a testimonial to display:
"Any traiteur or restaurateur who had been granted a legitimation could, at a cost of 1.50 francs, obtain a signed and sealed document to that effect (extra copies came at 1.25 francs). The recipeient could then display the certificate in the window of his shop or restaurant." (p. 70) 

 Grimod de La Reynière was the first writer to do a lot of things, but somehow someone always came along shortly after him and did it better! He's not completely forgotten by history, but everything about him seems to be a pale shadow of what someone else did! 

  • Brillat-Savarin and Grimod (who published first) are jointly credited with the creation of culinary essay-writing. Brillat-Savarin's treatise on food, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Transcendental Gastronomy, is much more famous than Grimod's work, and still in print in a number of editions in French, English, and other languages. Try to find a book by Grimod: the bulk of his works have never been translated into English. They are expensive and hard to find in French, though it's possible to get them from -- I'm afraid this is because they just aren't as interesting or readable as the works of Brillat-Savarin.
  • Alexandre Dumas took up Grimod's project of a Grand Dictionary of Cuisine, and wrote a much better one. Grimod never finished his dictionary, but gave Dumas the idea. Let’s face it, Dumas was a more clever and imaginative writer!

Grimod belonged to an aristocratic and wildly rich family, who made huge amounts of money as tax farmers before the revolution. While his father's family had bought their way into the aristocracy, his mother was from a very ancient noble family (but of course rather poor by comparison). Because Grimod was born with a birth defect -- deformed hands -- his parents were very ashamed of him and sort of acted like he didn't exist, but he persisted. Grimod hated their pretensions and as a young man was very disrespectful of his elders. He gave parties at their palace that were irreverent and loony. To try to control their son, they used the famous method of a Lettre de Cachet to disinherit him and have him locked up or exiled. They also tried to declare him insane. It's a long complicated story that soon became entangled with the events of the French Revolution. Somehow, Grimod just sort of plodded onward until he was freed. 

During the French Revolution, Grimod escaped the Terror and did not face the dramatic fate of many similarly placed aristocrats. This was partly because of his exile, and partly because he wasn't fully credentialed as an aristocrat, thanks to his parents' embarrassment. Mostly, his escape from the Terror seems to have been by chance and luck -- not heroic or clever or full of suspense. He just wasn't in anyone's way! It may have been the best of times and the worst of times, as Dickens wrote, but for Grimod it was one day after another. While he had been unobtrusively exiled in the provinces, his had father lost all his money to a con man, and died a natural death. Even with everything against him, Grimod managed to get back their palace on the Champs-Élysées and subsequently live there in genteel near-poverty, eventually making a living as a kind of (let’s face it) hack writer.

A shop sign for the fine grocer Corcellet in Paris.
The man in the picture is said to be Grimod. 
This sign is now in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.

Grimod loved the theater, and especially loved actresses. When he needed to make money after the Revolution, he became a theater critic, but his works were censored because he also included remarks about politics. What could he do? He started writing about food, especially the food on the menus of the new dining establishments. These newly emerging restaurants were serving high-end meals to non-aristocrats who had become rich during the upheavals of the revolution. It was at this point that he invented the food review, and founded the club for testing out the best the new restaurateurs had to offer.

Page from one of Grimod's books. (wikipedia)

My source for most of this information about Grimod's life comes from the book A Palate in Revolution: Grimode De La Reynière and the Almanach des Gourmands by Giles MacDonogh (published 1987). Grimod lived from 1758 to  1837 -- thus through the end of the French Old Regime, through the Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, and well into the next phase of French government. There's a lot of fascinating material in the book, but unfortunately the author treats it in a way that I would describe as very pedantic and often dull. Maybe it's appropriate, as Grimod himself seems to have always come close to being really innovative and interesting, but there was always someone moreso.

Let's end with a few bons mots from Grimod:
  • "DIETS AND DIETING PEOPLE: Beware of people who don't eat; in general they are envious, foolish or nasty. Abstinence is an anti-social virtue." (p. 175)
  • "KITCHENS: It is as difficult to put together a kitchen as to create a library." (p. 192)
  • "THE REVOLUTION: Had the reign of the vandals lasted longer we should have lost even the recipe for chicken fricassée." (p. 205)
  • "THREE THINGS TO AVOID: 'A little wine which I bought directly from the grower'... a dinner which is described as '...just among friends,' and amateur musicians." (p. 213)
Review © 2021 mae sander.