Saturday, September 30, 2023

In My Kitchen, September 2023

Outdoor cooking: the grill is part of our kitchen!

Because the days are growing shorter, we’ve put away the grill until spring.

Using Local Fall Produce

Although we are predicted to have a warm, dry winter, our beautiful autumn weather may soon be over, and the fantastic local tomatoes, peaches, lettuce, eggplant, corn-on-the-cob, green beans, broccoli, and lots more will soon be a winter dream. In September, we tried to enjoy this bounty while we could, and we tried to shop at the local market that sells only locally grown or locally processed products. Time to transition to apples, potatoes, onions, squash, and other winter produce. Plus as always, we’ll be using the packaged products and imports that we get at the supermarket!

Even the eggs come from a local farm! Only the tuna is from far away.

Making pizza — the basil is fresh from our herb garden.

Locally grown eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers. Our own herbs. 
Sorry, but canned tomatoes are more reliable so I use canned.

The best fall treat: cake made with the most wonderful fall fruit.
Some years I make plum cake. This year it was peach cake. Recipe here.

A few new packaged foods

I think these are a TimTam knockoff!

Where We Are NOW: Baltimore, MD

From September 29 to mid-October we are taking a trip to various points on the East Coast.
I’ll be posting updates about what we’re doing.

What might be good in October, kitchen-wise?

We hope this year's Great British Baking Show, which starts in the US Sept. 29, will be better than
last year's show. At least they have promised no travesties on international cooking!

Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander
Shared with Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz and with  Sherry at In My Kitchen


Monday, September 25, 2023

“The Last Devil to Die”

The Thursday Murder Club is at it again, with a new novel, which begins at Christmas just last year. You know it was last year because two of the characters watched the king’s Christmas speech. That would be King Charles, whose first Christmas as king it was. They thought he did a good job.

The Last Devil to Die is full of amusing tidbits, just like the previous three volumes in the series. Numerous cups of tea are drunk, numerous cakes baked and eaten, especially by Murder Club member Joyce — though there’s also a Battenberg baked by one of the suspects.

A Battenberg from the Great British Baking Show.
Joyce’s bakes remind me of this quintessentially British food show!

“I am going to make a pavlova later. But with mangoes,” Joyce writes. (p. 349) 

“You can’t rely on the food,” says Joyce, unpacking a Tupperware box of chocolate hazelnut brownies.” … “Is it true that Pauline puts marijuana in her brownies?” asks Joyce. “She does,” says Ron. “Marijuana and coconut.” (p. 324) 

“It will be Joyce, and she will have cake, Bob,” says Ibrahim. “I am sure of it.” (p. 219) 

“I’ll be round with a lemon meringue and a notepad,” writes Joyce about a new neighbor. (p. 53)

While hunting for the murderer of one of their friends, these pensioners are always having meetings that involve light refreshments. Their choices are sometimes trendy; for example, when an intruder looks in Joyce’s refrigerator he sees  “Almond milk. Joyce moves with the times.” Although usually not very domestic, Elizabeth on one occasion makes tea at Joyce’s apartment; she uses the almond milk, but is dubious about its appropriateness. Joyce’s daughter, when asked about using almond milk, calls her mother “officially a hipster.” (p. 161 & 348)

Author Richard Osman drinks a mug of tea (source)

Richard Osman’s version of the cozy mystery genre appeals to me because it's done with such a light, humorous touch. Along with the tea and cake, Osman does serve some grizzly violence and lots of danger, which offsets the cuteness. The four original members of the Murder Club — Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim — search for the vicious killer of their friend as more bodies pile up somewhat mercilessly, but they don't lose their analytic skills or their taste for a mug of tea. They follow the evidence and search for a mysteriously missing cache of heroin, several desperate drug dealers, and some unscrupulous antique sellers and art forgers. Plenty of action.

The satiric nature of this novel is offset with passages of heavy pathos, deep grief, and genuine tragedy. As in each of the previous books, several chapters consist of Joyce’s diary, which is very insightful and often leads to solutions to the crime puzzles the group is working on. But also in her thoughts we learn of Joyce’s deep mourning for her late husband, who had died several years earlier. 

In each of the Thursday Murder series, Elizabeth’s beloved husband Stephen is sinking deeper and deeper into dementia. In The Last Devil to Die, his condition, which has become unbearable, is described in great detail -- very painful reading! This book sees a kind of conclusion and a very great amount of suffering for everyone, especially the brilliant and usually resourceful Elizabeth. Some readers might find the detailed descriptions of a man losing his sense of identity and his memory of himself and of his friends and even of his wife to be a bit mawkish, but I thought it was done with skill and a fair amount of tact.

If you liked the earlier books, I think you’ll like this one. The mainstream publications I read haven't yet reviewed this just-published book, so I can't compare my reaction to that of the professionals!

Review © 2023 mae sander. Photos as credited.
Shared with Elizabeth’s blog.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Around Me

 Finally: New Bridges at the Botanical Garden

New handrails on a small bridge at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

For three years, this bridge has been closed, cutting off easy access to the prettiest trails in the gardens.
At last, the funding was secured, the bridge was built, and it’s open for us to enjoy.

A Fall Iris

Near the Library Downtown

Photos © 2023 mae sander

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Chinese Restaurants Everywhere


Chinese restaurants serve more or less adapted meals to people in amazing places throughout the world. In a recently published book titled Have You Eaten Yet? Cheuk Kwan, an author and TV presenter, described quite a few of them. Kwan’s memoir describes his journey to many out-of-the-way places in the course of making a documentary series on Chinese food for Canadian television. I’ve found that the original TV shows are available on Youtube; I will watch some soon, I hope. 

Although the travel and research for the TV series that forms the basis for the book took place 20 years ago, this memoir was written in 2021 and just published in Canada in 2022 and in the US in 2023. I really don’t understand why it took around two decades for the author to write a book based on such old information: it seems to have no recent observations or experiences in it, which makes it a bit disappointing and frustrating to read. So much must have happened since then!

Where are the Chinese Restaurants?

Havana, Cuba; Tamatave, Madagascar; Istanbul, Turkey; Darjeeling, India; São Paulo and Manaus, Brazil, inside the Arctic circle in Tromsø, Norway; Haifa, Israel; and a number of other locations — each place Kwan visited had distinctive Chinese restaurants whose owners shared their fascinating personal and family histories, sometimes for several generations. 

“Have you eaten yet” is the way Chinese people often say “How are you?” — perhaps reflecting a past where food wasn’t abundant, and perhaps just reflecting the shared value of a well-prepared meal. Despite the enormous and varied population of China and the unimaginable extent and long history of the Chinese diaspora, Kwan makes us see how many characteristics remain in common throughout this very large part of the human race. He also makes clear that although his focus is on restaurant people, there are many many other Chinese professionals throughout the world as well.

The book is full of fascinating details about the restaurant owners and workers, and about the many ways they have invented Chinese food to please customers wherever their restaurants may be. While the adaptations are fascinating, I was also interested in the numerous times that the author says the food is fully authentic and equal in quality to that in the most renowned restaurants in Hong Kong. Although the author clearly knows that there are many cuisines practiced by the billion people in China, and many adaptations and inventions of Chinese food in restaurants worldwide, he does a good job of showing its unity in the many restaurants he visited and the many people he interviewed. 

So much to learn! I was fascinated by the many places (on several continents and islands) where Chinese chefs specialized in fish from the local waters, creating traditional Chinese fish dishes with local spices. I had no idea that a Chinese community had lived in Cuba since 1857. I learned that China had a very long cultural influence on the east coast of Africa, with trade routes for Chinese ships established around the first century BCE, and a visit from a fleet in around 1418. I was interested to hear about fusion dishes combining Chinese and Indian food, Chinese and Peruvian food, and a few others. But as I say, I wish there had been some updates for the last 20 years, especially about the major changes that have occurred recently in Hong Kong, the author’s reference city for the best of Chinese cuisine.

And Here at Home —

Of course reading this book made me want Chinese food from our currently-favorite local restaurant, Bao Space, which opened earlier this year. Bao, a type of delicious filled and steamed buns, are the star of their menu. The owners, Jessie Zhu, the main chef, and her husband, Raphael Zhu, came to Ann Arbor from Shanghai. Their roots are in Northern China, where they say bao originally came from. 

I’ve posted about Bao Space a few times, but here’s a bit more…

 This is the Bao Space kitchen, which is visible from the window where orders are placed.

Dough for the bao buns is freshly made with flour, yeast, and milk.

Our order: bao buns, sesame-noodle-cucumber salad, and two cups of lemonade.
The menu is simple: just bao, dumplings, a few soups & noodle bowls, and soft drinks.

One bao filled with pork. Other fillings include chicken, beef, and several vegetarian options.

Review and photos © 2023 mae sander

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Very Very Noir: "Total Chaos"

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000)

You couldn't imagine a less cozy mystery than this graphically violent police story about Marseilles around 30 years ago. Jean-Claude Izzo's Total Chaos (written in 1995) is dark and often ugly with lots of underworld characters from all the ethnic and social strata of the Marseilles underground and police force. It's narrated by a policeman named Fabio Montale, a native of the city. Unlike him, his friends, both alive and dead, are mainly petty criminals and hookers. His enemies are gangsters and maybe some of his fellow policemen. The plot centers on the deaths of his two best friends and a young woman, and his efforts to discover who killed them, and maybe get some revenge. 

I didn't like the book at all: just not my kind of literature. However, one feature of this novel did appeal to me very much: between the scenes of unpleasant violence and the depiction of unsavory characters, Fabio's narrative is full of very savory food descriptions. Food here is totally central to the essence of the main character/narrator and his milieu. You could almost cook following his descriptions: in fact, if you were familiar with the local cuisine, you probably could use them as recipes.

Since I'm not fond of novels with this much graphic violence, I'll just quote a few of the amazing food descriptions. 

First, here is Fabio's childhood memory of his family dining table:

"The whole family used to come here on Saturdays. There’d be big plates of pasta in sauce, with headless larks and meatballs cooked in the same sauce. The smells of tomatoes, basil, thyme, and bay filled the rooms. Bottles of rosé wine did the rounds amid much laughter." (p. 38). 

Next, his friend Honorine makes Fabio some food to take on his boat:

"I made you some foccaccia, Honorine had written on a little piece of paper. Foccaccia is made with pizza dough, filled with whatever you like, and served hot. Tonight, the filling was cured ham and mozzarella." (p. 44).

And Honorine cooks another dish:

"Honorine made stuffed peppers like no one else could. Romanian style, she called it. She’d fill the peppers with a stuffing of rice, sausage meat and a little beef, well salted and peppered, then place them in an earthenware casserole and cover them with water, add tomato coulis, thyme, bay and saw-wort, and let them cook on a very low flame, without covering. They tasted wonderful, especially if you poured a spoonful of crème fraîche over them at the last moment." (p. 161).  

Another Marseilles specialty, by Céleste, another friend:

"Céleste made better aïoli than anyone I knew, except Honorine. The cod was desalted just right, which is rare. Most people leave it to soak for too long, and give it only two soakings. It was best to soak it several times. Eight hours the first time, then three times two hours. It was also a good idea to poach it in simmering water, with fennel and pepper grains. Céleste also used a particular olive oil to give the aïoli a ‘lift.’ .... Her salads always tasted different." (p. 194).  

Fabio's colleague Pérol supplies some provisions:

"Pérol had brought beer and sandwiches. Tomatoes, anchovies and tuna. Not so easy to eat, but better than the usual revolting ham sandwiches." (p. 139).  

Simple foods reflect the Marseilles atmosphere throughout the novel.A meal with a friend at a place called Chez Mario:. 

"Mozzarella and tomatoes, with capers, anchovies and black olives, for starters. Spaghetti with clams as a main dish. Tiramisu for dessert. To drink, a Bandol, from the Pibarnon vineyards." (p. 75).

Besides the tastes and preparations, there is also frequently a memory of aromas:

"On Rue Longue-des-Capucins, the market was in full swing. Smells of coriander, cumin, curry, mint. The East. I turned right, through the Halle Delacroix, went into a bistro and ordered a double espresso and a few slices of bread and butter." (p. 79). 

Sometimes Fabio himself prepares the meal:

"I’d started cooking early in the morning, listening to old blues songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins. After washing the bass, I’d filled it with fennel, then drizzled olive oil over it. Then I made the lasagne sauce. The rest of the fennel had simmered gently in salt water, with a touch of butter. In a well-oiled pan, I gently fried slivers of onion, garlic and finely chopped pepper. A spoonful of vinegar soup, then I added tomatoes that I’d cut into little cubes and plunged in boiling water. When the water evaporated, I added the fennel." (p. 100).  

To wrap up...

In contrast to Izzo's very hard-boiled crime stories is the genre of cozy mysteries. These were just becoming popular in the 1990s when Izzo's Marseilles novels were written. The cozy mystery genre in fact was initially developed as a reaction against noir tales like this. The main focus of cozy  novels is the food (cute little lady detectives in cozy mysteries are often owners of food establishments), but I think Izzo's food is much more fascinating and appealing. The meals served in a lot of cozy mysteries probably wouldn't be as delicious as Fabio's dishes. 

If you like your police tales noir and graphic, you should read this book. I prefer my crime fiction to be somewhere in the middle, not cutesy-cozy and not ultra-violent. I like quite a few authors of this in-between style. such as Donna Leon, Martin Walker, Tony or Anne Hillerman, Elly Griffiths, Sujata Massey, Robert Parker, and quite a few others. Total Chaos is the first volume of a trilogy, but I don't think I'll be reading the other two volumes.

Blog post © 2023 mae sander

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Another Locked Room

The Big Bow Mystery was first published serially in 1891 by British author Israel Zangwill (1864- 1926), and then in book form in 1892. At the beginning of the story, it’s 7 AM and a man in rented rooms can’t be roused by his landlady, Mrs. Drabdump, banging on his door, though he had asked her to help him get out of the house early. Alarmed, she goes across the street to the home of a retired police detective and yells for him to help. When they break down the door of his tightly locked and bolted second-floor room, they find the lodger dead with his throat cut from ear to ear and no razor in the room. The windows were so tightly locked that the early-morning London fog hadn’t penetrated the room, the witnesses later testified. 

Yup — it’s a locked room mystery, maybe the first. Definitely years before The Mystery of the Yellow Room published in 1907 by French author Gaston Leroux, which is usually identified as the first, with a nod to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe (1841).

After the first dramatic chapter, the middle chapters of the book are a bit desultory, describing a variety of police and other interviews with people who really have nothing to add to the sparse and incontrovertible facts of the case. These chapters are quite amusing to read, as the author does a lot of caricature of the various people, including funny names like Detective Wimp. In fact, I would call it Dickensian! Compared to the fast pace and total focus usually present in the modern mystery genre, these scenes add only a little to the question of who did it and how the murderer could have left the room so fully locked up. 

Here are a couple of examples of the type of humor I enjoyed:

“Mrs. Crowl surveyed Denzil Cantercot so stonily and cut him his beef so savagely that he said grace when the dinner was over. Peter fed his metaphysical genius on tomatoes. He was tolerant enough to allow his family to follow their Fads; but no savory smells ever tempted him to be false to his vegetable loves. Besides, meat might have reminded him too much of his work. There is nothing like leather, but Bow beefsteaks occasionally come very near it.” (p. 34)

“Denzil Cantercot sat in his fur overcoat at the open window, looking at the landscape in water colors. He smoked an after-dinner cigarette, and spoke of the Beautiful. Crowl was with him. They were in the first floor front, Crowl's bedroom, which, from its view of the Mile End Road, was livelier than the parlor with its outlook on the backyard. Mrs. Crowl was an anti-tobacconist as regards the best bedroom; but Peter did not like to put the poet or his cigarette out. He felt there was something in common between smoke and poetry, over and above their being both Fads.” (p. 47)

“Mrs. Drabdump shrank from accepting Wimp's attentions, not so much perhaps because he was a man as because he was a gentleman. Mrs. Drabdump liked to see the fine folks keep their place, and not contaminate their skirts by contact with the lower castes. ‘It's set wet, it'll rain right into the new year,’ she announced. ‘And they say a bad beginnin' makes a worse endin'.’ Mrs. Drabdump was one of those persons who give you the idea that they just missed being born barometers. …Haunted rooms—or rooms that ought to be haunted if the ghosts of those murdered in them had any self-respect—are supposed to fetch a lower rent in the market.” (p. 53)

 Slowly, you learn a lot of things about the people who had associated with the murder victim, but it feels as if no one is getting closer to envisioning how the murder was done or who had done it. Eventually, there’s an arrest and a trial and a surprise ending, but I won’t say any more than that.

My thank-you goes to Reese at the blog Typings for informing me of this interesting literary work! Images in my post are from the Project Gutenberg edition of this book, a facsimile of the 1895 edition.

Blog post © 2023 mae sander.


Monday, September 18, 2023

A Ghost Story: Silver Nitrate

Silvia Moreno-Garcia really knows how to write scary stories!
I did a detailed review of her novel Mexican Gothic here.

Lots of good stuff in this ghost-filled tale! Moreno-Garcia knows how to build suspense and horror, and how to embed the scary stuff in everyday concerns. The plot of Silver Nitrate is complicated and wonderfully worked out, involving a number of interesting characters with a variety of occult skills, all set in Mexico City in 1993.

The two main characters in Silver Nitrate -- Tristán and Montserrat -- are slowly swept into a ghost-hunting frenzy, as they try to lift a curse on a lost movie that was being filmed years earlier in a movie studio in Mexico City. The film had used silver nitrate film, an obsolete and dangerous medium. This explosive substance also, they discover, made a perfect vehicle for creating an elaborate portal to the world of evil spirits and occult intentions, as used by an adept and unscrupulous sorcerer and his followers. (But that's enough spoilers!)

Despite the pressures and the dangers Tristán and Montserrat face, they always manage to stop to eat and sleep and regain their strength. These mundane interruptions are very effective at prolonging the suspense that the author is building. For example, just after a grizzly murder, these two are walking along a street:

"The first week of December. It was the season to devour empanadas, eat rosca de reyes, and listen to the fireworks exploding late at night. He was hoping to drink all the way through the posadas—he’d work off the calories in January. It was not the month to be chasing after murderers."  (p. 156).

On a morning after the two of them encounter some very frightening things:

"Tristán plated the eggs. He’d found corn tortillas in the refrigerator, but he clung to his northern customs and preferred flour ones, so he warmed one for Montserrat but none for himself. They took the plates and the glasses filled with orange juice to the table. They ate quietly. The silence strained the ears." (p. 229).  

Or dining at the home of an elderly man who knows how to perform anti-ghost rituals they need to use, and who knows how to stop the attacks of the more and more threatening supernatural creatures in the story:

"The supper consisted of a watery chicken soup that had Tristán yearning for his mother’s lentil soup with chard and the comforts of his apartment." (p. 251).

Also fascinating: Nazi racism and theories of pure blood play a role in the motivation of the sorcerer's creation, and continue to affect the evil ghosts and evil survivors of the curse in Silver Nitrate. In her earlier novel, Mexican Gothic,  Moreno-Garcia similarly created supernatural monsters who looked like white men, and were driven by extreme views on the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of "the other." This is a convention I very much enjoy. As the New York Times reviewer expressed it: "Moreno-Garcia lays bare the compatibility of Nazi ideology with regional ideas of racial supremacy, discrimination against Indigenous groups and desires to mejorar la raza — 'better the race.'”

Note: The ghosts are real! The rivers of blood are real! The temptation to follow a ghost into the night is real! This is a genuine horror novel.

A Parallel Demonstration of Racism in Mexico

A demonstrably fake mummy displayed this week to the Mexican Congress, which is holding hearings 
on extraterrestrial life. DNA shows that this fake is made up of bones from several human and animal remains.

The history of this fake mummy, displayed to the Mexican Congress, is a long one. The participation of a number of fraudsters with faked credentials and lucrative social media campaign to support their "research" is depressingly predictable. In an article in Vox, “The true story of the fake unboxed aliens is wilder than actual aliens: All the greed, fraud, centuries of racism, and deteriorated llama skulls behind Mexico’s unboxed aliens.” author Aja Romano documents the fraud and the role of racism in enabling the fraudsters. I was very interested because it’s the same racist motivation that features in the novel Silver Nitrate.

Romano writes: “even beyond the travesty that is disturbing individual disinterred remains lie the centuries of societal attempts to diminish the glory of pre-Columbian artists and architects and turn their works into inconceivable ancient alien wonders.”

Interesting parallels thus seem to exixt between these various examples of sheer racism in South America and Mexico.

Review © 2023 mae sander.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Fernando Botero (1932-2023)

View of Plaza Botero from the Metro Station in Medellin, Colombia in Smithsonian Magazine

Fernando Botero, who died earlier this week, was a very popular artist, whose paintings and sculpture were adored by many people — with the possible exception of art critics. His highly recognizable style involved depicting human and animal figures expanded beyond any naturalistic representation, but with an intriguing insight gained by making them large. After mentioning him yesterday, I wanted to see more images of his work, so I'm sharing them here.

Plaza Botgero in Medellin, Columbia. (Wikipedia)

Botero Sculpture (Source)

A story of a Botero sculpture in Medellin: 

“There is an eerie sculpture of Botero in the Parque San Antonio. It is his well-known bird sculpture in bronze, but there is massive damage to it. Vandalism, you think. But on June 10, 1995 a bomb was placed in or under the sculpture and exploded in the evening during a concert.  
“Around 23 people died, and a link was suspected to an arrest a day earlier of a leader of the Cali drug cartel. It was one of the many acts of violence in a city that had gotten used to it. Botero decided to leave the damaged sculpture in place, as an hommage to the deceased and a permanent place of remembrance. And he donated a new one, placed twenty metres apart, to illustrate the meaningless of violence.” (Source)
The damaged bird sculpture.

In contrast to the popularity of Botero’s seemingly cartoonish paintings, he was also a highly political and committed artist. Influenced by the muralists such as Diego Rivera, he often depicted the ordinary people of his native Columbia. His activism is reflected in several projects:

“In the 60s and 70s he produced a series of portraits of Latin American dictators in which the puffed-up size of the figures was a satirical reflection on their self-importance. Nor could he remain indifferent to the drug violence that made his home city at one time named the most dangerous in the world, especially when the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar dominated the trade. In 2004 Botero produced a series of paintings of him being hunted down and killed in 1993, as well as other scenes from the violence that gripped Colombia in the 90s. The most controversial of his more political works was the series he produced in 2004-05 of around 80 paintings and 100 drawings depicting the torture by US forces of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq.” (source)

“Official Portrait of the Military Junta,” 1971.

Botero and his Work

From Botero obituary in the Guardian.

From Botero Obituary in the Washington Post.

From Botero Obituary on NPR
From Botero Obituary in the New York Times.
Blog post by mae sander.
Images as credited.
Shared with Sami’s Monday Murals.