Thursday, December 14, 2017

My beloved chocoholic

Deb Perelman: "The landscape of butter-free cookies is usually filled with stories of compromise." 
        Roughly a decade ago, I dined at Prune restaurant in New York City and what I remember most vividly was the craggy chunk of dark chocolate that arrived with the check. It looked like it had been hacked from a chocolate mine with a pick and it was absolutely delicious. I believe the waitress said it was Callebaut 60%, though now I can’t remember exactly. In any case, I went home and ordered an 11-pound slab of Callebaut 60%. That’s a gigantic piece of chocolate but I wanted to be able to hack off craggy chunks of my own. I’ve kept a gigantic slab of dark chocolate in my pantry ever since. I pulled it out last Saturday to make the olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chunks from Smitten Kitchen Every Day. What a great little cookie. You chop some dark chocolate and stir it into an easy shortbread dough made with olive oil rather than butter, along with some minced fresh rosemary. The shortbread is gritty, slightly salty, and wonderful. I know. Rosemary in dessert. Yuck. And olive oil too? It’s a hard sell. But it works.
That was Saturday. Around 1 a.m. on Sunday I was awakened by noise from upstairs. Thumping sounds, then tearing sounds, then dragging sounds. Then some more tearing sounds, then some crashing sounds. I went upstairs. The dog was racing around the living room and kitchen in the dark looking for stuff to chew and destroy. She was all amped up like I’d never seen her before. I figured I hadn’t exercised her enough the previous day. I talked to her for a few minutes, tried to settle her down, and went back to bed. More rampaging. Odd. I went up again and only then did I notice that the pantry door was open and when I looked inside I saw that the block of Callebaut chocolate had been dragged off its shelf and was lying on the floor, scored with toothmarks. I would estimate Gracie ate a hunk of dark chocolate about the size of a pork chop, one of those big, thick loin chops. 

It’s hard to kill a dog with chocolate — some milk chocolate chips or a piece of chocolate cake won’t do it. But free access to an 11-pound slab of dark Belgian chocolate? Chocolate is toxic to dogs and Gracie was very, very sick. According to the vet, the typical pulse of a dog her size is 100 BPM and Gracie’s was 250 BPM when we got to the pet hospital in the middle of the night. To protect her privacy and dignity, I will refrain from sharing the indelicate details of her detox, but I assure you, it was dramatic.  

It was pretty lonely.
Alone in the waiting room of the pet hospital at 3 a.m., slouched on the vinyl couch beside the Christmas tree, I found myself gazing back, as if through a very long tunnel, at a younger, peppier me sitting at the counter at Prune, all dressed up and enjoying an experience that would lead me here, to a pet hospital almost a decade later. I find those strange threads of connection between events mysterious and fascinating. I don’t know why, I guess because they give a glimpse of the chaotic way life actually unfolds.   
Lessons learned: Life is uncanny. Put your chocolate on the top shelf when you get a dog.
Gracie made a full recovery, thank heavens. 

On another subject, I went to my last-ever holiday concert for the high school band in which Owen has played trombone these last four years. It was poignant and beautiful in that high school band concert way. The gym repurposed as concert hall. All those kids in their formal wear, earnestly performing Handel’s “Messiah” pretty darn well. The jovial music director who somehow taught a bunch of teenagers to perform Handel’s “Messiah” pretty darn well. The middle-aged parents smiling peacefully, enjoying the rare moment when it would be truly shaming to look at their phones. The one small annoyance of the evening was that no one bought the cookies I brought to the bake sale. Fools!

Friday, December 08, 2017

Papers and Pit Bulls

dog ownership

School is over for 2017. When I turned in my final paper and walked out the door of Room 6 the other day I felt like I’d taken off a heavy coat and a tight girdle, both at once. I love the learning part of school, but academic writing is a whole new sport and I’m extraordinarily bad at it. None of the writing muscles I’ve developed over thirty years are useful in the academic genre and it’s maddening not to be able to use them. It’s like I’m a pole vaulter trying to do the hammer throw. 
        I wrote my paper about Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, a cozy 1896 novel about life in a coastal New England town. If you haven’t read it, brew yourself a mug of chamomile tea, curl up by the fire, and give it a try. Prepare to be charmed and perhaps a bit bored. I initially loved this book, but there was something about it, something small, that rubbed me the wrong way, and I decided it would be fun to try to identify and explore that small, annoying thing in my final paper. 

dog ownership meets grad school
        It was not fun. I started researching and brooding and rereading Country of the Pointed Firs and I ended up writing a 22-page paper about why I absolutely hate Country of the Pointed Firs which is like writing a paper about why you hate bunny rabbits.
And yet I somehow convinced myself, if not the professor, that Country of the Pointed Firs is a “dangerous” book. Do I really think so? I have no idea, but once I start arguing a case I can’t stop, like a pit bull whose jaw locks when she sinks her teeth into the tender neck of a toy poodle.
That’s a myth, of course, that pit bulls have locking jaws. They have perfectly ordinary jaws. I actually don’t have more to say about school or academic writing, I want to talk about pit bulls.
  When I started idly looking at dogs last summer, the pit bull was the one breed I would not consider. First of all, vicious. Second, ugly. My feelings about pit bulls were shaped by a notorious 2001 case in which two pit bulls attacked and killed a San Francisco woman in the hallway of her apartment building. Except here’s the thing: the dogs that attacked her weren’t pit bulls. They were Presa Canarios. But in my memory for the last 16 years they were pit bulls. Weird how that happens, but it happens a lot with the poor pit bull. The parallels with racial prejudice seem obvious to me.
Anyway, I didn’t adopt a pit bull. I adopted an adorable, scrawny boxer-whippet mix. So it was a little irritating when a kid on the street one day patted Gracie and said he loved pit bulls. I gently corrected him. Someone else pointed out that the tip of her tail was white, typical of the pit bull. I explained Gracie was a boxer-whippet mix. Then, a month or so ago, a woman I talk to all the time at the park said, “You know, Gracie looks a little pitty to me.” My heart sank. She looked a little pitty to me too in some lights and I didn’t like those lights. 

a little pitty?
To settle this issue, I took a swab of her saliva and sent it to a doggie DNA lab. It turns out the shelter hadnt been lying, Gracie has boxer and hound ancestry. But they had declined to mention, or perhaps did not know, that she is half pit bull. Or, I should say, American Staffordshire Terrier. 
I’m ashamed to admit that I was unsettled and instantly my beloved Gracie became less cute to me and for a few days I wondered if her boisterousness wasnt actually worrisome aggression. Then I read Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey, a book I highly recommend if you accidentally adopt a pit bull. The pit bull hasn’t always been America’s most reviled dog. Helen Keller owned a pit bull and so did Teddy Roosevelt and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The pit was once considered a delightful and trustworthy family pet. But since the 1970s, it’s been the dog we enjoy villainizing, the dangerous Other of the canine world. I wouldn’t suggest anyone rush up to a strange pit bull with a spiked collar and start hugging him, but I’ve gotten to know a whole bunch of pit bulls and pit mixes since I started paying attention to dogs, and they’re pretty much all sweet, a few of them ridiculously so.  
After finishing Pit Bull, now completely woke about dog prejudice, I decided to do what I could to promote pit bull tolerance, like, I don’t know, actually telling people my cheery, petite, ebullient puppy was a pit bull mix?
Shortly thereafter Gracie and I were walking on our favorite trail when we encountered a woman with a gorgeous Australian shepherd puppy on a leash. The woman and I exchanged info about the breeds of our puppies and watched them romp for a minute or two. It was very chummy. We said good-bye and after we’d walked on for thirty seconds, Gracie couldn’t resist and ran back to play some more with her new pal. In the course of playing she “bit” the dog on the neck. I put “bit” in quotes because there is “biting” and there is biting. When puppies play they will “bite” their partner with a soft mouth, in other words, they don’t clamp down, they don’t exert pressure, they don’t truly bite. Gracie has joyfully “bitten” and been “bitten” by probably 100 dogs and never once has she hurt another animal. She doesn’t bite. Ever. I was approaching to grab Gracie’s collar when the woman started saying with an edge of hysteria in her voice: “Stop the biting, I don’t like that biting!” and then she shouted: “GET YOUR DOG!!!”
It was ludicrous. I understood she was anxious, but it was ludicrous. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Did she overreact because I’d told her Gracie was a pit bull mix? I pulled Gracie away and apologized, adding, “This is actually very normal puppy play.” The woman glared at me and walked away. I walked the other direction and thought, I bet she’s going to tell people about how she met this horrible pit bull on the trail who bit her puppy.
Typing this anecdote I really wanted to include certain details that would make the woman look precious and icky, portray her as the type of woman who would overreact to learning a puppy was a pit bull mix. You know, sort of like . . .  me a few months ago? 
       Typecasting is typecasting. It’s all pernicious.
       Dog ownership has been fascinating. I learned a lot this fall in the classroom, and even more from owning a dog.

On another subject, if you want to read a wonderful “unabashed appreciation” of Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, check this out. I bought Smitten Kitchen Every Day and I’ve made the broccoli melts twice (recipe is also on her blog) and foresee making them a hundred more times. Easy, delicious. Her sausage, kale and crouton saute is also easy and great. Now that I’ve shucked the heavy coat and tight girdle of school, at least for a while, I hope to do more cooking and pole vaulting.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The hermeneutics of batshit dog crazy

I've got it really, really bad. 
My life is very happy right now, albeit at the expense of this blog.

First, school. I’m a lot busier with this than I’d anticipated. Which is great. It keeps my mind occupied and out of trouble and that was critical this fall, given my toxic fixation on Donald Trump and the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, where, as I’ve mentioned, my firstborn currently resides. I don’t have time to dwell on any of that, thanks to school. I’ve decided where I want to teach and what I want to teach when I finally get my degree in 2019, and it will have nothing to do with close-reading Country of the Pointed Firs and learning to casually drop “hermeneutics” into a sentence but meanwhile I’m enjoying close-reading Country of the Pointed Firs and learning to casually drop “hermeneutics” into a sentence. I’m not quite there yet — I can use “hermeneutics” in a sentence, but not casually and perhaps not even correctly. 

Second, Gracie. Our perfect dog. We kept her. Of course. I adore her. Of course. Because she is perfect. She is sitting next to me right now chewing on her beloved furry, filthy squeak toy (thank you Gardner Trimble) and it sounds like a clown car is driving through the living room. But like everything she does, including destroy books, steal shoes, and bark at dogs on TV, I find it utterly delightful. Like I said, Gracie is perfect. I spend every evening at the dog park now watching her play and swim in the bay with her pals Zoe and Atlas and Marigold while I talk to their owners about — what else? — dogs.  

I used to think the library was the best thing about living in Mill Valley. Now I think it’s the beautiful, bayside dog park. 

Obviously, when you’re at the dog park at 6 p.m. beaming at your adorable, frolicking puppy you’re not simultaneously cooking an ambitious dinner and when you’re sitting in a classroom the next morning discussing Edith Wharton with people in their teens and twenties you’re not blogging about that ambitious dinner you didn’t cook.

I’ve been cooking, but not Korean. It turns out that Korean cooking requires a little too much planning ahead for my current dog/commuting/hermeneutics lifestyle. I went to the supermarket on Monday without a list, bought a bunch of random food, came home, and cooked dinner every night this week without looking at any recipes.

I felt like a rockstar.

The dish I want to quickly mention because I love it so much is a beef salad I used to make all the time, pre-blog. It started with a recipe from Marcella Cucina, but once you’ve made it, you’ll never need to look at the recipe again. You thinly slice leftover pot roast, drizzle a layer of  meat with olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkle with salt, repeat with as many layers a you choose. Refrigerate. It’s hard to imagine how fatty, gray pot roast could ever be delicious served cold, but it is. Trust me. I served the beef salad with some fresh tomatoes the day after I served the pot roast and it was so good I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made this for at least a decade.  I just had some of this for breakfast and if Mark weren’t in the room I would let Gracie lick the plate.

But he is, so I will just wait until he steps away.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Never wake a sleeping baby

Korean cooking is still ON, but there were two developments in my life that required some adjustment over the last ten days and here they are:

First, I started a master’s program in English. Back in February when I took Owen to look at colleges it dawned on me that my future might also need attending to. In addition to writing, I thought I might want to be able to teach high school or maybe community college in my golden years. I applied to some programs. I got in. I started. I might actually get to write about cookbooks as part of this program, which is exciting.

I thought because I’m old and settled that it would be easier to do school than when I was young, but I got it backwards. It’s going to be harder. I'm still trying to figure out how I can make it all work.

The second development was so poorly timed it's funny. I mean, textbook idiocy. The geniuses among my readership will have guessed what that second development is, but for the rest of you: A few days after I started school, we fostered a puppy. 

Fostered. If we had adopted, I would be crying too hard to type.

She is the sweetest, squirmiest, most adorable little dog you would ever want to meet and, as puppies go, ridiculously easy. She was one of the animals evacuated from a shelter in Houston during the hurricane and I guess they don't like to keep puppies in the same facility with big dogs, hence the call for foster homes.

She follows me everywhere. She can be sleeping peacefully on the sofa next to me, as she is right now, but should I get up to refill my coffee cup in the kitchen, she will immediately spring to life and trot after me. When we return to the sofa forty-seven seconds later, she feels it’s necessary for us to have a joyful reunion that she initiates by climbing on my lap, squirming, wagging her tail, and licking my face until I acknowledge our deep bond and love for one another, at which point she will settle down at her end of the sofa to chew on Mark’s slipper (she is a slipper/shoe dog, not a ball dog) or go back to sleep. This routine makes me think really hard before going to get another cup of coffee or even walking across the room to retrieve my pen.

She’s wonderful. This was the wrong moment to foster a puppy.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The 2017 quince harvest and a few old baking books

My quince stays yellow -- was it ripe? It looked ripe.
Watching the news from Houston has been so sad. It’s inspiring and heartening to see ordinary people being decent, even heroic, in a crisis, but also, as I said, sad. Every citizen in a boat rescuing dogs and old women in Texas has been demonstrating more concern for fellow countrymen than that petty, divisive gargoyle in the White House. Every middle-class American who picked up a phone and donated $25 to the Red Cross is more generous. Our leaders are beneath us.

And then Kim Jong-un has to go and fire a missile over Japan. Isabel texted me that it was a beautiful day in Seoul and no one was “freaking out” and I told her I’m not freaking out either, which is true. Not thrilled, though.

In lighter news: Our quince tree bears more fruit every year and we got about ten pounds of knobby, fuzzy yellow quinces this summer. If you’re not interested in the culinary uses of Cydonia oblonga, with some asides about old baking books, you might want to sit this one out and spend a few minutes here instead.

I made three dishes with this year’s quinces and can recommend them all:

-Quince ginger cake from Jim Dodge’s American Baker. Dodge was the pastry chef at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco for many years, and I’ve baked the hell out of his books, which I guess you could now call vintage. They’ve seldom disappointed me. American Baker is great, but I’m also going to plug Baking with Jim Dodge, which you can buy for peanuts on amazon. Worth every peanut and then some. The first recipe I ever made from Baking with Jim Dodge was a rhubarb-cherry meringue pie that I carried across New York City to a party in the summer of 1992. I was so excited — I’d tasted the filling and everyone was going to be in awe. I vividly recall sitting on the subway, peeking into whatever inadequate contraption I’d devised to transport a pie across Manhattan on a hot day, and watching the meringue leak, collapse, melt. The pie was soup by the time I got to the party. I was shocked that it hadn’t survived. I am now shocked that I was shocked. Meringue pie? On the subway? In summer? Bonehead.

Anyway, the recipe for the quince ginger cake comes from The American Baker. You shouldn’t go out and buy quinces just to make it, but if you’ve got a tree, you’ll enjoy this simple, brown, gingery cake. The recipe is here. I substituted Lyle’s golden syrup for the molasses, used fresh ginger rather than powdered, replaced buttermilk with yogurt. Not saying you should do any of those things, I just personally dislike molasses, prefer fresh ginger, and didn’t have buttermilk.

-Honey-stewed quinces from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts, which is another treasure of a book, fat and friendly, packed with enticing vintage recipes. In fact I’d put this title just a notch above the Jim Dodge books. I flipped through my ravaged copy of Classic Home Desserts this morning and discovered I’ve made 72 recipes from its pages since the mid-1990s. What’s even more impressive is that there are at least 72 more that I would like to try. Omaha caramel bread pudding. Iowa custard pie. Jam roly poly. English brown bread ice cream. My favorite recipe from the book, an easy apple cake that I’ve made a half dozen times, is here.

Back to quinces: To stew them, you peel and core them, cut them up, saute in butter and some sugar, add white wine, honey and lemon juice. Simmer until tender. My quinces required quite a lot less cooking time and a bit more sugar than called for, but once I got the sweetness right they were great. Like cooked apples, but with a tangy bite. I ate some of the stewed quinces on yogurt and the rest I used to make. . . 

-The Coach House quince tart. This recipe, also from Classic Home Desserts, originated at the legendary Coach House restaurant in New York City, supposedly a favorite haunt of James Beard. (It closed in 1993 and was replaced by Mario Batali’s Babbo.) The Coach House was famous for its corn sticks, black bean soup, and mocha dacquoise, in addition to this quince tart. To make the tart, you spread some honey-stewed quinces over a rich, buttery crust, top with lattice strips, and bake. Serve with whipped cream or honey ice cream. I took this pretty dessert to my sister’s house on Sunday for family dinner and unless they were just being polite, everyone loved it. 

Mystery: James Beard also published a recipe for the Coach House quince tart, but it is completely different. 

Bonus: I hope it tastes good because this is one ugly quince dessert.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Every Day with Rachel Maddow

Next time you see short ribs cut like this, buy them.
When it was reported a few years ago that anchorman Brian Williams had disgraced himself, I didn’t even know who Brian Williams was. Brian Williams. Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. I couldn’t tell them apart. A blur. I never used to watch TV news.

That’s changed in recent months. I try (and often fail) to avoid Twitter for most of the day because Trump makes me insane, but as a reward I now let myself turn on the TV at six p.m. for one big bolus of news. Sometimes if I’m tired I turn on the TV at five, but usually I stay off the sofa until Rachel Maddow. I love Rachel Maddow. I know she’s not impartial and I can see how her mannerisms and discursive wind-ups could drive a person nuts, but that person isn’t me. She’s brilliant and incredibly energetic but at the same time she appears to be friendly and nice. If it is an act, it’s a great act. 

So I sit there and watch the first chunk of Rachel Maddow which goes on and on and on before any commercial break. That’s the best part of the show, the first 20 minutes. Eventually she cuts to an ad for a hepatitis 3 or psoriasis drug and I run into the kitchen and chop some onions and get the kimchi out of the fridge. When I hear her voice again, I run back to the sofa and watch until the next commercial break, then back to the kitchen to start the rice cooker, back to the sofa, and so on. It gets tiring towards the end because MSNBC seems to run commercials every 90 seconds in the latter half hour of their shows. Did TV news always backload the ads?

By the time Mark walks in the door at seven, dinner is on the table and I have lots to to talk about.

True to my word, I’ve cooked only Korean dishes since Isabel left for Seoul and it turns out that you can prepare an outstanding, simple Korean meal, start to finish, during Rachel Maddow’s commercial breaks. I’ve done it more than once. It helps if you have a rice cooker.

So here’s what I’ve made:

-a fiery red pork stir fry (dwaejigogi-bokkeum) from Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking that I think I’ve recommended before. I will recommend it again. Maangchi’s online recipe isn’t identical to the one in her book, but it’s close. 

-the galbi (short ribs) from Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! (a.k.a. the adorable Korean comic cookbook) were a big hit and I’m trying another galbi recipe tonight. The gist of galbi: marinate short ribs, cook on a hot skillet or grill, serve with a dipping sauce. More on galbi in a future post. Unless you’re a vegetarian, they belong in your repertoire.

-another dish that belongs in your repertoire: Korean sloppy joes from Koreatown. Just the meat part, though, so I need another name for this dish. Instead of serving the meat on buns, I served it on rice and topped it with chopped peanuts. When you want to lose 15 pounds you should always find ways to incorporate peanuts into your pork entrees. Recipe for this irresistible dish at the bottom of the post.

-for mysterious reasons, leftover rice has been accumulating in our refrigerator and kimchi fried rice (kimchi bokum bap) is one delicious way to dispense with it. You could improvise your fried rice obviously, but I used a recipe from Eating Korean by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee that calls for just a little fresh pork to bulk it up. I’ve made this before and thought it was my favorite, but I just spotted the the kimchi fried rice recipe in Koreatown that uses slab bacon. I’m going to like that better. 

-Unless you absolutely hate kimchi, you must try making kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae). IT IS SO EASY. The classic version I made last night from Cook Korean! consists of little more than storebought kimchi, pork and tofu, simmered together briefly in a pot. Big, satisfying flavor. (This recipe is slightly more elaborate, but it looks perfect.) You can put whatever you want in your kimchi stew if pork and tofu do not appeal. Maangchi has a version that uses canned tuna. 

There have been a couple of duds during this second Korean phase, but I’m not going to waste your time with those. 

Here’s the thing: I’ve been making the same handful of straightforward beef and pork dishes again and again and avoiding everything that intimidates me in Korean cuisine. Which is a lot. Next week that’s going to stop. Here’s what intimidates me in Korean cuisine: Beltfish, bellflower root, fernbrake, dried pollock, octopus, dried sweet potato stems, burdock, jellyfish, water dropwort, fermented sardines, raw crabs, fermented skate, pine needles, ox hooves, mung bean jelly, beef heart, aralia roots, fatsia shoots. I’ve also steered clear of the soups served with ice cubes and the cold noodles in soy milk. I’ve mostly avoided the porridges.

Beef heart is a nonstarter, but I don’t see why I couldn’t learn to love, I don’t know, sweet potato stems?

Isabel hasn’t reported on what she’s been eating in Seoul, though today on Snapchat she posted a video of her visit to a cat cafe. A cat cafe tops my list for our Thanksgiving trip to Seoul, right after the raccoon cafe and the DMZ. 

Korean Ground Meat (please help with that name)

This is fantastic. It’s very similar to a Korean ground turkey dish in Nigella Kitchen so I’m 150% confident that ground turkey would make a tasty and healthy substitute for the pig. I’ve made Nigella’s dish a bunch of times and added peas (as she calls for) and spinach (which I prefer) with great success, so you could get some vegetable in there. This recipe comes from Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor of the Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta by way of Koreatown by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard. Slightly adapted by me. 

1 pound ground pork
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
6 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
5 tablespoons gochujang (
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
big pinch black pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil for cooking
rice for serving
chopped peanuts for garnish (optional)

1. In a large bowl, mix pork, ginger, garlic, gochujang, sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce, and black pepper. Let marinate in the refrigerator for as little as an hour or as long as overnight. 

2. Cook the rice however you cook rice.

3. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and saute the onion until soft. Add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally with a spatula, for 5-10 minutes until the meat is done. Serve over rice with chopped peanut garnish. Enough for 4.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Isabel's autumn adventure

Isabel flew off to Seoul, South Korea this morning to spend the semester studying at Yonsei University. I drove home to Marin County to spend the semester popping horse tranquilizers. 

I’ll just spit it out: I didn’t want her to go. I thought Seoul was a great choice back when she applied in the winter, but recent events and our idiot president’s rhetoric changed my mind. While I know the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula remains low, it wasn’t low enough for me. What was wrong with Shanghai? Taipei? Thailand?

Isabel and Mark were unconcerned. I litigated this. I lost. I am gracious in defeat.

It’s gonna be fine. She’s going to have a wonderful time, learn to love kimchi, speak a little Korean, drink soju. We’ll visit her at Thanksgiving. In the highly, highly, highly unlikely event the president starts a war with North Korea and something happens to my daughter, not to mention the 26 million other people living in the Seoul metropolitan area, I will make it my life’s mission to personally poison his chocolate ice cream. 

Joke. Duh. Like when he jokes about how cops should manhandle prisoners. Sidesplitting.

In the car going to the airport, I told Mark and Isabel that I was going to start cooking Korean food again so I’d feel close to Isabel while she was away. I said I was thinking of making a beef and daikon radish soup for dinner tonight.

Isabel said, “Sorry I’m not going to Rome, Dad.” 

Thats my girl.

Friday, July 28, 2017

What you reading?

your summer reading

Hello, he said. What are you reading?
Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.
Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
A constant what? Elisabeth said.
A constant constancy, Daniel said.
They went for a walk along the canal bank. 
Every time they passed someone, Daniel said hello. Sometimes the people said hello back. Sometimes they didn’t.
It’s really not allright to talk to strangers, Elisabeth said.
It is when you’re as old as I am, Daniel said. It’s not all right for a personage of your age.
I’m tired of being a personage of my age and of having no choices, Elisabeth said.
Never mind that, Daniel said. That’ll pass in the blink of an eye. Now. Tell me. What you reading?

Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn, is incredibly good. (If you want to read a more thorough analysis than I have to offer, try this.) I finished it in a day and every page or so stopped to reread some astounding passage so I could really let it sink in. I love the way she juxtaposes profundity with lightness, even absurdity. This book is full of big, serious ideas (about Brexit, age, time, love) but is also quick and witty and you never feel weighted down.

I can’t stop thinking about Daniel’s remarks about reading. Throughout the novel, instead of the usual and often meaningless “How are you?” Daniel asks people: “What you reading?” As he explains in that passage, he isn’t necessarily inquiring about a book (though characters in this novel read a lot of books), he’s asking: What is on your mind, what are you picking up from the world that is preoccupying you at this particular moment — what project, what political disaster, what cultural argument, what movie, what food trend — and what is the related narrative that’s unfolding in your head?

Or at least that’s what I think he means. At least that’s what I want him to mean. 

And isn’t that a better question than “How are you?” Obviously, “How are you?” is important — I always want to know how my friends are, whether they’re in any kind of physical or emotional distress, but when they’re not, and they’re usually not, thank God, the next thing I want to know is what they’re reading, either in terms of books or in that broader sense. A couple of my friends and I cut straight to “What you reading?” by mutual understanding, but I have never been able to put a name to that dynamic like I can now.
My baby girl polishes that glass!
It seems that this blog has become about what I’m reading, both in terms of books but also in that broader sense. I mean, it always has been, but I used to “read” about food and cookbooks and backyard chickens more than I do now. Hey, what do you expect? When I started this blog my kids were cute, naughty little chipmunks. Life is different now. Owen will be a senior in high school and Isabel appears to be all grown up. We went to visit her last weekend in Walla Walla, Washington where she’s working at a history museum and living in a bungalow with some friends. She has potted snapdragons on the front steps and goes to the farmers’ market on Saturdays to buy kale and potatoes, cooks herself dinner every night. It’s the young, pretty millennial who should be writing the food blog, not the chubby old lady with the reading glasses and the empty nest!

Except I’m the one who likes to write, so there.

Saturday morning when you are twenty and your enthusiastic parents texted you at 7 a.m. from Starbucks
Autumn. It’s brilliant. You should read it. It’s not a plotty book so if a propulsive plot is critical to your reading enjoyment, perhaps this novel isn’t for you. But why not give it a try? One of the characters, preoccupied by world events and sitting at a dying friend’s bedside, reads the opening passage of a classic novel* and thinks: 

The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all in seconds. They made everything happening stand just far enough away.
It was nothing less than magic. 
Who needs a passport?
Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
I’m reading. 

John McCain’s vote notwithstanding, everything happening right now is pretty gross. Autumn will make it stand just far enough away.

*I used to feel bad linking to amazon rather than an indie bookshop, but since Trump started hate tweeting at them, I feel not quite good, but definitely less bad. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Winter Wheat

new treasure
Back to my sweet California home, where the heat is dry, the pot legal, and all the young men have beards. 

Quick report on Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, which I finished just now.

This 1944 novel is narrated by a young woman named Ellen who lives with her parents on a Montana wheat farm. She goes off to college in Minnesota, falls in love with a city boy, and has to drop out of college after a bad harvest. She milks the cows. She runs the combine. She goes to teach at an isolated rural school. It hails. It snows. It gets hot. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Throughout, Ellen attempts to understand her parents’ mysterious marriage and make sense of her own passionate attachment to the land.

I haven’t read a novel this straightforward in a long time. It’s not a children’s book — and it’s not flat or simplistic — but there’s nothing fancy going on with the writing here. I didn’t copy out any dazzling passages because there weren’t any. By contrast, 10 pages of my notebook are filled with passages from Rachel Cusk’s (amazing) Transit, which is the last novel I finished before this one.

Yet I suspect I’ll remember Ellen’s story long after I’ve forgotten what happened in Transit. This novel is what I think critics mean when they use the words “deeply felt.” I ordinarily dislike the term “deeply felt,” but it captures the emotional purity and intensity of Winter Wheat. It was a very clean and vivid reading experience. I loved it.

This isn’t a blanket recommendation. Not everyone will enjoy Winter Wheat. I read somewhere once that there are two types of readers, those who liked the Narnia books when they were children and those who liked the Little House series. I was a Little House kid. Winter Wheat is for us. 

There’s a lot of food in Winter Wheat, as there always is in novels set on farms, which may be one reason why I like them so much.  You’re treated to images like: “The bulb in its green paper shade shone down on chicken pie and candied sweet potatoes and Mom’s rolls.” A plot twist turns on a glass of homemade dandelion wine. 

I thought as I always do when reminded of the existence of dandelion wine that I would like to taste it one day.  I looked up a recipe. To get started, you collect three quarts of dandelion blossoms — and not the whole flower, just the fluffy, weightless yellow petals you’ve stripped off the green head. Three quarts!

Nope. Not today. Sadly, probably never.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gone is gone

Credit: Library of Congress
A few years ago, I helped a woman in her 80s write her memoir. I did this under the auspices of a nonprofit that was trying to keep house bound elderly people engaged with life by telling their stories. When I saw the ad on Craigslist seeking volunteers, I wrote back immediately. This was right up my alley. I couldn’t wait to get started.  

The work was even more fascinating and rewarding than I’d expected. I loved my “learning partner” and I loved trying to get her story on paper. Once a week for a year I drove to P’s house, sat down at her dining table, and took notes as she told me about her life. Then I’d go home and type everything up, trying to make it flow as a story. Where the narrative seemed thin or behaviors went unexplained, I’d make a note and the next week I’d see P again and we’d talk some more. We circled back over her life scores of times and in every rendition something new came out, the story got richer. There was probably more food in this memoir than any in the history of the program, but there was a lot of everything. I hope she and her family were happy with the memoir. I was.

Early on P told me that she had not seen her father’s face since the early 1940s. He’d had a stroke at the salt mine where he worked and left behind a widow and 15 children. P had adored her father. There had been photos, but they’d been lost. It haunted her that she didn’t have a picture of this beloved man.

Well, telling me this was like waving a meaty shank bone in front of a hungry hound. A quest! I was going to find a picture of P’s father if it killed me. I wrote it down on my multi-page to-do list. For weeks I scoured the internet looking for pictures of black men who had lived in a certain region of Louisiana in the 1930s. I inquired about archives at the salt mine. I spent hours on the Library of Congress photo site. I googled every possible combination of keywords and then a few days later I’d think of some more and try those.

Every week or so I printed out a new series of photographs of unidentified men — men in overalls sitting on the steps of general stores, men sitting on carts, everything available —  and brought them to P. The first time, she looked at them with a strange expression on her face. She said, “I don’t know why they never show blacks who are doing well, they always have to make us look poor.” 

Indeed, all the photographs I could find of black men in rural, Depression-era Louisiana told a picturesque story of Southern poverty. This was not the way P remembered things. The disparity between her memories and the pictures the photographers chose to take — and our institutions to preserve — would be interesting to explore.

But that’s another story. What matters is that P never saw a picture of her father among those that I brought to her. It was always a long shot.

When I had exhausted what the internet had to offer, I actually looked at my calendar and thought maybe I could travel to Louisiana and search in person for P’s father’s photograph. But even I am not compulsive enough to travel to Louisiana looking for a picture of a man I’d never recognize, a picture that probably didn’t even exist.

A certain personality type has a hard time accepting defeat on a quest like this. My personality type. Even after we’d finished her memoir, “P’s father’s photo” sat there in bold type on my to-do list. Occasionally I’d go back online and poke around. Time passed. Pearl had a debilitating stroke. One day earlier this year, with a pang, I crossed “P’s father’s photo”  off my list. P’s father’s picture doesn’t exist.

Sunday, I decided I was done with my family history research. I was never going to know why Abner and Cora and Orlan behaved as they did. Never. It was over. Yesterday, I was going to go to Mount Vernon and enjoy the end of my trip to Washington D.C. There was one last archive I hadn’t looked at, but it was a long shot. Some ladies who might have known something about the people I’m curious about had left behind diaries now held at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. But, really, such a long shot and such a long drive.

Big surprise, at the last minute I changed plans. No Mount Vernon. Instead, I drove almost three hours down a monotonous highway listening to agitating right-wing talk radio to William and Mary College. I bought a parking permit, found the library, found special collections, requested the diaries from a meticulous librarian, locked all my belongs in a locker. The librarian brought out diaries and put them on a shelf. She had me sit at a big table in view of her desk. Then, one by one, she brought me the diaries. She’d set each small, leather diary up on a foam platform and I had to use a little piece of string to weight down the yellowed pages as I read so the oils on my fingers would spend as little time as possible on the precious paper. When I was done, she’d take back the diary and bring me another.

My ladies had been admirably dutiful diarists. They had also been shockingly boring diarists. Every single day for years and years they noted that it was “terribly hot” or “cold and raw” and then listed who they had lunched with and whether they had embroidered or read in the evening. No emotion, no gossip, no commentary. Occasionally some major world event like an earthquake in Jamaica or the death of Grover Cleveland made it into these pages, reported as flatly as the latest garden party at Mrs. Lambert’s.

Thank God my people had also made it into the diaries! I hadn’t been completely delusional! They were right there in brown ink and the first time I saw that one of the diarists had gone to Mrs. S’s for tea (May 17, 1906), I gasped. But of course there was no record of what they talked about, let alone what kind of cookies they ate, what Mrs. S wore, whether she had put on weight, seemed happy or blue or worried. And so it went. Dinner with Mr. S. Travels with young S. Terribly hot. Rained all day. Father went on trip. Father returned from trip. Embroidered.

I’ve been surprised by just how much you can learn about the past, how many incredible secrets you can crack if you’re willing to spend the time. Strange chunks of the past really can be recaptured. 

But most of it is lost forever, really lost, like P’s father’s face. I had always known that the motivations and characters of the people I was researching were probably lost forever. I spent several hours hunched over those unilluminating diaries yesterday. I am glad I did. I shut the last diary, thanked the librarian, retrieved my belongings, drove three hours back to my airbnb, collapsed on the saggy little sofa, started a good book, slept well. The piece of the past that has preoccupied me for the last two months is not probably lost forever, it is lost forever. 

On to new quests.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush

Time to get that dated rant off the top of this page.

I’ve been consumed by a project for the last eight weeks that has nothing to do with food or Trump or anything remotely relevant to this blog, hence the dearth of posts. I decided to solve a seemingly small family mystery that ballooned into a bigger, stranger story and I got obsessed. All the energy that went into despairing over politics was suddenly diverted towards figuring out what happened with my family between 1900 and 1912. I think I figured it out. What I can’t figure out is why it happened and that part is tormenting me. I keep hoping I’m going to stumble across a cache of letters, some gossipy diary, or a juicy scrapbook that will shed light on the personalities involved and why these people did what they did, but having worked my way through archives from Broken Bow, Nebraska to Washington, D.C., I’m beginning to accept that if I really want to know what happened, I’m going to have to make it up.

Anyway, that’s why I haven’t posted in forever. Be happy for me. It’s kept me from dwelling on North Korea.

Other than eating it, I haven’t been thinking about food as much as usual, though that’s probably still more than most people. I made some cornmeal mush earlier this summer because I’d been reading so much about Nebraska circa 1900. They lived on corn. They burned it as fuel, boiled it, fried it, roasted it, dried it, ground it, and turned it into mush. Mush. I had never eaten mush. You may ask how mush differs from polenta and that’s a very good question. It doesn't. But it does. When you call your cornmeal porridge “mush” and put butter and sorghum on it you are in a very different imaginative place than when you open Essentials of Italian Cooking.

I could have eaten the whole pot of delicious, hot, humble mush, but exercised my famous iron self-discipline. The next day I made patties of the leftover mush and fried the patties in butter because I’d read that’s what people did in the old days. Fried mush was even better than regular mush, crusty on the outside, warm and creamy on the inside. There are abundant reasons to pity the Nebraska pioneers — sod houses, child mortality, winter — but cornmeal mush is not one of them.

After that I tried to find other old Nebraska dishes to try, but fried heart, chokecherry pie, and dried carrot coffee did not make my mouth water.

Now I’m in Washington, D.C. finishing up my research. After this, no mas. I am cutting myself off. Enough is enough. I’ve been staying in a kind of desolate apartment complex in Rosslyn, Virginia and eating microwave popcorn and blueberries for dinner, but last night decided to boldly venture out. According to Google Maps there was a crab restaurant just a 4 minute walk away in this bland neighborhood. Really? Yes, indeed there was. Right there, tucked amid all the boring apartments, was a boisterous, crowded restaurant with a line out the door. Since I was alone, I waltzed right in, got a seat at the bar, and ordered a half-dozen crabs which were served to me on a sheet of thick brown paper. The woman on my right was drinking bourbon and Diet Coke, a drink I hope never to taste in this lifetime or the next. The couple on my left were drinking Bud Lites and they showed me how to eat Maryland blue crabs. By the time I was done with that massive pile of crustaceans, we were good friends and my hands were filthy. It was a pretty perfect evening.