May 31, 2005

Okay, since Bakerina asked real nice.  (Or maybe she ordered me to participate, I have a selective memory about such things).

'Mouse responds:
Total number of books I've owned.
Not too many.  Probably under 1000.  Certainly under 2000.  From second grade, when I learned to sign my name in cursive in order to get my own library card I've loved libraries.  I check out at least 150 books a year -- far more than I could afford or store if I was buying 'em.

Last book I bought.
Probably The Fan Man, William Kotzwinkle.  I bought it and sent it to Orionoir and tried to get him to send it along to Bakerina.  Alas, the second part of the plan fell through.  I may have to buy another copy for our lovely hostess.  I cannot generally recommend this book to everyone.  Many won't like it or understand it.  But those who do will quote it for the rest of their life.

Five Books Which Mean A Lot to Me.
Illusions, Richard Bach.  If I recall correctly there's a saccharine Christian message not-exactly hidden in this little gem by the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  Normally I'd rebel against that, but for some reason this book follows me around and it's one of the few books I've read more than three times in my life.  Comfortable like an old pair of slippers.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey.  This, along with the ubiquitous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a whole lot of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson defines my "question authority" period.  The Monkey Wrench Gang, with its eco-terrorism before the term was invented, and its sidekick who measures distances in beers, not miles represents the late-Sixties, early-Seventies, makes me cry for our country today.  It very nearly motivates me to buy a few hundred pounds of sugar to add to the gas tanks of every fuck-head who "needs" a 5000+ lb. vehicle to drive their precious kiddies to school. Alas, times have changed.

Speaking of changed times and past eras,

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot
by John Muir.  This is THE ORIGINAL idiot's guide.  Never drive an old VW without a copy in the trunk.  With this book you can literally re-build a VW engine on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere.  I know.  I've done it.  There are few experiences in life better than fixing and tuning your own aircooled engine, unless it's helping birth a baby goat (see below).

UPDATE-- (thanks mom) Country Women -- A Handbook for the New Farmer by Jeanne Tetrault and Sherry Thomas Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1976 This was my mother's bible for the back-to-the earth movement when she packed up the family, bought a farm and we raised goats, chickens, pigs and went years without refined sugar, white flour or television.  (Easy to sigh wistfully about it now. Huge parts of the experience completely sucked.  The eggs were good tho.)  As I recall it, this book was the complete idiot's guide to country living.  It included instructions on, among other things, shearing sheep, spinning wool, making butter and cheese, castrating pigs, and, my personal favorite, reaching into your goat to turn a breech-position kid.  At the age of 11, as the one with the smallest hand and arm, I had the honor of getting nearly shoulder-deep in a goat to help her give birth.  Try that sometime for a thrilling connection to the natural world.  (Update:  I called my mother to verify the title and she said she'd recently stumbled across her copy while cleaning the garage - She spent many minutes in reverie.  This book's going to be a family heirloom - bet I know what I get for Xmas this year.)

And a tie for the fifth entry:
The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex.  In my opinion the former should be issued to every 10-year-old and the latter to every 12-year-old without fail.  Sure there are better, more updated cookbooks and sex books, but these are solid and stand the test of time.  Both are left lying around the house for my children to borrow whenever they feel the urge.

Nah.  Everyone I know has been tagged already.  Oh, wait.  Keith, have you? Jo?

What I do think this meme really needs is something like "List five books all my friends should read before they die, arranged from light to heavy" or perhaps, "The five most recent books I've read that I'd heartily recommend (or didn't hate)."  As I thought about this I found very little overlap.

Therefore, I'm adding:
Five Semi-Random Books My Friends Should Consider Reading Before They Die
- Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein
- The Fan Man, William Kotzwinkle
- Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov
- 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Five Books I Read Recently that I'd Recommend (or Just Liked Well Enough to Pass Along)
- Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
- Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christopher Moore
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
- The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy ("Little Follies"wink, Eric Kraft.
- About a Boy, Nick Hornby

Ouch.  Hard to stop here, but I must, before I think of several dozen others.

Posted by 'mouse at 08:55 PM in • (3) Comments
May 30, 2005

Except for the head cold I caught on our second day in Scotland -- which was pretty much gone by our sixth day in Scotland -- there is very little that Lloyd and I would change about our trip. We liked the little town in which we lived, we liked our tiny room-with-a-view on the second floor of the guest house, we really liked our hostess and her family, we had a blast on our numerous day trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow, we even enjoyed the bus rides back and forth from Edinburgh to Galashiels, where we could charge up our batteries for a good day's city prowling and then relax, tired but happy, on the ride home, watching hills roll, water flow and sheep safely graze. There is only one change we would make for any future trips, even though to do so would deprive us of our hostess's warm company and excellent breakfasts: in the future, we would like a place with a kitchen in which we can do our own cooking. That way, we could actually buy the lovely produce and meats we found at the markets, bring them back to the room and actually cook them. That way, I would not have to spend much of my vacation in a state of longing, wishing I could make my own stovies long after the coffee shop with the best stovies in town was closed for the day, wishing I could make a compote or pie out of the screaming-red stalks of rhubarb displayed outside the health-food store across the street, craving the weird, spiky, peppery but not-at-all bitter arugula which formed the basis of one of my two lunches at Valvona and Crolla. You spend two weeks in this excitable state, and it creates certain expectations in your cooking life when you get home, expectations that can be deferred but not denied.

Deferred they were, though, at least for a week, when I spent my first week back in New York stumbling through the accumulated paperwork at LuthorCorp and some (for lack of a better phrase) complex and interesting personal events. Our first weekend back at home was spent in Philadelphia, in the bosom of family and Salvador Dali (not literally, of course), and while I wouldn't trade a weekend in my mom's company for all the pastry in France, I still knew, as I left the office under a brilliant blue sky on Friday afternoon, that I was long overdue for a market romp.

You might say I overdid it on the rhubarb. I always do. This is because I can get a lot of mileage out of rhubarb. A smallish bag will yield maybe a bit of compote. A bigger bag will yield a batch of jam. But a really big bag will yield a batch of jam *and* a batch of rhubarb and strawberry jam and some more for compote and maybe a bit left for pig's bum, a steamed pudding of vanilla sponge and rhubarb that is much more delicious than its snickering-schoolboy name would imply. I have become so good at overbuying rhubarb that it now becomes a ritual: I go through the mountain of rhubarb on the table at the Locust Grove Farm stand at the greenmarket; I chat with the guys behind the table, all the while seeking out the reddest stalks I can find, and hey, presto, there's my 3 1/2 to 5 pounds of rhubarb in the bag. On Wednesday I came to the market at lunch and the rhubarb was all gone, but another stand had the first New Jersey strawberries of the season. Saturday there were no strawberries, but there was plenty of rhubarb. They'll dovetail one of these weekends, but in the meantime, I found myself with 4 pounds of rhubarb and only a vague idea of what to do with it. Because I had forgotten to stock up on butter and stick it in the freezer before we went away, I was down to a single stick. Pie was right out. Crumble was doable, but I didn't want to stint, which I would have had to do to have enough butter for the rest of our meals during the week. (We don't eat a lot of butter, but we do like to have an omelet or fritatta at least once a week, and I often find that as soon as I don't think I need any butter, it turns out that I do.) I could have made jam, but that would have meant searching out jars, buying new lids, and going through the boiling-water-canning routine, which is great fun when you plan for it but a bit tiring for a spur-of-the-moment adventure.

In the end I decided on just a simple compote: rhubarb, sugar, water, nothing else. Recipes for rhubarb compote always call for something extra, most often oranges. While I don't exactly take a dim view of this -- rhubarb and oranges are indeed quite good together -- I sometimes think that we overdo it on the rhubarb-and-orange combination. Yes, rhubarb is often paired with something else, strawberries, stone fruits, raspberries, but I can't tell you how many recipes I've read for rhubarb jam or pie that say "this is rhubarb on its own, in its glory...with just a hint of orange juice for flavor." Now, I love oranges; I love how in February, when nothing else is in season and you find yourself wilting under the weight of subzero wind chills, the Honeybell and Mineola tangelos and navels and Valencias show up just at the instant you need them, so full of juice and sunshine that it's an effort not to cut one open and suck it dry right in the fruit store. But to me at least, in the world of fruit, oranges are the divas, showing up and demanding the spotlight. When I make fruitcake, I tend to leave the orange peel out for that very reason: you can taste orange peel, but little else. If I want an orange-flavored dessert, I'll make an orange cake, or Maltese custard. But if I want cranberry sauce, I want sauce that tastes like cranberries, not cranberries and oranges. And I certainly am not going to forgo making rhubarb compote just because I don't feel like running out to get more oranges. Four pounds of rhubarb, 2 1/2 pounds of sugar (about five cups), 1 1/2 cups of water, stirred, boiled, simmered for 30 minutes, et voila: I now have enough compote for a few dozen breakfasts of compote stirred into a little pot of yogurt, with enough left over to send a pint or two to a friend or two. I took a quality control taste as I decanted all of this fruit into any container in which it would fit. This is what I was missing in Scotland, that tart friendly hit of a fruit (well, a vegetable, really) at the peak of season, simply full of itself and happy to share itself with you.

Of course, I can't let rhubarb get all the glory. At Valvona and Crolla, I had one of the best salads I'd ever eaten, made of arugula and nothing else, dressed with oil, lemon juice and a generous shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I have put away a lot of arugula in my day, but this arugula was like none I'd ever eaten before: tiny, spiky leaves, tasting intensely of that buttery, peppery arugula taste with none of the bitterness you can get from mature arugula. It turned out that this was Italian arugula, a particular varietal, and Valvona and Crolla sold it in their retail shop. Lloyd had to physically restrain me from spending the rent money on it so I could eat it on the street on our way back to the bus station. I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least I'd had something special, and I could live on the memory of it. I was perfectly content to do so...then I discovered that the Paffenroth Farm stand, where I buy my salad greens, potatoes, herbs and root crops, had obtained the seeds and now had Italian arugula of their own to sell. As salad greens go, it is a dear one: two dollars for a small nosegay (consider that the picture below shows three heads of it), but you can stretch it out among milder salad greens; in fact, if your palate doesn't go in for strong flavors, I'd recommend doing just that. Even if you do eat it all in one go, it helps to think of it not as an expensive vegetable, but rather, a cheap luxury, easier on your wallet than an iPod, and with more vitamins, too. smile

If my Remembrance of Things Scottish weekend had only been confined to rhubarb and arugula, I would have been happy. But as it turned out, after three weeks of hankering and dreaming, I was able to successfully recreate the illusive stovies in my own home and eat them in a quantity of which Mireille Guiliano and her fellow non-fat French women would not approve. I can hear you now: Jen, we're hearing a lot about these damn stovies, but you haven't bothered to tell us what they are. I will, dear friends, I will. But the stovie love will have to wait until after Lloyd and I return from our picnic with the lovely Bunni and her lovely neighbors, where we will eat cheese and crackers and olives and sausages and the yummy amuse-bouches Bunni is preparing even as we speak. We will sit in the park and eat it all, with water to keep us fresh and -- hopefully -- vinho verde to keep us happy, and we will bask in the sun until the rain clouds show up or until the Lush event to which Bunni and I were invited to starts, whichever comes first. Only after this can the Tale of the Stovies unfold. Until then, happy Memorial Day, dear U.S.-based friends, and happy Monday to dear friends abroad.


Posted by Bakerina at 01:41 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
May 29, 2005

Oh Bak, really. Living in New York I’d expect you to know better. When you leave your key under the flowerpot, all manner of riffraff will let themselves in. Dears, Bakerina recently accused me of *not* being self absorbed. Next thing you know, she’ll claim I’m not long winded, either. I’ll show her.

Total number of books I’ve owned:

Total number ever? We’re not even going to go there. It’s too sad. I might start crying about that second copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I sent to the used bookstore like a girl hawking her wedding ring for grocery money. Lets just say that, right now, I’ve got 60 linear feet of full bookshelves in my five hundred square foot apartment.

The last book I bought:

That would be From the Frying Pan to the Fuel Tank. Maybe this doesn’t count, as it was technically a gift for my teenage cousin who lives on a farm and has a car-fixing hobby. I’m counting it, though, because I would like to own it. One of the larger collections on my bookshelf is the homesteading how-to section. I own quite a few books about caring for livestock, mostly goats, because goats are the best animals ever, in myth and life. Also, if you are ever in a first little pig sort of mood, and need advice on how to proceed, I am quite the resource on straw bale building. Don’t even get me started on digging root cellars or making soap.

Do I own a diesel automobile? Why no. But someday I might. And when that day comes, I will be fully prepared to convert it to run on used vegetable oil. The smell of eggrolls will then follow me throughout this great land.

Five books that mean allot to me:

Little House on the Prairie Series, Laura Ingles Wilder

I taught myself to read at a very young age, and for some reason felt the need to conceal the fact. My mother read these books to me at night during that time, and after she went to bed, I’d read another chapter. At some point she commented on how disjointed the plot was.

Mossflower Series, Brian Jacques

A huge influence on my elementary school imagination. The main characters are mice living in an Abbey. It’s embarrassing to say this may have planted the seed for the communal living I did in my late teens and early twenties. If you’d asked me at the time, I might have said that I was trying to create a world free of hierarchy and oppression, but its possible that this was just as close as I could get to being a rodent monk.


New Years Eve at my grandmother’s house, I am twelve years old. My dad’s eleven siblings and their respective romantic partners are drunk. I am angsty and bored, as I have underestimated the amount of reading material I will require for the evening and find myself bookless. I seek out my favorite uncle, a college student, and beg him for something to read. He hands me The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. Horrified and thrilled, I devour it without coming up for air. It’s just so gritty and *real*. When I grow up, I’m gonna drink just like that. (Yet another unfulfilled childhood dream.) A few hours later, or maybe the next morning, my hungover uncle sheepishly asks for it back. “I think you are probably too young for that book.” Handing it to him I smile, “I’ve already finished it.”

1984, George Orwell

I read this the first night of my involuntarily stay in a mental institution. I often read feverishly through the night when I am under the spell of a particularly good book. Thus, it was about three in the morning when I got to the part where Winston’s head is put in the cage full of rats. In one of the universe’s uncanny collisions of events, it was at that moment that a loud crashing sound issued from the room down the hall. Seconds later, burly male nurses ran past my door, then back again, hauling a screaming young girl down the hallway, and into a poorly soundproofed padded room. (Yes, friends! A padded room! They really do still exist and are used on children!) A constant barrage of muffled screaming issued from that room until breakfast the next morning where I found out the girl in question was also put in a straight jacket.

As if my fourteen-year-old budding anarchist mind wasn’t already inclined to see the world as a hostile Orwellian hell, now those fears had been confirmed.

Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone

By fifteen years old I am an accomplished degenerate, having accumulated by far the most detentions and suspensions of any girl in my school, holding my own against the baddest assed of bad ass boys. The last day of ninth grade, the teacher who runs the classes for gifted kids pulls me and some of her other favorite students aside to tell us that there is a room full of books that are about to be thrown away. She is certainly not suggesting that we go into said room and take anything we like because that would be completely against the law. Here are some hall passes, we look thirsty and should get a drink.

Among the overworn copies of various literary classics that I end up taking home with me is Bread and Wine. It’s the story of a communist exile returning to fascist Italy to attempt to jump-start the revolution there. He becomes disillusioned with the party, and struggles to find a way to be true to the ideals that led him to communism in the first place. I reread this book once a year throughout my teens: when I leave the political punk rock subculture, when I drop out of high school to be an autodidact at an unschooling cooperative, when I leave that much loved freeschool to attend college early, when I move into an anarchist exsquat, when I move out of said collective, when I leave college.

One of the first things that endears me to Silone's book is that it was clearly the personal copy of the vice-principal who handed me suspentions with a vengeance. He had made notes all over the pages, something that I usually despise and find distracting. In this case, though, it gives the object a history. I imagine Mr. Yokum, a young idealistic English teacher, sympathetic to the nonconformist main character, not yet grinded into the belligerent defender of the status quo he would be by the time I knew him.

This would have been a perfectly good history for me to have with one lovely book, but Bread and Wine was not satisfied to merely facilitate my adolescent reinventions, so appeared again a few years later.

In college there was this Spanish teacher from Nicaragua who was rumored to be a former Contra and one of the sources for this book. His surname was the same as that of a prominent right center post-Sandanista politician, sure, but one doesn’t like to jump to conclusions about these things. It’s a small school; rumors fly.

There was a three-week school trip to a language school in Nicaragua. It was actually cheaper, per credit, than taking the class at my college, so I went. One weekend, all fifteen of us went to the palatial beach house of a wealthy cousin of our professor's. After a day of swimming, we sat around on the porch and the conversation meandered its way to literature. Somehow Silone came up, and I mentioned that the book had changed my life several times, that I return to it whenever I need help figuring out how to strip away the superficialities.

Edgar’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, yes, I've had that same experience with Bread and Wine. I was a Jesuit priest for a few years, and Silone helped me to realize I couldn't do that anymore. After that I was part of this... party. You know, this is a small country, politics here is so often about family. I found myself a part of this organization that was doing things that were not really... good. I reread Silone and decided to leave that group. This guy interviewed me for a book he was writing about the organization, some people in my family were not happy when I did that. I have been accused of changing sides, of turning on people. But to me, its about always trying to find the best way to be true to the same things, to be kind to people individually and institutionally. It’s the organizations that change and fail to meet their own ideals; to stay with a corrupt group does not honor what is good in the world.”

My professor admitted to me that he’d been a Contra and that he’s turned on the Contras. As far as I know, the entire student body had been waiting for such an admission for years. Reading has changed my life repeatedly, but here was an instance where a book had changed one man’s path so profoundly that it may have affected the course of history for an entire country. It all seemed so important at the time, and talking to him I became part of that. We loved art together over a waning equatorial bonfire in the last days of a tired millennium, he having left so much behind, me with so much heartache and possibility still ahead.

Tag five people:

No thanks. One of the benefits of this whole breaking and entering thang is the general license to defy rules. wink

Posted by Bakerina at 11:35 PM in Books • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
May 28, 2005

Leave it to Snowball to tag me for a meme that not only speaks to one of my core pleasures (as well as one of my most stubborn character flaws), but also will allow me to rabbit on a bit more about Scotland. What a woman.

Total number of books I've owned: Like Snow and Kristi (who Snow also tagged), I don't know if I can even hazard a guess at a number. In my life I have been a bookworm child, an English major, a culinary school student and an allaround literature junkie. At one point I was also an underemployed and debt-ridden bookstore clerk, and I ended up selling a sizable portion of my book collection to pay the rent, which was terrible, and in the end, didn't yield me nearly the money I needed. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on your point of view -- nature hates a vacuum, and as soon as my fortunes had reversed themselves, I was back at the bookshop. In 1994 I took my first trip to Kitchen Arts and Letters, the magnificent food and wine bookshop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and, to paraphrase that nice Mr. Sondheim, the world would never be the same. Let's say that between me and Lloyd, whose literature habit is not that different from mine, we have a few hundred books stuffed into our three-room apartment. Of my share of the collection, maybe 150 of them are cookbooks.

The last book I bought: This should be a simple question to answer, but I've never seen a simple question I can't make more complicated in the answering. Yesterday I bought the newly revised and expanded edition of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Mr. McGee was in New York for the James Beard Awards while I was in Scotland, and he paid a visit to Kitchen Arts. The store manager had put aside a copy for me, and Mr. McGee was gracious enough to inscribe it to me and sign it. If you are not familiar with it, the first edition of On Food and Cooking is, literally, a key text for culinary school students; at the CIA (and not just there, either, I'm guessing), it is known with simply as "McGee." I keep looking at the inscription in wonder, as if it would disappear if I looked away. In addition to the McGee, I also picked up Dianne Jacob's business-of-foodwriting primer, Will Write for Food, which doesn't sound terribly exciting but is actually enjoyable and reassuring. Of course, I can't leave well enough alone with these two books; no, I have to confess that May was National New Book Buying Month chez us, particularly for the two weeks we were in Scotland. Before we left, I bought The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski, about the life and death of the French chef Bernard Loiseau, to read on the plane. While on vacation, I bought and read Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab is My Washpot; Betsy Lerner's memoir Food and Loathing; John Diamond's memoir C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too; Susan Seligson's Going with the Grain: Travels for the Love of Bread; Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (a brilliant philippic on the rise of absurdity and pseudoscience, which I picked up after reading about it in Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree -- another brilliant book, come to think of it); Meera Syal's wonderful novel Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee (now a three-part BBC series); and a cookbook of British-Asian home cooking, Cooking Like Mummyji by Vicky Bhogal, a book so joyous, funny and fabulous to cook from that it deserves a post all its own.

The last book I read: After months of sniping about how the last thing the world needed was another lame diet book, especially one with a title like French Women Don't Get Fat, I happened to pick up my mother's copy while visiting her last weekend; 24 hours later I was at Coliseum Books, snapping up my own copy. It is not a lame diet book. It is a hoot. The message that Mireille Guiliano delivers is not a new one -- keep a record of what you eat, determine what indulgences you really can't do without and which ones you indulge out of sheer unthinking habit, if you take a little more walking in a day you don't have to punish yourself on a Stairmaster -- but in her bright, funny, warmhearted prose, it's a message I don't mind revisiting. The last work of fiction I read was the aforementioned Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee. Have I mentioned lately that I really like Meera Syal a lot?

Five books that mean a lot to me: Now this is going to be a tough one. If you think I went on a bit on "the last book I bought," trust me: that only scratches the surface compared to how I could go on about the dozens of books that mean a lot to me. For you, though, dear friends, I'll try to rein it in a bit.

I have mentioned before in this space what a pivotal role the works of Laurie Colwin have played in both my reading and cooking life. I could not live without her collections of food essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. They are cheering, funny, erudite, and a fine whetstone for your appetite. Ms. Colwin died young, in 1992, and I still miss her as much as I ever did.

Likewise, I have mentioned before in this space the new eyes through which I viewed the world after reading The Taste of America by John L. Hess and Karen Hess. I will not rehash it here; I will say only that I still mean every word of it.

Many people I know have cited Charlotte's Web by E.B. White as one of their favorite books from childhood, and while I love it, too, there's another E.B. White novel I love even better, The Trumpet of the Swan. Trumpet is the tale of a cygnet (baby swan) named Louis who is born without a voice, and how he learns to communicate. If this sounds like prosaic nature writing and storytelling, I hasten to add that part of Louis's attempts to communicate with the world around him incorporate a kindhearted boy named Sam, a stint in elementary school, a theft of a trumpet from a music store in Billings, Montana (a theft carried out by Louis the Swan's father!), and Louis's subsequent employment as a swan boat guide in Boston, summer camp counselor and jazz musician in Philadelphia as he tries to make enough money to pay for the stolen trumpet. There is a love story, a travelogue, and a nifty poem written by Sam about the Philadelphia Zoo. When I was in third grade, my teacher set aside half an hour after recess every day to read aloud to us from chapter books, great stuff like Ribsy by Beverly Cleary and Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. When she read Trumpet of the Swan to us, no one was ever late coming back from recess.

There is all manner of joy to be found in reading, but I've always found a particularly singular joy in picking up a book, reading the flaps (or back copy, if it's a paperback), opening the book to the first page, and instantly falling into the story, craving more, wondering if you can convincingly feign a bilious attack when you get back to the office so that you can go home and keep reading. For me, the book that brought me to this lovely state was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Selling the Lite of Heaven, which I must have read about 700 times since I bought it in 1996, a book that made me crave every lunch hour, every subway ride to work and every corresponding ride home. It is sweet without being saccharine, sharp without being smug, filled with both aching sadness and quiet happiness, as comfortable as a warm sweater and as thrilling as falling in love. I hope it never, ever, ever goes out of print.

Tag 5 people and have them fill this out on their blog: Even though he doesn't have a blog of his own, I am leaving the keys under the flowerpot for 'mouse. We have had so many dazzling book-based conversations that I just know he'll dazzle all of you as well, and then maybe he'll finally take my advice and start blogging already, for the love of Pete Nelson. Likewise, goliard at PCAMB is a passionate reader and a crackerjack writer, and I'd love to see how she answers these. I'm also betting that Bunni will have some amazing books to explicate and tales to tell, because she is genetically incapable of being anything but amazing. Kimberly at Music and Cats is already generous with her book recommendations, but heck, I'm going to tag her anyway. And I know that orionoir is on a badly-needed blog sabbatical right now, but I also know that he'll be back, and I know that his answers will be as labyrinthine and captivating as ever.

Posted by Bakerina at 08:30 PM in • (1) Comments
May 26, 2005

So I'm a scoundrel.  But I'm *your* scoundrel, dear friends.  I'm still working my way through my notes from Scotland; I'll be done soon, but in the meantime I thought that the following, originally published in December 2003, was particularly appropriate, not only because I'm still living, breathing and dreaming Scotland, but because the weather here in New York has been foul, about 20 degrees cooler than Edinburgh was on our last day there.  It's good porridge weather.  It's also good stovie weather, but that's for another night.

Although it doesn't happen much anymore, one of the most frequent topics of "you know what you should do?" conversation was the one on which I solicited the least advice: dieting. I never knew whether it was because I was, once upon a time, an easy and obvious candidate for weight loss, being much more of a muchacha than I am now, or whether diet regimes are so embedded in the landscape that it has become expected of all of us. I will never forget the look on Lloyd's face when I told him that a friend and co-worker, a stunning 23-year-old Taiwanese woman, already a hardcore gym rat, decided to go on Atkins. At least in New York, or at least in the circles in which I work, there is an idea that it is somewhat immoral not to be on something. If you are not in need of dimunition, then maybe you need to do something about your triglycerides, or your HDL/LDL ratios, or your insulin resistance, or maybe all of these are fine but you want to know how to make them better.

In my case, though, no one would have looked twice at me if I announced that I was going on Atkins, because once upon a time there was much more to this bakerina than meets the eye. (There also used to be less than meets the eye, but that is for once and future times.) What garnered looks was my polite thanks for the advice, but no thanks, I'll figure it out for myself. I could see the unspoken assumption in their eyes: but wasn't it figuring it out for yourself that got you fat in the first place, dear? Depending on the receptiveness of the friend in question, I would explain that I had spent years taking similar advice from people who knew the trick, who had the key, and all I needed to do was follow their path. I spent years on Pritikin and Atkins and Stillman and a particularly wiggy diet by a particularly wiggy female bariatrician who was famous in the late 70's/early 80's, a woman who regularly wrote diets for Teen magazine and counseled us that there was no reason for a fat teenager to eat more than 850 calories a day. I tried Weight Watchers, safest of the bunch, which gave me an excuse to obsess over every blessed thing that went into my mouth. I even tried a regime of, shall we say, disordered eating, the kind favored by ancient sybarites and frightened college girls. I was rewarded for my efforts by losing 5 pounds, then gaining a minimum of 10, yearly, for 10 years. You can do the math.

In the end I decided that I couldn't do any worse for myself than I had allowed the experts to do for me, so I started making sneaky little changes, the kind where every time you find yourself with a craving for stale candy from a vending machine, you force yourself to have a cup of tea instead. (The stale candy habit is gone, but now I have a wicked tea habit.) Last February, when I suspected that I was pregnant, I started eating a lot of broccoli and craving foods with a lot of sesame in them, like hummus and halvah. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but the broc habit stayed, and I remain staggered by how much halvah I can put away. Most importantly, though, I decided that I was not going to cut anything out. More vegetables? Why, yes, thank you. Lean meats? Mais oui, bien sur. But I am not going to panic if I go to Zarela for dinner and the gallon of mole sauce her chef made that afternoon contains a teaspoon of lard in it. I will give up the stale vending-machine chocolate, but if someone offers me a brown-butter-flavored ganache from La Maison du Chocolat, I am going to thank that person profusely, and possibly plant an open-mouth kiss on him/her. And I am not, not, not going to give up starches.

Yes, I know that you lost 50 pounds. I know that you have more energy. I know that our ancestors were hunter/gatherers, more suited to hunting mastodons than cultivating grain. I have heard it all, and I'm glad that it works for you, but if you tell me one more time that our wee baby little intestinal tracts were not designed to eat that big bad bowl of oatmeal, I am taking that oatmeal, and the little pitcher of heavy cream and the brown sugar and the wee dram of Macallan 18 that accompanies every proper bowl of oatmeal in my house, and I am going home. And before you make some well-meaning comment about how much faster I would get thinner if I just gave up all of that oatmeal and millet and amaranth and barley and polenta on which I warm up during the winter, let me remind you that there was 37 pounds more of me to tell this to when I did it your way. Pardon me while I add one more dram of Macallan 18 to my oatmeal.

If you are not a fan of oats but you still like the idea of a hot breakfast to power you through a cold morning, any good cookbook on grains can give you instructions on how to cook them and what to serve on/in/with them. One of the best is Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe. It is an all-purpose breakfast cookbook, filled with recipes for eggs and potatoes and breakfast puddings and pancakes and waffles and muffins, but for me the crowning glory is the comprehensive grains chapter, filled with clear, friendly instructions on how to cook and serve them. One of my new breakfast staples is amaranth wafers, made by patting cooked amaranth into silver dollars and pan-frying them at a high temperature in high-oleic safflower oil. Because the oil can be heated to high temperatures without smoking, the wafers stay crisp even at room temperature. Lloyd likes his as a sweet, with maple syrup. I prefer mine savory, with tiny dabs of sour cream and a little Maldon salt. There are recipes for oatmeal cooked in sweetened milk with chai spices, couscous with dried fruit and yogurt, barley cooked in apple juice, and my very favorite, Orange-Pecan Skillet Millet, made by cooking millet risotto-style in vanilla-spiked orange juice. I love it like mad, and Lloyd does too, even though every time I make it, he crows "who's a pretty boy?" in a spookily-accurate parrot voice.

If you are a fan of oats, you may want to try to procure a copy of this. It is out of print, but copies pop up here and there. I got mine from my home away from home, Kitchen Arts & Letters (212-876-5550). If you buy it, be prepared: People will look at you oddly, wondering at you as you chuckle over this little book of whimsy. Let them look. You and I know good stuff when we see it.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:15 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments
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