Sweet

9780399581311_p0_v1_s192x300  Although I can talk myself into healthy eating, dabbling in macrobiotics and vegan fare, when it comes to dessert, nothing tastes as good as sugar and butter.  Perhaps with the latest health initiative advising eaters to avoid all sugar – under penalty of death, Yotan Ottalenghi’s latest cookbook Sweet may be better to look through rather than put into practice.

I do like reading cookbooks, whether or not I use the recipes, and Ottolenghi’s Sweet offers a feast for the eyes with oversized pages full of chocolate tarts and meringue cheesecakes  so realistic you’ll want to lick the page.  Soft gingerbread tiles with rum butter glaze has only a half a cup of brown sugar; when I saw the double page picture of these little gems, I thought I could smell the rum.  Norah O’Donnell, interviewing Ottolenghi on CBS This Morning promised to go home that night to bake the lemon cake.  I wonder which one she made – Ottolenghi has five lemon cake recipes, all sounding delicious.  I wish someone would bake one for me.

The cover has a picture of fresh figs with a meringue base, and Ottolenghi and his fellow writer/chef Helen Goh open the book with a “Sugar Manifesto,” a disclaimer about using sugar in their recipes.  “There’s nothing wrong with treats, as long as we know what they are and enjoy them as such.”   No hidden sugars or fats – what you see is what you get.

A little goes a long way, and you don’t have to eat the whole cake – or do you?

  • Read Reviews of Other Ottolenghi cookbooks – here
  • Ottolenghi’s lemon and blackcurrant stripe cake Recipe

 

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Mystery at the Spa – Keep Her Safe

4124dC61QCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sophie Hannah was chosen to continue the legacy of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in two novels following the grand Dame’s style, and when you finish Keep Her Safe, you will understand why.  Murder, kidnapping, a distraught pregnant British mum, an arrogant American former prosecutor/talk show host, and a few policemen – set in a posh Arizona spa – come together to offer an entertaining mystery, Agatha Christie style.

Several plot lines intersect to keep the reader off balance but the main focus targets the murder of a young girl whose body has never been found.  The girl is spotted at the luxury spa after a flustered hotel clerk hands out the wrong room key to a jet-lagged British customer who not only becomes the instigator for the search of the girl but also becomes a victim.  As the story goes in and out of the possibilities, Hannah has the characters dancing in a complicated and sometimes confusing maze.  I lost patience with long pages of letters, interview transcripts, and descriptions of towels and pools at the luxury spa worthy of a marketing ad.    When the action finally picks up, the flashbacks, journals and court documents come together in a clever reveal of the true villain.

Just as Agatha Christie neatly summed up the action, laying bare the motivations of all the characters in her last chapter, so does Hannah.  Just in case the reader lost the thread of who did what to whom, she clearly explains it all in the end, exposing the villains and restoring faith in the system.  Except – there is an added surprise – leaving the ending with an uncomfortable and shocking revelation.

Although mystery books are not the best focus for a book club discussion, Sophie Hannah’s twists and surprise ending in Keep Her Safe might make the exception.  The ending would be worth discussing.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel about the ending.

 

Review of The Monogram Murders

 

 

Man Booker Prize 2017

9780812995343_p0_v2_s192x300   220px-The_Man_Booker_Prize_2015_logoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Not an easy read but a worthwhile immersion into the mind of Lincoln as he tried to manage a country in conflict and, at the same time, his grief over the death of his young son.

Have you read it yet?

Read My Review – here

What She Ate

512EKwsnRSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   Every day we make decisions about what food we will put into our mouths; Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate promised a glimpse into how five famous women in history survived.  From Dorothy Wordsworth, the frequent muse to her brother poet William, to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, Shapiro offers her research on how circumstances reflected these women’s choices in food.  More an historical perspective than a prospectus of menus, Shapiro outlines portions of each woman’s life, offering delectable information but not always detailing the daily regimen of food items the title promised.

If you know the history of William Wordsworth’s long suffering spinster sister who loyally lived and cooked for him in Dove Cottage in the beautiful Lake Country until he married the capable Mary Hutchinson, you may remember her as the inspiration for the poem Daffodils.   Sadly, Dorothy’s energetic role declined into overweight chronic illness and dementia, reflected in Shapiro’s notes of Dorothy’s food choices changing from the thick gingerbread and delicate gooseberry pies to the awful blood pudding and finally porridge with more butter than grain.

The story of Rosa Lewis is more about how this self-educated Cockney woman became the most famous caterer in Edwardian England.  Shapiro’s references to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion playing in the theater at the time grounded the timeline for me, but I couldn’t help comparing Rosa to the Downton Abbey cook who would have lived at the same time and also cooked for the Prince of Wales, later King.   With famous French Chef Escoffier as her model, Lewis cooked exquisite French food for the English aristocracy, preparing  elaborate ten course meals, including her local versions of quail pie and Yorkshire pudding.  After World War I, she too declined, as did her famous restaurant/hotel the Cavendish, going from roast duck to plover, but Shapiro concentrates more on what Lewis cooked and who she cooked it for – we can only guess she ate some of her own food.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt “didn’t care what she ate {and} had no palate for food,” she seems an unlikely target for this list of women; however, the promise of food affecting the brain had me reading on.  Supposedly, formal dinners at the White House had terrible food (a nod to the Depression) and expecting the worst, diners often ate before they arrived.  A typical menu might be breaded fish with marsmallow pudding, but privately and separately (they usually did not dine together) FDR dined on roast beef and cocktails, and Eleanor’s expertise with the chafing dish often delivered coddled eggs.   More pages are devoted to her relationship to her mother-in-law and Lucy Mercer and later to her devotion to causes than to the food in her life.

Despite her advocacy for the new home economics major at Cornell University, Eleanor was more devoted to politics than nutrition.  Foods produced in the university laboratory kitchens inspired her to cooking cheap and simple foods – prune pudding is mentioned.  Later, on her own with women friends at Val-Kill Cottage, she would make salads and a pancake dessert, a layer cake with maple syrup.  As with the first two women in the book, Eleanor Roosevelt’s tastes changes as she aged; for her, life and food became better when she was away from her husband.

Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is another unlikely candidate for this group of women, yet Shapiro focuses on the champagne and cake behind the scenes.  To sustain Hitler’s image, Braun gave interviews with magazines (Life, The Saturday Evening Post) and noted her expertise with potato dumplings and apple strudel.  Privately, she preferred salads.  Hitler was a vegetarian and had special meals prepared only for him, while others at the table dined on food no longer available in the Europe he held hostage.

Shapiro focuses more clearly on food when she writes about British novelist Barbara Pym.  By reviewing Pym’s extensive notebooks, Shapiro was able to connect the author’s observations to her fiction. Her diaries reflected her attention to the details of food often repeated in her fiction, for example, a note about “lettuce dressed with oil and salt, gruyere cheese and greengages – crusty bread” she had eaten in a restaurant found its way into her famous novel Excellent Women.   Shapiro describes Pym’s decline into obscurity and her resurrection years later through an article in the Times Literary Supplement, naming her as most underrated author of the century; soon after her Quartet in Autumn “where most of the food reflects the narrow, often lonely circumstance of the four main characters,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Shapiro says Pym would eat anything – fine food or frozen dinners.  When at publisher’s luncheons or dining out with friends she noted having lobster, smoked salmon, profiteroles but at home she cooked fish fingers and apple tart, often adding spices from India when she had them.

Finally, Helen Gurley Brown rounds out this small group.  A woman notoriously thin and always on a diet, she created her own cookbook – The Single Girls’s Cookbook (I once had a copy).  I could not connect how Brown who often had jello for dinner and considered a plate of poached fish a treat, could create a cookbook full of beef stews and decadent desserts.  But the book was meant for the single girl trying to catch a man through his stomach, and Shapiro spends a number of pages detailing how Helen chased her eventual husband David Brown.  Brown’s eating habits were miserable with only staying thin as the goal; Shapiro notes Brown must have always been hungry.

Styling herself as s culinary historian, Shapiro did extensive research for the book, but the result seems more like short biographies of each woman, with a nod to food.  Although the descriptions of well-known historical events sometimes seemed overdone, I did learn more about each woman than I had known before.  The theme has possibilities – perhaps Shapiro will write a sequel – how did food influence other women in history?  Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Alice Waters, and M.F.K Fisher would be good candidates.  Whose meals would you like to know better?

 

 

 

 

Escaping into Yourself – Lions

Unknown   A small town on the Colorado Plains, with a sign off the interstate directing passersby to the “ghost town,” frames Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions, a complicated allegory of the conflict between being true to your roots while yearning for a better life.  Nancy Pearl of National Public Radio (NPR) compared Nadzam’s story to books by Kent Haruf, but its mysterious message, ambiguous hero, and haunting setting reminded me of the Man Booker 2016 longlisted book, The Many by Wyl Menmuir .

Nearly deserted but for the one bar across from the one restaurant, a dive serving strange combinations of sandwiches and hearty stews, both on the one short street, the town has housed the Walker family for generations.  The latest in the long line of talented welders, Jim, declines offers for more money in the city, sometimes trading for food or other items when the  locals cannot pay.  His reputation brings in enough work to keep him busy; when it does not, he spends his off-time leisurely reading paperback Westerns and eating canned peaches and sardines in his shop,  Life is good for Jim; he doesn’t seem to need or want much.

Although he has trained his son, Gordon, to follow in his trade, Gordon’s girlfriend, Lizzie   wants to escape.  The two are the only young people in town, and Lizzie yearns to go to college, and never come back.

After descriptions of the stark landscape and the despondence lingering in the air, Nadzam begins her story with a stranger and a dog coming into town.  The mystery of his background is never solved, but his death triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation.

When Jim suddenly dies of a heart attack, his dying wish imprisons his teenage son to a life of welding and a mysterious bondage to care for someone living in the hills.  For years, Jim has carried supplies to a site miles out of town, staying for days, and then returning to his welding.  The local gossip created mythology around these trips, delegating Jim as a savior for a long-lost Native, possibly now a ghost, who lives in a hut in the hills.  Later, Jim’s wife laughs off the lore by saying she always thought Jim’s out of town excursions were merely his way of escaping for awhile, but Nadzam nurtures the possibility of someone dependent on Jim’s visits, and mysteriously never offers an answer.

Determined to leave, Lizzie convinces Gordon to enroll in college, leaving his mother in the care of the neighboring bartender and eatery owner.  After a quick trip to Walmart on the way, Gordon helps Lizzie move into her dorm room, and goes to his own dorm, unpacking his father’s favorite chair and paperbacks, but never attending classes.  Within weeks, Jim is ready to return, stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving Lizzie behind.

From here the story becomes even more obscure.  Gordon returns only briefly to unload his father’s chair, then drives off into the hills with the familiar supplies his father often brought.  When his truck is found deserted on the road, Lizzie returns to help with the search, convinced he is hiding somewhere.

What happens to the town? to Lizzie? to Gordon?  Let me know if you read the book, and we can discuss it.

Lions is not for everyone, and it is not as good as the promised Kent Haruf clone, but the story did hold onto me, and still does.  While some still can ignore modern technology, refusing to have a computer or participate in social media, how long will it be before they are swept away into history – unless, of course, they choose privacy, secluding themselves from it all.  Nadzam offers a few phrases worth remembering, as she deftly underscores Lizzie’s struggle and the determination of those who would remain in the dying town – perhaps more the point than the story line:

“Deserve has nothing to do with what we get.”

“You didn’t always get – you almost never got- the whole story of every man, woman, or child who asked something of you in this world.  What  you got was the moment they stood before you.  You’d have to take your chances, make your best judgment, and do whatever you were going to do.  There was a sort of resolve you had to consult that went deeper than the fact of a man’s personal history…”