Sourdough: A Novel

51lUUj3WwAL._AC_US218_    Robin Sloan’s Sourdough had me craving for bread as I read the adventurous tale of a young computer geek turned baker.

Although the dough itself is the main character in the novel, Lois Clary expedites its coming of age.  The dough grows from a lump in a crock owned by two undocumented cooks with a take-out business who leave town quickly, to a starring role in a futuristic farmer’s market of experimental foods.  Along the way, Computer Lois finds her calling and is able to use her expertise programming industrial robot arms to streamline the process of baking loaves of bread.

Most of the story is tantalizingly fun, but some conflict is created by the challenge between eating for pleasure and feeding the masses.  It’s Alice Waters vs the scientists, home-grown tomatoes vs nutritious Slurry.  The ending gets a little wild – as yeasty dough can get if left unattended, as Sloan tries to accommodate old world with new age in a strange marriage of breadcrumbs.

This is a book for all the senses: the yeasty smell of the starter dough percolating in its crock; the sounds of the background music motivating the sourdough starter as it whistles and pops through the night; the taste of soft bread in a crispy crust smothered in butter with a sprinkling of salt; the sight of the strange markings on the baked crust, possibly channeling the Madonna on a potato chip; and, finally the squeeze of the dough kneaded into the final heft of a crusty loaf.  You will need some good bread nearby to eat as you read, preferably one with character.

My favorite scene was Lois teaching the robot arm to crack an egg.  Cracking an egg, one-handed, is no easy feat.  Julia Child made it look simple, but have you ever tried it?  One of my favorite elements of satire is the idea of losing weight eating only bread (Oprah, take note – no bad carbs here).  The story spoofs the modern and the conventional – a Lois Club for women named Lois, the nutritive gel replacing real food, the strangely isolating workplace environment, the identify of the mysterious benefactor.

Sourdough, like the bread, has more heft than first appears.  Sloan has filled it with mysterious and satisfying ingredients; let your senses fill up while you read and enjoy.  I plan to bake some bread today.

Related:

A friend was listening to the book on Audible while I was reading it on my iPhone.  When she described how the author incorporated the sounds of the starter dough as it morphed as well as the baker’s music into the reading of the book, it made me want to listen to it.  We also started sharing bread recipes.  I’ve included one of my favorites – here.

Advertisements

Seven Books Under Two Hundred Pages to Read While the Turkey is Roasting

My mother roasted her Thanksgiving turkey overnight on such a low setting it’s a wonder we all survived, but it was deliciously moist. I always rose at the crack of dawn to start my feast, but today cooks know how to plan.  Articles from Bon Appetit and Real Simple magazines urge making the sides ahead and uncomplicated.  If pumpkin pie is too scary for its crust or soggy middle, I found a recipe for cookies to replace it – click here to see it.

Perhaps you will find yourself with time as you wait for the big bird to finish roasting this Thanksgiving.  Let the others watch football; you can read a short book to put you in the mood to feast.

Click on the titles to find my reviews for seven books under two hundred pages – maybe you’ll finish more than one:

  1. Girl in the Green Raincoat  by Laura Lippman (158 pages)
  2. Mrs. Dalloway  by Virginia Woolf ( 108 pages)
  3. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (192 pages)
  4. The Uncommon Reader  by Alan Bennett (128 pages)
  5. The Sense of an Ending  by Julian Barnes  (150 pages)
  6. Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (144 pages)
  7. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

happy-thanksgiving-2

 

In the Midst of Winter

51lKIT-x2jL._SY346_     In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is a wild ride in the middle of a snowstorm to dispose of a dead body in the trunk of a Lexus. The life stories of Lucia, Evelyn, and Richard as they tell each other about their past are more compelling than their adventure.

At the end of the ebook on my iPhone, I found  a summary for the reading group guide  – I could not have said it any better.

“A blizzard in New York City brings together three strikingly different people, each burdened with a difficult past. Lucia, an aging Chilean writer who has survived political exile, disease, and betrayal, is marooned with her dog in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. Richard, an academic chairman at NYU, is a broken man haunted by guilt for his fatal failures as a husband and father. And Evelyn, a brave young Guatemalan woman, is an undocumented home health aide who fled her native country due to gang violence, which claimed the lives of her two brothers and very nearly destroyed her own.

Over the course of several days, these three—each a misfit in a different way—are forced by circumstances into a rare level of intimacy. As the result of a shocking crime, they depart on a precarious epic journey that reveals their painful inner demons and ultimately enables them to forge a tentative peace with their pasts.”

My favorite quotes from the book:

  • {Despite the} “atrocious weather, fleas, food poisoning, his ulcer, and his own and the moose’s shit,” Richard falls in love with Lucia.

  • From Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer. ”

And, I found Lucia’s recipe for  comforting Chilean cazuela – homemade stew made with beef, potato, pumpkin and corn on the cob – click here to see it.

Allende cleverly connects immigration, political turmoil and history, family loyalty, and cultural divides, through a murder mystery.  The murder with the disposal of the dead body in the trunk of a car in the middle of a snowstorm and the revelation of whodunit at the end is almost an aside to the harrowing backstories of the three who become friends under strained circumstances.   Despite the confusing jumps back and forth through lives and times,  the journey of the three disparate lives, as they reveal their backgrounds, is the real story, providing important history and information; the murder plot and the final reveal of whodunit is secondary.

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

 

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?