Book Review: My Kitchen Wars

by Betty Fussell.

Betty Fussell will never be an M.F.K. Fisher. Nevertheless, I picked up her book today and didn't put it down until I'd finished it. (In case you don't know Mary Frances, let me just say My Kitchen Wars is a memoir about Betty's life, as seen through her experiences with food. She lived through the Depression, WWII, and so on...throughout her memoir, you get a sense of how Americans treated food through the years. Or at least some Americans.)

Her husband was Paul Fussell, a writer. A Writer. Betty Fussell's Wikipedia entry says, "She is the former wife of Paul Fussell, a literary critic and military historian." Her ex's says, "His first wife, Betty Fussell, a food writer and biographer, whom he met at Pomona College, has written a memoir, My Kitchen Wars (1999), that discusses their more than 30 years of marriage in highly negative terms, including allegations that Fussell had adulterous affairs with both men and women."

I don't know. Memoirs, autobiographies always puzzle me. Especially when everyone involved is still alive. Is it the truth? If it isn't the truth, why didn't you sue for libel? Is it better to just let a bad marriage go at some point? Or was it the truth, and you're content just to leave a question in people's minds that it might not be true? Anyway, the book depicts years upon years of two people never talking straight with each other, of two people settling into a set of assumptions because it was more comfortable that way, then acting surprised when their spirits or what have you can't take it any more, and push away. But it's told with such a charming voice that you forget how superficial everyone's been acting, how easily it's all been justified. He thinks of her as just the wife, someone intelligent enough to talk to and stupid enough to take advantage of. She thinks of him as the provider, the force between her and chaos. She gives in on every point because he throws temper tantrums if she doesn't. He thinks of her as too passive to be anything other than a wife. At the end, he says he wishes he hadn't left her, doesn't want to live without her, but can't be bothered to talk about her new cookbook for five minutes. She says she had to leave him because she needed room to write where he couldn't criticize her. But at the beginning of the book she says she still loves him.


Why was it so fascinating?

I've seen a lot of people whose marriages have come apart now. (And people like my parents, who got through the roughest parts and kept it together.) I don't want to be in the same town, let alone the same room with them. Why spend a whole book with people in this situation?

From time to time, you get things like the moment, in the sixties sometime I think, when Betty goes to France with Paul and they have homemade bread and butter. Her reaction was that for the first time, she'd had real bread and real butter. After which, she (and the rest of her set) go nuts over nouvelle cuisine, cooking their way through Julia Child cookbooks, peeling the skin off ducks, in order to make pate en croute inside their sewn skin. Her marriage was like that, too: Paul Fussell was the first non-jock, non-gay guy she'd met after the war. He was witty and intelligent. She loved him, and then she let him run all over her life, making her follow all kinds of odd little rules that upper-middle-class people had to follow, then the rules that professors' wives had to follow, then...

How does loving something get to be an overly complicated game? What do you do when you can't play anymore? --I think that's why I liked the book. The parallels between food and relationships was drawn well and nakedly, if not with an excessive amount of wisdom.



Jeanne Robinson is going to be a part of the first zero-G dance after all -- this Sunday.


Well, there's yer problem right there.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Looks about 6000 times as fun as the first one.

Black Sheep. Zombie werewolf sheep in New Zealand. Hopefully, this will be to horror movies what Kung Pow! was to kung-fu movies.



Today was the Great Octopus Expotition* of Rachael C. Kenyon. She's been asking what octopus tastes like, so I told her I'd take her to the sushi place we like and we'd try some. Seriously? If you're ever in a situation where your kid likes to try new foods, go to a sushi place and sit at the bar. The chefs had to discuss the order like three times, back and forth, back and forth, Ray ran over to the chef and watched the whole thing. They brought it over, and she waited to eat it for like five minutes, because she wanted to eat some miso soup and wait until my udon came. My lunch finally showed up, and I asked her if she was going to eat the octopus.

"It's too big," she said. Well, she was right. The rice was smaller than normal, and the octopus draped over the sides like a frilly dress (the way they cut the octopus means the purple edges look ruffled). So I ripped the excess off, and she dunked a piece in the soy sauce (no wasabi). The whole time, the chefs had been ignoring her. But they both glanced over as she chewed.

"How is it?"

One thumb up.

...but, honestly, I think they were won over when she started slurping udon noodles off a plate. The other chef made her a mocktopus, mock crab tied with seaweed on one end, shredded on the other, and deep fried. That got a "It has a good taste!"

By the time we left, we were both so full that we were ready to explode. When I told Ray that, she leaned over and whispered to me, "Miss Mary [her old preschool teacher] said she used to be skinny but then she ate so much candy that she exploded and that's how she got to be fat!"

We both had to laugh about that.

*A la Roo, if you've seen The Heffalump Movie.


Neil Gaiman's Coraline is coming out next year. Here's the sneak preview, from NG's website.

The character design reminds me of PJ Harvey, because her face gets lopsided. I seriously cannot think of any other way to come up with that face other than look at PJ Harvey and go, "Huh. Now that's how you do sardonic."

The Hobbit

...will come out in 2010/2011 (as two movies?) with Peter Jackson producing and Sam Raimi directing. So far, so good.

And Gandalf:

Ian McKellen stated that he'd love to be Gandalf again, and that Peter Jackson had let him know that he had to do it, even though Jackson might not be involved. "If I am still functioning and working well, it is very likely I would be asked to do it. I am glad to read that it is looking more and more likely. I would be disappointed if they didn't want to have the original Gandalf."


Andy Serkis is also keen to reprise his role as Gollum. "I would love to be involved with it because Gollum in the Hobbit - there's great scenes in that with the riddles in the dark passages, is one of my favourite - that I remember from being a child - one of my favourite books and that scene really - I remember it very strongly. So I'd love to be involved with it. I'm not sure whether it's going to happen or not but if it ever did, yeah, that would be great."

Ian Holm is 76.

Sad to say, all, but I'm much more excited about a Hobbit* movie than I was about LOTR.

*Pansy Deepdelver of Brockenborings.


Schrodinger's Cookies

There is the science of cooking...and then there are the cooking metaphors of science.

Half-Life: The time required to convert one half of a reactant to product. The term is commonly applied to radioactive decay, where the reactant is the parent isotope and the product is a daughter isotope. (About.com)

Half-Life of Baked Goods: The periodicity for about half the cookies to be missing. May also be applies to radioactive decay. This is especially short for snickerdoodles.

Schrodinger's Cat: We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. (WhatIs?com)

Schrodinger's Cookie: We place a living child into the kitchen, along with a parent capable of handing out punishments. There is, in the kitchen, a batch of cookies intended for a Christmas party. If even a single cookie is missing, the parent will send the child to its room. The first parent's back is turned. The other parent, in the living room, cannot know whether or not a cookie (see Half-Life of Baked Goods, above) has disappeared, and consequently, whether the child has been sent to its room. Since the parent cannot know, the child is both grounded and not grounded according to parental law, in a superposition of states. (Children grasp this thought experiment instinctively, i.e., "Eventually, Dad's going to come into the kitchen and steal a cookie, and I'm going to be blamed for it, so I might as well have one, too.")

D&D Character Quiz

I am a 2nd level Chaotic Neutral Elvish Wizard.

Hm...sounds about right.


Christmas A Capella

By Straight No Chaser.

--These guys are nuts. Just plain nuts.


Musical Interlude: Sankt Otten

Like Sigur Ros, only not. Dreamy and open ambient not-quite-techno.

Wunden gibt es immer wieder.


Book Review: Montmorency

Thief, Liar, Gentleman? By Eleanor Updale.

A YA book, first in a series. I liked it; I'll be reading at least the next book.

The premise was interesting--a petty thief leaves prison and begins a dual life, that of criminal and gentleman. But the character makes too many mistakes for me to consider him a criminal mastermind. He's just too consistently lucky. Underneath it all, he's little better than an animal, barely self-aware.* Knowing there are more books in the series helps; the character can develop. Maybe it was just the way the book was pitched on the cover. I was expecting a criminal mastermind, dammit.

The only major problem with the book was that the middle section dragged to the point I almost put it down. So I thought about it, and I woke up going, "You know what the middle section needs? A McGuffin. Wait, not a McGuffin. A nemesis."

The beginning is great--the process of the character getting out of prison, making the changes necessary to survive in this dual life he's planning--and the ending is better (but I won't talk about that). But the middle doesn't have anything to move it forward. The character just does stuff, without any real opposition. (Well, any real opposition in a fictional kind of way. There are problems, but nothing unifies them.)

There's a detective in the middle with an interesting parallel scene--he and Montmorency are both reading the same article at the same time, and you get to see their different reactions. If the detective had been developed a little earlier, he would have been great way to pull together some conflict for the middle section. A good guy, hard worker, just wants to do his job and not play politics...not especially brilliant, but always just this far away from catching the main character (because Monstmorency isn't all that brilliant, either), until the end section escalates things to the point where Montmorency realizes he's had it relatively easy all along.

Is that a nemesis? A temporary nemesis, a reflection (an opposite) of what Montmorency is at that point of his life, anyway.

The Amazon review recommends the book for middle-schoolers who like Lemony Snickett and Phillip Pullman (and John Bellairs, but I haven't run across him yet), but I'd say it's more of a "If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society" book.

*Conscience and conscious come from root words for "knowledge."


Gingerbread House.

Ray and I put together a gingerbread-house kit tonight. It was a good idea -- whenever I make gingerbread, some kind of primal instinct says, "KILL KILL KILL."* In short, it doesn't last very long. But the gingerbread in the kit was already stale, hard, and didn't smell like gingerbread at all.

Perfect. For building gingerbread-houses anyway.

I learned a valuable lesson today: with enough icing and candy, anything looks good.

Anyway, that got me thinking. What if, instead of candy and sugary treats, the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" gave the kids stew instead? Well, obviously, she couldn't; the whole point of the story is that false friendship is no more satisfying in the long run than the starvation of being ignored. (The story isn't just about the evils of too much sugar.)

From there, my mind started to wander...what if the witch didn't have a sugar house? What kind of house would she have, now? Probably one made of crack. I was going to write that up as a story, but then I realized people have been telling that story over and over for the last couple of decades. "At home, there was nothing, I wandered into seductive lands, but they were hollow." For example, Valiant by Holly Black. I loved that book...

*Like that one part in "Alice's Restaurant."

Oh no.

Terry Pratchett has a rare form of early-onset Alzheimers.

--I'm not going to eulogize here. As he notes in his letter, he's not dead yet. But MAAAAAN, has the guy ever been a provider of hope and good times curled up on the couch with Lee, trying to resist the urge to read all the good lines out loud.


Geek Cake!

...An Optimus Prime Groom's Cake.

Tim Burton to make Alice in Wonderland

My favorite books ever are Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.* Actually, I don't remember whether I liked them when I was a kid--I think, vaguely, I thought they were just too weird. But maybe that's just apocryphal memory-making. In high school, a friend of mine reintroduced me to them, and to The Annotated Alice, which explains all the weird stuff in the books, from defining most of the words in "Jabberwocky" to giving the original poems that were being parodied.

...and now, to know that Tim Burton's going to direct a version? Ah, such sweet sorrow, to know that Gene Wilder is dead, and can no longer sing "Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup." I love Tim Burton's work, but man, I don't know if he can top the Gene Wilder version. (Well, I say Gene
Wilder, but the director is Nick Willing, who also did the awesome Photographing Fairies. Ooh, this is the same guy that's doing the new Tin Man series, which I have been wanting to check out. Internets good.)

*So why do I like them so much? What seems like order is actually nonsense; what seems like nonsense is actually order. I grew up in the same kind of era that Alice did--the same kinds of pressures for extreme conformity, prudery, and the idea that just because someone had been doing something for years that it made any kind of sense whatsoever! Once I understood the books were made to mock the ordinary way of things, Alice became my hero: "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" A fair iconoclast :)


Published: Fragile

The story of endless rejections (okay, 11) is getting published! "Fragile" is going to Parade of Phantoms. I will, of course, do the happy dance and announce when I know it's going to go public.


Cookbookery Gift List

So, in the spirit of the previous post, here are my recommendations for books for cookbook lovers:

The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher.

This book collects four of Fisher's essay collections. There are a few recipes, but the book is more about the author's love of everything and how it ties into food than it is about cooking per se. You won't learn how to cook from this book. It's a book for people who already like to cook (and read)--they get to spend time with someone entertaining, warm, and human nattering on about the things they love.

Outlaw Cook, by John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne.

How to pull the notion of following recipes apart and actually cook. Again, a collection of short essays. --This is the kind of cooking that Stephen Brust would like, I think. Not the recipes so much as the general approach, that of a kind of witchcraft ritual (in which food has the primary focus) in which one must abandon what one has been told in order to get the job done right.

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.

The way food works, down to a chemical level. Awesome. If you've ever seen sixteen different recipes for the same thing, all giving different advice, and wondered why nobody could agree on anything, this is the book for you (or your cookbook lover*).

Glorious French Food, by James Peterson.

If every cook has one cookbook they daydream about cooking all the way through, this is mine. All the stuffy French food you see in classical cookbooks? This is not that. He will try to lead you through everything from aioli ("for heaven's sake, don't think of the calories") to crepes suzette ("Crepes suzette...inhabited a celestial realm in which even teachers and parents were vague and inexperienced. Best of all, crepes suzette involved fire."), but he won't tell you you're blaspheming if you switch out salted cod for barbecued chicken, fer gosh sakes. He doesn't mess around more than he needs to, but he doesn't play down to you, either. Every recipe I've tried from here, I've come out from it going, "Ahhhhhh, now I get it." I also have his sauce, vegetable, and soup books, which are also awesome.

More Cookbooks

These all combine great recipes and entertaining writing...

The Commander's Kitchen, by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon. Recipes from a New Orleans tradition, with well-told stories.

Cook What You Love, by Robert Blanchard and Melinda Blanchard. The dream of all cooks...start a successful restaurant in the Carribean and make enough money to write cookbooks and spend half the year in the U.S. Great recipes.

The Olive & The Caper, by Susanna Hoffman. My favorite Greek cookbook, it captures the flavors of Greek food without getting staid. I don't know how, but a lot of Greek cookbooks manage to be BOOOOOORING. Not so here.

*Not that I'm implying you actually sleep with cookbooks.


Barbara Fisher talks about cookbooks and the cooks who love them over at Tigers & Strawberries:
No–I think it is more fun to give the bookish cook a real live book, and see their eyes light up with joy upon unwrapping it. You can just tell that he or she wants to just open the book and dive in nose-first, but they know it is impolite to do so. This means that they have to contain their enthusiasm for a time, and it is fun to watch them squirm.
She also says, "...For the bookish cook, cookbooks are meant to be read as much as they are meant to be cooked from."

Just so.

...One of the books she recommends is the Veganomicon. Heh.


Book Review: Ratking

by Michael Dibdin.

Okay, I admit it. The last Harry Potter book was my most-anticipated-book-of-2007.

The Mysterious Benedict Society was my favorite new book of 2007.

Kare Kano and Fruits Basket are tied for tops in my "Manga that made me laugh out loud, manga that made me cry" category for 2007.

Ratking is my favorite mystery and probably my favorite overall book that I've read this year:
At times Zen felt that he was choking, and then his thoughts would turn to the house in Venice, empty now, the rooms full of nothing but pearly light, intimations of water, the cries of children and gulls. One day he would retire there, and in the meantime he was often so intensely there in spirit that he wouldn't have been in the least surprised to learn that the place was believed to be haunted.
The main character is Aurelio Zen, a Police Commissioner who had his world yanked from under him when he investigated a kidnapping case a little too thoroughly. He's now been thrown into a kidnapping case (after years of being relegated to inspecting offices) as a political sop to a nosy friend of the victim.

The title refers to a legend of ratcatchers in Europe in the 1800s, a nest of rats whose tails have been tangled together to the point where the rats can't escape. The ratking is given various powers, including power to control rats and/or humans. In the book, it's an analogy for the way people in power are interconnected and will defend each other, rather than let the whole ratking be destroyed.

The writing is consistently excellent; the plot, surprising--the reveal is okay, but it's what happens afterwards that shows you the whole point of the book; the characters, as sadly human as anything out of a Dashiell Hammett novel*, but without all the violence. This book is too believable for that much violence--but what it shows about the human condition is more horrible than a bunch of gore splattered across the walls.


*Now that I think about it, I want to say Ratking is like Red Harvest from the POV of one of the people that lived in Poisonville.


Gifts from the Natives.

Aside from a small, immobile golem, the front of my monitor contains the following items:
  • Busted lei with shells
  • Artificial daisy, yellow
  • Seven apple seeds
  • Eight purple plastic gems
  • One turquoise plastic gem
  • One polished piece of quartz
  • One small clear plastic gem
  • Artificial rose, purple
All in all, it looks like an altar to some strange god.

Dog in Space!

...Or just weightless in the back of an airplane. Please click the link if you need to laugh so hard you cry :)

(via Neatorama.)

Recipe: Rethinking Pizza

At my parents' house, we used to make homemade pizza every Saturday night. (This was before Uncle Howard died of a heart attack in his forties and Dad's cholesterol was afterwards discovered to be terrifyingly high.) My mom does most of the cooking, but (like grilling in most households), pizza is Dad's domain.

If I'm remembering it right, he made the dough himself. (I know he did sometimes and he has been lately, I just don't know when he started.) The thing I remember best about the dough was the sound of the tiny bubbles fizzing as they were punched down. We'd spread the dough out on the pans (South Dakotans, in general, aren't pizza tossers), load them up with tomato sauce stirred with a bare minimum of oregano and an excess of salt, cover them with meat (pepperoni), and slather them with a mixture of cheddar and mozzarella.

Good stuff, but...I grew out of it.

When I started cooking for myself, I didn't make homemade pizza. There were other, more exiting things to try. I went through the SPICES phase, where everything has to have at least six spices, and I went through the don't-follow-the-important-parts-of-the-recipe because-that's-more-daring phase, in which I ended up with clumps of pasta (not enough water), collapsed bread (old yeast), and lots of other embarrassing dishes that I've wiped from my memory the way some people erase childhood abuse. Lately, I've been trying the "simple" phase. Honestly, it's kind of a relief.

I think I can track it back to reading The Outlaw Cook, by Matt Lewis Thorne and John Thorne. One of the essays was about something called a plowman's lunch--onion, bread, cheese, beer. He talked about how these things could transformed into more sophisticated dishes (for example, onion soup) but still shared the same simple essence, which could be reached most clearly through the basic ingredients. I'm putting this in a much wordier, intellectual way that I should be, but that's the college education for you.

Anyway, I tried it. Onion, bread, cheese, beer. Good stuff. I didn't have to screw around with it too much, but I could if I wanted to.

One day, I saw refrigerated cans of pizza dough at the grocery store, and I picked up a couple. It was the second week in November, and I was in "Must Write Novel" phase, which equates to "But of Course I Don't Have Time to Cook." Also, I have a six-year-old who likes to help in the kitchen, and you gotta take advantage of that.

So she squished out the pizza and I cut up some peppers and mushrooms. Ray spread out the pre-made spaghetti sauce and put the veggies on. We grated some mozzarella over top (not too much) and threw it in the oven. I broiled it for the last minute or so.

Delicious. It took us half an hour, and I'm talking with-six-year-old time here. Nothing happens in half an hour with a six-year-old, dammit.

So I thought about it.

Pizza doesn't have to be a big production. At its simplest, it's bread and cheese that have been cooked together, warm bread, melted cheese. It's essentially a roasted dish, dry heat. It doesn't have to be Italian-themed.

So what's good roasted? is my thought.

We did the next experiment today, and it was fun. Ray was in complete denial of there being any possibility of the pizza being edible. Lee walked around making faces and raising eyebrows.

Ray's on her second piece, and Lee said, "That's not bad," but in that tone of voice that South Dakotans use to say, "You could make that again and I wouldn't make fun of you next time." High praise.

Here's the recipe.

Brussell Sprout Pizza

1 tube refrigerated pizza dough

Spread the dough out on a greased, heavy-bottomed cookie sheet.

Garlic Sauce

Heat about 2T butter in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add two cloves of chopped garlic and saute for a minute. Sprinkle the mixture with about 2T of flour and stir until the floury smell disappears. Add 1t salt. Pour in 1/2c. heavy cream and stir over heat until thickened. Pull the mixture off the heat and spread it on the dough after it's stopped bubbling.

4 oz. (1/2 box) mushrooms (I used baby bellas), sliced thickly
About the same volume of Brussels sprouts, stem ends trimmed and sliced the same way you did the mushrooms

Sprinkle the vegetables evenly across the sauce and dough. Grate cheese over the pizza--I used Oaxaca, because they had it at the Mexican market I like--but not so much that it covers the veggies totally.

Put the pizza in a 400F oven for about 15 minutes, or until the dough is starting to turn brown around the edges. Finish the pizza by broiling it until the cheese turns brown and the veggies start to turn dark and dry around the edges.