Incident of the Christmas pudding

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Within the first pages of Oscar and Lucinda we are informed “There would have been no church at Gleniffer if it had not been for a Christmas pudding.”

It is this foodstuff – both foreign and familiar to me like so much of Peter Carey’s evocations – that sets the starting mark for Oscar’s path and jumpstarts the narrative of this story. When the book opens Oscar is a 14-year-old boy living in England with his father Theophilus Hopkins, a widower, Plymouth Brethren preacher and amateur naturalist. Oscar is devout and so far unquestioning of his faith and his father.

That is, until the incident of the Christmas pudding. So simple a pleasure — from the description of ingredients its hard to believe that such a homey delight could change the course of a boy’s life:

This was not a normal Christmas pudding. It was a very small one, no bigger than a tennis ball. It contained two teaspoons of glacé cherries, three dessertspoons of raisins, the peel of one orange and the juice thereof, half a cup of flour, half a cup of suet, a splash of brandy, and, apart from the size, you would not think it was such an abnormality…

The scheme to present Oscar with a Christmas pudding did not lie with the boy or his father, but rather a maid new to the household.  An Anglican unlike her evangelical employer, freckle-faced Fanny Drabble is appalled to hear her young master has never tasted a Christmas pudding and intends to right this garrish injustice. Behind Theophilus’ back she makes the small pudding for the Oscar and shuttles the boy off into the kitchen to give him his first taste of the custard-covered, steamed dessert. However, two blissful bites into Oscar’s innocent revelry his fervent father discovers the secret pudding rendezvous and quickly dispatches a blow to the back of Oscar’s head and the pudding straight into the fire.

Theophilus calls it the fruit of Satan, but Oscar, for the first time, does not see eye-to-eye with his father:

The taste in his mouth was vomit, but what he remembered was plums, raisins, cherries, suet, custard made from yellow-yolked eggs and creamy milk. This was not the fruit of Satan. It was not the flesh of which idols eat.

Oscar, angry at his father’s cruel reaction and finding himself unable to accept his father’s belief in the evil of such a delight, prays for a sign from God to tell him whether his father is wrong.

“Dear God,” he said, and the straight edge of his teeth showed, “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, smite him!

And with that, Theophilus is injured while collecting nature samples in the ocean and Oscar has his answer: he must seek out a different relationship to religion, and despite a feeling of dread the devout young boy soon disavows his father’s religion in favor of traditional Anglicism, with a specific belief in God’s presence in “chance,” thus foreshadowing his later weakness for games of such.

And all of this because of tiny Christmas pudding.

“I look at my crammed shelves and feast with artful reflection, for no meal is good that cannot be reflected upon with pleasure.”

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

- MFK Fisher, “L is for Literature,” An Alphabet for Gourmets

I believe any “foodie” who has read the works of MFK Fisher considers her some sort of kindred spirit because of what she says about food. I can’t say I’m immune. But, what I truly love about her is how she says it. The reverence for the joy of eating, the beauty of her revelations, and the ultimate respect for the power and playfulness of the written word continue to astound me.

“Given the fact that almost every gastronomer has some kind of literary predilection, it is amusing and interesting to speculate on the whys and whens of such a love.”

My mouth waters at my own feast of literature and library of food on my bookshelves – or stacked in odd corners, stashed on the bed-table, hiding on top of the fridge, bouncing around my handbag or sadly stored away in boxes. All are memories of or hints at the little pieces of solitary joy the greedy, voracious reader – or the equally indulgent gastronome – is intimately familiar with . Yet food, and its literature, is often best when shared.

“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”

Sharing food, or words, is all about possibility. Possibility of knowing yourself or others better, of approaching new ideas or perspectives, of long journeys not yet imagined, of tastes not yet tasted, of dinners not yet attended or, sometimes,  just circumstances you can’t expect.  And, naturallijk, all the little pleasures and heartbreaks that come inbetween. I can have a light meal, light read or a light chat, but that spark that happens in great literature, great food, great conversation or great writing about any of those — that — I can never take lightly.

(04/14/11 – while I figure out wtf I’m doing here, you can see wtf I’m trying to figure out over at entropicalia.wordpress.com)

2009: RIP Gourmet Magazine

January 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

My anger and injury over the closing of Gourmet has been simmering since I heard the news back in October. But, I am not about immediacy. I prefer long cooked dishes, lingering dinners, and well thought out plans. Blogging is a counter-intuitive medium for me, as many bloggers, and even the “successful blog” model rely on posting frequently. The passing of 2009, however, lets me revisit this piece I wrote and abandoned:

We are living in interesting times where the future of newspapers and print media are uncertain. The most disappointing thing to me is the dirth of quality journalism – and sometimes this even prevents me from pressing the publish button. I would rather read one well researched, well written, well edited article than 30 short, quickly published blog entries. But don’t get me wrong – I don’t care about the medium, as long as the writing is something worth reading. Now,  there are more words available, more people writing them, and more places to read them, but quality writing is rare even through established venues. Traditional newspapers are some of the worst offenders – why do I care if your paper no longer exists when your staff cuts has dropped your quality level so extremely (NYT I’m looking at you)?

The closing of Gourmet Magazine felt like the death of a friend. No, the murder of a friend. I might be on the young end of the demographic, but I’ve been a reader for over 10 years. Maybe more than a reader.  I was attached to it – even when I lived abroad and couldn’t find the magazine, my mother would send me her back issues to sate me. Impassioned arguments were made by publishers and bloggers when the news surfaced, yet I didn’t and don’t agree with any of them. I don’t think the ‘blogosphere’ has enlightened me, I don’t find the Cook’s Illustrated model very interesting, and I’m absolutely sick of the food tv/magazine/book/blogging obsessive focus on recipes. One of the arguments I’ve heard for the closing of one of the Conde Nast food magazines is that the websites, blogs, etc have filled the niche for food writing and recipes. And I agree – the internet fills the exact niche that made it easy to stop reading Bon Appetit. In January 2009 I cancelled my subscription because the boring articles and uninspired recipes didn’t seem worth the meager $15/year. It was frustrating, or rather, actively irritating enough that I didn’t want it coming to me every month, especially when I have access to a wide number of blogs and websites that I can get similar content from. And despite its dwindling pages, I kept my Gourmet subscription because even with reduced content I have found nothing to replace it.

Sauver and Gastronomica are magazines I follow, and Food & Wine can be a good read, but Gourmet was unique in its devotion to (what I consider) the “good life.” My devotion to the magazine was due to its focus on quality. Not just a focus on tasty food – everything about it was well considered – outstanding writing, fantastic photography, thorough research, strong editorial voice without ever being overpowering – and most important to me, an element of fantasy. Maybe I’m not the customer Conde Nast is looking for, but I was well aware that there are ingredients, and restaurants, and travel locations that I could never afford within those beautiful mute-gloss pages. And I liked that. I wanted to be transported, I wanted inspiration. The last thing I want, or wanted, is another variation on a quick recipe to make after coming home from a day of work. I do that every freaking day, and I don’t read for affirmation. Gourmet, rest in peace, was like nothing else.  I wanted to read something beautiful – beautiful in its craft – that combination of cooking, dining, writing, design, communicating – and to my mind Gourmet is the only periodical that ever got the balance right.

To add insult to injury, my Gourmet subscription was commuted into a Bon Appetit subscription.  I read the January issue that came to me, then promptly hurled its testament to mediocrity across the room.  Today I officially subscribed to Savuer.  2010, my first Gourmet-less year.

Postal Service Employees I Have Known

May 20, 2009 § 4 Comments

1.  Norwalk, CT
The mailman was a pretty innocuous thing when I was growing up.  In the suburbs there was no mail person walking, just a mail truck that goes from mailbox to mailbox.  My brother told me that sometime around 6th grade he “hitched” a ride on the back stoop of the mailtruck and had a rather unpleasant encounter with the mailman.  But to me, it was more about the truck.  When I’m at home I still recognize the distinct sound of the truck, its brake, the sound of it circling and delivering mail to our cul-de-sac.  Who knows how long this particular mailman has been on the job, but in years of late he won’t deliver your mail if for any reason he can’t reach your box in his car.  If he has to get out, you don’t get your bills.  This also means for some unfortunate package placement.  Thanks for leaving that package of books on top of the box, where it fell off into sandy snow left by the plow.  I now know why Amazon plastic wraps everything.

2.  Great Barrington, MA (College, on-campus)
I looked once, even twice a day at both my mailbox and my intra-college correspondence cubby.   I rarely got mail, but I m.  Once, during my sophomore year, I got an unexpected Valentines Day package from my aunt that included a couple of packs of Marlboro Reds (it was my brand, and red for Valentines!)   It made my month.

3.  Housatonic, MA (College, off-campus)
Did we even have postal service?  I think I still got my mail at school,  and my roommates either did that or had PO Boxes.  Hm.  Was that a choice because of the roommate situation, or did we not have mail service at all???  Huh, I don’t think we even had a mailbox.  Who the fuck doesn’t actually have mail service?  Wait, I tore off my passenger-side mirror on a wood post in our driveway when trying to make a tight parking maneuver in icy conditions… that must have been a mailbox, right?  I have no explanation here. [Edit 07/30: I remember - it wasn't a mailbox or a wood post, it was a fire hydrant.  No answers about mail.]

4.  Amsterdam, Netherlands.
It was a big building, on a busy street.  I remember the mailmen didn’t speak much English — a rarity in Amsterdam.  I’m not sure I ever encountered the same postman twice.  I think it was the same guy who regularly did the normal mail rounds, so I suppose it was the package delivery men who were always different.  Again, I remember getting a surprise package — this time from my mother.  My family had gone on a boat trip and she sent me some cool yarn she picked up along the way.  I still have the scarf I made with it.  Mostly I remember the post office.  Taking a ticket and waiting and waiting and waiting to pick up a package or send something only to have the pissed-that-you-can’t-conduct-your-business-in-Dutch-even-though-they-speak-English-but-are-state-employed-and-thus-feel-entitled-to-making-your-life-miserable-for-living-in-their-country-unable-to-explain-the-details-of-American-addresses-or-that-you-don’t-have-tulip-bulbs-hidden-in-the-mixedcd-you-are-just-trying-to-send-your-friend-in-Canada-in-their-native-language-which-half-of-Amsterdam’s-residents-don’t-speak-well.

But, generally the mail was sent and received quickly.  Unless it had to do with your student loans.  Then, it managed to take months.  Especially if you really needed the money.

5.  Oakland, CA
Hello sweet Asian-woman-who-barely-speaks-English.  What is worse?  Being punished by postal employees for not speaking Dutch or having someone nod at you, thinking you understand each other, only to find out said person didn’t catch a word of what you were saying?  She was probably the most consistent postwoman I ever encountered, but god forbid you are waiting on a package someone decided to post by USPS.  I sort of felt bad.  She was so nice.  But, if you had a question about why you got a key, and there was no package for you in the corresponding box… or why you got a slip when you knew there was no signature needed and it was small enough package  to be left, forget it.  But she was nice.

Although, she was totally outshined by the AMAZING UPS DUDE.  He ended up at our apartment building almost every day, and was good about buzzing.  If the package was heavy he’d even carry or dolly it up for me.  My only complaint is that lazy people in the building would buzz him in and tell him to come up to their apartment instead of going downstairs to fetch their package (and buzzing in strangers, even super cool UPS men, was not okay — we lived in a nicer area, but fuck man, people accidentally buzzed in some unwelcome… unwelcomes… I mean, it was still Oakland).  That would mean that he would come knock at the door instead of buzzing the apartment, and sometimes no one could hear the knock.  I do not blame AWESOME UPS DUDE.  Occasionally I encountered a very concerned, motherly Irish-looking FedEx woman.  Very sweet, but we rarely got things via FedEx so I was never able to form a complete opinion.

6.  Brooklyn, NY
Much like F train service on a Saturday night, the postal service here is a mixed fucking bag.  We have two different mailmen, one black and one asian, and I cannot figure out their schedule at all.  Asian dude seems to come around 11 and Black dude seems to come closer to 1.  Asian dude sucks.  I believe he is a mail-withholder.  He has the general attitude of “I’ve been working at this job for 10 years and I still can’t believe this is all life had in store for me.”  I would sympathize.  But since I think he withholds my mail, probably due to the fact that he has to open a gate to get to our mailbox, I can’t muster it.  I am much more understanding to people’s disappointment when they still get the job done.  Black maildude, on the other hand, seems to be stoked that he has this gig.  He has the swaggering attitude of “hey who thought someone would actually pay me to walk around the neighborhood and put things in boxes?”  He also is friendly, says hello, and rings the bell to notify me when he’s placed something large and conspicuous in the box.  Then there is separate, 3 o’clock USPS package postman.  He is also stoked on his job.  A big, burly, mustachioed white guy who seems to know that the secret, taking the heavier mail-load, is the key to happiness in a maildude’s life.  He brings you packages, which generally make people much happier than the bills regular mail provides.  Unlike other maildudes he needs a signature, so he is also used to dealing with people.  And gates that may or may not be a barrier between him and his customer.

No mail today.  I assume disgruntled asian maildude was working.

Morality, Vegetarianism, etc

May 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

The post and comments on being/becoming a Vegetarian over at the Atlantic Food Channel have got me thinking about what offends me about the practice.  On a visceral level, I am somewhat confused and slightly repulsed by the idea that anyone would shun the wonder of foods that incorporate animal products from their lives.  I find that within the practice of eating meat there are moral and dietary concerns, but nothing that would ever make me shun it completely.*  To me, vegan and vegetarianism seems a type of asceticism, and I have never been interested in any form of that.  A lot of reasons and arguments given for vegetarianism  are couched in contemporary dietary and political agendas (which are echoed in many health/responsible meat-eating discussions), but more confusingly is that there is a level of spiritualism or Belief to it.  As a omnivore speaking with a vegetarian about the intrinsic value of either as a practice my conversations have more closely emulated when I’ve spoken about god as as an atheist with a believer — often conversations have been productive, and maybe we have gotten a better understanding of where the other is coming from, the ethics involved — but the moral judgment hasn’t been rescinded.  We still fundamentally disagree, judge on some level, and either one can use available information to support their point.

But its just at this moral divide where it starts getting interesting.  Stating succinctly in the comments, self-proclaimed vegetarian JBveggie said, “But when you are a vegetarian for moral reasons, as Max Fisher is (and I am), it is implied that you feel those that eat meat are, to some degree, immoral.”  It’s easier to accuse the vegetarian of being morally judgmental as they are often on the offense — they are the one who has made it clear that ‘this is my stance, I will abstain because of my beliefs,’ though perhaps never saying it outright.  As someone upholding the norm of meat-eating, I don’t have to engage or explain if or what my moral judgment is.  But if I’m being honest,  I have to admit that I find the restrictions of vegetarianism thwart a person’s chance of experiencing the world, broadening their horizons, and cutting themselves away not just from meat, but from whole cultures — and to my sense, that is morally wrong.

This is all theoretical, black and white terms, but when it comes down to it, the fact that you know your fellow diner fundamentally thinks you are morally-wrong-in-theory could be a bit off-putting.  In practice, however, we can generally all get along quite well by agreeing to disagree.  My biggest beef — if you will — is not about theoretical difference in our ethical creed, but with the active disruption of the social experience of dining together.  Having lived in a few metropolitan areas it has been easy for me to strike a balance — you don’t bring the vegetarian friend to the steak house and you don’t bring the carnivorous friend to the vegan cafe — you find middle ground.  At least, you try to and I’m not going to criticize what you choose to eat provided we are all enjoying ourselves.  But, occasionally I’ve encountered the type that waits to say something about their dietary restrictions or preferences until the server comes around to take their order.  Or, after the big family meal has been extensively planned around other known restrictions, cooked, and presented, a guest flippantly says “Oh you made this?? Didn’t you know I’m a vegetarian??”  This is probably more of a personality type than a symptom of vegetarianism — but, in my experience often one and the same, and to me this is the worst sin — dietary choices or restrictions aside — is to make everyone around you focus on what just you, that one person in the group, can and cannot eat.  When it comes to eating together, I could care less if we agree about the ethics of vegetarianism, but expect you to help find a way so we can all come together and enjoy the process, or theater, of having a meal together.  To put it simply — ideally my priority is to have enjoyable meals, where everyone is catered to well enough to forgo disruption, and can spawn great debates (say, like the morality of diets).  People who get in the way of good food, congeniality and good conversation are more offensive than any vegetarian.  Although, vegetarians, have you ever had potatoes cooked in duck fat?  Just a thought.

*There was a time, from about age 13 to 18, that I didn’t eat meat.  Or I didn’t eat red meat.  Or, I did sometimes, but it really depended on the texture, consistency.  I never knew how to explain it.  Never really knew what turned me off it, or what turned me back on it.  I blame it on youth, but despite love of antipasto platers I still have an aversion to most deli counter meats…  Who knows?  Though I never questioned it and have no background in Kosher practices, I found JL Wall’s thoughts of what questions needed to be asked when (hypothetically) turning back to meat quite intriguing.

1967 Joy in 2009

March 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Growing up my momster had a copy of the 1967 edition of The Joy of Cooking that she taken from her mother, and it was the major reference cookbook of our house.  When we moved to Brooklyn, my mom gave me a copy of the 1967 edition she had Ebay-ed for me — partly so I would have my own version of the “go-to guide” I grew up with, but I think also to make sure she I didn’t steal hers (I wouldn’t, I swear.  At least not that cookbook).

One night I was making chicken paprika, not exactly from a recipe, but from growing up with it and catering to my taste.  I decided to cross-reference the book’s recipe to see if it was similar to the version I remake from childhood memory.  Who knows, it could be my version of my mother’s version of Joy of Cooking 1967’s version of chicken paprika.  So, I checked the index.  It was on page 468.  Guess what?  I don’t have a page 468.  There is no damage to the book, so by some printing mistake or something I am missing pages 421-468, and 469-517 are duplicated at some point in the 500s.  So I suppose, at least for now, the differences between how I make the dish and Irma Rombauer or her daughter wrote it down remain a mystery.

Despite these missing pages, my copy still has those same recipes I’ve always looked to it for — applesauce cake, cornbread, pancakes, and the useful guides to cuts of meat and cooking temperatures…  It’s often the first place I start when looking for specific recipes, and sometimes I just flip through for some inspiration to strike me when I don’t know what to cook.  In 2009 it’s still a great resource for American standards, but sometimes I find dishes that sound dated and sometime even funny (see most attempts at ‘ethnic’ foods) to me.  On both copies of page 470, I found a description of a recipe that made me giggle, and one that perhaps, in language and age-of-poultry-specifications, highlights the book’s age:

French Casserole Chicken
Whenever we see one of our contemporaries trying to regain her youthful allure with gaudy sartorial trappings, we think of a dish we found in a collection of college alumnae recipes, called:  “Suprême of Old Hen.”  We all know that “Suprême,” in chef’s parlance simply means a breast of fowl.  But in this case, it really lives up to its bill and makes such a good dish out of a poorish bird that the old girl is still an acceptable morsel.

I’m not tempted to make this particular recipe, but I did pull the book off of the shelf to make Yorkshire pudding the other night.  Missing pages, dated recipes… the book itself might be an old girl, but you can still get a good dish out of her.

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Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, The Joy of Cooking, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1967

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food

March 5, 2009 § 1 Comment

I have a mixed relationship with Alice Waters. She doesn’t know about it yet, but I can’t bring myself to love her. I’m not sure how much I even like her. But one thing is clear — the food she makes and inspires her chefs to make is absolutely delicious. I might not be a soldier in her Revolution, but delicious it is.

In October, a few days before the BF and I relocated to the East Coast, we had the pleasure of dining at the Chez Panisse Cafe. The atmosphere was cozy without being homely, and personally hating room lights that are too dim, I really appreciated how the room felt bright without being intrusive or clinical. The waiter’s wine recommendation was stellar, and we were so busy enjoying our drinks and conversation about our move that we didn’t even notice there had been a service delay until we were brought complimentary marinated olives. But, beyond anything, there was the food. For my entree I had duck, but my memory actually fails me on what the preparation was. I remember there was frisee salad involved. I know, a meal at Chez Panisse and you don’t remember what the hell you ate? See, there was this piece of toasted bread, along with the duck and the frisee. A piece of toasted bread with a pate that just stole my attention away from the rest of the dish. So rich and creamy, and somehow just that different, just that more refined than other smooth pates I’ve had. I could have just eaten few more pieces of that and been tapped out. But I was prepped to fail, because I fell in love with a pizza. Or a pizzetta. Whatever. Though I’ve only just moved to NY, I grew up between “The City” and New Haven, and with that comes very, very strong opinions about pizza. I won’t go into them, because it doesn’t matter. Call what they served me whatever you like — somehow the tomato pizzetta I was served was the strongest expression of pure-tomatoness and I was dumbstruck. Living in the Bay area, I discovered how brilliant an heirloom could be (and I’ll be jonesing for those Berkeley Tie-Dyes come summer), but this was something more. Cooked enough to really highlight the natural sugars, without being overly sweet. Perfect thin crustiness. I had already had my moment. I forget what the duck dish was. Pate. Tomato Pizzetta.

But this was supposed to be a review of The Art of Simple Food, right? While I was in the bathroom after our wonderful meal, the BF bought me a copy of the book. I was glowing with the warmth of good wine, a fantastic meal, and my favorite type of surprise – a book. I love the design of the book. I’m a sucker for consistency, and it featured the same illustrator and typeface as the Chez Panisse cookbooks. To me, the humble yet beautiful illustrations (rather than photography) perfectly encompasses Chez Panisse aesthetic — focus on the ingredients, making the humble into something exquisite. There is something approachable about the book design itself. It doesn’t have a dust-cover, as if asking you to take it straight into the kitchen rather than safely leave it unharmed on the shelf. However, I have some issues. The recipes all sounds like excellent preparations. Of things I generally don’t look to use recipes for. In the Amazon.com editorial review Arthur Boehm questions, “Do we really need more recipes for beef stew, polenta, and ratatouille? If they’re the work of famed restaurateur and “food activist” Alice Waters, undoubtedly.” Yet, I’m still unsure. That is wrong — I actually think the recipes are great, and I often read new recipes of things I know well for new perspectives and ideas. But a whole book of them? I’m not often looking for a new basic recipe for polenta. I’ve tried out more than a few, found and played with them to my own taste… maybe I’ll try hers, but, then again, with a little tweaking, her recipe is not that different from mine.

So… who is the audience for this book? It’s not comprehensive enough to be a “go-to” reference book. It’s also not specific enough to inspire me to cook straight from it. To me it seems to be an introductory text; a college composition anthology; a primer to Alice Waters and Slow Food. And there is nothing wrong with that. Alice Waters has a lot of star value, but seemingly only amongst people who are already aware, if not actively interested in eating locally, seasonally, organically. When I started to think of it in this way, I was a lot more impressed with the book. If you are already interested in cooking with love, time, and respect to your ingredient… but perhaps hesitant of how to do that, this would be exactly the resource to look to. It might not be what I am searching for in a cookbook, and I find her writing “voice” obnoxiously Precious… but at the same time, I’ve been spoilt by mothers and my own love for home cooking. I can see exactly how these recipes, presented this way, could be the ultimate comforting, perhaps even illuminating, ease into a slightly different way of treating your food. I was looking for Chez Panisse in a book, and instead got a home cook who just wants to put a fresh and tasty meal on the table. So what am I complaining about? That’s what I try to do.  And I’ll go back to it.  Maybe just not for the polenta.

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Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Recipes and Lessons for a Delicious Revolution, Clarkson Potter, 2007

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Chez Panisse

1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 548-5049 (cafe)

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