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A Cordiall Water September 11, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Passionate as I am about food and cooking, and as many hundreds of cookbooks and food history books as I’ve collected, I’m woefully ignorant of the genre known as “food writing,” essays and memoirs related to food. I can count on one hand the books I’ve read on the topic, if we can lump all the Julia Child books (My Life in France, Passion for Life, Julie and Julia, etc.) on one finger. I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful food adventure story, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Ruth Reichl’s second biographical book, Comfort Me with Apples; Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat; and Peter Mayle’s French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew.

But I had never read the most renowned of the modern food writers, MFK Fisher. Love her or hate her, she defined food writing in the Twentieth Century, and from everything I can see, continues to define it, it and a certain sensibility with regard to food. Food writers copy elements of her style, or her approach to food and life, or they very consciously don’t. She is the gilded Oscar on the food writer’s shelf, the taunting presence, the one to beat, the one you hope critics will compare you to: “A modern-day MFK Fisher!”

Unfortunately, I appear to be landing in the “hate her” camp. I recently stumbled on her book  A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd and Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man and Beast in a used book store. My fascination with herbs and herbal remedies and lore is equal to my love of cooking and cookbooks, so I bought the book without a second thought. A chance to finally read MFK Fisher and to see what she has to say about old-time remedies: Talk about win-win!

Talk about win-lose. I should have paid more attention to the photo of Fisher on the back of the book rather than the topic on the front. It was so elaborately, so consciously, so preciously styled as to resemble press-release shots of starlets in the Roaring Twenties, or perhaps famed stage beauties of the 1890s. And this tone infused every chapter of what might otherwise have been a fascinating read.

It might not have been Ms. Fisher’s fault; she was born in 1908, and came to womanhood during those same Roaring Twenties, the Flapper era, when laquered waves, bobs, and helmet hats were de rigeuer, a ruler-flat figure was the height of fashion, the Ziegfeld Follies were the most popular entertainment, Tallulah Bankhead was the reigning celebrity, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his circle set the style. The Algonquin Hotel and its “Vicious Circle” of critics and biting wits, including Dorothy Parker, flourished from 1919 to 1929. It was an artificial era, and the 1929 crash that ushered in the Great Depression smashed the brittle, manic gaiety that had defined it. 

However, other women who were her contemporaries effortlessly rose above this artificiality and brittleness and created their own styles. Julia Child (born four years later), Helen Nearing (born four years earlier), and Tasha Tudor (born seven years later) certainly spring to mind.

Ms. Fisher drew on her very privileged globe-trotting life to bring herbal remedies from Provence, Mexico, and Switzerland into her book; she also researched remedies over time and quoted sources from Mediaeval and Elizabethan England to her hero, the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste (Physiologie du gout), published in 1825, which Ms. Fisher ultimately published in her own translation. So far, so good.

But the constant name-dropping (or, in her case, name-inferring: “a certain beautiful actress/stage star/celebrity”), the preciousness of her unendingly self-conscious lifestyle and writing style, the shocking bigotry that was somehow allowed to get into print when she published A Cordiall Water in 1961 and that was retained verbatim in the 2004 edition I bought, destroyed my appreciation of the potentially useful and educational book I was reading. I could not help but conjure up the image of a smug, superior, reptilian personality, and the taint lingered. I felt that I needed to pour one of the healing baths she recommended and soak in it a good, long time to remove the taint, the miasma, of her polluted personality.

Yes, I know I’m slaying the sacred cow here, and that I should stay my hand until I’ve read more of her 26 books. But to me, there is something tragic about a person who’s privileged to live all over the world and enjoy experiences the rest of us can only dream of, but still feels she has to name-drop by implication (“a beautiful blonde stage star”) to make her place in the world, to give herself importance. MFK Fisher seems to me the forerunner of today’s celebrity sickness: “I saw Lady Gaga! Look, here’s the pic I took on my cell! She was really walking down the street in front of me. How awesome is that!!!”

Give me the forthright types who are true to themselves and couldn’t give less of a damn about preciousness or posturing. Give me Julia, Helen, and Tasha any day. Give me Flannery O’Connor or Margaret Mead or even Margaret Mitchell. I don’t have time for pretentiousness or bogus self-importance gained by who you know rather than who you are. I’m too busy cooking and writing.

           ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Eating like an artist. March 12, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here. Discovering a copy of the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel—The Lacuna—at my local library, I saw that it was about a fictional man who becomes drawn into the lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. (Well, it’s actually about a man who becomes torn between the values of the international artistic and idealistic community at the time in Mexico and the increasingly conservative values of his native USA, but what caught my eye was the Kahlo-Rivera connection.) I checked it out immediately.

Two disclaimers here: I realize that both Barbara Kingsolver and Frida Kahlo are wildly popular, cultural icons with cult followings. But I confess that, though I both enjoyed and admired Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I have yet to be able to finish even one of her novels. (And I’m an avid reader who consumes books the way others consume chocolate.)

Further, I loathe Frida Kahlo’s repulsive self-absorption and appreciate her art only on the occasions when its topic strays from her all-absorbing self-pity. Yes, I realize she had a horrifying accident in her most vulnerable years that caused her unimaginable agony for the rest of her life and killed her prematurely, and yes, I realize that she went on to lead an extraordinary life despite her constant, crippling pain and the limitations caused by her broken body. But other artists have suffered equally crippling blows—Flannery O’Connor and Joni Eareckson Tada spring to mind—and have gone on to produce great things that did not revolve around them. They acknowledged their painful, often horrifying experiences and limitations, and then surpassed them in their work. Sometimes I wonder if Frida, despite her self-professed consuming love for Diego Rivera, ever really saw any further than her own mirror.

But, just as not a novel but a book about eating locally made me admire Barbara Kingsolver, a cookbook made me finally appreciate Frida Kahlo. The book, Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo, was written by Diego Rivera’s daughter Guadalupe.* My friend Huma has this book in her cookbook collection, and I have looked at it—and looked for it—many times. It’s my favorite kind of cookbook, the kind that transcends the mere “here’s this recipe, here’s that recipe” format to take you into another world, be it the life of Thomas Jefferson or the secluded paradise of a Moroccan Kasbah or the farms of the Amish or the Berkeley milieu of the 1960s that produced Laurel’s Kitchen.

In Frida’s Fiestas, we’re taken into the private world that Frida Kahlo created for herself, Diego Rivera, and their friends at the Blue House in Coyoacan. The book is organized into 12 fiestas—celebrations—from Christmas to the Day of the Dead, with reminiscences and recipes that Guadalupe recalls Frida making, along with the background touches to make her fiestas unforgettable.

The richness of the book is beyond anything I’ve seen: the lush photography, with the food in traditional dishes and shown in the Blue House where Frida and Diego (and Guadalupe) would have eaten it; Frida’s still lifes; Guadalupe’s detailed memories of life with the fabled pair; the fiestas themselves; most of all, the way Frida decorated her home and her life. Never have I seen a portrait of anyone emerge so clearly, and how ironic in the face of the innumerable self-portraits upon which Frida expended her limited time and energy.

I would love to give you a recipe or two from Frida’s Fiestas, but unfortunately the copyright page threatens all of us, even non-profiting bloggers like yours truly, with death if we dare to reproduce so much as a word of text for any reason. However, since the recipes themselves are traditional, at least the titles of them can’t be copyrighted: Black Mole from Oaxaca, Red Hominy Stew from Jalisco,Corn Pudding with Chiles in Cream, Stuffed Chayotes, Green Rice, Chiles in Walnut Sauce, Limes Filled with Coconut, Macaroni with Spinach Sauce, Fried Chicken with Peanut Sauce, Dead Man’s Bread, Yellow Mole, Red Mole, Tamales in Banana Leaves, Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Enchiladas Tapatias, Potatoes in Green Sauce, Lima Bean Soup, Cold Chiles with Vegetable Stuffing, Red Snapper Veracruz Style, Mango Sorbet, Nopales Salad, Guacamole with Chipotle Chiles, Stuffed Pineapple, Grenadine Punch… Mmmmm…

Anyway, I found it ironic that two women I had come to admire, not through their famous works but through their relationships with food, had come together in a novel. I have yet to start reading, but I can only hope that food plays a role!

                ‘Til next time,

                         Silence     

*Unable to find the book in any bookstore, I finally located it on Amazon. If you’re inspired to go online to look at it, it’s coauthored by Marie-Pierre Colle, published in 1994 by Clarkson Potter, and still in print, retailing for $37.50 but of course cheaper through Amazon. It’s just fabulous.

Grub: a recommendation June 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Silence Dogood here. As some of you may recall, our friend Ben and I were in Asheville, North Carolina—one of our favorite vacation spots—a while back. While there, we stopped at one of the few surviving independently owned bookstores (i.e., owned by real people and not a corporation), Malaprop’s, one of our “gotta go there” destinations whenever we’re in Asheville.

Malaprop’s actually selects its books based on what the owner, staff, and customers find interesting and worthwhile, as opposed to chain stores, which receive their books preselected by corporate “buyers” because they think they’ll be profitable. As a result, Malaprop’s book selection is interesting rather than predictable. It’s always fun to see what they’ve gotten in, and we’ve found some real treasures there, including Wild Fermentation (see the Wild Fermentation website on the blogroll at right for more on this). You just never know what you’ll find.

Last time we were there, I took the opportunity to stock up on some intriguing cookbooks. As you all know, I love cookbooks, and have a vast collection. I especially enjoy personal and personable cookbooks that tell a story along with the recipes, such as The Tasha Tudor Cookbook, Well Preserved, the original Laurel’s Kitchen, and Wild Fermentation. I love local cookbooks like Miss Daisy Celebrates Tennessee, Sauerkraut Yankees, Heartland Baking, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, and A Tasting Tour of Washington County. I adore historical cookbooks, and can’t get enough of cookbooks that feature foreign cuisines, be they Caribbean, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, or Thai. I love cookbooks that bring out the sacred aspect of cooking, such as The Spirituality of Bread, Tassajara Cookbook, and Fresh from a Monastery Garden.

And of course, I love those funky old ’70s classics like The Moosewood Cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure, The Political Palate, and (again) Laurel’s Kitchen. In fact, my most treasured cookbook, after my grandma’s battered 1943 Joy of Cooking, is a deathless find from a used book store: Vegetarian Gothic, a classic commune-era, peace-and-love cookbook that makes the original Moosewood look mass-produced. I also love their modern descendants, which stress eating seasonally and locally, such as Farmer John’s Cookbook, Learning to Eat Locally, and Simply in Season.

I could go on (and on and on) about the hundred-plus cookbooks I own and love, but hey, maybe I could make an effort and get to the point of this post instead (sigh). Which is, that the last time our friend Ben and I went to Malaprop’s, one of the books I returned with was called Grub

Now, Grub is not a name designed to endear itself to those of us who garden. Nor does it appeal to anyone with the least aesthetic sense—it’s surely one of the ugliest words in the language. What were the authors thinking?! It sounds like one of those disgusting acronyms that was twisted around and around until the words that were abbreviated lined up with an actual word, no matter how stiff and artificial they sound as a result. Ugh!!!!

In this case, however, Grub is not an acronym. The authors defend their choice of title by defining it as follows: “1. Grub is organic and sustainably raised whole and locally grown foods; 2. Grub is produced with fairness from seed to table; 3. Grub is good for our bodies, our communities, and our environment; *Grub should be universal… and it’s delicious.” The subtitle, “Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen,” further define the book while limiting it to city venues, and the authors make quite a big deal of saying that the book is “the complete guide for the young, the hip, the socially tuned in.” Gee, thanks too much, you condescending &*%$##@!!!!s.

But I bought it anyway. Why, you might ask. Three reasons: First, it’s coauthored by Anna Lappe, daughter of Frances Moore Lappe, of Diet for a Small Planet fame. Second, it makes a huge effort to present readers with resources and information that will help them find, cook, and eat organic, local, seasonal foods. And third, it has really wonderful recipes, with festive menus and recommendations for music and wine to enjoy with the meals. It’s a book with heart, a book written in a good cause, a book worth supporting. A book you could learn from, even if you’re not urban, hip, and “socially tuned in.” (Uh huh. I can’t wait ’til the person who wrote that has teenagers.)

I suggest that you, too, give this book a chance, whether you live in the city, the suburbs, or the country like us, whether you’re old, young, or in-between, whether you’re hip or so out of it you’re in. Ignore the hype and read the book. Like Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it will inspire you to try to do better: to choose organic produce and dairy products, to pass up the fast food and the Frankenfood aisles, to view food as an opportunity for fellowship and fun as well as for nourishment.

Grub has some wonderful menus and recipes, thanks to its remarkable coauthor and chef Bryant Terry (okay, he’s also a native Tennessean, so no doubt I’m biased, but still, he is great!). From South of the Border to New Orleans, from the Caribbean to the tapas bars of Spain, from Rastafarian Ital grub to recipes for Rap and Hip-Hop stars, this food is good, and it refuses to be confined within limited definitions such as “vegetarian,” “vegan,” and the like. As long as you’re willing to choose organic food, the authors encourage you to eat what you want, be it meat, shellfish, or super-rich chocolate mousse.

Our friend Ben and I applaud this broadmindedness. We believe that people should be encouraged, especially when they’re trying to do something good, not pounded because they’re falling short of sainthood. (Don’t get me started on those bastards who attack recycling and the like. Clearly something died in them in childhood, and the poor things—the zealots, the intolerant—are less than human as a result. Not too bright, either.) So I enthusiastically recommend Grub, whoever you are, whatever you are. Ignore its snooty, excluding marketing spin and buy it. You’ll be glad you did.

And anyway, what are your favorite cookbooks? Please tell. There must be a few I don’t have (yet…)!  

               ‘Til next time,

                           Silence                 

Locavores, slow food, and other insanities March 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

Aaaarrgghhh. Our friend Ben begs your indulgence. Generally, I feel that one post a day is enough to launch into the defenseless blogosphere. But our good friend Richard Saunders, the one and only “Poor Richard” of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, has a post he really, really wants to put up tomorrow, so I’m launching my own rant tonight for good or ill.

It’s all GardenRant’s fault. That colorful blog posted a piece about locavores today, and basically, it shredded our friend Ben’s last nerve. Not because of what GardenRant said about locavores, I hasten to add. It’s that stupid, horrid word “locavores” that set our friend Ben off.

Our friend Ben is a big believer in not trying to be too clever or precious or self-referential. “Locavores” may sound just dandy to its originators, but to our friend Ben it sounds like a bunch of heifers with mad cow disease. No, thank you. Our friend Ben would much prefer to consider myself a resident of a community who chooses to eat foods grown and/or produced in my area, to the extent that I can. Local, yes. Locavore, no way.

Even worse is the horrid “slow food.” Perhaps our friend Ben is a bit slower than the average bear, but it took me quite a while to grasp that this phrase was a supposedly clever play on “fast food.” But no, oh no. “Slow food” is not the opposite of fast food. Home-cooked food is. So-called “slow food” is instead the epitome of food, food prepared with care and joy and however much time it requires using local and artisanal ingredients. This is great food. It is real food. It is good food. But oh, oh please, spare us from “slow” food. How very unappetizing, how laborious, how labored. How unappealing. How totally, totally precious.

Our friend Ben loves eating locally grown and prepared food. (See my earlier post, “Read it and reap,” for a ringing endorsement of Barbara Kingsolver’s paean to local eating, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) And I love wonderful, artisanal, from-scratch cooking. In fact, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just checked out Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food from the library earlier today, and I’m reading it with pleasure as I write. (Well, I’m trying to read it, but it’s a bit of a challenge what with Silence asking when I’ll be finished so she can read it and pointing out that I’m really a very slow reader and is there hope that I might make it through the book before its due date and etc. etc. Good lord, where did she get the name “Silence,” anyway?!)  Point being, our friend Ben is all for what locavores and slow food represent. But couldn’t we just drop the pretension and call them what they are? Thank you.

Read ‘em and reap. February 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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2 comments

Our friend Ben had an old friend over for supper the other night, and he asked me to recommend a few good books. Now, this friend will remain anonymous for his reputation’s sake, since his exact words were “I’m sick of reading about gardening and birding”–gasp!!!–“and want to broaden out.” Of course, our friend Ben was happy to oblige, and I think some of the books actually weren’t about gardening or birding. Well, let’s say they didn’t have gardening or birding in the title, anyway.

Thinking about these books cheered me up, so I’m going to give you a short list that will cheer you up, too, should you choose to read them. They’re not only good reading, they’re life-enriching. So check ‘em out! I’ll save my overtly garden- and bird-oriented favorites for another day.

  • Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle describes her family’s adventures after they decide to eat locally for a year, limiting their food choices to within a 100-mile radius of their rural Virginia home. (Of course, she takes a few trips cross-country to check out others who are eating locally, and also travels to Italy for food and fun, and we get to tag along.) If you have a hard time getting through the self-consciously “writerly” first chapter, just keep going: Barbara soon loses herself in her story, and so will you. I really enjoyed this book, and I know you’ll find it as inspiring as I did: If you haven’t started eating locally, it will be just the push you need, and if you’re already making a conscious effort to eat locally, it will have you checking the organic milk cartons in your local store to find the brand that’s made in your state, or better still, heading for that Mennonite-run raw milk dairy a few miles down a backroad. (Or, like our friend Ben, once again obsessing about getting a couple of dairy goats.) 
  • The Plain Reader is a collection of essays about the virtues of small-scale, meaningful, consumer-averse, morally aware, community-based living. It includes pieces by some of our friend Ben’s favorite authors–Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, David Kline–and is about as far from the self-conscious preciousness and consumption-driven values of glossy hypocrisy like Real Simple as it gets. (“Go green! Throw out all your non-PC possessions and replace them with these fabulous, environmentally correct pieces for only…” Gag.)
  • Speaking of Wendell Berry, his novels are some of my favorite books of all time. They follow many generations of farmers in the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and they speak powerfully to the value of place, and of one’s history within that place. Having spent many happy hours with my maternal grandparents in small-town rural Kentucky, riding horses and hunting fossils on their farm, our friend Ben finds these characters and the place itself totally authentic and familiar, but even if you don’t, I defy you not to love these books. Start with The Memory of Old Jack, and you’ll have many hours of reading pleasure ahead.
  • Now that I’ve managed to cunningly work fossils into the dialogue, let me recommend an entirely different kind of book, Trilobite. As its title suggests, it’s a journey of discovery, following these endearing fossils from the present to back in the long-distant day when they ruled (or at least dominated) the seas. If you love fossils like our friend Ben, you’ll get a kick out of this quirky book. And, like the other books in this list, it will make you look at the land in a whole new way.
  • Donald McCaig’s book An American Home Place traces the history of the farm he and his wife bought in Virginia back as far as he can go, and it’s a marvelous reverse-travel trip. (He’s also the author of a truly great travel book, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, about his adventures in Scotland looking for a Border collie for his farm.) Reading it will make you want to find out more about your own place, and following the McCaigs’ own story on their place is a lot of fun. But the poignant loss of farmers and farmland underlies the tale, and the McCaigs’ increasing isolation reminds our friend Ben of the experiences of Scott and Helen Nearing homesteading in Vermont in the 1930s.
  • Which of course brings us to Scott and Helen Nearing, the founders of modern homesteading. If you haven’t read their classic books, Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, shame on you! Run out and get them right now. These wonderful true tales of how a couple of city sophisticates moved to the backwoods and made a go of it inspired the back-to-the-land movement of the Seventies. The books are interesting and inspiring, but also endearing because of the Nearings’ collectively prickly character and evident foibles, such as their need to justify every personal like and dislike on moral grounds. (If they liked potatoes, growing and/or eating potatoes was virtuous; if they didn’t like carrots, there was something morally suspect about growing and/or eating carrots. The unintentional humor in this approach lightens up the didacticism which tends to distract one from what great books these really are.) The Nearings’ books, along with Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine, were our friend Ben’s favorite escapist reading in graduate school. They remain a pleasure to this day.

Okay, that’s plenty for one day. It’s time to head out and feed the chickens, fill the birdfeeders, water the greenhouse, walk the dog, and do all the myriad chores of daily life that have to happen before the “real” day’s work begins. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite book, please share it with our friend Ben. I’m always looking for uplifting, informative reading!      

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