Tag Archive: History

The Book Stack #4

jumbled books
The brunt of my reading over the last many weeks since my last post (and it actually started before that last post) was binge reading through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (April 1, 2000 – May 27, 2014) novels.
dresden files
It’s going to seem short shrift to place them all into one small review, but I’m not going to go through and review each individual one of the fifteen. I found them to be fun, irreverent, easy reads, the basic premise, the exploits of an openly proclaimed wizard in Chicago, as he fights demons, ghouls, and more, alongside the local police department’s division for handling stuff that no one can explain, no one wants to handle, and no one wants to talk about. Harry Dresden is a wisecracking magically endowed private investigator who loves nothing more than bringing in cult movie and television references, more or less just to see if anyone around him is paying attention. I found the series to get a bit off the rails in books 13 and 14, where it seemed like Butcher was taking it in a totally new direction, and the writing seemed a bit lost, but it all came back on track in the current last novel. Overall, a great series to get started on if you like the world of magic, the paranormal, crime, and punishment! The series was turned into a not short-lived enough, and truly, appallingly, bad television show that shouldn’t have lasted through the first season that it did. ☆☆☆☆

Several years ago someone recommended Robert Harris’ historical novel Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (September 19, 2006) to me. Given my love of things Italian, history, and fiction, it was a match made in heaven. It’s basically a fictional account of the life of Marcus Cicero, the famed orator of the Roman senate, as he first came to power. The book is written as an eyewitness account from his personal slave and secretary, Tiro. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and this was completely engaging, and more or less a “couldn’t put it down” kind of read. My recollection is I read through it in a matter of a couple of days. And, obviously, I loved it. As to why I didn’t jump right into the next book in the series, I truly can’t tell you. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t, and I rectified that with a plunge into Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (March 30, 2010) right after finishing the Dresden Files. Equally as good, the story continues with Cicero’s political career as he encounters some of the best known figures of that time, including Julius Caesar. Political machinations are the core of the second novel, and it’s surprising in many ways how little the world of political intrigue has changed in the millenia since (then again, the novels are written by someone living in today’s world, so it may be that Harris simply borrows from that which is familiar to a modern audience). In the world of “court politics” or “palace intrigue” this easily rivals the intricacy of well known pop culture references like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Scandal. Looking forward to the next novel! ☆☆☆☆

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (May 19, 2015)

One of the things that’s count-on-able with Stephenson’s longer novels is that they follow a predictable pattern. If you assume roughly 900 pages or thereabouts for most of them, there will be an initiating event, something that starts the entire story in motion, something to grab your attention, and it will take up the first 150-200 pages. Then there will be roughly 400-500 pages of character development, lots of explication, lots of looking at how motivations develop, lots of “here, let me explain why the story, when we get to it, is going to go the way it goes”. And then it’s finished off with what amounts to the “real” novel, about 250-300 pages where all the action that was set in motion, and influenced by all the motivations developed during the entire middle section, happens. I hear time and again how people launched into one of his books with fascination at the premise, and then gave up 100 or so pages further on when it just got too tedious to continue. And they miss out on all the good part when the story takes off again.

This book is no different. I read through section 1 in under two hours, a complete page turner. Then it took me a month to get through to “section 3” (pages 567-861), because I found I couldn’t read more than a few pages of section 2 (pages 227-567) at a time without drifting off. And then I read through section 3 without pausing in roughly two hours.

Loved sections one and three. I appreciate the info in section two, but my god there’s got to be a way to do that midsection of all of his books in half or fewer of the pages. ☆☆☆☆

Lucy Burdette, Killer Takeout, (April 5, 2016)

Last year I whizzed my way through the six novels of the “Key West Food Critic Mysteries”. Basically, I’d refer you to that review, particularly the last couple of paragraphs where I summed up the series. Much the same holds true for this seventh novel, a fun read, but showing a decided lack of knowledge in the food world.

Although I’ve liked this series a fair amount, something about this latest volume just felt a little thrown together, as if it wasn’t thought through as well as the others, and that’s saying something given my thoughts about the series. I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the rest.

I hadn’t done any research into the author, and “Lucy Burdette” turns out to be a pen-name for Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist, also known for writing a series of golf-mystery novels, and who writes an advice column under the title “Ask Dr. Aster”. A psychologist with three different identities… just something to muse upon.

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The Book Stack #2

jumbled books
What have we this time around?

You look at the title, Bread Wine Chocolate, and you’re already engaged. I mean, what’s not to like? Clearly three items selected from the book to grab our attention, since in reality, the book is, in order, Wine Chocolate Coffee Beer Bread Octopus. The book came highly anticipated, with suggestions being bandied about that this would be the next big, amazing food book. I clicked a link, put in my Kindle cue to be purchased when it was released, and more or less forgot about it until it showed up one day. I might have left my cursor hovering over the button rather than clicking, had I taken a moment to check out the author, Simran Sethi, a former MTV producer turned news anchor for, oh, MTV, who has gone on to continue work in the media world for various… how can I put this politely… touchie feelie outlets like Mother Earth News and TreeHugger. I’m not, at all, against the environment, sustainability, or anything else of the sort, don’t get me wrong, but it might have had me wondering about her bias in advance, rather than after the fact.

Though in truth, it’s not her bias that ruins this book for me. It’s her writing. I really wanted to like the book. There’s some great, well researched information in it. The problem is, it’s presented in a manner that ping-pongs back and forth between journalistic factual reporting and breathless golly gee whiz wow teen girl gossip style at a pace that would make the cut editors of Reality Bites envious. She also comes across as really, really, self absorbed, self indulgent, and self anything else you might care to insert, as she wings her way across the world with hand-grinder for coffee beans in one hand and an Aeropress brewer in the other, ruing that she isn’t back home with her Keurig machine (oh yeah, all those K-cups are just great for the environment) and her $13 designer chocolate bars. She spends the first couple of chapters of the book outlining what she’s going to cover and why she’s the one to do so, and how much we’re going to appreciate her having done so. Yes, yes, she got down and dirty with the folk who produce these various products, and sampled and tasted and learned to appreciate things at their source. And then promptly trundled back to her hotel to soak in the tub and anxiously write her next words on the balcony at sunset and then jet off to another exotic locale. If you like to hug trees, you’ll probably like this book.

I mentioned in the last book round-up that I had started working my way through a proposed list of the 51 Best Fantasy series. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, that if they’re rated from best, #1, to least best, #51, that progressively, I might like these series less, and less. I’m not sure that will hold true completely – after all, as I mentioned then as well, the Discworld canon wouldn’t even make it onto my list of good, let alone 7th Best. But there does seem to be a slight decline each round. I’ve started in on Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, beginning with The Blade Itself. It’s a relatively easy read.

There are things about it I really like – it’s written in a light-hearted tone, with a bit of humor. The series is often compared to Song of Fire and Ice, the Game of Thrones inspiring stack of books, and in some ways, I can see that – the action sequences, the bloody, grisly, details. But in other ways, not so much – the political manipulations and intrigue are there, but more or less ho-hum, there doesn’t seem to be any big, sweeping vista – within the first few chapters it’s obvious that all the lead characters’ lives are going to quite quickly intersect, in a pretty predictable way. Some reviewers have said that that gets turned on its head as the trilogy progresses, and by the end of the third book, nothing will be as anticipated. I can only hope so. It’s interesting enough to continue forward.

One of the finest books from one of the early crafters of modern science fiction, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a long time favorite that I hadn’t read in quite some time. Another list of “bests”, this time from io9, The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List starts off with this one.

Filled with Evil Corporations, interplanetary intrigue, bio-engineering, power, greed, revenge, and the obligatory Sub-Culture, this has all the elements that make for a great cyberpunk read. Given when this was written, in the early 1950s, it’s a brilliant precursor to that movement at a time when “cyber” didn’t yet mean anything and “punk” meant something completely different. Gripping story, fast paced action, and even it’s own “street” language that fits the genre perfectly. It’s a relatively short book (or at least in comparison to some of those I’ve been reading recently), and with its pace, it’s the sort you can sit down and read through on a rainy afternoon.

A couple of years ago I read the book Of Dice and Men, a look back at the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and, those of us nerds who played it. I was an avid player of the game back in the mid to late 70s, and have continued a fascination with the world(s) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original duo behind the game. I’ve gone on to play computer based games, both early ones that were limited to being installed on your computer and played by one or a couple of people, and on, to MMORPGs, the massive universes created online like Everquest and Worlds of Warcraft.

The earlier book I mentioned was mostly focused on the game itself, and the gamers who took it and ran with it. There was plenty of biographical information about the creators, but you couldn’t call it biography. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination takes another run at it. As he says in the introduction, he couldn’t believe when he started researching the book that no one had ever written a biography of Gary Gygax, who, while not a household name except to those of us in the gaming world, created something that went on to be the foundation for things we take for granted in modern day life, everything from the use of computers for games, to the advent of social media. As he also points out, it’s telling, that in an episode of the pop-culture show Futurama, Gygax’s character is paired up with Lieutenant Uhura, Al Gore, and Steven Hawking – taking on the universe. The book is well written, completely engaging, and for anyone with an interest in the topic, a must read.

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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.

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Politics – same pitch, different day

Joffe, Josef (2013-11-04). The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies

Quite possibly the best debunking of the misuse of statistics and political rhetoric I’ve ever read. For anyone who laments the loss of bipartisan cooperation in America, and the rise of shrill extremism, this is a must read. I’m just going to include a little excerpt from the book here rather than carry on with my own opinion:

Actually, “the sky is falling” should not be a very lucrative pitch. Such alarms stoke fear and panic; why invest in the future if the clock is running down? But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flip side, which is redemption. Darkness is the prelude to dawn. The gloomy forecast reviles past and present in order to promise the brightest of futures. Start with fire and brimstone, then jump to grace and deliverance in the here and now. Listen to Jeremiah as he thunders, “Turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; then you will live in the [promised] land.” Jeremiah may have been the father of modern campaign politics.

Preachers and politicos take naturally to this one-two punch because ruin followed by renewal is the oldest narrative in the mental data bank of mankind. The device is even older than the verdict of doom— the Mene, Tekel on the palace wall— revealed by Daniel. Start with the Flood, a universal theme played out over four chapters in Genesis, but found much earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian myth, as related in the Gilgamesh Epic dated 2700 BCE. Genesis, written in the fifth or sixth century BCE, expands and embellishes the original. It relates how “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” So He decides to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, for I am grieved that I have made them.” The end is nigh, but don’t despair. Mankind will be spared after all, because the Lord selects Noah, who has “found favor in His eyes,” and commands him to build an ark that will save mankind.

So after death by Deluge, it will be rebirth for the righteous led by an ordinary mortal who knows the future, and how to act on it. This story never ends. The Children of Israel were punished for the Golden Calf, the idol that embodied a wicked past, with forty years in the wilderness. Yet if true to the Law and to God’s messenger Moses, they will be rewarded with the Promised Land. As the Resurrection follows the Crucifixion, so misery will segue into salvation, but there has to be a leader, spiritual or political, to show the way: Moses or Jesus, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack (“ Yes, we can”) Obama. The pairing of doom and deliverance defines the eternal archetype.

In all these narratives, ruin is the means, and rescue the end. Terror is the teaching device that will change the course of history. For all his tirades, every Jeremiah actually wants to be disproved by making his errant flock atone and amend. “Declinism is a theory that has to be believed to be invalidated,” explains Samuel Huntington. It is the opposite of the familiar “self-fulfilling prophecy,” a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The alarm starts out with a “false definition of the situation” and then triggers “new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ ” To predict a bank failure is to unleash a run that will actually cause the collapse.

Declinism markets a “self-defeating prophecy.” Since these predictions deal with humans, and not planets or protozoans, they are designed to trigger reactions that lift the curse. Merton puts it thus: Evil does not come true “precisely because the prediction has become a new element” that changes the “initial course of developments.” So to foretell is to forestall— that is the very purpose of Declinism. Take the “impending exhaustion of natural resources” from Malthus to the Club of Rome, which foresaw the end of global growth some forty years ago, especially because of dwindling oil reserves. Myriad changes in behavior— from conservation to exploration— followed, causing oil gluts on the market in the 1980s and a gas glut in the 2010s. The world economy grew twentyfold in this period (nominally). Would that all catastrophes had such a short shelf life!

None of America’s Declinists over the past half century, as presented in the preceding chapter, actually wanted the country to suffer its foreordained fate. The prophecy is designed to be self-defeating, and the structure of augury is always the same: This will happen unless . . . Holding up another nation as a model is to correct one’s own, not to condemn it— from the Sputnik Shock of the 1950s to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in the 2010s. To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan, et al. will overtake us, unless we labor hard to change our self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant; only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer.

In politics, “the sky is falling” has yet another purpose. It is no accident that the figure of the prophet, in the legend or on the stump, stands at the center of the narrative. We have to believe in the messenger so that he can rise above us and guide us to a better tomorrow. Hence dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood, are part and parcel of the prophecy. To hype is to win. Never mind that the Missile Gap and the Window of Vulnerability were mere myths. Expediency beats veracity in campaigning and sermonizing. And so, hyperbole paves the road from the vale of tears— or to the White House. “Follow me, and ye shall be saved!” is the eternal message. Or in Kennedy’s words, borrowed from Churchill, “Come then— let us to the task, to the battle and the toil. . . .”

Prophet or politico, the strategy is to paint the nation in hellish colors and then to offer oneself as a guide to heaven. The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again— if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader. It worked for both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who rode all the way to the White House on nonexisting Soviet missiles. Shakespeare wrote the original script. To “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” was Henry IV’s advice to his son and successor. The democratic equivalent is to scare up votes with foreign threats. After the election, dawn always follows doom— as when Kennedy called out, “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear that had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again, twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted, “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back” and again on top. Collapse was yesterday, today it is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why Declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration— and wilts quickly after victory.

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Cooking the Books #2

A round-up of some of my recent food reading.

Pollan, Michael (April 28, 2009) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Setting aside that in some ways this is another book with more of the same diet advice that’s been published in countless books, the most interesting part of this is that not only is it well written and engaging without being preachy, but I like that it really explores how statistics and media messages have been manipulated by corporations and government agencies with agendas that aren’t in our best interests. For those who are Michael Pollan fans, this is a must read.

*****

Davis, Michelle & Holloway, Matt (October 7, 2014) Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck

Yawn. Really, just yawn. Look, I don’t care about people using curse words, but these folks don’t even know how to use them. They’re trying for some weird version of “street cred” and they come across as completely inept at it. It’s as if they wrote the book in a final version with every i dotted and t crossed and all the grammar perfect, and then said, “hey, let’s do a global search and replace on some words like ‘things’ to change it to ‘shit’, and everywhere we use the word ‘delicious’ let’s add in the word ‘fucking’ in front of it”. It comes across as completely formulaic and forced (as it does on their website), and it’s no surprise that they were recently “outed” as a couple of whitebread yuppies just trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a shame, too, because they actually have some decent recipes on the site and in the book, but the quality of those, and the underlying message for healthy eating, just get lost in a big motherfucking pile of word shit. (See, annoying. It doesn’t work when I do it either.)

*****

Orkin, Ivan & Ying, Chris (October 29, 2013) Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint

Most people will probably head to this book for the recipes. After all, why not learn how to make ramen from a westerner who took the time and effort to learn everything he could about the subject and then interpret it and reinterpret it for western palates? And, the recipes sound great, are well written, albeit at times a bit complicated or at least time consuming. But, for me, it was the story of how Ivan Orkin dove into his life and developed his passion for ramen that made the book. Completely captivating.

*****

Sokolov, Raymond (February 11, 2014) Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

Part of my introduction to the world of food came through the brilliantly researched and well written articles by Raymond Sokolov in my monthly subscription to Natural History magazine when I was growing up. Later, I would snag a friend’s daily Wall Street Journal after she finished with it, purely to read his restaurant reviews and food writing. His Saucier’s Apprentice and Cook’s Canon were long ago staples of my bookshelf. This book just continues the saga, with an autobiographical look back at how it all happened, along with an insightful look at where food trends are headed in today’s culinary world. For anyone interested in food history, this book is a must to pick up and enjoy.

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Red Border Tales

I get a lot of requests from PR folk to review or promote products, books, etc., and generally, unless they’re directly related to the blog, I ignore them. Plus, I’ve found that an amazing number of them want me to do so without ever having tried the product or read the book. Now and again they’ll basically castigate me for “not living somewhere convenient for us to send it to you”. Well then, why contact me in the first place? So when I get an email asking me to promote Time Inc.’s new book Inside the Red Border, in this case because apparently at some point in the book chef Mario Batali makes an appearance and that made it relevant to me and my readers, I sighed my usual sigh and sent back my usual note saying I don’t do promotions, but I’d be happy to review the book if they wanted to send me a copy. I expected not to hear from them again, but, in a surprise move, they gave me a link to an electronic version – not downloadable, but viewable online.

And that’s a shame, because having read through the book, I’d love to download it and own a copy and may end up doing so – the ebook versions are inexpensive (Kindle, Nook, and iBook). I’ll be honest, the vague relation to Mario does nothing for me – it’s a mini-graphic of a cover that never ran that’s included on a page of multiple covers that never ran, with only a short sentence describing it. But, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’m a bit of a history buff, and while most of my mentions of history in the blog tend to be focused on Argentina, simply because it relates to the rest of the content, I avidly read history narratives from all over the globe.

Inside the Red Border

The particularly cool thing about this book is it’s a great one for both folk who really want to read some history – admittedly in small bites – but it’s equally as good for folk who just want to look at the pictures. Essentially, it’s an abbreviated look at modern history, i.e., for the period for which Time Magazine has been being published (since 1923), through a combination of selected covers and original text to accompany them. For those who are into the minutiae, they also reveal who authored the cover commentary (if you read Time, there’s always a paragraph or two inside about what the cover picture is all about, but it’s never been bylined in the magazine, and includes some quite well known authors). The book is divided into various sections, that cover topics like U.S. Presidents, World War II, Revolutionaries, Athletes, Artists, Scientists, Technology, Trends, etc., each section beginning with one iconic cover with a longer introduction to the topic, and then followed by pages of smaller cover reproductions with their original captions and an additional short blurb.

Inside the Red Border

For me, leafing through the pages brought back many memories, both good and bad – having lived through 55 of Time’s 90 years of history. And hey, I even found a cover of Eva Peron, so there can be some relevance to the blog!

Inside the Red Border

Although I’d recommend a hardcover copy ($21.38), simply because it’s the sort of book to put out on display, plus page through now and again, these days, some of us just settle for the electronic version ($9.99). Here are links to both, and I do, obviously, recommend the book!

 

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On Fermentation and Carrot Pudding

I’ve gotten away from posting about various food books that I’ve read, and someone asked me this week if there was anything I’d read recently in the genre that I recommended. So, I thought, let me get back to that – I’ve been reviewing what I read over on Goodreads (yet one more social network to belong to, for book lovers) – so some of this will be copied from my thoughts there.

Sandor Ellix Katz - The Art of FermentationThe current darling of the die-hard foodie set is Sandor Ellix Katz and his books on fermentation. This one came to my attention first, if I recall correctly through Aki and Alex over at Ideas in Food as a recommended book, but I could be wrong about that. Here’s what I had to say over on Goodreads: “Easily the most comprehensive introduction to the world of home fermentation (primarily of vegetables and fruits, but not limited to those) that I’ve seen. Well written, interesting, and very smartly lays out the procedures rather than specific recipes (which I believe can be found in his previous book, Wild Fermentation, next on my reading list), so you can adapt the procedures to what you have around or want to work with.”

Brussels Sprout ferment

It led me to play around with a fermented Brussels Sprout idea that resulted in these delicious little things – I posted briefly about it, there was more in the followup comments after someone asked me for the recipe:

The Brussels Sprout ferment was pretty basic, and I plan to play with it a bit, but:

1 kg brussels sprouts, cored and quartered
1 rocoto chili, slivered
1 red onion, sliced thin
1/3 c coarse kosher salt
1 Tb yellow and 1 Tb black mustard seeds
Water to just barely cover

I left it for a week in a warm spot in the kitchen, covered, and just opened it once a day to make sure any buildup of pressure was released – though I don’t think in the end it was likely necessary. Then I put it in the refrigerator for another week before using them – fermentation continues, but slower.

As a first change, I think on the next run through I’m going to separate the sprouts into their leaves (core them and then pull them apart) – I’ve been finding that some of the middle layers of leaves haven’t fermented as thoroughly and are a little bit to crunchy still. I think I’d also toast the mustard seeds on the next go-round to help bring out their essential oils a little more, the mustard was just a bare hint in the background and I was hoping it would be more prominent.

And if you missed it, here’s how I used it in last week’s dinners. More ferments to come….

 

Amelia Simmons - American CookeryI truly don’t remember how this one came to my attention. I’m sure it was in some article I was reading about the history of American cooking that probably mentioned it, and I found this on Gutenberg as a free download in various formats – rather than paying Amazon $5 for the download. I mean, the book was written in 1760, I don’t think the author is going to miss out on residuals. My thoughts on Goodreads: “Just an interesting glimpse into the world of cooking in the U.S. a bit over 200 years ago. Generally acknowledged as America’s first published cookbook, it’s a guide for unmarried women who find themselves needing to take work as domestic help in the homes of the wealthy and covers how to select meats and produce and how to prepare them properly for the tastes of the day.”

I don’t know why, but a recipe for Carrot Pudding caught my eye. It’s a semisweet sort of pudding, and I was thinking it might make an interesting side dish. It’s a little too sweet and pumpkin-pie filling-ish for that, but I’m going to play with the general recipe and see what I can come up with as a savory version. In the meantime, a little step-by-step, because it really was delicious!

Carrot Pudding

Here’s the recipe the way the book gives it: “A coffee cup full of boiled and strained carrots, 5 eggs, 2 ounces sugar and butter each, cinnamon and rose water to your taste, baked in a deep dish without paste.”

Note there’s not a whole lot of info when it comes to how to do it – the assumption in older cookbooks like this, I’ve found, is that you know how to cook, so recipes are often little more than lists of ingredients with a note or two.

Carrot Pudding

Peeled, sliced and boiled the carrots, drained them.

Carrot Pudding

I took “strained” to mean pureed, otherwise it would be a very odd pudding. I basically just threw everything in the food processor together (melting the butter first) – I ended up using a teaspoon each of the cinnamon and rose water.

Carrot Pudding

Although it doesn’t say to, I lightly buttered the baking dish. The “without paste”, just based on reading other recipes in the book, I take to mean, “without a top crust”, since the dough used for topping pies in various parts of the book is referred to as a paste.

Carrot Pudding

No details are given on the baking process, one can assume that there were not digital temperature controlled ovens at the time. I decided to go with the way I’d normally bake a cheesecake – pop it in the oven at 180C/350F for 10 minutes, then turn down the heat to 140C/285F for roughly 30 minutes more, until the pudding had firmed up and gotten lightly golden on top.

Carrot Pudding

As I said, it comes out in many ways like a pumpkin pie filling, a little less spice, and a little less sweet. The rosewater gives a really light floral note in the background that you probably wouldn’t pick up on what it is, but that adds some interest to the flavor profile.

Next version, making it more savory – probably cut the sugar in half, add a little salt and some other spices, and see how it comes out.

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Proofed and Ready to Print

This book, Don’t Fry for Me Argentina, is a collection of stories, conversations, and more about life after having moved to Argentina – some of it adapted from here on the blog, some from other published work, and some wholly new. The book includes two dozen of my versions of both classic and modern Argentine recipes, and basically is a mix of travel reader, cultural viewpoint and, hopefully, just some fun.

fry front cover

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Au Revoir to Not Much of Anything

“Eating is one of the only socially acceptable ways we can share vulnerabilities. We would never get together with strangers and use the bathroom together, but it might have the same affect. No sense putting on airs, we’re just human.”

Donald Miller, author

Au Revoir to All ThatNo question I’m late to the party on this one, but then, it wasn’t as if copies of Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That are just laying around in bookstores in Buenos Aires. Were it not for my eReader, I doubt I’d yet have latched on to it. But, I did get around to it this last week. And I’m afraid I’m going to be the curmudgeon at the party. The book has received glowing reviews from virtually every person who has written one. And, I don’t get it.

It’s not that it’s a badly written book. Steinberger is an engaging writer, and he’s writing about food, one of my favorite topics. I even enjoyed the book. But his premise seems to be one that is touted left and right about French gastronomy, that it is spiraling into the abyss with little if any hope for rescue. He brings up lots of examples to illustrate his viewpoint, some of them repeatedly. But unless I’m missing something, not one of those vignettes proves his point, they’re completely subject to interpretation.

The book is written as a series of what seem to be separate essays. There’s little tying them together other than the over-arching subject matter of French Food and the French Restaurant Business. Each purports to delve into one aspect of this subject matter, with hands thrown up in despair at the state of the union. They just… well, don’t.

Steinberger brings up repeatedly through the book the disappearance of a few virtually unknown artesanal cheeses, and the decline in the number of raw milk cheeses being produced. At no point, however, does it seem to occur to him that this is a worldwide phenomenon in places that produce cheese. Raw milk and obscure cheeses are on the decline in Italy, Spain, Germany, the United States, amongst others.

He notes that there are now more Michelin starred restaurants in other countries in comparison to the numbers of them in France. But he glosses over that until relatively recently, Michelin simply didn’t offer guides to many of those other countries. Likewise he laments the chefs who no longer spend time in the kitchen of a single restaurant but have spread themselves thin with eateries not only across France, but in, dare we say it, other countries. It’s not unique to the French – chefs from all over the world have begun to do the same as they’ve realized that they can actually become rich if they don’t focus on a single restaurant – plus travel is now far easier than in days past – they’ve become businessmen. It’s the way of the industry these days.

He talks about the restaurant that turned him on to French cuisine, oh so many years ago, and uses the fact that decades later it just wasn’t all that, followed by another visit a few years later to find that it had closed, as more evidence…. Really? It couldn’t just be because it was under new ownership, with a different chef, and that it simply didn’t work out, this one restaurant. It was, after all, by his own statement, decades later. How many restaurants, Michelin starred or not, stay in business and maintain their quality levels over that time period?

And the straw that seems to be breaking the backs of the French is that, horror of horrors, people don’t seem to have the same regard for the Michelin guide that they used to. He dives into this topic with gusto in several parts of the book, noting how there have been internal changes at the company, a different vision and direction, politics, and other, well, rubbish. At no point does he note that “back in the day” when Michelin was king of guides, it was also pretty much the only guide. These days there are more guides for travelers and foodies than I’d care to undertake, and that doesn’t even touch on the rise of restaurant reviewing in every daily newspaper out there, in monthly and weekly magazines, Yelpers and Chowhounds and a zillion food blogs. Michelin doesn’t even review the restaurants, they just give a rating and expect that that’s enough. In the modern age of information, it’s not. And Michelin is not France. It’s just a book published there.

So, I reached the end of the book wondering, “what was the point of all that?” Yes, it was enjoyable, yes, there were a few points here and there that were even thought provoking, but overall, did it demonstrate anything with regard to the level of French cuisine? No. At best, it showed that other places now have equivalent or better – that’s not the same thing as a decline. Is the book worth picking up for a read? Meh. I’m not going to recommend against reading it, but if you do, think about the arguments Steinberger’s making and whether or not they make sense in the modern world.

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With Liver and Giblets for All

“The wickedly entertaining, hunger-inducing, behind-the-scenes story of the revolution in American food that has made exotic ingredients, celebrity chefs, rarefied cooking tools, and destination restaurants familiar aspects of our everyday lives.”

– back cover blurb from…

The United States of ArugulaBuenos Aires – The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp, catchy title, no? Wish I’d have thought of it first. For those of you not in norteamericano foodie circles, this book has been getting a lot of attention since its publication last year in hard cover (paperback edition just came out in July), everything from press reviews to casual offhand remarks, online and off (yes, there is still life offline). First off, let me say that it’s well worth reading, a veritable page-turner of recent food history in the U.S. – I’m not going to say I couldn’t put it down, as I did, several times, because it’s a long book and I had other things to do, but I also read through it, cover to cover, over the course of the last week.

Here’s the good stuff – it’s witty, and I like that. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it has enough humorous anecdotes, and David Kamp has enough snarky irreverence thrown in to keep a smile on my face through a good portion of the book. It gets into the “history” of the foodie movement pretty well, going very in-depth on a few stories, James Beard, Julia Child, and Alice Waters in particular are covered at length and breadth, and resurface throughout the book. It’s well organized, starting with at least a mention of the late 18th century and moving on up to what was present day when it was written. I knew a good number of the stories already, but not in so much detail, and, of course, I’m in the business, so a lot of the people in the book are people who I know either casually or well. And hey, there are a few stories that I could… well, never mind.

On the other hand, and you knew there’d be one… while he acknowledges that food didn’t spring miraculously into existence with the arrival of James Beard on the scene, quoting Barbara Kafka, “It’s like there was no food in this fucking city, or this country, until this miraculous apparition came along! Or there was no cooking at home until Julia.” But then, he promptly manages to cover the entire period from the 1790s until the 1930s in a matter of a few pages, and even in those keeps returning to the latter part of the 20th century, and then covers the period from the 1930s until the early 60s in less than a dozen pages, most of which are focused on one restaurateur, Henri Soulé. But, in a sense, that’s in keeping with the style of the book – its focus is on some very select individuals and their stories, with others coming into play more as peripherals – not that he doesn’t give those extras some page time, but I was left feeling like they were propping up his main characters – for the most part, the three folk listed above, whom, after reading the book, did I not know better, could have pretty much done it by themselves, with a few food writers thrown in for good measure.

The book is, not surprisingly, coastal-centric… if one can be coastal and centric at the same time – focusing mostly on the food scene in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and a bit in Los Angeles. While there’s no question that a huge amount of the modern food movement, and in particular the public figures in it, come from those areas, I think he gives short shrift to the rest of the country. Someone like Norman Van Aiken, the godfather of “Florida cuisine” doesn’t even make an appearance in the book. Ming Tsai (who ought to fit his celebrity criteria) is nowhere to be seen. His ethnic influences seem limited to French, a nod to Italian (Mario Batali apparently invented Italian food in the U.S. with the help of ingredients from Dean & DeLuca), Mexican (Rick Bayless and a bit of Bobby Flay doing the same for south of the border cuisine, with a very brief nod to Mark Miller and Diane Kennedy, whom, we gather, did lots of research but not much else), and a bit of Japanese, in particular sushi, and in particular the famed Masa and Nobu. There is, in essence, no mention of other influences – China, India, Southeast Asia, the entire rest of Latin America, the Middle East, the rest of Europe, Africa, Austraila (admittedly the latter two have yet to have any major impact on cuisine in the U.S.) – the influence of Chinese cuisine is covered in three widely separated paragraphs, Craig Claiborne meeting the authors of a Chinese cookbook, a mention of Michael Field’s review of a different Chinese cookbook, and Wolfgang Puck bringing Chinese influence (apparently for the first time on our shores) into his restaurant Chinois. The only mention I recall of all of Latin America outside of Mexico is a brief cameo by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, from Peru.

But the biggest “missing” for me were the people, the “ordinary” people. I know that this book is focused on the celebrities – and let’s face it, that’s really what it is, a mixed celebrity bio, which for the most part in this tome means someone who has appeared regularly on television – and anyone who isn’t or wasn’t a celebrity is simply either ignored or discounted – does he really need to remind us, every time he mentions something good that Craig Claiborne did, that in his later years he “declined” into alcoholism, and how many times do we need to hear that James Beard was fat? Or repeatedly pointing out that they were gay, which, if it was somehow worked into their influence on the food scene might have been relevant past the first mention. Or that nobody really likes, or ever liked, Alice Waters…? The people missing, however, are more than just the rest of the professional food world in the U.S., they are the people who were eating all this food. The tenor of the book comes across that 99.99999% of the populace were pretty much dragged, kicking and screaming, forced at gunpoint, to try anything new. There seems to be no awareness, and certainly no acknowledgement, that what made it possible for these chefs and food writers and food growers/raisers to do what they did is that We, the People, were actually a prime part of the equation – from immigrants hungering for foods of their homelands, to GIs who’d been overseas and came back with stories to tell of things they’d eaten, to the world simply “becoming a smaller place” with international travel, global media and in recent years, phenomena like, for example, hey, food communities on the internet, where we were actually actively seeking out the new, the exotic, the different – the social, cultural, political world that influenced the culinary or gastronomic environment into which these people could flourish and become the celebrities that they have.

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