The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik

November 18, 2014

Celebrating Laurie Colwin


A long time ago it occurred to me that when people are tired and hungry, which in adult life is much of the time, they do not want to be confronted by an intellectually challenging meal; they want to be consoled.
      When life is hard and the day has been long, the ideal dinner is not four perfect courses, each in a lovely pool of sauce whose ambrosial flavors are like nothing ever before tasted, but rather something comforting and savory, easy on the digestion -- something that makes one feel, if even only for a minute, that one is safe.
from 'Nursery Food,' in Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin
Laurie Colwin has always been one of my favorite writers; if she's only been mentioned here in passing it's only because I read all of her books so long ago, and they're long overdue for re-reading. So I could add that when a person is tired and hungry, and stuck in traffic on the bus ride home, and the day has been long, the most comforting and savory thing possible is to get an email announcing that eight of her books will be back in print (in e-book form) and offering me two of them :).
She wrote short stories, novels and food essays, many of which were published in Gourmet {in the days when I enjoyed reading that, too}.  Just looking at the titles of the chapters in Home Cooking -- 'How to Disguise Vegetables,' 'How to Avoid Grilling,' 'Stuffing:  A Confession,' 'Easy Cooking for Exhausted People,' 'Chicken Salad' -- reminds me of why I loved them.
I remember her fiction {first published in the 1970s and 80s) as being warm, New Yorky, filled with quiet humor ('they preferred the company of their fellow Solo-Millers to that of any other clan'), and with interesting, smart, happy, foibled people that I wanted to read about. Family Happiness has always been my favorite;  '...In it, she tells the story of a woman from a remarkably strong and attractive family, herself a happy wife and mother, who one day finds herself embarked on a completely unexpected, sweet and painful love affair, exploding all her beliefs about herself and the rightness of her life' {from the original book jacket).  This is the one I want to re-read next, after Happy All the Time. That one is set in Cambridge (my Cambridge); I don't remember it as well, but I'm sure the title describes how I'll feel when I've finished it.
According to the biography provided by her new publisher, Colwin worked in publishing before she turned to writing full-time, sold her first short story to The New Yorker when she was 25, wrote four novels and three collections of short stories, as well as the column in Gourmet, and died suddenly at home when she was only 48 (I remember how sad that was, too.). 
Open Road Media is publishing eight of her books -- Passion and Affect, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, Happy All the Time, The Lone Pilgrim, Family Happiness, Another Marvelous Thing, Goodbye without Leaving, and Home Cooking -- as ebooks today. I hope this means that more people will discover her.  Or have you read her already?
Thanks to Open Road Media, I received complimentary copies of two of these ebooks in exchange for joining in the celebration here.

November 9, 2014

The Language of Food: a linguist reads the menu

What makes group cooking special ... is that the meal benefits from what everyone brings, quite literally, to the table:  their favorite ingredients, their culinary techniques, their family spices. ... this 'stone soup' metaphor is exactly what underlies the foods created by the great meetings of civilizations that also created our modern world. Ketchup, syrup, aspic, turkey, macaron, sherbet, and arrack {an early kind of rum] are linguistic fossils of the high-class meals of the Persian shahsm Baghdadi caliphs, Provencal princes, New York Astors, but also of Fujianese sailors, Egyptian pharmacists, Mexican nuns, Portuguese merchants, Sicilian pasta-makers, Amherst poets, and New York bakers, as each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisines, macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbaj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just was the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal's obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails.

How we talk about food also reflects human aspirations: our desire to live a healthy, natural, authentic life, to identify with our family and culture, and our deep strains of optimism and positivity. And it reflects our cognition: the link between vowel perception and the evolution of the human smile, ... advertising 'tomato' ketchup, overmentioning fresh or tasty on aspirational menus or health on junk-food packages.

I left for college planning to major in linguistics, a path that lasted about halfway through my first semester and Linguistics 101. Looking back, I realize that I had no idea what linguistics was, just a fuzzy and romantic idea that I would learn twelve languages and spend some time as a simultaneous translator at the UN. But, in hindsight, if I had known I could be a food linguist, things might have been very different. Reading this book, by a linguist and computer scientist at Stanford --  a combination of culinary history, language studies and psychology, with a few medieval recipes and glimpses of life in present-day San Francisco added in for good measure -- made me think I could have born the computation studies and statistical regressions if the rest of the work was included.. :)

Each chapter focuses on something interesting, subtle and sometimes sneaky in the way we've come to talk about, read about, or even eat food:  from what's written on a menu, to what's written on a potato chip bag (there are very funny bits suggesting that menus in cheaper restaurants are more likely to mention how fresh and good the food is, because we're afraid it won't be, or how the makers of gourmet, expensive chips try to convince us that they're a healthy snack, while ordinary brands don't bother}, to the often ancient origins of words (and foods) like ketchup, ceviche and turkey, to the 'grammar' of a meal {and why it's different in China than in America} to an experiment in which people were convinced that an imaginary ice cream whose name had a vowel formed in the back of the mouth (like 'Frosh') would taste creamier than one whose name had a 'front' vowel (like 'Frish'). {It all has to do with how animals show aggression.}  Along the way, in this very approachable book, I learned a little more about the concepts in linguistics -- like 'semantic bleaching,' the process by which a word loses its original meaning -- which I think I would have found very interesting if I had taken another course or two.  I enjoyed this book very much.

November 3, 2014

Anticipation, mysterious edition

There it was, a glimpse at the end of Death Comes to Pemberley last night, for Grantchester, a new series for Masterpiece Mystery next year based on the Sidney Chambers series by James Runcie. Dishy vicar! (And dishier Robson Green as his friend, Inspector Keating.)

{photos from Facebook}

November 2, 2014

Murder, overambitiousness, gateau, and snowflakes

Or, what I've been reading, listening to, and waiting for.:)

I always love reading about the books people plan to read. Sometimes, more often than not, probably, the books I end up reading at any given time are chosen for me, by library reserves, or due dates, or what's on television, or chance encounters (that's the best thing). 

I'm almost finished with Lucy Worsley's The Art of the English Murder, which is the companion book to a BBC series which I would have loved to watch. She's tracing the history of the growing fascination with murder, from attending public executions to newspaper accounts to detective fiction. I realized as I was reading it that some of the cases she describes sounded familiar -- the murder in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher {did you read that? it was very good}, and, as Lisa reminded me, the one that P.D. James wrote about in The Maul and the Pear Tree, which is probably the only one of her books that I haven't read. A good book for the bus.

Last night, I finished listening to The Monogram Murders, the new Hercule Poirot book by Sophie Hannah. I've never read her books {a lot of people like them, though, so I should} and I've only read one or maybe two of Agatha Christie's Poirots - my sense of him comes from David Suchet. :) But this Poirot seems kind of grumpy, and peevish, and exasperated, and one-dimensional.  By the end, I was listening more out of curiosity than real enjoyment (plus, I had a lot of ironing to catch up on. :) } In the end, I didn't really like it, and that seems to be a common reaction too.

When I first  moved to Boston, before our regional library network started its wonderful system of shuffling books around, I used to visit the libraries in neighboring towns.  Part of the joy in that was each one had something that it seemed especially good at -- a lot of cookbooks, a lot of audiobooks, new books that I wanted but no one else seemed to. Now I don't do that anymore (just as I don't really browse the stacks anymore} and I miss it.  Anyway, going to the Cambridge library {and the Starbucks next to it} was a Saturday morning ritual for a long time, but I hadn't been there in years. Since I always drove there, from the other direction, it's taken me a two years to realize that it's only a 10-minute walk from work, and it's been renovated and expanded into being absolutely incredible.  Its 'specialty' for me now is that they have 'express books' on their (massive) new book shelves -- books that you can't reserve or renew, but that are sometimes there for the taking when you'd otherwise be waiting for months.  I wasn't even waiting for this new biography of Queen Victoria {I didn't know about it}, and I'm not sure what possessed me to think I could read its 574 pages in two weeks ... I won't, but I can at least get it started. It's been a while since I immersed myself in a wonderful biography, so I hope this will be one. {Update, an hour and a half later - it is, so far!}

But what I'm really doing is sitting by the window hoping that I really will see the snowflakes that might just possibly fall.  It's been cold, rainy and windy since yesterday, so it's a perfect weekend for reading.  And baking! That's the other thing that happened, this week -- three new cookbooks, two I had pre-ordered months ago and one that I must have been first in line for from the library.  I'm waiting for my frozen butter to soften so I can make the Apple Weekend Cake from Dorie Greenspan's new book {she tell us that there's such a thing as le gateau weekend, the kind of cake that keeps and travels well.

So, all in all, a good week and a good weekend.  Hope yours are, too!

October 27, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley

When it comes to books like this, I think some are very well done, others are not quite as good, and in itself, Death Comes to Pemberley is probably not one of the best. But I don't mind at all. Of course one of the joys of reading faux-Jane is to see what the author does with her or her characters; I loved that P.D. James gives Wickham a job with the Eliots, and why she gets him fired. And more than that, I loved thinking that she could write a book like this just for fun, after a long life and a brilliant career, and give me even more reading pleasure than she has already. 

The Masterpiece Mystery adaptation is good, though, isn't it?  Are you watching it?  {After buying this book the minute it came out, and then 'saving' it for a long time, I finally pulled it off my bookshelf last week so I could have it read before it was aired.}

{Something else that was fun... in the new Deborah Crombie, as Duncan gets used to his sudden transfer, he asks Gemma to meet him in the cafe next to Persephone Books.  It's not clear whether either of them stop in.}

October 26, 2014

Something to celebrate today!

From today's The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James  wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton, beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote, about a young woman in Europe. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but he also said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

It's becoming an annual occurrencee, inadvertently, but that's only right ... it's a day that has given me a lot of reading joy!