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Member since: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 05:06 AM
Number of posts: 23,608

Journal Archives

Writing about food: anniversary of the publication of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

"I was powerful lazy and comfortable -- didn't want to get up and cook breakfast. ... Well, then I happened to think how they always put quicksilver in loaves of bread and float them off because they always go right to the drowned carcass and stop there. ... A big double loaf come along, and I most got it, with a long stick, but my foot slipped and she floated out further. ... . But by-and-by along comes another one, and this time I won. I took out the plug and shook out the little bit of quicksilver, and set my teeth in. It was 'baker's bread' -- what the quality eat -- none of your low-down corn-pone.

"Mornings, before daylight, I slipped into corn fields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn, or things of that kind. Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things, if you was meaning to pay them back, sometime; but the widow said it warn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn't borrow them anymore ... . So we talked it over ... trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what. But towards daylight we ... concluded to drop crabapples and p'simmons. ... I was glad the way it come out, too, because crabapples ain't ever good, and the p'simmons wouldn't be ripe for two or three months yet.

"I hadn't had a bite to eat since yesterday; so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage, and greens -- there ain't nothing in the world so good, when it's cooked right -- and whilst I eat my supper we talked, and had a good time. ... Once there was a thick fog ... . A scow or a raft went by so close we could hear them talking and cussing and laughing ... but we couldn't see no sign of them; it made you feel crawly, it was like spirits carrying on that way in the air. Jim said he believed it was spirits, but I says, 'No, spirits wouldn't say, 'dern the dern fog.' ... It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

"The hunk of butter, big as a person's fist, was where I had left it, so I took up the slab of corn-pone with it on ... but here comes Aunt Sally with a candle, and I clapped the truck in my hat, and clapped my hat on my head, and the next second she says: 'You been down cellar?' ... I was that scared; and the place getting hotter and hotter, and the butter beginning to melt and run down my neck and behind my ears ... and a streak of butter come a trickling down my forehead, and Aunt Sally she see it, and turns white as a sheet, and says: 'For the land's sake, what is the matter with the child! -- he's got the brain fever as shore as you're born, and they're oozing out!'

Writing about food: Ruth Reichl's "Tender at the Bone"

"Imagine a New York City apartment at six in the morning. ... Coffee is bubbling in an electric percolator. On the table is a basket of rye bread, an entire coffee cake, a few cheeses, a platter of cold cuts. My mother has been making breakfast -- a major meal in our house ... . Right now she is the only one awake, but she is getting impatient for the day to begin ... she barges into the bedroom and shakes my father awake. 'Darling,' she says, 'I need you. Get up and come into the kitchen.' ... He leans against the sink, holding on to it a little, and obediently opens his mouth when my mother says, 'Try this.'

"Later, when he told the story, he attempted to convey the awfulness of what she had given him. The first time he said that it tasted like cat toes and rotted barley, but over the years the description got better. Two years later it had turned into pigs' snouts and mud and five years later he had refined the flavor into a mixture of antique anchovies and moldy chocolate. Whatever it tasted like, he said it was the worst thing he had ever had in his mouth, so terrible that it was impossible to swallow, so terrible that he leaned over and spit it into the sink and then grabbed the coffeepot, put the spout in his mouth, and tried to eradicate the flavor. My mother stood there watching all this. When my father finally put the coffeepot down she smiled and said, 'Just as I thought. Spoiled!'

"For the longest time I thought I had made this story up. But my brother insists that my father told it often, and with a certain amount of pride. As far as I know, my mother was never embarrassed by the telling, never even knew that she should have been. It was just the way she was. Which was taste-blind and unafraid of rot. 'Oh, it's just a little mold,' I can remember her saying on the many occasions she scraped the fuzzy blue stuff off some concoction before serving what was left for dinner. ... My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner."

Writing about food: Hilary Liftin's "Candy and Me" -- Valentine's conversation hearts

"It was the winter of eighth grade, and I thought that I was on the cusp of being discovered by boys. ... I couldn't even imagine how a conversation with a boy might proceed. When I pictured my ideal encounter, it consisted of an initial dreamy gaze, filled with a silent understanding of mutual attraction, which led immediately to making out. ... The eighth grade ski trip was coed. The idea of getting onto a coed bus without a pre-established seating partner was inconceivable, so Lucy and I signed up together, and promised to sit next to each other. I brought a large bag of conversation hearts as our bus snack. ... Lucy kept pace with me, and by the time we had gotten to the New Jersey Turnpike, the bag was empty. ... In an almost too-perfect delivery, halfway through the sentence, 'I don't feel well,' she vomited between her knees, onto the floor of the bus. ... So much for being noticed by the boy creatures.

"A person can only take so many conversation hearts. After the third full bag of the season ... they start to taste sickeningly chalky. But they have charm. Their palette is as tied to spring as candy corn's is to autumn. They are hopeful and convincing. When you are alone, you can use them like a Magic Eight Ball, thinking, If the next one says 'true love,' I'm set for the year. I am not alone in my consumption of conversation hearts. They've been around (originally as Motto Hearts) since 1866. According to Necco (the New England Confectionery Company), in the Valentine's season they manufacture more than eight billion hearts, which sell out in the space of six weeks. Once, walking in Cambridge, I stopped in the middle of the street, 'Necco is nearby,' I announced, sniffing the air. Tracing the scent, my friend and I turned the corner, and there was the factory. Every year I consumed more than my share of the eight billion, but this year I wanted a change.

"No boy had ever given me conversation hearts, or anything else for that matter, for Valentine's Day. Ever since the eighth-grade ski trip, conversation hearts were a reminder of the absence of romance, the admirers who never emerged, the flirty conversations that never happened. Now I finally had Neal, a flesh-and-blood boyfriend, and I wanted my Valentine's Day, dammit."

Writing about food: Tama Janowitz, "Area Code 212"

"Here's my fantasy: I get into bed with so many unread books I have to push them aside to make room. Then I order the following: a pizza, extra-large, extra-crispy, extra-cheese. The crust is thin and crunchy, each slice has a different topping, mushrooms, onions, pepperoni, the whole thing is oozing, at once crispy, crusty and wet. Tomato sauce, long strings of cheese. I eat it.

"Baklava, myriad flakes of phyllo pastry dripping with honey, walnuts. Indian food, chewy nan, roti, parathas, fiery curry. Chinese food, not greasy but fried, things that are sweet and sour and hot all at the same time. ... I am surrounded by boxes of really good-quality chocolates and an entire chocolate cake, thick and black, bittersweet. I breakfast on donuts, dense, heavy, a crusty lump of sugary dough. Steaks, thick and rare, sliced thin, with a bone to gnaw on. Fried potatoes, potato chips, pommes frites. Biscuits, sugared nuts, wedges of assorted cheese: Stilton, Cheddar, Swiss, Havarti. Bowls of the blackest, sweetest cherries. Southern barbecue, ribs, with coleslaw, or a pulled-pork sandwich, the tenderest meat shreds slammed between two sides of a soft roll. Did I mention chocolate mousse? And the ice cream, flavor depending on my current mood -- ginger, green tea, mocha chip topped with hot fudge sauce. Pistachio, butter pecan, maple walnut.

"My job is to lie in bed and eat and read -- oh, once in a while perhaps a masseuse will arrive to soothe and comfort, a handsome delivery boy with a fresh pineapple he will chop right there at the foot of my bed and present to me in chunks on the ends of toothpicks. In my fantasy ... I am huge, I occupy the the whole bed ... . If only I had been born in the time of Rubens, or Titian's sixteenth century, when obesity, or at least plumpness and cellulite, was considered a desirable, sexy attribute in women. ... Instead I live in New York City, where women compete to be the slimmest. ... Basically, the modern New York woman is expected to have the same shape as that of a really tough villager who lives in a primitive place and spends the day hunting and gathering, grinding corn, lugging heavy pots of water on her head, giving birth to babies in the field, never getting quite enough to eat."

National Bagel and Lox Day: Mark Russ Federman, "Russ & Daughters, Reflections and Recipes from

the House That Herring Built"

"A Martian crash-lands his little spaceship at the corner of Orchard and Rivington Streets on the Lower East Side. When he climbs out, he sees that one wheel is missing. ... As luck would have it, he passes a store that has a lot of appropriately sized wheels in the window. He goes inside. Moishe is at the counter.
'I would like to buy a wheel,' the Martian says.
'We don't sell wheels,' Moishe replies.
'Then what's that in the window?'
'Those are bagels.'
'What do you do with them?'
'You eat them,' Moishi says, offering one to the Martian. The Martian eats it and gives Moishi a big smile.
'Do you like it?' Moishi asks.
'It's good,' replies the Martian. 'But it would be even better with cream cheese and lox.'

"The bagel and its cream-cheese-and-lox counterpart have gone mainstream; they are now part of American culture. ... The three components ultimately met and were married in the appetizing stores of the Lower East Side in the 1930s. ... It has always been known as 'bagel and lox' -- the presence of cream cheese is understood. ... The word 'lox' is derived from the German word Lachs, which means 'salmon.' The anglicized version, 'lox,' was first used to describe the millions of Pacific salmon caught, packed in a salt brine, and shipped to New York ports for further travels to Europe. Some of these fish found their way to Brooklyn smokehouses ... then sold in the appetizing stores on the Lower East Side ... . The Eastern European Jews in the neighborhood had no prior experience ... with salmon, smoked or otherwise ... . Because huge quantities of salmon were available, the prices were very cheap ... . Lox quickly caught on among the residents of the Lower East Side, and they took the taste for it with them when they moved out of the neighborhood.

"The bagel landed in America along with the huge wave of Eastern European immigrants who began to arrive on the Lower East Side in the 1880s. Bagels were not difficult to make ... they were hand-rolled, boiled briefly in water, and baked in ovens located in the basements of tenement buildings. The finished bagels were displayed on sticks and sold on the streets for two cents apiece. A bagel was a quick, on-the-go snack, meant to be eaten by itself -- an early form of fast food that was not originally intended to be the structural support for a sandwich. ... The origins of cream cheese are equally cloudy. ... The American version is traced back to a dairyman in upstate New York who, in 1872, was trying to reproduce the soft and creamy French Neufchatel. His results were less fatty and less creamy but became a big hit when wrapped in silver foil and branded as 'Philadelphia.' (At that time Philadelphia, not New York, was an appellation of quality.)"

National Potato Lovers Day

I love Nora Ephron's novel "Heartburn" and she has a lot to say about potatoes:

"I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes. Sometimes meat and potatoes and sometimes fish and potatoes, but always potatoes. I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them. Not just any potato will do when it comes to love. ... I am talking about crisp potatoes. ... All this takes time, and time, as any fool can tell you, is what true romance is about. In fact, one of the main reasons why you must make crisp potatoes in the beginning is that if you don't ... you never will. I'm sorry to be so cynical about this, but that's the truth.

"One day the inevitable happens. I go to the potato drawer to make potatoes and discover that the little brown buggers I bought in a large sack a few weeks earlier have gone soft and mushy and are sprouting long and quite uninteresting vines .... I throw out the potatoes and look in the cupboard for a box of pasta. This is moment when the beginning ends and the middle begins.

"In the end, I always want potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Nothing like mashed potatoes when you're feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful. The problem with mashed potatoes, though, is that they require almost as much hard work as crisp potatoes, and when you're feeling blue the last thing you feel like is hard work. Of course, you can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let's face it: the reason you're blue is that there isn't anyone to make them for you. As a result, most people do not have nearly enough mashed potatoes in their lives, and when they do, it's almost always at the wrong time. (You can, of course, train children to mash potatoes, but you should know that Richard Nixon spent most of his childhood making mashed potatoes for his mother and was extremely methodical about getting the lumps out. A few lumps make mashed potatoes more authentic, if you ask me, but that's not the point. The point is that perhaps children should not be trained to mash potatoes.)"

For me, the most satisfying potato preparation is the croquette. Potato croquettes with cheese in the middle, especially blue cheese. Crisp savory brown exterior deep-fried in well-seasoned oil, soft fluffiness within, gooey salty cheese core: beginning, middle, end, it is the best.

Writing about food: Brillat-Savarin, "The Physiology of Taste": The Bresse Chicken

"On one of the first days of January this present year, 1825, a young married couple, Monsieur and Madame de Versy by name, were guests at an oyster breakfast. Such meals are charming, not only because they are composed of tempting dishes, but also because of the gaiety which usually distinguishes them; however, they have the disadvantage of upsetting the rest of the day's arrangements. ... When dinnertime arrived, the pair sat down at table; but it was a mere formality. Madame took a little soup, Monsieur drank a glass of wine and water ... .

"About two o'clock in the morning, Monsieur de Versy awoke, feeling restless; he yawned, and tossed and turned so much that his wife grew alarmed, and asked if he was unwell. 'No, my dear, but I appear to be hungry; I was thinking of that beautiful white Bresse chicken which we were offered for dinner and to which we gave such a cold reception.' 'My dear, to tell the truth, I am as hungry as you are, and now that you have thought of that chicken it must be sent for and eaten.' 'What an idea! The whole house is asleep, and tomorrow everybody will laugh at us.' '... I'm going to ring for Justine.' No sooner said than done; and the poor girl, who had supped well and was sleeping as only those can sleep who are nineteen years old and untroubled by love, was duly awakened. ... When everything was ready, the chicken appeared, to be torn apart on the spot and remorselessly devoured. After this first exploit, husband and wife shared a large Saint-Germain pear, and ate some orange marmalade. In the intervals they drained a bottle of Graves wine to the dregs, and declared, several times, with variations, that they had never had a more delightful meal. However, this meal came to an end, as all things must in this world. Justine cleared away the incriminating evidence, and went back to bed; and the conjugal curtain fell upon the participants in the feast.

"Next morning, Madame de Versy hurried round to see her friend Madame de Franval, and recounted all that had happened in the night; and it is to that lady's indiscretion that the public owes the present revelation. She never fails to add that when Madame de Versy came to the end of her story, she coughed twice and blushed furiously."

Writing about food: Happy Birthday Gertrude Stein, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"

"Next saturday evening at the rue de Fleurus everybody was talking about the banquet to Rousseau ... . It appeared that Picasso had recently found in Montmartre a large portrait of a woman by Rousseau, that he had bought it and that this festivity was in honour of the purchase and the painter. It was going to be very wonderful. Fernande told me a great deal about the menu. There was to be riz a la Valencienne, Fernande had learnt how to cook this on her last trip to Spain, and then she had ordered, I forget now what it was that she had ordered, but she had ordered a great deal at Felix Potins, the chain store of groceries where they made prepared dishes. Everybody was excited. It was Guillaume Apollinaire, as I remember, who knowing Rousseau very well had induced him to promise to come and was to bring him and everybody was to write poetry and songs and it was to be very rigolo, a favourite Montmartre word meaning a jokeful amusement. We were all to meet at the cafe at the foot of the rue Ravignan and to have an aperitif and then go up to Picasso's atelier and have dinner.

"Just then there was a violent noise at the door of the cafe and Fernande appeared very large, very excited and very angry. Felix Potin, said she, has not sent the dinner. Everybody seemed overcome at these awful tidings but I, in my american way said to Fernande, come quickly, let us telephone. In those days in Paris one did not telephone and never to a provision store. ... Fernande was completely upset but finally I persuaded her to tell me just what we were to have had from Felix Potin and then in one little shop and another in Montmartre we found substitutes. Fernande finally announcing that she had made so much riz a la Valencienne that it would take the place of everything and it did. ... It was rather impressive. They had gotten trestles, carpenter's trestles, and on them had placed boards and all around these boards were benches. At the head of the table was the new acquisition, the Rousseau, draped in flags and wreaths ... . The riz a la Valencienne was presumably cooking below in Max Jacob's studio. ... Everybody sat down and everybody began to eat rice and other things, that is as soon as Guillaume Apollinaire and Rousseau came in which they did very presently and were wildly acclaimed."

Writing about food: George Orwell, "Down and Out in Paris and London"

"We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently. We sat most of that day in the Jardin des Plantes. ... We wrote dinner menus on the backs of envelopes. We were too hungry even to try and think of anything except food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, borscht soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en casserole, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy.

"It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat customers in all their splendour -- spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food. A dozen waiters with their coats off, showing their sweaty armpits, sat at the table mixing salads and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots. The room had a dirty mixed smell of food and sweat. Everywhere in the cupboards, behind the piles of crockery, were squalid stores of food that the waiters had stolen. There were only two sinks, and no washing basin, and it was nothing unusual for a waiter to wash his face in the water in which clean crockery was rinsing. ... There was a rule that employees must pay for anything they spoiled, and in consequence damaged things were seldom thrown away. Once the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our service lift ... We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up again.

"Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches. ... The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. ... It is not a figure of speech, it is a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup -- that is, if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. ... When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook's inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers ... and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. ... In very cheap restaurants it is different: there, the same trouble is not taken over the food, and it is just forked out of the pan and flung onto a plate, without handling. Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it."
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