My new culinary hero

I bought the household a cookbook for Christmas.

This was (is) part of the household’s new year’s resolutions, which include eating better and other nerdier ones which we’ll get to later.

The cookbook is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and two months out I think I can safely say it’s been a great purchase.  In that time, I have learned from this book:

  • How to make chicken stock.  This alone is an invaluable piece of information, and Bittman is correct – it’s totally addictive once you learn how much better homemade stock is than canned.
  • How to wash and prepare a leek.  Who knew that the best way to really get them clean was to slice them almost in half lengthwise and fan them out?  (Well, he did, obviously.)
  • How to core a cabbage.
  • How to make popcorn on the stove.
  • How to prepare risotto.
  • How to roast your own red peppers.
  • And probably a lot of other things I am forgetting about.

It’s light on pictures, except for the informative line drawings used to demonstrate the various cooking techniques – but you know what?  I’m fine with that, and this is coming from someone who typically prefers her cookbooks liberally laced with nigh-pornographic food photography.  This is a practical book that is full of practical advice, and while it may not have as many pretty pictures as other cookbooks I have known, it DOES have a heaping helping of useful tables, ideas and suggestions for modifying recipes, and (most important of all) a good index in the back.

Bittman’s writing style is breezy, easy to follow, and has just a touch of humor in it that makes recipes for even food that scares most people (like risotto) seem less intimidating.  When an instruction comes up that might seem bizarre to a novice chef like myself, he actually tends to take the time to explain why it is that, for example, you don’t bother to peel the onion you’re putting in your chicken stock.  It’s like having a kitchen mentor that hangs about comfortably within range if you need to ask a question without being dogmatic or intrusive.

And with two thousand recipes, if you can’t find something to add to your repertoire in here, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

This one’s a winner, folks.  Consider it next time you’re hitting up the cookbook section.

The Oz Project

Lately, I have been finding myself with the urge to…revisit.  I am sure there is a more elegant way of saying this.  Probably in French, which has also given us such fantastic idioms as “l’esprit de escalier” – which means literally “the spirit of the staircase, I believe.  What does it mean?  “That thing that happens when you’ve been having an impassioned discussion with someone and you leave and then, just as you’re on your way out, the perfect thing to say occurs to you.”

So perhaps if any language has a pithy phrase for “the powerful urge to revisit things you have known and loved” it is probably French.  I would call it nostalgia, but it is a little more than that: it isn’t so much that I want to get back to some lost age as that I want to revisit these things with new eyes, get to know them afresh – or perhaps “reintroduce myself to them” is a better way of putting it.

This feeling has manifested in my life in several ways lately.  I find myself craving to pick old favorite films from the video store instead of new ones; I think of things I haven’t eaten or read or done in years and years and suddenly feel I want to experience them all over again.

The other day I was telling someone about a passage from one of the Oz books that really creeped me out as a child.  In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the titular characters, along with a talking horse, a talking cat, and a farm boy, are drawn deep into the bowels of the earth in an earthquake and have all sorts of bizarre adventures while trying to find their way back to the surface world.  One of the places they visit is the kingdom of the Mangaboos, beautiful but cruel people who are vegetable through and through: there they meet a sorcerous party who essentially challenges the Wizard to a magic duel.

The Wizard, of course, is a humbug magician – all of his magic is tricks and show (at least at that time – he does get significantly more legitimately magic-capable later in the series).  So it is him and a pair of kerosene lamps and a theatrical trick sword against a real magician, who is slowly trying to kill him by stopping him from breathing.  As a little kid this was thrilling to me in a very nasty sort of way, and it clearly left an impression.

The series continues, of course, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Dorothy and the Wizard and their companions get out alive.  But as I was recounting this episode, I thought:

  1. Damn, that series was weird, when I think about it.
  2. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to get away with some of those things in books for kids these days – at least not kids who were the age I was when I was reading the Oz books.  (I started with The Wizard of Oz when I was four.)
  3. …You know what?  I really want to read that series again.

And, being the big nerd that I am, I then went on to think to myself: Wouldn’t it be cool if while I was reading it I did some research on the time and place the books were from?

I mean, I remember how saturated the Oz books seemed to be with what I think of as that turn-of-the-century “Oh, my goodness. The future is so expansive!  Progress will make everyone’s lives better!” optimism.  (Perhaps that is just my memory playing tricks.)  And I wonder how much the world of the early 1900s had to do with the land of living paper dolls, for example.  Were they popular then?

My inner child wants to revisit the series because it’s been such a long time, and because my memories of it are fond.  My inner adult has suddenly realized that it’s probably a lot stranger than I thought it was at the time, and is keen to go back and have a look.  Maybe both of us will learn something, whether about ourselves or about the early 1900s or something else entirely unexpected.

So, it is decided.  We will go back, and have a look.  I have gone to the library’s website and placed some books on hold, and retrieved the first four of the books from storage.

I feel rather like an archaeologist preparing for a dig.  Do I have all the permits?  A suitable Local Guide?  It is exciting and slightly daunting at the same time.

Anyway.  More on this as it develops.  Probably slowly.  After all, there will be a lot of reading to do.

I ponder the Western

This evening it will be movie/tv night, as it is most Mondays.  Our regular crew has just finished watching the BBC miniseries Jekyll (my assessment in brief: many lovely moments, and is good watching up till the last episode, when a number of things come apart.  Oh, and don’t watch the last five minutes at all: if you are anything like me they will only serve to annoy you.  On the other hand, James Nesbitt is delightful.  Might be worth picking it up just to watch him cavort about the screen.)

Tonight, we begin our next project, a sort of exploration of movie Westerns.  This delights my husband hugely, since he is all about Westerns and has recently come off a bender of Red Dead Redemption.  There is at least one other big fan of the genre in the group, too, so good times are anticipated.

True confession: I am not that much of a Westerns kind of girl.  Considering that I’ll be seeing a lot of them in the next little while, I’ve been thinking today about why this might be.

Westerns, as most genre works, tend to share some common features (apologies for my wild paraphrasing to Diana Tixier Herald, from whose excellent reference Genreflecting I learned most of this):

  1. They take place primarily somewhere in the American West, usually in the last half of the nineteenth century (the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption is an exception, set as it is in the decade just prior to World War I.)
  2. Heroes tend to be strong-willed, individualistic characters, often in opposition to social or political realities of the time.  The rugged frontier individualist vs. the artifice of city life, and so on.
  3. That said, the real star of a Western is often…the West.  The landscape, the natural environment, the huge, sweeping forces with which the hero must contend…
  4. Themes include: clashes between chaos and order; the struggle to survive in harsh surroundings (both natural and social); justice and redemption. (Herald, 2006)

Morality in a western tends to be fairly black and white – we do, after all, get our very literal concepts of who is “white hat” and who is “black hat” from the genre.  The good guys may not win, though it is no less clear that they are the good guys.  And there is a kind of nostalgic haze over the entirety of the goings-on, or so it seems to me – but perhaps that is simply my status as a modern reader/viewer looking in.

I get why my husband loves Westerns so.  He fancies stories with heroic! men of action! who sally forth and overcome mighty challenges – or don’t – while adhering to a strict moral code.  (It is not unlike what you see in heroes of noir stories, really – in both genres you get many protagonists who are essentially chivalrous white knights displaced in time and space to a land or society where the things they value are in conflict with reality.  This probably tells you a lot about my husband, too. ;))

What is a little more strange to me is why I am not correspondingly into them.  I have read several, watched quite a few, and often enjoy them – but I almost never pick up a book or film of this type when I’m out looking for media to consume.  It isn’t the type of protagonist.  I enjoy noir (generally.)  It isn’t the landscape: I have been to the American West on several occasions and find it very lovely and mysterious in that rather terrifying way that deserts are beautiful.

Perhaps it is simply that I am not much of a rugged frontier individualist myself – I’m a geek, a big one, and enjoy city living.  And, while I do enjoy solitude as much as the next introverted person, there is to me something stimulating about having lots of people out there even if I’m not interacting directly with them.  Ah-ha, perhaps that is it: the vasty wilderness of New Mexico is less populated with characters for me to latch onto than Los Angeles circa 1935, hence the greater appeal for me of noir’s streets of intrigue.

Well, that and that most westerns I’ve encountered tend to be…shall we say…testosterone-heavy.   This is in part just a factor of when and where the stories tend to be set: the frontier is classically a man’s world, and there’s not really anything wrong with that.   Wouldn’t it be fun to have some more action girls in the Old West though?  (That said, I did recently read Sandra Dallas’s Spur-award-winning The Chili Queen, which was great fun and features some entertaining female characters.)

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to explore the Weird West a bit more, since that subgenre intersects very nicely with my fondness for fantasy and science fiction.  I’ve already read Midori Snyder’s interesting western/fantasy fusion The Flight of Michael McBride, and enjoyed it quite a bit – there is something endlessly entertaining in the way that combining unlikely things produces quirky results.  Recommendations for Western + supernatural hybrids, anyone?

Anyway.  Tonight’s film will be Destry Rides Again – it would have been Stagecoach, but that one was out at Our Favorite Local Video Store, alas.

We’ll see how I do. 🙂

Further Reading

Herald, D.  (2006). Genreflecting: A guide to popular reading interests.  (6th ed.).  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.