Saturday, July 30, 2016

MFK Fisher: The Art of Eating and Serve It Forth


As a kid, I was a tomboy. I wore scuffed dungarees and Converse sneakers, and was happier watching dirtbike races than playing with dolls. I spent little time in the kitchen. Passing though, usually, on the way to my next adventure. But there was a special collection of books on the shelf that caught my eye even then. Especially one in the series: How to Cook a Wolf. How intriguing! Just like the Dungeons and Dragons stories my brother and I created, it inspired imaginative worlds. Only when I was older did I realize it was about living frugally in times of war.

Over the years, I’ve read portions of M.F.K. Fisher’s books. It’s a fascinating body of work. As I re-read the series, it was clearly a perfect fit for the “How Do They Feast?” series I originally started to talk about how food is portrayed in historical fiction. The series has grown to take on a lot more, and I’m looking forward to exploring M.F.K. Fisher’s books as a subseries to “How Do They Feat?” Thanks to Mom for letting me take them off the shelf and “adopt” them for a time.

The Art of Eating is a compilation of her earlier work. Far from the glamorous celebrity chef culture, the introduction of The Art of Eating almost apologizes for its own existence. Our puritanical roots are suspected in the lack of indulgence in the literature of gastronomy on the part of Americans. European greats such as Brillat-Savarin are mentioned as the experts on writing about food. Many lived under Brillat-Savarin’s shadow for a long time. M.F.K. Fisher, like Julia Child, pioneered a new path for American foodies.

Alas, there were those who thought it wasn’t possible that Fisher’s books were really her own. It was believed a man wrote them for her. The essays were too well-crafted—so much history and culture—clearly a polymath of the Ivy League, they speculated. Well, the glass…errr…skillet was at least broken in that realm, and we celebrate many women who achieve great success as chefs and writers alike. It does make me wonder, though, what M.F.K. Fisher would have thought if she could see the abundance of cooking shows today. She strikes me as a lady who would appreciate the travels and observations of Anthony Bourdain, rather than the bluster and superficiality of Guy Fieri.

I begin the series where she began, with Serve It Forth. Published in 1937, the book delves into interesting historical bits, such as the curious-but-kind-of-gross garum of Roman times, a sauce made of fermented fish guts that was a delicacy. (Which has now leapt off the pages of history, and has evidently become a thing—I may muster the courage to give it a try soon!) From the eating habits of medieval royalty to French fads during colonial times and during the French Revolution, Fisher provides an amazing array of detail. If you’re an author looking to add some authenticity to the cuisine of your worlds, her books are a delightful resource.


Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it with mustard. (Take that, trendy bulletproof coffee!) When American colonists began consuming turkey, many a French social-seeker ruined their finances serving turkey with truffles—an exorbitant expense which practically depleted the truffle business. Even in modern times, historical associations have given certain types of food a social status. Turnips and cabbage have a particularly bad reputation for being “the food of the poor,” but leeks and artichokes also make the list. M.F.K. Fisher relates some striking quotes in an effort to dispel snobbery here, such as saying “Mrs. So-and-So is the type of person who serves artichokes!” as a means to slam someone’s social standing. It’s kind of funny, until you realize how real it is.

What I found particularly striking were Fisher’s concerns about the American diet. Even in the early 20th century, she noted about how much people ate, and observed a trend in weight gain among older adults. She worried about the future of this trend, which has sadly become a devastating reality, with half of Americans dealing with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, according to a newly published study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In her essay of the tendency to overeat, she says, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

M.F.K. Fisher introduces Serve it Forth by listing cookbooks as one of the three items that proves man’s ingenuity in transforming necessity into art. Indeed, her way of cataloging how we’ve viewed cuisine over the centuries shows this is the case. From the most extravagant to the most frugal, her work offers meticulous insight into our relationship with food.
A “meat and potatoes” style of cooking is mentioned with some frequency, so in honor of the mid-20th century way, I’m sharing a recipe that may have made it into the ‘50s-style kitchen. It combines happy hour and dinner, with steak tips marinated in a giant Old Fashioned. Toward the end of the book, Fisher tells us an endocrinologist told her that after a hearty meal of rare beef and wine, the earlobes turn red, and that’s the time to ask for favors or tell bad news. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to play on that. :)

Old Fashioned Marinated Sirloin Tips with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Sirloin Tips Marinated in an Old Fashioned
½ cup bourbon
½ cup orange juice
½ cup cherry juice
2 lbs. sirloin tips
1 onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut steak into 2-inch chunks. Marinate in bourbon, orange juice, and cherry juice for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Begin by pouring enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet. Add sirloin tips, reserving the marinade on the side, and cook in batches if necessary, until sear—keep it very rare at this stage! Remove beef and set aside. Add chopped onion and cook until browned. Return beef to the skillet and add the sauce. Cook down until sauce thickens and makes a nice glaze on the sirloin tips (you can add some flour or cornstarch to the sauce to speed up the thickening process.)

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
2 lbs. potatoes (about 6 medium)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives, chopped (optional)
Add potatoes to large pot. Fill with water and season with salt. Boil for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until very tender. Drain. Mash in pot with butter, buttermilk, and season with salt, pepper, and chives as desired.


Serve sirloin tips over potato. Make an old fashioned for after dinner! 

Dijon Gingerbread for M.F.K. Fisher


In 1943, M.F.K. Fisher introduced her book with a question that was posed to her frequently: Why do you write about food, eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

It’s a quandary many writers can relate to. There’s an inherent judgment that rears its head when people meet writers. We’re asked to account for other authors, such as when a fan asked Neil Gaiman whether George R.R. Martin “had a responsibility” to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series in a timely manner, lest he make his audience upset. The now-famous “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” meme has become a joke at comic cons and blogs everywhere. When you’re an author, people are eager to share their ideas for books you should write, regardless of whether they’re in your oeuvre or if you are even remotely interested in the topic. And they’ll follow up on it at the next barbeque you attend, too. Most of it is perfectly benign and well-meaning. But for M.F.K. Fisher, she was starting a whole movement of food writing that paved the way for the likes of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and many others who are celebrities for it.

Fisher fought a battle on two fronts: being a woman pursuing the lifestyle she wanted, and as she often comments in her work, writing about food in a culture with Puritanical overtones that still can be rather uptight about sensual descriptions.

Why write about food? Food, security, and love are entwined. “I tell about myself and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my telling it that I am telling too about the people with me then…and their deeper needs for love and happiness. There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”


The Gastronomical Me breaks from her usual format by writing about food without describing it. She tells stories about the people she meets in her travels. In Burgundy, she visits an old mill converted into a famous restaurant by a Parisian chef. The food server is eager to provide a rich feast, but it’s more about the experience of eating rather than details about the recipes.

There’s a dearth of recipes overall, but we learn a tamale casserole caused a flood of tears and that Fisher liked to shake people from their routines by “conquering the printed recipe” by being inventive. Eccentric approaches are more memorable, she argues, and guests should be delighted by innovative meals.

Not that she doesn’t have her old favorites. Time and again in her books, she mentions Dijon gingerbread, a French classic.

I’m at a stage of writing my fourth novel where the urge to finish it soon rises above all else. I’m well past the mid-point, and the latter half is cruising along at a good pace. April’s round of NaNoWriMo should bring it to its conclusion. An intensive editing process will follow before it goes out to beta readers. Happily, I anticipate a fall release. While each word of a blog post feels like a slight against the novel, I miss keeping up with the blog—and working on this series about how food is portrayed in literature. My shiny new Surface Book has given me the chance to write *and* cook for the blog, now that my home office is too far away to keep an eye on a skillet that may get too hot. I’ve been researching Dijon gingerbread for some time, and was delighted to have the time to finally make it this weekend.

Recipes for Dijon gingerbread varied, so it led me to experiment. Honestly, my first impression was that the combination of ingredients would result in a super dense brick. What I got was an amazingly fragrant and rich loaf of bread perfect for tea or breakfast. My search also led me to find a chicken recipe where the gingerbread is used as a breadcrumb coating. The hubs and I each enjoyed one solitary, sweet slice of the bread and now it’s about to be pulverized for the sake of the chicken recipe. But I will be making this Dijon gingerbread again soon.

Dijon Gingerbread

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied orange peel (*recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 egg
3/4 cup milk (almond milk works well, too)
3/4 cup honey
Butter for the loaf pan
Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Mix dry ingredients first, then the milk and egg. The batter is thick! Spread evenly in greased bread pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until you can insert a skewer into the middle of the loaf and have it come out clean. (For me, the cook time was closer to 45 minutes.)

Candied Orange Peel

2-3 oranges
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from oranges in 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long pieces. Cut the pieces into very thin strips, about 1/8 inch wide. Cook in a small saucepan of boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain. Bring more water to a boil and cook the orange peel for another 5 minutes. Drain.
Bring sugar and 1/4 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the orange peel, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Transfer the syrup and peel to a bowl. Cover and chill overnight.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange peel to paper towels to drain before using.


MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf


The destiny of nations depends upon what and how well they eat.” —Brillat-Savarin

Years ago, the title of M.F.K. Fisher’s book evoked fantastical images. I read a lot of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and others that would lead me to believe that a book about cooking wolves had to be intriguing. Alas, as a child, I was disappointed, as there were no monsters of mysterious elf rangers. Just practical advice about making ends meet. Having spent years with my great-grandmother, I’d already seen the economy she practiced: slapping the toast onto the cast iron skillet to cook it in bacon fat. The things we preserved and stored in the cellar.

Decades passed, and as I search for the best in food writing, I was drawn to her books again. How to Cook a Wolf has probably been my favorite so far. Like The Ravenous Muse, the theme of the book is anthropomorphized into a recurring character. The wolf stalks M.F.K. Fisher throughout: “The wolf has one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack of the door. Let us take it for granted that the situation, while uncomfortable, is definitely impermanent, and can be coped with.”

Wartime shortages are the central theme. Coping with limited utilities, making the best of canned goods (and saving the liquid for soup stocks later on), and stretching ingredients are economical bits of wisdom that go far beyond the wars of the mid-twentieth century. While in America the kinds of sacrifices made by everyday people is no longer what it was in the past, people are turning away from industrial agriculture and the effects of climate change are making many people rethink how they sustain themselves. Urban gardening is a sign of a smart city, and while many of the kitchen tools she refers to are no longer a wonderment (she goes on quite a bit about the “modern” pressure cooker), the practical advice in this book would do a lot of good in reducing waste and saving energy.


One of the most interesting aspects of How to Cook a Wolf is her view on food production and trendy diets. She places the blame on fad diets squarely on the growing magazine industry. The balanced diet of three square meals a day is perpetuated by advertisers, she argues, and the needs of the individual should take precedence. Much like patient-driven healthcare is changing traditional medicine today, our attitude toward food needs to change. No one “miracle diet” will work for everyone.

In the chapter titled “How to be Sage without Hemlock,” M.F.K. Fisher lamented the mass production of bread. The refined flours rendered bread tasteless and nutritionally worthless, and imposed a false sense of snobbery. Darker breads were poor, foreign. You were moving up in the world by buying chemically treated foods. Coupled with America’s Puritan reluctance to really enjoy food, she muses, will put us on a bad path leading to large-scale health problems. Indeed it has. If she’d only been around to be vindicated in an era where chefs rediscover “artisanal” cooking, and present us with the kind of bread people knew from the Old Country.

Fisher offers up a number of recipes that are worth a try—her roast is fabulous, and the French technique of drizzling the beef juice on a salad is a revelation. According to Fisher, rubbing chicken in lemon is a good way to tenderize it. And as always, beautiful, stately quotes make every page of her work a pleasure to read: ““Polenta is one of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried a feeling of strength and dignity and well-being.”

In addition, she advises the housewife on making mouthwash and soap from myrrh, and how to make a pin cushion by sewing fabric around old coffee grounds. Evidently, the coffee grounds prevent the needles from rusting. If I were a habitual sewing-type, I may have tried it, but sewing is one of those things I do only if I absolutely must.
Of all the recipes, the onion soup is the one I had to go with for this series. It’s been one of my favorites forever. And while I typically rely on Julia Child’s recipe, this one is great too…though I’d switch out the Parmesan for a super thick slice of Jarlsberg Swiss, and add sherry when deglazing the pan.

Parisian Onion Soup

4 sweet onions, very thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter or good oil
2 heaping tablespoons flour
1/2 cup white wine
1 quart beef consommé
Grated snappy cheese (Parmesan cheese)
Rye bread, sliced thin and toasted


Directions
Brown the onions in the fat, sprinkle with flour and stir while it simmers for 10 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. Meanwhile heat the consommé. Add it to the onions and let boil slowly until the onions are tender. Spread the cheese thickly on the toast and melt under a quick broiler. Pour the soup into a hot soup tureen, cover with the toast and serve at once.

Consider the Oyster



One of the things that has struck me since I’ve started reading the works of M.F.K. Fisher is that she would have been a popular blogger. Many of her books are comprised of individual essays and stories that would be perfect blog posts. Some of the essays are personal—sometimes deeply so—and others are informative.

Consider the Oyster is a short read. It begins simply—with the life of an oyster (and in a time when we place high value sustainable food sources, an interesting description of how they live), and goes on to explore a range of favorite dishes that feature oysters: raw, fried, stuffing, Rockefeller—if she had been a blogger today, I’d wager she’d travel to New Orleans to find the best po’ boy in the region. She also spends an entire chapter talking about the best drinks to pair with oysters (Chablis, Guinness, sherry, whiskey).

On a trip to London, M.F.K. Fisher hears a tale of an American who greatly worried pub staff by eating a plate of raw oysters while drinking whiskey. Convinced the combination of whiskey and raw oysters would transform into a poisonous solid mass, the wait staff sent a constable to check on the intrepid tourist to ensure he was okay.

The subject of pearls inevitably comes up, and Fisher mentions girls in Asia who were trained as pearl divers. The outfits the girls wear, the ancient marketplaces that sold the treasures they found, so many anecdotes are provided—Fisher was a wealth of information about cooking around the world. Of course, she draws mostly upon her own experiences in France and elsewhere, but the historical pieces are always fascinating and often really unusual.


Family history also plays a strong role in her works. In Consider the Oyster, she recounts her mother’s days at boarding school, and the secret rituals called “midnight feasts,” in which they indulged in a decadent oyster loaf. In an effort to recreate the memory, she seeks out a number of recipes. One involves blending oysters with breadcrumbs, butter, eggs, and seasoning, placed in a mold and baked. For me, the more intriguing one was hollowing out a loaf of bread, brushing it with butter and toasting it, then filling it with fried oysters. Much like a po’ boy, for sure!

A project I’ve been working on for a number of years is documenting my own family’s recipes. This has its challenges. Not the least of which is that not only was the family small and fragmented, but also that precision is not a goal when writing the family favorites down. The list of ingredients serves more aptly as reminders. I certainly do this as well. Many of my recipes, including ones featured on this blog, are guided more by whimsy than accuracy. Cooking, as an art, really should be. Ingredients are substituted from time to time. 

Inspiration takes hold just as strongly as any Muse for painting or poetry, and you’re compelled to grab a spice off the shelf that may transform a favorite into something even more magnificent. Or not. There are failures, too.

Part of the fun of recapturing the family favorites is trying to discern what was meant by sometimes esoteric notes in the margins. Or recalling my great-grandmother saying something like “stir it until it feels right.” Feels right? It takes years to learn such nuances. Luckily, my partner in this project—my mom—remembers a lot and is a talented cook in her own right.

Soon we’re embarking on a journey to where our family comes from, Eastport, Maine, to gather more research and continue to compile our recipes. An earlier version of this book was a homemade project, printed on hand-crafted paper and given to an inner circle of friends. Within the next year or so, a revised and professionally done version will be available.

In the meantime, as a preview, here’s a recipe for our own oyster stew. Remarkably simple, but incredibly satisfying.

Oyster Stew

1 pint of shucked oysters with oyster liquid (ask for a generous portion of the liquid when ordering the oysters, as this is what makes the stew great)
½ stick of butter
1½ cups of light cream
Salt and pepper to taste
(And if you follow M.F.K. Fisher’s advice, be generous with the paprika)

Place oysters and liquid in sauce pan and heat to a gentle simmer. Watch for edges of oysters to curl as a way to test that they are cooked.

Add butter and let sit until melted.

Add light cream and heat gently, making sure not to bring to a boil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with oyster crackers and a good loaf of crusty bread.


The Ravenous Muse


In the late 1990s, when I began my journey on the path to a career in publishing, I discovered the books of an author who spoke to all the Gothic nerdiness that I was: not only were her books about grammar and punctuation infused with images of dark fantasy, but I also loved her florid writing style. Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s instructional books remain close to me writing desk as valued resources. At the time, I happened to notice another book as well—and it took me many more years to read it than I expected.

There is nothing new about a tome of selected favorite quotes and passages. However, what lies in the pages of The Ravenous Muse goes well beyond superficial, feel-good platitudes that have been made into an endless stream of memes that fill the Facebook newsfeed. The book is closer to the realm of literary criticism. The relationship between authors, their characters, and food is explored in detail—using examples from erudite and sometimes obscure sources.

Interspersed with interludes about Gordon’s own Muse, who “comes in many moods and guises. Along with the hallucinogenic, metaphysical, the provocative, and the capricious.” She describes her Muse as a “syrabite, thinking of nothing but its own pleasure.” While many people may think of artists as indulgent, it adds more depth to the notion that the Muse is indulgent as well. And why not? Both Gordon and her Muse seek out works with “a flair for edible words”—and indeed they find a rich feast.

Though many dishes and mealtime rituals are featured in The Ravenous Muse, a reoccurring element was bread. Each culture venerates its bread. It seems to speak to the soul of that culture—ties it to its history on so many levels. It can speak to dark times as well, as shown in Piero Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams, which describes famine in the centuries throughout pre-industrial Europe, and the effects of breads that were commonly made with hallucinogens on a starving population.

“Bread—a polyvalent object on which life, death, and dreams depend—becomes a cultural object of impoverished societies, the culminating point and instrument, real and symbolic, of existence itself: a dense, polyvalent paste of manifold virtue in which the nutritive function intermingles with the therapeutic (herbs, seeds, and curative pastes were mixed into the bread), magico-ritual suggestion which the ludico-fantastical, narcotic, and hypnotic.”


One of the reasons I began the Savored series was because of the importance of food in the arts. How food is portrayed in literature reveals nuances of the setting and aspects of the characters. Of Milorad Pavić’s Landscape Painted with Tea, Gordon says, “Bread is mentioned in so many different contexts that it nearly achieves the status of a character. Salt occurs with similar frequency and effect, so that you begin to know what bread and salt are all about, and along with them, the qualities and destinies of those who consume them…food, too, is a witness to all that is thought, said, and felt.”



With this in mind, I set out to find an intriguing recipe for bread that I could adapt. I wanted it to reflect history. I imagined characters diving into a fresh, nourishing loaf of hazelnut bread, rich with figs and honey butter. And herewith, the recipe:

Hazelnut and Fig Bread with Honey Butter

Honey Butter:
½ stick butter
2 tablespoons honey
Blend in bowl

Bread:
1 1/3 cups water
1 ½ teaspoon lemon juice
3 cups flour
½ cup rye flour
1 ½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Packet of yeast
¼ cup dried figs, chopped
½ peeled hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

Roasting hazelnuts: place on ungreased cookie sheet and roast at 350 for 15-20 minutes on the middle rack. They should be browned and skins peeling. Place in warm towel and let steam a couple of minutes. Rub in towel until skins mostly peel off. (I find placing them in a plastic sandwich bag with a paper towel works well, and leaves less of a mess.) Crush hazelnuts, and reserve for bread dough.

Pour packet of yeast into bread bowl. Add pinch of sugar and a bit of warm water. Swirl to activate. Add flour (both regular and rye), salt, hazelnuts, melted butter, and chopped figs. Add lemon juice and water. Blend until you can work with the dough by hand. Add more water or flour as needed until the dough is not sticky, and rolls well in your hands. Knead for 10 minutes. Set to rise for 90 minutes in a covered bowl, or until dough has doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and knead again. Let rise in covered bowl for 60 minutes. Prep bread pan with butter, and form bread in the pan. Let rise, covered for 30 minutes.
Bake at 400 for about 25 minutes, until it’s golden brown and the top of the loaf is hard to the touch. Knocking on it should sound hollow.

Remove and let rest…but it won’t be long before you’re grabbing the knife and cutting a slice to smear with the lovely honey-butter! 

Laura Esquivel’s Between Two Fires


“I spent the first years of my life beside the hearth in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, seeing how these wide women, upon entering those sacred places, became priestesses, great alchemists who dealt with water, air, fire, and earth—the four basic elements that comprise the entire universe. And the most surprising thing is that they did in in the most humble manner…as if they weren’t transforming the world with the purifying power of fire, as if they didn’t know that the foods they prepared and the rest of us ate remained in our bodies for many hours, chemically altering our organisms, nourishing our souls and our spirits and giving us an identity, a language, a legacy.”

So begins a series of essays and stories by Laura Esquivel. Like Water for Chocolate has been a longtime favorite, and this little book, Between Two Fires, sat on my shelf for a long time. One of the perks of moving is that you get to re-examine all your accumulated stuff—books you forgot to read, music you haven’t played in years—discovering treasures you already own is a pleasure.

After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel was approached by Vogue to do a regular column where a story featured a recipe. It worked for a while, but the magic of that formula began to wear thin. The stories within this anthology are delightful—a view into the author’s philosophy and experiences—the Mexican culture in which she was raised comes to the forefront, alive with folklore and family stories.

The book features several recipes, including a Oaxacan black mole and an intriguing apple soup. In the story, an apple soup is beloved—and made for a favorite uncle every time he visits. After learning about his dark double life after his death, the soup never tastes the same again—as though it’s been haunted by his ghost.

The recipe that inspired me the most was manchamanteles. Also known as “the stew that stains the tablecloth,” it’s a rich mix of pork, chicken, plantains, pineapple, sweet potato, and spices. Ancho chilis are the star of the show. Not being fond of bananas, I wondered if plantains would overwhelm the flavors for me, so I chose the greenest ones I could find. Being married into a Puerto Rican family has taught me a bit more appreciation for plantains, and when done well, I actually really like them.

This was not a small dish. It took the largest cast iron pot in the house to pull this one together, and it smelled amazing as it cooked. A search online brings up many versions of the recipe—some have just chicken, others pork, or both. Though one of my all-time favorite cooking magazines, Saveur, offered a recipe for manchamanteles, the one I went with for the more complex version from the Food Network. (Rather than a re-do with my own spin on the recipe, I’m simply linking to it. Go forth and live adventurously—give this stew a try!)
“Intimate Succulencies: A Philosophic Treatise on Cooking,” takes a historical perspective. Esquivel writes passionately about women’s roles, and an account of a woman forbidden from learning who takes her scientific experimenting into the kitchen is moving.


Of course, Like Water for Chocolate is mentioned several times. Esquivel explores how she developed the relationship between Tita and her mother in the final essay, “Mother Witch.” It’s always interesting to learn how an author creates motivations—what drives them emotionally, be it cultural traditions or personal ambitions—and weaves them into a story that you can fall into. Laura Esquivel paints rich character portraits, so much so that they seem like real accounts rather than fiction.

Her connection to culture of the kitchen is delightfully portrayed in Between Two Fires. The sensuality, the folklore, and the techniques developed by those who cook in those kitchens are wonderfully described.


I rarely look for “30-minute meals” and recipes with fewer than five ingredients for simplicity’s sake. As much as I love to watch cooking shows, the prospect of designing and making a meal in a short amount of time is a source of anxiety. Especially when watching something like Chopped—duck, rutabaga, fermented anchovies, and wintergreen Altoids—what?! I’d probably stand there crying. I like to spend time in the kitchen. It’s a meditative process, and I’m happy to spend hours making something for family and friends to enjoy. So it’s not a surprise that one of the quotes I related to most came from the first essay, “At the Heath”: “The time it took to prepare didn’t matter, because there is no such thing as wasted time in the kitchen—rather that is where we are able to recover lost time.” 

John Saturnall’s Feast


When I saw the cover in the remainder pile at Harvard Book Store, I knew it was one of those stories I’d fall into and be thoroughly immersed in the author’s world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—you know it when you see them. The cover may not even be that alluring, but some Muse whispers, “You need to read this one.”

Granted, I’ve devoted an entire series to the portrayal of food in fiction on this blog. And the book delved into medieval cookery and talked about spiced wine, quodlings, and frumenty, and the descriptions of the dishes were delightful. It was a challenge to decide which one to cook. Ironically, as I read the first page, I was reminded of Modernist Cuisine and the artful works of world-renowned chefs such as Ferran Adrià.

“Now Saturnus’s Gardens are overgrown. Our brokeback Age has forgotten the Dishes that graced the old God’s chestnutwood tables. In these new-restored times, Inkhorn Cooks prate of their inventions and Alchemical Cooks turn Cod Roes into Peas.” 
The innovation of food art has been with us a long time.

Right from the outset, John Saturnall’s Feast is steeped in moody and beautiful descriptions: the rain-soaked opening scene, in which our hero is delivered to a manor to spare his life. Harassed by villagers after his mother is accused of being a witch, John is hired to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor. The legend of Buccla’s Wood is well-known, and John’s mother protects the cookbook that holds recipes for a feast of a pagan era. Buccula’s Wood is destroyed by Saint Clodock, and the lineage of these ancient characters carries on through this story.

Set in 1625 England, the novel takes place just as Cromwell rises to power with the civil war. By the time the war comes to the borders of Buckland Manor, John has been a cook in the lord’s employ for a while, and spends three winters as a camp cook while the lord of the manor fights for king and country. A despicable boy who bullied John as a child returns as one of Cromwell’s Puritan clergymen, and takes roost in the broken manor during the transitional years of the Commonwealth.

It’s an amazing historical novel, and as a reader, you’re right there in the kitchens from the moment John walks in and impresses the cooks with his sophisticated palate. The noise, the smells, both pleasant and not, all the frenetic activity of the kitchen is described down to the last detail. When John identifies ingredients to a broth he only just tasted, he’s confronted by Master Scovell, who demands to know how he came to be in possession of such talents:

Sprite/ Sayer? The creature that lives on the back of your tongue. That steered your palate through the broth in my copper, naming its parts. There are not a dozen cooks alive who would perform such a feat. You guide. How do you name him…A cook needs a familiar. The earth’s fruits are without number. No cook could master them alone.” And with that, not only does he find himself with a job, but an assignment.

His task is not easy: Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, is fasting in protest of her betrothal to the “insipid” Piers Callock. Of course, after a rough start, John and Lucretia fall in love, and it’s their romance that is at the heart of the novel—along with the food, which is described just as passionately.

Lady Lucretia dumps every meal he prepares for her at first. He then brings a beef stew with sweet herbs and dumplings that she cannot resist. The culinary journey mirrors their romance, and by the end of the novel, circles back to the spiced wine that opened the legendary feast prepared by the witch Belllica.

The first men and woman drank spiced wine. They warmed it with honey and flavored it with saffron, cinnamon, and mace. They roasted dates and dissolved them…”
With its wonderful turns of phrase and brilliant characterization, John Saturnall’s Feast is truly that—a feast.

While all of the recipes captured my imagination, the one that I set out to make was the herbed beef stew with dumplings. Maybe it’s the chill fall air setting in, or maybe the magic of courting through food reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate (one of my favorites!), but an herbed broth and rich dumplings sound just perfect for right now. I stayed fairly true to the recipe I had for medieval beef stew, but of course, with cooking being an art…experiments will happen. I also made a couple of loaves of black bread to go along with it.
Enjoy, and be sure to enjoy it alongside the novel!


Beef Stew with Herbed Dumplings

Ingredients for stew
4 lb. beef chuck, cubed
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 carrots, shopped
6 celery stalks, chopped
1 bottle beer, such as nut brown ale or porter, though I used Froach Heather Ale
2-3 cups beef broth (enough to cover ingredients in crock pot)
1 ½ tbl. baharat spice mix (A Middle Eastern spice mix made of cloves, black pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika, though specific ingredients may vary. You can find a recipe here at food.com)
1 ½ tbl. Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbl. corn starch

Combine ingredients in crock pot, and set on low for 7 to 9 hours, or 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours.
Meanwhile, begin to prepare dumplings within about 45 minutes of stew being done in crock pot.

Ingredients for dumplings
2/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 ½ tbl. herbs de Provence
1 1/2 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Let milk and eggs come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Mix ingredients for dumplings together, stir until blended.
Before adding the dumplings, transfer stew to stock pot. Save some of the broth, add cornstarch, and stir well until mixed. Add back to stew. Spoon dumpling mixture on top of the stew. Cover tightly and simmer until dumplings are puffed. You should be able to poke a toothpick in and have it come out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve with black bread.

Black Bread

1 packet dry yeast
4 1/2 cups flour
2 cups rye flour
1 tbl. Turkish coffee grounds (or espresso, some people use instant coffee)
2 tbl. cocoa powder
1/4 cup molasses
2 tbl. honey
4 tsp. salt

In large bowl, activate yeast with a small amount of warm water and a pinch of sugar. Add both kinds of flour, then the rest of the ingredients. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rise, covered, for two hours.
Punch down the dough and halve it, let both portions rise for another 45 minutes.
Grease bread pans with butter, punch down dough and form loaves in the pans.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake until dark brown and hollow-sounding when tapped, approximately 35 minutes. Let cool before serving. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat


The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2 % salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use everyday. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.


As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant. 

Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery


Savored Words: Conspiracy Edition!

One thing you should be prepared for when reading Umberto Eco is the density of the work: the historical references, the fact that the story is so carefully wrought—after all, as an academic, Professor Eco’s specialty is semiotics, the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Closely related to linguistics, the field delves into meanings and relationships, and Eco’s work is often fraught with secret societies, conspiracies, and the complex web of history.

The Prague Cemetery opens with a long rant of prejudices by Simone Simonini, a forger, murderer, and here, the originator of the Protocols of Elders of Zion, the notorious fake text that fueled 19th-century anti-Semitism and was in part responsible for inspiring Hitler’s terrible plans. Though I enjoyed seeing Eco’s process for creating this elaborate conspiracy of Freemasons, Satanists, and political and religious machinations, the book didn’t capture my imagination the same way Focault’s Pendulum did. The divergent narrative voices, while showing the events from a variety of angles, were hard to pull together as the arc of the story developed.

I greatly appreciated his approach to the novel, however. I too love to find real people in history, do tons of research, and take a long time outline and write a book. In an interview with the Paris Review, he talked about the challenges of writing this novel. The subject matter was difficult, he said: “With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer. Fortunately some of my colleagues had done the same. Shakespeare for instance, with Richard III.”

I wondered the same as I wrote Whiskey and Rue. Dealing with domestic abuse, mental illness, and an abortion forced on a woman who didn’t want one made me want to abandon it more than once. But the story itself and the characters were too powerful to abandon. Like the dean I worked for as a teaching assistant often said, art is a medium to make us confront difficult issues—ones that humanity needs to face and remember to strive for the better.

One aspect of The Prague Cemetery that took me pleasantly off-guard was the description of food. Simonini is very fond of his food. Each ingredient is listed, and each step of the cooking process, are outlined. I wanted to write about several, but one favorite I know stood out: bagna caöda (a.k.a. cauda, or calda). A delightful blend of garlic, anchovies, and butter cooked in a small terracotta pot, it’s the best hot bread dip you’ll ever have. And it’s also served with vegetables. Simonini lists cardoons soaked in cold water and lemon juice, peppers, Savoy cabbage, potatoes, or carrots. Anything, really! Below is a recipe I adapted long ago. Make the recipe, and read the rest of the Paris Review article about Umberto Eco, and enjoy!


Bagna Caöda
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup butter
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups peeled garlic cloves (depends on how big a fan of garlic you are!)
1 2 oz. jar of anchovies, chopped (the nice glass jarred version is better than canned, but canned can certainly be used)
1 pinch Aleppo pepper
1 pinch Italian seasoning, like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset

  •        Preheat oven to 275 Fahrenheit.
  •        Mix all ingredients in small casserole dish.
  •       Let simmer, covered, in oven between and hour and hour and a half.
  •        Serve with bread and vegetables. 


Harvard's Science and Cooking Series: gAstronomy


What is connection between astronomy and cooking? An interesting notion. And for me, an irresistible draw to the Science and Cooking lectures at Harvard. A series open to the public and based on the class offered to the students of the College, it brings together world-class chefs and scientists to do live demonstrations of Modern Cuisine and talk about what really happens on a molecular level when you melt chocolate, boil pasta, or make gravy. Part magic show, part deep intellectual endeavor, this series has captivated the crowds that have packed into the Science Center for the past few years.

I faithfully attended most of them the first year, but due to tumultuous upheavals and schedules, it was an unfortunate casualty of lost hobbies while I brought my life back to an even keel. (And there is consolation in that the videos are archived online.) It’s a delight to be able to return to them, and what better way than to attend a lecture that blends two of my favorite subjects: cuisine and astronomy.

Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef, and Dr. Steve Howell, project scientist for the Kepler and K2 missions at NASA, are the instructors I wish I had in high school. Instead, I was alienated from chemistry and physics because the teacher spent every class being the cool kids’ smart-alecky buddy, making dumb jokes and telling anecdotes about kids’ parents who were in his class a generation before. Not a townie, and a perpetual outsider, I attempted to decipher the massive text book on my own, only to fail each brutal test that came with no help whatsoever. I hated to hate science, but it was the byproduct of a deeply flawed educational experience. At least I was able to turn that around as an adult.


An old sense of tension dogged me while Bill Yosse and Steve Howell tossed out terms like “nucleation” and “Raleigh scattering.” But with the colorful array of objects on the table at the front of the lecture hall, I knew this would be a different experience. Nucleation was demonstrated by a beaker partially filled with hydrogen peroxide, dyed with red food coloring to clearly show the dramatic effect of the addition of potassium iodine (used to seed clouds for rain). An oxygen molecule was ripped from the hydrogen peroxide—H2O2 to H2O—making it water. The reaction was a colorful spout of foam shooting at least six feet into the air before landing in a messy heap on the table. The beaker was hot to the touch.

As they stepped through each example: spherification, surface tension, atmospheric pressure, and so on, I was astonished by the links between cooking and astronomy. Gels and polymers, essential to many desserts and a key element of Modern Cuisine, where flavors are layered in unusual ways—are also used in similar ways in space, from insulating instruments on the Mars rover to using a gel to catch particles from passing comets. Suddenly, I got it. So much of the science that bewildered me years ago made perfect sense.

It was really a kind of nirvana—seeing these two topics combined—and a few details emerged that will most certainly find their way into my fiction. How flames look in zero gravity or the fact that a lower density atmosphere means a lower boiling point (demonstrated by water being boiled as an ice cube was placed on the beaker) are great for the novel that involves space travel. Even the explanation of the spectrometer and Kepler mission—how we find planets and figure out what gasses their atmospheres are made of—is useful knowledge for my characters to have.

Then Bill Yosse mentioned one of the world’s first (at least that we know by name) celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, who cooked for kings and czars around the time of the French Revolution. While outside of my usual theme of writing about real women in history, tales of his elaborate pièces montées, large sculptures used as centerpieces at banquets, made of marzipan and other ingredients, sparked something. I have no idea how this will transform into my writing, but visions of his creations invited a new Muse into the realm of imagination.

As for the science and cooking lectures, I look forward to more. All the details about the series can be found here

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Epic Feasts: An Interview with Chelsea Monroe-Cassel

If you’re an avid Game of Thrones fan, you may have heard of A Feast of Ice and Fire, the official cookbook for the series. It all began with a fabulous blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which continues to post recipes inspired by the books. The cookbook is a delight not only for George R. R. Martin fans, but also for people who love to explore medieval cooking. As the cookbook’s popularity grew, fans from all over hosted feasts, leading to the publication of the Party Planning Guide. I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelsea Monroe-Cassel about the phenomenon and learning about other literary culinary cultures and what’s next for the Game of Thrones foodie world. And let us know—if you were to travel to the realms of Westeros/Essos, where would you want to eat? 

How has your exploration of food in George R. R. Martin’s world changed after the publication of A Feast of Ice and Fire?
Hugely. I used to be a picky eater before living overseas about 10 years ago, and while I would say that the experience cured me of that, the cookbook and historical recipes have really broadened my knowledge of food, from ingredients to techniques. Four years ago I'd never heard of grains of paradise or blancmange, or gone foraging for wild foods, but now odd ingredients and recipes are a solid part of my life. It's a blast!

You have a wonderfully close connection with fans—how has this shaped content and engagement on the blog and through your social media channels?
I think it's fair to say that this blog would not have been a success, and wouldn't *still* be a growing success, without its fans. There were definitely moments throughout the process, especially while making 6-8 dishes a day for the cookbook deadline, when I thought I just couldn't keep it up. But the enthusiasm from readers has proved to be an amazing motivator, and keeps me flipping through old recipes to find something amazing to share with them. 

You’re in Westeros for a weekend—which region’s cuisine would you like to try? Is there a particular House you’d like to dine with? Chaotic weddings aside, of course! :)
Great question! It would depend on the season; like many fans, I think that attending a feast in Winterfell would be absolutely fantastic. The roaring hearthfires, hounds gnawing bones in the corner, great spits of meat and lots of mead and ale. It's just the thing to ward of winter blues! If it were summer, though, I might have to go with King's Landing. Because they are so centrally located in terms of trade, they get the best of everything Westeros and Essos have to offer. And hey, if the Lannisters are serving up peacock or swan, who am I to turn it down? ;)

Have any other culinary cultures in literature interested you as much as A Song of Ice and Fire?
It's a little funny...ever since starting this project a little over three years ago now, I haven't been able to read a book without looking for food references. Stephen Brust describes amazing food in his Vlad Taltos series, as does Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games series. A few other authors who really put some love into their food descriptions are Naomi Novik, Saladin Ahmed, and Brian Sanderson. But my big other fictional food favorite has to be Scott Lynch and his Gentlemen Bastards series. That man can describe food!
One thing I have found when it comes to fictional food descriptions is that the author is either trying, or not. This seems to be the case in almost everything I've read. I can't tell you the number of times I've been disappointed to read a great book, only to find that the characters are eating a featureless stew with ale. 

With all the Game of Thrones-themed parties, it was a great to see the party planning guide published. What was your favorite aspect of putting the guide together?
I really liked being able to share cool ideas that my friend group has helped me come up with. My creativity is mostly focused on the food for a party, so it's awesome to have other fans on board for planning games, decoration, etc. I tried to put all of that in the guide so other people have an easier time managing their own parties!

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects, wherever they may bring us?
Well, I'm mostly delving into the realm of ebooks; I'm working on a Dornish cookbook supplement with Random House, and have been working on a Shire cookbook in my own time. Both of those should hopefully be out in not too long! Other than that, I dabble. I have a couple of partial novels that I'd like to wrap up, as well as a few other book projects in the wings. 

Thank you, Chelsea, for stopping by—we look forward to the upcoming works (and future visits to the Inn at the Crossroads!) 

(post originally published June 7, 2014)