Category Archives: Books

Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan Make the Case for Cooking at Home

Yesterday the New York Times featured two of my favorite food writers—Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. In his piece, “Pollan Cooks!,” Bittman writes about Pollan’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I’ve already reserved my copy through interlibrary loan, and I expect it is a book I will want to add to my own collection.) Bittman also interviewed Michael Pollan, who makes a clear and convincing case that we, as a nation, were healthier when we ate mostly home-cooked food.

Simply put, when we cook at home, we use better ingredients than is commonly found in most commercially-prepared food. We use fewer chemical additives—if any—as well as less fat, sugar, and salt. We tend not to eat fried food because it takes so much time and is so messy. (I can attest to this. I love fried food, but the only time I get it is when I go out to eat, a couple of times a month.)

Perhaps just as important, home cooking, which includes meals for family and friends as well as celebrations throughout the year, nourishes the spirit as well as the body. When we come together for meals, we slow down, we talk, we connect. My own special memories of eating seldom include restaurant or commercially-prepared meals. Instead, those memories tend to revolve around going to the homes of family and friends, sitting at their tables, eating what they have prepared, and talking about all the things that concern and interest us. The food can be very simple—I recently wrote about eating egg salad sandwiches in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen—but when we come together to share a meal in the home, something very special happens.

My point is not to diminish the many fine restaurants we have in Maine and the talented chefs who devote their lives to cooking good food. Nevertheless, I think that eating out should be an occasional treat rather than a daily event. Once upon a time, way back when I was a child, this was the norm, and we were healthier as a result. (I’ve also written about this.)

So let’s hear it for home cooks, for both women AND men getting back into the kitchen to cook, cook, cook. Yes, it takes time, but why not spend some of that precious commodity cooking rather than watching TV or sitting in front of the computer? And either before or after dinner, as the days get longer and warmer, you might want to fit in a walk or a bike ride as well. If you do these two things, you just might find that you are hardly watching any TV and that your waistline is beginning to shrink.

Book Review: Finding Your Inner Moose by Susan Poulin

IMG_2932In December, when my husband, Clif, broke his wrist before Christmas, it wasn’t long before I started feeling frazzled. By a stroke of organizational good luck—unusual for us—all the presents had been wrapped, but there was still a lot of cooking and cleaning to be done. Fortunately, I could rely on Ida LeClair for advice, who came up with a list of “December De-Stressors,” one of which involves buying pre-made items from the store when you don’t have time to bake or cook. Yes, homemade bread is best, but it was a great relief to just buy bread and English muffins in between chauffeuring Clif to work and to the doctor’s office.

Then there was the time, earlier in the year, when I needed new bras.  I quite naturally turned to Ida, who advised buying two black bras as well as a flesh-colored one. I did as she suggested, and I have been completely happy with my choices.

Clif recently observed, “I’m beginning to think you learned everything you know from Ida.”

While he might be exaggerating, he does have a point, but there is only one slight problem with my reliance on Ida LeClair—she doesn’t actually exist. She is the alter-ego of my friend Susan Poulin, a very funny and talented performer who has created a series of theatrical works revolving around Ida. (If any of Susan’s shows come to a theater near you, then don’t hesitate to see them. Not all of them are about Ida, but they are all terrific.)

Susan’s most recent endeavor is a humorous advice book written from Ida LeClair’s point of view, and that book is Finding Your Inner Moose: Ida LeClair’s Guide to Livin’ the Good Life. Ida, who is Franco-American and from the fictional Maine town of Mahoosuc Mills, lives in a “tidy and tastfully decorated double-wide with high school sweetheart Charlie and adorable dog Scamp.” She works as a cashier at the local grocery store, and her best friends are Celeste, Rita, Betty, Dot, and Shirley. She also has a niece, Caitlin, who is as “cute as a button,” and is into “New Agey stuff” such as feng shui. (Ida refers to Caitlin’s New Age interests as “woo-woo.”)

With Caitlin’s help—woo-woo or not—Ida discovered that the moose was her totem, her symbol. (Actually, the moose chose Ida, but that is a story unto itself and best told in Ida’s inimitable voice. So read the book for more details.) Caitlin informs her aunt, “Moose teach us to value ourselves and to reward ourselves for a job done well done.” This certainly clicked with Ida, and she was “off and running” with her Inner Moose book.

Each chapter in Finding Your Inner Moose covers a topic—marriage, friendship, aging, attitude at work, even death. Here is Ida’s take on aging. “”There’s something to be said for aging gracefully, but you don’t hear much about that nowadays. It’s more trendy to fight aging tooth and nail. But I say, let’s bring the ‘aging gracefully’ concept back” Here is her advice about diet and health: “Start from where you are…If you’re waiting for your life to be perfect before you start living it, your life will consist of lots of waiting and not much living.” Then there is the title of her chapter on marriage, which needs no explanation at all: “A Good Marriage Starts with Please and Thank You.”

In each chapter, Charlie and Caitlin get their say, with a little section of their own—Straight Talk from the Barcalounger and Caitlin’s New Age Nook. Again, no explanation needed. Charlie’s masculine voice and Caitlin’s “New Agey” voice make nice counterpoints to Ida’s own earthy voice, which is sassy but wise and warm.

It is not every day that you find a humorous book that is also an honest-to-God self-help book, one that makes you laugh and learn at the same time. Finding Your Inner Moose is such a book. As Charlie puts it, Ida “just loves giving advice to people, whether they ask for it or not.”

That might be the case, but when Ida gives advice, I listen.

 

Creamed Tuna Revisted—And Some Thoughts on How to Cook a Wolf

In Maine, we are having what might be called a good, old-fashioned cold spell, where the temperature barely rises above zero during the day and goes well below zero at night. Add a brisk wind and you have weather so chilly that people barely want to go out to get their mail, much less go for a walk. A hard time for our dog, Liam, who is still energetic at 8 and loves to run and bark in the backyard. Despite the cold, Liam nevertheless gets his chance to run and bark as every day I have to bring in three wheel barrow’s worth of wood for our furnace.

This brisk weather is a good time to make a cup of tea and settle on the couch with a book. This January, I am rereading M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, first published in 1944. Despite the stiff competition from an increasingly crowded field, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908–1992) remains one of America’s best food writers. W. H. Auden noted, “I do not know know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” This is high praise coming from a great poet, and it is no exaggeration. M.F.K. Fisher wrote beautifully, and, just as important, she had something to say.

How to Cook a Wolf is fortunately metaphorical rather than literal—there are no instructions on how to butcher and roast a wolf.  The book was written during World War II, and it addresses how one might live creatively in a time of shortage. In the second chapter, Fisher quotes her grandmother: “I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a war budget without realizing it! I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was stylish only in emergencies.” Fisher notes that although her “grandmother’s observation need not have been so sardonically phrased…probably it was true then…and it is even more appropriate now.”

Almost 70 years later it is still true. Common sense belongs in the kitchen (and the rest of the house) in good times as well as hard ones. In addition, Fisher’s frugal but common-sense tips are particularly relevant today.

Many of us, even in this richest country in the world, feel as though the “wolf is at the door.” Expenses go up, but for most of us, salaries remain the same. What was once a comfortable income is no longer quite as comfortable. Bills must be paid. Pennies must be pinched. Extras—such as meals out and plays—are often eliminated. While those who have jobs and health care have much to be grateful for, there is no denying the feeling that things aren’t quite as good as they once were, except for the few at the top, where life is better than ever. With Earth’s dwindling resources, increased automation at the work place, and a still-rising population, it is my guess that the wolf will be at the door for quite a while. It seems to me the trick is to acknowledge this and to still live as well as possible. (And, of course, to elect politicians who will address the gross inequality in this country.)

These observations, in turn, bring me to creamed tuna, a thrifty dish my mother often served for supper. She was a child of the Great Depression and knew a thing or two about making do with little. My mother often said of her own grandmother: “Even when it seemed as though there was hardly anything in the cupboards or refrigerator, my grandmother could still put together a warm, tasty meal.”

Cream sauces are not very much in vogue right now, but I must admit to having a fondness for them. Smooth, warm, rich with butter. Really, what’s not to like? All right, they are a little plain and old-fashioned, but what wrong with that?

I loved my mother’s creamed tuna, which she usually served over potatoes. (We are Mainers, after all.) But I wondered, could I jazz it up just a little, so that it would have extra zing? Yes, I could, with garlic and dill, nice additions which lifted the cream sauce from tasty to very tasty. And how about a little sour cream or yogurt to replace some of the milk? Ditto.

Creamed tuna is definitely a family dish and probably not one you would serve to company. However, when the thermometer barely rises above zero, and the wolf seems to be nuzzling the door, creamed tuna on potatoes (or toast) tastes, as my Yankee husband would put it, pretty darned good.

Note about the tuna: Tuna, as I’m sure readers know, can be high in mercury, with albacore being the worst. Chunk light tuna, which is often yellow fin, is lower in mercury and the tuna of choice in our house. Still, it is only an occasional treat for us.

 

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THE AMERICAN WAY OF EATING: A BOOK TO LOOK FOR

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Dwight Garner reviewed the book The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, who grew up in a working-class home with a mother who was too ill to cook and a busy father who relied on box meals such as Tuna Helper.  Garner writes “[McMillan’s] central concern, in her journalism and in this provocative book, is food and class. She stares at America’s bounty, noting that so few seem able to share in it fully, and she asks: ‘What would it take for us all to eat well?'”

In The American Way of Eating, McMillan goes undercover as she picks grapes and garlic and works at Walmart, that store we all love to hate, and at Applebee’s, which some of us hate even more. But McMillan is not just fooling around, and a cook at Applebee’s notes:“You see that white girl work? Damn, she can work.”

Sounds like my kind of girl and my kind of book.

 

 

 

YEAR END THOUGHTS

Christmas is coming, and what a cooking fool I’ve been! On the docket for today are peanut butter balls and lemon-frosted shortbread. Two ice cream pies—with homemade chocolate ice cream—are in the freezer. In keeping with this season of miracles, my husband, Clif, and I have actually been using a fair amount of self-restraint, and we haven’t gained any weight.

All of the treats I make are rather simple, using basic ingredients such as butter, eggs, and flour. What makes them special is that these are treats Clif and I only have very occasionally. Let’s face it. At our age, Clif and I do not need a steady supply of chocolate chip cookies, lemon-frosted shortbread, and peanut butter balls. But how nice it is to nibble on them during this time of long nights and twinkling lights.

I have just finished reading  One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, which is a selection of excerpts and photographs taken from the journals of Richard Proenneke. Devotees of Maine Public Television will be familiar with Richard Proennneke and his movie Alone in the Wilderness, which is a pledge-week favorite in our house. Shot in the late 1960s, Alone in the Wilderness follows Dick Proenneke as he builds a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and lives a solitary life. (And, yes, Proenneke did all the filming.) Because I am probably the least handy person in Winthrop, and maybe even in Maine, this movie has a special fascination for me. Not only does Dick Proenneke, a mechanic by trade, build the cabin by himself, but he also pretty much makes everything that goes with it—hinges for the door, bunk beds, a stone fireplace, wooden spoons, and bowls. All the work, including felling the trees, is done with hand tools, and not surprisingly, Proenneke has a very lean body. And the man could cook. He makes stews and cranberry syrup and sour dough pancakes. He hunts and he fishes.

In addition to being the ultimate handyman, Proenneke was also a good writer and a keen observer of the natural world. His love of and his respect for nature thrum through One Man’s Wilderness as does his engagement with the world around him. There are even a few dramatic moments, as when he narrowly escapes being mauled by a bear, tries to rescue a caribou calf, and waits patiently for Babe Alsworth, a bush pilot, to bring missionary girls to the cabin for a visit. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that like the famed Godot, the missionary girls never come.)

Those with a survivalist bent will be impressed with Proenneke’s self-sufficiency, and it is true that this man took doing things by hand to a level most of us only dream about. Yet, self-sufficiency isn’t entirely accurate. Proenneke gets regular supplies, delivered by Babe Alsworth every three weeks or so. Proenneke might be solitary, but he isn’t totally cut off from the outside world and indeed relies on it for some of what he uses.

Instead, what impressed me was Proenneke’s creativity, curiosity, and his utter engagement with his environment, which he measured, recorded, filmed, and wrote about. His energy and his capacity for hard work impressed me as well. I was also struck by his Zen-like attitude toward chores: They are necessary so you might as well take pleasure from them rather than resent and hurry through them. (A good lesson for me!)

On very little money, Proenneke nonetheless lived a “rich” and rewarding life. He did not live a life of squalor or misery. He had enough, and he knew it. (I certainly realize that many in this world do not have enough and indeed need more.) To a large extent, Proenneke used what was at hand to fashion a simple but comfortable life. It seems to me that Proenneke’s example can be followed by those of us who don’t live in the wilderness, that the creative, engaged, thrifty life is available to those who live in the country, the city, and even the suburbs.

As the population of the planet edges toward 8 billion, Proenneke’s lessons and wisdom are still relevant today.

 

A BOOK TO RECOMMEND: AN EVERLASTING MEAL: COOKING WITH ECONOMY AND GRACE BY TAMAR ADLER

Most of the books I read, including those that are about food, come from the library. In Maine, we have a wonderful interlibrary loan system, and this gives me access to a wide range of books. As a rule, I can return the books after having read them and not long to own them. At least not too much. But every once in a while a book comes along that I feel I simply must have, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler is one of those books. If I don’t receive it for Christmas, then I will order it after the holidays.

In the introduction to An Everlasting Meal, Adler pays tribute to the late, great M. F. K. Fisher and her book How to Cook a Wolf, which “is not a cookbook or a memoir or a story about one person or one thing. It is a book about cooking defiantly, amid the mess of war and the pains of a bare pantry.” (How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942.) Adler writes “I love that book. I have modeled this one on it.”

I, too, love How to Cook a Wolf. Indeed, I own a copy. Given that Adler is such a fine writer and has such a feel for how various food can be combined, it’s no wonder that I love her book, too. While there are recipes in An Everlasting Meal,  Adler’s focus is more on the philosophy of food and eating. In the wrong hands, a book like this could have been as dry as Melba toast. But An Everlasting Meal was most definitely in the right hands, and after I read the book, I felt as though my cooking horizons had been expanded. I have begun looking at food in a new way, seeing the myriad possibilities in simple, humble ingredients that are often thrown away.

The subtitle of this book is Cooking with Economy and Grace, and Adler means business. She believes that every bit of food from a plant or animal should be used (hence, Economy) to prepare meals that are not only nutritious but also satisfying and good (hence, Grace). Radish greens, parsley stems, celery leaves, the water from cooking pasta and vegetables, bacon fat, chicken fat, and chicken bones all can and should be used—not necessarily together, of course. This is the way our grandmothers and great-grandmothers cooked in a time when they had to raise much of their own food and were therefore ever so careful about using it all. As the population of our planet has just reached 7 billion, this advice to use everything and waste nothing could not be more timely.

Not surprisingly, Adler is big fan of broth, which can come from either animal or vegetable, with a bit of doctoring up by way of onion or garlic and herbs and spices. And into the broth can go a variety of food, either specially cooked for the broth or left over from another meal.

Greatly inspired by Adler, I considered a pasta dish I made a couple of nights ago. Along with the pasta there was red peppers, broccoli, toasted almonds, garlic, feta cheese, sage, and olive oil. There were leftovers, but not enough for a really satisfying meal for two, at least not for my husband, Clif. Keeping Adler’s advice in mind, I had saved some of the pasta water, which I had used to moisten the original dish. I also had two cups of turkey stock in my freezer. (I am beginning to consider homemade turkey or chicken stock liquid gold. The boxed stuff just can’t compare with it.) So, I thought, why not add the leftover pasta to the broth along with a cup of the pasta water to stretch things out?

This is just what I did, and in the oven, we toasted homemade bread with olive oil to go with the soup.

“What do you think?” I asked Clif.

“Great!” he replied.

I must admit, the soup was pretty good. What a way to use leftovers!

Using Adler as my guide, I am thinking ahead to other combinations, such as a soup made with the water broccoli is cooked in. Naturally, this soup would include broccoli as well as onion and garlic or both. Some potatoes to thicken it? After simmering the broccoli and potato water with onion and garlic, I would add some cooked potatoes and broccoli to the broth and blend them with my immersion blender. I would also save chunks of potato and broccoli to add afterward. A bit of grated cheddar cheese would be good, too. Maybe some rosemary.

I’ll let you know how this soup turns out.

In the meantime, you might want to add An Everlasting Meal to your own Christmas list.

 

STILLMEADOW DAYBOOK BY GLADYS TABER

picture of bookThanks, yet again, to Nan and her blog, Letters from a Hill Farm, for introducing me to the books of Gladys Taber, who lived and wrote at Stillmeadow, an old farmhouse in Connecticut. The book I am reading, Stillmeadow Daybook, was published in 1955 by J. B. Lippincott Company, and in it Taber chronicles each month of the year on her farm. She starts with April, which is a good place to begin when gardening is central to your life. In her forward Taber writes, “There is something about the task of preparing vegetables that gives a woman a reflective mood. I wondered how many tons of potatoes I had pared since we put our roots down here in these forty acres of stony Connecticut soil.”

Taber loved the white farm house, built in 1690, from the moment she saw it: “[W]ith its steeply pitched roof, little windows with bubbly glass, and worn lintel, I knew I belonged to it.” But how Taber came to own this house and live there is a little unconventional. Taber, her husband, and her daughter were living in New York City as were Taber’s good friend Jill, her husband, and two children. Both families wanted a house in the country, “a week-end place where we could have outdoor living in peace…where vacations and holidays could be, we felt, very economical.”

So the two families pitched their fortunes together, bought the house, and, amazingly enough, they all got exactly what they wanted. As the children in both families grew and went to “various schools and colleges,” Stillmeadow was the home they could come back to. Even more amazing, over the years, the friendship between the two families didn’t fray with the tensions that must inevitably come with joint ownership. According to the book’s forward, when both Gladys and Jill became widows, they decided to live together at Stillmeadow, which became their “refuge and a haven.” Jill and Gladys had gardens where they raised all their vegetables, and they raised dogs as well. At one point they had thirty-six cocker spaniels, although in Stillmeadow Daybook, they are down to eight cocker spaniels and one Irish setter.

If Stillmeadow Daybook were only about country living—cooking, family, and food—then that would certainly be enough. To me, these are subjects that never grow old. But Taber, a writer and a creative writing teacher, had other things on her mind, too. Her thoughts about poetry—Keats was a favorite—world peace, literature, and other larger subjects are folded into the homely details of life at Stillmeadow, and they bring depth to this charming book. Here is Taber’s take on fiction: “I think novels and short stories will probably be around as long as men can read at all. And there is a great satisfaction to a writer in creating characters which no amount of good reporting could duplicate. I venture to say also that  great fiction illuminates life in a way no other form can do.”

Another thing that impressed me was how much of a foodie Taber was, especially as we tend to think of the 1950s as a grim culinary era in the United States. Taber’s concern with fresh, local food seems amazingly contemporary. “Economics is too complex for me. But I have instincts about supply and demand which I believe in. And I shall always feel a carrot next door is better than a carrot from Ames, Iowa, all things being equal.”

We baby boomers tend to feel sorry for women who came of age before the 1960s, those poor, unliberated things who spent day after frustrating day cooped up in their little houses with their little children, eating Spam sandwiches. While it is true that before the 1960s, the opportunities for women were far more limited than they are now, it is not true that all those pre-1960s women were bubble brains on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And it is arrogant of my generation to think this way. When I read As Always, Julia, the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, I was struck by what a rich life of the mind these women had. The same was true for Gladys and her friend Jill, and that life of the mind brought a spark to even the most mundane chores, from peeling potatoes to making current jelly. The best thing about the life of the mind is that it can be lived anywhere that there are books and magazines, even on a farm in Connecticut, even in a little house in Winthrop, Maine.

The copy of Stillmeadow Daybook I am reading came from Lithgow Public Library as an interlibrary loan book. However, a quick look on Amazon.com showed me that while Stillmeadow Daybook is no longer in print, it can be purchased used at a reasonable price. I also expect that library sales and second-hand shops might be a good place to find Stillmeadow Daybook as well as any of the other numerous books that Taber wrote.

I am looking forward to reading more of Gladys Taber, and I will certainly be looking for her books at various summer book sales.

Again, many thanks, Nan, for introducing me to Gladys Taber.