blogging for books: soul food love, by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams

February 26, 2015

After reviewing The Paleo Chef I needed some food love!

Hands down, Southern cooking is my favorite food.  However, as I learned from a 7 day, 5 pound tour of the South, if I ate that way every day I’d weigh 200 pounds.

Soul Food Love offers excellent ways of coping with this dilemma.  The recipes in this cookbook incorporate the essential flavors of Southern cooking while throwing in more fresh vegetables and ditching most of the refined carbohydrates and fat.  The recipes are super-easy too:  great for busy people managing large households on a limited budget.  In many ways this is a more soulful take on another cookbook I reviewed, Martha Stewart’s “One Pot”.  You throw a bunch of readily available, relatively inexpensive ingredients in some type of cookpot and then leave them alone in the oven or the stovetop to do their thing.

Two vegetable recipes–a “mess of greens” and a sweet potato salad–incorporated a sweet/sour tang, and lots of onion, garlic, and hot peppers.  The sweet potato salad, tossed with dried cranberries, was an especially big hit with my family. Shrimp stew, a New Orleans classic minus the roux and the bacon, gained its flavor from a heap of peppers, celery, tomatoes, and parsley, simmered for an hour and a half.  African chickpea stew was incredibly easy (throw a couple bunches of greens in with a couple cans of chickpeas, a can of coconut milk, and an aseptic container of broth) nutritious, and totally free of saturated fat.

My only criticism of Soul Food Love is the same as for One Pot.  In both, the recipes tend to lack complexity of flavor.  The chickpea soup, for instance, benefited from a heaping tablespoon of garam masala.

Another feature of this book is the authors (mother and daughter, both fiction writers) fascinating introductory chapters detailing their family history and culinary heritage.

if guns are lawful, then idiots have guns

February 25, 2015

I meant to write about this two weeks ago, but got distracted by the joyful birth of my two granddaughters.  Now returning to regular life and opinions, I see that the Chapel Hill murder of three Islamic graduate students by a disgruntled neighbor has already disappeared from the news cycle.  If you check out this article in the Boston Globe (  you’ll see why:  random gun violence in America is nothing out of the ordinary.

The students murdered may have been Muslim but religious intolerance did not seem to motivate Charles Hicks, who voiced his distaste for all religion regularly on Facebook (when he wasn’t bragging about his gun arsenal).  Rather, the shooting was motivated by a parking space dispute.

We’ve all had obnoxious neighbors, those people who have nothing better to do with their time than provoke fights about trivialities.  I’ve had several, starting with  an old lady who deliberately ran out into her backyard to snatch up every baseball my brother and I accidentally hit over the fence.  Then came the  old lady who banged on the ceiling with a broom every time we made too much noise in our apartment (vacuuming, pounding chicken breasts, playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller at an admittedly high volume; a neighbor who obsessed about the exact location of our property line, down to the inch; another one who sent a letter to the city complaining about a basketball hoop ON OUR PROPERTY as well as sending inspectors threatening legal action every time our weeds grew higher than his tender sensibilities.

The thing about these people, I basically feel sorry for them.  They’re the ones that are wasting their lives obsessing over this nonsense.  They are nuisances that might raise your blood pressure momentarily, and when you (or they) are no longer neighbors they become only a funny story.

Unless they have guns, apparently.  Then they might kill you.

blogging for books: The Paleo Chef, by Pete Evans

February 6, 2015

I don’t understand the paleo diet, and after reviewing this book, I understand it less.  We don’t know exactly what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, but my guess is that that they ate whatever they could lay their hands on.  Their average lifespan was 25 years.  Only when man developed agriculture did complex civilizations develop.  Today Mediterranean countries, with their largely grain-based diets, have some of the longest life spans in the world.  But even indigenous Amazonian tribes practice agriculture.

Some tenets of the Paleo diet make sense.  Modern Americans do eat way too many refined carbohydrates, sugar, and processed food.  Meat should be grass fed, and eggs from pastured hens.  Fermented foods provide valuable probiotics.  But what on earth is wrong with whole grains, organic fruit, sheep and goat cheese?  The Paleo diet, as interpreted by Evans, consists of free range meat, raw or lightly cooked vegetables, eggs, “natural fat”, and “optional” small quantities of seasonal fruit.  Banned?  All grains, legumes, dairy, soy, and evidently salt, as there’s none in the recipes.  The Paleo diet is nothing but another iteration of the low carb diet–we had Atkins, we had Zone, we had Stillman, and now we have Paleo.  At no point in the Paleo Cookbook does Evans provide any scientific rationale for Paleo’s supposed health benefits.

But enough of this.  How good are the recipes?

Here my verdict is mixed.  Paleo man must have lived on a tropical island, given the amount of coconut products these recipes call for. They ate marinated artichokes and had ready access to food processors too.  A lot of the recipes sounded perfectly pleasant, but nothing I couldn’t find in a nonpaleo cookbook:  tuna rolls, grilled wild salmon with artichoke salsa, jerk chicken.  Others hardly required a cookbook at all:  sautéed greens, roasted vegetables.  Eating Paleo is expensive!  I normally buy grass fed meat but mitigate the cost by not eating much of it.  Here meat is the center of the plate. Out of season, nonlocal organic veggies and all the coconut and macadamia nuts aren’t cheap either.

I settled on 3 recipes that were distinctly Paleo.  Kale hummus substituted macadamia nuts for the verboten garbanzo beans.  The resulting spread had a zippy kale/lemon flavor but was heavy and rich, more a pesto than a dip.  I brought it to a Super Bowl party with moderate success.  The second dish, a chicken/veggie stir fry utilizing cauliflower “rice”, was a complete dud.  The recipe called for a mélange of vegetables that did not combine well (brussel sprouts?  okra?).  And, sorry, I know rice.  Rice is a friend of mine.  And cauliflower is not rice.  What a gloppy mess.  Evans is fascinated with okra, which in my opinion is best deep fried and served with remoulade.  Many times he incorporates undercooked or raw veggies that are not lettuce–root vegetable slaw, raw zucchini lasagna.  Maybe Paleo man could digest these but my 21st century stomach cannot.

For my last recipe, I made meatballs in chipotle sauce. Paleo only in that they omitted breadcrumbs (which weren’t remotely missed)–these tasted very good.  At my family’s request I skipped the accompanying “crema”, a puree of raw cashews, lemon, and lime.

I made these meatballs with a side of broccolini.  Tasty as they were, my family found themselves unsatisfied.  The meatballs would have benefited from a bed of polenta (corn formed the staple diet of indigenous South Americans).  Still hungry, but not wanting to eat more meat (I’d already consumed half a pound) I sopped up the sauce with a slice of lovely, gluten-filled whole grain bread.

the truth is still out there on 9/11

February 5, 2015

Last Sunday, I watched the film American Sniper, which has become a national phenomenon, selling out even during the Super Bowl.  I expected to dismiss it as rah-rah American propaganda, but could not.  It did not glorify war.  While it was superficial and reduced the obviously complex character of sniper Chris Kyle to stereotype, it did illustrate how killing destroys the soul.  It honored the emotional conflicts and physical and emotional sacrifice of the men who volunteer to fight our wars.  What it didn’t do–and this is a gaping failing–was explore why America invaded Iraq in the first place.

I’m thinking about the movie again as I read an article, “New Light Cast on Secret Pages in Sept. 11 Report”, in the Thursday Feb. 5 New York Times.  Fourteen years have passed since 9/11 yet the circumstances surrounding it remain as impermeable as ever.  Think on it.  All the hijackers were Saudi.  Bin Laden was Saudi.  Yet we initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and remain as buddy buddy with Saudi Arabia as ever.  This policy has remained consistent through both the Bush and Obama administrations.   Twenty-eight pages of the congressional investigation into the attacks–pages that examine crucial support given to the hijackers and that “by all accounts”–according to the Times–implicate prominent Saudis in financing terrorism, were classified by George W. Bush.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted former member of Al-Qaeda, has for years been pressuring to testify in a suit filed by relatives of those killed in the attacks.  He has written countless letters to judges, and despite attempts to declare him insane, has finally been given the opportunity to speak.  Moussaoui claims that he met with high level officials of the Saudi government prior to 9/11.  Yet Obama–despite promises to the 9/11 relatives–is still dragging his feet about declassifying the pages in the report that will most likely support Moussaoui’s accusations.

There’s obviously people in power in the US that have an agenda, and that agenda has nothing to do with the safety of the American people.  It’s interesting to note that the legislators pressing for the release of the missing report pages represent both Democrats and Republicans, and, most importantly, relatives of those killed on 9/11.  These people in power send soldiers to kill and be killed in the wars they initiate, and for the most part those soldiers, however misguided, sincerely believe they are acting in the name of truth and justice.  Is it too much to ask that our government for once act in support of truth,  identifying the actual perpetrators of 9/11 and bringing them to justice?

six seconds of fame

January 31, 2015

I am approaching what I prefer to term a “milestone birthday”, and I certainly don’t feel anything like what that milestone implies.  I’m fit, have plenty of energy, still like to go out late at night, and retain unjaded enthusiasm for new experiences, ideas, and adventures.  One thing that makes me feel old, though, is the media’s insistence on turning baby boomers out to pasture. I am getting so sick of old media fawning over new media.

A good example of this was an article in last Thursday’s New York Times Style section, “Perfecting the Goofy Vine”.  “Mention ‘ that French guy’ to typical teenagers today and they will know exactly which French guy you are talking about”, the article begins.  The French guy, apparently, is a 24 year old, Jerome Jarre, who’s gained fame by making six second comic videos on a phone app called vine.  These brilliant blips feature such exciting videolets as Jarre dancing in front of a bathroom mirror (he is boy band cute) or deep insights such as “spend your life doing strange things with weird people”. His posts have over a billion views.  All of this is described breathlessly in a tone that implies that if you haven’t heard of Jarre you must have been hiding under a rock for the past year.

In that I am evidently uncool I decided to test out this theory with cool millenials.  I asked my 32 year old daughter if she had heard of Jarre.  She’d heard tell of Vine (never seen it) but not Jarre.  I asked my 29 year old son.  Jarre?  Nope.  At first he said he hadn’t heard of Vine, but then he thought about it.  “Isn’t that a video streaming app?” he asked.   When I informed him it streamed six second videos he was appalled.  “I don’t watch that crap,” he said.  It occurred  to me that maybe even these children of mine were too old to be cool, so I asked my youngest son, a genuine 14 year old teenager.  I guess he’s not “typical” because he’d never heard of Jarre.  He had heard of Vine, though.  Some of his friends watched it, though he hastened to add, not his good friends.  “It’s the stupidest thing ever,  ” he added.  “It’s like Twitter for videos.”

Our whole family had a good time with coming up with ridiculous six second videos.  Our favorite was an “artsy fartsy” series, featuring six second displays of fashionable flatulence.  Unfortunately, our cumulative stupidometer is set too high to allow us to actually move forward with this potentially profitable idea.  Watching all these media people desperately trying to appear cool and relevant reminds me of when I was a cool teenager and adults wanted to “rap about groovy things” with me.  Just because something has one million views doesn’t mean its not trite and banal. There is not much one can get across in six seconds.  At most, you can create a momentary sensation, as profound as scratching an itch.  Isn’t anyone brave enough to admit that the emperor has no clothes?     Now that I know I’m not an isolated curmudgeon, let me note:  there is a vanishing point beyond which the succinct becomes meaningless.


what’s with the WWII fixation?

January 29, 2015

Book and movie topics go in fads, just like recipe ingredients or baby names.  I’ve noticed in the past couple years a profusion of WWII titles.  So I wonder what in our contemporary culture is driving this.

Part of it, I think, is that a large proportion of  writers and readers are now the grandchildren of actual witnesses to WWII.  WWII was a huge event.  It convulsed the entire world, and the world post war was very different than the world pre war–not just politically, but technology, architecture, music, food, everything.  In WWII, unlike the amorphous conflicts of today, an evil empire did attempt to rule the world.  There have been horrific genocides since WWII, but the brutality has arisen from the chaos of war.  Only in WWII do you see calculated, organized genocide, carried out by supposedly ordinary citizens.  That depth of evil remains unequalled.  Maybe there is a compulsion among younger generations to try and understand this huge event and the depths supposedly civilized humans can sink to before the WWII generation dies off and the experience vanishes into history.

You’re always shaped by the world you grow up in, which always seems to include some kind of war.  For me, the Vietnam War provided that shaping, but WWII was definitely the backstory.  Being Jewish, I focused almost entirely on the European branch of the war, though in retrospect the Asian conflict was huge too.  I formed a basic belief early in life–never give in, never blindly listen to authority, never file into trains or sew yellow stars on your sleeves.  As I child I fantasized what I would do if Nazis came to my door–dump bleach on them!  stab them with a kitchen knife! As an adult I still retain a subtler, creepier image, probably derived from movies like the Garden of the Finzi-Continis and the Pianist:  an upper middle class family living in a lovely, large apartment , furnished with heavy wooden furniture, filled with books, Bach on the record player, eating their weinerschnitzel, too comfortable to fully comprehend the world collapsing around them.  It’s an image that could be so easily be transposed to the current day, as we watch our constitutional freedoms slowly erode.

Ironically, most of the WWII books/movies I read and watch lately expand the shades of gray in this black and white narrative.  I find the ones from the German perspective most interesting, as the children and grandchildren of Nazis struggle to come to terms with their bloody ancestry.  There were such huge degrees of variation in complicity and resistance everywhere:  Germans, other Europeans,  Americans, even Jewish citizens of these countries.  But all these shades of gray pertain to their reaction to the evil around them.  The evil itself remains unequalled, and I think its that black hole of uncomprehension that fuels our fascination.

blogging for books: One Pot, by Martha Stewart

January 13, 2015

This has got to be the easiest cookbook I have ever used.  Not only can each dish be cooked in one pot ( a Dutch oven, large saucepan, roasting pan, pressure cooker, or slow cooker).  They call for minimal, easy-to-find ingredients, and only the simplest of cooking techniques.  They are perfect for weekday/workday cooking.  You can readily put together a meal in less time than it would take to go out for pizza.  For some of dishes with longer cooking times, you might want to prepare them the evening before and reheat.  Given the simplicity of the preparation, mess is minimal.

The negative?  Martha Stewart is not exactly ethnic.  Straightforward American dishes bring out her best .  When she attempts to mimic more vivid cuisines like Mexican or Italian, they have the bland, one note profile of a chain restaurant offering.  Her spicing is all too often limited to salt and pepper.  I found myself adding more varied spicing and upping the amounts.

Yet some of her simple combinations are inspired.  In the Columbian chicken soup, the sliced potato, onion, and garlic melted together to form a thick, soothing broth.  (I did add extra chile powder)  In her pork chops with escarole salad kale (substituted for the escarole) , julienned apple and garbanzo beans combined for a fresh, distinctive flavor.  Arroz con pollo was tasty–especially the risotto like rice–though the chicken would have benefited from more crisping time and I amped up the saffron and pepper.  Black bean soup (unbelievably simple–basically dolled up and diluted canned beans) was watery and dull.  After I cooked it down and added chili pepper and a ton of salsa verde, it tasted better.

While all the “one pots” claim to be one-dish meals  they are in my view often lacking in the vegetable department.  I added frozen peas to the arroz con pollo.  Other dishes would benefit from a tossed salad.



Blogging for Books: Knitting Block by Block, by Nicky Epstein

December 9, 2014

I love this book and anticipate getting a lot of use out of it.  In this very attractive book, Epstein presents a multitude of blocks ranging from the simple (stockinette, basket weave) to the three dimensional (textured flowers, Irish cables) to complex and delicate colorwork (leopard eyes, snowflakes, fair isle) that you can combine into an infinite number of potential projects.  She provides directions for a number of projects, from afghans to stuffed toys, but again, these patterns serve best as a template for your own creations.  At the end of the book she provides three very useful addendums:  edgings to pull the whole project together; attractive joinings; and miniature block pictures to copy and arrange in structural diagrams for project planning.

THIS BOOK PRESUMES A LOT OF KNITTING KNOWLEDGE AND A LOVE OF SLOW, INTRICATE WORK.  I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND IT FOR NOVICES.  Where I felt the book fell down was in providing help for those of us who have an artistic bent but lack an engineering one.  I am starting a baby blanket with embossed bunnies, and after struggling with my sample square I now understand the process, but it took lots of trial and error.  Epstein relies on illustrations and diagrams for explanation, but some words would help us verbal folk.  An explanation of how embossing works (an epiphany hit me mid-square–oh yeah, its’s the knit/purl textural contrast) would have saved lots of frustration.  A review of the basic principles of intarsia would have helped too.

Also, while there’s a useful page on gauge, Epstein provides no guidelines for calculating how much yarn one might need for a project.  I will have to ask at my friendly local yarn store.




maybe on 92?

November 25, 2014

Monsanto, Kraft, and their agribusiness cohorts dumped millions of dollars into defeating Oregon’s Measure 92, an initiative that would require labeling of GMO products.  When, on election day, the measure was trailing narrowly but still “too close to call” CNBC and other major news media were quick to pronounce it dead and bury it quickly, out of the public’s mind.

Not so fast.  The majority of the uncounted returns were from Multonomah County, which heavily favored 92.  When those returns were counted, 92’s margin of defeat was under 10,000.  (over a million and a half cast)   It then  came to light that 13,000 ballots had been rejected for lack of signatures.  According to state law, Yes on 92 could count those ballots if they were able to canvass door to door and verify the identity of the voters. AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE.  Which they did.  At the end of the counting deadline yesterday (Nov. 24) Measure 92 was behind by only 809 votes.  This is triggering an automatic recount the first week in December.

In reality, Measure 92 may well still lose.  It is rare that recounts, even in an election this close, change the outcome.  But even if they lose, the ridiculously narrow margin of defeat proves that Measure 92, or its equivalent can come back and readily win in 2016.  Several points worth drawing from this:

1)  Every vote counts!  All you cynical and lazy idiots who didn’t exercise your rights in this democracy go to the great effort of filling out your ballot and dropping it in the mailbox next time.

2)  A lot more education is needed.  Let me address a few of the misconceptions I’ve heard about GMO labeling–

a)  Mixing up GMOs and hybrids.  Look at it this way.  A labradoodle is a hybrid.  A poodle and a Labrador retriever are purposely bred to make labradoodles but left to their own devices, if put together in a room, they would mate anyway.  They are both dogs. A labradoodle is a hybrid.  A dog and a cat put together in a room would not mate, as they are different species.  A pussydog would be a GMO.  Similarly, a tangelo is a hybrid, a Flavr Savr tomato with a fish gene is a GMO.  A hybrid manipulates the rules of nature.  A GMO violates the rules of nature.

b)  GMO’s haven’t been proven to do any harm.  Well, neither had atomic explosions when residents of southern Nevada ran out to witness them, or DDT when children ran excitedly after the “fog trucks”.  Why wait twenty years for the ill effects to become evident?  As I stated in a) GMO’s violate the rules of nature.  This isn’t historically a good thing.  Plus, in that they change the genetic code, damage done by GMO’s cannot be reversed.

c)  Why bother with a law?  I only buy organic food.  This is perhaps the most insidious argument.  Folks, outside the Portland bubble not everyone has access to WHole Foods and New Seasons.  Besides, one of the main reasons for GMOS is that they make crops resistant to pesticides. GMO crops are pesticide drenched crops.  Why do you think Monsanto is in this game?  To sell pesticides, and the crops that require them.  To make the world’s agriculture their own profit center.  Pesticide pollution and the patenting of life forms, affects EVERYONE.    Studies show that eighty percent of consumers, even those regular Joes at Walmart, won’t buy GMO crops when so labeled.  Again, why do you think these corporations are running so scared?  Not because GMO labeling will raise prices for consumers, but because it will trash their corporate bottom line.

d)  Even if after listening to al  these arguments you still elect to buy wheat that’s been crossed with a fruit fly, Measure 92 won’t stop you, any more than fat labeling stops you from buying a bacon cheeseburger.  It   is a LABELING LAW.  Consumer’s right to know.  But Monsanto doesn’t want you to  know.  They don’t want you to know they may lose this election, either.

did you find everything okay?

November 21, 2014

I had two interesting encounters at Whole Foods this morning.  First, I sampled a taste of vegan gluten free dairy free fudge that was quite delicious.  When I told the person manning the sampling table that she beamed, and told me that chocolate made her feel good on both physical and spiritual levels, just the thought of all those healthy fatty acids and other nutrients entering her bloodstream and calming her brain.  Then while checking out, my cashier, a woman I see and chat with regularly at Whole Foods, leaned over confidentially and told me “let me tell you what’s going on with your bag” (a cloth bag I’d brought in)  She noted that all the items she’d placed in were fragile–beeswax candles, eggs, greens–and that she’d arranged them carefully, with suitable cushioning. She instructed me to treat the bag “with loving care”.

Now I could look at these incidents, like the chocolate, on two levels.  I could be bemused, and chalk up these anecdotes (just like the discussions on art and literature I’ve had with cashiers, or the woman at a cookware store who recommended that I knit  the oven mitt I was buying myself rather than purchasing it) to overeducated staff who are otherwise writing novels, playing in bands, blowing glass, or just graduated from Reed with a degree in philosophy.

All this may be true.  But I think of all the places I’ve lived outside the Portland bubble where people who check out your groceries or serve you coffee are regarded as a sub class, taking care of your needs but rarely, if ever engaging you as a human being.  They are always the other.  You can rest assured your paths will never cross outside of their place of work.  You won’t even find teenagers pouring your coffee or pumping your gas, because they are busy doing internships to get them in the right college and professional school (no degrees in philosophy there) so that they will never, ever do any work that could be classified as menial or service.
It makes me so thankful I live in Portland, where all work is respected and your grocery checker might live next door to you. Where work that is respected is done respectfully and with care, maybe even with passion.  As an underemployed wife and mother who is also a writer I know what its like to have the work you do so well minimized and disrespected.  I know that sometimes working with your hands can leave your minds free.  Plus, it may pay the bills when drumming in a band does not. I made sure to treat my fragile groceries with loving care.


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