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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Argawal

I thought this book would be a good one for a book club, because it has a commonly seen theme (especially in books set in India), and some aspects that are less straight forward (controversial enough to have different ideas about what might be happening). Pinky is a girl born of a mother who dies trying to get from Pakistan to India in the early days of independence (when it is said there were literally trainfuls of dead bodies being transported between Muslim Pakistan and Hindi India, with a total of at least 2 million people killed, so this is a story that would resonate in 21st century India). She is treated as unwanted, not a true member of the household, and is more like an indentured servant than an adopted orphan. So she is growing up marginalized. Along comes a ghost story. A child who died and she is the replacement child. She begins to live that role, gradually at first, then with growing fervor. It is well told, believable, and the question is, what is going on? Is it a ghost? is it her imagination? Does she want to have a role so badly that she unconsciously adopts this one, because it is feared rather than vicitimized? Is she innocent or cunning?

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Girl in the Cafe

This is an improbably movie, and against all odds it works. Not just for me either, it won three Emmys: one for the movie, one for the actress, and one for the writing. I had never heard of it when I picked it up off the shelf at the library but it is well worth watching. There is a small story, and then a big story nestled inside it. The small story is two lonely and shy people hesitantly meet each other and become friends. The bigger story is about what one person who isn't completely caught up in protocol might be able to do.

Bill Nighy is the financial aide to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Kelly MacDonald is the shy and decent girl he meets in a cafe then impulsively asks her to join him for the G8 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. He is mired in the protocol of diplomacy, long past thinking that anything meaningful will come out of the meeting of the economic powerhouses of the world. She is not so hampered, and to the profound embarrassment of them all, says what she thinks about the whole process. At a state dinner. It is touching and lovely, despite being improbable.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quinoa, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad

1 c. quinoa
3 c. stock
Salt to taste
2 cups diced cucumber
1 small red onion, finely minced (optional)
2 cups finely diced tomatoes
1 to 2 jalapeño or serrano peppers (to taste), seeded if desired and finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 avocado, sliced, for garnish
1. Place the quinoa in a bowl, and cover with cold water. Let sit for five minutes. Drain through a strainer, and rinse until the water runs clear. Bring the 3 cups stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add dash of salt and the quinoa. Bring back to a boil, and reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer 15 minutes or until the quinoa is tender and translucent; each grain should have a little thread. Drain excess liquid and return the quinoa to the pan. Cover the pan and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place the finely diced cucumber in a colander, and sprinkle with salt. Toss and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Rinse the cucumber with cold water, and drain on paper towels. If using the onion, place in a bowl and cover with cold water. Let sit for five minutes, then drain, rinse with cold water and drain on paper towels.
3. Combine the tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, vinegar, lime juice and olive oil in a bowl. Add the cucumber and onion, season to taste with salt, and add the quinoa and cilantro. Toss together, and taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with sliced avocado and cilantro sprigs.
I love love love quinoa and this style of salad is one of my favorite ways to have it (the other is in soup)--this salad uses the bounty of a summer garden to make a meal.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Last Empress of China by Hannah Pakula

Soong Mei-ling, better known to history as Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, is the center of this sweeping biography that covers China's 20th century change. She was the most powerful woman in the world during World War II, and she was not shy about throwing her weight around. Her father, Charlie, came to the United States as a young boy, made something of himself. He went to college at Vanderbilt, then returned to China at age 20 and raised his six children with an eye to what western culture had to offer to the entrepreneurial minded person. Charlie's three daughter's formed an interesting power structure of their own, each marrying men who had different and important destinies.

Mei-ling was an American educated woman who understood both the cultures of the east and the west. Her marriage to Chiang Kai-Shek does not appear to have been a marriage of love, nor of even affection. But she parlayed her role as the wife of the leader of Chinese forces opposed to Communism into something that no woman of her time was able to do. She wasn't liked, she might not have been widely respected, but she was influential and she knew how to make that work for her. I found the book to be very well written, with a fair amount of history about that time in China, which I know very little about. Well done, and easy to get through.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Zucchini Quiche

1/3 c. butter
1 c. flour
dash salt
about 3 tbs. buttermilk
Mix first three ingredients in food processor, add enough buttermilk to have the dough form a not-too-sticky ball. Roll out and put in an 8" quiche pan with at least a 2" side.
Saute sliced zucchini, minced garlic, and diced onions in olive oil with salt pepper and thyme until soft. Spread out on top of uncooked crust when cool.

4 eggs
1 1/2 c. milk
3 Tbs. flour
3/4 tsp. salt (or less)
4 oz. chevre
dash of dijon mustard
I make this in the food processor as well. Pour over sauteed vegetables, and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. The recipe is adapted from the original Moosewood cookbook, which has this easy crust for savory tarts that is delicious. I made the quiche pictured with two duck eggs and two turkey eggs from my CSA box.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Last Station

Ther movie chronicles the end of Tolstoy's life, after he had adopted a monastic public persona, espousing a simple life and wearing peasant clothing and a long beard, despite his noble birth and extensive estate. It could be taken directly from the pages of 'LOVE AND HATRED: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy', by William L. Shirer. The movie describes the people who surrounded the Tolstoy's at the end of his life, and one in particular, Valentin, who gains both husband and wife's confidence.
The movie does tell a story taken directly from Sofya Tolstoy's diary that is quite telling of the couple's relationship:

"Just as I was going to the door, Lev Nikolayevich called to me.
‘Wait a moment, Sofya Andreyevna.’
‘What is it?’
‘Will you read what I am going to write?’
‘Very well.’
‘I am only going to write the initials. You must guess the words.’
‘How can I do that? It’s impossible! Oh, well go on.”
He brushed the games scores off the card table, took a piece of chalk and began writing. We were both very serious and excited. I followed his big red hand, and could feel all my powers of concentration and feeling focus on that bit of chalk and the hand that held it. We said nothing.
[He wrote these letters:] ‘y.y.&n.f.h.t.v.r.m.o.m.a.&i.f.h.’
‘Your youth and need for happiness too vividly remind me of my age and incapacity for happiness,’ I read out. My heart was pounding, my temples were throbbing, my face was flushed – I was beyond all sense of time and reality; at that moment I felt capable of anything, of understanding everything, imagining the unimaginable."
Sofya is Anna Karenina. She is a brilliant personality disordered woman who is at once enchanting and infuriating. She has borderline personality disorder, and she both hypnotizes Tolstoy and is tormented by him. All of the actors are superb in their histrionics, very Russian, and it is well worth seeing.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Apple Coffeecake with Granola Topping

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
dash of salt
2 c. flour
1 c. yogurt
3 c. diced apples
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and mix until incorporated. Add vanilla, baking powder, and baking soda while mixer is whirling with the eggs addition. Add one c. flour, incorporate, then all the yogurt, incorporate, and the rest of the flour. Once that is mixed, added the apples, and mix.
But in a buttered and floured tube pan, and top with an equal mixture of brown sugar and granola to taste. Bake 45 min. in a 350 degree oven. It is good the first day and better the second. I made this for a 'thank you Abe' dinner--he is helping rebuild a retaining wall around the pool, and it is hot, heavy, tiring work. The dinner was steak and potatoes--literally--with some cake and caramels (also quite delicious) for dessert. It is not fancy, but when comfort outweighs all competing interests, this is a great cake.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tomato Salad with Cucumber, Feta and Olives

This is one of my favorite ways to highlight the intense flavor of summer tomatoes, which carry the flavor of the sun. Slice tomatoes, preferably right from the garden or the Farmer's Market and arrange around a large shallow serving dish.. Add sliced cucumbers to the mix, if desired (or they are fast piling up in your garden and you need to use them--or you have kids who will eat cukes, but not much else in the way of vegetables--or they were in your CSA box, which is what happened to me). Chiffon a handful of basil and spread over the top. Add some olives and feta to the top for a Greek salad style, and top with a small amount of vinegar (I used a fruit vinegar here), olive oil, salt and pepper.
I eat a salad like this several times a week once tomatoes start coming in strong, which is what happened starting this week in my home town. It is a wonderful way to enjoy the summer--and it is filling, easy to prepare, and doesn't require turning on the oven.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla Miller

The book opens with a number of qualifiers. Despite Betsy Ross' wide renown as the maker of the first U.S. flag, there is actually very little evidence for that beyond family legend. What we have to offer is that no one else has been as successful at making such a claim. This is the first scholarly biography of her life, not because she is an unknown or uninteresting person, but because so little documentation about her exists. She was married three times, in relatively rapid succession, and had mostly daughters.

The lack of information about our early flags doesn't stop at the documentation. We just don't have many of them, period. Recently four flags from this era were sold at auction for over $17 million. They had been captured from American troops by a swashbuckling Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton during the Revolutionary War and taken back to England after the battle at Yorktown. That Britain had valued these battle standards more than we had is remarkable, and may go a ways towards explaining why the Betsy Ross story is so similarly murky.

Miller uses what is known about Betsy Griscum Ross Ashburn Claypoole from the record, and blends it with what is know about tradeswomen of the time, what was going on in Philadelphia, and the nation at that time. She avoids a typical blunder I have seen in Revolutionary War period literature of over-emphasizing the war and what led up to it, and rather focuses on how the events unfolding from 1770 onward would have affected an upholsterer in Philadelphia--the price and availability of fabric, the need for imported goods, and how that might have affected the Ross' public versus private support for the war, and how the subsequent expansion of industry in the United States post-war would have helped.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Green Bean Salad

This is such a simple recipe, and so delicious. Prep the green beans, and then blanch them for 3 minutes in boiling water with a teaspoon of salt added. Drain and run under cold water to keep their bright green coloring.
The dressing is equal parts sherry vinegar and olive oil, mixed with dijon mustard--for this amount of green beans, I used 2 Tablespoons each of vinegar and oil, and added 1/8 of a tsp. of mustard--mix well with a fork or a whisk until emulsified, and toss with beans. I chiffoned a handful of basil and super thinly sliced some new onions from my CSA this week to toss in at the end, and then added salt and pepper to taste. This salad needs to be eaten ASAP because if it sits, the vinegar darkens the beans--they still taste great, but they loss their brilliant coloring. I love the wonderful tender beans we get in the summer!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Single Man

This movie is largely all Colin Firth all the time. With a little tiny bit of Matthew Goode as his long term partner, Julianne Moore as his best friend, and Nicolaus Holdt, as the man who saves his life.
The film opens with the death of Jim. He and George have been together for 16 years, in what is depicted as a very companionable marriage. The time is 1962, the place is Los Angeles, and so no one talks about two men who live together, but everyone knows their relationship. No one acknowledges it. Not family and for the most part not friends.

Jim's death plunges George into a state of numbness. He is not allowed at the funeral. He is not allowed to openly grieve, he doesn't feel alive, and so he resolutely plans his death. Methodically he takes care of each detail, talking to no one, seeking no counsel. Only one person notices, a student in his class, who equally resolutely tracks him down and stops him. It is a film that unfolds in what feels like slow motion, with a script that is paced perfectly for the content, and the acting lives up to the scripts potential. A beautiful film about how hard it is to have your secret smashed, to lose the one thing you live for, and yet to move on.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chickpeas and Swiss Chard

1 c. dried chickpeas
1 bunch swiss chard, sliced in 1/2" intervals
1 onion
1 head garlic, minced.
2-3 tomatoes, diced
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to saute

Soak the chickpeas overnight in water, drain, and cook in stock until tender. It is critical to do the overnight soaking, because otherwise the chickpea's outer shell comes off in cooking and you need to remove them.
Heat up a frying pan, add olive oil and saute the onion, then add the minced garlic. Once soft, add the tomatoes, stir, then start adding swiss chard, adding the stems first, allow them to soften, then start adding the leaves. Stir in the chickpeas at the end, salt and pepper to taste. You can sprinkle lemon juice over the whole dish when you serve it to brighten up the flavor, if you like. This is adapted from a recipe out of Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook, which involves decreasing the olive oil from a cup to a tablespoon (which works with a lot of recipes in that otherwise excellent cookbook). It works with all greens, and is a frequent side dish at my house.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood

I picked this book up because it is written by the only college level history professor I ever had, and I was intrigued by the time period it covers. I have read a number of things in the past year that encompass of book end the 25 years of American post-revolutionary history that Wood covers (1789-1815): 'Plain, Honest Men', '1776', Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin, 'An Artist in Treason', and the Andre Jackson biography 'American Lion', to name a few.
I did read a book by this author as a student, but I definitely did not appreciate how well he writes--the book is over 900 pages, with 700+ pages devoted to the story. It is almost unliftable, and I read much of it sitting at a table so as to not have to hold it in my hands. This book is clearly written, with an eye towards telling a story in an entertaining manner as much as to covering the history and mood of an emerging nation. I loved the descriptions of the people of the early republic, how it grew in size and scope very early on, how quickly the shackles of monarchy could be shed (by 1815, the vast majority of the population was under 40 and had grown up in the New World), and the sources of growing tensions between the North and the South that developed rather rapidly over the time covered. This is a wonderful read, and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tuna Stuffed Eggs

I love deviled eggs, and this is a new (for me) twist on a classic, adapted from 'Simple Cooking' by Antonio Carluccio. Figure out how many eggs you want to make, put them in a pot with cold water, covered, onto medium heat. Once the pot has a rolling boil going, turn it off and let the eggs sit in the hot water for another 10 minutes. Then put them into an ice cold water filled bowl, and peel them after another 10 minutes. Christopher Kimball says it works every time--which is not true in my experience yesterday, but it is good, and it does avoid the greenish halo around the yolks.
Peel the eggs, split in half length-wise and pop out yolks. Add a can of tuna for every 8-12 eggs, one caper for every egg, 1/8 tsp. dijon mustard per egg and a dash of salt and pepper--mix, and then add enough mayonnaise so that the mixture can be formed into balls by a melon baller, and refill the eggs. Top with a slice of pickle, sweet or savory, your choice. Voila!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

This movie is on the surface a bit of a disappointment and not particularly fresh in it's approach to three men, adrift in their 40s, who try to recapture the lost joys and squandered possibilities of their youth. The movie itself is a nonstop barrage — somewhere between a riot and an orgy — of crude, obnoxious gags and riffs mixed with blatantly juvenile sexual behavior and innuendo. If you are a connoisseur of sexual, scatological or just plain stupid humor, you will find your appetite satisfied, even glutted. But viewers of a certain age are likely to endure the montage with a twinge of pained, slightly nauseated nostalgia.
That is the text. The subtext is that the promise of youth was intoxicating for these men, and unbeknownst to them, it eroded swiftly and entirely away, and they are left bereft and in one case, suicidal. And it shocks them. This is a story told in a way that men can listen to, and women might find repulsive. But it is important to pay attention, because all this crudeness doesn't actually turn the guys off to the story unfolding before them--on the contrary, it speaks to them. The time travel back to the promise of their youth and how they respond to it is worth thinking about for young and old alike. This is Superbad for the middle aged man.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Homemade Croutons

I made a salad this week that I quickly made a few croutons from a wonderful whole grain sourdough bread I got in my CSA box this week. I cut the bread into 1/2 inch cubes. Heat up a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan until it is on the verge of too hot, and add the bread, with a grind or two of black pepper and a pinch of salt. Let toast for a minute or two, then flip and let sit again--repeat two or three more times, and then cool for a few minutes and add to the salad. Wow! The result is something crunchy and chewy, which gets softer with the vegetables and dressing, taking on more flavor, and therefore more enjoyable.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

There are two aspects of this book which led me to write about it. The first is that it is a good story about the effect of the Holocaust on children across Europe. The book opens with a Jewish family being rounded up and sent to their death while the neighborhood watches, and the concierge in their building gloats. There are many more who stood by than resisted in France during the occupation, and this book gives an account that is consistent with other sources.

The second aspect that I like about this is the effect that a childhood trauma has on Sarah. She has a largely untraumatic war existence--she experiences the conditions in the detention camps, she then leaves her parents, and she sees her friend taken away--she is not sheltered in that way. But she is very lucky, much like the boy in 'Fugitive Pieces'. She is rescued and hidden, she makes it without having to give up much in the way of her innocence, at least not compared to other Holocaust survivors. But she carries a special guilt, which she never shares with anyone and which transforms her. I would like to have seen more of that in this story (rather than the neatly tied up package of a plot that links the present day seeker to the past in tangible ways) but this is a good story.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The White Ribbon

This is a film that is deceptively gentle in tone while being evil at it's core. The setting is a small village in Germany on the eve of World War I beginning. The cinematography is spectacular--black and white and crisp all over. The opening scene is disturbing. A man riding a horse is felled from his horse by a wire stretched across the entrance to his yard. The horse has to be put down, the man recovers but only after months in hospital. And not a person looks at the intended victim to ask "Why him?" And therein lies the cultural flaw. Presumably people know that the man deserves such treatment and are not prepared to intervene on his behalf. Let the games begin.

There are many questions raised by this movie, and nary an answer given. Does the vicious ingrained nature of how the adults treat the children breed their bullying the weak amongst them? Is this the root of the rise of Fascism? The tale is relayed by the innocent man amongst them, who upon having the truth finally become clear to him, is compelled to leave. The movie is magically evil in such a gentle way that it is haunting. If you need a way to think about how monstrous things might occur without malice being prominent, this is the film to watch.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

There are a number of threads of stories that are deftly interwoven in this tale of war and it's effects in 1941. There is the big picture and the personal picture, which is my favorite technique for story telling for impact that is set within a historical time frame. So, World War II is raging on in Europe. We at home are largely ignorant of the specifics about what is going on. And this story is going to make us see why we should have cared about that and what role media and fate in our decisions as people and as a nation.
The close in story is of a postmistress in a small town. She is intimately involved in the lives of her town. She is their source of information, she is the lifeline to what Emma's husband Will is a doctor, and he has a lapse of judgment, losses a patient he is likely to have lost anyway, but he didn't see it coming, and he responds by withdrawing from the life he knows and going to England to help wounded soldiers there. He feels there is something terrible going on there, that help is needed.
During a bombing raid in London he meets Frankie, a brash and beautiful reporter who enthusiastically wends her way into stories of people trying to leave Europe, trying to escape, and she witnesses first hand what the fate of those who stay will be. She sees people shot for not hearing a command the first time. She throws herself fully into their lives and she is gradually broken by them. No one wants to hear the horror she has to tell, and eventually she has to leave, come home, escape.
Frankie choses Will's home, and tries to find a way to heal there. It is a story that starts and ends on a rocky ground, but the middle is deftly told and well worth the read.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I highly recommend Mark Bittman's blog as a year round read, and would also suggest subscribing to the New York Times 'Diner's Journal', which includes not just this blog, but also the Temporary Vegetarian's blog and others. That is the baseline. But when Bittman blogs on a topic in the summer and gives a hundred ways to think about it, then it is time to send the link to family and friends and make a concerted effort to try a dozen of the ideas out.
Last summer he did one on fast summer meals to prepare, and before that on things to pack for a picnic. This year it is a potpourri of ideas about grilling--and he correctly summarizes their complexity by stating that waiting for the coals to develop will take longer than the preparation. There are some great ideas about grilling fruit, but also vegetables, meats, breads, and finally, things to do with grilled items once you have enjoyed them for dinner. You can think of it as ways to use them in another dish or you can think of it as leftovers. This is a keeper.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


I watched this movie bookending the death of my father-in-law. I was watching it, we decided we needed to go to be with him in his last moments on earth, and I returned to finish it.
Which is oddly appropriate for the subject matter. The hero in our tale, Daigo, is a failed cellist who moves back to his mother's house. Some things cross-cultures. This is not a good sign. On the upside, his mother has died and he inherited the house--he has financial issues, so this is a prudent choice, and he goes with his wife. So better than it first sounds. It is an isolated village in rural Japan, a gorgeous setting with Mount Fuji in the background. And they like the rhythm of life there.
But Daigo stumbles into a job that is all about death. And the Japanese are squeamish about death and those who deal in it. The job is casketing, the art of preparing the corpse for placement in the casket. It is a moving and peaceful ceremony that is performed in front of the loved ones, and he is really good at it. He struggles with the pride this brings him, the comfort he provides for grieving family members, and the knowledge that he will be shunned for doing it.
In the end he comes to make peace with his father, who left him as a child 30 years before, and who he caskets. It is a movie with a small scope, but I loved the pace, the beauty and the attention to detail that pervaded it. Go in beauty. Rest in peace.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Anniversary Reactions

Ten years ago on a cold dark night...

We began down the road of childhood cancer with our youngest son Ethan. He had a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor in the cerabellum. He had surgery, a year of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation--an ordeal for us all, individually and as a family.
There are so many difficult things about the beginning of this road, but the hardest part of all is that the challenges don't end. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving, especially when you get it as a child.
One of the real rays of hope in the area of "things that don't have to be problems but are" is the passage of a modest national health reform law in the United States, which will allow children like Ethan to have possibilities for health care coverage. As a result, choices about employment become open to them that weren't an option before.
For more about what our family's experience was like, here is what I told the President's Cancer Panel in 2003:

Ten years ago Ethan woke up with double vision, and our lives changed forever. I continue to be eternally grateful and inconsolably sad about my child being a childhood cancer survivor. The experience has made me kinder, wiser, more capable, more empathetic, more fragile, more forgiving (I still have a ways to go on this one), and so much more. It has brought some of my favorite people into my life. I have leaned on people and been leaned on in ways that I did not think possible nor do I really understand. And I would trade it all and more to have it never have happened. Thank you to all who make the lives of cancer families more bearable.

...She walks these hills in her long black veil.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cloud 9

The story line is one you have heard time and time again. The woman has a stable marriage with a good, if not too exciting man. In this case, his name is Werner, and his hobby is trains. He listens to recordings of trains recreationally. He rides them for a vacation. He is reliable and very safe. The woman, Inge, is not dissatisfied. But when a charismatic man, Karl, who smiles easily and tells her she is beautiful and means it comes into her tailoring business, she is intrigued. More than intrigued, she is aroused, and when she kisses him the first time, it is tentative at first, and in the next minute she is whipping off her clothes and they are having a hasty roll in the hay--or on the floor, in this case. What is different about this trio is their age. Inge is in her late sixties and Karl and Werner are in their 70's. In the movie and in real life. Since when have the Germans done full frontal male nudity? Well, it's here. The lightening is not shimmery, it is harsh and real. And if there are body doubles, they are convincingly age-appropriate.
This is in the vein of 'It's Complicated' in that mature older adults are portrayed as sexual beings--but in 'Cloud 9' the covers are off. And sex feels good, even at seventy. Not that it would take a genius to figure that out, but it is a rare movie that points that out. And while there are the consequences that attend adultery at any age, it is great to see a movie of this caliber and content.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Structure of Mourning

We had a service in our home last night, and it was a comfort. People we celebrate the High Holidays and Passover with came to pray and to eat. It is a move back to the life we had last week, but not too drastic a move. Jewish tradition guides observers to properly mourn the passing of a loved one, and sets the practices and rituals that facilitate expression of feelings of loss and grief. At the same time, however, it establishes a sequence of time frames through which the intensity of our mourning becomes progressively less, from the most intense mourning that is observed in the hours after a death, to the seven-day "shivah" observed following the burial, to the 30-day shloshim period, and finally to the first year after death, when the grave is marked, and the the mourning is officially over.
Mourning is a show of respect to the departed and to his or her place in our lives--it is not for us, it is for them that we observe these rituals. It is required to mourn, but there are also boundaries to mourning. To not mourn at all, or to plunge into an abyss of grief and remain trapped on its bottom--both these extremes are detrimental, both to the living and to the soul of the departed. Mourning is a crucial stage in the healing of those who experienced the loss. But the soul of the departed does not desire that those remaining in this world remain paralyzed by grief. On the contrary, the soul's greatest benefit comes from its loved ones' return to active, even joyous life, in which their feelings of love and veneration translate into deeds that honor the departed soul and attest to its continuing influence in our world.
The Judeo-Christian world was created in seven days. When creation is reversed and the human soul returns to its source, that, too, is marked with a week's cycle: the Shivah, seven days which the closest relatives (sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses) devote exclusively to mourning the soul's departure, and the extended family, friends and community comfort them with their presence, their empathy, and their words of consolation. As a daughter-in-law, I am amongst the support staff.
We are commanded mourn, but also to set boundaries to our mourning. The traditional words spoken to the mourner during Shivah are: "May G‑d console you, together with all mourners."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cucumber and Tomato Salad

This is such a simple dish but quite delicious. At this time of year there is an abundance of cucumbers, but where I live, it is too early for anything but the smallest of cherry tomatoes. No matter--they concentrate intense sweetness and can be used as the second fiddle in a cucumber salad rather than as the main event later in the summer. I made this with a simple basil pesto--just olive oil, basil, salt and a few scallion greens. I added this instead of oil to the salad, and used a balsamic vinegar that is aged and slightly sweet.
In the summer, I like to have a grilled meat as the main event, but to have several salads on the side, which might make up more than half of what you eat as a result of there being so many is the goal.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon

I have loved Dorothea Lange's photographs for years, and studied them over 30 years ago. But I really knew nothing about the photographer herself. This is a well written biography that describes not just this artist, but the artistic process and the Depression's effect on the photographer, as well as the photographer's effect on how we think about the Depression. It is a good reflection on what one person can do to shape public policy in a way that may not be entirely obvious, but is very real, none the less.

The one down side of the book is that Lange was not a particularly good parent. She would have been well-paired with someone who was more maternal in their approach to child rearing. While her intimate relationships were passionate, her parenting relationships were more at arms length. She was a good mentor, correctly identifying strengths in her children and step-children, but she really did not see being sure they were nurtured as primarily her responsibility. The author does not much explore (in the book) why this might have been--was it a sign of the time? Was it a necessity of her circumstance? Or was this just one flaw amongst many talents? I would recommend the book for it's pictures alone, and the story it tells is a good one.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What I Miss About My Father In Law

My father-in-law died yesterday. On the 4th of July. Already I miss him. Since his cancer diagnosis 18 months ago he has been very active, planning his life rather than waiting for his death, but I think we all felt it was too soon for him to die. Much too soon. Many more things to complete. I started this blog when I did in order to have him see it.
I miss his candor. He was practical, even when it was unpleasant.
I miss his protection of his loved ones. He did what he could to make life for those he loved more comfortable.
I miss his voice--a mixture of gruff and warm.
But I especially miss knowing that he is there. The conversations I have with him in the future will be ones where I will have figure out what he would tell us.
If I could talk with him, what would I say?
I guess the last conversation you have with someone should be about what you want to thank them for.
I want to thank him most of all for being a father. That is the trait about him that will live on in generations to come. It is also an incredibly difficult job, and while the bar we hold for motherhood is very high, there is a paradigm to try to live up to. For fathers I think the paradigm is less clear. Irv was financially supportive to the point of generosity, he was unfailingly emotionally supportive of his children, he was free with his opinions but did not demand that they be followed, he ran interference between warring parties, and he was involved in the life of his family, even when it was unpleasant to be so. He tried very hard and he was very successful, and I am glad that Judiasm gives a structure for grieving his loss, because otherwise I wouldn't know where to begin to honor him. Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Turkish Cherry Pilaf

1 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 1/4 c. coarse bulgar
1/4 lb. cherries, pitted, halved
1/4 dried cherries or cranberries
2 1/4 c. water
Salt to taste
1/4 c. parsley at the end
1/4 cup crumbled feta for serving (optional)

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy saucepan, and stir in the fennel seeds and the bulgar. Cook, stirring, until the bulgar smells toasty, three to four minutes. Add the fresh and dried cherries (or cranberries), water and salt (I use about 1/2 teaspoon), and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes or until the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat, cover with a clean dish towel and place a lid over the towel. Allow the bulgur to sit for 15 minutes. Add parsley and mix. Serve sprinkled with crumbled feta cheese.
I was in the mood for bulgar, and saw this in Martha Shulman's column--and adapted it slightly. Delicious blend of sweet and sour whole grains.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cabbage and Blue Cheese Salad

I came up with this salad recently--I was inspired by two types of salad. The first is two Asian salads that I very much like--Vietnamese Chicken Salad, which is easy to make and has the characteristic flavors of salt, sour, sweet, and hot that Southeast Asian cooking is so phenomenal at, and the Chinois Chicken Salad available at any Wolfgang Puck Express restaurant (one of the few places at the Denver airport that I will eat). The second is classic American salad of blue cheese dressing poured over a quarter of a head of Romaine lettuce. Start with cabbage--my preference would be for Napa cabbage sliced very thinly (and available at the Farmer's Market, even in Iowa, these days), but easy would be to get a bag of the pre-sliced coleslaw mix in a bag at the supermarket. Add to it some shredded chicken--I used an Italian chicken dish that I had left over and was searching for a way to reinvent it, but again, an easy alternative would be to grab a rotisserie chicken at the same time you are picking up your coleslaw mix. Then add blue cheese dressing slowly--just until it is lightly covered. Sprinkle in extra blue cheese if you are using a bottled dressing (which almost never has enough blue cheese for me!). It was simple, delicious, crunchy, flavorful, filling, and required few ingredients, little time, and didn't heat up the kitchen.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Just Food by James McWilliams

Just Foods is an important--but purposefully provocative--addition to the discussion about how we should grow our food and what we should eat. The subtitle: 'Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly' is an example of purposely poking at the current trends, and it is a distraction that is not necessary. The book covers much more of a waterfront than this, and is thought-provoking.

As Susan Wittig Albert summarizes in her Amazon review, McWilliams argues:
1) global food production is more fuel-efficient and more economically necessary (for developing countries that need export markets) than is local food production/consumption ("locovorism");
2) that organic farming is no more healthy for people and for the land than is "wisely practiced" conventional agriculture;
3) that genetically-modified crops, in the right hands, are not to be feared and are in fact necessary to feed the ten billions of people who will live on this planet by 2050;
4) that we must drastically reduce our production and consumption of meat animals and non-farmed fish;
5) and that we must get rid of "perverse" subsidies that undercut fair trade.

The last point is hard to disagree with. The fourth point is one that has been said over and over again, that we don't pay enough for our animal based protein, that it is not sustainable as a food resource for the planet, and that it is not particularly good for us.

As to point one, he does have some very reasonable arguments to sustain it, but the author is intending to stir up trouble rather than be truly thoughtful, so he doesn't lend much credence to the community building aspects of a locavore movement--he should go see a screening of 'The Road' and come back in version 2.0 of the book and add some of the points that are probably unquantifiable about local food movements.

On point 2 he speaks globally without data--the judicious use of technology and the good stewardship of the land and local resources are possible without being 'organic'--but this is an area where we have global issues, and certainly One Man, One Cow, and One Planet is a documentary arguing the opposite, that when Monsanto says you can do it better with chemicals in India, there were significant consequences. This is by far the weakest part of the book.

And then there is point 3. This is the one for which the counter balancing argument is not well fleshed out. True, we may have some 'save the world' potential in genetic engineering. We need the promise of higher yields, drought tolerance, and pest-resistance. My problem is with the lack of public ownership of this plan. McWilliams himself acknowledges that the only place for biotechnology is "the public domain," and that as long as the genes of the world's most important foods are owned and controlled by a "handful of corporations intent on monopolizing patents in the interest of profit," none of its benefits will be achieved.
I am grateful to James McWilliams for requiring me to read carefully and think about his arguments. Just Food engaged me fully and completely--not always comfortably, but always productively.
The bottom line. Just read Just Food. Give yourself time to read it. You will find that it is time well spent.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Secret

This film is a great example of the art of finesse in story telling that the French bring to film making. The story focuses on François, a Jewish boy who is born at the end of World War II, but the film is really about secrets and the power they have over time and generations of a family. The film's title implies that there is one, but as is almost always the case, one secret begets further secrets and there is no end in sight. This is a great movie in support of open discussion, working problems out in the light of day. It convincingly demonstrates the ripple effect that secrets have, engulfing more people and more lives as the ripple travels outward. What we keep hidden from view is not gone, and in fact gains power in the process.

So the smaller story is that François is the weakling only child of two robust athletes, and the misery this makes of his life. His father is daily disappointed by his lack of physical prowess, and he has almost no interest in François' intellectual talents. We see François as a small child, a teen, and as an adult (who has grown into himself, emerging from his childhood as a psychiatrist)--the story, and the back story which impacts it are all told in an interwoven manner, flashback, flash forward, and so it begins to slowly unwind. Through a neighbor and family friend, François learns a much more troubling story. It is a story of a previous sibling, one that his father had with another wife. It is a tale of attraction and jealousy, one of the oldest stories on the planet, but this one is superimposed on an occupied France and a tight knit Jewish community. The plan is for all of them to escape together, but that solves only one problem. The safety problem. Not the unspoken jealousy piece--all the players would now be living together. So one of them makes a choice that changes their lives irrevocably. And becomes the next secret.