Friday, January 30, 2009

Book Review: A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert

A Bowl of Red: The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants, by Frank X. Tolbert, Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company (1988), reprint.

This book is a reprint of the classic chilihead bible, originally published in 1953. Tolbert was a born-and-bred Texan, first, and a journalist and founder of the World Chili Championship held each November in Terlingua, Texas. The book swaggers with lots of outsized Texas bravado about how hot a proper chili should be, how a classic bowl of red would eject any attempts to throw beans into it, and some interesting profiles of cowboy chuck wagon cooks.

"A Bowl of Red" is a little dated, with all of its references to period film stars and celebrities, and some non PC references to various ethnic groups, but it does contain great information about Southwestern culinary history and will make your mouth water for something spicy. He lists some of the many chili aficionados of the day, including humorist H. Allen Smith, Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ, Jack Benny and trumpet virtuoso Harry James, who notes "Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili".

Tolbert's book explores the various permutations of chili (suet or no, tomatoey and garlicky or vegetable-free) and then examines some other Texan specialties, including son of a bitch stew (an extravaganza of cattle organ meats), tamales, enchiladas and burritos. He has the highest regard for the humblest of chili chefs, from diners, jailhouse kitchens and those like Early Caldwell, the Tamale King, who hunts down prime corn shucks and other ingredients and steams up vast quantities in his home kitchen to sell every other day at a prime corner in Athens, Texas.

The book is very entertaining and a great look at a chunk of American food history. I would definitely seek it out as a gift for any chili heads in your life. This is the second book I have read for the Books About Food challenge, which I am thoroughly enjoying. Next up for that reading challenge: "Stealing Buddha's Dinner", by Bich Minh Nguyen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich

Ravens in Winter, written and illustrated by Bernd Heinrich (NY: Summit Books, 1989)

I just finished a great book about ravens and Nevermore will I look at these intelligent birds in the same light again. The author is a Professor of Zoology at the University of Vermont and has written other books about insects, owls, marathon running and ecology.

The book provides a great look at the social behavior of ravens and other birds, bears and creatures of the winter forest in New England, as well as an interesting glimpse into Heinrich's style of scientific observation. He displays his marathon training during the hardcore camping and activities of his first several winters of raven research. He is an Iron Man that sleeps in an unheated cabin during below zero weather, drives hundreds of miles through blizzards, gets up before dawn to shimmy up swaying pine trees to await his feathered research subjects and nonchalantly slices off pieces of raven-ravaged moose butt for supper. A more rugged scientist seems hard to imagine.

The author is dogged in his research and spends monotonous hours in his outdoor blinds watching for ravens to come to the thousands of pounds of slaughterhouse guts and roadkill carcasses he drags uphill on his weekend raven research sessions. He is equally disciplined in avoiding inferences from random observations and reading interpretations into one-time events. He attributes this to a single-minded avoidance of advancing theories without multiple evidence:

When I was very young and didn't "see" what seemed obvious to adults, I often thought I was stupid and unsuited for science. Now I sometimes wonder if that is why I make progress. The ability to invent interconnections is no advantage where the discovery of truth is an objective.

He has a somewhat dry writing style, but his heroics make for interesting reading and he certainly has a sense of humor about his unorthodox research methods. He drives through Maine during hunting season with a dead goat strapped to his hood noting that the beast, which is the same size and coloring as a deer doe, looks "good enough to tag". He enlists volunteer help in capturing and banding razor-beaked test by advertising free beer and a sheep roast at a "Raven Roundup" party.

You may not want to party with Dr. Heinrich but you have to admire his patience and determination and this book was an excellent start to my Science Books Challenge, where I intead to read six books about science in 2009 to expand my selection of reading matter and the content of my gray matter.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Language of Baklava: A Book Review

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber (NY: Pantheon, 2005).

"The Language of Baklava" is the second book pick for the new foodie book club, Cook the Books, that a couple of blogger friends and I have organized. What a fantastic book on so many levels. It is a book full of food memories and recipes, a devastatingly funny collection of crazy family scenes and dialogue, and a writer's memoir, full of interesting
remembrances about how keenly she observed and sensed things throughout her unique childhood. She perfectly captures the buzzing level of energy I remember having as a child and the easy acceptance most children have of new friends and situations.

It is also a funny and perceptive lens on the American immigrant experience of her Jordanian-born father, "Bud" (originally Ghassan), whom we learn is the descendant of Bedouin sheiks and has at least four other wild and crazy brothers who joined him in trading their desert homeland for the Syracuse area of upstate New York. Arid desert winds are swapped for six months of snow and wind that no longer stings from sand but from ice.

Bud was raised Syrian-Orthodox but turned into a "mild" Muslim when he was an adult and struggles with being a gregarious immigrant with high hopes in an American culture that fools and disappoints him often. He marries a tall, American goddess, Abu-Jaber's quiet teacher mother, a retiring figure in the book that quietly accepts moves back to dusty Jordanian compounds when Diana is a pre-schooler and then gets ready for another move when she is a rebellious adolescent. She seems to mutter and slowly fold her objections down inward with each of Bud's new schemes or impromptu dinner parties and I kept wondering why she was so retiring and such a surprisingly minor character in this book. I understand why she was attracted to Bud, a larger-than-life host who can even charm nuns with his spicy special rice and pontifications about religion and philosophy, but I wonder why she never voices any misgivings or argues. She is a very passive character and yet I sense hidden passions and strength.

We learn more about Diana's maternal grandmother, a disdainer of men, in a hilarious Chinese restaurant scene. Never has self-confidence (Gram) and acute adolescent self-anguish (Diana) clashed so mightily as when Gram blunders her way through a conversation with a highly cultured Chinese waiter about the "Chinese opera" she had just taken Diana to see (it was actually Madama Butterfly, a Puccini opera about a Japanese heroine).

Gram's a larger-than-life match for Bud's personality as well. After enduring a bossy father, a scalawag husband that abandons her, and the Great Depression ("brought about by men"), she tries to stanch the burgeoning romance between her daughter and Bud by inviting him over for a bright pink and glistening ham (Muslim taboo), followed by a second dinner of shrimp which Bud thinks are giant insects. Abu-Jaber further defines the difference between them in terms of their cooking styles:

"The problem seems obvious to me: Gram is a baker, Bud's a cook. Cooks are dashing, improvisational, wayward, intuitive; bakers are measured, careful, rational, precise. Gram can follow a recipe, but the drama for spice isn't in her bones. "Oh, rosemary," she says to me dismissively as we discuss a chicken recipe. "Rosemary is for show-offs."

Bud is a restless figure, always wondering whether he should move his family of three daughters back to Jordan to keep them as "good Arab girls" and switching them from suburban to rural real estate around Syracuse as restaurant dreams ebb and flow. As a result, young Diana has to "re-create" herself with all these moves to fit in with new circles of friends. I was especially interested in her comment that American food tasted of "sugar, stone, and chemicals" when she returned from an extended stay in Jordan.

Then, there are the recipes! They sweeten the end of each chapter and I have already tried two of them, Magical Muhammara ("a dip or spread for when you want everyone to quit running around and come to the table") and "Start the Party" Hummus, and can say that they are as sumptuous as Abu-Jaber's writing.

I read Abu-Jaber's second novel, "Crescent", last year and was delighted when "The Language of Baklava" was selected as the second Cook the Books title. It is a book that I can't wait to read it all over again soon.

This book is also the first book read for my portion of the Books about Food challenge, which is headquartered here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Reading Goals for 2009

No Text

For the New Year, I have set out two reading goals for myself. I read entirely too many mysteries (I'm now working through Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti series set in modern Venice; what great characters! what corruption! what great food!) so I would like to stretch myself a bit and read more widely. Here's what I plan to read in 2009 to expand my knowledge of the world and its literature:

Classic Novels:

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Pere Goriot, by Honore de Balzac
O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
Recollections, by Colette

I have never read anything by these authors before, so I will hopefully be able to proudly crow about them the next time some punk kid asks me about them at the shop.

Books about Food:

The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber
A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert
A Glutton for Punishment: Confessions of a Mercenary Eater by Jay Jacobs
Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyenn
We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food, edited by Mark Winegardner

I read a lot of cookbooks and foodie novels for escapism, but I would like to know more about the social history of food, hence this challenge for myself. I have just finished Diana Abu-Jaber's book above for the Cook the Books club, and I have also found out that there is an organized Books About Food Challenge which I may join if I can get my butt in gear for the March 31st deadline.

Books about Science:

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould
Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich
The Extinction Club, by Robert Twigger
The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, by Marilyn Chase
Equations of Eternity: Speculations on Consciousness, Meaning, and the Mathematical Rules that Orchestrate the Cosmos, by David Darling (this last selection will really test my resolve!)

There's a Science Books challenge for 2009 which asks readers to read only 3 books all year to help spread science literacy. I SHOULD be able to do that.

Back to the books....

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reading Groups and Challenges for 2009

I am happy to have finished my Orbis Terrarum reading challenge for 2008 to expand my knowledge of world literature a tiny bit, and now am casting about for some new reading challenges for the New Year. I did a little research into online reading groups and book challenges for another guest blog post at Shelf Space, the blog attached to Foreword Magazine, and you can read all about it here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: The Salt Letters by Christine Balint

While I am a few days over my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge deadline, I did want to clear the decks for a new Reading Year in 2009, so I have a ninth and final book to review. We travel in the uncomfortable and fetid steerage compartment of a ship bound from England to the wilds of Australia in 1854 with a young woman narrator, Sarah, in Christine Balint's debut novel "The Salt Letters" (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001).

Sarah spends yawning days and nights crowded into a bunk and a small room with a cluster of other unmarried women. Their every move is monitored by a Matron, and they are segregated from all other passengers, except for brief journeys above deck when the weather is fair. Otherwise, it is a hot, dank, smelly and long trip, with nothing but a little needlework and gossip for entertainment.

Sarah's recollections about her life in England, which includes an earthy grandmother, a hydrophobic mother and a forbidden attraction with her cousin Richard, are all very interesting and contrast with the squalor of her sea travels. However, having read even more vivid descriptions of conditions on board ships bound for Australia during the same era in Robert Hughes' wonderful history "The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding", I would more likely recommend the latter to anyone looking for a good book on the subject.

Balint has great descriptive talent, but the plot line weaves in and out like one of the heroine's fevered reveries, and ultimately, I was not entirely sure how the book ended. Was she now married? Was she pregnant? Was Richard on board? Did her mother die? Were they finally arrived in Australia? I just didn't feel that things wrapped up and that Balint could have fleshed things out a bit at the end.

Thus concludes my journey around the world with nine books by nine authors about nine different countries, which included:

* 1) Far Afield, by Susan Kaysen (Faroes Islands)
* 2) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia)
* 3) The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
* 4) Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin (Georgia, Russia)
* 5) The Story Teller, by Mario Lllosa Vargas (Peru)
* 6) Talkative Man, by R.K. Narayan (India)
* 7) Balzac & The Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie (China)
* 8) Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka)
* 9) The Salt Letters, by Christine Balint (Australia)

"Far Afield" was a-far and a-way my favorite book out of the lot; it was mordantly funny and the characters were well-described in all their glorious eccentricity. A close second and third for "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" and "Reef", where I was transported to exotic locations and moved by the characters' longing for their former lives.

In 2009 I plan to tackle another reading challenge to stretch my personal reading habits, perhaps with a peek at some classic literature or some history. The structure of a reading challenge like Orbis Terrarum helped keep me on track with my goal and certainly, announcing something publicly on this blog, spurred me on to complete my self-assignment. I am glad that I found some new authors to read further and to recommend to my friends and customers and feel a little more well-read having checked these nine new authors out.

Happy New Year!