Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kick ass, Barefoot Contessa!

Cookbooks have ceased to be strictly utilitarian tomes. Now they're glossy, entertaining reads: Imagine Webster's dictionary shacking up with a graphic designer, or the Moulin Rouge. Back in the day, a typical bookshelf had a checkered Better Homes & Gardens binder or Betty Crocker Cookbook and a few others. The more serious cooks might have Julia Child's 2-volume Master the Art of French Cooking (1400 pages of small-font instructions). 

A few months ago, I read this article, comparing recently released cookbooks in Great Britain with those in the States. The article suggested that the tone of the British cookbooks is more friendly and light-hearted (I know, the British -- weird, right)? I cook because I enjoy it - taking on a new unfamiliar recipe is exactly the right amount of adventure and challenge I want to have at the end of an otherwise routine day. I absolutely want to be assured that the cookbook author is having fun as well. It's all about companionship in the kitchen.

That's why, although I've yet to make a recipe out of it, I've already spent a few hours enjoying my lovely new cookbook: Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook. Check out their comments on zucchini:

"Oy gevalt! I've got ferkakte zucchini up to mayn kepele!" How many times have you uttered these words, amazed at your newfound grasp of Yiddish? Roasting to the rescue, once again. Get ready for succulent summer squash that will rock your tuchus.

The authors are obviously having a blast; the recipe instructions are straight forward, and the authors list "variations" and "complements" for almost everything. "The best way to reheat this sauce" acknowledges that leftovers happen.

Contrast that with another cookbook I'm reading, Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food. I know Alice has a passion for organic local produce (as evidenced by her life's work), but her book reads like a textbook. Her instructions for proper roasting of my zucchini leaves me feeling a little apprehensive, and, if I screw up, I'll have an ulcer and protégée's guilt for not julienne-ing exactly as Alice instructed. I'll be reading the whole thing, but it's strictly information gathering - no joy of cooking here.

Which is why, when I wanted to try out french cooking for the first time, I bought Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten, a.k.a The Barefoot Contessa. Barefoot has ridiculously large photographs of a vase of flowers, or a plate of breadsticks. It has the literary equivalent of the fluffy photos in small narratives throughout the book about why the Contessa loves Paris. I've loved reading it and cooking its greatly simplified recipes because it's manageable and romantic. Which is more than I can say for Julia Child's (God bless her) 11-page recipe on how to make phyllo dough correctly. Sure it's about the content, but these days sex sells. And after a long day, nothing in the kitchen is sexier than an easy supper.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Brave New Booklist

One of my readers (a giant group of 3 or 4, depending on what my mom is doing) requested that my blog needs a "comprehensive reading list" so I can be her "own personal Oprah." While I'm working on that monster project (who doesn't want to be Oprah?) I'll instead offer up my current reading list which will hopefully suffice. It's a pleasant mix of fiction, braver fiction, cookbooks, and the inevitable self-improvement guides. Some of it is defensive reading -  people relentlessly mention that my blog manifesto, or whatever the subheading I have mentioning vegan muffin recipes is called, is misleading as the blog has no vegan muffin recipe on it. Thus the vegan cookbook. It also falls under the category of self-improvement (new year's resolution: more veggies) and braver fiction (a world without dairy).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I love that voodoo that you do so well, Amy Bloom.

Last weekend I devoured Amy Bloom's newest novel, Away. Honestly, I'm a little in love with Bloom's writing; every sentence of hers has its own heartbeat. Away follows Lillian Leyb, an immigrant in New York fresh from Russia, where she survived a pogram massacre that her mother, father and husband did not. Lillian is haunted by the memory of her daughter, whose fate the night of the pogram was never absolutely resolved. Upon hearing from an unreliable cousin that her daughter is alive in Russia, she abandons her comfortable but imperfect life for a journey of biblical proportions, by foot, across the United States and Canada, to Siberia. Away parades a cast of painfully flawed but recognizable survivors, who come and go from Lillian's own life as she pushes forward, churning out more memories, ghosts and human connections. 

I saw (stalked) Amy Bloom when she read at Powell's at the end of September. She explained that Away's plot was the result of her father reading an article about a woman who had walked from New York to Russia in the early 1900s. He asked Bloom what kind of woman would do something like that? He brought it up so often that eventually, Bloom started writing about that woman, if only to have an answer to his question. She said the only honest motive to some reckless journey like that could be love. But Away sticks with you because Bloom complicates love for what it really is, or what Away's characters imagine love could have been - if only. As Yaakov, a friend of Vivian's explains it, "'Before,' he says, 'when I was alive, I was a schmuck. Now I am the beautiful corpse. I am a waltzing cadaver. You know,' And Vivian does."

Friday, January 4, 2008

Punk Portland

Yes, I am the furthest thing from punk you'll ever see. I skulk around hipster Portland in my  JCrew sweaters and Ann Taylor Loft pants the way a punk with a violet Mohawk skulks around Omaha. But followers of the punk philosophy (roughly translated: free thought is critical, modern culture makes free thought nearly impossible) don't skulk and they don't apologize. That's why they both intimidate me and earn my respect. So when I saw this article in yesterday's New York Times, about a photography book by Abby Banks of punk collective house interiors, I felt she'd given me the chance to peak into the living spaces of places I probably won't be invited to otherwise.  I'm excited to check out Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy for potential writing material. When I do, the punks I brush shoulders with on the sidewalk most everyday and know next-to-nothing about might become more intimate - I will be able to imagine a living room, a vegan dumpster-diving dinner and perhaps, how they are trying to show who they are on the inside, outside - as are we all.