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Chicken with Coconut Curry

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All right, food lovers… I have a confession to make… I’m on Day 12 of the Whole30 program. I’m working on a more substantive post about the documentary Fed Up which finally lit a fire under me to swap out The Things They Carried with Fast Food Nation for my American Lit II class, as well as the big ideas I gleaned in Whole30 founders Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s manifesto of sorts, It All Starts with Food, plus the dilemma I now find myself in when it comes to Ina Garten, whom I love, adore, and cook from, butter, SUGAR, and all.

But for now… a REALLY good recipe from the cookbook The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to TOTAL HEALTH and FOOD FREEDOM. 

And I’ll say this… one benefit of taking the Whole30 challenge is learning to cook with new ingredients and discovering that you love them. I am developing quite an affection for coconut milk, which I confess I had never used before this “total health” endeavor.

I’m also finding ghee butter handy — clarified butter (milk solids, aka sugar, removed) in a jar. If you’ve ever made clarified butter you can appreciate buying it in a jar. It’s a process. Clarified, or ghee butter can be used to cook at higher temperatures, imparting delicious butter flavor to a wider variety of dishes. Ghee butter runs for about $6.99 a jar at my local grocery store, so make of that what you will. Some grocery stores don’t have it…

I’ve made this chicken recipe twice now, once on the grill and once baked in the oven. If you have the means, the texture and flavor of grilled chicken is just better, in my opinion. But the curry sauce is so decadent, baked chicken is convenient and tasty too. I’ve made it with thighs and breasts — both are good — but bone-in, skin-on is key. (And cheaper!)

Serves 4

  1. First things first: put 2 cans of coconut milk in the fridge for at least an hour. The cream will rise to the top of the can, which is what you’re using, and what makes this curry sauce so decadent.
  2. Make the curry sauce: melt some ghee butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and…swirl to coat… of course 🙂 Add diced onion (half a medium onion) and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add 2 minced garlic cloves and let the garlic cook for about 30 seconds. Throw in 1 tablespoon of curry powder and stir for a good 15 to 20 seconds, then add 1 cup of crushed tomatoes (or tomato sauce) and simmer to thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer to another bowl, and let everything cool. (The cookbook calls for you to blend the sauce in a blender at this point. I didn’t bother with this step and let the onions and garlic provide a little texture). Use your can opener to measure 1/2 cup of coconut cream out of your can of coconut milk. Measure out 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper  and once the mixture has cooled, stir in the coconut cream, salt, and pepper. (If don’t let the mixture cool, the coconut cream will curdle).
  3. Pour some of the curry sauce into a separate bowl and brush it on your chicken breasts or thighs. (Pat the chicken dry first). (This way if you end up with extra curry sauce, you’re not contaminating the entire bowl as you prepare the chicken. I ended up with extra curry sauce both times. You can re-use the sauce for other things… more meat, a fried egg…)
  4. Grill or bake your chicken and then serve with extra warmed curry sauce. (I baked the chicken at 375 Fahrenheit for 35-40 minutes and then cut into it to see if it needed more time).

Now, in advance — I’ll quote Kathleen O’Toole, a relative I recently met on my travels in Ireland, after she served me carrot cake and apple pie around midnight, seized my hands with a twinkle in her eye, and declared, I’m delighted you liked it!!!!

Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

Talking Documentaries: The Island President

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.08.13 PMI watched a wonderful documentary a few weeks ago that I hope you’ll consider watching if you have some spare vacation time this week. In The Island President, award-winning cinematographer and director Jon Shenk profiles the urgent environmental agenda of the lowest lying country on Earth: the Maldives, a constellation of 1200 islands scattered below India. A three meter rise in sea level would be enough to obliterate the country’s pristine beaches and Sunni Muslim population. In 2008, the Maldives transitioned from a brutal dictatorship to a democratic government under the leadership of Mohammed Nasheed, and a fascinating parallel is drawn between Nasheed’s rise to the presidency, overcoming a relentless military regime, and his next epic political battle: fighting the imminent threat of climate change.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 3.59.39 PMThe movie opens with a panoramic view of the Indian ocean, featuring the graceful underwater waves of a coral reef, large circles of land that dissolve into water, a streak of uninterrupted sky, the overlapping of blues, greens, and turquoises from all sides. Such beauty is juxtaposed with a brief history of former President Gayoom’s repressive regime, during which Nasheed and other outspoken government critics were imprisoned and tortured where upscale resorts now stand. After being repeatedly imprisoned, Nasheed went into exile to continue his reform efforts. When the 2004 tsunami hit, decimating whole islands and reducing GDP by 50 percent, he decided to return to the Maldives. In the words of one government official, his much anticipated return would either result in his death or his becoming president. The latter ended up happening. Within weeks of reclaiming his country, Nasheed realized that the most urgent political issues facing the Maldives all revolved around climate change. Beaches were washing away, the fishing industry had stalled, and rising sea levels threatened to take an entire republic — in essence, a civilization — off the map in the foreseeable future. Nasheed’s response was to take the global lead on reducing carbon emissions, vowing that the Maldives would become carbon neutral by 2019.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.22.48 PMAfter reconstructing this recent history, the film shifts its focus to Nasheed’s efforts to persuade world leaders that in his words, the “annihilation” of the Maldives is an equally urgent global issue. The camera follows Nasheed’s meetings with the British parliament to his dealings at a New York climate conference — his first trip to the U.S. — capturing many snapshots of the developed and developing world’s complacency. Meanwhile, he adopts strong rhetoric: “if you don’t protect the Maldives today, you cannot protect London tomorrow.” It’s very compelling to watch Nasheed’s team move with heightened awareness of their own mortality through a political process that is as murky and unsympathetic as a tsunami itself. For example, a British journalist cheerfully observes in a radio interview that “you really like a fight, don’t you,” to which Nasheed laughs and points out that he’s fighting for his country’s existence. Another scene shows Nasheed lobbying a British politician who smiles nervously and states that supporting democracy in a Muslim country must be an important priority. During a review of global warming statistics for the Copenhagen summit, Nasheed’s audacity is replaced by a grave silence, but he quickly resolves to enlist the support of India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly developing economies the only way he knows how: by presenting the issue in a “green ribbon cutting” format, in other words, a PR opportunity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.28.48 PMYou grow to love this lithe island president, wading into the ocean in a business suit to film public service announcements, conducting underwater cabinet meetings to expose the decrepit state of coral reefs, awkwardly but good-naturedly choking down a hamburger at an American sports bar after a disappointing first day at the New York conference, agreeing wholeheartedly with the London Times headline, “Global Warming like Nazi Invasion.” The Minister of Housing & Environment, Mohamed Aslam, effectively summarizes the unique political situation, or more accurately, apolitical situation of the Maldives: “I don’t even like the word negotiate. With climate, there’s nothing to negotiate.” But of course, the negotiations in Copenhagen are everything, and Nasheed reveals his underlying shrewdness when he makes major concessions to China with the aim of maintaining his country’s VIP status as a climate game-changer. To the disappointment of his delegation, his outspoken idealism gives way to a more calculated approach toward a less tangible outcome: maintaining influence in future talks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.13.52 PMSadly, Nasheed’s voice is silenced by something far more blunt than the complications of international diplomacy. As noted in the closing credits, he was ousted from power in February 2012 by forces loyal to the former dictator — once again, a reminder that the health of our planet is inextricably linked to that seemingly “dirty” word, politics. In the meantime, I’m inspired to be a little nicer to my patch of the planet this new year.

[Photos: “Maldives Sunset,” Sarah Ackerman’s photostream under CC BY 2.0, “Maldives from the air 1,” Commonwealth Secretariat’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Maldives Underwater Cabinet Meeting,” Divers Association of Maldives’ photo stream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Island President,” humanrightsfilmfestival’s photo stream, CC BY-NC 2.0]

Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” ― William Shakespeare, King Lear

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 1.58.18 PMIn the case of Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen and starring Cate Blanchett, this “great stage of fools” involves frequent crying, flamboyant crying, on park benches, while mumbling to strangers, in vodka-gulping gasps, punctuated by dripping mascara
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.05.03 PMand sweat-soaked armpits, in melodramatic fashion, or behind mammoth sunglasses, clutching a bulging Louis Vuitton bag to tragic effect.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.04.08 PMThis is a movie that honors the deep vein of folly, ineptness, coming-up-shortness that runs through life. In being so over-the-top, Jasmine’s blues are not a bore, in fact, just the opposite — Cate Blanchett’s acting chops breathe eloquent life into a well-documented universal truth, from Shakespeare to the Bible, how foolish  mere mortals are…

Oh-so-blue Jasmine is a former Manhattan socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in the wake of her investment banker husband’s downfall. She is hanging by a thread, and we hang right alongside her. I was content to watch the antics of one, martini-guzzling, zanex-popping title character and her open-hearted, scattered brained sister with the name “Ginger” to match (as someone actually named Ginger, I invite you to notice my eyes rolling). What is so engrossing about Jasmine’s pathetic plight?

It’s a vicious cycle of sympathy, ridicule, lack of redemption, and more sympathy. You can see the character, “Ginger” (played by actress Sally Hawkins) riding the same waves of disgust and compassion for her sister. The more we sympathize with Jasmine’s determination to carry on, the more we recognize her accountability, the more we see her self-deprecating awareness of past mistakes, and her tragic, stubborn inability to change course.

This cycle harks back to A Streetcar Named Named Desire. Both protaganists — Blue Jasmine, Blanche DuBois — muster sympathy and ridicule in an unpredictable, fitful pattern. Actress Cate Blanchett played Blanche Dubois at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and excels at the “woman on the verge” rhythms. Ben Brantley’s praise of Streetcar could easily be applied to Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 9.40.25 PMSpeaking of life “as a great stage of fools,” I saw the next installment in the Up Series, 56 Up. Can you imagine having your life edited into a movie every seven years? Beginning in 1964, the Up Series documents the lives of a group of British school children. As the subjects get older and more reflective, the strange, Truman Show effect of the series becomes a major talking point. Many are eager to speak candidly about the burden of the Up Series on their unfolding sense of identity. This is another movie that deals with baggage, not too far from Jasmine and her cumbersome set of designer luggage.Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.03.11 PMOne of the sadder stories is that of Neil Hughes. Now a district councillor in rural England, he is depicted at age seven as an exuberant, smiling kid, playfully dodging director Michael Apted’s questions. In his twenties, he is homeless, wandering rural Scotland. He fidgets nervously when Michael answers pointed questions about his mental health. In 56 Up, he says that viewers have treated him with tremendous generosity, but at the same time, people who say “they know exactly what he feels like” are mistaken.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.07.45 PMEngineering professor Nick Hitchon puts it less defensively: “It’s not an absolutely accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” It’s a collective picture of human striving, a group of “somebodies” discovering happiness, seeking purpose, and coping with challenges. It depicts the universal drama of life, and the vitality of the project seems to draw back participants, reluctant but curious each go-around.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.02.14 PMSuzy, a wife and mother with an upper-middle class upbringing, admits to having a “ridiculous loyalty to the series.” In 21 Up, she states that “she was pressurized into doing it by her parents.” At age 56, Suzy says that she hasn’t had a distinguished career, but she “feels fulfilled.” When asked about the next installment, she smirks, saying “it’s like reading a bad book. I’ll still read it. I’ll still see it through.”
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.09.50 PM
That’s the spirit. Some solid advice for Jasmine, Blanche, and other femme fatales.

[Photos: taken from Netflix]

Midnight Pasta + American Nostalgia

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.37.05 PMIn Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and The Art of Eating, distinguished authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry discuss food-related topics with the same intelligent, playful, and occasional dark voices that characterizes their literary work.

I particularly like the essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “Food Mysteries.” She sticks to her signature tone — wry and unsentimental — avoiding the nostalgia trap. Through a collection of anecdotes including her Hungarian grandmother, cafeteria food, and dinners with poets, she manages to translate ironic food observations into a genuinely compelling portrait of human nature, and its mysteriousness. One observation comments on “American nostalgia.” She writes,

“There are adults of middle age in whom the sudden acrid smells of cafeteria food (scorched macaroni-and-cheese casserole, canned spaghetti with tomato sauce, grease-encrusted french fries, ‘beef doves,’ ‘shepherd’s pie,’ ‘Texas hash,’ et al) galvanize taste buds dormant since eighth grade, with a hungry violence rarely experienced since eighth grade: but it is better not to be one of these.”

Well, ahem, I personally can speak to a fondness for grease encrusted French fries (I wish I could call it nostalgia; my enjoyment probably has more to do with the grease than nostalgic memories of my childhood) but that said, this idea of food nostalgia is  interesting… 

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.46.52 PMIt makes you wonder: if our childhood taste buds can be galvanized as quickly as our amygdala goes into fight-or-flight, does anyone ever grow up? It’s like the saying, “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten.” True — but what happens when we smell French fries? Suddenly we’re four-year-olds.

Our nostalgia for certain childhood foods hits at the core of human nature. Notwithstanding our biological predisposition toward carbohydrate-rich foods, what about comfort food has us so tightly wrapped around its silver spoon? Like little else, comfort food knows that we never shed our five-year-old selves: innocent, occasionally bratty, and placated by French fries. And it lives to mock us!

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 1.01.27 PMFor this reason, I am always inspired by healthier versions of classic, calorie-rich comfort food. I love making old-fashioned  “mac-and-cheese casseroles,” but a quicker, healthier alternative are what chefs call “midnight pastas.” They are improvised using basic pantry ingredients and impart a relaxing, after-your-guests-are-gone vibe.

Here is one of my own, improvised “midnight pastas,” except that I usually make it at 6:00 p.m., and then pat myself on the back for fulfilling the day’s cooking quota, for a crowd of two 🙂

Noodles

The pasta is whatever you choose, or have on hand, cooked according to package directions. I personally think longer noodles are fun, such as linguini, angel hair, or spaghetti. I would cook about 1/2 pound of pasta so you have plenty of sauce to go around. Reserve a cup of the pasta water in case you want to dilute the sauce.

Sauce

This is a hybrid of Barefoot Contessa’s Linguini with Shrimp Scampi (sans the shrimp) and Cristina Ferrare’s Angel Hair with Olive Oil and Lemon from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love.

Ingredients

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 1.44.07 PM

Kosher salt freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
1/2 lemon, zest grated
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/4 lemon, thinly sliced in half-rounds
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley leaves
Chopped fresh mint leaves
Toasted walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds

  • Optional: add sundried tomatoes, frozen peas, corn
  • Substitute chives, scallions, or basil for mint, or use a different combination of herbs
  • Substitute asiago cheese for Parmesan

Melt three tablespoons of butter and 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute only. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from the heat and add lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and slices of lemon. Grate as much parmesan cheese as desired over the sauce and stir.

Add cooked pasta to the sauce and mix gently with tongs. Add more cheese and/or dilute with reserved pasta water as needed. Garnish with herbs and toasted nuts.

[Photos: “Cafeteria ‘A,’ 1947,” Duke Yearlook’s photostream and “Homemade Pasta,” marksweb’s photostream]

 

A Place At The Table

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.18.13 PMI recently watched A Place At The Table, a follow-up documentary to the critically acclaimed Food Inc. This next installation puts a human, American face on food insecurity, piecing together the different causes and manifestations of hunger in the United States.

Sadly, the terms food desert and food insecurity are familiar to most people now. Nonetheless, the filmmakers document the wide-ranging extent of these realities to set the scene: convenience stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in parts of West Philly and rural Mississippi. The source of tomorrow’s meal worries a single mother with a full time job and an extended family living together in rural Colorado. I was surprised to learn the extent to which federal agricultural legislation perpetuates this cycle of hunger.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.20.54 PMThe face of hunger takes many forms: Barbie is a single mother living in Philadelphia. She is shown boiling spaghetti with her two, pre-school age children, explaining that she has recently been laid off and is supporting her family on food stamps. On public transportation, it takes Barbie a total of two hours to buy fresh groceries. She describes her own vivid memories of sphagettios and ramen noodles, and her determination to prevent these memories for her children.

Meanwhile, a mild mannered second grader named Tremonica climbs onto the examining table of a local clinic in rural Mississippi. The lack of accessible, healthy food is affecting her weight. Her teacher is later shown exhibiting “a honeydew melon,” inviting her students to call out adjectives. Tremonica is shown cautiously biting into a juicy slice.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.21.28 PMRosie is a sixth grader living in rural Colorado. It recently came to her teacher’s attention that Rosie’s academic and behavior struggles were caused by hunger. Rosie says that she sometimes sees a banana in place of her teacher. She seems sensitive, excitable, and lonely. Members of her extended family juggle various part-time jobs; they share a messy household. She gives the cameras a tour, complaining about the clutter, then shares her getaway spot in the woods.

How did we mire ourselves in a situation where “honeydew melon” is a novelty and factory-made spaghettios are spilling off our shelves? It’s not that I have disdain for spaghettios. On the other hand, I can’t tolerate people who only eat organic, grass fed chicken.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 5.24.29 PMEssentially, our government subsidizes food that is making us sick. By allowing packaged foods to be made very cheaply from refined, processed corn products and strong arming independent-minded farmers, the government makes really nasty, unhealthy, artificial junk available to the poor and limits the availability of fresh produce. In addition to being cheap, this food is very addictive from a biological standpoint. The corruption aspect lies in the fact that most food industry regulators started their careers as agribusiness leaders, CEOs of highly centralized, heavily subsidized farm-to-factory companies.

According to this film, the power of food and agricultural lobbyists rivals that of the NRA. Really, now? The manufacturers of food — basic sustenance — qualify as a “special interest group”?

The film shows a clear cause-and-effect relationship between money, fear, and the U.S. government’s perpetuation of food-related health issues. This is demonstrated by a grieving mother who has lobbied Congress about food safety laws ever since her son’s fatal E. Coli poisoning. After several years, her efforts have not yielded any concrete results. Bound by legal concerns, she minces words with the filmmakers, but her reticence speaks volumes about the power of agribusiness. Meanwhile, a pediatrician and a group of women activists lobby Congress for school lunch funds. Congress “does not have the funds” to spend more than $1.00 per lunch.

The filmmakers also make a compelling argument that food pantries are not a substitute for systemic change to agricultural laws. To do so, the issue needs to have more prominence during election season. In the meantime, you can donate or learn more here:

[Flickr photos by Bread for the World’s photo stream and tpmartins photostream]

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