Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Foodie memoirs

Last Christmas, I picked up a copy of Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, and didn't put it down until it was finished.
I gave it as a gift, and she loved it too. Now my friend's husband is reading it.
It's that kind of goodness.

Ruth Reichl used to be a food critic for both the Los Angeles Times newspaper and the New York Times.
Now she is the editor of Gourmet Magazine.
And boy can she tell a story.

Garlic and Sapphires is actually the third part edition of stories of her life.
I went back to part one and her childhood, in Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table.
She grew up with an eccentric mother and several encounters with exotic foods and locations, all of which prepared her and influenced her for writing about the journey.

Alice would have snickered derisively at the notion, but she was the first person I ever met who understood the power of cooking. She was a great cook, but she cooked more for herself than for other people, not because she was hungry, but because she was comforted by the rituals of the kitchen. It never occurred to her that others might feel differently, and I was grown before I realized that not every six-year-old would consider it a treat to spend entire afternoons in the kitchen. (page 26)

I dipped my own (spoon) into the thick liquid and brought it to my mouth. With the first sip I knew that I had never really eaten before. The initial taste was pure carrot, followed by cream, butter, a bit of nutmeg. Then I swallowed and my whole mouth and throat filled with the echo of a rich chicken stock. I took another bite and it began all over again. I ate as if in a dream.
The butler set a roast before Beatrice's father, while the maid removed our empty bowls. Slowly the roast was carved and then the butler moved majestically around the table serving the meat.
It was just a filet of beef. But I had never tasted anything like this sauce, a mixture of red wine, marrow, butter, herbs, and mushrooms. It was like autumn distilled in a spoon. A shiver went down my back. "This sauce!" I exclaimed involuntarily. The sound echoed through the polite conversation at the table and I put my hand to my mouth. Monsieur du Croix laughed.
(page 65, 66)

Slowly, proudly, Marielle began teaching me everything she had learned in hotel school. She taught me to bone fish, make omelets, and serve with a spoon and fork and one hand behind my back. She made me taste salad dressings over and over until I could pour out the precise ratio of olive oil to vinegar without looking at what I was doing. "It's like typing," she said, "you have to know it in the fingers so that you do not think about it with the head. You will need this later." (page 144)

Unknowingly, I had started sorting people by their tastes. Like a hearing child born to deaf parents, I was shaped by my mother's handicap, discovering that food could be a way of making sense of the world.
At first I paid attention only to taste, storing away the knowledge that my father preferred salt to sugar and my mother had a sweet tooth. Later I also began to note how people ate, and where. My brother liked fancy food in fine surroundings, my father only cared about the company, and Mom would eat anything so long as the location was exotic. I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.
Then I began listening to the way people talked about food, looking for clues to their personalities
. (page 6)

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mistress of Spices

Sometimes I buy vintage books, or used books, and within the cover are written inscriptions...the book had been a gift to someone special.
"From Mommy..." or comments hoping the receiver will be as delighted by the story as was the giver.
I wonder why I now hold the book in my hands--why it was not kept and treasured and held close.

So too old library books. Who checked this out? Who read these pages? What stories could the book tell beyond its own?

Today, in a lazy afternoon, I finished reading Mistress of Spices, a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
As a passage would move me, I would dog-ear the page, intending to come back to the words and save excerpts.
Over and over again, I would find the pages already creased, previously dog-eared, sometimes little stars in red pencil marking paragraphs.
Who was similarly moved?
Who is this person with the red pencil?
I'm intrigued.

The book is fantasy, folklore and fable.
It is old wives tails and spells and the symbolism that I love.
The story unfolds around an Indian woman, cloaked in a body of one who is old, but actually a young sage, sent to help Indian patrons with their problems.
She lives in Oakland, in a spice shop.
The spices are living--they whisper to her, they grow angry at times.
The spices have power.
It is the spices, too, that offer healing to those with needs for safety, or love, or finding a way.
The woman pounds them into powders, or cuts them into pieces--they become potions for some, and for others they are simple ingredients in food, though the magic is the same.
Amazon describes the story: Tilo, proprietress of the Spice Bazaar in Oakland, California, is not the elderly Indian woman she appears to be. Trained as a mistress of spices, she evokes the magical powers of the spices of her homeland to help her customers. These customers, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, are struggling to adapt their Old World ideals to the unfamiliar and often unkind New World. Though trapped in an old woman's body and forbidden to leave the store, Tilo is unable to keep the required distance from her patrons' lives. Her yearning to join the world of mortals angers the spices, and Tilo must face the dire consequences of her disobedience.

Here are some excerpts to give you, the, ahem, flavor.
Fennel,which is the spice of Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. Waists that have given up, mouths drooping with the weight of their average lives that once dreamed would be so different. Fennel, brown as mud and bark and leaf dancing in a fall breeze, smelling of changes to come. (page 108)

I try to think but inside my skull is a jumble of broken parts, thought shards whose ends do not fit each other.
"Ultimately,the Mistresses are without power, hollow reeds only for the wind's singing. It is the spice that decides, and the person to whom it is given. You must accept what they together choose and even with failure be at peace...
But when you lean out past what is allowed and touch what is not, when you step beyond the old rules, you increase the chance of failing a hundredfold. The old rules which keep the world in its frail balance, which have been there forever, before me, before the other Old Ones, before even the Grandmother.
" (page 148)

The death of my father cut me free of all ties, all caring. I was like a boat that had come unmoored, bobbing in an ocean filled with treasure troves and storms and sea monsters, and who knew where I would end up. (page 258)

"Say goodbye to her for us. Say thanks for all her help. Say we will always remember her."
I am moved by the warmth in their voices. Even though I know that what they say, what they believe, is an illusion. Because in time all things are forgotten. Still, I imagine them walking this street next month, next year, pointing. 'There once was a woman here. Her eyes like a magnet-rock drew out your deepest secret,' they say to their children. "Ah, what-all she could do with spices. Listen carefully."
And they tell my story.
(page 281)

But I know that rules broken must be paid for. Balance upset must be restored. For one to be happy, another must take upon herself the suffering.
A tale comes to me from my forgotten childhood: In the start of the world, searching for the nectar of immortality, the gods and demons churned up halahal, bitterest poison from the primal ocean. Its fumes covered the earth, and all creatures, dying, cried out their terror. Then the great Shiva took in his cupped hands the halahal and drank it. The dreadful poison burned in his throat, turning it a bruised blue that remains to this day. Ah, even for a god it must have been painful. But the world was saved.
I Tilo am no goddess but an ordinary woman only. Yes, I admit it, this truth I have tried to escape all my life. And though once I thought I could save the world, I see now that I have only brought happiness into a few lives.
And yet, is that not enough.
(page 318)


Monday, July 07, 2008

The Friday Night Knitting Club

I had high hopes for The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs, but it was just a'ight for me.
It seemed looooong and, in the end, insignificant.
Like I could have spent time better elsewhere.
Not that it was a bad read, just a so-so one.

The chapters are separated by knitting tips that are metaphors for life.
"Every knitter has a sweater left unfinished; the bags of bits and pieces stashed away an never picked up again. And why? A change in fashion? A change in season? If that was so, you'd just pull out the stitches and use the yarn for something new. No, there's a secret hope that makes you hold on, to dream that you'll get it right someday, that you'll go back and take it up again and it will finally come out right. That this time all the pieces will fit. The mistake is waiting until you feel renewed enough to give it another try. You simply have to pick up the needles and keep at it anyway." (page 261)
"You can't keep your garment on the needles forever; eventually it's going to have to exist on its own, supporting itself. The trick is looping the stitches across each other so they can be pulled away from the needle without coming all apart." (page 295)

The story is about relationships--lovers, daughters, friends. It's about believing in yourself.
I had some excerpts saved, but I think I'll pass after all.
I'm just not that enthusiastic.