June 12, 2005

Everything I have said about the weather, the rain, the humidity, the heat; every complaint, every whinge, every vague desire to dive into the pornographic air-conditioning of Emporio Armani...I take it all back, dear friends.  It is worth it.






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June 08, 2005

Dear friends, I have been working on a brand-new, 20-zillion-word monograph on home cooking, namely why it's a good thing, and why Sudha Koul, Su Mei Yu, Tessa Kiros and Vicky Bhogal should all be richer than Croesus and more famous than Elvis, the Beatles, Slim Whitman and Zamfir (Master of the Pan Flute!) combined.  I was really hoping to post it tonight, but three harder-than-hard days at LuthorCorp, one evening out at a company event and one further evening out in the company of my obligatory-in-New-York-City mental health professional have all conspired to give me both the attention span of a gnat and the capacity for intelligent thought of a sea anemone.  (If you're an ichthyologist, and you happen to know that sea anemones *are* capable of intelligent thought, thank you very much, please save it for another night, please.  smile  The new post is coming, it really is, but until that time when the valentine to my new books is ready, here is a valentine to an older one, which originally appeared here on September 29, 2004.

To those of you who arrived here via the lovely Michele (thank you, lovely Michele!), thank you all for your kind words!  I will be visiting over the next few days, you bet.

If you have ever wondered if your fellow people still read books, if words have power, if lives can be changed by a single book, believe me when I tell you they can. I know this because I have 72 candy bars sitting under my desk, and I have Steve Almond to thank for putting them there.

For those of you who have not been within earshot of me for the past few weeks (note to self: what is the equivalent of earshot when you communicate via the ‘net? Fingertipshot?), the story is simple. I was on my way home from my Labor Day weekend adventures at Snowball’s house. I was on my second attempt to get home from Denver International Airport, having spent four hours there the previous day only to get bumped from my flight. I returned the next day only to find out that my plane would be two hours late due to a door malfunction at JFK. I was in that horrible travel state where I wanted to be at home or back at Snowball’s, but I didn’t want to be at points between. To kill the time, and to quiet my chattering nerves, I decided to browse at the bookshop at DIA.

I had no plans to buy anything, but it leapt up at me anyway: Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It was one of those digest-sized books published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, whose list I have been loving for years. It included jacket blurbs from Amy Sedaris and Nick Malgieri (who was the director of the pastry program at my alma mater) and Tom Perrotta and the righteous John Thorne. How could I say no?

Dear friends, I am so glad I didn’t, because Candyfreak is a wonder of a book, definitely the best work of nonfiction I’ve read this year and probably the best I will read for the next five. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a freak, too, a sucker for chocolate, a plump little grouse bird in love with her chains. Nor am I saying that because I have a crush on the author – although, let’s be frank, I do. (I haven’t been this crushy on an author since I read Consumer Joe).

I’m saying it because Candyfreak is about more than the pursuit and love of candy bars. It is also about fear and loneliness, creeping existentialism and fear of death. It is about the primal hold our own freaks, be they candy or bottle rockets or marijuana or reckless adventure sports, have on us; how we can’t use them to skirt the miseries of adulthood, but also how those miseries of adulthood can’t totally squash the thrill of a really good freak. It is about those screwups that are small in the grand scheme of things, but mammoth when you are going through them (like, say, losing your driver’s license on the eve of a tour of candy companies all over the country). It’s about meeting people who work at small, regional candy companies, who can’t begin to compete against the candy behemoths of Nestle, Hershey and Mars (who have rechristened their candy division with the howler name “Masterfoods”), who not only come to work to make the candy every day, but also find their jobs really, really neat. It is about pining for missed opportunities and lost loves, including but not limited to the Caravelle bar, the Choco-Lite bar and my own lost love from childhood, the Marathon bar. For those of you not familiar with the Marathon bar, it was a foot-long, inch-wide lattice of caramel, coated in milk chocolate. I don’t remember a caramel outside of a home kitchen that tasted nearly as buttery as that found in a Marathon. I do remember the little frisson of pleasure I would get when we visited the Cochecton General Store in Cochecton, New York, right over the Delaware River from our home in Damascus, PA, when I knew that I’d be allowed to get a candy bar, and I would hone in on the cluster of Marathons, dead center in the candy rack. The Marathon wrapper was bright red, with a huge yellow 70’s-appropriate font spelling out “Marathon” on the front of the wrapper and a ruler on the back. According to Steve Almond, any teenage boy who is given candy bar wrapper with a ruler on it will do only one thing with that ruler, but since I was a) eight years old and b) a girl, it never occurred to me to do anything like that.

You might think that I am overstating the case for Candyfreak. I am not. This is a book written by a thoughtful and principled and sharply funny and deeply intelligent fellow, one who acknowledges that candy is a nutritional vacuum food that manages to make children both hyperactive and obese; that food companies target children in ways that are less than principled; that sugar and chocolate are both produced under terrible conditions by some of the most exploited people in the world; and yet, and yet…and from there we are catapulted into the rest of the tale, that wonderful “and yet.” He went to Palmer Candy in Sioux City, home of the Twin Bing;to Boise, Idaho, home of the Idaho Spud and the mythic Owyhee Butter Toffee; to Kansas City, home of the Valomilk, which really is as good as its press would indicate. He went south to watch the production of Goo Goo Clusters, and he went to North Philadelphia for Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, a candy that is ubiquitous from Boston to Virginia, so ubiquitous that people take it for granted and rarely actually buy it. (I’d always thought that it looked like candy for people who didn’t enjoy candy; then my stepdad bought me a bar, and I never looked back. If you live somewhere where you can’t buy Peanut Chews and you want to try them, I will buy you a bag and ship it to you, my treat to you. Seriously.)

If it weren’t enough that he went to visit all of these nifty places, and reminded us once more that there should be room for something besides Nestle, Hershey and Mars (sorry, Masterfoods), his turn of phrase is simply amazing. At the start of the final chapter, he finds himself at the end of the candyfreak journey, facing a hellish series of connecting flights, contemplating his return to teach writing at Boston College,

…where a group of students would be waiting for me with their eyes full of cigarette lust and their hearts shut tight as antique lockets, and it would be my job, presumably, to do something about this.

When I read this line, I thought of another teacher I know who had much the same group of students waiting for her. I bought her her own copy of Candyfreak to fortify her for the semester ahead.

Should I even go into what ran through my mind when I read his impromptu haiku, composed as he watched melted chocolate pour from a steel hopper at the Goo Goo Cluster factory?

Brown rivers released
From cold silver machines sing
for a stunned wet tongue

No, I don’t think I need to.

It was in this highly-charged state I found myself when I decided to explore some of the links in the Appendix. Ten minutes later, my candydirect.com order had been placed. Ten days later, I found myself the proud owner of a case of 24 Idaho Spuds (a little odd, but they’re growing on me fast, literally and figuratively), 24 Boyer Smoothie Cups (a peanut butter cup with butterscotch coating, not chocolate, also weird but successful) and 24 Abba Zabas (the clear winner of the bunch, a slab of white taffy filled with a peanut filling that has to be tried to be believed). If candydirect.com had not been out of Valomilks, I would have had 96 candy bars under my desk. No, I am not an unrepentant glutton; I am just stuck in a world where if you want to cultivate the offbeat and quirky and sweet, you might just have to buy it in quantity.

Fortunately, I have the easy solution to this. “Would you like some candy?” I say to coworkers, to friends, to Lloyd, a wide spectrum of different people in different contexts, but the light in their eyes, it’s all the same, and it's all the reply I need.

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June 07, 2005











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June 05, 2005

My favorite culinary rant of the week comes from the beautiful and wise Julie at A Finger in Every Pie, who has a few things to say about the "new and improved" Kiev on Second Avenue and East Seventh Street. It is my belief that if we were all allowed to follow Julie around for a week, we would all be eating much, much better by the end of that week. Go visit her and see why. (Incidentally, for you fellow music nerds out there, this is the same Kiev that was mentioned in this classic King Missile song. Except that, as Julie says with such force and brio, it's not the same Kiev anymore.)

My favorite quote of the week, and easily one of the best sentences ever to be recorded by my voicemail, comes from the also-beautiful-and-wise bunni, who is slogging bravely through the Aeneid, which we've taken to calling Oy, That's a Lot of Romans: "The Romans were the people you wanted to do your plumbing, but epic poetry was certainly not their strong suit." (Bunni has plenty of other quotable things to say about the Aeneid, most of which are filled with f-bombs, all of which are a riot.)

My second-favorite quote of the week comes from Regina Schrambling at gastropoda. Because I don't want to get my muddy shoes all over Regina's copyright, I won't reproduce it here. What I will do is encourage you to click on the link and scroll down to the ninth story from the top, the one that begins: "Here's what $32 buys you these days..." From now on, whenever people ask me why I make my own life so difficult by shlepping 20 pounds of groceries from Union Square to Astoria via the N train, I'm just going to hand them a copy of this instead.

More thoughts about stovies. I realize, dear friends, that by mentioning stovies about a sesquillion times since my return home, I run the risk of turning the humble-but-noble stovies into a badly overexposed topic, the PTMYB equivalent of runaway brides or shark attacks. It's not that I want to flog a good thing to death; no, the truth is more prosaic. The truth is that I ran out of steam on Thursday night, and after several futile attempts at writing something that would a) give stovies a little context and b) not be so awful as to make me drive spoons into my eyes, I just decided to give up and post the recipe.

Here endeth the dissembling and excuse-making. Here beginneth the context. At the risk of resorting to lazy rhetoric in the tradition of "Webster's defines 'x' as..." or "If you Google 'x'...", the entry for stovies in the mighty Oxford Companion to Food describes them simply as "a Scottish dish of potatoes, onions, etc., often with mutton, stewed with very little added liquid." The late and much-missed Alan Davidson, who edited the Oxford Companion and wrote the stovies entry, points out that stovies do indeed make for very good eating, the real point of interest is the etymology of the name. He presents two points of view: one being that stovie is derived from the French etuve, a braise cooked in a covered container with very little liquid, the other being that "to stove" is an English verb in its own right. The former argument points to the large number of French cooking terms used in Scottish cookery literature; but, Davidson writes, the historian Catherine Brown disputes this theory, pointing to the use of "stove" as a verb in a poultry recipe found in Gervase Markham's The English Hus-Wife, published in 1615. On a superficial level, I am inclined to agree with Ms. Brown, but I also know that to gain a real understanding of where a dish and its nomenclature comes from requires study of my own, not just by glomming on to the most acceptable theory of the time. (It is this sort of glomming on that promulgates bad culinary history, the kind that fuels "tomatoes were considered poisonous until 1821/Catherine de Medici invented haute cuisine/"johnnycake" is just a corruption of "journey cake" apocrypha, and while those tales are often whimsical and charming, they often obscure a path that is every bit as interesting and fun to follow, if not more so.)

As I mentioned in my comments to the previous post, stovies are one of the simplest things you can make, requiring onions, potatoes, some form of meat or vegetarian meat equivalent, some form of fat, some form of liquid, salt and pepper. I found literally hundreds of stovie recipes online, calling for yellow, white or red onions; for floury potatoes; for waxy potatoes; for beef dripping, lard, butter and/or olive oil; for minced beef, minced lamb, stewed mutton, chicken parts, or tempeh; for water, chicken broth, beef broth, water flavored with Bovril, water flavored with powdered vegetable stock, lager cut with water, lager all on its own. You can cook it for half an hour, as I did, or you can cook it for two hours. You can shake the pot assiduously to keep the bottom from burning, or you can gently encourage the formation of a bottom crust, not so burned as to taste acrid, but just burned enough to give everything a nice caramelized flavor. You can cook it on top of the stove, or in the oven. As with many well-loved staple dishes -- fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, coq au vin, chocolate chip cookies -- every fan has his/her own recipe, and what works for one of us may make the rest of us recoil in horror. I am still waiting to get my wrist slapped by someone who has been making stovies for 30 years, and who would be horrified by my ingredients or methodology. Then again, maybe it won't happen: maybe stovie lovers know that this is a generous, wide-open dish, with plenty of room for us to play around until we find the version that says to us a-ha, that's it.

Posted by Bakerina at 02:39 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
June 03, 2005


It is an odd time to think about ribsticking, cold-weather food, but it is shaping up to be an odd summer. Eventually we will be past this middling weather, wedged firmly into those 110-degree-in-the-shade days that convince you that summer is indeed endless, but not in a good way. For now, though, I am left curious and amused at the realization that the temperature in Edinburgh on our last day there was 20 degrees warmer than the temperature in New York on my first lunchtime visit to my local farmer's market last Wednesday. I came home from Scotland looking like a sun-kissed lotus eater. You would have thought that I'd spent two weeks in the desert.

Even without summer weather, we are sliding into summer food. Laurie Colwin once said that novice cooks could produce an excellent meal by applying heat to one dish, and buying the rest in. I would add that experienced cooks can produce an excellent meal this way, too, and tonight I managed to do it without applying any heat to anything at all, at least until dessert. With the last of the Italian arugula and sorrel, a pint of grape tomatoes, a pair of lamb kebabs and a dressing made from mustard, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and shallots, we made a salad that reminded me, after months of sweet potato braises and bowls of cold pickled cabbage, that there is something about meat and greens together that makes me want to put on a light cotton shift and ballet flats, and enjoy the feel of not having layers of clothing on my back. The lamb kebabs came from a souvlaki cart in my neighborhood, grilled by a guy who knows that a combination of lemon juice and a little salt does wonders for lamb. If I can't grill it myself, I can come close to feeling like I did. It left me plenty of energy to apply heat to dessert, which came from an old Amanda Hesser piece in the New York Times: 1 slice of mild sourdough bread, sliced in half (one half for me, one for Lloyd), brushed with olive oil, lightly toasted under the broiler, topped with an ounce of semisweet chocolate, popped back under the broiler for about 10 seconds, taken out, drizzled with a little more olive oil and some big flakes of sea salt. If you are furrowing your brow at the thought of chocolate, olive oil and salt, I promise you that it is really, really delicious, satisfying without making one feel as if one's pockets were stuffed with buckshot, the way that too many death-by-chocolate desserts do.

We have the rest of the summer to eat this way, the salads and the chocolate bread and the fruit fools and the corn on and off the cob, but on Thursday I took advantage of late winter/early spring's last hurrah, and made ourselves a beautiful heaping Dutch oven fulla these:

Stovies, PTMYB version

serves 6 average eaters, 8 finicky dieters or 4 lumberjacks

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large or 2 medium onions, diced

12 ounces sausage links (I used garlic-and-cheese-flavored chicken sausages), cut into coins

3 pounds yellow potatoes (I used Nicola potatoes from the greenmarket), peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2" half-moons

10 ounces hard cider

salt and pepper

Heat olive oil and butter in a Dutch oven until butter is melted and foaming. Add onions and stir, cooking gently, for about 5 minutes. You may want to season the onions with some salt and pepper. Add the sausage and cook for another 5 minutes. Add potatoes, more salt and pepper, and stir until potatoes are well coated with the onions, butter and oil. Add cider and bring to the boil. Turn heat down, cover and cook for 30 minutes. At the end of the cooking time, uncover, turn up the heat and boil for about 5-7 minutes, until liquid is slightly reduced -- do not boil dry! Turn off heat and let everything settle for about 5 minutes. Before serving, break up the potatoes slightly with a potato masher. You are not going for mashed potatoes here; what you want is a mix of textures. Serve it forth, eat it up, and ask yourself, I wonder why they're called stovies, anyway? Say, I wonder if Jen will mention this over the weekend?

Posted by Bakerina at 12:15 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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