Monday, October 25, 2010

Cannonball Read

OK, so contrary to what you might assume by the lack of posts to this poor, neglected blog, I have not stopped reading for the CBR-II. It is true that I am no where near my goal of reading 26 books (aka the Half Cannonball), but I have not given up! I'll probably have read 13 books (I haven't actually counted), so a Quarter Cannonball, by the end of this month, which is when CBR-II will be ending. Although far from fabulous, it should count for something, at least.

I'm most of the way through my review of Lucky Jim, and with any luck, that'll be up before long. (This week perhaps?) And then I have several books that are read (many of them months ago) and therefore, need reviews. I expect those reviews will be a bit truncated, both due to the time that has passed since I read them (so my impressions of them have faded), but also, because I'm planning to try the Half Cannonball again for CBR-III, so I'll want time for reading new books (and yes, writing those reviews).

Oh, and did I mention I started a new blog? I decided that Bundt Cake Season™ needed its own blog, so that's rolling, too. Check it out here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Poor, neglected blog

Some day I'll update you properly. Some day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dayna Kurtz is a goddess. A thoughtful (and enlightening) explanation of how piracy hurts artists.

Dayna Kurtz, a wonderful musician, recently reached out to her fans and asked for help to bring her latest album to the US. (For more information, check out this link. And really, you should check it out.) Shortly thereafter, she received her first bit of hatemail. Below is the message she received and her beautifully written response. Her reply clearly illustrates the damage that piracy does to musicians, especially those who are not big time (which is most of them). Please take a few minutes to read it. (And yes, I got permission from Dayna to share this.)

this is my first bit of fan hatemail received after launching my kickstarter campaign to raise funds via fans to put my new CD out in the USA. (well, actually i think it's my first bit of fan hatemail ever. which is kind of an achievement of sorts)

my response below. this fan is from spain - hence his grammatical/spelling errors.


I really couldn't find this more ridiculous!
I wish you never had enough money to reach your target.
You Mrs. are the only responsable of this situation.
You've lost all your dignity. Maybe if one day you realised about this and stop demanding charity, things will begin to go better for you (again). That's the first step to obtain anything real in this life!
Have you stopped to think before ask for this help?
Have you ever heard about AFRICA, HAITI, NEPAL??????
Dayna, I'm a friend who bought your first two records even if I was young and with no money in my pockets. Now I regret it, honestly. Never again.

dear david,

i'm so sorry to disappoint you.

those 2 records you bought? lots of people bought those. more than 30,000. not rock star numbers. but i was, for the first time in my life, scraping the bottom of the middle class. i paid off my debts. i looked forward to being an equal breadwinner with my husband. we bought a modest house and i paid my half of the monthly bills. my third record, put out 4 years ago, sold maybe half as much. not great, but i could make it work. but 'american standard'? in 6 months, i've sold 900 copies in europe. 900. now if i were losing my audience because my music was getting shitty or boring, i'm not stupid - i'd figure it out: say, if i'd gotten more bad or indifferent reviews than good, and if my crowds were getting smaller with every tour - i'd suck it up and look elsewhere to make a living. but reviews have been mostly great. people are still coming to shows. and then there's this: a short scan today of 4 random bit torrent pirate music sites showed that over 50,000 copies of this record have been downloaded. for free. on just 4 pirate sites. out of hundreds.

what most people don't realize is that touring does not pay for itself. touring with a band usually loses quite a bit of money. the point of touring (besides the sheer joy of it, for us road dogs) is to sell records. i get next to no commercial radio airplay at all. sales of CD's and legal downloads was the only source of real, consistent profit i ever saw in 20 years of making music professionally.

i am demanding nothing from my fans. but if there's enough of them that want me to make records, that tell me, with some degree of passion, that my music means something to them and they are hungry for more - i see nothing wrong with asking those fans, that are able, to help. the only thing that causes me some degree of regret about this venture is that i'd bet my bottom dollar that the the vast majority of people that donate are the sort of fans who already buy my music, legally and conscientiously. and i am humbled and grateful beyond words to win that kind of regard and support.

so, this is not a game, david. don't be disrespectful. it's not easy to ask for help. it's hard to admit that the profession and craft to which i've dedicated my life is no longer the same and i can no longer take for granted that it will pay my bills. i'd wrongly thought that having enough fans meant that i could put out a record in europe, where my audience is biggest, and after a few months of touring and selling cd's, have earned enough to release it and tour in america (where it's much more expensive to promote). and when it was all said and done, after paying bills - i'd break even, or in a good year, have a little money to sock away to make the next record.

that's the way it was for me for the last decade, until this release. until a growing number of people decided it was ok to just steal something that cost me tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours both creative and technical to make. perhaps people thought that because there's a couple of countries in the world (spain, and the netherlands) where my name's in magazines and people pay money to see me play live in big clubs and theaters - that such a little theft wouldn't hurt me. they're wrong.

re: africa, haiti, nepal - are YOU not going to the cinema or out to see a concert because haiti needs that money more? i am not equating myself with a tragic cause. i am trying to raise money from fans who feel a connection with my music, people who feel they have a personal interest in seeing me NOT quit, because at this point, that is what's at stake.
and i'd MUCH rather feel humbly indebted to a bunch of nice people who are appreciative and respectful of what i do than to a multinational corporation who'd just as soon be selling dishwashers as music.

musicians relying on the largesse of patrons has a history going way back. i'm in the company of those famously degraded sellouts mozart and bach, sir. there's nothing new to complain about here. for centuries, artists have been scrambling, hustling and, yes - grovelling - to keep food on their tables in a fashion that still leaves them enough time and energy to create something that makes their life feel worth living, that makes them feel connected to something universal, something that moves people.

i'm sorry you regret buying those 2 records when you were so terribly poor. that's about 8 beers you could have drunk or 2 paellas you could have eaten or two films you could have seen (with popcorn!) and it's all gone to waste! i hope at least you enjoyed listening to them many, many times before i disappointed you by not passing your test for artistic purity and therefore making you feel like your money was badly spent.

i'd like you to name one musician you think passes your purity test - i guarantee you, they were either born wealthy or got very successful, very young. or, more likely, they've sold out, or as you put it - lost their "dignity" - in ways you just haven't heard about . they wrote and sang an advertising jingle in japan. they asked their publishers to pitch their most commercially viable songs to a big country or pop star. they played a wedding or private corporate affair for a fan who happens to be a billionaire and who paid them very very well. and they smiled at the man with the money. they did what they were paid to do, then they took that big ole check and paid off their bills with it and kissed their spouse and kids when they got home and with a clear conscience and a huge weight off their shoulders started working on something that made their heart beat faster with excitement and fear and great great joy.

me, and every artist i know - do whatever we can to get to that place. i've sung a couple of tv commercials (and that work is drying up too, since the recession), i've done some paid studio session work as a singer and guitar player, i've produced records for other musicians, and i've prayed to whatever god that will listen that some big stupid pop star would cover 'love gets in the way' and make it a huge hit and make me enough money so i can just fucking write, record, and perform the music in my head for the rest of my life.

i know that no one owes me this life i love, that i feel positively blessed to have had even if it's coming to a close- that of being a full time recording and touring artist. but it's the only life i just KNEW, from the day i wrote my first song, that i'd be willing to fight for. every single day.

i wish that kind of life for everyone. you too.


dayna kurtz

ps: it's clear you don't love my music anymore, tainted as it is. but if there's any other music you love - please buy it, or you will kill it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Checking In

I'm starting to feel guilty about the blog. I can tell when my lack of posting here is starting to really bother me; it's when I vacillate about whether or not to link to it when I comment on Pajiba. That's where I've been for the past two weeks (not that I've only been on Pajiba for the past two weeks, but that that feeling is where I've been) . I'm actually in the middle of a post, which I started last week, that I just need to finish.

Part of my annoyance about not having new material up here is that I actually have a couple of things I want to post about, but just haven't gotten around to it. For example, I finished my sixth CBR-II book a couple of weeks ago, but haven't posted a review yet. And I wanted to post about my recent trip to Nashville, while it was still fresh in my head. That was three weeks ago, now. And there's that other post that I mentioned above. Argh. I will get on the ball, at some point, I'm sure.

Oh, and while I'm lamenting/complaining about things, I seem to have maxed out the gadget space on the right-side of the blog, so I can't add new books to my reading list, possible reading list, or recommendations list. I need to do a little research on that. I'm thinking one or more of those lists will have to be transferred to a post that gets semi-regularly updated., was

Anyway, the purpose of this post, was just to let my loyal readers :) know that I'm not ignoring the ol' blog, I'm just, well, kind of, um, ignoring it and thinking about it at the same time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

For Me, This Is AlabamaPink's Day

I will always associate St. Patrick's Day with AlabamaPink (aka Amanda Amos). Two years ago, we found out that Ms. Pink would not be able to hoist her glass with the rest of the boozing Pajibans, because she was going to spend the day hooked up to monitors trying to find out what the hell was going on with her body. Not that long after, we got the bad news of her leukemia diagnosis.

While AlabamaPink launched her fight with this evil disease (did you know that cancer has cankles and terrible halitosis?), the 'Jibans rallied around her: gifts and well wishes were sent, at least one marathon was run, there was a comment thread envisioning the Godtopus & the Murdertank smiting her cancer, Ms. Pink challenged Prisco to the original Cannonball Read and other Pajibans jumped on the bandwagon. Like any community, we support our own.

As I was thinking about what I would say in this post about her, the word that came to mind was fierce. She fought an intensely fierce battle with cancer; she never gave up. And although her body may not have won the war, I have no doubt that her spirit lives on. It is also clear that AlabamaPink fiercely loved her family, and I am thinking especially of her husband and Little A today. Ms. Pink was also fiercely witty. The humor, intelligence, insight, and wit she brought to the comment threads of Pajiba were a thing a beauty.

Last year, about this time, I posted a comment on her blog, because it was St. Patrick's Day and so, of course, I was thinking of her. I wanted her to know that I was holding her in my thoughts and in my heart. I'm 99% sure she never saw that comment, because it didn't get posted until after her death. I take consolation in two things about that: first, knowing that her husband must have seen the comment and knew that the Pajibans were still thinking of and rooting for her; and second, knowing that the most important thing was that that positive and hope-filled energy was being sent her way.

So today, on the holiday that I will always associate with her, I will be raising my glass to celebrate this fierce woman (while wearing my AlabamaPink shirt, of course). I invite the rest of the Pajibans, her friends, and family to do the same

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bundt Cake Season One

Having established the history of Bundt Cake Season, I thought I'd share the cakes of the first Bundt Cake Season. Unfortunately, after all this time, I do not remember the exact order of the cakes--I actually had to refer to my two bundt cake recipe sources to jog my memory of which cakes I made last season. So here's the list, in no particular order:

Chocolate Grand Marnier Cake - This is the cake that started it all, the one brought to Thanksgiving. I recall that it was well received. It has a chocolate & Grand Marnier glaze. Need I say more?

Irish Whiskey Cake - I made this for the Main Squeeze's dad's birthday (which falls shortly after Christmas). It's really just a fancy fruit cake--but with real (dried) fruit (which are soaked in whiskey), not that scary artificial-colored stuff you find in traditional fruit cakes. And this one was tasty, again, unlike traditional fruit cakes.

Honey Cake - A bit of a disappointment, actually. The farm where we have had our summer farm share would sell really fabulous honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah, and I was hoping to replicate that. No dice. My search for a fabulous honey cake recipe continues.

Black Mocha Cake - I don't have much memory of this one. I think it was totally serviceable. Clearly, I should make it again sometime to refresh my memory.

Pecan Cardamon Poundcake - My favorite of Bundt Cake Season One, by far. It was so good, I made it a second time for a pot luck. So. Good. I think it's the coffee glaze that tips the scale to awesomeness.

Brandied Raisin Sour Cream Pound Cake - Another one that does not stand out for me. Again, totally serviceable, but nothing to write home about, I guess.

Nutty Orange Cake - this was the only cake I made from my Bundt Cookbook (which is put out by Nordic Ware, the company that makes many bundt cake pans, including mine) last season. It was delicious! You line the pan with ground nuts (and other ingredients, I just don't remember what exactly--breadcrumbs and butter, probably) so you end up with this really lovely nut topping when you turn it out. The orange flavor was good too.

And that's it.

As for length of Bundt Cake Season One, it started in November and ran through mid-May.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


When I was 10 or 11, I had my first introduction to Purim. When my sister and I came downstairs that morning, my mom had out The Children's Book of Bible Stories. We read the story of Esther and how she saved the Jewish people from Haman. My mom then presented us with poppy seed Hamentaschen, the special pastry made for Purim. If I remember correctly, the pastries resemble the hat that Haman wore.

It may or may not be important to note that we are not Jewish. I'm not sure exactly why my mom decided to celebrate Purim that year, but I suspect it had everything to do with the fact that it's a holiday that celebrates a woman. And there aren't a lot of those. And she was a smart woman. A woman who was able to save her people from death. That's no small feat.

We didn't mark the occasion after that, but I've always had a special place in my heart for the holiday because of the one year that we did.

Many years later, while in the grocery store around the time of Purim, I saw some poppy seed hamentaschen. I was excited, because I remembered how good the ones were that we had that morning so long ago. Sadly, these hamentaschen were a big disappointment. I think I may have tried them one other time after that, with the same disappointing results. I gave up on the idea of finding good poppy seed hamentaschen and suspected that, someday, I would probably need to make my own. (In retrospect, if I had gotten my hamentaschen from a good bakery, I might have had different results, but then I wouldn't be here now, telling you about my own hamentaschen-making experience. And in my defense, the grocery store does make a very tasty rugalach.)

Over the years, Purim has snuck up on me repeatedly. I miss it every year. I'm guessing this is because I'm not Jewish, so it's not like I have any seasonal or annual reminders, or any Jewish relatives to remind me or with whom to celebrate. So, I'd keep missing my opportunity to try my hand at making hamentaschen--not that I had a recipe with which to work.

This past summer, at the annual reunion we have with my folks' college friends, I was speaking with one of our old family friends and I brought up how I always miss Purim and wanted to make my own hamentaschen (not that I remembered the name of the pastry) and she said that she had a recipe for it. Yay! Here was my in.

Fast forward to February 10th of this year. Determined to not miss Purim again, and thinking it was sometime in March, I put out a request on FB asking my Jewish friends to remind me when it was happening this year. I also specifically asked the daughters of the previously mentioned old family friend if they could get me their mom's hamentaschen recipe. Turns out, Purim falls on the last weekend of February. So, good thing I asked when I did.

The eldest of the sisters, Jennifer, was able to procure her mom's recipe for me. Not only that, but it's a scan of the original, so I get the illustrations and some very helpful additional notes written at the bottom. But it's only for the dough, not any fillings. This is not a problem; however, because I have access to the internet! I find a couple of hamentaschen poppy seed filling recipes online, and identify one as looking most promising (but printed out a second, just in case).

So, Purim weekend rolls around and I go to the local natural food store on Saturday to buy the ingredients I don't have, with fingers crossed that they have enough bulk poppy seeds (I need a 1/2 pound). On the way, I stop at the winter farmers' market (yes, I am very lucky to live in a town with one of these) to pick up another jar of honey (both the dough and the filling call for it). I'm super happy to find everything I need, except eggs. So, I make a second stop at a local grocery and get (relatively) local eggs.

The process starts Saturday night with pouring boiling water over the poppy seeds, so that they can soak overnight. On Sunday morning, as I wait for the Main Squeeze to get ready for a trip to the mall (ugh, the mall), I make the dough--it needs to chill before being rolled out. I have already decided to make a change to the recipe, which calls for shortening. I am wary of shortening--unless you're making a pie crust, and I don't make pies. So I opt for butter instead (mmm, butter). The other ingredients include: flour, honey, eggs, baking soda, and salt.

The original recipe calls for mixing the dough by hand, and since I'm going for the full homemade treatment, I'm going with it. (The old family friend, Judy, now makes hers in her Cuisinart, as I learned from the hand-written note at the bottom of the recipe.) Besides, I don't have any other recipes in my repertoire that call for mixing the ingredients with my hands, so I think this will be fun. It was. But Judy's warning from the summer, that the dough is really sticky, turns out to be quite true. It takes me awhile to extract the dough from my hands and vice versa. But eventually, I am mostly free. And the dough goes into the fridge to chill.

When we get back from the mall (a relatively painless trip, but still, ugh, the mall) and after having lunch, it was time to make the filling. The first step was to drain the poppy seeds. Good thing we have a cheese cloth on hand. The second step is to grind the poppy seeds. They recommend a special poppy seed grinder, but say a coffee grinder will do the trick. I dig ours out of the pantry, and start grinding. Guess what? They just swirl around. Poppy seeds are tiny! They aren't about to be ground by a coffee grinder. So, I decide this is a silly step and move on. (Besides, the poppy seeds in the hamentaschen I've had have been whole, anyway.) Along with the poppy seeds goes in honey, butter, coarsely ground walnuts, golden raisins, a little cream and orange zest. (At least that's what I remember from off the top of my head.) Then the filling went into the fridge to chill as well.

And that's where my plan to have these made for Purim went off the rails. Because now it was time to make dinner. (It didn't help that I had had to make an emergency trip to the hardware store in the middle of the filling making to get something for the Main Squeeze.) And once dinner was over, it was far too late to tackle rolling out dough and forming the hamentaschen and baking them and all that. So, I resigned myself to being a day late and finishing them on Monday.

Monday evening, after dinner, and dinner clean up, I get the dough and the filling out. More flour is added to the dough so it can be handled, the counter is thoroughly floured, as is the rolling pin. I get out a wide-mouth glass and get to rolling, and cutting out circles, and plopping down heaping tablespoons of filling, and folding up the edges in a triangular pattern, and putting them on cookie sheets. They look like hamentaschen. I'm getting excited.

I got at least the three dozen Judy said I would (and I have about 2 cups of leftover filling--note for next year, halve the recipe). They come out of the oven perfectly golden brown. I barely wait for one to cool before testing it. And... Heaven. They are as good as I remember the first hamentaschen I had! SUCCESS!

When the Main Squeeze got home, he loved them too.

So clearly, I will be making my own hamentaschen for all future Purims. And I'm well on my way to being a Jewish grandmother. Except for the Jewish and the grandmother parts.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bundt Cake Season - The Beginning

I'm not sure exactly why it came up, but a couple of years ago, while visiting with the Main Squeeze's relatives, it was mentioned how, years ago (I think it was about 30) the Main Squeeze's uncle was aghast at the cost of his wife's recent purchase: a bundt pan. But over time, he had come to see the error of his ways, because he had enjoyed so many delicious cakes from that very pan. It turned out to be money well spent.

This conversation got me to thinking. You see, I do not have a particularly strong sweet tooth. ( I don't dislike sweet things, but they are not my weakness.) I did not grow up in a home where we had dessert regularly, nor were baked goods usually to be found. They were an occasional item, and therefore a special treat. And I have, in the past, found iced cakes to be too sweet. Now, that could very well be due to too many grocery store bakery cakes, which I find too sweet--the icing is so sweet, it makes the roof of my mouth itch-- and too boring and so not worth the calories. (I might have even said, on occasion, that I didn't really like cake.) But bundt cakes, on the other hand, are usually not cloyingly sweet. So the mention of the bundt pan set off this light bulb, "Hey, I like bundt cakes. They're not too sweet. And they're kind of retro. I should get a bundt pan." What made this idea especially perfect, is that I had some graduation money from the aforementioned aunt and uncle and I had been waiting for the right thing to spend it on, and a bundt pan would definitely fit that bill.

I had actually seen the bundt pan I wanted at the fancy kitchen store in town probably a year before I bought it. It caught my eye because it was so lovely. Initially, I couldn't rationalize buying an expensive bundt pan, since I'm not a big baker (this was before the aunt-uncle-bundt-pan-light-bulb moment.) Then, after I decided getting a bundt pan was a good idea, I wavered on getting the specific one that I wanted, because it's a ten-cup pan, and most recipes are for a twelve-cup pan. Eventually, I just said screw it, I'm getting the fancy bundt pan that I want and we'll see how the cakes work out.

So, two Novembers ago, graduation cash in hand, I went to the fancy kitchen store and bought the fancy bundt pan I had been coveting. (This is it, in case you are wondering. I had forgotten it's the Bavarian Bundt Pan, which is hilarious and fitting, since my heritage is predominately German.)

My first bundt cake was made for Thanksgiving, which we were celebrating with the Main Squeeze's family that year. (A funny aside, the Main Squeeze was not terribly pleased that I was bringing this bundt cake to Thanksgiving, because "Thanksgiving is pie's holiday," and this cake was clearly encroaching on pie's big day.) I wanted to show the Main Squeeze's aunt and uncle what I had used the graduation money for, so in spite of a certain person's protestations, I brought a bundt cake to Thanksgiving.

And thus began, what would turn out to be, the first Bundt Cake Season.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fifth Review: The Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold

I was first introduced to The Best American Short Stories series in the winter of 1999. My roommate at the time had gotten a copy of the 1998 BASS for Christmas and had left it out in the living room. So of course, I picked it up and started reading it. That one was edited by Garrison Keillor and I loved it. I have been asking for them for Christmas every year since then.

I have not loved all of them equally over the years, and it's hard to know if that's simply a fact of the types of stories which the series editor and the guest editor had to choose from in a given year, or if it's more of a reflection of the guest editor's taste. I've always assumed it is more of the latter. Which is why, for example, I was surprised that the edition that Amy Tan edited (1999) is not a favorite, because I love Amy Tan's writing. (In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure why her A Hundred Secret Senses isn't on my list of recommended books. Also, where the hell is my copy of that book?).

Two BASS that do stand out for me, are the aforementioned 1998, as well as, 2006 editions. Of course, my love of those particular editions could easily be due to issues completely unrelated to the stories included in those books. Obviously, 1998 was the first in the series that I read, and therefore, as my introduction, would have a special place in my heart. As for 2006, I started that one while on a Caribbean island (St. Kitts, to be exact) in the middle of January, after I had finally finished the most important incomplete from my grad program. I very, very clearly remember that experience of waking up before everyone else and sitting on the deck, in gloriously warm weather, enjoying a mind-bogglingly beautiful view, and reading that short story collection.

The short explanation of how these stories are collected is that the series editor, Heidi Pitlor, reads thousands of short stories that have been published in various magazines over the previous year and whittles them down to a more reasonable number (in this case, 120) for the guest editor--this year it was Alice Sebold--to read through and select the top 20. Clearly, subjectivity abounds--but that's one of the things that I like about this collection, and why I think the guest editor truly does put his or her stamp on the final collection. The guest editor is always an author. (I'll be honest, every year, when I crack open my latest copy, I always imagine how fun--and ridiculously challenging--the guest editor's job is. I secretly covet it.)

A short story collection, especially when it doesn't come from a single author, is hard to review as a whole. That being said, I enjoyed this year's collection and there were several stories that particularly stood out for me.

Steve De Jarnatt's story, Rubiaux Rising, about a drug-addicted Gulf War vet, trapped in the attic during the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina is beautifully powerful. Eleanor Henderson's The Farms is a quiet contemplation of race in modern-day America. Sagittarius by Greg Hrbek is one of those stories you just have to go with, as it pulls a bit of what would normally be found in a fantasy novel into an everyday situation. Jill McCorkle's Magic Words is the sort of story that I contemplate not finishing, because of that pit of dread in my stomach, but I have to see it to the end, because I need to know how it all turns out. Modulation by Richard Powers is about music and technology and earworms (of the musical, rather than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, variety) and it's hard to describe beyond that. Alex Rose's Ostacon provides a bittersweet window into Alzheimer's, from the perspective of the sufferer. And The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford is about the Confederate submarine, the H. L. Hunley, used in the Civil War and it's third crew.

I really don't want to give much more information on the stories than that, because, well, they're short, and any more information will give too much away.

As I said, these were the ones that stood out for me, though all the stories in the collection are strong (even the ones that weren't really my cup of tea.) I definitely recommend the collection. If you aren't in the habit of reading short stories, this is a great place to start.

One of the things that I appreciate about a short story is how much can be conveyed in such a minimum number of pages. I deeply love novels; however, a short story, when done well, is a simple thing of beauty. I enjoy knowing that at least once a year, I will immerse myself in a collection of well-written short stories.

A short story collection, especially one like this with a variety of authors, is kind of like a mix tape. You move from one story to the next, not knowing what to expect, finding yourself going from one very different topic to another, occasionally finding two stories that have some subject or theme in common, but mostly just going along for the ride and enjoying some excellent writing.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vegetarian Scrapple

If you are from the Mid-Atlantic region, you should be familiar with Scrapple. For the uninitiated, scapple is simply leftover pork bits combined with cornmeal and seasonings. It's formed into a block and then sliced and pan fried until crispy and brown on the outside. It's delicious. But for those who did not grow up eating it, I guess it can be kind of scary. Personally, I think that if you eat sausage, you have no business being skeeved out by scrapple.

Anyway, I'm originally from Maryland and grew up eating and loving scrapple. The thing is, I became a vegetarian* about 20 years ago, so no more scrapple for me. I became a vegetarian, because I could no longer rationalize eating animals (I'm a huge sap), not because I didn't think they were tasty. So, I'm one of those vegs who is happy to try out fake meat products. I love Morning Star Farm's veggie links, patties and bacon. They are a key part of my weekend breakfasts.

I will also be the first one to tell you that it helps to have distance from the real deal to appreciate the fake versions. If you can clearly remember what bacon tasted like, then the fake stuff is so not going to cut it. (That being said, fake sausages can fly for meat eaters, because it's often about the seasonings, rather than the actual meat ingredients).

Anyway, a few years ago, the Main Squeeze got me a cookbook, Ethnic Vegetarian, for Christmas. The focus of the book is recipes (traditional and modern) from Africa, America, and the Caribbean. It's divided up into sections: African recipes, Caribbean recipes, African-American recipes, and Southern recipes. As soon as I saw the recipe for vegetarian scrapple, I was intrigued and have been meaning to make it ever since. The thing is, it's one of those recipes which you have to make a day in advance, and well, for me, that's often too much planning.

Finally, this past weekend, I decided to go for it. On Sunday, I bought the ingredients we didn't already have and then whipped it up. As I mentioned, it's been awhile since I've had scrapple, so the ingredient list did not raise any red flags--especially because you never know how separate ingredients may come together to form an entirely different whole. The ingredients for the veggie scrapple (as best as I can remember them) are: onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper, black-eyed peas, corn meal, oatmeal, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion powder and vegetable stock.

Some things that should have tipped me off that this recipe was not really going to resemble the original in flavor: A) bell pepper, B) cayenne pepper, C) the fact that she recommends it as part of supper (um, scrapple is definitely a breakfast/brunch kind of food), and D) the fact that this recipe was in her Southern food section. Scrapple is not a southern food. It may be found there--I don't know, I haven't spent much time in the South--but it originated in Pennsylvania and it was created by German immigrants there. (There is debate over whether it started with Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) or just regular German immigrants.)

The veggies and spices are sauteed until the vegetables are soft, then the beans & spices are added and cooked for five minutes, and then the other ingredients are added Finally, everything is poured into a buttered loaf pan. The scrapple is baked for 45 minutes--which gives the corn meal and oatmeal a chance to absorb the broth. You refrigerate it for four hours or overnight (I did overnight) and then slice it and pan fry it.

I'm not sure if it's because I used steel-cut, Irish style oats (rather than the traditional rolled kind)--I doubt it--but the cornmeal/oatmeal portion settled on the bottom, while the veggies were mostly on the top. The cornmeal part did have the right consistency, but the flavor was totally off. This scrapple was far too savory--the cayenne and red peppers were all wrong. I could see how the celery might blend in a different context, and if you don't have meat, then onion and garlic could be important for flavor. But yeah, this combination was never going to have that special scrapple flavor.

All in all, I'd have to rate this as a disappointment. The "scrapple" was tasty, as long as you weren't actually expecting it to taste anything like scrapple!

I may or may not try out other veggie scrapple recipes, but I am very interested to try Vrapple a vegetarian version that won second place at ScrappleFest 2009. I may just overlook the fact that it costs $10. A girl's gotta get her scrapple fix somehow.

*And by vegetarian, I mean that I sometimes eat seafood. Don't you judge me!

It's time to expand, don't you think?

A quick note about the whole reading thing, and then on to other things. I swear I am still reading, but clearly, I got a bit sidetracked, because I have been reading the same book for-fucking-ever! I'm on my last story from the The Best American Short Stories 2009, so I should have a new review up soon. (And yes, I have no idea when I'm going to cram in enough books to get caught up...)

Anyway, I thought that perhaps I should take advantage of this blog thing to post on other things and not just books--especially since those posts are far too few and far between. So, we'll see what kind of odds and ends end up here.

I think adventures in cooking should be one of those, so I'm going to post about my recent vegetarian scrapple attempt. It's not like I do a lot of adventuresome cooking, but it is Bundt Cake Season, so those should be good fodder for the the food posts.

And if I finally get around to deconstructing the t-shirts for which I have plans, that has possibilities for posts as well.

So yeah, I think it's time to break out a few more subjects for this blog. We'll see what happens.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I do, in fact, have a picture of the baboon-faced gourd and just as soon as I figure out how to get it from the camera to the Main Squeeze's computer to this here blog, you'll finally see the name inspiration for the blog. (It wasn't actually generated based on random word associations.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tracy Kidder's recent opinion piece in the New York Times

Here's a link for the article.

And here's the text:

Country Without a Net

Those who know a little of Haiti’s history might have watched the news last night and thought, as I did for a moment: “An earthquake? What next? Poor Haiti is cursed.”

But while earthquakes are acts of nature, extreme vulnerability to earthquakes is manmade. And the history of Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters — to floods and famine and disease as well as to this terrible earthquake — is long and complex, but the essence of it seems clear enough.

Haiti is a country created by former slaves, kidnapped West Africans, who, in 1804, when slavery still flourished in the United States and the Caribbean, threw off their cruel French masters and created their own republic. Haitians have been punished ever since for claiming their freedom: by the French who, in the 1820s, demanded and received payment from the Haitians for the slave colony, impoverishing the country for years to come; by an often brutal American occupation from 1915 to 1934; by indigenous misrule that the American government aided and abetted. (In more recent years American administrations fell into a pattern of promoting and then undermining Haitian constitutional democracy.)

Hence the current state of affairs: at least 10,000 private organizations perform supposedly humanitarian missions in Haiti, yet it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Some of the money that private aid organizations rely on comes from the United States government, which has insisted that a great deal of the aid return to American pockets — a larger percentage than that of any other industrialized country.

But that is only part of the problem. In the arena of international aid, a great many efforts, past and present, appear to have been doomed from the start. There are the many projects that seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects. Most important, a lot of organizations seem to be unable — and some appear to be unwilling — to create partnerships with each other or, and this is crucial, with the public sector of the society they’re supposed to serve.

The usual excuse, that a government like Haiti’s is weak and suffers from corruption, doesn’t hold — all the more reason, indeed, to work with the government. The ultimate goal of all aid to Haiti ought to be the strengthening of Haitian institutions, infrastructure and expertise.

This week, the list of things that Haiti needs, things like jobs and food and reforestation, has suddenly grown a great deal longer. The earthquake struck mainly the capital and its environs, the most densely populated part of the country, where organizations like the Red Cross and the United Nations have their headquarters. A lot of the places that could have been used for disaster relief — including the central hospital, such as it was — are now themselves disaster areas.

But there are effective aid organizations working in Haiti. At least one has not been crippled by the earthquake. Partners in Health, or in Haitian Creole Zanmi Lasante, has been the largest health care provider in rural Haiti. (I serve on this organization’s development committee.) It operates, in partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health, some 10 hospitals and clinics, all far from the capital and all still intact. As a result of this calamity, Partners in Health probably just became the largest health care provider still standing in all Haiti.

Fortunately, it also offers a solid model for independence — a model where only a handful of Americans are involved in day-to-day operations, and Haitians run the show. Efforts like this could provide one way for Haiti, as it rebuilds, to renew the promise of its revolution.

Tracy Kidder is the author of “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about Haiti, and “Strength in What Remains.”

Friends - if you have joined the evil cult that is Facebook, please become a fan of PIH.

Fourth Review: Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

I. LOVED. This. Book. I tore through this baby. (Not that you can tell by the fact that it took me awhile to post this review). I passed up watching a video (and if you knew how infrequently I see movies, you'd understand what a big deal that is) to keep reading Julie & Julia. I loved this book so much, I didn't want it to end, so I even read the "A Conversation with Julie Powell" in the Reading Group Guide in the back of the book (but not the stupid discussion questions--those things make me crazy, if you're smart enough to join a book group, why do you need questions to help you discuss it?!), her reading suggestions, and the part of the first chapter of her new book, which is included in my copy of Julie & Julia. And that new book is about butchering and I'm a vegetarian! So yeah, I loved Julie & Julia. You should read it. No really, you should. Why are you still here? Why aren't you reading the book?!

Have you ever had the thought while reading something memoir-ish/autobiographical or an interview, "This person and I would be best friends, if we met! Or, you know, we'd hate each other for being too similar?" That's how I feel about Julie Powell. We're not twins separated at birth, by any means, (she's much cooler than I) but I really related to her: her moodiness, her love of Buffy, her love of butter, for some examples. Granted, I would never undertake anything as daunting as cooking all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year (or ever, for that matter), but that doesn't mean I don't think we'd couldn't be besties.

I have a general policy that if a movie version of a book I want to read is coming out, to see the movie first and then read the book, because I am one of those annoying people who otherwise spends the whole movie saying, "that's not how it happened in the book!" (Yes, trust me, I'm not someone you want to go to the movies with.) And it's a good thing that things went according to that policy (however unplanned*) with this, because I would have spent a lot of time during the movie saying, "that's now how it happened in the book!" Don't get me wrong, I loved the movie and would see it again in a heartbeat. So, if you saw the movie, whether you liked it or not, I say read the book. It's a whole 'nother ball game, or aspic, to bring in a culinary reference from Julie & Julia. (By the way, aspics sound disgusting.)

Hmm, perhaps you'd actually like to learn a bit about the book? Okay, the deal is this. Julie Powell is on the eve of turning thirty. She's abandoned acting/theatre, which is the whole reason she came to New York in the first place. She's about to have her temp job as an administrative assistant become a permanent gig. So, in general, her life doesn't seem to have much of a purpose as she careens toward one of those important marker birthdays. When she sarcastically mentions that as a way to learn how to cook, (culinary school is out of the question) she could cook her way through MtAoFC, her husband suggests she do so and blog about it. (This was in the early days of blogs, before most of us knew what they were (oh, to be young and innocent again)). So she does.

Before I started the book, for some reason, I had assumed that it would just be a compilation of her blog posts, but it wasn't, it is the story of what led up to the start of the blog, the year of cooking and blogging, aka, the Julie/Julia Project, and some of what happened afterwards. I love that she doesn't shy away from portraying herself in a negative light when it's warranted (otherwise, she wouldn't be very relatable, if you ask me). Her writing style leaves no doubt as to how her blog caught on and why it gained her no small amount of fame. And it's her story and how she tells it that made reading the book such a blast.

I highly recommend this book. I found it a joy to read. And who knows, it might inspire you to do something wacky and blog about it too.

* Somewhere in my house is the article I cut out of Entertainment Weekly years ago when Julie & Julia first came out, so I wouldn't forget about it. I don't know why I never followed through on buying it or borrowing it from the library--oh wait, I have a good idea why, I was probably in grad school at the time, which equals very little reading for pleasure, and by the time I was finished (grad school, that is), the article had been filed away (out of sight, out of mind)-- so anyway, it took the movie version to remind me that I had wanted to read this.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Third Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is the sort of book that you might avoid out of fear of spending hours curled up in a little ball crushed by the horrendous injustice in the world or shaking with rage and ranting incoherently for the same reason, but it's not. While it's true that Kidder, in his portrait of the amazing work that Paul Farmer and his cohorts at Partners in Health (PIH) do, doesn't shy away from the inexcusable conditions in Haiti (and Peru and the prisons of Russia, and elsewhere), I found the book to be mostly hopeful. Which, I think, is Farmer's point.

At some point in the book, one of the PIH members uses the following quote from Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does." And that perfectly encapsulates what PIH does.

For those who are unfamiliar with Partners in Health, it is a public health organization bringing much needed health care to some of the poorest people in the world. Their mission is to "provide a preferential option for the poor in health care." The work that they do is amazing (yes, I am going to use that word at least 17 times in this review) and addresses the fact that providing health care to the impoverished can't happen in a vacuum, and therefore, they provide other support, as well, to make it possible for their clients to follow through on the steps they need to take for better health.

Mountains Beyond Mountains specifically focuses on Paul Farmer, the founder of PIH, his life story, how he came to design PIH's public health care model, and the work that PIH does. It's fascinating. Not surprisingly, Farmer had an unusual upbringing, and I think that helped him to have a different perspective both on his life choices, but also an ability to look beyond and challenge some of the health care paradigms. While it is true that it is unwise to compare oneself to Farmer (you'll just feel bad and unaccomplished), one of the points of the book is that no one should--even he thinks this. As a founding member of PIH, Jim Kim, is quoted as saying, "If Paul is the model, we're fucked." Meaning, that holding yourself up to Farmer's personal standard is impossible. Instead, you have to find a level of commitment that works for you. Burning out doesn't help anyone.

The work that Farmer and PIH does flies in the face of conventional health care wisdom regarding what is possible. And I found it totally uplifting to know that this committed group of citizens really is making a change in the world. Although it's easy to be cynical about the state things and how people treat other human beings, cynicism doesn't bring about change. And that's what is refreshing about PIH, these are people doing the impossible. I strongly recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains. It's eye-opening and engrossing. And I think it's the best way to find out the how and why of Partners in Health.

If you'd like to find out more about PIH, you can check out their website:
(And if you feel compelled to donate while you're there, that'd be amazing.)