August 31, 2009

"I love a nice white scone."

Mrs. Fitzgerald watched sharply, screwing up her eyes to peer at us, until we had each swallowed a sip of tea--it was so strong I could feel my mouth shriveling--and a bite of scone. Then she sighed with satisfaction and settled back into her armchair. "I love a nice white scone," she said. "Them fruit ones get stuck in my falsies."
--Tana French, In the Woods
It's true: Fruit scones (particularly the seeds from berry ones) do have a tendency to get stuck in one's teeth and/or "falsies". But that's the price you pay for deliciousness. Plain scones, I find, are tasty too--as long as they're sweet enough to distinguish themselves from savory biscuits.

August 30, 2009

Patterns in the woods

"I remember that moment because, if I am honest, I have them so seldom. I am not good at noticing when I'm happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart's desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of long-sightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern."
--Tana French, In the Woods

August 29, 2009

Swedish dinner

"He boiled some potatoes and had open sandwiches of pickled herring in mustard sauce with chives and egg on a rickety table outside the cottage, facing the bridge."

--Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Pickled herring in mustard sauce: another item available at IKEA. The first time I ever had pickled herring (in dill mustard sauce), I was mid-bite when I suddenly panicked at the clearish-white flesh and wondered if it needed to be cooked first. Nothing on the jar indicated that the herring was raw, so I kept eating it, straight from the jar, with noodles. That was my weird Swedish-American-Chinese dinner, exactly one summer ago.

August 28, 2009

Swedish breakfast

"Did you escape?"
"Released early."
"That's a surprise."
"For me too. I found out last night."
They looked at each other for a few seconds. Then the old man surprised Blomkvist by throwing his arms around him and giving him a bear hug.
"I was just about to eat. Join me."
Anna produced a great quantity of bacon pancakes with lingonberries. They sat there in the dining room and talked for almost two hours.
--The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
So far this book has mentioned IKEA a number of times, and now here come the lingonberries. Oh, those Swedes. Always tempting me with their juicy meatballs, bacon pancakes, and delicious, delicious soft serve. Unfortunately, these things are only accessible via the rare trek to IKEA. And IKEA doesn't even have bacon pancakes...but it very well should.

August 25, 2009

Rats and spiders, oh my.

His father was holding him in his paws as if he were a ratling--feeding him! How peculiar to be so close to his father, Montague thought dreamily. His father's paws felt very strong, rathletic, and he had sort of a nice smell, if a bit earthy. After force-feeding him half a vat of porridge, his father set him down, gave him a pat on the head, and then climbed back up the muddy, castle-ridden slope.
--A Rat's Tale, by Tor Seidler
Montague has been to the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park more times than I have this year. Oops, I guess fictional rats know how to experience the city better than I do.

According to a book review by Newsday, "A Rat's Tale may well do for rats what Charlotte's Web has done for spiders." But what has C.W. done for spiders? Personally, nothing--not Charlotte's Web, not anything--could make me want to lovingly pat a real live spider or rat. Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy these stories (I did!). I just prefer to see and/or think about spiders and rats in cute illustration form, not 3-D or realistic, please.

August 22, 2009

Proust's fictitious madeleine

For my 18th birthday, my sister presented me with one of her favorite books: Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. Unfortunately for her, my still-sophomoric self could not fully wrap its brain around Proust at the time, and it took me over a year to finish it. But even then I felt something make an impression on me when I came to the moment that everyone remembers from Proust: the madeleine that sends the protagonist on a tortuous trip down memory lane.
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
--In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Yet I don't think I like madeleines as much as I like the idea of madeleines. Dipping a bit into tea to cut the buttery, sugary richness "after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow" (ah, what magnificent prose!)...sure, I can swing with that. But I don't really enjoy eating them plain. Perhaps it is a French thing. Too elite for moi? Then again, with all the loose interpretations of madeleines out there, maybe I just haven't stumbled across an authentic Proust-y one yet.

That's not to say that these interpretations are never great pastries in themselves. A few weeks ago, I consumed a "madeleine" from Veniero's (an Italian bakery) that was much spongier than the madeleines I've had from Costco (what a cultural mecca, ha). I enjoyed it immensely.

Pictured above is The Adore's Japanese-French interpretation of a madeleine. Unfortunately, it was no more than a dry citrus pound cake masquerading itself in the shape of a madeleine, and not doing a very good job of it either. For the dollar it cost me, I could have bought something better at a Jack's 99 cent store. And that's just the truth.

P.S. According to this article, it's quite likely that Proust's madeleine was "quite dry" and might even be impossible to reproduce, based on crumb yield and informal experimentation.

August 21, 2009

I'm with ya, Shponka.

"One of the pupils who had been entrusted to his care and who was anxious to get him to put scit against his name in the class register for some homework he had not even attempted to do, brought a pancake soaked in butter into the class one day. Though Shponka was very keen on meting out justice, he happened to be very hungry that day and the temptation proved too strong for him."
--"Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt," Nicolai Gogol

August 19, 2009

Those Russians

"They gave the guests a strong drink of vodka and mead with raisins and plums and on a large dish a round white loaf of fine bread made with butter and eggs."
--"The Terrible Vengeance," by Nicolai Gogol
I wonder, does food taste better with vodka on the side? Or maybe just Russian food?

I'm reading Gogol pretty much just because of his role in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. ("We all come out of Gogol's overcoat," says one of Lahiri's characters. So mysterious. MUST FIND OUT WHY.)

But do favorite authors' book suggestions always pan out? My sister and I were discussing this and we didn't reach a conclusion. In theory you'd think so, but then again, just because you like to read what an author writes, doesn't mean you'll like to read what that author reads. Does it? Hrm. I'm only on page 2 of my Gogol so I'll have to get back to you.

August 18, 2009

Crumbly days

Blueberry Crumb Cake from Agnes & Eva's

The Adore's financier, in mini-loaf form

I realized two things today.
  • Loaf cakes never fail to satisfy my sweet tooth.
  • I would not want to die in a Starbucks and be left, slumped there, for two hours before a worker realized I was dead.
"She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone."
--Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

August 17, 2009

Yates, not Yeats

"It simply wasn't worth feeling bad about. Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were."
--Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

The thing about reading this book is that it made me lose all desire to watch the movie. Those few bits of comic relief wouldn't translate, nor would the thoughts behind the harsh words spoken. Though I do love Kate and Leo, the beauty of this book is not its storyline, but its ability to attest to Yates' prowess as a novelist.

August 15, 2009

Dark Egg Humor

Watch this video. Funny, yes. Sad, yes. But nothing can make me feel guilt for enjoying my daily egg(s)!

August 11, 2009

Cake Expectations

Is it just me, or are great cakes hard to come by? Usually ice cream cakes aren't so bad, but non-ice-cream cakes really offend me, only because I know how wonderful they can be—and most of the cakes in so-called great bakeries just don't cut it. I'm nearly always disappointed by: A) the anorexic build of a $5 slice, B) overly sweet, artificial taste, C) the fact that there's more frosting than cake, or D) heck, sometimes all of the above and then some.

Fortunately, tea helps make any subpar cake more attractive to the palate. You know what they say: If the cake's a 2 at 10, it'll be a 10 at 2, as long as you've had many a draught...er, pot of tea. Currently I am indulging in a slice of homemade yogurt loaf with one huge mug of green tea. One might think of tea as something to be daintily sipped from a petite teacup and saucer. Pinkies down. Not my style—the glutton in me can't help it. I like my tea in excess; the bigger the mug, the better.

August 10, 2009

Fried eggs, milky bodies

"I never get this stuff at home," he would say lovingly, spearing a chip and inserting it into the yolk of a fried egg. Anxious, in her nightgown, she would watch him, a saucepan of baked beans to hand. Judging the state of his appetite with the eye of an expert, she would take another dish and ladle on to his plate a quivering mound of egg custard. "Food fit for heroes," he would sigh contentedly, his lean milky body forever resistant to the fattening effects of such a diet.

"Smashing," he would pronounce, leaning back, replete. "Any tea going?"

But even as he drank his tea she would notice him quickening, straightening, becoming more rapid and decisive in his movements, and when he passed his hands over his short, dark red hair she would know that the transition was in progress and that he would soon get dressed.
--Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
I don't usually like runny yolk in a fried egg, but the idea of it as a chip dip sounds halfway decent.

Speaking of food, a character named Monica in this book has a very odd eating disorder. She doesn't actually eat much of the food she picks up off her plate—she just waves her arm around until the food falls off her fork, down the tablecloth, and into her dog's anticipatory mouth. Funny image. There are far less imaginative ways to suffer from an eating disorder, I suppose.

Another excerpt:
"Who comes here?" she asked.

"People like us," he replied.

He was a man of few words, but those few words were judiciously selected, weighed for quality, and delivered with expertise. Edith, used to the ruminative monologues that most people consider to be adequate for the purposes of rational discourse, used, moreover, to concocting the cunning and even learned periods which the characters in her books so spontaneously uttered, leaned back in her chair and smiled. The sensation of being entertained by words was one which she encountered all too rarely.
To borrow a phrase from Ms. Brookner, yes, "the sensation of being entertained by words" is one of many good reasons to read this book—or any book, for that matter.

August 3, 2009

Endlessly full and endlessly empty

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light."
--Raymond Carver, "A Small, Good Thing"

August 2, 2009

The Dead

"One by one they were all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

"Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling."
--James Joyce, "The Dead"
I'm often afraid to recall the fragile state of the human body. Just a heart pumping blood, again and again, until it can't anymore. And as scary as that is, no healthy person usually gives a second thought about all that. Instead, we tend to think about life as the carving out of an existence for ourselves, the formation of relationships, and all the experiences and ties that make us human.

I think all we ultimately want is to avoid the realization that we are actually dead in every way but one. They say that life is what you make of it, but they forget to tell you that sometimes you just don't end up making it much of anything. One day you might be pressing criss-crosses into peanut butter cookie dough, and the next, finding that a dead man has more of an impression on your wife than you have ever been capable of making yourself.

How must it feel to join the dead in the form of a heartbeat that fuels an organic mess; how must it feel to fathom that fragility without fear, the way only the dead can?