Category Archives: books

Aha!!

I love having “aha” moments and I’ve had three recently, all from reading.

#1.  99% Invisible City by Roman Mars details a lot of the infrastructure that surrounds us in the urban environment, much of which we don’t notice and definitely take for granted.  In discussing wireless towers, he writes: “As commercial cellular towers began to sprout up in the 1970s, diagrams depicting their coverage areas looked like blobby plant or animal cells pressed up against one another – hence the name ‘cell phones’.”   I had never stopped to think about why we say “cell phones” so this was an amazing discovery for me.  I stopped reading for a moment and reveled in the fun of it.

#2.  This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan.  This is the second book of Pollan’s that features discussion of hallucinogenics.  In writing about mescaline, he alludes to the song Mellow Yellow by Donavan and that the meaning of the song is about smoking banana skins, believed in the 60s to be hallucinogenic.  I can sing along to Mellow Yellow but never ever thought about the lyrics and what they might mean.  (Turns out Pollan was actually wrong – Donavan was writing about an electric vibrator that he had seen an ad for – the equipment was called the “mellow yellow”.)

#3.  A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.  This is an older travel book; the author walked from England to Constantinople in the days before WWII.  After completely overdoing it in Munich at the Hofbrauhaus, he woke up with a “katzenjammer”.  Now I remember the old comic the Katzenjammer Kids, but had no idea that katzenjammer actually means hangover.  I’m not sure how “cat” and “distress” came to mean hangover, but it’s fascinating to know this tidbit!

Can’t wait to see what the next few books reveal!

Any “aha” moments for you recently?

Down Down Down

I like to think that I have a pretty good imagination.  After all, the fantasy genre is one of my favorites – give me a good dragon story any day.  So it wasn’t out of character that yesterday, when I stumbled upon a show called “Mythical Beasts”, I didn’t automatically change the channel.  I won’t go into the ethics of the Science Channel in airing this stuff, but suffice it to say the way they lay out these shows isn’t using exacting science.

It didn’t take long before I was down the rabbit hole.  I started looking for the iconic Loch Ness photo (which was debunked decades and decades ago).  This led me to the Lagarfljot Worm, an ice serpent in Iceland.  It’s supposedly been terrorizing the countryside for centuries, often cited as being responsible for harsh weather and crop failures.  This led me to Nahuelito, another lake-based monster in Argentina, similar to Nessie.  This led me to the Windigo, which I had heard of but didn’t know about.  Apparently it can influence people into greed, murder and cannibalism.  This led me to a book called “Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids” (yes, then I had to look up cryptids)!  Of course, I have requested the book from the library.  If I hadn’t decided to go downstairs for lunch, who knows how long I would have been trolling the internet for made-up beings.

If you had asked me last week if I would be looking up mythical beings this week I would have laughed out loud.  You can just never tell where my bring wants to go.

Any rabbit holes for you lately?

Let’s Go Right to Dessert!

Today’s post comes to us from Steve.

I have spoken critically in this forum about my mother’s cooking. She was a typical 1950s Midwestern housewife cook, and I fear that isn’t a flattering standard. Unlike my classmates at college, many of whom grumbled bitterly about the food service, I thought I’d never eaten so well. But my mother took desserts seriously. I can forgive her those Jello desserts she served so often, for her cakes and pies were tasty. Relative to other areas of cooking, she did desserts well.

Her social world was centered on bridge clubs. The hostess of a bridge club meeting was expected to serve a dessert so special that club members would be talking about it for days. At one bridge club meeting, Mom’s chocolate devil’s food cake was a huge hit. Someone called out, “Charmion, this cake is wonderful! You have to share your recipe!” Mom didn’t have the nerve to admit that the cake began life as a Duncan Hines box mix. Her embarrassment doomed her to spend many hours one week researching library books for made-from-scratch chocolate cake recipes. She had to find a recipe that was both tasty and credible as the source of the cake she had served.

Each member of my family had a strong dessert preference. Dad thought nothing on earth could be better than apple pie. My mother loved her Graham Cracker Pie, a simple dish made from Eagle Brand Condensed Cream mixed with eggs and lemon, served in a crust that was smooshed graham crackers. My sister came to favor French silk chocolate pie. On my birthdays I always requested a white angle food cake that was heavily frosted with chocolate-flavored whipped cream.

When I tried to teach myself to cook I thought the logical thing would be to collect recipes. When a recipe appealed to me, I’d type it out and add it to my personal recipe book, kept on my computer’s hard drive. I see now that I collected about a hundred dessert recipes, of which I only ever used two. I’m actually not much of a dessert person. The really big sections of my cookbook are salads, chicken and soup dishes. My erstwife was a fine cook, but she too cared more about main dishes than desserts, so I failed to learn how to make good desserts from her.

While I’ve mostly ignored desserts most of my adult life, now and then something catches my fancy. When my erstwife and I traveled in the UK, we discovered a tiny London cafe that served crème brûlée, and I was totally smitten. Still am. I once won a writing contest whose reward was a free trip to the Florida Keys to flyfish for tarpon. While I never caught a tarpon, I sure made a pig of myself with Key Lime Pie, something I’d never encountered before. The dessert I’d now request on my birthday would be pecan pie served with a generous scoop of cinnamon ice cream.

What’s your favorite dessert? Which desserts do you remember most fondly? Do you have a recipe to share?

What to Read Next?

Last month Bill asked “How do you judge a cookbook at first glance?”  For me the first thing a cookbook has to have is a great photo on the front to initially catch my interest.  Then it needs to be a niche that I’m interested in (vegetarian, ethnic, baking).  That’s enough to get me to request it from the library.  Once I get the book, the quality of the production is key, how easy it is to follow the directions, how many recipes appeal to me, will the ingredients be do-able?  Probably 50% of the cookbooks that I peruse from the library go back and I never think about them again.  Then about 49% might have a recipe or two that I’ll copy for myself (I have a big white binder for these).  Then there is the rare 1% that I feel I would to have my own copy of and then I try to find it as inexpensively as possible.  And then I have to get rid of an existing cookbook.  Cookbook shelving unit is cram-packed!

All of this quantifying led me to another thought.  How do you judge ANY book at first glance?  How do you decide to read a specific book?  And if you choose badly, what do you do about it?

For me, great titles are key; it needs to be interesting, maybe some word play.  “Dragons” in the title is a gimme.  The phrase “mercenary librarians” on the cover of a book was too tempting to pass up last month.  It’s a toss-up whether author or subject matter is the next ingredient for me.  I’ll pretty much read anything by my favorite authors.  I even read Michael Pollan’s LSD book last year.  Only a very few authors have failed to keep my interest.  Poor Barbara Hambly lost me between the vampire books and the nasty ice queen series.  If a book has an author with whom I am unfamiliar, then subject matter can draw me in.  Of course, I’m curious about so much stuff that pretty much anything can work in this respect.  I’m not a romance fan and I get irritated pretty quickly with historical fiction but even having said that, I will still occasionally read something in these genres.  I prefer fantasy to science fiction.  I’ve read my fill of WWII titles the last few years but if something comes well-recommended, I might put it on the list.

There is another category of “what do read” for me because I’m one of those folks who reads multiple books concurrently.  At any given time I have a book on CD in the car, an audiobook on my pc and a variety of books piled up in my bedroom.  When I decide I want to read, I have to decide WHICH of those books to pick up.  Most of the time, it’s my mood that decides, but if a book is coming due soon and I can’t renew it, that factor often takes precedence.  Now that the library has re-instituted due dates, I have to think about this more.

I am also a book-abandoner.  I decided about 15 years ago, after struggling for weeks to finish Blood on the Snow by Tunstall, that life is too short.  There are so many books published each year that no one could read them all so if I don’t finish a book, it won’t doom the publishing industry.  I once quit reading a book on page four; I already had the feeling that I wouldn’t enjoy the characters or the plot.  Authors beware – you gotta hook me fast!

So the answer to Bill’s question is complex.

How do YOU decide what to read?  Can you abandon a bad choice?

RIP Eric Carle

Sad news in the world today.  Eric Carle, the prolific and colorful children’s author has passed away at the age of 91.  He was born in 1929 in Syracuse but moved to Germany when he was six; his mother was German and missed her homeland.  He eventually returned to the States as a young man and his first job was graphic designer for The New York Times. 

In 1967 Bill Martin, a children’s author, noticed Carle’s illustration of a red lobster and suggested that they work together. Brown Bear, Brown Bear became and instant and runaway best-seller and Carle’s career as a childrens book author and illustrator was on its way.

Even if you’re not very familiar with his many books, you might recognize his very distinctive style.  Using hand-painted paper, he did collages in startlingly bright colors and his favorite themes involved animals and nature.

I’m too old to have had Eric Carle books when I was a kid but I discovered him when I was working at the bookstore and I was happy to add some of his titles to YA’s collection when she was little.  Like many children, her favorite was The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Carle wrote this in 1969 and it’s been his most popular title every since.  It has sold almost 50 million copies worldwide and has been translated into at least 40 languages.   YA also liked Brown Bear, Brown Bear – it’s very lyrical and the repetitions made it easy to memorize.

Of course, MY favorite is Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?  I still have it in my collection.

Did you have any books memorized when you were a kid? 

Yawning Portal Biscuits

You all know that my choice of reading matter can sometimes be a little… eclectic.  But I bet most of you would still be surprised to see Heroes’ Feast Dungeon & Dragons Cookbook sitting my kitchen.  I know I am.  I don’t even remember when I first saw this title, but clearly on a whim I added it to my waitlist at the library.  It’s a new title, so it sat with “On Order” status for about five months and then suddenly with no warning last week, it was waiting for me!

It’s unbelievably well-done.  High quality construction, beautiful photos and very well written.  For those of us who know NOTHING about D&D, it has nice introductions to each section (Human Food, Elven Food, Halfling Food, etc.) that describe the different kinds of beings and their foodie bent. 

The food itself has fun D&D names; the fare itself is nothing extremely exotic, so the names are really key to making this cookbook a lot of fun. 

I was having a friend stop by on Saturday morning and had my regular biscuit cookbook sitting out.  The night before I was flipping through Heroes’ Feast and I came across the Yawning Portal Buttermilk Biscuit recipe.  If you are a D&D fan, then you know that The Yawning Portal is a very popular tavern located on Rainrun Street in Castle Ward, one of the wards in the city of Waterkeep.  If you aren’t a D&D fan, now you know.

I’m not going to put the recipe here – it’s a fairly straight forward biscuit recipe.  The one difference is that instead of cutting individual biscuits, you pat all the dough into a pan, score it and then bake it.  I also brushed melted butter on the top as it suggested.  If I do say so myself, when I pulled them from the oven, they looked just like the photo in the cookbook. And they were excellent with homemade jam.

If I were a D&D player, I would HAVE to have this cookbook.  As a non D&D’er, I’ll appreciate it for a couple more weeks and then back to the library it will go.  But I will copy out just a couple of recipes so that I have them on hand whenever I want to make something with a really fun name!

Do you have any “exotic”/theme cookbooks?  Or exotic recipes?

Rabbit Whimsy

Last month Bill (I think it was Bill) mentioned Voyage to the Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells.  It had been in print a few years before I was first read it to Child, but I remember that we had it from the library at some point.  The Hennepin Library doesn’t own a copy any longer but I was able to get it through InterLibrary Loan and I’m liking it so much that I’ve ordered myself a copy.  (I have a very modest children’s book collection – based solely on what I like).

There are three stories, each featuring a young bunny who has had an exceedingly bad day —  never-ending math class, horrible cousins, medicine that tastes like gasoline.  At the end of these bad days, the young bunnies wish for a visit to the Bunny Planet.  There they are greeted by the kind Queen Janet who invites them in with a “Here’s the day that should have been.”  Each bunny falls off to sleep with the visions of a perfect day dancing in their heads.

At the beginning of each story, there is a rabbit quote like this:

It is the first duty of a flagging spirit to seek renewal
in the latitudes of whimsy.  I, for one, dream on
beyond the give planets to a world without wickedness;
verdant, mild, and populated by amiable lapins.
Benjamin Franklin

The other quotes are from Rudyard Kipling (“The captain fell at daybreak, and ‘e’s ravin’ in ‘is bed, With a regiment of rabbits on the planets round ‘is ‘ead.”) and Galileo (“I designated this heavenly body “Coniglio,” but alas, never saw it again.”)

It’s gratifying to see rabbits making the grade in heavenly literature but I think it’s fascinating that Benjamin Franklin dreamed of whimsy and thought a perfect world would be a bunny haven.

I say whimsy all around!

Tell me about your “day that should have been” and how your perfect world would look?

Anticipation

A good friend of mine said once I should put “In a relationship” as my Facebook status.  When I was surprised and asked with whom I was having this relationship, she said “your library account”.  Ha ha.  But, of course, she’s right.  I know my library card number by heart and I probably check my account three or four times a week.  To keep myself from having way too many books checked out at once, I have half of my Hold list on pause so that needs curating as well.  And it’s also fun to watch those popular books with long waitlists as they creep slowly towards being available.

In the fall of 2019, someone at a party mentioned a new cookbook written by Dan Buettner called The Blue Zones Kitchen.  I’ve read three of his other books, 2 of them about the Blue Zones (particularly happy/healthy places in the world) so I went to my library account and requested the cookbook.  There were about 580 people in line ahead of me and not a huge number of copies; I figured it would take a few months to get, but I wasn’t in a hurry.

Then pandemic descended upon us.  The first thing was that the libraries all closed down.  Then during the summer they started lending again, but you couldn’t actually go in the library.  Now you can go into the building but you can’t hang out.  You’re supposed to “grab `n go”.  Hand in hand with all these changes is that due dates for books just keep pushing back and back.  Except for downloadable audiobooks, nothing ever seems to come due anymore. 

So as the months went by, I saw The Blue Zones Kitchen languishing on my Holds list, barely moving.  In the fall of 2020, about a year after I put it on my Hold list, the library purchased a few more copies, so I was a bit more hopeful.  On this past Monday, after 18 months, I got an email that the library was holding a copy for me. 

My patience paid off – it’s actually a very nice cookbook and I think I may actually purchase a copy for myself.  In the meantime, I’m going to make this recipe:

Melia Family Minestrone

7 Tbsp. olive oil

1 yellow or white onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, chopped

2 medium celery stalks, chopped

2 tsp. minced garlic

1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

3 medium yellow potatoes, peeled & diced

1 ½ c. chopped fennel bulbs, stalks & fronds

1/4 c. chopped parsley

2 Tbsp. chopped basil

½ c. dried & peeled fava beans (or 15-oz can)

½ c. dried cranberry beans (or 15-oz can)

½ c. dried chickpeas (or 15-oz can)

      (If using dried beans, soak overnight)

6-8 c. water or vegetable stock

2/3 c. Sardinian fregula, Israeli couscous or acini di pepe pasta

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. black pepper

  1. Warm 3 Tbsp. olive oil in large soup pot or Dutch oven.
  2. Add the onion, carrots, celery and cook until soft.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant
  3. Stir in tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, parsley and basil, drained beans and chickpeas.  Add enough water/stock so that all the veggies are covered.
  4. Bring to boil and then simmer slowly, uncovered, until beans are tender, about 1 ½ hours.  If using canned beans, simmer for only 10 minutes.
  5. Stir in pasta, salt and pepper.  Add up to 2 cups of water/stock if the soup seems too dry.  Simmer for 10 more minutes until pasta is tender.
  6. Pour 1 Tbsp. olive oil into bowl before serving.

Have you ever waited a long time for something?  Was it worth it?

The Little Guys

This Saturday, April 24, is Independent Bookstore Day – which I’ve written about here before – five years ago now (!) https://trailbaboon.com/2016/04/27/indie-bookstore-day/ .

We have a little bookstore here in Winona called Paperbacks and Pieces. It’s mostly a paperback exchange except for one corner of new books, and a shelf of popular new titles that you can rent. They will do special orders for individuals and book clubs. Pre-pandemic, they hosted author signings (including our Chris from Owatanna!), local speakers, and occasional local group meetings. Spring and Fall would bring a huge Sidewalk Sale – actually in the side street which was closed off for the occasion.  They’ve been everything I want in a local, independent shop. P & P recently changed owners, but I have no doubt they’ll continue in this same vein.  The other local bookstore (not counting Target & Walmart) is downtown, Chapter 2 Books – used and vintage books, CDs, DVDs – which I also try to support; different vibe, and they have a wonderful cat.

The Big Box retailers did awfully well in the past year, according to this August 2020 article from the New York Times .  As we come out of isolation, I know some of our favorite places – restaurants, coffee shops, small independent businesses like hardware stores – have already gone under. A lot of the remaining ones are struggling to survive, hungry for customers as we start to open up again. I occasionally notice on Facebook posting for one of these places, and share them when I can – like this one for Swede Hollow Café in St. Paul, where I loved to go when I lived in the Cities.

Do you have any favorite small businesses in your vicinity that you will support, as we “open up” from isolation?

Have any of your favorites disappeared with the pandemic (or before)?

The History of everything

I had a four day weekend over Easter, and I spent it cooking and reading, both real treats for me. The gift of goat meat sent us on a Mediterranean cooking binge, and made me get out a cookbook I had neglected for some time, A Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford Wright. It is 815 pages of the history of Mediterranean food from Spain to Turkey, and all the countries in between. There are hundreds of recipes as well as references. He writes extremely detailed information about each of the recipes and the history of this food and the people who ate it from the Middle Ages to the present. His main emphasis is that the Mediterranean food that we know today is very strongly influenced by the Arabs, and that many food writers of the past have ignored that fact.

One of my favorite comments is in the section devoted to the history Greek and Turkish food, and the stubbornness of Greek food writers and historians to acknowledge the influence of the Ottomans on Greek cuisine,  “Unfortunately, there are no comparative historical studies of Greek and Turkish food by disinterested third-party scholars. In any case, all claims regarding the heritage of Greek food must by taken with a grain of salt….” (p. 219).  Wouldn’t it by fun to be such a disinterested third-party scholar?

It is hard to decide if this book is more of a cook book or a history book. I think it succeeds at both. I would love to write such a book, although I am not sure what I would write about. I suppose a history of children’s play would be fun, as I am a play therapist.

What kind of  history book would you like to write?   What Mediterranean countries have you visited?