Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category


December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan:

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]


May 02, 2013: “The Remains of the Day”

May 2, 2013

Stevens+Kenton[I remember liking the film “The Remains of the Day” (1991) when it first came out and revisiting it recently, I found that I liked it even better the second time around. For me, this is the Merchant/Ivory film. This viewing, I noticed that the novel the film is based on, was written by an Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro. Smelling an “East-meets-West” story, I took out Ishiguro’s book, which has been one of the best novels I have read in some time.

ROTD-kazuo-ishiguroHaving written the blog for some time now, it is amusing to see certain themes pop up, particularly when they sometimes run contrary to the overall East-meets-West theme of the blog. My interest in English butlers can be found in my article “Timbale de Riz Epinard “and the idea of tying oneself to a worthy, and moral master can be found in “Good Masters All“]

Head-butler at Darlington Hall for more than twenty years, Jack Stevens has been lately practicing his “bantering.” Not through any real interest of his own, however. It’s just that Stevens has observed his relatively new American employer seems to enjoy this “bantering” and diligent as ever, Stevens seeks ever to please. He’s just not that good at it yet. In Stevens’ mind his repartees are well thought out and meticulously crafted. But, despite his best efforts, Stevens’ “banterings” seem to go right over the American’s head.

Stevens is about to embark upon which amount to him a very rare “expedition.” He is soon to travel a couple of counties away to visit the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall from twenty years ago. Stevens has been noticing that, in small ways to be sure but very evident to himself, tiny mistakes he is making now on a daily basis. Mistakes that worry him. Ever diligent to be the best butler he can be, his only solution is to try to convince Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) who he esteems as no other in his profession, to return to Darlington Hall.

So Stevens tells himself. Stevens however, as usual, is not perceiving the full picture.

As he travels, Stevens reflects on his memories from the time of Miss Kenton’s first arrival. Miss Kenton is everything Stevens is not. Where Stevens is polite, Miss Kenton is provoking. Where he is remote, she is passionate. He-respectful, she-caring. He-the pit, she-the fruit. He is ice, she is fire. Both consummate professionals, both at the pinnacle of their respective jobs, we soon see (as viewers/readers) as well as everyone else (with the possible exception of Stevens) sees: that Stevens and Kenton are made for each other.

Perhaps it is that he is such the stickler for the rules and the big one being “no romances in Darlington Hall” that prevents Stevens from realizing just how good Miss Kenton would be for him. His performing his every action “by the book” while certainly professional, constantly removes Stevens from the more human aspects of his occupation. His goal of being a “great” butler somehow makes him…constantly, a diminished person. He continually acts as if he just fell to earth from another planet. Human motives and actions seem to just confuse him. Indeed, Stevens represents many aspects of Aspergers, highly functioning at his job, but oblivious to emotions…including his own at times.

Anthony Hopkins as StevensIt doesn’t help matters for Stevens that he has tied his cart to the wrong horse. The Lord of Darlington Hall is heading down a dangerous path. Although a good and honorable (to a fault) man, Lord Darlington, in the early 1930’s, advocates appeasement to Germany, which allows a Nazi foothold in England when she can least afford it. As Stevens is privy to every communication that takes place in Darlington Hall, this makes Stevens a kind of accomplice to the ultimate evils of this very bad path. The worst is when Darlington hires two Jewish girls as staff, reconsiders, then sends the girls back to Germany…to almost certain death. Stevens is instructed by Darlington to fire the girls, and Stevens, and once more following the book, and much to the consternation of Miss Kenton, does so. Darlington later regrets this decision, but it is far too late. He has pulled everyone at Darlington Hall into a net of guilt by this wrong act and all are punished for it.

Aside from such dark moments, both book and movie are riddled with scenes of humor, also. When his godson visits, Lord Darlington feels impelled to finally “inform” the young man of the “fact of life” prior to his upcoming wedding. Feigning a busy schedule (but most likely because he is uncomfortable…and perhaps, just because he can) he sends Stevens to do the chore!

[From the book:] …The young gentleman reached down into the attaché case at his feet and brought out a notebook and pencil. “Fire away, Stevens.”

I coughed again and set my voice into as impersonal a tone as I could manage.

“Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.”

I must have paused a little to form my next phrase, for Mr Cardinal gave a sigh and said: “I’m only too aware of that, Stevens. Would you mind coming to the point?”

“You are aware, sir?”

“Father is perpetually underestimating me. I’ve done extensive reading and background work on this whole area.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I’ve thought about virtually nothing else for the past month.”

“Really, sir. In that case, perhaps my message is rather redundant.”

“You can assure Father I’m very well briefed indeed. This attaché case” – he nudged it with his foot – “is chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I really think I’ve thought through every permutation the human mind is capable of. I wish you’d reassure Father of that.”

“I will, sir.” Mr Cardinal seemed to relax a little. He prodded once more his attaché case – which I felt inclined to keep my eyes averted from – and said:

“I suppose you’ve been wondering why I never let go of this case. Well, now you know. Imagine if the wrong person opened it.”

“That would be most awkward, sir.”…

[It was this passage that cased some concern at work. Finding me in convulsions (of laughter…but that was not immediately evident) some kind people were a little anxious of my well-being. A quick “thumbs-up” and I was able to return to my reading…and laughter. It is never exactly clear what is supposed to be in the briefcase, but Ishiguro later has young master Cardinal say that he …”knows everything about fish…” so one could surmise that the briefcase contains his valued catalogs of fish!]

Remains_ServantsTableIn his journey and with his remembrances, we come to see that Stevens has come to sacrifice everything of true value to his ideal of service: family, personal honor, self-worth, conscience, and love. At the end, Stevens is heartbroken, disillusioned, regretful, and feeling that his life has been wasted. Sitting on a bench at a pier, where just a short time ago, he spent his last moments with Miss Kenton, he is not quite alone. On an adjoining bench there is man who strikes up a conversation with Stevens. It turns out that this man has also been a butler, but in smaller household than Darlington. In one of those rare magic gifts, fate has delivered to Stevens exactly what he needs most: a complete stranger who just happens to understand all that he has been through. A little too late, Stevens begins to open up to the stranger who, in return, offers Stevens a ready ear, good advice and a slightly used hankie (Stevens is unaware that he has begun to weep.)

DarlingtonHallAfter, Stevens waits for the pier lights to come on at dusk and to marvel in the constant effect that this event has upon the crowd: they “ooo” and  “aaah” and draw together in conversation. Observing those young people closest to him, whom he assumes are close friends, Stevens is amazed to discover that they were strangers only a moment ago. In a kind of way, the physical light has engendered another kind of light. Stevens attributes this automatic bonding to the skill of their “bantering” and resolves to improve his own bantering-skills during the return trip. Sadly, once more, Stevens has missed the mark. One could well imagine him making these awkward, baby-steps towards a full person for the rest of his life. However, it is the effort that counts most of all, and there are worse goals for Stevens…and for the rest of us, in the remains of the day, than to just keep reaching towards the light.

[Ishiguro has gone on record to say that he endeavored to write a universal story of a wasted life.  I cannot imagine that his background in both Japan and his adopted England, each (to an American perspective) with its own, unique societal reservations, did not inform the story. Be that as it may, both movie and book are a joy. I suggest watching the movie first, and if you like it, move on to the book, which has (as most books do) much more detail.

Christopher ReevesThe movie, as I have said, is the finest of Merchant/Ivory. Beautifully photographed, magnificently staged and wonderfully acted. Anthony Hopkins has said that there is no chemistry in acting, but I see it in spades with he and Emma Thompson. Their obvious affection for one another in real life is reflected in their roles. The “book” scene between them I consider not only one of the best acted scene in cinema, but also one of the most erotic (despite the characters being fully clothed and hardly even touching!) A young Hugh Grant as master Cardinal is both humorous and touching. The film is worth a watch if only to see Christopher Reeve, not only alive but walking, as Senator Lewis. The 2001 version of “Remains…” has a couple of documentaries, a good commentary and deleted scenes, including the ending from the book (above) which was acted to perfection by Hopkins, but not used in the film.]


March 04, 2013: The Rules of Incense

March 4, 2013

Incense_ShadowLacadio Hearn2I have found an excellent guide to interpreting Japanese culture in Lafcadio Hearn. Who better than a half Irish-half Greek American writer, who loved Japan so much that he not only moved there, but married a Japanese woman, and even changed his name to a Japanese one, to interpret Japanese culture to me? Hearn’s “outsider looking in” voice I find to be very insightful to my Western sensibilities. It also helps that Hearn was writing to the West in the early 20thC. (a time period that I love in any culture) when Japan was quite unknown. His opinions were very fresh at the time and he was able to capture with his writings, a Japan that sadly exists no more in many respects. Writing to Westerners, Hearn used a very honest and most direct voice. You never question what Hearn thought about a Japanese custom, event, or story. If he thought it was stupid, he said so in his writings. I cringe to think how that directness might have gone over with the Japanese, but we can assume that he was a much better diplomat at the time and the place and left his unbridled opinions for the people of the West.

In Hearn’s’ book: “In Ghostly Japan” he writes about an activity that was popular at the time he lived in Japan that I had never heard about, that of Ko-kwai or “incense-game.” As Hearn writes, in the pre-Meiji era (1898-1912) young women of higher class were required to learn music, embroidery, poetry, and the three accomplishments of flower-arranging (ikébana) the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and the “way of incense” (kodo.) At the time Hearn was writing, the art of incense had been adapted to a more casual, social event of ko-kwai or “incense-parties.”

Japan Kodo CeremonySometimes, I find writers to be like old friends: you disagree with them, but love them anyway…sometimes because of these disagreements! Reading over Hearn’s description of the incense game, I had to suppress a giggle because for what seems so very important to him, seems like trivia to me and vice-versa. I suspected this difference when he describes the cha-no-yu ceremony as “dainty, but somewhat tedious” where I find it a magnificent display of simplicity in form and beauty. Hearn does spend a great deal of energy on the mechanics of the game (to the tune of nine pages of descriptions) which I blieve I can sum up pretty tidily:

1. As host, pick three kinds of incense. Have guests bring another.
2. In a closed, still room, burn each incense while stating its name, and let each player sample.
3. Burn each incense again and have everyone guess which it is. Score each player. Most right guesses=the winner. The winner gets a gift. Open a window.   Sake and rice all around.

This particular game is called Jitchu-ko. Like a card-party, there are a number of different incense-games. Kumi-ko, for instance, involves just one kind of incense and invites discussion on its attributes. Genji-ko, for another, involves five different censers of incense, some of which may be the same. Scores in this game are recorded to refer to certain sections of “The Tales of Genji” by the Lady Murasaka Shikibu, which are then read for entertainment.

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

What I found absolutely fascinating (and which Hearn dismisses with, “…this subject could interest few readers…”) about the whole event of the Ko-kwai were the rules surrounding the conditions of the game. What can I say? I guess Hearn was a bit country and I’m a bit rock and roll!

Incense parties were celebrated about the turn of the 20thC. in American cites that had some Japanese populations. In a June, 1902 New York Evening Post article, the rules of an incense party was laid out for attending New Yorkers:

“For the 24 hours preceding the party each guest must avoid the use of anything which can produce an odor whatsoever. Scented soaps, perfumes, odorous foods and even spices must be avoided. These prevent the user from smelling accurately and also interfere with other members of the party. When you dress be careful to put on no garment that has been kept in the neighborhood of camphor wood, tobacco, bouquets, blossoms or scented face powder. When you reach the house of your host enter as softly as you can and as slowly as possible. This is to prevent making a draught by the movement of your own body. Be equally  leisurely in opening and closing of doors, as a quick movement induces a rush of air”

Here is the online diary of Yoshiko Nakata, Kodo teacher, presenting the fundamentals of incense to Americans in Portland, Or. during Japan Week in 1992. Her observations of Americans (starting May 22nd) I found to be very interesting and sweet for an “insider looking out” perspective.

[A note about research here: I always try to consult at least three different sources for each article I write, particularly when the subject is something like an obscure and dated game like Ko-kwai from another culture. Thanks once more, to the Hudson Public Library for tracking down and obtaining the first (of I hope many) of Lafcadio Hearn’s books. After reading Hearn’s chapter on incense, I wanted to do further research on the Ko-kwai game online. I could find very little, although there was one article online that was very familiar, and was in fact the very Lafcadio Hearn article I had read from “In Ghostly Japan.”

Woman and Incense2So, Hearn’s work can be found online, but here is the “chicken and egg” question: If the HPL hadn’t graciously obtained the book in the first case, how would I ever have known about, let alone to think to look for, this obscure part of Japanese culture online? It is silly to discount any efficient tool at one’s disposal. Libraries are very much a value as a service for information as they ever were, and the knowledge of professionals who very business is to track down information should never be devalued.]


September 27, 2012: Zen Through the Mountain

September 27, 2012

Digging through my bookshelf the other night looking for something to read, I found a terribly old, very thin, volume called “The Ronin” by William Dale Jennings. Mmmm…a book written by a Westerner based on a Zen story. This is one that should have been a good read for me. I remember starting this a long time ago, but I could not remember why I never finished it.

The term “ronin” applies to a masterless samurai. A warrior outside the code of bushido, the law of ethics that true samurai lived their life by. Bushido is analogous to the Western “chivalry” the code of ethics of Western knights.

The Story
The ronin of this book is truly an outlaw in every way. Literally, his immoral and sadistic behavior is “outside the law.” At the start of this story, the ronin is the worst of men, as he commits just about every form of violence that can be done to his fellow-man. The ronin behaves this way because he is naturally prone to violence, but mostly because he fears no consequences for his actions. To make matters worse, the victims of the ronin are mostly innocents or opponents weaker than him. He terrorizes village after village until three youths, newly trained by an elder sword master, impetuously challenge the ronin and are mercilessly slaughtered by him. As the ronin goes on, he finds a lesser kingdom, ruled by a weak overlord and insinuates himself as the lord’s vassal. The ronin then proceeds to kill his lord, steal his wife away, and leave the lord and lady’s young son an orphan. The ronin and the lady live a mean existence outside the law and society, shunned by even the lowest levels of class. The former lady becomes a miserly prostitute to support them. The ronin eventually sickens of her company and he abandons her. He also is sickened of his own company, throws away his sword and searches for a better way to live. He comes upon a group of travelers struggling on a narrow mountain path, and after rescuing them, decides to dig a path through the mountain to prevent such dangers to other travelers. As the life and behavior of the ronin is changing, the young son of the lord and lady has grown to learn of the shame and crimes of the ronin against his parents and goes in search of a someone who would train him as a sword duelist in order to wreak revenge on the ronin. The young man finds the very same sword-master that trained the young men vanquished by the ronin in the beginning. After a period of long training, the young man follows the trail of the ronin, estimates the time it should take for the ronin to finish burrowing through the mountain, and plans to return in time to take the ronin’s hands just before he is able to finish his task.

The Analysis
It was easy to see why, long ago I stopped reading “The Ronin.” I was so disgusted in the brutish and violent behavior of the main character in the beginning of the book and I could not imagine such awful actions ever being redeemed. I guess I needed my main characters to be noble, polished, and free of flaws, back then. I also tend to read far too fast. I was reading “The Ronin” as if it were pulp, which indeed, in its first couple of chapters, essentially IS pulp. What my earlier self failed to realize that any book based on a Zen story probably has more than what appears on the surface. Also, racing through a book on Zen is antithetical. This time reading, I thought the violent beginning was perhaps like a movie plot to hook the reader (how close I was, here, I could not imagine) and then to slowly spoon feed the better ideas later on. My patience, this reading, revealed a commentary on many human values worth addressing: the wages of sin; the value of service; how we are able to change but must ultimately accept the incontrovertible nature of our being; as well as generosity, good parenting, a life of service, heroism, justice, vengeance, money, and religion. Jennings is able to interject a small measure of humor: watching the ronin dangle on the line he has trapped himself with, as well as the student/teacher relationship between the son and the swordsman (which seems cliché these days, as the Swordsman out-Miyagis Mr. Miyagi, in his “wax-on/wax-off” moments…but this was written well before all versions of “The Karate Kid”…and might possibly have been an influence.) I also found a great deal of delicious symbolism in the book, which in itself warrants a rereading.

“The Ronin” is not an easy book. It has the most abrupt and unexpected endings I have ever remember reading (which makes me think, that perhaps, this too, is a Zen-like move, necessitating a rereading.) In addition to the ending, Jennings writing is generally confusing to the Western mind, which tends to like concepts spelled out. For example:

“Seeing that the fear had returned, he began to practice kendo in his mind. He spent hours in moveless meditation, hours in practice as he slept, and the untouched sword upon the tokonoma rack never left his hands by day or night.”

The Author
William Dale Jennings has studied martial arts: Tai Chi in China, Judo and Aikido in Japan, so understands this concept of practicing a movement without moving, as much of Asian martial arts is ultimately a “mind over matter” exercise, stressing a heightened pre-awareness of one’s movements. This is just one example of the tonal shift needed for the Western mind to understand this book. Another, as my earlier self failed to realize, is to slow down and think, while reading it. Jennings has also studied the Cha-no-yu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Zen, with Rinzai-Zen master Nyogen Senzaki. Jennings based “The Ronin” on Senzaki’s stories from “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” Finding out that Jennings was a writer for Hollywood made me research what he may have done. It was a surprise to find he was the writer for “The Cowboys” one of my favorite John Wayne films of my childhood, making William Dale Jennings a true “East meets West” author if there ever was one!


June 22, 2012: “Lost in Place” by Mark Salzman

June 22, 2012

I love finding books at the library that just sort of jump off the shelf at you. Such was the case, last week, when I found “Lost in Place” by Mark Slazman. Mark is a Renaissance man after my own heart. I know of him from a previous book he wrote: “Iron and Silk” about his travels through China while teaching English and learning kung fu at the hands of Master Pan Qingfu. One of my former students knew I was a big fan and generously bequeathed a rare signed, hard-bound copy of that book that I cherish. I also own the indie film of the same name which stars Mark as himself. Mark Salzman is an author whose autobiographical stories are rich with experience, characters, humor and honesty, so I knew what to expect when I picked up “Lost in Place” What I did not expect to find, was hope for the youth and parents of our time.

I do have a slight problem with the full title of the book “Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia” which feels like a publisher is putting a label on Mark’s book to make it more palatable to American readers. This is kind of missing the point. Mark’s life is far from “absurd.” “Unique”…sure, unconventional”…maybe, but “absurd”…no. Without a doubt, the story of Mark’s life, while having its genesis in probably the most mundane environment possible…suburbian Conneticut, is far from traditional. Truly an artist, as a teen Mark had pursuits of music (the cello) and martial arts. Choosing probably the most awful martial arts teacher imaginable (one who swears at and beats his students, drinks and smokes pot during class, and just generally acts like a total jerk) Mark’s perseverance and success in martial arts say more about himself than any guidance he had at this point of his life. His mother is a concert musician and so offers some guidance to his music, but typical of American youths, Mark rebels constantly against her. It seems parents could be the worst people to aspire to be a muse to their young, when it comes to music. She does inspire Mark however, and he searches for that muse in others. It is that searching for inspirational teachers carries Mark through not only his college years, but also later in his travels through China in “Iron and Silk.”

The youth of today may not like “Lost in Place” although it is one that would be beneficial for any teenager to read. They might not like it, because the book addresses a teenage experience from one of their parent’s generation. It’s funny that “Romeo and Juliet” gets re-made almost every year, and that is not a problem, but maybe the distance of fated 14C. teens is more easily swallowed than those of the last generation. Mark’s book has all the pain, insecurity, challenges and desires of modern teens, but most important, the book manages to convey that these experiences are not unique, that others have gone through this before…and ulimately can come out OK.

I can easily imagine parents grinding their teeth at Mark’s story also. Where were the parents when Mark was choosing this lame-ass instructor? Were they oblivious to the abuse Mark suffered at his hands? It is clear that Mark’s parents gave him enough slack to allow him to make his own decisions, and this by itself, is a laudable parenting move. The most important thing is that they seem to be always there when he needed them…and in the most loving way imaginable.

“Lost in Place” does not shy away from the travails of the teenage experience. It addresses drugs, bad decisions, bad mentors, bad friends and ultimately, great loss. It also encourages teens to follow their hearts and passions. I can’t think of a book better suited for an American family to read together, if such a thing is possible. I think Mark’s story would offer a vehicle of discussion between generations. Most of all, the book gives the important idea to both teens and parents: “Others have traveled down this path. You are NOT alone!”

As for Mark Slazman, all’s well that ends well for him: a successful author, Yale graduate, skilled martial artist, cellist, linguist and calligrapher, he may have been lost in place at some point in his past…and the road goes forever onward…but his experiences have led him…well, hopefully to be found by you at the next trip to the library!


February 16, 2012: The War of the Roses

February 16, 2012

I have been a Titanic buff since I first saw “A Night to Remember” back when I was a kid. With that film, I fell in love with the Edwardian Era, probably reinforced by going through my Grandmother’s photos of when she was young. The elegance of dress and hairstyles, the manners, the innocence (if you will…it was before both world wars) and especially the food stuck a nerve that reverberates throughout my life. My friend Lisa tells me that her young (5 y.o.) son, Harry has suddenly turned into a Titanic buff, so now I know I’m in good company! Being a chef, when I learned that there was a book on menus from the Great Liner existed, I just HAD to get it! I was not disappointed. Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley’s book “Last Dinner on the Titanic” is not only my most favorite cookbook, it is one of my favorite reads of all time! It is rich with not only carefully reconstructed dishes from the last night of the Titanic, but it is also full of history of people and events of the cruise. It has photos from the era, good art and illustrations. It also has recommendations for how to do a Titanic-themed dinner: how to place the table, what music to play, suggestions of dress, mood, conversation and more! I’ve done about six meals using this book as a guide and I hope to have many more to come!

Oh. Every once in a while talking about Titanic Dinners, I get a reaction from someone as if I was somehow celebrating the death of the 1523 souls lost the early morning of April 15, 1912. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is with the utmost respect that I put on these meals. It is the celebration of the life of these people that is the focus of the meal…and boy, did they know how to live!

The Dinner Itself

Want to see a Titanic Dinner? Just drift over to the margin on the right and click on “A Titanic Theme Dinner.” Thanks to my friend Teja, we have clips from a dinner we did a couple of years ago for a group of friends. The dishes are mainly Escoffier, which seems to be French code for “the best food imaginable!” The dishes are quite fancy, requiring much preparation, but if you love to cook (and eat) you will love every minute. You will need help, ‘tho. Not only with prepping, cooking and execution but also with the serving and most important….the planning. My friends Carolyn, Barb and Susan were the “planners” for this meal. Serving for these meals is traditionally “à la Russe” which means that every dish is served separately (usually by servers.) Also, if you are doing First Class Menu (there are also Second Class and Steerage menus) you have a choice between menus from the First Class Dining Salon and the “À La Carte” restaurant and each of those have options at each course! I usually go over options with the people who are planning and the best answer usually is a “mix and match” between the two restaurants. Dressing up is fun, but you have to feel out your group and see what they think. My opinion: this level of food quality deserves for people to dress up! Find what is right for your group, and feel free to mix it up. The Edwardians won’t mind! Planning and execution of the meal is a bit like a wedding: give yourself a load of time, plan well, do everything you can, and on the day…let go and have fun!

The War of the Roses

My family heard about this dinner for my friends and decided they would like one as well! We were able to couple this with a Titanic Exhibition that was going on that week in Rochester, NY. My lovely family was all game and made it one of the best Titanic Dinners ever! I served:

  • Lobster Thermidor in a bed of Duchess Potatoes
  • Calvados-Glazed Roast Duckling
  • Home-made Applesauce
  • Quenelle of Carrot
  • Minted Green Pea Timbales
  • Flowerets of French Cucumber
  • Punch Romaine
  • Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette
  • Oranges en Surprise (a kind of Baked Alaska of orange sherbet served in an orange skin, topped with almond meringue and baked…yum!)

A little bit about my family: my sisters (all five) are bright, beautiful, talented, and scamps all! Most of them are accomplished chefs, so I had my work cut out for me! Sisters Joanne and Kathy each came dressed as “Rose” from the movie. Each applied their own style of dress and both were stunning, but “Who was the better Rose?” became the topic of conversation, which the family duly dubbed “The War of the Roses!”

Oh…and wise was the man who didn’t enlist in THAT war!!!

Minted Green Pea Timbales...just plain screwy or chromosomes skipping around?

I was doing pretty well with the meal preparations, but cramming too much Punch Romaine into the blender, I managed to spray it all over Joanne’s bar!!! [I cleaned it up and confessed my error. Joanne (always the gracious host) told me it was no problem and she later cleaned up the mess the right way!] So, a little on edge, I deliver the Punch to the table to find everyone a tad too quiet, with subtle smirks (always a bad sign!) Knowing, from experience, that it is pointless to drag these things out I say “OK. What’s UP?!” It is then I notice that there is a huge pile of the Minted Green Pea Timbales on my nephew’s plate! Knowing this tactic from years of abuse (oh, yes my beloved sisters…we will present THOSE stories someday!!!) I ask, “What the HELL is wrong with the timbales?” To which they reply, “We all hate it.” “OMIGOD”, I think, “I did something wrong!” So, I taste one and it was exactly correct!!!

Edwardians Like Mush

OK granted. Minted Green Pea Timbales are a tad on the odd side. Edwardians, true-blue meat-and-potatoes people, tended to over-process their vegetables. The timbales are a mixture of blanched and cooled green peas, mixed with fresh mint, salt and pepper, a tiny bit of sugar, cream, and a bit of egg white. This is put through a food processor, then into cupcake molds and they are all baked/steamed. You finish with a dab of sour cream and a fresh mint leaf. I made the timbales for the Titanic Dinner for my friends and everyone loved it! I mean, I had parents asking for the recipe after, saying they had finally found a dish they thought their kids would eat! Now, most people say kind things after a meal. Me…I would’ve complimented the éclairs and home-made ice cream, for that meal. So, what I’m saying is that with all the great food at the dinner for my friends, the unsolicited vote of “best dish” that night was the timbales!

“Odd Man Out” or The Skipped Chromosome

So…cooking is nothing without knowledge, so I ask my family “OK, EVERYONE hated the timbales?” Turns out, opinions varied. Some of my brothers in law hate veggies so much, that given the choice between asparagus and a Red Sox win, they would hem and haw. Some liked the timbales. Some deferred comment. Really, it was my sisters who really didn’t like the timbales! “Wow. I thought. At least one of us fell far from the tree, and I guess that someone is ME!” Some tastes are a very particular thing: I myself cannot stand the taste of cilantro. I choose to not eat certain foods, but I like most food. For years I thought my one food hatred to be just one of those odd anomalies. Then I found a group of cilantro-haters on-line. To them, cilantro tastes like soap! “YES!” I thought, “That’s EXACTLY right!” The group explained that there is a fairly rare gene combination that makes cilantro taste like a subtle poison to some people.

So, beloved sisters. We have to agree to disagree. I promise: no more green pea timbales. You: no cilantro for me. Personally, I’m glad I fell on that side of the tree. Mmmm…where’s the sour cream?

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