Sunday, December 26, 2010

Next week

Next week: Alexandra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog.

Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?

GARTEN, INA. Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That? New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-307-23876-4. Pp. 256. $35.00.

I know next to nothing about Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I've never seen her show or dipped into any of her other bestselling cookbooks. My impression has always been that she's a cuddlier, browner-haired, no-jail-time version of Martha Stewart. Which is fine. Martha Stewart kind of scares me anyway. After reading (as far as that goes with a cookbook) Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?, I realize that, amazingly, I  really am dead-on. "My kitchen," she writes at the beginning of the book, "is like a big sandbox--there's always something interesting to do there and it's filled with my friends". Garten's life is full of "playdates," "fabulous people," "brilliant photographers," and "gorgeous props". Group hug!

Joking aside, the recipes, while not exactly healthful, really are quite simple and delicious. Because I only cook for myself and my partner or my father, I was not able to go through and systematically make every single recipe in the book over the course of one week, nor would I really want to. Instead, I chose a dish from each chapter and prepared it, with varying results. I should mention that I'm a very nervous cook. I find that I'm not terribly good at multitasking, which is what cooking is all about. Still, here's what I made and how it turned out:

From the "Cocktails" chapter I made Garten's "Savory coeur à la crème" for an office holiday potluck. It took about three minutes to prepare and then I stuck it in the fridge to solidify over night. I also spent about ten minutes cleaning up cream cheese splatter from my clothes and the kitchen counter. Because I couldn't find a coeur à la crème mold, unsurprisingly, I followed Garten's advise and lined a strainer with some cheese cloth. Well, it came out looking like a white, cream cheesy brain, which I camouflaged by pouring a jar of chutney on top (don't worry, that was part of the recipe). It was okay. A tad too salty, but Koch liked it.

I admit that I didn't really make the "Watermelon & arugula salad" because I couldn't find watermelon or arugula at the grocery store. So I just tossed some lettuce together and made Garten's dressing to go with it. Someday I'll make it up to her and prepare the salad properly. For now, I'll just say that I tried. (I also didn't make any of the dishes in the "Lunch" chapter.)

For dinner (which I actually served for lunch), I made Garten's delicious "Weeknight bolognese," which would have been a little bit more perfect if I hadn't accidentally put four times the oregano than the recipe actually calls for. Oops. Despite this faux pas, the dish was really quite good, a spicier version of what most of us are used to. Koch's reaction was: "Why don't you cook like this more often?" Seconds all around.

Yesterday I made the "Tuscan white beans" for lunch. It's the first time I've ever cooked or eaten fennel, the root, so it was kind of an exciting and scary moment for us. When we went to the only grocer open on Christmas day, we had to ask if they had it because we had no idea what it looked like. Also, the recipe calls for "stalks, fronds, and core removed," which left me confused, because those seem to be all the parts of the root. We managed, despite this set back. And it was pretty good. Again, a bit too salty. I forgot that store-bought chicken stock is already well salted.

For dessert I made the "Chocolate hazelnut cookies," which calls for sandwiching the cookies with Nutella. Having a jar of Nutella in the house is a dangerous thing, so I forewent this extra step and just made the sugar cookies as is. They came out looking like sad, fat, and unrecognizable Christmas trees. They tasted better in dough form, but I bet they would have tasted even better than that with the Nutella from the original recipe.

Overall, I would say the reason why so many of my recipes failed had less to do with the cookbook than with the cook. Still, this piece could have used more actual vegetable recipes. Polenta does not belong in the vegetable section, but that's where you'll find it here. Probably because it's made of corn. Then again, so is cornbread.

Eat, Pray, Love

GILBERT, ELIZABETH. Eat, Pray, Love. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-14-303841-2. Pp. 334. $15.00.

I've always been suspicious of Elizabeth Gilbert's runaway bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. Having previously worked at a bookstore for three years, from 2006 to 2009, her book was the only one I sold two or three copies of every single day. And I never once sold it to a man. Needless to say, no one who worked at the bookstore read it, myself included. Until now.

As every woman in America already knows, Eat, Pray, Love involves the year following a hard divorce during which Gilbert travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia, looking for happiness and balance (and love) along the way. She gets it all, and not to anyone's surprise.  The whole year is set up to be entirely satisfying, even if her previous misery is still trailing behind her when she first arrives in Italy, where the author replaces antidepressants with gelato and self-satisfaction quickly follows.

Gilbert is obviously an extremely likable writer and person (as she says herself, she can make friends with anyone and everyone). She is also a very privileged person, which I think she appreciates to some extent, but can still unashamedly describe a lone shopping spree she indulged in in Rome, during which she spent a small fortune on lingerie. It can be nice to read about another person's wealth--financial, that is--but it can also be kind of boring. Especially if you're poor.

The book's style is itself quite chatty and warm, which is what makes the book so pleasurable to read. Gilbert also has a sharp sense of humor (describing her affectionate personality as a split between a golden retriever and a barnacle), although frequently her attempts at cleverness not only fall flat, but go on for pages and pages before she finally gives the joke up. Fortunately, the most dreadful of these instances occurs early on in the book, in a passage in which Gilbert personifies Depression and Loneliness, who pay her a visit ten days into her stay in Rome: "Then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity; but he always does that. Then Loneliness starts interrogating me, which I dread because it always goes on for hours". This goes on for a page and a half.

Despite this moment of weakness, the Italy chapter is probably the most interesting in the book, I think because these are the four months Gilbert spends in exclusive pursuit of pleasure. Of course she finds pleasure of a different sort in Bali (his name is Felipe and he's Brazilian), but by the end of the book, I still wasn't sure what the moral of the story was. Perhaps something about meditation and finding God? Personally, I think it had something to do with having a lot of money and time to burn. Without either, this book would never have been written. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


So I didn't deliver this week. Next Sunday I fully intend on posting twice: once on Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, once on Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?  For now, here's a blurry picture of me holding 20 pounds of cats. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Next week

Next week: Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, pray, love.

Decision Points

BUSH, GEORGE W. Decision Points. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-307-59061-9. Pp. 497. $35.00.

I was expecting George W. Bush's book to be a memoir. It's not. It's the justification of a bad former president for making bad decisions. None of which were actually bad, or even erroneous, according to Bush. As long as you surround yourself with the right kind of people, all of whom already agree with you, no decision you make can be bad.

The book is structured strangely. The first hundred pages sum up Bush's life, leaving out anything of significance, like 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina. The biggies all get their own chapters later on. Still, all the personal soul-searching is left to the first chapter, which starts with an alcohol problem, digresses into childhood, college, marriage, and children, and finally returns to the decision to quit drinking and turn to the bible. Because this turns out to be the most personal chapter in the book, its lack of personality stands out the most. Whoever wrote this, assuming it wasn't really Bush, is young. Like, twenty-something year old young. I'm making this guess namely because of the college entrance essay language that poisons this chapter and the rest of the book. Here's Bush's one paragraph on attending business school at Harvard: "I came away with a better understanding of management, particularly the importance of setting clear goals for an organization, delegating tasks, and holding people to account. I also gained the confidence to pursue my entrepreneurial urge." And his college experience at Yale seems to be based off of the course catalog. By the end of the chapter, it really doesn't feel like giving up drinking held all that much at stake after all.

What does become more and more abundantly clear after the hundred-page mark is that not many decisions are actually going to be made, in the sense that the man deliberated over the issue before coming to a conclusion. He came to a conclusion, allowed others to deliberate in favor of that conclusion, and then acted upon said conclusion. In the case of stem cell research, in which his decision is led mainly by faith, the ends does not justify the means. Using available embryos to conduct important scientific research (or, as he puts it, "destroying" embryos), does not balance out morally. In a later chapters, on the other hand, torture is a means justified by the end. And while Bush is opposed to "destroying" embryos, he is in favor of "sacrificing" troops.

I shouldn't have thrown out the word "torture" in that last paragraph, especially since CIA experts said that the interrogation techniques we used do not constitutionally count as torture. In the 1950's, psychologists performed a series of experiments in pursuit of finding out how and why the Nazi regime and its death camps could have happened.  Regular American test subjects showed that if a man with the lab coat and clip board says it's okay to give an electric shock to a guy with heart problems, then it's okay to give an electric shock to a guy with heart problems. I'm not calling Bush a Nazi, but ignoring human decency in favor of the words of "experts" does not make for reassuring reading. Then again, none of Decision Points makes for reassuring reading. So let's just be happy the man's out of the White House.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Keith Richards' "Life"

RICHARDS, KEITH. Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-316-03438-8. Pp. 564. $ 29.99.

In 1967, when my father was fifteen, he confided in his journal that he planned on running away to London to become a rock star with the Rolling Stones. The journal does not survive. What does survive is the letter my grandmother wrote him that summer, in which she mentioned in passing that she'd been cleaning his room, had found his journal and was surprised to read that he wanted to become a English rock star. Needless to say, Dad did not make it to England to fulfill his dream, and after reading Keith Richards' memoir, I guess I'm glad he didn't

Obviously my father's adolescent pipe dream shows to some extent how influential the Rolling Stones were, and still are. As Richards humbly told a fan on the street: "Whatever you're listening to now, they wouldn't have been there without me". So now all the young boys of forty-odd years ago, who all one day dreamed of sporting Mick Jagger's epically wide mouth and Richards' wiry legs, are now bankers and lawyers and professors, and they're all buying up Richards' memoir, Life, to get another taste of what it was they so wanted to be. Dad is no exception.

But even Dad has to admit it's a long hard slog through more than 500 pages of drug-addled experiences. Going into it, and certainly by the 200-page marker, I was slowly overwhelmed with a sense of inevitable doom as life as a Rolling Stone took a backseat to the story, and drugs became the favorite topic. This book is hard to swallow and it's certainly not for everyone. I've been feeling gloomy all week, thanks to this book. Nevertheless, it's actually pretty easy to read, stylistically. It's really an oral history, there's no denying it.  No one actually sat down and wrote Life. Which is fine. At least we know it wasn't ghost written. Unless I'm a huge dupe and it really was. Still, the chattiness of the piece is both its strength and its weakness. Richards' voice is more immediate when you are under the impression that he's regaling you with these tales while sitting in his Connecticut house over tea. The problem is that I don't think anything was edited out. Because this is all Richards' voice, it's all true, it all has to stay in. Including stuff like "I also felt like I was doing it not to be a 'pop star'. There was something I didn't really like about that end of what I was doing, the blah blah blah." Thank you, Keith. Well said.

What I enjoyed most of all in the book were all those moments that clearly inspired the creators of "This Is Spinal Tap". The work is sometimes rife with hilarity, although the bulk of it includes the decade-plus during which Richards became a junky with his former partner Anita Pallenberg while raising two children (a third son died at two months of age, while Richards was on tour). The self-destructive spiral they both were in is artfully captured in the narrative, but that doesn't make it fun to read. Richards may have gone off the stuff thirty years ago, but his fixation remains.

By far my favorite chapter is the first, which is kind of discouraging four hundred pages along when you realize Richards saved the best for first. The chapter is more of an anecdote, describing a bust that took place in Texas in 1975 during one of the Stones' tours in the United States. The cockiness with which he recounts the incident is delightful, although it does lose stamina as the rest of the book progresses. Who doesn't feel a little cocky when they're surrounded by a bunch of Texans? "We were the most dangerous rock-and-roll bank" and it was "Open season on the Stones". The encounter took a comical turn, which, we discover later, was not always the case when Richards would get busted. In this case, toilets were clogged with pot and cocaine in an attempt to be rid of the evidence and the Texas police "suddenly didn't know what to do with these international stars stuck in their custody". 

I doubt many people will make it all the way to the end of Life. It's in need of a good trim, but it's too late for that now. Still, Stones fans like Dad should be able to enjoy the first three hundred pages pretty well. Reading about a poor English kid's rise to super stardom makes for some pretty good reading, despite all the blah blah blah.