Thursday, July 29, 2010

Col Cooks: Summer Peach Ice Cream

The other thing I do when I ought to be grading – or cleaning the house or folding the laundry or a million other things– is cook. Since I am still working on a review of Banana Yoshimoto’s hauntingly beautiful Asleep, I thought I’d share the recipe that sidetracked me when I should have been reviewing today!

Col’s Summer Peach Ice Cream
4 cups light cream
1 cup sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 can evaporated milk
5 ripe peaches, peeled and pulsed a few times in the food processor)
2 teaspoons good vanilla
½ teaspoon salt

Scald cream with sugar to dissolve. Remove from heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Cool the mixture in an ice bath (or refrigerate overnight). Freeze according to instructions on your ice cream maker until the consistency is that of soft serve ice cream, then transfer to another container and freeze for at least an hour.

I’m serving this with blueberry compote tonight to some friends who are heading out of town on sabbatical this year!

*Image from

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Even when you hate a book you learn something

This summer, in my post-tenure euphoria, I have dedicated myself to expanding my reading horizons: meeting new authors, sampling new genres, and, most gratifying, making a few new friends along the way. One of the ways I have pushed my boundaries is by joining some reading challenges, including the voluminous Summer 2010 Reading Challenge at Goodreads. I figured reading the reviews of favorite books was a great way to expand my own TBR list.

This is how I first encountered the term “cozy murder.” Certainly, I read some Miss Marple books as a kid, and I watched Jessica Fletcher solve the murders of the Cabot Cove natives, who were slaughtered at a seemingly higher rate than Maine’s summer mosquito population. But I didn’t know there was A) a name for this kind of light mystery, and B) a proliferation of series in this “by women, for women mayhem” vein. My feminist sensibilities were intrigued, and I do love a good mystery now and then, so I tracked down one of the most ballyhooed series – the Hannah Swensen mysteries by Joanne Fluke – and got busy with The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.

But this post is not a rant about a poorly conceptualized and overly written beach book. (My alter-ego, Acerbi-Col, might have to share this sentence about the cat: "Moishe's favorite activities when she was gone were eating and napping." Really? Do I need to know this? Now if Moishe played the concertina, that would be worth mentioning. But napping? A cat? You get the idea.) Instead, today’s post is about accepting that there are some roads you just haven’t taken, and aren’t going to take. Some groups you can never be part of. Some jokes you are never going to get. And that’s actually okay with me, finally.

Is that a leap from forcing myself to read one (admittedly, well-loved) book from a whole genre? I guess so. My first reaction after finishing The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder was this: “What am I not getting?” If thousands of people like this kind of thing, why can’t I enjoy it? But as I mulled it over, my reaction quickly evolved to this: “What do I need from reading that this book didn’t provide?” And that’s a much better question. Because there’s a difference between testing boundaries and wasting time. And the things I’m looking for – a deeper understanding of culture and family and womanhood and people’s inner struggles to do the decent thing in a wicked world – just can’t be found in some parts of the book publishing world.

Net result? Time to cull the TBR list. I’ll build it up again carefully, reading reviews and thinking about my objectives for reading – and not be influenced by the questionable wisdom of crowds. And no more reading a book just to fit it into a challenge. Life’s too short, and there are a lot of great authors out there with new takes on the age-old problems of living in a complex society. It’s not like comedy is off the list, or even absurdity. I just want my time to be well spent.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: Food as Culture

Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir of one Vietnamese refugee’s path to self discovery, oriented around food. Nguyen hardly remembers the time before she lived in America – her father escaped the fall of Saigon with her older sister, her grandmother and two uncles when she was just two. Her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, continues to be dominated by her outsider status long after she has lost the ability to speak fluent Vietnamese, however. The idea behind the memoir is to reflect on the author’s evolving conceptions of family, cohesion and identity through the one element of culture most accessible to outsiders: food.

A lot of the book focuses on what Nguyen is not: mostly, she is not white. And in her youthful view, white would be better. Conveniently (perhaps too conveniently), her frustration at not being American enough is in direct juxtaposition to the feelings of her 1st generation La Raza stepmother, who eschews everything “white.”
But Rosa didn’t want to be like the Vander Wals next door. She called the Midwestern dinners bland, sticking out her tongue for emphasis.” (p. 52)

As a communications scholar, I was particularly interested in the way media constructed Nguyen’s world. She does share some remembrances of media, but they do more to catalog the television commercials of the late 70s than to illuminate Nguyen’s feelings toward them, for the most part. There are some gems of self-reflection scattered through the text, however:
To me, life in commercials was real. Commercials were instructions; they were news. They showed me what perfection could be: in the right woman’s hands, the layers of a cake would be exactly the same size. In the right woman’s kitchen, a cartoon rabbit would visit the children and show them how to slurp down a tall glass of Nestle Quik with a straw. A shaken cruet would spill a stream of Good Seasons over hills of lettuce leaves. Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends’ mothers had no trouble fulfilling.” (p.125)

That’s the kind of perspective-driven self-reflection I would have liked to have read more about. Instead, I found the food metaphor grew thin, and finally stretched toward incredulity. In trying to present her young self, Nguyen tried to divorce herself from the present, and her current realization of self in a multi-cultural America. But without knowing where she wound up, the memoir had less resonance.

Bottom line: because of my love of both food and culture, I wanted to love this book, but I only liked it. This is a good book. Nguyen is a talented writer. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a personal memoir of contemporary America. I just wish the author had dug a bit deeper, and offered more adult perspective – what does she think of living in the United States now? One hopes her conceptualization of being “white” has evolved as much as her conceptualization of being “American” or “Vietnamese-American,” but Nguyen never deals with anything but the caricatures. Her thesis remains undeveloped. The fact is we can only imagine the children we were. Who we are now seems so much more important.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Independent People: A rock-hard view of the human condition

Where to start with a novel whose main character starts out disagreeable and winds up almost monstrous—a novel that despite its main character’s obvious faults is still impossible to put down? This is my problem with Halldor Laxness’ Independent People. Reading it was worthwhile and even fascinating, but it was not enjoyable in any traditional sense. In fact, I suspect the ruggedness and hopelessness of the book was the author’s intention, capturing the plight of Iceland’s early 20th century croft farmers, many of whom endured lives of tremendous hardship to free themselves from the debts they were forced to incur to farm their own land.

Bjartur of Summerhouses insists on his family’s independence –independence ironically handed to him by a wealthy landowning family who needed to marry off a servant made pregnant by their son. He wields his independence like a weapon, bludgeoning dissent and enslaving his children. In fact, independence, in the form of his sheep, is Bjartur’s only loyalty. His actions lead to the deaths of both his wives and one of his sons, yet he counts himself virtuous because of his fidelity to his own independence. He is pitiless, but never pitiable, which makes the book hard to like.

And yet I actually did like it. The author’s storytelling is detailed, and yet spare, like the countryside I imagine it captures. But what was most interesting was the way the author was able to articulate his very sophisticated world view so powerfully through the lives of these obscure, desperately poor people. Laxness’ mistrust of government is a recurring theme:

To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideas that only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The book manages to expound on organized religion, war, international trade, healthcare and sexual mores. No wonder it is often described as a modern “epic.” But from my point of view, it’s more an “anti-epic.” Rather than relating great deeds and expansive travels with broad strokes, it depicts commonplace occurrences in one very small part of the world in intimate, minute detail. The effect is the same, however: Independent People, like all epics, is at its heart a rendering of the human condition, in all its sadness, fear, anxiety, and hope. It won’t make you smile, but it will make you think. I highly recommend spending the time on this novel.