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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Soft words butter no parsnips (or: it takes four squirrels to make pie)

  My mother grew up in Connecticut, and she remembers all sorts of regional specialties that she ate growing up that people just don't make now. She was thrilled to find a 1963 reprint of the 1939 regional Yankee Cookbook by Emmajean Wolcott.

Emmajean. Who is named Emmajean anymore? (Well, to study that, you'd want to look at the beautiful graph at Name Change, but that's a separate topic. It's a really lovely way to present that information though, isn't it? Nearly as nice as the Crayola color chart analysis in Color Me A Dinosaur. Pretty digressions are the best kind!)

Ahem. This cookbook is full of strange lore, and stranger recipes. It has recipes for cooking with coots (a TV series title waiting to happen!), which are birds with tough feathers that lived in the region, which were a challenge to prepare.

It offers tips such as:
At least four squirrels are needed to fill a two quart pie dish. Four squirrels serve six.
Because you were wondering.

There are many recipes involving cornmeal. As a fancy Californian, my mind automatically turns to polenta with sun dried tomatoes (mmmm, polenta) but soft or hard polenta-type dishes went by many names: bag pudding, johnnycake, hasty pudding, and gap and swallow. (<-I do not recommend searching for this term, as nowadays, it only leads to 'p0rn.') Soft, hot cornmeal was served with milk as a dessert; there were variations of "Indian pudding" with cornmeal, molasses, milk, sometimes salt, sometimes cinnamon. (It must have been tough to get cinnamon.) I'm trying to picture something like cornbread pancakes with syrup, but softer: it has some potential.

I may have liked the versions of pumpkin pie they had in the area: since sensible chickens don't lay eggs in winter, pumpkin pies were egg-free. Pumpkin, molasses, milk, ginger, cinnamon, and salt were the primary ingredients of the pie filling. Pumpkins ("pompions") that weren't baked and eaten fresh were sliced up for storage, and the strips were air-dried.

The cookbook includes some recipes from the native people who pre-dated the New England concept, mostly involving the complex preparations you need to make to prepare local fauna for roasting (how to remove glands you may not be aware of, for example). You're still thinking about squirrel pie, though, aren't you? I am, too, and I don't remember it having any other ingredients. Did I mention ick? Ick.

Aside from thinking about the potential to make sweet dessert polentas, I didn't come away with any inspiration. New Englanders ate simple foods, many of which were baked or roasted, with relatively few ingredients. The desserts appeal to me in their simplicity - apples, pumpkins, cinnamon, molasses - but not the entrees. It's the sort of cookbook that makes you understand why people glamorized spice traders: relative to a pie shell full of squirrels, a masala dosa with a side of sambar starts to sound like heaven many times over.

I realize I own more spices right now than most people in NE consumed in their entire lives. Lucky lucky lucky. Spoiled and lucky.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:04 PM

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fresh turmeric root

  I love living in San Francisco. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Also amusing: watching the stock guy in the grocery store staring at me in disbelief as I delicately put rolls of bean curd sheet into a bag with tongs. I've never struck awe into anyone by buying a soybean product before. Who knew that my nostalgia for my freshman year best friends' grandparents' soup would inspire me to buy a product that would so surprise a stranger.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:08 PM

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Restaurants I really miss.

San Francisco is filled with great restaurants, but that doesn't stop locals from becoming very attached to just a few of those that they frequent regularly. Restaurants are subject to swings in the economy, temperamental landlords, management strife... Most "fail" as businesses, even if they succeed at serving great food.

There are several restaurants that I especially miss. They were:

Asmara, on Ocean Avenue, in the Ingleside. This was a great, casual Ethiopian restaurant just a few blocks from where I live now. I noticed it soon after moving in, and was able to eat there about three times before the restaurant's landlord bumped it out in favor of an unremarkable Chinese place. It was good - better than Massawa! Better than New Eritrea! Oh, the eggplant dishes! Oh, the mushroom dishes!

Canton Winter Garden, on Clement near 12th. I only actually ate here once, but it made quite an impression on me. This was a Chinese restaurant with an extensive menu, and three spice ratings: one for mild, two for spicy, three for very spicy. What made this funny was that you'd try to order a three, and the waitstaff would argue with you about it, and try to talk you out of it. I went with a group of friends, and managed to order a range of ones, twos and threes. We sat around, eating, passing around Kleenex, and blowing our noses. It was GREAT. I would have eaten there often, had it stuck around.

Hamburger Mary's, Folsom at 12th. It was a bar, it was a restaurant, it kept great hours (late into the night, early in the morning), it had wild decor (which was heavily revised after the quake of '89, perhaps because most of it fell down in the quake)... It was a place where you could get breakfasts that would be so huge, you wouldn't need to eat again that day. Omelettes that were very light on the eggs, but full of great fillings. Awesome home fries. Grilled tofu sandwiches. Super cool, we've-seen-it-all-and-won't-blink waitstaff. I'd go there late nights or Sunday mornings. I was always satisfied. It was sold, replaced by a Harvey's, and is now some club that never appears to be open.

Lotus Garden Vegetarian Restaurant, Grant Avenue, Chinatown. This was my parents' favorite Chinese restaurant in all of San Francisco, amazingly enough. It was also the only kosher vegetarian Chinese place with a Taoist temple upstairs that I've ever heard of. They made the tenderest gluten puffs, the best noodle plates, the best mushroom-filled wontons (in a fabulous soup), something called Almond Chicken Ding that my omnivorous friends actually thought was chicken (though it was much, much better than chicken)... And the dining room was filled with men wearing yarmulkes and people speaking Chinese during the lunch hour. You'd go upstairs to use the bathroom, and see a Taoist ceremony going on. It closed for "remodeling" and never opened again.

Red Crane Vegetarian and Seafood Restaurant, on Clement near 12th (very near where Canton Winter Garden was). Everything at this restaurant had a certain taste... I don't know if it was the particular kinds of mushrooms they used, but it was all good. Nothing was unusually spicy, but it was all satisfying. Especially the hot and spicy tofu. But there were many, many good dishes. The sizzling rice soup was entertaining and tasty. When I moved out of the Richmond, it closed.

Siam Dish, Monterey Boulevard, 700 block. My favorite neighborhood Thai place. They served Japonica rice! They had a wide range of curries that went beyond the usual red, green, or yellow that you get in most Thai places. They used more veggies, had more interesting combinations... They were excellent. They had a big remodel, and closed almost immediately thereafter.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:50 AM

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Nearly healthy.

digital light painting by A.E. GravesAlthough I haven't quite beaten the office plague, I can now pass for normal for short periods of time. I can go out without sounding like I'm trying to expel a lung for hours at a time. And that feeling that I had spent the night with energy vampires has largely passed. Largely.

I'm full of postponed projects that were waiting on my recovery, which are all trying to dominate my sleepy head at once. They are piled up everywhere, and my other thoughts are tripping over them and getting tangled up with them. It will take me a while to get them organized enough to act upon.


It hasn't been much of a week for food. I've been making familiar dishes here at home - Tibetan noodle soup, lasagna, broccoli with tofu and black bean sauce - and taking packaged foods that Steven bought in as lunch. Steven has forgiven me for making off with all the vegan items and leaving the cheese items for him, which is very kind. :-) I have a few pasta sauce experiments coming up, and perhaps some enchilada variations, but nothing too exotic.

My only exotic thoughts are about a meal I ate many years ago. A colleague is going to Nepal, and discussing that country brings me back to my first meal in Kathmandu at a fabulous Bhutanese restaurant. That was one of the best meals I've ever had. Tired from more than 24 hours in transit, we stumbled through the unevenly paved streets of the city of more than one million people, carrying flashlights, and followed our trip leader to a restaurant I knew I would never be able to find again. It was a cozy room, and our group divided up into vegetarians and nons. Everything on our vegetarian table was remarkable - soups, appetizers, - especially the spinach momos, and the tender noodles in a remarkable hot-pot style of soup... The little dumplings were filling, spicy, satisfying... So good. So warm. I remember leaving so happy...

I have made momos at home, and they have been good, but they've never been quite the same as they were in that restaurant.



The rain is gently falling outside, the drops wide-spaced and heavy. I walked home from the train station, breathing in the fresh air, quietly receiving the shattered shower. Despite the rain, the air looked remarkably clear. The City is so lovely at night. The City isn't perfect - there are many unlovely things here, things that people do to make spaces look abused or dirty or just unloved - but at night, when the lights sparkle and illuminate the contours of this hilly place, with waves of little lights unfolding in every direction... It is perfect. It sparkles. It glows. And I feel so lucky to be here.


I took some photos this weekend, despite the heavy, slow clouds that kept rolling over us and changing the light in my garden in unpredictable ways. It would have been better to just sit in the garden and watch them blow over, but I felt compelled to record something, just to work some of my compulsion to make wet collodion plates out of my system, since that is an expensive and challenging compulsion.

I spent undue amounts of time using my Polarid pinhole camera and Polaroid Type 665 film (both at, one of the types of film that produces an instant print and a same-size negative which can be used for other processes. (As part of my ongoing commitment to studying antique technology, I can assure you that neither the camera nor the film is made any longer.) I had purchased some of the last 665 film after it was discontinued. As an alternative process printer who spends a lot of time making large-format negatives in various ways, it seemed like an ideal, 'alt-alt' technique.

"Lensless" photography, which uses no conventional optics, has been enjoying yet another resurgence - it is possible to craft a digital or film camera that uses a pinhole, a zone plate, or a photon sieve to focus light - and I've been enjoying the work that others are doing with these techniques. Having taken my research back in time before the advent of film, why not go slightly further back, before the use of glass optics? The 'camera obscura' - a room or box with a hole in one side, which naturally projected an upside-down image of the outside world onto the opposite wall - was popular long before people figured out how to record images permanently, and pinhole cameras are just camera obscuras with film.

Since I'm a busy person, I wanted to go back in time - before glass lenses - but also very far forward in time, to have an excuse to use the brilliant, instant-positive technologies provided by Polaroid. I want to have it both ways. I can. I did. (I had previously tried making pinhole images with some of the late 1800s contact printing process papers I use, but those papers can take days to form an image, and I'm not that patient.)

I'll scan and post selected results later. Very selected. Very much later. My lack of practice with the camera and the difficulty of estimating exposure times when clouds keep passing over caused me problems. (My images with faster, print-only film in steadier lighting conditions were better.) I learned with greater certainty that my camera does have an inner focusing limit of about six inches, after which it may have a more-or-less infinite depth of field - so close-ups of very small things (the point of this weekend's experiments) don't work well with this particular box camera. (Some of the early tests I posted long ago lacked sharpness: this is why.) I am thrilled to learn that, though that lesson wasn't necessarily the best use of some of the last Type 665 film on the planet.

I need to rethink my subject matter plans: since close-ups aren't appropriate, and the plant subjects I spend so much time on move too much during the long exposures that the tiny pinhole aperture requires, I'll need to use this camera for (a) larger things (that will fill the frame at distances of greater than 6 inches) that (b) stay very still, and can benefit from being shown with (c) an extraordinary depth of field. I would want to do this only to the extent that I learned something new, because I have other cameras good at photographing large, still things at a reasonable depth of field.


euphorbia by A.E. GravesI also went out into the back yard and took some digital color photos showing the lush greens of December in our garden. I took these in the soft, dark available light - these lack the drama and sharpness of a sunny day, but convey the mood of the afternoon. I love living in a climate that has happy plants year round. Even now, some of our succulents are in bloom, and our apple blossom camellia has tender, short-lived, pink-edged blossoms on it. Such a December!


I realize that I post a tiny fraction of the photos I make here - not even one percent - and that my injuries earlier in the year kept me indoors more than usual. I'll likely create a few highlights/best of galleries to make up for the enormous gaps, once I sort through all of these other projects eagerly waiting to escape my mental backlog.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:51 PM

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