Korean Food’s Time Has Finally Arrived, and You Can Get to Know It with Gochujang

Back in the ’90s, I went to hear food writer Ruth Reichl speak. I don’t remember what she said about the hot trends of those days, but I do recall very clearly her lament about Korean food. She had written about the cuisine of the tiny East Asian nation a few times, but even a platform as powerful as The New York Times, where she was the restaurant reviewer, could not push the cuisine onto the nation’s foodie radar. It was a puzzle, she said, because Korean food has several characteristics that you’d think would endear it to the American palate—succulent beef dishes and a signature hot sauce among them.

That commentary has come back to me over the years, whenever an article about Korean food appeared—inevitably to little notice. Several years ago, when a Korean restaurant popped up in a small strip mall here in the ’burbs, I wondered if Korean food had finally arrived. But nope, the place closed a few months later. Cooking-with-Gochujang

Now, in 2015, it seems as if Korean food is finally hot—or at least warm. I’ve been noticing a small but steady number articles and mentions on TV cooking shows, as well as notices of upcoming cookbooks. One such cookbook is already here. Cooking with Gochujang: Asia’s Original Hot Sauce (The Countryman Press) offers a nifty introduction to that aforementioned hot sauce. Gochujang is different from the fiery Mexican salsas we love, from the stinging acid-inferno of Indonesian sriracha or the tangy heat of your favorite Buffalo sauce. It’s “a chili paste,” says author Naomi Imatome-Yun, “with a complex spicy, sweet and deep flavor.” Made from fermented chilies, soybeans, sticky rice powder and salt, it has the consistency of paste. A yummy paste. This book of just 60 recipes includes instructions for making gochujang itself, but Iamtome-Yun notes that even in Korea, bottled is the rule. (Kind of like ketchup—only the most adventurous cooks would dare to make it.) Most of the recipes here use gochujang as an ingredient, and while traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap (rice with veggies) and kimchi bokumbap (fried rice with spicy fermented cabbage) are included, Iamtome-Yun incorporates gochujang into other ethnic cuisines—think LA-Style Chicken Quesadillas, Seoulful Cheese Dip, pasta sauce and even peanut butter cookies.

This is how an ethnic cuisine makes its way into the American kitchen—one easy-to-use ingredient at agochujang_ time. Recall how teriyaki sauce, with its perfect balance of salt, sweet and brewed yumminess became the marinade ingredient a few decades ago. Back then, home cooks who would no more consider rolling their own yellowtail sushi than—I dunno, milking their own cows —were suddenly using teriyaki with abandon. And once we mastered teriyaki, we learned a bit about Japanese cuisine, and those home sushi kits started appearing. Will gochujang follow the same trajectory? Will Korean food finally be recognized by mainstream America? Hard to say. But if it does, books like this will help make it so.
 Originally published on BookTrib.com.

The Tyranny of Neat People and the Antidote, in a “Magical” Little Book on Tidying

For a while now, I’ve been ranting to myself about what I call the tyranny of neat people.

It happens whenever I stumble on one of those New Year’s articles about de-cluttering your home and transforming your life. You’ll feel better, work more productively and become a more perfect human being, they say, if only your house is tidy.

Here’s what I say: maybe the neat people have simply done a better job of public relations for their decidedly limited comfort zone. What if it’s the slobs of the world (including me) who are more flexible, more tolerant and more able to be happy and productive in any environment? I can function in your pristine sanctuary or my own mess; I don’t feel compelled to be tidying up all the time. Given a choice between spending my spare minutes reading and tidying, I’ll pick the book or The New York Times almost every time. I say “almost” because that’s the kind of gal I am—a slob, but flexible, able to adapt to the moment. Between deadlines, or if company’s coming or if the spirit moves me, I clean up. My space is never perfect, but hey, neither is life.

So I generally91RY2EnQHGL._SL1500_ avoid how-to’s that purport to tell me how to win friends and influence people by rearranging my closets. Recently though, I came across one that was different: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press). The title’s hyperbole nearly sent me running for a pile of half-read New Yorkers, but I found myself liking Kondo’s KonMari Method.

Most organizers have rules: they tell you to ditch anything you haven’t used in the past year or get rid of one item for each new one you buy. I agree that most of us suffer from the scourge of too much stuff, but numeric parameters seem so arbitrary and more than a little wasteful. Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant whose book has sold some 2 million copies, adds a brilliant criterion: eliminate things that don’t “spark joy.” That’s a concept I can live with. Under this rule, I keep the stack of dictionaries that reside on the ottoman in my living room, including the yellowing volume I got in Miss Rodgers’ third grade class. It lay unopened for decades, and if I’d followed the typical decluttering rule, I would never have had the chance to share it with my daughter in her third grade year. I look at it and think of Miss Rodgers. And my daughter.

Joy.

Kondo does advocate clearing out far more stuff than I ever would. She has her clients reduce their belongings to the essentials; in fact, her recipe for reducing your library and hiding what’s left in the closet makes me feel like a character from Fahrenheit 451. And her habit of personifying possessions falls somewhere between endearing and daft; she thanks items she’s giving away and worries how the rest like to be stored. Sometimes she seems a little OCD; she unpacks her handbag every night and repacks it every morning—a ritual that had me muttering, “There’s NO WAY this woman has kids.”

But I do like Kondo’s sympathetic tone and graceful prose. Many of her ideas are interesting, like arranging clothing in a drawer so they stand side by side, rather than in piles; I might try that one of these days. Kondo advises against such a piecemeal approach; she says you should organize your entire house once, and you’ll never have to do it again. That’s too much for this slob.

But the idea of eliminating things that don’t spark joy—that’s a keeper. I’ve already used it to streamline some overstuffed shelves, and, to my surprise, it transformed the decision process. So now I have a new rant: tidying doesn’t have to be tyranny; it’s how you go about it.

 Originally published on BookTrib.com.

He Knows What It Means to Eat New Orleans: With Eat Dat, Michael Murphy Is Your Guide

Long before “locavore” was a word, before the Food Network made cooking a spectator sport, before Chez Panisse and California cuisine, before even Julia Child and James Beard—a good century or two before what we now think of as the seminal moments on our culinary timeline—there was New Orleans. It’s true that rich and diverse food cultures could be found from sea to shining sea, but New Orleans food was the eat dathaute cuisine of America. Jambalaya, brimming with andouille sausage; shrimp gumbo, thick with okra or file; crawfish étouffée, creamy, savory and utterly delicious; less fancy but no less satisfying muffaletta and po’boy sandwiches; oysters so rich (and green) they were named for Rockefeller; sweet, delectable pralines; boozy, buttery, flaming bananas Foster—these are but a few of the reasons that New Orleans was long the culinary destination of the nation.

Today, food has become our national obsession, and a visit to NOLA is just one of a multitude of boxes to be checked on a foodie bucket list. Really, though, New Orleans should still be near the top of that list.

As Michael Murphy reports in Eat Dat: New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City (The Countryman Press), the Big Easy is still—even after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005—one of the most vibrant food towns in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. Murphy, a former publisher of William Morrow who moved to New Orleans in 2009, has written a guidebook to more than 250 of the city’s eateries. Yet, while it’s organized like a traditional guidebook, with chapters on the city’s neighborhoods and their notable restaurants, it reads like a cross between a work of culinary anthropology and the foodie-gossip column of your dreams.

Michael-Murphy

Michael Murphy

Murphy recounts the history of various New Orleans culinary institutions and tells about the people behind them, both past and present. He sides with New Orleans culinary historian Lolis Eric Elie, who recalibrates the French contribution to the city’s Creole foodways and says that its African citizens should get as much if not more credit for its most famous dishes. Murphy chronicles the long-lived feud that fractured the Brennan family, renowned for such restaurants as Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Noted chefs Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, the late Jamie Shannon, and Susan Spicer appear on the book’s pages, as do local legends Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton.

Murphy tallies the food community’s losses to Katrina—and its inspiring recoveries. And he tells of the city’s grudge against GQ magazine’s restaurant critic, Alan Richman, who visited the city a year into its recovery and gave its foodways a thorough dissing. (He compared it to Tijuana and wondered if, among other things, it was worth rebuilding. Naturally, the citizens of the Big Easy reacted with outrage.)

Murphy himself is New Orleans booster, but a clear-eyed critic of both his adopted city and its restaurants. And a darned amusing one. Of the famed Cafe du Monde and its menu of beignets and chicory coffee, he marvels,” In a city loaded with must do restaurants, bars, music clubs, historical buildings, and horse-drawn or airboat propelled tourist rides, somehow sitting under a green-and-white awning at a too-small, unclean table, served by waiters who seem more suited to wordlessly taking your ticket at the Superdome, eating a small square hunk of deep-fried dough smothered with powdered sugar has become the #1 must do experience in New Orleans.” (Of course I laughed out loud at this, but I am one who thinks it’s fine for tourists to do touristy things. I have a golden memory of my breakfast at Cafe du Monde some years ago. The sun was blazing so brightly that the air around us seemed to shimmer; the beignets were moments out of the fryer, tender-crisp and sweet; and a jazz trumpeter of modest talents was serenading us with all his heart and soul from the street. It was hardly the best food of my visit, but all together, the morning was just about perfect.)

If you are headed for New Orleans, Murphy’s guidebook has several useful features. An appendix offers best-of lists in 25 categories, selected not by Murphy, but by a panel of local food commentators that he convened for the book. And he concludes each restaurant entry with a pithy “Reason to Go” and “What to Get.” Just one example: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but well-loved eatery (it received a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic” award a few months before being destroyed by Katrina, and was rebuilt by volunteers with donations from around the country) gets this summation: “Reason to Go: A fried chicken Holy Shrine. What to Get: In line early (before the 11:00 a.m. opening) The place only seats twenty-eight people.”

You’ll wish he could sit in one of those seats next to you. With his deep knowledge of New Orleans and irreverent wit, Murphy makes a delightful travel companion. You will read this book with pleasure, whether you are actually traveling to New Orleans or just dreaming of that perfect beignet, curled up in your armchair at home.

Originally published on BookTrib.com.

Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

Bon Appetit: A Reader’s Guide For Julia Child Fans

The phrase “reading for pleasure” takes on a different meaning for every reader. Some choose mysteries; others go for romance or biography or a particular author. For the past few years, one of my favorite escapist reading choices hasn’t been an author or a genre, but a subject: Julia Child. Her life and work make for reading that I, for one, find irresistible: cooking and eating, Paris, true love, international intrigue and the triumph of perseverance. Plus, there’s Julia herself, the force of nature, the exuberant soul whose wit and charm belied a work ethic of steel. Julia, who told legions of fans that of course they could cook haute French cuisine, and who counseled them to take courage in the kitchen. Julia, who, more than any single individual, transformed the way we think about food.

Even now, eight years after her death at age 91, Juliaphiles like me want more. And lucky for us, the past few years have seen the publication of a shelf full of books about Julia. Since the 1999 publication of Noel Riley Fitch’s 592-page doorstop of a biography, Appetite for Life,  there have been at least nine volumes devoted to Julia’s life and times, including her own posthumously published memoir, My Life in France. And while they all cover the same waterfront, they’re all different enough to make engrossing and pleasurable reading.      

dearie

The most comprehensive of these is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, published by Knopf late last year. Spitz writes that he got to know Julia when he accompanied her to Sicily in 1992. He was on assignment to write about her and emerged from the experience with a crush on the lively septuagenarian: “She was exactly like her TV persona… warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible and most of all, real.”

The two talked about a biography, but Spitz had other projects and did not start on Dearie until after Julia’s death. I must admit that it took me a while to love this book. In the early chapters, Spitz sometimes takes a portentous tone, endowing simple events with great meaning. Example: in kindergarten, Julia McWilliams learned to follow rules and listen to instructions, which Spitz notes are “prerequisites for following a recipe.” One wonders at the other five-year-old rule-followers who did not go on to culinary careers. But that’s just a quibble, and for the most part, it’s fun to follow Julia’s life from her youth in conservative Pasadena, California; through her wartime service in Asia (where she met her future husband, Paul Child); to their years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe (where she learned to cook and began her groundbreaking book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking); to her days of cookbook and TV stardom and beyond. Along the way, he offers snapshots of nearly a century of history—turn-of-the-century California; World War II in Washington, D.C. and the Pacific theater; postwar Europe; the early days of public television; and the evolution of the food scene in America.

my life in france

Julia told her own story in a memoir that came out not long after her death. My Life in France (Knopf, 2006) was written with Paul’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, and it is a beauty. The pair worked on the book during the last two years of Julia’s life, with Prud’homme interviewing her, writing up what she had said and giving it to her for editing. Julia recalls her days not only in Paris (where Paul was stationed with the State Department), but in Marseille, (his next assignment) and in Provence, where they had a vacation home. Forty or fifty years after the fact, she recalls individual meals and how she cooked them, as well as the people she shared them with. It’s both sweet and frank, a graceful memoir of food, work and her years with the man she adored in a land they both loved.

covertJulia and Paul’s wartime experience has been recounted many times, but never in as much detail as in A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant (Simon and Schuster, 2011). This book is as much about Julia and Paul as it is about an all-but-forgotten-but-once-notorious woman named Jane Foster. The three met during the war when they were stationed in what was then Ceylon, working in the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence unit that was the precursor to the CIA. Foster left government service shortly after the war, disillusioned by a leadership who ignored her on-the-scene observations of revolution in Asia. She went to France to pursue her painting, but during the McCarthy years, her leftist ties led to her being investigated by the State Department and the FBI. She was eventually indicted on charges of espionage, but never tried because France did not extradite for such charges. (The evidence seems to have been pretty flimsy, at that.) Paul was investigated too, but he was exonerated, while Foster was hounded by the U.S. government and the press for years. Connent tells a sad but fascinating tale of what Julia herself later called “a disgusting era.”

As AlwaysA happier story is told in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Joan Reardon, a food historian who has written on M.F.K. Fisher, was the editor of this volume, and she has done a wonderful job of selecting and judiciously annotating the correspondence of these two friends. They met by mail in 1952, when Julia sent a fan letter to Avis DeVoto’s husband, the historian and writer Bernard DeVoto.  He had written a column bemoaning the poor quality of kitchen knives and Julia sent him a good one from Paris. Avis DeVoto, who handled her husband’s correspondence, wrote back, launching a friendship-by-mail that lasted for years and resulted in the publication of Mastering; it was Avis DeVoto who made the introductions that eventually got the book published. Reading this book is pure pleasure; sixty years later, the two women’s voices dance off the page as they exchange notes on cooking and recipes, husbands, politics, and the progress of the book, which took years to complete.  You’ll enjoy meeting the dynamic DeVoto, and if you want to know what Julia was like in private, in her own voice, this is the book to read.

backstage with JuliaAnother angle on the Julia story can be found in Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2007). The book chronicles a later period in Julia’s life, some twenty years after the publication of Mastering, when Julia had been a TV star for nearly two decades. They met in 1980, when Barr was running cooking schools and raising her family. A friend asked her to help with a Planned Parenthood benefit where Julia would be doing a cooking demo; the two women clicked and Barr joined Julia’s team of assistant cooks, working with her on Good Morning America, traveling with her, and forging a friendship that lasted until Julia’s death. Barr is an engaging writer (and a wonderful cookbook author in her own right) and this slender book adds another perspective to the Julia canon.

minetteThere are even two children’s books about Julia Child, both beautifully illustrated and full of charm.  Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) offers up Julia’s life in storyboard form, with multiple hand-lettered pictures spilling from each page. Beguiling scenes of Paris and of Julia in her kitchen with Paul accompany the familiar story, which ends with Julia’s first TV show. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, Bon Ap picture book2012) tells Julia’s story from the point of view of her cat, Minette. Reich’s cat’s-eye-view narrative and Bates’ haunting pictures of Paris nicely capture Julia’s years there. Young readers will surely enjoy these two books (my daughter and niece did), but I can’t help thinking that their elders—who remember Julia in her heyday—will enjoy them even more.

cats

There’s actually another whole book devoted to Julia’s feline obsession. Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats by Patricia Barry and Therese Burson was published by Abrams in 2012. This is, contrary to what you might expect, a serious biography, and it tells Julia’s story with an emphasis on the cats that joined her household over the years. (Minette was the first of many.) If you are both cat lover and a Juliaphile (like me) this book is, um, sheer catnip.

Laura Shapiro book hardcoverLaura Shapiro is one of the nation’s preeminent food historians, so it makes sense that she has weighed in with a book of her own. Julia Child, part of the Penguin Lives series (Lipper/Viking, 2007), is beautifully written volume that tells the story of Julia’s life and sums up her place in American food history and popular culture. “Julia Child,” she writes, “was unlike any other celebrity in America…what was unique about Julia was the quality of emotion she inspired, which was remarkably direct and pure. Julia attracted love, torrents of it, a steady outpouring of love that began with the first pilot episode of The French Chef and continued through and beyond her death.” 

Which I suppose is why, years after her passing, we’re still reading about Julia—and enjoying every page.

 This post was originally published at http://www.booktrib.com

Here’s to the Ladies Who Latke

I was making my lists for our family holiday gathering a few days ago, and as I went over the menu—old-fashioned brisket and potato latkes—it occurred to me (a writer of cookbooks) that the two women whose cooking most influenced my Chanukah repertoire probably never consulted a cookbook in their lives.

In my grandmothers’ day, cooking from cookbooks, or even written recipes, was hardly a universal practice. Girls learned to cook by helping in the kitchen and by the time they had kitchens of their own, they had mastered the art. Of course, there were books to consult if a cook was so inclined; recipe collections had been around for at least a millennium and a half. But cookbooks didn’t figure in my grandmothers’ world. How could they? There was no money, at least not in their early years, and anyway, neither one could read much English; one could barely read at all. My grandmothers kept their recipes in their heads. Their hands and eyes were their only measuring tools.
Fannie, my mother’s mother, and Sarah, my father’s mother, had both sailed from Eastern Europe in the first years of the 20th century. They did not know each other until my parents met and married, but their young lives followed oddly similar trajectories. Both were barely into their teens when they crossed the Atlantic in steerage class, two among millions of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island hoping to better their lives. Years later, Fannie recalled being seasick for most of her journey. Sarah remembered how she and her younger sister, traveling alone, were detained at Ellis Island, waiting, terrified, for an older brother who was already settled in America to come and get them. Fannie could read Yiddish; she had had some schooling in her hometown of Lemburg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sarah, born in a shtetl in Poland, lost her mother when she was three, and never had any schooling. Both were sent to live with their older sisters in America, Fannie to Brooklyn, and Sarah to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Both elder sisters quickly pronounced them too old for school and conscripted them to help with the housework. But both of my grandmothers rebelled. Fannie enrolled in night school and learned to read a bit of English; she found work as a seamstress in a Lower East Side factory. Sarah, deeply offended by her sister’s refusal to let her go to school, jumped at a neighbor’s offer of domestic work and became a wage earner.In time, both married and had children, but the American streets that they traveled were hardly paved with gold.
At the height of the Depression, Fannie’s husband died, leaving her with six children, the youngest of whom—my mother—was just six months old. With no pension in those pre-Social Security days, she survived on public assistance, plus the after-school wages of the elder children and her own genius for household management. Around the same time, Sarah’s husband suffered a heart attack. Medical wisdom at the time held that heart patients needed rest. So my grandfather retired from the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, where they lived by then, and Sarah became the breadwinner. Rising at dawn each day, she left her cold-water flat spotlessly clean and readied her two children for school before going off to her factory job.
As years passed, my grandmothers’ lives became easier. By the time I was on the scene, both took pleasure in setting bountiful tables for family. They were both gifted cooks and more important, loving grandmothers. That was what I knew of them. That, and the magical holiday gatherings, full of aunts, uncles and cousins all having a lively, noisy time—and eating latkes.
I look up from my Chanukah list-making, at my kitchen bookshelves overflowing with cookbooks. In the next room, more shelves are stocked with all sorts of books. How much of my life has been spent reading and writing—cookbooks and other books, for work and for pleasure. How much I owe to the two ladies whose courage and strength laid the foundation for the many extraordinary opportunities I’ve had. I close my eyes and I see Fannie reading her Yiddish newspaper intently, chuckling at the advice column one minute and the next poring over the lists of Holocaust survivors, always hoping to find the name of a missing loved one. I see Sarah, determined in her eighties to make up for her lack of schooling, working with a young volunteer, struggling to learn how to write her name. Now, a lifetime later, their lives seem to me to be nothing less than heroic.
I never got Sarah’s recipe for latkes. I know that she added baking powder to the basic potato batter; the leavening made her latkes rise just a bit, and rendered them dense, chewy and delicious. Fannie’s latkes were different: light, crisp and luscious. I have her recipe; my mother transcribed it and made it her own. Now it’s my recipe, and my sister’s. And it occurs to me, as I continue making my lists, that as many cookbooks as I may own or acquire, I’ll never need one for potato latkes.
Bubby Fannie’s Potato Latkes
2 large potatoes
1 medium onion
1 egg
Matzoh meal
Salt, if desired, to taste
Oil for frying
Sour cream, for serving
Applesauce, for serving
Grate the potato and onion into a mixing bowl. (Fannie insisted on a hand grater, maintaining that a blender will not give the proper consistency. But she did not have a food processor. I do, and I use mine for this recipe. You can use the shredding blade.)
Add the egg and beat with a fork. Add the matzoh meal and salt, if you’re using it. The batter should be thick, not watery, so you should add as much as is needed, judging by the texture of the batter as you go along. Mix all of the ingredients together. (That would be about 1½ tablespoons matzoh meal and about ½ teaspoon salt.)
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Spoon the batter in heaping tablespoons into the pan and fry. (Don’t crowd the pan too much; work in batches as necessary.) When the edges start to brown, turn with a spatula and fry on the other side. When the latkes are golden brown, remove from the oil with the spatula and place on paper towels to drain the excess oil. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce.
This post originally appeared on BookTrib.com.

Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.