Sunday food links – food stories and memories

When things are hard, food can be a retreat, a space to go to in isolation to accomplish something individual, solitary. Thom Eagle writes of both the simplicity and complexity of cooking – it can be both at once.

But this week I have been more concerned with food stories, connections to communities past and present. The toddler and I made fairy cakes together this week. Yes, the doing was the important bit, and the excuse to spend some time mixing and measuring together was the real purpose. But the toasty smell of baking sponge cakes connects me to my own childhood baking, in a way that’s hard to pin down. Here are some food stories from this week:

Yemisi Aribisala won the Andre Simon prize for her book about Nigerian food Longthroat Memoirs. In an excerpt published in the Guardian this weekend, she talks about the complicated combination of “psychological fare and gastronomical fanfare”. That comfort and familiarity and tradition are at least as important as the quality of the ingredients and the pedigree of the cook.

Elly Pear is interviewed by the excellent folk at online magazine The Pool about her cafe and her cooking life. She is unequivocally enthusiastic about the power of social media to connect her to those who are cooking her recipes, giving her instant feedback on her impact on other people’s lives.

Food52 documents the life of Princess Pamela, soul food restauranteur of sixties New York, whose recipe book is about to be reprinted after 47 years out of print. Reading between the lines of that piece, she had a clear idea of the food that connected to her South Carolina upbringing – and if you disagreed, you could be thrown out.

I have been re-reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – what could be more escapist that reading about nineties New York restaurants at this point? In the chapter she writes about steakhouses, she discovers doorways into her childhood memories – the restaurant her family visited and the waiters that doted on her, and the memory of buying steak with her father evoked by a dinner at Peter Luger’s steakhouse:

As the waiter walked across that great barn of a restaurant, the meat aroma grew so intense that I was suddenly back in Jimmy’s shop. The scent of steak was like the sound of a trumpet cutting through the air, so high and clear that it triumphed over every other sense. Then the soft richness was filling my mouth, and it was a taste as old as I was and for a moment I merged with the flavor so that I had disappeared completely. This was a greak steak. I had found what I was looking for.

Ruth Reichl – Garlic and Sapphires

No one can quite compare with MFK Fisher’s talent for telling food stories. The food is almost incidental – the stories are the thing. This one imprinted itself on my memory so firmly that when I saw a twitter plea for ideas for canapes, I was compelled to look up the original. I almost imagine that the food memory is mine, so evocative is the writing:

The Palm Court was dim and quiet in the lull before dinner. An occasional shadowy waiter pussyfooted in the edges of light and sound, checking on tables, flowers, unlighted candles. Our small table was an island in a hushed sea. We drank slowly from almost invisible glasses, so thin, a blanc de blanc champagne. It was balm to my thirsty spirit, too long in the jumping-off place for all the younf recruits being shipped West to the East. M. Herault scudded toward us with a plate in a huge napkin and then rushed off after postlegal compliments from my host, and we unveiled the prettiest pile of the tiniest sandwiches in the whole world, I am sure. They were delicately brown, very crisp, hot, and precisely the thickness and width of a silver dollar. Unbelievably, they were made of an inner and outer slice of white bread, with a layer of Parma ham and one of Gruyere cheese between. They were apparently tossed in a flash of sweet butter and rushed to be eaten. They seemed to evaporate in the mouth, like fried mimosa blossoms. They were an astonishing thing, in fact … minute and complete.

from MFK Fisher’s – With Bold Knife and Fork

Doesn’t it make you want to dash to the kitchen, and make that ultimate comfort food, a toasted cheese sandwich?

A (belated) 2016 review and some news

I have been absent here for a long time now. In fact, I can’t quite believe the last post was in November – although perhaps it makes sense that this was the last Sunday before the election. There are a few reasons for this, and I wanted to take some time to explain them here. Also, I felt the lack of a 2016 round-up, and Rachel’s late post felt like it helped justify my lateness here too.

The biggest reason is that I am now 16 weeks pregnant, and while my first trimester this time round was a considerable improvement on the last round, it was still exhausting and nauseating enough for me to want to let go of anything that wasn’t necessary to get through it.

On top of that, I will be starting a new job in February, and we are also starting to build our new house this year – 2017 is looking like it will be a big one.

In considering all of these (somewhat daunting) plans, I have been giving some real thought to whether I should continue writing here. I think the conclusion I have come to is that I’m not sure I can stick to my commitment of a weekly post, but that I would miss the opportunity to write sometimes, so I’m going to keep the door propped open here and post when I can.

Looking back on 2016 has been with mixed feelings. There have been so many moments where the world has seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. But also so many moments to appreciate how fortunate we are to be healthy, happy and secure in our lives. I am trying not to dwell on the ‘what ifs’ of the year ahead, and to be hopeful about the possibilities.

Anyway, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing from the last year. I have deliberately excluded any of the obituaries or political pieces, although many of them were excellent too. This is a list filled with hope and ideas:

Food

Rachel Roddy’s food from Rome column in the Guardian’s Cook supplement has been one of my favourites of the year. Bookmarked recipes included: a door-stopping vegetable bake (ie one that makes people stop at your door); an evocative post about pizza bianca; soft almond biscuits; and one of my favourites from her book Five Quarters, twice-cooked broccoli and pasta.

Serious Eats has been a source of inspiration this year, especially J. Kenjo Lopez-Alt’s columns that investigate how recipes work. This one on making Yorkshire Pudding is a classic example of his style and the practical tips he comes out with.

Cookbooks I have referenced the most this year include:

  • Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Cook – its organisation by time available is really helpful.
  • The Five O’Clock Apron – lots of practical family cooking, with a foodie edge
  • Food52 A New Way to Dinner – this one I only got at Christmas, but has already been pored over, and I have made lots of things from it already. I can see this forming the backbone of my cooking this year.

Parenting

Angry Mummy: Try again. Fail again. Fail better – on the importance of being a crap parent, and owning up to it, by Rachel Jeffcoat, aka Make a Long Story Short. Other brilliant posts this year: Anyone who says their two-year-old wasn’t a tiny insane tyrant is lyingLet’s kick our inner smug mums to the kerb this summer.

I Quit – the seminal post from Mother Pukka, that describes her decision to quit her job in favour of striking out on her own and making time for her daughter. Anna’s writing has been some of the most honest and real I have read this year: from posts about miscarriage, pregancy after loss, her Flex Appeal campaign for flexible working support, and just general all-round real parenting.

Getting stuff done

I am a sucker for anything that promises I can get more stuff done with less faffing and more organisation. Some of the things that I tried out this year:
Bullet Journals: An introduction to bullet journals
Bullet Journal + GTD from Boho Berry
Bullet Journal: what I’ve learned in 4 months from Sarah at Taming Twins:

The magic of 30 minute meetings
What happened when I stopped using screens after 11pm
Let’s not meet: 5 alternatives to meetings
Why making my tasks emotional increased my productivity

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Oxford Food Symposium – for those curious about food

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I’m not sure I properly thought it through when I registered for a rare weekend away from little E, and chose to spend it hearing about and eating offal. It’s now been two weeks since I returned from my first visit to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, this year on the subject of ‘Offal: Rejected and Reclaimed Foods’. It’s definitely not the subject I would have chosen for my first visit, but despite my ambivalence for ‘variety meats’, it was a fascinating and really enjoyable weekend. I found a really welcoming community who love food, but more than that are really curious about it. Started by Alan Davidson, the legendary food writer and researcher who compiled the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food, it has grown over the last 37 years from a small gathering of mostly friends to a diverse group of 200 encompassing a huge range of ages and nationalities.

Some of the highlights of the weekend for me (with apologies for dreadful photography):

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  • Thomas Eagle (above) from Darsham Nurseries, giving a really thoughtful and reflective talk about food waste, featuring his own cavolo nero stalk kimchi.
  • Paul Rozin’s barnstorming talk about food and disgust, giving a tour through some of the psychology behind our aversion to some foods, and the different factors that cause it.

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  • Fuschia Dunlop on duck tongues (above), and describing all the different ways that the Chinese take pleasure in food that mean that foods we might consider offal are transformed into rare and exciting delicacies. I have a particular affection for all the Chinese terms for food textures, a far wider range of descriptions than we have access to in English.
  • Benjamin Wurgaft’s thoughtful discussion of laboratory-grown meat, and the philosophy of our reactions and discussions of it.

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  • Jennifer McLagan’s passionate enthusiasm for getting blood into home kitchens, through home-made blood sausage, blood meringues, blood brownies and more. I can’t say I was entirely convinced, but I admire her passion for the subject!

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  • Amanda Couch’s brilliant and unforgettable ‘performance’ of liver divination as an after-dinner activity, combining scholarly descriptions of the meaning of ‘reading’ the liver in the ancient world with a very hands-on approach to offal!

There were also a series of lunches and dinners that never failed to leave me stuffed, unable to resist just a little of everything. Some of my favourite dishes from the multi-course menus:

  • Jacob Kenedy’s mushroom risotto – perfectly rich and savoury
  • Jacob Kenedy’s Grandfather’s balls – featherlight deep-fried ricotta with candied orange and chocolate
  • Tongue with carrots and cream sauce – sublime comfort food from Fergus Henderson
  • Bread Ahead’s bread pudding – rich, dense and heavy with spices

Mostly my reflection on the weekend is that it is rare to find such a diverse group of people who are so interested in the details of food – how it tastes, where it comes from, what it means in different cultures. Food is so pervasive in British culture now – so many books, so many TV shows, so many celebrity chefs – that it would be easy to think that these people are everywhere. But being interested in making your ‘signature dish’, or critiquing Masterchef from the sofa, or meal planning for the week aren’t the same thing. It’s not that these are bad, or ‘lesser’ interests – I think there was actually very little food snobbery on display at the weekend. If I could put my finger on the difference, it was that this is  a group of people who start with food. When they look at a Renaissance painting, they see the food on the table. When they examine history, they want to know what’s happening in the kitchens of the palaces and homes. When they think about travelling around the world, they think in terms of regional specialities, and hidden recipes (as Claudia Roden does). They see the world through the lens of what we eat, how it is made, who grows it and who prepares it.

And it’s not that this is a distorted point of view – it’s genuinely a worthwhile perspective to take. Food is what we share. Some argue that cooking is what defines us as humans. Food connects us to the growing of food, how we cultivate the land, what we do with the waste, the carbon we generate, the seas we fish. It’s in everything. I found it exhilerating but also comforting to be surrounded by these people. And I hope I can go back next year.

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Reading in 2015 – food, family and feminism

What sort of a year has it been? A good one, I think. I went back to work. I think I even managed to do some useful things, in between nursery drop-offs, pick-ups, repeated toddler-borne colds, holidays and all the rest. I started putting E into nursery for an extra half-day, to give me a morning to myself each week, which has worked brilliantly. It gives me a slot to run, that I really can’t miss, or there are no other opportunities. And I can get household admin and errands done without a toddler in tow. We have had a lot of good times as a family, and have had more meals with friends than the year before, simply by setting a schedule in advance where we would make time for a Sunday lunch.

Here are some of the things I read and enjoyed this year.

The Silicon Valley Suicides – a daunting read, about high school and normalising the pressure kids are under from parents and from each other.

This piece on stereotype threat from the MIT Admissions office blew my mind, and continues to influence me each day, especially at work. Are we priming ourselves and each other to underperform without realising it?

The writing exercise of ‘greening’ or striking out a specific number of words from a short piece is an appealing one, although I expect very hard to acquire.

To mark the anniversary, the New Yorker republished a huge essay on the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a stunning piece of work, detailed and engaging and manages to personalise a tragedy on an epic scale.

Oliver Sacks died this year. This piece on coming to terms with the end of his life is characteristically good-humoured and beautiful.

(Many of these stories I found via the excellent Next Draft email newsletter, that brings me links to some of the best writing on the web every day, without overwhelming me. Not a sponsored link, I just like it.)

On food and cooking:

The Myth of Easy Cooking – argues that cooking at home every day is hard, and we should stop pretending that it takes no effort.

Bee Wilson is a voice of incredible reason in the fad and trend-ridden world of food. I am currently mid-way through her brand new book on how we learn to eat, First Bite.  I loved this piece on whether or not you should stick to recipes.

This piece on a ritual of Friday Night Meatballs inspired our own series of open Sunday lunches in 2015, something we are likely to repeat this year.

Eating Well at the End of the Road shines a spotlight on a food community in a remote Alaskan town.

A debate broke out earlier in the year around Food52’s Piglet cookbook tournament: is it sexist to judge a cookbook by the pictures?

On family, kids and work-life balance:

I loved a lot of Rachel Jeffcoat‘s writing at Make a Long Story Short this year, but special mentions go to this piece on parenting a boy that seems to have a lot in common with you, without transferring your own anxieties; and a runner’s creed, for those who hate it (but do it anyway). She also has a reading and writing round-up of her own.

Shauna, aka Gluten Free Girl, is another writer who writes beautifully and with raw honesty about family and parenting. This is a lovely piece on accepting where you are, in the midst of messy, sometimes scary life.

And this piece of hers about having a rhythm and a ritual to eating each week is probably the food piece I referred back to most this year.

I added Miriam Gonzalez-Durantez to my list of inspiring women this year. Lots of good stuff in this interview, on work, and feminism and family (from before the election).

Via brainpickings, a lovely 1925 article on the rewards of fatherhood.

Advice to a daughter – a chance to revisit advice from mother to daughter, scrawled in a notebook and unearthed later.

New York Times writer David Carr died this year. I didn’t know him, but someone who did linked to his 2008 piece about being the father to twin baby girls while being addicted to crack. It is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, and not at all what you might expect.

A former clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on being a stay at home dad.

Brilliant and down-to-earth make-up columnist Sali Hughes being interviewed on how she balances work, life, kids and the rest.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Bloomberg’s list of the 38 best stories we didn’t write had me bookmarking every other link to read later.

Looking back, looking forward

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

We are finishing the year with a ragu made from the leftovers of the Boxing Day roast rib of beef. It feels appropriate to round out the year with an excellent use of leftovers. I also used my Christmas presents to good effect in the meal: following Rachel Roddy’s directions on how to cook pasta from ‘Five Quarters’, and then using my brand new (much improved) pepper grinder to finish off the plate.

We won’t do much different tonight, in celebration of New Year’s. We’ll maybe break out the cheese and the last of the Christmas chocolates. But we will talk of plans for the coming year, of hopes and wishes and things we would like to do more of. And we will laugh together.

I’m proud of the blog this year. I posted regularly all year – every week, except for the last couple. In the ten years I’ve had some sort of blog at this domain name, I’ve never managed to post that consistently. But I would like to get back to writing more than just a list that summarises the week, to learning new things, and trying my best to explain why some things work and what’s going on between the lines of a recipe. So that’s my resolution for next year. Regular posts, but also interesting ones. I hope you’ll hold me to it. Happy New Year.