Sunday, February 27, 2011


I first got excited about popovers watching my favorite Christmas movie, Remember the Night, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. In it, the New York D.A. (MacMurray) gets stuck with a petty thief (Stanwyck) over Christmas. It turns out they're both from Indiana, and he takes her with him to his family farm. There his kindly mother and aunt who, together with a somewhat half-witted hired hand, run one of the most beautiful, clean, homey farms in the Midwest, make her worthy of marrying their dear man.

As part of Stanwyck's rehabilitation, the mother teaches her how to make popovers. Stanwyck paces in front of the oven saying, "Have they popped? Do you think they've popped??" just dying to open the oven door. And when she does, and they have indeed risen up over the pan, she jumps up and down with excitement. Well, after I saw that, I went right out and bought a popover pan!

And there is something magical about pouring eggs, milk, flour and salt in a greased tin and opening the oven door 25 minutes later to find piping hot, golden, risen egg pastries. Today the monastery is electing a prioress, and for some reason I just wanted to make popovers. I haven't made them in years, but the kitchen is put back together and it just seemed right for this day full of expectation.

Steve wondered about their origins, and I said I thought they were an American dish. Where else could the word "popover" come from? And they feel like frontier food-- taking simple ingredients and turning them into a souffle, albeit a much less pretentious souffle-- more like a muffin. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, they are American in origin, adapted from Yorkshire pudding, first appearing in American cookbooks in the 1850s.

Here's the recipe from Epicurious that is about as easy and good as they come. I have to say these were the best-looking and best-tasting popovers I've ever made (see photo!). Note that the real key to popovers is temperature. Pre-heat the pan, make sure the ingredients are at room temperature (I put the milk in the microwave for 15 seconds and the eggs in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.) And do not, no matter how much you're tempted, open the oven while they're baking!

Teatime Perfect Popovers

2 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 6 pieces

2 large eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Place 1 piece of butter in the bottom of each cup of a six-cup popover tin (or six 1/2-cup custard cups). Place the popover pan on a baking sheet.

In a smaller bowl, lightly whisk the eggs until they change color. Whisk in the milk.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt until well blended. Gently whisk the egg mixture into the flour mixture until only small lumps are left, and set aside.

Place the popover tin and baking sheet in the oven for 4 minutes. At 3 minutes, give the batter a light whisk. Using an oven mitt, remove the hot tin from the oven and immediately divide the batter among the prepared cups. Bake for 25 minutes without opening the oven door. The popovers will be puffy, with crisp brown crusts and hollow, moist interiors. Serve immediately.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mark Bittman-- feh

I am now the owner of the complete cookbook collection by Mark Bittman. I have How to Cook Everything (HTCE), which is where I started, and to which I added How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Given my new interest in healthy eating and gardening, I just acquired The Food Matters Cookbook, his contribution to the "eat real food" movement (and a response to his heart attack years back).

Now let me start by saying that some of the best food ideas I've ever received has come from Mark Bittman's work in the New York Times. He had an article about five years ago that listed 101 easy summer dinners. It was truly inspired, and I still turn to my printed out copy for an injection of some ideas of things to make fast in the summer. None of them require a recipe. They are just things to do with food. Also, Mark Bittman's column once featured a meatball recipe that is to die for. It is still the only way I make meatballs.

But when it comes to these cookbooks, which occupy an enormous amount of shelf space-- like eight inches or more combined-- I'm not impressed. I expected more. Or different. I think what I wanted was my favorite cookbook, Moosewood Cooks at Home but lots more of it, and especially with meat. I wanted 15 ways to make chicken breasts palatable, each with variations.

What I want from a vegetable cookbook and have yet to find, is a cookbook with recipes for the vegetables I actually grow in my garden. That means, ten recipes for green beans, not ten recipes for asparagus that also require leeks (which are harvested at a totally different time of year) and escarole and artichoke hearts and Brussels sprouts and broccoli. (I wish I could grow broccoli, but I really have not had any luck at all in that area. Brussels sprouts are also hard to grow and suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil.) What I really need is a big book of salads and spinach and peas and beans and zucchini and carrots.

I was first put off by the new cookbook when I realized his main purpose is to make people eat brown rice and whole wheat pasta. Hmmm. Then the very large appetizer section that included at least five kinds of tea sandwiches. (There was a radish idea or two in there, I admit, but I think they paired the radishes with three kinds of produce I'd have to buy.)

The good news is that there are lots of recipes that use tomatoes, both ripe and canned. The other surprising thing is that there seem to be a lot of recipes for meat dishes, more than HTCE, that also make use of vegetables. The bad news is, there are a LOT of recipes that use leeks, though I think sometimes onions can be substituted (I know, it's not the same). The other good news is that there are scattered throughout the book recipes that say "and vegetables" or "lots of vegetables." But again, these more or less just give you permission to use vegetables with common dishes, like a frittata, or a stir fry, or a stew. Perhaps the best thing is his advice on how to make chips of all kinds (beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc.) in the oven. Again, it's more "how to" than recipe.

Which is where I come down on the Mark Bittman issue. He is fantastic at just pointing you forward, giving you ideas, like 101 easy summer dinners. He helps you remember to do things with food. But then, really, you can just go ahead and do it without the recipe.

Friday, February 11, 2011

eXistenZ vs Inception and Avatar

After watching Inception, I had this urge to revisit David Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ. I only remembered that I had really liked it, especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, and that it was about gamers trapped in a highly articulated game world.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you do. It is much closer to Brazil for creation of its own world. As far as cinematography and a critique of the morality of living in a virtual world, it is much better than either Inception or Avatar. And it does it on a significantly lower budget (not just because it was filmed in Canada!).

The plot is this: a group of people are invited to play the latest game by designer Allegra Geller. They play by downloading the game through her perverse, fleshy game module, which they connect to via a bioport they've had injected in their spinal columns. When the test is disrupted by a would-be assassin, Allegra and marketing trainee Ted Pikal go on the run. They then port themselves in and play her game to see if the world or game has been damaged.

The world of the film and of the game is beautifully realized. It is itself both limited as one would expect a video game architecture to be and also full of fleshy perversions, like the umbillical-style cord that plugs into the bioport, which the characters keep licking before they insert them. If you're squeamish about penetration, you're gonna squirm watching this film.

The plot in the game also works pretty much like a game plot would-- they have to say certain lines to trigger a response from key characters and advance through the game, and they're "rewarded" when they complete a task. In the end there is kind of a winner.

I'm not sure why this movie wasn't better received when it came out. I do remember watching it in a Joliet, Illinois, movie theater with a smile on my face the entire time, completely entertained. I certainly did not have that experience in either Inception or Avatar.

Also, this role is part of my favorite arc in Jude Law's career. It's interesting to note that he's was in three of these dystopian virtual/real films at the turn of the century. The first, and by far the best, was Gattaca (1997), about a dystopian world created by genetic engineering. The second was this film in 1999, and then he had a key role as the plastic toy-boy Gigolo Joe in Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001). He is fantastic in this role, the perfect reluctant game-player who nonetheless wants to win.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Television without the Networks

It is probably not a good thing that we can now access so much television programming online. Before Steve and I got married, he spent a few Christmas vacations with his daughters plowing through an entire season of 24 in a few days, three to four episodes a night. I don't like 24, and haven't watched it after the first season (it was the body count and extreme violence against women that got to me more than anything else). However, this winter, with the kitchen renovation dragging on and the deep freeze uninterrupted, and the movie queue getting thin, we did give ourselves over to the first two seasons of Damages. We watched them two to three episodes at a time, one night even watching four.

The show pulls you in with its structure, especially in the first season. Why is Ellen leaving the apartment covered in blood only two months after she is hired by Patty Hewes? Well, the story inches forward and inches back each episode, filling in the crime and catching up to who done it. It is well-written enough that I really didn't know which of the bad guys done it until the last episode. And it was well-written enough that I didn't feel cheated when I learned who in fact done it.

The acting is also great. I'm sure Glenn Close is very good in it, although I think watching the episodes back to back like this makes her performance seem more uneven. There are some problems with her characterization. It's not possible to believe that she would have gotten away with all she gets away with for as long as she seems to have been a powerful lawyer. Her seeming altruism is so at odds with even her personality that it's just confusing. She is more like Gordon Gecko than Jack McCoy. And does she or doesn't she do anything illegal in the course of getting justice for the little guy? I have to say, I really don't know. Though I completely don't buy her as calling out a hit on someone. And I completely don't believe the fact that her baby died back when she was young had anything to do with, well, anything. I get her as a flat character, and these attempts to give her some depth are not even interesting to me. I don't have to like her.

By far the best character in the first season, and to some extent in the second, is Ted Danson's Arthur Frobisher. He is as believably conflicted, if not complex, as Patty is not. Danson is able to completely pull off the pathetic and clueless nature of this character, and it's not at all a stretch to believe he'd call in a hit.

Which is to say, I really loved this show, even as I felt like it was sucking the life out of me. Watching 28 episodes in a short period of time is not actually healthy, I don't think. It is the nature of serialized television to manipulate and lead you on, to play with your head. But only a little bit at a time. Once a week. Watching it like this can be kind of hellish. You feel a little like a junkie. And when it's dark and cold outside and you have no kitchen, well, it can feel like the winter is never going to end-- or at least, not without something really, really bad happening.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Does Poetry Matter? (2)

What I think I've established so far is to frame the question in a larger context. Beyond the individual reader or writer, beyond the community of poets themselves, does poetry matter?

There have, of course, been times that poetry, even a single poem, mattered to our nation. Walt Whitman wrote the great poem, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” to commemorate the funeral train that carried the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln from Washington, D.C., to his burial place in Springfield, Ill. At the time of its publication, this poem mattered greatly, and ever since then it has conveyed to schoolchildren who read and learn the story what it meant to lose a great leader, what it meant to mourn as a country.

When is the last time a poem mattered to the United States? I remember on September 11, 2001, on National Public Radio, they interviewed the poet laureate, Billy Collins. When I heard that it was Billy Collins, my heart sank. Although I’m a great admirer of his poetry, which is witty and intelligent, I did not think he would be up to this solemn occasion. In some ways, he wasn’t. When asked what poem we should read, for solace, strength or understanding, he said something like: “Read any poem. All poems speak to life and death. All poems speak to our humanity and human experience.” Then he was more specific: “Read the 23rd psalm.” It was interesting to me that a news reporter would think to ask for a poem on a day like that day. It said a lot about what we want and expect from poetry, and how we want and expect it to matter.

The famous issue of the New Yorker after September 11, with its cover showing blacked out columns representing the Twin Towers against a black background, devoted its back page to a long poem by Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who has lived in Paris and the United States since the mid-‘80s. The poem is titled, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Written more than a year before 9/11, it struck me and many others as offering a way to move forward in the face of such tragedy. This, in its message and placement in a publication at a specific moment of history, was poetry that mattered. It was very moving at the time, and remains more moving, I think, than the anthology-worth of poetry written about 9/11 since then, much of them "where I was when..." poems that put more focus on the poet than on the event.

Another poem that I've always believed matters to us nationally is Yusuf Komunyakaa's great poem about visiting the Vietnam Memorial, "Facing It." Many of us have experienced a visit to the Vietnam memorial, and many have written about the power of that memorial, the black granite "scar" in the earth with the names of 58,022 names engraved on it in the order that they were killed. But it is only poetry that can give us the experience in this way, both drawing us into a single veteran's experience and seeming to wrap up all the suffering -- both during the war and after -- in simple lines and images. Here is a poem that truly uses the tools of poetry to bring us into an experience that we long to share, offering as well a deeper understanding of our national identity and history. Just read these closing lines of the poem, as the black poet/veteran looks at the reflections on the black granite memorial and tries to capture what he sees:

"A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair."

It is for lines like these that we need poetry to help us tell our story.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food Co-op

Today was the first cleaning day for a new food co-cop being established in St. Joseph. It's going into the former grocery store, Loso's, which was a family-run operation since 1890. Peter Loso was the first official resident of St. Joseph, originally called Clinton, when he arrived in 1854, just ahead of the Benedictines.

The final owner, Bob Loso, seems to have left the space in a state of overwhelm. Walking through it, there are still boxes of old baseball trophies, photos and old barrels, and the office space that looks down over the store is full of papers and business cards from vendors. Then there's the attic space, filled with ancient sewing machines, meat grinders, furniture, unidentifiable machines that look like they were used to torture someone. In the front there is an old teen hangout room, complete with stereo, large speakers, shag carpeting and a few discarded kitchen chairs. Bob will be back with a professional auction company to take care of that.

Bob is excited about the food co-op, and probably gave the new owners, a young couple who also own the adjoining coffee shop, a good deal. He wants to be subscriber number 1.

Today there wasn't much of a plan. A good number of people turned up and began taking out some shelving and pulling up a patch of carpet in the front of the store. I cleaned windows for about an hour, hauled a piece of carpet, then went home. The construction and dust there, on top of the construction at home, started to bring me down. It is exciting to think of a food co-op in the space, but it's also overwhelming. The space itself is enormous, and more or less abandoned. It might not take a lot of work to bring it up to where it can function as a hippie food co-op, but to really make it what is should be will take a lot of work.

I plan on going back next week, and will take my camera. It might get easier to wrap my head around as things start to take shape.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dream of Life

I highly recommend that anyone who reads and likes Patti Smith's book Just Kids also rent the (auto-)documentary Dream of Life. Thanks to Giana for sending the recommendation my way!

This movie, a collaboration with filmmaker Steven Siebring, took ten years to make, and is in some ways about Patti Smith's reflections on the loss of friends, family and lovers: most poignantly her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died in 1995, but also Mapplethorpe and her brother Todd, other musician collaborators, poets from her beloved Rimbaud to Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, and finally, her parents, to whom the film is dedicated.

It's worth seeing even if you haven't read the book, if for nothing else than the amount of footage available, and for the music. If you've read the book, you'll appreciate even more how young she was when she lived at the Chelsea Hotel-- there is some amazing footage of her back then, and I must admit, even with the photos scattered throughout the book, it was very difficult to imagine Patti Smith quite so young. But it is also evident in the film that she is truly an artist of her time and weaves the Beat legacy, the Dylan folk legacy, the Vietnam War protest legacy and the punk rock world in which she lived and found her voice. Is it rock and roll? Is it folk? Is it punk? Is it poetry? Her performances have all these things, and her person has all these things.

She is also a Detroit mom who clearly adored motherhood and marriage and her house. Over the ten years of filming, we see her two children grow into young adults, and footage of her thirteen-year-old son in a hotel room is precious, as is the later footage of him playing guitar like his dad. He seems to be well-adjusted and as unassuming as she is.

Patti is a fan of childhood, and her visit to her parents' house in South Jersey is entertaining, real and precious. What would it be like to have Patti Smith for a daughter? Well, it would be wonderful, because she's a loving person who appreciates them. I have to admit that it also hadn't quite registered what it meant that she was from South Jersey, where almost all my relatives are from, until I heard her say the word "water" ("wudder") on screen. Her accent remains, not to be confused with a Long Island, Brooklyn or Bronx accent, and it comes out most purely in interactions with her parents. South Jersey is a fascinating place, where one can be more rooted (or stuck) than is imaginable in the 21st century when one is only two hours from New York City.

Patti Smith has no contempt, except for George Bush. Which seems well-placed enough to me! So although onstage anger contorts her face, and her words seem as charged with rage as with any other emotion, off-stage she has a smile as wide as the sea.

And in the scene with Flea on a California beach literally exchanging stories of pissing into bottles to see who is more extreme, Patti wins. Especially because what she did, she did with female anatomy. She is one impressive woman. Godmother of punk indeed.

For readers of the book, you'll get a glimpse of many fine objects, including the tambourine Mapplethorpe made for her 21st birthday, and the Depression-era guitar Sam Shepard gave her (played here by the man himself). Just as in the book, there is a visual landscape she inhabits, and it is not a natural landscape but a room full of important art objects made and invested with all sorts of meaning, concrete and pulsing with the life of those who made and gave them. There is no question she carries her whole life with her and translates it in the lyrics of her art, embodies it and gives it life with her voice. Her whole life seems as real and accessible to her as the ashes of Mapplethorpe she pours into her hand, the tape that carries the voice of her husband singing a song about a cancer-ridden Jackie O walking through Central Park that she wrote and cannot sing again because he so owned it.