Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gazpacho is Not the Only Soup, with apologies to Jeanette Winterson

With tomatoes ripening on the vine a young girl’s thoughts naturally turn to gazpacho, but with some leftover roast my soupish thoughts wandered further east. Vietnamese food is a fragrant study in contrasts. 

This soup starts with a combination of chicken and beef broth and oyster sauce infused with ginger, anise, cloves, cinnamon and fennel seeds. Rice noodles are soaked for about 20 minutes in cold water before they are boiled for two minutes. The broth is strained to remove the aromatics; the noodles are portioned into serving bowls, in goes the broth, some bean sprouts, slices of beef, all topped with chopped scallion greens and fresh basil and coriander. This is not a first date soup as there will be a lot of unseemly slurping. Light, but satisfying, it’s more a friendly, I’ve-seen-you-first-thing-in-the-morning kind of soup.
The long and the short of it
Autobiographies fascinate me, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m a sucker for a novel that assumes this form. I’ve read a lot of them: William Boyd’s The New Confessions, Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, and of course the granddaddy of them all Tristam Shandy, but Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger is a revelation.
Taut throughout where these others occasionally lapse into turgid detail, Claudia Hampton tells us the history of everything including herself from her hospital deathbed. She makes no excuses, pushes away all sentimental comforts and exposes wounds as keen during her last days as when they were inflicted decades before. She isn’t always likeable and she sometimes gets things wrong. In short she is fully human. I imagine her remembering some deliciously barbed comment she made, and demanding with Leigh Hunt that 

“Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!”
I don’t read a lot in translation, but the TLS recommended Javier Marias’ collection of short stories While the Women Are Sleeping, and because it specifically mentioned a couple ghost stories I had to give it a try. An Epigram of Fealty, while not specifically ghostly reminded me of M.R. James, as did The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban. But while the subject matter varied among these stories, the writing style did not, which may be a fault of the translation. Or not. I don’t know. It’s not without interest, but was for me more like a jar of something I wouldn’t really want to eat I’d pick up to examine out of curiosity, rather than an inviting dish.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Dog Days and Doggerel

Back in the day, my mother could induce my squirming obedience by reciting the first few lines of a poem. At the risk of sounding antique, I don’t think this would work on the youth of today. 

The poem began “I’m sitting on the doorstep/And I’m eating bread an’ jam/And I’m not really crying really/Though you may think I am”. I can’t remember any more thanks to some self-protective synapses, but the gist of it was the other children wouldn’t play with the narrator, so she sat alone and failed to get her Participaction quota of activity and overdosed on carbs and sugar.

It still makes me squirm, because I still imagine someone being cruel to my mother and me being unable to protect her from the vagaries of life, then as now. It was brought to mind recently when I was trying to explain to someone “methinks she doth protest too much” and writer’s block. You see, I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is only not knowing what you want to say; and/or not knowing how to say it.

Yet I’ve been struggling with this post, though not for lack of cooking. Recent experiments have included avocado and shrimp fajitas, warm pork salad with a ginger vinaigrette, both fabulous; a quinoa dish, a black bean and corn salad; fudgsicles (disappointing grainy texture, be it dissolved to try again with better chocolate and to make better puns); and three new ice creams: strawberry sour cream, apricot pistachio and Vietnamese coffee.

It is the inspiration for this last ice cream that has pleased me most these past few steamy weeks. Vietnamese coffee, ca phe da, which I first had at the Pho Hung restaurant here in T.O. is surprisingly refreshing. If you were being strictly authentic, you would use coffee beans grown in the highlands of Vietnam and brew it in a cá phê phin.

However, this will give you an equally gratifying result: brew a shot of espresso, while still hot mix in a generous teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk. Pour this mixture over ice. Trust me, if you drink these puppies on your front porch all the kids will want to be your friend.

A Bevy of Books
If I have been stymied of late by something I don’t believe in, at least I’ve been reading.

Darkness Visible is William Styron’s memoir of his struggle with depression. If you have experienced depression or love someone who does, you will find a friend in this book. If you are curious about this illness and its role in creativity, let me also recommend Anthony Storr’s Churchill’s Black Dog and Kafka’s Mice.

Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz is both engrossing and challenging. Schulz explains why error is inevitable, but more importantly why we should embrace it and suggests how we might do that with more grace than is often comfortable. An engaging mix of philosophy, statistics and anecdotes, it’s undermined my confidence that I’ve ever known anything and I hope I’ll be a better person for it.

Persona Non Grata is the fourth novel in Ruth Downie’s series featuring the Roman army doctor or medicus, Gaius Petreius Ruso and is the best to date. Ruso returns to his native Gaul to sort out his family’s failing fortunes, whereupon his principal creditor is poisoned.

Booker winner Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz is an intense study of a love affair and its casualties that occasionally made me laugh out loud.

Finally, It’s Only a Movie is a memoir by English movie critic Mark Kermode. A scholar of the horror genre, he is known for his quiff and his coma curing rants (listen to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews podcasts for more info). It’s worth reading for the two chapters that bracket the book detailing an interview with Werner Herzog, during which Herzog is, as he put it, “unsuccessfully shot” – with a bullet, not a camera.

Makes getting wobbly over second rate verse seem pretty pathetic. Auf wiedersehen!