Friday, April 22, 2016

Romance Novel Month, Book 4 - _I Love This Bar_ by Carolyn Brown

Oh, wait, is it Friday already? I guess it is! Well, ok then.

This week, I tackled a modern romance (with the sub-genre of "Cowboy," just to make things even MORE interesting). I read I Love This Bar, which is the first of Carolyn Brown's series about the Honky Tonk bar. This book was so far outside of my usual, I wasn't sure WHAT to expect. As you may have gathered, I prefer the romance novels I read to have some element of supernatural, or be historical, or something of that nature, and this really wasn't that at all. I suppose a novel set in a bar in the middle of nowhere Texas is not dissimilar to a novel set in a village in the middle of nowhere Scotland... Anyway, that being said, I really really enjoyed this novel! I felt a strong emotional connection to the characters, and found their motivations to be largely believable. I actually choked up in a couple of places (which happens more often that I'd like to admit, but not as often as all of that, frankly), I was entirely satisfied with the romance (or romances) which unfolded, and I was almost entirely happy with the conclusion.

Quick plot synopsis: Daisy O'Dell is the owner and bartender at the Honky Tonk bar in Erath County, Texas. She is also a vet tech, and provides basic care to the animals in the area. She is entirely happy with her life. Then, Jarod McElroy walks into the bar. He's an attractive cowboy type from Oklahoma, in Texas to help out his aged uncle on his ranch. They fall madly in lust, but both have very good reasons not to follow through on those feelings - he's not planning on staying in Texas, and she very much is, they've both had rocky relationships in the past, and neither of them are really looking for any sort of relationship, long, short, or otherwise, at the moment. Through the machinations of "Chigger" and her beau (who is an old friend of Jarod's - Jarod used to spend the summers on his uncle's ranch, and so is connected to the community even though he's not currently from there), the couple give into their lust. Through a series of improbable measures, Daisy and Jarod have to pretend to be married, and then the lust deepens into lurve. Meantime, Chigger gets pregnant (which speeds up her long term plan of marrying at leisure) and gets married, and Daisy's cousin shows up, fleeing a bad relationship, and ends up helping in the bar (setting up book 2). Obviously (because romance), at the end of many mis-adventures and such, Daisy and Jarod end up together. Which, lovely. But, critically, one of the key drivers of Daisy's character is that she owns this bar, and she really doesn't want to leave the bar - and at the end of the book, she decides (for valid reasons, perhaps) that she actually loves Jarod MORE than she loves the bar (Jarod offers to buy her a bar in Oklahoma if she likes), and so she moves. Which, ok - Daisy needs to be out of the way so that her cousin Cathy can be the protagonist of the next novel - but Jarod could have been the one to compromise; there was plenty of opportunity; it would have made narrative sense, and have been just as satisfying for me (obviously I cannot speak for all readers) - indeed, I would have been doubly happy.

Ah well; beyond that, I was very happy with the book. The characters were well presented, the setting was pleasant, the sex was mutually satisfying and entirely consensual (but only minimally described - R rated rather than NC17, if you will). If you like cowboys, enjoy both kinds of music (Country AND Western), and Texan accents,  you'll probably enjoy this book.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Romance Novels, Week 3, _Chill of Fear_ by Kay Hooper

Kay Hooper is my go-to author for suspense romance novels. I really enjoyed her Once a Thief novels, and branched out a little from there. This is part of her second trilogy about the Special Crimes Unit, a unit of psychics at the FBI (so, yes, it's both modern suspense AND science fiction - I like science fiction, and it's my blog, so.).

First, I think some readers might question my assertion that this constitutes a romance novel. I admit, the suspense plays a much stronger role in the novel than the romance - but, a key element of the story AND the plot (which, you know, are not the same thing) is the romance between Quentin and Diana. Quentin can sometimes sense the future, and Diana, it turns out, is a medium - she can speak with (and walk with) the dead. Quentin has been obsessed with a murder at The Lodge, a hotel in rural Tennessee, since he was 10 - while staying at The Lodge, a friend of his (a young girl) was murdered, but the case was never solved. Quentin and Diana experience a lovely meet-cute - they both happen to wander into an observation tower at the same time - and form a sudden and deep attachment to each other. Quentin knows what is going on, psychic-wise, but Diana has spent a great deal of her life under medical care (and heavily drugged) because psychic abilities (suggests Hooper) often present themselves as mental health issues. Part of the relationship's growth derives from Quentin helping Diana come to terms with the fact that she is not crazy, but that she does hear voices in her head.

Obviously, Quentin and Diana come together to solve the 25 year old murder, and also a series of other murders based at The Lodge. Also, obviously, the cause of the murders is mystical/supernatural because that's the sort of novel it is. At no point do they sleep together; nor do the town sheriff and the hotel manager, who start to spark a relationship midway through the book. Hooper, I have noticed, likes to build that sort of relationship over several books - I suspect that there is an explosive sex scene between these characters in a later book. So, the romance feels a lot more organic, which is nice; and also secondary to the bigger plot, which is also nice. At the same time, the connection between Quentin and Diana is (for a number of good reasons) vital to their ability to join and solve the crime.

Because there is no sex, I cannot discuss the consensual-ness; but Diana's story is very much about gaining (or re-gaining) personal autonomy and control of herself.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Romance Novel Month, Week Two, _Once a Princess_, by Johanna Lindsey, with alternate book, _Wickedly Wonderful_, by Deborah Blake

When I was an undergraduate student, literally a million years ago, before we had invented things like fire and such, I was trying to impress some girls (like you do). So, being a SuperGenious, I decided to denigrate romance novels, because nothing impresses people like slagging the thing they enjoy. Luckily for me, the girls set me straight, insisting that I read some of the novels before I attacked them. I did so, and continue to read romance novels (as long time readers of the blog know - if there are any long time readers of the blog, I honestly don't know anymore), especially when travelling to do research. One of the authors recommended was Johanna Lindsey, on the grounds that she tended to write strong plots with interesting characters in well envisioned historical settings. I'm pretty sure that Once a Princess was specifically recommended - I know that I read it. In light of that, I decided to re-read it.

First, it was not the book that I thought I remembered. I absolutely did read this book before, but the book I was remembering featured a young  girl raised by a group of men who insisted on teaching her a variety of languages and introducing her to a vibrant array of cultures from their ranch in the American west. This is not that book (and, if anyone knows what book that actually is, please let me know, because I think [maybe] I'd like to read it again). Instead, this is the story of a young girl taken to the United States as an infant to save her from a murderous feud between her noble family and a different noble family. Many years later, the prince to whom she was affianced upon birth is sent to retrieve her. However, her caretaker died en-route, and she has no idea that she's supposed to be a princess. And the prince doesn't really want to marry her, because he doesn't really want to be king (for reasons that I don't think are ever adequately explained, but have a great deal to do with the fact that for him to be king, his father has to die, which is fair), and she doesn't believe him when he tells her she's a princess, and he thinks she's a whore because she works in a tavern in Mississippi. The historical setting, by the way, is an ill defined period between the American Civil War (there are no slaves in the story, a large portion of which takes place in Louisiana and Mississippi) and the First World War (Prussia exists, the Ottoman Empire exists). Actually, because Prussia exists, this is perhaps an increasingly poorly defined period between the American Civil War and the creation of the German state - pre-Franco-Prussian War, perhaps? Or, maybe, Lindsey just didn't include any slaves in her story? Oh. Wait. The first page includes a date - 1835. Lindsey just decided not to include slaves in her story. Which brings me, roundabout and topsy-turvey, to my second point - this book has not aged well, at all.

I think I can say, with some degree of confidence, that Lindsey is generally well regarded as an exemplar of the romance novel genre. This book has a lot of classic elements of the genre. The principle characters both loathe each other upon first sight, yet find each other inexplicably attracted to each other at the same time - loathing and lust at first sight. There are a whole series of mistaken assumptions on both sides (she's a whore! [no she's not] He's lying! [No he's not], she must want to be rescued from her miserable life [she does not], he must be trying to take me away to a fate worse than death [he is not], and so on). These mistaken assumptions, naturally, make a romantic consummation unlikely, until they can be swept away by a series of much needed frank conversations in which the assumptions are presented, laughed at, and then discarded. The novel ends, naturally, with a happy marriage (based largely on mutual lust and physical admiration - the characters have little to nothing else in common with each other except for stubbornness and a tendency to yell at each other when they don't get their way). All of that is standard enough, and the antics of Tanya and Stefan as they attempt to figure themselves out, and get away from each other, and get back together with each other are amusing enough. What bugged me, exceedingly, in my re-reading is that Tanya's agency is completely destroyed. She goes from a plucky tavern worker who has every expectation of inheriting the tavern when the current owner croaks, and sees this (legitimately!) as a good life, to being a princess, with all of the restrictions attached to the classic state of princessness (lack of freedom in terms of marriage, lack of control over her life and choices, status derived entirely from her use as a dynastic bargaining chip, utter lack of any sort of agency whatsoever, etc). Not only does Stefan physically remove her from her previous life (it's not kidnapping if she agrees to it, am I right?), when she manages to escape and successfully return to her tavern, she finds that he has a) gotten there first and b) purchased and subsequently sold the tavern out from under her so she has no recourse but to come with him back to a tiny European nation that she has never even heard of, let alone thought of being from. Also, and equally upsetting, the sex is juuuuuust this side of rape-y - Stefan is prevented from forcing himself upon Tanya on at least one occasion because he is so drunk he passes out. Tanya is depicted, because of the historical period, as having neither experience with, nor desire for, sex. There are character reasons for this as well - Tanya is depicted as being stunningly beautiful, but consistently disguises herself so that no one in her regular life knows this (this is a strong element of her creation of agency - she knows that, as a beautiful woman, she will be pressured into marriage, and thus lose control of the tavern and her future life). The upshot is, however, that she is a virgin who doesn't want to have sex - is, in fact, almost incapable of knowing that she could possibly want to have sex - until her desire to have sex becomes completely overwhelming (because Stefan is so freakishly desireable [but only to Tanya - he has scars that every other woman can't get past {although they WILL sleep with him, because he will eventually be king, and that's worth overlooking some scars, am I right?}]). And yet (in another delightful trope), when the sex does happen, Tanya is both deeply aware of what she wants and highly skilled at providing what Stefan wants. So that's all right, then.

Anyway, my broader point is that this book has some serious issues that, in my callow youth I was able to overlook, but now I find glaring and unforgivable - not unlike Stefan's scars. (Also, clearly, some really interesting material, from an analytical point of view - but that's not what we do here!) Also, and this is totally petty, but the back cover looks like this:

And that scene NEVER happens! T here is no love-making in a lake with lily pads, even though the characters tromp all over Mississippi and Louisiana. So, there's that.

So, what do we do with that? What I suggest is this - read Deborah Blake's Wickedly Wonderful instead. It's a modern setting, and it is a paranormal romance, but it has a lot of similar elements. There is the mutual loathing and lust at first sight. There is a prince (although he's not the male lead). There is some mutual misunderstanding (and a truly delightful flounce by Marcus Dermott, the male protagonist). Beka Yancy is a Baba Yaga - a witch with Eastern European roots. There's even a boat! But, critically, no one relinquishes their agency, the sex is both consensual and realistically mutually satisfying. Further, there's both surfing AND an enormous Newfoundland dog (who is really a dragon). So, you can't go wrong with Blake (unless you don't like that sort of thing, in which case read something else).

Monday, April 4, 2016

(Belated) Romance Book Week 1 - Supernatural Romance: _Night of the Highland Dragon_, Isobel Cooper

Ahhhh! Friday was nuts - I had paying work, and then there were groceries to do and all. I'd say it won't happen again, but who am I kidding? It will happen again.

Ok. Week one of Romance Novel month. I've decided on four sub-genres: Historical, Contemporary, Supernatural, and Suspense. This week's novel, Night of the Highland Dragon, is technically an historical romance, but I think the historical aspects take a decided second-place to the fantasy/supernatural elements. Plus, if I make this my supernatural, then I can use Johanna Lindsey as my historical for this week - so it's a win-win!

So. I've reviewed some of Isobel Cooper's work previously. I like her writing style and her literary sensibilities. I know Isobel from several online communities (although I've never met her in person - isn't the Internet the coolest thing? I really think it will catch on and go places...), and so it is interesting to see her voice come through in her published fiction. With that in mind, it is perhaps not a huge surprise that I quite enjoyed this book.

Let's unpack the genre a little, though. What are the key elements of a romance novel? Obviously, there has to be a central romance: boy meets girl, they fall in love (and get married/coupled) is more or less the driving focus of the literary form. William Arrundel and Judith MacAlasdair provide that critical role. William is a detective working for a special branch of the British government focused on supernatural crimes. Judith is an ancient dragon who can take the form of a human woman. Together, they solve crimes!

Second, there must be complications. It would not do for boy and girl to meet in chapter one, get married in chapter two, and be deliriously happy for the rest of the novel. (Getting married in chapter one is an acceptable plot opener, of course - it's the being deliriously happy part that must be avoided.) So - complications: William doesn't know that Judith is a dragon, and Judith doesn't know that William is a detective/secret agent. Oh, and William is investigating a murder which looks like a ritual sacrifice - and which might be sustaining the unnatural youth of a woman - is Judith a vampire (no, she's an ancient dragon, but William doesn't know that - you see how the plot thickens?). Also, social convention (which Judith disapproves of) prevents Judith from giving in to her desires, and she doesn't want to reveal that she is an ancient dragon.

Third, circumstances must allow the central couple to overcome the complications and succumb to their passion. I gather that earlier romance novels were coy about this, and there remain some genre conventions around describing the act of physical love. Cooper's sex scenes are a delight, with hot consent and lots of mutual respect and no rape-y overtones at all, yum. Also, well written, and anatomically plausible, so that's all good too.

Finally, I think that there should be an element of disposability to the works within the genre. That makes me sound all snobby, doesn't it? That's not really what I mean, though. The books should be a) good enough that you want to recommend/give them to a friend but b) not so timeless that you are upset when friend does not return them. These are popcorn books, though - you should be able to read them easily over a day or two, find them enjoyable (maybe even thought provoking), but be able to set aside after they are done - and that's actually not that easy to accomplish. Cooper does an exemplary job. Evidence? This is the third book in a series, and my library does not have books 1 or 2. There are obvious places in this book where books 1 and 2 could provide a little context (Judith has brothers - 2 of them! - and they have recently found love themselves!), but I feel no gaping lack of prior information. I AM intrigued by William's government agency, and I would love to see how he and Judith go forward in their approach to the presence of supernatural menace within the Empire - but only from the point of view of appreciating world-building and such. I would be happy to read further in this setting, but I won't be crushed if that never happens.

Anyway, if you like romance novels, and the Scottish highlands, and dragons, and supernatural mysteries, and passionate moments of consensual and mutually satisfying sex on British trains, then this book is a good fit for you.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Book 4 of the Food Books, _Fried Chicken_ by Damon Lee Fowler, 3/25/2016

This week, I am reviewing a cookbook. I chose a book focused on chicken, because I had an abundance of chicken in the freezer already. (Of course, one of the pieces of advice early in the book is not to freeze the chicken before cooking. Oh well.) What became quickly apparent, however, is that I have no real idea how to review a cookbook. Ideally, I would prepare a significant number of the recipes contained therein and report back. However, I think that an attempt to feed my family fried chicken more than once or twice in the course of week would result in mutiny, so. Here is what I have done. I have read the front material explaining the premise of the book and the matter of equipment and basic ingredients. I have also made one of the recipes. I will report on that.

The front material:

The premise is that every place where there are chickens (which is pretty much every place) has some tradition of frying chickens one way or another. Fowler outlines four basic methods: saute (in which the fat serves mostly as lubricant and flavoring agent, as the food is moved quickly and constantly about the pan), stir fry (which, he concedes, is really very much the same as a saute), pan fried (by which he means the food is no more than half covered in the frying fat, and needs to be turned during the cooking process), and deep fried (in which the food is fully submerged in fat). Thus, the book contains recipes from all over the world, and the American South. Perhaps I could have gotten away with cooking fried chicken more than once, after all.

Fowler contends that the only equipment you really need for frying is a cast iron frying pan. However, a cast iron dutch oven is useful, and a fry skimmer (one of those large spoons of wire mesh for removing things from the oil), a fry basket, a good thermometer, tongs, and wooden spatulas are all good to have. (For the record, I do not have a fry basket, and my tongs are poorly suited to frying things, as they are plastic. Otherwise, I am well set.) I disagree with Fowler on how to care for cast iron - he's of the "never wash with soap" camp, while I'm of the "if it's properly seasoned, soap can't remove the seasoning" camp. However, I'm well aware of the folks in Fowler's camp, and have no particular beef with them - they can wash their pans however they like, frankly.

Fowler's list of basic ingredients is fairly short - chicken, fat, broth.

The chicken should be young - if not young, then small - and he suggests that cutting it up yourself ensures that you get the bits you need in the shape you really want. I started with two leg quarters of chicken (the drumsticks and attached thigh and ribs), and cut them more or less as suggested. Fowler's suggestion that there are obvious places to make the cuts is not wrong, but it does take a little practice to make exactly the right joint cuts - I've done it, but I'm not an expert. Anyway, Fowler lays out the methods of cutting a whole chicken quite clearly and helpfully.

The fat should be either rendered lard (Fowler recommends rendering it yourself) or vegetable oil - Fowler says that peanut oil is recommended as olive oil is too expensive for deep frying. He also says not to re-use oil. (I used mostly corn oil, I did re-use oil [I'm a rebel!], and there was a very faint carry-over of the Indian food I had fried last week. No tears were shed over that. :) )

The broth should be homemade. Fowler lays out two methods for making broth: a quick way if you are caught short, and the right way, if you have time. Both are fairly straightforward, but it's good that he does not assume that his readers already know how to make broth.

The recipes:

Each recipe has a little note about where the recipe is from, how it is prepared and eaten there, and maybe some additional thoughts. The instructions are clear, and assume that the reader has only very moderate knowledge of cooking, offering a great deal of detailed direction. When an ingredient is uncommon - like tamarind paste - Fowler offers suggestions as to where one might find it, and also an alternative. I've flipped through, and none of the recipes has more than six steps, most are four or five steps. In short, the recipes are not particularly intimidating.

The range of recipes is excellent, from fairly simple recipes to fawncy ones like chicken cordon bleu and chicken kiev. There are a variety of chicken wing recipes, and a very good section of stir fry recipes (which I think I will have to return to). There's even one recipe that involves deep frying a whole chicken - outside, over propane, VERY carefully. That one, I probably won't attempt.

I chose to make a Cuban style fried chicken with an orange marinade. But, because I'm a rebel (and because I did not have an orange of any sort), I made it with a mix of lemon and lime juice. I particularly liked Fowler's method for preparing garlic - in a pestle, with a healthy amount of salt (I used kosher), ground to a paste. The salt acts to grind the garlic, and the result is a smooth, garlic-y salty paste which blended easily and quickly with the rest of the marinade. This recipe called for a quick fry, followed by a protracted steaming in the reserved marinade, followed by a second fry to re-crisp the skin. I had trouble with the last stage - the skin (as Fowler warned) was quite delicate at that stage. Perhaps because I used half as much chicken (I'm not sure I could have fit a whole chicken in my pan - perhaps a small one?), but all of the marinade, the end result was (while absolutely delicious) not as crispy as I had hoped. Also, the other 3/4 of my family immediately peeled the skin off, losing a good portion of the flavor as a result. The chicken had a potent citrus kick - I served it with rice and black beans, which balanced nicely. I was happy with the results, but would like to try it again.

A final note - Fowler also includes an end section on sauces and sides which is excellent. A very good cookbook, especially for cooks in the skilled novice to well seasoned dilettante range. If you like chicken, especially fried chicken, and short historical, sociological notes, this is a good book for you.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book 3 of the Food Books, 3/18/2016, _Twain's Feast_, by Andrew Beahrs

I currently live in Elmira, NY, which is solidly part of Twain Country (a broad and not at all contiguous country, because Sam Clemens traveled broadly and extensively). Twain's wife Olivia [Livy] Langdon was from here, and attended Elmira College here in town. The Clemens summered here at the Langon farm, Quarry Farm, just outside of town. Twain and his family are all buried here. As such, when I saw Beahrs' book at my local library while looking for food books, I felt compelled to grab it. I'm very glad I did, because Twain's Feast was, itself, a feast of a book.

Beahrs' premise is delightful in its simplicity. In 1879, Twain and his family toured Europe extensively. Twain hated the food he encountered at European hotels, and longed for American food. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain published a "feast" that he wished he could be served, listing all of the things he wished he could be served as soon as he stepped off the boat in New York. The list is long, ranging from radishes through multiple types of bread (both Northern and Southern style), numerous forms of seafood including various fish and oysters, lots of fowl, both wild and domestic (including canvasback ducks), and ending with a lavish selection of American desserts and pastries. It's quite a thing, and it makes me, first, hungry, and then, merely through reading the list, sated and even overly stuffed. Anyway, Beahrs decided to investigate several, indeed, many, of the foods on Twain's list, and discuss what made them, at their heart, American foods. He concludes that the foods, and the ways in which Twain (in Tramp and elsewhere) describes these foods being prepared and served, are intensely regional - that, separate from the places (and, indeed, the specific moments) that Twain experienced them, the foods would not have been as appealing to Twain. This book is, then, an ode to the idea of terroir (not unlike the book American Terroir, which I reviewed here).

It is also an ode to "wild" food and "local" food. Beahrs, like much of the current body of food writers (see Pollan [whom Beahrs name-checks], Bittman, and others), is a strong advocate for the "locovore"movement and a strong critic of modern American foodways based largely on corn and non-local food. I am sympathetic to the idea, and Beahrs' descriptions (and the descriptions he borrows from Twain and his contemporaries) do little to erode that sympathy - locally (and naturally) grown and produced foods sound wonderful. Beahrs' depiction of coffee being poured over fresh non-pasturized cream - "I coaxed the raw, almost clotted cream from the bottle with gentle taps, spreading it thickly on the bottom of two cups with the back of a spoon. Then I let dark streams of coffee ripple under the cream's edge, raising it like a hot-air balloon's yellow silk." (page 6)- wow. I'm afraid to try it, because I know I can't afford the $14 for half a pint he paid for the privilege. Likewise the grass-fed beef and non-vegetarian farm raised eggs - "Their yolks are a deep gold, approaching amber; recently five Soul Food Farm yolks survived over a minute of whisking by Erik, which any parent of a four-year-old will recognize as evidence of almost metaphysical strength" (page 114-115) - I simply can't afford to indulge. And that's the fundamental problem with the locovore, natural food, movement - it's great if your budget can sustain it, but if not, it's unattainable. And if the movement is unattainable, Beahrs' presentation of the food you can afford can feel insulting, even scolding. Which is not, I think, his intention. Sadly, however, that consideration detracted from my pleasure as I read this otherwise delightful book.

And the book IS delightful. Beahrs traces Twain's voyage from Hannibal, MO to New Orleans, and then out west to Nevada and California. Beahrs himself travels from San Francisco to Illinois to look at prairie chickens, and the Baltimore to look at terrapins, to Arkansas to eat raccoon, and to Vermont to enjoy maple syrup. He discusses the social history of consuming oysters, canvas-back ducks, terrapins and lobsters (among other things). The book is peppered with historical recipes for the food being discussed, some of which look like something I could cook, and some of which lack basic elements, like numerical measures of ingredients. Beahrs is exceptionally skilled at describing food, both as a cook and as a diner. He also has a fine ear for the descriptions of others, selecting perfect passages from Twain and his contemporaries which evoke both the food and also the time in which the food was prepared and consumed.

So. If you like historical and social analysis of food, or Mark Twain, or travel books, or sumptuous descriptions of food (including boiled raccoon), then this is a good choice for you.


This week featured both Pi Day (on Monday) and St. Patrick's Day (on Thursday), two notable days which (at least here) are celebrated through the production and consumption of specific foods. On Monday, I baked a tarte au sucre - a Quebecois sugar pie (recipe here), and my wife made a pumpkin pie, and we had a delightful shepherd's pie for dinner. I've been using a technique that Jamie Oliver discusses here, wherein mashed potatoes form an entire crust for the pie, bottoms and side, and not just the top. My recipe is pretty basic - fried ground beef on the bottom, then a layer of frozen mixed veg, then a layer of baked beans, and then mashed potatoes. Historically, I have put shredded cheddar cheese on top, but my eldest child does not like "roasted" cheese, so, in deference to her, I chose not to do so this week. Instead, I dotted the top with butter, and broiled it before serving, making for pleasantly crispy potatoes on top. Everything was yummy, and we had pie for breakfast through Wednesday.

Yesterday, I made a fairly simple potato soup with an Irish soda bread (this is my go-to recipe - the first one, with the whole-wheat flour - I am not entirely above food-snobbery autheticism; I just can't afford all natural foods), and that was also well received. We have all eaten well this week!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Book 2 of Food Books, _Catching Fire_, Richard Wrangham, March 11, 2016

What makes us human? (I know! It's food month! Why am I looking a philosophy? Bear with me.) This is a HUGE question, obviously, and one that philosophers and religious scholars (among others) have been discussing and debating and answering for millenia. My author this week, Richard Wrangham, is not a philosopher or a religious scholar - he's an anthropologist. He's more interested in what made us human from a social and biological stand point. The full title of his book is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, and suddenly the inclusion of this book in food month makes sense, yes?

So. Wrangham argues, somewhat convincingly, that there were a pair of critical biological and social shifts which took place first 2.5 million years ago when homo habilis emerged from australopithecus, and then 1.8 million years ago, when homo erectus emerged from homo habilis. 2.5 million years ago, he contends, habilines started eating meat more frequently and also (and this is key, and one of the places where he differs with his peers) processing that meat and additional plant matter, to make it softer and easier to chew. 1.8 million years ago, homo erectus began to use fire to cook their food. This is the other place Wrangham differs with his peers, in that the general consensus has been that use of fire and cooking were separate events. Wrangham argues that cooking and fire had to have been very closely related, or else we would see another significant biological shift on the level of the ones 2.5 million years ago and 1.8 million years ago. The shift from erectus to sapiens is, he contends, not a significant biological shift in re: teeth and guts, but rather in terms of brain size.

So, first of all, I'm not an anthropologist. My wife is, and we discussed the book a little, but she contends that she's not the same sort of anthropologist that Wrangham is, so our discussion was not overly heated. Also, she hasn't read the book. With that proviso, I am a) not sure I entirely followed Wrangham's argument and b) even so, I'm not sure I agree. He's positing a very fast evolution - over the course of a generation or two - which seems not quite what I learned about evolution. Which, you know, was a long time ago, and in high school, so. But, if he's correct, that increased meat, and then cooking of food produced the evolutionary response, are we still evolving? My wife says we are, a little, but that our group dynamics, and our desire to have as many people survive and breed as possible have blunted the "survival of the fittest" aspect of evolution. Which would be consistent with Wrangham's argument, which is that cooking results in a communal society in which food (especially hunted food) is shared (something that other animals do not do - theft of food, yes; voluntary sharing of food, no). So there's that.

Second, Wrangham does seem to be making a gender essentialist argument in regards to the gendered division of labor. That is, he argues that females gravitated towards the "gathering" part of hunter-gatherer, and thus also to the cooking of food - that, indeed, having someone available to tend the fire and cook vegetable staples was essential to the hunter-gatherer system. Without readily available cooked food, the hunter could not maintain the ability to hunt. And, since hunting required greater physical strength (1.8 million years ago, mind), males gravitated towards the hunting, and females were excluded. Which, all right, I accept in theory. And Wrangham doesn't actually say "that's the way it's always been, and that's the way it should be forever and ever, amen," but he doesn't not say that either. And he does say that, while men CAN cook (thanks for that), there are no (traditional) societies in which they do so on a regular basis (and many in which they absolutely refuse to do so, even if it means starving). So, there's that too, I guess.

Anyway. Here in the industrial "west", we don't cook over an open fire unless we are camping. And, by and large, the meat in our diet is not dependent upon the ability of males to go into the wild and come back with a tapir or a wild goat or something. Consequently, I think that our next evolutionary step - and maybe we're already seeing it - is a societal step away from the gendered division of labor. And, I further think that our ability to change and grow is one of the things which makes us human in a spiritual and philosophical sense (and, maybe, in a biological, anthropological sense too).


This week's adventure in cooking requires a little historical background. For Christmas, my parents gave us (well, ok, we bought for ourselves with money from my parents) an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. (Some of you are nodding your heads approvingly, some are jealous, and some are baffled - it's one of these, and it's really very cool). This week, I saw a recipe for making bread in the pot - you can use the pot to proof the loaf, but this recipe suggested steaming the bread in the pot, and then tossing it under a broiler to brown it and crustify it a little. I decided to modify the recipe a little by adding whole wheat flour (It was a modification of this recipe. Dough in a pyrex bowl 30 mins to rise on the yogurt setting, then cover the dough with foil, 20 mins under pressure with 2 cups of water [using the trivet]. Then into the broiler for 5 mins.). And the thing is, whole wheat flour sucks up water a lot more than regular flour, and I should actually know that because I have baked with it before. But, so. The dough was ugly, it didn't cook all the way through properly, and the end result was ... edible, but not really that nice. I'll try it again, with a little more water in the dough. And the ability to make mistakes and learn from them - also something that makes us human.