"Julia and Julia"

Several food-related events have converged in my life lately. Most recently, hubster and I went to see the film"Julie and Julia" last night, along with all the other baby-boomers in town who remembered watching the original Julia Child on tv when we were youngsters, and felt we needed to pay homage to those memories in some form. (The college kids, who all arrived for fall semester last weekend, flocked to the violent scary things at our local metroplex. Really, the disparity was quite noticeable : 30 and unders drew long lines to see "Halloween 2", "The Final Destination", or"The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard" while all the folks streaming in to see "Julie and Julia" in our tiny little theater at the giant multiplex were all 40 or older.) My own mother, a wonderful baker but an unenthusiastic chef, tried many recipes from Ms Child's famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, back in the 60's and 70's when I was growing up. Mom's version of Julia's boeuf bourguignon came out quite tasty and I was always disappointed that she did not make it more often. (I think mom's Baptist upbringing made her feel guilty about cooking with wine.) Mom's version of Julia's chocolate cake, covered in sliced almonds, was wonderful, too. Why did she spend so much time cooking greasy baked chicken, swimming in BBQ sauce and margarine, that routinely made me gag ? The world will never know.
"Julie and Julia" has received much press for Meryl Streep's incredible impersonation of the famous chef, most notably her quavering voice. The films was as I expected : charming, a bit too long on the modern section (Amy Adam's angsting over what she was cooking and the meaning of her life) ; we all wanted more of the older narrative about Julia Child learning to cook and struggling to get her cookbook written. The film came in a little over 2 hours and not once did I look at my watch or wonder if I needed to leave to run to the ladies room. I was entertained and that's all I really ask of a film these days.
I've read a string of books lately through various book clubs that deal with the topics of food, the world of gourmet cooking and foodies, selecting better quality foods to eat, living in France, or all of the above. (See "Summer Reading" on this blog for more info.) Had a conversation with a gf on facebook recently about cooking coq au vin, after her attempt did not turn out well, and I shared with her my fool-proof recipe for it that never fails to taste good to me, esp on a cold winter's day after a wretched day at work; I make mine in a crock pot and coming home to this comforting dish never fails to delight. While I do not claim to be the world's greatest chef or anything, I do cook a quite a bit ( compared to most people I know) and share recipes and cooking ideas with friends. I surprised myself with the sudden realization that I have not included recipes on this blog, (perhaps b/c I keep them to myself ? trade secrets?) So, to start a new topic, here goes :

Crostini Appetizers
My neighborhood has lots of parties, dinner or otherwise, and this is one of the most-requested items. It is quick and easy to make ahead and sure-fire crowd pleaser :

1 fresh baguette
1 tub pesto ( or make your own)
3-4 Roma tomatoes
ground or shredded Parmesan cheese

Don't substitute any of the ingredients, ( for ex, other tomatoes are too large or too small, other types of bread not stiff enough to stand up to this recipe and will get soggy on you)

Preheat oven (or toaster oven) to 350 . Slice baguette into approx 1/3 inch thick slices, making little "rounds"out of the loaf. Use a cookie sheet or cake pan ( cover with foil first , for easy clean up) and lay bread slices in close rows across the sheet. Wash and slice Roma tomatoes into thin slices, as many as possible. Pick up each little "round" or bread slice, cover with thin layer of pesto. Place one thin slice of tomato on top, set down on cooking platter. When all the little bread slices are completed this way, sprinkle all with Parmesan rather heavily. (You can experiment and also use shredded mozzarella, reggiano, etc.) Bake until light golden brown around the edges (you can make this hours ahead, and wait till the last minute to toss in the oven) and what you have are little gourmet "mini-pizza" appetizers. They are very tasty and go well with alcoholic beverages of all sorts.

Bon Appetit !


Summer Reading

The concept of "summer reading" has loaded meaning around GFT's house, for it is no secret that I am an English teacher, and since I teach Pre-AP/AP English classes (what we used to call "honors" classes back in the day), my students routinely have summer reading assignments. Typically consisting of a book or two, (choices tend to tie in to themes or material taught in class during the school year), with a corresponding written task to accompany them, these assignments are the subject of much complaining from both my students and my own children (who routinely wait till the last possible moment to begin their work, in spite of all my nagging, threats, bribes, schedules, and other efforts to get them to spread the work out all summer long.) When school convenes each year in August, the teens I know will complain that it is all very easy to assign these projects,"since you don't have to waste your summer doing the work". What they fail to understand of course, is that : 1)Teachers have to read all the books they assign, at some point, 2)teachers often are required to attend in-services and various other training sessions, which are 1000 times worse than lazing around a pool or in a hammock reading a book, 3)any assignment we make - we shall eventually have to grade....and therein lies the rub.
In spite of all this, I do manage to find time to read for pleasure. I keep a running list on amazon.com of books I hear about, read reviews of, are recommended to me, or are coming up soon for discussion in my various book clubs, and each payday select a few titles to add to my library. This is the one time in my life I let my choices drift with my fancy, and relish not having to read or do something as dictated by work or some other external criteria.
As summer draws to its end, I am reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and really enjoying it. (If it sounds like I say "I'm really enjoying it" to everything I read, that's because, if something doesn't just captivate me in the first 50 pages - I put it down and move on. Figure I can always go back, later, if my mood changes. Used to feel guilty about this, but now I don't. Life is too short! Too many great books to read out there !) So far, Water for Elephants is the story of a young man, trained as a veterinarian, who experiences personal hardship during the Great Depression and decides to hop a train and join a circus. I am expecting he will learn all about life and love along the way as he has adventures with all the weird circus folk. People kept recommending this one to me, and for whatever reason until now, I didn't have the time to read it or the mood wasn't right. Sara Gruen is a captivating writer and I am just pulled in to this story. The "frame" for this novel is that the main character is an old man in a nursing home, remembering his adventures from long ago....and his comments about aging are spot-on (at the beginning of that slippery slope, I share many of the same sentiments, myself.) The title has been explained as a metaphor for b.s. ......which may lend a key to unraveling whether what the narrator tells us is true, or not. A fun ride; I stayed up late last night and could not put it down.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not a galloping fun wild sexy read, but a fascinating one, nonetheless. This is a non-fiction, "documentary" type analysis of the food industry and agri-business in America in the 21st century, with some historical anecdotes how we got to be where we are, why obesity is rampant, why, biochemically speaking, our health and our ecosystems are related and are both out of whack. This book is organized into 3 main sections : the mainstream sources of most foods that appear in our grocery stores, the "organic " revolution and how it has evolved over time, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Intense biology lessons (the food chain, the nitrogen-photosynthesis cycle) thrown in for good measure. I found it informative and enjoyable - but I trend towards being a foodie and a health freak and just a little bit "green", all rolled up in to one. Even if you are a beef loving steak-chomping Texas carnivore....you might want to think about about switching to more upscale organic grass-fed meat sources. It's all the rage nowadays, anyways ! As I said to some friends of mine the other day : "I will NEVER let anyone I love eat a chicken nugget again."
Jhumpa Lahiri is the beautifully poetic Indian-American (Indian as in India, not Native American) author of The Namesake, which achieved commercial success and was made into a movie (starring Kal Penn, of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle " fame), a few years back. The Namesake,which deals with themes of families across the generations, the immigrant experience, expectations we have - both for ourselves and our children, won a Pulitzer Prize. Lahiri has several newer books out that are on my list ...this is one of them. I was surprised to find that Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories ( nowhere in the reviews I read did anyone mention this fact). As I read through them, I was filled anew with many questions to myself, such as : Why has the short story nearly all but vanished as an art form in the past 20-30 years ? Who else is writing short stories today? This collection of stories puts Lahiri in a class with some of the great American writers of short stories such as Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Parker, and Lardner, for these are truly beautiful little gems, each one more poignant and perfect than the last. Her themes remain similar to her previous work: hopes and dreams, parents vs children, families - but with a fresh new twist in each. The great thing about reading a short story or a collection of them, is that if you are pressed for time you can read one, put it down, and come back and read another one, later. Because the action is compressed, the messages/themes are more intense, leaving the reader with lots to think about after one is finished. A beautiful collection; I may teach some of these gems this fall in my class.
ItalicPeople of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks (author of the Pulitzer prize winning March, the imagined story of the father in Little Women) was recommended to me awhile back by one of my librarian friends, who was so excited when she tried to talk about it that she was nearly speechless. This is a historical novel, all about a very unique and valuable haggadah (layman's terms : a special copy of the Torah, or sections thereof, designed for use during Passover), which survives 600 years of war, famine, political chaos and anti-Semitism as it is bandied about all over Europe, from one owner to the next, secretly carried and saved (at the risk, often, of the owner's life) due to the beautiful and unusual illustrations the volume has. While tracing this story, ( which goes backwards through time), one learns a great deal of history, not just about the Jewish experience in Europe, but about the history of book -making, about the history if Islam in Europe, along with some very memorable descriptions of specific places, at specific moments in time ( such as 17th century Venice). A captivating read; I could not put it down.
One of my book clubs read The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn last spring. While we all agreed that we enjoyed the escapist qualities of Flinn's account of how she left her high-powered financial job and studied at Le Cordon Bleau for a year, we also agreed that her memoir, while enjoyable , was awfully self-indulgent. Who has the time or money to abandon everything for a year, at mid-life, and attend an tres expensive cooking school ? Especially if one does not go on to become a chef, but simply intends to write about one's experiences ? We can't all be like Julia Child. In a similar vein, but as a much more compelling read, is Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl. Here our plucky heroine recounts her rise from a commune dwelling ex-hippie restaurant reviewer for a local mag in San Francisco, one who can barely pay her bills or who is ashamed to park her crappy beat-up car at the valet parking of the toney restaurants she is there to review, through her two affairs, doomed marriage, frustrating attempts to get pregnant, to her ultimate success as restaurant critic for the LA Times. Along the way we are regaled with anecdotes of famous people she has met in the gourmet foods industry, amusing and lustful tales of incredible meals all around the world, travel adventures, a few rolls-in-the-hay, and wonderful recipes. As a memoir, it is a much better read than Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, because the food adventures and the personal adventures intertwine, and the one becomes a metaphor for the other. This book is an eclectic mix that works, and another I-couldn't-put-this-one-down read.


"(500) Days of Summer" and... Bergman films ?

What do popular, youth-oriented, currently-playing-in-a-theater-near-you romantic comedies have to do with cinema classics from days long gone by ? How could the charmingly sweet "(500) Days of Summer " possibly intersect with Ingmar Bergman's strangely allegorical B&W film from 1958 ? Why does having a classical education benefit you in yet one more unforeseeable aspect of your life?
Hubster and I, upon the recommendation of a friend, went to see the delightfully painful "(500) Days of Summer" just the other night. Hubster was struck near speechless (a truly remarkable feat, ask anyone who knows him) by his own identification with the lead character, Tom Hansen, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, manages to evoke the sort of "every guy" archetype while remaining not a caricature. In this movie, Hanson falls in love with Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, who is a girl way over his level- not only in terms of attractiveness, but also in terms of emotional maturity (as most young women are vis a vis young men). The story progresses as one might predict, (guy gets girl, guy loses girl) but that does not mean this is a predictable movie. The rawness of the young man's emotions as they play across his face reveal just how far we have come since my own dating days, decades ago. Back then, guys never revealed their emotions, leaving the girls to speculate ... in endless phone calls to various gf's, while all permutations of said boyfriend's behavior were analyzed to the micro level. We were way off base, completely wrong in our assumptions, more often than not.
I couldn't help but noticing, as hubster and I walked in to the movie theater, that we were by far the oldest folk in there; all the other couples and individuals in the theater were at least half our age. This fact was filed away and forgotten, until the sequence in the film comes where Tom goes to the movies in an attempt to get over his break up with Summer. This film has many creative moments where the narrative, which is never presented in a straight linear timeline, but reflecting current trends in fiction, instead jumps back and forth and around and around, each spin revealing this new fact or that little insight, giving the viewer much to think about once it is over as one pieces together comments or events in the story and derives deeper understanding of what just happened. There are cute sequences with split screen moments, one side revealing "expectations" and another side "reality" as our hero attends a party. ( Ah ! The influence of the video game generation!) But I knew the great cultural divide came in the scene when our hero sits in a movie theater, watching films, and instead of seeing on the screen whatever he is really there to see, he sees himself as the main character in this long kaleidoscopic series of classic foreign movies. Allusions flicker by, almost too quick to process -everything from homages to "The Red Balloon" to Marcel Marceau to Truffaut to Woody Allen to Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (where the knight plays chess on the beach with Death). Hubster and I roared with laughter to each of these cinematic references.... and the rest of the audience around us was silent.
As a teenager, I grew up within spitting distance of The University of Texas at Dallas. This rather sterile campus, architecturally speaking, was founded (I think) so that all the engineers from nearby Texas Instruments had a close convenient place to go earn MA's or PHD's in electrical engineering or comp sci, and their wives ( this being the 1960's) could earn degrees in library science, education, or speech therapy - for it is precisely this odd mixture of disciplines that this campus used to offer. Back in the day before VCR's and DVD's, many college campuses such as UTD offered what we used to refer to as "repertory cinema" which meant the showing of older (not current) previously run movies. Before the invention of VHS, DVD, Blue Ray, Netflix, VOD, Hulu, etc. Until very recently, there weren't 5,000 channels of cable tv available , and the only movies to appear regularly on tv were "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments" (which was shown each year for Passover). If you had a hankering to see "Gone With the Wind" or "The Godfather", much less something a bit more esoteric, such as "The 400 Blows", well, buddy, you were out of luck. But if you had a theater (such as The Alabama in Houston, or the Inwood in Dallas, and countless others across America) that showed old movies, you were in cinema heaven. The UTD campus theater put out a calendar that was poster-sized, once a semester, and which showed the months like a regular calendar. On each day was a different film - this was how repertory theater often worked. Want to see "Casablanca"? You better catch it on the one night it was being shown. By receiving the calendar for several months ahead of time, one could put it up on the wall and plan one's life around the various films being offered. Which is exactly what my friends and I did when I was growing up.....often forgoing school or social activities and choosing instead to catch classic films, foreign films, or a cluster of films all by one director, starring one actor, or from a particular country, which was known as a " retrospective". This was the beginning of my own cinematic education. I went off to college a few years later with a taste for this type of cinema, which quickly expanded into current foreign and indie films. My college bf, bless his heart, realized that my needs in this regard were insatiable, and quickly got himself a job at the local cinema that specialized in foreign/indie films, so we could go all we wanted for free - thus saving himself the $1000's he would have spent, when I nagged him to take me to the movies.
So in addition to all the useless but enjoyable things I have taught myself over the years from books, I also have a vast broad knowledge of foreign cinema, which is entirely useless, but enjoyable. And as I say to my students as regards literature or film, or anything else, the more you know (read/study) , the more you get the jokes.


Summer Road Trip, Points East - pt 1

Ferry from Manhattan to Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

It has long been a tradition in our family to take a retro-style, load the kids up in the car, family road trip back east to visit relatives and friends each summer. Most years we have only driven as far as the Outer Banks of North Carolina-a series of barrier islands off the coast, once rustic and sleepy and undiscovered; now home to near total build-up of large upscale (pools, hot tubs, and other amenities) beach homes that rent by the week, outlet shopping malls, gourmet grocery stores that stock the New York Times and Washington Post, pirate-themed restaurants, putt-putt golf courses with giant fiberglass dinosaurs that loom out menacingly over the roadway, and several hundred outposts of a local chain named "Wings", each located about 2 blocks from the previous one, which sells cheap swim suits, surfboards, sand toys, sun tan lotion, beach towels, and 10,000 cheap tchotchkies (beaded necklaces? rubber sharks ? bamboo wind chimes? sunglasses ? rubber tubing sling shots? small scale fire crackers?) all made in China.
We have made this trek, in good years and bad - even in 2008 when gas was $4.00 and up per gallon. I complain about it a lot - mostly the fact that this so called "vacation", during some lean years the only one I got, is ALWAYS accompanied by : a) my in-laws, and b) my having to be the chef for anywhere from 4-12 people. As my therapist says, "any vacation that involves mothers-in-law and cooking is not really a VACATION". I know, however, that in spite of my complaining, this is a rather luxurious week at the beach that few people rarely get to experience, my kids really do need to see their relatives at least once a year, and (as my therapist also said) I need to adjust how I think of it : think of it as a family reunion, as a gift to my children of sand and sea and carefree times, happy memories.......and demand another vacation that is truly a relaxing experience for me ! Which I do.....
This year, just to put some variety and spice into our lives, we decided to extend our trip, swing north after our week in North Carolina was over, and take the kids to Washington DC and New York City. (GFT used to live in northern VA, across the river from Wash DC, in Alexandria, and son #2 was born there. My own children have been to the Washington area and dragged through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum so many times, they could scream ! However, visiting grand parents is an important duty, and one that is not likely to end, any time soon.) In recent years, we have brought various friends of my kids with us on this trip, so it was time to expose some of these neighborhood teens to the wonders and culture of the east coast.

Tom, Rick and Danny go to White Castle.....where is Will, you ask ? Good question....

Our trip this year got off to a rocky start. The night before we were set to leave, as we were packing and loading up the car, my ex-husband called and said that his father, son # 1's grand father, was near death, and could son #1 fly out to participate in the soon-to-be funeral ... right now ? I informed ex husband that we were, the very next day, embarking on a 3 week road trip from Texas to New York, but that we would try to put son #1 onto a plane at some juncture. The next day, as we were driving from DFW area to Memphis, ex-husband called again to say that his father had been moved into hospice, was near death, and his dying wish was to " see all his grand children one last time", so could son #1 get on a plane ASAP and come see him before he died ? We pulled into Nashville around midnight that night ( after stopping to eat at Neeley's BBQ in Memphis), hubster bought son#1 a plane ticket to Colorado Springs, ( through Dallas - which was not easy, or cheap), and at 6 am the next morning, we put son #1 onto a plane while the rest of us continued driving east. Which is why I've got a few photos in this album that do not have son #1 in them, at all .
While the rest of our merry band continued our drive east ( along with the requisite stops for great meals and cheezy tourist attractions along the way), son #1 flew out to Colorado Springs, met his father and half sister who were flying in from Houston, his aunt and her kids flying in from LA, was picked up at the airport by his uncle - and all went to the hospice to visit his dying grandfather. They visited with him some, then went back to the uncle's house ( so the uncle, ex husband's older brother, once a computer programmer now a professional chef, could cook up the grandfather's favorite meal, as a sort of "last meal" offering to the dying man.) Late that night they were driving back to the hospice to bring this meal to the grandfather, when they received word that he had died. So son # 1 made had it there, just in time. All the family members - this being a Greek American family, somewhat similar to the one in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", with 200 people visiting, sleeping on the floors and the couches, and someone roasting a lamb on a spit in the back yard - went back to the uncle's house, and began ( pardon my mixed cultural references here, there really is no better way to explain all this) began sitting shiva for the old man. Son #1 , having done his duty to his grandfather and fulfilled the old man's dying wish, got back on a plane and joined our group, still travelling eastward, in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina.*

The rest of our week at the beach was rather anti-climatic. This year, we rented a larger house, and had fewer people in attendance, than in previous years, and people got along much better than we had before. More tv's, more bathrooms, plus 2 family rooms (plus an elevator for my m-in-law, who has mobility issues) as well as the requisite pool, hot tub and other amenities meant more room for folks to spread out, relax, not be all up in each other's business. My crazy militaristic right wing brother-in-law could watch Fox News all he wanted, while my pinko elitist culture junkie mother-in-law could watch PBS and CNN all day long as well....and never the twain shall meet. Each could happily shout at the tv as much as he or she wanted.....and the rest of us could find spots to be to avoid it all. It's a good thing.
If my attitude about my former father-in-law seems rather confusing, or even cold, please remember : he's an EX father-in-law. While I hold him no ill will, and like to remind folk that he was a WW2 vet and thus deserving of our respect.....one must remember, my divorce from his son was hellishly brutal, (read "When Harry Met Sally" Dec 2007 on this blog, for particulars) and while the intervening years may have faded the rancor somewhat, son #1 had only seen this grandfather twice in his life, and barely knew him. I felt that a dying man's last wish needs to be fulfilled, if at all possible, but did not want to take son #1's only vacation entirely away from him, by having him hang in Colorado around all week, waiting for the funeral. Son#1 had just completed the Texas Governor's School, and thus had spent most of his summer studying. As a child, he was somewhat uncertain about flying across the country by himself to spend days with a family basically unknown to him....and he really needed some vacation time where he could unwind and relax before school began.

Summer Road Trip, Points East, pt 2

My merry band of men on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the reflecting pool ( famous scene in "Forrest Gump") and the Washington Memorial in the back ground

After our week at the beach, we turned north and headed to the Washington DC area. Stayed with hubster's dad, who has been having serious health problems and not doing really well. (Important note : only hubster's mother and siblings join us at the beach each year, as his parents are divorced.) Spent a few days taking the kids to see all the sights, and also took some time to help hubster's dad with some home and yard maintenance issues. It was a good visit, in spite of the fact that it rained every day and the humidity was 100%, and moving around was like living in Rangoon , like swimming through an air of thick pea soup. It reminded me of the days when I used to live in Houston - the leather on my shoes started to mold. The pills in my first aid kit melted, just from the air, into moist greasy puddles.
Paddle boats in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. This is the same little pond that is ringed with cherry blossoms each spring

As hubster and I watched the kids paddle around the tidal pool at the Jefferson Memorial, we asked ourselves, "what will they remember, years from now ?" Almost simultaneously, we turned to each other and said, "paddle boats!" Ignore all that "culture" crap : the museums, the concerts, the history lessons.
After a few days in Washington, we again turned north. Had a lovely lunch at Phillips in Baltimore's Inner Harbor- home of the world's best crab cakes. Arrived in New York City just in time to eat Pizza at John's Pizzeria ( on Bleeker St) in Greenwich Village. Spent a few days in Manhattan, seeing as many of the sights as we could.
We've hit upon a workable formula for family travel (esp since we are frequently 5 or more people, with one or another of the kid's friends, or even my mother, sometimes dogs, always tagging along) : we always, if possible, stay at Embassy Suites. Unlike similarly named competitors, these rooms actually do have a 2 roomed suite, where you can shut the door. Plenty of beds plus a fold-out sleeper sofa mean enough room for everyone, and a little bit of privacy for me (often, the only female in this group). These rooms come complete with an all-you-can eat gourmet hot (chefs will cook eggs, omelets, and pancakes to order, as well as the usual scrambled egg-bacon-fruit-cereal-muffin-coffee-juice) breakfast buffet included in the price......not just the crappy donuts and instant coffee that competitors offer. Filling the kids up with a great breakfast really starts the day off right, and means you can see and do a lot before the "I'm hungry" whining starts up......which happens about every 5 minutes when the kids are teenagers.
We had weather in New York that was similar to what we had in Washington, but I didn't mind. I've visited NYC many times in my life, and have been there in all sorts of weather. I'll take rain every time - it sure beats a heat wave. Some of my favorite memories of NYC are in the rain, when I was young, walking hand-in-hand with a young man I loved.....I was excited to get to share all this with my little brood.
A dose of country in the Big City : Central Park

We saw and did quite a bit - several museums, the Empire St Building, (3 hour wait to get in - I do not recommend that unless it's a snowy Tuesday in February), twin towers site, Central Park, lots of great restaurants, Statue of Liberty. We were especially moved by our visit to Ellis Island, where hubster found the names of his ancestors on the wall that lists many (not nearly all) of the immigrants who came through those portals into the USA. (It must be noted that the only names etched there were the ones folks had paid to have put there, as a fund raiser, during the remodeling / refurbishing of Ellis Island several years back.) All of our adventures were guided by our marvelous family friend, the magical Uncle Bill, who regaled us with history and trivia, smoothed out the bumps of travel, and helped us country mice navigate the big city. We always love to visit him, when we can, every where we go .
Uncle Bill leads our band of merry men through the morass of Times Square