Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday Word of the Day: Graupel

It's snowing again. The chives from last year have managed a timid reappearance in the pot where they were growing last year, only to be snowed on again. 

With temperatures just around freezing, we sometimes get unusual forms of snow and ice: for example, sometimes the snow forms small, soft pellets instead of normal flakes. A post from Downtown Home and Garden (an outdoor supply store here in Ann Arbor) noted that there's a name for this type of snow: graupel

There might be a few such snow pellets showing in the chive pot. Here's a closer look at some of these pellets on the ground and on our deck:

Graupel seems to fall just when it's around freezing. It often melts off quickly, though sometimes I've seen an accumulation of maybe as much as half-an-inch. An article in the Washington Post, titled "Graupel: The wintry precipitation you’ve never heard of"  says: "The National Weather Service defines graupel as small pellets of ice created when super-cooled water droplets coat, or rime, a snowflake. Graupel pellets are cloudy or white — not clear like sleet — and often are mistaken for small hail." 

The Post also included this table of names for various types of precipitation:

Pullum's Essay Collection
At this point, someone is surely going to mention that English may have several words for snow -- including the obscure graupel -- but the Eskimos have hundreds, if not thousands of words for snow because they know so much more about snow than we do: a myth that just won't die. Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has been trying to correct public misconceptions about this matter for years. In 1989 he wrote an essay titled "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" (available online here) which was later included in a collection of essays by the same name. He wrote:
"Never does a month (or in all probability a week) go by without yet another publication of the familiar claim about the wondrous richness of the Eskimo conceptual scheme: hundreds of words for different grades and types of snow, a lexicographical winter wonderland, the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us. ... The fact is that the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropological linguistics community on itself."
Pullum's essay puts this myth in perspective:
"Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there were a large number of roots for different snow types in some Arctic language, this would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting; it would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact.  
"Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for different fonts (Caslon, Garamond, Helvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough. If these obvious truths of specialization are supposed to be interesting facts about language, thought, and culture, then I'm sorry, but include me out."
Despite Pullum's best efforts, references to the supposedly snow-rich Eskimo vocabulary continue to appear, as well as articles about the origins and truth of this notion. In response to one such claim that appeared in 2013, he wrote a post at Language Log where he says of efforts to correct the myth:
"No one will pay attention to such details now. New Scientist and the Washington Post have announced that Boas [the first anthropologist to mention the topic] claimed there were fifty snow lexemes and that new research has now confirmed this; so everyone will believe that, since they wanted to believe it anyway, and they will keep on repeating the same drivel about things-people-have-multiple-words-for that they have so often repeated in the past. A depressing prospect, but it seems inevitable."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Ten Restaurants that Maybe Didn't Change America That Much

Selection for the next meeting of my culinary book club is Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. The book is organized in ten chapters -- one for each of the selected restaurants -- with an epilogue. I found the last few chapters and the epilogue to be the best part.

Here is Freedman's explanation, from the epilogue, of why American restaurants didn't particularly adopt the fad called molecular gastronomy. This fad involved scientific experimentation with food substances and flavors for shock value and snobbish appeal, most notably at a Spanish restaurant called elBulli:
"... the American food industry has for ages been dedicated to the transformative scientific manipulation of food. Pringles or cornflakes are in their way as startling as any of those 1,846 dishes invented by elBulli. One reason the United States may not have embraced molecular gastronomy is that we already eat lots of peculiar, non-natural, scientifically manipulated products -- they just aren't crafted, complex, or trendy." (p. 422)
What a wonderful idea! Just think of Coca-Cola, whose sweeteners with or without calories most definitely involve far more elaborate scientific procedures than anything those pompous molecular show-offs do. Making high-fructose corn syrup from ordinary corn syrup requires a whole series of enzymes and heat control. NutraSweet (aspartame) uses chemicals called phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartic acid. Or just think of Cheetos and Velveeta. But I digress.

My favorite chapter of all was the description of The Pavillon French restaurant, a New York icon, which has certainly had its share of coverage in earlier books, magazines, and web sources. Freedman's description is insightful and highly amusing because his focus is on the extreme self-absorbtion and exclusive love of celebrities and "important" customers rather than on the food or atmosphere of the restaurant. He writes:
"Le Pavillon and Henri Soulé raised the standards of fine dining, but also adversely affected the reputation of French restaurants. Snobbery, discrimination, and intimidation were majestically deployed by the imperious if often entertaining Soulé, and these imputed characteristics have damaged the reputation of French cuisine in America ever since. French restaurants aspiring to anything higher than bistro steak-and-frites cooking are now exceptionally rare. It is easier to find Indian vegetarian or Ethiopian food in the United States than an actual French restaurant." (p. 294)
So .... the influence of this restaurant was not to popularize its unarguably fine cuisine, but to demean it and make it totally unpopular! Freedman underscores this point in great and enjoyable detail. How did it change America? It made us safe from the extreme New York style snobbery embodied in the restaurant!

Freedman's Figure 51: Lower East Side Restaurants, The New Yorker, 1938.
Along the left side are typical ethnic dishes from the depicted eateries.
Overall, I wonder: did Freedman make the point that he had selected ten truly influential restaurants? I'm not sure he even tried, with one or two exceptions, especially in the last chapter about Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. Around eight of the very detailed chapters, in fact, are general social history of food combined with the story of one typical restaurant, and he often has trouble sticking to the one he chose. In quite a few of the chapters there's little new material -- I've read many of his major sources so it was clear to me that he offers very little that's new or original. One very good thing: the very carefully selected illustrations, including many restaurant menus and relevant New Yorker covers. Interestingly, in the acknowledgements, credit for this feature is given to "picture-researcher Brian Meyer." (p. 450)

Freedman's chapter on one very high-end Chinese restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco was especially disappointing. As with quite a few other restaurants, he's very impressed by success with rich and famous diners, believing that their approval indicates wide influence. In this chapter, he reiterates the history of the Chinese immigrants to the US pretty much as it's been told by Jennifer 8 Lee in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Andrew Coe in Chop Suey. Both of these books demonstrate that the influence of Chinese food in America was from the bottom up -- low-end popular and inexpensive Chinese restaurants really did change America. In a way, it seemed as if he just didn't get it. If The Mandarin was that influential, he wouldn't need to cover more than a century of preliminary popularity of Chinese food, would he?

Far from being influential, most of these restaurants reflected the trends and tastes of the times and cities where they were founded -- mostly New York, which already shows a lack of imagination. Though Freedman shows that they were popular and well-known, he doesn't really demonstrate that they "changed" anything.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"The Blue Mountain" by Meir Shalev: Israeli Natural History


Returning from our recent visit to Israel, I decided to reread The Blue Mountain, a novel by Israeli author Meir Shalev. At the time I read it in 2006, I found that it resonated with my recent experiences visiting the countryside in the Jezreel valley, which lies east of the Sea of Galilee and west of Haifa. The novel combines historical fiction, humor, magical realism, and natural history, creating a portrait of the pioneers who created the State of Israel. The Blue Mountain is centered in a Moshav -- a type of cooperative farm but distinct from the more popular Kibbutz. Shalev grew up in Moshav Nahalal, which we visited at that time, making it especially meaningful. I wrote about that in this review/blog post: "Storks."

A greenfinch at a feeder, Jerusalem Bird Observatory.
A kestrel (type of Falcon).
One of many characters in the novel, Shalev's schoolmaster, Pinness, stands out for his fascination with the natural world, his interest in writers and naturalists such as Luther Burbank and Darwin, and his dedication to teaching the village children about their environment.  Shalev frequently uses birds that nest in Israel or migrate through, as well as other wild and domestic creatures, as a metaphor for the events in his story. Some of the birds appear, as shown, in the photos we took, and this feature of the book seemed very compelling to me.

Bird quotes from The Blue Mountain:

"The air was cool and crisp when I set out, and dewdrops still hung from the leaves... . Greenfinches jumped on the hedgerows along the path, and a pair of falcons tumbled in the air, sporting in high-pitched spirals. A yellow cloud of goldfinches swarmed anxiously over the thistles, their thick, short beaks sounding little squeaks of surprise. ... Pinness told us how Darwin had studied the Galapagos Island chaffinches... Sometimes I would flush a mother lark from her hiding place, and she would run ahead of me and flop around in the stubble like a shrill, lame old woman, soiling her crest in the dirt while luring me away from her nest and camouflaged eggs." (pp. 128-129)

A clamorous reed warbler near the Dead Sea.
"When I was five he once took me to the orange grove to show me a roofed oval nest with a round entrance on one side.

"'This is the nest of the graceful warbler,' he said. 'Its fledglings are gone already. You can stick your hand inside it.'

"The inside of the next was lined with soft, warm down and groundsel seeds.

"'The warbler is our friend because it eats harmful insects said Pinness. 'It has a little body and a long tail'" (p. 189-191)

A Little Owl.
"At my grandmother Feyge's funeral Pinness had noticed two Little Owls, a male and a female, bowing and curtseying to the mourners while curiously regarding them through slit golden eyes.... Several days later he returned to find that the two small birds of prey were nesting among the stone ruins. Scattered on the ground were the slivery skulls of field mice, dry, hardened bird spew, and the wings of devoured grasshoppers. A stench of carrion arose from two little fledglings in a nest, whose white plumage and angry hisses made him think of a pair of Hasidic dwarfs." (p. 267)

A Griffon Vulture.
"With his grey hair and clawing fingers Meshulam resembled an irritable Egyptian vulture." (p. 276)

Black Storks in migration, near Eilat. The storks that nest
in Eastern Europe are White Storks, which also migrate
through the region.
And finally, the paragraph I quoted at the beginning of my earlier review: “I lay on a bed of jonquils, staring up at the sky. Flocks of migrating storks soared overhead, circling like tiny water insects on a clear, transparent pond. Back in the Ukraine, two storks had nested in the chimney of Grandfather’s house. ‘I knew that they visited the Land of Israel each year and came back with a bellyful of the frogs of Canaan,’ Grandfather told me. Were the grandchildren of those storks flying over me now?” (p. 84)

In re-reading The Blue Mountain, I again found strong resonance with my recent experience birdwatching and observing a variety of landscapes and natural history. Besides the birds mentioned in the paragraphs above, many more appear in the narrative, including the barn owl, starlings, swallows, coots, the bee eater, cattle egrets, ostriches, a kite, pigeons, herons, robins, the plover, geese, quail, and more. In addition, passages on insects such as the cicada, on sand crabs, on hyenas and jackals, and on many others reveal the natural environment of the human story. They complement Shalev's descriptions of the challenges that the characters in the book faced in building homes and barns, developing farmlands, learning techniques for raising crops, planting and maintaining orange trees, managing work animals, setting up dairy operations, establishing governance of their cooperative endeavors, coping with an unfamiliar climate, and rearing their children in the new land.

The Cemetery of Moshav Nahalal, from our 2006 visit.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

"Eight Flavors" in My Kitchen

Sarah Lohman's Eight Flavors in my kitchen. Left to right: soy sauce, MSG (in the form of Maggi seasoning), black pepper
(in the form of Rainbow peppercorns), garlic, chili powder (an old jar becuse I usually make it from scratch), curry powder,
vanilla, and Sriracha Hot Sauce.

 "The American kitchen is not static; it’s cumulative, and it evolves. Ten years ago, I had not heard of Sriracha, and now it is in every refrigerator I open (at least, those refrigerators stocked by millennials). And in the next decade, or the next century, our cuisine will continue to change. Which means a new flavor will earn a permanent place in Americans’ hearts and stomachs." Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (pp. 221-222).

Author Sarah Lohman identifies herself as a historic gastronomist: that is, she explores the way that cooks worked in the past, and re-creates old recipes. The eight flavors in the title of her book provide a route into American cooking from Colonial times (when black pepper dominated both sweet and savory recipes) to the present, when we retain the earlier flavors but continue to add new ones. Specifically, Lohman describes how Sriracha, a hot sauce of southeast Asian origin and California manufacture, has spread throughout our kitchens.

In every chapter of this book, I learned new things about the flavor featured there. As illustrated in my photo, I use every one of these flavors in my own cooking -- some more than others. Especially interesting was the idea that wartime exposure to the foods of a region often results in flavors being brought back to the soldiers' home country. Is Sriracha partly due to experience in the Vietnam war? Well, maybe!

A few things I found especially interesting:
  • Although careful well-executed studies have repeatedly found no ill effects from MSG, people still fear it and loath it! I think this is why Maggi seasoning doesn't explicitly name it on the label. The history of the discovery of the "fifth taste" -- umami is a fascinating one, and Lohman provides lots of insight into how adding MSG to food was at first a positive step, but became a problem because of a pervasive but mistaken view of the danger of this substance (which occurs naturally in many foods including human milk).
  • Vanilla, I learned, was rare and expensive until some time in the nineteenth century. Before it became widely available, the flavor that was most used in sweets like cake or cookies was rose water! 
  • Curry powder became popular long before Indian cuisine was well-known or served in restaurants. One chicken dish stands out -- "Country Captain Chicken is a common American curry dish that first showed up in Eliza Leslie’s 1857 cookbook Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. It was a popular dish in port cities of the South, where Americans who had sailed to India would have lived and traded." (p. 92). 
  • Garlic as a culinary flavor (rather than a medical remedy for many ills) became popular only in the twentieth century, as Italian-American food became mainstream and as French cuisine became well-known. "A clove of garlic, the part of the plant we cook with most often, is actually a leaf: a storage vessel that packs away energy for the next growing season. The energy stored in the cloves is in the form of sugar— specifically fructose— which is why a clove tastes sweet when it is cooked slowly and caramelizes when roasted." (p. 150).
Lohman's discussions of food history can be very intriguing. I was familiar with some of the history, such as the evolution of Italian-American food from the variety of Italian regional cuisines belonging to immigrants; the evolution of Chinese-American foods and thus the popularity of soy sauce; and the invention of chili powder and the role of the "Chili Queens" who sold a variety of Mexican street foods and thus popularized Tex-Mex cuisine. (I read about these areas in Hasia Diner's Hungering for America; Gustavo Arellano's Taco USA; and Haiming Liu's From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express -- blogged herehereand here.)

My kitchen is pretty quiet these days, as I recently returned from a long trip and I haven't started cooking very actively to date. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to present a feature of my kitchen for the blogging event titled "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by blogger Sherry. Quite a few very interesting posts have already been added to the April list!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Airplane Food

We flew from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam, and then on to Detroit in Delta One, a very pleasant way to fly. The seats recline to flat, and though they aren't wide, they are definitely extremely more comfortable than economy seats with no room to stretch at all. The food is also pretty good. My only problem was that the tray table was stuck in its little niche, and after several flight attendants had failed to release it, finally they called a big Chicago Irish steward from the back of the plane. He was very happy to do it, though it never quite went back into its slot.

The appetizer tray. The Thai coconut soup was very good. The "Ginger Marinated Prawns
with Cucumber Relish, Black Sesame Seeds, and Yuzu Mayonnaise" were not as
tasty as the description sounded.  The pumpkin seeds in the green salad were ok.
Beef Tenderloin: too well-done for my taste.
Dessert was an ice cream sundae with chocolate and strawberry sauce, not photo-worthy but enjoyable. I must have slept through the warm chocolate chip cookie snack because I never saw it other than on the very elegant menu printed on very heavy paper. No question: this was way better than any other food I've eaten on a plane recently, including better than in the first-class cabin from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam!

I have one or two more posts with photos from my long stay in Israel, and then I'll be back to my usual blogging!

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Back in Ann Arbor!

Remembering our trip: a parrot in a coral tree. One of my favorite birds, one of my favorite trees, in
the park near Janet's house where we stayed last week.
Last night we left Janet's house at around midnight. Door to door, the return trip was well over 20 hours, and all connections were on time and not difficult. I've chosen a few retrospective images from our stay in Kiryat Ono. First, Janet's friendly and exuberant dogs, Juno and Luna, photographed in a quiet moment when they weren't barking and running into the yard:

Citrus blossoms in Janet's yard, which are deliciously fragrant.
We are relieved that the very long trip is over. I might have a few more retrospective posts before I return to my usual blogging.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Happy Passover

Kiryat Ono, Israel. Our Passover Seder with our cousins Janet, Ethan, and Avigail, and several others. Above: the Seder plate with all the traditional items that are part of the ritual readings, prayers, and songs. What a beautiful evening! I didn't photograph every single dish that we ate, but here are a few.

Matzoh, haroset, the Seder Plate, and two pomelos from Janet's garden.
A 20th century tradition is to add an orange to the Seder plate to represent
the fact that women play an active role in modern Judaism. We used the
two pomelos for this symbol.


A 5.3 kilo salmon, about to be poached in the large fish poacher.
On the back of the stove: a pot of chicken soup.
Hard boiled eggs, a standard part of the menu.
One roasted egg appears on the Seder Plate.
Ethan preparing the dishes.
Special  Passover rolls and at right, komish bread for dessert.
Also for dessert: meringues.
In the kitchen: preparing sauce for the fish.
Sabbath candles, lit as part of the Passover ritual because the Seder was on Friday night this year. All Jewish holidays
are "moveable" feasts because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. Outside the window you can see the flower boxes.

Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls

A Whole Roast Salmon

Janet carves the salmon, our main course after the ritual foods, the eggs, chopped liver, nut spread, and soup.
The salmon: to be served with lemon sauce and kumquat chutney.
After all was carved, eaten, and put into a large dish for another day.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Janet's Passover Kitchen

Last night there was a wonderful confluence of aromas here in Janet's house in Kiryat Ono, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where we are spending the week preparing for Passover. From her kitchen came the aroma of chicken fat -- the traditional schmaltz -- being rendered for one of the many dishes for the Seder tomorrow night. From the garden came the amazing perfume of a citrus tree, the pomelo, blooming in this mild climate. A very unexpected combination.

Right now, the aromas from the kitchen dominate: an enormous pot of chicken soup is bubbling on one burner, as you can see in the photo.

A pot of kumquat chutney is simmering on the other burner. Janet harvested the kumquats this morning from another tree in the garden, and I spent at least an hour cutting them up and taking out their seeds. We both worked on the other ingredients. Janet loves to make chutney from the produce of her own tree.

Who would have guessed that such tiny fruits nevertheless have seeds the same size as those in an orange or a tangerine!
Kumquats, garlic, and ginger being prepped for chutney.
Hot peppers for chutney -- other ingredients include onion, orange juice,
sugar, vinegar, star anise, pepper, and salt.
Chutney simmering in a big pot, which is used only for Passover food.
Janet has lots more plans for our seder dinner tomorrow night. She's been shopping and cleaning for days. All the year-round dishes have been stored away, all the normal food is eaten up or will be discarded, and fresh Passover food and one-week-a-year dishes have replaced everything in the newly-cleaned shelves and drawers of her kitchen.  As I said before, it's quite a production!

Now for some photos of the wonderful greengrocer where Janet bought many of the ingredients for the soup and many other planned dishes. She has other sources for meat, fish, and so on.

Years ago, she says, this small but amazingly stocked store sold fruit and vegetables grown nearby, but the city has overwhelmed the farms that used to occupy land in this area, and now the owners bring in produce from other places. Beautiful produce!

So many colors of little tomatoes!

Quite a big selection of spices. I bought a few to take home.
I was amused to see the same brand of olive oil that I buy at home at Whole Foods.