Category Archives: Nonfiction

Recipes from My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl: Cookbook Club #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

Something I’ve always thought would be fun would be a cookbook club where everyone would try a recipe from a cookbook, bring it to the meeting, and the group would talk about the good and bad of the cookbook, the recipes we tried, and the recipes we still wanted to try.

So I got the Good Taste Cookbook Club started at my library last September, and it’s going strong! Except for meeting every other month instead of monthly, it’s just like any other library book club, except that the books we read are cookbooks. Oh, and we also eat extremely well at every meeting!

book coverMy Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl was the January selection. It’s a combination memoir/cookbook that the longtime restaurant critic ended up writing after Gourmet – the magazine she had edited for ten years – was suddenly shut down, with everyone on staff laid off. Its format, design, and recipe layout are unusual for a cookbook (e.g. loose, conversational-style, sometimes inexact, instructions; ingredient lists divided into “Shopping List” and “Staples”; personal notes woven into the recipe directions) which some of the group didn’t care for, but others enjoyed.

“For the past six months, cooking had been my lifeline, and I was grateful for everything I had learned in the kitchen. Most cookbooks, I thought as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you’re not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You’re a traveler, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want. If it doesn’t work out – well, there’s always another meal” – My Kitchen Year

I made Lemon Panna Cotta for my contribution to the meeting, which was a very simple recipe from My Kitchen Year, having just three ingredients: heavy cream, sugar, and three lemons. As an example of the inexact directions, the recipe calls for the juice and zest of three lemons, but doesn’t tell you approximately how much juice and zest you should end up with. So I wondered if I had it right as I mixed the lemon juice and zest together and plopped it all into the hot cream, but the recipe worked – simple as it was! Even people who don’t particularly care for lemon desserts raved about it.

I put the Lemon Panna Cotta into plastic shot glasses for individual servings, with the remaining amount filling two ramekins. During the meeting, we discovered that it would probably be best kept refrigerated right up until serving time, because it got a little soupy in the bottom of the shot glasses. (The thinner layers in the ramekins seemed to stay firm, though.)

Lemon Panna Cotta in shot glass-sized servings
Lemon Panna Cotta just after being poured into the ramekin

I also wanted to try the recipe for Food Cart Curry Chicken before the cookbook club met, but didn’t have time, so my personal chef (aka Mr. BaystateRA) kindly made it for me. My photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was delicious! Mr. B. complained about grinding spices when we had ground spices in the spice cabinet already, but I think the extra work – his, that is – was definitely worth it, for the flavor explosion.)

served in the pans

I’ve read many of Ruth Reichl’s other books, including the novel she also worked on during this year of unemployment (Delicious!). My Kitchen Year is divided into seasons – Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer – and chronicles her time spent in two residences, a New York City apartment and a country home, upstate.

My Kitchen Year happened to resonate with me, personally, because I had an unexpected six months of unemployment starting in the late fall of last year, which caused me to reevaluate my career and how I spent my time. Like Ruth Reichl, who found so much comfort in the kitchen during her year at home while looking for new employment, I did more cooking than usual during those months and also found it soothing. Although, unlike Ruth Reichl, I didn’t write a book (much less a cookbook AND a novel) during my time of unemployment, I discovered that preparing healthful meals can be as relaxing as baking, and got a lot more creative with salads, so I count that as an overall plus.

Now, settled happily into my new job, I’ve been finding less time to cook and had also been going to the gym less often, but thanks to New Year’s resolutions and the encouragement of Joy Weese Moll’s Readers’ Workouts, I’m getting back into a gym routine and have now finally gotten back to Weekend Cooking with Beth Fish Reads!

At our meeting to talk about My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl, we sampled:

  • Anchovy Bread
  • Tuscan Bean Soup
  • Perfect Pound Cake
  • Banana Bread
  • Applesauce
  • Khao Man Gai (Thai Chicken Rice)
  • Beef, Wine and Onion Stew
  • Gingered Applesauce Cake Glazed with Caramel
  • Lemon Panna Cotta
  • New York Cheesecake
  • Bison Chili
  • Fried Chicken
  • Chicken Pate
  • Potatoes au Gratin
  • Custard in a Crust (Quiche)
  • Pickled Red Onions

Click to enlarge the pictures:

Happy Weekend Cooking!

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End by Atul Gawande

cover image of Being MortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande is a short book that everyone should read. The author writes not only with an expertise in medicine (surgery) — as a doctor who has talked with many patients over the years — but from personal experience with family and family friends.

The awful choices that people face when given a terminal diagnosis are much more tragic when the sick person is young. The author acknowledges this, but the main focus of the book is on people who, with advancing age, are faced with choices (both for themselves and for loved ones) between what all appear to be poor options (because returning to an earlier state of health and vigor — the only really good option — isn’t an option.) Dying is a sad time, even if the dying person is 100 years old, but medical professionals’ approaches to dying tend to be institutionalized or textbook (doctor/patient), rather than time-consumingly tailored to the needs and desires of an individual who is sick or whose body is wearing out.

An excerpt from the middle of Being Mortal:

“The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, ‘You let me know when you want to stop.’ All-out treatment, we tell the incurably ill, is a train you can get off at any time — just say when. But for most patients and their families we are asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come — and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.” — Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is about

how to figure out what is most important to an individual at the end; how perspectives change and continue to change  as the end of life approaches;

how medical professionals can help patients make decisions when available treatments don’t exist yet, are risky, or have already failed;

how to talk with each other about what we value most;

and, most of all,  how to listen to what patients and loved ones are trying to tell us.

If you like authors like Oliver Sacks, Mary Roach, and Jane Gross, who combine science with memoir in their writing, or if you like heart-piercing memoirs like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi or New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell, then you will probably like Being Mortal, portions of which were previously published in The New Yorker.

Being Mortal
Gawande, Atul
Henry Holt, 2014

Disclosure: I borrowed this book through the public library. It had been read many times and was already water-damaged when I received it. (Honest!)


Through a Father’s Eyes: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

cover image of Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a long essay written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, which won the National Book Award last year.

It’s as moving as you’ve probably already heard it is. Next, I need to read the author’s earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, about his relationship with his father and growing up in West Baltimore.

I marked so many passages as I read, I can’t quote them all. The author has written this short book in a style that is both mythic and realistic. He makes sweeping statements about history, society, religion, etc.  in one passage and addresses his son specifically in the next. Throughout the book, he calls Howard University “Mecca”, and refers to “the Dream” (i.e. the life he used to see depicted on TV, growing up) and “the Dreamers” (those who don’t recognize the roots of their privilege).

Throughout the book, he uses the phrase “people who believe themselves to be white” to encompass all who are not considered “white” (by the census takers? by the majority? by the “one-drop” rule?) and he frequently refers to “possession” of his “body” to get at the idea that for people without religious faith, this life – this body, brain, heart, soul, mind, spirit — is all we each have, and every “body” should matter as much as the others.

The author uses this unusual language to underscore the fact that “race” is a human construct, not a law of nature. We are one race – the human race; dividing lines exist only in our minds. Ideally, those lines will become so fluid in the future as to be nonexistent, even there.

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” — Between the World and Me, pp. 9–10

The author’s mixed feelings of hope and despair about the future are evident in this book, this letter to his 15-year-old son who responded with anguished disbelief to the 2014 grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Despair outweighs hope by a landslide. But there is a section describing the author’s first visit to Paris and the sense of freedom he experienced there, and, in fact, the author is living with his family in France, since writing this book.

Here’s a passage about the author’s time in “Mecca” (Howard University) where he fell in love, and fell in love with the school, if not with his classes:

I would take breaks from my reading, walk out to the vendors who lined the streets, eat lunch on the Yard. I would imagine Malcolm [X], his body bound in a cell, studying the books, trading his human eyes for the power of flight. And I too felt bound by my ignorance, by the questions that I had not yet understood to be more than just means, by my lack of understanding, and by Howard itself. It was still a school, after all. I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself. The best parts of Malcolm pointed the way. Malcolm, always changing, always evolving toward some truth that was ultimately outside the boundaries of his life, of his body. I felt myself in motion, still directed toward the total possession of my body, but by some other route which I could not before then have imagined. — Between the World and Me, p. 48

Between the World and Me
Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Spiegel & Grau, July 2015
176 pp.
$24.00, U.S.

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book. I think the author would approve.

Other opinions:
Book Journey
The Book Wheel
Estella’s Revenge (mini review)
Lovely Bookshelf