Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Treat Yourself to West with the Night

I happened on Outside Magazines 25 Best Adventure Stories of the Last 100 Years the other day. I can't resist a real-life adventure story so was interested on their take. A few I had already read but there was also plenty that I hadn't so I paid a visit to Amazon.com.

In a very short time I had three of the books in my possession, including West with the Night by Beryl Markham. I had never heard of her but the magazine's description of her writing enticed me to take the plunge.

And what a plunge it was. Beryl Markham was born Beryl Clutterbuck in England in 1902 and when she was four years old her father moved the family to British ruled Kenya where he started a mill and raised thoroughbreds for racing. Her mother apparently hated it and moved quickly back to England. Beryl never mentions her once in this book although her father plays a big part in her story.

Just before she is 18 years old a three year drought forces her father to sell the farm and move to Peru. Beryl opts to stay in Africa where she becomes a fledgling race horse trainer. She achieves success on the track but her imagination is soon captured by the airplane and very likely the pilot, Tom Black. He teaches her to fly and soon she becomes one of the most respected pilots in Africa.

She branches out her business from delivering packages and people to reconnoitering game animals for safaris. The adventures she recounts are just mind boggling and it is difficult to imagine the dangers she regularly encountered. Especially in the 1920's and 1930's when women hadn't even come close to social equality with men.

You will find as you read that she is acquainted with an amazing assortment of famous people. They keep popping up in her story and you won't be able to resist Googling them to find out who they are. On the back cover of the book is a letter from Ernest Hemingway to his friend Maxwell Perkins recommending the book and saying "she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers." He also says in the letter that he knew her fairly well while he was in Africa and the great writer doesn't even get a mention in her book.

Interestingly it was the letter that got the book republished in 1983 when a California restaurateur was reading a collection of Hemingway's letters and discovered the one with the book recommendation. Ms. Markham, now elderly and living in poverty in Africa, was rediscovered after the book became a surprising best-seller and her last three years were improved a great deal.

The book is wonderful and has piqued my interest in this most interesting woman. I've already sought out some other biographies on Beryl Markham so that I can fill in some of the blanks in her own book. Her love life is completely left out although I hear it was quite "varied." Can't wait to read more.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

This book is a wonderful reminder of how unique we Americans were from region to region back in the "olden" days. Our country has become more homogenized since the 1930's with the advent of such things as the highway system, air transportation, and now the internet. Mark Kurlansky's book recalls a time when our seperateness and our unique backgrounds revealed itself in our cooking and traditions.

The last time our economy went down the stink hole there was no such thing as unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs. But for the first time we did have a President that thought the government should play a role in helping it's citizens get back on their feet. One of the ways that he did this was by creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

One of the best things about this program was that President Roosevelt didn't leave the artists standing on the sidelines. Among the programs of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project created to give writers an opportunity to earn some needed income. One of their projects was to go across the land finding local writers to describe their best, most unique, and clearly local cuisine.

Then the war came along and the project ended, but all the writings remained for an intrepid author like Mark Kurlansky to find for us. Kurlansky has mostly left the original writings intact and does not overly interject which makes it refreshing. He mostly leaves it to his reader to sift through the old slang, slurs, and general descriptions that wouldn't be used today. It gives the book a genuine quality and reminds you throughout that these were written 70 plus years ago.

The book is broken down into regions starting with the Northeast and Johnny Cakes, Oyster Stew from Grand Central (still available today), and the truly fun sounding Vermont Sugar Off. A Vermont sugar off was done on cold, cold mornings with a large group of family & friends getting together to harvest the syrup from the sugar maples. Talk about having a sweet tooth.

It is the south that really takes the cake for strange traditions and regional cooking. I found it highly entertaining to read about the Chitterling Strut. I had to wiki chitterling but after I did I was enthralled and slightly revolted. A chitterling is pig intestine, cleaned, steamed, and prepared in a number of ways. When a pig was slaughtered a great amount of chitterlings was prepared, everybody came and stuffed their faces and then danced the night away - a chitterling strut.

Another unforgettable food tradition was written about in the chapter titled "Cooking for the Threshers in Nebraska." Written from the point of view of a young woman who had participated every summer when she was a child, it reveals the jaw-dropping amount of work a farm wife had to do. When the wheat was ready for threshing all of the men from neighboring farms came to pitch in along with a number of their wives to help in the kitchen. Nothing was simple; eggs had to be collected, butter churned, cows milked, bread had to rise, and chickens needed to be plucked. They baked several cakes and pies, loaves and loaves of bread, sides of beef, potatoes, pickles, tomatoes, etc. And that was just for lunch!

Every region has something wonderful to offer from the Basques of Boise Valley,to salmon in the Pacific Northwest, Texas chuck wagons, and Southwestern barbecues. It is not a book of recipes, although you will find several of those, but more a delightful walk through the kitchens of America and the people that inhabit them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan writes another wonderful history about the terrible fire that destroyed millions of acres of forest in Montana and Idaho is the summer of 1910. Surrounding the fire he also tells the story of how the forest service was created and fought against. It is also an important reminder that the battle continues to be fought today.

The creation of the Forest Service was the brainchild of Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt. A couple of progressive Republicans who would find no acceptance in their party today. Between the two of them they essentially created our national parks as you see them today.

Egan does an excellent job of beginning his story with the introduction of these two extraordinary Americans. It is important to tell not only as a historic background to the fire itself but as a way of reminding the reader how the country was feeling in 1910. It was an aggressive time of growth with Robber Barons like JP Morgan consuming the countries natural resources as fast and rudely as humanly possible.

Pinchot and Roosevelt showed the American people a different path and suggested that these resources belonged to them and shouldn't be squandered completely on the altar of greed. This was radical and ground-breaking thinking in the early twentieth century and Roosevelt could not point to similar examples anywhere else in the world. The robber barons fought him at every step but the hugely popular President would not be denied.

In typical fashion his political opponents fought a rear guard battle against the newly created Forest Service. Whittle away at the laws, call them useless and a taxpayer waste, and deny them funding. Sounds like every social program ever passed; social security and medicare come to mind.

The result of all this negative behavior in the summer of 1910 was a Forest Service badly stretched with personnel covering territories of thousands of square miles. A public that often gave them no respect and even open hostility except when they wanted something from them. And, finally, a complete lack of resources for equipment and recruiting firefighters.

Egan sets the stage for the fire and then brings the events of those days vividly back with first hand accounts. Characters such as "Pinkie" Adair and the great Ed Pulaski feature strongly in his narrative. Those of us from Washington State will appreciate the story of Ranger Joe Halm and his young heroics during the firestorm.

He also reminds us, ever so politely, that the battle is not over. He recounts a celebration in 2005 euglogizing Ed Pulaski and featuring George W Bush appointee Mark Rey, head of the Forest Service. "Rey was an odd choice to preside over this ceremony in the woods. He had been a powerful advocate for the logging industry, a lobbyist and partisan, arguing fiercely against protection for dying species and wild lands in the public forests." There was no mention of conservation during the ceremony.

Perhaps a not-so subtle reminder that the battle continues and there are few who are fighting on the side of forests anymore. The few newspapers who remain in business are corporately owned and therefore interested only in profit and not conservation. Remember, as long as there are forests to cut somebody will want to cut them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wildwood Cookbook is a Wonderful source for local ingredients

One of the benefits of living in such a beautiful area is that it also comes with an amazing assortment of local ingredients that we can cook with. Not everything is in season when you'd like it to be but there is no reason you can't eat local all year round here. That is why I recently picked up a book called "Wildwood, Cooking from the Source in the Pacific Northwest."

The book is written by Cory Schreiber who is the chef and owner of the famous restaurant Wildwood in Portland, Oregon. Although Chef Schreiber focuses mostly on ingredients from Oregon you will find it translates easily for we northerners. The seafood, wine, forest mushrooms, berries and produce that he uses can all be found here too.

This cookbook makes me wish I lived next door to a farmers market because I want to prepare just about everything in it. Consider some of these recipes:

  • Panfried Razor Clams with Bread Crumbs, Herbs and Lemon
  • Salad of Field Greens with Crispy Fried Oysters, Aioli, and Smoky Bacon on an Herbed Crepe.
  • Creamed Morels with Apple Brandy, Thyme, and Roasted Garlic.
  • Roasted Chicken Thighs with Morel Mushrooms, Asparagus and Garlic
  • Potato and Clam Soup with Sour Cream, Thyme, and Garlic Croutons.

The top two recipes you can prepare just about any time of year but the recipes with morels is a short but delicious season in the spring. I am looking forward to pairing the asparagus and morels since Chef Schreiber thinks they're a perfect match that ripen at the same time in the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, I'm not above taking different things from recipes and putting them together in my own way.

The bottom line is that you have to use what is available in your own pantry sometimes because running to the store every time you need an ingredient is bad for the environment and not much fun either. So with some Thundering Hooves chicken thighs, fresh garlic, local pears, fresh rosemary and fresh greens on hand I put something together. When all put together it made a delicious meal.


2 T Olive Oil

2 T Balsamic vinegar

1 T minced fresh rosemary

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

8 chicken thighs, or 4 boneless chicken breast halves

In a large self-sealing plastic bag, combine the oil, vinegar, rosemary, and pepper. Add the chicken, seal the bag, and rotate to coat the chicken. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours, turning the bag occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Roast in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with a knife.


2 T olive oil

1 to 2 cloves garlic, depending on your taste

2 cups 1/2 thick cubed french or country bread

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and saute the garlic for 3 minutes, or until translucent; do not brown! Add the bread cubes, tossing to coat. Place them on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Set aside. Can be prepared in advance.

Take 1 pear and cut into slices. Place on top of mixed field greens. Prepare your dressing:

1 tsp olive oil

2 T Balsamic vinegar

1 T Honey

salt and pepper to taste

Whisk and drizzle over greens and pears. Top with Garlic Croutons and serve with Roasted Chicken.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

If you are from Seattle this is a book that you really must read. Not only does the novel evoke the very essence of the area but manages to maker her a co-star. You will find yourself walking the streets of local neighborhoods as you remain ensconced in your reading chair.

Not surprisingly the author Garth Stein makes Seattle his home. But Stein's use of a dog as his narrator allows him a descriptive freedom that creates an almost three dimensional world for his reader. It also will likely make you look at your dog in a whole new way.

The story is narrated by a Labrador mix named Enzo. As he nears the end of his life Enzo tells the story of his life and introduces us to the family of people that it revolves around. His owner Denny Swift, his wife Eve, and his daughter Zoe.

Denny is a race car driver who has to work in an auto shop between gigs to pay the bills. Enzo is his biggest fan and together they watch tapes of his races while Denny shares the tactics and tricks to getting around the track successfully. Enzo believes in them utterly and uses Denny's driving advice as a guide to getting around the sharp corners that come upon you in life.

Listen to Enzo as he talks about how Denny looks upon a particular aspect of racing. "This is something that I'd heard him say before: getting angry at another driver for a driving incident is pointless. You need to watch the drivers around you, understand their skill, confidence, and aggression levels, and drive with them accordingly. Know who is driving next to you. Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you, because you are responsible for where you are and what you are doing there."

And it is a good thing that Denny and Enzo have this to fall back on because their lives provide more sharp corners than an octagon. The book is relentless in placing challenges in front of our two heroes. Even as the young family settle into their new home in the Central District Enzo senses that something is wrong with Eve.

Feeling helpless Enzo describes the agony of Eve's illness and the repercussions that ensue. His desire to help is almost painful to him at times and he laments his lack of thumbs and wishes for a tongue that would allow him to speak. When Enzo himself begins to decline he refuses to give up hope because he is convinced that he will come back as a man.

"I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life - there is much that I have gone through with the Swift family - but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember? Try to imprint what I know on my soul, a thing that has no surface, no sides, no pages, no form of any kind. Carry it so deeply in the pockets of my experience that when I open my eyes and look down at my new hands with their thumbs that are able to close tightly around their fingers, I will already know. I will already see."

This book will have you in tears but it will also open your eyes to new possibilities. It provides us with some unexpected insight on life from a truly unique source.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

High Endeavours by Miles Clark

If you have read any of my other posts you know that thanks to the author of A Passage to Juneau I became curious about a couple named Miles and Beryl Smeeton. I followed up be reading 3 of Miles Smeeton's books about their travels together. They were all fascinating but they left me wanting to know more about the Miles and Beryl themselves.

As the author of those books Miles Smeeton was always self-deprecating when describing himself or his actions while he often wrote of his wife Beryl as the real hero in their stories. Also because his books most often described single voyages they were not helpful in understanding how these people came to be who they became. Thankfully Miles Clark tries to do that very thing in his book "High Endeavors, The Extraordinary life and adventures of Miles and Beryl Smeeton."

Penned in 1991 it is a deeply researched and compelling look at one of the most interesting couples of the 20th century. Miles Clark was born in England in 1960 and his Godfather was Miles Smeeton. Since the Smeetons were either travelling or in Canada most of the time the relationship between Godfather and Godson was mostly via the letters they exchanged. This did not prevent them from developing a lasting appreciation and respect for each other and this radiates throughout Clark's book.

As an adventure book it does not have the flavor of an "Into Thin Air" or even Smeeton's own "Once is Enough." It represents the entire story of these two interesting people from their childhoods until their deaths. Fortunately for we adventure book fanatics they spent their entire lives, whether alone or together, doing the most amazing things. As an example Beryl Smeeton undertook solo journeys on foot, on donkeys, in trains, and ships in China, Burma, Russia, India, Persia, Turkey and freaking Patagonia! (And may I just add that when forced to use the convenience of a train or ship she always paid the lowest possible fare so she could sit in the dirt with the rest of the poor people.)

So Miles Clark has plenty of material to work with and he makes the most of it. When he touches on their idiosyncrasies it is in a loving and respecting manner. Descriptions of Beryl's cooking being an area where he was incredibly gentle. Clark manages to capture the essence of the Smeeton's relationship so that the reader understands the glue that holds them together. He helps us in some way imagine what it might be like to live your life with the single goal of being together while experiencing the world.

Reading this book lets you inside the relationship of these two fascinating people and also takes you on a journey of the world as it was when the Smeeton's were young. From Miles in the war in Africa for the British in the 1930's while Beryl travelled the remote corners of the world to finishing their lives in the Canadian Rockies attempting to save endangered species their lives do not have a dull moment. We are lucky that Miles Clark took the time to write it all down for us. Miles Clark died in 1993 at age 32 just six years after Miles Smeeton passed in Canada.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hold Off on Buying "Holding Fast"

Recently our local book store in Winthrop, WA. called Trails End released their Winter 2009 Readers Guide. On page 2 they listed 4 "Great New Adventure Books" coming out. This caught my eye because I just love that stuff. Ever since I read the first article in Outside magazine and then the subsequent book "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, I've been addicted to adventure books. I must be in the category of those that can't do it read about it.

Of the 4 books presented I had already read one of them called "Ten Degrees of Reckoning." It's about a sailing mishap and it's well worth your time. It must be being re-released. Of the other 3 books mentioned I picked 2, "Holding Fast" by Karen James and "The Lost City of Z" by David Grann. The reason I picked Holding Fast is because Mt. Hood is pretty local and although I've never climbed it, I have gone skiing there.

Well the book was the wrong choice because it is no more an adventure book then say Winnie the Pooh. It advertises itself as a adventure book through the extended title "Holding Fast, The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy," but it's really about the author. If you are curious as to what really happened to these climbers you aren't going to find any answers from Karen James.

What will you find? A lot about her, her feelings, her love of God, her inability to swear even in a book, the love her stepchildren have for her, the love her now deceased husband Kelly had for her, how much people love her art, etc.,etc., etc. The title of the book should be "Holding Fast, The Untold Story of Me and How I Handled a Tragedy with the Help of God." Now that would be a truly descriptive title.

This book shouldn't be anywhere near the adventure shelf in the book store but placed firmly in the religious department. I should have read the back cover reviews before purchasing it from Amazon. If you have reviews written by such literary luminaries such as Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Sheriff Wampler, and wife of country singer Alan Jackson then as a reader you need to "take the hint!"