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.