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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest Author Post and Novelist Interview: Christopher Loke

Today, please join me in welcoming author, Christopher Loke whose debut novel, The Housekeeper's Son, will be released on May 19th. I mean to say this is a very high drama; a quirky literary thriller. If you don't believe me, watch the book trailer. With tons of class and elegance, and proper cuisine to round things out. You do not want to miss this book. 

Christopher Loke

Planting Cabbages: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Christopher Loke: I started writing when I was about twelve. I wrote a lot of garbage, things that I am too embarrassed to even share. But the fact is, I got a lot of practice from writing things that did not matter. As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.”

As I grew older, I started to read more—from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Michael Crichton. Then I realized what was missing in all of my stories: the so-what factor. I began to find subjects that I cared about and wrote them down. I wanted to write about things that mattered, subjects that could trigger an emotion and cause people to think. But as easy as it sounds, it was anything but easy. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s that I even began to write seriously. At this time, I had all the experience in life I needed to write a book that might matter to a lot of people. Hence, The Housekeeper’s Son.

The one thing that motivated me as I wrote was the sheer fact that one day I would be read across the globe. My book would change someone’s life.

The Housekeeper's Son Book Trailer.

PC: Often the journey from being a writer to being a published novelist is a story in and of itself. Tell us about yours.

CL: My journey as an author is really an unconventional one. There was patience, and then there was serendipity.

After completing my first draft, I started the editing process, which took a little more than a year. I slowly adopted the insecure writer persona, in which nothing I wrote was good enough for anyone to read. I edited and re-edited my book until all of the once juicy parts were left on the editing floor—I learned, very quickly, what it really meant to “trim the fat.”

After that, I started the querying process with high hopes and the dream that I might be picked by a super duper agent. It was quite ironic, really—I was previously an assistant editor for a major publishing house, and I thought getting myself in the door was easy. But no, none of what I dreamed actually happened. As rejections started to trickle in, I became more and more discouraged. After about a year of querying with many partial requests but no takers, I moved on to other things.

As serendipity would have it, some of my editor friends from my previous employment had expressed interest in starting a publishing house, and had asked to read my manuscript. Well, the rest is history, I guess, for The Housekeeper’s Son, my debut novel, was acquired and prepped for a nationwide release on May 19.

PC: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the
writers you read now? What's changed?

CL: Nothing has really changed in my selection of books and authors. I am a sucker for literary fiction, stories that focus on life’s little (and oftentimes big) dramas. I was inspired by Elizabeth Kostova, Dan Simmons, Chris Bojahlian, JK Rowling, and last but not least, all my writer friends who’ve shown me that as long as you have passion and drive, you have everything.

PC: How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

CL: When I write, I am usually on a roll. I write on a strict schedule, usually nine in the evening to midnight, without any disturbances and interruptions. I have to focus and make sure I can sink into the world that I am creating. Sometimes, I would stay up till four in the morning just to finish a chapter. It is quite unpredictable, but at the same time, it is also a routine.

As far as “everyday life” goes, I try to still make time for my family and my favorite TV shows. But when I am on a literary high, I am obsessed in finishing my work.

PC: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader
cultural or political movements?

CL: I do see my work being made into a movie. While it is still too soon to predict that kind of achievement, I am very confident that my book’s film rights will sell. I sincerely hope that my novel will trigger some very serious questions about life and how we deal with them.

PC: What aspect of writing and working as a writer is the most challenging?

CL: My biggest challenge as a writer is to balance my personal life with my author life. As an author I just want to write all day long, but as a normal person, I still have to keep a day job and take care of my family, read to my son, and hang out with my family. My job as an author will not be possible if not because of my wife’s sacrifice and her believe in me and my work. Family support is everything to me.

PC: What reading, other than fiction, is important to your work and why?

CL: I read a lot of news and current affairs, as well as writers blogs. I love reading other authors’ success—they inspire me. Of course, I love reading Facebook postings and Twitter feeds (call me a nerd).

PC: What genre is your fiction? Do you see yourself as changing genre or "branding" your work?

CL: I tend to write literary fiction, or just plain drama. No fantasy or science fiction. I don’t want to brand myself in any way, but at the same time, I know that I will never write science fiction. I like life and the reality of it, not fantastical worlds that are not real. Don’t get me wrong, I do love reading fantasy books, but I just don’t like to write them.

PC: What is the current state of American fiction, as you see it? 

CL: American fiction has always been high in quality. I am proud to be a part of a country that produces some of the best literary works in the world today. At the same time, I am not very happy with the state of self-publishing that we’re seeing today, especially with the huge emergence of eBooks and Amazon’s self-publication platforms (Createspace, etc.) While these tools make it easier for writers to publish their works, the fact that these tools can be so accessible opens up the door for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to publish their book without much care. This being said, there is a reason why we are seeing a lot of junk out there in the eBook market today.

As authors of high integrity, we need to employ ourselves gatekeepers—editors, designers, etc—to create quality books. Just because you have written a book does not mean it is ready for publication. I am still very much in favor or traditional publishing and working with a publisher of good repute and caliber to publish amazing and outstanding literary works.

PC: How do you think American fiction might best develop in the next ten years?

CL: I think eBooks will go hand in hand with printed books, and brick and mortar bookstores will take on new responsibilities and role in the book industry. I see a lot of fantasy books and new ideas in the next ten years, which is good. I’m a believer of good things—fiction in America will only go better as we challenge ourselves to come out with new ideas and concepts for books.

PC: How is Fiction relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in the U.S. and/or at an international level?

CL: Fiction is very important in our society today. It not only gives us the opportunity to dream and escape into some place extraordinary, it also provides us with a platform, on which we are able to address social issues and things that affect our lives today without limitations. We can address any subject we think important and write it in a way that even little children are able to understand. Such is the power of literature. Books like Les Miserable, Beowolf, Pride and Prejudice, Peter Pan, and so on, all played very important roles in their time.

So, as authors, we have the responsibility to write a piece of fiction that speaks of—and for—our time and generation. We are the voice of the present and future. JK Rowling has made this decade a magical one, and her legacy, together with the Meyers, the Koontz’s, the Browns of our time, will keep the fire burning. It is time that we join in the bandwagon and start creating (and preserving) a universal culture or books, reading, and storytelling. Will you join in?

PC: Chris, Please tell us what you're reading right now!

CL: I am reading The Swan Thief by Elizabeth Kostova. But mostly, I am reading manuscripts for JFP--as the executive editor and also author, I wear multiple hats. I am looking to clone myself one day. All in good time, all in good time.

PC: Chris, as I recall, cuisine was an integral part of the story, can you give the culinary muses something to feast on; tell us how food impacts the theme of The Housekeeper's Son

CL: In The Housekeeper's Son, we see a lot of the culinary juxtaposition between the modern world and the traditional world. Eleanor, the main character, is obviously a woman who's lived through a few important decades in our history--from the early 1900's to the 21st century. The culinary description and processes in the book serve as imageries that prompt the reader to ask, "What era are we in?" I want the reader to see how tradition will always have a place in our modern world, and in every form of ugliness, there is always one glint of beauty. In a story that evolves around an heinous murder, the beauty of food--the elements of sweetness and bitterness and taste--plays an important role in creating this world, in which time, fashion, and trends don't matter at all. What's matter most are the players in the story and their intentions. 

I grew up in a home that is centered in the kitchen. Everything--good or bad--starts in the kitchen, whether it is the announcement of a death in the family or the celebration of a marvelous achievement. And many times, it is not the big news that make the kitchen a significant place in my family--it's the shoptalks, the small giggles, the how-are-you's and I-love-you's that gives the kitchen its own persona. My mother used to tell me, "You can know a lot about a person by just the way she prepares her food," which is how I portray Eleanor. Her meticulousness in how she cooks is almost like a reflection of her character--she pays a lot of attention to details. Everything she does has to be in a certain order and method, and when she is robbed of that order by her son's death, her world goes spiraling down. But she always manages to turn to food as a form of escape. Food reminds her of moments in her life that are worth remembering. 

Merci so much, Chris -- and please let us know when copies of The Housekeeper's Son are available!

Chris's blog: A Writer's Notebook.
Find Chris on Facebook: Author Christopher Loke
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChristopherLoke

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Write With Me: The Day of Waters and Pablo Neruda

Calling All Bakers! *

In an effort to bring you continued Bread Tales I give you the story of - Spanish Chastity Bread. And a poem by the inestimable romantic Pablo Neruda.

In the days of lent no bread or ladies of the evening could be enjoyed. 


At the period of Lent ended the woman who were so deemed were not allowed to return to the town via the bridge lest anyone of good repute should come face to face with them. So it was on the day of the waters, the Monday after Easter when either students or the officials responsible for prostitution, who were called the padre putas (whore’s priest)  would take a boat, laden with flowers to bring back the good women of the night. And to this day people often take a day by the river to enjoy hornazos, bread pies filled with pork, ham, paprika, sausage, and hard-cooked eggs. 

*I am having a communal "baking day!" at C'est si Bon! in Chapel Hill. There will be limited spaces for this. If you would like to join the group to make this recipe - let me know! Leave a comment below with your email address. I will send you more information and post the experience, along with photos on The Day of Waters, April 9. it will be great fun!!! 

This Pablo Neruda poem needs no further embellishment, as it speaks to the seductiveness of bread.

"The Light That Climbs From Your Feet to Your Hair"

The light that climbs from your feet to your hair,

the mantle enveloping your delicate form,
are not sea’s nacre, or frozen silver:
you are bread, bread, dear to the fire.

The grain built its silo around you, and rose,
increased by a golden age,
while its wheaten surge recreated your breasts,
my love was an ember labouring in earth.

Oh, bread of your forehead, your legs, and your mouth,
bread I consume, born each day with the light,
dear one, the bake-houses’ banner and sign:

the fire taught your blood its lessons,
you learnt sacredness from grain,
and your language, your perfume are bread.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cook With Me: When Jeremy Was the Fastnacht

Today is a very special and very Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, as I knew it growing up in Reading. In Food-dom it ranks right up there with one of, if not my very best, culinary memory. And it's directly because of my Pennsylvania Dutch roots and dare I say, Fastnachts, that I became involved in food and am a chef. 

Do you have special family traditions for Fat Tuesday? I hope you'll  share them!! 

For those unfamiliar with them, Fastnachts are the heavier Northern doughnut cousine to the beautiful beignet. Their soft dough is made from mashed potatoes, and is cut in squares, and then fried in lard. So the Pennsylvania Dutch habit of feasting on fried baked goods to use up the “fat” in the house before the Lenten season begins is basically the same as for any Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras tradition. And even though Fastnacht Day has received less publicity than New Orlean’s parades and uh, festivities, the Pa. Dutch are racing each other to get out of, instead of into, bed. The poor soul to arise last on Fastnacht Day is called the fastnact and must remain as the chore-doer all day for everyone in the house.  My brother, Jeremy, was the perpetual Fastnacht. 
On Our Possibly, Eighth, Birthday with Doctor Mom at the Crystal Restaurant. 

I count my grandmother, Nana, as the main reason I am in the food business today. Life was lived in her kitchen. I was raised on Fastnachts, shoofly pie, liver pudding, pickled red beet eggs, souse, AP cakes, pepper cabbage, apple butter, apple dumplings, milk tarts (slop pie), chicken corn soup, and chicken pot pie in no particular order! Every Monday was bake day. Not just one cake but three of each kind was the minimum we would make. We ate pie for breakfast amongst other things. My great grandfather, Howard Rishel, ate liver pudding and souse for breakfast, and any other time of the day it suited him. The seven sweets and sours were a huge part of my life. 

German Style Cold Cuts at the Farmer's Market

 By the time I was ten I was dragging the "old lady" cart behind me down to Ciotti Markets, to do the family shopping. I also walked up to Wenger's Bakery on tenth street for bear claws and baby cakes, tea biscuits for Nana.  We often visited Muard's luncheonette at the corner of Fourth and Spring Street, for italian and cheese steak sandwiches. Nana and Jeremy, my brother, the aformentioned "Fastnacht" and I would often visit Penn Street. The Farmer's Markets, Pomeroy's and Whitner's lunch rooms, and the counter at Woolworth's and Kresge's were all great haunts of our youth. When I was very small there was a small candy factory behind us on Rose Street. One of my grandmother's good friends, Edna, lived up on Mulberry Street where Schmoyer's Rye Bread was made. 

Trays of Everyday Dutch Treats at Wenger's Bakery in Reading

Not as Pretty as My Childhood Memory, What's Up With That?

I was also heavily influenced by my mother, and her ambitions. She was an M.D. and, for a time, had her own practice in Reading. She was in a high pressure male dominated profession and her success gave me have the confidence to enter the male dominated world of the professional kitchen. In 1980 "celebrity chef-dom" had not yet cracked open the peanut butter Easter egg, and I am glad! Glamour was hardly the reason I chose the kitchen. Mom abhorred the toil of the kitchen, (and she never cooked even in her last years, she did "heat things" however) but I am grateful she exposed me to the world of fine dining and restaurants. We ate at the Crystal Restaurant every Saturday at noon after my brother, Jeremy, and I finished dance lessons at the Mickey Norton School of Dance, then on Penn Street. We often went to Moselum Springs and Ye Old Iron Master (something like that?) in West Reading. We also visited Screpesi's on Penn Avenue, and she enjoyed a seafood dinner at the Guardhouse at the coner of Sixth and Spring, which was run by our neighbor's the Tarantino's. She took us to the Waldorf Astoria in New York and we ate at many hoity toity restaurants there. Seafare of the Aegean was one. 

But oh no, it didn't stop there. 

 Dad and Jackie and Moi, 2010

The Menu Board at the Seafood Counter, Fairgrounds Market

My father, who just passed away last November, was a produce manager for Acme Markets, and loved the fried haddock sandwiches at the Green Dragon Market in Lancaster as well as at the Fairgrounds Farmer's Market in North Reading. Whenever I visit an outdoor farmer's market, whether it's Hilo, Hawaii, or in Nerac, France or in Carrboro, North Carolina, he is with me. I remember when he first brought us this strange fuzzy fruit, the kiwi.

My step mother, Jackie, made spaghetti and meatballs, and I learned about stuffed pig stomach from her, as she told me tales of her parents and their farm in Mohnton, and the days of a hog slaughtering. 

With Sundays spent at their house, it was a peaceful nourishing time. A friend of theirs Mrs. Hilbert had a robust home baking business on Pricetown Road, just outside Reading. One of her specialties was a horseshoe shaped birthday cake and they were scrumptious!

At Easter time we enjoyed Wilbur Buds and chocolates of all kinds from their store. More specialty items came from Richard's Fruit near downtown, maybe Washington Street.

Kissinger Market in Downtown Reading, circa 1950's, I am Guessing

In a nutshell, you get the picture. What else was I to do with my life? I was surrounded by food!
But I didn't give up, I grew into an understanding that with good food and hard work anything was possible. 

Old-fashioned I know. But I still believe it.

Today food is a huge business. There are food stylists, food writers, and food phtotographers to mention only a few of the profession's new jobs. We are often treated to stories of the latest gossipy biographies from the New York chef scene, why Syrah grapes are being planted in all the Sonoma vineyards, how the most mouth watering proscuitto is produced in a small village in Italy. 

But for me, my life in food began on North Fourth Street in Reading. It began on the eve of Shrove Tuesday, the night before Fastnacht morning. It began when Nana placed the huge green bowl of yeasty potato dough on the table by my bed, because of the heating register there. During the night I would sleepily wake, every time she would come in my room to poke the dough and punch it down, releasing its potato sweetness into the room. Oh, I thought I was clever, sneaking a taste by pulling out a ball of dough from the underneath. In the morning I would wake to the heady and glorious scent of frying Fastnachts. The tradition of Fastnachts is that the last one to wake up on Shrove Tuesday gains the title of the Fastnacht, the lazy one. Well, my dear brother Jeremy was ahead of me on many other things, but not on Shrove Tuesday. No way!

Fastnacht Central, 820 North Fourth Street, Reading, Pa.

Maybe I am an early riser to this day, hoping to wander in to find Nana, still in the kitchen, frying up a bunch of Fastnachts. 

What about you? What are your food memories, and how have they shaped you? Won't you share with a comment?

Nana and Jeremy, Christmas 1972 

Nana's Pennsylvania Dutch Fastnachts

This recipe comes directly from Nana’s red and white metal recipe box, the one that stilll bears the price sticker of 29 cents. If you can't use 5-6 dozen doughnuts - do cut the recipe in half. Now Nana wasn't in the habit of being around folks who can't cook or bake so she never included little things like a frying temperature or timing. It was normal to make dozens of everything and refer to the process in terms of, “Ach! Don’t be a dum-kopf, chust like Aunt Effie made.” I feel fortunate to have learned the basics from her. But since you might not have, try heating the fat to 375 degrees and fry for 3 minutes per side for each the fastnachts. Enjoy.

Makes a 5-6 dozen, large doughnuts

2 cups mashed potatoes
4 cups potato water
4 cups granulated sugar
5 scant T yeast
½ cup warm potato water
14 –16 cups flour
1 ½ cups butter (they used to use shortening, margarine or lard)
6 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt

for serving:
honey, molasses or Turkey Syrup (only available in Pennsylvania Dutch County) 

Mix the potatoes, sugar, and potato water. Add butter and cool. Gradually add the beaten eggs. Add yeast dissolved in warm potato water. Gradually add flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. When that becomes impossible turn the dough out on a large floured surface, and knead in enough remaining flour to make a non-sticky pliable dough. Think of the texture as being similar to an earlobe. 

Place dough in a very large greased bowl or allow to sit on counter, covered with a linen tee-towel. Punch dough down after it has doubled in size. 2-3 hours. Let rise again for 2 hours, punch down and roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, about 3 by 3 inches.  Place on floured baking sheets and let rise on the back of the stove or in another warm place for 20-30  minutes. 

Heat and then fry in oil at 375 degrees. Okay you can use canola or vegetable oil instead of lard. Fry till a medium brown or about 3 minutes per side. It works well to use a bamboo skimmer to turn them, but if that is unavailable wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon will do as well. 

Drain on brown paper bags and invite the hoards. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Write With Me: The World With-In and With-Out.

I thank you my readers, for being on this path too, and if you are here for the first time perhaps this post will explain a bit about the terrain I try to cover on Planting Cabbages. I hope you will join in on this conversation about cooking and writing. Which world do you live in? 

Over an expanse of years, I’ve meandered about in two very different places; the two places I live. And you too, if you are a writer or other creative world maker - you must know both places as well? The one where you create and the other where you walk in fallen leaves with people who talk in concrete terms on the way to a 9-5 job, and where you live one of your lives in the outside world.

In the map I’ve worked out I’ve named these places: the place with-in and the place with-out.

Now the place with-in, is where I live entrenched in the writing life jammed with its saffron scented muses, bustling cities of ladies and vagabonds with mustaches, seventy seven and a half drafts, crazed stories about achiuegge (a ancient roman sauce with anchovies) and asking the ghost who haunts the tapestry why they are wearing that hat, oh wait, that's a napkin. Pens scratch out what the voices whisper. Well, sort of, that's not it exactly but that's a close enough description of the world with-in. At least for today. I'll hope you'll come back to hear more in Part Two about the World With-In.  

And the other place; the place With-Out is where I live in the cooking life which is crammed full of lessons on foccaia and how to debone a chicken, make Julia Child’s chocolate mousse, find Sunshine Lavender Farm and coax corporate teams to negotiate for parsley or to wash the sauté pan they forgot to deglaze. Since 1997 these and so many lovely jaunts with my cooking school, C’est si Bon! occupies the world with-out.

This time of year – February thru early June the world with-out path of C’est si Bon! is strewn with summer itineraries of Carolina On My Plate Programs for Teens. To be sure there are visits to arrange with real farmers, local bee-keepers, makers of Cackalacky, cheeseries, chocolatiere lessons, as well as planning a cooking demo at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and cooking for the community at Anathoth Community Garden. Very real and very direct. Planning itineraries for a whole crew of Teens and Assistants involves months of planning and coordination.  

Not to be forgotten are the 16 recipes each week for 9 weeks of our summer Kid-Chef Program: Cooking on the Front Burner. For the first time in a while I am also planning Intern workshops so the brood will know and be able to deftly explain mother sauces in both the French and Italian tongue. And be able to recognize, blindfolded, sage from mint in the garden.

And this garden, this same garden is a plot that with any luck grows with enough variety to hold both the place with-in and the place with-out.  Where in Spring it needs many hands to plant and weed, and water. 

One side of the garden lush with basil, enough basil to make pesto and feed a most demanding and hungry Chef World; and the other side nourishes a festooned Writer World with little corners of salad burnett and bull’s blood beet greens.

The garden is the world where both places merge. If you can believe it I once longed to just write and turn away from the world with-out; that of cooking and being a teaching chef. Not due to any lack of love; no - it was a rich and compelling path; a good life.

Teaching is quite honestly awesome. I feel so blessed to be able to teach young and old. I adore cooking together with lots of people in the kitchen Lots of very different people. But here’s the thing. What I don’t relish is playing host to a game of food trends and fads and fancies that distract from the real issue to me which is community. There is actually a great hunger for community in a divided world. The divided world is composed of countries with vegans, intolerant of even honey, and other eaters intolerant of gluten or vegetarians who will eat eggs and unbelievable as it sounds, vegetarians who eat ham. I teach students who are afraid of chicken and touching meat. 

As a chef running C’est si Bon! the way I saw fit has not turned away from anything – as with any fully embraced profession it is not without its problems and stresses. Will anyone want to learn béchamel anymore? People, generally, still think French cooking is fraught with heaviness and complications. Little by little, I plot to entice them, they won’t realize it – but soon they will love sauce-making and not be able to live without it! They will nod and carry forth too that cooking is not something to do on a special occasion. Time in the kitchen is sweet, the best of what life’s table offers.   

Years ago when I wanted to give up teaching it was because I wanted to look out over my days as a long feast table in a plane tree arched village. Protected from plotting in the kitchen, so I could concentrate on plotting on paper. The day would ensue without interruption and demands of fitting myself around a table where I couldn’t hear quite well enough to understand, yet alone believe. With-out jinxing anything, I think that is where I am. At a feast table, where more stretch out under the trees. I even enjoy the conversations now. I am not straining to hear every word, but there are voices that permeate and get this, even I enjoy speaking. And it is glorious, worth every imagined, hurtful glance, or comment by the me with-in who felt, at times, because measurements in the world with-out are so stringent and unforgiving that since I wasn’t acting as other chefs, that I wasn’t a real chef.

The world with-out, the chef I have become is very active and extroverted, laughing and jovial. Perhaps even flamboyant.  Free and unbidden. At times brazen with brioche. And eggs. People want leading while they are among the knives and boiling pots. The world of the kitchen is to some, unfamiliar and scary terrain.  I hope to be a guide worth her salt. 

Have you ever felt the world of art, or however you define your creative endeavor, is accepting of your work? What is the difference between the worlds you navigate? 

Merci beaucoup for visiting and won't you please come back for Part Two: The World With-In. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Write With me: Marcel Proust on Croissants ~~ and Love?

In honor of Valentine's Day I was reading over my notes 
from an 18 month long class with 
local poet and mystery writer Judy Hogan on all, that's right, all, of Proust's compelling novel,  "Remembrance of Things Past." 

Much of Proust's work concerns the two "ways" 
or paths near Combray, his boyhood home. 
"Swann's Way and "The Guermantes Way." 

One is considered to be the path of love, and the other is the path of society. 

But I wondered, in the quote below is Marcel speaking 
about the path of love 
as well as croissants?

Let me know what you think!

Making Croissant Amande 

“A simple croissant, as we start to eat it, 

At Fassy Boulangerie near St Remy

can make us experience more pleasure than all the bunting, 
rock partridge and leveret dined on by Louis XVI, 

Chocolatine, anyone?

and the blade of grass quivering a few inches away from our eyes 
when we are lying down on a mountain side ~~~

If You Prefer Savory Selections...

may mask the towering peak of the mountain top if this is several miles away.” 

Delivering Le Pain

Friday, February 10, 2012

C'est si Bon! Travel Tales: Portraits of a Revolution and Zhugbeh

And now I'd like to share a recent feast; deliciously composed of poetry, passion and words. 
Okay, and a little couscous, and stuffed dates with almonds, and Zhugbeh. More on that later. 

Peg and David Tossing Out Ideas 

Along with a number of their family members and friends and supporters, we recently hosted a dinner for the Sacrificial Poets; Kane, Will, Sameer, and Mohammed thanking them for their work in Tunisia and Egypt. 



In a few weeks they will debut a very cool Play at the Arts center in Carrboro based on their work with Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, and as admirers of beauty and words, we say, simply. GO.

"We encourage you to buy tickets for the debut of the Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, a play that is part of the Acts of Witness series! This new dynamic performance, which we are creating through the professional theater organization Street Signs at UNC, is the fusion of everything seen so far, and is our first experience with a full theater production. So we need your support!"

Show days are March 2, 3, 6, and 8-10. 

Visit The Arts Center to purchase tickets now.

And please read Poetry in Action from the Carrboro Citizen. A great article that will have you questioning, what is poetry..

Thanks, tremendous thanks to Kane, Will, Sameer, and Mohammed for your ongoing and tremendous work. Great thanks go out to Barb Trent with The Empowerment Project!

So of course there was a feast involved! Along with a number of their family members and friends and supporters, we recently hosted a dinner for the Sacrificial Poets thanking them for their work in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Fluffing Couscous Man: George 

George’s Couscous with Lamb and Roots

A tall pot brimmed with a gorgeous Tunisian sunset colored tomato harissa broth perfumed and glistening with lamb, floating with carrots, turnips, and rutabagas. All this was ladled over bowls of steaming fluffy coucous. As far as the recipe goes all I know is that George and Iris peeled the turnips at 1:30 am the night before!

Cori and Nadia Speaking About Breakfasts

Hilbeh or Zhug? 

As the hours proceeded towards the SacPoe Dinner -- I perused Tess Mallos “The Compleat Middle East Cookbook” and my garden (tasting new spring leaves much like a hungry rabbit) in search of a condiment that might compliment the flat bread. I found Hilbeh, a fenugreek and coriander paste, and Zhug, a hot relish with coriander and chilies and caraway, that both originated from Yemen. I started to read to find out if Yemen was still Yemen? 

And as it turned out, the Hilbeh I ended up making is not exactly Hilbeh either. Nor was it exactly a Zhug but I wanted to call up something else and in the spirit of the evening, am hoping that the snipped tops of our Egyptian Walking Onions completed the transition. And so I give you Zhugbeh. (its, ok, I googled it to be sure Zhugbeh didn't mean some unseemly thing in Yemenic.)  


1 cup kalamata olives, pitted of course
1 cup pickled white onions, small cocktail onions
½ cup garlic cloves, peeled
Handful of fresh parsley and turnip greens
Handful of green onion tops, these came from our Egyptian walking onions
1/2 - 1 cup good olive oil
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Throw the first five ingredients in a food processor and whirl till a paste. Optionally you can finely chop these on a cutting board. Then begin to stream in the olive oil till you have a paste with your preferred consistency. May be dolloped in the center of salty yogurt or in a separate bowl - serve with flatbread and a poem.

For all kinds of consuming passions, I share Dust by DJ Rogers from the Sacrificial Poets Blog. Evocative.

Sameer and George Enjoying Table Talk

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

French Travel Tales: Train from Montpellier to Florence. Part Three.

As we left the adventure in Part Two the quite unassuming group of travelers had quickly gotten off the train because of a bomb at the next station and had taken a taxi to Nice in order to connect with further travel.

Write to me ( or leave a comment about a defining moment in a trip. Have you ever made a bad decision, one you regretted? I'll post the best stories in a future post. 

And so my day continued from Nice, too, and as I traveled on I also traveled far from the luxurious jubilance  and exhilaration I had so firmly grasped when just beginning the trip, or even the day.  I was experiencing that closing up and transporting back to what I had been dreading. And just on time the real world greeted me as the train arrived into my final French destination. Montpellier. It was late. 9 pm. But if I was just heading out on my first day this would have been cause for celebration, an adventure. A proverbial lark. I would have laughed into the night. But now, outside the train station it seemed lonelier than ever. I was lonely and tired. There was no group to figure it out with. I could make all the decisions, but they were real, and would have real consequences. I was no longer accompanied by a group of merry pilgrims or familiar faces and even fewer taxis. The taxis that were lined up were very expensive. As taxis are – even in the beginning of a trip - but somehow at the end of a trip these same fares laughed at my plummeting imagination and soared into the heavens above.

What there was though was free bus service to the airport. This was before international cell phones, I-Phones, or You-phones either. So, I took the bus directly to the airport, (why prolong my suffering, I would just get on with it) and walked into the only hotel there. It was a very nice hotel, and very close to the airport. I put my bags, overflowing with vino and risi and nocci and farro and funghi down and waited patiently in line. Silly moi! Rooms were completely booked due to some convention. The concierge lady (was she wearing J’adore?) kindly called a few neighboring hotels. A nice man, well-dressed and suitably debonair overheard my dilemma and offered to share his bed with me for half the night. He glanced at my bags and said I could sleep in his bed (he made sure I knew who owned it) while he was out, but he wouldn’t be back until at least 3 or 4 in the morning.

And then?? I asked.
He smiled. 
I merci’d him, but that was all.

Did I mention it was late?

Now it was later.

The concierge found a hotel for me over by the Golfe du Lion in Palavas. 
Wouldn’t I like to spend my last night in France by the sea?
And then I heard a familiar refrain from earlier in the day.

Bien sur. Je suis perdue et fatigue. (of course, I'm just a little lost and tired.)
Bien sur, Madame. (Of course, Madame.)
Je voudrais un croissant, peutetre doux. Avec un grand café crème. (I would like a croissant or two, and a cup of coffee)
Oui! D’accor! D’accor! (Yes, Yes. OK)
Enfin. Enfin. (At Last.)
Bisous. (kisses)
Au revoir.(good-bye)

Bringing in the Catch

As I arrived in Palavas the wind circled my hotel – I ate no croissants and had no cafe au lait. What I had was a very late dinner, and a bad one to boot, alone in the dining room. Well, not entirely alone. The staff was laughing and drinking at a table in an adjoining room with some friends. Perhaps my mood conveyed that I wanted quiet and solitude and as such they allowed my late night repast, which I soon would wish had already past, to be exactly that. I probably should have passed it back to them and walked out, but I couldn’t go to bed without dinner on my last night in France, especially after such a long day.

Dreamy Huitres, Oysters

The Fruits de Mer made me mutter Mer de Diu – Mother of God how could they serve this? Cooked squid and scallops that were like the tires on my soon to be here again, taxi.  

 Moules, How I Wished For You

Had I pushed her too far or disappointed the Sacred Lady Saint of Travel? Where had I made a wrong turn? Stayed in Nice? Missed my plane? Walked into Montpelier for a room? Maybe I could have trusted the man in the hotel at the airport. I would be sleeping now. Maybe. But the Traveling Saint Lady was clearly spent. No more contemplations.

And I too, as it turned out, was too tired to send my squid platter back – even as my bed was calling to me. Was it my bed – or was it the wind as it severely throttled the vinyl banners outside the hotel? I had only a scant few hours until my taxi (arranged by the concierge at the other hotel) would pull up in front of my room to take me to the Montpelier airport and on to Paris.

I made another pillow, a better one out of the sacks of nocci and risi and funghi, and Merci’d the world that this bed was all mine and only mine, and whatever dreams I had of alternate lives I could dream uninterrupted, and as many as I wanted for these last few hours in La Belle France. And I knew I would, I hoped  I would, see the Sacred Lady Saint of Travel, refreshed and ready to roll, in the morning.

Please feel free write to me ( or share in a comment your travel experiences and defining moments. Are you a planner or more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler?   

Mussels of the Sea, Provencal Style ~ Moules Marinières Provençales

Though this recipe has its roots in the Mediterranean near Arles, a good deal further up and around the coastline from where I was in Palavas I couldn't help but think of it while dining that night. This delicious dish was one taught in Madeleine and Erick Vedel's beautiful bed and breakfast and cooking school entitled Association Cuisine et Tradition in Arles. Madeleine writes that Erick's “recipe for mussels is to my mind one of the most flavorful and pleasant to eat.  It is a dish to be eaten on your knees it is so good.  I found it in a book by Morard of the 19th century (1870) in which he presented two mussels’ recipes, this he remarks, is the ancient one. However, we can date it to after the discovery of the Americas (late 16th century, early 17th century) as it includes a tomato.”

With Madeleine (in the hat) and Erick (pouring olive oil) in Arles at Cuisine et Tradition

For 4 persons as a main course; 6-8 as an appetizer

Cooking time : 10-15 minutes for the mussels to steam open ; 30-45 minutes for the sauce.

Two kg (4.5 lbs) mussels (in arles we use the bouzigues variety, from the Mediterranean Sea – these are saltier than mussels from either the atlantic or pacific oceans and as such we do not add any extra salt when in provence)

One cup water

For the sauce:
one onion, minced
3 tbsp olive oil
one tomato diced
a cup of dry white wine (we always use a costières de nîmes, but a simple sauvignon blanc would be fine)
4 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves crushed and chopped

Set the mussels to steam in a tall covered pot with a cup of water.  this will take 10-15 minutes.  once all the shells are open, remove from the flame and set aside.  do not throw away the mussel juice in the pot.

In a quart/liter size sauce pan, pour the olive oil and add the minced onions.  simmer on a low flame till the onions have sweated and become simply translucent.  watch carefully and be careful that the onions do not brown.  add the chopped tomato and stir a moment, add the wine, the crushed garlic, the bay leaves, and the mussel juice from the steaming pot.  bring to a boil and let simmer and reduce for 20-30 minutes.

To serve : take a large rimmed platter and place the opened mussels in the half-shell (you can toss the other half) in one layer throughout the platter.  extra mussels can be taken from their shells and added to the shells in the platter.  leave a few whole to be used as pinchers to eat the mussels.  if you are making the mussels ahead of time, put them in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve, then take them out and gently reheat the serving dish, ladle the sauce over the mussels and serve.  by ladling the piping hot sauce over the mussels, you reheat them without drying them out in the oven!).

*Left-over mussel juice is wonderful for a seafood risotto the next day, or as the base of a delectable fish chowder.  use it within a day or two at the most, or freeze it for later use.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

French Travel Adventures. Train from Montpellier to Florence. Part Two.

Hearing Bomb and Get Off the Train in the same sentence accompanied by brusque arm motions is unsettling, and needs little translating. So, yes, there was some mass confusion and as we detrained I ran into a couple from California who I had met while on the train from Nice, on the inbound trip, weeks ago. 
What kind of circumstance is that? And just what is it about meeting on trains that forges such seemingly intimate friendships?

We reacquainted and moved as a tangled mound of spaghetti might, lurching our bags and pulling on elbows, and getting as far from the train as we could.

More Pasta with Paolo

As the petite group of Americans tumbled through the station we added to our numbers and even the One Asian Gentle Man who was in my car on the train and now traipsing with us felt comfortable in attempting to figure it all out. Gradually we detected the truth. The Bomb was not on the train. The Bomb was not even in the station. The Bomb was found at the next station, or near it, I am not entirely sure, but turns out it was an unexploded WWII Bomb, a live Bomb, that craved some attention, but that attention did not include having a train run over it.

But now how exactly and what exactly did the “Italian Officials” and the “French Officials” (since technically now the Bomb was in France) well you can imagine they were having a field day with this type of International Border situation. But besides that, how did they think we would or even should proceed to Nice? This was making a grand assumption that we wanted to leave Italy. Leave antipasto? The Italian Officials seemed to think it wouldn't be so bad to stay. Who could blame them? 

Typico Antipasto

So we asked again. Just for clarification.

A bus was coming. 
Si. si. Yesssss, Senora.
Pronto? Quand est? When?
(The French Officials stepped in)

Je ne c'est pas.
Tres certain?
Oui! Bien sur!

A bus was indeed and certainly then, on its way. And they did seem certain that they didn't know. 
From where A Bus was coming.  
It was a bus for sure, and that was all we knew. I glanced at all the detrained and disgorged passengers along with French and Italian Officials and knew they were all waiting for the one and the only A Bus. But perhaps A Bus that was growing larger as it made its way towards us, or multiplying into Buses, I hoped. 

The little group agreed that we all, even our Asian Gentle Man, had A Train to catch in Nice. Was this where we were destined to live out our days, my mind was spinning a story even as we stood there trying, desperately I reasoned, to get to our new home. We learned, as it turned out, that we were only about 30 miles from Nice. Probably because we were all destined for a new, a very nice life in Nice in a Grand Maison overlooking the Promenade Anglais and the Cours Saleya we all somehow at the same time got the brilliant idea to hire a taxi.

The Dijon Maison

We did.
We arrived.

And then just as quickly as we arrived, we began the departure dance. But what a beautiful life we had in Nice’s train station until we all departed. I decided it would be unkind to mention the now empty rooms of our Dijon Maison (see photo). Or how to adequately say adieu to the Poissonier bringing icy mounds of rascasse to the Cote Cours Cafe in the Cour Saleya Market. It would be uncouth to use a spoon to empty the Café au Lait’s that we left rudely on the equally Dijon table. We pushed back our chairs without extending even a gracious invitation to our garcon as we flung a sad little au revoir at him. It probably was for the better that the little group didn’t realize our alternate life had come and gone so quickly. We didn’t have to make the usual excuses. 

What is it about meeting in trains that forges such quick and intimate friendships?
Has this ever happened to you?

Read Part Three.

A Nice Fountain in Nice

Nicois Style Spaghetti

Makes enough for 4

As much spaghetti as you can comfortably grasp in the circle of your thumb and forefinger.

½ cup good olive oil
2 red peppers, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 very ripe tomatoes, chopped or if not possible then use chopped canned tomatoes such as san marzano
2 tablespoons wrinkly black nicoise olives, pitted and chopped
4 anchovies
handful of fresh basil stems and leaves
few sprigs of fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne chili

Chop the peppers, the garlic and the tomatoes. Heat a medium sauté pan and heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the peppers and all remaining ingredients with thyme and basil. cook for 30 to 40 minutes.

Cook the spaghetti in a pot of salted boiling water. When al dente, drain the pasta.

In the large pot mix all the ingredients together. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a  bit of cayenne chili. Serve immediately. Board the Train.

Promenade Anglais

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