Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Can't Stay Away From This Stuff

Let's start this time with the food.

Chili Corn Bread Salad

I don't want to stay away from this stuff. I want to eat the whole pan! This is why I need a life of the mind, so I don't languish, thinking of the corn bread, the bacon, the cheese, the gooey ranch dressing stuff, the . . .


Where were we now?

Oh, yes. Life of the mind. Reading books and all that.

So I read Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, about a woman who dies, but stays "between," which means she hangs around the living, spying on them, creating cool breezes, moving mugs and pens, whatever. That might make it sound like a comedy, but Thin Air takes itself pretty seriously.

The story moves around in time. We're in the 1920s when the main character dies, then we move to the present, then before she dies, then . . . Keeping all the characters sorted out was beyond me. People float in and out (literally! being dead and all). And finally, the author shows an insufferable contempt for people who don't believe the way she does.

I'm not sure how a book like this made it through the editorial catch-nets.

I gave it up. It certainly wasn't enough to keep me from thinking about cornbread, and cheese, and bacon and . . .

Whoa. Let me get ahold of myself here.

Why don't we move on to Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead. The unnammed protagonist is a professional namer. Corporations call him in to re-ignite their brands--be they medicines, candies or styrofoam cups--with a zippy new name.

So a quiet little town that's in the middle of remaking itself into a booming, business-friendly burg calls him to re-name the place, something that will project its new, forward-thinking ways.

Everybody has a different opinion of what this name should be. The great-grandson of the tycoon that brought barbed-wire manufacturing to the town thinks one thing. The mayor, a descendant of the freed slaves that founded the place, thinks another. Add to that the relentlessly cheerful entrepreneur who's bringing in new business and all his opinions and you have tugs in every direction.

Apex was a witty and enjoyable ride, roasting all the ingredients of a town and contemplating what names mean to us all. I think you might like it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

He and I Aren't the Same Kind of Cook

Let's start today with The Finished Book Pile.

We have If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a collection of short stories by Robin Black.

Her conversational little stories grew on me. Black writes about quiet people, many of them aged and broken down. Mostly, I remember Jean, hiding her stroke-affected arm in a fancy-scarf sling, claiming it's some small injury. Her daughter has come home for a few days. Is she home to help out? Or is she up to something else? What are those odd night-time noises?

It's not the most memorable book, but it has some nice moments. Minimal cow patties.

Next up, The Saucier's Apprentice by Bob Spitz.

You know, you go to the big downtown library and you pick your book off the shelf. You take it to the front desk and hand it to the girl who works there. Now these library types are quiet people who don't always look you in the eye. They put up with their low-paying jobs because the love being around books, love handling them. They love books more than they love people, I'm pretty sure. It's a not-quite-human experience, this passing your book back and forth and bleeping it through the check-out scanner.

But I gave The Saucier's Apprentice to the girl and her eyes lit up just a little bit and she peeked out from her quiet, withdrawn face. "Best title ever," she said, as she cracked a tiny smile.

And a darn good read. Mr. Spitz's life ran aground. Being a man who loved to throw dinner parties for his friends, what better way to soothe his sore soul than to send himself to a few cooking schools in Europe? With every delightful turn of phrase, the reader travels along with him as he and another man turn the act of making souffle into a contest of manhood; as a snooty French chef refuses to teach Spitz anything until Spitz shows he can make a decent omelet (guess how many omelets it takes); as an American expat woman introduces Spitz to the art of cooking rabbit.

Spitz can't do it. To him, they're bunnies, soft and adorable, with cute long ears. But the woman goads him further by taking a jar off the shelf, pulling out a dark and ominous object and making him eat it. Find out for yourself what it is.

Spitz includes his cooking-school recipes. I don't plan to try them, because he and I are not the same kind of cook. He likes simple, local ingredients, and improvisation. I like sure-bet formulas and don't get the vapors from ingredients like Velveeta and ketchup. However, I loved reading about chefs who flick the pan just so and the omelet slips out perfectly. Or they push the knife just so and the meat pops right off the bone. I loved reading about people who sat on terraces in what sounds like the most beautiful scenery on this earth and said, "MM-MM-MM" as they ate marvelous things.

Which brings me to our recipe for this installment:

Something Special Salad

I could not stop saying, "MM-MM-MM" while I ate this.

I've told you before that I just can't think of things to put in salads. Somebody has to tell me exactly what to add. I know that the rest of you don't have that problem, judging by the salads that you bring to my house.

Unless you're stealing your ideas from elsewhere, like I do. After all, stealing ideas is what we're all about here at Bye-bye Nesquik, no?