Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Grand Circle of Accomplishments

They are stories about adult children mis-reading their parents; about crushes, current and past, concealed and embarrassingly obvious; about clashes between old-fashioned and modern romance; about using goodness to cover up guilt.

In other words, Jhumpa Lahiri's story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is about the ordinary trip-ups of life.  Except the actors are second-generation Americans whose parents keep dragging them back to Calcutta for holidays and family visits.

These Indians are poised between wearing saris and wearing jeans, between the passionless camraderie of their parents' arranged marriages and the thrills and betrayals of finding love on their own.  They got their degrees at Swarthmore, Wellesley, Tufts, MIT, NYU, and all the other top-tier colleges that nobody I know has attended.  They live in Seattle, Boston, New York and all the other places the children of yeoman (that would be me) can't afford.  What I'd give to house-sit for the lot of them!

But these are the places where they belong.  After all, a lot is expected of these children:

"And so he became what all parents feared, a blot, a failure, someone who was not contributing to the grand circle of accomplishments Bengali children were making across the country, as surgeons or attorneys or scientists, or writing articles for the front page of The New York Times."

The one thing these people never do is laugh.  I don't know if the pressure to succeed takes all the silly out of them, or if those who have been ruled by the British (a people with just the right touch of silly) don't find life anything to laugh about.

Lahiri is a relatively new star on the literary scene, snapping up awards right and left for her vivid fiction.   I say she deserves every one of them. 

We'll go vegetarian with our recipe today, since we're talking Indians and all.  But if vegetarianism is supposed to be about depriving or moderating yourself, let me just say it's hard to eat moderately when something is covered with so much tasty cheese. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

No Manageable Bites Here

I'm reaching into my past reading conquests for today's Finished Book Pile.

I don't know how I had time to read the book I'm about to recommend.  I was playing for a high school  production of Damn Yankees at the time.  Piano parts for musicals, at least during the Rogers & Hammerstein era, were actually "reduced orchestrations," every note for every instrument crushed together on two piano staves.  In other words, not humanly playable.

I was out of my depth.  On the bright side, the pit band made so much racket, I couldn't hear my sour notes.  (Which doesn't mean the audience couldn't.)

James Alexander Thom's Follow the River must have been a comforting distraction during this frazzled time.  But it's not a book a reader can consume in manageable bites, then put down and run off to rehearsals that run late into the night.  I really don't know when I fit it in. 

 In fact, I recommend you raise your children old enough to feed themselves cereal before you pick up Thom's story. Buy several kinds, because they'll be eating it all three meals for several days.

Thom based River on the true story of a frontier West Virginia woman kidnapped by Indians.  Mary Ingles was pregnant at the time, giving birth on the trail as the Shawnees carried her to their Ohio settlement.  Biding her time among them, she finally broke away, following the river trail from whence she came. In other words, Mary Ingles went on the ultimate camping trip. She just forgot to stop at Cabela's first.

Do you think my Damn Yankees troubles were so bad that it was restful to escape into Mary Ingles' world?  Nah. An orchestra pit might be a confining place, but nothing like a cage in an Indian encampment where she kept a wary eye on her captors.  And I might have lost a blouse from sweating through the four performances, but she lost forty pounds from hiking through the woods, living on nuts and berries and . . .  oops, better not give away too much now.  And the pit band didn't turn on me like the Dutch woman, Mary's traveling companion turned on her.     

It was one of those stay-up-late books that caught me mercilessly somewhere before the middle and I either had to stay up and finish, or lay awake fighting off the urge.  Will she survive the night, sleeping inside the rotted log?  Now is that Dutch woman friend or foe?    I'm getting worried by the look in her eye.  

If you feel too bad about making the kids eat Cocoa Krispies and Grape Nuts for three days, you could make up a double batch of these to tide them over.  Unless you want to eat them all yourself:  

Pigs in a Blanket 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Your Beautiful City

The Tabernacle Choir visited us on Friday.

They arrived in town a day early, which left them a few spare hours to visit "your beautiful city."  Now this could just be a load of flattery; audiences eat that kind of thing up.  How easy is it to say "your beautiful city" and "your wonderful museums"?  You could talk that way about any city (except East St. Louis and Camden, New Jersey) while holing up in your hotel room and eating from the vending machines.

So I just want to pin them down on this.  Which museums and monuments did they see?  Which neighborhoods did they wander?   

But they're right.  Even without hills or a stunning body of water, we look pretty good.  And we are a shocking green this year, which is a few shades more brilliant than the ordinary Midwestern green.  For sure it's a whole lot more picturesque than, say, Point of the Mountain, or the lonely wastes between Snowville and Burley. 

And let me just counter-flatter those choir members and say, "Your Western landscape abounds in dramatic vistas and your sprawling city is eminently walkable."

There.  I guess we're even now.

Let's all be glad none of us have to put up with the landscape Jonathan Raban writes about in The Bad Lands.   The British Raban visited the eastern end of Montana where the prairie is wide and featureless.   He found prairie grass, miles of it, rolling off into the horizon. 

He tackled the question, Why did people come here? The railroads turn up as the culprit.  As they laid their lines westward, they needed markets to justify their existence.  Using weather facts from a few especially wet years, they published leaflets full of glowing promises, luring the land-hungry to the homesteading life.   As it turned out, the climate was not really that wet.  If the settlers crops didn't fail, then they went crazy from all the prairie grass which, thanks to its vastness and monotony, made humans feel lost.  

Funny thing:  check a map of neighboring North Dakota (we all remember what maps are, don't we?) and all the little what-for towns are spaced at uncannily even intervals, like somebody planned it that way.  Just to, I don't know, fill up their railroad trains with water, maybe?  Oh, and unload a few orders from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.  

A few homesteaders made it work.  But a whole lot didn't, adding sad little ruined houses to the landscape, their doors flapping in the wind.

But not to leave you on a total downer, some people find ways to be happy on their lonely homesteads.  All the Taste of Home recipes I share with you come from real people who live in real towns.  We have some lady in Wyoming to thank for:

I made it today and it looked just like the picture.  

A hahahahahah!  OK, it didn't.  My problem was that very melty chocolate frosting.  When I spread it on the sides of the cake, the whipped-cream filling, um, got involved.  These little accidents have never stopped us before from enjoying chocolate lusciousness, but I still look longingly at the picture and wonder how many cakes it took until they achieved such bake-shop perfection.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

If Your Slip is Showing

If you haven't picked up Claire Messud's When the World Was Steady yet, hurry along and get it and you may finish it before I do.  I don't know why I get in these non-reading jags.  I wouldn't blame Messud.  

Currently the mother of the two sisters is planning her death.   She has taken one of her daughters on a vacation to a dreary Scottish island, the land of their ancestors.  Unbeknownst to the daughter, she doesn't plan to return to London.  

I don't think she has any dread disease to help her out.  She had breast cancer years ago and the foam, um, replacements she wears often get jostled out of place.  She can't always tell when she's, um, uneven unless her daughter points it out.  Which the mother does not like to hear. 

So I ask you, if your slip is showing, if you are wearing your lunch in your teeth, if the back of your pants is covered in cat hairs, if an e-mail not meant to be seen by your in-laws ends up in their inbox anyway--do you want to know about it?  

Meanwhile, munch on this, a dish which came together easily for a woman who just got back in town and is still setting herself aright:

Brunch Enchiladas

Sunday, June 2, 2013

We Didn't Know It Was a Contest

Must rave to you about today's dessert:

I've made this kind of thing before.  I made it in different flavors--chocolate, lemon, strawberry/vanilla, even butterscotch. With some kind of crust, a cream cheese layer, a pudding layer and a Cool Whip layer, they're all the pretty much the same idea.

But this one wins the prize.  Actually, none of these desserts knew they were in a contest against each other.   But too bad, this one still gets the crown and the bouquet. 

I think it's the crust that puts it over the top.  It hit my chocolate receptors so hard that I didn't need any chocolate again for at least another hour.   

Meanwhile, I'm making progress on Claire Messud's When the World Was Steady.  We've reviewed Messud here before.  She can be a little hit or miss.  This one looks good so far.  

Two British sisters hit middle age, hard.  One attempts to salve the wounds of her divorce by climbing a difficult mountain in Bali, and she's no athlete.  The other, a spinster, worries that the young smarty-pants in her office is edging her out of a job.   

At least, that's the action so far.  I'll let you know how it goes.