Southern Maine, Season by Season

Monday, January 12, 2015

Enter, reading on a book

Occasional reviews of books and such

What's a blog supposed to be? It's a question I've been thinking about about now and again, particularly during the Fall of 2014 when I found neither time nor inspiration enough to write regularly in this space. I will not promise to do more or better in the future - such resolutions are meant to be broken. But I also think that this blog - initially designed to showcase a particular place and its bounty through changing seasons - can also accommodate more than photos of places and things and descriptions of daily life.  Perhaps things such as books and essays, and other items of interest. So this post will inaugurate an occasional series on things I've read, and thought about. I hope that you might be moved to write and comment.

So - here goes.

Since Off Mill features recipes along with photos, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I like to read about cooking and about food. Heck, cookbooks, particularly old ones, are like novels to me: settings of particular places and times. The cookbook writer's characters are the choices of the recipes themselves, and descriptions of the methods and (sometimes) the photos of the finished products provide the plot and drama and resolution.

I am sure I am not the only reader who views cookbooks this way. The proof? The increasing number of memoirs-with-recipes that populate the cookbook shelves at the bookstore and library. The best, of course, are the two collections of essays written by the late Laurie Colwin. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are not  - strictly speaking - memoirs, but the essays are miniature windows that permit us detailed views of Colwin the writer, the cook, and the sensitive observer of everyday domestic life. These books occupy the pride of place in my cookbook collection; they are (justly) celebrated enough to ensure their reprinting for years to come. If you have not already made their acquaintance, I beg you to do so.

Besides, the writing in these books is the model, in many ways, for the newer entries in the memoir-with-recipes genre. It has been the model for my own food writing, to be sure. I used to write a monthly column for my hometown newspaper (north of Boston) and Laurie's work was always on my desk as I wrote.

I'm sure Molly Wizenberg has done something like this. Ms. Wizenberg's blog Orangette ( is one of those miraculous sites that consistently deliver on their promises, whether tacit or overt. I've been a fan for years, although I've known about the blog more than visited it, courtesy of Ms. Wizenberg's (can I just call her Molly? Privilege of age, and all that ...) now-defunct column in Bon Appetit. The fact that Bon Appetit no longer carries Molly's column, and instead seems to have become an aggressively testosterone-fueled cooking smashdown (as bizarre as that sounds, the reality is worse. More on that later.) is one reason I began to sample the blog. And then search for - and read - her memoirs. There are two of them. The first, A Homemade Life, sounds like a Home Cooking re-run by a twenty-something who has just discovered Laurie Colwin, until you begin to understand that this is a deeply-felt and beautifully-constructed paean to Molly's late father, and to the family life she shared with him and with her quite remarkable mother.

Molly is definitely a good cook. She's adventurous and experimental (qualities that are not the same, although they are frequently used as synonyms. One can be adventurous and just plain sloppy. One can also be experimental and precise, but never venture out of one's comfort zone of favorite tastes.) She works at the craft of writing as avidly as she pursues as the art of cookery. And she's really got a way with the first line that nails the reader's interest to the page. Consider this, from the chapter in A Homemade Life titled "Quite That Magnificent":

               To most people, I guess, turning twenty-one is all about booze. To me, turning twenty-one was all about coconut. Booze is nice, but coconut is chewable, and when push comes to shove, I will always like eating better than drinking. Everyone has their priorities. 

Try putting the book down after THAT elegant reversal of Ogden Nash's storied maxim.

Molly's memoir is written in a style that could be called casual, if it were not so evident that she's labored and rewritten and probably cried over her work. No one can possibly write with such seeming ease on such devastating subjects as the lingering death of a beloved parent - and follow such telling with the precise and bloodless language of a favored recipe - without some serious writing chops. She's not as open about the fact that she knows and delivers good writing as is Gabrielle Hamilton, but that bit of modesty is another of Molly's charms. She's as artless in her self-revelation as she is careful about her sentence construction.

The tale she tells is a very good one, although it's evident about halfway through the book that this will be only the first installment of a series. And the recipes? I'll make all of them. In time.

If Molly's first memoir is tinged with melancholy and terror (leaving a doctoral program! Focusing on a blog for a career, for Pete's sake! Meeting her future husband online! Who does THAT? [snicker]) and grace, her second is a virtual how-to manual for making a restaurant work, from the ground up.

After all, we have all heard the statistic: over half of all new restaurants fail in their first year. There are problems with location, financing, cash flow and budgeting, and of course the vision that makes the great new place in town into the favorite neighborhood haunt.  Well, in Delancey, Molly and her new husband Brandon take on the nay-sayers and create a pizza place that is a smash hit from the first night.

Oh, right, like that happens, you snort. Well, it does. I'd be more skeptical if it were not for the remarkable neighborhood place a mile down the road from me (The Village Tavern, if you want to look it up) that was a sellout on its first night, and has only been building its delicious business ever since. It happens. But it takes a lot of research, work, experimentation, and planning. And every bit of that work - along with all the pitfalls, and (yes) the obsessive focus on getting things right is distilled into the prose of this fast-paced second memoir.

That pacing is only one of the things that sets this book apart from the first. There are also photos in this book, welcome glimpses of the place that becomes the focus as well as the title of the book. And the photos become necessary - since I live across the country from Delancey, it's doubtful I'll ever get to actually see that immense pizza oven.

There are also many fewer recipes in this book. That's a shame, but it also (I think) is a reflection of the fact that Molly's life became much faster-paced as she got married to Brandon, opened a new restaurant, and had their daughter (in that order). We must permit that. But I really longed for the seemingly-casual but careful style of A Homemade Life. I'll return to that book over and over. Yes, much like my treasured books by Laurie Colwin.

Laurie Colwin's and Molly Wizenberg's books are available on as well as in your favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Try the latter first.

P.S.: Extra credit to those who correctly identify the source for the title of this post.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A New Year - and a New Season

A New Year - and a New Season

Yes, again it's that magic time of the year, between the Christmas holidays and mud season ... a Maine winter! And although we have had only about enough snow this winter yet to track a Woozle (see above ...) it's dark and it's cold, and it's blowing - and it's coming. Whatever it turns out to be.  I think I'd prefer a Woozle.

It's also - because the calendar page has turned - a New Year, and that requires some looking back and wondering forward. Photos will help.

Fall was glorious this year -the colors! The temperate weather! I managed to spend Halloween in Maine, and the entryway was primed to be a magnet for young candy-seekers:

Pumpkins, mums, and lanterns - and even a few geraniums hanging on from the summer!

November was all about concerts, harvesting trees, and preparation for Thanksgiving. We had to postpone the family dinner because of an early storm that brought 8 inches of heavy snow and made roads treacherous on the day before the holiday. No matter! We celebrated an intimate dinner on the Day, and enjoyed a family gathering on Saturday.

Table set for an intimate Thanksgiving Day dinner. The family dinner table was no less beautiful but much more crowded!

Paul had helped cut, sort, and bale the harvest on his family's Christmas tree farm in mid-November. He brought home our (gorgeous) Christmas tree, as well as a lovely vireo's nest he discovered in a lane nearby the farm. Here it is:

Vireo nest. To be placed in the Christmas tree!

The snow that fell just before Thanksgiving brought down a number of branches from our white pines, and provided some early Christmas decor for the front step!

Downed branches from a white pine form the basis of a Christmas decoration for the entryway.

The snow, in the beginning, also frosted the stone seat and birdbath on the back patio:

Early in the snowstorm - just a light frosting!

Our Christmas tree went up late, as our annual weekend in Boston came at the end of the semester and the middle of the month. But when it went up, it was the best ever! (as per usual ...). Here is a photo of the ornament that my good friend Cathy Sky sent this year. She finds ornaments of astonishing beauty each year, and our tree is full of her marvelous, and generous, gifts.

A wonderful wire ornament! How inventive. 

Here are a couple of other shots of Christmas decor around the house. First, a gorgeous pink poinsettia:

Poinsettia. More pixellated than I'd hoped the shot to be ... no, I really keep the hall table better dusted than it looks!

And my grand trumpeting angel on the mantel:

Large angel sculpture - about 3.5 feet tall! The wings and trumpet are gilded.

An Arrangement

And last - one of my favorite gifts, from my dear friend Mary Mathis. She has a marvelous eye for blown glass, and this small but beautifully designed vase will be just right for my desk. But here, filled with sea lavender and set on a crisp white tablecloth, it absolutely glows:

Small blown glass vase and sea lavender, left over from the Christmas centerpiece

Some seasonal recipes

Everyone has a favorite holiday recipe or two. I seem to have too many. When December rolls around, I delight in getting out the carefully-saved issues of Gourmet and the specialized cookbooks and idea-filled publications. Their suggestions and my tried-and-true favorites would fill a cookbook, by themselves (now, THERE's an idea ...!) But instead of the indulgences of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I will instead offer here my most welcome cookbook find of the past couple of months, as well as a delicious and easy citrus dessert from the annals of Gourmet.

(and I'll keep thinking about that Christmas cookbook!)

The first recipe comes from a venerable source, the Southern Junior League Cookbook. My copy has a bit of a tale associated with it. Sometime in 2012 or 2013 (and I will have to look it up to find when) the food magazine Bon Appetit (a poor substitute for Gourmet, but there's slim pickings in the food magazine offerings right now) ran a kind of snarky-hip article about its writers' favorite ... food things. One such thing was the Southern Junior League Cookbook. Now, the cookbook had long been on my radar. I'd run into lots of copies at very reasonable prices at my favorite used book shops, but never had succumbed. It's actually a compendium of a number of publications produced by this particular women's club all over the American south. It contains - as you might expect - the curious mixture of "gracious" entrees (of the chafing-dish variety), cocktail nibbles, outlandish desserts and convenience meals that seem to inhabit most cookbooks produced for school or church fund-raisers. But this book also has some unique and even bizarre recipes.

So this snarky article raved about the cookbook, and I thought to myself - why not? Maybe now is the time to add it to my collection. And I went to peruse several used-book sites to order a copy.

Well. The magazine had to have been on the newsstands for several weeks before I got around to reading this story, and suddenly every used copy of this cookbook (hardback or paperback) was listed at astronomical prices. There was a copy offered on eBay for over $500.00. The better-preserved used copies on Alibris ran up to over $1000.00. Had THAT many people read the article? Hard to believe ... but still.

I placed an order for a book that was listed at a reasonable price on one of the sites - and was informed, after the order had been accepted, that the copy had already been sold. The same thing happened three more times.  Okay, sez I, the book will have to wait.

And wait it did, until this September, when I ventured back on to Alibris to check out the listings for the Southern Junior League Cookbook again. Lo and behold! I could get a very good copy for about $3.00. The craze had passed - and the book was mine.

It's as good as I'd hoped. Real  - um - meaty bedside reading!! And I found a recipe that I just HAD to try: something called Saxapahash. What in the world? It's basically a baked pasta dish with sour cream added.  I can find no etymology for the name on Google, but it is awfully intriguing. Of course, the name became Saxaphone Hash as soon as I made it and served it to my visiting brother-in-law and his wife. But it all got eaten - in a hurry!  You must try it:

Saxaphone Hash (or Saxapahash, from the Southern Junior League Cookbook)

Brown 1 pound of ground chuck in a large skillet, and pour off the liquid water and fat. To the beef, add 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. sugar, a couple of shakes of garlic salt (Penzey's is the best), and a 15-oz. can of tomato sauce, and simmer the mix for about 10 minutes. Chop 6 scallions (the white and light green parts) and blend into 1 cup sour cream and about 4 oz. softened cream cheese. Cook 8 oz. small shaped pasta, such as small shells or elbow macaroni, and drain. In a buttered casserole dish (such as a 13" x 9" baking pan) spread half the cooked pasta, followed by half the cream-cheese mixture, and topped by half of the meat mixture. Repeat the layering. Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese over the top of the casserole and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

A winter salad of - say - escarole, red onion, and oranges would make an excellent accompaniment to this simple and delicious hot dish.

But what to have for dessert? Here's a recent find from my precious stash of preserved Gourmet magazines. It's simple and quick, as well as delicious:

Orange Sour Cream Cake (from Gourmet, January 2004)

Cream 1 stick softened butter with 3/4 cup sugar until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add 4 tsp. grated orange rind, and 2 eggs (one at a time), beating after each addition. Mix in 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/4 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice.  Mix in 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. baking soda, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Mix only until just combined, and pour into a buttered 8" -square baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Sprinkle the top with 10x sugar before serving.

Here's to a bright New Year, full of possibilities! Even if we have to make it through a Maine winter first ...