The Very First Fine-Dining Cookbook

Every Thanksgiving a fair proportion of the American populace tries to transform themselves into chefs.  Although we spend more money eating out than on groceries these days and not cooking 40 percent of the suppers we serve, Thanksgiving is the day when we take to our kitchens and attempt to cook “traditional” dinners.  Add that to this decade’s obsession with fine dining and there’ll be a lot of untrained cooks in the kitchen this week trying to pretend they’re Escoffier.  If you’re looking for a cookbook rich in tradition that will make your Thanksgiving feast the talk of the town, have I got one for you!
How to Cook a Peacock a/k/a Le Viandier is so much more than an eye-catching cookbook, it’s a journey into medieval France.  These are the recipes of Gillioume Tirel, chef to Philip IV, Charles V, and Charles VI of France.  So when you serve dishes that come from this book, your guests can claim they feasted like kings. But I should say this is no ordinary cookbook.
See, the 14th century wasn’t as obsessed as we are with precision.  There’s not a word about cooking temps or time in the book.  Nor are there any of those lovely measuring amounts, like cups and teaspoons, that we hold so dear.  Instead, you’ll use your imagination and tastebuds and learn a few new cooking terms as well.
For example the first direction in the recipe Lark Grané says:

 “Take larks, restore them, then brown, and put veal in the pot with them, for a better broth.”

Restore them? Is he kidding?  Bring them back to life? Luckily the glossary says restoring meat means blanching or brining it.  I remember blanching from Home Ec.  Unfortunately, the recipe also calls for verjuice, something I don’t think they sell at my local Piggly Wiggly.  Too bad since it comes from under-ripe grapes
For the truly ambitious, there is a way to prepare “Pheasant and Peacocks In Full Display” that calls for a marinade of (amoung otherthings) long pepper, true cinnamon and rose water. and preservation in sugar and household spices. Not a word about what to do with the feathers. You know, cooking for royalty is all very well but I think I’ll stick to turkey this year. The peacocks can stay in the zoo.

What Booklovers really need: A sign

When I became an office manager, my sister sent me a terrific sign that became my Prime Directive (sorry, Star Trek).

If I ever forgot, this sign reminded me of the purpose of  my job.  I was the designated gatekeeper, tasked with running interference on every distraction that phoned or walked in the door.  I dealt with them so my bosses could focus on the work that kept us in business each month.  Most sales reps. were willing to work with me but if one of them complained, I showed them the sign. That message gave me that last word.
These days, I’m beginning to think that stories, like people, also need signs.  I was in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop the other day and found a few I really liked.
Now that’s great advice, no matter who you are.  Every life is a story and yours is only as good as you make it.  So live the life that will become the story you want to tell.
If I ran the universe this sign would be on the desk of each teacher and librarian in every primary school. Maybe the secondary schools as well.  I’m just sayin’, okay?
And now the sign that all readers need:
What do I want for Christmas this year?  This slogan printed on everything I own, from T-shirts to toilet tissue, and cars to my coffee cup.  A sign to run interference for me like I ran it for my bosses.  I figure folks will have to respect it.
After all, it’s a sign.

A Story for the Broken-Hearted

Most of the time, I try to be happy.  I think everybody does.  Either we find that’s a good way to deal with the world or we think that’s what the world wants from us.  But sometimes, happiness isn’t an appropriate choice for what’s going on in our lives.  Now a motivational speaker might say the thing to do when you’re sad is paste a smile on your face anyway.  Fake being happy until you cheer up again.  While there’s something in the “fake it till you make it” idea, I don’t believe in divorcing yourself from your real feelings.  Sometimes, the only way to deal with grief is to feel the grief.  When that happens, I reach for Low Country by Anne Rivers Siddons.  It’s a guidebook for the broken heart.
At first glance Caro Venable wouldn’t seem like the right kind of guide to learn about grief.  For one thing, she’s got a life most of us would kill for.  She’s got some talent, a loving spouse, a son that’s doing well and two houses, one on her very own island.  Sounds perfect right?  But Caro’s still tortured by the memory of her daughter’s death five years ago and there’s another problem: Caro drinks.   Not snot-slinging, commode-hugging, drunk but too much and too often. Booze also keeps Caro from seeing her comfortable life have cut her off from a much that she loves; that art and the nature have been replaced by her husband’s business and ambition.  
Into this half-life of booze and melancholy come a pair of catalysts to shatter the inertia.  First a Cuban landscape artist with insight into drunks and the tongue of an adder.  Then the news that her husband’s real-estate development company is at risk and Caro has the ability to save it…if she is willing to let him destroy the Gullah settlement and nature preserve already on the island. Caro has to choose between the life she left but holds dear and the man she’s loved since she was a kid.  It’s only in the face of this “lose-lose” situation that Caro finally reaches back out to life.
So what’s great about this book?  Maybe, not a lot beyond the descriptions of the Ace Basin and a kind of life peculiar to the Coastal South.  But what the book has is an honesty about loss and how sometimes it can’t be avoided.  If we live long enough, we all endure loss and the longer we live, the more grief we endure.  What we do with that grief and how we honor the lost dictates how we’ll cope with whatever comes after.  Caro shows how to comes to terms with despair and still fight for a better tomorrow.  That’s something worth knowing when you’re broken-hearted and you need to start living again.

Finally, getting it right

There’s a wonderful line in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that says, “Everything will be all right in the end…if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  There’s more than mindless optimism in that phrase, that’s an expression of faith. It encourages you to keep going, and not be dismayed, even in the face of disaster.  It’s a faith Jane Austen endorsed when she wrote Persuasion, her last story with a sensible heroine.
Austen wrote about two types of women, those who think before they speak and the rest of us. The impulsive, strong-willed ones like Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse and Catharine Moreland are easy to identify with because they say what they feel and they cause most of their own problems.  The responsible heroines are a little bit deeper.  Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are always aware that odds and circumstances are against them so they’re careful about what they say and when they speak. Most of the time, this is a good trait but in Persuasion, Austen shows the downside of being too careful.
In case you don’t know it, Persuasion’s set-up is simple.  At nineteen, Anne Elliot broke her engagement to Lt. Frederick Wentworth.  She didn’t want to but her best friend persuaded  her that the couple was too broke and too young to create a happy life together. (Anne’s father thought a naval lieutenant wasn’t good enough for his daughter at the time.)  Now, nine years later, Anne’s still unmarried, still missing Wentworth, and living in a house her father can’t afford to maintain. Her ex-fiance reappears, complete with a promotion, and his fortunes have climbed as much as her father’s have fallen.  Anne can’t tell her ex-boyfriend she’s still nuts about him. If she does, she’ll just look like another gold-digging tramp and lose what little respect he may still have for her.  So Anne has to be quiet and watch other unmarried girls chase after the man that she loves, knowing she made a mistake.
Amanda Root in the 2007
adaptations of Persuasion
What happens next is the rest of the book but this story’s already broken the Austen pattern.  In the other books, when Austen’s girls get the right guy, the tale is told. Persuasion is about people making mistakes by relying on the judgment of others and whether anyone hurt so deeply can find the courage to try again. It’s also the story of a middle-class that fights to keep up all the wrong appearances.  Anne’s father is so wrapped up in being a minor aristocrat (he’s a Baronet) that the benefits of the navy’s meritocracy completely escape him. When setbacks befall him, all he’s left with is his title. In contrast, Anne is the only one with the vision to see what really matters and where her true future lies.
If Austen ever sought another title for this book, Patience would have been as good an idea since it takes patience to correct a mistake.  But in the meantime, if you are under stress, keep Anne Elliot’s faith to make the best of each bad situation and do the next right thing.  If that doesn’t work, remember that everything will be all right in the end…so trouble now means the story’s not finished.

See the Movie or Read the Book First?

The holiday season is coming up fast with its compliment of “prestige” films, those high-budget, critic-favored movies all aimed to become Oscar bait.  That’s fine, but since a lot of prestige pictures are based on written works, some readers face an unusual quandary.  When a book-based picture comes out, which should you do first: read the book or see the movie?  Or, if you love one of these, should you even look at the other?

I found out how hard that question was long before I grew up.  Somewhere around age 9, I discovered Dodie Smith’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  To say I fell in love with the tale is a gross understatement: I re-read it so often, I could recite whole pages of it from memory.  So I should have loved the Disney adaptation, right?  Wrong!  I couldn’t stand the picture because it altered key parts of the original story and removed the comfortably British narrative voice.  I went home swearing at the film industry in general and Disney in particular for trashing a classic.  I believed no movie would ever respect a book.

Flash forward 25 years or so.  I’m still a fan of British lit. but, there some books I won’t touch, like Howards End.  I heard the book was difficult and dull so I avoided it on principle. It took the beautiful 1992 film adaptation to open my eyes. Even after falling in love with the picture, I was a bit unsure about the book.  Given the usual film-adaptations, would I like the original story?  Little did I know that Merchant-Ivory, that film’s production company, was known for their sensitive treatment of original material.  Howard’s End remains one of my all-time faves on the screen and the page.
The truth is, some movie adaptations of stories work while others don’t .  Film is a visual medium that makes some story-telling easier but it requires light and movement to keep the audience interested. Watching somebody think is dull.  And while words only require a reader’s imagination, every reader’s vision can’t be incorporated into a film adaptation.  So it’s your choice to read the book or see the movie first/  Just be prepared to accept the two versions may have nothing in common beyond the title.