Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen

Until recently, what I didn't know about gumbo was pretty much everything. I'd happily eat it if someone else made it, but I'm rarely that lucky. I had no clue about the religious fervor some people feel when it comes to okra in or okra out. And what the heck is filé? Dang, I didn't even know the Hank Williams song.

Now Roahen has pulled me into her world of the amazing food of New Orleans--is it street food? It can be, but is not always. She's made me want to visit every gumbo shack she mentions. And I want a Sno-Bliz from Hansen's if it's hot out--but can I stand the summer steambath that is New Orelans? Doubtful. I want Sazerac as my drink. What is Sazerac? I barely know, I barely care, but I want it. I want to eat boiled crawfish. I want red gravy. I want oysters during the high season. And I want to eat in a culinary speakeasy.

There are heartbreaking stories of businesses wiped out with Katrina, some resurrected afterward, but some lost forever, along with their owners.

This is on my "Best of 2008" list. In fact, I might need to buy it, and I hardly ever do that, being as I work for the library and all.

When I was in high school, my mother and I used to go to The Chinese Kitchen on the odd Friday or Saturday evening.  I'd order spicy Mongolian Beef and she'd order a number of blander items such as Sweet and Sour Pork with its neon orange sauce and chow mein.  It was a tasty and inexpensive weekend treat, and we often headed there when I came home on weekends in college. Post-college, I was introduced to the mysteries of Dim Sum by a Chinese-Swedish boyfriend and finally learned how to use chopsticks!

In the intervening years, I've become more fond of Thai and Vietnamese, and eschewed the seemingly less healthful and tasty Chinese fare, but occasionally I get a hankering for Sesame Beef, General Tso's Chicken, or Egg Foo Yong. I never thought much about the authenticity or origins of these menu items until I picked up Jennifer 8. Lee's entertaining and engrossing book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.  Chop suey, I already had questions about, but imagine my shock when I learned that the crispy sweet tang of General Tso's chicken really belonged to another general!  And fortune cookies might possibly have come from Japan!  Really?

Lee began her quest for the origins of America's favorite "Chinese" dishes when she heard the story of the multiple Powerball winners who had all chosen the same number because of a series of digits in a fortune cookie. From there, she went on a multi-state, multi-national quest to find out what about Chinese-American food is truly Chinese, and why Americans have developed such an abiding taste for the cuisine.

Along the way, she uncovers fascinating factoids such as there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds in the U.S. (in my neighborhood, it's 2-1 in favor of Chinese) and delves deeply into questions such as what is the connection between the Jewish and Chinese communities and what was the kosher duck scandal in the 1980s really about? If you're not craving Pot Stickers and Broccoli Beef by the end of the book, I'll be surprised!

When baking a cake, do you know why room temperature ingredients are essential? The science is that "adding cold ingredients will cause the batter to "seize," or shrink and deflate, which will compromise the cake's texture, making it dense instead of light."

This is just one of the many explanations in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. She is famous for using locally grown, seasonal vegetables at her Chez Panisse restaurant. This latest book is filled with her ideas about using the freshest ingredients, cooking simply and making the meal one of delightful togetherness. And, she recommends tasting as you cook. What's not to like?

Nearly every chapter explains something about why we do this or that in the kitchen. Do you know any other books that explain the science of cooking or baking? 

I am in love with The Gentle Art of Domesticity by Jane Brocket! I did not want to return it to the library. That being said, you need to know this is a beautiful and well-written book with color pictures on almost every page. Brocket loves color, quilts, fairy buns (cupcakes), embroidery, knitting, cooking, books, tea, and family among other things.

She brings her colorful style to all of these endeavours. And at the same time reminds the reader how worthy these endeavours are without being uptight. Her philosophy is the relaxed and fun approach to domesticity. 

Brocket at the same time answers the question of mass produced or homemade with the resounding answer of HOMEMADE! Why would we want homemade? Well, she sums it up concisely when she says:

“The answer lies in the not-so-revolutionary idea of seizing the means of production. It’s as simple and as complex as that. A modicum of practicality in the domestic space empowers us to make our own choices about what we make and eat, rather than handing over control of our homemaking to profit making companies. It may sound surprisingly radical, and it is.”

I agree. 

If you are hungry for more you can also check out her blog!

I’m fascinated by the reports about the religious community in Eldorado, Texas. Multiple wives, child brides, lost boys, an all-powerful leader, a mammoth limestone temple -- mainstream newspaper and website “YFZ Ranch” headlines read like the tabloids.  

It wasn’t so long ago - early 1980s - that stories about an Indian guru and his red-robed followers in Antelope, Oregon, made the nightly news. I was living in the Midwest, and up ‘til then the only images I had of Oregon were of a top-less Mt. St. Helens and a psychedelic bus. I thought Oregon was smothered in ferns and green forests; Rancho Rajneesh’s landscape could have been the Arizona desert. And I couldn’t reconcile a psychiatrist friend’s glowing account of his visit to the ashram with the salmonella-in-the-salad-bar plot. 

Journalist Tim Guest spent his childhood in the Rajneesh spiritual communes during the 1980’s.

In My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru he describes his life as a “disciple by default” -– he was 3 years old when his mother became a follower of the Bhagwan and moved them to ashrams in London, India and Oregon. His memoir is funny, poignant and moving, a closely-observed account of a very odd childhood. I guess it’s no surprise that his new book, Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, explores how computer technology enables people to create new utopias.

But before the Baghwan appeared in Antelope, a charismatic Christian preacher named Joshua Creffield settled in Corvallis in 1903 and won the souls (and bodies) of young women. Intrigued by the stories of her town’s “Holy Roller” cult, Corvallis native Linda Crew based her novel Brides of Eden on historical documents, court records and photographs.

Using the voice of 16-year-old Eva Mae Hurt, Crew reimagines how she and her friends became entranced with the self-proclaimed messiah. Brides is strong on facts, but less convincing in capturing Joshua’s magnetic personality. Still, this is a fascinating exploration of religious fanaticism and group thought, a stranger-than-fiction true Oregon tale.

Photo: Oregon followers greet Osho Rajneesh as he drives by. © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

A warm and fun read before you turn out the lights is the little series by Brendan O’Carroll, an Irish playwright and stand-up comedian.  The first book is alternately called Agnes Browne or The Mammy. The premise does not seem humorous—Agnes is trying to raise her seven children alone in Dublin after her husband dies. Agnes is spunky, however, and she handles the hurdles in her life with strength. 

The second in the series is The Chisellers. The title refers to her seven children, some of which have begun to be a bit troublesome. The third title in the trilogy is The Granny and continues, not surprisingly, when Agnes becomes a grandmother for the first time and most of her children are in their twenties. 

O’Carroll continues with a prequel, called The Young Wan, which describes Agnes’ young adulthood before her marriage.  In each book, the characters are eccentric and get themselves into some interesting predicaments. The only drawback is that some people may have trouble with the Irish slang, which O’Carroll  uses quite liberally.

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America By Steve Almond

Here's a good read to relax with while glorying in our post-trick-or-treating rewards. This has to be one of the funniest nonfiction titles ever in the history of funny nonfiction.

I read it a few years ago before Steve Almond was so hip and happenin', and reread it a few weeks ago as I was fighting off the April version of The Miserable Cold. I started laughing so hard on page 16 that it was over an hour, and a half box of tissues later that I finally stopped coughing, and got a grip on the hysteria.

A few days later I texted a coworker at a library convention in Philly to ask if she'd bring me some Peanut Chews because they're raved about in the book and I thought they were only local to Philly (they're readily available other places now and fabulous).

The book's not all fun and games. Almond gets more serious later on, but always with a humorous, self-deprecating undertone that's friendly and lovable. Powell's had the book remaindered a while back and I got it dirt cheap, but you should track it down and read page 16, if nothing else. Off you go.

She's One of Us; (Elle est des Notres); Director: Siegrid Alnoy; Starring: Sasha Andres, 2003, France

Most of the reviewers of this film have it wrong.

Siegrid Alnoy’s story of a small town Frenchwoman with serious social inadequacies has been sometimes characterized as slight, tedious, incomprehensible. Visually unwatchable. Makes me wonder if the reviewers sat through the entire thing.

She stares at you - eyes wide open and guileless - waiting for something - a cue, a connection. Hands trembling. Most comfortable at the Mall or in the woods. She's a highly competent temp worker, desperately trying to fit in with limited results. She's a child, forced to act as an adult having never really emotionally growing past about age 6. Pretending to be One of Us. Finally becoming Her version of One of Us through a messed up series of events.

Cinematically, it reminds me of Antonioni’s Red Desert - in primary colors. Each scene is exquisitely photographed, taking its time to tell the visual story.  Even the sterile office boxes where workers earn their keep are striking. The book jacket word, “riveting” comes to mind.

Recommended for those who like to go places they’re never likely to go.

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

In a little mall in Connecticut, the Red Lobster restaurant is opening for the last time. Corporate headquarters says they're not making their numbers. It's four days before Christmas and it has been snowing all day. A quiet sense of suspended animation permeates the novel; the heavy snowfall mirrors the feelings of the staff who show up for their last shift.

The manager did everything he could think of to make the restaurant work. Sure, he's got personal problems: his girlfriend is pregnant and his affair with one of the waitresses is over; but he is dedicated to the restaurant. Tomorrow he'll be assistant manager at the Olive Garden in the next town.

We follow him as he attends to the details of running the restaurant one more day.  All the while, his mind is running in a hamster wheel of woulda, coulda, shoulda: about the restaurant and his impending demotion, about his girlfriend whom he guesses he'll marry, about his ex-lover and how he could have kept that going. He desperately wants to set things right, but just doesn't know how.

Manny, the manager, is a surprisingly sympathetic character. His relationship with each restaurant worker is well drawn. The sense you get of the restaurant workers is spot on. My friend, the former restaurant manager, said she's worked with every one of them.

This is an evocative, poignant novel that reveals a side of restaurants that you don't see when you're eating out and speaks to the aspirations of everyman.

I've found another book to add to the library list Slender Stories for Long Summer Days.

Mr Fooster Traveling on a Whim: A Visual Novel by Tom Corwin is an allegory of a young man who ventures out into the world with a sense of childlike wonder, a letter from his uncle in his pocket, his compass and an old bottle of bubble soap. He muses as he walks along, "Why were ducks so fuel-efficient? How come you never see baby pigeons? Who figured out how to eat artichokes?"

It is a quirky little story with a series of surprises. It is about noticing, about paying attention and expanding the senses.

The expressive illustrations look almost like woodcuts. Created with ink pens and artist's brushes, Craig Frazier, the illustrator has added much to the charm of the book. He is also the illustrator of Stanley Mows the Lawn,  which you'll find in the picture book section of your library.