The Violin Conspiracy

THE BOOK: A book about classical music, a theft and a love story? What is not to love, and love this book I did. Ray McMillian is a young black man from North Carolina who lives music. He can feel it in every pore of his body as he practices on his school-issued violin. His mother, who calls his practicing “noise,” is pressuring him to get his GED quickly so he can get a job at Popeye’s and contribute to the family finances. When Ray is offered a full music scholarship to Markham University, his life suddenly becomes full of possibility. The only one in his family who supported him was his Grandma Nora, so he was used to the sort of invisibilty that comes when those around you don’t see you for who you really are. Then his grandmother gifted him her PopPop’s violin in its green alligator case, and things became really interesting.

THE BEAUTY: I kept a list of all the music that was referenced in the book. Here are just a few of the ones that were more meaningful to Ray:
Rhosymedre by Ralph Vaughn Williams (He always played this for his grandmother.)
Violin Concerto #5 in A Major by Mozart
Serenade Melancolique in B-flat minor for violin and orchestra by Tchaikovsky

Ray explains his feelings for music in this beautiful excerpt:

“There were those who would say that only Russians can play Russian music: that it’s not in the blood of non-Russians…Ray, of course, would disagree. He would tell you that music is truly a universal language, and that we, the listeners, will always impose our own fears and biases, our own hopes and hungers, on whatever we hear. He would tell you that the rhythm that spurred on Tchaikovsky is the same rhythm that a kid in a redneck North Carolina town would beat with a stick against a fallen tree. It is a rhythm in all of us. Music is about communication- a way of touching your fellow man beyond and above and below language; it is a language all its own.”

THE FOOD: Ray was headed toward a career at the local Popeyes restaurant until fate intervened. My husband mentioned Popeyes’ chicken when we passed a store a couple of weeks ago. It was something he had a lot in college and hadn’t had it since, so when I was thinking about food for this blog, I thought I’d make us both happy by surprising him with lunch on our recent shopping trip. Sadly, the lobby of the establishment wasn’t open, but when we got our takeout at the window we learned that the lobby was closed because they are understaffed. Going into our third year of the pandemic and employers are still struggling to fill vacant positions!

The Popeyes sign on a beautiful, warm March day, teasing us with the promise of spring!
Four pieces of fried chicken: a breast, a thigh, a leg and a wing did not disappoint, although the atmosphere in the car was something short of elegant.

Joan is Okay

The Book:

Joan is a 36 year old Asian American attending physician in an unnamed Manhattan hospital near Morningside Park. (Maybe St. Luke’s Sinai?) Not only is she really good at her job, she loves it. In fact, she loves it so much that she’d rather be working than engaging in any other activity. As she mentors students completing their residency, she summarizes what goes on during rounds with handouts that prove to be extremely valuable to them. She loves the standardization of procedures, the machines employed to diagnose and sustain, and the routine of the hospital. If she sounds slightly regimented and rigid, she is, but in her occupation, it’s an asset. Her family is concerned that Joan has shown no interest in finding a mate and having children. Her brother, Fang, (pronounced “Fung”) is particularly focused on helping Joan change her focus. An investment broker, he’s living the American dream: wealth, estate in Greenwich, beautiful wife, two children, and so on. He’s been badgering Joan to move to Greenwich and set up her own practice. Joan is okay with her life as it is. The plot revolves around the death of their father and the grieving process of each of the family members. The Chinese word chuang was the last word Joan spoke to her father. It can mean “to begin,” “to create something, achieve, strive.”

The Beauty: The writing in this book, especially when the thoughts going on in Joan’s head are shared, is amusing, and makes me love Joan just as she is. In the passage I’ve selected, Joan was on the phone with her mother who was visiting Fang in Greenwich. Mother was bored and wanted to drive but Fang wouldn’t let her. Mother had also talked to the DMV, but didn’t get anywhere because her American license had expired 30 years ago and she never got a Chinese one. When she mentioned her green card, Joan said, “A green card is not a license.” When her mother asked “why not?” Joan said, “Because a green card says nothing about your driving.” Then her mother began questioning Joan about her job, hoping that she made enough money and that she avoided malpractice and that she wasn’t going to be destitute. At this point, Joan was pacing outside the Seminar room at the hospital where a colleague was giving grand rounds about how to demystify pulmonary hypertension, a condition with many possible causes or an unknown cause. The arteries of the lungs are carrying blood at way too high of a pressure causing, dizziness, fatigue, chest pains, and sometimes blue-tinted skin. “Pulmonary hypertension is said to develop gradually to only worsen with time, but can possibly onset quickly without warning, like when speaking to one’s mother on the phone. “

The Food: Joan’s well-meaning neighbor, Mark, planned a surprise party for Joan to get to know her neighbors. When Joan got to her apartment there were already people there and guests were still arriving and giving her hostess gifts like wine. A Korean exchange student subletting an apartment for the year while she studied graphic design at Columbia, brought a round bowl of microwaveable rice, a tin of low-sodium Spam, and a package of Chapagetti, that turned out to be the best ramen Joan had ever had. As a ramen fan myself, I had to try it.

This was one of a 4-pack. The actual soup was something of an acquired taste. I guess I’m just too used to my chicken ramen soup by Maruchan!

Crying in H Mart

THE BOOK: This memoir is the story of a girl’s journey from child to woman, and the role that her mother played in shaping who she became. Although Michelle was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and an American father, she was raised in Eugene, Oregon, on a remote farm some distance from town. As an only child wth no playmates close by, and a father who was always working, Michelle and her mother had plenty of time to get on each other’s nerves, especially when Michelle was a teenager. When she went off to college, she put a continent between herself and her parents, choosing Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. Just when Michelle thought she and her mother had made peace with one another, her mother got cancer. Michelle was in her mid-twenties, and just beginning to realize how much she needed her mother to be alive. Suddenly all of the indignities that she suffered under her mother’s critical eye, seemed small and meaningless, as she contemplated life without her. This story is beautifully rendered by a woman who is not afraid to honestly look at her flaws and her place in the world, as she tries to make sense of who she will be when her mother dies. The writing bears a light touch in parts, that softens the grief that permeates the book. One woman’s story about finding peace with her mother and learning to live without her.

THE BEAUTY: Michelle was a musician who held down several jobs in order to pursue a performance career. Her mother wanted her to use her college degree to get a real job when it appeared that music was a dead end. After her mother died Michelle’s record that she had written honoring her mother, started to get some attention, and a small label in Maryland put it out on vinyl. The cover was a picture of her mother and a friend when they were teenagers.

The cover of “Psychopomp.”

THE FOOD: Food connects us to each other, as eating together is a communal event. Michelle learned to make a few receipes, but it wasn’t until her mother was gone that she realized she should have paid more attention to the food her mother prepared. And that is why she was cryinging in H Mart, looking for the ingredients she needed to recreate the flavors of her childhood. When I googled H Mart near me, I was surprised to learn that there was one about 30 miles from me. While I was blown away by the variety of produce and fish, the sheer size of the place was pretty awesome. And there was a food court and a bakery! Heaven.

I was having trouble locating some of the ingredients, so I asked a few people if they knew where the gosari was. Nobody knew what it was, so I finally asked at customer service, but they were sold out. A really nice lady helped us find a good fish sauce and soy sauce for soup. She asked what I was making. I told I had just read a book and the main character was Korean. She asked the name of the book, and when I said Crying in H Mart, she said, “My husband just got that book for me for Mother’s Day!” I said, “You’ve got a really good husband. I loved the book.” I really hope she liked it as much as I did.

Yukgaejang (Korean Spicy Beef Soup)

Beef Broth
10 cups water
12 oz. beef brisket (12 ounces) or flank steak, shank steak
1 onion (9 oz.), cut in half
green onion (2.6 ounces), cut it in about half to divide the white and green part. Then halve the pieces (white and green) lengthwise and then cut into 1.5 inch to 2 inch pieces
1 tsp black peppercorns , whole

1 T cooking oil
3 T sesame oil
green onion (2.6 ounces)
3 T Korean chili powder (preferred) or Korean chili flakes, gochugaru
1 C shiitake mushrooms, fresh, thinly sliced (I used baby bellas)
hydrated gosari (fernbrake), (3.5 ounces) To hydrate, soak the gosari in water overnight (8 hours). The next day, drain it and put the drained gosari in a pot, cover with fresh water and boil for 45 minutes. Drain and cover with fresh coldwater. Let sit for a half hour.
1 T Korean chili oil 
bean sprouts 7 ounces

2 T Korean soup soy sauce
1 T Korean fish sauce
½ T minced garlic
½ tsp fine sea salt
⅛ tsp ground black pepper

¼ C green onion, thinly sliced
fine sea salt , to taste

Soak the brisket in a bowl of water and set aside for 20 minutes to draw the red liquid out. Change the water a few times during this time. 

Add the water (10 cups), brisket, onion, green onions and whole black peppercorns into a large pot. Boil them over high heat (for about 15 mins) and skim off any scum that forms. Once the water starts to rolling boil, cover the pot with the lid and reduce the heat to medium low. Continue boiling for another 45 mins. This should give you about 7.5 cups to 8 cups of broth. 

Take the meat out onto a plate and cool it down. Strain the remaining ingredients over a large clean bowl. Discard all the strained vegetables while keeping the broth. Once the meat is cool enough to touch, cut off any stringy fat and shred or cut the brisket into small thin strips. 

Preheat a large clean pot over medium low heat and once heated, add the cooking oil, sesame oil, green onions and stir.

Once the green onions are wilted, add the chili powder and stir for about 30 seconds or until the chili powder absorbs all the oils. Make sure you don’t burn the chili powder as it can easily happen.

Add the broth (from step 3), the meat, and shiitake mushrooms into the pot and boil them over medium high heat. Once it’s rolling boiling, add the fernbrake, chili oil, and seasonings and reduce the heat to medium. Cover the pot with the lid and boil them for about 30 minutes.

Add bean sprouts and boil for a further 10 mins. 

Garnish with green onions and season with salt if required. Serve with a bowl of rice, kimchi or other Korean side dishes.

The soup was absolutely delicious! Not too hot. H Mart was all out of fernbrake which is just dried bracken fern, and there is no substitute for it. I ordered it online and now we have enough dried fern for a lifetime! I’m sold on Korean food.

The Windsor Knot

This is the first book in a series where Queen Elizabeth secretly solves crimes whilst being royal and carrying our her queenly duties. I heard about it from a Harper Collins promotional email that included a blurb by Ruth Ware. (Speaking of royalty!) If anyone can name drop, it would be Her Majesty. Apart from the various Sirs and Ladies, the Obamas get a mention and so does Putin. Wow! Nobody likes Putin, least of all the Queen. There is so much charm in this book. “They saved the Bentley for special occasions, so it still smelled of fresh leather, rather than old dog and the cleaning fluid they used to disguise the smell of dog- with limited success.” Oh, how I wish that entry had come from my journal! Then there’s this, “The young man had had enough enough of that downstairs and there were only so many unorthodox lovers one could take at Windsor Castle in one night. Even Philip would think so, surely?”

Windsor Castle is definitely a character here. I visited Windsor on Sunday, August 17, 1986. I’m sure I enjoyed the tour, but I don’t have many memories, so I tried to find a book with a floor plan so that I could track Her Majesty’s comings and goings. The first book I got was a brief history, with tiny print and few pictures. I’m waiting on another that will hopefully have a floor plan. I’d like to track the geographic logistics of the movements of the suspects in the murder. Oh, I didn’t mention the murder yet? The royal couple hosted a “dine and sleep” in the early spring of 2016. Charles had added Yuri Peyrovski, a wealthy Russian whose support Charles was seeking for one of his pet projects, and Yuri’s beautiful wife, Masha to the guest list. For entertainment, Maksim Brodsky, a young Russian pianist performed, and unfortuantely became the murder victim. Law enforcement officials marveled at the audacity of one who would commit such a crime at Windsor Castle. But the Queen knew better, and proceeded to work quietly in the background with the help of her assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, to direct the investigation in the right direction.

One last charming thing. The Queen was to perform an investiture in the Waterloo Chamber of the castle with the Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers in attendance. She had reintroduced the practice in 1954 by commanding that two Gurkha officers be nominated annually, requiring them to attend Her at official functions from time to time. Gurkhas were of Nepalese nationality recruited for the British Army. Gurkhas are synonymous with Nepal, the term derived from “Protector of Cows.” Am I alone in seeing the irony here?

THE BEAUTY: The attic corridors above the Visitors Apartments housed the Edwardian etchings which were deemed unsuitable for the downstars rooms.

Bolus is food that has been chewed and mixed with saliva in the mouth; in the stomach it is called chyme. But they sound like good names for a couple of Edwardian ne’er-do-wells.

THE FOOD: If the journlists can be believed, The Queen drinks 4 cocktails a day, the first one, shortly before lunch, is the Dubonnet Cocktail below. The others are, a dry gin martini at lunch, with a glass of wine and chocolate to end the meal. The last drink is at bedtime, a glass of champagne.

Dubonnet Cocktail

  • 1 ½ ounce Dubonnet
  • 1 ½ ounce London dry gin, preferably Beefeater
  • Orange twist, for garnish

In a mixing glass half filled with ice, combine the Dubonnet and gin, and stir until well chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass. Squeeze the orange twist over the surface of the drink and drop it into the glass.

Drinking like the Queen on my deck! Although I’m not a big gin drinker, the Dubonnet cuts the taste of the gin, kind of like in a Negroni, which is another gin cocktail I like. Looks like I forgot the orange peel. Oh, well, I’ll have to make another one.

The Nature of Fragile Things


Sophie arrived in San Francisco on her wedding day. She went from the station to City Hall. where she became Sophie Hocking, Martin’s (with the mysterious eyes,) wife. Martin claimed that his wife died, leaving five year old Katherine motherless and silent. Sophie hoped that over time, Kat would come to love her, but until then she was happy to take care of the child. Martin traveled a lot for his work, assessing risk for an insurance company, so Sophie and Kat had plenty of time to bond. When the 1906 earthquake struck, all the characters’ lives changed drastically. Homes were destroyed and fires were raging as Sophie and her small band, including Belinda and baby Sarah, found refuge at Golden Gate Park where the military set up tents for temporary housing. When it was safe to travel the foursome made their way to Belinda’s Lorelei Inn in San Rafaela. Intimations of Sophie’s secret past were made throughout the narrative that were revealed in a neat ending. I especially liked the historical setting of the natural disaster. Had there been a Richter scale at the time(it was invented in 1935), the quake might have registered 7.9. Fires continued for 3 days, destroying some 28,000 buildings, killing approximately 3,000 people, and rendering half the city’s population homeless.

THE BEAUTY: Catastrophe brought together four people whose lives would forever be entwined. The accident of birth gives us one family, and opportunity gives us the family we choose. Sophie, Kat, Belinda, Sarah and Elliott love and care for each other. Family.

THE FOOD: Sophie reminisced a lot about her family in Ireland, usually to cover awkward silences or to relax others into being more comfortable in the company of those they hardly knew. She talked frequently about her grandmother’s barmbrack, a fruity bread that Sophie enjoyed.

Irish Barmbrack

1 C dried currants
1 C raisins or sultanas
1 C strong black tea (cold) (optional: add a splash of Irish whiskey or brandy
2 tsp active dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
¾ C lukewarm milk
3 C all-purpose flour
⅓ C sugar 
1 tsp mixed spice (recipe follows)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, slightly beaten
zest of one lemon
⅓ C finely chopped homemade candied orange peel (recipe follows)

Place the currants and raisins in a bowl and pour over the cold tea. Let soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.  Drain and reserve the liquid for later.

Stir the yeast and teaspoon of sugar in the lukewarm milk.  Let it sit for 10 minutes until nice and frothy.  

In a stand mixer place the flour, sugar, spices and salt and stir to combine.  Make a well and add the melted butter, egg, lemon zest and yeast mixture.  Use the dough hook to knead until just combined.  The dough will be very thick (do not add more liquid at this point because the wet currants/raisins will be added).  Add drained currants and raisins and candied orange peel. (Reserve the liquid!)  Knead until combined, adding some of the reserved currant/raisin juice until a soft dough forms.  Scrape down the dough from the sides of the bowl.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for 90-120 minutes or until doubled in size.  

Punch down the dough. place the dough in a greased 9×5 inch loaf pan.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for another hour or longer until nearly doubled in size.  

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  

Bake the barmbrack on the middle rack for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.  

Remove from oven and while hot brush the loaf with the reserved currant/raisin juice for more flavor, moistness and a nice sheen and let cool.

Slice and serve.  Barmbrack is especially good toasted and spread with butter.

Mixed Spice (makes about ¼ cup of mixed spice)
1 T ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp ground mace

Combine all spices in an airtight glass jar and keep store in a dark cool place for up to several months.
Candied Orange Peel 
Yields approximately 8 ounces of candied citrus peel depending on peel thickness.

4 Valencia or Naval oranges 
2 C sugar
1 cup water

Fine granulated sugar for coating

Slice both ends of the oranges. Cut the peel on each into 4 or more vertical segments, depending on the size of the fruit. Peel off each segment of rind. You can remove a little of the white pith, though not necessary. The pith is bitter but the blanching process below will help reduce the bitterness. Note that if you remove the white pith, the thinner the peels are the harder and more leathery they will be when they’re candied.

Slice the peels into ¼ inch wide strips. Boil the peels in a pot of water for 15 minutes. Drain the peels in a colander, rinse and then drain again. Discard the water from the pot. Repeat this process one or two more times to reduce the bitter flavor.

Add the 1 cup of fresh water and the sugar to the pot and bring it to a boil. Boil it for a couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Add the citrus peels, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peels become translucent and the syrup becomes lightly syrupy (on a candy thermometer this will be be approximately soft ball stage).

Use a slotted spoon to remove a few of the peels at a time and let the excess syrup drip off for a few seconds. Place the hot, wet peels in a bowl of sugar or a ziplock bag with sugar in it and toss/shake to coat.

Spread the candied citrus peels out on a wire rack to cool and dry completely, 1-2 days.

Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, the candied citrus peel will keep for at least a month. They’ll keep even longer in the fridge and for a few months frozen.

Note:  If you find your candied citrus peel gets hard after a while don’t worry – they will soften up beautifully as they bake in whatever recipe you add them to!

Note:  To keep the candied peels even softer you can limit the drying time, skip the final sugar coating step and put the peels in a ziplock bag and either refrigerate or freeze them.

It’s kind of like fruit cake, only cakier, which is a good thing. Delicious!

Gold Diggers

THE BOOK: Neil Narayan’s coming of age story is set in a primarily Southeast Asian suburb of Atlanta. Neil and his next door neighbor Anita Dayal were great friends growing up, but middle school and high school brought changes, as the teens struggled to find their own identities. Looking back, Neil reflected, “For it felt, back in Hammond Creek, that it wasn’t our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents’ choices to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans.” Anita’s path to adulthood led her to the Miss Teen India Pageant where she blew the other contestants out of the water with her charity project. Anita was driven, she knew what she wanted (Harvard) and stayed on course to get it. Neil- not so much. Always in the shadow of his perfect older sister, Prachi, Neil didn’t know what he wanted, and felt the sting of disappointing his parents repeatedly. But the cast of characters do grow up and grow apart, while keeping their teenage secrets hidden and haunting. This is a beautiful story, lovingly rendered, of alchemy, love, magic, family, missed opportunities and choices. The story did not turn as I expected it to, but I was charmed by the direction it did take. I loved this book. In the words of Ramesh Uncle, “…some stories do not leave you alone.”

THE BEAUTY: At his sister’s wedding, Neil was obligated to speak. “There was my brief toast–I was still known, unfairly, as the public speaker in the family; I read a Neruda poem in lieu of offering original thoughts, in part to keep from choking on something sentimental that was coursing through the air.” The author didn’t specify which Neruda poem, so it was purely my choice to offer this one.

Sonnet XVII
by Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, 
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. 
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, 
in secret, between the shadow and the soul. 

I love you as the plant that never blooms 
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; 
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, 
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body. 

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. 
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; 
so I love you because I know no other way 

than this: where I does not exist, nor you, 
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, 
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

THE FOOD: Neil described his mother’s very large ears through which she received news of the world of her neighbors, which she then dispensed to her family during dinner. Ramya reported on all kinds of “nonsense,” which was any child’s behavior that could not be added to their college application. One evening, she told of Jay Bhatt’s father’s trip to Ithaca to talk some sense into him when he annnounced that he was abandoning math for film. “Have some more samzi,” she’d say between stories, monitoring the dietary intake of her children, while adding, “that Reema Misra was bragging about all the boys she’s practicing kissing. Nonsense!”

Mixed Sabzi

2 T oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 small onion chopped finely
½ C lima beans
3 handfuls baby spinach
1 yellow bell pepper
1 medium carrot sliced
1 medium sized potato chopped into bite sized pieces
2 large tomatoes pureed in the blender
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp lal mirch powder (or 3 parts smoked paprika to 1 part cayenne red pepper)
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a pot, and then add the cumin seeds. Saute for about 30 seconds, and then add the chopped onion. Saute until the onion is golden brown. Add the chopped veggies and the tomatoes. Now add the spices, and mix. Cook covered on low heat, until all the vegetables are cooked through. You may substitute other vegetables that you have on hand or that you prefer. The mix is entirely up tp you.

To serve garnish with chopped coriander.

The Committed

THE BOOK: At the beginning of the unnamed narrator’s new life, “Crazy Bastard” had his passport stamped with the date he and Bon arrived in Paris: 18/7/81. The name on his passport was Vo Danh, meaning “nameless” in Vietnamese, but his associates in France referred to him as Crazy Bastard. A self-described man of two minds and two faces, he could argue both sides of a situation. This perspective served him well in his past life in America as a spy secretly working against blood brother Bon’s anti-communist cause. Bon’s special ability was killing communists. CB knew that if Bon discovered his true sympathies, Bon would have to kill him, on principle.

In Paris, CB made his living by selling hashish to his aunt’s (with whom he was staying) intellectual friends, eventually branching out into the larger community as he learned his way around the city. He met many colorful characters including Le Cao Boi, The Seven Dwarves, Creme Brûlée, The Boss, the Ronan, and others. I loved the way CB assigned adjectival honorifics to his associates like “the endangered French capitalist;” “the expressionist mistress;” “the eschatological muscle;” and “the very chic, very tanned doctor. ” There is a lot of irreverent humor here, in spite of the darkness of the plot. For example, at one point, while CB is kneeling, he was reminded of his first communion when he was 7, receivng the host from his priest father, followed by a sip of the ceremonial wine. Even though he had seen the choirboy wipe the lip of the cup with a cloth, he still trembed at the thought of all the mouths that had touched that cup. “This blood of Christ was a sweet syrup on a poor tongue unused to sweets, and it would lead me not toward greater devotion to God but rather, eventually, toward debauchery. If I love liquor too much, I blame God, or at least his minions.”

What struck me reading this book, is the history of wasted potential of human beings -the ones oppressed and metaphorically shackled by a ruling class that imprisoned them in poverty, and deprived the world of their contributions to society. The number of voiceless poets, singers, orators; the number of sculptors, painters, architects; the number of playwrights, composers, actors and actresses who never got the opportunity for the world to experience the products of their creativity, is mind boggling. Fortunately this voice, the voice of Viet Thanh Nguyen, was able to burst the shackles that could have silenced him so that we could have his story. I was in awe of his writing, his wit, his humor, and his politics as expressed in The Connected. Now I must read The Sympathizer!

THE BEAUTY: Once CB established himself and began to make some money from his hashish operation, “I used my profits to buy an excellent pair of brown leather oxfords from Bruno Magli, recommended to me by BFD. They look good and you can walk or stand all day in them, he said… You can always judge a man by his shoes.”

When I read this passage, I literally wrote myself a note: Buy Jim a pair of Bruno Magli shoes!

THE FOOD: CB had little regard for BFD, but he was his aunt’s friend, so in order to avoid talking to each other on their way to the brothel, “Heaven,” they listened to Johnny Hallyday who CB referred to as the musical equivalent of Ricard Pastis, an acquired taste, at best. Similar to other anise-based aperitifs, like Greek ouzo, at age 23, Paul Ricard developed his own mix, blending flavors of Marseilles into Ricard Pastis, the “pastis of Marseilles.” It is served cold, adding 5 parts of chilled water to 1 part pastis, and then topped with 4 ice cubes. I made an olive and ham loaf representative of the area to accompany our drink.


  • 200g of all-purpose flour
  • 1 package of dried yeast
  • 3 large eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • ground pepper
  • 1 heaped T of dijon mustard
  • 5 T olive oil 
  • 7 T milk 
  • ⅔ C grated Gruyère cheese
  • ¾ C of ham
  • ⅔ C of sliced green olives 
  • Butter for greasing

Pre-heat oven to 390°F. Grease a standard size loaf pan. 

In a dry frying pan, fry the diced ham for 2 minutes until golden. Set aside. 

In a mixing bowl add the flour, yeast, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. Mix well then add the milk, grated cheese, sliced and drained olives, mustard and the ham. Mix well. 

Pour into the loaf pan and place in the oven for 45 minutes. If the cake is browning too quickly, place tin foil on top. Take it out of the oven and leave to cool in the tin.

No need for acquiring, I liked the taste of this drink very much- enough to have a refill.

News of the World

THE BOOK: In spite of the violence, this is a very quiet book, with an emphasis on setting.
“Once at evening they came downhill to a stream crossing where the clear water made its way between great curving bluffs. Level strata of limestone in stripe after stripe carved back into a deep hollow with the big trees hanging down from overhead. It was like being in a tunnel. Maidenhair fern in bright lime-colored bouquets grew out of the limestone where water seeped through and it smelled of water and wet stone and the green fern.”

There was something endearing to me about the decency of the main character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly gentleman who earned his living by reading aloud the news of the world to assemblies of people in the remote Texas towns through which he travelled in the 1870’s. His audience would have had no other means of learning about the world. The Captain would start the reading with the juiciest stories and as the evening progressed, he would put the listeners in a mind to convene, by reading dry news articles that induced yawning.

When the Captain agreed to escort Johanna Leonberger, a ten year old German girl who had been captured by the Kiowa Indians, back to her family outside San Antonio, a trip of some 400 miles, the tale began. It was a deeply moving story that has stayed with me.

THE BEAUTY: In their travels, a painted bunting was sighted. Although they are fairly common at birdfeeders, they breed in the coastal southeast and south central U.S. and winter in Central America. How I’d love to see one at my feeder. I’ll have to move south!

THE FOOD: Mrs. Gannett, (on whom The Captain was sweet) brought “Divinity” to the hotel for Johanna when she “babysat” for her so that Johanna wouldn’t run away while The Captain took care of business. The Captain was genuinely touched by the gesture because he knew that it wasn’t a simple recipe to make. Turns out, he was right.

Easy Homemade Divinity Candy

2 egg whites at room temperature
2¼ C granulated sugar
½ C water
½ C light corn syrup
⅛ tsp salt
½ C chopped pecans
1 tsp vanilla extract

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat together the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 7-10 minutes or until the temperature reaches 260º F on a candy thermometer. Just before the candy reaches temperature, beat the egg whites on high speed using an electric mixer or stand mixer until stiff peaks form.

Remove the boiling candy from the heat and, with the mixer on high speed, stream in the hot candy VERY slowly. It should take you at least 2 or so minutes to fully pour the hot candy mixture into the egg whites. Continue beating the mixture until it’s no longer glossy and it holds its shape, about 6-10 minutes (it depends on your mixer). Stir in the chopped pecans and vanilla extract until combined.

Butter two spoons (or grease them lightly with cooking spray) and, working quickly, drop rounded tablespoonfuls of the divinity mixture onto the lined baking sheets. You may need to scrape the candy mixture off of one spoon with the other spoon, then quickly flick your wrist to create a soft curl (like soft serve) on top of the candy.

Allow the candy to set at room temperature – maybe overnight, depending on the humidity in your home – until dry to the touch and no longer sticky. Once set and dry, you can keep it at room temperature for up to 5 days in an airtight container.

I procrastinated making this recipe for, let’s just say, a long time, because I was worried about the hot syrup permanently disfiguring me. When I finally resolved to forge ahead, I watched several videos of rather cavalier women and their daughters happily smiling and laughing while pouring redhot liquid into a mixing bowl- all of which was at once comforting and terrifying. I figured the first step in any successful undertaking is planning. As you can see below, I had everything laid out, ready for my big adventure.

The egg whites, at room temperature, are in the mixer bowl, and the silicone pad is to rest the hot pot on, should I need to put it down.

I followed the directions that I had repeatedly read, and set about making the syrup on the stove. That went well, with the candy thermometer actually reading 260º! Buoyed by my success, I started the mixer and whipped those eggs until stiff peaks formed. Before I poured the hot syrup into the egg whites, I switched to the paddle, and managed to empty the entire contents of the pot into the mixer bowl without a drop falling on my hazmat suit. I beat and beat and beat until I was convinced that the mixture was no longer shiny and could hold its shape. Working quickly, I sprayed two teaspoons with cooking spray and dropped rounded spoonfulls of the candy onto the lined pan. Then this happened.

As you can see, these are not mounds. They are little flat rounds of taffy-textured failures.

I left the pan to cool and dry, and cleaned up the kitchen mess, hoping the candy would metamorphose into the fluffy mounds they were destined to be. Finally realizing that my candy was not divinity, but taffy, I rolled each round into a cylinder and put them in a sealed container. Then this happened.

Instead of distinct little taffy rolls, the divinity had flattened and dried itself into a sheet.

Though it is not what it is supposed to be, it tastes wonderful! Sweet with crunchy pecans. We did not throw it away. We are eating every last bit.

Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World

THE BOOK: First of all, I have to comment on the character of the author, Jack Weatherford. Most writers are passionate about their subjects. They’d have to be, to spend so much intellectual energy and time on one thing. Without passion the work is just assembly line labor. Weatherford has taken passion to a whole other level, however, by not just researching this material, but living it! He retraced the steps (on the steppes!) of the great Khan without the benefit of speaking the native language. He lived as the Mongols must have, in yurts and on horseback in the heat of the blazing desert sun and the cold of the Siberian winter. Bearing that in mind as I read, put me in the setting in a way that I haven’t experienced in other nonfiction reading. So kudos to Weatherfield for that aspect of this book.

Early in his career, Temujin, later called Genghis Khan, established a pattern of warfare that made him unbeatable. When he attacked Bukhara, for example, he surprised them by coming in from the Red Desert. He had waited for the coldest months so that his army would need less water and the dew stimulated the growth of grass to feed the horses. Instead of transporting a large supply of necessary goods, he brought along a corps of engineers who built whatever they needed from available materials. In addition, he captured several small towns on the way, allowing refugees to flee to Bukhara, thereby increasing the level of terror in anticipation of the advancing Mongol army. Using catapults, trebuchets and mangonels, Genghis Khan and his army forced the city of Bukhara to surrender. The great Khan’s next target was Samarkand, but they had heard about the defeat at Bukhara and surrendered.

Genghis Khan changed the manner in which the Mongols fought and distributed the booty of the conquered. Only after the opponent was soundly defeated did the looting take place, and then, Genghis Khan controlled the allocation of the looted goods. The family of a soldier who died in battle received his allocation of loot. When a city was conquered, only those showing loyalty to Genghis Khan were rewarded and advanced, the leaders were killed and everyone else was accepted. GK did not advance family members, which later proved problematic, but that was left for his heirs to sort out. He abolished inherited aristocratic titles, sort of outlawed adultery, made all children legitimate, forbade selling women into marriage, made animal rustling a capital offense, provided religious freedom, adopted a writing system, and banned hostage-taking. In addition, the rules applied to everyone, including the great Khan! A Khan could only be elected by the “khuraltai,” a gathering of Mongol chiefs and khans. GK also started a communication system of fast riders called “arrow messengers.” Postal service stations were positioned 20 miles apart, and required 25 families to maintain each of them.

Genghis Khan’s reliance on discipline and loyalty; his indifference to inherited aristocracy; promotion of equality through religious tolerance and some rights for women; and propaganda, reminded me of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. I’d love to ask George R. R. Martin if he based the character on Genghis Khan.

THE BEAUTY: Throat singing! Years ago I went to the Saunders Theater in Cambridge to hear the Throat Singers of Tuva. The scenery in this clip is remarkable.

THE FOOD: At one point when food was scarce, Temujin and his men ate boiled horseflesh, which they considered a divine intervention as they would have died of starvation without it. It goes without saying that there wasn’t much I could do with that, culinarily speaking, so I googled Mongolian food and found a recipe for “buuz,” (I loved the name). I’m not a fan of lamb, but I thought I might like ground lamb. So off to the market, where, to my relief, there was no ground lamb, so I was going to have to use ground beef after all! Just then, a butcher came by and asked if I needed any help. (Divine intervention?) I asked if they had any ground lamb, and he led me to the section where it would be, but alas, there was none. He was apologetic and said that he had some lamb legs that he could grind up for me, so at this point, how could I say no thank you after he had been so helpful?So here’s my “buuz” in the steaming basket. I wish I could say I loved it.

In Mongolia, buuz is prepared for special occasions, celebrations or honored guests

Mongolian Buuz

1½ C water
1½ lbs. ground lamb
1½ C onion
3 pieces scallions
4 cloves garlic
3 T ground coriander
3 T salt for filling
1 tsp ground black pepper

In a medium size bowl mix together flour and salt. Make a well in the center and gradually pour in water. Pull in flour from the side of the bowl until well mixed in and you have formed a dough.

Place dough on a clean work surface and knead with your hands until dough is smooth. Add more flour or water if necessary.

Place dough in a bowl, cover and allow dough to rest for one hour in the refrigerator before using.

In a large bowl, combine lamb, onion, scallions, garlic, coriander, salt and pepper. Mix until everything is well combined.

Remove dough from refrigerator, knead for about a minute then roll it out into a log about 1-inch in diameter. Cut the roll into 1-inch slices. Roll slice into a ball and lightly dust with flour. Flatten it a bit, then roll it out into a circle about 4-inches in diameter. Make the center slightly thicker than the edge.

Hold one dough circle in your hand (left hand for righties and vice versa for south paws) and place about a teaspoon of filling in the center. Pinch the edge on one side, then create another fold next to it. Continue this way while rotating the buuz as you go along. If done correctly there will be a small opening in the center of the top.

Dip the bottom of each buuz into a bit of oil, or line a steamer rack with lettuce or parchment paper so that buuz does not stick to the rack. Arrange buuz on rack so that they do not touch. We used a bamboo steamer. If you don’t have one, a flat pasta strainer or even a cake rack would work just as well.

Place the steamer in a pan or wok that has about 2-inches of water in the bottom. Water should not touch the dumplings.

Bring water to a simmer, place steamer into the pan and put the lid on the steamer. Steam for 20 minutes without removing lid. Serve hot.

Illumination in the Flatwoods

THE BOOK: Since we moved to our new home almost a year ago, I have developed an interest in the behavior of wild turkeys. We’ve named our property “Turkey HIll” because of the frequent visitation by a gang of turkeys that forage in our neighborhood. I’ve done some research online and found a bit of very clinical information about the birds: like the names of the different types of vocalizations they make, their home range (generally 370 to 1360 acres), and that turkeys will “rubberneck” when they’ve spotted you, by stretching up their necks and staring at you. But I wanted to know what people who’ve studied turkey behavior up close had to say. I couldn’t have found a better book than this one!

Joe Hutto is a naturalist whose story of raising turkeys was depicted on a show in the PBS series, “Nature.” He has also used the method of “imprinting” to study mule deer as documented in his book, Touching the Wild. In this book, he almost becomes a turkey as he develops a great fondness for his “gang.” His story begins when a neighbor left a bowl of turkey eggs on his front steps. Hutto had to scramble to borrow an incubator from another neighbor to quickly get the eggs warm. He had no idea how old the eggs were so he had to guestimate when certain behaviors on his part should stop, so that hatching could proceed. Joe spent a lot of time with the eggs, talking to them and making turkey sounds so that they would, hopefully recognize him when they hatched. After they hatched, he, literally lived with them, letting them climb all over him, rest in his cupped hands, and later, roost and forage with them. The tone of the book is reverential, as Hutto communes with his natural surroundings in the Flatwoods of the northern part of Florida near the Apalachicola National Forest. The only criticism of the book I have is that Hutto is fond of poisonous snakes. Snakes! If there is one thing in the universe I hate, it’s snakes. Consequently, I took no notes about the rattlers and coral snakes, etc. that get frequent mention in these pages. But I wrote lots of notes about the turkeys. They have strong opinions about color. They loved Joe’s blue shirt, but tried to peck a brown one off him. There is humor here, too: “The old anthropocentric notion that human beings somehow are distinctly removed from the rest of the animal kingdom was a poorly conceived vessel that will no longer float.”

The title of the book comes from a Joseph Campbell quote, “Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.” It saddened me to learn that I’m never going to experience illumiation because you have to release yourself completely from desiring the goods of this world and fearing their loss. I like my stuff too much! I think the closest I can get to illumination happened a couple of days ago when I observed a (redtailed ) hawk soaring high above me at the end of the day when then light is exceptionally luminous. Every time he flew toward me, the sun lit up his chest and made him glow like a god, and left me with a twinge in my chest that made my heart grow lighter and brought a tear to my eye.

THE BEAUTY: Baby anything is beautiful. But these turkey poults intuitively know stuff about being a turkey at a very young age, and they’re SO VERY CUTE!

THE FOOD: Joe Hutto foraged with the birds every day, and found that his food distracted them to a degree that interfered with their eating, so he learned to eat what they were eating- except for the insects: the beetles, grasshoppers and larvae. So Joe ate the berries that the turkeys ate and brought the occasional apple with him that didn’t distract the “gang.” The turkeys especially liked gallberries. When I googled gallberries, somehow I wound up at the website of Classic City Bee Company in Athens, Georgia where they package gallberry honey. It is delicious, and as a fan of the wildflower honey that my neighbor sells (tastes like flowers!), I consider myself something of a honey connoisseur. The gallberry honey doesn’t go into my daily smoothies, no, no. This honey is savored on a spoon, directly from the jar. It is really something something special.