Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Category: Books

Boris Fishman Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, a dish in Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, one of the dishes in Savage Feast. (Image courtesy of Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)

In his memoir with recipes Savage Feast, Boris Fishman tells stories about family meals and vexing conversations revolving around them.  The meals are made up of dishes from the Belarusian Jewish heritage of his parents.  The conversations test Fishman’s patience and ability to explain to his mom and dad from the ex-Soviet Union his aspirations as a young man who was born in Belarus but grown up in the USA.  Most importantly of all, he is struggling to make understandable both to them and himself the issues in his protracted relationship with Alana, an American woman with whom he shares an “attraction that would make Gabriel García Márquez sit up,” but which unfortunately proves insufficient to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship.

Right in its prologue, Savage Feast sets up multiple questions that on a single weekend kept me reading right to the book’s very end. Would Fishman eventually reconcile his ex-Soviet immigrant heritage with his American identity?  Would he be able to find a partner with whom he enjoys a healthy, harmonious relationship? And would he share at least one meal with his Belarusian Jewish family, savoring delicious dishes without being upset and disappointed at their inability to understand him?

I appreciated the honesty and directness with which Fishman relates his frustrations in the interactions with his parents.  In my experience, Eastern European families don’t openly acknowledge problems and disagreements.  This makes it close to impossible to resolve thorny issues and patterns of dysfunction.  It falls on children to tackle troubling matters in order to clear the path to their own well-being.  A lot is at stake here and I couldn’t resist gobbling up Savage Feast so that I could find out whether Fishman would succeed.

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Lindsey S. Love Chickpea Flour Does It All

birthday cake by Lindsey S. Love

A Late-Summer Birthday Cake (Recipe by Lindsey S. Love & Image by Penwhisk)

Last night when the smells from my kitchen lulled me to sleep, I felt sweetly content: I had finally managed to bake the Chocolate Banana Loaf from Lindsey S. Love’s fine Chickpea Flour Does It All.  The recipes in this fresh-ingredients cookbook are gluten- and dairy-free.  Fortunately, none of my loved ones are gluten intolerant.  However, we all feel nurtured and nourished when eating Lindsey S. Love’s food.  My family regularly feasts on dishes using her delectable recipes.  The Moroccan-Spiced Lentil Burgers, Mung Bean Pancakes and Caraway Spätzle are steady favorites of ours.

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Cooking with Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi (Image by Penwhisk)

Complicated is my relationship with Yotam Ottolenghi, the eminent Israeli-British chef, owner of notable culinary establishments in London and author of award-winning cookbooks.  Ottolenghi and I have never met and we appear to be at very different stages in life.  Currently, I am a stay-at-home mom and house-wife, an occupation, which, going by the look on the faces of those with whom I share this piece of information, makes me neither capable nor accomplished.  I have won no awards as a stay-at-home mom.  (This is fortunate, for I associate such distinctions with the Mother’s Cross of Honor, given to women in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.)  Nonetheless, there are some things that Ottolenghi and I have in common.  Firstly, both of us hold advanced degrees in Comparative Literature — he a M.A. and I, a Ph.D.  Plenty More is the second thing we share.  He wrote it and I must have used it cooking at least 150 times in the past year. 

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Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore

a cow

Image courtesy of Derek Story on Unsplash

I knew that in India cows were considered holy beings, but it was only when I read Shoba Narayan’s latest book that I understood how the relationship to these animals enriched the exchanges between humans.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore tells a captivating story about Sarala, who tends to her cows in the midst of the rapidly developing, bustling capital of Karnataka state in South India.  Narayan’s decision to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows sets her on a path of unexpected discoveries about the life of urban farmers like Sarala, the bond they nurture with their animals, cultural beliefs about the wholesome qualities of cow urine and the purifying properties of cow dung.  However, most importantly of all is that Narayan’s narrative reveals the ways in which two human beings who inhabit radically different worlds can share rich moments of understanding and intimacy.  In an age when we rely predominantly on social media to connect and communicate with others, and even to maintain our friendships, it is both eye-opening and much needed to engage with Narayan’s thoughtful and compassionate narrative of her interactions with her milk lady.

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Reading Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Fountain "druzhba Narodov Sssr"

Fountain Druzhba Narodov in Moscow
Image courtesy of John McNickname on Flickr

On a walk in the woods, my dear, thoughtful neighbor recommended Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  A friend of hers, who was not really a reader, raved about the book, and my neighbor was pleased to confirm that the tip was right on.  With my curiosity piqued by a piece of reading advice from a person who doesn’t easily yield to the pleasure of spending long hours with books, I rushed to the library and checked out von Bremzen’s book.  Over the week-end, I couldn’t put Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking down until I flipped its very last page.  It was like meeting someone new and immediately clicking with that person, wanting to find out everything about him or her, and being in awe with every single detail.  Or running into a friend whom I hadn’t seen for ages and quickly recognizing how much I enjoyed their presence, cancelling my mid-afternoon obligations in the blink of an eye, and sitting down for an engrossing conversation over a delicious cup of tea and freshly baked Italian plum cake.  Does this sound like an indulgence? Well, it really is the best possible kind I could think of.

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