Aug 25 2008

Learning to love lasagna

They say that first impressions are everything, and I think this is true of food more than most things in our lives. You can get over the fact that the first time you saw your future husband he was that total jerk drunk off his ass who threw up all over your shoes. But you never get over your mama’s pumpkin pie, or the way your grandmama made soup when you were a kid, or how your dad taught you was the only proper way to grill a hamburger. You may have other pumpkin pies, with richer ingredients and more subtle flavors. But although they may taste good—even spectacular–they will never give the same sense of satisfaction as the pie you grew up with. Your mother’s pie carries the weight of definition—it is the pie one ought to find under “p” in the dictionary.

Of course, the opposite is also true. A bad first experience can ruin a thing for life. There was a time when a friend and I once ate far too much popcorn—binged on the stuff, actually–and got as sick as only two girls who have eaten nothing but candy and popcorn and orange sodas can. To this day, I don’t order popcorn at movies. And it wasn’t until someone thought to cover popcorn in powdered cheese that I was able to eat the stuff once again. (Cheese popcorn tasted nothing like the oily, buttery stuff I made myself sick on at the age of eight).

Which brings me to lasagna, a dish that has been my bete noir for most of my life. I don’t actually remember the very first time I ate lasagna. It must have been very young, and it couldn’t have been all that bad an experience. I am Italian, after all. But I do remember the first two dozen times I had lasagna—and it became a re-occuring trial and source of much angst in my family.

My grandmother, you see, got it into her head that we—the entire family—loved lasagna. That it was our very favorite meal on earth. So she naturally made it whenever we came for a visit. The problem was, at this time in our lives my grandmother lived in another state, and it was a good six or seven hour drive to get to her house. Sometimes even longer, if mom and dad decided to stop for a rest along the way (a necessity when the car is crammed with three kids). And because we would often leave for our visit after my dad came home from teaching school, sometimes we wouldn’t pull in to grandma’s drive until ten or even eleven at night.

And there she’d be; the table set, the house filled with the aroma of tomatoes and garlic, and a great huge pan of lasagna just laying in wait for us. Now kids are pretty resilient, but I can tell you that after a long and cramped car ride (back before the days when cars had air conditioners), the last thing any of us felt like doing when we finally arrived was sit down to a big meal, only to go right to bed afterwards with stuffed, queasy stomachs. Still, there was no getting out of it. You couldn’t tell grandma you weren’t hungry. You couldn’t tell her that it was too late to eat anything. She would just look at you with that grandma-knows-best look and say, “oh, you can eat just a little something.”

A little something. Words that made us all groan in despair. What made the whole thing especially frustrating was that grandma was a small person who didn’t eat enough to keep a chihuahua alive. So while we all had to force down generous helpings of pasta heavy with ricotta cheese and italian sausage, Grandma would just sit with us at the table and WATCH US EAT. Mom has told me that they tried calling ahead on these trips. Dad would phone grandma from some rest stop to tell her specifically and unambigously NOT to cook. “We’ve eaten on the road” he’d say. “You don’t need to make anything.” “Oh,” grandma would answer, “I’ll just have a little something.” “Crap.” Dad would say to mom as he hung up the phone. The lasagna would be waiting.

Lasagna may not be your first weapon of choice when waging a passive aggessive war, but it is a very effective one. Mom stopped making lasagna at home. Once I left for college, I never ate lasagna again. I have learned to cook, learned to tell good Italian food from bad, learned how to distinguish between the sauces of the different provinces of Italy, but I have never ordered the lasagna in any restaurant. Just the thought of it brought a lingering and faint sense of dread. It is a little embarrassing to admit that as an Italian food critic I am afraid of lasagna, so this month I decided to conquer my irrational fear and reclaim this signature dish.

Lasagna is one of the great comfort foods. I have always assumed the incarnation we now think of– a lavish dish with layer upon layer of cheese, meat, pasta and rich sauce to be rather medieval. They had a way of going rather over the top when it came to food—medievals were constantly doing things like stuffing sparrows into peacocks, and the layered hedonism of lasagna seemed to come from the same kind of indulgent impulse. In fact, lasagna, or a version of it, can be traced back to the Romans—who knew all about over doing things.

I decided that if I was going to reclaim lasagna for myself, it had to be something significantly different from my grandmother’s, and yet still feel traditional. No eggplant substitutes, no “vegetarian” versions. No sneaking in mushrooms instead of meat. But neither did I want it to be “too cheesy” or “too tomato-y”—the two faults that I have always associated with my grandmother’s version.

Eventually I decided to make something that might be considered a cross between your traditional lasagna, and the Bolognese version that uses less tomatoes, and more mushrooms and bechemal sauce. I followed a traditional recipe, but added prosciutto to the sausage layer, and grated smoked cheese to the ricotta layer. I also made a tomato sauce from scratch, because canned sauces are always too sweet for me. Ever since I learned to make baked tomato sauce (where the tomatoes, peppers and garlic are all roasted before being peeled, crushed and stirred into the sauce) I haven’t been satisfied with anything less.

The end result (from the recipe below) was amazing. Oh, I had my difficulties—I discovered that one result of avoiding lasagna my entire life was that I had no lasagna pan, so I had to make do with a baking dish that was a little too shallow for my purposes. I also discovered that while I have a fairly decent sense of what ingredients go well together, I apparently have no spatial sense at all—I made far too much pasta. I really only needed enough for about three layers (nine sheets). I made twice that amount, much to the amusement of friends. And since there is really nothing you can do with cooked lasagna noodles except make lasagna with them, I was forced to throw some of it out.

Still, all in all, the mission was a success. I found that while the dish looked like grandma’s lasagna, it tasted very different. Rich and smoky from the mozzarella and the roasted tomato sauce. The mushrooms also helped nudge the taste away from the sharp, tomato-y taste I remembered.The proscuitto melted into the dish, acting almost as a seasoning for the sausage—I used 5 ounces, which I think made the dish a little too salty, so I’ve reduced the amount in the recipe below.

Most importantly, I’ve started looking forward to having lasagna. I find I am now looking for it on the menu when I go out to eat, and finding excuses to invite people over so I can serve it at home. I think I have finally exorcised that demon. And when Mom called to say she and my father would be driving down for a visit this summer, I told her I’d be sure to have lasagna.

“What?!?” she said in alarm.

Rosa’s Lasagna (based on a recipe from Gourmet Magazine, May 2004)
Feeds 6-8, especially if consumed just after they have arrived from a long car trip
ingredients
Sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 pounds FRESH Italian sweet sausage (not spicy!!). Take it out of the casing if there is any. If you are using regular Italian sausage (not fresh) then add a half teaspoon rubbed sage.
3 ounces prosciutto, chopped
2 cups chopped onions
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, roasted in their skins then peeled
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
half a teaspoon of cinnamon
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can San marzano tomatoes OR
five good-quality marzano tomatoes, skins oiled and roasted, then peeled and crushed, juices reserved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil


Aug 20 2008

The Tao of Breakfast

“Why is breakfast different from all other things, so that the Greeks called it the best thing in the world, and so that each of us in a vague way knows that he would eat at breakfast nothing but one special kind of food, and that he could not imagine breakfast at any other hour in the day?” —Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome

I am a morning person; one of those annoying people that wakes instantly and completely the moment they open their eyes, able to play chess, fix computer errors and write review columns even before having a cup of coffee. Not that this is my favorite way to spend a morning, but I can rise to the occasion if required. (“Only dull people,” says Oscar Wilde, “are brilliant at breakfast.”) It is a result of early childhood indoctrination. Dad would get up every morning at 5 am to go running, and Mom would be up shortly after to make us breakfast before trundling us off to school. I walked to school, so I was often out the door before seven, and at my desk for morning chorus practice before eight.

Mom never let us out the door without eating something, and to give her credit, breakfast was always a “meal” in the fullest sense of the word—meaning, something that required dishes, silverware, glasses of juice and at least twenty minutes to consume. Looking back now, I remember “healthy” cereals without frosting or bright colors, French toast, bagels, pancakes, and as a rare treat, eggs and Canadian bacon. (Mom didn’t believe in sugar or cholesterol). I remember rejecting oatmeal and yogurt, but liking granola and cinnamon toast.

It was in college—that terrible era when so many bad eating habits are adopted–that I learned to accept yogurt into my pantheon of acceptable breakfasts, and at a particularly low point in my life, cold pizza. College was the era of the granola bar and the cup of yogurt, the sausage biscuit and the breakfast that didn’t require a plate or a fork. Those were busy, dark days. But even then, if asked about my “ideal” breakfast, I would have said cereal, eggs and bacon, bagels and toast.

Where this intractable stubbornness with regards to breakfast comes from, I can’t guess, but I’m not alone. Belloc’s observation above on the nature of breakfast comes during a morning spent drinking wine and eating bread and cheese—all of which had tasted delicious to him the night before, but were absolutely dreadful things to contemplate upon waking. “…In the harsh light of dawn [the wine] turned out to be nothing but a bitter and intolerable vinegar.” One suspects that the taste of the wine in the morning was very much dependent on how much of it he had drunk the night before. I love bacon and eggs in the morning, but like Belloc and his wine, simply can’t imagine having them at any other time of the day. Likewise, there are foods I just never want to see on a breakfast plate, something I discovered after moving South and eating at diners known for their “country” breakfasts.

I can’t tolerate sliced tomatoes on my plate with my eggs, for example—it brings up all sorts of bad associations involving this one cigarette-infested roadside diner and a waitress who chewed tobacco. The slick feel of a slice of beefsteak tomato—perfectly appetizing on a plate with some fresh mozzarella or in a spinach salad, is just revolting when it is sitting, cold and slimy, in the grease puddle made by my under-done eggs. I have learned, since moving to North Carolina, to simply tolerate things like grits and hash browns, and chocolate chip pancakes. I can admit that buttermilk biscuits are an acceptable substitute for toast. I no longer immediately retch when the guy at the next table orders fried pork chops AND steak with his eggs over easy. I’ve learned, after a few crash courses in the Cracker Barrel, to deal with the fact that some people put that thick gooey white “gravy” all over their biscuits and potatoes. I have even learned to like Texas Pete hot sauce on my eggs almost as much as Tabasco. If that doesn’t show I’ve acclimated, then I don’t know what would.

I don’t mean to sound intractable or fussy—I’ve eaten a lot of different breakfast foods over the last ten years as a food critic, from sausage burritos to “garden” omelets, to fancy pancakes in ridiculous shapes, to crepes filled with things that belong more on a dinner menu than a morning meal. I’ve liked most everything I’ve eaten, but—and here is the caveat—as food, not as “breakfast.” I can’t imagine starting my day with a seafood-filled crepe in garlic-lemon sauce on a regular basis. When I get up in the morning I do not, and never will think first of sausage burrito. Breakfast, at least at home, is a way to start your day out right. And “right,” in my case, will always be the prosaic eggs and bacon. The most decadent crabmeat-filled crepe with a side of strawberries and champagne would never make me feel as happy, as satisfied, as a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, juice and a cup of strong black coffee. As life philosophies go, I’m with the journalist John Gunther, who said:

“All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”

Rosa’s Decadent Scrambled Eggs
[this recipe is slightly modified from one I heard on Lynne Rossetto Kaspar’s radio show, The Splendid Table]
Serves 2
• 1 large scallion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon curly parsley leaves, chopped
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon fresh basil or tarragon leaves, chopped
• 6 large eggs (think 3 per person)
• 3 ounces cream cheese, cut into about 3/4-inch pieces (can substitute goat cheese, sharp cheddar, brie, or even port salut)
• Salt and freshly ground pepper as needed
• 2 tablespoons butter
1. Combine the chopped herbs. In a medium bowl use a fork beat all the eggs until well mixed. Stir in the herbs, and a little salt and pepper.
2. In a 10-inch heavy non-stick skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Add the eggs and allow to cook gently for several minutes without stirring. Sprinkle cheese pieces uniformly on one half of the eggs, and after another minute, use a wide spatula to flip the empty half over, like an omelet. Allow half a minute more and then flip the whole thing again.
3. Lower heat to medium low and flip once more, scraping up any egg sticking to the pan, for 3 minutes, or until the eggs are as dry as you like and the cheese is melted or melting. I like mine wet, but this recipe works very well for people who like well-cooked eggs, since the oils in the cheese keep them from getting too dry.


Aug 15 2008

Learning to Bake Bread

“The first time your mother ever baked a loaf of bread,” my Dad used to tell me with fondness, “it was so hard it put a hole through the drywall in our apartment.” I’ve always had a hard time believing this story, because my mother is one of those people who ends up being very good at whatever she decides to do—from gardening to cooking to raising kids to drawing to decorating Easter eggs to being completely prepared for any eventuality that might occur on a family camping trip with three small children. So the idea that she could decide to bake a loaf of bread and have it NOT turn out perfectly stretches the imagination a bit. Still, I have to admit that when I think of my mother and baking, what I remember was an endless series of cookies, pies and desserts; cranberry bread and carrot cake and date pinwheels and banana nut bread. I don’t remember bread—as in sourdough or sandwich, although I suppose she must have made it because otherwise why would my father and I be having that conversation?

Still, it wasn’t until I was out of college and in my own apartment that I started to pay attention to bread, buying my first loaf of non-white, non-presliced, artisan-crafted sourdough from a crunchy-granola supermarket down the street called “Bread and Circus.” I had to buy a bread knife to slice it. At that point in my life, bread—and eating—was an act of resistance. I shopped at food coops for organic produce and bought herbs and spices in little plastic ziploc bags that would have surely made a cop’s eyebrows climb if he happened to peer into my back pack on grocery day. And because I was very poor, and buying organic was rather expensive, I ate a lot of bread, which at least had the virtue of being filling even if it wasn’t all that cheap.

I experimented a little bit with baking my own bread in those days, but I was too easily intimidated by the counter-cooking-culture to really feel comfortable with it. Back then, my friends were the type to build their own wood-fired stone bread ovens in their back yards, and use 100-year-old sour dough cultures they had preserved from immigrant great great grandmothers. They ordered stone ground organic flour off of cheaply printed order forms from special coop farms. They let their breads rise in hand-made bowls and baked them on special stones and tiles they found in little artisan shops in Italy and France. A loaf of their bread probably cost about twenty-five bucks when you took into account all the extra time spent procuring pure ingredients and special equipment, and I could eat for a week on $25 if I didn’t mind the taste of Ramen pride too much. Besides, I lived in a tiny apartment with an oven whose thermostat was…eccentric. It made baking difficult.

So it wasn’t until I came South, moved into a house with a little more space than your average walk-in closet, and installed an oven that meant what it said when it showed the tempurature to be 400 F, that I tried once again to learn how to bake bread. It was a different experience this time around. I was in a brand new kitchen, a brand new house in a brand new city. I didn’t know anyone, and had no one to impress but myself (and my mother, who I still called regularly once a week). I had five pounds of flour in the cupboard and nothing else to do with it but bake. I had one large glass bowl, two regular sized glass bread loaf pans, and one fairly sturdy wooden spoon. I had a baker’s dozen books on the art of baking bread “from scratch.” I had no job and a lot of time.

As it turned out, all my bread baking books, while fascinating to read, were rather more complicated than I was willing to attempt as a nascent bread baker, so after a bit of searching I found what looked like a simple recipe in the back of one of my cookbooks that was actually devoted to soups and stews. “Good soup deserves good bread.” said author Bernard Clayton, who then proceeds to give a simple recipe for “A Peasant Loaf” using only flour, water, yeast and salt. It turned out so well, I have been using the same recipe ever since.

Bernard Clayton\'s Complete Book of Soups and StewsOh, I’ve wandered. I’ve tried more elaborate doughs, added other ingredients, used other kinds of flour and other types of starters. I have gone through whole grain phases and challah phases and flatbread phases. I even once had the freezer full of naan—a kind of Indian bread made with yogurt that is cooked in a frying pan stuck in an oven. That was educational, but ultimately wasteful since even I couldn’t eat that much naan. But on the whole, Clayton’s original peasant loaf has proved so reliable that I come back to it again and again, the rhythm of it so ingrained in my hands that I haven’t needed to look at the recipe for years. In fact, when a friend asked me for my bread recipe, I had to actually think my way through the steps to give it to her—like the way you can only tell someone the lyrics of a song if you sing it to yourself in your head.

Baking bread became a kind of ritual for me. I often give the loaves away (one person can only eat so much bread) but I used the process as a way to relax. Some people do yoga, I knead dough. The smell of loaves baking in the oven is more therapeutic than aromatherapy. And far more satisfying. It took a few months before I learned—by feel—when the dough had been kneaded to that perfect, silky elasticity, and when I had over done it. It took awhile before I had figured out when the water was too hot or too cold for the yeast. And there was one fateful and sad day when I forgot I had left the dough rising, and it did far more than double in size—spilling over the lip of the bowl and dripping down over the edges of the counter tops.

Now, I use the recipe below—tweaked slightly to accommodate the use of some sourdough starter my mother gave me–and bake bread about once every other week—unless it has been a very stressful week, in which case I might go through a good five pounds of flour baking bread for the neighborhood.
As decompression techniques go kneading bread dough is pretty harmless. I could be out drinking.

A Peasant Loaf
Inspired by The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton (Fireside Books, 1984)

Ingredients:

2 packages dry yeast
1 cup sourdough starter
2 cups of water (70 F)
6 cups of bread flour, approximately
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons water
Butter or shortening

1. Sprinkle the yeast over the 2 cups of water in a mixing bowl. Let stand for a moment or two, then stir to dissolve the yeast particles.
2. Add starter, stir until mixed, then add 3 cups of flour and stir into a thick batter. This is the point where you can add seasonings as well—rosemary, or cracked peppercorns, or caraway seeds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 4 to 6 hours, until size doubles.
3. Mix the salt with two teaspoons of water and pour into the batter. Add flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring first with a wooden spatula or spoon and then working by hand as it gets less sticky. When the dough is shaggy but a solid ball, turn out onto a work table. Begi kneading aggresively—psuh down with the fingers of both hands, turn the dough a quarter turn and fold over—continue this rhythm. Sprinkle on more flour as neeeded to give the dough additional body—it should not slump when formed into a ball. Occasionally slam the dough down hard against the work surface to speed the formation of the gluten. Dough should be elastic, firm but not hard.
4. Lightly film a bowl with butter or shortening and place the lump of dough in it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for about 1.5 hours—until it more than doubles in volume.
5. Punch down the puffy dough and put it on a lightly floured work surface. Shape into one large loaf or divide the ball into as many pieces as you want loaves or rolls.. For round loaves (boules) shape the pieces into blls and place them on a greased baking sheet (you can sprinkly a little cornmeal on the sheet if you like). For baguettes, roll the dough under your palms to extend out 16 to 20 inches and place on a baking sheet.
6. Cover the loaves with wax paper and leave at room teperature until they have risen to more than double in volume.
7. Place 1 cup of hot water in a shallow pan in the bottom of the oven to provide steam during the first few minutes of baking. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
8. With a razor blade or VERY sharp knife, make diagonal cuts across the loaves. Place the loaves on the middle shelf of the over. Bake for 25-35 minutes. Loaves are done when they are a golden brown in color and hard on the bottom, and sound hollow when thumped.
9. Place on a rack to cool.


Aug 12 2008

My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King

I have an endless fascination with cookbooks from far away countries, of unfamiliar cuisines. Which would explain why I own cookbooks—note the plural—devoted to the cooking of Eritrea and why I felt inclined once to buy an entire volume devoted to traditional recipes of Kenya. But as fascinating as these books are, they can rarely be found cracked open on my kitchen counter before dinner. The problem with books devoted to exotic dishes is that they usually require rather exotic ingredients. The local Hampstead Food Lion, my current supermarket, is a very wonderful place but has not, as yet, taken to stocking things like kaffir lime leaves or “taff” (a small, specialized eastern African grain). Usually these books are for dreaming, not for using.

My Bombay KitchenBut occasionally, they aren’t. Sometimes, you come across a cookbook that is as fun to use as it is to read, and I think that King’s My Bombay Kitchen may well be one of this rarified group. The subtitle of the book is “Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking” which is why I picked up the book in the first place. Although I like to talk about my Italian grandmother and her endless attempts to force us to eat swimming pool-sized helpings of lasagna, in truth I happen to come from a family that –thanks to several rather adventurous aunts—is a little more international. I have some cousins who are Arab, and one who is African American. One especially adventurous aunt married a Parsi—his family lives in India although his ethnicity is actually Persian. (My mother says that our family portraits look like a little United Nations gathering.) Dinners at my aunt’s house were always exciting.

Parsi cooking is a complex amalgam of rich Middle Eastern cuisine and high-caste Indian cooking. Recipes tend to have lots of ingredients, and especially lots of spices. It is…a joyous cuisine, I guess, where every dish seems to have an exuberance and extravagance that I normally associate with special holiday dinners. King’s book—written as part family memoir and part culinary exploration of a cultural foodway—is a testament to this joyousness, this delight. This is a cuisine, one realizes, for people who love to eat.
Not that there aren’t a few oddities that I’ll probably never try making in my kitchen. I could do without the “kharia” which is a very short, innocuous word for “trotters with black-eyed peas.” King claims she has been “hopelessly and gluttonously fond of it since childhood” but most readers and cooks are no doubt willing to take her at her word. Nor was I immediately enamored of King’s recipe for “Brain Cutlets” –a dish, she says, of “brains for people who don’t like brains.” Which would be pretty much everyone, would it not.
But organ meat oddities aside, My Bombay Kitchen is packed from start to finish with recipes that bring new meaning to the phrase “mouth watering”. Her seafood ragout (“patia”) takes a full two and a half pages to describe (no pictures), will leave your kitchen redolent in the scent of chilies and turmeric and the tang of tamarind, and is absolutely exquisite when it is finally, finally finished. Most of the recipes are like this—requiring time and attention but immensely rewarding for the effort. They are also full of surprises. The crab salad includes mango. The coleslaw includes lime and mint. The “Thanksgiving Turkey”, the kind of modern adaptation one might expect of a family that had migrated from Mumbai to San Francisco, is made with ginger and pomegranate molasses.

King is careful to include extensive descriptions of each dish—sometimes culled from her own experiences and family memories, and sometimes showing the evidence of diligent research. This makes My Bombay Kitchen read like an intricate combination of memoir, history, and cooking class. But despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of information, it remains a fundamentally useful volume for a home cook. Even if that home cook does not, like the author, have the good fortune to live in a city like San Francisco. I found myself impressed with how many recipes could be made with a little garlic-chili paste, some turmeric, and a few fresh garden vegetables. The quick-cooked greens, what the author calls “express bhaji”, are delicious with the addition of a little ginger and chili. I made them with kale, which tastes sharp and spicy, and again with collards (I can hear my southern mama-in-law is tut-tutting up there in heaven). And I was very much impressed with King’s “Get-Well Soup”, which I really could have used back in January when I was shivering with a low-grade fever for weeks on end. This is not your average chicken soup. One reviewer called it “the first real cure for the common cold” and frankly, he had a point.

In the end, My Bombay Kitchen stayed open on my kitchen counter for over a week, during which the scents of ginger, garlic, chili and sautéing vegetables and chicken wafted out of the kitchen window nearly the entire time. I could see my next-door neighbors turn and look towards the house with something like wonder, or envy. As interesting as the book is to read, My Bombay Kitchen is really a book for people who love to cook. And all of their friends, who must love to eat.

Get Well Soup

1 small chicken (about 2 pounds), all visible fat removed
6 to 8 slices peeled fresh ginger
6 to 8 slices fresh turmeric
4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 whole cloves
12 (or more) black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2.5 quarts of water
lime or lemon halves
freshly ground black pepper

Put the chicken in a deep pot with the ginger, turmeric, garlic, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently until the chicken is falling off the bones.


Aug 10 2008

Education of T.C. Mits

The education of T.C. MITS : what modern mathematics means to you

The Education of T.C. MITSThis is a particularly beguiling “math for the masses” book, but it is really more about how ideas make life better. It is a little funny how the authors’ moral derived from the calculation of the circumference of a circle is that “your head CAN go farther than your feet!”

The book covers everything from statistics to finite algebra and non-Euclidian geometry, (from which we learn we must “Pull your mind out of those muddy old ruts and adapt yourself to a continually CHANGING world!”) But what really gets me about the book, aside from its light, irreverent tone, is that it was first published in 1942 in a special, super-sturdy G.I. edition. Apparently for soldiers to cart around in their back pockets and read. I am trying, and failing, to imagine a publisher with a math book conceiving of such a marketing strategy today.

Really, I find myself utterly charmed.


Aug 10 2008

the library

The great idea behind Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is that what happens in fiction is real. This is something we’ve all suspected at some gut level. There is just no way, once we’ve closed the book, that Jane and Mr. Rochester ceased to exist. They are too solid, they live, they breathe. We may not be looking, but we have no doubt that their lives go on, off the page.

So what is a library, then but a waystation for traveling from reality to reality? What would such a way station look like?

I closed the book and carefully placed it in my pocket and looked around. I was in a long, dark, wood-paneled corridor lined with bookshelves that reached from teh richly carpeted floor to the vaulted ceiling. The carpet was elegantly patterened with geometric designed and the ceiling was decorated with sculpted reliefs that depicted scenes from the classics, each cornice supporting the marble bust of an author. High above me, spaced at regular intervals, were finely decorated circular apertures through which light gained entry and reflected off the polished wood, reinforcing the serious mood of the library. running down the center of the corridor was a long row of reading tables, each with a green-shaded brass lamp. The library appeared endless; in both directions the corridor banished into darkness with no definable end. But this wasn’t important. Describing the library would be like going to see a Turner and commenting on the frame. On all of the walls, end after end, shelf after shelf, were books. Hundreds, thousands, millions of books. Hardbacks, paperbacks, leather-bound, uncorrected proofs, handwritten manuscripts, everything. I stepped closed and rested my fingertips lightly against the pristine volumes. They felt warm to the touch, so I leaned closer and pressed my ear to the spines. I could hear a distant hum, the rumble of machinery, people talking, traffic, seagulls, laughter, waves on rocks, wind in the winter branches of trees, disant thunder, heavy rain, children playing, a blacksmith’s hammer–a million sounds all happening together. And then, in a revelatory moment, the clouds slid back from my mind and a crystal-clear understanding of the very nature of books shone upon me. They weren’t just collections of words arranged neatly on a page to give the impression of reality–each of these volumes was reality. The similarity of these books to the copies I had read back home was no more than the similarity a photograph has to its subject. These books were alive!

–Thursday Next, Lost in a Good Book


Aug 9 2008

The Chess Set in the Mirror

When a little book called “The Chess Set in the Mirror” came into my hands, I was thinking about chess, not mirrors.The story will sound a little familiar. A small boy who has been misbehaving is locked in a room by his parents, and warned not to touch the mirror! The door is closed (presumably locked) and the boy, naturally, can’t keep away from the mirror, which is sitting up high on a mantle. The only other things in the room, oddly, are a chess set upon a small table, in the middle of the room, and hence reflected in the mirror. The boy is not, because he is too short to see himself.

For several moments he devotes his energies towards trying to see his own reflection, and it is no surprise that after awhile he finds that he has ended up in the mirror, on the other side.The White King, we are given to understand, is the culprit responsible for this sudden change in existence.

As fantasia goes (the author, both the back of the book and Wikipedia assures, was the first to coin the term “magical realism”) it is more allegorical than most—more so even than Alice and her Looking Glass adventures. And the narrator—who, let us remember, was the kind of child a parent felt obligated to lock away in a room—is more than usually judgemental about the place he finds himself, and the people he meets there.

But the book is eerie and haunting (and as such doesn’t feel much like a children’s story).  I wrote a more complete review here