Cleaning Out the Basement–Mind Your Own Business

Mind Your Own Business, A Book for Records, Vassar Cooperative Bookshop, 1943, priceless!

Mind Your Own Business, A Book for Records, Vassar Cooperative Bookshop, 1943, priceless!

This book was published to celebrate the Vassar Cooperative Bookstore’s 20th anniversary, and was given as a gift to the Cooperative’s 2,000 members who lived all over the world and shared in the shop’s profits.

Alumna, Marion Bacon had founded the store in 1923, “with some second-hand furniture and lots of enthusiasm,” as noted in the May 1943 Vassar Chronicle. On its first day, they sold 60 books and The Vassar Quarterly commented about the shop, “It shows an insidious cordiality to charge accounts.”

It sounds like a wonderful place–one that exists because one energetic person has an idea and makes it work.

Bacon was counted among the College’s historians and also compiled and published Life at Vassar, Seventy Five Years in Pictures. She lived with her cousin, Julia Bacon who served as the “schedule-fixer” and was a well-known campus fixture.

I love this book. I found it at a used book sale and carefully wrapped it in a library plastic dust jacket. But I could never bring myself to actually write in it. Somehow, my life and housekeeping didn’t feel worthy of its neat pages and implication of an ordered life. I love an ordered life.

I also love it, because even with mostly blank pages the book captures a moment. You’re a well-educated, intelligent young woman who’s job–your business–will be housekeeping. Power dressing will be a frilly apron and your record-keeping will include household linen, seed orders, and shopping triumphs. (I have those, but I don’t write them down.)

Everyone needs to keep records and there are pages to record personal loans, mortgages, income: dividends and income: compensation. But there are particulars that make this of its time. The woman is responsible for keeping the family clothing sizes, birthdays, and medical records. Well, maybe not so much has changed? Except now, there’s an app for that.

One thing that has changed is wartime. The publishing date was delayed due to paper shortages and  WW2 makes its presence felt in the book itself. Those seed records were for planting a Victory Garden, and there are pages for ration books, canning, and fuel consumption.

of course he's annoyed, he's busy financing the free world. no time for hummingbirds!

of course he’s annoyed, he’s busy financing the free world. this is no time for hummingbirds!

(Not writing in this book may have turned out to be a good thing. This one looks to be a first edition with an unclipped price on the dust jacket–worth more than the later, used versions I found online. But I need to get with an entrepreneur who can reprint this charmer, with only the most minimal updates.)

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Voracious by Cara Nicoletti, Back Bay Books 2015, paper $16.99, 283 pages

I live on good soup, not on fine words.


Yes, but good soup is much tastier when accompanied by a good book.

In these essays just long enough to read while you’re stirring a risotto or waiting for the mac n cheese to bubble, Nicoletti explores the universality of food and humanity as the meet up in novels.

Books, like meals, can anchor themselves in our memories and stand in as markers for a time of life. I went through a Henry Miller phase in college but these days,  find him impossible. And it took me until after college to find my way to Jane Austen, but it is a fact, almost universally acknowledged, that she continues to delight.

In this book, Nicoletti works her way through childhood favorites. I would love to be in Homer Price’s predicament, eating my way through piles of donuts to find a bracelet. It’s funny how so many of the children’s books deal with uncontrolled abundance–Strega Nona’s magic pot cooking pasta that will devour the town instead of the other way around, Hansel and Gretel tempted by a house of sweets, or a mouse made manic by a chocolate chip cookie.

Books of adolescence offer a bit more tang. To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies use food to trace human perfidy and introduce us to conflict and grown-up choices, whether it is table behavior that reveals class and status or a more cut-throat reach for power.

If you are at all well-read, or even you’re not, Nicoletti’s brief and perceptive essays will give you a new perspective on classic and contemporary literature from Anna Karenina and  Les Miserables, to The Corrections and In Cold Blood. Nicoletti was raised in a family of butchers and worked as a cook; she was also an English major and notices things a more traditional academic might not. For example, Virginia Woolf, who it seems, had an eating disorder, famously wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” But Woolf also used food to illustrate character and condition. After reading Nicoletti’s analysis of love and tea cakes, making her recipe for Mrs. Dalloway’s Chocolate Eclairs will be a feminist act.

By the way, Nicoletti is good company as well as a good cook. If you can’t join her in her book club, you can at least join her in this book.

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Ethnic American Cooking, Recipes for Living in a New World

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Ethnic American Cooking by Lucy M. Long, Rowman & Littlefield 2016, hardback $38.00, 321 pages

I’m in favor of liberalizing immigration because of the effect it would have on restaurants. I’d let just about everybody in except the English.

–Calvin Trillin

But without the English, according to Lucy Long, we’d have to give up a Maryland classic–Smith Island Cake.

This book is a little bit mind boggling, and depending on your politics, you’ll be more or less impressed with the U.S. Our country has made room for the German, French, and Italians, but also for Micronesian, Gypsy, and Djiboutian communities. And though their foods may not have trickled into the American diet the way pizza and burritos have, just wait.

There’s a food truck near my house that sells a delicious dish from Mail, lemony Chicken Yassa, and Algerian Shakshouka has become my go-to quick dinner, especially when the tomatoes are piling up at farm markets.

This book is excerpted from a larger work, the two-volume, Ethnic American Food Today, A Cultural Encyclopedia, which provides more information into foodways and cultures, drawing on ethnographic research and personal experience. This volume is for cooks. A few maps at the beginning will orient you and headnotes offer a brief discussion of each country’s cooking style and influences.

But it’s about the recipes. And part of the fun is armchair quibbling over what the representative dishes are. It’s interesting to see that Sicily’s distinct food culture is treated separately from other, mainly southern Italian communities. But Spaghetti with Anchovies and Walnuts never made it to my family’s table–though maybe now it will. You won’t be surprised to find Bulgogi representing Korea, though with only a mention of kimchi. And I’ve been making Dutch baby pancakes for breakfast without knowing they are a Finnish dish.

Part of what makes the book so interesting is how ethnicity is parsed. In the introduction, Long defines ethnicity as “groupings that were culturally distinguishable from a larger social system of which they formed some part.” National boundaries don’t always figure into it.  Jewish food is represented by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic dishes. Native Americans are divided into Pacific Northwest, Plains, Southwest, and Woodlands. Contested states like Palestine and Taiwan are represented as are perhaps overlooked groups like Roma American and people from San Marino.

You can still haunt the church fairs for authentic flavors, but now you can make them in your own kitchen too.




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Cookbook Digest–Frankly French

These are two interesting French cookbooks–each one very much itself. In My French Family Table, Beatrice Peltre is cooking what she calls from her childhood and what she serves her  family today. It is all very lovely, and sorta gluten-free, but I’m not sure why. Meanwhile, National Assembly member Francoise Branget has assembled recipes from her fellow legislators in French Country Cooking. And while some feel like a perfunctory responses, others are very personal. It’s a French version of the Congressional Cookbook, possibly one of the last useful things Congress created.


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Cleaning Out the Basement–What to Serve at Parties

whattoserveThis is the best cover ever!

The vibrating color combination, The paper’s subtle zig-zag texture, the signee ladies in slinky dresses and hats, and the graphic font layout.

This pamphlet-style publication doesn’t include a year, but from those dresses and font, I’m guessing the 1930s. It was “prepared by Sarah Field Splint, Director McCall’s Department of Cookery & Household Management, McCall’s Magazine, N.Y.” Her goal is to answer the “troublesome” question of finding “something different” to serve that is still in keeping with the “party plan.”

Ms. Field Splint was prolific magazine and cookbook writer, with works on Raisin Cookery, Table Service and Accessories, and Some Hints on Deep Frying. She’s even made it into the Library of Congress, in this picture, posed at her desk.

And while the cover may communicate a sharp modernism, the recipes are pure “ladies lunch,” with color coordinated gelatin salads for a Queen-of-Hearts Tea or St. Patrick’s Day lunch. Historic occasions like Lincoln’s birthday warrant a dinner, but the dishes are completely unmoored from a historical or geographical accuracy that we might search for today. In between holidays, these cooks seem to run from teas to bridge parties to luncheons, punctuated by a campfire supper or wedding breakfast.

Naturally, the ethnic recipes–Italian Tea Cakes, Japanese Dainties, and Russian Favorites–are vague reproductions. And ambitious recipes like Lobster Cutlets (heart-shaped), Blackberries in Shredded Wheat Baskets, and even Wedding Cake are presented in a brusque few paragraphs. I suspect someone behind the scenes or that this is aspirational cooking. My copy has not a single splatter.

Though delightfully dated, the pamphlet includes one prescient recipe–Iced Mochalate–so spelled. An iced blend of cocoa and coffee, flavored with vanilla. “Whipped cream may be added, if desired.”

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Cookbook Digest–Men at Work, In the Kitchen

There are lots of cliches about men in the kitchen. Only men can be great chefs or they use every pot and leave a mess (Sorry, that one is true in my house–use the damn sponge!).

Or that along with big messes, they like big flavors. Well, on that count, both these books deliver. In Cooking, Blokes & Artichokes, Brendan Collins lures men into cooking with a bit more nuance–starting out with a shandy for the cook and reassuring you that no one will question your manhood if you make a Romesco sauce. For more high wire dishes, and for the guy who dreams of a fryolator, Eat Street captures the creative mash-ups of food truck dining. Doritomales anyone?

blokes street

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The Importance of Napkin Bunnies to Childhood Development


the source of much entertainment

A purely speculative theory

What a great place the table can be for children. A baby can watch and absorb the intricacies of eye contact and communication among mom, dad, and siblings, while banging a spoon and chasing cheerios around the tray. A toddler can participate in the conversation, master the fine motor skills that direct a filled spoon into the mouth, and build a mountain out of mashed potatoes. A child can appreciate the food’s color and flavor, all while expressing definite preferences about texture.

It makes me sad when I see children at restaurants propped in front of various screens–watching a video or playing a game. Restaurants, meals at tables are some of the most stimulating and interesting places to be. Color, texture, taste, conversation, and focus stimulate the mind and the senses. Think of the stories, bonding, and complex observations that can be prompted by food. “Watch out for fish bones, Uncle Dave was always gagging on fish bones when he was little.” “Do you like that sauce on the meat? So do I!” “Those black beans have the exact same shape as your nostrils.”

I understand that parents need a break and that children at the table can be chaotic, but you’ll never forget when the child fits the black beans into his nose to see if they are indeed, the same shape. Yes, children have bad manners, but they’ll never learn good manners if they don’t participate in the table.

I don’t care about elbows on the table, fork sequence, or finishing every scrap of broccoli. I care about you making me laugh by putting black beans in your nose, and then promptly taking them out (and disposing of them properly) so we don’t veer into gross-out or emergency room visits.

These napkin bunnies are a weird bunch. They will nibble your bread and let you pet their ears, but then they get angry and try to nip your nose.

These napkin bunnies are a weird bunch. They will nibble your bread and let you pet their ears, but then they get angry and try to nip your nose.

My proposal? Expect the child to participate at the table–eat, pass platters, join the conversation. When they become restive, entertain them with napkin bunnies. When they become unbearable, let them wander off (if you’re eating at home) or get the check.

It gets better, but only if you help it along.


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