The cookbook as teacher

Today’s episode of 99% Invisible is a worthy listen; it features a cookbook, and its role in Soviet cuisine: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.

And it’s fascinating.

I’ve always thought of changes in cuisine as more of evolutions, something that happens slowly – spices going in and out of vogue, the gradual adoption of foods that were once new and freaky into something essential. At some point, there were no tomatoes in Italy; now it’s impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

This is the story of a different kind of food change; an engineered one, in which Josef Stalin sought to bring the Soviet Union together under a new and different cuisine…and sent an aggressive micromanager over to America to learn the ways of mass production. He came back with lots of ideas – and an accompanying problem: How do you teach people to eat all this new food?

Well, you make them a cookbook, for a start. And the resulting volume is apparently something of a nostalgic staple…though of course the reality of Soviet life may not have resembled what was in all those fancy food pictures all that closely.

If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting, go and give the episode a listen. If you’re craving more afterward, check out this article from the Guardian for some pictures, as well as a history of the book across various editions.

…Maybe it’s the photos, but I’m thinking about those cookbooks from the 70s with their Jello desserts and their Ambrosia salads and whatnot. Perhaps people have been teaching folks how to eat various foods by using cookbooks everywhere, longer than I think.

The Moosewood Cookbook for vegetarian food? How To Cook Everything, for…well, for people like me who grew up on tinned food and boxed macaroni and cheese and odd concoctions of burger patties and tomato soup and processed cheese food and then had to be re-taught how to eat whole ingredients?

…because that’s what I was learning when I started experimenting with it. How to walk into a grocery store and choose decent produce, what to do with that produce when I got it home. How to use butter instead of margarine.

I often think of cookbooks as inspirational, but they are just as often didactic, as well. They show us ways of eating, and we absorb them because it’s Wednesday and we have to cook something.

I am still learning, of course. Only last year did I finally crack what my problem with stainless-steel skillets was, and now I can cook things in them without welding them to the pan.

I watch a lot of food folks on YouTube. Some of them make fascinating historical goodies I don’t really see myself trying as a rule but that are awesome to watch. Some of them make gorgeous things it’s probably safest for me to admire from afar, lest I gain about 300 pounds and one or more health conditions. Some of them are engineering types, ruthlessly fine-tuning their own food science.

I wonder what ways of eating we in their audiences are absorbing from them.

Some random things to enjoy

Because today has been bloody exhausting, let’s fall back on the old standby of listing some things I am into today.

Thing 1: The Faculty of Horror podcast. Long, thoughtful episodes, nicely researched and with citations in the show notes (for those of you who are big enough nerds like me that if someone mentions an excellent article about “stranger danger” in the 80s you think “ooh, where can I go read that…”) Today’s episode was about The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, but there’s a wealth of good stuff in the backlog as well.

Thing 2: Doodle Bug the cat. Because LOOK AT HIM.

Thing 3: Someone has made an array of scented candles inspired by game worlds. I dig this, though I feel there are many ideas as yet un-mined. What would Morrowind smell like? Mushrooms and ozone and honey cake of some kind? What about the undersea city of Rapture (key question there of course would be: before or after everything goes to shit?)

Ooh, or Stardew Valley. Some sort of base note of freshly-tuned earth and the greenness of things, layered with cozy and comforting scents on top. If only there were a way to make it always smell a little like your favorite thing

Just a brief Friday visit.

There is a lot going on today (well, “a lot” in pandemic terms – homework to do, errands to run, the week’s groceries to buy, etc.), and as a result I’m not feeling much of a strong throughline, unfortunately.

Still. Doesn’t mean I can’t share a few Delightful Things:

The webcomic Cat’s Cafe, in which a cuddly kitty…well, runs a cafe, where a host of adorable animal patrons come to have a little something delicious and relax, taking a break from the everyday troubles of living. The cuteness does a pretty good job of at least softening the blow when things inevitably become a bit too emotionally Real – and they will do that. Characters struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem and depression; recently the artist has lost his father, and that comes through in some ways that are…uh…yeah. I know that feel. (But don’t let that scare you away, either!)

The “Return of the Mac” pizza available at one of Toronto’s local pizza joints. This absolutely positively does not seem like it should work – it’s a pizza crust, yes, but topped with cheese, onions, “secret sauce,” meat (or Impossible Meat, recently), pickles, and lettuce – a Big Mac in pizza form. It can be a pain to get, too – that lettuce doesn’t travel well, and so you can only order this one via take-out. But. You guys. It’s delicious. No, I don’t understand it either, but give it a chance if you have the opportunity.

The blog McMansion Hell, which I hadn’t thought of in forever and that suddenly returned to mind yesterday. It may or may not be defunct (the last post was a while ago) – but even so those archives are full of delightful snark about a flavor of architecture I remember all too well from the suburbia of my childhood. (There’s also a subreddit taking up the torch, it seems – and every Thursday they take a break to do some appreciation of beautiful architecture, so we can all enjoy looking at some lovely homes none of us could ever realistically afford.)

Lemmings rushing to the slaughter

Today’s word of the day: “Malaphor.” This is a combination of “metaphor” and “malapropism,” and appears in such forms as:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery.”
  • “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”
  • The title of this post

…and so on.  I use some of these myself quite deliberately, so I suppose I am not precisely helping to maintain the purity of the language.

This is courtesy of the very-delightful podcast The Allusionist, which I recommend to anyone else who enjoys wordy goodness; host Helen Zaltzman is whimsical and nerdy in proportions I very much enjoy.  Link there goes to the episode I listened to this morning; recommended for a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes or so.

As often seems to happen, nature appears to have suddenly remembered mid-January that it is supposed to be winter, and dumped an alarmingly huge pile of snow on our heads; as I walked to meet everyone for ramen last night the wind was constantly sweeping fistful after fistful of vicious glitter into my face. 

Today: piles everywhere of blinding white, some nearly as tall as I am.  (Miracle of miracles: the TTC ran like a dream this morning, and I secured a seat within a single stop.  I can only guess that perhaps most folk stayed home today.)

I’m not looking forward to the shoveling, but it IS rather lovely to look at…

Lovecraftian Listening

Love him or hate him, most people have strong responses to H.P. Lovecraft.

“Who?” I hear some of you asking.  Well, there is always his entry on That Wiki if you are so inclined.  But here is the short version:  H.P. Lovecraft was a writer who published mainly short fiction in magazines like Weird Tales back in the early decades of the 20th century.  His work emphasizes themes of “cosmic” horror, with his human protagonists often dwarfed and left feeling somewhat at sea – if not utterly broken and insane – by the forces of a vast, uncaring universe.

The prose is purple, the subject matter curious and strange.  Some people are put off by the abundance of words like “eldritch,” “squamous,” or “cyclopean,” some decry his racist tendencies – these are viable criticisms, certainly, though I have always been of the opinion that I should do my best to make allowances for the social mores of other times and places.

The thing is, though, that Lovecraft’s influence has spread pretty widely.  During his lifetime he kept up a lively correspondence with a number of other writers whose names may be familiar to you, including Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch, and his influence can be felt  from time to time in their works.  He’s also inspired a number of movies, most of them pretty awful – but not all! – at least two different tabletop roleplaying games, board games, collectible card games, and much more.

Perhaps you are curious about Lovecraft, but aren’t sure if you’re up for snuggling in with his entire canon.  Or perhaps you’re already a Lovecraft fan and would like to delve a little more into the works.  Or perhaps you just like podcasts – hey, it happens.

In any event, for anyone in any of these categories I’d like to recommend the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.  In it, filmmakers Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer work their way through the Lovecraft oeuvre in chronological order, typically choosing one story at a time.  Extracts are read (usually by a “guest star,” frequently Andrew Leman of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society but also including such online Lovecraftian luminaries as Paul of Cthulhu from Yog-Sothoth.com.)  And there is discussion, often simply between the two hosts but occasionally bringing in other contributors such as Kenneth Hite (whose book Cthulhu 101 is an excellent and very funny little beginner’s guide to things Mythos.)

The podcast is often fascinating, frequently witty, and combines the deep affection of the true fan for its subject matter with sly pokes at some of Lovecraft’s foibles – it is extraordinary how often, for instance, his protagonists faint, and we might as well all have a bit of a chuckle over it.  It’s well-produced, too, with solid sound quality and pleasingly moody ambient music underscoring the story segments and some portions of the discussion.

The podcast is on a temporary hiatus at the moment, but is, I believe, due back next week.  You can, however, listen to their epic three-part breakdown of “The Call of Cthulhu” – or go all the way back to the beginning of the podcast and get caught up.

(If you like it, you can subscribe through iTunes, too!)

Enjoy!

The most dangerous website on the internet

There is…this website.

When it is linked to in message board threads, cries of “NOOOO!” can be read for posts and posts thereafter.  People speak of it in hushed tones and warn people away from clicking links to it.  I once sent a link to a single page on this site in an email, and my warning went unheeded, and the person I sent it to lost some four or five hours of his life.

He didn’t listen, but I am warning you now that I am about to link to this very site.  Do not click any of these links unless you find yourself with time to spare.

The website in question is the mighty TvTropes.org, a wiki which seeks to categorize, refine, and provide many, many examples of common tropes and tricks used in narrative media (not just television – the site’s name is something of a misnomer at this point.)  It is devilishly entertaining to read, and the entries have a certain quality to them of popcorn, or potato chips: you read just one more, and just one more, and just one more, and before you know it hours have passed.  You’ve been having a great time, but now the bank is closed.

For those feeling brave enough to explore – and for heaven’s sake do not click unless you have time! – here are a selection of portions of the wiki I have recently enjoyed:

This is just a tiny, tiny fragment of what the site has to offer, though.  Go forth and enjoy – just don’t forget to come up for air sometimes.

Where have you been?

The short answer is:  Away.

The longer answer is that I have been doing a number of things pertaining to a) finishing my graduate school and b) hunting for a job.  (Still working on the latter, though I have also been volunteering, freelancing, and otherwise doing my best to keep busy while I am on the hunt.)

Some of these things may be of interest to you, Internet, such as the massive project I did on Weird Tales magazine for my rare books class – but that will have to be saved for a day when I have more time to spend typing. 🙂

In the meantime, though, I would like to share with you one of the other things I have been doing while I was away.  Brace yourselves, because it is very, very nerdy.

Are you braced?  Good.  Then here it is:

I have (re)discovered tabletop roleplaying.

People who read Rampant Bicycle in its former incarnation may not be so surprised by this news – I have, after all, been an eager reader and collector of roleplaying sourcebooks for many years.  Prior to the fall of 2008, I had only ever played four sessions, however – of D&D 3.5, set in Eberron.  (I played a bard.  And the DM had to move to Cleveland just as the plot was ramping up and now I will never know how it would have ended.  Gyah!)

In the fall of 2008, though, my friend Jonathan rounded up a number of us and said “Hey, D&D is coming out with a fourth edition, and I’d like to give it a try…”

We did.

His idea was for a campaign in which all the player characters were teenagers – the youngest 15, the oldest perhaps 19 years old.   Sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dungeons and Dragons experience.  There would be comedy.  There would be angst.  There would be strivings against impossible odds and all the other fun stuff that goes along with playing a young hero.  We would enthusiastically steal borrow from the great stories we knew and loved, and add our own embellishments as we went.

And we have.

We came up with an interestingly mixed group of characters.  My husband plays a human scion of a local noble house, ill at ease with the destiny that birth seems to have laid out for him.  (Mechanically, a warlord.)  We have an elf ranger (classic, no?) with a terrible case of amnesia, who is slowly unearthing his memories as the campaign proceeds.  We have a dragonborn of a most unusual color, who also happens to be a paladin of Bahamut with a uniquely personal relationship to his god.  And we have an orphaned brother-sister pair of eladrin (think Tolkien’s high elves or the Fair Folk of Irish lore): the older brother is our wizard, sardonic and aloof, and the younger sister (me) has spent much of her life on the street, doing whatever work she can to help make ends meet.  (Yes, she can pick locks.  So what?  She’s not a thief, thank you.)

Almost two years later, this campaign is still running.  One of the characters above has turned out to be married. One has suffered a grievous, disfiguring injury.  One has manifested a magical wild talent of which they are still unaware.  One is being threatened by mysterious forces from Beyond.  One of them has committed adultery.  And one may or may not have gone a bit mad.

This is all me doing that thing you’re not supposed to do, of course – one of the great geek faux pas is to ramble on in an overlong sort of way about your characters or your campaign.  However, this I will say:

It is a funny thing how one can go a very long time without a certain something in one’s life without really realizing what one is missing.  I had gone a very long time without much in the way of creative outlets – I enjoy my knitting, yes, but typically follow patterns, and most of the writing I had done for the last two years was of the very useful but scholarly sort.  When I started playing tabletop games again it was as though my eight-year-old self had been sitting in a room on her own for several hundred years waiting for somebody to come along and play with her…and I’d just opened the door, poked my head into the room, and said “Hey.  Want to come build a blanket fort?”

Glee and delight all around.

I’m lucky to be in a group of fantastically creative people, all of whom are mature enough to be able to incorporate difficult content into a roleplaying session sensitively.  We’re all a bit crazy, and that’s okay.  I love my geek friends, and look forward to getting together to roll dice and pretend to be somebody else once every couple of weeks.

In a later post I’ll talk a little bit about why I like fourth edition D&D – and I do like it from a mechanical perspective, quite a lot.  For today, though, Internet, I am just going to be completely self-indulgent here and share something else with you…

Our campaign has a wiki.  This means that if you are so inclined you can read more about the characters we’re playing – or, if you are feeling truly curious, there is a complete episode guide available where you can read the entire story of the campaign so far in downloadable chunks.  (They gave the aspiring librarian with vague writerly leanings the responsibility of keeping the campaign journal.  This is either awesome or terrifying or both depending on your inclinations.)  Early sessions tend to be a bit patchy in their representation, since I was having to type and play at the same time, and while my typing speed is nothing to shake a stick at it’s just not up to keeping track of the conversation for six – sometimes seven – people.  However, by the time you get to around session 16 we have started recording our sessions for later transcription, which means that the quality improves substantially; a typical set of session notes now lies somewhere between a TV script and a novel with commentary.

There be dragons, of course.  (Literally.)

More later, but now it is time to go out and buy provisions.