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.

Adios, July.

It’s August already. How on earth did THAT happen?

I mean, I know the answer. Same way it was just March of 2020 like, three weeks ago: Nothing’s happening.

I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant in a year and a half. I fear my efforts to write here are already monotonous, even though the only point of them is to try to keep expressing myself, somehow. It’s hard not to imagine my hypothetical audience being bored out of their minds with me.

And now I’d better start keeping an ear to the ground for Christmas ideas.

Time is really ripping by out there. It’s a little like being in a ship when the sea is stormy outside. It’s been so long since I last touched the water, the idea becomes alien, a little frightening.

We played a little game called Adios the other night. It’s a tiny indie game about a farmer who’s been helping the mob dispose of bodies while feeding them to his pigs. He’d like to stop now, thanks.

Except, as the lanky man in the sharp suit keeps saying, first patiently and then not so patiently, they are the ones who cut ties. Not you.

You feed the pigs. You look after your horse. You ponder the blight of the chestnut tree. You insist.

So does he.

Irresistible force meets immovable object.

This is not one of those elaborate games with branching paths and multiple endings. It’s not trying to be. This is a sad, quiet little story, earnestly presented and oddly moving, where some of the most impactful moments come from things our POV character can’t bring himself to say.

(I won’t lie, the part with the dog kind of killed me, and it’s been years since I last lived with a dog. You will know exactly which part I mean when you get to it.)

A little janky, sure, and perhaps the art style’s not for everyone. But who cares? Glossy perfection isn’t what we’re here for. If this sounds interesting to you, trade it for a couple of hours of TV.

Just, uh, maybe have a little something cheerful on hand as a chaser. No reason. Just saying.

You meet in a tavern: One

It’s not as though she couldn’t stay away indefinitely. Out There.

Sometimes she fancies she could really do it, really retreat into the green and the wind and the water. The frost of the mountain. The warm damp earth and the scent of moss. No counsel to keep but her own. A satisfying thought.

And yet her boots keep finding their way back to the root-bound trail, keep following it until its tangles relax and smooth into fine packed earth, until the bracken gives way to fences and hedgerows and the trees shake themselves into orderly lines. The breeze tickles through them, catching up a scent so sweet and so golden and so rich one could almost imagine it pooling on the ground along with the afternoon light. Ripe for the picking, surely.

Beside her, the crunch of claws against earth, a familiar earthy tang cutting through the scent of the orchards. She does not need to look to reach down, raking slim fingers roughened by wire and bow-string through the silky fur between her friend’s ears. The dense red brush of his tail flicks against her trousers before he trots ahead of her, proud flag-bearer in their little procession of two.

Somewhere ahead, a horse whickers and stamps; a startled chicken scuttles out of the way. Someone whistles, tuneless and distracted but pleasant; the little path broadens in anticipation.

Maybe it’s just that I get tired of my own cooking.

She chuckles to herself, briefly startled by the sound. Or perhaps it’s that you’ve got to exercise your voice once in a while.

The hedgerow yields to a low stone wall at last, the tidy stacking of blue-gray-green slate that lines the yard of the Huntsman’s Table. Here the little earthen path crosses the broad, pale-gray ribbon of one of the Old Roads, neat interlocking slabs laid by armies of slaves or elemental magics or perhaps just wakened from a long dream in the earth, depending on who you talk to. Here the inn nestles easy and confident into a copse of trees old enough to have sheltered six generations before her, the deer-headed man on its brightly-painted sign inviting all to a spectacular feast at a great stone table surrounded by a circle of monoliths.

The circle is real. The villagers know it, and those with sense show it proper respect. She has walked it many times, breathing in its energy on those crystalline winter nights when the moon crafts the new year, setting it free into the world.

The deer-headed man is real, as well.

Though not so many know that.

Below the sign sits another, this one a larger slab of that gray-green slate. Someone has chalked on it, with more eagerness than elegance, “SPECIAL TONIGHT: Roast pig with gemfruit and greens!”

Her stomach growls a little at the thought. That golden smell. And sure enough, here it is again, drifting through the yard, a gilded flash darting through a spicy darkness that sets the hunter in her to prowling. Yes. All of it.

“You’re back!”

She knows that voice. Anne, the keeper’s daughter, lithe and lively and flaxen-haired, a neat white apron smoothed over her blue dress against the vagaries of the coming evening.

Her companion is quicker to respond than she is, leaping onto the wall with a gleeful bark as the new arrival laughs her own greeting. “And you too, Ren,” she adds, extending a hand as if to scratch behind his ears but not quite touching, not yet. “May I?”

The eagerness of the answering headbutt is all the permission she needs.

“So. Dinner, then?”

She nods, her voice still too rusted from disuse to chance – and Anne’s expression turns a little wry.

“And how will you be paying tonight?”

She smiles broadly in response, detaching a little leather bag from her belt, tugging at the cord until it falls open enough to fill the air between them with a desert-bright spiciness, watching Anne’s eyes widen in delight. Gold of another kind, coaxed from between the roots of the oldest pines on the mountain.

“Really?” She hefts the bag with a practiced hand, feeling the weight – then peers eagerly inside. “That’ll feed you for a week, if you want it! Come inside!”

As she passes under the sign she nods up at the deer-headed man. Freely offered, freely taken.

I pass the night in the realm of men.

Lose 1d8 sanity: The Empty Man

Everybody, at some point in their lives, considers the idea that everything is meaningless.

I might be wrong about that, I suppose – perhaps there are a handful of souls out there blessed and/or innocent enough that they drift off to sleep at night untroubled by even the faint shadow of the fear that maybe it’s even worse than having made a fool of yourself at that party, or having been rejected by that beautiful person you loved so, or having no one to call on the blackest night of your life when there is only you and your thoughts and some questionable life choices in substance form, maybe none of this actually matters at all.

But if those folks exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

I can only assume that David Prior’s had such thoughts quite regularly, based on his The Empty Man – a horror movie that I’m led to understand sells a rather different experience in the trailer than the one we actually get.

We open with a surprisingly-lengthy prologue in Bhutan, in which one of a small group of hikers has an encounter in a disturbing cavern that leaves him…injured? Semi-catatonic? Possessed? His friends can’t be sure, but let’s just say that when they all become stranded on the mountain overnight things Do Not Go Well for them. (I do not consider this a spoiler; this is a horror movie prologue, after all, and these are infamous for presenting us with characters who may not be with us all that long.)

From there, though, we transition abruptly to…Missouri (I cannot pretend I was not a little disappointed; how often do I get to see media products of any sort set in Bhutan?) Here the film introduces our true protagonist – James, a Broken Ex-Cop with one of those backstories one seems to require to become a Broken Ex-Cop. (You know the ones; they usually involve one or more dead family members and/or moments of personal weakness that leave our hero with lingering guilt.) We see him hang out briefly with a neighbor’s kid, a relatively ordinary-seeming teen except for the part where she seems very into the idea that perhaps none of our thoughts and ideas are really ours, that they are fed, or perhaps channeled, to us from some other place or being.

And then she disappears, her mother makes a plea for help, and we’re off to the races for a sort of smoky cocktail of urban legendry, oddly pleasant cults and their nihilistic leanings, and of course an exploration of our hero’s personal history and the truth(s) thereof.

It’s one of those movies about which I have some mixed feelings, I think. James Badge Dale as James is great – relatable, surprisingly funny at times. The visuals are well-executed and many scenes feature little easter-egg clues for those who are watching closely. There are several well-executed moments of surreal creepiness. The central conceits about meaninglessness and/or free will are uncommon and it’s interesting to see the way they’re handled here.

On the other hand: This film needs an editor. Or perhaps, as one of the reviews we looked at afterward suggested, it needs to be a TV miniseries instead of a movie. I love a slow burn, but this burn is very slow, more of a smolder much of the time. And yet, somehow, there is also so much going on: now it feels a bit like I Know What You Did Last Summer, now we have a bit that feels almost Midsommar-adjacent except for, well, the darkness of everything…And then there is the ending, which I could easily see inciting some rage in some viewers but does make sense with the other things the story’s trying to do, even if the reveals therein could maybe have done with a little more spacing between them.

The vibe I came away from this with most strongly, though? “Watching a game of Call of Cthulhu at the tabletop, only there’s just one player for some reason.” The way threads are picked up and then put down, the way there’s somehow simultaneously a couple of strong central ideas and kind of a jumble of things all round them, the way our protagonist is so very central to things (even, at one point, apparently encountering an urban legend in a way that would seem to “break the rules”). You can hear in your head the Keeper calling for a Sanity roll every so often.

Or, well, I can, because I am a giant nerd.

Should you watch it, hypothetical reader? Perhaps. Do you like the idea of sitting at the tabletop with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, watching a player get themselves into all sorts of shit? Does the idea of an attractively-if-slightly-messily-presented meditation on meaninglessness appeal to you? Then go for it.

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

TIL what a “Doberge” cake is.

So we’ve been watching Crime Scene Kitchen recently when in need of a “something to switch my brain off and have going in the background” sort of show. It’s reality TV; Art it is not, intellectual content, it is not.

But it is rather dumb fun.

Here’s the conceit: Several teams of bakers are turned loose in a kitchen where something has been recently prepared. From the items left scattered around that kitchen, they must deduce what it was and then reproduce it; the team either farthest from the dessert or with the poorest execution gets sent home, and the rounds proceed in this manner until eventually only one team remains.

Thus far it’s largely consisted of us watching the teams look at what’s in the kitchen, guess, and then proceed to create various goodies while the two of us look on and say things like guys what the hell there was obviously carrot in the kitchen it has to be a carrot cake okay?

The jokes are rather silly, the presentation is over the top, and the whole thing just seems a little…hokey? Or something? And yet it’s sort of weirdly enjoyable anyway.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just that I really like cake.

Oh, and for the record, a Doberge cake is a New Orleanian descendant of the Dobos torte that folds lemon into the dainty-little-chocolate layers mix. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m certainly curious now.

An unsuitable contemplation for a Friday

There is, literally, always some damn thing, isn’t there?

If there is not some drama in one’s personal life, there will be something at the office; if it is not that the underwire in one’s favorite bra has snapped it is that that one pair of jeans has at last worn through from long use.

It will be the furnace going out, or the oven element giving up the ghost, or the refrigerator leaking. Or it will be a leak in the bathroom. Or it will be an incursion of carpenter ants.

Or a dying plant in the garden. Or raccoons getting into the garbage cans.

Or a collapsed piece of furniture. Or a missed deadline.

Or a laptop that will not turn on.

Or a blog post that dies in the editor, without a single instant of warning.

Some damn thing.

I suppose you can tell things have gotten really stressful when there stops being space between the little catastrophes of living.

Some of these things are happening now, and some have happened to me before, and some of them have never happened but always seem to be just within range of happening.

And some of them I haven’t thought of yet, but are probably coming anyway.

It’s Friday. These thoughts are too grim for a Friday.


Today I was listening to Revisionist History talk about The Little Mermaid – from the look of things they’ll be discussing it for quite a while, but even this first episode made a couple of interesting points, I think.

I’d never really thought about how odd the Disney version’s portrayal of contracts IS – Ariel’s is rather Faustian, with the whole of the narrative sort of tacitly assuming that such a contract, once signed, is inviolable and unbreakable, never mind whether it was made on misleading or false premises, or whether all parties to the contract were of legal age (though now I really wonder just what the mermaid age of majority is, exactly.)

Younger me was pretty pleased with Disney’s happier ending for the story – Andersen’s original is pretty depressing, though if what Malcolm there says about him writing it in a kind of paroxysm of romantic rejection is true it…would actually make a fair bit of sense. The whole story is just searing longing, all the way down, and although Disney’s iteration has many fine points it doesn’t quite…burn like that.

Later, on Aria Code, La Traviata surprised me by echoing that same fierce yearning – “Addio del passato,” an equally searing representation of almost and not-enough and too-late, of the acknowledgment that to pass now, like this, will mean to lie forgotten in a pauper’s grave, forgotten too quickly. Not having gained that immortal soul the Little Mermaid craved so deeply.

Because it is that the original Little Mermaid wanted; the chance at more, at after, at a spiritual profundity that her long undersea life could not give her. The love of the prince was certainly nice, as means to an end go, but that Higher Thing…that more. Something worth losing your voice and your identity for; something worth walking on knives for always.

And in the same way Violetta – or the Lady of the Camellias on whom she is based, or perhaps even the real-world woman who inspired her – had a lovely life, of beautiful people and glamorous parties and witty partners, but love was something else, and to be remembered when she passed something else again.

To dance at the wedding that means your doom; to bear a public shaming from the man you love most in the world, for reasons you cannot explain. To cast away the knife that could have saved you; to yield up your own love for the chance at happiness of another.

The Little Mermaid flung herself into the ocean, fully expecting to become nothing more than sea-foam. Violetta sings of the existential terror of a pit without even a cross to bear her name. Marie Duplessis was buried in a pauper’s grave at first, her worldly goods quickly yielded up to creditors.

But then, the Daughters of the Air, and a chance at something greater after all.

And then, a kindness, and a tomb in Montmartre where to this day some still leave camellias.

A little hope in the end after all. If only things didn’t have to be so very dire first to get there.

Movie night: No boating accident

Yesterday I did two things for the first time in a while: I made popcorn on the stove, and I watched Jaws.

I’d read in several places around the internets that the trick to not-soggy stovetop popcorn is to clarify your butter first (and/or use ghee); although my attempt at clarification seems to have been more of a thisclosetobrowning situation, I think I can mostly report a success here. Things sizzled and crackled and eventually settled into a lovely little golden-y pool with a toasted bit or two clinging to the bottom of the pan and just a fine layer of milk solids waiting to be scooped off the top.

Popped some corn in coconut oil, dumped it into a large bowl, ran a drizzle of clarified butter around the edge, toss, add salt, toss again, et voila. More popcorn than a sensible human or maybe even two sensible humans should probably be eating in a sitting, though as is the way of all popcorn it was disturbingly easy to scoop up and devour in great, salty fistfuls.

It made sense, then, with such a movie snack on hand, to settle in for one of – debatably the – original summer blockbusters. This movie is older than I am, older than my husband is; it takes place in a particular flavor of small-town New England that may not really even exist any more, one where the only way to really be of a place is to be born there. (One of the film’s many background conversations is about this very phenomenon: “When do I become an islander?” “Never; you weren’t born here!” I chuckled to myself, but I can relate to that a little. I wonder if I am properly of Toronto yet?)

Anyway. I’m not sure why I’m a little surprised to find that it holds up, but it really does. Oh, sure, by today’s special-effects standards the “practical” shark is a little creaky (though I do appreciate the sense of weight to it), but it’s also barely in the movie. Most of the film goes by without more than a fin, some ominous, groaning strings and the occasional panic-stricken swimmer.

The main draw here is the performances, really. All of them are great, from the Mayor (You guys. That. anchor. suit.) to Roy Scheider’s beleaguered Chief Brody to Richard Dreyfus’s Exasperated Smart Guy Hooper to…well. Quint. (And yes, that monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis is still a hell of a thing.)

Is there anything I can really say about this movie that has not been said ten thousand different ways by…everybody who has ever written anything about movies? Probably not.

Jaws isn’t a horror movie, not exactly, though it borrows some of the horror movie’s trappings. We know straightaway what the terror out there in the deep is – it’s right there on the damn poster. There is no real evidence for malice as humans know it or even particular intelligence here. We’re not gazing into the void of the cosmic unknown – we know exactly what that bigass shark is going to do. Hooper tells us what it will do explicitly. A Great White shark is a finely-tuned eating machine that does nothing but swim and eat and make more sharks.

And that is what it does, or tries to do, and it is only through being more of a tenacious #@%& than the flawless eating machine that anyone manages to paddle their way back to shore in the end.

So…horror? No, not really. A thriller, perhaps, or one of those man-vs-nature adventure films, borrowing a bit of that horror vibe for effect.

I will say, though – to a pair of eyes watching it in 2021 there sure do seem to be some parallels between the anchor-suit-wearing mayor’s reluctance to do the right thing and close the damn beaches in favor of The Economy and…well.

(gestures vaguely in the direction of Outside)

I wonder what proportion of Amity Island would believe the shark was a hoax if the film were made today. Would some of them refuse to get out of the water? To close up shop? To stop running tours or whatever else it is they do?

Would even blood in the water convince them?

Anyway. The movie may predate me, but it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Bring some popcorn.


I have come to the end of a day and, as I suspect will be quite common for the next while, find myself feeling too exhausted to be good for very much. Between a full day of trying to juggle various office concerns, making dinner, preparing for and delivering the final presentation for a class I’m in, and discovering that someone close to me has injured themselves, and oh yes also there’s maybe a leak in our upstairs bathroom somewhere?…

Yeah, I feel pretty done.

The air outside is sticky and strangely-colored, the afternoon sunlight today casting sunset-orange pools of light onto the carpet rather than bright white. Some of the plants in our backyard boxes have keeled over – from the heat? from something else? – and don’t seem inclined to perk up, and I’m not sure why.

Then again maybe I know how they feel.

Oof. I shall try to be more chipper tomorrow, internet. Things are just rough at the moment.