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

I live.

Though man, it really felt like the vaccine side effects were trying to change that last night; woke up at about 4 am with a parched throat, a nasty stomachache, and a complete inability to get comfortable for…what seemed like forever.

Outside, a thunderstorm hit; bright flashes outside, and then a distant rumbling.

Perhaps that’s why I dreamed, close to the morning, that there was a mighty BANG from the room next door and when I went to investigate the entire interior of our closet had collapsed, making a spectacular mess of most of our bedroom floor.

Today’s episode of Aria Code is about Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. There was a book, The Best Tales of Hoffmann, that I used to check out from the library. It had a bright-yellow library binding, indestructible and innocuous, that belied the sheer stark fucking darkness of some of the material inside it, and I checked it out over and over again, my tweenage self eagerly devouring the nightmare universe of The Sand-Man alongside a half-plate of indifferent, greasy pizza rolls that even now feel a little shameful to think about.

But The Sand-Man is the story behind the aria they chose for today. I wonder very much if the rest of the show has as much in it about eyes. In this case, the singer of the aria is the doll Olympe – Olimpia in the story – whose mindless, rhapsodic agreement with anything and everything presented to her rouse positively tormented depths of love in our hero Nathanael – or Hoffmann himself, in the opera.

In any event, the presentation in the episode is charming, and does rather make me want to go and watch the show – and the accompanying meditation on the nature of chatbots and what, exactly, is most societally desirable in women is…well, chilling, even if it also happens to be fascinating into the bargain. Even if you’re not into opera, I think it’s worth the listen.

Also, related to nothing, but: The Toronto Public Library has passes you can get to read the New York Times (for those of you who like to check out a little news every now and then). Go use them (and support your local libraries, everyone. They are the actual best.)

Reasons it sucks when it’s hot out, # who-knows-how-many-by-now

(Challenge, day 6)

So, this week I ordered some chocolates as a present.

They are from a local place that I love very much and they are typically straight-up delightful in that “I will break your arm if you prevent me from taking that one” way. Also, they are beautiful to look at, and I would happily place a little tray of them in front of anyone I was looking to impress, or just wanted to express my affection for (so long as the person in question likes sweets, of course.)

Unfortunately, it looks as though my order met with a misadventure:

…oh dear.

Given that these were meant to be a present I’ve reached out to contact the folks who make them, and they’ve been very gracious about offering to replace them – and since there’s plenty of time I’m not overly worried about missing my window to present them or anything, I’m happy to do that.

I also feel rather guilty for reaching out. It’s not THEIR fault that it’s ludicrously hot out there (I wonder if the courier’s AC was out in their vehicle or something like that.)

Be that as it may, they’ve been lovely, and seriously, when there hasn’t been a misadventure of this kind the chocolates are beautiful AND delicious; chocolate fans who might be reading this and live or work in Toronto, check them out.

Some day I will master the art of asking if there’s anything that can be done without feeling like I am somehow overstepping my bounds. Today might not be that day, but at least I did try to do it – so I suppose there’s that?

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…