Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Veganomicon (Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero)

Why would I put a picture of a roast chicken with my review of a vegan cookbook? The short answer is that this vegan cookbook is so good that I think you can drop the word "vegan" and just call it an awesome cookbook. Everything we've made from it has been outstanding.

The longer answer is that when I was 19, I became a vegetarian and ate a strictly vegetarian diet for 12 years. About a year ago, I started eating some fish for the health benefits, and now I'm at the point where I do eat some other meat, usually locally produced. That said, we're not doing a lot of cow-based dairy these days because the littlest Duncan still cannot tolerate it. Lucky for us, our local co-op sells many goat-based dairy products that are fine for us all, so we can still have items like butter and mozzarella cheese. But it took me a long time to realize that, and in the interim, I found Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, and am super glad that I did.

This book introduced us to Maple Mustard Dressing (now our standard salad dressing), Snobby Joes (the best take on Sloppy Joes I've ever had, using lentils instead of soy), Green Pumpkin-Seed Mole (which we spread on everything we could get our hands on, especially fried egg sandwiches), and a super awesome BBQ sauce (which we used as a sauce for a BBQ chicken pizza, made with the leftover roast chicken pictured above).

The tone of the book is informal, but sometimes so are the directions. I would not recommend this cookbook to the novice cook for that reason, but it also gives you more flexibility in the interpretation. My other caveat is that the time per recipe listed can misguide you. It really should be broken down into active and inactive time. Also, there are some recipes that do take a long time, but those can be broken down into steps and made over the course of a couple days. (The one recipe I'm thinking of is Pumpkin Baked Ziti with Caramelized Onions and Sage Crumb Topping, and oh man was it good.)

A family story we often retell is that many years ago I tasted some soy ice cream, which I was certain tasted just like real ice cream. (It had been a really long time since I had eaten real ice cream.) Yeah, well, I was fully wrong on that. And I'm sure there are vegans out there who are convinced that vegan cheese tastes like real cheese. But none of that matters with this cookbook because the recipes are based on real food, not fake-meat substitutes, and I think that's why it succeeds. So that roast chicken pictured above? Jim made that for our Christmas dinner. Alongside it we served the spiced mashed sweet potatoes featured in Veganomicon, along with my version of the green bean casserole from Moskowitz's website. And the littlest Duncan could not get enough of those green beans. So yeah, really good real food worth checking out.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner)

So the other weekend we were out for a walk on a beautiful fall day, and I wanted to swing by the library to pick up a book I had on hold. But I didn't have my library card. Which meant that instead of using the self-checkout machine, I'd have to hand my book to an actual librarian to check out. And so I handed her the copy of Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed. It shows considerable self-growth that I was only a little bit embarrassed by this. One, there's the title, and two, it's definitely chick-lit, not high brow in any sense. But I've come to realize that my definition of a good book is simple: one that you don't want to put down. And that's exactly what this book was.

Cannie, the main character, finds out that her ex has started writing a column in a women's magazine about her (titled Good in Bed). Horrified, this sets off a chain of events that include taking part in a weight loss study, befriending a famous celebrity, becoming pregnant, and reconciling with her mother's lesbian partner. I'm not going to say anything more about the plot because in trying to explain the whole thing to Jim, he was practically rolling on the floor laughing in disbelief. But the book is well-written, with fully developed characters. The very-dramatic-thing-that-must-happen in these kinds of books is a little too dramatic for me, and I did notice that the main character in this book and the main character in her third book, Little Earthquakes, have a lot of similarities (and similarities to the author), but that didn't make either book less entertaining to read. (I read Little Earthquakes this past summer, and also very much enjoyed it.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not So Common Knowledge

I've had some intense memories this fall. Every small event (the first sweet corn of the season, the first sign of leaves changing color, the first early morning tailgaters for the UW football games) reminds me of what I had been doing that time last year, and each memory seems to end with "and I was very pregnant." I'm not sure if it's because I'm getting so close to Noah's first birthday or if it's because it was until August last year that I really started paying attention to the whole pregnancy thing. I do remember, though, sometime in July or August of last year deciding that we needed to learn how to take care of this baby and that experts had written books about these things, so we better get learning quick.

I actually wanted to write a wrap-up of the books I had read during pregnancy back when I was on maternity leave, but, as it happened (surprise, surprise), I never managed to get it done. This is probably for the best as, after a full 10 months of learning on the job, I now have a different, fuller, perspective.

I chose the books I read based mainly on (a) what was available at the library, (b) what seemed to be popular on Amazon, and (c) what the pregnant woman at the gym who always was riding the stationary bike in the row in front of me was reading (she was about 6 weeks or so ahead of me).

I did not read What to Expect When You're Expecting (even though this was the book the doctor's office gave me during what I like to call my Orientation to Pregnancy). The illustration on the cover portrays a woman looking quite dour in her expectant situation, which gives me the impression there are not joyful things in these pages. (The publisher must have gotten word of the unpopular cover because they updated the 2008 edition.) I also had heard that the tone of the book, and the broad scope, covering many rare and emergency situations, could easily make readers worry more than they needed to. What I read instead was Body, Soul, Baby by Tracy Gaudet, an OB who works in integrated medicine. I loved this book for presenting a balanced look at pregnancy. Gaudet is fairly conservative in her recommendations on herbal medicines but is very open to alternative therapies. This book focuses more on the journey of pregnancy, providing a general manual (although not comprehensive) for the nine months and postpartum period. She does highlight possible complications, but it's not the focus and she often states how rare these circumstances are.

I did find through my reading that the "normal procedures" of labor and delivery presented in each book vary based on date of publication. Much has changed (for the better) over the past 5-10 years and procedures vary by region and even by hospital. We were lucky that our hospital provided a six-week comprehensive course so that we could learn their procedures, and it is also one of the few certified baby and family friendly hospitals in the nation.

I was determined to prepare for a natural birth, and so I read Birthing from Within, Calm Birth, and Hypnobirthing (although I did not follow the Hypnobirthing program, I was curious to read about it). These three books presented completely different techniques and mindsets for labor. Calm Birth I'm going to completely skip over because it was written by a doctor who really should have considered having a coauthor (writing was not his strong point), and while the central message of the book was strong (meditation is good for both baby and mother), it read awkwardly. Birthing from Within is more of an eye-of-the-tiger kind of approach to birth, a true "get in touch with your inner, animal self, unleash the moans and cries of pain and embrace them" kind of thing. Hypnobirthing focuses on the concept that "pain" is a taught sensation for the process of labor and that we need to rethink this mindset. The meditation exercises in Hypnobirthing were very helpful, but I also very much appreciated Birthing from Within's general message, so somehow these incredibly different approaches both worked for me.

I also exercised throughout the entire pregnancy, and was concerned especially about modifying my strength training and abdominal exercises. Maternal Fitness adopted the somewhat defensive, angry tone not unfamiliar to many pregnancy books (the the-doctors-are-so-not-right-in-what-they're-telling-you-to-do tone), but it did provide some good back and abdominal exercises. Expecting Fitness was the better of these two books, with more exercises and adaptations.

Jim and I both read The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp, and found it to be extremely helpful with the swaddling and shushing techniques. In fact, Jim would rate this book as one of the top two most important baby books to read (more on the other one below).

On the feeding front, many people recommended The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding to me (which is a LaLeche league book). I'm not sure there is anything more confusing than trying to figure out the mechanics of breastfeeding before you actually have a baby you are breastfeeding. I think reading this book helped me feel calmer about the prospect, but I have to say that it also angered me in some ways. The section on returning to work should have really been subtitled "Are you sure you really want to?" because its general thesis seemed to be against it. Giving actual advice on pumping schedules, etc., would have been more helpful.

One thing I learned quickly after Noah was born was that there is no topic new mothers want to talk more about than that of infant sleep. And for understandable reasons since no one is really sleeping in those first few months (or longer). I had read the No-Cry Sleep Solution while pregnant, but of course it made little sense to me then, and I promptly forgot everything in it. This approach, touted as a calmer, gentler way to change your baby's sleep habits, compared with other approaches, would not have worked for us. Inadvertently, we found out by reading Ferber's Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems that everything we were doing in an attempt for Noah to sleep better had trained him to sleep poorly. Ferber unfortunately gets a bad reputation by those who have not read his book (they label his approach "cry it out," which it is not). But we found it to be full of science, and after coming up with a game plan to retrain Noah's sleep, he was sleeping better in less a week, as were we, and everyone was happy. (This would be the second most important book for Jim, as mentioned above.)

I remember being at the solstice service last December at the Unitarian society, a tiny one-month Noah asleep in his car seat, watching light, powdery snow falling in the night sky behind us. During the service, candles were passed and lit, while everyone focused on something that happened during the past year they would like forgiveness for. I immediately thought of how I had read parenting/baby care books like I was cramming for a final test, how I thought I knew the correct answers, and how I quietly, secretly, judged most parents I saw in action on a daily basis. I now understood how wrong I was. The day Noah was born, it was like I had been dropped off in a remote village that spoke a foreign language, and I had to become fluent just by getting by every day. After a moment of silence, the minister asked everyone to then let those thoughts go and blow out their candles. And with that, we began again. A little more fluent, a little more wise, a lot more ready to leave most of those books on the shelves.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Farm City (Novella Carpenter)

Last month I spent a good hour pulling weeds that had grown up to my knees in the garden. After I was finished you could actually see the pepper and tomato plants that had been camouflaged in a green jungle of overgrowth for the past few weeks. Gardening is not my strong point. Or rather, taking time to learn how to garden and actually maintain it aren't my strong points. My approach is to buy transplants at the farmer's market in May, put them in the ground, and then I let nature take over. Luckily nature is a lot better at growing things than I am.

Novella Carpenter is really good at gardening. So good that she moved way beyond vegetables and kept bees, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and even pigs in her garden. But she's in Oakland. As in downtown Oakland. Which is not really amenable to large-scale gardens, or as she calls it, her urban farm. Farm City is her account of her time raising livestock, vegetables, and fruits in her backyard.

I wanted to not like Novella. I was afraid she was going to be one of those hipper-than-thou types that goes on and on about how great city life is and how much cooler and better she is than everyone else because of the choices she's made for her lifestyle. And sometimes she did veer toward that area in her writing, but mostly she just comes off as a gutsy urban homesteader taking the term locavore to the most extreme level, exploring her relationship with these animals-turned-dinner in a humane and honest way, feeding her pigs on a diet of Chinatown dumpster dives. Her sense of humor that comes across in her writing separates this book from other locavore accounts; it's not the idyllic rural account of Barbara Kingsolver. It's more no nonsense and sparse at times, but in a good way.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Do-Over! (Robin Hemley)

You know those things you did when you were a kid/teenager that still kind of haunt you? Like not learning how to ride a bike (just a generic example). And giving up on piano lessons because the teacher wanted you to play classical music and you wanted to play the Beatles (again, just another generic example). Robin Hemley confronts his own list of do-overs at the age of 48 in Do-Over!, including kindergarten, an elementary school play where he flubbed his lines, eighth grade, and a foreign exchange year cut short.

I loved reading this book. I would end a chapter and ask Jim questions like if he ever went to camp (answer: yes), what his favorite grade was (answer: twelfth, because it was the last) and his least favorite one (eighth grade, same as Hemley's). (My favorite was tenth grade, the year I went to a great school in Colorado Springs, and my least favorite was seventh, when it was very, very uncool to be smart). Hemley assimilates easily back into kindergarten. Of all the grades he revisits, these kids are most accepting of him.

By the end of my first day, we're all a bit confused. If I wasn't having a midlife crisis before, I am now. And my classmates are having a bit of a beginning-life crisis---not quite sure what to make of the new kid.

As we're waiting at the end of the day to be dismissed, we sit on the floor with our coats and backpacks, legs "crisscross applesauce," which is a little difficult for me.

"Are you going to Extended Day?" Stefan asks me.
"No," I say. "I'm going home."
"Do you ride the bus?" Louis asks.
"Oh. Well, who's picking you up?" Haley asks.
"My wife," I say.
There's a long moment of silence as they take that in and blink at me like cats.
"Oh," says Stefan finally. "I thought you were going to say your dad."

Hemley finds that the second time around isn't necessarily easier, and still feels a lot of the nervousness/embarrassment he felt the first time. Or there's added nervousness when he starts to think about the strangeness of his project and what others must be thinking about it.

I'd often think about my own do-over list while reading. The only item I really could think of was piano lessons (a common answer, according to Hemley), but instead of a do-over list, I was forming a different list in my head, what some people call a bucket list, or a life list (my favorite example is Maggie Mason's Mighty Life List, and she even recently got herself a sponsor!). I haven't really decided what would be on it, but in some ways it might resemble a do-over list in that some items would be things that I could have done in the past but didn't (like learn how to ride a horse, hike Pikes Peak) and other items that either I'd forget that I'd want to do or might need an extra push to actually go do them (either because they're out of my comfort zone or take commitment or extra funds, etc.). Sometimes just writing down a list of things you want to accomplish can really help push you in the right direction. I'm thinking of posting it on Facebook so then I have a built-in cheering section and can document the progress.

(Oh, and I did finally learn to ride a bike. At age 25. In a Jewish Community Center parking lot on a borrowed bike. So in some ways I guess that's a version of my own do-over.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Shakespeare (Bill Bryson)

Most of my reading these days gets done at night, right before I fall asleep, which is translating to a lot of "easy" reading, for lack of a better term: entertaining, nothing with too many details, uncomplicated, nothing really considered too literary. So I surprised myself when I requested a biography of Shakespeare at the library. But it was by Bill Bryson, who I've loved, and who I've loved not so much. I knew I had made the right decision when I read the first sentence of the book:

Before he came into a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.

Fiction workshops can be built around first sentences, and this one, although considered nonfiction, is right up there with the best. (Grenville had been the owner of what is now known as the Chandos portrait, which is believed to be of Shakespeare.) Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson explains, "was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. Which is one reason, of course, it's so slender."

There isn't a lot on record of Shakespeare, but this hasn't stopped people from speculating, sometimes wildly, about his life and who exactly he was. Bryson brings us back to Shakespeare's time, tells us what we know, what we might, and what we don't. (He does an excellent job near the end of the book dispelling some of the myths of the Shakespeare conspiracists who believe that someone else wrote the plays, noting that much of the drive behind that movement came from Delia Bacon, an American who believed, quite wrongly, that she was connected to Francis Bacon, and that Francis Bacon was then the real playwright.)

It's definitely a good read and would probably be an excellent audiobook for those of you who appreciate such things.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Pluto Files (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

The day after the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto's status to a "dwarf planet," my friend and coworker Jenn printed out "I Heart Pluto" stickers for many in our office to wear in defiance. What? You didn't do this at your work on that day? Hmmm, then maybe you don't work in science. We felt compelled to stand up for Pluto, the underdog of the nine planets, probably because that's all we remember about the Solar System in elementary school science. How can you forget Pluto? It's the furthest away and the smallest. And it has the same name as Mickey Mouse's dog.

Neil deGrasse Tyson knows Pluto all too well for an astrophysicist whose specialty is not planetary bodies. As director of the Hayden Planetarium, in 2000 he was involved in the planning of the American Museum of Natural History's new Rose Center for Earth and Space. After much discussion about Pluto, they decided to side-step the issue by not talking about the nine planets as a whole and instead grouped items with other like items. The gas giants together, the terrestrial planets together, and then Pluto together with members of the Kuiper belt (in another area of the center).

Now, I can see how as scientists this grouping like-with-like made perfect sense to them, and how they could believe that this would resolve the issue, no problem, with no questions. But soon after opening day, although the media was not discussing it yet, some of their smallest critics saw right away that Pluto was missing from their Scales of the Universe display. All the other planets were there. Where was Pluto?

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet discusses the history of Pluto, the media storm around Pluto that began with the Rose Center's new design, and deGrasse Tyson's own personal history with Pluto (including just a few examples of the many, many letters he received some school children, along with letters and emails from working scientists and the general public). The book is engaging, written for a general audience, and brings up lots of great points: 1) We probably wouldn't have had this kind of public reaction to Pluto's reclassification if Pluto hadn't been discovered by an American, 2) There actually isn't an exact definition for what makes a planet a planet, and 3) Pluto does not care what we call it. It just goes on being Pluto.

The letters and emails contained in the book are great, and I want to highlight a couple here. Here's an email, accusing deGrasse Tyson of cultural insensitivity:

Would you say a small child or midget wasn't a person? Of course you wouldn't, although they are a different versions of the normal standard that is set as what a person would like, but they are still classified as people. By saying that Pluto is not a planet, is like saying a midget or a small child is not a person.
I'll end with a letter from Madeline Trost, an example of what deGrasse Tyson calls the "angry-kid genre." "After addressing the envelope to me personally, she bluntly addresses her letter 'Dear Scientest,' and she can't contain her flurry of assaults on my integrity, ending with an appeal to accommodate a shortcoming of her own":
Dear Scientest,
What do you call Pluto if its not a planet anymore? If you make it a planet agian all the science books will be right. Do poeple live on Pluto? If there are poeple who live there they won't exists. Why can't Pluto be a planet? If it's small doesn't meant that it doen't have to be a planet anymore. Some poeple like Pluto. If it doen't exist then they don't have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can't read in cursive.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gluten-Free Girl (Shauna James Ahern)

When I was pregnant, I kept telling Jim the list of foods (foods I currently wasn't eating due to safety recommendations) I was going to eat once Noah was born. High on the list was a wonderful fried-egg breakfast sandwich at a local restaurant, complete with yummy soft French cheese. I was thinking I'd get this sandwich in the first few weeks after giving birth. I still haven't gotten to eat this sandwich. Much like myself as a baby, Noah and dairy are not friends. Meaning that I have to take a lengthy vacation from it as well. (Most babies outgrow this dairy intolerance in their first two years of life. My fingers are crossed that this happens sooner rather than later, but it was the full two years for myself.)

It turns out that avoiding all dairy, especially in packaged food, is very hard. Down low on a lengthy list of ingredients can be hiding whey power or milk protein. But I cannot even imagine how hard it must be for someone who couldn't eat gluten. Because it's not even listed on products that can contain it, which is something I didn't know until I had read Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern. (Astute readers may realize that this is another blogger who wrote a book, and I'll just let you know right now that there are two other blogger books on hold at the library. Apparently I'm going through a phase.)

Ahern's celiac disease went undiagnosed for a long time. She was often tired and generally not feeling well. When she realized her symptoms may very well be signs of celiac disease, she couldn't get her doctor to run the test. (He told her it was a rare disease, which is completely wrong.) Most people would have been quite upset to find out they could never eat bread again (I know I certainly would've taken the news hard as a freshly baked piece of bread, toasted and buttered, is one of my favorite things in this world), but given how much better Ahern was feeling, for the first time in her life really, she embraced it.

Ahern writes beautifully in this book about re-discovering food, much of it local, seasonal food, and how she's adapted to a gluten-free life. This is a great book, well-written, engaging, but I will say that I visited her blog after finishing the book, and it looks like some parts of the book existed as blog postings in various forms prior to the book's publication, so if you are a fan of her blog, there may not be a lot of new material here.

She also includes near the end the story of how she met her husband, the chef, as she calls him. Not that I want to give too much away here, but how can you get much better than this: Her husband (at the time her boyfriend), the chef at a small, fabulous restaurant? Yeah, he ends up making the entire menu at his restaurant gluten-free. How absolutely incredible is that? Sigh. They should make their love story into a movie. I'd go see it, and I'm sure I'd end up crying at that part.

Hungry Monkey (Matthew Amster-Burton)

Noah is just a few days away from getting his hands on some solid food. Well, except, technically he's already had his first solid food: a small chunk of the service program at the Unitarian church on Mother's Day. Oh well.

The "first" of what will be a lifetime of non-liquid foods can be a little stressful for well-meaning parents. Iron-fortified rice cereal? Jarred food? Mashed bananas? The intricacies of these choices are expounded upon in Web sites, blender-specific homemade baby food books, and pamphlets given out at the doctor's office. Do this (strain, steam, vegetables-before-fruit, wait four days between new foods). Don't do this (possible allergens, unsanitized cookware, vegetables with nitrates). Thank goodness for friends with second children and for Matthew Amster-Burton's book Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.

Amster-Burton is a writer (also a blogger) who lives in Seattle with his wife and his four-year-old daughter, Iris. I got this book for my birthday (thank you, Sue!) because I had known a little about Amster-Burton's writing through the Web site Serious Eats, and I thought it might be handy for when Noah reached the solid-food stage.

When she was around one-year old, Iris would eat just about anything, loving especially very spicy food. Sushi, spicy Thai noodles, enchiladas, you name it. Amster-Burton was thrilled, thinking he had done all the right things as a parent. And then she got older. And pickier. Just like most other kids, he learned. But even then he still tries to make a meal everyone can enjoy at dinner time, with some modification, and he shares those tips in the book. A stay-at-home dad, Amster-Burton reads Working Mother, and Iris at one point isn't actually sure her mother can cook. (She can do that? She says, in disbelief, when the idea is mentioned.) This reminds me of my sister Betsy, whose oldest daughter once complained to her father that when he was away on a business trip, Betsy made them eat cereal for breakfast. Cereal.

Some of my favorite things I've taken away from this book are that, for Iris (and I'm guessing Noah given his current behavior at the dinner table), there was a very small window of time where Amster-Burton and his wife could eat their own meal while Iris at prepared baby food. She wanted their food. So he finely chopped a portion of their meal for her, with salt and spices. In preparation for the toddler years, I'm also going to try to keep in mind a quote from Ellyn Satter that Amster-Burton draws attention to (I'm paraphrasing here): once you put the plate in front of your child, your work is done. So Zenlike, and I'm sure so hard to follow given the behavior that follows.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Voyage Long and Strange (Tony Horwitz)

I'm in week eight of my maternity leave and have discovered that the advertisers of daytime television really want me to eat at Golden Corral, buy many items from Billy Mays, and help me get the life insurance I need for my peace of mind. And while our dinners have been improved immensely by my new friends Giada and Ina, there's only so many times I can watch prosciutto being wrapped around figs. Between nursing, changing diapers, and making funny faces at the baby, I've tried to get in a little reading, and was able to finish Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World just a few hours before it was due. I was even able to snap the blurry photo above. But one thing I wasn't able to do was spend any quality time going back over the book to find the really great quotes and highlights, so bear with me on the details.

I remember 4th grade history being the year of explorers, name after name of men I imagined yielding swords in puffy pantaloons. History not being my strong point (it is unlikely I'll remember any fact for longer than oh, say, 20 minutes), I was unaware of how many Europeans had landed on our shores prior to both Columbus and the Pilgrims. I doubt that I'm alone. Horwitz explores these men and the many misconceptions that surrounds them and their legacies, with the modern cities/peoples who are constantly in a tug-of-war to be the deemed the first of the firsts.

Horwitz has this great reporting/writing style that weaves the modern into the historical, which I had enjoyed in his Blue Latitudes, his book about Captain Cook. Because A Voyage Long and Strange covers so many explorers, there's a lot more historical background for each one, especially at the beginning of the book. But today's people enter in quickly, and in interesting ways. Compared to Europe, it seems that America is lacking in a rich sense of history or tradition, but Horwitz meets people who trace themselves back to remarkably different first settlers, and hold onto these identities strongly. As always, his interactions with these people are interesting, and often hilarious (such as his participation in an all-era reinactment camp: think pirates interacting with knights).

If you want to love history but most presentations of history don't love you back, try reading some of Horwitz's writing. It's totally approachable and fun, and I've already requested another of his books from the library.