Saturday, February 28, 2015

Savoring Soul Food Love

Embracing their cultural heritage, both the good and the bad, Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams share the stories of the women who shaped their family's past and their hope to build a healthier future upon that foundation in their book Soul Food Love. It's a compelling story which leads to even greater appreciation for the recipes included in the text.

I come from a long line of Upper Midwestern women who's family heritage includes a solid girth and hearty work ethic--farm wives, blue-collar workers, and homemakers who needed to find a way to stretch the family food budget to feed many mouths. That meant lots of potatoes, pasta and bread. (My grandmother's favorite family gathering meal was chicken and noodles served over mashed potatoes with a side of homemade dinner rolls and jelly. There may or may not have been peas or beans on the side. Meals always concluded with your choice of pie or cake.) This model for eating has left us in the "stocky" category and candidates for stroke and heart disease.

I loved that Soul Food Love includes so many wonderful recipes for getting vegetables on to the table! I find great inspiration in Williams' story of eating the same vegetable (sweet potato) different ways simply depending on the herbs or spices used. Brilliant! You will also find that many of the traditionally fried foods have been redone to include baking and roasting. Even the desserts center on getting fruits to the table and eliminating (or at least significantly cutting) amounts of processed sugar.

The fact that their family could go from large hams to a side of salmon for family celebrations gives me hope that it is possible to change my own food future and steer my family's health in a new direction.

If you grew up with soul food, or have enjoyed the wonderful Southern food traditions in your travels, you will find the requisite flavors present in Soul Food Love. There are recipes for greens, sweet potato pie, peanut chicken stew, shrimp salad and a host of other favorites, although the recipes have been updated and made more healthful.

The book also includes many dishes which were new to me, but contain exciting, mouth-water flavor profiles: carrot ginger soup, broccoli with peanuts and raisins, sweet potato skewers, warm onion and rosemary salad, and "new school" fruit salad which incorporates watermelon, cherry tomatoes, avocado, and feta cheese. Are you salivating yet?

There are many recipes in this book which I will be trying out on my family. I would add that Williams makes no bones over the fact that these dishes can be made quickly and simply with ingredients available at Walmart -- no high-end, specialty shops required. What's not to love about that? Don't forget--these recipes are healthier alternatives to her family's past repertoire of recipes. I love that! While I am enjoying eating my way through this new tradition thanks to Randall and Williams, I will be thinking of ways to remake my own family's recipes.

I'd like to thank Blogging For Books for the review copy of Soul Food Love.

From the Publisher . . .

A mother-daughter duo reclaims and redefines soul food by mining the traditions of four generations of black women and creating 80 healthy recipes to help everyone live longer and stronger.

In May 2012, bestselling author Alice Randall penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Black Women and Fat,” chronicling her quest to be “the last fat black woman” in her family. She turned to her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, for help. Together they overhauled the way they cook and eat, translating recipes and traditions handed down by generations of black women into easy, affordable, and healthful—yet still indulgent—dishes, such as Peanut Chicken Stew, Red Bean and Brown Rice Creole Salad, Fiery Green Beans, and Sinless Sweet Potato Pie. Soul Food Love relates the authors’ fascinating family history (which mirrors that of much of black America in the twentieth century), explores the often fraught relationship African-American women have had with food, and forges a powerful new way forward that honors their cultural and culinary heritage. This is what the strong black kitchen looks like in the twenty-first century.

About the Author . . .

Alice Randall is the author of The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell, and Ada's Rules. Born in Detroit she grew up in Washington, D.C.. As a Harvard undergraduate majoring in English she studied with Julia Child as well as Harry Levin, Alan Heimert, and Nathan Huggins. After graduation Randall headed south to Music City where she founded Midsummer Music with the idea she would create a new way to fund novel writing and a community of powerful storytellers. On her way to The Wind Done Gone she became the first black woman in history to write a number one country song; wrote a video of the year; worked on multiple Johnny Cash videos and wrote and produced the pilot for a primetime drama about ex-wives of country stars that aired on CBS. She has written with or published some of the greatest songwriters of the era including Steve Earle, Matraca Berg, Bobby Braddock, and Mark Sanders. Four novels later, the award winning songwriter with over twenty recorded songs to her credit and frequent contributor to Elle magazine, is Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University. She teaches courses on Country Lyric in American Culture, Creative Writing, and Soul Food as text and in text. Randall lives near the University with her husband, a ninth generation Nashvillian who practices green law. Her daughter graduated from Harvard and is now teaching and writing in the Mississippi Delta. After twenty-four years hard at it Randall has come to the conclusion motherhood is the most creative calling of all and health disparity is the dominant civil rights issue of the first quarter of the 21st century.

Caroline Randall Williams--the third-generation poet and author (her great-grandfather is Arna Bontemps, and her mother is The Wind Done Gone author Alice Randall)--is following in her family’s footsteps with her writings (including kids’ book The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess) that promote African-American culture. Caroline, who is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Mississippi, published Soul Food Love, a cookbook and African-American culinary anthology co-written with her mother. The book redefines traditional soul food cooking with a healthful spin.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Burgess Boys

In the Reader's Guide to her novel, The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout writes, "It is not 'good' or 'bad' that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish."

Strout's wish is brought to fulfillment brilliantly in her telling of the Burgesses' story.

I remembered how much I enjoyed Strout's earlier novel when I witnessed Frances McDormand and the wonderful ensemble cast bring Olive Kitteridge to light in HBO's production. It reminded me that I had intended to add Strout's other works to my "To Read" list and so I set off to check-out her latest offering.

In reading Strout's books I always have the feeling that I am pulling a Mrs. Drinkwater at the top of the stairs or a Bob Burgess watching his neighbors at night through their illuminated apartment windows across the street--not quite sure I should be witnessing this level of intimacy between the people before me, but quite unable to turn away. Strout manages to involve readers in the lives of these quite ordinary people (I hesitate to call them characters, as they feel like so much more!) and it seems there is something in each of them with which it is easy to identify with.

Although the Burgess family grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine--the brothers have lived for a number of years in New York City. With both parents deceased, only their sister, Susan, and her son Zach remain in the fictional Maine community. What is clear is that the trauma they all endured in childhood has impacted greatly the varied paths each has taken.

If you are the type of reader who enjoys a novel's ability to make you examine your own life--the events, people, and attitudes that have shaped your journey and continue to do so, you should read any of Strout's writing. There are no perfect lives here (although there are those within the pages who dream of perfect lives.) That's what draws me in to Strout's writing. [In other words, if you read to escape the realities of life and to get drawn into the realm of fantasy, these books are not for you.]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How to Sit

This 97 page book appears to contain simple, basic steps to sitting meditation/mindfulness. And it does! However, the author's simple words and ideas offer profound insight which beginners and seasoned practioners alike will return to time and time again. A must-have on your shelf!

From the Publisher:

How to Sit is the first in a new series of how-to titles by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that introduces beginners to and reminds seasoned practitioners of the essentials of mindfulness practice. Pocket-sized with bold black-and-white illustrations by Jason DeAntonis, How to Sit provides explicit, simple directions on the mechanics of posture and breathing, along with instructions for how best to achieve the awakened, relaxed state of clarity to cultivate concentration and compassion. Following the instructions, Thich Nhat Hanh shares a series of secular guided meditations that help us return to our breath, spend some time in the present moment, and come home to ourselves.

The function of meditation practice is to heal and transform. Scientific studies indicate that meditation contributes tremendously to well-being, general health, and longevity. How to Sit is a unique gift for those who want a comprehensive yet simple guide to getting started with meditation practice, as well as meditators with training in any spiritual tradition who want to be reminded of the foundation of practice.

About the Author

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist who now lives in southwest France where he was in exile for many years.

Born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo, Thích Nhất Hạnh joined a Zen (Vietnamese: Thiền) monastery at the age of 16, and studied Buddhism as a novitiate. Upon his ordination as a monk in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thích Nhất Hạnh. Thích is an honorary family name used by all Vietnamese monks and nuns, meaning that they are part of the Shakya (Shakyamuni Buddha) clan.

He is often considered the most influential living figure in the lineage of Lâm Tế (Vietnamese Rinzai) Thiền, and perhaps also in Zen Buddhism as a whole.

His best-selling books include Happiness and Being Peace.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Flavia Saves the Day!

Did you ever spend moments of childhood imagining you were a great detective on the verge of solving a notorious crime and delivering justice to all involved?

Do you enjoy mysteries? Nostalgia? Kid geniuses? Quaint English villages?

Do you enjoy picking through the clues as you read, in an attempt to discern the true from the red herrings?

Do you appreciate scientific evidence combined with literature, art, music, hymnody, political intrigue and social mores?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, I urge you to get a hold of one of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mysteries, ASAP!

One of the sanity saving devices I have for making it through the bitter temps of winter is my public library's electronic book lending program. From the warmth and comfort of my own home, I have been checking out and downloading books straight to my computer and on to my Nook. It's a miraculous godsend when the howling winds come biting! I have read my way through Alan Bradley's series of novels in precisely that way the past few weeks.

Bradley's Flavia series takes place, mainly, in Bishop's Lacey, England in the early 1950's. Flavia is the youngest daughter of Col. Haviland de Luce, a free-spirited girl with a penchant for chemistry and a well-stocked laboratory to back her passion. The girl is a genius. And the adults in her world, for the most part, adore her precocious nature. (Her sisters, however, are another story.)

Flavia finds herself in the company of a dead body at some point in each book. Through clever sleuthing and an eye for detail, Flavia (always a few steps ahead of the local police) helps to piece together the details of the crime and catch the villain.

There are many wonderful things about this series in my opinion. Here are my reasons, in no particular order: first, the books are hard to put down. Bradley keeps readers turning pages as quickly as Flavia cycles around the countryside on Gladys, her faithful bicycle. Secondly, as the series progresses, Bradley's writing is consistently good. I never seem to tire of the characters, nor of watching Flavia grow and relationships blossom. Thirdly, the books are quick reads. Finally, Bradley's Flavia makes me laugh out loud sometimes. That makes the books such a delight to read!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Paleo Chef

I am a newbie when it comes to the Paleo eating movement. I have picked up enough hearsay to believe that it is all about eating as our prehistoric ancestors would have eaten in the days when life was centered on the survival of hunting and gathering. I knew that the eating part of the Paleo lifestyle centered on meats and vegetables while grains and dairy were off the table. And that most recipes I had seen that touted themselves as Paleo also decried processed ingredients (including sugar). With a family member who suffers from an auto-immune disorder of the digestive tract, I was quite thrilled to have the chance to get my hands on a cookbook dedicated to the Paleo diet as it offers a note of promise for improved health/symptom management. (My thanks to Blogging for Books for the review copy!)

The great thing about Chef Pete Evans' new cookbook, The Paleo Chef is that it is beautifully photographed, well laid out, and an easy read.

The chapters are laid out in an intuitive order, beginning with breakfast and working your way through side dishes/vegetables, various types of meats (a chapter for each), and rounding out the offerings with dessert and drinks. There is also a very helpful index of "Basics" at the back of the book that offers followers recipes for the essential ingredients (stocks, how to activate nuts, etc.) that are integral to so many of the recipes throughout the book. As a beginner, I was very thankful to see this!

I also appreciated Evans' introduction on the ideology behind the Paleo diet. While I understand that not everyone who picks up a copy of the book will be as new to the movement as I am, and that space is limited in a cookbook for details on the science and philosophy of a particular diet, I was hungry for this type of information and found The Paleo Chef left me wanting a bit more. I was disappointed that Evans did not annotate any of his introductory remarks, nor did he offer other resources for readers to turn to should they want to learn more.

When all is said and done, I will be trying several of the recipes Evans offers readers in The Paleo Chef. I am very interested to discover if making the changes to diet proposed by the Paleo movement can improve the health of my family. I am also interested to find out if this diet is truly workable in the part of the country where I live, given the resources available. Time will tell.

If you have been curious to explore the Paleo diet and try some recipes, I would encourage you to get a copy of Pete Evans' book. If you are just uncovering the Paleo option and in need of more of the science behind the diet, you will want to find some extra resources to supplement what Evans offers in The Paleo Chef.

From the Publisher . . .

Acclaimed international chef and television personality Pete Evans takes a whole new approach to making gluten-free, grain-free, and dairy-free, completely Paleo recipes that are worthy of a restaurant but effortless to prepare.

More and more people are discovering the health benefits of the Paleo lifestyle by cutting out processed, sugary foods and instead eating quality proteins and fats, fresh vegetables and fruits, and nuts and seeds. However, following this way of eating doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor or spending a long time in the kitchen. In The Paleo Chef, Evans provides more than 100 recipes for gorgeous food that is satisfying, distinctive, and good for you, including Kale Hummus, Vietnamese Chicken Wings, and Key Lime Tart.

Each and every one of Evans’s innovative recipes pops with flavor and is brought to life with stunning, full-color photography. Living—and eating—the Paleo lifestyle has never been so effortless and so delicious.