The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I first heard about The Help when the movie, with Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson came out, and wanted to read the book first. The storyline, in a nutshell, is the story of two African-American maids – Aibileen and Minny in 1960s Mississippi – and how the lives they lead, complete with racism, inequality, and brutality, are told by Skeeter, a white girl who has just returned home after finishing college and wants to be a writer.

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She is compelled to write about the inequal treatment of black servants after her Junior League starts an initiative to install separate toilets in every house in Jackson, for the sole purpose of keeping their colored servants from using their bathrooms. Yes, this stuff happened, and far, far worse.

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As much as I loved the kindness and wisdom of Aibileen, my favorite of all the characters was Minny. She was hilarious, and had a mouth on her that could cut! I loved the fact that, even in the segregated, rural, racist South when whites had so much power over African-Americans that sometimes literally meant life and death, Minny still stood up for herself and told her hateful employers exactly what she thought of them. Hah! Of course, that meant she had been fired from all of those jobs, too. Her initial relationship with Celia Foote was very odd and funny, yet very transformational as well, as they develop an odd sort of friendship.

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It’s so odd to think that this entire class of wealthy white women, so focused on segregating their maids and yet trusting them to care for and bring up their children, cook their food, clean their houses, and wash their dirty laundry – literally and figuratively. There is such inequality in any type of employer/employee relationship as it is. Can you imagine the dynamics of that relationship compounded by racial inequality?

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I’ve read other opinions on this book, and the main issue seems to be two-fold: 1) that Stockett is promoting racial stereotypes in her portrayals of the maids, and 2) that for all her willingness to expose the ugly racial reality of that time, she still soft-pedals it. I don’t know that I agree with that, simply because she wrote what she experienced and remembered and tried to recreate it in the voices of these wonderful maids. Maybe it wasn’t the voices with which they would have told their stories, and perhaps others of the same background and experiences would have told it differently. That’s as it should be, but it shouldn’t devalue this book, either.

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Being a story of domestic goings-on as much as a treatise on racial inequality, the book abounds with mentions of so much delicious food that it was hard to choose one. Minny’s caramel cakes, fried chicken, and of course, the infamous chocolate pie. Oh poop! But early in the book, one scene sets the tone for the type of behavior these poor maids had to deal with, when Aibileen is serving a lunch of deviled eggs, ham sandwiches, and something called a congealed salad at Mrs. Leefolt’s house, and the gossip abounds about Celia Foote, who is considered “white trash” by these supposed pillars of the community.

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I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to them chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy and I know they ain’t discussing no politic.

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A congealed salad is a Southern staple at lunch, dinner or picnics. It’s essentially a Jello salad, that can be made either savory or sweet. with marshmallows, nuts, fruit, celery (!), and cream cheese. I wanted to try and recreate it, so this is my take on that Southern classic, lime congealed salad. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe at Never Enough Thyme. I did use walnuts instead of pecan, and I left out the celery, because yuck.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-oz. packet of lime Jell-o
1 8-oz. bar of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups boiling hot water
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup walnuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

METHOD
Mix together in your most awesome Kitchen Aid the cream cheese and the lime Jell-o. That’s a lurid green, isn’t it?2017-03-26 10.39.46_resized.jpg

Reduce the mixer speed and add a little bit of the hot water. The idea is to loosen up the mixture.

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Add in the rest of the hot water and mix well to make sure the cheese, Jell-o and water are completely combined.

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Pour into a pan and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

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Remove from the fridge, and stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and walnuts. Put back in the refrigerator for another couple of hours. You might check on it once and stir a few times, as the marshmallows tend to sink and you want them incorporated through the salad.2017-03-26 14.45.21_resized.jpg

Remove one last time, and serve garnished with lime slices and whipped cream. To go full-on Southern, serve the lime congealed salad with fried chicken and deviled eggs.

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Dune by Frank Herbert

I remember discovering the planet Arrakis when I was about 11 years old and nosily poking around my uncle Greg’s apartment. He lived in a guest apartment behind my grandparent’s house and had a taste for the music of The Police and sci-fi fiction, both of which he passed along to me. I saw Dune on his sofa and the cover just grabbed me immediately – those huge spice worms! So, of course, I had to sneak away with it and read it.

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Admittedly, it was somewhat over my head but the great thing about reading something new at that age is that you’re still open to new concepts and ideas and so suspension of disbelief is much stronger. I fell in love with Paul Atreides AND Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and never had any trouble believing in that otherworldly planet of sand where the worms excrete the spice of life and the sand inhabitants have blue-upon-blue eyes.

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If you haven’t read this book, or seen the DeLaurentiis film, the basic premise is thus: Set hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, there are two warring empire families who are vying for control of the Planet Arrakis. The House Atreides and the House Harkonnen battle it out for the Planet, which is the only known place in their universe where they can mine the spice “melange,” which can extend life, grant extrasensory powers, and even allow people to travel through time. Paul Atreides is the hero of the book, and of course, every hero must have an antagonist. In this case, Feyd-Rautha, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, becomes Paul’s enemy as their families fight to control the spice, Arrakis, and indeed, the universe itself.

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It was interesting for me to reread this book as an adult, because I actually found myself not liking Paul Atreides very much, especially later in the book when he goes to war against the Baron and becomes fully the Kwisatz Haderach. I suppose when someone gains that level of power, it’s difficult not to allow it to change you, though. Another interesting tidbit that I don’t think I paid attention to was the subtext of Duncan Idaho’s secret love for Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica.

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My dad loved this book, too, and I remember he and my uncle Greg having long, intense conversations about it when I was little. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they were analyzing a book, not world politics. It just always seemed so very important, like they were debating the fate of the world or something. Not that this book isn’t marvelous and very detailed, but still. Kind of funny to realize what sci-fi nerds they both really were. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from tree, though. Ahem…..

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Anyway, when rereading this book, I came across this passage, when Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) are entertaining a group of bankers from the Empire, serving them dinner but also trying to find out if they are secretly supporting House Harkonnen. Lady Jessica calls for a most unusual dish.

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Jessica signaled for another course of food and drink. Servants appeared with langues de lapins de garenne – red wine and a sauce of mushroom-yeast on the side………..”Very important,” he agreed. “What is this dish? It’s delicious.” “Tongues of wild rabbit in a special sauce,” she said. “A very old recipe.”

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I hadn’t had rabbit in years, and though I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit tongues, rabbit braised in red wine and mustard, with mushrooms, sounded divine. So that’s what I made, using a combination of rabbit methods from Simply Recipes, The New York Times, and The Two Fat Ladies. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs organic rabbit pieces, skinned and bone-in
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
4 pieces of bacon, cut into strips
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grain Dijon mustard
2 cups red wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley

METHOD
Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces, and brown them in the butter and olive oil. Set aside.

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In the pan juices, add the bacon strips and cook until brown. Yum bacon!

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Remove the bacon, and add the onion, the mushrooms, and the thyme; and cook for about 10-15 minutes. The smell alone will transport you!

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Add the cooked mushrooms and onions to the plate with the bacon, and splash in some red wine to deglaze the cooking pan. Scrape up the lovely brown bits, as they add so much flavor to the dish.

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Whisk together the rest of the red wine with the mustard and the flour, creating a kind of thin slurry. Place the browned rabbit pieces into the pan, and pour over the red wine-mustard sauce.

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Add in the bacon, onions and mushrooms, and gently mix everything around so that the sauce covers everything.

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Cover and simmer on very low heat for up to an hour. After an hour, remove the lid, and remove the rabbit pieces to a plate. Turn up the heat, and let the winy sauce boil hard for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

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While the sauce is reducing, boil some egg noodles in salted water, until al dente, maybe 6 minutes at the most.

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Add the cream to the reduced sauce, stirring so that everything melds harmoniously. Don’t let it curdle.

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Plate the rabbits atop the egg noodles. Ladle over the beautiful, creamy sauce. Garnish with parsley.

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Soooooo good, and just different enough to make a Sunday lunch feel a bit more special. Do try this if you find some good-quality rabbit, or if you’re not a bunny boiler, it’s also delicious with boneless, skinless chicken thighs!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The reason I love Sarah Waters’ books is because there is always a sense of pervasive menace throughout her pages. Her settings are innocuous: British post-war, large rambling houses, upper-class families who have fallen on hard times and must economize in ways they never had to before, and a way of life that has always seemed incredibly romantic. These are environments that you’d expect to be comforting, old-fashioned and a little bit staid, but in The Little Stranger, the  house is haunted by dread, darkness and spirits……though not quite in the way you’d expect.

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I realize, of course, that none of these houses had central heating, that it rains incessantly on the British Isles, and that these once-wealthy families probably didn’t have enough money for firewood to heat the houses. Living there would have been a misery, I’m sure. But there is just something that draws me to this way of life that probably doesn’t exist any longer. I am an Anglophile, when I’m not dreaming of Italy…….so maybe you can call me, in the words of one of my cooking heroes Anna del Conte, a “Britalian.” I like that term.

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Told in the viewpoint of their family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother was once a maid at the house in more affluent times, he has always been obsessed with the house and Ayres family who live there. As society has turned on its head after WWII, he soon becomes close friends with the family, something that would never have happened in earlier years. He grows fonder of Caroline, the Ayres daughter, and they begin a relationship.

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All seems well, and yet………..there’s that menacing sense, again. Very strange things begin to happen. Mrs. Ayres gets terrifyingly locked in the nursery where her first daughter died as a little girl. The family dog, a gentle and sweet canine, mysteriously attacks a neighboring child. Bell pulls ring in the middle of the night from rooms where no one has been for over 20 years. Handprints from a child appear on the walls in rooms where children haven’t set foot in decades. Again, that pervasive sense of something waiting, lurking, stalking.

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Sarah Waters can create atmosphere in a single sentence. But what I love about her books, aside from the setting and her atmospheric abilities, is simply the way she describes the rituals and niceties of British society. Tea is a constant and a comfort to the family, one of those rituals they hold onto to give structure to their lives even as the world around them seems to be crumbling daily.

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So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family………”Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!” said Mrs. Ayres, as the plates were handed out. “Or even a really good biscuit.”

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I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for scones. I had a mad crush on a man named Cord McQueen many years ago, who was a very accomplished cook and baker. He owned a coffee shop and I used to go in to get my vanilla coconut latte and a scone, and just drool over him. Aside from being handsome and charming and intelligent, the man could cook. Dream Man material for sure! Anyway, he made scones that were out of this world. Not overly sweet, perfect texture to hold together, and yet crumble off if you wanted to dip a chunk into your coffee, and he always used cranberries, my personal favorite. I’d forgotten that he had written down his scone recipe for me and discovered it recently, so using his method and having both dried cranberries and fresh blueberries on hand, I gave scones a whirl. This method makes 12 scones.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of two clementines or one medium orange
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment or lightly spraying with baking spray. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cranberries, blueberries, sugar and orange zest.

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In your most wonderful and awesome Kitchen Aid, add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix well. Add in the cubed butter a few chunks at at time and mix with the pastry hook attachment until the texture is crumbly.

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Add the cranberry-blueberry mixture to the flour and butter mixture, and mix a couple of times.

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Add the buttermilk and mix together until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 10-15 minutes.

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Roll out the dough on a floured surface, somewhat thickly, and cut out rounds using a floured biscuit cutter.

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Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

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Ideally, I would have attempted clotted cream to go with, but decided that was making things very stressful for myself. Besides, there is nothing wrong with buying a jar of ready-made genuine Devon clotted cream from your friendly neighborhood Cost Plus World Market, which I did.

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Serve the scones in proper British style, with cream and black cherry preserves. Sooooooo yummy! Not too sweet, with the tart cranberries nicely offsetting the sweeter blueberries, and the orange zest adding a zip of citrus.

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And a very happy birthday to me, this 12th of March!

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The Feet Say Run by Dan Blum

The Feet Say Run is a beautifully written, lyrical, and somewhat surreal book. The main character’s time on the island, where the book opens, has a strong, otherwordly vibe that also presents the world around us in, at times, a brutally realistic fashion.

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Hans Jaeger, the narrator, is trapped on an island, we are never quite sure where. He’s there with some other odd characters, so I was immediately put into mind of the TV series “Lost.” It has that kind of magical realism, weird feelings where things seem dreamlike and hyperreal at the same time.

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The theme of questioning one’s life and choices, the “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross so eloquently put it, is at the heart of this book. Very existentially, Hans remembers his previous life and questions his ongoing existence, because let’s face it, he’s done some pretty crappy things. He worked for the Nazis in  Germany, despising them at the same time. Who among us hasn’t done that, albeit on a less extreme level. We get up, we oftentimes have to do things we don’t like or want to do. But we do them, in order to survive, to exist. As does Hans.

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The storyline arcs between Hans’ entrapment on the island and his struggle for survival there, and his life before, both the awfulness of the Nazis and the beauty of his own love story with Hilda. The lyricism in Blum’s writing – and he is quite an excellent writer – gives the brutal passages an almost fantasylike feeling, like you’re experiencing the horrors through a film of milky glass.

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Hans is not the most likeable character in the world, and there are times when I felt like he was trying to make excuses for what he had done in his life, to try and justify the choices he made that led him to being a Nazi. He’s participated in some terrible things, and given the current state of our country and the fear and anger so many people feel these days, I found it sadly and frighteningly timely to read.

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Two food passages stuck out to me. The first is Hans remembering his mother and aunt having lunch in pre-war Germany at a very posh French restaurant. Hans’ mother is a terrible snob, and she meets her match that day with the waiter. If you’ve experienced a true French waiter, you must know that no one, and I mean NO ONE, outsnobs him. Hans’ mother keeps trying to get the waiter to explain what is in the sandwich, and he continues to needle her by saying there is nothing in the sandwich “except ze bread, madame,” “ze limburger” and “ze tomato.” It gave me the giggles, reading about this dreadful woman being put in her place by a supercilious waiter.

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The second passage takes place on the unnamed island. Andre is one of his Hans’ compatriots, and one day, foraging for food, they come across a cache of dove eggs. Hallelujah, it’s breakfast time! Hans watches Andre with consternation, thinking to himself – quite facetiously – how they will have their feast of eggs.

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Talking to him and listening to his babbling replies. Look, Andre. One of the doves has laid an egg! Are you going to help me cook it? How should we prepare it, do you think? Scrambled? Eggs Benedict?

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I considered doing something involving limburger cheese, but aside from the fact that it is not available in the United States, it really has a horrendous smell. I love a strong, raspy cheese, but limburger is a bit much, even for me. So another strong-scented and flavored cheese seemed in order – gorgonzola! And having done Eggs Benedict in an earlier post, I thought about what else I’d love to eat if stuck on a deserted island, and smoked salmon immediately came to mind. So baked eggs with smoked salmon, gorgonzola and spinach was my riff on the desert island dove eggs. I think mine is probably a bit better.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on too many oeufs en cocotte recipes to mention. The addition of blue cheese is my own.

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INGREDIENTS
6 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
6 oz. smoked salmon
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper for seasoning

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Spray three large ramekins with butter spray.

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Wilt the spinach in a skillet, adding some salt for added flavor.

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When the greens are wilted, line the bottom of the three ramekins with it.

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Sprinkle some gorgonzola atop the spinach in each ramekin.

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Then add the smoked salmon to each dish, covering the cheese and spinach. Crack two eggs into each ramekin.

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Top the eggs with one spoonful of heavy cream each.

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Sprinkle over more gorgonzola on the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins onto a shallow baking tray, and bake for 20-25 minutes. You don’t want them to burn or get leathery, just set.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a bit, and put additional strips of the smoked salmon atop each ramekin. 2017-03-05 20.00.58_resized.jpg

Serve with toast and some lovely rose wine.  It’s simple, yet rich and sumptuous, something that a snotty French waiter or a refugee on an island would both be happy to eat.

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And if you’re interested in reading more of Dan’s work, check out his scathingly satirical blog The Rotting Post. If you’re a fan of sarcasm, snark and smart-assery, you will love his writing!