In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another. A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers. In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength. Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous. So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human. They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions. They chafe at being immigrants in a new city. They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves. The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.
It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
One of the best souvenirs I brought back from the United Kingdom was a rye sourdough starter. I got it from Andrew Whitley in Scotland who back in 1960 obtained a sample when he was studying production of rye bread in the former Soviet Union. The factory he took it from was enormous: more than a million loaves of baked sourdough rye emerged every day. In 1960 America we were changing food to fit into our machinery. American doughs were doped with extensibility agents so they could withstand the spinning arms of huge kneading machines. In contrast, Russian factories — just as vast as America’s — were comprised of hundreds of small bakeries. Women in babushkas made rye breads in small ovens and placed them by the thousands on conveyor belts. The Soviets distributed more than were needed. Thousands of uneaten breads returned to the factory where they were soaked and boiled and returned to the production line. Soaked rye breads were joined by fresh rye flour and rye sourdough to produce new loaves.
Making rye bread is difficult because rye does not have much gluten. That means its dough is terribly slippery and very sticky. It does not rise much, but I learned some rye techniques in Scotland and have been practicing for months. The rectangular loaf in front is 95% rye flour with just a few oats and a little molasses added. It baked in a covered square-sided pan for well over an hour to begin removing some of the moisture. After coming out of the oven a nearly 100 percent rye must sit uneaten for at least a day while additional moisture is released from its interior. The result is a tangy, almost zesty, rye bread that can be sliced more thinly than the piece of cheese you put on top. Moreover, the bread stays fresh for more than a week.
The round loaf with the concentric imprint of the boule where it sat just before baking (it is behind the rye) was made with a white flour starter, rather than the rye starter. It was supplemented with half a dozen mashed, baby potatoes and enough wholemeal rye flour to give the loaf some meatiness.
These baguettes (there were four) also began with the Russian rye starter. I added a cup of buttermilk and then adjusted the ratio of white flour to rye until it was approximately a 50:50 mix. The rye gave it color and taste, the white flour enough gluten for a beautiful rise, and the buttermilk mellowed the crumb to the softness of a ripe peach.
Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa. Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat. Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot. Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality. For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans. Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical. The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable. Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods. Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root. Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.
The year is 1870. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas. The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters. Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives. Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic. Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat. The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity. Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days. Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal. Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting. Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be. They are complicated. You like some and dislike others. It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.
The simple description is on the cover. J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.) Vance escaped. He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be. Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures. He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight. The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty. There is no simple solution, he argues.
After taking a couple of weeks off from baking to travel back from England it has taken me a while to regain my bread touch. (I am happy to report all my starters, including my newly acquired Russian Rye, ca. 1960, arrived home healthy and vigorous.) This was one of my first successes: A Semolina Ring. The semolina flour gave it an Italian bread taste and the sesame seeds, once they toasted in the oven, permeated the loaf with flavor.
The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD. In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected. The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky. The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books. The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans. Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.
Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.