Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Do You Like Them Apples

Personally, I prefer mine in pie form.  It's certainly the right time of year for it, since seasonal apples abound.  If at all possible, you want to make this from fresh apples when they're in season.  It'll yield a much better flavor that way.  This weekend, my father and I took a trip up to a local orchard to invest in apples, apple cider, and other items of appley goodness.  If you're lucky enough to have a local grower, I strongly encourage you to make a visit: you'll be helping a local business and get fresh produce at good prices to boot!  This particular recipe for a lattice-work apple pie is really easy, but I warn you it's a lot less precise than my previous postings.

What You'll Need
2 pie plates                                                                            1 knife for slicing
1 peeler                                                                                  1 large bowl
1 cutting board
6-7 apples                                                                             All-purpose flour
4 pie crusts (that's two boxes of pre-made)                         Brown sugar
Ground cinnamon

Now Let's Make Apple Pie
Neat and trim
Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line each pie plate with a crust, making sure that it fits perfectly against the bottom and sides of the dish.  Trim off any excess crust that hangs past the edge of the plate.  You can save this if you have a recipe that enables you to use it immediately (like a fruit turnover if you have extra apple or other fruit), you could save it for a decorative finishing touch, or if there's not very much, you can toss it. Put the crusts into the oven for a about 9 minutes, until they are just barely cooked: no longer raw, but no where near brown. A note about the crusts, for this go round, I used boxed crusts, because I was 1) feeling lazy and 2) didn't have the time to make them from scratch.  You may either make the crusts from scratch or buy them from the grocery, just make sure you have enough for two bottom crusts and two top crusts.  If you choose boxed crusts, get Pillsbury, they're only a few cents more and the off-brand doesn't brown properly. (and we can't have subpar pie floating around)

Golden Delicious and Winesap
Once the crusts are done, set them aside to cool.  Now comes the labor intensive part: prepping all those apples.  The ratio is about 3 to 3.5 apples per pie, and this recipe makes two pies.  You want to choose at least two different apple types that are excellent for baking purposes, so that's about three of each type.  This time I used Golden Delicious and Winesap; these apples are good for both baking and eating (so I know any extras will get nommed instead of wasted).  This combination gets a nice sweet apple pie, if you want a tarter pie I recommend using a Granny Smith as one of your apples.

Using your peeler, peel each apple thoroughly. I like to do this sitting in front of a good show with a plastic sack for peels in my lap, but that's just me.  I like to do the next steps in the apple prep one apple at a time.  On the cutting board, quarter each apple and then slice off the part of the core that is on each quarter. Then, place each quarter so that it can stably lay on one of its sides and thinly slice up the apple.  Place the sliced apples in your large bowl as necessary to clear room on the cutting board. Repeat this process for each apple, and make sure to fend off any apple-loving cats while you're at it.
Final layer with brown sugar
Fetch your cooled pie crusts.  For each pie, dust the bottom with flour. Add a layer of apples; make sure to cover the entire bottom of the pie, overlapping a little if needed. Follow this with a layer of liberally dashed cinnamon, another dusting of flour, and a slight sprinkle of brown sugar.  Repeat this process once more, starting with the apples, to create a second layer.  For the last layer (it should be the third), do a layer of apples and a layer of cinnamon. Instead of the flour, liberally sprinkle the entire top of the pie with brown sugar; this should be a much more significant amount than the barely noticeable sprinkle of previous layers. (Yes, I know these amounts are incredibly vague)

Now it's time to create the lattice-work top crust; you'll want to do this one pie at a time.  Take the top crust and roll it out over your cutting board.  Slice the crust into long strips that are about 3/4 of an inch wide.  Place strips less than an inch apart going across the pie one way.  Seal the strips along on side of the pie, leaving the other end of the strips unsealed.  Peal them back. One at a time, add strips that travel across the pie perpendicularly to the other strips. Seal the strip to one side and then weave this strip in as you lay it across the pie by alternately laying the peeled back strips either under or over the strip you're working with.  When you reach the other side, seal the strip your working with (both sides should be sealed) and peel back the other strips again.  Repeat, spacing your strips a little less than an inch apart until you reach the other side of the pie.  Seal the pealed back strips to their side of the pie.  Fold any excess crust from the strips along the inner edge of the pie and then seal the entire edge using a fork. (Now would be the time to add any other decorative flourishes you might have planned)

Mmmmm... pie!
Bake the pies at 350F for about 30 - 40 minutes, until the crusts are golden brown.  Let cool a bit, then slice and serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (or both!)

And, just for a little fun (also he's threatened me with claw-filled violence if I don't), here is some photographic evidence of my cat's obsession with apples.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

There's a Bad Moon on the Rise

To continue with the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning, this post will focus on the second and third books: Bloodfever and Faefever.  I'm still very much enjoying the series, as immersed as ever. The great thing about a series when blogging is that it provides the opportunity to expand beyond the basics of what makes a book good.  I can provide more depth and expound on themes and details.  This nicely mirrors what I love about series: the depth of world and character afforded by multiple books.

The Basics
Moning, Karen Marie. Bloodfever. New York: Delacorte P., 2007. Print.

Moning, Karen Marie. Faefever. New York: Delacorte P., 2008. Print.

Since my last post, I have learned that Moning (which rhymes with awning, not moaning, sorry Mom) is contracted to write at least three more books in the Fever series and is also currently working on a graphic novel featuring Mac (So fun stuff, yesh?). In these two novels, Mac descends even further down the rabbit hole, growing stronger as she goes.  However, despite Mac's character growth, the books are definitely a descent into to some quite dark depths. As of the end of Faefever, Mac is in one of the darker, more disturbing places I've had a book take me.  So much so that I am still not sure what I thought about the process that took me there.

The Books
In these next two books, Moning maintains many of the same themes that made Darkfever so addictive a read.  The humor that runs throughout the books continues to startle laughs out of me; a rarity since most books only succeed at producing a smirk accompanied by an internal giggle.  Whether Mac is getting caught dancing along to CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" wearing a light up helmet (which I swear fits perfectly in the plot) or is sneakily getting the better of Barrons only to have the rug swept out from under her feet in spectacular fashion (FF 131, 220), both Bloodfever and Faefever are laugh-out-loud funny.  And, given the ever-strengthening darkness that fills most of the pages, Moning's injection of humor provides much needed doses of comic relief, without which the books may well become too hopeless to be enjoyable.  Since maintaining hope in the face of fear is one of Moning's chief themes, her use of humor enables her to go beyond keeping hope in her characters and helps instill it in her audience.

While we're on the topic of themes, one of the most engaging in the Fever series so far has been the mystery behind Barrons's character. This particular mystery draws the reader's curiosity and keeps the audience constantly questing for additional information (especially if you're possessed by an insatiable need to know everything. Down Hermione!). Moning gives Mac just enough to make her think she might be about to discover a part of Barrons's true nature before she finds herself back at square one.  For example, Mac, being quite sure of herself and having provided a fairly convincing argument to her audience, believes she has proof that Barrons is actually an evil Unseelie.  While a careful reader will have found all sorts of holes in this theory (again showing Mac is not perfect), I still read with bated breath as Mac handed Barrons the spear (untouchable by Unseelie) only to have him hold it without flinching (FF 215-16).  Moning tantalizes us with just enough new information to keep us interested and guessing, without enough to really give us an answer.  Thus, we may discover Barrons is centuries old without learning even the significance of that information, and so we remain absorbed.

One of the more disturbing themes that runs throughout the series is that of consent, or rather the lack thereof.  Mac is frequently confronted by situations that hinder or remove her will.  At times this appears in the form of one of her supposed allies, a fae prince, attempting to control her by inciting all-encompassing lust (pick a spot; this happens repeatedly). At other times, Mac is being tested by her archenemy who uses Druid "Voice" to override her will with his own and force her to follow.  Whatever the cause, each time this occurs Mac overcomes either through rescue or regaining her will on her own.  This vulnerability makes it easy for a female reader to identify, since issues of will seems to be a timeless problem faced by women.  Nevertheless, I was a bit weirded out by this repeated theme, especially given its close association to mostly the vaguely sexual moments in the novels. But perhaps that's a good thing, and we need to be made to squirm a bit; regardless, these moments are less about entertainment and more about growth.  My unease turned out to be the result of well-crafted foreshadowing on Moning's part, since by the end of Faefever, Mac has fallen into a terrifying space where not only does she lack will, the idea of will holds no meaning for her at all. Disturbing, yes? But entirely necessary.  Moning has made it clear that these books are not about darkness but light; I suspect we'll appreciate that light much more after the dark place Moning takes us to.

Moning weaves plot threads that hold throughout her series rather than dropping off with each book, creating a really cohesive feel between the novels.  This is helped along by her pacing, which stays consistent within each book.  Moning moves her readers along in a book at a steady pace with occasional dips and spikes before dropping us off a sheer cliff face at the climax.  Rather than a steady build up before letting us roll down hill, Moning opts for a more dramatic plummet, making for an exciting finale.  I particularly like that this drop is typically followed by a chapter of recovery that wraps up nicely while leading into the next installment.

After three books (which despite the pacing of the blog, I finished in about 4 days), I'm still every bit as eager to continue in the series.  Thank goodness she's contracted for more!


  • In case you're wondering about that aforementioned book contract, try visiting this forum on Moning's website.  The forum itself is super spiffy, since Moning herself seems to be pretty involved.
  • Zomg! Moning has a BLOG! Right here on blogspot.
  • Last but not least, I direct you to the Fever series fan site Sidhe-Seers Inc. (Though the character who runs said organization in the books is loathsome so far.)


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Titles are Cheesy

And really, who doesn't like cheese; it's a food group all on its own as far as I'm concerned.  Today's post features my recipe for pimento cheese. Pimento cheese is a primarily Southern food, often eaten in sandwich form on white bread.  It can also be used as a spread on crackers (my favorite), or, really, anywhere sliced cheese might make an appearance: hamburgers, grilled cheese, etc.  Growing up, I remember my mother eating pimento cheese sandwiches regularly, which I thought was disgusting (cause pimentos are weird and icky, duh).  Clearly I got over this and my southern roots proved true, because I certainly love the stuff now.  A word of caution, however, do not take the easy route and buy pimento cheese in a tub from the grocery (cause that will always be disgusting); this is one recipe that has to be homemade.

What You'll Need
1 large mixing bowl                                                         A beloved mixing spoon
Measuring spoons                                                            Cling wrap or sealed container
Cutting board                                                                   Knife of choice
16 ounce block of sharp cheddar                                      1/2 tsp ground red pepper
7-8 ounce jar of diced pimentos                                        2 Tbsp mayonnaise
6 Tbsp sour cream                                                            Cracked pepper to taste
4 green onions

Now Let's Make Pimento Cheese
Mmmmmm... cheese!
Shred the entire 16 oz block of cheddar (do not use reduced fat, blegh) into your large mixing bowl. Try not to press down to much on the cheese while you do this; you don't want to squish or compact it - it needs to stay fluffy and shredded.  Also, do not attempt to take a short cut by using already shredded cheese, as this won't mix into the spread properly.  Whatever they do to packaged shredded cheese forces it to stay in little shredded pieces, and this will ruin your pimento cheese. (You don't want to ruin your pimento cheese, do you? DO YOU?!)

Sliced, not diced
Set your bowl of cheesy goodness (aka the shredded cheese) aside.  Place your four green onions onto your cutting board. It's okay if the onions each have multiple stalks; count out your four based on the roots not the tops.  Slice up your onions by starting at the green top and thinly slicing your way down to the white base.  Once you get to white part of the onion, stop slicing and discard the base.  You can slice your onions either one at a time or all together, whichever you're most comfortable with. Scrape your sliced onions into your bowl of cheese.

Already looks tasty
To your bowl of hand-shredded cheese (please tell me you didn't shred your hand!) and onions, add 6 Tbsp (some heaping) of sour cream and 1/2 tsp of ground red pepper. Most often, pimento cheese is made using mostly mayonnaise, but I don't really like too much mayo.  I find that using sour cream enhances the flavor and texture of the spread. I usually use light Daisy sour cream, as that brand has the best flavor and texture hands down. Using light sour cream will not effect the flavor of the pimento cheese at all, and will cut the calories significantly since you're reducing the amount of fat in the recipe.

Broken down. *sniffle*
Mix this all together until the cheese breaks down completely, transitioning from shredded to a more spread-like texture.  It's really important that you make sure all the cheese breaks down. Any remaining pockets of shredded cheese will effect the quality and texture of your spread.  It will also inhibit the mixing in of later ingredients. So, mix! (*cracks whip*)

Is pimentoey a word?
When your done mixing, drain the jar of pimentos by holding the lid partially open and tipping it over the sink. Try to drain away as much of the liquid as possible, but don't fret over it too much.  You won't be able to get all the liquid out, and it will add flavor to the pimento cheese.  Also, a small amount of liquid will help keep the spread from being too dry, which means you won't have to add as much mayo in the next step (which equals less fat). Add the pimentos to the cheese spread and mix in well; you want the pimentos to be even throughout the spread, without clumps.

I swear it gets prettier
Now, add about 2 Tbsp of mayonnaise (more if spread is dry) and the cracked pepper.  I use the new mayo made with olive oil, as this reduces fat but doesn't effect the flavor of the mayo or the spread.  If you don't have fresh peppercorns around just waiting to be cracked, don't worry about it.  Regular pepper will work just as well.  Be careful not to overdo it; you don't want to forget that you've already added some red pepper, which adds a good bit of spice.  I probably add 2-3 tsps of black pepper, but it's hard to tell, since I usually just eyeball it.  Anyway, mix the mayo and pepper in well.

Once your done mixing, you can either scrape the sides of the bowl and cover it with cling wrap, or you can scrape the pimento cheese in a tupperware container.  Either way, you'll want to refrigerate your cheese for at least an hour or two before serving in order to let the spread set. to the right consistency.  Serve your pimento cheese in the manner of your choice: sandwich triangles (if you're feeling fancy), grilled ham and cheese, hamburgers, cheese and crackers.  I chose a selection of crackers for my pimento cheese (but let's not kid ourselves, it's just a means of conveying the pimento cheese to your mouth). Of the crackers, I think Ritz pairs the best.  Whatever you're method, you're ready to nom away.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Give Me . . . Fever?

Today's book is Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning.  I have been tempted once again by the siren call of a series.  There's just something about being able to immerse myself in a fictional world, not once but repeatedly, that holds and almost endless appeal for me.  I'm already looking forward to the next book (I already have all 5 stacked on my coffee table fresh from the library) so much that I can hardly force myself to write this before moving on.  Ironically, this is a blog post that almost wasn't, since I was initially put off of the Fever series by repeated descriptions and classifications of the books as Romances. (Blegh. Yucky!) But after reading a more detailed summary, I decided that these books might be for me after all.

The Basics
Moning, Karen Marie. Darkfever. Detroit: Thorndike P., 2006. Print.

Karen Marie Moning a #1 New York Times Best-Selling Author is the author of two successful series and the recipient of the RITA award. The Highlander series, which I am given to understand feature time-travel and ruggedly handsome Scotsman, are a set of paranormal romances.  Her second series, which we'll be concerned with here in my blog, begins with Darkfever, an Urban Fantasy set in Ireland.  In this book, our intrepid heroine travels to Ireland to avenge the death of her murdered sister, discovering in the process a world filled with dangerous fae and her own recently uncovered power to see such creatures.

The Book

So, funny story, my mother was over at my apartment last night with my Aunt, who was looking through my book stack.  My mom saw Darkfever sitting on the table; the author's last name is the most prominent thing on the cover.  She saw this and exclaimed, "that's not how you spell it!" To which I replied, "Mom! That's her name!  She can spell it however she likes." She had mistaken it for the book's title and thought it should have been "moaning," which given the cover art on this edition* would, indeed, seem apt (see extras).

Which brings me to my single gripe (that is no fault of the book): why was this billed as a romance in some places?  Is it because Moning is well-known for romance?  Do romances simply sell?  Moning's website, certainly doesn't caste the book this way; there it is billed as Urban Fantasy, a category that makes much more since.  But perhaps I am in the minority when I am repulsed by heaving bosoms being ripped from their bodices by the burly Brawny man.  Yes, I realize that not all romance novels fit that bill and some are quite good fiction, but that stereotype was roughly how I first saw this book described. I suppose I am indignant because I came so close to missing out on a truly wonderful and absorbing book. According to the Romance Writers of America website "all romances contain a central love story," which was conspicuously absent from Darkfever.  Although, I suppose there is potential for one to develop over the course of the series.  I must admit to some confusion about the romance genre.  Tons of books feature a romance but are categorized as mysteries, fantasy, or just plain fiction.  I guess I just don't see the point, and maybe more research is in order.  Ultimately, I like my books with plenty of plot and character with just a smidge of romance, like a condiment, to add a little extra spice.

But enough about genre, because this book is far too good to get caught up on that.  For the first time in quite a while, I found myself so completely absorbed in a book that everything around became irrelevant.  Time and being directly addressed were completely ignored. Rather than being able to read while at the same time surfing the net and watching my boyfriend play video games, I was unable to peel my eyes away from the page.

Narrated in first person by the heroine, much of the book relies on character development.  And Mackayla Lane is delightfully flawed.  A tiny bit selfish and initially lacking in motivation, Mac is spunky and full of bluster, and we follow her along as she slowly learns her way around the world she's stumbled into.  Her constant urge to stick her head in the sand and enter a state of denial can be especially frustrating, but it's also what makes her character. As the plot forces her toward a state of enlightenment, we get to watch her character grow, and this makes her entirely believable.  Rather than jumping in with a strong kick-ass heroine who jumps in and out of an unbelievable number of scrapes only to come out scathed but even badassier than before (*cough* AnitaBlake*cough*), we instead have a character whose innocence and capacity for denial starts her from a weak point and we get to see her grow gradually stronger, learning as she goes.

It also helps that Mackayla is highly relatable.  I had my doubts from the moment I first read her name and thought, "Mackayla? Seriously?" However, after a little poking around I discovered that this is an Americanized spelling of the traditionally Irish name, Michaela.  I decided that maybe it might be okay, and I could forget about my associations with that ill-mannered country girl who smacked her mouth loudly as she chewed her gum in 10th grade political science.  Also, the nickname of Mac is way cool. But I digress.  Mac is relatable as a thoroughly modern heroine, who listens to her ipod and can actually use a computer (I'm looking at you Sookie Stackhouse). I also like that she's distinctly southern; being from the South myself, southern heroines hold a special place in my heart.  She comments on such topics as manners and hospitality that leave me giggling: "When I opened my door, I discovered someone had been busy while I'd slept. A bakery bag, a bottled latte, and my luggage were outside my door.  Down South store-bought food outside your bedroom door isn't a treat - it's an insult. . . . Stay out of my kitchen, the bag said, and don't go looking around. Down South it meant, Leave before lunch, preferably now. (161).  The expression of her grief over the loss of her sister also helps make Mackayla a relatable human rather than one-dimensional. Moning depicts this so well that it feels as if it's the expression of real emotion rather than the made up mourning of a non-existent character.

As much as Darkfever relies on Mac's character, it is also driven by plot, particularly mystery.  Jericho Barrons's (stop snorting at the name, please; nah, go ahead) could be accused of being a one-dimensional character, but I would argue otherwise.  His character is instead left intentionally shrouded in mystery, so that the uncovering of tidbits about his character becomes an essential plot element as well. It helps that his physical presence in the book is every bit as vivid for the reader as it is for the characters he interacts with; he exudes energy, brio, and menace.  It is only at the very end of the book that the reader can stop flip-flopping about whether his character is good or not . . . maybe.

And the mystery of Barrons's character is only one of many plot threads that Moning weaves into her story.  We follow Mackayla in her efforts to discover her sister's murderer.  We watch as Mac learns new truths about herself.  We delve into a whole new world right along with her. We doggedly keep following Mac as she traces the whereabouts of ancient Fae relics and ultimately as she discovers herself participating in the beginnings of an underground war.  Fun, right?

The whole book is about discovery, and it drags the reader in, captivating them as much as any Fae. Urban fantasy, with the occasional mirror-fogging scene, Darkfever was a great read.  And now, I'm going to abandon further blogging in favor of the next book!

*Please note my page numbers may seem odd since I'm working from a large print edition as it was the only one in the library when my greedy little paws proceeded to check out the entire series. Heh heh.


  • For more information about the author and/or her series, please consider her website.
  • For information on Romance and its sub-genres see the RWA website.
  • Looking for name information? Try this webpage.
  • This is the picture from the cover of the large print edition my mother saw.  I couldn't get the freaking thing to format properly in the post above, hence it's position down here. *shakes fist at blogger interface*


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Oh Snap!

Gingersnaps that is.  Today's post is going to delve into the food side of the blog.  I thought I'd start with one of my absolute favorite cookies.  Fall has definitely been in the air here in the South lately, which puts me in the mood for baking.  I can feel my annual holiday cookie frenzy just around the corner. (Just ignore my twitch.)

What You'll Need
1 medium mixing bowl                                                     1 large mixing bowl
Measuring cups and spoons                                             1 cookie sheet (nonstick)
A whisk or sifter                                                              A beloved mixing spoon

2 cups all-purpose flour                                                   1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp ground ginger                                                      3/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 tsp baking soda                                                             1 cup sugar + some for rolling
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon                                                          1 egg
1/2 tsp ground cloves                                                      1/4 cup molasses

Now Let's Make Cookies (Mmmmmm... coooookiess)
To start, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. This is the hardest part; seriously, I always forget.

Whisk, whisk, whisk!
Now, in your medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and salt.  You may also choose to sift the ingredients together, but I usually choose whisking because it's less messy and just as effective.  (Also, I have no idea where my sifter is at the moment.  Heh heh).  Set the dry ingredients aside.

Effectively beaten shortening
Beaten til fluffy. Violence!
In your large mixing bowl,  beat the shortening until it's soft.  Try to keep it in a concentrated area of the bowl.  The more it spreads out, the more scraping of sides you'll have to do later when you're trying to mix in all the other ingredients.  Since it's vegetable shortening it should already be fairly soft, unless you have been storing it somewhere cold.

Now you're going to add that cup of sugar.  Gradually.  I usually do this at about 1/4 cup at a time, measuring as I go, but you're welcome to choose your increments; the important thing is to not just dump it all in there.  After each addition, beat the sugar into the shortening.  By the time you're through, the mixture should be light and fluffy.

Add the egg and molasses. Mix this in thoroughly; you don't want any pockets of liquid. (There was going to be a photo for this step, but it looked a wee bit gross on film, so I refrained. You're welcome.)

This is nothing like chocolate chip
Grab your flour mix from earlier in the recipe and dump it onto the shortening mixture.  Again, mix this in thoroughly; there should be no pockets of flour or excessively dry bits.  I do this with my favorite (and well loved) mixing spoon, pictured above; however, you could easily do this with a mixer set to medium low.  It's a dryer batter, so I prefer low tech here.  When you're done, you should have a stiff, caramel colored batter.  Scrape any remaining batter off your spoon and into the bowl.

Set your dough to one side.  Take your flour bowl and wipe out any remnants of the dry ingredients.  Add about 1/4 cup of sugar to the bowl. If you haven't washed your hands yet (for shame!), do so now as you'll be handling the dough quite a bit. Pinch off a small amount of dough and roll it between your hands to form a ball 1" in diameter.  If the dough is falling apart, squish it a few times in your hand before rolling it into a ball. Place it in the sugar bowl.

Roll the ball in the sugar until it is lightly but evenly coated in sugar granules.  I usually do about three balls at a time, but there's no firm rule.  Once the ball is covered, place it on a cookie sheet.  Your dough balls should be placed at least an inch to and inch and a half apart on your sheet.  Repeat this process until your dough is gone.  The recipe should yield about two sheets worth of cookies.

Bake each sheet in the oven at 350F for about 9-10 minutes.  I bake one sheet at a time, as it typically yields more uniform results, and you are less likely to burn or undercook your sheet of cookies. The cookies will be
Cooling Cookies
quite soft when fresh out of the oven and will have cracking surfaces.  Let it sit on the tray for a few seconds to solidify and then remove the cookies to cool.  If you're lucky enough to have a cooling rack, place the cookies there.  However, paper towels on top of a clean counter work just as well and have the added benefit of absorbing any greasiness. As the cookies cool, they will harden into their snappy goodness and you can place them in a convenient container.

Now you're ready to settle down on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket with a good book and a plate of homemade gingersnaps by your side. NOM!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Memoirs, Mennonites, and Mmmmmm . . . Borscht!

For my first posting I've selected the book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen.  This is the first nonfiction book I've read in full (and for fun, no less) in quite some time, and, no, all those books from grad school don't count.  Carlyle is many things, but I doubt you could accuse him of being fun.  I thought it would make a fine starting point given that the book a) is fantastic and b) occasionally dedicates some serious focus to food.

The Basics

Janzen, Rhoda. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.
(Clearly, MLA citation form has been branded into my brain. I tried to do it differently, but I just couldn't stop twitching.) 
Dr. Janzen, poetess and writer extraordinaire, currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Having lived outside the Mennonite community of her childhood for years, she returns home to recover from a rather nasty relationship and a painful car accident.  The book documents her sabbatical spent with family along with other episodes in her life.

The Book
Anywho, the book first caught my eye when I came across the title one day at work.  I'm always somewhat impressed by catchy titles, since naming anything is something I struggle with whenever required (we won't talk about all the titles I went through for this blog.  Lalalalaaaa... I can't heeeear you!). This title packs a lot of punch.  You have the juxtaposition of the two disparate concepts of mennonites and LBDs, which effectively draws a potential reader's attention through a contrast that makes us go "Schwaaa?" The title also declares itself a memoir, alerting readers to its position firmly in the realm of biography, as opposed to romantic fiction about mennonites (seriously, Beverly Lewis, wtf?*)

The book itself is well-written, with a nice mix of hilarity and self-examination. It was at the end of chapter 5 that I realized I was already half-way through the book and the chapters were a bit on the long side. I remember thinking at the time that Janzen was definitely an academic, but I'm shudderingly grateful to be able to say that Janzen's prose is highly engaging and at times hysterically funny.  For example, she constantly references the man her husband left her for as "Bob the guy from," a repetition I find amusing.

Janzen's descriptions of people, mostly her family, are what drives this memoir forward, engaging, delighting, and occasionally infuriating her audience. Her mother, is easily my favorite.  Janzen's descriptions of her mother create a picture of someone who is both the funniest and most endearing person in the book. At times her mother is releasing epically audible farts in the middle of Kohl's (163-65) or as Janzen describes it: "This was the Moses of all farts, a leader of its kind. The trump shall sound! It shall rouse us to action! I could not believe that my own mother had produced such a remarkable acoustic effect.  In public" (164). At other times, she's astutely questioning what she interprets as Janzen's sudden desire to hide her legs and, in a way, encouraging her daughter's recovery (both emotional and physical) from the car accident (217-18). By the end of the book you have no doubt as to why Janzen dedicated the book to her mother.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband, stories and memories of whom are interspersed throughout the text, is such a complete and utter d-bag that you want to leap into the pages and slap him around a bit.  Janzen describes his abuses (though I don't remember her explicitly labeling them as such, that's exactly what they were) in way that makes your heart clench a little more for her with each memory (see for example 83 -91).  Throughout these painful moments, Janzen does a brilliant job describing her own thoughts and emotions with a startling level of honesty.

Just as her descriptions of people drive the book, Janzen's constant relation of the book to various aspects of her Mennonite culture and heritage provides a connecting thread that runs throughout the memoir.  While the book enlightens readers to many aspects of Mennonite life, naturally, my favorites are the parts about food.  I spent a large part of reading this book with my mouth watering, lusting after the tastily described Zwiebach buns.  Janzen also describes such deliciousness as Warmer Kartoffelsalat, a hot and "tangy" potato salad (107).  But the food that fascinates me the most is Borscht, which Janzen describes as both amazingly tasty and incredibly embarrassing when packed in school lunches (111-13).  Borscht interests me for three reasons: 1) it sounds interesting and I have a thing for soups, 2) it's fun to say and 3) it also sounds foul.  Borscht, I learned, is made from cabbage and beets, creating a vibrant and pungent red soup, which is then served with vinegar and sour cream.  As a lover of both soup and vinegar, Borscht sounds pretty good; it seems like it'd be fun to learn how to make. However, I also loathe cabbage and beets, and so this soup simultaneously fascinates and disgusts me.  Simply the smell of beets is enough to set my stomach churning and hasten up memories of being force fed the gag-inducing root vegetable.  Thus, I must decline to ever apply my cooking skills to Borscht, but those raisin-walnut persimmon cookies, platz, and Zweibach might merit further culinary investigation.

Overall, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. The book makes you think about relationships, warms your heart and tells the rather engaging story of the author's life.  By welcoming you into the home of her Mennonite family, Janzen also illuminates a culture that few of us know much about beyond the surface. I fully plan to add this memoir to my own shelves someday soon.

*okay, so some of those are about the Amish, too, but still.
  • For her take on the writing of the book, visit Janzen's webpage.
  • Or for a recipe for Borscht try Janzen's Mennonite Primer. I have to say, even I might consider it with tomato soup instead of beets . . .