West Virginia Book Festival

A Golden Delicious story to go with the stamp

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The drawing of a Golden Delicious apple featured on a new postcard stamp.

News came last week of the relative immortalization (is that a word?) of the Golden Delicious apple, discovered in Clay County in the early part of the 20th century. The U.S. Postal Service is putting the apple — along with the Baldwin, the Granny Smith and the Northern Spy (which sounds like the coolest apple ever) — on a series of postcard stamps.

That makes this a good time to remind kids and their parents, teachers, etc., about “Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Apple Story,” the children’s picture book by West Virginia’s Anna Egan Smucker. The book tells the story of Anderson Mullins and his farm in Clay County, where the Golden Delicious apple was first grown.

Smucker was a featured presenter at the West Virginia Book Festival in 2008, the year “Golden Delicious” came out. Her book, according to Kirkus Reviews, is for kids ages 6 to 10 and is “a standout amidst the proliferation of apple books found in elementary classrooms.” If that’s not good enough for you, here’s a video of Smucker reading from her book (put online by Read Aloud West Virginia).

Mastering the art of reading about Julia Child

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For someone who hasn’t cooked all that much in his life, I have read a lot about Julia Child.

Child — who was born on this date 100 years ago – was, as most of you know, did more than anyone to teach Americans of the mid- and late 20th century how to seriously cook. She did it with her cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and her PBS television show, “The French Chef.” Child also lived long enough (she died in 2004 at age 91) to see the dawn of the Food Network and a cornucopia of TV cooking shows, and enjoyed something of a renaissance in the public eye.

I’m not sure how I ended up with a copy of her 1997 authorized biography, “Appetite for Life” by Noel Riley Fitch, on my shelf in the early 2000s (I was raiding used bookstores pretty indiscriminately around then). But the Child biography was there one day, and I read it. It was interesting, and I learned a lot about her that I didn’t know before. The key phrase there is a lot; I remember the book being very long, and very dense; it sometimes seemed that names, dates and other information were just being thrown at the reader, rather than being woven into a story.

But I also remember the part that interested me the most: the post-World War II years, when Julia and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris — and Julia learned to cook. So when her memoir of those years, “My Life In France,” came out in 2006, I gave it a shot. Definitely worth it; the book (finished by Julia’s nephew, Alex Prud’homme, after she died) is, as William Grimes said in The New York Times, an “exuberant, affectionate and boundlessly charming account” of her transformation from clueless American in Paris to expert on all things culinary and French. (“My Life In France” also formed the basis for the Julia Child half of the movie “Julie and Julia.”)

That probably would have been the end of my Julia Child reading — except that in late 2010, a collection of letters between Child and one of her great friends, Avis DeVoto, was published. In recent years, I have become fascinated with books of letters (but that’s another post). So I picked up “As Always, Julia,” edited by culinary historian Joan Reardon.

The story of how Julia Child and Avis DeVoto “met” seems like a plot device in a novel. Bernard DeVoto, Avis’ husband, was a columnist for Harper’s magazine. In one issue, he lamented the poor quality of kitchen knives in the United States. Julia, a regular reader, sent him a note and a couple of knives she bought at her local store in Paris. Avis answered the letter. Over the course of several years, the two progressed from polite acknowledgement to soul-baring friendship — despite not meeting in person until years after their first correspondence. (If you’ve seen “Julie and Julia,” Avis is the friend who Julia finally meets in Boston toward the end of the movie.)

For anyone who’s really interested in Child’s life and career, “As Always, Julia” is a must. But it’s also a fascinating look at American political discourse in the 1950s, as seen by two women who were planted firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. Their letters are full of gossip and speculation about Joseph McCarthy, Adlai Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, among many others.

As you might expect, the landmark birthday has prompted a handful of new books. There’s a new biography, “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child,” by Bob Spitz, which is every bit as big as the Fitch biography. Reviews seem good so far; Kirkus Review called it “an engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.” If that’s too much to handle, there’s a 48-page illustrated biography by Jessie Hartland called “Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child,” and a children’s picture book about Julia and her cat, “Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat.”

So if you want to mark Julia Child’s centenary, there are plenty of literary options. Or, you could just opt to make some boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin, or anything else that sounds good. Whatever you do, just remember Julia’s advice, given when flipping potato pancakes on an early episode of “The French Chef”: you have to have the courage of your convictions. Bon appetit.

Odd title? Maybe, but not that original

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One of the literary world’s greatest prizes was handed out last month, and I think the result was a travesty.

The Diagram Prize, given to the book published in 2011 with the oddest title, was awarded to a Thai cookbook published in Australia and titled “Cooking With Poo” — Poo, apparently, being the nickname of author Saiyuud Diwong. It topped some pretty good titles, including “Mr Andoh’s Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge,” “The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria” and “Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World.”

Fine, fine. But the travesty? “Cooking With Poo” isn’t even the first book published with that title.

“Pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk, and pancakes”

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Today, Feb. 28, is National Pancake Day — at least, according to IHOP.

Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent, has long been known by some as Pancake Tuesday, because people couldn’t eat dairy products during Lent, and making a bunch of pancakes allowed them to use up their eggs, milk and butter. In 2006, IHOP started its own spin on the holiday; participating restaurants give away a stack of free pancakes, and ask customers to make a donation to a worthy cause in exchange. For example, the IHOP in the Shops at Trace Fork, just south of Charleston, is asking for donations to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals program at West Virginia University Children’s Hospital.

As promotions go, I’ve seen a lot worse. But I can’t help thinking someone is missing a chance to cross-promote with one of my favorite literary detectives. Not Sherlock Holmes, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe — but the grade-school gumshoe hero of Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s children’s series, Nate the Great. And as anyone who’s read those books knows, Nate the Great loves him some pancakes.

The Nate the Great books (illustrated by Marc Simont) are written in a clipped. staccato style that accomplishes two things. The short, declarative sentences are ideal for a child just learning to read. And Sharmat also uses those sentences to create a kids’ version of the no-nonsense prose of hard-boiled detective novels that’s sure to amuse any adult fan (including this one) of that genre.

Nate’s love of pancakes is apparent from the first page of the book that kicked off the series, “Nate the Great”:

Let me tell you about my last case:

I had just eaten breakfast.

It was a good breakfast.

Pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk, and pancakes.

I like pancakes.

But no sooner does Nate finish his breakfast than he’s called onto the case by his neighbor, Annie. When Nate gets to her house:

She was eating breakfast.

Pancakes.

“I like pancakes,” I said.

It was a good breakfast.

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Here is the recipe from “Young Kate” by John Lewis, a novel from the mid-19th century set in the Greenbrier area. It is just what you might need to round out the holidays.

In the novel, some men bag a 20-pound turkey and are spending the night at a way-station before taking a ferry the next morning. They contribute the turkey to a communal meal consisting of turkey, bear, dried venison, ham and corn bead.  As they cook, they drink heartily from a jug of the “rall critter” (rye whiskey). The narrator of the novel describes the cooking scene in great detail. I especially like the specific cooking time.

Here is is (paraphrased):

This is a paraphrase: After a  20-pound turkey is prepared in the usual way for roasting, pass a long, sharp, narrow knife around the thigh bone and up to the hip joint, separating the flesh from the bone; extract the bone. In the same manner, the wing bones are removed. Make an incision from the inside of the body, and remove the breast bone and those articulated to it, passing on to the back below the neck

Insert flitches of fat bacon, peppered, salted, and rolled in flour, into the legs and wings; fill the internal cavity  with a compound of cold, light bread, crumbled fine, and kneaded up with bear’s fat, salt, and pepper. Close all the apertures with a string tied around the neck close to the body. Suspend the turkey by the legs with a cord over the  clear coals (enough coals to fill the whole fireplace)  Place a short-handled frying-pan beneath to receive the drippings.

Cut lean fresh bear’s meat into steaks, and the fat pieces into similar steaks; these later are salted and peppered, and a wooden skewer or spit, three feet long, is thrust through the middle part of a lean steak, and then of a fat piece, alternately, till the stick is full. Hang this before the fire perpendicular, but occasionally take it down and  slightly dredge it with with flour, while holding it horizontally over the coals, and again suspended over the skillet..  The bear meat and bread are not put to the fire till the turkey had been revolving before it for one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Bring the meats to the table brown and smoking hot.  The gravies are placed on the table in two tin pans.

Yum. Now go get that bear.

Completely unrelated picture of old Christmas feast via clipart.com.

I vant to drink your … beer?

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I don’t want to say the vampire motif is overplayed, but:

Although I have to admit, the beer was pretty tasty. I eagerly await next year’s Lycanthrope Lager, or perhaps a nice Revenant Stout.

Breakfast at the Book Festival

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Some of you who plan to set up early at this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival will be glad to know that another breakfast option has been added to the area since last year’s event.

A Panera restaurant opened earlier this summer in the Charleston Town Center Mall, just across Clendenin Street from the Civic Center, site of the Book Festival. The restaurant opens at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 7 a.m. on Sundays. Combined with the Starbucks in the mall, and First Watch a few blocks away on Summers Street, to say nothing of the food inside the Civic Center and elsewhere in the mall and around town … well, if you go hungry, it won’t be for a lack of nearby eateries.

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Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (left) cooks with Marshall University video instructor Jamie LoFiego during the school's "Up Late" program in 2009. Marshall University photo.

Jamie Oliver may have moved on to Los Angeles, but he hasn’t forgotten Huntington.

Oliver, of course, is the celebrity chef who tried to revolutionize the way people eat in Huntington (deemed the fattest city in America by one survey) and made a reality TV show out of it. He has dedicated the paperback version of his “Jamie’s Food Revolution” cookbook, which came out last week, to the people of West Virginia’s second-largest city.

“The food revolution in Huntington was hard, but the community came together and I hope and pray they keep it going and become a shining example of how one community can make inspiring changes,” the dedication reads in part.

(BTW, that blog post linked to above has some unkind things to say about the fate of Oliver’s community kitchen in Huntington; the public relations director at Cabell Huntington Hospital disputed some of them, and says things are going well.)

Oliver had hoped to make the schools of Los Angeles his second culinary target, but school officials put the kibosh on that, much to the chef’s chagrin. He set up elsewhere in the community, and the results will be shown beginning this week, when the second season of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ABC.

The reverberations from Oliver’s visit to West Virginia are still coming, and will until at least 2013, when husband and wife Brent Cunningham and Jane Black produce their book on the aftermath of Oliver’s visit to Huntington and the city’s efforts to promote a healthy diet. Cunningham, a former Charleston Daily Mail staffer, and Black, a former Washington Post food writer, came to the area last month to talk about their work.

Some stout reading for National Beer Day

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Today, April 7, is National Beer Day. Millions of Americans are, sadly, unaware of this. (I was among them, until someone tweeted about it this morning.)

I have two books about beer on my bookshelf, both given to me by friends, and both about the same kind of beer: Guinness, the dark Irish stout known the world over.

Some friends honeymooning in Ireland many years ago procured me a copy of Derek Wilson’s “Dark and Light: The Story of the Guinness Family.” As the title says, it’s more about the history of the family, which has not been without controversy. I found it a little dry in places (ironically, for a book about beer), but not without some interesting details. For example, that 1935 ad on the right was “the first really famous Guinness poster,” according to Wilson. If you think the ad copy is a little goofy, don’t worry; the copywriter would move on soon enough. Her name was Dorothy L. Sayers.

More recently, I received “The Search for God and Guinness” by Stephen Mansfield, published last year. It has a much breezier tone and, generally speaking, has nicer things to say about brewery founder Arthur Guinness and his kin. Mansfield, who has written about the faith of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, among others, argues that Arthur Guinness was heavily influenced by the social teachings of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. In Mansfield’s eyes, this led Guinness to all sorts of charity and philanthropy.

So why is today National Beer Day? Because April 7, 1933, was the date the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect. The law allowed the sale of low-alcohol beer — the first alcohol sales allowed in America since Prohibition was enacted, 14 years earlier. (Prohibition would be completely repealed later in 1933.)

If you’re interested in reading more about those events, Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” was well received when it was published last year. I haven’t read it, but I did read Edward Behr’s “Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America” shortly after it came out in 1996, and found it a fast-moving retelling of the era that focused mainly on the people involved and was a little sketchy on the historical details sometimes. (The book was a companion to a PBS series.)

And if you don’t want to read about it … well, it’s still National Beer Day. You know what to do.

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When it comes to a cookbook for the holidays this year, Julie Robinson, the Gazette’s food columnist, says:

I thought about all the new cookbooks that have come through the newsroom and none comes to mind. There is one on the market that I’ll buy sight unseen. It’s by the authors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, a publication I love because they meticulously test their recipes, provide photos of recipe preparation steps and generally know their stuff. Any recipe I’ve ever tried from the magazine has turned out perfectly, and I’ve never been puzzled by the directions.

“The New Best Recipe, All-New Edition” by the staff at Cook’s Illustrated magazine, contains more than 800 illustrations to accompany the instructions, as well as no-nonsense recommendations for kitchen tools and techniques and lots of tips and solutions for common cooking dilemmas.