21 May 2015

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

You may thing you know nothing of Tennessee Williams' life, but if you have even a vague understanding of popular culture, you know an awful lot about Williams.  It is virtually impossible to extricate the life of Tennessee Williams from his work.  Any biographer will admit this fact and delve into the man to explain the work. John Lahr in his book Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, did the opposite; he looked at Williams' work to explain the man.

If Tennessee Williams is one of the leading dramatists of the last of 75 years, John Lahr is one of the leading drama critic and uniquely qualified to unravel the work to find the artist.  In addition to the plays that are ingrained in American culture, Lahr was the first biographer to be allowed to look at diaries, letters, journals, and other ephemera.

Williams made it very clear that Lyle Leverich was to be his biographer, alas his literary executor, Maria St. Just, refused to allow Leverich to quote from letters or journals.  In 1995 he published Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, the first volume of the two-volume biography.  When Leverich died, he left his archive to John Lahr.   Lahr once famously said that Maria St. Just, "was neither a lady nor a saint nor just."  Upon her death, the flood gates of Williams' material became available and Lahr was privy to the information.

With all this information, Lahr turned the tables looking at Williams' life within his work.  The biography reads like an extended Tennessee Williams play.  Lahr has seen and studied enough plays to brilliantly understand drama and he brings all the drama, trauma, and comedy of Williams life alive. In addition to a wide cast of supporting characters, the book is filled with photographs.  The photos alone illustrate vast history of the American stage.

While its style is a bit unusual and it is quite long, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is a worthy binge read.

19 May 2015

Lilac Syrup

 Every year I have that same day.  I walk out into the yard and discover this, sweet, cloying small that makes me think I dropped a bag of sugar somewhere.  Then I notice the blossoms on the lilac bush and remember that sweet smell emanates from those white petals.  Several years ago, I harvested those blossoms and made a lilac jamely.   I loved it. 

This year, I harvested the flowers and made a simple syrup.  While it was, in preparation terms, a true simple syrup, it was in culinary terms a complex and vibrant syrup; sweet, aromatic, and slightly floral.  A perfect accompaniment to cocktails, an added jolt to ices tea, a surprising glaze for chicken, and so much more.

 Lilac Syrup

4 cups prepared lilac blossoms
2 cups sugar
2 cups water

To get to this point, one needs to pick the flowering buds off their stalks.  It is time consuming as any hint of the green will leave a bitterness that distracts from the sweetness.  It a job that can be done by hand, of if delft, a pair of sharp embroidery scissors.  To make approximately one quart for syrup, you will need four cops of lilac leaves.  Pack them down to insure a good four cups.  Place them in an sealable container and add 2 cups of sugar and leave them over night.  (It is fine to leave the container sitting out, but should you get distracted and find you need an extra day or two before making the syrup, place the container in the refrigerator. )  When you are ready to make the syrup, put the lilacs and sugar into a large pot, add 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.  Cover and let steep for several hours.  Into a large glass container or bowl, pour the now cooled syrup through a strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove the solids.  Discard the solids.  Store the lilac syrup in the refrigerator
Another great use for lilac syrup is as a base for sorbet.  Blues berries, cantaloupe, honeydew, or my favorite, raspberries.

Raspberry Lilac Sorbet

1 1/2 cups lilac syrup
2 cups fresh raspberries

In a blender add the raspberries and the syrup.  Blend for about 45 seconds.  Place the mixture into an ice cream freezer and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Think about it, the world is a better place with flowers in it.  And so is your sorbet.

15 May 2015

Famous Food Friday -- Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston in Eau Gallie
Today's Famous Food Friday features Zora Neale Hurston.  Hurston was so much more than a novelist; she was a writer, folklorist, activist, and anthropologist. Most people might remember Hurston from reading Their Eyes Were Watching God in school, but know little else. If one were ask Hurston, she would have said she was born and raised in Eatonville, Florida, but in truth, she is an Alabama girl, born in Notasulga.  Since she was just a child when the family moved to Eatonville, she probably had little memory of Alabama. Her favorite spot may have been Eau Gallie, Florida where she wrote to friend,  "Somehow this one spot on earth feels like home for me. I have always intended to come back here. That is why I'm doing so much to make a go of it."

For Hurston, home was Florida.  In his book, Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food, Professor Fred Opie delves into Hurston's early twentieth-century ethnographic research to examine the food of Florida that appears in her writing.  A graduate in anthropology, Hurston conducted ethnographic research with Franz Boas and worked with both Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.  After her death, Hurston's papers were ordered to be burned, but a friend happened to pass by the house and stopped, put out the fire and saved the collection.

Fred Opie has studied Hurston's ethnographic research and her literary works to look specifically through the lens of food. The book is loaded with historical photos that bring the period to life. There are fields of collards, enormous barbecue pits, chicken frying, church picnic, and advertising encouraging the consumption of lots of corn.

He augments Hurston's writings on food with a collection of recipes belonging to Hurston and to the African-American community from traditionally black newspapers and other period cookbooks. Opie spends special attention to the descriptions of how foods were cooked whether braised or barbecued, smoked or fried. There is also an emphasis on traditional ingredients such as cornmeal, fish, and rice and peas along with folk remedies Hurston collected. Many of the farm laborers and sawmill workers had little or no access to doctors or medical attention so plant based cures were common among workers.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and his mind deteriorates from the infection. He needs a doctor but the closest one is in Palm Beach and there is no way for Tea Cake to be saved.  In her research, Hurston came across a remedy for "Loss of Mind."

Loss of Mind Remedy

Sheep weed leaves
Bay leaf
Fig leaf
Poison oak
Sarsaparilla root
2 cups water

Take the bark and cut it all up fine. Make a tea. Take one tablespoon and put in two cups of water and strain and sweeten.  You drink some and give some to the patient. Put a fig leaf and poison oak in show.  (Get fig leaves off a tree that hasn't borne fruit.  Stem them so that nobody will know.)

 We may make a big jug of this and keep it handy!

We collect cookbooks not just for a collection of recipes, but because they root us in a specific time and place. What we eat is embedded in our lives and history.  It reveals who we are.  Zora Neale Hurston's life can be found in the food of her beloved Florida.  We might never have known that if not for Fred Opie.

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