Books 2013: A Healing Post

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For our month-long stay-at-home summer holiday, Bennie and I have been good boys.

Very, very good boys.

Heaps of eating out, of course, but that’s been countered by … breakfasts of our homemade muesli with fruit and yogurt, and lots of salads and pulse dishes.

Outings that have involved much frisbee tossing, a past-time at which I am ecstatic to find Bennie has really started to enjoy.

Lots of down time.

The frequent late nights have been ameliorated by the complete non-necessity for alarm-setting.

Long sleep-ins rule!

So it was a thoroughly unpleasant shock last night when my wobbly disc chose to throw a wobbly, bringing with it the usual intense pain.

Usually it happens only when I’m tired, stressed, anxious, rundown or all of the above.

Intellectually and through long experience, I know this is simply a matter of rest, sleep and a few days’ time.

But in my heart and soul, it’s frightening just how quickly the pain and discomfort can see me sink down to a dark place in which I feel old, friendless, gloomy, bleak and darn right pessimistic.

My instincts are always to fight back with whatever is at hand.

Rest, the appropriate drugs, light exercise, healthy food, reading … and lots and lots of music.

Thanks very much to Lionel Hampton, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lee Hazlewood and Texas whorehouse pianist Robert Shaw for the latter, with lots more to come.

What else?

What about a blog post? A great pick-me-up they are!

Already done one today, but OK here’s another – inspired by my good pal and fellow blogger Caron and her similar list at The Crayon Files.

This one – a fun look back at my reading highlights for 2013 – is for me.

If you come to Consider The Sauce for food stuff and nothing but, please ignore!

Thelonious Monk – The Life And Times Of An American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley

Still working my way through this one and enjoying doing so. This has been hailed as being everything a jazz biography should be.

I’ve never considered myself a Monk junkie, so am somewhat bemused that through the Blue Note and Prestige sides, the Riverside Records box, just about all the Columbia albums and a few other odds and sods, I have amassed the greater proportion of his discography and certainly all the key moments.

That’s the kind of thing that can bring a book alive!

Creole Trombone – Kid Ory And The Early Years Of Jazz by John McCusker

A compact but wonderful look at the great trombonist that paints him as much more than a mere sideman for the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver.

Bonus: Being inspired to boost my until-then rather slim collection of Ory-as-leader.

Having been on an intense deep soul kick for the past six months, Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records And The Soul Explosion awaits my reading pleasure.

Shane by Jack Schaefer

Comstock Lode by Louis L’Amour

I’ve read quite a few famous, historically important westerns in recent years.

They can be hard work and slow-going.

And it helps to have a high tolerance for the politically incorrect – frequently they are very much a product of their times.

I enjoyed Shane in that sort of context.

But Comstock Lode was much better.

L’Amour is often touted as the most read author ever – or maybe the most read American author ever.

Whatever … I never expected to find myself reading his books, let alone enjoying them.

In my ignorance, I feared an excess of Boys Own and “Mills And Boon for blokes”. And I also feared I would be appalled and angered by his treatment of North America’s natives.

In terms of the latter, I have been pleasantly surprised – in this regard, it seems, L’Amour was well ahead of his times.

Yes, the stories can be slow and repetitive, and there is a good deal of unrealistic mythologising.

But there is no doubting the craft and feel of his writing.

Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

Thanks to Courtney and James for the hot tip on this trilogy!

I’ve never been drawn to the space opera genre.

It’s always seemed too geekish, too overtly macho and¬†militaristic for me.

These three books have changed all that!

What enormous fun – I galloped through them.

Yes, there’s all sort of space wars nonsense.

But there’s also a real nice noir feel, a touch of Pulp Fiction and great humor.

Midst Toil And Tribulation by David Weber

Nor have I ever been drawn to what I have unkindly and forever thought of as sci-fi hacks or journeymen such as David Weber.

But I’m thrilled I took on a punt on his Safehold series, of which Midst Toil And Tribulation is the sixth book.

I’ve loved them all!

Adventure, romance, sci-fi meets the high seas, magic, terrific politics … and probably the best villain I have ever come across.

Imagine the Pope meets Adolf Hitler …

I suspect this series will run and run and run, but for once I don’t care.

Weber is so prolific that I’m assured of a book a year, so the chances of a case of “George R.R. Martin syndrome” happening are exceedingly slim.

Iron Curtain – The Crushing Of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum

One of the oddities of being a late-blooming baby boomer dad in the early years of this new century is this … for my son, the Soviet Union will be little more than a textbook topic, if that, and maybe even just an obscure historical abstraction.

For my generation, the scowling visages of the Soviet leadership cast gloom and anxiety across our world in profound ways – not jut politically, but socially and culturally as well.

I still find it remarkable that it is no more!

I found this history of the communist takeover of eastern and central Europe a brilliant read.

And not once did I tire of the depth of detail.

The Dark Tower Series and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

I’m three books into the Dark Tower Series, one of the few major King works I have not read.

Halfway through book two, I thought I was well on the way to being fully captivated.

You know – unplug the phone, take leave owing, shun friends, housework and dirty dishes … that sort of captivation.

The pace has slackened somewhat, but I am sufficiently taken with the Gunslinger and his cohorts to expect I’ll finish all eight books by the end of the year.

Doctor Sleep was an OK sequel to The Shining, but falls, I reckon, into “for fans only” territory after the return to form displayed by Under The Dome and 11/22/63, both of which I enjoyed immensely.

****

Well, do I feel better after banging that out?

Hell, yes!

Is SEO the antithesis of journalism and storytelling?

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There’s probably few, if any, folks who visit Consider The Sauce who are unaware what SEO is an acronym for.

But just in case … it stands for Search Engine Optimisation.

It’s a term I’d rarely come across before launching this site.

In the two-something years since, I’ve read quite a lot about SEO and related topics.

But I’m not much further ahead in understanding what it is.

Let alone how it works.

The crux of the matter appears to be what are referred to as “key words”, the skilful inclusion of which in a post can increase the regard Google and other search engines hold a post or website/blog.

The internet is awash with “SEO experts” spruiking their services.

There are those who will tell you it’s a science.

There are as many more who will tell you it’s all hooha and voodoo – and that those claiming they’re party to the most significant SEO methods and secrets are full of it.

Early on in the piece, on a discussion thread on a food blogger Facebook page, I opined that SEO must have its place but that as far as I could see it had little to do with me or Consider The Sauce.

A much more experienced blogger than I, then and now, set me right about that.

SEO counts, he maintained, and it was very relevant to me.

Well, of course I want Google to love me and my blog!

But I still have difficulty with idea of inserting “key words” into a story – having never quite made it to the execution stage.

I suspect a significant part of that is that unlike most bloggers and other online operators, I have been a writer and a journalist for almost all my life.

Consequently, for me it’s all about the STORY.

After Bennie and I have hit some likely haven of foodiness and we’re driving home, I’m already writing the story in my mind.

By the time I’ve uploaded the photos and am in the process of resizing and/or cropping them, it’s pretty much a done deal – right down to individual paragraphs and sentences. And even the punctuation.

All that is left is to type it in.

By contrast, the businesses and websites for whom SEO seems most important seem to have mostly commercial purposes.

I’m immensely gratified by the success Consider The Sauce has enjoyed to date, and am certainly wishing for much more.

But I’m not selling anything except myself – in the spirit of “a blog is the new resume”.

For that same reason, I also struggle to mentally connect with a lot that is written and talked about at places such as Problogger and other forums and websites where blogging, SEO and myriad related topics are discussed.

While much of the advice and information is valuable, enlightening and inspiring, I simply can’t relate to “sales”.

It’s difficult to think about such an arcane – to me – subject as SEO when I’m so preoccupied about that all-important lead paragraph, a snappy ending and which photo has the most sparkle and interest to earn its place at the top of the next story.

I’m sure a lot of Consider The Sauce “key words” – for example Melbourne, western suburbs, cheap eats, Footscray, Yarraville and so on – make it into my stories anyway.

But that is an entirely organic outcome of my writing and its focus.

I suspect deliberately using “key words” is something that will elude my grasp for some time yet!

Call me old-school (or worse!), but a lifetime of habit and training ALWAYS has me thinking “story” rather than “post” or “blog”.

And I write stories for people – not search engines.

Book review: Hungry Town

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Hmmmm, I wonder if this would work ….

Hungry Town – A Culinary History of New Orleans, A City Where Food Is Almost Everything – Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Given the not insignificant role New Orleans has played in my life for the past 30 years or so – visiting, writing, reading about, broadcasting and, of course, listening – I shouldn’t be surprised that occasionally a bout of Crescent City fever hits me.

Nevertheless, I’m a little surprised that my latest and ongoing pre-occupation with the city has seemingly bubbled up out of sort-of nowhere.

Perhaps it surprises because I am so very, very content with Melbourne in general and its western suburbs foodiness in particular.

As well, circumstances dictate that a return visit to Louisiana remains some unknowable distance in the future.

Yet I recently finished reading John McCusker’s fine biography of trombonist Kid Ory, which directly led to the purchasing of six Ory CDs to join the one I already possessed under his own name.

Those albums have been joined by 2012 buys of music by Chief John Burnious, Paul Barbarin, Emile Barbes, Thomas Jefferson, Kid Rena, Kid Howard, Big Eye Louis Nelson, Fess Manetta, Johnny Dodds, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and more.

I have yet to succumb to the attraction of once more firing up in the kitchen for the purposes of cooking New Orleans dishes, though I did this week make chicken stock with a view to some time soon getting some gumbo or jambalaya happening.

But having bought and enjoyed very much Tom Fitzmorris’¬†Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous, I happily broke out the credit card to buy Hungry Town.

And a good, if brief, read it turned out to be, too.

In my opinion, part of the book’s title – “A Culinary History Of New Orleans” – goes close to being an outright lie.

“A History of Tom Fitzmorris’ Involvement In The New Orleans Scene” would be more accurate. There is some detail about the overall history of eating out in New Orleans, but most of the book covers the author’s experiences – and I’m cool with that.

Fitzmorris covers his early days and how he found himself, seemingly more by accident than ambition, becoming a central pillar of the city’s food scene.

There are heaps of fascinating anecdotes and stories about great meals and the people who make them and eat them.

Fitzmorris naturally gravitates towards the more formal and expensive aspects of New Orleans’ food culture, and I’m cool with that, too, even though my own experiences at that end of the city’s food spectrum have been limited by both budget and inclination.

He sometimes seem to give only grudging acknowledgement to the more blue-collar and rough and tumble aspects of New Orleans’ eating.

The book really comes into its own with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and city’s subsequent ongoing fight for survival.

The stories are moving, and I was quite shaken up to discover that quite a few people who had served me marvellous food perished in the storm or as the direct result of its aftermath.

The stories include great yarns about restaurant folk – some of them at the very top end of New Orleans dining – cooking and providing food for all comers during those desperate days.

While exiled in another part of country, Fitzmorris started a list of New Orleans restaurants open for business on any given day – a list he continues to update.

By his own assessment, it’s probably the most significant thing he’ll ever do.

To that extent, while the book seems a tad on the self-serving side, the author’s assertion that food would be just not a key to New Orleans’ survival but THE key is heart-warming.

Along with the music, of course.

I’m not at all sure how I’d go in post-Katrina New Orleans. There’s still parts of the city that will never be more than wasteland.

I yearn for the food, and I’m quietly determined to take Bennie there one day.

But while New Orleans has “ethnic food”, it just doesn’t have the depth or quality to match Melbourne.

But, by God, the city continues to live on in my heart.

Chicken and sausage gumbo, anyone?

For interest’s sake, I’m including a scathing review of the book on Amazon and the author’s response:

Review by “wmgood39648″: “For those who know Tom F. and his ever thinning skin, Hungry Town is not really all about the food scene in New Orleans. Its really about the author. Read the book carefully and you will find that Fitzmorris has let himself get far too close to certain New Orleans restaurantuers to be objective. This would be fine if he would just admit that he is not a critic, but rather an apologist for the industry. He allowed himself to be feed very expensive meals by one restaurant dynasty for decades and then refuses to point out their flaws. Fitting in is very important to Fitzmorris. He might be the only man in New Orleans who actually benefited from hurricane Katrina. By his own admission, he could not get a publisher for his books until the storm. The book is not well written and has no depth. Wait for this book until its in the $3.00 section.”

Rebuttal by Tom Fitzmorris: “The comment is made by a persistent crank who reads everything I write and listens to every minute of my radio show, then attacks every bit of it without exception. I have reason to believe he is the owner of a restaurant that I gave a negative review. I thank him for buying the book and for making me such a central part of his life. Tastefully yours, Tom Fitzmorris.”

Book review: Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous

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Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous – by Peggy Scott Laborde and Tom Fitzmorris (Pelican)

Tom Fitzmorris remains very active on the New Orleans food scene, but I am unsure about just what form – if any – his Crescent City food guide takes these days.

The books listed on his website are, one, a history of New Orleans food culture, and two, a recipe book.

For many of my visits to New Orleans, his restaurant guide was toted all over the city and I found it indispensable, although in the end so frequent did my visits become that I was able to move beyond it as I discovered gems – through friends and familiarity with the city – that were not included in the book.

Nevertheless, I was excited about getting my hands on this book on “lost” New Orleans restaurants.

It’s not quite as comprehensive as the title suggest.

As Fitzmorris points out in his introduction, to be comprehensive the book would have to unfeasibly weighty. Besides which, as with any other locale, many restaurants have closed because they don’t deserve to be remembered.

Instead, the book focuses on 100 eateries of many different kinds that are remembered by “a fair number of New Orleanians still living as of 2011, when we composed it” and are worthy of being celebrated.

Given that sort of timeframe and timing of my own visits to that city, I was unsurprised to find restaurants I was familiar with – in some cases very familiar with – featured in the book.

I spotted three right off.

Looking a little closer, I noticed another half-dozen or so.

A profound sense of deja vu leads me to think there’s maybe another 20 or so that I set foot in at one time or another.

(I’d have to dust off and unearth the detailed diaries I maintained of those trips to be sure. A former partner once stumbled upon this trove, and was excited because she thought she was going to get the inside story of my sordid behaviour while in New Orleans. She was thus very disappointed to find every meal eaten, every record bought and every gig attended described in minute detail … but very little else!)

The hardcover book is beautifully presented, and is stuffed with fantastic vintage photos, menus, matchbooks and other memorabilia.

The individual restaurant entries are likewise full of stories not just about food and recipes and dishes, but also the colourful characters and history and stories that made these places legends.

Lost Restaurants of New Orleans is very highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested New Orleans, its history and/or its food and cooking.

Here’s some of the places included the book that I remember most fondly, with appropriate quotes from the book:

Hummingbird Grill, St Charles Ave (1946-2001)

A fabulous 24-hour diner-style place run as an adjunct of an equally seedy hotel.

Good for very good – and ridiculously cheap – burgers, breakfasts and red beans-and-rice.

“People who would spend their last dollar, then had to find a place to sleep that night, were at the Hummer’s counter. But so were men and women in formal wear, en route home from an underfed, oversloshed high-society party … Those who could not be dragged into the Hummingbird Grill had problems with the neighborhood. Those who did like the place pointed out that the lunch counter was always full of uniformed New Orleans policemen on their meal breaks. Only an idiot would try to start a rumble there.”

Barrow’s Shady Inn, Hollygrove (1943-2005)

You could get anything you wanted at Barrow’s – as long as it was catfish!

“When the fish came to the table, it was the definitive golden brown and so hot you shouldn’t have eaten straight away. But there was no way to keep from diving in. It was so good and light, with that background glow of red pepper, that you wanted to inhale it.”

Uglesich’s, Lee Circle area (1924-2005)

A ramshackle and truly legendary (mostly seafood) place – no menu, just notices pinned all over the walls. Super cheap!

“The ventilation system was so ineffective that when your returned from lunch there, nobody had to ask where you’d dined. You smelled as if you’d fried fish all day … A host of unique characters … hung around the place all day long. The most famous of them was Ding Ding the Singing Bird, who delivered sandwiches on a bicycle to the area and sold peanuts at Tulane Stadium.”

Kolb’s, St Charles Ave, CBD (1899-1995)

A very Germanic place with whacko Teutonic decor and lots of German dishes on the menu – although the only thing I can recall eating during my frequent visits are oysters and gumbo.

I loved it there – despite its central location near Canal St, it was always cool and dark-ish.

According to the book, the famous sign is still in place.

” …When I finally got to Kolb’s, in the mid-1970s, it was in decline … the German food was not all that good … by this time, most people who went to Kolb’s at not the German food but the creole cooking. During a couple of years during which my office was two blocks away, I ate there once or twice a month and remember eating turtle soup, barbecue shrimp, baked oysters with crabmeat and hollandaise, roast chicken, and bread pudding … All of this was actually pretty good.”

T.Pittari’s dining room in the 1950s.

(This post written while listening to Bunk Johnson.)

Book review: Day of Honey

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Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo (Simon and Schuster)

A review copy of this book was handed my way by a mate at my previous place of employment.

He figured it would tick almost all my boxes.

And why wouldn’t he?

It’s about food, it’s about writing, it’s about – more precisely – Middle Eastern food.

And it’s about international and current affairs, and the turbulence and conflicts and joy that accompany them, something I find endlessly fascinating, although I have rarely let that interest intrude on Consider The Sauce.

Truth is that while I stay on top of such things, they often leave me feeling down.

So why did Day of Honey sit around the house unloved and gathering dust for several months?

Why did I pick it up, read a few pages then discard it several times?

Why did it take only the most desperate boredom with every other available reading resource at hand before this book got its hooks into me?

A couple of reasons at least, I think …

One was the simple fear of confronting the horrors of the Middle East in a too-real account.

Reading about the Middle East’s trial and tribulations in news stories in newspaper and magazines or online is one thing.

There’s a certain dryness there that insulates us from the realities, brutal or otherwise.

Reading on-the-ground accounts of happenings in Baghdad and Beirut written by a gifted and eloquent writer is quite another.

I wasn’t at all sure I was up for it.

Another reason, one that was completely irrational given the nature of the subject, was that I feared the book would have a foodie-light veneer, making it a sort of Under The Beirut Sky.

About that, I turned out to be very wrong.

Once I started reading in earnest, this turned into a joyous page-turner.

I knew the author had me when she writes:

“The Mesopotamians baked a lot of their bread in a tinuru, a cylindrical clay oven with an open top and diabolically hot radiant heat inside. They rolled the dough into little round pats and left them for the gluten to relax. Then they flattened them into pancakes and slapped them onto the oven’s scorching inside walls, where they bubbled into chewy flatbreads.”

Hey, that sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Ciezadlo continues:

“Thousands of years later, Iraqis still make bread exactly this way at neighborhood bakeries … The Akkadian tinuru lives on as the Arabic tanoor, the Iranian tanura and the South Asian tandoor. Next time you order chicken tandoori at an Indian restaurant, chew on this: you are speaking a word that human mouths have been pronouncing, in one form or another, for at least four thousand years.”

Day of Honey follows the journey of Ciezadlo and her Lebanese husband Mohamad as they ply their journalistic/media trade in Baghdad and Beirut in the early-to-late 2000s.

If I skip going into any detail about the exact locations and conflicts they are involved in, it is simply because in many ways they are the background detail of the book’s major themes.

For this is a book, primarily, about people. Or more exactly, about people and how they deal with war.

And as Ciezadlo reveals, they do this largely through food.

There is a good deal of violence in the book, particularly towards the end.

But the author covers it in quite a dispassionate way, and always in the context of the people she loves, friends and family.

She simply lays out the absurdly sectarian nature of so much of life and politics and conflict in the Middle East without ever losing track of her focus.

That leaves her – and us – to revel in the food, its rituals and fabulous cast of characters who are by turns droll, hilarious, romantic, inspirational and more.

Particularly beguiling is her ongoing portrait of her mother-in-law, Umm Hassane. I’m tempted to describe her incredible and maddening wiles as “adorable” or some such, but then I don’t have to put up with her!

Through Day of Honey, I have had some of my beliefs about the Middle East buttressed.

But in many ways, I have had others shaken.

Mainly to the extent that what we read and hear about the region in the media is appallingly superficial or little more than window dressing and spin of various kinds.

Mostly, though, the book has emphasised for me how fortunate I am to be living in a part of the world where I am so free to participate in and enjoy food, food rituals and traditions, and the people who keep them alive.

And in one vivid account of a meal, Ciezadlo makes me believe more than ever that in the likes of Abbout Falafel House, Al-Alamy and so many more we have a genuine, life-affirming way of being part of what really is the greatest story ever told.

There are very many lovely examples of food anecdotes, recipes, lore and history.

At its end, the book includes more than a dozen recipes of food featured in its pages.

A lot of them seem sufficiently complex to deter me from attempting them.

But happily, the one that most intrigues – a simple Lebanese dish of onions, potatoes and eggs called Batata wa Bayd Mfarakeh – is the subject of a short video on the author’s website.

Unsurprisingly, what she creates there looks not at all like I imagined it would!

Day of Honey is a terrific book and I look forward to reading future posts on the author’s Facebook page for revealing and uplifting insights on Middle Eastern food, culture, people and – yes – politics.