Friday, June 15, 2007

And now for the good stuff...

I may not have cared for the book we read for our book group, but once again, the food was fantastic. Coming up with food that you want to eat based on a circus theme is not the easiest task. Hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy? No thanks. So we went for riffs on the circus food theme. Sarah picked up the peanut trope and brought some fantastic curried peanut and tomato soup:
And I decided that rather than greasy burgers, I'd make thai-spiced pork burgers, topped with nappa cabbage doused in lime mayo and red onions. Meg brought sweet potato fries rather than the normal variety and we welcomed Marilyn's salad even though it had nothing to do with the book...I think the closest to greens was a scene where an elephant stole into someone's garden and ate a cabbage.
For dessert, Ami made a wonderful key lime pie (in honor of the clowns that throw pies at each other) which was anointed generously with whipped cream:
I loved the soup Sarah made so much that I made it again for dinner last night. It is really terrific and really fast to make. Definitely a keeper of a recipe.

Curried Peanut and Tomato Soup
adapted from
Gourmet, February 2006

1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 (14-oz) can diced tomatoes in juice, chopped if large, reserving juice
1 can (14-oz) cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 cup hot water
1/4 cup chunky peanut butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 limes--one juiced, one cut in wedges
whole roasted peanuts for garnish

Cook onion, salt, and pepper in oil in a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add curry powder and cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes. Add tomatoes (with their juice) and broth and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes. Stir hot water into peanut butter until smooth and add to soup. Add juice of one lime. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro before serving.

Serve with a wedge of lime and sprinkling of roasted peanuts.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Circus books

I know it is a little strange to read fiction about the circus life back to back, but that's what I did. While I haven't done an exhaustive search, I don't think the circus is the most popular topic in contemporary fiction. The first book was one that my book group chose, Water for Elephants and the second book was one that an anonymous commenter recommended back when I was asking for books of linked stories (thanks anonymous!), The Circus in Winter.

My book group met last night (food post to follow) and I was definitely in the minority in not liking Water for Elephants. I admit that after the last book our group attempted (an apt verb since no one actually finished the book), Snow by Orhan Pamuk, I was relieved when I started Water for Elephants. Hey, there were characters! And a plot! And prose that didn't make me feel numb! But that relief soon wore off as I started to get more and more annoyed with the characters, the melodrama, the predictability of it all. So last night grouchy-Kate, the buzz killer (though Diane's spiked lemonade soon brought the buzz back!), bitched about the book while everyone else recounted their favorite parts.

I don't really want to spend the energy here recounting my objections; I'd rather turn your attention to a vastly superior (in my grouchy-Kate opinion) piece of fiction that happens to be about a circus. When I first started Cathy Day's book, I was worried that it would just be a bunch of stories behind the side-show freaks. There were a few of these, but the chapters/stories built on each other to present a portrait of a performing culture that had depth and emotion. Set in the circus' winter quarters in Lima, Indiana, it is also a view of a small town that just happens to have a large portion of the population who talk about elephants rather than their pet dogs. That is to say, the exotic is not the attraction, rather the humanity underneath the "sawdust and spangles."

Many of the chapters were published as short stories before being drawn together in this book and I can certainly see how they can stand on their own. But when read together they gain power from each other and turn into a novel. I'm really impressed by this fact--that a writer can take the fragments, which are fine on their own, and stitch them together into something that becomes whole. It is a beautiful and memorable book.

The next book our group will read is a book I'm really excited about: Sherman Alexie's Flight. I've read a few of Alexie's short stories and loved them--aggressive, shocking prose, but also funny and beautiful. He has a really unique voice. Here's a little excerpt taken from the Amazon review to tempt you to read it too:

Zits [the main character] meditates on the nature of profanity, deciding even a harmless word can be profane when delivered with punch:

'Don't you look at me that way,' [the foster father] says. 'Don't try to stare me down.'

Of course, I keep staring at him.

'Stop staring at me,' he says.

'Plop,' I say.

'What did you say?'

'Plopping plop.'

Jesus, I sound like a pissed-off Dr. Seuss character. That thought makes me laugh.

'Are you laughing at me?' he asks.

'You bet your plopping ass I'm laughing at you.'

You bet your plopping ass I'll be reading this as soon as it comes in the mail.