Book Club Goes to Tanglewood.

TanglewoodMy book group likes connecting previous books and themes to our current reading.  Even more than that, we love a good field trip… which is how we ended up at Tanglewood for its annual celebration, Tanglewood on Parade.

Our being there wasn’t as arbitrary as it seems; last year we read three books that somehow revolved around Abraham Lincoln — The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, and Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon* — and the concert featured Lincoln Portrait, Aaron Copland‘s composition commemorating the sixteenth President.  Interspersed in the music are some quotations from Lincoln, which were read that night by Deval Patrick, while the Boston Pops played.

Fireworks, 1The evening’s finale was Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture, replete with canons, and followed by a spectacular fireworks display.  It was my first time seeing non-televised fireworks — which was quite exciting, particularly since we happened to be sitting very close to where both they and the canons had been set off.  I don’t think any of us in my book club were expecting either canons or fireworks; indeed, when the first shot banged out during the overture, more than one of us screamed in fright and surprise.

In spite of the amazing fireworks and canons, my personal favorite piece of the night was Tributes: For Seiji, which was written as a gift for Seiji Ozawa by John Williams to honor Ozawa’s twenty-fifth years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Ozawa held this position for four more years after that).  I thought it was brilliantly moving.**

Picnic, Thigh + WineAnother thing about the night that I found brilliant were other people’s ability to glamorize something as prosaic as a picnic.  Apparently it’s something of an established practice to pack a picnic to Tanglewood, especially if you’ve lawn tickets to a concert.  Our book club decided to follow tradition, toting in a mushroom tortellini salad with marscapone, corn on the cob with feta-mint butter, black bean and corn salad, mixed berries with brandy syrup, a berry buckle and several bottles of wine.  We blindly set up our spread by the pale light of the distant stage, observing as we did several of our neighbors’ citronella-scented candelabras, cut-crystal wineglasses and tables adorned with flower arrangements.  Honestly, such accoutrements were the norm.  We stood out (sat out?) by having mismatched blankets and no chairs — though our hurried discussion of this past month’s book might have also had something to do with it.

Lost City RadioWe had read Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón; it’s the story of insurrection in an unidentified South American country, and how lives are changed as a result.  The main character hosts the nation’s most popular radio show; each week, Norma reads an ever-expanding list of missing people.  As a result, listeners are reunited with their loved ones, though, ironically, Norma still searches desperately for her own missing person: her husband.

The aspect of the novel that I thought the most interesting was something quite small — the fascistic government that emerges after the war renames all populated areas with numbers.  The larger the city, the smaller the number.  To speak a city’s name rather than its number is highly punishable.  I found this tiny little detail fascinating.

In general, it seemed we had mixed feelings on Lost City Radio, but I can’t say for certain, as we were more focused on the evening’s music than on the book.  Please don’t blame either the novel or book club for that.  Not much could compete with canons, fireworks and the symphony — not even our appetites.  Which is really saying something.

* This is a little geeky of me to admit, but I kinda love how these three authors all have double Ls in their surnames.
** I should mention, I think, that I was raised almost entirely on classical music, and my love of it might also be interpreted as a little geeky.

Farming with Book Club.

For months, or so it seems, the ladies of book club and I have been wanting to read Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, except we could never think of how to relate it to the previous month’s selection.  Generally, we try to have some sort of link from book to book; this series of connections started when we read…

  • The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, the story of a boy who burns down Emily Dickinson’s house, leading us to read…
  • Afternoons with Emily, a fictionalized account of a young girl’s relationship with the poet, bringing us to…
  • The Poet and the Murderer, a true-crime following a counterfeiter’s body of work, which included a forged Dickinson poem and a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, inspiring us to read…
  • Assassination Vacation, which briefly tells the tale of Lincoln’s box-mates at the Ford’s Theatre, who were not only the focus of…
  • Henry and Clara, but also step-siblings who married each other, causing us to want to read a more scandalous book about incest like…
  • Flowers in the Attic, which we were not able to thematically tie to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at all, so we decided to start a new chain.

It doesn’t seem quite right to call this Kingsolver’s book, since she wrote it with the assistance of her husband Steven L. Hopp and her eldest daughter Camille.  Along with Kingsolver’s youngest daughter Lily, the four moved from their home in Tuscon to rural Virginia.  Before their arrival, the family had decided after much contemplation to spend one calendar year living almost entirely off of the produce they planned to farm on their forty-acres of land.  Since no one in the Kingsolver-Hopp household has a wholly unrealistic mentality, each of the four chose one non-locavore item like olive oil and coffee that he or she knew would be difficult to live without.  For the other things that the family was unable to grow or raise themselves, they resolved to buy exclusively from local vendors or farms.

Like I said, the Kingsolvers and the Hopps are reasonable folk; they completely understand that the lifestyle they adopted is one that most are unable to undertake.  I know I personally don’t have the ability to grow what I need to eat in my backyard, and no one in book club can say any differently.  What we did have, however, was an in with Barbara and Dwight Sipler at Small Farm in Stow — Dwight is Amanda and Darlington’s family, a relation we chose to exploit by hosting our meeting at the farm.  It was entirely in the same spirit as this month’s book.

I had been looking forward to our trip to Small Farm, but as it got closer I began to get a little anxious; it had been raining in torrents for days, and I was beginning to forget what sunlight felt like on my face.  The weather did let up a bit, but still — rain.

We lucked out when we first arrived at the farm with just a like drizzle, but rather than chance it we immediately started picking herbs and vegetables; I only gathered a few eggplants, some mint and a handful of lavender since I knew I would be receiving my CSA box in two days.  Amanda, Darlington, Melissa and Sarah picked lettuces, rainbow chard, peppers, herbs and beets.

We set up our spread under the tent behind the farm stand.  Our original plan was to make a handful of the recipes Camille Kingsolver included in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but Sarah was the only one who followed through by preparing what the book refers to as “Disappearing Zucchini Orzo.”  Amanda had made some beans — the same beans depicted in the cover art, actually; Darlington brought drinks; I had packed turnips, a special request; Melissa picked some greens for a salad, which she tossed with goat cheese, raspberries, cucumbers and a balsamic vinaigrette.  (She had also brought a bag of sweet bite-sized bread from Iggy’s in lieu of croutons, but I can’t recall exactly what they were called.)

Barbara Sipler sat with us while we ate; she had, coincidentally, just finished reading the book as well.  As we chatted, mosquitoes descended upon us — I guess we were too tempting a target to pass up, pretty much sitting ducks.  When I got home, I counted my bites: twenty-three, including one on my thigh that I had unknowingly scratched so hard that I gave myself an extremely lurid bruise that, come to think of it, looks a bit like an eggplant.

Here are some photos from the farm.

I have never been stung by a bee, and am vaguely terrified of them.

Doesn’t this look somewhat like an oversize earring?

A pair of pretty lettuces.

One of many butterflies.

I think this is called an amaranth, but I may be totally wrong.

As of today, Small Farm is still open for the season; if you’re in the area, definitely stop by.

Small Farm
184 Gleasondale Road
Route 62
Stow, Massachusetts 01775
978.897.5996
small-farm.org

Disappearing Zucchini Orzo, from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Makes four servings.

¾ pound orzo
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 large zucchini
olive oil
thyme
oregano
¼ cup grated Parmesan or any hard yellow cheese

  1. Bring six cups water or chicken stock to a boil and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions.
  2. Use a cheese grater or mandoline to shred zucchini; sauté briefly with chopped onion and garlic until lightly golden. Add spices to zucchini mixture, stir thoroughly, and then remove mixture from heat. Combine with cheese and cooked orzo;salt to taste.  Serve cool or at room temperature.

Sunday Morning Brunch with Book Club.

Another Sunday, another brunch date with book club…

This time, we all gathered at Amanda’s apartment in Harvard Square to discuss Henry and Clara, which happens to be the fourth book we’ve read that somehow deals with the Civil War years. (The first three were March, Assassination Vacation and Afternoons with Emily.) By Thomas Mallon, this novel is the fictionalized account of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the young couple who had the misfortune of sharing Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater the evening the President was assassinated.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating subject. After all, I have no recollection of ever, during any of my history classes, learning about the Lincolns’ box-mates. (Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I even knew the President and First Lady had box-mates!) Not only that, something I also find extremely interesting is the fact that John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate a president — if there were a club, I’m sure Leon Czolgosz, Charles J. Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald would elect Booth himself president.

Two other aspects of the novel that captivated me were the title characters — Henry and Clara — themselves. In addition to being lovers and spouses, the two were linked by another bond: they were stepsiblings. While not related by blood, their marriage was still thought of as extremely unconventional and even downright odd; their presence at Lincoln’s murder did little to elevate their status in society. In fact, Henry — already painted by Mallon as being somewhat unstable — was driven to insanity, and ultimately ruined both himself and his family. (It is a little tricky, writing about something that is a historic fact as well as an invented fiction. I keep wanting to write in present tense to describe the novel, but since it is so intertwined with that actually took place, I find myself writing in the past tense. Bear with me, please.)

Ultimately, everyone in book club seemed to like Henry and Clara very much… except for me. When the others spoke about the absorbing characters and intricately-woven plot, I thought about the lackluster writing and uneven pacing. Though I can certainly see the allure of the storyline, I still stood alone in disliking the novel.

What we agreed on, however, was a topic about which we all see eye-to-eye: the spectacular quantity and quality of food we assembled. This time around, we had some fluffy blueberry pancakes, a richly decadent quiche, sparkly mimosas and a mango-and-raspberry salad. My contribution was carrot cake (in cupcake form), made from the bunch I had received in my CSA box last week. Not only were they my first go at carrot cake baking, but also my first time at carrot cake eating. I’m pleased to say they came out quite well.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, from The New Best Recipe Cookbook
Makes ten to twelve portions

for the cake
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

for the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350°. Spray a thirteen-by-nine baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper; spray the parchment.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. In a food processor fitted with with the large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you need three cups). Add the carrots to the bowl with the dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the food processor and fit with metal blade. Process both sugars with eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about twenty seconds. With the machine running, add oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about twenty additional seconds.
  5. Scrape mixture into a large bowl; stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and mixture is streak0free. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, thirty-five to forty minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about two hours.
  6. When the cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a clean food processor until combined, about five seconds, scraping down the work bowl with a spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about ten additional seconds.
  7. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert cake onto a wire rack, peel off parchment and invert cake again onto serving platter. Using a spatula, spread frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Slice and serve.