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 Brunch with Book Club.

I’ve got to say, book club was definitely one of my better ideas. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case toot toot toot. When else would I be able to get together with a bunch of chatty, intelligent women about Mormons, murders and Massachusetts poets? More importantly, however else could I possibly be able to make as good an excuse to basically bake and eat and ton of buttery, rich food?

I had agreed to host our get-together, but it was so very hot, and the idea of turning on the oven or the stove was starting to stress me out. I did cave in and do some baking the night before, after the sun had set because I knew I wanted to serve some scones — since they are both easy and delicious; I adapted a basic recipe for an orange-rhubarb as well as a chocolate-cherry. Earlier in the week, I had dug up an old issue of Gourmet, from which I had pilfered a recipe for a really simple crumb cake that I knew I could throw together with great results. To cool us down, I chopped up some citrus and mint for a refreshing salad.

This month’s choice was a piece of nonfiction from author Sarah Vowell. Called Assassination Vacation, the book follows Vowell and a few of her family and friends on a series of road trips visiting sites related to the nation’s first three presidential murders. With her distinct style, Vowell not only guides the reader back to the times of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but also details the truly surprising thread connecting them all.

Please note: when I say “distinct voice,” I am not only referring to Vowell’s vivid style of writing; she literally has what could only be described as an extremely recognizable voice, one that can often be heard on NPR as well as in The Incredibles (she’s Violet Parr).

In the end, we all seemed to like Assasination Vacation. It’s peppered with humorous anecdotes, Vowell’s musings on history and interesting excerpts from interviews the author conducted during the course of her research. Not only that, but Vowell’s depiction of her charming group of chauffeurs is so funny; an avid non-driver, she is completely reliant upon a combination of public transit, mass transit and friends and family to help her reach to her far-flung destinations. I think our collective favorite of her travel buddies was Vowell’s then-three-year-old nephew Owen, whom she writes about quite fondly. Take this, for example:

…[My sister Amy] phoned me, saying, “I asked Owen what he wanted to do today and he said, ‘Go look at stones with Aunt Sarah.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? What these stones are?”

I do. “He means tombstones,” I told her. “When you were off parking the car at the cemetery in Cleveland, Owen and I walked around looking for John Hay’s grave. Owen climbed on top of it and hollered, ‘This is a nice Halloween park!'” (That’s what he calls cemeteries.)

Here’s another description of Owen, one I personally love:

He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

Now that’s my kind of kid.

(Incidentally, Stephanie suggested that book club volunteer to drive Vowell around for the next topic’s researching. So, if you’re reading this, Ms. Vowell, there are six food-loving book groupies in Massachusetts willing to give you a ride.)

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions

For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves (I used half strawberry, half raspberry, since that’s what I had in the fridge.)

For the crumb topping:
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a nine-inch square or round cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about twenty-five minutes. Cool in pan on a rack five minutes.