Reading While Eating: Nine Favorite Books from 2017

Paris, family, food writing and strong women. Complicated relationships, historical drama, and artistic personalities. That’s the scope of what we loved best in the reading department in 2017.  This past year, we explored an old city with new eyes thanks to David, Janice, Julia and Jessie. We soul searched with India and Diane, cooked with Clementine and Norah, climbed the symbolic lime tree and walked through the literal golden house.

Every year, we keep track of what we read and watch so that we can share our best-of list here on the blog in the hopes that you’ll discover something new yourself. They aren’t all necessarily new books or movies that came out this year, but they all are things that were newly introduced to us within the past 12 months and they follow a common theme of history in some form or another. The oldest one in this batch dates to the 1940’s (Clementine in the Kitchen) but remains as fresh and engaging as this morning’s breakfast.  The youngest in the batch was published just three months ago (The Golden House) but reads like an old-fashioned classic.

Let’s look…

1. Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell (1959)

If you have ever wondered what the everyday inner workings of a mid-century suburban American house were like then you will love Mrs. Bridge. Told in brief vignettes, it is the story of India Bridge… wife… mother… mid-westerner… who is wanting and watching for something more, anything more, extraordinary to happen to her static, routine life.  In-between family meals, housecleaning, entertaining and her own thinly executed attempts to make life interesting, India shares her thoughts on all the details that make up her society prescribed and approved life.  No moment goes unnoticed from how she sets her table, wears her gloves, communicates with her friends, chooses her clothing and handles her family. It is an intimate look into the mind of a woman processing the boundaries of a life selected for her but necessarily by her. We loved it because it is peppered with familiar 1940s/50’s decorating trends and brand references that we come in contact with a lot in the Vintage Kitchen and because India is an interesting character – conforming whole-heartedly to her boxed-in life while questioning a large lot of it.

2. The Woman I Wanted To Be – Diane Von Furstenberg (2015)

Diane Von Furstenberg invented the wrap dress in the 1970’s which launched her into iconic status in the fashion industry because it is the dress, the only dress, that looks flattering on any and every female body shape regardless of height, weight, age or ethnicity. But before Diane became famous in the American fashion industry she was an everywoman, born in Belgium with artistic interests and a desire to build an authentic life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or how to go about doing it, so she followed intuition, using her natural abilities and talents, likes and dislikes as a guide to figure out her skillset and herself.   She didn’t always get things right but every experience, good or bad led to fine-tuning and deeper understanding.

Diane (center) in 1976 in wearing her famous wrap dress.

The Woman I Wanted To Be spans seven decades of her life but pays particular attention to the years she struggled to define herself – the years before she designed the famous dress and the years after she designed the famous dress. She talks about how lifestyle choices and personal circumstances led to the actual physical creation of her famous piece of clothing, she talks about launching an American business as a foreign woman, she talks about the emptiness she felt as a creative artist following the success of the dress and she talks about being true to herself in an industry that prefers cookie-cutter beauty and constant re-invention.

3. A Paris Year – Janice Macleod (2017)

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

You can never have too much Paris or too much Janice. In her second book about the beautiful city, writer and painter Janice MacLeod takes us on a daily artistic tour of everything that makes Paris perfect from the food to the culture to the climate. Not unlike Diane Von Furstenberg, Janice followed her own inklings of intuition by leaving her unfulfilling corporate life in California and moving to Paris solely based on the hunch that she just might love it. That was the subject of her first book Paris Letters, which details how she made the big move step-by-step. The follow-up, A Paris Year shows us in pictures and words how rewarding that big move proved to be.  In June,  we wrote an in-depth post about the book, including pictures and artwork from the book.  If you are new to the blog, catch up on that post here.

4. A Taste of Paris – David Downie (2017)

Author David Downie wrote a whole entire book about the history of food in France. We featured his phenomenal work here.

We were on a real Paris kick this past year and were lucky enough to be able to review two books about the great city. After reading A Taste of Paris, we were completely blown away by its scope of content and enormous subject matter – the history of food in Paris. Such a noble undertaking! David Downie has an incredible ability to boil this big subject down into an interesting and engaging timeline that will keep you captivated from beginning to end.  Covering the cuisine, the culture and the characters that have contributed to the French food scene since the very beginning, reading this book felt like taking a master history class peppered with fascinating foodie fun facts.  Last September, we discussed our favorite parts of the book. If you missed that post, catch up here.

5. The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (2017)

We aren’t quite finished with this book yet – but we loved it so much we included it here because it is a marvelous treat for any fiction lover. Centering around a New York City neighborhood and the arrival of a mysterious foreign family – Nero Golden and his three grown sons – The Golden House begins with the neighbors’ speculation on all aspects of the newcomers’ lives.  Salman’s writing style is in incredible, particularly the way in which he describes his characters…

“He dressed expensively but there was a loud, animal quality to him which made one think of the Beast of folktale, uneasy in human finery.”

Some critics have compared the character of Nero Golden to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby as a misunderstood modern day man attempting to reinvent himself in a new environment. We’ll come back to this thought once we finish, but in the meantime, if you have a few days off and want to dive into a meaty read, beautifully told and full of layered storylines and fresh characters than this is the book for you. You’ll be enthralled from the first page, we promise!

6. Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange – Amanda Smyth (2009)

In part due to its gorgeous title and exotic tropical setting (the Caribbean island of Tobago), Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange is the fictional story of Celia and her entanglement with three men each of whom dramatically alter the course of her life. Poetic, lyrical and lush in detail, Amanda Smyth blends together seductive elements of nature writing with romantic storytelling for a perfect mid-winter read that will make you feel like you’ve visited the Caribbean without ever leaving home. Similiar to Love In The Time of Cholera, it is packed full of symbolism and romantic themes, so if you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll enjoy Amanda Smyth as well.

7. Clementine In The Kitchen – Samuel Chamberlain (1943)

First published in 1943 under the pen name Phineas Beck, Clementine in the Kitchen tells the true story of the Chamberlain family’s French cook, Clementine, whom the family first meets while living in a small village just outside of Paris. When the Chamberlain’s get transferred to Massachusetts, Clementine is invited to move with them – a big decision for the petite woman who has never left her birthplace. Clementine is a natural in the kitchen in France and the family cannot help but rave about her cuisine to everyone they know. In America though, she is a fish out of water, not understanding the language or the shopping style of her new country. Ingredients are different, convenience foods are popular and daily outdoor market shopping is replaced with weekly trips to that strange place called the indoor supermarket.

How does Clementine cope with all this change? We don’t want to spoil it for you, so you have to read it to find out.  But what we can say is that this book is funny and charming and filled with recipes. The surprise ending, cinematic storyline and ever engaging character of Clementine makes it seem like a perfect candidate for movie adaptation and it offers the added benefit of learning some of the basics of French cooking.  All around an engaging and highly original read that we thoroughly enjoyed. Later this year, we will be featuring a few recipes from this book, so stay tuned.

8. Bon Appetit – Jessie Hartland (2012)

Joie de vivre is a term often associated with the French culture that defines their eternal zest and enthusiasm for life. If ever a book captured that phrase, it would be this one, Bon Appetit by Jessie Hartland. At first glance, you’ll think this is a kids book meant just for the enjoyment of little ones. But don’t be fooled. It is wonderfully inspiring and whimsical for adults as well. Detailing the entire life story of Julia Child in just 45 pages of colorful illustrations and clever text, Jessie Hartland has managed to capture the enigmatic and infectious personality of America’s best-loved cook. You’ll read the whole thing in a jiffy but its infectious positivity will stick with you forever.

9. At Home With Kate – Eileen Considine-Meara (2007)

Norah Considine was Katharine Hepburn’s cook, friend and all around helper for 30 years. At Home with Kate shares, the intimate details of day-to-day life in Kate’s household as Norah prepared meals and planned parties in both her NYC residence and the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut during the last three decades of Kate’s life. Written by Norah’s daughter, Eileen, who first met Kate when she was a teenager helping her mom serve meals during Kate’s dinner parties,  At Home with Kate is an entertaining conglomeration of memoir, biographical sketch and thoughtful retrospection on three women who shared an extraordinary experience.

Norah with her celebrity crush – Robert Wagner, taken in the kitchen of Kate’s Manhattan townhouse. Photo from At Home with Kate by Eileen Considine-Meara.

For all the glamour, independence and mystery surrounding the Old Hollywood film star, Eileen shows us that Katharine Hepburn, in real-life, was a thrifty homebody with a taste for simple foods and quiet dinner parties. We loved that it contained a handful of Kate’s recipes along with the memories too. It was interesting to see that the dishes Kate enjoyed most reflected her unfussy philosophy towards food – meatloaf, brownies, stew, rum cake, steak and a variety of soups.  And it was interesting to learn that it wasn’t all about cooking for Norah – her responsibilities ran the gamut as far as tasks required of her (errands, gardening, cleaning and on-loan cook for some of Kate’s friends, as well) all while Norah was raising five kids of her own and working a minimum of 10 hours a day at Kate’s. In October, we featured Kate’s famous lace cookies, the recipe most often requested by house guests and always kept in constant supply in Kate’s kitchen. Find that recipe here.

Each of the books we listed above have nourished us in one way or another whether it be through imagination, introspection or edibles. Hope our reading while eating selections prove to be equally engaging for you as well. If you have discovered some new favorite books from last year too, please share them with us in the comments section below. We are always on the lookout for something fun to read.

In the meantime, cheers to cozy winter days and culinary creativity!

Our Favorites: Five Wonderfully Whimsical Things about Julia Child (And A Recipe!)

Her old cookbooks teach us new tricks. Her methodical approach to food never fails us. Her infectious joie de vivre still inspires us. She may have passed away 13 years ago but the spirit of Julia Child is still very much alive and well here in the Vintage Kitchen.  Yesterday marked Julia Child’s 105th birthday.  In celebration, we’ve compiled a list of five whimsical things that we absolutely adore about this great lady.

1. The Photograph – December 1968, France

This is my most favorite picture of Julia Child. It was taken in December 1968 while she was staying at her summer house, La Pitchoune, in Plascassier, France. I love that she is laughing so hard she’s practically tumbling off the counter. I wonder what the situation was at the moment this image was captured. Was her husband, Paul, standing just out of frame telling a joke? Or maybe one of those crab claws just reached up and started playing tug-of-war with her fork. Or maybe it was Julia herself just hamming it up for the camera. Spontineanity ran wild in Julia’s kitchen and I have feeling there were many days in many kitchens around the world that witnessed a moment like this with the engaging lady laugher.

2. The TV Appearance – David Letterman

On December 22, 1986 Julia Child was scheduled to demonstrate how to cook with a blowtorch on the Late Night with David Letterman show. The segment starts out as planned but quickly goes awry and both Julia and David wring all the humor they can out of this unexpected situation. It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants funny piece – both of them cleverly improvising with the comedy at hand.  Julia is famous for saying “No matter what happens in the kitchen, – never apologize.” You can see her sticking to that advice with aplomb here.

3. The Decorating Choice – La Oubliette

In Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, she describes moving into a French apartment that was already furnished.  It was full of old antiques that were musty, broken down and too small for her tall stature.  The shabby scene depressed her so much that she rounded up everything that she disliked in the apartment,  put them into a closet, and shut the door tight, never to encounter that stuff again. She named that closet La Oubliette or the Forgettery. Anything that displeased her from that point forward for the duration of the time that she and Paul lived there went into that closet.  Out of sight, out of mind.

After reading that passage years ago and falling in love with that idea, I established my own Forgettery in whatever place we’ve lived in. Not all of our spaces have had the luxury of spare closets, but a cupboard or a drawer or a hidden shelf works just fine too.  Sometimes we use it not only for physical objects but also for words. There is something very gratifying about walking into your own Oubliette, saying out loud whatever injustice happened to you that day, and then walking out, shutting the door and leaving all that negativity and all those bad vibes closed in there instead of in you. Julia. She was a cook and a therapist all in one!

4. The Random Cambridge, MA Kitchen Comforts

This past May, we had the exciting experience of visiting Julia Child’s kitchen at the Museum of American History. I had seen pictures of it online before so I knew that I’d see the yellow tablecloth and her big restaurant stove and the pots and pans hanging from the pegboard, but what I didn’t realize I’d see was a host of everyday items that had nothing to do with the kitchen.

You know, those other errant household objects of daily life that just seem to migrate their way into the kitchen but have nothing to do with food or cooking? Things like keys, wallets, shoes, books, tape, paint cans, bags, notebooks, etc.? Julia’s kitchen was full of that sort of stuff too. A Rubix cube, a pile of papers, jars of pens and pencils, a calculator, some sort of glowing orb-like light, bird identification books, a signal mirror from World War II.   Julia was all about keeping things close by that she loved. She even had a junk drawer packed full of odds and ends. And a slew of giant, oversized cooking tool props that appeared in funny stories on her cooking show.  She wasn’t into staged or professionally decorated or aesthetically styled perfection. She was into comfort and function and fun entertaining in a casual environment. Even though Julia and Paul hired architect Robert Woods Kennedy to redesign the kitchen after they purchased the house,  all the decorating of their most favorite room was left up to them.  And it shows in the eclectic menagerie of items they collected and colors they loved.

5. The Book – Jessie Hartland

I recently discovered this fantastic children’s book Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, at a local book sale. Written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland and published in 2012 it is technically considered a children’s book but really anyone of any age could easily appreciate and enjoy it. Jessie tells Julia’s life story in a vivacious arrangement of words and pictures that is so enchanting you’ll want to read it out-loud while imitating Julia’s voice.  It is such a sweet, good-natured and fun-loving approach to the life of this extraordinary culinary icon, you’ll feel like you’ve met Julia Child herself by the end of it.

On the last page of the book, Jessie shares her own adaptation of French crepes inspired by Julia’s recipe. Since it is Julia’s birthday week, and she shouldn’t be cooking for her own celebrations, we made Jessie’s version instead which turned out to be delicious. Julia would definitely approve.

The only ingredient differences in Jessie’s vs. Julia’s recipe is salt and water. Julia’s has a little of both and Jessie’s has none. And to be totally honest we like Jessie’s version better.

One of the things that Julia Child liked most about French cooking was that it was “careful cooking” meaning that you had to spend time with it and keep a thoughtful eye on the procedure of it. She treated all her recipes at first like mountains that needed to be climbed and then, once conquered, like friends that needed to be nurtured and shared and appreciated.  If you have never made crepes before, it may sound a little scary when it comes to flipping these thin style pancakes, but once you’ve conquered it, you’ve mastered this multi-functional breakfast/lunch/ dinner and dessert appropriate food like a champion.

The ingredients are very simple and straight forward. I used free range organic farm eggs, organic whole milk and organic butter in this recipe. Like Julia Child always says – the better quality your ingredients, the better your food will taste.  And if you store your eggs in the refrigerator let them warm up to room temperature before you use them.

Jessie’s Crepes

(makes 5-6 crepes, each about 6.5″ inches in diameter)

3 eggs

1 cup milk

3/4 cup flour

butter (about 1/8th cup)

In a medium sized bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Add the milk and whisk again. Add the flour and whisk one more time. Next Jessie recommends pouring the batter through a fine strainer into a glass measuring cup. I don’t have a strainer so I poured the mixture through cheese cloth wrapped around the fine side of a cheese grater. That worked just fine.

This step removes any large flour lumps and makes the batter silky smooth.  If you don’t have a glass measuring cup you can just strain the batter into a mixing bowl and scoop it with a soup ladle.

Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in a frying pan until it is hot (medium high temp) but not smoking. Whisk the batter one more time and then pour about 1/4 cup into the frying pan. Holding the handle twist and rotate the pan to make sure the batter evenly coats the entire bottom of the pan. Wait about 30 seconds (there should be no more loose or runny batter on the top of the crepe – if there still is cook it a little longer) and then, if you are feeling brave flip the crepe in the pan to cook the other side for about 15 seconds.

There are a couple of other options regarding flipping if you don’t want to toss your crepe up in the air.

Option #1: Carefully slide a spatula underneath the crepe and flip it to the other side.

Option #2:  My personal favorite –  use a cake frosting knife, and slide it under the pancake and quickly flip it.  The goal of all this cooking and flipping is two fold… don’t wait too long to flip it so that the bottom burns and don’t tear the crepe in the process of flipping. The first one might not make the table – and that’s okay – if it burns, or tears or winds up on the floor just start again with more butter and a new scoop of batter. Practice makes perfect. And one general rule of thumb – more butter is better than less butter when it comes to making sure the crepes don’t stick, so when in doubt add more not less. This is what your crepes should look like once they are ready…

Repeat this step until you have made all your crepes. You can keep them warm by placing each one on top of the other, stack-stile, on a plate covered with aluminum foil as each one comes out of the pan. Or covered in a dish in the oven on the lowest temperature setting.

Crepes are a foundation piece that can be served in a number of different ways for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. When we make ours for breakfast, we sprinkle powdered sugar on a warm crepe, roll it up and then top it with a mixture of seasonal fruit in the summer or a warm fruit compote in the fall and winter. But you can just about add anything you like to a crepe and it will be delicious.

One thing to keep in mind when serving crepes is that they contain no sugar so if you like them sweet don’t forget to add sugar or honey, maple syrup, chocolate sauce, whip cream or your own fruit medley.

French Crepes ala Jessie via Julia!

And of course, the very best companion for this festive French dish is a good book like Bon Appetit, which you can find here.

If you are a big fan of Julia, like us, please share your favorite things about her in the comment section below. We’d love to learn more about how she inspires you!

In the meantime cheers to the lady who keeps inspiring us to find the fun in the food! Happy Birthday Julia!