Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl

This may be a first for the Nonfiction Book Club blog, but I’m throwing caution to the compost—and perhaps tossing humiliation into the cinnamon buns—but I’m doing it. I’m reviewing a cookbook.

Now, in my opinion, this particular book is no ordinary cookbook. You know there are books out there masquerading as cookbooks but really are not. They’re often a forum for a writer to go beyond the cooking experience; to experiment and surmise about wider issues. Authors like Michael Pollan, Jen Lin-Liu and Julie Powell are ones that come to mind, who have looked at the social implications of food, social history and the psychology of cooking.

Alright, this book doesn’t fit into those categories, either.  What I like about this book is that it makes me laugh. And it makes me want to eat. And bake and cook. All of those things I often like to do, but this one also makes me want to invite author Ree Drummond over to hang out at the same time.

Drummond is a very funny albeit humble writer. Her book catches you charmingly off-guard right from the get-go, with her descriptions of favourite ingredients and cooking apparatuses:

“Butter. I’m not afraid to use it. It’s flavourful, versatile and a necessary component in most of my recipes.”

“Iron Skillet. If properly seasoned an iron skillet will become not only your best friend in the kitchen but also your uncle, cousin, grandmother and brother. Iron skillets get nice and hot, perfect for searing a juicy rib-eye steak.”

“Commercial baking sheets. My family considered an intervention this year because I collect these 18 X 12-inch babies the way some women collect Marie Osmond dolls. They’re the perfect size for my Chocolate Sheet Cake and hold more cookies than your average cookie sheet.”

You want to just keep reading, which is a wonderful twist on a “collection of recipes, instructions and information about the preparation and serving of foods.” (Definition from ) Most cookbooks are an essential reference book, used only when you need it and only for particular items of interest: I need to find how many cups of sugar to put into strawberry freezer jam; how do I know when the cream sauce is beyond hope; how do I tell when the brownie is done? How many cookbooks have you read that you just want to keep reading for pure enjoyment?

It isn’t just the entertaining writing style that makes you want to turn the pages. Drummond photographs each step of the cooking process, so it is visually wonderful, too. Many of these step-by-steps are punctuated by groupings of witticisms that could only have been inspired by an accompanying glass of wine:

“2. Place the hot potatoes on a cutting board and dice them into 1-inch-ish pieces. Inch-ish. Say that five times fast. Just for kicks. My goal in life is to tack ‘ish’ onto as many words as possible. Possible-ish.
3. Heat a skillet over medium low to medium heat. Next put a little vegetable oil in the pan. A tablespoon is good.
4. Scrape the pan you used this morning to make bacon. You made all the bacon this morning… right?
5. Then, because I usually straddle the fence between ridiculousness and utter foolishness, I add a tablespoon of bacon fat to the skillet. ‘Cause it tastes good, that’s why.
6. Go ahead and make peace with yourself then add the onion.”

But it was her preamble on the cinnamon buns—sorry; rolls--that killed me:

“If you begin making these for your friends and family for the holidays, I promise you this: you’ll become famous. And, on a less positive note, people will forget everything else you’ve ever accomplished in your life. From that moment on, you’ll be known—and loved—only for your cinnamon rolls. But don’t worry! You’ll get used to it.”

With the pressure of doom upon you, how could you not want to try making them, let alone eating them? Better yet, find some unwitting baker-friend to make them, so you escape the fate but you enjoy the food! 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America

I have long known about the story of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on the streets of Queens in New York City in 1964 while 38 people watched and did nothing. The story, when I first heard it, shocked me. I thought about it for days afterward, and could only wonder what riveted three dozen people to their windows without so much as picking up the phone to call the police. Over the years I read more about the murder, yet trickles of information seeped into the story that told me that the reality was tainted by sensational urban mythmaking. On the fiftieth anniversary of Genovese's death, Kevin Cook published Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. Cook retold the story marking Genovese's last minutes. The most shocking aspect of her story will always be the number of people who were said to have witnessed her murder: 38. Cook found the sources that first revealed the number of "38" witnesses and he spoke to those who, half a century later, were there on that early March night at 3 a.m.

Cook described New York life in the early sixties and set the scene for the brutal crime that would fall upon its streets. I felt that Cook went overboard in providing the historical context, as sometimes there would be pages devoted to the music scene, such as the folkies versus Bob Dylan. In spite of this, Kitty Genovese was a rapid read, as Cook delineated the final actions of Genovese as well as those of her killer. The reader followed Genovese home after her late shift tending bar. We knew what was about to happen--a savage stabbing of a young woman, followed by a second attempt after the first stabbing didn't kill her--and then we waited for nothing to happen in response:

"After going viral, 1960s-style, through newspapers, magazines, television and radio editorials, Sunday sermons, dinner-party conversations, schoolyard rumors, and back-fence gossip, the Kitty Genovese story prompted months of local and then national soul-searching. Over the years the story became a fixture in thousands of high school and college psychology classes despite the fact that the version of it taught in those classes, the version almost everyone accepts, isn't true. Maybe that view of the crime endures because it isn't true, because it boils a complex, troubling story down to a single simple question: How could all those people watch what happened to her, and do nothing?"

Fifty years ago, the truth obscured the facts from coming out. The murder was so shocking yet the reaction of the witnesses--their non-reaction--occupied the news media. How could the media resist such a story about witness apathy 38 times over? What was going on in the witnesses' minds to stand there and do nothing? The truth didn't matter when the witnesses were the story. The press descended onto the area where Genovese was killed, asking the residents if they had been witnesses. Residents were interrogated and harassed, and some moved out because they felt like criminals by the press as well as by onlookers who came to gawk. Decades would pass before the truth came out about the actual number of witnesses and their calls to police. Genovese did not die while a roomful of bystanders watched:

"Wainwright [a columnist for Life magazine] portrayed Kitty as dying in full view of more than three-dozen neighbors who watched like a crowd in an auditorium. In his column the number of witnesses the Times' Gansberg got from Commissioner Murphy returns as exactly 'thirty-eight heedless witnesses.'"

Yet where did this magic number of 38 come from? Cited so often, but from what original source?

"Within days of starting work on the case, the prosecution team had doubts about the now-famous number thirty-eight. Thirty-eight was the number of people the police considered witnesses in the days following the crime. It was the number Commissioner Murphy cited over lunch at Emil's, the number that shocked editor Rosenthal, Times readers, and the world. Martin Gansberg had followed up on the work Murphy's detectives did, but neither Gansberg nor anyone else spent time ferreting out the source of the official number. The number thirty-eight came from the police; that was enough. Nobody identified the thirty-eight witnesses or counted the witnesses in the detectives' reports."

The number of 38 most certainly did not refer to people who stood by their windows watching Genovese die, as Wainwright wrote. That is the myth that will not go away. Yet there were witnesses, weren't there? How many? Cook's investigation found out that among all the 38 people who were reported to have seen the stabbing, only two had actually witnessed it. Two. Many more heard Genovese's screams. Yet at three-thirty in the morning, these were people who had been roused from sleep to the point of awakening. In their groggy state they had heard something, yet they could hardly be called witnesses as Wainwright reported. Most were earwitnesses roused from sleep, versus those who had already been awake and had heard screaming. Those that did get up to look out their windows saw nothing, as the first stabbing had already ceased, and the killer had fled (only to return later) and Genovese had by then staggered around the corner, away from street view. It was not unreasonable for these earwitnesses to dismiss the murky sounds that roused them from their sleep, which upon further investigation from their windows yielded nothing that could have been their source. It would not be surprising if most of these witnesses went back to bed. When Genovese was attacked a second time, it was within an apartment vestibule, away from the open street. Cook devotes chapters to debunking the 38-witnesses myth, and by interviewing those who did hear the screams and asking what they had thought at the time.

The two witnesses who saw the attacks take place did not take direct action towards the assailant. One simply went back to sleep, and the other, who witnessed the second stabbing in his vestibule when he opened his front door a crack, panicked and crawled out his window to take cover with a neighbour. The second witness, or rather his neighbour, did call the police, as did another who had heard the screaming. So the myth that 38 people witnessed the murder yet none of them called the police is not true, as Cook uncovered police records that showed when both telephone calls were logged, and acted upon.

The state of urban sociology would not have evolved--if such a concept was even in existence fifty years ago at all--if this murder hadn't occurred. If there was one watershed moment in urban sociology, or even in social psychology, the Genovese murder was it. Sociologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, in response to Genovese's murder, wrote The Unresponsive Bystander in 1968:

"According to The Unresponsive Bystander, 'The number of people who stand and watch is what shocks us; it also may be the key to their behavior.' While the number of witnesses 'determines to a very important degree what they will do, it does so in a way opposite to what is usually assumed. The presence of others serves to inhibit the impulse to help.' Rather than strength in numbers, weakness."


"Their work suggested a social dynamic that may have worked against Kitty on her final night. Diffusion of responsibility, they called it--a phenomenon that distributed guilt like a firing squad in reverse. If one person sees trouble, 'he will feel all the guilt for not acting. If others are present, responsibility is diffused, and the finger of blame points less directly at any one person.'"


"The Unresponsive Bystander suggested that the tragedy of the Genovese case wasn't that dozens of people witnessed Moseley's attack on Kitty, but that more than one or two did. If the psychologists were right, most of us can summon the courage to act if there is no one else who could do so, but not when there are others who might take action. If somebody else is in a position to help--someone who might be stronger, braver, or more level-headed--we want him or her to go first. Even if we only think or hope others might help, we expect them to go first."

Fifty years have passed since Genovese's murder yet Kitty has never been forgotten. She was never yesterday's news. Her death led to the development of Good Samaritan laws throughout the United States and a rethink of crowd dynamics in urban sociology. I am troubled by the points raised by Latané and Darley about crowd apathy, and know that over the past half century history has repeated itself on the late-night streets of Anytown.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused

Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused by Mike Dash chronicles the hysterical reaction tulips aroused in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. It is not an exaggeration to say that tulip bulbs at this time were worth far more than their weight in gold. How could a country be so captivated by this flower? Who in his right mind would pay so much for a single bulb?

There is such a strong association with tulips and the Netherlands that it surprised me to find out that the flower was not originally from there. The Dutch may be the most famous for their luxuriant flowerbeds and for sending their tulips all over the world, including to our nation's capital, yet the tulip wasn't introduced in the lowlands of northern Europe until the mid-1500's. The flower originated in Turkey, and when it arrived in the Netherlands, it created a sensation. The tulip was unlike any other flower the Dutch had seen, and was in demand by all those rich enough to maintain a flower garden. Tulipomania sprung forth by the ceaseless demand for these rare bulbs:

"Nevertheless, the number of bulbs available at the turn of the century remained somewhat limited. Most of the new varieties had so far produced only a handful of tulips, and largely for this reason, the flower remained the passion of the privileged few. It was grown principally by rich connoisseurs, who valued it for its beauty and the intensity of its colors."


"The flower was still comparatively rare, and some of the most highly sought-after varieties were hard to obtain at any price. Only in the coming decade would this scarcity be properly addressed."


"The scarcity of tulips in seventeenth-century Holland is central to a proper understanding of the bulb craze. To a Dutchman of the Golden Age, the tulip was not a mundane and readily available flower. It was a brilliant newcomer, still bearing something of the allure of the exotic East and obtainable only in strictly limited quantities. Because the most superbly fine varieties were scarce, they were coveted; because they were coveted, they were expensive."

Once Dutchmen realized the going price for star bulbs, they wanted a piece of the pie. Many sold the equipment of their livelihood--farmland, cattle, looms--to get into the flower trade:

"In greater measure, though, the interest that many Dutchmen now developed in the flower trade owed less to the tulip's natural beauty than to the dawning realization that money could be made in bulbs. That was something worth investigating. For money, despite the enormous wealth now flowing into the republic, was something many of its citizens saw all too little of."

The craze however was not as widespread as myth has made it out to be, as Dash pointed out that only tulip connoisseurs, or those whose wealth could afford the bulbs regardless of their price, actually paid thousands and thousands of guilders per bulb. It was a case of keeping up with the Dutch Joneses and instead of comparing cars or swimming pools, the rich Dutch looked into each other's gardens. If my neighbour had a Semper Augustus variety, I wanted it too. Yet no amount of money could pay for bulbs that simply weren't there. One can't fertilize a garden with gold nuggets. So bulb dealers practised an early form of speculation and futures trading. They would sell the bulbs before they had even sprouted yet, and the bulb and future offsets as well. It got to the point where one couldn't really be sure who owned what part of the tulip plant since dealers were selling multigenerations of bulbs and offsets. All the dealers cared about was selling off the tulip, the bulb or the offset as fast as possible, raking in the money and doing it all over again.

The most prized variety, the pièce de résistance of all tulips, was the Semper Augustus. Yet demand had grown so high for tulips that for the common Dutchman, any variety would do:

"Prices had reached such high levels that the most desirable bulbs became all but unobtainable, and less fancied varieties appreciated to the point where they cost far more than they were worth to any real flower lover."

Dealers had a slow but growing sense that rocketing prices for substandard tulips was not a normal economic situation, and that a crash was imminent. Dash conveyed that the collapse of the tulip trade was not as unexpected as myth has suggested. The extent of the economic collapse was also not as widespread nor as devastating as the Great Depression, for the simple reason that the number of tulip buyers was still so few. The common Dutchman could not afford tulips no matter what price the cheapest barrel variety was going for. Furthermore, only the very rich could afford the most expensive tulips, and no one, regardless how rich, had sunk his entire fortune into this single floral commodity. Tulipomania has the makings of great mythmaking, but no Dutchman jumped off the top of a windmill because he lost his entire fortune in bulbs.

Tulipomania was a rapid read, yet Dash was repetitious in some sentences, using the same word unnecessarily, such as:

"...and within a few weeks a few of the growers..."

where a synonym for "few" would have sufficed.

Gold, oil, diamonds...who would have ever expected that tulip bulbs could rival these prime commodities and create a trading frenzy? Tulip bulbs at one time were indeed worth more than their weight in gold.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us

Unlike most people I know, I have little or no interest in my family's genealogy. I know the general outlines of my family background - where some of my forebears hailed from, and where they settled and what work they did when they emigrated to North America - and that's enough for me. Despite this, I very much enjoyed The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us by Carolyn Abraham. If you have a keen interest in family-history searches, you will want to read this book.

The Juggler's Children is part travelogue, part quest, and part science lesson, and Abraham is masterful at all three. The travel descriptions - to both India and Jamaica - sparkle, and the search is laced with suspense. But Abraham is a Canadian science writer, and that's the area where she most flourishes. Abraham explains complex concepts of genetics with clear images and metaphors that render them understandable to the non-scientist.

Abraham's search for her family's past coincides with the emerging science of using DNA samples in service of genealogy. Through cells gathered from a person's inner cheek, DNA tests are able to determine, within a degree of a certainty, that that person's ancestry is (for example) 25% Western European, 35% sub-Saharan African, 30% South Asian, and 10% Aboriginal North American. Each of those percentages can be further broken down, and the accuracy and certainty of these categories further enhanced, as more DNA samples are entered into more databases. The Juggler's Children unpacks the many implications of this testing - ethical, social, familial, questions of both personal and group identity.

Abraham's personal quest hinges on two men: her great-grandfathers, who she dubs The Juggler and The Captain, names as evocative and enigmatic as the scraps of information her family possess about them. The Juggler, the paternal great-grandfather, was a circus performer from China, who traveled - or perhaps fled - to India, converted to Christianity, and took an Old Testament last name. Then he vanished. Was his disappearance an altruistic act, as a recently widowed man could not care for his own children, and they were best raised by relatives? Or was there a darker, less charitable interpretation of his sudden absence from the record?

The Captain, a maternal great-grandfather, was a storied seafarer from Jamaica, who died in India. That makes at least two points where the family history intersects with India, although Abraham's relatives insist that there are no Indians in her family. Was The Captain a runaway slave... or was he a slaveowner?

As Abraham's search continues, it becomes increasingly clear that no matter how we identify ourselves - no matter what cultural and ethnic groups we belong to - we are more diverse - more mixed - than we think. And if you go back far enough, we humans are all related.

Many years ago, I read a book called Origins Reconsidered by Richard Leakey, son of the world's most famous paleontologists, Mary and Louis Leakey. I found reading about the first humans surprisingly moving, as I contemplated the fact that they were the ancestors of every human. In other words, all humans share a common ancestry. I found The Juggler's Children fascinating in the same way. For readers with an interest in genealogy - especially with roots in India, China, or Jamaica - this is a must-read. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)