• The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Harlem Shuffle **** (of 4) Colson Whitehead

    It is the early 1960s and Ray Carney sells contemporary furniture from a showroom on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City’s Black enclave. Harlem vibrates with the energy of strivers, both straight and crooked. Men (women are conspicuously second class characters in this book) aim to get ahead anyway they can and Carney has, in addition, to his sale of couches and dinettes, a side hustle of fenced electronics, appliances, and jewels. Carney’s cousin, Freddy, is endowed with more charm than common sense; he routinely draws Carney into a series of crimes that Carney ultimately wishes he had no part of.

    Harlem Shuffle appears to be part compelling crime novel, part family saga, and an exceedingly lively encapsulation of the language and vibe of inner city life in the early 1960s. (Listen to the audiobook, if you have the opportunity.) But most of all, the genius of the book is the feeling of racial imprisonment affected by the invisible urban borders of Harlem. Yes, the boundaries are semi-porous: Carney can ride the subway downtown to move stolen items through white middlemen – also with straight-looking storefronts – but his skin color makes him too conspicuous to linger. White cops own the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx and cruise the blocks of Harlem beating, occasionally killing young Black men, and all around ensuring that no matter the aspirations of Harlems’ dreamers, educated or not, their station in life is preordained.

    The setting is 1959-1964. Not nearly enough has changed.

  • The Sourdoughs of Thanksgiving

    My hat is off to The Perfect Loaf. Maurizio Leo’s recipes are original, consistently creative, and successful.

    Just prior to Thanksgiving, Leo emailed his followers a baking schedule for the Thanksgiving holiday and with one substitution, and only one failure, I prepped his collection.

    For the night before Thanksgiving to fuel the workers, I made focaccia, and my son Isaac decorated them.

    Three days before Thanksgiving, I made a 50:50 whole wheat-white flour loaf that became some of the best mushroom, leek stuffing we ever had.

    For Thanksgiving dinner, I made a large miche from an ancient wheat called Einkhorn, which looked great.

    But proved to be my one disaster. I think I maybe over-proofed it.

    But I redeemed myself with these sourdough pumpkin buns. PLAY VIDEO.

    And to make up for my Einkhorn disaster I whipped together a couple of rye baguettes to support turkey sandwiches (a subsequent blog post.)

  • Bread from Bread

    One technique for adding long-lasting moisture and richness to homemade bread is to recycle old bread. It was a technique apparently used regularly in Eastern Europe. Stale rye bread was soaked in water and then added as a mash to a new sourdough bread.

    Rye from rye

    But why not try other kinds of stale breads soaked in something other than water? The boule below includes a leftover wholewheat loaf soaked in my homemade soy and rice milk. It is leavened with my Meadville white flour starter and also has a cup of spelt flour.

    Multigrain, multibread, bread.

  • Five books

    I knew writing a book would take a while, but what I didn’t realize was how much time it would take to flog Sourdough Culture.

    I’ve been reading (and listening), but not had time to post. Here are some recent reads.

    Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe *** (of 4)

    Keefe’s takes on American addictions to painkillers by focusing on the history of the Sackler family, patent holders for oxycontin. The Sacklers made billions of dollars, maximizing publicity for their charitable donations but insisting upon total anonymity in their role in promoting oxycontin. They kept their distance even after they recognized that Oxy was not only seriously addictive, but also a gateway to heroin, fentanyl, and an epidemic of overdoses and deaths. Keefe makes a convincing case that the Sacklers knew more and earlier than they would ever admit and thereby points an accusing finger at a family drunk on money. In his justified rage at a system that knowingly pushed addictive, deadly drugs on innocent Americans, Keefe’s gives short shrift to all the other Big Pharma companies that seized profits while they were there to be had. And what does it mean that one-third of Americans suffer from long-term, untreated, chronic pain?

    Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Crosby *** (of 4)

    Beauregard “Bug” Montage loves his kids and his car, not necessarily in that order. As a Black auto mechanic in rural Virginia, business isn’t great, especially when a fancy shop, run by whites, opens up in town. Bills pile up and Beau’s temptation to return to his life as the best get away driver in the criminal history of the South overtakes him. He needs the money for his children, his ornery mom’s senior living center, and to pay the utilities, so when the chance to pull in decent cash in exchange for one perfect heist is laid at his feet, Beau feels he has no choice. The story appears to be about crime and some of the best car chase scenes ever committed to writing, but one layer down it is about the importance of being a decent Black dad struggling against nationwide systemic racism.

    The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue *** (of 4)

    Like a play, nearly all the action takes place in a single room of a maternity ward in an Irish hospital during WWI. A pandemic of influenza has flooded the ward with hacking patients suffering from poverty, malnutrition, and bearing too many children. Outside the hospital a European war is raging, women are fighting for the right to vote, shell-shocked soldiers are limping home suffering from PTSD, orphans are maligned by Irish nuns, and Irish Troubles with the British persist. Inside the ward are some of the most graphic descriptions of childbirth set to print. Alas, outside-the-ward politics remain peripheral, meaning the birthing ward dramas could really be set in any location at any time.

    Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu *** (of 4)

    It’s a clever idea, clever enough to win a National Book Award. Charles Yu describes life in an anonymous Chinatown as a series of scenes cast for movies or TV. Chinese characters appear as the handful of stereotypes to which most Americans ascribe to most Asians: inscrutable, indistinguishable, accented managers in Chinese restaurants, wizened old men and women in tiny apartments, and so forth. Occasionally other characters appear in their stereotypical TV personae, notably a tough Black detective with a deep voice and an unrealistically blonde, attractive female with sensitive eyes and a kind voice. The point being that what we see on screens flattens all of us, especially Asians, according to Yu, to caricatures without depth and meaning. The point is taken, however, early enough in the book, that the absence of a coherent plot turns it into a show whose season might not be worth completing.

    Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann *** (of 4)

    In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were among the wealthiest people in the U.S. An accident of history meant the displaced Osage were forced to settle atop one of the biggest oil fields in North America. The prospect of unfathomable wealth held by Native Americans was intolerable to white Americans. The Osage attracted greedy scoundrels like flies to rancid meat. To the advantage of the flies were American laws that forbade Indians from managing their own money without approval from white guardians and an American justice system that was so savagely anti-Indian that murderers and robbers of every stripe held a free-for-all at the expense of innocent Osage. It is one more horrible piece of history we privileged Americans were never taught.

  • A Bread’s Ear

    Sourdough Potato Rye

    Before dough is placed in the oven, bakers slash the top to allow room for oven-spring. The heat of a 500 degree oven causes the gases of water vapor and carbon dioxide to superheat. The gases expand rapidly, but the fine netting of gluten built by kneading the dough contains the gases, preventing most of them from escaping to the atmosphere. Some gases, including volatile organic compounds, do escape and the smell of baking bread comes from the oven in short order.

    But the gases trapped by gluten strain at their walls and the bread rises while it is baking. A well-trained baker will get the timing and placement just right so that an ear forms. A raised wing of baked bread, crispy and inviting, calls out to eaters.

  • Freedom by Sebastian Junger ** (of 4)

    Junger takes a walk along the railroad tracks from somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania to somewhere in the western part of the state, near Ohio. It is illegal to hike, camp, or otherwise mess with American railroads so Junger treats the adventure a lot like a war story, for which he is already famous from previous writings. Townies in rural PA are mostly threatening, gun toting, and unpredictable. Railroad cops could be looking out from anywhere.

    So long as he remains unseen, however, his friends, his loyal dog, and he are free in a very Thoreau-vian sense . Four men with nothing more than what they can carry evade a lot of people, cook over secretive open fires, drink from passing streams, hide at night in the brush, and cope with offensive rains. Between wonderfully evocative pastoral descriptions of forests and looming rock formations, Junger dabbles in political philosophy. He ruminates on the meaning of freedom, the cost of maintaining freedom (he’s back to his military perspective), the history of free and not-so-free societies, and the distinction between nomadic societies (of which he considers himself a member now that he is walking with his friends and his dog on the tracks while avoiding government scrutiny) and the miserable un-free life of the rest of us settled folk.

    But the real freedom expressed in this book is the privilege of a wealthy, successful, white male writer to take off from work whenever he chooses, write a few essays about political philosophy, and get it published. Though the narrative makes it appear to be a continuous journey of more than 400 miles, the acknowledgements clarify that the walk was not done in one fell swoop, nor were his companions consistent. More likely he walked a stretch of track when he felt like it and a couple of friends were free to join him. The text finishes with an admission that he was going through a divorce and walking as a means of coping. The book jacket says he lives at home with his family.

  • Deacon King Kong by James McBride **** (of 4)

    Let’s begin with some of the main characters in The Cause Housing projects of New York City, 1969: Sportscoat, Hot Sausage, Pudgy Fingers; and on the female side Sister Gee, Izi (who has been trying to get her ex-husband arrested for 22 years), and Bum-Bum. There are also Italians running illegal goods on the nearby Brooklyn docks (The Elephant), Irish cops, and Puerto Rican hotheads, but most of the story revolves around Sportscoat, a happy-go-lucky, lifelong drunk, now entering his eighth decade of life.

    We see a lot of the projects by eavesdropping on long-winded, seemingly aimless conversations between Sportscoat and Hot Sausage while they sip homemade, 100-proof (at least) King Kong. It’s concocted in the boiler room of one of the apartment buildings. First you make the King, that’s the easy part. Then you make the Kong.

    While there is plenty of humor and some of the best insults I’ve ever heard, looking back at 1969 New York we can see how blind we were to systemic racism. The projects were traps for Blacks escaping the Jim Crow south only to encounter less overt, but equally pervasive racism in the north. Jobs are scarce, schools are terrible, the housing authority is unresponsive, and upward mobility, aside from taking a gamble in the illegal drug trade (about to be shut off as an avenue to wealth by the burgeoning pipeline of Black men headed to jail), is nonexistant.

    Five Ends Baptist Church is a community centerpiece, but it is Sportscoat, an aging drunk, who garners most of our respect and admiration. Sportscoat ignores his own well-being in service to the lives of others, and whenever he can, he inevitably does the right thing. He’s a hero.

  • One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson *** (of 4)

    Kate Atkinson sets her recently retired investigator, Jackson Brodie, in the midst of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There’s a car crash followed by a road rage beating with a baseball bat witnessed by everyone stuck in the traffic jam that everyone recalls differently and no one remembers anything useful. Except Jackson Brodie. Then the fun begins. Atkinson describes in delightfully painful detail the qualities of experimental theater and the superciliousness of Actors and Artistes. Additional deaths occur, Jackson’s romance falters, and a new one replaces it, jugglers and unicyclists cram the Royal Mile of Edinburgh’s main drag, but the real fun is not the mystery of who done what to whom, but the take down of people who hold themselves in excessively high esteem.