1989 Comedy of Manners

Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy, (Thomas Dunne Books, Macmillan), 320 pages, released 3 March, 2015

Meeting the English is a modern-day (set in 1989) comedy of manners: country bumpkin meets city slickers, but the bumpkin is more than he first appears and the slickers aren’t all that slick. In this case, “Bumpkin” means hailing from a mining town in central Scotland that no longer has a mine; “Slicker” means residing in London, convinced that one’s own sensitivity/intellect is superior to others’.

Struan Robertson (pronounced, STREW-in, not Strew-ANNE; it’s not an iamb) an exceptionally gifted student, planning to pursue a career in dentistry, takes a summer job working as an assistant to a fading playwright who has recently suffered a stroke. The playwright, Phillip Prys, is surrounded by a largely dysfunctional grouping of family and friends. His ex-wife (and mother of his two children) is a former actress, now losing money flipping houses (as we would put it today) in London’s falling real estate market. His current wife, a formerly wealthy refugee from Iran, paints post-modern Persian miniatures. His son is a self-absorbed want-to-be playwright who’s just been rusticated (in other words, kicked out for a year) from Oxford. His daughter is angry and lonely, sure she’ll never find love or happiness. His daughter’s best friend is a recovering anorexic. His agent is a semi-closeted gay man who finds Phillip demanding more and more time, while bringing in less and less revenue.

Hilarity (mostly) ensues. Some find love; some get their comeuppence; all are changed.

This is a great book to pick up when you want to laugh (not too unkindly) at others’ foibles. The style is breezy. The plot holds some surprises. If you’re starting to dream of vacation reading as you wait for winter to end, this book would be a fun title to put on your list.


Plant-Based Dishes All Year Round

Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, by Steven Satterfield, (HarperWave), 496 pages, release date March 3, 2015

I have a very specific list of things I want from a cookbook:

• I want interesting flavors: combinations I wouldn’t come up with on my own that work well together.

• I want recipes that feature fresh produce I can find at my local farmers’ market.

• I want recipes that use a minimum of refined carbs.

• I want recipes that minimize the use of meat—I like to think of meat as a type of seasoning, rather than the bulk of any dish.

• I want recipes that I can put together in a reasonable amount of time, so I can make a delicious dinner when I’ve finished work and still have time for some reading or knitting in the evening.

I can easily find cookbooks that meet a few of my criteria, but I rarely find a book that meets them all. Steven Satterfield’s Root to Leaf is one of those rare books that gives me everything I want.

Root to Leaf focuses on seasonal produce and is divided into four sections: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each section features a dozen or so types of produce, the varieties they come in, and their various uses—and the description of each type of produce is followed by several recipes. “Fall,” for example, includes cauliflower, chicories, green tomatoes, mushrooms, and nuts, along with other fruits and vegetables.

A few of the recipes here are familiar enough that I don’t really need them—the blueberry coffee cake with streusel is one of these, as is the cucumber, tomato, and onion salad—but most differ in some key way from recipes available in other cookbooks I use.

For example, there are roasted carrots with red onion and thyme. Roasted carrots aren’t anything new, but the pairing with red onions is (at least for me). There’s a snow pea salad, which might sound pretty standard, but Satterfield has us julienne the snow peas and adds in a bit of Myer lemon sauce and a mix of fresh herbs. Creamed corn is familiar—but how about using corn cob broth to balance the richness of the milk and cream and adding in some mushrooms for extra flavor?

Some of the recipes are completely new: cold brine-pickled blackberries, for example. There’s Brussels sprouts leaves with pear, bacon, and pecans. I might have thought to pair two of these, but I wouldn’t have come up with a mix of all four on my own.

I particularly appreciate the sections on different lettuces and greens. Satterfield describes their various tastes in detail and explains the optimal way for handling each. In the section on lettuces, he follows the descriptions with several recipes for dressings, letting readers experiment with their own combinations of lettuce varietals.

Root to Leaf is also a beautiful book, full of pictures of individual ingredients and finished dishes. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to cook. Just flipping through a few pages can bring you to a recipe that needs to be tried now or can get you thinking about the wonderful flavors you can create with a few fresh ingredients. This is the kind of cookbook one keeps, because of both its practicality and its inspiration.