Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. History has never been my strong suit. In high school, I took A.P. European History and hated having to memorize kings and popes and battles and lines of succession. It felt like rote memorization. So when a book comes along that hides its history lessons like a mom hiding medicine in a bowlful of Jello, I’m a happy camper. This book, which tracks Von Bremen’s childhood in Russia and her eventual migration to America, allowed me to confront a huge swath of 20th century history all through the prism of my all-time favorite subject: food. Though it’s been almost 12 months since I read this book, the scenes of deprivation under Stalin–women sharing a kitchen in a communist apartment building putting locks on their pots of meat, so no one would steal anything out of them–stay with me, as does the tale of young von Bremzen going to an American supermarket for the first time, viscerally overwhelmed by the experience (so much choice! And yet the strawberries smelled like nothing). I wasn’t brave enough to make any of the recipes in these pages, though perhaps one day I’ll muster up the courage to tackle kulebiaka.
Remember that lyric from Rent (admit it: you know all the lyrics to Rent) about measuring your life in love? Well, based on these year-end book review posts, I’m pretty sure I’ll be measuring my life in books. What’s so interesting about looking back on the round-up posts from last year and the year before is the way they evoke a sense of time and place way more than pictures do. Not only do I remember where I was while reading a particular book, I can vividly recall how I felt while reading that book. Same for the books of this year, which were all consumed under varying circumstances–flights to Australia, periods of Craiglessness while he was shooting his movie, at my favorite coffee shop in New York as the weather turned cold–and all of them worked different kinds of magic on me, altering my moods, my attitudes, my feelings about the world and life in general. And so, here they are, the books that I read in 2013.
My year, this year, was very full of books. Between our temporary move back to New York City for The Skeleton Twins, and my cookbook tour—which took me through Atlanta, San Francisco, Napa, Seattle, L.A., Austin, Richmond and D.C.—there was lots of opportunity for reading. Looking at the list of the books that I read in 2012, it’s like looking at a list of friends that kept me company through so much journeying. It’s hard to pick favorites, but I’ll put asterisks next to the ones I most heartily recommend. And so, without further ado, the books that I read in 2012.
There’s a theory circling among my friends that the reason I stopped writing my workout journal is that I stopped working out. Not true! In fact, since November 1st, with two major exceptions (my trip to Florida for Thanksgiving and my trip to Bellingham for Christmas), I’ve been working out five days a week, never missing a single day.
Why did I stop journaling? At the beginning, it was all so new and novel that I had a lot to say after each and every workout. But as time marched on, I didn’t have as much to say. I started journaling about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Or Orange County (it’s hard to tell them apart). The workout journal lost its mojo but I was still going to the gym; so I stopped writing it. But I never stopped going.
Except this week I experienced a major setback, which is why I’m workout journaling now.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. Convalescing from the flu, I read this book in a sweaty, feverish trance, which–it turns out–is entirely appropriate for this painfully honest text about Smith’s early years in New York City with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith proves that a steady accretion of deceptively simple sentences can yield a text as sweeping and powerful as the most ambitious novel. What I admired most about this book was its clarity: Smith sees things with such penetrating depth, I almost melted when, a few weeks after finishing this book, I found her staring me in the face at a table catty-corner to mine at ‘ino. And yet, despite her power to intimidate, its her disarming warmth (which I witnessed in person when she kindly took pictures with a table of Italian tourists) that makes this book so complex. At her core, Smith is a sweetheart: a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Hello there loyal workout journal fans! You probably thought I gave up over Thanksgiving, that I skipped the gym and gorged on turkey and puffed myself up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade float.
No sirree! I arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and so that day was a loss–travel & the time change made exercise impossible. But on Wednesday, after our trip to West Palm Beach, mom dropped me at the gym and I did a circuit and the elliptical workout. Then on Thursday, Thanksgiving itself, I still went to the gym (with my brother) and did 40 minutes of cardio (walking/running 3 miles total). On Friday, I went to a different gym (near the beach where we went later in the day) and had trouble finding the machines I needed–so did some sit-up stuff and then did another treadmill routine.
On the elliptical machine today I had this thought: my calf muscles are like meat. A tough cut of meat that you have to braise in order to soften up; so when I get on the elliptical it’s all hard and miserable and can’t-cut-through-it tough to move my legs. But by the end my legs are all limber and soft and pliable—you just have to cook them for 20 minutes while watching Tabitha’s Hair Salon on the big communal TV.
Now it’s off to Florida tomorrow and there’s no way I’ll be able to exercise because it’s 3 hours later there and I’m not getting in until nighttime. But Wednesday, you watch me, I’m going to the gym come hell or high water!
There are certain things in life that are worth thinking about: where to go to college. What to do for your career. Where to go for dinner after going to the gym for the third straight week (that’s my big question of the night!)
One thing that’s not worth thinking about, though is, exercising while you’re exercising. Here’s what I mean. When I’m on the elliptical swinging my legs back and forth like crazy, if I think: “This is minute 13! If I keep pushing really hard and stay within the 130 to 140 strides per minute zone, I’ll only have 3 more minutes of high-intensity leg swinging and then I can relax.” That line of thinking is dangerous because it makes exercise a thing to endure instead of a thing that you just do.
The treadmill offers one major advantage over the elliptical: it forces you to run.
Today, while trotting along at speed 8 for an additional minute (that’s 8 miles per hour) it occurred to me: “I have no choice but to run or I will fall and die.”
That’s an entirely different experience than the experience of the elliptical where I’m supposed to keep my stride between 130 and 140 at resistance 25 and between 110 and 120 at resistance 50. In the latter case, nothing’s forcing me to do that. Sometimes I get a burst of energy and overshoot the mark, shuffling along at 145 when when 135 would suffice. Most of the time I slip into a lower number and nothing’s there forcing me along.
In the world of gyms, there are basically two choices: a pretty person gym or a normal person gym.
Allow me to explain. When I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I joined a Normal Person Gym. This gym was populated by old Italian women in sweatsuits and headbands, middle-aged school teachers and the occasional young person who may or may not have been attractive. My thought about joining this gym was: “If I go to this gym, there will be no pressure to look hot. I can just sweat and gasp for air and turn red and no one will care. We’re all just normal people.”
More Amateur Gourmet:
Favorite Food Sites:
- 101 Cookbooks
- Chez Pim
- Chocolate and Zucchini
- David Lebovitz
- Serious Eats
- Simply Recipes
- Slice NY
- The Food Section