Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review: A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove

This book has been on my shelf for a couple of years, but I finally got to it. I'm glad I did, it's a great book. Written by Laura Schenone, the book covers the history of women and cooking. It concentrates on the U.S., but she touches on other cultures, as well, especially at the beginning. After all, the women cooking in this part of the world a thousand years ago, were not - ahem - Americans.

There are lots of pictures and illustrations, bringing to life the clothing, backgrounds, and tools of earlier eras. I love old pictures. I love seeing people of history, going about their daily lives.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of discrimination in our history. Women have rarely been allowed to function to their fullest potential. It almost seems as if the closest culture to come to it, were the hunter/gatherer societies. Once humanity settled into "civilization," women were tied to the service of men.

In ten chapters, Ms. Schenone talks about how women and food figure into creation myths, shows women moving to new lands and learning the plants and animals to use, and always comes back to the female trait of nurturing.  Whatever women faced, in a world over which they had little control, they always made it their duty to feed everyone. I wonder if this is an extension of our ability to provide the first and only food, for the first six months of a human being's life.

Cooking in America is covered in detail, and even here (especially here) women do not escape bondage. Subject to political will (or lack thereof), male business greed, pollution, weather, and war, American women always prepared food.  They tried to recreate the dishes of their native countries, learned how to prepare the strange plants of their new land, turned over their abilities to "the Experts," and embraced technology in the kitchen.

As with any book about food, I found recipes I wanted to try, especially Grandma Louise's Peach Pie Supreme. Not the Scrapple, though.

Wine Misadventures

I like everything about Autumn, and this one is no exception. My mood has been iffy, but the weather and color (and pumpkins) are only helping.

We finished the wine yesterday. The learning curve is steep on this undertaking. I'm glad I did it, and I hope to do it again. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that this attempt will turn out all right.

We had trouble with our bucket throughout the experiment. The spout leaked the whole time. Just a smidge - but every day, more wine escaped around the rim of the spout. We tried to fix it every time we racked the wine, but it did no good.

Nevertheless, the wine tastes good. It's not great...  but I've had worse. It will be really cool if it improves with age.

Bottling wine happens in a series of steps. We had lots of instructions - the book that came with the kit, plus articles I got online - but they all neglected the same step.

How do you get the wine from the bucket... to the bottle?

Siphon, probably. But we could both just picture us holding the hose in the bottle as it fills up, and not being able to stop the flow, and ending up with wine all over the kitchen.

But let me backtrack. First, I've been saving wine bottles, washing them and removing the labels. It turns out we only wanted dark bottles, since our wine is red. In order to sterilize the bottles, I did some dishwasher voodoo, trying to stack as many bottles as possible in positions that would allow them to drain, AND not get hit by the rotating blade.

That was a hassle. But easier than boiling the bottles.

When it came time to fill the bottles, we moved our bucket to the counter, placing it on top of an upside pan, to give us room for the bottles under the spigot (in the sink).

Then I made a mistake - something like the hundredth mistake of the process. I tasted the wine and added sugar to adjust the flavor. It was REALLY tart. It's still tart, but much better. This is very dry wine. But my mistake was that I should have added some potassium sorbate to the wine, before I added sugar.

Once the sugar's in the wine, it's too late to add the potassium. It's purpose is to prevent any further fermentation, but it can't stop it if it's already started. If you add sugar first... well.

So what did I do? Not a damn thing. I'm tired by this time. I'm pretty sure the wine will be a failure anyway. (Perhaps we should refer back to my iffy mood mentioned earlier). So screw it - we're bottling this wine.

We did it the cheating way, by placing the bottles under the spigot and letting the wine run into the bottles. There was no sediment - this wine is lovely and clear. We filled up 13 1/2 bottles. Quite cool.

The next adventure was corking. We had mushroom corks, which came in the wine kit, the kind with a plastic lid attached. Following all the myriad instructions, we boiled some water, removed it from the heat, and soaked the corks for a couple of minutes. Then we began inserting corks into bottles.

The corks came right back out.

Seriously. They just worked their way right up, refusing to STAY in the bottle. Air pressure, y'know. Further research allowed as to how this was quite normal behavior for mushroom corks, and one must apply a "trick". The trick is to place a flexible wire in the bottle (keeping hold of the end), insert the cork, and while holding the cork firmly in place, draw out the wire. This creates a path for the air to escape the bottle, and allows the cork to seal as the air escapes.

Excuse me, but you do realize you can't stick any old wire in your bottle of wine? None of the instructions said so, but I wasn't grabbing a wire from the garage and throwing it in my bottle without sterilizing it first. This meant I had to boil more water and cook the wire for several minutes.

I sure hope that damn thing got sterilized.

But it worked beautifully. Except... you know those plastic lids attached to the corks? You can't let stay in the water too long. Or let the water be too hot. Those lids melt. We lost a few corks to this phenomenon. Some of the corks seemed to work okay, but they look strange.

Anyway. We have thirteen bottles filled and corked. Next step: shrinkwrap around the cork and neck of the bottle. These also came in our kit, and it turned out to be the funnest part of the job. We boiled water (again), and placed the gold wrapper over the top of the bottle. A rubber band is attached from top to bottom of the bottle to hold it in place. Then the bottle is turned upside down and lowered into the water for about 3 seconds.

Lessons Learned here: The water must remain boiling the entire time. Cooler water will not work.
The water must be deep enough to cover the entire wrapping. Submerge it all the way.

After a few more "mistakes," our bottles were all filled, corked, and wrapped. They look almost like real bottles of wine!

Last step: the label. Yes, these also came with the kit. They're hokey, but so what. We fiddled around with the idea of writing out our information and printing it on mailing labels to stick on the fancy labels. I think of things like this because I have awful handwriting. Rick has beautiful handwriting, but I felt bad asking him to write out 13 labels.

But in the end, that's what we did. Here's the result:

The labels say:

It's a Marickal!
Plum Wine

"Marickal" is a combination of our names, and a play on the word miracle, which I'm sure you figured out. We were so surprised to get this far. We have a couple of bottles to use as beta testers. If the wine in those holds up (i.e., doesn't grow mold or something over the next month or so), we'll give the wine out as gifts.

Got any wood to knock on?