Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

Kitchen

The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2% salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use every day. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.

Consider the Fork cover

As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant.

Whiskey and Rue’s Promotional Launch on Amazon’s KDP Select

Whiskey and Rue Full Cover

The 30-second gunfight at OK Corral on October 26, 1881, has captured the imaginations of fans of the Wild West culture for 133 years. Much ink has been spilled to speculate about the precise words that started the fight, who started it, and how it unfolded. From the 1950s onward, the Earps were generally portrayed in a positive light, with dramatic black-hatted villains “getting their due.”

History is always more complex than that. When I first traveled to Arizona and found the story of May Woodman, who was a known friend of the cowboys (the term being a slur at the time, indicating criminal thugs), her troubled past sparked something—a new Muse came to me—one inspired by Cormac McCarthy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. May wanted an independent life. She got swept up in the saloon life of Tombstone. She was entangled in a destructive relationship with a miner, and the historical documents I used for research offered disturbing details about abuse and efforts at a forced abortion that caused severe mental side effects due to the hallucinogenic nature of the herbs used. She shot him head on the same street corner Virgil Earp was attacked in retaliation for his involvement in the gunfight at OK Corral. It felt like May’s ghost wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave her voice to tell her story.

Tombstone was a fascinating time in US history. It exemplifies the hard work, innovation, and grit so many people describe the very essence of the country being comprised of. So this is May’s story. Her struggle to find a life of her own, and the shocking scandal she became embroiled in as the only woman in Yuma’s prison at the time. She helped run a contraband cigar manufacturing operation, and her sentence was commuted after thousands of illegal cigars were found in her cell.

Books on Tombstone tell the story leading up to her imprisonment, but no one seems to know what happened to her after she was put on a train and exiled from the territory of Arizona. Whiskey and Rue sheds some light into her story (albeit a hazy light, with clouds of cigar smoke and the strong smell of booze).

And to commemorate the official launch of the novel on the 133rd anniversary of OK Corral, and my appearance at the Boston Book Festival to do a signing at the Independent Publishers of New England table, the ebook will be free on Amazon from Friday, October 24 through Sunday the 26. Please enjoy, and thank you for supporting this indie author!

 

How Do They Feast: Conspiracy Edition! Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and a Recipe for Bagna Cauda

One thing you should be prepared for when reading Umberto Eco is the density of the work: the historical references, the fact that the story is so carefully wrought—after all, as an academic, Professor Eco’s specialty is semiotics, the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Closely related to linguistics, the field delves into the meanings and relationships of signs and symbols, and Eco’s work is often fraught with secret societies, conspiracies, and the complex web of history.

The Prague Cemetery opens with a long rant of prejudices by Simone Simonini, a forger, murderer, and here, the originator of the Protocols of Elders of Zion, the notorious fake text that fueled 19th-century anti-Semitism and was in part responsible for inspiring Hitler’s terrible plans. Though I enjoyed seeing Eco’s process for creating this elaborate conspiracy of Freemasons, Satanists, and political and religious machinations, the book didn’t capture my imagination the same way Focault’s Pendulum did. The divergent narrative voices, while showing the events from a variety of angles, were hard to pull together as the arc of the story developed.

Eco

I greatly appreciated his approach to the novel, however. I too love to find real people in history, do tons of research, and take a long time outline and write a book. In an interview with the Paris Review, he talked about the challenges of writing this novel. The subject matter was difficult, he said: “With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer. Fortunately some of my colleagues had done the same. Shakespeare for instance, with Richard III.”

I wondered the same as I wrote Whiskey and Rue. Dealing with domestic abuse, mental illness, and an abortion forced on a woman who didn’t want one made me want to abandon it more than once. But the story itself and the characters were too powerful to abandon. Like the dean I worked for as a teaching assistant often said, art is a medium to make us confront difficult issues—ones that humanity needs to face and remember in order to strive for the better.

One aspect of The Prague Cemetery that took me pleasantly off-guard was the description of food. Simonini is very fond of his food. Each ingredient is listed, and each step of the cooking process, are outlined in inviting detail. I wanted to write about several, but one favorite I know well stood out: bagna caöda (a.k.a. cauda, or calda). A delightful blend of garlic, anchovies, and butter cooked in a small terracotta pot, it’s the best hot bread dip you’ll ever have. And it’s also served with vegetables. Simonini lists cardoons soaked in cold water and lemon juice, peppers, Savoy cabbage, potatoes, or carrots. Anything, really! Below is a recipe I adapted long ago. Make the recipe, and read the rest of the Paris Review article about Umberto Eco, and enjoy!

bagna cauda

Bagna Caöda

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup butter
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups peeled garlic cloves (depends on how big a fan of garlic you are—in my house, the more, the merrier!)
1 3 oz. jar of anchovies, chopped (the nice glass jarred version is better than canned, but canned can certainly be used)
1 pinch Aleppo pepper
1 pinch Italian seasoning, like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset

  1. Preheat oven to 275 Fahrenheit.
  2. Mix all ingredients in small casserole dish.
  3. Let simmer, covered, in oven between and hour and hour and a half.
  4. Serve with bread and vegetables.

Harvard’s Science and Cooking Series: “gAstronomy”

Gastronomy1

What is the connection between astronomy and cooking? An interesting notion. And for me, an irresistible draw to the Science and Cooking lectures at Harvard. A series open to the public and based on the class offered to the students of the College, it brings together world-class chefs and scientists to do live demonstrations of Modern Cuisine and talk about what really happens on a molecular level when you melt chocolate, boil pasta, or make gravy. Part magic show, part deep intellectual endeavor, this series has captivated the crowds that pack into the Science Center for a few years now.

I faithfully attended most of them the first year, but due to tumultuous upheavals and schedules, it was an unfortunate casualty of lost hobbies while I brought my life back to an even keel. (And there is consolation in that the videos are archived online.) It’s a delight to be able to return to them, and what better way than to attend a lecture that blends two of my favorite subjects: cuisine and astronomy.

Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef, and Dr. Steve Howell, project scientist for the Kepler and K2 missions at NASA, are the instructors I wish I had in high school. Instead, I was alienated from chemistry and physics because the teacher spent every class being the cool kids’ smart-alecky buddy, making dumb jokes and telling anecdotes about kids’ parents who were in his class a generation before. Not a townie, and a perpetual outsider, I attempted to decipher the massive text book on my own, only to fail each brutal test that came with no help whatsoever. I hated to hate science, but it was the byproduct of a deeply flawed educational experience. At least I was able to turn that around as an adult.

Bill Yosse (left) and Steve Howell (right) demonstrate spherification.

Bill Yosse (left) and Steve Howell (right) demonstrate spherification.

An old sense of tension dogged me while Bill Yosse and Steve Howell tossed out terms like “nucleation” and “Raleigh scattering.” But with the colorful array of objects on the table at the front of the lecture hall, I knew this would be a different experience. Nucleation was demonstrated by a beaker partially filled with hydrogen peroxide, dyed with red food coloring to clearly show the dramatic effect of the addition of potassium iodine (used to seed clouds for rain). An oxygen molecule was ripped from the hydrogen peroxide—H2O2 to H2O—making it water. The reaction was a colorful spout of foam shooting at least six feet into the air before landing in a messy heap on the table. The beaker was hot to the touch.

As they stepped through each example: spherification, surface tension, atmospheric pressure, and so on, I was astonished by the links between cooking and astronomy. Gels and polymers, essential to many desserts and a key element of Modern Cuisine, where flavors are layered in unusual ways—are also used in similar ways in space, from insulating instruments on the Mars rover to using a gel to catch particles from passing comets. Suddenly, I got it. So much of the science that bewildered me years ago made perfect sense.

It was really a kind of nirvana—seeing these two topics combined—and a few details emerged that will most certainly find their way into my fiction. How flames look in zero gravity or the fact that a lower density atmosphere means a lower boiling point (demonstrated by water being boiled as an ice cube was placed on the beaker) are great for the novel that involves space travel. Even the explanation of the spectrometer and Kepler mission—how we find planets and figure out what gasses their atmospheres are made of—is useful knowledge for my characters to have.

Gastronomy3

Then Bill Yosse mentioned one of the world’s first (at least that we know by name) celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, who cooked for kings and czars around the time of the French Revolution. While outside of my usual theme of writing about real women in history, tales of his elaborate pièces montées, large sculptures used as centerpieces at banquets, made of marzipan and other ingredients, sparked something. I have no idea how this will transform into my writing, but visions of his creations invited a new Muse into the realm of imagination.

As for the science and cooking lectures, I look forward to more. All the details about the series can be found here.

#FlyMeToSpace with Spaceship Earth Grants

Aurora from space NASA

Photo credit: NASA (Creative Commons license 2.0)

Like many kids, once I started learning about astronomy, my imagination took hold and I dreamed of the day I’d be able to travel in space. As I built model rockets in a summer school program, I thought of Star Trek and Cosmos and all the other shows that influenced me. (In one memorable launch of the Polaris, a gold and white rocket with a clear compartment for unwitting travelers of the insect persuasion, a grasshopper was the first “spacefaring” bug to soar over the grounds of Holy Cross College. The grasshopper, thoroughly bewildered, I’m sure, survived. The next flight, occupied by beetles of unknown species, had the misfortune of being part of a doomed flight as the parachute melted and the rocket flew off at untold speeds toward Worcester traffic. If my toy rocket hit your windshield circa 1982, apologies.)

I didn’t cut pictures out of Teen Beat magazine to pin to my wall. The photos I longingly stared at in my room were from National Geographic—of Voyager’s journey through the planets. Jupiter’s storms and Saturn’s rings captivated me. Alas, math not being my strong suit, my dreams of becoming a rocket scientist or astronomer were dashed. But words—those I could work with.

By the mid-90s, I was working on a novel that involved a civilization in the early stages of building colonies off-world. Starting on the moon and Mars, this world super-power was looking to achieve what I had seen in Star Trek, but with a dystopian edge. The twist? As a work of speculative fiction, it focused on an ancient civilization—that in this parallel universe—never collapsed but became a thriving space-age empire. In the first draft, I didn’t get to that bit. The personal issues of the characters took over and after more than 400 pages, I abandoned the unfocused story and it languished for years.

Then I learned about the Overview Effect. While I assumed looking back at your home world from a distance would change a person, I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the experience as described by the panel of astronauts in a series of events at Harvard Extension School. It was profound. As one of the astronauts described the feeling of turning away from Earth to see the black of space, something clicked.

In the following months, I revised the concept of my novel and wrote, as they say in NaNoWriMo circles, “with literary abandon.” What would make this story even better? Seeing it for myself.

The Buckminster Fuller Institute, along with similar organizations, such as astronaut Ron Garan’s Fragile Oasis, The Overview Institute, and the Planetary Society, among others, have worked to create Spaceship Earth Grants with the goal of sending applicants into space. The idea is that the more people who see Earth and experience the Overview Effect, the more humanity will work to help each other and the well-being of the planet. Anyone is encouraged to apply—artist, entrepreneur, science enthusiast—you name it. The more people who sign up, the more people get to go. All you need to do is share your vision of how you think you can help change the world.

I’ve had quite a few extraordinary opportunities in my life, and I hope joining this program and doing novel research in space for the sake of art’s importance to humanity in conveying this amazing vision is one of them.

Find out how to #applytofly here.

Whiskey and Rue: An October Release!

Whiskey and Rue Full Cover

Photo credit for back cover image: Legends of America

On October 26, 1881, a 30-second gunfight occurred at OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s become a legend in American history, and speculation endures about what really happened. Who fired the first shot?

The political and territorial issues have been discussed at length. One of the best resources while researching life in Tombstone was The Last Gunfight, by Jeff Guinn. All the grudges and the cycles of violence that spun out of them are explained thoroughly. For someone who never related much to Westerns, this history hooked me. I delved even deeper into the founding of Tombstone and its rise and fall as a boomtown with several books by Sherry Monahan: The Wicked West, Tombstone’s Treasures: Silver Mines and Golden Saloons, and finally, Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History, gave me wonderful information on one of my favorite things to write about—food. I was amazed as I read about the sophisticated meals served in Tombstone’s finest restaurants.

These books were essential in building the atmosphere of the town. In the first section of Whiskey and Rue, the protagonist, hung-over and feeling miserable, goes to a saloon for food. A toad in a jar croaks. This is a detail from one of Monahan’s books. They were used as barometers to predict the weather. She also mentioned the town’s rage at a mysterious accordion player who roamed the streets at odd hours of the day. With a little artistic license, I identify who the accordion player is. Pulling these details out of research materials is one of the greatest joys I have as a writer. The stories come to life as each piece of true history finds its way into a setting or character’s habit.

This isn’t a novel I expected to write. I came to Tucson to explore the possibility of moving there, and instead found a police report in the historical society’s museum that haunted me. While the focus of the novel is on May Woodman, a woman who shot her lover, the events leading up to OK Corral were unavoidable, but I didn’t want the Earps and Clantons to dominate the story. But she knew them. And from what I knew about her reputation after reading court documents and press clippings, she was fascinated by them. Her relationship with her lover is troubled. Swept up in a chaotic lifestyle, May winds up being the only female prisoner at the time in Yuma Prison. And after her sentence is commuted, that’s the last we hear of her. She was put on a train to California and it’s unknown what happened to her.

I feel like Whiskey and Rue is an homage to several people: certainly to May herself, and though she herself wasn’t as legendary as some of the other women in history I’m writing about, she had a power to her I couldn’t ignore. Her story deserved to be told. The novel also is a product of broadening my own horizons as a reader. A friend gave me Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I fell in love with his writing style and read the Border Trilogy a good three times while trying to figure out why he became such a powerful influence along with John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway within the same period of time. As I release Whiskey and Rue in October, on the 133rd anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral, I’ve come to realize that there is a unique Muse for each novel. I’m glad I listened to this one, for its influence on how I think about writing has changed dramatically as I look to future works.

And the really great news is this: the release date coincides with the weekend of the Boston Book Festival. As a member of the Independent Publishers of New England, I’m joining them at their table for an hour to sign books. The exact time is still to be determined, but I’m thrilled to be part of one of my favorite fall events as a participant as well as just an enthusiastic reader. I’ve attended BBF twice, blogged about it both times, and look forward to writing about my experience this year.

So please stay tuned—the book is in final stages of production and will appear on Amazon soon!

Ron Gavalik’s MicroPoetry Collection, Hot Metal Tonic

Hot Metal Tonic  Cover

Reading poetry is one of life’s truly intimate joys. Unlike more social entertainment such as films, theater, and sporting events, experiencing poetry is an individual pursuit. When cracking open a book of verse, we shuck off the mortal coil while our minds delve into a cerebral adventure. We are fused to the author’s thoughts, desires, and passions, all within the confines of our minds.

That, my friend, is the most profound experience. Poetry gives us new perspectives to enlighten our minds. Poetry fuels the imagination. In its raw form, poetry is life.

As readers, most of us are drawn to what’s considered popular and well reviewed. We count on so-called professional to tell us what precisely is a good read. We equate commercial advertising and movie deals with the quality of a story or poem. But then there are times, when some of us ignore the noise of our popular culture and seek the independent works of those who truly enrich the soul.

Our choice to own and experience raw, experimental poetry symbolizes courage. Delving into avant-garde expression without the safety net of widespread acceptance requires a sense of adventure. Those of us who take these leaps of faith are a cut above the average reader. We are independent thinkers who thrive on discovering uncharted waters.

In the introduction of my MicroPoetry collection, Hot Metal Tonic, I discuss how experimental writers often shrug off the conformity of industry standards to force new perspectives into the minds of our readers. Every time I sit down at the typer, I transform into an American drifter who tramps through vistas of tall grass, rarely touched by everyday society.

Free-spirited individualism is my most pronounced characteristic.

I highly recommend finding your unique identifier, the one personality trait that makes you an individual among the masses. I doubt you’ll have to meet with Himalayan monks to determine your distinct qualities, but there’s nothing wrong with quiet contemplation over a few whiskeys. Once you’ve pinpointed that one special characteristic, take the time to revel in your individualism. It’s quite a freeing sensation that brings balance to the mind and to the soul.

For my part, I thrive on reading and writing free verse poetry.

In the 1960s and 70s, Charles Bukowski’s free verse style often fell under the blade of academic criticism. His work was considered inordinately blue-collar and plain spoken to be real poetry, which made it far more difficult for him to publish and find a secure audience.

It took him years, but a handful of small press publishers with broad vision finally decided to print his work. Once the public got hold of that drunken writer’s written voice, a whole new segment of society became poetry fans, which made Bukowski the most read poet of the 20th Century.

Free verse is the most individualized form of expression; therefore, I naturally gravitate toward that broad style. The newer form of MicroPoetry (140 character poems) that’s sprung up in recent years on social media outlets has further pushed the literary envelope.

Hot Metal Tonic is a semi-autobiographical collection of over 180 MicroPoems that contend with love, family, relationships, politics, career, and spirituality. While most of the poems stand alone in each chapter’s theme, many are interconnected in much of the way small human events are strung together to connect our lives. The collection has been referred to as a gritty read, the molten form of my rough and tumble life…and whiskey-laced madness.

Thankfully, readers are pleased with my work.

Now, kick back, baby.
Open your mind
and allow the hot metal to flow
as soothing tonic.
Prepare yourself
to laugh and think,
cry and rejoice.
Indeed, you will be transformed
into a state of raw emotions.
You and I,
we’re about to start a quest,
a journey to memories unseen in years.
Don’t worry, it will only hurt so good.
Grasp my calloused hand
and we’ll help each other
stumble along this treacherous path
together.

Ron Gavalik

Biography:

Ron Gavalik is a writer, living in Pittsburgh, PA. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonGavalik or read his blog at PittsburghWriter.net. Hot Metal Tonic can be obtained through the usual retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and other locations. Signed copies can be purchased at a discount (free shipping) direct from the publisher at PittsburghWriter.net.