A Year in a
Vegetarian Kitchen is a cookbook by Jack Bishop, whose previous
cookbooks basically taught me how to cook. This one has a few twists
on his usual formula.
First, unlike the other Bishop cookbooks I've used, this one didn't focus solely on Italian
cooking. While Italian cuisine remains first among equals here, there are also substantial
forays into the flavors of Mexico, the eastern Mediterranean, India and China. Second, the
book limits itself to meals that can be put together in an hour — the basic premise is
that these recipes aren't meant to be once-a-year showstoppers but things you'll want to make
for dinner again and again and which aren't much less convenient than just ordering a pizza.
A lot of the tips point out shortcuts — for instance, every cookbook I'd read previous
to this one said never to buy canned beans as they were inevitably too salty and had a bad
texture. This one contends that that was true as recently as ten years ago but is no longer
the case: just buy your canned beans at Whole Foods instead of the 7-Eleven and you'll be
fine. This shortcut brings the bean preparation portion of a recipe from eleven hours (the
average in Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook) to about eleven seconds.
Third, A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen is thusly titled because it's organized
seasonally; there are long chapters for spring, summer, fall and winter. I got the book
nearly a year ago and haven't reviewed it until now because it wasn't until just recently
that I finally made it into the summer chapter. The summer chapter is actually a huge
disappointment: it's all chilled soups, salads and sandwiches, I guess under the theory
that it's a hundred degrees out and humid and you live in an old house so your kitchen
doesn't have air conditioning. Which I guess is pretty accurate for a lot of this
book's audience. Bishop lives in eastern Long Island, whose climate is not entirely
dissimilar from the one I'm living in, and it's been pretty sticky since summer officially
hit; I've been lucky in that I haven't had to leave the house at midday much lately. Mrm.
I remember that one evening a week or two ago Jennifer was debating with herself about
whether to go unicycle in the park or stay in and watch a movie or something. "It's such
a nice day," she said. "I don't want to waste it." That actually made me kind of sad:
the thought that nice days are such a scarce commodity that they must be pounced upon
because you never know how long it'll be before another one comes along. It's like an
elementary school filmstrip — "Just as the Plains Indians used every part of the
buffalo, Easterners use every part of the nice day! These resourceful people know
they can't afford to let the smallest bit of the nice day go to waste!" I'll probably
never understand what people see in seasons. I never felt like I was missing out when
I lived in a place where January and July were both chock full of nice days. Anyway...
at my particular homestead we tend to eat around eleven at night, so sweltering weather
isn't really a concern. Summer is a week old and I think there are only two recipes
left in the summer chapter that I want to try but haven't yet.
The other chapters also have lots of misses for every hit, but I suppose that is the way
of nearly all cookbooks. This isn't one of my favorites overall, but it has taught me
a few things. There are the shortcuts I mentioned earlier, for one. I'm also now using
chipotle chiles in adobo sauce to add heat and flavor to all sorts of dishes; regularly
making black bean chilaquiles, or just using the black beans from the chilaquiles recipe
for other purposes, since they're very tasty; correctly making frittatas; making a couple
of new soups, particularly an easy and very good tortilla soup; throwing together some
decent Indian-flavored dishes when there's not much on hand except some canned legumes
and a spice rack full of cumin and mustard seed; and, at long last,
That's about it. I'm not a big fan of the salads or the tofu/tempeh dishes, which knocks
out a lot of the book, and even the Italian stuff seems to be an odds-and-sods collection
of stuff that wasn't quite worthy of Bishop's actual Italian cookbooks.
Onward. I also recently saw Grave of the Fireflies, an anime tearjerker Jen had
ordered. It did successfully jerk said tears in my case, yet it didn't feel worthy of
them — the story feels sentimental rather than tragic. It's set in the waning
days of World War II, and covers the plight of a boy who's maybe thirteen years old
trying (and failing) to provide food and shelter for his five-or-so-year-old sister
after they are orphaned in an air raid. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was that
the bombs killing everyone were, of course, American bombs dropped from American planes;
in this case, Americans are the faceless enemy shattering people's lives, a role they've
played many times in real life but almost never in the parallel world of pop culture.
Of course, this isn't an American work — it's Japanese. But Japan has taken over
the pop culture of American youth to a great extent, from Pokemon to Dragonball Z to
Yu-Gi-Oh and on and on. When I have caught kids doodling in their notebooks over the
past few years the doodles have invariably been manga-style. And I haven't even mentioned
the videogames. I wonder whether this infusion of transpacific culture might give the
rising generation a less blinkered view of world events.
Finally, after reviewing Was, I decided to check out
what Geoff Ryman has been up to since the publication of that book. So I started in
on 253, a piece of hypertext he put up in
the mid-90s (and which subsequently appeared in The Years of
Rice and Salt as "The Two Hundred and Fifty-Three Travelers," a canonical
piece of that alternate world's literature). 253 is a series of short (253-word)
character studies of the 253 people on a London Underground train headed for a fatal
crash. You can follow links to see the interconnections between the characters. Anyway,
it wasn't long before I was reminded why I'd given up on this so many times before.
First, while Was is deeply rooted in American history, 253 is hopelessly
English and felt as foreign to me as some of Jennifer's surrealist manga. But more
importantly, while what most impressed me about Was was the way Ryman was able
to so quickly impart great depth to his characters, here he is doing nothing but showing
off that trick 253 times in succession and it's just too much. I'll have to file this
one along with The Ruin of Kasch and Ada as evidence that loving a book
does not imply loving the oeuvre.
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