Friday, July 29, 2011

Dayton Street Grille Salad Bar

I'd like to round out my Restaurant Week posts by devoting today's review to the other class of food I love deeply, in addition to all the Asian food that's been on here this week. And that would be salad. Fresh, green, crisp, glorious salad.

I've said before that I could eat nothing but salad every day for a year. And I don't think that's too much of a stretch.

Of course, my kind of a salad goes way beyond just lettuce to include things like curry tofu salads and chickpea salads and bread salads (panzanella) and grain salads, and everything in between. So maybe that's cheating?

So, when my salad cravings get the best of me (and there's no Sweet Tomatoes in sight), I head to my favorite local salad bar (besides the one at the Willy St. Co-op, which doesn't totally count because you pay by the weight): The Dayton Street Grille (formerly known as the Dayton Street Cafe).

The Dayton Street Grille is inconspicuously located in the lobby of the Madison Concourse Hotel, just off of State Street. The typical crowd for lunch tends to run toward the professional class, with lots of high heels and neckties, but that doesn't make this place any less comfortable or delicious.

I hear that their dinner menu is actually wonderful, with a focus on local ingredients, created by their chef Charles Lazzareschi. But because I love the salad bar so much, at because it's only available at lunch, that's when I head to Dayton Street.

Although there's also a regular lunch menu, which looks promising, the long bar of fresh vegetables and greens, prepared salads (which change on a daily basis), five different soups (my favorite combo is a mix of the tomato basil and vegan bean soups--but there's also usually a chicken-portabella-spinach soup, a Wisconsin beer cheese soup, and a chili), fresh breads and croissants, a mix of cheeses, fruits, and impressive desserts keep me going to the salad bar, again and again. And it's all for only around $8.

A few extras:
  • If you do decide to order off the menu, you can add the salad bar to any entree for only $3 (though you'll end up with way more food than needed!)
  • They have a frequent customer punchcard, which entitles you to a free lunch after 10 meals (and if you ask nicely, the waiters will often put more than one person's punch on the same card).
  • Monday is double-punch day.
  • On Fridays, there's a free full dessert bar that is included in the cost of the salad bar. Everyday, there are at least an assortment of fresh-baked cookies and some sort of trifle, but Friday holds a huge array of cakes and pies and bars and cookies. Mmm...
Enjoy, but don't spread the word too far--I like having my out-of-the-way "secret" lunch place!

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lao Laan Xang

So, as I selected my five favorite places to write about this week, it became pretty clear that one continent dominates all others. Asian cuisine is my star.  We've got our Lao/Thai, our Indian, our Chinese, and now back around to Lao, with the much-loved Lao Laan Xang.

image from

This Madison classic has two east-side locations, one on Willy St. (1146 Williamson St.) and in in the Atwood neighborhood (2098 Atwood Avenue). Although I've heard that the original Willy St. location is superior, we have for some reason only ever gone to the Atwood Lao Laan Xang (perhaps because it's right across the street from our favorite walnut burger at Monty's Blue Plate).

Besides, the Atwood location has beautiful art, among them my favorite colorful top-of-conical-hat painting. Anyone want to find/make a reproduction for me to hang in my living room? Pretty please?

Lao Laan Xang offers all of the cool and delicate flavors that I first missed so much when eating at Vientiane. The spring rolls filled with cold noodles and cucumbers and peanuts, served with a delicate sweet chili sauce, capture those missing flavors exactly:
image from

But the real main attraction, the dish that keeps me coming back for more and more, the big kahuna, is the mango curry. curry. Just the thought if it is making me hungry and filling me with cravings. Something about the way that LLX puts together chunks of mango, squash, potato, broccoli, and tofu (or the meat of your choice), with a luxuriantly creamy and almost velvety curry makes this dish pretty unbeatable. We get it with medium to hot spice level, which contrasts the creaminess of the sauce just perfectly.  So delicious.
image from
We've tried other entrees at Lao Laan Xang, but whenever we do, though they may be tasty, we always just wish we'd ordered mango curry instead. It's unbeatable. 

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fugu Asian

I've written about Fugu on D&O before, giving a taste for its unusual Sichuan style cuisine through its signature hot pot. But because that wasn't the usual sort of food we have when visiting Fugu, this favorite Chinese restaurant of ours is definitely worth another post.

image from

Fugu entered the Madison dining scene last year, filling a serious void in high-quality Chinese fare. And although my guess is that my vegetarian diet has significantly limited my exposure to the most authentic dishes on the Fugu menu (the ones that aren't even translated into English, and that involve things like organ meats and frog parts), it's still been a culinary revelation, introducing me to flavors and spices (like the Sichuan peppercorn!) that I'd never known before (read this really interesting article about the peppercorn and its ecological role).

Although I don't currently have great photos of my favorite Fugu dishes, here are the ones that have been clear winners so far, among the vegetarian offerings, along with some photos of our best attempts at recreating these beauties at home. 

Szechuan Eggplant
Sweet, toothsome eggplant cooked to the perfect balance of soft but not falling-apart soft:

Stir Fried String Bean
Simple, bright, fresh green beans with garlic and just the right touch of spice serve as the perfect balance to the heavier dishes at Fugu:

Ma Po Tofu
The classic Chinese dish, here made with a deep red sauce, hot chilis, scallions, and the crucial Sichuan peppercorns. Salty, but delicious.

 Mushroom Hot Pot
Basically the same style as the hot pots I wrote about before, but with a particular mix of beautiful, unknown mushrooms (fat brown ones! long skinny multi-pronged white ones! wrinkly black ones!) and some bright sweet peppers to balance it out (oh, and of course lots of Sichuan peppercorns!).

Basically, the Sichuan-style dishes are the best (they have their own menu), and way more adventurous and rewarding than the regular Chinese-American or Thai offerings. Try something new!


See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Maharani Indian Restaurant

Indian buffets and I are like this:

In other words: I love Indian buffets.

And so when Maharani opened on West Washington, just two blocks from where we lived our first year in Madison, it instantly became a treat that we savored whenever we could (though we quickly realized that eating a big Indian lunch almost always equaled the need for an afternoon nap--so it's not the best promoter of afternoon work productivity!)

image from

Although the dinners we've had there have also been impressive, Maharani is remarkable for its consistently delicious lunch buffet. It features a whole bank of salads and chutneys and sauces--you've got the tamarind and the mint and the tomato and the onion, and so much more! (even though Justin thinks the salad just takes up important real estate on the buffet plate, I contend that the raw vegetables serve as excellent cool and crunchy counterpoints to the warm and saucy entrees). Then there are the appetizers, featuring the best of North and South Indian cuisine: samosas, hot naan brought right to your table, dosas, idli, vegetable pakora of various sorts. 

And then the entrees. Palak Paneer to die for! Creamy kormas that take your breath away! Aloo Gobi chock full of vegetables! Tikka Masala turned vegetarian! And all served with delicious basmati rice, plain and biryani style. The vegetarian dishes are clearly delineated, and there are lots of them, that come in and out on a rotating basis. 
image from

But as is so often the case, it's not simply the food that draws me back to Maharani again and again, but also the people. One person in particular: a waiter at Maharani with whom I formed a special bond two years ago, during my wedding weekend. That night, when our families were in town but most of the other guests had yet to arrive, we decided to dine at Maharani. I showed up a little before the others, for some reason, and seated myself at the bar to wait.  I ended up telling the waiter behind the bar that I was going to be getting married that weekend, and he began to share his story with me.  He told me that he no longer had a chance at love, because his one true love, who he had left back in India, had just called him days before to say she couldn't wait for him any longer, and that she had become engaged to another man. Because he believed there was only one person out there for each of us, he thought himself doomed to a future without love.

I tried to dissuade him of this view gently, while still honoring the emotion he was understandably feeling over the whole thing. Soon, Justin and our families arrived, and I introduced them to him, but had to end our conversation. Throughout the meal, he served us very attentively, and then at the conclusion of the meal, brought out an Indian carrot dessert with a candle in it, to honor our upcoming marriage.

We blew the candle out together:

We left my new waiter friend a note on the table, thanking him for his honesty and kindness. Since then, every time we've returned, he has hugged and greeted us, brought us free drinks and been so warm.  I've tried to think of ways to check in with him about his lost romance, or to establish an actual friendship, but something about the barriers of language and immigrant culture and restaurant culture has kept that from happening.

Still, every time we go to Maharani, our central desires--for human connection and for great food--are doubly fulfilled.

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vientiane Palace

As I wrote last Friday, this week is Restaurant Week here in Madison, and so I'm going to use this as an opportunity to write some reviews of my favorite restaurants, even though few of these are actually participating in the official Restaurant Week deal.

The place I must begin when discussing Madison restaurants is the one, the only: Vientiane Palace Restaurant.

image from

Vientiane is among my favorite places in town, and is hands-down Justin's favorite. I have to say though, this is a divisive restaurant--with fierce devotees and equally fierce bashers. It's not for the faint of stomach, nor for those who hold up ambiance or conventional attentive service as all-important.


Why go eat there, then, you may ask? Well, let me begin with the food. When I first ate at Vientiane back in 2006, I was hungry for the light, coconut-milky curries of the Thai food I knew and loved back in St. Louis, and so I found the offerings to be too heavy, too greasy, and just not what I expected. But before long, my cravings had been entirely redirected, and I found it difficult to go for too long without the amazing flavors and textures of this place. I've really never tasted anything quite like it, and encourage you to try it for yourselves. But because not everything on the menu is equally startlingly delicious, here's a quick recap of my four favorite dishes at VNTN (as it is sometimes affectionately known, by me, at least). We get them all with tofu (though any meat is allowed), and somewhere between 2 and 2.5 stars on the spiciness scale (more on that below).

Noodles With Soy Sauce
Though this dish couldn't have a name that is much more boring, the firm, toothsome noodles, combined with the just-cooked, still-crisp broccoli and the deep rich flavor of the sauce, makes this dish one of my all-time favorites and the first dish we fell in love with at this restaurant.

24B, aka Lao Noodle Kee Mow
This is the dish I recommend to all newcomers--the one whose unique mix of flavors is almost overwhelming in its surprising yumminess. 24B brings together big fat flat noodles with a tomato-Thai basil sort of sauce that will make you see that classic Italian combination in a whole new light:

Squash Curry: This isn't the coconut-milk-based curry of many Thai restaurants. Instead this thick, red, curry-spiked sauce holds a mix of sweet chunks of winter squash, small round Thai eggplants, onions, and a meat of your choice. The flavor is bold and powerful, and is especially satisfying in the middle of a Wisconsin winter (or fall, or spring...ore even summer!)

Pad Thai: This workhouse of Thai cuisine is, again, is perhaps not what many Thai restaurant aficionados are used to. But once you get over any residual unmet expectations, the dry, sweet and sour simplicity of the noodles and peanuts and bean sprouts is satisfying.

But among all this deliciousness, there is a cautionary note: some people who get these dishes too spicy experience post-Vientiane digestive symptoms. I'll let Justin's favorite back-to-back Yelp reviews do the talking:

#1: "Tasted OK but wasn't worth the diarrhea that came about 30 minutes later."
#2: "always hits the spot and it is totally worth the diarrhea"

I've never had this particular issue myself, but I should say that Vientiane's spice scale is definitely skewed toward the spicy end. I'd say their mild or 1 star, is much closer to a medium elsewhere. On a 0-4 scale, 0 is mild, 1 is medium, 2 is spicy, 3 is very spicy, and 4 is practically unbearable. So, just keep this in mind!

The other cautionary note: Don't go in to this place expecting the sort of obsequiousness that you get from a typical American waiter. Though there are some (overly) nice teenage girls who staff the place on weekend nights, the woman who will typically be at the door when you arrive will simply grunt at you as she hands you a few menus and lets you find your own seat. You might think her cold, or mean. 

But do not be deceived. After years of loyal attendance and an interesting encounter or two, we've gotten to the point where we've begun to work our way in...and are now even getting free soup!

But now I feel that this post is running long, and I think I'll save the stories of our encounter with our favorite Vientiane waitress until I learn her name (which I've been trying to do for the past year). Stay tuned.

In the mean time, let this photo, of plates licked clean and me with a goofy grin on my face, stand as a testament to how much I love this place. 

Try it, try it, you will see!

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Madison Restaurant Week

Although I didn't do a particularly good job of responding to Mike's comment on my Cooking at Home post from a couple of weeks ago (as in, I didn't respond in written form at all), I have been thinking a lot about restaurants recently, as we've been eating out a lot with visiting friends. (And, it turns out, one of my favorite bloggers and Harvard Magazine have also been thinking about the topic).

Just in time to prompt more thinking on the subject, next week is Restaurant Week here in Madison, in which tons of high-quality restaurants offer set three-course menus for $25, in order to let people sample places and tastes they might not have had before.

In some ways, this also marks the half-birthday of this little blog, as my second post ever was a Restaurant Week review from Winter 2011, the first of the year's semi-annual event!

So, in honor of Restaurant Week and this little milestone, I'm going to offer some reviews of a few local Madison eateries next week, focusing on the flavors and experiences that make eating out pleasurable in our town, even in the face of the very reasonable critiques lobbied against restaurants by Bittman and others.

Does anyone out there in the Madison world have Restaurant Week plans? Any restaurants you're particularly excited about?

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mulberry Yogurt Loaf

Though the breakfast-lovers may damn me for it, I'm just not much of a breakfast person. Don't get me wrong, I love fruit and baked goods and fresh salads. I'm just not so into eggs or greasy pancakes or the various cuts of pig that greet so many Americans each morning.

But when I was invited to a birthday brunch last weekend, I knew that the culinary masterminds who were hosting and who would be present would make me eat more than my fair share of breakfast foods, simply because of their prowess and creativity in the kitchen.

My own contribution to this brunch potluck was inspired by the container of yogurt in the fridge left over from some recently-departed houseguests, and the mulberry tree still heavy with fruit near my home. Mulberry Yogurt Bread-y Cake was born!

But because it was a sweltering day when this Mulberry inspiration struck, I didn't really want to turn on our big oven and heat up our whole house with it. So, I decided to try my hand at the toaster oven instead, setting the oven to the same 350 degrees that I would've used in a regular oven (though the little knob on our hand-me-down toaster oven is broken, so I had to guess at the temperature setting).

I used a rectangular glass Pyrex dish, and cooked the loaf for quite a bit less time than I would've in a larger oven, or in a metal pan.  Only after baking this loaf (and using the Pyrex dish in the toaster oven numerous times!) did I discover this afternoon that Pyrex dishes aren't technically supposed to go in the toaster oven. I guess there's some fear of glass breakage due to uneven heating.  It would probably be fine, but this is perhaps one of those "better safe than sorry "situations. So, I guess that means I'm in the market for a metal baking dish that will fit in my toaster oven.

In the meantime, we (and the our fellow brunch-goers) have been enjoying this loaf. I hope some of you will, too!

Mulberry Yogurt Loaf
based on a Blueberry Yogurt Loaf from Barefoot Contessa at Home

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup plain yogurt**
1/2 cup organic sugar
3 large farm-fresh eggs
3 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup safflower oil
1 cup mulberries***

* You could use all (1.5 cups) whole wheat pastry flour (or white flour!), but mine was smelling a little stale and so I decided to mix in some white flour to balance it out.
** The original recipe called for whole-milk yogurt, but I used 1% because that's all I had on hand. And, I actually only had about 2/3 cup of it, so I made up the balance with about 1 tablespoon of butter and then some almond milk up to 1 cup. Flexibility is key! 
***If you're not so lucky as to have a mulberry tree outside your front door, feel free to substitute other berries--blueberries, blackberries, even chopped strawberries would likely work!
  1. Preheat the [toaster] oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease (with oil or butter) a pan and set aside.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in one bowl. 
  3. In a second bowl, mix together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, orange zest and almond extract. 
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring to combine.
  5. With a rubber spatula, add the oil to the batter, mixing well. 
  6. Toss the mulberries with a few pinches of flour (this keeps them from dying the rest of the batter purple), and then fold the berries into the batter with as few strokes as possible. 
  7. Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake for ~50 minutes in a regular oven if using a metal pan, ~35 minutes in a glass dish in the toaster oven.
  8. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes before serving. Yum! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Story of Mama's Cheese

 Growing up, there was always a dish (a rectangular, yellow metal dish to be precise) of freshly-made cheese in the fridge that my mom had whipped up in recent days. Though I often saw her pour the milk into the big pot, set the pot into the warm oven or on top of the water heater, and drain the thickened milk through a cheese cloth, I never really knew what she was doing. 

So, when, after she read my post about my own experience with cheese-making, my Mama offered to write a guest post about her cheese, I jumped at the chance to have her share this story with you all. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed hearing it!

I grew up in the Ukraine. When I was little, though I lived on the outskirts of a big city, there was a market every weekend. Peasants would come from all around and would bring their fares to the market. A lot of them brought cheese, and every woman or man--though it was usually women who tended the stands--would stand in the same row, and let you try little pieces of cheese that they made. I still remember even the taste of that cheese. Some cheeses were a little bit softer, some were a little harder, but it was all a sort of the cheese that here you might call farmer’s cheese, or Amish cheese—soft, white, and ranging from crumbly to smooth. We could buy cheese in the stores, but it wasn’t the same at all, it was like day and night. So, we made blintzes with this cheese as a filing, we made vareniki, or we just ate cheese separately, like a sandwich with cheese.

So, when I moved to Arkansas in the early 1980s, I wanted to make blintzes. I had this memory, almost the feel in my mouth, of that cheese. I went to the store and I couldn’t find anything like that. I looked at cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, cream cheese, but none of them even came close to what I remember from childhood and my life as a young woman in Ukraine. It wasn’t the same.

But a taste in my mouth was saying “let’s recreate it.”

I didn’t get a chance to try, though, until I got a little inspiration in Finland in the summer of 1988. That summer, we spent three months at Mekrijarvi, a research station in eastern Finland. It was a small place, almost a village. People had their own cows, and made their own bread and cheese. I tried the cheese there, and thought, “Finally, this cheese was exactly the same that I had in Ukraine!” So over there I made my first cheese all by myself, after seeing someone else doing it at their house.

When I came back to Arkansas, I called Tyotya Ania (my husband’s aunt, who was famous in the family for being a great cook), and asked if there was a better way to make cheese than my experimental version. And she said you can add some yogurt, or buttermilk, to get it going.

I tried it with store-bought milk—first with Vitamin D milk, but my husband, Anna’s Papa, thought it was too fatty. So, we tried it with 2% milk, which was fine, but ended up more thin and watery.

We also ended up seeking out some real milk, by finding a couple in our county who had a milking cow. We’re still friends with that couple to this day. And although I now make cheese with store-bought milk, it’s definitely better if you can find real, farm-fresh milk.

So, here’s the recipe. Hope you can make even better cheese than I did!

 Image from

Liza’s cheese
1 gallon of milk (whole, farm-fresh is best, but other varieties will do)
1 pint (sometimes I use more) of buttermilk (or plain yogurt or kefir), no fat-free substitution
  1.  Pour together both ingredients in glass or enamel pot and put in warm place for 24 hours. (You can use the top of water heater or oven with only the light on). You don’t have to even mix it.
  2. After 24 hours you will get a thick yogurt-like mixture.
  3. Put it in oven at 350 degrees for about an hour and you will see that whey is separated from thick white “cheese.” Let it cool and then you can pour it into cheese cloth, discarding the whey.
  4. Put the cheese into container and keep refrigerated. It can last for 10-14 days.
  5. You can leave it soft or strain it more and get a little bit thicker cheese.
  6. Variation: You can add any spices you would like (chives, garlic, etc.)
  7. We liked it with honey on the top. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Artichokes: Worth the Effort?

For all the vegetables I've discovered and learned to cook with since moving to Madison, the artichoke is not one of them.

Perhaps this is because most of the world's artichokes are grown abroad (Italy, Spain, and France), or, if grown in the United States, they are decidedly not local to Wisconsin (nearly 100%  of all U.S. artichokes are grown in California, ~80% in Monterey County). So, they haven't made it into our CSA box or any other venue that would encourage me to try them.

image from

But then, our good friend Kroy (also known as Mike in Daegu), came to visit, and was curious to try this beautiful, but mysterious vegetable (or is it a fruit?)

We'd both heard that artichokes were really difficult to prep, but that they were so delicious that they were worth the effort.

But let me tell you, based on our experience at least: so not worth it.

Anyone care to disagree with me?

We tried to follow some basic directions we found online, in conjunction with Mark Bittman's advice in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, but ended up confused anyway. Even with all this education, we can't cook an artichoke! So, we ended up just trimming the leaves, removing them from the heart, and then steaming both the leaves and the heart (quartered) until the rest of our food was ready (about 20-30 minutes, I think).

Justin whipped up a roasted garlic, Vegannaise, Sriracha sauce that was really delicious, for dipping purposes.

But even with the delicious sauce, the leaves and hearts--though substantially softened by the long steam bath--still offered only a fairly mild, slightly bitter flavor that definitely wasn't the glory we were expecting.

Did we do something wrong?

Any artichoke lovers out there who want to defend the honorable fruit, and make the "they are too worth it!" argument? I'd love to hear it...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fennel Orange Salad

Before I moved to Madison, I'd never heard of fennel. But then, the feathery green stems started sprouting up all around me: at the Troy Kids' Garden, at the Capitol Vegetable Garden, and in our CSA farmshare box.

Fennel is a vegetable with a white bulb as its base, and green stalks and fronds atop. Both parts--the white and the green--can be eaten, though the bulb is typically used as a vegetable, while the fronds are used as an herb.
image from

Although I've now prepared fennel in many different ways--roasting it with other root vegetables, sauteing it in a stir fry, slicing it up raw for a green salad--by far my favorite way to eat fennel is raw with oranges and a light vinaigrette for a refreshing fennel-orange salad. Something about the way that the licorice-y flavor of the fennel mixes with the sweet acidity of the orange really does it for me.

This salad could be made in a variety of ways, with various additions and dressings, but the recipe below is perhaps the most basic, and delicious!

Fennel Orange Salad

1 fennel bulb, with greens attached
2 small-medium oranges
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (can substitute lemon or lime juice)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
other optional vegetables: cucumber, chopped broccoli stems (anything crunchy!)
other optional add-ins: slivered almonds, dried cranberries

  1. Wash fennel carefully, removing any loose layers of the bulb and wash separately. Dry thoroughly (the fronds have a tendency to retain moisture). Slice the bulb in half and then into thin c-shaped pieces. Dice the stems and finely chop the leaves. 
  2. Peel the oranges, separate into sections, and cut each section into small pieces. 
  3. Toss fennel and oranges with vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, and any optional add-ins.
  4. Enjoy!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Poetry: Canned Food Drive

Another foray into sharing poetry today.  This one is only marginally about food, but encouraged me to pause in the middle of my warm, leisurely summer day to think about my own "lucky world" and the way that canned food is not only a topic of this dissertation I'm struggling through, but also this token of charity, this undesired thing passed from the fortunate to the less-fortunate. Beets, peas, mushrooms...

Canned Food Drive
By Kathleen Lynch

We lived in the lucky world—
not the far place where flies

sipped at eye corners
of children too weak to cry.

A camera showed that world to us
on posters. But we were children.

We wanted most to not be those
others, with their terrible bones.

We spoke of them wide-eyed, with
what we thought was tenderness.

But our words came in a different register,
as if to speak of such betrayal

by the grown world could bring
a harm of great immensity

upon us too. We got to choose
from the cupboard. We gave

what we hated—beets, peas,
mushrooms. Our dreams

were not of rice. The moon
laid light on our bicycles propped

against the porch. Sycamores
became our giants standing guard;

the overgrown shrub, our fort. We thought
we understood what was required.

Even crouched beneath our desks
during drill, we said one prayer

for the fear, one for recess.
McClellan Air Force Base

sent forth big-bellied planes
that rattled the windows

of our houses. Evenings, we took
to the streets shrieking

with joy, rode madly fast
around the block. We collapsed

on the lawn breathless, the earth
cool beneath us & pounding hard,

as if it had one great heart.
As if it was ours.

Source: Poetry (May 2006).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Curry Tofu Salad

If you looked closely in the photos from yesterday's Concerts on the Square post, you'd spot a curry tofu salad among the other picnic-y goodies.

This is a salad that our co-op has in their deli section, and it is amazingly delicious. But it's also $9/lb. So, although we love to support the Willy Street Co-op whenever and however we can (our trip there with my Mom last week is a story for another post), we figured it would be a good idea to try to recreate this salad at home, so that we could enjoy a version of it on the cheap.

Justin took up this challenge, and produced a pretty fantastic version:

He began with the ingredients list from the co-op salad:

"Tofu, fresh parsley, Vegannaise, celery, red onions, tamari soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, carrots, curry powder, paprika, chili powder, sea salt, cayenne pepper, ground fennel seed, black pepper."

The most important step was toasting the tofu so that it developed a chewy exterior, and then mixing the spices and sauces in the appropriate proportions, to taste. Justin just chopped one block of tofu into 3/4" cubes, and then tossed them with a little oil and soy sauce. He then put the tofu in the toaster oven at about 400 degrees F and let them cook until the outside was golden and firm. Then, he chopped the fresh parsley (from our backyard container garden!), grated a couple of carrots, threw in an extra diced cucumber (from my parents' garden), and then added the sauces (he used regular mayonnaise instead of the vegan version, but you could use either) and the spices until it tasted just right. Yum!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Concerts on the Square

In addition to mulberries and all that other good stuff, one of the staples of a Madison summer is the Concerts on the Square series that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra puts on each year.

It's a particular Madison scene, in which everyone--the families and college kids and elderly folks and babies and "colorful people" (as my Mom called them) alike--brings their picnic blankets and wine and food to the Capitol Square and spreads out on every inch of grass, enjoying the music a little, but the weather and atmosphere a whole lot.

We added our own picnic blanket to the mix:

We had a spread of fresh baked whole wheat yogurt bread, a curry tofu salad, watermelon, trail mix, plantain chips, sweet peas and cucumbers, and hummus:

We drank it all down with some white wine from J&R's wedding, which served as the perfect potent potable with which to toast our good fortune and happiness. To getting to live in Madison! To enjoying a picnic with our friends and family! To having such good food to eat!

And have you ever seen anything more beautiful than peas in a pod?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


In Madison, one of the things that spells summer most centrally (in addition to the lakes and bikes and farmers' markets and frisbee) is the mulberries! (you can't spell "mulberries" without s-u-m-e-r).

I first discovered these sweet finger-staining berries just outside our own home, growing on a couple of trees within a hundred feet of our place, and immediately called my dad to ask if they were edible. I described the trees they grew on and the way they detached with the soft green stems still intact, and he said these were indeed the edible mulberries (or shelkovitsa in Russian). So, I filled my mouth with them, and took some home to make a mulberry crisp out of.

Over the next couple of summers, Justin and I stopped by these trees every time we biked home, always staining our fingers purple in the process.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and so our beloved mulberry trees were chopped down last summer. We speculated that the city had ordered their removal because they stain the sidewalks black with the crushed and fallen berries.

Somehow, life continued, but we had to seek our mulberry pleasures farther afield. So, this week when our moms visited, we hit up some of my favorite secret berry spots, and picked until our own hands looked like this:

Delicious fruit for free!

But then! For a final, happy chapter to this story, yesterday, I ended up taking a slightly different route home from our bus stop, and as I walked down the sidewalk, I saw the telltale black, seedy mess under my feet. I looked up, and there I found the glorious hanging branches of the mulberry tree, filled with huge, juicy berries that were still there for the taking!  Apparently, one of the trees in one of our favorite spots had not been chopped down, but we had failed to notice this all summer, because we hadn't passed by this spot!

So, now our desserts for the next few weeks are all planned out. And all it will take is a short walk from our front door to the beautiful mulberry tree.

May you all seek and find free berries in your own backyards.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Package-free grocery store!

Sometimes I run across things that I file away for inspiration, that I think someday I could help create myself, or I could at least seek out similar incarnations of those inspiring things.

This new zero-package grocery store in Austin, Texas, In.gredients, is definitely one such thing:

Instead of just having some stuff in bulk, like lots of co-ops and natural foods stores, this place has everything in bulk, so that you bring all your own packages for everything, and your only buy as much as you want.  A great idea, eh?

I especially like that they intend to use the space "as a community center with cooking classes, gardening workshops, and art shows on the side."  Yes!  Yes to multi-function spaces that invite people in and create community!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Food Memoirs

The following essay won the "Best Culinary Essay" Award from Saveur.

The essay, "Serious Food: In the Kitchen with Grandma," details the very emotional and nostalgic elements of cooking, while highlighting generational differences in really funny ways.

You'll have to go to actual blog post to read it, as the embedded photos are golden, but I'll give you a sneak peak:

When Mom and I arrive at Grandma’s the following afternoon, we find her in full lady-locks swing. We’ve brought her a couple of leftover slices of pizza from lunch, but she’s so busy that she takes a slice and just keeps going. (The detail that she places the box with the remaining slice atop the oversized pot of boiled cauliflower, which I now feel well acquainted with—after all, it’s right next to my friends, the plastic-wrapped black bananas—is not lost on me.) She takes a bite, scoots past the kitchen island, pulls open the refrigerator door with the non-pizza hand and announces that she has been adding Crisco to the lady-locks dough with regularity since 7 a.m. and that it now only needs one final dousing. She pulls out the chilled dough and hands it to me. It seems to have almost doubled in size.

“Wow, that’s a lot of Crisco!” I say...

...She takes another bite of her drooping pizza slice and with her free hand, begins shedding the dough of its plastic wrap. Because, Grandma, and here is where I’m suddenly struck with the real lesson in all of this: Grandma doesn’t think that Crisco is funny. Not only that, but you know what? Grandma doesn’t think that food in general is funny. Because historically, it hasn’t been.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On Cleansing

There's been a lot of talk lately (among my circle of friends anyway) about food cleanses.  If you're not familiar with them, the most extreme version is the Master Cleanse, which involves drinking only a mixture of water, lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper for something like 10-14 days (and no food!). Another version, less extreme, that some of our friends have done is just to eat only brown rice and plain vegetables and fruits for about a week.  And plenty of others abound: the raw food cleanse, the food lover's cleanse, Michelle Obama's cleanse.

The basic idea of all of these is to give your body a little time to recover from the heavy foods many of us eat during our regular lives. To intentionally take a break from the things we love but that leave us feeling too full or too heavy or uncomfortable.  I've heard that these cleanses will often change your palate--making you realize how salty or sugary many of the foods we eat actually are. 

But because one would hope that a temporary fix like this would actually lead to lifestyle change, rather than just a week break, I was particularly excited by this Food Lover's Cleanse from Bon Appetit.

This woman basically just ate really good, whole foods for two weeks, following recipes based on what's available in winter. Dishes like a Black-Eyed Pea Curry and a Celery Root and Apple Salad.  You can download her whole recipe plan here.

But isn't this just how we should be eating all of the time anyway?

What do you all think? To cleanse or not to cleanse?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Barriers to Eating Sustainably

My favorite blogger who writes about agricultural issues, hands-down, is Sharon Astyk. She writes beautifully, has a very sharp wit, and lives the kind of life I often dream of (has a farm in upstate New York, grows most of her own food with her husband and four children, uses only 10% of the energy of the average American family, writes for a living).

Though I'm still eager to read her books (Depletion and Abundance, A Nation of Farmers, Independence Days), I follow her blog very closely and try to read most everything she has to say.

This post, from the archives, is one that I think of often, and wanted to share it here, for all of you. It considers how sustainable eating and poverty go together, how good food doesn't have to be an elite privilege. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

Barriers to Eating Sustainably, Real and Imagined
Posted on: April 5, 2010 2:16 PM, by Sharon Astyk

During the period of my life when I was a professional smart-ass (ie, my adolescence), I used to complain to my mother that even the day after she went grocery shopping, there was never any food in the house, only the component ingredients of food. As I teenager I wanted to eat like my peers who seemed to have an endless supply of chips and soda around. To have to come home from school and actually scramble eggs or make a sandwich seemed horribly unfair. My mother and step-mother expressed little sympathy.

It was only later that I realized how central this "buying the ingredients of food rather than the pre-made stuff" was to their strategy of getting by on a small income. In both the households I lived in as a kid--my father's single parent household and my mother and step-mother's joint one, not enough money was constantly be stretched by care and thrift. I didn't realize then how lucky I was to have this model.

My father owned no vehicle and was a single parent half the time to three girls. My youngest sister was a baby when my parents broke up, and we did not own a car. My father packed three girls under 10, one an infant or toddler in a stroller onto a series of buses each week, and took us into Boston (we lived in small cities well outside Boston) to Haymarket, an open air produce market that operates all year round. We would buy the food on the way home from some adventure in the city (my grandmothers always gave us the gift of museum memberships for Christmas) and then pack as much produce as we could afford and carry into backpacks - along sometimes with meat and fish from the Halal market or the fish vendors who came in from Boston Harbor. We would then take buses home and walk the mile or so back. Once a month my father would get a ride from a friend or pay for a taxi from the local supermarket--he'd take the bus there and take a cab back, loaded up with things that couldn't be carried back on the bus. And that was it for our shopping.

And then my father would cook. Despite working two jobs most of this time, he cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7 days a week. My father's education in food had come from Julia Child, and his Polish grandmother so it was an elaborate cuisine. He rejected his mothers' bland, British WASP cooking, but he built on his mother's model. Gram had been a single parent in the 1950s. She left an abusive husband, and despite a full time job as a telephone operator and post-polio syndrome that left her mobility severely impaired during her whole life, she too produced meals every day for her sons.

My mother and step mother at least had a car, and there were two of them, but they had considerably more mouths to feed. For a long period my mother ran a daycare out of her home for low income families trying to get off welfare (this was back when there actually was such a thing as daycare to help women get off welfare). The state paid a tiny subsidy for food, but the project of providing breakfast (not mandated, but often the children hadn't had any), lunch and two snacks a day for kids made of healthy food meant that my family had to be extremely careful about money - the stipend didn't cover it even remotely and if my mother wanted to turn a profit at all, she had to be thrifty. Her innate concern for the children, however, meant that she would not do this by shorting them on nutritious food.

In addition, for some time during my teens, my mother and step-mother were foster parents to additional children--and again, the tiny stipend provided for foster kids by no means covered food, clothing, school supplies, presents etc... The kids often were inadequately nourished, so the food had to be nutritious, and they often had little experience of fresh or home cooked food so it had to be tasty. I don't think I realized as a teen how churlish my complaints about food were when I was fed so well, on so little.

The central means of making this happen was cooking from scratch, using simple and inexpensive but healthy ingredients--my mother and step mother both worked full time, and often were going back to school in the evenings as well. And yet my step-mother also produced breakfast, packed lunches and dinners every single night through my entire childhood.

So perhaps I didn't know any better when I went to college and graduate school and simply assumed that poverty and plentiful, good food weren't necessarily incompatible. My friends and housemates and I cooked--we threw parties with elaborate meals and ate inexpensive foods - produce in season from farmer's markets, often bought in bulk at the end of the day, meats from ethnic markets (goat curry was a big favorite), asian staples from the Chinese grocery store, backpacked from Chinatown, with 25 lb bags of rice in drag-behind grocery carts. I learned a hundred ways to make rice and beans.

I married a man who cooked and who had his own large repertoire of cheap, healthy dishes made from staples. We lived on baked sweet potatoes with greens and a cheese sauce with less cheese than roux (cheese was expensive) and learned to cook taro and plantain and duck eggs, which were cheaper than chicken eggs.

Eventually, I added more scruples--I started to care about how the produce was grown and how far my food travelled. I learned more about the pollution that contaminated the fish off the boats and about overfishing. I learned more than I wanted to know about how cheap meat was produced and stopped buying it. And we started keeping kosher. All of which should have sent our food budget skyrocketing, but didn't--because the same basic strategies for eating that we used before worked fine. Kosher food is much more expensive if you eat a lot of meat and processed foods--it is quite cheap if your meals are mostly vegetarian and fresh. Eating locally is the same--if you want to eat local, organic leg of lamb regularly, you must either be affluent or grow your own. If you are content to save up for the occasional festival lamb, and eat meat about as often as is healthy anyway (less often, used as a condiment), and are creative with what is readily available and in season, then eating locally and organically is not significantly more expensive than eating.

But the assumption is that it must be. I run into this all the time--the idea that local sustainable food is best embodied in Whole Foods or something comparable, and that good food is only for the elitist affluent is wrong, but a widespread assumption. That doesn't mean that there are not real barriers to local, sustainable and healthy eating for many people--these are real and exist, and for some populations, are so burdensome that they may not be remediable. But I think it is important to talk about what these barriers are and what populations they affect, rather than to state, as one of my colleagues did recently in a discussion of his post on kosher coke, that a diet made up mostly of fresh foods is unachievable for most people. (I think his claim that kashruth is also unsuited to modern life is equally incorrect, but while I do think that more people should eat locally, sustainably and healthily, I don't really care whether more people keep kosher, so I'll leave that subject alone. ;-))

I'm not trying to pick on Revere at Effect Measure--what interests me about his observation is the fact that his assumption so much reflects a strain of popular opinion, that regards food awareness and particularly food that is local and sustainable as largely elitist and hard to achieve for most people. So let's take a look at what the primary barriers to eating sustainably are for most people.

The first one is poverty. For a chunk of the US population in extreme poverty, there are insurmountable barriers to cooking from scratch and eating whole foods. Families living in transitional housing or shelters have no access to cooking facilities. Immigrants sharing a very small space may have limited access or none at all to the facilities to cook and store food. The homeless often have no cooking facilities at all. For families who rely on older children to do meal preparation, pre-made and processed food may be the only thing realistically produceable. For families with limited transportation living in "food deserts" in urban or rural areas, it may be almost impossible to reach food, or there may be little time to do so. People working multiple jobs may be so tired that cooking is out of reach to them. The elderly and disabled may find cooking or shopping to physically onerous.

Some of these barriers might be overcome with various strategies. For example, for families with low incomes but stable housing and some discretionary funds, whose primary barrier is lack of time to shop, help in finding bulk sources and techniques for using bulk foods might over time both lower their grocery bill and reduce the amount of time they have to spend shopping.

An elderly couple who cannot travel out to buy local produce at farmer's markets due to the walking required or having given up a car might well be able to commission a local person to shop for them when they also go shopping - for example, in my neighborhood we served this function. We shopped for my husband's grandparents who lived with us, and became aware that other neighbors wanted to take advantage of wonderful produce but couldn't get out to do it, and so began to deliver produce to neighbors.

In some cases, policy shifts are needed in order to make significant changes--before homeless families can focus on quality food, they need a stable place to live--cities might enable families to take over foreclosed properties in exchange for maintenence, for example. A shift in policy that enabled food stamp dollars to pay out double at farmer's markets creates an incentive to use them there. Policies that encourage local soup kitchens and shelters to source local first, if comparably priced produce can be had would make more local food available to people who can't buy it at any price. Incentives for bringing farmer's markets and coops to low income urban food deserts can create food access.

But we should also remember that the poor are not a monolith, and while they often have reduced access to good food, not everyone experiences these barriers equally. I know among my own readers many, many low income people who do cook, buy in bulk, eat locally and sustainably despite being extremely poor. Some who are unemployed due to economic circumstances, retirement, youth or disability have time to cook. Many of them do the extraordinary and heroic work of producing a healthy, sustainable meal three times a day while living on tiny incomes.

It is one thing to articulate and try to alleviate the barriers to eating well that the poor face. It is another thing to claim that it isn't realistic to expect the poor to eat well. The latter erases those who do accomplish these things, and naturalize their situation, the former acknowledges that it is more difficult for some people, sometimes insurmountably more difficult, and gives us challenges to work on.

The same is true for those who are not poor--I just as often hear that it is not realistic for working people to eat well--that those who do so must be unusually wealthy or not have jobs. But this truly troubles me because it erases the experience of my parents, my grandmother, my own experience. By implying that good food is elitist, it is easy to marginalize those who care about it--but wanting to be healthy, wanting to vote with your dollars for a kind of system that is valuable to yourself and your community, wanting to enjoy your meals--that's not elitist, that's human and normal.

That does not mean that the middle class doesn't face real barriers to eating sustainably too (or that some of these barriers may not also affect the poor). But again, it is important to distinguish between imaginary generalities like "modern people work too hard to cook meals from scratch" and specific, real barriers. These include lack of time, lack of knowledge about how to cook (lack of cooking skills is a American problem that crosses class barriers, but, of course, the lower your household income, the more you suffer physically from it because of the quality of pre-prepared food available), false perceptions about how hard the process of preparing food is, unfamiliarity with fresh foods and preferences for processed foods or even aversions to healthy foods.

I recently ran a workshop in which a young woman, a recent college graduate who came to the US from a less affluent country talked about being a Nanny for a family with young kids. The family ostensibly cared about what they ate--but she observed that the parents almost never cooked, because they were too tired. It was always easier to get take out. She contrasted this to her mother, a single parent with several children who worked long hours in a menial job while also maintaining a garden and cooking three meals a day, and observed that the people she worked for didn't work harder--but they saw cooking as more difficult and they were constantly made aware of the availability of take-out and processed foods.

This is one of the reasons I think we have to be so very careful about not naturalizing barriers to cooking and buying sustainable food--because while some of them are very real, it is also true that magnifying those barriers is enormously profitable and is part of nearly every advertising campaign. Unless you are extremely conscious of the impact of those strategies it is easy to take for granted that Campbell's Soup is better than homemade, that it is easier to put the kids in their carseats and drive to Taco Bell than make a salad, that tired Moms rely on Stouffers and Pop Tarts. It behooves us to be very suspicious whenever we go along with the message of corporate culture, and more so with food, because there is so much money to be made in processed and premade foods. There is virtually no marketing budget for fresh vegetables, none for water from the tap or homemade iced tea not from a powder, for whole grains and legumes--while there is an enormous marketing budget for all of those other foods. Telling us that local and unprocessed is more expensive, more work, harder, pricier is very, very profitable.

And again, some of the barriers people face are very real. It may be that your wife or husband really won't eat anything green--but maybe you can get started with the local berries and fruits. Maybe you really are working too long to be able to do elaborate cooking--but a crock pot could make it possible for you to save money and eat better food. Maybe you don't know how to cook--but perhaps you could learn.

Some of these things require policy and social changes--the revitalization of home economics in schools, for example, may be necessary to ensure that the next generation has better cooking skills than their mothers. Investment of resources in materials that help people locate local sources of food can make it possible for busy families to buy more locally. Encouraging more meatless or low meat meals in schools and other places where people get their ideas about how meals are supposed to look could certainly help.

And some of these changes may never happen--someone who eats only coke, steak and doritos may never buy the "Let's get a bale of fresh collard greens and eat less meat" argument. But again, we can't erase the many people who come home at the end of a long day of work and put a freshly made meal in front of their kids. The truth is that the issue is not realism--it is a complex combination of commitment, education, policy support, community support, enthusiasm and knowledge. And the very fact that so many people do do this is proof that far more could than do.

At the center of my presumptions is this--that despite the high barriers to eating well that our society throws up, there is a remarkable commitment to making both personal and social change. Given the enormous weight of the money that pushes us to eat industrial and not regard the cost, I find it both heartening and astonishing that so many people from every walk of life find themselves united around the basic cause of feeding their families decent food. I was lucky enough to live in a family where that mattered, and it shaped my life. But more, I am lucky enough now to be an adult in a society where as a people we are learning to care about our food - that does not allow us to evade responsibility for not making food access equal--but it does give me hope for what emerges over time.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Farm Bill

Last week, Civil Eats posted an article about the Top 10 Things You Should Know About the Farm Bill. It's worth a read.

I didn't really know anything at all about the Farm Bill until I read The Omnivore's Dilemma in 2006 and began to understand Michael Pollan's linkage of the cheapness of processed foods with the incredible corn subsidies that are paid for by the Farm Bill. Now, it seems more and more like many of America's dietary problems stem from problematic government incentives for certain kinds of production. This Bill is a big deal, but most people don't pay any attention to it because federal agriculture policy doesn't seem all that exciting.

The Farm Bill gets revised and re-issued every five years or so, and the 2012 version is currently being drafted.

So, definitely go read the whole article, but here, in brief, are the Top 10:

  1. 74% of all subsidy payments go to just 10% of farms for the largest five commodity crops (corn, cotton, rice, wheat, soybeans) 
  2. Almost none of the current Farm Bill funding goes to programs that support healthy fruits and vegetables, and these programs are threatened with full cuts in the 2012 revision of the Bill.
  3. A large portion (~90,000) of subsidy checks have gone to wealthy investors and absentee land owners, rather than to those who are truly working the land.
  4. Peanuts, sorghum, mohair, and a few other commodities also qualify for government support.
  5. "The flawed subsidy system creates perverse incentives for farmers to grow as much industrial-scale, fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive crops as possible, with harmful effects on our environment and drinking water–and the availability of organic food in your grocery store."
  6. The Farm Bill also provides money for things like the food stamp program (now, SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
  7. The Farm Bill also currently pays for the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program,which gives seniors vouchers for farmer's markets, and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides nutritious produce to schools. These programs will be threatened in 2012. 
  8.  Although these initiatives are still underfunded, the Bill did provide more than $4 billion this year to help farmers conserve soil, clean up the water and protect habitat for wildlife.
  9. Many powerful groups and corporations--politicians looking to fill campaign coffers, corporate agri-chemical giants like Monsanto and Syngenta seeking to expand their markets, and Big Ag’s public relations and lobby organizations--stand in the way of revising the Farm Bill to provide healthy food, protect the environment and help working farm and ranch families
  10. Because the public and the media pay so little attention to the Farm Bill, much of the back room negotiating and writing is subject to heavy backroom political maneuvering.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cooking at Home

To help fulfill my goal from last week of reading more food blogs (and my ongoing goal of prioritizing family--my Mama is coming to town today for the week!), I figured I'd spend the week re-posting great posts/articles from other blogs or news sources from around the web. 

And since I started this blog, way back when, with a reference to Mark Bittman, I feel a duty to pass on good things he has to say, even though many of you probably see his articles in the NYT even without my mediation.

This week he wrote a quick article, "Make Food Choices Simple: Cook," about how much easier it is to eat in healthy, ethical, inexpensive ways when cooking at home rather than eating out.  An excerpt:

"When I cook, though, everything seems to go right. I shop an average of every two weeks in a supermarket, and make a couple of trips a week to smaller stores. I’m aware that my choices are mostly imperfect, but I rarely conclude that I should make a burger and fries for dinner or provide a pound per person of prison-raised pork served with fruit from 10,000 miles away, followed by a cake full of sugar and artificial ingredients. Yet, for the most part, that describes restaurant food."

I don't think Bittman is an exceptional writer, but I do think he does a great job of selecting really pertinent topics and capturing just enough of the essential aspects of those topics to draw people in and expose his readers to ideas they may not have previously considered.

What do you all think? Eating out versus staying in? What do we get out of restaurants that makes us keep going back?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Reading Food

I've recently been thinking about how I'd like to read more food writing, both of the blog and book variety--not just about food politics or about recipes, but about the sensual, visceral, personal stories people have with food. To that end, I'd taken on a summer project of exploring popular food blogs and books, starting with this list from Saveur: The 2011 SAVEUR Best Food Blog Awards: The Winner.

I also just read through Saveur's A Brief History of Food Blogs, to get a sense of where Dining and Opining fits into all of this.

Some books I'd like to read include:
What reading recommendations do you all have, of the food and non-food varieties?