Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My favorite read-aloud books are the Cajun fairy tales by Mike Artell. Unless you speak Cajun, it takes a little practice. Don't give up. By the second time through, you'll be having so much fun you won't mind stuttering over a few words. Artell gives you a handy list of Cajun words you'll read in the book and how to pronounce them.

The more you read the books the more fun they are to read. You know when your kids want you to read the same story over and over again and you can barely make yourself crack open the cover? Well, I never get tired of reading these.

Petite RougeStart with Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood. When Little Red Riding Hood's grand-mere comes down wit' de flu, Red and her cat, TeJean, know just what to do. In keeping with the bayou setting, Red Riding Hood encounters Claude, a swamp gator, instead of the big, bad wolf. Claude is no match for Red and TeJean and they send Claude racing back to his home.

Three Little Cajun Pigs
The next fairy tale Mike Artell puts a Cajun twist on is Three Little Cajun Pigs. Claude, the ol' gator, couldn't make a lunch out of Red Riding Hood so now he's got his eyes on three little pigs whose mother just kicked them out.

Jacques and de Beanstalk
And finally, Jacques and de Beanstalk. Meet Jacques, a little boy who sells the cow for a few beans. His mother is furious and throws them out the window. A giant beanstalk grows and you know the rest of the story. But Jack and the Beanstalk has never been so fun to tell. There's something about reading Mike Artell's Cajun couplets that makes me wish, just a tiny bit, I was born in the bayou.   


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No matter how tiny my mom minced the onions, I could always spot them. Once, she adamantly denied putting onions in the potato casserole, until I held one up for inspection. Caught.

Today I pile caramelized onions on burgers, load up my fajita with grilled onion rounds and request them in made-to-order omelets. What happened between hate and love? Russian food. An 18-month mission to Russia broadened my palate. My parents thought I would starve when I opened up the envelope and read "You have been called to serve in the Russia, Moscow Mission." They knew about Russian food because two years earlier I taught English in St. Petersburg for a semester. A taste for Russian food was not acquired during that time. I loved Russian culture and history but it took time to acquire a taste for Russian food.

After eating borscht (beet and cabbage soup), pelmeni (meat dumplings), holodetz (cold fat pudding) and so many other delicious Russian dishes, something happened to my palate. Maybe a survival mode kicked in. I don't know. But something made me fall in love with food. I gobbled down tomatoes, barley, beets and even the dreaded onion. A whiff of borscht simmering on the stove or dill sprinkled on potatoes and memories of so many people and places reel through my mind.          

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing | [Anya Von Bremzen]What does all this reminiscing about Russian food have to do with books? At the library I caught a glimpse of St. Basil's Cathedral on the cover of a book. I had to take a closer look. The book was Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen, a James Beard Award-winning author. I checked it out.

The author and her mother decided to write down their memories of growing up in the Soviet Union with a focus on the food. You could call it a history of communism, but it's something more. Anya takes readers from four-star restaurants to communal apartments where the working class can only dream about feasts like those described in Anton Checkhov's books. Food seems to evoke memories that are almost real and Anya has created memories that I can taste.