George Rector: M.F.K Fisher’s Dirty Old Uncle

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We struck gold in the depths of the library the other day when I dug up Dine at Home with Rector: A book on what men like, why they like it, and how to cook it, by George Rector, c.1937.

Rector (1878-1947) was a restaurateur and popular author. This book is ostensibly a cookbook–I don’t know what else it would be–but it doesn’t have recipes per se. Instead, he just mentions how to cook things as he’s steaming along. I’m in love with the hardboiled yet strangely comforting prose (though I do have to ignore the casual sexism and racism of the period).

Seems most cookbooks these days range from bland to, at best, passionately sincere. Old George is just in it for the fun. The pleasure of reading him is filed in my brain alongside the pleasure of reading M.F.K. Fisher, though he’s more like her dirty old uncle. Which is to say you’d happily read either them even if you have no intention of ever cooking anything ever again.

Speaking of casual sexism, I’m particularly fond of the chapter titled “When the Wife’s Away”, which steps befuddled menfolk from the basics of grilling a steak (“Steak is a good thing to begin on; don’t be scared off because it’s one of the aristocrats of the cow kingdom…”), to how to scramble eggs over a double boiler (“that’s the dingus Junior’s cereal is cooked in…”) to making “that noble experiment known as Rum-Tum Ditty” for the boys when they come over for cards. Rum-Tum-Ditty, I have to say, defies explanation. Let’s just say the ingredients include whipped egg whites, a pound of cheese and a can of tomato soup.

Speaking of befuddled menfolk, Erik is quite fond of this passage about making Hollandaise sauce (from the chapter titled “A Touch of Eggomania”), not least because it has introduced the term “hen fruit” into our lives:

For eggs Benedict, you need Hollandaise sauce, an additional contribution of the hen fruit to the pleasures of the palate, and to the confusion of cooks. Hold on to your hats and we’ll round that curve. Add four egg yolks, beaten to the thick, lemon-colored point, to half a cup of butter melted in a double boiler. Stir as you add the eggs and keep stirring–stir with the calm and temperate perseverance of the mine mule making his millionth trip down the gallery. That’s the secret–that and getting the water in the bottom hot as blazes without ever letting it come to a boil. Just before the mixture gets thick–timing again–put in a tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne pepper to taste, and I hope and believe you’ll have a crackajack Hollandaise. Which is something to have, because it’s cantankerous stuff, as the tears shed by millions of cooks down the ages all testify.

Working Big: A Teacher’s Guide to Environmental Sculpture

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Let me tell you how on-board I am with any children’s DIY project book that begins with pictures of Robert Smithson’s monumental land art.

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Working Big: A Teacher’s Guide to Environmental Sculpture resonates with me due to many childhood trips to the LA County Art Museum at the height of the minimalism art era. Working Big applies some of the art notions of that period to group activities for kids using cardboard, plastic bags and junk. The result is visually striking projects reminiscent of Smithson and the Ant Farm.

If only the NIMBYs around the Silver Lake Reservoir would let us do this:

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Damn the nanny state!

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You can download a copy for free, along with a lot of other amazing and outré 1970s publications here.

Best Practices for Gardening in Contaminated Soil

File this ad under "bad ideas."

File this ad under “bad ideas.”

The benefits of growing food in cities (nutrition, exposure to nature) outweigh the very low risks of lead contamination. This is the conclusion of a recent University of Washington study:

It is highly unlikely that urban agriculture will increase incidences of elevated blood Pb for children in urban areas. This is due to the high likelihood that agriculture will improve soils in urban areas, resulting in reduced bioavailability of soil Pb and reduced fugitive dust. Plant uptake of Pb is also typically very low. The exceptions are low-growing leafy crops where soil-splash particle contamination is more likely and expaneded hypocotyl root vegetalbes (e.g. carrot). However even with higher bioaccumulation factors, it is not clear that the Pb in root vegetables or any other crop will be absorbed after eating.

The paper outlines a set of best practices for dealing with contaminated soils. You should always:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables from your garden. Also wash your hands and don’t wear shoes in the house.
  • Compost, compost, compost! Compost dilutes the overall amount of lead in soil and encourages healthy plant growth which also dilutes the (usually small) amount of lead a plant will uptake. Apply compost annually since it breaks down over time.
  • Plant away from painted surfaces of old (lead paint era) buildings.

Some other things to consider especially if you garden with children under 5 years old:

  • Don’t eat a lot of carrots, radishes, redbeets or turnips grown in contaminated soil. The edible portion of these plants consist of xylem tissue that traps lead (potatoes are OK since they are phloem fed). That said, you’d have to eat a lot of contaminated root vegetables to elevate lead levels in your blood.
  • Adding phosphorus fertilizers will decrease the bioavailability of lead.
  • In general root vegetables uptake the most lead, leafy greens less and fruit almost none.
  • The most conservative approach is to grow in raised beds.

The main concern is for children under 5 years old. If your soil tests high in lead and you have young ones you should consider doing your edible gardening in raised beds and limit their exposure to garden soils to a few times a month. Mulch and ground covers will also decrease lead exposure in the other parts of your yard.

The paper concludes that for older children and adults, “There is little indication that growing or eating food from urban gardens will result in high Pb (lead) exposure.”

Picture Sundays: Kiddo the Airship Cat

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A delightful lecture by Paul Koudounaris on the history of ship cats tipped me off to the story of Kiddo, the airship cat. Kiddo went aboard the ill-fated airship America in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Atlantic in October 1910. Kiddo did not enjoy the experience, at first, and led to what may have been the first air to ground radio transmission, “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!”

After a journey of over a thousand miles, inclement weather led to the abandonment of the airship. Kiddo and crew were rescued by a British steamship (Kiddo was found snoozing in the back of the lifeboat).

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The story is proof that the celebrity cat phenomenon pre-dates the interwebs. Kiddo, renamed Trent after the rescue ship, was welcomed back to New York where he spent a period on display in a gilded cage at Gimbel’s department store. Postcards of Trent went all over the world. He spent the rest of his life with the daughter of the airship’s owner.

For more details of the story see Purr n’ Furr Famous Felines.

Saturday Tweets: Cornbread Controversies, 2×4 Furniture and El Niño