Friday, January 11, 2008

The January meeting of the FoodIMeanBook Group

And that's really what we call it because we are sometimes confused about why we really meet: To share a potluck dinner, drink wine, and gab? Or to do all those things and also discuss a book? We have all been friends for a long time and in our busy lives don't see each other as much as we wish we could, so there's always some catching up to do, which can be a little distracting from the task of discussing a book. But we try. And most of the time most of us read the book. And we even have our own website, which tracks what we're reading and have read, the books we didn't pick, and who's hosting.

We meet the second Thursday of each month (skipping usually December and August) at a different person's house. The host provides a main course, and everyone else fills in the rest. I always bring a dessert. This month's baking adventure was a Boston cream pie, a little messy to my eye but quite delicious:

I won't share the recipe because I grabbed recipes for the three components—the cake, the pastry cream filling, and the chocolate glaze—from three different places. My inspiration to make this came from the pastry cream I made for my New Year's dessert, which to cool quickly I popped in the freezer . . . and then left there. I had to make another batch of pastry cream at the party when I arrived, but I thought that I could use the batch that got left home for another dessert. Wrong. Did you know that you cannot freeze pastry cream? When it thawed it looked sort of like crumbly scrambled eggs—very nasty. Not the end of the world though. I made yet another batch while the cake was baking.

And in the course of all this I did learn some interesting things about Boston Cream Pie. I had assumed that Boston Cream Pie is to Boston what Canadian bacon is to Canada (I understand Canadians call the latter ham). On the contrary, BCP was first concocted in 1855 at Boston's Parker House Hotel. It's thought the early versions were baked in pie pans since those were more readily available than cake pans, hence the name pie for what is obviously a cake. It has been designated the official state dessert of Massachusetts. (MA is way ahead of CA: we don't have an official state dessert, whereas they have not only a dessert but a muffin, a bean, a cookie, and a donut. But give us time—we're a relatively young state.)

But enough about my dessert and on to the books . . .

We discussed David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004. (Notice how Man has snuck in there? Didn't we all used to call it just the Booker Prize??) All of us who read the book liked it, with some of us thinking is was one of the best things we have ever read. Really. It's not an easy read, but it's not impossible either. The book is a group of stories about six individuals who live in different times in history ranging from a voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850 to a young islander living after the fall of civilization. In between are a European composer living between the world wars, a Reagan-era journalist, an aging British publisher, and a genetically modified clone. The first half of the first story comes first with the last half of it being last, so that the stories sandwich each other like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. Reading "up" in the first half of the book is often slow-going, and it takes a while to manage the enormous gear-shift necessary to engage in each new story, but the ride down the other side is breathtaking—I could not put it down and, even though it is a long book, I was sad for it to end. Mitchell is a true vituouso. It's just unbelievable that someone could write in such wide ranging genres with such amazing facility. We enjoyed discussing which of the storylines we like the best. I loved the one about the composer, but I was really touched by the story of the clone, which surprised me because I usually turn up my nose at anything resembling science fiction.

After we finish discussing the chosen book, it's time for what is often the most entertaining part of the evening: the double elimination vote. It's so exciting!! Here's how we do it: The host chooses three books to nominate for next time, usually something she has read or at least knows enough about to recommend and provide a short description. The host presents the choices, passes them around, discussion ensues, and it's time for Round 1. Everyone gets two votes: you can vote for two different books or put both your votes on a single book. In Round 2 we vote for the two books from Round 1 with the most votes, with everyone getting one vote.

Nominations for our next book were (in what can only be described as the most schitzophrenic slate ever)
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee

And the winner was . . . Aloft! Which I've already read (a wonderful book, as are his other books A Gesture Life and Native Speaker), so I've got what I call a "free read" for next month. I've already started David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, so I'll actually get to finish it before there is another book group book to read (voting for and nominating books I've already read is an old trick of mine).

So that's it for the FoodIMeanBook group until next month! Thanks for hosting, Jen!

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