this week in food: don’t show me another butternut squash, I’m ready for spring…

Hi there! As you’ve noticed, I have not been posting lately. I’ve been busy with my new friend, Writing a Dissertation.

Maybe you’re here to find cookie recipes.

As I go along, with this little internet salon of mine, I fluctuate between thinking that I should stop writing recipes, or stop writing book reviews. (Sometimes I think I should stop writing both but I kind of like it and I’ve gotten this far so hey, let’s just keep doing this thing…) I’ve decided to try compiling both. I spend my life cooking and reading and writing. That is what I do. (I also go on long walks and take in the odd concert and knit with friends and drink varyingly copious amounts of tea, coffee, wine… I promise to write about those if I have anything interesting to say…)

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I’ve noticed, of late, that there is not exactly a dearth of recipes, and sites devoted to them, here on the internet. This has led me to the conclusion that, frankly, there is zero point in coming up with my own. I’d rather write a few silly things, tell you what I’m up to (’cause my loved ones live very far away and I like to think they check in every once in a while), and steer you toward some of the other folks out there in the world. I’m not an inventor of food. I don’t create cuisine. I am a frazzled dissertator who scours the internet for the perfect combination of pie recipes because it is distracting, and then takes great pleasure in kneading the perfect ball of dough because it is relaxing.

I do not love photography. I take pictures because no one reads anything without an attached image anymore. It is necessity, and not love that creates these images. (I’m being very honest today.) I have friends whose love for digital imagery drives hours’ worth of sweat-spewing work. I don’t have that. I will, however, sweat for words. I have spent most of my life sweating for words. And I will sweat for pie. So that is what you have here…

Sweat and pie… Delicious…

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In the meantime, I want to say a word about butternut squash.  That word is: Squash, you are starting to smother me.  I know, it’s still freezing outside and it’s still wintry mixing and I’m still wearing sweaters and boots. And you have been doing such a good job of keeping me warm, with your cuddly soups and comforting casseroles. But this beautiful thing we had going in the fall and winter is just not working for me anymore and I think it’s time we say goodbye. It was fun while it lasted and maybe if  get chilly and I miss you we can do this again some time. It’s not you, it’s me. I have too much on my plate right now to spend ten minutes peeling you and half an hour baking you.

So actually, it is you…

As a last hurrah, I made this butternut squash salad with farro and chick peas. It was incredible. It was totally worth one last nightmare peel session. Do…not…leave out…the pepitas…this is important. TEXTURE. It’s all about the texture. You have the gummy barley (I made it with barley because what the heck is farro anyway?) and the squashy…squash…and the creamy feta mixing with the oils and then bam! crunch! pepita!

To go with the salad (on Day 2) I sauteed some tofu and smothered it with MY NEW FAVORITE DRESSING IN THE WORLD. This gal has taken my favorite lazy/busy (luzy?) culinary concept (lentils and rice with whatever the heck veggies you have lying around covered in some kind of sauce) and done wonders. My hat is off to her for the use of graceful simplicity and ginger.

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Finally, I scrambled up the usual curried cauliflower-potato combo. I have been making this in the wonderful cast iron that I we got for a wedding gift. Cast iron is incredible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It is the coolest thing in my our house. My aunt and uncle gave us a few pieces and every time I use them, I get sort of temporally flabbergasted by the fact that they will remain in working order for the rest of my life and pretty far beyond that. There is no better symbolism in a wedding present.

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I’ve made this many times and it has been amazing many times. Smother in yogurt if it’s too spicy. Or even if its not. Basically any time you have to pour some water into the pan and scrape the bottom of it, you’re going to have a lot of flavor. (It’s called deglazing and it’s the bomb. French people do it. They call it déglaçage…honh honh honhhh…)

this week in books: histoire du Sénégal

This week was largely devoted to brushing up on my Senegalese history. I’m revising an article – crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s (as well as changing most of my which’s to that’s…good lord did I not go to middle school?) and I realized that while the literary premises were sound, the paper was really lacking context. (And by “I realized” I mean “my adviser – the fiercest editor I’ve ever met – suggested that I needed to put all the literary pish-posh into some kind of cohesive historical framework”…) So I went about kicking myself for the thousandth time since I began working on my ‘dissertation project’ proper for having wasted my intellectual youth coming up with clever ideas instead of cracking open a dang history book, and then I hit the library.

Full disclosure: this is not polished thinking…this is the product of skimming a few books before doing more substantive work…if you are a historian (*cough cough* – I know you guys) let me know what’s wrong here and what I need to do to fix it because I’m just wading through books and trying to figure it all out…

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I found a few sources that were particularly good. I FINALLY got around to reading  Mamadou Diouf’s L’Histoire du Sénégal: le modèle islamo-wolof et ses péripheries (2001) which is, of course, a fantastic source. Diouf is the dude, as far as I can tell. The dude who knows the stuff.

The most helpful part of this book for me, since I am working on cities, was the brief section related to the establishment of the Quatre Communes in 1848. It’s really important for Diouf to concentrate on this because a big part of his project is looking at the center/periphery model. I think we’re quite accustomed to thinking of colonized spaces in Subsaharan Africa as métropole/vast washes of undeveloped space with a trading post or two. In significant ways, however, Saint-Louis in particular, and the other three cities of the Quatre Communes (Dakar, Rufisque, Gorée) will be as important, if not more, than Paris (or Nantes or Bordeaux). Not forever, but certainly in the 19th century.

So, in case you were curious, the Quatre Communes were the major four cities in Senegal during the 19th century, the majorest one being Saint-Louis (not Dakar, as you might think). According to Diouf, a distinct population is developing here that is removed from both the ‘traditions autochtones sénégambiennes’ as well as the dictates of the ‘mission civilatrice’ (135). These four cities are inhabited by “originaires’ – people who inhabited these spaces before France, mostly comprised of an Islamo-Wolof population, as well as French colonists and traders. The demographics are the French, the increasingly powerful population of mulâtres that I will talk more about, freed slaves and servants.

Here’s the thing, everyone living in these cities falls under the category of French citizen, while everyone in the intérieur is going to fall into the category of French subject. This is important. These originaires are going to be the roots of the future class of évolués who will take over power from the French after independence in 1960.

These places are pretty well urbanized. I would argue that, if you think real hard about what French cities looked like in the 19th century, they are probably not too far off from a Saint-Louis. Remember, France is in the middle of various bloody revolutions that distract from the building of proper infrastructure. There are no sidewalks or plumbing. Live chickens are being sold at the market. People are rampantly dying from disease. The Industrial Revolution is only just beginning. We’re not exactly in “tradition vs. modernity” here yet. Time has not split.

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Right now I’m still going through Jean-Pierre Biondi’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal: mémoires d’un métissage (1987) and I’m not sure how sound it is academically (there are no citations…is this something historians get away with that I don’t know about? y’all are a rebellious bunch), but I’m intrigued by the premise that the singular aspect that made this town thrive was its ability to adapt in the form of métissage. Off the top of my head, I’m not totally sure how people are translating this term, so I’m going to leave it in the French because it gets real tricky real fast in the English.

Most importantly, this  book discusses the rise and fall of a powerful class of mulâtres (again, untranslatable) who essentially controlled the town. Not French traders, not African warlords, but in point of fact, it was mostly the children of white French traders and their Wolof concubines who ran the town until the arrival of Faidherbe in the 1850′s. This is mainly due to the legal status that they were, in fact, granted. It was perfectly acceptable for French traders/settlers to “marry” a local gal and, upon leaving, to give her a fair amount of the profit/property accrued during his stay in Saint-Louis, which would then pass on to any children. (Which is still not exactly just compensation for, you know, forced concubinage but that’s not really at issue right here right now…) This isn’t far off from the situation of the legendary ‘octoroon’ character of New Orleans (à la George Cable) except that these signares would become exceedingly influential due to their accruing of funds and then their participation in local trade.

I’ve mentioned that this had to do with their right to seize their French ‘husband’s’ property when he made his merry way back to France, and the right of their children to inherit, but what is the status of these relationships? In fact, because it was seen by the French to be absolutely detrimental and impossible for men to have their delicate French wives tagging along to the colonies with them, these ‘marriages à la mode du pays - concubinage – were entirely (by law, probably not my the fledgling Saint-Louisian Catholic Church and less so by any of the Muslim/Wolof population) accepted. Biondi also puts some emphasis on the fact that these ‘marriages’ were made not between French citizens and, say, daughters of the local (African) ruling class, but rather between French citizens and female slaves. What this indicates is that for these signares, throughout several generations, you have a powerful class of women emerging out of a position of complete subjection. This IS NOT to romanticize the situation. What is important is that this particular space, Saint-Louis, seemed outside of any hierarchical dualisms that were guiding, well, the rest of the world, in this one specific case. It is not ideal, and this class of métissage is not to be commended or condemned. They were slave-holding and exploitative individuals to the same extent the French were. It’s more a representation of this crazy anything-goes urban space of Saint Louis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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All right, this final book, Jean-Pierre Dozon’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal : palimpseste d’une ville (2012) I can’t spend that much time on here (remember when I said that I was working on an article? Yeah, that’s still happening…) but out of these three texts, it absolutely has the most interesting premise. In his intro, Dozon calls Saint-Louis a kind of “hyperville” and by this he means a place of extraordinary qualities – emPHAsis on EXTRAordinary – in the same sense we would say EXTRAterrestrial. He gets there by mentioning the very buzz-word-y ‘lieu de mémoire’ – a concept developed by Pierre Nora and others which essentially implies that objects/places have overlapping layers of meaning, developed throughout time, that become a charged space where memory continues to live. EmPHAsis on presentness instead of pastness of memory, right?

For Dozon, the whole of Saint-Louis would best be examined as a space of overlapping temporalities, overlapping collective memories, overlapping populations, traditions, religions, artistic practices, economic systems, political infrastructures, etc etc etc… This renders it a space that is not France and not Africa and certainly not just a ‘hybrid’ combination of both but something truly à part.

I like this. I think it’s groovy. And if you ever actually go to Saint-Louis this is EXACTLY what it feels like. You are truly in a different time and I do not mean that in the study abroad, urban safari, “Africa is so ‘traditional’” sense. Where you are is both no-where and now-here, and you have a hard time figuring out whose historical trajectory you’re standing in the middle of. People will tell you – it’s Saint-Louis’s.

because it was there…

Hi, how are you today? I’m fine, you know, surviving the sudden blizzard, rocking some Boubacar Traoré, and…oh yeah…wait…not fine at all – eating puréed lentils!!!

Why, you ask?

Gentle reader, (is that phrase trademarked? can I use that?) because I lost my mind for about five minutes and decided that lentil soup was fine, but puréed lentil soup would be better. That it would be creamy and soupy and wintery and delightful.

It is freaking baby food, gentle reader. Baby food.

And if you’re into that kind of thing, I have the recipe for you! But the rest of us will be over here, eating a hot, steaming plate of ANYTHING BUT THAT.

So what inspired this moment of madness? Why did I take a perfectly decent pot full of lentils and turn it into a green slushy? Because I had made a smoothie that morning, and the immersion blender was sitting RIGHT THERE on the counter. I seized it without thinking and before I knew it, green baby food.

The reason I’m bringing this up – and I have a reason besides the useful advice that should accompany every culinary pitfall – is that I’m sitting here, eating my lentils, writing a conference paper for what seems like the fourth time, and I have a suspicion that whatever regrettable moment of thoughtless overconfidence ruined the soup project is also at the heart of why I seem to be still…writing…this paper…

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cookies for my committee…sort of…

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I have the best committee in the world.

How often do people say that? Approximately never.

For most people, the committee is a kind of mythical beast. A three-to-five-headed, firebreathing troll who lives inside a tower of books. A tower where there seems to be no email access. Like, never. Unless you did something bad and the troll (or one of its heads) needs to communicate this to you. These three-to-five heads are all the smartest in their field, and the gargantuan proportions of their combined intelligence dwarfs your puny human brains. If they fight (and they do) you have to be nice to all of them. At the same time. Which is impossible to do because they all need to believe that you’re only being nice to one of them. And yes, their six-to-ten pairs of eyes can always see you.

This is what I hear. But somehow, through the grace of Saint Academius or whoever the heck beneficently watches over all us poor saps (no one, this being does not exist, we’re on our own…together…alone…) I am spared the burden of this experience. If my committee were a mythical beast it would be a freaking unicorn.

One of my professors just met with me on a Sunday. During finals. And she had read my notes.

Unicorn.

My adviser regularly responds to emails and schedules meetings. She takes notes during our conversations. She sends these notes to me. She is encouraging and says things like, “This is an interesting idea,” and “I like what you said here.”

Unicorn.

While the other two members of my committee are slightly more traditional in their involvement with the project, they have not once breathed fire at me nor have they sent me upon any life-threatening quests through the dangerous jungles of any far distant archives searching for texts whose worth was more symbolic than necessary.

Unicorn.

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RIDM Screening 122: Atalaku

Directed by Dieudo Hammadi, Atalaku is set during the latest elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi1422763033/

Here’s a quick timeline:

1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo (the one that becomes the DRC, not the other one). He is deposed by the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and then eventually placed under house arrest with the military leader Joseph Mobutu (remember him – this is the one Bob Dylan wrote a song about – it’s called “Leopard Skin PillBox Hat” …right…)

1961: Lumumba is brutally assassinated, (there’s a fantastic film about it directed by Raoul Peck if you’re interesting…) and Mobutu beginshis assent into power.

1965-1997: Mobutu (monsieur coup d’etat himself) is in power and becomes the archetype of many African dictatorships to follow…

1996: Laurent Kabila leads Tutsi factions against Hutus in Eastern DRC – thus begins the First Congo War.

1997: Laurent Kabila comes to power after the invasions of the DRC (then Zaire) by Rwanda, defeats Mobutu’s forces. This ends with First Congo War, but we have another one…

1998: Second Congo War, which lasts until 2003 (officially). This involves several nations and effectively rips the enter of Africa apart.

2001: Joseph Kabila succeeds his father in office after the latter’s assassination.

2006: First free elections in 46 years. Kabila wins. (Which is a lot like more of the same thing…)

2011: Another multi-party election…

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RIDM Screening 84: A jamais, pour toujours

Confession: I am basically posting this for good form, because it is a documentary that I saw, and thus feel obligated to include it in the series. (Plus, duh, I like bragging about all these awesome films I’m seeing. Aren’t you tempted to move to Montreal now so you can watch great documentaries and go to jazz festivals and, oh man, just wait ’til you see the book festival coverage I’m going to throw your way…they’re doing a spotlight on Haitian authors this year…I know, right?)

Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque directed this film, which is confusingly titled “A jamais, pour toujours” in French and “The Longest Kiss” in English. The latter refers to a pronouncement that the Nile River joins (sort of?) Sudan to the newly created South Sudan, in a long goodbye kiss. Which is beautiful. The narration that went along with the film (we never have any idea who is speaking it) is a wonderful poetic reflection on the history of Sudan’s conflicts and the recent secession of South Sudan. Another beautiful thing: the cinematography. The webpage description (and I’m endlessly fascinated by these) describes the film as a “an essential look at an often misunderstood and tragically ignored country.” I would say that for all of the random media flashes we get that loudly proclaim the “genocide” and “chaos” and “cautious optimism” and “tribal clashes” and many other things that you typically hear about African countries in the news, it is, indeed, necessary to stop for a minute and see an intelligent exploration of how people are going about their daily lives in current Sudan and South Sudan. Yes, people are killed, and violence disrupts an entire country, but there are people who live as well. And that seems to be the goal of this film – to show that people continue to live.

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RIDM Screening 69: Ayiti Toma

Focusing on foreign aid (before and after the earthquake), the slave trade and colonialism, and vodou in Haiti, this documentary provides a far-reaching scope of a complex society. If there is one flaw the film suffered from it was the ambitious attempt to cover everything. How can you not try to cover everything when you’re talking about a place that has a history of being so egregiously misunderstood? That misunderstanding was also a focal point of the film, and it seemed as though an appropriate subtitle would have been, “Everything you don’t know about Haiti and by the way we have a lot more than earthquake damage and vodou here but, indeed, we do have a lot of those things as well” or something like this. It was very much a film that knew its audience.

One particularly well done aspect of the film was the wide range of interviews conducted. From vodou priests/priestesses, to Haitian sociologues/economistes, to young kids living in the bad part of town, to the jaded American aid workers (including Sean Penn?), to the cynical but wise (drunken?) fonctionnaire (that guy is everywhere, what is it with that guy?), to historian Laurent Dubois (‘heck yes!’ for those of you who work on Caribbean history). And this is one of the things that they are all both demonstrating and saying, which is (to paraphrase) : “There are an infinite number of viewpoints in/on Haiti – some of them better than others.” And they create a fully-formed, comprehensible picture of current Haiti and how it got there.

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