Friday, November 27, 2009

Hooray, Hooray for Betsy Ray

There are times when only comfort reading will do, and comfort reading of the most extensive sort--a much loved childhood series. One such time was this summer when I was sick, and I re-read the first four Betsy-Tacy books, ostensibly to see how they would work for my nieces, now both reading up a storm. (Just fine--not that there was any question of that.)

Another such time was this past week, when I learned that not only do I have Lyme disease but that I tested positive several months ago, and the doctor's office accidentally misplaced the test results. Not only that, but my best case scenario for treatment is a month of oral antibiotics (thereby wiping out all the good stomach bacteria I've been building up for years, which I'm convinced has kept me relatively healthy when I'm in India). (The other treatment scenario involves IV antibiotics for several weeks, but I'm devoutly hoping it won't come to that.) (By the way, I feel fine.)

So, comfort reading, if only to avoid thinking about all the things I'd like to do to the doctor's office, not to mention the stupid deer tick that bit me god knows when and didn't have the courtesy to make me get a rash, so I would know what had happened.

I first read the ten Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace when I was a child and then again as a teenager. I read them during stressful times in grad school, and I read them in my thirties, at least the last six, the books that take Betsy Ray and her best friend Tacy Kelly through high school and then abroad and into adulthood and marriage. I've always known that mine was not a solitary obsession, but it turns out to be more widespread than I'd imagined. The new reissue of the last six books from Harper Perennial Modern Classics, in three volumes, has garnered mentions in both New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. It also spurred the first ever Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge, not to mention the Betsy-Tacy Book Blog Tour.

The Betsy books are fictionalized versions of their author's life--Maud Hart Lovelace grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, at the turn of the century in a warm, loving family, wanting to be a writer. Lovelace told stories of her childhood to her only daughter, Merian Kirchner, and the Betsy-Tacy series was born. The first four books, which take Betsy and Tacy, and their friend Tib, from the ages of five through twelve, are delightful. Tacy is shy, Tib is tiny and Betsy makes up stories and hatches adventures for them all.

The last six books are different. Not that they're not equally delightful, but they're no longer children's books. Each high school book takes Betsy and her crowd through a year of high school. Betsy and the Great World skips ahead several years to 22-year-old Betsy on her own in Europe in the months before the outbreak of World War I. And Betsy's Wedding brings her home and sees her married to her sometime high school sweetheart and writing rival, Joe Willard. (I only just now learned that the Betsy-Joe high school relationship is entirely fictional, as Maud Hart Lovelace didn't meet her husband, journalist Delos Lovelace, until she was in her twenties.)

What keeps these books relevant and engaging is Betsy herself. She is incredibly alive in these pages--charming and flawed and constantly aiming to improve herself, or, at some points, change herself entirely. (She never succeeds.) What is lovely about Betsy is that she screws up, over and over again. She gets overly involved with her friends, she blows off her school work, she makes plans and doesn't keep them. She wants to be a writer but doesn't always make it her priority. She is, in short, entirely believable as a teenager and as a young woman.

It's probably been ten years since I last read the series, and it's interesting to me what details remained with me. For some reason, I remembered Betsy's sister Julia getting blackballed by her sorority but not Betsy and her friends forming their own sorority, Okto Delta, with less than wonderful results. In Betsy and the Great World, I remembered her visit to Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is performed every ten years, but I had no recollection of her near love affair with a young Italian man in Venice. What struck me on this re-read of Betsy and the Great World is how perfectly Lovelace portrays how it is to be on your own in another country for the first time. Betsy may have traveled with infinitely more luggage than I did, but some of the things Betsy thinks in her first few days in Munich are exactly the things that I thought during my early days in Delhi twenty years ago. When Betsy finally makes a friend, and everything changes, I knew exactly how she felt. It also amused me to see that I absolutely identified with Betsy's yearning to take a bath. In her case, the obstacle was the location of the bathroom with the tub (in the section of her hotel where army officers were quartered), whereas I was struggling with the paucity of bathtubs in India in general. But while my friend Becca and I were so desperate for a bath that we were on the brink of asking a woman we'd just met if we could use the bathtub in her hotel room (we lost our nerve, alas), Betsy persists, gets her bath and charms the officers all at the same time. Go Betsy!

What's odd is that I don't actually own any of the Betsy books. I always read library copies as a child, and when I got older and thought about buying them, I discovered that the older editions are rare and expensive, and most of the reprints are not very well done. (Really, there were some terrible choices for cover illustrations along the way. Several times I thought, "But Betsy and Tacy didn't look like that!") That may change, though. I'm delighted that there are handsome new editions out, with the original illustrations and new introductions and material about Maud Hart Lovelace and her life. It's heartening to know that Betsy and her family and friends will continue to charm and entertain readers today, a century after Maud Hart Lovelace graduated from high school in Mankato and moved first to Minneapolis and then out into the great world. And maybe if the books are on my shelf, I won't wait ten years to re-read them. I won't need the excuse of illness or anything else to curl up with Betsy, Tacy and Tib, with Carney and Cab and Winona, with handsome Joe Willard and Julia Ray's endless stream of beaus, and watch Betsy roll the Magic Waver curlers in her hair before bed and settle down at her Uncle Keith's trunk to write the stories that she hopes will some day make her famous.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Corduroy Mansions, Part II

Somehow, I managed to miss this entirely, but the ever prolific Alexander McCall Smith is writing a sequel to his delightful Corduroy Mansions, first published online in daily installments in the British newspaper The Telegraph last year. (I'm wondering if I should add more frequent perusal of British newspapers to the too many things I already read online.) This one is called The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, which must mean that Freddie de la Hay, the temporarily vegetarian Pimlico terrier that William the wine merchant adopts, is back.

I wrote about the first volume of Corduroy Mansions here, last November. Alexander McCall Smith is so astonishingly productive--he seems to write a new volume for all three of his other series every year--I'm not sure why I didn't assume he'd write a sequel to this as well, especially because the ending of the first book wasn't really an ending. (AMS likes ending with a party and a toast--he's done this with several of the volumes in the 44 Scotland Street series as well--and it's true that the party and the toast help distract you from the fact that there's no real resolution to anything.)

As with the first volume, there are multiple ways to access the new book. You can read it on the Telegraph site linked above. You can sign up to have each daily installment sent directly to your email address (though I'm assuming you'd have to read the already-published installments on the site). My preference, obvious given my love of audio books, is to download the podcast of the novel, narrated by the excellent Andrew Sachs.

If you missed the first volume and aren't yet sure you want to commit, Alexander McCall Smith has kindly provided a brief summary, to let you know what you're in for. His books are light but smart and always entertaining, and this one is no different.

Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I have 46 chapters to download . . .

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meatless Mondays: Tried and True Spinach Soup

I haven't done a Meatless Monday post in a long time, but since soup season is here (even though the past few days could have passed for spring, were it not for the heaps of fallen leaves on my lawn), it seemed like the time to write about this soup.

When I realized, recently, that my ancient copy of The Moosewood Cookbook had broken into 2 pieces, I was not at all surprised to learn that the page on which the binding broke is the page for Cream of Spinach Soup. I don't cook too many things from Moosewood anymore (with a few significant exceptions, of course), but this soup is one of the absolute keepers.

What's funny about the soup is that I make no other soup this way. In fact, I've never seen a recipe for another soup that follows this same method. I think that's interesting, especially given that there's basically a formula you can use that is adaptable to many kinds of soup. (That would be the saute onions, carrots and celery in a bit of oil, add the other vegetables and/or beans and herbs, add the liquid, bring to a boil, let simmer, etc. formula.) This soup is not like that. Mollie Katzen tells you to put a potato, an onion, a carrot and a clove of garlic in a pot and cover with water, then cook til the vegetables are soft and then puree it all, thus creating a stock that is not stock. I am sure that I could fiddle with this recipe and find a more sophisticated way of getting to this same place, but I have no interest in doing that because this way works just fine. (In the revised edition, she's more specific with amounts, but I still see no need to change the original. This is one soup, though, that definitely benefits from having an immersion blender, as you have to puree both the vegetables and the spinach, and it's much easier not to have to deal with a traditional blender.)

The other thing interesting about this recipe is the amount of butter. In the original Moosewood, published during a time that vegetarian food had to be made palatable by the addition of massive amounts of butter and cheese, the recipe calls for a roux that includes 1/3 cup of butter. There is no reason to have 1/3 cup of butter in this soup, and from the beginning, I cut it down to 1 or 2 tablespoons. Still, when a new addition of Moosewood came out, I was surprised to learn that the butter had gone from 1/3 of a cup to optional. This seemed excessive, and I ignored the new instructions just as I had ignored the old, although, admittedly, the optional amount of butter in the revised recipe is approximately what I use anyway. The 1-2 tablespoons of butter gives it some depth but doesn't make it heavy. I also always use 1% milk because that's what I mostly have in the house, and it comes out just fine. (I do find that the roux thickens more quickly if the milk is already hot, so I usually heat it up in the microwave before adding it to the roux.)

The recipe is also flexible enough to adapt to any kind of spinach you might have. I've made it with frozen spinach and with fresh spinach in a bag from the grocery store. I will admit, however, that the best versions of this soup have been made with (usually organic, though not always) spinach bought from the farmers market and cooked shortly thereafter.

Even though I occasionally flirt with other spinach soups (like the lovely spinach and green garlic soup from Orangette), I always come back to this one. It's not just that I've been making it for as long as I've been cooking and can remember all of the kitchens in which I've made it. It's that I haven't found one to top it. Sometimes it's just good in an ordinary way, but when I can make it in the fall, when all of the vegetables are newly out of the ground and when the chill in the air is there to remind us of what's ahead, it can be sublime. And there's no way that something this shade of green isn't good for you. But that it's good for you is secondary. I make this soup over and over because it's a lovely thing to eat, no matter the time of year.

Cream of Spinach Soup
Adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook

1 carrot
1 onion
1 clove garlic
1 potato
Cover w/ water. Steam until tender. Puree in its own water. (I usually don't peel the potato, especially if it's organic, but you can if you want.)

Steam 1lb. spinach in 1 cup water till wilted. Puree.

Make roux by whisking 1-2 tablespoons flour into 1-2 tablespoons melted butter. Whisk in 2 cups (warm) milk and cook over very low heat, stirring, until thickened.

Add the spinach to the roux, along with
1/2 tsp. salt ( or more)
1/2 tsp. basil
pinch nutmeg
pinch thyme
(any fresh herb like parsley or marjoram)

Add carrot/potato onion mixture to spinach. Adjust seasoning and, if too thick, add milk.
Heat (very low flame) and stir till smooth, creamy, green, fragrant. (The soup is all of these things, but I do usually find it needs more salt. At this point at the end, I like to use Maldon salt or other sea salt. I also sometimes grate in a bit of Parmesan cheese.)

Serves 4. Time: An easy 40 minutes.