My Friday reads may feel a bit light, but I’ve actually been reading more than usual because I’ve got not one, but two manuscripts by close friends that I’ve been reading this week. The voice and the plotlines couldn’t be more different. One is a lyrical tale about a woman who goes to Mumbai to find her long-lost grandfather and learns to cook from him. The other is a study in wry wit as it tells the tale of confederate officer who makes a deal with a demon in a cave who (unsurprisingly) lives to regret it.
I’m continuing research on the book, and so I’ve been reading Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard. From bear baiting to cock fighting to the etiquette in wealthy households to how they managed the trash and why the heck they wore those ruffs around their neck, it’s a captivating portrait of life in 16th Century London. One thing that struck me as hard to fathom is that more than half the city’s population was under 25; much of the hard labor was done by teens. Most of the poor were dead by age 30, and only wealthy men and women tended to reach 40, known as the “start of one’s old age” thanks to many ways in which one could perish, not counting the plague.
For contrast, I’m reading another of the author’s works, Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press Gangings, Freakshows and Female Education. This book picks up what happening in the city in the early 1700s, with the development of Westminster (including Covent Garden and Soho, my former stomping grounds). I’m a total history geek, and I’ve read plenty of books on various time periods and Liza Picard’s voice is a breath of fresh air in the genre; light, with a gentle sense of humor and keen eye for irony.
Finally, we arrived in Florida on Wednesday to visit family and friends and to celebrate my birthday next week. So I cracked open Miami Spice by Steven Raichlen, a classic in the annals of Florida cookbooks, for his “Soupy Black Beans” recipe that I’m making to go along with some “Yellow Brown Rice,” essentially brown rice seasoned like traditional Spanish rice. As I flipped through my goop-splattered copy, I was reminded how much of an impact this book had on me when I came across it in the books submitted to the features department at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newsroom. I had grown up in Florida and never appreciated the impact and influence of Cuban, Latin America and Caribbean influence on the cuisine here. I convinced the features editor to let me write a story about it, no small task since I think I was still writing obituaries at the time. So it was the first cookbook that I covered in my fledging food writing days, which also means Steven was the first cookbook author I actually talked to. I remember being wildly nervous about it, but he was both polite and – since it was his first book – eager to talk about it. That book dropped me into a world of jerk chicken, smoked gazpacho and rice spiked with coconut milk – all of which sounds so good right now, I think I’ll make them this weekend.