Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Language of Food

Entree comes from the French word "to enter". However, in America, we use it to specify the main course. In France, it seems to be the more accurate "first course". So the French is correct, right? Well, yes and no. It turns out that the "entree" was once a meat dish served in the middle of the meal. The American usage adopted this, and expanded to include any main dish. Meanwhile, the French moved it more towards the start. Neither is exactly what it originally was, but both showed the gradual evolution of the language of eating.
The Language of Food has many other interesting insights from the words we use to describe our meals. Low cost restaurants are likely to use general terms like "tasty". Expensive restaurants are more likely to focus on the origin of their food. You can fairly accurately identify the price range of the restaurant by analyzing the language. You could also see the "trends" of restaurants as the top restaurants attempt to invoke the popular feelings, while the lower-end restaurants gradually play catch-up.
Our descriptions of food give hints to their origins. We eat beef (French), but raise cows (Anglo Saxon) This is because the upper class spoke French, while the peasants spoke Anglo-Saxon. And a turkey? This bird was found in the New World. However, the Portuguese wanted to keep things secret. Since it looked similar to a Guinea Fowl, they let it be called after the eastern country of Turkey.
The book has many more historical nuggets of food terminology as well as modern analysis of how we talk about food.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

In Rough Stone Rolling Richard Bushman attempts to present an objective, academic view of the life of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. He acknowledges that much of the work on Smith is either "devotional" works written by current church members or academic work written by those (often former church members) who seek to justify their view. He seeks to provide a balanced, thoroughly researched academic work. In this he succeeds. He makes it clear from the outset what his views are and provides sources to back his opinions. However, he is not afraid to bring up the "dirt" and countervailing viewpoints.
He straddles the border between popular and academic history. It reads better than a typical academic work, yet the abundant quotation of primary sources slows down the narrative. (There are also plenty of sources with original punctuation and spelling, make things 'fun'.)
The narrative proceeds in a primarily chronological fashion. However, it is divided into important "episodes" in Joseph Smith's life and the formation of the church. After the first few chapters, the church becomes inseparable from the man. However, he also encouraged a process of "councils" of members that would make decisions. The church could continue to function in his absence (and continued after his death.) Joseph did remain the primary source of revelation for the church, with his voice being the ultimate authority.
As time progresses, he seems to be more of a "participant" in the story. Most of the historical records were written about him. Even his journals (when they were recorded), were often written by scribes rather than first hand. We get a sense that he was striving to build up not only a religious community, but also a large scale society. City building became meshed with the building of God's kingdom. This, alas, helped contribute to the strained relationship with the locals. (After all, if a religious community was pulling in more people, it could soon dictate its will in a democratic government.) The charter of Nauvoo, Illinois gave the community significant rights which the Mormons were able to use to help quell problems and build a city.
Joseph was eager to welcome new members into the church, with very minimal "background checks". Those with education were often placed quickly in leadership positions. However, there was also significant turnover, as many people become disillusioned with Joseph or some aspect of the church and fell away. These "former followers" turned out to be some of the most significant enemies. Some were alienated by Joseph's practice of "plural marriage". The practice came from a revelation that Joseph received and only shared initially with key church leaders. Joseph had "married" dozens of women of various ages and marital status. The actual physical practice remains somewhat ambiguous. (Many of the already married "wives" had their husband's consent and continued to live with him. Others appeared to have been more intimate.) At the same time Joseph was practicing plural marriage, he was preaching strongly against the use of "spiritual wifery" to commit adultery, and denying that he committed adultery. (Thus leaving the practice of plural marriage even more confusing.)
Joseph's death resulted after the destruction of a press that was publishing "libelous" material. He was called to stand trial in a neighboring community, where he was killed by a mob. The church splintered, with the majority eventually following Brigham Young to Utah (while Joseph's wife and children remained in the midwest.)
Joseph's story is that of a man who took on responsibility significantly beyond his upbringing. The book presents his story as it occurred during the time. He was a charismatic leader who believed he had received divine communication. He was also a community leader who set up organized structures that outlived him. And finally, he was a man with weaknesses. This book tries to provide a story of his life as close to what he experienced in his time. In that it succeeds.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Foodist is a "diet" book with a simple message: eat real food, not processed junk. It criticizes most "Diet" books for focusing on individual components instead of emphasizing good behavior over the long run. Those "simple" diets may help people lose weight quickly, but they don't alter the body's setpoint and people usually end up back where they started (or worse.) They also tend to make foods the enemy. Instead, people should focus on "real" food, as close to the production as possible. They should try to prepare it themselves and eat what is delicious, while not going for the quick fix. It makes a whole lot of sense. I was expecting this to be more of a "science" book than a diet book, but it did have some good parts.

Lady cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

I should know better than to pick up a book just because it has a bicycle on the front. A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar has almost nothing to do with bicycling. It also has very little to do with Kashgar (a Muslim, Western Chinese city.) What does that leave? "Lady Guide". Yep. This is a piece of chick-lit set in both the early 1900s and the current day. The old Lady was a "missionary" in Kashgar. However, the natives are just "extras" in this story about her coming to grips with herself and others. The modern girl eventually discovers that the old lady is her "ancestor". The generations of women all have the desire for exploration which in part leads to dysfunctional relationships with the other people in their life. It was not my type of story.

The Candy Shop War

A fifth grader moves to a new town over the summer. He reluctantly makes friends with some neighborhood kids. He doesn't want to perform the initiation task. However, standing up to the bullies is enough, and the four kids become good friends.

Shortly after the school year starts, they visit a new candy shop in town. While it seems to be a normal candy shop at first, they soon learn that it is run by a magician that dispenses magical candy. The magician cannot leave her "lair" and candy is most effective on young children. This leads to the children gradually getting involved in a magical war. They have to figure out who is good and who is bad and work to prevent potential calamities.

Candy Shop War is the type of fantasy that I enjoy. It is set in a "real" world. (In this case a fictional "Colson, California", situated in the outer Contra Costa county suburbs of San Francisco.) The people are mostly normal people who interact with a bit of magic in their normal world. The magic has "always" been there, but most of the people don't realize that it has existed. ("White Fudge" is an addictive sweet that further helps to make adults oblivious to the presence of the magic.) The story also takes many unexpected twists and turns without becoming implausible.
The magic system is also a great one. Who would suspect magical candy that only impacts children?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Shadow Rising

I tried. Brandon Sanderson wrote the final books in the Wheel of Time series, so it couldn't be bad, could it? Alas, after listening to a few hours worth of the audiobook, I had no clue what was going on or any desire to find out. I couldn't even make it through the plot summary on wikipedia. I've come to the conclusion that Robert Jordan's series is just not for me. I'm sure other people enjoy it, but for me, it will be my backup for times I can't get to sleep and there are no Jane Austen books to be found.