Wide Sargasso Sea: hot chocolate on a stick

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


When I was in the seventh grade (that's around age 12-13, for you non-US readers), a friend of mine and I read Jane Eyre around the same time. She enjoyed some of it; I disliked it. But we could agree on one thing: the super-dramatic, gothic twist to Rochester's life story--the fact that he had locked away a crazy pyromaniac wife named Bertha who liked to creep around the house at night--that was awesome. We both wished Bronte had given more attention to Bertha. Bertha was the most--strike that, the ONLY interesting character in the book, and there was only one good passage that actually described her.

That friend and I grew apart, but a couple years later she told me she'd read a book called Wide Sargasso Sea, which was the story Bertha's life before Rochester. She (my friend) recommended it; she’d found it depressing, but good, and really liked revisiting the story of that character we had obsessed and laughed over as preteens. I never got around to it, and since I'm perverse in my book selection, the more I heard the novel praised over time, the more I figured I wouldn't like it. After all, everyone praises Jane Eyre, and even after all the time I spent studying literature in college and grad school, I still don't like that--why would I like its prequel?

But then I found a falling-apart copy of the book in a "free" pile on my street. I thought, "okay, it's a small book, and I don't have to pay for it, so it will be neither a waste of time nor money." I read it.

Guys. I hated it.
Author Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, more than 100 years after Jane Eyre. Its main character is Antoinette, a young white girl living in Jamaica with her mother and disabled little brother. Racial tensions are high: Antoinette's family is too poor to fit in with the other white people, who are all wealthy, and the badly-treated black people in Jamaica neither trust nor like any of the whites, so Antoinette and her family become increasingly poor, ashamed, isolated, and helpless. The mother, who's already a little crazy, goes crazier when rebelling former slaves light her house on fire and the little brother dies; Antoinette's stepfather has the mother committed and sends Antoinette to a convent. Fast forward to when Antoinette is old enough to marry; Antoinette's stepfamily basically bribes a young British guy to marry her. They love each other intensely for about a week, when Rochester (her husband) realizes they don't know, trust, or like each other. So he starts to hate Antoinette, who in turn starts to hate him, then she basically goes a little crazy because her life is so terrible and losing the one person she (thinks she) loves is the last straw. Rochester takes her back to England, where we get a creepy little epilogue telling us how/why she's so creepy in Jane Eyre.

Sorry, I'm being flip because of how much I disliked the book. The book does hint at the racial, sexual, mental-health and economic issues at play in 1830s Jamaica, but really, it only hints at these things. Mostly the book doesn't cover anything in depth except all of the ways in which Antoinette's life sucks.

When I taught first-year composition classes during my MA program, I would deal with particularly difficult-to-read student essays by playing what pedagogical theorist Peter Elbow calls "the believing game." That is, read the paper with the assumption that the author knows what s/he is doing, and s/he did the things I don't like on purpose, to prove a point or to somehow further his/her argument. So here's me trying to play the believing game with Wide Sargasso Sea: Rhys is attempting to give dignity to a stock character not only in Jane Eyre but in gothic fiction. She turns Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the dark, crazy wife in the attic, into Antoinette, a shy, reflective, friendless, troubled young woman limited by resources and societal conventions. While she does become the crazy wife in the attic, she gets there because the role of a woman in 1830s Jamaica and Britain do not allow her enough of a chance to express herself or her desires.

A decent attempt, but I don’t think Rhys developed those themes enough for me; the novel didn’t seem to make Antoinette’s life story “the plight of woman” but “the plight of one really, really unlucky person.” And why does it have to connect to Jane Eyre? Rhys’s Antoinette does not have to be Bronte’s Bertha; in fact, I think Rhys trying to tie the two tales together is what bothered me the most. A few details in Wide Sargasso Sea contradict points of Jane Eyre. The name "Antoinette" alone! I get using her middle name, because not many people nowadays would take a main-character "Bertha" seriously, but still, in Jane Eyre, the middle name is Antoinetta. Rhys also changed Mason from Bertha's family name to her step-family name, and changed the way in which Rochester met/married his wife, making his story a lie in Jane Eyre. In fact, Wide Sargasso Sea makes Rochester out to be a bitter, mean, greedy alcoholic. While I didn't like Jane Eyre enough to defend Rochester's character too much, Rhys is basically retconning him to be a big, bad liar, casting his role in Jane Eyre as one that is much more manipulative and sinister, and it doesn’t work for me. Why couldn't Rhys have written a feminist novel about white women's limited roles in 19th-century Jamaica using characters who didn't already exist in someone else's story? By the time I got to the final part of the book, set during the action of Jane Eyre, it felt like I was reading messily-researched fan fiction. It's like if 100 years from now, some fan of Twilight deciding to write a prequel about the life story of that red-headed female vampire who keeps trying to kill Bella, only with a few details changed because THAT WAY IT'S EVEN SADDER AND HAS MORE LOVE STORY IN IT. It felt like writing from a fan-girl who felt like she had SO MUCH TO CONTRIBUTE.

But back to “the believing game.” Maybe part of my annoyance of it is that the novel is set in Jamaica and I'm in the Northeast during a harsh winter! There were good parts to the book. Like... the hot chocolate! Actually, nope, even the parts with the hot chocolate were depressing, because Antoinette drinks it at her mother's funeral and then right before she finds out she's supposed to marry a man she doesn't know. But the people around her know that to comfort her, a mug of hot chocolate was the way to go.

So! If a friend of yours is depressed, whether it's because of the never-ending winter or because s/he is engaged to a stranger who might eventually lock him/her in an attic, consider giving him/her hot chocolate! It's a warming and delicious way to show you care, and that you are not likely to lock him/her in an attic yourself, because people who do that only drink rum.
What is this, you ask? This is, in my opinion, the coolest way to give someone hot chocolate: on a stick!

I saw the recipe for Hot Chocolate on a Stick on the Giver's Log website, and thought it was a great homemade gift idea. (As you know from my post-holiday entry, I love edible gift-giving.) None of those namby-pamby dry mixes; this stuff is real chocolate, gently melted and mixed with cocoa powder and powdered sugar to create the perfect thing to stir into a warm glass of soymilk. I actually imagine it would work okay in water, too, but I haven't tried it. Anyway, you can see the recipe at that Giver's Log link; I didn't change anything. I do want to say that I don't find chocolate as finicky as that author does, so don’t be intimidated by her very detailed instructions. I used half baking chocolate and half chocolate chips for my meltable chocolate, and I used these cute silicone ice cube trays from IKEA as molds:
My sticks are not as pretty as the ones at the Giver's Log; I used some coffee stirrers from a cafe, a few wooden chopsticks, and a couple plastic spoons. Once the chocolate hardened, the silicone made it really easy to remove from the mold, but I imagine a basic ice cube tray would also be pretty easy. If it gives you some trouble, simply dip the base in a bowl of warm water, which should soften (but not melt) the chocolate enough to get it out.
The advantage to the cross shape, in my opinion, is that it dissolves faster, but also that you can do cute things with them, like line them up or hunch them together.
As you can maybe tell from how much one little book annoyed me, the long, cold, snowy, icy winter is beginning to get to me. At Desdemona’s recommendation, I started taking vitamin D during these darker months to stave off SAD, but of course I still miss the sun. So while I'm waiting for warmer weather, I'll keep consuming copious amounts of chocolate, drinkable and otherwise--and I'll read some better books. Those of you who read Wide Sargasso Sea and enjoyed it, what am I missing? Those of you who liked Jane Eyre, what makes you prefer that novel to, say, something from Dickens?

Before I go, I wanted to share with you one denizen of the Boston/Cambridge area who doesn't care what time of year it is: our lime tree!
It flowered this winter! I actually took these picture a couple weeks ago; in place of the flowers, it has now started to grow a little lime. It did this once before, back when I first met the boyfriend, and we’re psyched that it's doing it again.
I'm a little worried the cats might be psyched about it, too.


food from around the world (ie, internet)

I eat my lunch at my desk at work. Everyone does on my team, but even at my last job, when people would eat their lunches in the little kitchen area, I preferred to eat at my desk. When I eat my lunch, I take a little "break" by reading blogs; mostly food blogs, some design blogs. My lunchtime blog cruising has led to a stockpile or recipes I've built up; vegan ones I want to try, non-vegan ones I want to veganize, etc. Often the recipes I read about during lunch become the recipes I make for dinner.

As with the following recipes! All came from various food blogs, with the exception of the cabbage and the cheesecake, which came from recipe sites. But all came from my lunchtime internet cruising.

For the record, if you like the kinds of recipes I link to here, and if you like what's on my blog in general, you should check out my links page, which I update with my favorite blogs/websites more often than I update my blogroll to the right.
First, Okonomiyaki, large savory Japanese pancakes! Trina of Your Vegan Mom posted a recipe for okonomiyaki and some tasty sauce to put on them, and it looked so delicious (and I love Japanese food so much) I had to try it all.
Because Trina recommended okonomiyaki as a snack, I figured they might be too light for a meal, so I served them with miso soup and roasted squash. Turns out they aren’t too light; even just having one each along with the sides, the boyfriend and I were overstuffed when we finished. But in a good way.

For the record, this recipe is pretty darn foolproof. Not only did I cut my vegetables much larger than I was apparently supposed to, but I’m also one of those people who always burns the first pancake to a crisp when making breakfast—and look! My first attempt was a little brown but looked totally passable.
You can see Trina’s "inauthentic" but addicting sauce in the background. I had to put a cover on it because I was “taste testing” it entirely too much while making the okonomiyaki.

In a similar vein, a couple months ago, I tried the Korean version of okonomiyaki: Savory Tofu Pancakes from Alien’s Day Out. I had to add a couple tablespoons of water to the recipe to get the batter into a workable texture, but I may have just drained my tofu more thoroughly beforehand.
We had them with some seaweed salad and stir-fried rice noodles.
They packed up adorably for lunch the next day, too; they would make for perfect bento lunches.

For those more in favor of continental cuisine, I’ve also been crushing on the "Mastering the Art of French Cooking: the Vegan Version" blog, where Affectioknit is veganizing Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe by recipe. She has some ingenious versions of some very not-vegan food. The boyfriend really likes her omelette recipe and has made it for me twice. The results are tasty. The first time he tried it, he overcooked the first omelette a little, so it’s browner than intended, but I’m posting the picture because it really gives you an idea of how eggy the finished version can look:
After the first omelette, he hit his stride. Here’s mine with fillings (note that I’d already started eating it. I have very little willpower):
Omelette filled with pesto and mixed veggies. Oh and in related non-egg news, I just bought some black salt! Normally when recipes call for it, I improvise by adding a touch of asafetida, which does lend a light sulphury (and therefore eggy) flavor to things, but I’m looking forward to trying the black salt.

What’s that to the left of my omelette, you ask? Why, it is a PANCAKE BAR.
Pancake bars are like granola bars, but made out of pancakes. I encountered the idea for pancake bars on the Kitchn website, where in turn they’d adapted it from a Martha Stewart recipe. I didn’t actually follow that recipe, but I did steal the idea. I made a double batch of “perfect pancakes” from Vegan with a Vengeance. I doubled because the recipe on that site calls for almost twice the amount of flour, so I figured I was making the amount of batter about even this way. I didn’t want to make apple ones, so I opted for cranberries; I added a cup of dried cranberries to the batter. You can't opt out of the streusel, though! If you want to eat these pancake bars on the go, or serve them at a large gathering, you can’t top them with maple syrup; this gives them a sweet topping without the mess. I ended up pouring my batter into a 9x13 baking pan AND into a loaf pan, because the total amount of vegan batter was a little more than the called-for non-vegan batter. Maybe that was still too much, as my baking time was also 10-15 minutes longer than the Kitchn website recommends. Anyway, for a single batch of VwaV pancakes, maybe try a 7x11 pan, or a 9x13 but shorten the baking time a little.

Not only are pancake bars novel and cool, but they’re also tasty and practical. I made them for a large brunch the boyfriend and I hosted, because I wanted to have pancakes but couldn’t serve normal ones because 1.) I hate standing over the stove forever making pancakes, 2.) I didn’t have time to do so with all of the other things I was busy making, and 3.) I didn’t want to have to worry about keeping pancakes warm on our buffet table. They were a giant hit.

Another interesting recipe I found on the Kitchn was for "butter dip biscuits." You know how it can be annoying to make biscuits because you have to cut in all the butter/fat? Not so with these; you melt the butter in your baking pan first, then make a butter-free dough, cut it into strips, and lay them in the butter. As they cook, they soak up the butter. It’s a very straightforward recipe to make and to veganize; substitute butter with earth balance or other vegan margarine, and the liquid milk with water or nondairy milk. They’re cute, and they taste pretty much like normal biscuits. The bottoms were a little too firm, but maybe I overcooked them a bit? The boyfriend called them "biscuit cookies" because he thought they were closer to cookie texture.
I served them as part of a tasty German meal; I made the Veganomicon beanballs with seasonings that were more German than Italian (onions, garlic, caraway seed), and included some sweet-and-sour red cabbage over pasta.

Not to be too dramatic, but I have had a lot of cabbage in my time, and guys, THIS WAS THE BEST CABBAGE RECIPE I HAVE EVER HAD. It’s incredibly simple; the recipe calls only for butter, cabbage, sugar, and balsamic vinegar (with salt and pepper to taste). but the flavors work beautifully together.

The last picture I have for you is of a recipe I made a while ago (I think last summer?), but it’s really relevant right now, since it would be a fantastic Valentine’s Day recipe:
Individual Raw Strawberry Cheesecakes from this recipe at the PPK. The recipe is for a whole cake, but you can divide it up into muffin cups. The components (cashews, coconut oil, strawberries [organic, guys! you should always stick with organic strawberries]) are a little expensive, but if ever there was a reason to splurge, this cheesecake is it. You can see I decided against the strawberry coulis, and no one missed it.

That brings me to the end of my cooking-around-the-internet post! I still owe you guys a "food from literature" post this month; I’ll do that early next week. I’ve read a book for it (Wide Sargasso Sea); now I’m deciding on the recipe. I was also thinking of posting a little house tour sometime this month, or at least a kitchen tour, so you can see where the vegetalion magic happens. What do you think?


a nightshade-free weekend in NYC

Like I said in my last post, the reason I didn't post about vegan pizza this weekend was because I was in New York City. A friend of mine has a dance company and was putting on her first big show, so the boyfriend and I went to see it. We were only in NYC for 24 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, and I forgot to take ANY pictures the whole time I was there. But it was a great time, and we ate a lot of good food! NYC is full of great vegan eats, but many have small menus, and finding nightshade-free things to eat can be rough. I had fantastic meals at all three restaurants at which we ate this weekend!

One thing I recommend to everyone with unusual food allergies or intolerances is to carry a well-written, clear list of what you can't eat. Servers often have so much to remember and to write down that they may miss something; it's easier to hand them a piece of paper and ask them to check what you've ordered. I started doing this about a year ago, and it has drastically improved 1.) the quality of my meals at restaurants and 2.) my stress levels; I get so stressed out at restaurants because I'm afraid I/the server forgot to ask about some sub ingredient).

Here is my list:
I took this with my phone; sorry it's fuzzy. But it gives you an idea of what I work with. I usually give it to the server as I make my order; I tell him/her what I would like to have, then hand them the list and ask if they'd check to make sure I can have that. Sometimes servers will just look over the list and tell me themselves, but more often (and more comforting for me), they take it back to the kitchen and give it to the chef. Sometimes they return the list, sometimes they don't, but it's easy to write out another list. I usually have 2 or 3 tucked into my wallet at all times, just in case.

So! A quick rundown of our weekend of nightshade-free vegan food in New York City!

Caravan of Dreams features organic vegan quisine. We had lunch when we first arrived in the city on Saturday afternoon. The boyfriend and I split the live almond hummus as our appetizer, and we both had applewood smoked tofu sandwiches. Our waitress was pretty sure both things were nightshade free anyway, but she checked with the chef to be sure. The desserts looked delicious, but we were too full.

The boyfriend and I miss Grezzo, an organic, vegan raw food place that was in Boston's North End for a while before it closed, so naturally a visit to Pure Food and Wine was in order. Pure Food and Wine is really pricy, but their food is super gourmet in its tastes and its presentation. ALSO, they are the ultimate allergy-friendly restaurant: when I started to show my list to our waiter, he said "Oh, we have a nightshade free menu, let me go get it for you." Guys! A nightshade-free menu! When I raved to the waiter about how he made my day, he said "We have a bunch of different menus behind the counter, for all sorts of food intolerances, allergies, and avoidances." It was so great not only to know what I could have, but to have a whole menu of my own to look at! The boyfriend and I split the hazelnut crostini appetizer, and my entree was the porcini ravioli. The salted caramel tart for dessert was the highlight of my weekend, food-wise, and considering how much I ate, those are some high praises. My only complaint with Pure Food and Wine is that the portions are small for those prices, and I'm a big eater. I left feeling satisfied, but not full.

Counter does local, sustainable, organic vegetarian and vegan food. We went there with friends for brunch on Sunday, and our waiter was really helpful with finding nightshade free brunch options! Four of us split the pastry basket; the mini muffins contain egg replacer (= potato starch = nightshade), but I could have the delicious blueberry bread, the awesome chocolate pastries, and the homemade vegan nutella and soy berry butter on top. The waiter also told me I could have any of the sweet brunch things (pancakes, french toast), but after those pastries I was in the mood for savory. I ended up with the tofu scramble, which was delicious. There's a rumor on the PPK that Counter is closing at the end of February, so if you have the opportunity to go there before it closes, do it!

Eating big meals out in NYC left my wallet considerably lighter (and me heavier, I bet!), but it was worth it to have so many good worry- and nightshade-free meals.