8 lessons we learned while living in the no-fun before 6PM food world
For the last week I've been VB6.
That's not a Star Trek term even if it sounds like one. I've been test driving the acclaimed Mark Bittman's new quasi-cookbook "VB6," which has multiple subtitles. I'll just tell you the most important one. "Eat Vegan Before 6." As in 6 pm, not am, which all of us could do in our sleep.
Before this week, my stand on veganism has amounted to this collection of shallow thoughts.
-Once I had a good vegan cookie.
-Those shoes are hideous, even on Natalie Portman.
-If the vegan wasn't going to come to book club I wish she'd have told me before I committed to this thoroughly depressing pasta dish.
Although I understood this was less a cookbook than a guidebook to healthy living, I opted not to download Bittman's book on my Kindle, because it seems foolish to combine electronics and cooking. I even paid full price for it, at my local bookstore, which needs the money. I've gifted Bittman's other books to several bachelor friends (a unscientific survey demonstrates that 83 percent of single men have at least one of Bittman's "How to Cook" series), this was my first Bittman purchase for myself. When it comes to compendiums, I tend to favor old gold standards like "Joy of Cooking" or my more recent favorite, Amanda Hesser's updated "The New York Times Cookbook." And although I do occasionally use Bittman's recipes from the Sunday New York Times Magazine--he liberated me from Thomas Keller's awesome but time-sucking fried chicken recipe--mostly I'm turned off by the presentation. All those boxes with instructions like "take out the ginger and replace it with semolina" just seem so anal. They make me feel like I'm being told the best way to pack a car. (You know what the best way to pack a car is? Open car, put crap in, close door. No one has ever pulled me over to grade me on stacking prowess.) Just give me one good recipe and leave it at that.
Bing: More on Mark Bittman
But from both a political and health standpoint, any move away from animal protein makes good sense. I'd never be able to go vegan all the time, just as I couldn't go purely vegetarian (once I discussed cohabitation with a beloved vegetarian, and he said I wouldn't be able to cook meat in his house and all I could think was, but I love Bolognese. And, not even Osso Bucco?) But it only takes one documentary about our food system to make you think twice and I've probably seen a dozen. Moreover I'd just finished reading Lionel Shriver's upcoming novel "Big Brother," which tackles the American obesity problem and was inspired by her own brother's death from obesity related issues. I was primed to at least give it a try.
Before I made my purchase I noted that the reviews on Amazon were not entirely glowing, marked by a tendency to diss the recipes. Some said that Bittman, who has been living a vegan until 6 pm lifestyle for 6 years, had already written enough about VB6 in The New York Times to make the book extraneous.
My own skepticism revolved mostly around the "before 6" business. Bittman eats vegan for breakfast, lunch and all snacks and then does as he pleases at the dinner hour, including drinking and eating red meat. In moderation of course. But this contradicts what we've been told about the healthy aspect of eating a good lunch and a light dinner. We're not supposed to bulk up as we head toward bed. Yet I went forward with my trial run.
Here's what I learned from being "VB6."
1. I enjoyed feeling virtuous before 6 but being so good during the day led to increased wine consumption with dinner. On day 5, I mixed myself a vodka gimlet at 10 pm. And then another. That makes double the number of vodka gimlets I made myself in the previous six months.
2. However, I think I might smell better.
3. I was snappish (possibly unrelated).
4. Going out to lunch becomes all about the company when you end up eating what is essentially a salad sandwich (see photo below). Maybe that's how it should be anyway.
5. I really like yogurt. It's important to me. Maybe because I grew up in the 70s, when 105 year-old crones always seemed to be emerging from Russian mountains or Greek villages to grin gummily at the world and modestly attribute their remarkable longevity to a diet of yoghurt. I craved yogurt so much that twice I had it for dessert after dinner, with berries and nuts. Normally I'm more of a cookies/brownies/ice cream woman so I see this as a positive, but there's no way I'm going to permanently remove yogurt from mornings forever, because without it in the lineup, my other regular, which is vegan, a steel cut oatmeal-almond milk-sunflower seeds-berry combo, gets a little dull. Bittman does suggest that last night's leftover vegetables can make a fine breakfast. Right.
6. It might just be a splash of milk in my tea, but I need it.
7. Honey is not vegan? Good lord.
8. Bittman's lentil salad (above) is nice although it's nothing that an egg or some feta cheese wouldn't improve. His DIY whole wheat flatbread is disappointing on first taste but grows on you until I found myself, just a minute ago, craving the stuff. (Eating it with a slice of cheddar you feel like a farm hand in a Thomas Hardy novel.) On the other hand, I ate more bread products while attempting VB6 than I would generally for one simple reason: I was hungry.
I'm already fairly clean living. I avoided the middle aisles of the supermarket long before Michael Pollan told me to. We attempt Meatless-Monday in my house although usually it's more like Meatless-Is-It-Wednesday-Already? I haven't put butter on a vegetable in at least 10 years, except for perhaps a holiday brussel sprout. There is whole wheat pasta in my cupboard although generally speaking, it tends to stay there. However, I do slip whole wheat flour into pizza crusts, banana muffins, etc.. And I'll always do that.
So I'm not a complete convert by any means, but I have no regrets over buying Bittman's latest. The opening section is full of useful information about what he's espousing, which is not a "hocus-pocus" diet but a lifestyle change. "I'm betting that VB6 will insure you to make the changes described in the book and stay dedicated to these new habits because you'll genuinely enjoy the food you're eating," Bittman writes. Well kind of, sort of. I'll keep trying his recipes. I'll try to make my favorite wheat berry salad and leave out the tuna and egg. But the 6 pm aspect of it I'm most likely to ignore. He owes the structure of VB6 to his professional life--a guy who writes about food for a living is unavoidably going to have to go out to dinner on a very regular basis. And when he does, he can't be fussing about the animal protein he consumes. There is no reason for those of us who aren't food writers to live that way. I'll aim for more of a VB12 approach. Or maybe VB12-6.
Bing: More on the pros and cons of veganism
We certainly think so!
Thanks, 'The Great Gatsby'?
In which we suggest books for nearly every kind of mother
If your mother digs an anthology that might make her cry, just a little, over the beauty of motherhood: Try "What My Mother Gave Me," a collection of essays edited by the novelist Elizabeth Benedict and featuring the likes of Roxana Robinson, Caroline Leavitt and "Admission" author Jean Hanff Korelitz. Ann Hood's essay "White Christmas," about the time she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother to stop buying her matchy-matchy outfits is a sweet gem, as is Mary Morris' wistful "She Gave Me the World." A box of chocolates, a bouquet and this wise little book will put you in good stead with your mother.
If your mother grooves on historical fiction and anything to do with Maine: Christina Baker Kline's novel "Orphan Train" would be absolutely perfect. Did you know that between 1854 and 1929, East Coast orphans were rounded up, put on a train and sent West? Some were adopted, the lucky ones, others ended up as little more than servants. Niamh, a 9 year old from Ireland left orphaned by a fire in 1927 is one of the less lucky ones. The story picks up in 2011 as a contemporary Maine teenager named Molly, who is living an unhappy life in foster care, begins a community service project cleaning out the attic of an ancient old woman with a big house right on the water. Fast and engaging, "Orphan Train" is exactly the kind of book your mother might want to sit down with after you make her eggs benedict and fruit salad.
If your mother is into Hallmark greeting cards or is a devotee of "Dancing with the Stars" watching sort: Then what about Marie Osmond's "The Key is Love," her memoir subtitled "My Mother's Wisdom, A Daughter's Gratitude?" It's filled with wisdoms passed on during the "Donny & Marie" years, like "A young woman should hold herself as a precious jewel." Not my thing, since I tend to hold myself like flesh and blood, but maybe it's your mother's? I can imagine Ann Romney snapping this up for her many daughters in law.
Bing: More on author Elizabeth Benedict
If your mother is impatiently awaiting the next Gillian Flynn: I'd offer her "Reconstructing Amelia," Kimberly McCreight's debut novel about Kate, a New York lawyer devastated by her teenaged daughter's alleged suicide. After she receives an anonymous text that says "Amelia didn't jump" Kate begins to investigate not just her child's tragic death, but the days and months leading up to it. The writing isn't quite as sharp as Flynn's, but the look at teenaged "Gossip Girl" culture is well drawn and Kate's anguish and determination to get at the truth is compelling.
If your mother has a thing for Sylvia Plath: Look, it's weird, the savagely talented poet sealed off her children to keep them safe from the gas and then put her head in the oven and ever since, a certain type of woman has become fascinated by her. They'll read anything about Plath, letters, journals, gossip, poems by her, poems about her. I'm one of them, so I immediately latched on to Elizabeth Winder's book "Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953." It's about the summer Plath worked as one of the 20 guest editors for Mademoiselle, the summer she would then mine for the content of her only novel, "The Bell Jar." It's possible I didn't need to know that "Sylvia had fruit juice, an egg, two pieces of toast, and coffee at the café downstairs' on June 1, 1953 or that she was wearing a "Mexican print dress with a boat neck and tight bodice" but Winder's diligence in obtaining every available fact about that month is admirable.
If your mother is into fine literature and has any interest in photography: Marisa Silver's "Mary Coin" is exactly the ticket. I've already written about it once for Page turner but I love this novel, which imagines the back story behind Dorothea Lange's most famous photograph of the Great Depression, "Migrant Mother." Silver goes deftly back and forth between subjects and time frames, weaving together the story of Mary Dodge (the name she gives Lange's subject) as a young, desperately poor mother, the photographer in various stages of her life and a California professor who discovers a family connection to the photo.
If your mother is super hip: Anna Stothard's "The Pink Hotel," a newly released novel that opens at a party celebrating the life of Lily, the proprietor of a hotel on Venice Beach (yes, a pink one), recently dead and mourned by many, including a host of lovers, husbands and one daughter who she abandoned long ago and is now a teenager. It's a bit the reverse of "Reconstructing Amelia," in that the unnamed narrator, Lily's daughter, is the one investigating her mother, who her English father has led her to believe is "a coward, a slut, a terrible mother." Personally, I think nothing says I love you on Mother's Day than a book about a terrible mother; it puts your own flaws in such improved perspective. Anna Paquin has optioned it and plans to make it into a film. "This book moved and provoked me in ways I can't fully articulate," Paquin says of "The Pink Hotel." It also made the short list for the 2012 Orange Prize.
If your mother is an avid reader of the New York Times Sunday Book Review and has a tendency to judge a book by its cover: Following up on her acclaimed debut novel "No One is Here Except for All of Us" Ramona Ausebel has a new collection of short stories, "A Guide to Being Born," which should entertain the literary mom who likes something pretty on her nightstand (not to be shallow, but look at that cover, isn't it gorgeous?). The collection of 11 stories charts the life cycle from birth to motherhood (with a little death thrown in there for good measure) and is being compared to Maile Meloy's "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It."
Bing: More on Anna Paquin
What's at the airport?
First look at new cover coming later this week
With spring in full gear, publishers are pushing some big titles
John le Carré's "A Delicate Truth," his 23rd novel, has to lead the list (it was named "The Most Anticipated Book of 2013" in the UK). Classic le Carré plot: A British civil servant lands in Gibraltar for a top secret counter-terror operation. His mission is to be the eyes and ears for an ambitious Foreign Office minister during the capture and abduction of a jihadist arms buyers. Then three years later, the minister's private secretary, Toby Bell, who was kept in the dark about operation "Wildlife" at the time, must investigate what really happened. Was it a success, or was it bungled and covered up? If you prefer your books on tape, le Carré has recorded the audio book. Here's the first line "On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom. His very British features, though pleasant and plainly honorable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limits of its endurance." You know exactly where you are when you are in le Carré country.
Bing: More on John le Carré
Caroline Leavitt follows up her New York Times bestselling "Pictures of You") with "Is This Tomorrow," a novel about the lasting impact a 12 year-old boy's disappearance has on a suburban Boston neighborhood, particularly his sister Rose, his best friend Lewis and his best friend's mother Ava, a single mother who the missing boy had a desperate crush on. The story starts in 1956 and then picks up again with Lewis and Rose young adults, both still caught up in the mystery of what happened to Jimmy all those years ago. Giving the book an "enthusiastic thumbs up," Wally Lamb credits Leavitt with a "Mad Men-like examination of shifting midcentury American values."
Bing: More on Caroline Leavitt
And the winner of the best and most intriguing title of the week award goes to debut novelist Bill Cheng for his "Southern Cross the Dog," the story of three childhood friends separated by Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Robert Chatham is only 8 years old when the flood washes away his family's home. Adrift and alone, he considers himself cursed as he makes his odyssey around a South steeped in Jim Crow, meeting fur trappers, hustlers, Klansmen and a host of prostitutes. The book got starred reviews in PW and Kirkus (hard to get both) and Cheng's Southern Gothic voice is winning him comparisons to Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
Just in time for Mother's Day, Joan Steinau Lester's new novel "Mama's Child" centers on the conflict between a white mother and her biracial daughter. Raised in 1970s San Francisco, the daughter, Ruby, is torn between her identity as a black woman and her allegiance to the white, leftist mother who raised her. Years later, when she becomes a mother herself, she starts to reexamine the relationship in a new light. Lester's novel is blurbed by Alice Walker, who calls it "the most passionate, the most honest and brave of books."
Fitzgerald's optometrist remains as "the eyes of God" in new adaptation
Whoever the billboard on the cover is supposed to depict, Luhrmann's new adaptation of the film doesn't hold back from making its own opinion the matter known - those eyes belong to Eckleburg, and the film's frequent shots of the billboard, George Wilson's consistent mentions of them being "the eyes of God," and the inclusion of a Cugat-styled shot of them on the film's poster leave no room for questions on the matter. Does it really matter? Well, depending on who you find more central to the story - Dr. Eckleburg or Daisy herself - it just might. Who would you rather see gaze out upon the vast valley of ashes that "The Great Gatsby" crumbles into - a man we never get to know who serves as a moral cipher, or the woman who single-handedly destroys nearly everyone she loves? Yeah, our money is on Eckleburg, making Luhrmann's choice to stick to the oculist one of the wisest he makes in his flashy, fizzy new take on the classic novel.
Still not sure? Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" opens this Friday, May 10. You probably need to see it to believe it (ahem, take that as you will). Till then, check out larger versions of both the new movie poster and the original Cugat cover after the break to make your own comparisons.