Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Patricia Highsmith: The Price of Salt, or Carol (1952)

priceofsaltAlthough I haven’t been posting much about books lately, I have been reading, and there have been some quite interesting finds, too. I’ll get around to writing about them at some point, because they deserve it. I’ve been in the mood for different things lately, and then somewhere I read about Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (sometimes published as Carol), and lightning struck. This book, I am fairly certain, will make my “favourite reads of 2015” list, unless the reading year suddenly picks up to become exceptionally stellar (and even then).

The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman living in New York without many strings attached. She wants to be a set designer and has a circle of artistic friends, among them Richard, who is adamantly in love with her and determined to make her love him back. She’s slept with him, but she’s not in love. To make a living, Therese works in a department store during the Christmas period. One day, a blonde woman buys a doll from her, and Therese is strangely attracted to her. She writes her a Christmas card and they start getting to know each other. The woman – Carol – is going through a divorce and has a little daughter.

Therese and Carol start seeing more and more of each other, much to the dismay of Richard, who starts seeing less of Therese as a result. Therese begins to realise she’s actually in love with Carol, she longs to spend time with her and is jealous of Carol’s old friend Abby. Likewise, Carol seems to enjoy spending time with Therese, but her intentions are less clear. Richard believes she’s taking advantage of Therese, but Therese keeps seeing her, they get closer, and eventually decide to go on a road trip together. And so, a beautiful love story between them begins to unfold.

But this is 1950s America, and Carol’s ex-husband wants custody of their daughter Rindy. He knows of Carol’s sexual orientation and sets a detective on the heels of the two women. Eventually, Carol has to return home to face the charges against her.

Despite these dark undertones and the sacrifices especially Carol has to make, this is a hugely optimistic novel. Patricia Highsmith originally published it under the pseudonym of “Claire Morgan”. In the afterword, she states that even years after the novel was published, she used to receive letters thanking her for writing a novel about a same-sex couple with an uplifting ending (apparently most of these stories at the time ended with at least one of the protagonists committing suicide, repenting, or losing everything).

Aside from that, I also very much liked the writing in The Price of Salt. It’s quite beautiful, and there are some very insightful and very current statements to be found.

For example, Therese has a conversation with Carol at some point that makes her reflect on the issue of hate:

It reminded her of a thousand conversations with Richard, Richard mingling war and big business and congressional witch hunts and finally certain people he knew into one grand enemy, whose only collective label was hate.

Could these lines not be written about one of today’s Internet trolls, liberally mingling politicians, journalists, and “the powers that be” into a big conspiracy theory? We sometimes talk about this phenomenon as if it were something new. It’s helpful to be reminded that perhaps it has merely changed shape and is now more obvious and possibly easier to spew vitriol against “the enemy”. Apparently people need the mirage of such a clear-cut enemy whom they can blame for everything that is wrong with the world, and the more complex the world becomes, the greater this need.

In fact, the realisation that such an enemy is in reality hard to identify profoundly shakes Therese:

An inarticulate anxiety, a desire to know, know anything, for certain, had jammed itself in her throat so for a moment she felt she could hardly breathe.

Who doesn’t know this feeling, the almost paralysing anxiety that sometimes overcomes you when you consider certain complexities and uncertainties surrounding the future and your life?

Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.

It’s easy to imagine, of course, that if you’ve just discovered you’re in love with a person of the same sex, something even more frowned upon at the time than today, this feeling of shifting ground can really grip you. But then there are the love scenes. Tender and erotic, they’re beautiful and striking. I won’t put any of them here, because I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Read this book. It’s beautiful.

It also made me consider, once more, how far we’ve come on the one hand, and how stuck we still are in old ways on the other. This year, “only” 63 years after the publication of The Price of Salt, same-sex marriage was legalised in the US. Considering that non-heterosexual relationships have been stigmatised for so long, the speed at which things have evolved is breathtaking. BUT. BUT. Homophobia and prejudices against people who identify anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum are still everywhere. Same-sex marriage is still not legal even in many Western countries (Germany, I’m looking at you).* This stings, and it also stinks, to high heaven. Books like The Price of Salt should be required reading in our secondary schools, where LGBTQ-phobia is often particularly rampant and can make the lives of LGBTQ kids a living hell. But as long as we have bigot parents around who would rather “protect” their children from anything even remotely resembling a graphic sex scene than raise sexually secure and empowered human beings, there’s a fat chance of that happening. The fact that The Price of Salt was written in 1952 and we’re still this far away from acceptance is shameful.

At the danger of repeating myself, read this book.

*Say what you will against the enshrining of privileges in an outdated institution such as marriage (you’d be right), but the fact that this institution is slowly opening itself up to other forms of relationships is, in my view, a step towards greater acceptance and thus, progress.


Recipe: Artichokes with Bacon

Having returned from a business trip to Brazil on a Saturday evening, and with German shops still stubbornly closed on Sundays, my food situation was somewhat bleak this weekend. However, I had a wonderful glass of artichokes in my pantry, from Tudela no less. These artichokes, which my Mother in Law thankfully knows to provide me with on each of our visits, are melt-in-your-mouth tender and cause an artichoke flavour explosion to happen in your mouth. I also had some diced bacon in the freezer and some red onions were knocking about. Almost all you need for a light, flavourful summer dinner.

But first, here are some gratuitous Brazil pictures:

Detail at the #niemeyer Auditorium #saopaulo

A photo posted by Bettina (@booksbikesfood) on

The Niemeyer Auditorium in São Paulo is pretty striking.

Bom dia, Rio.

A photo posted by Bettina (@booksbikesfood) on

Rio de Janeiro, stunning as ever. (I wanted to post a different picture here but Instagram won’t let me, I don’t understand…)*

OK, now for the food.

#Artichokes with #bacon for #dinner

A photo posted by Bettina (@booksbikesfood) on

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 400g (net weight) canned artichoke hearts, cut in halves
  • the artichoke water from the can
  • 1 (red) onion, diced
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp white flour
  • 1 tbsp diced bacon
  • 1 tsp dried parsley (you can also use fresh)
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Reduce the heat and add the diced onions. Cook until they start becoming translucent, add the minced garlic and the bacon and cook a bit more. Add the parsley and the flour and stir. Then add the artichoke water, turn up the heat and keep stirring until the flour has dissolved and the sauce starts thickening. Add the artichokes and continue to cook until they’re heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

* P.S. – A really annoying thing has happened; apparently Instagram has decided to take away the option of getting to the source code of a picture to embed it directly through the source URL. It’s a bit crap because now I can’t control the size of the pictures, whether they’re centred in the text, and it has all the Instagram caption and “likes” etc. Plus, it seems to “eat” or rather not let me post certain pictures. GRRRRRRR. Has anyone discovered a way of finding the source URL? Thanks :)


Recipe: Mushroom “Ceviche”

Sorry for the long silence (again). I have a good excuse, we holidayed (yay), and since we’ve come back it’s been way too hot to do much in the way of cooking and biking, or reading for that matter (I’m sure my brain has melted more than just a little bit). The mere idea of adding more heat to the environment by turning on my stove has been so offputting I haven’t done it in the past two weeks, except for making coffee in the mornings. Cold dishes have been the order of the day, like this one, and all kinds of salads.

And then, as is wont to happen when the heat turns up, came the desire for ceviche. But the life of a Central European is tough, what with the distance to the sea (especially if two of your favourite sports include kayaking and surfing). And the life of a Central European fish lover is even tougher. My and Mr BBF’s moaning about the lack of good, affordable fresh fish could fill volumes. So what’s the Central European ceviche fiend to do? This one looked for alternatives and found: mushroom ceviche.

Although my favourite variety by far is Peruvian ceviche, I have to say I’m not afraid to shamelessly steal from other countries’ cuisines too, so this is based on a Colombian recipe. Next time I’ll try the original recipe using artichokes and palm hearts (two further obsessions of mine). This time, I made do with what I had around, mushrooms and a red bell pepper. The result of the experiment was… well, not really cevichesque, but more than edible. Tangy and fresh, this is best if the mushrooms and onions have had a chance to interact with the lemon/lime juice for at least a few hours.

Ingredients (serves 2 for a starter, 3 as a light main)

  • 6-7 large brown champignons, peeled, stems trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 red onion, halved and cut into very thin slices
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 tomatoes, deseeded and diced
  • handful cilantro, chopped
  • juice of 4 limes
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • salt

To take away some of the its sting, soak the sliced red onion in hot water with a bit of salt for 5 minutes. Mix the lime and lemon juice with the vinegar in a large bowl. Drain the onions and add. Let them marinate for 30 minutes (meanwhile, prepare all your veggies). Add the vegetables and the chopped cilantro, mix well, cover, and refrigerate for at least another 30 minutes (a few hours is best). Add salt to taste and serve. Enjoy!

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Timur Vermes: Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back; 2012)

Er ist wieder da (English translation: Look Who’s Back) is the kind of book you can’t resist because of the cover. Good graphic designers can say so much with so little: one quick look and you immediately know what, or who, this book is about. I bought this at some point last year, having eyed it on the shelves for some time. Then, the book spent several months in my TBR pile, and the other day, I decided to pick it up.

The premise of this novel would’ve been considered outrageous in Germany just a few years ago, and it did cause quite a stir: One fine day in 2011, Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up in Berlin some 66 years after his suicide. He’s wearing his uniform, and he’s in good shape. Berlin, however, is not what it used to be. It is the capital of a liberal democracy, self-complacent and cynical.

Germans are not what they used to be, either, he finds: There are too many Turks, and an entire population of people who don’t work but are generously provided for by the Government through a puzzling scheme called Hartz IV, as he finds out during his first forays into trash TV. And, no-one is much inclined to take him seriously. Speaking, as he does, in a military tone and with antiquated Nazi vocabulary, and firing his tirades at anyone who will talk to him, nobody can quite believe he is actually being serious (and of course, Hitler is dead anyway). So, people quickly decide, he must be a comedian, a particularly radical one who never leaves character. He receives a slot in a comedy show run by a comedian of Turkish descent, and takes the audience by storm. Except for Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild-Zeitung, and some old-timers who have actually suffered under his regime. But he manages to turn Bild Zeitung around, and after he is beaten up by some neo-nazis for “ridiculing” their “idol”, he becomes unstoppable…

I wasn’t expecting anything brilliant, but I also didn’t expect to have such a lukewarm reaction to this book. Really, the most radical thing about it is the premise. After that, it’s kind of predictable. There are a few interesting turns, such as the fact that the only political party Hitler sympathises with are the Greens, or that Bild, a tabloid that normally holds, shall we say, hyperconservative populist views, doesn’t take to him kindly. But other than that, I found it was mostly trying too hard. Most of the scenes weren’t that funny, even though they were meant to be. These episodes caused the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s critic to wonder to what extent portraying Hitler as a bit eccentric or detailing his reactions to modern technology wasn’t trivialising him too much. I can see where she’s coming from. His first experiences with smartphones and computers provoke a “Ha ha, just like Grandma!” type of reaction. The only really brilliant scene, in my view, was Hitler’s visit to the headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s most radically right-wing party, exposing them and their pseudo-democratic rhetoric as the hypocrites they are (but we already knew that too – it was just funny to see them criticised from the “other side” for not being “properly” right wing).

There is also an aspect in which the very circumstances of the book undermine one of it’s most important points. The reason people find “comedian” Hitler so fascinating is that he criticises German society from a viewpoint that nobody else would dare to take (so there’s always a bit of an awkward taste to his “jokes”). But on the other hand, there’s a scene where people shout “Sieg Heil” back at him in a way that is absolutely chilling. Yet, since people think he’s a comedian, wouldn’t you think they’re shouting it “ironically”? And wouldn’t that actually detract from the fact that the way he’s still able to grip the masses is beyond frightening? I’m not sure about this, but it was a thought that occurred to me as I considered that particular scene.

Some of the cultural references to current affairs are also quite funny and on-point. But most of these are very Germany-specific and if you don’t know the politicians or celebrities involved, you’d really be missing out. I suppose if you read it in translation and without socialisation into contemporary German politics/public life, you’d likely be even more disappointed. If you don’t understand all these cultural codes the book plays on, I would imagine that what remains is the hollow shell of an intriguing premise that leaves a stale taste in your mouth afterwards.

For me, the main problem was that the novel seemingly couldn’t decide whether it wanted to make a serious point or not. I mean, I suppose it does, and the idea had quite a lot of potential. But the introduction of quite a few slapstick comedy-like elements sometimes draws it dangerously close to losing track of that and thereby actually trivialising this serious point.

If you’re still intrigued, you should also read Tony’s review of Look Who’s Back. He provides the viewpoint of a non-German and makes some great observations.


Recipe: Spinach Salad Bowl

The other day, I broke my little toe. Not fun. They put my foot in a silly cast shoe that I have to wear for six (!) weeks. Apparently, this is how long even a little toe takes to heal. I can also attest to the fact that three and a half weeks after the event, it still hurts when I step on it too strongly, so the cast shoe is probably for the best. All this to say, I haven’t been moving around much, as opposed to my usual habits. On top of that, summer has really started over here and I’ve been more than antsy to get out hiking, swimming, biking, and all the fun activities you get to do in the summer. Except I don’t get to be active. 

All this to say, I’ve been trying to watch what I eat a bit more because I’m not using any calories since I’m mostly stationary. And I’ve really been feeling like summer foods. Enter this beautiful salad bowl. The great thing with these things is, you can throw just about anything into them and it will taste amazing.

Ingredients (1 portion)

  • 1 large handful of baby spinach
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1/2 avocado, diced
  • 5 radishes, finely sliced
  • 4 artichoke hearts, quartered
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • dash of olive oil
  • pinch of salt

Just assemble everything in a bowl, drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice. Add the salt, mix well and enjoy! Also, you can plop a soft-boiled egg on top if you like.


Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

el_pas_de_las_mujeresI started reading El país de las mujeres (I don’t think it’s been translated) because I was intrigued by its premise and because I remembered having read and enjoyed La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan feminist writer, and this novel is no exception from her feminist literature. In a fictional Central American country called Faguas, Viviana Sansón and her friends decide to launch a radical feminist party, the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (which abbreviates to PIE, meaning “foot” in Spanish, and so the party’s symbol is a woman’s foot), “Party of the Erotic Left”.

Viviana is a highly successful TV presenter who is on a mission to change the highly corrupt politics of her country. Initially a group of outsiders that relies on political actions mostly designed to attract a lot of attention, they suddenly get help from mother nature: a volcano erupts and its gasses leave the men of Faguas without testosterone. As a result, they become weak, malleable, and lose their will to keep power. Suddenly, the PIE finds itself in power and Viviana is President. She instals a series of measures to change her country, the most radical of which is the removal of all men from government positions.

Men are relegated to the household, while women staff all the ministries, police, the army, and all public services. Of course, some are not happy. As their testosterone levels return to normal, those who have been ousted from power start plotting. The novel opens with their plot coming to fruition: Viviana is shot in the chest at a public rally and falls into a coma. El país de las mujeres runs in two parallel strands of narration, a first in which we witness Viviana’s colleagues and allies dealing with the extraordinary situation, and a second that consists of Viviana’s memories of how she came to power and the developments that led there. She’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death in which she remembers all the significant moments in her and her party comrades up until the shooting.

Intriguing, right? And I did enjoy parts of El país de las mujeres quite a lot. But on the whole, I have to confess that this book left me a bit cold. I wasn’t in the right mindset when I started: I expected a novel, but this is a thought experiment. A lot of the political ideas expressed seemed not just far-fetched, as they would have to with this kind of premise, but more than naive and completely unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many important ideas in this book I wholeheartedly agree with, starting with the premise that the value society attaches to “typically female” tasks such as housekeeping and care-giving needs to be placed on a par with the value of “typically male” tasks. But as a thought experiment I found El país de las mujeres to be a bit simplistic.

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Dinner for Two: Salmorejo and Blue Cheese Cream with Strawberry Purée

dinner42This is the cecina edition of Dinner for TwoCecina is basically cured or smoked meat, similar to ham, but it usually has a stronger taste, and it can be made from meats that aren’t pork. We had some that friends brought us when they came to visit, and this weekend it was time to use it. We were in the mood for something fresh and summery, since the weather has been playing along really nicely. And it’s strawberry season! So we came up with two ideas. Salmorejo is a dish from Andalucía that we became addicted to last year on our holiday in the region. It’s a cold purée made from tomatoes and bread. It’s a bit similar to gazpacho, very refreshing, but since it’s got bread in it it’s more substantial and filling. Mr BBF used this recipe and topped it with some cecina that he briefly toasted in the microwave. We also decided to make a starter (which we later decided to have as desert) of blue cheese cream with strawberry purée, also topped with cecina (no microwaving this time. For this, we were inspired loosely by this recipe, but we wanted fresh strawberries, so I just made a real purée rather than using strawberry jelly. It was simply delightful. We enjoyed our feast with some txakoli and some cecina drizzled with olive oil:   Blue cheese cream with strawberry purée (serves 2-3) Ingredients

  • 60g blue cheese
  • 120g mascarpone
  • about 40ml milk (depending on the thickness of the cheese cream, start out with 30ml then add more if needed)
  • one large handful fresh strawberries
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • cecina or ham to garnish

For the blue cheese cream, cut the blue cheese into pieces and place them in a plastic bowl. Add the mascarpone and the milk and mix a bit with a fork, further crumbling the cheese. With a hand-held blender purée the mix until thick and very creamy. Taste and potentially season with salt and pepper (we didn’t). Also if you like you can vary the blue cheese to mascarpone ratio. I liked it as it was (I like cheese a lot), but Mr BBF would have preferred it with slightly less blue cheese. For the strawberry purée, wash and dice the strawberries, mix them with the 2 tbsp sugar in another plastic bowl. Purée with your trusty hand-held blender until it’s nice and creamy. Layer the cheese cream and strawberry purée into glasses and refrigerate until just before servingNow, I learned a lesson here. Inspired by the original recipe, I put the strawberry purée at the bottom of our glasses. But since our purée didn’t have jelly, it was more fluid than the cheese cream and the layering didn’t work that well. So I would recommend to start with the cheese and then layer the strawberry purée on top. Alternatively, you could spike the strawberry purée with some gelatine to make it less liquid. Refrigerate until serving time. Just before serving, garnish with the cecina and half a strawberry per portion. Salmorejo (serves 2-3 as a main) Ingredients 

  • 800g fresh ripe tomatoes
  • 100ml olive oil
  • 150g white wheat bread, crust cut off
  • 1/2 clove of garlic (this is really enough, just trust us on this one)
  • salt to taste

Warning: this recipe makes a bit of a mess in your kitchen, but it’s absolutely worth it. Peel the tomatoes, either using a very sharp peeler or using the poaching method. Chop them and place them in a large pot, bowl, or in a blender if you have one. Purée the tomatoes, then pass them through a colander to get rid of remaining peel and seeds. Dice the bread and add it to the tomato purée; leave for about 10 minutes to help soften the bread. In the meantime, peel the garlic clove and mince half of it. Add the garlic, the olive oil and salt to the purée and blend until smooth. Season to taste and refrigerate until serving. Cut some cecina or ham into small pieces and pop them into the microwave for a few seconds to make them crunchy. Ladle salmorejo into soup plates and garnish with the cecina. ¡Qué aproveche!


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