Books, Bikes, and Food

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

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Recipe: Chicken with Avocado-Yoghurt Dip

It occasionally happens that you get inspired. On Monday, I was going to make this recipe and follow it pretty much step-by-step. I was also feeling supremely lazy (so if you’re feeling too lazy to click on the above link to the original recipe, I totally hear you – it’s called “Greek Chicken Skewers with Avocado Tzaziki”), so I decided to make this recipe even less work than it originally was. I was going to leave out the skewers and just fry the chicken breast. I was also going to leave out the “Greek seasoning mix”, mainly because I wasn’t quite sure what it was (I’d never even heard it was a thing), what it contained, and was too lazy to google it – so I was just going to replace it with whatever Mediterranean spices I could find in my spice drawer.

And then, inspiration struck. Because what exactly would happen if in addition to the olive oil, garlic and assorted spices I coated the chicken breast in tahini before frying it? In one word: magic. The tahini really made the chicken pop! And the avocado-yoghurt dip was divine. On a side note, I’m refusing to call it tzaziki, for the love of Greece. The poor Greeks already have it hard enough as it is without folks – and worse, Germans – butchering their cuisine (although, might I say, in a freaking delicious way). And on that note, this video, made by German public television (you will not believe this), is absolutely BRILLIANT. It had me in tears laughing.

Man, so many words for such a simple recipe. So here it finally is. It admittedly doesn’t photograph very well (poor lighting, bad camera, etc.). It was a whole lot more interesting than it looks in this picture. The dip, which was velvety avocado-yoghurt perfection. And the chicken breast was soft and at the same time almost-crunchy tahini perfection. Maybe the next time I’ll add some actual sesame seeds too, to make it even better.

Ingredients (2 portions)

For the dip:

  • 1 avocado
  • 150g natural yoghurt (I used the low-fat kind and it was still incredibly creamy)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 8 drops tabasco sauce
  • 1 pinch oregano
  • pinch pul biber
  • freshly ground pepper
  • salt

For the chicken

  • 500g chicken breast
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • pinch of oregano
  • pinch of pul biber
  • pinch of thyme
  • 2-3 tsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt

To make the dip, place the pitted avocado, yoghurt, garlic, and lemon juice in a blender and whizz until smooth. Add the tabasco and spices, stir, cover, and leave it to chill in the fridge while you make the chicken. Wash the chicken breasts and cut them into thin strips. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the olive oil, tahini, garlic, and all the spices. Add the chicken to the bowl and mix until it’s is evenly coated in the dressing. Fry the chicken pieces in a non-stick frying pan until golden. Serve with the avocado-yoghurt dip and enjoy!


Baudoin & Troubs: El sabor de la tierra (2013)

Let me get this out: this book is brilliant. It’s also an interesting genre: I’d call it a graphic documentary, because it’s definitely not a graphic novel. If you read either Spanish or French, I can only recommend it (the original French title is Le goût de la terre). Sadly, I don’t think it’s been translated to English.

Two French comic artists, Baudoin and Troubs, travel to Colombia to interview people about their experience of the civil conflict that has been raging in the country for decades (on a side note, there was a very interesting piece on the difficulties of brokering peace in Foreign Policy recently). Baudoin and Troubs have met two Colombian students who have convinced them that the stories of “ordinary” Colombians are worth recording and sharing. And so they go out and trade portraits for memories – they ask people for their most important memory in return for a drawing of them. If I put “ordinary” in inverted commas before, that’s because the people they interview are really all but ordinary. Each of them has impressive memories, often about the conflict, and many of them are actively involved in trying to work towards peace, even if it’s just in their own immediate environment. Household employees, school teachers, university professors and students, farmers… they all get to tell their stories. One is more intense than the other, and the joint artwork by Baudoin and Troubs is beautiful. Part of El sabor de la tierra‘s appeal is the fact that the conflict stops being abstract. It becomes personal, concrete, and shows many faces, each with its own past, present, hopes, and dreams for the future.

The most striking portrait is that of a young FARC commander though: a young woman, smart, political, who knows what she wants, and who feels the need to use violence to get there. And while reading her story, I absolutely understood why: to her, it seems the only way out in a situation where poverty, corruption, and deprivation have been prevalent and there have been no peaceful means to deal with them. Baudoin and Troubs understand her too, which very much shines through in the book. I felt very conflicted about this part of El sabor de la tierra. I mean, I don’t exactly condone violence, and I was wondering whether Baudoin and Troubs were getting a bit blinded by the commander’s Amazon appeal. But then again, what do I, as a privileged white woman from a first-world background, even know? How would I react in this situation? Would I join a guerrilla group? Or would I just give up and try to adapt rather than fighting for my vision and goals? I have no idea.

El sabor de la tierra made me hungry for more. Actually, this is Baudoin and Troub’s second joint graphic documentary dealing with Latin America; in fact, they met the two students who invited them to Colombia during an earlier project they did in Mexico. It’s about Ciudad Juárez and is called Viva la vida. I really want to read it now, if it’s anywhere near as powerful as El sabor de la tierra, it’s bound to be fantastic. Baudoin also has a solo graphic documentary on Chile (titled Araucaria), which I think is only available in French. But that might just be as good an excuse as any to dust off my French, so that one is going on the reading list too.


Meg Wolitzer: The Interestings (2013)

interestings The Interestings was part of my Christmas reading this year, so it’s been a while since I’ve read it. That maybe says a lot about how I felt about the book. There’s no denying it, I found this novel interesting and entertaining, but it didn’t exactly wow me either.

It traces the lives of a group of people who meet at “Spirit in the Woods”, a summer camp for artistically gifted children. The protagonist, Jules (her real name is Julie, but she ditches it at camp for the much more intriguing Jules and it sticks), is taken into the group of the most “interesting” camp participants, hence the name “The Interestings”. The novel follows their diverging paths that take them down different routes, from Ethan, who becomes a highly successful animator and creates a TV show called Figland (the Simpsons spring to mind), to Goodman who is the one everyone gravitates towards initially but who goes on to become an extremely shady character and probably even a rapist (this is never completely resolved as Goodman denies it, but it’s very strongly insinuated). I suppose one of the key aspects that intrigued me about The Interestings is the way it inverts the characters’ standing. Ethan, who is initially the socially awkward type turns out to become the most successful artist, while Goodman becomes a fugitive marked by drugs, alcohol, and a complete lack of self control. There are also elements of feminism and social criticism I found very interesting.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that either I’m too European for The Interestings, or The Interestings is too American for me, whichever way you prefer to look at it. Meg Wolitzer seems to have gone out with the goal of writing something with potential to become a Great American Novel, and she certainly does a great job of analysing the evolution of US society over several decades. As a European, it seemed to me that I might not be the book’s key audience, and it showed. The second thing is, I might be too young for this book to really strike a chord. As a European child of the 80s, I can absolutely see why someone who’s lived through the same time period – from the 70s to today – in the US would love this novel and recognise their own experiences in many of its aspects. I didn’t, and so I found it interesting (how many more times can I say “interesting” about a book called The Interestings?!) and engaging, but it didn’t mesmerise me.

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Video: Breaching the Seawall | Modern Love

This beautiful little animated video tells the story of a woman whose relationship with another woman and cycling transforms her vision of the city she’s living in: Manila.

Animation by Adam Wells

I came across the video through Meli of Bikes and the City and her awesome Pinterest feed.

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Recipe: Pear and Avocado Salad

You know the kind of food that’s so good you want to cry when it’s gone? And how it’s even better when you can cobble said meal together in about 10 minutes? Because this salad, you guys, this salad is it. It’s so unbelievably fresh and creamy at the same time, sweet and sour and mustardy and avocado-y and all other kinds of goodness. This is a comfort food dish that’s not just rewarding, it’s also healthy.

Unattractively enough, the original recipe is from the January diet programme of a women’s magazine. But don’t judge a book by its cover, right (erm, I do that all the time to be honest… #loveprettybooks). Anyway, this is my take on it, I did tweak a few things. The original has you use curry powder, but I’d run out so I used some spices that also go into curry and it was just fine. But if you, like a normal person would, have ready-made curry powder rather than an assortment of random spices sitting in your pantry, just know that you can use it here.

Ingredients (1 portion)

  • 1 pear (with peel)
  • 1/2 avocado
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2 tbsp natural yoghurt (I used the full-fat kind)
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • small pinch of each: ground coriander, turmeric, ginger (alternatively, curry powder)
  • A few shavings of parmesan or Idiazabal cheese

In a medium sized bowl, mix the yoghurt, mustard, lime juice, and spices for the dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finely grate the pear and add it to the bowl with the dressing. Mix well. Slice the avocado. Place the avocado on a plate and top with the pear and the cheese. Enjoy with some Swedish crisp bread.


“This Girl Can” – Of Criticisms and Pigs (of Sorts)

Today’s post is slightly off topic from what I usually write about, but I’ve given this quite a lot of thought over the last week or so and wanted to share and discuss it with you knowledgeable folks on the Interwebs. Many of you have probably already watched the latest Youtube video to go viral: the This Girl Can campaign launched by Sport England. If you haven’t, here it is in all its glory:

The good folks over at Sports England have studied what keeps women from exercising and found that a lot of them don’t exercise for fear of being judged for their looks while they do sports. This isn’t surprising, since sports brands and fitness clubs only ever seem to put pictures of perfectly toned stick insects on their advertisements. And from fashion mags and ads we already know that our bodies are far from perfect. So naturally, lots of women don’t exercise because they’re intimidated. Will they be made fun of? Will the guys at the gym find them ugly? Will the other super-fit almost-models with whom gyms, pools, and sports centres are apparently populated judge them? So Sports England went and made this awesome video to show “normal” women doing their favourite sports: swimming, dancing, cycling, etc.

I LOVE THIS CAMPAIGN. I felt hugely inspired by these fabulous ladies doing their thing and having the time of their lives. I myself am a woman with many “imperfections” and I’ve felt super self-conscious when doing exercise because of them. In fact, I felt so inspired that I even took a silly selfie of my post swimming-pool racoon face and posted it under the #thisgirlcan hashtag. Here it is, just for kicks:

But of course, as these things go, whenever a campaign to empower women is launched, the critics from the feminist camp itself aren’t far away. The Guardian published a piece by Jessica Francombe-Webb and Simone Fullagar entitled “The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport”. Essentially, its points are: (1) Where are the women? If this campaign is targeted at all women, why does it perpetuate the myth of “youthfulness” and belittle women by calling them “girls”? (2) By accompanying the campaign with lines such as “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”, women’s bodies are once again sexualised and objectified. It ends thus:

It’s disappointing that a campaign to get women more physically active doesn’t focus on how exercise strengthens friendship, reduces the stress of work and care and gives us physical and emotional strength. And we suppose it would be far too much to ask to see a campaign that shows exercise as an opportunity to find an active space outside the cult of body worship and display.

First of all, I want to emphasise that I find these thoughts important. We need to have a discussion about them.

I still disagree with the article.  I’m not the only one, either. Erika Nicole Kendall of This Black Girl’s Weight Loss published a very interesting critique of The Guardian’s piece, and I recommend it. She argues that the term “girl” is used in a colloquial way by the campaign, not to exclude elderly women. And she also argues that the language used precisely plays on stupid stereotypes such as women sweating “like pigs” being un-sexy or “to throw like a girl” meaning to throw badly. Indeed, I would argue that a more “thoughtful” campaign like the one The Guardian’s critics would like to see wouldn’t have gone viral the way This Girl Can did. And if it gets even one more woman to exercise who didn’t do sports because of body image issues before, then this campaign has already done a tremendous job.

I’m aware the campaign isn’t perfect. Personally, I’m quite bothered by how snuggly they are with certain sports apparel producers, especially since these folks are to a great degree responsible for perpetuating the idea that you need a “perfect” body to exercise through their very own ads. Links to sports apparel brands are only a few clicks away once you start digging into the This Girl Can resources: if you scroll down the “swimming” page, you will find a link to… (wait for it)… a Speedo campaign that’s basically an undercover ad for their “body-shaping” swimwear

“to help your body appear in perfect proportion, creating optical illusions that enhance and shape the body: slimming, lengthening, balancing or creating curves, while distracting from the bits you’re not so keen on.”

I kid you not. Major “WTF” moment right there.

However, I want to discuss something else about the criticism levied against this campaign and many other initiatives that’s been driving me up the wall. As I’ve previously mentioned, whenever a book/campaign/whatever intended to help empowering women comes out, it’s instantly criticised by some feminists for everything it doesn’t do. For example, as I discussed in my post back then, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In received plenty of criticism for ignoring the hardships of women not in up-scale managerial positions, as well as for taking pressure of institutional and societal reform by calling women to “lean in” and overcome barriers rather than calling to remove such barriers, etc. All of these are important points, I admit.

BUT. Why the hell do we feminists expect every women’s empowerment campaign to address ALL THE ISSUES? This is simply impossible. No single campaign, especially if it wants to move out of the obscure corner of high-brow feminism in which only very few feminists actually feel comfortable, can address every single problem there is with gender inequality. Or even “only” the problems with objectification, sexualisation, and body image issues. Campaigns like This Girl Can are designed to address A LOT OF WOMEN, including many who have never thought about any of these questions and “just” don’t feel comfortable while exercising because they don’t “look right”.

I’ve found a term for this demand for empowerment campaigns to address the entire universe of all that is wrong with the feminist world. Unfortunately, it only works in German. So bear with me for a moment. My wonderful mother tongue has a great term for wanting something that solves all the problems you’ve ever had, are currently having, and will ever have. You’re looking for an “eierlegende Wollmilchsau”, a pig that lays eggs, gives milk, and grows wool.

Now that would be a handy beast to have, right? Just as handy as it is fictional, of course. What people, more often than not, seem to expect of empowerment initiatives is a swiss army knife-type of solution.

It sometimes seems as if everyone else gets to do single-issue campaigns, except the good people seeking to empower women. They target young women (or “girls”), they’re criticised for not thinking of the elderly. They target professional women at the management level, they’re criticised for not considering working-class women. They use colloquial language, they’re chided for perpetuating stereotypes. It seems that women, and especially women’s empowerment campaigns (books, articles, speeches, whatever), really can never have (or do) it all, especially when it comes to living up to expectations.

I think in many cases it’s because the campaigns and the campaigners themselves overreach in their language and portray themselves as the saviours we’ve all been waiting for to relieve us of gender inequality.

But more importantly, I think it’s because we still don’t have enough of those campaigns. They’re so far and few between that whenever one does come out, we expect the world of it. Encouraging all kinds, shapes, sizes, and colours of women to work out should be normal, not a one-off thing that goes viral on Youtube. Encouraging women to be just as (professionally and personally) successful as they want to be shouldn’t fall only to the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, it’s a responsibility to be assumed by bosses, politicians, rule-makers and society as a whole to create an environment in which women (and other genders!) can live the lives they want, and to remove any barriers that hinder this development.

In the meantime, we should cut these campaigns and initiatives some slack. Baby steps are where it’s at, people! These initiatives are each working on their part of the puzzle. No initiative can do it all. There are no egg-laying wool-milk pigs (who could even handle the cuteness overload?!). We need all different sorts of animals to provide eggs, wool, milk, and ham. And that’s a good thing. Because variety and diversity are good things, right?


Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (2013)

The Goldfinch was part of my Christmas reading binge, and so it’s “only” taken me about a month to get around to reviewing it. Blame the holidays and the ensuing laziness afterwards. I mentioned previously that I was really enjoying The Goldfinch and was keeping my best-of 2014 post in stock to wait and see if it’d make the cut. And it almost did!

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, this novel has received more than its fair share of both hype and hatred. Many people found it too long, and my edition does clock in at 864 pages. But that was what I wanted for my Christmas reading – some heft. I wanted something to get lost in, a story that would suck me in for days. The Goldfinch did this, I would say, to about 90%.

What happens is actually not that complicated: Theo, at age thirteen, survives a terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that kills his mother. He comes away from the chaos with a ring given to him by an elderly man just before dying in the rubble of the museum. Theo is supposed to give the ring to the man’s business partner and friend, James Hobart (Hobie). But Theo also comes away with a small but very valuable painting that the dying old man seems to have pointed at as he passes away. Theo initially means to hand in the picture, but he’s a traumatised child and something just always happens that makes him keep it. He’s strangely fascinated by the small masterpiece. And so the painting begins to determine the course of his life, an odyssey that takes him to live with the wealthy parents of one of his school friends at first, then with his alcoholic and gambling addict father and his new girlfriend, and later again in New York with Hobie, whom he locates after the blast at the museum to give him the dying old man’s ring. The painting, of course, is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1654).

If you’re now wondering how Donna Tartt can spend 864 pages on this relatively straightforward story – well, she spends a lot of time on detail. Her intricate descriptions of the places Theo stays at are so vivid it makes you feel like you’re there. My favourite parts of the whole book were the descriptions of Hobie’s antiques workshop and apartment in the same building, and how Hobie carries out his restorations of antique furniture:

After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and lustre of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents […] spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tan and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood.

I could smell those woods myself as I was reading, feel the comforting warmth of the workshop and Hobie’s calm, quiet passion for his work. Similarly detailed descriptions of less pleasant places also exist though, and I really enjoyed the contrast and how Tartt’s mastery of language made everything become real. She also spends a lot of time on dialogue, so the characters come to life in a similar way.

But if the language was so enticing, why did the book only pull me in 90% rather than the complete sinking-into-the-story I’d hoped for? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the aforementioned loads of hype and hatred. I think I may have been over-analysing The Goldfinch. All the time I kept checking myself, wondering if I should feel bored yet by all the details, if I should let myself be so enticed by the language or whether this was masking a fundamental flaw in the novel. I have to say that my answer, after pondering, was always “no”, that the book was fine and I kept on reading. But there was a mental fishing line that kept pulling me out of The Goldfinch and of which I’m still not sure whether it was my or the book’s “fault”.

Also, reflecting on it, I notice that there was a lack of truly pro-active female characters in The Goldfinch. Theo’s mother is sort of idealised as an artsy, warm and nurturing personality, his father’s new girlfriend is annoying and touching at the same time, he’s infatuated with his friend Pippa, who’s fragile and just as traumatised as he is (she was with Hobie’s partner at the museum the day of the blast). It would be unfair to call them stock characters because they do have strong personalities and come to life. But all the plot-driving action is taken by men: Theo himself, of course, his father, Hobie, his friend Boris. For all the amount of time Donna Tartt spends on description, it’s still astonishing to find that women are mostly on the receiving end, while the characters who make the decisive moves in the novel are men.

Other than that, this hefty novel is worth diving into. I enjoyed myself, though not as thoroughly as I’d planned.


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