Monday, September 28, 2009

Traumatized by a Quiche; Or, The Redemptress of Quiche

When I was little there were two things that my mother cooked for dinner that would throw me into fits of tears: trout roasted in tin foil and quiche. Once we were all seated at the table and everyone was digging into their dinner, I would sit there. And sit there. And sit there. That was because my dad would not let me leave the table until my dinner was gone. (Mind you, everyone else was long gone and getting ready for bed or something at this point.) Eventually I would cave and eat the fish, but the quiche ... I hated it. No, I loathed it. And then I would hear that if I didn't eat it, it would be back on the table for me in the morning — cold. I never actually had quiche for breakfast, so apparently my dad's threats were futile. Either that or my mom intervened and gave me something else.

I know what you must be thinking, 'What mean and nasty parents you had! I'll bet they also made you sleep in the broom closet under the stairs.' At the time, I would have whole-heartedly agreed with you, and I probably would have even conjured up terrible stories about a nasty old broom closet. However, my parents had seven kids, and that is a lot of mouths to feed. Not to mention the fact that any finicky eaters would be a bonafide pain in the neck. (I wasn't a finicky eater though. I just hated steamed trout and quiche, and justifiably so.) I suppose we should have just been grateful that our mom cooked — and cooked, she did.

Anyway, long story short, I would not touch quiche until I was well-into my 'grown-up' years. And even then it was done with a great deal of trepidation. It is funny looking back, because I'm not sure why I found quiche so revolting to begin with. The only thing I can figure is that my mom fell victim to the ubiquitous can of cream of mushroom soup, and must have used it in this recipe. And really, who didn't use that nasty stuff in the 70s and 80s? But other than that, I'm at a loss.

It was the lovely Clotilde who saved quiche for me. I was thumbing through her cookbook when it was still hot-off-the-press and saw a picture of her Onion and Cumin Quiche. I remember thinking, 'Hmmm, I'll be damned if that doesn't look yummy.' That was over two years ago now, and her quiche has proudly been part of my repertoire ever since. Every time I serve this for a brunch or something, it is one of the first things to go. However, I'm not sure that I will force it on Emilia until she is good and ready. (Although I may be tempted to tell her that if she doesn't eat her gnocchi tonight, it'll be in her high-chair first thing tomorrow! Or something like that anyway.)

This quiche recipe is wonderful and really simple to make. We typically have it for dinner with a green salad and a big bold red wine. However, it is excellent to serve for brunch as well. Even my friend Jane who is allergic to onions (can you imagine such a terrible fate!) had a hard time staying away from it.

Pâte Brisée (Short Pastry)

1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon fine sea salt (I typically use kosher, in case you were wondering)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into a dice
1 large egg, lightly beaten
ice water

The easiest way to make this is in your food processor, however, you can use the 'by hand' method, if preferred. Combine flour, salt, and butter in processor and pulse for 10 seconds or so, until is resembles course meal. Add the egg and process until the dough comes together into a ball. If it seems a bit dry then add your cold water, 1 teaspoon at a time.
Turn the dough out directly onto your plastic wrap and flatten into a disc — not too thin though. I usually keep it at least an inch high. Wrap tightly in plastic and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, or up to a day. Pull the dough out about 10 minutes before using and let it warm up a bit. This enables you to roll it out without cracking it all over the place.

Quiche Oignon & Cumin (Onion and Cumin Quiche)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
2 pounds yellow onions thinly sliced (Clotilde says this is about 6, however, the onions here say it is about 4)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 large eggs
¾ cup light cream
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 ½ cups freshly grated Comté or Gruyere (about 5 ounces)

Make your Pâte Brisée and refrigerate.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet large enough to hold the onions over moderate heat. Add the onions and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir and then cover, turning the heat down to low. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time, until translucent. Remove the lid, up the heat to medium-high, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring throughout. The idea here is for most of the liquids to evaporate. (This step can be done a day in advance — a very handy tip.)

Pull out the dough and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°, and grease a 10 inch ceramic quiche pan. (I always use a metal tart pan because I don't have a ceramic one, maybe I should look into that one day. However, it works perfectly fine.) Roll your dough out on a lightly floured surface into a 12 inch circle. Transfer the dough to the pan and prick the bottom with a fork. Bake for 7 minutes, until lightly golden. Remove and set aside. (**What I do here is put the pan in the freezer with the dough in it for about 5 or 10 minutes before putting it in the oven. Otherwise, the sides always fall down and I want to pull my hair out. Sometimes I even line it with buttered parchment and pie weights to keep the sides up. It works like a charm.)

In a bowl whisk the eggs and cream together. Season with the remaining salt, pepper, and the cumin. Fold in the cheese and onions and then pour it into your tart shell.

Bake for 35 minutes until the top is golden. The center should still be a bit jiggly at this point. Turn the oven off and leave the quiche for another 10 minutes to set up. This can be made in advance and reheated in the oven on 350° for 15 minutes — another very handy tip. (Recipe from: Chocolate & Zucchini, by Clotilde Dusoulier, Broadway Books, 2007.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Chocolate Cake to Cure the Blues

There are those of us who deal with depression by going shopping. And there are those of us who opt for a bottle of scotch and a few Frank Sinatra albums. While there are others still who choose to eat their way out of a depression, sitting in front of the telly watching old episodes of Laverne & Shirley or something.

As for me, I fall into the shopping category — because really, sometimes all you need is a lovely new lipstick, a pretty pair of shoes, and a stack of shiny new books to get you through whatever it is that's got you down. Alternatively, a lovely new dress from Boden could also do the trick. However, we are in a rather dreary recession at the moment, and spending money on superfluous items may not be advisable, or even wise. That being the case, where does one turn for comfort? I'm sorry to say, but scotch simply would not do it for me — although Frank Sinatra might.

Typically when I get down, I am not the sort who likes to sit down and pig out. I don't like feeling sick from gorging myself, particularly when I am already not feeling grand. Although, one could argue that a terribly successful shopping trip could have the same effect. You know that feeling — so sick to your stomach that you think you may actually throw up, and did I really need that lovely pair of boots? Yes, shopping can do that. And alas, it happens to the best of us.

So this morning as I sat feeding Emilia her breakfast and longing to go to the new shops at the Bravern, I thought, 'Hmmm, I remember an enormous chocolate cake I made when we lived in Bellevue that seemed to make the world a better place. Maybe that's the ticket.' And I'm sure our checking account will thank me later — although, I'm not so sure my jeans will.

This recipe calls for lots of dishes, so consider yourself warned. However, my husband actually said as he ate up his cake tonight, 'This is fabulous!' And, as a general rule, he could do without chocolate layer cakes. Emilia also loved the little bit that she had. While the layers cooled on the counter this afternoon, she tried desperately to pull them off, shouting 'Bite! Bite!'

Chocolate Fudge Cake

for the cake:
2 ⅔ cups flour
¾ cup, plus 1 tablespoon sugar
⅓ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup best-quality cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs
½ cup, plus 2 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ cup vegetable oil
1 ⅓ cups chilled water

for the frosting:
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Butter and line the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans.

Mix the flour, sugars, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk the eggs, sour cream, and vanilla. In a big bowl, whisk the melted butter and vegetable oil just until blended, then whisk in the water. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the egg mixture, and whisk until well combined. Pour into your prepared pans trying to get equal parts in each.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until your cake-tester comes out clean. Cool on wire racks for 15 minutes and then turn out onto the racks so they can cool completely.

For the frosting: melt chocolate (use either a double-broiler or the microwave — I typically go for the double-broiler method) and let it cool slightly.

Using your mixer, beat the butter until pale and creamy. And the confectioners' sugar and beat until well combined. Don't forget to sift the confectioners' sugar first, otherwise you will get lumpy frosting. Then add your vanilla and chocolate and beat until glossy.

Sandwich the cake with a quarter of the frosting, and use the rest for the sides and top.

**Quick Note — Cleaning out butter that has exploded in the microwave is one of my least favorite tasks. So, with that in mind, you may want to keep an eye on your butter while it melts. Maybe do it in 15 second increments.

According to Nigella, to whom the recipe belongs, this cake 'serves 10, or 1 with a broken heart.' (Recipe from: Nigella Bites, by Nigella Lawson, Hyperion Books, 2002.)

Monday, September 21, 2009


I have no idea why Emilia has decided that she loves zucchini, but she has. And I can promise you that I'll be the last person to ever complain about it. However, even if I was the last person, my complaining would be done with some reluctance. The funny thing though is that I don't particularly love zucchini myself. I think my favorite way to eat it is in minestrone, and that hardly counts.

At any rate, I love vegetables and always have. My Grandma Jo used to tell me that I was going to turn into a rabbit when I was little because I would eat so many of them. But, alas, it never happened. 'Spose that's for the best, really.

Trying to cook something that your 18-month-old will willingly eat can sometimes be a challenge. That is why Emilia typically gets zucchini a couple of nights a week (while it is in season). We are branching out like crazy these days though, since she has decided that (for now) she likes broccoli, edamame, and roasted carrots. Her 'nini', or more recently 'zoonie', never fails though. And another added bonus is that we happen to like it too.

I don't follow any particular recipe when I cook this dish. Instead, I think I have ended up with an amalgamation of Michelle Scicolone's and Ina Garten's recipes.

1 tablespoon olive oil (or so)
½ cup onion (give or take), in a small dice
2-3(-ish) zucchini
salt and pepper, to taste
freshly grated parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a sauté pan. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and beginning to brown.

Cut zucchini in ½ length-wise and cut into bite size pieces — about ½ an inch thick. Add to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until nicely sautéed. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Grate lots of fresh parmesan over the top, give it a good stir, and serve.

**Quick note — You may want to do this in batches. When the pan gets over-crowded with zucchini it tends to steam rather than sauté. And once that happens, you have the reason it took me awhile to warm to the veg. However, if I'm in a rush and can't be bothered, then it all goes in the pan at the same time, and we must suffer through the consequences — mushy, slimy frogskins. Even then Emilia still loves it and shouts, 'Ah Bee! Zoonie!', which translates as, 'Oh Boy! Zucchini!'

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Very Pink (Pomegranate) Martini

For Mother's Day this past year, Michael got us tickets to see two shows — the first being Good Night Moon, the second being Pink Martini. While Good Night Moon was clearly a fine production, I don't know that I'd recommend it if you don't have kids. Pink Martini, on the other hand, is another story altogether. We just saw them this past Saturday at Chateau Ste Michelle (a beautiful winery in Woodinville, Washington where you sit outside on the grass and eat the picnic you've brought with you). I adore them.

If you are not familiar with Pink Martini's music (for shame!), it is a bit difficult to describe. It is retro and glamorous, like an old-fashioned Hollywood film. At the same time, they are multi-cultural and terribly modern. Many of their songs are in other languages — French, Spanish, Japanese, and apparently Turkish. (They have re-done a song that Eartha Kitt made famous, and sang in Turkish, about a dirty handkerchief. Or maybe it was a scarf.) And their song Je Ne Vuex Pas Travailler was a hit in France when it came out a few years ago. And rightly so; that song is fabulous.

They have three albums, and their fourth will be coming out the end of October. Of their albums, the one I live and breath is their second, Hang on Little Tomato. When Emilia was born, 18 short months ago, we actually called her our Little Tomato. Her little head was perfectly round and she was bright red, particularly when she screamed. And every night before we would go to bed I would dance with her to this album until she fell asleep. Michael would be in the kitchen doing dishes while Miss Milia and I danced. She loved it — the music, the movement, the swaying — and, of course, she loved just being held. I haven't danced with her like this for months because now she just goes to bed after several books and a very difficult teeth-brushing. Besides, the girl weighs thirty pounds.

In honor of Pink Martini, I decided to pull out The Craft of the Cocktail and search for an actual pink martini. As it turns out, no recipe actually bears that name. I almost went for the Rosy Martini, but it calls for more alcohol (three different kinds to be exact), whereas the Pomegranate Martini calls for less alcohol and incorporates both pomegranate and lemon juices. As you can see, we still ended up with a lovely pink martini. If I were doing it again, I would skip the simple syrup and replace it with more pomegranate juice, as I found it to be a bit sweet. Also, I would learn how to do the flamed orange peel properly. I tried to snap the peel and then light it with a match over the glass, but alas, it would not work. We ended up with singed orange peels, which is not a very nice thing to put in your drink. So we opted to do fresh orange peel instead.

Finally, I suppose you should know that I am not the biggest boozer that ever was. Don't get me wrong, I could drink half a bottle of red wine with dinner and not bat an eyelash, but spirits are an entirely different story. And unless we are at a terribly important family affair (always on my husband's side of the family, mind you), I typically stay away from the stuff. But really, why must Uncle Richie always ply me with so much Sambuca? And then why must I insist on dancing to Eminem? At any rate, I think I am getting sidetracked.

A Very Pink Pomegranate Martini
2 ounces citrus vodka
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce pomegranate juice
1 ounce simple syrup
dash of rosewater, if available
flamed orange peel, for garnish

Shake everything up with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with the flamed orange peel. (Recipe from The Craft of the Cocktail, by Dale DeGroff, Clarkson/Potter Publishers, 2002.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Girls of Slender Means

If you have never read anything of Muriel Spark's before, then drop everything you are doing (including reading this lovely blog) and run to your local bookstore. Although, if your 'local bookstore' is anything like mine, it is Barnes & Noble and will most likely not have anything of Muriel Spark's whatsoever. Maybe you've noticed as well — Barnes & Noble is filled to the gills with the likes of Dan Brown and that other Sparks author, I think his name is Nicholas, but that is about it. So if you actually want to read something decent you may have to go elsewhere... I know we are all supposed to support our local 'Brick and Mortar Stores', as they are now called, but I do most of my book shopping from Amazon. But in my defense, what else am I to do? At any rate, this isn't really the issue at hand.

The Girls of Slender Means takes place in London in 1945 — just after World War II has ended. It follows the lives of several young women who live in the May of Teck Club, which is essentially a dormitory, or hostel, that existed for the 'Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.' (Although there are 3 'spinsters' who seemingly moved in while they were young and neglected to ever move out.)

The book begins, 'Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.' Food was rationed, soap was rationed, clothing could only be purchased with official 'clothing coupons', which were also rationed. Despite this, the occupants did their absolute best to carry on as though everything were normal: they counted calories (except for Jane, who needed to 'feed her brain' because she worked in the 'world of books'); they rubbed soap or butter on their limbs in order to slip through the tiny bathroom window that would lead to the roof; they bartered for the shared use of a single Schiaparelli gown (except for Jane, who could not fit into said gown).

Many suitors graced the doorway of the May of Teck Club and would almost always hear part of the Joanna's lessons on elocution that were being given to various ladies, including the cook. One of these suitors was Nicholas Farringdon, who was charmed (if not enraptured) by the whole club. It was Nicholas who claimed the ladies were 'a community held together by the graceful attributes of common poverty,' and that '[p]overty differs vastly from want.' If ever there was a book to romanticise feeling poor, this is it.

The beautiful Selena, who would often meet Nicholas on the roof, was enrolled in a 'Poise Course'. She was required to recite two sentences every morning and every night, and these sentences float through the pages of the book, along with the poetry from the elocution lessons. 'Poise is the perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.' The ladies of the May of Teck Club were somewhat in awe of this statement and once the book comes to an end, it becomes evident how much this recitation seems to sum a few of them up. In fact, it would seem that if one actually pays attention while reading The Girls of Slender Means, this recitation (along with Joanna's poetry) sets up the tragic ending of the novel quite beautifully.

The Girls of Slender Means, like the 4 or 5 other books of Spark's that I have read, is magnificent. Her writing is a true craft, and her novels are immaculately well-constructed. And by this, I do not mean that they are tidy, like a John Grisham or something. Rather, after reading one of her books, I always feel like I should read literary criticism to point out everything that I managed to miss. Because she is funny, it is easy to read over her true intent.

Muriel Spark was a convert to the Catholic Church (as am I) and her books are steeped in Catholicism. However, if you did not know this about her, you would probably not pick up on it. She handles her faith in the same beautiful and irreverent fashion as she handles everything else — whether it be soaping up in order to slide through the window to sleep with a man who is eventually martyred, or the same man discussing sex with the 3 'spinsters' who still reside in the May of Teck Club.

And this is just one of the many reasons why it is impossible for me not to adore Muriel Spark. Not to mention the fact that she always makes me want to move to London ... or Edinburgh ... I'm not that picky, really.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Shepherd's Pie

Today is a beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest. However, don't let that fool you. This past week has been cold, and grey, and pouring down rain. Which means that even though it is technically still summer, a few days ago I actually cracked and put the flannel sheets back on the bed. And then I made a shepherd's pie.

I don't know if shepherd's pie is a seasonal food, per se, but I do know it is wonderful when it is dark and raining and you don't feel like doing much of anything, other than cozy-ing up with a good book on the couch. That being said, my husband has very strong memories of eating shepherd's pie while living in Oman as a child — the average daily temperature being somewhere around 108 degrees.

A few years ago I was reading a travel book on England when I learned that I had been referring to shepard's pie incorrectly (and continue to do so). According to this book, shepherd's pie is made with lamb, whereas cottage pie is made with beef. Cooking with lamb gives me the bonafide willies so I typically swap it out, when possible, for beef, which is what I have done with this recipe. And so, what I make is actually 'cottage pie'.

When we had this for dinner a few nights ago, Emilia sat in her highchair and ate every bite. Talk about a girl after my own heart. There isn't anything more gratifying than seeing your 18 month old devour what you've just made. And I can't tell you how happy I was that I doubled the recipe because that meant leftovers. Another one of my favorite foods...

Also, I usually make more mashed potatoes than the recipe calls for because there is nothing more annoying than feeling jipped where mashed potatoes are concerned.

I typically serve this dish with sautéed kale because it is not only yummy, but also looks pretty alongside it. It is customary to serve steamed brussel sprouts, but if someone told me that I had to do that, then I'd refuse to make shepherd's pie ever again — rainy day or not.

Shepherd's Pie
2 large baking potatoes, peeled
½ cup milk
½ stick (¼ cup) butter
1 ½ tsp salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pound ground beef, or ground lamb, if you must
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1 ½ tablespoons worcestershire sauce
4 teaspoons flour
½ cup minced onion
½ cup diced onion
¼ cup white wine
½ cup beef stock
1 cup corn kernels (optional)

Place potatoes in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Boil 40 minutes, until soft. Drain and return them to the pot. Mash with milk and 2 tablespoons butter. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and set aside. (You may want to add a smidge more butter. Or not.)

Melt remaining butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and beef, stirring frequently, until well-browned, about 5-7 minutes. Add remaining salt, rosemary, and worcestershire. Stir well and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons flour. Cook 5 more minutes. Remove the meat with slotted spoon and set aside. Pour excess fat from pan.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Add onion and carrot to pan and cook for 5-7 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons flour and stir. Increase heat, add the wine and beef stock and deglaze the pan, making sure you haven't left any caramelized bits in the bottom of the pan. Cook another 5-7 minutes, until liquid is cut in half.

Add your beef mixture and corn. Stir and cook another 3-4 minutes.

Butter a casserole dish and spread the mixture over the bottom. Cover the beef with a nice layer of mashed potatoes, smoothing out the top. Bake uncovered in the oven for 40 minutes. Serve immediately. (Recipe from: Dean & DeLuca by David Rosengarten [with Joel Dean & Giorgio DeLuca], Random House, 1996.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Basic Preparation of Vanilla Extract

Several years ago my sister made vanilla extract — a few gallons of vanilla extract, to be precise. And we all said, 'Well, isn't she clever!' Christmas rolled around a few months later, and we all received beautiful bottles of homemade vanilla extract from her. This caused us all to say, 'Well, would you look at this! Never mind clever, she's practically a genius!' And I still stand by this, because really, who makes their own vanilla extract?

Of course you realize that a nice bottle of Madagascar vanilla extract costs about 20 dollars, and you can find it anywhere. I usually opt for either Williams-Sonoma or Sûr la Table because I am very brand-loyal, the brand being Nielson-Massey Vanillas, Inc. Apart from my sister's vanilla, I've been buying this brand for ages — even though I am sure there were times when I probably shouldn't have.

Anyway, I'm also sure that you are aware that if you have a propensity to bake, you can go through quite a lot of vanilla. The recipe for my Aunt Martha's chocolate chip cookies alone calls for 2 teaspoons, and that is only because I cut the recipe in half. And now that summer is unofficially ending, that means that holiday baking is 'right around the corner', as they say.

This brings me to how I spent Sunday afternoon. Actually, that is not true. It would be more accurate to say this is how I spent roughly 10 minutes of my Sunday afternoon, because vanilla extract is absurdly easy to make. All you need is: 8 Madagascar vanilla beans, a quart of vodka, and a few mason jars.

I purchased my vanilla beans on-line from a wonderful site I've just discovered called Beanilla ( And seriously, it is a bargain. I am used to spending 10 dollars for 1 or 2 beans from Whole Foods or QFC or wherever. These were $1.50 each (usually $1.75, but I got them on sale), which is why I got 15 of them. They also sell pretty much anything else you may need, relating to vanilla. I also bought a few brown glass bottles to put my vanilla in when it is ready in a month or so.

Selecting the vodka was much more difficult for me because the recipe merely calls for a 'good quality' vodka. I typically buy Absolut and use it for making Penne with Vodka Sauce and things like that. But that is about the extent of it for me. So on Saturday I quickly ran into the liquor store and asked the gentleman behind the counter what his opinion was. He told me that Absolut generally has a stronger alcohol flavor than some of the others, which I found to be a bit off-putting. He convinced me to try a Polish vodka —Sobieski — and said it has been getting rave reviews. Plus, it was 10 bucks less than my old stand-by, Absolut. Having settled the vodka dilemma, the gentleman then went on to discuss Poland and the many wonders of the Catholic Church, raising many a fine point all the while. To be perfectly frank, I found it rather refreshing, if not a little odd.

Vanilla Extract:
8 long, soft vanilla beans
1 quart (960 ml) good-quality vodka

Split 6 of the vanilla beans length-wise, and then cut them into small pieces.

Place the vanilla and vodka into a clean glass jar(s) that will tightly seal. (I used 2 Kerr canning jars.)

Put the jars in the back of your cupboard for a month or so, taking them out to shake-up, from time to time.

Strain through a mesh sieve that has been layered with 2 layers of cheese cloth.

You can then put the vanilla in your lovely little jars, or back in the glass mason jars that you just cleaned.

Add the two remaining whole beans to the jars and seal tightly. (Recipe from: The Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg, John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2002.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Help

We were at my sister's house a month or so ago for dinner and one of our friends (we'll call him 'John Burt') asked me if I had heard of this book called The Help that takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. I had not heard of it because, unfortunately, every so often I totally fall out of the loop in what is hip and happening. However, since Michael and I lived in Jackson once upon a time, anything at all that pertains to the area catches my attention — hence my rushing out to buy the book shortly after John's suggestion. Oddly enough, John claims not to have read it yet, but he should — because it is marvelous. Truly.

The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, begins in 1962 during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson. The title refers to the black maids that work in white households, and it is narrated, in turn, by three women — Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter.

Aibileen is a maid who has raised 17 white children throughout her long career. After her own son is tragically killed, she ends up working in the household of Miss Elizabeth Leefolt. Elizabeth, like all her friends, is very young, in her early 20s, and a new mom. Her daughter's name is Mae Mobley and she is the character that broke my heart throughout. So, brace yourself for that. There will be many a time that you will want to slap Elizabeth flat and it is not only because of her treatment of Aibileen.

Minny is another maid who seems to get fired more often than not. She is an excellent cook, but cannot — or will not — bite her tongue with her employers. She is eventually able to find a job working in an enormous house for Celia, a 'white-trash' woman who married into a wealthy Jackson family.

Skeeter, or Miss Eugenia Phelan if you are her mother or don't know her, is a recent college graduate who returns to her parents' cotton plantation unsure about what to do next but knowing that she would like to write. Also, Skeeter is a friend of Elizabeth and the rest of the Bridge Club, all of whom happen to belong to the Junior League. And by 'the rest' I mostly mean Hilly Holbrook. Hilly is essentially The Help's version of Lord Voldemort. She is the one responsible for the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, which essentially promotes a bathroom being built in the garage of your house for the help to use, so as not to spread diseases, as it were.

Through a series of events these three women come together to tell their story. Or rather, Aibileen and Minny (and eventually several other maids) tell their stories to Skeeter who spins them into a book. It is all done with the utmost secrecy and anonymity, as was absolutely critical considering the times. Stockett does an excellent job portraying the death of Medgar Evers and myriad other atrocities that occurred during this time, including the assassination of JFK, and places them on a very personal level, told through the eyes of these three women.

Admittedly, I was a bit leery picking this book up because I did not know what to expect. Actually, that is not true — I expected it to be an angry tirade that blasted the whole of Mississippi and everyone living in the state. And yes, that is an element of the book. However, it is only part of the book. Stockett balances everything beautifully. There is not a character that could walk away being viewed as perfect — well, maybe Aibileen. And there is not a character who is thoroughly, to-the-core, rotten. She-who-must-not-be named is honestly the best mother in the book — but that is her only redeeming quality. Each of the characters is perfectly pitched, and you find yourself almost wishing to be friends with them — go ahead and try not to like Celia.

Another bonus to the book for me was the discovery of Google Maps. Apparently both Elizabeth and Hilly lived 2 streets away from our old house in Belhaven, so I had a grand-old-time with the 'street view' option of the neighborhood. Also, I had to do a search for the old Robert E. Lee Building downtown because it gets mentioned so much as 'the place to be', if you're white, in 1962. Apparently the Robert E. Lee used to be a fancy restaurant and hotel back in the day but chose to close its doors rather than integrate. I know that is not funny in the least, but it honestly strikes me as hilarious. I mean, really. Anyway, I guess they showed them — now it is an office building for Medicare, or something really boring like that.

This is the book I read while we were on vacation in Maine. Right when Emilia would go down for her nap, I'd hop to a comfy chair and read like the dickens. I couldn't put it down. When I only had 50 pages left I forced myself to slow down, because I didn't want to finish it so quickly. Alas, I still finished it — and it was marvelous. I truly, truly loved it. And I still love Jackson, of course. But I can't help wonder if part of the reason Miss Stockett now resides in Atlanta has anything to do with her writing of this book. And I also wonder how popular the book has been in this town in which she was born and raised (with a maid, mind you) — Jackson, Mississippi.