Month: November 2014

Pop Culture That Makes Us Want to Cook (and Eat)

As we look towards our own Thanksgiving celebrations with friends and family, we’ve gotten thinking about food in pop culture. Thanksgiving has a huge presence in pop culture, and TV all weekend will be focused on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, football games, and marathons of cheesy movies leading into the holiday season. We love all of these aspects of Thanksgiving-y pop culture, but as we prepare for our own Thanksgiving feasts and try to motivate ourselves to plan ambitious menus, we wanted to look at at pop culture that makes us hungry! Here, then, are ten things that are making us want to cook and eat this holiday season:

1. Pushing Daisies

Ned can bring the dead back to life (temporarily, at least) by touching them. He’s also a pie-maker and runs The Pie-Hole, the twee-est of all the twee restaurants in the history of television. Although episodes of Pushing Daisies inevitably pull Ned away from his pie shop so that he can solve weirdly quirky crimes with an eccentric cast of supporting characters, it’s easy to forget about the mystery and just get distracted by the utter gorgeousness of those pies.


2. If You Give A Moose a Muffin

“If you give a moose a muffin,” Laura Numeroff notes, “he’ll want some jam to go with it.” Thus begins Numeroff’s circular tale of a distractible moose and his quest for dessert. One of many in a series (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, etc.), If You Give a Moose a Muffin is particularly hard to resist with Felicia Bond’s cozy autumnal illustrations.


3. Ratatouille

Ratatouille is, in so many ways, a love-letter to good cooking. The climactic scene, in which dour restaurant critic Anton Ego is transported back to fond memories of his childhood by a simple dish of ratatouille, is just so incredibly happy-making. Throughout, with scenes of busy restaurant life and with Remy fantasizing about good food as bursts of color and light, the Pixar team presents an incredibly sensory and gorgeous depiction of both cooking and eating.





4. Redwall

A community of woodland creatures lives in an abbey in the midst of Mossflower Woods in Brian Jacques’s long-running series. Each book involves heroic journeys, quests, kidnappings, and sieges as the abbey-dwellers inevitably come into conflict with rogue vermin. Each book, however, also includes a number of woodland feasts, with food so lovingly described that it inspired a cookbook. With Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie, a bowl of Hotroot Soup, and a nice glass of Dandelion Cordial, who wouldn’t want to sit down to a Redwall feast?



5. Parks and Recreation

“We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third,” Leslie Knope states. That Leslie Knope – who prides herself in caring about her friends over all other things – can waffle (see what I did there?) between friends and breakfast food shows her dedication to delicious meals. The love that characters on Parks and Rec feel for food knows no bounds, whether it’s Leslie’s passion for waffles and whipped cream, Ron’s obsession with meat, or Ben’s adoration for calzones.

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6. Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling’s descriptions of meals that spring up in the Great Hall, butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, and Mrs. Weasley’s home-cooked meals have no rival.



7. Relish

Although we’ve talked about Relish before, this list would be incomplete without another shout-out to Lucy Knisley’s food memoir. Knisley’s descriptions of meals and her beautifully illustrated recipes are sure to make any reader head to the kitchen.



8. Gilmore Girls – A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving

Rory and Lorelai Gilmore are notorious for their eating habits. A huge amount of the action of the show centers around food-related locations: Luke’s Diner, Lorelai’s parents’ house for Friday Night dinners (so much drama!), or Sookie’s kitchen at the Inn. Although the Gilmore girls may be able to consume inhuman amounts of food in virtually every episode, far and away the most impressive episode is “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” in which the Gilmore girls navigate the tricky world of Thanksgiving dinner-hopping. It’s impossible not get hungry while watching this (or any other) episode!





9. The Lord of the Rings

Sam Gamgee is often figured as the comic-relief-with-a-heart-of-gold in The Lord of the Rings (both Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films). But there’s something so incredibly noble about his determination to cook crispy bacon on Weathertop and to find some nice conies outside of Mordor. After all, what’s the point of going on a world-saving quest if you can’t still plan to make a nice dinner?

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10. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

When the Peanuts gang is left alone to fend for themselves for Thanksgiving dinner, Charlie Brown makes a feast of toast, pretzels, popcorn, and jelly beans. Once we get over our ambition to make cakes worthy of Gilmore Girls’s Sookie St. James, waffles worthy of Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope, and French comfort food worthy of Ratatouille’s Remy the rat, it’s nice to at least assure ourselves of our ability to make a feast equal to that of Charlie Brown and his friends.

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Happy Eating!


Why You Need to Read The Princess Bride Right Now

In which Emily is inspired by the recent release of Cary Elwes’s book about the making of the movie of The Princess Bride to revisit her love of William Goldman’s novel.

The film of The Princess Bride is amazing. Seriously. If – by some sad twist of fate – you find yourself reading this post without ever having had the pleasure of watching the film of The Princess Bride, do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately. It’s a movie in which includes, as Goldman writes in his book,

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It’s a wholeheartedly camp fantasy movie with swordsmen who are desperately bent on revenge, Sicilian masterminds who keep misusing words, miracle men who are rather fond of Yiddish schtick, and an epic love story between the most beautiful woman in the world and the dashing Dread Pirate Roberts. The film of The Princess Bride has fantastic writing and great comic performances, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Indeed, this is the film that launched a thousand memes. (If you’ve been spending much time on twitter recently you’ve likely seen the delightful #feministprincessbride hashtag.) The Princess Bride is incredibly iconic. And appropriately so.

But as awesome as the film is, the book (written by William Goldman, who would go on to write the film’s screenplay) operates on a whole new level of awesomeness.

As Goldman explains in his introduction to The Princess Bride, his project is to translate and abridge the great Florinese writer S. Morgenstern’s classic adventure-story-cum-political-satire of the same name. When Goldman was a child, his father had read Morgenstern’s Princess Bride to him (leaving out the long-winded satirical bits). Now, Goldman explains, he has decided to adapt and abridge The Princess Bride so as to provide new generations of readers with the same “good parts” version of The Princess Bride that his father had read to him.

Goldman is drawing upon his memories of his father to rewrite an epic satire into a children’s adventure story and, as he does so, he reflects upon how books can function as markers of relationships and how reading becomes a communal activity.

But what makes this Goldman introduction so wonderful is the fact that it’s all fake. Florin? Not a real place. Morgenstern? Not a real writer. The Princess Bride? Not an anti-royalist satire. The parts in which Goldman reminisces about his father reading him the Morgenstern classic? Totally untrue. Goldman’s making it all up.

So as he tells about his process of abridging Morgenstern’s book, both in the introduction and in a number of sidebars throughout The Princess Bride, Goldman asks us to reflect upon why we want the “good parts version” of a book in the first place. Perhaps, he suggests, it’s because life isn’t fair: marriages fall apart, great work goes unrecognized, and wonderful books fall out of print. But at least within the realm of story, a dead man can turn out to be only mostly dead and a bereaved son can get closure on his father’s murder. Reading is, in some ways, about escaping from our problems, but it’s also about confirming that our hope and optimism about the world is justified. We want the good parts version because sometimes we just need to be reassured that the girl gets her guy and the evil count doesn’t get away with it. Goldman’s fictional process of adaptation highlights our quest for the “good parts version.”

But Goldman’s book is so weird and wonderful because he doesn’t just leave behind his fictional metanarrative about writing the book once he’s set up the idea of the good parts version. Instead, both in the introduction to the first edition and in introductions and postscripts to the 25th and 30th anniversary editions, Goldman keeps spinning out the story of this semi-fictional media event which begins with the popularity of Morgenstern’s novel and continues through the popularity of the Goldman “adaptation” and then the (aforementioned) Rob Reiner film. As he does so, telling fake stories from the set (apparently Andre the Giant recommended that Goldman visit the Morgenstern museum in Florin) and recounting the made-up legal battle with the Morgenstern estate over a sequel (they wanted Stephen King, not Goldman, to translate Buttercup’s Baby), Goldman widens his scope to consider the role of popular culture within our lives and societies.

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In these introductions, Goldman reflects upon the power that we give to media objects. In one moment, he’ll be highlighting our overarching investment in the movies we love as he answers hypothetical audience questions about incidental behind-the-scenes moments on a movie set. In the next moment, then, he’ll be describing the experience of standing awed in front of Inigo Montoya’s six-fingered sword at the Morgenstern museum (apparently Morgenstern’s novel was based on historical events). Goldman is keenly interested in the way we become fascinated by and obsessed with stories we love and the objects associated with them. At the same time, Goldman is telling stories that aren’t actually true and – as he presents them as “what actually happened” – is undermining our faith in our ability to tell the difference between true stories and fictional ones.

Indeed, given his fascination with why we tell stories, Goldman is writing a postmodern meditation on the place of literature in the modern world. Instead of being able to find meaning in an authentic Truth or in a certainty about the way that our lives will work out, Goldman suggests, we gain meaning from our relationships with pieces of art and the people who experience them with us. In an odd way, then, Goldman’s novel becomes a fascinating context in which to place Elwes’s book which is, of course, actually a behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Reiner’s Princess Bride.

So basically, you should go read The Princess Bride. And do read the most recent edition of it that you can find, since Goldman has decided to enjoy himself by writing additional weird introductions and afterwords in the recent anniversary editions.

Ten Autumnal Favorites

As the season continues to change and the brisk days of autumn get colder and shorter, we thought it was time to take a look at some of our favorite autumnal media – the cozy, melancholy, hopeful things we love to pair with thick sweaters and apple cider. Here are our picks!

Kazia’s Picks:

1. Sense and Sensibility. I know we’ve mentioned Jane Austen a time or two before on this blog, but Austen’s first published book is my favorite gloomy-yet-hopeful story and a must-read for me each fall. Each character holds so much emotion – internal Elinor, “prone to these dark moods from time to time” Edward, and heart-on-her-sleeve Marianne. Their ways of making do under new and trying circumstances combined with the intense melancholy and the cold but cozy feeling of cottage life make it the ideal book to curl up with in the fall, when things are changing and feel uncertain.

2. Inkheart. Meggie has always loved books, a love she shares with her bookbinder father Mo. When, on a dark and stormy night, a mysterious man named Dustfinger arrives on their doorstep, Meggie is thrust into an adventure that tests her understanding of herself and her family. Filled with magic, delicious names like Silvertongue and Capricorn, and quotes and sketches (done by the author herself!) that bookend each chapter, Cornelia Funke’s book about books is the perfect autumn treat – and just the right thickness – to cozy up with as the leaves change.

3. Sylvia Plath, especially The Bell Jar. With equal parts despair and hope, The Bell Jar has the huge range of emotions that I associate both with school and the fall.

4. The 1994 adaptation of Little Women. I know that this is a very contentious adaptation, but I love it to no end. Although I have tons of personal familial nostalgia wrapped up in my love for the film, I also think it has all the autumn feelings. There’s birth, death, good relationships, bad relationships, and family. There’s the New England locale (bonus: very close to my hometown!), the simultaneous desire for everything to stay the same and everything to change, and the Marmee pep talk I need to hear consistently throughout each school year. There are also glorious costumes, a wonderful cast, and a beautiful Thomas Newman score.

5. When autumn rolls around, I’m always in the mood for folky, melancholic, comfortable songs like Lily & Madeleine’s “Sounds like Somewhere,” Mumford & Sons’s “Winter Winds,” Alexi Murdoch’s “All My Days,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.”


Emily’s Picks:

1. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. An alternate-history fantasy novel about rival magicians, faerie kingdoms, the Napoleonic Wars, and the mid-nineteenth-century renaissance of practical magic in England, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is just the sort of book I love curling up with on a cold autumn afternoon. It’s spooky and dark, with madness, war, and faerie abductions, but it’s also delightful and comforting, with a series of footnotes which are charmingly pedantic about the “history” of British magic and an utterly wonderful narrator who seems like what might result if history had made it possible for Edgar Allan Poe to have asked Jane Austen to ghost-write his short stories. At 782 pages, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell isn’t a fast read, but it’s a perfect novel to get absorbed in when the days are getting shorter and all you want is a blanket, hot cider, and a good book.

2. December. Okay, I admit that this album contains a lot of Christmas music for a list about autumnal media, but George Winston’s album of solo piano music inspired by the start of the holiday season is calm and meditative and gorgeous. Because we listened to this album a lot when I was growing up, my reaction to December is very much colored by nostalgia and childhood memories of pumpkin bread, family, and togetherness. But Winston’s quiet, beautiful music seems so perfectly in tune with this increasingly cold and dark – but also expectant and hopeful – time of year. Regardless of your personal opinion about the propriety of listening to Christmas music before the month of December actually begins, I very much recommend that you at least check out the opening track, “Thanksgiving.”

3. A Wrinkle in Time. Fall also seems like the perfect time to revisit old favorites, and to that end, I keep coming back to Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction novel about a smart and awkward teenage girl who comes into her own as she saves her father and brother from a terrifyingly powerful telepathic force. In telling this story about an interplanetary evil, A Wrinkle in Time plays with the balance between darkness and hope that seems central to so many of our autumnal media selections. Although Mallory Ortberg of The Toast has recently – and hilariously – pointed out how truly obnoxious one of the supporting characters is, L’Engle’s book about the power of nonconformity, the strength of familial love, and the awesomeness of geek girls has a special place in my heart.

4. Friends: Season 1, Episode 9. “The One Where Underdog Gets Away.” Of course, as much as autumnal pop culture embraces the gloominess of short, cold November days, this media also focuses on the communal gatherings which keep the cold at bay. Friends always had fun with its Thanksgiving episodes, perhaps because the central conceit of Friends – that twentysomethings turn their friend groups into their own surrogate families – fits so well with the holiday. But the show’s first Thanksgiving foray, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away,” is a particularly delightful episode. Monica decides to host her first Thanksgiving dinner after finding out that her parents are going out of town for the holiday: through a series of sit-com mishaps, the rest of the gang ends up joining her for dinner. Although the dinner itself ends up ruined, the friends all gather in Monica’s apartment to celebrate the holiday together – albeit with grilled cheese. It’s a charming and cozy episode with funny character beats (Phoebe celebrates Thanksgiving on a lunar schedule, while Chandler boycotts all the Pilgrim holidays) and genuine heart.

5. Anne of Green Gables series. Finally, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books (and the 1980s miniseries which dramatized them) are delightfully autumnal in all the best ways. Anne Shirley is an orphan girl who gets adopted by a pair of elderly siblings and goes to live on the gorgeously picturesque Prince Edward Island. There, she grows up while basking in the glorious Romanticism of the world around her and the whimsy of her own imaginings. Anne’s intensely optimistic approach to the world — coupled with her fascination with a certain sort of artistic, dramatic tragedy — just makes me want to go outside and enjoy the brisk fall air and everything it might symbolize. After all, these are books in which Anne announces how glad she is that she lives in a world in which there are Octobers and in which the narrator calls November “the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines.” It’s somehow a lot harder to grumble about how windy it is outside when you’re thinking about Anne’s deep, sad hymns of the sea.

Anyway, we hope you enjoy finding some new recommendations!

Happy Autumn!

Four Documentaries to Make You Feel Unaccomplished

With the second season of Masterchef Junior premiering on November 4, Kazia thought it was time to revisit a handful of documentaries about gifted kids competing in the arts.

I am a crier. Anything vaguely hopeful or uplifting (not to mention sad) gets the waterworks going. It’s no surprise that, as an English major and a children’s librarian, stories about young people and the arts get me every time. These documentaries are incredibly moving, but there’s also something hilariously incongruous about watching gifted kids and teens working ridiculously hard to achieve artistic accomplishment while I sit on my bed, in my pajamas, watching them while avoiding homework. So if you too would like to simultaneously feel inspired and inadequate, look no further!

First Position (2011)

First Position follows six dancers who are training for and competing in the Youth American Grand Prix, an annual dance competition for a small number of extremely competitive scholarships and contracts for dancers ages 9-19. The documentary looks not just at their experiences training for and competing in the Grand Prix, but also their family lives and what started them dancing. It’s completely involving – plus, we get to see them all dance beautifully.

Shakespeare High (2012)

Shakespeare High looks at the 90th annual Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival. Teams from 50 schools prepare scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Macbeth, and the documentary follows teams from just a few schools, and in particular the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Hesperia High School (an underprivileged school). The dedication and enthusiasm of the teams is inspiring, and you’re treated to snippets of wholly unique interpretations of the Bard.

Louder Than a Bomb (2010)

Louder Than a Bomb looks at the titular youth poetry slam, held annually in Chicago. Following a handful of high school teams as they prepare for the 2008 competition, the documentary makes us privy to the participants’ artistic inspirations and preparation processes, and gives us access to their performances at the slam.

Fame High (2013)

Fame High follows four students (a dancer, a singer, an actor, and a jazz pianist) at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (also featured in Shakespeare High). Their struggles to shape their artistic identities while balancing pressures from school, family, their peers, and their industries are compelling.


Masterchef Junior (2013-present)

Of course, I can’t not mention the show that kicked off this post. Even though it’s a “reality competition” show and we all know about the levels of realism in reality shows, this show has just as much realism as any documentary. 24 applicants between the ages of 8 and 13 audition for 12 slots in the competition, and as each week passes contestants are eliminated. Group and solo challenges test the limits of the young chefs, but host Gordon Ramsey is surprisingly encouraging without being patronizing, lightly assisting contestants when things go horribly awry while giving them legitimate feedback on their dishes. Plus, you will never know tension until you wait for an eight-year-old contestant to cut open her chocolate lava cake and see if it’s melted inside.


If you’re looking for more inspiring Shakespeare:

Although it’s not a documentary about kids, Shakespeare Behind Bars is just as moving as those mentioned above. It follows inmates at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex as they prepare to perform The Tempest. The inmates use their roles as a way to process their crimes and their positions in society, and in doing so the transformative power of the arts becomes apparent.

If you’re looking for more about the experiences of young ballerinas:

Michaela DePrince, one of the six dancers featured in First Position, just released a memoir!

If you’re looking for more slam poetry:

Check out Button Poetry on Youtube, which features incredible slam poetry by people of all ages.