Category: Books

Marcus Samuelsson book launch

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006 | All Things, Books, Eats, Events

Marcus Samuelsson is executive chef and co-owner of Aquavit, AQ Café at Scandinavia House and Riingo in New York City. At the age of 25, he became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times (from Ruth Reichl in 1995), repeating the distinction with reviewer William Grimes in 2001. At 29, he was individually recognized in Crain’s New York Business’ annual “40 Under 40” and was celebrated as one of “The Great Chefs of America” by The Culinary Institute of America. The James Beard Foundation presented Samuelsson with the “Rising Star Chef” title in 1999 and the “Best Chef: New York City” award in 2003.

In addition to his impressive cooking credentials, Samuelsson was also recognized by the World Economic Forum as one of the “Global Leaders for Tomorrow.” The annual award recognizes young innovators from around the world in the arenas of business, government, civil society, the arts and media. Samuelsson dedicates his time and talent to the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a non-profit organization that promotes career opportunities in the food service industry for disadvantaged youth through culinary arts education and employment. In addition, he acts as the official spokesperson for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. As ambassador for the cause, he supports tuberculosis control in developing countries – an issue close to his heart, having been orphaned by the disease in Ethiopia at the age of three. (He and his sister were subsequently adopted by a young couple from the West Coast of Sweden .)

Samuelsson is already the author of three critically acclaimed cookbooks, and tonight he was in Midtown promoting his fourth, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa which celebrates the food and culture of the African continent through recipes, personal stories and images that capture the soul of his birth home.

The recipes in the book are a departure for this chef, best known for his Scandinavian-influenced cooking. Samuelsson talked a bit about how working on this latest cookbook led him to make discoveries about his own heritage. I had hoped there would be a cooking demonstration of some kind, but the room was neither equipped nor sufficiently lit for preparing food.  There were passed appetizers and fruity drinks — no injera or tej, though.

W Court


For Ethiopian cuisine in New York, there are several options: Awash on the far Upper West Side (where SC’s birthday dinner was held a couple of years ago), Ghenet in SoHo, Meskerem and Queen of Sheba in Hells Kitchen. The best one is a matter of some debate.

Edited to add:  The New York Times spotlights a new contender: Meskel Ethiopian Restaurant in the East Village. 

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Antrim and Franzen @ the 92nd Street Y

Monday, October 23rd, 2006 | All Things, Books, Events

Met B at Grand Central for a dinner before the book event this evening. It had been some time since I last visited the Grand Central Dining Concourse, and there were several new additions (including the Little Pie Company shop with its tempting selection of miniature pies and cakes under glass.) Located on the lower level tracks, the concourse is part of the departure station, with brightly lit, cavernous marble arches throughout.

The most famous of the dozens of food outlets is, of course, the Oyster Bar, which has been in business since the day the Terminal opened in 1913. The “Whispering Gallery” near the Oyster Bar entrance is the stuff of city lore. Here, the acoustics of the low ceramic arches create a parabola that is said to catch and transport whispers from one corner of the gallery to the corner diagonally opposite with minimal distortion. I checked it out one day after learning about the phenomenon from my junior high school math teacher, and can report back that it does work — though not perfectly, given all the ambient noise. Still cool. According to the hostess at the Oyster Bar, the wall is a popular spot for marriage proposals, especially on Valentine’s Day.

Naan, samosas and lassi from Cafe Spice, then back up to street level to catch the bus, moving on up, to the East Side.

Chrysler Building

Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen were reading and answering questions at the 92nd Street Y, as part of the Unterberg Poetry Center Reading Series. Both authors, known for their fiction writing, recently published memoirs: in The Afterlife: A Memoir, novelist Antrim (Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, The Verificationist) expands upon the poignant and darkly humorous essays about coming to terms with his mother’s death that first appeared in The New Yorker. The Discomfort Zone, Franzen’s first foray into memoir, also begins and ends with his mother’s death. In between, he takes an intimate look at the painfully funny awkwardness of his Midwestern adolescence.

Franzen is one of my favorite writers. His previous works include How to Be Alone, a collection of essays, and The Corrections, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001 (and infamously, was unceremoniously uninvited from Oprah Winfrey’s book club.)

Antrim announced that he’d be reading from a yet unpublished novel that “had been set aside” over the years. His delivery was frantic and feverish, and interspersed with dramatic pauses — a story of a man grappling to understand his deceased father. The narrative jumped backwards and forwards in time, recounting tragicomic details of his alcoholic mother and invalid sister, and hallucinations involving a blue mini-skirted former lover. Franzen’s reading was taken from the first pages of his memoir, no less funny for being less frenetic, sardonically drawing dead-on observations of human nature in his retelling of the sale of his childhood home in Illinois, following the death of his mother from cancer.

Antrim and Franzen are old friends and their easy camaraderie was evident as they jokingly jockeyed for position in front of the microphone set up for them to answer pre-screened questions from the audience. Afterwards the writers held a book signing in the adjacent gallery.

Book signing

Franzen — heck, I’ll call him Jon — has a lot of fans, me included. After picking up his new book, I waited in line for about half an hour, finally reaching the table. When my turn came, I approached.

“Thanks for waiting,” he greeted me.

I mentioned having heard him read the pages he read that night, when they were still in manuscript form, at a Hunter College event earlier in the year. “Oh?,” he asked. He seemed to consider this for a moment. Then: “Yes, I remember that reading. I don’t remember what I read, but I remember the audience. I hope it was all right.”

“It was wonderful!” I gushed. In my defense, I did NOT let slip, “You  were wonderful,” or “You’re brilliant,” or “You’re an amazing  writer,” or any of the other dorktastic comments that were ricocheting around my brain at that moment. (“I am your number one fan,” perhaps?)

“Thank you,” he smiled.

I smiled back. A shade too widely, and perhaps for just a fraction of a second too long — just enough for the look to pass from casually complimentary to borderline creepy. Jon held my gaze awkwardly and then, seemingly unsure of what to do next, gestured for my book. Oh right, the book. I could feel the blush rising on my cheeks. I handed it over and half considered lying about my name. But how ridiculous would that be?

“Uh… my name is Vanessa,” I mumbled.

He inscribed the book to me, his pen poised over the page, as if to write something more, but then seemed to abandon the idea, opting instead to just sign his name. He closed the book carefully and deliberately — no sudden movements — and delivered it back to me.

“Thanks… Vanessa.” (Now please leave before I call security.)

And that is how I met Jonathan Franzen.

You will notice that I did not include snapshots of the authors here. After such an encounter, I couldn’t very well take a photo, now could I?

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War and Peace

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006 | All Things, Books, Friends, NYC History

JD and MB hosted a brunch at their new apartment in Washington Heights, near Fort Tryon Park. The Hudson View Gardens apartment complex was, at the time it was built in the mid-1920s, the largest housing cooperative in New York and one of the earliest catering to middle class households. Real estate developer Dr. Charles V. Paterno purchased the nearly 4 acres of land, across the street from his (since demolished) castle estate overlooking the Hudson River. His plan was to create a “garden community” of cooperative apartments resembling a medieval English village, to attract those who wanted the comfort and affordability of the suburbs, but still wanted to reside within the confines of New York City.

Directly across from the 181st Street subway entrance is Bennett Park, where George Washington set up his base of operations during the Revolutionary War. It was here at Fort Washington that American forces lost the decisive battle of New York on November 16, 1776 to British and Hessian soldiers. The rock outcropping of Manhattan schist in the photo is the highest natural point in Manhattan, 265 feet above sea level.

Hudson View Gardens

Brunch was a potluck affair: I brought in the loaf of pumpkin chocolate bread I baked at home the night before; SYB made cheese grits in JD and MB’s new kitchen. The Kiwi couple from Dobbs Ferry brought in mini-pancakes with whipped cream and jam, which I was informed by MB’s cousin R, are called pikelets in New Zealand. (Naturally, I didn’t catch this the first three times he said it, and had to resort to requesting the spelling before I finally understood.)

Over mimosas, we got to listen to the New Zealanders reminisce of home, recounting their tales of drunken blackouts. (“It’s the culture!”) I was both highly amused and slightly disturbed.

Later, I attended a book launch and reading for The Green Belt Movement founder and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Muta Maathai. Matthai was promoting her memoir, Unbowed, in which she recounts her remarkable journey from a farm in the highlands of Mount Kenya to becoming the first woman in Eastern and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree, the first woman in the region to chair a university department, and the first African woman to receive a Nobel prize.


In the mid-1970s, Maathai left academia and founded the Green Belt Movement, Kenya’s most famous environmental and human rights-campaigning group. At its height, the GBM mobilized more than 100,000 women to form tree-nursery groups; the women earned $1 for every fifteen trees they planted, which was, in many cases, their only income. As a result of these efforts, 30 million trees were planted across the country for fuel, building, shade, food, and soil protection on both private land and degraded forests. Women were taught how to plant drought-resistant indigenous crops to feed their families; the transfer of technology from experts to the people turned small-scale farmers into agro-foresters, and raised awareness related to environment and development. The GBM both reduced the effects of deforestation and provided an empowering forum for African women to become creative and effective leaders.

Wangari Maathai

Later still: SYB’s potluck dinner. There was a delicious cassoulet in the Le Creuset, and other tasty dishes from Southern France to supplement. JD and MB (from this morning’s housewarming) brought in crackers and brie.  I baked a clafoutis aux cerises to serve with French vanilla ice cream.

Although the love connections were ultimately missed that night, the fine food and wine (and friends) more than compensated for their absence. And CS, AC and AH did discover a new television series, gradually getting sucked in — hour, after NBC marathon hour. Save the cheerleader, save the world.

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