I had never heard of the Women's Land Army, the U.S. Crop Corps or Victory Farm Volunteers. But one day, rummaging through a used book store, I came upon a huge stash of Department of Agriculture pamphlets from World War II. Unable to resist, I snatched it up and took it home, reading with fascination.
As one pamphlet began: "The farmer has one of the Nation's most important jobs. Uncle Sam has called on him to raise food for our fighting men, our war workers and our allies. His sons and hired man may be in the armed forces or working in war plants. More food than ever must be produced with fewer people to do it. Everybody who can must help!"
I began doing research, collecting everything I could on the subject. It was an intriguing moment in American history, a time when everyone became a farmer. For me it was even more than that; it was the beginning of a novel. Through the research I began to imagine a spirited little girl in Akron Ohio who yearns to get into the fields and do her bit for her country. Through the pamphlets and ration cookbooks (I'll be posting a few really hilarious recipes), antique seed catalogs and first-person accounts of women on the homefront during the war, I slowly began learning what Lulu's life was like. As the character became more real to me, she started writing letters to James Beard, asking for his help. When my heroine, Billie Breslin, discovered the letters almost 70 years later, she found them so compelling that she began a kind of scavenger hunt, trying to find them all.
World War II was an amazing time for the women on the homefront. The men went off to war for years. There was no internet, no Skype, and very few letters. Left at home, the women went to work in war plants, counted ration points, saved their fat to make ammunition. And the children? Like Lulu, they learned to raise Victory Gardens. And they learned to cook.
I had a great time researching Delicious!, and over the next few weeks I'll be posting more of my discoveries.
I hadn't. It looks like water, and on first sip, tastes like it too. But slowly you begin to notice a teasingly gentle sweetness filling your mouth, growing louder, like a musical note that's being held. You swallow, and suddenly your mouth is humming with the taste of maple.
According to the back of the label, maple sap is a healthy tonic, a spring pick-me-up. The label also notes that the sap runs for just a few weeks in spring. After that it's gone until next year.
I bought this maple water at Guido's, in Great Barrington Massachusetts. But trolling around online, I see that maple water is sold pretty much wherever maple syrup's made (think Quebec). And that a new product, Verticalwater, is about to hit the shelves in stores. Apparently it's going up against coconut water as an American alternative. I'll take it any day.
A couple walked into Donguri the other night. It's a tiny restaurant, it was freezing outside, and half the tables were empty.
"Do you have a reservation?" asked the young woman who greeted them.
They shook their heads.
"I'm sorry," she replied, "but we're fully booked."
They looked around, slightly baffled, and then walked sadly, slowly, back out into the sleet.
More customers drifted in, throughout the evening, and the tables began to fill up, but there was never a point when an extra couple could not have been accomodated. But this is Japan, where walking into fine restaurants without reservations is frowned upon.
Donguri is very Japanese. The menu is small and slightly quirky, but every offering is excellent.
The signature dish, above, is soba. It is topped with grated yama imo, the strangely wonderful mountain potato that resembles porridge when it's grated. And excellent uni, along with a scattering of scallions and a bit of seaweed. It's one of my favorite dishes in New York.
Donguri also makes its own tofu, denser than most, which is served in this severely pristine fashion, with just a pungent bit of broth and nothing else.
Ohitashi, rarely more than pressed spinach when it's served in the States, varies here. The other night the cool salad was made with broccoli raab, its bitterness nakedly pronounced, as if it was saying, "this is what I am. Love me or leave me." I loved it.
There is no sushi here, but there's always a selection of sashimi. The star on this particular plate was the wild pickled mackerel, saba. (The other fish were salmon, yellowtail and fluke).
Another signature dish:
Japanese seafood "risotto" made with squid ink and speckled with salmon roe. I've never tasted anything quite like it: rich, funky and very satisfying.
Donguri is an unusual restaurant. Small, brightly-lighted, rather expensive and very sedate, it's unlike anything else in New York. Each time I eat there I have the impression that I've somehow found a little corner of Tokyo on the Upper East Side.