Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Salt and Pepper

One of the great pleasures in life, not to be overestimated, is that of grinding fresh peppercorns and rock salt onto a delicious meal, made all the more delicious by the addition of those condiments.  The pleasure is increased exponentially when the grinders actually work.

There are many things in life that wear out in a gradual process that is surreptitious and inexorable.  Examples include car parts.  If you use a car every day, the brake linings wear out in such a way that you never notice the ever-increasing extra effort required on the brake pedal, and you never consciously think that something should be done about it, since you haven't really noticed the gradual worsening.  It's only a before and after comparison that makes you realise how bad they were, and the effort you were making.

Such has been the case with our salt and pepper grinders over the past couple of years.  We once had a set of wooden grinders of second-class quality that were wearing out as fast as they could from day one.  They were replaced by a glass set, but again with cheap plastic grinding surfaces.  (I assumed that was the way of things). 

As the salt grinder wore out it was stuck in the cupboard and replaced with Saxa ready-to-pour.  Shock!  Horror!  The pepper grinder had long been replaced by a Master Foods mini-grinder off the supermarket shelf.  Recently I determined that the salt grinder should be resurrected, regardless of how it performed, because nothing compares with decent rock salt freshly ground.

However, using the salt grinder was excruciating.  A lot of energy was required for not much grinding.  The only way to see if any ground salt was actually produced was to hold it against a dark background.  The grinder had to be shaken, tipped sideways and then upright again to have any hope of success.  Turning the top likewise required a variety of back and forward techniques in the hope that something would work.

Eventually, I decided enough was enough - we should go shopping for new grinders!  Hang the expense and the misuse of scarce resources.  A time comes when some things are no longer viable and must be sacrificed.

We started in Big W, observing that grinders do seem to all have plastic grinding surfaces these days, so that I imagined we should have been replacing our grinders every six months or so to maintain some semblance of efficacy.  Rather than rush in, however, we thought to ask someone in a specialty shop.  What would the Rolls Royce of grinders be like, I wondered.

The result is that we now have a fantastic pair of grinders and no more expensive than the Big W ones.  The brand is Maxwell and Williams, which doesn't mean anything to me, but they are beautifully made.  The salt grinder has "ceramic mechanism" stamped on its grinding surface, and the pepper grinder says "carbon steel".

The best thing, though, is that with a couple of fingers twisting the knob no more than ten degrees a shower of salt or pepper can be produced with almost no effort.  What a contrast with the old salt grinder.  The grinding is fine and thorough.  I can't believe that this has happened!

There is a moral to the story, of course, but I don't think it needs to be spelled out!

PS  In exactly the same vein,  there was nothing wrong with my sawtooth bread knife, worked quite well I thought, until Jac and Pat gave me for Fathers' Day a beaut scalloped edge new one.  It is amazingly sharp and cuts like the bread is butter!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

John Grisham

I'm not bovvered if no-one reads this, but I haven't written a book review on my blog yet and I feel like doing one, so here goes.

I've just this year discovered the American writer, John Grisham, who published his first novel in 1989 and has since become well-known in the "legal thriller" genre after publishing in 1991 The Firm which sold in the millions.

I haven't read any of the long string of thrillers yet but have read A Painted House from 2001,  Ford County (2009), Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (2010) and now I've just finished that first novel from 1989, A Time to Kill.

Grisham, ten years younger than me, was brought up in small-town Mississippi and practised law for ten years until the success of The Firm.  He is currently writing for teenagers, having produced three Theodore Boone books from 2010 to 2012.  These are in fact "legal thriller" genre for kids, the hero being a thirteen year old son of lawyer parents.  Theodore has unreal access to the small-town court, inside information on cases and takes time off from school to solve a case.  I wasn't that impressed with the first novel despite the hero being named Theo and riding a bike to school.  I won’t bother with the other two, but then I'm not a teenager.

What really turned me on to Grisham was Ford County, a collection of seven short stories set in a Mississippi county forty miles south of Tupelo (where Elvis grew up) and and not far from the Tennessee border and Memphis.  These stories are earthy, rooted in the small-town life of main street surrounded by rural back roads and cotton farms.  The people are poor, redneck and overcome by institutionalised racism, although despite this some of Grisham's characters are specifically not racist, and it seems that while unwritten rules are followed, racial harmony and even friendship are possible.

The two stories in the collection that stand out for me are the first, Blood Drive and the last, Funny BoyBlood Drive describes the road trip of three young men who drive from Clanton, the small town of Ford County that features in the stories, to Memphis to donate blood to their relation who's been injured in a workplace accident.  It's an entertaining farce, told with fine detail and a sense of the ridiculous.  Funny Boy, on the other hand, tells of an AIDS sufferer, a member of one of the rich, old white families of Clanton, who returns from California to die in his home town.  The story describes the prejudice against Adrian Keane, how he is rejected by his own family, has to be taken in by a black woman in the negro shanty town, and the consequences of this for both of them.  This story stirs emotions in the reader regarding human behaviour, both the highs and lows.

My favourite among these Grisham books is A Painted House, set on an eighty-acre cotton farm during the 1952 season of cotton picking and told by a narrator who was seven at the time of the novel.  It is essentially about the family who run the farm, Pappy and his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and Luke, the seven-year-old; these are joined by a group of ten Mexicans who are hired to pick cotton and live in the barn during the picking, and a group of seven "hill people" who come down from the Ozarks each year for the picking and have tents to pitch in the farmyard.  The descriptions are masterly, detailing the oppressive summer weather, the backbreaking work in the rows of cotton, riding the tractor to the "lower forty".  The relations between the three groups on the farm contribute to plenty of adventures, which are told with sympathy and full understanding of the nuances involved.

The first book Grisham wrote, A Time to Kill, is set in Clanton, Ford County, and introduces a recurring theme- the central village square with courthouse, lawyers' offices and plenty of cafes where the lawyer hero can eat breakfast and interact with many of the characters. 

I can only assume this book is not "legal thriller" because we know "who dunnit" from the start.  However there is lots of build up of tension and anticipation of how the court case, the central focus of the plot, will turn out.  It concerns the rape of a negro girl by two white men, and explores how the legal system in this small town would operate and the populace would react if the races in the case were reversed.  Again, there's lots of action, and a great deal about the race relations that exist in the district, as well as much about behind-the-scenes workings of the judicial system.  I read the book in as few sessions as possible to find out what would happen next.

A Time to Kill is not a great book.  In terms of writing quality, maybe I'd relate it Stephen King - a good yarn well told with plenty of authentic detail and not to be forgotten; whereas A Painted House, which I much prefer, has more of Grisham's heart and soul in it and makes me think of John Steinbeck or William Faulkner.  In all these books, the writing is direct and uncomplicated, a pleasure to read. There's no doubt that John Grisham is worthy of attention.