SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Monday, January 25, 2010

Some People Will Eat Anything (Redux)

Jan. 25, 2010

Caution: Some of the following material may cause indigestion.

I just finished a story about a fruit detective, another about harvesting oysters and another about rat eating. I must confess I've never eaten oysters, and don't have a desire to catch up on that missed experience. Ditto on the rats. I have no adventurous streak that would one day have me impulsively ordering rat soup, for example. And fruit in all its varieties is also low on my must-eat list.

So, there you have it, I'm not fond of either rats or fruit. But, if hard pressed to eat one or the other, say, if I was locked up in a basement, being held for ransom with a bunch of other kidnapped people, and in the meantime was being told by my captors, "Bag to the right, or bag to the left for your only meal" -- the bag to the left, with a lot of squirming going on; the damp bag to the right, emitting a sweet stench -- I'd take the bag to the right, thank you, and nosh on those nice white apricots at the top until the money comes.

Some experts claim you should never bite into an oyster, that the way to eat one is to swish it around in your mouth a couple of times before swallowing it, say, with a gulp of beer. Other experts insist you bite firmly at least once into an oyster, or else it will sit live inside your belly.

The guy harvesting the oysters in the article I read, asserted, "When I eat an oyster, I feel I'm connecting to something primordial." I say you're in trouble man if that's what it takes to connect you to the primordial. Gaze at your navel for a while. That'll do it. It's less expensive, cholesterol-ridden or daunting. No shells to pry open.

And no slurping or chewing options to ponder.

I say, don't bite into anything that can duplicate itself or what it contains in your belly.

And as for those rats. Let me say a thing or two about what some cultures can consume without so much as a thought about what they're killing or how they are doing it. I saw a television program once that showed animals in cages at the back of a restaurant in China, and showed customers pointing to what they wanted.

"I want that dog," said the giggling woman. "I want that cat," said her son. And so forth. I also saw a man with a knife in the back of that restaurant peel the coat off a cat while it was still alive. The stripped cat stood quivering and in shock before being placed in boiling water -- still alive. Just to satisfy the appetite of a customer.

(And while we're at it, let's ponder the quandary of a lobster).

What kind of people do this, or care not a whit about what a being feels -- Not even care to wonder, accepting only what's always been done, and believing the myths about how it might serve you. Why bother considering the rat or its pain, it will put more hair on your head. Who cares that that cat doesn't want to die yet, it will endow you with a lively spirit!

What follows then if a child is in pain, but you stand to get a lot of money if it dies. It stands to reason that a people that don't care how beings feel, only about how they might serve you, that focus only on the end not the means, would let a child die too if it brought in some cash -- without thinking twice about it.

I can't fathom the lack of morality or heart, and sheer selfishness that the rabid killing of animals for pleasure represents. And I can't fathom ever going to countries where domestic animals are killed right on the spot for eating pleasure. It's bad enough knowing what's on most menus in this country!

You say the rats only eat fruit from the mountains, they're not city rats. That's fine. I believe you.

I've made my choice. I'll take my fruit, straight up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foraging Intellects in a Wintry Wild

Jan. 21, 2010

I admit I've been bad. But it's winter, and the cold inspires it. You know what I mean -- Eating chocolates, sipping espresso, listening to Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans on that penultimate jazz album, Kind of Blue. In short, doing what I want to do. And, of course, reading whenever I can.

I'm only halfway through the mammoth compendium, Secret Ingredients, enjoying a diverse sampling of styles and culinary subjects that bring to life the culture of various times, but, so far, only three essays have stood out.

One, describes foodie Joseph Wechsberg's first foray to the famed Restaurant de la Pyramide, once considered the finest restaurant in France, run by the formidable Fernand Point. Wechsberg's piece, published in 1949, is in the style of a short story, with the climax being a grand lunch, the sort that few of us will ever be lucky enough to enjoy, but that clearly has the capacity to illuminate the sensibilities and even transform --like a work of art.

After pates, croute, and foie gras, Wechsberg is informed by M. Point: "'A good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well constructed as a good play. As it progresses, it should gain in intensity, with the wines getting older and more full-bodied.'"

Wechsberg's final take on the experience? -- "Whenever I think back to that lunch, I feel contentedly well fed; the memory of it alone seems almost enough to sustain life."

Next, I fell upon a charming essay about Julia Child. What, concerning Julia Child, does not turn out to be charmante? I really wished I'd watched her cooking shows way back when. I was distracted instead by The Galloping Gourmet's fun-loving, loopy antics as he guzzled wine and cooked.

Child was a determined perfectionist. She took 10 years to complete Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is renowned for its fine detail and precision, and she was known on her television shows for rooting as much for the success of a dish as for her audiences as she taught them how to cook. Whenever she herself failed at a recipe, or ruined a dish, she would do it over -- sometimes more than once -- all the while, instructing her viewers, "Never give up!" Her super involvement in making a recipe work, fascinated and won over fans. But it wasn't only her personality that worked for viewers, Child had character and aplomb.

Lastly, I had no idea how fascinating Euell Gibbons was, or how valuable his obsession with wild food. Writer John McPhee describes a days' long trek he took with Gibbons with intimate, almost tender detail. While accommodating to chilly temperatures and inclement weather, McPhee learns how to forage and prepare a few of nature's edibles -- such as dandelions, walnuts, and various teas -- many of which turn out to be tasty and satisfying!

McPhee's description of Gibbons is unique and masterful: "His head is a high and narrow one, with a long stretch from chin to forehead but a short distance from ear to ear, as if he had somehow successfully grown up in the space between two city buildings."

Gibbons, a Quaker, was wise, complicated and ahead of his time. His ruminations on nature became pearls on the subject: "The product I gather out here means something different to me than food from a store, but I don't feel that I have made nature stand and pay tribute. I know that when I disturb the earth to get these plants I will almost always cause more of them to grow. I don't like to eat Indian cucumbers, because I have to destroy the plants to get them. I don't want to destroy; I want to play the part I am supposed to play in relation to plants. I come to a persimmon tree and the tree is growing something sweet, so I'll eat it and scatter the seed. When I do that, I'm carrying out the role I'm supposed to be carrying out. Nature has many, many balances, and we have to find a balance that includes man. If man accepts that he has to be a part of the balance, he must reject the idea of the conquest of nature Whenever I read that phrase, 'conquest of nature,' I feel a little depressed. Man is part of the total ecology. He has a role to play, and he can't play it if he doesn't know what it is -- or if he thinks that he is conquering something."

Sad to say, McPhee's interview with Gibbons took place more than 40 years ago, and some folks have yet to realize the truth in Gibbons' words!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Food and Memory at The New Yorker

Jan. 10, 2010

Between watching Bourdain and reading about recipes, I've learned the best food is often found in the most surprising places -- not necessarily a restaurant, but a warm, intimate hearth, where people comfortably gather to drink, eat and laugh. So too, the best recipes are not necessarily found in the hands of the pros, but of ordinary people -- Aunt June's legumes, Uncle Frost's turkey, neighbor Betsy's apple pie. Cookbooks comprised of such recipes may rank among the best. M.F.K. Fisher writes about this in her wonderful, The Secret Ingredient.

Having a penchant these days for books that surpass 500 pages, I'm now into Secret Ingredients, The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick. Let me tell you, launching on a read like this feels a bit like hiking up the Himalayas -- You really want to get to the finish, but can't imagine how you are going to get there!

I like Remnick for a couple of very good reasons, aside from the fact that he is the current editor of The New Yorker. He had the good grace to apologize for the way his magazine went along with other media, initially failing to challenge the Bush II regime for its decision to invade Iraq. Remnick was eloquent and humble, addressing a full house on this subject at Fairleigh Dickinson University a few years ago, when I met him.

Remnick is also just a B.A., like I am. He got his at Princeton. I got mine at Wesleyan (the one in Middletown). I am fully prepared to list him as a model, if, during any of my work searches for the position of magazine editor, someone challenges my level of education -- "If it's good enough for David, it's good enough for me," I will tell them.

He's also the only writer I've ever asked for an autograph. I'm not quite sure why, as I don't do that sort of thing. I guess I was just overwhelmed with a sense of awe and respect for the man at the time.

The whole autograph thing seems silly -- even though I know people make money off it -- Ann Margret for example, and her husband Roger, who, despite outward appearances, does still live. They collect money from poor schmucks who have a lot less than they do every year at venues like Chiller Theater in New Jersey, where people who will never have their 15-minutes of fame come to almost claim it, rubbing shoulders with those that have been there. There's a whole list of celebrities who show up for this. Once in a while, they'll claim to be passing along your meager fortunes to some cause, but I find the whole thing rather cheap and disgusting -- and I don't use those words easily, or lightly.

But on to more urbane and sophisticated subjects, such as The New Yorker and its writers and reads. In Secret Ingredients, I'm venturing into the one department I never spent a minute on, all the years I faithfully scanned The New Yorker, "cover to cover."

Reading TNY usually meant for me, glancing at all the cartoons, reading the fiction -- which has remained exceptional through a slew of diverse editors, including Remnick -- and the delightfully detailed portraits of people and places that are the magazine's trademark.

In his intro to Secret Ingredients, Remnick notes that Harold Ross, TNY's founding editor (who had a very bad stomach) had the idea to put together "a recipe compendium for the gastrointestinally challenged" called "Good Food for Bad Stomachs." William Shawn (who had a very good stomach and long life, and succeeded Ross as editor) wasn't as interested in food. When gathering to dine with the famous writers of the Algonquin Hotel, he would order an insipid bowl of cereal and leave it virtually untouched, favoring to dialogue instead with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Wolcott and a few brilliant others.

One can understand.

What I love and have always loved about TNY is that you can't get through an issue without reading an essay so chock full of detail, you really feel you've ingested a fine meal or book at the end. Even after Tina Brown's modern tweaking of TNY, all I have to do is glance at a cover to recall Paris of the 20s or The Algonquin Round Table or any of the grand drunks that happened to be great writers who were a part of those scenes and became constants at the magazine.

I often wish I'd lived in Paris of the 20s or New York's East Village in the 30s, or 50s, when so much that was vibrant and real in the way of art was happening -- all the best conversations, best ideas and great works. I'm always looking for a thread to these times in TNY criticisms and commentaries. And I like that TNY treats and has always treated both the past and memory, at least upper class past and memory, as national treasures.

Once a TNY writer always a TNY writer. The list is endless, and urbane. Hemingway, Updike, Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme in the fiction department.

The aspiration to write at TNY until you drop runs true for the food writers too. A.J. Liebling began his food writing tenure at TNY in 1935 and continued until his death in 1963. Calvin Trillin took over in 1963 and still writes for TNY.

In one piece, Liebling had one of his characters observe to Adam and Eve: "First parents of the human race... you lost all for an apple, what would you not have done for a truffled turkey?"

Sounds like the one-liner of a TNY cartoon.

As Remnick wryly observed, TNY's editors "understood ...that a magazine travels not only with its mind, but also... on its stomach. Food is a subject of subsistence, manners, pleasure, and diversion."

Remember the discovery scientists made a few years back that humans possess a second brain in the stomach? Was it really a surprise? All things are interrelated -- the stomach to the mind, the meal to the read.

Now back to my long winter's feast.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Medley

Jan. 4, 2010

I'm gingerly working back to food reading, since that's what keeps my interest piqued. Last week, I read Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl's delectable memoir of "growing up at the table." She is the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, and, as you may recall, I blogged recently about her memoir about her eccentric mother.

Of the two books, I prefer Tender at the Bone. It's like the difference between a smorgasbord and a plate of scrambled eggs with everything tossed in -- I'll take the buffet. The smorgasbord includes portraits of the charming and wise Mrs. Peavey, a great cook from Reichl's early childhood days; the beautiful and proud Serafina, Reichl's college roommate and best friend who learns as an adult that she is both Black and adopted; Doug, the sculptor Reichl marries who turns out to be much like her father; and the indelible charm, Milton, who is the quintessential tour guide. You will find recipes in this book relating to each period of Reichl's life, and you will enjoy the read, appreciating the delectable characters as much as the recipes.

In case you think I'm limited to reading just one book a week, I'm going to confess that I read more than that. And would read still more, if I could. I'm also halfway through the 500-page Practicing the Path, A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo, by Yangsi Rinpoche, to which, you, reader, may now be responding --Huh? What? And, to which I will reply -- Exactly. You have to be there when it comes to this one. Still, I urge you to explore it and any other Buddhist texts you are moved to read. You don't have to be Buddhist to read about the religion or agree or disagree with its tenets. And thankfully, Buddhists don't sell their religion.

Segueying further, I also read Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, and pretty much annihilated a section of a jazz encyclopedia, reading about jazz pianists. If you don't know by now -- and why would you, you haven't been listening to what I hear as I type -- jazz of the 40s and 50s, bebop and hard bop, is a kind of obsession.

Evans was a hard bopper, the first "modal" pianist, an American Chopin. Jersey-born, he was known for his classical touch and his ability to make the piano "sing." He explored modal language with trumpeter Miles Davis, whom he joined in 1958. Evans had the gift of being able to communicate his feelings on musical instruments -- and was able to create a singing vernacular with his left hand on the piano. Downbeat magazine ranked him second only to Thelonius Monk, that great spontaneous jazz pianist. Evans was a member of a few trios and quintets and was well-respected internationally, particularly in France. He worked with the talented bassist Scott LaFaro, whose death in a car accident in 1961 not only ended the trio that included Evans, but devastated Evans so much, he didn't play for months. Evans himself died in 1980 from bronchial pneumonia and a hemorraghing ulcer, but really from drug abuse that had plagued him for two decades, resulting in bouts of malnutrition and hepatitis. A friend of Evans' once observed that his "was the longest suicide in history."

As is true with so many of my jazz faves, once you read about them, you have to set down the stories and return to the music, which, thankfully, continues to "sing."

And, while you're listening to the likes of Fats Waller, Art Tatum or Monk, grab yourself a piece of fine chocolate. It's the new year, after all, and resolutions were meant to be broken. I was just perusing the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble and came upon the most delectable image of a chocolate dessert...

Reading is like eating. One good thing leads to another, and another. And another.