Thursday, February 25, 2010

Glorious and Inglorious Foods and Those Who Cook Them

We'll begin with a quote from the book A THOUSAND DAYS IN TUSCANY, by Marlena de Blasi. She writes about food (and life in general) like a divinely ecstatic and perceptive madwoman. For example, this is how Marlena describes her husband's kiss:

"My face is burning where he held it a moment ago as he kissed me, and I like the flavor of him that stays with me and mixes with the tastes of coffee and milk and bread, the grains of undissolved sugar on his a good buttery Gugelhopf (rich bread) he tastes." I'd think her husband would square his shoulders and walk a little prouder after reading that.
De Blasi even lets us know what she's wearing when she roasts a chicken: a little silk dress "scribbled with roses." And here is her description of the preparation:

"I fill the chicken's belly with a handful of garlic, the cloves crushed but not peeled, then rub its bosom to a glisten with olive oil, finally ornamenting it with a thick branch of wild rosemary. After an hour or so in the wood oven, the skin is bronzed and crisp, the juices running out in little golden streams...I set the roasting pan over a quick flame, scraping the bits of caramelized vegetables and the drippings that cling in the pan, blessing it all with splashes of white wine."

By huge contrast, we have Betty MacDonald's description of her grandmother's cooking. "Gammy" was an adored family member but probably only Sweeney Todd could have been a worse cook. The quote is from MacDonald's best-selling memoir, THE EGG AND I:
"Gammy hated waste, and she taught us that you bake a cake with whatever you can lay your hands on." This included a little onion, old moldy jars of jam, a sludge of syrup, leftover bread dough, a few grapes, cherries or dates, and always to use old bacon drippings instead of butter or shortening. "Her cakes were simply dreadful--heavy and tan and full of seeds and pits." Even the family dogs and chickens refused to eat the cakes. They began to "pile up in the yard alarmingly." Fortunately, a neighboring family had less critical tastes. In fact, this family enjoyed eating dog biscuits, relishing the tang of dried blood and bone. Gammy's cakes were a huge hit with them. They gobbled them all up and begged for more.

Patience Gray in her memoir HONEY FROM WEEDS admires the impeccable taste of her friend Irving: "His sense of perfection found expression in cooking." Unfortunately, this led to his flinging a badly cooked duck out of the window in the presence of his famished, astounded dinner guests. The inferior bird got snagged on a drainpipe several stories up. Eventually it had to be retrieved by the Fire Department, complete with ladder. Neighbors had complained, because this happened during hot summer and the bird began to stink tremendously. Hopefully the starving guests got at least a little omelet and a few greens.

When the great film director Akira Kurosawa was a child, he often spent the summer in a remote country village where his father grew up. In his memoir SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY he describes this interaction with an old resident, which took place sixty-five years before he wrote about it:
"Once when I visited a farmer's house, he served me a vegetable dish with miso bean-paste sauce cooked in clamshells--a style called kaiyaki in this part of the country--and fish. While he drank rice wine over his meal, he said to me in thick dialect, "You might wonder what could be interesting about living in a hovel like this and eating slop like this. Well, I tell you, it's interesting just to be alive."

Kenny Shopsin would agree with him, even though he himself never eats slops. Here's a quote from the book EAT ME: THE FOOD AND PHILOSOPHY OF KENNY SHOPSIN.

"I like everything about this life. I like waking up in the morning knowing that I am going to the restaurant to cook, that something unexpected will happen to me in the kitchen, and that no matter what, I will learn something new. I like the actual process of cooking. I like shopping for the food that I cook, and I like my interactions with the people I meet while shopping. I like my customers, and I like working with my kids. It is a simple existence, but for me the beauty is in that simplicity. These are the things that bring me pleasure--and they bring me great pleasure on an extremely regular basis."

And nobody can ask for more than that.

Finally, in an homage to a starry night and companionship and strong tea, we'll close with another quote from Marlena de Blasi:

"Fernando (Marlena's husband) turns back to look at the village, says the firelight becomes the ancient stones. He kisses me gently and holds me...under a raw blue sky sugared in tiny stars we walk back home along the icy road, Fernando leading. We build up the fire and we sit close to it, sipping hot, sweet tea."


  1. i absolutely adored "a thousand days in tuscany" and marlena's other books too! i accidently bought a thousand days in venice and ended up falling in love with her writing!

  2. Yes, she's wonderful, isn't she? I liked her Venice book even better than the Tuscany one (probably because it tells so beautifully the story of how she met Fernando).

  3. Wow, now that's a woman who gets every ounce of emotion out of every second of life!

  4. dguzman, you've got that absolutely right. I hope she keeps living and telling us about it forever!

  5. The "Gammy" excerpt gave me a much-needed smile and I'm going to request it from the library immediately! Thanks!

  6. I should not have read this at 4:30 PM. Now I am hungry already. You chose the perfect quotes to make the mouth water and to bring a smile

  7. Elizabeth, you're right, Betty MacDonald is wonderfully funny! The Egg and I was published in the '40's, and has never been out of print.

    Jane, I too have that reaction to Marlena de Blasi's writing! I read one of her paragraphs and want to fix some rich snack.