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."

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Goddamned Poets," a poem, by Margaret Benbow

Today a poet friend sent me images of himself
in performance totaling,

unbelievably, 10,000k, crashing into my computer
like an eighteen-wheeler. There

are several different views of him preening at a lectern
so that one could
admire him

from every angle. What is it about poets? He's a
pretty good guy

I told my brother Larry about this, and said I was glad
to be

free from such juvenile vanity
Larry then brought up

irrelevantly, I feel,

a painful scene at a reading where some punk kid

himself by making the big mistake of supposing
it was his turn to read.

It was MY turn.

Larry said that he "much admired the steely smile
with which you refused to yield the stage,"
but that some might call it vanity.

Oh, bullshit.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Watching A Valentine's Movie With The Honey

In honor of Valentine's Day, you should consider having a sensuous and sumptuous evening at home with Mr. Honey rather than following the herd to an overbooked, overpriced restaurant, the Chump's Delight, where your champagne and the single rose will break the bank for weeks.

This Valentine's Eve, you can be bohemian young lovers again. Rent a good movie, buy a bottle of red--and this beverage doesn't have to be of a quality to make you speak in tongues, see gold angels, titillate your spark plugs or make your boiler explode. It's just WINE, for Pete's sake. But maybe you SHOULD bring home one of those quiveringly delicious desserts from the deli, say, that dear little cake with the chocolate ganache that you've eyed all year, but feared was too precious and sinful to indulge in. Tonight is the night to indulge.

You've got your favorite romantic movies, I've got mine. Some folks love the classics, like GONE WITH THE WIND. They focus breathlessly on the scene where Rhett carries a passionately squeaking Scarlett up that endless staircase. Hubba hubba! Personally I've never felt the same about that scene, since reading that Clark Gable was forced by a sadistic director to repeat it twenty times. By the last few trudges up the staircase he was trembling, shaking, drenched with sweat, furious at the director, and terrified that he was popping a hernia. Vivien Leigh also shared with friends that she was mentally holding her nose during this scene because of Gable's unhygienic dentures. This is not romantic! Or there's CASABLANCA, but the ending still leaves me thunderstruck. Bogey and Bergman are plainly soulmates. Even their hats look perfect together, yet he forces her to fly off with the freedom-fighter Paul Henreid. Does anyone really doubt that Henreid could fight the Nazis much better without Bergman tripping after him in her spectator pumps?

Rent your choice movie, whatever it might be. Next, make a snack that rounds all bases. Personally, I always like a special popcorn that I drench not only in garlic butter but in paprika and in the deliciously sharp chedder cheese that comes in Kraft dinner mixes. In a once-a-year spirit of abandon, you might even throw away the hard little noodles.

If you're very lucky, you may have inherited from your parents an ancient, enormous hide-a-bed sofa, the original kind that's about the weight of a mammoth elephant. This is not really a sofa at all, but a boulder carved to resemble a sofa. It will probably outlive you, so you might as well enjoy this Rock of Gibralter and soften it with fuzzy afghans.

On Valentine's night, let down the hide-a-bed. Put the magnificently reeking popcorn, the wine and the chocolate delight within easy reach. (And by the way, don't be afraid of the popcorn. Garlic adds character to kisses.) Close the curtains snugly against all of those rampant black ice-gales raging through the February night--but not in here. Then turn on the movie, wrap yourself and your sweetie in the embrace of a warm comforter, and watch a couple like the two of you fall in love as though flinging themselves down a well or catapulted to the stars.