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Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

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Words To Drive By Part 5

On Possessing Beauty

IMG_1728There was much beauty to document on our recent trip. From San Francisco’s salmon-colored, hillside homes, to the produce stalls of Saturday morning markets, from ocean vistas to smaller nooks and crannies.

You get my drift. A snapshot or two or 50 becomes inevitable; there is an urge to possess beauty when it is fleeting. We began our slow-twisting descent into Yosemite Valley as I reached the chapter on “The Art of Possessing Beauty” in “The Art of Travel.” I felt a renewed appreciation for the examined life vacation, the notion of author-as-companion tapping me on the shoulder with some timely advice.

This time, the life of John Ruskin is the author’s point of inspiration. An Englishman living in the 19th century, he wrote The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective. He championed the art of drawing to the English public, believing that drawing was the only way to truly see the world’s beauty.

He was interested in what it meant to see: he valued writing and photography and other methods of “possessing beauty” in so much as they allowed a person to understand and articulate the various factors that made something seem beautiful.

He was acutely observant of visual and sensory details:

“Ruskin was throughout his life frustrated by the refusal of polite, educated English people to talk in sufficient depth about the weather — and in particular by their tendency to refer to it as wet and windy…” (De Botton 227).

He also believed in traveling slowly, in a state of deep concentration, covering small distances at a time. De Botton summarizes the rarity of this approach among modern travelers:

“It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it” (218).

I am sure John Ruskin would have delicately rolled over in his grave had he witnessed the herd of cars and RVs eagerly stopping at one particular, heavily labeled overhang for the same photo op (like me, below). I am sure our hour-long drive to the campsite, winding through one sun-drenched patch of trees after another, punctuated by the occasional, sparkling stream or stark cliff, could have easily been its own trip, its own portfolio of drawings.

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But for all the dramatic views, highs and lows we witnessed at Yosemite, we did spend one afternoon that felt distinctly aligned with his principles of slow-moving receptivity, lying along the rocks of a very clear, cold river on a thick, hot day. It was the psychological equivalent of being eight years old again, in the dog days of summer — the faded voices of families calling to each other, multiple generations in multiple languages, the crunch of gravel, the mixed smell of charcoal and barbecue, the running of water over rocks, slight breezes cutting through dry heat, sending an occasional shiver through low-hanging leaves.

That is my attempt at a “word-painting,” for which Ruskin eventually became famous. Ruskin believed that describing the natural beauty of a place meant to capture its unique, emotional effect, using emotionally evocative words to enhance the objective, sensory details.

Seems like a familiar idea, even a cliché, that the beauty of a place is tied to the feeling it creates. But when you take that idea to its logical conclusion — all places are beautiful because all places evoke feelings (of varying depth and complexity) — you become aware of how much beauty is available in any given moment, and how much conscious effort (and slowing down) is necessary to see that beauty.

For Ruskin, the conscious effort involved in “word painting” is what allows the writer to see more clearly. Ruskin had a less elevated opinion of photography, but I stand by my mindless snapshots. Capturing views is important in wine country — it allows the good stuff to sit tight, eventually be reopened, shared, and enjoyed anew.

Words To Drive By

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.43.51 AMThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was a fitting companion as I road-tripped the coast of California this June and July. Unlike a traditional guidebook suggesting what to do in a given locale, it probes the how — asking what it means to travel meaningfully from a historical, philosophical, and anecdotal point of view.

The book has a clever structure: in each chapter, de Botton explores a big, travel-related topic using a guide from the world of literature, art, or history to offset his own travel anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh’s history in Provence enlightens the author’s first trip there. With the help of Van Gogh’s paintings, de Botton finds that this much-lauded corner of the world lives up to its hype, leading to a more subtle, philosophical conversation about the two-way relationship between beautiful places and their representation in works of art.

I found de Botton’s reflections apropos — universal, nimbly working around clichés — as I found myself lazing next to a cold river reading about Wordsworth’s exultation of the countryside, or greedily snapping photos of peaks and valleys, only to encounter a chapter “On Possessing Beauty,” with relevant, reverent quotes such as

“‘I can never stand long under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other’” (229, John Ruskin).

Allow me to share some more of my favorite musings from The Art of Travel, and how they became words to drive by, beginning with  some thoughts on departure and anticipation.

Monday is for Margaret Atwood

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 3.08.06 PMI recently purchased the novel Cat’s Eye on the basis of its $4.98 sale price and its author Margaret Atwood, whose novels The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale have captivated me with their universal themes and strange, otherworldly settings.

Cat’s Eye is not a science fiction book, but Atwood’s penchant for the wild and surreal shines through in her exploration of the central character’s consciousness, raising questions about the power of childhood imagination and adult memory, as well as the fluid, fleeting nature of identity.

Elaine Risley is a painter who reluctantly returns to her native city of Toronto to attend a retrospective of her work. Written from Elaine’s perspective but alternating between different incarnations of Elaine at different ages, the narrator is what an English teacher might call unreliable: young Elaine knows things that old Elaine has forgotten; old Elaine has the advantage of hindsight and the burden of more stubborn biases. Only the reader has full access to Elaine’s disassembled story.

The youngest version of Elaine is a tomboy, content to follow her older brother Stephen as the family treks through the forests of Northern Canada in their “boat-sized Studebaker,” guided by the caterpillar studies of her biologist father and defined by a milieu of motels, canned food, pine trees, and car trips. Her mother is outdoorsy and “wild.” From a young age, her brother broods about a fourth, time-space dimension and grows up to be a physicist.

Elaine’s reverence for her older brother is broadcast in endearingly childlike terms, i.e.,“‘his only weakness that I knows of is his tendency to get carsick,’” evoking the short-lived purity of childhood sibling friendship. Atwood also touches on the existential thoughts that children experience: when the family is living in an abandoned campground, Elaine adopts an outsider’s view of her parents: “‘I see my parents, in through the window, sitting beside the kerosene lamp, and they are like a faraway picture with a frame of blackness. It’s disquieting to look at them, in through the window, and know that they don’t know I can see them. It’s as if I don’t exist, or as if they don’t.’”

This gives way to a slightly older Elaine, wishing for “friends who will be girls, girl friends, [she] know[s] that these exist, having read about them in books…” The family settles down in Toronto, and Elaine is forced to navigate female friendships that prove baffling and cruel. Twin sets, household appliances, and exclusive lines at recess overtake and delineate her old, tomboy-ish world. The characters Carol, Grace, and Cordelia jointly attempt to “improve” Elaine, described with watchful, desperate immediacy by the young narrator:

“‘It’s one of her friendly days; she puts her arm through my arm, her other arm through Grace’s, and we march along the street, singing We don’t stop for anybody. I sing this too. Together we hop and slide. Some of the euphoria I once felt in falling snow comes back to me; I want to open my mouth and let the snow fall into it. I allow myself to laugh, like the others, trying it out. My laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary.’”

Elaine’s fastidious efforts toward social acceptance continue: she earnestly imitates her friend Grace’s religious zeal and submits to humiliating dares. This culminates in a near-death experience at the bottom of a steep ravine. The extent of their cruelty, and a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a cat’s eye, finally liberate her from the need to fit in.

The contrasting worlds of Elaine’s childhood — her nomadic family versus cruel, small town cliques — converge when Elaine becomes an artist. She gains admission into a drawing class on the basis of her sketches of plant and insect life. A few years later, she gains critical acclaim through surreal depictions of small town life, painting visual cues of the fear, bitterness, and contempt that she felt.

My favorite parts were the narration by the child version of Elaine. The earnestness and determination of her voice reminded me of the recent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and its heartbreaking, vulnerable, headstrong protagonist, how the minds of children are fertile grounds for storytelling.

[Photo: “DIY Margaret Atwood Mask,” Christos Tsirbas’ photostream]

Midnight Pasta + American Nostalgia

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.37.05 PMIn Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and The Art of Eating, distinguished authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry discuss food-related topics with the same intelligent, playful, and occasional dark voices that characterizes their literary work.

I particularly like the essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “Food Mysteries.” She sticks to her signature tone — wry and unsentimental — avoiding the nostalgia trap. Through a collection of anecdotes including her Hungarian grandmother, cafeteria food, and dinners with poets, she manages to translate ironic food observations into a genuinely compelling portrait of human nature, and its mysteriousness. One observation comments on “American nostalgia.” She writes,

“There are adults of middle age in whom the sudden acrid smells of cafeteria food (scorched macaroni-and-cheese casserole, canned spaghetti with tomato sauce, grease-encrusted french fries, ‘beef doves,’ ‘shepherd’s pie,’ ‘Texas hash,’ et al) galvanize taste buds dormant since eighth grade, with a hungry violence rarely experienced since eighth grade: but it is better not to be one of these.”

Well, ahem, I personally can speak to a fondness for grease encrusted French fries (I wish I could call it nostalgia; my enjoyment probably has more to do with the grease than nostalgic memories of my childhood) but that said, this idea of food nostalgia is  interesting… 

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.46.52 PMIt makes you wonder: if our childhood taste buds can be galvanized as quickly as our amygdala goes into fight-or-flight, does anyone ever grow up? It’s like the saying, “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten.” True — but what happens when we smell French fries? Suddenly we’re four-year-olds.

Our nostalgia for certain childhood foods hits at the core of human nature. Notwithstanding our biological predisposition toward carbohydrate-rich foods, what about comfort food has us so tightly wrapped around its silver spoon? Like little else, comfort food knows that we never shed our five-year-old selves: innocent, occasionally bratty, and placated by French fries. And it lives to mock us!

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 1.01.27 PMFor this reason, I am always inspired by healthier versions of classic, calorie-rich comfort food. I love making old-fashioned  “mac-and-cheese casseroles,” but a quicker, healthier alternative are what chefs call “midnight pastas.” They are improvised using basic pantry ingredients and impart a relaxing, after-your-guests-are-gone vibe.

Here is one of my own, improvised “midnight pastas,” except that I usually make it at 6:00 p.m., and then pat myself on the back for fulfilling the day’s cooking quota, for a crowd of two 🙂

Noodles

The pasta is whatever you choose, or have on hand, cooked according to package directions. I personally think longer noodles are fun, such as linguini, angel hair, or spaghetti. I would cook about 1/2 pound of pasta so you have plenty of sauce to go around. Reserve a cup of the pasta water in case you want to dilute the sauce.

Sauce

This is a hybrid of Barefoot Contessa’s Linguini with Shrimp Scampi (sans the shrimp) and Cristina Ferrare’s Angel Hair with Olive Oil and Lemon from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love.

Ingredients

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Kosher salt freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
1/2 lemon, zest grated
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/4 lemon, thinly sliced in half-rounds
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley leaves
Chopped fresh mint leaves
Toasted walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds

  • Optional: add sundried tomatoes, frozen peas, corn
  • Substitute chives, scallions, or basil for mint, or use a different combination of herbs
  • Substitute asiago cheese for Parmesan

Melt three tablespoons of butter and 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute only. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from the heat and add lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and slices of lemon. Grate as much parmesan cheese as desired over the sauce and stir.

Add cooked pasta to the sauce and mix gently with tongs. Add more cheese and/or dilute with reserved pasta water as needed. Garnish with herbs and toasted nuts.

[Photos: “Cafeteria ‘A,’ 1947,” Duke Yearlook’s photostream and “Homemade Pasta,” marksweb’s photostream]

 

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