It's Not About Food

In How To Cook A Wolf, MFK Fisher says that she'll be happy to be invited over to your house for dinner "so long as you are self-possessed..., your mind is your own and your heart is another's and therefore in the right place."

It's the kind of perfectly balanced, tart and quick line that shows up on at least every page of every one of her books.  I was telling someone at the Booksmith awhile back, when I picked up another couple of volumes, that although I had been aware of Fisher for years, it was only in the last year or so that I'd started to read her myself, and I was irritated and impatient at discovering what I had missed. 

"It's a great shame," I said,  "that's she's characterized as a food writer, because that's likely to put off some people from reading her.  Food is her central metaphor, but what she writes about is love and relationships and the struggle to be that very self-possessed person that is her ideal.  And she does it with some of the most glistening prose that an American writer ever put to paper."

The version of How To Cook A Wolf that I just finished is the revised edition and one of its particular delights is that Fisher extensively annotated the original volume (published in 1942) nine years later, and those glosses are interpolated throughout the text.  She expands sections, chastises herself for earlier foolishnesses, changes her mind and quarrels with herself, goes off on tangents.  It's great fun.  She is a remarkably unselfconscious writer. 

I've no idea how hard making the craft work was for her or how much revision she ended up doing, but the effect is certainly of someone tossing off brilliant sentence after brilliant sentence as if they've just come into her head.  She never panders to her audience.  Indeed, you get the impression that she doesn't give a damn if anybody reads the stuff at all.  Her first audience is herself, and if she can please that tremendously demanding one, then it's fine if anybody else wants to read along...  or not.

I'm happy to say that her reprint publisher (North Point Press) seems to get it.  The bio blurb on the back cover says, simply, "MFK Fisher (1908-1992) is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics."

The blurb that most impressed me, however, is on the back of The Gastronomical Me.  "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose."  The author of that line is W.H. Auden -- who knew a thing or two about how to put down words, one after another, without wasting anything.

I suppose that part of the reason I take such delight in a writer like Fisher is that we are surrounded by so much flabby prose.  Blogs, by their very nature, are generally terrible, of course -- they're intended to convey ideas quickly and few bloggers pay much attention to the construction and balance of their sentences (at least I hope that's the case, given the results).  But most published prose suffers from the general decline in good editing.  Along with everything else in our hyperculture, writers write too fast, too eager to get their ideas expressed, than to be bothered with making the prose as tough and sharp as it ought to be.

When I was teaching my intellectual property on the internet seminar some years ago, I would bring to one of the first classes a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen -- a slender silver tube with a large nib.  I'd send it around the table with a bottle of ink so that each of the students could try it.  I'd hold up the Library of America volume of his collected letters and remind them, "And he wrote all of this -- and so much more -- with that kind of technology."  It would have required taking much more time thinking about each sentence before committing it to paper, given the work involved in revising.

My own blog posts are primarily experiments in sentence construction.   The game has rules.  Thirty minutes (more or less) for the initial draft, and then another thirty or so to cut and shift and push and listen.  Alas, there's not a one that doesn't suffer from the same faults that I complain about in other's.  But every once in awhile, I come up with a sentence or paragraph that marginally pleases me.  That's enough to keep me going after it.

Fat Free

I was staring, sort of dumb-founded, at the dairy case.  I'd stopped to pick up some cream for a pumpkin dessert that Lynn was planning.  These days, in America, there's a million varieties of everything, so I was scanning the shelf to see what my choices were.  Tucked among the rest, I came across the fat-free half-n'-half.

I thought I was inured to the idiocies of food marketing, but it seems they can still make me drop a step.  Fat-free half-n'-half?  What in the world can that be?  Wouldn't you have to make fat-free cream first?  And how can it be cream if you've taken out all the fat?

Turns out that it's milk loaded with corn syrup and a variety of chemicals.  No fat, fewer calories, lots more sugar.    Better living through chemistry.

I'm generally opposed, on principle, to fat-free foods, particularly when you get into the dairy areas where part of the point, it seems to me, is the fat.  Reduced fat cheese?  There's a better solution if you're concerned about the amount of fat you're ingesting -- eat less of it.  Better for you all 'round.  But consuming less is un-American.

A decade ago I was suffering from chronic gastric reflux.  Occasional heartburn had gradually developed into nearly daily discomfort, which I was treating principally with Tums (which turned out to be the main culprit in an attack of kidney stones around that same time).  I went to the doctor and he stuck the scope down my throat and said, yes, I can see that there's some scarring there, so you're definitely doing damage to the tissue of the lower esophagus.  He gave me a prescription for a short course of prilosec and then maintenance pepcid.  That would be two tablets a day -- forever.

"Is there anything that I need to change in my diet?"  I figured I was going to have to start cutting out some of the really spicy foods I like or he'd tell me to cut back on coffee or whisky...

"Oh, no.  The pepcid should take care of it."

And it did.  Better living through chemistry.  And for two years I dutifully took my pepcid and didn't have any problems.

When I hit forty-five, it seemed to me that I really wasn't feeling, in general, as good as I ought to at that age.  I was overweight, sluggish, easily winded, with lots of little body aches & pains.  I started a modest exercise program and cut back on portion sizes.  I didn't change my diet at all -- I just quit eating as much. 

I lost twenty pounds and between the weight loss and the exercise I was feeling much better.  I experimented with not taking the pepcid.  No more reflux. 

I imagine that the doctor knew that if I lost twenty pounds, the reflux would go away.  But he also knew that if he told me that I had to make lifestyle changes I'd be very unlikely to be able to stick to it, and I'd keep doing damage to my esophagus and stomach lining.  Better to just give me the drug.  The odds of my remembering to take my two pills a day were much higher than the chances of my actually changing the patterns of my life.

And so it goes.  I don't know what the answer is.  Lifestyle changes are tremendously difficult.  In Alabama 20% of the population is diabetic.  Much of that is directly related to the obesity epidemic.  Losing weight isn't complicated -- it is just incredibly difficult, particularly in this country where so much of our economy is driven by overconsumption. 

When you're bombarded on every side with messages to consume more, the challenge of simply eating less is overwhelming.  Better to convince people that they need fat-free half-n'-half. 

Not that it seems to be working.

Solitude in the City

I'm typically quite eager to get on the plane headed to wherever.  Even in these days when the papers are full of complaints about overcrowded skies and delayed flights I'm happy to be traveling.  So I was a little surprised yesterday to be feeling so blue as I drove out to the airport for my flight to Chicago -- particularly since Chicago is one of my very favorite cities.

It's largely because this time Lynn isn't going to come up to join me.  Back when she was on the MLA Board, I would come to Chicago following the February & September board meetings.  We'd stay until Sunday and go to museums & galleries, out to a show, try out new restaurants.  When I was elected to the Board, we set up the same pattern, and so she was initially planning to join me tomorrow.   But then, with all of the chaos surrounding the opening of Gymboree, she thought better of that plan and decided to skip this one.  I don't disagree with her decision at all, but it just doesn't feel right to be up here without her.

My reaction is particularly unexpected because generally I relish solitary travel.  I like being able to explore cities, to get lost in them, to find my way into unexpected places, on my own schedule, without having to deal with the long list of compromises that are usually part of the experience of traveling with someone.  But then, compatibility in traveling is one of the hallmarks of my relationship with Lynn.  I remember, very early on, during one of the first trips we took together, we were walking along having such a good time, and I blurted out, "Being with you is almost as good as being alone!"  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was aghast, because it sounded horrible, but she just laughed and knew exactly what I meant. 

So I should have been glad for the chance to have an extra day on my own in Chicago, but the fact is that I identify this city so much with her now.  It's where our romance began, although neither of us knew it at the time.

I felt better once we landed and I was in the cab heading to the hotel.   The weather was ugly -- drizzly and hot and very humid, but weather never makes a huge difference to me.    It's the energy of the city, that particular informal, brash confidence that Chicago has no matter what the weather, that I admire.  This is a place where people are used to coping with months of those icy winds blowing in off Lake Michigan -- they're not about to be slowed down by a little late summer heat & rain.

Before I left home, I'd picked out the restaurant that I wanted to go to for dinner.   I've been to Bistro Zinc several times and only taken Lynn there once, but I've written letters to her there, written in my journal about her there, so I associate her with it even so.  It's the perfect type of a French bistro that I seek out in whatever city I find myself.

I get a table by the window and look out over the bustle of State Street.  I write for a bit, sip my wine, and feel myself relax.  I've brought along MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me to read while I eat -- what can be better than reading superb prose about great food while I'm sitting in a favorite restaurant having an excellent meal of my own!  It's almost as good as being with Lynn.

I call home as I walk back to the hotel.  "Did I have a good time?" Lynn laughs.  Oh yes, I say, and tell her what we had to eat.  I'm feeling much better now.  I'll read for a bit more before sleep, and in the morning I'll work for a few hours.  The magic of modern travel is that I can get just about as much done from my hotel room as I can from my office.  Then in the afternoon the board meeting starts and for the next two days I'll be too busy and occupied to miss her too much.    Come Saturday afternoon, when the meeting is done, I'll seek out a restaurant for lunch that I think she'd like.  I'll take out fountain pen and stationery to write her a letter.  Years from now, when I remember the afternoon, I'm sure I'll see her sitting right across from me.

Making up a meal

I'm in the mood to do a stirfry for supper (we had a great Thai meal in Grinnell a week ago), but I don't have anything specific in mind, so I'll make it up as I go along.

Stop at the new Whole Foods store, since they've got the best range of interesting produce.  Shanghai bok choy -- that looks interesting.  Some slivered carrots would be good so I'll take three of these.  A handful of green beans.  A stalk of lemon grass.  One fat red bell pepper.  I need hot peppers -- they've got lots!  Settle on these two small squat red ones -- I think they're serranos, but Whole Foods does a lousy job of labeling their produce so I'm not quite sure.  Mushroom selection isn't bad.  (Need to remember they've got fresh porcinis -- I'll do something with those next week).  Here's a mix that looks like the right amount -- shitakes, oyster, crimini.  Let's see, what else?  Oh yeah, let's try one of those fat red onions.  Surely I've got plenty of garlic at home, but grab another bulb just in case.

On to the meat counter.  I've been dithering between chicken and pork, but I'm leaning toward the latter.  Ah-ha!  They have some nice thick center cut boneless pork chops that run about 8 oz each.  One of those will be perfect.  Then on to the Asian foods aisle to see if anything strikes my fancy.  I've got fish sauce at home, but maybe there'll be something else interesting?  I browse the bottles, but decide to stick with the fish sauce.  Grab a box of jasmine rice.

What else?  Huge selection of nuts here, and I find a small packet of chopped raw cashews.  Perfect.  And then to the wine aisle for a good Zinfandel that can stand the heat of those peppers, whatever they are.

At home, I lay everything out on the counter, and put a pot of water on to blanch the green beans.  Peel away the outer layers of the lemon grass stalk and coarsely mince the bulb.  Into that long gray bowl that I like using for marinades I throw a couple of teaspoons of corn starch and a lot of freshly ground black pepper.  Pour in enough rice cooking wine to make a thin paste and then mix in my lemon grass.  The pork chop gets cut into small dice and I mix it well with the marinade.

The beans go into the boiling water for just two minutes.  (Since we're in a drought, I'm being careful with water, so I'll use the water from the beans to fix the rice.)  Now comes the chopping, which I always rather enjoy, particularly after a long and intense day at work.  Carrots first, into little matchsticks.  Then the box choy, separating the stalks from the leaves (I'll throw them in at different times).  Slice the onion against the grain, use half the bell pepper cut into strips.   How hot are these little red ones?  Ooh, yum!  Just the right bit of sting -- I'll take out about half the seeds I think.  Am I missing anything?  Oh right -- mince up three or four big cloves of garlic.

The rice is going by now, and after simmering for fifteen minutes, I move it off the heat to finish and it's time to get the rest going.  Pick through the pork, pulling out the larger bits of lemon grass -- I want to use those to flavor the oil, but lemon grass is a bit woody, so I don't want any big bits to end up in the final dish.

Pull out my beloved wok -- the plain steel one that my brother gave me over twenty years ago.  Far and away my favorite kitchen utensil.  Pour in some peanut oil and let that heat up.  Throw in the lemon grass bits and let it bubble fiercely for a minute or so.  Turn off the heat and use a spoon to take the lemon grass bits out -- I'm done with them now.  Wok back on the heat, and now we're ready to progress.

Garlic first, no more than thirty seconds before I put in the pork.  Keep the heat around medium -- I want it cooking fast, but not so fast as to risk scorching.  Use the wooden paddle to keep moving things around.  Onion next, and stir that around so that the pieces separate.  Then the mushroom mix, and I'll give that a minute or so to get going.  The mushrooms start to throw off their liquid, which is what I need to generate a little steam for the other vegetables.  Carrots, the slices of bok choy stalk; swirl those around and then put in bell pepper strips and the chopped hot peppers.  Toss in just a couple of pinches of salt, and a liberal amount of fish sauce.  It's all bubbling nicely now.  Keep moving everything around with that wooden paddle.  Taste.  A little more fish sauce, I think.  Now the green beans.  Stir, taste.  More fish sauce.  The bok choy leaves.  A handful of cashew bits.  Taste.  I think it's just about there.  Sauce is too thin, though.  Toss a teaspoon of cornstarch into a cup, add a little water, mix quickly, pour that in and stir -- just right, that thickened it up nicely and we are ready to go.

Moment of truth.  Do the flavors blend right?  Are the proportions the way I want them?  How's the heat?  Did I get enough of the woody bits of lemon grass out?  Peppery enough?  Not too much salt?  Or did I end up with a half-cooked disastrous mess of clashing tastes that we'll force our way through only because we're too hungry not to?

First bite is pretty tasty.  On the second, the hot pepper starts to come through -- right about where I wanted it.  Yes, with each bite I'm more confident.  Lynn's enjoying it.  The wine's a good match.  Relief!  Maybe I should remember to write this down in case I ever want to do something similar again.   Nah.

I'm a happy boy.  Tomorrow night I'll make rice cakes with the leftovers....  maybe with some chili sauce...?   And I'm still thinking about those porcini mushrooms for next week...

Rilke Would Have Loved It

I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers.  I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended  the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye.  A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try.  So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears.  And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.

Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be.  I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu.   But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin.  I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room.  Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi.  Like I said, a long and wonderful day.

I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers.  Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go.  For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works.  I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.

It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s.  These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes.  I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that?  How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?"  As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line.  I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work.  He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes.  Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.

After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip --  Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's  Parades.   I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces.  She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection.  I find the results absolutely astonishing.  Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other.  The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears.  (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).

I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground.  That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway.  As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner,  after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...


Pork Dinner

We were in San Antonio when Lynn first saw the email from the Alabama Booksmith.  Peter Kaminsky was going to be in town touring behind his new book Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them.   (He referred to it as his Pigapalooza Tour).  In honor of the occasion, Frank Stitt would be hosting a wine dinner at Bottega.  Given the swine emphasis of our recent odyssey, it was obviously the perfect way to put a final close to the events of the last two weeks.

So last night found us on the mezzanine with 34 other guests, eating a remarkable meal (Niman Ranch lardo, salame & pancetta while we mingled, a salad of pork cheeks and fava beans to start, with a main course of "porchetta, burgundy and brooklyn style" (recipe in the book), finishing up with a selection of cheeses and a bread pudding) accompanied by perfectly matched wines.  Jake was the supremely charming master of ceremonies, of course.   Kaminski was decidedly entertaining and gracious, reading a few passages from his book, and talking through a slide show describing his (and others) efforts to combat the factory farming of pigs by supporting artisanal farmers and producers. 

We try to go to wine dinners like this whenever our busy schedules allow.  We've never left one without having learned a few things, met a few interesting people, and having had some memorable conversations.  Throughout human history, the combination of good food, wine, and an interesting mix of people has been recognized as one of life's supreme joys.

Aside from the obesity epidemic, part of the tragedy of our overprocessed, fast food culture is that too many of us see food as nothing but fuel.  We eat on the run, or in front of tv, primarily so that we can keep running.  When I was growing up, in a catholic household, we prayed before every meal, and every meal was an occasion for conversation.  These days, I don't pray (in that sense), but I do take time to be grateful for every meal.  And every evening, when we're at home, Lynn and I eat together in the dining room, with a lit candle on the table, music in the background, a bottle of wine, and something that we've prepared by hand, be it as simple as a couple of grilled sausages, a boiled potato, and some steamed green beans.  It is always one of the best times of the day.

A Grappa Celebration

Wasn't it at that little wine store in the North End, where Mark took us to buy some grappa, that we first heard about the Jacopo Poli miele?  It's a honey-flavored grappa, and the owner had just come back from Italy where he'd tasted some for the first time.  He'd ordered a case but it hadn't arrived yet.  Mark said he'd try to get a bottle before his next visit to Birmingham, but that didn't work out.   Good things have their own way of coming around, however, and when we finished our splendid dinner at Al Tiramisu Tuesday evening and went up to the bar to tell Chef Luigi that it was time for grappa, his eyes twinkled at Lynn (as they always do) as he said, "Ahh, Senora!  What I have for you!  Miele, from Poli!"  It was every bit as delicious as we'd imagined that it would be.

We really do have to come here with Mark some time.  For the true grappa afficianado this is a heavenly spot.  I don't think I've ever actually selected a grappa here -- I just ask Luigi what he'd like to pour for me and it is always something wonderful.

We were in a celebratory mood after taking in the show of small Whistler paintings at the Freer,  strolling through Montmartre with Lautrec at the National Gallery, paying homage to Julia Child in her kitchen at the National Museum of American History and finishing the afternoon with oysters and whiskey at the Old Ebbitt Grill.    In the morning I'd done my talk for the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors -- the culmination of a series of conversations I've had with Sheldon over the years since the notorious Human Immunology incident.  NLM was the host site for this year's meeting of the committee, and Sheldon had asked me some months ago to come speak to the group.  Ostensibly, my purpose was simply to highlight a number of areas where electronic publishing presents us with new challenges that they might want to address in the Uniform Requirements for Submission of Manuscripts to Biomedical Journals.  What I was hoping for is that they would amend the section dealing with retractions and corrections to include a statement that it is never permissible to remove an article from the electronic database once it has been published.  And by the end of the discussion, that is exactly the point they reached.

They still need to agree on the specific language, and sometimes things can get gummed up in the transition from what seems like a clear concept to the actual words in which the idea takes form, but I am hopeful that they will be able to come to consensus on the phrasing over the next several weeks.   The URM isn't enforceable, even among those journals that agree to comply with it, so it can't prevent nervous lawyers from persuading the publishers they work for to continue to expunge articles in certain dicey situations, but it is a very signficant step to have this distinguished international body go on record with the principle, and it will give editors something with which to push back at the lawyers.

It was a day when I felt that I had really accomplished something worthwhile.   Definitely worth a grappa.