Opinionated cooks

Some of the most charmingly biased writing can be found in the prose of great cooks. Here is Marcella Hazan’s aria on vegetables:

“Perhaps one day the vitality of these still-flourishing markets will be replaced by the pallor of deep-freeze counters, those cemeteries of food, where produce is sealed up in waxed boxes marked, like some tombstones, with photographs of the departed. But I hope it never happens. I would sooner be deprived of all the marvels of Michelangelo.

“The quality of Italy’s produce is matchless. Only that of France comes close…Do not waste your efforts on second-rate materials. Buy carefully, avoiding any vegetable that is wilted, badly bruised, ill assorted, tired-looking, soggy, flabby, or overgrown.  Shopping for good fresh vegetables in this country may be frustrating at times, bit that does not mean we must deliver ourselves up in thralldom to the frozen-food shelves.”

Or the final paragraph of her page-long disquisition (worth reading!) on Parmesan cheese: “The recipes in this book call for freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Do not under any circumstances use ready-grated cheese sold in jars. Even if this commercially grated cheese were of good quality, which it is not, it would have lost all its flavor long before getting to the market. It is of no interest whatever to Italian cooking.”

Here’s Julia Child on wine: “Food, like the people who eat it, can be stimulated by wine or spirits. And, as with people, it can also be spoiled…If you have not a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”

And here’s Elizabeth David on the same subject: “Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup or stew as a reckless foreign extravagance and at the same time spend pounds on bottled sauces, gravy powders, soup cubes, ketchups and artificial flavorings. (She adds a long footnote on the poisonous nature of these flavorings, which employ putrid cheese, gas tar and nitric acid.) If every kitchen contained a bottle each of red wine, white wine and inexpensive port for cooking, hundreds of store cupboards could be swept clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring…Sherry is a good addition, but should be used in cooking with the utmost discretion; it is useless to think that the addition of a large glass of poor sherry to the contents of a tin of soup is going to disguise it.”

And I love David’s short paragraph at the end of her “Batterie de Cuisine” section, after she has spent five or six pages detailing essential kitchen tools: “Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.”

If I were ever to teach writing again, I’d include excerpts from these writers along with my favorite essays of George Orwell and Adam Gopnik and some of William Logan’s biting, accurate, and fearless evisceration of contemporary poets (analysis and praise, too, when warranted). The command of grammar (Marcella Hazan, not even a native speaker, makes excellent use of the subjunctive, and Elizabeth David uses the slippery semi-colon perfectly), the passion and the richness of their prose make reading their books not only instructive but pure pleasure for those who love words as much as food.

In case you might want to create the syllabus for such a ravishing course, the selections above are from The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck; and French Country Cooking, Elizabeth David. From Orwell’s essays I’d include “How the Poor Die,” “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” “Revenge is Sour,” “Reflections on Ghandi,” and “Such, Such Were the Joys,” in addition the much anthologized (but perhaps slightly too didactic “Politics and the English Language.” Some of these are hard to find, but available in the four volume set of letters and essays, which is worth owning. My favorite Gopnik essays include “Last of the Metrozoids,” “The Rules of the Sport,” “Barney in Paris,” and “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli.” These are available in Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. You can often find William Logan’s criticism online in “The New Criterion,” as well as his books: Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue and The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin.


Louis B. Jones

This week I started Louis B. Jones new book, Radiance. I’d been waiting eagerly for it. It’s a rare treat to enter the world of someone who thinks deeply and articulates his thought beautifully (poetically!) while moving you along a compelling story line. Here are two passages.

The first is about the strangeness of women, via the narrator’s teen-age daughter:

“…he hadn’t known what a girl’s graces were until Lotta, nor felt how over years his world was gradually changing shape so that females’ natural secret regnant ascendancy became more impossible  to ignore, not until Lotta, not until he’d started watching a girl take shape from earliest infancy, the fineness of discernment, as well as a soreness, which amounted to a discriminating kind of electromagnetic force, all superpowers in comparison with boys’—and how hard that all was for them, the amazing unremitting meanness of their competition, their fundamental sad practicality, then the encroaching ineluctable weird song and dance of their inferior competence.”

The second describes a carpenter’s belt his wife is wearing:

“The new tool belt from True Value was red, redder than any valentine, its tough nylon webbing lustrous with that almost-lanolin stuff that synthetic hardware-store fabrics have when they’re brand-new and still faintly cense the factory warehouse perfumes of polymerized thermo-plastic.”

Here is a man who is paying attention and has the vocabulary to wake you up and see what he sees. And we’re only at page 13! I could go on, but it would be better if you bought the book and supported this kind of writing.


Rain and libraries

Okay, the weather is decidedly odd. But I refuse to jump to apocalyptic conclusions. Instead, I’ve been noodling around the web. I discovered several wonderful British blogs about books, including Harriet Devine’s blog.  This led me to discover an online article about Patrick Hamilton, a previously-unknown-to-me British author. I’ve reserved two of his books.

I am a total library addict; can’t bear to pass by one without going in and browsing and taking something out. It’s sort of like dating. No commitment—you’re just borrowing a book. Then I buy the ones I want to keep, especially the best contemporary authors who need me to buy their books (like Julie Orringer and Louis B. Jones) so they can keep writing. I have two credit cards, but six active library cards—a good ratio:

And now that I can reserve books online, I have a continual stream of good books available at any one time. The more scholarly ones and obscure poets I get from UC; cookbooks, how-to, and general fiction from whichever public library near me has what I want. Continue reading “Rain and libraries”

Mark Doty

This morning I was chatting with friends about poetry over tea and muffins. We were talking about workshops, etc. I told them about my worst workshop experience, one with Mark Doty at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. Despite the awful workshop, his work is luminous. We talked about how you can’t equate the work with the person. This came home to me years ago, watching a poet I know who wrote stunning love poems to his wife and treated her like the dirt under his shoe soles.

In any case, Marcia, here’s a Mark Doty excerpt for you. Other poems of his I love include: A Green Crab’s Shell, Apparition; A New Dog; The Embrace, Migratory, A Display of Mackerel. There’s a transcendental strain in his work that he weaves in with such skill. I find it extraordinarily moving. You can find several of these at poets.org, and hear him read. He’s a good reader. Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems, is worth owning, and I even like his blog.

from “Atlantis”

I thought your illness a kind of solvent
dissolving the future a little at a time;

I didn’t understand what’s to come
was always just a glimmer

up ahead, veiled like the marsh
gone under its tidal sheet

of mildly rippled aluminum.
What these salt distances were

is also where they’re going:
from blankly silvered span

toward specificity: the curve
of certain brave islands of grass,

temporary shoulder-wide rivers
where herons ply their twin trades

of study and desire. I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold

like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,

too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season

to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was the triumph

of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

in the soul, after so much diminishment…
Breath from the unpromising waters,

up, across the pond and the two-lane highway,
pure purpose, over the dune,

gone. Tomorrow’s unreadable
as this shining acreage;

the future’s nothing
but this moment’s gleaming rim.

Now the tide’s begun
its clockwork turn, pouring,

in the day’s hourglass,
toward the other side of the world,

and our dependable marsh reappears
—emptied of that scratched and angular grace

that spirited the ether, lessened,
but here. And our ongoingness,

what there’ll be of us? Look,
love, the lost world

rising from the waters again:
another continent, where it always was,

emerging from the half light,
drenched, unchanged.

Mark Doty

Hungary, World War II, the genius of Julie Orringer

Last night we went down to Stanford to hear Julie Orringer read from her novel The Invisible Bridge. http://julieorringer.com/ is her website.  I loved her book of stories, how to breathe underwater, when it appeared several years ago, and bought The Invisible Bridge as soon as it came out. It’s a marvelous novel, rich, compelling, painful. It’s the story of a Hungarian Jewish family starting in the 1930s and moving through World War II.

The genius of the book is that you become invested in the lives of the characters before the war, during “normal” life. When Hitler and Hungary’s fate make terrible choices necessary for the characters, it brings those events to life—so much so that you want to change history, to stop its crushing, implacable march. It makes you feel the impact of the war in a visceral way.

Here in the US, we don’t hear much about Hungary, a tiny country that tried to fight with the Germans against the Russians without buying into Hitler’s crusade against the Jews. It didn’t work, of course. But there was nobility in the struggle—a sort of old world dignity. I also recommend Sándor Márai’s Memoir of Hungary 1944-1948, a moving non-fiction account of the same period. I wrote this poem after reading his memoir:

Sándor Márai in Exile

Deprived of your native language,
of paprikash cooked in cramped kitchens,
of the scent of elder flowers in early June,
you don’t meet people you know on the street, or stop
in familiar shops that sell just what you need.
You don’t sit with friends
at the café with a newspaper filled
with gossip about people you know.

After your home was destroyed,
you said language was your true home.
But so few speak the Magyar tongue.
Even your name sounds unfamiliar here.
Who will read your forty-six books?
your scrupulous observations of
the German soldiers who set up radios
in your parlor? the Russians
who used it for their motorpool?
You saved your hatred for
your countrymen, newly minted
Soviets, returned from Moscow.
Their lethal mix of terror
and preferment snuffed
what little there was left of Hungary
and drove you out.

It’s lonely in the sun
of San Diego. Your bones crave cold light,
need winter in Krisztinaváros
before the siege,
the irreplaceable stones of Castle Hill.
Your mouth is parched
for the barbed sweetness of accented vowels,
the braided bread of consonants,
the bullets
of your spoken tongue.

Meryl Natchez