Saturday, July 23, 2016

Seeing Nature Inside Outside

As the temperature approaches 100°, an afternoon bike trip out into the country starts to sound less like a good idea. We heading in the opposite direction, downtown, to the spacious, air-conditioned Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the outdoors has been brought inside in an exhibit called "Seeing Nature." The show includes a heterogeneous mix of paintings spanning three centuries from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Although the emphasis is ostensibly on landscape, many of the painting are, in fact, cityscapes. There are six paintings of Venice alone. Claude Monet is represented by five landscapes (only one of Venice) and these are among the highlights of the show. Other impressionists and post-impressionists include Gauguin, Cezanne, Sisley, Manet, and Signac.

Be forewarned: the exhibit opens with an entire wall of dreadful paintings by Jan Breughel the Younger in which we hardly see nature at all. Each painting is dedicated to a sense—sight, touch, taste—but the paintings themselves (which are large) consist in each case of a naked woman sitting in a cavernous room cluttered with flower-petals, musical instruments, dead animals and pieces of fruit, or whatever the type of object appropriate to the sense in question might be.

Though it's easy to admire a Monet or a Canaletto, the paintings I found most interesting were by artists I was not all that familiar with. Henri Le Sidaner's "The Serenade, Venice" (1907) had a scintillating atmosphere; Gerhard Richter's "Apple Trees" (1987) looked like a blurry and inexplicably sinister photograph; Milton Averys "Dancing Trees" (1960) had a goofy mien and a very nice shade of green.

The range of styles on view is impressive overall, yet  I was a little disappointed not to find a Corot or Constable in the mix—nothing that really captures the poignancy of gray lonely days out in the fields. David Hockney's multi-panel rendering of the Grand Canyon was delightfully garish, but it didn't evoke the character of the canyon in the slightest. I wasn't seeing nature, I was seeing Hockney. The other two renderings of the canyon captured something of the subtle blues and purples that cloak the escarpments in low light ... but they lacked the requisite size.

At a certain point I began to wonder whether the thick and very ornate gilded frames within which many of the canvases were mounted were really appropriate for paintings that were supposed to help us to see beyond the art—to see nature. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I "see" nature all the time. In comparison with the banks of black-eyed susans we'd skirted in the museum courtyard on our way to the exhibit through the afternoon heat, few of the canvases on display had much sparkle.

But perhaps I was the one without much sparkle? Maybe the heat had taken it out of me before I even arrived. I did enjoy walking through the cool, well-lit, uncrowded halls of the museum, where youth and age were in perfect balance and everyone looked bright and purposeful. Small groups were chatting in the lobby and sitting around the first-floor coffee shop; individuals were reading magazines on a few of the couches that are scattered around the gallery spaces.

On our way out of the museum we passed several rugged works by Marsden Hartley and a painting by John Sargent Singer of some donkeys in a courtyard that I'd never seen before.

Outside, it was still hot, and the black-eyed susans still looked good.

Was the show worthwhile? I would recommend it, especially on a free day. But it was not about "seeing nature." What we were seeing was civilization.

In fact, I'm thinking now that the Sisley painting of a bridge across a sunlit river was the most subtle in the entire show, and I want to see it again. Evidently I'm the only one who feels this way. It took me forever to find a digital image, and it has very little of the original's chalky glint.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bastille Day Meditations : Aubergines, Willows, and Mice

I got home this afternoon from an overnight excursion to the St. Croix River, where we spotted a very cute mouse in a hollow tree and a bright yellow prothonotary warbler feeding its cheeping youngsters in a thicket on the riverbank. It rained very hard in central Minnesota the other day, and the river was brown, swollen, and moving very fast.

Meanwhile, Bastille Day has caught me off-guard. It was a great stroke of luck to find half an eggplant and a big jar of artichoke hearts in the refrigerator.  The eggplant (diced) is roasting now, and I've got a CD of Richard Galliano (accordion) and Sylvain Luc (guitar) belting out the old Parisian favorites, from "La Vie en Rose" right down the line.  If that starts to sound too corny, Cajun Dance Classics is on deck in the CD changer, with some Poulenc piano music in the hole.

This dish I'm cooking up is sort of like cassoulet, and sort of like ratatouille. I've thrown in a yellow bell pepper and a diced onion,  a can of diced tomatoes and another of cannellini beans, four cloves of garlic (minced), some dried rosemary and basil along with fresh savory and parsley from our garden plot alongside the driveway, which is about the size of an ironing board.

While this mélange is cooking, I've got some time to ponder the day and the ideals of liberty and good living, though it's a little harder to do with fanatics at the podium night after night and everybody getting shot.  I've chosen as my companion and spur to thought a slim volume by the  French Novelist Michel Tournier called The Mirror of Ideas

It isn't a novel, but rather, a series of oppositions held up to one another and examined fancifully. Some are conceptual (the absolute and the relative), some are physical (the cellar and the attic), and many aren't opposed to one another at all (talent and genius, hunting and fishing).

The one I've hit upon is the alder and the willow. Both grow near water, though one thrives in bogs while the other is at home next to clear streams. The discussion soon turns to a mistranslation made by Goethe of a folktale gathered by Herder that led to creation of a famous poem, "The Alder King."

This is good stuff, and I was about to take a look at Tournier's analysis of chronology and meteorology when it occurred to me that I didn't have any bread on hand.

What's Bastille Day without bread? So I went off to the store in the rain and bought a loaf of bake-at-home bread. Not the very best, but it will certainly do to sop up the sauce. Now Hilary is home (and reading a Martin Walker mystery set in Perigord) and my thoughts are beginning to turn ever so slowly toward the wine...   

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Early Morning with Novalis - some sort of ideal

It was a fine storm—evening light,  lots of rain but no big branches down. We stood together on the front stoop, partially protected by the overhang, enjoying the cool spray while we watched the water descend in sheets. It will be good for the grass.

I went out this morning at 6 to pick up the stray leaf clusters and happened to meet our newspaper delivery man for the first time.

"How's it going?"

"Looks like you've got a little clean-up to do."

The smell of moist vegetation filled the air and I knew it was time to head down to Bassett Creek to test the water clarity. It had been reading 100+ during the dry spell, but after the runoff from a storm like this it might drop down to 40 or even 30. I was sure the DNR would like to know.

As I headed down the street my neighbor Angie was just leaving the house on her way to work, and we exchanged greetings. By a lucky chance, the CD I had in the player was perfectly suited to the morning—soprano Emma Kirky singing an angelic duet with an oboeist (who wasn't actually singing, though his instrument was "singing"). Weichet nur, Betrubte Schatten (Yield now, troubling shadows).

Down near the bridge over the creek I spotted a man I'd seen there before carrying a camera and a tripod.

"What are you looking for?" I asked.

"Dragonflies," he replied. "What's that tube for? Are you measuring the depth of the water?"

"Water clarity," I said. "I just jot down the number every so often and send in the data at the end of the summer. It's a nice excuse to get outside."

"Same with me," he laughed.

The flow in the creek was heavy, though the water level had merely returned to "normal." I lowered my plastic bucket into the creek from the bridge with a rope, hoisted some water, poured it into the tube, and pulled the string until the black and white disc suspended in the water disappeared. reading: 44.

  *   *   *
But now the sun has come out and the day's heating up. Sitting on the deck in mid-morning ( a cooper's hawk just flew by fifty feet overhead), drinking coffee, listening to the goldfinches chatter, and watching a bee hunt in vain for the last remaining flower on the dogwood bushes a few feet away. The line of emerging sunlight creeps across the deck toward my shady spot here against the dining room wall. The sky is a pale blue, the wind is rustling in the trees, the coffee has grown cold, and I'm reading Novalis, The Novices of Sais, where he writes:
"The capriciousness of nature seems of itself to fall within the idea of human personality, which is apparently best grasped in the form of a human creature. That is why poetry has been the favorite instrument of true friends of nature, and the spirit of nature has shown most radiantly in poems. When we read and hear true poems, we feel the movement of nature's inner reason and, like its celestial embodiment, we dwell in it and hover over it at once."
A few pages on, Novalis puts this speech into the mouth of one of his characters:
"To everything that man undertakes he must give his undivided attention, his self; once he has done this, miraculously thoughts arise,  or new kinds of perceptions, which appear to be nothing more than delicate, abrupt movements of a colored pencil, or strange contractions and figurations of an elastic liquid. From the point where he has transfixed the impression, they spread in all directions with a living mobility and carry his self with them."
At this point Novalis heads off down a path that scholars might consider an elaboration (or criticism) of Fichte's thought, but I have neither the background nor an interest in such things.   
"Often he can stop this movement at the onset by dividing his attention or letting it wander at random, for thoughts seem to be nothing other than emanations and effects which the self induces all around it in that elastic medium, or the refractions of the self in that medium, or in general a strange game that the waves of this ocean play with the rigidity of concentration. Strange to say, it is only though this play that man becomes aware of his uniqueness, his specific freedom; it seems to him then as though he were waking from a deep sleep, as though he had just begun to be at home in the universe, as though the light of day had just broken in upon his inner world."
Now a small white butterfly flutters by, the size of a quarter. I've gone inside to get a hat—the sunlight will soon be upon me. The goldfinches have vanished, the chickadees have arrived. A red-bellied woodpecker shrieks from nearby. Always cardinals. Now a house finch!

And now a train whistle, of all things.

I'll be heading out soon to a meeting. But now I see a tiny fly, the size of a piece of rice, on the back of the chair here beside the one I'm sitting on. Its abdomen glistens a deep turquoise, inlaid with rings of gold.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Twin Cities Jazz Fest 2016

Saint Paul was hopping that afternoon, what with the final day of the jazz fest underway and a St. Paul Saints baseball game on the schedule a block away. That meant that the lot we used to park at for $3 was now $25. But the gravel lots east of the Black Dog have now been paved, and I would say  $7 isn't too bad for an evening of musical entertainment.

I've wanted to hear the Adam Meckler Big band for quite a while—ever since I got the opportunity to chat with Adam and his wife, vocalist Jane Nyberg, at the Dakota a few years ago. The band was good. The arrangements were swingin.'  Some nice tunes, and rip-roaring trumpet solos by Adam and also by one of his colleagues in the back row. 

Unfortunately, we arrived too late the hear Jane sing. I also considered it a little unfortunate that so much solo time was given over to the young guitarist in the band. The solos weren't bad ... but that guitar sound fits into the mix only marginally, in my opinion, and with so many obviously talented reed and brass performers in the group, it seemed odd that he was featured on all three of the tunes we heard.

But little matter. The crowd was good, the stormy weather was being held at bay by the jazz-gods, and with temperatures in the 90s, the arboreal landscaping in Mears Park was more inviting than ever.

Guitarist Russell Malone was next up on the main stage, but our plan was to check out a few of the other venues where local groups were performing, so we hoofed it up to the Amsterdam Bar, five blocks away, where we met some friends to hear a band named "No Room for Squares."

Nowadays anyone who uses the word "square" is probably a square. But the members of this band are dedicated to cultivating classical Bebop, and the name, which recalls an old Hank Mobley recording from 1963, is certainly appropriate to the sound.

The band was good. There were periods of grooving and periods of coasting during the solos, as usual, with Jon Pemberton on trumpet and Jimmy Wallace on tenor sax leading the way, and the energy was decent overall. A little of the excitement may have been dissipated in the yawning distance between the bandstand and the bench we were sitting on forty feet away. The dance floor was empty. (But that's what they always said about Bebop. You can't dance to it.)

On the other hand, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman and a man who turned out to be her son. He's a jazz percussionist, he works in far-off Fosston, but he drove down for the fest and booked a room in a hotel. We chatted about drummers, and I bored them with a story about hearing Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes (forgot to mention Tony Williams!). 

She was looking forward to hearing Michael Franti and Spearhead (I'd never heard of him) and mused that next year she and her husband might book a room downtown themselves, the better to hear the late night jam sessions while avoiding the early-morning drive back to Oakdale.

We were also blessed with a very hip waiter, who recommended just the right dipping sauces for our fries!

Our next stop was a block away at the Vieux Carré to hear the Chris Lomheim Trio. We'd been there several times before—but never when it was crowded. It was fun to see the room full of people, and we scored a table within a few minutes, but while we were waiting for the waiter to arrive we decided we'd just as soon move on.

Out on the street we ran into a woman who was also just leaving.

"I've never seen the place so packed," I said.

"Yeah, but was anybody listening?" she replied, a little haughtily. She seemed to be upset that all that good music was going to waste, almost impossible to hear over the din of conversation.

"You should come on a Monday night," I replied. "You'd have the place all to yourself."

She didn't seem to like that idea, either, and I felt sad for her as she walked off alone into the evening heat.

We headed off in a different direction, back to Lowertown to check out the newly-remodeled Black Dog.  Along the way we stopped at the main stage to catch Russell Malone's last number. I was already a little tired of jazz guitar by that time, but I sat in the front row and "listened with interest" before rejoining Hilary and our friends, who were dipping their feet in the stream that flows through the park.

Then on to the Black Dog. The old place was cramped, but it had flavor. The expanded version has more room for tables ... but the walls are white and I wonder what the vibe will turn out to be. I ordered an Iowa Mule at the bar (because a friend of mine had been talking about that drink recently) and I heard the woman who took my order say to another woman behind the bar, "How do you make an Iowa Mule?"

Hilary asked one waitress how she liked the new layout.

"It's like a new restaurant," the woman said. "I'm happy for the owners, but I feel like I'm working at an entirely new job. I liked the old place better."

I'm not sure about the venue, but it took a long time for the Lucia Sarmiento group to set up, and all the while I was wishing we'd gone to hear the Pete Whitman Xtet with Lucia Newell at the nearby Union Depot.

Music and venues. That's what it's all about. Different styles, different eras. You want the powerful, ecstatic performance in an intimate space, and even five minutes at the highest level can make an event worthwhile.  At the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the "festival" sometimes turns out to be more important than the jazz.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Antiquarian Book Fair

I'm the type of customer no one wants to chat with at a bookfair.

I enjoy looking at the books. And at the Twin Cities Antiquarian Bookfair, the environment of a cavernous state fair building with a concrete floor and vendors set up side by side at thirty-foot intervals makes it easy to browse, and then move on, without feeling bad about the fact that you haven't bought anything.

Most of the books are priced above $100. They're first editions, rarities, art books, collector's items. I was tempted by a book called The Theory of Knowledge by Ernst Cassirer ($40) but as I chatted with the dealer about Cassirer's diminished place in modern history, I was suddenly reminded of a book I already owned called Continental Divide, about the debate held in Davos, Switzerland, in 1929, between Heidegger and Cassirer, which I've hardly opened, much less read.

I took a look at an early edition of a novel by Jean Rhys, and the bookseller standing nearby struck up a conversation. He's a fan of hers. He's read more of her stuff than I have.  But I suddenly remembered I have an anthology of six of her novels. So nix to that.

With Jim Laurie I had the same conversation we had ten years ago, the last time I saw him.

He:  "Never sell a book."

I: "Occasionally, for domestic tranquility..."

He: "I know, but that's part of the thing."

I: "And once you start selling stuff, it puts you in a bind when you're looking for something. You have to ask yourself, 'Am I just not seeing it, or is it gone?' "

He: "Like I said, never sell a book."

I asked him about business at his new location in the North Loop next to Bev's Wine Bar, and he made a non-committal reply. Considering the stock a used book dealer usually owns, business could always be better.

I (trying to be encouraging): "Do you have anything by Novalis?"

He: (a little exasperated): "Stop by the shop." 

Of course, most sales are to wealthy collectors, other dealers, and institutions. I find it amusing to eavesdrop on "insider" conversations between dealers who've often known one another for decades. though it's also fun to handle fine editions and look at rare novels and chapbooks wrapped in plastic bags or sitting in portable cabinets under glass.

I came away from the event with a single book—a paperback called Immortal River: The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times by Calvin Fremling (2005). The copy was as good as new, and the man from Terrace Books on St. Clair who was selling it had marked it down from $30 to $9.

I've never been to that shop, but I was reminded that there used to be a very good bakery on St. Clair—Napoleon's—and also a little shop where two elderly sisters sold items imported from France. They both had white hair, wore berets, and might have been old enough to have known Janet Flanner. (See the volume of her writings for the New Yorker collected under the title Paris was Yesterday: 1925-1939.) We bought a tin of biscuits from those ladies many years ago.

When I got home I took a couple of my "finer" volumes off the shelf with renewed appreciation: A three-volume edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson printed at the Curwen Press in 1938; a two-volume edition of Benedetto Croce's version of Giambatista Basile's Pentamerone; a half-leather edition of Sainte-Beuve's Portraits of the Eighteenth Century; a quaint Knopf translation of a novel by Spaniard Pio Baroja called The Lord of Labraz, complete with dust jacket.

And here's an interesting (if nondescript) volume I'd forgotten about completely: Five Miscellaneous Essays by Sir William Temple (U of Michigan Press, 1963). If you've read more than two or three of these blog entries, you can easily see why the subject would interest me. It's a red hardcover, set in the odd style of having the table of contents after the introduction, which puts it at page 43. This makes it hard to find and almost defeats the purpose.

The subjects Temple treats are as follows: the gardens of Epicurus, ancient and modern learning, some thoughts on reviewing the previous essay, heroic virtue, and poetry. I might just take a look at one or two of them later. But the book is made marginally more interesting from the get go because it's a presentation copy from the book's editor, Samuel Holt Monk, to someone named Robert E. Smith. I found a citation of an article by Moore in the Jstor collection of academic papers bearing the title "Henry Purcell and the Restoration Theatre."

Monk had horrible handwriting, but as far as I can tell, his personalized signing to Moore reads as follows:
Robert E. Moore, comrade in silk stockings and type-wigs: a book that does not aspire to a second printing, that need not be read by the writer of Purcell & Hogarth. In all friendship                                 SHM April 28, 1963   
By the way, I looked high and low for that anthology of novels by Jean Rhys -- but I couldn't find it.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Magnus Nilsson: Puffins Stuffed with Cake

Magnus Nilsson is an internationally renowned chef (32 years old) whose  restaurant, Fäviken, is currently ranked number 19 on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. The restaurant sits in the basement of a lodge on a remote island in the Baltic Sea 270 miles north of Stockholm. I suspect neither you nor I will be going there any time soon.

What we can do is stop in at the American Swedish Institute in South Minneapolis to see some of the snapshots Magnus has taken of Icelandic landscapes, exotic sea birds, farmhouse interiors, men harvesting guillemot eggs on sea cliffs, and moss soup.

The photos come from Magnus's recently published book, The Nordic Cookbook. The show itself has been given the title Magnus Nilsson's Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People, and when the images are blown up to six by ten feet, they're wonderful to behold.

Well, anyone with an iPhone could take spectacular  photos of the Nordic countryside nowadays, and Magnus knows that. In one of the text panels he remarks that he has always enjoyed taking snapshots, and doesn't care much whether they're good or bad. It's just a record of what strikes him as interesting or beautiful at a given time. 

 The show is given added dimension by the connections with food and cooking. It's a sense of rural simplicity combined with deep knowledge of local plants and animals, a "peasant" environment but with serious craftsmanship, historical patina, and sophisticated tastes.  In viewing the photos, we feel we've once again entered the realm of fairy tales, although the payoff (as it were) comes not at the conclusion to the story, when the frog turns into the prince, but in the majesty of the frog himself ... or the wooden silo, the earthen baking pits, the caribou on the hillside, the eggs in the nest.

 It was a stroke of genius to scatter wooden recipe boxes here and there throughout the exhibit. Each box contains multiple copies of three or four recipes, and each selection is different, so you could emerge from the show with ten or twelve recipe cards and save yourself the $50 cost of the book.

Right now I'm looking at a recipe for smoked eel and scrambled eggs. Here's one for moss soup that reminds me of my Boy Scout days. Then there's the one for Icelandic rye bread, and another for puffin stuffed with cake.  

The back of each card contains additional cooking information along with historical lore. For example:  

 Puffins on the Faroe Islands are most often filled with a sort of cake batter mixed with raisins, sewn shut and braised, or just braised without the cake. The batter can also be wrapped in little pouches of aluminum foil and braised together with the birds rather than inside them. Leave the plucked, gutted and cleaned puffins to soak in cold water overnight before cooking them. They have a peculiar but tasty, fresh-ocean flavor to them, which can grow very strong and a bit heady for my taste if they are not handled well.

 The exhibit was further bolstered by photos taken at his restaurant, a small display of wooden bowls and utensils made by local artisans, and a three-minute video of Magnus himself talking. He seems like a down-to-earth guy, fun-loving, adventurous, and not terribly stuck on himself. (You can read an interview with him here.)

Athough the photo of shark-meat smorebrot near the end of the show was less than appetizing, we were nevertheless keen on getting a snack of some kind at Fika, the Swedish Institute's pleasant café. In the end, however, we decided that there were too many things in the fridge back home that needed to be eaten soon, including some aging green beans and a clump of wilting fresh dill. So we stopped at Lund's on our way home and picked up a few things to flesh out an early summer meal.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The anatomy of a snack - Upton 43

So, you've just gotten done walking around Lake Harriet with a friend, or playing tennis at Beard's Plaisance. You could get a nice thick hamburger and fries at any number of places nearby ... or, if it happens to be somewhere between 3 and 5, you could stop in at nearby  Upton 43 for an unusual snack.

That's the time frame during which they offer their "lounge menu" though you don't have to eat it in the restaurant's dark and uncomfortable lounge. We took a table right next to the window and watched the world go by as we consumed two most unusual snacks.

I ordered the smorgasbord, which consisted of house cured meats, assorted cheeses, pickles, and  garnishes delivered to the table on a thick oak plank. Our waiter identified  the meats as lamb liverwurst and chicken rillettes served with pickles and a mild fruity mustard; the cheeses were a standard brown goat cheese, a chevre, and something a little richer than a tilsit.

Our waiter was new at the job, and very serious about his work. After he'd brought us our orders he was pleased to inform us that "everything is made in house —except the breads, which we source locally."

"Really? You make your own cheese?" I said, a little surprised.

"Well, we get the cheese from a local cheese maker."

"What are these little orange squares?" I asked.

"Those are cheddar bits," he replied confidently. (They turned out to be pickled carrots.)

"What's with these blueberries?" I asked.

"Those are intensified blueberries. We dry them, then rehydrate them, then dry them, over and again and again. It intensifies the flavor."

Whatever had been done to them, the blueberries were extremely flavorful, and firm like a raisin rather than watery like a blueberry. The toast was also unusually tasty, and a bit of the liverwurst spread on top along with a dollop of chevre and two or three blueberries made for a remarkable taste sensation. The other cheeses were also above average. I would characterize the rillette as a little bland, though the mustard and pickles added interest.

It was too early for cocktails, and we ordered  switchels, a type of drink I'd never heard of. The waiter informed us they were very sour. They consist of soda, house-made vinegar, and natural flavorings. Hilary ordered a pear and honey switchel, I went for the quince and rosehip. They were sour indeed—not the kind of drink you gulp down and ask immediately for a refill. But they were also refreshing, and as the ice in the glass melted, my switchel improved.

 Hilary got the gravlax on toast served with egg butter, truffle, and herbs. ( I didn't see any truffles. Maybe a little truffle oil had been swizzled on top.) It came with a salad that was actually a single clump of very fresh lettuce, lightly dressed. The presentation was impressive. Lots of poise in that leaf, lots of art in the wrinkle in the salmon.

It was the kind of snack that you eat slowly, relishing every bite.  I'd love to go back and try the chicken salad “sandwich,” with gooseberries, walnuts, herbs, and tunnbrod, accompanied maybe by a rose vermouth cocktail (strawberries, clear brandy, rosemary, sage, thyme, orange peel, wormwood root, gentian root, grated ginger, vanilla, garancha, ruby port, orange zest).

At that time in the afternoon, there seemed to be no one in the place.