Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hot Summer Ratatouille

 I think there’s a fable in here somewhere, about the guy who finds two eggplants in a plastic bag on the back of the lower shelf in the fridge, just about gone...but not quite.

“Why let those go the waste?” he says, “Last night Hilary brought home a zucchini the size of a football. Something tells me….ratatouille!”

So he downloads a recipe from Epicurius and heads down to the farmers market at noon to pick up some $1 bundles of fresh basil and a few red onions.

There’s a lot of chopping and slicing involved in making ratatouille. It can take hours. Then the eggplant cubes need to be salted and rinsed and drained and dried. The onions and red peppers must be chopped and sautéed. And there’s a nice touch where you add flour and tomato paste to the butter in the pan for a bit—making a roué, I guess—before you proceed with the canned tomatoes and a handful of dried thyme.  

Everything eventually ends up in the slow cooker, and four hours later you have your meal. Just before serving you add a handful of chopped basil and a nice heap of Parmesan cheese.

I’d like to claim that the wine (what wine?) was from the Rhone Valley, and that I was reading the poetry of Mistral or Bertran de Born all afternoon, but in fact the wine was La Patache 2011 with a Medoc appellation (sounds fancy but you can get it at Trader Joe’s for $9.99). 

And while the concoction was simmering I dove into a recent arrival in the mail: a collection of essays by Robert Hass called What Light Can Do.

“Attention, says Simone Weil, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Fish Can Sing

In 1957, when his novel Brekkukotsannáll appeared, Halldór Laxness was fifty-five or thereabouts. The title (literally “tales of Brekkukot”), refers to a very small community on the outskirts of Rekyivik, though the book’s English title, The Fish Can Sing, better conveys the novel’s tone and subject-matter. For Halldor’s book is a description of childhood, of an orphan among eccentric adults, but it’s also a meditation of sorts on music, nature, and ambition.

The narrator, one Alfgrim (an odd name) lives in the rather un-private middle-loft of his adoptive grandparents’ sod-roofed inn, where he shares a bed with a former sea captain and listens to the late-night conversations of the Superintendent, whom Alfgrim considers a great man, though his only responsibility seems to be to keep the urinals clean down at the dock. 

Alfgrim goes fishing for lumpfish in the pre-dawn hours with his grandfather, and is so enchanted by the labor that he has no other ambition but to follow the same trade himself. The trawlers (boats with machines, his grandfather calls them) have arrived, however, and are starting to obliterate the sea-bottom in the bay.

Alfgrim also earns a bit of pocket money singing at funerals. He has a fine voice, and it’s widely thought that he’s related to the town’s Golden Boy, Gardar Holm, who has developed a world-wide reputation as a singer. Gardar himself returns to town occasionally, though he’s invariably called away again by some pressing engagement in Paris or Cairo before anyone gets the chance to hear him sing. Gardar acknowledges a strange affinity with Alfgrim, and calls him “My second self,” and another dimension is added to the plot (such as it is) when the daughter of the local merchant who’s been financing Gardar’s career reveals her long-standing infatuation with the famous musician.

But much of The Fish Can Sing is anecdotal, and Laxness’s descriptions of the peasant population of Brekkukot, as seen through Alfgrim’s eyes, is both charming and wise.

“I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams,” Laxness said in his 1955 Nobel acceptance speech.  “Love of, and respect for, the humble routines of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child.” 

In this regard his books bear comparison with those of the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, especially such later works as Wanderers and Wayfarers. But Hamsun’s central character is often an edgy and passionate misanthrope on the fringes of society, whereas Alfgrim is a sweet young fellow, well-known to the local community, whose seemingly naïve observations carry the inadvertent wisdom and the poetry of those whose lofty ideals and rhapsodic impressions have not yet been unduly dampened by the rampant cynicism and ambition of the wider world.

Among the gems scattered throughout the book one in particular caught my eye. “…the world is a song, but we do not know whether it is a good song because we have nothing to compare it with.”

It’s true, the world is a song. I believe we can also say that it is a good song. The Fish Can Sing sings it at its best. Perhaps the comparisons that arise throughout the book between the world-voice Gardar and the churchyard funeral-singer Alfgrim allow Laxness to scrutinize his own mixed feelings with respect to having recently won the Nobel Prize and brought Iceland onto the world stage. Perhaps he’s trying to say, “A world-class writer like me is less important to Iceland or the world than a couple of poverty-stricken old-timers who take in an orphan boy and fill his soul with images of modesty, nobility, rectitude, and compassion.”    

Friday, August 23, 2013

Colorado Morning

No one would accuse me of being unappreciative of my home state, I think. But when the light is clear and everything looks especially sharp, I can’t help thinking of it as a Colorado morning. 

This may date back to a trip my family took in 1959 from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to Estes Park and on up into the Rockies. The light was ecstatically different on those cold mountain mornings when all the cousins—Ricky, David, Dickie, Johnnie (that’s me), and little Ruthy— marched through the woods with our cheap, newly-purchased bamboo fishing rods to a fast-rushing stream four feet across where there were alleged to be some trout. I had no clue how to cast a fly—I was six years old! Neither did any of the grown-ups, as it turned out.

But the morning air was spectacular up there, and also out in the meadows, where dew sometimes glistened on the still-shadowy grasses.

This morning, things in my backyard were bathed in that same heaven clarity. I took one look and knew I had to get out there right away. I pulled the “cheep chower” out of the beds by the steps, filled all three bird-feeders, loaded the bird bath with water, cut down the volunteer locust tree that had reached a height of five feet in the course of the summer, watered the tomato plants in the front yard, and poured a teapot full of boiling water onto an anthill. (Cruel!)

While watering a few flowers out front I stopped to admire the morning glory volunteers that are finally making their way up the trellis. And here it is, State Fair Time. I don't think they retain that Heavenly Blue color when they self-seed from year to year, but regress to some other, hardly less heavenly hue.

A few minutes later I was back in the back yard, transfixed with admiration for the nobly struggling black-eyed susans—a paralysis that was only relieved by the brief surge of distress that arose when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed how much of the serviceberry bush we planted this summer had been chomped down by littler critters.  Moving on, I admired the yellow blossom on a plant we bought at a nursery sale to benefit the bee population, the name of which I’ve since forgotten. [See photo]
I had been feeling glum earlier in the week, I don’t know why. I seldom feel that way, and I don’t like it. It’s as if nothing interests you, everything is a labor. Conversation can bring you out of it, and music, and tennis. And sometimes work.

Everyone’s getting older, people are dying.

During these later-summer evenings Nicollet Mall is a-buzz with food, drink, and conversation, and last night Hilary and I stopped down at the Dakota to hear Patty and the Buttons

Pianist Tom McDermott started off the show with an almost classical solo set, doing tunes by Scott Joplin, Isaac Albeniz, and Jelly Roll Morton along with a few Cuban tangos. He later joined Patty’s group, tempering his slightly heavy-handed style  in a series of jaunty, early jazz numbers with such stirring titles as “Don’t Touch My Leg” and “Washboard Blues.” Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt also figured prominently in the playlist. 

The band has a good sound, variously mellow and rousing but always swinging and never too intense. The clarinetist, Tony Balluff, has a very fine tone, and Patty’s accordion solos were invariably thoughtful, though his singing leaves a little to be desired. It’s pinched and thin, with very little range. He sounds a little like the Cajun singer D. L. Menard. (Maybe he’d be flattered by the comparison?)

The Dakota’s Foody Nights are a remarkable deal. No cover, a bottle of wine for $10. My only complaint is that you often end up about three inches away from some stranger, looking across your wine glass at his girlfriend, due to the close proximity of the tables.

Patty mocked the Dakota's $40 salmon entree during his often amusing patter, and it occurred to me at one point that the band might sound even better at the Eagle's Club on 26th Street. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013


A summer evening for grilling steaks and onions on the deck, with sweet potato disks (slathered in olive oil and thyme) roasting in the oven just inside.

It was a cool, clear evening, enhanced by the piercing drone of the cicadas and a minor avalanche of birdlife. All the regulars were out—the chickadees, the goldfinches, a blue jay squawking from the top of a towering spruce, a house finch dressed in a deep shade of red. Chimney swifts chattered in the clear blue sky, then a single common nighthawk appeared, cruising the skies overhead. The truest, or at any rate the most dramatic, evening guest with its emphatic shriek that evokes childhood memories and sends a comforting message: things are alright.

I’m not sure things are alright for the nighthawk, whom we see less often than we used to. They eat flying insects, so it stands to reason that the rise in pesticide use hasn’t done them much good. Then again, they often nest on gravel rooftops, which are less popular than they once were. We might reason, therefore,  that the nighthawk population gained an artificial boost during the “gravel-roof” period in architectural history, and is now returning to traditional levels.

The nighthawk was chosen as “bird of the year” this year by the ABA. I’m not sure why. I learned on their website that there are nine subspecies (yikes!) which is a matter of no great concern to those of us who see them in the distance flying overhead at dusk.

Its Latin name comes from two Greek roots that in combination mean “musical chord at dusk.” Nice. I have never heard anyone use its other common names, such as bullbat, pisk, and will-o’wisp. They sound like archaic terms out of a Charles Frazier novel.

Nor have I heard the booming noise the night hawk allegedly makes with its feathers at the end of a steep dive.

The ABA website freely admits that the nighthawk, though often seen, is still poorly understood. Yes, nature is mysterious. I believe the goldfinch is also poorly understood. In particular, we don’t really understand how the goldfinch feels about looking like a porcelain bird—stunning but slightly fake. To my eye, goldfinches look more relaxed in the wintertime, when their coloration takes on a muted and more “natural” shade.

The steaks were good. And a splash (or two) of Foxglove chardonnay or Hedges C.M.S. red from Washington State. Yes. And conversation turns to the subject of death (we had just been to a funeral) and the passage of time and the precious being of loved ones, which is different from their merit or influence or achievement.Yes. A musical chord at dusk. And on into the night.