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.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Consortium Carissimi : Il Tirinto

We don't hear much early Italian baroque opera in these parts, but the Consortium Carissimi mounted a production of Pasquini's
Il Tirinto over the weekend at the Ritz Theater in NE Minneapolis, and it was a smash. I have to confess, I'd never heard of this group before I read the listing in the Star-Tribune. To tell you the truth, I'd never heard of the composer or the opera, either. But such productions are almost invariably fun, and the slice of musical history being dished up, which fell somewhere along the flank between Handel and Monteverdi, made my mouth water.
An added selling point was the venue. The Ritz is a tiny neighborhood theater a half-block off University Avenue on 13th Street in a small commercial zone it shares with several restaurants, galleries, boutiques, a few bars, and a microbrewery. It's an unpretentiously arty area, and it retains an attractive vibe that was largely submerged in the north loop by the influx of big dollars a decade ago. The bare bones theater itself, which was refurbished in 2006, is intimate but not too musty, and there's free parking in a large municipal lot across the street.
The opera itself proved to be largely what I'd expected—a mix of conversational recitative and lyrical arias hung on a convoluted romantic plot. Alter the instrumentation a bit and it could be taken for church music. Without much trouble the arias could be turned into art songs. You're unlikely to find Bernardo Pasquini's name in any standard history of opera, but the contribution of the Roman school of which he was a part is described by one scholar as enlarging opera's "possibilities of expression by giving greater scope to pathos, grace, and humor."   
Il Tirinto had grace and plenty of humor, though the pathos was largely striped away in the course of the many twists and turns of the plot.
Ah yes, the plot. Filandro, a nobleman from Crete, is raising his two children, Tirinto and Rosaura. Due to the dangerous political climate, he decides to send his son to the relative safety of Rome, but the ship is seized by pirates and one of them takes Tirinto as a slave. Filandro is bereft by the loss of his son and fears that he's drowned, but nevertheless circulates a letter at the ports where pirates sometimes resupply, seeking news of his son's fate. Tirinto somehow receives the letter, and years later he escapes from the pirates and proceeds to Lazio under the assumed name of Lucimoro. While living in Ariccia, in the hills just south of Rome,  he becomes romantically involved with a young woman named Laurinda.
But Lucimoro eventually  grows restless and returns to Crete to find his father, who has since then left for Rome, also under an assumed name. Four years of searching produce no results, though Lucimoro scores a success of sorts in Crete when he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Rosaura. He has no idea she's actually his sister.
Since her father's departure from Crete, Rosaura has been raised by her uncle, who doesn't want her to marry a "foreigner," and the uncle forces Lucimoro to leave the country. Before departing Lucimoro promises Rosaura that he'll return someday and marry her.
When Rosaura’s uncle dies, her father summons her to Ariccia, where he is now governor. In the mean time, her brother, having been exiled from Crete, also finds himself once again in Lazio. Worn out by travel and endless searching, he decides to make his home on Monte Cavo as caretaker of the Great Altar of Jupiter. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before he bumps into his first love, Laurinda, whom he had abandoned a decade earlier, and also his more recent flame Rosaura.
This is the point at which the opera begins. It isn't important to master the details of the back-story, however, because the plot exploits stock themes of the Commedia del Arte with which we're all familiar. Mistaken identities, love unexpressed, love abandoned, love unrequited, noble birth challenged. We've seen it in Goldoni and Grassi, Shakespeare and Moliere. In theatrical productions the wordplay stands out; in Commedia del Arte productions the characters become caricatures and the pratfalls tend to dominate. But in an opera, the lilt of the music ennobles the otherwise hackneyed course of the plot and allows us to pine and yearn again along with the characters, while also, perhaps, catching an occasional breeze from the sacred groves of Jupiter—breezes that still blow through the leafy hill town of Ariccia on occasion.
 However, the humor of the traditional Commedia has not been altogether removed from the production. During the prologue, set in the Piazza Navona in Rome, some raffish characters discuss their plan to go up to the small town in the hills outside Rome to see the opera while street-vendors hawk their victuals nearby—mostly booze. And during a hilarious scene just after intermission,  two men sit on a bench discussing the merits of the production so far, with which they're not too impressed.
And then there's the coarse old servant named Lisa who always seems to be on the spot, counseling the other characters while often making fun of them behind their backs. It's a "pants" role, and Gary Ruschman (who looks a lot like Bill Murray in drag) charges every scene he's in with ribald humor.
As for the other vocalists, they were uniformly solid and more, from the rich bass of Benjamin Sieverding to the plaintive mezzo of Christina Christiansen. The set—a few benches set among potted topiary trees—was perfectly adequate, and the orchestra in the "pit"—two violins, a basse viole, a violone, bass trombone, lute, harpsichord, and harp—were vigorously conducted from the cembalo by the production's music director, Alesssandro Quarta, who has been conducting similar productions of late Renaissance Roman opera with the Concerto Romano in Rome since 2006.
Aren't we lucky, to be sitting in the fourth row of a tiny theater watching these extraordinarily talented individuals stage an opera that hasn't been performed in maybe 350 years. It's a labor of love as well as art and research, and you could feel it in the air.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Three Tribes

Three Tribes

Hilary and I took the drive to downtown St. Paul the other day to see an exhibit of photographs at the Minnesota Museum of Art taken by a friend of mine, Mike Hazard, over the course of several years. They document the efforts of a group of Hmong men and women to earn their living by means of truck farming on a stretch of Highway 52 south of town. The photos are straightforward, devoid of artiness, focused on faces and plants and work, out of which moments of fun occasionally arise. The earthiness and humanity of the enterprise was obvious.

Yet all the while I was wandering the galleries, my mind kept returning to the issue economics. Do these people earn their living this way? How are the proceeds distributed? Who decided where investments for next year’s crop will go? How did they acquire the land? Was the government involved?

I’ve driven by the plots on Highway 52 more than once, with their little sheds scattered across the hills like brown Monopoly houses, and it’s obvious even to a non-farmer like me that these fields are being cultivated largely by hand. And I have little doubt that I’ve often bought produce and flowers from the women and men in these photographs, or their relatives, at the huge northside Minneapolis farmers’ market, which isn’t far from my house.

It was a pleasure getting to know them better at the exhibit.

Having viewed the photos, I stepped into the little screening room, where another dimension was added to the experience: music. As a succession of slides followed one another on the screen—sometimes several related images side by side—I could hear the traditional drone-like music of the qeej (a Hmong instrument vaguely similarly to overgrown pan pipes) playing quietly in the background, and the fields came to life.

The Hmong is a social group to which I will never belong. The obvious issue of ethnicity aside, I find  its complex clan structure bewildering and its seemingly onerous family obligations daunting. (I bought a car from a Hmong saleman at a Toyota dealer once and while we were waiting for the finance department to prepare some documents he told me all about who gets to be chief and who can marry who.) No, I will never belong to that group, but it doesn’t bother me. I like the Hmong I’ve met and am glad they’re here, not only for the vegetables, or because they made great sacrifices for us during the war in southeast Asia, but because they contribute today to the fiber and interest of American life.

On our way back to the car we ran into a different social group—a ragtag bunch of women and (mostly) men wearing blue T-shirts and ponchos. They were racing up and down the streets, then stopping to examine their mobile phones, then loitering as if they were all waiting for a bus. I couldn’t resist asking one of the men what they were doing.

“What is this?" I said. "A scavenger hunt?”

“Sort of. We’re members of a group, the “blues.” And we’re in competition with another group, an evil one called the “greens.” And we get instructions from Europe or somewhere—”

“Brooklyn,” one of the other contestants interjected.

“OK, Brooklyn. And at certain points the people at headquarters pick up our signals and determine who’s gained control of larger parts of the city. It’s sort of like geocaching.”

The man showed me his little black screen, across which green and blue towers seemed to be dancing. It meant nothing to me. What was clear was that this harmless cohort was having a good time. In fact, they were almost the only people out on the street.

This is a group that I could become a part of, maybe. On the flyer the man gave me it said “Ingress,” followed by the words “The world around you is not what it seems” and then, in larger letters: Join the Resistance.

Resistance to what? There’s a web address on the flyer, too, but I’m afraid that if I entered it, my computer would disintegrate or become possessed by zombies. Or something.

I encountered an even less structured opportunity to “belong” the next day, when Hilary and I took a break during a cycling trip around the parks and creeks of south Minneapolis and stopped in at Global Midtown Market. This concatenation of start-up ethnic restaurants and gift shops, located on the first floor of the old Sears building on Lake Street, is like the State Fair but with fewer people and better food. The sometimes lackluster customer traffic notwithstanding, it’s been operating for quite a few years now, and serves as home for several celebrated eateries including Manny’s Tortas, Salsa de la Salsa, Los Ocampos, Rabbit Hole, Holy Land Deli, and the Salty Tart Bakery, the owner of which was named “Best Pastry Chef” by the editors of Bon Appetit magazine a few years ago. The grocery store in the central atrium is also appealing, though when we visit we’re usually on our bikes and therefore reluctant to buy anything much.

On our most recent visit we ate lunch at Moroccan Flavors, which opened only a month or two ago. The stars of the menu are probably the tagines, but they’re relatively easy to make at home. We shared a spicy marinated chicken sandwich that comes with a small dish of peppery olives and other unidentifiable morsels of vegetable flesh. The mint tea (with fresh mint and lemon) was refreshing, and the kindly, slow-moving woman who made our sandwiches also offered us two very unusual cookies as a “sample.”

© Isabel Subtil for Heavy Table

Appreciating a foreign cuisine is a form of participation, I suppose, but not of belonging. In any case, that’s not what I was thinking about. On our way out of the building we passed a print shop that had been set up in the middle of one of the ancillary hallways. There were a few Xerox machines and paper cutters, perhaps even a binding machine, and also a table holding what were obviously short-run and handmade publications, nicely done.

I love that kind of stuff.

“So, this is a print shop?” I said to the woman with scarlet hair sitting behind the card table in the corner.

“We do print jobs and other things,” she replied. “It’s also supposed to be a community space.”

“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all. “I wonder what your rates are. I print a zine occasionally. Do people still use that word?”

“Oh, sure,” she said. “In fact, there’s a zine festival coming up in September.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to get a table. I’m working now on issue 121. When I'm feeling flush I have it printed at FastPrint downtown. More often I print it at home.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about the rates. You’d have to ask Sam. He’ll be in at three.”

As we left she handed me a document, “Beyond Repair No. 1: occasional notes” printed in large san serif type on both sides of a single sheet of nice 11 x 17 paper and then folded into quarters. It got a little battered during the bike ride home, but I took a look at it later.

The cover looks a little amatuerish—perhaps that was intentional—but the text is thoughtful and well-written, and it clarified what sort of a community space Beyond Repair hopes to be. It opened in January and printed and bound twelve publications in its first three months of operation. It also hosted Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and plans to put out a series called Publics and Publication, which “will go towards proj­ects and programs that ad­dress the role of the 3rd Pre­cinct here in Minneapolis’s 9th Ward.”

Another proposed series, Tools for Remediation, will be dedicated to subjective inquiries and “histories from below,” designed to look “across issues to consider commonalities and propose methods of heal­ing and release from a culture of abuse that permeates everything from our ecosystem to our economy, from race to domestic struggle.”

That slant seems a little radical to me, and its allegations of universal societal oppression and breakdown slightly overstated. (Then again, I’m a middle-class white guy with a house in the suburbs and money in the bank.) What I like is the sober-minded and articulate tone of the piece, and the broader notion that writing and printing and speaking can come together on a very small scale in a retrofitted palace of bourgeois commerce to nurture a community of like-minded individuals whose points of view are not often highlighted in the mainstream press. Weekly discussions have been taking place at the “shop” examining “how one can swim in and out of institutions, power, and hierarchies, find­ing commonality within the in-between, and instrumentalizing that ‘in-betweenness’ as a lens by which to navigate power and hierarchical social space.”

The author of the broadside, who I presume is the owner, remarks:
That notion, being of the world, while simultaneously elsewhere; in, as well as out, of time is exactly the type of thinking that we hope to pro­mote through Beyond Repair…Three other groups are beginning to materialize, all asking in one form or another a com­mon question: “What does a healthy neighborhood look like?”
The beauty of it all is that the associations I’m describing here are voluntary. You don’t have to hang out at Beyond Repair unless you feel like it, or wander the streets of St. Paul “claiming” digital territory, or work your tail off at the family truck farm in Rosemount—though if you're already part of that group, the social cost of apostasy might be high.

For myself, I’ve never been much of a joiner. I don’t like routine, and no sooner have I committed myself to a regimen than (sad to say) I find myself scheming of ways to disrupt its rhythms. I have also found that the mystery and allure of organized social groups tends to fade as you actually get to know the people, which is precisely the point at which you also become a prime candidate for committee work and donations.

As Charels Peguy once remarked, “Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique.”

All of which is not to say that I’m a snob, or antisocial, or cheap. But I really don’t think I’d make much of a splash at the upcoming zine festival. And as for joining the Resistance, my question still stands: resistance to what?

No, my continuing engagement took the form of an order to Red Dragonfly Press, which published Mike Hazard's chapbook of poems, This World Is Not Altogether Bad. way back in 2013. I'd meant to buy it when it came out but didn't have a PayPal account at the time.

It arrived in the mail a few minutes ago. It's nice. The cover was printed on a cold type press, you can see the relief on the page. Red ink on the title. The poems themselves mostly describe encounters with other people--neighbors, friends, veterans, strangers, family members. A phone call from a chubby Ojibwe with fire in his belly, so much so that the poet smells something burning. A few local celebrities appear: Tiger Jack and Feike Feikema (AKA Frederick Manfred). There are elements of whimsy and nursery rhyme-like repetition, waves of remembered Roman Catholicism, various sorts of suffering and forgetfulness, all conveyed with the utmost simplicity and charm.

Here is one:

Suffer Little Children
We were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.
Right at his feet, his arms
outspread wide as wings,
my child Sonia wondered
if those were real nails.
Wounded, holding hands,
we were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.