Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bastille Day Meditations

There is a lunatic in the White House, yet a big bunch of asparagus at Trader Joe's is only $2.95. Thus do life's incongruities intersect, or at the very least coexist.

On Bastille Day, we celebrate the good life by toasting it and living it as best we can. 

In honor of the day, I got an email this morning from the New York Review of Books touting their collection of French language reprints, and offering selected volumes at 40 percent off. It was an interesting mix. There was Jean Giono's Hill. But reading the descriptive notes convinced me that it's the same novel that was originally called Hill of Destiny. I have the first American edition, published in 1928, right here on the shelf.

The film-maker Jean Renoir's book about his father, titled simply Renoir, My Father, is rich in that combination of casual rural charm and aesthetic sophistication which is the crowning achievement of early 20th century French culture. However, I happen to have the first American edition right here on the shelf beside me. I also have a hardcover book club edition—my "reader's copy," as it were—ready and waiting in the basement.

My French is as shaky as ever, but I'm pretty sure the third of the books on sale, Maupassant's Like Death, is a translation of Fort Comme la Mort, which I read just out of college, probably because Ford Madox Ford drew heavily from it for the plot of his early masterpiece The Good Soldier.  I got my copy of the book at a very musty used book store in a dreary part of Duluth a few blocks up the hill from Michigan Street—a neighborhood of churches and tenements—as part of a multi-volume set with cheap purple binding—a dollar per book, as I recall. I'm quite sure this new translation, by Richard Howard, is far better. Tempting.

Then we have Henri de Montherland's Chaos and Night, which I read in the 1990s. All I remember is that it's the story of a cranky man and his daughter, exiled to Spain, grumbling about the government, following the bullfights. Were they Spanish or French? I don't recall. I liked its excoriating bitterness at the time. But do I want to re-read it?

The list moves on the Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize as recently as 2014. I read one of his books a few months ago. It seemed like a Simenon mystery, but without Inspector Maigret or the mystery. Maybe I ought to give him another chance. On the other hand, I'm a little too old to be reading books with titles like Young Once and In the Café of Lost Youth, don't you think?

In honor of Bastille Day, I put a few select CDs in the changer as we were making dinner: Gilles Chabenat's very long hurdy-gurdy recording, enlivened by a few female vocals, and Nicolas Peyton's Dear Louis, a big band homage to Louis Armstrong and the spirit of New Orleans. Hilary pulled a lump of lamb out of the freezer a few days ago, and I copied a recipe for a lamb tagine from a New York Times article featuring quintessential Bastille Day recipes. The spices smelled good the minute they hit the pan—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. But I had failed to read the recipe to the point where it says: "Cook in the oven at 325 degrees for 2 1/2 hours."

We decided to hurry the process on the stove-top, and I put another CD on the stereo—Motifs by a group I've never heard of called Paris Combo. I'm not a big fan of French pseudo-jazz, unless it's being used as the soundtrack for an Eric Rohmer film. But listening from the other room, Paris Combo wasn't that bad.   

Yet finally the flashy tunes became as unbearable as a green polka dot shirt, and we moved on to the great recordings made by Django and Grappelli in 1938 with the Hot Club of Paris. Years ago we used a few of these tracks as a soundtrack to Payment in Full, a brilliant thirty-minute super-8 version of Othello some of us cooked up in which neither Othello nor Desdemona die. The only extant copy sits in the basement, becoming more brittle and flammable year after year. Maybe I should take it in to CostCo and convert it to DVD, with a new title: In the Café of Lost Youth.  

I was worried about the meal. I'm used to a tagine with sliced lemons and black olives, and I wasn't sure how this one would turn out. But it was rich and good, smothering the couscous, with a squeeze of lemon juice and some cilantro on top. In the midst of that hearty dish, I couldn't tell the difference between the apricots and the chunks of meat.

I suppose I should have hunted up a Radio Tarifa CD to go with it, but we were working our way into a special-occasion bottle of Domaine de la Brassande Mercurey. We were sitting in comfy chairs in the living room, and the silence that ensued following Django's final number, "If You Can Forget, Don't Worry 'Bout Me," was also very nice.

This morning we thought we'd extend the event with a turn around the lakes, which sometimes look a lot like the Seine at Argenteuil circa 1872. But having arrived on the scene, we noticed that Hilary's bike had gotten a flat, and the best we could do was continue down to Turtle Bakery on 46th Street and pick up some fresh-baked croissants.

Not that I was complaining...

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Blue Apron Slaves

I read somewhere recently that roughly one third of American households have made use of some sort of food delivery or preparation service by now.

We have.

A friend sent us a free week of meals from a company called Blue Apron. I'd never heard of it (though Blue Apron sends out more than 30 million meals a year.) We tried it, and have continued on with the service—for now.

A cardboard box arrives on the doorstep every Thursday containing the recipes and materials to make three dinner-time meals. It's sort of fun to unload the box, wherein you'll find little vials of vinegar and honey, slim plastic containers of fresh cilantro and tarragon, robust cucumbers, serrano peppers and cute fingerling potatoes, packets of yogurt, thick bundles of soba noodles, plastic bags of barley and farro, and occasionally a fresh peach or a couple of limes.  

There are also bags of fresh chicken, beef, salmon, and pork, surrounded by packets of ice.

The accompanying recipe sheets, printed in color on thick cardstock, show you, step by step, how to chop, prepare, assemble, and cook the meals. The quantities are well-proportioned so that an average couple (e.g. us) can eat the entire meal, or save a bit of the starchy side dish for later consumption.

One obvious benefit of this approach is that the exotic Chinese sauce required for a given dish (one tablespoon) won't sit on the shelf in the refrigerator door for years. It's all gone! Those fresh herbs you typically pay too much for at the supermarket and hardly use won't inflict any collateral damage as they turn yellow and shrivel in the fridge because they're all gone!  There are lots of packages to dispose of, but most of them are little packages.

The cooking process is fun, no question. As for the meals themselves, I would say that a) none of them have been bad;  b) all of them have been interesting; c) all of them have made use of flavor combinations that have never appeared in our kitchen before; d) none of them have been great.

So, what's not to like? The cost? It's hard to say. Each meal costs $20 for two. No waste. No drive time to the store. Still, that's pricey.

The main drawback to this method, as far as I'm concerned, is that it engenders a condition of utter passivity in the mind of the cook. Here's the box, here's the stuff, here's the recipe: make it.

This is a far cry from the usual situation, in which I say to myself: those tomatoes in the fridge are getting rotten. Should I buy some basil and make bruschetta or buy some bacon and make BLTs? And that butternut squash that's been sitting around: I dimly recall a recipe involving fresh sage and scallops. Yes, but can I find it?

If I go with bruschetta, I really ought to get some good bread from Rustica. I can get that at Surdyk's. Maybe pick up a little tub of that Tuscan bean dip, too. Hey! I think the Alte Garnatxa white is on sale right now....

With Blue Apron, I have never felt so much like a prisoner, stripped of initiative and imagination, coddled and force fed. Meanwhile, we have not cooked a single Blue Apron meal that I'd add to our homemade cookbook of favorites.Though that peach salsa we had last night (see below) was awfully good. To "keep" a recipe would require some extra effort at measuring. They don't tell you what quantities are required; they just give you the exact amount you'll need.

On the other hand, this summer our consumption of frozen pizzas has dropped considerably. And we've gotten into the habit of suspending delivery every other week (easy to do on the website) to alleviate the pressure. I guess we're not quite ready to go cold turkey. But soon the thought of responding to an endless succession of cardboard boxes containing pretty meals, all different but identically structured--meat, starch, chopped vegetables--will become intolerable.

We must break free of this quintessential "first-world problem." Soon!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Second Half of the Year

It has been my experience that the second half of the year is often better than the first half.

Better how? Maybe it's just the satisfaction of knowing that so many warm months lie ahead, and when the darkness does start to close in, there will be plenty of gatherings and musical events to distract us. But that seems too analytical. I think it has more to do with the burden of the months lifting. In any case, the summer months breed confidence, as if we've completed a climb, exhilarating but peppered with hardship, and it's all downhill from here.

Hardship? This isn't something I think about a whole lot, even in springtime. A little trouble with the knee as the result of some reckless moves on the tennis court. A night in a tent under six hours of thunder and quite a bit of rain. The rabbits (or turkeys?) chewing the black-eyed susans to the ground, like they do every year.

One pleasant challenge that I face in late spring every year is to make thoughtful use of the birthday gift I receive from Hilary's parents--namely, cash--which they implore me to spend on something fun or unusual, knowing full well that they don't need to twist my arm very hard. This wad of cash loosens up my approach to the Daedalus summer catalog, among other things. 

This year I placed an order consisting of the following items:

A six-CD set of the Beaux Art Trio playing Mozart's complete piano trios and quartets
The Event of Literature by Terry Eagleton
An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza
Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson

 At an art fair in St. Anthony Park I happened upon another golden opportunity, landing 10 jazz CDs at $1 per disc. Among the highlights were:

Cassandra Wilson: Standards
Fred Hersch: Solo Monk
Nicolas Payton: Gumbo Nouveau
The Ultimate Bill Evans
Charlie Haden/ Hank Jones: Steal Away—Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs
Steve Lacy/ Roswell Rudd: Monk's Dream

The one book I purchased at the event was the well-known anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. I cracked it open a few days later and was charmed by Max Beerbohm, whom I had previously known only through an unflattering cartoon. Near the end of one essay Beerbohm drops the thread of his story to reflect on how weak his recollections are:
It is odd how little remains to a man of his own past— how few minutes of even his memorable hours are not clean forgot­ten, and how few seconds in any one of those minutes can be recaptured... I am middle-aged, and have lived a vast number of seconds. Subtract ? of these, for one mustn’t count sleep as life. The residual number is still enormous. Not a single one of those seconds was unimportant to me in its passage. Many of them bored me, of course; but even boredom is a positive state: one chafes at it and hates it; strange that one should afterwards forget it! And stranger still that of one’s actual happinesses and unhappinesses so tiny and tattered a remnant clings about one!
Memories do tend to fade, recombine, blend together, and rearrange themselves into more convenient narrative structures. And maintaining an accurate chronology is simply not in the cards. Earlier this morning I booked a campsite at Crow Wing State Park. Hunting around for some photos of our last visit, which seems like a distant memory,  I was surprised to discover it was only a year ago—almost to the day. Beerbohm makes a similar point. 
...Memory is a great artist, we are told; she selects and rejects and shapes and so on. No doubt. Elderly per­sons would be utterly intolerable if they remembered everything. Ev­erything, nevertheless, is just what they themselves would like to remember, and just what they would like to tell to everybody. Be sure that the Ancient Mariner, though he remembered quite as much as his audience wanted to hear, and rather more, about the albatross and the ghastly crew, was inwardly raging at the sketchiness of his own mind; and believe me that his stopping only one of three was the merest oversight.

What will I remember of the spring just past? The summer tanager we saw out at the arboretum, five hundred miles north of his normal range? The bright morning cruise around Duluth Harbor? The gritty flamenco show? The get-together on the deck with friends? The bike ride through the woods to Utepils, our own local brew pub, on a glorious weekday afternoon?

I drove down to the Antiquarian Bookfair this morning. (Come to think of it, I did that a year ago, too.) Today I ran into a few old friends and chatted with a woman who's looking for someone to write a book about a sculptor she knows, recently deceased. (I gave her my card.)

I was not moved to buy anything. But I stopped by our local library on the way home to pick up a request that had come in and spotted two gems (or potential gems) in the give-away card by the front door: The Conscience of the Eye: the Design and Social Life of Cities by Richard Sennett and The Darkening Glass: a Portrait of Ruskin's Genius by John Rosenberg.

There are blue jays everywhere these days, squawking and reeling. It's the young ones, enjoying their newfound wings. Summer is just getting started. The afternoon sunlight is sublime. An atmosphere of unfocus descends, sweet and strangely passive, and it's hard to say when I'll get cracking on any of these books. Yet dipping into the book on Ruskin, I come almost immediately upon this passage: "Ruskin was eye-driven, even photoerotic, and confessed to 'a sensual faculty of pleasure in sight'...[He] looked at the material universe with preternatural vivacity and clarity, and believed that what he saw was divine."