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long lapse

piñata, pensive preschoolers

Thank you for sticking with me, readers.  I’ve been busy with visitors, Jack’s 5th birthday party, more visitors, my dissertation, dissertation, dissertation…  Did you know that it wasn’t until the 1840s that wood pulp was used to make paper?  Or that Byron could speak so aptly of 21st century America?

Man’s a strange animal and makes strange use
Of his own nature and the various arts,
And likes particularly to produce
Some new experiment to show his parts.
This is the age of oddities let loose,
Where different talents find their different marts.
You’d best begin with truth, and when you’ve lost your
Labour, there’s a sure market for imposture.

On a less cynical note, spring is here, and so are our favorite seasonal foods: strawberries, fava beans, asparagus, repeat.  Strawberry shortcake=sublime simplicity.

And check out the strawberry cream torte from Dolci Desideri Jack chose for his birthday! (That’s Nico admiring it; Jack is in blue, holding a very non-locavore cupcake.)

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The noun form of fritter—the one that speaks of food—derives from the Latin verb for “fry,” frigere. Although I’m writing a food blog, this is not the form of fritter I’m concerned with today.

The other form, the transitive verb usually followed by “away” derives not from any culinary activity but from the Old English word fitt, meaning “part” or “piece.”  When you fritter away your time or money, you disperse it little bit by fragment, almost unconsciously….

What I’m getting at is the reason I haven’t been posting much recently.  We have seven months left in Rome, and I’m determined to finish and file my dissertation before those months are up.  Therefore, my life must be lived with as little frittering of any sort as possible.  I’m sure I’ll find a snatch of time here and there to post some words about some thoughts on food.  Just less frequently.  And, of course, some forms of frittering can always be justified.  As Lord Byron says, “Oh pleasure, you’re indeed a pleasant thing.”

Or, wait!  Maybe I can sometimes bring these diverse writing projects together.  Byron wrote some funny verses on being a carnivore during the Venetian Carnival:

This feast is named the Carnival, which being
Interpreted, implies ‘farewell to flesh':
So call’d, because the name and thing agreeing,
Through Lent they live on fish both salt and fresh.
But why they usher Lent with so much glee in,
Is more than I can tell, although I guess
‘Tis as we take a glass with friends at parting,
In the stage-coach or packet, just at starting.

And thus they bid farewell to carnal dishes,
And solid meats, and highly spic’d ragouts,
To live for forty days on ill-dress’d fishes,
Because they have no sauces to their stews,
A thing which causes many ‘poohs’ and ‘pishes’,
And several oaths (which would not suit the Muse),
From travellers accustom’d from a boy
To eat their salmon, at the least, with soy;

And therefore humbly I would recommend
‘The curious in fish-sauce’, before they cross
The sea, to bid their cook, or wife, or friend,
Walk or ride to the Strand, and buy in gross
(Or if set out beforehand, these may send
By any means least liable to loss),
Ketchup, Soy, Chili-vinegar, and Harvey,
Or, by the Lord! a Lent will well nigh starve ye;

That is to say, if your religion’s Roman,
And you at Rome would do as Romans do,
According to the proverb,—although no man,
If foreign, is oblig’d to fast; and you,
If protestant, or sickly, or a woman,
Would rather dine in sin on a ragout—
Dine, and be d—d!  I don’t mean to be coarse,
But that’s the penalty, to say no worse.

(From Beppo, 1818)

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Dylan turned five, and Jim turned ninety.  We celebrated with them both.  It was a busy, delicious day filled with tasty tidbits—of both food and conversation.

Dylan and his parents live in a fourth floor walk-up in Trastevere.  Sarah offered me a cafe latte as soon as we arrived, which was welcomed on a blustery morning.  She had clearly been working for hours on the food, which was spread on their square table that sits invitingly in the middle of the open eat-in kitchen.  There were assorted sandwiches for the kids to scarf down, two kinds of chicken salad with greens, a cous cous salad, a hummus platter, sliced cheeses and salumi, crackers, two kinds of cupcakes, and, warming in the oven, pizza rossa (pizza topped with tomato sauce) and lasagna!  The party rolled along at an Italian pace, with people arriving as late as 12:30 for an 11:00 party.  The kids went from sandwiches to cupcakes to chocolates, in between sessions of semi-organized play, and the parents went from coffee and oatmeal cookies to wine and lunch. The crowd was made up of Arcobaleno and ex-pat community friends; most of the parents switched fluently from Italian to English, and the kids played together in a happy bilingual, prelingual, nonsense, and gestural chaos.  I tried to get a picture of the “fishing for chocolate” game, but only captured a bit of the party’s buzz:

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The rest of the afternoon was down-time for me, but Jack was ready for more socializing, so we invited Lulu up from apartment 1.   She and Jack play together so agreeably.  They played “store,” which involved emptying Jack’s clothing drawers onto the bed and making play money.  They drew and painted pictures of “ghosts eating people.”  They played “boat” in a printer box, and rode up and down the hallway on Jack’s scooter.  We made kettle popcorn, and Lulu told us that her dad is such a kettle corn expert that every kernel is popped.  She also told us it was her mom’s fortieth birthday.  Happy birthday, Anna!

After putting Jack to bed, and leaving him with his kitchen-intern babysitter, Jaimi, we went next door to the Ackermans’ apartment for a birthday dinner party.  What an honor to be Jim and Jill’s guests!  They are the most elegant, lively, curious scholar-artist couple, and they brought together some wonderful company. And Jill, who loves to help out in the Academy kitchen, cooked a fabulous, finger-friendly meal.

We started with steamed artichokes—it’s high carciofi season here in Rome—dipped in brown butter.  Next, along with Mona’s chestnut bread, Jill served her own fish stew, with a soaked crouton, flavorful aioli, tiny local clams and some small whole-roasted fish to lay on top.  Jeffrey managed to get a good picture of this dish:

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After arugula salad, before melon and crostata, and with vin santo, we read aloud some short pieces we’d brought with us to honor Jim—as a friend, historian, Michaelangelo scholar, man, artist or all of these together.  Since the text I read is in the public domain, and was the least personal, I’ll copy it out here.  It’s Lord Byron’s description of seeing and being in St. Peter’s Basilica, from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Thou movest—but increasing with the advance,
Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,
Deceived by its gigantic elegance;
Vastness which grows—but grows to harmonize—
All musical in its immensities;
Rich marbles—richer painting—shrines where flame
The lamps of gold—and haughty dome which vies
In air with Earth’s chief structures, though their frame
Sits on the firm-set ground—and this the clouds must claim

Thou seest not all; but piecemeal thou must break,
To separate contemplation, the great whole;
And as the ocean many bays will make,
That ask the eye—so here condense thy soul
To more immediate objects, and control
Thy thoughts until thy mind hath got by heart
Its eloquent proportions, and unroll
In mighty graduations, part by part,
The glory which at once upon thee did not dart,

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; even so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our Nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, stanzas 156-158

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a contemporary-classic Bread Loaf scene

No, not the food staple, but the writers’ conference.  I went up to Ripton, VT, to spend the last night of the conference with Peter.  It was a great evening.  Peter gave a late-afternoon reading of poems from his most recent book, The Lions, in the century-old clapboarded Little Theater.

After the reading, some went to change into their party-wear, while others ambled across rural Route 125 to one of the little yellow cottages, where the cocktail party was happening.  There was plenty of imported gin going around, along with some local beer.  The choice: Otter Creek Copper Ale.

Peter with friends, old and new

The dinner that followed was full of local yummies, including nasturtiums, though not much grows on this Green Mountain ridgeline but trees.

The conference began as an idea of early-twentieth-century-poet Robert Frost’s, in the 1920s.  I love so many of his poems, it would be hard to choose a favorite, but here is one that has to do with a local crop:

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

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http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_A3CZmkLo5mw/SlyZ43nMW9I/AAAAAAAAHIs/VxeivTjzJ94/s400/QueenAnnesLace1.jpg

It’s Queen Anne’s Lace season, which always brings to mind my favorite verbal convergence of food and sex: “Queen Anne’s Lace,” a poem by the famously philandering family doctor and truly great American modernist poet, William Carlos Williams.

Queen Anne’s Lace

Her body is not so white as

anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

Mmm….  It’s an incredibly sexy poem.

On another note, is wild carrot edible?  The skinny yellowish root, which smells like carrot, is edible, but is not to be confused with its poisonous impostor, Hemlock, the wild edible long associated in literature with murder and suicide, and about which another great poet, John Keats, wrote these well-known lines:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk […].

The ecstatic, painful longing for the death Keats knew was fast coming–when he was 25–expressed in “Ode to a Nightingale” brings Thanatos together with Eros and the wild desire we have for the wild and the succor, sustenance, pleasure, or oblivion it may bring.

Photo credit. (Thank you.)

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Roving is a romantic way of saying moving from place to place.  At one time, the word contained more layers of significance than it does now, including something like “lookin’ for love.”  This sense finds its beautiful epitome in Byron’s love lyric, “We’ll go no more a-roving.” More than a poem of love, this is a poem of eros.  The short, simple poem, which Byron wrote while in Venice, speaks of the sweetness of longing and nostalgia as it relishes ironic double entendre.

Today, I’ve had a decidedly more banal, and boring, experience of roving: I drove all around this spread-out rural center of civilization in the northeast—seemingly just to keep the car capable of more driving.  It was a day of logistics: dropping the boys at camp; driving to White River Junction with my sister to get her tire repaired for $13, which took all day; driving to drop off my sister at my dad’s office so that she could use his car; driving to the library for two hours of 1794 literary journals on microfilm; driving to pick up my boy; driving to CVS and the Hanover Food Co-op; driving back to the back roads of Norwich to drop off the cold food; driving to my dad’s office to pick up my sister; driving to the mechanic’s to pick up her car.  On the way out of there, my automatic transmission problem alert signal came on.  It’s an orange-lighted gear with an exclamation point in the center.  Whoa!  So, then we drove, in caravan, to another mechanic’s, who directed us to another, farther south along route 5 in Vermont.  This will probably cost me quite a bit more than $13.

And then we drove back up route 5, which, happily, leads to Killdeer Farm Stand.  I dropped off my sister and the boys at the UPS warehouse to see the trucks (my nephew’s current obsession) and drove to Killdeer.  After a day of aggravation, this was bliss.

The vegetable baskets are more bountiful every day.  I wanted to make a pasta dish with a classic combination of vegetables.  I bought an eggplant, sweet green pepper, sweet onion, costata romanesca.  I looked at everything, admired everything, knew I’d be back tomorrow.

spring veg

I left, reluctantly, to do more driving.

For dinner we had farfalle with all of the above, and some sweet Italian sausage, flavored with fennel seeds, from Cloudland Farm, which we’d had in the freezer.  It was warm, green, springy, delicious.

Spring Pasta

Get the water boiling for pasta.  Meanwhile, break a half-pound of sweet Italian sausage into chunks, and slice half of a sweet onion, one or two Japanese eggplants (their skin is more tender), one sweet green pepper, and one costata romanesca.  Sauté the sausage until mid-rare and let drain in a bowl lined with paper towel.  Sauté the vegetables, beginning with the onion, followed by the eggplant, pepper, and eggplant.  Cook the pasta.  When the vegetables are lightly caramelized, spoon in a couple of big spoonfuls of pasta-cooking water, and cover for a minute or less.  Put the sausage back in the pan, and then combine pasta and vegetables in a big bowl or pot and toss with grated parmgiano  reggiano.  Serve with extra cheese at the table.

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cukes
“If you think I am going to make
A sexual joke in this poem, you are mistaken.”

So says Robert Hass, in his playful poem, dryly titled “Poem With a Cucumber In It.”  The poem contains etymological musings on “cumbersome” and “encumber,” musings on the Berkeley sky, memories of travel, and a rough recipe for cucumber salad with dill and yogurt.

Perhaps the most famous poem with a cucumber in it is “The Task,” published in 1775 by William Cowper.  Like Hass’s, this poem contains something of a recipe: for growing a hothouse cucumber.  Cowper meditates for pages on the challenges of growing this sun loving plant in the English winter.  He describes the construction of the greenhouse, the creation of fertile soil out of a “rage of fermentation,” the coddling of seeds and sprouts, the fertilization which in winter requires that “assistant art/ then acts in nature’s office.”

The cucumber takes on social significance as well.  It is the object in a meditation on two main topics of eighteenth century political economy: value (“when rare/ so coveted, else base and disesteemed—/ Food for the vulgar merely”) and labor (“To raise the prickly and green-coated goard/ So grateful to the palate […] is an art” requiring intensive, careful labor unappreciated and unacknowledged by the wealthy purchasers of winter cucumbers).  Cowper advises “ye rich” to “grudge not the cost” because:

Ye little know the cares,
The vigilance, the labor and the skill
That day and night are exercised, and hang
Upon the ticklish balance of suspense,
That ye may garnish your profuse regales
With summer fruits brought forth by wintry suns.

Cowper’s socioeconomically-conscious advice might sound familiar to those of us who write and think and read about our current food culture: learn about how the foods you take for granted are grown; don’t take them for granted; consider the farmer’s labor; grow some food yourself; keep a compost heap; build a cold frame; consider the social and economic costs of unseasonal foods.

To read this eighteenth-century meditation on the economics, culture, and cultivation of cucumbers is to be reminded that our current “good food movement” exists in an historical context.  Skepticism about and moral indignation toward the modernization of food—whether that means hothouse-cultivation, refrigeration, or genetic modification—is as old as modernity itself, and probably older.   Praise for farmers and their ancient art—and injunctions to praise them—are as old as the art itself.

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