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Archive for the ‘Whimsical’ Category

milklove

“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me,” chants Mickey, in Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a bizarre little book about baking, dreaming, sleeping, swimming, in milk.

A baby’s dreamlife, a nursing mother’s diet. I crave all bready things. . . comfort me with wheat and oats, fondue and French toast, bread and milk, milk and bread. Pizza, cream scones, croissants, café latte. So many yummy combinations of comfort food. I actually bought a fondue pot last month. Such a funny food: is it French or is it just 70s? My family has been celebrating Christmas Eve with cheese fondue for as long as I can remember. Has my dad been scorching his fingertips on Sterno since the 70s? The one I bought was a real step up: non-stick and electric. Nothing could be easier than warming up a big bowl of Gruyere, Fontina, and sauvignon blanc. Yum, yum, yum.

And now for a few more pictures of Lizzie, who’s sleeping at the moment on her cream colored sheet, dreaming milky dreams.

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In just under a month, we’ll be moving from Auburn to Minneapolis. Quite a change.  We’ve been soaking up the summery May weather here by spending time in the big backyard.  We found blackberry bushes in the corner near the wren house.  The nasturtiums we planted are blooming in spite of the drought. It sounds silly, but these nasturtiums have given me one of my most satisfying gardening experiences.  They pop up in no time, they’re colorful, they’re edible, and their vine-like stems grow into beautifully negligent nests (a good description of my garden-style).

For a dinner party the other night, I made the orange-scented olive oil cake I’ve written about here before, and decorated it seasonally.

And here are Jack and Jordan the other day.

For Jack’s birthday party last month, also on the deck in the backyard, our little geography buff wanted a map cake, so I made two layer cakes decorated as the eastern and western hemispheres.  Jack drew the continents.

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holy holidays!

Once again, we’ll be traveling during Christmas, so we got a small, manageable, multi-purpose, potted tree: a rosemary bush.

Saturday was an interesting amalgam of holidays, of kitsch and authenticity, peppermint sticks and latkes.  In the morning, we joined some friends at the local John Deere dealer for a picture with Santa and to climb around on tractors.

Oh yeah!

This event reached a height of absurdity when the hay wagon took us on a circuit through the parking lot of the Lakeview Baptist jumbo-church.

We ended the day at little Mimi’s house eating latkes and lighting the menorah. To celebrate oil, I once again made the orange scented olive oil cake I wrote about recently.  This time, though, I had confectioner’s sugar so was able to make the glaze and to dot the top with coarse fleur de sel.  The oranges I used were a variety of blood orange from Florida, just in, which gave the cake a peachy hue.  It was deeply moist and tangy.

All and all, it was a satisfying weekend for the little ones. On Sunday, I bought my first wreath, strung up lights, and lit all the candles in the house. We’re having a spell of 30-degree weather, so it feels pretty cozy.

Today after school, it was time to turn that frozen disk of sweet pastry dough into cookies.

(Those crispy critters out front are my favorites.)

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It takes a long time, because day-to-day life doesn’t stop and wait for you to finish.  Gradually, though, we’re making this place comfy inside and out.  While Peter’s been off winning prizes and giving readings these past two weekends, Jack and I have been giving our yard some love.  We’ve raked pine needles into big heaps that his dump truck then unloads under bushes and trees.  We’ve bought pumpkins and goofy gourds and mums for the front stoop. We’ve swept the deck and hung up a hummingbird feeder. And we planted a little garden.  It looks like dirt surrounded by stones, but if you look very, very closely, you’ll see a hint of green: lettuce, cilantro, and thyme seedlings along with some still-young basil and rosemary.

The streak of 90-degree days and 70-degree nights finally broke, and I actually had to break out the down comforter.  I love fall.  Suddenly, some activities I enjoy are now tolerable again: baking, puttering around outside, riding my bike to campus, sipping a glass of wine on the deck before dinner.

I think I’ll make calzones.  It’s nice to have a moment in the middle of the day to sink my hands into a tub of flour and for a few minutes just stare, and knead.

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It’s what I miss most about Rome.  How could that be?  Something so mundane, minor, lowly.  What about the art, the architecture, the people, the food?

I’ll explain. Cafes in Italy encapsulate so much of the culture at large.  During these weirdly liminal weeks of re-entry into American culture—when I’ve felt like I’m two places at once, or nowhere—I’ve been going through a process not unlike grief.  Surprising surges of emotion come over me at inconvenient moments, and I wonder if I could still be weak from jet-lag. No, I’m just sad that that wonderful, brief year is all over.  I’ve had trouble expressing this grief because I don’t want to sound like a complete snob or ungrateful spoiled brat while, on the beaches of New England, I weep for the lost vistas or Rome or when, confronted with the plethora of choices at a coffee shop, I tear up thinking about the perfect crema on a Roman caffe.  I’ll admit, I’m sad but life is good. Buonissimo, even.

After that brief apologia, let us return to Roman cafes.  On my last full day in Rome, I didn’t go to view the dome of San Pietro or to gaze up at the oculus of the Pantheon once more.  After leaving Jack at Scuola Arcobaleno for the last time, I stopped in the cafe on Via Fonteiana where we stopped almost every day for a little treat.  I stood at the bar and didn’t even have to say anything, because the friendly guy who makes the coffee drinks remembers what everyone likes.  What an honor for me to be included in his encyclopedic memory of drink orders in this cafe where people come and go constantly all day long! All the other parents from the school stop here before or after dropping off the ragazzini.  In cafes in Rome, people come in and stand at the bar.  There are no lane-ropes marking off where you’re supposed to stand in line. How barbaric! Everyone is relaxed. They seem to have all the time in the world. The parents and the bankers and pharmacists and grocery cashiers and hardware shop owner from across the street stand around, sip a caffe or cappuccino, maybe eat a nutella-filled pastry wrapped in a napkin, chit-chat, drop a few coins, and amble out.  Everything is done with a sense of ease.  There are no paper cups.  No rushing and bumping shoulders at the “condiment station.”

American coffee shops cater to the all-American values of independence and convenience.  But in our rush to make things easier for ourselves (plastic lids to prevent spilling as we speed-walk or drive on to the next important thing/place/event) or more “custom-made” (add-your-own-milk, choose-your-own-ingredients, metastasizing menus) are we sacrificing what is of real value in custom, culture, and civil-i-zation?  Do condiment stations make us more civilized?

After that, I still didn’t go to see the one more piece of great art or architecture that I’d yet failed to see.  I wanted to enjoy my last day of being immersed in the mundane beauty of everyday life in Rome.  I walked down the steps to Trastevere and looked at the laundry hanging from windows, the succulents and bougainvillea spilling from balconies.  Before going to get one last haircut from the mild and nonchalantly good-looking Fabio Serafini, I stopped in to Cafe Paris. (Not the one of Dolce Vita fame on Via Veneto, but a scruffier version in a medieval piazza of Trastevere where the hipsters and homeless people mingle.)  I savored the atmosphere as much as the coffee: the ancient brown wood of the interior, with decades-old ads on the wall, the gruff carelessness and skill of the young man behind the bar.  No excessive friendliness or list of questions about how you’d like that.

What is it then, about Roman cafes that make them nodes of their culture?  It’s the way they encourage people to take a few minutes to savor a flavor and a scrap of conversation.  Uncluttered service. The cultivation of custom in defiance of the drive for efficiency and convenience Americans value so much.  And everything in the atmosphere of a cafe—from the old decor to the elegant cups—speaks to that sprezzatura in which the Romans live their lives, ignoring the grafitti and humidity, talking non-stop in a musical language, eating well, looking good, driving their Smart cars alongside ancient aqueducts and other imperial ruins with nonchalance and style.

Some might see a cultural malaise, oppressive conservatism. These are there. But so is cultivation, an awareness of beauty, culture, and quality that, perhaps because of the proximity of the Colosseum, the Caravaggios, lives on the shoes on people’s feet and in the crema on a caffe.

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My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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Primo Maggio

Shama

Yesterday was La Festa dei Lavoratori—Labor Day—in Italy.  Out in the garden, at least 4 picnics and cookouts went on, merging and mixing and drifting apart again as the children wandered in and out of every group, from 1 pm till dark.  The weather was perfect: no clouds, mid-seventies, breezy.  There were, as usual at these things, all kinds of meats and plenty of wine—mostly bianco, rosato, and prosecco.  The seasonal foods that we’ve been eating every day could be found on the table, or grill, too: fava beans and asparagus.

There was also plenty of soccer.  Jack got some lessons from Luca.

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It was actually pretty chilly, and the sky was gray, but the fruit trees are blooming, the kids are antsy, and everyone just wanted to hang around in the big back garden yesterday.  The grill was going from 11 to 7.

There were pork sausages of all kinds, veal chops, pork chops, lamb shoulder, lamb leg…. Most of us ate bites right off the grill, with our fingers. Yes, it was greasy and brutish and washed down with plenty of beer and 3-Euro wine.  I brought a salad of romaine, treviso, pears, fennel, and walnuts.  No one ate it. Some of the foods were local and artisanal. Others were, well, hot dogs and cream-in-a-can.

We played ping pong, bocce, kickball, and frisbee.

For more pictures, go to my Flickr page.

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After one of the more fantastic of Saturday lunches at the Academy—which included my new favorite twist on panzanella (big olive-oil—or was it chicken fat—soaked bread chunks, radicchio, fennel, pinenuts, and raisins, with it’s delicious balance of bitter and sweet), and chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and violets—Jack felt like sticking around with the kitchen crew.  First, he just wandered from here to there, munching an apple.  Then, Mona asked him if he wanted to help Josh in the garden.  Oh yes!

What are we planting? Cilantro.  Oooohh! That bodes well for spring meals from the RSFP!

I love the little garden house out back here by the olive trees.  The phone actually works.  Now, there is a sense memory from my early childhood—rotary dialing.

New leaves are popping out on the olive trees, and the apple and plum trees are blooming.

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At a junction of thoughts that represents some substance of my life right now: a chapter in Moby Dick; a talk about food in high art given by Leonard Barkan; the local-food-movement mantra know your food, know your farmer; swimming, during which activity my thoughts form folds with each lap and the thought that my son loves swimming connects to the porpoises on Planet Earth and in Moby Dick, which leads to another branch of my family, those Nantucket whalemen ancestors, who probably dined on whale at some point, and one of whom carved an incredibly intricate scrimshaw fan during those endless hours of calm water.

http://www.artunframed.com/images/boucher3/Are_They_Thinking_About_the_Grape.jpg

Leonard’s talk, “Thinking of the Grapes” (which refers to this painting by François Boucher) was about how food has an ambiguous status in high art, in particular (in this lecture) Renaissance and Baroque painting.  Food is both vividly, sensuously present in all of its particularity of detail, and is officially secondary to the main subject.  Gastronomy falls far below philosophy, theology, astronomy, or love, and yet it obtrudes itself into the artist’s imagination and into the picture and takes on significance as the too-muchness of what we desire and fear of appetite.  It is suppressed, Leonard suggests, because it is just too consuming.

Food enters art more or less smoothly or subversively depending on the culture, the age, the medium, the genre.  Novels—omnivorous gluttons of the details of everyday life that they are—might be expected to contain more food.  Moby Dick has none of the delicacy of Boucher’s lovers feeding each other grapes, and contains a smorgasbord of greasy, glistening, animal food and its bestial eaters.  But the discussion of eating in the chapter “The Whale as a Dish” is not simply a display of macho engorgement.  It has as much ethical, psychological, cultural, socioeconomical, and philosophical penetration as the best thinking about food today, and combines all of these elements in prose more musical, serio-satirical, and strange than anything I’ve read recently.

Here is the chapter.

“The Whale as a Dish”

That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history and philosophy of it.

It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France, and commanded large prices there.  Also, that in Henry VIIIth’s time, a certain cook of the court obtained a handsome reward for inventing an admirable sauce to be eaten with barbecued porpoises, which, you remember, are a species of whale.  Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating.  The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls.  The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them.  They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.  Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious.  We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil.  Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants, as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing.  And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the mould scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber.  Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called “fritters”; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ doughnuts or oly-cooks, when fresh.  They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish, is his exceeding richness.  He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good.  Look at his hump which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat.  But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is; like the transparent, half-jellied white meat of a cocoa-nut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter.  Nevertheless, many whalemen have a method of absorbing it into some other substance, and then partaking of it.  In the long try watches of the night it is a common thing for a seaman to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile.  Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the case of a small sperm whale the brains are accounted a fine dish.  The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavour somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures; and every one knows that some young bucks among the epicures, by continually dining upon calves’ brains, by and by get to have a little brains of their own, so as to be able to tell a calf’s head from their own heads; which, indeed, requires uncommon discrimination.  And that is the reason why a young buck with an intelligent looking calf’s head before him, is somehow one of the saddest sights you can see.  The head looks a sort of reproachfully at him, with an “Et tu Brute!” expression.

It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned, i.e., that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.  But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does.   Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.  Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw?  Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?  I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it?  Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose?  With a feather of the same fowl.  And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronize nothing but steel pens.

Moby Dick (1851)
Herman Melville

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