Archive for the ‘Water’ Category

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.


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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The weather this weekend is Janus-faced: stormy, dark, and wintry yesterday, bright, clear, and spring-like today.  A perfect morning for walking around Rome, and for seeing the sunlight stream through the windows of Borromini’s whimsical, symmetrical, magnificent dome of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza.

I think this space was meant to be seen, and felt, on a clear day in winter, when the light is clean and welcome, as it warms the white dome and flashes off of the pressed gold leaf.

On our way to this gorgeous, idiosyncratic space, we took the time to notice some other, smaller wonders of Rome.  The water line of an 1870 flood:

A gigantic basin:

Borromini’s corkscrew steeple:

We stopped at a cafe to warm our hands and revive Jack, who was getting limp with hunger.  Like a good little Roman child, he carbo-loaded.  In rapid succession, he ate a cornetto (croissant), a mortadella and mozzarella panino, and a chocolate egg with a Hello Kitty surprise in the middle.  He washed it all down with some aqua minerale frizzante.

Then, he chilled:

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Going to Venice for a long weekend is like being transported to a different realm.  In this immersed city, we immersed ourselves in grand-scale Renaissance art, long winding walks, gelato, spritz (Amaro—a bittersweet red liqueur—and prosecco), and seafood.  What everyone says about the acoustics stands out as a strong sense memory: without the sound of cars, the ear hears the click of heels on stone, voices talking, murmuring, laughing, and the soft splash of water against stone and brick.  True, there are motor boats, but their rumble is nothing after the roar of Roman traffic.

We ate well.  Oh, yes we did.

On the first night, we turned the corner from the little alley where we were renting an apartment (with 5 others from the American Academy), and happened upon Paradiso Perdito, a wonderfully unlost paradise of seafood, pasta, off-beat music, and attractive diners and servers both young and old.  Here’s a sampling of that meal.




vino di casa pump


frito misto


amazingly flavorful garlicky pasta with a never seen before crustacean


squid ink pasta


Jack fell asleep on my lap.



see the rosemary sprig?


nicely boned

Other highlights: The dolci, which we all agreed were better than any in Rome.


how many pistachios are in this torta?

This place especially, which Lisa discovered at 7:30 one morning, by following the aroma of buttery baking, had the most amazing almond croissants we’ve ever had.  They weren’t overly sweet and flabby like so many, but were improbably both dense and flaky, and were almost savory in their delicate sweetness.




bread turtle?

I didn’t actually take any photos of anyone eating gelato, because I always had a drippy cone of my own to control, usually with some combination of fruity and nutty.  My favorite duo: cherry and hazelnut.  Jack’s favorite: strawberry and cherry.  But this is the place to get it:


We happened upon this graffito, which to me says, “Is this a gelato I see before me?”


We also saw lots and lots of art.  Jack was inspired to do some painting, and then ran off to chase pigeons.


We took one gondola ride, but it only went across the Grand Canal, took two minutes, and cost 50 cents.  Still, it seemed to make everyone happy.




Susanna & Stephen



Our last meal was at the Anice Stellato—the Star Anise—and it was a meal to remember.  I wasn’t so good at photographing every plate, but my favorite dish was a lamb tenderloin rolled in crushed pistachios.  Oh, my….  The wine, a local carmenere blend, and an antipasto plate called sarde in saor, with sardines, polenta, and pickled onions, also stood out.




Jack enjoyed hanging with the grown-ups.  And I think they liked his company too.


Aurelia, Jack, Richard, me

(For more photos, check out my Flickr page.)

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Disclaimer: I didn’t sleep at all on the way over, and I walked about 7 miles today, so I don’t have much of a mind to write.  But there’s so much to be excited about.  And I did forget my camera in the supermarket, but that’s just as well, because I would have wanted to post about twenty pictures: of the twenty-two varieties of ham at the deli counter, of the low, low cheese prices, of the interesting juice selection (I bought a lemon-orange-carrot blend), and of the cute little carts that you tow behind you, rather than the “buggies” of the U.S. that, according to a John Cheever character, “unsex” you when you push one.

My new friend Antonia also took me to the market stalls this morning, where I practiced my Italian phrases associated with purchasing, etiquette, and numbers, and bought beautiful greens, figs (figi), eggplant, peppers, a microfiber sweeper, and a citronella fumigator.

I’ll bring my camera next time.

Later in the day, after a lunch of arugula, wheaty bread spread with tapenade, prosciutto, and fresh asiago (not hard due to age, and lighter and sweeter in flavor), we took the stairs down to the hipster neighborhood of Trastevere with our new friends.  I spotted the sticker of a like-minded person, on the window of a hand-crafted wooden instrument store (mandolins, tambourines):

omg sticker

We bought “pizza” for the kids along the way–and it isn’t quite what you think.  Some of it looked like its American progeny, but “pizza” also refers to thin bubbly bread sandwiching sliced cheese or prosciutto and mozzarella.  (Actually, Jack had this variety of pizza for breakfast, while Peter and I had nutella-spread cornetti (croissants) and cappuccino at “Cafe G.”)

We bought umbrellas for the boys, Nicholas and Jack, and they tried them out at a fountain, out of which flows rock-cold, clean, fresh water, with which we also filled our bottles:


We crossed the Tiber, and saw the remnants of an ancient Roman bridge:


We saw a fountain, with fish, turtles, and men involved in a choreographed effort of ease:

turtle fountain

And, finally, we came back to the apartment to cook dinner.  In the fridge was a two-liter plastic bottle filled with Sardinian wine.  Really.  Our new friend Cory gave it to us last night.  He’d bought it—and had the emptied water bottle filled—at a local wine store that offers two whites and two reds—out of casks with taps.  Can’t wait to find that place.

I made a bowl of pasta with all of the local veggies I’d picked up: round, bacci ball sized eggplant, fresh onions, zucchini, red pepper, Roma tomatoes.  Nothing unusual, really, but everything was fresh and local.

1st dinner

At the table, we added freshly grated parmigiana reggiano and anchovies, both of which were shockingly cheap at “the GS”!


I like it here.

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Sorry, but this post is just about the kitchen tap.  When we eat locally, let’s not neglect to drink locally as well.  There are many good reasons to open the tap rather than the clicking “contamination seal” of a plastic water bottle.  For one thing, the promise of that seal is an illusion.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Even when bottled waters are covered by the FDA’s rules, they are subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those which apply to city tap water. For example, bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than city tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants. In addition, bottled water rules allow for some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliform (which indicate possible contamination with fecal matter), contrary to tap water rules, which prohibit any confirmed contamination with these bacteria. Similarly, there are no requirements for bottled water to be disinfected or tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or giardia, unlike the rules for big city tap water systems that use surface water sources. This leaves open the possibility that some bottled water may present a health threat to people with weakened immune systems, such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant or cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS.

Oh, and carbonated waters are exempted from even these regulations.  Yuck!  But the cap is also powerless against other sources of contamination.  I’m sure you’ve heard of Bisphenol A (BPA), which leaches from polycarbonate plastic bottles into the liquid inside—whether it’s water, iced tea, or breastmilk. There’s been a lot of news about this recently, and Nalgene and Avent, the baby bottle maker, grabbed the spotlight when they announced their phase-outs of BPA-containing plastics.  (For the problems caused by BPA, check out my cousin-in-law, Michelle Grey Campion’s blog, “The Epi-Cure” at http://www.theepi-cure.com.)

We also know that plastic bottles are pollutants, because only a small percentage of the 2 million plastic bottles Americans throw away every five minutes are recycled.  For a shocking visual representation of this number, take a look at Chris Jordan’s photographs, at:  http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php

I’d been using my portable bottles for years, like a good little environmentalist, but I didn’t know a thing about the water coming from my tap until I spent an interesting half hour surfing the web to find out about my watershed, the Lower Tallapoosa.  (It’s a pleasure just learning the names, but I highly recommend clicking around on the EPA website.)  It turns out that the muddy little strand of Chewacla Creek I run along ends up in my water glass—after it flows into Ogletree Lake and is joined in the treatment plant by water from Saugahatchee Lake, Halawakee Creek, and Lake Harding, and is chlorinated.

Does drinking a bit of chlorine and the byproducts of its oxidizing process sound unappetizing?  (Actually, I think the drops that end up in my mouth when I swim help ward off the coughs and sniffles of the preschoolers and undergrads I’m constantly in the midst of.)  Chlorine has been used to kill  the microbes in public drinking water since 1970, and since then, there has been a lot of debate about its safety, but nothing better has come along.  A report by Auburn University’s Agronomy and Soils Department on chlorination persuades with a touch of scary irony:

Although there seems to be a growing public fear of drinking water with a small residual level of chlorine in it, this small residual elemental chlorine level at the tap is the single best indicator that the water is free of microbial contamination. If all the chlorine has been used up in oxidation processes before the end of the pipeline—your faucet—you do not know whether your water is safe to drink or not.

And you can always pop a Brita filter on your faucet.

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