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Posts Tagged ‘American Academy in Rome’

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.

https://i1.wp.com/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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The gelaterias are opening their doors.  Puddles in the cobblestones sparkle in the sunlight. Rainstorms are rushing through, and leaving in their wake warm spots and green buds.

During one of these post-rain spells yesterday, Jack and I walked down to Trastevere to buy a birthday present for Agnese, whose party is today.  Our favorite destination for toy and art-supply shopping is Piazza San Cosimato, which has an open air market, a playground, great scootering terrain, and three toy stores.  After picking out a magic wand and a set of stamps complete with ink-pad and pouch, we went to the playground.

After bouncing and climbing and swinging and staring at the winos, Jack was ready for our next stop: Fior di Luna gelateria, where all of the ingredients are organic, local, and/or fair trade, and the gelato tastes intensely of its few flavorful parts—whether those are pistachios, vanilla beans, or blood oranges.  This gelateria also uses only seasonal ingredients, so the flavors that dominate now are citrus, nuts, and chocolate.

Spring is on the way, though.  Look at the flowers popping up in the Bass Garden!

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Two incredible events punctuated this week: a wine tasting led by sommelier Pina Pasquantonio, and snow in Rome, which hasn’t happened since 1986.

The snow was thrilling!  A group from the Academy walked down to the Pantheon, to see the rare sight of snowflakes falling through the oculus.  I took Jack to school, where the children were jumping and dancing and shrieking about the neve.

The wine tasting, very nearly as thrilling, was a rare opportunity as well.  Most days, we know Pina as the most important administrator at the American Academy.  But she is also a certified sommelier, and in this role she is in her element.

Pina & Gianni, also a sommelier

The tasting began with a crash course in the geography and most important varietals of Italian wine.  Italy has the most grape varietals of any country in the world, and of the 850 or so, 350 have a special status. Could this be one reason wine-lovers trained in varietal-focused American wines find Italian wine-shopping so daunting?

We started with a spumante produced in the metodo classico, which means that the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, and not in a huge steel vat.  This wine, like all of the others we tasted, was a wonderful sense-experience.  Pina pointed out the bubbles, which were tiny and few, a sign of high quality.  She instructed us to taste, and then to eat a piece of bread with olive oil—made from her own olive trees—and then to taste again to experience the palate cleansing effect of this effervescent minerally wine. (This was Bellavista Gran Cuvée Pas Opere Franciacorta 2003 from Lombardia.)

Next, we tasted a wine that was recently rated one of the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator: Jermann, Vintage Tunina 2007 from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malvasia Istriana, Picolit, and Ribolla Gialla.  It was probably the most complex, interesting, and best white wine I’ve ever had.

These were followed by an incredible red that first silenced everyone and then inspired murmurs of sensuous pleasure—Nino Negri, Sfursat di Valtellina Cinque Stelle 2005, a Nebbiolo from Lombardia—and a dessert wine that awed us again with its amber glow and its multifaceted sweetness.  This was the Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2008, which Pina exclaimed smelled exactly like Sicily.

(Looking back at my photos, I realize that once the wines were poured, I was too busy to remember my camera.)

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It’s cold, rainy, and February.  But with a fire in the fireplace, an amazing Indian lunch, and a handful of confetti, we brightened up this dismal day.

Jon and some of the kids went out to the Triangle Garden to gather some dampish wood.  It lit… and smoked and hissed… but also blazed, and had the kids alternately staring entranced at its flames and running helter skelter calling out for hot cocoa.  Lulu lolled, and Jack fanned the flames.

Mona and the cooks made the best Indian meal I’ve ever had, with curried chicken, dal, spiced rice, papadum, raita, two chutneys, and sauteed greens.  Everyone went back for more, and then we noticed the cake—a fluffy almond cake infused with toasted, crushed cardamom seeds.  With a dollop of tangy yogurt on the side, and a perfectly pulled esspresso, this dessert went down in history.

What an inspired culinary performance!

And despite the rain, Carnevale goes on.  We’re saving most of our confetti for tomorrow, when the sun will shine, but I sprinkled a handful down from the window on Jack, for whom the simple pleasure of watching brightly colored snow fall is close to ecstasy.

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I went on a walk this morning, after a doppio cappuccino didn’t help my concentration.  Down the steep steps, around the curve of Via Garibaldi, through some narrow Trastevere streets, across Ponte Sisto to Campo di Fiori, where Giordano Bruno presides over the messy mosaic of the open air market.  I stopped in some shops with “Saldi” signs—holiday sales still going on.  (Found a rust-colored viscose-velvet skirt that has a nice swing to it.)  I walked by Roscioli and didn’t go in, for once.

I took lots of pictures of architectural angles that struck me, and found, on my way back up the steps to the Janiculum that the door to the courtyard where the Tempietto stands was open.  This is a symmetrical, serene little place.  A tiny round temple that somehow feels proportionally perfect inside the plain block of a cloister courtyard, it was designed and built by Donato Bramante around 1502.  All of my new architect friends have me thinking about how the treatment of space translates—and translates into—emotions.  The dignity and simplicity of the Doric columns, the details, down to the rainwater drain, made me feel a subdued awe, peace, calm, as if the world, for a moment, had some harmony.

Tempietto seen through the entrance arch.

rainwater drain

Soon, though, I realized that the two guys in easy conversation at the gate, jingling their keys from time to time, were waiting for me to leave.  We all laughed when I finally caught their eye and hurried out.

After my brisk communion with commerce, architectural curves, and sacred spaces, I arrived just in time for lunch at the Academy.  It was one of those days when everything was good—especially the baked scamorza in a spicy tomato sauce, the farro roasted with lemons and fennel, the ricotta al forno, and the dessert: torta mimosa.  This cake would be perfect at a wedding. It is white, fluffy, with citrus hints and intensities in its delicate layers of crumb and buttercream.  The frosting on the outside is dusted with crumbly crumbles of the cake’s delicious crumb.  Of course I didn’t get a picture, and when I looked for one on google, all I found were these, which are vulgar, garish, impostors of the angelic dessert we ate today.

If you’d like to see my pictures of some architectural history and whimsy that’s at every turn in Rome—like this curvaceous facade—go to my Flickr page.

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This distinction, between red and white, is an important and ubiquitous one in Roman society.  Well, at least when it comes to snacks and drinks and—if you’re talking to children—dinner.  There’s, of course, red or white wine.  (But these are just the most basic distinctions.  In addition to the great array of differences based on geography and terroir, there’s also the difference of fizz. But fizz, we’ve found, covers the spectra of bianco through rosato to rosso, and of seca to dolce.  In other words, it’s possible, and a pleasure, to find a dry fizzy pink wine and a sweet fizzy red wine.)

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I thought moving to Italy would expand my son’s diet into the far reaches of foreign flavors and textures.  He already liked olives and peppers.  We seemed to be on the right track.  But for some reason, living in Rome has contracted his taste.  His favorite choice, when it comes to dinner, is pasta bianca or pasta rossa.  And usually, he’ll choose the bianca: pasta with olive oil and grated parmesan.  He seems to have given up green things, which drives me nuts, because there are so many more wonderful green things here than there have been anywhere else he’s lived—except Berkeley, where he lived when he was just cutting teeth.  Green leaves with cheese, green leaves with nuts, green leaves with sweet onions, green leaves with grains, gazillions of great greens!  He won’t have any of it.

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The third important category of the rossa/bianca divide is pizza.

Pizza rossa is a thin, tasty crust spread with savory tomato sauce; each good forno will have its own sauce, some more salty or herbaceous than others.  Pizza bianca is a bubbly pizza crust topped simply with olive oil and salt.  Again, each forno’s dough has its own taste and consistency, and is topped with more or less salt.  You can also order pizza bianca morbida (soft) or dura (hard-crunchy). My favorite place to buy both is Panificio Beti, in our neighborhood.  The lines are always long, and the family behind the counter always bustling and full of banter.

These Roman basics serve as snacks or sides at any time of the day.  Italian life is riddled with rules, but, as far as I can tell, pizza rossa and bianca exist in a looser realm.  As a rule, Italians don’t eat on the run the way Americans do.  Even to-go coffee is a very rare sight.  But pizza rossa can be eaten with dignity while one is walking along the sidewalk.  The pizzeria guy will cut a piece in half, slap the parts together sauce-side-in, and wrap the bottom half in a piece of paper—a process that takes about a second and a half—so the snack is ready to eat as soon as it passes from his hand to yours.  I’ve seen people eat it for breakfast, for elevenses with beer,  for a late afternoon snack, and for dinner.

Last night, still satiated from the big Saturday Academy lunch, we had salad, pizza rossa, and vino rosso, for dinner.  Jack had the white ribs of the lettuce, pizza bianca, and milk.  I wish he’d broaden his taste at least to complete the color combo of the Italian flag.

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The day after Christmas: rain, cleaning up all done, children melting down, boredom, no hot water for a cathartic shower (again! really! what’s up with that?)….

For the fifth time today, Jack whined, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”  I looked around the kitchen—not much there.  Then I remembered the orange trees.  Let’s go pick an orange to eat!  Jack was ready for any kind of outing, so we put on our rain boots and rain coats and hoods, and walked out to the tree, which, from a distance, seemed to have no more fruit.  But when we got up close, and I crouched down to Jack’s height, I saw the clusters of ripening, reddening Tarocco oranges—the common Italian variety of what we call “blood orange.”  The pulp is not as red as that of its Spanish cousin, Sanguinello, and the fruit not as large as the most common variety in the U.S., Navel.  Threads of read are shot through the center of the deep orange fruit, and the juice is deliciously sweet.

Because of the structure, with little mini-sections in the center, I decided to juice it instead of peeling it and parting it and wasting the juice in the process.  Jack guzzled a cupful in seconds.  And then, within seconds, he was gone, having just received an invitation shouted up through the open window from the driveway below to come down to Lulu’s for hot cocoa.

I juiced the other orange we’d picked, poured it into wine glasses, and topped it off with the prosecco left in the fridge.  Wow!

You may remember my post on fruit/sparkling wine cocktails.  Now there’s a new one to add, and I’ll have to say, it definitely wins out over the Puccini and the Mimosa.

(Note to others in the AAR community: I only took a few. Really!  If you go too, leave some hanging to ripen, so the RSFP staff can make us the traditional Sicilian salad of Tarocco orange, sliced fennel, olive oil, and parsley… or so that Alessandro can mix up some perfected epitome of sparkling citrus cocktail, as he’s been known to do.)

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