Informed imbibers agree
that a chilled Negroni
(gin, sweet vermouth, Campari)
is better than Long Island Iced Tea.
But does it beat a Martini?
Tell me what in
is not to like?
Rye, sweet vermouth cut with Cynar
(an artichoke-based liqueur
you'll find at any good bar)
makes for a great cocktail
that will not fail
to please on land or sea
and improve any party.
Still, this is the singular truth:
Nothing beats gin and vermouth,
the latter French, the former English.
Served cold as the Arctic Ocean,
it inspires devotion.
It's as water to a fish,
It's delightful and delish,
It's precisely what I wish.
Nothing goes down as cleanly
as a well-mixed Martini.
No, nothing beats the Martini.
Drink in hand, Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club read each poem in front of the NYC bar or restaurant alchemist who invented the cocktail. Poet and performer, Holman read with his own magic: softly, slowly for “Somewhere I Never Traveled” by E. E. Cummings or booming for “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The benefit for the Academy of American Poets was hosted by Peter Hoffman at his East Village restaurant with tasty treats from his kitchen. This year’s cocktail recipes and some of the poems will join the inaugural ones at www.poets.org/cocktails.
Tom Macy from Clover Club in Carroll Gardens paired his berried and bubbly drink Clever Girl with the Emily Dickinson poem that begins "NATURE rarer uses yellow." Like many a Dickinson poem that lulls by surface sublime from the natural world, Macy floated a yellow pansy in the drink. All the better to heighten the punch.
“Just like me,” said Jessica Knevals ordering a Clever Girl, wearing yellow heels as bright as the flowers.
“I’d be lying if I said you were the first person to say that,” Macy replied.
Bar banter fueled by alcohol is likely more interesting to the bar patrons than the bartender. But pack in poetry lovers on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon and a drink based on Dorothy Parker Gin from the New York Distilling Company prompts replies to Holman in full Parker poems.
The longest Parker recitation was from Christopher Michel, also the only living poet on the menu at this year’s slam. His Poem in which I am an asshole as a poorly behaved poet guest inspired a rye drink with the longest lines of the afternoon, A drink which can make you an asshole, mixed by Tom Richter of the Beagle. “Because it will sneak up on you,” Richter said. Holman and Michel read the poem together while the Beagle owner covered his eyes.
”They truly are mixologists,” Holman praised those to mix, shake and pour the libations. "And they make more money than poets.”
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pickup basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was a featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Equal parts gin, whiskey and brandy, shaken and strained. According one Prohibition-era recipe book, Here’s How!, once you serve it, you’d better run. The Thunderclap does sound pretty awful, and lethal too—a hit-and-run act of weather not unlike the real weather we’ve been having, most recently, a coordinated attack of tornadoes across Oklahoma, Kansas and a few other Midwestern states.
Who is responsible for this vile concoction? Here’s How! suggests that the bartender is, and that his best course of action is to leave the scene of the crime. But when it comes to the equal parts raw sewage, mining residue, and smog that polluters serve up, denial is the favorite course of action. It’s as if the bartender poured you a Thunderclap, stood before you while you downed it, and then said, “I gave you no such thing.”
Unlikely as it seems, the denial tactic has been very successful. Pew’s latest poll shows 62% of Americans don’t believe that pollution is heating up the planet, either because they’ve bought the “natural patterns” argument (“This Thunderclap is perfectly harmless! It’s the water vapor ya gotta watch out for.”), they haven’t seen enough evidence to form a belief (“Thunderclaps are just a theory”), or, scariest of all, they haven’t yet reached the question of responsibility because they deny the planet is getting warmer in the first place (“Thunderclap? There’s no Thunderclap here.”). Among Republicans—i.e., those charged with protecting the 1% from taxes and the polluters from governmental regulation—a very thick layer of denial obscures facts that in clean air would be glaring. Only 19% of them think pollution is driving up the temperature.
Ease of denial comes, in part, from the language concerned environmentalists use to talk about their passion, a set of terms drained of all passion. So forget global warming, greenhouse gasses, carbon
footprint, human activity, climate change, CO2 emissions, and all the other post-doc terminology when it comes to a sober discussion of the state of our planet. Let’s ask one simple question of climate deniers (what does that term even mean? taking a stand against the existence of weather?):
“Gosh, that was some tornado/hurricane/tap water on fire. Do you think pollution has anything to do with it?”
You’ll get a resounding “yes.”Even from Republicans.
It’s similar to the “yes” you would have gotten in 2006, if you’d asked my neighbor, “Wow, your crappy 2-bedroom ranch is appraised at a half-million dollars! Don't you think that’s a little high?” Among my home-owning friends at the time, the ridiculous price tags attached to our modest dwellings was a common object of marvel. And yet when the bubble burst, howls of “We didn’t knoooowwwww!” arose—not from us, but from the banks, real estate hustlers and speculators who’d driven the prices so high.
Those are the same howls polluters will send up, when the weather gets too bad to ignore. But don’t worry: we won’t hear them under all that angry, gray, flammable water.
You just can’t get a bad meal at the Gramercy Tavern on East 20th Street in New York City: the food is inspired, the atmosphere warm, the service consistently attentive without being obsequious. A couple of years ago, in one of the most enjoyable experiences of my writing life, I shadowed Modesto Batista, the Gramercy’s chief steward, on his early morning circumnavigation of the Union Square Farmers Market. Ever since, I’ve kept tabs on the Gramercy, grabbing lunch in the more casual “tavern” up front or splurging on the occasional take-the-top-of-my-head-off fine meal in the elegant dining room. Follow the Gramercy on Twitter (@GramercyTavern) to stay current on its daily lunch specials, which are farm-to-market driven and affordable.
It was Twitter that alerted me to the Gramercy Tavern staff celebration of National Poetry Month. Every day in April, during pre-service “family” meals, the staff members take turns reading poetry aloud. It’s a tradition that started at roughly the same time that the Academy of American Poets introduced National Poetry Month. Anybody who has ever worked in a restaurant knows how the pressure can build just before the doors open for meal service, which makes the restaurant’s tradition of pausing for poetry even more impressive.
I stopped by the Gramercy on Thursday to listen to the pre-dinner poetry offerings. As the staff assembled in the dining room, they were still talking about the pre-lunch staff meal, during which server Marcelo Valez sang an original composition. At first he demurred, because he had not yet translated his verse from Spanish to English, but his colleagues' persistence wore down his resistance and he took the floor, to everyone’s delight.
After routine announcements about menu changes and such, David Shaw (right), a charismatic server, approached the makeshift stage and announced, “Today I’m going to read “Lament,” by Franz Wright.” Shaw, one of the more regular readers, has a store of poems at the ready. “Franz Wright is one of my favorite poets,” he said and read the lines as one who has taken in the poem over countless solitary readings: I took a long walk / that night in the rain. / It was fine. / Barehead, shirt open: in love / nobody gives a shit about the rain . . . It was an impressive, moving performance.
Next up was Robert Blake (below), smiling, exhuberant, and, judging by his colleagues' applause, a crowd favorite. Instead of reciting a poem, he performed a scene from Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors. “If it’s a poem in your head, it’s poetry,” he said before launching into a dead-on impersonation of the film's elderly Professor Louis Levy lecturing about the difficulty of life’s moral choices.
With moments to spare before the dinner crowd descended upon the dining room I persuaded Marcelo Valez to send me a link to an original composition. Here it is:
Find Marcelo's translation after the jump.
On Thursday night, Timothy O’Keefe (author of The Goodbye Town, winner of the 2010 FIELD Poetry Prize) and his girlfriend, novelist Xhenet Aliu, got into town. They brought with them Luella, their part-border-collie-part-dobermann puppy, shiny as a shoe, who spent most of the weekend running in circles around our piglet-esque, pennycolored pitbull, Ezzie. Tim and I read together for Utah State University’s “Helicon West” reading series at the Citrus & Sage Café (a cute little house that serves the local artisan-roasted coffee along with very tasty sweet or savory crepes – the best of which is served with just honey-butter, according to essayist and USU professor Jennifer Sinor). Tim and I have been besties for, like, years, but we’d never actually read together before – and it was really fun. Tim’s poetry is unlike anybody’s – at once archly lyrical in its musicality and genuinely austere in its gaze, each brief, beautiful poem satisfies the reader or listener utterly while somehow simultaneously suggesting itself as merely the tip of an immense berg made of something much, much more human than the easy metaphor of ice. Each poem seems to reconcile various struggles within the poet – between form he knows he’s masterfully good at crafting and a powerful urge to do something far more unpredictable than that; between the powerful emotions occasioned by a person or a place or a relationship and the rigorous meditations upon those emotions that I think, for Tim, come right along with them. Simple lines like, “one way is still a way” or, in a newer poem, his girlfriend humming “a song whose words I’d only recently forgotten” sort of haunt my consciousness. It’s not just how he writes – it’s how he thinks, it’s what he notices, it’s maybe even what he elicits from others. On Friday, Tim came in from taking out the dog to report he’d had a brief exchange with our little neighbor girl. She revealed she had a blister on her foot. “Does it hurt?” Tim asked. She thought about it for a minute and said, finally, “If I cry it does.” Below is one of my favorite of Tim’s poems:
She suns on a hill,
all the field becoming
its color, horizon
what she cannot feel
but aligned, lighting
the North Pole northerly.
A green wind winds
shoal to shoal, fallow coast, and spring
piecemealing Spring, sewing leaves
on a white camisole.
She and he and the lake are
mostly water. Look—she won't
take his shrug as such-and-such
a sign—red pouring, pining for.
A canoe, skinny trees as far
as the eye projects
She and he and water are t
he color of whatever holds them.
The leaves are down, the leaves.
The forest blows a window, a waiting-to-be.
She thinks in red-green. He thinks brown, brown, brown.
One of the things I love about Tim - as a poet, as a person - is his relentless pursuit (however unlikely any of us could ever realize it) of perfection. This is very admirable in things like, say, "broken sonnets". (Why can't something be both broken and perfect, after all?) And very funny in things like, say, raquetball. Or tennis, which he and my Joseph played a few times, as evidenced by the fact that Joseph is somewhat uncharacteristically sore and tired today.
After the reading on Thursday, the four of us (Tim, Xhenet, Joseph, and myself) walked across the street to Le Nonne, a little Italian joint in an old arts-&-crafts-style bungalow, of which there are many in northern Utah. Speaking of perfect, most restaurants in the Jell-O Belt are far from it, and Le Nonne is no exception. The food is very inconsistent (and I think we almost all ordered the wrong thing) but it’s one of the few places to eat in this pokey little town that’s open for dinner and serves wine (or lets you bring a bottle) and isn’t a national franchise. The smoked salmon farfalle was not in a “light” cream sauce – it was practically sticky; the chicken-and-ricotta ravioli lacked salt or maybe just flavor; the clam linguini was supposed to be served in a kind of garlic and chili oil, but seemed mostly to be served with just raw diced tomatoes. And under the thick white sauce, you wouldn’t have known the crab ravioli had crab in it, if you hadn’t read the menu. I’ve had pretty good meals there – this was not one of them. But it was late, and we were the only people there, and we do like each other very, very much, so we more than managed to have a good time. However, here’s a small digression upon restaurants in the Jell-O Belt – not the fabulous ones I’ve already mentioned on this blog this week, though even those are rarely perfect. But here are my thoughts about virtually all of the other ones:
First of all, turn down the lights. For Pete’s sake, restaurants, it’s like eating a meal in a grocery store! No ambience, no mood, no romance. (We have heard of these things, surely.) Along the same lines, last time I checked, the LDS church does not forbid people to listen to music whilst eating. When in doubt, jazz – some nice Horace Silver, or Dave Brubeck, or some Buena Vista Social Club. Or just go get the Midnight in Paris soundtrack and put it on repeat. Nobody will be offended. And it’ll feel like there’s something fun going on. Don’t use Mozart or Bach, for heaven’s sake. It’s dinner, not a Requiem or a Mass, and even a nice dinner doesn’t have to be quite that ponderous or formal – we’re reaching over and forking mouthfuls of ravioli off each other’s plates, after all.
To you waiters, I know, having worked in the service industry in Utah, Mormons are (on the whole) very grim tippers. You’re lucky if you get twelve percent, and if you happen to work in one of those restaurants like the Market Street Grill where my little sister waited tables for awhile, that might well be twelve percent on two soup-and-salad combinations, though you also ran your ass off refilling sodas and bread baskets and slinging French fries and hamburgers for four “kids eat free”. So you served six demanding patrons, and for your efforts you got a buck-fifty on a nineteen dollar tab. None of this encourages servers to go the extra mile for their customers, to say nothing of the fact that it does nothing to provide them with the only income wait-staff take home after the taxes are paid on their less-than-minimum-wage salaries. (If you cannot afford to tip at least 20 percent, you cannot afford to eat at restaurants – I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.) But given this culture of mutual disregard, waiters in much of Utah, and maybe especially in Logan, are abysmally, ridiculously inattentive. It’s also true that often – though not always – restaurants in Utah find they have to cater to the Jell-O Belt’s idiosyncratically prudish palate. (This might also be very much generational – the younger adults in our community do generally seem to appreciate a more diverse array of foods and ingredients.) But the boomers are still eating out, so unless you order the right thing, or specify that you actually do like your food very, very spicy, you will get the Utah version of, say, Pad Thai – real easy on the chilis and without even a dash of fish sauce, which tastes much too much like crotch for the white-bre(a)d masses. And while you might not think of Italian cuisine as belonging to that genre we so vulgarly group as “ethnic,” there are definitely Utahns for whom a very mild rigatoni alla amatriciana is just too “spicy”. As a result, to keep itself in business, places like Le Nonne might offer beef carpaccio and penne “puttenesca,” but do a roaring trade in thick cream and cheese dishes that sound fairly elegant, but in fact uncannily resemble fancified mac-n-cheese. I'm not saying I expect a rigorous pursuit of perfection from all of these places - but almost nothing is as depressing as people or institutions who are content to settle for mediocrity. Whatever you do - whether you drive a schoolbus, cook in a restaurant, compose operas, perform intricate veterinary surgery, and actually maybe especially if you drive a schoolbus - why not aspire to do it to the absolute highest standard? You probably won't succeed to reach whatever bar you set for yourself, but you might as well fall a little short of the moon as the roof. It was hubris, but during a very impassioned conversation I once told a very good friend of mine who was considering pursuing a Ph.D., "Why not? I mean, if you're going to dream a crazy dream you might as well dream the whole dream, not feel like you have to pinch yourself awake half-way through." And I really did mean it. Again, it's a little exaggerated, but sometimes I tell my students who ask me where they ought to send their work, "Don't worry about it. And don't write to get published - write to change something important." I think what I mean is just: Aspire. Aspire!
Having waded through the cream sludge on Thursday night, we decided on Friday night we’d fend for ourselves. Xhenet is one of the very finest cooks I know – and that’s saying something. (I lived with Craig Arnold, I'm friends with Jessica Piazza - I mean, really.) Leaving aside her inventive recipes and the spells she can cast from a Cook’s Illustrated cookbook, she makes her own pickles, cheese (from soft goat chevre to slightly more demanding mozzerella to brie), bread (she brought a loaf from home – it’s gone), and even sausage. I’m no Xhenet Aliu, but I can manage in a kitchen, too. We had a little pow-wow with the lads and decided we would go to the store, and then head up into the sublimely beautiful Logan Canyon and Cache National Forest for a short hike and then build a fire, and cook our dinner over it. The firepits at Chokecherry are only about a ten minute drive from our house, so we grabbed a few steaks, a couple of avocadoes, some salt and garlic pepper, a bag-o-salad, some wine, and a few other bits and bobs and piled into the Subaru with the pups.
I think everybody likes to cook outside – grilling is a popular activity around this time of year. The snow begins to run, the sun warms the closed eyes of leaf-buds, waking them open, and pale blossoms froth whitely on the branches. Grills everywhere are wheeled out of garages, sacks of new coals are stacked in front of grocery stores, and dusk is tinged with the smell of lighter fluid. But not everybody can do what we can do – we'll drive up into the mountains, Joseph (an accomplished outdoorsman who loves to play with hatchets and matches) can split a pile of nut-white logs and build a big cuss-off fire, and then we can sear a few thick, red steaks over an open flame. When people ask me, “Why do you stay in Utah?” I think of days like this.
poet Timothy O'Keefe with a skull of something - probably a deer
A stroll in Logan Canyon - Joseph Bradbury, Xhenet Aliu, and Tim O'Keefe
Joseph making our fire
pretty little avocadoes
perfectly seared steak; big, slutty California cabernet savignon
New York Strip Steaks
This is everything I like – these magnificent mountains, a river clear as a window running through them, cool air closing in around a hot fire, brilliant friends, and what we all agreed was the very best steak any of us had ever eaten – perfectly seasoned with just salt and garlic pepper, tender, seared in the hot flames of an open woodfire for just a minute on each side, long enough to caramelize a little crust on the edges and leave the center a barely-warm deep, deep pink. With wine so red it was almost black and luscious avocadoes, orange flames popping sparks into the darkening sky, it was just, well, perfect. It was. It was perfect.
I love reading about food. Cookbooks, blogs, essays, you name it. And since everybody eats and therefore thinks about food, you can find writing about food from novelists and poets, housewives and scientists, the affluent and the grossly underpaid. Young writers, old men, women who don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers, and some women – like the brilliant essayist M.F.K. Fisher – who changed the way Americans not just write but also eat and think about food.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of M.F.K. Fisher’s contribution to American culture, especially to American letters. The poet W.H. Auden once said of her: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose." No everybody knows her writing, but they know her legacy – for example, one of her most charming and fascinating books is a slim volume called Consider the Oyster. Her writing is effortlessly intelligent, which I admire very much, and it’s fiercely charming, which I also love. Without Consider the Oyster, the nineties and early naughties might not have seen the publication of similar meditations on a single food, its history and economic import, its culinary and cultural importance – books like Cod or Salt. Author David Foster Wallace certainly knew his M.F.K. Fisher – he cribbed her title for the essay he wrote for Gourmet magazine, ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Fest but really about ethical eating and the nature of pain, “Consider the Lobster.” When he compiled a whole book of essays, including that one, he used the title again for that volume. M.F.K. Fisher made some very astute culinary observations. (For example, she observed that almost everything about an entire cuisine can be reasoned or explained by considering the fat that cuisine predominantly uses in its cooking – the French preference for butter, which smokes at a very low temperature, explains a lot of the ingenuity that cuisine requires; Italian use of olive oil, which smokes low but not as much so as butter, determines many of that cuisine’s flavor combinations; many Asian cuisines prefer peanut or other nut oils that smoke at a very high temperature, so many of those cuisines include traditional dishes that exploit the possibilities inherent in cooking at very high temperatures. Some would argue that the Chinese “wok he” or “soul of the wok” is really just a clean enough oil over a hot enough fire.) But M.F.K. Fisher didn’t really write about food – it was ostensibly her subject, but mostly, she wrote about people. How to Cook a Wolf is about rationing during wartime, so it's also about wartime. And it's about courage, fortitude, and human resourcefulness. It's about dignity, and it's about identity. And all of her books work like this.
Below is a short excerpt from the essay “Borderlands” which can be found in her collection, Serve It Forth. In the essay, she’s in Strasbourg with her husband, Al, who’s away most of the day on business. The weather isn’t particularly great, so she spends a lot of time in their hotel room. She writes in the second-person imperative, maybe a bold move for a lady writer back then, and still she artfully maintains the very lightest touch:
In the morning…sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.
Listen to the chambermaid thumping up the pillows, and murmur encouragement to her thick Alsatian tales of l'intérieure. That is Paris, the interior…While she mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string. You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.
Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg L'Ami du Peuple was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator. The maid has gone, of course - it might be hard to ignore her belligerent Alsatian glare of astonishment.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but --
On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.
All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension's chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o'clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.
The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.
The premise of this delightful essay is very simple: “Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat.” I suppose we think right away of “guilty pleasures” – which might mean, to some, foods that one ought not to eat because they’re unhealthy (Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, for example) and to some, because the pleasure is childish and a little embarrassing (I confess, I kind of love Cheetoes. Even the sticky orange powder that gets all over your fingertips and face and makes them feel oddly, chemically numb. Gross, I know. But there you have it). There’s also secret eating that’s just about weird preparations – this elaborate ritual for a little tangerine, or for my Mom, the pleasures of crushed ice. For Christmas one year, I got her a kitchen device that looks like a pretty little baseball bat, specifically designed for breaking up ice in a bag. She eats it almost by the bowlful every single day. I love edamame in the pods, but I love it the most when I dip it in a little bit of rice vinegar before I suck the salt off the pods, pop them open with my teeth, and scrape out the little al dente green pods with my tongue. The little extra sting is just so fine.
This past Christmas, my parents came out here to Utah for the holidays, and the four of us (myself, Joseph, and my mom and dad) went out to Bountiful, Utah for a dinner with Joseph’s folks at his grandmother’s house. Joseph’s grandmother ran a couple of restaurants in Salt Lake City for awhile – one of them, called Brad’s Café, served home cooking to a big lunch crowd of workers. A popular menu item was “Hot Hamburgers,” which Joseph remembers as “one bun and two patties, served as two open-faced burgers, smothered in brown gravy.” Brown gravy, by the way, is what cooks outside the Jell-O Belt might know as “pan gravy,” made from whisking a roux into the fat and juices and scraps left from roasting a bird or a rump roast or even pork shoulder. You can buy this in powdered packets labeled simply “Brown Gravy,” though that’s not what Joseph’s grandmother does. Joseph’s grandmother cooked daily for a crowd in the restaurant, and weekly for the crowd of family that gathered at her house for a traditional Mormon Sunday Dinner. Joseph’s grandmother is a sturdy, unapologetic woman whose basement has been the refuge for many a grandchild in various stages of transition, and whose generosity never falters; despite the fact that the fused vertebrae in her back make it almost unbearably painful for her to stand or work more than five minutes or so at a time, she presented us with a mountain of home-made cookies and candies, and a homemade dinner of spiral-cut ham, honey-glazed and glistening, slightly-opaque green Jell-O salad with whipped cream on top, as well as the kind of salad that has lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and vinagrette. There were white rolls and butter, Jane’s hot mustard (of course), and what my mother would call potatoes au gratin. “This looks amazing,” I said. Joseph’s father Frank said, grinning, “It looks like a Mormon funeral in here.”
The casserole dish my mother would call “potatoes au gratin” Joseph’s family (and everybody who’s spent the requisite amount of time in the Jell-O Belt) would call “funeral potatoes”. They aren’t quite potatoes au gratin, though the principle is basically the same. Some people make them with cubed or scalloped potatoes (I slice them thin), some with grated hashbrown-style spuds. Some people use onions (I do), others prefer without. Often, funeral potatoes include a can of cream-of-something soup from the food storage (chicken is a popular choice, though I’ve also seen mushroom, broccoli, and asparagus). Since I don’t usually keep cream-of-whatever around, I just use sour cream. And then, of course, cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Usually cheddar – I use sharp cheddar but I’ve seen them made with everything from Velveeta to Danish Fontina. Even my lactose-intolerant boyfriend can’t help but have a little. “But I love them,” he says later, with a tummy-ache, “they just don’t love me back.”
Certain aspects of Mormon culture find their way into the lives of everybody who lives in the Jell-O Belt, because they’re just plain good. I’ve lived a lot of places (the Bay Area in California, Northern Virginia just outside of D.C., Dublin, Brooklyn, Rome) and I have liked – adored, really – almost every place I lived, for its own different virtues. But not a single one of those places holds a candle to the Jell-O Belt when it comes to people getting born, people moving house, and people dying. When my sister moved away, we had a dozen people show up at our house and it took all of about an hour to pack her entire apartment into a trailer, then we all settled in for the pizza and beer. When my friend Tim’s girlfriend moved in, so many people came to help that by the time the stragglers arrived (forty-five minutes after the appointed hour), the work was done and they had to eat their pizza and drink their beer in shame.
And when somebody is born or somebody dies, the family whose attention everyone agrees cannot be expected to be on cooking or grocery shopping is brought meal upon meal upon meal. These meals have to feed a lot of people, so they have to be fairly simple and inexpensive, calorically extraordinary, and accessible to all palates (if not all arteries). They have to last awhile, and reheat well. A distinct advantage to funeral potatoes, they can be served a side with breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or as a meal in and of themselves. They’re tasty, cheap, versatile, and popular, and even if they aren’t per se healthy, you can get your basic carbs, veggies, and protein from the one simple dish. Like most Mormon food (like most Mormons) they are imminently practical.
Obviously, funeral potatoes aren’t only served at funerals – they’re also served at, say, a Christmas dinner. Or a Sunday dinner. Or a potluck. Or on a day that ends in Y. The amateur cultural critic in me reads into this a kind of tacit communal acceptance of the everyday-ness of tragedy that not all cultures share. We Americans are, generally, an optimistic bunch who view death (especially of the young and virile) as a radical upset of the natural and social order of things, a rift in the time-space continuum. When you live in a community that is both sizeable and close-knit, you quickly come to understand that simply isn’t the case. Tragedy is, tragically, a very everyday occurrence. And it’s good to have a community around when it happens.
When my late partner, Craig, passed away in 2009, I was living in Salt Lake City, Utah. As soon as word of what was happening got out, my friends (especially Kathryn and Tim) sprang into action. It was something I could never have imagined – someone brought a lunch or dinner every single day. And while the food was amazing (Halina’s chicken and orzo soup, or crispy salad; Danielle’s burritos; Kathryn’s amazing cheese), what I couldn’t have imagined until it was happening was how much I needed the other things that came along with this schedule of meals. For example, I had to get out of bed and take a shower before noon, since somebody was going to see me. My long, confusing days of terror and then of shock and then of sorrow were organized into hours by my friends. Without them, each day would have been a long night of panic and grief, unbroken and maybe un-break-in-able. And each person who came also stayed and ate with me, and that activity, the communion of breaking bread with a friend, was a sacred and sustaining ritual. If I wanted to talk, there was someone to talk to; if I wanted a distraction, there was someone to distract me. And above all, when I felt the most lonesome I have perhaps ever felt, I found I never had to be alone. When I started to feel better, when summer came and people began to drift away for various jobs and residencies and vacations, my beloved teachers and friends Donald Revell and Claudia Keelan took me in for awhile. They fed me wine and smoked salmon and guacamole and let me sleep and sleep. We watched old movies and talked about poems, and I began to understand that, unbelievably, everything might be okay.
In the beginning of the film Napoleon Dynamite, the credits come up as a collage of weird culinary Americana – ketchup and tater tots, mustard and corn dogs, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, cheeseburgers and mayonnaise, nachos studded with black olives. Plate after plate appears on a background of maroon shag rug, then baby-blue carpeting, then avocado green linoleum, and so forth. Blast from the past, bomb shelter fare, served in rooms decorated in a similar idiom.
Set in Preston, Idaho, where writer-director Jared Hess grew up, Napoleon Dynamite comes right out of the Mormon Corridor, the so-called “Jell-O Belt,” that spans a certain area of America’s Intermountain West. It sort of radiates outward from Salt Lake City, Utah, reaching deep into Idaho and into Wyoming, very slightly into Colorado, trickling a little ways down through Arizona and then hopping by patches all the way down to certain parts of Southern California. This exceedingly beautiful part of America includes the surreal red rock deserts of Moab and Monument Valley, the sublime limestone cliffs of Zion and St. George, the lava-rich soils and aspen forests of the Grand Escalante, the eerie stillness of the Great Salt Lake, the rangey splendor of the Wasatch and Uintas, the windy high plains and ranchlands around Rock Springs and Laramie, the stubborn fields and pastures of Idaho all the way up through the formidable Grand Tetons. It’s dominated by some of the most beautiful and various and mysterious country in the world. The poet James Galvin, who has a ranch in Wyoming, has at times written about this land, the people who live there, its weather and its other weathering forces – a different portrait, perhaps, than Napoleon Dynamite. He writes in “Ponderosa,”
came down like knowledge, but the tree did not explode or burn.
Caught the jolt and trapped it like a mythic girl.
Its trunk was three
lightning couldn’t blow the ponderosa into splinters,
And couldn’t burn inside without some air.
A week went by and we
Forgot about it. But lightning is a very hot and radiant girl.
Heat bled out to bark, the tree burst into flame that reared into
Silence under a cloudless sky.
There does seem to be something about the land in this part of the world that inspires mythic thinking, or at least otherworldly thinking. The enigmatic rock formation from the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the bundle of hexagonal basaltic columns known as Devil’s Tower, an ancient volcanic plug (the volcano around it long since worn away) rising out of the flatlands of eastern Wyoming.
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Much of this land was hard to settle, and harder still to scrabble a living out of. So much so that a lot of it remains very sparsely inhabited. Indeed, southern Utah was considered so barren and unnecessary (and its mostly-Mormon and otherwise Native American population so “Other”) that the U.S. government wasn’t too bothered about the fact that radiation and radioactive debris from nuclear testing in Nevada was blowing all over it – something Rachel Marston has been researching and writing about for some years. By some accounts, Uncle Sam even encouraged the smallish population living around St. George at the time to go out of doors and watch the sky change from the nuclear tests, as the sometimes snowflake-sized ashes drifted into their towns, clinging to their clothes and curtains and porch furniture. (Did the government know what the effects would be?) Being, as a culture, generally trusting of authority, they did. And a whole generation of “downwinders” suffered quietly together with the massive, unusual tumors and other forms of cancer that ravaged their communities.
Southern Utah, an arroyo near Monument Valley
Sometimes, people settled this land because it was so barren, so desolate, so ignored and so ignorable. In this same area of southern Utah, for instance, you’re more likely to run into individuals who belong to an FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) polygamist community. Some friends and I have rented a house near Zion in the past couple of summers, where you might just run into a group at the local Walmart or Costco, dressed in Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie garb, buying slats of boxed macaroni and cheese. Much is being said about polygamy in the media these days, thanks in part to HBO’s Big Love and well-curated “reality” spin-offs like Sister Wives. Most of what I know about polygamy comes from people who self-identify as victims of it, and I cannot do their stories justice here, so I will not elaborate except to say that, like anything, it’s not like they show it on TV. For some information about an aspect of polygamist culture and practice that few people, even in Utah, have considered, watch Jennilyn Merten’s amazing documentary, Sons of Perdition.
Rumor has it that polygamist culture games the government’s entitlement programs, since second and third (and subsequent) wives are, according to the relevant tax documents and applications forms, single mothers with a pack of kids and no job or income whatsoever. Except that, if the polygamist lifestyle is anything like it appears to an outsider such as myself, they do in fact need those food stamps, and it’s not a scam. I honestly just don’t know.
But when we were at a grocery store outside of Washington, Utah, near the Nevada/Arizona/Utah border, and these women in long, high-necked and high-waisted gingham dresses were buying up the milk and the powdered soup and popsicles, we were standing in line behind them with tilapia and garlic and all of the mixings for strong margaritas. And before I turned my attention to the prairie garb or the fact that one of them with three small children could not possibly have been eighteen, or whether they all might be married to the same patriarchal oddball, I thought: “I’m kind of glad I’m not eating dinner at their house.”
Zion, Utah’s first National Park (1919) in southern Utah (in August)
For awhile, I rode a Greyhound Bus every-other weekend from Salt Lake City to Laramie, Wyoming, through some of the most stridently tough and unpleasant territory in the Jell-O Belt. Interstate 80 roughly traces other historically significant travel routes in the Western United States: the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska, the California Trail across most of Nevada and California, and except in the Great Salt Lake area, the entire route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. You meet a lot of interesting characters on the bus, before you learn to board with your headphones already in your ear-holes and pretend not to be able to speak English. Or Spanish. Or at all. Of the various people who might sit next to you, the most desirable seat companions are a toss-up between college kids (also be-headphoned) and truckers deadheading back to Indianapolis or wherever they’re based. In the latter case, they will cheerfully pronounce that the stretch of I-80 from SLC to Denver is the absolute stupidest leg of highway ever laid down – subject to constant closures, and as often as it’s for snowstorms, it’s for unbelievably high-speed winds. Trying to drive a little Honda along that road is one thing – the wind blows so hard it seems to get under the wheels, so you’re almost aeroplaning from the lift and drag. But the same wind fills up its cheeks and blows over tall semis, passenger busses, and as I once saw (blood and feathers all over the road), a long trailer full of chickens.
To see pigs feeding at the public trough, look no further than for-profit schools, which, like “private” prisons and Blackwell, aren’t the market solutions to failed Big Government that our conservative, pro-business friends tout them as. These entities aren’t market-based at all. They’re dependent on taxpayers. Call them socialist pigs instead of capitalist ones, because what they’re doing is redistributing your wealth to their owners. And these owners are rich enough to bankroll big fights against any attempt to regulate the flow of federal dollars coming their way. That’s because they charge higher tuition than self-identified state schools like the one where I teach.
Meanwhile, the mission of educating students at for-profit colleges is an afterthought, as is made clear by their websites. I challenge you to go to Phoenix University’s and find out anything useful about the curriculum or faculty without having to chat with a sales representative.
Or read this, an easy A for effort in 9 easy steps.
1. All of the for-profit universities have special software tools and pop-ups designed to get you to enter your contact information. Phoenix nudges you toward this on its home page, with a 4-step “Ready to Change Your Life” tool. Phoenix is big on breaking processes into steps, of which there are rarely more than four. If you’d like to change your life, the 4 Steps are to enter your area of interest, educational background and contact info into Phoenix’s database so that an “Enrollment Advisor” can reach you. Tada! Your life has been changed into fodder for their targeted marketing!
2. You beat a hasty retreat from the “Change Your Life” tool, returning to Phoenix’s home page in search of academic information. Scrolling down, you spot a practically invisible link for “First Year Sequence,” which Phoenix provides on the off-off chance people browse university sites in order to discover what they might learn. You click, expecting a list of courses or a description of the pedagogical philosophy behind the core curriculum. You are disappointed. Whatever the “First Year Sequence” of study might be, the site tells you only that it’s “more than prerequisites and busy work.” Because what could be a bigger waste of time than laying the foundations for higher education?
2½. You’ll also find two videos on the “First Year Sequence” page. Phoenix's website uses a lot of videos, lest you get the impression that you’ll be asked to read in college. One video is called “What to expect” and the other, “Funding your education.” Hopeful, you click on the first. But “what to expect” is mostly about how college isn’t free, it costs money, and nothing about what you might learn. What you should expect, and Phoenix is very clear on this, is to pay tuition. How much tuition, and for what, it doesn’t say.
You turn to the next video, “Funding Your Education.” This one also neglects to specify tuition costs. Instead, it features two main strategies for getting Phoenix University money that isn’t yours: federal loans and federal grants. That’s right, your first class is in how to feed Phoenix with government dollars. The video does not suggest that maybe you should pay Phoenix out of money you earn in the private sector, where it allegedly dwells. Before you even know what it charges, it’s steering you toward taxpayer-funded subsidies.
The case against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare, is not nearly as fun as an Imperial Fizz, though it's definitely fizzy. All of the law's ingredients, the whiskey, rum, lemon juice and sweet, sweet sugar of insurance policy arcana--all except the sparkling water of a mandate--have already been mixed and are being shaken as we speak. They can’t be taken apart at this point without dumping the whole shebang down the drain, which is not to say that the Supreme Court won’t do exactly that. And the glacial pace of the Affordable Healthcare Act's implementation, like the slow-motion process of its enactment, gives opponents plenty of time to whip up a frenzy of anti-Imperialism, before this drink ever hits the coaster.
I, ______________, should not be forced to pay for health insurance.
Fill in the blank with “taxpayer,” “small business,” “Utah” or “Catholic bishop,” and you’ve got the argument against ObamaCare. All of its critics base their opposition on that word forced, raising issues of liberty. Certainly, the recent contraceptive flap was initially introduced—by Republicans, not the media—and framed as a question of religious liberty. But if we’ve discovered anything from that debate, it’s that liberty is not the only value Americans hold dear. Liberty’s not the only value enshrined in the Constitution, either. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the big three, and it wasn’t long before the national conversation morphed against Republicans’ will into one about a different set of values: whether women deserve to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from choosing when they have children, and to have the kind of life that comes from preventing pregnancy when it poses a health risk. Guess which two values trumped the third in a contest between the religious liberty of bishops (total of 195 in the U.S.) and the life and happiness of women (more than 150,000,000 in the U.S.)?
Not only are bishops a tiny group, they don’t use contraceptives and nothing in the health care law is making them do so. But when they act as employers, rather than as leaders of spiritual flocks, they have to follow the same rules as secular hospital or university administrators. As employers, they can’t dictate the health care decisions of their employees. They are not Imperial, though they do have nifty regalia.
Leaving the contraception coverage rule aside, I look at the broader debate over health insurance and find it odd that so much resistance to ObamaCare has come from the religious community, particularly fundamentalist Christians. Jesus had a lot to say about taking care of each other, from loving thy neighbor to all those blessings on the poor and vulnerable in the Beatitudes. He spent quite a bit of His time healing people and feeding them, and none of it lobbying. While He never ran for office, it’s easy to imagine Him favoring universal access to health care. On this specific topic, He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”
Here’s what the emphasis in the New Testament is not on: taxes, small business, states’ rights or, frankly, political liberty. What little Jesus said about taxes, “render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s,” seems to argue in favor of paying them. He never mentioned small business, unless you count the enterprising moneychangers and dove-sellers in the temple, whom He whipped. Judging from that rare example of holy rage, His policy was not pro-business. The Chamber of Commerce would have despised Him. Jesus talked more about divorce than taxes. Where is the fundamentalist Christian groundswell to make divorce illegal? And how do the 1 in 3 divorced Evangelicals—Evangelicals defined as Christians who attend church weekly, take the Bible literally, and proselytize—reconcile their own failure to stay married with Jesus, their Lord and Savior?
But on caring for others, Jesus had a lot to say. He was inclusive, embracing tax payers, tax collectors, Samaritans, women, and other “others”—one might almost describe Him as a single payer plan. ObamaCare, emphasis on “care,” is inclusive, too. Embrace that moniker, Mr. President. It’s the Christian thing to do.
Entertaining as Rick Perry’s November 9, 2011 “Oops” moment was—you know, the one when in his frenzy to take a hatchet to government, he forgot which heads he was chopping off—the more significant and now completely repressed “oops” moment for the American right occurred three years earlier, on October 23, 2008, when Alan Greenspan confessed his “state of shocked disbelief” that markets don’t regulate themselves.
Without rules, the free market is kind of like the punch you might have served at parties in your college dorm. Who knows what toxic assets were swimming around in there? Fermented Hi-C? Grain alcohol? Nail polish? Why not, when punch itself was invented by desperate sailors who had run out of beer and turned to the locals for a stimulus package. One of the oldest recipes calls for arrack, which tastes a bit like a credit default swap and is made from palm trees. Any punch worth its floating lemon wheels is meant to creep up on guests, unleashing a voracious appetite for risk. In dormitories, that means regrettable sex. Greenspan’s deregulatory punch unleashed a voracious appetite for paper profits, what he called “euphoria” and the rest of us call greed.
Beyond chopping off regulatory heads wherever they might be, Chairman Greenspan left another insidious legacy. He handed off a historically low 4.25% interest rate to his successor, Ben Bernanke, who then had very little room to cut it. Fiddling with the Federal Funds rate is one of the few tools the Fed has. Roughly put, the idea is to crank the rate up when the economy’s “euphoric.” Paul Volcker raised it to 20% in 1981, and was duly vilified. Nobody likes a spoiler, but ever since the Depression, the Federal Reserve’s job was supposed to be to take away the punch bowl just when the party gets going. And part of why you take the punch bowl away is so that you can bring it back, by lowering rates in a crisis like the one we have now. That’s hard to do when rates are already low.
Greenspan not only failed to take away the punch bowl, he spiked it with 80-proof easy money, in the form of both low interest rates and deregulation. No wonder the speculators got drunk. His tenure fit right in with the larger recklessness of the Bush years, the blind appetite for risk, the unwillingness to weigh long-term consequences against immediate gain--in the case of the invasion of Iraq, the neglect to think even one week ahead into a post-Saddam future. The attitude was to take the easy profit in the short term and let the future fend for itself. Thus so-called fiscal conservatives and budget hawks gave away a budget surplus to the 1%, rather than saving it for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the rest of us journeymen got punch drunk, battered in the early rounds of what turned out to be an economic TKO to the middle and working class.
At his 2008 hour of reckoning, Greenspan predicted a “restrained” market “for an indefinite future”:
"The financial landscape that will greet the end of the crisis will be far different from the one that entered it little more than a year ago. Investors, chastened, will be exceptionally cautious. Structured investment vehicles, Alt-A mortgages, and a myriad of other exotic financial instruments are not now, and are unlikely to ever find willing investors."
Chastened, my ladle. Not only did investment banks and hedge funds quickly return to that “myriad of other exotic financial instruments,” Greenspan himself renounced caution a few years later, criticizing the meek regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act for their attempts to impose order on financial markets.
Have a cup of Greenspan's Oops. You’re going to need it when you get rabbit punched by those party animals again.
It's Shrove Tuesday, and while New Orleans may have Mardi Gras, we here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country have Fasnacht Day.
What is a fasnacht, you ask? It is a kind of super-doughnut, made with potato flour, sugar, and lard. Don't scoff. They are terrific. They are only sold one day a year - today, the day before Ash Wednesday. Historically, they were the last gastronomic hurrah before Lent, a way to use up all the sugar and lard in the pantry before forty days of fasting began. As you might imagine, they are not health food. No one, as far as I am aware, has ever calculated the calories in a fasnacht. Really, it's better not to know.
Not really. I wouldn’t presume, not while Rick Santorum’s on the case. He’s like Santa, knowing whether your theology is naughty or nice. Or phony. If your “worldview” is one that “elevates the Earth above man,” for example, it’s phony. Never mind that no one on earth actually has such a “worldview,” or can figure out what it is. Is it a pre-Copernican understanding of cosmology? Could Santorum draw a little diagram, please?
Most of us value Earth selfishly, as the planet upon which we selfishly live. Though we acknowledge the solar system in a superficial way, we really believe the sun revolves around us. To lay waste to Earth would threaten us, the center of it, and so we try not to. This human-centric “worldview” is not one that “elevates the Earth above man.” A few of us are selfless enough to view Earth as a gift from God, and therefore something to which, out of reverence, we should not lay waste. Is that what Santorum means? If so, it’s “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” as Psalm 24 so clearly states: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." Or maybe
he’s thinking of Leviticus 25: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." Either way, it’s clear that the Bible agrees with Rick Santorum about how unimportant Earth is, and how important is alien, rent-paying man. The Bible’s right in line with Santorum’s free-market, property-rights, capitalistic theology, and the anti-immigration stance he so Biblically takes. What else could “The land must not be sold permanently” and “you are but aliens” mean?
And even though the Constitution is a political document, not a theological one, if you are “trampling on a constitutional right” as Rick Santorum reads it, your theology is bad. To wit, don’t let individuals make their own decisions about contraception, because that would be to impose “ideology on a group of people expressing their theology, their moral code." Where to begin with this convoluted thinking? Santorum can impose his “ideology on a group of people,” but if “people” have other ideas, they are “phony”? And possibly, as one of his aides suggested of President Obama, Muslim? What if the pesky ideology being imposed is enshrined in the Constitution?
As lazy thought and self-defeating rhetoric, Santorum’s statements taste a lot like a Maiden’s Prayer. I say this for two reasons: first, this cocktail has serious varieties of religious experience. Secondly, its recipe is lower-case catholic—i.e., you can put whatever gets you elected in there and still call it a Maiden’s Prayer.
To the first point, like a “worldview that elevates the Earth above man,” we must ask, what is it? What is the Maiden Praying? Turns out, the Maiden is Praying to get laid. Consider two of the alternate names by which this cocktail goes: Leg Spreader and Between the Sheets. According to research by Esquire’s Resident Cocktail historian, the wondrous David Wondrich, a Maiden’s Prayer “exists to assist a young gentleman in convincing a young lady that he has something to offer the gene pool. That's right, a date-peeler.” To be accurate, the Maiden isn’t Praying to get laid, her boyfriend is. But that just goes to show that the Bible is right: Adam did the naming, not Eve.
To the second point, like Santorum’s argument, a Maiden’s Prayer is what the deconstructionists in my undergrad English department would call an indeterminacy. Nothing in the recipe seems to be verifiable through testing and experiment; the whole is both remedy and poison. I did a quick survey of my recipe books and found, to my surprise, that even the base liquor of a Maiden’s Prayer varies from source to source. In some it is gin-based, in others rum- and/or brandy-based. There was only the fuzziest of consistency with what else goes in the drink, aside from lemon juice, which occurred in all of them. Some had orange juice, some Cointreau, others Triple Sec, and a few Curacao. The oldest version had champagne. One had cream. Wondrich moans that these days the recipe includes “pretty much anything the sexually insecure undergrad finds lying around.”
Which brings us right back to Rick Santorum. He alone knows what’s phony and what’s Biblical. He alone determines meet and proper theology, no matter how flimsy his argument. He is Adam—a sexually insecure, yet-to-graduate, presumptuous Adam, but Adam nonetheless. He knows the Maiden’s Prayer: spread your legs, ladies, while the men get busy outlawing contraception. Pick a photo, any photo (and yes, all of these photos claim to be of the same drink). The Maiden's Prayer is whatever RIck Santorum says it is. We’re in great hands with this potential leader of the free world.
Cordials took a hit with the advent of infused liquors. They used to be our sturdy flavor friends, rarely useful, but rising to the taste when called upon. Now they’ve been downsized, as vodka got more productive, infusing itself with a frightening range of non-vodka tastes. Many of the flavors, raspberry or mint, to name just two, supplant a hard-working cordial like Chambord or crème de menthe in contemporary drink recipes. And cordials have another problem: their biggest purveyor in the US is probably DeKuyper, whose labels tell all: I WAS DESIGNED BEFORE POTTERY BARN EXISTED! Enough bartenders brew their own bitters these days—the culinary equivalent would be starting a fish stock not by putting a carcass into a pot of water but by tying your own flies and heading off to Idaho—that brightly colored corn syrup ain’t coming near their specials menus.
Cordials weren’t always so out of touch. I can’t help but think they are due for a comeback, like moderate Republicans. Indeed, a smattering of cordial missionaries are out there in their Bay area backyards, going to insane lengths to recreate crème de noyaux. Don’t try this at home, really, no matter how much Mr. Manhattan says you can. You have to crush the pits of apricots in order to get the kernels, then crush the kernels into a powder, then steep the powder in brandy for a month, then…we’re just getting started. Plus nobody seems to know the full recipe. There might be other kernels—cherry? peach?—to pulverize as well. And something to make it pink. Unless it wasn’t pink back when people knew how to make it. Who can say?
Lots of question marks here, but then lots of distinguished cordials—Chartreuse, Benedictine—have secret recipes and exotic histories involving religious oddballs. Which brings us to Mitt Romney, the endangered cordial of presidential candidates. Surely no one can dispute the oddball history: a great-grandfather, packed off to Mexico with his five wives to preserve polygamy. Oops, that’s three wives. Wife Number Two divorced that particular Romney and he hadn’t married his fifth one yet. He got around to her later, in 1897, seven years after the Mormon church “banned” polygamy. Apparently he was not alone in defying the LDS church ban. The man who issued it, Wilford Woodrow, added a wife or two to his own post-ban collection as well.
All of this was over a hundred years ago, and it’s fair to ask whether any of it matters. After all, Jimmy Carter’s oddball brother was alive and operating during his lifetime, and the less said about Newt’s three wives at this point, the better. Plenty of other presidential candidates have had recent messes, from W’s drinking problem and Ron Paul’s racism to Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem. What matters from a voter’s perspective, though, is not how recent the event is but how the candidate handles its relevance. Romney’s an active member and elder in the Mormon church. He talks the faith talk incessantly. He’s even taken to accusing Obama of waging war on religion. Since he brought it up—indeed, making himself the defender of God—the details of his faith ought to be relevant. But rather than address them, Romney airbrushes them out. His message is that the Church of Latter Day Saints is just like any other Christian faith. No need to look under the hood, ma’am.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”
Nope, no need to look under the hood. The only doctrine he specifies is in the paragraph before: yes, Mitt Romney believes in Jesus Christ. Stop the presses. The rest of the speech is an argument for religious tolerance. Well, almost. Early on he slips in that “Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us,” which doesn’t sound terribly tolerant to me. Surely the 1.57 billion Muslims around the world get more out of their religious life than hate. Also notice that, while he argues he shouldn't “become the spokesman for his faith,” Romney doesn’t hesitate to speak for what Islam is all about.
It’s illustrative to compare Obama’s speech after the Wright explosion. Remember? Yes, you probably do, unlike Romney’s speech, which you’ll have to look up like I did. Obama talked about the underlying issue, race, but he did so by laying out in vivid detail the unique aspects of his own situation as a biracial person. He described his white grandmother who loved him dearly but whose remarks about blacks sometimes made him “cringe.” (I am paraphrasing from memory. And Obama gave that speech four years ago.)
Obama addressed particulars, which is why his speech is memorable. By contrast, Romney delivers generalities. "There are some,” he says, repeatedly, followed by something you doubt anyone actually said. “I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law,” he says, using not the personal pronoun “my” to modify “church,” but the generic and categorical word “any.” The only time he names his Mormonism is when he assures us that he’s not about to renounce his faith, as “some” would prefer. By the end, Romney’s no longer an individual. He's the plural "we": “We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.” Ah, we’re to think. He’s just like you and me. (But not like those Muslims, goes the subtext. For all the talk of tolerance, this is a Christian “we,” with Jews as honorary members.)
In the Middle Ages, cordial meant “from the heart.” That usage is obsolete. Its primary function today is to appear, somewhat insincerely and always adverbially, in the valediction of business letters, or, even more insincerely and adjectivally, as the modifier of choice at press conferences by congressmen after partisan negotiations, to describe how the closed-door “discussions” went. Why, they were “cordial.” Airbrushed, anyone? By the way, cordials, those drinkable nouns, do have one known ingredient: sugar. They are always sweetened. Mitt Romney, who's cordial enough, comes across as hiding a secret recipe, somewhere under that airbrushed hair. The only thing we can say with certainty about the candidate is that he has been seriously sweetened. Maybe he’s not due for a comeback.
Technorati Tags: Candidate, Church of Latter Day Saints, comeback, cordial, cordials, creme de noyaux, Mitt Romney, Mormon, Mormonism, political speech, Presidential, religion, religious tolerance, Romney
“No one who cooks, cooks alone,” writes Laurie Colwin, and there are times when my tiny kitchen can become quite crowded, especially when I’m baking. It’s then that I’m joined by the ghosts of my father and my paternal grandmother, Bessie, who, in addition to her claim that she was once a great beauty, was also an expert baker, having been an apprentice to a master in her native Poland before immigrating to this country as a young woman.
Continue reading here.
Seeing the marvelous display of potatoes pictured above reminded me of this remarkable sentence, by Elizabeth David:
For the thousandth time, why, why, why, I ask do we, the English, the pioneers of European potato cultivation, now grow such uninteresting potatos, while the French, who refused to touch them until the Revolution and Parmentier forced them into a reconsideration of the ill-used tuber, and quickly making up for that lost time, took to growing delicate, waxy yellow potatoes, and to making them into wonderful dishes like pommes Anna and gratin dauphinois, not to mention quite everyday potato salads, no easy matter to achieve with our own all-purpose collapsible English spuds.
-- from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David (1985)
I wonder, would someone writing for a mainstream publication today get away with such a long and winding sentence?
Rome. July. Swelter. Godfather of the Bad Hair Day, ruination of all clothing, even linen. The Italians are the undisputed masters of linen, and you know why: it’s the only fabric with a snowball’s chance in hell of breathing in this weather. Pliny the Elder claims in his Naturae Historia that the ability of flax to be spun into linen cloth was discovered by the mythological character Arachne. Pliny, as I have learned, does not care for fact-checking, though, being Italian, he does seem to get his T’s crossed and I’s dotted on the subject of winemaking.
In my craft lecture for the UW poetry group, I’ve been asked to touch on Pliny, in the spirit of the presiding genuis of Keats who haunts the program: notions of Truth and Beauty and how they play out in an “encyclopedia” full of “facts,” some of which are documentably facts and some of which are… well… not – but may possess a strange poetic beauty of their own. I find myself with a dissertation on the history of natural history that pits Pliny against Ovid’s Orpheus, the Golden Voice, Ultrapoet, Uberbard, the Greco-Roman rock star. In the tacky webs of taxonomy and the growing divergence of myth from science over the centuries, I’ve concluded that Ovid’s Metamorphoses (fable! Myth! Poetry!) outstrip Pliny’s encyclopedia – in terms of their ability to articulate scientific truth, mind you – like a Ferrari with the pedal to the floor against a pea-green Plymouth Duster.
Anyway, we’re on this Baroque church deathmarch, and I’m walking next to Richard Kenney, and talking about wine. My husband’s visiting. The night before, for our anniversary, we’d treated ourselves, despite cost and season, to a bottle of Brunello de Montalcino, a luxury we never afford ourselves at home. Kenney’s eyes pop in a way that makes me assume he doesn’t either. I’m going on about how it had tasted, like saddle leather and tobacco, dried cherry, vanilla, roses. “I don’t understand,” I say, “how it is that wine has the ability to transform itself into anything. It can taste like anything on earth, except maybe grapes. There is something mystical to me about that.”
“Well, you really are Ovid’s girl, aren’t you?” Rick laughs.
I’d never thought about it like that, but yes, this is why I love wine. It is its metamorphic ability, its transformative power, a natural magic its ventriloquism, its essential poetry. The way it can mimic, hit at, suggest, almost any flavor you can think of. It’s bottled metaphor.
Italian wines hold a special fascination for me, because they seem more local, more specific, more tied to place and personal experience than wines from just about anywhere else I know of. Italy is the largest (in volume), and one of the oldest, winemaking regions on earth. They grow something like 800 grape cultivars, and you will never see most of them unless you stumble into the random village where they happen to be cultivated. In California we import a decent number of Chiantis, and it’s not uncommon to see a varietal Sangiovese, a Rosso di Montalcino, a Valpolicella, Barbera or Pinot Grigio even in a supermarket. But there are wines so obscure and so specific to their locality – sour-cherry Umbrian Ciliegiolos, pepper and rosepetal Ruchés from Piedmont, Neapolitan Lacryma Christi, beeswax and sea-breeze whites grown only in the Cinque Terre – that they give the French notion of terroir an entirely new layer. Wines that make you come to them. Wines that lash themselves so tightly to the circumstances of their creation and your experience of them that they become metaphoric in the literal sense of transporting.
After the Brunello conversation I wanted to bring something special to the next cocktail hour, and asked a knowledgeable enoteca man for his most smashing, miraculous Brunello. He chided me in English that you don’t drink Brunello in heat like this. “I know, I know,” I said. “It’s winter wine. I know that. It’s a gift. Tell you what – send me off with a nice white too, something for drinking tonight.”
He smiled. “Well if you want something as heavy as Brunello but something like you’ve never tasted before – you want this.” He handed me a bottle of something deep and dark and purple, something light wouldn’t get through. A Lagrein, a small-production varietal in the part-German Alto Adige region, hard to find, he said, even in Rome. The label bore a single word: Porphyr. It was perfect: we’d been marveling at the porphyry in the church mosaics, their intense color, somewhere between jasper and oxidized blood.
My memory of that wine is of an instant of sheer happiness. I recall dust and violet and dried blueberry and fig, and that – especially, perhaps, for a bunch of writers – there was something about it that was like consuming ink. People tasted it and broke into smiles. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was gorgeous. The wine is indeed a hard one to come by, with two places in the US that sell it. I sometimes think of splurging and ordering from a place in New York City, but I’ve always been afraid that, separated from its little moment, it would disappoint, that the magic would be gone.
Then a few nights ago I was in a local restaurant that keeps a surprisingly eclectic and thoughtful selection of Italian wines. Most are expensive and only available by the bottle, but on this night the server mentioned that their by-the-glass special was a Ribolla Gialla, an acidic golden Friulian wine I’d come to know as a common offering in cafes and pizzerias around central Rome.
I took a sip, and I swear to you I tasted it – I mean I tasted the afternoon heat draining upward from the basalt cobblestones of the Campo De’ Fiori, I tasted the sound of gulls crying, I tasted bronze and exhaust and travertine and still air and the glowering gaze of Giordano Bruno precisely as I had experienced them drinking a glass of this same wine at an outdoor café on a hot afternoon when I felt spent and sad and unable to articulate any of it and stared at the point of my pen on my notebook until I couldn’t any more. The wine said it for me anyway, so I ordered another glass and watched the swifts circle. Drinking a metaphor as a metaphor for drinking in an experience. Who says what goes around doesn’t come around?
David and I rarely dine out, in part because in New York City even a casual meal in a neighborhood restaurant can be quite expensive but mostly because I like to cook. It helps that the availability of great ingredients, especially from farmers' markets, makes cooking at home a real pleasure.
It's precisely because I love to cook that I'll be dining out this Sunday, September 25. Many of the farmers whose produce I love experienced devastating losses when Hurricane Irene tore through New York State. My good friend, the writer, editor, and Food Network program judge Gabriella Gershenson has spearheaded Dine Out Irene, an all-day fundraiser for which she and her colleagues have enlisted dozens of restaurants to donate up to 10% of their day's proceeds to organizations dedicated to helping farms get back on their feet. The list of participating establishments is long and growing and includes many of our finest restaurants. I'm having a hard time deciding where to go. Maybe it will be a three-meals-out day. Care to join me?
Learn more about Dine Out Irene here. And make your reservations!
What am I doing in January, you ask? Why, I'm teaching a poetry workshop in Kenya. As Robert Frost, who clearly did not have my good fortune, would say, you come, too! The dates are January 2-11, 2012, and the trip is offered though the MFA in Creative Writing program at Stony Brook Southampton. That means you can take this trip for credit. You can also apply as a curious outsider. The idea here is to gather an ecclectic bunch, including creative minds in fields other than poetry, to write some poems, learn a little Swahili, take a few field trips and hang out with very interesting people (more on the full cast of characters to come).
Most of your ten days will be spent at the Turkana Basin, a mecca for fossil-seeking types in the northern part of Kenya. Situated on the banks of the Turkwel River, on the west side of the Lake Turkana, the Turkana Basin Institute was founded by world renowned paleoanthropologists Richard and Meave Leakey as the preeminent facility to study the origins of modern man. The institute is affiliated with Stony Brook. With 7 million years of fossil record under your feet, channeling the human experience has never been so visceral. The terrain is extraordinary. The energy of neighboring villages is a far cry from the tourist traps of southern Kenya. Turkana is an isolated oasis where culture, creativity and life converge.
Plus Richard Leakey will be there and has promised a talk on the evolution of language. Other faculty from my program--in creative writing, theater, film and visual arts--will be there too, mostly so that they can brag about swimming in the Turkwel River. While in Nairobi, our point of departure, we'll take a day safari to Nairobi National Park.
The poetry workshop will focus on strategies that came to us through the oral tradition. We'll attend to the sounds a poem makes, and explore the connections between sound and memory, aiming for an unforgettable experience.
Eating, sleeping and cocktails are included in the package. Warning: while the food's excellent and the accommodations perfectly adequate, there's no air conditioning and it is HOT there. This is not for the delicate of constitution, nor is it for strict vegetarians. But if the adorable Richard Leakey can do it, so can you.
And how much does this cost? The Curious Outsider rate is $2,930.00 and includes 2 nights in Nairobi, the safari, the round trip flight from Nairobi to Turkana Basin, 8 nights at the Institute, excursions to an archeological site (i.e., time travel to 5 million years ago) and to Elive Springs, and cultural exchanges with neighboring Turkana villages. To get graduate-level credit for the Turkana Basin Writing Workshops, you will need $3,422.00 if you are studying in the fine state of New York or $4,208 if you're not. Again, the dates for this extravaganza are January 2-11, 2012.
Technorati Tags: bartender, Kenya, Leakey, MFA in Creative Writing, poetry, poetry workshop, Richard Leakey, Stony Brook, Stony Brook Southampton, travel, Turkana, Turkana Basin, Turkana Basin Institute
Yesterday I wrote in part about travel, and I want to continue in that vein for today’s post. In 2006 I traveled to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to visit my friend Susan for a few weeks. She was there on a Fulbright Fellowship at the time. The trip (which was spent mostly in Tbilisi, though we also traveled to the Caucasus and to the Black Sea) was fabulous and life-expanding in too many ways to name here, but I want to dwell for a moment on one custom the Georgians have that I particularly appreciated: the supra. A supra is basically an elaborate dinner/party, but not really. Its dimensions and internal character are much more in line with feast.
At regular intervals (between delicious courses, rounds of wine-pouring, and outbursts of you-won’t-believe-it-till-you-hear-it Georgian singing), the man who happens to be presiding over this particular supra (he is called the tamada) stands at the head of the long table and embarks on elaborate and heartfelt speeches. He selects a new broad topic each time he speaks, be it love, family, country, friendship, etc., and from that breadth would descend slowly into lovely and detailed toasts that bore little resemblance to any toast I’d heard before. Others around the table could speak too, if they were moved to. S/he might follow up on or extend the original topic.
Since Georgia is so intensely a host culture (meaning, guests are treated as precious and worthy no matter who they are), any guests present are turned to and invited to speak too. Susan had warned me of this ahead of time, and I must say, I was fairly trepidatious about it, even before I set foot in the country. But once there, something different came over me; I found it seemed only natural to speak my heart to this group of welcoming near-strangers. It’s been five years ago now, so it’s hard for me to get in touch with the precise collision of ingredients that allowed this shift, but – what can I say? It’s a magical place. And surely the sublimity of the landscape gets under your skin and deeper too.
What struck me when I stopped to think about it – in between dreamy spells – was how refreshing their free-of-irony musings on the essentials of their lives were. And I like irony. I also like people with slant, sly, under-doggish humor, who analyze things to the bone and appreciate nuance more than most other qualities. And yet, the distilled earnestness of the Georgians struck me as something I’d been missing out on. It made other kinds of talk seem impoverished. Conversations of this sort were not a terribly regular occurrence with people I’d known for years and saw on a daily basis, yet somehow felt like what were called for in this new context, with these new people. Even Susan and I talked to each other differently; we had been good friends for a number of years, but our friendship took a deepening turn during that visit. What seemed an implicit undercurrent to the supra speeches and to the zero-to-sixty conversations (according my memory I had no small talk in Georgia, though certainly that can’t be true…), was the question, “What else would we talk about?” Or perhaps, “Why on earth would we talk about anything else?”
Of course, there is always a flipside. And where I witnessed the flipside was in the faces of the wives of the men who were speechifying. One was chewing gum, looking around, very nonplussed. Another time two of the wives were speaking lowly back and forth to each other in the middle of the chin-lifted speech of the tamada, right under his nose. I had confused feelings about this. On the one hand, it got my ire up. How disrespectful and flippant to be smacking gum or carrying on a conversation when your husband (or anyone) is giving himself over to this absorbing and energetic speech (which I personally had been utterly swept up in) about his devotion to his home and family! On the other hand, the more delayed hand, I thought, Ah… Of course… She’s heard this all before. Many, many times. She’d heard it and probably wondered where all that lofty talk went when he was barking for a sandwich from his easy-chair and leaving her with the four children all the time.
Some insight about the wives’ actions came afterward from Susan, who had a more nuanced understanding of these dynamics than I could from my three-weeks’ visit. And of course, had I been in my own country, who knows – maybe I would have been eye-rolling too. In my usual life I tend to mistrust broad, lofty talk about family and… gasp… family values! I associate it with politician-speak and know the ugly under-belly that kind of talk can hide, who and what it can exclude – what it’s sometimes designed to exclude -- and how often it's used to cover up realities that are less simply spoken about. It’s true that I found a more finely-wrought, poetic cast in the way the Georgians went about this kind of talk – and that difference goes a very long way – but I think that, even in Georgia, the speeches I enjoyed most and felt most uncomplicated about were those concerning friendship. The same would probably have been true in the U.S. Friendship is more horizontally than vertically cast by nature, because it isn’t so tied up with the institutions people get so worked up to protect. So here’s to friendship! that light-footed, traveling home of a gift. And also, here’s sending wishes of safe-keeping to my friend Susan, who lives in London now. I spoke to her this morning and though streets were burning as near as ten minutes from her house on Monday evening, she thinks the worst of the riots (in London, anyway) might have passed.
Here in New York’s Finger Lakes, corn season arrives late and leaves early. If you're like me, when you spot the first ears at a farmers market or roadside stand, you go a little crazy. Even though I’m usually cooking for just my husband and myself, I tend to buy dozens of ears at a time. My favorite comes from Ed Fedorka (above, also known as "the corn dude"), of Rainbow Valley Ranch, because corn is all he sells. Ed is living proof in my experience that if you make just one thing, you’re going to strive for perfection (think Antonio Stradivari). When corn comes in, Ed’s table at Ithaca's farmer's market is strewn with his super sweet varieties ($5/dozen); later in the season, he adds corn for popping packaged in neat plastic bags shaped like hands.
This season’s first corn coincided with a string of brutally hot days, days so hot that to boil water to cook the corn in my usual way would have made our un-airconditioned kitchen uninhabitable. Instead, I soaked the ears, still in their husks, in the sink filled with water, and threw them on the covered grill for roughly 10 minutes. The corn took on the smoke from the hardwood charcoal and was delicious, no butter or salt required. Even so, we had five large ears left over from a meal that included grilled wild salmon (also in season), and a salad.
The next day, with the temperatures holding steady in the 90s, I decided use the corn for a cold soup, nothing fancy. I stripped the kernels into the blender, added the last of my garlic scapes along with salt and pepper and a fistful of fresh cilantro (stems and leaves). After liquefying the corn, I streamed in about a cup of water, enough to thin the contents to the consistency of a pancake batter, and strained everything through a mesh sieve. Once chilled, the resulting soup was the essence of corn, or as some might say, the flavor of Kansas in August.
Fresh corn always reminds me of this poem, by Elaine Equi:
I strip away
your pale kimono.
Your tousled hair too,
comes off in my hands
All ears and
tiny yellow teeth.
from Surface Tension (Coffee House Press, Sept 1989)
Here’s a drink I would never order: an Everybody’s Irish. It calls for despoiling Irish whiskey with green Chartreuse, green crème de menthe, and an olive. Ugh. There are any number of reasons to shun this drink. It tastes awful. The name incites me to resentment. Everybody’s not Irish, and three of the four ingredients in the drink aren’t either, though they are green, which is the only reason they are in the drink. I resent that color, not taste, should determine what goes into a cocktail. Moreover, if you go to Ireland and actually look at it, you quickly realize its dominant hue is emerald gray. Thus the relentless, tired equation of Irishness with bright green is not only a cliché but a lie. I resent the attempt to cash in on the supposedly universal appeal of those wonderful, whacky Celts regaling us with their charming whiskey-drinking ways right out of the pages of Angela’s Ashes. Oh, wait, that book was about abject misery. Whatever. People with last names like mine were raised on sentimentality about The Old Sod. It’s hogwash, of course, but “Everybody’s Irish” not only tells an objectionable lie—that the Irish are fun drunks and people want to be like them—it tells the lie flimsily. It tells a Made in China lie, oversimplified and oddly threatening, with its conformist absolutism. “Everybody’s Irish” should be a curse, not a cocktail. As rhetoric, it resonates with the “You’re all individuals!” bit in Life of Brian. CROWD: “Yes! We’re all individuals!” INDIVIDUAL: “I’m not..”
In David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he notices that sometime in the 1980s, advertising had shifted away from the appeal of belonging to a group (drink this soda and you can join these happy people) to the appeal of avoiding a group (drink this soda and you’ll stand out from the dull. gray herd). The group became the villain. Everybody’s not Irish. Wallace points out a commercial motive behind this. Salespeople know the lone customer is an easier mark than one who shows up with friends, family or clan in tow. It makes sense for companies to vilify company, in the hope that you’ll go shopping by yourself. But Wallace also rattles off any number of larger sociological explanations for this, including the rise of the political right in the US.
If you think about one group in particular, what we call government, the right is definitely Vilifier in Chief. It makes perfect sense for a party proclaiming itself on the side of the individual. Republicans have been systematic in redefining government as a villain—Big Government, it’s called, never “good government,” and rarely just “government.” Other collective nouns in the right’s diction also get pejorative adjectives: The biased media. The liberal Elite. One-size-fits-all education. Singular words, words for people in groups of one, meanwhile, are mated with other positive words—personal freedom, faith-based initiative, individual liberty.
Why, then, are the freedom-loving folks on the political right so conformist? “We’re all individuals,” they cry in unison, and no one over there ever pipes up, “I’m not.” Of course, Republicans don’t describe themselves as conformist. They are “disciplined,” they are “principled,” they are “sensible.” It’s the left that uses words like “lockstep” to describe the monolithic voting history of the 242 Republicans in the House and 47 in the Senate. Facts support the left’s conformity theory: witness the record-breaking number of filibusters in the Senate back when Republicans had only 39 or 40 Senators. So do GOP practices like litmus tests on abortion, no-tax pledges, and threats of denying leadership positions, which got Olympia Snowe and Chuck Grassley back in line when they showed the rare independence of mind to consider working with Democrats. What’s next in stifling dissent? Reeducation through labor?
I would point out here several disturbing things: First, the GOP, for all its professions of freedom-loving individualism, behaves like a totalitarian regime. Secondly, in a functioning democracy, government is supposed to be the locus where we act out our collective will, but for the right, the political party is the collective locus, not the government as a whole. And third, Democrats are in the majority, so to thwart them at every turn is to thwart the voters who put them there, which in turn is to thwart the fundamental principle of democracy, which is that the majority rules, not an ideologically pure cabal of insiders who think they know better than the voters. Hence blocking the routine business of raising the debt ceiling. “But this is the only leverage we have,” says the minority, forgetting the obvious alternative, that Republicans try standing for ideas and policies that are popular with voters. (BTW, the ones who won in the 2010 mid-term elections, where “The American people have spoken,” did it with 40% of voters participating, hardly the stuff of a representative democracy, and with nearly half of that 40% voting against the winners. Amend that statement to “Two out of ten American people have spoken.”) I have little hope that Republicans will try my small-d democratic suggestion that they be more appealing to voters. It takes too long and would involve what is anathema to The Party: loosening up on the rigid ideology.
What these three trends suggest to me is that the right seeks power, not individual liberty, and certainly not democracy. When they don’t have power, they are willing to trample on principles—including their own—to get it back.
Sitting in a bar with a guy’s guy, a man so manly he not only writes crime novels, but also solves actual crimes, I lost control of the debate and joined him in ordering a Sambuca. To illustrate how far from sophistication I’d slid,Sambuca does not rate an entry in Alexis Lichene’s Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits. Ouzo gets an entry. Pernod. Pastis. Absinthe. But not Sambuca, refuge of ex-cops and the Common Man, especially the Italian-American, went-to-community-college, Tea Party version of the Common Man.
Sambuca is an angry liquor. If you don’t believe me, set it on fire. Watch it burn. Let the whole goddam Federal budget go down in flames. See if I care.
Well, I do care, but as I mentioned, I lost control of the debate. Sometimes Sambuca comes to your table flaring up against government interference and high taxes. A licorice-based apertif like pastis might have noted that from 1932 to 1986 the tax rate on rich people never dipped below 50%, while now it is 35%, pretty low by historical standards. Only taxes on poor people have plateaued at a higher level—10%—than in 1932, when a person earning $2,000 would owe 4% of his wealth to the guvmint. Samuca, flavored with star anis (so close to anus!), could care less about such pointy-headed facts and figures.
Other times, like this one with the ex-cop, Sambuca arrives in a calmer mood, with its three little coffee beans floating in clear resolve to take back our country, take it way back, back to the late 19th century, when violent boom-and-bust cycles were a commonplace of a deregulated market, the gap between rich and poor yawned, and a cabal of super-wealthy industrialists had the politicians in their pockets. Sound familiar? Never mind, says Sambuca. And never mind that the 1890s kicked off the Progressive Era, named for the pinko policies that came out of such extremes—child labor laws, women’s right to vote, restrictions on how much arsenic manufacturers could put in wallpaper. (Seriously, arsenic gave wallpaper a vivid green tint you could admire until you got poisoned and died.) Never mind. Obama’s a socialist and let’s get rid of the EPA, Department of Education and collective bargaining, which fought for the pension check that Mr. Sambuca used to paid for his drink.
Sambuca’s inability or refusal to grasp complexity is born out by what happens when you add a splash of water. It becomes cloudy, confused, opaque. So do Pernod, pastis, ouzo and absinthe, all of which are frequently taken with water as a matter of taste. In the writing program where I teach, we value such complexity, but because Sambuca hates the taste of compromise and never reaches across the aisle, its tendency to cloud up when assimilated with other substances is so little known it’s practically classified. Also a state secret is why Sambuca is served with those three beans. One conspiracy theory contends that the beans represent health, happiness and prosperity, three qualities that were not widely shared in the 1890s.
The Sambuca arrived. We raised our snifters to health, happiness and prosperity. He tasted uncompromising principles of small government and individual liberty to fire the union organizers in the arsenic factory, replacing them with 11 year olds. I tasted capitulation.
Here's a tip for moviegoers who plan on seeing "The Trip," Michael Winterbottom's mock-documentary about two English comedians, TV and radio mostly, who take a trip to the far misty north, land of the lake poets, of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and vie for who can be more obnoxious as they tour the nouveau chic boutique gourmet restaurants that have sprung up in remore parts of Humber and Yorkshire, once famous for its diet of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
You will learn at least two things about England. The first is that English comics set store by how accurate an impression they can give of Michael Caine's speech pattern. The fellows, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, do Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Ruchard Burton, and Liam Neeson. But Caine is the litmus test, the ne plus ultra for competitive comic impersonation. The guys are not as convincing when they try to sound like Al Pacino and Woody Allen, though Allen's lines are hilarious and brilliant however delivered.
It made me wonder what the equivalent would be for an American actor (male): Bogart in "Casablanca"? Jimmy Cagney ("You dirty rat")? Brando in "On the Waterfront" or "The Godfather"? Clint Eastwood ("Make my day")? JFK?
The second thing you will learn from the movie is that for a true Brit (who, "in spite of all temptations / to belong to other nations," remains a bloody proud Englishman), nothing -- not duck confit, pigeon, rabbit, lamb, clams cooked in their own juices, and not, certainly not, thirteen ways of serving scallops -- can compete with a traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, blood pudding, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, toast, tea, the whole works. The boys have such a meal at a country pub and it is the one they most lustily enjoy.
A second film with the identical title, "The Trip" (1969), features Peter Fonda in his acid-trip phase. It's well-worth watching. I saw it when it came out, the summer after my junior year at Columbia. I'd like to see it again. It has Bruce Dern and Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson, and the poster for the pic highlights the letters l, s, and d and boasts of being shot in "psychedelic color." I vaguely recall a mad scene in a laundromat. And there was an extraordinary effort to depict the highs and lows of an acid trip, from rank sentimentality to ecstatic exuberance to fetal-position fear. I saw it in Manchester, England. And Manchester is, as the new "Trip" confirms, the urban epitome of the north of England. -- DL
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.