August 31, 2009

Bon Appétit, Y’All.

Los Angeles when it sizzles drives me indoors. And so with a friend staying at the house who loves to cook, we gravitate to the kitchen (I actually remembered where it was). We had recently salivated through two-and-a-half hours of superb cooking in “Julie and Julia”.  He told me that during a recent trip to Paris he was again reminded that many of the delicious things he ate as a child in the South are practically first cousins of well-known French dishes. Neither his mother nor her mother, Granny Ravenel of blessed memory, had ever laid eyes on a French cookbook, but it does make a statement about the creative affinity between gifted cooks when they are handed some first-rate ingredients, wherever they happen to live in the world.

The French are justifiably proud of their famous soupe a l'oignon gratinee, served piping hot over oven-toasted bread in individual dual earthenware or china bowls, each portion topped with grated Gruyere that's been melted in the oven. It was very like the onion soup that made a frequent appearance on his table at home. His mother combined a small amount of meat with a huge amount of beef and veal bones (thanks to the generosity of the butcher) and stewed them for hours, producing a rich stock that rivaled that of the French soup. Both are thick with sliced onions that have been cooked slowly in butter to a warm golden color. However, since his mother had never been exposed to the French soup gratinee, her version lacked the toast and cheese.

Onion soup was popular in the restaurants of Les Halles, the legendary district of food markets and eating places that served the tastes and tables of Parisians for centuries before sadly falling victim to urban gentrification. It was at Les Halles that I was first introduced to the delicious French dish known as andouilles (and the smaller andouillettes), a type of sausage filled with strips of chitterlings, or chitlins, as they are called down in South Carolina. Andouilles are boiled or grilled and served with lots of mustard and garnished with mashed potatoes or another vegetable. Sometimes they are cut into thin slices and served as an hors d'oeuvre. Chitterlings have a delicate taste similar to tripe.
Before cooking, his mother put them through a merciless scrubbing followed by an overnight soak in a pot of water laced with vinegar and baking soda and another washing the next day. They had to have been the cleanest chitterlings in town. Next, she simmered them for a long time in a broth of celery, onions, carrots, and a dash of red pepper flakes (he also adds beer to the broth). She then cut the chitterlings into small pieces, dipped them in beaten egg and flour, and fried them. They were accompanied by a piquant pepper sauce, a bottle of which was always on the table alongside the salt and pepper and the napkin holder. The sauce, made by steeping hot a peppers in cider vinegar, was sprinkled generously over greens, meats, and vegetables.

Chitterlings were often part of the refreshments at fund-raising events. People would walk around holding a chitterling sandwich while talking about the purpose of the gathering. This peripatetic exercise came to be known as the “chitlin strut”.

Another gastronomic surprise was his first French cassoulet, a name that originally suggested to him a rare delicacy. Upon tasting it, he realized it was actually a close relation of his mother's chicken, sausage, and bean casserole. The composition of a cassoulet is a subject of endless dispute among French chefs, but the fact is that it varies with the traditions of the region of France where it is made. Basically, it consists of beans baked with a combination of game, goose, lamb, pork, sausages, or mutton. When cooked, the meats are not always identifiable, the flavor depending largely upon the mixture of juices and the cook's seasoning skill. It is substantial country fare, a hearty treat on a cold wintry day.

During one of his first French dining experiences, he discovered something called creme brullee on the menu, a dessert which until that time had eluded him. Being adventurous in the food department, however, he decided to try it. Imagine his pleasure when the waiter brought a favorite sweet of his, cup custard but with a hard layer of brown sugar on top. He was immediately reminded of the custard he had loved since he was a boy, only his mother covered the smooth pudding with a thick dark caramel sauce and a dollop of whipped cream. To this day, caramel custard has remained a part of his cooking repertoire.

It is a repertoire that grows constantly, for these days there are few undisclosed culinary secrets. Television, books, and magazines have expanded the food horizons of millions of people. It is quite a different scene from his mother's time, when she learned to cook by watching her mother, her aunts, and her friends, as did most of the women of her generation. Judging by the results, they were good learners.

I hope the heat breaks soon, my waist is expanding at an alarming rate.

Recipes for Mom’s Onion Soup,
and, for the fearless,
Southern-Style Chitterlings are at hand.

August 26, 2009

"All right Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up,"

No new life from mine has sprung
to continue when I’m dead.
But -
something of beauty
my music has sung,
something of color
my work has spread,
something of kindness
and much of passion,
love of a man and pity for men-
things of the spirit that life will fashion
out of the now to live in the then.

August 22, 2009

A Shed of One’s Own.

Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own is a landmark of twentieth-century feminist thought. It explores the history of women in literature through an unconventional and highly provocative investigation of the social and material conditions required for the writing of literature. These conditions—time, privacy, and independence— underwrite all productive endeavors in any field.

Which brings us to the title of this post. A client has requested, in addition to a house, that I also built a room of one’s own for him. I told him, that I have always had a shed of my own (my garden studio). It is my sanctuary. My place away ‘from it all’. It is where I go to ‘germinate’ ideas, where I go when I absolutely must get it done. It is where I am myself, by myself, with myself. No thrills. Beautiful light (artificial light corrupts colors). Just a work table, chair, and bed. Apart from their usefulness, sheds are cozy places to be in. You can fiddle about and make a mess, you can sit and think, or you can just sit. My client loves the idea, and he loves my idea of a shed. I will build one for him.

He will call it, his ‘fiddling hut’.

Charles has a shed of his own;
he calls it his ‘do cot’.
Into it, he vanishes more and more often these days.

Sylvia has a
shed of her own
she calls hers‘idea lab’.

A friend in Kenya has moved from the main house to this beach retreat, his “Away From It All”. It was constructed without architectural plans, conventional materials, or electricity. Built in the vernacular style, using local techniques it represents his triumph of hope over experience.

Mona and Peter do not care two

about rooms, sheds, huts or studios.
Their cars have more amenities’ than most five star hotels.

Chacun à son gout.

August 20, 2009

Just like Hemingway

There comes a time in every boy’s life when he needs to proof himself – particularly if peer pressure is mounting.

All of Clive’s friends had been on fishing expeditions and apparently hauled-in some whoppers, or so he was made to belief. Lars stirred his passion even more, with romantic tales of Hemingway sword fishing off the coast of Cuba. He was rearing to go. Now his dad was not the "sporting type". His physically most taxing feat was getting the morning paper of the front lawn. The situation called for a fast remedy. I was in that frame of mind when a friend of ours named Marco called us to announce that he was heading to Catalina for a weekend of fishing. Marco was an ardent and professional fisherman. He caught tuna of Alaska, salmon of Nova Scotia, pneumonia of Santa Barbara, and marlin of Guaymas, Mexico. Clive’s dilemma was solved. Let’s go sword fishing, that’s real sport, Marco exclaimed. Clive’s piscatorial experience up to this point had consisted chiefly of me taking him to a trout pond where you are permitted to catch fish that are so tame they practically lined up in the water.

There it was a chance to be Hemingway, who could turn down an opportunity like that. Friday evening we crossed to Catalina from San Pedro. Larissa (mom), Ed (dad) and Rene (godfather) promised to stay out of the way and take in the sights. Larissa had heard that no visitor to Catalina could afford to miss the exciting rides on the glass-bottom boat, and Wrigley’s mansion.

Marco was up at five Saturday morning, knocking at our door shouting that the swordfish are starting to jump. So Marco, Clive, and I were off on the The Restless. The skipper was revving up the engine when we arrived on the dock. As The Restless headed for the open sea, Clive and I stood on her stern and waved good-by to our families. Our families, however, were unable to wave back, for they were still in their hotel rooms, sound asleep.

“Nothing like the salt air to make you feel good,” Marco shouted over the roar of the motor. “As soon as I set foot in a boat, I forget all my worries. How about you?”

“I feel good too,” I said, filling my lungs with exhaust fumes. Sleepy though I was, I must admit that it was a thrill to hear the skipper announce a little while later that we were in “swordfish waters.” I jumped up from my swivel chair and reached for the deep-sea fishing rod. “I bait your hooks for you,” offered Marco. “Swordfish are about the smartest things that swim. If you don’t bait your hook just right, you might just as well stayed at home in bed.”

I watched Marco bait the hook and toss it into the sea. He advised us to let-out about seventy- five yards of line and then put our clicker on. When a fish strikes, the reel will sing out and he will stop the boat. Then you count to ten, throw on your drag to set the hook, and start reeling her in. Right.

Our blood tingled with excitement of the expected catch. We sat there tilted back in our chairs; blue sky overhead and a bucket of dead fish bait next to us that was beginning to smell.

We were ready!

But the swordfish was not.

By one o’clock, we had forsaken fresh bait in favor of trolling with feathers. And by mid-afternoon Clive was convinced that Marco was at fault. By five o’clock we were heading back to the dock, the closest we had come to a fish was the tuna sandwiches we had brought along for lunch. We were tired, sunburned, and discouraged. But Marco told Clive that tomorrow we would make up for it.

We could NOT go back empty-handed-a failure.

At dinner that evening, we announced that we would go out on The Restless again Sunday morning. Nobody was joyful. Glass-bottom boats only thrill so much.

So, Sunday morning we all went out together the family made it known beforehand that they were coming along only for the boat ride. The moment the sun came out, Larissa, Ed and Rene stripped down to their bathing suits and found a comfortable place on the bow.

That left it squarely up to Marco and me to keep the waves from washing Clive overboard.

The lunch, I had to admit was delicious; and afterward Marco and Clive went to the rods with new hope. I was going to ‘skipper’ the boat.

About five minutes later Clive’s clicker sang out. Marco rushed over to grip his rod. “We got a strike!” Marco shouted. All hell broke loose as the reel continued to unwind at merry clip. I cut the engine and came running to the stern with a gaff.

The heavy rod bowed almost to the breaking point as the swordfish’s frenzied leaps carried him (or her) in and out of the water. For thirty minutes, with Clive jumping with excitement, Marco wound and unwound the reel. An hour and fifty-five minutes later Marco had the classy eyed monster alongside the boat. Rene gaffed him, put a steel cable under his tail, and hauled him on board.

“Congratulations!” said Marco flinging his arms around Clive. “That beauty must weigh at least two-fifty.”

“Can I feel him?” asked Clive.

He stood there gnawing on a piece of fried chicken.

“I am calling the harbor”, Marco said, “and notify them of our catch.”

As The Restless headed for home, with our swordfish pennant flying in the breeze, Marco turned to us and ask what we wanted to do with the fish. Clive without a moment of hesitation announced that he wanted HIS fish to be stuffed, and mounted and hung up at the house, so he could show off to all his friends.

On the dock, a crowd awaited The Restless. Since ours was the only swordfish caught that day, Marco’s ship-to-shore message had been relayed all over the island. Clive’s fish was hoisted up on a block and tackle for everybody to admire. Pictures had to be taken. Shutters snapped as we all huddled around the fish. Clive’s fame as fisherman had already preceded him to the hotel. An announcement in the lobby bulletin board stated:


About a month later, the stuffed fish arrived. Clive insisted to have it hung in the patio for everybody to admire.

This week I started to clear out the garden shed and there in a dusty corner sat Clive’s swordfish.

Clive, what would you like me to do with YOUR fish?

August 10, 2009

The divine spark, unappreciated.

Dearest Wolfgang.
Well, you know what that opening line usually foretells. Yes, it’s time to part ways. We have spent a weekend in very close proximity with very few interruptions (if you can consider a CD player and driver close). I have listened intently (no distractions through the Central Valley) and analyzed objectively, and finally concluded, that because you were so perfect in your art, you have been, delicately put, overexposed.

I know you worked out a solution to the conflict between polyphony and the gallant manner and went on to achieve a new synthesis. You became a superior technician and an aristocrat of style. No heavy tread, no broad laughter. Your folk airs were stylized, and when you laughed, it was seldom hysterical. Your work often suggests a distance, a certain detachment. Despite that-or because of it-you attained matchless beauty. You went on to become the most famous prodigy in history, and I think your character always retained an immature side; a fondness for pranks and crude jokes, a certain vanity, a naïveté about women-in your private life-if not in your art. You died tragically young, at an age when others are just about to begin their careers.

I promised the teacher to make an effort, and I can say, I have. Nevertheless, it is just no good.

Your music was applied in so many other mediums that it is impossible to exorcise those images from my mind, and frankly, in some instances have turned me off completely.

How so, you ask. Take your Clarinet Concerto in A, the exquisite Adagio movement, and what does my inner eye reveal, Robert Redford tripping trough Kenya's savannah. And the piano concerto No.21, do I dare say it the ‘Elvira Madigan’ movement, you know that one too. And it is because your music adapts itself so perfectly it makes it impossible for me to separate them from the images. But, the coup mortel you dealt to me when I listened to your “Laudate Dominum”.  I played at a friend’s memorial service. I was reduced to a major sobbing. Quite a sight I presented to the concerned Highway Patrol officer. I told him I had a good cry and he said he understood. What a sweet man. I am not finished. Last, but not least the movie Amadeus, for better or for worse, has cast your personality in concrete. All I hear is that uproarious laugh.

So, you see, the fault is entirely mine. Please, no “Donner und Blitzen” that belongs to another colleague anyway.

Your incompetent interpreter, Ms Edna.

August 09, 2009

Highway 116 (is everything relative?)…

…there is something to be said for long, solitary drives,
it focuses the mind.

In 1993, I became ‘officially’ an orphan. This my brother cheerfully announced when he called with the news of mother’s death. It realized that with the death of the second parent you have now moved into the green room to the “End Game”. Parental mortality, no matter how much you think you are prepared, when it comes, it comes as a punch, hard, and unrehearsed.
I don’t do funerals! Not since, at age six, I was made to kiss the icy face of one grand-grandmother decked-out and lying in state. That encounter has prejudiced me to all rituals of departure. I still reel to the point of nausea when encountering the smell of Lilies.
To say that I had a relationship with my parents would be fantasy. Mother was great at giving birth. It was the after birth program my parents had difficulty with. Therefore, there was none.
I shared a close relationship with my grandparents, but mother in her infinite wisdom, thought this to be not appropriate company for an eight year old, and I was sent-off to boarding school.
Me, feeling abandoned, you think? I did what was the going thing in the ‘60’s and enjoyed the garden of herbal and pharmacological delights.
After Dad’s sudden death, and my bother Max’ fatal accident only three month later, was the only time Mom ever called for me, and I rushed home. With a beatific smile, she looked at me and said:”I would have done the same for you.” No Mom, you would not. Never, but once. When I was diagnosed with MS, mother rushed to my side. Only to announce later, that she had felt guilty having passed on a defective gene. That was Mom. Charles adored her; she was the polar opposite to his mother.
Our parents possessed the lowest threshold for boredom of anyone I ever knew, and most mandatory social occasions resulted in some never–to- be-forgotten climaxes. Dad had more diplomacy, but Mom, well Mum’s the word.
So, most of our lives’ milestones we celebrated without our parents-

Arrival & departures, “Was it today you were coming/leaving”?
Hospitals, “Best not to intrude”.
Graduations, “We thought you already had made other plans”.
Marriages, “Discreet is best”.
Divorces, “So distasteful”.
Widowhood, mine, by then both had shuffled of this mortal coil.

I shared this with friends, and their reaction;
”Boy, how lucky can you get”?

Ergo, the title of this post.

August 04, 2009

On your Birthday, I write this-

Your mother always felt a little guilty at liking and taking what pleased her. From that came her love for live, the arts, and having you against all odds.
I see her arms around you grow fainter, more distant, and somehow I am able to look the past squarely in the eye. As that past evaporates and the future shrinks, I for one seek and value all experiences and links.
I read your dissertation with awe and admiration. Unlike relationships, politics, or law, the arts make us more what we already are; they show us what we did not know we knew. You also embrace a universe that is Europe, and you tell me that you feel divided and torn.
People always have expected me to define myself as either European or American. I tell them, that I have been married twice, but never divorced. My first spouse was Europe. My second America, and after four passionate decades, my-love-that-was-more-than-mere-friendship evolved into a friendship-that-is-more-than-mere-love, and has remained so. Shall we talk about that when we next meet?
If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be me. Granted every instant of our lives is full of events that alter us forever. Nevertheless, some events can be more altering than others. You coming so unexpectedly into our lives was one of them. Please continue to make me more of what I already am.
Happy Birthday, Clive.
From Scotland to Samos, today, Europe is your present, just open it!

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