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Member since: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 05:06 AM
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National Cheese Lover's Day: John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure"

"This menu is designed and intended to give a sense of warmth, sunlight, the same feeling of opening out of the year ahead that one gets when encountering one's first glimpse, in January, of the upthrusting tenacious insouciant virginal snowdrop. ... Arrange the leaves around the sides of the plates on which they are to be served. Luxuriantly nap them with your vinaigrette. Toast a number of slices of bread, one per person, and then put a tranche of goat's cheese on each slice and pop them all under the grill. Remove just as the cheese starts to bubble and brown. Place toast and cheese in the middle of the dressed plates and serve.

"Cheese is philosophically interesting as a food whose qualities depend on the action of bacteria -- it is, as James Joyce remarked, 'the corpse of milk.' Dead milk, live bacteria. A similar process of controlled spoilage is apparent in the process of hanging game, where some degree of rotting helps to make the meat tender and flavorsome -- even if one no longer entirely subscribes to the nineteenth-century dictum that a hung pheasant is only ready for eating when the first maggot drops onto the larder floor. With meat and game, the bacterial action is a desideratum rather than a necessity, which it is in the case of cheese -- a point grasped even in Old Testament times, as Job reveals in his interrogation of the Lord: 'Hast though not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?' The process of ripening in cheese is a little like the human acquisition of wisdom and maturity: both processes involve a recognition, or incorporation, of the fact that life is an incurable disease with a hundred percent mortality rate -- a slow variety of death.

"To the right of the counter ... were the cheeses. No fewer than five different versions of the chief Norman glory, Camembert, an example of the profitable ideas sometimes born during periods of historical ferment, as the cheese was invented due to cross-fertilization between the ingredients of the Norman regions and the cheese-making techniques of Meaux, as they were exported to Camembert by the young Abbe Gobert, fleeing the Terror in 1792. Also Livarot, Pont-l'Eveque, Neufchatel, a Brie which to my perhaps hypercritical eye looked a little chalky at the center, and a rich array of small local cheeses ... "

National Popcorn Day: Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy"

"When the work was done, Father came up the cellar stairs, bringing a big pitcher of sweet cider and a panful of apples. Royal took the corn-popper and a pannikin of popcorn. ... Royal opened its iron door, and with the poker he broke the charred logs into a shimmering bed of coals. He put three handfuls of popcorn into the big wire popper, and shook the popper over the coals. In a little while a kernel popped, then another, then three or four at once, and all at once furiously the hundreds of little pointed kernels exploded. When the big dishpan was heaping full of fluffy white popcorn, Alice poured melted butter over it, and stirred and salted it. It was hot and crackling crisp, and deliciously buttery and salty, and everyone could eat all he wanted to.

"Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. ... Popcorn is American. Nobody but the Indians ever had popcorn, till after the Pilgrim Fathers came to America. ... Almanzo looked at every kernel before he ate it. They were all different shapes. ... Then he thought that if he had some milk, he would have popcorn and milk. You can fill a glass full to the brim with milk, and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk, and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. ... But Almanzo was not very hungry, and he knew Mother would not want the milkpans disturbed. If you disturb milk when the cream is rising, the cream will not be so thick. So Almanzo ate another apple and drank cider with his popcorn and did not say anything about popcorn and milk."

Happy National Champagne Day!

From Peter Mayle's "Acquired Tastes":

"Beneath the two famous towns of Reims and Epernay are literally miles of cellars and passageways, some of them three or four stories deep, all of them filled with champagne. ... Onward and downward we went, until we came to the angular ranks of tent-shaped wooden racks, each of them sprouting dozens of bottles. The racks, as tall as a man, were invented in the nineteenth century to solve the problem of the sediment that forms in the bottle as a result of fermentation. The bottles are stuck, neck first, into oval holes set at a steep angle that allows the sediment to slide up to the cork. To make sure this happens completely and evenly, the process needs a little assistance from time to time. The bottles have to be lifted gently, given a slight clockwise turn, and replaced ... and despite experimenting with ingenious mechanical methods, progress has yet to find a totally satisfactory replacement for the human hand. Cold and lonely work it must be, too, but an experienced remueur can twist as many as 3,000 bottles an hour. ... The neck of the bottle is frozen so that the sediment, trapped in ice, can be removed. The bottle is topped up, recorked, labeled, et voila! What started as grapes in a muddy field has been turned into the most famous drink in the world.

"It is 11:30 on New Year's Eve, and you're feeling wonderful. The vintage Krug is fizzing though your veins, beautiful strangers are lining up to kiss you at the stroke of midnight, and the New Year, as full of promise as a rich and indulgent uncle, lies ahead. ... And then someone -- there is always someone, and he or she is always drinking Perrier with a twist -- comes up to you and asks, 'What are your New Year's resolutions?' Oh, God."

Writing about food: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

The year being so young that yester-even saw its birth,
That day double on the dais were the diners served.
... Then lords and ladies leaped forth, largess distributing,
Offered New Year gifts in high voices, handed them out,
Bustling and bantering about these offerings.
Ladies laughed full loudly, though losing their wealth,
And he that won was not woeful, you may well believe.
All this merriment they made until meal time.

But Arthur would not eat until all were served.
... His noble announcement that he never would eat
On such a fair feast-day till informed in full
Of some unusual adventure, as yet untold,
Of some momentous marvel that he might believe,
About ancestors, or arms, or other high theme;
Or till a stranger should seek out a strong knight of his,
To join with him in jousting, in jeopardy to lay
Life against life, each allowing the other
The favour of Fortune, the fairer lot,
Such was the King's custom when he kept court,
At every fine feast among his free retinue in hall.

... These were disposed on the dais and with dignity served,
And many mighty men next, marshalled at side tables.
Then the first course came in with such cracking of trumpets,
(Whence bright bedecked blazons in banners hung)
Such din of drumming and deal of fine piping,
Such wild warbles whelming and echoing
Their hearts were uplifted high at the strains.
Then delicacies and dainties were delivered to the guests,
Fresh food in foison, such freight of full dishes
That space was scarce at the social tables
For several soups set before them in silver
On the cloth.
Each feaster made free with the fare,
Took lightly and nothing loth;
Twelve plates were for every pair,
Good beer and bright wine both.

Writing about food: James Joyce, "The Dead"

"At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. Mr. Brown led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies' punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip. 'God help me,' he said smiling, 'it's the doctor's orders.'

"A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper full round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side dishes: two little ministers of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyma figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

"While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane's idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. ... There was a great deal of confusion and laughter and noise, the noise of orders and counter-orders, of knives and forks, of corks and glass-stoppers. Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly so that he compromised by taking a long drought of stout for he had found the carving hot work."

Writing about food: Dostoevsky's "The House of the Dead" -- The Christmas Holidays

"Towards evening the old soldiers, who executed the convicts' commissions, brought them all kinds of victuals -- meat, suckling pigs, and geese. Many prisoners, even the most simple and economical, after saving up kopecks throughout the year, thought they ought to spend some on that day, so as to celebrate Christmas Eve in a worthy manner. ... Through the little windows of our barracks, half hidden by the snow and ice, could be seen, flaring in the darkness, the bright fire of the two kitchens where six stoves had been lighted. In the court-yard, where it was still dark, the convicts, each with a half pelisse round his shoulders, or perhaps fully dressed, were hurrying towards the kitchen. Some of them, meanwhile -- a very small number -- had already visited the drink-sellers. ... The stars were paling, a light, icy mist was rising from the earth, and spirals of smoke were ascending in curls from the chimneys.

"The cooks were wanted to receive gifts brought from all parts of the town in enormous numbers; loaves of white bread, scones, rusks, pancakes, and pastry of various kinds. I do not think there was a shop-keeper in the whole town who did not send something to the unfortunates'. Amongst these gifts there were some magnificent ones, including a good many cakes of the finest flour. There were also some very poor ones, such as rolls worth two kopecks a piece, and a couple of brown rolls, covered lightly over with sour cream.

"... the Mayor and the Commandant arrived. ... He made a tour of the barracks ... wished the convicts a happy Christmas, went into the kitchen, and tasted the cabbage soup. It was excellent that day. Each convict was entitled to a pound of meat, besides which there was millet-seed in it, and certainly the butter had not been spared. We dined. ... I could never understand how, five minutes after the Mayor left, there was a mass of drunken prisoners, whereas as long as he remained everyone was perfectly calm. Red, radiant faces were now numerous, and the balalaiki soon appeared."

Anniversary of The Nutcracker ballet's first performance in 1892, St. Petersburg.

I'm sad -- I found out today that my favorite, Pacific Northwest Ballet's Maurice Sendak set design version (1983), has been replaced by PNB's artistic director with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet's one (1954) because the artistic director wanted something "new." Take our Nutcracker back. No. The Maurice Sendak Nutcracker was unique to Seattle. It is art. Of course the Sendak version was crippled by the bad choreography of former artistic director Kent Stowell. In the clip below the poor Nutcracker guy lugs Clara back and forth across the stage like a sack of potatoes, it's all running around, terrible. But the beautiful sets! If only there were some sort of compromise.

The Balanchine version features lots and lots of kids and the main character, Clara, remains a child to the end. There's not a lot of real dancing. Boring. I realize a company needs to get asses in those theater seats. The more children, the more tickets purchased by relatives and families with children. I understand. I didn't see the ballet as a child, no ballet companies big enough to stage it where I grew up, so it's not a nostalgic thing for me.

The PNB Nutcracker is based more on the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story and darker than the 1892 Russian ballet which is all candy and toys. It's more about growing up. In an interview, Sendak says about the land of sweets, the second act of the ballet: "I always think: where your teeth are going to decay, and you're going to get terrible cramps, afterward. But we don't get to that part. But there is that episode in the Hoffmann fairy tale where they do go to this candyland place and it is totally sickening and dripping with sentiment, but then Hoffmann pulled the rug from out under your feet because in this perfect of all places is a monster that eats up only candy, so how safe are you? ... Hoffmann knew that there is no place on earth that is perfectly safe."

Old interview with Maurice Sendak, "Sugar Plums and Vinegar":

National Maple Syrup Day: Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods"

"In the the kitchen Grandma was all by herself, stirring the boiling syrup in the big brass kettle. ... 'The syrup is waxing. Come and help yourselves.' ... They all hurried to the kitchen for plates, and outdoors to fill the plates with snow. ... Outdoors the stars were frosty in the sky and the air nipped Laura's cheeks and nose. Her breath was like smoke. ... Grandma stood by the brass kettle and with the big wooden spoon she poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into soft candy, and as fast as it cooled they ate it. ... There was plenty of syrup in the kettle, and plenty of snow outdoors. As soon as they ate one plateful, they filled their plates with snow again, and Grandma poured more syrup on it.

"When they had eaten the soft maple candy until they could eat no more of it, then they helped themselves from the long table loaded with pumpkin pies and dried berry pies and cookies and cakes. There was salt-rising bread, too, and cold boiled pork, and pickles. ... At last, as Grandma stirred, the syrup in the saucer turned into little grains like sand, and Grandma called: 'Quick, girls! It's graining!' ... They set out big pans and little pans, and as fast as Grandma filled them with the syrup they set out more. They set the filled ones away, to cool into maple sugar.

"Ma unwrapped the package and there were two hard, brown cakes, each as large as a milk pan. She uncovered the bucket, and it was full of dark brown syrup. 'Here, Laura and Mary,' Pa said, and he gave them each a little round package out of his pocket. They took off the paper wrappings, and each had a little, hard, brown cake, with beautifully crinkled edges. ... Each bit off one crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy. 'Maple sugar,' said Pa. Supper was ready, and Laura and Mary laid the little maple sugar cakes beside their plates, while they ate the maple syrup on their bread."

Writing about food: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"

"Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

"The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton shyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers' benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks amongst the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.

"The Grocers'! oh the Grocers'! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales, descending on the counter, made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar, as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes in the best humour possible ... ."

Happy "Have a Bagel Day": Calvin Trillin, "Magic Bagel"

"Not long after the turn of the millennium, I had an extended father-daughter conversation with my older daughter ... . Abigail, who was living in San Francisco, had come to New York to present a paper at a conference. ... 'Let's get this straight, Abigail,' I said, after we'd finished off some topic and had gone along in silence for a few yards, 'If I can find those gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels that we used to get at Tanenbaum's, you'll move back to New York. Right?' 'Absolutely,' Abigail said.

"But when I mentioned the ... exchange to my wife, Alice, she had a different interpretation. She said that Abigail had been speaking ironically. I found it difficult to believe that anybody could be ironic about those bagels. They were almost black. Misshapen. Oniony. Abigail had always adored them. Both of my daughters have always taken bagels seriously. When my younger daughter, Sarah, was a little girl, I revealed in print that she wouldn't go to Chinatown without carrying a bagel -- 'just in case.' ... For a while, I brought along a dozen or two New York bagels for Sarah whenever I went to Southern California, but I finally decided that this policy was counterproductive. 'If a person prefers to live in California, which happens to be thousands of miles from her very own family,' I told her, 'it seems to me appropriate that such a person eat California bagels.' ... Sarah eventually moved back East. I'm not going to make any claims for the role of my bagel-withholding policy in that decision, but the fact remains: she did eventually move back East."
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