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Member since: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 05:06 AM
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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."

Writing about food: George Balanchine in Solomon Volkov's "Balanchine's Tchaikovsky"

"Petipa, since he did not read German, got all the names wrong in his Nutcracker. ... In Hoffmann the place is called Konfetenburg while Petipa called it Konfituerenburg .... I also like the German word Schlaraffenland -- the land of the lazy, with rivers of milk and shores of pudding. ... Petipa liked the idea of Konfituerenburg because at the time in Paris there was a fad for special spectacles in which various sweets were depicted by dancers. Actually, Nutcracker's second act is an enormous balletic sweetshop. In Petersburg there was a store like that, it was called Eliseyevsky's: huge glass windows, rooms big enough for a palace, high ceilings, opulent chandeliers, almost like the ones at the Maryinsky. The floors at Eliseyevsky's were covered with sawdust, and you could not hear footsteps -- it was like walking on carpets. The store had sweets and fruits from all over the world, like in 'A Thousand and One Nights.' ... Everything that appears in the second at of Nutcracker is a candy or something tasty. ... The Sugar Plum Fairy is a piece of candy and the dewdrops are made of sugar. The Buffon is a candy cane. It's all sugar! ... All this makes up Konfituerenburg, land of sweets. It was Hoffman's idea, but Petipa saw that it could be beautiful and interesting in a ballet. ... They're supposed to make everyone's mouth water!

"We made very little working for Diaghilev and spent those miserable sums on food. ... First you'd feel like something strong, some liqueur or other, and then you'd think, ah! that muck? Why not have some tea? ... I read that in his youth, Tchaikovsky, when he ran out of money would go to an inn in St. Petersburg, on Nevsky Prospect, and go heavy on the tea. Tea was an inexpensive pleasure, just five kopeks a glass. ... Tea is a great thing, it helped keep us alive in Paris. It was fine: we drank tea and had fun.

"... When you're with people, you want to be alone ... and when you're alone, you're engulfed by sadness. ... You'd think, you're surrounded by your family, people you've wanted to see for a long time. And then you see that they don't exist. ... Before, when I was young, I used to call my friends in moments of despair. We didn't go out to restaurants, I did the cooking myself, and not from recipes, but from memory -- by the tastes and smells of my childhood. ... I can still remember those dishes! And, of course, I remember what I tasted, smelled, ate everywhere. Even though I don't use recipes, I cook tasty food. My only problem is that I'm not sure about the oven, how hot it should get and how long I should keep the food in. I have to try it several times, experiment, and then decide. It's like ballet: you have to try there too -- a little heat, a little cold, add a little of this, a little of that, salt or pepper. In ballet, as in culinary art, the result depends on experience, self-confidence, and intuition. And also on luck."

Writing about food: Happy Birthday Bill Bryson!

"My mother was not a great cook ... . She tended to confuse similarly colored ingredients like sugar and salt, pepper and cinnamon, vinegar and maple syrup, cornflour and plaster of Paris, which often lent her dishes an unexpected dimension. Her particular speciality was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realized that clingfilm wasn't a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, it was time to eat when the firemen departed. Strangely, all this suited by father. ... His palate really only responded to three flavors -- salt, ketchup, and burnt.

"She didn't really understand the rich, unrivaled possibilities for greasiness and goo that the American diet offers. I wanted food that squirts when you bite into it or plops onto your shirt front in such gross quantities that you have to rise to clean yourself up. ... I had no idea how the market for junk food had proliferated. Everywhere I turned I was confronted with foods guaranteed to make you waddle, most of which were entirely new to me -- jelly creme pies, moon pies, chocolate fudge devil dogs and a whipped marshmallow sandwich spread called Fluff, which came in a tub large enough to bathe a baby in. ... Aisle seven ('Food for the Seriously Obese') was especially productive. ... I spent weeks working my way through a symphony of junk food, and it was all awful. Every bit of it. I don't know whether junk food has gotten worse or whether my taste buds have matured, but even the treats I'd grown up with -- even, God help me, Hostess Cup Cakes -- now seemed disappointingly pallid or sickly.

"... I began to think about my old hometown diner. It was called the Y Not Grill, which everyone assumed was short for Y Not Come In and Get Food Poisoning. ... The food was terrible, the waitresses notoriously testy and stupid, and the cooks were escaped convicts of doubtful hygiene. .. The Y Not had a waitress named Shirley who was the most unpleasant person I have ever met. Whatever you ordered, she would look as if you just asked to borrow her car to take her daughter to Tijuana for a filthy weekend. 'You want WHAT?' she would say. 'A guinea grinder and onion rings,' you would repeat apologetically. ... Shirley would stare at you for up to five minutes, as if memorizing your features for the police report, then scrawl the order on a pad and shout out to the cook in the curious dopey lingo they use in diners: 'Two loose stools and a bucket of mud,' or whatever."

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