Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Marvelous pigs in satin!" (weekend stories)

"Marvelous pigs in satin" comes from the movie James and the Giant Peach, which you may have seen a thousand times, too, if like me you had young children watching Disney films in the '90s and '00s. At a crucial point, one of the characters assures another that "marvelous things will happen!" but he says it in a thunderstorm or something, so his words are half-lost. The other characters think he has inexplicably yelled "mar-vel-ous pi-igs in satin!" In my house "marvelous pigs in satin" has now become a shorthand way of saying don't worry, things might change, everything will be fine, this could be the best thing that ever happened, try it you might like it, etc.

The phrase came to mind over the weekend when one child was stuck on the expressway in the snow, heading home with all the other commuters at five miles per hour, having failed to pick up her karate sparring equipment for the big tournament on Sunday. At that time the other child was cooking dinner -- we'll learn more about it when we discuss "dinner in half an hour, really" -- while the other other child showered after a workout but before settling down to do more math homework. Don't worry, I said to the child in the snow, and the one at the stove, and the one grappling with factoring polynomials (I ask you. No, seriously. I do ask you). Marvelous pigs in satin! Dinner will be delightful, sensei (karate instructor) may be able to loan some sparring equipment, with study you may do all right factoring polynomials.

Or, we may all end up sitting squashed in the back seat of a police car in Rolling Meadows in the rain on Sunday afternoon, clutching karate trophies while the tow truck pulls away and the nice officer fills out an accident report. The day's weather could not possibly have been more dreary, and this on the anniversary of Queen Victoria's wedding too! Absurd. Marvelous things don't always happen.

Anyway, more random stories: remember how nice it is to own a clock radio again, and fall asleep to the classical sounds of WFMT? The trouble with this new habit is that one never knows what WFMT will play next. Gentle tinny harpsichords, or a bit of Saint-Saëns, are all very well and soothing at ten o'clock at night. But so often the announcer's voice seems to come on so loud, as he informs you that "THAT WAS CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS' 'AQUARIUM,' FROM THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS." Or, one may be listening to a most interesting and complex and intense piano piece, backed by a great deal of static and fuzziness, as though the recording came interestingly from a very old vinyl album ... a blank space. One must have fallen asleep. Suddenly a poor but brave male voice shout-sings the solo "Miracle of Miracles" from Fiddler on the Roof.

This really did happen a few nights ago. It was ghastly. My startled brain reached back from oblivion to grab some sort of anchor or memory to cope with this. (Probably a reptilian survival mechanism. Bite!) What should surface but a recollection of my freshman-year high school science teacher onstage, as Motel the tailor, singing this song and creditably too in a faculty-student production of the play. I can still see, not only him in full cry, but also the look of the program typed out on brown paper on a real typewriter, before the days of computers and default Word text-wrap. His name was Stan Something-or-other-incredibly-long-and-Polish. Since he was the only male teacher in an all-girls school, of course we were all mad about him. As we were not a little in awe of the senior girls playing alongside him.     

The radio station followed up this professional rendition of "Miracles" with a late-night interview with the professional himself. Not our Stan, but Austin Pendleton, they called him. Is it true, as I read somewhere, that every single experience we ever have and everything we ever see is permanently recorded in the brain, but that we forget the bulk of them, so that we can function unburdened by it all? Even memories of the casts of screwball comedies? I ask because, in my sleepy half-oblivion and having already revisited my high school's Spring Musical circa 1980, even the name Austin Pendleton slotted into place. This actor played, did he not, the role of the rich, wonderfully nerdy scientist-benefactor handing out fellowships to Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc?

Why yes, he did. I looked him up when fully alert the next day. Not only that. Austin Pendleton has evidently had a long and successful career, not the least of his achievements being that he originated, originated I say, the role of Motel the tailor in the very first Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in 1964. So what do I know? Perhaps he sang very nicely after all.   

But after all I mustn't forget, this is a food and wine blog. During lulls in the competition at the karate tournament, I read Karen Hess' Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (Columbia University Press, 1981, 1995). Karen Hess' scholarship is wondrous to behold. Imagine knowing about "the Runic thorn,"* imagine having access to real, rare manuscripts, at the Bodleian, at the New York Botanical Garden Library (didn't know there was one). But I must ask. Why is her tone so angry and joyless? She reminds me of M.F. K. Fisher, except that Karen Hess is a starchy, displeased (cooking-)school mistress where Fisher is more an offended dove/wordsmith-artiste. Both hate the modern world's defilement of all traditional food sources and ancient cooking techniques. Both especially hate having to share the world with other human beings who have rushed the pace of degradation by thankfully embracing atrocities like pasteurized cream, metal stoves with piped-in gas, and refrigeration. Everything was better, you see, when ovens were brick, oysters were pickled the Tudor way, and there was no atomic fallout in Our Lakes and Streams. "All salt and freshwater creatures must have had a fine clean taste that none of us has ever tasted, nor ever shall," Mrs. Hess pronounces. Oh really. No mention of cholera in olden-time drinking water, for a start. She even hates flour, at least in sauces. So incidentally does America's Test Kitchen's own Chris Kimball, who in Fannie's Last Supper (2010) wrote an entire book about Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook, in which he in fact did not recreate a meal Fannie would have recognized, partly because he didn't like her "floury" sauces.

We won't dwell. I only wonder whether, among the great foodies, these attitudes are sometimes stunts and business decisions. As to Mrs. Hess -- unless it was a stunt -- let us pray God that in heaven they at least keep her away from Julia Child, whom in life she called a "dithering idiot."

We won't dwell; we'll return to earth and to our own kitchens. What follows is not exactly a recipe for a marvelous pig in satin, but something like: it's a bit of pork  with apples and cream, adapted and simplified from a dish in René Verdon's White House Chef Cookbook (1967) -- on weekends you see, among our random stories, we also tend to cook from books randomly pulled off the pantry shelf. M. Verdon dedicated this one to the late President and his family, in gratitude for their giving him "the happiest years of his life." Mere happiness, and a modern recipe done with pasteurized cream. I fear the better sort among us would be appalled.

"Roast Loin of Pork St. Cloud"
4 pound pork loin roast (or pork shoulder)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup white wine
1 cup applesauce
1 large apple, sliced thin
brown sugar (about 1-2 Tbsp)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Melt the butter in a heavy pot, and brown the pork on all sides. Scatter the garlic and celery atop the meat. Pour on the wine. Cover the pot and place it in a preheated 300 F oven, to bake slowly for 3 to 4 hours. (Turn the heat down to 225 F after the first hour.)

About half an hour before serving, take the pot out of the oven and add to the liquid in the pan the applesauce and the sliced apples, which you will tuck around the meat. Sprinkle a little brown sugar over the apples. Return all to the oven and cook until the apples are tender. Pour in the cream, stir it up and simmer it for five more minutes.

*The Runic thorn shows up as the letter y, pronounced "th" in old English words like ye -- which is not an archaic "you" but instead is read "the," as yn reads "then."

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