Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Eating lumps of expensive middle-cut salmon with a country appetite"

I have always thought the above line, about eating salmon with a "country" appetite, has about it the vigorous ring of a caption, or a blog post title. It comes from the last of E.F. Benson's six Mapp and Lucia novels, Trouble for Lucia. In this one, Benson has the stroke of genius that brings together his two greatest characters, Lucia of course, and Miss Susan Leg, renowned multi-millionaire authoress of schlock romance fiction under the nom-de-plume Rudolph da Vinci. When Miss Leg unexpectedly visits dear little Tilling, Lucia's arch nemesis Elizabeth Mapp "gets hold of her." This means she invites her to dinner, escorts her about the town on sightseeing tours from which everyone else is shooed away, and plans receptions for her only when she is good and ready to share this social prize with the rabble. One night Elizabeth and her husband Major Benjy ask Susan to a "plain, simple potluck" dinner which they can hardly afford -- middle cut salmon, a brace of grouse, caviar, Melba peaches -- Benjy chortling as they sit down that he "hopes his guest has a country appetite." For that feast, of course the authoress has. Benson gives us his vigorous, ringing line. Miss Leg barely pauses to take breath amid the gossip, while "eating lumps of expensive middle cut salmon with a country appetite."

What they enjoyed was " 'a nice fresh-run fish' " Benjy says, from a river, whereas what I've got is a middle-to-tail-cut portion from a humbler and cheaper creature, farm raised in Chile or Norway probably. When it's a plain leftover as well, I put it into a pan with some milk and a pat of butter and a few spinach leaves, and heat that through while I cook a pot of angel hair pasta alongside; and if my smartphone photograph also takes in the extraneous purple tea kettle, that must serve as a little visual treat and refreshment for you, to atone for the fact that my food pictures don't look like the beautiful closeup shots of plates, or it might be beef or steaming vegetables or bright tangerine sorbet in rustic glassware, all gloriously backlit by the natural outdoors; and then there are casually placed wooden kitchen chairs, and a fringed napkin folded over once, -- which you see in magazines and food blogs. No, not like those.      




Salmon: from the Middle English salmoun, by way of Old French saumon and Latin salmo; and before that, we see in our Webster's only the mysterious < ?. Another one of those fine English words which means only itself. It makes therefore a fine addition to our "Twenty English Words" project. We have strayed a bit from our original list, granted. In the beginning it included pretty ideas like book, lamp, moon, son, and daughter. Instead, in the natural course of writing, we have ended up investigating some pretty things yes -- dream, apple -- but also odder items -- clothes, and poltroon. Of salmon, Dr. Johnson says only it is "a fish." He is aware of the French and Latin derivations.
   
You know, my fatheads, I still surf the food blogs sometimes and when I do I end up feeling quite a dinosaur. Or " 'quite a hermit,' " as Lucia would say. " 'My music, my books ... Georgie dines quietly with me, or I with him. Busy, happy days!' "  The food blogs pop with video ads, and bursts of color from hand-tinted smartphone pictures sent to Snapchat, plus shots of ocean or beach if the blogger has gone to some conference or other. And they link through to what they're reading, and it can be awfully thin stuff -- unparagraphed stream of consciousness memoirs about artist-colony love affairs, apparently lesbian because at least that's somewhat titillating -- and the video ads pop there, too, for Tiffany's and Brahmin. Perfectly natural, as this is New York magazine. Only what is it about our stern age that refuses to allow the woman artist-eccentric any enjoyment of clothes or personal appearance? Eighty years ago Benson wrote novels full of lady writers and painters, who could have graced any London or New York smart-set dinner party dressed, if they wanted, in a man's suit, cravat, cloth topped boots and monocle. "Marcelled" hair too. We think of Quaint Irene, or of Secret Lives' delightsome Lady Eva Lowndes, forever seeing other people's invisible halos. Our age will have none of it. An elderly lady poet looks like a wizened, uneasy lumberjack. When poets' words seem often lovely, I want them to be lovely themselves. I don't mean simply pretty. Let me help: here is Susan Leg herself, at a dinner party in Durham Square, in E.F. Benson's Secret Lives (1932):
She leaned forward with her chin out in an attitude of rapt expectation, her face looking of incredible insignificance underneath her spider-webbed hat which was gorgeously trimmed with bunches of artificial grapes in three colors, black, red, and yellow, and garnished with crimson vine leaves. She wore her string of pearls around her short, plump neck; ...she wore a bright green silk coat over a muslin dress in which was pinned a cluster of malmaisons [pink carnations]. She was enjoying this party given in her honor quite immensely ....
Meanwhile you and I, we dinosaurs, hardly smart set types, we don't do Snapchat. Nobody offers us trendy video ads. We are blogging the Gospels, posting amateur photographs of leftover salmon in a pan indoors at night, and chortling over English social comedy novels of the Jazz Age. It snowed that night, I mean the night of the salmon and the purple tea kettle; the calm, hushed snowfall that makes you want to go out and take a walk in the calm, hushed, strangely gray-bright world -- even though you likely don't because you just got home from work and after a moment's reflection, you opt for pajamas and a cocktail. Children's voices, or the raspy grind of a snowblower, echo muffled from before and behind and everywhere, as if bouncing off the underside of some huge gray-bright blanket.  





The accompanying wine was delicious, a Valpolicella from Buglioni, retail, about $13. It looks like this. Natural light.




Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Again with the Tuesday night stream-of-consciousness thing. Matthew 8

As for the stream of consciousness, well, why not? -- I have just embarked on an email correspondence with a (relatively) well-known British writer, with whom either I shall have an interesting Victorian-style letter exchange for a time, or who has been told by his publishers "do some marketing" and is fulfilling that mandate only for as long as he must, -- at any rate under this impetus I have been dashing off "a budget of news" of a morning, and find the haste and ease of it charming at evensong too;

-- our old friend Tom Wark at Fermentation has just said that the heyday of the wine blog and probably the personal blog is over, if we may judge by the decline in google searches for those terms since the glory years of 2009-2010; people who wish to share anything have long since turned to social media, Facebook especially, to say it faster. So one feels one may write anything one likes, as no agent or editor is likely trolling the internet looking for smart, focused niches;

-- tomorrow, February 10, marks the anniversary of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Albert, or as she liked to call him sometimes, "DEAREST PERFECT ALBERT." 1840. I just love Queen Victoria. Such a dumpy, loving, decisive but melodramatic little force of nature she must have been. The dumpy soul nevertheless wrote frankly of "being clasped by him in the sacred hours of the night" and bore nine children to prove it; struck her hand to her head and melodramatically shrieked "My reason! my reason!" when she feared her grandfather King George III's madness was coming out in her; yet had an intellect and a character piercing enough to make Bismarck mop his brow and gasp "mein Gott, that is a woman" upon surviving his first dealing with her. She held up her late husband's miniature portrait, when traveling, before the fine sights of Europe that they had not been able to see together, as if that symbolic act counted as a joint vacation (in the eyes of God I am sure it did -- now that is faith); and yet she was worldly enough to purr, "a rose in front, child -- for the sake of the footmen" when she noticed her blooming granddaughters showing too much cleavage in the drawing room.

A hundred and seventy six years ago, young Victoria, aged twenty, lay awake in raptures we presume on the eve of her true life's beginning. How odd, when you think of it, that the earth's completing of one hundred and seventy six orbits around the sun should serve to make time pass, such that people grow and age, and die. This is not to be morbid, but simply to notice. A science fiction plot or at least the background to one, lies here also. Some near-deathless alien creature, all wings and eyes, should also be puzzled by this. The Earthman hero would be at a loss to explain.

Now to blogging the sources. Matthew, chapter 8. Jesus performs four major cures of named characters, the leper, the centurion's servant, Peter's mother-in-law, and the two "Gadarene demoniacs," whose demons he drives into a herd of swine who then rush down into the sea and drown. Amid other healings, he also calms the storm at sea and dissuades two potential disciples from following him who won't be able to handle the life. After all this, "the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district."

This is odd, almost shocking. Wouldn't they beg him to stay? Who wants demoniacs around, "so savage no one could travel by that road," who does not want to be cured of leprosy by a word? There is the ring of truth to this mass reaction, however: a normal human fear of something beyond freakishness, and a desire to protect against it.

There is also some major point being made in the elaboration of the story of the centurion's servant. Other characters in the Gospel so far simply ask for healing, and are granted it. The centurion speaks the wonderful words, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my servant will be healed," and he goes on without a break to describe authority. He is subject to authority himself, and he commands soldiers and slaves. It's upon hearing this that Jesus exclaims on the centurion's "faith," and of course heals the servant by long distance in that hour. But faith in what? In Jesus' own place in a proper progression of authority?


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Rain, music, Matthew 7 -- stream-of-conscious-ing the sources

People hate bad weather, but I think there are times when rain, cold, whipping winds and darkness can be very comfortable. That is, of course, when you are home safe, have the evening free before you plus the following day, and can indulge yourself with a cocktail, Chopin, some cheeses and the cat. She walks repeatedly, delicately around the computer keyboard, purring and stretching a back leg just so. One must peer over her arched back, and around her big fluffy tail, just so. Do you know the photo of the medieval cat's inky pawprints, discovered on the pages of a 15th century manuscript in Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik is in Croatia, rather a famous ancient city. It used to be called Ragusa, and is, so they say, the most beautiful medieval walled city in the world.


Image from National Geographic

I hope the cat in the year 1400-and-something was gently steered off the book to the stone-flagged floor, there to be given a distracting treat, and not flung headlong out a clerestory window by an enraged scribe. I myself have a second cat who is not nearly so graceful as the first, especially around computer keyboards.

And I often think, during election years especially, that someone should find a way to popularize the riposte, "You're in Dubrovnik, I don't hear you," as an acknowledged formula to deflate poltroon candidates, rambling bully professors, malicious journalists, straw-man debate opponents, hectoring trolls, and other such people who chloroform debate while pretending to advance it. You're in Dubrovnik -- I don't hear you would be a way of saying, you eternally lie and I no longer expend any energy for you about that. The little speech is one that Mia Farrow's character says towards the end of Rosemary's Baby. She looks straight ahead and grips a knife I think, as she confronts all the people in her apartment building, and life, who are devil worshipers and are after her "little Andy or Jenny." Chief among the coven are the too-solicitous old neighbor couple, who at this climactic scene are supposed to be vacationing innocently in Dubrovnik, but clearly are not because there they are in the room. They attempt to soothe and reprove her. She speaks the liberating words.

"You're in Dubrovnik. I don't hear you."

The rain has stopped, but the weatherman says a freeze is settling in, so we are even cozier. The Chopin has been a recording of the complete Nocturnes, which you may access on YouTube; our pianist here, one Brigitte Engerer, (1952-2012). She was known for being little-known to the public but hugely respected by peers, for being "always chicly turned out," and for chain-smoking Gauloises.

What else better to do with the rest of the evening than Blog the Sources? We have reached Matthew, chapter 7. Let us see what, just what, the Sources will give to us on any ordinary rainy dark Tuesday night in February. Revelation, is it now? We will indulge in pure stream of consciousness reactions.

"Judge not, lest ye be judged." The instruction not to criticize or really judge another person -- followed by the explanation that whatever "mote" or speck you see in your brother's eye, the "beam" in yours is far bigger -- must have had a civilizing influence. Condemnation and then violence can always hack away at one another. Perhaps what has a chance to stop both is an internal control: "I have no right to condemn, I have my fellow's fault ten times over."

And yet this instruction is followed by "do not cast your pearls before swine," i.e. don't offer precious things to people who can't appreciate them. Precious spiritual or intellectual things, correct? Instructions, even? -- since who owns pearls? But isn't that itself a judgment?

"Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Now here we come to something. Is this a new definition or understanding of God? God who is personally present, a petition or a thought away from every human being. We know of the God whom Abraham argues with over the punishment coming to Sodom and Gomorrah, the God with whom Moses spoke "face to face." We have heard of Elijah's "still small voice." and of God who told Jeremiah, "before I formed you in the womb I knew you." Now God himself is a kind of parable: the father who will far less "give his son a stone when he asks for bread," than a human father, "wicked" as he humanly is, would do.

"Therefore." All it takes is one word, missing in modern translations and present in the King James, to draw together the chapter into a lesson. Yes yes, don't judge other people, ask and you shall receive, "do to others whatever you would have them do to you," yes we get it. But no. No, "therefore all things that ye would men do to you, do also to them." We are not talking about random sweet-natured deeds. If you want life to be coherent, then approach its component parts coherently: do not judge your fellow man, and ask of God what you want, and therefore -- keeping the coherent pattern -- behave toward your fellow man as you want him to behave to you. You are already beyond mere non-judgment. If he too is living coherently, if he too just got done asking God for what he wants, and is now facing the world and his business therefore doing unto others, etc. "This is the law and the prophets."

But who actually can do this? The instructions seem simple and sensible enough. No sooner does Jesus vouchsafe them, though, than he gives in quick succession four short word-pictures (flash fiction, shall we say?) about 1) the difficulty of entering "at the narrow gate," about 2) recognizing good and rotten trees by their sound and rotten fruits and of course he means much more than trees, about 3) even "disciples" who do what he does -- drive out demons, do "mighty deeds" "in his name" ("wonderful works," the King James says, which seems less cartoonish than mighty deeds) -- being rejected by him at the end, finally about 4) the "wise man" who acts on his teaching being like a man who builds a house on a solid foundation.

Why the narrow gate, the exclusivity? He seems almost gleeful about it.

 And "when Jesus finished, the crowds were astonished, for he taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes." I'll bet they were.

Now YouTube has segued into Clair de Lune, Debussy, and both cats are asleep.        
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