Sunday, November 30, 2014

Food, art, freedom -- Pol Roger for Churchill's birthday

In honor of the birth of Sir Winston Churchill (November 30, 1874): his favorite, Pol Roger Champagne.

Food writing can't help but seem unserious in an age when serious things are afoot, that is to say in any age. You remember how we discussed whether it might not be a civilizational divide: Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (1935), noticed that in China it has always been normal for scholars, poets, and generals to write books about food, a sign of maturity he thinks, whereas in the West cookery writing has been considered "worthy of Aunt Susan only ... there is no such thing as a Galsworthy cutlet [John Galsworthy published The Forsyte Saga in 1922]." It is a nice problem. Does effetely thinking about food siphon off energies that should go to worthier matters? 

Food, the arts, seriousness, is on my mind today because I happen to be enjoying the (re-)acquaintance of two long-dead but great artists. One is Maria Callas, again, seen through some YouTube videos. (Is her French as fluent as it sounds? Brava for being able to understand the five men interlocutors surrounding her couch on a Parisian talk show set in the '60s, but when she says things like "je suis libre parce que je ne fais pas les concessions" [I am free because I do not make concessions] I wonder if Madame, my French language professor, would not sniff patiently. "You are speaking English." Still, I love the fact that Callas' French interviewers quickly get to asking about the state of her soul, whereas the English Lord Harewood seems to stick to musicality and to follow the prima donna's lead. Like so -- the French -- Q: But when you speak of the duty to justify your place in life by the greatest and most perfect effort possible, it sounds as though there is another woman inside you, hectoring you. Do you not feel resentment? A: Mais non, c'est l'amour! Then, in The Callas Conversations -- Callas begins: "Of course, singing Wagner is much easier than singing Donizetti." Lord H.: "In some ways, yes." Callas (a swift look): "In every way."

The other artist in my life now is the Czech writer, gourmand, and musician Joseph Wechsberg, whose book Blue Trout and Black Truffles (1953), among others, I have long been aware of but had never yet read. Both these people, the prima donna and the epicure, either began their careers in, or drew material for their art from, serious places not exactly awash in the twentieth century's scant helpings of safety or good fortune. Callas matured in Greece just before World War II, Wechsberg in the former Czechoslovakia and in the great capitals of eastern Europe as they fell under the twin jackboots of that war and socialist control afterward. In both situations, I can't help but startle, a little, though I fear it marks me as an innocent barbarian. Like so -- what business had Athens under storm clouds to run royal opera companies for young Maria Kalogeropoulos to debut in? As for her later roles in Verona in 1947, was Italy not then busy doing serious things, "rebuilding"? Then there is this quote, from Wechsberg's essay "A Balatoni Fogas to Start With." It is all about the Hungarian restaurateur Charles Gundel, "ranked by connoisseurs all over the world in a class with Escoffier and Fernand Point." **   
Some restaurants on the European continent still carry on [circa 1950] along the lines of the highest gastronomical tradition, but practically not one of them is located in the vast, bleak area behind the Iron Curtain. No meal can be perfect if the ingredients that go into it aren't, and in the countries under Soviet domination it is impossible to obtain perfect ingredients. Often it is impossible to obtain any ingredients at all. People in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania and Hungary liked to eat well; the best restaurants in Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, and Budapest ran a close second to the best restaurants in France. But now food is rationed in all these places. It is no longer a question of getting good food, but of getting any food at all.
People in Poland and Rumania liked to eat well. What a thought. Yes, I suppose being human they would, just as people in Athens even under storm clouds -- developing into Axis occupation no less -- and in Verona rebuilding, liked to go to the opera.

Note how such pleasurable things come to a crashing halt when people who want to rule daily life for everyone's good take over. Especially the food part. Apparatchiks seem able to maintain a state opera company or a traditional imperial circus if it is a question of displaying national pride, but good eating and drinking is such a private, everyday thing. It relies so on the individual's creativity if he is the chef, and on his freedom to go out to eat where and when he likes, to pursue his own tastes, if he is the customer. Both need the freedom to buy and sell unhindered by equality police or nutrition police or by Economic Police. Wechsberg says these latter did exist in Charles Gundel's Budapest. They controlled the prices he could charge for meals, and visited his restaurant to spy on which guests were spending unfair amounts of money. Naturally, because some animals are always more equal than others, it ended up being just these apparatchiks, as well as the black marketeers, who could afford to patronize what few good restaurants survived in mid-20th century eastern Europe. Not that state flunkies had any interest in what they were eating. And all this is not to speak of the efforts everyone had to make to "get any food at all." Wechsberg closes this essay:
Last year, Gundel's restaurants were nationalized. Now Hungary's Communist commissars entertain their honored guests at Gundel's. The name has remained, but nothing else has. The food is bad. Gundel himself was permitted to leave. He lives in quiet retirement somewhere in Austria. 
He was permitted to leave. Though food writing may seem unserious in a serious world, reading Joseph Wechsberg made me suddenly reflect otherwise. Deeply unpleasant people, committed you would think to far loftier ideals than belly-filling, can nevertheless affect so basic a thing as what food there is around. We in the West have mostly been spared the fury of these scold-scourges. The only one who comes to mind as active today is the current President's wife. Perhaps the mayor of New York, too. Fortunately we are free enough to disobey the former, and even to laugh. Disobeying the latter is more problematic.

So in a way, worried about seriousness and food, we come full circle and meet a startling truth. Perhaps a perfectly good defense against the deeply unpleasant types -- assuming we do not actually have to go to war with them, in obedience to Churchill's dictum that civilization requires we "show ourselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe" -- is to record, savor, develop, and resurrect all those roasts and "ragoos." attention to which seems frivolous, but is not because everyone must eat; and because barbaric and atavistic forces will gladly progress from the control of ragoos to the control of bread and water if they can. And they always exempt themselves.

Now we began with Maria Callas, but have not talked much about her because as a Western woman pursuing her career in the West, she was free. "Libre." No equality police hounded her, insisting she sing less well. However, we're glad to discover she seems to have been a gourmande herself. Almost ten years ago, The Guardian ran a feature on her passion for food and for collecting wonderful recipes that she savored only vicariously, out of concern to manage her weight. "Tomato omelettes, veal l'orientale, sauces, cakes, and chocolate beignets" all went into her handbag in the form of scribbled notes on paper, often from restaurants. Then they found their way to her chef and her dinner parties. Guests indulged while she ate a few morsels and drank a little champagne. It's said to be less caloric than still wine. We hope that she and Aristotle Onassis (the rat) offered Churchill his Pol Roger when they entertained him on Onassis' yacht. There's an old video of the great man being helped into a tender (I think it's called? a small boat that brings people to a big boat) and giving his V for victory sign as he tootles off with his hosts. Never surrender.

** Strangely enough, John Galsworthy, he whom Lin Yutang thought would never name a cutlet, seems to have known of Gundel's. Joseph Wechsberg records that Gundel himself showed him a poem which the author of Forsyte wrote in the restaurant's guestbook one night in the 1920s, after a fine meal. It is called simply "The Prayer," and was published in Verses Old and New in 1926.
If on a spring night I went by 
And God were standing there, 
What is the prayer that I would cry
To Him? This is the prayer. 

O Lord of courage grave, 
O master of this night of spring, 
Make firm in me a heart too brave 
To ask Thee anything!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Apple ginger squash soup for Thanksgiving

This is a handwritten recipe from a friend, dating from the days when our group of young stay-at-home mothers organized toddler playdates and Christmas recipe exchanges. (And yes, tempus fugit and two of them are grandmothers already.) It's been tucked away in a binder ever since I tried it for the first time one appropriately wintry day, and found the combination of squash and fresh ginger too bizarre for my innocent tastes. Thank God, time flies -- looking over it anew, I saw how simple it was, and so made it for our Thanksgiving. As my friend wrote at the bottom of the page: "On Thanksgiving Day keep pot simmering -- keep covered -- on stove or in crockpot. Serve as a warm beverage in mugs. Adds wonderful aroma throughout the house. Really! Really! Wonderful!" And it is.

You'll need:

3-4 Tbsp butter
1 and 1/2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut in chunks
1 medium onion (sliced)
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1 sprig of thyme or 1/2 tsp dried
2 Tbsp fresh ginger
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Saute the squash, onion, and apple in the butter about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth and the thyme, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes until squash is tender. Remove thyme sprig if using, and let soup cool.

In blender, puree soup in batches, adding the fresh ginger with each batch. Blend well.

Scald cream, and stir in the pureed soup. Reheat to a simmer. Ladle into mugs, and sprinkle with chives or scallion tops before serving. The recipe is rich but serves only six -- it could be easily doubled for a larger crowd.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Here come the Thanksgiving pinot noirs

-- among which, and starting off in no particular order, is 2010 Llai Llai, from Chile's Bio Bio Valley.

In Llai llai, pinot noir's distinctive earth-tar-hung game-forest floor-musk aromas lean more toward (very clean) forest floor and wholesome chewy bread crust; be forewarned the delicate, fresh berry flavors that follow will not last beyond the first night, so if you open this for Thanksgiving, drink up. That seems to be true for many of the good, inexpensive holiday pinot noirs I have been lucky enough to sample lately.

Llai llai pinot noir retails for about $12 to $15.

The next two are from R. Stuart Winery, McMinnville, Oregon. Big Fire is their more approachable pinot, R. Stuart Autograph the "step-up" label. I preferred the latter.

2008 Big Fire pinot noir

very pale, clear red
earth, fresh, faint floral --
very light, very subtle fruit (too light?)
almost as gentle as water -- a little burst of acid and tannin at the end
will accompany any food

Retail, about $20

2008 R. Stuart "Autograph" pinot noir

All of the above, only this time a gray charcoal drawing colored in --
more berry-like fruit, more of a pinot's earth and musk
more acid, more body, more interest

Start here?

Retail, about $30.

The Crossings

Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand --

startlingly light, bright currant jelly color
that pinot noir scent -- earthy, tarry, "gamy"
light silky acidity, berries

... and very good with a baked short rib stew and garlic mashed potatoes. A pinot noir's musky delicacy can be as surprising as its clear, jewel-like color when it sloshes into the glass, especially if you have spent several weeks sloshing cherry-sweet malbecs, thick, black carmeneres, or chocolate-coated zinfandel blends (all the rage) into that same glass.

Which leads me to admit that, really, I am suffering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the samples that nice people at wineries and winery PR firms send me. (Thanksgiving pinots is the theme of the latest shipments. Remember when I used to drop broad hints that I'd be delighted to be offered a sample one day? It's true, I am delighted.) Or, as my daughter complains when she ventures into the little pantry to get some comestible, and turns around and stubs her toe on yet another cardboard box -- "We're tripping over wine in this house." Followed by an equally frustrated  "...and we're tripping over cats," as one or other of our large furry roommates, absorbed in rubbing meaningfully against a human leg, trots away in alarm from a misplaced human foot. The pantry is where we keep the kibble, too, so of course the lords of the manor imagine any darkening of its threshold is all about that.

Absent a short rib stew with garlic mashed potatoes, will The Crossings pinot noir complement Thanksgiving? Yes, I think so. Delightful. 

Retail, about $15 to $20.

And finally, FogDog. They also make a marvelous chardonnay.

Bright lush color
Bursting, almost fizzy with strawberries --
typical musk or tarriness is not so evident
a little vanilla
Excellent -- pair it with something rich and creamy --

-- or your Thanksgiving turkey, of course.

Image from Freestone Vineyards

Monday, November 24, 2014

I am your ultimate Thanksgiving wine pairing guide

It is really all so simple. You must plan to serve more wine. At least four types, and preferably five or six.

Our ancestors would never have dreamed of forcing one or two wines to be all things to all guests at this, the most important meal of the year. Here is a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner, from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, written by Fannie Farmer and originally published in 1896.

Oyster soup, crisp crackers
Celery, salted almonds
Roast turkey, cranberry jelly
Mashed potatoes, onions in cream, squash
Chicken pie
Fruit pudding, sterling sauce
Mince, apple, and squash pies
Neapolitan ice cream, fancy cakes
Fruit, nuts, raisins, bonbons
Crackers, cheese, cafe noir

Opulent as this repast is, it still does not constitute a "full course" formal dinner, which would have proceeded precisely and graciously from shellfish to soup to fish to roast (beef) to vegetable to sorbet to game to salads to jellies, puddings, ices, cakes, bonbons, and then the inevitable crackers, cheese, and cafe noir. As to the wines at either style of meal, full or not, Miss Farmer's advice is brief.

"Where wines and liqueurs are served, the first course is not usually accompanied by either; but if desired, Sauterne [sic] or other white wine may be served. 

"With soup, serve sherry; with fish, white wine; with game, claret [Bordeaux, e.g., a cabernet-merlot blend]; with roast and other courses, champagne."

That's all. Unless of course, you wish to add after-dinner cordials to the festivities.

"After serving cafe noir in the drawing room, pass pony of brandy for men, sweet liqueur (Chartreuse, Benedictine, or Parfait d'Amour) for women; then Creme de Menthe to all."

You'll be relieved to know that the very last thing "passed" was Apollinaris, sparkling water. And can it be that Miss Farmer did not much like Burgundy? For she seems to have forgotten it, whereas the table settings drawn up in the era's equally popular White House Cookbook make prominent room for it. To the right of one's plate at a formal dinner in Washington in Gilded Age days, one found six glasses, arranged in a sort of anchor pattern: glasses I, II, and III, the arms of the anchor, held Sauternes, sherry, and Rhine (German riesling) respectively; glass IV at the anchor's throat held water (thank goodness); glasses V and VI, making up the shank, held champagne and Burgundy.We know for example, from this same White House Cookbook, that General Grant's birthday dinner allowed for the serving of "Ernest Jeroy" along with filet de boeuf a la Bernardi. Ernest Jeroy seems to have fallen off the planet -- look for it in books in vain, google it and you will find it only turns up in retellings of General Grant's birthday dinner --  but it sounds like a Burgundy, doesn't it? The fact that it was also served at a state dinner to accompany saumon and then grenadines de bass leads me to suspect it was everything a supple, beef- and fish-friendly pinot noir should be. Perhaps Miss Farmer simply preferred her claret.

At any rate, the holiday wine and food pairing challenge is easy to face. Let our ancestors guide you. To each course, its appropriate wine. The good people at Epicurious appear to have some inklings. They suggest a trio of food pairings for each of several possible wines, based on the flavor profiles of some suggested recipes for the turkey, the stuffing, a vegetable, and so on. Chardonnay to match sweetness, a pinot noir to match anything herbal, a zinfandel to marry with Italian flavor profiles. All fine. But to General Grant, or Miss Farmer, I suspect such anxieties might have seemed rather mean. Rather too much concerned with efficiency and not pleasure. For heaven's sake, they might have said, all this has been thought out for you long since. Look at the six glasses beside your plate, and be glad to anticipate all the good, right things coming your way.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Chestnuts 101

Every autumn and holiday season, I vow that I will cook chestnuts this year. I forget why I ever got the idea. Somehow I recall reading a French cookbook, which enthused about chestnuts and made them seem glamorous and wonderful. This year became the year, because I read a post at An Obsession with Food and Wine which dropped broad hints that chestnuts are a pain in the neck. I thought, aha! If a professional has difficulties with them, then I perversely have the courage to try them. So I bought a small bag from the grocery store, brought them home, consulted my cooking bible, Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and set to.

Chestnut instructions always begin with the cutting of a slit or cross on the flat side of the nut.

Then, we drop them into boiling water "for a minute or two." Voila -- they do come out with the shell and skin looking ready to peel.

Then, we peel them. The inner skin is not papery like the skin of a garlic clove, but gluey and rather thick. It also adheres to the wrinkles and bumps of the nut meat. The nuts grow more difficult to peel as they cool, which is why the cookbook recommends another dip in boiling water for the stubborn ones.

My first chestnut came out beautifully. It looks exactly like a little brain, which makes me wonder why chestnuts aren't a bigger deal for Halloween snacking fun.

It took two of us about fifty minutes to peel about a pound or so of chestnuts. I begin to think there is something sensible in the old song's instructions to roast them on an open fire. And none of them emerged as pristine as the first. Perhaps it would be best to host a chestnut-peeling bee whenever you feel the urge to include these in your holiday menu, so that a dozen people can make headway against the little brains while they are still hot.

The next day, I simmered them in a cup of chicken broth,

as the cookbook recipe directed (although it did specify beef broth, which I did not have), and then after 20 minutes, added 2 tablespoons butter and some salt and pepper. All might have been well, but in the final five-minute rush of getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table, I kind of forgot about the chestnuts. They overcooked and turned a tad mushy, and did not look appetizing enough to photograph.

Their flavor was mild, smoky, and unremarkable considering all the effort of preparing them. Needless to say they were far too dry, as dry as a mouthful of unbaked pastry dough -- in fact, to combine them on a fork with cranberry sauce was to create an effect just like pie. Perhaps a new pie crust idea for those with gluten problems?

Derrick at OFW endured Chestnut-aux-pain in the neck and then paired his particular recipe with a wine called a vin jaune ("yellow wine") from the Arbois appellation of the Jura region in eastern France: a 1997 Stephane Tissot, to be exact. This is a wine made from a local native grape, the white Savagnin. The wine sits in a half-full barrel for six years under a coat of natural yeast scum, "during which time" (says Oz Clarke in the New Encyclopedia of French Wines) "it oxidizes, develops a totally arresting damp sourness like the dark reek of old floorboards, and yet also keeps a full fruit, albeit somewhat decayed."

How I do admire professionals, and all they know. We enjoyed our Thanksgiving dinner, complete with Chestnut Meh, with a standby grocery store riesling that I (ridiculously) decanted because the decanter is pretty. Good times.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Thanksgiving necessity: creamed onions

This is a big one: over 2,800 views, in At First Glass' day. It's amazing how often people start googling "creamed onions" in October and November.

Creamed onions were not on my family's Thanksgiving table when I was growing up, but I have added them to my menu because I found them listed among the suggestions for the feast at the back of Miss Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896). They seemed so authentic and historical as well as delicious-sounding, and easier to attempt than oyster soup (first course) or fruit pudding with sterling sauce (sixth course).

So here they are. You begin very simply, with fresh whole pearl onions. Drop them into boiling water and simmer them for three or four minutes. Drain them, run cold water over them, and then peel them by cutting off the root ends and squeezing the onion out of its skin. By this procedure you will probably squeeze the onion out of its first layer or two of flesh, as well. It looks and seems wasteful, but can hardly be helped.

Over the years I've learned a variety of ways to simplify the rest of the story. The best and richest way to prepare creamed onions is to make a standard cream sauce, based on a roux of equal parts melted butter and flour stirred into a bubbling paste, to which milk is added; stir and cook until the sauce is smooth. Proportions for this are easy to remember: 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour will need 1 cup of milk, 4 tablespoons each will need 2 cups of milk, and 5 tablespoons of each will need 3 cups. Once the sauce is done, you can put the onions to finish cooking in it -- they are done in about five more minutes -- and then leave them to stay hot on a back burner, until you are ready to serve them.

Or, if you have a gluten allergy problem, you can cook the onions in milk themselves,

and then when you are ready to serve, thicken the milk with a free form, GF (gluten-free) flour and water slurry. You can also simply sprinkle potato flour over the bubbling liquid, and stir it in until it dissolves. Keep on adding a little more potato flour until the cream is as thick as you want it. Both these methods serve the purpose, although these sauces don't cling to the onions as nicely as a traditional sauce does.

Salt and pepper and a dash of nutmeg are all that is needed to finish any of them.

Now you may move on to the rest of your dinner. Don't forget to give thanks, really.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Me first! Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, 2014

Beaujolais is made from "gamay the gulpable," as Jancis Robinson called the grape in her small book Grapes and Wines. Gulpable it is, and by that we mean fresh, full, and simple, exactly as if plain grape juice had a slightly older cousin who had been, not quite around the block a few times, but had perhaps dashed across the street on a dare, once. There is absolutely no trace in a Beaujolais Nouveau of the adulthood other wines show. No tannins, no acids, no hints of vanilla or leatheriness, no earth or figs. Just juice. Drink it up on the night of Thanksgiving, my fatheads, because in my opinion delightful and easy going as it is, it will not last even one extra day. 

In his small but excellent thumbnail-sketch book, Windows on the World: the Complete Wine Course, Kevin Zraly says that the quality of a Beaujolais Nouveau in any year can predict the quality of other Beaujolais from that same vintage. The various producers are in less of a hurry about those, releasing them the following spring. These additional Beaujolais types come from better (but still gamay) grapes grown in villages "which consistently produce better wines." Note that the producers can remain the same. And producers are not the same as villages. To talk about better Beaujolais than the Nouveaus of Thanksgiving is not to slur, for example, Georges Duboeuf, producer, whose Nouveau is pictured above.

Do we agree that a sample of a Nouveau predicts what's coming? Perhaps we should try to clear up a few small matters first. We are after all in Burgundy, where the vineyards have been so carefully tended and mapped for a thousand years that they outrank their owners; everybody jealously jostles to own and manage a few rows of vines in this celestial vineyard or that, or near this renowned village or other. In the Beaujolais subregion of Burgundy, the delineations are fairly simple. Three quality levels stand above the "Nouveau" of the bright flashy labels and November's "c'est arrivé!" excitement. In ascending order, there is "basic" Beaujolais made of gamay grown anywhere in the region; there is Beaujolais-Villages, blended from grapes of some of the 35 villages which consistently put out better wines; and there is Cru Beaujolais, made from grapes of 10 specific villages only. These villages -- and I still say French village and sometimes grape names provide an endlessly delightful resource for anyone puzzling over what to name a cat -- are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour.  The village names will appear on the label of a Cru Beaujolais. And lots of different producers, jealously jostling, can make their versions of the various Beaujolais Villages or Cru Beaujolais, depending on what parcels of what vineyards they own. You can find, for example, a Georges Duboeuf "Morgon." More serious wine, as Beaujolais goes, far less flashy label. Or you can find something like this. 

Now about the harvest, and vintage quality predictors and so on. Note that this Chateau de La Chaize Brouilly carries a vintage date of 2010. Might it taste good today? From Kevin Zraly we can infer, yes, most likely a Cru Beaujolais four years old is just about ripe for opening. He says Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages are meant to age perhaps one to three years. Crus longer, but not much beyond ten years. Four seems perfect. In fact, according to the useful website Beaujolais and Beyond, the 2010 vintage was good: "Much celebrated, a Beaujolais lover's vintage and a triumph of winemaking after adverse weather conditions." So our Chateau de La Chaize is right on time.

As for 2014, Beaujolais and Beyond says -- based on Nouveau samplings, or merely on weather records? -- the year looks promising. Though I am a bit perturbed by the wine's utter loss of flavor the next day (well, maybe that's normal), I kind of think so, too.

Beaujolais Nouveau, retail, about $9. Beaujolais Villages, about  $12. Cru Beaujolais, about $14.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Gourmet's Cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions, plus how we're all descended from royalty

My fatheads, you must forgive the quality of the picture. Think of it as rustic and homey, somehow.  Medieval ... Norman.

And what on earth do you say to a very kind young man who is interested in ancestry, and thinks he can trace his descent from the earliest American pilgrims, and English and French royalty, and all royalty going back to the Roman Empire? Apart from the glaring fixation -- no one is ever descended from plumbers, or even artists -- I would think a fourth-grade arithmetic class would disabuse any of us, permanently, of the notion that we get to have our own private family tree, which we can then imagine to be leafed out however we like. Ancestors double, you know, with each generation. You have only to go back a little more than a hundred years to find, already, your 32 great-great-great grandparents. Don't you think it's likely that they were also somebody else's great-great-great grandparents? Maybe even your co-workers', or the man in the street? Step back another generation and the number is 64. And so on. Henry Adams in his great book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) mused on "arithmetical ancestors," because he had computed even further.
Since the generation which followed William to England in 1066, we can reckon twenty-eight or thirty from father to son, and, if you care to figure up the sum, you will find that you had about two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors living in the middle of the eleventh century. The whole population of England and northern France may then have numbered five million [note: Fordham University estimates eight million], but if it were fifty it would not much affect the certainty that, if you have any English blood at all, you have also Norman. 
In other words your many-times-great-grandfathers, including the odd, titled roisterer-doisterer who may have visited some humble cottage with a glint in his eye, were your same many-times-great-grandfathers many times over. It's the only way everyone's arithmetical ancestors can fit into population levels of bygone eras. We're all descended from and related to everybody. Far from this news seeming -- to my young royal friend, or to anyone -- therefore disappointing, anonymous and dreary, Adams infuses it with romance:
If we could go back and live again in all our two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors of the eleventh century, we should find ourselves doing many surprising things, but among the rest we should pretty certainly be ploughing most of the fields of the Cotentin and Calvados; going to mass in every parish church in Normandy; rendering military service to every lord, spiritual or temporal, in all this region; and helping to build the Abbey Church at Mont Saint Michel. From the roof of the cathedral of Coutances over yonder, one may look away over the hills and woods, the farms and fields of Normandy, and so familiar, so homelike are they, one can almost take oath that in this, or the other, or in all, one knew life once and has never so fully known it since.

Never so fully known it since!  
My gentleman friend listened to all this and told me I should have tweaked the young royal about his math illiteracy -- innumeracy, do we call it now? -- and his idée fixe. I said, no. I think there is no harm in letting someone natter on about a harmless and pleasant fantasy. Perhaps when he is older a fabulous, fiery girl will give him the rough side of her tongue about birth records from the Roman Empire. He will be much amazed, grow up overnight, and will throw himself into a love affair to astonish them both. Then he can read Henry Adams, and find a truer level of mystic romance in anonymous things. 

Meanwhile, in honor of the Calvados that Adams mentioned -- the region, not the apple brandy, but we're fine with both -- we'll make this delectable winter dish. Pork shoulder, onions, and apple cider. Gourmet does not call it Norman per se, but our arithmetical Normans would have liked it very much.

Gourmet's cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions

3 to 4 pounds fresh pork shoulder, sometimes sold as "Boston butt" (or, according to Gourmet, "arm picnic")
2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp. olive oil -- for a Norman touch, use butter
5 to 6 medium onions, chopped
3/4 cup apple cider
salt and pepper

Score a crosshatch pattern on the meat and insert the garlic slices into the cuts. (Or, simply toss a couple of whole cloves into the pot later, before putting it into the oven.) Season the pork with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy oven proof pot. Brown the meat on all sides, turning occasionally until it is all browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the onions to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and keep cooking until onions are golden and caramelized, about 10 to 15 minutes total.

Stir in the cider -- or, deglaze the pot with a few Tablespoons of Calvados, stir, and then add the cider. Return pork to the pot. Cover with aluminum foil and the lid, and put into the preheated oven. Bake about 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours. When the pork is tender, transfer it to a clean plate and boil the sauce to reduce it to about 2 cups. 

What wine to serve with this? In her chapter on Norman food in When French Women Cook, Madeleine Kamman often suggests dry ciders to accompany the recipes, including of course those featuring pork and butter. We forget, if we ever considered it before, that on a map of the wine regions of France, Normandy is not set off and color-coded at all. This is a land not of grapes but of apples and dairy cows, of Calvados and cream. So a cider would be tasty. Or possibly a fully dry or "Trocken" German riesling?

And we'll close with a little more of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. (It's a book about Gothic cathedrals and stained glass, but also about much more.) Why did Henry Adams, in 1904, think that in medieval Normandy "we knew life, and have never so fully known it since"?

Never so fully known it since! for we of the eleventh century, hard-headed, close-fisted, grasping, shrewd, as we were, and as Normans are still said to be, stood more fully in the centre of the world's movement than our English descendants ever did. We were a part, and a great part, of the Church, of France and of Europe. The Leos and Gregories of the tenth and eleventh centuries leaned on us in their great struggle for reform. Our Duke Richard-Sans-Peur, in 966, turned the old canons out of the Mount in order to bring here the highest influence of the time, the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino. ... Our activity was not limited to Northern Europe, or even confined by Anjou and Gascony. When we stop at Coutances, we will drive out to Hauteville to see where Tancred came from, whose sons Robert and Roger were conquering Naples and Sicily at the time when the Abbey Church was building on the Mount. Normans were everywhere in 1066, and everywhere in the lead of their age. We were a serious race ....

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My third (I think?) Barolo

Picture this: the upstairs office. The big wooden table. The blue sky up in the skylights, the sun shining in the east windows, the slim lovely Italian woman with the messy ash-blond curls, the fetching lisp, the delicate brows and the skin of I-cannot-tell-you-what-perfection: its smoothness and faintest mocha color calls to mind a chamois skin -- but no, that's for waxing cars, that's all wrong -- perhaps then it calls to mind gloves, silk lined and described as "buttery soft" in old catalogues. One imagines a gloved hand softly touching that skin  And why is it that European women can wear the plainest clothes and look completely sensual? I vow to you that she had on olive green pants, plain beige ballet flats, a crew-neck white t shirt and a bright green sweater over that  Sweater sleeves pulled down to the wrists: no fussing with them and no exposure of flesh. 

Together we and the nice salesman tasted five Italian wines, the third of which was a luscious California-style nebbiolo (the grape) called "Bricco Magno." I exclaimed over it partly with relief at being able to recognize a flavor profile I knew. And I am sure she knew that. Yes! I thought. Fruit bomb! "Wow, that is good." What wine should taste like -- now this I can hand-sell.

The fifth wine, well. The fifth wine that morning below the skylights was a Barolo. As with my first Barolo and as with my second, I was mystified and underwhelmed. Remember when my former boss and I, equally inexperienced, thought that a Barolo resembled only "a weak pinot noir"? And remember when our esteemed colleague with thirty-five years in the trade shook his head patiently and said that was because "it was too big for us"? By now I can recognize the sugariness and thickness of "fruit bomb" New World red wines, but still I must admit I like most of them unless they topple right over into peanut butter and jelly territory. (Try Concannon's "Crimson and Clover.") The Barolo, now ...

The Barolo was light, thin, and clear. If it possessed a certain something which the lesser wines of the day lacked, I suppose it might have been a flavor that was not just sweet and rich. It might have been a depth or length of interest that was not just fruity. It's awkward to appreciate or put into words the taste of a wine that seems underwhelming but that you have always been assured is beyond the ordinary. As we were leaving the upstairs office I threw caution to the winds and asked the lovely, buttery-skinned Mika why it is that a Barolo is considered "bigger" than a California wine that is all stewed plums, spice, and port-level alcohol.

"It's big but it's elegant," she lisped promptly, and so I had to think about that.

What other things might be called big but elegant? And what is the opposite of elegant? -- tacky. It seems such a harsh word. (Note however that it also means sticky, as in, from a spill of something sweet.) Perhaps let us say, overripe.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

History in the basement/Borden's Peanut Clusters, 1941

October 9, 1941.

My mother was twelve and a half.  My father turned eighteen the week before. Very likely their parents and households, living in the Chatham/South Shore neighborhoods of Chicago, took in a copy of this paper: the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Someone in the house I live in, in what are now the far southeast suburbs, used a sheet of the newspaper that day -- I presume -- to line a drawer of a (really magnificent) sideboard. It's a great heavy piece of furniture, I don't know my woods but I think it is made of something better and redder than oak, of simple and very austerely (maybe even clumsily) curving thick side panels, two deep recesses, and a central tier of four plain drawers. The whole thing is about eight feet long, the top a foot and a half deep. One imagines Sunday breakfasts of eggs and sausages laid out in silver salvers here; but perhaps the great hulk merely displayed the family china. The handles on the drawers, simple metal loops clearly "all original" as antique guidebooks say, are falling to decay. When the house was the only farm around, this sideboard must have been among the family's prize possessions.

What it must weigh! Who decided it was too great and ugly for use, and put it into storage in the basement? When? When was the last time it was moved? For twenty-five years now, one of the recesses has held a large, stuffed glossy bag, which looks for all the world like something you would collect grass clippings in. Twenty-five years ago, my mother was sixty, my father just turned sixty-six. I moved in as a young newlywed looking forward to starting a family. I spotted the old crumpled newspaper in a half-open drawer even then.

Why on earth Vichy France decreed that one may only drink aperitifs and digestifs for four hours a day, and never on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, is beyond me. Note that wine and beer seem not to have been a problem. Perhaps the information was simply totally garbled in translation, or perhaps there have always been French killjoys, and collusion with the Germans brought them out.

Below, a finely sketched lady contemplates, or "is romantic." It's a refreshing look in advertising, isn't it? -- accustomed as we are to full-color photographs of endlessly smiling maniacs. The perfume is "Houbigant's Chantilly." The lady wears gloves and carries a fan, but has her hair tied up in a strangely juvenile ribbon. I had thought we were to understand that the ball is over, and she is preparing thoughtfully for bed, but why would a lady keep her gloves on that long? Possibly the hair ribbon was not juvenile at all, but was rather the latest in fashion. 

Below, one crumpled page, entire. Look carefully and you may also spot a tiny beer ad -- it's near the windmill -- and some good looking shoes.

On the other side of the sheet there is one big article about the war going badly for the Soviets against Nazi Germany. Elsewhere one finds little blurbs about Churchill refusing to call Iran anything other than Persia, and about George Burns and Gracie Allen opening a new radio show on WGN that night. Otherwise what we have here is the back end of the paper, mostly ads. Liquor for $4 or $5 a fifth, a man's "topcoat" for $19.

Now in the intervening twenty-five years while the sideboard sat, the children have grown up, mother is 85 and dad died nine years ago. I dig up the paper from that jammed drawer and photograph it and write about it, because after this long time renting from (now ex)-in-laws, my goal is to live somewhere else by next year. Time flies, apartment hunting solo will be a new experience, moving is hectic. So this is just a little project that I did always want to take care of.

And, yes, there's a recipe. Please try some really retro Peanut Clusters, from 1941. Just think, since printed material has a copyright life of 75 years, if I had waited only two more years I could have safely proffered this creation as if it were my own. As it is I am content to credit the Borden milk company, by way of the Chicago Daily Tribune of that day. I would, however, suggest substituting dark chocolate for the sweet chocolate called for. Look at the amount of sweetened condensed milk required, and you will understand why. 

Peanut Clusters

1/2 pound sweet chocolate
2/3 cup (one 7 and 1/2 ounce can) Borden's sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole peanuts

Melt chocolate in a double boiler, then remove from heat and stir in condensed milk and peanuts. Drop from teaspoon onto a buttered baking dish or plate, and let cool and solidify for several hours.

There is this, too.


Monday, November 3, 2014

An interruption -- the death of Brittany Maynard

A food and wine blog is hardly the place for this, and yes, it will be tagged "unpolished." But some things seem serious enough to warrant comment, even if they are private things -- which other people made public -- and even if they are interruptions in what you normally do with your day.

People magazine tells us today, via Drudge, that Brittany Maynard killed herself in Oregon on Saturday November 1, the day she said she would. She is the beautiful 29-year-old woman who became famous recently for publicizing her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, and her decision to move to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state's law allowing terminal patients to commit suicide with legally prescribed barbituates.

This story caught everyone's attention, and it caught mine too especially because Brittany Maynard's disease, glioblastoma, seems to be exactly the one that Bette Davis' character suffers in the movie Dark Victory. I hope that will not sound trite to the point of being grotesque. It's just that the association leaped out at me, and I was a little surprised that, in what I have read of Ms. Maynard's decision, no one mentioned it. Perhaps it is too trite, or perhaps the movie is so old everyone has forgotten it. It used to be that people remembered it as "the one where she goes blind in the end."

Yes, her character does go blind, but she also dies. She says goodbye to her dogs, climbs the steps to her bedroom, kneels at the bed for a minute, and then lays down. The maid comes in and lays a blanket half over her, and she says she doesn't want to be disturbed. The maid leaves, you hear a sort of angelic choir, and then the camera close-up on Davis' face washes out and goes black. 

Earlier in the film, Davis' character Judith, exhausted, says to her best friend, "It's the waiting, Ann ... would it be so terrible if I were to make it happen?" Ann recoils in dread and says, "You mustn't even think of doing such a thing!"

There it is. You mustn't even think of it. It's only a movie and it was 1939, but if movies can reflect something true about their societies, then why was it understood, 75 years ago, that suicide is wrong even for the deathly ill, whereas today Brittany Maynard types a farewell statement to the world which she concludes by saying "Spread good energy. Pay it forward"?

There is nothing good to pay forward here. I am not even talking about the likelihood that societies which embrace "death with dignity," a cause Brittany Maynard charged us all to work for, end up using euthanasia more than they thought they would. I am talking about a mindset completely missing from Brittany Maynard's life, apparently, and that is the mindset that life is not something we made, control, or understand. I don't mean life as in the way we spend our days, I mean life as in the utter mystery of why a collection of atoms or minerals or carbon or whatever it is, should move, think, be aware, grow. Live. If you have no conception that someone or some force outside yourself perhaps made or understands or governs, even cherishes, life, then you probably will see yourself as a wholly autonomous being, bar nothing; you will probably not be able to see why you should not kill yourself if it seems logical. You may regard people who disagree with you as "evil." "They are trying to mix it up with suicide, and it's not that," she told People. Yes it is.     

I don't for one second doubt that it was a "huge relief" to Brittany Maynard, as she put it in her first video, to have those bottles of pills in her cabinet, given what she was told about the process of death from "glioma" (as it's called in Dark Victory). I too would have fondled those bottles gratefully, and I might have used them, as she decided to do two days ago. Not for one second do I want to hear the usual comments (not that I think I'll get any) about how I have no right to decree that someone else must wait and suffer a hideous death because Life is Sacred and God is "good."

It's the missing mindset that worries me. If Brittany Maynard was, in her own person, sacred enough and special enough to refuse to be degraded by a full-on death from brain cancer, then what actually made her special? Youth and beauty? The last tatters of health, quickly vanishing? Being still of sound mind? Or was she, herself, uniquely sacred, and as Brittany Maynard, would have remained sacred and deserving of life and care -- not to be killed under any circumstances -- through all suffering and all needs, until the end?

An ancient pagan of Greece or Rome might easily have seconded her decision. In Pagans and Christians Robin Lane Fox writes that when Christianity got underway, worshipers of the old gods did not understand why the new believers permitted a text, the Bible, to infiltrate their minds and cause them to self-govern from the text's outside standards. To them, this seemed a crazy imposition on adult thinking. By the same token, in his book Introduction to Christianity Pope Benedict writes that in order for the English to outlaw suttee, the burning of widows in India, they had also to impose the idea of the unique worth of each person. The widow is not A Widow among hundreds or thousands; she has a name and a worth; she is not anyone's to kill.       

They are two entirely different mindsets and it's Brittany Maynard's mindset now seeming brave, compassionate, and normal that is the problem. Her choice is the sign of a society living off the fumes of an old supply of fuel, abundant in our grandfathers' day, that yes the individual is of supreme value and dignity. She just didn't really know why. She did not know all that the word dignity encompasses. The writers of so trite a thing as Dark Victory still did.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...