Sunday, September 25, 2011

Food Writing

I’m not a great cook, but I nevertheless love to read books that include a fair amount of food-writing. By that, I don’t mean cook books – I can’t “taste” food by reading a recipe the way some of my “foodie” friends can. And I also don’t mean books like Gwyneth Paltrow’s, which are essentially recipe books with some background about why the author is interested in food, family and healthy life-choices….

The food books I love are novels, memoirs, travel books, etc., in which food helps drive the plot; or in which food is the vehicle which illuminates the characters, or is shown to “form” their personalities, or describes their relationships with others; or which illustrate how food and cooking can serve to comfort or empower.

This is a large and varied genre.

WOMEN WHO EAT is a collection of essays by women in which they describe their various relationships with food. Some are professional cooks, but most are writers who tell of their feelings and memories of food. It’s a celebration of food and of women who enjoy food without shame or apology.

There are lovely essays about bonding with grandparents while working in the kitchen together; there are reflections about the pleasure of making a meal, because it is one of the few activities in which there are no “loose ends,” as a meal “has a beginning, middle, and end.” Simple and clear.

Because I'd had similar experiences, I especially enjoyed the essay by Pooja Makhijan, whose mother would put exotic “aloo tikis” into her lunch box, so unlike the “American” food her classmates had in theirs – and theirs were the kind of lunches she'd always longed for!

With the same good intentions, my mother would often pack my brown paper bag with a [healthy] whole tomato to bite into like an apple (juice running down my chin and neck) and a sandwich on rich rye bread. And oh, how I, too, longed for a sandwich on real “American” white bread!

Most of the essays in this book were entertaining, though none felt entirely "new."  And I hope you'll excuse me if I say that they're a bit like appetizers before the main course....

In Ruth Reichl’s memoir, TENDER AT THE BONE, the former restaurant critic and editor of the now defunct GOURMET magazine remembers a childhood that prepared her for a future in the food world. Reichl describes in sometimes hilarious detail, her early and strange connection with food.

Her "manic-depressive" mother loved to entertain, and depending on her mood, or on the latest “bargain” of ready-for-the-garbage food, or whatever decaying carcass she found in her larder, she often served food that was spoiled or moldy. Before the age of 10, Reichl understood that “food could be dangerous” and saw it as her “mission…to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner.” She sometimes stood in front of guests to prevent them from getting to the buffet; and bluntly told her own friends, “Don’t eat that,” as they unsuspectingly plunged their spoons into dishes like bananas in green sour cream.

Her role as “guardian to the guests” made her aware of food in a way that might not have occurred otherwise. She began “sorting people by their tastes” and finding that she could learn a lot about people from the foods they chose and the places in which they liked to eat. And she continued to observe and learn about food as she made her way from New York to a French boarding school in Montreal and a commune in Berkeley; as she came under the wings of people like Alice Waters and James Beard.

Liberally sprinkled with recipes, this adventure in food has a happy ending, as Reichl got to live her passion of cooking and eating and teaching people about food.

Nora Ephron’s HEARTBURN is a slyly fictionalized account of her divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein. The novel’s heroine, Rachel, is a food writer, and Ephron uses food and recipes as the conceit with which to describe Rachel’s relationship and marriage, from its beginning to its end.

Seven months pregnant at the time that she discovers that her husband is having an affair, Rachel reviews the trajectory of their marriage:

When first in love, [she] prepares labor-intensive and time-consuming “crisp potatoes;” when they settle into a married life busy with a child and home improvements, it’s the complacency and self-assuredness of “peanut butter and jelly on white bread.” (Yum!) With the knowledge of her husband’s affair, it’s “heartburn” and a punishing refusal to give him her wonderful vinaigrette recipe. Then it’s self-pity and the comfort of mashed potatoes…. Finally, she accepts that she can do without him, and expresses that acceptance by throwing a pie in his face – and by her willingness to give him that vinaigrette recipe after all: in essence, she is saying, “You can have it, and I’m out of here!”

Forget the Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson film of the same name; this is a delicious, insightful, and wickedly funny book. And the great recipes are an added bonus.

More and more common in the food-writing genre are the books that tell of people moving to a “foreign” country and navigating their way through that new landscape. And food is a major player in these journeys.

In Marlena De Blasi’s A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE, American restauranteur and cookbook writer De Blasi tells of her love-at-first-sight romance with a Venetian man she sees across a crowded room – really! – and of her move to Venice to be with him. And for all its beauty, it’s an inhospitable Venice she comes to, steeped as it is in old traditions which have no room for newcomers.

But De Blasi haunts the local food markets at 5:00 AM each morning, and with her knowledge and love of food, she seduces the locals and becomes “one of them.” Then, she repeats this feat in her sequel, A THOUSAND DAYS IN TUSCANY, where she eats at the small local restaurant to which everyone in the neighborhood – including she – brings food for communal dining. Soon, she is one of them there, too.

Passionate about food, De Blasi describes the local produce and the markets and the centuries’ old food traditions with eloquence and ease. You read these books with mouth-watering pleasure – and a longing to become an “insider” in Italy, too!

Finally, there’s the food-writing in travel books that have no plots to speak of, but which describe food’s connection to the land, the landscape, the city, the town, the community. These books give you a sense of the rhythm of life there; and you are like a voyeur, looking through the windows of the folks who are living the dream.

Peter Mayle’s A YEAR IN PROVENCE and Frances Mayes’ UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN are two such books. In these, we watch the British Mayle and the American Mayes (with their very similar names!) as they renovate fabulous houses with seemingly unlimited funds. Here, too, we see them prepare the local foods of the season, and discover the bounty of the land.

These are books you can dip into, reading a passage here and there, now and then. And sometimes, you’re rewarded with an unforgettable description of the connection between food and nature and the life cycle, as in this excerpt from UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN:
“The fig flower is inside the fruit. To pull one open is to look into a complex, primitive, infinitely sophisticated life cycle…. Fig pollination takes place through an interaction with a particular kind of wasp about 1/8 of an inch long. The female bores into the developing flower inside the fig. Once in, she delves with her…needle nose, into the female flower’s ovary, depositing her own eggs. If she can’t reach the ovary, she still fertilizes the fig flower with the pollen she collected from her travels. Either way, one half of this symbiotic system is served – the wasp larvae develop if she has left her eggs, or the pollinated fig flower produces seed. If reincarnation is true, let me not come back as a fig wasp. If the female can’t find a suitable nest for her eggs, she usually dies of exhaustion inside the fig. If she can, the wasps hatch inside the fig and all the males are born without wings. Their sole, brief function is sex. They get up and fertilize the females, then help them tunnel out of the fruit. Then they die. Is this appetizing, to know that however luscious figs taste, each one is actually a little graveyard of wingless male wasps? Or maybe the sensuality of the fruit comes from some flavor they dissolve into after short, sweet lives.”
It’s fig season: enjoy them!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Not so long ago, it was advantageous to attend an auction in order to do well at it.  Only then could you get the best price; could you watch the other bidders and decide whether you could compete with them or not; could you see an opportunity and jump in to grab a bargain.

Not so long ago, if you stayed at the auction to the very end – long after others in the room had spent their allotted funds or gotten what they wanted – you often found that there were so few left in the “competition” that you were able to win many prizes on a small budget.

Not so long ago, knowledge could mean the difference between success and failure.  Once, for example, as the only ones at an auction who could read German, we scored a fabulous book which no one else in the room could know was fabulous!

Not so long ago, happy chance could mean the difference between victory and defeat, between a bargain and paying top dollar.  At one auction, somehow, the other bidders didn’t make the connection that Henry George Wells was H.G. Wells, so I was able to walk off with a manuscript for half of what I’d expected to pay.

Not so long ago, attending an auction was like participating in an interactive-theatrical event, with the excitement and the anticipation and the unexpected all unfolding as part of a drama.

No longer.

At a big New York City auction yesterday, I felt that “not so long ago” was very long ago, indeed, and that everything I’d known about auctions was no longer true.

Now, everyone in the room knows everything:  if they hadn’t already “googled” it, they are busy on their “smart phones” getting the information then and there.

Now, you have huge numbers of invisible bidders from all over the world bidding against you, not just by phone, but also via the Internet! 

Now, you can’t see most of your competitors, so you don’t know whether they are knowledgeable bidders or just rich folk who are used to getting whatever they want at whatever the price; you don’t know whether they’re bidding from Paris or from around the corner; you don’t know whether they’re buying for resale or for themselves.

Now, there is no advantage – none! – to being in the auction room, as the internet bidders have become the preferred ones. 

Yesterday’s auction was held up several times – once for about 40 minutes! – in order to accommodate a slow or failing internet feed.  When the bidders in the room grumbled about this, we were admonished by the auctioneer that these were “serious” bidders and that the “house” just “couldn’t go on without them.” Someone shouted, “We’re serious bidders, too.”  But all that got for us were some pastries, as we continued to wait….

Over and over again, the internet bidders were given preference over the bidders in the room.  Whereas we in the room were pressured into making quick and sometimes hasty decisions –

“Fair Warning:  Going Once, Twice, Sold” –

the Internet bidders were told,

“Fair Warning:  Going Once ………….. Going Twice…………. Are you sure?…………….  Fair Warning:  Going Once………. Going Twice………” 

You get the picture.

The prices were incredibly, sometimes laughably high, and the “professionals” in the room kept shaking their heads in amazement.  (And aren’t we in a recession?  Aren’t we supposed to be getting these things for a song now?)

The internet bidders seemed to have limited knowledge and unlimited funds.  And the bidders in the room served the auction house well by bidding up items before dropping out and leaving the field to the internet ones; then we [with our pastries] got to listen silently as these invisible bidders bid against one another:   Fair Warning:  Going Once……….. Going Twice……….. Are you sure….?

Not surprisingly, the only items that sold for amounts below their estimates were the ones on which no one in the room bid against their internet competitors.  Loud complaints were expressed as the people in the room made their way out the door at the auction’s end.

I was hot and tired and disappointed, but I’d always chided myself for not attending these auctions, and now I’d learned an important lesson:  I don’t have to take a 3-hour trip into Manhattan; I don’t have to deal with the traffic and the noise and the heat of the city; I don’t have to worry about finding a cab or getting a good seat at the auction. 

Instead of being in the auction house and bidding up the prices for them, I can claim the internet bidder’s advantage and do it all from the comfort of my living room.  And I will. 

Fair Warning.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“Live in HD” versus “Live at the Met”

I'd never been an opera-lover, but I love the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD broadcasts, and it has increasingly made more of an opera fan of me.

The operas are broadcast at the same time as they are being performed, so they’re seen “live” all over the world:  what a Massachusetts audience sees at 1:00 PM, an Arizona audience sees at 11:00 AM, a California audience at 10:00 AM – and so on, in all parts of the country and all over the globe.  It’s exciting to know that others are watching the same event with you, at the very same moment, no matter the time zone.

And in the comfort of your seat and the murmur of the people around you, you can almost feel as though you're an actual part of the same audience that you watch trickle into the Met; it can feel a bit like they’re joining you in your theater; and that the huge chandelier is hanging over your head, as well:  the very expression of a theater-goers “willing suspension of disbelief!”

But as the hosts on screen keep reminding us, “There’s nothing like actually being to a performance at the Met” – and, of course, that’s true. The acoustics are better at the Met, and therefore, the sound; certainly, the glorious music and those magnificent voices deserve that. 

And the excitement of entering that huge and opulent theater cannot be matched by that of even the loveliest local movie theater; or even by watching on the giant screen at Times Square – though I’m sure there’s quite a feeling of excitement there, too!  

Grand Opera deserves a grand space, and the Met certainly is that!

But in that grand, huge space, it’s often very difficult – if not impossible! – to see the facial expressions of the performers; to see the cut of the jewels; the opulent velvets and silks and lace; to see how hard the performers work – to see them sweat!  In the Live in HD broadcasts, however, you do get to see all of that.  Occasionally, the camera focuses on individual members of the chorus and of the musicians in the pit: these performers are plucked out of their seemingly homogenous crowd, and are suddenly unique members of the cast in a way that cannot be experienced in the Met.

I like this – and I don’t. 

At the Met, you can see the entire stage at all times, so in a very real sense, you become the “editor” of the action, as you decide where you will look, who you will concentrate on.  In the broadcasts, the choices are made for you, and sometimes those choices leave me dissatisfied.  

Nevertheless, I prefer the HD broadcasts because of the “extras” that the HD audience enjoys and which the opera house audience does not get to see.

While the members of the audience at the Met go for a stretch or sit restlessly in their seats, we at the movie theaters get to go behind the scenes.  We enjoy interviews with performers, directors, conductors, set and lighting designers – even animal trainers! – and I find those enormously interesting – especially when it’s a conductor’s or a performer’s first time at the Met. Their excitement is contagious! Often enough, the comments they make during these interviews – their interpretations of the roles, their enthusiasm – serve to intensify one’s pleasure in what is to come. And you find yourself rooting for them!

But the “extra” I like best is that during intermissions, we get to watch the crew change the sets behind that closed curtain:  and that is a simply wondrous, remarkable experience.  Entirely new worlds are created in 20 minutes; and you're on pins and needles, never believing that they'll manage it! I think it's worth the cost of admission just to see that!

Of course, opera's vary in the complexity of the sets, so some are more interesting than others. 

SIMON BOCCANEGRA is a case in point. This opera personifies what opera is all about:  grand passions, timeless themes, extraordinarily sumptuous sets and costumes – and it’s a real tearjerker, too!  The sets for this production were staggeringly lavish, complex and diverse. 

There were over 130 workmen (yes, all men!) changing the sets.  One set was "rolled" onto the stage – with performers already in their places! – while others were built before our eyes. 

With hammers and nails, fabric and boards, a concrete-and-stone street with dark alleys and brooding gray-stone buildings was turned into a lusciously landscaped walled garden with a honey-colored "cottage" and gazebo; the garden and its walls were then turned into a palace throne room, complete with elaborately inlaid marble floors, heavily carved wood-paneled walls, and ornately painted frescoed ceilings...! 

You watch, and you just can't believe your eyes!  Some men hammer “grass” cloth onto the “stone” floor, while others make sure that there are no bumps, no snags, nothing that might make a performer trip and fall.  These are experts in their field, and despite their speed, they pay attention to the smallest details.

And all the while, on the lower right-hand corner of the screen, you watch the 20 minutes count down by seconds:  at 7 minutes to go, you just don't believe it's possible, and you sit in anxious suspense.  6, 5, 4….  At 3 minutes to go, back stage is still bustling with activity.  And at 1 minute, they’re gone! 

Poof!  The music begins, the curtains open….

This is itself a perfectly choreographed “performance.”  It is theater.  It is deserving of standing ovations.  And it is thrilling to see!

I think that the Metropolitan Opera is best for opera lovers; and that the Live in HD broadcasts are perfect for theater lovers.  Take your pick – or pick them both!  
This season’s tickets are on sale now.