"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–South America


I have written before about my broad characterizations of the continents in which I have travelled and worked; that is, what I liked best about them.  South Asia was all about philosophy, culture, complexity, and surprise.  There was not a day in India after I first arrived until I left that I didn’t wonder about something from the most mundane to the spiritual.  Why do they do that?  How can they do that? India was an explosion of colors, sounds, smells, music, noise – a kaleidoscope, an acid trip, a never-ending sensory experience laid on top of the piety, the devotion; the religious, caste, and communal violence.  Landing in India, my first country after New Britain, Connecticut; as a 26-year old in the Sixties; and as a naturally curious person, I was truly lucky.  I was about to be sent to Algeria because I spoke French, and memories of the movie made of Camus’ The Stranger – bright Mediterranean sun, long civilized lunches under umbrellas flapping in the sea breeze – excited me by the prospect. 

India, I thought.  Black Hole of Calcutta, disease, pestilence, women with rings under their eyes.  Then I found the “real” India, the kaleidoscopic India, Benares, Calcutta, Bombay.  Of course the India I saw was not in any sense the real India which like anything else was a matter of perception and expectation.  I was able – as I have been all my life – to conveniently airbrush out the nasty, the unpleasant; keep it at bay, at a distance so that it would never or infrequently intrude on my own, personal experience.

I never lived in Africa, but travelled to 25 countries, to some – like Mali and Senegal – many times.  The experience, then, was colored by the travel itself – crowded, dark, mosquito-infested, airless, dismal airports; waiting in immigration lines for hours, fighting for purchase at baggage carousels, being shaken down for bribes, intimidated by “health officers”, ripped off by taxi drivers, shuttled and shunted from one piss-poor, roach-infested hotel to another.  Yet, when I finally arrived, got settled and relieved, I loved Africa.  For the people.  There were moments of cultural interest.  My driver in Mali was a Traore, a noble lineage he informed me, going to explain how the Traores ruled great swaths of West Africa, were much more royal than the Diarras, how the Bozos, Peuls, Songhai, Malinke, and Sarakole were far inferior to the Bambara.  I assumed there was a lot of self-serving distortion in the account, but I did go on to learn about these tribes, their cultural exclusiveness and inter-relatedness and their history.  Yet, it was the driver who interested me.  After years in India, his forthrightness, frankness, and immediate social connection was a welcome change from the very obscure, shifting, and questionable friendships in that country.

I travelled all over French West Africa and found the the same directness, pride, and assertion.  I taught a five-week course on health planning in Senegal and was constantly challenged by my adult students.  I had to earn their respect and even if I got it, I had to keep it through my own intelligence, knowledge, and behavior.  There was an equality that I never felt in India.  Although Indians could be subservient if not toadying on the surface, they dismissed foreigners as inferiors.  How could an American, the common Indian wisdom went, possibly have anything to teach us, a civilization nearly 5000 years old?  They were right, I concluded after five years in India; and I left with far more understanding, knowledge, and insights – both personal and cultural – than I ever imparted to them.  Nevertheless, foreigners always felt manipulated, deceived, and ignored.  We were a very temporary phenomenon which had to be accepted for a while, but which would soon disappear.  Might as well take advantage of them if you can.

This is not to idealize Africans or denigrate Indians.  There will always be deceit and manipulation where huge gaps exist between rich and poor.  We were always “walking wallets” stuffed with greenbacks there for the taking; but when there was nothing to be gained by the personal encounter, or when the social gap (never the economic) was closed, there was always this directness and honesty, something I never felt on the Subcontinent.

There was a sexual directness as well.  Sexual encounters in India, a notoriously Puritanical culture (at least when I lived there), were always there for the asking; but the asking usually followed the same circuitous route as professional or other social logic.  There were always proscriptions, inhibitions, and demurrals.  Not so in Africa.  Class was of no matter.  Sexuality was a sensuous and sensual reality.  Women and men looked at each other, wanted each other; and whether or not this interest actually culminated in sex, there was never a diffidence, or coquettish retreat.  In Haiti – more African than anything else, but more characteristically so because they were so far from Africa – women would look with the same direct, appraising survey.  I loved it.

In South America I found neither the cultural stimulation of India and South Asia, nor the directness, sensuality, and humanity that I found in Africa.  The level of social inequality was such that as a foreigner your social milieu was of the white, non-indigenous, and wealthy elite.  I may have eaten with Aymara peasants on my long exile in dreary, rainy Puno, but we all sat alone, hunched over our soup and bread.  My world in Bolivia and especially Ecuador where I did live was either with the indolent South American expatriate refugees from Chile and Argentina, joined by the Spanish lineage local elites; or with the hard-drinking, surface macho, business/professional clan.  I hated both.  I hated the long, drawn out Sunday parilladas at expatriate villas passed in idleness and ignorance.  I hated the beer drinking bouts at local bars where I had to listen to the bloated, impossible, male fantasies of fat, mustachioed men who got drunk to fuck their wives and had nothing else going on.

Only in Central America was I able to work in the middle – although the usual small oligarchy ruled the countries, and there were always poor, landless peasants, there was also a middle class, or at least moderately so.  I worked with committed professionals in small non-governmental organizations and found none of the pomposity and flights of macho fantasy that I suffered in South America.  This association continued in the United States where, through the family and friends of our Salvadoran and Guatemalan housekeepers, painters, landscapers, etc., a certain degree of interaction was always possible.  I don’t idealize this either – most relationships were built on money – but there was the same social glue that I found in Central America.

I am through travelling internationally, or at least to the Third World; and as I have written before, I loved every minute of the 45 year ride.  If I were to go back, however, South America would be the last place I would go.  Whereas Asia had culture and Africa humanity, South America had a stunning physical beauty, and my experiences in the Andes, on the altiplano and in the jungle were memorable.  It just was never enough.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale


Tennessee Williams wrote Summer and Smoke before he wrote Eccentricities of a Nightingale and felt that the latter was the better of the two plays as do I.  In fact, he tried to have it performed in London instead of Summer but production had already begun.

Nightingale is by far the more lyrical and poetic, and reaches much farther into the character of Alma than Summer.  Reviewers too were critical of Summer:

The characters are excellent as allegorical figures, but are not living people.  They do not stir the sympathy of the audience like Blanche or Amanda.  Alma, to many auditors, is an affected and silly hypochondriac.  Her symbolic role as “spirit” is too obvious. The symbolic role of John, the young doctor, is equally obvious in its representation of the flesh and the world of science…(Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, Nancy Tischler).

Summer is too rushed, too symbolic and less sympathetic, especially to Alma, and has none of the more obvious sexual tensions of Nightingale.  Nightingale, on the other hand, allows Alma’s eccentricities to be more fully expressed.  In Act One, in an exchange with her father who criticizes her for her lack of work in the parish, rather than answer simply – as she does in Summer – Alma goes on an eccentric fugue into her own world:

I made all their little costumes for the Christmas pageant, their angel wings and dresses, and you know what thanks I got for that! Mrs. Peacock cried out that the costumes were inflammable! Inflammable!…and so the candles weren’t lighted.  They marched in holding little stumps of wax! holding little dirty stumps of wax! The absurdity of it as if the wind had blown all the candles out….

A comparison of Alma’s soliloquys in Summer and Nightingale when she talks of the wonders of being a doctor are indicative of the lyrical quality of the latter play:

Such a wonderful profession, being a doctor! –Oh! – With his wonderful ability to relieve – human suffering, of which there is always – so – much! (Her tongue runs away with her).   I don’t think it’s just a profession, it’s a vocation.  I think it’s something to which some people are just – appointed by God! (She claps her hands together and rolls her eyes)

In Summer she is much more practical and controlled, talking of scientific horizons.  She is preachy (referring to the example of John’s father), and uninspired as she is in Nightingale.

And again in Nightengale, when she is berating John for not coming to her intellectual soiree she says:

And when you marry, you’ll marry some Northern beauty.  She will have no eccentricities but the eccentricity of beauty and perfect calm.  Her hands will have such repose when she speaks.  They won’t fly about her like wild birds, oh, no, she’ll hold them together, press the little pink tips of her fingers together, making a – steeple – or fold them sweetly and gravely in her lap….

There is nothing like this in Summer.

The sexual fantasies of Alma are much more explicit in Nightingale.  In her long soliloquy when she expresses her love for Johnny, a love that began in childhood, she says:

One time in the movies I sat next to a strange man.  I didn’t look at his face, but after a while I felt the pressure of his knee against mine…I didn’t look at him.  I sprang from my seat.  I rushed out of the theatre.  I wonder sometimes.  If I had dared to look at his face in the queer flickering white light that comes from the screen, and it had been like yours, at all like yours, even the faintest resemblance – Would I have sprung from my seat, or would I have stayed?

In both plays John invites Alma to sleep with him in a cheap room at the Casino.  In both plays it never happens; but in Summer, Alma runs away; while in Nightingale she goes with him and in a very lyrical scene, they both realize that this intimacy is not to be.  There is much symbolism with the fire, the plumed hat, and Alma’s ring.  It is John who captures the mood:

Sometimes things say things for people. Things that people find too painful or too embarrassing to say, a thing will say it for them so that they don’t have to say it….The fire is out, it’s gone out, and you feel how the room is now, it’s deathly chill.  There’s no use in staying in it.

In short, I feel that Nightingale in all its patient lyricism allows the character and eccentricities of Alma to be expressed – her neediness, her aloneness, her frustration and confinement.  It is her play, and a very beautiful one.

I saw a movie version of Summer with Lawrence Harvey and Geraldine Page (who twenty years later played Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth).  It was a good performance by Page who played Alma as the prim, Victorian lady who flutters and demurs; but she expressed none of the very complex inner life of Alma.  Workmanlike would be a good way to characterize her performance – true to the text to a large degree, but little personal insight.  Lawrence Harvey was cast as a lowlife playboy.  Williams’ text is very oblique in its references to John, but the director of this movie felt it important to show all the drinking, knife fighting, cock fighting, and debauchery of the Casino.  It didn’t add anything.  In fact, it was a burlesque caricature.  In addition, although Williams describes John’s charisma and sexual attractiveness, none can be found in the movie. 

I have ordered the movie version of Nightingale which I have seen before and loved; but now that I have re-read both Summer and Nightingale, I look forward to seeing the movie again.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tennessee Williams–Period of Adjustment, Night of the Iguana, Suddenly Last Summer


I never thought I would like the later years of Williams (1957-80), perhaps retaining the memories of those years when his plays were indifferently reviewed or panned or closed after a few performances; but now in my more patient years, I am re-reading and enjoying them….Not all…I really did not like The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More or Out Cry, an expressionistic avant garde play that Williams considered his best work since Streetcar but nobody else likedbut loved The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (the revision of Summer and Smoke which Williams preferred but did not get to the theatre company in London in time for the opening of Summer), Sweet Bird of Youth which is one of my repertory movies (in my DVD collection which I play over and over).

I liked Period of Adjustment which reminded me a bit of a Shakespeare comedy, some of David Mamet, Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), and a lot of the classic Tennessee Williams, although it, too, got mediocre reviews.  It reminded me of Shakespeare (the serious comedies….Williams formally called this play “A Serious Comedy”) because despite all the fractured relationships, psychological dramas, and family disputes, all’s well that end’s well – the happy reuniting of Isabel and George and Ralph and Dotty.

I liked the play because of the “old” Williams’ themes.  Dorothea was “psychologically frigid”, George had the shakes because of sexual insecurity, Ralph was passionate but frustrated.  Isabel was – like many of Williams’ heroines – frustrated because of her prudish and domineering father. 

I liked the infighting between couples – a la Albee – the quick dialogue between war buddies and relatives (Mamet) – and found the happy ending just what the play needed, since none of the more serious and sinister relationships were ever explored as they were in his earlier plays. 

I did not like Night of the Iguana any more than when I saw its premiere on Broadway in the Sixties.  I remember saying to my friend that I wished they would cut the curtain down instead of the bloody iguana.  Shannon is an unattractive drunk, mentally loose and very needy, but I felt none of the sympathy I felt for other similar characters in Williams’ work.  He was antipathetic – deliberately boorish and insulting, dwelling on and living in his pessimistic, cynical mire.  I felt no affinity with either Maxine or Hannah; the latter considering existential issues without feeling and the former simply a vehicle for the movement of the play.

I recently saw the Maggie Smith/Natasha Richardson performance of Suddenly Last Summer and felt that this was a perfect example of how a play should not only be read, but seen (Harold Bloom always commented that he never wanted to see Lear – the actors only ruined a perfectly good play).  The performances of Smith and Richardson were perfect.  Smith embodies Mrs. Venable, IS Mrs. Venable in her desperate, complete, domineering love and possession of her son, Sebastian.  She is the ur-Mother that Williams writes about, the reprise of Amanda in Menagerie (although Amanda is not as selfish, egotistical, and self serving).  Richardson is excellent in exfoliating the layers of the plot.  The setting, with the tropical garden, birds, and sultriness exactly what Williams wanted.

The denouement, the cannibalism of poor Sebastian is a bit melodramatic, but remember – this is Tennessee Williams.  The prior soliloquy of Mrs. Venable about the carnage of the sea turtles is beautiful, sensitive, romantic – quintessential Williams – and it presages the gruesome death of Sebastian. 

I still have a few plays to go in the late Williams – Orpheus Descending, Small Craft Warnings, The Mutilated, and Le Vieux Carre, so let’s see……

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Asian Cabbage Salad


We were in Connecticut this weekend and stopped at a local farm stand to buy local vegetables.  I am still amazed that where I grew up in Central Connecticut still is very rural with many of these small vegetable and fruit farms in the areas.  We bought everything he had ready – green beans, eggplant, zucchini, collard greens, basil (3 varieties), and cabbage.  Since I don’t think I have ever had a freshly picked cabbage, I thought I would make it last night.  I decided on a cold salad:

Asian Cabbage Salad

* 1/2 head large cabbage, chopped in small pieces (there are many theories about cutting cabbage for coleslaw from extra thinly sliced to thickly cut; and I prefer the more chunky variety, especially when using with a sauce with a lot of liquid like this one

* 1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, coarsely chopped

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 2 tsp. sesame oil

* 1 Tbsp. honey

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 10 grinds of whole black pepper

- Put all ingredients except cabbage and onion in a large mixing bowl, and mix well with a whisk

- Add the cabbage and onion and mix well

- Adjust for taste and liquid-solid balance.  You may want to add any of the spices and sauces; or you may add more onion and/or cabbage if you feel you have too much sauce.

- Let sit for about one hour, and serve.  You should not let sit for more than one hour, because the vinegar and salty soy will begin to leach water out of the vegetables.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thai Cucumber Salad


I first had this in a small Thai restaurant on Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA.  It has long since disappeared, and I cannot find another real, authentic Thai place in the Washington area!  In any case here is the fabulous, simple-to-prepare recipe.  It is sweet, fragrant, no fat, and cool for summer:

Thai Cucumber Salad

* 1 lg. cucumber, peeled, and cut into very thin slices

* 1/2 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced thinly

* 1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds, pounded medium in a mortar and pestle

* 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 2 pinches salt

* 1 Tbsp. sugar

- Peel and slice the cucumber

- In a serving bowl place the balsamic, salt, sugar, and coriander seeds and mix

- Put in the cucumber and the onion and mix well

- Let sit for 1 hr. and serve

Potato Salad with Basil and Dill; Fried Rice; Grilled Shrimp


This was dinner last night.  The specialty was the potato salad because it was my attempt to reproduce a delicious dish prepared by Lydia Petersson.  She told me what went in it, but I had to figure out proportions, cooking procedure, etc.  It turned out just like what she made!  The fried rice is not unusual or unique, but it is very good, simple, and easy to make using ingredients that you will have in your refrigerator.  The grilled shrimp I do in an iron skillet, and the only trick is to marinate them in as little olive oil and Bay Spice for 5 hours.

Potato Salad with Basil and Dill

The trick with this dish is to put the potatoes into the dressing while still warm.  This allows the sauce to penetrate the potatoes and to “cook” the spices and the oil.  A very different taste than if you put the potatoes in cold.

* 6 medium Yukon Gold or Bliss potatoes, quartered

* 2 tsp. dried basil

* 2 tsp. dried dill weed

* 1 lg. garlic clove, halved and mashed

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 tsp. Maille mustard

- Boil the potatoes until they are done – easy to poke with a fork, but still on the firm side.  Remember: they will still cook a bit more once out of the boiling water

- While the potatoes are cooking, put the olive oil, spices, mustard, and garlic in the serving bowl, whisk to mix well.

- When the potatoes are done, remove and drain them, halve each quarter, and place in the dressing

- Toss well, and adjust for taste

Fried Rice

The trick with fried rice is to cook the rice early and let it cool and sit for about 4 hours or more.  This will assure that the rice is dry, so that when you mix it in with a the sauce, it will not become gummy.

* 1 cup rice (any kind, although I prefer Jasmine or Basmati)

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 4 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 2 lg. bunches fresh basil, chopped

* 1 red pepper, chopped

* 2 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 1-2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 1 tsp. sesame oil

* 2 Tbsp. Amontillado sherry (1 Tbsp. bourbon or cognac can be substituted)

* 5-6 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1 med. onion, chopped coarsely

* left over chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, diced (optional)

- Prepare the rice ahead of time, as above

- Sautee the garlic, onion, basil, hot pepper flakes, and red pepper over high heat until done (the red peppers should be tender, but not too soft.  This should take about 10-15 minutes

- Add the soy sauce, vinegar, sherry, sesame oil, return to high heat and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Stir constantly.

- Add the rice, and mix well with the ingredients in the pan. 

- Taste for spices.  It is easy to add any of the spices.  If you need more garlic, use a garlic mill to grind some more.

- Serve

Grilled Shrimp with Bay Spice

This is very good and simple and really only depends on the quality of the shrimp, so I would recommend that you get them from a trusted source.  I get mine from a seafood market in DC (Black Salt) and they are impeccably fresh, sometimes never frozen from the Gulf.

* 1 1/2 lb. jumbo shrimp, shells on

* 2-3 Tbsp. Bay Spice (you can substitute Cajun Spice or Madras Curry powder)

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

- Marinate the shrimp in the olive oil and spices for 4 hours at least (more is better), turning every so often.

- Heat an iron skillet till it smokes, and add the shrimp (I don’t grill; but I assume that you will get the same results over an outdoor grill).

- Cook over very high heat, turning frequently until all shrimp are pink, and some are slightly browned.  The trick here is to cook enough, but not overcook.  It should take about 8 minutes.

- Serve with shells on, plenty of paper towels or napkins for diners.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Curried Squash and Utensils I Cannot Do Without


The curried squash recipe is a blend of a number of squash recipes; and my list of utensils is a How To guide for setting up a new kitchen.

Curried Zucchini

The curried squash recipe is like many of mine and most people, I suspect – it comes from previous recipes with a few new twists added.  In this case, given the wonderful abundance of various types of zucchini in the market these days, I had made some interesting dishes in the past week.  I made a squash and basil puree and I made sauteed zucchini and mushrooms.  For the puree I used yellow squash which is good, but without a lot of taste; and for the sauteed zucchini I used the very high-flavor Italian zucchini (you will recognize it by the high, raised ribs – very different from the smooth green zucchini common in most supermarkets).  I decided to add both recipes together, and make a curry.

* 3 Italian zucchini and 3 regular zucchini (all regular is fine, but the taste will not be as intense), cut into 2” round pieces

* 3 yellow squash, cut similarly

* 3 very large bunches fresh basil, stems removed, chopped coarsely

* 2 Tbsp. curry powder

* 2 lg. Tbsp. sweet mango chutney (from Asian store – most supermarket chutney is not very good)

* 1/2 cup raisins

* 1/2 cup dried coconut flakes

* 5 shakes hot red pepper flakes

* 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 vegan bouillon cube

* 1/2 cup half-and-half

- Place the yellow squash and 1 bunch of chopped basil in about an inch of water with the bouillon cube and cook until the squash are tender, still firm, but not undercooked

- Put the squash, basil, cream, and about 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid in a blender and blend until pureed

- Place the cut green zucchini and the remaining basil in 1” of water

- Add the puree, raisins, chutney, curry powder, pepper flakes, coconut, and olive oil and cook until the zucchini are tender.  This should take about 20 minutes.  Stir frequently, and adjust for taste.  Curry powders are all different, so you will have to taste.  Same thing with the pepper flakes, chutney, etc.  The taste should be a rich, creamy curry taste, a little sweet, and a little hot, but with a definite zucchini taste.

- Serve

My Essential Cooking Utensils

I cook a lot, but my kitchen is very simple with relatively few cooking utensils and instruments.  If I had to set up my own apartment, it would not be hard to equip the kitchen.  Here are the tools that I use almost every day and cannot do without.  They are very few:

* Large iron skillet.  You can buy these pre-seasoned.  They are a bit expensive, but well worth it since you will be cooking on them for years.  I do everything with mine – I grill meats in them (you can get them almost red-hot and get an incredible sear on both sides of the meat); brown vegetables; make pancakes; you name it.  ABSOLUTELY number one on my list

* Large Copper-bottom Frying Pan. Use all the time for everything except the grilling, etc., above

* Sharp knives.  I use only three – 1) a Japanese all-purpose kitchen knife which I can sharpen, for it holds a razor edge.  I use this every day and for everything; 2) ordinary paring knife (I have bought mine – inexpensive aluminum – from the Mennonite store in East Tennessee – but you don’t have to go that far; 3) grapefruit knife.  While I rarely eat grapefruit, this knife, with its curved serrated edge is incredibly versatile.

* Slotted Spoon.  These spoons are large enough for scooping anything out of cooking pots and for draining liquid.  Indispensable.

* Wooden Spoon.  Perfect for cooking in any kind of pan.

* Extra Large Colander.  Like most of you, I cook a lot of pasta, and there is nothing like having a really big colander to shake the pasta in.  I can’t tell you how many times I have slopped spaghetti over the sides of these inefficient and poorly designed plastic things.

* Wire Whisk.  I use it all the time, especially for blending marinades (I marinate most of my grilled fish and chicken), scrambled eggs, etc.

* Extra Large Pot.  These large pots are essential for cooking pasta which needs lots of water (more water, less cooking time, no gummy pasta), cooking sauces, vegetables, everything

* Regular Pots.  A copper-bottom set (Tupperware, I think) of three

* Large Rubber Spatula.  Essential for getting the last bits out of pots and pans.  You won’t really need smaller ones.

* Large Metal Spatula.  This is obvious.  I use mine for everything, turning fried rice, eggs, you name it.

* Measuring Cups. 

* Chinese Strainer. These thick wire-and-wood handled instruments are perfect for picking up and draining veggies, other foods

* Regular Strainer.  Use it all the time.

* Cheese grater.

* Potato Masher. Not critical, but good to have on hand

* Spaghetti Tool.  I don’t know what they’re called, but used for stirring and then serving spaghetti.

The Sense of Isolation in The Glass Menagerie


Many of the women in Tennessee Williams’ plays have a poetic fragility – an ability to describe the lost worlds they inhabit with a lyricism that is unmatched in modern theatre.  Laura in Menagerie is perhaps the best example, but she is in the good company of Alma in Summer and Smoke (and especially in Williams’ re-write Eccentricities of a Nightingale) and Blanche in Streetcar. 

All of these women share the same Williams’ paradox – they live in this rich, Southern world of the past, a world of gentility, manners, and morals, but want to be saved from it.  Laura’s gentleman caller, Blanche’s Mitch, and Alma’s Tom are all these hoped-for but yet feared saviors.

Laura lives in the closed world of her house in a poor section of St. Louis.  It is on an alley across from a dance hall and has none of the grandeur, openness, and warmth of the family’s Delta home. 

On both sides of the building [where Laura lives], dark, narrow alleys run into “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and sinister lattice-work of neighboring fire escapes”. The meaning of these alleys is clear if the reader recalls Tom’s picture of “Death Valley”, where cats were trapped and killed by a vicious dog.  The predicament becomes a symbol for his factory work, murderous to his creative imagination.  For Laura the alley represents the ugly world from which she retreats to gaze into her tiny glass figures.  For Amanda, too, the alley is the world of her present, hopeless poverty amid confusion from which she retreats into her make-believe world of memory and pretense. Inside the apartment where she tries to create an illusion of gentility, her husband’s portrait grins at her futile efforts (Tishler, The Glass Menagerie: The Revelation of Quiet Truth)

Her fragility or her madness – and the distinction is important in these Williams plays where women, because of their sensitivity to the roughness and horrors of the real world and their inability to adjust it, retreat and isolate themselves in a fantasy of the world long before left behind.  They are lyric poets whose existence is important as almost religious lights (his stage directions indicate that the lighting for Laura should resemble that “used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas”).  In the real world, they are suffering from a madness similar to, but not as acute as that of Rose, Williams’ sister; but in the world of the plays, they are visionaries, saints.  Williams himself says: “Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life”.

The critic Frank Durham says: "It is the myth of the alienated, the lost, seeing some sort of tenable posture in the present chaos.  It is the poet’s vision” (Tennessee Williams: Theatre in Prose)

The religious tone is not limited to this lighting effect, but is central to the play, for Laura’s isolation is more than just a poetic or secular visionary one, but a religious one – she has seen an apocalyptic vision and stands pure and unsullied within it.  Religious imagery occurs throughout – the gentleman caller’s name is O’Connor, meaning fish, the symbol of Christ.  The unicorn (Laura’s most precious glass figurine) since Greek times was a symbol of purity and grace which could only be caught by a virgin.  The vulgar play that Tom sees is a religious one where Malvolio turns water into wine and then goes on to turn it to beer, then whisky.  The scene where Tom, the Savior, enters, is in the Readers Version, announced as The Annunciation.  While some critics see the play as a very Christian play (books of criticism have been written about the religiosity of Williams’ works) and deconstruct almost every utterance through this lens, it is more reasonable to interpret the play as stated above – the fragile poet as visionary who sees the horror and absurdity of the real world and who retreats into the fantasy world of her past. 

As Nancy Tischler says:

Unable to adapt to the modern scene of electrodynamics, [Laura] lives in a world of candlelight and fantasy.  The encounter with the machine age is brief and useless…Unlike Tom (her brother) Laura seems not to feel the ugliness and entombment of heir lives.  Incapable of this violence, she never steps into the world for fear it would be impossible to bear.  She merely stands on the brink and catches what she can of its beauty without becoming part of it – a lovely picture of the simple Rose who all through her brother’s (Williams) life represented to him everything good and beautiful, soft and gentle.

Williams’ conviction was that the modern world was not a good place and becoming worse not better.  He saw a very unstable and frightening world of 1939 when the wrote Menagerie. The Great Depression was still destroying people’s lives and world war imminent. The times were the worst he and most Americans had ever seen; and his conviction is understandable.  In his early plays, while not a social reformer, he was a social critic and had periods of fringe belief in an apocalypse caused by the idiocy of Man.  Retreat from this world was a natural, logical, state, not a neurotic and maladjusted one.  The alley, in a play of symbolism, represents this dirty, degrading, and hostile world.  As Tischler states:

Moving from the Deep South to St. Louis for his story, Williams retains the memory of the South, as a haunting presence under the superimposed Midwestern setting,. The audience, never seeing the gracious mansion that was the scene of Amanda’s girlhood, feels its remembered glory and its contrast to the mean present.  Awareness of the past is always an element in Williams’ plays.  His characters live beyond the fleeting moments of the drama – back into a glowing past and shrinking from a terrifying future.  For both Amanda and the later Blanche of Streetcar, the South forms an image of youth, love, purity, all of the ideals that have crumbled along with the mansions and the family fortunes.

At the same time his characters have the belief that the world outside cannot be all that bad.  After all, they all have memories of the idyllic past on the Delta.  Amanda often sits on the fire escape (again in a play of symbols, the escape to that past) and dreams of it. As symbolically, the illuminated picture of the departed and vagrant father sits in prominence on the mantelpiece – a smiling, confident, purposeful figure who left the sanctuary and went out into the world.  The gentleman caller is relevant on many levels – he is a prospective husband for the virgin Laura.  He is her Savior, as above; and he is the symbol of a world which could be. She wants to be saved by someone as pure and noble as herself but stronger to blunt the oppression of the world while protecting her spiritual virginity.

Inevitably, she is not saved:

At the end of Jim’s rapturous evocation, the illumination of his passage in Laura’s life is completely gone: “The holy candles in the altar of Laura’s face have been snuffed out. There is a look of almost infinite desolation”.

After a pause of crushing despair, Laura “opens her hand again on the broken glass ornament.  Then she gently takes his hand and raises it level with her own.  She carefully places the unicorn in the palm of his hand, then pushes his fingers closed upon it...

Laura retreats to the only refuge still available: “She rises unsteadily and crouches beside the victrola to wind it up”. This slight motion underlines Laura’s renunciation of the world; it makes clear, as Nelson has noted, that “she will never allow a Jim O’Connor to happen to her again”.

The characters in the play move in and out of time, and in and out of their isolation.  Laura takes the brief but disastrous step to trust in the gentleman caller, but then retreats forever.  Amanda has never been able to escape the real poverty of her life except by fugues to her past.  Tom struggles to leave his sister and mother and their fantasy worlds, but finds he cannot exist in the real world without them.  He realizes that he has neither the delicate nature which gives Laura her poetry, nor the lyrical past of his mother.

Williams sums up this play and his very personal feelings that led to it:

In this continual rush of time, so violent that it appears to be screaming, that deprives our actual lives of so much dignity and meaning, and it is, perhaps more than anything else, the arrest of time which has taken place in a completed work of art that gives certain plays their feeling of depth and significance….If the world of the play did not offer us this occasion to view its characters under that special condition of a world without time, then, indeed, the characters and occurrences of drama would become equally pointless, equally trivial, as corresponding meetings and happenings in life (Five Plays by Tennessee Williams).

In Menagerie time is stopped because of the countervailing forces of reality and fantasy.  They are deadlocked, stalemated.  Neither one exists except through the illusions of the play.  We are never in the real world, nor in the remembered world of the Delta.  Time is at a standstill because all is happening in imagination.  Only the brief encounter with Jim O’Connor breaks the stillness of no-time for an instant, and then he is gone and the world goes back to stasis.  Isolation is restored.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Recipes - Zucchini and Basil Puree; Snap Peas in Butter;Yukon Gold Potatoes with Lavender Salt and Olive Oil; and “All–Day” Neapolitan Meat and Tomato Sauce


I have made all these within the last few days, and they are all tasty and easy to make:

Zucchini and Basil Puree

* 4-5 medium zucchini, cut into 2” pieces

* 1 medium onion, quartered

* 2-3 lg. bunches fresh basil, coarsely chopped

* 1 vegan bouillon cube

* 1/2 – 3/4 cup whole milk

* 1/4 cup half-and-half

* 1 tsp. Bay Spice

* 2 small cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

* 1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan

* 10 grindings fresh black pepper

- Put 1 cup water in a pan with the bouillon cube and boil, dissolving the cube

- Put the squash, onion, and basil in the pan, and cook until the squash are tender, but not soft and mushy

- Remove the squash mixture when done, and reserve the liquid

- Put the squash in a blender with approx. 1/2 cup of the liquid, the milk and cream, parmesan, garlic, and pepper

- Blend until a smooth puree, and serve

Snap Peas in Butter

Snap peas are Spring and early Summer vegetables, but they are often available in farmers’ markets through early July.  They are sweet, require only a few minutes cooking, and are delicious.

* 1 lb. snap peas (approx.) with string removed (twist the end of the pea pod that was attached to the plant and pull quickly down.  This will pull off the stringy piece of the vegetable).  Wash well, dry, and reserve

* 1-2 Tbsp. unsalted butter (European-style butter preferred)

* salt to taste

- Heat the butter in a skillet until just beginning to brown

- Toss in the snap peas, sautee over very high heat until a few of them begin to brown.  They will be done when they are still a bit crispy when you bite into them.  DO NOT OVERCOOK

- Before serving, add salt; then serve.

Yukon Gold Potatoes in Olive Oil and Lavender Salt

Nothing could be simpler – boiled potatoes with olive oil and salt.  Ah, but a few little things.  Yukon Golds have the best taste….they actually have a taste which a lot of potatoes don’t.  Good extra virgin olive oil is good on its own, but goes particularly well with potatoes and salt.  Lavender salt gives a fresh, organic taste with a light flavoring of lavender.  Regular salt will do, but the best are these organic flavored salt.  I was recently at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and there were perhaps 50 varieties of flavored salt.

* 5-6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into quarters

* 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 tsp. lavender salt (approx.)

- Boil the potatoes, soak a number of times in very cold water to stop cooking

- Cut each piece in half (you can better control the cooking if you cook with larger pieces, then cut for serving), and place in serving dish.  Set aside for an hour or more to cool.

- Add the olive oil and salt, and serve.

“All-Day Neapolitan Tomato Sauce with Fresh Basil and Pork

I may have posted another version of this, but I will put this up again in case you missed it.  It is very simple to make, but do it when you are home so that you can stir every hour or so.

* 1 can Marzano tomatoes

* 1/2 can tomato paste

* 1 cup red wine

* 3-4 Tbsp. olive oil

* 5-6 lg. cloves garlic, minced

* 2 lg. bunches fresh basil, coarsely chopped

* 2 pork chops

* 2 tsp. sugar

* 1/2 lb. rigatoni (this recipe is for 2 people)

* 3-4 shakes hot red pepper flakes (optional)

- Sautee garlic in olive oil for about 5 minutes

- Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, sugar, and pork chops

- Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer

- Cook for about 3-4 hours, stirring once an hour minimum.  When the pork begins to get soft, break it away from the bone (if using bone-in chops), and break it apart into chunks.  Cooking is done when the pork is soft and tender and the sauce thick.

* Cook the rigatoni al dente, drain, put the meat sauce over pasta on each plate, garnish and serve.

- Add salt to taste, serve with grindings of black pepper, garnish with a few springs of parsley on each plate.

Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams - Sex and Madness


As those of you who have been following my Literature postings on my blog know, I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the last eight months or so, and have re-read all the Histories, most of the Tragedies, and one comedy – The Merchant of Venice.  I am now taking a hiatus to focus on Tennessee Williams because I am going to spend much of the summer in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams’ birthplace.  There is a TW festival the first two weeks of September, and I will be staying with the organizer, chief patron, and guiding spirit behind this annual event.  I met her about five years ago when Peggy and I were staying at her B&B, were delighted to meet her (she quoted from a Williams play at every breakfast), and arranged an extended visit.  I am looking forward to the trip because of my original reason for going – to continue my exploration of the Deep South, my stories, and my oral history project – and the added and unexpected benefit of being involved with Williams, his life and history.

In preparation for the visit, I have been re-reading all of Williams’ plays, and reading some that I overlooked years ago – in particular his one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.  The change of dramatic gears was difficult.  I had just finished two readings of Hamlet in preparation for a live performance at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, and after months of dealing with the complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, plots, and poetry, Portrait of a Madonna – which I saw at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production, and then read – seemed overly romantic, melodramatic, and simple; but as I read more – The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, and The Rose Tattoo – I began to forget Shakespeare, all the philosophical exegesis, psychological deconstruction, and parsing of poetic passages as mysterious as Blake’s, and simply immersed myself in Williams’ world.

This world is as well-known as Greeneland – Graham Greene’s world of displaced expatriates, Catholic guilt, sex and infidelity in shabby outposts. Williams’ world is one of delicate Southern spinsters, living in their own fantasy worlds, desperate for love and sex but unable to have love because of their impossible, romantic dreams, and able to have sex but in hopeless and meaningless acts.

I soon realized that I did not have to , nor should have to puzzle over motives and character as I had done in Shakespeare, and in so doing satisfy so much intellectual curiosity – why did Hamlet delay in killing Claudius? What was his relationship with his mother and Ophelia? What was the character of Iago that he could take such cruel vengeance on Othello, whose wrong was common and slight minor? Why did Antony not see that his affair with Cleopatra would lead to his downfall.  Why did Lady Macbeth turn from insidious plotter to guilt-ridden wreck?  And so on.

It was the world of these mad, effusive, melodramatic women that mattered – and the enjoyment in reading and seeing the plays is not so much to figure out why they are the way they are, but to imagine what this world must be like.  The madness is elusive, because it borders on caricature.  The madness of Blanche DuBois, Alma, Laura, Amanda, Lucretia Collins, so rooted in Southern gentility and 19th Century manners, is unfamiliar.  We are used to ranting schizophrenics on the streets of New York and San Francisco, and psychopathic murderers.  The closest thing we come to the madness of Williams is that of Alzheimer’s sufferers whose fantasy worlds are those of lost loves, imagined and real hurts and indifference.   Williams’ women are too often Castro men in drag, oversimplified and diminished.

So why are these characters so enduring, and the plays so compelling? I think it is because their madness in its evocation of.  Williams says it best in his stage directions, suggesting how the character of Amanda should be played in The Glass Menagerie:

A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.  Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type.

Williams understands how his characters can be made caricatures, but he wants to convey much more:

She is not paranoiac, but her life is paranoia.  There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at.  Certainly she has endurance  and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person.

The character of Lucretia Collins in Portrait of a Madonna is the prototype Williams woman.  Williams' stage notes suggest:

She is a middle-aged spinster, very slight and hunched of figure with a desiccated face that is flushed with excitement.  Her hair is arranged in curls that would become a young girl and she wears a frilly negligee which might have come from an old hope chest of a period considerably earlier.

Her opening lines suggest an insanity which becomes more evident as the play moves on.  In that sense, the outcome is predictable, made even more so by Lucretia’s similarity to Blanche (and both plays end with both women being taken away to a mental institution).

However, it is impossible to dismiss Lucretia because of her insanity – “There is nothing in her that I recognize”.  On the contrary, there is that remembrance of past or imagined love that is recognizable; and her impassioned and mad soliloquy in which she tells of passing the house of the man whose love for her she has imagined is powerful, and emotional.  We are not like her, but we could be.  We might be if we loosened the straps that keep such lunacy under control:

Never, never forget it! Never, never! I left my parasol once – the one with the long, white fringe that belonged to Mother – I left it in the cloak room at the church so I didn’t have anything to cover my face as I walked by, and I couldn’t turn back either, with all those people behind me – giggling back of me, poking fun at my clothes! Oh dear, oh dear! I had to walk straight forward – past the last elm tree and into the merciless sunlight.  Oh! It beat down on me, scorching me! Whips! Oh, Jesus….Over my face and body….

…their automobile drove up in front of the house, right where I had to pass by it, and she stepped out, in white, so fresh and easy, her stomach round with baby….I tried to speak but I couldn’t, the breath ran out of my body.  I covered my face and – ran! Ran! Ran!

The difference between the madness of Williams’ characters and those of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare’s become mad; Williams’ always were mad; and therefore the evolution of the plays are totally different.  Lear is not mad at the beginning of the play, otherwise we would dismiss him.  Ophelia is driven mad by Hamlet.  Hamlet’s feigned madness may not be feigned at all, but his willing exposure, in an exaggerated and theatrical way, the real madness that comes from the horrors (imagined and real) that he sees and suffers.  So again, we deconstruct, analyze, probe for the reasons for madness; whereas in Williams we accept it from the beginning and let ourselves be drawn into the made, poetic, and sad world of his women.

Sex is always present in Williams’ plays – simple, always often indirect or implied, but passionate nonetheles; and sometimes, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof explicit. There is nothing circumspect or indirect about Maggie. Sex is the source of quiet frustration for his delicate women like Blanche, Lucretia Collins, or Alma who, because of their madness invent or create sexual encounters. Blanche was virginal, but not a virgin.  Her “rape” by Stanley is complicated by her implied past, by her coquettish come-on behavior, and by her sexual insults to and about Stanley.  There was zero sexual attraction for Mitch, only for Stanley. Sexual frustration in his strong women, especially Magggie the cat is overt, direct, and aggressive. The more interesting women are those with illusive fantasy pasts. There is something intriguing and enticing about these insubstantial but real worlds.

Alma in Summer and Smoke was obsessed by sex – in its opposite (Southern honor and chastity), and in its frustrated expression (her obsession with John since childhood), and in its final real expression at the end of the play when she picks up travelling salesmen.  It is there in the sexual tension between Maggie and Brick, between Brick and himself (over his desire for his male lover).  It is there between Serafina and Alvaro (her imagined recreation of her dead husband).  It is there in Willie, the young girl in This Property is Condemned, even though as a thirteen-year-old she cannot fully articulate it.  It is very definitely there in Portrait of a Madonna because her insanity (see above) is at least partly due to her imagined love for a married man.  The play, which is the last act of her life, is about her imagined rape by this same man. 

Sex is never central to Shakespeare’s plays (I have not yet read Romeo or the Comedies, other than Merchant) in the way it is in Williams’.  Sex of course is at the center of Othello, and his obsession is a function of the love-hate relationship that is common to most men when the suspicion of infidelity arises; but the main issue of the play is Iago’s villainy, Othello’s blindness to the truth, the destruction of a noble character because of this flaw and that villainy – and not the sex per se.  We are interested in why such a military hero and strategic genius could possibly go so far astray when it came to his wife – his native, African innocence?  His masculine weakness regarding cuckoldry?

Sex is even more at the center of Hamlet.  Even before Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, he is obsessed with his mother’s marriage to Claudius; and thinks of this marriage as sexually-driven, considers his mother a wanton, sluttish woman.  Even after he vows to avenge his father, his real motivation comes from his sexual feelings towards his mother.  This sexual conflict carries over to his feelings for Ophelia – the same love-hate feelings that Othello has for Desdemona.  But sex is not the landscape for Hamlet as it is for all of Williams’ plays.  It has to be analyzed and factored in to the decisions that Hamlet takes, but as one factor among many.

In closing, I am very happy to be in Williams’s world for the rest of the summer.  In Columbus, I will attend lectures, meet the actors who will perform in his plays, read personal journals and historical references, and come away with a much better understanding of the playwright.  I can’t wait.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Recipes–Summer Squash, Basil, and Tomatoes


This is one of those recipes that just happened.  There were only four smallish yellow squash in the refrigerator and some supermarket Mexican tomatoes which had not been eaten since the delicious local tomatoes came in, so I thought I would put both together with a few other things – the bag of fresh local basil bought at the farmers’ market came to mind – and the result was light, summary, and incredibly flavorful:

* 4-5 yellow squash, cut into 2x2” pieces

* 3 fresh tomatoes cut in quarters (the large, local varieties; or, if you want, use the large Mexican tomatoes that come in clear plastic containers – not bad at all, and certainly got us through the winter.  If you use these, then about 10 tomatoes will do it, cut in half)

* 2 very large bunches of fresh basil, loosely chopped

* 1 medium onion, loosely chopped

* 2-3 tsp. minced dried garlic (sometimes hard to find; but you can more easily find dried garlic in small grinders, like pepper)

* 1 vegan bouillon cube

* 1 cup of water

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil

- Put the squash, tomatoes, onion, olive oil, and basil in a pot with the water and the bouillon cube, mix well

- Add the garlic, again mix well and cook over medium low heat for about 15 minutes or until the squash are done (should be firm, but easily penetrated with a fork).  The tomatoes in this time should be very soft.   Taste, especially for garlic and adjust; and add 1 tsp. of sugar if the sauce is too acidy.  Mix again.

- Remove all the ingredients from the sauce, and reduce down to about 3/4 cup.  Tilt the container holding the vegetables up so that any remaining liquid will drain, and pour this into the reducing liquid.

- Taste again; then replace the vegetables into the sauce and serve in small bowls.  There will be enough sauce to enjoy alone, along with the vegetables.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Braised Pork Loin with Thyme


Pork loin is an extremely tender and flavorful cut of meat with very little fat.  Think of it as a beef tenderloin or filet mignon – it is of the same quality and type.  It is more expensive than pork chops and pork shoulder, but every once and a while good to have.  This recipe takes a bit of time in the braising, but worth it.  The braising gives the basis for the brown cream sauce; the thyme is a perfect complement to the taste of pork; and the prunes add the sweetness that combines nicely with the thyme.

* 1 pkg. pork loin (the meat usually comes in two, long filets in one narrow pack, and the weight is about 2 lbs.  One filet is enough for two people, and this recipe is for that amount) – the filets are kept whole

* 2 tsp. dry thyme

* 1/2 cup cream or half-and-half

* 1 cup (approx.) sour cream

* 2 tsp. Maille (French-style Dijon) mustard

* 1/2 cup medium sherry (Amontillado)

* 10 prunes, rehydrated then cut into halves (to rehydrate, place prunes in enough water to cover, leave for one hour or until soft)

- Heat an iron skillet to very high heat until it begins to smoke

- Rub the filet with olive oil just enough to give it a film of oil, no more; and place in the skillet

- Braise the filet until brown (about 10-12 minutes).  Leave the filet in the skillet on one side for about 5 minutes until the side is brown; turn, same time for the other side

- Turn the heat down and cook for approximately 8 minutes.  You should  NOT cut into the meat to test for doneness until you are fairly sure that it ready to be removed.  The way you tell is the softness of the meat.  Press with your index finger.  If the meat seems soft and gives easily it is not done.  If there is no give at all, it is over done.  If you use a meat thermometer the internal temperature should be 140F.  The inside should be pink and a little juicy.  If it is not done, sear the cut end where you have cut to test.  This will seal the juices in.

- Remove the meat

- Add the cream, sour cream, thyme, mustard, sherry in the skillet stirring quickly.  The skillet will be very hot, and the liquids will evaporate quickly, so put them all in and stir until there is no more bubbling.  Taste for thyme, sherry, mustard.  Add a bit of sugar if too sour. Add salt to taste.

- When sauce is done, add the prunes, cook for another 2 minutes

- Cut the pork filet into 2” pieces.  The pieces will be 2” thick, round about 2” in diameter

- Add the pork and heat the mixture over very low heat for about 15 minutes and serve.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy–A.C. Bradley


A.C. Bradley, writing in the early 1900s, is one of the most intelligent and respected critics of Shakespeare of any period.  Bloom groups him in the same category as Samuel Johnson.  In a series of lectures on Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear collected in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), Bradley has written a number of introductory essays, the first entitled The Substance of Shakespearean tragedy in which he describes what are for him its basic elements.  One element presented  in depth is Fate, which I would like to discuss here.

At the root of Bradley’s conception of tragedy is the concept of greatness – the glory of Man, and therefore the tragedy of his fall:

‘What a piece of work is man’, we cry, ‘so much more beautiful and so much more terrible than we knew.  Why should he be so if this beauty and greatness only tortures itself and throws itself away’?  Everywhere….we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship.  And everywhere we see them  perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves….as though they came into being for no end.

A moral order and fate are behind tragedy:

…The ultimate power in the tragic world is not adequately described as law or order which can see to be just and benevolent – as, in that sense, a ‘moral order’: for in that case the spectacle of suffering and waste could not seem to us so fearful and mysterious as it does.  And from the second it follows that the ultimate power is not adequately described as fate, whether malicious and cruel  or blind and indifferent to human happiness and goodness: for in that case the spectacle would leave us desperate or rebellious.  Yet one or other of these two ideas will be found to govern most accounts of Shakespeare’s tragic view of the world.

Bradley first talks about ‘fate’ in the sense of tragic, heroic characters not being able to predict the outcomes of their acts – that is, understanding their own tragic flaws and appreciating the unpredictable nature of the world.  In the first case, Lear could not have known the outcome of his first, precipitous act of self-disinheritance; and in the latter, Desdemona’s loss of her handkerchief at just the wrong moment. Bradley says that because of this ineluctable course of fate, “All this makes us feel the blindness and helplessness of man”

I do not think that this argument – the intertwining of tragic flaw and ‘fate” – really explains tragedy.  In my view, expressed previously in other posts, is that life is an inexorable and predictable repetition of cycles of human nature.  This is best expressed in the Histories, where if you read them chronologically, you would see the same dramas of ambition, scheming, murder, duplicity, and singular purpose towards accession to and retention of power – the Grand Mechanism (Kott).  The Tragedies follow the same logic.  Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Macbeth are perfect examples.  Iago does not want power – he wants to destroy it; and Hamlet, in his inept way, wants vengeance, and by so doing will accede to the throne that belongs to him.   They all plot, scheme, manoeuvre, for their very clear ends. 

We do not feel either the blindness or helplessness of man because history and a study of the human nature which drives it have shown that these inevitable cycles and expressions have always existed and always will. 

Furthermore, ‘tragic flaw’ can be interpreted in another way.  Lear was not mad when he made his thoughtless decision to pass on his wealth while still alive; and therefore he, as a king, should have understood the character of his daughters, and at least suspected that their greed and ambition would lead to disaster.  He should have known better.  I have never understood how Othello, a general, commander, leader of men, strategic genius, could have been so easily duped and mislead by Iago.  He should have known better.  Macbeth was caught up in the same cycle of misadventure as others in power in previous and later palaces.  Only Hamlet, who may have already been mad at the beginning of the play, might receive our sympathy – but then again, if he was mad, then his actions are neither tragic nor heroic.

Bradley also is pre-modern in his belief that there is good and evil in the world.  He skates around this conclusion, but it is there:

But the name ‘fate’ may be intended to imply something more – to imply that this order is a blank necessity, totally regardless alike of human weal and of the difference between good and evil or right and wrong.  And such an implication many readers would at once reject….but would maintain on the contrary that this order shows characteristics of quite another kind from those which made us give it the name of ‘fate’, characteristics which should certainly not induce us to forget those others, but which would lead us to describe it as a moral order (my italics) and its necessity as a moral necessity.

I have also written about Nietzsche who talks of an order of fate ‘beyond good and evil’ – an idea to which I subscribe and therefore reject the claims of Bradley.  Bradley goes on to say:

The main source [of tragedy]…is in every case evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection, but plain moral evil….If it is chiefly evil that violently disturbs the order of the world, this order cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent between good and evil, any more than a body which is convulsed by poison is friendly to it or indifferent to the distinction between poison and food…

If existence in an order depends on good, and if the presence of evil is hostile to such an existence, the inner being or soul of this order must be akin to good (my italics).

The evil acts Bradley cites – the actions of Goneril, Regan, and Iago – are not evil, but predictable results of ineluctable choices.  The good of Edgar, Banquo, Cordelia, Desdemona are simply polar opposites to their actions.

Bradley goes on to expound on his theory of ‘waste’ – how in this universe where the striving for good is always thwarted by evil, man’s heroic actions are always wasted.  In my view, there is no such thing as wasted effort, just effort.  Since our actions are always predictable, and since their outcomes are always unpredictable, how can there be either good or evil, and especially how can there possibly be waste?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Recipes–Spaghetti with Zucchini


People do not often think of pasta with vegetables, but certain ones, if prepared properly, can be absolutely delicious.  Zucchini is one – but not the ordinary, supermarket variety, but the more flavorful kind – Italian heirlooms are best - usually found in farmers’ markets and often Whole Foods.  There is a variety that is easier to find and it is much lighter green in color than the popular variety, a bit fatter, and much tastier.

The trick is to brown the zucchini and the garlic.  The browned garlic becomes almost carmelized and mixed with the browned vegetable gives the oil an intense flavor and color which makes the recipe.  Without browning it is tasteless.  So….pick a good variety of zucchini, brown the garlic, and brown the zucchini.  It takes a bit of time over the skillet, but well worth it!

* 2  1/2 lbs. Italian-style zucchini (if possible.  Ordinary zucchini will work, but will have less taste)

* 4-5 Tbsp. olive oil

* 5-6 lg. cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

* 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

* 1/2 lb. spaghetti (I prefer spaghetti, not spaghettini)

* 1/2 tsp. salt

- Cut the zucchini into 1/2” round slices

- Put the oil in an iron skillet (iron skillet preferred because you can use very high heat, making browning easier and reducing the time to cook) and heat to high

- Put the chopped garlic in the oil and sautee until it is just beginning to brown

- Add the zucchini, and cook over high heat, turning frequently.  The cooking is done when most of the pieces of zucchini are browned (some can be almost black, which is good for flavor; while most are dark brown and some can be just lightly browned).  This should take about 20 minutes cooking. Add the salt and mix about half way through cooking.

- Plate the spaghetti, and place the zucchini with pan oil over each dish.  Add a drizzle of olive oil if there is not enough from the pan

- Grate the parmesan over the pasta and zucchini, add ground pepper

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pericles–A Good Man in Bollywood


I liked Pericles, a play written by Shakespeare late in his career and without the intense, interior, and powerful characterizations found in his major tragedies.  Bloom quotes Ben Jonson as saying that Pericles and Marina “are figures in a moldy tale, an old story always being retold”; but it is an interesting work, placed somewhere between tragedy and comedy, lowlife scenes that I liked even more than those with Falstaff, an idealized but still poignant depiction of good, and a great Bollywood story with villains, treachery, and a happy ending.  I think Mark Van Doren (Shakespeare) said it best:

The form of the romance, shuttling as it did between the ups and downs of fortune, and encouraging the invention of fantastic evil to match fantastic good, directed [Shakespeare] to go on painting the dark sky he was all too familiar with; yet another of its laws was that from time to time the clouds should part, permitting sunshine – even artificial sunshine – to burst through. His subject, in other words, must still be man’s affliction, but its taste could be “as sweet as any cordial comfort” (The Winter’s Tale).

There is only one villain in the play, the wife of Cleon who, for no other reason than to eliminate competition to her daughter, attempts to kill Marina, Pericles’ daughter and the vision of innocence, modesty, chastity, and good.  In that act, she is as evil as any other of Shakespeare’s villains, but not as interesting.  She doesn’t plot like Macbeth, Iago, or Aaron the Moor.  She doesn’t have the inner torments of Lady Macbeth or Macbeth himself.  She is not canny or compelling like Richard III.  She makes her claim on the life of Marina, contracts for murder, and then leaves the past aside with the cynical erection of a monument to the dead girl; and does it all – Like Lady Macbeth – with the cynical scorn of her cowardly husband.

Antiochus is incestuous and keeps his secret by killing suitors for his daughter (with whom he sleeping) who fail to solve a riddle which will allow them the daughter’s hand; but that is no different from other kings and pretenders in Shakespeare who trick, imprison, and behead opponents and enemies.  It is the banality of the evil of Dionyza, the wife of Cleon, that makes her more villainous.  The curse of Dionyza’s evil hangs over the entire play, is central to the plot, and infects everything.  Antiochus does his deeds, then is incinerated by a vengeful god.

The rest of the characters are good and honorable.  Pericles, although one can fault him for his fatalism (at least through the lens of many of Shakespeare’s heroes, like Henry V, Henry VIII, Bolingbroke or the women who surround them and demand the rights to power, wealth, and royalty), has no malicious intentions.  He is wronged and suffers like Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, but does no wrong.  He is as philosophical as Richard II:

Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men.

He’s both their parent, and he is their grave,

And gives them what he will, not what they crave.

We, used to actor-heroes in Shakespeare are frustrated by his philosophical diffidence.  He worries more and more about what Antiochus will do to him, but will not act:

And so with me.  The great Antiochus,

‘Gainst whom I am too little to contend,

Since he’s so great can make his will his act,

Will think me speaking though I swear to silence…

He’ll stop the course by which it (his incest) might be known.

With hostile forces he’ll o’er-spread the land…

Antiochus, therefore, would act like most of Shakespeare’s kings; but not Pericles.  Yet, he is the paragon of goodness and virtue.  In an ironic twist, he saves the kingdom of Cleon and Dionyza from famine; and they turn around and try to murder his daughter who has been given to them to raise and protect.

Helicanus, confidant to Pericles and left in charge of Tyre while Pericles is away, makes no move to assume the kingship, and in fact convinces the lords of Tyre to be patient and wait another year for Pericles’ return.  Simonides, the king of Pentapolis is a reasonable and generous king:

Per. “The good Simonides” do you call him?

Fish 1: Ay, Sir, and he deserves so to be called for his peaceable reign and good government.

Lysimachus, the Governor of  Mitylene is equally noble and honorable, worthy enough to be granted the hand of Pericles’ daughter, Marina.

The central character of the play is Marina, who is depicted as a goddess on earth.  She is perfect – she is beautiful, talented, graceful; and her sense of honor, which is somehow so much a part of her strong and determined character that it is able to disarm the most dishonorable (her presumed murderer; Bawd, Bolt, and Pander of the whorehouse; and Lysimachus who comes to have sex with her but demurs, influences as he is by her nobility.

In short, this is a play about nobility and goodness as much as Richard III is one about amorality and power or as Lear is about hopelessness.

At the same time, this nobility is diminished because of the Bollywood plot of the play.  Like Hindi movies, loves are lost and found, identities hidden and discovered, villainy abounds, treachery lurks, songs are sung, and all ends up well in the end. As in Bollywood, Hollywood, or romantic comedy, we are asked to suspend our disbelief.  How likely is it that the coffin of the supposed wife of Pericles, tossed into the sea will wash up on shore, Thaisa revived, and reunited with her husband at the temple of Diana?  Or that his daughter, given to Cleon and Dionyza, escapes murder by being captured by pirates, is sold into prosititution, escapes it because of her innate goodness and nobility, is reunited with her father, Pericles?  Can we take Marina’s self-appraisal seriously when she wonders why anyone would kill her:

I never spake bad word, nor did ill turn

To any living creature.  Believe me, la

I never killed a mouse, nor hurt a fly,

I trod upon a worm against my will,

But wept for it….

And Bawd speaking about Marina:

Fie, fie upon her.  She’s able to freeze the god Priapus and freeze a whole generation….

Funny. Not very convincing.  It is melodrama, and fun. 

Bloom is critical of the play because Pericles is one-dimensional – he is flat, where other Shakespeare heroes are complex and challenging; and while this is true, the play has its own complexity.  Marina can be, as I have suggested above, be caricatured as a Bollywood heroine, chaste and noble; but she is a very strong woman.  Her arguments to free herself from her own Perils of Pauline are eloquent, persuasive, almost legal in logic and discipline.  The scenes in which she is imprisoned in the brothel are graphic and memorable.  She is principled, but can speak gutter language in her righteousness as well.  Marina says to Bolt:

Thou hold’st a place for which the pained’st fiend

Of hell would not in reputation change.

Thou art the damned doorkeeper to every

Coistrel that comes enquiring for his Tib.

The the choleric fisting of every rogue

They ear is liable.  Thy food is such

As hath been belched on by infected lungs.

The play is interesting because it is about parents and their children.  Henry IV was certainly about the relationship with his son, Hal and about Hal’s with his father; and these relationships thrown into relief by Hal’s dalliance with Falstaff.  Mothers like Constance are like she-bears protecting their children.  The scenes between Richard III and his mother are powerful; but this play treats some relationships more benignly, and we like the love between father and child – Pericles and Marina; and between Simonides and Thaisa.

The other relationships, like that between Dionyza and her daughter,  is obsessive and sick.  That between Antiochus and his daughter incestuous and twisted.  Again, I appreciate Bloom’s criticism that all of these characters and relationships are one-dimensional; but when the play is taken as a whole, they make sense.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays have lowlife scenes, the most famous of which are those with Falstaff; but Act IV, Scene ii, is graphic and more representative of this low life than the others.  It describes the business of prostitution, making a living like anyone else.  It is like a slave market where virginity is prized as a commodity in an era of disease:

Bawd: Bolt, take you the marks of her: the color of her hair; complexion, height, her age, with warrant of virginity, and cry “He that will give the most shall have her first”.  Such a maidenhead were no cheap thing, if men were as they have been….

Music plays an important role in the play.  It is more than just court accompaniment, but has a power.  When Marina sings to her father in Act 5, it is as much the music as her words which bring Pericles out of his self-imposed silence.  Later in Act V.I, Pericles hears the Music of the Spheres, by legend lost to the hearing of mortals.  In Act III.2, Cerimon brings Thaisa back to life as much through music as through his medical ministrations.  Gower says that Marina’s singing is so powerful, it can stop the song of a nightingale.  Simonides, after hearing Pericles sing, says he is a master of music.

In closing, I was not prepared to like this play, but did very much.  A minor play perhaps, but still an enjoyable and thoughtful one.

Minestrone and Paella


I made both of these this week.  They always seem to change a bit each time, but I thought I would finally write them down.  There are a number of variations to them, but here are the basic recipes:


Most people think paella is a complicated dish.  It isn’t.  While it does have a number of ingredients, and a number of steps, it is not the elaborate process most people think.  The trick is to cook the rice first and let it cool before mixing it with the tomato sauce so that the mixture is not gummy.

* 1 can tomatoes (I prefer San Marzano)

* 1/2 can tomato paste

* 5 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 4 links merguez (preferred), chorizo (second choice) or Italian sausage (try to get a good brand that does not have a lot of sodium.  Many brands have nearly 1000mg per link which will keep you up at night and make the sauce too salty)

* 2-3 doz. ffresh little neck clams in their shell

* 1 doz. lg. shrimp, unpeeled

* 1/2 lb. cleaned, whole squid (you can substitute canned squid or octopus.  Vigo brand is in the supermarkets)

* 2 tsp. oregano

* 2 tsp. ground cumin

* 4-5 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1 cup red wine

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 cup rice (your choice.  I like basmati or jasmine)

- Steam the rice at least 4 hours before the meal, and set aside in the cooking pan. 

- Steam the shrimp, peel, and set aside

- Cut up the squid into 2” pieces. You can use both bodies and tentacles.

- Brown the sausage in 1 Tbsp. olive oil.  Cut each link into four pieces and return to pot.

- Add the garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, but not browned

- Add the tomatoes, squid, tomato paste, wine, hot pepper, remaining olive oil, and spices

- Cook for about 2 hours, stirring every half-hour or so.  Taste for spices.  If there is not enough garlic, you can add garlic flakes.   The sauce is done when it is thick and flavorful.

- A half-hour before the meal, put about 2 Tbsp. of water into the rice and put on the lowest heat possible on the stove to heat.  Place the shrimp on top of the rice so that they heat as well.

- Steam the clams in water and white wine.  There should be just enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan.  Give the pan a few shakes to mix up the clams while steaming.  They are done when all clams have been open.  Do not overcook! So when the clams are done, turn off the heat and remove quickly, reserving the liquid

- Reduce the liquid down to about 1/4 cup and add it to the tomato sauce, stir, and mix well

- Put the rice on a platter, spread evenly, put the sauce on top, and mix well.

- Arrange the clams in their shells and the shrimp over the rice and serve.


Minestrone is one of those dishes that changes from cook to cook.  If you look online, you will find many recipes, many with pasta, some with meat, others with lots of greens.  I prefer mine very tomato-y and without pasta. 

* 1 can marzano tomatoes

* 1/2 can tomato paste

* 4-5 Tbsp. olive oil

* 4-5 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 1-2 lg. handfuls fresh basil, chopped with stems

* 1 lg. handful parsley, chopped without stems

* 5 med. carrots, chopped into 1-2” pieces

* 2 med. onions, chopped

* 4 yellow or zucchini squash, cut into 2” thick pieces

* 1 lg. red pepper, cut into 2” pieces

* 2-3 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1 cup red wine

* 2 tsp. each dried oregano, dried thyme, dried basil

- Sautee the garlic and onions in the olive oil for about 5 minutes

- Put in fresh parsley and basil, stir and cook for another 5 minutes

- Add tomatoes, tomato paste and all other ingredients

- Cook for about 1 hour or more until the soup is thick and flavorful.  Stir every 20 minutes or so and adjust for taste.  Most canned tomatoes have plenty of sodium so you should need no salt or very little.  Since the tomatoes and wine are acid, I often put in a teaspoon of sugar, but this is up to you.

If you like pasta in the soup, boil the pasta (should be shells, or rigatoni) and mix in with the soup before serving.  You should put in just 5-6 pieces of pasta in each serving.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Evolution of a Foodie


My mother was a good cook; not a great cook but a good one, and the dishes I remember best were those that she cooked to please my father. She did her best to recreate the Italian sette pesce (7 fishes) Christmas Eve dinner that were eaten in traditional Neapolitan homes, and we feasted on squid, octopus, eel, and anchovy.  My mother never had a lot of patience in the kitchen, and told my father “Four out of seven is enough.  Do you want me to slave over a hot stove for a week?”. 

Four was plenty: spaghetti with anchovy sauce, baked eel in a spicy tomato sauce with fennel and garlic, fried calamari, and octopus stewed in wine and tomatoes.  We started off with the angel hair with anchovy sauce, a recipe I still make on Christmas Eve and have posted on this blog; moved on to the fried calamari (crispy, never greasy, served with freshly-squeezed lemon juice); and finally to the eels and octopus.  Even if this meal was served only once a year, it gave me an idea about what cooking could be.

Not that it took this meal’s evil twin to confirm my interest in good food, but my mother always served my sister and me the most disgusting prepared food when they went out to dinner – Swanson TV Dinners and Chef Boyardee ravioli.  I can remember the pasty, gluey, salty mess that passed for ravioli and the tasteless, dry (despite the brown mess that was “gravy”) turkey; metallic-tasting mashed potatoes, and freezer-burned, watery, putrid broccoli.  For a long time my mother denied ever serving us those horrors, but now, finally, nearing 100 she admitted it.  “Oh”, she said, “I didn’t know you didn’t like them”. 

My first recollection of something special, however, was not my mothers eels, but our neighbor’s freshly baked bread.  Every Saturday morning Mrs. Fox let me watch her roll, pound, and shape the dough, then give me a glass of milk while we waited for the bread to bake.  The fragrance of the bread floated out of her kitchen windows and down the block to our house.  There was nothing like it.  It was summery, sweet, and the most exciting thing I could think of – baked bread.

My mother, a first generation Italian, born and raised in New Haven of immigrant parents, was – like millions of Italians like her – was bound and determined to remove any telltale signs of Italy from our big white house in the WASP-iest neighborhood of New Britain.  In food terms, this meant no garlic.  Garlic was the Guinea sign.  If the parlor, the sconces, the formal dining room with ornate, baroque candelabra didn’t give us away, garlic certainly would.  So except for Christmas Eve, when she gave in to my father and put a few measly whole cloves of garlic in the tomato sauce (whole because they gave off far less flavor than chopped), no garlic.  Unfortunately – or fortunately – I have excellent taste and taste memory, so I knew what garlic, olive oil, and tomato sauce might taste like if given full flower. 

After years of garlic-less tomato sauce, my grandmother – my father’s mother who spoke no English and whose apartment in New Haven always smelled of garlic whether or not she had just cooked or not (it also smelled of mothballs and coal oil, so while I couldn’t wait to eat there, my appetite was put off by these very foreign, powerful, and disgusting smells) – came to stay with us for three weeks while my mother was in the hospital.  She made what my sister and I have always referred to as “all day sauce”.  My grandmother would make a big pot of tomato sauce with just about as much oil and garlic as it would take, big chunks of fatty beef, pork, and veal, oregano, basil, and rosemary, and let it cook all day.  It was the most wonderful dish I had ever tasted – thick and rich with the tastes of the meats, the garlic, olive oil, and spices.  I couldn’t get enough.  However, despite my father’s attempts to air out the house, it must have smelled like Guinea Hell to my mother who shouted the moment she came in the door, “What on earth have you done to my house?”.

There was one item on the the obligatory Sunday trip to New Haven that I looked forward to – Aunt Margaret’s artichokes.  Although now I eat them with olive oil and salt, a mustardy vinaigrette, or a variety of mayonnaise-based sauces (mayo, sour cream, Bay spice or a touch of curry), then there was only one way to prepare them – stuffed with garlic, parsley, and parmesan cheese and baked.  I could smell them cooking from the bottom of the stairs – the same creaky, dark, and narrow stairs that led up to my grandmother’s apartment, but without the coal oil and mothballs.  They were delicious – each leaf was tender, coated with olive oil and salt, and tasting of garlic.  The leaves were succulent and fragrant but I knew the heart was waiting – the core of melted cheese, parsley and garlic. 

Aunt Leona, my mother’s sister was a great cook, and we often went down to West Haven to visit.  The holiday meals were epic.  Christmas dinner always had antipasto; the thick, cheesy, rich lasagne that my Aunt Angie made; then the turkey or ham.  It was the side dishes that made it – corn fritters made from summer corn my aunt had frozen; sausage and mushrooms; zucchini fried and browned in olive oil and browned garlic; an Italian ham pie, custardy center with ham and cheese and perfectly done crust.  Then the desserts, “store bought” but from Lucibello’s in New Haven and better than I have ever had since.  Even in living in Little Italy after graduate school I never found as good sfogliatelle, boccanottes (pronounced sfuyadel and bugnuts), or canolis.  After dinner there would be nougat candies, each in their own little boxes, with an Italian peasant woman painted on the front, and layers of foil wrapping protecting the prize.

My growing food taste went underground for my three years at boarding school and four years of college.  There was nothing really objectionable about it, and a matter of fact thanks to various food endowments at Trumbull College at Yale, we often had fresh strawberries in the winter, French cheeses, and guinea hen of all things.  Those were the days when wealthy patrons and alumni didn’t consider the more meaningful investments common today – scholarships for the poor, renovated classrooms, or endowed chairs.  Yale was all wealthy students; the endowment was already in the hundreds of millions, and charity was most definitely not called for.  So, the strawberry endowment.

I started to cook for myself in graduate school, but nothing memorable.  I hated the school and the city - wrong choice - and spent as much time away from Pittsburgh as possible.  I somehow, inexplicably convinced my professors to let me write my Masters Thesis on the philosophy of architecture.  This was remarkable because they had no idea what the philosophy of architecture was; and because I was studying urban renewal, all civil engineering, infrastructure design, and land use planning.  So I had leave to travel the Northeast and visit the great modern architecture of the period – the glasswall skyscrapers of New York, the elegant Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut, Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building in New Haven, Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard (the only Corbu building in North America), and closer to Pittsburgh, Wright’s Falling Water.

My first job was with the Newark (NJ) Housing Authority, and my first apartment was in a Mies van der Rohe glasswall building on an urban renewal site!  A perfectly viable if not vibrant Italian neighborhood had been razed to make way for a Mies trifecta – three fabulous residential towers – but there was no doubt that political corruption was behind the move.  We all knew that there was money to be made in the demolition and construction business.  The Mayor and the head of the Housing Authority were eventually indicted for corruption and did prison time.

I have written about my Nicky Nork days on this blog – my days with low-level Mafia bagmen, black dopeheads whose day job was to sit at big desks near the front window of Newark banks to show sensitivity to civil rights (this of course didn’t work, and within a year of my arrival, the Newark riots broke out, along with Watts, Detroit, and Washington), and goombas from Down Neck who “worked” for the Housing Authority, but who were not expected to really work, so shot the shit all day, got blown on lunch break, boosted Italian shoes at Port Newark, and talked bowling and football.

It was in Newark, however, that I started cooking seriously.  It didn’t happen in a foodie way – thinking about provenance, whether to sautee with a Burgundy or Bordeaux, whether to garnish with a raspberry or prune coulis – but much more simply.  Peggy remembers eating fried cabbage in olive oil and browned garlic and spaghetti with clam sauce, my first and very frequent meals.  I still make them – the combination of the browned garlic, slightly browned cabbage in good olive oil with lots of salt is super; and tomato sauce with fresh little neck clams is unbeatable – but in retrospect they were the first really thoughtful and considered dishes I prepared.

I went to India in the winter of 1988 and stayed for nearly five years.  I had never had Indian food before, never even thought about it; but there it was in all its splendor.  I never cooked because we had cooks in Bombay and Delhi, but I learned.  I remember the subtle and varied vegetarian dishes prepared by the wife of a Gujarati friend – a thali consisting of foods chosen for the basic taste groups – salt, bitter, sweet, acid – but there was nothing harsh or inedible.  The salt, for example, was in tiny capers, marinated in brine.  The bitter was barely noticeable, like broccoli rabe.  The sweets were marvelous custards and rich, sugary candies called barfi.  You could die from eating barfi bought in sweet shops – the flies swarmed over them, the milk went bad, etc. – but Mrs. Tejpal’s sweets were safe, fresh, creamy, and delicious.

 Moti Mahal in Old Delhi was famous for its tandoor – traditional brick oven where chicken, lamb, and bread were cooked.  You ate outdoors, even in the summer, in a big, open courtyard.  The place was always full, but the service impeccable; and the food! Succulent tandoori chicken, bura kebab (tender pieces of marinated lamb), yeasty naan, side dishes of creamy black dhal, okra, cauliflower, and eggplant; spicy marinated onions, kulfi for dessert.  Kulfi is a kind of yoghurt ice cream where the rich buffalo milk is boiled down to a thick, semi-solid with cardamom and other spices, then frozen with pistachios. 

The curries of the South were too hot to eat (Peggy used to wash off the shrimp in boiled water, wrap them in a puri, and then eat them); but they were so good I took the getting drunk attitude – fun when you are doing it, horrible the next day but so what.  ( A really hot curry will make the eyes, nose, and scalp water; and will make your asshole burn the next day.).  Everything in the South was cooked in coconut oil and coconut milk and often in tomato sauce, and today I often make milder versions of these recipes.

Most of our home-cooked (i.e. cook cooked) meals were “English food” – stringy, tough buffalo meat, well-aged chicken, marble peas, boiled potatoes, and rice.  Our cooks had never cooked Indian food for their previous employers, so when we asked them to prepare one of the dishes we had had out, they demurred – “Memsahib won’t like” or “Not available in market” – and when they conceded, the dish was so hot that it was inedible.

One day we gave our Bombay cook four artichokes to prepare for lunch.  We had found them at an “English” store, they were expensive, and very, very rare – almost never available in India.  Some tea planter in Darjeeling must have experimented, and there they were.  When we came back from a trip to Juhu Beach, there were artichoke leaves all over the kitchen floor, the cook frustrated and worried.  “But Madam”, he said, “Where is artichoke?”.

After India we spent two years in Latin America, first in Guatemala where I first had delicious refried black beans, fried plantains, and sour cream.  What a combination!  And sopa de mondongo, a soup of gizzards, hearts, and other chicken parts, a piece of corn on the cob, and vegetables in an all-day broth.  My first ceviche was on the black sand beaches of El Salvador, spicy, lemony, and fresh corvina.

There were excellent French and Italian restaurants in Quito when we lived there and an abundance of good meat and seafood.  I first had mussels in Quito, steamed in wine and fresh coriander; and I still remember the taste of fresh, never frozen, jumbo Ecuadorean shrimp.  There was an Italian store which sold fresh pasta – another first for me, but one which I never followed.  As heretical as it sounds, I really don’t taste much of a difference, and it is certainly simpler to buy and cook dry pasta.  The filet mignon at Flandes was buttery and flavorful, and the selection of French wines excellent.  I had been spoiled by the French Duke who squired my sister-in-law in Paris and introduced us to really fine Burgundies, and Flandes and Chalet Suisse, another Quito restaurant many thought the best in the city, both had them at reasonable prices.  I am not willing to pay the $200 a bottle for today’s equivalent of those marvelous Burgundies of the 70s, and because of my good taste memory, cannot drink anything less.  I am quite happy with the Pinot Noirs of Oregon, which, at $60 a bottle are mighty fine indeed.

I also had my first taste of Chilean and Argentine wine in Ecuador, especially Macul, which an exceptionally good table wine; but after having tasted so many wines, I find I don’t like the particular earthiness and tannins of the South America wines.

I never drank beer in college, but when faced with the choice of warm Coke or cold beer on a sweltering day in the Ecuadorian jungle, I chose the beer, and of course under those conditions, went down well; and in fact tasted really good.  My friend in Quito was an alcoholic, so he said, learning of my beer epiphany, “Well, if you liked that….” (what I had was obviously a basic, unrefined beer)….”try one of these”.  He opened his refrigerator filled with beer from all over South America and Europe.  I was on my way to liking beer and realizing, for the first time, the variety.   The selection of beer in the States was, in 1976 when we returned, very limited.  There was Bud, Miller, Schlitz, and increasingly Heineken.  I didn’t like any of them, and drank wine.  In the early 80s, however, a neighbor introduced us to the first micro-brewed beers he had found – Old Heurich, a beer that was once produced in DC and New Amsterdam, two delicious amber beers, now hard to find like most ambers.  A new world was opened and long before the ubiquity of micro-breweries we know now.

Food in Bolivia, our stop after Ecuador, was not memorable except for the potatoes, the staple of the Quechua and Aymara Indians of the altiplano who cultivated a bewildering variety.  One variety was chuno which was produced by cultivating a frost-resistant potato which was then frozen, then sun dried, frozen and dried again over five days.  The result is a nasty-looking black fungus-looking thing cooked in soups.  They were very flavorful, not at all bad, and the soups were the heartiest meals I have ever eaten, cooked with chuno, other potato varieties, pasta, corn, and maybe a piece or two of meat.  I did learn, however, something about potatoes and their variety, and today I always select for taste and texture more than I ever did since so many varieties are available (I prefer Yukon Gold for everything except baking, and Russets for baking).

We lived in Thailand for almost a year, stayed in a hotel in Banglumpoo in a traditional area of Bangkok, and ate out every day.  The experience was memorable, and we never longed for a home-cooked meal.  Both Thai and Chinese food were available everywhere.  I first had Peking Duck on Sukhumvit Road and will never forget the crispy skin dipped in plum sauce, the three courses from one duck,and  the lively atmosphere of the large, crowded dining room.  There is a great, authentic Chinese restaurant in the Washington area called Mark’s Duck House.  It has the same delicious Peking Duck as I had in Thailand and has the same boisterous, crowded, and lively atmosphere of people enjoying their food and company.

In Bangkok I had Dim Sum for the first time on Patpong Road, the famous Red Light District of the City, but for me will always be remembered for the dim sum.  I had never had – or ever even imagined – food like this.  Carts rolling past with crab, shrimp, and pork dumplings; plates of roast duck and pork; whole fish, heaping green vegetables – all very familiar now, but in 1974, a remarkable new experience.

I once had a forced stopover at Narita airport outside of Tokyo, and instead of staying in the airport hotel watching Japanese baseball, I decided to visit the town of Narita.  It was a special experience because of the Shinto and Buddhist shrines and gardens nearby – quiet, misty, uncrowded and unexpected – a stone statue with flowers, an old wooden historic Shinto temple, a big Buddhist temple with ceremony, incense, and bells; pathways and stone bridges over streams.

Narita was also a special experience because I discovered sushi.  As I was walking back from the shrines, I passed a restaurant which had pictures of all the sushi dishes on the window.  I am not sure what attracted me, since, like dim sum, I had never even imagined such food; but my first taste of fatty tuna hooked me good and permanently.  When I returned to Washington, I found perhaps the only Japanese sushi restaurant, near the World Bank where I worked; and I went there so often that I never ordered – the sushi chef just kept preparing me morsel after morsel of the most unexpected and delectable fish. 

My first oysters were from Brittany, and of course, what a way to start!  Briny, cold, and and sweet Belons, Fines de Claires, and Olerons were my introduction to what has become my favorite food.  I am obsessed by oysters, can never pass them by, and can eat dozens at a sitting.   In Apalachicola, FL, where oysters are harvested by hand from the shallow delta of two rivers, I would eat two dozen for lunch and two dozen for dinner – always served on a tray with no ice, but fresh from the water.  The same in South Carolina which has similar warm water oyster beds near Charleston – two dozen for lunch, two dozen for dinner; and I stop only because I think I should.  I have eaten oysters from Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Washington, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Alaska, England, Scotland, Wales, and France.

Lambi Creole, close to the national dish of Haiti, is made with conch, spicy tomato sauce and peas, and I make it today minus the conch which is hard to find; but the spicy tomato sauce and peas with tuna or clams is a close approximation.

I retain little from African cooking except the greens.  I am a big fan of collard, mustard, and any other kind of greens; but my taste for them came more from the American South than Africa.  I especially like collards both the Southern way with bacon or fatback; or my own way sauteed in olive oil and browned garlic.

I had my first pulled pork barbecue sandwich in rural North Carolina in the early 80s and have been on the lookout for something as good ever since.  Tennessee barbecue where the pork is not pulled but smoked then sliced and quick sauteed in carmelized barbecue sauce is pretty darned good.  Our trips to the Deep South for seven summers made me appreciate ribs and especially fried chicken and catfish.  I always stayed away from deep frying until I realized that if done right it can give you a crispy crust and succulent meat inside.  Now I can make very good catfish and vary the cornmeal coating with a variety of spices.

The rest of my culinary evolution is American and my own.  Once back in the United States with a regular kitchen and good ingredients, I quickly expanded my cooking ingredients, recipes, and techniques to include vegetarian (my son was a vegetarian for about four years), Indian, Chinese, Southern, Italian, German and many more.   I am not a foodie in the sense that I obsess about food, deconstruct every meal and wine; but simply a food-lover who also loves to cook.  I rarely make the same thing twice, always varying, inventing, creating.  I have many of my recipes under the Category Food and Wine on this blog.  I do not have a huge kitchen, track lighting, butcher block table, racks of utensils and cookware; but I have all I need – sharp knives, a colander, iron skillet, slotted spoon, and not much else.  Bon apetit!!