Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Ultimate Kitchen Showdown

The holiday season is approaching earlier and earlier every year. The zombie shoppers enter the stores, mouths foaming, white knuckled hands clutching coupons, and a hankering for retail employee blood forcing them on their stubby little limbs. The bastards. Working in retail is like being trapped in a zombie film. If only I were allowed to run around with a cricket bat a la Shaun of the Dead.

The one good thing about working in a bookstore is getting to be surrounded by books all day. The bad thing is uneducated people who ask inane questions like: “Is Lord of the Flies a novel?”

In my free time lately I’m doing a lot of puttering about my kitchen. I’ve always loved to cook. Being at home creating and eating one’s own food is one of the few experiences of gesamtkunstwerk that we, as a society, can still afford ourselves. There is something truly splendid about the bubbling and gurgling of fruits and vegetables as they reduce with domestic and exotic spices into jams, sauces, and chutneys. There is almost nothing as splendid as the sound of glossy onions and garlic dancing soft shoe in a golden puddle of olive oil. And let’s not forget that taste. I promise you nothing tastes better than the satisfaction of plating and then inhaling one’s own food.

This is beginning to sound like culinary porn. Excuse yourself if you’ve been inundated with saucy images of scantily clad gnudi beckoning you forth with the smell of warm ricotta…I’m such a tease.

If you’ve read anything of my last few posts you’ll have noticed I’ve also begun baking. Baking, to me, has always been a tad frightening. Too often would I catch myself going on about how crap I was at baking. I admit. I have been a bit baking-phobic in the past. I am now repenting for my close-minded actions, though. Each week I’ve been challenging myself to different floured hurdles ranging from the simplicity of pastas and pizza dough and pita to the slightly more complex realms of danish, brioche, and challah.

I’ve come to recognize the different rhythms that baking has to offer. The sound of flour moistening in a pool of honey and water, and the squishy sound of butter and eggs as they are squeezed between grasping fingers into a bowl of dry ingredients. I even love how yeast releases a bready smell long before baking.

If I had to choose baking or cooking I don’t know which I’d pick. They both give me different pleasures. The jazzy flair of cooking things is anything but complacent. Too spicy? Drizzle in some honey. Too bland? A pinch of salt and a squirt of citrus. There is just so much spontaneity when cooking. Some may say baking is rigid and over-structured. I know I was guilty of this blaspheming at one point, but I have since reformed. Baking may have more defined guides and rules, but you bake with the force of emotion and energy as it flows through your hands right into that stubborn lump of dough. You bond with it, leave it once you’ve gave it all you’ve got, then come back to knock its wind out before you deliver it to a warm glowing oven.

In thinking about my love for the spontaneous flare of cooking versus the structured creativity of baking I thought of two writers who, in my mind, embody these qualities in their texts.

First we’ll address the plentiful flavors of Etgar Keret.

“I felt her tongue on mine. The books slipped out from under my feet as I hung there in midair, not touching a thing, dangling from just her lips.”
(Crazy Glue)

To me, Keret, a modern Israeli author, exemplifies the blithe and impulsive nature of cooking to a capital C. He is probably my favorite modern writer, in fact. He whisks together these brilliantly insightful stories that generally populate less than three pages. Awfully concise, don’t you think?

Despite the relative shortness of his stories they never fail to disappoint. He can write in a mere sentence what takes some writers three pages. Still full of imagery and a certain carefree design his pen rings out with simple yet brilliant tones.

Now, these stories, as I said, are very short. Vignettes. I’m doing my best not to give away too much with these snippets, so do your best to enjoy them when you go find them for yourself.

“When the first spaceship reached the moon, the astronauts couldn’t find anyone around. All they found was a million craters. At first, the astronauts thought those craters were ancient graves of people who had once lived on the moon. Only on closer inspection did they discover that those craters were merely thoughts about nothing.”
(A Thought In The Shape of a Story)

You can really feel the emotion in these few short lines. They are flavored with a subtle bittersweet glaze dripping generously about each word. They are cool and direct. Terribly satisfying but you can’t help but ask for more.

The next quote is from my favorite of his stories. A Hole in the Wall. Sorry, but I do want to give you a bit of background to this one. There is a man who meets an angel. The angel becomes the most worthless friend to him. More a mooch than anything else. If you don’t want to know what happens, look away. But it’s good. Real good.

            “The angel got up too and looked down into the street. He opened his mouth to say something. Suddenly, Udi gave him a little shove from behind, and the angel lost his balance. Udi was just fooling around. He didn’t really mean to hurt the angel, just to make him fly a little, for laughs. But the angel dropped the whole five floors, like a sack of potatoes. Stunned, Udi watched him lying there on the sidewalk below. His whole body was completely still, except the wings, which were still fluttering a little, like when someone dies. That’s when he finally understood that of all the things the angel had told him, nothing was true. That he wasn’t even an angel, just a liar with wings.”

Ho. Ly. Shit. Right? You’re going along, going along. A delicately spiced creamy sauce simmering away in the pan. Waiting and waiting for the garlic and onions to blend in nicely with grated lumps of green zucchini when BAM!!!! He throws in a handful of red pepper flakes. The after taste of spicy goodness mingles with the mellow depth of the pre-existing flavors as they slip down the back of your tongue.

“They had several children, and she loved to tell them stories, especially ones about the people who used to walk into the shop, smelling of sulfur. Those stories would scare them, and they’d start to cry. But still, even though she couldn’t understand why, she went right on telling them.”
(A Souvenir of Hell)

Do you see what I mean? That intense blend of tastes that jump out at you in such a way that only the most skilled author can manage. There are so many interesting aromas and spices easily jumping out of the pot. Sometimes bitter, sometimes salty. Sometimes, much like my friend Jan, subtle and spicy.

Speaking of my friend Jan. One of the single most stylish and creative people I have ever met. She is responsible for having introduced me to my auteur du boulangerie (that’s probably wrong, I took Spanish).

Despite my poor French, my attempt was definitely apropos. George Perec is a special sort of writer, a champion of turning the tedious into something beautiful and exciting. I chose him as my bakery goods because of his use of the lipogram. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything written as a lipogram, but it can be sort of a headache when you start.

The first novel of his I read was entitled A Void. I read it kind of as a challenge to see if I could stomach it.

            “Things look normal, but looks can play tricks on you. Things at first look normal, till, abruptly, abnormality, horrifying in its inhumanity, swallows you up and spits you out.”

What do you notice in here? Anything missing?

The lipogram is a form of constrained writing in which the author purposefully omits a letter or set of letters in an extended literary piece. The whole of A Void is written without any words containing the letter “e”. The novel, originally written in French has been translated into several languages, including English (obviously) maintaining this original standard. That, in my opinion, is as much of a triumph for Perec as the translator (whose not a terrible writer either), Mr. Gilbert Adair.

The novel itself is a pretty confusing parody of the mystery novel. It is neurotic and mind bending, but also humorous and very self aware of how perplexing it can be. One of my favorite sections (for which I completely don my nerd cap for) documents the lives and deaths of a character’s six sons. Each son has a name that starts with a different vowel (except, of course e). It is a bit wordy, so I’ll jump to the end.

            “So Conson has a solitary surviving son, Yvon; but his liking for Yvon is gradually diminishing, as Yvon, living so far away, now hardly visits his poor old dad.”

Get it? And sometimes y? Fine, I think it’s funny, but whatever. Maybe it works better in the context of the whole.

This isn’t the only text he wrote this way. The Exeter Text follows a similar pattern but is a little sloppier. If A Void is a temperamental brioche, The Exeter Text is sort of like a pizza dough. The proportions are there, but some liberties are taken. This story, which omits all vowels but e, allowed for spelling errors. In the English translation this is maintained as a means of reflecting the original construction, the translation also contains the two words I know of in the English language that contain ‘w’ as a vowel, crwth and cwm (that’s right, I have a passion for obscure words. There is nothing pretentious about it).

            “The scene’s sweetness sent me! Ellesmere, the elden demesne, seemed present there! The creeks. The scree. The petrels. The tempests. Then melt there! Be free! Where the ether reflects celeste resplendence, the ben’s green crests, the September hemp seeds! The demesne set between the mere, then the new Tempe’s cwm.”

So the method isn’t perfect. But he is still a master in my mind. And when was the last time you watched a cooking show that didn’t recommend a short cut or two? Even my collection of cookbooks ranging from the posh and fabulous Nigella Lawson to the inventive Alton Brown present the reader with a few modern snips to the traditional recipe that allow for an end result just as satisfying.

I leave you now with the closing passage from A Void followed by the closing passage of Keret’s Gulliver in Iceland. I’m sorry I keep throwing these conclusions at you in this post. It’s just sometimes they are sort of wonderful. It used to be a habit of mine to read the ending lines before I started the beginning. I didn’t really do it to find out what happened, or to make sure everything would turn out fine. I would’ve read it anyway. No, I read the last stretch because those bits of text are usually some of the best parts of the book. I’m like the girl who eats all the good chocolate out of the assorted box, aren’t I? There are worse things to be comparable to, though, I suppose. (Remind me to get a grammar book, that maybe the worst sentence structure ever.)

            “…and it was that lack of wisdom, that chronic inability of ours to grasp what was actually going on, that had us talking away, constructing our story, building up its idiotic plot, inflating all its intrinsic bombast, its absurd hocus-pocus, without at any instant attaining its cardinal point, its horizon, its infinity, that climactic coda of harmony out of which a solution would at long last loom,
            but approaching, by an inch, by a micron, by an angstrom, that fatal point at which,
            without that taboo constituting us and uniting us and drawing us apart,
            a void,
            a void with its brass hands,
            a void with its cold, numb hands,
            a void rubbing out its own inscription,
            a void assuring this Book, of all Books, a truly singular purity and immaculation, notwithstanding all its markings in ink and paragraphs of print,
            a void brings our story to its conclusion.”

            “I finish the book and notice that the streetlamp isn’t on anymore. In the headlights of a passing car, I see a figure in black beside me. The lights freeze, but the cold stopped bothering me long ago. The figure turns toward me. It’s him, there’s no mistaking that scythe, that skeleton face. For a moment, from behind, it looked just like a nun.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

And Now/See how God has accomplished/What was beyond belief.

Tonight, I’m baking bread. Two golden loaves of challah. I can smell its warm sweet scent drifting in from the kitchen. Who could ask for anything more?

This is my first time baking bread. It takes forever to do. I hope it turns out to be worth it. The perk of this, of course, is that I can finally write my new post. Haha! Take that busy schedule. Take that job! I’ve had a marvelous day. I leisurely played in the gentle current while everyone around me busily hustled on.

I’ve had some good times this past week. I saw some old friends. It was a rejuvenating enterprise. I feel refreshed.

This time has gotten me thinking a lot about my current position in life. I’m a recent college graduate, living at home, working in a vocation miles away from my degree. I constantly am questioning the choices I have made in my life. Contemplating the new soft skin of my adulthood.

This brought me to Hesse. My love affair with German Nobel Prize winner/existential novelist extraordinaire Hermann Hesse started in junior year of college. I was in a class on modern art movements. Part of the requirements for the class was writing a comparison between trends in the arts in two different periods. I chose to highlight existentialist authors in two different periods of cultural and social construction.
Hermann Hesse lived through the unification of the German states into what is now Germany. He left Germany permanently around World War II. He was considered a traitor for not supporting the Nazi Regime. What a fucking bad ass.

His life is the stuff that existentialism is made of. That’s sort of depressing now that I’ve written that down, but it’s also true. When one grows up in a time of cultural unifications for the sake of political advancement it makes complete sense that they could lose a feeling of their specific cultural identity. Oh, I struggled with that sentence when I reread it. I’m sorry.

The first novel of his I read was Steppenwolf. Incredible. Simply incredible. The story of a man who contains all the primal urges of a Neolithic wolf. He is a gentleman and a beast in one. He is in what he knows to be the last stretch of his life and he is unclear of his own self. There’s also a magical cabaret where he is mercilessly judged by Mozart for being too serious:

Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists, I don’t mind telling you in confidence, in putting too high a value on time. For that reason I wished to be a hundred years old. In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”

Fucking brilliant. Reading Hesse is being able to run naked and unashamed through a rococo mural of words. A flood of beautiful language that spins images and ideas of pain, and passion. A true philosopher and artist of fiction.

That isn’t the highlighted quote for todays post, however…

I just heard laughing in the kitchen.

I checked the two tiny braids of challah I put in the oven. They’ve grown. Immensely. They’re huge. I made a gigantic Siamese twin bread. I’ve created a monster.

I need a second to collect myself from my bread abomination. Dr. Atkins is turning over in his grave.

Back to the quote. My chosen allusion today is one from another of Hesse’s novels. Narcissus and Goldmund. Like many of Hesse’s great works it is a struggle between the duality of being. Many of Hermann’s fictions utilize a theme stemming out of the duality of existence. The main characters are often being stretched limb from limb by the opposing forces. We know from his book Demian that Hesse doesn’t necessarily seem to believe in the clash between good and evil. He does, however, employ the idea that in order to be at peace with oneself, one must balance all the opposing factors within. The protagonists are very often neurotic men striving to claim an identity they can tolerate, they become enchanted with idealistic images of balance. They grow to have deep feelings for androgynous characters who seem to have it all figured out. They reminisce over memories of long lost friends. If there is anything he seems to be an advocate against its tension and preoccupation. He preaches an idealistic fluid lifestyle carried by confidence in one’s own experiences and actions.

You must be sick of my babbling, but I still haven’t gotten to the grand appearances of our allusion. What I wish to explore with this quote is the power of language and thought. In one section of Narcissus and Goldmund the two titular characters are having a discussion about their viewpoints on the world (this happens a great deal in Hesse’s novels, there’s something sort of similar to Plato’s dialogues about them). One character, a young schoolboy studying in a cloister speaks fantastically of the earth and his dreams and their transcendence above concrete design.

“I believe,” he once said, “that the petal of a flower or a tiny worm on the path says far more, contains far more than all the books in the library. One cannot say very much with mere letters and words. Sometimes I’ll be writing a Greek letter, a theta or omega, and tilt my pen just the slightest bit; suddenly the letter has a tail and becomes a fish; in a second it evokes all the streams and rivers of the world, all that is cool and humid, Homer’s sea and the waters on which Saint Peter wandered; or it becomes a bird, flaps its tail, shakes out its feathers, puffs itself up, laughs, flies away. You probably don’t appreciate letters like that very much, do you, Narcissus? But I say: with them God wrote the world.”

That’s a stumper, huh? The first time I read this I had to read it three more times. This is why Hesse, in my mind, is a master.

“I believe.” We start off immediately with a statement of truth. In one’s own mind, what is more true than something one believes? Goldmund is letting us into the secret depths of his mind.

I’m gonna skip around a bit to draw parallels, keep an eye on the text.

This scene takes place in a religious setting: a monastery. Goldmund is a student. He tells this to a monk, Narcissus. Narcissus is very much his compliment and definitely his best friend. This is his way of rebelling against his strict religious upbringing in order to spread the wings of manhood and explore his nature. This is a declaration told in subtle singing tones.

This speech is the most beautiful piece of blasphemy you will ever hear. That’s right, just when you thought this was just a pretty paragraph: blasphemy. Goldmund hides a barb behind his poetry that equates himself with God. This story about a pleasant daydream in which he imagines letters turning into fish, and rivers, and birds is meant to validate the existence of his fantasies. He seeks to prove his point by claiming that God, too, must have summoned existence by validating His own fantasies.

“I do appreciate them greatly,” Narcissus said sadly. “Those are magic letters, demons can be exorcised with them. But for pursuit of science they are, of course, unsuitable. The mind favors the definite, the solid shape, it wants its symbols to be reliable, it loves what is, not what will be, what is real and not what is possible. It does not permit an omega to change to a serpent or a bird. The mind cannot live in nature, only against nature, only as its counterpart…”

This is Narcissus’s response. You can feel the change in rhythm. The identity shifted from a colorful vivacious speech to a whisper of tranquility. There is a sense of insecurity in the beginning. Narcissus wants to build a bridge. He concurs with Goldmund in order to soften the boy’s abrasiveness. It reads to me as being slightly defensive in that parental I’m-still-cool-I-know-what-you’re-saying kind of way. He may be a monk, but he’s still a social animal.

The retort hits its first counterpoint with the words But, of course, and unsuitable. Way to use your operative words, Narcissus. “The mind…wants it’s symbols to be reliable, it loves what is, not what will be, what is real and not what is possible.” This is a direct contradiction against Goldmund’s sentiments. Goldmund preached of the fecundity of the imagination and all it has to offer. Narcissus reminds that the imagination is too great to ponder and will never be satisfying because of its fallacious nature.

Let’s take a side path for a second: Does Narcissus realize that this is, also, a contradiction to his faith, and therefore a contradiction to what he is saying?  Isn’t God too great to ponder? Isn’t God immeasurably unfathomable?

The last statement made here is one that suggests that the mind is what makes all the beasts of the world imperfect. The cranial sprockets grinding into each other and eking out the labors of imagination are but blemishes on the otherwise silky skin of nature. By claiming that the mind is a matter of imperfection, despite its own vastness, completely destroys Goldmund’s argument that God would have created the universe as a result of imagination. If God is perfect, and imagination imperfect, than the two can’t possibly inhabit the same existence. That monk has some masterful rhetoric.

This is spelled out metaphorically when Narcissus claims that the mind “does not permit an omega to change to a serpent or a bird.” Once again Hesse has endowed Narcissus with the skillful tongue of a very intelligent man. He hides in this the serpent and the bird. The serpent is, of course, the time honored symbol for the devil and all that is evil. To contrast, ancient people believed that birds were the key to understanding the Gods. Augury, the communication method of choice for the Olympians. There is some subtle suggestion here that the mind cannot discern for itself what is good and evil and thus needs God to teach.

This whole teaching thing is the key really. In simplest terms:

Goldmund is a growing boy and feels smothered by the unquestionable teachings of the monastery. The only person that he is comfortable enough to release his feelings to gets a scolding dose of boiling hot angst thrown in his face. The face of the badly burned receiver than disproves him by asserting his intelligence and triumphing over the matter. He brought ointment.

Whoo. I’m out of breath, figuratively speaking. I’m pretty sure that last analogy was a bit of a stretch but eh…Worse things could happen.

I think this calls for a bit of challah. A sliver of my monster twin challot. Perhaps a smear of butter and a bit of strawberry-rhubarb jam? Maybe a little tea?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bizarre and Inexplicable

Hello, Universe. Here I am.

How are we doing, everyone? Judging by the resounding stir of nothing echoing in the distance I can only assume that no one is actually out there. Maybe someday.

What a heaping load of bullshit, huh? I know. Even as I was writing I was thinking it. But I suppose I’d like to get to the point. I’m sure you feel the same. 

So: My first post. My second try at my first post, in fact. Fucking computer deleted the original. Sorry to be crass. I’m often very annoyed about my laptop’s complete and utter disregard for my feelings. C’est la vie. I’d argue that art is more about the failures than the successes any day. Undoubtedly my most prized achievements have been born from the deep well of my failures.

I’m sure you’re beginning to wonder if this is it. Is he just going to babble on about nonsense and wallow in a sea of incomplete thoughts? What a prick!

Basically, this is it. I want to write something that I’m passionate about. I want to introduce you to the ideas and images that have had a significant role in my development as a person. Maybe you’ll see the world like me. Perhaps you’ll think I’m an asshole. I’m willing to take that risk. Which leads me to my first grand allusion, a little bitty from Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.

If you don’t know what this book is GO TO THE LIBRARY! Read it. But start with the first book. Work your way through them. If you get to read the new one tell me what you think, I haven’t read it yet.

“It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”

As I discussed earlier, I’m completely willing to risk any of your opinions on my character because, according to this you and I probably don’t exist at all. Transitively your opinions would be completely null, if not terribly close to non-existent. Now I know what you’re thinking, but I am not a nihilist. I promise you that.

Ponder on this, if you have something to say about it, do. I want here back about your experience with this idea. Maybe I’ll learn something new.

I really love this quote for how true it is in a slightly paradoxical way. It’s one of those concepts that really forces you to think about what you are reading. You crave to make sense of it.

Of course, we know that this is untrue. We experience our environment. We taste. We touch. We hear. We see. We smell. We all share a common understanding of our environment. But we’ve also all been exposed to the idea that life is solely an illusion. Hamlet made a tragedy of that idea: Ophelia drowned, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,…oh…And alas, Poor Yorick.

I think the thing that really grasped me, you know, that bit that made me nervous was the whole mathematical formulation in there. In this day and age we are so dependent on empirical knowledge that we know to accept it immediately. God knows somewhere in a dark chalk congested room an astrophysicist slaved over his crinkly notebook testing and testing and proving that formula. I’m not saying that Douglas Adams was an astrophysicist. I don’t think he was at least, but with the dark cold nudge of a mathematical proof…it makes me tense just thinking about it. Do you think this says something about my relationship with mathematics? Oh wow. I hope I didn’t repress a terrible mathematics related memory. Too much to handle.

I would like to conclude this post with a hopeful spin to this somewhat frightening philosophy. The following quote always gives me a bit of an optimistic heart even in the darkest of moments. I wish I could say that I pulled it from my musty old copy of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus that I purchased on a rainy day trip to Ithaca, but I can’t find it. I googled this. Don’t be offended.

Camus really played with the idea that regardless of the knowledge a person had of his own existence, no matter how monotonous, and insignificant it may seem, man is still the master of his own mind. No one can take that away.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So that may have been a bit of a tangent, but I hope I made you think. I hope I affected you in some way and gave you a better understanding of the workings of my mind.

Please let me know what you thought of these excerpts. I would love to here about it.