March 2018

Plaza Note:
Sacre, concld
19 March 2018

¶ On Saturday afternoon, we threaded our way around the St Patrick’s Day traffic — which was much worse coming home — to get to Lincoln Center, for the last of the Paul Taylors. As I had only bought the tickets several days earlier, they were supposed to be waiting at the box office. Good thing I wrote down the order number! Freshly printed tickets were passed through the window without an envelope. As on all earlier occasions this season, we sat in seats A9 and A11. 

  • There were four dances. One of Taylor’s first ballets, Aureole, was inserted into the program in memory of the dancer who created the female lead, Elizabeth LeBlanc, back in 1962. It’s a lovely dance, mostly to music from Handel’s Jephtha, Whether you regard Paul Taylor’s defection from strict modernism as bold or not, it cannot be denied that his company’s continued existence, indeed its current flourishing, owes a great deal to this move. Sean Mahoney danced the solo that was Paul Taylor’s first great signature. 
  • The second dance was Changes, a sporty piece set to songs sung by the Mamas and the Papas, some of them rarely heard. The costumes, in which the eclectic tailoring of late Sixties dandyism and the riotous tie-dyed color of the early Seventies are blended, absorb a great deal of attention. One is again struck — if one is my age or older — by the fidelity with which dancers who had yet to be born when “California Dreamin'” was a hit recapitulate their parents’ gyrations. Michael Novak’s identity was concealed by a large moustache, but I recognized him by his dancing anyway. Changes is a crowd-pleaser, and, what’s more, Kathleen was saying that she’d like to see it again. Something of a lagniappe for me, because I got the tickets for the other two dances, which were:
  • First, Eventide. Set to Vaughan Williams, this is one of Taylor’s tender, bucolic dances, like Sunset and Roses. Elegaic, perhaps? There are five couples, four of which have duets. At the end, the men and women split up into two lines, with the men going off to one side and the women to the other. It is all terribly mortal.
  • Piazzola Caldera, which is pretty much what you might expect of a ballet set to music by the Chopin of tango. What I mean by the Chopin reference is that we are as far from Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot as you can go while still using the word “tango.” Taylor has borrowed the dramatic hostility of danse apache for these pieces. Parisa Khobdeh played a woman who is rejected by the men; who has used and abused whom need not be clarified. Michelle Fleet did some extremely eponymic dancing with Michael Trusnovec.
  • It was all great, but what I’ll remember most clearly is a brief conversation with Margaret Kampmeier, the Orchestra of St Luke’s pianist. I caught her eye at one of the intermissions, and asked her a question that had much occupied Kathleen and myself during the past year. Last season, when we saw the company do Le Sacre du Printemps: The Rehearsal, I noticed that
  • “One of the pianists [not Ms Kampmeier] was reading from an iPad that turned its own pages, so to speak, automatically, at just the right time. How did it do that?” Did the pianist wink at the iPad, or — this seemed hardly credible — could the iPad follow the performance? The simple answer never occurred to us: “a foot pedal on Bluetooth.”
  • In my inbox, there’s an announcement that Friday’s night’s performance will honor Michael Trusnovec’s twentieth anniversary with the company. In Eventide, his dancing reminded me that his entire body is equally articulate, his neck and his shoulders as much as his hands or his feet. Watching newbie Lee Duveneck fill in for him in Changes, I wondered if there was ever a time when Michael Trusnovec was not the great dancer that he has been for all of the twelve seasons throughout which he has utterly wowed us. 


Liverish Note:
Fegato ’bout it
16 March 2018

The other day, I bought some calf’s liver. We’re both fond of it, but it has always been a cut, like lamb chops, that we bought from the best butcher, a shop that closed last year but that stopped carrying liver long before that —no demand, I was told. The liver on offer at Agata & Valentina is not bad, but it’s hard to get the countermen to slice it as thin as I like, and there sometimes tough bits. The other day, though, the liver looked sleek and smooth, and I was keen to try something both old and new. 

My regular way with calf’s liver is to follow Mrs Child by dressing the lightly sautéed slices in Sauce Robert, which is a mixture of mustard, tomato paste, and cream. But glancing through Mrs David’s Italian Food gave me the idea of trying the Venetian method — fegato alla veneziana — yet again. I sliced an onion on the mandoline and cooked it very slowly, until it was almost completely dehydrated. Then I cooked the liver two minutes on a side; three would have been better. But I ruined the dish by pouring some wine, into which I’d stirred a dab of Dijon mustard, onto the liver and onions in the pan. The  result was soggy and not at all interesting. I really ought to have followed the recipe more closely. 


Vapors Note:
15 March 2018

After a Remicade infusion last night, I was feeling unusually wan, and what I really wanted was for Kathleen to settle the whole problem of dinner. To do this, however, she would have had to invent a new local restaurant, quick and inexpensive and very nearby. When she came home from work, she found me reading the third volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles and munching pretzel sticks. I was still wearing my street clothes, lest I get desperate and settle for a run to Burger King. Kathleen had offered to do exactly that, but I have come to feel that sending Kathleen to Burger King is an emergency measure only, and unconscionable otherwise. If I could get myself to and from the hospital for the infusion, I could cross the street and stand in line. (With my book.)

After about forty minutes, during which I sipped a glass or two of wine, I felt soothed enough to offer to make cheeseburgers. This was fine with Kathleen, but it almost immediately struck me as too heavy, so I made grilled ham and cheese sandwiches instead. They weren’t much lighter than cheeseburgers, really, but they didn’t taste as heavy. There’s something about burgers that requires daylight. 

Plaza Note:
Sacre, cont’d
14 March 2018

¶ Last night, we went to what was to have been the last of three Paul Taylor events for this season. It left us with an appetite for more, so I have just ordered tickets for this Saturday’s matinée.

  • We went to the matinée last Saturday: Arden Court, Gossamer Gallants, and Esplanade. For the first time, a program of works that we had already seen at least twice. 
  • We first saw Gossamer Gallants when it was new. I didn’t care for it. Mostly, I didn’t like the costumes. But the whole thing was corny, starting with the Smetana score, music from The Bartered Bride that used to be a staple at pops concerts. In my radio days, my hands burned each time I scheduled it, which I did far too often, because its length (or brevity) made it easy to fit in. The ballet has grown on me, though, and I now see it as a classic for kids, many of whom could be heard giggling in the audience. Laura Halzack’s vamping flea fatale is powerfully reminiscent of little girls’ dress-up.
  • We had persuaded ourselves that, in the first movement of Esplanade, Michelle Fleet took one flying leap over the other seven dancers in the corps, and were disappointed when she failed to do so, the last time we saw the dance. And then again on Saturday. And again on Tuesday, last night. But of course she can’t ever have done any such thing. What she does is a series of jumps as she steps over each of the others, and photographs that have been taken of her doing this have planted the illusion of a magic carpet ride. 
  • It is hard to imagine Esplanade without Michelle Fleet, but we were forced to do so when we finally got round to watching Dancemaker, the 1998 documentary about Paul Taylor and his company. It was another dancer, no longer dancing with the company by the time we started going, who made the final turn toward the audience that Fleet makes so beguiling. 
  • We watched Dancemaker because I mistakenly thought that we’d be seeing Piazzola Caldera on Tuesday night. I ordered the tickets last fall, evidently as part of an uncompleted project. And I went to each event without checking on the program, enjoying rather the prospect of surprise. Well —  surprise
  • Precisely because we watched Dancemaker, however, I encountered a must-see ballet that we’d somehow missed, EventideEventide is on the bill for Saturday’s matinée. 
  • Commenting on Eventide in Dancemaker, Paul Taylor remarks that, from the beginning (of choreographing it), he knew that the couples would part at the end, because “we move on.” I agree, at least that we move on from youthful positions. But then we “settle down.” 
  • Surprise — the program for last night was ContinuumRunes, and — Esplanade. 
  • Runes, which dates from 1975, manages to be more interesting than its period portentousness warrants. There is a lot of darkness, and a moon rises on the right and climbs toward the left. Is this how the moon works in the Southern Hemisphere? What happens at the Equator? The music was a long piano piece of pointillistic modernism. The pianist had an archaic-looking CCTV monitor next to the score, so, yes, the musicians do occasionally get to see the dancers. But I suppose it’s unusual. 
  • Continuum is set to Max Richter’s Recomposed: The Four Seasons, which I discovered a few years ago, and thought would make a far more intriguing score for a Paul Taylor dance than Vivaldi’s original. And it did, except that the choreography was not by Paul Taylor but by company alumna Lila York. Kathleen found the music too crushingly sad to pay attention to the dancing (“yearning” would be my word), but I thought Continuum was a triumph, an almost perfect marriage of contemporary takes on the classical heritage. York’s dances were notably inflected by classical-ballet tropes, with more than a dash of commedia dell’arte wit. I was reminded at one point of Pollaiolo’s Battle of the Nudes, not that there was any undress or that the ladies weren’t present. I can’t  wait to see Continuum againalthough I’ll probably have to find someone else to go with me. 
  • For the first time ever (in our experience), Michael Trusnovec was indisposed. 


Hoarder Note:
13 March 2018

It’s appalling to be seventy years old and still not to know what to do with magazines. Not for lack of trying! But no matter what the scheme, it inevitably degenerates into a preposterous stack.

And it’s not as though we subscribe to all that many magazines. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper’sThe Atlantic, and The Nation. Oh, and France-Amérique and Pacific Standard. I’m not including the two Reviews, which look more like newspapers anyway, and are too big to leave lying around. 

The nub of the problem is that, in most cases, one never quite finishes reading a magazine. In a very few cases, there’s a terrific piece that one wants to save. The fact that almost everything is available online has not penetrated one’s skull. In fact, not everything is accessible. The last time I looked at Harper’s Web site, I was so discouraged that years have passed since. It may be entirely different (much better) now. I’d rather hear that it is from you, than have another disappointing peek. 

A new approach occurred to me the other day. It’s very ruthless, or will be if I implement it. Only the latest issue of each of the magazines will be stacked neatly in the living room. The preceding four issues of each will be stored somewhere else. As new issues come in, old issues will be thrown away. Ruthless! 

Gotham Diary:
More Savory
12 March 2018

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a pair of recipes from Paul Hollywood’s Bread, and what a success I had when I followed them. My next step was to incorporate them in a menu with fried chicken, and perhaps a salad. Yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, I added the chicken, but I held off on the salad because I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to eat any, and still have room for dessert. Dessert was going to be an angel food cake. I am forever using egg yolks and saving the whites in a large Grey Poupon bottle. The bottle was full, and I was resolved to put its contents to good use. 

Because we were too busy for me to do any cooking in advance, I planned to do everything one after the other. Even though, I knew, it would make for a long stint in the kitchen, I felt that I grasped what I’d be doing well enough not to have to give it much thought, and, indeed, there was never a moment of scrambling.

I got the cake out of the way first, of course. I hadn’t made an angel food cake since we moved down to this apartment several years ago, and I couldn’t remember where the tin was. It wasn’t with the other round tins; it wasn’t on top of the kitchen cabinets, nor at the back of one. I was about to give up. It was only when I went looking for a large loaf pan that I found it. A matter of gestalt: the angel food tin is the only one in a cabinet full of them that doesn’t have a 90º corner. I had learned not to see it when I reached for a loaf pan or the madeleine molds. But there it was. 

I follow James Beard’s recipe for angel food, and it is very simple with a stand mixer. First, you beat up the whites, with cream of tartar, sugar, and the flavorings (vanilla and lemon), and when they’re stiff, you reduce the mixing speed to the slowest possible and sprinkle in the blend of cake flour, salt, and more sugar. Baking takes about fifty minutes. The result on Sunday was a lighter cake than any I could remember, and altogether not rubbery. Quite a lovely finish, in the event. 

While the cake was in the oven, I brined drumsticks and thighs. When the cake was done, I whipped up a batter, following a recipe from a Cook’s Illustrated collection, of flour, cornstarch, water, and seasonings. The chicken sat in that until it was time to fry. 

Then I started the bread, also in the stand mixer, and while it was rising, I cooked the soup vegetables in a bit of butter and brought them to a simmer with a tub of Agata & Valentina’s extraordinary chicken stock. When the bread was ready to shape into rolls, I turned off the heat under the soup. While the rolls rose in their tins, I puréed the soup in the Cuisinart and then pushed it through a sieve. Now all it needed was a little bit of milk and a little bit more cream, and a nice saucepan for reheating over a low flame. I would garnish it with snipped chives just before we sat down. 

When the rolls went into the oven, I ought to have started the chicken, but, superstitiously, I waited until our guest arrived. Having a guest was very much a part of the experiment. What I’ve wanted here is not a simple dinner for Kathleen and myself but a more copious, yet still somewhat rustic production for friends. Because of the chicken, we sat down an hour after our guest arrived, which was regrettable on Sunday but which won’t be a problem next time, in a couple of weeks, when a very old friend who used to work with Kathleen will be in town. (She lives in Honolulu.) They won’t miss me for a minute. Nevertheless, I may start the chicken when the rolls go into the oven, just to see how long I can keep things sitting once everything is done. 

It all made for a good dinner, although I have learned two things about the Hollywood recipes. The first is to serve smaller portions of the soup. It is unbelievably filling, and people can always ask for more. The second is that Hollywood calls for far too much Stilton and bacon in his rolls recipe. About a third of his quantities (150 grams of cheese and 90 of cooked bacon) might still be somewhat excessive. Oh, and a third thing: freeze half the dough. 

What I also found to be true, alas, although it didn’t involve learning anything, was that this is not a meal to make right after you’ve cleaned the kitchen. Happily, I hadn’t just cleaned the kitchen. But if any health inspectors were to show up…

Gotham Diary:
If I Had an Intern #364
9 March 2018

¶ In New York’s taxis these days, the default setting on the video screen that’s mounted on the partition behind the driver is some sort of news show. But if you press the right button, this annoyance gives way to a a still and silent photo advertisement. Until just the other day, the only ads that I had seen were for the rival taxi-summoning apps, Arro and Curb, but on my way to Lincoln Center on Saturday afternoon I saw something new, a generically attractive living room arrangement of sofa and — do they still call them coffee tables? And while we’re asking questions, is there a word for a box from which two parallel sides have been removed? That’s what the table in the photograph was. The front and rear sides of this low box table, richly finished but faux-crude, were open. On the top of the table, there was a vase of spider mums and a carafe of water, with two tumblers. On the bottom of the table, a shelf of sorts, there were four large books, two stacks of two. All you could see was the tops of the books, so you could imagine that they were the kind of large volumes that you either have or aspire to have, and not somebody else’s choices.

My problem is that those four books, or however many there are, will lie there eternally, undisturbed, possibly even forgotten. They will cease to be actual books and become actual furniture. If I had an intern, the books would be changed every month, and I might actually pull one or more of them out, just to see what was there. And I could count on the intern to tell me where last month’s books might currently be found. But when I do this myself, it’s just make-work. 

The idea that visitors are going to leaf through these albums is a fantasy. No one is abandoned in our living room long enough to start looking for something to read. Which reminds me: magazines. The art director for the furniture ad evidently knew that four substantial books send a very different message from two stacks of magazines. We’ll save magazines for another day, when I am wiser. 

Gotham Diary:
8 March 2018

¶ The zooty design of the Vital Farms egg crate has a pitch-black background that certainly got my attention. It is the black of a night in the country, not a downtown black at all. Little purple and white flowers twinkle like stars, while the two mottled hens, labeled “On Green Grass” and “Under Open Skies,” have the look of constellations. In the upper corners, with circus-tent élan, flourish the banners “Happy Hens” and “Ethical Eggs.” More soberly, signs in the bottom corners announce “Made With Fresh Air And Sunshine” and “Freedom to Forage Outdoors Year Round.” It’s an event, not a dozen eggs. As often happens, I had to have the package. 

The eggs turn out to be really good. The yolks are intensely yellow, almost golden — offputtingly, if, like me, you’re used to Fairway’s house brand. They’re more flavorful, too, as I found when I stirred one into a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara. They appear to be fresher; the whites are more coherent. Of course, they’re not that fresh; they can’t be, in the city. Well, not at Fairway, anyway. I expect that everything at Fairway goes through several distributory cycles before landing on the shelves. The information on the back of the crate is a little obscure, and all that I can make out is that the eggs are packed either in Missouri or Georgia. 

My receipt tells me that I paid $6.49 for the dozen. 

Plaza Note:
7 March 2018

¶ Despite the awful weather — every curb an ankle-deep pond of slushy water — we got ourselves to Lincoln Center for the first of three Paul Taylor American Modern Dance events for which we have seats. Some notes: 

  • The three dances on the program were RosesConcertiana, and Cloven KingdomConcertiana was new; the other two ballets we have seen several times. 
  • And yet I had completely forgotten Roses as a dance. I’d also forgotten that there’s more to it than Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. When that came to an end, the ten dancers — men dressed in grey, women in black — crouched at the back of the stage with their backs to the audience, and a couple in white (Michael Trusnovec and Eran Bugge) made a stately entrance to Heinrich Baermann’s Adagio for Clarinet and Strings. In all my years in classical radio, I managed never to learn of Baermann’s existence. He was a clarinettist, not a composer, and his Adagio is almost perfectly generic Silly Quarter sweetness. 
  • (Silly Quarter: 1815-1840. There is no other word for much of the music turned out during that time, nor for ladies’ fashions.)
  • Concertiana struck Kathleen as “a retread.” (She wasn’t in the best of moods, having walked from her office at Rockefeller Center, curb after curb after curb.) I thought that the solos were a trifle too long, but at the same time I’m always happy to watch Michael Novak. And, wow, Alex Clayton, one of the two new men! The choreography of Heather McGinley’s solo was less inspired. The corps went in for a lot of running back and forth at the back of the stage, often in silhouette, and this was strangely exhilarating. 
  • The music for Concertiana was composed by Eric Ewazen. Another new name. (Born Cleveland, 1954.) I liked the piece, which seemed to be a violin concerto, but I couldn’t say whether it was well put-together. Tonal, romantic, and old-timey, it could have been a movie score. (I was actually reminded of The Gift for a moment.) 
  • The last time we saw the other ballets, the company was still relying on recordings. What a treat it was to hear the Siegfried Idyll played live! And Cloven KingdomThat score is a mashup of Corelli, Henry Cowell, and Malloy Miller, with jump shifts between the courtly grace of the concerto grosso and a ritualistic drumming of exotic percussion instruments. (Exotic to the ballet, anyway.) The dancing makes the same leaps. We sit in the front row, from which we can look right into the pit. which for some might be a distraction; for us, it’s an added pleasure. 
  • Do the instrumentalists ever get to see the dances that they’re accompanying?  

We’ll be going again on over the weekend and early next week. 

Appetizing Note:
You’re Joking
6 March 2018

Thanks to The Browser, I came across Jonathan Gold’s review of a Copenhagen restaurant called Noma. It reads like a parody. I think it is a parody. 

If you have dined at Noma before, you will recognize resonances; less a repetition of signature tropes than what are nearly literary allusions to Redzepi’s work. That plate of tiny clams may refer to both an early dish of mussels served on a plate of empty shells, and to a composition of tiny freshwater clams at Noma Tokyo. The high smack of the toasted sea cucumber gonads recalled an old dish of dried scallop and toasted grains. The server’s loving descriptions of the taste of the juice in a shrimp head or the flavor of kelp ice cream; the wobbly texture of the meat just below a cod’s eye socket; the faded, delicious odor of dried rose petals nudging the meatiness of tiny whelk — they are perhaps nonsense anywhere but here.

Truly: Decline & Fall cuisine.

Stew Note:
5 March 2018

Over the weekend, I had another go at Mme St Ange’s blanquette de veau. On Friday, I simmered the veal in water, with a pinch of salt, and skimmed the pot constantly. When the simmering stopped producing scum, I turned off the heat. Now I had a pot of veal in a very nice and clear broth. 

On Saturday, I continued cooking the veal in its broth, along with four or five baby carrots; a large, cigar-shaped shallot, peeled and studded with a clove of garlic; and a bouquet garni that included celery leaves. Mme St Ange calls for cooking the stew on the stove, but I thought that the oven would be easier to regulate. My stovetop is not good enough to produce a steady heat high enough to simmer but low enough not to boil. Cautiously, I set the oven to 325º. This turned out to be too low. At 350º, the broth bubbled nicely, without breaking the surface. It remained quite clear.

Meanwhile, I boiled eight ounces of trimmed mushrooms, saving the trimmings. I have never, I think, boiled mushrooms in my life, but that’s how Mme St Ange wants garnish mushrooms to be prepared. 

The next stage, which I could have postponed until Sunday, when I planned to serve the stew, involved discarding all the vegetables from the pot and then removing the veal to a clean casserole. I added the mushrooms to the veal, strained the broth, and made a roux. This time, I was determined to make a sauce with a proper robe. It took forever, because I moved very cautiously. I brought the broth to the boil and whisked it into the roux. After reducing the sauce for a while, I added the boiling mushroom stock, which I had enriched during its reduction with the mushroom trimmings. When the sauce was almost thick enough, I stirred spoonfuls of it into a blend of egg yolk and cream, until the egg was tempered (I hoped). Having poured the egg mixture into the sauce, I continued cooking — stirring constantly — until a tiny bubble appeared near the side of the pot. That was my cue to turn off the heat. I poured the sauce onto the stew, stirred it nicely, and let it sit on the stove overnight.

On Sunday evening, I reheated the stew in a very slow oven. I served it atop tagliatelle from Agata & Valentina, and sprinkled the dishes with minced parsley.

I could see why Elizabeth David would dismiss blanquette de veau as insipid, but Kathleen loved it even more the second time, saying that she had been looking forward to it all weekend. I have yet to follow Mme St Ange all the way, by adding a garnish of pearl onions. That’s what I’ll do next time. I’ll also work in a dash of cayenne, which is my current miracle ingredient. There is something quietly magnificent about this dish, and the preparation is unlike any that I have ever undertaken. I take this to reflect the fact that it has not been rejiggered for American cooks. 

Fairway Note:
2 March 2018

An important part of my new régime is to do what my friend, Fossil Darling, calls a “big shop” every Monday. For several weeks now, I have been able to manage with only the one Monday visit to Fairway. I buy everything I can think that we might need, without a list, and it works. 

But I had the vapors on Monday, and something prevented me from going on Tuesday, again on Wednesday, and finally yesterday. I thought I’d better go today, despite the atrocious weather, because we warned of a big storm. We could manage until Monday, but there would be a bit of doing without. Much as I hated the prospect of shelf-stripping throngs in the narrow aisles of Fairway, I hated the prospect of I-told-you-so more. Besides, I needed a few things from Schaller & Weber. So I donned street clothes (which is what I really didn’t want to do), and ventured forth. 

Although it was gusty as well as wet, it certainly wasn’t stormy, and I began to think that the rest of the neighborhood had got that message ahead of me, because Fairway was unusually empty. I usually head downstairs first, and then peruse the produce at the end, but when I came upstairs, I realized that I’d forgotten something — tomato pulp — and when I came upstairs and got in the checkout line, it was something else that came to mind — ground beef — and I had to make a third visit to the netherworld. The temptation to blow off these afterthoughts was great, but another part of my régime is to resist blowoffs. 

When all my shopping had been rung up, the total came to about $125, which is about normal — I’d bought veal for another go at Mme St Ange’s blanquette de veau. The checkout clerk told me that delivery, for which Fairway charges shoppers living in the immediate vicinity $7.95, would be free if I rang up five dollars more. So, to save the $2.95, I grabbed a box of Mallomars from a nearby stack. I wonder what will become of them. 

Rip Note:
1 March 2018

Thank Goodness For Kindle!

Sitting quietly before dinner, I was reading a novel. As my eye traveled from the bottom of one page to the top of the next, my brain honked. What I was reading didn’t make any sense at all. I don’t know how long it took me to glance at the page numbers — not long — but pages 293 to 340 were missing. I flipped through the rest of the book, but they weren’t to be found. What a rip! 

But: what to do? Although the novel came from England, so that the Kindle edition would be unavailable to me, there was an American edition in both formats, and for $8.39 I got my missing pages. Then I discovered that my Kindle, which I haven’t used in a while, wouldn’t connect to the WiFi. Ugh! It needed a reboot. By the time all this got cleared up, and I located the spot from which to pick up the story, it was time to make dinner. Not much more than an hour later, though — dinner was a simple affair of bratwurst and cucumber salad — I was able to put down the Kindle and go back to the book. 

The novel in question was The Light Years, the first of the “Cazalet Chronicles,” by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It’s interesting to read a book about which I knew just about nothing beforehand. Beyond fixing my bad habit of confusing Howard with Elizabeth Bowen, whom I’ve also not read, I didn’t know about her novels, except that they were there, sort of, and I didn’t know what anybody thought of them. This changed slightly when I read Artemis Cooper’s biography of Howard, Dangerous Innocence, in January. In choosing something to read, I selected the series of five novels that Howard based on her extended family. I was quickly engrossed, and by page 392 I was in no mood to wait a week to replace the defective text. 

Interestingly, the text broke off in the middle of introducing a miserable teenager, Christopher Castle, and resumed in the middle of a discussion between Christopher and his slightly younger cousin, Simon Cazalet, who’s terrified of going off to a new school in a few weeks, of plans to run away from home.  

February 2018

Tech Note:
“Gimme a New One”
28 February 2018

Before I’d had it a month, my new Surface broke down. It was the fault of a very complicated “patch,” intended to compensate for the faulty chip that was in the news last year. This wasn’t your ordinary update, but a process that took hours — and that miscarried for me. Our tech god came and got it to work again, largely by wiping the drive and re-installing Windows 10. Not two weeks later, it crashed again. This time, Jason took it to the Microsoft Store in Midtown. (I didn’t ask which one.) They wanted to keep the machine for two days, scrub the drive, and so on, but Jason wasn’t having it. “Give me a new one,” he insisted. So they did. We’ll see. 

It always takes me a long time to make full use of a new tool. I haven’t yet utilized the Surface as a tablet. The keyboard accessory (not included) is small but handy, even for my large hands. Not that I intend to use it much. The odd email, Evernote entry, and search. 

Book Note:
Richard Olney’s memoir
27 February 2018

The other day, I came to the end of Richard Olney’s memoir, Reflexions. It’s a strange book, left unfinished, I believe, at the author’s unexpected death but, from the look of it, published as-is. I can’t remember reading a more uneven text. Alongside uninformative thumbnail references to trips here and there are detailed menus and wine lists from long-ago feasts, often illustrated with pictures of the menu. Instead of a conventional narrative account of Olney’s life and career, we’re given extracts from letters written to his siblings, mostly to his brother, James. A small clutch of regular characters, such as the rambunctious restaurateur Georges Garin and his second wife, an old friend of Olney’s, carry on in the background. Julia Child and James Beard are shown not to be on their best behavior.

Elizabeth David can do no wrong, though, and Sybille Bedford wafts about like a fairy godmother. We see a lot of David and Bedford during the six-year stint in which Olney produced The Good Cook, a series of books for Time-Life, working mostly in London. On one unpleasant evening, Bedford fails spectacularly to hit it off with David Hockney; on a more agreeable occasion, David opines that MFK Fisher’s writing is “too detestable.” The last pages of the memoir are given over to an extremely unfavorable review of Lisa Chaney’s biography of David. What I liked most about Reflexions, in fact, was its endearing portrait of the formidable Elizabeth. 

Every now and then, Olney shares an amusing shred of gossip, but reflections are very rare. The writer does not seem to have been a truly thoughtful person. His views were formed very early in life, along with an instinctive culinary aptitude and a gifted palate, especially for wine, that seem almost inexplicable in someone who grew up in rural Iowa. Although he intended to be a painter when he arrived in France, in 1951 (he was not yet 25), he was already a self-assured and self-possessed man. In the pages of Reflexions, he accrues fame, if not fortune, invisibly, almost unaccountably. It all begins with an excellent pot-au-feu, the humblest of stews. Olney does not tell us how he dreamed up the recipe.    

I used to own a few of Olney’s best-known books, but I gave them away, because they were so discouraging. One of them, the opulent Provence the Beautiful, made it seem futile so much as to chop an onion farther than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean. Simple French Food was anything but; I dimly recall going through a pound of expensive coffee to produce four demi-tasse cups of exquisite custard. I admire authoritative writing about food, but “magisterial” is not the tone that I look for in cookery books. Also, I was too late to the party: when I asked for sea urchins, a fishmonger told me that the vogue for urchins (launched by Olney’s French Menu Cookbook) had come and gone. 

Reading Reflexions, I wished that the book had a better photograph of Olney’s house at Solliès-Toucas, a village north of Toulon. It was the scene of many enchanted evenings (and afternoons, too), and yet all we’re shown is a snapshot of the ruin that Olney bought when he was still a young man; there is no hint of the charming place that it became over the years. All of the photographs, for that matter, seem torn from an old scrapbook, and most of them are not very good. This underlines the feeling of unwillingness that emanates from Reflexions, a book that seemed to ask, on every page, what business of mine it was to be reading it.  

Clutter Note:
How Sweet It Is
26 February 2018

How sweet it is to read Gaby del Valle’s self-storage piece at The Outline — and to know that I’ve put all that behind me. 

It is now six months since we emptied the storage room — and it was a room, the largest unit available — and two months since we finished paying for having it emptied. We had rented it for about eighteen years. For a long time, you know, I expected it to work as a library annex. Three of the four walls were lined with student shelving — pine planks and breeze blocks — and they were indeed crammed with books. But there were whole years in the first decade of this century when I did not visit even once. The place was a library dump: I was storing books on behalf of Housing Works. It ended up costing nearly a thousand dollars just to get rid of the shelving. 

I had hoped that the euphoria would last longer. But in fact I never think about it. I’ve forgotten what it was like to feel guilty about letting the stuff just sit there, year after year, in a space that was zooming up toward four figures a month toward the end. It was therefore a really huge joy to read about somebody else’s storage problems — not for the Schadenfreude, but just for the reminder that the misery was behind me. 

Del Valle reports that there are “Four Ds” associated with self-storage. There is much disagreement about the fourth D, but the first three are unvarying: death, divorce, and dislocation. It was dislocation — selling our lake house in Connecticut and having nowhere else to put all the stuff that remained when the furniture and valuables were removed (which ought to have been a hint) — that sent us to Manhattan Mini-Storage. I have nothing unpleasant to say about Manhattan Mini-Storage. They can’t be faulted for setting things up so that they keep making money. It was simply bad timing: when I was growing up, there was no one to tell me that there are no garbage receptacles at self-storage facilities. 

Of course, we still have a smaller unit, much less expensive, way uptown. A few boxes of books and two racks of dresses that Kathleen dreams of shrinking into. It’s sort of dumb, I know. But having cleared out of one unit, I know that I can do it again. I know, anyway, whom to call. 


Bread and Soup Note:
Essence of Savory
23 February 2018

Last month, I mentioned Paul Hollywood’s Bread, and, at the end of the entry, I wrote that I was looking forward to making his Stilton-and-bacon rolls, the recipe for which he pairs with one for celery soup. This afternoon, I gave both a try, and I was wowed by the result. 

The rolls and the soup are easy to make together. Hollywood’s proportions yield a very light roll, but any dinner-roll recipe will do. Begin by starting the dough and letting it rise. Then prepare the soup vegetables — celery, leek, and a potato — and cook them for a few minutes in a knob of butter. Add broth, bring to the boil, and simmer gently. When the potato pieces are tender, turn off the heat and allow the soup to cool. To hurry this along a bit, strain the soup over a bowl, reserving the solids in the strainer. If the strainer is fine enough, you can use it for the penultimate step, which is sieving the puréed solids into the liquids for reheating.

But that comes later. Now it’s time to cook some bacon. The recipe calls for 90 grams of cooked bacon. I wound up with about half that and was satisfied, but next time I’ll cook six thick slices, which ought to do it. When the bacon is cooked and drained, crumble it on a work surface along with 150 grams of Stilton cheese. When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and so forth.

Hollywood offers detailed steps, and clear pictures, for shaping the rolls, but I decided to proceed as though I knew what I was doing. I pressed the dough out into a rectangle, as though I were working with pizza dough, and sprinkled a third of the crumbled cheese-and bacon mixture onto the middle third of the dough. Then I folded the two outer flaps over it, and poked at the resulting packet with my fingers. Then I rolled this out into a rectangle again and repeated the process. And I did it a third time. Now I rolled the dough out into a log, as evenly cylindrical as I could manage, and I cut it in half. I cut each of the halves in half. And I did this, too, a third time. There were now sixteen pieces of dough. As I would do with dinner rolls, I rolled the pieces into balls and arranged them, eight each (one in the center, surrounded by seven), in buttered layer-cake tins. Hollywood bakes the balls on parchment paper, but cake tins take up less oven room. 

While the rolls undergo the second rise, purée the soup solids for about four minutes. Then push the purée through a fine sieve into the liquids. For me, this step is more mindless than tedious. I scrape the ever-dwindling solids back and forth across the bowl of the sieve. Soon enough, the remaining solids firm up, and when they form a mass that’s not much bigger than a golf ball, I throw them away. While the rolls bake in a 375º oven, reheat the soup with a dollop of heavy cream. Snip chives into soup bowls. 

Depending on appetites, this combo will feed five or six people — amply, if you add a light salad. Although not much thicker than milk, the soup is extraordinarily filling, and so are the rolls, which of course make the ideal utensils for swabbing the bottom of the soup bowl. So perfectly suited are the flavors of the ingredients that they melt into an essence of savory.

By the way, the roast squash that I spoke of in the earlier Hollywood entry does indeed make a very good soup. Ordinarily, I make a squash soup with onion and apple, currying the cooking butter and working on the stovetop. Roasting the squash in cumin and olive oil, with a dash of pepper flakes, yields a deeper, darker soup. If you can’t decide which one to make, let the rest of what you’re doing make the decision for you. Is your stovetop going to covered with other cooking vessels, or will your oven be tied up? 

Gossip Column:
22 February 2018

Amazon just let me know that The Untold Life of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, by Lady Colin Campbell, is on the way. I’ve already read it, in a Kindle edition — only to find that I had to have the book. There’s a hoot on every page. Either a hoot or a gasp. 

I grew up believing that HRHQEQM was the most benign of sweet old grandmothers. Always smiling, always radiant. According to Lady Colin Campbell, it was a brilliant act. Elizabeth liked to be happy, so she stepped on everything that interfered with her happiness. At the very least, she blithely ignored anything unpleasant. Such as, for example, sex. But every marriage has sex issues; how many wives get to be the architect of an Abdication Crisis? Lady Colin goes all the way with this one. Even the most indulgent reader might stammer, “But it was more complicated than that”; nevertheless, it is fun to shiver with scandal. 

And as for scandal, how’s this: Elizabeth was the cook’s daughter — which is why the Windsors, who found out “the truth” about their antagonist’s parentage, called her “Cookie.” Not since Princess Catherine Radziwill has gossip been powered by such relentless but brilliantly bracing ill-will. And once you’ve read it, you can’t forget it; it’s like what Shakespeare did to Richard III. I downloaded the book after reading Craig Brown’s really rather gentle book about Princess Margaret, and would have bought Hugo Vickers’s biography instead had it been available in Kindle format. Vickers is spicy but respectable. When Lady Colin’s book came out, he commented, “I have to say I think it is complete nonsense.” To which Lady Colin would reply, “Of course he has to, if he ever wants to talk to the Palace again.”