Jul 102018
 

Marcel Proust, famed French novelist, was born on this date in 1871 in the Paris borough of Auteuil (the south-western sector of the then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. He was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of his voluminous novel, In Search of Lost Time, concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and La Belle Époque.

Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, studying cholera in Europe and Asia. He wrote numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Clémence (Weil), was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Proust was raised in his father’s Catholic faith, and was baptized on 5th August 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin, and later confirmed as a Catholic, even though he never formally practiced Catholicism. He later became an atheist and dabbled in mysticism.

By the age of 9, Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.) In 1882, at the age of 11, Proust became a pupil at the Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted by his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. Thanks to his classmates, he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.

Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes’ Way, part three of In Search of Lost Time. As a young man, Proust was a social climber and had a reputation as a snob and a dilettante when it came to his writing. Later on, because of this reputation he had trouble getting Swann’s Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. Proust attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust’s childhood friend Jacques Bizet, of Madeleine Lemaire and of Mme Arman de Caillavet, one of the models for Madame Verdurin, and mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whose fiancée (Jeanne Pouquet) he claimed to be in love with. It is through Mme Arman de Caillavet that he made the acquaintance of Anatole France, her lover.

In an 1892 article published in Le Banquet entitled “L’Irréligion d’État” and again in a 1904 Le Figaro article entitled “La mort des cathédrales”, Proust argued against the separation of church and state, declaring that socialism posed a greater threat to society than the Church and emphasizing the latter’s role in sustaining a cultural and educational tradition.

Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he was granted sick leave that extended for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at another job, and he did not move from his parents’ apartment until after both had died. His life and family circle changed markedly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust’s brother, Robert Proust, married and left the family home. His father died in November of the same year. Finally, his mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate. Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In Search of Lost Time is best remembered for its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the “episode of the madeleine” which occurs early in the first volume. This episode begins:

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…

Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dipped in linden-flower tea which my aunt gave me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…

Because of its prominence at the beginning of the novel, the madeleine has become emblematic of Proust’s culinary visions and the relationship between food and memory. I made obeisance to this notion with a recipe for madeleines here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-magdalene/ While the classic madeleine and Proust have become inextricably entwined, In Search of Lost Time is loaded with detailed references to cooking apart from madeleines, and he frequently compares fine dishes with great music or art. There is a slight sense on occasion that Proust is deliberately going over the top in his praise of particular dishes – but it is only slight.

Proust compares Françoise, the family cook in Combray, to an artist, a goddess, a priestess, and a fairy-tale heroine, in his descriptions of her products. In her kitchen she stands “commanding the forces of nature which had become her assistants, as in fairy tales where giants hire themselves out as cooks.” Françoise also has a dark side, like all great protagonists in literature. One summer she makes asparagus every day because she wants to get rid of the pregnant scullery maid who has to pare the stalks, and who is highly allergic to them. Françoise has her greatest moment of glory when Monsieur de Norpois is invited to dinner and she sets out to make a masterpiece, which begins with combing the markets for the perfect ingredients, then laboring endlessly over every dish. The meal she prepares is York ham, jellied boeuf à la mode, a pineapple and truffle salad, and Nesselrode pudding. You can find a recipe for Nesselrode pudding here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/w-s-gilbert/  and I am sure the one that Françoise prepared was gorgeous. Proust compares her jellied beef to a Michelangelo sculpture, which I’d venture to say is getting into the hyperbole zone, but he can be forgiven. He also compares its crafting to his own work crafting words.

Here is a recipe. Boeuf à la mode can be served hot, or cold in aspic. Both are classics of Parisian haute cuisine, with the latter being legendary. Three points need noting. First, the traditional recipe uses at least one calf’s foot in the cooking broth so that it gels naturally. This process can be a little hit-and-miss, however. The broth may not get enough gelatin from one foot to gel properly. One answer is to use two or more calves’ feet. The other answer is to use some commercial gelatin in addition. Second, quatre épices (four spices) mix is usually a blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. In French recipes, bouquet garni is often mentioned with little or no reference to what’s in it. This is because the actual contents of the bouquet garni are cook’s choice, and may vary from dish to dish. It can be made of whole stalks of herbs tied in a bundle, or fresh leaves tied in a muslin bag. For this dish you should use parsley, thyme, and bay leaf at minimum.

This dish is a 48-hour process at minimum: 24 hours to marinate the meat, and 24 hours to cook the meat, mold it, and let the molds set. If you are cooking this dish for Sunday dinner, therefore, you must start on Friday morning. I won’t mince words either. This is not a dish for beginners or even halfway experienced cooks. You must know exactly what you are doing to get the flavors right, AND to make the molded dish look attractive.

Bœuf à la mode en gelée

Ingredients

2.5 kg stewing beef, fat removed
800 ml beef stock
500 ml Sauternes or other sweet white wine
500 ml Madeira wine
250 gm carrots, peeled and sliced
200 gm of bacon or pickled pork, cut in 5 mm squares
100 gm sliced onions
50 ml champagne
40 gm beef fat (or pork fat)
3 whole cloves
2 egg whites
1 calf’s foot, cut in pieces
bouquet garni
quatre épices
salt, pepper

Instructions

Put the beef in a large pot with 400 ml of Sauternes and 400ml of Madeira, so that the beef is submerged in the marinade. Add salt, pepper, and quartre épices to taste, cover, and let marinate for 24 hours.

Remove the beef from the marinade, and let it air dry. Cut slits all over the beef and insert the pieces of bacon in them. Heat a Dutch oven over high heat and add the fat. When it is hot sear the beef on all sides. Then flambé the pot with the champagne. Add the veal foot, carrots, onion, bouquet garni, cloves, stock, the rest of the Sauternes and Madeira, the marinade. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 4 ½ hours.

[You can serve the beef hot at this point. For chilled beef in aspic there are extra steps.]

Remove the beef and carrots from the broth and reserve. Strain the broth through muslin or cheesecloth. Put the strained broth in a clean pot and heat over medium heat. Beat the egg whites and pour them into the hot broth. As the whites cook they will clarify the broth. When the broth is clear, strain it through muslin or filter papers.

Cut the beef in small slices. Pour a small amount of broth into the number of individual molds you are using, or into one large mold. Let the broth set in the refrigerator. Next layer carrots and beef pieces decoratively until you have filled the molds. Pour broth into the molds so that the last layer of beef and carrots is covered. Refrigerate, and let set. To unmold, dip the molds briefly in hot water, invert them over a plate, and the molded beef and carrots should pop out when tapped.

Jan 302018
 

Today is the (sometimes disputed) birthday (58 BCE) of Livia Drusilla, also known as Julia Augusta after her formal adoption into the Julian family in 14 CE, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus throughout his reign, as well as his political adviser. She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero. She was deified by Claudius who acknowledged her title of Augusta. In modern historical fiction she is usually portrayed as a Machiavellian presence throughout the early empire, but more analytic historians paint her as a strong woman in a time when men controlled politics.

She was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and his wife Aufidia, a daughter of the magistrate Marcus Aufidius Lurco. The diminutive Drusilla, commonly used in her name, suggests that she was a second daughter. She was probably first married in 43 BCE. Her father married her to Tiberius Claudius Nero, her cousin of patrician status who was fighting with him on the side of Julius Caesar’s assassins against Octavian (later the emperor Augustus). Her father committed suicide in the Battle of Philippi, along with Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, but her husband continued fighting against Octavian, now on behalf of Mark Antony and his brother Lucius Antonius. Her first child, the future Emperor Tiberius, was born in 42 BCE. In 40 BCE the family was forced to flee Italy in order to avoid the Triumvirate of Octavian, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony and the proscriptions they began. They joined with a son of Pompey Magnus, Sextus Pompeius, who was fighting the triumvirate from his base in Sicily. Later, Livia, her husband Tiberius Nero, and their two-year-old son, Tiberius, moved on to Greece.

After peace was established between the Triumvirate and the followers of Sextus Pompeius, a general amnesty was announced, and Livia returned to Rome, where she was personally introduced to Octavian in 39 BCE. At this time, was pregnant with a second son, Nero Claudius Drusus (also known as Drusus the Elder). Legend has it that Octavian fell immediately in love with her, despite the fact that he was still married to Scribonia. Octavian divorced Scribonia in 39 BCE, on the very day that she gave birth to his daughter Julia the Elder. Seemingly around that time, when Livia was six months pregnant, Tiberius Claudius Nero was persuaded or forced by Octavian to divorce Livia. On 14 January, the child was born. Augustus and Livia married on 17 January, waiving the traditional waiting period. Tiberius Claudius Nero was present at the wedding, giving her in marriage “just as a father would.” The importance of the patrician Claudii to Octavian’s cause, and the political survival of the Claudii Nerones are probably more rational explanations for the speedy union. Nevertheless, Livia and Augustus remained married for the next 51 years, despite the fact that they had no children apart from a single miscarriage. She always enjoyed the status of privileged counselor to her husband, petitioning him on the behalf of others and influencing his policies, an unusual role for a Roman wife in a culture dominated by the pater familias.

After Mark Antony’s suicide following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian returned to Rome triumphant. On 16 January 27 BCE, the Senate bestowed upon him the honorary title of Augustus (“honorable” or “revered one”). Augustus rejected monarchical titles, instead choosing to refer to himself as Princeps Civitatis (“First Citizen of the State”) or Princeps Senatus (“First among the Senate”). He and Livia formed the role model for Roman households. Despite their wealth and power, Augustus’ family continued to live modestly in their house on the Palatine Hill. Livia would set the pattern for the noble Roman matrona. She wore neither excessive jewelry nor pretentious costumes, she took care of the household and her husband (often making his clothes herself), always faithful and dedicated. In 35 BCE Octavian gave Livia the unprecedented honor of ruling her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her. She had her own circle of clients and pushed many protégés into political offices, including the grandfathers of the later emperors Galba and Otho.

With Augustus being the father of only one daughter, Livia soon started to push her own sons, Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus, into power. Drusus was a trusted general and married Augustus’ favorite niece, Antonia Minor. They had three children including the future emperor Claudiua. Tiberius married Augustus’ daughter Julia the Elder in 11 BCE and was ultimately adopted by his stepfather in 4CE and named as Augustus’ heir.

Rumor had it that when Marcellus, nephew of Augustus, died in 23 BCE, it was no natural death, and that Livia was behind it. After the two elder sons of Julia by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom Augustus had adopted as sons and successors, had died, he adopted the one remaining son Agrippa Postumus at the same time as Tiberius, but later Agrippa Postumus was sent to an island and finally killed. Tacitus charges that Livia was not altogether innocent of these deaths and Cassius Dio also mentions such rumors. There are also rumors mentioned by Tacitus and Cassius Dio that Livia brought about Augustus’ death by poisoning fresh figs. Augustus’ granddaughter was Julia the Younger. Some time between 1 CE and 14 CE, her husband Lucius Aemilius Paullus was executed as a conspirator in a revolt. Modern historians theorize that Julia’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in Paullus’ revolt. Livia Drusilla plotted against her stepdaughter’s family and ruined them. This led to open compassion for the fallen family. Julia died in 29 AD on the same island where she had been sent in exile twenty years earlier.

Augustus died on August 19, 14 CE, being deified by the Senate shortly afterwards. In his will, he left one third of his property to Livia, and the other two thirds to Tiberius. In the will, he also adopted her into the Julian family and granted her the honorific title of Augusta. These dispositions permitted Livia to maintain her status and power after her husband’s death, under the new name of Julia Augusta. Tacitus and Cassius Dio wrote that rumors persisted that Augustus was poisoned by Livia, but these are mainly dismissed as malicious fabrications spread by political enemies of the dynasty.

For some time, Livia and her son Tiberius, the new emperor, appeared to get along with each other. Speaking against her became treason in AD 20, and in AD 24 he granted his mother a theater seat among the Vestal Virgins. Livia exercised unofficial but very real power in Rome. Eventually, Tiberius became resentful of his mother’s political status, particularly against the idea that it was she who had given him the throne. At the beginning of his reign Tiberius vetoed the unprecedented title Mater Patriae (“Mother of the Fatherland”) that the Senate wished to bestow upon her, in the same manner in which Augustus had been named Pater Patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”). (Tiberius also consistently refused the title of Pater Patriae for himself.)

The historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio depict an overweening, even domineering dowager, ready to interfere in Tiberius’ decisions, the most notable instances being the case of Urgulania (grandmother of Claudius’s first wife Plautia Urgulanilla), a woman who correctly assumed that her friendship with the empress placed her above the law, and Munatia Plancina, suspected of murdering Germanicus and saved at Livia’s entreaty. (Plancina committed suicide in AD 33 after being accused again of murder after Livia’s death). A notice from 22 CE records that Julia Augusta (Livia) dedicated a statue to Augustus in the center of Rome, placing her own name even before that of Tiberius.

Ancient historians give as a reason for Tiberius’ retirement to Capri his inability to endure her any longer. Until 22 CE there had, according to Tacitus, been “a genuine harmony between mother and son, or a hatred well concealed.” Dio tells us that at the time of his accession Tiberius already heartily loathed her. In 22 CE she had fallen ill, and Tiberius had hastened back to Rome in order to be with her. But in 29 CE when she finally fell ill and died, he remained on Capri, pleading pressure of work and sending Caligula to deliver the funeral oration. Suetonius adds the macabre detail that “when she died… after a delay of several days, during which he held out hope of his coming, [she was at last] buried because the condition of the corpse made it necessary…”. Tiberius also vetoed divine honors for her and later he vetoed all the honors the Senate had granted her after her death and cancelled the fulfillment of her will.

It was not until 13 years later, in 42 CE during the reign of her grandson Claudius, that all her honors were restored and her deification finally completed. She was named Diva Augusta (The Divine Augusta), and an elephant-drawn chariot conveyed her image to all public games. A statue of her was set up in the Temple of Augustus along with her husband’s, races were held in her honor, and women were to invoke her name in their sacred oaths. In  410, during the Sack of Rome, her ashes were scattered when Augustus’ tomb was sacked.

While reporting various unsavory hearsay, the ancient sources generally portray Livia as a woman of proud and imperial attributes, faithful to her imperial husband, for whom she was a worthy consort, forever poised and dignified. With consummate skill she acted out the roles of consort, mother, widow and dowager. Dio records two of her utterances: “Once, when some naked men met her and were to be put to death in consequence, she saved their lives by saying that to a chaste woman such men are in no way different from statues. When someone asked her how she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear nor to notice the favorites of his passion.”

Livia’s image appears in ancient visual media such as coins and portraits. She was the first woman to appear on provincial coins in 16 BCE and her portrait images can be chronologically identified partially from the progression of her hair designs, which represented more than keeping up with the fashions of the time as her depiction with such contemporary details translated into a political statement of representing the ideal Roman woman. Livia’s image evolves with different styles of portraiture that trace her effect on imperial propaganda that helped bridge the gap between her role as wife to the emperor Augustus, to mother of the emperor Tiberius. Becoming more than the “beautiful woman” she is described as in ancient texts, Livia serves as a public image for the idealization of Roman feminine qualities, a motherly figure, and eventually a goddesslike representation that alludes to her virtue. Livia’s power in symbolizing the renewal of the Republic with the female virtues Pietas and Concordia in public displays had a dramatic effect on the visual representation of future imperial women as ideal, honorable mothers and wives of Rome.

In the popular fictional work I, Claudius by Robert Graves—based on Tacitus’ innuendo—Livia is portrayed as a thoroughly Machiavellian, scheming political mastermind. Determined never to allow republican governance to flower again, as she felt they led to corruption and civil war, and devoted to bringing Tiberius to power and then maintaining him there, she is involved in nearly every death or disgrace in the Julio-Claudian family up to the time of her death. On her deathbed she only fears divine punishment for all she had done, and secures the promise of future deification by her grandson Claudius, an act which, she believes, will guarantee her a blissful afterlife. However, this portrait of her is balanced by her intense devotion to the well-being of the Empire as a whole, and her machinations are justified as a necessarily cruel means to what she firmly considers a noble aspiration: the common good of the Romans, achievable only under strict imperial rule.

I suppose Graves’s portrayal is reasonably balanced, but it leaves out some important considerations. First, even if she carried out the nasty things she is accused of, she is no worse than most of the men who held power in Rome. Standard procedure for getting rid of enemies (real or imagined – including family members) was to have them killed, and there were many emperors who killed far more than she. Second, she was a woman in a man’s world. No woman before her had risen to her status before her, and she achieved this by strength of character alone. She had no right to be anything other than a subservient wife, yet she managed to become one of the most powerful people in imperial Rome (male or female).

In popular tradition Livia is assumed to be the killer of Augustus using poisoned figs, based largely on the account by Tacitus. There is no way of telling any more, but if she did serve him figs that were poisoned then they would have had to have been spiced, preserved fresh figs to mask the taste of the poison. Apicius in his De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) has a rather rudimentary recipe for preserved figs, but a little interpolation from the previous recipe can help flesh it out.

The basic recipe is:

[22] to preserve fresh figs, apples, plums, pears and cherries

Select them all very carefully with the stems on and place them in honey so they do not touch each other.

Not removing the stems keeps the fruit intact so that air will not get inside the fruit and start fermentation.  The preceding recipe calls for placing fruit in a vessel, and pouring over it honey and defretum. Defretum was new wine that had been spiced and then boiled down to half its volume.

If you can get fresh figs, you have a whole range of options. You can slice them in half and back them in a pie shell. In northern Italy I was very fond of a sandwich made of sliced figs and Gorgonzola. All delicious, but hold off on the arsenic.