Jun 172018
 

Today is the birthday (1882) Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor who is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. I wrote a post on the premiere of the Rite of Spring 3 years ago, that was quite technical concerning the music, and also analyzed the riot that (supposedly) erupted: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/rite-of-spring/  My spate of posts on individual musical pieces back then served its purpose, but it did leave the composers a little short-changed. Here is my opportunity to spread out more broadly about Stravinsky. What I most especially want to do is to place Stravinsky in the broader cultural and intellectual landscape of his time. This endeavor is partly facilitated by the fact that Stravinsky, while immersing himself in the world of music, had a wide range of interests and friendships with individuals who spanned all manner of artistic and intellectual realms. This gives me the opportunity to stop and reflect on a critical time in the development of Western culture – what has become known as the modernist era.

Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital at the time and was brought up in Saint Petersburg. His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky (1843–1902), a well-known bass at the Kiev opera house and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky; 1854-1939), a native of Kiev, one of four daughters of a high-ranking official in the Kiev Ministry of Estates. Stravinsky recalled his schooldays as being lonely, later saying that “I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me.” Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. By age 15, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov, who reportedly considered Stravinsky unmusical and thought little of his skills.

Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov

Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than 50 class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902, Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, who was arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time Stravinsky had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law. The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, and continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

In February 1909, two of Stravinsky’s orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg Serge Diaghilev heard them. Diaghilev was planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris, and was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to produce some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird. While in Paris as the principal composer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927), and George Balanchine (Apollon musagète, 1928). His interest in art propelled him to develop a strong relationship with Picasso, whom he met in 1917 From 1917 to 1920, the two engaged in an artistic dialogue in which they exchanged small-scale works of art, which included the famous portrait of Stravinsky by Picasso, and Stravinsky’s “Sketch of Music for the Clarinet.” This exchange was essential to establish how the artists would approach their collaborative space in Pulcinella. Stravinsky also had broad tastes in literature with a constant desire for new discoveries. The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, which progressed to classical authors and the Latin liturgy and moved on to contemporary France, and eventually English literature, including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and medieval English verse.

Although Stravinsky was not outspoken about his faith, he was a deeply religious man throughout some periods of his life. As a child, he was brought up by his parents in the Russian Orthodox Church. Baptized at birth, he later rebelled against the Church and abandoned it by the time he was around 14. Throughout the rise of his career he was estranged from Christianity and it was not until he reached his early forties that he experienced a spiritual crisis. After befriending a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Nicholas, after his move to Nice in 1924, he reconnected with his faith. He rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church and afterwards remained a committed Christian. In his late seventies, Stravinsky said:

I cannot now evaluate the events that, at the end of those thirty years, made me discover the necessity of religious belief. I was not reasoned into my disposition. Though I admire the structured thought of theology (Anselm’s proof in the Fides Quaerens Intellectum, for instance) it is to religion no more than counterpoint exercises are to music. I do not believe in bridges of reason or, indeed, in any form of extrapolation in religious matters. … I can say, however, that for some years before my actual “conversion”, a mood of acceptance had been cultivated in me by a reading of the Gospels and by other religious literature.

Looking at Stravinsky’s life and relationships does make us understand a little more about the creative process, particularly concerning how certain fundamental ideas percolate around all manner of spheres. It’s not surprising that musicians and choreographers collaborate: ballets need both, and they have to work together. At the turn of the 20th century, visual artists, musicians, poets, novelists, dancers, playwrights etc. all found ways to share ideas partly because there were some BIG IDEAS percolating in the intellectual world in general, changing attitudes in the physical sciences, natural sciences, medicine, and allied fields of inquiry. If you want to sum it up in a short (simplistic) way you could say that in every field of human endeavor the foundational rules were being challenged. What seemed to be rock solid notions such as time, motion, form, substance, were all shown to be much more mutable than they seemed. Time was relative; a vacuum was not empty; solid things were shown to be made of atoms, which could be split, and those atoms contained huge areas of nothing; human consciousness was partly unconscious. In a word, things are not what our senses lead us to believe they are. These ideas affected all inquiry. The sad fact is that 100 years later, the general population is as clueless concerning these ideas as they were at the turn of the 20th century. But artists, scientists, theologians . . . whatever, grasped them – and they talked to each other. My questions is, “Where did the BIG IDEAS come from in the first place?” It’s easy (and common) to think that the ideas come from scientific discovery and then spread from there, but I am not so sure. Breakthroughs in science do not just happen because scientists are moving along step by step until they achieve their goals. There has to be a flash of insight that is creative. In a sense the idea comes from nowhere, or, at the very least is an unexpected departure from normal ways of thinking.

It is alleged that Einstein came up with the basic principle of special relativity when he was on his way to work and when he glanced up at the town clock saw that he was going to be late and wondered what it would be like if he were traveling towards the clock at the speed of light. He initially conjectured that time would stop. From there he began digging deeper, and working on the equations that emerged from that initial inspiration. In a sense, the idea came out of nowhere – just a random bit of imagination. But where does imagination or creativity come from? As an anthropologist I tend to think that they are part of constant shifts that occur within culture, and they can emanate from different arenas at different times. Maybe, sometimes the wellspring is physics, at other times it is music, or visual art, or linguistics, or religion. No single area of human endeavor has a stranglehold on creativity and imagination. Stravinsky’s life and work shows that this ferment of new ideas was all around in his heyday, and he tapped into it. He was well-educated and well-traveled enough (and sociable enough), to be one of the focus points of this ferment.

When I posted on Rite of Spring, I posted this story about Stravinsky:

Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

On that post I gave a recipe for Russian honey cake, which you can use again for today. Or you can be a modernist: break all the rules. Soak 7 or 8 very thin slices of bread (crusts removed) in honey, stack them, sprinkle them with crushed nuts, and eat. Do something – anything – creative with honey, in Stravinsky’s memory. Just remember to break the rules. Recipes are not allowed. What you do must be original. Giving you too many ideas would be cheating.

 

Jun 092018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Cole Albert Porter one of the great composers and songwriters for the stage in the Jazz Age. Porter was born into a wealthy family in Indiana. His grandfather J. O. Cole (called at the time “The Richest Man in Indiana”) wanted his grandson to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind, he sent him to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. Porter took an upright piano with him to school and found that music, and his ability to entertain, made it easy for him to make friends. Porter did well in school and rarely came home to visit. He became class valedictorian and was rewarded by his grandfather with a tour of France, Switzerland, and Germany. Porter entered Yale University in 1909, with a major in English and a minor in music, and also studied French. He was a member of Scroll and Key and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and contributed to campus humor magazine The Yale Record. He was an early member of the Whiffenpoofs a cappella singing group and participated in several other music clubs. In his senior year, he was elected president of the Yale Glee Club and was its principal soloist.

After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913. He soon felt that he was not destined to be a lawyer, and, at the suggestion of the dean of the law school, switched to Harvard’s music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon.In 1915, Porter’s first song on Broadway, “Esmeralda”, appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a “patriotic comic opera” modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, with a book by T. Lawrason Riggs, was a flop, closing after two weeks. Porter spent the next year in New York City before going overseas during World War I.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Porter moved to Paris to work with the Duryea Relief organization. Some historians have been skeptical about Porter’s claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion, although the Legion lists Porter as one of its soldiers and displays his portrait at its museum in Aubagne. By some accounts, he served in North Africa and was transferred to the French Officers School at Fontainebleau, teaching gunnery to US soldiers. An obituary notice in The New York Times said that, while in the Legion, “he had a specially constructed portable piano made for him so that he could carry it on his back and entertain the troops in their bivouacs.”

Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians and a large surplus of recreational drugs.” In 1918, he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior.] She was well-connected socially and the couple shared mutual interests, including a love of travel, and she became Porter’s confidant and companion. The couple married the following year. She was in no doubt about Porter’s homosexuality, but it was mutually advantageous for them to marry. For Thomas, it offered continued social status and a partner who was the antithesis of her abusive first husband. For Porter, it brought a respectable heterosexual front in an era when homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged. They were, moreover, genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 19th, 1919, until her death in 1954.

Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d’Indy. Meanwhile, Porter had his first big hit with the song “Old-Fashioned Garden” from the revue Hitchy-Koo in 1919. In 1920, he contributed the music of several songs to the musical A Night Out. Porter’s time in Paris was only minimally successful in terms of his music, however. At the age of 36, Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway in 1928 with the musical Paris, his first hit. It was commissioned by E. Ray Goetz at the instigation of Goetz’s wife and the show’s star, Irène Bordoni. She had wanted Rodgers and Hart to write the songs, but they were unavailable, and Porter’s agent persuaded Goetz to hire Porter instead.The songs for the show included “Let’s Misbehave” and one of his best-known list songs, “Let’s Do It”, which was introduced by Bordoni and Arthur Margetson. The show opened on Broadway on October 8th, 1928 and was an instant success. From that point on, Porter was a fixture on Broadway and in Hollywood.

You may look upon his musicals as period pieces, but I think his individual hits have stood the test of time. That may just be me, of course, because I am not a big fan of contemporary musicals. At best I find them vaguely irritating – caught between serious drama and opera. I’m also not a huge fan of Porter’s great stars, such as Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire, in their performances of his music. I like his own renditions better:

After a serious horseback riding accident in New York in 1937, Porter was left disabled and in constant pain, but he continued to work, partly because it distracted him from the pain. He had been estranged from his wife at this time because of his increasingly open affairs with men, and because she had disliked Hollywood, she had moved back to Paris. After Porter’s injury, she joined him in a suite of rooms at the Waldorf Hotel where they lived for the remainder of their lives. The Cole Porter Suite at the Waldorf can still be rented by the month.

Porter’s mother died in 1952, and his wife died from emphysema in 1954. By 1958, Porter’s injuries caused a series of ulcers on his right leg. After 34 operations, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb. His friend Noël Coward visited him in the hospital and wrote in his diary, “The lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face…. I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.” In fact, Porter never wrote another song after the amputation and spent the remaining six years of his life in relative seclusion, seeing only intimate friends. He continued to live in the Waldorf Towers in New York in his memorabilia-filled apartment. On weekends he often visited an estate in the Berkshires, and he stayed in California during the summers. Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 73. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana, between his wife and father.

Various chefs at the Waldorf have produced signature dishes that bear the Waldorf name, but none is better known than Waldorf salad. Unfortunately, it has changed beyond recognition from its simple beginnings. Waldorf salad was first created for a charity ball given in honor of the St. Mary’s Hospital for Children on March 14th, 1896 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Oscar Tschirky, who was the Waldorf’s maître d’hôtel, and who developed or inspired many of its signature dishes, is widely credited with creating the recipe. In 1896, the salad appeared in The Cook Book by “Oscar of the Waldorf.” The original recipe was just apples, celery, and mayonnaise. It did not contain nuts, but they had been added by the time the recipe appeared in The Rector Cook Book in 1928. Other ingredients, such as chicken, turkey, and dried fruit (e.g. dates or raisins) are sometimes added nowadays. The modern Waldorf salad also may include the zest of oranges and lemons. In truth, the original suits me better than all the later additions.

Apr 132018
 

Today is the birthday (1906) of Samuel Barclay Beckett, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, poet, and literary translator who lived in Paris for most of his adult life. He wrote in both English and French, and is probably best known for Waiting for Godot, which he wrote first in French, and then translated into English.

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on Good Friday, 1906, to William Frank Beckett, a quantity surveyor and descendant of the Huguenots, and Maria Jones Roe, a nurse, when both were 35. They had married in 1901. Beckett had one older brother, Frank Edward Beckett (1902–1954). At the age of 5, Beckett attended a local playschool in Dublin, where he started to learn music, and then moved to Earlsfort House School in Dublin city center near Harcourt Street. The Becketts were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland. The family home, Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, was a large house and garden complete with tennis court built in 1903 by Samuel’s father. The house and garden, together with the surrounding countryside where he often went walking with his father, the nearby Leopardstown Racecourse, the Foxrock railway station and Harcourt Street station at the city terminus of the line, all feature in his prose and plays.

In 1919/1920, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (which Oscar Wilde had also attended). He left 3 years later, in 1923. Beckett excelled at cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler. Later, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927. He graduated with a BA and, after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast, took up the post of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930. While there, he was introduced to James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett who also worked there.  Beckett assisted Joyce in various ways, one of which was research towards the book that became Finnegans Wake.

In 1929, Beckett published his first work, a critical essay entitled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce.” The essay defends Joyce’s work and method, chiefly from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness, and was Beckett’s contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (a book of essays on Joyce which also included contributions by Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, and William Carlos Williams). Beckett’s close relationship with Joyce and his family cooled, however, when he rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter Lucia owing to her progressing schizophrenia. Beckett’s first short story, “Assumption”, was published in Jolas’ periodical transition. The next year he won a small literary prize for his hastily composed poem “Whoroscope”, which draws on a biography of René Descartes that Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit.

In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer. In November 1930, he presented a paper in French to the Modern Languages Society of Trinity on the Toulouse poet Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called le Concentrisme. It was a literary parody; Beckett had in fact invented the poet and his movement that claimed to be “at odds with all that is clear and distinct in Descartes.” Beckett later insisted that he had not intended to fool his audience. When Beckett resigned from Trinity at the end of 1931, his brief academic career was at an end.

After Dublin, Beckett travelled in Europe, and spent some time in London, where in 1931 he published Proust, his critical study of Marcel Proust’s work. Two years later, following his father’s death, he began two years’ treatment with Tavistock Clinic psychoanalyst Dr. Wilfred Bion. Aspects of this time played out in Beckett’s later works, such as Watt and Waiting for Godot. In 1932, he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but after many rejections from publishers decided to abandon it (it was eventually published in 1992). Despite his inability to get it published, however, the novel served as a source for many of Beckett’s early poems, as well as for his first full-length book, the 1933 short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks.

In 1935—the year that Beckett successfully published a book of his poetry, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates—Beckett worked on his novel Murphy. In May, he wrote to MacGreevy that he had been reading about film and wished to go to Moscow to study with Sergei Eisenstein at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. In mid-1936 he wrote to Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin to offer himself as their apprentice. Nothing came of this, however, as Beckett’s letter was lost owing to Eisenstein’s quarantine during the smallpox outbreak, as well as his focus on a script re-write of his postponed film production.

Murphy was finished in 1936 and Beckett departed for extensive travel around Germany, during which time he filled several notebooks with lists of noteworthy art that he had seen, and noted his distaste for the Nazi savagery that was overtaking the country. Returning to Ireland briefly in 1937, he oversaw the publication of Murphy (1938), which he translated into French the following year. He fell out with his mother, which contributed to his decision to settle permanently in Paris. Beckett remained in Paris following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, preferring, in his own words, “France at war to Ireland at peace.” His was soon a known face in and around Left Bank cafés, where he strengthened his allegiance with Joyce and forged new ones with artists Alberto Giacometti and Marcel Duchamp, with whom he regularly played chess. Some time around December 1937, Beckett had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim, who nicknamed him “Oblomov” (after the character in Ivan Goncharov’s novel).

In January 1938 in Paris, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed when he refused the solicitations of a notorious pimp (who went by the name of Prudent). Joyce arranged a private room for Beckett at the hospital. The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, who previously knew Beckett slightly from his first stay in Paris. This time, however, the two would begin a lifelong companionship. At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker for the motive behind the stabbing. Prudent replied: “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse” [“I do not know, sir. I’m sorry”]. Beckett eventually dropped the charges against his attacker—partly to avoid further formalities, partly because he found Prudent likeable and well-mannered.

After the Nazi German occupation of France in 1940, Beckett joined the French Resistance, in which he worked as a courier. On several occasions over the next two years he was nearly caught by the Gestapo. In August 1942, his unit was betrayed, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. There he continued to assist the Resistance by storing armaments in the back yard of his home. During the two years that Beckett stayed in Roussillon he indirectly helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains, though he rarely spoke about his wartime work in later life.

Beckett was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government for his efforts in fighting the German occupation. To the end of his life, however, Beckett referred to his work with the French Resistance as “boy scout stuff.” While in hiding in Roussillon, he continued work on the novel Watt (begun in 1941 and completed in 1945, but not published until 1953, though an extract had appeared in the Dublin literary periodical Envoy).

In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had a revelation in his mother’s room: His entire future direction in literature appeared to him. Beckett had felt that he would remain forever in the shadow of Joyce, certain to never best him at his own game. His revelation prompted him to change direction and to acknowledge both his own stupidity and his interest in ignorance and impotence:

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.

In the future, his work focused on poverty, failure, exile and loss.

In 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps modernes published the first part of Beckett’s short story “Suite” (later to be called “La Fin”, or “The End”), not realizing that Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story, Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part. Beckett also began to write his fourth novel, Mercier et Camier, which was not published until 1970. The novel presaged his most famous work, the play Waiting for Godot, which was written not long afterwards. More importantly, the novel was Beckett’s first long work that he wrote in French, the language of most of his subsequent works which were strongly supported by Jérôme Lindon director of his Parisian publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit, including the poioumenon “trilogy” of novels: Molloy (1951); Malone meurt (1951), Malone Dies (1958); L’innommable (1953), The Unnamable, (1960). Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because—as he himself claimed—it was easier for him to write “without style” in French than in English.

Beckett is, of course, most famous for his play En attendant Godot (1953) (Waiting for Godot). In a much-quoted article, the critic Vivian Mercier wrote that Beckett,

has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.

Godot premièred in 1953 in French in Paris and was a critical and popular, yet controversial, success in Paris. It opened in London in 1955 to mainly negative reviews, but the tide turned with positive reactions from Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times and, later, Kenneth Tynan. In the United States, it flopped in Miami and had a qualified success in New York City. After this, the play became extremely popular, with highly successful performances in the US and Germany. It is frequently performed today.

The US television sitcom, Seinfeld, is frequently praised as being “about nothing.” No. Seinfeld is quite obviously about something. Godot is about NOTHING – at great length. In my younger years I did not appreciate Godot. You have to have experienced life, and reflected on it to understand what Beckett is getting at. Life is an endless succession of pointless encounters, that seem, at first, to be brimming with meaning, but turn out to be devoid of it. Reading academic appraisals of Godot makes me laugh out loud: it is about ego, sex, fascism, stupidity, hunger, etc. etc. etc. Beckett is laughing at all of you.

Beckett translated all of his works into English himself, with the exception of Molloy, for which he collaborated with Patrick Bowles. The success of Waiting for Godot opened up a career in theater for Beckett. He went on to write successful full-length plays, including Fin de partie (Endgame) (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958, written in English), Happy Days (1961, also written in English), and Play (1963).

In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England (its secrecy due to reasons relating to French inheritance law). The success of his plays led to invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world, leading eventually to a new career as a theater director. In 1957, he had his first commission from the BBC Third Programme for a radio play, All That Fall. He continued writing sporadically for radio and extended his scope to include cinema and television. He began to write in English again, although he also wrote in French until the end of his life.

From the late 1950s until his death, Beckett had a relationship with Barbara Bray, a widow who worked as a script editor for the BBC. In October 1969 while on holiday in Tunis with Suzanne, Beckett heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anticipating that her intensely private husband would be saddled with fame from that moment on, Suzanne called the award a catastrophe. He gave away all of the prize money. Suzanne died on 17th July 1989. Beckett died on 22nd December the same year, confined to a nursing home and suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease. The two were interred together in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris and share a simple granite gravestone that follows Beckett’s directive that it should be “any colour, so long as it’s grey.”

Although Beckett was intensely private and ascetic with a generally pessimistic outlook on life, he did enjoy meeting friends for a good meal once in a while, especially grilled sole and white wine in restaurants such as Aux Îles Marquises on the rue de la Gaité. Well, grilled sole is about as simple as it gets. The usual habit is to grill fillets and serve them with lemon wedges and butter. I’m happier to be even simpler than that. I like nothing better than to take a whole fish – head on, but gutted and cleaned – heat the grill or broiler as hot as it gets, and grill the fish for about 12 minutes without turning it. Plate and serve as is. Sole has an extremely delicate taste (if you buy actual Dover sole and not some mimic), and needs no additions. French chefs will bristle at that sentiment, but I am not French. As a small boy my mother would occasionally serve me a whole sole (or plaice) for lunch, caught that day off the Eastbourne coast, and sold from the fishing boats. She grilled it, put it on a plate, and let me have at it with a slice of buttered brown bread. For some reason she thought brown bread would help in case I swallowed some bones.  I accompany grilled sole with buttered new potatoes and spinach or asparagus. A simple dish to celebrate Beckett’s favored simple life.

Jan 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of John Singer Sargent, called an “American” artist because his parents were U.S. citizens, but he actually spent almost none of his life in North America. In his day he was considered by many to be the leading portrait painter of his generation, but subsequently his work tended to be overlooked because the portraiture he is best known for was, for a long time, considered rather old fashioned for the period, and place, he worked in, which was known more for Impressionism. Interest in his work increased in the late 20th century as his oeuvre was explored more fully, and it became evident that it is much more varied than is known by the general public (or at least those who care at all).

Before Sargent’s birth, his father, FitzWilliam, was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia from 1844 to 1854. After John’s older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary, suffered a mental breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to help her recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Although based in Paris, Sargent’s parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant with John, they stopped in Florence to avoid a cholera epidemic, and Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife’s preference for them to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other U.S. citizens except for friends in the art world. The couple had 4 more children, two of whom died in childhood.

Sargent’s mother was convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent’s mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. FitzWilliam had hoped that his son’s interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.

At 13, his mother reported that, “John sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.” Around that time, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. His formal schooling was rather erratic, but Sargent turned into a well-educated young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. At 17, Sargent was described as “willful, curious, determined and strong, yet shy, generous, and modest.” He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, and wrote in 1874, “I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian.”

An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed because the school was re-organizing at the time, so, after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran, who was on a meteoric rise at the time, and studied with him from 1874 to 1878. In 1874, on his first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.

Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.

Sargent’s first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. Its particularly well-executed pose drew attention. His second salon entry was the Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, an impressionistic painting of which he made two copies. In 1879, at the age of 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent’s early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

After leaving Carolus-Duran’s atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez, absorbing his technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works. He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music, and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece El Jaleo (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré. Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.

Upon his return to Paris, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions, and his career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next 25 years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues.

I won’t belabor the history of Sargent’s career more. Instead, I will look at 3 significant works.

Portrait of Madame X

This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau caused a major scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. Mme Gautreau was well known in Parisian social circles for using her beauty to advantage, and engaging in “infelicities.” She was sought after by numerous portraitists, because of the notoriety a painting of her would secure the artist. Sargent went beyond the bounds of polite society, however, by deliberately painting her in a seductive pose wearing a provocative dress. The plunging neckline, oceans of bare skin, and come-hither stance were scandalous enough for late-19th-century Parisians, but in the original Sargent also painted the right strap of her dress hanging down over her arm, which was considered to be outrageously salacious. For a time Mme Gautreau had to retire from public, even though Sargent did not name her on the portrait. She was well known without being identified. In addition, Sargent’s commissions in France dried up completely, and so he moved to London where he flourished.

Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood

On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits: Monet at work painting outdoors with his new wife nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used Impressionist techniques. This is his own version of the Impressionist style which he continued using into the late 1880s, after his visit to Monet. Monet later wrote on Sargent’s style: “He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word, he is too much under the influence of Carolus-Duran.”

Gassed

In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The plan for a Hall of Remembrance decorated by large paintings was abandoned when the project was incorporated with that for Imperial War Museum. Although he was 62 years old, he travelled to the Western Front in July 1918, accompanied by Henry Tonks. He spent time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. He was determined to paint an epic work with many human figures, but struggled to find a situation with American and British figures in the same scene. On 11 September 1918, Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris:

The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men? Excepting at night I have only seen three fine subjects with masses of men – one a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men – another a train of trucks packed with “chair à cannon” – and another frequent sight a big road encumbered with troops and traffic, I daresay the latter, combining English and Americans, is the best thing to do, if it can be prevented from looking like going to the Derby.

The “harrowing sight” referred to the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21 August 1918, at Le Bac-du-Sud, between Arras and Doullens, in which mustard gas had been used against the advancing 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army, during the Second Battle of Arras of 1918. You can see his deliberate homage to Breughel (The Blind Leading the Blind):

Sargent’s painting is huge, and, for me, is haunting, and captivates the horrors of the Great War. Curiously, in its day it had a remarkably mixed reception. Virginia Woolf, for example, described it as annoyingly patriotic, and E.M. Forster called it “too heroic.” I don’t see that at all. What was in their heads?

Sargent’s Birthday Party, is perhaps not as well known as his portraiture. It shows his mix of Realism and Impressionism, and also his characteristic use of color – especially the contrast of red and white, which you find in numerous portraits. So I thought that a characteristic (American) red and white cake would be appropriate for celebrating his birthday: the classic red velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cake

Ingredients

Cake:

½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp cocoa
4 tbsp red food coloring
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar

Icing:

5 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Grease two 9-inch round pans.

For the cake: Beat the shortening and 1 ½ cups sugar together until they are very light and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and beat well. Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring and beat into the creamed mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix the salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and buttermilk together. Add the flour to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Mix the baking soda and vinegar in a cup and gently fold into the cake batter. Don’t beat or stir the batter after this point.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack.

For the icing: Put 5 tablespoons flour and milk into a saucepan, whisk, and then cook over low heat until thick, stirring constantly. Let cool completely. While the mixture is cooling, beat 1 cup of sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the cooled flour and milk mixture and beat until the icing is a good spreading consistency.

Split the cakes into layers, spreading the icing thickly between each layer, and then over the top and sides of the cake.

Oct 232017
 

Today is a public holiday in Cambodia (where I currently live) celebrating the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 (សន្ធិសញ្ញាសន្តិភាពទីក្រុងប៉ារីស), formally titled Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, which were signed on this date, and marked the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975 – 1991). The agreement marked the first occasion when the UN took over as the government of a state. The last quarter, or so, of the 20th century was a horrific time to be living in Cambodia, so that as the century closed with the Paris Peace Accords there was a sense in the country that a modicum of equilibrium and normalcy in the country was possible. I’ll highlight a few salient points in the history of Cambodia here as a way of underscoring two themes I return to in my writing quite often: (1) Nationalism has been an unmitigated disaster since the 19th century. (2) The vast bulk of Westerners are quite contentedly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of Asia as a whole and of SE Asia in particular. Obviously, all I can do is scratch the surface. You’ll have to learn more on your own.

Sihanouk

Independence of Cambodia and Vietnam from France in the 1950s led to civil war in both countries but in different ways. Cambodia’s independence was reasonably straightforward at the outset, Vietnam’s was not. When France divested itself of Indochina in 1953, Cambodia became a kingdom under Sihanouk, but Vietnam split into a pro-Russian communist northern region and a pro-Western southern region. We all know what happened there next. Cambodia’s history in that era got very complicated because it not only split ideologically between the kingdom under Sihanouk and the Chinese-communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, but also had to battle incursions from Vietnam.

Pol Pot

During the Vietnam War, Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist armies had formed an alliance to fight U.S.-backed regimes in their respective countries. Despite their open display of cooperation with the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge leadership feared that the Vietnamese communists were scheming to form an Indochinese federation with Vietnam as the dominant force in the region. In order to pre-empt an attempt by the Vietnamese to dominate them, the Khmer Rouge leadership began purging Vietnamese-trained personnel within their own ranks starting in 1975 when the Lon Nol regime, which had overthrown Sihanouk in 1970, capitulated. (Are you following so far?) Then, in May 1975, the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea, dominated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, began attacking Vietnam, beginning with an attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc. In spite of the fighting, the leaders of reunified Vietnam and Kampuchea made several public diplomatic exchanges throughout 1976 to highlight the supposedly strong relations between them. However, behind the scenes, Kampuchean leaders continued to fear what they perceived as Vietnamese expansionism. As such, on 30 April 1977, they launched another major military attack on Vietnam. Shocked by the Kampuchean assault, Vietnam launched a retaliatory strike at the end of 1977 in an attempt to force the Kampuchean government to negotiate. In January 1978, the Vietnamese military withdrew because their political objectives had not been achieved an the Khmer Rouge remained unwilling to negotiate seriously.

Small-scale fighting continued between the two countries throughout 1978, as China tried to mediate peace talks between the two sides. However, neither country could reach an acceptable compromise at the negotiation table. By the end of 1978, Vietnamese leaders decided to remove the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime of Democratic Kampuchea, perceiving it as being pro-Chinese and too hostile towards Vietnam. On 25 December 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Democratic Kampuchea and overran the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army in just two weeks. On 8 January 1979, the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established in Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation. During that period, the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea continued to be recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Kampuchea, and several armed resistance groups were formed to fight the Vietnamese occupation. Behind the scenes, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the PRK regime approached factions of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) to begin peace talks. Under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, the Vietnamese government implemented a series of economic and foreign policy reforms, which led to their withdrawal from Kampuchea in September 1989.

At the Third Jakarta Informal Meeting in 1990, under the Australian-sponsored Cambodian Peace Plan, representatives of the CGDK and the PRK agreed to a power-sharing arrangement by forming a unity government known as the Supreme National Council (SNC). The SNC’s role was to represent Cambodian sovereignty on the international stage, while the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was given the task of supervising the country’s domestic policies until a Cambodian government was elected by the people through a peaceful, democratic process. Cambodia’s pathway to peace proved to be extremely difficult, because Khmer Rouge leaders decided not to participate in the general elections, and instead chose to disrupt the electoral process by launching military attacks on UN peacekeepers and killing ethnic Vietnamese migrants. In May 1993, Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC movement defeated the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), formerly the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), to win the general elections. However, the CPP leadership refused to accept defeat and they announced that the eastern provinces of Cambodia, where most of the CPP’s votes were drawn from, would secede from Cambodia. To avoid such an outcome, Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC agreed to form a coalition government with the CPP. Shortly afterwards, the constitutional monarchy was restored, and the Khmer Rouge was outlawed by the newly formed Cambodian Government.

If the alphabet soup and other complications confuse you, don’t panic. To be customarily simplistic I’ll boil it down for you. In the post-war era European colonial governments granted independence to the nations that they had colonized and created where previously ethnicity and governance had been fluid for centuries. Here’s where my fury against nationalism comes in. You really have to be a complete simpleton (which unfortunately too many people are), to think that nations have rigidly defined borders that were establish in some misty past (perhaps by God?), and that all the people within the borders of that nation belong to one stock speaking one language. ALL nations are inherently multi-ethnic and linguistically diverse. I’m not talking about the complexities of immigration for the moment; I’m talking about people born and bred on the soil for generations. Even if you take away the problem of defining borders you are left with a mess. Look at Italy, which has water surrounding it on most sides with the Alps in the north to define the northern bit. Within those geographic borders you have a complete hodge-podge of languages, dialects, and ethnicities of long standing. When I taught in Mantua I had a fair sprinkling of red-haired, blue-eyed students who would look quite at home in Glasgow, yet were as Italian as they come.

Nationalism was the great evil perpetrated on Europe by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/  — allowing the powerful nations it solidified to spend the rest of the century dominating the world via colonization. Prior to the Congress, Spain and Portugal had done the job of colonizing the New World only to see its empire crumble when they were weakened by the Napoleonic Wars, so that local forces were able to fight successfully for independence.  The aftermath, especially in South America, was a century of civil war as local factions sought to carve out their own nations. In place of Spain, Britain and France took the initiative, colonizing much of the rest of the world (fighting over colonial territory among themselves when they weren’t fighting the locals), with Germany and Italy joining the fray rather late once they had unified into nation-states in the latter 19th century.

What happened to South America in the early 19th century happened in south and southeast Asia in the post-war era. When France felt compelled to release its colonies in Indochina all hell broke loose as I have summarized above. Cambodia does not have God-given boundaries that contain a unitary ethnicity speaking a single language, but Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot thought it should be, though, and set about killing everyone that was not “Cambodian” enough. Pol Pot slaughtered roughly 25% of the population (somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of a population of 8 million), because they were not ethnically pure enough (or were not agricultural enough, or too well educated, or simply a threat to his vision of Cambodian nationalism). The deep irony was that Pol Pot was himself part-Chinese and had been to university. I’m sure someone has written about this before, but the common thread among tyrannical nationalist dictators is that their own ethnic bona fides are far from pure. Hitler had some Jewish ancestors, Napoleon was a Corsican, Stalin was Georgian . . . etc. etc.

It has not been plain sailing in Cambodia since 1991 but the Paris Peace Accords were a start. In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as king of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. The stability established following the conflict was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Elections next year are a toss-up for the moment with a lot of trepidation in the country.

In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp and he was sentenced to life in prison. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers. In August 2014, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue to life in prison on war crimes charges for their role in the country’s genocide in the 1970s. The trial began in November 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

As has become my custom here I ought to simply suggest that you buy a ticket to Phnom Penh if you want to taste Cambodian food and leave it at that. Normally for breakfast I find a stall in the market that serves some kind of noodles in broth with meat or fish and vegetables. That is a very common Cambodian breakfast. Noodles in broth with bits added is ubiquitous throughout SE Asia with seemingly infinite regional and local varieties. Without the proper noodles, vegetables, and flavorings you don’t stand a remote chance in the West of replicating even the simplest dish that you can find at a market stall in Cambodia for $1 or less (Cambodian rials and US dollars are used interchangeably in Cambodia). They simmer their broths over wood fires for hours and then heat your chosen ingredients in them for a minute, serving them in deep bowls with a generous portion of broth, (which gets richer the more ingredients are added), and giving you side dishes of condiments. I’m partial to fiery pepper condiments, but I enjoy the pickles also.

What can I say? Pork is a very common broth base. You could start by making a stock from meaty pork bones from a roast. Green onions, garlic, cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves can be added in various quantities to enrich the broth. The secret is to simmer the broth for hours, refrigerate overnight, and then simmer again in the morning. Then cook some rice noodles of your choice in the broth augmented by vegetables such as bean sprouts or Chinese greens and a little sliced pork. Really though – come to Cambodia if you want the real thing.

 

May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.

Nov 262016
 

ei3

Today is the birthday (1909) of Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu), a Romanian-French playwright who wrote mostly in French, and one of the foremost figures of the French Avant-garde theater. He is known primarily for his barbs against the absurdity and insignificance of human existence. Many sources cite his birth year as 1912, an error perpetrated by Ionesco himself, who wanted the year of his birth to coincide with that when his idol, Romanian playwright Caragiale, died.

He spent most of his childhood in France and, while there, had an experience he claimed affected his perception of the world more significantly than any other. Deborah B. Gaensbauer says in Eugène Ionesco Revisited, “Walking in summer sunshine in a white-washed provincial village under an intense blue sky, [Ionesco] was profoundly altered by the light.” He was struck very suddenly with a feeling of intense luminosity, the feeling of floating off the ground and an overwhelming feeling of well-being. When he “floated” back to the ground and the “light” left him, he saw that the real world in comparison was full of decay, corruption and meaningless repetitive action. This also coincided with his revelation that death takes everyone in the end. Much of his later work, reflecting this new perception, demonstrates a disgust for the tangible world, a distrust of communication, and the subtle sense that a better world lies just beyond our reach.

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He returned to Romania with his father and mother in 1925 after his parents divorced. There he attended Saint Sava National College, after which he studied French Literature at the University of Bucharest from 1928 to 1933 and qualified as a teacher of French. While there he met Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, and the three became lifelong friends. In 1936 Ionesco married Rodica Burileanu. Together they had one daughter for whom he wrote a number of unconventional children’s stories. He and his family returned to France in 1938 for him to complete his doctoral thesis. Caught by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he returned to Romania, but soon changed his mind and, with the help of friends, obtained travel documents which allowed him to return to France in 1942, where he remained during the rest of the war, living in Marseilles before moving with his family to Paris after its liberation.

Ionesco died at age 84 on 28 March 1994 and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His tombstone reads:

Prier le Je Ne Sais Qui
J’espère : Jesus-Christ.

[Pray to the I don’t-know-who
I hope : Jesus Christ.]

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As I commonly do with writers, I’m going to give you a small section of quotes I like rather than give a formal analysis of Ionesco’s work:

It isn’t what people think that’s important, but the reason they think what they think.

Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I’d be a politician.

Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.

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It’s not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it’s mankind.

God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself.

Everything that has been will be, everything that will be is, everything that will be has been.

The most implacable enemies of culture — Rimbaud, Lautréamont, dadaism, surrealism — end up being assimilated and absorbed by it. They all wanted to destroy culture, at least organized culture, and now they’re part of our heritage.

The more you make revolutions, the worse it gets.

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I am writing the memoirs of a man who has lost his memory.

There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.

The fact that I despise religion doesn’t mean I don’t esteem it highly.

I’ll never waste my dreams by falling asleep. Never again.

There are many sides to reality. Choose the one that’s best for you.

I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen.

Although Ionesco is part of the French theater tradition he is decidedly Romanian, so a Romanian recipe is in order. Romanian cuisine is a diverse blend of several culinary traditions with which it has come into contact, but it also maintains its own character. It has been greatly influenced by Ottoman cuisine, while it also includes influences from the cuisines of other neighbors, including German, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian cuisine. The general category ciorbă includes a wide range of soups with a characteristic sour taste. These may be meat and vegetable soups, tripe and calf foot soups, or fish soups, all of which are soured by lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, vinegar, or borș (traditionally home made from fermented bran).

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Ciorbă de burtă is a very famous Romanian tripe soup, and since my apparent obsession with tripe seems absurd to most of my friends, a recipe for tripe soup seems suitable to honor Ionesco. The Romanian journalist Radu Anton Roman said about ciorbă de burtă: “This dish looks like it is made for drunk coachmen but it has the most sophisticated and pretentious mode of preparation in all Romanian cuisine. It’s sour and sweet, hot and velvety, fatty but delicate, eclectic and simple at the same time.”

Ciorbă de Burtă

Ingredients:

1 kg veal tripe
1 or 2 fresh beef bones with no meat
6-8 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
¼ cup grated carrots
vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 egg yolks
100 gm sour cream
salt and pepper
vinegar

Instructions

Put the tripe and beef bones in a saucepan with cold water to cover, and add the peppercorns and bay leaf. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and cook covered for at least an hour, or until the tripe is cook but not slimy. Getting it just al dente takes experience. Strain and reserve the broth. Discard the bones, peppercorn and bay leaf.

Cut the tripe into strips about 3” long and ½” wide. Place the tripe and broth in a clean pot and gently reheat.

Sauté the carrots over medium heat in a little oil until soft and then add to the soup.

Mash the garlic with a small amount of oil (or water) and add to the soup. Add vinegar to taste. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.

With the soup on a very gentle simmer, whisk the egg yolks with the sour cream.  Temper the cream by whisking in to it a ladle of hot broth. Then add the cream to the soup, whisking vigorously. Heat through, still whisking. ­

Serve with crusty bread.

Oct 102016
 

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Today is the birthday (1901) of Alberto Giacometti, Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker. Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, now part of the Swiss municipality of Bregaglia, near the Italian border. He was a descendant of Protestant refugees escaping the inquisition. Alberto attended the Geneva School of Fine Arts. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, was a well known post-Impressionist painter and his brothers, Diego (1902–85) and Bruno (1907–2012), went on to become artists as well. Additionally, Zaccaria Giacometti, later professor of constitutional law and chancellor of the University of Zurich grew up together with them, having been orphaned at the age of 12 in 1905.

In 1922 Giacometti moved to Paris to study under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, an associate of Rodin. It was there that Giacometti experimented with cubism and surrealism and came to be regarded as one of the leading surrealist sculptors. Among his associates were Miró, Max Ernst, Picasso, Bror Hjorth and Balthus.

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Between 1936 and 1940, Giacometti concentrated his sculpting on the human head, focusing on the sitter’s gaze. He preferred models he was close to: his sister, Ottilia, and the artist Isabel Rawsthorne (then known as Isabel Delmer). This was followed by a phase in which his statues of Isabel became stretched out; her limbs elongated. He often carved until his sculptures were as thin as nails and reduced to the size of a pack of cigarettes, much to his own consternation. A friend of his once said that if Giacometti decided to sculpt you, “he would make your head look like the blade of a knife.” After his marriage to Annette Arm in 1946 his tiny sculptures became larger, but the larger they grew, the thinner they became. Giacometti said that the final result represented the sensation he felt when he looked at a woman.

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His paintings underwent a parallel procedure. The figures appear isolated and severely attenuated, as the result of continuous reworking. Subjects were frequently revisited: one of his favorite models was his younger brother Diego.

In 1958 Giacometti was asked to create a monumental sculpture for the Chase Manhattan Bank building in New York, which was beginning construction. Although he had for many years “harbored an ambition to create work for a public square”, he “had never set foot in New York, and knew nothing about life in a rapidly evolving metropolis. Nor had he ever laid eyes on an actual skyscraper,” according to his biographer James Lord. Giacometti’s work on the project resulted in the four figures of standing women—his largest sculptures—entitled Grande femme debout I through IV (1960). The commission was never completed, however, because Giacometti was unsatisfied by the relationship between the sculpture and the site, and abandoned the project.

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In 1962, Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, and the award brought with it worldwide fame. Even when he had achieved popularity and his work was in demand, he still reworked models, often destroying them or setting them aside to be returned to years later. The prints produced by Giacometti are often overlooked but the catalogue raisonné, Giacometti – The Complete Graphics and 15 Drawings by Herbert Lust (Tudor 1970), comments on their impact and gives details of the number of copies of each print. Some of his most important images were in editions of only 30 and many were described as rare in 1970.

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In his later years Giacometti’s works were shown in a number of large exhibitions throughout Europe. Riding a wave of international popularity, and despite his declining health, he traveled to the United States in 1965 for an exhibition of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As his last work he prepared the text for the book Paris sans fin, a sequence of 150 lithographs containing memories of all the places where he had lived.

Giacometti died in 1966 of heart disease (pericarditis) and chronic bronchitis at the Kantonsspital in Chur in Switzerland. His body was returned to his birthplace in Borgonovo, where he was interred close to his parents.

Normally I end my posts on artists with a gallery (before my recipe), but for Giacometti I’m going to give you some of my favorite quotes of his. I look at his art better through them.

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What I am looking for is not happiness. I work solely because it is impossible for me to do anything else.

The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and – instead of giving up – you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling – be it an illusion or not – that something new has opened up.

When I make my drawings… the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.

In a burning building I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.

The one thing that fills me with enthusiasm is to try, despite everything, to get nearer to those visions that seem so hard to express.

Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.

The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.

I don’t know who I am or who I was. I know it less than ever. I do and I don’t identify myself with myself. Everything is totally contradictory, but maybe I have remained exactly as I was as a small boy of twelve.

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The cooking of the Italian Graubünden or Italian Grigioni (Grigionitaliano or Grigioni italiano) where Giacometti was born and lived for some time is very much like the cuisine of Lombardy because most of the Swiss Italians of that region came originally from Lombardy. Milanese-style saffron risotto is a popular dish and I gave a recipe for it here on Verdi’s birthday which happens to be today also — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/ . In fact pretty much any dish from Lombardy would work.

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Turkey with chestnut stuffing is popular in this region at this time of year. Italian turkeys are usually smaller than the U.S. monsters which I think is great deal better from a culinary standpoint. For me an 8 to 10 pound turkey is more than adequate for a family meal and if you have a large number of guests (at Thanksgiving for example) cook two, rather than one giant bird. That way you stand a chance of the meat tasting of something other than cardboard. Here’s the classic Lombardy chestnut stuffing for a turkey that is no more than 5 pounds:

Chestnut Stuffing

Ingredients

250g chestnuts
2 eggs, hard boiled
125ml white wine
50ml milk
30g butter
4 fresh Italian sausages,
salt and black pepper,
100g sliced white bread, diced

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425°F/220°C with the rack in the middle.  Cut an X in the rounded side of each chestnut with a small sharp knife. Roast the chestnuts, cut side up, in a shallow baking pan until the shells curl away from the nut meat (20 to 30 minutes). Wrap the hot chestnuts in a kitchen towel and squeeze gently to further loosen shells. Whilst still warm, peel off the shells.

Soak the bread in milk.

Chop the chestnuts and eggs coarsely.

Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat and, when melted, add all the other ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for 5-10 minutes stirring frequently so that the ingredients do not stick and so that they are all combined thoroughly.

Stuff the cavity of the turkey and roast.

Jul 142013
 

Bastille Day  bastille2

Today is formally known as La Fête de la Fédération in France (or more informally Le Quatorze Juillet), and Bastille Day in English speaking countries.  It commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 which is generally considered the critical event that launched the French Revolution. The medieval fortress and prison in Paris known as the Bastille represented royal authority in the center of Paris. While the prison contained only seven inmates at the time of its storming, its fall was the flashpoint of the Revolution because it changed the terms of the conflict between the people and the king from political bargaining to open warfare. The events leading up to the storming of the Bastille are complicated but can be distilled down to a few key points.

First and foremost is the fact that during the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, partially caused by the huge cost of intervening in the American Revolution, and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation.  Everyone felt the pinch of taxation from the nobility down to the poorest of the poor, yet Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, continued to live in unbridled luxury which was publicly vaunted.  To resolve the financial crisis the Estates-General was convened by Louis in May 1789.  The Estates-General was an outmoded system of giving the people a voice that was actually powerless because it was advisory to the king, who could ignore its advice. It had not met since 1614. It consisted of representatives of three estates: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).  It met for a little over a month with no agreement reached between the estates.  The nobility wanted to resist taxation, but otherwise were conservative and loyal to the monarchy. The commoners wanted to write a constitution which would create a system of governance by the people .  With no agreement in sight, on 17 June 1789 the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose first purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July. Its debates were reported in the press and initiated widespread political debate among the people.  But debate was not enough at this point. Paris was on the brink of insurrection, turning words into action.

On the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The public demonstrators, led by Amaria Cahila, of the Third Estate, had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms (29,000 to 32,000 muskets, but without powder or shot), and were mainly seeking to acquire the large quantities of arms and ammunition stored at the Bastille. On the 14th there were over 13,600 kilograms (30,000 lb) of gunpowder stored there.

At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty of prisoners, housing only seven old men annoyed by all the disturbance: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). The cost of maintaining a medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose had led to a decision to close it, shortly before the disturbances began. It was, however, a symbol of royal tyranny. The regular garrison consisted of 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer suitable for service in the field). It had however been reinforced on 7 July by 32 grenadiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment from the troops on the Champ de Mars. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound guns and twelve smaller pieces. The governor was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille.

The list of vainqueurs de la Bastille (conquerors of the Bastille) has 954 names, and the total of the crowd was probably fewer than one thousand. The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 13:30 the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard, and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut, crushing one unfortunate vainqueur.  About this time gunfire began, though some stories state that the Governor had a cannon fire into the crowd killing several women, children, and men turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seemed to have felt it had been drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organise a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.

The firing continued, and at 15:00 the attackers were reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises and other deserters from among the regular troops, along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the nearby Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of a mutual massacre suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire at 17:00. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realized that his troops could not hold out much longer; he opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30. The revolution had begun.

I debated giving a recipe for brioche on the grounds that the famous phrase “let them eat cake” (falsely applied to Marie Anoinette), is a poor translation of the French original “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“let them eat brioche”). But brioche is just fancy pants bread – enriched with butter and eggs.  Not very celebratory.  Instead here is a recipe for îles flottantes (floating islands), also known as œufs à la neige (“eggs in snow”). There are actually minor differences between the two, but the terms can also be used interchangeably. Both are essentially light puffs of meringue floating in a thin egg custard and topped with caramel sauce. Some cooks, such as Julia Child, bake the meringues, and I have had the dish served me several times in France that way. But the classic method is to poach them.  BE WARNED – this is not a recipe for the inexperienced.

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Îles flottantes

Ingredients

Crème anglaise

1 1/3 pints/750ml milk

1 vanilla pod, seeds only, or 1 tsp vanilla extract

8 egg yolks

7oz/190g caster sugar

Poaching liquor

18fl oz/500ml milk

1 tbsp caster sugar

Meringue

8 egg whites

7oz/190g caster sugar

Caramel

2½oz/75g caster sugar

Instructions:

Crème anglaise

Heat the milk and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat. Do not allow to boil.

Simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside

Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a mixing bowl.

This is a critical step where things can go very wrong. Pour the hot milk mixture onto the eggs and sugar, a little at a time whisking constantly. If you stop whisking, or add too much hot milk at once, the eggs will scramble. Try to keep up a thin steady stream (whisking even before you begin pouring). When all the milk is added the mixture should be smooth and creamy.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and place the pan over a low heat and stir continuously  until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. You are aiming for a thin custard.

Leave to cool.  This process can be done several hours before assembling the dessert. You can also do it the night before.  If you do, refrigerate overnight.  But remove next day to bring the crème anglaise back to a runny consistency.

Poaching liquid

Combine the milk and 18fl oz/500ml of water with the sugar in a wide shallow saucepan or poaching pan. Stir to dissolve the sugar.

Heat the liquid on a medium until it comes to a low simmer. Turn off the heat but keep the liquid warm on the stove. It will take some time to make the meringue but you need this liquid ready for them as soon as they are made.

Meringue

Put the egg whites in a clean, dry mixing bowl.

Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the whites until stiff peaks form when the whisk is removed. Do not overbeat. As soon as stiff peaks appear – stop.

Add one tablespoon of the sugar to the egg whites, and continue to whisk until the mixture comes back to stiff peaks. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time until it has all been used, and the meringue is thick and glossy.

Reheat the poaching liquid to a very gentle simmer. NEVER let it boil.

Using a two serving spoons dipped in cold water (each time), shape the meringue into pillows (about 4”x 2”/10 cm x 5 cm) and gently poach them in the poaching liquid. It is best to do this step in batches. 4 to 6 should be the maximum. Turn each meringue after 3 minutes and let cook another 2 minutes on the other side. Use a slotted spoon to remove them and gently place them on a wire rack to drain. Repeat as needed.

Caramel

Pour the sugar into a wide pan with 2 tablespoons of water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium  heat stirring with a wooden spoon. The mixture will begin to bubble and you need to keep a watchful eye on it.  Eventually you will see a brown patch appear.  Keep stirring until the sugar is a little lighter than dark caramel and remove from the heat immediately.

Assembly

You have two choices depending on how large you want this dessert to be. If you want one meringue per person use small dessert plates. If you want two per person use larger plates. But do not make the plates so large that the meringues get lost. The plates need to have a little depth to hold the crème anglaise.

Divide the crème anglaise among the number of plates you are using. Place one (or two) meringues in the center of each. They are delicate so do this very gently.

If necessary reheat the caramel so that when you dip a fork in it, it runs off in streams.  Using the fork, very quickly run thin streams of caramel over all the meringues.

Sleep well that night.

Jun 072013
 
Paul Gauguin in 1891

Paul Gauguin in 1891

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Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on this date in 1848, to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the proto-socialist leader and feminist Flora Tristan, whose father was part of an influential Peruvian family. In 1850 the family left Paris for Peru, but Clovis died on the voyage, leaving eighteen-month-old Paul, his mother, and sister, to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art. It was in Lima that Gauguin encountered his first art. His mother admired Pre-Columbian pottery, collecting Inca pots that were at the time dismissed as barbaric by artists. Such memories later triggered an interest in Primitivism in his art.

At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orléans to live with his grandfather. The Gauguins came originally from the area and were market gardeners and greengrocers: gauguin means ‘walnut-grower.’ His father had broken with family tradition to become a journalist in Paris. Although Gauguin learnt French his preferred language remained the Peruvian dialect of Spanish all of his life.  Gauguin apparently excelled in school, but hated the boarding school he was sent to, and so left at age seventeen. He worked as a pilot’s assistant for three years in the merchant marine, and then served in the French navy for two. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. He became a successful Parisian businessman and remained one for eleven years. At this time he began painting, being inspired by his many friends and acquaintances who were painters, most notably Camille Pissarro, who was also his teacher.

In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad and they had five children.  In 1884 the family moved to Copenhagen where Gauguin tried his hand as a tarpaulin salesman.  Given that he could not speak Danish and there was not a huge market for French tarpaulins in Denmark, his endeavors failed, and his wife became the breadwinner whilst he took up painting full time. In 1885 he left the family (on his family’s insistence), and moved back to Paris.   In 1887 he sailed for Panama where he worked as a laborer on the canal before being laid off after only 15 days.  From there he moved to Martinique where he painted tropical scenes he hoped would sell in Paris (they did not).

In 1888 he was back in France where he spent a famously tormented three months with Vincent van Gogh (kudos to anyone who can pronounce his last name correctly — a source of constant irritation to Vincent). Both shared bouts of depression, suicidal tendencies, and an inability to sell their paintings.  It was in December of that year that van Gogh, during an illness, threatened Gauguin with a razor and then fled to a brothel where he cut the lower lobe of his ear off and gave it to a prostitute for safe keeping wrapped in his handkerchief (there are multiple versions of this story). Hint: if you are depressed, broke, and suicidal, making art that no one understands, try not to hang out with like people. Gauguin took the hint and left soon after.

In 1891, Gauguin sailed to French Polynesia to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” He wrote a book there titled Noa Noa describing his experiences in Tahiti (although some modern critics believe it was largely fantasy).  He returned to France in 1893, but then left for Polynesia again in 1895, dying on Atuona in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 at age 54 of the combined effects of alcoholism, morphine use, and syphilis. No one is really sure how many children he left behind in Polynesia.

In the popular mind Gauguin is perpetually associated with his paintings of Tahitian women, but he experimented with many styles such as Cloisonnism, Primitivism, and Synthetism, influencing a generation of Post-Impressionists to come.  Most of his paintings are in museums, so one rarely comes up for sale. The last auction at which one of his paintings came on the block had a pre-sale estimate of $15.6 million, but ended up being sold privately.  It always irks me more than a little that he (and his erstwhile friend van Gogh) died in poverty, whilst now the über-rich battle over the spoils.

Today’s recipe combines elements from two aspects of Gauguin’s life: Peru and Tahiti.  It is a ceviche given a Tahitian twist. Ceviche is a dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice, now popular throughout Latin America and Polynesia, whose origin point is disputed.  However, it most likely originated in Peru where nowadays the varieties are seemingly endless.  I was once in a restaurant in Cusco with 58 versions on the menu.  This dish gets its Tahitian twist from the coconut milk in the marinade, and also from the fact that it is marinated very briefly so that the fish does not have a chance to “cook” in the citrus juice. Make sure the ingredients are well chilled before assembling the dish.

E’ia Ota (Tahitian Ceviche)

Ingredients

1 ½ lb (.7 kilos) sashimi quality tuna or firm white fish cut in ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes.
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes
1 tomato, seeded and diced
3 scallions, chopped (plus 1 for garnish)
½ cup (118 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice strained of pulp
¼ cup (59 ml) coconut milk
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

Toss together in a non-reactive bowl the fish, cucumber, tomato, scallions, lime juice, and coconut milk with a large pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Drain off the excess fluid.  This can be served in small glasses with the ceviche. In Peru it is known as leche de tigre.

Serve in chilled bowls or large shells garnished with scallion.

Serves 4 to 6