Jun 152018
 

Today is the birthday (1914) of Saul Steinberg, a Romanian-born, U.S. artist, cartoonist and illustrator, best known for his work for The New Yorker, most notably “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” He described himself as “a writer who draws.” Steinberg was born in Râmnicu Sărat in Romania. In 1932, he entered the University of Bucharest and in 1933, he enrolled at the Politecnico di Milano to study architecture. He received his degree in 1940. In 1936, he began contributing cartoons to the humor newspaper Bertoldo. Two years later, the anti-Semitic racial laws promulgated by the Fascist government forced him to start seeking refuge in another country.

In 1941, Steinberg went the Dominican Republic, where he spent a year awaiting a US visa. By then, his drawings had appeared in several US periodicals. His first contribution to The New Yorker was published in October 1941. Steinberg arrived in New York City in July 1942; within a few months he received a commission in the US Naval Reserve and was then seconded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He worked for the Morale Operations division in China, North Africa, and Italy.

After World War II, Steinberg continued to publish drawings in The New Yorker and other periodicals, including Fortune, Vogue, Mademoiselle, and Harper’s Bazaar. At the same time, he embarked on an exhibition career in galleries and museums. In 1946, he was included in the critically acclaimed “Fourteen Americans” show at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibiting along with Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, and Robert Motherwell, among others. Steinberg went on to have more than 80 one-artist shows in galleries and museums throughout the US, Europe, and South America. He was affiliated with the Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries in New York and the Galerie Maeght in Paris. A dozen museums and institutions have in-depth collections of his work, and examples are included in the holdings of more than eighty other public collections.

Steinberg’s long, multifaceted career encompassed works in many media and appeared in different contexts. In addition to magazine publications and gallery art, he produced advertising art, photoworks, textiles, stage sets, and murals. Given this many-leveled output, his work is difficult to position within the canons of postwar art history. He himself defined the problem: “I don’t quite belong to the art, cartoon or magazine world, so the art world doesn’t quite know where to place me.”

“View of the World from 9th Avenue” is instantly recognizable to millions, and can be interpreted in numerous ways. On a specific level you can see it as how self-absorbed and self -centered West Side New Yorkers are. Looking west from 9th avenue things up close are in clear detail, but then once you hit the Hudson, it gets vague. “Jersey” is a little brown strip that lies across the Hudson, key towns in the US, such as Chicago and Las Vegas, are dotted around the rest of the US, which is the size of a city block (as are Canada to the north and Mexico to the south), and somewhere vaguely across the Pacific Ocean (which is only slightly wider than the Hudson) are China, Japan, and Russia.  Certainly, West Siders are this self-absorbed, and Steinberg’s point is well taken. What needs to be remembered is that Steinberg’s understanding of people is perfectly generalizable. Just about everyone the world over, sees “the rest of the world” through the same lenses. This point can be illustrated (literally and figuratively), by his many imitators.

 

Steinberg sued the producers of Moscow on the Hudson for plagiarizing his work for the movie’s poster. It’s probably true that they were unaware that the work was copyrighted. By the time the movie was produced the work had filtered into popular consciousness – which, as an artist he should have taken as a compliment (although I am fully sympathetic with the need for artist’s to maintain copyrights).

We also need to remember that Steinberg did a mountain of other works, which are much less well known, but arresting in different ways. Here’s a small gallery:

I’ll go with a Romanian dish to celebrate Steinberg. Here’s drob de miel, a dish that is traditional at Easter in parts of Romania that resembles haggis in some ways, meat loaf in others. Its main ingredients are lamb’s entrails (same as haggis), which nowadays can be really hard to get in many countries. Livers and kidneys are not all that difficult to procure but heart and lungs will be more of a problem. It differs from haggis in numerous ways: it is baked, not boiled, it is wrapped in caul, not the sheep’s stomach, and the filler is bread, not oats. Also it has boiled eggs in the center.

Drob de Miel

Ingredients

500 gm/ 1 lb lamb’s offal
2 boiled eggs
2 raw eggs
1 slice of bread, dipped in milk
1 bunch spring onions, chopped fine
1 bunch parsley, chopped fine
1 bunch dill, chopped fine
1 tbsp sour cream
salt and pepper
1 lamb’s caul
vegetable oil for greasing

Instructions

Simmer the offal in a large saucepan with plenty of water, skimming the scum that rises periodically. Drain the entrails, and when cool grind them using a mincer or food processor along with the slice of bread. Put the ground meat in a large mixing bowl and add the raw eggs, sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Also add the dill, parsley and spring onion. Mix all the ingredients well with a wooden spoon.

Grease a loaf pan well. Thoroughly wash the lamb’s caul and lay it over the pan so that it lines it, and the edges lap evenly over the sides. Spoon in half the ground offal mix and spread it evenly. Place the boiled eggs in the middle, and spoon the rest of the mix over the top. Even it out, and pull the caul over the top so that the meat is in a tight package.

Bake at 190˚C/375˚F for 35 minutes. Let cool slightly in the tin on a wire rack, and then turn the drob out on a serving platter. Serve, cut into slices.

Feb 192017
 

Today is the birthday (1876) of Constantin Brâncuși  a Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer who was a pioneer of modernism and one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. Brâncuși grew up in the village of Hobiţa, Gorj, near Târgu Jiu, close to Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly woodcarving. Geometric patterns of the region can be seen in his later works. His parents Nicolae and Maria Brâncuși were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labor. From the age of 7, he herded the family’s flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood, and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers.

At the age of 9, Brâncuși left the village to work in the nearest large town. At 11 he went into the service of a grocer in Slatina; and then he became a domestic in a public house in Craiova where he remained for several years. When he was 18, Brâncuși built a violin by hand with materials he found around his workplace. Impressed by Brâncuși’s talent for carving, an industrialist entered him in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts (școala de arte și meserii), where he pursued his love for woodworking, graduating with honors in 1898.

Brâncuși then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture and quickly distinguished himself. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed his later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.

Here’s a little gallery.  In my humble opinion no one has been able to capture the essence of humanity better than Brâncuși through sheer simplicity of line. He decried the label “abstract artist” and I could not agree more. There is nothing abstract about his work.

This soup, ciorbã tãrãneasca, echoes Brâncuși’s work in a way because (a) it is a Carpathian peasant dish, and (b) it combines simplicity with complexity. Ciorbã is the Romanian word for “soup” and comes from the Turkish word – “çorba.”  The word “tãrãneasca” can be translated as “traditional” or “peasant.” The souring agent for this ciorbã can be lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, vinegar, sour grape leaves, or green sorrel leaves (my favorite). Sorrel is easy to grow in your garden; it is perennial and prolific, surviving drought and poor soil with no trouble. Obviously this is a simple vegetable soup, so any combination is fine. The trick is to balance the hot and sour notes. You’ll need to play with it.

Ciorbã Tãrãneasca

Ingredients

400g slab bacon, cut in small dice
200g fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 chile pepper, roughly chopped
sorrel leaves
yoghurt or sour cream
fresh parsley, roughly chopped
lemon juice (optional)
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes

Instructions

Sauté the bacon and onion in a dry Dutch oven over medium-low heat to render the fat from the bacon, and until the onion begins to take on a little color.

Add the vegetables and barely cover with water (or light stock). Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked as you like them. I prefer a little bite to them, but traditionally they are soft. As the soup cooks check the balance of heat and sourness to your taste. You can add a little lemon juice if you desire. Add the parsley towards the end.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread, with yoghurt (or sour cream) and red pepper flakes on the side for guests to add as they wish.

Nov 262016
 

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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.

Aug 272016
 

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On this date in 1991 the Republic of Moldova declared its independence as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The current Constitution of Moldova was adopted in 1994. A strip of Moldovan territory on the east bank of the river Dniester has been under the de facto control of the breakaway government of Transnistria since 1990. Otherwise, it is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east, and south. The capital city is Chișinău.

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The history of Moldova as a political entity can be traced to the 1350s, when the Principality of Moldavia, the medieval precursor of modern Moldova and Romania, was founded. The principality was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire from 1538 until the 19th century. In 1812, following one of several Russian-Turkish wars, the eastern half of the principality, Bessarabia (where most of today’s Moldova is located), was annexed by the Russian Empire. In 1918, Bessarabia briefly became independent as the Moldavian Democratic Republic and, following an intervention of the Romanian Army, united with Romania. In 1940 it was annexed by the Soviet Union, joined to the Moldavian ASSR, and became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic until the dissolution of the USSR.

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Is Moldova culturally or ethnically distinct from Romania? A good question that will get me in hot water in some quarters no matter how I answer. Moldova is obviously a political entity now, and has had a certain integrity over history despite the shifting sands of fate and time. You could ask the same question about Scotland and England and get much the same kind of answer (although, obviously, the circumstances are different). When asked, the vast bulk of the people of Moldova will say they are Moldovan – and may even say that they speak Moldovian – but there is an ongoing controversy about this. Is there a way to decide whether Romanians and Moldovans are the same ethnic group or not? Does the Moldovans’ self-identification as Moldovan and NOT Romanian constitute  enough evidence to consider them as a distinct ethnic group distinct and apart from Romanians or a subset? During the 2014 census more than 75% of people asked identified as Moldovan first, but there were numerous allegations that the ethnic affiliation numbers were rigged: 7 out of 10 observer groups of the Council of Europe reported a significant number of cases where census-takers recommended respondents declare themselves Moldovans rather than Romanians. Complicating the interpretation of the results, 18.8% of respondents that identified themselves as Moldovans declared Romanian to be their native language.

I don’t have a horse in this race so I’ll be a bit craven about the whole issue. Cultural and ethnic politics are largely about self interest, not about hard facts that can be independently verified by science (not that I would trust science anyway). From a distance, Romanian and Moldovan language and culture appear to be similar, but not identical. On the ground tempers flare about the subject. This has more to do with national politics than cultural realities. You can draw borders around nations, but not around cultures. Cultural identity is much sloppier. Go to the borders of any nation that has neighbors and you’ll see all manner of cultural mixing even though there is a tangible line separating one nation from another.

It would be convenient if there were a culinary solution to this conundrum, but there isn’t. Moldova has deep, fertile soil making it an abundantly productive agricultural nation producing grapes, fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy products, all of which have found their uses in the national cuisine. It’s very hard to distinguish Moldovan from Romanian cuisine, and can best be characterized as drawing inspiration and elements from many cuisines in the region, including Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, with a great influence left by the cuisine of the Ottoman empire.

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Arguably the best known Moldovan dish is also a well-known Romanian dish, mămăligă, a cornmeal mush or porridge that is a staple polenta-like dish on the Moldovan table, served as an accompaniment to stews and meat dishes or garnished with sour cream and cheese on the side (mămăligă cu brânză şi smântână) or crushed in a bowl of hot milk (mămăligă cu lapte). Sometimes slices of mămăligă are pan-fried in oil or in lard, the result being a sort of corn pone. Since mămăliga can be used as an alternate for bread in many Romanian and Moldovan dishes, there are quite a few which are either based on mămăligă, or include it as an ingredient or side dish.

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Just to be craven to the end, I’ll give you a video on the cooking of mămăligă – “like mama makes.” Don’t worry if you can’t understand Romanian, the video is self explanatory, and gives a very good idea of how to make the dish (slowly with lots of stirring), and the consistency you are aiming for.