May 252018

Today is the birthday (1803) of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an essayist and lecturer who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century in the United States. He was a champion of individualism and a critic of the prevailing pressures of society at the time which he disseminated through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.

Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature”. Following this work, he gave a speech entitled “The American Scholar” in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr called “America’s intellectual Declaration of Independence”. Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays, Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “Circles”, “The Poet” and “Experience”. Together with “Nature”, these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period. Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for humankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson’s “nature” was more philosophical than naturalistic. Emerson took a kind of pantheistic or pandeistic approach to nature by rejecting views of God as separate from the world.

Emerson’s work remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and it has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets who followed him. I could give you whole biography and long assessment of his oeuvre, but I’ll provide some of my favorite quotes instead. You’d think the man was born to be a meme maker’s inspiration:

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.

The only way to have a friend is to be one.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.

You become what you think about all day long.

Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting some on yourself.

Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.

Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.

Beware what you set your heart upon. For it surely shall be yours.

Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.

For today’s recipe I turn to this quote from Emerson:

There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.

I suppose that to be thoroughly Emersonian you should do nothing more for your recipe than find a perfectly ripe pear and enjoy it to the fullest. But I can be a bit more less telegraphic than that. Here is a classic New England recipe for pears poached in red wine.

Poached Pears


2 cups red wine
½ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
1 whole cinnamon stick
zest and juice of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
1 whole bay leaf
6 ripe pears, stems on

Garnish: raspberries (optional)


In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the wine, sugar, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, orange zest and juice, lemon zest, and bay leaf. Stir them together until the sugar dissolves.

Peel the pears carefully, leaving the stems intact. Cut ¼ inch off the bottom of each pear to allow the pears to stand upright for serving. Add the pears to the liquid in the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring gently, until a paring knife pierces the pears easily (about 15 minutes). Remove from the heat and let the pears cool in the liquid.

When cool, remove the pears from the liquid with a slotted spoon and place in a small container. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through (about 2 hours).

Pour the poaching liquid through a sieve set over a second saucepan. Discard the solids. Bring the liquid to a boil and cook until reduced to a thick syrup (about 20 minutes). Let cool to room temperature.

Arrange the pears on a platter or individual plates and drizzle the poaching liquid over them. Garnish with raspberries if desired. I like to add a little sour cream as well, but you can also use whipped cream if you wish.

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