Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Homemade, reconsidered

Though some might brand me cynical, unpatriotic, hard hearted, and an all-round party pooper, let me just come out and say it: I don't believe in Homemade, and for that matter I'm pretty skeptical about homemade too.

I don' t recall when exactly it began, as it crept up insidiously, but there are so many things described as homemade - things you can buy in restaurants, stores, even supermarkets, places that clearly are not homes - that being Homemade doesn't mean much anymore. It just means it was at least partly completed on the premises. It could have arrived frozen and ready to thaw or bake and it can be called Homemade.

So having gotten that off my chest, what, you ask, is my problem with real homemade? Something truly made from scratch in a home?

It's just that most homemade isn't really very good. The whole progress of civilization, modernity, urbanity has been taking us to the point where people specialize in doing things, and learn to do them well. So the baker bakes. The butcher, butchers. The p√Ętissier makes p√Ętissierie. You go to the chocolate shop for chocolate, and don't really need to mess with tempering chocolate at home. And if you want a glass of wine or beer, really, don't bother to make your own, because someone out there has figured out how to do it better.

Two qualifications here. First, I am lucky enough to live in New York, so you really can get people who have all of the above skills and more. But you can in many other cities as well. If you live in one of those cities where you can't get these services, then I admire you for trying at home. Second, some people, a few, a very few, are really good at some of these things. I imagine that the baker goes home and with fresh rolls for his family (I would like to imagine... in reality, I'm sure he/she goes home dead tired of the smell of fresh bread.) So again if you're one of these, then congrats (and invite me home soon!)

(And a quick aside on bread machines. I was given a secondhand one as a gift. The bread is not bad, but I'm not really a bread person and I only use it when someone wants to have some exotic variety not locally available...

And a surprisingly different view of ice cream machines. I actually have had a few good homemade ice creams. I wouldn't mind one of those machines that has its own freezer, as a long as it comes with an apartment large enough to contain the noise of the compressor.)

So there it is. I really don't believe in homemade.

* * *

Which is what makes the next confession difficult. I made (ok - I watched / helped as a friend made) mayonnaise. I was skeptical; even though the store-bought varieties are insipid, who really wants some creamy goop inside a perfectly good sandwich? Another issue is that I am allergic to one of the common ingredients (prepared mustard), so the idea was by making at it home I could be sure it was safe. I had to be dragged to the kitchen. I complained. I pouted. (And you know, it's not that I don't like to cook -- I was just convinced this was an exercise in futility.)

And now... I am addicted to the stuff. Homemade mayonnaise is spiritual. Indeed, using it I made a sandwich with my own hands that I would rate as one of the 5 best sandwiches I have ever eaten...

* * *

So if there is anything I can say to redeem myself at the end of this post, it is this: Yes, sometimes (often) I arrive at situations with strong prior views and opinions. Sometimes I need to be convinced to give things a try. But I'm always open to trying and unashamed to change my mind.

And now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and make a sandwich...


Monday, February 22, 2010

Cozy moments (Friday night) or hibernation

I hope you had a lovey weekend -- some of us I know did!

It must be a sign of my advancing years, but I spent Friday night at home, without the slightest urge to head out. It was cold out, with the peroration of winter threatening to become a full and unexpurgated volume 2. But fear not, I was not alone...

* * *

Yes, I was shacked up with an American, a French, an Italian, a Swiss, and a bottle of wine.

* * *

Yes, I was shacked up with four pieces of cheese and a bottle of wine.

* * *

I know they say age changes you. And I suppose this is the irrefutable proof: really, I missed nothing. There was soft, runny, and gloriously smelly cheese (an American cheese -- really, the Americans are making some very good cheese these days). There was the always-reliable Gruyere, and the never-modest Ubriaco. And not to leave the French out of it, I had a very satisfying wedge of Tomme de Savoie. The wine was nothing revelatory. Actually, since I'm in confessional mode I'll admit it. I drank one (make that half) of those bottles that someone brings you for a party that you would never buy for yourself or even take to someone's party. But, you know, it wasn't half bad.

* * *

They sometimes say that ageing is learning to make do with less. Sometimes perhaps. But sometimes it is learning to make do with more.


P.S. And it is true that I knew I was going to a speakeasy night on Saturday. Two friends of mine. Twins: composer and architect. And an amateur, evangelical mixologist. For the rest, I am sworn to secrecy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

7 things I love... (free-style tag)

We've all done a tag or two (or n, n large) tags in our days, but Marion has invented a new form, which I picked up over at Jane's place and which I'm going to call free-style tag. In this version, rather than tagging 7 specific people, you just let anyone who feels like it join in. Think of it as a big jam session, or even better those drummers in the park (bring your drum and join in!), rather than a symphony orchestra.

So my version of it, like Marion and Jane, will be 7 things I love right now... If you're inspired, please do join in!

  1. Kurosawa's Ran. No surprise given my last post, but I was waiting to be transported back into a world of heightened feeling and sound (I've probably been missing going to the opera), and this film did it.
  2. Gorgonzola cheese. These days I can't get enough of it (which is why I take care to buy very little -- you know, little cheese.)
  3. The art of my friend Lee Etheredge. I'm lucky enough to own a few of his pieces (and so are MoMA and the Whitney!) But I caught up with my friend recently and was delighted to see him doing new and exciting work (not yet on his blog, but keep an eye on it!)
  4. Cappuccino. (You can see there is no order to this list.) Of course we all love a good cappuccino. Italics here will mystify our Italian friends who are used to a good coffee from a bar no more than 100m from where they stand, but in these parts you have to go looking for one. (But this takes me back to a young bb discovers the world anecdote. When I first began drinking the stuff at Italian restaurants outside Italy, I would enjoy the foam but then find the coffee just too bitter. Some years later I discovered the coffee I was having was too bitter, not that perfect marriage of coffee and foamed milk. And can I get one more pet peeve off my chest? If the president of Starbucks or any other chain is reading, please not that it is coffee and foamed milk not coffee, milk, and foam. The problem here is you get coffee with warm milk and mound of topiary foam on top. Done right the milk itself takes on a light foaminess...) Anyway, I 've had a decent espresso machine at home for about 8 years, but recently I have begun using it to make myself a cappucino every morning. As good as my favorite coffee bars? No. But better than 95% of most others? Yes.
  5. The laptop computer. OK, I guess this really dates me. But even though I had a laptop, my "real" computer until 3 years ago was a desktop to which I was tethered. But now everything is on my laptop (don't worry, duly backed up), and I can roam free. And you know good ol' bb likes to roam!
  6. Semi-fictional, semi-history. The writing is formulaic, but I couldn't put it down.
  7. And finally this picture:
I suppose most of you are asking yourselves: who? It's Roger Federer who just won his 16th Grandslam Championship, with his father. (Just to be clear, since I sense most of my readers aren't sports type, I'm talking about tennis). Some of you may be shocked to discover that I watch any sports at all. The truth is not often, but sometimes tennis. I think this is because we watched it growing up (unlimited television during Wimbledon!) And some of you may be shocked then to discover that I admire a sportsman. But friends, there is much to admire here. First, how he plays. It's more like ballet than today's physically grinding game. Second, there is the impossibility of it. He sees angles and openings no else can. In that sense, I think he is like an artist, creating and orchestrating movement and visual possibilities. And also if you look at his tall, slim frame and his muscle-bound opponents, you can't understand how this man can stand a chance. Third, he has been doing this for about 6 years. Six sports years are like 30 normal years. He has somehow operated at a the highest level that long, maintaining his body, his mind, and above all his freshness of spirit -- the desire to excel, to win, and the pleasure of doing what you do. And finally, you've got to love this picture! Look at his delight, and look at the father's delight. And look how delighted they are to be sharing the moment. Even the greatest champion, artist, scientist must have these moments, when he or she is a child again basking in his or her parent's love and admiration.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kurosawa's Ran: A Master's Take on a Master

Usually I recommend a film to others after I've finished watching it (and the way things are usually after everyone else has already seen it, possibly decades ago...)

Though I'm only part way through Kurosawa's Ran (unfortunate English association with this word, which translates as chaos from Japanese), I feel myself keeping the DVD a week longer to see it again. It is Kurosawa's adaptation of King Lear. There are so few instances in which the master of one medium successfully adapts a masterpiece from another medium. Verdi and Otello come to mind. In that case, some have argued that Verdi even slightly improves on the original. I wouldn't go that far. But I would say that when one master hold's another gem in his or her hands, he may shine light on some facets of the original that were in the shadow (Iago in the case of Otello / Othello.)

To modern eyes, watching Kurosawa is both easy and challenging. The easiest way in is through your eyes, but the the style of acting and story telling, particularly in the epics, takes some time to adjust to. (Many rewards to doing so, of course.) But here the very operatic quality of the subject matter makes this intuitive. We are ready for stylization and heightened reality.

The moment (thus far) when it dawned on me that Kurosawa had done more than adapt Shakespeare, and create his own masterpiece, deals with the fool. In Lear, he is a central figure, but never quite becomes a character. Indeed, would I be going too far to say that is true of many of the characters in King Lear? They are striking, violent, moving, piteous, heartbreaking, but more stylized than human. This probably applies to the Lear character in Ran, Hidetora. But many of the others are built up out of human impulses, even the fool, who wonders at one point whether he should stay with Hidetora, whose nurse says he has been his entire life. Moving to see behind the fool's mask, a moment that Shakespeare doesn't give us.

This film is both an epic and a closeup -- the tragedy both large scale and tragic/heroic and very personal.


Monday, February 1, 2010

BIG CHEESE little cheese

Somehow, somewhere two weeks have slipped since my last post. I thought this next post was going to be about some films I've seen (the next one maybe...) but this one is a about:

and little cheese.

So what's it all about? There's no way to pretend the following will be coherent, so I'm not going to try:

* In London I lived next to a cheese monger (love that occupation name - monger, iron monger and cheese monger being the two I continue to see - it's not used in American English). Well, I thought of myself as living next to La Fromagerie, though in reality it was a 4 minute stroll away. It's a gem of place, and most things cost just about as much as gems. But getting back to the cheese, they have their own cheese cave. I should say "cave", because it's a wonderful room that the customers can walk into, to be surrounded by the smell of ageing cheese. What a smell! And the cheese monger himself will give you a tour, with some suggestions and tastings thrown in. Looking back, I don't know why I didn't buy more cheese. For one thing, you could get unaged raw milk cheese, which we can't here. For another, it's irresistible! So just for the record, it's not that I could resist, it's just that somehow I went shopping on Sunday, market day, and tended to buy my cheese there...

* In New York, I live next (in the same sense as above) to a very fine, quite reputed cheese section. Indeed, one person liked it so much he asked - and was given permission - to get married there! (No, not me, though not a bad idea for the future...) The only problem here is they have many cheeses pre-cut and pre-wrapped. Good cheese, but usually hunks (don't like that word, but it's the right word...) Of course, you can get them to cut piece for you, but you have to endure the competitive sport called New York grocery shopping. Some people move too fast and knock you over. Some run their shopping cart into you Achilles' tendons (there's a reason ancient mythology picks this as Achilles' weak spot...) Even more taxing is weaving your way through the crowd. Overtaking the slow walkers and the indecisive, while yourself being flanked by a shopping cart and a baby stroller. In this kind of high-risk situation, you don't really want stop to to ask for your bespoke slice of cheese. You grab what you can and run.

* In Boston, I now have my own cheese monger. Actually it's a wine store and provisions store. The wine store is great, if like me you enjoy good wine but don't enjoy the sticker shock of buying wine outside continental Europe (sorry UK -- same problem there as here....), and I'm sure at some point I'll write about how this has changed my life. (But that phrase sounds bad no? At the least, a bit tricky...) But the cheese monger... Life changing... My local grocery options here basically consist of overly expensive, overly large, pre-packaged cheese. Now instead, I pop in for somewhere between $2-$4 worth of cheese. A thin sliver of Gorgonzola here, a brick of Robiola there, and even better a great selection of American cheeses. (For the doubters out there, American cheese isn't only Kraft slices. There's good stuff there. Right now I'm nibbling on a American raw cow milk's cheese...)

I wish there a were a more philosophical peroration to this line of thought. But really, that's it for now. Big cheese, little cheese.

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