Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lindsey fixes dinner


A can of sardines; a nice red onion quartered and sliced thin, a little olive oil on the bread, then the fish and onion.

A few slices of green tomato—will the summer never end? (Though it threatens to freeze tonight...)

Afterward, a few leaves of lettuce from a nearby garden, sprinkled with scallions sliced thin, oil, salt from the Ile de Ré, and some vinegar

a bottle of rosé

Thanksgiving can wait.

Geert Mak: In Europe

I'VE WRITTEN HERE about the books of Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist-historian who's produced an important sequence of studies of social history—books I think provide a great deal of objective, sympathetic, wise insight into the human condition as we find it today.

I've read a number of his books, all of course in English. There are a number remaining; if they're not translated soon I'm going to have to learn Dutch. (I append a list of his titles in Dutch, from the Dutch Wikipedia entry.)

I began reading Mak with Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), translated by Philipp Blom; a fascinating account of that city from its origins a thousand years ago to the complex, promising, troubled city it was toward the end of the 20th century. A "brief" but close inspection of a city the author loves, it also reveals much about the unique Dutch temperament, Calvinist but tolerant (particularly, a cynic might add, when there's a profit to be made). I'd love to spend a month or two in Amsterdam; I can't imagine doing it without that book at hand.

Next came a very different title, Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in the Late Twentieth Century (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), as translated by Ann Kelland. Mak's contemplation has moved here from the Dutch capital to a Fries backwater, a tiny town he knows well (he lives here) and appreciates for its opposite values to internationalism. The Dutch title, Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God went out of Jorwerd), suggests a lament on the secularization of contemporary society: but by "God" Mak means really "natural appropriateness."

Lament Jorwerd is, but the villain in the action is not some kind of Kierkegaardian atheism but contemporary bureaucratic/industrial order, combined with urbanization and the denaturalization of rural life today. Here too is a book with profound relevance to the American scene at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in areas like my own, Sonoma county California, where agriculture, terroir, and modern life-style collide.

In October I read In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), translated by Sam Garrett, truly an important book, crucial for an understanding of the century just past, and through that understanding a heightened awareness of the dangers yet to come in this century.

There are many reviews of the book on the internet: here; here ; and especially here , to begin with. The internet releases me from guilt at not reviewing the book myself, and I'm grateful: this is a book that deserves a studied presentation, and I have other things on my mind right now.

In case you don't feel moved to click on any of those links, though, and do feel moved to read a few paragraphs further, let me introduce you to the book. Mak spent 1999 crisscrossing Europe many times, researching, investigating, touring, and interviewing; and his interviews were with "important" people and ordinary folk, from the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm (a particularly memorable interview) to panhandlers in the street.

He then applied the results of these geographical divagations to a chronological retrospect of the century, beginning with the seeds of change in the waning days of colonial empire, proceeding to World War I and Versailles, to what we Americans call the Jazz Age and the Crash, Weimar and the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and the ambivalences of the nascent European Union in the aftermath of the failure of the Soviet Empire.

Much of this survey is pretty depressing, as Mak visits bunkers and madhouses and extermination camps. Much seems hopeless, as the failures of nerve during Hitler's ascendancy, the futility of resistance to Stalin and Ceaucescu, the weaknesses behind national pride in Mussolini's Italy seem to resonate with much we experience today in the United States.

But the entire panorama often settles into curiously hopeful moments, as in a dinner conversation with a Polish historian:
As the evening goes by, Krawczyk and I sink into a pleasant kind of melancholy. 'You people with your money. We're expected to accept whatever you people in the West say about us, but don't you ever wonder what we might have to offer? The assertiveness of the Poles, the curcumspection of the Czechs, the perseverance of the Hungarian dissidents, the dilemmas the East Germans have been faced with? Isn't that exactly what the West needs? Things like that? Courage, principles, experience?
You learn from this book the overwhelming extent to which the 20th century was devoted to organized murderous cruelty, assisted by amoral science and technology, financed by slavery, all perpetrated by perfectly civilized and cultured nations. But you also realize the transience of all that, the possibility of an enlightened society pausing, sorrowing, learning, adapting, and moving on.

In Europe was preceded by a book yet to be translated, De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century)—perhaps a similar book; I'm eager to find out; but about the Nineteenth Century, whose own shortcomings prepared those of the subject of In Europe.

But I'm even more eager to read Mak's most recent book, De goede stad (The good city/state). That promises optimism, for one quality entirely absent from Geert Mak is irony.

1992 - De engel van Amsterdam
1995 - Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam
1996 - Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd
1997 - Het stadspaleis
1998 - Het ontsnapte land (boekenweek-essay)
1999 - De eeuw van mijn vader
1999 - Ooggetuigen van de wereldgeschiedenis in meer dan honderd reportages (ingeleid en samengesteld door Geert Mak en René van Stipriaan)
2000 - De zomer van 1823 / Lopen met Van Lennep (met Marita Mathijsen)
2001 - De goede stad (oratie) (ISBN 9056291564)
2002 - De nachtmerrie van Steiner (samen met Felix Rottenberg) (ISBN 9072374061)
2004 - In Europa
2005 - Gedoemd tot kwetsbaarheid (ISBN 9045013827)
2005 - Nagekomen flessenpost (ISBN 9045015536)
2006 - Het eiland (ISBN 9085160693)
2007 - De brug (Boekenweekgeschenk) (ISBN 9789059650466)
2007 - De goede stad (ISBN 9789045000251)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

History of the 20th century (in 17 words)

BOOKS RECENTLY READ, and awaiting notes here:

Geert Mak: In Europe: travels through the twentieth century
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise: listening to the twentieth century
Norman Lewis: Naples '44
Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies

Hmmm: it was an eventful century, and studying it leads to insights into the present predicament, and possible ways of adjusting to it.

In the meantime, Lindsey says she heard today about a competition for novels to contain only twelve words. Schoenberg has already done it, I replied, in the form of a historical novel: but when I looked it up (H.H. Stuckenschmidt: Arnold Schoenberg: his life, world, and work (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977) I discovered it was five words over:
Life was so easy
suddenly hatred broke out
a grave situation was created
But life goes on.
Well, if fact, a little longer than that actually, for there are tempo indications after the last three lines: Presto quarter=72; Adagio; Rondo—for the notes were a sort of outline program to the Piano Concerto he was contemplating at the time (the end of 1942).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Camino Real

TO SAN FRANCISCO THE OTHER NIGHT, there to see, for the first time in just short of fifty years, Tennessee Williams's play Camino Real. This is not the Williams you know, the Williams of The Glass Menagerie, or The Rose Tattoo, or A Streetcar Named Desire. Those plays, however heightened their expression may be, are more or less realistic.

Camino Real is purely fantastic. In two acts divided into sixteen scenes, referred to by the play's on-stage commentator Gutman as "blocks," it depicts a time-travel collision of familiar characters—Don Quixote, Casanova, the lady of the Camellias, and the average-Joe Kilroy—stranded in a broken-down Spanish-language third-world provincial town, on a bleak plaza between the sleazy Siete Mares hotel-restaurant on one side and the flophouse Ritz Men Only upstage on the other, hoping for a seat on a flight that may or may not get them out of this Godforsaken place before Death, in the offstage menace of the Streetcleaners, hauls them off into Forgetfulness.

We were interested in seeing it because just short of fifty years ago I wrote incidental music for a production of the play at the Uinversity of California, Berkeley. I think this was done by the theater arts department of the school, though I can't be sure. A friend, Arlyn Christopherson, had seen an announcement in the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, to the effect that music was wanted for a student production of the play. I applied, was interviewed by the director—Robert Goldsby, who went on to greater things—and somehow persuaded him, or more likely was persuaded by him, to read the script, attend the blocking rehearsals, and come up with some music.

It's a long time ago, and the music is not at hand. There were several cues: a languorous 15/8 blues in g minor for saxophone and accompaniment and the Streetcleaners' strident take-offs on the Dies irae (scored for sopranino recorder, because the flutist didn't have a piccolo) are the only ones I recall.

Nor did I recall the play, apart from a couple of the characters. But Wednesday night at Actors' Theatre, in San Francisco, perhaps half the lines drifted through my mind just a fraction of a second before I heard them delivered on stage. It was an eerie experience, made eerier by my proximity to a dear old friend who I met through the experience, for he played flute (and sopranino recorder) in the band.

I wrote about all this in my memoir:
In any case I soon found myself cobbling together a series of musical vignettes for this production of Tennessee Williams’s early, experimental play Camino Real, an odd, vaguely Symbolist thing whose meaning eluded me entirely but whose magical mood lent itself to my imagination. I was to provide the orchestra as well as the music, so I kept the forces small: trumpet, violin, flute, bassoon, piano and drums. In Santa Rosa I had already improvised a moody, jazz-like blues in five-four time, heavily influenced by Carma’s beloved Music for Barefoot Ballerinas, and it was easy to adapt that to this new purpose. I wrote out a short instrumental introduction to the play, and peppered the action with a number of shrill parodies of the Dies irae, for Death was a prominent member of the cast.

It was fascinating to attend the early rehearsals, the readings and the blocking. I’d met, somehow, a pianist, Duncan Pierce, who was willing to play reductions of my score at the rehearsals; and through him I found a trumpeter, Phil Lesh, already a member of the musician’s union and therefore required to participate in this unpaid work under a pseudonym (he would later trade trumpet for bass guitar and help found The Grateful Dead). I don’t remember where the bassoonist came from. Duncan took on the percussion part as well, and even provided his own bongos.

Someone had told me that the flutist in the Oakland Symphony, Jean Zeiger, was willing to play new music for nothing, and I called on her, encouraged by the fact that she lived on North Street, across the street from the one childhood home I remembered fondly. But her schedule didn’t permit her to help, and she recommended a student, Kendall Allphin, who lived in a shabby apartment in a Victorian cottage down on University Avenue, next to the big lot, now empty, that had been a coal-and-feed store before the War, where Dad had sewn up burlap sacks for a living when I was born.

This recommendation was the most lasting and wonderful event associated with my first appearance as a composer, for Kendall became our closest friend. I spent hours at his apartment, with Lindsey and without her, and he spent hours at ours, almost always with a jug of cheap red wine that we bought in those days for seventy-five cents a gallon, supply your own jug. He was funny and smart, musical and well-read. He was a New Englander with a broad New England accent, and had flunked out of MIT and gone to the arty Reed College in Oregon, and had as many anecdotes to tell about his early college days as I did not have about mine.

He played passable flute, but could not play the piccolo, so he resorted to a sopranino recorder for those Dies irae cues. He was supporting himself, after a fashion, by giving recorder lessons, mostly to elderly wives of University faculty — a tiny but regular income that would later be passed on to me.
Kendall remains, of all this ragtag pit-band: a true friend, drinking buddy, arguist. We were witnesses at his wedding, a few years later; we dine together every New Year's Eve, we four, aging together against the odds.

And we all went last Wednesday to see Camino Real; perhaps we will every fifty years. The play makes more sense now than it did a half-century ago—more sense and less. Like so many other things—La Dolce Vita; surrealist poetry; women; symbolic logic—it is less mysterious, more stupid. Well, not stupid in every case, but deflated of its exoticism. And the streetcleaners are both more shrill and less, more physically present, in a sense, yet less menacing.

* * *

AN ARTICLE IN THE CURRENT issue of Preservation magazine, Anne Matthews's "How did this old place sound?", considers the sounds and silences of places from the past, and introduces to me the Japanese concept mono no aware, which I should have known but didn't. I looked it up at Language Hat, which I depend on for such things, and was directed to a post by Jonathon Delacour, whose blog is clearly one to be read.

I'm not sure Camino Real, or, more precisely, seeing it once again after nearly half a century, represented mono no aware for me, or more precisely awakened that emotion in me. It certainly isn't the emotional content Tennessee Williams meant the play to arouse, I'm sure of that; there's too much fight in it for that—it's more like Williams's dramatization of the mood of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," whose other recurring line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light", has always seemed undignified to me; undignified and ungrateful. And, come to think of it, perhaps this was also part of Williams's take on Thomas; and perhaps part of the mysterious power of Camino Real comes from the tension of that ambivalence.

Whatever the source of the mystery, a great deal of its expression, I realize now, especially having just read Anne Matthews's article, is in the silences between the sounds of Williams's poetic dialogue. The poetry is often intentionally bathetic: "Do you call that a kiss?" "I call it the ghost of a kiss: it will have to do." But the lines themselves, however plain and commonplace they are, rise beyond their everyday prose because of the silences and the rhythms of the dialogue in which they're set. Camino Real is a very musical play, even without the music I wrote for it so long ago—music no one asked me to supply to this production, bien entendu.

Actor's Theatre did a good job of the piece, barring a bit of overplaying here and there among the minor characters. The production, like the play, gains as one's memory reconsiders it. It's worth seeing: details here.


Originally published, in a slightly different form, in The Open Hand Celebration Cookbook (New York: Pocket Books, 1991)

FOR NEARLY FIFTEEN YEARS we made a cassoulet once a year or so to with the same group of cassoulet aficionados each time, usually in February or so. It was a ritual for us , starting with making the goose stock from the holiday goose and continuing until ground hog day or later with the week before being an intense time of making goose or duck confit, sometimes making the sausages, making more stock, soaking beans, and gathering all the bits and pieces that are needed. We always assembled and baked the cassoulets the day before we served them and reheated them the day of our dinner because they tasted better the second day.

For the dinner itself we usually started with Champagne and oysters on the half shell, then the cassoulet with good bread, a few pickled sour cherries, and a bottle or two of Bandol. A green salad comes afterward and we usually have some perfect tangerines for dessert.

Like Bouillabaisse, Cassoulet is one of those dishes that you can make year after year, always trying to find the perfect version. We have consulted many sources. We ended up always making something a little different and very good, but always leaving room for even greater perfection next time. And it's always fun for everyone involved.

This is how we did it:


Make your goose stock: we use the carcass of the holiday goose, and perhaps another goose or two whose breast, legs and wings have gone into a confit for the cassoulet. Other poultry can be used as well, but goose is best. Make the stock in the usual way, with onion, bay leaf, thyme and pepper but no salt, and use good water. Strained and mostly degreased, the stock can be frozen, or be held in the refrigerator for several weeks, protected by the layer of goose-fat that will rise to the top of the container. For this recipe you will need about eight quarts of stock.


1: Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate overnight in a covered dish:
3 lb. pork loin, cubed
4 pigs feet, split
3 lb. pork skin, rolled and tied


2: Soak in water to cover:
8 lb. Small White or Great Northern beans

3: Make a ragout of the pork listed under (1) above and the following:
1 lb. sweet or blanched pork belly, or pancetta, diced (not salt pork unless well blanched)
1 chopped onion
12 oz. ham, diced
2 T. tomato purée
1 qt. goose stock
half a glass of white wine
bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaf and celery, tied in a bundle)
6 cloves
2 heads garlic
Begin by browning the pork in 2 or 3 T goose fat. Add the onion and ham and cook them until soft; then add the tomato; then the remaining ingredients. Other poultry stock can be used in place of (or to extend) goose stock. One fine year we had dozens of pigeon heads and feet for the stock.

4: Salt the remaining stock to taste, and bring it to the simmer on top of the stove. Drain the beans; then cover with the stock and simmer until done.
We always simmer them in stock, usually goose (see above). Reserve any unused stock to moisten the cassoulets as they bake (see steps 11 and 12 below).

5: Cook (in simmering water) for half an hour, then add to the ragout:
2-1/2 lb. sausage (andouillettes, saucissons de campagne, garlic sausage — take your choice. Homemade sausage will be best.)

6: Let the ragout simmer for quite a while, until the meat is tender and the flavors are well combined; then refrigerate, covered, overnight.


7: Bring to room temperature:
20 pieces confit.
We use one goose and one duck, making ten pieces each (wings, legs, thighs, and four breast quarters).

8: Purée, then add to the ragout which you have brought back to a simmer:
8 oz. uncooked pork fat
12 cloves uncooked garlic
Use a blender or food processor for this step.

9: Assemble the cassoulets in deep casseroles in the following order:
pork skin (removed from ragout, flattened, and cut to fit bottom of pots; fat side down)
pigs feet (the meat only)
pork loin
sausages (cut in pieces)
any remaining meat

10: Last, boil briefly until stiff, then broil on one side only, then add, uncooked side up, to top of casseroles:
4-1/2 lb. sausage (Toulouse-style by preference)

11: Fill the casseroles almost to the top with stock, but leave a layer of beans at the very top; cover them with a sprinkling of bread crumbs. The casserole should be just covered with them. The finished texture is improved by dribbling a bit of warm goose fat on them.

12: Bake the cassoulets, uncovered, in a slow oven, for two hours or so, until flavors are well combined and sausages are done, at 250-300°. It doesn't seem to matter much how long the cassoulet stays in the oven once the sausage is cooked — the beans won't cook further once they have cooled after their first simmering in the stock. Do add more stock as necessary to keep the liquid level just under the crumbs. We usually punch the crumbs down into the cassoulets once during the baking, sprinkling a few more crumbs over to replace them, and dribbling a little more goose fat over them.

13: Refrigerate the casseroles, covered, until needed.


14: Bring the cassoulet back to about 300° in a slow oven.
Add stock again if there is not enough liquid below the crumbs.
Serve with a sprinkle of walnut oil. Precede with oysters, all agree; follow with a green salad; accompany with a light red or rosé wine — we prefer Bandol red.

The pork-fat-garlic purée touch, reported only by Paula Wolfert, is inspired; it thickens, binds and tenderizes the ragout.
Cassoulet improves upon standing. It should be assembled and cooked the day before eating. We generally make a lot of cassoulets at once, since it's a full day's work.
The choice of pot is extremely important. It may be the most significant variable in the entire operation. Shallow pots won't work at all; those too deep don't allow proper cooking or serving of the mixture. We prefer traditional terra-cotta poêles; ours measure 2 and 3 quarts.

Paulette Wolfert: The Cooking of Southwest France, pp. 238-240. Pierette Lejanou's recipe, not the one with fava beans — though that sounds wonderful.
Simone Beck et al.: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1, pp. 399-404.
Jane Grigson: The Art of Charcuterie, pp. 168-171.
Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking, pp. 385-390. The Colombié recipe, said to be authentic, but lacking the Toulouse sausage! The "menagère" recipe, which omits confit, has also been consulted.
__________: French Country Food, pp. 93-95.
__________: The Book of Mediterranean Food, pp. 110-112.
Samuel Narcissa and Narcisse Chamberlain: The Flavor of France, vol. 2, p. 65.
Robert Courtine: The 100 Glories of French Cooking, p. 120.
Curnonsky: Recettes des Provinces de France, p. 222.