Saturday, June 30, 2007

Back to the books

Book conversation (among other matters) with two friends led me to look at recent reading notes in the PDA, among which this:

42 (?) affection: = Epicurus’s “inclination”
45 Charyoff!
51 The problem of freedom (cf 72ff)
55, 1st paragraph!
77, sci. freedom overrides demurral (sust. vs. immediate gratification)
79, last paragraphs
79-80 prurience has > e.g. WB’s furtiveness
83, ¶ 1: “flip-flopping” : freedom requires complexity. (this > messiness. Freedom is messy; order is totalitarian.)
Pound: 33 top

94, center
96 unexplainable knowledge
98, last ¶
(Davenport, p 103)
111 critical judgment [implications of social & behavioral criticism]
113 “an expl. is a bucket, not a well.” [much art these days -- minimalist, i.e. -- is explainable.]
115 “the increase of art accounts for the increase of perception.” [so we accelerate because we know more.]

CS: I have no idea what the book was, so you see how useful it is to take reading notes...
EC: You should just publish it; it's a poem.

Now, though, on second reading—and with the help of a Google search for "an explanation is a bucket, not a well"—I see I was reading something of Wendell Berry's. And another quick search in the PDA turns it up: Life is a Miracle (Counterpoint Press, 2001). (Lots of reviews online.) But what the devil Davenport does the note refer to?

Elliott always awakens my bookishness, which sleeps far more than I like these days. In Portland I picked up two little books from Giovanna's wonderful Tower of Books to Read: Robinson, Dave, with Chris Garratt: Introducing Ethics(Totem Books, 2001, ISBN: 9781840460773). Not a serious examination of its subject, sniffs the Library Journal in a review I found on the Amazon website; but it left me with a few notes, reminding me especially that
Postmodernism has accelerated our epistemological crisis. It is difficult now to be confident about the certainty of any human knowledge, especially knowledge about human beings themselves.
And with this I was reading Beard, Mary, with John B. Henderson: Classics: a very short introduction (ISBN: 9780192853851; Oxford University Press, 2000), which closes with
The poet finds modern culture littered with classical ruins, fragments, and jumble. He knows, too, that he is programmed to find this; and he understands that the same is true for every educated person in the West who knows that it is only the backdrop of their cultural past that can provide a frame within which they can situate and recognize themselves.
I know, I know; these are hardly bold new insights. I like their chance encounter, though, by way of two little everyman's vademecums; these were the kind of books that kept the masses in touch with Ideas when I was a child, before mid-20th-century; it's nice to think there's room for such again, and that I can still profit from them, getting toward 70 years later.

And now? I've just started W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, because there it was second-hand and Austerlitz, which Rolando says I simply MUST read, was not there. Moe's Books also provided a fine slipcased two-volume edition of The Tale of Genji in the Royall Tyler translation; I hope it is a good one; perhaps I'll compare it to the others while reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eating and Playgoing in Ashland

tuna-bean salad, Pasta Piatti, Ashland

OUR ANNUAL WEEK IN ASHLAND, with three other couples, eating, going to plays, talking:

Monday, June 18: dinner at Pasta Piatti, an okay Italian, advantageously located on the town's main street, around the corner from the house we rent every year. Here I had a tuna-canneloni salad (the tuna nicely grilled but in two large slabs; deficient in chopped onion) and spaghetti agliiolio. The latter was off the menu: all the pasta courses were too complicated for the evening, but the waiter whispered that he'd give me a child's plate, enlarged and altered to my order. Nice guy!

Tuesday: Toast from that three-kilo boule from Ken's Bakery, and again, but with oil and salt, for lunch. Dinner at Tabu, a "nuevo latino" joint we've liked in the past. A Caesar salad lacking its raw egg, then four nice lamb chops perched on a salad.

Wednesday: dinner at home, because the Tuesday morning farm market provided us with two beautiful fresh enormous porcini. These we chopped and sautéed with chopped shallots (and a few extra ordinary mushrooms) and then tossed with penne. Delicious!

Thursday: a ribeye steak, my first in months, at Amuse Restaurant. We ate here seven years ago when it had just opened; hadn't been back—our recollection having been that it was too ambitious for itself. On second visit our opinion is changed: it's comfortable, with a good menu and an interesting wine list. Expensive, for Ashland, but worth it. The steak was big (12 ounces) but lean (grass-fed) and nicely grilled, with a careful, understated sauce.

Friday: Pizza ordered in from Pasta Piatti (see above).

Saturday: New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro! If there are One Hundred Great Recipes, there are Ten Great Restaurants. New Sammy's is clearly one of them. No website, but plenty of online blogtivity. Surprise: there is a new entry and parking lot: in a few weeks this will apparently become a wine bistrot, possibly open for lunch. Inside, the dining room is reassuringly familiar.

What I had: for white wine, a Provençal white from the Coteaux Varois, a Vermentino called in France "Ronne," soft, delicate, flowery, but with power. Amuse-guele: a small triangle of rye bread with the softest imaginable duck foie gras, a tiny bit of black mustard on it, a home-made griotte (sour cherry pickled in tarragon vinegar) alongside.

First course: noodles (tagliarini, in fact), with asparagus, smoked ham, and tarragon, in buttery broth. Well: when we arrived we greeted Vern, then stepped into the kitchen to say hello to Charlene, to find that she'd just stepped out the back kitchen door toward the garden to pick some tarragon. Let me explain: behind New Sammy's there's a garden; here Vern and Charlene grow their herbs and vegetables—

Second: braised shortribs with spinach, shiitakes, orzo, a green-garlic flan centered in the presentation, rich reduction sauce. Incredibly rich and unctuous; I ate two of the three ribs, sent the other round the table. And here a fine red, Morgon, 2005 as I believe. No dessert, but the others had delicioius things.

What more to say of Sammy's? The garden; the rooms; the feeling of comradeship...

Sunday: dinner at Peerless. It's changed since last we were here, when it was a high-internet presence, organic-oriented, fancy-menu, sustainably thoughtful but not entirely persuasive place which, once it had you on its e-mail list, let you go with protest. Things have relaxed a bit, and I had the best Martini in years here. I asked for it in my usual way: "Cheap gin, good vermouth, three to one, olives, up. Cold." It came not quite cold but correct in every other respect, and when I asked, I was told that the vermouth was Vya. Perhaps so. And later, they sent little tastes of the stuff staight, the dry and the sweet. The sweet was not to my taste, but the dry was much like Boissière: flowery, dry, clear, lacking any bitter chemical flavor.

Afterward, a salad of basil, not quite splendid tomatoes (it's only late June), and unpersuasive "Mozzarella," and then a very good hamburger, rare, on a bun, no distractions. Couldn't quite finish it, but it was good.

OH YES: THE PLAYS. That's why we're here, after all. I've been remiss in reviews from the Eastside View in recent months, because I'm ambivalent about the entire enterprise. So is Ashland: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival used to collect them all into scrapbooks for season subscribers to read in the Members' Lounge, but last year they stopped doing that, apparently at the request of the actors.

After all, the reviewer sees a specific performance, which may have little to do with the one the subscriber sees a week or a month or six months later. The art of reviewing consists among other things of sharing one's individual responses to a unique event with an unspecified number of unseen readers. (Listeners, if you're doing it on the radio; viewers, etc. ...)

The usefulness of reviews therefore lies in the degree to which one knows the reviewer's bias, consistency, knowledge, awareness, and so on. And so reviewing, if it's to be used with any responsibility, requires the reader to spend as much time on reviews as on the material under review. Another step in the direction of quanitities of trivia piling on, and concealing, scattered events. To hell with it. But for the record:

On the Razzle (Stoppard): Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. The play opened Feb. 18 and closes Oct. 28: imagine how tight the ensemble is! I've heard that at each performance someone throws in some new bit, just to keep everyone on toe. Perhaps. It's unusual Stoppard: pure farce, little intellectual matter. You may know the story as The Merchant of Yonkers, which we saw a season or two ago in Glendale at Noise Within; or as The Matchmaker, or Hello Dolly! even. No matter: this is fresh as paint and funny as hell, and the costumes are fabulous, and it even looks like Vienna. We gotta go back.

The Tempest (Shakespeare): Dangerous, to repeat this show so soon after Penny Mitropoulos's magnificent production last year. That's what I was thinking until just now, when I Googled it, and found that was seven years ago! That's how beautiful and powerful that production was, and one of the "problems" about Ashland is that it has to live with its past successes. Libby Appel has been Artistic Director of the festival for six or eight years, and is leaving, and has directed this as a sort of valediction: unfortunately, as staged in the outdoor theater, it seems to me to have three problems. The Prospero-Ariel-Caliban triangle is never really attended to. Prospero himself seems indeterminate (at the end, for example, he is neither frail nor majestic, but vague). And the musical contribution, especially a long masque with two interpolated sonnets sung by half-nudes who swing upside-down from ropes, is intrusive, irrelevant, and long. Too bad: a magnificent play flawed, though not fatally, in the production.

The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare): This went better, with fine costumes and blocking (again, outdoors), clear delivery, good balance between major and ancillary characters, fond and funny local (Padua) color. I'd see it again.

Tracy's Tiger (committee/Saroyan): Some liked it. Not me. Dated, diffuse, symbol-ridden, lightweight. A divertissement has its place, and I don't mind having seen it, but I don't think it'll last.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare): A very seriously flawed production, with the elder generation costumed and behaving like Renaissance Italians, the younger one (R & J and their various cousins) like people of our own time, that is the beginning of the 21st century. This made for various problems, as when party music morphed from lute-and-recorder to hip-hop; or when a crime-scene yellow-plastic-police-action ribbon fenced off Mercutio's murder scene.

The cast was wonderful, none better than Mercutio, in fact. But the play was damaged by this "concept," and I wouldn't go back.

Gem of the Ocean (Wilson): The first play in August Wilson's cycle of ten vignetting the African-American experience through the 20th century (though the next-last to be written), this struck all of us as profound, moving, and beautiful. Some found it emotionally draining: to me, it was serene and classical in spite of the injustices and pain it presents. "Live right, die right" and "This is a house of peace" are the two refrains. A fabulous physical production and a perfect cast, with the best use of music I've heard at OSF.

Rabbit Hole (Lindsay-Abaire): we decided later, our friends and us, that people who have lost children, whether to accident, disease, or birth defects, have something in common that people who have not do not. The play is about the grief a suburban family feels after the accidental death of a child, and it would be churlish to impose my subjective response to the play on my readers. A woman's play, perhaps. Not for me.

The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov): The second Cherry Orchard we've seen in the last few years (the other was at Noise Within), this one minimizes sentiment in favor of realism and therefore humor. You know every one of these characters; here, you can enjoy them and then say goodbye at curtain time. The audience was hanging on each line; the cast treasured each character. What can you say: if you like Chekhov, this is truly outstanding; if you don't, what are you doing here?

As You Like It (Shakespeare): Hooray: the week ended on an upbeat. The play started under slight clouds—would it work to set it in Depression America?—but grew and flew and soared from there on, leaving me with tears in my eyes at the beauty and truth and love of the piece. Yes yes yes.

In a few weeks we have to come back for the two plays that haven't yet opened: Tartuffe and the new Distracted. If we can manage it, I'll see On the Razzle, Gem of the Ocean, Cherry Orchard,, and As You Like It again.

So: Four unqualified successes. Two new plays not to my taste but effective and successful to other sorts of audiences. Two or three other plays flawed, one seriously in my opinion, to the extent that I'd advise caution with them.

Those are very good odds indeed, and we'll be back next year.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Eating in Portland

Fried egg and greens, Toro Bravo

NINE DAYS IN PORTLAND but only four restaurants and two bakeries to report—and that in a cursory manner, if you don't mind.

June 9: after Simon's graduation we all went to Lovely Hula Hands (4057 N Mississippi; 503.445.9910; tu-su 5-10; no reservations accepted)—nine of us, across three generations, all gathered at a big table in a comfortable storefront sort of dining room out on trendy but by no means yuppified North Mississip'.

And here I had the best Spaghetti Carbonara I've had this side of Rome. The pasta was perfectly cooked; the pancetta just present enough; the egg exactly the right consistency. Cooked right, this has to be one of the all-time classic Hundred Best Recipes. Here it is cooked right.

June 10: Party all afternoon: cake and cookies and such. Not the best way to nourish yourself, but it's not every year you can celebrate a family high-school graduation. That evening, pizza ordered in from someplace near, eaten in front of the television set. Cubs won.

June 11: Giovanna and Pavel having gone out for the evening, we took the kids to Toro Bravo (120 NE Russell St.; (503) 281-4464; Tue – Thu, Sun: 5-10, Fr-Sat5– midnight, M closed.). The restaurant's website is under construction, but you can read about the place in an online review.

(This website, by the way, is a promising resource for Portland diners, with 75 or 80 restaurant menus at your disposal, and reviews gathering seemingly endless chains of comments. I'm bookmarking it in my Travel folder.)

Here we opened with pinchos, small appetizer dishes: toasted almonds with sea salt; boquerones in what would be called saor in Venice; and bread with butter and olive oil, along with a glass of white. We went on to tapas: "Singing Pig Greens" (some kind of bitter leafy green) with grilled asparagus, chopped eggs and hazelnuts; salt cod Fritters with aioli; more boquerones with toasted bread and piperade; patatas bravas; soft polenta with red and green salsas; tortilla española (which I only now realize is what Dad attempted, sixty years ago, with his "Spanish omelets"); a lamb chop; and memory fails to recall what-all else.

And I have to disagree with many observations on the website above referred to when it comes to desserts. We had panna cotta which I think must be allowed into the Spanish repertoire, and it was first-rate. We had the olive-oil cake and I liked it very much; try the one in Lindsey's book to get an approximation. Simon had the cheese plate; and we all shared ice cream in sherry, a much nicer thing than you miight think and a perfectly appropriate dessert in a tapas joint.

Toro Bravo is barely open, and it's very popular. But it is neither horribly expensive nor horribly loud; just another fine neighborhood destination. Lucky Portlanders.

June 12: dinner at home: pasta dressed with anchovies and olive oil and black pepper. That Hundred Best list will have to be kept in a bottomless box.

June 13: dinner with two other couples at Castagna (1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd; (503) 231-7373; W-Sa 5:30 on). Here Lindsey and I began with zuppa primavera: broth with asparagus, cardoon, peas, spring onion, lardo, olive oil and parmesan cheeese; she went on to sautéed sea scallops with porcini and fennel; I to lamb chops Milanese with an artichoke, fava bean and spring onion salad. "Milanese" here means battered, breaded, and fried, a curious treatment you might think for lamb chops, but delicious.

Desserts? Hazelnut-praline semifreddo with chocolate sauce; dark chocolate, caramel and cashew tart with rum mousseline. State of the art.

June 14: Braised chard and chickpeas at home, then out for desserts at Blue Hour (250 NW 13th Ave.; 503-226-3394; lunch M-F; brunch Su; dinner 4:30-on). Why? Because the new pastry chef, Jehnee Raines, just moved up from Berkeley, where she'd been at Chez Panisse for a while, and she invited us.

We had buttermilk panna cotta with poached rhubarb and cornmeal shortbread ; a triangular passion fruit and strawberry bombe/semifreddo with strawberries; caramel and deep chocolate tartletwith espresso ice cream; jasmine tea sherbet with pearl tapioca and huckleberry coulis; various cookies and candies; and an affogato with very delicately flavored cinnamon ice cream. With them, a bottle of very lightly sparkling moscato; and with the tartlet, as deep and succulent a dessert as I've had in years, Pavel and I shared a glass of Maker's Mark.

I don't often apply the word "decadent" to the act of eating, but I suppose one can make exceptions. Jehnee is a fine pastry chef, and each of these desserts, with their unique plays on the standard repertoire, was well executed, unblemished, memorable.

June 15: Dinner at home: a beautiful vitello rotellino bought at Pastaworks on Hawthorne Street. Veal flank, I imagine, rolled with pancetta; lots of herb flavor; deep meat flavor. Excellent.

June 16: A light supper at home: risotto. Another Hundred Best.

June 17: Lunch of sorts, not that we needed it, in a wonderful little place called The Busy Corner (4927 SE 41st Ave,; (503) 777-5101; 7am-7pm daily, closed 2-4pm for siesta; Friday dinner by reservation only, at 7:30pm). No website; online review here. What a sweet spot: a corner grocery store in a residential neighborhood, turned into a café-lunchcounter-beerandwinebar, with a few provisions still in place—baskets of potatoes and little cabbages and onions; shelves of olive oils and mustards and soups.

Provender is carefully chosen here. The tap beer is the Italian Moretti, a favorite of mine; among the oils was a liter of brass-green oil from the West Bank. This is a workingclass hangout, and if I lived within twenty blocks I'd be there most days.

Then supper at home: sausages and potato salad, for which I made the mayonnaise (a two-yolk one).

IN BETWEEN ALL THESE PLACES we made the usual trips to cafés and bakeries. My love affair with Portland coffees has cooled since Starbucks's purchase and susequent closure of Torrefazione: Ristretto is too bitter; Stumptown too harsh. The neighborhood Torrefazione has been reborn, after a few months as an empty shop, as Segafredo Zanetti Espresso, and it's pleasant enough, and the coffee is decent—not as bland as Illy, though perhaps not quite as personable as Lavazza.

But the bakeries! We get our bread and gibassiers at Pearl; and our cannelés and bread at Ken's. Any city could do perfectly well with just one of these establishments; Portland has both.

Pearl opened in 1997, quickly establishing itself as a major bakery anywhere. This was a little late in the Bread Revolution, which began in my consciousness with Acme in Berkeley and Gayle's in Capitola—bakeries deliberately trying to bring Paris's Poilâne-style levain to the United States. In Portland we'd limped by with earlier Revolutionaries, some still extant: Grand Central and Marsee's are still in business, I think. Pearl swept the aside, as far as we're concerned.

Bakeries are of course individual tastes. Any town no matter how small needs at least two, just as it needs at least two cafés, and for the same reason: competition discourages complacency. Then the town divides between the two. For positive reasons of taste and interest (and, let's face it, economy) or for negative ones like lack of discernment or simple proximity, townspeople gravitate to one or the other. One will always be blander, to my taste; the other subtler.

To make things more interesting yet, each bakery may develop its own little specialty not to be found at the other. This is why we buy gibassiers at Pearl: Ken does not make them. They are little cakes, I suppose, flavored with orange-flower water and anise and very discreet amounts of candied orange peel and dusted with granulated sugar; and they always take me to Nice when I bite into one. They are delicious with tea.

Ken's Artisan Bakery (338 NW 21st Avenue/Flanders; 503.248.2202) came later, maybe three or four years ago. I ran into the owner on Monday when I stopped by for a three-kg boule to bring down here to Ashland, and we had a short conversation. I admire him; you can see why by reading his thoughts On Tinkering and Repetition. His bread is, I think, together with Steve Sullivan's at Acme, the best there is in the United States, unless Joe Ortiz himself is manning the bread oven at Gayle's. (Bread is a living creature and responds to the zen-mind as well as the hand of its maker.)

Cannalés are—well, what are they? Something like popovers, long cooked ones, crisp on the outside, soft inside. They get their name, I suppose, from their method of manufacture: they rise or extrudee or are channeled (canalized) from small individual molds. Lindsey, who should know, says they're hard to make. Jean-Pierre Moullé, one of the co-chefs downstairs at Chez Panisse, always wanted her to make them; they're perhaps a Normand specialty. They are delicious and I know of no other place to buy them.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Giraffe riding bicycle, Portland, June 2007

PORTLAND ALWAYS THROWS something unexpected at you. After having spent so many years in Berkeley, this is something we appreciate, Lindsey and I. The unexpected doesn't seem to materialize in Berkeley any more, on our frequent visits there; perhaps we're simply inured to it there; more likely Berkeley has in fact settled into a sort of bourgeois complacency in all its classes, from the homeless to the yuppie. But Portland...

I've often though that if I had to settle in an American city I'd choose Portland, and not only because Giovanna and her family are there. Staying with them, in a bungalow under the heavy trees on Northwest Eighth Street, daily life is calm and friendly; the neighbors are friendly and conversational; a favorite barber shop, the post office, an interesting used book outlet run by the library, a Macintosh specialist, and decent cafés are within easy walking distance.

If we want to go further afield, a ten-minute walk takes us to the free lightrail trip across the Willamette to downtown Portland; a free streetcar takes us further into the new neighborhoods to the north. These free zones aren't huge, it must be admitted; but they break up your walks, give you a rest at the end of the day, and offer protection if it's raining. But it isn't raining, in general, not on our visits—I don't know why that is. Today, like yesterday and the day before, is cool and breezy, its sunlight filtered through high hazy clouds.

We're here primarily to visit, and it's been a special visit, with two commencement ceremonies. Simon, nearly 18, has graduated from high school; Francesca, 14, is entering high school. When I answered the barber yesterday, who'd asked what schools they went to, Boy, the barber said, They sure know how to pick their schools. And indeed we are impressed, Lindsey and I, with these schools—nearly as much as we are with the kids themselves.

Simon's been going to Trillium Charter School, a twelve-year school graduating thirteen students this year. The ceremony was last Saturday afternoon—we arrived just in time, having driven from Grants Pass—and it was memorable. Held in the flag-draped Grand Ballroom of Norse Hall—who knew Faroe Islands had their own flag?—and featuring the school drumming ensemble, which particularly interested us—since Simon is an enthusiastic member. (That's Simon losing his hat in the blurry video I just uploaded to YouTube).

West African drumming, ultimate Frisbee, modular mathematics: those seem to have been Simon's curricular enthusiasms this last semester. On the side he's been busy composing: I wrote about in my previous post here a couple of weeks ago. Alas, the quintet for piano and strings he'd written to be played during graduation exercises wasn't performed; one of the musicians couldn't make the date. Simon took this in stride. What a graceful, good-hearted young man!

A couple of days later it was Franny's turn. She was one of fifty "graduates"—I still can't get used to hearing that word applied to eight-graders, but maturation is clearly no longer on the schedule I knew fifty-odd years ago. Her school is bigger, and a standard public school, not a charter school. But Metropolitan Learning Center is no ordinary school: one of the earliest public "alternative" schools, it encourages a communitarian attitude among its students similar to that we noticed at Trillium.

Here the ceremonies began with another unusual band—eight or ten marimbas, from small trebles to a very deep niine- or ten-key bass, played by kids in all sizes, and played well. Then came the introductions, the teacher appreciations, the certificate awards—Fran being voted "most likely to appear on Saturday Night Live," and it wouldn't surprise any of us if it were to happen: she's pretty funny.

The march of the graduates was not "Pomp and Circumstance," or even the Iolanthe march I recall from my own graduation back in 'Fifty-Two. Instead, the music teacher who'd presided over the marimbas stepped in from the outside corridor, along with another guy on trombone, and they played a tailgate New Orleans-inspired stroll of their own, counterpointing the banter between teachers and students on stage.

* * *

We've been eating at a few Portland spots, in between watching generally satisfactory Cubs games on television, and dipping into the always fascinating books GIovanna and Pavel keep stashed in various corners of the house. But those reports will have to wait another day.