Archive for November, 2007

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

November 28, 2007

I’m planning to write a lot of book reviews in this blog — of any kind of book that touches me. This one did. It also had me wired all the way through. And what better subject to mull over, the week after Thanksgiving, than how to make good food… out of pig snouts, calves’ cheeks, steamed cockles and o-toro.

Tony Bourdain travels, often to places hard to reach unless you live there, and eats damn near everything, and writes about it. And gets filmed. One of the many remarkable things about this book is that after the first chapter I am decidedly curious to try pig snout, and pigs’ feet, and all of the parts of the pig most cultures turn into festival dinners while Americans throw them away. He describes them with such uninhibited gusto.

He loves these parts because they taste good. People who make one pig last a winter, and eat the innards as a matter of course, have spent centuries finding out how to get the best use out of them. But more than that, he respects what he eats, and the people who cook it, because they work hard; they pick their ingredients fresh; and they waste next to nothing.



Between Places

November 15, 2007

My friend Rachel at Velveteen Rabbi has just introduced me to a weekly poetry site, Totally Optional Prompts. They post a prompt every Saturday, and poets respond on Thursdays. The prompt for this week is “Place”. Clearly, it matters to me… and now more than ever, while I don’t belong entirely to the place I live in. So here’s a thought.

In the mountains

I am at home on your limestone,
looking over one blue hill after another.
Falling leaves clear distance,
a blazon of red oak — I am here!
I am too tired to think
past the last of this season’s corn.

I am a guest seeking work,
and I love you,
your weathered wood,
your root stocks.

You call me back from an inlet
where I have written
so many strokes and long held
meetings of eyes.

From here I can see
I always choose clean heights.
Yet must you leave me
exposed and longing
exhilarated alone?

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

November 12, 2007

I wasn’t in Portugal — but I have seen a freshly dead pig. So has Tony Bourdain, it turns out. I’m reading A Cook’s Tour. When I’m finished, I’ll write a kicked back, going over the whole of it review, but right now, I’m struck with the opening. For the first time, at a family get-together on his boss’s farm, he watches his dinner die.

He slows down for it. If you’ve ever seen or read Tony, you know he delights in innards, butcher’s blocks and adrenaline. Here’s a guy who once tore headlong down a mined jungle road toward a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. He can anatomize a pig as easily as peeling a carrot. And yet a jovial working day on a Portugese farm knocks the sarcasm out of him.

He’s just kicked off the pilgrimage, and he’s in the hazy morningtime, still blinking around at the grass and shingles and beams and mountains that are impossibly not on the same ground he stood on yesterday. Hot soup sets him dreaming. Two locals gear up with a trestle and a knife and some of last season’s homemade wine (probably in an old milk jug). They wrestle with the pig as their wives wrestle with the stove.


This “all” feeling

November 6, 2007

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.


Lay of the Land

November 3, 2007

The Kenyon Review blog posted yesterday a challenge from W. H. Auden to writers of criticism and evaluation: to describe our ideals, so that readers can judge our judgments. In this journal, I plan to talk about books I like and why I like them, about writing and conversation, about the places I walk and the people I meet in them, about whims and facts and stories that are new to me — and I invite you to evaluate it.

Auden describes his ideal place in a list. Here are my answers to his categories.

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate.