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Braised fennel, Fenouil braisé

Date: Wed, Nov 20, 2013




If we wanted to turn a bit saccharine we might call this "Magic on a plate." For it seems that, once upon a time, the ancient Greeks considered fennel holy. Inside the hollow stalk of Foeniculum vulgare -- literally meaning something like 'common hay' -- Prometheus hid the fire he stole for man from the gods; and the plant entire was particularly holy when it came to strange, fearsome rituals in honor of the wine god Dionysus. These are his four months, you know, November, December, January, and February, the two months of winter on either side of the winter solstice. "A third of the whole year was held sacred to him; the four winter months were the months of Dionysus," Walter Pater says in Greek Studies -- a Series of Essays (1910). Perhaps it's natural we want wine to warm us then. A fennel stalk twined with ivy and topped with a pine cone constituted a "thyrsus," which the god's women worshipers brandished when they retreated to the mountains to dance, hunt, and tear animals -- and men -- to pieces whole and alive. See The Bacchae, author Euripides, ca. 450 B.C.

A dish of fennel, a type of F. vulgare developed in Italy in the 1700s and called Florence fennel, might be nice for Thanksgiving, perhaps? -- provided one serves it minus the whole tearing-men-alive part. Here we eat the fleshy bulb at the base of the long, feathery-tipped, parsely-resembling herb. You will like the recipe all the more if you are fond of fennel's characteristic faintly licorice taste. That word comes from Middle English licorys, via the old French licorece and the Latin liquiritia. See "liquor." (And why ever not?) Ultimately we recall the Greek glycys-rhiza, meaning sweet root.

Frankly I am not. Fond of licorice, I mean. The recipe is from Richard Olney's Simple French Food, 1974. In the photo above, the chopped clear-whitish pieces are fennel, the large red-tinged wedges are whole garlic.

Richard Olney's Braised Fennel, Fenouil Braisé

2 pounds tender bulb fennel
10 or 12 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup olive oil
salt
1/2 cup water
pepper

Remove outer stalks from fennel bulbs, pull out the strings from those now at the surface of the bulb, slit each bulb in two, and put, dry, along with the garlic cloves, to cook in the olive oil in a skillet big enough to hold them side by side.

Salt them, turn occasionally over a period of about 30 minutes until all are browned lightly, pour in the water, bring to a boil, and cook over very low heat, tightly covered and barely simmering, for about 1 hour. "The fennel halves should be meltingly soft while still holding their shape and the water should have reduced with the caramelized material from the pan to a rich, deep brown syrup that coats the vegetables like a light sauce. The garlic cloves will be appreciated by some in themselves, but they will have done their delicate work for all in caressing ever so slightly the fennel and its juice. Pepper. [That's an instruction.]"

I should say so.

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2008 Match Book tempranillo, Dunnigan Hills

Date: Sun, Nov 17, 2013

This is one of those wines that make you realize, from your first putting your nose over the rim, that the aroma and taste of a few ounces of red grape juice in a clear glass can be very wonderful. Enclosed please find Match Book tempranillo, fragrant with spices and cola, plum skins and cedar. It makes one want to tell a story.



But then, a story about what? Heaven knows. Above, the very early dawn softly lights up the bottle in the window. I snap photos while coffee percolates. I could tell, I suppose, a story about my friend who has suffered a family tragedy abroad, and who now copes at secondhand -- his daughter is navigating the legal system -- with gruesome police reports, notary publics' fees, passport problems, and the copying of eight-hundred-page documents proving and re-proving one's relationship to, and therefore one's right to inherit the property of, the deceased. Because birth certificates can be so easily faked, you see. The copyist wanted a tip for working late.

Stories. Now after we discussed "Queen of the Night beer marketing" and sopranos recently, I ventured forth to my local public library and tried to borrow some good, or even firmly acceptable, biography of Maria Callas. Nothing doing. The library hasn't got one. (What kind of library hasn't got -- ? But we'll leave that, since we already stormed off in a huff.)

I ventured instead to the local Goodwill store, where I found Gladys Denny Schultz' Jenny Lind: The Swedish Nightingale (1962), purged in its turn from the Mackinac Island public library, Mackinac Island, Michigan. The island's loss is my gain: I don't wonder that in a community of 500 year-round residents, interest in a fifty-year-old biography of Jenny Lind is less than nil, but now I get to turn to page 105, and learn of things like the concert in Leipzig. Date: Thursday, December 4, 1845. Venue: the famed Gewandhaus concert hall. Felix Mendelssohn performed, and he summoned Clara Schumann out of the audience to play also. She had traveled from Vienna especially to attend, with no thought of sitting down to the piano herself. To crown all, Jenny Lind sang. Every spectator realized "they had been privileged to witness a legendary musical feast." One of them was a sixteen year old lad who happened to record the event in his diary. He speaks of clutching his ticket all day for fear of losing it, and of the standing room only crowd, and the people overflowing even into "the little room where the buffet is" (Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt by Henry Scott Holland, 1891, p. 329). Aha! Now what would have been on the menu there? One imagines, oh I don't know, central European cooking -- herrings, little meatballs, potatoes, sour cream, pastries. Hock (riesling), surely. Probably our timid imaginations do the buffet a severe injustice.

Turn a few pages in Gladys Denny Schultz' biography. Here we find Jenny Lind in the midst of her triumphant London debut. It is May 4, 1847. She will sing Alice in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. "H.S. Holland [aha! note the name] recorded that when the curtain rose, 'the excitement was indescribable.' " Small wonder. Not only was it "the Lind's" first role in London, but how could a five-act opera about demonic sex, including a ballet in the third act of nuns' ghosts rising from the grave to seduce the hero, not be exciting? Our poor vulgar shocking celebrities today are such amateurs by comparison. Anyway on page 123 we hear another charming little story. One of the audience bowled over by the Lind was the seventy-eight-year-old hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington. Thereafter, Gladys Denny Schultz writes,
The Duke seldom missed a performance of Jenny's, occupying a box just below that of the Queen, 'like a loyal old watchdog, guarding his mistress,' Chopin remarked. As soon as Jenny appeared on the stage he would rise, bow and ask her ceremoniously how she did. Jenny would bow in her turn, thank him and say she did very well, after which the performance would go on.
Fancy an opera production today being halted every time the greatest man in the house wishes to greet the prima donna. Of course we wouldn't allow it, perhaps because we have chosen long since to elevate art to fearfully untouchable status, while ruthlessly diminishing heroes. I suspect we're the duller for it.

But we were drinking Match Book. Would Wellington have drunk whatever tempranillo was to hand, I wonder, during the Peninsular war? I should explain that he was in Portugal and Spain then, the Iberian peninsula, fighting Napoleon's armies, and the tempranillo grape is Spanish. Perhaps a clay jug at some little rustic inn, and the hero in his dirty boots and cloak, surrounded by attachés and studying a map by candlelight ... this would have been forty years before he stopped operas to salute Jenny Lind. It would have been a good fifteen years before she was born.

Stories ... I do try fiction myself, sometimes, but when I revisit my own things I always find them clunky and didactic, perfect monuments to what I should not be doing. I had better stick to telling you what Gladys said about Jenny. Meanwhile, a thunderstorm complete with tornado warnings and blaring distant sirens has gone by, leaving just raging warm winds, clearing skies, and eerily spring-green grass strewn with yellow leaves in the sun. Even the trees, with their last foliage still clinging on, oddly recall the new growth of March or April. It isn't.
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Thanksgiving numbers

Date: Sun, Nov 10, 2013



Here at At First Glass our page views begin steadily rising in about mid-October, and they carry on rising, going from strength to strength you might say -- in the spirit of Bertie Wooster and his Scripture Knowledge prizes -- until the day after Thanksgiving, when they plummet return quite to normal.

What the autumnal uptick in traffic means, of course, is that more people than usual are surfing the web looking for Thanksgiving recipes and wine pairing advice. Some of them happen to come to me. Perhaps I had better go easy on the "my fatheads" wheeze, so as not to non-plus the newcomers. Anyway to make the searching more efficient I thought I may as well create a handy little index, below, of the posts that seem to be the most consulted at this time of year. I would not dream of quoting the vigorous teen cook Tilly, of Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag VI: an Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott (I kid you not),
" 'Come now, if you want roast turkey and onions, plum puddin' and mince pie, you'll have to do as I tell you, and be lively about it!' "


A Thanksgiving necessity: creamed onions
I am your ultimate Thanksgiving wine pairing guide
Apple stuffing
Here come the Thanksgiving pinot noirs
Etuveed shredded carrots
Perfecting pie crust
Apricot oatmeal bars for your Thanksgiving dessert
Frenched green beans
2009 The Crossings pinot noir
Is it too soon to think about Thanksgiving leftovers? (creamed turkey and apple hash)
Turkey leftovers: just add cream (again)
Apple ginger squash soup for Thanksgiving
Bring a sour to Thanksgiving -- Ichtegem grand cru

If you care to read the whole of Aunt Jo's Old Fashioned Thanksgiving (the Scrap-Bag dates from 1872-82), you may find it at Google books. I wonder if Louisa May Alcott might have missed her true calling -- remember how her alter ego character, Jo March, was always fretting about betraying her art in writing sensational garbage for The Weekly Volcano? -- I wonder if she should have been a cookery writer, to join those noble nineteenth century ranks that included Mary Randolph (Virginia Housewife), Eliza Leslie, Lydia Maria Child (The Frugal Housewife), and Fannie Farmer. If you think about it there is quite a bit of food writing in Little Women, from the March girls' donated Christmas breakfast to Amy's pickled limes to the newlywed Meg's failed currant jelly; the high point of the book's foodie subtheme must be Jo's ruined banquet of overboiled asparagus, overrisen bread and salted strawberries (" 'don't try too many messes, Jo, for you can't make anything but gingerbread and molasses candy fit to eat' "). Likewise, the climax of An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving is a disastrous dinner cooked by teenagers unsupervised because Mother and Father are temporarily away. These young people are tough souls from a different era, however, "old fashioned" even to Alcott. They have already begun a snowy November day by breaking the ice in the water pitchers in their upstairs bedroom, so as to wash properly and come down to breakfast "with their cheeks glowing like winter apples." After chores and a lunch of doughnuts, cheese, and cider, it's time to set-to about dinner. They will cook, positively medieval style, over an open fireplace. While wearing long gowns and aprons, remember. We modern milquetoasts have to look up the word "andiron" in a dictionary, for a start.
Prue obediently tugged away at the crane, with its black hooks, from which hung the iron tea kettle and three-legged pot; then she settled the long spit in the grooves made for it in the tall andirons, and put the dripping pan underneath, for in those days meat was roasted as it should be, not baked in ovens.

Meantime Tilly attacked the plum pudding. She felt pretty sure of coming out right, here, for she had seen her mother do it so many times, it looked very easy. So in went suet and fruit; all sorts of spice, to be sure she got the right ones, and brandy instead of wine. [Mem.: note the rich ingredients ready to hand.] But she forgot both sugar and salt, and tied it in the cloth so tightly that it had no room to swell, so it would come out as heavy as lead and as hard as a cannon ball, if the bag did not burst and spoil it all. Happily unconscious of these mistakes, Tilly popped it into the pot, and proudly watched it bobbing about ....
As the story moves on Mother and Father unexpectedly return, bringing the entire mountain clan with them in two sleighs. The iron-souled and busily cooking young folks had already planned to serve forth at five p.m., which is considered late and "genteel." The various details of the ruined dinner are more or less interchangeable with those of Jo's luncheon in the "Experiments" chapter of Little Women. Tilly put catnip and wormwood in the turkey stuffing, because up in the dim larder those "yarbs" looked so like mint and pennyroyal; and the turkey scorched on one side because the girls forgot to turn the spit. Just as Jo's suburban meal ended in good-natured laughter, "bread and butter, olives and fun," so the Bassett Thanksgiving finishes with a surprising amount of equanimity or even, as Bertie might say, dashed sang-froid. I would have expected hardscrabble farmers to be appalled by the young folks' waste of food, never mind the good intentions. No. Everyone laughs, eats apples and drinks cider, and dances and plays the mysterious parlor games Hunt-the-Slipper and "Come, Philander." Meanwhile we moderns can't help but wonder, in a juvenile sort of way -- how is this family of fifteen, give or take an Aunt or two, also seeing to the needs of the body on a snowy November night? Tough souls.



A glance at The White House Cook Book, circa 1910 (judging by the photos, Edith Roosevelt seems to have been the current First Lady). Look at that thick paper and the beautiful, firm type.
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Brown wine (2000 Berardo Chianti Classico reserva)

Date: Mon, Nov 4, 2013

The lady bought the bottle from the closeout rack, took it home, opened it, poured it, and was appalled. I can understand why. It was brown. Browner even than the photo can convey.



And yet, being a 2000 Chianti Classico reserva -- from the heart of the Chianti region, pre-aged before release and meant to age more -- it was not entirely ghastly. Acidic, yes, a bit grainy and earthy, like past-ripe fruits full of seeds, but also matured past that young Chianti stable-yard funk.

Still I must admit it didn't last too long once opened. I would guess the disappointed lady ("it tasted horrible") and I were just a year or perhaps two, too late.


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High time

Date: Sun, Nov 3, 2013

High time, I think, to choose my best articles from, say, the first three years of At First Glass, plus a few sundries from those other blogs, and compile them into a book. I call it Prose Food. It contains six sections --
Eating and Drinking
Women and Men
Backyard Travels
Serious Matters
Traveling in the Past
A Handful of Impossible Recipes
-- and runs to about 72,000 words, which I think will make for a respectable thickness in hard copy.

God only knows how many small press publishers are inundated with manuscripts -- unsolicited, of course -- from breathless people yammering on in their cover letters about how "this is just some stuff from my blog." It seems somehow counterproductive to join the crowd. Given that any home printer is an independent small press, and that for a modest investment one can go to the local print shop and have anything copied, I think I'll start my own publishing conglomerate. What is it that magnates say about controlling the distribution system?


We could even call the new house something amusing like "Stuff From My Blog" or "Cleanup in Aisle 15" Press. I'll let you know.
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Bright colors

Date: Wed, Oct 30, 2013

I'm not one of these bloggers who thinks you will be wildly interested in photos of my cats. It's just that one of them seems to have a knack for color and composition. Maybe we should call him Matisse. He wouldn't much care. He's deaf anyway.





Mayu sauvignon blanc, Chile. So delicious with autumn's cool weather dinners of fish, or, well -- grocery store rotisserie chickens, cheap and convenient after work. Yes.




The sun sets, after work.


And, after work, we try what is one of the most scrumptious wines one could ever enjoy that still sets one back only about $30. Tinto Pesquara is the name, Ribera del Duero the region (of Spain).



Then, something from Chile. Montes "Twins." The twins are cabernet and malbec, combined in equal portions for this red blend. Delicious, again -- possibly the best red blend of my experience so far.




Now we turn to cool shades of black, white, silver, and grey. Domaine de Nizas rosé of Languedoc, a sort of parting sample from Dave, who got promoted. We agree that, the liquor industry being the revolving door that it is, he'll be back.




You know how I "loves me" my after-work rum sours. Kraken makes about the best there could be -- spiced and sweet, but not overly so.




But too many rum sours make us sleepy. We must be careful. Matisse -- that is, Nicholas -- wishes you a good night.





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Dinner in half an hour, really my fatheads

Date: Thu, Oct 24, 2013

Remember the weekend of random stories, when one child (not a child really -- age 22, but you understand) cooked dinner while the other drove home from the back of beyond in the snow, and another factored polynomials? We promised you "Dinner in Half an Hour, Really," the recipe to include the prep time that dear souls like Julia Child never seem to account for when they claim to offer instructions for something like "Ham Dinner for Four" in 30 minutes. Beware any very professional culinary dicta that begin, "Have ready ...."



Here is ours. Dinner was just a little free-form sauce to ladle over angel hair pasta. Anyone can make it with any combination of vegetables. The aromatics and vegetables all sauté in butter or olive oil while you bring to a boil the water for your pasta. The May 2011 Bon Appétit ("the Italy issue") did wonders with this basic format. My variation went like so:

Melt butter and/or olive oil in a heavy pan (about 3 Tbsp.)
Sauté leeks (one, light green part only, diced and washed)
Add a diced clove of garlic
Add sliced mushrooms (about a half pound)
Add 1/2 cup cream, and salt
Simmer gently -- then add a half cup or so of the reserved salted pasta water, plus another piece of butter to give the sauce some body
Just before serving, stir in a peeled, seeded tomato so that it just warms
Then stir in a handful of chopped chives and parsley

It really does take half an hour. Serve over pasta, and sip a buttery, rich chardonnay -- or a zingy riesling?

And, if you happen to be dining alone, treat yourself to the company of John Dickson Carr, "writing as" Carter Dickson. (Whatever is the point of that nonsense?) You might start with The Judas Window, first published in 1938. In some ways he is miles above Agatha Christie. His prose may be rather stolid (but then so is hers), his characterizations a bit flat. He cannot seem to make the reader feel a time of day, a place, or a season -- day and night, country road or Hampton Court, summer and winter are the same to him. He fares better with courtrooms, and courtroom monologues. Still. One salutes him primarily for his plots, and for his thoroughgoing minutiae: any man who can teach me the word toxophilite, and tell me what a "dock brief" is, and go on about dust on arrows and the windlass of a crossbow, plus introduce a blonde secretary named Lollypop, has my vote for Quite Fine Mystery Writer. Best of all, his hero Sir Henry Merrivale, "H.M.," calls the good people around him "my fatheads," which is more fun than even Lucia's "dear things."

Now my fatheads, come and sit down. Everything is ready.
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Carrot pudding désastre, and so on

Date: Sun, Oct 20, 2013

How it takes one back! (as Lucia would say). Georgie, depending on his mood, might answer "my dear, doesn't it" in a tone which also asks, do we really want to go back?

This is Carrot Pudding, Juliènne de Carottes au Gratin, from Richard Olney's Simple French Food (1974, 1992). I call it Carrot pudding désastre because it turned out désastreux. It took forever and resembled une soupe, though I think it was hardly my fault. See if you can spot the problem in the recipe below.

Richard Olney's Carrot Pudding

2 pounds grated carrots
1/3 cup butter
The juice of half a lemon, or more to taste
salt
1 tsp sugar
water to cover
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 eggs
pepper
butter for the baking dish

Combine the carrots, butter, lemon juice, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Pour over just enough water to barely cover the carrots. Bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for about half an hour. Then over a high flame, stirring all with a wooden spoon, cook until the liquid has evaporated.

Leave to cool for about 10 minutes. Whisk together the cream, eggs, and seasonings, stir into the carrots, and pour into a buttered baking dish. Bake for about 35 minutes (at 350 F) until the surface is swelled and browned.




Your two pounds of carrots, grated.

Did you spot the problem? Pouring into a saucepan enough water to "barely cover" 2 pounds of carrots still amounts to a lot of water. The water fills up the spaces among all the shredded carrots, you see. This vegetable gives off a lot of water on its own as well. Covering the pan while you simmer keeps in yet more water. To attempt to cook and stir and evaporate all that excess, after the carrots have boiled to full doneness for half an hour, is hardly the work of one more petit moment.

I suggest you cut the amount of water down to perhaps a cup. That, along with the butter, should be enough to moisten the carrots and encourage them not to stick as they soften up for the spiced, whisked-cream-and-egg custard bath they will soon luxuriate in. The rest of the recipe is fine.

It takes one back because it was all rather long ago. I keep blog posts in draft for a long time. One never knows when they might be useful, but that makes it odd to look at a photograph of a bowl of carrots, or maybe a it's a cake or a plate of Thanksgiving Cornish hens, pre-divorce. I suppose when I grated them I must still have worn my wedding rings, and so on. They now -- the rings, not the carrots -- sit in the bottom of a jewelry box that he gave me. Oh, I don't want you to think I moon. It's just a little odd. I have a friend who pre-empts the problem of passé romantic possessions by giving gift cards to his current girlfriend on Christmas and birthdays, I think because he was hurt at least once by a former girlfriend dropping his old presents of jewelry into an envelope and leaving it on his front porch after a break-up. No more of that, he says to himself. Let her pick something at Macy's.

From time to time, from the day of the shredded carrots and so on, I have considered what to do with my engagement solitaire and the 10-year anniversary diamonds. (We made it to twenty-four-and-a-half before he decided the Internet girlfriend was way cooler, and less judgmental, than me.) The stones are really so tiny and represent so little cash value, and I say it not to whine but merely as a fact, that I think it hardly makes sense to get them made into something else, neither for their own worth nor still less for any sentimental value. What woman wants to repurpose her marriage jewelry? Unhealthy and unworthy of one doesn't begin to describe it.

I have thought, rather, that I might simply take them, plus the silver bangle I bought for myself as a treat one year after selling an article (and which turned out to be impossible to wear -- the bangle, not the article), and sell them all off at a gold-and-silver buyer's shop. Then I might translate the money into a new piece of jewelry. I have a yen for opals, now, possibly because one of the happiest pieces remaining in my jewelry box is an opal ring dating to my teenage years. It was a graduation gift from my parents. Come to think of it opals pair well with little diamonds; opals and diamonds are my father's and mother's birthstones. That seems nice.

Or it might be wisest just to bank the whole whopping $100 against a rainy day. Or buy more carrots, cream, and cookbooks. "Oh, wow," mother said appreciatively one day, when she watched me begin to prepare a bagful of Daucus carota subsp. sativus.(Was I wearing my sentimentally valuable, teenage opal ring? I don't remember.) "Those are big. They look like the kind your sister buys for the horses."


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"Queen of the Night" beer marketing

Date: Thu, Oct 10, 2013




Herewith, dear things, please find my free gift to the craft beer marketing business. You will remember that a few weeks ago I flirted very briefly with an ambition to learn to make beer at home -- even just one time, for a lark -- but then thought better of it. So much simpler to buy it. Surely.God made craft beer geeks, and money, for a reason.

Thus, my gift. Since marketing is so much a part of the liquor world and the craft beer world especially (no boiling of wort! no messy cleanup!), what I offer is not a carboy of anything homemade but an idea. I want some craft brewer, somewhere, to make a whole series of beers called "Queen of the Night."

Doesn't it sound fabulous? I envision a line named for the character in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute [Die Zauberflöte], who storms onstage once or twice wearing sweeping black tulle veils, crowns, and sparkles, tries to hand a dagger to her milquetoast daughter with instructions to kill someone, and sings tremendously difficult arias which must be watched and heard to be believed. I love Diana Damrau in this role, both onstage and in a recording session performing the showstopper "Der Holle Rache" (Hell's vengeance). The recording session is almost better. We see up close the work of the diva. Her entire face and body labor -- cheekbones, jaw, shoulders, arms, the muscles in her temples.We see the diva take one moment mid-bar to lean her head back and arch her neck and chest in exhaustion. And it has only been a minute and a half. Then she resumes singing. This fascinates because when we listen to beautiful music CDs, we don't imagine the artists behind the microphones wearing casual clothes on some ordinary Tuesday or Wednesday, working like hell. La Damrau clenches her hands, and glares down into the middle distance, and breathes through her nose, emoting even though she is not in costume. In make up, long sleeves, and tasteful jewelry, yes. That is probably sheer sopranic self-respect.

There is something, you know, very wonderful about sopranos. (We'll return to craft beer marketing in just a minute.) They stand out. Even people who don't know opera might still have heard of Maria Callas, and if an opera is going to be interjected into some completely unlikely place, such as a scene in Shawshank Redemption, chances are what will be interjected will be the voice of a soprano. Authors who write books on opera for the absolute beginner acknowledge that the prima donna does seem to get all the attention, doesn't she. Rather a puzzle. The tenor runs her a close second, but only second.

Perhaps the fascination has to do with paradox. A paradox is always intriguing. In this case the lady masters all that technical material, musical and mathematical and manly, and then goes out on stage, spotlit, bejeweled, all courageous and paradoxically so feminine, to sing human emotions in the guise of a character whom we, the audience, must simply accept as a character. Not June Anderson but Lucia di Lammermoor; not Anne Sophie von Otter but Octavian of Der Rosenkavalier. Tour de force, dazzling -- miraculous -- are hardly adequate words to describe what is happening. Marvelous YouTube takes you further back. Not Sena Jurinac but Octavian, too; not Joan Sutherland but Lucia di Lammermoor. Well, perhaps always Dame Joan Sutherland .... At any rate these women are supreme artists who reach that height (paradoxically) by losing themselves in the great roles again and again. One would think the roles were exhausted, played out, re-interpreted enough. Not so. And only Western civilization produces this; which is not a paradox.

When one generation is about done, it seems to pass on to teaching master classes. The next generation rises to the stage. And may one also put in a word here for other female voices? Say, the contralto? Do please go and discover young Delphine Galou singing Bach.

Offstage, what enchants about the divas is that they seem to know themselves so well. Perhaps one cannot go out bejeweled and spotlit, having mastered all that technical manly material, and sing and act and hold still for thunderous ovations, without along the way having had extraneous matter pared from one's character; without having learned who one is. In a French language interview from the mid-1980s a twenty-six-year-old June Anderson calmly allows that she is "trés timide" and so has a difficult time truly entering the roles of flamboyant characters. (At least I think that is what she said.) The liner notes of one of Barbara Bonney's many CDs quote her as saying the "hedonistic" Mediterranean world of music is "not in her nature" -- she is at home with cool northern things, the German language, Mozart. Both women's insights are rather large ones to have, especially in our modern world where it seems to me people are encouraged not to have any insights about themselves at all, nor to talk high and mighty as if they do. Judgmental generalizations about hedonistic places are also forbidden. We are encouraged to take expert advice, don't speak without sources, and go on meds instead.

Now dear things, I promised we would talk about beer marketing in just a minute. We will. Only first I must offer one small piece of advice if you wish to delve into the world of opera. High and mighty though it may sound, I have been listening to and watching operas, if only here and there, since I was a teenager. I have a friend from those years who loves music and who probably would have loved to be a diva; from high school onward we encouraged each other to appreciate the art. I think that if you are going to buy a CD of, say, Maria Callas and play it in your car on the way to work, you are going to get bored and frustrated quickly unless you listen to the music in a new way. It is not background noise. Unless you know the language, of course you will not understand the story until you have read liner notes or a synopsis somewhere. ("You must do your homework," Placido Domingo commanded, directly at the camera, in a television interview years ago.) The "songs" will have no beat. It will not be over in two and a half minutes.

What you must do is think of the human body as a musical instrument, and listen to your new CD as if you were listening to a harp, a horn, or a violin. That is how you begin.

Of course the human body must have nourishment, so here is our cue to return to beer and the possibilities of "Queen of the Night" marketing. What young hophead brewer would not want to make a beer called Hell's vengeance? Think of darkness -- starry skies -- crowns -- tulle -- knives. For my part I don't quite understand why the plot of The Magic Flute renders the Queen so evil. Milton Cross in his Complete Stories of the Great Operas (1950), which is thorough enough that you need not really see any operas once you have read it, tells us that when Die Zauberflote premiered in 1791 Mozart intended the Queen to represent the Empress Maria Theresa. Her Majesty did not think well of the Freemasons, and the opera is subtly about them Mr. Cross says, and Mozart was one. He made the Queen of the Night evil because the real monarch was by way of being one of his sect's persecutors. In the hands of Diana Damrau or Lucia Popp or Erika Miklosa she looks a little evil, but mostly great fun.

There is so much more. What young hophead will not want to make beers called after marvelous sopranos, famed characters, legendary arias? Imagine pilsners, IPAs, lambics and everything called La Stupenda (Joan Sutherland's honorary title), or Kundry (from Wagner's Parsifal) or for Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" (I have lived for art). I must plump for a sour ale named for my favorite aria of all time, "O paradis," which happens to be the showstopper tenor piece from L'Africaine. Well, sours are different anyway.

So you must begin. But I cannot leave this long discourse on opera and beer without directing you to a YouTube upload, and what a marvel that it's there, of a great soprano of the 19th century. Yes, opera has been around a long time. Speaking of becalmed self-knowledge, Maria Callas herself in one of her interviews bluntly admits that opera is dead. It's not like it was in the nineteenth century, when people really went and enjoyed it because it was modern. It's dead, Callas says, and the musicians' duty now has become to make it not ridiculous. More exactly: she says it "has been dead for some time, and if not given seriousness and credibility and dignity, the public cannot take it in with pleasure." See the Callas Conversations with Lord Harewood, 1968, and marvel at the intelligence, grace, and precise loquacity of this woman..

Anyway, here is the marvel, another one. Here Adelina Patti sings "Home Sweet Home" in a recording made in about 1905. I first heard Adelina Patti a few weeks ago during a nighttime program on WFMT. The host told the story of the day in 1862 when Patti, then aged 19, sang in the White House before Abraham and Mary Lincoln. At the end of her concert the President asked her to sing "Home Sweet Home," and of course she complied. (Wikipedia tells us she had been singing it during her American tour anyway. She later became known for this song, and frequently made it an encore at her performances.) Eighteen sixty-two. The Civil War was already in its second year. The Lincolns' little son Willie had just died. Adelina Patti sang ... and then lived on into the age of recorded sound, which along with photography makes that terrible and wondrous and freakish cusp and barrier between all our ancestors' entire world and ours. Lincoln could not have recorded his own voice, nor General Sherman his, nor Alexander the Great. It's just us. But listen to the sixty-two-year old Patti sing, and hear something like what Abraham Lincoln heard. Stupenda.
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I think I may have invented something --

Date: Mon, Oct 7, 2013



-- and I think I'll call it the Sour Blossom Martini. I quickly google its ingredients -- gin, vermouth, lemon juice, orange juice -- and I find no cocktail, in the first page or two of those that pop up immediately, contains them all. I begin to be thrilled.

  • We know that a martini is a dash of vermouth and a jigger of gin, stirred over ice and poured into a cocktail glass. Garnish with green olive, with pit.
  • We know that a sour is a jigger of any spirit, shaken with ice, the juice of half a lemon, and a dash of sugar or simple syrup, and all strained into a cocktail glass.
  • An Orange Blossom is simply two parts gin to one part orange juice, shaken with ice and .... you picture the rest.

So then, an amalgam of all three would be, equal parts lemon juice and orange juice -- say, half a jigger of each -- plus a jigger of gin and a dash of vermouth, shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. The orange juice is sweet enough to obviate the need for sugar or simple syrup. Strain into a glass, garnish with anything you like except maybe an olive, and serve.

Meet the Sour Blossom Martini. Or the Martini Sour, which is quicker to say but leaves out the explanatory why-is-there-orange part.

It is delicious, especially on a day when you have just learned that your son must have his wisdom teeth out and so there go most of the funds you had planned to spend on ... well, other things. You content yourself with a Vera Wang scarf and some new socks. And the cocktail.

While we think of it, we begin to question the endlessly repeated assurances that all those chic French women only have a handful of things in their closets because they prefer to buy one or two very fine pieces at a time, and love and wear the little they have, rather than go shopping with say $100 in their pockets which they then try to make last for the purchase of six cheap tops. We think perhaps they only spend a little at a time because they're socialists, too, and the government has their money.
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Wow. Just, wow.

Date: Sat, Oct 5, 2013

Just when I am ready to spit on my hands (as Wodehouse would say) and get down to the work of feeling sorry for myself because here I am blogging away, with practically no one the worse or wiser, and there to take one example dear kind Molly is, getting second and probably third book contracts on the strength of "my daughter's head smells like strawberry jam" -- just then, someone sends me a box.



The wine is Truchard -- roussanne, pinot noir, and cabernet. I know nothing about it except that my former boss, who had very good taste in wine, ordered some for the store where it went right to the top shelf.

I'll let you know. Meantime, thank you, and wow. Just, wow.




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2009 Nicola's "Red Mark" riesling

Date: Wed, Jul 10, 2013



Here lies a Washington state riesling, sweet and delicious if not as bracingly acidic as a German one I have also been enjoying lately. Why then did Red Mark not sell? Possibly the $14 price tag was too much to ask for an unknown wine and a riesling at that, a variety that people are still dubious about. I gather that in the market rieslings are classified as an "alternative white," along with moscato, which seems strange given moscato's huge popularity.

Or, it may have been Red Mark's marketing. The old 1930s-era photo, on the case, of laborer Nicola shouldering his spade, and then the smear of red across the black label, may have caused people to ask "what am I supposed to be tasting?" Or it may have put them off for other reasons. Is Red Mark meant to be a Commie-pinko wine, a wine -- and one or two others are marketed this way -- "for the people" or "for the rest of us"? But who else drinks wine besides people -- giraffes? Memo to a hippy-dippy industry: please be aware that not every customer bows before the religion of personal superiority and badge-wearing, only-we-understand-labor-work-and-injustice hauteur. ... I am thinking of the man I saw emerge from his car in the parking lot yesterday, a small metal sign saying "peace" swinging and glinting from his rearview mirror in the morning sunlight. How very wonderful of him, to want peace like that.

Come to think of it he probably would have considered buying Red Mark But it rests hauteur-ly on the closeout rack for 9.99. Still no takers.
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Let's have a chota peg ...

Date: Mon, Jul 8, 2013

"Chota peg" is Hindustani, it seems, for little drink. When Georgie Pillson in Mapp and Lucia, acting as host at one of Lucia's dinner parties, offers Major Benjy a glass of port, Benjy twitches and replies "If it's all the same to you, I'd sooner have a chota peg." (He speaks Hindustani because he has served in India.) So here he means a cocktail -- certainly he can't be asking for a little drink of water or tea -- and he must mean, given his character development or lack of it, a whisky and soda.


I can tell you that for all my neophyte research into cocktails, I had never tried a simple whisky and soda until this week. I can also tell you that I highly recommend it. (A jigger of whisky over ice, topped with club soda and a garnish of some kind.) What nicer way to spend a July afternoon than with a chota peg and a book on the porch?
There are always a thousand hopes
For a thousand mortals, and some
Hopes are crowned with success;
Others run into sand.
To me the one who is lucky
Is he who day by day lives happy.
The book on the purple table today is a collection, Three Plays of Euripides (tr. Paul Roche, 1974). If that great tragedian did not invent zombies in his The Bacchae (pronounced "bocky"), he came very close to it. Frenzied women go out into the mountains and catch and tear apart animals with their bare hands, in worship of Bacchus, the god of wine. They happen also to tear apart a man who spies on their doings; the unspooling of his fate gives us the plot of the play. It is while he is being driven mad by the god offstage, in preparation for his own journey to the mountains, that the chorus sings the lovely lines above.

When it is all over and the man is dead, his mother who is one of the Bacchae must be brought back to reality by a few gentle questions, from her own father, mind you -- first, about the sky ...
CADMUS: Turn your eyes first, please, to the skies up there.
AGAVE: I am looking. And what am I supposed to see?
CADMUS: Is it still the same -- or do you see some change?
AGAVE: [Dreamily] It is lighter than before ... more luminous ....


Why this violence for the god of wine? Why, when the playwright also has the blind seer Tiresias say,
... mankind has two blessings:
Demeter is the one, the goddess,
(Earth, that is -- call her what you will),
who keeps men alive with solid food;
the other is Semele's son,
who came afterward and matched her food with wine ....
As Mr. Wyse, another of the constant guests at Lucia's constant dinner parties, might sigh, "Answer comes there none."
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Mezzo! Mezzo!

Date: Fri, Jul 5, 2013

I just like saying it. This is another of the global reds I have been enjoying lately: an Italian cabernet sauvignon called Mezzo.It belongs in my new category "Perfectly Fine," which I am sorry to say I had forgotten having created.


Retail, about $6 in my neighborhood. No kidding.
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