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I'm a firm believer in meaningful necklaces (and date bars)

Date: Wed, Jan 8, 2014

... just like the simple little flat gold disk Tina Fey wears in 30 Rock. What does it mean? the viewer wants breathlessly to ask. She could probably afford diamonds and rubies. I have long wanted a meaningful necklace of my own; the trouble is that religious symbols are unsubtle and the usual gold heart for Mom is so, well, -- usual. So "Mother's Day."

By sheer luck amid all the holiday catalogs that came to the house this season, I found one called Femail Creations that sells this. I couldn't resist. It has to do with two of my favorite things, silver and robins.

Image from Femail Creations

And it's meaningful because it makes you think not only of robins but of course of spring, and new life, hope and safety and everything. And there are three blue eggs. Proudly handmade in the U.S. I'm all for that, too.

Now you may have a retro Date Cake Bar, circa 1963. This would have been just about the year that Sean Connery was making Dr. No. We enjoyed the movie on New Year's Eve, according to old family custom, and that in turn prompts us to venture to YouTube for a lark, to listen to old James Bond themes. Here we revisit Carly Simon's beautiful voice caressing "Nobody Does it Better," which -- which somehow makes us feel we could climb mountains. But first, the date bar.

These rich little cakes are called "Date Bars I" in The Art of Making Good Cookies Plain and Fancy, written by Annette Laslett Ross and Jean Adams Disney in 1963. Full of cinnamon, they will likely remind you of snickerdoodles, enriched with dates and nuts, too. They aren't terribly sweet and so make a nice breakfast indulgence.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 9 inch square pan. Have ready:
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dates, chopped and pressed down to measure
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
Beat the eggs with the sugar until smooth and thick. Stir in the melted butter. Sift together the dry ingredients, and then add them to the egg mix. Stir in the dates and nuts. Pour into the pan (the batter is thick and will need spreading). Bake about 30 minutes, cool slightly, cut into squares, and dust with powdered sugar.

Serve with a glass of champagne, because I refuse to believe we can't drink champagne with desserts. Wait for spring.

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Cecilia de Michegros, lady of Bicknoure

Date: Sun, Jan 5, 2014

Sometimes the smallest glimpses of a life emerge from darkness. In 1858 one H.G. Nicholls published a book on the history of England's Forest of Dean (An Historical and Descriptive Account). I downloaded it to my Kindle because I thought perhaps this Forest of Dean had had some wonderfully romantic or startling history. As it turned out -- unless I didn't read far enough to get to the exciting part -- it did not. H. G. Nicholls simply listed things that happened there, and who owned what acres of it, based on public records and tax rolls and things. It would be as if I wrote a book on a portion of the local Cook County forest preserves. "And in 1988 a new jogging path was laid ...."

But early on, the Descriptive Account gives us this glimpse into a life. Among the landowners in the Forest of Dean in 1303 was a Cecilia de Michegros, who held the bailiwick of Bicknoure there. That's all.

That's all, but what a fund we have here for the writer of romance! Already we see Cecilia garbed in bright robes of medieval blue, green, and red. And why did Western European women go about essentially in burqas for so long? Was it a Muslim influence? Was it for the warmth they provided during those medieval Little Ice Ages we read about? Anyway we see her moving importantly around her bailiwick. She is the daughter of someone named de Michgros, or perhaps his widow. Beside her a dour, good looking and terribly moral man is her marshal, or steward or something like that. He helps run her properties while impatiently yearning for her. There's a villain, of course, a local lord with designs on Bicknoure, but he is mostly egged on by a shrewish wife wild with jealousy over the beautiful Cecilia. The shrew is called Maud -- perhaps in true 14th-century style we'll spell it Mold. Frustrated by her husband's failure to finally rid the world, or at least the Forest of Dean, of la de Michegros, Mold sneaks into Cecilia's manor house one night and attempts, nothing so crude as poison or knifing, but rather to steal the title deed proving the mistress of Bicknoure's rights to her land. The noble marshal waits in the shadows, ready to stop anything. Mold reaches a private chamber, and paws among a set of crackling parchments in a strongbox. She catches up and eagerly takes away a large document hung with seals -- but the marshal has been watching most carefully. He smiles with a little incredulity and a little relief and a little pity. Mold's prize is not the deed to Bicknoure. It is the tailor's bill, festooned and beribboned in the eccentric style that Ippolito the Venetian insists on ... the lady Mold is illiterate.

Afterward I feel sure Cecilia will sit down to a feast with her household. "Connynges in Cyrip" to start with, I think, followed by perhaps "Bukkenade," "Egurdouce," and "payn Foundewe" (aha! bread [pain] fondue?). These are all from the ancient English cookbook The Forme of Cury, compiled in about the year 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II. The book's rediscoverer and editor in 1780, Mr. Pegge, allowed,
"The names of the dishes and sauces have occasioned the greatest perplexity. These are not only many in number, but are often so horrid and barbarous, to our ears at least, as to be inveloped in several instances in almost impenetrable obscurity."
If we can penetrate the obscurity of Connynges in cyrip we will make bold to say, it seems to have been a dish of fowls -- because you smite them in pieces for serving, which you wouldn't do with fish or beef, would you? -- seethed in good broth, treated somehow with vinegar, cloves, raisins, currants, and ginger, and then cast into "the Siryppe" and seethed some more. Just glance and see what you think. If we don't understand the all-purpose medieval culinary instruction "do thereto," which is often all the royal cooks will tell us, it's our lookout.

Take Connynges and seeþ hem wel in good broth. take wyne greke and do þerto with a porcioun of vyneger and flour of canel, hoole clowes quybibes hoole, and ooþer gode spices with raisouns coraunce and gyngyner ypared and ymynced. take up the conynges and smyte hem on pecys and cast hem into the Siryppe and seeþ hem a litel on the fyre and sue it forth.

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Oh goody! Another red sky at dawn

Date: Sat, Jan 4, 2014

"Sailors take warn," the old doggerel goes. Odd, how often it proves right.

I made up my mind some time ago not to eat my heart out because I don't live in a warm climate. "There is no bad weather, only bad clothing," runs a Norwegian proverb -- the sports announcer said so, years ago when the Olympics were held at Lillehammer, remember? -- and it is odd, also, how rarely people will dress comfortably for winter. If they wore parkas in summer, would they also hate summer? Not that I don't love summer, too.

"...On this he arose
and placed the bed of balsam near the fire,
strewing sheepskins on top, and skins of goats.
Odysseus lay down. His host threw over him
A heavy blanket cloak, his own reserve
against the winter wind when it came wild."
The Odyssey, Book XIV, tr. Robert Fitzgerald, 1963.

Now you may warm yourself with a glass of good red wine. Alexander Valley pinot noir, retail, about $18

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AFG turns six! With 2010 Laurel Glen Vineyard cabernet sauvignon

Date: Tue, Dec 31, 2013

Rich, thick textured ("sugary"), deeply black, plummy and spicy; its deliciousness differs from the deliciousness of our previous wine, which had a flash of (I think) cool climate thinness and acidity running through it. All wines have each their own nice little traits and attributes, don't they?

And yes, on this New Year's Eve we remember that today At First Glass turns six This year we will celebrate without assigning ourselves a theme for the coming year, since themes tend to fall through.We'll just eat and drink, read and reflect as usual. We might even attend our first hockey game and learn about investing in the stock market -- it seems to be a lot like buying wholesale and selling retail -- but those are subjects for another day.

Just now we'll crown the departing year with a quote from the great culinary authority Brillat-Savarin, because it's fun to quote French that looks so much like English, and because these rich and plummy words should lend a private piquancy to what you observe at tonight's parties. Suffice to say that Monsieur at all times disdains:
those mangeurs [eaters] stupides who merely swallow avec une indifférence coupable les morceaux les plus distingués;
and those who merely suck in
avec une distraction sacrilège un nectar odorant et limpide.
Limpid nectars, distinguished morsels; culpable indifference and sacrilegious distraction. We would make a New Year's resolution to really read The Physiology of Taste straight through, but resolutions tend to go the same way as themes.

Laurel Glen retails for about $60.
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2012 Graffigna Centenario Elevation red blend reserve

Date: Sat, Dec 28, 2013

Perhaps it's the Argentinian provenance that gives this red blend a little touch of cool climate acidity, lightness, and freshness. A more warm-climate red, such as the one we will try next, although just as delicious will have a heavier, more sugary feel.

Very delicious with your weekend cold weather roasts and stews. Retail, about $10.
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Lanson black label brut for Christmas

Date: Wed, Dec 25, 2013

"But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning (though there are very few folk that can hear them, or know what it is that they say)."

It's an enchanting idea, isn't it? We find it in Beatrix Potter's "The Tailor of Gloucester." Years ago when my children were watching the animated series The World of Beatrix Potter and I was in the throes of, shall we say, quite the religious adventure, it used to strike me that for all its Christmas setting, "The Tailor of Gloucester" was a surprisingly Jewish story. You may scream with laughter, but consider.

To begin with, a tailor is plying an often Jewish trade. This tailor has to finish his work, the making of a gorgeous coat for the Mayor, by "noon of Saturday," which is the Sabbath when work is forbidden, -- although here of course the Saturday is more importantly Christmas Day, and the day of the Mayor's wedding.

Our tailor performs the mitzvah, the good deed of freeing the mice from beneath all the overturned teacups and other crockery where the cat, Simpkin, had imprisoned them. The pangs of guilt he suffers about it may as well be Jewish too ("should I have freed those mice, undoubtedly the property of Simpkin?"). On the day of triumph, the Saturday when he lets himself into his shop to discover that the grateful mice have entirely made up the Mayor's coat and waistcoat "of cherry colored corded silk" on Christmas Eve, he finds also that they have left one item unfinished -- a buttonhole. This might be a subtle touch: for somewhere in Jewish law it is written that anyone who completes a task is regarded as though he had done the whole thing. So our tailor sews the last buttonhole, using the skein of cherry-colored "twist" that the peeved Simpkin had hidden from him, the Mayor is splendidly married at noon on Christmas Day, and the tailor's fortune is assured.

The little, if you will, Jewish coincidences in the story are of course only that, coincidences which amateurs giving sermons like to do up into ten-minute packages of preciousness which tolerant, smiling (or just hard-of-hearing) congregations let pass for wisdom. It so happens that as I wrote of Beatrix Potter and her stories just now -- why does she occur to me? possibly all the seasonal nattering on about "the magic of Christmas" is in my mind -- a fat gray squirrel, boasting a very handsome full tail, scrambled up the porch railing and sat in front of the window, actually rubbing his paws against the bitter cold. He might have been straight out of "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin." He looked at me.

There was nothing for it but to get up, go into the kitchen, heap up a plate of bread crumbs, orange slices, and an aging apple, and put it out on the frozen ground for the same small creatures who so maddeningly begin destroying the garden every spring. It is after all Christmas; one imagines oneself, if one does not take care, cast as the villainess of a fable in which the mistress of a warm brightly lit house crammed with food cruelly shares nothing with Tom Titmouse, and so on, even at This Festive Season. One can't have that. I might add that Squirrel Nutkin grabbed a chunk of apple and dashed across the snowy grass to hide it in the roots of the neighbor's lilac bush, where it surely can't do him much good. He came back for more.

Whether the beasts can talk in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas day in the morning, I don't know. I was busy enjoying a scandalously luxurious treat at the time, and so heard nothing. There were pillows, a night light, the radio playing medieval carols, and then champagne -- what champagne -- and Agatha Christie's "Christmas Tragedy." This story includes one of Miss Marple's wisest observations:
"Now young people nowadays -- they talk very freely about things that weren't mentioned in my young days, but on the other hand their minds are terribly innocent. They believe in everyone and everything. And if one tries to warn them, ever so gently, they tell one that one has a Victorian mind -- and that, they say, is like a sink."
"After all," said Sir Henry, "what is wrong with a sink?"
"Exactly," said Miss Marple eagerly. "It's the most necessary thing in any house ...."
Exactly. The champagne was something both Agatha Christie and Beatrix Potter could have recognized, since the maison was fondée in 1760. It was a bottle of Lanson "black label," which had been resting in my little wine fridge for at least a year and perhaps two. I can hardly tell you how delicious it was. Toast and nuts and toast again, and then some fruit on toast. The next morning, with freshly squeezed orange juice, it made a very fine mimosa. Don't put this out for Squirrel Nutkin.

Retail, about $37.

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Chicken paillards with pesto cream and balsamic vinegar (retro 1988)

Date: Sun, Dec 22, 2013

If you are the cook on Christmas Eve you might find reason, the day being somewhat harried, to at the last put together a very quick dish of chicken breasts, pounded flat so that they will heat to done-ness in seconds, and then promptly sauced with a pan-dripping ménage of pesto, balsamic vinegar, and cream. We find the recipe in Abby Mandel's More Taste Than Time (1988). A "paillard" is a chicken breast, cut in half, tendon removed, and flattened by pounding with a rolling pin -- place the breast between two sheets of plastic wrap first.

Lacking a nice photo of Ms. Mandel's end result, here instead are some "recipe dice" from the Bas Bleu catalog, with the appropriate ingredients front and center. A charming concept these dice, if a bit loaded, shall we say? on vegetables and greens.

Abby Mandel's Chicken paillards with pesto cream and balsamic vinegar

1 whole boned and split chicken breast, tendon removed
3 Tablespoons pesto sauce, commercially prepared or see below*
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup whipping cream

Place the chicken breast between two sheets of plastic wrap. Pound with a rolling pin until the paillard is very thin, about 1/8 inch thickness.

Set a 10 inch skillet over medium heat. Brush one side of each breast with a little pesto sauce (about 2 teaspoons each). When the pan is warm but not hot, lay in the chicken, pesto side down. (Pesto has enough olive oil in it to grease the pan.) Brush the top of each breast with remaining pesto.

Cook only about a minute, long enough to cook the underside through. Turn the paillard and finish cooking the other side, about one more minute. Remove to a warm platter and cover with tin foil.

Raise the heat under the pan to medium high and add the balsamic vinegar, stirring up any brown bits. Add the cream and whatever juices have accumulated on the platter from the waiting chicken. Stir and cook the sauce another two or three minutes. Salt and pepper to taste, and spoon over the chicken. Serve immediately.

*Pesto sauce, also from More Taste Than Time

2 large garlic cloves, peeled
3 ounces Parmesan cheese
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1 cup "light tasting" olive oil, or "equal parts olive and safflower oil" (Some commercial "olive" oils are already this mixture; look for "safflower" in very light colored type on the label, especially if you don't want it.)

Combine all ingredients except oil in a food processor or blender, and whirl until the mix is ground. With the blender running, drizzle in the oil. Pesto will keep, refrigerated, for up to a month.

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Retail rant: top 5 worst Christmas songs (plus a cocktail)

Date: Fri, Dec 20, 2013

They play over the radio at work, you see, and so one becomes slowly irate. And why yes, they are in order.

Etta Jones, "It's Christmas time." A maundering voice screeches and drones on, rather like a vaguely lecturing teacher, about "peekin' out the window," ting-a-ling-ling. Maundering trumpets try to make some sort of desultory melody to fill in the blank spaces. Very, very bad.

Lena Horne, "Jingle Bells" -- Lena of the fierce smile, fierce eyes, hard face, harder voice. When she sings about not knowing where she is going on her sleigh ride -- "with my baby by my side, I don't really cay-uh" -- one is reminded of wintry Russian stories about the bride being thrown off the sledge to the pacing wolves. In this scenario, Lena is the fierce-eyed chucker-out, not the bride.

James Brown, "Santa Claus (go straight to the ghetto"). Tough call. What he does isn't music, yet one can't ignore the screams.

Brad Paisley, "Santa looksa lot like Daddeh." He didn't come down the chimney, so momma must have let him in. As Miss Mapp would say, such a new idea.

Brenda Lee, "I'm gonna pop-pop Santa Claus (with a water pistol gun)." Squirt, squirt! Storied career or no, in my house we call this performer "the swamp child in a bottle," because that's what the voice sounds like.

I feel better. Enjoy a new cocktail, the Honeysuckle. The honey does give the drink an unusual flowery character.

  • 1 jigger (1and 1/2 ounces) light rum
  • the juice of a small lime (or half a large lime)
  • 1 tsp. honey

Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass.
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Winter owl, winter wines

Date: Tue, Dec 17, 2013

Strangely enough, an owl has taken up residence in our neighborhood. We hear him hooting late at night, or early in the pre-dawn darkness. What with the softly gleaming ring around the chilly moon, the bare branches, and the snow,

and that double exposure of two chilly moons in the storm window --

and now an owl -- why, it seems just like winter. One reaches for those warming red wines.

Below, 2010 Monticello Vineyards "Jefferson Cuvée" cabernet sauvignon. Retail, about $25. Worth it.

Santa Rita "Triple C" red blend (cabernet franc, carmenere, cabernet sauvignon. The cabernet franc seems to make it leaner and flintier than many red blends.). Retail, about $26.

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Jun ware, reconstructing Cleopatra -- random thoughts

Date: Sun, Dec 15, 2013

In one of her many delightful books -- I thought it was My Favorite Things, but I seem to be wrong -- the delightful art critic/nun Sister Wendy Beckett, may she live a thousand years, writes of the satisfaction of "silently communing" with a great piece of porcelain art. This may sound loopy but, assuming you have already absorbed her advice that the best tool for appreciating art is a chair, you will find she is right about the porcelain too. You feel strangely arrested when you go to an art gallery, sit down, and look at something like this:

Image from Facts and Details: "Looting, Breaking, and Copying Art in China"

This is Jun ware, porcelain distinguished, it seems, by a clear pale blue glaze often splotched with rich violet. Wikipedia tells us it was made for about four hundred years, from the Song through the Jin and the Yuan dynasties in China (circa 960 to 1360 A.D.).

There is some Jun ware in the quiet and seldom-visited Asian galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, though I remember the piece I liked being a plain deep maroon color, not sky blue; and it seems if you have a few hundred bucks to splash around, you may buy some Jun ware of your own to commune with, if you don't mind trusting your credit card information to online shopping and antiques-auctioning sites. Perhaps such treasures are available because, throughout the Song and the Jin and the Yuan, spittoons and other dishes were not that rare. One David Fry, of David Fry Ceramics, writes with amusing blandness of re-creating a Jun ware dish for a London collector -- much like you or me, apparently -- whose own favorite, authentic Chinese piece, "after being looked after for nearly a thousand years," was accidentally smashed by his cleaning lady. One imagines a woman in a flowered dress and kerchief, looking down at the sky blue fragments and saying "Coo! What did he want to put it there for?"

It seems only right to give a nod to China, since the nation has just achieved the feat of "soft-landing" a probe on the moon Taking up other cudgels, let me introduce my dear things -- my fatheads -- to a compelling artist working in a different medium, namely YouTube, which is to say music, writing, and Photoshop. She is one M. A. Ludwig. I have enjoyed her animated Photoshop reconstruction of the face of Cleopatra, accompanied by her narration of an elegant three-minute script on "the pharaoh" (2009). I enjoyed her second go at the queen, as well (2011). Unlike other Photoshop-artists fooling around on YouTube with old paintings and sculptures of historic people, "reconstructing" them into glamor-pusses minus any basic human jowls or vapidity, M.A. Ludwig stays firmly within the profiles of the busts or effigies that have come down to us. She creates a hook-nosed, "somewhat weak-chinned" Cleopatra who is nevertheless entrancing. When she proceeds to make the Cleopatra "of legend," essentially giving her a nose job and collagen lips, the result is a breathtaking but by no means vapid ancient beauty. As for Julius Caesar -- Cleopatra's lover and husband, father of her twins -- M. A. Ludwig has only to add color to the eyes, hair, and skin of the "Caesar Tusculum" marble to create a man whom we would fear to cross and thrill to please. Her reconstruction of the Emperor Augustus is magnificent. Alexander ends up looking a bit like a creepy, flabby punk, but maybe he was one.

I enjoy the comments at the bottom of each YouTube page, too. M.A. Ludwig gets a lot. For her and for other Photoshop artists, the commenters divide roughly into two camps: those who crab "he didn't look like that," and those who swoon "he was my ancestor on my mother's side -- thank you so much for this look at him!"

It makes one reflect a little on the passage of time. Not even in the grand sense of centuries past and famous lives, but in the small sense of the hours of an evening, and what to do with them. Leisure, hobbies, compromise. M.A. Ludwig makes Photoshop faces, master potters make pots. Sister Wendy prays, translates medieval Latin manuscripts, and writes about art. What do you do ... with a friend who assumes it's a pleasure, and all worthwhile, to watch t.v. together? Then again, if you've both just got back from those quiet and empty Asian galleries ... time, leisure, compromise.

After all this you'll want a glass of wine. We'll stick with warm reds for winter.

2010 Montes Alpha pinot noir. Retail, about $18.

90+ Cellars "Monster Red Blend," Washington state. Retail, about $19.

2010 The Calling Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon. Retail, about $29.

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"Earth, Ocean, Air (nice red wines)!"

Date: Mon, Dec 9, 2013

Warm red wines for cold days. For --

autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood,
And winter robing with pure snow and crowns of starry ice
the grey grass and bare boughs ....

You will note in these photographs the bottles are empty. The wines were very delicious, all of them. You will note also that, in the photos, the bottles sort of lean. I take care to pose them atop a solid desk and I hold the camera steady. Possibly the house is on a slant.

2012 Jacob's Creek red blend

2010 Truchard cabernet sauvignon. Wow. Just, wow.

2011 Los Vascos Grande Reserve cabernet sauvignon

2008 Terrunyo carmenere, Block 27

I agree with Hugh Johnson's idea that the best way to talk about wine is through stories, rather than through the groping about for yet more market-basket metaphors (yes, wine tends to taste like ripe fruit).

Or, why not poetry? The few lines about the weather, above, are from Shelley's Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. I assume high school English literature textbooks still include Percy Bysshe ("bish") Shelley's very short Ozymandias; if they do, I assume this is the only brush with him most of us ever have. That is too bad, because if you turn to your Kindle and download free, out-of-copyright stuff published a hundred years ago, you will find enjoyable things. Really. Things like The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oxford Edition (3 vols.), ed. Thomas Hutchinson, M.A..(1914), with Mrs. Shelley's own two Prefaces to her editions of Shelley's poems, 1824 and 1839, affixed.

The Complete Works presents us not only with the three lovely lines above, but also prose and poetry from both husband and wife that turn out to be, and I mean bang out of the gate, unintentionally hilarious. This is startling -- intriguing -- and makes us feel like idol-smashers; somehow Ozymandias, struggled through for perhaps two days in adolescence, didn't prepare one to laugh at the great Shelley. He in his songs, and Mrs. Shelley -- that is, Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein -- in her Prefaces, each soar beyond (unintentional) self-parody to heights of humorlessness and pomposity which now shout "adolescence" more loudly than anything else.

They loved Nature, you see, especially he did, and mankind. They hated evil and injustice. "His life was spent in contemplation of Nature, in arduous study, or in acts of kindness and affection." Elegant scholar, profound metaphysician, etc. Unrivalled in the justness and extent of his observations, etc. Could interpret without a fault each appearance in the sky, etc. Felt a joy "more wild" at any news of mankind's liberty anywhere in the world, than he ever felt for any thing he might have wanted for himself merely. Etc. "Those who have never experienced the workings of passion on general and unselfish subjects cannot understand this," Mrs. Shelley says. His faults only proved he was not absolutely divine.

When Alastor begins and Shelley's Complete Works are underway, he lays it on even thicker. He invokes Nature's help and blessing on his song. "Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!" That's where we find the sere woods and crowns of starry ice, above. Then he plunges firmly, all teenager-like, straight to death:
There was a Poet whose untimely tomb
No human hands with pious reverence reared,
But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds
Built o'er his mouldering bones a pyramid
Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness: --
A lovely youth, -- no mourning maiden decked
With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,
The lone couch of his everlasting sleep: --
Gentle, and brave, and generous, -- no lorn bard
Breathed o'er his dark fate one melodious sigh:
He lived, he died, he sung in solitude
Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,
"And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes," etc. etc. The changing cohorts of hip young people who have been doing parody on Saturday Night Live for forty years could not make this up. Does that mean we and our age are too coarse to appreciate the Shelleys? Or does it mean the two of them were in some ways beyond belief?

It may help to remember that with Shelley we are in the midst of the Romantic movement. One recalls vaguely being taught that it was given to excess. "Earth, Ocean!" etc. Though one might also vaguely recall teachers clarifying little when they drew the requisite examples from gardening -- how the clipped topiary gave way to the secluded romantic grotto (aha). And to be fair, we must acknowledge that by 1839 the poet's widow was looking back seventeen years and grieving the love of her life, drowned in Italy at the age of 29. Of course by then he was a perfect being. Her account of waiting for news of him, beachside that awful week, is simple and ominous. Foul weather, "savage" isolated villages; "strange horror." "He died." "The ungrateful world did not feel his loss, and the gap it made seemed to close as quickly over his memory as the murderous sea above his living frame." To be further just, we should notice that by the time she sat down to write Prefaces she could admit the fact of her husband's, shall we say, eternal youth. "Time was not given him ... it must be remembered that there is the stamp of such inexperience on all he wrote."

Oddly enough, and to our good fortune, the effect of all this is to make both Shelley and Mrs. Shelley more human. Years after they were only an assignment and, as with all poetry, one had to hunt for the subject and the verb among the folderol, -- the pair's grim, luxuriant nobility and painstaking self-adoration have such a familiar relish that we do laugh, and move forward into poetry as pleasure. We skim it, letting the subject and verb fall where they may, looking for pretty words and word-pictures, which is not the least use of poetry. Especially it's not the least use of the phantasmagorically fecund prose-poetry-jungle-gardens of nineteenth-century English. Editor Hutchinson, 1914, knows something of this. He takes care to explain why he corrected bad spelling and quaint usages, "for [they] can only serve to distract the reader's attention, and mar his enjoyment of the verse." Enjoyment of the verse does not carry any connotations of "absorption in Shelley's moral divinity."

We ought to be fair about one final, small item. No one can come to the Shelleys completely ready to do homage anyway, who has first met them through Paul Johnson's short study Intellectuals. In the chapter "Shelley: the Heartlessness of Ideas" we meet the man who left a trail of human wreckage behind him, mostly his women and children, because that Romantic noble phrenzy for all Mankind trumped other people's lives.

So let us just skim Percy Bysshe for enjoyment. Maybe he'll write some more about winter. This is from The Daemon of the World, which is the poet's own Queen Mab "rehandled." I've taken the liberty of underlining the main subjects and verbs.

The habitable earth is full of bliss;
Those wastes of frozen billows that were hurled
By everlasting snow-storms round the poles,
Where matter dared not vegetate nor live,
But ceaseless frost round the vast solitude
Bound its broad zone of stillness, are unloosed;

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Yes, please, do cook with beer (or: pork meatball soup)

Date: Wed, Dec 4, 2013

You may use your leftover, flat beer to deglaze the one pan after browning meat for stock, and you may use it again to deglaze the other, in which you browned some meatballs for the soup. Plan to pour no more than a quarter cup in each case, please; otherwise you run the risk of adding a beer's (even slight) bitterness to your cooking. For that matter, surely we don't dare to braise with an IPA or any such "monster" craft brew. We will confine ourselves to something fairly mild and malty. In fact I used a leftover Chimay Trappist red.

The soup:

Sear a pound of beef, some sort of cheap cut like round, in olive oil in a heavy soup pot. When it is nicely browned, remove it from the pan. Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary. Add and briefly saute 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped leek, 2 chopped carrots, and 2 chopped stalks of celery. Stir and cook until the vegetables soften a little. (Your stock of choice could also have come from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, why not? And has it really been a week already?)

Return the beef to the vegetables in the soup pot. Pour on a scant 1/4 cup good dark beer. Let it bubble a bit, to burn off the alcohol. Add water to cover the meat and vegetables, remembering Madeleine Kamman's rule of thumb for flavorful soup making, namely to allow 1 quart water to every 1 pound of meat. Salt and pepper to taste, and drop in any fresh or dried herbs you like -- thyme, certainly, for a start.

Simmer the soup for 2 to 3 hours on the back of the stove.

About an hour before serving, make the meatballs. (The recipe that follows is a sort of amalgamation of internet "soup meatball" dishes. The thing to focus on is the garlic and the minced fresh herbs.) Combine:
1 pound ground pork
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large leaves fresh basil, minced
1 egg
2 slices fresh bread, torn into crumbs and softened with a combination of soup broth and milk (don't make the crumbs too soggy)
salt and pepper
Shape the mixture into small balls, and fry them in batches in a heavy skillet in a little olive oil. When they are all nicely browned but not yet cooked through, crowd them back into the frying pan and pour over them another scant 1/4 cup of beer. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and cover and simmer 15 minutes, shaking and stirring from time to time, until the meatballs are cooked through; then add them with their own broth and juices to the soup pot, having first removed from there the old, cooked piece of beef, which has been giving its flavor to the stock all this while.

Finally "dish up," as my father used to say, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese if desired.

We are reading Elizabeth David at the moment. South Wind Through the Kitchen. Mrs. David is at once so firm, so lyrical, she opens her articles and closes her recipes with such simple command, that it makes one feel one's own writing has been a hash of sentimentality. One feels one must give a good recipe, and then stop.

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Okay. If you've got a blender, a pumpkin, and some tequila

Date: Thu, Nov 28, 2013

...you may be able to put together something interesting to bring at the last minute to a Thanksgiving party. To wit.: below, we mix sweet, rich pumpkin with the herbal smokiness of a good tequila to create Azuñia pumpkin spice pudding. How very imaginative. I salute it as one who, a la Marilyn Monroe's character in The Seven Year Itch, "just has no imagination at all" when it comes to devising really new food combinations.

Now to make the pudding properly, you must cook a fresh pumpkin, but that is not difficult. -- Simply rush out and buy one, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and bake it, flesh side down, in a shallow pan with a small amount of water at 425 F. It will be soft in about 45 minutes. Let it cool slightly and then scoop away the flesh from the rind. -- Sssh: since you only need one cup of cooked pumpkin, if you decide to substitute the canned sort I wouldn't tell anybody.

I certainly wouldn't tell the recipe's creators. They have worked hard on this. It comes from Azuñia brand tequila, in partnership with Kelly Lam, “Ambassador of All Good Things” at The Whole Purpose and Chef Jenny Ross of 118 Degrees. (I got the press release.) I give it to you entire; I'll bet my dear things -- my fatheads -- will be able to spot one thing I would change.

Azuñia Pumpkin Spice Pudding

1 cup baked pie pumpkin (See instructions for rushing out, buying, prepping, and baking, above. Only "pie pumpkin" seems confusing. A pumpkin is a pumpkin, no?)

1/2 cup water
1 cup of raw walnuts
1 tbsp. of vanilla extract
1 tbsp. of cinnamon
1 tbsp. of pumpkin pie spice
4-5 tbsp. of Azuñia Organic Agave Nectar (surely we might replace with simple syrup? Plain sugar?)
2 tbsp. of Azuñia Reposado Organic Tequila

Blend water, vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice,Azuñia agave nectar,Azuñia Reposado Tequila and walnuts in blender to a thick paste. Slowly add pumpkin till a thick creamy consistency. Refrigerate for 1 hour, can be topped with cinnamon, walnuts and a drizzle of agave and tequila.


It's the instruction about using a half cup of water in the spice-and-walnut paste that leaps out at me, begging to be altered. Water seems to scream flavorless-ness, while leaping. In its place I would pour cream or at least milk, but the recipe is meant to be canonically healthy, so cream and milk aren't there. Neither is salt, you'll notice. The large doses of vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and agave nectar -- sugar, in other words -- here do the work that the simplicities of cream and salt would easily do.

What with my advising you to resort to canned pumpkin, substitute cream for water, and regard organic agave nectar as functionally so much sugar, well -- Kelly Lam and Chef Jenny Ross would probably be so mortified at my bastardization that I fancy I'll get few press releases in future from Azuñia tequila. Still. At least with this I have conveyed to my fatheads a little something unique to whip together for today's holiday of thanksgiving. By the way, did you know George Washington proclaimed the holiday, on October 3, 1789? I don't remember being taught that, either.

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be -- That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks -- for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation -- for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed -- for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted -- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us."
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2012 Truchard roussanne

Date: Sat, Nov 23, 2013

I shared it with a wedge of Brie and a friend ("what 're you trying to do, educate me?"). Delicious. It would also pair lusciously with Thanksgiving turkey and all those rich side dishes. Think of roussanne, a grape of the Rhone valley in southern France, as the younger brother to his elder sister chardonnay, in Burgundy, to the north. He has her full warm fruitiness but lacks a bit of her cool-climate acidity.

Pardon the lemon in the photo. It just happened to be there.

Retail, about $25.

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