Archive for the ‘art’ Category

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Michael on Julia’s legacy

August 4, 2009

Does anyone in Australia understand the Julia Child adoration thing, or is this purely an American phenomenon?

I have known virtually nothing about her except her name – but in the New York Times this week  is a long and lovely essay by the wonderful Michael Pollan about Julia Child, the first American TV chef, prompted by the new movie Julie &  Julia, starring Meryl Streep as JC.

He muses about the changes in American home cooking and the influence of television upon it, starting with the way Julia Child apparently liberated a generation of American women from fear of cooking by dropping a potato pancake and then retrieving it and patching it back together – her show was live TV, after all.

Pollan is such an engaging writer (his book Second Nature, about gardens, was a big influence on me as I wrote my second novel The Submerged Cathedral, and his other books on food production and ethics, In Defence of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are just as lively and provoking), and this essay is a beauty.

michael pollanPollan’s essay goes on to discuss the exponential rise of television cookery, and how American studies show that people spend more time watching cooking being done than doing it themselves (particularly interesting given the popularity of  Master Chef here, and the talk about how it’s supposedly got people back into the kitchen. I wonder…).

Pollan writes that there are oodles of cooking shows on US television, but says of many of them:

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

He also notes that Julia Child began her cooking show in the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and points out that although they could have been seen as adversaries, this wasn’t true: Child had an aversion to the word ‘housewife’ and treated cooking as a skill and an art, rather than another bit of household drudgery for women.

Anyway I could go on and on – but better for you to simply read this excellent essay here.

Then discover more about Julia Child here (or this fab Youtube video of her show here – it’s hilarious), and more  here about the Nora Ephron movie (which in the way of this strange new world, originated from a blog. Yes, a food blog, called the Julie/Julia Project.).

I just watched the movie trailer and confess that I can’t wait!

Postscript – October 3 2009

Two more amusing additions to this post must be made.

First, this link to the beautifully narky Regina Schrambling at Slate, on ‘Why you’ll never cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking’.

And second, rather more entertainingly, The Defamer’s round-up of cranky food bloggers and their snooty dismissals of Julie Powell, the blogger whose work started the whole JC revival. Hilariously chock-full of envy and rage at their fellow blogger’s success, this stuff makes for rich reading. One namedropping post by a ‘trained chef’ even says, with disgust, “People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts”. Seems rather to miss the point of Julia Child’s taking cookery to the masses, no? Not to mention that the remark is written by a food blogger.

Anyway, all good for a laugh and found here.

Bon appetit!


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Family lunch, Franzen style…

July 28, 2009

correctionsI’ve just taken Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down from the shelf, again, because I’m at a reading loss, with nothing good enough to replace The Line of Beauty coming my way yet (suggestions, anyone?).

Tried earlier today to buy Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, as my writing pal E showed me a bit of it last night, and lordy that woman can write. But no joy in the shop.

Anyway, I have once again come across this superb mealtime encounter between abrasive Denise, a chef, and her ageing parents Enid and Alfred.

It starts with Enid’s description of a lavish party.

“The desserts were a foot tall!” Enid said, her instincts having told her that Denise didn’t care about pyramids of shrimp. “It was elegant, elegant. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“I’m sure it was very nice,” Denise said.

“The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I’d never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?”

The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience – the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down – were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion.

“I’ve seen tall desserts,” Denise said.

“Are they tremendously difficult to make?”

Denise folded her hands in her lap and exhaled slowly. “It sounds like a great party. I’m glad you had fun.”

Enid had, true enough, had fun at Dean and Trish’s party, and she’d wished that Denise had been there to see for herself how elegant it was. At the same time, she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.

“I guess there’s no accounting for tastes,” she said.

“That’s true,” Denise said. “Although some tastes are better than others.”

Alfred had bent low over his plate to ensure that any salmon or haricots verts that fell from his fork would land on china. But he was listening. He said, “Enough.”

“That’s what everybody thinks,” Enid said. “Everybody thinks their taste is the best.”

“But most people are wrong,” Denise said.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own taste,” Enid said. “Everybody gets one vote in this country.”

“Unfortunately!”

“Enough,” Alfred said to Denise. “You’ll never win.”

“You sound like a snob,” said Enid.

“Mother, you’re always telling me how much you like a good home-cooked meal. Well, that’s what I like, too. I think there’s a kind of Disney vulgarity in a foot-tall dessert. You are a better cook than–“

“Oh, no.” Enid shook her head. “I’m a nothing cook.”

“That’s not true at all! Where do you think I–“

“Not from me,” Enid interrupted. “I don’t know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I’m a nothing as a cook. A big nothing.” (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)

Denise straightened her back and raised her glass. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.

“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.

“Yes. That was my lunch.”

“You’ve lost weight.”

“In fact not.”

“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.

Alfred was guiding a forkful of salmon and sorrel sauce to his mouth. The food dropped off his fork and broke into violently shaped pieces.


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Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry

July 22, 2009

Today I came across this, by an American poet called Mark Strand who, in my vast ignorance, I had never heard of.  I love this poem, despite not really understanding, or being able to say why it takes me ….


Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

It is from his Selected Poems – and there’s more about Mark Strand and his poetry here and here.  Turns out my ignorance is even greater than I thought – he has been a Pulitzer winner as well as American Poet Laureate, and very distinguished all in all. I am going to buy one of his books now, in the hope he doesn’t mind my reproduction of his strange and disturbingly beautiful poem here.


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Creative genius: knit wit

July 8, 2009

armwarmers1Okay, so this has nothing to do with food, but it does have to do with creativity and originality and art and beauty .. so there’s a link, right?

These funky arm-warmers were made for me by a knitting genius friend-of-a-friend. I don’t know about you, but in chilly weather (and even in air conditioning!) I am plagued, when writing, by perpetually icy wrists and hands. All that sitting around and not moving, I suppose, and possibly rather too revealing of how my fingers do not fly over the keyboard when writing ….

Anyway, one day I was seized by seething jealousy at my friend Tegan‘s gorgeously funky woollen arm-warmers, made as a present by her friend Vikki.

armwarmers3So I begged to commission Vikki to make some for me, and here they are: personally designed, made to measure, perfectly fitted, above-the-elbow, pea-green-and-parsley, cable-knit, pure Merino wool, soft and cosy and funky and fabulous.

I love them, in case you haven’t got the message.

And speaking of knitting and art, check this out. Guerilla knitting – love it.

Oh and PS: Happy birthday Dad, wherever you may be.

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Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my life

July 2, 2009

elizabethdavidbookThis week’s Guardian has a nice little piece about the spiteful annotations made by Elizabeth David on other people’s cookbooks. Irresistible, no?

I have an abiding love of Elizabeth David which is only tangentially to do with her cookbooks. The first time I ever heard of her was when I went to my university art teacher’s house for lunch, where his spiky, intelligent and beautiful wife cooked something rustic, garlicky, slow-cooked and to me, delicious in an unearthly way. I had never eaten food like it.

It seemed to me that day, sitting in that rambling country house full of Norman Lindsay paintings and art books and warm-toned, casually handled antiques, talking of art and books and garden-grown food and life, that this smell, this dish, this way of eating was somehow a portal into an entirely new creative life, a simpler-but-richer way of living than I had ever known existed, or aspired to. I was right, I think.

It’s not that my own upbringing was lacking in creativity – quite the opposite; I had a talented father who made half the furniture in the house as well as beautiful, ethereal costumes for school plays and other things, and a florist mother who routinely created beauty in small ways around our house (I have written about them here) – it’s just that food was never really a part of that creativity. Food, for my beleaguered mother, was a matter of filling up seven hungry stomachs every day in the most efficient and responsible way possible before escaping out into her beloved garden. The cooking got done out of love, but I don’t think she really ever enjoyed it. And who on earth could blame her?

But the food I ate at my painting & drawing teacher’s house that lunch time, I intuited, was somehow to do with art, not separate from it. It seemed to draw the very art from the walls, and the garden and the furniture and the conversation of that day, into one living whole. In an unspoken and completely unpretentious way, it seemed to somehow feed not only the physical but the artistic selves of these people.

I think the dish my teacher’s wife (who later became a friend too) cooked that day was Maiale Al Latte, or pork cooked in milk – I remember it because I found the idea of cooking meat milk completely astounding – and when I asked about it, the elegant chef said it was “just an old Elizabeth David thing”. I feigned familiarity with this person. Ah, I said, and nodded. And noted the words Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David, in my head.

A short time later, in a local op shop, I came across my first copy of Elizabeth David’s little Penguin paperback, A Book of Mediterranean Food. It was destiny. I took the book home and began cooking boeuf en daube a la nicoise and soupe au pistou for my uni flatmates, and began to fall in love with cooking.

I still have this book (that’s it, above) even though the pages have fallen out and the cover is ragged. I bought a new hardback version a few years ago, but I can’t let go of this one for sentimental reasons. Even though I only ever cooked a few things from it, and never have properly read David’s musings and impressions, this book seems deeply emblematic to me, in the way objects can represent those moments one has, as a young person, when you find a way of becoming your real self – that person you want to be. I treasure it still for that reason.

I know there are plenty of Elizabeth David fetishists out there, and I suppose I am one of them.

I absolutely loved, for example, that brilliant television biopic screened here last year, Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, not because it was an accurate portrayal – which those who know their stuff about her tell me it absolutely wasn’t, omitting any mention of her elite Tory childhood and patrician ways, for example – but because it was a film about the creative struggle, and about abundance in the midst of postwar miserliness, and saying yes to personal freedom in spite of society’s disapproval. And the price paid for all those things.

(As an aside, any writer who’s ever done a bookshop or library reading to an audience of four, two of whom are asleep and one of whom berates one for using, on page seventy-two, the word ‘squashed’ when they themselves would have chosen ‘crunched’, should clasp to their bosom the scene in this film when cookery writer ED goes to address a Women’s Insitute meeting. Priceless).

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece: apparently her archive of personal papers shows that Elizabeth was a right snidey-pants about other people’s cookbooks and recipes (and even the illustrator of her own books), keeping notes on their faults.

There’s a light dusting of yellow stickies with general comments to set the tone: “p166 This is NOT a tian [a Provencal mixed-vegetable gratin]”; “This is a useless book”; and “Chocolate in the Renaissance?” There are comments that should be engraved on every modern food writer’s heart: “Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?”

Then, suddenly, you find yourself deep in sedition and heresy. Inside a copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by an American journalist Waverley Root: “Waverley Root is a pitiful phoney.”

On the legendary 1969 French book Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, regarded by a generation of chefs as the bible of modern cuisine: “This is a really awful book.”

In a carbon copy of a private letter dated October 1983: “I have to tell you that really I never did care very much for the John Minton illustrations for my books. They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me now as much as they did in 1950.”

On a copy of Full and Plenty, a mercifully forgotten volume by Maura Laverty: “The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snob’s preserve.”

Perhaps she was a vindictive snob, but who cares? These are personal papers, not published remarks (until now!). Or perhaps she was right. Regardless, I’ll always be grateful for whatever spirit of rebellion or snobbery (along with, doubtless, the Tory money) sent her from England to the Continent, into and out of her miserable affairs and her drinking and her stroke. And I’ll be grateful too, for what many have seen as her unforgivable disdain for the lives of ordinary Britons, because a generation and a lot of geography later, it was that same rebellion and disdain that made an everlasting difference to my very ordinary life.

So tell me, did you ever have a small but transformative culinary moment like mine? And which was the cookbook that changed your life?