Maybe it is magic after all

When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable.

The words we leave behind

1. Ordered descent

On the wall by the stairs of my grandmother’s house she hung trivets of the kind you might find at a tourist trap. Rough cast iron, self-consciously old-timey, painted with whimsically tacky messages. Four of them in a line, so you could read as you descended:

Come in, sit down, relax, converse. Our house doesn’t always look like this. Sometimes it’s even worse.

and

I’m not a fast cook, I’m not a slow cook. I’m a half-fast cook!

When my grandparents packed up the house and moved into a retirement community I asked for the trivets, but it was only after she died that I noticed the penciled notes she had made on their backs: LT. END, LT. MID, RT. MID., and RT. END. Removing the trivets from the wall to paint, she had labeled them so they could be returned promptly to their proper position. Whimsical, but ordered. They are scattered now, one in my office, one in the kitchen, two boxed in a closet. But I like to think they will be reunited someday, and I will know how to arrange them when they are.

We like to dance real slow

The Monkey likes to watch basketball with me, or rather she likes to be in the same room while I’m watching basketball. Or football. She is only vaguely aware of who is playing, unless it’s the Philadelphia Eagles or Carolina basketball—though during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament I can’t claim much better for myself; I frequently have to Google a set of initials before remembering which university it stands for. On Friday I asked her whether we should root for Memphis or North Texas; she considered the matter briefly before saying, as if pronouncing judgment on a fine wine, “North Texas, I think.” Then she returned her full attention to her Leapster, which binged its approval and cheerfully inquired whether a sea turtle might be larger than an orca.

The point isn’t the particular sport, or which teams are playing or who happens to be winning; it’s the experience of watching together. It would be male bonding if she were male, but hey, it’s the twenty-first century, and we could just as easily be watching women’s sports.

We Dare Defend Our Rights

Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there.

cherry tomatoes

American dream in an envelope

cherry tomatoesWith the end of the holidays the seed catalogs arrive. There may be nothing more American than a seed catalog: it is both the song of nature and the promise of perfectability, conveniently packaged for a low low price. It lures us with photographs of plump vegetables in green gardens and plump children in green grass, the fruit of the earth and of our loins, the promise of spring and of a new generation. Beneath swelling tomatoes and glistening heads of broccoli captions proclaim Hybrid! They are bigger, stronger, more durable, better tasting, more nutritious, longer growing, the wonder of technology. We can make the world better; just add water and warm sun and hard work and clean living. It may not be uniquely American, this promise of technology and commerce to grant us natural wonder and old-fashioned virtue, but it is American. An American dream in an envelope. In the pit of winter it is irresistable.

New Year’s wishes

So I wrote this and published this, and then, defying the traditional New Year’s resolution to be more organized, forgot to publish it. But now it’s relevant again, so with a little updating, here it is with best wishes for 2007.

Darrin McMahon writes in today’s the 12.29.2005 New York Times that you can’t just decide to be happy. He notes that happiness as a commendable and morally acceptable end in itself is a concept invented only in the past few centuries and cites the 19th-century philosophers Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill on the subject — now there’s research to back them up, but really, Mill’s common sense could be more common without the blessing of social science:

Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

In the spirit of Mill and the ever-cranky Carlyle (and with an eye toward looking back fondly on the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, whose memory moves me to one-liner homilies), I will not tell you to have a happy 2006 2007 but instead offer the following wishes.

No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.

Feynman and I sledding

Feynman, 1994-2006

Feynman, our first basset hound, died yesterday. She was twelve. A tumor burst in her abdomen, but she wasn’t in pain for long, and we had time to say goodbye and buy her one last cheeseburger and some coffee ice cream.

She was my first dog. I don’t even know where to begin. This is the best I can do.

  1. She was a horrible puppy. She chewed up our wedding album, books, CD cases, chairs, carpeting, and four straight pins that after a night in the hospital she passed without incident. We still have the straight pins, in a plastic jar in the closet. I can maybe understand one; but four?
  2. Despite all that, and despite our obedience trainer’s joke that as a basset hound she would be her “special ed student,” Feynman was certified as a Canine Good Citizen when she was two. For years I had the certificate framed on the wall over my desk. I never hung the Ph.D., just the CGC.
  3. We used to watch a lot of TV, because we were in graduate school and avoiding work. Sometimes we were desperate enough to watch rodeo, and Feynman sat on the couch and watched with us. She was a rodeo fan. If I changed the channel, she would look pointedly at the remote control, then glare at me.
  4. You might not think a dog could glare. You might not think a dog could have a lot of expressions Feynman used daily. When I did something she thought was stupid (like put up a Christmas tree or bring home a puppy) she looked at me with a combination of guilt-inducing sorrow and something close to pity for being so thick.
  5. She could balance a Milk Bone on her nose, flip it up, and catch it in the air. She gave the impression that a lot of things were beneath her dignity, but food talks; dignity walks. Thanksgiving will never be the same without her.
  6. She had a working vocabulary of over a hundred words. We counted them, once. Her favorite was “waffle.”
  7. She once outsmarted my mother-in-law. She pretended that she needed help getting up onto the couch, and when Kathy’s mom got out of her comfortable chair to help her, Feynman leapt up into the warm spot on the chair. There was no getting between Feynman and her personal comfort.
  8. I could talk about her as the noble dog, and in fact she could carry herself with an air of nobility. But she also thought the litterbox was a snack bar and the cat a vending machine. So I won’t.
  9. When we brought Toby home from the breeder Feynman, the pampered only dog, knew immediately her gig was up. I have a photo framed on my bookshelf of her on that day looking at us as though we had sold her to the redneck neighbors. She growled at him, she barked at him, she wanted him dead. She stayed surly for a full year, and then they were best friends for eight years after.
  10. If you referred to them as “the dogs” and told them to do something, she ignored you. What, me? Toby was the dog. She was, well, Feynman.
  11. When Kathy found a kitten starving in the drainpipe under our driveway and brought it inside, it decided that Feynman was its mother and tried to suckle off of her. She kissed him so much that we had to take him away from her; he was soaked in basset drool. We didn’t want a cat, but we kept him. Now we have three. I blame her.
  12. One Christmas when we were visiting my parents it snowed and we took Feynman sledding: grabbed her, held her on the flexible flyer, and careened down the icy hill. At the bottom she leapt away, shook herself off, barked at me, then raced to the top of the hill to do it again.
  13. This summer when she came with us to the farmer’s market every week, limping around the lot on her arthritic hip, she made so many friends that there are people who changed their Saturday morning schedules so they could see her.
  14. There were times when she seemed nearly human, but she made me a dog person and taught me to be a dog, and that’s as good a gift as anyone has ever given me.

Feynman and I sledding

Chinese

This morning I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle of the Asia Market, puzzling over which brand of vegetable gyoza I bought last week because the packages all look the same to me and I can’t read Chinese, when the Monkey burst into song. I found this somewhat disconcerting, because she was singing in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese, and I had no idea what she was singing about.

Sadie

Look! A puppy!

Sadie

That’s Sadie, 7 weeks old when the picture was taken, 9 weeks old now.

She is allowed to sleep on the bed, a privilege neither of our other dogs gained until they were much older, but she snores and rootches and usually ends up in the crate anyway.

She does not like to pee in the rain and will, if dragged outside, squat for an instant then dart back up the steps and, five minutes later, pee on the floor.

She slept in my lap while I drove her home from the breeder listening to Back Porch Music on NPR.

She harrasses the ducks by tracking them around the back yard.

She’s a basset hound, and while I used to think that maybe someday I would have dogs of other breeds, in all likelihood, I will just have a lot of basset hounds. It is probably best just to know your type and stick to it.