Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Grandaddy of all Bloggers

Earlier this year, a friend of mine asked me if I had ever heard of Montaigne.  He mispronounced the name, so it took me a couple of follow-up questions to verify that he was indeed referring to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.  Of course I had heard of Montaigne.  In my prior life as a student of French literature I had spent a semester that included a great deal of focus on his essays.  I had made a mental note that, when I had gotten older, I should return to his essays.  My friend had stumbled across Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live - or -  A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in German translation.  My friend was quite impressed with the book and with Montaigne.  He lent me the book later this year, and I finally found time to start reading earlier this week as a prelude to re-reading Les Essais.  Hardly had I begun reading the book, and I started reflecting on the relationship between the Essay and Blogging.  Certain that other great minds had made the comparison before me, I googled "Montaigne Blog" and came up with an article from 2010 in the Paris Review entitled What Bloggers Owe Montaigne.  Not even bothering to note who the author of the article was, I plunged into an interesting history of Montaigne's impact on English and American authors and the essay form.  Of particular interest was Montaigne's influence on Shakespeare and Emerson.  At the very end of the article, the author dealt with the overlap of the essay with blogging.  I finally looked at the author's name and realized that it was Sara Bakewell.  Here is an excerpt from her article:

"These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before. 

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. 'Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,' he said. We are united in the very fact of our diversity, and 'this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.' His book is such a world, and when we look into it there is no end to the strangeness and familiarity we might see."

 I've just started reading the book.  In spite of my initial doubts about whether I would find the "self-help format", for lack of a better description, tolerable, I have enjoyed the first three chapters and will finish the book and move on to the essays, probably in English translation.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Things We Eat at Christmas

I think each family has certain traditions, developed over generations and heavily dependent on local culture, about what gets eaten over important holidays.  At Bloggerboy Headquarters, we are blessed by celebrating with three generations, so some of the traditions go back a ways.  I wanted to start with a list of items often on our shopping list.

Goose.  A fresh German goose bought from a local producer.  The Goose will be served this evening, December 25th, with potato dumplings, red cabbage, and one or two other dishes.

Goose Liver.  Yesterday afternoon, before the festivities began, I fried up a fresh goose liver with shallots, and Frau Bloggerboy, Bloggerboy Jr. and I enjoyed it as a light lunch.  I got a bit fancy with the shallots, removing them from the pan until the liver was done, then quenching the pan drippings with a bit of wine, reducing it, adding butter and then the shallots for a tangy-flavored seasoning to go with the liver.

Traditionally, the Bloggerboy family goes to church on Christmas Eve, returns home for a "light" Christmas Eve meal, and then retires to the living room to open presents.  This year, our table included many dishes back by popular demand.  Several of us eat a famous Frankfurt beef sausage (Rindswurst) as a starter.  Not to be confused with the famous pork/veal Frankfurters, the German beef sausage was first made in Frankfurt to cater to the needs of the city's large Jewish population and quickly grew to be a favorite among all "Frankfurters" (the human kind).  If you are in the US, you might buy Hebrew National Beef Franks to get an idea as to how beef franks here taste.  Just add mustard and potato salad.  Our potato salad was served with a light creamy dressing mixed with chopped pickles.  The potatoes were exceptionally good, having been purchased from a local farmer in Frau Bloggerboy's ancestral village in Westphalia.  They were waxy and had a light, golden-yellow color.  It is getting hard to find excellent waxy potatoes in the supermarkets in Germany, and even the ones from the street markets often disappoint.  

Bloggerboy Junior and I ate thinly-sliced rare roast beef with creamy horseradish sauce and a bit of salt. Others ate smoked eel and, of particular interest, Schillerlocken. Literally translated, Schillerlocken means curls of the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller's hair.  Actually, they are lightly-smoked strips of the flanks of dogfish sharks, unfortunately, an endangered species.  When smoked, the strips roll together and curl up, hence the curly name.  My attention was caught by a small plate of cod liver.  I tried to determine how that dish fit into the family tradition, but neither Frau Bloggerboy nor her mother was quite sure how that dish made it onto the table except to note that Frau Bloggerboy's father had eaten the dish.  Other items that were on the table by special request:  sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp with cocktail sauce, garlic bread, Vacherin Haut-Doubs cheese wrapped in spruce bark (Bloggerboy Junior of all people),  a creamy goat's cheese, and thinly-sliced, lightly-smoked ham.  After our "light meal", we seriously debated about whether to postpone the exchange of gifts until the morning.  After slight reflection, we decided to move on to the next stage, cleaned up the table and moved to the living room.

I forgot to mention that, slipped in between the goose liver lunch and the "light" dinner, we had a classic Christmas Eve Kaffeetrinken with four different kinds of cake.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

Rindswurst & Kartoffelsalat


Sunday, December 8, 2013

America Growing Up - A Book Review

I bought MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me, heretofore unread by me, for a foodie friend who had invited us to a brunch.  Well, the book arrived too late and now it is used.  I'm really glad I read the book.  It augments my picture of France in the Twenties and describes Europe (France and francophone Switzerland) starting in the immediate aftermath of World War I through the looming catastrophe of World War II.  The book starts with the author's childhood in California, with descriptions of the family life and food culture, the latter primarily established by cooks hired and fired at regular intervals and relatives with repressed food lusts.  Then on to boarding school with a prim mistress whose passion for food might have been the only release in the repressed environment.  And then off to France.  

It all sounds so fabulous one wants to gag, but it would be an error to describe Fisher's early life as luxurious, except for the food and wine.  The California scenes suggest a certain ruggedness.  I really would like to know the financial details of this woman's life.  How wealthy was her family?  How close to poverty was she with her first husband when they lived in Dijon and Strasbourg as he pursued his doctorate?  How expensive (relative to income) were all the first and second class ship passages between the US and Europe?  How expensive were the gourmet meals washed down with first class wines in some of the best restaurants in Burgundy?  France must have been incredibly cheap to an American with a bit of disposable income in the Twenties.  How else can you explain the whole Left Bank crowd?  And Fisher's living conditions in France were quite meager.  Her second apartment in Dijon was in a working class neighborhood that scared off some of her friends even though it sounds harmless.  She and her husband lived in apartments with no bathrooms and few amenities.  I would love to have a Walden-like shopping list of her life in Dijon -- an income and expense statement if you will.

This book also stands as a monument to an early feminist, a forerunner to Julia Childs, and, in some respects -- mostly stylistic but occasionally towards the end also as to mood -- a soul sister with Californian Joan Didion.  The story of how Fisher learned to carry herself as a woman traveling the high seas alone, to keep debauched strangers away and to command the respect of wait staff even when others were suffering from their neglect, well, that is quite amusing and interesting.  Fisher's sexual frankness also is refreshing.  Looking at her picture on the book cover, one thinks of Emily Post or Dear Abby Van Buren.  No such thing!

The book also reads well as history, from the wonderful period when Americans lived happily in France after WWI to the last throes of fascism before WWII.  The book ends not in Europe but in Mexico, marking not only the beginning of America's stride onto the world stage, but the beginning of culinary globalization, America's awakening to the more exotic tastes of southern and eastern cuisine -- a truly egalitarian project.  Published during the war, The Gastronomical Me certainly stands for trying to preserve the bonds of love between two continents at a time of great strain.  Make schnitzel, not war.  It also stands for a kind of openness towards the wide world outside our doorstep that often seems under attack today by forces that would make us turn inward.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Evening Redness in the West

As some of you may have heard, a major storm blew through Germany yesterday.  Shortly before the winds started picking up in Frankfurt, far south of the worst part of the storm, we had a great sunset.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ivory Tower / Elfenbeinturm

The expression is the same in German and English, signifying the imagined luxury of a life devoted to ideas removed from the daily struggle for survival.  An ambitious sprayer accurately identified the ivory tower below (top of building) that belongs to the University of Frankfurt.  It is now vacant and ready to be torn down.  Yes, even ivory towers have to make way for progress.  The university has a new campus, and this is an ugly building that will not be missed.

That's not Ivory! It's Concrete 
Weg damit!

Secret Stash

Gathered in Frankfurt in Early October

Psst. Don't tell anyone, but I found a chestnut tree not far from here, i.e. in the city, that produces decent chestnuts.  It was already a bit late in the season, and not many chestnuts were lying around.  Next year, I will show up bright and early after windy fall nights to collect as many of these chestnuts as possible.  Most of the so-called chestnut trees here in Frankfurt are horse chestnuts [Rosskastanien], but this one is the real McCoy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mushroom Mafia

Beware of people who collect mushrooms in the German forests! Many times it is forbidden (verboten) to do so.   Lately, organized gangs of criminals -- barbarians and vandals, literally -- have been discovered "pillaging" the forests of basketloads of prized mushrooms.  Rangers who have confronted the pillagers have been threatened.  Poor Germans, they still haven't recovered from the Grimm Brothers, and now they have one more reason to stay out of the forests.  If you read the linked article, however, you will note that the German woods already are crammed with hunters, forestry workers, and non-criminal mushroom hunters.  This is a heavily-populated country.

boletus edulis (Porciono or Steinpilz, also available in
grocery stores here.  (Wikipedia)

To date, I am not aware of any Canadians among the pillagers.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Coming up for Air

Whew, that was a pretty productive month.  I goofed a bit and did a few minor chores today.  This evening, I'm dining with friends.  I'm coming up for air, but the deep breath today has to last for six weeks or more.  After that, rest.  One of these days, he says for the thousandth time, I'm going to be on top of things, caught up.  The Procrastinator's Prayer:


grant me the strength to perform a half-year's work
in two months before the Final Deadline.

Lead me not into distractions or panic, but deliver me from failure.
For I am a procrastinator,

The Patron Saint of Procrastinators?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Baby Blue

I was lucky to stumble on the series Breaking Bad this past year on AXN.  I'm used to getting US series a year or two after they run in the US, but Breaking Bad was shown currently, one day after running in the US.  The series has gained a huge following in the US, and over 10 million viewers watched the series finale on Monday.  I wonder when German scriptwriters are going to switch over to team writing efforts.  It sure makes a difference in show quality.  I miss the series already.  Oh yes, the series BB ended with the song, BB, a veiled reference to the main character's famous blue drug.

Friday, September 27, 2013

One River

I wanted to thank my friend Candy for recommending this book to me.  It has now been several months since I read the book, but it has left a lasting impression.  My family had a subscription to National Geographic when I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, and I can remember skimming through the pictures of stone-age tribes from exotic places in South America, Africa and Asia.  I never really gave those pictures much thought, but now I know that I was growing up in a time when these cultures were disappearing and the wilderness, receding. 
One River is a magnificent history of the Amazon Rain Forest and a biography about the father of modern ethnobotany, Ricard Evans Schultes, who devoted his career to exploring it.  I am not going to engage in a lengthy review or go into much detail about the book.  It is the kind of book that could fall into the hands of a teenager and change his or her life.  What lingers with this older reader is the overwhelming grandeur of the Amazon, its rain forests and indigenous cultures.  Set aside a couple of days to read this book and disappear into the jungle.