04 October, 2009

autumnal issues

Brrr! There's a definite chill in the London air this morning. Tis the season of spiders, at least where I live, and last week John had to be brought to the rescue when I discovered a web the size of Birmingham directly in my path from the garden door to the dinner table outside. My shrieks brought Emily and Avery in from their desultory attempts at homework. "OMG," Emily cowered, "It's the biggest spider I've ever seen." "Maybe it's dead, it's not moving," Avery whimpered, and so John got a big stick and touched the web. Immediately the ginormous thing began frantically to work its way upward and away from him, so he carried the web over to a nearby potted plant amid more hysterical wails from the girls. "Look, she's carrying up all the extra silk to make a new web," John pointed out, trying to achieve some zoological education from what was so far a scream-fest.

The only thing worse than seeing a HUGE spider web complete with Charlotte in the centre, however, is seeing... HALF a huge spider web with no spider to be seen, and then I begin shaking my head in panic, inspecting my sweater sleeves for unwelcome guests.

I have my work cut out today. Do you, my faithful American readers, subscribe to Saveur Magazine? You must. It was begun, I think, in 1992, just as I was returning to New York from our first stint in London. At that time the food magazine world was very, very sparsely populated, with Gourmet and Food and Wine and... I want to say that's it. I'm exaggerating, or whatever the opposite is, but my point is, the food world was small, quiet and rather simply expressive.

Unrecognizable from today! Now Saveur is one of dozens of food magazines (some of them awful things dominated by television chefs, I won't name names) but it is still, with Gourmet, one of my favorites. Thank you, Mom and Dad, and Jill and Joel, for getting these magazines to me all the way across the ocean every month! They are the grandes dames of the cooking/publishing industry, bravely taking their old-fashioned, ingredient- and process- faithful approach into the modern world of amazingly trans-global shopping, eating and cooking. The recipes in these magazines work! And Saveur in particular is devoted to the STORIES around food: the family histories of great cooks, the memories of dishes cooked for Halloween in the Midwest, for birthday celebrations in tiny villages in Italy, for religious meals in the streets of Lebanon. Stories abound.

Because I get Saveur a bit late, I'm late to the announcement of a... food-writing contest. What are the 100 Best Food Things of the year? Saveur wants to know what we think. So I am playing with several ideas as I type here at my dining room table (looking resolutely into that dratted rebuilt spider web in the garden! and upward through the skylight at a neighbor kitty walking from one side of the roof to the other!). The idea of the contest is to describe your suggested Best Food Thing, then write no more than 1000 words on why you've chosen this Thing. It's as if someone stuck a pencil through her hair at Saveur and asked her editor, "What sort of a contest could we run so Kristen could get her idea published in a major magazine?"

Well, I'm getting ahead of myself. But I'm hard at work.

I'm also thinking (STILL!) about "Julie and Julia." There has been a fascinating discussion in many places about various aspects of the story, and I'm fascinating by all the layers of controversy spinning around. What is the nature of a blog, and what is available to bloggers to talk about? Was Julia Child's book morally Julie Powell's to "appropriate", and is there any difference between Julie's cooking her way through it and talking to her friends about it, and blogging it? Was Julie's cooking in order to save herself from a depressing post-September 11th New York life any less interesting than Julia's cooking to give herself something to do in post-WWII Paris while her husband took photographs and was a minor diplomat?

It seems slightly cruel, to me, for people to go to the film and come away saying how wonderful Julia Child was, and how forgettable Julie Powell was. No one until now has made a film of Julia Child's life. It took Julie Powell's project (however much I find her writing to be depressingly negative) to call enough attention to what Julia Child had achieved to warrant Nora Ephron to write a screenplay! Julia was and is wonderful, but the public's awareness of her had waned, perhaps, in the wake of all the hype and shrill nonsense of the modern food world. If Julie Powell's determination to cook her way through the book, to save her own sanity, resulted in a whole new generation's (or two! or three!) desire to GO HOME AND COOK, and go on Amazon and buy Julia's book, all to the good!

It's been said that Julia was upset at having her work taken over as a stunt, by Julie. Interesting question, that: once one publishes a book, isn't it out there to be treated (as long as it's legal) however the public wishes to treat it? I published a book myself once, about art history, and every once in awhile I see that someone has read it (amazing!) and used bits of it in an article, not always in a way I like, but legally credited, which means... I have to put up with it.

Here's a larger question, and one that is as relevant for an old-fashioned real BOOK like Julia Child's posthumous memoir My Life in France, as it is for my blog. How much of one's life experiences, conversations, love affairs, belong to one? The whole thing? Did Julia have the right to recount conversations with real people that took place 50 years ago, in her memoir? Do I have the right to recount conversations with real people that took place yesterday, on my blog? Did Julie have the right to go step by step through Julia's recipes, on her blog and in her book? How much of one's daily experiences belong to one, and how much to the other half of the relationship that makes it all possible?

I got in massive trouble awhile ago for recounting things that happened to me, here on the blog, because one person reckoned that they weren't my property to recount. If I had a lovely conversation with a little girl at Avery's school, and lovingly recounted it, I had stolen something from that little girl, my nemesis believed. But is that true? Was Julie's experience in her kitchen not entirely hers to tell about, because she was dependent on Julia's cookbook in order to tell it?

I had one very testy conversation with... let's call her a "frenemy"... about the blog. "If you'd told us all you were a writer to begin with..." Pause. "Yes?" I said. "What then?" "Well, then we'd have KNOWN..." "Known what?"

Now that I've had permission from Avery's school to have my blog (did I need permission? no idea), I tend to tell people I write one, just to put them on notice, I suppose. "Oooh, are you going to write about ME, then?" some people gush self-consciously, laughing a bit. Maybe! And I tend to change names. But Julia Child didn't. The Ambassador to France is the real Ambassador to France, the head of the Cordon Bleu cooking school is the real person. Was that her property to use, because she interacted with them?

Thorny questions these. I would certainly welcome anyone's views on the minefield that is one's ownership over all the laughable, touching, embarrassing, feisty or delicious things that happen in this life.

Goodness, this subject has certainly brought out all my latent professorial instincts! Back to real life. Last night saw us at the Trafalgar Studios for a raucous, uneven but enjoyable performance of "Othello," starring Lenny Henry, who I may say as a matter of public record, once lived in my house! With his wife, the comedian Dawn French.

How to describe this production? Well, not being superbly well versed in Shakespeare (nearly every time I see a play onstage it's for the first time, in my 40s, which is a bit embarrassing, but at least I'm going!), I had to read up on the play. It's the story of a rather mismatched marriage between a black Moor with a sad past, and his high-born white wife Desdemona, who are surrounded by a lot of conniving, interfering colleagues and "friends." Othello's trusted colleague Iago convinces him that his beloved wife is cheating on him with a military colleague, and Iago gets his own wife Emilia to participate unknowingly in "proving" Desdemona's infidelity, so, spoiler alert, Othello kills her. Then he finds he was wrong and he kills himself. End of story.

What this play needs, for one kind of success, is absolute passion, quiet conviction of devoted love, a slow burn toward from disbelief to belief in betrayal, an epic struggle within one person to do a dreaded deed, and then mind-blowing remorse. This version... did not have these things. I was not convinced that there was enough chemistry between Othello and Desdemona to warrant belief in their overwhelming love. They seemed cheerfully fond of one another, but there was no chemistry. Henry towered over Jessica Harris, his tiny Desdemona, which is FINE, but there was only a brotherly-sisterly happiness in being together, not a soul-destroying, obsessive love between two people for whom the path to happiness is strewn with other people's hatred.

Conrad Nelson was amazingly evil as Iago (and he composed the music for the production, how impressive). He conveyed hatred well enough, but I never could figure out WHY he hated Othello enough to engineer the massive deception that brought about his downfall. There is racism in the language of the play, but I couldn't hear or see it clearly enough to feel I understood Iago's position.

All this being said, it was a very stimulating evening! Why? In an odd way because one could never quite suspend disbelief that Lenny Henry was onstage playing Othello. He's a giant comic talent! Our neighbors report that when Dawn French and he lived in our house, the walls simply shook with laughter. He is a larger-than-life GOOD man, who brought to Othello a sort of simple sweetness, and then about face: a rather unbelievable belief in having been betrayed. But we cared. More about him and his unhappiness than poor Desdemona's fate.

The second half is much stronger than the first. He stops rushing his lines, Desdemona's bewilderment is believable, Iago gets meaner and nastier, and by the end, however wavery the motivation seemed for Othello's murder of his wife, we believe his utter misery and self-loathing.

Go, do! It's playing through December. John said just what I was thinking at the end, "I like the bows as much as the entire play!" Lenny Henry was positively bouncing with the thrill of the play, since he had avowed his discomfort with Shakespeare until he took on this project. The bows were full of pride, joy and accomplishment, and he shook hands with audience members and slapped his fellow actors on the back, clowning and laughing. It was really a very enjoyable night. But not, strictly speaking, "Othello," if that makes sense. I'd like to see a truly tragic production someday. And now I know what the play is about, I can have a better attention span!

Before the play we ate an early dinner here (I know, I know, normal people take the opportunity to go OUT to dinner, but you know me). We had had simply superb meatballs stuffed with mozzarella earlier in the week, and I'd reserved a good portion of the meatball mix for what purpose, I do not know. But my brilliant husband, ever attuned to grilling opportunities, said, "Let's make burgers of it." And may I say? The best burgers EVER.

Meatball Burgers
(serves 4 easily)

about 1 1/2 pounds mixed ground meats: pork, beef and lamb
2 eggs
1/2 cup homemade breadcrumbs
salt and pepper (to taste if you don't mind raw meat and eggs, as I don't!)

4 hard rolls
sliced red onion
sliced tomato
sliced avocado
mayonnaise with some wasabi mixed in (if you like a kick)
rocket leaves

The secret to this mixture is in the KNEADING. You have to knead it like dough. So take off your rings and get in there. Make sure the bowl is bigger than the dough by a lot, so you can really move around. At the beginning the mixture will be three separate meats and some slippery egg, with the breadcrumbs floating around. But the more you mix, kneading and turning the bowl around, it mysteriously marries together. The slipperiness merges with the breadcrumbs and the meats all make friends. After just five or six minutes of kneading, the mixture will be completely smooth and relatively airless and lumpless.

Form into burgers, tall or flat as you like. I like tall, although they're ultimately a complete mess to eat. On a very hot grill, grill the burgers three or four minutes per side, depending on your attitude toward rareness.

To assemble, slice the rolls in half and tear out the insides of each, putting them aside to make breadcrumbs. Everyone adds condiments and veg, and bob's your uncle.


A couple of caveats: give everyone at least two napkins! And if you're cooking for a first date, you'll learn a lot about him or her from the way that burger gets eaten!

Well, I must get to my contest. Deadline is Wednesday! Wish me luck.


A Work in Progress said...

Good luck! Love the thoughts about blogging and writing. My daughter keeps saying she wants to be a journalist when she grows up. I told her journalists will probably be nearly extinct soon; better be a blogger as that's where the best writing will be (is now, in many cases). I've seen some food blogs (Smitten Kitchen for example) with links to their "favorite" products on, say, amazon. I assume that they get a commission of some sort if a reader purchases after linking through the blog. There must be some other creative ways to make a living at this, but they have not been discovered yet. I am convinced that this is the dawn of a new era.

Kristen In London said...

I know, I know... today on your advice I looked at loads of blogs and mostly what I saw was advertising, staring me in the face. Not that I would mind advertising products I admire, I suppose, like certain food products and bookstores... I have no idea how it works!

Renée said...

Did you know that Gourmet magazine is shutting down? How sad.

Kristen In London said...

Devastated, Renee, devastated. Now watch Saveur fold... and the link to the contest was broken down so I have not been able to enter... is that a bad sign?

ntsc said...

Gourmet shutting down caught us by suprise, we have subscribed since about 1982, our second longest running subscription. Only Bon Appeitit surpasses is.

Followed the crumbs from The Yummy Mummy.

Bee said...

Kristen - I say this with love: you have enough stuff here for at least five blog posts! As I was reading, I was constantly making mental notes: must mention that, ooo, that's interesting. And now that I've reached the end, I'm just wallowing in the deliciousness of those plump burgers!

I am VERY interested in what you have to say about the Julie/Julia issues. Have you read Julie Powell's latest, Cleaving? It has bothered me for weeks . . . and it bothers me that I can't mentally wrap up what I want to say about it. (Yes, negative -- although also funny; yes, definitely errs on the side of sharing TOO much of someone else's private experience.) But I do think that Powell gave Julia Child's work a new lease on life . . . and who, really, can complain about that?

I have to admit that I am anti-advertising and like the "pure" (is that the right word for it?) aspects of blogging. The reciprocal exchange of ideas and information: like the best kind of conversation. On the other hand, some people put such care/time/expertise into their blogs . . . and I don't really bedgrudge it if they want to try to make money out of it. Time is, generally, money. Sadly. (However, I never click on ads.)

I'm really glad that you found me. (How did you find me, out of curiousity?)

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Bee, how nice to see you here! My friend and commenter Work in Progress recommended you, I think, or I found as a result of one of the blogs she recommended? Anyway, a personal path to you, via Laurie Colwin, I believe.

I know that post was far too long! I need to blog tomorrow because I have far too much on my mind now... will have to divide it.

I am glad the blog debate resonated with you. If only you lived in London, we could meet up for a coffee and solve all the world's problems, for certain. Thank you for reading!