Archive for the 'Peasant Palate' Category

. . . . You Were Only Waiting, For This Moment, To Be Free

Love Is Lord Of All

Eve Crucified

Seasons Greetings

Peace, love, contentment, to all.

To that day. When we all go together.

Into the great wide open.

Pilgrims Progress

F. Scott Fitzgerald saw it. To the bottom of every bottle. Which, early—44—killed him.

No matter. He got it right. Wrote the Great American Novel. The Great Gatsby. Which ends with this:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away. Until yesgradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The green light, it will never be attained, as Fitzgerald knew, on this continent, by white people. Because they do not belong here. It was a mistake, for them to ever to have come. To this place. Because it is not their place.

The green light, they can bask in it—the white people—when, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” they return to from where they came. Where they should, forever, have remained.

 

 

 

the little bird; all that there is

Sage And Spirit

(And so, as the world turns, again it is May. Time, then, to rerun this piece, and get with the sage.)

The ancients were enamored with sage. So am I. The ancients believed that sage could confer immortality. What I believe: who knows? I eat the stuff, and I’m still knocking around.

“Why,” demanded one Latin commentator, “should a man die who grows sage in his garden?”

Beats me.

Among the English, it is believed that the plant’s immortalist properties are most pronounced in May:

He who would live for aye
Must eat Sage in the month of May.

We have almost all of May to go here. So get to nibbling.

Or maybe it’s okay to wait until next month. For over there in Provence, says Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, folks aver “[i]t should be picked on the dawn of Midsummer Day when the first ray of sunlight strikes the highest mountain.”

Provencal proverb: “he who has sage in his garden needs no doctor.”

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Bad Dancing

And everything would have turned out happily had not rumour of the komarinsky finally reached Foma Fromich.

Foma was shocked and immediately sent foma say wrongfor the Colonel.

“What is it? What has happened?” Uncle exclaimed, panic-stricken.

“What has happened? Do you realize he was dancing the komarinsky?”

“Well . . . what about it?”

“What do you mean, ‘What about it?’” roared Foma. “How can you say such a thing? You who are their master and, in a sense, their father! Have you any idea what the komarinsky stands for? Do you know that this song depicts a vile peasant in a state of drunkenness, who was about to commit a highly immoral act? Do you realize what this debauched yokel did? He violated the most sacred ties, and as it were tramped upon them with his huge peasant boots that are accustomed to nothing but stomping the floors of drinking dens! Do you realize that your reply has insulted my noblest feelings? Do you realize that your reply has insulted me personally? Do you realize all this, or not?”

“But Foma . . . it’s only a song, Foma.”

“What do you mean, only a song! And you are not ashamed to admit you know this song—you, a member of decent society, father of fine and innocent children and a Colonel to boot! Only a song! How can a person with a grain of propriety admit that he knows this song without dying of further wrongnessshame, that he has even heard of it? How, how?”

“Well, you have, Foma, seeing as you are asking,” Uncle replied in all simplicity and confusion.

“What was that? I know? Me . . . me, you really mean me! The insolence!” Foma Fromich suddenly yelled, jumping to his feet and choking with anger. He never expected such a stunning reply.

I shall not attempt to describe Foma Fromich’s rage. The custodian of morality banished the Colonel from his sight for the indecency and ineptitude of his reply. Foma Fromich now swore to apprehend Falaley at the scene of the crime, as he danced the komarinsky. In the evenings, when everybody thought that he was occupied with some task in hand, he would steal out into the garden and, skirting the vegetable beds, conceal himself in the hemp, from where there was a good view of the patch of ground on which the dancing was supposed to take place. He lay in wait for poor Falaley like a hunter stalking his prey, and gleefully looked forward to the distress he would bring upon the whole household, and especially upon Uncle, if ever he were successful.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Village of Stepanchikovo

Hold The Mayo

There are many things wrong with the British. Probably an entire blog could be dedicated to the subject. Probably one is. I’m just too lazy to look it up.

Start with the food. What the British eat, this is not considered by normal humans to be edible. British cuisine primarily involves noblood, and boiling. If you present a food item to a Britisher, s/he will first try to squeeze blood out of it. Then s/he will toss it into a pot of boiling water.

The situation is so dire that when foodman Mark Bittman compiled The Best Recipes in the World, which contains thousands of entries, gathered up hither and yon, from sea to shining sea, not one was sourced to England.

The British do not comprehend that they eat worse than a snuffling junkyard dog. Else they would not have permitted publication of this survey, which confirms that their favorite condiment is mayonnaise.

Now, mayonnaise is not a condiment. It is not edible. It is not a food. It is an invasive alien species. To create mayonnaise requires but a single egg, and then however much vegetable oil one chooses to employ. It is possible to keep adding oil, adding oil, adding oil, until the entire planet is slathered with the stuff. This is, in fact, mayonnaise’s Plan. It is like Ice-Nine. It would render the earth uninhabitable.

There is so much fat in mayonnaise that the medical literature is chock-a-block with horrific reports of people whose aortas burst, merely from pulling a jar of the stuff from the refrigerator.

There is a reason why the best-selling brand of mayonnaise is called Hellmann’s. Because mayonnaise is literally from Hell.

The British actually produce a pretty decent condiment. Coleman’s mustard. Nice and hot. But Coleman’s finished fourth, among the British themselves.

Finishing third was something called HP Brown Sauce. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know what that is. And I for sure don’t want to know what is Daddies Brown Sauce. Which finished sixth.

Not a single Britisher identified salsa as a favorite condiment.

Which is why the British are Doomed.

The Problem Of Beets

Beets in any form are, strictly speaking, a food for the rougher sort of cow. Their one merit from the human point of view is that alcohol may 7932404644_7ee502f57c_zbe extracted from them. The main trouble is that beets contain 85 percent of concrete. I once boiled a couple of them during an entire afternoon without the slightest result—if anything, they seemed to get harder. Turn, gouge, and glare at them as I would, not one single gleam of intelligence could I get from those beets. In the evening I forked them again, but they had apparently made up their minds to be stubborn, and my own blood was up too. Finally I forgot the water and they were left high and dry. I have always felt that the joke was on them. I must confess that I am against beet soup, too, especially cold. Cold beet soup always gives me the decided impression that life is just a grim joke of the gods, and adding sour cream to it doesn’t help much. The fact that the people who put sour cream in cold beet soup are Lithuanians seems a very flimsy excuse.

—Will Cuppy, How To Be Hermit

Who I Am

That Made It Right

(A slice and dice of several previous red Thanksgiving pieces, including those here and here.) 

One Thanksgiving I spent in jail. I was young, and therefore brash and rash, and so thought myself immortal, impervious. Didn’t think then, there in stir, about doing serious prison time, which is what I was facing. Just had to wait for the holiday weekend to pass, I figured, then the lawyer could tease the bail down to a Sane level. Which is what happened. The serious grinding over the prison time, that came later.

Thanksgiving was my third or fourth day in the place. I occupied alone a single-cell, which I belatedly learned was supposed to be a sort of punishment. I could smoke in there—can’t do that no more, in the jails in this state—and I could think and plan and wonder and reflect. There were tolerable volumes from the jail library with which I could pass the time. Nobody bothered me. I could talk to the folks—though yes I couldn’t see them—in the cells on either side of me. But I could choose not to, too.

This was 25 years or so ago, when they still fed you decently in the jails around here. And so on Thanksgiving they shoved through the bars a fair approximation of a traditional American Thanksgiving repast: turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, yams, etc. I ate all of it. Yams I hadn’t much eaten before, and I haven’t eaten them since. But I had already discovered, there a monkey confined to a cage, that I’d eat just about anything the keepers slid my way. You do tend to get hungry, in every way, when your life is caged.

After Thanksgiving dinner the screws punched a video into the TV/VCR combo that sat on a low metal table rolled about on casters in the hall outside the cells occupied by we “serious felons.” I absolutely could not believe it: the film was The Black Stallion, one of my favorite movies, a tone poem completely about freedom, but one that I figured these cynical magpies in the “serious felon” row would hoot down and away, dismissing it as a “children’s flick.” How wrong I was. They, as it developed, had been on this row much longer than I; they had seen this film several times before, and they valued it. They got it as only people who don’t have it could get it.

Because it was Thanksgiving, that night we got a double feature. The second film was a ninja thing. As soon as it was punched in, we heard a groan from the guy in the cell to the far right.

“What bullshit,” he groused in his gravelly voice. “This is the one with the guy who takes more bullets and lives than even the guy in Scarface. What bullshit.”

And it was true. The ninja hero at one point was riddled with what looked like 20 or 30 bullets, mostly to the head and chest . . . but still, he kept on coming. As this nonsense approached its zenith, the guy in the cell at the far right kept muttering variations on “bullshit” and “check out this shit” and “no way.”

My unseen jailbird companion to my left at one point whispered to me: “That dude at the end, the reason why he’s pissed at this stupid shit: he’s in here on murder. He knows what it takes to kill a person. And it ain’t much.”

Several years later I spent Thanksgiving at Denny’s. I didn’t have to be there; I could have been other places, with other people. But Denny’s is where that Thanksgiving I chose to be. Even at the time, I knew that my Thanksgiving in Denny’s was worse than the Thanksgiving I’d spent in jail. Because then, in jail, somebody else had locked me up. But in dining at Denny’s, I had entered a jail of my own making.

Usually, these days, I don’t associate Thanksgiving with jail. But in 2010 it came back at me. Because the day before Thanksgiving, there in 2010, a jury out of Texas decided that Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, had committed enough crimes to stash him away in a cage for the rest of his life.

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Passing Easter Over

I tried to do my best, here in the Manor, to get with the season, in re Passover and Easter.

It’s true that I didn’t splash any lamb’s blood on my door.

But I did purchase and place a new doormat. Upon which Jesus could wipe the blood off his feet, if he happened to drop by.

Not that I expected him. Because I happened to know that Jesus last weekend was wallowing in roll-away-the-stone passion with a Minnesota siren, there in her abode of toast the savior warm, bouncing the bedsprings with thee.

Certainly there is nothing that I could offer him, that she was not then delivering.

I did bake some lamb’s blood. Oozing outta ground lamb, the essential ingredient in kofta, born of the Egyptians—the Passover connection, there—but these days most often munched by mountain-dwelling Afghans, a little sustenance before they commence to race down the hill to scream and shoot at dull-domed Americans, trying to convince them to get the hey out of their “country.”

You can find the recipe for this wonderment, as well as various assorted other Judeo-Christian heresies, beyond the “furthur.”

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We Are Devo

The traditional notion that hunter-gatherers must carry on a solitary, unremitting search for food, that they supposedly wake each morning not knowing whether or not they will find the day’s supply, and that they usually die young from famine happens to be untrue. Hunter-gatherers, who are not solitary but live in small bands and observe many intricate social rules for the distribution of food, are far from impoverished. The San in the bleak Kalahari Desert forage for food for no more than a few hours a day on the average; moreover, the unmarried young people and those older than fifty do hardly any work at all. Medical examinations of the San have shown that their diet, both abundant and nutritious, has enabled them to escape many of the health problems associated with diets that are common in modern societies: obesity and “middle-age spread,” dental cavities, hypertension and coronary heart disease, and elevated levels of cholesterol. And far from being short-lived, many of the San live into their sixties and seventies. An important point made by studies of surviving hunter-gatherers is that their generally excellent nutrition extends to all members of the society and not just to a privileged few—simply because the prevalence of sharing insures that everyone eats the same way.

[I]t is a mistake to suppose that modern societies allow people to work less hard for their daily bread. Out of the 1129 hours worked by one Chinese irrigation farmer in a year, only 122 were needed to grow enough food to sustain that farmer. A blue-collar worker in the United States, on the other hand, spends 180 hours earning enough money to purchase a year’s supply of food. Notwithstanding Western notions of the Chinese peasant’s incessant labor, it is plain that they actually need to work less by a third than North Americans or Europeans to keep themselves supplied with food. Moreover, although a mechanized farmer in the American Midwest need put in an annual total of only nine hours of work for each acre to achieve an astounding six thousand calories for each calorie of effort, that figure ignores the enormous amounts of human labor that go into manufacturing and transporting the trucks, tractors, combines, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, fence wire, and everything else used by the farmer, not to mention transporting the food itself. For every person who actually works on a Midwestern farm, the labor of at least two others off the farm is needed to supply equipment and services directly to the farmer—aside from the very many more whose labors contribute indirectly to the final product. Altogether, a total of 2790 calories of energy must be expended to produce and deliver to a consumer in the United States just one can of corn providing a total of 270 calories. The production of meat entails an even greater deficit: an expenditure of 22,000 calories is needed to produce the somewhat less than four ounces of beefsteak that likewise produce 270 calories.

In short, present-day agriculture is much less efficient than traditional irrigation methods that have been used by Asians, among others, in this century and by Mayans, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese in antiquity. The primary advantage of a mechanized agriculture is that it requires the participation of fewer farmers, but for that the price paid in machines, fossil fuels, and other expenditures of energy is enormous. A severe price is also paid in human labor. Once the expensive machines have been manufactured and deployed on the farms, they are economically efficient only if operated throughout the daylight hours, and indeed farmers in the United States often labor for sixteen hours a day. The boast of industrialized societies that they have decreased the workload is valid only in comparison with the exploitation of labor that existed in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. If the prevailing forty-hour work week of North America and Europe were proposed to the San, whoever did so would be considered to be exploitive, inhuman, or plain mad.

—Peter Farb, Consuming Passions

Yum

Humans will swallow almost anything that does not swallow them first. The animals they relish range in size from termites to whales; the Chinese of Hunan Province eat shrimp that are still wriggling, while North Americans and Europeans eat live oysters; some Asians prefer food so putrefied that the stench carries for dozens of yards. At various times and places, strong preferences have been shown for the fetuses of rodents, the tongues of larks, the eyes of sheep, the spawn of eels, the stomach contents of whales, and the windpipes of pigs. Italians symbolically cannibalize the most respected figures in their culture by eating such things as “nun’s thighs,” “the Pope’s nose,” and “nipples of the Virgin.” Nor has there been a shortage of unusual combinations, such as the Scottish haggis—a cow’s lungs, intestines, pancreas, liver, and heart, seasoned with onions, beef suet, and oatmeal, all cooked together in a sheep’s stomach—or the favorite dish of the Roman Emperor Vitellius, whose ingredients were the tongues of flamingoes, the brains of peacocks, the livers of pikes, and the sex glands of lampreys.

People in every society regard their own preferences as sensible and all deviations from these as perverse or even loathsome. In the central African country of Chad four tribes who live in close proximity have different attitudes towards the beans, the rice, the millet, and the many other kinds of food that are grown in the area. Each group ridicules the others about what they consider edible. One object of raillery is the rotted meat which one tribe not only devours, but in fact holds in special regard as appropriate for rituals. Most North Americans and Europeans are revolted by hearing that certain Mexicans eat fried grubs, that dog flesh has been esteemed in China since antiquity, and that the fox was once considered a delicacy in Russia. Yet their tastes are often regarded with equal repugnance by others. Perhaps a third of humankind would rather starve than consume the bacon, ham, and sausage that are relished in North American and Europe, and many would be nauseated by the milk that is drunk in such large quantities.

—Peter Farb, Consuming Passions

Fear Of A Fat Planet

Friday I clicked on The Eggman (know thy foe) and there beheld a photograph of Chris Christie, reproduced below. And the sight of this man, it unaccountably filled me with Fear.

I say “unaccountably,” because heretofore I had serenely cleaved to the wisdom of this piece, presenting the prognostications of this never-wrong wizard: that is, come 2012, no matter how battered and bruised, Destry would ride, if wearily, into a second term. None among the cretins and the clowns in that toxic, smoke-belching Christine of a car of the Republican Party, would manage to run him down.

But suddenly, looking there at Christie, I was beset with a terrible vision.

What if the American people decided to go wide?

Now, it is true that this—picking the portly—is something they have not done since Grover Cleveland, which was well over 100 years ago. And that in an age when not all that many voters knew what the presidential candidates looked like. In the many years since, hoisting into the Oval Office someone packing serious excess poundage has been something that was Just Not Done. It has been a political given, for more than a century, that an overweight man seeking the highest office in the land stood no more chance than, say, an atheist. Or, uh, a black man.

Ah, yes. That last. It, well, changed everything. Did it not?

As a wise sage recently observed: “There’s a family of Negroes living in the White House. That’s the sum-total of what’s going on.”

Yep. And that simple fact—black folk in the White House—has driven half the nation stone-mad. These people knew they weren’t going to like it from the get-go—only 43% of white people casting ballots in 2008 voted for the black family to move into the White House. But even they had no idea how badly they were not going to like it. Once it became Reality. Now they know. It’s an outrage. Not to be borne. And they want it Stopped. By any means necessary.

So, in my vision, gazing at that photo of Chris Christie, the picture goes sepia. A planter’s hat appears upon his head. His clothing reverts to that of a Southern plantation owner, circa 1850. He is transformed into one of those coarse, corpulent, antebellum plutocrats, living fat off the bondage of black folk. Because that’s what he looks like. Even in modern clothes.

And I see him, thus, as he really is, on the debate stage, next to Obama. Who, back there in 1850, looks like the underfed runt out of one of Christie’s slave families. The biracial Obama maybe sired by Christie himself. Christie’s wife suffering from a “nervous disorder,” his excuse for sneaking off nights to the slave quarters. Because that sort of thing’s okay. Like with Strom Thurmond. So long as you don’t talk about it. And I see that, through the eyes of the knock-kneed white-bread nation, “[t]here’s a family of Negroes living in the White House.” And I see the determination of the people that a fat Southern planter is just the man to send them Negroes back to from where they came. To make the White House white again. Amen.

The horror. The horror.

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Bottoms Up

Once upon a time there flickered a possibility that I might venture to Australia, there to compile a travel guide to the place. So I spent a fair amount of time soaking up information about the various whys and wherefores of the down-under realm.

Among the things I learned was that Australians, and particularly Australian males, can tend towards a relationship with alcohol that is somewhat reminiscent of that of early Americans. Which is, put simply: there can never be too much to drink. I learned that there had even occurred the coining of a word—”chunder”—to describe that process by which Australian males stumble out of pubs to spatter onto the ground their stomach contents, so that they might then be sufficiently emptied to return to the pub to consume more beverages. This practice was even immortalized in “Down Under,” the 1981 anthem from the Australian band Men At Work:

I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder

The high alcohol content ever-present in the bodies of these chunderers encourages them to engage in pursuits that would not often appeal to people when they are Ordinary. To wit, in some pubs the chunderers compete in contests to see who can furthest hurl a human dwarf.

I admit to experiencing some concern when I learned that some of these men, when not drinking and chundering and hurling dwarves, pilot upon the nation’s highways vehicles called “road trains”—endless diesel-powered assemblages linking so many freight-trailers that the things can become longer than many towns. In Australia these behemoths replaced camel trains; camels, it is true, have been known to bite and spit and buck, but rarely has it been reported that a camel plunged into a beer/vomit/beer cycle, and then stumbled out into the night to blearily guide tens of thousands of pounds of metal at alarming speeds along the asphalt.

I next learned that some elements of this drinking culture have ventured across the water to take root in the somewhat-neighboring isles of New Zealand. Though no road trains travel that nation’s roads, and chundering is less of a national sport. Still, when the Googles informed me this morning that in a pub down in Wellington they are today cheerily guzzling horse semen, I was not surprised.

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Why Some People Believe Wisconsin Must Be Stopped

The flavor of cheese can provoke ecstasy in some people and disgust in others. The 17th Century saw the publication of at least two learned European treatises “de aversatione casei,” or “on the aversion to cheese.” And the author of “Fromage” in the 18th-century Encyclopedie noted that “cheese is one of those foods for which certain people have a natural repugnance, of which the cause is difficult to determine.” Today the cause is clearer. The fermentation of milk, like that of grains or grapes, is essentially a process of limited, controlled spoilage. We allow certain microbes and their enzymes to decompose the original food, but not beyond the point of edibility. In cheese, animal fats and proteins are broken down into highly odorous molecules. Many of the same molecules are also produced during uncontrolled spoilage, as well as by microbial activity in the digestive tract and on moist, warm, sheltered areas of human skin.

An aversion to the odor of decay has the obvious biological value of steering us away from possible food poisoning, so it’s no wonder that an animal food that gives off whiffs of shoes and soil and the stable takes some getting used to. Once acquired, however, the taste for partial spoilage can become a passion, an embrace of the earthy side of life that expresses itself in paradoxes. The French call a particular plant fungus the pourriture noble, or “noble rot,” for its influence on the character of certain wines, and the Surrealist poet Leon-Paul Fargue is said to have honored Camembert cheese with the title les pieds de Dieu—the feet of God.

—Harold McGee, On Food And Cooking

Sage And Spirit

(A piece from last May, reprinted for reasons that become obvious in the text.)

The ancients were enamored with sage. So am I. The ancients believed that sage could confer immortality. What I believe: who knows? I eat the stuff, and I’m still knocking around.

“Why,” demanded one Latin commentator, “should a man die who grows sage in his garden?”

Beats me.

Among the English, it is believed that the plant’s immortalist properties are most pronounced in May:

He who would live for aye
Must eat Sage in the month of May.

We have a few May days left here. So get to nibbling.

Or maybe it’s okay to wait until next month. For over there in Provence, says Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, folks aver “[i]t should be picked on the dawn of Midsummer Day when the first ray of sunlight strikes the highest mountain.” Provencal proverb: “he who has sage in his garden needs no doctor.”

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Peasant Palate: So Heat Up The Soup John B

For a while there, out here in California, it seemed as if winter had given up and gone away. Early February saw a ridiculous run of riotously warm weather, with temperatures in the 70s, encouraging everybody—animal, vegetable, mineral—to crawl cautiously out of their holes.

Then winter snickered, and came swaggering back. And now it’s all rain, snow, sleet, hail, ice, biting bone-chilling gales. All day, every day.

Which means soup. Preparing soup, cooking soup, eating soup. Gazing glumly through the steam rising from soup, gazing glumly at the rain, snow, sleet, hail, ice, biting bone-chilling gales.

After 40 or 50 straight bowls of the thing, I burned out earlier this season on my Moon-Eye Jook. I then tarried briefly with hot-and-sour soup. But I have since abandoned Asia for the Mediterranean, cleaving to soups centering around cheese. I think I may have mentioned previously that here in my dotage I am increasingly retreating to the three essential food groups: heat, meat, cheese. Of late, at least in soups, I am hewing to the latter. Te gusta sopa? Then journey cross the “furthur.”

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For Every Wrong Move

One Thanksgiving I spent in jail. I was young, and therefore brash and rash, and so thought myself immortal, impervious. Didn’t think then, there in stir, about doing serious prison time, which is what I was facing. Just had to wait for the holiday weekend to pass, I figured, then the lawyer could tease the bail down to a Sane level. Which is what happened. The serious grinding over the prison time, that came later.

Thanksgiving was my third or fourth day in the place. I occupied alone a single-cell, which I belatedly learned was supposed to be a sort of punishment. I could smoke in there—can’t do that no more, in the jails here—and I could think and plan and wonder and reflect. There were tolerable volumes from the jail library with which I could pass the time. Nobody bothered me. I could talk to the folks—though yes I couldn’t see them—in the cells on either side of me. But I could choose not to, too.

This was 25 years or so ago, when they still fed you decently in the jails around here. And so on Thanksgiving they shoved through the bars a fair approximation of a traditional American Thanksgiving repast: turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, yams, etc. I ate all of it. Yams I hadn’t much eaten before, and I haven’t eaten them since. But I had already discovered, there a monkey confined to a cage, that I’d eat just about anything the keepers slid my way. You do tend to get hungry, in every way, when your life is caged.

After Thanksgiving dinner the screws punched a video into the TV/VCR combo that sat on a low metal table rolled about on casters in the hall outside the cells occupied by we “serious felons.” I absolutely could not believe it: the film was The Black Stallion, one of my favorite movies, a tone poem completely about freedom, but one that I figured these cynical magpies in the “serious felon” row would hoot down and away, dismissing it as a “children’s flick.” How wrong I was. They, as it developed, had been on this row much longer than I; they had seen this film several times before, and they valued it. They got it as only people who don’t have it could get it.

Because it was Thanksgiving, that night we got a double feature. The second film was a ninja thing. As soon as it was punched in, we heard a groan from the guy in the cell to the far right.

“What bullshit,” he groused in his gravelly voice. “This is the one with the guy who takes more bullets and lives than even the guy in Scarface. What bullshit.”

And it was true. The ninja hero at one point was riddled with what looked like 20 or 30 bullets, mostly to the head and chest . . . but still, he kept on coming. As this nonsense approached its zenith, the guy in the cell at the far right kept muttering variations on “bullshit” and “check out this shit” and “no way.”

My unseen jailbird companion to my left at one point whispered to me: “That dude at the end, the reason why he’s pissed at this stupid shit: he’s in here on murder. He knows what it takes to kill a person. And it ain’t much.”

Several years later I spent Thanksgiving at Denny’s. I didn’t have to be there; I could have been other places, with other people. But Denny’s is where that Thanksgiving I chose to be. Even at the time, I knew that my Thanksgiving in Denny’s was worse than the Thanksgiving I’d spent in jail. Because then, in jail, somebody else had locked me up. But in dining at Denny’s, I had entered a jail of my own making.

Usually, these days, I don’t associate Thanksgiving with jail. But this year it came back at me. Because the day before Thanksgiving, here in 2010, a jury out of Texas decided that Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, had committed enough crimes to stash him away in a cage for the rest of his life.

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Peasant Palate: Knead Long And Prosper

The science people, they are always wondering: why don’t the French die?

The cheese they eat. The meat. The butter. The cream. The wine, and drinking it, all the live-long day. Why don’t their arteries fill with filth, causing them to keel over, gasping, ushered into death via coronary heart disease, like normal Americans?

There are many answers to this question. The first concerns the “Big Gulp.” Americans seem to believe that bigger is better. You think we would have learned by now, with our military. Though for more than 60 years the American military has been by far the biggest bully on the block, it hasn’t managed to prevail in any armed conflict since the close of World War II, with the exception of that little dustup in Grenada . . . and even there it was nearly run off the island by a handful of Cuban engineers. Oh, and Panama. Where the “bands of brothers” buzzed blithely around leveling hospitals, in pursuit of their own CIA agent, and incidentally abrogating the treaty that returned the Panama Canal to the people of the country in which it is located.

Anyway. Americans like their food, like their military, big. Big portions. Big steaks. Big drinks. But, just as our big military is killing us, so too are our big meals. When Americans eat, they eat too much. Which is bad for you. And Americans snack. All the time. Which is also bad for you.

The French do neither. The concept of the “Big Gulp” is unknown in that country, except in the hideous fast-food joints which Americans have imperialistically forced upon them, and which French patriots destroy whenever they get the opportunity. The French do not snack, and the portions they consume, when at table, are moderate.

furthur=>

Sunday Brunch

HWR: I read in a French magazine that some of the French may have adopted or may be about to adopt our US custom of Sunday brunch.

PhR: Let them eat cake.

HWR: Wouldn’t you like to eat brunch here on Sunday instead of our normal four-course Sunday lunch?

PhR: Over my dead body. It’s a dumb concept, too big for breakfast and too small for a civilized lunch so by three in the afternoon, you’re starving and you eat a pizza.

HWR: I still don’t understand why you refuse for us to bring out paper plates and cups when we have more than ten guests.

PhR: Because you threaten to put wine or Champagne in them! And while we’re at it, why not paper food? Quelle drole d’idee!

HWR: I guess that’s why you don’t like picnics?

PhR: The history of mankind is the overcoming of cold, uncertainty, fear, and wild beasts. Those are all the ingredients of a picnic.

HWR: Why do you have to have bread with everything, even when the meal includes other starches? Isn’t one enough?

PhR: Bread is the staff of life. And your choice of the word “starches” is funny. It’s like that American guest of ours who said she’d like “protein” for breakfast. We’re not running a chemical factory.

HWR: That’s the truth. Speaking of bread, tell me again about that afternoon treat your Auvergnat grandfather would make for you—the piece of bread rubbed with garlic and pork fat. Wasn’t he worried about cholesterol?

PhR: Are you kidding? He was worried about whether he was giving me something with taste; he ate raw onion for breakfast and pork fat every day of his life and he died young at age ninety-four.

—Harriet Welty Rochefort, French Fried

Capsaicin Jones

shipping powders back and forth
black goes south
and white comes north

—John Barlow

The dependence on the pepper isn’t peculiar to people of Mexican or Indian heritage. There’s nothing in the genes of these people that makes them predisposed to the pepper habit. “Whenever I think of Henri Cartier-Bresson, I see him sitting at the dinner table with a tube of North African red-pepper paste in one hand and a pocketknife in the other . . . ” began a profile of the famous French photographer in an October 1989 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Some Westerners have developed a highly discriminating palate for peppers. Sid, a Michigan businessman, for one. I had heard about him from a total stranger who surprised me in Detroit in 1986 with the tiny silver box he had pulled out of his pocket. The filigreed box seemed to have been designed with something else in mind, perhaps cocaine. But it was full of small dry red peppers, grown in Sid’s backyard.

When I telephoned Sid that summer he said he had planted peppers in a forty-by-sixty backyard plot. He had also planted peppers in two flowerpots that sat just outside his back door. “Sometimes I want to be able to reach one in a hurry,” he said.

Once at a gathering of tweedy gentlemen at a New York club, where the members’ spiciest encounter usually is with the Tabasco in their Bloody Marys, I watched with amusement the fuzzy and warm feelings hot peppers brought out in them. It all started when someone complained that the Tabasco he had just shaken into his drink wasn’t hot enough. “You should try some of the hot sauces in Jamaica,” he said. Another man, who had been to Peru to advise the government there on restructuring its banking system, chimed in: “I once brought these round peppers from Lima. But I haven’t been able to grow the darn things.” The man lived in Tuxedo Park, New York, which has hardly the climatic conditions for the Peruvian pepper. Said another: “There’s this pepper in Bhutan. It’s marvelous in vodka—just drop one in the bottle.” Downing their drinks that Sunday afternoon, the men talked of how they had been smitten by peppers they initially had approached reluctantly during travels in Africa or South America or India. Back in the United States they were still pining with faraway looks for those faraway peppers. A week or so later, I learned, two of the men had exchanged peppers via mail.

—Amal Naj, Peppers



When I Worked

July 2014
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