Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bread: What We Used To Eat

Back in the mid-1970s, a Wesleyan professor was doing ethnomusicology field work in Indonesia, and like a good investigator he asked lots of questions. But his host and informant asked a question of his own. "What do you eat in America?"

The professor didn't answer right away. What to say? Our diet is so varied, how to sum it up? Nor did he wish to embarrass his host by describing America's extraordinary plenty, or by extension his own comparative personal wealth. "I don't know," he said. "Lots of things. Um...chicken?"

The Indonesian laughed. "No, no," he said, "what do you eat?"

Finally it dawned on the American that his host was curious about America's staple starch. Was it rice? Taro? Potatoes? That's what you eat. A chicken is a luxury item, party food, not a national diet. "Bread," said the professor finally. "We eat bread."

It wasn't exactly a lie. Although bread no longer holds the same place in Western cuisine as rice still does in Asia or potatoes did in pre-blight Ireland, it did once. "Give us this day our daily bread" was no mere synecdoche. Once, bread was food, and food was bread.

I've never forgotten Balzac's description, in "Lost Illusions," of a venerable Paris restaurant, Flicoteaux's, where impoverished students could eat for a few sous. The fare was not fancy, but the menu carried this irresistible item: "Bread at your discretion." All the bread you can eat! Unimaginable plenty. And to back up the offer, the tables were heaped with six-pound loaves, cut into quarters.

By bizarre contrast, I have more than once heard Americans complain about the basket of bread served in restaurants. "They want you to fill up on bread before the food arrives!" This is a sentence that could never, ever, have been uttered by a Frenchman in any century.

There's a stock character in classic Greek and Roman comedy named Artotrogus, or Bread-Eater. Artotrogus, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Chocolate Irony

You want irony? I'll give you irony. Remember in "Out of Milk" when I promised an essay about chocolate and how I would never eat it again as long as I lived? (It has been 10 days already, and 10 days without chocolate is a long, long time. ) (Photo: Detail from "Chocolate Kama Sutra," artist unknown.)

Here comes the irony. Just now my wife Ann has forwarded me notice of an intriguing job opening at a company in Vermont that needs a marketing person just like me. The company? Lake Champlain Chocolates, purveyors of super-premium gift chocolates, "made in small batches," for prices that approach $30 per pound.

So I have written a very memorable letter to the chocolate makers about how I would bend my creative talents to their noble purpose, and I mean every word of it. I could do that. I love chocolate. I love all food that comes with a story.

I remember my grandmother feeding me, zooming a spoon around in front of my face. I was well past the age when I needed to be fed by an adult, but she was my grandmother and it was a luxury. She would say, "Here comes the airplane, now open the hanger!" or "Here comes the spaceship!" What was the food? I don't remember. I remember the story.

I remember my mother burning the toast, and saying "Aunt Susie would have loved it. She always asked for the burnt toast."

I heard that my Aunt Lois, during the hungry times of the Great Depression, was asked what she wanted for her birthday. She replied, "A whole chicken, all to myself." I never heard whether she got it.

There are foods that nobody would eat at all if it were not for the power of the accompanying story. Matzoh is one example, and its near cousin, communion wafer, is an infinitely better example.

Haggis is in the same league of foods that can only be consumed with a heavy sauce of narrative. I remember a Bobby Burns Night concert in Cambridge, when folksinger Jean Redpath brought out a haggis on a platter, and even in the tenth row I could sense that eating it would require an act not of hunger but of faith.

You can tell stories about chocolate, but chocolate requires no story. Chocolate doesn't need to talk its way into your mouth. Your mouth is made for chocolate, the way your lungs are made for air. There is no resistance, no hesitation, no intermediation, no required ritual, no byplay of salt-licking and lime-biting.

That's the problem with chocolate. It doesn't say no. It doesn't even say "Wait a minute." It says "Eat me now. Eat all of me. It's what I live for."

I read once that a properly-planned dinner must include a "piece de resistance" and that although that French phrase has lately come to mean merely "a very special dish," its name comes from the idea that this should be the most substantial part of the meal, the part that takes some time, that slows you down, that offers resistance. It's not a two-bite appetizer, not an amuse-bouche. It's food that takes some work and study to eat. When that course appears, the conversation dies down and the serious eating begins.

For me, chocolate is just too easy. It lets me eat too much too fast with too little effort. It's not like walnuts in the shell, which must be attacked with various steel surgical tools. It's not like pomegranates, or steamed crabs, or artichokes. Those foods are all resistance.

There's a bag of chocolate morsels in the pantry, waiting to be made into cookies. I know where it is. I leave it alone. This doesn't sound like much, but it's a breakthrough.

Peanut butter, milk, chocolate. Now what? What next? I will entertain nominations from the floor.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Punching Down Day

"When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down." A human baby doubles its birth weight by six months. It's a milestone, an occasion, a passage, like a birthday. Call it First Doubling. May it have its own page in all the world's baby books from this day forth. Call it Punching Down Day.

Most adults stop gaining weight after their fourth doubling. Starting at 8 pounds, they go to 16, 32, 64, 128, and a bit more. Most stop a bit after four; I, after a long pause, kept going until a bit after five. It's exponential.

And me? You thought I was an exhibitionist, discussing my embonpoint so boldly here on the embonet? No. Not an exhibitionist. I'm an exponentialist.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Out of Milk

In Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Pigs in Heaven," a single mom, Taylor Greer, brings her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle, to a doctor. Turtle has been having painful abdominal cramps. The doctor asks about Turtle's diet. Taylor is panicky and guilty--she doesn't have much money, but she's been trying to do right by the kid.

"I make sure she gets protein," she tells the doctor. "We eat a lot of peanut butter. And tuna fish. And she always gets milk. Every single day, no matter what."

"Well, actually, that might be the problem." The doctor then instructs Taylor, without explaining why, to stop giving Turtle milk.

"Excuse me, but I don't get this," Taylor says. "I thought milk was the perfect food. Vitamins and calcium, and everything."

"Cow's milk is fine for white folks," the doctor answers, "but somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the rest of us are lactose intolerant. That means we don't have the enzymes in our system to digest some of the sugar in cow's milk. So it ferments in the intestine and causes all kinds of problems."

In the current American estimate, I'm white folks, but that's a fairly recent development--see Karen Brodkin's fascinating book "How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America." I'm nouveau blanc. But I'm also one of the earth's lactose-intolerant billions. I grew up loving milk and I still do, but enough is enough. Last week I finally put milk on my banned list, as part of a subtractive process of figuring out what's wrong with me and my diet.

I'm not allergic to milk, that's a rare problem I don't have. I'm not ethically opposed to dairying industry practices, BST, antibiotics and all; and if I don't object to eating cows I can hardly object to milking them. Nor do I have any alternative or mystical ideas about milk or the holy sacred function of the bowels.

I just want to give the food I eat a chance, for once, to be digested in peace, floating lazily down the steady-flowing peristaltic river of life, not rushed along in repeated spring spates and flash floods. (I could have said this more plainly but be glad I didn't.) My hope is that I can establish a more normal relationship with the food I eat if it spends a more normal amount of time in my gut.

What took me so long? The problem has been evident since I was 11 or 12, and I've known its name for at least 20 years. But the ill effects of lactose strike so late in the process. It doesn't make my lips and tongue and palate itch, the way raw apples do. It doesn't make my stomach burn, like walnuts, or make me throw up, like mussels. No, I love drinking milk. By the time the trouble starts, the eating is done. Mission Accomplished! And when it comes to eating, I guess that the mouth is "the decider" and devil take the hindmost...which it does.

Weight loss is simple, some people tell me, and I agree that it ought to be. But I seem to have complicated my life in many ways such that nothing ever seems simple. My new strategy involves radical simplification, round after round of it, more rounds than I thought would be necessary, but here we are.

No peanuts, no milk. So much to blog about. Next time, chocolate gets it between the eyes. You don't want to miss that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Poem Titles I Am Saving For Later

I do not "find" poems. "Found poems" are a minor curiosity, like optical illusions, or interesting ways you can fold a dollar bill to make George Washington look like a mushroom. Once you've seen a few, that's enough. The existence of found poems does not prove anything about the essential nature of poetry in general, or free verse in particular.

But I do "find" poem titles. Here are three I am saving up.

1. OTHER NOTABLE RAMPAGES (headline of a sidebar in New York Times coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings)

2. LIGHTFIGHTER DRIVE (name of a freeway exit I pass every morning)

3. WHALES ALL YEAR! (sign at a tour-boat company in Moss Landing)

And no, this has nothing to do with my blog. It's strictly Off Topic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Peanut Extinction

Is there any sadder idea than extinction? Dinosaurs have been gone for 75 million years and I never get sentimental about them, but I think constantly of the mammoths. The last mammoth on earth died on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean around 1700 BC. That's an eyeblink ago, well within the span of written human history. I know poems that old.

I keep a round slice of mammoth tusk in my dining room. It isn't even old enough to be fossilized, it's a piece of natural ivory. It is creamy white, polished, with light brown streaks. Sometimes I pick it up and hold it, and all I can think to say is, "You almost made it. You almost made it."

Behaviorists also use the term "extinction." Behaviors can be erased. They can, for a variety of reasons, become less persistent. This can happen quickly or slowly. A behavior can be nibbled away, or it can vanish overnight. It is extinct. It has been extinguished.

I have several behaviors that deserve to be extinguished, maybe a dozen or more. I can't seem to do it globally, wholesale, all at once. There does not seem to be an internal commandment that I can issue to myself that is strong enough. So I'm breaking down the problem into its component parts.

This is embarrassing, as usual, but that's the whole point of doing it in public like this, isn't it?

Yesterday I marked three behaviors for extinction. Number one is eating peanuts and peanut butter.

And at the exact moment I write these words, an email comes through. In honour of Kevin’s birthday, there are peanut butter cookies with M&Ms by the printers. Cake will be later. There you go. Invent a new sin and a new Satan appears.

More about peanuts, stay tuned.

Photo: A brachylophosaurus nicknamed "Peanut" at the Judith River Dinosaur Institute dig in Montana.