Monday, February 29, 2016
cookery books and bookish cooks
Leap year day. I put it to good use by getting my act together. Although, truthfully, I engage in this activity on most Mondays, not just once every four years. Mondays are for clearing the decks and and making hopeful lists. I tidy up, do the regular household chores (woodstove-related and otherwise), balance the checkbooks, and clean my studio in the hope that doing so will create enough open space for the arrival of some new projects. I also catch up in my diary, and copy quotations into it from whatever I've just finished reading. Which, to follow up from my last post, has been Louise Andrews Kent books. I've written before about her, many times. I will not let that deter me from discussing her yet again. But, her fictional character Mrs. Appleyard says it best:
"She admits that repetitiousness is a fault and she tries to get over it, although after a study of the situation she has come to the conclusion that it is difficult to have all conversation brand-new and that one factor in any friendship is the ability to listen to it as if it were." (Mrs. Appleyard's Year p.14)
So, please do forgive me for repeating myself! Louise Andrews Kent began her literary life as a novelist and author of young adult adventure books, and wrote a newspaper column as "Theresa Tempest"; she also worked as a recipe tester and became a home cook. Her cookery books make up most of her later literary output. To me, she feels like a bridge between Fannie Farmer and Julia Child. Akin to M.F.K. Fisher, but a New England version - an American Mrs. Miniver - bookish, adventuresome, observant, wry. After writing the first Mrs. Appleyard novel, Mrs. Appleyard's Year (Houghton Mifflin 1941), she extended the character, her alter-ego, into a full-length cookery book, Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen (1942). She says in its introduction:
"...I still think there's room for the smaller, more personal book, for the kind that is based on one person's experience, rather than the encyclopaedia of cooking that has all the wisdom of the ages in it. The smaller ones are fun to read, too, even if you never cook out of them." (p.viii)
And they are fun to read! I've read both of these, many times over, along with her others, The Summer Kitchen (1957) and The Winter Kitchen (1962), and her wonderful autobiography Mrs. Appleyard and I, published in 1968, the year before she died at the age of 83. I hope I'll read them all again, in years to come. They are just that kind of books and she creates in them a character you come to know and love and will always remember.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the new-to-me Louise Andrews Kent books I recently ordered contains cameo appearances by Mrs. Appleyard. The novel is Country Mouse (1945) and it is very much a World War II home front novel, about an arts institute in rural Vermont, run by two marginal society women, on an old farm belonging to a young heroine. There is a large cast of characters, including a dashing pilot and various other war heroes, a country ingenue, an ice queen, a few scoundrels, some artists and musicians, several children who notice more than they should, and Mrs. Appleyard, who oversees what needs overseeing from a mile away, and ends up marrying off everyone of age by the end of the book. She's a busybody, and a fairy godmother, and the grandparent we all dream of, rolled into one. She shows her colors early on:
"It is never safe to ask Mrs. Appleyard anything unless you wish to know the answer and act on it." (p.22)
She isn't always made of sugarplums, though, that is a large part of her charm:
"Mrs. Appleyard must be forgiven for speaking with a kind of cosy vindictiveness." (p.23)
Food is important, throughout this book. The arts institute has a French cook, and the characters eat supremely well (despite their ration-books) and work every day in the farm's victory garden. Mrs. Appleyard provides occasional words of guidance:
"...as she herself has often remarked, almost anyone can get up a good meal with lobster and champagne. The test comes when you bake a potato..." (p.24)
The novel is romantic and predictable, and I didn't care. I loved it for all of that. It's all about women and the war, and what it takes to cheerfully do one's part on the home front. It makes me think of my grandparents and their wartime experiences - I had one grandfather with the U.S. Navy, in the Mediterranean, and another grandfather in China, working as a doctor during the war years, since that's where the government sent him because he was a conscientious objector. In both cases, their wives - my grandmothers - were at home, with very young children. I feel closer to them, having read this book. (I feel very close to one of them in particular, since she wrote her name in what is now my copy of Mrs. Appleyard's Year. I also have her copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, which I thought I had sold by mistake many years ago - I'm a bookseller, it happens - but found again, safe here at home, to my great delight.)
I then turned to my other new Louise Andrews Kent novel, Paul Revere Square (1939). Written before Mrs. Appleyard, but containing someone that could be her prototype. She is a minor character in another novel simply chock full of people, but she makes an appearance early on, in an advertisement in the local newspaper (p.9):
"Would you like a LISTENER? I will listen to your troubles, the story of your golf match, the bright sayings of your little ones. Tell me what you think of the Administration. I never answer back. A slight extra charge for looking at motion pictures of your trip abroad. The Help A Bit Shop. Bulfinch 7770."
Another managing, helpful, good-humored, sympathetic busybody. She was a welcome presence in this more-than-slightly-unbelievable tale about a young and beautiful heiress being wooed for her unexpected inheritance by several of her ne'er-do-well Beacon Hill cousins. Another tidy book with everyone marrying the right people and all the loose ends tied in bows, albeit a few quite strangely. Altogether predictable but again, I didn't much care. It was a pleasure to be carried along and read something smooth, for enjoyment's sake.
Speaking of which, I took some of Mrs. Appleyard's advice myself, after reading pages and pages of her cookery-with-comments, over the last two weeks. Last Monday - not a leap year day, just a regular old Monday - Ryan had to work late and so I was on my own, supper-wise. I had just read her description of making Hollandaise sauce. Which I myself have never made, despite the fact that it is one of my favorite things to order in a restaurant, for breakfast, in the form of Eggs Benedict - a worthy vehicle for Hollandaise. Since one of my favorite things to cook at home is a variation of something we call breakfast-for-dinner, I read her description twice, with care. And thought, I could do that. And then I did. I made a beautiful Hollandaise, in an improvised double boiler, out of egg yolks, lemon juice, and butter, and put it over Anadama toast and eggs and a slice of fried ham, and a big heap of steamed spinach. It was heavenly. And I felt so capable! Thank you, Mrs. Appleyard - I mean, Louise Andrews Kent - for everything.
For dessert, I ordered two more of her books, online again (ho-hum... I'd rather find them in a bookshop...), and am eagerly awaiting their arrival. One I've only read once before - I borrowed it from a local library some years back, against my better judgment. I managed to return it before incurring fines. For me, unusual. Anyway, the copy I just bought is SIGNED and was less than ten dollars! I am beyond thrilled! The other looks like an odd little book, again inexpensive, and I have never read it before. More soon. I've gone on long enough. Although, with the remains of this extra day on my hands, I suppose I could continue...
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
new old books
Or old books, new to me. They are on my mind today as the snow falls, because yesterday two of them arrived in my mailbox. Lately I've decided - again - that life is short and there are books I simply cannot bear not having read yet. Books by authors I have loved for years. Now, I would rather come across books by happenstance and fate, rather than on Amazon or eBay, but, with my pressing sense of anxiety about the fleeting qualities of life, I decided to bite the bullet and just order used copies online, already. I was led to this state of affairs (I mean, if I had the funds, I could order books online all the livelong day - all the things I want to read and can't find, here in rural Maine) by re-reading the Louise Andrews Kent books I have on hand. Which are many. And then realizing that there were books of hers I have never read, or even seen, and, since I love everything of hers I've been able to get my hands on thus far in life, what did I think was I waiting for? I didn't go crazy, I just ordered two more of her books. They arrived yesterday. The mail comes around noon, here. I made sure to do everything I had to do in the morning, then had lunch, got the mail, opened it (while humming "...brown paper packages, tied up with string..."), and carried my books off to the sunniest room in the house, and read the afternoon away. With snacks nearby. And the sleeping cat. What bliss!
Reading a book from cover to cover, over the course of a sunny winter afternoon, when I have recently done more hard work than I ever thought possible, felt like the best kind of luxury I could hope for. Actually, even better than that. I read somewhere recently (won't say where, wouldn't want to tangle with the writer, who is admirably successful on many fronts) that reading is a wonderful way to waste your life. Oh, famous writer, I could not disagree more! I'm (almost) sure the author was being tongue-in-cheek or deliberately antagonistic, but still, I Was Not Amused. When I read that line, my eyes may have narrowed. In retrospect I suppose it really irritated me because I myself worry about work, about working enough, about making the most of my life during my allotted time, whatever that happens to be. I am a worrier! I come from a long line of worriers! I do not want to waste my life! And yet...
Waste indeed. People are not automatons. We cannot work and work indefinitely. Who's to say that times of intense work should not be balanced by times of glorious idleness, in whatever form happens to be your personal cup of tea? A great book, or even a not-so-great book, is one of mine. In fact, this afternoon I'm going to read the second Louise Andrews Kent book that arrived in the mail yesterday. Read it from cover to cover, and count it time well spent, if I bother to count time at all. I've got more work ahead of me, very soon, and sometimes the quiet hours of winter afternoons are just for savoring something. A book, a snack, sunlight on the wall, or snow silently falling outside. And that's enough. More than enough. Let's talk in more detail about both books, in the near future - I'll meet you back here, on another quiet day.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
world, be my valentine
Valentine's Day weekend, and Ryan and I are snowed in. All in all, a good place to be. I feel lucky and blessed to be part of a couple, to live in a partnership and marriage with the chosen friend of my heart. It makes life so much more bearable. And so much more fun! (Fun is underrated!) I realized this anew after reading Patti Smith's new memoir, M Train (Knopf 2015), which I've had sitting around for a few months now. I bought it as soon as I knew of its existence, because her previous book, Just Kids, is so stunning (already read it three times, will read it again), and because she's Patti Smith, for god's sake. I was talking with an old friend recently about how hard it is - near impossible, really - to be old and cool, at the same time. David Bowie: an exception, obviously. And, Patti Smith, who seems to get cooler and cooler, the older she gets. Her book M Train is deeply cool. It's an elegy and a requiem to lost things - her beloved husband (dead), her favorite coat (lost), the café she frequents for a decade (closed), the boardwalk at Rockaway (Hurricane Sandy), a certain television crime-drama (not renewed), the idols she's looked to her whole life (Genet, Plath, Akutagawa), whose graves she makes pilgrimages to. She cleans them and adorns them with fresh flowers and symbolic offerings. The book is has dream sequences and surreal passages which don't make much sense in any literal way, but which serve to shore up the straighter sections of narrative, and feel like music. It's a lonely book, and makes the woodstove here at our house feel all that much warmer. But, even though she's alone, she writes beautifully about being in love with the world:
"When you don't have one, everyone is potentially your valentine. A notion I decided to keep to myself lest I be obliged to spend the day pasting hearts of lace on red construction paper to send out into the whole of the world."
"The world is everything that is the case. There's a positively elegant wisecrack courtesy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico, easy to grasp yet impossible to break down. I could print it in the center of a paper doily and deposit it into the pocket of a passing stranger. Or maybe Wittgenstein could be my valentine. We could live in a little red house in cantankerous silence on the side of a mountain in Norway." (pp.79-80)
She's still such a grumpy punk and I love her for it. And she speaks of what she knows. Her book is full of love and memory, and tender, sad observations, and perfect sentences such as this:
"Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle." (p.232)
Her writing reminds me yet again that as we age we love the things and people we love even more deeply. Whether they are present or not. And there is no end to it, this feeling:
"I love you, I whispered to all, to none." (p.253)
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
call a professional
February. Now is the month of my discontent. I've been disgruntled about all kinds of things lately, and as usual, the only remedy is action. Take action! Take active steps toward any dream going! And, since some of the things I'm dreaming about are outside of my scope of engagement, I've had to call in professionals. Deep winter in Maine is the time of year for such people. Things break down during deep winter in Maine (people too, but that's another story). Around here, over the past few weeks, I've called in professionals to repair the furnace, the oven, and the roof. The furnace needed a new igniter. The oven needed a new temperature sensor. The roof needed emergency repairs after a storm carried away many shingles. The roofers say we need a new roof. And possibly some chimney-work, while they're at it. We are soon to be on their spring schedule, for both, after visiting the professional lenders at our bank. Speaking of money, I also had to find a new accountant, since our old one just informed us he is retiring for good. Professionals - what would we do without them!
In my life away from home maintenance, I've also recently hired a professional photographer to take pictures of a big batch of paintings. And now I'm working with a professional designer to use the photographs to create a booklet for my upcoming solo show. In each of these cases, I considered doing the work myself, and then realized that what I wanted to have happen was beyond my current ability and technical means, and I needed a professional. Now is not the time for amateur work! I sometimes hope my dilettante years are behind me, but then I look at the evidence - all around, much of it to the contrary - and thank goodness I can at least call on professionals when I need help.
Speaking of dilettantes. As we do sometimes around here. I still haven't finished Horace Walpole's Letters. And at this point, I think I won't. I'll let him live on in the eternal present of his correspondence. A world I have come to love. Although Walpole doesn't have terribly good opinions about professionals, come to think of it. He hates physicians and refuses to be treated by them over the course of his life, with a few notable and disastrous exceptions. He dislikes printers and booksellers (often one and the same) and their cabals and contracts. Not to mention many authors, and historians. And politicians... well, he feels about them the way many of us still do today. Poets and artists, now, these are another matter. I wish he had had a better opinion of his own dear self, however. Near the end of his life, he writes:
"...when I came to rummage in the old chest of my memory, I found it so full of rubbish that when I came to set down the contents, some of which were imperfect remnants, I grew ashamed..." (Volume IX p.473)
I know how he feels. Even as I strive for professionalism in my own chosen fields. But I'm meandering at this point, for lack of anything better to say. Except, in the wake of Walpole, I am really missing the structure of a long winter reading project this year - something to occupy the cold late afternoon hours, after I've either worked or tried to work in the studio, and want to make the most of my time on this planet, by learning all that I can about the ways and means of its inhabitants. That might be at the heart of my current discontent. I haven't been idle by any means - all this maintenance - and much more besides. Like, in the past week, applying for a juried art show, applying for a grant for painters (for art supplies; for help with the roof over my painting studio), and framing seventy paintings for my show! Idleness is not in my nature, although I enjoy it if it occurs naturally. But lately, with everything on my mind and then some, I often find myself awake in the middle of the night, thinking, "Am I doing enough? Am I doing everything I need to be doing? Time is passing!" February thoughts. Stronger than usual, this year.