Saturday, August 19, 2006

Old School

I have to thank Ami for recomending the Tobias Wolff novel Old School.

The book passes through so many moods. In the first chapters, the narrator lays out the atmosphere of his boarding school in the early 1960's and shows us how the boys with literary aspiration mimic their favorite writers. There is a fantastic conscious parody of Hemingway: "Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore." It made me laugh so hard I risked inhaling my coffee.

Then the book shifts into a different section, much more about self-discovery than about the institution, and how a competition reveals what kind of men the boys will likely grow up to be. There is a culminating event (which I'm not going to give away) which in any other author's novel would be The Climax, the do-all and end-all, the tragic moment. But while writing clean, clear prose, Wolff inserts a much more complex view of the world and doesn't stop the story here. Bad stuff happens, characters make stupid decisions, but life doesn't stop there, nor is a life necessarily ruined by a major mistake.

The last section of the book is more reflective, the adult narrator contemplating the institution of the boarding school from afar, how he eventually became a writer, and what he learns about and from his old Masters. It would be very easy to lapse into sentimentality in this section but Wolff touches on innocence, self-awareness and memory so lightly that it never gets bogged down.

I'm trying to think of another writer who manages to convey the balance between masculine desire for power or dominance with the craving for tenderness. I'm not sure what it is about these passages that touches me so much, but the last line of the book (which doesn't give any of the plot away, if you are worried about spoilers) is an example that makes me all choked up when I read and re-read it:

"...he felt no more than a boy again--but a very well-versed boy who couldn't help thinking of the scene described by these old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him."

(Even such a heathen as I am, I managed to recognize the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)--Thanks undergrad "Bible as Literature" class!)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gluttony fest # 3000 or so....

Book group met on Tuesday evening and this time I remembered to wear shorts with a very loose waist band. An excellent piece of foresight since the evening quickly turned into our usual Gluttony Fest.

We read Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife which, I think we all agreed, was not one of her best; definitely not in the class of The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. The story was very fragmented and while Erdrich often shows what tangled family lines are all about, this one felt both more tangled and less subtle than the others. I felt like I was being beaten over the head with family disfunction and intermarriage. It didn't help that I had a first edition copy which did not have a family tree included--clearly the editors received some feedback about this omission and its use-value for readers because the family tree appears in all the subsequent editions of the book.

But back to the food....

We were a bit loose with the food connections to the book with the great exception of Ami and Sarah's contribution (noted below).

I brought an aperitif and canapes consisting of Bellini's made with a puree of local red haven peaches and prosecco sparkling wine. The canapes were a terrific (and really easy) assemblage of baguette topped with smoked trout and then blopped with a sauce made of creme fraiche, mayo, lemon, chives and dill (recipe at the end of this post).
While sipping and nibbling, we watched Ami make frybread (which was mentioned numerous times in the book). Here you see Ami demonstrating the many uses of the spirit hole that is punched in the center of each piece of dough:
Some of the frybread (cooked in pure Lard! Yum!) were popped into a bag with cinnamon and sugar and shaken until coated. The others were sprinkled with salt. Both were damn good. In this photo you can see Halla's nicely manicured fingers making a grab for one.
For the main course, Marilyn shared the bounty of her glorious garden with us in a potato, corn, roasted chile chowder (gotta get that recipe). The corn was so sweet and still a little crisp and the chile gave it a nice kick.
And then there was the overladen plate to go with the chowder. From top and then proceeding clockwise around the plate you see: Halla's cheesy and meltingly tender summer squash dish, Meg's garlicy tequila shrimp, a varied summer fruit salad provided by Diane, some of Marilyn's roasted beets (if she didn't provide them, I probably would have snuck away from the table and been found in the garden eating them raw with dirt smears all over my face, so thanks Marilyn, for accomodating my beet fixation!), and a pasta salad she made with the beet greens, dried cherries and Parmesan, and a salad that Lea brought with toasted pine nuts and sliced pears. Whew!
It was incredibly tempting to go back and get seconds on some of these fantastic dishes, but already I was feeling rotund in the belly region and I knew we still had dessert to contend with, so I stayed put and had another glass of wine instead!

Sarah made a blitzkuchen--a cake which is prominent in the book--and I brought along a quart of raspberries that we picked at Makielski's the other day. Thankfully the cake wasn't over the top rich--Sarah's inspired addition of lemon zest brightened the cake and helped it to not sink beneath the medly of complex flavors that preceded it.
No, we didn't serve it with a candle on the plate; by desert time it was pretty dark and we were eating outside so votive lighting by Marilyn-the-pyromaniac was the way to go.

The next book around which the glutton-group will assemble is:
Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Smoked Trout Canapes with Lemon Chive Sauce
adapted from the NY Times dining section, August 9, 2006

2 medium smoked trout filets
1/4 C mayo

1/2 C creme fraiche (1/2 C heavy cream with 1/2 T buttermilk stirred in and allowed to sour overnight in a warmish place)

zest of two lemons
2 t lemon juice

1 T chopped chives, plus some extra for sprinkling over the top

2 T minced dill

1 baguette, sliced thin into rounds
  • Peel skin off of trout and discard. Break up trout filets into pieces that will fit on top of the baguette slices.
  • In a small bowl, combine mayo, creme fraiche, lemon zest, lemon juice, chives and dill. Mix well.
  • Place a piece of trout on a slice of baguette and top with a blob of the sauce. Sprinkle with reserved chives.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Buckle for Breakfast

It is berry season in our area now with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries all available. Yesterday we went out to Makielski Berry Farm and picked two quarts of blackberries and two quarts of raspberries. The thorns on the blackberries were ferocious--my legs look like I've been playing with a whole litter of needle clawed kittens (the raspberries were much more kid-friendly picking). But I can handle a little pain for berries!

The whole time I was picking I kept chanting the rhymes from the picture book Jamberry which I have read to my kids so many times that I have it memorized. So my kids could keep track of where I was in the row by listening for "Clickberry clackberry pick me a blackberry; trainberry trackberry clickety clackberry..."

By the time we got home, I was a little tired and not quite up to dealing with the fragility of pie crust, so I turned to the recipe sheet that I picked up at the farm and settled upon Blackberry Buckle. The great thing about a Buckle is that it can pass as either dessert or as a fruit-loaded coffee cake the next morning! In the interest of testing both options, I consumed it both ways.

Buckle is fast to throw together--a basic cake batter, topped with berries (lots of berries),
then sprinkled with streusel and baked until it looks like this:
Mmmmm. Buckley goodness!

Blackberry Buckle
from Makielski Berry Farm

2.5 C fresh or frozen blackberries
1 C all purpose flour
1.5 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/2 C butter
1/2 C sugar
1 egg
1/3 C milk
1 t vanilla

1/4 C sugar
1/4 C flour
1/2 t cinnamon
2 T butter

  • Preheat oven to 375.
  • Stir together 1 C flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  • In a mixing bowl, beat together 1/2 C butter and 1/2 C sugar until fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth.
  • Combine milk and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and milk alternately to the beaten mixture, beating at low speed after each addition.
  • Pour (or spread) batter into a greased 1 and 1/2 quart pan.
  • Arrange berries evenly over the batter.
  • Combine 1/4 C sugar, 1/4 C flour and cinnamon. Cut in 3 T butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over the berries.
  • Bake for 35 minutes.