Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

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Marion Cunningham, one of my food heros, has a great piece in today's San Francisco Chronicle about the demise of family cooking and mealtime. I don't get it. My family life as a kid was pretty chaotic, but my mother always cooked, and taught both my brother and I to cook along with her. Most of my happy memories of my Mom's house revolve around days we spent cooking, either experimenting with new dishes, or cooking things we all knew we liked. I'll never forget the first curry I ever made, with instructions from a woman I remember only as Ann-from-Iran. I'd never used fresh ginger before, and when I put it in the blender and chopped it up, well! I think of that moment, that explosive aroma, and turning to my mother and saying "Smell this!" almost every time I cook with ginger.

At my father's house, we ate dinner together, at the dining room table, at least three or four times a week. We were expected to have good table manners, and to make conversation about the events of the day. Throughout most of high school my father and I debated politics at the dinner table, and I still credit him with making me feel comfortable enough with public debate that I was routinely one of the only women in my graduate school classes who spoke up. (And all these years later, when his political beliefs have taken a 180, it's pretty entertaining to hear him rant about the Bush administration. I keep reminding him that when I made the same argument in high school, he was on the other side.)

I don't understand my friends with kids. I know life is hectic, but I have almost no friends whose children are capable of sitting at the table for the length of a real meal without complaining about the food, making a mess of something, or just making polite conversation. I mean, even when I was a nanny, for a four year old with Down Syndrome, we went to lunch on Saturday afternoons to practice manners. Her mother wanted her to have good manners, because this would make her life easier in the long run. Are all these sports and after school activities really more important than family life? I wonder. But go read Marion Cunningham's article. For one thing, she's more articulate than I am and she makes a very salient political point that in a world of scarce resources, "convenience" foods, with their excessive packaging, their expense, and the way they undermine family life are a corrosive force.

posted by Charlotte at 1/15/2003 09:46:00 AM

Snow! For the first time in forty-one days, we have snow. Piles of snow. A foot of snow. Our local ski area is, for the first time all winter reporting powder conditions! Whooo hooo ... of course, I'm working today, which is why I'm here posting rather than up there skiing, but perhaps later this week I can play a little hooky.

posted by Charlotte at 1/15/2003 09:24:00 AM


Bookslut pointed out this review of The Lovely Bones at the New York Review of Books. I just finished reading Alice Sebold's first book, her memoir, Lucky. The most interesting aspect of the memoir was it's narration of Sebold's changing relationship to her own victimhood, and the ways that her attempts to deny and repress the emotional impact of being violently raped hobbled her emotional and artistic life for many years.

I haven't read The Lovely Bones yet myself, but I want to use Mendelsohn's essay as a jumping-off place for a discussion (which I assume will be ongoing on this blog), about the the ways that fiction, like all art, must not simply reaffirm our perceptions of the world, but rather, must challenge us to re-examine our most deeply held beliefs, hopes, and fears. However, because we live in a welter of narrative, from blogs to television to novels to movies to the stories we tell one another at parties, because we are aswim in narrative constructs that have come to seem "natural," we may not even be aware when we're responding to the fulfillment of a story we wish to be told, rather than the story we must hear.

In his review, Mendelsohn argues that the critics have made precisely this mistake with The Lovely Bones. That after September 11, we were all so anxious to be reassured that we mistook Sebold's story for the "fearless and ultimately redemptive portrayal of dark material" it was touted to be. However, Mendelsohn argues that in fact, "darkness, grief and heartbreak is what The Lovely Bones scrupulously avoids. This is the real heart of its appeal." He argues that "It is hard to read ... The Lovely Bones without thinking of ... those TV "movies of the week" with their predictable arcs of crisis, healing, and "closure," the latter inevitably evoked by an obvious symbolism." He gives several excellent textual examples to support this claim, and goes on to speculate that part of the novel's gigantic appeal is that in a nation traumatized by September 11, Sebold's "fantasy of recuperation" has "a vital subconscious appeal," especially for a "public ... now able to see itself as an entire nation of innocent victims." Finally he concludes by asserting that "Confidence and grief management are what The Lovely Bones offers ... it too is bent on convincing us that everything is OK."

So what, you ask, do I have against redemption? Against being OK? Well, nothing, of course. What I have is a gripe against these stories, these little narrative pills that tell us that "closure" and "healing" can be achieved without the true harrowing of the soul that they demand. What I have is a gripe against is the enormous cultural and professional pressure to create narratives in which "closure" and "healing" can be attained, narratives which posit that, in David Mendelsohn's words, "we needen't really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary." I also have a gripe against the idea that it is the purpose of fiction to explain us to ourselves, to wrap up complex experiences in tidy little packages in which the characters all neatly explain how they feel about the events that have taken place, in which the characters, like good little puppets, step forward and tell us exactly what it all means.

So what's a writer to do? Of course, the only one who can actually answer that is each writer for him- or herself, but the question I'd ask is how can we use language, our only tool as writers, to create experience rather than simply describe it? Of the books I've listed in my Current Fiction Picks section is Mary Rakow's first novel, The Memory Room. Now this is a book that dives deep into the wreck, a book in which it is always in question whether Barbara, the protagonist, will ever be able to make sense of the moral evil at the heart of her childhood, an evil she repressed for a very long time. The book is formally daring, it is utterly disinterested in the usual cause-and-effect conceits of traditional mainstream narration, opting instead for a collage of Barbara's perception, memory, and evasion of memory, interspersed with fragments of Paul Celan and the Psalms. This is a harrowing, stunning novel. A novel that is often difficult to read, and yet is so beautiful that one is compelled to return to the text. This is emphatically not a novel that sets out to reassure anyone that the world is OK. In an interview with LA Weekly, Rakow discusses the form of the book: "I consciously changed the form, several times and quite radically based on my sense of the world. This meant I had to change how the pages looked so that when I looked at it there was no lying going on. For example ... when I heard of these two young boys, a toddler and an infant, thrown over the bridge into the Los Angeles River in broad daylight, I could no longer write from one margin across the page to the right. It felt like a lie. I thought, Is this how the world is? Is this what I can say to that surviving toddler? And the resounding answer was, immediately and radically, No. From that point on, for several years, I wrote in what I called "dots" -- two or three lines of text running across the top inch of the otherwise all-white page. I wrote thousands of these and eventually grouped them by color. I tied the piles with ribbon. Red, blue, yellow, black, white, green, blue, indicating their emotional timbre. ... My ordering of the colored dots was like musial composition. ... That early ordering was a huge task for me to get the sequence right, and took me probably over a year."

It is one of the central tasks of any artist to to cleave to the story that must be told, despite the many many temptations one will encounter to tell the story people want to hear. If that means inventing new forms in which to tell those stories, then so be it. If that means writing odd fragments and spending years trying to figure out how they fit together, then one's task is to have the courage to keep at it. If that means trying to find a path through the constraints of traditional narrative form, then again, one's task is to have the courage to keep at it. But I'd ask you writers out there, to keep asking yourselves at every turn, what am I writing, the story that needs to be heard, or the story they want to hear?

posted by Charlotte at 1/13/2003 02:24:00 PM

The Buffalo Stew went over well ... it didn't in the final analysis taste all that different from beef stew, but it was delicious. Bill and Patrick ate big plates full, and the dogs are happily scrapping over the short rib bones in the living room.

posted by Charlotte at 1/13/2003 10:30:00 AM


Faith I went to Mass this morning for the first time in ages. The Cardinal Law/pedophilia scandal was the last straw for me for almost a year, and I'm still deeply ambivalent about my future as a Catholic. Somehow, the scope of the molestation, combined with the scope of the cover-up, sort of made it impossible for me, for a very long time, to ignore the clear message from the hierarchy that the Church is concerned first and foremost with it's own power as an institution. This hit all my Big/Small buttons, and I just couldn't go to Mass. Not for a long time. Not even at Christmas. Not even at Christmas when Advent is my secret special liturgical season because it was during Advent that I had my Eucharistic epiphany (see The Stigmata Incident for this particular little tale).

But I had one of those dark nights last week, you know the kind, where you lie awake worrying about someone you love and all the scary things that could happen, and I sort of answered my own question. If anything happened, I knew I'd be back on my knees in Mass, not because of the Church, or the hierarchy, but because in ways I still don't understand, the Mass is my practice, and the Mass is my home.

But I'm still not sure if I'm going back next week. I'll let you all know.

posted by Charlotte at 1/12/2003 02:49:00 PM

Book Alert For the past couple of weeks I've been reading Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, by Dan O'Brien. He's one of those writers who other writers rave about, but who isn't well known to the general public, but he should be. This is a terrific book about O'Brien's long struggle to keep his ranch afloat, and the huge leap of faith he took in the early nineties when he converted the ranch from cattle to buffalo. It's also about the ecosystem of the great plains, and how we've messed it up, and the hope that by re-introducing native wild herbivores like buffalo, perhaps we can not only restore the land itself, but figure out a way to live there that makes any kind of sense at all.

Since I'm interested in the meat issue, I bought some buffalo short ribs last time I was at the Co-op. I'll have a full report later as whether the Daube with Wild Mushrooms and Orange worked (from another essential cookbook, Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking. I have never cooked anything out of this book that wasn't wonderful, easy, and came out exactly like I'd hoped it would. A bombproof cookbook). But I have to say, just cutting up the meat, it was clear that this is wild meat. It's much darker than beef, a deep brownish-red, and a completely different consistency. It makes beef seem pink and mushy. And browning it up, there was none of that tallow-y scent you can sometimes get from beef. I'll be curious to see, as I get a better source of local grass fed beef, if they're more similar than the buffalo is to regular supermarket beef. Atr the moment, the stew is in the cool-it-off-and-skim-the-fat stage, and I haven't decided whether we're having it tonight or tomorrow. I'll let you know.

posted by Charlotte at 1/12/2003 02:35:00 PM

Vegetable Experiment of the Day -- Braised Endive One reason I'm experimenting with vegetables is that I'm planning my garden for next summer, and I don't want to wind up with a freezer full of fine organic veggies that I don't like to eat. Also, I've been living the past couple of years with my brother, a guy who won't eat "wet leaves," so now that we're no longer roommates, I've been going to town with wet leaves. About a week ago, I bought some endive. At least I think it's endive. It's a variety that isn't as curly as frissee, but isn't in a head like Belgian endive. I couldn't find an exact match in the indespensible tome: Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (this book was really expensive, but worth every penny. Especially for Asian and Latin American vegetables).
But I went with one of the basic cooking methods described in the book (well, I went with my memory of the basic cooking method, which means part of it was probably in the book, and some of it I made up). Here's what I did: washed the endive well, it was organic, and a little gritty. Then I cut the leaves in about thirds lenghtwise, so there were big chunks, but so I wouldn't have long, drippy, stringy leaves at the end. I have a prosciutto end in the freezer that I got somewhere on sale, so I cut about 1/2 inch off of that, and diced it (about 1/3 cup). I covered the bottom of the pan with olive oil, and sauteed the prosciutto with about three cloves of garlic, minced, and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. When the garlic was just beginning to color, I threw in the wet endive, 1/2 cup of chicken stock, and 1/2 cup of vermouth. I brought the liquids to a boil, then turned the whole thing down to a very low simmer and cooked it for a whopping hour and a half. I kept poking at it about every half hour, but the leaves were still really hard, so I just made sure there was liquid in the pan, and kept braising. Like the cauliflower gratin, I didn't have much hope for this dish, but it was delicious. The prosciutto and chicken broth and vermouth added a nice smooth depth of flavor that offset the nice bitterness of the greens. I now understand why Southerners cook greens with pork for a long long time. I ate this with some roasted chicken and rice and the bitterness of the greens worked really well with the richness of the chicken and sauce. A new veggie for my repetoire.

posted by Charlotte at 1/12/2003 02:17:00 PM


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