Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Those turtles are layered

In Blue Duets, Rob's first line is "Julia Child taught me to cook."  I was trying, you see, to make him not completely unlikeable, and since he's about my age, like me he's a first-generation Mastering the Art of French Cooking cook.  When Veronica and I watched "Julie and Julia" several months ago, I got the books back out of that place where superannuated cookbooks go to live--where they become history.

So when Veronica had a birthday while we were in New York City (for which we shopped on Fifth Avenue, but don't be jealous.  Fifth Avenue is where strange, unwearable clothing goes to be auctioned off to the highest bidder), we talked about menus.  She wanted coq au vin and crepes with frangipane. When I cook coq au vin, something tugs at my history rib.    I'm very aware that this dish is a long-standing French classic with a definite purpose:  cook that useless old wiry rooster in so much wine--along with the right herbs and vegetables--and for so long that he'll be succulent and delicious.  Yet I have no way of knowing whether the skinless chicken breasts I'm using came from a cock or a hen, and making coq au vin with skinless chicken breasts is probably heretical anyway.  Nevertheless, the mingling smells in my kitchen of the bacon fat I'll brown the breasts in, of sauteing mushrooms, of wine and chicken stock, of bay and thyme, seem to connect me to a long line of French women and their American art-of-French-cooking sisters.

Making frangipane I similarly meet the layers of my own history.  First, I should say I bought both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the early seventies, shortly after they were published.  In the following decade I made Veal Prince Orloff--probably the most complicated thing I've ever cooked--Bavarian creams, croissants from scratch.  (You can't imagine how good they are, though if you work at them all day, folding and rolling out the buttered layers,  you can eat them for afternoon tea.)  When I found myself a single mother of a vegetarian child in the mid-eighties, Julia Child went to the back of the shelf of cookbooks, except for the recipe for frangipane.  Frangipane is a fairly thick pastry cream  (mostly eggs, milk, flour and sugar) to which you add ground almonds, almond extract, and a generous splash of Amaretto.  Although it's essentially a fairly thick pudding, it tastes like something from another world altogether.

If you've used Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you know that one of Childs' gifts lies in her ability to write the most precise instructions; these, if followed religiously, will lead to frangipane that is like silk.  First, you slowly, slowly, slowly whisk the sugar into the eggs until, when you lift the whisk, the mixture "forms a ribbon."  For some reason, this patient transformation leads the thick mixture of eggs and sugar to fall off your whisk not in blobs but in elegant ribbons.  Once you've whisked it to that point, there, it's unmistakable.  Then you beat in the flour that you've measured in quite a particular way that's illustrated, a pencil note in my cookbook tells me, on page 17, though I don't have to revisit it any more.  You put your measuring cup under your sifter and sift the flour carefully  into the cup and then level it with a knife, ensuring that there are absolutely no lumps in your flour and that nothing's been packed down as you spoon it into the measuring cup.  Once you've added the flour, you need to add boiling milk, and here's where I part ways with dear Julia.  Right below my note telling me exactly how to sift the flour is another notation:  "3 minutes in microwave. "  Boiling milk only makes the most unspeakable mess of your pan, and you have to watch it.  French cooking takes lots of time to begin with--whisking eggs and sugar until they form the ribbon--I don't have time to watch milk boil.  I am back on track when I add the milk to the sugar, eggs, and flour drop by drop, and I've also been conscientious about buying the kind of enamelled cast iron pans that spread the heat so evenly you don't need to use a double boiler.

Oddly enough, my Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a kind of synecdoche for our knowledge of history:  it's seldom unmediated and often our own experience, or those of our forenbears,  provides the mediation.  While I've got the "original text," it's been layered over, first by smudges from the bottom of my pan as I put it right on the cookbook to read the instructions while following them, then by the experience of never remembering from time to time how to properly sift flour, and finally by finding an improved, efficient way for boiling my milk.  I'm absolutely true to some of the recipe's instructions, like getting the egg and sugar to form the ribbon.  Veronica, in turn, knows the text mediated by years of watching me make frangipane and by the memories she has of her mother's cooking.

Quilt historian Barbara Brackman is celebrating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by offering quilt makers a quilt block a week named after events and personages in the civil war.  The one I'm working on right now is called "Fort Sumter" after an important naval battle outside Charleston, South Carolina.  Brackman has created a wonderful display:  photographs and newspaper articles from the time, along with selections from the diary of Mary Chestnut, whose husband was at Fort Sumter.  So Brackman has been careful to give us lots of primary texts in this post, as in her others.  Yet there's no escaping the fact that the block itself was first found in the Chicago Tribune quilting column written by a fictional Nancy Cabot in 1932.  Brackman goes on to suggest the symbolism of the colours used in the block, but we can't help feeling that our genuine 2011 Civil War quilt which we're making a complicated block of every week, using only bona fide reproduction fabrics, is somehow faked.  Or is it?

Once an object comes into the historical record, whether it's a cookbook, a quilt block, or a package of letters, it is already implicated in its culture and in all that society values.  It doesn't come to us without the assumptions we always already make about its meaning.  Through these objects, we don't really know "how it was."  We'd like to assure ourselves that we're finding the meaning of the past, and that meaning comes down to us through an unbroken, unsullied chain.  But, as Hans Kellner argues in "Language and historical representation," there is no narrative there, waiting for us to discover it.  Rather, the historical narratives we create are exercises in self-understanding.  Through telling our stories, we create ourselves. I take pleasure, it seems, in creating--and being--a self that's tied to the pleasures of the past, regardless of how illusory it might be.  I like the sensual and intellectual anachronism that happens when past and present meet.  I'm taking Barbara Brackman's narratives and instructions, which she couldn't really give to us without the genre of the blog, straight from my netbook to my sewing machine. 

You can find Barbara Brackman's wonderful blog here:

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