French Gastronomy : The History and Geography of a Passion

 

Cover_French Gastronomy.jpg

Opening with a tongue-in-cheek discussion on whether gourmandism is a sin in France (or anywhere), the author is equally at ease citing evangelical and Pauline epistolary evidence as the classical Greek and Roman philosophical commentators on how to live life well. For those concerned with the eating habits of Jesus, the author points out that once the fasts ended, Jesus ate and drank heartily with the best of them.

From there, the lively analysis moves to explain that French food is so varied because it lay on the path between the warring and striving clans of the past. Political changes brought trade and the next thing you know, wealth builds, which buys good cooks, fine ingredients and the leisure to stay at table.

The Parisian dedication to eating and measuring success by wealth of the table long predates the ostentatious 1890’s or the studious culinary minimalism of the 1980’s. The Venetian ambassador to the King of France in 1577, surely no bumpkin, commented on the diverse provisions and how rich and poor alike eat well. In the early 19th century Parisians could buy strawberries in January, grapes at Spring solstice and pineapples year round.

The big advance in French cooking occurred with the change in meat preparation from roasting on an open fire or boiling in a suspended pot to a raised prototype stove called a potager. Built of bricks and tiles, a similar cooking system existed in Italy a century before it arrived in French kitchens in the 1700s. Hot coals were arranged inside the potager and cooks could simmer broths, stir sauces, and braise meats. “Henceforth, cooking was done standing up, close to the source of heat, a position more favorable for producing complicated hot dishes.” Of course the elaborate presentation caused the food to cool by the time the dish reached the banquet table.

In more recent centuries, the author’s primary source archives expand. Chapters dedicated to the French royal and imperial kitchens extend to the rest of Europe because any duke worth his salt wanted a French chef. Contemporary French food nationalism, street eating habits and the revival of regional producers dedicated to traditional specialties come under Pitte’s scholarly scalpel, always leavened with humor and graceful translation by Jody Gladding. In the end the author is hopeful that the French will abandon fast food and nouvelle cuisine, returning to their gourmandizing  and sinning ways.

French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, Jean-Robert Pitte

Columbia University Press, 2002, 207 pages with index.

Reviewed by L. Peat O’Neil who teaches Food and Travel Writing for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and L’Academie de Cuisine.

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

 

cover_ladygregorystoothbrush

While a Fellow at the New York Public Library, author Colm Toibin delved into the papers of Lady Gregory held in the Berg Collection and published this thoroughly entertaining biographical sketch in 2002. It may be a short read, but it reassess the literary contributions of Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin while also having a bit of fun with the mystique of W. B. Yeats’ role in Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival.

Augusta, Lady Gregory’s founding of the Abbey Theatre and her encouragement of Irish playwrights is well known. Her writing, especially her contributions to plays attributed solely to W. B. Yeats, is less known. Although Yeats gave Lady Gregory some public credit for this collaboration, he “never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” which bothered her.

Yet Lady Gregory also let Yeats take the lion’s share of credit for stage management of that production, even though he led just a single dress rehearsal when press were present. In their collaboration on the cycle of Irish legend-plays, Lady Gregory had the better ear for dialogue. She drew on a lifetime of conversations with farmers, trades workers and servants.

Cultural nationalism can’t be the product of one or two persons, no matter how well intentioned or talented. Myriad influences contribute to bonding a culture to a nation or a political stream. Irish authorities thought the plays based on Celtic myths would incite the nationalists to bolder action. Against the advice of cooler conformist advisors such as G. B. Shaw, Yeats and Lady Gregory forged ahead with the Abbey productions. As Toibin explained in an essay for the New York Review of Books (v. 48, n. 13, Aug. 9, 2001, p. 40) written while he was working on this book, the enduring legacy of the Abbey Theater was the nurturing of fresh voices and producing mythic dramas rather than staging political plays that incited hot heads to riot and ruin.

Lady Gregory sustained creative friendships with many writers during her eighty years. The narrative is spiced with anecdotes about the curious habits and behaviors of several icons of 20th century literature culled from Lady Gregory’s letters and diaries. Toibin’s irreverent scholarship sheds light on W.B. Yeats’ inflated sense of self and Lady Gregory’s efforts to edit her public image in order to maintain ties to the Irish aristocracy while supporting revolutionary nationalists.

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Toibin

University of Wisconsin Press, 125 pages, ISBN: 029918000X

This review by L. Peat O’Neil appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

Resources:  W. B. Yeats and the Occult

 

 

Stories from the City of God

Stories from the City of God: 

Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966storiesfromcityofgodcover

Pier Paolo Pasolini
Ed. by Walter Siti, Translation by Marina Harss.
Handsel Books, an imprint of Other Press, NY. 2003, ISBN 1-59051-048-8

In the years after World War II, Rome supported a scrappy demi-monde ravaged by the invasion and aftermath. Pier Paolo Pasolini lived that tooth and claws existence, scraping together food and work when he could, begging when he couldn’t. Later he would use those experiences to drive his creative products – films, novels, stories and articles.

This mix of short fiction and non-fiction sketches explore Roman people of that time.  What’s ugly and squalid shows its beauty to Pasolini.  He cuts through the outwardly pleasing cowards and hypocrites that repel him and celebrates successful thieves and  crafty con artists. The stories mark incremental successes in modest lives where the big picture is only to stay alive for another day.

The short pieces succeed as portraits of people and place during a certain time.  It’s full of timeless portraits of the fleet stealthy underclass that every big city hides.  The stories feature Roman boys — canny youths wise beyond their birthdays.  The author opens up a window on hidden Rome, a part of the city that continues to exist in certain dodgy corners and presumably always will. 

He also notices the timeless landscape of Rome. “Delirious Rome” (p. 25, uncorrected page proofs) opens with two trolley antennae sparking at a track crossing.  The image propels the author to a meditation that compresses time as he thinks about workers commuting all week, and then relaxing along the Tiber. The Roman landscape takes on mythic proportions in Pasolini’s reflection as he skips through history during the trolley ride. The story starts with a spark, a moment in 1950, yet the details of Roman life as illuminated by Pasolini remain. Decades later, the sparks still explode when trolleys cross track lines, sending a rider’s thoughts cart-wheeling beyond the immediate.  Pasolini captures ten seconds of mental musing in pages of robust description.

Pasolini captures smiles and smells, the empty places where the downtrodden hole up to sleep or sell their pilfered wares. By using dialect of the under class, Pasolini thumbs his nose to aristocrats and the fascist enforcers they so recently embraced and supported.  Still, he was no hero to the left, who saw his attention to the less savory aspects of poverty as a perversity.

-This book review originally appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

White Mughals

Britain ruled India  as the British Raj from 1858 to 1947.  Before that, the East India Company — an English trading corporation —  operated and functioned as de facto government in India – from 1757 to 1858.  England wasn’t the only European country operating trading enterprises in India.  The history of India’s quest for freedom arises from nearly 200 years of English governance of an ancient country and its peoples.

White Mughals delves into the lives of individual European commercial and military officers with vivid portraits of their careers, families and relationships with Indian people–lords and ladies, local servants and British staff.   During such a long occupation, many English mated and married Hindi women.  Their children became part of another layer of dynastic control or rebellion.  

White Mughals cover

One such affair of the heart took place in early 1800s in  Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa Begum.  Kirkpatrick had previously served in Carolina and owned a plantation there, plus an estate Hollidale near Bromley in Kent. The descriptions of  daily life in the couple’s household in India are sensuously memorable. 

The history may leave a sour taste for Indians and English alike. An illustrative aspect of the era demonstrates cultural sharing and learning among the cultures.  The exhibition at the Asia Society  Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 includes works by Mughal court painters and a few paintings produced for Delhi-based Raj figures such as William Fraser, James Skinner and Thomas Metcalfe.

A traveler may acquire insight into the emotions and endurance of people on all sides of this historical era. 

 

White Mughals,  Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India 

William Dalrymple

Penguin Books, 2004, 544 pages.

 

 

An American Dream

It’s hard to put down this unusual biographical narrative by a Korean War veteran and POW who elected to settle in China after the war rather than return to the low horizons available to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South.

Clarence Adams after Korean War
Author, veteran and POW Clarence Adams after the Korean War.

Twelve years later, after earning a degree at Beijing University, working for years as a translator for the government publishing enterprise, and developing sincere friendships with Chinese colleagues, Clarence Adams left China during the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals, teachers and writers were attacked by gangs of Chinese youths encouraged by Chairman Mao to make a “permanent revolution.”

He returned to the United States in 1966 and may as well have stepped barefoot into a minefield.  In the U.S. some media outlets distorted his actions and played to the quick prejudices of the public confused by rapid social change and the numbing carnage of the Viet-Nam War. Adams and the twenty other American POWs who had elected not to return to the United States after the end of the Korean War had already been tried and condemned as traitors by the media and popular opinion, even though the treaty that ended the war included a clause permitting prisoners of war to choose any country for repatriation.  Adams returns to this point throughout the book.  He explains that by staying in China after release from the war prisoner camps, he was given the opportunity for education and professional experience that would not be open to him in the United States at that time.

Adams grew up in a clearly defined segregated South in a Memphis family used to dealing with the harsh economic and political realities of segregation and discrimination.  He learned to hustle for extra tips at a hotel job by playing up to people’s need to feel important. Then came the call for soldiers to fight in Korea.

Though the segregated military was supposed to be a thing of the past by 1948, it took years for the entrenched military to change.  Various encounters in the military underlined the defacto segregation in the North that led Malcolm X to this statement:  “The Mason Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.”

The Chinese entered the Korean War, surprising US troops fed on Thanksgiving turkey and incomplete information from their US superiors.  Adams observes a black regiment providing cover for white troops escaping enemy fire, leaving no cover for the African- American soldiers.  This event distilled into Adams’ a life long protest:  though blacks in America lived in a climate of distain, were denied equal opportunity and basic human rights, they were shipped off to fight America’s wars.

An American DreamIn An American Dream, Adams writes of harrowing scenes of capture by Chinese troops, the march on iced roads to prison Camp 5 near Pyuktong and the near-starvation of the captured Americans. His narrative includes acts of kindness by the Chinese captors, but Adams is politically aware and knows that getting out alive will require communicating with the army prison officials.  During the march to their permanent prison Adams couldn’t keep up with the main column of prisoners.  Weak POWs who lagged behind were being shot, so Adams bargained for his life, begging to be allowed to start out early on the march and continue slowly to the next night’s camp behind the main column. He lost toes on one foot; he didn’t sleep, but he made it to the camp. Though afraid he might be branded a collaborator, months later, Adams stepped forward when the Chinese asked for representatives from the prisoner ranks to work with them to improve camp conditions.

After the war, Adams and 20 other American POWs (three African-Americans including Adams) elected to settle in China, some, like Adams, were placed in university degree programs, others were given factory jobs.  All, according to Adams just wanted a better life than what they knew would be waiting for them back in the US.  Vilified by the press, the 21 American POWs had varying degrees of success in China. Adams explains his choice:  “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis.”  (P.64)

Adams married a Chinese woman, they had two children, and he finished university and worked as a translator for the Foreign Language Press.  During the Vietnam War Adams spoke on Radio Hanoi appealing to black American soldiers to think about their position in the war, suggesting they should be fighting for their own civil rights back home.  The broadcast to American soldiers in Vietnam was used as grounds for a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dropped the charges after questioning Adams for a week in camera.

After 12 years in China, Adams decided to return to his homeland.  The Cultural Revolution had begun with unprovoked attacks on westerners, beatings and incarceration of educated people and intellectuals, not to mention, widespread destruction of art and cultural artifacts.  When his employer told him to leave the Foreign Language Press and work in a distant factory, Adams knew his run of good relations with the Communist government was over.

An American Dream

By Clarence Adams

Edited by Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson

University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2007. 176 pages.

Eighty Days, Two Women, The Globe

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman
Eighty Days
by Matthew Goodman

Here’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed  —  a terrific read, a thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want!  For this life-long voyager, it offered an historical version of my own round-the-world trips.  You don’t have to be a traveler to get a kick out of reading about two enterprising women journalists and their historic global circumnavigation in opposite directions. 

Eighty Days takes its title from Jules Verne‘s serialized novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.   

But — this  Eighty Days is not fiction.    

FLASH Update:  Nellie Bly’s route retraced 125 years later on Nellie Bly in the Sky

Eighty Days opens in mid November, 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly is waving farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. The book tracks her biggest story — a solo global circuit and intrepid race against time — eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia.  The author introduces us to Nellie Bly’s character and achievements as a pioneering investigative reporter adept at “stunt journalism“. She posed as a factory worker. She exposed baby-selling scams.  She got herself locked up in an asylum for the insane  for nearly two weeks by acting bizarrely so she would be incarcerated as mentally disturbed. Her reports sparked a grand jury investigation of public hospitals for women where conditions were unsanitary and cruel.

Nellie Bly dressed for travel, 1889.
Nellie Bly dressed for travel, 1889.

Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler.  She had lived in Mexico with her mother for company, writing articles about bullfights, coffin manufacturers, political graft and cultural oddities.  Proof of her travel saavy was the single small handbag she carried as luggage, now displayed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Bisland en route around the world, 1889.
Elizabeth Bisland en route around the world, 1889.

Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, committing her to return to New York City before Bly.  Elizabeth Bisland, a gently-bred Louisianan, was an accomplished literary essayist and poet, 28 years old in 1889 when the around her world trip began a few hours after Nellie Bly sailed away.

 During her years as a magazine essayist and community group leader in New Orleans she had forged a life-long friendship with the acclaimed author Lafcadio Hearn, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states.  In New York City,  Bisland was a serious professional writer, stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the New York literary scene of the day. Photographs  in the book show a pristine beauty.  She traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for the climate changes anticipated during nearly three months at sea and on the road. 

Author Matthew Goodman
Author Matthew Goodman

Matthew Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining the travel infrastructure of the 1890s — grand hotels, steamships, comfortable railway carriages in the USA and the rudimentary, poorly heated rail cars in Europe and beyond.  The British Empire made such a journey possible with its tightly scheduled steamships moving mail, people and supplies to the colonies with refueling stops strung around the world.  At that time, the sun never set on the British empire.

As any true traveler knows,  the people in a place show the real story.  Goodman explores the city streets, ports, lodgings, restaurants and markets, writing historically accurate scenes of faraway places.  Prejudice, injustice and the downtrodden lives of the world’s workers are exposed.  Too many travel narratives shy away from tough realities, presenting a distorted rosy view of places tourists pass through insulated by money and tour guides.  At sea, headed for China, Bisland writes about the human cargo of Chinese railroad workers  forced out of the USA some of them ill and half-dead.  Bly made a point of going ashore whenever possible to poke around street markets, ride in human-powered pedicabs or watch port operations and  refueling.

Thanks to the British Empire, English was spoken just about everywhere the women put ashore as well as at the telegraph stations .  Logistics were complicated to arrange without telephones, mobile phones or online travel sites. For me, an attractive feature of the book is following their route on the maps, noting transport connections and wondering if any of those elegant old hotels remain.  I’ve had the pleasure of staying in one or two very vintage hotels in Asia, but renovations might be overly elaborate and erase historical character.

Still, their journeys were not luxury tours hopping from one British outpost to another.  Annoyances ranged from extreme temperatures, weather delays, dramatic storms at sea, fickle health, loneliness, intruding gawkers and local reporters in search of a story.  Nellie reinforced her pre-existing negative opinion of the snobby Brits and Elizabeth learned that she liked to travel, despite a tipsy stomach.

Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly used telegraph messages to communicate their progress which the newspapers used to pump reader interest and increase circulation.  One paper ran a contest with a free trip for the winner who could guess Bly’s completion date. It was a neck-to-neck race in opposite directions and I won’t spoil the suspense unfolding during their around-the-world journeys by spilling the beans about the final days and the unusual trajectory of their lives afterwards.

Eighty Days was released in paperback on March 11, 2014.  It’s a great book for book club discussion groups too.  Read my interview with Matthew Goodman at AdventureTravelWriter.org

Around the World in  Eighty Days by Jules Verne book cover.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne book cover.
  • Ballantine Books
  • ISBN: 978-0-345-52727   eBook: 978-0-804-17644-6
  • Paperback edition, 2014. $16.00
  • Includes: Index, Bibliography, Photographs, Maps and a guide for reading groups
Around the World in 80 Days film publicity 1956.
Around the World in 80 Days film publicity 1956.

Some readers may remember the 1956 Technicolor film with David Niven in the title role and a legacy of five Academy Awards.  The film Around the World in Eighty Days was produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.

The Atlantic Rim

While the Pacific Rim captures attention  ::

Consider the Atlantic Rim, an older trade route.

Map of N. Atlantic Ocean floor and N. Atlantic Rim coastal areas.

The July 3, 2008 issue of London Review of Books discusses two recent books:

North Atlantic Map. http://en.wikipedia.com
North Atlantic Map.
http://en.wikipedia.com

My interest in the history and geography of the Atlantic Rim took me to Kenneth White’s book On the Atlantic Edge. White’s ideas about geopoetics are provocative. He’s a Scotsman who lives in France and writes in English and French — a forward-thinking author with poetic nuance.

41fcYXrwJ2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_
On the Atlantic Edge
by Kenneth White

Resources:

The Atlantic World Research Network – University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Atlantic World Foodways Conference – January 31 – February 2, 2014.

Transatlantic Exchanges Forum – Plymouth University – Atlantic Studies Initiative.