25 June 2010

Everyday Heroes

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
Prom Night 2010: Will & Emily, Uncle Bill, Elise
(My shirt is a hand-me-down from Will.)

My goddaughter's social calendar this week has been especially charged: she is graduating from high school, and a great number of events (awards ceremonies, the prom, the graduation ceremony itself) have all been booked in a short span of days at the end of the school year. This hectic pace is intended, I think, as a kind of final test: if the children survive, they may be considered ready for college.

To some extent, this week is merely an official marker of a process that was completed a few years ago: Emily is a young woman now, and not the tiny blond bundle who howled like a fleet of fire engines any time I tried to pick her up. (She had no serious objection to me, in principle, but I was obviously her brother's toy, not hers, and she preferred that I keep my distance.) She is beautiful and often wise beyond her years, a gifted scholar, artist and athlete, with a questing intellect and a passionate commitment to worthwhile causes.

For her as for her brother (first of all my namesakes), godfathering has been an easy job. Mostly, I just sit back and marvel at them. On occasion, I don't even have to move: they come to me, to Paris, for example, as they did a few years ago, or to New York, as Will did last week, with his girlfriend. We met in the city like grownups, over coffee and dessert. This was gratifying for me, a sort of reenactment of a J.D. Salinger story, with the happy exception that I wasn't required to kill myself at the end. Will has just completed his sophomore year at Bard, the school that will welcome Emily, as well, in the fall. I wonder whether the administrators know how lucky they are to receive such extraordinary young people.

When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?

That I really can't claim any part of the success of my godchildren became clear to me (yet again) as I walked around the Upper West Side with Will and the lovely Alex. We visited various landmarks from the youth I shared with Will and Emily's mother, and sometimes with their father. Yes, Elise and Chris got serious about each other while Elise was my roommate, but the only credit I get for that is that I didn't annoy Chris any more than I did. (That was plenty, but not enough to scare him off altogether.)*

The real work falls not to godparents but to parents, and it's here that my admiration for Elise Goyette -- always pretty exalted -- reached a glittering peak. Because both kids have learning disabilities, extra effort has been required to express and then to develop their fearsome native intelligence. Both kids are so smart, in fact, that for a long time their teachers barely understood that there was any problem at all. Once the reality became clear, however, Elise snapped into action.

Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
(George wasn't Emily's prom date this year, but he's a good egg.)

All her life, she may have been in training for this job; now her innate organizational skills and her boundless energies found a focus, and a purpose that refined and empowered all of her abilities. She researched options, resources, and alternatives, and she exploited them relentlessly, until both kids had acquired the tools they needed to learn -- and to learn better than almost any other kid in America.

At home, Elise created an environment that fostered creativity and enhanced study. No chapel is more sacrosanct, no library quieter than her dining room at homework time, with the kids' books and papers arrayed and the computer at the ready. (An outsider visiting her would find it impossible to believe that teenagers lived in the same house.) Sometimes I've sat beside the kids as they worked on their English essays, and Emily in particular is an editor's dream who really would stay up all night if it meant finding the right concluding sentence for her opening paragraph. Other writers spend their whole lives without ever touching on the clear, open-hearted prose style that is Will's by nature.**

All the while, Elise, single again, has held down a steady job and faced the sorts of day-to-day dramas that every human being must face -- but she never lost her sense of mission.

Elise, blossoming even as we gaze

The results are there for anyone to see. Will and Emily are serious scholars, whipsmart and unstoppable. Their college is one of the finest in the nation. And I couldn't be prouder of them.

At graduation exercises each year, we speak of "commencement" and remind ourselves that the end of one chapter is the beginning of another. I will need no such reminders, however, because I am looking already to the beginning of the next chapter. My godchildren have the ability to do whatever they please, and I'm eager to see what pleases them.

And as for their mother -- Elise Goyette has never been one to rest on her laurels. Having achieved so much already, she is just getting started. Believe it.***

Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years

*NOTE: I can't be blamed for Elise and Chris' divorce, either, though it's true that, at the wedding, Elise and I accidentally took the dance that's traditionally reserved for the bride and groom. In any case, Chris remains a great guy and a terrific father.

**Will's college-application essay on the Rubik's Cube -- his mastery of it, his application of its principles in other kinds of problem-solving, and his use of it to meet girls -- was featured on NPR in 2008.

***I have a slight suspicion that I may be one of her upcoming projects. So be it. Resistance is futile.

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21 June 2010

His Excellency

Not the cat in question. But there’s a certain physical resemblance.

His Excellency, so often my roommate when I am in New York, is a cat, but he seems unaware of this fact. A foundling, he arrived so young at the home of his owners (a.k.a. his human family) that he had spent very little time with any other cats, and has hardly seen another cat in the many years since then; even the grip of instinct never developed fully in his psyche. This explains his many un-catlike qualities, particularly his openly and entirely un-manipulative affectionate nature. He will be nice to you even when he doesn’t want food, and he likes to be petted even when there is no itch in a spot he can’t reach on his own. His Excellency wants love, and has no qualms about letting you know so.

I’ve never known another cat who behaved this way. Yet his real distinction is his utterly trusting — and affectionate — nature when he’s eating. Has any other animal not only permitted but insisted on being petted while he eats? By someone who is not even his owner (a.k.a. his servant)?

Several years ago, he began to call out to me at meal times, when the food was already in his dish, so that I might admire (or envy) his good fortune. If I didn’t sit with him to watch, he’d come after me, calling until I returned to his side. But then, gradually, he made it clear that he wanted petting, too. Now when I’m in town, His Excellency refuses to eat if I don’t stroke him. He seems to feel it necessary to proper digestion. Heaven knows how he manages when I’m not around.

His owners (a.k.a. his vassals) are private people, so I’m using neither their names nor His Excellency’s. In truth he is named for a Marxist hero, from a country and an era far away enough as to give offense to few; but he is an unlikely revolutionary. Really, he is an aristocrat. If you pet him so that his fur ruffles, he will smooth it again as soon as you’re not looking. With his spotless jabot and the chic flair of his fluffy fore- and hind legs — like pantaloons or jodhpurs — he looks more like a terribly grand major domo, or perhaps even a prime minister, from some little-known operetta.

He remembers me vividly, from all my many visits to his home, and if I’m out late, he will sit like a parent on the sofa-bed, staring at the door, until I return. Again, another cat would behave this way only if his bowl was empty; His Excellency misses only my companionship. This is immensely gratifying.

We have learned that he likes company very much, and he is seldom alone for very long. But there are limits to the numbers of humans whose presence he can tolerate. He knows when there is a party brewing and begins early to signal his disquiet. He mews the plaintive inquiry, “Why are you putting me through this?” He paces nervously. Once the guests begin to arrive, he hides in the closet.

Though his eyes gleam with the clarity and questions of a child’s, his brow is noble and wise, and he is quite old. We feared for his health a few years ago, but he rebounded. I don’t want to jinx him, so I’ll make no prognosis; suffice to say that he has confounded the veterinarians already and blessed us with more of his time than we’d dared to hope for.

I’m especially grateful for that. I’ve never been what one calls a “cat person,” but His Excellency’s uncomplicated amiability and compassion have taught me much. Though the feral kittens have abandoned the garden in Beynes, I may sometime try to adopt a cat, if I see some hint of His Excellency’s better qualities in another puss. His owners (a.k.a. his minions) are lucky indeed.

I would tell you more about him, but he is cocking his head at me, and lolling in a particularly alluring fashion, with an inquisitive expression: “What can you be doing that is in any possible way more interesting than petting me?” He wants my affection, and I, his friend (a.k.a. his slave) must obey.

UPDATE: Having dodged so many health problems that he probably used up more than a few of his nine lives already, His Excellency passed away on October 19, 2012. He is sorely missed.

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18 June 2010

‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’

Watching the offbeat romantic comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris, a num­ber of intriguing questions arise: What are two of Hollywood's big­gest stars (Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor) doing in this picture? What is it doing playing in an airplane on the way from Paris to Texas? And how did it get made in the first place? Among the questions that do not arise are: Why is this picture having trouble finding a distributor in the U.S.? To put it mildly, Phillip Morris is anything but mild.

The movie was made in 2009, but had to be reedited before Con­sol­i­dated Pictures Group agreed to release it. Then came a case of cold feet, and then another. At last report, I Love You, Phillip Morris won't reach American theaters until October of this year, though it's come and gone already in Europe. (Indeed, by the time news of the dis­tri­bu­tion di­lem­mas piqued my interest, it was too late already for me to catch the movie in Parisian cinemas.)

What's the problem with the movie? It's gayer than anything I've seen in a major motion picture on the big screen. But apparently, nobody noticed how gay it was until the picture was completed.

Carrey plays Steven Russell, a smooth-talking con man who gleefully slips in and out of careers for which he's unqualified, and who just as gleefully slips in and out of prison when he's caught. One way and another, he's lived a lie from the day he was born: he isn't really the son of his adoptive parents, his stepbrother snidely informs him early on; neither is he really the happily hetero, churchgoing husband and father he pretends to be. As for his dedication to law and order, which one might presume from his first career as a police officer, he quickly demon­strates that it, too, is a lie.

Liar, Liar: Carrey as Steven Russell

Ostensibly, this is all a true story, based on Steven Russell's memoir, but can one really trust this guy's word?

Though Steven is capable of forming durable relationships — notably with his ex-wife, pious, clueless and loyal Debbie (Leslie Mann, in a hilarious, winning performance) and his daughter, and with his first male lover (Rodrigo Santoro) — it seems that nobody is able to hold him, until the day he meets Phillip (McGregor) in the prison library. By the end of the movie, we've come to understand that, as Steven says, when you take away all the lies, all that's left is the man who loves Phillip Morris.

Man-on-Mann Love

That's a powerful message, and there's plenty of interesting com­men­tary on gay psychology (identity, self-esteem, trust between part­ners in the age of AIDS) and Texas' penal system, which is mocked viciously. Yet at heart, this is a quirky, indie-cinema that should have been made on a shoestring, starring a couple of reliable indie-gay actors and maybe a couple of sitcom stars looking for big-screen cre­den­tials. That movie would have played at gay and lesbian film festivals, with a New York run at the Quad in the weeks leading up to Pride.

Instead, we get this fascinating curiosity, in which two straight super­stars simulate very specific sex acts with other men. Whenever they're not doing it, they're talking about it, leading Carrey to use vocab­u­lary that Canadians aren't really supposed to know, much less pro­nounce. (Whether they admit it or not, this is doubtless the source of the dis­trib­u­tor's unease.)

McGregor has been reliably gay-friendly throughout his career (witness his performance in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine), and Carrey does like to flex his acting muscles (witness his performance in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Thanks to them, this movie surely will garner more widespread attention than it otherwise would have done. But it's almost guaranteed to shock, surprise, maybe mislead (pick your verb) these actors' mainstream fans, who may have come to the theater in search of Ace Ventura and Obi Wan.

Forceful acting: McGregor

As we approach Pride Day, we observe that this movie might have been released last year, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. For me as for many of my friends, this is a time to reflect on how far we've come, and Phillip Morris is an intriguing measure. Yep, there are gay guys portrayed as lying criminals — not in itself an indicator of much progress, since that's the image of us we've seen so often at the movies (when we were permitted to see ourselves at all). Yet these same gay guys are also portrayed as real people, human and fallible, whose love uplifts them and contrasts with their outlaw behavior. Hey, we sometimes see movies about straights in similar straits. Robin and Marian. Bonnie and Clyde. Sid and Nancy. Et cetera.

For my part, I'm inclined to approve of a gay couple represented not as saintly victims or as crusading heroes — even while their love is rep­re­sented as redemptive and wholly admirable. Anyway, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have created an amusing, original com­e­dy that's worth seeing. With luck, some American distributor will give you the chance, one of these days.

Meeting cute: The library scene

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15 June 2010

Could Your Marriage Pass the Test? (The Sequel)

Just in time for my parents' 50th anniversary, The New York Times "City Room" blog published a list of questions typical of those asked of couples petitioning for a green card in the U.S. Federal officers ask for relatively simple information ("How many floors are in the house/apartment building where you live?"), as well as more intimate stuff ("Where does your spouse keep clean underwear?"). Couples whose answers don't match up are given a chance to explain themselves, according to the Times, and those who can't do so to the satisfaction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service face the deportation of whichever spouse isn't a citizen.

Married friends, such as those with whom I've been staying this month in the States, found the questionnaire provocative, and more challenging than expected. "Who first spoke to whom?" is the kind of question that invokes not merely The Dating Game but also Rashomon. Things could be even tougher, though -- and often, they are. According to my extensive research, the questions published by the Times were provided by lawyers who sit in on green-card interviews. What typically lazy reporting! I went straight to the real source, contacting a federal officer directly. My more complete and representative questionnaire follows.

She is green, my card, is it not that it is?
Depardieu & McDowell

Family, Friends and More

What is the maiden name of your spouse's father's youngest cousin, twice removed, on his mother's side?

What color is that cousin's toothbrush?

What are the names of that cousin's goats? If that cousin is lying in bed, which side does your cousin's favorite goat sleep on?

How many floors are in the house/apartment building where your spouse's uncle's mistress' brother's son-in-law lives?

How You Met

Who arranged your marriage?

How much did he or she charge for this service? (Note: Please convert foreign currency and/or livestock to U.S. currency, based on today's exchange rates.)

If your marriage broker is standing and facing his or her kitchen sink, where is the microwave oven?


Which of your top 10 movies has your spouse never seen? Explain why exactly these shocking omissions were not a deal-breaker for you.

Aren't you proud to be a heterosexual? Isn't it cool that, if you were homosexual, the I.N.S. would have deported you already? Kinda makes you feel like having heterosexual relations right now, doesn't it?

Weights and Measures

Does this dress make your spouse look fat?

What is the weight of your spouse's cousin's toothbrush?

Is it fair to say that you know your spouse like the back of your hand?

Please describe the back of your spouse's hand, omitting no freckle, wrinkle, or birthmark. (Please use United States customary units when calculating distances between identifying marks.)

Recreational Activities

Your wife, is she a goer? Does she like sport? Likes games, does she?

Is she interested in photographs?

Are you a man of the world? Have you slept with a lady?

What's it like?

A typical I.N.S. interrogation

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13 June 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 17



Valfleury. — Washing the kitchen. — Cleaning the kitchen sink. — Cleanliness and order in clothing are indispensable to a cook.

Here I am in the country where I did not fail to bring my journal.

How charming it is here and how this pretty farm deserves the name it bears: Valfleury. It is truly a flowery valley where we are, a narrow valley surrounded by small wooded mountains, prairies full of yellow, blue, pink flowers, with a river so clear that one could count the pebbles at the bottom.

The neighboring village is a fairly short distance away; but it is hidden by a rise in the terrain, so that one sees only the bell tower that rises above the trees and that offers us its light resounding three times per day.

It is really very nice here! Ah! How I would like to see here my dear Maman who has so great a need for rest! … Alas! It is I who take this pleasure while she remains at home, happy, I am sure, despite her loneliness, to know that I am in the open air, well cared for, quite pampered by Tante Victoire.

Tante Victoire is keeping the promise she made to Maman. Each day, she teaches me something new, especially concerning housekeeping more than cooking. Yesterday, for example, she showed me how to clean the kitchen tiles.* Our kitchen here is two or three times as big as the one we have in town, so it is quite an affair to clean the floor. Also, after one has proceeded in this operation, one is a bit fatigued and desirous of repose.

Here is, according to Tante Victoire, the best manner to go about it:

Put water from black soap in one bowl and in another bowl fresh water. In the soapy water, soak a somewhat stiff brush made of couch-grass, then scrub a small area of the tiling. When you believe you have scrubbed enough to remove the stains, plunge a square of canvas or a mop in the fresh water and use it like a sponge to collect the soapy water, to rinse the tiling and to wipe it.

Once this portion of the tiling has been cleaned, pass on to the neighboring portion, and so on, always taking care to scrub with the soapy water and to rinse with the fresh water. The fresh water should be renewed frequently.

“It’s well understood,” Tante Victoire told me, “that if the kitchen, instead of opening onto the hallway, opened directly onto the courtyard, we would take less trouble. We would wash à grande eau, throwing great buckets of water onto the tiling and cleaning it with a broom or a brush with a long handle. Then we would let the fresh air in by the doors and open windows: that is what would take charge of the drying.”

“Alas! my aunt,” I said, “it’s even worse in Maman’s home, since our kitchen gets air only from an interior courtyard.”

“Yes,” said Tante Victoire, “I know it, and it is the same for almost all city kitchens. Also one is obliged to do as I have just told you [using two bowls, etc.], and it is thus that you will do when you return to your home.”

The kitchen floor was quite clean and the color of the tiles was revived. Unfortunately, as it dried, I saw that it turned white in some places. I pointed this out to Tante Victoire.

“Eh oui!” she said to me, “I see it well, unfortunately. Last year I had a few broken tiles replaced by a mason from the area, and those that he used are not of a quality as good as that of the old ones. It is precisely these that you warn me of. So, on my next trip here, I shall bring something to cover that ugly effect.”

“What then, my aunt?”

“A powder of red brick, extremely fine, that one thins with a bit of water in such a way as to form a sort of paste that one spreads in the kitchen on discolored tiles. The red is surely not as beautiful as that of the tiles themselves, it’s especially less solid in color, but it is nevertheless more agreeable to the eye than the greyish red that you see. Now, let’s take a look at our kitchen sink.”

The sink was not very clean and Tante Victoire prepared to clean it. For this she took a small bowl of very hot water, added some black soap (potash) that she allowed to dissolve thoroughly. Meanwhile, she spread over the sink a good layer of fine sand. Next she soaked her brush in the potash water and scrubbed the sink as hard as possible. Soon it became very white and there was nothing left but to throw a great deal of fresh water to rinse it and to remove the bit of sand that had accumulated in the corners.

While working, she said to me: “You see, the sink is, of the entire kitchen, the part that demands the greatest cleanliness because of the dishwashing water we throw there.

“These waters, in decomposing, give birth to gases that smell bad and that are harmful to the health.”

“It’s true,” I responded. “I remember that one time, at our home, the cap that plugs the drain to the sink came loose, and for two days we had been infected, that is, up until the workman repaired it.”

“In this case,” said Tante Victoire, “it was necessary to pour into the drain a liquid disinfectant: some water with carbolic acid or a solution of iron sulfate or of copper sulfate. But sometimes it is enough to throw in a great deal of boiling water. Beyond that, the best is to clean it thoroughly every day, after every washing of the dishes, one is sure this way to avoid every bad odor.”

Now that was finished. There was nothing left, I thought, but to wash our hands. But not at all: Tante Victoire said to me: “Now, go to your room, straighten up your hair a bit, brush yourself, wash your hands. When a housekeeper, a cook has performed these heavy chores, she is always a bit tousled and unclean. She must not move on to another task or prepare her dinner while remaining in such a state. Personal cleanliness, order in her clothing, in her hair, these are the indispensable qualities of a cook who wishes to retain her good renown and never to displease those around her. Go, little girl, and come back quickly, since speed is also an admirable quality.”

It took no time to give myself a lick of the comb, to wash my hands. All this was not too much, Tante Victoire was right. I even took the extra care to put on a clean apron, mine having gotten wet while I washed the floor. Tante Victoire noticed as soon as I returned to find her and she complimented me on it.


[To copy and to keep]

1. Whenever I roast a chicken, I will take care not to baste it with water.

2. I shall remember that stuffed poultry, be it chicken or turkey, constitutes a very good family meal and goes further than the same poultry that was not stuffed.

3. I shall know that roasted pigeons must be skewered sideways.

4. When I prepare rabbit, I shall cook it in a sauce rather than roasted, because the meat of this animal is too lean for the spit.

5. I shall wash the kitchen floor at least every week, using water mixed with black soap, and I shall rinse with fresh water.

6. I shall make sure that the plumbing of the kitchen sink is always quite unclogged, and if it produces some bad odor, I shall pour into it a disinfectant liquid.

7. I shall always keep my clothing and my hands very clean. I shall take care to wash myself and to put my clothing in order whenever I have performed some heavy chore.

Next time: Still in the countryside, Madeleine learns that you’ve got to get up early if you want to conserve your goose.


Poultry and game.

105. Cutting up a chicken. — The chicken, having been plucked, flamed and cleaned, is cut into pieces, in the following manner:

1) Remove the neck by cutting the skin all around the base of the neck and inserting the point of the knife between the two first vertebrae;
2) Separate the thighs of a chicken by slicing the skin and the flesh with a good clean chop;
3) Remove the wings by taking care to detach at the same time the meaty part called white;
4) With a swift chop, strike the carcass and split it in two.
If the chicken is large, cut each wing and each thigh in two and make several pieces of the carcass.

116. Chicken fricassée. — “Blanch” the pieces of chicken. “Brown” some small lardons, without letting them cook thoroughly. Then throw the chicken pieces into this saucepan; sprinkle them with flour.
Add a few small whole onions, parsley and thyme, one clove, salt, pepper. “Moisten” with some broth or with hot water and let cook over a medium fire for about two hours.
At the time of serving, “bind” the gravy with a piece of fresh butter or with two egg yolks.

117. Roasted chicken. — The chicken, having been plucked, flamed, cleaned, is “trussed,” placed on a spit, and roasted over high flame before a grill of wood coal or in the oven. Roasted chicken should not be basted with water, but with butter or with lard. The juice is served on the side, in a gravy dish.

118. Ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons are roasted in the same manner.

119. Duck with turnips. — After having plucked, flamed, and cleaned a duck, stick it with lardons and “brown” it in a pot, with butter, salt and pepper. When it is golden, add a cup of broth or water and complete the cooking over a low flame.
Meanwhile, “brown” some turnips in melted butter. When they are quite reddish, place them in the pot with the duck, where they will finish cooking.

120. Stuffed turkey and goose. — In the family home, when one roasts a turkey or a goose, one “stuffs” it, either with chestnuts that have been grilled and half-cooked, or with a stuffing composed of sausage meat, bacon, bread crumbs, egg yolk, and chestnuts that have been cooked and chopped.

121. Pigeons. — Pigeons that are roasted on a spit should be enveloped in a “bard” [piece of bacon] and skewered sideways.

122. Game. — We call game those furred or feathered animals that live in the wild. Those that are eaten most often are hare and rabbit.

123. Stew of hare or rabbit. — After having skinned the animal and having cut it into pieces, one “browns” it in a pot with small pieces of fatty and lean bacon and some small whole onions. When everything has turned a golden yellow, sprinkle with flour, add a bouquet garni, a piece of sugar, a pinch of spices, salt, pepper, a glass of broth, then one finishes “moistening” it with some white wine or red wine. Cooking is finished when you can easily stick a fork into the meat, which has taken on a reddish-brown color. At the moment of serving, “bind” the sauce with the blood of an animal, while doing exactly as you would when using eggs to bind.**

124. Domesticated rabbit is prepared like hare and wild rabbit. Generally one does not roast it because its meat is too lean.***

A wild hare, raw

*TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Traditionally, kitchen floors in France are covered with terra cotta tiles, called (regardless of the shape) squares or “carreaux,” which is the word Madeleine uses. Madeleine calls the entire tiled floor a “carreau,” in the singular, a usage I’ve seen occasionally in other books. (Maybe it’s standard; I don’t in fact spend a great deal of my time in France in discussions of flooring.) Glazed or terra cotta tiles sometimes are used on certain portions of kitchen walls, as well: above the sink, for example, as is the case in the kitchen at Beynes, where our flooring is linoleum.

**I’m amazed that our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons, doesn’t offer any more instruction on cutting up a rabbit: I’ve found it a truly difficult job! The celebrated resemblance to chicken ends at the skeleton, certainly; there are all sorts of unexpected extra bits to so many of the rabbit’s bones, and they tend to chip and wind up floating in your gravy. But then, neither did our author tell us which spices to use, nor which animal’s blood is best for binding the sauce. Perhaps schoolgirls in 1895 were born knowing these things.

***My sincere apologies to Jill Davis Doughtie.

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11 June 2010


My mother is blessed with a sense of occasion. For example, I have yet to meet anyone over the age of five who gets quite so excited as she at Christmastime; I knew that her fiftieth wedding anniversary would be an event, and I’d better haul myself out of France in order to celebrate my legitimacy. So here I am, at home with my family, commemorating my fool head off. From what I can tell, Mom is pleased.

For his part, Dad has been listening for so long to Mom’s enthusiasm that, this morning, when asked what day it was, he replied, “My hundredth anniversary?”

Like most children, I used to dream about my own wedding. I could see it all, just as if it were real before me: the blushing bride in her white gown, the flowers everywhere, the shotgun aimed at me in the moonlight. Since destiny has reserved for me the role of observer of other peoples’ marriages, rather than participant in my own, the ceremony of wedding remains detached from me and strange, though I understand marriage, more or less. This business of linking lives for eternity strikes me as a curious but mostly admirable undertaking.

My parents are not only good at marriage, by nature as well as 50 years of practice, but they are outright lucky that the institution exists: without it, they wouldn’t.

In my youth I hit upon an epiphany: my parents require each other as essentially as oxygen. My next realization, however, has only been confirmed and gotten more true over time: namely, that my parents were both so peculiar that nobody else on earth would have them.

Warning! Marriage may cause serious side-effects!
If your marriage lasts more than four decades, see a doctor.

That’s a loaded equation. On the plus side, there’s something truly comforting about being around people who honestly belong together. I’ve felt that way about a few of my friends. (But don’t get complacent, gang: I’ve also been wrong.) I’ve even known a few couples who outdo my parents, for whom the give-and-take of a shared life is as graceful as an endless tennis match, with no final score. I watch them in fascination. How do they do that? How I admire their skills! My parents, let it be noted, have yet to break a sweat.

It is cause to celebrate — perhaps not so universally as Christmas, but specially, unto itself and among ourselves. And eventually, my mother will find something else to get excited about.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day, 11 June 1960.
Upon inspection, we see that Mom isn’t nearly so outgoing
as she appears at first, and Dad is extremely shy.
Which is to say that the photo is an accurate portrayal
of their personalities.

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09 June 2010

The Revolution Will Be Vocalized

Where the magic happens: Bass Performance Hall
Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

It’s the special gift of Fort Worth Opera’s general and artistic director, Darren Keith Woods, that he makes opera fun. As I’ve observed before, here and elsewhere, his productions take me back to the youthful spirit of my early days as an opera fan, when I never knew quite what to expect — except that anything I heard would be fresh and exciting and good. Every note was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Granted, in the old days, this was at least partly because I’d heard nothing at all before. Nowadays, I’m quite a bit more jaded — outside the Fort Worth city limits.

For this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, I made things a bit easier on Darren, since I was forced to miss the work I know most thoroughly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But the rest of the season was a relatively blank slate: Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (the first time I’ve attended a fully staged performance of this piece) and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, a world premiere. I knew the shows would be different; I trusted that they would be good. I wasn't disappointed.

’Til there was you: Pine and Fabiano
This and all production photographs by Ellen Appel.
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera, ©2010.

Donizetti’s romantic comedy could hardly be lighter, a storybook tale of bumbling bumpkin Nemorino and comparative sophisticate Adina (she reads), mismatched lovers who find happiness thanks to sheer luck and a bottle of Bordeaux. The setting here is updated from an anonymous, bucolic, 19th-century Italian village to the American heartland, circa The Music Man, in a handsome, crowd-pleasing staging.

Like most of this composer’s best comedies, Elisir is economically plotted and crafted. There’s only one set of lovers, and nothing goes to waste: what the libretto doesn’t spell out, his winsome score conveys. If Elisir isn’t a repertory standard like its siblings The Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale, I suspect that’s because of the treatment of the heroine: Adina undergoes a fascinating character development, but we see her almost exclusively from Nemorino’s perspective. (The big aria about her emotions is sung by him, not by her.) She plays hard-to-get a little too long, and by the time she realizes her mistake, she’s nearly lost Nemorino and married another guy whom she doesn’t even like. She learns the importance of being honest, while Nemorino remains true to himself from the get-go.

Fabiano, pining for Pine

I hate to argue with a hit show, but the production’s original director, James Robinson, blows right past the libretto’s subtler points. And there’s a cost to treating Elisir as a knockabout farce. You wouldn’t want to crush the charms of this piece, yet you need to acknowledge its emotional drama and psychological insights: it’s a richer story than Robinson and Jennifer Nicoll, who directed the staging in Fort Worth, let on. We might have been encouraged to care more about the leading characters, and a dash of suspense (will they make up in time?) might have enlivened the proceedings, too. Instead, we got some very funny stage business — and not much else.

Certainly the bravura performance of tenor Michael Fabiano as Nemorino made it difficult to shift the spotlight to anyone else. He’s got a juicy, Italianate voice that lacks only a teeny bit of the fabled “ping,” and he acted his role with adorable awkwardness. Soprano Ava Pine revealed a lush, creamy timbre and sparkling coloratura wholly unlike the jagged ferocity she unleashed as the Angel in Fort Worth’s Angels in America, two years ago; lissome and lovely, Pine seemed to be fully inhabiting Adina’s character even when Nicoll and Donizetti didn’t help her out much.

Really fine bel canto singing still thrills me like little else, and already I’m adding Fabiano and Pine to my wish-list for dozens of operas I’d like to hear. Pine returns to Fort Worth next season as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar — I can’t wait.

A dose of snake oil: Nelman as Dulcamara

Rod Nelman’s huckster Dulcamara possessed just the right flavor of ham, and Christopher Bolduc’s strutting Belcore likewise struck the right tone, though I’d have liked to have heard a bigger, even brassier sound from him, to play up further the contrasts between him and his rival, Nemorino. Conductor Stewart Robertson indulged the lyrical sweep of Donizetti’s music and lavished loving care on the young singers. Not for the first time, I admired the spirit of the Fort Worth Opera Chorus: in addition to singing wonderfully, they really seem to enjoy being onstage — as you can see in the background of the photo above.

Ample cause for celebration: Mason as Arenas

As anybody who reads this blog must realize, my usual response to any operatic production is the overwhelming desire to restage it. Surprising, then, that I spent so much of Before Night Falls wanting to revise the libretto. Jorge Martín wrote his own text (with the late Dolores M. Koch), and while he did a commendable job of identifying dramatic scenes and recounting one man’s entire biography in two acts, he was less successful in three major areas: Act I is too long and needs tightening; Act II is too sketchy and needs focus; and throughout the piece, he needs to give us more sense of his hero, Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, as a writer.

Martín’s Arenas talks about poetry, but he doesn’t use any; as near as he gets to metaphor is to insist that “This island is a prison,” and given the circumstances, that’s not much of a stretch. Are the words Arenas’ own? It doesn’t matter: real-life poets E.T.A. Hoffmann and André Chénier became credible operatic characters with scant recourse to their own work. So long as we believe they’re poets, they can be singing Burma-Shave lyrics.

The greatest problem is that Arenas’ language is like everyone else’s, as routine, as prone to sloganeering. Compelling though Martín has made Victor, the rebel leader, how much more compelling if the contrasts between his speech and Arenas’ were greater! And how much stronger our sense of loss if even one or two of Arenas’ words lingered longer in our imaginations, after the curtain has fallen.

Inspirational: Mason with Hall, as the Sea

Martín missed a few other opportunities, too. Arenas’ escape from Cuba is begging for more suspense, both from the libretto and from the score: granted, we know he’ll succeed, but that doesn’t mean the scene shouldn’t be exciting. In that same scene, we see the writer’s muses, the Sea and the Moon, guiding him to freedom — and we realize how welcome they’d have been in other scenes. Instead, we see them only where we expect them: at his desk.

That said, Martín’s triumphs as a composer are numerous, and I was particularly struck by the scenes where he seemed to say, “To hell with it, this is an opera and it’s going to behave like one.” He gives us vivid arias and ensembles that function dramatically, that communicate musically. The prime example is the scene in the rebel camp, in Act I; perfectly constructed, it takes us from idealism and camaraderie to disillusionment and authoritarianism in only a few, hair-raising minutes. Martín sets much of the scene to an Aida-like chorus in march time, and it’s here that he introduces Victor, a Scarpia-like antagonist. Thus Martín is building on a foundation laid by earlier generations — just as Puccini built on Verdi, who built on Donizetti.

Perfect construction: Inside the rebel camp.

Elsewhere in the score, Martín gives us a taste of Cuban rhythms (I could have used a few more, actually) and moody symphonic textures that feel similarly apt to his subject, though they don’t always make distinctions among the characters. As the Fort Worth Opera’s program notes point out, Martín wrote this score because he wanted to. A listener never feels that Martín is currying favor with the music establishment, or what’s left of it. Even on those occasions when he falls shy of one supposed mark or another, he writes honestly, often passionately, and, in the end, persuasively.

And isn’t that enough? Sure, I’d love to see Martín tinker a bit more with this score, to make it even more effective than it is, and yet the realities of Opera World are such that I don’t know he’ll ever have the opportunity — if in fact he wants it. Already his achievement deserves my applause. Jorge Martín heard an opera in this story, and he made me hear it, too. That’s more than most other composers can say, and I’ll relish the chance to hear what he writes next.

You say you want a revolution? Carico as Victor

The scores of many contemporary operas are lifeless until they are staged: they depend on the visual, and on the charisma of the performers, because the music frankly fails to do its job. That’s not the case with the score of Before Night Falls, and yet Martín has created a vigorous stage animal, a gift box for singing actors; he offers both invitations and challenges to directors, as well.

Director David Gately, who rescued Angels in America, here used projections and suspended screens to evoke Cuba and New York, designed by Riccardo Hernandez (sets) and Peter Nigrini (projections); I wish the team had been equally efficient when it came to moving props on- and offstage (too noisy and distracting). Meanwhile, Gately’s work with the cast proved impeccable, and in truth that’s where I’d prefer him to focus.

Enemy of the people: Victor interrogates Arenas

In the central role, impossibly young Wes Mason delivered a tour de force. Constantly onstage, he sang in a mellow, lustrous baritone while simultaneously acting, running, jumping, and dancing. He looks like Arenas, only handsomer. For future productions, it will be difficult to find anyone else who’s up to these demands; Mason will likely be unavailable, since his kind of talent is destined for a very, very busy career — in opera, movies, God knows. It’s possible that Fort Worth hasn’t been able to boast of such a promising debut since Plácido Domingo’s, in 1962.

Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico brought vocal power and shifting emotional colors to the role of Victor, now inspiring, now insinuating, now brutal and pitiless. I might have liked to see a little more elegance from him — as from the best Scarpias — but this was a mightily impressive, scarily persuasive performance. As the turncoat Pepe, Javier Abreu mingled vinegar in the honey of his tenor, and although we never learned why Pepe betrayed his friends, Abreu never let us doubt that compelling reasons existed. That’s good acting.

Ssssmokin’: Blalock and Mason
(According to my research, “Blalock” is an obscure Norse word meaning
“He who looks like a baritone when he takes off his shirt.”)

Tenor Jonathan Blalock offered a sensitively acted and sung portrayal of Lázaro, Arenas’ friend; I especially admired his finely calibrated transitions from sleazy beach pick-up to literary admirer to devoted companion. Like Victor, Pepe, and the poet Ovidio, Lázaro isn’t at heart what he at first appears to be. Another revision of Act II might reap rich rewards in this character’s further development.

Casting soprano Janice Hall as Arenas’ mother, as well as the Sea, gave us a welcome extra helping of this artist’s remarkable presence. She really can do anything, and this time out, I was particularly struck by the eloquent grace of even her simplest movements. Hall, Blalock, and Courtney Ross (as the luscious Moon) uplifted the final scene, as Arenas’ ashes were scattered and Martín’s score shimmered, swelled and soared like the muses that inspire our hero.**

Final gestures: Ross (the Moon) and Blalock (Lázaro)

In the pit, Fort Worth Opera’s music director, Joe Illick, conducted with a wonderful sense of dramatic intensity without forfeiting orchestral details or overall polish. It really sounded as if he’d studied this score for as many years as he’s lived with Don Giovanni, the other opera he led this season.*** Certainly I couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic reading of Martín’s opera.

Darren likes to say that new music is fundamental to his company’s vision, but, as I say yet again, what’s even more admirable is that his company makes all music sound new. The operatic experience is as special to the artists as it is to the audience. I don’t know how Darren manages that, but it keeps me coming back for more.

In this exclusive photo from Heather Carlile,
I ambush Joe Illick with an impromptu voice audition.
(His response: “No thanks.”)

*NOTE: Unless I’m mistaken, Castro’s name is never mentioned in Martín’s libretto; Che Guevara’s face was seen in Nigrini’s projections, but otherwise, we were allowed to ponder the universality of Arenas’ plight — though we were explicitly in Cuba, all of this could have happened under many, many other tyrants.

**If only Arenas hadn’t lain like a lox in his deathbed! It’s a moment of spiritual and artistic transcendence, and the music practically pleads with Arenas to rise up and walk off into the night. What happened?

***Given his controversial decision this season to omit the finale from Mozart’s opera, Joe Illick may have been grateful to tuck into a score that nobody else knew. I didn’t hear his Mozart, so I can’t judge how well the strategy worked.

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06 June 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 16



Madeleine departs for the countryside.

Yesterday, an important conversation between Maman and Tante Victoire. I was present, but I spoke hardly a word, since it was a question precisely of me and of my education as a homemaker.

It was a matter of finding out if I would go or if I would not go to the country to spend one month with Tante Victoire, who leaves tomorrow to complete her recovery [from the illness of which there has been so much discussion in this book]. As for me, I quite wanted to say yes, straight away. But, on the other hand, I know that my absence will cause Maman an increase in work, and I dared say nothing, torn as I was between the desire for change and the fear that my going away might cause my good mother some pain.

“Now look, my dear,” said Tante Victoire to Maman, “how fine this will be: Madeleine has never spent more than a few hours in the country. She knows nothing of the life one leads there, of the difficulties, of the worries or of the pleasures that one finds there. Who knows what the future holds for her? Perhaps she will be called to live there one day. Is it not worthwhile that, beginning now, and since she has found the opportunity, she get to know the fields and the rustic way of life? There, you know it, housewives do not live at all as they do in the cities; life there is easier, the cooking simpler and less costly. I shall teach Madeleine how one turns everything to good account, how one uses everything. We shall make confits [conserves] of goose and of duck, conserve of sorrel, pickles in vinegar, and many other things besides.”

“But,” said my mother, “this confounds all my plans. Imagine, Victoire, that I had thought to use these very days to teach Madeleine other things than cooking, to put it plainly. I wanted to get her to do all sorts of small cleaning jobs that she does not know how to do and which are quite useful: now my plans are upset.”

“No, no,” said Tante Victoire while smiling, “they are not at all upset, only it is I who shall be Madeleine’s teacher. Do you imagine that I have forgotten the good principles? That I no longer know how to scour saucepans, make the copperware and silver shine, clean the kitchen tiles or the pale wood of the buffet?

“I remember all of these things perfectly well, and if my little household — the very small household of an old maid! — does not continually require my care, that does not mean that I’m not capable of teaching all that must be done to keep a house in good order.”

“Pardon me, Victoire,” said my mother, “I did not mean that you would not do much better than I in this chapter as in the others. And in order to prove it to you, let me answer you oui straight away: Madeleine will follow you to the country.”

“Oh! Dear Maman,” I cried out, “how happy I am! How I thank you! But how will you get by in my absence?”

“Do not worry yourself about that,” said my mother. “Have I not your sister Jeanne? She is quite young yet, I know, and cannot be of very great service to me. But I shall take advantage of this circumstance to begin to train her for housekeeping. Decidedly all is for the best. Go, my darling, you will be able to leave without fear.”

And that is how and why I write these lines in haste, since I must pack my trunk, a serious matter for me who have hardly any experience. Tomorrow morning we shall depart at seven o’clock. At noon, we shall be at Valfleury and it is there that, for one month, I shall take my lessons in housekeeping and in cooking.


[To copy and to keep]

1. I shall cook a veal roast* in the same way as a beef roast, but I shall leave it on the fire merely twenty or twenty-five minutes per pound of meat.

2. When I prepare veal with gravy, I shall take care to leave it on the fire long enough that it be well cooked, since this meat is not good when it is rare. I shall remove it from the fire before it falls apart .

3. I shall recall that roasted leg of mutton and grilled cutlets should be cooked quickly and should be served rare.

4. If I have the opportunity to go to the country, I shall esteem myself quite lucky and I shall use my stay to learn a wealth of things relative to housekeeping and that I cannot learn in town.

Next time: Madeleine cleans up the French countryside! (Or tries to.)


Dishes prepared with veal and mutton.

105. Like beef, veal can be: 1) roasted; 2) grilled; 3) served with gravy or sauce; but it is rarely boiled, as one does for beef in a pot-au-feu, since veal makes only a very light broth.

106. Roasted veal is made with the loin, a piece from the area around the spine, or the chump, a piece from the thigh. Generally one ties up the piece to be roasted, because veal is a bit soft. Roast in the oven or on a spit in following the same steps as for roasted beef. Roasted veal should be cooked twenty to twenty-five minutes per pound.

107. Often we add to roasted veal whole potatoes, which have been cooked in water, then peeled, which we leave in the oven in the roasting pan for a quarter-hour.
Veal that one wishes to grill should be cut into broad and thin pieces that are called scallops or grillades. These pieces are placed in the skillet where they are grilled on both sides over a low flame.
They should take on a beautiful golden color. Salt, pepper, and when ready to serve, cover them with finely chopped parsley and lemon juice.

108. Fricandeau and veau au blanc are two means suited to veal with gravy.
Fricandeau is a round of veal that is stuck with lardons and “browned” in a pan with butter, a bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Then “moisten” with broth and cook slowly for two or three hours. When cooking is finished, remove the meat and let the juice “wear out” in such a way that it thickens and takes on the appearance of a clear brown caramel. Then pour the juice onto the meat.
Fricandeau is served either alone or with a puree of sorrel or chicory, or a side dish of green peas or of small carrots.

109. Ragoût de veau au blanc [stew of veal in a white sauce] is a very well-known dish. To make it, use the breast, shoulder, or the tip of round.
Cut the meat into small pieces and let them “blanch,” that is, plunge them for an instant into boiling water. Remove them and roll them in flour. Meanwhile, melt a piece of butter in the saucepan and brown small bits of bacon, both lean and fatty, without however allowing them to cook thoroughly. Add the veal, salt, pepper, bouquet garni, three or four small whole onions, moisten with broth and let cook over a medium fire for an hour and a half. The gravy obtained should be white. Sometimes, when ready to serve, we “bind” it with an egg yolk.

110. Mutton may be: 1) roasted; 2) grilled; 3) served in gravy.
The parts of mutton that are roasted are the leg and the saddle.
The cutlets are the most delicate parts.

111. When one wishes to roast a leg of mutton, one ermoves the fatty membrane that surrounds it, one slices off the bone about 4 centimeters above the place where the flesh begins. Some people stick it with a garlic clove.

112. To roast the leg of mutton, do the same as when roasting beef and veal.

113. One cooks mutton chops by resting them on a grill, above a fire of glowing coals. When they are cooked on one side, turn them over. Salt them with finely ground salt an instant before serving, and we serve them very hot. When one wishes to create a more considerable dish, one surrounds them with fried potatoes or mashed potatoes.

114. Mutton in sauce.Mutton stew with potatoes is a family dish excellent for one’s health and not costly. It is composed of pieces taken from the breast or shoulder, which one “browns” in butter or in lard and to which one adds next: some potatoes cut into pieces, water sufficient to make the sauce, a bouquet garni, and one or two onions. Two good hours of cooking suffice.

*TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Generally, our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons, begins each chapter with one of these lists of helpful tips for preparing whatever dishes will occupy Madeleine that day: instructions first, then the journal entry. I’ve been switching the order, because I suspect that, for most people, the narrative may be more interesting. But who knows where the veal came from? At least in the next few chapters, the subject seems never to arise again. So now you know why Madeleine’s “What I Must Do” seems off-topic — because it is.

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