Friday, May 31, 2013

The Supper of the Lamb

Any Good Books
June 2013

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
Robert Farrar Capon (2002, Modern Library, with introductions by Ruth Reichl and Deborah Madison; originally published 1969)

    The Supper of the Lambs has been back in print for a decade, which makes it a rarity among books from 1969; Ruth Reichl, editor of the Modern Library Food series, dubbed it a classic, and its continuing sales bear her out. I don’t think that information, however, will properly prepare you for just how rare and strange a book it is.

    The ostensible structure is straightforward: on one leg of lamb, feed eight people four meals; but the diversions, divagations, wanderings and meanderings between first and last comprise a distinctive view of the world. Capon works small, inviting us to spend an hour with an onion, meeting its dryness and its pungent wetness, its very creatureliness. (“You must firmly resist the temptation to feel silly.”) And he works large, befitting his status as an Episcopal priest: “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”

    Beyond recipes, of which there is a rich but idiosyncratic selection, there’s a solid foundation of technique. He knows the secrets of the wok; how to treat butter to make puff pastry come out right; how to make stock, and what to do with it. Beyond technique, in turn, lies philosophy: “The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers–amateurs–it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have.”

    Capon waxes prophetic about the proliferation of ‘tin fiddles’, by which he means things that take over the marketplace despite being markedly inferior versions of what they purport to be: electric knives, gravy from a jar, and margarine, to name a few. In this sense, the book has aged remarkably well. We may not skim cream from the top of our milk these days, or set out ashtrays at dinner, but we have more and more low-calorie fake foods all the time.

    His advice, characteristically bracing and sensible, is to leave off worrying about calories, but occasionally to take a break from eating altogether. “Should a true man wish to lose weight, let him fast. Let him sit down to nothing but coffee and conversation, if religion or reason bid him do so; only let him not try to eat his cake without having it.” (That use of ‘man’ is something Capon caught himself at, and let stand on purpose: “We are all true men–or women–here.”)

    Ranging as it does from roasts to broth, from formal dinner parties to cures for hangovers and heartburn, The Supper of the Lamb comes to a theological point: “Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; God who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding ‘Good!’ over his own concoctions.”

    Amen, and hallelujah.

Email edition, June 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses

Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses
Claire Dederer (2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

    As a snapshot, or time capsule, of late-twentieth-century perfectionist motherhood, you could hardly do better than Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser. Women who turned to family life after spending their twenties building careers or exercising wanderlust turned to it with a daunting fervor for everything natural and wholesome. “Nursing, at least where we lived in Seattle, was a strange combination of enthusiast’s hobby and moral mandate.” And it didn’t stop there. You had to use cloth diapers, buy wooden toys from Europe, make baby food from scratch.

    “These were the rules: Get your thousand words written, cook your organic dinner, call your parents, good, good, good all the time.” If you are wondering whether such a mother ever found the whole business a little overwhelming--yes, Dederer did. “Or maybe I was the only one with the terror. Maybe I was the only one who, grinding steamed organic carrots in the baby-food mill, felt as if turning the mill’s little handle was keeping something awful from happening.”

    Yoga was all part of the equation, partly because Claire threw her back out nursing Lucy, her glowingly healthy eleven-month-old baby, and partly because it seemed like something that people did who had it all figured out: “Maybe if I appeared to be serene, I would stop with the existentialist dread, the likes of which I had not felt since my overcoat-wearin’ teenage days.”

    It was consuming, having a baby and going to yoga twice a week, and getting some writing done, while her husband, Bruce, tried to write full-time to support the three of them. Claire went for walks with friends-- ”They were all part-time workers with interesting, creative, exhausting jobs. They all wore cute corduroy pants and hipsterish hoodies covered with spit-up.” And she managed the visits of her parents; she had three, inconveniently enough; her mother and father, who are still married, and her mother’s longtime boyfriend, a tugboat captain.

    This is the book’s introduction to another time capsule, from 1973, when Claire was six, and her mother entered an extended period of hippie exploration, involving (mostly) leaving her husband, and hanging out with woodcarvers and embroiderers. “That was the kind of profession people had in those days, professions that belonged in fairy tales.” It was also the kind of childhood people had in those days, adventurous and unmoored, in a way that made Claire cling to the books she was always reading, where the characters were not always reinventing themselves, and in which a Mom remained just a Mom.

    So Claire worked very hard at being a Mom; she had a second baby, a boy called Willie, by a second C-section; and she kept a cheerful front of denial about her husband’s withdrawal and depression. Her busyness, her perfectionism, and her drive to live, on a writer’s income, like the wealthy Seattleites around them, left Bruce feeling overworked and isolated. One day in a yoga class, with her foot behind her head, she noticed that she was deeply unhappy, and that her cheerful pretense was making it worse. “I was trapped in a misery of expectations, as if in a blizzard. I was afraid that if I stopped, if I said ‘Something is wrong here,’ my family would fall apart. After all, that is what families do.”

    Claire and Bruce, by a stroke of well-deserved good fortune, found a way to run away from home and start over again without splitting up: they moved to Boulder, Colorado, on a journalism fellowship that Bruce won. Boulder turned out to be a great place  for them, with hiking trails, more sunshine than the Pacific Northwest, and a whole new level of yoga classes in the bargain.

    The move was just the push they needed toward putting their own family first, and figuring how to be the kind of grown-ups they really wanted to be. It freed Claire from some of the anxiety that she inhaled in her old neighborhood, and gave her a fresh, inward-looking perspective. “Now my family life was my family life, private, almost secret, a pile of bears in a den, writhing and furry and intimate. I had no public.”

    Poser is beautifully written, both in its prose and in its structure, which in addition to braiding together the stories of Claire’s life as a wife and mother, and her life as a child, actually talks about yoga in a comprehensible way, and shows us what changed in Claire’s understanding and practice. On the mat, and in her life, she was able to give up a whole lot of expectations about how things have to be Good, and see that they really are good already. Or, at least, real, and that’s good enough.

Any Good Books
May 2013 email edition