Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lost in The Stars

On warm summer nights when the smell of the river marshes below the house would fill the air and dusk had long since faded out, we would sit on the front porch, watching the fireflies flashing in the hayfields to the west. My family—uncles, aunties, distant cousins, friends of cousins, cousins of friends of cousins—would sit and rock and talk about crops and dogs, horses, and hot weather. The air was thick then, and summer had its grip on us, and sometimes, it seemed to me, the very house would lift from its foundation at these hours and float suspended above the drying grasses and the fields to the north where the corn rustled in the evening wind.

On nights such as this, as the fireflies ascended, my old father would often reminisce about his years in the Orient, and as winking stars of light rose in the fields below us he would retell yet again the old Japanese folktale of Princess Firefly and recount stories of the traditional firefly festivals that took place all over Japan in his time.

I was lost in the mystery of all this and would be swept into some vague, almost timeless suspension of disbelief. It all seemed so real, even though my father was telling the story of a firefly that was in fact a princess in a kingdom inhabited by insects. I was too young to know it was not true.

And often on those hot nights, as children have done for a thousands year, my cousins and I would descend from the porch with kitchen jars and sweep the grasses, catching the flashers and carrying them around in the jars like mystic lanterns.

Timing seemed everything to me, even then. Why did the fireflies flash at certain intervals? Why did they quit flashing periodically, and why did some of them never take to the air and perch low in the grasses, emitting a long, sustained light?

It was only later that I learned that there was a dark side to the luminous display taking place in the fields below the house, and that all the bright poetic legends and folktales had an element of truth. Out there in the real world of the grassroot jungle, the lights that so inspired the folktales and festivals were in fact all about sex and death.

Fireflies flash to attract mates, and it is for the most part the males that we see on summer nights. Shortly after they reach adulthood, usually around late June in New England, as dusk falls, the males launch themselves in the air and patrol to-and-fro across open areas, flashing a semaphoric signal to female fireflies, who lie below, watching. There are as many as thirty different species of firefly in New England, and the males of each species have a set pattern of flashes, which the female can recognize.

Below in the grasses, females spotting a potential mate light up with a sustained flash. The male blazes back, the female lights up again, and, after a series of exchanges, the male descends to locate his mate. Sometimes more than one suitor will fly down and the firefly princess will be surrounded by a company of suitors, each flashing handsome signals. But fireflies, it appears, are discreet denizens of this untamed complex world. Once the couple has found each other the lights go out and they mate.

All is not love in the world of fireflies, however; there is also the question of sustenance. There is one species of firefly that makes use of the flashing repertoire of males to attain a meal. These carnivorous femmes fatales lie low in the grass and watch plays for the signals of other species of males flashing above. They imitate the flash pattern, and thereby draw the unsuspecting male down to his demise.

But all that is science. When you are ten years old, and it is night, and the sparking stars of fireflies drift over the hay fields, and the wind is in the corn, it is all a half-lit poetic mystery.

dinner with the arch cook

The Ecologue

Dinner with the Arch Cook

Thanksgiving traditionally marks the end of the harvest in New England, but in fact harvest festivals of this sort take place around the world, and probably have been a part of human culture ever since agriculture developed --- about seven or eight thousand years according to archeologists. Hunting and gathering cultures generated their own particular rituals, which reach back even further, all the way back to the beginnings of human evolution.

But what about cooking? How did human beings ever manage to invent the idea of capturing fire and then subjecting the catch of the day, whatever that may have been --- to broiling on the coals of a controlled fire?

I had dinner a few weeks ago at the Rialto Restaurant, in Cambridge with a man who is, in a sense, the primordial authority on cooking, the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who has been considering these matters over the course of his work with chimpanzees and preliterate cult ures. He is author, most recently, of the book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human. Wrangham’s thesis in the book is that the act of cooking, a practice that may be almost a million years old, is what shaped us into human beings. According to his theory, the human ability to cook food had a major effect on the physiology of the primates he terms the “habilines” which is to say, the general group of free ranging, tool using bands of prehumans who roamed the African savannah over a million years ago. With the control of fire and the development of cooking, everything changed. The disparate, loose bands of habilines became more cohesive as they gathered together around a central cooking fire. Food was shared; and the division between the sexes widened, as male hunters separated from women plant gatherers. Even our looks changed. Teeth became smaller, and internally, the human gut shortened, since cooked food is more easily digested than raw food. In the end, what emerged from these early cooking fires was Cro-Magnon Man --- which is to say us.

Given Wrangham’s thesis, dinner that night at the Rialto turned out to be an ironic affair. Cooking itself has evolved dramatically since those early fires with meals consisting of tubers and freshly killed meat, seasoned at best with ash and sand and grilled on coals. The act of preparing food for a table has evolved into an art, with a variety of practitioners, some of whom like painters and musicians, have developed a signature style. Likewise, cuisines have developed around the world, most of which were associated with certain regions. Now, with the access to cross cultural traditions, the art of cooking has crossed borders and chefs have invented new styles. One of these new styles is a drift towards uncooked foods.
The dinner at the Rialto was a special event, attended for the most part by serious foodies from around Boston, most of whom were as interested in the menu that night as the speaker. The table I was with was an eclectic mix including a bio-chemist, an epidimologist, and the editor of an arcane journal devoted to Renaissance interpretations of Classical Greek and Roman literature. In spite of the diversity of métiers the conversation before the event was mostly about food.

The chef at the Rialto, Jody Adams, (who, incidentally, was an anthropology major at Brown University before she became a chef) prepared an ironic three course dinner for that evening’s event. The irony arose from the menu she chose to present. It consisted of a presentation that leaned more towards raw food than cooked food. The first course included Duxbury oysters and Taylor Bay scallops, present with rolled cucumber with avocado and hibiscus. Second course was a seared tuna with a sprouted quinoa, garlic yogurt, raw beets, and dukkah,a mixture of nuts seasoned with Middle Eastern spices. The only fully cooked dish was the desert, a cinnamon apple terrine with brandied cream. All this was served with another uncooked, but perennially popular item, three pairings of European wines, including a 2005 Cotes du Ventoux.

The menu recapitulated Wrangham’s thesis, raw food, to seared food, to thoroughly cooked and spiced desert.

Dr. Wrangham grew up in Hertsford, just north of London, and like many of his generation, fed on bangers and beans when he was young. And although he could hardly complain about Ms Adams menu he had a lot to say about raw foods that night. According to Wrangham (although not to the raw food faddists) cooking improves the availability of nutrients of food, which is one of the keys to the evolutionary success of the human species.

As Wrangham pointed out at one point, as he sampled the lightly cooked tuna, “We are what we cook.”


The Rose Cafe: Love and War in Corsica

In 1962 I was living successfully disguised to myself as a student in France. In the spring of that year, I went out to Corsica to have a look around and ended up staying. I worked there (as an illegal immigrant) for the next nine months at a cafe and auberge on the north coast, eavesdropping on the conversations and intimacies of the diverse company of islanders and wanderers who ended up at the auberge. Forty-five years later, I wrote a book about the events that occurred there. Below are a few excerpts.

Posted by The Rose Cafe at 2:05 PM 0 comments
Sunday, December 23, 2007
The Rose Cafe: Love and War in Corsica

The Island

The year I turned twenty was living successfully disguised to myself as a student in Paris, not doing very much about anything to advance myself in life and not caring very much whether I did or did not. In early spring that year, suffering from the after-effects of the interminable gray of the Parisian sky, I went down to Nice, where I had lived for a while the summer before. Here, I fell in with an international group of sometime painters and students such as myself who were biding their time in the little warren of streets and squares in the old city on the eastern side of the Baie des Anges.

One of my friends there was an aspiring writer named Armand, who was the child of a local White Russian family who had lived in Nice since the time of the Great War. Armand had a German girl friend named Inge, and in early April, the three of us made trip out to Corsica to have a look around.

I had been living in Europe for over a year by then, first in Spain and then in France, on the Riviera. Up in Paris, I was enrolled in an independent study program at the Sorbonne, and most of my friends were either French or part of a loosely associated international group involved in the same course. The fact is, however, we rarely went to class. Education took place in the cafés, in particular in a certain bar near Saint Placide where we gathered each day to argue over literature, art, and politics, as if we knew what we were talking about.

Like many young Americans in Paris in that era, I had in mind that I would somehow be miraculously transformed into a writer in Europe. My intention, such as it was, was to escape from my predictable life in the Untied States and leave everything I knew behind. In some ways the plan was a success. I didn’t know a single American in Paris; most of the people I associated with did not speak any English, and I had effectively disappeared into the European student community. But my notebooks remained empty.

Then, in April, I went out to Corsica.

We took the ferry to Calvi, on the north coast, and then drifted eastward along the shore to the town of Ile Rousse, where we found a small auberge known as the Rose Café, set on a tiny, red rock island half way out a long causeway that led to a slightly larger island called Ile de la Pietra. The place had a decent restaurant with a terrace overlooking the harbor and a few dusty bed chambers above the dining room. We took rooms and set out on foot to explore the hills of the interior.

The Rose Café was utterly unassuming, a two-storey building with a red-tiled roof and two French dormers, a wide stone terrace, a pillared verandah, and an interior dining room with a cool bar in the back. Behind the main building there was a rocky promontory that dropped down to a narrow cove, bounded on the north by a small, rocky island, which was surmounted by a seventeenth century Genoese watchtower, one of many that were constructed along this section of the coast to keep the multiple invaders at bay. Set in a nook on the southern side of the cove, just behind the restaurant, there was a one room stone cottage with two small windows.

Since there were people staying in the upper rooms while we were there, I was assigned to the cottage. It had a narrow bed, a rickety table and a candle, and not much else. But it was perched high above the cove, and all night I could hear the surge of the waters below, the dark cry of sea birds, and the ominous howl of the local winds streaming over the mountains and valleys of the interior.

I came to like the setting at the Rose Café and would sometimes forego the daily expeditions of the ever-energetic Armand and his companion and simply spend the day lounging on the terrace of the café, talking to the local people and walking into town in the late afternoon to take a drink at one of the three or four cafés that surrounded the dusty town square with its pillars of old plane trees.

True to form, Armand and Inge grew restless after a few days and decided to move on. I stayed. The pace suited me, I enjoyed the gossip of the people from the town who came out to the café everyday to stare at the harbor and spend the night playing cards. I liked them. They seemed to have no ambition other than to live from one day to the next and enjoy whatever small pleasures happened to present themselves. I liked the view across the harbor to the maquis, the wild impenetrable scrublands of the island, scented with a wealth of resinous arbutus, myrtle, rock rose, and clementine. I loved to watch the bright little fishing boats set out each day to fish the nearby banks. I loved the lizards that collected around the terrace lamps at night, and the dawn song of birds from the high ground across the cove from the cottage.

In the end, I fell into a strange, perhaps unhealthy, lethargy at the Rose Café. I would rise early and take a café crème and a fresh-buttered baguette on the terrace above the harbor. Later in the morning, I would slip down to a tiny pebble beach in the cove below my cottage for a morning swim, then a morning nap, then a midday meal of local fish, another nap, another swim, a walk to town for coffee in the square, an aperitif at the bar, dinner, and then a deep dreamless sleep, lulled by the susurration of the sea in the cove below. I would sometimes awake in the mornings there and have to figure out where, exactly, I was, who I was, and what I was doing in this place. I was in a state of suspended animation.

It was a good place. You could easily lose yourself there if you so desired, forget that you ever had a past, or a future for that matter, and simply fall into that idyllic condition the locals called the sweet do-nothing, la dolce fa’ niente. For hours, for days, finally for weeks, I simply paced through the uneventful days, swimming and sleeping and staring across the harbor to the green slopes of the hills rising up to the, jagged snow-covered peaks beyond.

In spite of the languorous nature of the environment, however, in spite of the bright weather and the slow and easy-going pace of the people, there seemed to be some latent story in that place, some powerful, perhaps tragic, history that was not spoken of by anyone, but which seemed to manifest itself in the ironic contrast between the brooding, snow-capped mountains above the harbor, and the light-filled, festive air of the coastal community. I don’t think I had ever been in such a powerful setting before.

I could not say that I was entirely conscious of any of this at the time. I was merely living day to day there with no plans and no ambition. All I know is that, suddenly, feverishly, I began to write. Night after night in my narrow stone cell I began to fill the notebook that had remained empty for over a year.

One evening, after I had been there for two weeks, the boss, le patron, drew me aside and poured me a small glass of a local marc and began to question me about my plans for the next few months. I explained that I had nothing definitive in mind as yet.

“You have not the papers for France?” he asked.

“Passport, I have.”

“No I mean working papers, you have none?”
“No, I’m student, here, I have a student card only.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You want a job? Spring is coming. It’s going to be the busy season. You can cut fish for us, sweep up, do the dishes. I’ll teach you some sauces. It’s not real work in any case, so the fact that you have no papers ---”.

He shrugged.

“We’ll pay you a little something at the end of the season, plus room and board. Nobody out here cares,” he said.

“Sounds interesting.” I said “But are you saying that it’s not exactly legal?”

(Possession of working papers was an important issue among the poverty-stricken group of international students with whom I traveled.)

He stared out into the black waters beyond the terrace and then looked back at me, tiredly. “You understand, Corsica is not --- how shall I say it --- is not well known for its allegiance to the laws of the continent. ”

He lifted his left shoulder, tilted his head, and smiled regretfully.

He was a sleepy, unambitious man from Paris who wore the black rimmed glasses of a Left Bank intellectual and always needed a shave.

I didn’t know much about Corsica at that point other than the usual clichés. Inasmuch as Corsica is known at all, it is known for its vendettas, and its notorious underworld connections, and also as the birthplace of Napoleon. More to the point though, I didn’t know anything about the Rose Café, or its environs, or the people who hung around the café. But it seemed to be a place where any migratory bird of passage, such as myself, any refugees from any of the world’s miseries, either personal or political, could settle briefly to rest and feed and enjoy themselves before flying onward to nowhere. I decided to take the job. Why not? I was running out of money, and in that particular year the American draft service had been sending me ominous notices requiring me to register for military service to fight in an escalating little conflict in Viet Nam in which I had no particular interest and whose origin did not seem to me entirely logical. I was young and apolitical and had perfectly pleasant friends in Europe who described themselves as communists --- enemies of the people where I had come from. Corsica seemed a fine place to wait things out.

I went back to my old haunts in Nice to pick up my things and ran into Inge. She had left Armand in some isolated mountain village after he had decided that they must --- they absolutely must --- hike Monte Cintu, the highest peak in Corsica, even though there were still heavy snows there.

We had dinner and went out dancing at one of the local night clubs. Inge was about my age, nineteen or twenty, and had black hair and wide blue eyes and many older gentleman friends with smooth tans who wore silk cravats and hound’s-tooth jackets. I was never sure what, exactly, she was doing in Nice since she never seemed to have any money of her own.

We ended up that night in a café where there was an old fashioned band that played Eastern European music. There were some local White Russians there and expatriate Hungarians with handlebar mustaches. The band played old waltzes and polkas, and then an older woman in an evening gown rose and sang “Dark Eyes” and a long and sad Czardas, a lament for her homeland. Grown men took out their handkerchiefs and wept, and when the band played the Hungarian national anthem, some of them stood up, hands on their hearts, longing for some mythic older order that had been replaced by the all too real disorder of the current state.

At one point, while Inge danced with a tall Hungarian with his hair cut en brosse, I went outside alone and leaned over the rail above the bay. The night air was warm, and I could smell the Mediterranean and hear the pitch of the sea and the sad music from the café. I looked out at the black waters beyond the lights of the harbor and was suddenly very happy to have fixed a place for myself.

Two days later I took the night ferry back to Corsica and stood on the afterdeck watching the lights of France sink below the horizon.
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wild boar

Back in the kitchen that evening Jean-Pierre was preparing a civet of wild boar, one of the island specialties. He had been marinating the chunks of boar meat in wine and vinegar laced with cloves and juniper and mashed garlic, and he was now mixing together a sauce of onions, more garlic, carrots and celery with what seemed to me a very generous helping of eau de vie. Periodically he would dip up a spoonful to taste the marinade. His eyes would assume a vague unfocussed look whenever he was tasting anything, and he would stand staring at the smoke-blackened wall behind the stove as if reviewing a beautiful landscape.

Island cuisine has four recurring staples, wild boar, seafood, chestnuts, and sheep’s cheese, the best known configuration of which is a farmer’s cheese called brocciu. Local wines, most of which were made from grapes grown on Cap Corse, just northeast of the Rose Café, were favored by the islanders, although less respected by French tourists, except for a few rosés and a very good muscat, also from Cap Corse. Periodically, usually at some quiet midday meal, when there was no one around, the staff would sit down to a long meal and on these occasions Jean-Pierre would bring out an unlabeled bottle of a light-colored red made from a grape known as the Sciarcarellu which was local to Corsica and produced a wine that had, as so many local products did, a hint of the flowers of the maquis.

All these commodities had their seasons. Autumn was the best time to hunt and eat the truly wild boars. But in the interior of the island there were many feral pigs, and these hunters would bring into the markets at any season. Like their conspecifics, the wild pigs would feed on roots and tubers and the aromatic vegetation of the maquis, which gave their flesh a unique flavor that was decidedly different from any farm-raised hog. In autumn, the people would round them up and slaughter them to make spicy pork sausages called figatelli, that were coveted by locals and visitors alike.

Jean-Pierre, who was the chef and owner of the Rose Café, had worked briefly as a journalist but had left France with Micheline for Mexico, where they attempted to live for a time with the mountain-dwelling Lancandon Indians. Things hadn’t worked out as they had planned, so at the recommendation of a well-placed uncle, Jean-Pierre went to cooking school in Burgundy for a while. Before finishing his course he and Micheline gave up on this new career and came down to Corsica to raise goats and make cheese. That didn’t work out either, and somehow they found the money to acquire the Rose Café.

As far as I could tell (I cannot say that I had a refined palette in those years) Jean-Pierre was a decent cook. But he had what I believe was either a local, or perhaps unique, custom of quickly braising almost everything in local olive oil and herbs of the maquis, finished with a splash of wine. The process would send up a fragrant thyme-scented cloud in the kitchen that would set my mouth watering autonomically, like a Pavlovian dog. Occasionally, he and Vincenzo would out do themselves and prepare some elaborate local dishes, quail in a mint sauce, for example, or a boar haunch baked in Cap Corse muscat, or veal or boar with a sauce of bolete mushrooms.
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The Rose Cafe

Just before the dinner push, I walked down the narrow path to my room behind the restaurant to get a clean shirt. Standing on a promontory above the cottage where I lived, his arms folded over his chest and one leg cocked forward, I saw the German guest they called Herr Komandante. He was a portly man, dressed now in a blue-striped bathrobe and white espadrilles, and his thinning sandy–colored hair was wet and slicked back from his high smooth forehead.

“Been for a swim?” I called.

“Yes. And now I shall prepare for my dinner,” he said.

“Jean-Pierre has done a good rabbit fricassée,” I told him.

He considered this silently, nodding. One of his pastimes here was eating.

“And what fish?” he demanded.

“The usual,” I said. “But Vincenzo has just come in with a big grouper.”

“Good,” said Herr Komandante. “I will take that grouper. Grilled. And I shall begin with a plate of urchins, or perhaps the fish soup, and also a green salad,” he added. “You will tell Micheline, please. I will have one salad. Chestnut flan for the desert.”

“I will tell her,” I said.

“And coffee.”

“Yes, of course.”

“And I will take my digestif on the terrace this night,” he said as an afterthought.

People at the Rose Café used to mock Herr Komandante behind his back. It was said, among other unfounded rumors, that along with his love for food and sun he had an eye for young boys. But I suddenly felt a wave of compassion for him, here alone on a French island, a German in the midst of a people with long memories, isolated by language and culture, and seeking only to enjoy a few sensual pleasures. Who could blame him.

Back in the kitchen, the evening meal was in full swing. Chrétien and Micheline were rushing in and out, shouting for plates. Jean-Pierre was sweating and smoking, the ash salting his standard dish of grilled rascasse, a spiny red fish that he would season with myrtle, bay, rosemary, and other herbs brought in from the countryside. Micheline had started to spout her Sunday litany of complaints about the idiosyncrasies of certain diners; Vincenzo shifted his pans at the stove like a timpanist, and his wife, Lucretia, who helped on busy weekends, wandered in and out periodically, talking loudly in patois, and contributing little more than gossip about the diners.

I filled a copper tub with boiling water from the stove and prepared for the evening onslaught, and soon the dishes were coming in one load after another like wounded soldiers from the front --- first a table setting of soup bowls, then a few smaller plates, then some dinner plates, and forever, like foot soldiers, the silverware.

There was a perennial shortage of settings at the restaurant; it was not the cooking of Jean-Pierre and Vincenzo that slowed the service, it was the lack of plates and silverware. I had to wash, dry and return settings as soon as they came in or there would be nothing for the guests to eat from. It was not so bad on ordinary nights, but sometimes on weekends, in the rush, the flood of plates and the swirl of dirty water and the outcry from Chrétien and Micheline for more plates came on relentlessly. No one was proud at the Rose Café. When a backlog built up and the main courses were served, Jean-Pierre himself would wander back and wash a few of his pots, so would Vincenzo.

In due time, as the departure hour for the ferry grew nearer, the incoming stream dwindled, as it always did. Chrétien sat in the corner for a few minutes, drinking a coffee and gossiping about the diners, his long legs stretched halfway across the narrow kitchen. Micheline brushed back her hair and goosed Jean-Pierre as she slipped by him with a tray of desserts, and then Vincenzo loomed behind me in the washroom door with a small glass of marc, which he set on the stone sink.

“Drink up old man. It’s over for the day,” he said.

Now, in the quiet darkness of the terrace, the geckoes emerged and waited in the little pools of lamplight on the white stucco walls, snapping at insects. The few lingering guests sat with their chairs pushed back, enjoying a coffee or a glass of marc and the night air coming in off the harbor. Herr Komandante stepped out from the warm interior of the dining room and stood at the edge of the terrace, gazing outward at the black wall of the mountains beyond the harbor, his hands jammed into the side pockets of his blazer. A fishing boat came in, its lights fragile against the vast darkness of the water, and slowly, one by one, the guests disappeared.

We were alone with the sharp perfume of salt air and the high black screen of the night.