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Monthly Archives: February 2009

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I’ve been on sabbatical from teaching Middle School for six months now. I’ve done a lot of reading, quite a bit of writing, I’ve come up with a plan for my book and…my middle has expanded considerably. Teachers! You don’t realize how many calories you burn in a single day running down the hallway after little ones, taking Middle School girls to the nurse, or going to the special hiding place (every high school has one) to find so-and-so who is skipping class (or maybe necking as we called it in my days).

I’m sitting on my butt and yes, the middle is spreading. Yesterday, to console myself, I went to a mirror, took off my clothes and put myself in the position of Victorine Meurent in this painting of Manet. You know the argument: fuller figures were sexier back then! To my dismay, my gut was just as big, but my boobs were saggier and smaller, so even that didn’t make me feel better.

Following Obama’s adage that tough times call for tough measures I am going on a diet. You see, I’m going to France (the land of Carla Bruni, waxed legs, and petite women eating Brie) in only two months and I can’t bear (bare! ha!) the idea of going there with five extra kilos (kilos! I’m SO European!) around my midriff. To assuage my pain I’ve decided to detour my favorite foods from my mouth into my writing. Here goes:

Cauliflower au gratin: a simply, hearty dish. The low-calorie vegetable is first smothered in a rich Béchamel sauce and then covered in Gruyère cheese. It comes out of the oven golden and bubbling like a comestible puddle of lava. A crusty bread is recommended so that you can sop up the sauce.

Fish tagine with chermoula: fish, potatoes, and peppers layered and covered generously with chermoula, a mixture of garlic, parsley, cilantro, paprika, ground cumin, harissa, lemon juice, and olive oil. Chermoula is the Moroccan answer to pesto. This is all slow-baked (that is what the word tagine really means). When it comes out all the parts have miraculously fused into a taste too delicious to describe. I had this in a palace in Fez and mine is better. That is how good I am.

Profiteroles: OMG. Profiteroles bring together in one bite: crunchy, creamy, hot, cold, bitter, and sweet. It is mouth-ecstasy as only the French can do it. Into an airy puff of pastry insert high-quality vanilla ice-cream (no guar gum, please!) and cover with a hot dark chocolate sauce. I make these too, but my pastry succeeds only every other time, so you would have to come over on the right day. A photo of a young women with a profiterole in her mouth, chocolate and vanilla ice-cream dripping out of the corners, would surely be banned on Google in many countries.

Cheeses: unpasteurized so that they can walk up to your plate by themselves.

Roast chicken stuffed with rice and fresh figs: First of all, let’s talk about the perfect roast chicken. The skin has cooked so that when you bite into it it has a satisfying crackle. The breast meat is juicy with a hint of salt and barnyard fun: yes! the free-range bird’s flesh has an indelible taste of I’ve lived well and now give myself up to you. Into its cavern is stuffed a luxurious mix of cooked rice, onions sauteed in olive oil, and small, purple fresh figs. Don’t mix too much! It will become a purple haze. Restraint is of the essence.

Fresh figs brings me to my favorite piece of food porn writing by Walter Benjamin. In his essay simply called Food we can imagine what Julia Child would have written like if she had smoked a joint now and then. Enjoy:

No one who has never eaten a food to excess has ever really experienced it, or fully exposed himself to it. Unless you do this, you at best enjoy it, but never come to lust after it, or make the acquaintance of that diversion from the straight and narrow road of the appetite which leads to the primeval forest of greed. For in gluttony two things coincide: the boundelessness of desire and the uniformity of the food that sates it. Gourmandizing means above all else to devour one thing to the last crumb. There is no doubt that it enters more deeply into what you eat than mere enjoyment. For example, when you bite into mortadella as if it were bread, or bury your face in a melon as if it were a pillow, or gorge yourself on caviar out of crackling paper, or when confronted with the sight of a round Edam cheese, find that the existence of every other food simply vanishes from your mind. -How did I learn all this? It happened just before I had to make a very difficult decision. A letter had to be posted or torn up. I had carried it around in my pocket for two days, but had not given it a thought for some hours. I then took the noisy narrow-gauge railway up to Secondigliano through the sun-parched landscape. The village lay in still solemnity in the weekday peace and quiet. The only traces of the excitement of the previous Sunday were the poles on which Catherine wheels and rockets had been ignited. Now they stood there bare. Some of them still displayed a sign halfway up with the figure of a saint from Naples or an animal. Women sat in the open barns husking corn. I was walking along in a daze, when I noticed a cart with figs standing in the shade. It was sheer idleness that made me go up to them, sheer extravagance that I bought half a pound for a few soldi. The woman gave me a generous measure. But when the black, blue, bright green, violet, and brown fruit lay in the bowl of the scales, it turned out that she had no paper to wrap them in. The housewives of Secondigliano bring their baskets with them, and she was unprepared for globetrotters. For my part, I was ashamed to abandon the fruit. So I left her with figs stuffed in my trouser pockets and in my jacket, figs in both of my outstretched hands, and figs in my mouth. I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that it penetrated all my belongings, clung to my hands and impregnated the air through which I carried my burden. And then, after satiety and revulsion – the final bends in the path – had been surmounted, came the ultimate peak of taste. A vista over an unsuspected landscape of the palate spread out before my eyes – an insipid, undifferentiated, greenish flood of greed that could distinguish nothing but the stringy, fibrous waves of the flesh of the open fruit, the utter transformation of enjoyment into habit, of habit into vice. A hatred of those figs welled up inside me; I was desperate to finish with them, to liberate myself, to rid myself of all this overripe, bursting fruit. I ate to destroy it. Biting had rediscovered its most ancient purpose. When I pulled the last fig from the depths of my pocket, the letter was stuck to it. Its fate was sealed, ; it, too, had to succumb to the great purification. I took it and tore it into a thousand pieces.

Have you written any food porn? Feel like trying your hand at it? Send it my way.

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I recently finished a book by Michel Butor called Histoire Extraordinaire; an essay on a dream of Baudelaire. It begins with a dream that Baudelaire recorded at five o’clock in the morning, when it was nice and warm, for his friend Charles Asselineau. (I love the idea of calling a dream nice and warm; it makes me think of a croissant in the morning.) Butor then takes up threads of the dream and with them illuminates much of Baudelaire’s writing, including the translations he did of Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Stories.

While reading the book I was reminded of one of my favorite prose poems by Baudelaire, called Crowds. Baudelaire is surely one of the first, if not the first, to write of the essentially modern, urban experience of solitude in crowds. What struck me this time when I reread the poem was that it echoes the comments of people I’ve interviewed when they have talked about portraits. Here is paragraph three of Crowds:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or some one else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go by looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The whole idea has a vampire quality to it: I love the image of people, wandering souls, walking past portraits in a museum, only to stop in front of one and feel as if they are entering into the life, if only for a moment, of someone else. I recall Erin’s comment when she was in front of the Mona Lisa: she felt as if she had reached across time and experienced someone else’s life.

Doesn’t this mean that we are all become poets in a certain sense when we enter a museum? Or, do we become image-gobbling vampires? Maybe we become both, for the act of observing a painting is one, an act of consumption and two, an act of creation; we create our own experience with a painting. John Dewey, an experience-vampire if there ever was one, speaks of this moment (act) in these terms:

The esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. […] Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have to first plunge into it.

After we plunge into the painting (or suck out its blood), we digest it and this digestion constitutes the creation of a unique experience for every person, poet, or vampire.

Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Here’s paragraph three in the original: Le poëte jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.

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A few months ago, I interviewed a person who touched this painting. That’s right. He put his finger right on it in order to point something out to me. More about this transgressive act later.

Today I watched as the painting handlers (those hardy young men who drill holes in museum walls, pick up paintings worth millions of dollars, and hang them) took down a painting by Bazille and replaced it with one by Monet. If it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this happen numerous times this year I would still believe that fairies hang paintings at night, but the fact is that real people wearing (real) blue gloves take down and put up real paintings, almost in the same way that you did in your college dorm with your poster of Gene Simmons and Kiss (except you probably weren’t wearing blue gloves). Previously, I fantasized about having an Art Institute badge to hang around my neck so I could go in and out of the doors in certain galleries; doors so discreet that one is sometimes startled when they open and someone walks out, but now if I win the Art Institute’s Be Whoever You Want to Be For a Day prize I think I’ll choose paint handler.

What is it about seeing a person handle a painting that causes visitors in a museum to drop what they’re doing and gather around the roped-off area to watch? The most obvious reason could be called the thrill of the touch: we see someone doing what we aren’t allowed to do. The paint handlers are like priests, touching sacred relics in a holy spectacle that we must be contented simply to watch. Or, is it that by coming off the wall and being handled the painting is in fact desacralized for a moment? Physically, a painting is not dissimilar from a piece of furniture or a lamp that can be moved around from one spot to another. A painting is an object that has been touched by various people (first and foremost by the artist), has been in studios and homes, has changed places many times, and has most likely traveled long distances. I think that this is why we are so intrigued when a work comes off the wall: we are breathless by its objectness, something that only minutes earlier seemed intangible and eternal is part of the space that we occupy everyday.

Now I would like to come back to Amare, a recent immigrant, whom I interviewed a few months ago. Amare was studying economics in Ethiopia when he learned that he won a green card in the United States Green Card Lottery (which differs from the 1948 classic that we all read in public schools where the winner is stoned to death by the community). Amare now lives in a Chicago suburb where he is a dental assistant. He had taken the train in to spend the entire day at the Art Institute.

After our interview, Amare wanted to show me some of the paintings he had particularly liked. We started downstairs in the African collection where he showed me the Miracles of Mary, a beautiful 158 page bound manuscript from 17th century Ethiopia. Next, we looked at Francisco de Zurbaràn’s The Crucifixion. Amare pointed out how Zurbaràn had painted Christ’s feet resting on a slight ledge, a small detail that he thought added a degree of realism to the painting.

The Amare Tour ended in the Dutch room, gallery 213, in front of Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (pictured above). I have admired this painting many times before: it is an uncanny coup of verisimilitude, the blue satin curtain is so lifelike that one is tempted to try and pull it to the side to see more of the painting. Then, it happened. Amare, wanting to point out a detail, touched the painting with his finger. I was so shocked, so taken aback, that before I knew it the most absurd utterance came out of my mouth (it was like a sneeze, totally involuntary): “Don’t do that! They might arrest you!” What (other than the fact that George Bush was still president) would have made me say such a thing? And who was “they”? The guards? James Cuno, the museum director, and his administrative assistant? Amare looked at me, his brown, soulful eyes full of terror, and I immediately realized the profound stupidity of what I had said. I quickly corrected myself: “I mean, you aren’t supposed to touch paintings in a museum; you’ll get yelled at.” There. That made more sense. Luckily for Amare the guard hadn’t seen him (though she would probably have been calmer and less hyperbolic than I). Besides, it is hard to imagine a section in the Cook County Jail for painting touchers (and if there were one, those poor guys wouldn’t get much respect).

Amare and I parted ways in gallery 213. Later on, I got to thinking about my reaction and realized that mixed up in it was a  teeny, tiny bit of envy, even of awe (like what I felt when Tod called our English teacher an asshole, for he truly was one, though I would never, ever have said it). Amare had touched a 17th century Dutch painting, something I would never do. His finger had met the surface where the painter, some three hundred years ago, had applied the paint. The closest I’ll ever get is perhaps, one day, hoisting a gilded frame to its place, and that only if I plan my strategy carefully. I’m thinking of the fourteen year old boy who recently dressed up as a Chicago policemen and spent a giddy six hours riding around in a police car before getting busted. I know where to buy blue gloves, but I wonder where I can get one of those blue work jackets with my name embroidered on it?

Addendum: while writing, I googled “penitentiary, Cook County” to find out its exact name and read this most unusual statement on the homepage: “Going to jail can be a scary experience. However, with the right information, you can feel better prepared for the day to day experiences of jail. CookCoJail.com provides you with information from actual ex-inmates. […] While we can’t promise jail won’t still be hard, we can hope that the information you find here will help you make the transition as easy as possible.” It doesn’t sound much different than going off to college, does it?