Sunday, May 6, 2012


I'm writing late on the Cinco de Mayo (the date the Mexicans defeated the French, quite unexpectedly since they were much less well equipped, in 1862.  The French did manage to take Mexico City a couple of years later where they proclaimed Napoleon lll's brother Maximilian emperor of Mexico).  And it's also a full moon day, an especially big fat full moon they tell us. I caught a glimpse last night as I walked through the streets late after the Beard Awards, happy to be out in the air and walking with a friend.  The moon smiled benignly down, or so it felt to me.

I wrote that first paragraph last night, then hit the hay.  New York can do that, just get the adrenalin going, and going, and then suddenly I run out of gas.  Yesterday after our Beard Cookbook committee meeting I headed up to Kitchen Arts and Letters.  Nach Waxman was not there (he's more likely to be there early in the week), which I regretted, but being in the store is always a treat.  There are treasures to discover each time.  And each time I know I've only scratched the surface, leaving many wonderful books unnoticed.

Just as well perhaps, because covetousness starts to take over - yes I'd like to own that one, and that one, oh and yes perhaps those two...  I came away with two books, one of which I am especially pleased to have.  It's by Phyllis Bober, who died about ten years ago, a tall intelligent force-of-nature woman, beautiful, with dark red hair and a distinctive style.  She taught classics at Bryn Mawr but I knew her through food.  She had a deep interest in traditional foodways, and her two passions, for history and for food, come together in this book: Art Culture & Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy.

I first met Phyllis on an Oldways trip to Tunisia.  One day five of us rented a car and drove to the ruins of a Roman city called Bulla Regia in the northwestern Tunisian plain. I'll never forget Phyllis's enthusiasm as we guided us around the site.  She knew it intimately, from her studies and reading, but had never been there.  She showed us the amazingly intact mosaics, explained the distinctive architecture (houses built with underground areas to give coolness and shelter from the summer heat), and her delight in it all brought the place alive.

And now I have her clarity on the page, helping me decipher some of the early history of emmer and other wheats, the role of barley, the food traditions in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
I need this help, to prepare for the Foods that Changed the World course that I'll be teaching at the School of Continuing Studies at U of T, starting in mid-May, for six weeks.  It's all coming together, but as always with interesting rich subjects, I now feel that I could take double the time, or more, to explore each of my topics.

From Kitchen Arts and Letters it's an easy 19 block walk to the Whitney, where I saw the Biennale.  I had read some pans of it, but I like to see for myself.  The most outstanding-to-me art that I saw (which may just mean, the things I understood at least a part of) were: a thoughtful installation by Nick Mauss, Dawn Kasper's nomadic studio; Nicole Eisenman's multi-painting collections, and her one large painting, (such versatility and intent); Tom Thayer's fragile-looking haunting birds and suspended sculptures; Liz Deschenes' subtle and somehow powerfully memorable photo print sculptures; and finally the extraordinary multi-media installation by Werner Herzog called Hearsay of the Soul, which is mesmerising.

Yes, it's a bit of a long list.

A walk back north took me to the Met to spend more time at "The Steins Collect."  What a contrast, with order and colour and form the priority.  But it's worth remembering how shockingly wild Matisse was at the time with his violent use of colour (hence that label "fauve").  Weekends are a crowded time to be at the Met, but not, I discovered, after 6 in the evening.  It's open until 9 pm, so civilised, on Friday and Saturday, and the crowds thin nicely.  Afterwards, after a look at the Byzantine and Islam show, and a little time with the Van Goghs (now there was a guy who shocked in his time - I love the Berceuse), I went to the balcony that overlooks the entrance hall and had a glass of white wine (a very pleasing Alberino) and started reading Phyllis's book.

It was dusk, with the moon up but not visible in the cloud, as I headed back south the 35 or so blocks to my hotel.  What a wonderful privileged rich day.  I'll have lovely things to think about as I sit around at JFK this evening waiting for my plane to Toronto.

Thank-you New York.

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