Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘food’

21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Diet

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What the celebrated composer’s relationship with food reveals about the inner conflicts we share.

This is a culture where our relationship with food, though sometimes a canvas for creativity, has mutated from a source of sustenance to a grand arena for our moral struggles with willpower, a tyranny of habits we seek to rewire, a currency of status in the world’s hierarchy of haves and have-nots. At its most tragic, it can rip the psyche apart under the conflicting, unrelenting impulses for indulgence and control. While for most of us, these daily dramas play out in private, for public figures they offer source material for that sad excuse for journalism we find at the newsstand and the supermarket checkout aisle. And yet something about it — about those shared demons of our ambivalent relationship with food as a metaphor and voodoo doll for our inner contradictions and oscillations between self-loathing and self-pleasuring, between quenching and control — holds immutable allure for even those furthest removed from tabloid culture.

Perhaps it is the confluence of these curious cultural phenomena that makes for one of the most interesting parts of Terry Teachout’s fantastic new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library) — Ellington’s relationship with food. In many ways, it presents an amplified version of the inner struggles we face daily — amplified to the point of caricature, which is what makes it both so powerful and so unsettling, in the same way we tend to be uneasy around or profoundly dislike those who exhibit exaggerated versions of our own worst traits.

Ellington, who was exceedingly concerned with how he looked on stage, went to great lengths to reconcile and conceal his conflicted appetites for pleasure and for appearance. He wore show-stopping ensembles when he performed — but with a twist:

Beneath it all he wore a corset, a useful tool for a performer whose appetite for food was as gargantuan as his appetite for sex. One of Ellington’s nicknames was “Dumpy,” and Tricky Sam Nanton paid awestruck tribute to his capacity: “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus, how he eats!” Some of his best-remembered quirks had to do with food, such as his practice of wrapping up a leftover chop in a handkerchief or napkin, then tucking it in one of his pockets after a meal. It was a habit he had acquired in his early days, when food, like money, was harder to come by. “After a while, you eat in self-defense,” he told Whitney Balliett. “You get so you hoard little pieces of food against the time when there isn’t going to be any.”

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

But his struggles with food cut deeper than a mere quirk. Teachout cites one journalist’s account of how Ellington’s notorious compulsion for controlling his image backfired in the most tragicomic of ways in his diet:

Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.

For a closer look at Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, dive into the story of how Ellington engineered his own image.

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26 AUGUST, 2013

Culinary Advice from James Beard, Illustrated by the Provensens

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“Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.”

As an aficionado of both unusual cookbooks and the whimsical vintage illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen, I’m infinitely grateful to Mimi Sheraton, who authored the wonderful Seducer’s Cookbook, for tipping me off to the existence of The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (public library) — a 1949 gem penned by none other than culinary legend James Beard. Intended “for people who are not content to regard food just as something one transfers periodically from plate to mouth,” it offers 1,217 recipes accompanied by more than 400 endlessly delightful illustrations by The Provensens.

But perhaps most timeless of all is a small section prefacing the delicious recipes and drawings, humbly titled “A Word of Advice,” in which Beard captures the spirit of good cooking and, more than half a century before Michael Pollan’s seminal Food Rules, presages much of today’s wisdom on simplicity and integrity of ingredients.

There is absolutely no substitute for good food. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing. If you use the best butter, eggs, cream, meat, and other ingredients, and use them carefully and wisely, you will have less waste than if you search for bargains and end up with a full garbage pail.

Plan ahead. Plan carefully and shop in advance for what you need. Planning saves money, as well as time and steps.

Stagger your preparations so that they fit in with your other duties. If you prepare vegetables and other ingredients in advance, the last-minute rush is greatly eased and you will have a few minutes to relax and enjoy the paper or a chat before dinner. Plan so that you do not have three or four things that need attention at the same time.

Avoid having too many courses. If the food is good, that is all the more reason to limit the number of dishes, so that each may be fully savored.

Divide your meal into separate entities. As we shall try to show in the vegetable chapter, many vegetables are important enough to have single billing on your menu and should be served as a separate course.

Give as much care to simple dishes and the humbler foods as you do to elaborate dishes and ambitious menus. At the same time, do not neglect to take advantage of new developments in the growing, shipping, preserving, and cooking of food. Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.

Here are some of the loveliest illustrations:

The Fireside Cook Book is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with more of the Provensens’ vintage treats, including their adaptation of the Odyssey and the Iliad for young readers, their homage to William Blake, and their splendid take on twelve classic fairy tales. Their 1944 treasure The Animal Fair was also featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.

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07 AUGUST, 2013

The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and Lewis Carroll’s Guide to Dining Etiquette

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“As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table, if personally unacquainted with him; your pleasantry is liable to be misunderstood — a circumstance at all times unpleasant.”

As an intense lover of both all things Alice in Wonderland and unusual cookbooks, I was beyond thrilled to be gifted a surviving copy of the vintage out-of-print gem The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook: A Culinary Diversion (public library) — an utterly delightful compendium of recipes inspired by the Carroll classic, each accompanied by the appropriate excerpt from Alice’s adventures and featuring John Tenniel’s original illustrations. From “Ambidextrous Mushrooms” to “Bread-and-Butter-Fly Pudding,” the book is an absolute treat from cover to cover and features two of Carroll’s shorter pieces, Feeding the Mind and Hints for Etiquette: Or, Dining Out Made Easy. Here are some favorites:

LOOKING GLASS CAKE

1 pound flour | ½ pound butter | 4 ounces currants | 4 ounces mixed peel | 3 ounces raisins | ½ pound castor sugar | 2 teaspoons baking powder | 3 eggs | 1 teaspoon mixed spice | milk

  1. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
  2. Beat eggs and whisk gradually into the creamed mixture.
  3. Sift flour and baking powder and fold into the mixture by degrees.
  4. Finally mix in fruit and spice.
  5. The mixture should now be of such a consistency that it will drop easily from the spoon. Add milk only if necessary.
  6. Turn into a cake tin approximately 7 ½ inches in diameter lined with greaseproof paper.
  7. Bake for 2-3 hours in a slow oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, Gas Mark 2.
  8. Test with a skewer to see if cooked. Insert it in the centre. If it comes out clean, the cake is ready to be placed on a wire rack to cool.
  9. Cut it first and hand round afterwards.

FLOWER SALAD

acacia flowers | marrow flowers | rosemary flowers | borage flowers | cowslip flowers | elderflowers | marigold petals | nasturtium petals and trumpets | green salad | olive oil | vinegar

  1. All the flowers listed were once commonly accepted for culinary purposes. So:
  2. Scald the petals with hot water.
  3. Leave to cool.
  4. Arrange a bed of green salad including lettuce, parsley, thyme, chives, sorrel leaves, sliced raw cabbage or spinach, according to availability.
  5. Add the flowers to the centre.
  6. Serve with oil and vinegar dressing, proof that some flowers, at least do have the edible qualities of the other flour.

A TOAST TO ALICE

1 flagon cider | 8 lumps sugar | 2 oranges | 8 cloves | 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg | 1 cinnamon stick | 8 teaspoons water | 1 lemon | 1 sherry glass of rum | 1 sherry glass of brandy

  1. Rub the sugar against the rind of one of the oranges to remove zest.
  2. Cut the orange in half, and squeeze out juice into a saucepan.
  3. Cut the orange into 8 segments.
  4. Stick a clove in each and sprinkle with nutmeg.
  5. Add to the pan with the water and cinnamon.
  6. Cut lemon rind into strips and add this also.
  7. Heat over a gentle flame until sugar dissolves.
  8. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  9. Take away from heat to cool.
  10. Remove cinnamon stick.
  11. Add cider and reheat.
  12. Add rum and brandy.
  13. Serve hot in a heated punch bowl.
  14. “And welcome Queen Alice with ninety-times-nine!”

Carroll counsels in Hints for Etiquette: Or, Dining Out Made Easy:

As caterers for the public taste, we can conscientiously recommend this book to all diners-out who are perfectly unacquainted with the usages of society. However we may regret that our author has confined himself to warning rather than advice, we are bound in justice to say that nothing here stated will be found to contradict the habits of the best circles. The following examples exhibit a depth of penetration and a fullness of experience rarely met with:

I

In proceeding to the dining-room, the gentleman gives one arm to the lady he escorts– it is unusual to offer both.

II

The practice of taking soup with the next gentleman but one is now wisely discontinued; but the custom of asking your host his opinion of the weather immediately on the removal of the first course still prevails.

III

To use a fork with your soup, intimating at the same time to your hostess that you are reserving the spoon for beefsteaks, is a practice wholly exploded.

IV

On meat being placed before you, there is no possible objection to your eating it, if so disposed; still in all such delicate cases, be guided entirely by the conduct of those around you.

V

It is always allowable to ask for artichoke jelly with your boiled venison; however there are houses where this is not supplied.

VI

The method of helping roast turkey with two carving-forks is praticable, but deficient in grace.

VII

We do not recommend the practice of eating cheese with a knife and fork in one hand, and a spoon and wine-glass in the other; there is a kind of awkwardness in the action which no amount of practice can entirely dispel.

VII

As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table, if personally unacquainted with him; your pleasantry is liable to be misunderstood — a circumstance at all times unpleasant.

IX

Proposing the health of the boy in buttons immediately on the removal of the cloth is custom springing from regard to his tender years, rather than from a strict adherence to the rules of etiquette.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to snag a used copy of The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook. Supplement it with equally delightful treats like The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook, The Seducer’s Cookbook, and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.

Thanks, Kaye!

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