Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dinner: The Weight and Wilt of Grass

Disclaimer: Do not assume that anything you read here is autobiographical (even if you are sure it is) unless you take the time to sit with me over a beer or whiskey and have an intimate conversation. Remember that while art deals with life, life is not necessarily art. And if you are too young, a student, or otherwise compromised than you must assume everything I write is an egregious lie. But if you are one who cares, and are concerned about the truth, and its transience, than you know what I drink and where I live.

I have respect for those who can cook. And I know many who can do so with a virtuosity I find mesmerizing.[1] In my case, I cook out of both financial and physical necessity, needing to save money and manage my weight, which, I like to believe, is reminiscent of a comic book viking: Hairy and huge, plodding through the shallows to visit sweaty blows upon wispy-limbed Britons. Even given this respect, I fear that I am a lazy cook, which I admit without intending any clandestine nod to the anti-intellectual, who believes not knowing something is better than knowing it, or who assumes ignorance is somehow edgy or sexy. That said, however, I do tend to cook by intuition, as did Neanderthals,[2] guided by the impression that the weight of food somehow relates to its taste or that color in some way transfers flavor.

One recipe I arrived at in this way and prepare regularly is a bison stew-like casserole. Cooking this meal is a phenomenological experience, as the tension between simmering ingredients and satisfaction fill my small home, suggesting that the decision that turns preparation into gustatory satiation is as much a matter of memory, and the often digressive feelings eating generates, as any knowledge regarding the mechanics of stove dials or the biology of taste buds. This recipe creates an introspective mood as much as a dish for passive, instinctual consumption.
“Bison on the Hoof”
  • Separate into small chunks and place a 1/2 pound of bison burger into a skillet and brown it for about 7 minutes on something like medium heat.
  • Grab a handful to a handful and a half of frozen vegetables and place them in the skillet at about the 5 minute mark.
  • Along with the vegetables, maybe pour in some canned tomatoes or cut up a few fresh ones if these are available (no matter what start a private garden and grow what you can. Monsanto be damned).
  • Flick in a dollop or two of tomato sauce and mix the paste into the meat along with the already simmering vegetables or tomatoes.
  • Allow these ingredients to continue simmering in a covered skillet for about ten to twenty minutes, depending on how expensive your stove is. If you have something from the 80s or before, as I do, don’t go too far away because you will need to cook by eye and ear, moving the skillet here and there to catch the uneven heat as it meanders up from the aged coils.
Note: Cook until the vegetables are al dente and the sauce piping hot or until you feel a little less like a fool, whichever comes first, or is it second.

Nota bene: While you wait you might meditate, but don’t go catatonic or the sauce will turn to an abysmal tar. If you are like me, then you’ll read and listen for any sound that seems too burny or splattery, which suggest something needs to be adjusted more or less quickly.

A Buffalo should be Scary
The first buffalo I ever saw stood lock-kneed, snorting, as a man with mop-ish hair and jeans cut off above the knee held a cheap Kodak to his left eye.

“Too close my Dad said,” with a throat laugh, “I sure hope that bull doesn't smell him.”

The buffalo teetered, wavering on its thin legs, tail flapping across its narrow hips. Above its shoulder hunch, the focus of considerable muscle and weight, hung a halo of dust where mosquitoes hung lazily in the heat of the open, dry prairie. The animal did resemble a meal on sticks—tip it, grab the legs, dip it in sauce, and eat. The meal-readiness of the animal belied its complicated history and cultural importance. Its austere, even stoic quality, its sheer presence in its space, gives the sense that it knows the land, has necessarily emerged from it. Many aboriginal cultures respond to this relationship, experiencing in the buffalo a connection to the land that translates into both religion and economy. The profile, stamped on so many nickels, stuck with me, a stillness that suggested a singularity of purpose: history planted by its weight among the long grasses that wavered in the wind and wilted in the heat, and rolled with certainty across the hills, the certainty that comes with being deeply in place.

The man creeping up on the buffalo—perhaps thinking of it as one might a zoo exhibit; docility often being taken for benevolence when it is so often otherwise—seemed intent upon touching the humid fleshiness of authentic nature, and assume its mysterious neo-existence, logging in the process a memory upon which his identity might turn, a turn or twist or taint that might lead him to . . . something. This notion, the dimensions of this something, is the fulcrum upon which travel or adventure teeter, suggesting that we will discover something that will make us and not just make us happy but transform our sensibilities, creating in that moment the better person we wished we had become if doing so was not such hard, thankless work.

My Dad’s concerns, rumbling in his gut—the locus of the fatherly imperative—had convinced me that I was about to witness the evisceration of a man for the sin of stupidity, hubris, or likely both. Yet, as far as I know, the man evaded damage. Still, his example taught me, I like to think anyway, the importance of respecting the unknown by trying to understand it and approach it sympathetically, developing from this interaction an understanding of difference and the role diversity plays in establishing meaning. Understanding emerges from the space created by negotiating tensions. One believes the prairie is empty and so a useful commodity, another sees it as full of life and, therefore, in need of protection. Knowledge and understanding comes from exploring the ground upon which these differing opinions exist—what is their history, ethical dimensions, and impact on our future?

Along with this revelation, I realized, as V. F. Cordova notes, that some experiences can cause considerable harm. The latter is a problem that still resonates in science, as notably illustrated in C.P. Snow’s 1959, and famously misguided, lecture extolling the triumphs of science while berating the “snobbishness” and insularity of the humanities.[3] The implications of scientific research on society are best addressed through the humanities, such as literature. Consider, for example, how authors such as Don DeLillo (White Noise or Ratner’s Star), Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), or even Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Ubik, or Minority Report) illustrate for a broad audience the impact of industrialism, physics, or scientific totalitarianism on human existence. I can think of few scientists, except maybe the late Stephen Jay Gould,[4] who have revealed so much about the social implications of contemporary scientific research than these authors.

These lessons, locked even in the sinews of this buffalo and his human tormentor as they wavered on the edge of memory and maybe eternity, occurred during my first trip west. I had been eight, and over the next few days, I would witness the incongruity that I only began to understand as a much older adult.

Making our way around Old Faithful, snapping picture after picture to my father’s disgust, I understood nature as a commodity with a value that rose from the graves of millions of Native Americans, a value determined by the insouciant desire to inhabit the world of the other while resisting any notion to know them. A corporate Custer turning disturbing historical realities and simple, human atrocity into cap guns, t-shirts, and polystyrene tomahawks, and giving children the chance to play at genocide and take their part in perpetuating the disenfranchisement defining the lives of so many of the poor and powerless. In the KOA campground, I wandered the thorny margins with my wood cap gun, imagining myself a cowboy, a mountain man, some erstwhile adventurer, tooled with only a sense of discovery and not the destruction that followed on the heels of the seekers I had been reading about in school or later in Daniel Boorstin’s popular histories. Searching for my sister and brother, and peering into the pine forests of the Black Hills, I had no idea that the wire fence marking the edge of the campground hinted at a desire for stuff, for ownership, that had rent the west into myriad, arid, and disconnected parcels. A freedom of movement that had once defined the plains, characterized its very geography, had been undermined by thin pieces of wire stretched between thoughtlessly planted posts. And these posts dotted the west like dead sentinels, announcing a danger just over the horizon.

Dinner and a Story
Much of what ends up on our dinner plates is inflected either consciously or unconsciously with these types of stories, parables, and morals. We all have experienced or heard of family dinners through which moral lessons are passed on to mindless teens along with subtle parental control. PSAs funded by the Church of The Latter Day Saints, for one example, announce, unreflectively I should add, the benefits to children of time spent masticating around a table; parents practice subtle psychological experiments on their kids while passing the potatoes, watching for signs of drugs and unreasonable moodiness. I had dinner with my parents and for all I know these meals kept me from suffering deeper anxiety and away from at least some classes of drugs. Maybe they made me self-aware and worried enough to remain at least one type of virgin during high school (whatever that has proved to be worth).

As “free” adults dinner becomes foreplay of a sort: either a preamble to a proper relationship or, maybe more often, garlicy sex, generating the saliva across which all the lust, hopes, and selfish expectations slide onto the dumb, fleshy, and blind glottis. Comedians laud and profit from the silly, sublimated behavior common during these gastronomic clashes. Wine in hand prefigures cum on the sheets; an appetizer connotes tickling before dawn; the main course hints at the variegated geography of a life together. While most flinch at such (say) pessimistic observations, few probably dispute the value of this nocturnal ritual, two (let’s assume) separated by dead things meticulously prepared for digestion by our rather simplistic gut.[5] Dinner, and maybe the trip to the bar afterward, helps beget children, and becomes a tool for both moral training and later subtle incarceration. In effect, dinner is a central, though perhaps not as positive as some believe, social institution, which has fallen into disuse.

Of course, we like to think of dinner as a unifying experience, providing a moment during the day for everyone to check in on everyone else. Even the table suggests this purpose, as it places the food, a life sustaining force, on the same level for everyone from cute daughter to boorish son. But underlying even this homey image is the idea of coercion. Being exiled, for instance, from the table is also to be exiled from the family, which even today is bad enough. But perhaps even worse, though typically symbolic, is that this exiled child will also lose access to food, and, having no access to any means of production except scavenging, ultimately her life. The dinner and its table becomes a powerfully conservative, and so constraining, force in (at least) American culture. Therefore, freeing ourselves from its confines is one of the first acts of dissent in which many children engage, asserting by avoiding the table, something like independence and control over their biology and, therefore, life.

Clearly, given this observation, it is no surprise that few families actually eat dinner around a table. Parents who grew up freed from its constraining influence, imbue their children with a similar sense of independence or, more commonly and unfortunately, narcissism. To the degree that eating is an instance of social agency, children are taught to do as they please, eat as they wish, which of course reflects a broader narcissistic tendency in American society. And, note, this tendency is not initiated by our tweeners, or whatever, but rather by their parents and probably their parents and so on. Children, the ones I see and teach, mirror their parents’ often shocking selfishness, their “I want . . . and don’t care at all what you want“ attitude that probably emerged, at least as an unmitigated expectation, after World War II.

In these respects, dinner is on one hand as outmoded as Matthew Arnold’s proclamations about culture leading us to perfection through the experience of the best that has been written and said, which is to say not entirely inappropriate. On the other hand, dinner opens up a space, if we define space as Yi-Fu Tuan does as “a focus of value, of nurture and support.” The food that occupies the table-space is hopeful, perhaps redemptive, providing a means for the development of sustaining communal bonds. But, as I’ve mentioned, it can also become associated with the lack of nurturing and support, and, therefore, for perpetuating the repressive tendencies of the powerful over the powerless (which for some is as it should be).

Yet even in the negative connotations, people learn by attending to dinner in these communal ways where stories emerge to locate the meal within personal history and so within a framework of meaning. Perhaps because eating dinner requires at least a moment of hesitation and possible a considered pause, the type of conversation required to make connections, not just glancing references, is possible. And the better the meal—the more time taken to invest the food with some social significance, such as an elegant or traditional presentation—the more sustained the pause and more likely meaningful interactions will ensue. The thoughtful cook, who realizes food is about more than eating, can develop a presentation that initiates certain inferences. For example, a particular center piece will communicate a specific message. This usage is obvious, but more subtle notions can be conveyed through plates and utensils, including formal versus informal as well as a thoughtful observance of relative distances between place settings and so on. Centuries of gourmands could play this out endlessly. What social significance resides in chilly poured into a white bowl over brown rice and topped with grated cheddar cheese? It seems plausible that we can find some significance in this dish and the way it is often consumed with a spoon rather than a fork, knife, or fingers.

To me the most interesting aspect of these arrangements, food set upon the stage, is how stories turn a place, hand resting on wood, and the values associated with it into a social space in which our activities are linked in meaningful relationships, chins tilted up toward the sun that is always setting. Decades ago, I recall buying dinner from a small shop in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy. I had just arrived from Vienna on my first and only sleeper car and found a hostel near the Piazza San Marco, fronting the enormous Basilica San Mark, which is weighted with enough delusional tonnage to sink the city in the allegorical mire. Hungry, and a little edgy—the First Gulf War had just erupted and some Italian Graffiti read, in admirable English, “Kill Americans”—I went looking for something to eat.

Winding my way along narrow streets, among the subtle stink of the canals, which becomes less so later in the spring, I ended up in one of the residential areas away from the tourist enclaves.

The smell of fresh bread and hints of salami and strong coffee. Up the canal, a motor churned.

In a small deli, I bought a loaf of crusty bread and a hunk of goat cheese for a few thousand lira (couple dollars) and sat on a bench in what had been the Jewish ghetto. A quaint place now, but once rife with misery, I ate and drank a bottle of mineral water. No one was around and in the silence the echo of the wind among the grit of history was calming. I felt for those few minutes, perhaps because I was suffering from low blood sugar, out of time, sliding, in a world rife with hate, into a fairy tale, irrationalism to fight irrationalism, and like Haller in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, realized that “Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap” (22). I was experiencing such a moment of overlap then; I was in the city from which both the global economy and a ruinous pandemic emerged centuries ago; in a time (1991) when two differing religions—capitalism and Islam—were struggling for dominance; and was eating dinner in the first Jewish ghetto, wondering how someone experiences suffering at any given moment. I was not suffering certainly, but many were and for these people the world had come unhinged, freeing upon all of us the devils of ignorance and unreason, those who continue even this second to disgorge their offal into society. Notably, a few blocks away hung Tintoretto’s “Descent into Hell” that depicts a haloed, impossibly muscular Jesus gazing or maybe gloating at the suffering of worm-like sinners whose only crimes seem to be malnutrition or some result of it. In this sense, Tintoretto’s trite, but capable, depictions of the Last Supper place the focus on the supper and less on the haloed figures, always that miserable halo, wedged in behind the curiously long, peculiarly modern banquet table. Food is a Godly, divinely-worthy resource and functions to redeem the unworthy from their own worthlessness. Eat, claim these paintings, and be saved.

Outside, cats, mangy and thin, were copulating and squelching from the top of a crumbling wall, a violent sense of urgency, recalling the atavistic life-spark, something more immediate, such as the need to eat, which we spend so much time seeking to slack.

Even with that noise, I sat in the quiet, as I do now in the chill of Maine, and ate what remained of my fresh bread and cheese. Afterward, I walked back to my dim room in the hostel with the warped floor, a harbinger of Venice’s slow decent into the muck of the Adriatic Sea. Tonight, thinking of these stories, I cook “Bison on the Hoof” and notice that my kitchen table, which has never suffered the weight of a plate, is covered with books, file folders, and a variety of envelopes in various stages of undress. I also notice in the haphazard jumble of ingredients, some spattered across the stovetop, much that matters, from how we acquire food, to how we prepare and serve it, to what stories and values we associate with the act of eating, and how in this interconnectedness is a simple and lasting moment of redemption, one forever uncertain and painful.

[1] My mother’s cooking will always be my favorite, but in this essay I’m thinking of dinners other than hers.
[2] Cf. Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, pp. 168-173.
[3] The obvious point is that scientific research needs the humanities to instill its practitioners with, for one example, something resembling ethical or simply human awareness. An example of scientific research unhinged from a sensible relationship with humanity was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which became public in an article published in The Washington Evening Star in 1972. In this study, The Star reported and subsequent investigations fully revealed, scientists withheld treatment from 400 African American men who had unknowingly contracted syphilis. The aim was to study the effects of the disease on these victims after they died.
[4] Cf. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory for just one example of effective scientific writing.
[5] Wouldn't it be better for us all if we could just graze?