Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Post-modern Halloween candy

W. from the gallery office just came across the hall with a plastic pumpkin full of Halloween candy. I depend on the gallery office for the occasional sugar rush as they are usually well supplied with unhealthy treats, so this was kind of par for the course. (I try to return the favor whenever I travel, coming back with something yummy.) I discovered that among these mini candy bars were Crunch bars, which I usually like; but these were filled with caramel, which I found very off-putting. I want my Crunch bars to be crunchy, my peanut butter cups to be full of peanut butter, my Snickers to contain peanuts... you get the idea.

W. agreed and went on a long and hilarious riff on the problems of post-modern Halloween candy. The basic issue seems to be one of category creep, due to marketers in the candy companies who worry that they will lose their jobs if they don't keep redefining the product. How is it new and improved (to choose a random example) to put caramel in a 3 Musketeers bar? Isn't that just a Milky Way? The Wikipedia entry on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups lists twelve different varieties that exist or have existed. This is all kinds of wrong. What's next? Rolos filled with something other than caramel? Different flavors of Mounds?

I am a member of the generation of children whose cosmic worldview was rocked in 1982 when the movie E.T. introduced Reese's Pieces to the world. You can put peanut butter inside an M&M shell? So I'm no stranger to the cognitive value of radical change. But I'm here to advocate against the post-modern category-breaking that leads to things like caramel inside a Crunch bar. In the wake of postmodernism, we rediscover the value of received forms and traditional categories. So this is my stump speech in support of traditional values when it comes to Halloween candy. Respect the sacred relationship between chocolate and peanut butter!

That said, I still hate Dum Dum Pops.

It wasn't mold

It was ants, or possibly termites. Eating my duplicate copies of articles from Ars Orientalis.

Sometimes I hate the tropics.

Monday, October 27, 2008

There's a fungus among us

My office is not air-conditioned, nor is it closed to the outside, with the result that insects, geckos, and the occasional bird can and do wander in. In a tropical climate, any small pocket of under-circulated air is prime mold territory, and I found a truly spectacular infestation today in the bookshelf behind my office door. The destructiveness of the tropical environment never fails to amaze me - this mold had sent filaments under the paint on the bookshelf itself and the film of paint peeled away from the steel when I wiped up the colonies, leaving a fungal roadmap on bare metal.

Most of the casualties were fairly dispensable (extra copies of articles, spare envelopes, etc - if it were really crucial I wouldn't keep it back there) but sadly one of the near-casualties appears to be my Ph.D. diploma. The folder it came in is a total loss and the diploma itself is stained along one edge. It makes me wonder about my continued qualifications: Can I still teach with a moldy Ph.D.?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voodoo economics

We bank at the local credit union and are pretty well insulated from the effects of the crashing economy by the simple expedient of (a) banking locally and (b) having spent our twenties and early thirties in graduate school, and therefore never having made more than about 17,000 a year until quite recently. Still, as I stood in line this morning to make a deposit, it was disconcerting to see a thick book, apparently bound in leather, with the gilded title "Spells" on the cover in thickly ornamental Victorian script, resting on the tellers' counter.

(It was actually a box of stealth Halloween candy. Probably just as well.)

Phantom signature

I bought a drawing board today to help me in my project to design a pattern for a filet-crochet tallit. The tallit will be 36 x 72 inches, and I'm making the pattern half-size, which still means it's 18 x 36 inches and therefore pretty ungainly. The drawing board gives me a good surface to work on even when the table is laden with books, which is pretty much all the time.

The board was shrink-wrapped in a layer of plastic that was held away from the board's surface by the large clipboard-type clips on one end of the board. I strapped it to my bicycle's luggage rack and rode awkwardly home. Arriving home I stowed my bike in the back of the house, where the slanting rays of the sun illuminated everything. I realized that I must have leaned on the board to sign the charge slip when I bought it at the bookstore, because although the denting of the plastic that this caused was invisible, the sun was projecting my shadow signature out of nowhere onto the surface of the board.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yummy lentil soup

It is not exactly soup weather here, but it is soup weather elsewhere, so I thought I'd post this riff on a lentil soup recipe Cinnamon posted recently on Gaper's Block. Here's what I made last night (in about half an hour) with what we had in the fridge:

Olive oil
One sweet Italian sausage (turkey, if you're us)
One onion
3 cups of chicken stock (more, if you want a really soupy soup)
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 cup green lentils
5-6 cloves garlic
A bunch of curly kale
Salt and black pepper

Crumble the sausage and brown it in the olive oil under medium-high heat (you want a lot of browned bits). Remove from the pan, scraping up as many browned bits as possible, and set aside. Put a little more oil in the pan and saute the onions, also over medium-high heat. Don't stir too much: you want them to get browned on the edges, just like the sausage. When they're mostly translucent, add the spices and fry for a few seconds till they become fragrant. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil (again, scraping the bottom of the pan). Add the lentils and boil, covered, for 20-30 minutes, until they are nearly done (still a bit of crunch). While the lentils are boiling, chop the garlic coarsely and add to the soup. Pull the kale leaves off their stems and tear into manageable pieces. When the lentils are nearly done, pack the kale into the pan and cover to steam. When it has cooked down a bit, stir it into the soup. Cook at a simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the kale is dark green and tender but not mushy. Stir the sausage bits back in, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back in the day

I'm thinking of having an actual sit-down dinner next weekend so have been thinking of dinners in our past. Two of them were actually blogged for posterity, so here are the links to:

Colonialism in the Pacific Rim Themed Dinner for Eight (Rex did the actual write-up, in case you couldn't tell)

Americans Eating Kale: a Dinner Party for Eight

It makes me all nostalgic for the days when I was a graduate student and actually had time to think about these kinds of things. But rather than mourning the past, I'm thinking of them as benchmarks to reach for in the future. Excelsior!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Best receipt ever

My friend Karl's friend Ben has what Karl has described as a "most unusual receipt." He's right, of course, but I think I may have topped him:


Saint-Germain is a Japanese bakery in town, where I went to pick up some pastries one morning this past weekend. Among the bearclaws, danishes, andagi, turnovers, an pan, curry puffs and other baked goods, they offer something called a "Jesuit Custard," which is a triangle of puff pastry with almonds on top, split horizontally and filled with pastry cream. If anybody knows why this should be called "Jesuit Custard," please let the rest of us know. Meanwhile I am waiting for the St. Francis Xavier An Pan.

(ETA: Wonder no longer; AKMA came through with the answer to this question in the comments. Thanks AKMA!)

Friday, October 10, 2008

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed

The liturgy for Yom Kippur is very repetitive in structure: major prayers such as the High Holy Days Amidah (six times longer than the usual version), the Vidui (breast-beating litany of sins, in an alphabetic acrostic), Ki Anu Amecha (about the mutuality of the relationship between God and man), and Avinu Malkeinu (much-beloved prayer, "Our Father and Our King") are repeated over and over again through the day. Another thing that gets repeated is the covenant between God and Abraham, articulated in the book of Exodus as Moses and the Israelites stand at Sinai. It is a list of thirteen attributes of God, which begins "Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v'chanun" (The Lord, The Lord, God compassionate and merciful). It is one of the centerpieces of the Yom Kippur liturgy of repentance, because just after delivering it, God says to Moses, "Tell Israel that whenever they mention these attributes, I will pardon them."

Our morning services for Yom Kippur took about four and a half hours, after which we took a break before the afternoon services and havdalah. When we left the house, parched and hungry, to return to services in the late afternoon (Yom Kippur is traditionally observed with a 25-hour no-water fast), we emerged into a fine and luminous misting rain, common in our neighborhood this time of year. With the sun at our backs, it produced a spectacular double rainbow that lit up the entire valley.

Rainbows aren't as rare here as they are in some other places, but they are still remarkable. There is a special Jewish prayer to be said upon seeing the rainbow, which blesses God for remembering his covenant with his people. Usually this is understood to refer to the Noahide covenant, between God and all the people of the world (not just Jews), made after the Flood. But having spent all day chanting the covenant of Sinai, it was hard not to feel that we were not the only ones remembering the covenant; that something of what we said was being heard.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My first meme

OK, I'm giving in and posting my version of The Omnivore's 100, which started with the Very Good Taste food blog. Here's how it works, if you haven't seen it before. VGT made a list of unusual foods that they think every true foodie should try. They want to know how many of these items others have tried, so here's my list. I should note that my list of things I've eaten includes things I've tried in the past but wouldn't eat now because they are treif.

They say:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten (I'm using color since the boldface doesn't show up well in this theme).
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison (both by itself, and in really old-school mincemeat, when I was a kid. Also, moose)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile (treif)
6. Black pudding (gross, treif)
7. Cheese fondue (mainstay of many a grad school party)
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (not yet, but oh how I love stinky cheese)
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns (no longer, alas)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (Are you kidding? This is porcelain clay!)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (treif, thank goodness)
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost (gjetost is one of my favorite cheeses)
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (I am a pastry snob)
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (We had the prix fixe.)
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mission accomplished

Sign on the campus Indian lunch place: "We want to make you HAPPY and FULL OF CURRY."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Further encounters with domestic fowl

My route home from work sometimes takes me along a path that cuts behind the fields of the local elementary school. There are two ways to get to the road from behind the school: during the day, when school is in session, the fence around the school fields is locked, and you exit through the gate of some buildings belonging to the School of Tropical Agriculture. After hours, the Ag buildings are closed and the gate locked, but the school fields are open. If I come home between 4.30 and 6, I often find a community youth soccer league or baseball practice going on. After 6, the fields are usually deserted except for the occasional dog walker or frisbee thrower.

Today I got caught up in a research question at work (when exactly did Empress Dowager Wenzhao of the Northern Wei die? - answer: in 496 CE, according to her epitaph inscription, and contrary to some modern historians' reports, so there) and was late leaving, so as a result the fields were empty as I arrived. Just entering from the street side were a middle-aged man and a teenage boy, ambling idly along and tossing a football back and forth between them. Waddling along between them, the midpoint of the invisible line connecting the two, was an enormous white Muscovy duck with a spectacularly warty red face. I asked if he ever caught the football but apparently he was just along for the walk.

Because I am not usually prone to losing small objects, I still have the extremely low-tech cell phone that I got when we signed up for service four years ago. It doesn't have a camera, so no picture of the duck. Rex, who lost his in May and in consequence has a schmancy new one, reminds me that if only I were more forgetful I would have been able to show you that I'm not making this up.

Parashat Terumah

Today I signed up to give a d'var Torah (or drash, that is, a meditation on the week's Torah reading) for Parashat Beshallah, which is coming up in February. So I'm posting the d'var Torah I did last February, on Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). The passage is about the building of the mikdash, the tabernacle that held the Ark, and it's full of a lot of details about how many cubits and how many golden pomegranates and goatskins and whatnot. It's very confusing, because it's hard to see how it relates to our own experience in the modern day. Here's what I said:

3 Adar 1, 5768 (2/9/2008)

Terumah is on some level the art historian’s parashah, since it is all about stuff and its meaning. So I’d like to offer an art historian’s drash. Like other parashiyot, this one raises a lot of questions including: why call for the building of the mikdash at this particular moment, after the giving of the Law? And what does it mean to call the mikdash a sanctuary built (in God’s words) “so that I may dwell among them?”

I’d like to focus on a particular line that sticks with me every time I read this parashah. In giving instructions for the building of the mikdash, God says to Moses, “Exactly as I show you… so shall you make it.” The question here is why is it so important that the mikdash be made so exactly according to what seem on the face of it some fairly arbitrary specifications?

One commentator (Yehudah Halevi) sees in this a link to the idea that we cannot approach God except as He commands us, on His own terms, and not according to our own need. This is an explanation that I have some sympathy for, as it goes a long way toward explaining why it feels meaningful to me to pray in a language that I still don’t understand very well; it’s a matter of bringing oneself to God, and not demanding that He bring Himself to us. Still, it doesn’t really explain all those acacia posts and goatskins and gold lampstands.

It is possible to see in this parashah, as in so many others, the echo of the ancient Near Eastern context in which our ancestors lived. It’s been pointed out by some commentators that this kind of a highly detailed and iconographically specific temple description is a textual genre known from other Near Eastern traditions besides our own.

Many, many commentators read the details of the building and its furnishings allegorically. Thus Don Isaac Abravanel suggests that the menorah is made of “pure gold” to remind us to be careful of impure ideas, and it always faces the Holy of Holies, reminding us that true wisdom is always in harmony with the Torah. This is a deeply familiar approach for most of us. We are well accustomed to the idea that every detail, turn of phrase or omission, must have some meaning, and that that meaning is often expressed associatively, metaphorically, or allegorically.

But while it is familiar, this explanation is not entirely satisfying because it still fails to explain the sense in this parashah that details of wood and bronze are somehow inherently important to God: “Exactly as I show you… so shall you build it.” Is this God’s need, or is it perhaps our own need? Allegorical explanations seem unsatisfactory here, because of the way they seem to restrict God.

The mikdash is built so that God may dwell among us, but we know that God cannot be contained by something we ourselves have built out of acacia posts and linen cloths. Solomon says something very close to this in describing the building of the First Temple (in a section of 1 Kings quite close to today’s haftarah reading): he addresses God, saying “even heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” And in fact our tradition is full of stories telling us that God dwells everywhere.

This is not God’s need.

We’re left, then, with the idea that it may well be our own; and yet, bronze sockets and twisted linen and purple and crimson dyes are so foreign to our own experience that it is hard to see how, from this distance of years. This is where the insights of art history become useful.

Art history recognizes that it is a basic human impulse to imbue objects and materials and spaces with meaning, and not just that, but also to use objects and materials and spaces to create meaning in our lives. And we value the ability to recognize that meaning, to know when things and places are significant. Materials in particular are sometimes the source of that meaning, as is the act of making.

A few examples: I’m wearing tourmaline earrings that were a graduation gift from my parents, and while I would wear them because they are my parents’ gift, they were chosen because tourmaline is the state gemstone of Maine, my first home. They are meaningful for their material. The Chinese Bronze Age is different from the Near Eastern Bronze Age because the Chinese discovery of bronze technology did not lead to the manufacture of bronze tools and weapons. In the Near East, and many other parts of the world, the introduction of bronze is primarily a technological innovation, and the material is valued for its practical uses. In China, bronze became a spiritually marked material, and was restricted to the casting of sacrificial vessels; Bronze Age farmers in China still worked with stone tools.

This tendency to ascribe meaning to objects, and their materials, and their manufacture, is really fundamental to the way we as human beings experience the world which is God’s creation. The peculiar exactness of God’s instructions as to the building of the mikdash is not a sign of God’s own interest in architectural design, but rather a response to a very human way of ordering the world and of making it meaningful. God commands it because He knows our nature – this is for our need.

In order to make ordinary things holy – a tent, a curtain, a table, a lamp – we are asked to make them ourselves, out of materials we have given freely (which is the meaning of the word “terumah,” a free-will offering), the finest which may be available, and in a way which is unlike ordinary things. This is necessary in order for us to understand the extraordinary, the indwelling of God among us, which transforms the everyday earth into holy ground.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cuter than your average mongoose

On my way to work, I bike through the parking lot of a local Catholic girls' school. The ride is mostly downhill from home to work, so I tend to do most of my observing on the way home, when it's uphill all the way and I'm moving slower. Still, this morning as I zipped along, I noticed something moving under the carriage of a pickup truck up ahead. As I drew nearer, three baby mongoose, the size of chipmunks, nose to tail, trotted across my path. The last one turned to watch me as I went by, too young to be afraid.

There is ordinarily nothing particularly cute about a mongoose, a ginger-colored weasel-like animal with red eyes. But these, it must be conceded, were adorable. Too bad I didn't have the camera.