giovedì, luglio 31, 2008

God is a gentleman

So. Wading through the Graham Greene compilation, slowly-like; treated myself to a re-read of The Quiet American, read the Stamboul Train (that's one of his light books? Jesus, depressive fucker), and really enjoyed The Heart of the Matter. Well, enjoyed might be the wrong word. It struck a chord and locked me in, that's for damn sure - one of his Catholic books, and the most defensive, the most lapsed of them all . . . it seems he dedicated it to the very Catholic wife (and their children together) that he abandoned, the very same year as the abandonment. Charming fucker. Such a fucking selfish thing. How else is one supposed to see such a dedication as anything but 'I'm already under such mental and moral torment over my choices that I risk suicide, so don't try to make me feel any worse about leaving you for tail.'

Anyways, if artist's personalities mattered I wouldn't even want to make eye contact with a Michaelangelo, right? The heart of the matter is that it's a good book for Catholics, though not a good Catholic book. What's staying with me now in terms of the Catholicism of it all at this point is the George Orwell review I read soon afterwards. I found it very strange - very angry - very hostile, even offended. Full of little factual errors in his outline of the story, and so very literal in its sarcasm - 'he had gone to what he believed to be certain damnation out of pure gentlemanliness.' Ignoring the point that Scobie had not been a pure gentleman; that Greene had obviously not been trying to draw a portrait of a pure gentleman, but rather of a fatally weak man who could drive himself to suicide over a love affair. But then George Orwell was always so literal in his writing - sure, Animal Farm was an allegory, but have you ever read another allegory that was so laboured in making it clear who it was attacking?

Take this point: 'The central idea of the book is that it is better, spiritually higher, to be an erring Catholic than a virtuous pagan.' What an interesting reaction. As an ethnic Catholic reading the book, I have no idea how a non-Catholic could draw this conclusion. There's an idea that Scobie himself believed this perhaps - that Scobie believed his very Catholic pride and his pity for others distinguished him from the people around him. And yet Scobie, who hated the idea of suicide on an ideological level, drove himself to suicide through this pride and this pity. I couldn't think where you draw the idea of the book arguing a bad Catholic is better than a good non-Catholic unless a non-Catholic reader resents the degree of attention that Greene focuses on the process of a bad Catholic driving himself to destruction.

It seems like an offended review - Orwell suggests Greene is snobby, that he subscribes to the idea of hell being an exclusive nightclub; he sarcastically suggests that Greene's 'Catholics retain their superiority, since they alone know the meaning of good and evil.' (And he somehow maintains this defensiveness alongside an attack on Greene for making his underclass characters too thoughtful, too pre-occupied with notions of right and wrong!)

But what seems to offend Orwell is that which is the charm of the Catholic novel, and a sign not of the superiority of Catholicism (oh no, I won't way a word about their superiority, I did a runner to the Quakers and I'm glad) but a sign of what makes Catholics special: an obsession with guilt and redemption on a daily basis that other ethnic Christians have not managed (to their benefit no doubt) to hang on to. Catholics, if they're good Catholics, centre their faith around the notion of being imperfect and of apologizing adequately to God for their imperfection. The Catholic God is a forgiving and just God, but only if you can present your sins before Him, only if you can repent from the bottom of your heart for those sins; only if you want to be perfect.

And this is the tragedy of Catholics, and the tension at the heart of the Catholic novel: nobody is perfect. And believing you know what perfection is, or at least being faced with your own imperfections on a daily basis, becomes an intolerable burden. Because feeling guilty about knowing you're imperfect and pitying the victims of your imperfection isn't going to make you more noble - less tempted to lie, less tempted to fuck around, less tempted to accommodate the people you care about even if doing so is not quite kosher. It takes nobility and goodness to be a noble, good person - not guilt, not pity - and frankly I had thought it was obvious that was the point of the Heart of the Matter.

So it was interesting to read the Orwell review, which seemed to ignore that entirely. Is the tragedy of wanting to be perfect but usually managing no more than guilt and pity a particularly Catholic mental problem whose exploration would really be so offensive and alienating to other people? And how do other ethnic Christians manage to avoid this mental problem? Do all those American born-agains whose sins are washed away all of a sudden in a fucking fantastic baptism face this problem, or can such a powerful event when you're a grownup make you feel so close to God that you can ignore your imperfections in the glow of His glory? It would certainly explain the Bush presidency . . .

mercoledì, luglio 30, 2008

Well, I'll tell you

Last night I had a remarkably bad night's sleep, and I'll just share one of the markers of how bad it was. At about three in the morning, I half-woke-up from a doze utterly confused. The room was backwards. The window was where the door should have been and vice versa; there was an inexplicable drop between my side of the bed and the F-word's, and when I stretched the headboard had disappeared. I lay there wondering just how status quo this all was and didn't realize what had happened until I got up for a drink of water: I had occupied my boyfriend's side of the bed, and had been lying feet-to-the-headboard. I'm sure both that that hadn't been the case before falling into a doze, and that I have never. Ever. Done anything like that before.

It would be a lie to say I'm under more stress than ever before. Obviously that was the wrap-up of my thesis, or its actual defense, or the French oral exams, or something else to do with France. But one thing I can say is that I've never been with a man who I loved as much as I love this one while being under this much stress, and it adds a whole new dimension because I don't want to subject him to it, but we have a degree of intimacy that gives the illusion of giving me no choice. When I was single or indifferent I could come home and be a miserable asshole without thinking it a problem. But now I have to keep it inside, or express it differently, or walk it off, or something. I know I need to find some way to deal, because while I was lying there utterly confused about why the room was backwards and the headboard had disappeared, I obscurely but honestly blamed the F-word for it.

The truth is I like my job more than any other job I've had, but my brain is turning into a first-grader who's tired of math class and wants to go back to the craft table. Why go to all the trouble of educating me and giving me books and an imagination and some sort of aesthetic sense if at the end of it I was going to be the efficient cog in a corporate machine I know does more harm than good? And it throws me to the navel-gazing, middle-class, but thus far irrefuted conclusion - what the hell else did I think it was preparing me for? What else do I think the people who loved me and educated me wanted for me besides this sort of security and upward mobility? And what else do I expect unless I grow a pair and risk hurting them with my choices?

And these are my problems, my decisions, my rhetorical questions to answer; it's unfair to take any frustrations from it out on the F-word, or even on the people who loved me and educated me right into the situation I'm in today, and for whom my unconscious seems to be making the F-word the proxy. They were all doing their best, and the F-word didn't do any of it; in fact, he's the right partner for the woman I want to be.

martedì, luglio 29, 2008

Cheating death, deliciously

Following yesterday's themes of severe icky condiment aversion, I should mention there's one other that I object to with better reason; I'm one of those people who die when they eat peanuts, so my acquaintance with peanut butter has been, shall we say, brief and violent. But before the collapses into infirmity, which haven't happened with peanut butter since I was 6 or so, peanut butter being an easyish thing to avoid, I enjoyed the texture, the neat-o way it stuck to my teeth and the top of my mouth. I'm not saying a lifetime of not being able to eat peanut butter is as bad as the fact that I can only go to Thai restaurants when I want to play a delicious, delicious game of Russian roulette. But I am saying it's been a lingering sadness in the back of my mind - no peanut butter for me.

Until this week, that is. An old friend who works for one of the big international organizations here (who, by the way, provided me with the juicy tidbit that Sarkozy is only 5'5 - in lifts), and who suffers from the same infirmity as me - though it came later in life, so her attachment to peanut butter is rather stronger - told me about this.

To really appreciate this discovery, you need to understand that speculoos biscuits are the best thing Belgium has to offer. I'm serious. The beer in Germany is better than here; the fries at North American burger joints are better than here; the mussels in northern France are better than here - there is nothing, culinary-wise, to miss about this place besides speculoos biscuits, which I already know I'll miss like crazy when we move on. Rich but dry crispy little cinnamon things that soak up your coffee in an instant and taste like paradise . . . And now they've turned it into a spreadable paste. With the same consistency as peanut butter.

lunedì, luglio 28, 2008

Gazpacho Soup Day

After almost three decades of avoiding gazpacho soup, yesterday I had it twice - first from the premium brand, and then from this recipe. Yeah, I know I linked to it yesterday, but I'm linking to it again today, damnit, because it was good. A taste sensation unlike any other I have ever experienced, and yes, it does add a whole new dimension to Almodovar movies. And I had the good fortune to have Gazpacho Soup Day on that rarest of all Bruxellois days - a hot one. Definitely hot weather food.

I confess I hesitated both at lunchtime and at dinner to raise the gazpacho to my lips. I've found a way to love most of my old bugabears - eggplant, beetroot, brussel sprout, spinach, cabbage, zucchini. But there's one bugabear that I have no plans to rid myself of - a lifelong hate, a pathological phobia of ketchup, or catsup, or whatever the fuck you call that shit is that looks like blended bloody diarrhoea. The last time I accidentally put it in my mouth was a couple of years ago in Toronto when we went to a fantastic Tamil place in my darling Cabbagetown, Rashnaa - highly recomended. They brought out French's mustard (can't eat that shit either) swirled together with ketchup to dip our appetizers in, but the lighting was romantic, so not noticing the gross I dipped one of my ulunthu vadals - yeeurgh. I still mourn having to spit out a mouthful of ulunthu vadal. Anyways, I don't know why I hate ketchup and French's mustard and (now that I think about it) relish so much. It's not the snotty guinea in me because my clan uses that crap at barbeques. Probably more to do with societal distrust issues - I can't eat anything with a texture that fucking gross and scatologic if some corner-cutting company made it. God knows what they'd have put into it. Ugh. Does. Not. Bear. Thinking. About.

So I hesitated to try the gazpacho both in the afternoon and evening yesterday because it was processed tomato served cold, reminding me vaguely of ketchup or Bloody Marys, which I've always considered a shocking waste of cold crisp vodka taste. But I got over it and I'm glad I did. I recommend the pants off gazpacho in terms of helping you get through the heat of the summer, if you're lucky enough to have any.

domenica, luglio 27, 2008

Gazpacho Soup Eve

Desperately domestic weekend. One of those weekends where carrying out onerous household tasks feels like spoiling yourself. Maybe it was sparked by getting the first washing machine of my independent life. Before, it's been trips to laundromats or friends' houses or to some sort of communal piece of shit in an apartment complex's basement, but now it's ours and that means I can do the laundry naked. It's used, because we're cheap, we don't need it for the rest of our lives, and I have no wish to add to the world total of lingering white goods, but lovely.

So. Did umpteen loads of laundry, baked bread, scrubbed down the kitchen and bathroom, fleshed out our library from the charity shop (big Graham Greene compilation - presently reading Heart of the Matter and loving it - as well as Little Dorritt and The General in His Labyrinth, as I haven't read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez in years and years.)

And then another bushel of tomatoes from the back-of-the-truck market, which had a three-fold destiny: first, a great sauce cook-off for freezing and consuming over the next week or two, second, a smaller sauce for pasta alla norma for a dinner party, and third, gazpacho.

The pasta alla norma was really good and I adjusted the recipe from the typical slightly, so I'll record it here so I don't forget:

tomato sauce for five people
3 small eggplants
lots of salted bread crumbs
lots of olive oil
3/4 cup ricotta salata
1/2 cup basil

Chop the eggplants into one inch cubes, salt, and leave to drain. Rinse them off after an hour, toss in the breadcrumbs, and roast in a very hot oven on a preheated, olive-oiled dish until the right shade of brown and crispy enough to snack on. Heat the sauce while boiling enough pasta for five people, drain, oil so it doesn't get sticky, and stir roasted eggplants, ricotta salata, and basil into the sauce. Serve.

It's pretty normal besides the roasting of the eggplant, which I liked - not only because it takes less supervision and work than the usual semi-deep-frying, but also because it added a sweetness to the dish that went well with the salty-sourness of ricotta salata. It was also the first time I'd made the dish with ricotta salata, or even tried ricotta salata. It's a strange but charming cheese - sourish, as I mentioned, and with dense, chalky, moist consistency - and it changes the whole character of the dish from your standard rich cheese-and-veg binge to something altogether more interesting. Still bingey though.

For the gazpacho, I used this recipe, because I love soups based on roasted vegetables. The great hurdle in me constructing a gazpacho is that I'd never had gazpacho before so I'm not sure what it's supposed to taste like. But then in a remarkable episode of serendipity, the guests brought a premium brand of gazpacho over for an appetizer this weekend, which should at least give me an idea of what people think it should taste like when I get around to trying it, which for some reason I didn't at the dinner itself.

The gazpacho was inspired, by the way, from the heavy frequency of its mention and consumption in Almodovar movies. We watched another this weekend, Matador, and that starred gazpacho too. I didn't like the movie very much - thought it was a silly excuse to string together some good performances (Antonio Banderas impressive, again, as a neurotic little twitch factory, and Assumpta Serna absolutely perfect as an absolute carnivore) and some really effective images of violence, sex, and death with a childish story and other, cringeworthy performances. But afterwards I decided I'm just not going to appreciate Almodovar as he should be appreciated if I don't eat some fucking gazpacho.

Also, I'm going to write down the process for the bread I made, which turned out better than the last few batches - these things are a process of experimentation and it will take awhile before I find a process that I can settle down with, but this went very well indeed:

700 grammes whole spelt flour
500 grammes white wheat flour + extra
2 packets dry yeast (about two tablespoons)
2 cups hot water
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon cane sugar
1 teaspoon chunky salt

Mix 700 spelt, 500 wheat flour, and yeast. Mix water, olive oil, and sugar. And then mix them together with a spoon. When practicable, dump on the counter and knead for 15 minutes on a white-flour covered counter, adding white flour if it seems too sticky - end product must be smooth and stretchy without being sticky. Mix in the salt at this point, as you knead. After 15 minutes put it back in the mixing bowl, cover it with a clean cloth, and let double in size; cut into four pieces, shape them into loaves, and let those double in size in the loafpans; then bake at medium heat until the right colour and the right sort of hollowish sound when you tap them.

For the first time - maybe because I'd used spelt for the first time, or maybe because I usually use fresh yeast instead of dry yeast - the consistency was just right. Next time I'll do largely the same thing but with a loafpan inverse on top of the loafpan with the bread in it, as someone told me that makes the bread get a lovely crispy crust. The F-word thinks we can get the same effect by spraying the oven with a little water before putting the bread in, which sounds like rather less of a balancing act. We'll see.

And as you can see, the recipe above is very, very simple, in terms of ingredients and process, and it made me realize that the only point of a bread machine (which I've never had, so I could be completely wrong about this) is that it saves you the 'trouble' of kneading. But the kneading is my favourite part! What the hell is the point of making bread if you're not going to knead it? It makes the muscles under my tits feel bloody fantastic, not to mention my shoulders and triceps. I suppose most people have busier lives than I do, of course, especially when children come. But my parents had four kids, and one of them always found time to bake bread once a week, and they think bread machines are the height of capitalist domestic corruption - well, they would if they were a half-baked Marxist like me - I think what they actually called them was more of a waste of money.