The Poet Meets Spaghetti


Charles Simic has a lovely mini-essay on the New York Review of Books website on how he came to love Italian food. Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938, grew up in the destruction of World War 2, and moved with his mother to Chicago in 1954.  There was little food to love in his childhood.  In one of his poems, he brags, “We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.” (The World Doesn’t End, 1989

Simic recounts how when he was 18 he got an apartment and a job, and a co-worker took him to an Italian restaurant.  The food was a revelation to him, and eventually changed his brag: “I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.”

That genial muse doesn’t appear so much in the early poems that touch on eating.  He wrote a trilogy about tableware utensils:


This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.

“Spoon” and “Knife” are equally malevolent

Wonderful poems, but not a place setting I want to sit down to. Later poems do celebrate the pleasures of the table, e.g., “Crazy about Her Shrimp.” There is a great Paris Review interview where Simic produced, on a moment’s notice, a Grand Unified Theory of Food and Poetry:


On the other hand, one of the main pleasures of your work, for me anyway, is the way it reminds us of all the ordinary pleasures of life, and urges us, or rather  invites us, to enjoy them while we still can—things such as fried shrimp, tomatoes, roast lamb, red wine . . .


Don’t forget sausages sautéed with potatoes and onions! It’s also highly advisable to have a philosopher or two on hand. A few pages of Plato while working  on a baked ham. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus over a bowl of spaghetti with littleneck clams. We think best when we bring opposites together, when we realize that all these realities, one inside the other, are somehow connected. That’s how the wonder and amazement that are so necessary to both poetry and philosophy come about. A “truth” detached and purified of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen—and then in bed, of course.

Simic assmbled fifty years of poems in the recent New and Selected Poems, 1962 – 2012. Simic’s world is often described as surreal, but his diction is highly accessible. In the same interview, Simic said, “I wanted something seemingly artless and pedestrian to surprise the reader by conveying so much more. In other words, I wanted a poem a dog can understand.”

Highly recommended for all species.

-Mel Nezzo

Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 9:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Weekend Reading: Stonemouth


The Friday snatchabook bagged two.  One of the pair would surely work.  And sure enough we found ourself settling in at once with Iain Banks’s Stonemouth which was full of crime but not a – you know – crime novel for those of you who think there are too many police procedures cranking through this mildly interesting blog.  The eponym would be a Scottish town somewhere up the coast from Aberdeen where two families have the drug trade sewed up even as North Sea oil has generously replaced the fishing trade.  Stewart, the narrator, is a man in his twenties who, through his own screwup, has managed to run horribly afoul of the larger and nastier of the families but who has been allowed a pass to return to Stonemouth for a funeral.

The language is Scottish, which to our thick ear, is way more comprehensible than the underclass Australian we had to hack through in the Peter Temple a couple of weeks ago.  We liked Stonemouth well enough that we’ll be digging up other Bankses as soon as we finish Breaking Point, the C.J. Box that was the insurance thriller in the bag.  It’s kind of fun.  The villains are top level EPA officials.

-Nemo Wolfe

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

While we’ve got you in a “looking at photos on Facebook” mood…


… why not look at these photos on Facebook?  They were taken a few weekends ago by friend-of-the-Mercantile Andy Houston.

Very well done, Andy. Thanks.

-Norm De Plume

Published in: on September 13, 2013 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Grandparents Day 2013

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Even though roughly 87% of those in attendance knew in advance how the story was going to end,  Stevens Puppets’ performance of Sleeping Beauty at our sold out Grandparents Day event on September 7 was a huge hit.

You can see more photographic evidence on our Facebook page.

-Norm De Plume

Published in: on September 12, 2013 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

The Long View

holy mtThe tragic conflict in Syria had me thinking about a 1998 book, by the  English writer William Dalrymple, based on a much earlier book. In the year 587 , John Moschos, a Syrian monk, and exact contemporary of Mohammed,  walked from Palestine to Egypt, and later Syria and Turkey, visiting centers of monastic culture, and wrote about his travels in a book called The Spiritual MeadowFourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple set out to follow those footsteps, and wrote From the Holy Mountain, recording the vanishing evidence of a civilization.  It’s a terrific example of the English travel history genre. Dalrymple stayed for a while in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, a continuous urban center for six or seven thousand years, and visited the 13th century souk, the largest such covered market in the world. An Armenian businessman told him: “After Assad’s death or resignation no one knows what will happen. As long as the bottle is closed with a firm cork all is well. But eventually the cork will come out. And then no one knows what will happen to us.” That was fifteen years ago, and a different Assad.  Last year the Aleppo souk was largely destroyed in fighting.  As the world now knows, chemical weapons killed many hundreds on the outskirts of Damascus. The practice of fasting has been observed by all peoples in this part of the world for millennia. It is part of the Yom Kippur observance this week; Pope Francis called last week for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria.  One could do worse, much worse.

-Mel Nezzo

Published in: on September 10, 2013 at 9:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Weekend Reading: Rage Against the Dying

rageWe have never been to the American Southwest, so we can’t vouch for the accuracy of Becky Masterson’s scenery in her debut crime novel Rage Against the Dying.  But we have been to middle age.  Possibly even through it.  So we can tell our blog faithful that Ms Masterson, whose heroine is an early retired FBI agent married to a widowed Jesuit that the portraits of late middle age are pretty much on the money.  This is a book that will be wasted on the young who probably won’t pick it up anyway.  But it’s what we grabbed on a weekend shortened by – appropriately – Grandparents Day at the Library, and, as it turned out, we grabbed well.  As with any first crime novel there’s rather more meat than the bones can handle (way too many serial crime murders), but Masterson will get over it.  And we have to say that she makes Arizona, where we’ve never had the slightest urge to go, seem a little more like a place to go.  Not just the home of that megalomaniac sheriff who’s far too often in the news.

-Nemo Wolfe

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Read it and Eat

hrtbrnThe first novel cum recipes I remember was  Heartburn.  When the Nora Ephron character threw a key lime pie at the Carl Bernstein character, the recipe appeared at the end of the chapter.    There were twelve recipes, among them mashed potatoes (to treat lovesick blues), bacon hash, cheesecake, brisket.  Homely dishes befitting the breakup-of-a- home story. But I wasn’t, and still am not, particularly tempted to make any of them, except perhaps for the brisket, for which one cannot have too many preparations.

redsparrowHeartburn was brought to mind by reading Jason Matthew’s superior thriller Red Sparrow, recently recommended here.  The author, a thirty year CIA operative, no doubt ate and cooked widely through Europe, especially the eastern reaches.  it seems espionage cannot occur without delicious food, and each chapter of the book ends with a sketch of a recipe.

Early in the book, there is a terrific recipe for patè, of which I am inordinately fond, especially if homemade.  James Beard had a simple and rich chicken liver patè that could be knocked off in thirty or forty minutes, involving little more than shallots, livers, brandy and cold butter. I’ve lost the recipe and haven’t made it in a decade.  I will make up for that by putting together “Ustinov’s Rustic Patè,” served by a Russian oligarch to cinch the seduction of the beautiful Red Sparrow of the title. It works, but a fate worse than indigestion awaits Gaspadin Ustinov.  Here is the recipe in its entirety:

Caramelize chicken livers, pancetta, and garlic, then deglaze pan with brandy.  Hand-chop mixture with parsley, capers, shallots, lemon zest, and olive oil into a coarse texture.  Add additional olive oil. Serve on toast.

A sketch rather than a recipe proper, but easy enough to guess quantites.  Perhaps a pound or more of chicken livers,  two or three ounces pancetta, two or three cloves garlic, a quarter cup brandy, two tablespoons each parsley, capers and shallots, the zest and juice of one lemon, and just enough olive oil.  That’s about what I’ll try once patè season  gets started. You could skip the pancetta and bring it to Yom Kippur break fast.  Let us know.

Mr. Matthew’s writing is evocative and subtle. The food never calls attention to itself in the narrative, and the recipes very effectively (they don’t get get caught up in details) call up the events and setting.  There are twenty or thirty of them, including: Sparrow School Tokmach (Noodle) Soup; Jean-Jacques Beef Stew Dijonnaise; Kaddo Bowrani – Afghan Pumpkin; Shchi – Russian Cabbage Soup; Pasta con le Sarde; Golov’s Egg Lemon Lamb Stew; Grybnoy Sup – Mushroom Soup; Taverna Xinos Papoutsakia (Stuffed Eggplant); Estonian Beet Salad – Rosolji.

Prijatnovo appetita!

-Mel Nezzo

Published in: on September 4, 2013 at 9:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Weekend Reading: Crazy Rich Asians


We have the Non- Blogger to thank for the recommendation to read Crazy Rich Asians.  She told us it would take no time at all to read and that we would enjoy it.  It took us four hours and we did, however self-consciously until we – well into the book – realized that crazy modifies rich rather than Asians.  Kevin Kwan, who wrote it, seems to have grown up – if not crazy rich himself – amongst the crazy rich in Singapore where most of the book takes place, so he must know what he is talking about.  Our own modest Midwestern readership is likely to find itself reeling within the first few chapters.  So much money.  So many clothes.  But the N-B was right.  It’s entertaining.

We will note that our own experience with Singapore was in 1969 just after the handoff from the Brits when the whole place was a backwater.  We had the best steak we have ever eaten on the recommendation of a cabbie.  All the cabs were Benzes even then.

-Nemo Wolfe

Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Perfect Guest



There have been many wonderful guests in the Library in the long life of this institution.  It is hard to imagine that any visit will surpass the pleasure of Seamus Heaney’s.  He was a man without airs.  An Irishwoman we know said that Northern Irish people were foreigners, but in our view Mr. Heaney, an Ulsterman, was the quintessence of all that is remarkable and fine in Irish literature and that he was no stranger anywhere English is spoken.

Go read some poetry.

-Nemo Wolfe

Published in: on August 30, 2013 at 10:09 am  Comments (3)  

Reality Bytes

What do the MTV Video Music Video Awards and Madden NFL have in common?  Both were subjects of critiques in the August 27, New York Times that offered reflections on “reality”.  The best way to engage with the VMA show, we read, was not to actually watch the show, but to “follow on Twitter the slanderous jokes and instantly available GIFs of memorable moments.”  Madden NFL is “not fake.  It’s football.”  It’s not “media about sport,” it’s sport, according to the Times critique.

Reading the Arts section was suddenly like living the “subtext” scene in “Barcelona”:

Our beloved Enquirer offered on the same day a heartland reminder that the pursuit of virtual reality  isn’t so novel.  It reported, in Jack Webb style, (sans subtext) that 500 pounds of psilocybin mushrooms had been seized in Clermont County.  500 pounds …

-Alfred E.  Numen

Published in: on August 29, 2013 at 10:16 am  Comments (1)