Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good Grief, Ginger

Life is sadder than it has any right to be. Case in point, in the midst of a crisis I took the dog to High Park. The cherry trees were in blossom but not leaf so all you could see along the avenue was clouds of pink, so dense that their reflection tinged the surface of the bordering stream. It is hard to understand how life can contain so much pain and so many petals all within the compass of an hour’s walk.

I do not subscribe to the pseudo-philosophy that when life hands you lemons you should make lemonade. Along with Susanna Moodie, I believe it is always best to be about and doing, so at 6:30 in the morning I made a cake with powdered and finely chopped crystallized ginger. (Important tip, avoid flexible tube pans. They do not cook evenly, often resulting in overcooked outer edges and under done centres.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m no good at icing things over, so I favor cakes that don’t require it. Instead of icing, while the cake baked, I made crème fraiche ice cream. Let me pause here to recommend Liberté crème fraiche. It is sublime, great with pound cakes and buttermilk pancakes with berries. Here endeth the digression.

The tang of the ginger balanced the understated sweetness of the ice cream to create a combination that encapsulates my beliefs about sorrow better than any puckering lemonade ever could.

There are no sweet sorrows
I am not against hope. I don’t have a beef with optimism. But in the church of Positive-Thinking-in-Spite-of-the-Facts, I am a heretic. So it was with immense relief that I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, an examination of the cult of positive thinking and its unintended but toxic consequences.

Toxic Consequence #1: Blame the victim. Ehrenreich, who has had breast cancer, cites examples of support groups that expel members whose cancer recurs because they will bring the other members down. (Also, a qualified endocrinologist, she examines the mind-body connection in regards to health and finds it non-existant.)

Toxic Consequence #2: Reality is a buzz kill, dude. If the emperor has no clothes (and it ain’t pretty) and you say so, you can be fired for it. In the church of positive thinking criticism, no matter how constructive, is “bad attitude”.

Toxic Consequence #3: If the problem isn’t the problem, but our attitude towards it, the problem goes unaddressed. Remember the end of A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Present with the two waifs hiding under his robe, Ignorance and Want? Beware this consequence the most.

Ehrenreich is excellent on the twisted neo-science of mass-marketed positive thinking, but perhaps more importantly its morally corrosive effects.

My Antidote: Start with Keats’ Ode on Melancholy, then straight on to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Oh, and do some weeding and bake a cake or two. . . There is no attitudinal alchemy to make failure, loss, or betrayal palatable or lemons sweet. If there is a trick to truly making progress, to living a full life, it is not pretending otherwise.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Square Loaf in a Round Hole

Someone once described pain de mie as what Wonder Bread wishes it could be. To get this bread right has been a goal of mine since I was introduced to tramezzini, luscious over-stuffed sandwiches that I first encountered in Venice.

Tramezzini are never grilled like their skinny cousins the panini. You see heaps of them on display in bars, cut in triangles to reveal their plentiful fillings. It is understood that one would never order two halves with the same filling, any more than the Italian electorate would censure a politician for having a wife and a mistress. Such homogeneity would be an offense to the spirit of dolce vita, but as usual I digress.

Pain de mie should have a thin golden crust and tight, fine crumb. It doesn’t compete for attention, but is strong enough to hold up under the temptations of silky mayonnaise or a hunky slab of vine ripened tomato. I have tried two or three recipes, but was not truly happy with any of them.

Then I stumbled on a recipe by the venerable Beard. It produced a loaf of perfect proportions but unpleasant density. I scaled back the flour from 6 ½ cups to 4 and . . . perfection. Fun for a beginner, this bread is baked in a Pullman pan which is straight-sided with a sliding lid to give you a perfectly square loaf. I believe the name Pullman is a corruption of pain de mie, but I have also read that this bread was served on trains and christened in Pullman in honor of the cars (you will also see this bread called a Pullman loaf).

Give it a try. Slice it thin, fill your sandwich generously, then open wide and say mmmmmm.

Page turning podcasts redux

As promised, here are some more great book-related podcasts.

· NPR Topics: Books – this is a fiction and non-fiction potluck, with authors and topics drawn from all over the NPR network.

· World Book Club – BBC World Service – typically each episode features an author and one of their best known works, with an interview and readings followed by questions from the audience, via telephone and e-mail.

· Writers & Company – CBC Radio – Eleanor Wachtel is a national treasure who has introduced me to authors I would never have otherwise read including Nuala O’Faolain and David Leavitt, but it is Wachtel’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature and profound humanity that make these interviews so compelling.

Diana Athill is another author I would never have read if Eleanor Wachtel hadn’t pointed me in her direction. I began with her memoir Somewhere Near the End and just finished Yesterday Morning, her memoir of childhood. Stet – An Editor’s Life records her nearly 50 years as a director of André Deutsch where she worked with Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore to name a few. Stet, of course, is the now practically obsolete copy editor’s mark for “leave it in” and is as much a reflection of Athill’s honesty as her career.

She reminds me of Orwell in his essays and journalism. They are similar in their awareness of the privileges that are theirs by accident of birth and equally unembarrassed to record their experiences truthfully. They are different in that Athill records her pleasures with zest. She is also without self pity and therefore poignant about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – regardless of class – from the effects of being a child of unhappy parents to the losses that are part of aging.

If Diana Athill were my aunt, I can’t help feeling my parents wouldn’t have left me alone with her for the evening without providing a list of topics she was not to talk about, (probably prefaced with “for God’s sake” underscored with eye rolling). Since I no longer need a sitter, but am still eager for provocative observations and tales from a life well and fully lived, I look forward to learning from her latest book, Life Classes.