Monday, August 15, 2011

summer reading

In anticipation of my potato focaccia – pranzo di ferragosto – and for an overall lack of inspiration to actually write anything, I’ll use others’ words – in a copyright infringement-free way – in this post. It’s a long one, Mom, but if you can get through it you may be able to forget the worst part of summer – the relentless, unbearable heat – and appreciate it the way I have these past several weeks.

I’ve been meaning to explain why I named this blog A Tomato, an Adventure pretty much since I started it nearly three months ago.

A confession: My name is Julia, and I’m a tomato addict. My tomato intake – which had slowly increased these past few months in anticipation of that perfect summer tomato – has increased exponentially, mostly because of their ridiculous deliciousness, but partly because I know that within several more weeks, I’ll be eating the last fresh tomatoes until next year. I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway. One of the things I’ve learned so far is that when it comes to food, I’m not a freak, and I’m not alone. It’s a wonderful but strange thing to be constantly surrounded by people who love to eat, cook, and talk about food as much as I do, and do so almost exclusively. We’ve become enablers of our own indulgences both great and small, for better or for worse. Seriously, what group of girls salivates over food porn on a Friday night? I’m not quite sure how I’ll function once I’m thrown back in the real world. I don’t want to talk about it.

But even before coming to UniSG, I knew there were others like me; reading Gourmet Rhapsody – a brilliant novel by Muriel Barbery – even taught me that my case of food obsession is a mild one, and that I do not possess a fraction of the skill needed to convey why I love food the way I do. So I’ll use her words.

The novel is about a famed French restaurant critic who, on his death bed, is in search of a certain perfect flavour from his past. It’s got a rosebud/madeleine-esque quality about it. Written from the perspectives of different people and objects in this man’s life, it explores the connection between nostalgia, food, and memory that I find infinitely interesting. In this excerpt, the protagonist is describing his aunt and his relationship with the glorious tomato.

Her acute discernment swept over the surface of the vegetable garden and measured its climate in a microsecond that no ordinary perception of time could detect – and she knew. She knew as surely and with the same nonchalance as if I had said, The weather is fine, she knew which of these little red globes had to be picked now. In her dirty hand, deformed by work in the fields, there it sat: crimson in its taut silken finery, undulating with the occasional more tender hollow, with a communicable cheerfulness about it like a plumpish woman in her party dress hoping to compensate for the inconvenience of her extra pounds by means of a disarming chubbiness evoking an irresistible desire to bite into her flesh. Sprawled on the bench beneath the linden tree, lulled by the low murmuring of the leaves, I woke from a voluptuous nap, and beneath this canopy of sugary honey I bit into the fruit, I bit into the tomato.

In salads, baked, in ratatouille, in preserves, grilled, stuffed, cherry, candied, big and soft, green and acidic, honored with olive oil or coarse salt or wine or sugar or hot pepper, crushed, peeled, in a sauce, in a stew, in a foam, even in a sorbet: I thought I had thoroughly covered the matter and on more than one occasion I wrote pieces inspired by the greatest chefs’ menus claiming that I had penetrated its secret. What an idiot, what a pity…I invented mysteries where there were none, in order to justify my perfectly pathetic m├ętier. What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing of the truth, cares little for the heart, and is merely subservient to the pleasure of showing one’s brilliance? And yet I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of Aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of the refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil. Sugar, water, fruit, pulp, liquid, or solid? The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin – slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yields of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corner’s of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.

This is a poem written by Delmore Schwartz. I’m not familiar with his career or work, but a friend from school shared this poem with us several nights ago. Again, it’s perfect for this time of year, especially coming from two weeks working in the summer heat and enjoying its abundance.

Summer Knowledge

Summer knowledge is not the winter's truth, the truth of fall,

the autumn's fruition, vision and recognition:

It is not May knowledge, little and leafing and growing green,

blooming out and blossoming white,

It is not the knowing and the knowledge of the gold fall and

the ripened darkening vineyard,

Nor the black tormented, drenched and rainy knowledge of birth,

April, and travail,

The knowledge of the womb's convulsions, and the coiled cord's

ravelled artery, severed and cut open,

as the root forces its way up from the dark loam:

The agony of the first knowledge of pain is worse than death,

or worse than the thought of death:

No poppy, no preparation, no initiation, no illusion, only

the beginning, so distant from all knowledge

and all conclusion, all indecision and all illusion.

Summer knowledge is green knowledge, country knowledge,

the knowledge of growing and the supply recognition

of the fullness and the fatness and the roundness of ripeness.

It is bird knowledge and the knowing that trees possess when

The sap ascends to the leaf and the flower and the fruit,

Which the root never sees and the root believes in the darkness

and the ignorance of winter knowledge

—The knowledge of the fruit is not the knowledge possessed

by the root in its indomitable darkness of ambition

Which is the condition of belief beyond conception of

experience or the gratification of fruition.

Summer knowledge is not picture knowledge, nor is it the

knowledge of lore and learning.

It is not the knowledge known from the mountain's height, it

is not the garden's view of the distant mountains of hidden fountans;

It is not the still vision in a gold frame, it is not the

measured and treasured sentences of sentiments;

It is cat knowledge, deer knowledge, the knowledge of the

full-grown foliage, of the snowy blossom and the rounding fruit.

It is the phoenix knowledge of the wine and grape near

summer's end, when the grape swells and the apple reddens:

It is the knowledge of the ripening apple when it moves to the

fullness of the time of falling to rottenness and death.

For summer knowledge is the knowledge of death as birth,

Of death as the soil of all abounding flowering flaring rebirth.

It is the knowledge of the truth of love and the truth of growing:

it is the knowledge before and after knowledge:

For, in a way, summer knowledge is not knowledge at all: it is

second nature, first nature fulfilled, a new birth

and a new death for rebirth, soaring and rising out

of the flames of turning October, burning November,

the towering and falling fires, growing more and

more vivid and tall

In the consummation and the annihilation of the blaze of fall.

So go out, enjoy summer, read more Muriel Barbery and Delmore Schwartz, and gather ye tomatoes while ye may.