Embodied Belgium


Many Belgians, I’m told, dispute the proposition that Belgium makes sense as a single entity, and argue that the country should be carved up. Last week, Rachel and I visited friends in Mechelen, who also took us on day trips to Ghent and Antwerp. But even though we were in Rubens country, the more southerly spirit of Brueghel was never too far away, either. Five days and three cities don’t give me much of a basis for generalization, so I’ll just say I was impressed by a seeming obsession with bodies and embodiment, which I found evidence for almost everywhere I looked. Continue reading “Embodied Belgium”

Ichigo Ichie (one lifetime, one encounter)

A tea gathering cannot be repeated, and the host and guests feel that this is an encounter that can only occur once in a lifetime.
glossary, Japanese Tea Culture: The Omotesenke Tradition

The room isn’t right: too bright, too perfect,
despite its location in the most venerable
Zen temple in all Kyoto.
The one white lily is a cliché.
And the participants are far too numerous:
15 more than the optimal five.
Examining the implements cannot fail
to become a perfunctory exercise.
The wealthy ladies of the tea ceremony club
from Sakai—hometown of Sen no Rikyū—
sigh for the lack of wabi & sabi.
But then their special guest, a tall,
funny-looking foreigner, enters the room
& hits his head against a ceiling beam
with a satisfying thump.
He grins foolishly & everyone laughs.

How like Daruma now the kettle appears,
round & stolid! And the bamboo whisk
marooned in the dark bowl—how at home!
The foreigner settles into place
& the circle tightens a little
as everyone strains to hear his murmured Japanese,
so beautifully flawed.

Baby Carrots

This entry is part 30 of 34 in the series Small World


As if carrots were yeast cells,
reproducing through budding:
the baby an adorably rounded
chip off the old block.
This triumph of marketing
has in fact reversed a trend
toward shorter carrots, because
of course the long ones can yield
as many as four “babies” each.
But are they infantile enough
to compete with junk food?
One ad psychologist recommends
dusting them with powder —
not Johnson & Johnson but
something orange, like Cheetos.
Carrot breeders lament
that selecting for succulence
makes them brittle as glass.
They can crunch in the mouth
but they mustn’t shatter —
they’re not bombs.
And a faint trace of bitterness
must remain, or the consumer
no longer perceives them
as true carrots. Authenticity is key,
along with air-tight packaging.
I struggle to open a bag, & find
I’m all thumbs.

Sources: “Digging the baby carrot” and “Baby carrots take on junk food with hip marketing campaign.”

Salt Crystals

This entry is part 23 of 34 in the series Small World


In my last dream before waking, I was trying to explain why I felt that coherent ideologies, religions and philosophies do more harm than good: somehow, in trying to make the world make sense, they flatten out experience & dull the mind. It’s like salt, I said. Imagine if everything you ate had to be salty, to the point where you couldn’t taste anything else: no sweet, no sour, no bitter, no umami, no thousand subtle flavors.

Yet salt is so easy to worship, its crystals so translucent, such perfect little cubes. Ah, salt! I said, losing sight of my argument & waking up. When I used to watch sumo wrestling, my favorite part was the ritual tossing of salt, little guessing that this show of purification hid a culture of corruption. Meat that is already rotten can’t be cured.

Going to the shower, I thought of Grettir Asmundarson, the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, done in by sorcery and a gangrenous infection that climbed from his foot to his intestines, decapitated by his enemies & his huge head stored overwinter in salt, the whole story captured in a saga’s unadorned prose. Perfect cubes, inviolable rooms.

The world does mostly taste of salt, because much of the world is ocean, even our bodies, I said to myself as I got dressed. Then I fixed some breakfast — two fried eggs — & found myself reaching first for the pepper.

How to cook

This entry is part 35 of 39 in the series Manual


Know your ingredients. Take them out for drinks.

Follow recipes as closely as you can without being detected. Wear a disguise if necessary.

Buy fresh, buy local. If you are broke, search only in the ripest dumpsters and patronize your local food bank.

Ashes can be substituted for black pepper in a pinch.

Never challenge an onion to a game of strip poker.

Give names to each of your knives and talk to them frequently. This will guarantee few interruptions while you work.

Don’t serve anything you wouldn’t eat yourself. If you enjoy pain and humiliation, for example, feel free to serve a knuckle sandwich.

When cooking with gas starts to lose its luster, try turning into a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of smoke by night.

There are only three bodily secretions you should consider cooking with: milk, blood, and tears. The last is an excellent seasoning for pork.

Open sesame with a mortar and pestle. Magic imparts a sour taste.

Sing to pickled things in a minor key.

Never buy processed foods. Instead, stock up on artificial sweeteners, preservatives and stabilizers and make your own.

The rituals of food preparation can imbue your everyday life with holiness. Visualize each muscle in your body as a choice, sacrificial cut of meat.

Like the O’odham Indians, go on an annual pilgrimage for salt.

Artisinal bread is simply bread that has been shouted at.

Keep a dog under the table at all times.

Add more garlic.

Asking the big questions

I have two new, short posts up in the Brewing section of my eponymous website: “What is gruit?” and — even more basic — “What is beer?” In both cases, I kind of feint and dodge. Beer terminology, like brewing itself, is gloriously imprecise, and that’s one reason why I like it. I tried winemaking for a little while, but the results were not too impressive. It turns out that you need a fanatic attention to detail to make decent wine. With brewing, as I proved to my own satisfaction last October, you can avoid measuring anything, throw in extra ingredients on a whim, and still end up with a drinkable beer.

How are these “big questions”? Let the Raramuri — these guysexplain:

“God taught the Raramuri how to make corn beer,” says Guadalupe Espino Palma, the traditional governor of the Norogachi district. “We make offerings of tesguino to God himself, and He drinks it also. We use tesguino for dancing, and we enjoy drinking it.” Even getting drunk is a spiritual act, he explains.


And during this corn beer communion, in place of “happy Easter,” the Raramuri will say to one another “bosasa” — “fill up, be satisfied, be contented.”

How to eat

This entry is part 2 of 39 in the series Manual


Download the MP3

Cultivate an appetite through rigorous exercise of the organs of speech.

Grow root vegetables and, if possible, talons.

Salivation is important, but in most cases it will not be necessary to consume the saliva of other creatures, e.g. in the form of Aerodramus swiftlet nests.

Go to the ocean—primal eater—and watch how it wags its tongue.

Make sure the bread and the soup are singing in the same key.

Beware of the sea cucumber, which turns itself inside-out to avoid becoming a meal.

The best food is the most obvious: a fan never runs out of air to chew.

If the meat is rotten, eat the maggots.

Forks to the left, spoons to the right and a steak knife’s macron over the dish’s O.

Oxidation is too unpredictable. Use gastric acid and fermentation.

Set an extra place at your table for the anthropologist with the most delectable buttocks.

Organ Meats: A Primer

This entry is part 9 of 29 in the series Conversari


Pennsylvania Dutch used to celebrate Thanksgiving
not with a turkey but the stuffed
stomach of a hog.

When eating smalahove—Norwegian sheep’s head—
the ear & eye must be consumed while still piping hot,
before their abundant fat starts to congeal.

Belgians prefer their cow tongues warm
and their pig tongues cold
with a vinaigrette.

Testicles are among the most versatile of foods,
delicious sautéed & sauced,
fricasseed, battered & deep-fried, put in pies,
poached or roasted.
The penis, or pizzle, is mostly
just fed to dogs.

According to the Talmud, tractate Berachoth,
the spleen is the seat not of anger or melancholy
but laughter. The Greeks roast it
over an open fire: splinantero.

Eating humble pie originally meant
eating a meat pie made with umbles,
originally numbles: those glistening parts
in which no one takes much pride.

Sweetbreads, which are offal,
should not be confused
with sweetmeats, which are mere confections.

I hate your guts, we say
to someone so detested
even their innocent viscera seem repulsive.

The lungs when put
to culinary use
are called lights.


Updated 1/25/12 to add a new sixth stanza, prompted by a comment from rr, as well as a new eighth stanza.

Rachel’s photographic response: “Brain.”

Shrimp Salad

Prawns or shrimp? The cat likes them
either way. We find him on the counter
with a large piece of red onion
& a lettuce leaf in his mouth, a sudden
fan of salads. The cat is a true eccentric
& quite sure he is a dog, while
the dog of course thinks she is
a human. And we humans are the most
curious of all: we believe
we are what we eat, though it’s seldom
that we’re present for the eating.
If we eat a salad, we’re already looking
forward to the dessert. Omnivores,
dwellers in the benthic zone, we have
an unusual tolerance for toxins.
Our strongest muscles pull us rapidly
away from wherever we happen
to find ourselves, which we watch
recede into something no larger
than a shrimp.