Out of the eater

This past weekend, at our blogger conclave, I brought up the subject of positive valuations of female avoirdupois in country blues songs from the 20s and 30s. Since apparently the phrase “pigmeat mama” isn’t as widely known as it should be, I decided to Google it and came up with the following. Sexology and ethnography are always funnier in German – especially if, like me, you don’t actually know German.

Die Figur der Big Fat Mama ist dem oriental-afrikanischen Schönheitsideal entlehnt. Damit war keineswegs eine formlose und anerotisch-fettleibige Frau gemeint, sondern eher eine groíŸe, deren weibliche Kurven bis an die Grenze der Ertrí¤glichkeit ausgebildet waren. GroíŸer, schwingender Busen, ausgebildeter Bauchtí¤nzerinnen-Hüftspeck, breit ausladende, gebí¤rfreudige Hüften, massiv-pralle Schenkel, groíŸe FüíŸe und einen provokativ aufreizenden Gang. Tommy Johnson besang diesen Frauentyp folgenderart: “Big Fat Mama, meat shakin’ on her bones and everytime she shake it, some skinny girl goin’ lose the home”. Blind Lemon Jefferson singt von einer “Heavy Hip Mama”, die die Mí¤nner so lange ausnahm, bis ihr alles in der Nachbarschaft gehörte, wí¤hrend Ed Bell, ein Alabama-Bluesman von einer Frau berichtet: “She makes the blind man see and the dumb man call his name”. Auch Prediger und Geistliche waren vor der Unwiderstehlichkeit stramm-üppiger Weiblichkeit nicht gefeit: “She makes the preacher put his bible down” und Son House sang: “I got me religion on this very day, but womens and whisky would’nt let me pray”….

Die manchmal respektlosen Bezeichnungen, die man Frauen zudachte, hatten oft mit ihrer Stellung in der lí¤ndlichen Gesellschaftsstruktur zu tun und waren nicht immer abwertend gemeint. Beginnt man mit der “Milkcow”, wie sie durch Kokomo Arnold, Big Bill Broonzy, oder Son House besungen wird, beschreibt durchaus eine Art von existentieller Wichtigkeit. “…ain’t had no milk an butter, since my cow been gone”, oder “…if you see my milkcow, please drive her home”. Milk and Butter konnte eine Sexmetapher sein, aber auch Liebe und persönliche Obsorge. Doch es hieíŸ auch “Strange bull in the pasture.”, wenn Gefahr von einem Rivalen drohte, oder die Angetraute im Verdacht stand, fremdzugehen. Ehemuffel, die sich bloíŸ auf den GenuíŸ erotischer Abenteuer beschrí¤nken wollten, meinten lakonisch: “Why buy a cow, if I can get milk under the fence”. Frauen, die eher nymphomanischen Charakter hatten, waren bloíŸ “Pigmeat”, Schweinefleisch. Aber was bedeutete die “Pigmeat Mama” bei Blind Lemon, wenn er sang:” I got a call this mornin’, my pigmeat mama was dead.” Lemon ruft den Doktor, aber der sagt, daíŸ sein Pigmeat ganz gesund sei, aber “…she done gone dead on you”, also ihre Liebe war gestorben. In einem anderen Lied stellt Blind Lemon fest:” I love my baby, just like a farmer loves his jersey cow…”, wohl eine Reizzeile für moderne Emanzen. Wer setzt da eine Kuh mit dem Wert und der Würde einer Frau gleich. Die Kuh war oft das Einzige, was ein armer Pí¤chter besaíŸ und eine Frau war oft leichter zu bekommen, als eine Kuh. Ob es Liebe im höheren Sinne gab, kann ich nicht sagen, denn das Leben war für die Schwarzen so hart, daíŸ sie mit dem Existenzkampf und dem Damoklesschwert des Rassismus soviel Probleme hatten, daíŸ der Alltag nur rudimentí¤r-primitives Denken zulieíŸ.

Here’s a translation by Babelfish. (The robot assumes that the entire text is German; thus, the quotes in English are also “translated” to the best of its ability.)

The figure of the Big Fat mummy is taken to the oriental African ideal of beauty. Thus by any means an informal and anerotisch fettleibige woman was not meant, but rather a large, whose female curves to to the border of the bearableness were trained. More largely, swinging bosom, trained Bauchtaenzerinnen Hueftspeck, broadly unloading, bear-joyful hips, substantial-solid thighs, large feet and a provocatively up-provoking course. Tommy Johnson besang this woman Mrs. the following following: “Big Fat mummy, meat shakin ‘ on ago bones and everytime she shake it, some skinny girl goin ‘ draws the home”. Blindly Lemon Jefferson sings from a “Heavy Hip mummy”, who excluded the men so for a long time, until you belonged everything in the neighbourhood, during OD Bell, a Alabama Bluesman reported of a woman: “She makes the blindly one lake and the dumb one call his name”. Also prediger and clergyman were not protected before the irresistibleness of stramm sumptuous femaleness: “She of makes the preacher PUT his bible down” and Son House sang: “I got ME religion on this very day, but womens and whisky would’nt let ME pray”….

The sometimes irreverent designations, which one zudachte women, had to do often with their position in the rural social structure and were not always devaluing meant. If one begins with the “Milkcow”, like her by Kokomo Arnold, Big Bill Broonzy, or Son House besungen become, a kind of vital importance quite describes. “… ain’t had NO milk at butter, since my cow been gone”, or “… if you lake my milkcow, please drive ago home”. Milk and butter could be a Sexmetapher, in addition, love and personal Obsorge. But it was called also “strand bulletin into the pasture.”, if danger of a rival threatened, or the Angetraute in the suspicion to foreignhappen. Ehemuffel, which wanted to be only limited to the benefit of erotischer adventures, meant laconic: “Why buy A cow, if I CAN GET milk more under the fence”. Women, who had a rather nymphomanischen character, were only “Pigmeat”, schweinefleisch. But which meant the “Pigmeat mummy” with blindly Lemon, if he sang: ” I got A call this mornin ‘, my pigmeat mummy which DEAD.” Lemon calls the doctor, but it says that its Pigmeat is completely healthy had thus died, but “… she done gone DEAD on you”, their love. In another song blindly Lemon determines: ” I love my baby, just like A more farmer loves his jersey cow… “, probably an attraction line for modern Emanzen. Who sets there a cow with the value and that became for a woman directly. The cow was often the only one, which a poor tenant possessed and a woman was often more easily to get, than a cow whether it to love in the higher sense gave, cannot I not say, because the life was for the black ones so hard that they had problems with the struggle for existence and the Damoklesschwert of the racingism as much that the everyday life permitted only rudimentary-primitive thinking.

Setting aside the question of whether characterizing a vital folk tradition as “rudimentary-primitive thinking” itself constitutes “racingism,” here’s another unintentionally humorous passage for the sake of contrast. It’s an excerpt from an excerpt of Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, included in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, eds. (Indiana University Press, 1992):

There are some incontrovertible assumptions that determine our approach to life: Stories have endings, meals have meat. Let us explore whether these statements are interchangeable – stories have meat, that is, meaning, and meals have endings. When vegetarians take meat out of the meal, they take the ending out of the story of meat. Vegetarians become caught within a structure they attempt to eliminate. Our experience of meat eating cannot be separated from our feelings about stories.

This last strikes me as a highly debatable and culturally biased assertion. The bias becomes even stronger in the next paragraph, where universality is assigned to Western storytelling conventions:

We are the species who tell stories. Through narrative we confer meaning upon life. Our histories are structured as stories that postulate beginnings, crises, resolutions; dramas and fictions animate our imagination with stories that obviously have a beginning and an end. Narrative, by definition, moves forward toward resolution…Often meaning can only be apprehended once the story is complete…

Meat eating is story applied to animals, it gives meaning to animals’ existence….Animals’ lives and bodies become material fit to receive humans’ stories: the word becomes flesh….

Vegetarians see themselves as providing an alternative ending, veggie burgers instead of hamburgers, but they are actually eviscerating the entire narrative. From the dominant perspective, vegetarianism is not only about something that is inconsequential, which lacks “meat,” and which fails to find closure through meat, but is a story about the acceptance of passivity, of that which has no meaning, of endorsing a “vegetable” way of living. In this it appears to be a feminist story that goes nowhere and accepts nothing.

Alternately, of course, it may appear to be bullshit. Which is, of course, entirely “vegetable” in origin. As are we, according to that most patriarchal of texts, the King James Bible: All flesh is grass.

In vernacular cultures the world over, the boundaries between bodies are never very clear-cut. It may be true, as I wrote yesterday, that every being is a slow fire. But we are also, potentially, food – a statement that can be seen as either tragic (the vegetarian assumption) or comic (the Rabelaisian position). In a new essay at Wild Thoughts, Hank Green has a great little essay about the experience of being tongue-kissed by a gray wolf. It begins:

As humans we have the capacity to be both predator and prey. Vegetarian or not, I promise you, get a good hunger started in your belly and cute and fuzzy things will look much less like companions and much more like corndogs. I’ve looked at squirrels that way and they can tell. Generally they are indifferent or curious, but when I’m real hungry…they keep back.

Just as animals that were once our prey can see my hunger and my intent in my eyes, we can see the same in animals that were once our competitors or our predators.

I remember my first time face to face with a lion. At one moment the gigantic thing was obviously concentrating very hard on a nearby leaf that had fluttered across his vision. They are, after all, still cats, still curious and cute. The next moment the lion locked eyes with me and my knees weakened. I knew what the squirrel felt like under my hungry gaze; to that lion, I was the corndog.

A coherent philosophy of food would have to take account of predation, sex, sacrifice, gathering, hunting, cultivation, and diverse methods of food production, including those that involve animal and fungal helpers (dairy products, honey, beer, yeast bread, etc.). It would have to develop aesthetic systems for all five senses. Why has Western philosophy so limited itself to the world perceived by the mind’s eye? “The sage is for the belly, not for the eye,” says the Daodejing. That’s because “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing,” as Qoheleth observed. But the belly – the belly knows its limits. It’s not a question of narratives and endings, really, but of emptiness and fullness. Or as Memphis Minnie put it, “Keep on eating, baby, till you get enough.”

For more in this vein, see Our booty, ourselves.

Primordial wonton

I’m in a bibliophiliac ecstasy. Yesterday I got two new books in the mail: Robert Alter’s magnificent translation and commentary on the Pentateuch – The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004) – and the “philosophical translation” of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David T. Hall (Ballantine, 2003), a groundbreaking work. I am going back and forth between them like a dog with two supper dishes, or a bigamist who can’t decide which wife to spend the night with.

Dividing my attention this way – especially between two such contrasting works – may not seem like such a good idea. Eventually, of course, I’ll have to settle down with each in turn, take them to bed with me, read them with all the slowness and attention they deserve, lingering over each beautiful footnote. But in the meantime, this compare-and-contrast exercise has already yielded some tasty fruit. Last night, in the Appendix to Ames and Hall, I found the following:

Daoist cosmogony does not entail the kind of radical initial beginning we associate with those metaphysical cosmogonies that describe the triumph of Order over Chaos. In fact, the Zhuangzi‘s well-known account of the death of Lord Hundun – often translated negatively as Lord Chaos, but perhaps better rendered positively as Lord Spontaneity – provides a rather strong Daoist objection to the “One-behind-the-many” reading [of passages in the Daodejing that appear to refer to Dao as a kind of first principle]:

The ruler of the North Sea was “Swift,” the ruler of the South Sea was “Sudden,” and the ruler of the Center was “Hundun, or Spontaneity.” Swift and Sudden had on several occasions encountered each other in the territory of Spontaneity, and Spontaneity had treated them with great hospitality. Swift and Sudden, devising a way to repay Spontaneity’s generosity, said: “Everyone has seven orifices through which they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. Spontaneity alone is without them.” They then attempted to bore holes in Spontaneity, each day boring one hole. On the seventh day, Spontaneity died.

But why according to Zhuangzi shouldn’t one wish to bring order out of hundun? A reasonable question, indeed, if hundun is the confusion and disarray – the formless surds – that other cosmogonies describe as primordial Chaos. But if hundun is the spontaneous emergence of novelty that honeycombs all construals of order in the continuing Daoist present, then the imposition of order upon it means the death of novelty. After all, it is spontaneity that makes the life experience deliciously indeterminate and, in some degree, unpredictable. To enforce a given design is simply to select one of a myriad candidates for order and to privilege that one over the rest. Swift and Sudden have transformed the unsummed and causally noncoherent dao into a single-ordered world.

Well, yeah. But every act of artistic creation, every authentic making represents such a privileging, regardless of its origins in spontaneity. That’s the tragic beauty of life, it seems to me – and that is why I continue to draw so much inspiration from the great expressions of theistic faith, such as the Bible. This notion of a seven-day-long process of imposing a creative and destructive will sounds awfully familiar! But again, Chaos and Order are modern – or at least Hellenic – categories that don’t always fit the most ancient parts of the Bible. (After all, as a god of storm and whirlwind, as the agent of watery or fiery destruction, YHWH works as often through “chaos” as against it.)

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

Alter says about “first day” that, “Unusually, the Hebrew uses a cardinal, not ordinal, number. As with all the six days except the sixth, the expected article is omitted.” So perhaps we would do better to translate as if this were a Mayan text: “And it was evening and it was morning, Day One.” Because these are the days that will recur week after week and year after year until the end of time, no? I find it difficult to credit that the original authors of this passage understood divine creation as a one-time event. The mythic imagination doesn’t work that way.

Alter’s note for “welter and waste” points up the contrast with the Zhuangzi‘s hundun.

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later Biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce word coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

But that desert, or wilderness, remains an essential testing ground for spiritual heroism and a major locus of theophany throughout the Bible, so perhaps we are meant to understand tohu as empty more in the way that a womb might be construed as empty, rather than as a mere nullity or vacuum. Tohu wabohu could perhaps be seen as Openness – a close cousin of Spontaneity. And indeed, in this cosmogony God shapes or distills things from this omni-potential matter; there is no creation ex nihilo in the Bible.

Set against the vivid language of Genesis, the Daoist allegory may seem a little dry. And I’ll admit, I’ve never been a big fan of allegory as a genre, which may explain why I never focused on this passage in A. C. Graham’s translation and commentary (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001 – another philosophically and philologically informed effort).

Graham, I discover, chose to leave “Hun-t’un” untranslated, supplying the following note:

Hun-t’un is the primal blob which first divided into heaven and earth then differentiated as the myriad things. In Chinese cosmology the primordial is not a chaos reduced to order by imposed law, it is a blend of everything rolled up together; the word is a reduplicative of the type of English “hotchpotch” and “rolypoly”, and diners in Chinese restaurants will have met it in the form “wuntun” as a kind of dumpling.

So there’s God in his white apron at the Panda House restaurant, rolling out the dough to make dumplings. Thus, at least, the pictures taking shape in the tohu-bohu of my mind, all higglety-pigglety.


After yesterday’s post, readers might get the impression that I am lacking in holiday cheer. Far from it! In fact, I have a mugful of “cheer” right at my elbow – enough to make me sing mindlessly to the computer as I click through my blogroll. Don’t be thinking it’s some Christmas carol, though. For some reason, the tune stuck in my head right now is “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”


My major Christmas present from my parents this year was a new, super-adjustable desk lamp with incandescent and florescent bulbs. It’s basic black and highly functional in design – the kind of thing favored by graphic artists, one suspects. It will replace the funky little lamp I have been using to save my eyes from the glare of the computer screen. Yes, my parents have become enablers for my blog-addicted lifestyle.


On our way back from getting a Christmas tree on Tuesday, we swung by the Amish store where we buy many of our staples (whole wheat flour, brown rice, basic herbs and spices, etc.). My mother gifted the women who run the store with a loaf of chocolate tea bread, which prompted immediate reciprocal gifts of a large jar of canned peaches and a little jar of hot pepper jelly. Then, just as we were about to leave, S. came running out and asked if wanted some of the ornamental kale from her garden before she got rid of it. “Sure,” I said, and took the better part of one, big plant.

The kale was limp from having been through a couple months of freezing weather, but it still smelled and tasted good and strong. I thought its festive colors would be perfect for a light, Christmas Eve supper, and in fact I was rather pleased with the recipe I came up with. I like to think of this as a brand-new holiday tradition, as I recently heard someone on NPR describe something or other.

Ornamental Kale and Walnut Sauce with Pasta

Clean and chop into 2-inch squares 4 – 6 c ornamental kale, striving for roughly equal quantities of green and purple leaves.

In a large saucepan, sauté a hellacious amount of minced garlic, about 1/4 t dried red pepper flakes and 1/2 c ground English walnuts in 1/4 c olive oil at medium-low heat for several minutes, until kitchen begins to reek. Then add kale, a couple glugs of red wine and about 1 1/2 c canned tomatoes, chopped, with juice (about 1/2 c). (Fresh tomatoes are tasteless and virtually devoid of nutritive value this time of year. Save your money.) Lid the sucker and let ‘er steam for a bit.

Meanwhile, cook pasta. I used about 12 oz whole-wheat shells, but other chunky sorts of pasta would probably work just as well. When kale is pretty much wilted, add salt (not much) and black pepper, 8 kalamata olives, slivered and half a can of reduced-sodium chicken broth. (Vegetarians can try substituting soup stock or, better yet, a good miso broth.) Give it a minute or two to heat up, then mix in the drained pasta and a buttload of parmesan or romano cheese.


I might’ve added something else, but I think that’s all. Some of my culinary experiments prompt my parents to say things like, “Well, that was very, um, interesting!” But this time, they both went back for rare second helpings. However, I must admit that the pairing with a raw cabbage salad was slightly unfortunate. Last night I had to be careful to keep the blankets tightly pinned to my body every time I turned over in bed, if you get my drift.


Now that I’ve largely gotten over my childhood greed, and prefer actually to receive boring presents so as to avoid all excitement and the loss in sleep that entails, my favorite part of holidays like Christmas is the feasting. Well, O.K., maybe I’ve just substituted one kind of greed for another. At any rate, the other new recipe I’m inordinately pleased with this year is also my own invention, though I fancy it’s fairly similar to what my medieval European ancestors may have consumed this time of year: wassail! I served it to some visitors on Wednesday night, and two out of three were highly enthusiastic. (The third objected to the high licorice content – a fair complaint, if you don’t like licorice.) I won’t give the entire recipe, since it won’t mean anything to anyone who isn’t a homebrewer. But for those who are, here’s the gruit (herbal mix used instead of hops):

-> loose-packed pint dried mugwort
-> 2 oz dandelion root, roasted
-> 1/2 oz coriander seed, crushed
-> 1/2 oz Indian sarsaparilla root (Hemidesmus indicus)
-> 2 oz wild ginger root (Asarum canadense)
-> 2 oz licorice root (“dry-hopped” in primary)
-> 1 c (4 oz) dark baker’s cocoa

I’ll probably post the complete recipe in the homebrewing section of my other website at some point. In the meantime, anyone who wants to learn more about brewing traditional, unhopped ales should persuse my misleadingly named Short Treatise on Homebrewing and the True Meaning of Gruit.


I feel confident in recommending this gruit because my friend Chris, who is a trained beer taster, was one of my guests on Wednesday night. He regaled us with a number of fascinating tales of his exploits in Africa, of which (owing to the lateness of the hour and the strength of the brew) I remember only this:

During a tour of a paper-making cooperative in Malawi last month, Chris said, the guide kept pointing to these very large, dark sheets hanging up to dry and saying “This paper made from the elefandong!” And each time he would laugh uproariously. Chris smiled and nodded, unwilling to admit he didn’t know what the hell the guide was saying. After the third time it happened, however, he decided to follow up. “Now, what exactly is this ‘elefandong’?”

“Elefandong? You know – elephan’ poo-poo!”

I now know what I want my first, commercially published book of poems to be printed on…


My older brother called yesterday with, among other things, some news about his first offspring, expected in mid- to late-January. “They’ve decided on a name!” my mother informed me last night over the purple pasta repast. “They’ve decided to call her Elanor, after a character in Lord of the Flies!

I’m sure William Golding would be proud.

“Such a harmlesse treasure”

Would you pay $20.00 for a plagiarized book? You might if it were over 350 years old, 1650 pages long, and weighed in at over half a stone.

I’m talking about the Dover reprint of the complete 1633 edition of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, as revised and amended by Thomas Johnson. Ever since I picked it up at a natural history book sale two weekends ago, I’ve spent at least an hour a day poring over it.

Part of its charm lies in the illustrations, which are engravings accurate enough to use for identification in most cases. This was crucial, because a standard descriptive language for botany had yet to emerge. Another consequence of that lack is a vividness in the plant descriptions, made all the more interesting by the expressive language and idiosyncratic spelling of the Elizabethan era. Gerard’s description of the wild cucumber, for example, conveys a sense of earthiness and grotesque sexuality:

The wilde Cucumber hath many fat hairie branches, very rough and full of juice, creeping or trailing upon the ground, wherupon are set very rough leaves, hairy, sharp pointed, & of an overworne grayish greene colour: from the bosome of which come forth long tender foot-stalks: on the ends of which doe grow small floures composed of five small leaves of a pale yellow colour: after which commeth forth the fruit, of the bignes of the smallest pullets egge, but somewhat longer, verie rough and hairy on the outside, and of the colour and substance of the stalkes, wherin is contained very much water and smalhard blackish seeds also, of the bignesse of tares; which being come to maturitie and ripenesse, it casteth or squirteth forth his water with the seeds, either of it owne accord, or being touched with the most tender or delicate hand never so gently, and oftentimes striketh so hard against those that touch it (especially if it chance to hit against the face) that the place smarteth long after: whereupon by some it hath been called Noli me tangere, Touch me not. The root is thicke, white and long lasting.

Much of the text was lifted from other sources, as were almost all of the illustrations. As Johnson put it, Gerard “accommodated” virtually the entire English translation, by one Dr. Priest, of the magisterial 1583 Latin herbal by Rembert Dodoens. The illustrations for Gerard’s original (1597) edition were taken from a Frankfurt herbal, whose engraver had copied at least six earlier works, mostly Dutch. The chain of copies of copies of copies extends well back before the age of printing. At least one illustration in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s herbal has been traced as far back as a sixth century manuscript copy of the Codex Vindobonensis by Dioscorides, which is presumed to follow the original, first century work fairly closely. Thus Gerard’s Herball preserves a link, however tenuous, with Hellenistic botany.

Histories of the Renaissance tend to emphasize the rediscovery of classical authors, but what really distinguished the age in my view was the unprecedented privileging of vernacular knowledge, after centuries in which allegory and abstraction reigned supreme. One sees this quite clearly in the evolution of herbals. Many of the woodcut illustrations from the earliest printed herbals reflect a sophisticated sense of design, but betray little familiarity with the plants they supposedly represent. Less than fifty years later, in Otto Brunsel’s Herbarum Vivae Eicones, the influence of the Renaissance painters and engravers, combined with the stimulation of new discoveries from overseas, resulted in woodcuts more naturalistic and finely detailed than the illustrations in some modern field guides.

Gerard was faithful to his continental models also in the attention he paid to philology, giving not just the Greek, Latin and English names but also Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and others. Medieval scholasticism persists in the form of a brief attempt in each chapter to describe the plant or plants in terms of “Temperature”: i.e., its place in the (to us) bizarre doctrine of the four temperaments or humors. This, along with the Doctrine of Signatures, was the Medieval Christian’s way of coming to terms with the seemingly chaotic diversity of nature. (And in fact, Gerard’s alternate title for this section is “The Nature.”)

By the end of the 17th century, the growing influence of the modern, mechanistic worldview, with its emphasis on the primacy of human reason, would leave little room for the particularistic knowledge of herbals and herbalists. It was simply too unflattering to the Western European mind to contemplate a universe in which an anthropomorphic deity would make the well-being of his favorite creations dependent on something so base as the idiosyncratic qualities of disparate plants. And, of course, the growing centralization of power put village-level herbal practitioners at increasing risk of persecution. For the sake of so-called science, with nothing tangible to replace this suddenly discredited tradition, Western medicine took a great leap backwards, not to recover for close to 300 years.

Gerard and Johnson were intersted in more than just medicine. They aimed at nothing less than a complete British botany, including naturalized plants, plus whatever could be grown in gardens or was then imported for medicinal or other purposes. Although most people value the work for its insights into Elizabethan botanical folklore, I am finding the incidental descriptions of the English countryside included in the “Place” section of many chapters almost as engaging. This passage is not at all atypical in its specificity:

The Vervaine Mallow groweth not everie where: it growes on the ditch sides on the left hand of the place of execution by London, called Tyborn: also in a field neere unto a village fourteene miles from London called Bushey, on the backe-side of a Gentlemans house named Mr. Robert Wylbraham: likewise among the bushes and hedges as you go from London to a place called the Old Foord; and in the bushes as you go to Hackny a village by London, in the closes next the town, and in divers other places, as at Bassingburn in Hartfordshire, three miles from Roiston.

[Addition by Johnson:] Mr. Goodyer found the Vervain Mallow with white floures growing plentifully in a close neere Maple-durham in Hampshire, called Aldercrofts.

Nevertheless, the final sections of each chapter, where the authors discuss “The Vertues,” remain the most entertaining parts of the text. They often convey a sense of wonder and intense engagement with the natural world on its own terms, even if much of the natural history seems archaic. For example:

Beares after they have lien in their dens forty dayes without any manner of sustenance, but what they get with licking and sucking their owne feet, do as soone as they come forth eate the herbe Cuckowpint, through the windie nature whereof the hungry gut is opened and made fit again to receive sustenance: for by abstaining from food so long a time, the gut is shrunke or drawne so close together, that in a manner it is quite shut up, as Aristotle, Aebianus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others do write.

As a homebrewer with a particular interest in herbs other than hops, I am keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the medicinal benefits of herbal beers. Chapter 314, Of Ground-Ivy, or Ale-hoofe, contains a brief reference to the then-flourishing tradition of brewsters, or female brewers – already much-maligned figures, along with midwives, “neighbor ladies,” and of course the proverbial, tale-telling “old wives.”

The women of our Northern parts, especially about Wales and Cheshire, do tunne the herb Ale-hoofe into their Ale, but the reason thereof I know not: notwithstanding it is most singular against the griefs aforesaid [i.e., “the humming noyse and ringing sounde of the eares . . . Sciatica, or ache in the huckle bone . . . the yellow jaundice . . . stoppings out of the liver . . . all manner of inflamation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes, yea although the sight were nigh hand gone”]: being tunned up in ale and drunke, it also purgeth the head from rhumaticke humors flowing from the braine.

About another brewing herb, Gerard writes:

Sage is singular good for the head and braine; it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking or trembling of the members; and being put up in the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.

It is likewise commended against the spitting of blood, the cough, and paines of the sides, and biting of Serpents….

No man needs to doubt of the wholesomness of Sage Ale, being brewed as it should be, with Sage, Scabious, Betony, Spikenard, Squinanth, and Fennell seeds.

Gerard himself, plagiarist though he might be, comes across as an earnest and enthusiastic lover of plants in his preface “To the courteous and well willing Readers.” He begins by contrasting his own search for “such a harmlesse treasure of herbes, trees, and plants, as the earth frankely without violence offereth unto our most necessarie uses,” with prospectors for gold and silver.

Harmelesse I call them, because they were such delights as man in the perfectest state of his innocencie did erst injoy: and treasure I may well terme them, seeing both Kings and Princes have esteemed them as Jewels; sith wise men have made their whole life as a pilgrimage to attain the knowledge of them: by the which they have gained the hearts of all, and opened the mouths of many, in commendation of those rare vertues which are contained in these terrestriall creatures. I confesse blind Pluto is now adayes more sought after than quick sighted Phoebus: and yet this dusty metall, or excrement of the earth (which was first deeply buried least it should be an eye-sore to grieve the corrupt heart of man) by forcible entry into the bowels of the earth, is rather snatched at of man to his owne destruction, than directly sent of God, to the comfort of this life.

Gerard did not stint in portrayals of plants for which the only “vertues” were aesthetic. He devotes many pages to detailing varieties of daffodils, tulips and sweet-williams. Of the last, he concludes that “These plants are not used either in meat or medicine, but esteemed for their beauty to deck up gardens, the bosomes of the beautiful, garlands and crownes for pleasure.” Gerard ends another chapter, on a group of orchids called fox stones, by saying that “notwithstanding there is no great use of them in physicke, but they are chiefly regarded for the pleasant and beautifull floures, wherewith Nature hath seemed to play and disport herself.” Such statements capture as well as any the generous spirit of Renaissance humanism, all too soon swept away by tides of religious intolerance, revolutionary violence and the rise of monopoly capitalism.

Stalking the wild homebrew

Long-time readers of this blog may remember me writing about my friend Chris, who’s researching brewing techniques in Africa and elsewhere. He just uploaded the latest edition of his on-line newsletter, Fermenting Revolution. The “On the Ale Trail” column compares the “real ale” movement in England with homebrewing traditions in Ethiopia:

This Ethiopian ale is called tella, and it is brewed from barley malt and the leaves of a green bush called gesho (scientific name: Rhamnus prinoides).

In the past year I have had some pleasant adventures drinking this stuff in the highland towns and villages of this ancient kingdom-nation. Just a couple weeks ago I visited the islands of Lake Tana, fabled to have once been the home of the holy Ark of the Covenant – you know, that old testament relic thing that Indiana Jones was seeking in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Well, the Ark was nowhere to be found, but I did stumble across some of the best tella I have yet to taste. Somehow that figures since this batch was brewed exclusively for the monks inhabiting this particular monastery. Somehow, men of the cloth always seem to have the best beer, be it the Trappists of Belgium or the Orthodox monks of Ethiopia.

In any case, I was glad they did. And when our guide noted that my interest had been piqued by the prospect of a taste of this brew, he offered me a large can-full straight from a huge crock turned on its side and stuffed closed with something or other. Despite the brew’s primitive trappings, I was only too eager to oblige.

It was surprisingly soft, well-filtered, pleasantly bitter, slightly herbal in aroma, and damn thirst-quenching, especially after a several hour equatorial trek.

As a brewer of gruit ales, I was most interested in the herb used in lieu of hops. A paper on poisonous and medicinal plants in Ethiopia in fact refers to Rhamnus prinoides as “hops,” but otherwise web sources indicate that R. prinoides is called “dogwood” in English – though it’s no relation to American and Asian dogwoods – and “blinkblaar” in Afrikaans. It’s very common and widespread. A medicinal database describes it as a sedative. One website I found includes a description of its cultural uses:

The chief use of this tree is magical. It is widely used by African people as a protective charm to ward off lightning and evil influences from homes and crops and to bring luck in hunting. The South Sotho name ‘Mofifi’ means ‘darkness’, and in Lesotho they say “darkness overcomes witchcraft”. This tree is also used by Africans to cleanse the blood, to treat pneumonia, rheumatism, sprains, and stomach ache, and as a gargle. It is also used in the treatment of skin complaints and respiratory infections.

Presuming that similar beliefs about this plant occur in Ethiopia, its use as a brewing herb offers a direct parallel to European folk brewing practices, where popular gruit herbs such as tansy, angelica, rue and St. John’s wort were credited with apotropaic properties.

Love apples

They lie overtop one another, intertwining with abandon. Some vines climb the buddleia bushes, while others stretch down the stone wall toward the driveway. Three of the four volunteer seedlings I transplanted from the compost pit in early June are bearing cherry-sized fruit, and new spots of orange and red appear among their tangled greenery morning and afternoon with astonishing profligacy. From where I sit, I can look over the top of my computer to a window shelf full of tomatoes I just picked an hour ago, with their parent plants visible through the window beyond. Especially with all the rain we’ve been having, few of them would make it to dead ripeness on the vine without attracting the covetous attention of pillbug, slug or hungry chipmunk.

Seedlings that sprouted in the compost pit since I removed the first wave of volunteers have flourished, too. On the upper side, growing out of the low rock wall surrounding Fort Garbage – as my dad calls it – the most successful of these volunteers is birthing fist-sized tomatoes right down among the rotting melon rinds, coffee grounds, corn shucks, and – yes – freshly discarded tomato parts. On my way up to the main house this morning, I plucked two that had almost reached full ripeness, marveling at the festive melange of growth and decay.

That particular plant hides its fruit in the pit for a reason: its upper branches were stripped by a deer or woodchuck a couple of weeks ago. There haven’t been any such depredations since, however. The leaves aren’t exactly palatable, and I imagine whoever chomped on them suffered severe stomach cramps for hours. Not for nothing are tomatoes called love apples!

Before truck-farming Amish moved into the neighboring valley about twelve years ago, we kept huge vegetable gardens, most of which had to be fenced against the animals. Only squash, tomatoes and potatoes could be grown without any protection other than a good hay mulch. One of the things I really liked about tomatoes was the way that, given a steady supply of chicken manure and hay, they could happily inhabit the very same spot year after year. We started seedlings indoors in February, but feral volunteers would quite often outstrip the tender transplants. It was always exciting to see what kind of fruit they’d bear, since we grew so many varieties.

Perhaps it says something about our lax approach to gardening that we could almost depend on volunteers. But at the peak of tomato season, it’s impossible to keep ahead of the flood. My mother used to can close to a hundred quarts a year, and we boys still found enough rotten ones to turn the otherwise dull job of harvesting into juicy warfare.

And now, again, that red flood is in full spate. Boxes of tomatoes can be had from the Amish for a few dollars each. The super-sweet cherry tomatoes from my herb/butterfly garden vie with the Macintosh apples in my fridge for my attention at snack time (which for me is pretty much all the time). We dry some, but otherwise just gorge, slicing tomatoes into sandwiches and salads, adding them to almost every dish. And what don’t tomatoes go well with? For ’tis the season too for basil, cilantro, eggplant, zucchini, peppers . . . a hundred variations on a half-dozen themes.


Like the potato, the tomato is a native of South America. So what did Italians eat before they had tomatoes? They ate lots and lots of eggplant, apparently. Here’s a simple oven dish of Mediterranean provenance that you could make without tomatoes – but I’m not sure why you’d want to.

Dave’s Vaguely Greek Eggplant and Black Pepper Casserole

Saute together over medium heat:
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 large sweet pepper, diced
1 medium eggplant, chopped
In my opinion, eggplant is like tofu: more or less tasteless by itself, but good for sopping up and retaining whatever oils and juices you cook it with. So use good olive oil, and err on the side of generosity!

Add and cook ten more minutes, still on medium heat, until eggplants start to break down:
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 t salt
up to 1 full t ground black pepper, depending on freshness (and your own tolerance)
optional fresh herbs, especially thyme (I’d be cautious with rosemary or parsley here, though. Black pepper in such quantities admits of few competitors.)

Chuck everything into a 3-qt casserole dish and pour the custard overtop:
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cottage cheese
2 egg yolks

Bake covered at 375 (F.) for 45 minutes. Serve with fresh corn on the cob and a green salad topped with fresh tomatoes.

Aedes vexans


On the last day of summer,
drifting slow as hope through
the thick air of evening

she chances into
the plume of CO2 from
my breath, follows it upstream

to my arm’s telltale heat.
She hovers, then slowly sinks
the last few inches straight

down into my pelt with all
her landing gear extended,
proboscis going into the skin even

as the slight craft of her body
still rides the hairs down,
her feet stretching one

by one down, down,
& I am here.
Lord, I am here.

She is beautiful & blameless
& I in a mood to share
the beer in my veins, watching

as her banded
abdomen turns dark, inflates.
A long minute later

she pulls out, rises unsteadily
& sails off singing
her single note.

Then comes a rapid patter across
the field, the yard, staccato
on the porch roof &

into the woods – suddenly
it’s pouring & the treetops
are bending, swaying under

the weight of it
before the first drops reach
the forest floor.

A wheal rises where
the mosquito took the only
blood supper of her

purposeful life. While I sit
waiting for God knows what
it has fallen to me,

what she no longer needs:
the goad of her saliva.
Her fierce itch.

For a place-based essay on mosquitoes by another central Pennsylvania writer, see here.

Barley wine poems

Yesterday afternoon and early evening I permitted myself to get a little deep into my cups for the first time since July 2, and just as I did then, I took a notebook out on the porch with me. This time I was drinking a spiced barley wine that I bottled way back in December 2002, after a year and a half in the cask (actually a glass carboy). I hadn’t been too impressed with it on previous tastings, but perhaps it just hadn’t aged enough.

I found myself jotting down short poems, or the notes for poems, with the kind of fury I can otherwise only manage first thing in the morning. Some of them don’t seem too bad. With some, I’m not sure now exactly what I had in mind. But maybe that’s all right.

UPDATE: Still revising as of Friday morning. It IS all in the editing!

A gnat falls into my wine.
I sip around him.
After a while the pin-
prick flotsam washes
against the side
& sticks fast.
Crawls all
the way up to
the rim. Inspired,
I down the rest of the wine
in two big gulps.

That gnat must not have been
a poet, to survive such
a baptism in wine. I raise
the glass it escaped from
in solemn tribute,
resolve to keep drinking
until the moon comes up.

Cicada drone. A flicker’s
namesake call. Carolina
wren’s insistent zipper.
Crickets, crickets, crickets.
The first desultory katydid.

It’s not just in my head,
this hum,
this buzz.

Drinking on the porch with
my feet propped up,
I forget myself.
What beautiful arches
you have,
I murmur.
And the toes – what fine
fat targets.
bleary half-moons
glimmer back.

Six o’clock, but
no chipmunks chipping
as they almost always do
this time of year, standing at
the mouths of their burrows.
I wonder what’s
in the news?

A breeze: red
maple leaves turn
their backs.
Aspen goes wild.
White pine whistles
through its teeth.

The bull thistle’s clock
has three faces:
stubbled green; florid
purple; white hair
falling out in clumps.
At the peak of flowering, half
of every bush is already dead.
My eye follows
a spicebush swallowtail
making its unrepeatable way
into the treetops.

In the end, the light
goes mute, retreats
one cricket at a time.
Deep in the grass, the faint
spots where glowworms
fade in, fade out.

What am I missing
by writing? What
would escape me if
I didn’t write? Wait
until it’s too dark
to write anything,
listen as the katydids
start up: first this side
then the other, night
after night.

Another glass of wine,
another drowned gnat.
God or evolution,
it’s all in the editing.

This whole
made world
is nothing but a conspiracy
between a rock and
a hard place, says
the all-night rain.

Drinkin’ and thinkin’

I’ve never been in the habit of writing down my thoughts and observations as they occur to me. Sometime around the age of twelve, I remember deciding that any truly important ideas couldn’t die, and if they didn’t come from me, they’d come from someone else. So that allowed me to relax and, over the years, learn how to let thoughts be, to incubate and hatch out when they were ready. If you’re hungry, make an omelet; otherwise, wait and watch and let them grow their own wings. For a guy afflicted with logorrhea, as I am, this is probably an essential attitude to have toward writing.

Since starting this weblog, however, I’ve been forced to moderate a bit. Of course, I could write a lot less than I do, but I enjoy the ad hoc, ephemeral quality of this medium so much, I find it hard to keep from giving it all I’ve got. Because giving stuff away is so much more fun than hoarding, you know (see yesterday’s poem). I see the Internet culture as a potlatch of sorts – and am distressed at all the sites that now charge for access. Anyhow . . .

Yesterday evening I decided to try the ultimate stream-of-consciousness blogging experiment. I don’t have a laptop, but with the help of a little pocket notebook and a generous quantity of homebrew, I resolved to try and record everything that occurred to me over a three-hour period as I sat on my front porch. (In case you’re curious, I’m currently working on the vat of yarrow brew that I blogged about back on May 23. I decided this past winter that bottling is a waste of time – I don’t need the “mouth-feel” of carbonation, since I grew up without soft drinks – so I just siphon it off, a half-gallon at a time, into a juice pitcher that I keep in the fridge. The important thing to know is that this is a cross between ale and mead, closer to the strength of wine than beer. The sheer quantity of yarrow takes a little getting used to, but no more so than the hops in a heavily hopped microbrew such as Hop Devil. The difference is, yarrow doesn’t make you sleepy and stupid. And being as it’s homebrew (and organic), I don’t have to worry about waking up with a hangover the next morning unless I really overdo it.)

So here’s the transcript, edited as little as possible. I’ll use [brackets] to indicate editorial additions. I started right around six p.m.

I am reading from The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated from the Urdu by Naomi Lazard. The poem “Before You Came” just blows me away! I wonder if he knew the Zen saying about how, when one gains satori, the mountains go back to just being mountains again?

[Before You Came
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lose all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again–stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.]

[Watching a great-spangled fritillary chase a cabbage white:] Butterfly’s flight has been shown to be random [through wind tunnel experiments] – true randomness in Nature is a rare & difficult thing – Is there a sense in which we can see randomness, then, as a gift of God, rather than as a repudiation of Creation?
The tragic thing about drinking (or any drug taking) is that one has the most fun in the transition between the two states, “normal” and altered. Drunkenness itself represents a vain attempt to recapture that initial “wow” feeling of a good buzz, which is of necessity ephemeral. The alcoholic is a tragic idealist. To drink regularly without succumbing to alcoholism, one needs to become a comic realist – to embrace ephemerality & then let it go, not attempt to possess it
Drinkin’ & thinkin’ = drinkin & stinkin’? [This is a reference to a blues song.] Or Winken & Blinken & Nod (zzzz). Rene Dubos once confessed he could only write while drunk on wine. Dude, that is so French!
Male cardinal in late afternoon sun, gnatcatcher on elm branch, goes down for a bath. I hear goldfinches but can’t see them. When are they going to pair off, start nesting? Not as many bull thistles in my yard this year. How much thistledown does one goldfinch nest require?
Right now I want NOTHING. Happy stuppor [sic]!

O.K. I take that back. I want another drink! More more MORE! (But if they’re [sic] weren’t any, I’d be fine with that. This glass is it until I draw more from the carboy, boy.)
I like the way a nice buzz takes my mind off SEX, and related desires, lets me just enjoy the moment.
My God, I just SAW a no-see-um!
And now, a tiny smudge on my wrist.
For its memorial, just this ITCH.
As soon as I leave the porch to take a leak, a deerfly zooms in, starts orbiting my head. Damn I miss my dreads, fuckers could never bite through that. That was, like, Daoist: do nothing, let Nature take its course, and filth will repel filth: the homeopathic approach.
Go find a deer, motherfucker.
On the way back from pissing, I pick up the wine bottle with the beebalm flower in it. No hummingbirds all day – except I just saw one at the edge of the woods. (They have to have a nest nearby, with all the crazed courtship flights I’ve been seeing.) Set bottle w/flower down on the other stack chair. Voila! I have company!
THIS WRITING IS INTERFERING WITH MY DRINKING. (Think first, than write. If possible.)
Chipmunk clucking. He too must be in need of a good trance. [Note: this is my own theory. Conventional wisdom says that chipmunk chipping is purely territorial. Bullshit. They’re so tightly wound, I think they need to do it to calm their little triphammer hearts. I have watched chipmunks cluck (as I prefer to call it) from close quarters on numerous occasions. It sure looks like they’re zoning out!]
Hey, there’s the porcupine – long time, no see! Climbing my poor elm tree. Wonder if she has a porcupette under the house. (How do you pet a porcupette?) Quills shine in the evening sun. she moves around to the back of the tree, maybe to avoid the sun in her eyes? Now back in the sun for an instant: a reddish-brown tinge down under the quills, beautiful! (Red, white, brown, gray: the same range of colors as my beard) – Almost to the top –
A chickadee troika right beside the porch, dee dee dee WHACK – as one flies into the window behind me, another in hot pursuit. Love triangle? Or just the usual dominance/submission games. (sigh) Nature is SO unenlightened!
Now that I look at it, this elm does seem mighty SPARSE up top. Time for a collar [aluminum flashing to keep the porcupine from climbing it]?
Zoom! Speak of the hummingbird . . .
Oriole has the center stage now. Goldfinches have moved off. Other random chips & chirps. If I had MORE BEER, I could stay out until the thrushes tune up!
FAIZ is so GREAT – why didn’t I see this before? [I have owned the book for years, but wasn’t overly impressed on previous readings.]

“The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

“Oh, God of May, have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection,
make the dead veins flow with blood.

“Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.”

[This is the latter half of the poem “When Autumn Came,” a political poem (in part)]

(the translator Naomi Lazard must be a true poet too)

Porcupine hunching down a limb (I hear it first, then look) – rests in crotch for half a minute, ascends other limb.
We have this much in common: we both love trees!
P. climbs four feet up & stops, does nothing for many minutes, wedged in another crotch. a snooze?
O.K., I’ve had enough – taste beginning to creep under my tongue (need water) [But see below.]
7:30 – birds quieting down – just vireo, goldfinches
Ten minutes later, P. still hasn’t moved. I think I will make fettuccini puttanesca for supper. But first, I feel an obligation to sit here and watch night come on. Sun now in tops of trees.
What was it my mother said, animals spend [on average] 60% of their time doing NOTHING? I believe it!
The pathos of drinking – one yearns to join Su T’ung-Po, Li Po, those fleeting moments they rendered immortal (for all practical purposes) – how I wish I could go back in time! But you know that THEY FELT THE SAME WAY – that pathetic nostalgia. “Drink sake and weep.” [This is a reference to the tanka poems in praise of sake by Otomo No Tabito (665-731). An example (Hiroaki Sato, tr.):
Better than to say things like a wise fellow, it seems, is to drink sake, get drunk, and weep]
7:45 – Porcupine is definitely taking a snooze. It looks so trusting.
Oops, it’s shaking its head. Sneezing, I think.
The sun retreats up the ridgeside, & just like that I can feel the cool coming on.
Irrationally solicitous for the beebalm on the other chair. (“Can I get you a coat?”)
P. scratches its head, adjusts its embrace [of the tree].
I can’t believe how quickly this buzz is fading (drinking and drugging is so self-indulgent)
Porcupine resumes climb! It’s 7:51. I need: coat, beer.
8:00 p.m. back from siphoning more beer. (Poetic symmetry for a man – beer passes through a hose twice)
Porcupine has climbed all of eight feet & is sprawled out asleep on a horizontal branch.
8:02 – first wood thrush [singing] – soon joined by a second.
(Almost full moon won’t rise till late – how am I gonna tear myself away for supper?)
8:07 – thrushes quiet again. Great-crested flycatcher, WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP (but never weepy!) A very prehistoric sound. This year I have really grown to appreciate them.
Train. Short-hand jazz.

No one ever invented onomatopoeia for a train whistle! All you can do is imitate – yodel, harmonica. That high lonesome thing. “Well I wish I was / In a lonesome holler . . . ” Oh right, I am.

C’mon, Mr. Tanager, give me a view.

Scolding squirrel. Cat?
What did I do with my fingers before I had a beard to tug on?
Even now that it’s July and the leaves have darkened, still so many different shades of green in view.
W. thrush off to left, cuckoo [singing] to my right.
Squirrel still scolding, Porcupine has ascended into canopy (I missed it, too many leaves in the way)
The Buddhist atheist says: There is no end to suffering. Deal with it.
For some reason, the cover of Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems [on the end table beside me] has a full frontal portrait of the sphinx. King as predator. Lost his nose despite his face. Still fucking sinister.
If I weren’t writing, I could be talking to myself. It feels good to be putting a jag to use! BUT I could also be putting the same thoughts to work in some harmonica playing. It’s a trade-off.

Alcohol keeps you at the stage of wanting to do ten different things at once – until you pass out. Mary G. Juana is so much more intelligent! Alcohol is a drug of distraction, cannabis is a drug of attention. Polar opposites. [Note to any law enforcement officers who may happen to read this: I do not buy, sell, or grow cannabis; I haven’t gotten stoned in years. But if it were legal, believe me, I probably wouldn’t be brewing half as much homebrew as I do.]
8:40 already!
The other major difference is that alcohol kills time, cannabis slows it down – alcohol makes you think more slowly, hence time passes more quickly. The THIRD difference [of course] is taste! I want pot that tastes like beer!
8:45 – must be close to sunset, maybe already past – Thrushes have been decidedly desultory [in their singing] so far. Fuckers.
Thinking about what Lekshe wrote about ego & illusion. It could be right. It should be right. Why can’t I let it be right?
Tanager still singing, thrush a ways off, toward Margaret’s house [a derelict dwelling a quarter mile from my porch]. “Chip BANG” – that’s a tanager, all right
Faiz Ahmed Faiz! Poet with a rhyming name!

“If a forgotten pain
in some corner of the past
wants to burst into flame again, let it happen.”

This is better than the blooze.
Someone explodes a firework in the valley – can’t tell which valley, due to the reverberations off the ridges.
8:45 – Now the thrush [is finally calling] right here – then two more – as light dims and my book becomes hard to read (good timing)
9:00 – first fireflies in the grass

I run my fingers over the page, stroke these poems – in English, in Arabic [script]. Nothing. what did I expect, [miniature ridges,] mountains? The page is smooth as the cheek of a too-young lover.
9:03 – first bat, dropping from the tulip tree I think. Thrushes are silent. Only a song sparrow. Then nothing.
Hello, sister mosquito!
Almost too dark to write. Why it seems so quiet: daytime crickets have hushed. I realize this when the first nighttime cricket starts up.
9:18 – [Next-to-]last entry ’cause I can’t see! I can hear chewing from the elm tree for the first time –
Night descends
[The nightly twin-propeller] cargo plane flies over
9:20 – P. climbs down tree – soft clack of claws on bark – Then leaf rustle as she heads up into the woods –

AFTERTHOUGHT: An amusing experiment, not something I’d want to make a habit of. There’s something inherently dishonest about the pretense of unmediated thoughts/reactions here. If you’re going to go to the trouble to record, it makes no sense not to go ahead and select, modify, polish into more shapely and interesting essay(s) or poem(s) – like this or like this. (In both those cases, however, nothing was written down before the poems themselves. Otherwise, I find, the poetry plays second fiddle to the prose. My ultimate goal – an idealistic one, to be sure – is to be able to think entirely in poetry. To me, that would represent true, unmediated thinking.)

How to make an egg salad sandwich

As Via Negativa goes into its fourth month, I’ve decided to introduce a new, semi-regular feature: favorite recipes. And I’d like to encourage other bloggers in the “spirit, place and ideas” end of the blogosphere to do the same. Here’s why.

A few weeks back, my cyber-friend and fellow blogger Tom Montag left a comment to the effect of, “There you go again tackling the BIG questions!” Although I’m sure he meant this as a kind of teasing compliment, it set me to wondering (being opposed to hierarchical thinking as I am): just what would constitute a little question? I couldn’t think of any examples. And I began to worry that my love of abstract thinking was turning me into a caricature – something like the Muskrat in the children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll. While Snufkin, Moomintroll and company spend their days making lots of wild, improbable discoveries and having fun, the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading and re-reading a book called On the Uselessness of Everything. He is a grump and a scold, but Moominpappa insists he be treated with the utmost deference. Somewhere along the line the book gets lost, and at the great end-of-summer party, when the Hobgoblin is granting everybody’s wishes, the Muskrat asks for another copy. His wish is granted, but the Hobgoblin’s magic inadvertently alters it just a hair: the new copy is entitled On the Usefulness of Everything. This leaves the Muskrat extremely disgruntled, of course; his youthful critics can barely disguise their glee.

Thinking along these lines, I typed out the following mea culpa:

I ask the big questions because I am too intellectually lazy to study the details. I seek out the exotic and the occult because my own life is a godawful bore. I speak with conviction partly to sound authoritative, and partly to convince myself. Who am I? I don’t have the foggiest notion. What do I do? I bullshit my way though life. It could always be worse. I could be working in advertising or public relations. But as things stand, I have an obvious and compelling reason to want to write at least one true thing. Poetry is the by-product of that Quixotic attempt. Everything else is footnotes.

Harsh, dude! And – like all breast-beating confessions – self-centered and false.

The truth is, I produce essential artworks everyday – not invariably great works, mind you, but undeniably essential. That is to say, I cook. I feed myself and others.

I hasten to add that I am neither a gourmand nor a highly skilled chef. I specialize in a whole grain, vegetarian-except-when-we’re-eating-meat version of what they now call “comfort food.” In Plummer’s Hollow, the stew and the casserole reign supreme. I don’t give a rat’s ass about presentation (though I do appreciate it when eating out) and I’m afraid I eat way too quickly to pay attention to subtle nuances of flavor most of the time. If eating alone, I will distract myself by reading or listening to the radio while I eat. If eating with others, the art of conversation takes precedence. A little more mindfulness around here might be in order.

Actually, the last-named habit may not be entirely negative. Rabelais maintained that great thoughts could only emerge from dialogue, and then only under the influence of good eating and drinking – the typical Renaissance view, according to Bakhtin and Illich. But here too I may be in trouble: 90 percent of the content of this weblog has been written before breakfast!

This morning was an exception, mostly because I slept in until 7:00, then had to start in on laundry before I did anything else. I ate what I eat every morning: two fried eggs, sunny side up, with tarragon. I won’t give the recipe, because everyone reading this probably has equally strong, individualistic preferences for breakfast in general and how to fix their eggs in particular.

Instead, I would like to attempt to give the recipe for another egg product: egg salad sandwiches. My mother whipped up a batch of egg salad just yesterday that was superlative. I asked for the recipe, and found she had followed a decades-old clipping from Woman’s Day magazine, with one or two alterations. However, I want to go a little bit beyond the mere instructions and consider the whole recipe. If I ever write a cookbook (which would probably have to be a collaborative effort with my mom), here’s what the recipes would look like.


Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! First comes the zoning ordinance that says you can’t raise chickens in your backyard or in your rooftop garden! Well, why the hell not? So step number one in the making of a good egg salad sandwich is to talk to your neighbors. Chances are good that they, too, would like to keep a few hens, maybe a goat or two, not to mention enjoy the right to plant herbs and vegetables instead of grass in their front yards, as the French do. My friend the Sylph rallied the folks in her village and they managed to get the zoning ordinance amended. She now raises chicken. That’s right, just one chicken. She doesn’t eat very many eggs, I guess.

Be willing to compromise: no neighborhood should have to endure crowing roosters or screeching guinea fowl. Guineas have just about the best-tasting flesh of any domesticated bird, but if you value peace and quiet, don’t fall prey to the disingenuous claim that “they make great watch dogs!” Well, they do – if you want to be alerted every time a cricket looks at them cross-eyed. But I digress.

Don’t have a yard? More sophisticated political organizing may be required to start up community gardens. You’ll need local or state government assistance to get land – or else take the risk that some crazed capitalist running-dog mayor like Giuliani will call in the bulldozers and destroy years of work. Community gardens sound to me like a great reason to live in towns and cities, giving folks of different ethnicities, who would otherwise probably never talk to each other, the chance to trade seeds, gardening tips and (of course) recipes. Finding enough area for a small, cooperatively managed chicken coop with a large fenced run might be tricky, however.

There are other options for getting good eggs. You could visit/help start a local food co-op and/or farmer’s market; become a shareholder in a CSA farm, or simply find a local farmer or gardener who raises chickens right.

The important thing is this: the best-tasting eggs come from free-range chickens, period. The difference in taste between factory-raised and free-range or “scratch” eggs is roughly equivalent to the difference in taste between white bread vs. whole wheat, or Miller Lite vs. a microbrewed IPA. Whether or not the chickens are fed organic, non-GMO mash isn’t nearly as important in determining taste. The eggs don’t need to be fertilized. And the color of the shell is irrelevant: yes, Leghorns are the Holsteins of the chicken industry, but they are still bright enough to be able to do what all chickens (and very few humans) will do if given half the chance: balance their own diet. Left to their own devices, chickens like to eat a whole lot of weeds, worms and insects. They also stay healthier if they have an area where they can regularly take dust baths to keep ectoparasites under control, and the less confined they are, the less often they resort to cannibalism.

The yolks of free-range chickens should be bright orange, not the sickly yellow of supermarket eggs. Another thing to look for is shit on the shells. I’m serious. In any given dozen, at least a few eggs should appear fairly filthy. This is desirable because it shows that the eggs haven’t been washed. Chickens produce a thin, invisible film on the outside of the shell that helps extend the shelf life of the egg. As far as I know, it’s impossible to wash the eggs without removing that film – though I suppose the egg factories might have some way of dry-cleaning the eggs.

This brings us to another important ingredient: consumer education. In The One-Straw Revolution (one of this weblog’s foundational texts), Masanobu Fukuoka discusses the difficulty of selling organic fruit: not only will its skin or rind have some blemishes, but a fully ripe mandarin orange, for example, should be slightly shriveled. “Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.”

In a chapter entitled “Commercial Agriculture Will Fail,” Fukuoka discusses eggs and chickens from an economic point-of-view. “I have been thinking lately about white leghorns,” he says. “Because the improved variety of white leghorn lays over 200 days a year, raising them for profit is considered good business. When raised commercially these chickens are cooped up in long rows of small cages not unlike cells in a penitentiary, and through their entire lives their feet are never allowed to touch the ground. Disease is common and the birds are pumped full of antibiotics and fed a formula diet of vitamins and hormones.

“It is said that the local chickens that have been kept since ancient times [in Shikoku], the brown and black shamo and chabo, have only half the egg-laying capacity. As a result these birds have all but disappeared in Japan. I let two hens and one rooster loose to run wild on the mountainside and after one year there were twenty-four. When it seemed that few eggs were being laid, the local birds were busy raising chickens.

“In the first year, the leghorn has a greater egg-laying capacity than the local chickens, but after one year the white leghorn is exhausted and cast aside, whereas the shamo we started with has become ten healthy birds running about beneath the orchard trees [and fertilizing the mandarin oranges] . . .

“Commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals and hormones . . . The farmer who produces . . . eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer.

“Now if it is manufacturing you are talking about, you will have to do some fancy figuring if you want to make a profit. Since the commercial farmer is not making any money, he is like a merchant who cannot handle the abacus. This sort of fellow is regarded as a fool by other people and his profits are soaked up by politicians and salesmen.”

Fukuoka and many other organic farmers, ecologists, and prophets of the new “slow food” movement stress three main points: buy locally, eat seasonally and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. For eggs, that may mean cutting back in the winter, when most breeds (other than leghorns) slow down their laying considerably. I must admit we compromise on this point and buy some commercial eggs during the winter months, due partly to my two-eggs-a-day habit and partly to the pragmatic reality that, absent fresh vegetables, egg-based dishes are an important option for an otherwise fairly bland winter diet.

But eight or nine months of the year we can count on being able to stop once a week and pick up several dozen from a small back-to-the-land-type farmer named Carol. Her house is right off the small highway that also runs past the orchard where we buy much of our fruit, so it’s convenient. She puts out a funky little sign with a painting of a chicken right beside a little table with a picnic cooler on it. You take out as many eggs as you want and put your money (or an IOU if you’re short) in the cash box. Competition is fierce, and Carol’s response has been not to raise prices (bizarrely, she charges less than the supermarket) but to try and prevent her institutional customers from cleaning her out – there are any number of local restaurants who would buy her entire supply every day, but she won’t let them. Last year, as we got more friendly with her, she agreed to let my mother call and leave a message on her answering machine the night before our weekly shopping trip, and to set aside as many dozen as we request. They’ll be wrapped up in a plastic bag, stapled shut with a note often containing some personal message.

The message here is simple: know your farmer!

We raised chickens for many years when I was a kid, and one time I even plowed through a hundred years’ worth of USDA pamphlets on poultry farming for a project in history class. So as you can readily imagine there’s a lot more I could say on this subject. But recipes should be fairly brief, so I’ll confine myself to one final observation before moving on to the other ingredients: expect variation in taste from one egg to another. I think it’s fair to say that the demand for uniformity in taste grows out of – and helps reinforce – the industrial mindset.

I believe strongly that as eaters, as creators, as thinkers and as citizens we must resist mass production in every way possible. If you’re able to get eggs from a farmer like Carol, or to raise your own, you’ll notice an amazing thing: they come in all sizes and several shapes! In the spring, new layers commonly lay eggs with two yolks. Hence the imprecision of this and all true recipes. Hard-boil somewhere between five and eight eggs, preferably not fresh, but aged at least one week. This will make them much easier to shell. Also, be sure to plunge them into cold water immediately after removing them from the heat. Finely chop the shelled eggs using whatever tools and implements you like.

The other fundamental ingredient can take the form of either cream cheese or mayonnaise – preferably the former. The problem with mayonnaise is that to get it really good you have to make it yourself. That’s not at all difficult, but it means you will be eating raw eggs. We used raw eggs regularly, for eggnog as well as for mayonnaise, as long as we raised our own chickens. But with the growing proliferation of salmonella (due to industrial farming techniques, of course) we’ve been unwilling to risk it since, even with Carol’s eggs.

Everything I’ve said about obtaining decent eggs applies to other dairy products as well. Again, we happen to be fortunate in having access to a great local dairy which, while not organic, avoids hormones and other excesses of industrialized farming. Do your best. You’ll need about eight ounces of cream cheese, softened – otherwise use roughly a quarter cup of mayonnaise.

Almost as critical is the addition of one small onion (also approximately 1/4 cup), also finely chopped. A sweet onion or mild leek might seem like a good idea here – try it if you like. But I really feel that the bite of a regular onion gives the best results. I should add that if you have space for a garden, onions are supremely easy to grow from sets. Any container will do – you can grow them in your window sill. I must admit we don’t bother, however, preferring to support the local Amish truck farmers (some of whom even follow organic methods, though they’re not business-savvy enough to advertise the fact). The Amish are exemplary farmers because they put land and community ahead of personal profit (which is not to say they are communists – far from it). When we can’t get eggs from Carol, we’ll try and get them from the local Amish, even thought they’re not from free range chickens. It just makes one feel good to support people who don’t buy insurance, borrow money from banks, fight in wars or hire lawyers, who keep institutions to a minimum and who choose their leaders by lot. And needless to say, one rarely has to worry that something from the Amish was made by mass production techniques.

Salt and black pepper round out the list of essential ingredients. A whole treatise could easily be written about either one, but as I said, I’d like to keep this brief. Iodized salt? Sea salt? Kosher salt? Fresh-ground black pepper? I must admit, the last phrase immediately raises my blood pressure, conjuring up visions of snooty waitresses in absurdly overpriced chain restaurants with terrible food. Rants, however, have no place in a good recipe. Like any essential art, cooking should ennoble rather than degrade, nourish rather than produce indigestion. This sounds old-fashioned – I don’t mean to downplay the occasional usefulness of shock value (but how many “Piss Christs” does the world really need?). I simply feel that, in order to strike a proper balance between process and product, the maker should cultivate a playful attitude, consisting of about one handful each of equanimity and dynamic tension, seasoned with a dash or two of irresponsible pleasure (substitute joy if not available) and accompanied by a sizeable helping of temporal awareness. (Few other arts are as time-limited; if any culinary creation could be said to be immortal, it would have to be through recollection alone.)

In fact, I’ve been thinking recently that the most important ingredient in the creative process and/or product might be simply an enhanced quality of attention. This seems nowhere more true than of the culinary arts, oriented as they are to the daily alteration of consciousness through eating and drinking.

Now for the fun part. My mom’s old Woman’s Day recipe includes, in addition to the foregoing, 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper, 3 tablespoons chili sauce (for which she substitutes a good tomato salsa) and two thirds of a cup of chopped English walnuts. The result, as I said, is delicious. I don’t know if she has tried substituting pecans or black walnuts for all or part of the English walnuts, but that strikes me as one interesting possibility.

Bell peppers are a standard egg salad ingredient. A mix of colors would improve not only the presentation but the taste as well. It’s a surprisingly little known fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe pepper, and hence has not reached optimal sweetness. I suspect that the popularity of green peppers among 20th century cooks was a by-product of their easy availability, related to the invention of the refrigerator car and the consequent destruction of local and regional farmer’s markets. (How many East Coast residents still remember why New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State?)

We use a lot of frozen peppers in the winter. If you’re concerned about taste (which is, of course, a direct index of nutritive value), freezing and drying are in general much better than canning. Bell peppers of all colors are supremely easy to freeze if you have the freezer space. No blanching is required. Simply spread out the strips or bits on cookie trays, stack them up and stick ’em in the freezer for a day or two, then stuff them into ziplock bags.

If you have access to fresh peppers, the additional crispiness will change the character of the egg salad quite a bit. Otherwise, you could try substituting celery for part of the pepper. Or, given fresh peppers, you could take the opposite tack and roast all or part of them. Roasting peppers, garlic, etc. is a Mediterranean technique gaining favor among North American cooks. I’ve tried it, and I can vouch that it certainly does concentrate flavor in a unique way. It’s also fun to pull off the blackened outer skin. (Who knew bell peppers even had skins?) But oven-roasting seems wasteful to me unless: A) you’re using the oven for something else anyway; B) your oven is attached to the woodstove that heats your house (though it’s unlikely you’d be using it much during pepper season); or C) you have a toaster oven. Toaster ovens use quite a bit less electricity than their full-sized cousins.

I hasten to add that I have never tried putting oven-roasted peppers in egg salad, and I have my doubts about how well it would work. I simply raise the possibility. Of course, if you follow my mother’s lead and add some tomato salsa, you can use that as a way to introduce roasted peppers, both hot and sweet – and roasted garlic as well.

In my opinion, one of the keys to good salsa is cilantro, a.k.a. Chinese parsley. I know there are some people who object to the flavor. But I love the stuff and use it as often as possible, either directly or by adding salsa to recipes. I bring this up because some egg salad recipes call for Italian parsley. Why not substitute cilantro? You’ll thank me for it.

Two other possible, exotic ingredients have a Mediterranean provenance: kalamata olives and capers (both finely chopped, of course). We get our olives directly from Turkey, via the husband of the owner of a local natural foods store who is an importer of Turkish carpets. Buying them in bulk like this makes the olives affordable enough to use in many dishes where we might otherwise leave them out: another way to jazz up a boring winter diet! I realize that some high-end supermarkets now include olive bars where one can select from dozens of different varieties. If that’s a priority for you, fine. But wherever possible we try to limit our weekly supermarket shopping to one stop, and to patronize a chain based in central Pennsylvania that relies heavily on PA farmers for its store brands (canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, etc.). We haven’t yet found a better source of capers than the canned Goya brand carried in this supermarket. I should mention that one recipe for egg salad with black olives and capers I’m looking at right now also calls for two teaspoons of prepared mustard.

So much for the egg salad part of the sandwich. Now, what about the bread? I’m afraid that in the interest of brevity I’ll have to leave that side of the equation unsolved for, at least for the time being. Use whatever bread you want. But for my money there’s nothing like egg salad on rye. And a good rye bread is worth a considerable quantity of blood, sweat and tears . . .

With this easy-to-follow recipe, I hope I have redeemed myself a little from the charge of being preoccupied with Big Questions to the detriment of truly useful subjects. Perhaps I have even managed to convince one or two readers that thinking and living need not be mutually exclusive activities. But what does it have to do with the via negativa, ostensible subject of this weblog?

In a word: everything. What could be more mysterious, farther beyond the reach of language than taste? Long gone are the days when scientists thought that flavor could be dissolved into a simple trinity, like light. Food scientists now recognize thousands of unique flavors, each indescribable except through comparisons with other flavors.

Eating, it seems to me, is the ultimate encounter with suchness. “O taste and see . . . “