We’ve been in Vermont for just over a week now. The weather is brisk-going-on-cold. We’re living with our friends S & S, their two children E & T, aged 8 and 4 respectively and their two dogs Lobo & Skylar (the reason I’m naming the dogs while leaving the humans only initialed is that I’m guessing that dogs have fewer issues about privacy)(I may be wrong here, of course).
Amongst the varied pleasures of being here is (Amro, take note …) the food. S, who is a passionate believer in food-as-medicine-and-as-joy cooks only with organic ingredients, sometimes plucked from her own herb garden or vegetable beds. An excellent meal we had the other day is worth mentioning – but I should stress that it’s been one of many. I am singling it out for special mention only because I happened to make a note of the recipe (but I didn’t write it down so if I have mis-remembered it when I reproduce it here, that will only mean that some of you will have to try it out, realize something has gone wrong and then write furious comments to me, cursing my poor recall) – Star Pasta with Mussels in Scampi Sauce. You begin (of course) with the Mussels. Four tablespoons of butter, melted with olive oil – enough to just cover the bottom of a medium-sized pan – into which you add the mussels – S used canned baby mussels, three tins of about 400 gms each, including the water. She added a fistful of fresh-plucked chives, three medium-sized heads of garlic (peeled and crushed) and a cup or two of white wine and maybe three-quarter cup of lemon juice. Add salt to taste (though the brine in which the mussels are canned provides quite a bit of flavour). Cook for about 15 minutes and voilà. It is done and delicious.
The Star Pasta was something I’ve not had before. It’s just pasta, like any other, but shaped into TINY little stars – looked at edge-on, a cooked star looks exactly like a grain of rice – and when served, looks like a mound of grains except that they’re NOT grains. For some reason, the starry character of the pasta enters the mind and imagination of the diner – well, this diner, anyway -– so that the act of eating becomes quite ravishingly twinkly. I cannot describe it any other way! T in particular, caught quite a number of stars in her hair, on her elbows and on her cheek and whereas spaghetti similarly distributed about her person would have looked ridiculous, the stars looked frankly delightful.
Well! That gives you an idea of the kind of stay this is turning out to be. Marked by unusual thrills – which aren’t really thrills so much as daily life experienced through the prism of being an outsider to them. Another example: down the road from the house, there’s someone who maintains an emu farm. There are at least 12 or 15 of the creatures prancing around their out-door enclosure. They are about as tall as I am (when they stretch up) – i.e., five foot five – and extremely curious. As soon as they catch sight of someone walking by they trot towards the fence with a jerky-hoppy motion, their brilliant gamboge eyes glittering, their dark beaks closed and their long necks coiling this way and that, snake-like. They are covered with iron-grey feathers which look more like a pelt of long, stringy fur and where it thins out a bit on their throats, the skin shows beneath it, coloured a delicate shade of cornflower blue. From within those serpentine necks and despite the closed beaks, there comes an eldritch BONG! sound … Quite remarkable.
It’s fairly cold, even though it’s the end of April – and just in case you’re inclined to think I might be exaggerating let me inform you that yesterday afternoon, the mild rain had the cheek to turn into snow!! Not very serious snow, to be sure – it did not so much as remain on the ground – but it certainly turned the air into a fine blade, with the wind using one’s nose as its whet-stone.
This morning the puddles of rain that remained from the day before had frozen over, then cracked into muddy shards that looked exactly as if someone had broken a plastic dish and then thrown the pieces carelessly out into the yard.
I am pleased to say that, despite the many distractions, I have even managed to do a bit of reading. Over the weekend, I demolished a book called NOT BUYING IT, by Judith Levine. It’s definitely a must-read item even for someone like me – i.e, someone who doesn’t especially like to shop. The author has published four books besides being a free-lance journalist. She and her partner Paul live half the year in New York and half the year in Vermont (yes … there IS a connection … all will be revealed soon).
As she explains in the preamble to the book, it was while struggling to complete her Christmas shopping in late 2003 that she was suddenly overcome with disgust at the sheer overwhelming chaos caused by Homo Consumerensis. Instead of merely brushing aside her sense of unease at the volume and urgency of the shopping frenzy in which she and her fellow shoppers were wallowing, she chose to do something about it – by deciding to write a book about one entire year during which she refuses to spend money.
In the hands of a less honest, determined and conscientious author this might have been a dreary compilation of temptations resisted or obsessions revealed. Instead, it goes from the early days of 2004, during which Levine experiences real pangs of withdrawal from an activity she knew she enjoyed but had never before considered especially obsessive, to a greater and deeper awareness about the philosophy of runaway consumption that she and others like her are immersed within; about the impact upon the planet of such an attitude; about the echoes she sees in it, in the political realities of the US, particularly in the days just before and then following George W. Bush’s election victory at year end.
By the time her year of denial has come to an end, she is neither especially relieved to know that the “ordeal” is over nor does she truly regard it as an ordeal, now that it is almost behind her. She has learnt to appreciate economies that she hadn’t seen the value of before and she has discovered the painful bald spots appearing in the once healthy and vigorous public domain of America – the libraries that are pitifully over-used and under-funded, the public services that are running down.
During her stay in Vermont, she and Paul become involved in a protest against a proposal to build an unsightly cell-phone tower not far from where our hosts/friends S & S live. They had become intimately involved in the protest. Believing as they do in the urgent need to re-think economic priorities with ecological sanity and the planet’s best interests in view, they were of course passionately opposed to the cell-tower. Levine refers to them in her book – which is of course a powerful incentive to read the book for a guest living in their house! – and by the end of the year, the tower, though sanctioned, is down-sized so that it is less of an eye-sore. It has not yet been built (it may never be) and so, to this day, we do not have cell-phone reception here. But the phones work perfectly well, and so does the Internet and in all truth, without traffic jams to be stuck in, or a social round to maintain, the lack of cell-phones hardly matters AT ALL. And that’s from me, a gadget-lover and SMS-fiend.
In a sense Levine’s book formed an interesting – might I go so far as to say piquant? – counterpoint to the book I had JUST finished reading, called Julie & Julia (I mentioned it in my previous post but didn’t get around to posting a link) which was, by contrast, entirely about consuming – food, that is, of the richest and most gourmet kind. Julie Powell (the author of that book) also created a year-long programme for herself and wrote a book around it and became something of a celebrity too – though it is unclear whether she will go on to sustain her place in the sun with more books. It’s silly, of course, to compare the books, because they really have very little in common and would probably not be mentioned in the same context except for the fact that I read them one after the other. Still – since I DID do that – it interested me to hear echoes from one book to the next. The powerful allure of food and eating in the first book, the way that it connects so many people to the thirty-year-old author’s personal aim of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking and the powerful siren-song of the shopping plaza sounding in the ears of the second author, as she struggles to resist the urge to buy herself new clothes or see the latest films or buy an unnecessary trinket as a present for her niece upon her Graduation Day from University.
If it isn't already obvious, I strongly recommend both books. Dunno if they're easy to find/order in Delhirium, but I expect The Bookshop, Jorbagh and also Strand Bookshop in Bombay would be able to order them.