The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, November 30, 2007

two books about eating

Leaving Heathrow on Monday morning, I had breakfast at an Irish pub (what's wrong with a pint of bitter at 10am?) and ate what they called a "typical Irish breakfast": eggs, potatoes, bacon, and "black pudding." I had my suspicions about black pudding but tried it anyway; it was fairly innocuous, if a bit cloying. I was not pleased, then, to get on the airplane, start reading Zola's THE BELLY OF PARIS, and discover that a key ingredient is a whole lot of fresh pig blood. Ugh. I have been on a bit of a Zola kick over the past year, and after a long-standing debate within my wife's family about the proper pronunciation of the Parisian market Les Halles (lay all, or lays all?) I was thinking about Les Halles, and then discovered that Zola wrote a novel all about the giant 19th-century market. THE BELLY OF PARIS is, as the Sun and Moon edition jacket copy says, "little known in English." But Sun and Moon put out an edition in 1996, and Oxford is publishing it in the US this year.

Like many of Zola's novels, the plot isn't much; it's all about the immersion in the details of a group of people in a very particular milieu. At times the novel seems like a basic framework intended just to string together a bunch of set pieces about food. Zola revels in the different food stalls in the market, enumerating the various kinds of cherries or fish or sausages available. His descriptions go from savory to disgusting, precisely in the same way that eating far too much rich food goes. I don't think I'm going to ever forget the pages about the making of sausages, black puddings, and the like--I could smell the fat in the air and could only imagine--given how modern scrubbing techniques still can't get the grease smell out of fast-food joints--the smell of the small unventilated basement rooms in which the butcher boils fat. I wanted some very vivid, tactile, olfactorily unforgettable descriptions of the Paris markets circa 1860 (because I have become very interested in farmers markets today and have been to some huge comestible markets, in places like Oaxaca, that must be like what Les Halles was like back in the day.

I read THE BELLY OF PARIS on the way back from England, and on the way there I read another very similar (in subject-matter) book: Bill Buford's HEAT. I read Buford's amazing AMONG THE THUGS a year or so ago and was amazed--it's about a very smart writer--a guy who ended up being the fiction editor for the NEW YORKER and who founded GRANTA, for chrissake--who became so fascinated by the world of English soccer thugs that he joins them and even travels to international games to get involved in their riots. A real "new journalist," he gets far too involved in his subjects. HEAT is about his fascination with the celebrity chef Mario Batali and, ultimately, his quest to repeat, and even transcend, Batali's own training regimen. Unlike many big-time chefs, of course, Batali didn't train at a high-end place (CIA, Cordon Bleu), but rather at the most down-home kind of Italian trattoria. HEAT wavers between profiling Batali's life and strategy to start his own new kind of Italian place in New York, and Buford's own desire to learn what Mario does. Buford begins by working in Batali's kitchen at the great Babbo in Greenwich Village--and of course learning in the process the great traditions of the urban commercial kitchen, also elucidated well in Anthony Bourdain's KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. He then journeys to Italy to meet Batali's mentors, before coming to the realization that it's not enough to COOK the meat--you've got to butcher and cure it yourself--so he's off to the butt-end of Tuscany to learn that from the masters. The underlying theme of the book is one I'm increasingly drawn to: the disappearance of our relationship to the origins of our food. In THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA and FAST FOOD NATION the authors draw political conclusions from this; Buford is much more interested in the gastronomic and cultural ramifications. The most telling example he brings up is one that would be touch for any but a specialist to discern: there are cuts of meat typical in parts of Tuscany that just don't exist elsewhere, because the very ways that animals are butchered are rooted in place. At some level, this book is a lament for the rapid loss of those millions of local traditions that have determined how and what people eat. Culture, Buford says here, in a very literal sense begins with what we put in our mouths, and the complicated textures of world culture, he suggests, are quickly being flattened out.It's really a fantastic book, if characterized a bit too much by Tina Brown-era NEW YORKER fascination with celebrity.


back from England

I returned from England on Monday evening to find a stormy Pittsburgh (the lightning caused the Monday night football game to be delayed) and a house full of sickies. Everyone had a particularly nasty flu, which caused one of the boy's temperatures to shoot up to 105.4 at one point. Scary. They seem to be getting better, but they were both home from day care all week.

While they were languishing in illness, I was enjoying myself--ignorant of it all, I swear, because of my Blackberry's inability to receive email in England--in London. For the first time in years, I got to be in one of my favorite cities, and it was on a sunny, if chilly, November Sunday when it seemed like everyone was out. While in Oxford, I picked up a TIME OUT LONDON and so had a plan all ready to go. After a very early bus ride from Oxford to the city, I checked into my little chain hotel out next to Heathrow (it was cheap and close, if lacking in atmosphere) and caught the express into Paddington. From there I was a madman. I hit the Imperial War Museum's great, great exhibition "Weapons of Mass Communication", a display of war posters from Europe and North America. Most of the posters were from either WWI or WWII, but at the end the museum wisely, if spottily, included just a few of what must be an enormous archive of ANTI-war posters from Vietnam to the second Iraq war. The museum also had a strange little exhibition on the strange little Falkland Islands "war," and a permanent collection of war machinery such as tanks, guns, planes, submarines, etc. The place was full of families with their children, and I know my boys would really like it, but I do have some qualms about the comment-less display of destructive machinery. It's better than the "gee-whiz!" displays you'll get here from the US Army at county fairs, street fairs, etc., aiming to appeal to boys who like big machines, but it's still pretty bloodless, given the real point of those machines.

From the War Museum I headed up to the British Library, which I had always assumed was in the British Museum but isn't. They were featuring "Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937." I've seen much of this material (printed matter from modernist movements) before, at the Dada show at the Smithsonian and at the modernist design show at the Corcoran, for instance, but it's always cool to see everything in one place. And as much as I can like William Morris and those late-19th c. designers, too much of them really makes you realize why the simple declarative cleanliness of modernist design and typography was a breath of fresh air.

I wanted to go to a street market. I've been to Portobello Road, although it's always worth returning there, but I wanted to see something new and to see a part of London that's completely new to me. So I consulted a few people who know the city and they told me to try the Old Spitalfields Market in East London. It was great, everything I was hoping for--a combination of Portland's Saturday Market with its soapmakers, meat-pie makers, and clothing designers, and Rome's enormous Porta Portese market, with its endless stalls of cheap clothing, luggage, and every other Chinese-made commodity you can imagine. I got some Christmas shopping done. I did want to find Brick Lane, the famed street of Indian restaurants, but my sense of direction failed me and I gave up.

The day's final stop was the busiest: Covent Garden and the just-reopened London Transport Museum. Even an hour before closing the line stretched well into the Covent Garden plaza. This museum's redesign was clearly influenced by the new trend in museums of being highly interactive and super kid-friendly: it is, in spades. Fantastic preserved omnibuses, double-decker buses, old Underground cars, and even a feature on reducing carbon emissions. I can't wait to go back with the boys.

Friday, November 23, 2007

the turf tavern

Ever since I had my first confrontation with pub food--at the great Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Oregon--I've been afraid of it. The Scotch egg was something, once we discovered it, my housemates and I made into a running joke: like Mike Myers said in SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER, it's cuisine based on a dare. (And that was before the age of portable defibrillators, so we couldn't even reference those.) So in my past trips to England I've scrupulously avoided eating in pubs, even though I love warm English beer. But I'm in Oxford--I'm here to speak at a conference, and for the honor I had to leave my family on Thanksgiving Day and watch the Dallas and Green Bay games at a Legal Seafood in a deserted Logan Airport--and I arrived here very early this morning. I had a very traditional English breakfast (ham, bangers, egg, toast, canned baked beans) at the Queens Lane Coffee House, reputedly the oldest coffee house in Oxford (1654 is what they claim), killed time at a Starbucks while waiting for my room at the Spartan but adequate Oxford University Club, then took a jet-lag nap, then went for a long, chilly, and aimless run and ultimately got lost on the beautiful Thames Path. Getting lost on a tow-path, though, is the best way to get lost: it's pretty simple to backtrack.

So I was hungry, and I wasn't in the mood for anything but stick-to-your-ribs beef and good beer. I discovered, to my delight, that the pub named the Abbot Ale Perfect Pub UK-wide, the Turf Tavern, was two blocks from me. So I ignored some of the grumblings about the service and crowds there and went for both the suds and the food. Wow. It was perfect. I have always thought of those pies they serve as pubs as filled with the kinds of things that Anthony Bourdain would reject even for Tuesday's soups, but even if that was the case my beef-and-ale pie was fantastic. And I got to listen to dozens of undergraduates being undergraduates--and none of them were MINE.

I'm still pleased with the pub food at my own local, Piper's Pub on the South Side of Pittsburgh, but now that I know that Piper's isn't a magnificent anomaly but rather a very competent practitioner of an honorable tradition I'm going to be more critical. (I still love those hot curried fries.) I now see what they are trying to do, and why it's worth doing!

Monday, November 19, 2007


I think Dave Eggers gets a bad rap. He's too often seen as uber-ironic, hipster, precious in that BELIEVER way, but I just don't buy it. Yes, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS really has come to stand for a particular kind of late-90's hipster attitude, and YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY was slight, but I've been paying a little bit of attention to his recent projects (the reading education rooms in SF, LA, and Brooklyn, for example) and I heard him talk quite credibly about education at the CCCC conference a couple of years back, and although I kinda want not to like him I just can't do it. So I was interested in his most recent book, WHAT IS THE WHAT, a novelized autobiography of the Sudanese "Lost Boy" Valentino Achak Deng.

It's an impressive and genuinely moving book. As many reviewers have remarked, Eggers' voice is so knowing, so postmodern, so snarky-yet-earnest that it would seem impossible for him to lose it, but judging from this book he really is able to--which speaks well for his staying-power as a writer. The structure is really interesting. Throughout, Deng is located in the present in Atlanta, where he is being robbed, then waiting forever at an urban emergency room, then working at a health club, but while waiting in those places he narrates his long backstory, from an idyllic "primitive" (Deng has no problem using that word to describe his upbringing) childhood to years of nightmarish flight from war and starvation and wild animals to arrival and culture-shock in the US. It's angering without being angry: a tough task for Eggers and Deng to pull off. I'm definitely going to use it in my immigrant-lit class in the spring. And I'm going to try to get a speaker (perhaps Deng himself) to come, arranging it through the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Legume in Regent Square

I just heard that "locavore" is the Oxford Word of the Year. Oxford University Press, in their press release, explains "locavore" thus:

The “locavore” movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.

Aiming at locavore credibility, the wife and I went to Regent Square's new (five-month-old) Legume, which bills itself as "a little bistro" that celebrates local farms. Although it's not doctrinaire locavore (I had mussels and clams last night, for instance), much of the produce and meat does come from places like Kistaco Farms and the Kennedy family farm stand at the East Liberty Farmers Market.

The storefront used to belong to a mediocre, somewhat grungy pizza place called Mario's. Legume's owners have cleaned up the place nicely, although the floor could stand replacing (I suggest Saltillo tile). It's cute and small. The food itself was surprisingly good and fresh. We split a pretty credible field-greens-beets-and-goat-cheese salad; she had a hanger steak with mashed potatoes and squash (good and seasonal) and I had homemade fettuccine with shellfish, which was less local and less seasonal but still good. Everything was quite good, in fact--the pot de crème dessert was great and they gave you a little French press for coffee. Our only complaint was about the prices: the wife thought things were about 25% too expensive (and really, $6 for the salad was excessive) and I agree. I'm pleased that there's a place trying to do the West Coast, local-and-fresh-and-seasonal thing. It doesn't make sense to me that, in this very agricultural area, there's not more of that. So I don't begrudge them a LITTLE premium on their prices, because I believe in what they're doing and there's a way in which locavorism for restaurants is less convenient and more labor-intensive. (Just ask us on clean-the-Kretschmann-vegetables day.) But it's still just a bit too expensive. Otherwise, I'm all for it.

Oh--and we saw the Bruce Springsteen show at the Mellon last night. Fantastic. We sat behind Penguins announcer Paul Steigerwald at the show, but didn't know who he was. People were coming up to him and wanting to take photos with him. Fortunately, someone else was using her phone to text-message her friend that she was sitting next to Steigerwald, and by reading over her shoulder we learned who this guy was.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

construction project, after

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Here is our hole-in-the-wall, now. Cabinets installed, countertop on, lights installed, paint finished (thanks to the wife). I love it.

at the frat house?

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
I know he's only sixteen months old--but here, he looks like a goofy frat boy. I'm sure that this will be PART of his future; I hope it doesn't end up being his future.