Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

19.7.13

A Shorter History of Melancholy Literature.

Of course, in the last year of school, we had had an unofficial competition to judge the most miserable book on the curriculum. That year the education bureaucrats, in a final post-modern lurch towards literary desolation, thought it would be a good idea to make English Literature students plumb the depths of human misery on the written page. One prescribed book after another excavated the quarry of human melancholy. The buzzword of the time was 'alienation', a word as common then as today's 'diversity' or 'sustainability'. We took to the task with a morbid sense of purpose.

Across the year, I moved through the catalogue of misery slowly, like reading tombstones in a cold empty cemetery. Long Day's Journey Into Night was a day in the life of a dysfunctional, drugged, drunken family who verbally abuse each other as the light dies and the fog rolls in. The End.
Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill
Desolation score: 2.5 stars.
Summary: Sheer bloody-minded Irishness and mock bravado meets mind-bending substances coming down the stairs. As usual, it’s the children who suffer.

The ‘one-day’ series continued with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan is a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp, such a humane place that if the temperature sinks below minus 41 degrees, outdoor work is excused. Nothing else happens. The End.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Misery score: 3 stars.
Summary: Work with Uncle Joe.

In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a juvenile British thief is bribed with freedom if he wins a running race. In a leading position, he throws the race as an act of defiance, figuratively cutting off his nose to spite his face. Had he done so literally, the book would have been no less gloomy. The End.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe
Melancholy score: 3.5 stars.
Summary: Juvenile races back to jail.

In the third successive book set behind bars, the 'hero' in The Stranger murders a man, is unrepentant, is sentenced to death and then has a pointless argument with the prison chaplain prior to his execution. The End. (I read this in French. It was just as miserable as in English.)
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
Anguish score: 4 stars.
Summary: Existentialism will get you nowhere.

Fleeing ravaged characters and incessantly depressing storylines in the USSR, the UK and Europe, we found ourselves late in the year in the subcontinent where, in A Passage To India, Adela and her prospective mother-in-law, hoping to see the 'real India', visit caves with a local. Strange echoing noises confuse the party, Adela's mother-in-law abandons her and bolts, and Adela gets lost in a cave. In an early literary case of dissociation, Adela accuses the local guide of abuse, her mother-in-law dies en route back to England and Adela's fiancé breaks off the engagement. The End.
A Passage To India by E. M. Forster
Despair score: 4.5 stars.
Summary: Never take your mother-in-law into a cave.

India having proven just as miserable as everywhere else, we concluded the year in an upper middle class New York household in Washington Square. Surely we had left the gloom behind in the Malabar Caves. But no. Catherine has not had a good start in life, her mother having died giving birth to her, and her only brother having died two years earlier. Motherless and brotherless, Catherine finds she is also a disappointment to her father, Dr Sloper. He later bars her marriage to the only man she has ever loved, justifying the decision after snooping into his affairs. Thanks, Dad! Telling her he will disinherit her if she marries, Dr Sloper takes Catherine to Europe for twelve months to make her forget. But just as she is compliantly walking through the Swiss Alps with him, he cruelly reminds her of her suitor again. (Why Catherine does not at this point push Dr Sloper off into a frozen ravine is a mystery of literature, but one can only assume it is because Washington Square is a short book, written as a serial. Sudden murders are death to the serial.) Catherine might have expected some relief when her father finally dies of old age, years later. But unfortunately not. Dr Sloper continues interfering from the grave, having sharply reduced her inheritance to discourage her suitor. The End.
Washington Square by Henry James
Wretchedness score: 5 stars.
Summary: Father knows best, even when he is dead.

And so, in gaining a perfect five star score, Henry James took out the 1974 St Bernard’s College English Literature class Misery Prize for a book so unrelentingly unhappy, even the author reputedly never wanted to read it again. Surely a great recommendation in itself!

17.7.13

Oh no, not the dog ...

Some books just disappear. Then they resurface, years later.

I found A Man About a Dog, by Alec Coppel, in the back of a dim, dark secondhand shop (which oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, reminded me of the shop in The Painted Mirror episode of iconic 1970s horror series 'Night Gallery'). Published in London in 1947, the slim volume was in brand new condition and had probably sat untouched on a shelf for sixty years until its owner died.

The story:

Clive, a psychiatrist, is married to Storm, who has a lover, Bill. Storm also has a Scottish terrier, Montgomery:
'Montgomery was quite a lad. Jet black, relieved only by that flash of scarlet tongue, as worn by all the best Scotties, slightly protruding through the teeth.'
Clive catches Storm and Bill in the act. Storm storms off, and Clive takes Bill at gunpoint to a place whose location is not revealed to the reader, or to Bill for that matter. Here, Clive restrains Bill via an ankle chain for some months, until speculation about his disappearance dies down sufficiently that he can be dispatched. For this purpose, Clive has an idea for a perfect murder: an acid bath.

So he tries it out.

On Montgomery.

Then he puts it into human practice.

On Bill.

But Storm is still on the scene, unaware of Bill’s fate. When she taunts Clive about other affairs, Clive produces Bill's teeth (his only remains) on a string and places them around her neck, telling her what he has done.

Clive then discovers a hidden microphone in the room, and mistakenly believes his game is up. As a last murderous act, he dilutes Storm's hot bath with enough acid to do to her what he did to Montgomery and Bill, while she is changing in her bedroom. In the penultimate scene, Storm drops her negligee to the floor, and poses one leg over the bath, about to step in.

And then a bell rings downstairs ...

*

A Man About a Dog, by Alec Coppel
Published by George G. Harrap, 1947, London

Don’t ask for it in your bookshop. Or your library. It disappeared years ago. I may have the only copy left. As far as reading goes, this kind of over-the-top horror, which is really black comedy, doesn’t so much rekindle an interest in reading as pour petrol on a raging fire. Quick! Get me another one!

*

Born in Melbourne, Alec Coppel attended Wesley College, where his English master might well have remarked on the correlation of the colour of Alec’s uniform and the nature of his prose. Coppel dropped out of medicine at Cambridge and wound up in Los Angeles, co-writing Hitchcock’s Vertigo among other films. A Man About a Dog was filmed as Obsession (released as The Hidden Room in the US) in 1949.

16.7.13

Disappearing into stories.

A bookseller discusses reading therapy in last week's Weekly Review:
Every day in our bookshop we meet customers keen to 'disappear into a story' but who are struggling to find, or regain, their literary mojo. Some ... suffer a reading disorder. ... We meet customers with health issues; their chemotherapy, or post-op recovery, drug treatments, or sheer exhaustion, have affected their attention spans. 'I just want an easy read' is a common request from the unwell, the infirm, the emotionally drained, the weary.
The writer's 'remedial' reading list includes J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach.

Uplifting or wrist-slashing? Is Catcher in the Rye more likely to reignite one's literary passion, or kill it stone dead? Some of those books are icons of a particular kind of mid-twentieth century literary mindset. It must be difficult being a bookseller. Do customers ever walk in and say 'That last book was too easy. Give me something I can't get through'?

I read history and edge-of-seat detection for escapism. The faster the pages turn, the quicker the cure. George Orwell described an early James Hadley Chase novel as 'a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a word wasted or a false note anywhere'. Chase mixed crime, detection, hatred, murder, insurance salesmen and gothic horror. He wrote about a hundred books and you can't get them any more. They've all disappeared. Chase was a bookseller when he started writing. He must have known something.

*

Of course, there's more than one way of disappearing into a story. Another tomorrow.

11.7.13

Forget nasty animated movies in the major cinemas: take your children to the library during the holidays.

Two teaspoons of salt? someone exclaimed (re yesterday's recipe).

It’s not that much, I replied. Indian main courses are meant to be small serves filled out by much more rice or bread and vegetables. And in any case, these recipes are upfront about their ingredients, instead of sneaking them in progressively like some others.

Take a British-style beef stew, for example; in which the beef is shaken in seasoned flour before being browned. How much salt goes into the flour? More than a shake. Then stock is added to the stew. How much salt in the stock? Who knows. The rest of the seasoned flour usually thickens the stew. If it is served with potatoes, these may be cooked in salted water, mashed with more and then salted further at the table, as are any side vegetables. The whole thing may then get a downpour of Worcestershire, HP, tomato sauce or similar. Thoroughly delicious: and by that stage, quite salty.

The curry, on the other hand, is garnished with yogurt and herbs. In other words, you start out with a lot of salt (for preservative purposes in the subcontinental climate, if nothing else) and it gets gradually weakened by context, where the other dish starts slow and finishes like a train. A salty train.

*

Kath-Lynn asked in comments about grating tomatoes. It’s just a way to process the tomato without the complication of removing the skin. Just rub the tomato up and down against the grater, and it will just about disappear of its own accord, leaving the skin to protect your hand. You can deseed if you wish, but it's not necessary for dishes of this kind. It's also a good alternative if you don’t have a rapier-sharp knife for dicing something soft and squishy. Anything less than a super-keen edge has them collapsing like circus tents.

*

School holiday update: the children have returned from the seaside. Forget the museum or the zoo during school holidays; you’ll lose them among two million other children. Take them to the State Library and make them read books. Just kidding, but only partially. Their mother brought them in today, and I met them for lunch before they went on to the Library, a treasure trove of exciting old exhibits upstairs and a vast open space on the ground floor where children can play lifesize chess, take books inside floor tepees and read them (for hours if they like) or draw pictures with the vast amounts of supplied pencils and paper. Parents can relax, or sleep for that matter, on the large lounge chairs supplied. We’ve been coming here for years, usually on Saturday afternoons after coffee at Brunetti city square and perhaps rice in Chinatown, and my usual routine in the Library is to take some obscure volume from the new releases table adjacent to the open space and immerse myself in an unfathomable subject while the children amuse themselves. Then across the road to Melbourne Central Station and home. Probably the most civilized children’s activity in Melbourne, and two great things about it: (a) no-one knows about it, and (b) it’s free. On the way out you can look at the ongoing photographic displays in the gallery on the left before the exit. Just finished is Gusto! A History of Cuisine in Melbourne and prior to that As Modern as Tomorrow: Photographers in Post-War Melbourne. Currently, Free, Secular and Democratic is an exhibition based on the library itself, to mark the centenary of its amazing dome. Forget sporting stadia, Melbourne’s best dome sits on the State Library.

10.7.13

Fragrant chicken soup with cardamom and coriander.

It used to be a department store, with six floors, linked by an escalator, with ceilings and interior walls and oil heating; and that was a long time ago, because buildings don’t have oil heating any more.

Then the department store closed and architects turned the building into a warehouse ‘shell’, and ripped out the top ceiling revealing skylights way above, and took away the concealing walls and heating pipes, and painted the stone cold walls behind them white; and, finally, cut a giant longitudinal floor-to-ceiling hole - almost the length of the building – through the floors on five levels, and put a steel stairway in the hole, with wire rope barriers winding around each level, so you didn’t go over the edge and fall to the ground. It looked like H division at Pentridge. You could stand at the bottom and monitor the inmates behind the wire around the perimeter at every level. Then the building was leased to a company whose workers sat at computer terminals all day, and froze.

I did some work there for two weeks and sat against one of the white walls on the alpine-like top level beneath a yawning skylight. For the first two days, a curtain of cold air fell down the cold stone wall behind my neck, and gave me a chill. On the third day, and on subsequent days, I wore a thick jacket, and a green scarf, and a hat; and sat at the screen for the rest of the week looking like a cross between the Michelin man and a duck hunter in search of a wilderness.

On the night of that third day, I went home and made soup. You don’t have to drink soup to warm up, all you have to do is make it, I said to myself as I chopped. Of course, doing both is even better, I replied, just to be saying something. The children were away that week, on school holidays, with their mother, somewhere where the sun was shining; so the house was just me and the ticking clock. She told me by phone that Tom had wanted to go in the water. I used to do that.

Fragrant chicken soup with cardamom and coriander

Fry six green cardamom pods in three tablespoons of hot melted ghee for a few seconds. Add two chopped onions and fry two minutes, stirring.

Add 1.5 kilograms of chicken cut into bite-size pieces, half a teaspoon of turmeric, and two teaspoons each of finely grated ginger, salt and pepper, and fry three minutes, stirring.

Add 1.5 litres of warm water, two grated tomatoes, one cup of cubed pumpkin, three tablespoons of chopped coriander, and one tablespoon of chopped parsley. Cook for an hour until vegetables and chicken are done. Add more water if necessary.

Before serving, add fresh herbs such as chopped celery, mint, more coriander, etc. Serve over boiled rice and add a spoonful of plain yogurt. If you like extra heat, garnish with rings of chopped fresh chilli.

4.7.13

Car buyer dizzy at prospect of pristine 1988 car.

Alright, straitened times.

So I had to sell the blue whale. (Warning: don't take heavy-handed irony in that story literally, I'm prone to exaggeration.)

Before buying it, the new owner, a retired car fancier, walked around it about a hundred and fifty times, which must be a world record. I thought he was going to turn into melted butter. But he didn’t, and bought the car, and drove away in a fairly straight line.

I know he will enjoy owning it because he told me the car would be joining, in his garage, an old Mitsubishi Magna and a 1970s Fiat 130. The latter model's engine was reputed to have come from the Ferrari drawing board. More likely, someone at Ferrari sent the Fiat designer a black pen to sketch it with. Fiat 130s are not seen on the roads any more as they cost a fortune to run, and then turn to rust. So in terms of initial and future outlay, buying my 760GLE would have felt like popping down to the shops for a litre of milk.

The 940 remains. It has recently ticked over 300,000 kilometres, assisted by Lui Lana of Austostrada Sportiva, who does nothing but change its oil every 5,000 kilometres.

1.7.13

The pizza that time forgot.

Do you still do the Vulcano pizza, I asked the girl. No, she said. But I’ll ask the chef. He’s been here about thirty years. He’ll know. She came back. What was on it, she asked, puzzled.

That meant the chef didn’t know. Hence I hadn’t been in this place for more than three decades.

It must have been the late seventies. I and my first wife used to dine here with her father and Penelope, his Canadian lover, the dimness of the restaurant’s brown-brick interior adding to an almost clandestine atmosphere. He and my mother-in-law had never divorced, but he lived with Penelope in a stark modern 1950s house that hung off sheer Coonan’s Hill like a light on a Christmas tree. My mother-in-law did not approve of her daughter seeing her father, a difficult situation solved by simply ignoring the disapproval.

My wife’s father used to order the Vulcano pizza from the menu. It was a thick-based pizza on which was built a fiery mountain of hot salami and prosciutto and fresh diagonally-cut jalapeno and other peppers, all topped with chilli-flecked pancetta just to ram the blistering message home. It was an early version of today’s affectation, the ‘artisan’ pizza, and was impossible to eat. Try some, he’d say. It made the hottest Mexican food taste like cold mashed potato in comparison. He ordered it as a kind of challenge. He liked challenges, hence Penelope. Sometimes we'd visit the cliff-top house where Penelope would make caviar on toast late at night and we would drink champagne while gazing out the panoramic window over Moonee Valley while he, an amateur thespian, told stories about the stage. Then we would drive away and my wife would officially forget she had seen him. What a dreadful thing to do to a daughter, to ban her seeing her father.

Sometime during the intervening period, the Vulcano pizza must have burned one too many customers and dropped off the menu; and I divorced and married again; and we had children; and when driving past I often said we should dine here again; and we never did, until last Sunday.

It just had a lot of hot stuff on it, I told the waitress, vaguely. I didn’t go into details. She suggested an alternative and I said that would be fine. I don't really care what I eat. I just wanted to know if the chef had remembered it.

The occasion was William’s birthday. He was born on my father’s birth date, and this year William turned eight, and the man for whom he was named would have been ninety. Median (or is it average?) law should make me forty-one. I’ll take that.

We hadn’t booked, and the fallback was to be the Japanese restaurant over the road; but while the place was almost full, we got a table that had just been vacated and hadn’t been made up yet. We waited two minutes and were seated right down the end, with my back to the warm brown bricks and a partial view down a long aisle past the pizza oven and takeaway section back to the front window and the cold street beyond. Outside, the ancient wine barrel bearing the restaurant’s name still hung over the doorway, rocking in the breeze, just like it did when I dined here with Penelope and the exes in the 1970s.

The dimness is still there, but now they put white butcher’s paper on the tables for each sitting instead of gingham cloth, and a wide-screen television broadcasts sport – quietly – over the bar. We arrived late in the third quarter of St Kilda v Richmond. The waitress brought menus, which is when the Vulcano question came up.

We ordered drinks. A minute later she placed a carafe on the table and it wasn’t even ironic: it was original. My own smoky memories mixed with the restaurant’s actual time-warp décor artefacts were doing strange things to my head. I took a mouthful of wine and watched Richmond kick another goal on the screen. I thought I had glimpsed Ian Stewart – or was it Billy Barrott? - dart out of the centre but I couldn’t see whether he was playing for St Kilda or Richmond. Half an hour later the boys were singing the ‘yellow and black’ song, and they don’t even barrack for the Tigers. The wine was the house white. It was fine. Everything was fine. The night was fine. Life was fine. The pizza was fine. And if you don’t know what a carafe is, you’re not alone. Even I had almost forgotten.

Usually we take along a picture book or two for the young one, to keep her from doing what two-year-olds do in restaurants when they have finished speed-eating. We did this time as well (The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Taxi That Hurried, complete with chain-smoking driver), but these were not brought into use thanks to the paper tablecloth, on which she drew circles around her pasta stains, like a print production manager marking the proofs.

By now the noise was deafening, the kind of clamour that steals distinct sounds and turns them into a fused blast, making even loud individuals appear to be acting in a silent movie. Waiters race-walk past with six plates on their arm, a chef drops a giant pan in the kitchen, a customer smashes a glass on the tile floor, a child screams, but you don’t notice anything. It’s a wall of sound. Tracy spoke to me across the table and I didn’t hear a word she said; but her crisp grilled whiting, potato wedges and salad spoke volumes, silently. I couldn’t even hear the julienned raw carrot snap.

Later, my short black coffee was a detonation of acrid sweetness, which is exactly what a short black is supposed to be after pizza and wine. We didn’t stay for dessert, but on the way home, I turned the car into the McDonald’s drive-through for 30-cent cones for the children. It was about half past eight. Once home, they slept like three well-fed tigers.

La Botte Pizza House
221 Melville Road, Pascoe Vale South
9354 8813

Summary: if you want artisan, go one suburb south-east. This is original, not retro.