flower mountain

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Just back from three days of luxury. It was at a place called Mont Fleur, in Stellenbosch, a.k.a the lovely Cape winelands.

Let’s see, a typical day: breakfast at 8, comprising the usual full spread (hot or cold, healthy or British, whatever, all with home-made bread and preserves). Tea at 10, with fresh scones, cream and strawberry jam (the stuff with real fruit). Lunch at 1, something “light” like a prawn and seafood skewer on a bed of wild rice with fresh salad. More of the good fresh bread. Tea at 4, with freshly baked lemon meringue (that’s mar-an-gyoo to you). Drinks from 5.30ish with snacks (peanuts, potato skins, pretzels and so forth). First course: blinis with smoked Franschoek trout and sour cream. Entree: Stuffed, deboned leg of lamb with pommes dauphinoise and a blah-blah jus. Dessert: Chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries. Or poached pears in a butterscotch reduction.

All accompanied, of course, with plentiful fine wine from the area. Some (no names mentioned) went on to after dinner drinks: Jagermeister, Amarula and so on.

Anyone hungry yet?

Well, I was, and it was all delicious. And in case you’re wondering what was happening in between all the feasting, it was a “writer’s workshop”. That’s another way of saying a departmental peer-review session. Or a getaway. Or a piss-up.

But let me not misrepresent. It was all useful in the ways that these things are, that is, in the way of picking you up and dunking you in a large barrel of icy water, which is both exhilerating and potentially deadly (if you should suddenly forget not to try to breathe underwater). They make you excited to come home and get on with your work and they also make you want to run for cover or look for work as a cashier. The ivory tower is a cold and magnificent place.

Page of Sage

So. Yes, it’s been a while. (Anyone else notice how the good old “while” has been speeding up lately? It just comes and goes, comes and goes.)

The week did not start on a good note. On Monday I met some bad mussels. They were good(ish) when I ate them but then something happened and I spent some time feeling bad.

Fortunately, though, I was strong enough to go for a steak the following evening (to replenish, you see). I was also lucky to be the only one in a party of six who was genuinely satisfied with my food. A medium-to-well blackened rump steak was just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday and Thursday came and went as Wednesdays and Thursdays do.

On Friday (yesterday) I got invited – in the capacity of lovely assistant to a friend who was DJ-ing – to a farewell party thrown by people in a big house with enough money. I was actually relieved of my assistant duties as soon as we arrived (who knows why…), so the first part of the evening was spent sitting on the porch drinking champagne while DJ-friend had to lug speakers around.

Then people began to arrive and one of them was lugging a cello in a big black case which he proceeded to unpack and provide us with his classical repertoire while the sun set and more people arrived and bubbles were drunk and there was general glitter and sparkle. There were also children jumping on a trampoline. It was very cultured.

When the cello silenced the DJ started doing his thing, and the rest of the evening was spent, variously, dancing, eating lamb breyani (pretty tasty for a 50-cover production), dancing some more, talking and, finally, sampling one of the SIX decadent cakes. I had the cheesecake.

I slept well, woke up well, and spent the rest of the day doing nice Saturday things: a bit of shopping, a bit of work (!), a leisurely swim and a long sauna.

On the air: Cassandra Wilson.
On the programme: a BBC series on DVD borrowed from the library.
On the table: whisky (Famous Grouse)
On the stove: a pan simmering with a good-smelling combination of mini-mushrooms, onions, lots of garlic and sage, a few olives and a splash of balsamic.

I wanted to take a picture of the lovely ingredients but I realise I forgot my camera at a house where I went for dinner a week ago. It’s a house with heated pool and a jacuzzi and much of the night was spent in a watery way.

Jacuzzis? Parties with cellos? Cultured indeed. I have good friends.

But sometimes there is nothing better than a Saturday evening at home. If I would like to see anyone tonight, it would be only be my father. I’d like to have a whisky with him. He could always appreciate coming to the end of a hard day’s work.

Bing-je-ling, it’s spring

So I’m supposed to be cleaning my flat. I promised my mother I would. I would put on some nice music, tidy up my mess, and then take a walk down to Kloof Street for a cup of coffee. She’s good at helping me come up with little plans to cheer myself up, my mother.

I have a good mother.

I am 31 years old. I live about 2000km from my closest family. I have a car and a washing machine and a nice little computer. Plenty of other mod-cons. Some books (not as many as I’d like) and a nice collection of wine glasses. Many of my friends can add to this list, variously: husband, wife, a house, child(ren), dog(s), cat(s), useful credit cards. I have none of the above. The only one I’d really (REALLY) like is a house. I am suffering intense house envy these days.

But I have a good mother.

Well, mor, I got as far as the music. But the music was so nice that I had to start dancing. And then (still dancing) I smoked a little cigarette (yeah, yeah). That was nice. Then I had a piece of Stimorol, also very nice: fresh, licorice-y (liquorishy?). Then I thought, rather than clean up, I should make a list of some of the things I like:

I like to dance in my socks in the middle of the afternoon
I like the first five seconds of a fresh piece of Stimorol
I like drinking sparkling water just after those first five seconds of a fresh piece of Stimorol (it gives a nice burny feeling in the throat)
I like to bake in the evenings
I like to walk by the sea
I like driving on deserted urban roads on Sundays
I like cold Snickers

Today I even like my mess. It makes me feel busy. So I think I’ll just leave it where it is, perhaps dance some more (we’re onto Prince now) and head on down to Kloof a bit later for that coffee. Or, maybe for some bin qi lin (“bing-je-ling”), my mother’s favourite word. It’s Chinese for ice-cream (not Chinese ice-cream). And it is spring, after all.

So that’s it then?

This is scary:

‘Having ignored reality for years, newspapers are at last doing something. In order to cut costs, they are already spending less on journalism. Many are also trying to attract younger readers by shifting the mix of their stories towards entertainment, lifestyle and subjects that may seem more relevant to people’s daily lives than international affairs and politics are.’
(The future of newspapers, The Economist)

Great. In another twenty years when the ‘youth’ have lost complete interest in politics, it’ll be tabloids all the way.

I suppose the only redeeming thing about this is that people will finally stop pretending to have any interest in anything that matters.

Let me not

mislead you into thinking that all the time I am not posting anything here I am busy reading Marx. That would be a misrepresentation.

In fact I’ve been involved in some indulgent socialising.

On Saturday night there was the rabbit fiesta. The specific recipe was taken from this book, I believe:

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Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the dish – come to think of it, I didn’t even see it in its finished state; when we got to the table it was all “plated” – but it involved bacon, which is always good. The rabbit was poultry-like, whereas I had expected something darker and gamier. But it was delicious, as was the parmesan’ed roasted fennel. The biscotti I had baked that afternoon were a hit with the post-prandial port. Much (though not too much) wine was drunk, music and conversation was good and there was almost a view of the city from the table.

It was a civilised way to spend a Saturday evening.

Sunday morning was also civilised. Much (perhaps too much) coffee was drunk in bed.

When I emerged into the world at around lunch time I discovered that a friend of mine was in dire emotional straits and needed tending. So Sunday afternoon was spent drinking champagne in the sun by the sea. A martini was also had, but only once the sun had set. It was all very civilised.

Then there was Monday (it’s still Monday). I received an unexpected and very pleasant lift when two students stayed behind after a class to tell me that they had read my Masters thesis while researching some project they’re working on. They were particularly impressed (as undergraduate students are, I suppose) by the fact I had actually read all the books listed in my bibliography (heh heh). They were also enthused about the content, and my arguments. And right there, on the heels of a very recent crisis about the point of what I’m doing, came the best affirmation of all: readers. I was quite touched. My thesis shall not gather dust.

I guess this makes it a good Monday. I also put together a nice little pasta sauce (salami, aubergine, tomato, wine) which would very shortly be meeting a bowl of spaghetti. But I’ve just now been rerouted to have dinner with another friend at the Ocean Basket, local (cheap) seafood down the road. Suits me nicely. Spaghetti tomorrow then.

On the question of what to do with your mind

Some of my friends tease me because I sometimes get animated about things I am learning. If I get a chance, I think I tend to go on abit. And I agree, it can be boring to listen to someone going on. But at the same time, how can you not talk about stuff that you read that is fascinating. Or that somehow helps you to make sense of things in a way that you haven’t before.

At the moment I’m reading Marx. And about Marx. Funny actually, since I have had, uhm, intimate relationships with more than two self-professed “Marxists” over the last decade or so and I, in my very naive understanding of the term, have argued with all of them about what I perceived as glaring contradictions between their actions and their so-called ideology. My basic point: how can you be a Marxist AND consume the fine things in life (whisky, cigars etc).

Well I’m not sure if those are still not contradictions, but that’s beside the point right now.
The point is I am in a state of fascination, even as I am still trying to grasp that fascination. I mean, how is it that someone’s ideas can be so important even though the main one – his predictions of the proletarian revolution and the “organic” decline of capitalism – never happened?

The intrigue is that once you pay attention to what he was saying, there is something infectious in his writing. Even in a monotone and frankly quite boring description of what a commodity is. Something like an old school master droning on and endlessly repeating himself, showing something between affectionate patience and an arrogant assumption of your stupidity.

But when you imagine that this kind of thinking has never happened before, and when you realise that so much of what you have read subsequently takes that first text as an assumption, then it is like – as my old history teacher Mr. Malaza used to threaten us with doing – like being pounced on by thunder and lightning.

Another funny thing I thought of is how when you read texts that are suggested by someone you look up to intellectually, you suddenly start to see where a lot of their own “brilliant” thinking comes from. And they slip a little notch off the pedestal. Just a little one though, because you also know that soon – if you keep reading – you will be up there too. Yup. Keep reading and soon you’ll be looking down on the gods and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Media

I’ve just read this line: ‘…a strategy is needed that defends the media from both public and private power, and enables the media to serve the wider public through critical surveillance of all those in authority’.

It comes from an essay on the so-called watchdog function of the media (this can be interpreted in many ways, all of which share the image of the dog; the only difference is who the dog is “protecting” – state, “public”, private shareholders, and so on). In each case someone is growled at.

I got stopped by this line because it’s rubbish. First of all, if the media is not, in it’s entirety, precisely an expression of public and private power, then I don’t know what it is. I mean, remove private and public power from the media, and what are you left with? Nada. Of course each form of media is infected with public and private power in different flavours and ratios and to different degrees, but still, that’s what it’s made of.

The media is one of those beasts that so completely saturates everything around it with its own importance and is, itself, so completely saturated that it’s absence has become unthinkable. A clever man once wrote that the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes visible. The media, likewise, is power made visible, both in content and form. (And yes, power is money, and the media is spectacle).

And then, ‘critical surveillance of all those in authority’? A pathetic joke.

The point is that it is always a very dangerous thing to talk of a man-made institution that needs to be ‘protected’, as if it has a life of it’s own and was born in a forest. There is no watchdog. Or if there is, it’s definitely not snarling. More like a big smelly wolfhound that invades your nostrils from around the corner, always lumbering around, but never going away.

Media demia dementia

Time to cook some spaghetti.

Is it really true?

foucault.pngSo I’m reading about the ancient Greeks and some of their ideas on the point of men and women in society – all this from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. And it’s the usual … ‘the gods endowed each of the two sexes with different qualities. Physical traits, first of all: to men, who must work in the open air “plowing, sowing, planting, herding,” they gave the capacity to endure cold, heat and journeys on foot; women, who work indoors, were given bodies that are less resistant. Character traits as well: women have a natural fear, but one that has positive effects – it induces them to be mindful of the provisions, to worry about losing them, to be in dread of using them up. The man, on the other hand, is brave, for he is obliged to defend himself outdoors against everything that might cause him injury.’

Of course the first thing that any emancipated woman does is scoff at these ludricrous ideas. “Typical”. “Sexist pigs” And so on.

But then I got to thinking. What if it’s all actually true? What if men and women really are born with these features, that they really are innate, and that the reason, then, that so many of us get confused so often is that we’ve made such a halabaloo about resisting them. Now I’m not talking about this in the extreme – suggesting, that is, that it is ever OK for a man to hit a woman because of some inborn subservience. No, I mean what if it’s really true that in some completely scientific (hormonal?) way, women have got this tendency to WORRY. You know what I mean? No matter how emancipated you are, sister, no matter how post-post-feminist, the truth is, you WORRY too much.

How many times has a conflict arisen because a man (lover, father, brother, friend etc) just doesn’t seem to CARE?

Yes, it’s true.

When they do care you can be sure they’ll be defending themselves against injury in the great outdoors. Indeed, I recently witnessed a man trying to kill a spider the size of his fist with a large and very long iron pole.
(He was protecting me, of course.)

A bit of ol’ Jamie

My Puttanesca take on Jamie’s Pasta alla Norma (well, we all know it’s not “Jamie’s”. But the inspiration came from a picture in a magazine which was taken from a picture from his book. I wish I could say it came from an old woman I once grew to love in an Italian village. But we are suburbanites, and suburbanites act according to their environments. Everyone does. Marx said so.)

Anyhow…

Take some aubergines and half-finger-size them then fry them in plenty hot olive oil till they look something like this:
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Then remove them, add a splash of balsamic to the hot pan, then some chopped onions, tomatoes, a touch of tomato paste (some form of canned tomato or passata could substitute the last two) and a nice green paste made of rosemary, garlic, salt and green chilli which looks something like this:

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Now, for the Puttanesca: add capers and olives. Oh, and a touch of water if it all looks too dry, especially with tomato paste. I naturally would have included anchovies earlier in the whole story, if I had them, but I don’t.

After some decent simmering, return the aubergines to the pan until you have something that looks like this:

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Some may say this is rather “baroque”. Well, fuck them. It contains all my favourite ingredients (excepting the sorely missed the anchovies). And the rest is, as they say, obvious: cook some spaghetti, toss it all together (plus more extra virgin), add plenty of pecorino and enjoy responsibly.

Uncovering the Mole

This is something I wrote a while ago. A year ago in fact. And it was posted on a friend’s blog. But friend’s blog never grew beyond that single post, so I am now reclaiming it…

I recently came across this description of the difference between an academic and an intellectual:

Intellectuals differ from ordinary academics in holding that the truth is best approached not by producing new knowledge, but by destroying old belief.

(Steve Fuller, “The Vanished Intellectual)

This seems to me a good way to think about the task of the intellectual. But I do think that the term “old belief” needs some qualification. Particularly these days, when the complex cause-and-effect relationship between technology, media and plain ignorance combine to produce a large mass of people with ridiculously short memories. These days, in other words, “old” could vaguely refer to any moment between yesterday and the beginning of time.

Take mole, for instance. Translated into Newspeak, this refers to the intriguing combination of chocolate and chilli that burst onto many (uptown) restaurant menus just a few years ago. Variations come both sweet and savoury – steak with chilli-chocolate sauce; chocolate-chilli cake and so on – which then paved the way for a new experimental bravery, not least helped along by being able (for those of us blessed with BBC Food) to watch the sumptuous Nigella pouring hot chilli syrup over ice-cream, the less sumptuous Paul Rankin making – why not? – chocolate chilli crème brulée. And so forth, not to mention “new” forays into the more general world of sugar meets herbs and spice: red berries with basil; black pepper ice-cream; rosemary crumble. You get the picture.

Chocolate and chilli go back a long way in culinary history. Their most celebrated relationship is probably in the Mexican mole, which derives from the Aztec molli, meaning “stew” or “sauce”. There are several versions of how the dish was created, but most agree on it being sometime in the 17th century, in the vicinity of a convent, where a nun – or a friar – prepared the dish accidentally – or on purpose – in honour of a visiting viceroy. It has since generated hundreds of varieties across Mexico, though its home-turf is said to be either Oaxaca or Puebla, the latter giving name to the oft-quoted “national” dish of Mexico, Mole Poblano de Guajolote, which is (wild) turkey in a mole sauce. What the many versions do have in common are the main ingredients of three to four types of dried chilli (typically ancho, pasilla, guajillo, mulatto or chiplote); toasted, ground nuts (normally almonds and pumpkin seeds, though some prefer pine- or peanuts, while sesame seeds are reserved for sprinkling on the finished dish); a spice mixture of crushed peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves; raisins; dried herbs (oregano or thyme); and finally, chocolate. Bitter chocolate, of course, though ideally toasted and ground (Mexican) cocoa beans. Some recipes use tomatoes as a base, and stale white bread as a thickener, while the more elaborate will also contain goodies such onions, garlic and even coffee.

The point here is that the chocolate-chilli combinations that most people (outside Spanish-speaking countries, that is) come to know nowadays are regarded and, more crucially, (re)presented as “innovations”. Which means that for many in Cape Town, for example, chocolate-meets-chilli will be remembered as the signature dish of, say, Madame Zingara’s, that burgundy den of “decadent dining” (the menu says so) where you can count yourself lucky for a table on a Friday night. Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city by most standards. In cities such as this, people are constantly looking for the latest, the newest, the hippest, the most talked about. We look for the new to add to our list of used. “Been there, have you tried their steak with chocolate-chilli sauce?” And if the used is good enough – by varying and as yet undefined criteria, I might add – it quickly becomes the habitual. “Yeah, I was back there last Friday…”. So, as these things go, what was new slowly but surely becomes old; ideas are received into some collective consciousness and begin their strange mutation into “fact”. Chocolate and chilli comes from Long Street, and History is deleted.

These, I am sorry to say, are some of the ‘old beliefs’ that reign in drive-thru societies with five-minute memories. Where children grow up thinking that Uncle Disney created “The Little Mermaid”; that Britney Spears wrote “I Love Rock-n Roll”; that Reality TV is real. But is it their fault? Well, no and yes. No, because who can really resist the conditioning of the media, and even its ancient – though still alive and kicking – cousin, the grapevine? Yes, because in this time of access to information, there is, quite simply, no excuse for that kind of ignorance. Yet, against all the odds, the ignorance persists, and it is this which complicates the task of the intellectual who must contend with the old not only in the sense that Fuller implies – that is, with beliefs that have been circulating for decades, even centuries – but also with this strange new-old belief-system that we pick up and pay for with as little thought as buying a carton of Long Life milk.

Now, I am not a purist when it comes to food. Everyone knows that some of the best dishes are born from improvising – making personal – some recipe glimpsed in a waiting-room magazine, or from hearsay. But I do believe that if you borrow something from someone, acknowledgement is due, particularly in a public arena. Think of an academic situation: there are all sorts of rules that we try to impress on students about referencing. Always make it clear whether you are quoting someone directly, or citing, or merely borrowing a point to further an argument. Whatever you do, let there never, ever, be a doubt that the work is your own if it is not. These rules are not there simply to keep people out of university court, or to strip them of degrees should they be caught plagiarising. Referencing is an act of decency and respect; it is about acknowledging an interaction; it is about contextualising; it is about historical awareness. It is about calling things by their names.

Which explains my pleasure one evening when we went out for dinner at a (notoriously bad) neighbourhood restaurant and were served mole, called by its name. It was not the venue that had attracted – there have been too many instances of bad service at that particular place to keep me coming back – but the fact that Z., a friend, was a guest-chef that evening. There was a choice of chicken or vegetable mole, with a quinoa pilaf. My companion and I both had the chicken. I have never eaten mole in Mexico, nor, indeed, cooked by a Mexican. But I have read and tried many recipes, and I can confidently say that what we ate that evening was damn fine. The sauce was thick and dark, almost a paste though not pasty. Slightly crunchy from the ground nuts. The cinnamon there but not overpowering. The chocolate almost imperceptible, as it should be. The chicken tasted of the sauce. There could have been more chilli, but then I tend to like it very hot, and this was quickly solved with a little extra peri-peri.

There were, however, two details that disappointed, though none to do with the food. Firstly, the place was not even half-full. It had obviously been badly advertised, meaning that a lot of people missed out on a chance to taste a really good mole. Secondly, as soon as the boy waiting on us hastily read through the folded up piece of paper withdrawn from his pocket that was Zuki’s menu, it was obvious that the service had not improved. Nor did he have any idea of what the dishes he was advertising were (“Mole? Ja, I think it’s like chicken with sesame, hey”). In a time where successful marketing depends more often than not on packaging a product in a story, this seemed to me a pitiful example, not to mention an indignity to Zuki’s efforts.

*

In a recent essay, Anthony Daniels (a doctor, I believe) takes issue with some of the views put forward at a conference by the Pakistani journalist-editor Najam Sethi:

It was not that I agreed with everything he [Sethi] said, much to the contrary; he illustrated his belief in the possibility of genuine multiculturalism by reference to the different kinds of restaurant to be found in most large cities nowadays. (I have always suspected that, at root, multiculturalism means, at least for westerners, tapas today, tom kha kai tomorrow, and tarte tatin the day after. This is to take the idea that we are what we eat a little too seriously.)

(“Pundits & Panjandrums”)

I suspect that Daniels’ summary of Sethi’s idea of multiculturalism is somewhat simplified; this so-called multiculturalism is, after all, a beast of many layers, the most visible of which is seldom the most telling. Any suggestion that the mere existence of different kinds of restaurants testifies to the multicultural only invites ridiculous comparisons, like so does imported whisky in a bottle store: where do we draw the line? That kind of analysis begs nuance and complexity, not least some distinction between the historical (left over from, say, colonialism: Portuguese restaurants in Mozambique) and the “new”, as well as a survey of who mans and frequents said establishments and why (which inevitably leads to that tricky area of “authenticity”).

Nevertheless, Daniels’ dismissal of the idea seems to me equally simplistic. What we eat – and do not – how, where and why is not insignificant. It is very telling of our cultural climate, but only if we stop to think about how these things came about. Well, for one, it is the movement of people that enables cultural interaction, be it through slavery, exile, political displacement or through that more pleasant version, emigration. But we also know that behind every plate of lasagne is not an Italian mamma. This is because the media – from the printed word to the internet – enables a flow of knowledge that (sorry, I can’t avoid the tired phrase) crosses boundaries. It is, quite simply, the dissemination of information on a(n almost) global scale that is the backbone of the cosmopolis.

This is all fine and well. It is, in fact, fantastic. Because it means that I can sit in my room in Cape Town and learn all there is to know about mole. It means that someone else has done the same, and is cooking it in some kitchen a short drive away that I can patronise. Hell, if I was Jeffrey Steingarten and employed by Vogue, I could probably have a sample Fed-Exed to me from Mexico by tomorrow evening. The problem really begins with what people do – or don’t do – with this information. That is, when people become spoilt by abundance; when they become so saturated with knowledge so unremittingly available and so unselectively absorbed that they begin to forget where it all comes from. At this stage, anything goes: century-old ideas become innovations; traditions are invented in a twenty-minute countdown on cable television. The global village has become a strange and sinister free-for-all.

You see, I have always suspected, to usurp Dr. Daniels’ train of thought, that beneath all of this “multiculturalism” lies a deep-seated insecurity about where we are and what we’re doing. Like the child inundated with wrapping paper after getting too many Christmas presents, half of which will be broken or forgotten by the next day, the other half smoothly absorbed into possession, a fact of life. The unbearable wait is ancient history. Yes, sometimes the task of the intellectual must be to recover the old. Just this morning, alas, in a widely read and respected newspaper was a journalist professing that chocolate with chilli was ‘the creation’ of some contemporary “molecular” chef in Lombardy, Italy. Sigh. Did I mention, by the way, that in one of the stories surrounding the creation of mole, it was meant to represent and celebrate the mixing of the New World with the old? Oh, and that Z. is a self-trained chef. He has a degree in archeology.

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