The problem of hunger rarely plays a significant role in food blogs. The genre inclines toward fantasies of plenty rather than narratives of need. There are blogs devoted to cooking on a budget, but even they emphasize pleasure not deprivation. (And of course there are blogs about hunger as a social and political problem, but they don’t have much to say about cooking.)
This disconnect between the celebration of consumption and the reality of hunger can make food blogging, as a genre, appear trifling. At least, that’s the complaint that the self-critical voice in my head lodges against my blog, which is so clearly about celebrating gastronomic indulgence rather than dissecting global power inequities. Can there be any excuse for blogging about the history of truffled turkey when there are over 870 million chronically hungry people in the world according to the United Nations World Food Programme?
It’s an old question, as I was reminded by my recent reading of Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed, a 1934 novel set among lefty intellectuals in Depression-era New York. Marketed as a black comedy by the New York Review of Books, which re-releases lost classics, The Unpossessed isn’t as funny as Mary McCarthy’s The Group, set in the same time and milieu. But The Group is a historical novel, published thirty years after its Depression-era setting, at the height of America’s postwar prosperity. The Unpossessed, on the other hand, was written at the nadir of the Depression, when every day brought new evidence of suffering before the public eye.
The central characters in The Unpossessed, three old college friends and their wives and lovers, struggle between the call of conscience and their own appetites, mostly unsuccessfully. The novel’s climax drives this hypocrisy home, as the characters gather at a rich patron’s house to launch a new politically radical magazine and to hold a fundraiser in support of the National Hunger March. Hunger marches were held throughout the United States during the early years of the Depression (and in Europe as well). In 1931 and 1932 thousands of unemployed Americans joined hunger marches to Washington D.C., organized by the American Communist Party, where they sang “The Red Flag” and “Solidarity Forever.” Marches were not limited to committed party members or radicals; they brought together a wide range of delegates, including women as well as men, people of color as well as whites, and youths as well as adults. Hunger made for common cause.
The characters of The Unpossessed do not join the marchers, but they do speak out in support. “I ask for hunger consciousness … before it is too late,” the group’s handsome spokesman, Jeffrey Blake (modelled on Max Eastman, editor of The Masses) begins his speech to the wealthy crowd at the Hunger March party. His own consciousness as he delivers the speech, however, is not directed outside to the hungry marchers but inside toward a sexy young woman wearing a “lettuce-green” dress, whom he hungers to make his newest conquest in a long series. It’s not that the characters don’t want to practice hunger consciousness, it’s just that they can’t help being caught up with their own hungers first and foremost.
At a planning meeting the characters vociferously question whether to launch their radical magazine at a party and they debate the ethics of using such an event to raise funds for the hunger marchers. The vulgar businessman whose beautiful wife is funding the magazine (while flirting with Jeffrey Bake) insists on supplying champagne at the party: “the refreshments are on me. I want ’em to cost more than the whole Hunger March expenses.” In the cacophony of voices that follow his offer, no one notices that one of the passionate young students in attendance at the meeting is nearly fainting from hunger until she actually falls to the ground with a crash. Her collapse deeply disturbs the other characters, but they interpret her collapse more as an assault on their own feelings than as a crisis afflicting another person. “Oh oh,” sobs the rich patroness, “I’m going to faint myself. I never can bear the sight of someone suffering.”
Miles Flinders, a character based on the author Tess Slesinger’s first husband, the editor Herbert Solow, scorns Jeffrey Blake’s shallowness and philandering. But his insistence on not feeding his own hunger seems equally self-indulgent. Miles withdraws from his wife Maggie and the creature comforts – the home cooked meals – that she offers him. He steels himself against her love with the thought that “she offered him oblivion, an entirely personal world of vegetables; in which only a vegetable could endure.” Miles’ asceticism leads him, at the novel’s end, to pressure Maggie into aborting a much-desired pregnancy. His hunger for moral purity causes the greatest emotional distress of the novel.
The third member of the triumvirate planning the magazine, Jewish university professor Bruno Leonard (based on editor Elliot E. Cohen), vacillates between Jeffrey Blake’s tendency toward self-indulgence and Miles Flinders’ insistent Puritanism. Caught between impulses, Leonard is paralyzed by the inability to move forward, to write, to love, to commit himself to any cause. Hoping to put his squandered years behind him by launching the Magazine and finally going to bed with his long-loved young cousin Elizabeth (she of the lettuce-green dress), Leonard instead loses everything at the Hunger March Party, which turns out more disastrous than any of the characters could imagine. “Down with revolutions, resolutions, Magazines, and all attempts to put this country on its feet,” he shouts to the crowd, “We believe in nothing but aspirin and sex.”
At least Leonard, Flinders, and Blake express worry about the problem of hunger as they struggle with their own appetites. I can’t really say the same for myself. Certainly I can’t claim to be contributing anything productive, just the same feeble moral outrage as most people who claim to be right-thinking, and the occasional monetary contribution. (You can donate to the World Food Programme here and right now every donation to the current crisis in the Central African Republic will be tripled by Howard Buffett – a great name for someone aiming to help the global hunger problem, it must be said.)
I’ve made my donation, so now I will end with the other dart in my quiver: a little moral outrage. French restaurant Bagatelle in New York City has recently announced the addition to its menu of a new thousand-dollar sundae made from ice cream, brownie, truffles, Dom Perignon sorbet, macarons, and 24-carat gold leaf, accompanied by a ring from the jeweller Maubussin. What sort of crazy world do we live in where millions starve while the wealthy eat gold? Think on that.
Is Blogging Scholarship? A provocative question for a blog title, but not the deepest, which perhaps is a characteristic weakness of the blog as a medium. Ask a foreboding question, which hints that strongly negative views may follow after the link, in order to attract clicks. Whether you answer the question (or whether the question is well formulated) is besides the point. What matters is the moment of suspense, which drives readers to read further, which perhaps is a characteristic strength of the blog as a medium. Blogs are constructed with reader interest in mind.
And I’ve really been enjoying reading all the blog posts and tweets that resulted from the OAH’s panel last Sunday on the question: Is Blogging Scholarship? I haven’t much enjoyed the OAH on the occasions that I’ve participated (to be honest), but reading about it from afar can be fun. Kudos to John Fea, Ann Little, Ken Owen, Joseph Adelman, Mike O’Malley, Ben Alpers, Michael Hattem, and Caleb McDaniel for the reportage and analysis.
All the serious head-scratching has made me reflect on my own blogging practices, and even more so on my lack of seriousness about my practices. Of course as a tenured professor I have more liberty to be unserious than graduate students anticipating the job market, alt-academics working from outside the ivory tower, or untenured faculty preparing to be judged by a committee of their peers. Yada yada yada, Can we talk about something fun now?
The fun I have in mind, of course, is history blogging. I realize that fun wasn’t the subject of conversation last Sunday, as it rarely is in disciplinary discussions. And last Sunday’s panel title felt very disciplining. Is blogging scholarship? A negative answer has negative value, a positive answer has positive: i.e. yes, blogging is valuable because it’s scholarship; or no, blogging is not valuable because it’s not scholarship. In short, the phrasing of the question served to remind speakers, audience members, and spectators like myself of the significance of “scholarship” as our ultimate value. The answer to the question hardly mattered, because the question had set the hierarchy aright.
Just reading the question makes me feel guilty, and triggers a self-disciplining instinct to do better. I hadn’t thought about judging the scholarship value of my blog before, I better hop to it! It’s not the first time I’ve felt this disciplining pressure. I remember back in graduate school when I learned that fun was not a justifiable rationale for research. There had to be a purpose beyond curiosity and the desire to entertain. If you didn’t have a serious intent you were a decadent. Bad news for me who had applied to graduate school because I thought history was amusing. Luckily, I am a quick learner and soon had conceptualized a dissertation project and first book that would be little fun for anyone.
Book two is more fun to read I hope. But only recently, in launching this blog, have I really given leash to my desire to amuse myself and entertain others. I know I am succeeding on the first count. Writing narratives that incorporate suspense, description, word play, and pictures; picking lightly through the evidence instead of piling it on heavily; integrating past and present, self and subject; the non-purposive nature of the writing itself; all these aspects of my blog have made it a joy to me. And how about the thrill of pressing “publish” and sharing your thoughts in the moment when they matter most to you?
I am well enough disciplined at this point to realize that history is not all about fun. But amidst all this serious discussion I want to throw in a voice for resisting discipline. Now I am going to try and forget that I ever heard about this panel discussion in the first place, and just go on enjoying writing about things that amuse me.
My new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, is now available for sale on Kindle.
Publisher’s Weekly calls the book “beautifully written” and “an utterly absorbing love story.” Read the full review here.
Charity and Sylvia is the tale of two ordinary women who lived in an extraordinary same-sex marriage in early nineteenth-century Vermont. The product of nearly a decade of research and writing, Charity and Sylvia uses diaries, letters, poems, and other primary source records to tell the intimate story of a relationship that revolutionizes our understanding of the history of marriage. I am elated finally to be able to share with readers the women’s story. I hope you will fall in love with Charity and Sylvia just as I have.
Tom Foster, author of Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past describes the book as “beautifully written and thoroughly researched. The story is poignant and full of surprises. The book’s examination of the lives of Charity and Sylvia is well supported by a rich and deep body of evidence. I couldn’t put it down.”
Carol Lasser, at Oberlin College, writes “[Cleves] has done an extraordinary job in putting together analysis and narrative to tell the story of how two women maintained their loving partnership with the support of family, friends and community, some 200 years before same-sex marriage won acceptance in major parts of the United States…In the end, the very ordinariness of the lives of these women who struggled to support themselves, to love each other, and to play upstanding roles in church and community, suggests how those who challenge social and religious norms can reshape the expectations of themselves, and those around them. Charity and Sylvia emerge from these pages as vibrant people in whose lives the readers become interested. We want to know them, and the author brings them to life for us.”
Please check out Charity and Sylvia in the Kindle store, and if you enjoy it, don’t forget to spread the word!
I fell in love with Charity and Sylvia, the subjects of my last book. And I feel seduced by many of the figures of my new research, including problematic characters like Norman Douglas, a pederast as well as an epicure. But I will never fall for Raymond Duncan, who was not only a megalomaniac, but who also preached the doctrine of voluntary restriction and claimed to be satisfied with a dinner of lettuce and turnips. Raymond Duncan was a creep, which makes me happy, because as pleasing as it is to research people you love there’s also great fun to be had from writing about villains.
I first encountered Raymond Duncan in Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s joint memoir Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930. Boyle was not a fan, to put it lightly. After leaving her first husband for her tubercular lover, the poet Ernest Walsh, who got her pregnant then died before the birth of their child, Boyle moved to Paris in 1928. She was a struggling writer with a young child and no spouse, unable to make ends meet, when she met Raymond Duncan, who had a communal compound in Neuilly, on the western outskirts of Paris, north of the Bois de Boulogne. When Duncan invited Boyle and her child to come live in Neuilly, it came as a godsend. His accounts of how the members of the community drank fresh goat milk from wooden bowls and lived in simple harmony with nature sounded idyllic to Boyle. But, no surprise, Neuilly did not turn out to be all Duncan promised. Within a year, Boyle was forced to kidnap her own daughter and to flee Paris under cover of night to escape from Duncan’s clutches.
Who was Raymond Duncan? If he is remembered at all, it is as the older brother of Isadora Duncan, the famous modern dance innovator who died tragically in 1927 when her long flowing scarf got caught in the axel of an open-top car she was driving in and her neck snapped. My mother, in her motherly cautiousness, used to warn me not to let my winter scarves trail when I was a child: because look what happened to Isadora Duncan! Before her dramatic death, Duncan was famous for transforming the world of dance with her bare-footed, uncorseted, free-form choreography inspired by the figures in classical Greek pottery and statuary.
As it happens, reviving the Greeks was a family business. Isadora was one of four siblings born in San Francisco to an artistic mother who, following a scandalous divorce from their banker father, raised her children to be artists. Mother and children travelled to Europe in 1898, Isadora pursuing a career as a dancer, and Raymond moving to Greece and marrying Penelope Sikelianos (her brother, the poet Angelos Sikelianos, later married Eva Palmer, a bisexual American heiress, who had once been Natalie Barney’s lover). Together, Raymond and Penelope (along with Eva and Angelos) promoted a return to the classical Greek lifestyle, building a villa outside Athens where they hung tapestries on the wall and forbid visitors to enter wearing modern dress.
Soon Raymond, Penelope, and their son Menalkas moved to Paris (Neuilly), where Isadora had become a great success, and where their appearance made an immediate impact. It’s not hard to see why the Parisians were excited by the Duncan’s appearances, and particularly by the appearance of Raymond himself. Since 1903, Raymond Duncan had rejected modern clothing in exchange for togas, draped from hand-woven textiles, that left his arms entirely bare. To complement this garb, Duncan wore his hair long, past his shoulders, tied back with a silk band around his forehead. And all through the year, even in the midst of winter, he wore leather-strap sandals on his bare feet. In a city known for its couturiers, where women wore yards of fabric over tightly-fitted corsets and men’s collars reached up to their chins, Duncan appeared naked to many stunned observers.
Duncan’s unusual lifestyle extended beyond his sartorial choices. He presented himself as an instructor in his own theory of movement (kinematics) and brand of philosophy (actionalisme), which he taught at his Akadémia on the rue de Seine in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, near the École des Beaux-Arts. Duncan also preached simplicity of diet. His approach to the plate may have shocked Parisians even more than his dress.
A journalist for Paris Soir quizzed Duncan about his advocacy of natural foods. Duncan explained that he ate lettuce, celery, beets, turnips, walnuts, almonds, and fruit. When you are hungry, lettuce suffices? The journalist asked doubtfully. Absolutely, Duncan answered, a plate of lettuce and beans (haricots) was all he required. He had not eaten meat since the Duncan family paid a visit to Chicago, en route to Europe, where Duncan witnessed the grotesqueries of the abattoirs. I consider myself a man of sensibility and a lover of art, the journalist protested, but still I take pleasure in eating horse, partridge, and hare. Your sensibility is not fully developed yet, Duncan explained, no doubt handing the journalist a couple invitations to one of his Wednesday nights salons at the Akadémia.
Duncan’s Akadémia attracted many interested Parisians. He offered instruction in weaving and sandal-making (selling the products at two stores he eventually opened, one on the Left Bank and one on the Right Bank). He presented evenings of theatres, staging concerts of Greek songs, and dance performances. He offered special lectures on a range of subjects from philosophy to la sexualité de l’avenir (the sexuality of the future). What the sexuality of the future would consist of is not entirely clear, although the title of another lecture La Laicisation de la Polygamie et du Mariage suggests that Raymond, like Isadora, may not have believed in conventional marriage. The acolytes he attracted to the Akadémia and to Neuilly were mostly young women, many of them unwed mothers who brought their children along with them; la laicisation de la polygamie? After Penelope’s death from tuberculosis in 1925, Duncan married one of his students, Aïa Bertrand.
It seems likely that Bertrand was not the only of his disciples to attract Duncan’s amatory affections. Actionalisme, apparently, did not include simplicity in the affairs of the heart. At a 1925 conference Duncan organized, a crowd of female former students mobbed the stage and hurled complaints against Duncan. “Nous allions vers lui avec l’espoir de trouver de la beauté, de la bonté. Nous n’avons trouvé que la mauvaise foi, le mensonge, la violence, l’hypocrisie,” one of the students explained to a journalist who was present. We came to him in the hopes of finding beauty and goodness. We found only bad faith, deceit, violence and hypocrisy. Among their allegations, the protestors alleged that Duncan had cast pregnant students out of the Akadémia, telling them they were disgusting to him. Who impregnated the young women was unclear, although the protestors also alleged that Duncan had promised to adopt the children as his own then did not.
These stories resonated with Kay Boyle’s account. Boyle became pregnant around the time that she lived with Raymond and Aia Duncan in Neuilly, and although she claimed in her memoir to be uncertain about who the father was, circumstantial evidence points to Raymond Duncan as one possibility. In particular, Boyle’s decision to abort rather than carry the child, suggests a desire to destroy any ties with a man she had come to detest. (Another possible candidate for father was the crazy wealthy sun-worshipper Harry Crosby, who paid for Boyle’s abortion and died soon after in an infamous murder-suicide.) Boyle also concurred that the children being raised communally at Neuilly were neglected, going without shoes or socks even in the winter, sleeping in a barn without beds, and often going hungry while Duncan took taxis around Paris making appearances at elite social events. Even Menalkas Duncan endured this treatment. When the family visited North America in 1910, child welfare authorities in New York City temporarily seized five-year old Menalkas from his parents because of his underdressed state.
In 1921, when Menalkas was fifteen years old, he ran away from his father’s house for a week in protest against his upbringing. The newspapers had a heyday with this story, which they considered to be une affaire bien Parisienne (a very Parisian affair), perhaps because of its salaciousness. After Menalkas’s disappearance, Raymond plastered the walls of Paris with posters, produced on his own printing press with his own custom-designed font, denouncing a former friend, the industrialist Robert Bourbeau, for having seduced away his son. Bourbeau, according to Raymond, was a ravisseur de son fils.
Called before a judge, Menalkas testified that he had left his father’s home voluntarily, with the aid of Bourbeau, because he no longer wished to wear his hair long and to dress in togas and sandals. Journalists gleefully described Menalkas’s courtroom appearance, dressed in the most recent Paris fashions, apparently enjoying the conveniences of modern life. The judge found that Raymond Duncan’s complaint was groundless, and fined him 10,000 francs for defamation of Bourbeau. Soon Menalkas returned home and the two Duncans reconciled.
Later Menalkas moved to Provincetown, the artist community at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he sold sandals like those made by his father. Provincetown was also home to another former Duncan acolyte, Roger Rilleau, who (according to my grandmother) sold Duncan sandals out of the back of a truck, where he lived with his children. It was from Rilleau that my grandmother, visiting Provincetown for the summer, bought a pair of Duncan sandals in 1952 that lasted her for years. I only learned about my Grandmother’s Duncan sandals this fall, when she emailed me after I mentioned Raymond Duncan in my blog post about Kay Boyle. Even more amazing, my mother followed up with the memory that both she and my grandmother had in fact met Raymond Duncan himself, in Paris, in 1965, a year before his death!
My grandmother, my mother, and my mother’s cousin Rebecca and friend Patty were visiting Paris for a week (my grandparents lived in Britain throughout the 1960s), and my mother’s cousin wanted to buy a pair of sandals like my grandmother’s, which had held up remarkably well over the intervening decade. So the trio went to pay a visit to Duncan’s store, which still remained open. They ordered a pair of sandals (each pair was traced to the buyer’s foot and made to order), and were subsequently invited to one of the evening salons still held by Duncan and his decrepit acolytes. They accepted the invitation, and experienced one of the creepiest evenings of their collective lives. As one journalist wrote in 1949, fifteen years before my grandmother and the girls visited, “Duncan followers are mainly aging maiden ladies.” In 1965, the audience had become that much older, a crowd with one foot in the grave, living in a dimly remembered golden past when Duncan still commanded the adulation of many. After enduring several performances of unendurable singing and dancing, my grandmother and the girls fled as soon as they could. Unfortunately, Patty’s sandals did not prove to be of the same quality as those made by Rilleau, whom they learned had been through a terrible falling out with Duncan (the Duncanites were very upset that my grandmother had bought from Rilleau).
Strangely this is not the only intersection bringing Raymond Duncan’s life and mine together. I too once owned a pair of Duncan-style sandals, which I bought at Native Leather, on Bleecker street in the West Village, when I was around 14 or 15. I’m not sure where Native Leather’s owner, Dick Whalen, learned to make the sandals, but I’m sure it must have been through some connection to Duncan, possibly through Menalkas Duncan, who instructed Barbara Schaum, another sandal-maker in the Village, who is still in business today (as is Native Leather).
And if that’s not coincidence enough, I learned through my research yesterday that Raymond Duncan used to live on our very street in Paris, the rue d’Alésia, when he, Penelope, and Menalkas first arrived in Paris. This was actually their second address after they were kicked out of their first apartment, near the Eiffel Tower, for indecency (those naked arms and feet). Apparently, Duncan found “une maison plus hospitalière aux fantasies vestimentaires” (a house more hospitable to fantastic dress) on the rue d’Alésia. Not sure of the exact address.
The last time I encountered this many coincidences in the research process I felt compelled to write a book. (The story of how I came across Charity and Sylvia’s story is told in the preface.) Some people whom I have spoken to suggest that I should do the same for Raymond Duncan. But I fell in love with Charity and Sylvia, and I can’t say the same for Duncan.
When I decided to expand my research from a focus on Paris to include Capri as well, I didn’t realize that this path would eventually bring me back home to New York. But Rose O’Neill, designer of the kewpie and former “Queen of Bohemia,” showed me the way.
Historians, as a group, tend to be splitters not lumpers (although, as is obvious from this sentence, I sometimes deviate from that rule). The principle of historicism that guides our discipline teaches the specificity of different times and places; rather than look for continuities, we emphasize the difference of past moments. As a result, academic history can seem bewilderingly specific to non-historians. I wrote my first book on American reactions to the violence of the French Revolution, and by the standard of first books this was a broadly-conceived project! One of the most important criteria that historians rely on to split the past is the nation. Open any university catalogue and you will discover a list of classes organized by country and chronology (U.S. History to 1865; Nineteenth-Century France). Transnational historians often try to broaden their projects by bringing two places into relation with each other (as I did with the United States and France in my first project), but nation remains a critical category in their approach.
Following this practice, I began my current research by asking questions about how Americans learned to cook in France. But my reading soon took the project in new directions. As a resident of British Columbia, I couldn’t resist reading memoirs by Canadians in France, like John Glassco and Morley Callaghan. And if I was reading Canadians, how could I resist British memoirists, who traveled in the same Anglophone circuits? Especially when those memoirists were intriguing women like the bisexual, heavy-drinking, Welsh artist, model, and writer Nina Hamnett, also called the “Queen of Bohemia”, who died after falling forty feet from a window and becoming impaled on a spike?
Adding Capri to the mix, and reading the international band of memoirists – like the Swedish Axel Munthe, the Australian Shirley Hazzard, and the Anglo-German Norman Douglas – who lived there, my project soon seemed to jump the bounds of nation altogether. My peripatetic subjects, who moved incessantly from place to place (Paris! Capri! London! Florence! Rome! Lake Geneva!) required a spreadsheet to keep track of their wanderings. And before long, I had a column titled New York.
Djuna Barnes wrote Nightwood, about her love affair in Paris with Thelma Wood, while visiting England, before moving to Greenwich Village, where she lived out the end of her days in a tiny apartment on Patchin Place. M. F. K. Fisher spent years in the city, between her sojourns in Dijon, Vevey, and California. And Rose O’Neill, a frequent visitor to Capri and Paris, who ended her days in the Ozarks, spent the majority of her life living close by Barnes, just off Washington Square.
O’Neill, who was an illustrator and writer, is famous for the kewpie characters she created – cutesy baby cupids who appeared in cartoons doing good deeds, and whose popularity launched a merchandising craze that made O’Neill a very very wealthy woman. There were kewpie dolls, natch, as well as soaps, cards, and salt and pepper shakers. And then there was the Kewpie Jell-O cookbook.
Jell-O and the Kewpies: could a more domesticated pairing be imagined? What could the illustrator of Jell-O and the Kewpies have in common with Nina Hamnett? Or with any of the many other women who shared the title “Queen of Bohemia,” including the bisexual, hard-drinking, feminist, Marxist journalist Louise Bryant, and Kiki de Montparnasse, the artists’ model, muse, and renowned party girl who befriended many expats of the Lost Generations?
In fact, the seeming sentimentality of O’Neill’s kewpies bore little in common with the avant-garde life of their inventor. A passionate advocate for woman’s suffrage and dress reform, the beautiful, sociable, and voluble O’Neill declared herself “withdrawn from marriage” after her second divorce in 1907, and directed all the profits from her designs to supporting an artistic community of friends and lovers, and to living a life of pleasure, sociability, and free love, based in Greenwich Village.
O’Neill’s social world gathered around the table she endowed at the Hotel Brevoort, on the north side of Washington Square Park, at 5th Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. Among other amenities, the Hotel Brevoort offered the first “Parisian style” sidewalk café in New York City, and the hotel’s French owner, Raymond Orteig, hired French chefs to make his restaurant the “Rendezvous for Epicures” from around the world. This strategy proved so successful that the Brevoort attracted a clientele ranging from foreign aristocrats to Bohemians like Edna St. Vincent Millay. The café had a permissive reputation, which strengthened its association with Paris culture. Friends held a fundraiser there for Margaret Sanger in 1916, the night before her federal trial for sending “indecent” information about birth control through the U.S. mail. And Rose O’Neill kept a table at the restaurant in her name where her artist friends, when down on their luck, could drop in for a free meal.
The incredible value that O’Neill placed on sociability, spending so much money on wining and dining her friends that she was eventually bankrupted, marks hers as a true Bohemian life. To use more contemporary language, O’Neill’s lifestyle was as queer as Nina Hamnett’s and Louise Bryant’s, whether or not she included women lovers along with the men. She rejected marriage and motherhood in exchange for friendship and fun. She was ebullient and gay – in the old-fashioned sense of the word. She liked to drink and eat, and for others to share those pleasures with her. She bought a mansion in Connecticut (which once had a big Bohemian community) where penurious friends stayed for years at a time.
When not living in Greenwich Village or Connecticut, O’Neill made frequent trips to Capri. She payed her first visit with her second husband Harry Leon Wilson, editor of Puck Magazine. After their divorce, O’Neill traveled on her own, staying with her lover, the dandy and randy old American artist, Charles Caryl Coleman. When prohibition passed in 1919, the heavy-drinking illustrator had added reason to spend time in Capri, well known for its fine local wine. (Apparently the Brevoort threw a spectacular party the night before the Volstead Act went into effect, emptying out its cellars and offering its alcohol at cost to customers. I imagine that O’Neill was there.)
Thankfully, she was ten years in the grave when the Brevoort Hotel, along with its café, were torn down in 1954 to make way for a new apartment building with more modern amenities (now a luxury address that has been home to Judge Judy among other celebrities). The artistic crowd who used to haunt the Brevoort’s tables wandered to other establishments, like the nearby Cedar Tavern, famous watering hole for the Abstract Expressionists, and a place I loved to hang out in during high school.
Back in the city for a month last summer, I noticed that the Cedar Tavern is gone now too. It’s easy to feel nostalgic for its passing and for a Golden Age of New York Bohemianism that used to be. Rents being what they are now, what struggling (or not so-struggling) artist could afford to live in the city?
But, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, complaints about the passing of a Golden Age are nothing new. A 1918 guide book to Greenwich Village included on its title page the adviso that “whatever else Bohemia may be it is almost always yesterday.” Floyd Dell, who moved to the Village in 1913, claimed that he had arrived “before the invasion of the barbarians from Uptown, before Pepe raised the rents – the Golden Age.” Staking his claim to primacy, Dell rhapsodized “I was among those present at the opening of the original (and how different!) Polly’s restaurant on MacDougal Street.” Those were the days.
Dell’s reminiscences about the Village before it was ruined sound familiar from countless conversations I’ve had with people my age who grew up in the city, or folks like Le Rosbif, who moved to New York in the 80s. Dell writes, “In those old, forgotten, far-off days, the Village was truly a village. Artists and writers lived there because their rents were low, and one could get a floor of great rooms with high ceilings and tall deep-embrasured windows (giving a true north-light) for I dare not say how little money.” Don’t let Le Rosbif get started on the apartment he used to rent on 3rd street between C & D back in the day.
Growing up in New York in the 80s, I never considered myself as living during a Golden Age. Far from it – the Golden Age existed firmly in the past. In 1977, the year that New York City went bankrupt, my parents split up and my family returned from our brief sojourn in the suburbs to re-establish lives in the city. The eighties I remember were filled with de-institutionalized schizophrenics fighting drug addiction on neighborhood streets, and preppies cashing in on Wall Street. My older brother (and hence myself) idolized the 60s, when the Village was a Bohemian epicenter. Only now, thirty years later, have the eighties begun to twinkle in the dim light, as a time when my divorced mother could afford a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn on a public servant’s salary, when the Beastie Boys were playing at CBGB’s, and when a Cuban sandwich that could stretch for two meals cost only $2.00.
“I recall with intense amusement the New York restaurants and cafés of a quarter of a century ago,” wrote James Huneker in the New York Times in 1914, “Were they any better than now?” Huneker thought so. He fondly remembered a café run by Billy Moulds at University Place, near Washington Square, where he used to eat back in 1886 when he first arrived in town. It was a center for artists, writers, actors, and musicians. Huneker no doubt believed Floyd Dell to be a Johnny-come-lately, and Polly’s café to be a big step down from Biily Moulds. Dell felt the same way about the over-priced sandwich shops that attracted Uptowners during the mid-nineteen-teens.
WIsh I could try every restaurant these old New Yorkers praised and judge who had it right. Sadly, I don’t have a time machine. But at least I have Rose O’Neill to thank for inspiring me to visit these old epicurean rendezvouses on the page.
Thelma Ellen Wood was stupendously tall, sexually irresistible, and a wonderful cook with a propensity for rum and coke. Many authors who crossed paths with Wood wrote lavish accounts of her body as a dish, but none bothered to record her favorite recipes.
Most readers encounter Wood through the eyes of her jealous lover Djuna Barnes, whose best-known novel Nightwood (1936) tells the story of their tumultuous affair in 1920s Paris. Wood, called Robin Vote in the novel, makes her first appearance in its pages dead drunk, but even in this state she exerts a powerful magnetism. Barnes pictures her flung across a bed “heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step.” Her body exhales a perfume of earth-flesh, fungi, and oil of amber. Her eyes are a “mysterious and shocking blue” with “the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.” She is half beast, “we feel that we could eat her.”
Barnes’ shift to the first-person plural we seems apt, since so many people felt the same overpowering attraction to Wood. She appealed to a surprising cross-section of characters – from femme women like Barnes (who once claimed “I’m not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”), to butch men like author John Ferrar Holms, to femme men like poet John “Buffy” Glassco, to butch women like photographer Berenice Abbott. Six feet tall, “with the body of a boy” (in Barnes’ words), an intense stare, and an ungainly stride, Wood excited most everybody she met.
Glassco, a bisexual Canadian poet who claimed to have slept with everyone from Alfred “Bosie” Douglas to Margaret Whitney, recalled an evening spent with Wood in his gossipy Memoirs of Montparnasse. Glassco met Wood, “a tall, beautiful, dazed-looking girl … who had the largest pair of feet I have ever seen,” at La Noctambule, a bar on the rue Champollion in Saint-Germain. According to Glassco, he soon propositioned Wood and the two escaped into the night, Wood barreling her way through the streets of the Latin Quarter: “her way of dealing with the crowd on the sidewalk,” writes Glassco “was to plough straight ahead; when she struck or jostled a passerby she merely staggered, shook her splendid shoulders, regained her balance, and moved forward.” After several drinks at a workingman’s bar, Wood invited Glassco to join her at a brothel in Montmartre. Despite his discovery that Wood “was a very bad dancer,” Glassco found “the thrill of holding this beautiful big body made up for everything. I confined myself to marking time and avoiding her large feet, which was not difficult since the awkward movements of her hips telegraphed their position with perfect accuracy.” Eventually, Glassco claimed, the two hired a private room at the brothel, where Wood took off all her clothes and stretched out on the bed with her eyes tightly closed. “I had never seen a more beautiful body,” Glassco concludes, “to find it frigid was a great disappointment.”
Most of her lovers did not find Wood frigid. Djuna Barnes thought her “the great sexual treat of the world,” according to John Ferrar Holms, lover of modern-art patron Peggy Guggenheim (whom Wood had once propositioned on her knees). Holms himself was equally impressed by Wood’s sex appeal. “The obvious thing about Thelma was sexual vitality,” he observed to the diarist Emily Holmes Coleman, “she was made for fucking.” Coleman described Wood as looking like “an old greyhound,” “a doughy cat,” and an “amoeba feeling about with stumps,” but nevertheless she felt a powerful attraction to Wood, who once pulled Coleman between her legs and called her a servant to art. What a pick-up line! “She makes one want to make love,” Coleman sighed.
Robert McAlmon, the bisexual novelist and editor, lover of Buffy Glassco, and good friend of Djuna Barnes, described Wood in his roman à clef The Nightinghouls of Paris as a “handsome boy-girl with a boy’s predatory curiosity.” Barnes, of the same opinion, almost titled her novel about Wood “Night Beast.”
But for all the depictions of Wood as a wild butch seductress, she had a surprising domestic side as well. Djuna Barnes couldn’t boil an egg, but Wood cooked excellent meals for her lovers and friends. Most historical accounts emphasize Wood’s creative work as a silverpoint artist, but food seems to have been her true metier. After the affair with Barnes came to its bitter end, Wood lived in Connecticut where she tried to run a gourmet catering business, although her crippling alcoholism got in the way. Another time she joined forces with Edith Annesley Taylor, a former lover (who had also been a lover of the Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff), to launch a business selling herbs and exotic foods. This enterprise failed too.
Unfortunately, the sources don’t reveal what Wood liked to cook. Wood didn’t leave her own account of her life, and those accounts written by the men and women knew her are too consumed with looking at Wood’s body to give attention to her creations. A sketchbook of hers is archived within the Djuna Barnes collection at the University of Maryland, and perhaps its numerous pictures of Paris café society give a hint about the artist’s tastes. I imagine they were as omnivorous as her sexual predilections.
After an hour in Naples, I had dreams of returning to rent an apartment for a month. After a morning in Capri, I had dreams of buying a villa and staying forever.
I’m not the first visitor to feel that way. Virginia and Mamie Pepworth-Norton, the elderly American lesbian heroines of Vestal Fire, Compton Mackenzie’s 1927 roman à clef about Capri, “no sooner put foot on the island than they recognized that they were at home.” As for me, I no sooner had spent an afternoon on the island then I recognized a new historical obsession.
I knew nothing about Capri before our trip there (just the pants and the fake juice-drink). My friend in Paris who had recommended Naples as our February break destination listed this little island off the southern tip of the Bay of Naples as one of the sights that could be taken in during our trip, so when I made our travel plans I booked two nights there at an inexpensive pensione. I stress “inexpensive” because, as I only realized afterwards, Capri is primarily known as a holiday destination for the fabulously wealthy, and during the summer season hotel rooms start at $500 a night, or so I hear. What I also heard, a lot, before we left is that the island is insufferably touristy. Ah well, I thought, it’s only two nights.
Those reports obviously came from people who had visited during the summer season, because in February, it turns out, the island is gloriously SHUT DOWN. Yes, there are a couple streets lined with ultra-luxury-brand storefronts, but all the stores are closed in winter. You could not buy a diamond-studded, platinum-banded, phoenix-feather-powered watch if you wanted one. The $500/night hotels are closed. Almost all the restaurants are closed. And with the exception of the numerous guided-tours of Chinese daytrippers racing through the Piazza Umberto and Krupp gardens, there is hardly anyone around but the citizens of Capri. Only two other rooms in our pensione were booked during our stay. Once we left the piazza to explore the island’s winding alleyways and mountain trails, we had the place almost to ourselves.
So what does Capri have to offer when the luxury accommodations and boutiques are shut? Capri is perhaps most famous for the grotta azzurra, or Blue Lagoon. In Innocents Abroad, Twain’s account of his visit to the island is limited to a description of this famous subterranean lake of “the brightest, loveliest blue that can be imagined” (such a bland description from Twain, it seems the water’s beauty strained even his powers of description). I’m sure the grotta azzurra is lovely, at least it looked so from the outside, but since the row boats that guide you through were put away for the winter season I wouldn’t know.
Missing the boat tour through the lagoon did little to impair our moods however, after the beauty of the hike we took to reach it. What Capri has to offer during its off-season is miles of stunning scenery and beautiful streets, paths, and trails to access those views. Most of the island is inaccessible by car because the stone roads are too narrow to permit a full-sized vehicle to pass. (There are tiny three-wheeled vehicles that can be used for hauling, but almost all the traffic I saw was pedestrian.) The island is ideal for ramblers, and the weather – balmy and mostly sunny – was perfectly suited to spend each day rambling.
During our brief stay we hiked to three of the four corners of the island. Maya and I tackled the northeast corner just the two of us, ascending through narrow streets past romantic villas and fragrant lemon-tree groves until we reached the magnificent ruins of Emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome from his self-imposed island exile during the final decade of his life. The ruins were closed, natch, but we jumped the fence in order to take in one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever beheld, straight down a thousand-foot cliff to the vivid blue Mediterranean below. Tiberius is reputed to have thrown people he didn’t like off that cliff; certainly I can understand the temptation. Coming down from Villa Jovis we also took a peak into Villa Lysis, the former home of “Count” Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, the notorious pederast and opium-fiend, self-proclaimed descendant of Marie-Antoinette’s reputed Swedish lover, and model for Count Marsac, the tragicomic antihero of Vestal Fire. Later Tim and I took a walk just the two of us along the island’s southeastern corner, past the arco naturale and the grotta matermania (where Fersen and his friends are reputed to have enjoyed a little ritual flogging), before following a cliffside trail to take in stunning views of the scenic faraglioni rocks which jut up from the sea along Capri’s southern shore. Finally the whole family joined together to visit the Blue Grotto, taking a cliffside trail that winds past the remains of the island’s old fortification system, and spying a wild goat perched below us on the vertiginous rocks.
All my ambitious exploring still left countless sights unseen. I could have spent many more afternoons happily hiking the island’s trails. But the marvellous scenery alone does not explain my new obsession with the island’s history nor my desire to have some fabulously wealthy benefactor buy me a villa there. (Volunteers: feel free to get in touch.)
So back to Count Fersen. Actually: back to Emperor Tiberius. According to the Roman author Suetonius, once Tiberius retreated to Capri (a site he chose for the protection from assassination afforded by its sheer cliffs), “he at last gave free rein at once to all the vices which he had for a long time ill concealed.” Thoughtfully, Suetonius lays out these vices for readers “from the beginning.” He starts with the minor stuff. Tiberius overindulged in alcohol (some called him Biberius, as in: he imbibed too much). He was given to elaborate feasts and liked nude serving girls. He created a new appointment: “Master of the Imperial Pleasures.”
Next Suetonius moves on to the carnal appetites. Tiberius was so given to vice that he had “a room devised by him dedicated to the most arcane lusts. Here he had assembled from all quarters girls and perverts, whom he called Spintriae, who invented monstrous feats of lubricity, and defiled one another before him, interlaced in series of threes, in order to inflame his feeble appetite.” In case anyone should lack knowledge of how to arrange their body parts to accomplish Tiberius’s fantasies, he kept on hand a book by Elephantis, a renowned courtesan, author of a Roman kama sutra that instructed users in numerous sexual positions (sadly no copies are remaining). He also had special rooms painted with “scenes of lascivious character” to stimulate the appetites. (Roman artifacts of this type, if not those belonging to Tiberius, can be viewed in the “secret cabinet” of the archaeology museum in Naples, just in case you needed another reason to visit.)
If these tales of venery don’t shock you, Suetonius’s account of Tiberius’s wanton abuse of children probably will. The old emperor, according to this chronicler, had children play between his legs during his bath time, and employed strapping toddlers who had not yet been weaned to give him fellatio. When a couple of young brothers the emperor had abused reproached each other for their degradation, Tiberius had their legs broken. By the time Suetonius gets around to recounting all of Tiberius’s other acts of cruelty, torture, and murder, who has any horror remaining to expend on the old tyrant?
This two-thousand year old reputation for vice, in part, helped to draw self-exiles like d’Adelswärd-Fersen to Capri in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Fersen built his Villa Lysis, named for the beloved boy in Plato’s dialogue, as close to Tiberius’s Villa Jovis as he could.) Twain makes no mention of the growing foreign “colony” in Capri from his 1867 visit, but by the 1870s the island was home to a diverse range of European and American expatriates. Some were painters, some were writers, some took after Tiberius, like the Confederate veteran John Clay MacKowen who, supposedly irreconcilable to the loss of his slave estate, walked around Capri with his whip in hand, lashing out at those who displeased him (and later sending gifts of atonement).
Over the next seven decades or so before the outbreak of World War II, a boisterous “foreign colony” made their home on Capri, attracting political exiles like Maxim Gorky, lesbian artists like Romaine Brooks, literary lions like Somerset Maugham, men of adventure like the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe, wealthy pedophiles like the industrialist Friedrich Krupp, and countless runaway wives, interracial couples, gay men, lustful older women, artists, singers, dancers and even historians.
The best known account of the “queer types” who made up the foreign colony in Capri at the turn of the century is Norman Douglas’s famous 1917 novel South Wind, another roman à clef. Once the most popular book in the Modern Library, now mostly forgotten, South Wind is a shaggy dog of a novel filled with dialogs among the numerous eccentric characters on the meaning of life, which mostly boils down to: don’t be constrained by Judeo-Christian morality. Douglas, a brilliant and charming man, had a primary erotic attachment to young boys that got him repeatedly thrown out from country after country until Capri was the only place that would have him. There he remained celebrated to the end of his days, an honorary citizen. As recently as 2010, the island put up a plaque in his name.
While the infamous tales of Caprese pederasty have proved popular in breezy accounts of the island’s history, what most fascinates me about the history of the island’s foreign colony is its surprisingly inclusive nature. Books like Douglas’s South Wind and Compton Mackenzie’s Vestal Fire suggest that unlike now, when we draw sharp divisions between pedophiles and other sexual rule-breakers, when we separate aesthetic, gustatory, and erotic pleasure-seekers each into their own discrete camps, the historical foreign colony of Capri combined all these pursuits under a single canopy, embracing a common boisterous queer pleasure ethic that never stood in the way of vicious back-stabbing, jealousy, gossip and even murderous rivalry among them.
Imagine my delight, when researching Norman Douglas to discover not only that the author’s final book was a cookbook, Venus in the Kitchen (a guide to aphrodisiacs, of course, including recipes for sparrows’ brains and crane), but also that the famous doyenne of British cuisine Elizabeth David considered Douglas her mentor!
Douglas filled South Wind with accounts of the gustatory pleasures enjoyed on “Nepenthe”, known equally for its beautiful girls and its delicious lobsters. When Thomas Heard, a young clergyman recently returned from a posting in Africa, comes under the influence of the island’s south wind, he awakens to a previously unrecognized world of sensuality. Invited to a party at Mr. Keith’s (the closest stand-in for Douglas himself), Heard buoyantly remarks, “this aspic could not be better. It seems to open up a new world of delights. Dear me. I fear I am becoming a gourmand.” This new world of delights involves all manners of pleasures of the flesh that Heard has previously foreclosed, under the English logic that “because a thing seems good, there must be some bad in it.” He soon becomes an attentive student of Mr. Keith, whose embrace of sexual liberalism extends so far that he claims not to “see any objection, on principle, to incest,” and who has such a “remarkable chef” that other residents gladly forgive his moral deviations in return for an invitation to lunch.
So too, the lesbian ladies at the heart of Mackenzie’s Vestal Fire are renowned for the extravagance of the Sunday teas they offer each week at their “Villa Amibile,” the social heart of the foreign colony at the outset of the events recounted in the novel. One might imagine that a regular Sunday tea offered by a couple of elderly women would end by supper time, but Virginia and Mamie Pepworth-Norton are so devoted to making their guests happy that each week after filling their visitors with eclairs, cream cakes, praliné ice, and sponge cake, they ply them with creme de menthe frappés and whiskeys and soda throughout the night, disappointed if the party breaks up before 4:00 a.m.
Visiting Capri, in person and on the page, has opened a new world of delights for me as well. Not only has it led me to discover a new set of historical characters, strangers to me only a month ago, it has led me to an exciting reconceptualization of where my research may be going. For months I’ve noticed that my blog has been morphing. What began, ostensibly, as a research journal about the history of Americans learning to cook in Paris – with glimpses of my own adventures in the city’s markets and restaurants – has become increasingly colonized by observations of the intersection between culinary pleasures and erotic pleasures in the lives and writings of my research subjects – with glimpses of my own culinary adventures in between (the autobiographical part of that equation will not be expanding). Having just completed a book in the history of sexuality, I thought perhaps this overlap between sex and food was just an after-shadow, my lingering curiosity about those earlier research questions.
But researching Capri has led me to wonder, what if our own contemporaneous delineation between the “history of food” and the “history of sexuality” – or at least between a history of culinary enjoyment and a history of erotic enjoyment – imposes an anachronistic distinction on an alternative historical organization of bodily pleasure? Is it drawing an artificial distinction to place M. F. K. Fisher in the camp “food writer” and Norman Douglas in the camp “sexual deviant” when Fisher made a life of chasing after lovers, and Douglas’s final text was a cookbook? What might a queer history of pleasure look like that wasn’t confined by modern definitions of sexuality? Could one write a queer history that expanded the realm of bodily pleasures to include sociability, erotics, drinking, and eating?
And is it possible to accurately portray how bodily pleasures considered anodyne today – such as the devotion to good eating – existed on a plane with those so anathema today (pedophilia) that few wise writers are willing to discuss the subject? Norman Douglas writes in South Wind that “history deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real. It demands therefore a combination of qualities unnecessary to the poet or writer of romance – glacial judgment coupled with fervent sympathy. The poet may be an uninspired illiterate, the romance-writer an uninspired hack. Under no circumstances can either of them be accused of wrongdoing or deceiving the public, however incongruous their efforts. They write well or badly, and there the matter ends. The historian, who fails in his duty, deceives the reader and wrongs the dead.” Well let glacial judgment and fervent sympathy guide my future efforts, since I’ve decided to take the plunge and expand the scope of my research, bringing the sexuality back in and moving beyond the confines of Americans in France, to write a more inclusive history of expatriate communities and bodily pleasures.
In honour of this shift in focus, I hereby rename this blog “The Not So Innocents Abroad.”
February kept me so busy with work that I had to learn a new French phrase: date limite. The French sounds a lot less morbid than deadline — or ligne morte — but I think the English better captures the anxiety I suffered wondering if I could get through everything. At least “deadline” suggests the possible cardiac outcomes of my superabundant work stress. Of course, all this is a long-winded excuse for failing to write a blog post during the past month or more. But before you waste too much sympathy on my sorry state, I should mention that part of my deadline anxieties stemmed from the fact that I had committed to spending a week of February on a family vacation in Napoli and Capri.
Considering the bad rep that Naples gets from many tourists, perhaps you do pity our choice of vacation spots. To read online accounts, one would imagine that Naples is the eighth circle of hell, populated entirely by thieves, every sidewalk littered with trash. The internet is filled with woeful tales from unwitting innocents who stumbled out of Napoli’s stazione Garibaldi only to have their purses viciously snatched away within moments by vespa-riding camorristas making their getaways behind mountains of refuse.
American tourists’ distrust of this raucous bay city has an honourable lineage dating back at least to Mark Twain, who voiced his disdain in his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad. According to Twain, the Neapolitans were money-grubbing, wretched, thieving villains. It is said that one should “See Naples and die.” Well, quips Twain, “I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently.”
Twain’s main complaint about the Neapolitans concerned their way with money. “These Neapolitans always ask four times as much money as they intend to take, but if you give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask more.” He bemoaned that “one can not buy and pay for two cents’ worth of clams without trouble and a quarrel.” But here I think Twain sadly missed the forest for the trees. Two cents for clams! Who cares about the quarrelling, Naples is a gourmand’s delight.
After we arrived in Napoli on a Friday morning (following an inexpensive crack-of-dawn flight from Paris), we spent our first day wandering the streets of the old part of the city, where we had booked a hotel room. Soon we regretted that decision. Gazing with greed upon the trays of live vongole, gamberetti, polpi, and calamari, I wished with all my might for a kitchen. The clams have gone up in price since Twain’s time, but the prices in Naples are still a welcome change from Paris. The turgid violet artichokes, €2.50 a bunch, were a steal. I cried bitter tears of longing over the heaps of vivid green rapini. Within an hour of our arrival we were making plans for our return – next time to an apartment with a stove.
On the plus side, our lack of kitchen drove us out to the restaurants. If you ever read any good reports of Naples, the praise is bound to be directed towards the city’s most notable contribution to world cuisine: pizza. Our hotel was only a block and a half from the beginning of via dei Tribunali, the epicentre of Napoli’s pizza culture, site of such renowned eateries as Sorbillo, Di Matteo, and Pizzeria Decumani. Is it any surprise that Tribunali was our favourite street in the city?
We ate at Sorbillo on our first afternoon. Pizza is the only decor at Sorbillo, each plain table being entirely covered by platters bearing massive pies, glistening with golden olive oil, brightened by verdant leaves of fresh basil, heaped sumptuously with fresh mozzarella. I wanted to move in. Despite their enormous size, custom dictates one pizza per person – and how can you complain, considering that a simple margherita will set you back only €3.50. Never has €3.50 been better spent. I enjoyed this meal more than almost any I have ever eaten at any price. It was all about the crust: thin, stretchy, chewy, blackened, flavorsome. The mozzarella and tomato sauce (san marzano from the nearby slopes of Mount Vesuvius) were beautiful dressings, but the soul of the pie was its crust.
The kids would have been happy to eat every meal for the rest of our stay at Sorbillo, and I probably would have been as well. But I’m glad we ventured further – because we had an even more wonderful meal a couple evenings later on neighbouring via Spaccanapoli, at the pizzeria Lombardi. New Yorkers will know that name from the restaurant on Spring street that calls itself the first pizzeria in America. Lombardi’s in New York used to be a favourite of my brother-in-law’s, and I enjoyed many pies there back in the day (before the artisan-pizza fad expanded NY’s Neapolitan offerings, a development which happened after my time).
No disrespect to New York’s Lombardi’s, but its Neapolitan cousin now holds top place in my heart. We went there on a Sunday night, when every sensible Neapolitan eats with family, and consequently we had the restaurant almost entirely to ourselves. Choosing a table right by the oven, this time we ordered a little more adventurously: a margherita for Maya, a prosciutto pizza for Eli, a pizza with escarole, anchovies, and olives for me, and a dish of gnocchi for Tim.
I could sing the praise of my escarole pizza the rest of the night – the bitter fresh greens, the salty tang of the olives, the powerful brine of the anchovies, the chew of the crust: pure heaven. And Tim’s gnocchi were revelatory; I never understood before why people described gnocchi as pillowy. These were ineffably light, and yet substantive, neither mushy nor cottony. I had a hard time keeping my fork out of TIm’s bowl. The gnocchi beat the socks off the pasta dishes at the more upscale Spanish Quarter trattoria where Tim and I had shared a romantic meal à deux the prior evening.
But the true highlight of our meal came at its end, when we encountered the wonderful generosity of Neapolitan culture. As Tim and I sat enjoying our last glasses of wine, Maya went to stand by the oven and watch the pizzaioli. There were two at work, a man who prepared the pizzas and a young woman who worked the ovens: two at work, but not a lot of work to do, so soon we began talking.
Before long, the pizzaiolo handed Maya a piece of dough to make her own pizza. He showed her how to shape the dough with a hand-over-hand movement. (Tim volunteered that at home he uses a rolling pin on the dough, they were not impressed. I’ve been trying to get him to give up this bad habit for ages, but now that the pizzaioli have scoffed at his methods maybe he’ll reform.) Eli got in on the game for a while, but kept making holes in his dough and finally gave up. Maya on the other hand made a reasonably round palette, so next the chefs instructed her in the art of arranging the sauce and cheese and basil. (Tim’s big take away from watching this stage of preparation was that the chef kept a copper oiling can nearby to give the pizza a final liberal dousing of olio d’oliva before it entered the oven. Now he’s on the lookout for our own oiling can to take home.)
Finally the last and most exciting step: the young woman who worked the ovens let Maya grasp the paddle and slide the pizza into the oven herself (with a little guidance of course). According to the chef, the oven reached temperatures of over 700 degrees celsius! (around 1,300 fahrenheit). The proof was in the pudding – Tim clocked the average cooking time of a Lombardi’s pizza at less than 90 seconds. The pizzas went in, had a quick sear on the bottom, then the pizzaiola shifted the pie around a little to perfect the blackening, before quickly sweeping it back out, still wet in the middle. Perhaps a better mother would have kept her kid away from a 1,300 degree oven, but Maya was so excited to wield the paddle. For two straight days following she talked repeatedly about becoming a pizzaiola when she grows up, and bringing Neapolitan pizza to Victoria (watch out Prima Strada).
However hot the ovens at Lombardi, the restaurant’s true warmth resided in its staff. They, and many of the people we met in Napoli, treated us with great generosity. I’ve always defended Parisians against the common canard that they’re rude. Paris is just a big city, I try to point out, and living there is a hassle, people can feel hurried and harassed. The Parisians are no ruder than people in New York or London, where I have seen some pretty astonishing acts of incivility. I do stand by this argument, but I would amend my argument to point out that the people in some big cities, like three-million-strong Napoli, can be exceptionally kind. As a Parisian couple we met in Napoli pointed out, the city’s people are mieux chalereux que les parisiens (which I interpreted as “warmer” than the Parisians, but according to Google Translate means “more horny.” Francophones, please feel free to comment below).
Twain comments with some horror on how the streets of Naples “swarm with people.” As Twain puts it, the city “is worse than Broadway repeated in every street, in every court, in every alley! Such masses, such throngs, such multitudes of hurrying, bustling, struggling humanity! We never saw the like of it, hardly even in New York, I think.” But that’s what we liked so much about the city. It felt so alive, nothing like the disneyfied tourist towns of northern Italy (Venice, I’m talking about you). Ramshackle building, streets full of people, everyone everywhere speaking Italian, a party every night outside our hotel (but windows thick enough to keep the noise down), Naples was hot.
And if all that warmth gets to you, rest easy: Naples also has gelato. The kids’ liked Gay-Odin the best for its whipped cream topping, we like it best for its name.
p.s. account of Capri to follow in a timely fashion, I hope
Another weekend, another holiday to rediscover through French eyes. Today we enjoyed the spectacular sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Chinese New Year in the thirteenth arrondissement.
Unlike Burns night (the subject of my last post) I’ve celebrated Chinese New Year before. The reason behind this difference is easily identified: Chinese food. Unlike haggis, I consider Chinese food to be an essential aspect of my ethnic heritage, as a New York Jew. From dim sum brunches with my grandparents on Mott street, to lunches out with my mother who worked for the city government (conveniently located near Chinatown), to takeout deliveries any night of the week, I grew up on a steady diet of soy sauce, rice, and pork.
Graduate school at Berkeley gave me the opportunity to expand my horizons with salt and pepper dungeness crab at San Francisco’s R & G Lounge, sea food dim sum at Ton Kiang, steamed shrimp at the Pacific East mall in Richmond, almost walking distance from our apartment, and more dim sum in Oakland’s chinatown. Not to mention, my first real exposure to Vietnamese food, which in NYC had closely resembled Chinese food but with spring rolls. Now the blessings of Berkeley introduced me to pho and bahn mi. Yum!
No surprise that rural northern Illinois, where we turned up next, had nothing comparable to offer. Grimly I abstained for four long years before moving back to the west coast, where surely excellent Asian food would re-enter my regular diet. But we were crestfallen to discover that Vancouver Island is no Vancouver in this respect. Victoria may have the oldest Chinatown in Canada, but it’s hardly the liveliest.
So it was with great pleasure that we discovered our Parisian apartment to be an easy walk to the 13th arrondissement, site of Paris’s largest Chinatown (slightly misnamed, since the quartier is mostly Vietnamese, I think). My son has inherited from his Jewish side a gluttonous appreciation for the cuisines of Asia, and even my picky daughter has an endless appetite for white rice. But the greatest joy for le rosbif and me has come from shopping in the markets on Avenue d’Ivry: especially the massive Tang Frères.
The street scene outside Tang Frères is always crowded, with shoppers, vendors, diners, beggars, and oglers. There are backyard gardeners selling scallions and cilantro and aunties selling homemade rice balls; the walls are plastered with a babel of advertisements in French, Chinese, Vietnamese, and English; and hungry Parisians line up across the street outside Hoa Nam for bahn mi.
But today the crowds exceeded anything I had ever seen before, with thousands of visitors streaming into the quartier to watch the défilé – or Chinese New Year parade. There were so many people in the streets, it was hard to see through the rows of heads to watch the parade stream by. Hearing the parade was no problem, between the pounding of the drums and the sonic booms produced when the dancers lit the strings of fireworks hanging from the trees. Luckily, the dragons danced high above the crowds’ heads, where even those in back could see their colourful silks.
It was hard to miss this fearsome yellow lion. It was equally hard to keep from smiling at the fearsome faces made by the little boy inside the mask, although I felt bad for not acting more scared.
One of the surprising, and to me lovely, things about the parade was how multiethnic it was. Amidst the countless dragons and incense burners were troops of Carnival dancers who looked like they had taken a wrong turn off St. Charles Avenue. And many of the young dancers and drummers in Chinese silks clearly hailed from places other than Asia. Recently the news has been filled with accounts of vast crowds in Paris gathering to express their intolerance of the nation’s social change; it was nice to witness, instead, a coming together of many different constitutive elements of French society.
And, as an outsider, it is fascinating for me to see the differences between the Franco-Asian cultural exchange and the Anglo-Asian cultural exchange. I’ve been curious about the differences since my very first visit to the 13th, when I found myself giggling at an advertisement for Chinese ravioli. Ravioli: that’s absurd. Everyone knows they’re dumplings. Who has ever heard of such a thing as Chinese ravioli?
A moment’s reflection, of course, reminded me that there is nothing more logical about translating har gow or jiaozi to the English word “dumpling” (which apparently dates back to early seventeenth-century Norfolk) than to the Italian ravioli.
I was also amused on a recent visit to a Vietnamese restaurant to learn that the eating implements known in English as “chopsticks” are translated into French as “baguettes.” Makes sense of course. I think, in this case, the word refers to baguette’s original meaning as a baton or wand, rather than the long skinny bread loaf, which has only been known as such since the 1920s. To confirm that theory I would need to find a nineteenth-century French source that makes reference to chopsticks and see what word was used.
Rediscovering Asian cuisine (and culture) through a French lens is an interesting reminder that, much as I like to joke otherwise, this is not my cultural heritage, or rather: my cultural heritage is to have an intimate outsider’s relationship with Chinese food and culture. Is it possible to have a multi-generation outsider-ness be your cultural heritage? Paradoxically, I have never felt more out-of-ease in the French language than when trying to communicate in French in the 13th. My American accent makes my French hard for Vietnamese newcomers-to-France to understand, as their Vietnamese accents make their French hard for me to understand. We meet across a terrain of incomprehension. Even more curiously, when I had a Vietnamese friend visiting back in the summer, he found it almost as challenging to communicate in Vietnamese in the 13th because of the Frenchified vocabulary and accent of the shop keeps. At least all of us – Jews, Vietnamese, French, and every combination heretofore – can meet in amity across a common appetite for that most Franco-Vietnamese of all foods, the bahn mi.
Gertrude Stein famously wrote that a writer has to have two countries, “the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.” By living abroad, writers discover their native countries within their minds’ eyes. But what about when you have three countries? This is the situation I find myself in, living in Paris, on sabbatical from my everyday life in Canada, where I moved to from the United States. Can living in Paris help me to discover what it means to be an immigrant to Canada?
Before I moved to Canada I had never heard of Robert Burns night. Growing up in New York City in the 1980s I did not know anyone Scottish. At least not to my knowledge. I knew Jews (my family), I knew lots of Irish kids (many of my best friends), Italians, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, and just about every other sort of person not originating from Great Britain. Scots I did not know.
Canada is another story. In Victoria we have a yearly Highland festival, where I’ve watched large men toss the caber and throw the Braemar stone. There’s a kilt store downtown. And my class rosters are often crowded with Macs. So it’s no surprise that Victoria also hosts many gatherings for Robert Burns night, which I’ve never thought to attend. Because haggis.
For the uninitiated readers among you, Burns Nights are annual dinners held in commemoration of the much beloved Scots nationalist poet, where gatherers recite Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” before feasting on the object of his veneration: the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” Or in other words, a sheep’s stomach stuffed with sheep hearts, lungs, and other sundry offal parts, mixed with oats, onions, and spices. For some reason it has never appealed.
But here in Paris, perhaps missing Victoria just a twinge, I found myself last weekend among a couple hundred happy French men and women in a circus tent on the périphérique celebrating the arrival of the haggis. I was attending, at a friend’s invitation, the seventh annual Burns supper in Paris. Men in tartan aprons bore “the groaning trencher” into the room as the bagpipe played, and placed it upon a table where twice it was addressed: once in Burns’ original Scots, and the second time in glorious French translation by the evening’s organizer, Gilles Robel: “Du peuple des boudins tu es le chef, pardi!”
There was much laughter at Burns’s disdainful line: “Is there that owre his French ragout / Or olio that wad staw a sow / or fricassee wad mak her spew / Wi perfect sconner / Looks down wi’ sneering, scornful’ view / On sic a dinner?” Actually, the laughter followed the French translation: “S’en trouve-t-il un, qui, touillant son ragoût français / Ou quelque brouet gras qu’une trui vomirait…” If neither of those makes any sense to you, I’d suggest looking up an English translation.
Then the haggis was carried back to the kitchen for serving. You must excuse the poor picture quality, they started pouring whiskey for the toasts before the haggis arrived. Perhaps it was that fine lubricant, or maybe it was the magic of the French cuisinier, but the great chieftain of the puddin-race tasted rather good and warmly satisfying, if in an I’ll-keel-over-if-I-eat-this-more-than-once-a-year-sort of way.
Paris can certainly be given credit for what was no doubt the best bread roll ever served at a Burns supper. The haggis came with neeps and tatties, bien sûr, as well as some celeriac purée and several other brown purées to which more cream was added than I imagine is typical in Scotland. Nothing green passed the plate. There was only brown whiskey, brown haggis, and brown vegetable mush.
Thankfully, there were also two hours of Scottish dancing (what, as an American, I would call square dancing, and what the Canadians call barn dancing, I believe) following dinner to a live band direct from Edinburgh, whose fiddler happened to have a French mother and speak flawless French. Following the steps as they were called out in French offered a new challenge to my developing language skills! Luckily, despite the preponderance of tartan in the tent, few of the French guests had any better handle on the dancing than I did. It was so much fun, now I want to go square dancing in French every weekend.
At the very least, when we return to Victoria, I want to make a habit of attending more Burns night celebrations, as long as there will be whiskey, haggis, and dancing. Perhaps it required being in Paris, but I find myself coming into touch with my Canadian-Scottish heritage.
Donnez-moi un haggis!