Friday, March 23, 2012

Befriending Tchaikovsky

Artist Jane Mackay's representation of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet

At some age in my youth, probably around fourteen when I first took music appreciation in school, I decided it was cool to hate Tchaikovsky (and Beethoven, Schubert, etc. etc.). I thought that the best music was plainly baroque in origins, with exceptions for Mozart. Formally elegant, intellectual pieces seemed to me far better than music that was overly emotional or “pretty.” I listened to a great deal of Bach.

This is not to say that I shunned everything after Mozart. I had a grudging little love affair with Debussy that I couldn't shake. But for a good fifteen years, that's more or less what I would have said had anyone questioned me on issues of classical music.

But recently, I've begun befriending musicians I once dubbed uncool. Schubert may have been the first because I wanted to listen to some lieder. And then it was the Tchaikovsky. Seriously, can you name another classical musician who's had such a hold on the mental “ear” of the public? (Okay, Beethoven, pipe down.) At least a dozen of his melodies are instantly recognizable to any adult and most children, from the Nutcracker Suite to the Sleeping Beauty Waltz.

This music isn't “just” for ballets and stage-work. It's dreamy, disciplined work that sounds positively opulent to the ear. It's a genuine pleasure to listen to the swelling strings he uses. And really, if I'm going to make any pretensions at all to coolness, I don't want it to be through rejecting something beautiful.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: Beef Tea

1900 Bovril advertisement, per the Victoria and Albert Museum

This post represents what I hope will be an ongoing series called Outstanding and Outdated, an idiosyncratic history of drinks. Please feel free to suggest drinks you'd like to hear about!

Upon eating some delicious beef stew tonight, I was recalled to some experiments I had once made in preparing beef tea. The ubiquitous Victorian food of invalids had long piqued my curiosity. So I bravely took lots of beef and double-boiled it and found it fairly bland and uninspiring.

In terms of cook books, beef tea seems to first appear in 1861's Book of Household Management. There Mrs. Beeton explains that the tea is “to be administered to those invalid to whom flavoring and seasonings are not allowed” (unlucky people!).

In 1870, Napoleon III ordered beef to feed his troops, and a Scotsman created Johnston's Fluid Beef, later called Bovril. This was and is the most popular commercial beef tea in production and it remains an iconic part of British culinary heritage today.

The New York Times in 1880 apparently had so many inquiries that related to beef tea that they decided to devote a special column to the matter. There we read that beef tea is entirely composed of gelatine and that humans cannot derive sustenance from gelatine. The author instead recommended taking some commercial beef tea and then adding to it meat and water to make...homemade beef tea.

Beef tea, which is nowadays pretty much exclusively Bovril, has strong associations with British football culture, as a beverage for fans to enjoy on a cold morning in the stands. It has mainly lost its early associations with invalidism and is nowadays made at home only by anachronistic food enthusiasts like myself.

You can find Mrs Beeton's recipe here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snow Day Reading

I realize this post is fairly unseasonable for most readers, but here in the mountains, we've had snow coming down hard for a night and a day now, which inspired me to pick out the perfect books for a snow day.

Let me be very clear—snow day reading is all about comfort. For this reason, about half of my choices are basically children's literature. These are the easy-to-reread favorites that are easily picked up with a cup of tea and put down for a long nap under a quilt. 

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder--Laura and her family may be barely surviving a hard winter, but you're cuddled up with a cup of cocoa! Enjoy the vicarious hardship.
Deathless by Catherynne Valente--An exquisite novel that reimagines Russian folk tales in the era of Communism. Warning: may cause beet-cravings.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis--The archetypal snow day book. Look out your window and imagine that every snow-covered lamp post is magical.
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen--This fairy tale is immensely influential and strangely underappreciated. Anderson is the master of the literary fairy tale, and this is one of his best.
Three Blind Mice by Agatha Christie--If you'd like a literary frisson, enjoy this gripping murder mystery that unfolds in a house completely cut off by snow.  You say cliche, I say classic.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan--I had to have one literary fiction selection, and I chose this over The Shipping News primarily because I've read it more recently. As a Red Lobster closes its doors forever, snow falls and falls and its manager tries to reconcile himself to both the past and the future.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Men, Women, and Silver-Screen Style

"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other.  Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."  --Katherine Hepburn

When a woman is perpetually single, into her thirties, she gains, or has thrust upon her, a good deal of appetite for her own way.  There's no slow lesson of compromise and consideration, only the independence that sometimes being lonely will reward.

This is not to say that such a woman cannot find her perfect partner at any age, but it suggests that when love enters after three decades, it can be harder to adjust to.

I was watching Mary, Queen of Scots with Katherine Hepburn last night, and it occurred to me how iconic she became not just as a strong modern woman, but also as an actress who portrayed women of powerful self-will.  One of the greatest roles she ever played may have been Eleanor of Aquitane, another indomitable female.

Those phrases are still a little uncomfortable, aren't they?  "Appetite for her own way." "Self-will."  "Indomitable."  Yet these are phrases that have historically connoted admirable strength and determination--in persons of either gender.

And so I return to the Hepburn quote above.  I love the off-the-cuff wit and elegance it displays--but also the radical rethinking of what romantic relationships are meant to be.  If "women of a certain age," like myself, are going to be won over to the side of domestic felicity, it's going to be a felicity on our own terms, where we don't have to share a bathroom