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Monday, November 10, 2014

I Turn For Relief: The Comforts of Baking and Re-Reading


Feeling overwhelmed by time’s fullness and breakneck speed may be brought on by a crowded calendar, concerns of business, or any number of activities, even by reading itself. The consumption of too many books and book reviews and political articles in succession, particularly with a felt obligation to have something intelligent to say about each one, culminates every now and then in a crash. The system, as it were, goes down.

Baking

And so, tired of thinking and have nothing to say, of days passing without inspiration, I turn to the most spotted, dog-eared pages in my oldest cookbook. Comfort! A pan of brownies in the oven smells delicious in the evening, and nothing brightens a grey, cold November morning like hot oatmeal muffins dripping with butter. And now, it being a cold, grey, wet, windy November morning as I draft this post and wait for my oven to preheat, I’m thinking I might as well include a couple of recipes I’ve adapted over the years from the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer. (My mother used the 1950 edition of this cookbook, and I received my own copy of the 1964 edition in 1966 and used it until it fell to pieces, to be replaced by a 1967 copy.) Admonitions are my own additions, as should go without saying, but I’m saying.

OATMEAL MUFFINS

Sift together (or mix well together, as I do, with a wire whisk):
2 cups flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
1 T baking powder
2 T sugar
½ tsp. salt

1 egg
2/3 cold cooked oatmeal (see below)
1 cup milk

Beat the egg well, and add to it the cold cooked oatmeal and milk, mixing ONLY until dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened. DO NOT OVERMIX! Here you do not want an electric mixer or food processor or even a whisk but simply a spoon or fork. Also, DO NOT USE INSTANT OATMEAL OR “QUICK” OATS! You might as well eat a bowl of sugar! What you want is either whole or steel-cut oats (Bob’s Red Mill has both), and the thing to do is to cook twice the amount you want for breakfast the day before, and to save time that morning you will put the oats and water to soak in the top of a double boiler the night before, and to save even more morning time bring the oats to a boil the night before, leaving them covered for morning reheating.

Bake muffins in a HOT oven, 425 degrees, for about 25 minutes. The recipe makes a dozen muffins. OVEN TEMPERATURE IS CRUCIAL FOR MUFFINS! Few things from an oven are more disappointing than muffins with raw middles. You want them brown and crisp on top, fluffy inside, and baked clear through.

CHOCOLATE BROWNIES

4 oz. melted dark baking chocolate (NOT “baking squares”)
½ cup melted butter (use other shortening at your own peril)
1 cup flour
(Salt and baking powder are really not necessary.)

4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler and stir until shiny and smooth. Mix dry ingredients together with a whisk as you did with the muffin batter in the other recipe. Add sugar gradually, beating until very light.

Add melted chocolate-butter to sugar-egg mixture and then stir in dry ingredients. Spread in a shallow baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.

My modifications to the original cookbook brownie recipe include doubling the amounts of chocolate, shortening (and always using butter for “shortening”), eggs and sugar and eliminating salt and baking powder, resulting in a chewy rather than a light, cakelike brownie. The key here, again, is making sure that the brownies are baked all the way through. Test with a clean knife or toothpick. If it comes out gooey rather than clean, give the brownies another 5 minutes and test again. You should have a crunchy top and a rich, dense brownie.

I baked brownies from this recipe on Friday night and took them to the bookshop on Saturday morning. There were no complaints from browsers or customers.

Reading

I’ve been a re-reader all my life and cannot comprehend people who say they never re-read. To me, that would be like meeting a pleasant, interesting person, having a wonderful conversation, and never wanting to see that person again. In grade school, I read all the Walter Farley books over and over, along with The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, The Borrowers, Palmer Brown’s The Silver Nutmeg, and my mother’s old copy of Anne of Green Gables, to name only a select few. To be honest, I still enjoy revisiting these favorites, but in more recent decades I’ve added to this list all of Jane Austen’s novels, but especially Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Maggie-Now, my favorite Betty Smith books; the beginning and end (not the middle volumes, which bore me to tears) of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat, Thoreau’s Walden, of course; Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; and, the most recent addition, Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, which I have read four times and expect to re-read for the rest of my life.

Re-reading for me has all the advantage of “escape,” with the added comfort of familiarity. The characters and their worlds are old friends, and I enter once again into their lives and adventures. Even knowing how things will come out in the end, I vicariously re-experience all the confusions and doubts, hopes, fears, and excitement of the people in these books. And yet, always, somehow, there are a few lines that strike me as if I’m reading them for the first time. The time never feels wasted or the experience repetitious.

Because I’m currently re-reading Proust on assignment for a group discussion coming up soon, it was Jane Austen I turned to at dark 3 a.m. one recent morning. Never feeling a need to justify a re-reading, I did however think this time that it would be worthwhile going through Pride and Prejudice again in preparation for a December discussion of Longbourn, which I’ll also re-read again with pleasure before our group meets.

Here is a passage often quoted:
Upon the whole, therefore, she found, what has been sometimes found before, that an event to which she had looked forward with impatient desire, did not in taking place, bring all the satisfaction she had promised herself. It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present, and prepare for another disappointment.
“Don’t wish your life away!” my mother always warned me, from my earliest childhood, when I “couldn’t wait” for time to bring around some longed-for event. How many modern self-help books counsel readers not to believe that happiness depends on some conditional “if” event, like falling in love or winning the lottery? The passage is perfectly familiar, as is its sense. But in my most recent reading I was suddenly struck by the last four words: “prepare for another disappointment.” How much dry irony Austen packs into those four simple words, as if anything wished for will disappoint! Is this Eliza Bennett’s skeptical wariness or the author’s own?

Much, much – I often think far too much! – is made of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Finishing the novel this time, I read the afterword by Henry Hitchings with my own skeptical, wary eye. I nodded approvingly over everything he had to say about Jane Austen and David Hume’s philosophical writings on reason (once, back in graduate school, before the tsunami of writings on Austen, I had thoughts of writing something on that subject myself but could not bring myself to read her work with the analytic, academic rigor such a project would demand, because one does not want to analyze love, and I love Jane Austen), but as for what he says of the famous first sentence, I was less than satisfied, as usual.
The novel’s opening sentence is one of the most celebrated in English literature. It alerts us, quite subtly, to Austen’s powers of irony. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ she writes, ‘that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ This seems straightforward, but ought to prompt two questions: is this alleged ‘truth’ really acknowledged ‘universally’, and ‘must’ an affluent man always be ‘in want of a wife’? Austen is not endorsing the view that all affluent men should marry; instead she gently mocks the notion that there can be universal truths, and at the same time she mocks the shallowness of her contemporaries.
Close reading, literary criticism – call it what you will, it has never satisfied me and still does not. So this time I set about trying to figure out and articulate for myself what that sentence is doing, and it strikes me that there is both more and less going on there than the critics would have us believe. Make no mistake: this is one of the best, most successful first lines ever penned in a work of fiction. There is genius in it. And yet, has it ever seemed “straightforward” to any reader? How obtuse and thick-headed would such a reader have to be? Of course the tone is mocking, and the mockery is obvious! That’s why we laugh! But are we really meant to be led by this sentence into reflections on universal truths? Is this the direction Austen would have us go? 

My questions are rhetorical, as I’m sure is obvious, and no is the answer I would convince you is correct. My claim is that it is self-interest in general and the character of Mrs. Bennett in particular that Austen mocks in her opening sentence. Then, move along, move along! We’re entering the world of a story!

As Hitchings says elsewhere, Austen is always, first and foremost, in service to the story she is telling. Any “feminist and revolutionary notes,” and so surely any epistemological or metaphysical considerations, are a lesser priority. The opening sentence introduces the concerns of a particular social group, but most pointedly it introduces one member of that group. The mocking tone calls into question self-interest unwilling (or perhaps unable) to recognize itself. Just as Mrs. Bennett protests that she forces herself out into society only for the sake of her daughters, so she needs to present those daughters as potentially answering the “need” of eligible bachelors. Mrs. Bennett’s almost complete lack of self-awareness is paired with a very high level of self-interest, and it is Mrs. Bennett who is introduced on the first page of the novel, her entrance prepared by two information-rich sentences. Character and story, story and character. How much Austen compresses into a very few words, and how easy it is to overload those simple words with philosophical freight!

Agree or disagree? Why?

Commuting between Proust and Austen, as I did for several mornings and evenings, I was struck anew by the lack of description in Austen’s work (so rich in Swann’s Way!) but also the economy of expression throughout her work. Wherever not necessary for the explication of character or the forwarding of plot, details are omitted, as in this passing reference to the wedding between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas:
The wedding took place; the bride and bridegroom set off for Kent from the church door, and everybody had as much to say or to hear on the subject as usual.
We already know what the bride and groom respectively looked for in marriage, and in future chapters we will see them at home, quite satisfied, so of the wedding itself nothing more need be said.

Re-reading is a comfort and an escape because the work and characters are familiar, but it’s important for me to re-read books rich enough to show me something new each time through.

I began writing this post while the oven was preheating for oatmeal muffins and finished it up with chicken broth simmering on the stove, redolent with plenty of garlic and celery. Homemade noodles, cut thick, were already dancing in my head as wind and rain whipped tree branches outside our old farmhouse.

Happy baking – and happy reading! 



3 comments:

trudy carpenter said...

Ahh, Pamela, your musings and recipes are warming this sleet-snow-rain day for me. I would never want you to feel obliged to share your thoughts and opinions, but I appreciate it when you do.

Why the heck aren't you writing a novel??? Yourself as heroine, an independent bookseller in a small town. Okay, I am applying pressure here, but you are such a fine writer . . . .

Karen Casebeer said...

Oh, yum. I'm not much of a cook, but those muffins sound wonderful. And I looked, and my oatmeal isn't instant. Gonna try them right now. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

If I cannot inspire my people to read, yet will I inspire them to bake!