Tag Archives: baking

The Penumbra

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The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.

 

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The Nectar of Mathematics

It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than to do the wrong problem the right way.
Richard Hamming quoted, Julian Havil, Impossible: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums (50)

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My kind of geometry: The Doughnut

I was deep into my morning walk a few weeks ago when a powerful craving for doughnuts caught up with me. But proper doughnuts require a little time and a small crowd to partake in the pleasure, so I waited until the right moment.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong (H.L. Mencken quoted, 82).

I find that I tend to read a math book or two every year. I’m not sure what it is in me that compels me to plow through the complex equations that I have little to no real understanding of, but I do it anyway. I like the ideas that the math symbolizes, I suppose. I take a strange pleasure in relating events in my life to mathematical equations.

A recipe is like a math equation: n( x + y) (s/t/r) + nfº = Ne (That’s n ingredients, multiplied by speed and time of rotation, plus n degrees fahrenheit, equals the nectar of mathematics: in this case: Apple-cider doughnuts.). Of course we ran into some problems.

Now that we have complex numbers properly placed and our mind receptive to lurking difficulty, we will consider what should be a simple computation for a calculator (44).

Ah yes, the lurking difficulty. Well, that is something one must always be prepared for. I had my heart set on apple cider doughnuts. My children and I were all visiting friends who had kindly procured all the necessary ingredients. I only needed 1/2 cup of apple cider (which I would reduce to 2T) and my friend wondered what to do with rest as they didn’t care for cider. I told her not to worry, my boys would take care of that. The next morning, I awoke, ready to prepare the dough when I realized our error. I neglected to tell the boys that there had been a reason, other than their enjoyment and ever-lurking thirst, for the purchase of the cider. They had made quick work of it. Good communication is important. In math, baking and life—that holds true.

Put succinctly, to increase the chances of success the team must adopt the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of being wrong together, not correct together (53).

Something strange that I love about math, as it feeds some sort of philosophical truth I seek, is that not only can there be multiple ways to reach a solution, but there are multiple solutions to a problem. It just depends on what system, matrix, or units of measurement and/or data you are using. There is not as much firm ground as we like to think. There are just abstract ideas and evolving methods of problem-solving.

Of course making apple cider doughnuts is not that complex of a problem. I solved the equation, in fact, by a simple adjustment of words. Rather than making Apple-cider Doughnuts I replaced the 2T reduced apple cider with milk and renamed the solution: Plain Doughnuts.

*title from p 128: “Certainly, [the proof] is more secure and in looking at it we can taste the nectar of mathematics…”

 

 

 

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

Throbbing Reality

But that man’s mind itself in all it does
Hath not a fixed necessity within,
Nor
is not, like a conquered thing, compelled
To bear and suffer,—
this state comes to man
From that slight swervement of the elements
In no fixed line of space, in no fixed time.
Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things, Book II, p. 57.

The pleasure of nature in a bite.

The pleasure of nature in a bite.

After reading The Swerve it seemed to me that I must read Lucretius. At my library I found many editions of De Rerum Natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things. I found a compact edition entitled Of the Nature of Things translated by William Ellery Leonard. Comparing his work with another I was on the brink of choosing the other based on the first line, Leonard has it as follows: “Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,” but I preferred the romance and classicism of the other which read, “Mother of Aeneas, darling of Gods and men.” Yet,  when I began to peruse the forward, I knew I had to chose Leonard— his appeal to the “throbbing reality of the great living Roman, chief poet on the Tiber’s side” (xi) spoke to me.  And, he ended with an emotional appeal—only slightly tempered and made very amusing by being written in the third person: “He has loved Lucretius for many years, and the mighty spirit of the Roman has helped him to sustain many burdens in life” (xiv).

 Thus thou myself in themes like these alone
Can hunt from thought to thought, and keenly wind
Along even onward to the secret place
And drag out truth (16).

On the Nature of Things is basically an ancient science book written in verse. It is quite spectacular. Lucretius is thought to have lived between 99 and 50 B.C., but there is not much else known about him. Indeed, he came perilously close to complete obscurity, as The Swerve relates. Which would have been a shame as his words, particularly his acceptance of mortality, as well as his sensible observations of the natural world are beautifully rendered. He is emphatic that one need only think and live with a “breast all free” (187) to see that there are reasonable explanations for the nature of things. Admittedly,  sometimes he’s a bit testy:

… For dolts are ever prone
That to bewonder and adore which hides
Beneath distorted words, holding that true
Which sweetly tickles in their stupid ears (25)

Ouch.

Starting with his concept that all matter is composed of seeds (or atoms, or germs) undetectable to the eye, with a clear inclination or disinclination for similar seeds that can’t be mixed willy-nilly—after all human beings have a similarity and affinity for other human beings, we can’t mate with trees can we? No, of course not, there are limits.

From out the heart, aye, verily, proceeds
First from the spirit’s will, whence at the last
‘Tis given forth through joints and body entire (56).

He moves on to the motion of said atoms, the soul, the senses, love, the origin of the world and its inhabitants, the beginning of civilisation, meteorology, and then, concludes with the plague. In all fairness, the work was apparently unfinished so one can only hope he had been planning a more pleasant ending.  Nevertheless, on a whole, quite ambitious.

…but unto things are given
Their fixed limitations which do bound
Their sum on either side, ‘tmust be confessed
That matter, too, by finite tale of shapes
Does differ (64).

This is a fascinating point to pause on. Life is finite. There are limits, and yet:

The which now having taught, I will go on
To bind thereto a fact to this allied
And drawing from this its proof: those primal germs
Which have been fashioned all of one like shape
Are infinite in tale; for, since the forms
Themselves are finite in divergences,
Then those which are alike will have to be
Infinite…(64).

Infinity within the finite. It’s brilliant, really. I can’t stop coming back to this idea again and again: the possibility, the diversity—but all within the finite. It almost seems that it is the limits which make infinity possible. Similarly,  it is the certain knowledge of death (but don’t despair! nothing will matter because, well, you’ll be dead!) which makes life sweet. Lucretius writes with such passion about every subject that I am not revealing anything unexpected by saying, so too then—Love. His section on love and lust is startlingly erotic in its true description of the “violence of delight,” the lovely insatiability:

Nor can they sate their lust
By merely gazing on the bodies, nor
They cannot with their palms and fingers rub
Aught from each tender limb, the while they stray
Uncertain over all the body (177)

It’s not as if all his “facts” are correct, he has, for just one example, some funky notion about women being less likely to conceive when enjoying sex too much, (sometimes men come up with such odd ideas regarding women’s sexuality that all one can do is be thankful not to have been their lover). But, be that as it may, he was onto some very huge ideas, with enormous implications for the way in which one chooses to live. As an admirer of Epicurean  philosophy, to spare oneself unnecessary evils and ignorances doesn’t require much. Our bodies are made to experience this world in all its wondrous splendor, and as we happen to find ourselves here, why not?

Therefore we see that our corporal life
Needs little, altogether, and only such
As takes the pain away, and can besides
Strew underneath some number of delights (45).

 

Gehenna on Earth

Exceptionally endowed with those qualities which make for great gastronomic achievement she had, under the direction of the king of gourmets, the lord of perfect eating, lavished upon them the rarest of sensations, the most thrilling experiences; she exalted them, blissful souls, to the highest peaks of cloudless joy (17).
– Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

Who is this “lord of perfect eating” ? the fantastic, if fanatic,  M. Dodin-Bouffant whose brilliant chef, has suddenly died, much to his distress. He is thrown, at the start of the novel, into a search for a replacement, to restore meaning to his life.

We have learned by bitter experience that there is no crisis, no illness, even no death that can equal in suffering and horror the weeks imposed upon us by those sawbones, those abominable “cures” which leave you weak, sick, and breathless. Whatever may lie in store for us, we are henceforth fully enlightened upon the worthless deceit of diets (159).

Okay, so perhaps an out-of-print book (Actually, Ruth Reichl did reissue it as part of the Delectable Modern Library Food Series, so the novel based very loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had a second life) on the reverence of French cookery is solely my kind of summer reading, but, well, it meets the requirements – fun and delightful. Not  unlike a doughnut made to near perfection (not difficult, but you’d never know that by the travesty of doughnut shops not worth my breath…oh but my latest batch!…when I presented my creation to my daughter, well – we nearly wept with joy – they were sublime, ahhh cloudless joys!…but I digress…happily, but still). M. Dodin-Bouffant’s search, discovery, and philosophy is, in my opinion,  the very stuff of sumptuous summer nights.

When confronted with a choice between a luscious young female candidate, to replace the late Eugenie Chatagne, but who is, tragically, of uninspiring ability compared to another candidate, the  luscious chef, Adèle, who is, regrettably, of uninspiring physicality. A moment of weakness overcomes the hero– but just a moment:

To possess this girl was to sign an irrevocable contract, it was the abandonment of his reputation to the unschooled hands and uninspired soul of an apprentice incapable, alas, of any improvement. 

A man of priorities, indeed! I came across this book amongst the rare book collection of one of my workplaces and was taken in by Lawrence Durrell who wrote the forward. At once frivolous and excessive, it is also beautiful in its purity and fidelity to the importance of reaching for greatness within one of the pleasures afforded us humans – cuisine.

Adèle Pidou could not restrain herself; she began, for no reason at all save the pleasure of touching them, to seize the handles of frying-pans and skillets, of copper saucepans, to stroke the rounded flanks of the earthenware pots, to feel the bottles of spices, the boxes of ingredients, to open them, sniff them, examine the stove, inspect the spits and the fish-kettles. Dobin, throbbing with hope, allowed her to pleasure herself (78).

Needless to say, she gets the job. What’s more, when a more lucrative one tempts her away, Dodin immediately and hilariously propose marriage. Ah, love!

The joys of the senses are well represented in the visuals of art, the sound of music, the touch of physical love, but the smell and taste of culinary pleasures are sadly relegated to a lower, greedy order. Certainly, as Dodin discovers, moderation is necessary, gout hurts! still, it is my firm belief that while less is more, the less need never be compromised. Compromise is truly the only Gehenna on earth.

Cuisine is still victim of low and deplorable prejudice. Its most noble geniuses have not yet conquered their rights to sit between Raphael and Beethoven, and before some modest learning could be recognized in this humble collection of stories, we should have to write a fat book to maintain in theses, antithesis, and synthesis the view that the gastronomic art, like all other arts, comprise a philosophy, a psychology and an ethic, that it is an integral part of universal thought, that it is bound to the civilization of our earth, to the cultivation of our taste, and thereby to the superior essence of humanity (161).

* title inspired from pg 155: The afternoon seemed delicious to the epicure emerging from his Germanic Gehenna. – In other words – Dunkin Donuts.

 

 

 

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

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I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Gallery

Sicula

This gallery contains 10 photos.

My daughter, Victoria Accardi, had the opening for her show, Sicula: A Cultural Retrospective Through Portraiture this past weekend. The series of portraits explore her upbringing in the American-Sicilian culture of her father, (Sicula is an Italian word that denotes a quality … Continue reading