Fruit of the vine

From the ages of 19 to 21 years old, following a year spent in Paris -and how everyone should live in Paris when they are 18 years old, the only age at which you believe you know everything- I lived in Burgundy. My home was the red-roofed medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, a place so outrageously beautiful and so suspiciously idyllic that you never can quite completely believe it to be real. These three years were spent training for the priesthood and while that particular dream was never to be fulfilled, I left with a love for French and France that ultimately ended up with me becoming a scholar specializing in French literature and cultural history. The photograph below shows Flavigny, a charming place nestled on a hill, and the building on the very left of the photograph (with a grey bell tower whose persistent bell woke me up every day at 6am, with the decadent later time of 6:30am on Sundays) is the seminary in which I spent those two years. From my bedroom window I could look down on the thirteenth-century Porte du Val gateway, visible in the photograph, built to keep out the English, and from the bottom of the seminary garden was a vista overlooking the valley of Alesia, where Julius Caesar finally defeated the Gauls and captured Vercingetorix in 52BC. I count myself fortunate to have spent my salad days in such a salubrious environment.

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Courtesy of JohnVenice, Flickr

The one thing that always reminded me of being transplanted in an exotic place, like Ruth’s alien corn, was seeing grapes growing everywhere in the surrounding region, and even in our very garden. Coming from savagely beautiful rural climes of the north-west of England, this seemed to be intoxicating to me, providing many sudden moments of awareness of being a stranger in a strange land. While grapes produce a range of products including ethanol and grape juice, it is virtually impossible to think of this fruit without the mental association of wine. My love affair with wine began, fittingly, in Burgundy. Until then, wine had been something I tolerated when offered, my teenaged beverage of choice being sweet cider. Then, one rare free day, a fellow French seminarian who had a car offered to take three of us to Nuit-Saint-Georges, one of the premier vineyards in the world. We ventured to a small, ancient holding  for a free tasting and found ourselves the only ones there. The proprietor was on duty and seemed bemused at the sight of four earnest young men dressed in black cassocks who wanted to sample some of his produce. I don’t know whether he was a believer or was sympathetic to the Church, or quite simply divined that we didn’t get many treats in our austere lives, but this fellow decided to let us liberally sample some of the most expensive vintages that were obviously usually earmarked for richer customers, the bottles being priced at eye-watering prices. He spoke of each one in the respectful hushed tones we normally reserved for church and from the first mouthful of the first vintage he offered us, I had an oenophilic epiphany. I finally got it. I knew at last why wine was an integral part of the fabric of human history and I knew a Rubicon had been crossed and I would never turn back. Another memorable epiphany for me occurred in my 2009 trip to Portugal. I tried a 1952 white Dalva port, below, at Vinologia, a port bar in Porto run by a Frenchman, that I felt I had been born to taste. I went back to enjoy it by itself before the end of my visit.

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Wine-making has been taking place for at least 8,000 years and there is something mysterious about the fermentation of the fruit to make a drink that can have such potent effects. The fact that this drink can transform our mood and have quantifiable physical effects on us explains its prominent role in many religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Wine is mentioned no fewer than 155 times in the Old Testament. Indeed, Psalm 103 praises God for facets of His creation, including “Et vinum laetificat cor hominis”: and the wine gladdening the human heart. At the heart of Catholicism, there is the liturgy, that feeling of the pulse of the divine enacted out countless times all over the planet every day, in which wine plays a central role and perhaps a more visually striking one than the Host, the bread, since it resembles blood, a fact that has not been lost on poets throughout the centuries. In Charles Baudelaire’s semi-blasphemous “Hymne à la Beauté” (Hymn to Beauty), the first stanza makes a comparison between being bewitched by beauty and being under the influence of wine:

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss,
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal,
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime,
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

Baudelaire, whose poetic manipulation of the French language achieved things with it and for it that were unthinkable until that point, daringly rhymes “divin” and “au vin”, but really the simile is not at all sacrilegious because the transformation of mood heralded by wine is also mirrored in the process of viticulture itself, where very inviting looking fruit metamorphoses into an incredible drink, a veritable secular transsubstantiation.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Wine growing also brings to mind human labour and the many people involved in its culture and production. My favourite image in this respect is the month of September in the fifteenth-century Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, above, which depicts peasants busily tending vines. One indolent figure is contentedly and greedily devouring grapes while his pregnant wife momentarily pauses from her toil. There is a particular timeless resonance about the societal inequalities that have many working hard for the enjoyment of a few, made more raw and poignant when it comes to a product that is a byword for merriment, feasting, and conviviality. Whether purposeful or not in the medieval illumination, the cold, menacing, and impersonal walls of the castle loom over the human, hard-working, and diverse characters in the vines. John Steinbeck picks up this trope in the title to his 1939 masterpiece about the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath. In this connection, there is a very fitting singular irony in the invention of the printing press. Gutenberg’s press was directly modelled on the screw wine presses of the Rhine Valley. The printing press would directly spawn revolt, change, and revolution, an unintended consequence of wine-making indeed.

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Today’s cufflinks are fashioned out of sterling silver by the Californian artist Harold Clifton Fithian (1905-1972). They date from the 1950s and display an astonishing level of detail and craftsmanship as shown in the ornate sides, below.

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Fithian led a somewhat lively and varied life, trying his hand at acting and music as well as jewellery. These links are much more elaborate than other examples of his work, and they are definitely made by his hands rather than by an apprentice. They are a very striking pair. The choice of grape motif interests me very much. Fithian had an acute sense of social justice, having a completely non-segregated studio and training apprentices from all races, something that was all too rare in the 1940s and 1950s. He also was very closely involved in helping to organize strikes and action among farm workers against unjust working conditions, including, significantly, those working in the wine industry. The grape then remains, above all, a potent symbol of transformation, be it social, socially, or spiritually.

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The Child within

There are essentially two kinds of people who have acquired deep specialist knowledge: the contagious and the contemptuous. I know this all too well, being a professor, and an academic condescending to a student is as perverse as it is outrageous. One of the true teachers of the twentieth century is Julia Child (1912-2004), someone who could stand as the very definition of fabulous. Her career was unexpected and deeply rooted in her humanity, for Julia was someone who exulted in life and raised cooking from a chore to something vibrant, exciting, and sensual. As well it should be. What is remarkable about Julia’s career is that she went into cookery purely by chance and as a direct result of her passion for Paul Child, the friend who became her husband. They are both pictured below in a whimsical Valentine’s Day photograph from 1952, an image that captures the deep affinity that bound these two people.

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I always compare Julia Child with her British equivalent, Fanny Craddock (1909-1994). These two TV chefs from both sides of the Atlantic have long been staples of the drag-queen circuit, most likely because of their extraordinary respective presences. While Julia Child stood out in front of the camera because of her imposing height of 6′ 2″, Fanny was distinguished by her painted eyebrows and perpetually surprised expression that reminds one of a shrew in the process of being electrocuted (below). With Fanny there is the sense that she is speaking at the audience whereas Julia always manages to cultivate a conspiratorial affinity with her followers, one that was real. Fanny seems to want audiences to be able to cook so they can better themselves, best seen in the comment she once made about how to pipe cream on to a sherry trifle: “Don’t tell that woman next door how to do it and then you’ve got a bit of one-upmanship … which is always satisfying”. I must, in the interests of frankness, declare at this juncture that I am of the firm opinion that a trifle is a sickly and inhumane concoction that should be served only to prisoners and politicians.

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With Julia, on the other hand, her goal was always that her audience enjoy themselves, both during the preparation and in the enjoyment of the food. On this score, she had no time for the blog by Julie Powell which inspired the movie Julie and Julia (2009), which, in her opinion, was a gimmick, and mainly because Julie never talked about how the final product tasted, which for Julia was a cardinal sin of disrespect. The movie is notable not only for being the first film based on a blog but also for Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance in the role of the culinary pioneer. The radically different approaches between Julia Child and Fanny Craddock may be seen in two clips of them instructing viewers how to make a good omelette, with Fanny performing here, and Julia here. Whereas Fanny looks like she would spank anyone who didn’t carry out the task according to her specifications (doubtless part of her appeal to a certain generation of privately educated men), Julia appears to be having a friendly chat with the viewer as she busies herself.

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One anecdote relates how, at a book signing taking place in the early fall, one person in the line gave Julia Child a small bag of homemade truffles, cheerily suggesting she save them for Christmas. Julia immediately tore into them and announced “Oh no! We’ll have them right now!” and started to purr as she enjoyed a truffle she had popped into her mouth, all the while signing other books. I think this story is very much a metaphor for how she lived her life: living in the present moment and doing things the way in which she wanted to, a rejection of puritanism. When things went wrong in front of the cameras, an audience, or friends, Julia would state defiantly “Never apologize”, a motto that was important to her as a lanky person who was somewhat exuberant –and awkward- in her movements and overall demeanour. I feel a great rapport with her in this, being one of life’s clumsy people. Hell, for me, would be having to parallel park in limitless spaces for all eternity.

The key to Julia’s enthusiasm is in the support and love she enjoyed with Paul. Letters they exchanged reveal a profoundly sensual and authentic bond between the two, and food played an important role in their relationship. In her first meal in Rouen with Paul, she experienced an epiphany that changed her palate and, indeed, the course of her life and countless people influenced by her magisterial cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published in two volumes released in 1961 and 1970). She reflected later that this meal constituted “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me”. I have had one relationship in which food was a very key ingredient –pun fully intended- and it is no accident that this has been the most striking, deep, and influential relationship I’ve had in my life. We would talk over food, savour and discuss the flavours, and, all the while, enjoying each other. A meal we shared at the Modern in New York stands out as the most satisfying culinary experience of my life, enjoyed with an individual who enabled my heart to sing tunes I didn’t know were there. It was a long evening of sumptuous courses on the tasting menu, gently lubricated with Laurent Perrier champagne, and impeccable service and seats. Emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually, the evening was a benchmark. Nothing can ever take that incomparable evening away, not even my own insecurities or failings nor the disruption of a rupture. Thankfully!

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I’m currently in Paris and a restaurant which I frequent frequently is Le Trumilou. It’s a place that Julia would approve of in very forceful terms. Julia had an unreconstructed distaste and suspicion of health fads in cooking, and attributed her longevity (dying just shy of her 93rd year) to red meat and gin, defiantly and perhaps accurately. Le Trumilou is located next to the Seine and run by a pair of brothers who took it over from their godparents. The interior looks like a 1950s photograph and hints at a retro makeover, but in fact it simply hasn’t bucked to, and become enslaved by, trends. The restaurant offers different daily specials that are both simple and pleasing such as chicken with thyme, suckling pig, roast rabbit, and duck with prunes (pictured above, from Saturday’s dinner, and served with a gratin as per my special request). It is comfort food that does not disappoint, and during these past few weeks of a particularly painful break-up, the fare at Le Trumilou has been a companion that has not let me down and has offered the particular and peculiar reassurance that only solid rustic cuisine can provide. One reason for this is that I had the good fortune to be brought up with a good supply of local country food. Rabbit pie, freshly caught river fish, and homemade bread and cakes punctuated my upbringing, so Le Trumilou’s offerings momentarily conjure up the childhood state of not realizing how harsh life’s realities can be.

There is, sadly, a puritanical attitude towards food on the part of some people that manifests itself in a suspicion of taking pleasure in meals, photographing them, and talking about them. This is the Craddock approach. The Child attitude is very European, particularly Gallic, in not rushing food, in knowing what you are eating, and in allowing meals to be fecund opportunities for exchange, laughter, and enjoyment. It is not for nothing that some of Christ’s important teaching moments occurred within the context of shared food nor that the central element of the Mass is a meal of bread and wine literally transformed, transubstantiated, into nourishment for our soul as well as for our all-too-weak bodies. I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s striking poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” in which the priest-poet describes administering the Eucharist to a crimson-clad lad: “Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet / To his youngster take his treat”.

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Today’s cufflinks are at once pretty and optimistic, as well as both whimsical and serious. They are crafted by Orla Eggert for the company he founded with his wife, Flora Danica, and I’ve already blogged about another pair in my collection by this quirky artist. He delighted in making jewellery that took, as its inspiration, the herbs in his garden, and this pair features chard leaves, made out of sterling silver coated with a gold wash and dating from the 1950s. It is not the most recognizable of herbs, and it was not I who first identified it. Julia Child does something radical with this unassuming leaf in the second volume of her masterpiece: a Swiss chard gratin. The combination of cheese, butter, lemon, and cream transforms the plant into something very special. Gratins are always an interesting item to have because, by their very presence in a special dish, they already assert their superiority over other side ingredients and vegetables. It is nothing other than the apotheosis of root crops (or leaves in this case) and a muted declaration of rivalry against the main course’s primary ingredient, whether meat, fish, or a vegetarian option. The gratin for me is a very attractive metaphor, as is cooking itself. By means of daring, passion, and imagination, something ordinary can be made exceptional and memorable. And, despite the pain and pleasure of falling in love, it is the only feature in our lives that has the power to metamorphose us and make us strive to be the people we should be. Despite ourselves. Would that we could all permit ourselves to unleash the joie de vivre of our inner (Julia) Child…

So flamboyant

Flamboyant is often confused with and even used as a synonym for camp. The two notions are quite different, even if there is some degree of overlap. Just as a crowd is distinguished from a mob by intent, camp implies subversion in a way that flamboyance doesn’t. Camp behaviour, dress, attitudes refuse to conform to societal norms and the rules of etiquette, not to mention the questioning of gender and sexual roles that it sometimes evokes, albeit subtly and implicitly. In her groundbreaking article “Notes on Camp” published in 1964, Susan Sontag describes camp as a sensibility. This, I think, allows us to differentiate between the two. Flamboyancy is not so much a sensibility as a style and this fits in well with its etymology. Somewhat surprisingly, given its associations with decadence and excess, flamboyant originated as a term to describe certain features of gothic -not, as might be first thought, baroque- architecture. The term in French denotes flaming and the idea is that the ornate, ribbed vaulting on the ceilings or window frames of  medieval churches resembled flames shooting up. This sounds fanciful at first, but a look at the image, below, of an example of a flamboyant feature neatly enables it to be visualized. It’s best seen like this, in isolation from stained glass and surround, to appreciate how appropriate the term is.

ImageUnlike the spiritual rationale that underpins gothic architecture, camp, on the other hand, has a different agenda. As Sontag notes, the way of camp “is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization”. Flamboyancy therefore aims to emulate and enhance nature, whereas camp is purposely artificial. Sontag summarizes this as well: “All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy”. The most pleasing definition that Sontag provides is this: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman””. Seeing life in terms of quotation marks is to live vibrantly and ironically. And who would not want either to do that or to experience it from others?

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One prominent 20th-century example of camp or flamboyancy that comes to mind is the entertainer Liberace (1919-1987). Liberace is difficult to pin down in terms of exactly how he should be viewed. He exulted in over-the-top and excessive shows and was unambiguously flamboyant. Does his persona qualify as being camp, however, given that he was not making an overt statement about his homosexuality, which he continued to deny for all of his life? I think the subversive element in his act is not in its effeminate and homosuggestive undertones but rather in its utter glorification of doing it the way that he wanted to do. In a famous and true anecdote, Liberace wrote to a critic who had published a damning review stating: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank”. He was to use the latter end of this delicious rejoinder for the rest of his career. Despite his outrageous costumes, a self-deprecating humour characterized the man, and while his insecurities led him to terminating many friendships, he could also be fiercely loyal and generous. He also was very religious for all of his life, receiving the last rites during his final illness. Catholicism is, let it be said, a religion that knows a thing or two about display. During that illness, while he became very gaunt and his body ravaged by viruses, he still insisted on receiving doctors and friends while wearing his wig, attempting to take his baldness to the grave. One of his most glorious moments was starring in the 1960s campy TV series Batman, playing the role of a concert pianist called Chandell, as well as the evil twin brother Harry. These episodes attracted the highest ratings of the entire show and a clip of Liberace hamming it up, or perhaps just being himself, is here.

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A contemporary style to Liberace and one which is not without a campy vein is Hollywood Regency, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and which has recently made a comeback thanks to the interest in Eames Era furniture and jewellery. The designer Jonathan Adler explains what it means to him: “I define Hollywood Regency as Neo-classical lines mixed with Hollywood glamour and a top note of mod moxie. Hollywood Regency was a style of architecture and decoration popular in the 60s in LA that was a revival of classical regency style through a modern lens. Hollywood Regency added a layer of pattern and decoration and opulence and glamour to the minimalism of mid-century modernism” (credits to http://parishotelboutique.blogspot.fr/2007/03/what-is-hollywood-regency_11.html). In many respects, then, Liberace was indeed a product of his time, while at the same time offering an idiosyncratic example of stubborn non-conformism.

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Today’s cufflinks are defiantly loud. Like a well-groomed man who just misses out on being considered good-looking, this pair just misses out on being gaudy. They are fabulous things, imbued with optimism. They date from the 1950s and bear the maker’s mark of Robert Zentall, who ran a jewellery company together with his wife Betty, until 1984. To return to Susan Sontag, “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance” and there is no doubt that these cufflinks, crafted out of brass and goldtone, are extravagant. Robert and Betty Zentall were concentration-camp survivors. I think these cufflinks cry out energy and joie de vivre, and also constitute a visible refusal on their creators’ part to be anchored in the past but rather to enjoy life in the present. A lesson to us all, perhaps.