Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cooking with the Poets

This is what it feels like to be living in our new house right now.  I'm going through the many, many boxes of books we brought with us, which has been a tremendously fraught pursuit each time I've moved house.

I love books probably more than I love any other sort of inanimate created object.  I get a physical rush when I walk into a library, especially an academic library, and if you offered me jewelry, I'd ask for a gift certificate to Amazon instead.  At the same time, I feel a sort of reckless rage against all these books right now, and have the irrational urge to cast them out into the snow, which lays abundantly upon the ground tonight.  I gave away five boxes of books to the library before we moved. A friend then told me about Bookmooch, a book swap site through which I've given away a dozen or so books; while its method is cumbersome, I'm glad to know that these particular books were sought for, requested, and wanted by the people to whom I sent them.  There's also BookCrossing, a site through which you can register books that you then leave in random places for other people to find.  The premise of BookCrossing is interesting: it's a sort of aleatoric method for creating an invisible community of connected readers.  But for me, it's really just a way to get rid of books that are less-than-precious to me, and hope that whoever finds them will take them home, read them, and love them (though I suspect my books will actually be thrown away if I leave them at indoor locations, and become compost if I leave them out of doors).

Our new house, as it happens, has lovely built-in bookshelves, but my books seem out of place in them.  When they were cheek-by-jowl in the rickety homemade bookcases I had for years, my battered copies, mostly second-hand, of books like London Labour and the London Poor, A Muse for the Masses, and Prostitution and Victorian Society, looked at home; here, however, they seem shopworn and suspect.  I don't know if I'll ever use them again -- they were dissertation research, and, though I'm at work on a book version of my dissertation, I'm expanding a different area of my research -- but it seems heartless and disloyal to put them, erstwhile comrades of my spartan, disciplined days of dissertating, up for grabs on Bookmooch or cast them to the Fates on BookCrossing.

I am looking at a book right now, Cuisine for All Seasons, by Helen Hecht, the widow of the great latter-day Formalist poet Anthony Hecht.  I absolutely adore this book.  As with all my books, I remember the circumstances in which I acquired it, bought from a homeless man selling second-hand books and knick-knacks out of boxes by the curb on Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets on my way from the subway to a voice lesson.  When I was married to my first husband, I actually cooked from it once in a while, but mostly I just liked reading it.  It's a menu cookbook of rather complex recipes grouped by season, interspersed with chatty, literate reminiscences of trips to exotic climes and namedropping of poets (one of Mrs. Hecht's menus is called "A Dinner for Joseph Brodsky"; another is "A Birthday Dinner for Tony").  Doesn't this meal, dubbed "A Farmhouse Lunch," sound just right for the first chilly days of fall?

Roast Peppers with Feta Cheese and Olives
Alsation Omelet
Tomatoes Provençale
Greek Salad
Apple-Custard Tart or Fresh Fruit

As the author notes, "This is the sort of earthy, rustic lunch you might serve to weekend guests or to friends who gather at your house after an outing in the country."  Indeed.  Or what about this one, perfect for a night like tonight:

Celery and Gorgonzola Soup
Leg of Lamb with Green Peppercorn and Mint Sauce
Spinach, Cheese, and Mushroom Casserole
Braised Fennel
Green Salad
Mocha Mousse with Chocolate Almond Brittle 

While I'm not at all sure if I'll ever cook any of Helen Hecht's proposed meals again, I can't bear to part with her cookbook, which gives me the feeling that there is a world of comfort and peace available to those who order their lives and the seasons according to a collection of recipes like hers.  And, while I feel as if I should cast off the old man to begin a new life in my new home, I'm not ready to jettison the books that old man read and cherished.


honeybee said...

Books are my drug of choice, and I am moving into a new, smaller apartment this week, so this post is very timely for me.

As I live in Europe, the challenge of giving away English language books is greater; I hate to throw books away, but it may well come to that in the end. When I look at all my books, I now no longer feel pleasure and comfort, but burdened and oppressed.

I know it will be wrenching to part with them, but in a way, I’m eager to strip away to the bone some of the props that have held me up.

When I packed for this move, I was shocked and demoralized by the volume of things I had accumulated. I resolved that 2010 would my year of radical letting go and seriously questioning what things I really need to live and what I can live without.

Pentimento said...

Welcome, Honeybee, and all the best for your move.

Having moved four times in the past four years, and sharing your taste in drugs, I'm all too familiar with the dichotomy between clinging fiercely to one's books and wanting to cast them into the bonfire of the vanities and walk away purified.

Have you checked out the Bookmooch site? There seem to be many American members, or at least English speakers, living abroad, and others who are willing to send their books abroad (I sent Were You Always An Italian?, by Maria Laurini, off to England). The Bookmooch concept is not without its problems, but it's a salve to the soul to know that someone else values your books, even if you need to slough them off.

At least in my new city the library is always looking for book donations. It was always frustrating back in New York that the branch libraries had a policy of turning down donations. And just think of all those Collyer-Brothers-type bibliophiles and doctoral candidates working at the Strand Bookstore ( being suffocated by their own books in their own homes . . .

Happy new year!

honeybee said...

I apologize for not introducing myself when I made my comment – I should have done. I am relatively new to your blog, but as I’ve recently subscribed to your blog-feeds, I look forward to being a regular reader and hopefully, can contribute a comment now and then.

Thanks for the good wishes regarding my move; I appreciate the solidarity!

I have done Bookmooch and think it’s a terrific idea. I have sent about 10 books (hardbacks, all) to the US. As you mention, it was very gratifying, indeed, to have others appreciate my offerings, but the postage was becoming prohibitive.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t getting any local interest, so I temporarily pulled my list while getting ready for this move.

My last resort will be to contact the local American/British Ladies Clubs, but I will have to overcome my very strong antipathy towards making contact with Anglophone expats. I know it’s irrational, considering I’m one myself!

Happy 2010 to you. And may you get settled in your new place will all peace and speed!

Pentimento said...

You are very welcome here, Honeybee.

In spite of the fact that we moved from an apartment into a big house, I too felt aggravated by the volume of my accumulated possessions, and gave away many boxes of things in advance of our move -- books, toys, children's clothes, my clothes. The irony is that we have plenty of storage here, but so far I've foudn that I haven't missed any of the things in the boxes.

My main disappointment with Bookmooch so far is that no one seems to have the books on my wishlist. . .

May your move be an easy one and your new place a happy one.

mrsdarwin said...

The menus from Helen Hecht's book remind me of your post a while back about the soprano who had the rules for when and what to eat -- you read the rules or the menu and think, "If only I followed through on this, my life would be peaceful and ordered and perfect." And now I want an Alsation Omelet and Bacon.

We have a hard time throwing or giving away books because we don't buy anything we don't think we'll want to keep. So we have the illusion that every book is necessary to our familial and personal development (and image), even if it's only something I picked up because I thought that maybe we ought to have it for the kids one day, or because I just wanted it to have a good home.

Emily J. said...

How I sympathize! When we moved to MS, I was afraid we'd go over our weight limit, so I bagged and boxed multiple loads of stuff to the thrift shop. I meant to give away more books, I really did, but instead I left behind my washer and dryer.

Mrs. D - I've tried to follow your policy of only buying books I think I or my kids would read again, but there's more of those than I first thought. Just finished John Baxter's A Pound of Paper about his exploits as a book collector - at least I'm not as addicted as he. Or else I'm too cheap to drop hundreds on first editions.

Elizabeth@Frabjous Days said...

That photo looks just like my house moments after my toddler has passed an idle minute or two...

I can relate about not being able to get rid of books, though I've mastered it now, I think -- apart from those boxes in the loft that I couldn't bring myself to give away.