The Holidays

It's that time of the year when people talk about the time of year. The other day I overheard two women telling each other all the things they like about "the holiday season." Under what circumstances does one make an effort to list the good qualities of a thing? "But what I really love," one said, "is the lights." The best she had to say was the very quality this season most glaringly lacks (pun intended). The sun sets at five, and we have a "lights festival." These semantic sleights make me worry about the psyche of my pale ancestors. Northern Europeans seem of necessity a confused lot. I can't help but think, stuck in the holiday vortex, that the idea of sin must've come from this same twisted seasonal logic--if the darkest time of year is the best time of year, then summer must be the worst. Heat and light are luxuries that we must not indulge in, lest we be miserable the other half of the year.

So these are "the holidays"; we get through the dark by inflicting our company on each other as a kind of good cheer. In this, too, it is a time of contradictions. We have the movie cliche that "you shouldn't be alone on Christmas," yet it is a time when friends confide how miserable they and their company are. It is time of gift-giving, but because of this it is also a time of such monumental consumption that shops run out things that during any other part of the year they would have coming out of their ears. It is a time of plenty, and therefore a time of scarcity. It is when those of us with disposable incomes give to "those less fortunate," so that we can forget about fortune the rest of the year. It is a time of relaxation, yet notoriously a time of extreme stress. It is a time of feasting, and therefore it is a time of crowds tripping over each other in the supermarket, glaring at each other for taking the last carton of egg nog. Which, like holiday beer (pumpkin) and holiday coffee (candy cane latte), is a contradiction of a commodity: something so gross you can't sell it the rest of the year. It's also a tautology: because its desirability is time-limited, it becomes more desirable. It's like a dog that lives for two months. It might smell of its own feces, but you love that dog. It's going to die soon.

The holiday split runs deep. I complain about the darkness, but I make it worse by waking up at noon. I make fun of looking forward to the lights in the dark, but I sometimes walk at night just to see the lights in the fog. I think the succession of holiday gatherings resemble nothing so much as a gauntlet, but I look forward to seeing those I don't otherwise see much. But does one see them? Egg nog is drinkable because it, like everything else during the holidays, is caught in the specular mediation of the season. Everything reflects back as the holidays.

23 December 2012

If

If you sleep early, will you wake up early?

If you bake the dough, will it rise?

If a word is German and you speak English, is the word funny?

If you eat something that is "versunken," what happens?

If you are onboard ship at night, are there lights?

If there are lights at night, are you onboard a ship?

If you are onboard a ship and nobody else thinks so, how old are you?

If you move while others do not, are you moved?

If you are not moved, do you move?

If, while onboard, you pass an iceberg, does it wave?

If the ship strikes an iceberg, does the iceberg break?

If the iceberg breaks, did the iceberg strike the ship?

If an iceberg does strike the ship, does the ship move?

If the ship moves, do you notice?

If the ship does not move, is it sturdy, or is it sunk?

If you go inside, is it cold or are you?

If you put on a coat, are you more free?

If you are hot blooded, do your nerves work?

If an iceberg felt, would the arctic ocean feel warm?

If the ocean felt, which would feel pride of the other: the iceberg, or the ocean?

If one were proud, would the other hate?

If we are globally warmer, is there more iceberg birthing?

If you are warm in bed, are icebergs breaking?

If one does not break, will you sleep?

13 December 2012

Apple Cake

The older you get, the more of a pedant you become. You start saying "you" to describe yourself. You repeat the same point over and over.

Every recipe is more than a record. There's always something that needs tweaking. You write the recipe you'll make next time--the ideal recipe.

The following recipe began by following Joe Pastry's recipe for Apfelkuchen. It was too much like cake. Too vanilla, too soggy from embedded apple chunks, not enough intensity. "You didn't add cinnamon?" asked she whose birthday cake had had cinnamon. She later revealed that her cake-baker also covered the cake in caramel sauce, after I had begun caramelizing my cakes, because anything without caramel is lacking, because caramel is a centripetal locus, like Jordan Catalano unsexily describes penetrative sex. This description hovers in ahistoricity. I'll be forward about how this recipe came together: a Google image search for apfelkuchen, an image of a thin square cake with all the apples on top, a cupcake pan that was uncovered by a kitchen cleanse (not mine), a pan of syrup left on the stove for too long, a scourge of lemon gigantism at the supermarket. It turns out cupcakes are difficult to get liquid caramel to stick to, as they are shaped like hills, so all the caramel ends up in rivers going into an ocean in the most unfortunate place: the flat space between the cupcakes. Flat pan then. Also turns out cake flour doesn't exist any more, or it does, but for $5 a pound, so really it doesn't, and that whole wheat pastry flour is not much like cake flour, tastes strongly, and lends a dandruffy texture.

I would not advise adding two tablespoons of cinnamon instead of one. I just had a piece, and it left a flavor of wood. Cinnamon is the bark of a tree, you counter. Yes, but we ought not to be reminded of this. That's the whole point of spices, maybe the whole point of baking--to transform ingredients into something forgetful of its roots.

Apples

  • 2 lbs. apples (half golden delicious, half granny smith)
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 2 lemons' juice

Peel and core the apples. Slice each apple quarter into lengthwise thirds. Fourths if they're particularly large apples. Collect the slices in a large bowl. Pour sugar over them. Cut the lemons in half and juice them into the bowl. Wait an hour.

Cake

  • 9 oz. all-purpose flour (really do measure it if possible, otherwise, Joe Pastry says "scant 1 3/4 cups")
  • 10 tbsp. butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 cups buttermilk
  • 2/3 cups milk
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 2 lemons' zest
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. cinnamon powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cloves powder
  • 1 tsp. ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Beat together the butter (soften it if it isn't soft) and the sugar in a large bowl. Add the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. Zest the lemon halves and add the zest. Whisk in the eggs until smooth. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until fully combined. Add buttermilk and milk, and mix until smooth (I used a fork, then a whisk). Pour into a buttered 9x12 rectangular pan. Shake to level the batter. Arrange apple slices gently on top of the batter (do not push them down). Conserve the juice in the apple bowl. Bake for roughly 45 minutes, or sometime after a fork comes out clean and before the sides burn.

Glaze

About fifteen minutes after putting the cake in, pour the juice from the apple bowl into a small pot (scrape the bottom of the bowl to get all the sugar out). Bring it to a boil on high heat and then reduce to medium-low heat. Take it off the heat to check it every five minutes. When it has just turned medium brown, remove it from the heat. This should be about ten minutes before the cake is done. Take the cake out of the oven, pour the caramel evenly over it, and put it back into the oven until done. If all this timing is too aggravating, just make the glaze after the cake is done. I'm not sure baking the glaze for ten minutes makes any difference.

11 December 2012

Killing Them Softly

Laura Mulvey once declared war on pleasure. She observed that criticism takes pleasure in what it critiques. Specifically, feminist criticism of phallocentric cinema, but it's no less true in general. Her call for the cinematic destruction of pleasure is a fascinating experiment, but takes a bit too seriously, I think, the psychoanalytic idea that there is one libido, and it is male. It's good for necessary apocalyptic pronouncements of the maleness of the universe, but I don't really think it's true. However, the notion that criticism is inherently complicit by virtue of the enjoyment that makes it possible, I've taken as a given until now. My writing on film has often been excessive in carrying out this principle, overprocessing pleasure into negative pleasure through denial. It is a kind of egomania. I anxiously sought anything I could eviscerate, but I enjoyed myself in the theater, for the most part.

Once I got past the initial dry chuckles of watching petty criminals carry out a completely idiotic robbery, and the sledgehammer-subtle snippits of Obama and Bush speeches on the financial crisis, there was nothing fun about Killing Them Softly. Nor was there anything passably benign; it became actively unpleasant to watch, and not in a meaningful way. It was at once the expression and antithesis of Mulvey's cinematic ideal: devoid of pleasure and unremittingly male. The latter is true literally (it fails the Bechdel test spectacularly), but also in that the attitude the film takes up in relation to the world is a very particular form of masculinity.

In Peep Show, David Mitchell's character describes porn as "dead eyed men fucking dead eyed women in a desperate world of pain." Killing Them Softly is dead eyed men killing dead eyed men in a desperate world of pain. Except--and here is its particularity--it's not desperate. There is no urgency. The pervasive, unwavering affect of this world is what would be the result of a social experiment: what if a group of straight men were stuck in a locked room together with no television or alcohol? All the characteristic defenses are here: this special kind of dullness, in which there is no emotional register, and in which visual phenomena, however gruesome, hold a numbing fascination.

To the camera, that is. I was either bored and fidgeting or uncomfortable and fidgeting. Uncomfortable when a man gets beaten half to death, and bored by everything else. These kinds of discomforts are exactly what the film's aesthetic defends against. Indeed, the men's reactions toward each other are boredom or discomfort. There is one loving relationship, between the two dunces that Pitt is after. One of them picks up the other at the airport, and upon seeing the Australian's characteristic grease and filth, he says "you dirty dog!" It's sweet, but the camera must view it from very far away, and they must die. Otherwise, only boredom and discomfort. When the robbers hold up a high-stakes card game, they're uncomfortable, and the jaded card players, bored. The men nonengage with each other in the same way the film nonengages with its subjects. In conversation they maintain such a disinterest in each other, filmed so disinterestedly, that I can't help but be disinterested.

What does hold interest to uncomfortable straight men trying not to look at each other is violence. The camera gives it to us unabridged, and because sometimes that's not enough, also in slow motion. The more intense, the more it is slowed, so that its newtonian characteristics may be seen, so that it may be aestheticized like nature photography--as arrangements of form and color. In this mechanism, which is characteristic of the film's gaze, disturbance is not dealt with by looking away or by feeling an emotional supplement, but deadened by looking so intensely that it cannot be seen.

Judging from the title's place in a line of dialogue--"I like to kill them softly, from a distance"--this distancing is probably the point, but after about an hour of it, I had to leave.

In part, it was the sound design. When Brad Pitt sat down with… hm, I actually didn't know what his role or name was--anyway they're in a restaurant with soft classical music with all the warmth taken out of it, and my fidgeting escalated to code red and I found it difficult to look at the screen or listen to the words coming out of their mouths. The theater was empty besides my dad and I, but I had to work up courage for a few minutes to ask him "do you want to stay?" He said no, not really, but he didn't get up and so neither did I, yet. We sat through five minutes of Pitt shooting someone in the head in slow motion, then we left.

At home I kept thinking "oh god," hopeful for some catharsis now that I wasn't stuck in that theater anymore. But instead everything remained dull. The movie's pointlessly bleak outlook seemed to have infected me. Nothing held any pleasure. I writhed around in bed trying to write about it, getting sick of thinking about it, and trying to distract myself from it, finally turning to My So-Called Life, which I had stayed up until 5 AM the previous night with. There, Brad Pitt was a hunk to fantasize about, rather than the kind of pretensious star who only stars in "important" movies like that which I had fled. But not even that show, which had mesmerized me for many hours before, could hold my attention or elicit any emotion. I had a headache. Things were happening on the screen, but it was as if somewhere in front of the screen, it was still dead-eyed men killing dead-eyed men. Everything was just visual phenomena. All that I could do was sit through it, until, eventually, it all began to mean something again.

5 December 2012

What is in a Name

Presentation isn't everything, but sometimes it tells too much. When a dessert is presented as an upscale soft-serv twirl of whipped cream with a peacock's tail of green apple slices, you have good cause to worry. Of course, you could have just as easily been tipped off by another presentation that is best left free of fluff--the name: Italian apple cream tart. One thing jumps out: Italian? If there's anything Italian about it, we might be trusted to recognize it. And if not, so what?

One ought to be leery of any restaurant that has a vested interest in the nominal ethnicity of its food. "Italian restaurant and grill" will do; specifying that each dish is indeed Italian is not only redundant, but troubling. What makes a tart Italian? Not to worry, this mystery was revealed to me with the first bite. Sogginess.

One of the pleasures of pastry is the contrast between the filling--wet, smooth, sweet--and the crust--dry, flaky, a bit salty. Replacing the crust with stale cake shows a lack of understanding, not to mention appreciation, of the nature of a tart. So maybe, despite its name, it isn't a tart, but just a very confused, cylindrical trifle comprised of whipped cream, apple mush, and dense, buttery cake. Wait, a trifle wouldn't have such a rich cake. Eschewing categories is fine, but experiments put on a menu I think should at least taste good enough to justify themselves.

I'm becoming more of a staunch traditionalist with every sentence, and accordingly I ordered the least adventurous thing on the menu--bolognese. We know what that is, right? Encouragingly, the menu did not call it "Italian bologense", and even describes it: "slow-cooked meat sauce." In other words, it's a ragù, with additions of cream and wine. Simple enough.

Calling something Italian is misguided, but at least I understand why it's done. The pasta dish that arrived plunged me into a crisis in the philosophy of language that until that moment I never took seriously: How do words connect with things? The ground beef mixed with vodka sauce before me suggested an answer, too: They don't.

If you have been to Cicily's (the name says everything, doesn't it?), you might rightfully wonder why I expected anything but exactly what I got from a restaurant in a shopping center. Such places are not concerned with food, but with purveying class markers. They're where the middle class comes to feel high class. But I am an unrealistic utopian. Mood lighting, glitzy bars, and muzak can coexist with decent food. Who's with me?

1 December 2012