The Quality of Light

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“My studio! I have never had a studio, and can’t understand how one can shut oneself up in a room. To draw, yes; to paint, no…” And with a sweeping gesture toward the Seine, the hills and Vetheuil…. “This is my studio!”‘  –– written of Claude Monet

This milky blue light of winter is strangely alluring. It makes me wish I were a painter, or at least a more capable photographer. At times the mist hugs the window—as if something that ethereal could have smothering arms— we barely glimpse the world beyond its embrace. All we see are ghostly spires of tall evergreens in the distance, shape shifting as though handpainted with tinted mist and not quite dry.

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Winter has its challenges, but I do love this view. As a Pacific Northwest native, I enjoy the rain, (when not wind-driven and torrential—those moments are best spent on the rocky Oregon coast!) and I particularly enjoy the lucent wash of light that acts as a scene change between dramatic rainstorms. Winter in Portland means, among other things: umbrellas, symphony, coffee shop visits, museums, old house tours, and, when the rain stops for a bit, long walks along the river.

Books, of course, can enhance our winter view. One always needs to lay up, like wood for the fireplace, plenty of books for the long, dark days.

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Reading is not as sedentary as it sounds. There is an addictive quality to TV—think binge watching—or that greatest consumer of living brain tissue, video games. Perhaps we find ourselves Pinterest surfing endless recipes that highlight mesmerizing ways to use refrigerator dough resulting in a flaccid product that we would never actually eat; all of which keeps us rooted to our chairs and stills our minds to a slow motion acquiescence, as water droplets might slowly freeze. Our will has been taken over and we begin to resemble life size soft sculpture with beady glass eyes and unnatural hair.

Reading a book, however, can spur us on to try something interesting, or to at least attempt to experience some small part of what it is we are reading.

My reading reflects my domestic interests, and the writing of British authors that I love. They are now long dead but their wisdom and wit, their sometimes high-toned voice of authority, has been bequeathed through their books. They continue to speak, in essence. This is the great comfort in articulate, well chosen words, and the fluid continuity of ideas. But while that is the allure, the magic, it is also the caveat—a book is the product of a mind. Do I want to visit that mind? Do I want to invite that mind into my own, to arrange the furniture, so to speak? Do I want to flood my rooms with their view of light? Choose wisely, for what we read, we become. In winter I find this is even more important, for anything in these short dark days can be brushed, so to speak, with an altering, chiarascuro effect.

Any number of authors inspire us to get out and walk—I have mentioned more than a few on this blog. Smell the pine air, discover a fascinating tree bark, deliver some scones to a sick friend.

Before you deliver the goodies they must be baked, of course—that inspiration came from reading Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Her stentorian voice of authority on crumpets alone is a rousing call to action; her recipes, treatise and anecdotes will have you leaping from your chair to go on a mission for ten pounds of fresh flour just to start experimenting with seventeenth century Scottish bannocks. And then you have something to give away to your Scottish friends, who will love you. Elizabeth David is a positive, invigorating, dynamic woman.


I love to visit her cultured world of absolutes. Don’t even think about making an omelette with eggs that aren’t ‘spanking fresh and buttercup yellow‘. Her recipe for homemade mayonnaise–and she would tolerate nothing less–involves two insanely pristine ingredients, over five pages and fourteen steps of detailed instructions. Reading David gets me into the kitchen, excited to cook, even if I do lack the biceps needed to make the best mayonnaise the world has ever tasted.

Reading Bertha Damon’s Grandma Called It Carnal makes me want to build a time machine from old crockpot parts and ancient kitchen whirly gizmos, travel back with all due haste to Puritan New England, slap some common sense into her fanatical grandmother and save little Bertha’s pet dog. So…decidedly an activity less likely than making refrigerator dough pumpkin strudel product, but somehow still linked to fringe science. (note: although a fine book, I highly recommend you do not read this ‘humorous memoir’ in winter.)

Reading stirs the reader.

Today, via books, we enter the winter worlds of Nan Fairbrother and Elizabeth von Armin. Two writers, two struggling, ‘domesticated’ intellectuals, two ancient country homes, two winters separated by a generation and two world wars, two women with completely different perspectives on how to cope with the feelings of winter isolation.

Nan Fairbrother’s energy is all cerebral and intense, moody and indoors.

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Elizabeth von Armin—in Elizabeth and Her German Garden— invigorates us with her cold weather exuberance, bursting joyously out of doors at any given moment to enjoy sledding, skating, or sleighing in sub zero temperatures.

Both women amaze me, both women are prodigious readers.

Just now I’m re-reading, as I often do, Fairbrother’s book of philosophical musings “An English Year”. FairbrotherEnglishYearThis book is a gem; described, justly so, as ‘a work of provocative insight, and quiet charm.’ I have enjoyed this book for so long, I was just recently amazed to realize I had missed the fact that Fairbrother really hates Winter. Really, really hates it. The darkness she exudes through her prose is powerful. (note to self: read the chapter on ‘Winter’ in the Summer…)

She is also encased in concerns of domesticity—the one area where our thoughts might overlap—but her domesticity is infused by musings on such things as Matisse, the light of Arles, architecture, the proper way to tour the Louvre—‘start at Pre-Columbian art’—Walter Pater, who enables the ‘poetic transmutation of ordinary life’; she ponders the seasons, and ‘the shifting play of their moods on her own sensibilities’…and so on.

Still, Nan Fairbrother hates Winter. She—who capitalizes all the seasons— even mentions this hatred of Winter in the Summer, the Spring, and again in the Autumn. The long arm of Winter, it seems, darkens the door of every season.

In Autumn, ‘Winter’ intrudes, all hope dies, and she cannot believe in a Spring:

‘The weather has changed to a cold and sullen stillness, and this has been the day which comes every Autumn, when all hope dies. The hills are lost in a cold half-mist, the fields flat and dead in the grey light, and the Winter streteches ahead endlessly to a Spring we cannot even try to believe in. After the long days of sunshine we realize again suddenly that the Winter is dark. Cold, too, and shut in and melancholy, but, above all, dark with the short hours grudging daylight only an interruption of the settled night….’

I feel obliged to point out, in all fairness, and feeling like my mother right now, who could find a kindly excuse for everyone’s deficiencies, that Fairbrother’s gloomy view of Winter and feeling trapped indoors surely had a lot to do with the time and circumstance of her writing these words. She lived out WWII in the country to care for her two small boys and keep them safe from bombs and a possible enemy invasion, while her husband served in the British Royal Air Force. The entire world at this time was shrouded in a grim winter. The future itself was uncertain. She had a right to complain about drafts.

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Fairbrother had such a keen, active mind, that these days of being trapped inside a frigid sixteenth century farmhouse, were at times too stifling to bear.

It turns out, even Summer is not safe from Winter:

“We become a different person in the Summer: become an extrovert after Winter’s introspection—these awful words. In the fine weather we are free, not hampered by clothes, not confined in the house, so that even our movements are different, simpler and more gracious, not huddled against the cold. And living out of doors, we become more generous, more tolerant, less shut in and moody in the long daylight.’

Before this she mentioned the dark, strained outlines of Quattrocentro trees. She broods over the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Strindberg, ‘and the rest, who come from lands where the Winter is too long.’ And she reads too much Baudelaire, who wrote:

‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’

‘Melancholy’—capitalized. First rule of capitalized ‘Winter’, Nan: don’t look at suffocatingly dark art, or a tortured artist’s conceptions of nightmarish hell. Don’t read plays that promote humanity as little else than rotting corpses with a sensitive conscience. Why would you do that to your lovely, quicksilver mind?

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Nan Fairbrother

Then she decides, in her boredom, to read the case histories of Havelock Ellis. No…! I want to shout. Change the view! There are ways to get through Winter successfully, and there are ways to make Winter much darker than it actually is. (I want to bake her some Scottish bannocks and rush them over in my time machine)

Fortunately it was a short reading experience for her, perhaps slightly harrowing, but one with interesting results.

‘How very quickly we are bored, how soon they seem only stale and squalid, and above all, dull. We end by feeling, not that neurosis is a fascinating country, but that to explore at such length these small, self-centered and essentially un-original minds must be the most boring branch of all medicine…Not for a doctor perhaps, for he is studying the disease and not the people, but certainly for us.’

As her thinking is never far from art, the conclusions she draws are fascinating.

‘Which I think is one of the reasons why the arts so fail to satisfy when the artists––painters, writers, composers––are looking only inward at themselves. Not at the world reflected in their own unique mind (that is what the great artists do, and quite a different matter), but at themselves. For a great deal of modern art is really elaborated case-histories, and though it has a first quick interest, it does not last. For however brilliant a man’s mind may be, however fascinating an exploration for himself, it can never compare with the outside world in complexity and range and meaning. There is simply not enough in any single mind to be satisfying, we must see the world through it as well.’

Sufficiently intrigued, we waft readily along with her winter prose into the kitchen where there is, interestingly, a print of Renoir. Fairbrother loves this artist as she does many of the French artists, for their depiction of warm, sensual light.

‘I brought it home to pin on the kitchen wall, and now, whenever I feel too shut in this gloomy introspective Winter, I look at it and take myself to France. So there it lives, my Parapluies. A rainy day of black frocks and umbrellas, yet it glows with delight on the kitchen wall.

And this gift of Renoir’s, for making ordinary life delicious, is for me––quite un-English.’

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Renoir’s Parapluies: via wiki

There it is, indeed. Lovely, luminous–Renoir engages his viewer with the slightly questioning look of the little girl with the hoop. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ she seems to be asking.

Later, Fairbrother, still musing upon the magic of the French painters, ponders: ‘people, like peaches, need sun to ripen them’…and then wonders if youth could ever truly appreciate the sensual beauty of a Renoir.

“For what does youth, living through the mind and the emotions, know of this direct and untroubled delight in warmth and color, the taste of peaches and the touch of silk and velvet?”

Hmmm…what would she have thought of this digital age? Digital images, sounds, words, digital friends we only know by their computer generated avatars. (interesting word origin: ‘avatar’)

Gradually, we are removing ourselves more and more from the regenerative power of tactile experience. While critical to the developing infant brain, is it any less potent for our elastic, questing, adult minds?

“For all kinds of doors open of themselves as one grows older and more various.” Nan Fairbrother

In Elizabeth von Arnim’s winter world, the weather is just fine. Delightful, in fact. Tactile experience in the crunchy snow abounds. She shares a few similarities of situation with Fairbrother: she is also ‘buried’ in an old country house; she is surrounded by the clatter and clamor of small children (possibly with more help staff, however). The difference is von Arnim thrives in her frozen landscape.

So—it is the winter of 1896, we have just sledded over to the Schloss of a fine lady, and we join Elizabeth as a guest at tea.

“You cannot possibly be happy in the winter entirely alone,” asserted another lady, the wife of a high military authority and not accustomed to be contradicted.
“But I am.”
“But how can you possibly be at your age? No, it is not possible.”
“But I am.”
“Your husband ought to bring you to town in the winter.”
“But I don’t want to be brought to town.”
“And not let you waste your best years buried.”
“But I like being buried.”
“Such solitude is not right.”
“But I’m not solitary.”
“And can come to no good.” She was getting quite angry.
There was a chorus of No Indeeds at her last remark, and renewed shaking of heads.

“I enjoyed the winter immensely,” I persisted when they were a little quieter; “I sleighed and skated, and then there were the children, and shelves and shelves full of —” I was going to say books, but stopped. Reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.

‘And how could I talk to them of the happiness I felt when the sun shone on the snow, or of the deep delight of hoar-frost days?’

How unlike Fairbrother’s preoccupations in mood! Yet they both love books, and are in pursuit of the all-important Idea; streams of thought that carry one along, transporting yet grounding us.

‘I laughed on the way home, and I laughed again for sheer satisfaction when we reached the garden and drove between the quiet trees to the pretty old house; and when I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen — a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.’

On a brilliant winter’s day Elizabeth and two of her friends set off in the sleigh for a three hour ride in the open air to admire the frozen Baltic Sea. Oh, and yes, to have a picnic. In sub zero temperatures.

“I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter…yesterday morning we started off in the gayest of spirits, even Minora being disposed to laugh immoderately on the least provocation. Only our eyes were allowed to peep out from the fur and woollen wrappings necessary to our heads if we would come back with our ears and noses in the same places they were in when we started, and for the first two miles the mirth created by each other’s strange appearance was uproarious — a fact I mention merely to show what an effect dry, bright, intense cold produces on healthy bodies, and how much better it is to go out in it and enjoy it than to stay indoors and sulk. As we passed through the neighbouring village with cracking of whip and jingling of bells, heads popped up at the windows to stare, and the only living thing in the silent, sunny street was a melancholy fowl with ruffled feathers, which looked at us reproachfully, as we dashed with so much energy over the crackling snow.’

So much happy energy skimming over ice!

The lucent window of light has now passed, and here, in the present, we have moved on to the torrential rain sequence. In spite of this, Elizabeth von Arnim has inspired me to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of having a picnic in winter. Unlike Nan Fairbrother, who bemoaned the lack of picnics in the winter—(it is not a picnic if there is no fizzy lemonade and warm, sleepy grass)—I am going to see the potential in a tartan wool rug and a thermos of hot soup. There are wetlands and wild geese aplenty, and this weekend a pudgy old steam engine will be chuffing through the valley, carrying its load of holiday adventurers in search of an Orient Express type experience. The creamy white curls of steam in the cold winter air is a delight to watch.

Nan Fairbrother, with her talk of glowing art, the French painters, and fine light on Renoir umbrellas, has reminded me that there is some very inspiring art just five minutes away at our Portland art museum. Not just any art, but the works of painters who looked out of themselves, and reflected the world through their own unique quality of light.

The exhibition is called, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family CollectionThe exhibit will be there through January.

The beginning quote by Claude Monet, is in connection with his En Paysage dans I’ile Saint-Martin, and is part of the collection. In all there are five landscapes by Monet. And, also part of the collection—the famous Birch Trees, by Gustav Klimt!

Seeing Nature offers an extraordinary opportunity to perceive the world through the gaze of some of the most important artists in history,” said Brian Ferriso, curator of the exhibit here in Portland.

I hope your reading this winter take you to new exciting worlds of discovery, floods light into your interior rooms, or makes even your ‘ordinary life more delicious.’


Additional notes:

Here, produced by Portland Art Museum, is a video on art and the brain:

For further reading on Nan Fairbrother, see here: (or type ‘Nan Fairbrother’ in the search box of this blog for more)

My post on Elizabeth von Arnim

More on Bertha Damon, coming soon

 

 

 

 

Days of Pith and Marrow

“I beg of you a thousand pardons, but these vegetable marrows, they have driven me to the edges of barbarity!” (Hercule Poirot, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

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Perhaps it is the generous abundance of zucchini in circulation at this time of year that reminded me that the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was once driven to madness by ‘these vegetable marrows’.

If your kitchen has been taken over by things that resemble large green gunboats, if your refrigerator door can’t quite close without oozing vegetable drippings, giantzrunif you’re afraid of clowns, dolls, and monstrous life forms, if you can’t enter your garden without hacking through groves of giant zucchinis, if you see your neighbor approaching with a suspicious paper bag that surely contains yet more of the fibrous offerings, you might feel like escaping into a good book for relief.

But I warn you, the zucchini is lurking there, too.

Skeptical? For starters, this lowly garden vegetable has aroused scorn, revulsion, fear, outright reverence, become a catalyst for romance, harrowing revenge, towering rage, is dismissed with contempt, and was finally championed by a British culinary maven who rescued it from obscurity, treated it like an eggplant and dusted it with cheese.

The earthy, dank underworld of the Giant Cucurbita pepo takes us everywhere from love scenes in literature, to fear and loathing amongst authors, and to the real truth behind why we hate Mrs. McGregor.

Tough, tasteless, pithy–yes. But this denizen of the late summer garden is anything but dull.

Agatha Christie must have had a fine distaste for marrows. Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels will remember that Hercule Poirot was at one time happily planning his retirement from solving crimes. His new hobby was to put his considerable ‘little gray cells’ to the matter of how to make the vegetable marrow taste, well–good. The response of his friend Dr. Burton?

“Vegetable marrows? What d’yer mean? Those great swollen green things that taste of water?”

The plan, however, went horribly awry, and in the mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Poirot is forced to concede defeat. The marrows have won. They are still watery and tasteless. He, the incomparable Hercule Poirot, is powerless against them.

Poirot hurls them from his garden in a fit of rage.

“Now I give up on you…!” he screams in fury. “You shall torment me no longer. I will KILL you!”

The unsuspecting Dr Sheppard is out in his garden next door, and becomes an innocent bystander to this episode.

‘I am rather fond of gardening. I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ear and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!’

One simply has to be fond of a writer that uses phrases such as ‘repellent squelch’.

The garden marrow is pondered with a similar sense of horror by UK garden writer Alex Mitchell:

‘I’m haunted by a giant cucurbit. It was a courgette when we went away, but the next three weeks saw all three helpful holiday waterers casually sidestep it in favour of plums, runner beans, raspberries and tomatoes (yet more ammunition for my dossier “No one really likes courgettes that much, if they are honest”).

‘As anyone with even the merest passing knowledge of vegetable-growing knows, a courgette that is ignored will get its revenge. It does this by transmogrifying into a marrow monster, a bloated green airship of vegetable matter that laughs in the face of culinary invention and lurks sinisterly in the undergrowth, giving you a little shock when you do the watering.’ What does one do with this beast?’

Read more of Mitchell’s wonderful article, and his time honored solution to his problem.

In this statement— ‘no one really likes [them] that much, if they are honest’— Mitchell echoes the sentiments of renowned food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. That lovely wordsmith of the kitchen writes, in An Alphabet for Gourmets:

‘[The] zucchini, the nearest decent gastronomical counterpart to those overgrown pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England.’ 

Fisher does offer a recipe for a zucchini frittata, but with this interesting sidebar comment:

‘… which will be honestly but very indelicately loathed by anyone honest enough to confess to a basic loathing for zucchini.’

Hmmm. What an interesting array of adjectives we are accumulating for a humble garden vegetable. Loathsome? Repellent?  Monstrous? Haunted? Sinister? Watery? Swollen? Tasteless? Transmogrified? (I particularly love this last creative choice).

At the very least we have here a complex and contradictory cucurbita. It’s a vegetable that is actually a fruit. A fruit that is treated like a vegetable. And we’re just getting started.

Charles Dickens has been known to employ the use of marrow throwing in his literature. Only this time it is for romance and we are, along with the cucumbers, marrows and other vegetables, ‘wafting mellifluously’ over garden walls.

Yes, it is true love that calls to the curious cucurbit and gives it immortality in literature, in Nicholas Nickleby

‘where the most divine charms’–here he kissed his hand and bowed again–‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence….’

At any rate, the impassioned elderly suitor to Mrs. Nickleby begins hurling his overwrought projectiles into the Nickleby’s garden as a maddened declaration of love…

‘…..when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of…..vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions…..

“It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,” said Kate.’

Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dickens creates a scene of madcap mayhem with a cannonade of marrows. Curious, is it not?

While on the subject of marrows as projectiles–and apparently a favorite one with British writers–we have the misadventures of the Flopsy bunnies in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. This story, in which the youngest baby bunny, the very picture of innocent curiosity, is knocked almost unconscious by an airborne rotten marrow, could stand up to any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales for sheer horror.Flopsy Bunny

To be presented with such a contradictory admixture of warm and fuzzy narrative, poisoned with the shrilly evil invectives of Mrs. McGregor, along with threats of being skinned alive and made into a coat— this was pretty harrowing stuff.

But we’re all adults now, and, while hurling them at innocent bystanders with fury—or lovestruck passion—is clearly an option, we know that the time honored solution to an over-abundance of the vexing cucurbit is that of quietly and furtively giving them away.

This seasonal social phenomenon is commented on by Miss Read, the author of many books that chronicle English village life. Here, in Village Diary, she writes

‘Marrows, alas, are arriving in a steady stream at the back door….

I can see that I shall have to start digging, under cover of darkness, and inter the unwieldy monsters.’

There is a baffling sort of etiquette implied here; a passive-aggressive generosity that Miss Read ponders, as do we. One can give away their ‘unwieldy monsters’, but the recipient of this gift would be considered quite rude if they passed their bestowal on to someone else, leaving them with no other alternative but to bury them ‘under cover of darkness.’ In this the humble vegetable marrow begins to resemble the strangely enduring, logic-defying, quasi-popularity of fruitcakes.

What a world of social impropriety this vegetable-that-is-a-fruit thrusts upon us.

Both writers Miss Read and Angela Thirkell introduce a unique component into the War Between the Sexes in their novels: marrow carving.carvedzucchini

Miss Read wrote, in the story of Emily Davis, of the tyrant Mansfield Back —‘not bad looking in a florid, massive fashion’—and how the daring little Miss Emily got her revenge by carving the word ‘Bully’ into Manny Back’s prize marrow. (He was devastated, and justice was done.)

Angela Thirkell, in her popular novel The Brandons, heats things up nicely in the tranquil garden at Stories whereby Mr. Turpin’s prize-winning marrow provides a coy metaphor for young love:

‘[Mr. Turpin] led the way towards the rich bed of manure where sprawled his beloved vegetable marrows. With a threatening gesture he jabbed his fork into the ground, stooped, and with infinite reverence turned the fattest marrow gently on one side. On its under surface, in mis-shapen letters, was too plainly visible the word HILARY.

“That’s my name!” said Mr. Grant.’

“I thought it would be nice for you to have your name on a prize marrow,” confessed young Delia Brandon…rather ingenuously.

Cucurbita pepo strikes again.

In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence–where even the title conjures up the sound of tea cups clattering and the faint odor of mothballs clinging to the table linens–we have a safe flirtation made ever so slightly dangerous by the introduction of a ‘magnificent’ marrow.

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.’

Matronly romance at its sizzling best. And the iconic symbol of a giant marrow to thank for it. Did you notice— in these last two examples— that some form of the word reverence is used?

Not so with A.A. Milne. The creator of Winnie the Pooh loved his vegetables, and even thrills to the subject of celery:

“There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat.   It crackles pleasantly in the mouth.”

No such plaudits for the lowly marrow, however, for he goes on:

Vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire (for laughs) and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons.’

Before we leave the topic of literature and the marrow as a completely mixed up metaphor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert Plumer Ward. Someone should mention him. He was a nineteenth century novelist who has been forgotten, and for good reason.

A reviewer dismissed his novel Tremaine as ‘extremely dull’, and ‘a sort of literary equivalent of a vegetable marrow’.

The marrow as dull? This reviewer obviously hadn’t read Jane and Prudence.

Returning Cucurbita pepo to the culinary world, where some, like M.F.K. Fisher, doubt they belong, we have the considerable talents of Mrs. Beeton and Elizabeth David to consider. If the garden marrow was considered hopelessly watery, the resourceful Mrs. Beeton took the approach, in her recipe book of 1860, of fighting fire with fire. Or water with water, in this case.

 

MrsBeetonMarrowsHer recipe tells us to serve them up…”Dished on toast“? Oh, dear. Fast forward to 1885, and a certain ‘Wyvern’(aka The Eminently Hyphenated Colonel Arthur Robert Kennedy-Herbert) responds, in his cookery book ‘Culinary Jottings’:

‘Carefully avoid the awful English custom of serving marrows on sodden toast.’

Sorry, Mrs. Beeton. You are obviously of the English culinary school of thought that considers anything would taste good if served on buttered toast. While you won us over with your impressive chapter ‘General Observations on Quadrupeds’, you have failed us miserably as a guide in navigating the wild world of marrows. We leave you then, and move on to Elizabeth David.

Ah, Elizabeth David. That culinary diva did her own sort of heave-ho to the zucchini when she launched it–not over a garden wall, but into the popular consciousness of the sixties-era British cooking public with the publication of her book Italian Cooking. She became a hero in a culinary revolution, for

‘Elizabeth David liberated us from the tyranny of watery, stringy, rank tasting boiled marrow by writing enthusiastically about this expensive unknown Italian vegetable’…. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

(It appears we can now add ‘tyranny’ to the list of marrow woes. The vision of Manny Back’s bloated prizewinner with the name ‘Bully’ inscribed into it suddenly rolls and tumbles into view.)

Yet what Elizabeth David did for the marrow was quite an accomplishment, first by cooking it small and calling it a courgette. Second, by insisting it be prepared as an aubergine, gratined, and sprinkled with cheese. What was she up against? A cooking and eating populace whose memories of the rationing of WWII and after were still fresh in their minds. No doubt it was considered wasteful and unpatriotic to the thrifty-minded Victory Gardeners to eat a vegetable before it had been allowed to grow to ten times bigger than its edible size. Why feed only two people from a vegetable when you could allow it to grow to the dimensions of a small Hindenburg and feed an army?

Elizabeth David is something of a rock star in my kitchen. But even she would have become impatient with too much ado about zucchini. I appreciate your patience in indulging my whim. As a thank you, I offer up a nice glass of wine and one of my favorite chilled salads with zucchini carpaccio. And please take that brown paper bag on your way out….

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(This is a revised and updated version of an article written previously by yours truly.)