living well

James Joyce (above, with Nora Barnacle on the day of their wedding) once remarked that the government should pay him to live, just because he knew how to do it well, or something to that effect. It’s a diverting suggestion. Few people seem to have mastered, or attempted to master, the art of living, so I have more than a grain of sympathy for the kind of overblown statement that is attributed to Joyce.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to offer suggestions as to how one might live well; in the best of cases, one can seem like a benevolent dictator making subjective decrees. At worst, one seems like a tyrant telling people what to do without concern for individual proclivities. (From whence, I think, Karl Lagerfeld’s notion of “good taste” being so very bourgeois: It’s so very stultifying to have someone tell you that you must have TWO antique Foo Dogs on your mantle, don’t you think?)

But many, from Marcus Aurelius to Lucia van der Post have managed to navigate these potentially unfriendly waters with great success. Aurelius’ ruminations rise to philosophy. For some of our more contemporary thinkers (and livers) of the good life, scribblings are filed under “lifestyle,” with all the frivolousness that the word implies.

Lucia VDP  is often referred to as a “style arbiter.” Yet, she herself views her work as a field guide to “living well.” In her words,

Of all the things I’ve learned, it is that grace and generosity of spirit are essential ingredients to the well-lived life. They add a certain elegance to the most mundane encounter, let alone to life’s more major dramas. I don’t mean elegance of the merely superficial kind —though that, too, is not without its charms. I mean the sort of elegance that, if we looked into it, we would discover is rooted in some kind of moral code.

I’ve learned that small things can make a lot of difference. Having family and friends we love and care about is all that most of us need to wake up with a smile. If we can then add some graceful flourishes to that sound foundation — if we can look good, feel well, enjoy our leisure, create a home that’s filled with peace and some well-chosen decorative touches, good food that doesn’t break one’s back to serve, flowers, books, and wine — we’re almost there.

Though LVDP may not say it, the flourishes with which she is so concerned express the moral code of the “essential ingredients.” Living well — knowing how to spend your time, which food will sustain your family’s body and soul, which traditions are worth embracing, how to determine if something is well-made and therefore worth your money (not just sheets, but these sheets), pursuing skills like gardening or painting — is something that makes us feel good, but also, by dint of this definition, makes our communities stronger, too. It’s a refinement of living. It’s the definition of true luxury. And you don’t need oodles of cash (even if it is coming from the government) to live it.

But don’t take my word for it:
Lucia van der Post |  Things I Wish My Mother Had Taught Me
Marcus Aurelius Meditations

the case for and against the monogram

There has been, it seems, a rather strong move toward the handmade, the bespoke. It’s wonderful to see, since it seems to go hand-in-hand with buying fewer, but higher quality, objects.  And truly, making the bespoke even more personal with a monogram, your monogram, is indeed a very special thing.  A monogram can take beautiful, vintage linens and transform them into a true extension of the self, enriching the experience of living.

Luxury here become less about the cost of an thing (maybe the linens were free, or purchased on a trip to Italy, or from your family), or the brand story, but about the everyday experience that each of us crafts by choosing, by designing, what we want in our lives. The monogram becomes a stamp of the self, and let’s face it, seeing ourselves in our things is very, very pleasurable.

By contrast, there has also been a trend toward the monogram in mass produced items. While being mass-produced isn’t intrinsically problematic — it has been a way to increase the quality of life for many, many people, myself included (thank you, Ikea) — the meaning of monogramming, of claiming as one’s own an object through the logo-like use of our initials, is suddenly reduced to a thin marketing reference. Buy this blue blazer — like everyone else’s blue blazer — and you can make it luxurious for $7.95 and giving us your initials. The pseudo-heraldic is so sadly flimsy when the real deal can give so much joy.

pen and paper

Of all of Umberto Eco’s books perhaps my favorite, for admittedly sentimental reasons, is his Postscript to the Name of the Rose. It’s a little book he published thirty years or so ago, after the success of the marvelous, monumental novel named in its title.

“It wanted to murder a monk,” he writes, offering an explanation — less specific than evocative — of how he came upon his plot, almost by chance and almost at the tip of his pen. Here’s how he explains it: On a slow boat floating down a river through alpine Europe, he started to write with a particular type of pen on a particular type of paper, which helped his thoughts flow at an appropriately  languorous rate for his novel to begin. (One can almost feel the pull and drag of the pen on the page, the pace at which the paper absorbed the ink, even the size and length of the sheets contributing to the text at hand.)

The notion captured in that description – that the combination of a particular pen and paper might produce a particular story – almost despite the talent or temper of the writer, has bolstered my confidence and inspired my search for the perfect writing implement and paper.

Caran D’Ache Ecridor Fountain Pen

Over the years I’ve expanded my search beyond pens and paper, recognizing the necessities of our digital age but also experimenting with the moods of manual and electric typewriters and all manner of other devices as required (imagine Eco in a conference room on that same boat with a whiteboard and a dry erase marker or a stack of post-its!). The interface makes the moment, or at least contributes something key to it. The medium is the massage, McLuhan said, but it can only be what we make of it.

“we live in an age of science and of abundance. the weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.”

— Ezra Pound

drc

I’ve been reading Richard Olney’s book, Romanée-Conti: The World’s Most Fabled Wine (itself a somewhat fabled book.) Olney is the dean of simple (and fabulously complex) French food, and still this book has been in and out of print for years and all but unobtainable. (I seized – really seized – my copy at a marvelously charming San Francisco bookstore devoted to all things food and wine, Omnivore Books.)

Olney’s last chapter title poses a curious problem: The Rarest Wine in the World has No Price. As Olney explains, bottles of Romanée-Conti are not available for individual sale through the Domaine. Instead they are distributed to wine sellers – négociants really – within a larger purchase of other Domaine wines like Montrachet, La Tâche, Richebourg, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux. The wine is effectively rationed in this way, it’s distribution flow paced at a trickle. The system simultaneously ensures the distribution of the Domaine’s other only slightly less legendary wines. In Olney’s words: “If Romanée-Conti were not rationed, its entire production would disappear into the cellars of a handful of wealthy collectors, never to be seen in the marketplace, unless it be for purposes of speculation in the auction rooms.”

For me this story highlights a central paradox of luxury goods, that they must carry the illusion of being above commercial value – not valueless, but beyond valuation by any standard measure – while nevertheless simultaneously participating in the luxury market, remaining accessible, at least to someone, somewhere, in some manner. They must suggest availability, however rare they may be, and rarity, however easily they may be obtained. Setting rigid limits on the mechanisms of production and distribution offer only two means of activating this paradox. The paradox itself is what interests me, perhaps primarily as a kind of prism for looking at the things themselves – indeed all things – as alternately and utterly common and unique.

now, just the cream

I’ve been thinking about whipped cream. Its taste and texture:  rich and sweet, heavy and light. I like knowing that it is a transformed substance, a liquid that has become a solid, or semi-solid thing, just recently  before my eyes. I like that it is essentially air gathering into edible form. I like the kind of silly danger of it – the risk of over-whipping ever looming– remembering one of the first times I helped my mom whip cream and discovered that I’d gone too far and made butter. It’s a delicate operation, but also a vigorous one,  moving the cold whisk through cold cream in a cold bowl in a regular irregular rhythm.

Somewhere Jacques Pépin, I think it was, observed that a standing mixer won’t whip all of the cream in its bowl evenly because the course it follows is too regular, some of the cream will inevitably be mixed. The job is thus best done by hand, or at least finished by hand, since the hand can vary the path of the whisk and whip every last bit. Jacques also likes to joke on his shows about staying in shape: the whisk provides some kind of workout, at least enough to permit a guilt-free indulgence in the cream. Jacques uses confectioner’s sugar in his whipped cream rather than the granulated sugar that my mom used: it’s smoother, lighter on the tongue, with a more candy-like sweetness.

The whisk should be a balloon whisk which will gather more air into the cream more quickly, and the whisk, the cream and the bowl should ideally all be cold, straight from the coldest part of the refrigerator, when the whipping starts. The process involves breaking up and rearranging the molecules of fat in the cream, which first become more fluid then, after a minute or so, rather quickly less and less, as the fat forms new structures, like little walls or a honeycomb around pockets of air. If the cream is too warm the molecules of fat won’t re-adhere to one another once they’ve been broken and your arm will most likely get tired before you see the liquid begin to solidify. If possible it’s ideal to use non non-homogenized cream: the fat molecules are larger and easier to break apart, saving some time. This tip comes from food science guru Harold McGee who suggests adding a little lemon juice, an acid, to the cream to help break it up before whipping. But for me that is going a bit too far. We’re talking about whipped cream here, something so simple.

One cup of cream can be sweetened with one or two tablespoons of granulated or confectioner’s sugar, or even honey or maple syrup, for a change. It might be flavored with a dash, even as much as a teaspoon of vanilla.Spoon onto fresh blueberries or strawberries….

deadly strawberry ice cream

Fresh strawberries, buttermilk and cream cheese produces lethal — and I mean lethal — ice cream.

This one was from Jeni’s ice cream cookbook — a pretty stellar brew for the oft-ignored strawberry version of the good stuff.

Here’s how you’re going to make this calorific concoction in your own home…!

  • 1 pint strawberry
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Hull strawberries and slice. Combine strawberries with sugar in an 8″ square glass or ceramic baking dish, stirring gently to mix well. Roast for 8 minutes, or until just soft. Let cool slightly. Puree in a food processor with lemon juice. Measure 1/2 cup of the pureed berries; refrigerate the rest of the puree for another use.
  2. Mix about 2 Tbls of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.
  3. Combine the remaining milk, cream, sugar and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heat-proof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.
  4. Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture in to the cream cheese until smooth.Add the buttermilk and reserved strawberry puree and blend well. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.
  5. Pour the ice cream mixture into the frozen canister of electric ice cream freezer and run according to directions of ice cream maker. Pack the finished ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours. Makes about 1 quart.
  6. Serve with refrigerated strawberry puree poured over the top.

Try this as the finale after a dinner of pork on the barbeque. With a little Beaujolais.