Thursday, November 19, 2009

Classical Music is Not Dead

"Men profess to be lovers of music,
but for the most part they give no evidence
in their opinions and lives
that they have ever heard it."
- Henry David Thoreau

Conventional wisdom suggests that classical music is dead. Public interest is at an all-time low with sales of concert tickets and recordings lagging far behind other entertainments. The few major orchestras that remain are programming 'audience friendly' concerts that feature film scores and the old (familiar) warhorses of the repertoire. Alas, the end is near!

Much of my adult life has been spent defending classical music as something meaningful – something that has purpose. Like the curator of a musical museum, I have tried to keep the dust from settling on great compositions by listening to, teaching, and performing them.

Pieces of classical music (and by 'Classical Music' I am referring generally to non-popular genres, not specifically to the Classical period of European music from the late 18th century) are like 'artifacts' of western history, culture, and religion distilled into sound. They are the most honest representations of sacred and secular thought and feelings. The best works manifest a mysterious phenomena, mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds. Others are just beautiful, or joyful, or triumphant. I can not list all of the possible adjectives because music expresses that which transcends language.

Great classical music is more available now than ever before. There are thousands of beautiful recordings on-line. The world is full of amazing, charismatic performers. For ten dollars you can buy all of the Beethoven piano sonatas on CD and enjoy them for a lifetime. There no laws forbidding you from listening. There is no punishment for over-indulging. So what is missing?

Time and attention. Most classical music was written before the age of television. People had a different concept of time then. A long evening in the concert hall was a special occasion. Instead of waiting for a sonata to end, the listener would wish it could go on and on. Their attention also had a different scope. Classical music was enjoyed because the listener could focus on shifting tonalities and developing musical ideas over several minutes. That is how the composer gave the music 'form.' Musical memory was more persistent too. Audiences would leave after the premiere of a new work humming the tunes. Not now.

Music today, as a whole, is much more disposable. We do not invest much attention in listening because there is always another 3-minute song waiting to follow. Very few popular songs have engaging melodies and interesting harmonies. Music has stopped being about pitches, rhythms and timbres. It is about words and 'the beat.' Society has lost the ability to understand music that is not patently 'dumbed down' to the most common audience.

Not only does it seem like fewer people have any interest in classical music, but many actually make a point of criticizing those of us who do. Classical music has unfairly become a symbol for 'cultural elitism.' It should not be. Like the inner-city kid who wants to learn and is ridiculed by the other kids when he makes good grades, there is disdain for those of us who truly enjoy classical music. Hollywood makes a point of associating classical music with snobs and socially inept characters.

Maybe our modern lives are so hectic, fragmented, and over-saturated with popular music, there is too little time to indulge in something antique – like a classical symphony. Because classical music relies on subtle expression to evoke deep emotional responses, it is out-of-place in an impatient, superficial world. As a late baby-boomer, I have lived through the golden age of rock music and fully recognize popular music for its fun, commercial, and entertainment value. Here in Nashville, country music is king. But classical music can transcend the social/economic matrix that shapes listening habits and opinions. It can speak to all of us, universally, and across generations.

It can also be very exciting. Live music is (by its nature) ephemeral. During a classical concert the performers and the audience share a sublime intensity that is, at any split-second, both tangible and transient. Classical works are cleverly designed to engage the listener and hold them breathless, supported only by an invisible thread of sound. Even if the music is familiar, the listener feels a curiosity about how the orchestra will interpret a phrase, or how a soloist will execute a cadenza.

Maybe in a major metropolitan city with a fine professional orchestra, and an audience of wealthy patrons, there are enough ticket sales to support classical music. But across most of America this is simply not the case. Following a decline of interest in classical music comes the decline in economic support. Large professional ensembles struggle to pay their bills. Talented players end up in jobs that have nothing to do with making music.

The legacy of classical music is carried on by willing (and unwilling) music students and a few amateur adults. I play with several dozen other amateurs in a community orchestra. Not every note is perfectly in tune, nor every rhythm articulated with precision. For those music lovers who rehearse and perform solely for the joy of making music together, for those of us who keep our iPods loaded with Haydn and Schubert, classical music is still 'alive.'

Friday, November 13, 2009

Essays on Italian Food: Part I

So much has been written about Italian food – the tradition, the culture, how to select ingredients, how to prepare dishes, what wine complements what food. To start a series of essays seems the height of conceit. I am not Italian. I did not grow up in the kitchen beside my nonna making tortellini from scratch. In fact, until I was 45 years old, I thought all Italian restaurants specialized in heaps of re-heated pasta swimming in over-cooked sauces.

My understanding of real Italian food has changed over the last few years. Time in Italy spent rubbing elbows with local contadine has a way of changing a person's perspective. I returned to the U.S. an evangelist for authentic ingredients and preparation techniques. My credo is that cooking Italian right yields many benefits: it simplifies food buying and preparation, it is cheaper, it is healthier, it has endless variety, it is delicious, and (above all) it satisfies. Those of you who have eaten at our family table know how passionate I can be about what makes the meal Italian.

Think about this. When was the last time you ate anything and felt really satisfied – not just stuffed or full, but truly satisfied? The average American adult eats out 7+ times a week! When they do eat at home, much of the food is pre-packaged. Everyone spends too much when they eat at a restaurant or grab a frozen entree from the freezer. Perhaps they feel pressure to eat a lot to justify the cost. I believe they eat too much because the food delivers very little satisfaction.

So here goes. I'm one more voice in the wilderness promising salvation if you just shop, cook, and eat according to my food gospel. Anybody listening? A few foodies perhaps. Does the world really need another food writer? I would be the first to say, "No!" Words can never substitute for the smells, colors, textures, and tastes of good food.

One approach would be to simply re-state gems of cooking wisdom penned by other authors, and then add my own commentary. That does not seem very original, but it might be the best way to bring authority to my discussion. First I must sort through all of the really bad Italian food writers out there and draw only from the best sources. This is really not so difficult. I start by eliminating every text with the words 'Quick, ' 'Easy,' or 'Low-fat' in the the title. Then skip over anything written by Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, or Mario Batali. That does not mean that their advice is always bad, just that it is distorted by commercial interests which have nothing to do with good food.

It is important to always include at least one good recipe in each of my essays – paying forward, if you will. Passing on lessons learned is a very important (and traditional) part of being a great Italian chef. It is not unusual to see two little Italian women at the market arguing with loud voices and shaking their fists at each other. If you listen carefully, you will realize that they are just debating the proper way to wash spinach or to slice prosciutto. They are not mad – they are taking a stand on a matter, probably because their teacher took the same position. Real Italian cooking is a living tradition. So much for literary authority.

The author I would like to paraphrase today is a favorite of mine: Marcella Hazan. Her cookbooks include very intelligently written introductions, even though some of the recipes are a bit esoteric. One thing she wrote in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has stuck with me, "Real Italian cooking never uses one ingredient too many, nor does it require one additional step in preparation." I have tested that theory again and again, and it holds up every time.

Today's topic: Braising. Marcella was the first to introduce me to braising as a specific method of cooking meats. Actually, I had been doing this for as long as I can remember (i.e. pot roast), but never called it braising. It is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat. Typically a food (most often meat) is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising relies on heat, time, and moisture to successfully break down tough connective tissue and collagens in meat. Many times the added liquid is acidic (such as wine), helping to tenderize as the food simmers.

Many classic braised dishes such as Coq au Vin (cooking a tough rooster in wine) and Boeuf Bourguignon are examples of braising. Slow cooking in a crockpot is also a form of braising, I guess. Vegetables and seasonings are added to the liquid to enhance the flavors. The remaining liquid is often reduced to make a sauce.

Marcella Hazan is quick to point out that braising is not a fancy way to cook. It originated not only as a way to make cheap cuts of meat more tender, but also to limit the amount of fuel needed to cook a lot of food for a big family. In Italy, one avoids heating up the oven to roast meat. It wastes energy and makes the kitchen hot (not good during a Sicilian summer). Once the food is seared and the added liquid begins to simmer, the lid of the pot is put on to keep the heat local. A very low flame is enough to keep it cooking for several hours.

My wife Lori makes an irresistable lamb fricasee by braising shoulder chops (not the most tender cut) in white wine and veal stock. She finishes it by whisking in an egg and lemon juice. Wow! Lori learned this recipe from chef Donatella at Azienda Fontelunga just outside Cortona in eastern Tuscany. This may look like a complicated recipe, but after you have done it once, it will become an easy model for all kinds of meals. Here it is.

Agnello Fricassea

2 tbl good olive oil
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
about 2 lbs misc. lamb cuts
1 tsp plain flour
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups veal or chicken stock
1 egg
juice of 1/2 lemon

Prepare the rosemary by stripping away any older, more bitter leaves from the base of the sprig. Prepare the lamb by carving the meaty portions away from the bones (but keep the bones).

Heat a large frying pan, heat the oil until very hot (shimers but does not smoke). Add the dried red pepper, rosemary, and garlic and gently move them around until they begin to release their aromas (about 1 minute). Add the lamb, bones (a lot of flavor there) and all, and sear all sides turning often with tongs (about 7 minutes). Toss in the flour and stir to cook it in the pan drippings. Add the wine, partially cover, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, but keep the liquid bubbling.

It will take at least 10 minutes to cook off the wine. Try to reduce it to a sticky film, but not burned. Add the stock, stir, and cover again. Go do something else for 20-30 minutes.

Just before serving, take out the garlic and rosemary and throw them away. Break up the egg in a small bowl and then whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the lamb from the heat and pour the egg/lemon over the top stirring as you go. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the lamb out onto a large platter and garnish with rosemary and lemon slices. This is beautiful served with sauteed wild greens. You will want plenty of good bread to fare la scarpetta, that is, to 'make a little shoe' for mopping up every drop.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Careless Use of the Word 'Retarded'

'Hate Speech' is defined as speech that attacks or disparages a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, or appearance (the list goes on). The term applies to written as well as oral communication and some forms of behaviors in a public setting. Definitions can extend to patterns of harassment that are hostile or offensive.

For most Americans, hate speech has become unacceptably immoral, at least in public. Of course, not everyone feels this way. So various institutions have developed codes to limit or punish the use of words or phrases deemed to express hatred towards a group of people.

This blog entry is concerned with one particular example of 'hate speech' – insults made by calling someone 'retarded.' Years ago, I heard 'retarded' used as a juvenile barb between high-school students. Now I am hearing it used often by thoughtless adults!

A central aspect of any hate speech discussion is the degree of offense. What is acceptable varies depending on cultural and religious backgrounds and historical context. Some words have, through use, become symbolic of broader hatreds and are proscribed now due to their acquired weight of offense. Others are more or less objectionable depending on context. A joke about an individual (one that hinges on some distinction) can be considered hate speech if it offends someone with a staunch ideological stance.

I have an ideological stance. My younger daughter is retarded. She was born with Down's Syndrome, and although very intelligent, will never be as mentally developed as other 'normal' girls. To use the name of her disability as a slur is very offensive to me.

To be clear, certain words carry such negative connotations that to use them in public is taboo (i.e. 'nigger' or 'fag' or 'hymie'). 'Retarded' is not that kind of word. It has many perfectly good uses including the most common – a diagnostic term for a generalized disorder characterized by significantly impaired mental or physical development. Perhaps the word 'retarded' would be better grouped with expressions like 'gypsy' or 'redneck.' These words can be used in acceptable speech or as an insult by making an analogy to a negative stereotype. In such cases, gross prejudice and general hatred is indirectly implied.

Compare these two sentences:
1) "We don't want that gook moving onto our block."
2) "Man, you're as stingy as a scotsman."
In both cases a decent person would be offended. Both statements are callous and hateful. In the first, the speaker is discriminating directly against a person of Asian heritage. In the second, the speaker is using the word 'scotsman' to insult via a negative stereotype (indirectly). 'Gook' is malicious (and unacceptable) in every case whereas we might use the word 'scotsman' in another context without implying any animosity. 'Retarded' as an insult is almost always used in the second sense, as an analogy. By extension, the speaker is revealing a disdain for all retarded people.

It is the hateful use of words that becomes troublesome, and here lies the real problem. What defines hateful? If two golfing buddies standing on the 18th green jokingly call each other 'retarded,' is that hateful? Perhaps not directly hateful, but it is insensitive, mean-spirited, and a clear display of indirect disrespect towards a whole group of people – good people who have no control over their disability (or race, or gender, or age).

Scholars who study discrimination in society will often explain hateful behavior as being "based in ignorance." They note that in even the most benign situation people tend to respond in two way to others who are different than themselves (that is, people of whom they are ignorant). 1) They laugh and ridicule, or 2) the become angry and hateful. I am sure that the jokes, careless derision, and even contempt exposed by the inappropriate use of the word 'retarded' is fueled by misunderstanding and ignorance about the retarded community.

I will reserve my observations (and admiration) of the retarded people I know, their families, teachers, and caregivers for another blog.

The United States federal government and state governments are broadly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech (subject to a few recognized exceptions). I feel that free speech takes precedence over restrictions meant to limit verbal insults. But good citizenship and human decency trumps free speech when it comes to the use of pejorative labels that disparage and ridicule.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Partial Truths and Rhetorical Lies

Historically, Americans have had great respect for persons skilled at using language to persuade. Schools teach about Plato, Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; men who spoke great words that touched emotions, inspired people to change the world, emboldened them to open their hearts, and helped them find resolve during desperate times. The list of important orators is long and impressive.

Another list of notable speakers might include Hitler, Jim Jones, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We wonder how so many people (even millions) can rally to less-than-virtuous (even evil) causes. Indeed, the gift for verbal persuasion is powerful. I now realize that the real purpose of those school lessons was not to train me to use persuasive rhetoric, but rather to 'discern truth' when listening to the eloquent words of leaders, commentators, teachers, and preachers.

Sadly, the critical ability to not be moved by every public utterance has been lost or forgotten by many Americans today. Fewer people think for themselves. More are content to parrot back the clever one-liner they heard some pundit deliver on talk radio.

Occasionally I stop mid-morning and have a cup of coffee. Sometimes I turn on the TV to catch a minute or two of mindless blather before getting back to work. This morning I heard a commentary by Pat Robertson on the recent health care reform initiative in Congress. This is a guy very skilled at telling an absolute lie by forming it into a partial truth. This kind of irresponsible and unethical public speaking would be laughable except that the American audience has become gullible. Robertson's motives are not at issue here (whatever they are), but using words to manipulate his audience is shameful.

In every crowd there are people who see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe. Perhaps we all do to some extent. Most have a reason; not always a good reason. In the case of Robertson, he can spout utter nonsense dressed up with careful verbiage and many listeners will believe because they can not imagine a charismatic Christian ever lying to them to promote his own perverse agenda. Shame on all who abuse language for their own selfish ends. Shame on America for giving these frauds an ear.

Too many of our elected officials practice rhetorical fiction with wreckless abandon. They forget that truth, not deception, is the begetter of free speech. Watch any Sunday morning political talk show and you can cut the partisan-double-speak-half-truths with a knife. Statesmanship is a high calling, one that only the most thoughtful and skilled speaker can pursue. To represent fellow citizens is the kind of work that requires tact, a willingness to appreciate other opinions, and above all, to express in clear and influential ways the view-points of one's constituency – truth as understood by the citizenry. Am I alone in wishing our representatives would stop dressing up their snake oil with words?

As a writer I celebrate the 1st Amendment. Free speech and all other forms of expression are essential rights that allow Americans to discuss, debate, sing, paint, and protest. So, I am not advocating restrictions of any kind. To me, false-speech is transparent. Yet the politicians and commentators continue to spin their jive unchecked. They must believe that America is really that stupid.

My children are on their own now; pretty much. Days of parenting, example-setting, and ethics-instilling are behind me. It makes me laugh to remember those times when my son would try to talk his way out of trouble by crafting some half-truth. Yes. He did think I was that stupid. I proudly boast that all of my kids learned, above all, that integrity is priceless. Honesty is inviolate. There can be no gray areas; no partial truths. Words can not be used to torture a lie into something it is not. Words will never change wrong to right no matter how cleverly the speaker arranges them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Absurd vs Real Food

"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces,
just good food from fresh ingredients."
- Julia Child, 1912 - 2004

As I sipped my coffee this morning I watched a segment on the Today Show featuring two brothers cooking from their book 'Simple, Fresh, Southern.' I thought, "Perhaps these guys have something to offer." Then they smiled, turned on their best southern-mama's-boy accent and made Caesar Salad with Catfish Croutons. If there was ever a jumping-off point for a discussion about absurd food, this is it.

TV food advise is almost always extreme. Usually it is not really about taste, but rather about cooking fast, cheaply, or 'creatively' (read, combining unlikely ingredients in new and clever ways). My philosophy is that most of us have enough sense to know good food from bad. That ability to discern has been built into our bodies by millions of years of evolution.

This morning the cook stated three times that he was about to make a classic Caesar. He proceeded to mix mayonnaise (out of the jar) with minced garlic (out of the jar), buttermilk, and anchovy paste. He slopped it over some shredded Romaine. That is NOT how you make Caesar salad. (See real recipe below). Then he fried up some catfish nuggets, piled them on top calling them 'meaty croutons.' Finally, he topped the whole thing with Parmesan cheese.

At the outset let me proclaim two things: 1) I love real Caesar Salad and, 2) I love catfish, but not together. Caesar salad is joy. It is not an Italian recipe, as many people assume, but was first created by chef Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico and made popular in Hollywood in the early 20th century. Caesar salad is a balanced combination of ingredients carefully selected to excite as many taste-buds as possible. I personally believe it is also a good digestivo. That is, the ingredients aid digestion. Here is my real Caesar recipe...

Caesar Salad
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
ca. 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 anchovy filet (optional)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dash Tobascco
Dash Worchestershire Sauce
Dash wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. cracked mustard
1/4 tsp chopped flat parsley
Black pepper
Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1/2 lemon
1 heart of Romaine, separated
1/2 cup croutons (optional)

In a large maple bowl use the back of a fork to macerate the garlic in the sea salt. Do the same with the anchovy if desired. Crack the egg and egg yolk into the bowl and break up with the fork. Start drizzling in the oil and whisk to make a mayonnaise. Add the Worchestershire, Tobascco, mustard, vinegar (if you are not serving wine with the meal), parsley, pepper, and a generous grating of cheese. Stir together. Squeeze the lemon between your fingers to strain any seeds. Stir well. Lay the lettuce leaves in the bowl and toss gently. Serve whole leaves on chilled plates. Garnish with a bit more cheese, croutons, and additional anchovies if desired.

Catfish does not belong on Caesar salad. Nothing does. To top a Caesar with salmon, or chicken, or shrimp is to diminish the beauty of the salad itself. Above all, do not add catfish.

Catfish is not the sexiest fish, but it is delicious when prepared correctly. The secret is to use fresh farm-raised fish and to cook it in clean, hot oil. River catfish tastes like it has been eating mud all of its life, which it has. Farm-raised is much lighter and does not have the 'musty' quality of wild-caught catfish. Catfish should be served with tart vinegar slaw, fried potatoes, and iced tea. This is not health food, so do not dress it up as such.

There are some flavors that intrinsically do not work well together. Have you ever tasted aged cheese with fried fish? If so, you know that that is the best way to ruin both the fish and the cheese.

I will return to this theme in future blog entries: The best food is prepared in ways that celebrates the innate beauty of the food, where and how it was grown, and the heritage that has made it part of our culinary tradition. Julia Child understood this. Too bad today's TV chefs don't have a clue.