memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘joseph heller’

The mysterious case of the uneatable pears

An  inspirational book (for my generation at least) was CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller.

Wicked and hilarious this book with brilliant wordplay brings paradox to an inevitable  Zeno-like absurdity. Published in 1957 it dazzled our generations and spread across the Anglophonic world like a wildfire.

(Now, of course, we have spawned a generation which, not only has not read CATCH 22 but also hasn’t read much else either – poor them, so many lost conceits, so much lost irony).

Anyway there is a scene in the book where everyone on the base is issued with a pill to throw away into the bushes.



So it is in this place. Sometimes we are distributed with green pears so hard and unripe that those of us who still have our own teeth, should we actually attempt to bite into them … but not to worry the pears are not to be eaten but to be put into our pockets or bags and consumed in a couple of days when they are ripe.

That same impulse, the same força de vontade, which is so good for my physical improvement, impels me to be difficult about the pear situation.

I enter the dining room for dinner at 7.00 sharp and notice the small rock-like green projectiles – what’s this, I think, are we going to have a window-breaking contest after dinner or have some of us been distributed with uneatable pears again:

–          Excuse me, I don’t want this fruit because it’s not ripe, is it? I’ll have the fruit pap, please.

–          There is no fruit pap left.

–          No fruit pap left!

–          You have to warn us in advance if you want fruit pap instead of a green pear.

I’m entering The Twilight Zone again.

–          Can’t you just assume that I will prefer fruit pap to unripe fruit …?

Meanwhile someone else has tactfully produced one of the apples that they keep in the kitchen in reserve for difficult cases like mine.



Lest we forget

Another of the great crimes that stain the pages of 20th century history was the Allied bombing of the ancient and beautiful medieval German city of Dresden in February 1945 during the closing months of the Second World War.

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. joined the U.S. air force in World War Two. Captured by the Germans, he was one of the survivors of the fire-bombing of the city of Dresden.

He was one of the volunteers from the nearby P.O.W. camp to form a work party to go into the city and (under supervision) help the civil authorities in the maintenance of infrastructures etc. They were quartered in a former slaughterhouse under which was a cellar carved out of solid rock to cool the meat.

A character (presumably based on Vonnegut) in Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch 22, Closing Time, takes up the tale:

That night the bombers came for us. In the daytime American planes flew in low, far apart, and shattered buildings in different parts of the city, and we thought it strange that the bombs should drop so far from each and be aimed at nothing but houses. We wondered why. They were making splintered wreckage for the fires to come, but we didn’t know that. When the sirens sounded again in the evening we down as usual to our meat storage locker underneath our slaughterhouse. This time we stayed. There was no all-clear. Through our rock walls and cement ceiling we heard strange strong, dull thumps and thuds that did not sound to us like bomb explosions. They were the charges of incendiaries… An unusual roar arose, came closer, grew louder, stayed for hours. It was like the noise of a train going suddenly into a tunnel with a blast of wind, except it just stayed … The roar was air, it was a draft miles wide sucked into the city by the flames outside, and it was as powerful as a cyclone. When it finally lessened, near dawn, two guards climbed timidly back up the stairs to try a look outside. They came back like ghosts.

«Es brennt. Alles brennt. Die ganze Stadt. Alles ist zerstört.»

«everything’s on fire,» I translated, in the same hushed voice. «The city is gone.»

In the morning they led us up outside into the rain, everyone else was dead. They were dead in the street, burnt black into stubs and turned by the ash still dropping from the layers of smoke going up everywhere. They were dead in the blackened houses in which the wood had all burned and dead in the cellars.

In his bitter and satiric novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Vonnegut drew on his Dresden experience.

The book used that bombing raid as a symbol or metaphor for the cruelty and destructiveness of war down through the centuries.


Lest we forget.


Food for the Gods

Does anyone else agree with me that, while Portuguese cooking can be wholesome, healthy and indeed delicious, it lacks a certain (dare I say it) subtlety, a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain finesse? (Probably not: such an opening is doubtless a culinary solecism of the first order and a lesson in how to offend about ten million people with just one sentence).

Butchering in this region is merely a skill (if that), not a science or even an art. Where I live, descriptions of dishes are pared down to a fine minimalism:

–          Excuse me, what’s this?

–          It’s fish.

–          Yes, I can see that, but what kind of fish?

–          It’s Rabinho de Peixe (fish’s bum).

Well, I mean to say! In Portuguese it doesn’t so bad, it sounds like the fish had a kinda cute little butt, but in English it just sounds gross. I mean it’s hardly likely to titivate the taste-buds or get the juices flowing, is it?

With meat it’s much the same. As I sadly contemplate the (savagely hacked) chunk of meat, tubes, bone and muscle, placed in front of me, I ask:

–          I know that this is meat but what I’d like to know is what kind of meat it is.

–          It’s roast meat.

But let us escape from this mundane world and take refuge in literature and film. Let us recollect in tranquility the descriptions of food in Proust, in Joseph Heller’s As Good as Gold or in Tomaso de Lampadusa’s The Leopard. Above all, let us dwell on the foodies’ favourite film Babette’s Feast:

The scene is a remote little village on the coast of Jutland during the last part of the 19th century. The small community is comprised of mostly elderly, simple, plainly-spoken and religious folk who see the good in everything and patiently eek out a living on this cold, bleak, grey shore. Their diet appears to consist of ground dried cod.

The story centers on two middle-aged sisters, the daughters of the pastor who founded this Christian sect. The sisters had hired a French house-keeper some years previously – Babette (played by Stephane Audran, who almost but not quite succeeds in disguising her Parisian chic).One day Babette receives a telegraph from Paris to inform her that she has won 10,000 Francs on the state lottery. She decides to give the villagers a lavish dinner à la Française to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Founder’s death.

The last and most relevant part of the film is the preparation and the serving (by Babette) of an extraordinary feast of royal dimensions, lavishly deployed in the unpainted austerity of the sisters’ rustic home. The film, previously showing mainly winterly whites and grays, gradually picks up more and more colours, focusing on the various and delectable dishes, a feast for the spectator as well.

Although the other celebrants do their best to reject the earthly pleasures of the food and drink, Babette’s extraordinary gifts as a chef de cuisine and a true connoisseur so characteristically French, breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table — thanks to the general elation nurtured by the consumption of so many fine culinary delicacies and spirits.

The menu responsible for their pleasure features Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in a puff-pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); la Salade features Belgian endives and walnuts in vinaigrette, and Les Fromages features Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including  Clos de Vougeot, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu. Babette’s purchase of the finest china, flatware, crystal and linens with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette, who is none other than the famous former Chef of the Café Anglais in Paris. Babette’s previous occupation has been unknown to the sisters until she confides in them after the meal…


But it’s time to return to the present and today’s lunch. First it was customary thick yellow soup, OK, then blow me down if it insn’t followed by more soup, this time grey in colour and with a slightly fishy odour; oh good, exclaim my two table-companions, it’s Farinha do Pau!

To me it resembled nothing so much as grey frog-spawn vomited up by a giant Bloater. (No thanks!)

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