How to Cook a Wolf

June 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“A wise man always eats well.” - Chinese proverb

MFK Fisher (a friend and contemporary of Julia Child) first published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 in the midst of World War II. The book deals with domestic stresses during war time, especially those related to food rations. The essays deal with economic purchasing and energy savings, but also how to enjoy what little you have. Throughout the book, she talks about wisdom and joy and satisfaction. Each chapter is sprinkled with nostalgia, stories and recipes. The fascinating portion of this book, for me, is the way in which she writes about the interaction of food with taste, culture, habit, and perhaps, even love. Since times of war make it impossible to adhere to many of the structures of peace time, it is easy to abandon decency. For Fisher, the temptation to give up is strong, something she refers to as the “wolf” at the door. Instead of giving into depression, despair and frustration, she asks that we cast aside the wolf by staring him straight in the eye and enjoy what we have. Food, she claims, is one of our greatest traditions and that simple fact should never be forgotten. In fact, she recalls reading recipes as if they were pieces of classical literature or oral traditions handed down with pride and artifice.

What follows are a number of quotes from Fisher’s book on the ways in which foods make us feel good, whole, satisfied or comforted. The book comes at a time following great sacrifice and sadness as a whole country. Fisher claims that even in times of war, “since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.” In other words, whether on a tight budget, a dietary constraint or simply making a family meal, choose the foods wisely and enjoy it well. She would ask that we take pride in what and how we eat. This simple action enables us to maintain a piece of humanity, even in times that cause such great divides.

She writes:

“Close your eyes to the headlines and your ears to the sirens and the threatenings of high explosives, and read instead the sweet nostalgic measures of these recipes, impossible yet fond.”


“Yes, it is crazy, to sit savoring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.”


“Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.”


She quotes Brillat-Savarin, who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends upon what and how they eat”.


Fisher elaborates on Brillat-Savarin’s sentiment with an anecdote about Walter Scott. She writes:

“Once when young Walter Scott, who later wrote so many exciting books, was exceptionally hungry and said happily, ‘Oh, what a fine soup! Is it not a fine soup, dear Papa?,’ his father immediately poured a pint of cold water into what was already a pretty thin broth, if the usual family menu was any sample. Mr. Scott did it, he said, to drown the devil.

“For too many nice ordinary little Americans the devil has been drowned, so that all their lives afterwards they what is set before them, without thought, without comment, and, worst of all, without interest. The result is that our cuisine is often expensively repetitive: we eat what and how and when our parents ate, without thought of natural hungers.

“It is not enough to make a child hungry; if he is moderately healthy he will have all the requisites of a normal pig or puppy or plant-aphis, and will eat when he is allowed to, without thought. The important thing, to make him not a pig or puppy, nor even a delicate green insect, is to let him eat from the beginning with thought.

“Let him choose his foods, not what he likes as such, but for what goes with something else, in taste and in texture and in general gastronomic excitement. It is not wicked sensuality, as Walter Scott’s father would have thought, for a little boy to prefer buttered toast with spinach for supper and a cinnamon bun with milk for lunch. It is the beginning of a sensitive and thoughtful system of deliberate choice, which as he grows will grow too, so that increasingly he will be able to choose for himself and to weight values, not only sensual but spiritual.”

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And the Villains Vamped

June 8, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” -- everybody ever

If you have been alive at any point in time, you have probably heard this expression. If you’ve been alive for more than a few years strung together, you may have heard it evoked in many different situations by many different voices, of which a slim minority belonged to licensed doctors. There should be no need to point out that in a literal sense the notion is absurd. It’s a platitude, a pleasant chunk of bunk. In a nonliteral sense, however, this oft-repeated nugget of pop pharmacology really is thicker than snake oil. Funny business might not cure our carnal ills, but when it comes to quality of life there is something in that daily block of Seinfeld reruns more soothing than any pill, drip, or salve. The influence is less pharmaceutical than metaphysical. It reaches down into the psychic depths where monsters dwell and eases the thorns from their aching feet. Under a wave of cool, honest laughter, anxiety is dispelled, insults neutralized, grudges eroded, gloom allayed.

It makes sense, then, that any supplier of this special drug would become a recipient of the best compensation: our gratitude and affection. The one who makes us laugh is the one who saves us, an act which seems invariably to foster a deep, sanguine, human connection. Physical jokery is one of the simplest forms of this exchange: the clown submits to all manner of embarrassment which, should we be amused, we repay with at least a general feeling of approval (short of any horrific makeup). If Chaplin ended the movie in the gutter, spiritually squashed, we probably would feel that this was not a comedy after all. We like to watch the fool fail, but we love to see him prevail in the end—even if prevailing means simply to keep on truckin’. This comic law underpins the paltriest Keystone one-reeler as much as it does contemporary gems like The Big Sick.

And then there’s Lemony. One of the greatest fortunes of my growing-up years was to witness the unfolding of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a bleak and often thrilling Young Adult mystery saga credited to the fictitious narrator Lemony Snicket. Even today, I’m not convinced that this name is not a joint nom de plume for Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, or possibly Dr. Seuss and Jorge Luis Borges. Impaling touches of absurdity and wry lexical digressions upon dark, twisting vines of plot, Snicket relates the trials of three hyperintelligent children who are orphaned by a housefire and spend the next thirteen increments of their lives escaping from horrid foster environments and ducking a vain and pernicious actor who lusts after their sizeable inheritance.

Unfortunate Events is currently nine books deep into a Netflix adaptation featuring Neil Patrick Harris as the openly theatrical antagonist, Count Olaf, and Patrick Warburton doing a pretty fine Don Draper impression. The show is scripted in part by Daniel Handler, the “real” identity of Lemony Snicket. Like Nickelodeon’s attempt to vacuum-pack the first three titles into one movie back in 2004, I think the Netflix series is clever in some respects but ultimately too…for its own good…silly. It plays the way an adult probably feels reading these books. The show sports a kind of pop-up-book whimsy in place of the very legitimate sense of dread that hangs over Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. The novels—thanks to Snicket’s melancholy voice leading us through the story like a well-read Charon—are populated mostly by dry, black humor that never betrays the seriousness of the children’s grief and unrelenting peril. The jokes in the home streaming version are lighter, more extroverted, and stem mostly from Count Olaf being a narcissistic dunce.

This is a very unusual prescription indeed. Villains have always been viable focal points of humor, of course: my mind goes to Biff Tannen’s periodic rendezvous with his least favorite animal waste product. That gag amuses not only because it’s happening to someone else (rather than ourselves), but because it happens to someone we particularly dislike. In scene after scene, Biff is nothing but vicious and nasty to his fellow man—and even, in Back to the Future Part II, to older and younger versions of himself. He is a pure, 24-carat villain, so he warrants a bit of filthying up; them cow pies are just desserts. Even if we don’t catch Marty McFly pausing for a chortle over the manure shower we can assume that, as a chronic victim of Biff’s brutality, he would find some righteous amusement in it.

What sets Unfortunate Events apart—in dark, un-Hubbled regions of the comic cosmos—is that we are given no one to laugh with. There’s a stark divide in this misfortune-strewn world separating the good guys from the bad, and that line comes down fairly predictably between children and adults. But the behaviors of these two groups are curiously inverted. Horseplay and hamming are made exclusively the affairs of the grown-ups, most of whom are either actively victimizing the Baudelaires or, at best, trying to lift their great despair with allergenic peppermint candies. Snicket will have no such shenanigans from his underage heroes. By and large, he denies them the propensity to laugh at the most clearly laughable premises, even on the rare occasion that the joke does not mortally imperil them. There are exceptions in the books, but so far the Netflix orphans have done little to suggest a humor center.

The fact is they are simply too busy: Snicket denies them the time to find things funny. The Baudelaires are not merely bereaved, they are literally forced to tidy up after a gaggle of adult goof-offs who cannot take care of themselves. (Olaf’s hygiene, for one thing, is enough to make a rat queasy.) The siblings are written as book-smart whiz kids thrown into high-gear survival mode. They cook and clean, craft appliances, saw logs, disinfest dank cellars, decipher Dan Brownian codes—they survive, and they do it with a demeanor that’s industrious, resourceful, gloomy, and strangely pedantic. They are like weary single parents, endlessly harangued by the mess-making monkeyshines of almost everyone they meet. They have no time for smiles. They have only a few cards in their emotional decks, while their foes are fully emotive and animated.

It works. Maybe because the storytelling funnels us into the kids’ corner, or maybe because their plight is so plainly undeserved and unjust. (Or perhaps the novels’ exquisite balance of tones has impressed me so deeply that I can project it back onto the more shambolic streaming series.) Regardless of why, the show gets away with having these long-faced junior MacGyvers oppressed by a conspiracy of jocular thieves. I root for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and I zealously await the unmasking and indictment of their enemies, even knowing those perfidious clowns are the ones who have been making with the funny. All the yuks are theirs to claim. The orphans, to be honest, kind of bum me out and bore me. A wax statue of Liam Neeson garroting a panda is more risible than these kids. Yes, I cheer them on through their unfortunate toils, but if their folks were still alive and they invited me over for a playdate in the library, I would try to think of a credible excuse to get out of it and go watch Olaf workshop his newest bizarre trainwreck of a theater piece. My sense of right aligns me with the eternally breathless Baudelaires, but my sense of humor gravitates toward their tormentors.

Should my loyalty not be split in two? Between the glum youths I want to prevail and the snickering cads who must be thwarted? It isn’t. Somehow my mind accounts for the fact that, in this world, fun is felonious. Perhaps enabling that kind of contortion is the power of art. Storytelling like Snicket’s manages to play not just on my emotions, on my squirming id’s need for entertainment, but simultaneously on my moral fiber. And it’s able to play these sections against each other, entrusting me to be rational and ticklish, even when each of those forces seems fixed to undermine the other. Olaf and his cronies are constantly making fools of themselves—like Chaplin, keeping my cabinet flush with over-the-counter Hardeehar. Wouldn’t it be easy—natural, even—to let the funny bone serve as the gavel? These zany malevolents do me a great service with their clowning. How do I repay them? With betrayal. The baleful Baudelaire bambini aren’t doing me any favors, yet they furnish themselves with my full support.

In a sense, we are deputized by the story. The Olaf cabal suffers no diegetic witness equipped with the critical judgment and functioning sense of humor to acknowledge how royally pinheaded they are. It’s like their frivolity itself is their most successful scheme, the one trick they keep getting away with. The orphans are smart enough to see through every other ploy and disguise, but they’re too smart to realize what nimrods are at their heels. So it’s up to us. Only our vigilant ridicule keeps the villains in check—and yet every smirk they inspire gives us that much more in common with these buffoons, and that much less with the wet blankets we are here to champion. When we step into the world of Unfortunate Events, humor is no longer a virtue: it’s a cause for suspicion.

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June 1, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I know that Memorial Day 2018 already passed, but recently I have been rereading some of Standing Down, and felt the time was right for another moment of appreciation.

War inevitably involves great trauma and loss. As the following quotes demonstrate, wartime changes all races and peoples, ancient and modern. The world is not perfect, and will never be, but it is important to honor those who died for us with some sort of promise, hope or expectation of continual improvement, an effort for what is right, what is best, and what is just. I am not sure if anyone ever comes to terms with the effects of war, but I do believe that in writing and reading, these authors have left some important road maps for us to read. I believe that the passages quoted below cannot be read too often.

“He sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done...Now he was really learning about the war.” – Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”


“When Hector reached the oak tree by the Western Gate,/ Trojan wives and daughters ran up to him,/ Asking about their children, their brothers,/ Their kinsman, their husbands. He told them all,/ Each woman in turn, to pray to the gods./ Sorrow clung to their heads like mist.” – Homer, the Iliad, Book 6


Talbot: “Thou antic Death, which laugh’st us here to scorn,/ Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,/ Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,/ Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,/ In they despite shall scape mortality./ O thou, whose wounds become hard-favored Death,/ Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!/ Brave Death by speaking, whether he will or no;/ Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe./ Poor boy! He smiles, methinks, as who should say,/ Had Death been French, then Death had died today./ Come, come, and lay him in his father’s arms.”

[John is laid in his father’s arms.]

“My spirit can no longer bear these harms./ Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,/ Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.” - Dies. – William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I


“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”


“When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgement or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

**All citations come from Standing Down; From Warrior to Civilian, published by the Great Books Foundation in 2013.


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Caedmon’s Compounding

May 25, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of languages is understanding how they grow. In order to allow for outside influence, a language must be able to change. Old English, for example, often used compounds as a way to form new meanings. While Old English did accept loan words from other languages, it also developed a system to accommodate acculturating forces. One of the techniques used in Old English was to link together two nouns or a noun plus an adjective. This practice was called compounding. (In fact, we still use this method today. A few modern-day examples are: network, snowball and punchline.)

One of the earliest poems in English (some would say the earliest), “Caedmon’s Hymn,” displays some really interesting compounds. As Christianity’s importance grew within the Old English culture, the language needed to expand and account for these new ideas. Poets and authors creatively combined words in order to achieve the desired effect.

The West Saxon version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” reads:

Nu sculon herigean           heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,          swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                       or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                 eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                      frea ælmihtig

Seth Lerer (of the University of California, San Diego) translates Caedmon’s song as:

Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,

the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,

the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of us wonders,

the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.

He first shaped for earth’s children

heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,

the eternal Lord, established afterwards,

the earth for the people, the Lord almighty.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this song. First, it is easy to see that the space (caesura) has dropped out. Typically, the caesura is a place to pause for breath between phrases. It may be replaced by commas or // in modern poetry. It was a form of controlling the breath, much as is commonly used in music.

Second, this poem contains a lot of repetition. Before books, the technique of repeating phrases or ideas aided memorization and reinforced the main idea. Caedmon sings of the Lord in many different ways, the “Guardian,” the “Glory-father,” and the “holy Creator” (among others). In such a short work, Caedmon has created metaphors that elaborate on the importance of God.

Furthermore, Caedmon effectively employs compounding. Lerer translates “heofonrices Weard” as “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” - weard being the warden, and heofonrices translates to heavenly riches. The term “modgeþanc” is really interesting also. Lerer translates it as “mind-thought”, though I find that term also unclear. Others translations simply use “thought”, but that too seems to miss the term’s full meaning. Caedmon did not simply write about thought. It is possible that since alliteration is so important to the poet, he may have included modgeþanc (rather than “þanc”) simply because it added a third “m” sound to the line. The poem pays attention to rhyme and meter and alliteration just as much as it does to meaning, though, and I believe that Caedmon would have been interested in creating compounds that advanced his point, not merely stylized it. I wonder if Caedmon is getting at the idea of a thoughtfulness that accompanies creation. To me, mind-thought in modern English sounds a little too science-fictiony, reminiscent of Doublethink in 1984. Regardless of translation, however, Caedmon clearly utilizes compounding to reinforce his point.

One final compound that I want to mention is "middangeard." A similar term appears in Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German. It is important to note, however, that middangeard is part of a mythology in each of those cultures. In other words, Caedmon anchors Christian elements to a pre-existing mythological term to better describe God’s effect on man. Translated as “middle-yard” here, it likely means earth, but not in the sense of dirt and terrain. Rather, Caedmon chooses this term (over something like Old English “eorthe”) because it symbolizes the human middle-ground, in between heaven and hell. Just as he is not simply speaking of thought, but of thoughtfulness, Caedmon wants to invoke the spiritual space that we inhabit and the best way to do that is to co-opt a familiar term.

In using repetition, alliteration and compounds, Caedmon creates a song that gives us a sense of how language adjusts to new ideas. He embraces Christian elements by incorporating traditional elements and adding the idea of God the father or God the Guardian. He offers simple metaphors, such as heaven as a roof, to help others access the complex ideas of Christianity. God is mentioned in nearly every line in order to solidly establish the lineage and upend previous mythologies. Perhaps this song is best heard. You can listen to a choral arrangement by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers here.

** Much of this blog draws on ideas from a lecture given by Seth Lerer through the Great Courses. Find more about “The History of the English Language” at the Great Courses website.


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