The Balsamic Vinegar Chronicles: great chefs’ recipes

Once in a while, I get to indulge in a shamelessly promotional post about our Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar. We’ve had a wonderful Christmas season, and we are working to help you discover more about this gastronomic wonder.

How does one use Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of this kind? That is often a question we get at tastings and other events. Well, no fear. We have engaged the creativity of some of Italy’s best chefs to create recipes where you can make good use of our Balsamic:

Of course, recipes at this level are not meant to intimidate – you can taste balsamic vinegar at its best simply drizzled on a few chunks of well-aged Parmesan or spooned over a red meat tagliata. But if you feel like wearing your gourmet chef hat, they’re all yours!

In praise of short novels

I have been thinking about a comment by one of you, dear readers – “millions of people can’t find the time to delve into +700 pages of Moby Dick, because they have jobs to do and children to raise”.

You’re right. It is a luxury to be able to read long novels. It is a luxury I enjoy immensely: just think about Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite novels of all time and the one that taught me that idleness allows interesting events to unfold (in addition, the book was the direct source for my purchase of a red vinyl rain hat). Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Or even the catastrophically badly written but ultimately heartful Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

But then, a lot of novels are long. Fielding, Sterne, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, James, Joyce, Musil wrote very long novels. Proust, I think, overdid it. With few exceptions (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kafka), the canon is about long novels. (The birth of so many long novels in the era of handwriting, way before word processing, never ceases to amaze me, just like the growth of civilization in cold places like London, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg before the advent of modern heating techniques). Or maybe, one suspects, long novels are overrepresented among those that survived in the literary canon; the mass of short, perhaps more popular novels that formed the 19th-century equivalent of the soap opera has been largely forgotten.

I haven’t seen any stats, but I suspect that even literary novels have been getting shorter – J. M. Coetzee comes to mind. Among today’s short novels, there are two I remember as striking examples, because they unfold a story with a strong emotional impact in a compact package: Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers. They don’t take any longer than to read than the time it takes to go out to the movies and come back, and they stick in your consciousness for years after you’ve read them.

And you? What are your favorite short novels?

Candidate Obama, are you closer to Mike Huckabee than we thought?

Europeans are generally baffled by the very American tradition of very public display of one’s faith, which makes it unthinkable that Americans would elect to the presidency someone who does not claim to believe in God, in divine justice, and in some sort of afterlife. I commented a few weeks ago on how Republican candidate Mitt Romney deflects questions about his religious affiliation, even if – in his tenure as governor – it seems to have led to not entirely sound policy choices.

This week, again reading Christopher Hitchens’s most recent crackpot alert column in Slate, I learned that Senator Barack Obama, a fine politician with a message of change, reconciliation and hope, is a member of a church in Chicago called Trinity United Church of Christ. “This bizarre outfit describes itself as “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian” and speaks of “a chosen people” whose nature we are allowed to assume is “Afrocentric.” Trinity United sells creationist books and its home page includes a graphic link to a thing called Goodsearch […] Nobody who wants to be taken seriously can possibly be associated with such a substandard and shade-oriented place.”

Obama, on the contrary, is being taken plenty seriously; yet, should he go on to earn a Democratic nomination, one hopes that “change” would not mean embracing creationism, and “reconciliation” would not be entrusted to such leaders as those of the Trinity United Church of Christ.

Three more books about the end of civilization

Last August I made a list of fascinating fiction about major societal collapse and how writers have imagined that survivors would deal with it. Here are three additions I’ve read more recently.

  1. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This is a book I’ve enjoyed, but not loved. The protagonist’s quest to understand the scientific underpinnings of vampirism, in my opinion, detracts from the well-developed haunting atmosphere (the boarded-up house, the lonely stray dog) and the exploration of the psychology of long-term isolation. Yet, the idea is powerful and cinematographically gifted. The movie adaptation currently on the screen, with the charming Will Smith, seems to take quite a few liberties with the story: in the original, Robert Neville is stuck in suburbia hell and never even thinks of getting to Manhattan. There have been at least two other movies: The Last Man on Earth (1964), directed in Italy by Ubaldo Ragona and starring Vincent Price in the main role and Giacomo Rossi Stuart as his vampire neighbor (I bet the scenes around the fascist-era buildings in the Roman EUR suburb must be something to watch); and The Omega Man (1971), by Boris Sagal, starring Charlton Heston. Richard Matheson was a hugely influential horror and sci-fi writer and screenwriter; one of his stories was the basis for Spielberg’s Duel (1971).
  2. On The Beach by Nevil Shute. (Readers, thanks for your recommendations! You know who you are). Excellent story about a radioactive holocaust spreading from the Northern Hemisphere to the survivors in Australia, who know it’s coming. Some of them run submarine missions to explore the wastelands across the ocean, some race fast cars, some drink up the fine wines in their cellars: but it is an overwhelmingly civilized end of history, made more humane by the provision of little white pills by the Australian government.
  3. Finally, a short story: “Fish” in Michel Faber’s collection Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories. The survivor is a mother protecting her child from the horrors of marine life invading the air. Beautiful.

Civilization is a fine thing we’ve got – let’s protect it, because it ain’t pretty out there without it.