Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary: the Digitalia Cometh

The last page turned, the cover closed: the book has ended. I think, 'I love this book. I am never getting rid of this book. Seriously. I have to remember not to lend it out and lose track of it, not to donate it...I am NEVER getting rid of this book.' *

To those whose inner landscape is built on a foundation of reading, of books, of connections that emerge from and depend on the magic of language, the feeling will be at least familiar. So rapidly have we moved from the 600 year old concept of all learning being available through the power of print to the ditigal landscape that we're still catching up with ourselves. And I'm a fan. I live and breathe and make my living in the digital space; I will ultimately share this with you using digital media. Most of my friends are people making at least part of their livings using the media, mindset and tools of...well, digitalia. And yet many of us share a connection to older media too profound to be characterized as nostalgia. And so, my loves, here is a small remembrance of the beauty of pre-digitalia and its resonance in the present.

Here is my Dear Old Person (who was undeniably my Dear Much Younger Person in those days) popping his head into the door of the Booksmith, saying hello. I include it to show you a glimpse of a local independent bookstore. I include it because you see the old brass plate on the door, and the way it opened inward so that our endless stream of friends, customers, visitors, malingerers and characters had to pretty much step into the sales counter to announce their arrival. I include it so you can see the Front Door of An Independent Bookseller's Life, which is not AT ALL the same thing as working in a bookstore. For those of you fortunate enough to live in markets where independent bookstores still live - or, bless 'em, actually thrive - it may not seem important. And if you've adapted wholly to digital media, barely missing the tactile connection with the physically printed word, printed photographs or artwork, good on ya. Enjoy your evening.

When Booksmith friend and patron Mrs. Detmold called us to order a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary people were still caught, uncertain, between the non-digital and its emerging alternatives. For Mrs. Detmold, however, there was no such uncertainty. She and her scholarly husband were firmly grounded in the 20th century even as it faded and we raced toward the 21st. Some of her own manners seemed to date to the previous century, including her quaint telephone manners. We had lots of regular customers whose loyalty drove them to visit the new Barnes & Nobles beginning to dot the Southeast, leaving with wish lists they called in to us, rather than buying on sight. Mrs. Detmold was one of these. Her phone calls began with her soft, sweet voice, announcing her name and enumerating her list, and ended when she simply hung up. When she was finished with her call, she didn't say, "Well, thanks - talk to you later," or "Bye bye, dear," or anything signature-like at all. When the list had been dictated, the order placed, she simply hung up. This all would have passed with little notice, except for the day she called to order that copy of the OED.

There was no computer in the Booksmith. We had a microfiche reader, and respectably tattered copied of Books in Print. We used these to locate things our customers requested, and the hardware tools were supplemented by our personal knowledge and networks. The tools we had, primitive as they seem now, generally provided at least ballpark estimates of pricing. When I found the version of the OED Mrs. Detmmold seemed to be reqesting, I was astonished. "Are you sure you don't want me to look for an abridged version of the dictionary?" I asked Mrs. Detmold. No, thank you, she said. I stammered out the price. Was she certain? The new OED, recently updated and unabridged, running to nearly 20 volumes, was about $2500.00, a sum that approached the limits of my imagination. Really? Was she really certain?

Yes, dear, she said, and hung up.

The order was placed with much seriousness and attention, and when the heavy boxes arrived, they were picked up with much the same feeling. And then, like the ending of a phone call with Mrs. Detmold, there was silence. A couple of months passed before she called to place an order. When she did, it was impossible not to ask: Were they satisfied with the order? Did they like it? (I know: it seemed the most ridiculous thing to ask about the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, but there it was.) Did they (timdly, this last was ventured), well, did they get much use from the Dictionary? There was a moment of silence, but not the stilted I'm-not-sure-about-this-telephone-business silence to which we'd all gotten accustomed. This was a puzzled silence, a moment in which Mrs. Detmold may have considered us the Oldest City's nicest Philistines, but Philistines, no less. Finally she said, "Oh, yes, dear. We use it all the time. Someone will mention a word, and off we go to the library to look it up. We just love it." She paused, and then added, "Every time we have company, I find someone or other in the library, curled up with one volume or another, just...well, you know, just READING it."

I set the phone down and returned to the tasks at hand: matchmaking between books and people, welcoming the unbelievably diverse Booksmith clientele, thinking about novels by Isabel Allende, collections of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe and books like The 12-Volt Bible, and the history section where Dr. Michael Gannon made his home, and the historical fiction of local interest, where Eugenia Price's Maria and Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered were staples. New writers like Connie Fowler and Ernie Mickler and Carl Hiaasen were being hand-sold because our staff loved them. And yet, The Oxford English Dictionary had found its way to someone's libary, here in provincial little St. Augustine. Someone valued the pure possession of a beloved book, printed on paper, spanning many volumes, holding the accumulated and evolving secrets of the English language over time passing human understanding.

*The book is The Red Chamber, by Pauline A. Chen (Knopf, New York, 2012). It's a beautiful re-imagining of Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber", itself, according to Chen, "...the eighteenth century novel widely considered the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition....largely unknown to western audiences...", a book I'd read and loved 20 years ago or more. Ironically, one of its themes is the careless certainty we have in our youth that everything is within reach, and the awareness that comes ever so slowly as we age that every choice leads inexorably to that which cannot be undone. It is beautifully told. Thank you, Pauline Chen.

Photo(c) Angela Christensen 2012 All rights reserved

Monday, October 8, 2012

White Bean Chili, or The Art of the Lost Jalapeno

The jalapeno was simply gone. It was with me when I left the store, and undeniably Not There when its fateful moment came and it was time to be finely minced and welcomed to the pot. I was working on a Chicken and White Bean Chili, after the fashion of the fabulous Susan Brown and completely without benefit of any recipe. Following my usual theory that cooking is more art than science except when baking is involved, I figured I could use Susan's delicious example as an inspiration and make most of it up as I went along. This often works well, but at its heart is a sort of experimental approach to cooking, with hypotheses, one or two of which are bound to end up on the lab, er, kitchen floor now and then. But I digress.

Without said jalapeno, I considered the datil peppers in the garden. Datils are small peppers, well known in northeastern Florida for their excellent flavor and heat. When datils are added outright to food (often in things like purlo - we can debate the spelling later - or chowders and soups) one or two of the peppers are dropped intact into the pot and removed before serving, with the amount dictated by the desired degree of heat and corresponding flavor and the quantity in the cook's pot. Considered. Rejected. The peppers on my plants are small, and I was worried I might leave a pepper for some unsuspecting palate to experience in one fateful bite. I soldiered on, pepper-less.

I chopped sweet peppers and onions and sauteed them in olive oil with chopped garlic. Boneless skinless chicken breasts were dredged in seasoned flour and pan fried in a mixture of olive and vegetable oil, following my usual recipe. Oh, except without that jalapeno, I thought, I'd better compensate with a little more cayenne pepper than usual. (This is dangerous. I know this. I only mention it here because of the price I'd have to pay later; you know, as a sort of cautionary note. Eat Here Eatery and all that.) Out came the crisp, lovely chicken, and into the skillet went a bit of the seasoned flour to brown and make a roux. When that was a rich velvet brown color, I deglazed the skillet with some white wine and added chicken broth and a can of that staple of Southern cooking, Ro-tel tomatoes, which are chopped tomatoes and green chiles, thinking about Julia Child and cast iron skillets. And then, as the whole aromatic thing married and simmered, I tasted it for the first time. I should mention that some of The people who eat at Eat Here enjoy the occasional spicy morsel or dish. The general fare, however, allows for the addition of Texas Pete or datil pepper vinegar AFTER cooking is complete, but has a milder nature. This delicious concoction, however, was NOT in the "milder nature" category at ALL. It brought a tear to my eye, immediately followed by the thought that Chicken and White Bean Chili was about to become a much larger batch of Chicken and White Bean Something, almost certainly Soup.

Considerably more broth was added until that was gone and desperation drove me to add a can of cream of chicken soup. After a long simmer, tender chunks of pan-friend chicken, white beans and even some diced potatoes went into the pot. My Dear Old Person suggested the serving solution and poured over brown and white basmati rice, the whole thing was perfectly delicious. Not glamorous, I know, but delicious with a salad of fresh guacamole on the side. All in all, I thought, a successful experiment, even without benefit of the lost jalapeno.

After a nice beach walk this morning, I threw a load of clothes into the washing machine, and rescued the load that had been left in the dryer the night before. This was mostly a load of towels that needed folding, but I'd thrown in some of our reusable grocery bags, as well. They can get smelly and even become rather bacteria-laden if you don't remember to wash them now and then. Besides, you never know: you may reach into the dryer and pull out a slightly bruised jalapeno,completely clean and ready for your pot of White Bean Chili.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fallen flowers and fruit, rising October

Detritus of the convergence of summer's slow end the promise of October: the periwinkle purple-blue of a bruised flower from the top of the climbing thunbergia, and maybe-green-maybe-yellow Meyer lemon, likewise fallen from its home. Soon enough, the beautiful purple of the vine's flowers will stand out against the bright golden hickory leaves of the tree that's served as its host these many years. Later still, the lemons will stay the course of citrus in northeastern Florida and come ripe around Christmastime. Tree and vine, fruit and flower: they have their own stories and thus their own shorthand in our visual vocabulary.

Meyer lemons have a subtle flavor, prized by chefs and cooks for their unique influence on recipes. My Dear Old Person and I will use as many as well can, consider the various and creative ways in which they might be used to good effect, and finally then press the lemons on our friends before finally taking big bags to the office to share. It may not be necessary to say that there has long been slight variance amongst our hoursehold in interpretation of "good effect". To me this implies some of the happy places in which our lemons have found themselves: honored ingredients in brine for holiday turkeys, infusing simple syrup with sharp citrus zest to step up Grownup Lemonade, sharing the billing with lavender in a favorite Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream. Sons and husbands interpret the definition to incude pitching, flinging, throwing, tossing and hurling lemons at targets, teams, trees, squirrels and each other. Philosophically I always win (about-to-be-thrown-lemons are quickly hidden when I appear); realistically, I hesitate to say how many lemon trees have sprung up around the perimeter of our yard, and how many heartlessly lopped off. And you can kinda see why. This picture shows the branches that have begun to droop, but doesn't give you a sense of the real size; the tree must be 20 feet tall. Most years we haven't a prayer of harvesting all of them. But its history is precious to us, as it was rescued from a 19th century citrus grove years ago, before the county turned the groves into the lovely Alpine Groves Park where it stands on a bluff overlooking at St. Johns River. Our lemon tree connects us to more than a century of citrus farming and a lifestyle whose echoes are still dear to us today.

The simple and abundant flowers of the thunbergia vine, which begins each spring threading its way up the brown stalks of its previous incarnation leftover from the previous winter's freeze, reaches even higher to the top of its hickory tree. It began life in a five gallon nursery can, a birthday gift from my friend Miss Inga. Its persistent efforts at flowering every year are an allegory for a friendship which has passed through the stresses and changes of every season of every year. It's part of the reason I do what I do today for a living; it's part of the reason I think the way I do; it has shaped the person I've grown into. It's a friendship that was dented and scarred by the banal evil and uncertain sanity of a boss and a workplace that was so much fun it was just possible to ignore the fundamental flaws of the business model and the responsible party. It's a friendship still precious to me, based more than ever on truth as we can see it, and generosity as we can share it. We've passed through the trials of caring for aging parents. We are passing through the soaring joys and heartaches of a new generation of children, issues of family rising with degrees of irony for both of us. And every year, there are those elegant little periwinkle-colored flowers to remind me, stretching for the blue October sky, contrasting against the golds of the leaves and the light.