Archive for October, 2011

Gotham Diary:
The Servant Problem
4 October 2011

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Every dinner party teaches me something. This soup would be improved by a different blend of herbs; that roast might spend a little less time in the oven. Most of these lessons are lost, however, because time passes before I make this soup or that roast again. (I have two almost exclusive culinary repertoires, one for dinners for two or three, served in an “everyday” style, and another for dinner parties.) If I’m very pleased with something that I’ve done, or feeling unusually diligent, I may make a few notes the morning after. I write them down on paper, but I might as well write on the wind, because who knows where those notes go. At least I’ve learned not to keep them in a computer file!

Last Saturday night was different. What it had to teach me had nothing to do with the food, and it cried out for immediate implementation. As Eddie Monsoon put it, “Surfaces, darling.” I needed to clear off the kitchen’s surfaces. Of which there aren’t all that many.

The surfaces in my life, in and out of the kitchen alike, tend to fall victim to a powerful combination of laziness and orderliness. Instead of taking the trouble to put things back where they belong after I’ve used them, I arrange them neatly where they are, out in the open. How handy is that! No need to hunt down the farfalle; the canister holding them is right there on the rolling cart. Along with dozens of other items, just waiting for me to need them — when what I really need is somewhere to put a casserole that I’ve just taken out of a hot oven. Somewhere to place a cutting board so that I can chop up something that I forgot about until late in the game. Somewhere to line up plates for serving. The convenience of having things neatly to hand clashes with the imperative of finding urgently-needed work space.

I feel awfully old for this lesson in domestic entropy; I really ought to know better. But part of me still believes that, once you’ve organized a drawer, you’re done. That’s taken care of. Two years later, the drawer is a mess, and you can’t find anything that you’re looking for; sooner or later, you organize it once again and fall for the same pipe dream: that’s taken care of. Nothing in domestic life is ever taken care of, except maybe for ten minutes — and anything that is taken care of, anything that sits quietly and undisturbed for years at a stretch is undoubtedly something that you don’t really need. (Holding on to things for sentimental reasons is an entirely different pathology.) The trick of household management is to keep things in order before they get too far out of it.

The sad fact of the matter is that I would not hire me as a servant. I would not give me good references. I’m only good at being the master.

I did, however, clear off the kitchen surfaces yesterday. It didn’t take as long as I feared, although, technically, the job isn’t done yet; I’ve still got six clean and empty apothecary jars, one tall and five short, that I’ve got to store somewhere. Maybe I should just toss them. Apothecary jars are a problem for me, as are canisters generally; it has taken years to distinguish what I can store in them for reasonable amounts of time from what I can only entomb. Into the former class fall common baking ingredients, such as flour and sugar, and four or five kinds of pasta that I cook all the time. Into the latter fall nuts and dried fruit and crystallized ginger unusual pasta shapes that I don’t know why I bought. Strange crackers. Chocolate chips.

(A “universal truth” along the lines of “the check is in the mail”: “This will come in handy someday.” Let me tell you what will come in handy someday — each and every day: having Fairway across the street.)

In any case, I’m ready for my next, as yet unscheduled, dinner party. My surfaces are clear. Now they are. Can I keep them that way?

Gotham Diary:
3 October 2011

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Kathleen and I were married thirty years ago today. It does not seem so very long ago. What it seems is both unimaginably distant (in illo tempore — as I was taught in school: in another kind of time altogether, not quite continuous with ours) and eternally present (marking the beginning of life as I’ve known it).  

The day is special, but celebration seems out of key. I find it difficult to regard this anniversary in the American way, as marking an achievement. Kathleen and I were lucky to stumble into one another, because it turned out that we were well-suited to stumbling through life together. You think that you know what you’re doing, but the whole point of having brains, it seems, is to grasp, in retrospect, that you didn’t. When we tripped and sometimes fell down, we were able to pick ourselves and, more important, one another up. We dusted ourselves off and kept going. And we were glad, to say the least, of the company.

On Saturday night, we had a dinner party, just six of us, friends whom we’ve known (with one slight exception) since before we were married. I wasn’t thinking of our anniversary when I planned the evening, or prepared the meal, or even when I served it forth. If I was thinking of anything, it was inaugurating a new season, one in which I’m resolved, as I am always resolved, to give more and better dinner parties. In retrospect, though, the evening was the best imaginable observance of our years of marriage. Especially in one novelty: when one of the guests noted that I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, I didn’t protest and open another bottle of champagne; instead, I saw everyone off with a warm “goodnight” and went straight to bed.  

I can’t say that that wasn’t an achievement.


On Friday night, we went to hear Cassandra Wilson and her fantastic band at the Rose Theatre in TimeWarner Center. This was the result of idly chatting about Dianne Reeves while we were out on Fire Island. Kathleen and I are both crazy about Dianne Reeves, and we wondered when she’d be singing in New York? And where? (We’ve heard her at Carnegie Hall and at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium — she was fronting for Al Green on the former occasion, but had the Met to herself.) The next thing you know, we’d bought two subscriptions to a series of three Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts, of which the Reeves date is the last, sometime next spring. We have Herbie Hancock before that — neither of us has ever been to hear him, so that will be something. Cassandra Wilson made a believer out of Kathleen when she released In the Belly of the Sun, and we went to see her at the Blue Note a couple of New Year’s Eves ago. Her heading the Hancock-Reeves lineup clearly indicated that subscribing to the series was Meant To Be. I ordered the tickets online from the house. The lagniappe: aisle seats!

We hadn’t been in the Rose yet, and, boy, did we wonder what we’d been waiting for. A gem of a concert hall — any kind of usic would sound good there, I expect — with a great lighting system, the Rose is a great deal more than a shrine to jazz; it’s a place where jazz can grow. And Cassandra Wilson is an artist who makes sure that it will. Her instincts are evenly divided between providing a diva showcase for her luxuriant, low-pitched voice and approaching her material as a jazz deconstructionist. “Her material” happens to be just about anything. It occurred to me to hope that she eventually puts Bach in her hopper. For the moment, her environment doesn’t stretch quite that far, but it comfortably ranges from Gershwin (“the Man I Love”) to Delta (“St James Infirmary”), and is thoroughly infused by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and textures. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Wilson can turn any room into a bordello’s front parlor.

Wilson’s sidemen are all extraordinary, and they do not hide their virtuosity. That’s why I was disappointed when the intermission was erased by the musicians’ spontaneous enthusiasm. A gentleman came out from the wing and handed Wilson a sheet of paper, which she read to the audience: no intermission. All very well in its way, but my ears needed a break, just as they would if the program consisted to two late Beethoven quartets. The result was that we missed the encore(s). When Wilson bid us all “goodnight” and walked off the stage, I told Kathleen that I had to do the same.

Part of the blame goes to Grégoire Maret, the Harlem-Swiss harmonicat who has traded in his Malcolm Gladwell look for a shaved head. It seems unfair, especially to guitarist Marvin Sewell, to single out one member of the band for special mention, but I do so because Maret’s solos, while brilliantly musical, have the urgency of an air-raid siren. They’re electrifyingly acrobatic (as is the musician himself), and you more or less stop breathing for the duration. There’s only so much of this that an elderly body can take. That intermission would have been most welcome!