The Northumberland Strait
Clear things console me, and sunlit things console me. To see life passing by under a blue sky makes up for a lot. I forget myself indefinitely, forgetting more than I could ever remember. The sufficiency of things fills my weightless, translucent heart, and just to look is a sweet satisfaction.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I wrote down crabmeat-stuffed avocados. I added a tiny fishing boat. There was both composition and delicacy—the fleshy emerald green an image to hold onto; meat at the centre of it all; a story with complexity. Plus a boat, a (practical and leisurely) device for floating.
Once I saw a crab at the bottom of the ocean with a whole fish in its claw like beef jerky. I was in a canoe carried by (a strait of) salt water—green with hues of brown and blue, like a stale avocado laid out in the morning till the mid-afternoon. The movement—the lining of the strait—as still beneath the boat as below. The ocean, the canoe’s comma in this (grammatical) scene. And if underwater is below, then the sky preceding the comma is beneath. No wind meant no ripples in the water, and the light bent as we floated across—as we are now—suspended between what is clear.
Sometimes sentences pretend to be clear, easy, as though one can slip in and out of them. Gliding as one does on water (or ice). They do not always account for the brown crust forming on the avocado. Though sometimes a ripe spoonful comes out easy. I like avocados with eggs, on toast—though that I will save for another story. An example: What do avocados have to do with an anthropomorphic crab, eating beef jerky at the bottom of the Northumberland Strait, marching along as though an invisible shutter had opened—dilated—and the sunlit sea was an aperture—we glided on—over—the under-stillness of it all, the very meat of our prose line.
Saveur et savoir: même étymologie. At a convivial event on translation I am reminded that there is the table (il y a la table pour elle-même), there are the various ways we summon the table in order to mean something else (le discours sur la table)—like the table of contents for instance—and then there are the various exchanges at the dinner party, or the homework being done on the kitchen table (le discours à table). To quote Montaigne: “Il ne faut pas tant regarder ce qu’on mange qu’avec qui on mange.”
The table, as the dinner guests that evening might impossibly remember, had a red and white checker cloth flung across it, like in the movies. Read: cartoons. It was at an elusively late hour—the measure of which often belongs to childrens’ books—that we set out on the table the feast that was never made. Neurasthenia seemed the maladie of most guests who commonly displayed symptoms of hunger: “hangry” as the ubiquitously circulated version of good humour gone awry dictates. All cities have a particular and special beverage suited to them. Ours was a concoction made principally of hops. Around the table, surrounded by a confusion of gravy boats and fleurs-en-vase, now lay an assortment of pear shaped receptacles. On the other side of the table the open window hung like a remembrance of visible limits, which hovered just beyond where the host was sitting, drizzling honey on bread. The meal, I remember, had obscure hints of tarragon mixed in with flashes of lemon salt, which was like placing a crystalline line between the two. The perfume of what was not there was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry.
There are other kinds of crabmeat-stuffed avocados. The most famous one comes from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in a scene where a group of prize-winning guest-editors are invited to a banquet, which is being hosted by Ladies’ Day magazine, and where they end up being poisoned by the crabmeat salad. The scene was apparently inspired by Plath’s guest-editorship at Mademoiselle, where she, along with her colleagues, were said to have been poisoned by none other than—you guessed it—crabmeat salad:
I had a vision of the celestially white kitchens of Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity. I saw avocado-pear after avocado-pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise and photographed under brilliant lights. I saw the delicate, pink mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow pear cut with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess.
One should always end with poison, my friend advises late one evening, thinking of Romeo and Juliet. If one begins with poison, Hamlet for instance, then it seems one is destined to roam “afterwordly-in-the-world” as a kind of rumourological apparition saying “remember me.”
The cover of The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol
Another way to think of it is the space of encounter that happens between bread and wine. Reading The Practice of Everyday Life Vol.2 (thank you, Alexia Moyer, whose contribution you will be able to read next week) got me thinking about the rhythms of bread and wine. At the dinner table, the wine glasses should never be empty; even if this means leaving a sip at the bottom of the glass. Wine makes everything taste better, including exchanges with dinner guests. Where there is bread no one will go hungry. Typically, bread should be served at the end of the meal and should not be cut in advance. Instead, the host chooses their bread at the bakery, wraps it up and places it somewhere dark, like the pantry. Then, when it is time, the host takes out the bread and one by one she cuts slices for her guests. There can be as many slices as there is demand, but bread should never be cut in advance for fear of wasting it. Bread should never be wasted. When it starts to get dry or starts to turn and smell of notes of vinegar, then it’s time to make bread pudding or french toast. Bread puddings, by the way, would be an excellent food item to bring to a wake or to those in mourning, as grief commonly halts one’s appetite, but soft foods, like custards and puddings, because they don’t require much chewing, are more easily ingested. I think the same could apply for weddings, especially since it is nice when one’s stomach isn’t so full that it overburdens the feeling of lightness on the dance floor.
Perhaps one could end with some concrete fact about their day—if only for the sake of the pleasure of the banal. For instance, earlier I had chocolate quinoa cake: a rarity considering I like to cook but never bake, and never have room for dessert when I’m at a restaurant. I made the cake yesterday, after taking the late portion of the afternoon off from work, a rarity also. The beauty of this flourless cake is how moist it is. Plus, with the added little chocolate chips that float on the uppermost portion of the cake, it doesn’t require any frosting … though a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream would befit it also.
This week, there’s lots to look forward to: on Wednesday March 23rd Shannon Tien’s Benjaminian reading of her grandmother’s recipe collection is the crabmeat to Jordan Crosthwaite’s avocado, who—on Friday March 25th—offers us an intimate portrait of collective gatherings around food. Tout l’monde à table!