Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nordo's Hideout

The road is pitch black under a starlit sky, just the headlights cutting a hole in the shadows, and the yellow dots of the lane divider clip by.  The silhouettes of mountains and tall, thin pines stand out against a midnight blue sky.  Out on Crippled Creek’s headway, off Dead Fork Road, no one else exists.  Quietly, the miles pass.  The road bends and up ahead a blinking red light swings on a cable stretched between 2 poles.  It is a crossroads and a town: Lost Falls.  Slowing down, a half dozen empty buildings slide by devoid of life: a post office, a grocery store, a gas station, and in the distance a roadhouse, the only open establishment for miles and miles.  A neon sign shines brightly.  In bold red letters, Nordo’s Hideout.  It offers a place to rest and find other people deep in the Northwest forest.  A few cars in the gravel lot.  A pickup.  You swing in.  And nothing tastes better, after a long stint on the road, than a fresh cup of coffee and breakfast.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Opening the Cabinet

Your tour is about to begin.  After a few sips of wine, a slice of cheese, a relaxed respite in the kitchen, you hear the clanks of a key in the far door.  There is a click and the door opens.  A gentleman leans in.  His hair twists upward in knots, and he twirls a monocle in his left hand before stepping into the room. He is a tall gentleman in a grey suit coat, quilted vest, and pinstriped pleated pants tucked into brown leather boots.  He speaks in a thick Italian accent.

We have been waiting for you.  The Cabinet is ready for your tour.

Stepping aside he lets you through the door then closing it behind you he locks it.

Straight down the hall please.

You pass down a long wood paneled hall that ends in a steep staircase.  Your guide speaks over your shoulder.

What happens in these halls is utterly unique, and it works by it’s own reason.  You may not remember what happens here when you wake in the morning.  Some say it is a side effect of the wines we cultivate, but I believe it is the peculiar nature of the Cabinet. We are not a part of the world beyond these walls.  Our only concern is what occurs here.

You descend the staircase and find yourself on a large landing.  In the center of the room stands a small table with 3 bottles of champagne and fluted glasses.  Some 16 or so people mill about the room drinking.  They are animated and anxious.  The Guide pours  you a glass then turns his attention to the group as a whole.

Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities, a compendium of all things culinary, a pantry of wonders, as we like to call it, that stretches across time and space.  Tonight you will experience a select portion of our Exhibits open to the public for a brief span of time.  Through this series of dioramas we explore our complex relationships with food.

As you entered the Cabinet you no doubt noticed a subtle shift in the air.  Some describe it as a ripple passing over the scalp.  This is the barrier between outside the Cabinet and inside the Cabinet.

Did you experience it?  Well, perhaps not you with that beautiful lady on your arm.  And you, you look rather daft so you may have missed it.  And you, you seem intent on dreaming rather than paying attention.  And you, well you’re obviously drunk.  Well, perhaps not one of you caught it, but believe me, the change was there.  You have stepped over a threshold.

We here include the Novelty and Rarity, the Foreign and the Exotic, the Strange and the Bizarre, the Transcendent and the Sublime, and the Surprising and the Unexpected.  Tonight we remember what it is to Wonder.

So much for the introductions.  Chef Nordo demands we say that every time.  I think it’s his favorite part.

How is everyone this evening?  I hope the journey was comfortable.  Every once in awhile the “inter-dimensional travel” doesn’t sit well and, as you can imagine, it causes indigestion on the cosmic level.

Before we begin I am required to ask.  Is everyone here from Seattle 2012?  Everyone?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kitchen of Wonders, Pantry of Curiosities

You stand on the threshold of a small wooden door with your hand upon the knob. You give a push.  You leave behind the museums of cold glass reflections and stanchioned ropes.  There are no more monuments.  The usual world of definitions is behind you.  Your mind is open to new answers, and you leave one world behind for another.  The door opens.

Odors fill and rouse the nose.  A swarm of Mediterranean herbs hover over the browning of a meat.  The heavy smell of baking coats the back of the throat.  The flavorful aromas cause your taste buds to salivate and remember evenings in a restaurant with a glass of wine.  Then the sense of hearing reacts.  There is a sizzle like the strumming of a guitar over the rapid drumbeat of roiling water as the thumping punctuations of a knife on a cutting board dance with a whirring blender.  Next, the sense of touch awakens as the cheeks feel warmth from the oven and moisture from the stovetop.  Finally sight catches up to the others.

The door opens onto a kitchen.  It is the place most of us prefer to be.  Most other rooms are for leisure or distraction, but the kitchen is the center of activity in the house with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.  In the kitchen we discover.  We laugh in the kitchen and feel safe.  We grow drunk in the kitchen.  We talk loudly over the sound of the work.  The meal is often a satisfying end, a celebration, of what was accomplished in the kitchen.  

What were we doing all those centuries ago when as we huddled around the fire?  Keeping warm, pushing back the darkness, and cooking.  The fire light is still with us in tradition, in metaphor, in religion, in fond memories for those who have cooked over fire or watched a meal sizzle over an open flame.  As we roamed the fields and learned the ways of the animals about us we examined the world in order to eat it.  When we boil a liquid to separate it into it’s parts only to reconstitute those elements in another chamber through condensation we are experimenting in the kitchen, learning science, and distilling. 

In the kitchen the fruits, the grains, the meats, the tools of the world come together.  

This kitchen just now entered from  the Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities that was in turn connected to the Museum that we first entered on a bright and sunny fall day  in order to escape the crisp cold morning and spend a few hours learning something of interest, differs from other kitchens, in that this kitchen has been here for generations (thousands of years).  It began as a campfire.  At some point it acquired walls though still separate from the home.  It consisted of separate rooms for storage of dry goods and storage of meats.  It acquired an oven, then a sink, drainage, cold storages, a stove top, blenders, and today it even might have a dehydrator.  This kitchen has seen fish from the North Atlantic, peppers from South America, champignons from a hillside in Alsace,  roast duck, roast beef, roasted potatoes,  fermented cabbage from both Korea and Poland.  In short, the kitchen travels the world, or better yet, we travel the world through the Kitchen.  We start with basic fire, we learn the ways of harvesting, we sharpen our knives, we import and trade, we sautee, we toss, we bake, and all in order to eat.  Here, we cook and eat.

The Kitchen is a wonder to behold.  It is a place of Wonders.  The kitchen is a Cabinet of Wonders in and of itself residing in every home, under your nose, as it is said.

Before we continue on our journey, through that other door on the far wall, the large wooden one with an iron handle in the shape of a butcher’s knife, rest a bit, take a seat at the cutting board, have a wedge of Camembert, a sip of Trollinger wine, a warm slice of bread, a grape or two.  Relish the Kitchen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cabinets of Wonder, Curiosity, and the Fulcrum

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the Mysterious.  Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
- Albert Einstein

History bobs around in the most chaotic and unpredictable fashion.  No one quite knows where roads may lead or for that matter where they have begun.  Sometime during the 15th Century history took a wild swerving detour that lasted some 400 years and established the world of today.  During that time a confluence of technology, stable political entities, and an emerging middle class eager to make money encouraged a few Europeans to brave the oceans in search of opportunity.  As the European began to emerge from the stifling times of the Middle Ages in which much of the globe seemed as remote as the stars, he found a world populated with the incredulous.  New fauna, new flora, new rocks, new peoples, new religions, new stories of wealth and power were found at every turn.  This ‘newly discovered’ world became the fashion of the rich and the intellectual.  Everything under the sun found it’s way back onto European soil, and so began a resurgent fascination with the natural world.

(It stands to notes that these explorations also brought to Europe a wide range of new foods: the potato, the tomato, the chili pepper, maize from the new world and abundant spices for the far East, thus setting the stage for our modern culinary arts.  That is another story.)

During the 16th and 17th Centuries collections of natural history became as common as collections of art or religious artifacts and often these were one and the same and often a shard of the Holy Cross would be kept beside a stuffed Pelican.  Exhibits boasted phosphorescent feathers, shrunken heads, rhinoceros horns, fetal skeletons, a chain made of monkey teeth, elephant ears (not the edible variety), a unicorn’s horn,  two-tailed lizards,  a two headed cat, feathers from the crown of a South American queen, and on and on and on the list unfolds.  Imagine it, and it was collected somewhere.  These collections became known as Cabinets of Wonder or Cabinets of Curiosities or Art Cabinets or Wunderkammen.  Take your pick.

Amassed for all sorts of reasons: economic benefit, personal prestige, and intellectual stimulation, they existed in the centers of the European power and money:  Paris, Vienna, Oxford, Basel, etc.  Essentially, any man worth his salt would want a Cabinet that included the rarities of manmade ingenuity alongside Nature’s bountiful wonders and God’s miracles.  They were after all one and the same.

Held in the hands of the aristocracy and merchants class, the Cabinets became the basis for today’s great museums when in the 19th Century it became vogue to clean out one’s mansions and turn these cluttered attics over to the public for cataloguing.

Those are the facts as we know them.  But, what, we must ask, actually happened that changed the world into our Modern one?  The answer is ‘Wonder’.  Discovery blew open the doors of the mind, and the immense variety of the world literally stunned the European sensibilities right out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  All the old assumptions of intellectual thought were challenged.  Religious and political authority were simultaneously shaken by the new attitudes of the time.  Take the Reformation.  A wholesale reorganization of the European world was in progress. 

These Cabinets stand at that intersection in the history of the world.  On the one side we have the world classified through the eyes of religion and magic, a world of humors and ethers, of anthropomorphic gods and one god in a kingdom of gold looking down.  On the other side we have a world that develops over eons according to a series of natural laws and a systematic classification through observation called science.  On this side of the intersection we’ve drawn hard lines and labeled boxes, laid a grid over the world, and established nomenclature that we can all agree on as right and wrong, or at least plant, mineral, and animal.  On this side, we have classified the world.

But let's pause in our progress and walk back into one of these Cabinets.  Imagine ourselves awash in the whimsy of creation, awestruck at the complexity with no single understanding of it all.  Each item in the Cabinet has multiple stories to tell.  And these stories draw lines that branch out in every direction linking one part of the world to another in a new fashion.  This web of connections between disparate worlds, a carving of the Crucifixion beside a model of the Tower of London beside a mounted sample of coral, instills the Cabinets with the otherworld and keeps it timeless.  Something raw and young inhabits the Cabinets of Curiosities.

We still live with these Cabinets.  They hide in unexpected places right under our nose. 

Open the door and enter our Cabinet.