Brief Commentary: Jefferson’s Creme Brulee

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to AmericaThomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell

While an interesting conceit, Craughwell manages to do very little here that we don’t already know. Here’s the gist: Jefferson, as we all know, was our epicurean, polymathic Founding Father, and he had a love for the French–their land, their plants, their people, their culture. We also know that Jefferson owned slaves, and that one particular slave family, the Hemmingses, were kin to him by marriage and quite special to him.

But did we know that Jefferson took James Hemmings to France with him during his diplomatic tenure, and that he had Hemmings trained in French haute-cuisine?

Well, no, we didn’t. And that’s an interesting story. And furthermore, the complications that are presented because of the illegality of slavery in France, and how Jefferson promises James freedom after mastering this craft, and how the slave ended up speaking fluent French while the master never could–well, that’s a very interesting story. And so, Craughwell’s book is promising.

The problem is that the story is fairly simple, if not straightforward. And furthermore, Hemmings is the most interesting character, but little is known of him. But still, a good story, an interesting narrative, something that would have made an excellent essay in one of our better high-brow magazines, like Harper’s or the New York Review or the like.

But to fill it out to book length, we’re given the same facts of Jefferson’s life we know so well, presented yet again, with no really new revelations or interpretations or angles. The Adamses and Ben Franklin show up, likely because they have to, but really do nothing. Tedious, and tediously long, explanations of French politics and the causes of the French Revolution abound, and the book just drags. The appendices, while interesting, tell you nothing you don’t learn walking through the museum at Monticello; if you’ve not been there, then they’ll be great–but ultimately, what they reveal, like what the museum at Monticello reveals, is ephemera, things that are only marginally part of the story.

Craughwell writes well enough, and tells an interesting story. But to make the story fit into a genre it doesn’t lend itself to take excessive padding and hurts the overall product. This is a great idea, and would have been a fine essay, but is a mediocre, at best, book.

Brief Commentary: Consider the Fork

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and EatConsider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

A highly entertaining book that provides a satisfying and intriguing history of the things we use to eat. But beyond this, Wilson’s greatest achievement in this book is providing a straightforward, unpretentious exploration of technology itself.

Those of us who question technological progress–even as we use technologies–are often seen as hypocrites or crazies. Yet Wilson is able, somehow, to do just that sort of interrogation of technological progress, asking why we use the things we use, how the things we use are often counter-productive, how technologies often create new needs and new problems instead of meeting existing needs and solving existing problems, Wilson presents us with just that kind of techno-skepticism while not coming off as a hypocritical crazy.

This is, then, a wonderful fascinating book. While its stories of how and why we eat the way we do will, quite rightly, be the things that bring people to the book, and be the things that move the book along in a joyful way, its greatest achievement–and the thing I think will be its most enduring contribution to our culture in this overtly-technological moment–will be its quiet suggestion that perhaps we don’t need all the stuff we think we need. We use it, yes; but use does not imply its superiority, nor does newness, or any such thing. Technologies come about and come to be used for extremely complex reasons–and beginning to consider and think through those reasons can help us to enjoy the technologies we use in a more satisfying way, as well as prevent us from being somehow made a captive of a technological progress that exists only for its own existence, and not to make our lives better.

A movie for a gloomy evening

It’s Palm Sunday evening, but it’s dark and rainy and cold.  Meredith and I built a fire, after thinking a few days ago that the andirons and other fireplaces tools would be retired to the attic for several months.  It’s a night that needs a good noir film.

Quicksand, from 1950:

Et in Arcadia Ego

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I took this photograph in the spring of 2008 outside of a hunting lodge in southside Virginia.  I was there for the wedding of a dear friend.  I have always found it to be one of the most magnificent images I’ve ever seen; this ugly, silent sentinel of modernity that seems so deceptively low-tech, and yet says something about how, even in the most beautiful of pastoral landscapes, our daily modern life intrudes–and intrudes in such a way as to seem outdated.

That is perhaps the most incredible thing about being alive today.  So much that is, in reality, so incredible, so perhaps unthinkable to so many people living around the world today, seem outdated, old, to be ignored and replaced.

I see this, and I see a memento mori of high technology.

Beginning Again

I begin to blog anew.  My desire here is to write about the books I read, to collect and curate fine readings, music, images, and other media that I come across around the internet, and to create, then, a one-man literary journal, of sorts.  I might essay from time to time.

My goals are humble, but to read and write and discipline myself in my reading and writing–those, to me, are noble goals.  And perhaps you will read, and find things compelling.