Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent

Outside the Limelight, a Kirkus Prize nominee, has just been selected as one of Kirkus’ Best Indie Books of 2017! To celebrate, Off Balance, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles is $0.99 HERE and Outside the Limelight, Book 2, is $2.99 HERE

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The thing is, I didn’t know about the “very short/tight/colorful dress” business before Yuja Wang’s May 2014 performance with the San Francisco Symphony. I’d seen and enjoyed her performance in 2012, here at Davies Hall, when she played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and blew everyone away. She was 25 at the time, and lucky for San Francisco Symphony patrons, Michael Tilson Thomas had long before pegged her as a stunning talent and featured her in Project San Francisco, an artist’s residency of sorts, for the season. The performance was astonishing; she threw herself wholly into it. Her concentration, technique, sensitivity and musicality were all top notch. But, in truth, I don’t remember a very short/tight/colorful dress.

This season, she is again the featured artist in Project San Francisco and Last Sunday I saw her perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilton Thomas conducting. Once again, she burned up the stage with her playing. Actually, she burned up the stage when she appeared. And, okay. So there it is, the dress thing. I was shocked by it: a short, short, skimpy white cocktail dress. With those platform-y high heeled shoes currently in vogue, sort of pearlescent and clunky. I wouldn’t have guessed it was possible to play the piano in shoes like that. But she proved once again that she was a master. So. Let’s table the discussion about the Very Short Dresses until later, and instead talk about her talents as a pianist, which are considerable.

A brief history: Beijing-born and raised, Wang studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music,  Canada’s Mount Royal College, and at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, graduating from the latter in May 2008. Her considerable talent got noticed in a big, big way when, in March 2007, she replaced Martha Argerich, who’d been forced to cancel her engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Great story about the performance HERE) Since then, she’s been lauded as a major talent by critics, media, and audiences alike, garnering numerous awards and honors. With reason. She’s amazing.

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Now a word about Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1. He, too, was young, a brilliant composer and performer, only 20 and still in conservatory when he composed this work. (He would go on to perform his own concerto in his final graduation performance from the St. Petersburg Conservatory two years later, reasoning, according to Wikipedia lore, that though he might not be able to win with a classical concerto, with his own concerto the jury would be ‘unable to judge whether he was playing it well or not.’ He won the coveted Anton Rubinstein prize.) It’s a fun, rousing concerto to listen to, full of all sorts of textures and colors, what you’d expect from the guy who gave us “Peter and the Wolf,” and utterly delicious compositions of “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Not bad for a 20-year-old on just his 10th opus.

Yuja Wang consumes the piece she’s performing. No, she inhabits it. Her concentration is mesmerizing to watch. Her technique is astonishing. Here’s how San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman describes her performance: “The steely precision with which she dispatched the concerto’s passagework – its big, clangorous chords, its massive octave runs and its fizzy bursts of filigree – were never anything less than astonishing. Within a palette that favored sleek, brittle piano sonorities, she still uncovered a wealth of variety, alternating passages of stark clarity with more shadowy and evocative tones.” Great review; you can read more of it HERE.

Wang’s exit from the stage, post-performance, is charming, almost clumsy. She staggers up, away from the piano, still in that dazed artist’s groove, and offers one fierce, deep bow, throwing her whole self into that, too. It’s like she’s sneezing, hurling her upper torso over and up, lightning fast. Afterward she strides right off the stage, not even pausing to bask in the applause, take a second bow, take a look around her and thank the audience. But it seems natural, unaffected, and I have to admire that about her. She was there to blow us away with her music and she did and when she was done, off she went. She did, fortunately, return, and return again—the audience’s unceasing applause all but demanded it—and offer an encore performance.

There’s no YouTube of her performing the Prokofiev, but here she is, playing Scriabin (not wearing the media-buzz-producing orange/red dress, nor the white, but a third very short one that, admittedly, looks lovely on her).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHO4Ucw9zL4

And now for the Very Short dress business. Back in 2011, she drew considerable attention when she strode out onto the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in a very short orange (I say red) dress, prompting all sorts of buzz in the media and the blogosphere the next day. Too short and provocative for classical music? Too conservative, the tastes of the critics, who complain that it was a distraction?

You want to see these dresses now, don’t you?

Well, okay…

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So. Is it sexist for me to bring it up? (How about this: I hate what Joshua Bell wears when he performs. They look like black pajamas. There.) Is it too conservative of me to have raised my eyebrows while watching her perform? (And for the record, no one has ever called me conservative. I’ve long been the eyebrow raise-ee, not the raiser.) Does it distract from a performance, from the pleasure bubble, to wonder, uneasily, if the dress is going to ride up so high that everyone feels a little, well, awkward (at least the females in the audience)? Every time, just before she’d reach up to tug the dress down because it was riding  too high, I’d feel a cramp of sympathetic anxiety, a frisson of unease.

Now, musicians might argue in defense of wearing whatever the hell they want, arguing that “it’s all about the music; I should be judged by my music alone.” To which I say: oh, come on. We’re watching you. The performing arts are a visual spectacle. It’s why we forked out the money instead of staying home and listening to your CD. It’s why venues spend loads of money to look luxurious and inviting, and it’s why we, too, all dress up. Because this is a night out and looks do matter. But hey, go for it. Be daring and keep classical music in the news, in  mainstream conversation. No complaints there at all. Wear what you want and I’ll respect it, your music and artistry, and I’ll enjoy the dialogue via social media that it invites the next day (Google “Yuja Wang’s orange dress” to see what I mean).

But I don’t want to end this on a judgmental note. Yuja Wang is too good of a musician and performer. You know how I adore Chopin, right? (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/chopin-everyone/) Okay, so check this one out. It’s one of his waltzes, Op. 64, no. 2.  Her expression as she plays is so pure, so rapt, and her hands move so gently, yet skillfully over the keyboard, it’s such a joy to watch. Truly this is an artist to watch, for many reasons.

Ingrid Bugge: dance photographer for a new generation

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There they are, the dancers, so fine and gracious, with make-up and dressed in elf clothing and troll fur, beetle wings and rococo wigs. It’s an enchanting sight. I carefully take the camera from my bag. I do not dare to press too hard on the release button or stand too close. I feel like a stranger here, trying to settle in.

I am given permission to photograph from the auditorium, from behind the scenes and from the rigging loft, where the light technicians work. Looking through my viewfinder, I constantly discover new expressions in the movements, captivating me. 

Taken from the artbook: Ballettens Indre Rum – The Essence of Ballet by Ingrid Bugge 
(Translation: Heidi Rolmar 2014)

These are the thoughts and perspective of Danish photographer Ingrid Bugge, whose recently published book, The Essence of Ballet, might be called a dance photography book, or an art book, or a ballet-lover’s book. But it’s more: an unprecedented, interactive foray into the world of ballet, via Apple’s iBook version. It all started a few years back, when Bugge was invited to photograph the Royal Danish Ballet in action, both onstage and behind the scenes, for a year and a half. She amassed an enormous amount of photographs, but it was only then, at the end of that time, that the true project took seed. “The pictures are beautiful,” she shares in The Essence of Ballet, “but in themselves, they cannot convey the drama, beauty and adventure that danced through me while I was there. And so I begin my work. From each photo, I choose elements that speak to my passion and fascination. Then, I put them together in a way that can express my experience of what I had felt unfold on stage.”

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The photographs are simply delicious. Memorable. They are the product of a photographer whose goal was not just to provide journalistic true-to-life photos, but to capture a story through every photo presented. Even more: coaxing out the story behind the story.

It was observing work of the Old Masters, including Rembrandt and Da Vinci, their use of light and drama, background detail, that inspired Bugge to explore further those stories lurking in the periphery, ones that support the main subject of the foreground, much as the corps de ballet supports the pas de deux couple performing center stage. Through digital imagery, Bugge can take one compelling subject and superimpose images shot from the same scene, but from a different perspective. And the end result, a digital collage of sorts, has a fascinating enhanced quality. This is particularly effective in the interactive iBook version, where the choice of how much background story to reveal is the reader’s.

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Another example of the photography’s uniqueness can be found in Bugge’s interpretation of John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias.” Marguerite, the lead female, is a famous courtesan who is dying of tuberculosis. In the bedroom pas de deux scene, dancing with the besotted Armand, her movements are at once fierce, ecstatic, sweetly doomed. Bugge’s photography captures her holding her arms out, gaze skyward, expression blissed. Superimposed into this image are panels of her diaphanous skirt that surrounding her, frame her face, indeed, her whole spirit. The gorgeous end-result is the front cover of her book (and at the top of this article.)

Here’s another photo rich with nuance and invisible story that incorporates not just the dancer, the choreographer’s intention, but the artistry and intention of Bugge’s photography.

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The project, Bugge has explained, originated from her desire to draw closer to the world of ballet, become a part of it. A non-dancer, she wanted to learn all about it, find ways in which she could contribute with her interpretation. I love her description of this all, because as a dance blogger, that is what I do, as well. And how cool, to have all of this extend on, like waves rippling outward. At the core, there are the dancers, the choreography. Here, there’s the photographer, who is also acts as interpretative artist. And then here we are, the writers, looking at the dancers, at Bugge’s work, absorbing the art of both and offering our own interpretation. To you, dear reader. Whether you’re a ballet person or not, I hope you’re able to appreciate all this as well, enjoy ballet from a different angle, ponder the beauty of the art, all through these layers.  Pretty nifty, the whole process of it all.

Here’s a Vimeo description of Bugge’s project, a fascinating and artful documentary well worth watching. https://vimeo.com/90956066 So worthy, in fact, that I’ll embed it here. Give it a look. 

Here’s a link, as well, to the iBook: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-essence-of-ballet/id863229052?ls=1&mt=11

Give her website a peek to learn more about The Essence of Ballet, her current exhibitions, as well as more delicious photography HERE.

And what the heck, one more link, if you’re thinking of purchasing the hard copy. This Vimeo allows you  to see the actual book, page by page. https://vimeo.com/92737020

 

Carmen: Petit, Bizet and Ballet San Jose

 

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I fell in love with Bizet’s opera Carmen, early in my college days. At first it was only the orchestral score, via cassette. The music was imbued with such story on its own, so delicious that I could sit on the frayed couch in my ratty apartment, eyes shut, and listen to the recording nightly, visualizing the drama unfold. In 1984, the release of Francesco Rosi’s movie version of the opera allowed me to see it all on the big screen. I fell in love in a new way, with the story, the music, the noble but fatally flawed Don Jose, played by Placido Domingo. Oh, his voice! Oh, his good looks! The tragedy of his and Carmen’s fate.

Bizet’s own story, post Carmen creation, is tragic, too. The production of the opera was delayed because of concerns that its themes of betrayal, murder, its overt sexuality would offend audiences. It did; at its March 1875 premiere, the critics blasted it. The 37 year old Bizet, convinced that the work was a failure, died three months later, forever unaware of what a colossal and long-running success it would become.

Now on to the one-act ballet, Carmen, still set to Bizet’s music (the story varies slightly and hews closer to the original 1845 Prosper Mérimeé novella). Choreographer Roland Petit was born in France in 1924, which meant that World War II and its politics dominated his youth, his psyche. He created Carmen post-war, in 1949; it was his second ballet after the critically acclaimed Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, and would be the ticket to international fame for both himself and his wife Zizi Jeanmarie, whose Carmen would go on to forever define the role, its style. Even now, the ballerina portraying Carmen sports a dark, close-cropped haircut or wig and strives to emulate the masterful blend of femme fatale, gamine, woman and girl that Jeanmarie depicted so effortlessly. Oh, and those dazzling multiple pirouettes of hers. Those long, long legs. The sensuality she brought to the articulated footwork, the occasional shimmy or gyration of the hips. This is one sexy ballet.

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What is so noteworthy about that—because plenty of performing arts pieces are provocative and sensual these days—is that this was presented to audiences in 1949. These costumes (mere corsets and tights at times) that reveal so much leg, choreography that is frank about sex. At times it feels equal parts cabaret and classical ballet, and yet it is very much classical ballet. Petit trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School, was accepted into the company at sixteen and danced with them for four years before muttering “screw this” (actually, it would have been more like“putain de bordel, je m’en fou de tout ce connerie”). At twenty, he began to create his own collaborations and, eventually, his own company. His choreography explores dark places, unabashedly reflecting the grimmer, stark side of postwar France. Deaths, suicide, descents into madness factor into the themes. Dancers have voices and strong personalities in Petit ballets. They sing, call out, they smoke onstage, even while doing pirouettes. What fascinates me further about Petit’s choreography is the way he managed to pack so much theater and nuance into the smallest of gestures and steps. His ballets are chock-full of  such moments. You watch Carmen and immediately upon its conclusion, you want to watch it again, to catch all the great stuff you might have missed.

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Ballet San Jose performed Carmen this season. Lucky, lucky us, here in the Bay Area, for having had the opportunity to see it. Currently Ballet San Jose is the only U.S. ballet company with the licensing rights to perform this ballet. And oh, my, was it good. You can find my review of the ballet, along with the rest of the night’s performance here (http://us.bachtrack.com/review-ballet-san-jose-carmen-may-2014). I won’t repeat myself except to say this. It helps when Don Jose, the noble but flawed man who falls under Carmen’s spell, is played by a peerless dancer, and Ballet San Jose provided an astonishing treat for the night. Artistic director Jose Manuel Carreño, longtime American Ballet Theatre principal who retired in 2012 and took the helm at Ballet San Jose in 2013, returned to the stage for this production. And, oh, watching his Don Jose was a thrill. Ballet San Jose principal Alexsandra Meijer, as Carmen, delivered a scintillating, wholly believable performance. I’ve always appreciated her dancing and fine technique, but never so much as during this performance. Her spirit and bold insouciance, his alternating bouts of  vulnerability and Spaniard strength and pride—so well done. The tender-yet-not-always pas de deux between the two of them, once he’s taken her to his room, was electric, mesmerizing, sensuous. Such a scene on the ballet stage, back in 1949, must have blown audiences away.

Here’s an excerpt of the Paris Opera Ballet’s production, with Clairemarie Osta and Nicolas Le Riche as Carmen and Don Jose. Great stuff; check it out.

PS: on a final note. It’s hard to squeeze every thought and accolade into an 800 word review, so here are a few more shout-outs from Ballet San Jose’s Saturday, May 10th performance of their “Masterworks of Movement and Theatre” program. As the three bandit chiefs, Ramon Moreno, Amy Marie Briones and Maykel Solis did a wonderful job, both as a trio and separately. Moreno will be retiring this season after fifteen years, as will soloist Beth Ann Namey, with the company for sixteen years. To the two of them, I offer a rousing “well done!” and best wishes for the future.

And to all thirteen of the dancers who performed in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, well, bravissimi. There was not one underperformer among the lot of you. You all tore through Tharp’s famously challenging 39-minute, increasingly energetic romp and burned up the stage. Kudos to the “stompers,” the sneaker-clad group of Lahna Vanderbush, Sarah Stein, Amy Marie Briones, James Kopecky, Jeremy Kovitch and Kendall Teague. To the “bomb squad” en pointe dancers, Alison Stroming and Cindy Huang, to the “ballerina” Alexsandra Meijer. To the male team on the “ballet” side: Akira Takahashi, Maykel Solas, Ihosvany Rodriguez, and to Jing Zhang, the “crossover” dancer who switched from the “stomper” side to the ballet side. The standing ovation the audience gave you was well-deserved.

PPS: okay, so this one is the final note. I promise. But I just had to share this Youtube link. Click to see Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmarie dance that wonderfully sensuous pas de deux that takes place in Don Jose’s room. Such great stuff, and an original performance from the originals. How cool is that? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5JFfSQ9hM4

PPPS: See? I really meant it. That was the last one.

PPPPS: Well, unless you count that message. Because it kind of was one, too.

Gentle tips for the motherless daughter on Mother’s Day

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Good for you—you got here safely. The hardest part is over. And I’ll just say this: oh, honey, I know what you’re going through. You are not alone.

Fellow motherless daughter, allow me to offer you the blog equivalent of a bone-crushing hug, a long one, the kind that makes you sort of sag against the other person and realize it’s been a long time that you’ve been able to relax with Someone Who Gets It. Particularly this week, as Mother’s Day draws ever closer. Well-meaning friends with living mothers, loving spouses—their support goes a long way. But if they haven’t lost their mothers, well, they don’t get it fully, do they?

We get it. We here are The Club. The Motherless Daughters’ Club. We didn’t sign up for this. But here we are, and oh, the comfort upon recognizing the presence of the group of us. We are very lucky in one sense: the social media era is an easier time to be a motherless daughter. We can connect with fellow motherless daughters all around the world. We can swap stories, draw strength from this unexpected community. So, welcome.

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I’d like to offer a few pieces of wisdom I’ve accrued along the journey of 23 years’ worth of Mother’s Days without my mom. The biggest is one you’ve already caught on to, and that is, seek out others who are struggling with the same thing over Mother’s Day Weekend. Here are some more thoughts. I would love, love, love to hear from others on what you do to honor the day, the weekend, how you save yourself, nourish yourself. I’d love this post, over the next several days, to be a forum of sharing stories, a place to escape to, return to. But I’ll settle for a simple stop-by, the knowledge that others have read this, and the hope that it has eased the pain in their hearts.

Gentle Tips for the Motherless Daughter

  • Share your stories, your memories with others who struggle this weekend (or, if you are a reader living in the UK, this was back in March).
  • Eat chocolate. Or a favorite pastry. Whipped cream. Calories don’t count on Mother’s Day.
  • Write out your pain, your stories. Again, share them. I take such weird comfort in hearing others’ unburden their hearts, their stories of what “mother” meant to them. Happy stories, sad ones, lost-connection stories, inspirational ones, reconciliation ones. All of them.
  • Seek out “Motherless Daughter” events on the Saturday before That Difficult Day. There are a surprising number of events, all over the place.
  • Read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters
  • Chuckle over the idiocy of Hallmark, the retail and restaurant industries, in not marketing to us, the motherless daughter sector of the population. They’re clueless about our pain. They’re missing a gold mine. (Good…)
  • Bake an old family recipe that whispers “Mom” to you. Here’s my chosen recipe. It’s on a 25-year-old notecard, yellowing with age, written up in my mom’s handwriting. Which is kinda choking me up right now.

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This recipe is featured in an essay I wrote, years back, about me and my mom and the relationship’s loving, often baffling complicatedness. It was published in the anthology Women Who Eat and can be found here in last week’s blog: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/food-food-food/. I hope you’ll consider reading it. It’s my motherless daughter story-share for the year. I hope you’ll consider posting one of your own here, too.

I’ll be thinking of all of you, fellow motherless daughters, all this weekend. Saturday, because there are so many wonderful opportunities these days to seek out a motherless daughter gathering, and it’s the easier day to celebrate the memories. Sunday because, well, you know why. Above all, I hope the message can get sent out and drummed into as many hearts and minds as possible.

You are not alone. You will never have to face another Mother’s Day feeling totally alone. We are here. Welcome.

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PS: Here is my last year’s “write your heart out” Mother’s Day share-story. It brought me untold comfort to have so many readers visit the page and then share the link on Facebook. It was last year, in truth, that I really caught on what an enormous – not to mention enormously supportive – group this was. A big heartfelt THANK YOU to all of you. http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/honoring-the-motherless-daughter-today/

 

Food, food, food (and moms)

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Today The Classical Girl gets to focus on a different subject, one equally near and dear to her heart. Food, food food. Now, if you’ve just joined me here, it might be because you clicked over from the “what do ballet dancers eat?” post. [BTW, If you came here through a link about mother-daughter relationships, read on – I get to that, too!] People love the “what do ballet dancers eat?” post. They’re flocking to it. I love that people love that post. The next best thing to eating food is thinking/talking/writing about it. So. When Jen over at The Ajennda invited me to guest blog about “5 Things,” anything I wanted, well, choosing the subject wasn’t a difficult decision. You can read my 5 Things over here http://www.theajennda.com/2014/05/5-things-foodie-things-edition-guest.html. My five foodie digressions, for the record, are 1) Classical Girl’s signature grilled cheese sandwich; 2) beef stock; 3) steel-cut oatmeal for dinner (yes!); 4) yummy luxury nuts and fruits; and 5) chocolate, because that is one of life’s most important subjects to ponder. I’m thinking one day chocolate will need to be its own blog. It’s that big in my world.

So, check The Ajennda out, check out my blog on “what do ballet dancers eat” if you haven’t been over there already. It’s got tips on how to eat/live like a ballet dancer, or simply eat/live like someone on a healthy diet who loves their body and wants to enjoy food and life. And I’m hoping that covers most of us. http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/ballet-dancers-eat/

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Now for the mother-daughter relationship reference. I’m going to use this opportunity to share an essay that appeared in Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, Nov 2003). It’s particularly fitting for two reasons. First of all, it’s about food, food, food. Second, it weaves food in with the concept of family, namely my mother. As Mother’s Day approaches, thoughts always shift that direction. For those of us who’ve lost our mother, stories about our moms become particularly poignant. So. Indulge me, please, as I digress about food, and my complicated (aren’t they always?) relationship with my dear mom. And there are two nifty recipes at the end: Mom’s egg casserole and Terez’s African Egg Casserole. All the more reason to give it a peek, huh?

“LESSONS FROM GABON”

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I’ll never make fun of your meatloaf again, Mom. Just get me back to sample some. Five days into my two-year Peace Corps assignment in Gabon, Central Africa, I was ready to go home. Baked chicken, buttery garlic bread, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy . . . The thought of all I’d taken for granted plunged my diarrhea-ravaged stomach into further misery, as I stared at my plate of rice and mystery meat drowning in fiery sauce. I would even settle for your Friday night fish sticks and tater tots, Mom.

 I grew up in the Midwest at the tail end of the Boomer era, under the motherly influence of Mrs. Paul, Mrs. Smith, Ore-Ida, and the Swansons. They were like family, benevolent aunts always there to assist my mother in her endless, nightly role of feeding eight children. She was old-school, staying at home to raise her oversized brood, but without nearby extended family to help. My father was not unsympathetic to her plight. Instead of building a mother-in-law unit, he built a small room to house my mother’s greatest support system: the freezer. A big one.

My mother had no time to peruse creative recipes or experiment in the kitchen. There were always dishes to wash, noses to wipe, fingerprint smudges to clean, arguments to break up, crying kids to hug. Every frozen or canned shortcut found a place in her kitchen. A meal of tater tots, broccoli, fish sticks, and Cling peaches in syrup could be on the table in twenty minutes, leaving more time to fold laundry, vacuum, and herd little ones to bed. And yet, she managed to incorporate a few old-fashioned meals into our weekly repertoire, like Sunday roasts with onions in the gravy; thick, meaty spaghetti sauce with fragrant garlic bread on the side; casseroles that bubbled with cream and tangy cheese–never mind that the vegetables on the side were always canned or frozen and we had sandwich cookies for dessert.

I didn’t think twice about leaving it all behind to join the Peace Corps in 1985. What twenty-two-year-old does? I was ready for a grand adventure, far beyond the confines of family and Kansas.

**

I learned Africa’s first lesson quickly: eat to live, instead of living to eat. Food here was a necessity—not an indulgence, or a source of guilty pleasure. Gabon’s main staples were rice and manioc, an indigenous tuber that is boiled, pounded, boiled again, pummeled, kneaded, then rolled into a banana leaf to form a baton of pale, stiff, nearly tasteless goop, visually reminiscent of the translucent pink erasers used by grade-school kids. One of these starches, accompanied by a ubiquitous, spicy tomato sauce, usually with some form of protein bobbing about (smoked fish, monkey, river rat in the village; beef, chicken, or fish in the cities), is what the average Gabonese eats. During my three-month training, it is what I ate too.

Culture shock and fear of the unknown produced a sick weepiness in me that made me want to stuff creamy casseroles into my body, wolf down burgers and fries, meals all unavailable here. To not have access to familiar foods was one of the worst feelings I’d experienced in my easy life. Food, I realized, had been my most loyal friend. It had sustained me through breakups and periods of angst, depression, boredom. It was something I could control and manipulate. Salt. Fat. Cheese. My pulse would quicken at the thought of the next meal. In Gabon, I didn’t know what the next challenge would be or how I’d solve it. Now, when I needed comfort more than ever, my old friend had fled–to be replaced by monkey and manioc.

**

After three months of Peace Corps training I received my teaching post, along with my own house. Amid continued homesickness, preparing my own food helped connect me once again to family, to control. In the kitchen that first night, I made canned corned beef and onions over rice. By normal culinary standards it was pretty forgettable, but the familiarity, the warmth of the food, comforted my heart as well as my stomach. It was canned. It was processed and salty, not spicy. It could have come from Mom’s kitchen.

In Makokou, a provincial town of 6,000 surrounded on all sides by emerald rainforest, I struggled to acclimate. I still relentlessly craved the honest, predictable comfort of Mom’s cream of mushroom soup-based creations (cream of mushroom soup being the key ingredient in any self-respecting Midwestern cook’s arsenal). As I ate corned beef and rice, bland fish and rice, spaghetti and rice, I dreamed of tuna noodle casserole, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole with canned french-fried onions on top. In one sense, I was a fortunate Volunteer–I had an oven in my galley-sized kitchen, and a few battered pans. But there could be no casserole without Campbell’s, which the local store shelves conspicuously lacked. Baked chicken, then, I thought. Another roadblock–in the provinces, chicken was hard to find and expensive. I found turkey wings, however, which I promptly baked Mom-style, dipped in flour and spices and basted with butter. When the familiar garlicky, rich smell of cooking poultry began to permeate the house, I almost wept with relief and nostalgia.

 **

Although I loved my mother dearly, we never had that much in common. Her quiet, compliant nature paled against my flamboyant theatrics. Always warm and loving, she was emotionally elusive. She never confided in us and I never once saw her cry. Was this a result of her upbringing? A generational difference? Or did thirty years of raising nine kids, burying one as an infant, simply beat any subversive emotion out of her? The older I got, the more I wanted to know. I pestered her over dinner preparation. Did it make her nostalgic to prepare Swiss steak, one of the few recipes from her mother’s kitchen? What were her childhood dinners like?

“Does the thought of cooking these same meals, day after day, ever make you want to freak out?” I tried once. “Don’t you want to kick up your heels occasionally and try something wild and new?”

“…Honey, I don’t know,” she’d say with a puzzled smile. And that’s all I got. How frustrating her responses were to someone like me, whose nature it was to dig relentlessly until I found answers.

That’s how I approached food too. I’ve always hungered to know why foods as basic as sugar cookies can vary so much by rendition, why some hollandaise sauces taste bland and heavy, while others are so exquisite, ethereal and buttery. What was the secret of good food? With time on my hands in Gabon, I pored over the Betty Crocker cookbook Mom sent me. I compared recipes. I attempted new dishes Mom had never made. Quiche. Fritters. Paella. Chicken tetrazzini. Sometimes I’d leaf through the cookbook and peruse recipes I didn’t have the ingredients for: Oriental veal casserole (a rather frightening concept, incomprehensibly requiring cream of mushroom soup). Shrimp rémoulade. Nesselrode pie. (To this day, I don’t have a clue what or who or where “Nesselrode” is.) Pumpkin pie. On this last one, homesickness in November provided a powerful motivator to find substitutes for absent ingredients. I plucked a green papaya from a tree in my yard. Boiling and mashing it, I mixed it with evaporated milk, egg, sugar and spices. Trial and error finally produced the best pumpkin pie substitute in Central Africa. Mrs. Smith would have begged for the recipe.

During meals with friends featuring African food, I spent long moments in meditative silence, trying to define the flavors, to discern what made them so different from the foods I’d eaten growing up. The answer: peanut butter and lots of oil. Also piment, a chili pepper similar in heat to a habañero that lifted the blandness of rice and tomato sauce. The flavors that had evoked uneasiness upon my arrival now began to intrigue me.

 **

I encountered many roadblocks to my experiments, which pretty much defines life in Africa. The thermostat in my oven was broken. There were no frozen amenities in the local store, only lumpy, ice-crusted packages I learned to identify as turkey wings and on a good week, beef chunks and an occasional whole chicken. I had to make rice the old-fashioned way. It shocked me to discover how long it took, after the convenience of Minute Rice. It tasted better too, once it stopped sticking to the pan. Bit by bit, I modified American recipes with what was available and learned through experience how to gauge my oven temperature: I’d stick my head close, letting my face get the full blast of the heat. A 400-degree Fahrenheit oven blasts the face in a quick wave, so that loose tendrils of hair wave back in retreat. A 375° oven is softer, more like an ocean swell. 450° is like a slap. Any higher, the eyebrows singe.

Spending time in the kitchen connected me to Mom. I saw more clearly how her personality manifested itself in her plain but comforting food, honestly and lovingly prepared. She found help where she could, quietly bearing the burden of cooking for a big family every night for over thirty-five years. I imagine her mother did the same. As I experimented in the kitchen, a benevolent spirit filled the air, the ghosts of my matrilineal ancestry, generations of women who have all used the available food to create a sense of home and family, compromising when need be. My mother left security and extended family behind when she moved 500 miles with her husband and six (soon to be seven) children. Her grandmother was torn from her German homeland. I’m certain she struggled with the unavailability of familiar kitchen staples just as I did in Gabon. We all learned to adapt and thrive.

The first year was the hardest. I wrote Mom asking for suggestions and she sent me some of her powdered shortcuts: Dream Whip instant whipping cream, Lipton’s onion soup mix, ground spices, dried cheese sauce. She mailed little packets of French’s yellow mustard with a notes about how the crew at the local McDonald’s probably called her “that crazy lady who always asks for one hamburger and six packets of mustard.” I’d never heard her crack a joke or confide before–she was a different person on paper.

And then she sent the egg casserole recipe, the only casserole in her repertoire that didn’t require cream of mushroom soup. In my hometown neighborhood, egg casserole was synonymous with celebration. Someone always brought it to brunches, to go with the muffins, bloody marys and screwdrivers. The dish was rich, oily, tangy, and substantial, with loads of cheddar cheese and pork sausage. My mother always made it for holiday breakfasts.

When I received the recipe, my heart leapt as I gazed at the index card with Mom’s careful, familiar handwriting. Home, it whispered. I’d brought cheese back from the capital city of Libreville, but in regards to the pork sausage, modifications were once again necessary. I fried canned corned beef (it was either that or turkey wings) in a pan with plenty of oil until the gooey rose-colored mush separated a bit and grew crispy. In place of Tabasco, I used piment, so hot you need to chop it with protected hands or else you’d suffer its burn for days (recognize the voice of experience speaking here). Having combined the fiery bits with oil, I now added a few drops to the meat. I mixed in eggs, milk, the hoarded cheese, mustard and bread, refrigerated it overnight and popped it in the oven on Sunday morning. The rich, buttery smell coming from the oven an hour later invaded my senses like a drug.

When I sat down and tasted the concoction, the flavors leapt out at me. I shut my eyes and let the cheesy richness transport me home, to the oversized dining table that sat twelve, to the adjacent gold and green print drapes that didn’t quite match the industrial carpet beneath. To Mom, Dad, my seven siblings and their children in highchairs who banged spoons on trays, everyone raising their voices in order to be heard over the cheerful din. I opened my eyes to find Africa, where unknown trials awaited me. Parasites and insects were sure to compromise my health. Would thieves yet again break into my un-secure house? But at that moment, I had my egg casserole. I took another bite and smiled.

**

Somewhere during my second year in Gabon, I went from simply accepting my culinary compromises to enjoying them. Like the locals, I regularly doused the plain food I made with piment, savoring the burn that made my eyes water and nose run. I learned to prepare fresh fish and other can-less meals. I snatched up avocados, mangos, guavas, and passion fruit–items I’d never used or even seen at home–whenever they appeared at the local market. On a daily basis I visited the local boulangerie, which produced surprisingly excellent baguettes.

Libreville, the capital city, hosted thousands of French expatriates. The French firmly embraced the “live to eat” philosophy, and no hardship post in Central Africa was going to keep them from living it. Stores catered to their tastes, providing olives; pâte de fois gras; tiny, tart cornichonsall new to my Midwestern palate. The cheeses alone were an education. (Back home, cheese meant Velveeta. My mom used to wave a cheese cutter through the orange loaf. She called her creation “nervous cheese,” because of the squiggle shape, and served it as a side dish.) In Libreville, I discovered grating cheeses, semisoft cheeses, baking cheeses, unbelievably foul-smelling cheeses. Like all Volunteers, I learned to stock up on cheese, chocolate, and other French goodies whenever I visited.

Africa’s more relaxed pace, combined with the French eating philosophy, produced long, lazy dinners with friends. Lingering over wine after plates were cleared, we argued about reincarnation, what made a good croissant, Western policy on developing nations, and why Regab, the Gabonese national beer, kicked Budweiser’s ass. Candles, a necessary preventative measure for the frequent power outages, lit the animated faces around the table. As I brought out Pont l’Évêque cheese and sliced mangoes for dessert, a voice whispered, “You don’t need to long for home anymore. You are home.”

 ** 

And then it was time to leave my new life behind and return to Kansas. I wasn’t prepared for the reverse culture shock. Without the piment I’d gotten used to, Midwestern food seemed staid and lifeless. Mom’s spaghetti sauce wasn’t as satisfying, maybe because I’d learned that aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese worked better on top than Borden’s grated domestic Parmesan (“New and improved, longer shelf life!”). Back to Minute Rice, frozen vegetables, tater tots, and fish sticks. Popping biscuits out of a can seemed absurd, almost surreal. My two-year absence had served to show me, with painful clarity, mainstream Midwestern America of the ’70s (Mom never really graduated to the ’80s).

I tried to introduce the “new me” to the family. One night I made paella, accompanied by garden-fresh greens and avocados tossed with homemade vinaigrette. I’d procured crispy French baguettes. I lit candles. My dad tried to leave the table after shoveling down a plateful. I told him he had to stay for dessert. We needed to linger, drink coffee and argue philosophy.

“Cheese for dessert?” my father spluttered when I brought Brie and grapes to the table.

“It’s not orange,” my sister complained. I grabbed a bag of Hershey’s Kisses Mom kept around and bribed everyone to stay fifteen minutes longer. At our Midwestern table, that was the best I would get.

Kansas betrayed me–or did I betray Kansas? Regardless, I had one consolation prize: my relationship with my mother had improved, now that we had cooking in common. She was happy to relinquish partial control of the kitchen as I continued to prepare side dishes more in line with my new tastes. As we puttered in the kitchen, she’d listen with rapt attention to my Africa stories, especially the ones detailing my kitchen disasters. (Dropping a full pot of spaghetti on the floor, seconds before serving it to a group, and serving it anyway; running out of propane for the oven midway through dinner party preparation; setting bread on fire, to name but a few.) Mom alone never tired of hearing them. My trick of successfully guessing the oven’s temperature using my face endlessly entertained her. She loyally ate seconds when I made the family my African-style egg casserole, with corned beef and lots of Tabasco. (Corned beef, it turns out, is a poor substitute for pork sausage.) I’m sure my passionate nature baffled her, but I saw her girlish appreciation of the way I still insisted on candles at dinner and made Dad stay at the table longer. She wouldn’t have done it on her own.

I tried once to branch away from our safe culinary conversations to ask her again if her never-ending job in the kitchen stifled a more creative, idealistic side of her. She gave me the same puzzled smile she always had and said, “Honey, I just don’t think that way.” I suppose that’s one step up from saying, “Honey, I don’t know.” It eventually sank in. She wasn’t introspective–in her era, that could be a dangerous thing. And I was; I could afford to be. We would always be two different women from two different generations.

**

It’s been fifteen years since my return from Africa and twelve years since my mother died in her sleep, slipping away as uncomplainingly as she lived her life. I have few souvenirs of her–she wasn’t a woman who believed in material possessions, sentimental knickknacks. For that reason, the egg casserole recipe card stands as one of my most precious mementos. Stained, dog-eared, and yellowing with age, Mom’s elegant handwriting gracing the card, the recipe evokes memories of my youth, my struggles to adapt in a foreign place. It also represents the only casserole that made it into my adult repertoire, surviving the purge of my Midwestern palate.

Like the French, I live to eat, celebrating life through food. However, I don’t prepare what my mother and her generation produced. Early on, I sent Mrs. Paul, Mrs. Smith, and Ore-Ida packing. Tater tots, I told myself, along with canned biscuits and frozen broccoli, would never appear on my table. I’ve got many like-minded friends here in Northern California and we laugh together about surviving childhoods full of cream of mushroom soup and frozen atrocities. But surely my mother is up there laughing now as my young son rejects my organic, seasonal creations in favor of what really interests him: frozen food. Chicken nuggets, hot dogs, frozen pizza–that’s all he wants. Ore-Ida and the gang now get visitation rights. Once again, I yield, I compromise, and it makes life easier. “Now you’re getting it,” Mom tells me.

 

MOM’S EGG CASSEROLE

  • 1 pound of bulk pork sausage, diced, browned and drained
  • 6 slices of white sandwich bread, cut into squares (no crusts)
  • 2 cups milk
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • Dash of Tabasco
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 pound grated Velveeta or cheddar cheese

Mix all ingredients, pour into 8×8 pan and refrigerate overnight or twelve hours. Bake at 325 degrees for one hour. Cover with foil before baking. Last fifteen minutes, remove foil. Casserole is done when center has set. Cool slightly and enjoy.

 

TEREZ’S AFRICAN EGG CASSEROLE 

  • 1 can corned beef
  • 1/2 teaspoon piment-oil mixture
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or palm oil
  • 1 baguette, preferably not too stale
  • 2 cups water
  • 6 tablespoons powdered milk
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • Two packets of McDonald’s prepared yellow mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Bonbel cheese, (in the red wax rind), chopped up

Fry corned beef in oil (palm oil will have a stronger taste, but if it’s all you have, it’s all you have), until mixture becomes less gooey and more crispy around edges. Break up into small pieces. When it vaguely resembles pork sausage, remove from heat and drain. Sprinkle piment-oil on top. Mix water with powdered milk, whisking out lumps. Take baguette and pluck out all the fluffy white stuff, leaving crust behind. (Save to slather with peanut butter for next meal.) Mix all ingredients and pour into any pan available and just make it work. Refrigerate overnight, assuming you have a refrigerator. Next day, preheat oven, testing by holding face over open door.  If heat blasts and is intensely uncomfortable, turn it down. If it’s slow to hit face and feels more like hot New York sidewalk in August, turn it up. Stick cookie sheet on top of pan for the first 45 minutes since no aluminum foil available in entire town. When incredibly good smell wafts out of kitchen, reminiscent of home, check casserole. If burnt, too bad, live with it. If only half-cooked because your propane tank ran out midway and the town’s general store is out of propane until the following week, too bad, live with it. If it’s cooked and doesn’t jiggle in the middle, congratulate yourself and remove from oven. Cool slightly, if you have the patience, and enjoy.

T in Africa

Excerpted from Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, Nov 2003) http://www.amazon.com/Women-Who-Eat-Generation-Glory/dp/1580050921/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399132550&sr=8-1&keywords=women+who+eat