Still Life

At once profitable and precarious, the moonshiner trade attracted only the most spirited individuals.
The moonshiner treats strangers with suspicion. Rarely do they visit his mountain shack, and rarely does he visit town. He isolates himself among mountain and valleys, which he leaves only once or twice a year. When a batch of corn mash has fermented, he distills it into "mountain dew" strong enough to make eyes water and throats burn. Barrels of this he packs in his wagon under hay and overripe apples (their scent masks that of the liquor) and winds his way over rocky, narrow paths to market. (more…) Read More...

My wife left … on the arm of a svelte yogurt distributor

"The scale over there across the street is truly an ingenious device...."
"The scale over there across the street is truly an ingenious device. One preprograms the desired new weight into it, and if one has achieved or gone below that new low weight, the scale bursts into recorded whistles and cheers and some lively marching-band tune....  A failure ... results in a flatulent dirge of disappointed and contemptuous tuba." — David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987) Read More...

Love Bites

The story of the dentist McTeague's wooing of his patient, Trina, is one readers can sink their teeth into.
Temptation rides a whiff of ether in Frank Norris's McTeague (1899). The novel relates the romantic adventures of its title character, a San Francisco dentist who falls in love with Trina, a young lower-class woman who visits him for treatment of a carious tooth. (more…) Read More...

Seeing and Nothingness

Some people watch what they eat. The narrator of one obscure French novel would rather watch than eat.
The narrator of Henri Barbusse's 1908 novel Inferno (L'Enfer) spends his days and nights peering through a chink in a boarding room wall. He cannot help himself, he protests; for as a man unmarried, rather short, with no children (and, he adds, with the intent that he "shall have none"), as a man with whom "a line will end which has lasted since the beginning of humanity," he felt himself "submerged in the positive nothingness of every day." (more…) Read More...

Kitchen Wisdom

In precapitalist times wealth was considered neither a rational consequence of thrift and smart investment nor evidence of some inborn excellence. Rather, it was regarded as status enjoyed at the sufferance of providence and was therefore subject to revocation. A sudden turn of Fortune's wheel and Dives became Lazarus; Lazarus, Dives. Giving charity appeared, then,
The politics of leftovers smoothed relations between rich and poor for centuries. When it was scrapped, things got crummy. In Chile I once ate a bull's testicle. My family and I were staying in Santiago when our second night there we received a dinner invitation from a colleague of my father's, a stout, mirthful industrial engineer who was reportedly a crony of the dictator, Augusto Pinochet. The meal consisted of quail eggs and arugula for the adults, and for the children a dish that I took to be baked apples dusted with cinnamon. I eagerly popped one in my mouth. What met my bite, however, was tough, cartilaginous, and had a slight metallic tang. I must have grimaced because a maid rushed over, took my hand and led me to a toilet into which I could spit the offending morsel.… Read More...

For him I was a phenomenon….

"After a slow start, things went off like clockwork...."
"After a slow start, things went off like clockwork. At first we went out to dinner and the movies or theater and didn't go to bed. Finally we went to bed. We then had dinner out and went to bed. Then we mostly went to bed, not bothering with dinner at all, and talked of getting engaged. Yes, engaged. We had this horrible compulsion to be Proper."--Sue Kaufman, Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) Read More...

Butterfly Effect

Men were like butterflies to Margaret Fountaine: They were apt to flit away without warning or leave-taking....
The life and loves of one Victorian butterfly enthusiast go to show how hard it is for a lepidopterist to change her spots. Men were like butterflies to Margaret Fountaine: They were apt to flit away without warning or leave-taking. Either creature she nevertheless pursued with vigor, and she recorded her experiences in thick leather-bound diaries she took with her everywhere. They contained accounts of her bicycle trip through France and her motorcar excursion across Tenerife, which she made with eight young Spaniards. In Corsica she took up with a gang of bandits before sailing for Cuba and Chile. Her many affairs she characterized as "so many gates leading on, through paths of sorrow, to ultimate disaster and final loss." This sense of disappointment attached only to her wingless loves, however. For the other kind her affection went undiminished. No… Read More...

All I needed was a sandwich to make me believe in miracles …

“You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country?..."
“You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he's fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there's a dream.”--Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (1932) Read More...

Reindeer Game

In the harsh arctic region Laplanders inhabit, joy, like summer, is fleeting.
Love Laplander-style requires thawing frosty relations--with lots of brandy and boiled meat. The first days of September summon the Lappish hunter to his yearly ritual. He puts on reindeer-skin coat and cap (camouflage that serves to fool his quarry) and searches out a copse of pine trees to use as a place of ambush. Once situated, he bellows lustily. In sight there eventually wanders a reindeer whose curiosity has gotten the better of it.  Arriving to discover the source of the noise so like the one it itself makes, the creature discovers instead that its fate is sealed. The hunter flings his weapon--an arrow, a spear, sometimes a stone--and it strikes fatally home. A similar knack for deception the Lappish man brings to a hunt of another sort. Should a woman turn his head, he shows no overt signs of… Read More...

Night Moves

There was a time when late-night wakefulness wasn't something to be dreaded but welcomed. Centuries ago, sleepers woke with pleasure, even eagerness. Between "first" and "second" sleep, so called, men, women and children stirred to enjoy activities domestic and romantic, spiritual and intellectual.
"Early bird" or "night owl"--most modern individuals consider themselves one or the other. People who lived before the Industrial Age were both. Enviable is the sleeper who sleeps, who sinks into nothingness and remains there for a good seven to ten hours, rising again only with the sun. Enviable and perhaps contemptible. "I hate a man who goes to sleep at once," complains Mark Twain. Provoking his hatred is nothing specific, rather only "a sort of indefinable something" that comes across as "not exactly an insult," but more of "an insolence" that he nonetheless finds "hard to bear." The object of odium--a traveling companion who goes to bed directly after dinner, leaving a wakeful Twain no one to talk with--stands guilty of that typical lack of consideration the sleepy show the sleepless by indulging their sleepiness. (more…) Read More...

As if she lived a mad, gay life …

“What a typical picture for anyone from out of New York...."
“What a typical picture for anyone from out of New York: career girl’s apartment, stockings drying over the shower rod, clothes flung helter-skelter in the rush to get to the office on time, to a date on time, a scrap of cheese and some canned orange juice in the icebox, perhaps a bottle of wine there too, wads of dust lying under the studio couch because you couldn’t clean except on weekends and sometimes not even then, and all those brightly colored matchbooks with names of well-known eating places, so that even if one managed only two good and sufficient meals a week one could still light one’s cigarettes for the rest of the week with a memory.”--Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything (1958) Read More...

Boor and Peace: The Russian Occupation of Paris and the Birth of the Bistro

The cosmopolitan leisure that the Parisian café has come to symbolize belies its humbler origin. The story of its emergence is written in blood and fire, namely, that which was spilled and ignited during the Napoleonic Wars.
Snugs nooks outfitted with wall-length mirrors and chairs upholstered in red velvet shelter men and women, who chat as they sip from demitasses. A waitress in a white apron wipes her knife before slicing a cake into squares. Patrons pass in and out, quickly and lightly as moths. Business is in full swing at a café in the City of Lights. The cosmopolitan leisure that the Parisian café has come to symbolize belies its humbler origin. The story of its emergence is written in blood and fire, namely, that which was spillled and ignited during the Napoleonic Wars. With the defeat of the Grand Armée at Waterloo in 1815, the French went from victors to vanquished, from occupiers to occupied. A stay-behind force of Russian soldiers made camp in the Place de la Concorde and under the trees shading the… Read More...

Some Assembly Required: Parlor Games and Their Uses

If all that's solid melted into air under conditions of capitalism, parlor games and similar practices acted as so many bladders to capture this sublimated social stuff that was formerly so reliably substantial.
It often happens that, by accident of consanguinity or some other connection, people who don't get along must spend a few after-dinner hours together. This happens mostly at holidays. Once the jellied cranberry and candied yams have been dispatched, these ill-sorted fellows, having swallowed their antipathies like so many antacids, sit in uneasy silence. Feeling it at once too early and too late to leave, they devise ways to beguile those hours. Most times the choice can be as stark as watching  TV or sitting in silence, nursing drinks. The first option is usually exercised, if only so as to avoid the second. Three hours slathered in surround-sound bombast works its magic; guests and hosts are ready to head home or to bed. The next day, the gathering is judged by all involved to have been a success. Reach far… Read More...