August 2000

Culinary Issues

I’m off to Texas tomorrow, but this time to west Texas. Twice this year I’ve dawdled and missed a timely last visit with friends who’ve died suddenly on me. Most recently, Mr. Manasek, the framing genius and owner of a framing and art supply store on Market. He’d been ill for a year with poisoning from the toxic chemicals he’d been using all his adult life, and I’d been taking in jellies for him and his wife. Well, I’d run out of jelly in the late winter and had earmarked one of the jars from this spring’s first batch for him. Forgot to take it with me on a Thursday. Went in with it on the following Tuesday only to learn he’d died suddenly of a heart attack on Saturday but had been doing OK on Thursday. Damn me. He could have died with a smile on his face and my jelly on his lips. 

My old friend Mel lives in Midland, where I met him when he moved there while I was teaching at Midland College. He’s 88 and in poor health. Realizing that the old fart could pop off any minute, I’m flying there for a long weekend. Maybe I can feed him so well that he’ll just drop dead of overfeeding. A splendid death, I think. I’m taking him some San Francisco treats, and I expect to find some very Texan items to bring back, like the killer tamales made in that little place in on the wrong side of Main Street that I can’t remember the name of but am sure could find again.

Not that I expect to find them in Midland, but there are a couple of Texas treats that I have never eaten and am just dying to try: opossum (called ‘possum) and armadillo (called ‘dillo). Both are reported to be delicious, but there are culinary class distinctions.

Middle-class white people don’t eat them. Our redneck parents ate them during the Depression when times were so bad that they ate anything they could catch. But now they don’t. And upscale blacks won’t touch them either. And downscale blacks would die before they’d serve either to me. They just enjoy them secretly.

It has become increasingly clear that if I am to eat either of these delicacies, I’m going to have to catch it, kill it, clean it, and cook it myself. And frankly, my prowess as a hunter has seriously declined over the past few decades, as has my inclination to go slogging around in river bottoms with the water moccasins.

I may just have to settle for smoked pheasant breast.

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I have three recordings of Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues.

Keith Jarrett, who does bother some folks with capricious phrasing and rushed tempi, but whom I forgive everything, all of it, even the acts of unkindness to small animals as a child, while he’s crashing through the 24th fugue. An exciting performance. Recorded in 1992.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is my overall favorite. He’s just as fabulous with this as he is with Prokofiev. This is also the newest recording of the work, it being recorded only last year.

Tatiana Petrovna Nikolaeva, who was the source of it all, being the woman whose performance of Book 2 of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier one fine July day in 1950 so inspired Shostakovich that he thought, “I can do that!” And finished his own set of 24 preludes and fugues before the next February was out. She premiered the work the next year and has, at least until Ashkenazy’s recording last year, been one of the definitive performers of the work. (Shostakovich himself never recorded the entire work.) Nikolaeva begins at a pace that can fairly be described as stately and seems agonizingly slow if your only exposure has been to Ashkenazy and Jarrett. However, after the first Prelude, her pace feels quite right, and it comes as a shock, then, to notice that it takes three CD’s for her version rather than the two required for Jarrett and Ashkenazy. Sure doesn’t seem like it’s that much slower, and wouldn’t I love to hear an earlier recording of hers.

Jarrett – 135 minutes, 21 seconds. Feels every bit as fast as it is.
Ashkenazy – 141 minutes, 43 seconds. Doesn’t feel almost as fast as Jarrett.
Nikolaeva – 168 minutes, 25 seconds. Doesn’t feel nearly that slow.

OK, OK, I had to get out the CD’s for spelling/fact checking, and my calculator to add up timings to satisfy my curiosity.

I love keyboard music. Last summer I read a review of the recent release of Ashkenazy’s performance. I had never even heard of the work, but the review was enticing, so I ordered it. I loved it. I loved it so much that I just played it over and over and over….at increasing volume. And none of that Gouldian humming along with it, I’m singing along full throat: YAH-da-da-da-da-da, YAH-da-da-da-da-da… (in #24, which just finished).

Then I bought Jarrett’s and Nikolaeva’s versions. Now I alternate among the three.

Do you know this work?

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