Welcome to The Epic! I am launching this blog as a manifesto for and a guide to living well. The title and motto of the blog are taken from the Epicureans, at least some of whom believed in the notion that not one minute of the future was guaranteed to them and that as a result they had the duty to live life to its fullest every moment.
I believe in discovering fun and pleasurable things wherever I find myself each day and I am told I have a knack for unearthing them. My hope is that by sharing in my pleasures and some of my ways of finding them you will begin to collect all the riches that lie in the moments of your life. They are there. Take them! All our lives should be.....Epic.
It was their wedding anniversary. This photo was taken on June 28, 1914, five minutes before the world would begin to unravel. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, are seen leaving a state visit at the town hall in Sarajevo. They would be dead within the hour at the hand of an assassin. Various diplomatic threats and maneuvers were triggered by the killings but a month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and the largest bloodletting the world had ever seen began.
They were an odd and touching love story. Despite being a Czech countess, she was considered "common" in Austria-Hungary. Franz Ferdinand married her against the wishes of his father Emporer Franz Joesph who only agreed to the union under the stipulation that no child of the marriage could ascend to the throne. Emporers were nothing to trifle with in 1914. She wasn't even allowed to sit next to him at state dinners. The only exception was when he was in military status, in uniform. When his father ordered him to go to Sarajevo and review troops, it was the perfect occasion for an unimpeded excursion with his beloved Sophie. His last words implored her to live for the sake of their three children.
In the event, one could consider Franz Ferdinand and Sophie the first two of the 16,000,000 casualties and 21,000,000 wounded of the "great" war. My favorite posts about Armistice Day [November 11] are here and here.
In England, they have created the most wonderful memorial of the start of World War I. 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British soldier that died, placed at the Tower of London...
The young nation The United States of America entered the war in 1917 after clinging futilely to neutrality for several years. President Wilson gave his commander, General John Pershing, only two directives. The first was to under no circumstances place American troops under the command of British or French generals. The second was to win the war and get home. "Black Jack" Pershing accomplished both tasks. The first major American engagement was to relieve allied infantry who had been fighting established enemy positions in Bellau Wood. It was a serious task...
And many of our Marines remain there to this day...
In America, we started off honoring Armistice Day on November 11 but in 1954 we changed the day to Veterans Day. And with good reason. There have been so many more that served and died than anyone thought could possibly be needed after 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/18 when World War I ended. People in 1918 never thought that such an effort, such a sacrifice, could ever be required again in a civilized world. They were right. For twenty years.
When you learn of an author through his wife, a lot depends on your impression of her. My impression of Madame Dutourd, gained from a chapter in a wonderful travel book about Paris, was very good. In the event, Madame was seen leaving her elegant Parisian home when a man sitting on the sidewalk asked her for charity. She pressed a handful of money into his palm along with the direction that it all be spent on wine. This caught my attention immediately. The person relating the story mentioned that Madame's husband was none other than the novelist Jean Dutourd, a member of the French Academy. This information peaked my curiosity even more and I began looking for translated copies of his books. My favorite is the Horrors of Love.
The setting for this novel is Paris in the early 1960's. Dutourd and an old friend catch up on events during a walk around town during a single lovely day. During the day, the two gentlemen frequent various places for a bite to eat, a glass of Rum or two, and finally an exquisite dinner at an elegant restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. The entire conversation between the two men consists of a discussion of a mutual friend named Roberti who is a respectable fifty-two year old family man and a member of the French legislature. He has also been recently sent to prison for murder. Throughout the day, the conversation paints a profound picture of not just the self-destruction of Roberti, but of the similar although usually less dramatic decline of many middle aged men. In this fashion, Dutourd accomplishes the most engaging inspection of a "mid-life crisis" that I have read.
The issue that captivates Dutourd is why a man who has been married for years, very successful, and very stable in his path of life would emotionally unspool over a young mistress named Solange. The American reader's immediate conclusion is that Roberti is fifty-two and has a young mistress and that he collapses under the weight of emotional and sexual excess. This is true in part, but we must remember that the author, his three male characters and his immediate audience are French. As a result the conversation between the two flaneurs [who appear to be about the same age as Roberti] poses an engaging mystery to us and to themselves in light of the higher tolerance of mistresses in the marriages of the mid twentieth-century French upper class. Roberti has had many mistresses before Solange so the issue narrows to what was it about this particular affair that caused him to apparently lose his mind? As with any great novel (particularly a French one) the plot presents a Rorschach test in which each reader sees a different picture and each reader sees, essentially, himself.
I first read this book when I had just turned fifty-two. I had found the previous two decades unexpectedly challenging and taxing. This is no doubt true for the majority of men who are lucky enough to enter their fifties. Roberti, however, is one of those apparently charmed men who seem to hit the rails of their lives seamlessly, gliding along without incident or tremendous effort toward a glowing conclusion somewhere in the clouds. Dutourd's notion, however, is that what most exposed Roberti to calamity was not his success, nor his age, nor the (heavily Puritan-American) idea of a middle-aged epiphany of his onrushing mortality but rather the fact that Roberti had never been in love before. At one point, Dutourd's friend says:
Roberti never even saw what would have been obvious to the most shortsighted: that around fifty is a critical age--an age when one runs a severe risk of falling in love, especially if one has never been in love before, and when a pretty girl is a mortal danger.
Epic living requires us to be in love. With our lovers, with our food and drink, with the arts, with our new cashmere socks, with the way the dog runs around the yard or the way the wind blows from the north on a crystal clear Autumn morning. Had Roberti been an Epicurean, he would have been fully used to being in love by the age of fifty. And he would have been able to manage his feelings for a beautiful woman half his age with the maturity that his age, commitments and situation in life required. But alas for Roberti, he was coming into contact with what for him was a unique feeling that he was wholly unequipped to handle in an adult way. So, he reacted like a teenager. The result was sadly predictable and provides the reader (particularly the male reader) with an essential cautionary tale. Cultivate your loves in life from an early age. Age and savor them like a great bottle of wine. And drink them in with the appreciation that they, and you, deserve. Failing to do so makes you defenseless to first love which, if it hits you at the wrong moment in life, can lead to your undoing. In this regard, The Horrors of Love is an Epic tale for the ages. I suppose that is why I love the book so much.
Another passage addressing the wisdom gained through the experience of love throughout life is:
With regard to Roberti, you know, I'm more reminded of La Rouchefoucauld's maxim: "He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks". He lacked that grain of folly which is like a grain of pepper, bringing out the savor of wisdom, making plain cooking delicious.
Certainly young love, usually gained in one's teens, is mostly crafted from folly. So, how does one procure the level of wisdom required to inoculate oneself from folly that springs forth in middle age? Through appreciation of the arts. Dutourd notes that the duration of a human life is insufficient to allow one to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to act properly at crisis points in life...
Forty years' experience is wholly inadequate. One needs two thousand. The two thousand years' experience to be had from the works of good authors. As a guide to life one must have some idea of the major novels, epics and tragedies written since Homer.
Only in this fashion can a person accrete to himself the collective experience of humankind, thrashing about blindly over generations trying to deal with the ubiquitous issues that occur in every life. Such as falling in love for the first time at the age of fifty-two.
Also, the name that Dutourd chooses for the woman who forms the catalyst for Roberti's ruin provides us a clue to the cause of his demise. Solange is usually translated as "dignified" but one cannot avoid looking to the alternative meaning which is roughly "sun angel". Perhaps like Icarus, once Roberti crossed paths with his sun angel [behind the receptionist's desk at his attorney's office] he was unable to avoid flying too closely to her light. With results well documented since the time of Ovid.
The relationship between Solange and Roberti also provides a fascinating platform for Dutourd to examine two people at different crossroads in their lives and to describe the different facets of love, marriage, adultery, and insanity from the opposite surfaces of their two sided mirror. Describing Solange, Dutourd states:
In short she was entering that sober period of life when things begin to leave their mark. When one ceases to be marble and becomes flesh...Let us pause for a moment with Solange at the crossroads of youth and maturity. These are the important events of our lives. They mean far more than wars, migrations, the partitioning of provinces. They are the great adventure through which every one of us must pass.
Consequently, the reader realizes that both Solange and Roberti are experiencing crises caused by their transition from one life phase to another. From youth to maturity in Solange's case and from maturity to youth in the case of Roberti. When these two transitions intersect the result is tragic, however instructive.
As a result, although this book may seem inherently "male" in focus, it is a very insightful look at the trials of growing up. No matter what our age or gender may be. I cannot recommend The Horrors of Love highly enough. It is one of the few books that I have underlined extensively as I read it. I think you will be similarly impressed. Hopefully you will find, as I did, instruction and insight as you see the signs of your next crossroad looming in the mist ahead of you.
It should surprise no one that I collect cocktail shakers. Not a big collection, maybe half a dozen or so. But this penguin is the greatest shaker I have ever seen. The tip of his nose screws off to allow for pouring. I found him at an antique market in Atlanta a couple of months ago. He was tarnished, dirty and forlorn on a shelf behind a bunch of stuff. But with a good soapy bath and a rub down with silver polishing wipes he is now returned to his former glory. Swanky. The next time I have guests over for martinis.....he is back in the game. Cheers!
Years ago, leaving school, I had the chance to go to a famous kitchen. In Chicago. Instead, I went to this little town because my parents lived in the area. And I've been cooking around here ever since. A long way from that kitchen in Chicago, in many ways. After a few fried seafood places, family diners and catering gigs, I put in for a job at the second country club in town. The first club was founded in the late 1800s. My new employer was founded in the 1920s. I walked into the kitchen the first time thirty years ago. Before a couple of market crashes. And thirty years of birthdays for most of the club members.
Back then, we would have a couple of hundred members and guests dining on a Friday night. Champagne, our famous big martinis, nice French wines nothing extravagant but nice. People would order classics. Smoked salmon. Lobster thermador. Steak au poivre. Coquilles St. Jacques. A nice thick Porterhouse steak for two. Maybe a Crepe Suzette or Cherries Jubilee for dessert. A little cognac.
But that era came to an end. Frankly, I was surprised. Then the membership started dwindling. Many of the diners stopped coming. The golfers too. They kept me though. For tradition. For the food. I took a couple of pay cuts so my kitchen team could keep their jobs. And we had to keep limiting our food orders. All very sad.
Last month, the club manager came to me and asked if we could do a "surf and turf" night. We hadn't tried to do one in years. A fixed menu, four courses, at a reasonable price. Maybe we could bring in some of the old Friday night crowd. Frankly, I was skeptical but the manager was a new kid, barely out of school, and he really wanted to give it a shot. So I put my pencil to paper and sketched out a menu. And he approved it and we sent out some emails and mail invites.
We didn't get a hundred customers. But we got fifty. More than enough to make money on the effort in light of my careful menu and ordering. Not all were older members either. Some young couples. Some fellows in shirts and ties. One couple, maybe in their fifties, came in dressed old school. He was in a navy blazer gray flannels and tie, she was wearing a nice dress and a fancy scarf. People ordered martinis and we sold a couple of bottles of wine. Not the old days, but not bad. My first course was artichoke/chicken soup with a crispy brie wafer and leeks. Then a fresh salad with balsamic dressing and duck spring rolls. After that, salmon with a maple/mustard crust and beef tenderloin with a roasted tomato coulis atop mushroom risotto. Dessert was a creme brulee with blueberries and raspberries. I have to admit the creme brulee was a little dry. I hadn't done one in a while. But it was acceptable with a good vanilla flavor and a great crunchy sugar crust on top.
As the evening wound to a close, I peeked out and saw six tables of customers. They looked really happy. In school, I dreamed of creating towering cuisine and being adored by crowds of the rich and famous. That didn't happen but I really didn't mind. I got to cook and people liked my food. When the customers became few, I scaled back and tried to make the best things I could. The best club sandwich. The best Cobb Salad. We stayed in business. We kept our jobs.
The bartender, twenty five if she was a day, came into the kitchen.
"Chef, do you know how to make a Brandy Alexander? That older fellow just ordered one and I don't know how to make it--and he would like to speak to you if you have a minute."
I wrote down the recipe and explained it to her and, relieved, she returned to her bar to mix it. When I saw her bringing it to a man who was clearly the oldest man in the dining room, I checked the grills and sauces and slipped out of the kitchen to say hello.
He looked up from his seat with a gleam in his eye. We shook hands and he said how much he had enjoyed the meal and how it took him back to his "glory days" twenty years ago. Great food in a great dining room. I thanked him. Then the strangest thing happened. He started clapping. Then the rest of the people at his table began to clap. Then all the rest of the people in the room applauded too. I looked around. And then, my eyes started getting wet.
After all these years, it was my moment.
P.S. This is my observation of what happened at my club last Friday night. The club that "nobody" belongs to these days. The Irish Redhead and I were the "fifties" couple in the blazer and scarf. It was a valiant effort by the chef and a damned fine meal. I can't wait to go back for the next special Saturday night dinner. Come join us. We will get a big table and drink Brandy Alexanders for dessert.
Another really super, affordable, Grenache. This one from the house of Sans Liege. One person described it as having... ...aromas
of mulberry, plum and pomegranate. On the palate it is rich and densely
flavored with notes of dark red berry fruit, spice, earth and cracked
pepper. It has high acidity, firm tannins, and a persistent finish. I would merely say that this lovely Grenache brings loads of flavor layers and is a wonderful accompaniment to cheese or hearty Autumn or Winter foods. Or the perfect accompaniment to an empty wine glass and a burning fire in the grate. Around $20. Get some now before I drink it all for you...
501 City Grill, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Great food [bronzed tuna blue corn tacos; chicken and Italian sausage gumbo]. Great drinks [Belvedere martini not too dry]. Pretty and friendly bar staff. Very reasonable prices. What's not to like?
In my mid 50s, husband, father and itinerant storyteller. I am a putative jazz singer, poet and novelist, dedicated to mining every minute of life for the veins of pleasure they contain. My motto is "Dum Vivimus, Vivamus"..."While we Live--LET US LIVE".