Archives for the month of: August, 2013
This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

On a rainy summer day, we went to see this somewhat forbidding building and the treasures it contained.  Renoirs, Vermeers, Gainsboroughs, Turners, Rembrandts.  .  .  it was very impressive, and it was meant to be.

We wondered where Frick had obtained all this money.  Ay yi yi.  “The most hated man in America” took the fall for some of Andrew Carnegie’s cruelest actions.  Who decided to call the Pinktertons, to fire on the Homestead strikers?  Frick or Carnegie?  They were called and fourteen people died.  Someone hated Frick so much he tried to assassinate him.  He failed and this generated enough sympathy for Frick that he could fire more than a thousand workers and hire the rest of the strikers back at half pay.

So Vermeer et al were paid for by the lives and wages of workers.  You have to really want that kind of wealth to be willing to do what you have to do to get it, and Frick succeeded brilliantly.  He built the house so as to make Carnegie’s house look like a miner’s shack.  That’s a competitive heart.

According to

Later in life, he (Andrew Carnegie) reportedly sent Frick a note suggesting that the two men put aside their differences. Frick gave a cutting response to Carnegie’s personal secretary, who had delivered the letter: “Tell him I’ll see him in hell, where we are both going.”

Did I mention that both Frick and Carnegie helped to cause the Johnstown Flood?  Yes.  It was their club’s private lake with its unsafe dam that broke and flooded the town.  That killed 2,209 people.

The collection is priceless and you can go to see it, too.

And there, on the table, in the middle of the room, regarded by all the great ladies painted by the great painters, was a vase of lilies.  It looked something like this:



They grew in the dirt.  They smelled wonderful!  You could grow them, too.  And no matter how you look at it, they are as beautiful in their way as the paintings and rare furnishings are in theirs.

They reminded me of a farmer I heard interviewed on NPR years ago.  A neighbor asked him why, when there was no profit in it, he planted an entire field of sunflowers.  He replied, “Because I’m too poor to afford a Van Gogh.”

I share Frick’s desire to collect and curate beauty.  Good thing there are cheaper and easier ways to do it.

Babette puts her quails in the oven.

Babette, having won the lottery, prepares a magnificent dinner for her friends.

Did you ever see the movie Babette’s Feast?  If you like to cook, or ever had a meal that made the leap to transcendence where everyone at the table fell in love, at least for the nonce, you should.

And today on, I found this article:

Cooking with Babette:  I made the richest, most expensive dish from the best food movie of all time.

J. Bryan Lowder recounts the re-creation of Babette’s signature dish, cailles en sarcophages, for friends.  More than that, he muses on the role of the cook.  An excerpt:

During this dinner I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, prepping the next course, opening more wine, and generally taking pleasure in the fact that my guests were enjoying themselves—my food and service, as the grist for the gathering, were more important than my constant presence. In this sensibility I share something fundamental with Babette, who cooks not to impress or to show off (indeed, she never appears in the dining room), but rather to facilitate the alchemy that transforms good food into great fellowship.

This is an ethic that is all too rare. We live in a food culture dominated by the notion that cooking is a performance art, something that you wow people with from behind the island of your open-concept kitchen as if you were the host of your own Food Network show. The covers of glossy cooking magazines exhort you to “impress your friends” with this or that new technique, while “celebrity chefs” by their very existence make the argument that a cook’s personality is more important than her food. This is the contemporary self-centeredness that makes Julie’s half of Julie & Julia so unbearable—she may master French cooking, but in the end, the only guest she’s interested in feeding is her ego.

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

The most memorable part of that movie for me, and I saw it back when it came out, was the guests’ utter joy at the end of the meal:  joy in the food, the wine, each other, and the world.  Out under the stars, I seem to recall, they experience some kind of 19th century, strait-laced, Lutheran Danish version of a group hug.  That is the power of good food, lovingly and generously prepared.

Still life with quails.

Still life with quails.

J. Bryan Lowder details all the steps to make the dish and its transformative effect on him and his friends, a kind of meditation in homage to the film and good cooks everywhere.


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