I’d had my eye on Ruhlman’s Twenty, a new cookbook from Michael Ruhlman, for most of the fall, especially after seeing a post at Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutterer about Ruhlman’s championing of organizing principles in the kitchen, better known as mise en place. “Cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize,” Doland quoted Ruhlman:
“This is not an additional step—it’s simply doing all that you would do throughout the cooking anyway. You’re just doing it ahead of time, spending less time between cupboard and counter, refrigerator and stove. Be sure your counter or work area is completely clear. Go to the refrigerator, pull everything you’re going to need, and set it out. Go to the cupboard, and pull everything there you’ll need. Gather your tools beside your cutting board, set the pans you’ll need on the stove, and get the oven hot if you’re using it. Think about the sequence of your actions. And then being to work, and as you work while you’re doing one thing, think about what you’ll be doing next and next after that.”
This is excellent advice for cooking, but of course it’s also excellent advice for any creative endeavor, and it’s something that I’m working on incorporating more fully into my life as I undertake some major new projects in the months ahead, which you’ll be hearing about as they become ready to reveal. There’s a second, equally important component to mise en place, though: “Put away everything that you don’t need.” It’s something that I’ve struggled with in the past, hanging on to books long past the time when it’s become obvious I won’t be reviewing them any time soon; moving into a new apartment a little over a year ago gave me an opportunity to purge, but I’m still working on dealing with the creeping piles, and I’m hoping to improve a lot in this aspect of my creative life, too.
Anyway, Ruhlman’s Twenty: I love that these are all very simple recipes, grounded in teaching me fundamental techniques that I’ll be able to experiment with at my own pace. The chapter on vinaigrette is a perfect example: I’m one of those people Ruhlman talks about, who never thought about vinaigrette beyond salad dressing, so the idea that it can serve as the base as a sauce to go with all sorts of cooked dishes was a real revelation. So the first recipe I decided to make from the book was a chorizo vinaigrette that calls for equal proportions of diced chorizo, red onion, red bell pepper, and jalapeno, sauteed in canola oil (although I used olive oil) with a generous helping of salt, then tossed in sherry vinegar once it’s cooled. I had no luck finding sherry vinegar in the grocery stores in my Queens neighbhorhood, but I did have a bottle of apple cider vinegar, and that substitution seems to have worked just fine.
Towards the end of October, Lincoln Center launched a three-week “White Light Festival” dedicated to “music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate our larger interior universe,” juxtaposing performances of Western classical composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, and Bach with a dance company composed of Shaolin monks or a troupe of Manganiyar siingers from the Muslim communities of northern India. Mrs. Beatrice and I were fortunate enough to attend a “Magnificat” recital by the Tallis Scholars, primarily focused on Arvo Pärt but also including pieces by Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorius and Byrd, that was breathtakingly beautiful; I also had the opportunity to attend two panel discussions moderated by WNYC’s John Schaefer on the themes of “Silence” and “Sound,” the latter being preceded by pianist Pedja Muzijevic’s performance of, among other works, John Cage’s 4′33″.
“We often think of sound and silence as opposites,” composer John Luther Adams noted as the event moved into its discussion phase, but 4′33″ points the way towards what Adams described as “ecological listening”: “When we start listening to where we are, we hear things that usually we might not think go together, but they do, in the world.” One of the immediate effects of that afternoon’s discussion was to compel me to re-read the chapter on Adams in Alex Ross’s excellent Listen to This, and to start listening to two of his major compositions, Earth and the Great Weather and In the White Silence. What took a little longer was for me to sit down with Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of John Cage, Begin Again.
I was already somewhat familiar with (the concept of) 4′33″, and with the development of Cage’s musical thought up to the point of its creation, thanks to Kyle Gann’s insightful No Such Thing as Silence, but Silverman provides additional biographical context for those early years, as well as covering the second half of Cage’s life. There’s a lot of detail on the processes that Cage used to compose his unconventional works, as well as the non-musical endeavors of his later years, like his eager apprenticeships in chess and engraving. It makes you wonder, perhaps, if intellectual curiosity and boundary-pushing experimentation might be the thread that links Cage to the otherwise seemingly disparate subjects of Silverman’s previous biographies: Cotton Mather, Edgar Allan Poe, Harry Houdini, and Samuel Morse. (Granted, Mather would seem to be the odd man out in that lineup.) Begin Again doesn’t appear to be a substitute for reading Cage’s own essays on music and creativity, but then I don’t imagine it was intended as such—as an introduction to and an engaging invitation to learn more about an important American artist, however, it works quite neatly.