Mostly, my fingers shrink from mold and squooshy, caterpillar-like guts. But when I was little, I used to pick big knobbly blackberries and the rare black raspberry from the overgrown bramble that separated the end of our front lawn from the private road we called “the slow road.” Even as a kid, and certainly as an adult, the a sudden, albeit leafily hidden, glut of free, limitless fruit never failed to stir up rapacious, crazy-fisted delight. Or, as Seamus Heany puts it:
Farrago is a synonym for hodgepodge — “a confused mix,” per the dictionary. Today, we went to see Infinitely Polar Bear, a biopic of sorts about a bipolar Bostonian and the eighteen months he spent caring for his two young daughters while their mother went to business school, in New York. The movie itself is not a farrago, but Cameron Forbes, its titular bear, certainly is. In the beginning of the movie, he’s full-blown manic, pulling his daughters out of school for a woodsy gambol after being fired for a job he’d only briefly held, then ripping the ignition switch out of the family car wearing only a red speedo while his wife and daughters tremble — in winter coats — in the backseat. Most of the film is him attempting to keep a lid on the mania; his daughters help with this quest by demanding structure and new sponges and flamenco skirts and scolding him for his spiraling piles of old telephones and bicycle parts and his guilessly outgoing behavior, which tended to send neighbors scuttling in the opposite direction.
Farrago comes part and parcel from Latin, where it meant a “mix of grains for animals.” (Far is the latin word for grain, hence farro and barley.) The Forbes family is very much a mix: Cameron is the nutty scion of one of Boston’s richest, Brahmin-iest families (evident in his shetlands and tam-o-shanters and inability to replace the old and worn out and broke-down); his wife, Maggie, is a midwestern African American, a fiercely driven steel magnolia of a woman who rose to a breadwinning challenge she hadn’t wanted, and then surpassed it, getting her MBA from Columbia and landing a brokerage job at E.F Hutton. One of Cameron and Maggie’s daughters (who are both fantastically, spitfiringly played) looks white, the other looks black, though race is addressed far less in Polar Bear than sex.
Infinitely Polar Bear is, above all, a tribute to Cameron, whom Mark Ruffalo plays with characteristic shambolic charm and a lot of searing, thrashing frustration. It is a tribute to Cam and also to Maggie and a testament, really, to how good their parenting really was, despite Cam’s erratic moods and Maggie’s physical absence.
Polar Bear takes place between 1978-9; nearly forty years later, the Forbes’ are still perhaps a farrago, but mostly in a good way: China, the older daughter, is the lead singer of the jazzy, smoky pop band Pink Martini; Maya, the younger daughter, is an accomplished screenwriter and directed Polar Bear, and Maya’s own daughter, Imogene, plays Maya (called Faith) in the film. Cameron, however spent many of his later years at McLean, before passing away, of pancreatic caner, in 1998.
A friend, in a fundraising email for a summer camp, wrote that the camp’s mission statement contains the line: “To create a youthful ruckus of adventure and spirit where souls are ripened and freedom is discovered.” First of all, that is fantastic, and exactly what all camps should be, rather than the dull monotony of soccer balls and flip turns and missed slap shots that were my lot each summer until I was finally old enough to work. Second of all, I have a general fondness for words that begin with “rump” or “ruck,” e.g. rumpled, rucksack, and my favorite, rumpus, as vividly, roaringly rendered by Maurice Sendak.
Generally, “ruckus” is used to soften the blow of a negative situation, a bar fight, say, or the actions of a small mob of angry youths. Sometimes, it is used as a synonym for “hubbub,” or “fuss,” as in “I don’t see what all the ruckus was about.” I loved that the summer camp took the boisterous fun road, the rumpus road, as it were. Indeed, the etymological roads are likely interwined: best guesses point to ruckus being an American fin de siecle-era portmanteau of rumpus and ruction, a colloquial term for disturbance. The earliest usage I found was in the the February 24th, 1882 edition of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Advocate: “It is but right that they should know how the matter stands, and have fair warning to avoid a ‘pending’ rucus of some sort.”
As for rumpus itself, the OED hedges its formation as probably “fanciful,” and “possibly an alteration of robustious,” a mid-eighteenth century word meaning “boisterous, noisy.” LexiconDaily points out another origin possibility: romp, from the Old French ramper “to rear, rise up.” (Ahem, ramparts.)
Originally, rumpus, like ruckus, was a fighting descriptor, but eventually a more playful connotation snuck in, until, in 1950s suburbia, the rumpus room was generally accepted term for playroom, the one part of the house that didn’t need to be kept tidy.
Apart from thermoses of Progresso Chicken Noodle and stacks of Pad Thai in bending foil containers, scarfed in intervals during summer swim meets, picnics were not a regular occurrence in my household. We ate too fast, for one thing; for another, the schedules of four/sometimes six/sometimes seven kids didn’t leave much time for lolling about on blanks, whacking away hunks of brie.
As an adult, I like a picnic — who doesn’t? We’ve had a spate of them on Central Park’s Great Lawn recently, nice, sprawling affairs that go from noon to dusk, when the need for more beer chases us out. The food isn’t really the point at these picnics — last time I brought a pretty diesel greek salad; kumatos and limpid Bulgarian feta and kalamatas and no iceberg never gross, and it was maybe 1/5 eaten when it was time to pack up.
Greek salad, for all its citrusy texture melds and ability to hold up for hours in the sun, is not particularly easy to eat, which goes against the word picnic’s original definition. Our English picnic comes from the French pique-nique: pique from the verb picquer, “to pick,” and nique meaning “small thing.” (You can see more evidence of nique in knickknack.) Originally, a pique-nique was the French version of a potluck; by the mid-19th century, it acquired its outdoor aspect, though the potluck principle of BYO generally holds true.
My previous post had me wondering about the origin of the word “marshmallow.” It’s a beautiful compound, if you can squeeze out the primary-colored bubble letters it’s normally written in. I had vague recollections of a Burt’s Bees marsh mallow face cream, which made me think the mucilaginous candy had plant-based origins, and indeed, it does. Marshmallow made its first English foray as merscmealwe, “a mallow plant which grows near salt marshes.” Mersc meaning marsh; mealwe meaning mallow. Mallow has long been lauded for its skin- and bowel-softening properties, and mealwe appears to be related to the Greek malake, “to soften.”
After ye olde/ votre ancienne Norman Invasion, the Old English merscmealwe became the Frenchified marshmalue, morphed into still French-ish marche mallow, and then kicked first its French “e” and then its space to the curb, becoming marshmallow by the 19th century.
Marshmallow roots’ confectionary uses date as far back as Ancient Egypt, where they were combined with honey to help sore throats and “boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy confection.” The earliest incarnation of what we currently spear with sticks and heat over a fire appeared in the nineteenth century, when French confectioners hit upon the idea of whipping up sap from the marshmallow root and sweetening it. This was a laborious process, eventually abandoned for a mallow-less combination of water, sugar, gelatin, and corn syrup — unless you live in artisanal-mad Brooklyn, in which case, you can pick up something akin to an OG mallow at your nearest local-only grocery (in my case, The Greene Grape).
But the best way, and the only way I know, is to start along typical marshmallow toasting procedures, and then bang a hard left, into heavy roasting. Most marshmallow roasters hold up as their paradigm a uniformly dun-colored surface neatly containing a roiling mass of fluff. Recreating this paradigm requires slow and methodical rotation in the flames’ gentler reaches. A skinned cat, on the other hand, is thrust immediately into the belly of the fire, until its entirety is engulfed in flames, like a torch. The engulfment happens in seconds, thanks to all that sugar, at which point you remove the torch, extinguish it with vigorous huffing, and then, carefully, delicately, use your teeth to separate the alternately charred and blistered exterior (the skin) from a still-firm interior (the cat). The skin tastes like what it is: sweet, sticky ash, smokey and crumbly and honestly, kinda elemental. Once you’ve gulped it down, you stick the cat back in the fire and attempt to repeat the process. My mother claims to have skinned one cat four times, though none of us kids were there to witness it.
For the holiday weekend, we rented a cottage in the Catskills, a ways up a small road in the mountain smidge of Chichester. The cottage was damp as a cave, and like a cave, dark at all hours of the day, but it had access to a pretty stretch of the Esopus Creek, which meanders through the Catskills like an intestine, and a sunny back lawn and a fire pit, in which, after an hour’s struggling with wet wood, I skinned three cats, and ate the graham crackers a la carte. As far as ways to celebrate our nation’s independence go, eating food you’ve roasted outdoors over a fire you’ve built yourself isn’t half bad (even if, okay, other members of your group were more instrumental to creating the fire and procuring the foodstuffs, ahem).
Every Friday, New York Magazine‘s food blog, Grubstreet, puts out a feature called “New York Diet,” wherein one New Yorker chronicles everything that’s passed his/her lips over the past week. The Dieters tend to be chefs, TV personalities and actors, musicians, or writers, which makes for a fun bit of window-peeping. Often, the diets contain a lot of interesting and mouthwatering meals from trendy and/or high-end and/or cross-country restaurants — the novelist and memoirist Kate Christensen’s was a recent, brilliant example, and included one of my favorite Lewis Carrollian verbs, “snarfed.”
A diet that makes pit stops for Montauk crudo or postage stamp ravioli or oranges plucked straight from a Silver Lake tree is all very well and envy-inducing, of course, but it’s not exactly how the average New Yorker eats. Or is it? I found a 2004 predecessor to the New York Diet: eats from a gamut of 5 New Yorkers, ages 15 – 58, professions ranging from rabbinical student to dentist to IT project manager, and, well, they couldn’t have been more different from the diets Grubstreet posts today. Gone were the oysters, the kale juices, the uni toast and French 75s. Gone, for the most part, were the parades of dinners out at hotspots, or upstate, or out east, or in LA. Equal was happening — to the tune of three per 12oz coffee. Special K got some action. Powerade had its due. And, in the diet of the 15 year-old, meals consisted entirely of junk food and fast food and sugary drinks, eaten at irregular times. In all of the meals, there were maybe three I myself would happily eat today — and this is only eleven years hence!
The sharp contrast between the 2004 and 2015 dieters got me thinking about my own diets from both eras. Throughout the first half or so of 2004, I ate very heartily; by the summer, hearty had become sparing, with a lot of vinegar. In the spirit of honesty, I thought I’d list a sample day from both, along with one from this past Wednesday (weekday Claire) and yesterday (weekend Claire).
- 6:30 AM ish: I legitimately do not remember what I ate for breakfast in this era. This was before I had my license, so I wasn’t going to swim practice in the mornings, or at least not often. And I hadn’t gone to Italy yet, so I wasn’t drinking coffee. Which means, I think, that breakfast would have been Life cereal. Life and an apple, maybe. Or, if it was a Thursday morning, I would have been at my father’s, in which case I would have had a Lender’s bagel with peanut butter and Swiss Miss hot chocolate.
- 11:15 AM ish: Whatever hot meal the Dover Sherborn Regional cafeteria was serving that day. A chicken parm, or lasagne or, my favorite, Philly cheese steak subs. Plus or minus white cheddar Cheezits from the vending machine.
- 3:00 PM ish: More Life cereal, eaten dry and by the multiple handfuls. Plus or minus a Balance bar.
- 9:00 PM ish: Whatever my mother had made for dinner. Tandoori chicken was a frequent guest, as were osso buco, chicken marsala, and steak and baked potatoes.
- 9:30 PM ish: Approximately half to a full pint of Ben & Jerry’s or Hagen Daaz. I wasn’t picky about flavor, so long as it wasn’t rum raisin.
Q3 – Q4 2004:
- 6:30 AM ish: Amy’s frozen vegetarian burrito. It had black beans and squiggles of tofu. If I microwaved it just right, the folds would get a little crispy.
- 7:30 AM ish: Thermos of tea OR styrofoam vat of Dunkin’s coffee with skim milk and absurd amounts of Splenda (unless my boyfriend picked up the coffee, in which case I pretended I liked it black).
- 10:00 AM: Plastic baggie of Lucky Charms. I ate the cereal part first, like a good puritan.
- 11:30 AM: Mixed greens salad with balsamic vinegar, low-carb wrap with turkey or fat-free feta and lentils.
- 3:00 PM: Pria bar.
- 9:00 PM: Sometimes what my mother had made for dinner, or else another low carb wrap, possibly dunked in a grueling combination of cottage cheese, brocoli slaw, and ketchup.
- 9:30 PM: Cereal OR another low carb wrap. If you hadn’t figured it out by this point, I went through a real low carb wrap phase. Actually, they were called “lavash,” and they were square. I liked them on the gummy side, and threw hissy fits if my siblings ate one.
June 24, 2015:
- 9:00 AM: Iced coffee with whole milk and one packet of raw sugar, purchased from the charming Italian cafe around the block from my office. I have a rule for weekdays that I can’t spend more than $3.50 per day on coffee, which means no cold brew. Many coffee shops offer both cold brew and regular iced coffee, but the regular is code for light brown water. Don’t do it. The Italian place only offers one type of iced coffee, and it is strong and bracing.
- 10:00 AM: Oatmeal with blueberries, hunks of banana, dried coconut, and peanut butter. Delicious, and proof that not all purple breakfast foods should be avoided.
- 12:00 PM ish: Handful of peanut butter pretzel nuggets.
- 1:00 PM: Salad composed of: wakame seaweed, the last of the tomatoes and zucchini I roasted on Sunday, bowtie noodles (usually this would be bulgar or wheatberries), hunks of tofu, garlic hummus, soy sauce, and siracha.
- 4:00 PM ish: Fuji apple.
- 8:15 PM ish: Another seaweed salad, this one with peas, corn, more tofu, more humus, more siracha and soy sauce.
- 9:30 PM: A plum, a peach, and more than my fair share of green grapes.
June 27, 2015:
- 9:00 AM ish: Cold brew with soy milk and simple syrup from Bittersweet, inhaled while tugging my dog through the Fort Greene farmer’s market. The market is packed, enough so that I abandon thoughts of going past the first two stalls. I buy snap peas and thai basil and cherries–the regular sweet kind, though I do filch one sour one, after overhearing one woman proclaim its divinity. (It is not divine, but would be, I think, if pan-warmed with some sugar.)
- 9:30 AM ish: Behold the return of lavash! But this one is not low-carb — it is thick and a bit griddled and yeasty. On it goes kalamata hummus, one half of a sliced tomato, arugula, tofu (shit, I ate a lot of tofu this week), a dollop of labneh, and a drizzle of really nice balsamic vinegar that we’ve been buying from Sur La Table because we have a massive gift card balance there.
- 2:00 PM ish: More peas, more corn, some of the snap peas and thai basil, the rest of the argula, more kalamata hummus, more lavash.
- 2:30 PM: Bowl of cherries.
- 5:00 PM: Rest of the snap peas.
- 7:30 PM: Glass of torrontes, a bruisin’ citrus Chilean white I quite like.
- 8:00 PM: More torrontes.
- 9:00 PM: Two chicken wings, bristle-fried in sugary fish sauce, a generous plop of pad thai, and multiple dripping forkfuls of water spinach with bird chilis and ground pork, all from Pok Pok Pad Thai.
- 12:30 PM: One plum. So sweet and so cold.