Saturday, January 21, 2006

I've been telling my sons little things I want them to know. It's sort of like teaching The Meaning of Life, but it's all on the scale of daily minutiae, which is something I understand better anyway. Like with's the side dishes that make the meal.

Take for instance peanut butter and celery sticks. I know it doesn't sound like much but it can add just the right touch. It's got a texture element. And sound--it has a nice crunch that reverberates inside and outside your head as you chew.

The celery is refreshing (as long as you serve it cold and you haven't let it get old and rubbery in the fridge...limp celery is not a good thing) and the peanut butter adds just a touch of sweetness. I don't recommend it with Italian meals, but it's good for a traditional bit of pot roast, or a standard chicken pot pie type of thing.

Here's my recipe:

Take a couple of ribs of celery, wash in cold water and trim ends. (I like saying that...ribs of celery.)

Cut ribs into three inch lengths.

With table knife, spread peanut butter in the celery grooves.

Arrange into subtle but appealing pattern on a colorful plate.

Serve immediately!

My son Case believes the best way to eat a peanut butter celery stick is to lick out the peanut butter and leave the celery stick behind. I think this misses the point. I've seen and tasted some variations. Cream cheese and celery sticks. Pimento cheese and celery sticks. None of these possibilties interest me.

I have read a recipe which suggests that once you have the peanut butter spread onto the celery, you can press raisins into the peanut butter. This variation is called Ants on a Log.

If you do this, you are trying too hard.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I held a six hundred year old book in my hands the other day.

I had gone down to the Rare Book Room at the university library to see my friend and colleague Bill Garvin and make a request of him. Bill spends most of his days in rareified air. (Seriously...the air is climate-controlled with a constant level of low humidity and temperature to protect the artifacts housed there, so that he is comfortable day in and day out wearing a heavy sweater, whereas the rest of us suffer from tropical blasts of forced air in the winter and shiver from overly refrigerated air in the summer.) Bill shares office space with a Picasso drawing, a Thomas Hart Benton painting, important maps and documents, and hand-crafted books inscribed by artisans centuries ago, back when books were treasures and as much cutting edge in technology as computers are today.

I had been preparing for one of my classes--a class on book arts and image text. I wanted to bring my Small Press Book Publishing class down to the Rare Book Room to see and touch some of the wonderful book artifacts we have in our collection. As we discussed the visit, Bill reached over to a shelf behind his desk, then handed me a book. "You might enjoy seeing this," he said. "I just got it."

Since I knew it was rare (remember the name of the room if you will) I gingerly slipped the book out of its protective sleeve. It was a small volume, about the size of a compact writing tablet, and no more than a half inch thick. The text was painstakingly hand lettered in perfect Latin script. It had suffered a little bit from time. The pages had several tiny holes left there by a diligent bookworm. But it was clearly well-made--the pages still held tightly together and turned as well as the first day they were bound in the mid 1400's.

"It is just a manual on writing correspondance," Bill said. "But what I love about it is that the cover is the page of an even older manuscript."

It was true. Once the scribe had finished the text and stitched the pages together, in a pragmatice gesture he took the vellum page from an older book which had for whatever reason fallen into disuse, turned it sideways, and used it to make the cover.

I am always amazed to touch or hear or read things that come to me from the distant past, things that are windows to others who lived long before... which brings me to Pangur the Cat. Pangur is the star of a poem written in 900 A.D. and precedes our bookmaking scribe by 500 years. The poem, entitled "The Scholar and his Cat", was originally written in Gaelic, probably by a monk. Here is an abridged version:

I and Pangur practice each of us his special art: his
mind is set on hunting, my mind on my special craft.

When the two of us--this tale never wearies us--are alone
together in our house, we have something to which we
may apply our skill, an endless sport.

It is usual, at times, for a mouse to stick in his net, as a
result of warlike battlings. For my part, into my net falls
some difficult rule of hard meaning.

He is joyful with swift movement when a mouse sticks in
his sharp paw: I too am joyful when I understand a
dearly difficult problem.

Though we be thus at any time, neither of us hinders the
other, each of us likes his craft, severally rejoicing in them.

(trs. by Seamus Heaney. From The Great Book of Gaelic, Cannongate Books, Edinburgh, 2005)

The monk's name does not survive these 11 centuries, but Pangur's does. (Clever cat!) I am grateful that evidence of his fleeting life was so well captured and preserved. It all serves as proof that there are things which transcend time, the monuments and cathedrals, yes...but also the intimate things--a writing handbook, a house cat's name and nature.

That someone saved such things and passed them on makes it possible for us to meet at this unlikely, me, the medieval book maker and Pangur, the scholar's cat.