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Sunday, February 20, 2005

...only she's not at all well.

One would think that having spent a week nagging one's husband to stop trying to be a superhero while ill and just take a damn sick day already, one would take one's own advice.  This might be true if one were not a stubborn and egomaniacal bakerina, but alas, I am, and I did not heed the advice I have been thoughtfully sharing with Lloyd all week.  Granted, I'm not nearly as poorly as Lloyd has been; it's just a little head cold with me, but I have decided that the best way to beat this head cold is to saturate my blood with antihistamines, decide that my breathing passages are clear enough for exercise, and head to the office/library/gym when I should probably be curled up somewhere with a bowl of something warm and peppery.  Why did I think that it would be a good idea yesterday to dose up on Sudafed, go out into the 14-degree weather, spend 5 hours in a chilly room at the New York Public Library, go back into the 14-degree weather, walk 9 blocks (including three crosstown blocks) to the gym, do bench presses until I couldn't feel my own pectorals anymore, and then spend 1/2 hour trying to get home, thanks to the vagaries of New York City Transit (motto: If You Give Us More Money, We Promise Not to Pester You With Annoyances Like Actual Service)?

I can't be too grumpy about it, though, because it was a Grand Day Out, well worth the resulting grogginess and lethargy I'm feeling this morning.  Mostly I'm grumpy because I've been casting about for words about how much I love this phase of my research, and the right words just aren't coming to me.  Three weeks ago I was lucky enough to be granted a six-month pass (renewable upon expiration) to the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection at the New York Public Library.  The Special Collections office is normally very tough about who they allow access to the library collections; in general, you need either to be affiliated with a university or be working on a book.  (Yes, I know I'm working on a book, but considering that I have no agent, no publisher, and no real text, that I'm still in the information-gathering stage, it feels a bit disingenuous of me to actually admit, out loud, in public, that I'm working on a book.)  I mentioned that I was on a fellowship, but I didn't mention that the fellowship was at a writer's colony, or that I had actually taken it last year.  Apparently I communicated the correct amount of gravitas, though, because I am now in possession of the little yellow card with my name on it, the card that grants me access to the collection that, according to the nice man on the Rare Books staff, includes 7,000 cookbooks and handwritten manuscripts.

About a year and a half ago, during a period of torpor and self-doubt, I picked up a copy of Jane Juska's book A Round-Heeled Woman, in which Ms. Juska describes what happened after she placed an ad in the New York Review of Books that began:  "Before I turn 67 next March, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I really like."  While Ms. Juska is a sharp, nifty woman and an excellent storyteller, I found myself fixated not so much on the sexual aspects of the story (although those aspects make for fun reading indeed) as on her visit to the Berg Collection at the NYPL.  Ms. Juska is a passionate Anthony Trollope fan; she showed up at the Special Collections office only to learn that just being a Trollope fan and a visitor from California would not be sufficient to get her into the Berg.  After providing her academic references and arguing that she is interested in seeing the manuscripts only to review Trollope's editing methods, she is given a pass to the Berg Collection, where she requests to see Trollope's manuscript for Miss Mackenzie.  When she sees it, sees the old paper, sees Trollope's beautiful handwriting, reads the words she knows so well and knows that this time she's looking at them straight from the author's hand, from history, she finds herself near tears.  It's a beautiful piece of writing, but I thought her reaction was a little over-the-top:  It's neat, sure, but neat enough to make you cry?

I am a cad.  I am a rube and a philistine.  Dear friends, I did not actually cry in the Rare Book Room, but I came close.  On my first visit, I filled out a call slip for The Perfect Cook, an English translation of Le Patissier Francoise, considered the first extant pastry cookbook (while earlier cookbooks contained directions for pastry, Le Patissier Francoise appears to be the first book to specialize in pastry and baking).  The English translation is ascribed to a "Mounsieur Marnette"; the original French author is still a source of controversy; there are theories that La Varenne was the actual author, but the scholar and cookery teacher Anne Willan disputes this.  The original volume was published in 1653; the English translation was published in 1656.

Even as I knew that I was not looking at a facsimile, that the catalog said, plain as the nose on my face, "1656," I still felt the little hairs on the back of my neck shiver when the librarian walked over to my work table with a small foam easel, a set of small beanbag weights and a tiny, dark volume.  He showed me how to keep the book open with the weights so as to keep from damaging the spine, and pointed out that the first two pages of the book had fallen out.  He then left me on my own, obviously not hearing the caterwauling going on in my head:  You know that I'm a feckless doofus, right?  Are you sure I'm allowed to touch this 350-year-old cookbook?  This is a 350-year-old cookbook!

I turned the pages gently, so gently, trying to keep my fingers off the pages as much as possible, lest the acids in my fingers damage the paper.  I read recipe after recipe, recipes for rye doughs for raised pies, strong wheat doughs, soft wheat doughs, puff pastry, pastry cream, florentines, biscuits, ginger cakes, meat pies.  On page 21 I found something that made me smile, something that addresses one of my deeply-held crotchets and biases about the superiority of weight vs. volume measurement:

Observe, That whensoever wee do speak of, or allege the word pound, as for Example, a pound of butter, wee do thereby mean the pound which doth weigh sixteen ounces or two marks of Goldsmiths weights, and thus of all weights proportionably.

Observe also, that when we mention or allege a Pinte, that wee mean the pinte according to the Parisian measure, the which doth contain the weight of two pounds of water, within an ounce or thereabout, and almost the same quantity in wine; The Choppin as they call it in France is half a pint, and the Septies as they call it, is a quarter of a plate; And although these measures have several appellations according to the respective places where they are used, However you can never bee mistaken in case you stick unto the weight of the measures which are by me propounded.

Dear friends, I did not cry.  But I don't think I breathed, either. I realize I'm leaving a lot off this, just why I get so shivery every time I walk into the room (and not just because the temperature is on the low side), how I also managed to get my hands on the first edition of Gervase Markham's The English Hus-Wife, published in 1615, how I know that there are other books, to say nothing of family manuscripts, waiting to be reviewed, how thrilling this all feels. I don't have the words. I don't know that I ever will.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:38 PM in Go Outside and Play! • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Kimberly, we have to find a way to get a Stradivarius in your hands, even if it’s only for five minutes.

When I was in high school, I remember reading an interview with a pair of Soviet musicians (a young female violinist and her boyfriend, whose part in the orchestra escapes me at the moment), who defected to the U.S. on the eve of a prestigious tour meant to introduce the violinist to western audiences.  In order to escape without notice, she packed a change of clothes and her money and i.d. in her violin case, leaving the 200-year-old Stradivarius the Soviet government had procured for her use lying on the bed.  While I’m sure she would never trade the violin for her freedom, I always wondered if she ever had a pang, having to leave that violin behind.

Bakerina on 02/20/05 at 05:46 PM  

I just have to say, there is nothing wrong with this post.  You’re clearly suffering from sudafed-induced neurosis.  The only sure solution is chocolate, see post two levels down, where you’ll find the cure for what ails ya.

mouse on 02/21/05 at 12:22 PM  
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