04 June 2010
One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a typically befuddled man, standing on a cloud, and wearing standard-issue heavenly garb: a grand pair of angel's wings, and a calf-length hospital robe.
Standing beside him, and similarly attired, is a cross-looking wife. She is looking over her shoulder, and saying to our hapless-looking angel: 'Here comes God. Ask if we can move to another cloud'.
Heaven. It isn't a place where nothing happens. It's a place where life continues, just as before, complete with nagging wife. Our hapless male angel might have dreamt on earth of a balmy idyll, maybe even replete with dusky virgins and sweet flowing streams such as the martyrs for Islam are promised.
Instead, our New Yorker angel still looks like an exhausted Wall Street banker, and his wife, as he could have predicted, isn't satisfied with her after-life. In The New Yorker, heaven is always a humbling place: the masters of the universe may float transcendentally, but their feet are made of clay.
I was thinking about this idea of heaven recently, as I helped out a bit at the launch of Truly Tasty, a book of recipes for people with kidney disease.
The first thought, quite frankly, was one of guilt. In the rere inside page of Truly Tasty there is a little pouch which contains an Organ Donor Card. I wasn't carrying a donor card, and as I mingled at the launch amidst wonderful kidney patients, their nurses and doctors, I felt thoroughly ashamed.
Above all, I was embarassed, especially as I listened to patients speak of their gratitude to the donors whose decision to allow their organs to be harvested for transplants had made the continuation of their life possible. I had never heard people express such profound gratitude, and it was expressed to people they had never had a chance to know.
My embarassment was compounded by the fact that, as a card-carrying atheist, it should be people like myself who have no belief in an after-life who should be the first to be card-carrying donors.
So, with the donor card signed and filed in my wallet, I wondered why we are so reluctant to be organ donors? And this brought me back to our New Yorker angels.
As a loving, and deeply sentimental people, we have become thoroughly wedded to a supernatural idea of heaven. Instead of a place where our souls wait until the day of reckoning, we have recast it as a sort of Sublime family get-together.
Heaven today is like a celestial Electric Picnic, with an audience that includes all our ancestors. And, just like the New Yorker cartoons, in Heaven we look just like we look now, or maybe just as we look after we have been to the hairdresser and had a facial and a manicure.
This is a thoroughly nice idea, but really you wouldn't want to examine it too deeply to know that is has as much substance as those clouds that the angels hang out on in cartoons. And if you were to read a new book by the Princeton professor of philosophy, Mark Johnston, which enjoys the provocative title of “Surviving Death” (It’s the succesor to a volume entitled “Saving God: Religion After Idolatry”. Johnston does good titles), then you would realise that there is a much, much better way of making the most of your potential after-life.
Johnston’s concept for surviving death is a development of John Stuart Mills’ idea that “all who had received the customary amount of moral cultivation would up to the hour of death live ideally in the life of those who are to follow them”.
For Johnston, we can live on “in the onward rush of humankind and not in the supernatural spaces of heaven”. This, asserts the professor, is an altogether better place than 'the supernatural spaces of heaven, even if such spaces existed'.
It’s a lovely idea – the good person who has passed away acquires a new face every time a baby is born — but you don’t need to concern yourself with theology or philosophy to realise one simple thing.
This is that every time an organ donor passes away, and allows the gift of harvesting their organs for others, whether they are patients waiting for kidney, heart, liver or other organ transplants, they facilitate “the onward rush of humankind” in the most practical and immediate way. A death can give life, and not just life but a second life.
It's a no-brainer idea, but do we resist it because of our supernatural, sentimental idea of heaven, where we are recast as a mirror-image of ourselves? If we were really Christian, we would know that the commandment to love our neighbour can be put into action in the most powerful way possible.
One of the most famous New Yorker contributors over the last forty years, Woody Allen, once wrote: 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying'. Carrying an organ donor card gives you a chance not to die.
13 May 2010
Eamon Barrett's report on Galway's The G Hotel is worrying reading. The G is quintessential example of a “Builder's Hotel”, developed by Gerry Barrett, a man with multiple business interests, and a number of other hotels in his portfolio.
But, The G promised so much, and initially delivered, thanks to stunning style and sharp service.
A few years down the line, however, and the errors that Eamon recounts are all primary, basic matters: they are not supposed to happen in a top class establishment...
Thankfully, work has been fairly hectic for us now for quite a while but you know what they say about all work and no play..... So we decided it was time for some chill out indulgence and I've wanted to stay at The G Hotel since I saw the first pictures of Philip Treacys outlandish design influence. It is a little strange to drive through the retail park to get to the car park but once the lift opens facing the silver lounge you are well and truly transported to another world. Check in was stiff and not exactly warm and there was an unusual insistence that both of us sign the registration, which I haven't come across before. We had treated ourselves to a top end room and I was surprised to see that this room - though absolutely excellent in every other way - faced onto the retail car park instead of the lake at the front. I was also surprised at this level that the mini bar had to be requested to be filled. Nonetheless, the welcoming cupcakes with silver icing was a lovely touch.
Hungry after the long drive from Waterford we moved to the stunning pink lounge for some food and waited for someone to serve us. And waited. There were plenty of staff - the hotel was busy - they just kept passing us by with their eyes fixed straight ahead. Eventually, some twenty minutes after sitting down, we managed to crane our necks enough to make ourselves look positively alien and thus attract the attention of a passing waiter. I went for the homemade burger and chips and J went for the plate of local cheese and charcuterie with warm breads. The food arrived reasonably quickly and as soon as my burger was laid down I asked for some ketchup. Julies plate of cheese and charcuterie was exceptionally weak and the promised warm breads never arrived. Just like the ketchup. Another twenty minute interval became too much for me and I left my seat and pleaded with a member of staff to see if some ketchup could be retrieved. It arrived shortly afterwards with a curt apology. When a passing manager inquired if everything was alright I quietly told him that service had been abysmal - not something I would normally do but we had driven three and a half hours to stay in this place for Gods sake! To be fair he was much more apologetic and did look after us for the rest of our stay in the lounge.
Things didn't get much better at dinner. There was no one to greet us, leaving us standing at the entrance to the restaurant like lost souls. When someone did arrive and we explained we had a booking for two we were asked 'Is this part of your package?' which didn't add any sense of 5 star ambiance to the occasion. Shouldn't their software tell them we weren't on a package?
We were shown to a truly horrible table in the centre of the room which would have left the two of us facing straight ahead and away from each other. A request for a table against the wall was not automatically granted but the fact that we remained standing obviously got the message across and we were shown to an alternative table. The shining star of our visit was the lovely Pedro who looked after us for the evening and had a gentle and professional manner that meant we felt totally relaxed. I didn't make notes on the dinner but it amounted to not much more than decent hotel food- a lobster ravioli for me was ruined by a heavy meat based sauce. The bar afterwards produced some excellent cocktails and the best mojito I've had since 33 The Mall closed.
We relaxed with breakfast in the room the next morning, no element of which caused me to change my mind about the hotel. Checkout was a little better than check in but lacked any real warmth.
There's no denying the magnificent gayness of the hotels design, it really is beautiful. But the critical element of deferential and professional service was sadly absent not to mention the slightest hint of friendliness or care for the guest. Very much, 'look at our lovely cushions, aren't we amazing'.
In fact, if anything, the G has merely served to place the achievement of Cliff House into greater context, where a stunning building has been matched by a warmth of service and a professionalism of operation that makes you forget where you are. Isn't that what we all want? To escape the humdrum and to live the fantasy of luxury for just one little day? Has no one at the G heard of 'fur coat, no knickers'?
12 May 2010
A couple of weekend days in Kenmare confirms the town's status as the most food-orientated town in the country. The following are stray thoughts about what makes it special...
Taking tea; put together The Truffle Pig in its smart new Henry Street address, An Cupan Tae, Jam, and Manuela Goeb's Breadcrumb Bakery with its neat new tables and chairs, and Kenmare offers a brilliant selection of cutting edge places in which to take tea or coffee. Best of all, and typical of the town, they are All Different: The Breadcrumb rustic, An Cupan traditional and chintzy, Truffle Pig slick and smart, Jam bustling and laid back. Quite wonderful.
On Saturday morning, we headed off from just past the abandoned church west of Moll's Gap and walked the seven miles back over the hill into Kenmare. The sun shone, the clouds were magnificent, the trees alternated between Pan's Labyrinth ruined stumps to Lord of the Rings magical embellishments, and the walk took forever because our kids said “Take a picture of me here!” and “Take a picture of me here!”, and “Take a picture of me here”. Seven miles of the Sublime.
As we neared Kenmare, we hove into the Kilmurry Business Park where Remy Benoit runs his Kenmare Salmon Company. In the past, we haven't written about M. Benoit in our guides, because we believed his fish was all exported. Not true: you can buy it, for instance, in the Supervalu just down the road from the factory. And buy it you should, for this is a superb smoked fish – our kids, in particular, went wild about it – with the subtlest gracing of smoke, and the cured, herbed version is just as fine. Truly beautiful work. www.kenmaresalmon.ie.
Our kids also went wild about Wharton's traditional fish and chips, which they confidently declared to be the best fish and chips they had ever eaten. They were also particularly impressed with the gentleman who ran the shop, who was super-friendly and who, because they didn't have quite enough money, gave them a third bottle of pop for free. How to win future customers...
The next night they ate at Packie's, and declared it to be, maybe, their favourite restaurant. Sam had the roast duck, Connie had the coconut chicken, and PJ had the pasta. For dessert they demolished the sticky toffee pudding, and unambiguously declared it the finest of them all. Using his Dad's money, Sam tipped generously: the lad recognises some of the finest service in the country when he gets it...
Sam's folks, meantime, were up in The Park Hotel, enjoying their Celebration of Ireland Festival, which we will cover in the next posting.
07 May 2010
A fascinating piece, in advance of a major new report on cancer, by columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times:
The cancer question is going to go ballistic! Consider this:
“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”
Go get rid of the Roundup and go Organic, and get rid of the plastics!
06 May 2010
We wrote a while back about how we had some involvement in bringing Colman Andrews to Ireland back in 2002, and how 8 years later the result was his magnum opus, The Country Cooking of Ireland.
Well, at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, Colman has snapped up not just the Cookery Book of the Year award, but also the International Cookery Book Award.
That's a mighty achievement: whilst the Beard Foundation gives out many awards, the book awards are deeply serious – Claudia Roden, for instance, received the Hall of Fame Award for her timeless A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
You can view the many winners here: www.jbfawards.com/pdf/JBF_Awards2010_Winners.pdf.
So, big congrats to Colman, and another ground-breaking moment in the international appreciation of Irish cooking.
05 May 2010
Your friend the chicken
A friend stopped me in our local shop recently and confessed that my family had been the topic of conversation in his house over several days.
“Your poor children, having to survive all week on just one chicken....!”, he joked. Well, I hope he was joking, at any rate. This piece is about two things: frugality, always a great virtue in the kitchen; and improvising, making two, or tree or five, things out of one base ingredient.
“The morning was one of those true still mornings in summer before the heat comes, the door open on the yard. Earlier that morning he must have gone through his hives… and while he was talking some jam fell into the beard and set off an immediate buzzing. Without interrupting the flow of his talk, he shambled to the door, extracted the two or tree errant bees caught in the beard, and flung them into the air of the yard”.
That is the late, great John McGahern remembering, in an article from 1991, his time as a youngster visiting his bee-keeping neighbour, Willie Moronoey, from whom the young McGahern borrowed books.
The passage has always struck me as the epitome of peacefulness – imagine being so relaxed that you don’t even notice bees in your beard! – and it came back to me recently as I listened to a news report that many families in Ireland are being forced to switch their mortgages to interest-only payments.
For families forced into that position, there will be no such Willie Moroney mornings, for the stress of debt is ever-present, a cloud over your consciousness, a burden not only on your mind but, even more pertinently, on your health.
It is at stressful times such as this that we most need the comfort of good home cooking. Soulful, true food can lift us out of despond better than anything else. And if we can somehow marry good food to thriftyness, then we win twice over.
My favourite method of marrying thrift with deliciousness is to make a roast chicken dinner into three or – maybe – even four meals. Impossible? Well, yes it is impossible if you only have an industrially-reared supermarket bird, which won’t have enough flesh and strong bones to let us get maximum value.
But if you have a good fowl from Carlow Chickens, or Margaret McDonnell’s Ballysax birds, or a Born Free bird from Waterford, or a Mullan’s farm chicken from Northern Ireland or one of Sandra Higgin’s Carbury chickens, then you are away on a hack, and those delicious dinners are coming at you.
The system is simple. Roast your chicken for Sunday dinner, and enjoy it with the family with all the trimmings. Of course, if you have a big brood, or just a few teenagers, there may be little flesh meat left, but after dinner make sure to collect every edible scrap from the bird and combine it with whatever is left.
Now, using the picked-clean carcass, make a chicken stock: put the bones in a pot, cover with water, add sliced onion, carrot and celery along with bay leaves, and let it simmer away for an hour or so, skimming off any frothy stuff from the surface.
With your stock, you have the basis for meal two, a chicken risotto, where you cook Italian Arborio rice in the stock. You can add some pieces of the left-over chicken flesh to it, but equally you can save the chicken and just flavour the risotto with mushrooms, or courgettes, or celery.
If you aren’t comfortable making risotto and you don’t have Arborio rice, make a pilaf with standard white rice, but again use the stock for cooking the rice to make it very flavourful and nutritious, and again add chopped mushrooms, or chopped sweet peppers, adding the cooked chicken at the last few minutes as the rice comes to be completely cooked.
You can also use some of the stock to make a rich velouté sauce – a white sauce made with stock rather than milk – which will be used to give you meal three: a chicken gratin.
This simply involves placing your slices of left-over chicken in a dish and covering your chicken with the velouté, or with a standard white sauce, sprinkling on some breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, and letting the dish brown in an oven for twenty minutes or so. This is one of my kids’ favourite dinners.
To bulk the gratin out, add some cooked broccoli or leeks, or cooked mushrooms, though the kids will hardly thank you for the mushrooms.
Another option with the left-over chicken is to make a chicken pie, option number four. Line a dish with slices of streaky bacon, toss in your pieces of chicken and add some quartered hard-boiled eggs. You can also add some cooked carrots, or tinned artichoke hearts, then throw in some chopped parsley, chopped spring onion, moisten with a little of your stock, then cover with some pastry and bake in a hot oven for thirty to forty minutes. This pie is beyond good.
Another kid’s fave which I have added into the repertoire recently and which gives you a fifth option is to use the chicken to make Thai green or red curry. Just fry your Thai paste in a little vegetable oil, add in a tin of coconut milk – if you have any stock left then add it in also – let it simmer for a few minutes, then add florets of broccoli, thin slices of carrot, pieces of baby corn, chopped up sweet pepper, let the vegetables cook in the milk and when they are ready add in the pieces of cooked chicken. Serve with white rice.
All of these dishes are super-duper comfort food, good for the health and the heart, just the thing for straitened circumstances and hard times.
02 May 2010
What is, or will be, “an overhyped footnote in the history books?”
The answer, according to a powerful piece by Anna Lappé in the Journal “Foreign Policy” is “industrial agriculture”
And what is the future? “Agroecological agriculture”.
Why? Because with agroecological approaches, “farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.“
Independent farmers! Now you're talking. Ms Lappé's piece is a thunderous riposte to a piece of flummery by Robert Paarlberg in the same journal, entitled “Attention Whole Foods shoppers”. It only takes Ms Lappé a few hundred words to show that black is black and white is white. Mighty stuff.