A Sausage Made It Famous (continued)

A sausage other than summer sausage truly defines Sheboygan. As the signs say when you drive into the city: “Bratwurst Capital of the World.” At a time when few in the country knew what bratwurst was, everybody in Sheboygan ate it. Our family certainly did. It was our Sunday dinner, eaten midday, at least every other weekend. Cooking it was the father’s job. It was always grilled over charcoal, never cooked in the stove or a frying pan. The father built a grill in the backyard beyond the detached garage. He poured a foundation, laid bricks in a rectangle to waist height with a door in front to scoop out ashes, placed iron bars for a grill, and then, for reasons unbeknownst to me, added over the  back of the grill a chimney that went to six feet. All this was for bratwurst. Chicken, pork chops, and T-bones were cooked in the kitchen, and those steaks and chops were always, always well done. The grill was a monument to bratwurst, which in Sheboygan was well understood.

The grill, however, had a problem. That chimney did not draw well. Instead of accepting the smoke, it often expelled it forward into the face of the father. He was a great problem-solver with physical objects, and he made modification after modification, but the chimney won out.

That lack of drawing power also made it hard sometimes to light the charcoal. He did not use lighter fluid. The father regarded that as dangerous, but perhaps more important, lighter fluid, he thought, could impart a residual taste to the bratwurst. Instead, he started the fire with wood kindling, and when the contraption was not drawing well, he could have some problems. It took awhile to get the briquettes (who knew from lump charcoal back then?) to the desired white ashy state.

When I said we had bratwurst at least every other week growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I did not mean just in good weather. We had brats cooked on the father’s grill even in the dead of winter. The father bundled up against the cold, pulled on over-the-shoe galoshes (we didn’t say boots) closed with buckles and carried out the sausages, a pot with an inch of beer in the bottom that was placed at the back of the grill into which the cooked bratwurst were dropped to keep them warm until the rest were completely done—no underdone pork in this household—and water for flareups. Flareups were common when a sausage casing was pierced and fat—oh, yes, those brats had fat—dripped onto the coals. Flames shooting up were quickly followed by various imprecations and oaths from the father. (I worked with casings at the butcher shop. A large bucket in the walk-in refrigerator held a tangled bucket of guts in a brine. I would tug and unravel one strand until I found its starting point. I then attached it to a faucet and ran water through the intestine, or whatever it was, until liquid squirted out. I then cut the casing before and after the hole. I carefully arranged the section that I had proofed and attached the new end to the faucet and began again. Plunging my hands into forty-degree, heavily salted water made them cold, puckered, and almost unusable for hours afterwards, but I suppose I can boast that in a little way I have been a bratwurst maker.)

The brats my father cooked were eaten inside a semmel, a hard, crusty roll with a soft interior (think Kaiser roll) with an indentation down the middle that made it easy to divide it. Double brat = whole semmel. Single brat = half. The rolls were warmed in an oven while the brats cooked. We put ketchup on the sandwich. A few Sheboyganites used mustard. Onions, cooked or raw, and pickles could be placed on top of the bratwurst. I don’t ever remember tomatoes or lettuce.

Notice no mention of mayonnaise. On the not-yet-spouse’s first visit to the ancestral home, bratwurst was presented. She in ignorance asked for mayonnaise. Dead silence for two reasons. The family could not imagine mayo with bratwurst; it was too heretical for us even to imagine. (Perhaps akin to someone in New York wanting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich.) And we did not own mayonnaise. On many sandwiches we spread butter. (Good radishes placed between slices of bread slathered with butter was, and continues to be, a favorite. Gabrielle Hamilton sometimes had radishes and butter on her Prune menu. I like to think that I beat her to that delight.) After a lengthy pause, the not-yet-spouse was offered Miracle Whip, which was in our tiny refrigerator but almost never used, and she looked as if she were going to gag. I don’t remember how she ate her bratwurst.

(concluded June 8)

Snippets–Sicily Edition (continued)

Sicilians with a desire for lingonberry jam have a problem. There is but one Ikea in all of Sicily.

 

“The Sicilian language is the only one in Europe that has no future tense.” Albert Mobilio, “Introduction” to Leonardo Sciascia, The Wine-Dark Sea.

 

When I commented that the hotel numbering did not have a Room 17, a Sicilian man responded that seventeen is considered bad luck in Italy.

 

As I placed a Sicilian history onto a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, I immediately concluded that I was not going to exchange it for the Italian copy there of Bartleby the Scrivener.

 

Aristotle’s Poetics “is remarkable for many reasons, including the pleasure to be found in reading Aristotle on tragedy, as if it has just been invented, speaking confidently about how no one knows the origins of comedy, but that probably it is from Sicily.” Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

 

Before going, I consulted a reading list about Sicily. It contained more books than I was willing to read. I decided to eschew travel guides like Michelin and Fodors, but even so the listins of histories, travel writing, books about Sicilian art, architecture, or food, and novels and short stories set in Sicily was long. I used a happenstance method to make my selections. First, I went to my local library and read anything they had on Sicily. (See post of June 19, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=barrett) Then I went to my favorite bookstores to see what they may have that was on the list. (See post of December 22, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=strand)

The histories taught me that Sicily was subject to many foreign rulers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Bourbons. I read about Sicily in World War II and how the Sicilians treated the Allies as liberators as they pushed Germany off the island. I wondered how the Sicilians reconciled that response with the fact that Italy was fighting side by side with Germany. I read shocking histories about the Sicilian mafia; I read a memoir of an English woman who wrote charmingly about the house she inherited near Taormina and her guests there; I read a cultural history which blended many different aspects of Sicilian culture and history; and I was introduced to a writer of significance who was new to me.

From my reading, I learned that two Sicilians had won the Nobel Prize for literature. One was the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, whose name I tried to learn how to pronounce on the trip. (See post of November 19, 2018.) I had not been aware of him before, but I seldom read poetry, and I did not seek out any of his works.

The other was Luigi Pirandello, who lived from 1867 to 1936. I had read his controversial play Six Characters in Search of an Author in college (see post of May 9, 2018: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=Downer) and consequently thought of him as a playwright, but I now learned that he wrote novels and short stories. His works, however, did not appear on the Sicilian reading list. He was born in Sicily, but he moved away and did not write specifically about the island. Sicily may claim him, but he was not so much a Sicilian writer, as an Italian writer.

Pirandello was akin to the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who died at the age of 34 early in the nineteenth century. Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, but he left for Naples when he was eighteen where he lived for eight years. He then moved to northern Italy, London, and finally Paris. His operas were not composed in or about Sicily, but Sicily claims him. He died in Paris and was buried there, but forty years later his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Catania.

Bellini was famous and successful in his lifetime, but his works became less popular in the first half the twentieth century. That changed with Maria Callas, who often sang his operas, most notably Norma, which contains one of the most famous and difficult of soprano arias. I have not seen much opera, but I have seen Norma twice. Both were notable. The second time for the beauty of the music; the first time for an audience reaction. A famous soprano had the title role (I don’t remember who), but she was aging, and the aria had been transcribed down for her. The opera world seems to love controversy, and this was controversial. Decades ago when this happened, the Metropolitan Opera House had a room for a private dinner club before performances. The members were all men and all in formal attire. They sat together in the first ring. As the aria was about to begin, they stood up in unison and silently filed out of the theater.

“Norma” is now the designation for a pasta in Sicily. Pasta alla Norma consists of sautéed eggplant, a light tomato sauce, basil, and ricotta salata and can be found on almost any Sicilian restaurant menu. (I also saw pizza Norma.) This is apparently a traditional Sicilian dish, but its designation seems to be a recent creation. On the trip, we visited an old farmhouse surrounded by olive and almond trees. We had a cooking demonstration by the charming owner, who was, I guess, about seventy and had lived her whole life in Sicily. Somehow pasta alla Norma came up, and she scoffed at the designation. She said she had first heard that term only in the past two decades. I asked what the dish was called when she grew up, and she replied, “Fettucine with eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.” Sicily is an ancient place with many venerable traditions, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t succumb to some modern marketing too.

(concluded Dec. 3)

The Bookstore (concluded)

I recently purchased a hardcover version of God: A Biography by Jack Miles at Strand. When I got it home, a credit card receipt fell out indicating that someone had bought it shortly after it was published in 1995, paying list price of $27.50 (not an inconsiderable amount for a book two decades ago) at a book shop in Pasadena, California. I wondered how the book had made its way from Pasadena to Manhattan’s Broadway, but, of course, had no clue. I found signs in the book of a careful and interested reader. Numerous penciled underlinings and check marks were on every page, but they stopped mid-chapter on page fifty-eight. Why did the attentive reader stop at this point? I could imagine answers, but I will never really know.

I also bought at Strand Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon. It was a first edition, quite worn, from Great Britain. Inscribed inside was what I took to be the first owner of the book. The handwriting was artistic, but I could not decipher it. Who was that person? On the inside back cover was something perhaps even more intriguing—faint writing. The spouse looked at it and said, “It might say Siegfried Sassoon.” I looked at it again. It was possible. Was I holding a book once signed by Sassoon? If so, the original owner became even more intriguing, but it will all remain an unsolved mystery.

The third book I recently bought at Unnameable brought back memories and presented mysteries. The first page of Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York the Last Two Hundred Years, published in 2000, had a stamp that it was placed in the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, public library on February 15, 2001. Seeing “Manitowoc” brought back memories. You might not be very familiar with this small city, but it was the next town north of where I grew up. I still have memories as a child of visiting a submarine there. You might not know that submarines were built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, but they were—you can look it up. Manitowoc also held another memory. It was the place where I scored the most points for me in my undistinguished high school basketball career.

The book, however, brought not just memories but also mysteries. I could imagine why the book had been withdrawn from the Manitowoc Public Library—no one was checking it out—but why had it been purchased? Was there a suspected strong interest in the history of New York City’s garbage in this small town on Lake Michigan? And how did this book get from Manitowoc to Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue?

I do shop at a number of different bookstores, but mostly my bookstore heart now belongs to Greenlight. I thought that it made no sense that two people opened a bookstore in my neighborhood in what had once been an antiques store. I had read those stories about the deaths of independent bookstores, and my neighborhood was an obscure part of Brooklyn where few outsiders would breeze into the store, so opening this new bookstore seemed, to put it charitably, unwise.

I went into it shortly after it opened, and my first reaction was that it was too small. I thought it unlikely that I would find many books I wanted to purchase there, and at its beginning, I did not patronize Greenlight much. However, I had a tradition of reading the New York Times’ best books of the year list, finding selections for Christmas gifts, and heading off to a Barnes & Noble megastore to make the purchases. One year the daughter suggested that I buy locally and get them at Greenlight even if the local place did not offer the same discounts as the chain store, and for several years, I did buy the Christmas books there, but little else.

Over time, however, when I wanted a particular book, I would check out the convenient Greenlight before seeking another bookstore. Greenlight may have looked small, but now I realized that it had a surprising number of books that I sought. I became further impressed by the array of authors it had speaking at the store. And finally, much later than I should have, I found it was a wonderful store for browsing, that crucial factor for a great bookstore. Three or four tables in the center of the store are topped with a carefully arranged set of books, and almost all of them look interesting to me. Now almost every time I go by the store, which can be several times a week, I stop in to browse, and this browsing has led to many purchases. It is a remarkable store, and I am lucky to have Greenlight a five-minute walk from my house. It is in the neighborhood and an impressive store. Who could ask for anything more?

I hope that you, too, can find such a good bookstore.

The Bookstore (continued)

If I wanted to be a licensed New York Sightseeing guide, I had to pass a test. I knew little about the test except that for a single fee I would get two chances within a year to pass the test. I developed a strategy. I would read as much New York City history as I could, take notes, then review the notes, and take the test. Having taken the test and failed it, I would know what I needed to bone up on, and I should be able to pass the test on the second try.

The Strand was integral to this plan. Each time I was near it, I would go to the bookstore’s extensive New York City section. I would scan the titles for something that looked interesting or about which I knew little and then look at the price. If the book cost less than $10, I would buy it. If it cost more than $10, I would re-shelve it. A glance at a bookshelf behind me as I now write indicates that I bought sixty or so books this way.

A day before I was to go into the hospital to have my right shoulder replaced, I took the test to take my mind off my coming months of pain and inconvenience and self-pity. I answered multiple-choice questions on a computer, and I got my result a few minutes after completing the test. Do you think I would be telling you this if I had not passed? I now have a card with my smiling picture that announces I am a licensed guide, and the Strand gets part of the credit for that.

Having re-established touch with the Strand, I continue to go there regularly. I still buy New York City history books, but I also look for books that will be useful for the spouse when she leads a book group. Other bookstores are also in my life. The Mysterious Bookstore in Manhattan’s Tribeca seems to have every mystery story ever written. Often when a friend convinces me that an author unknown to me has an enjoyable mystery series, I head to Reade Street, and I find it at Mysterious. But I confess there is another reason I love that bookstore. The walls are lined with shelves ten, twelve feet high or maybe even higher. Attached to the bookcases is a railing. And attached to the railing is one of those ladders that slide along the railings. I always wanted one of those, and this is as close as I get to having one. And the ladder is not just for the store employees; I get to climb it. When I am looking for something there, I am disappointed if I the book is not above my standing grasp. I want to climb that ladder.

Whenever I am near Unnameable Books in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, I go in and almost always find on its shelves of used books something to buy. I was there two days ago and bought three books, with each one reminding me of some advantages of used books and their stores. Of course, there is the price. One of my purchases was of a book that I had first seen in the book shop of the New York Public Library, where I was doing research. Although the book had been well reviewed, I was not sure that I wanted to read about the subject matter, as indicated by its title: Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. But now at Unnameable, I found it at a fraction of the list price and consequently thought I might give it a try.

The stocks of used and new bookstores often overlap, but they will also differ. I will find books in a used bookstore that look like they may interest me that I would not find in a new bookstore. In that last foray in Unnameable, I found a history of science published in America a decade ago about the advance in scientific knowledge at the end of the eighteenth century. I read a few paragraphs and thought it was well written. I have started reading and enjoying it. I doubt that I would have found the Age of Wonder in a new bookstore.

And used books sometimes tantalize me with mysteries and glimpses of stories not contained in the book. A few recent examples to come. (To be continued.)

The Bookstore (continued)

Bookstores were at the core of a cherished day. I had finished law school and was living in New York City where I had been working for a while. The college alumni magazine had published a list of books, in effect a syllabus, for studying the American revolution. Most of the books had been published a decade or more ago. My recent reading had been largely aimless; I had never taken a course on the Revolution; and I thought that it could be interesting to read as many of the books on the list as possible. In those ancient days, you could not simply go online to order the books; you had to physically find them. I had set the next Saturday for my book hunting, but a winter storm hit with seventeen inches of snow stopping at four on Saturday morning. Being then young and full of vim and vigor (what is vim?), I decided to carry out my self-appointed task in spite of the storm. Many streets were yet to be plowed, and many walks were uncleared, but the local subway was running.

I got to Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and started walking east. The sky was a brilliant winter blue. A nippy wind made everyone’s cheeks rosy, but tramping through the drifts and mounds of still-pristine snow kept me warm. Without traffic, it was quiet, and we few pedestrians treated each other reverentially as if we were the deepest friends on a meditative retreat. It was the kind of day where I was thrilled that there was a winter and I was in it.

A few wonderful bookstores still existed on Eighth Street, and I stopped in each of them, but my real destination was Fourth Avenue.  On and around the seven blocks of Fourth Avenue from Astor Place to 14th Street had been what was called “Book Row,” New York City’s used-book district. The heyday for this book center had been the 1940s and 1950s, and by the time I headed there decades later, many of the stores were gone, but a sizeable number still remained—enough so it took me hours to go through the ones still there.

Most of these stores had a loose organizational layout at best. I might find a handwritten sign on a bookcase that said, “US History” to aid my search. The shelves had no apparent structure, and I would have to scan all the volumes to see if there were any on my list. The stores, it turned out, had a surprising number of them, and every time I found one, I got a bit excited as if I had found something much more than an out-of-print book, but some sort of little treasure that could only be found after an effortful search—the kind of thrill a seeker does not now get on the internet.

After I finished on Fourth having found many but not all the books on the list, I doubled back to Broadway and 12th Street to Strand Bookstore, what was billed then and now as the City’s largest used book store, and I found a few more sought-for volumes.

That day can no longer be repeated. The Fourth Avenue used book stores are gone; only the Strand, which started on Fourth Avenue, but moved to Broadway in the 1950s, remains. When I came to New York, I was told that Strand Bookstore was the place to buy review copies. Book reviewers and others who got advance copies of books brought their booty to the Strand where they were paid one quarter of the book-jacket price with Strand then listing them for half the jacketed price. A lucky buyer might find a recently-released book that had just been given a great review for half price. I, however, never snagged one of those bargains. I assumed these holy grails disappeared quickly and were found only by those who scoured the store once or twice a day, and I did not.

Because I rarely found a review copy of something I wanted, for me Strand was a giant used bookstore, and since I went to other ones that were more convenient for me, I rarely visited Strand for decades. That changed a few years back for two reasons: An increasing number of my doctors had offices near the Strand. And I decided that I was going to get a license to be a New York City sightseeing guide. (To be continued.)

First Sentences

“Rebecca Rose felt about Park Slope the same way she felt about her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Abbie: basic unconditional love mixed with frequent spurts of uncontrollable rage.” Amy Sohn, Prospect Park West.

“I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don’t know about you.”  Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York.

“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible.

“At the start of the twentieth century, death by electricity was a relatively recent form of capital punishment.” Harold Schechter, The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial that Ushered in the Twentieth Century.

“The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.” Ian McEwan, Atonement.

“Shortly after midnight on July 18, the great bell high in the campanile of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 115th Street announced to East Harlem that the day of festa had begun.” Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.

“When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.” Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.

“After graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street, and over to the Strand Book Annex.” Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure: A Memoir.

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.

“Once upon a time, the Flatiron Building was a member of my family.” Alice Sparberg Alexiou, The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City that Arose with It.

“It is a little remarkable that—although disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends—an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.