Publication: Along the Tevere – A Gastro-Historical Portrait of the Region

I wrote a piece about a study trip we took during my MA studies, following the Tevere river from its sources in Emilia-Romagna to Rome. I call it a “gastro-historical portrait” because it doesn’t quite fit any style or genre. There was so much to talk about, so much indeed of history and culture that we encountered on this 10-day trip that it would have ballooned in length had I written it as a straight-up re-telling. Worse though, I found that it lacked narrative coherence and became a boring “and then…” list of things. Often, in travel writing, it is the traveller herself who provides the coherence, but this trip or this story at least was not about me, or us as a group. It was about the river, and so I had to put the river at the heart of it. It ended up becoming quite a lyrical piece, returning again and again to the motif of the river, water and movement. As the focus is not on any particular person or community, these became often nameless, supporting actors. It reminds me of what Anna Burns did in Milkman (2018), her novel set in late 1970s/early 1980s Belfast, in which she does not name a single character with a name, only by their relationships, characteristics or nicknames (“maybe-boyfriend”, “older sister”, “real milkman”). In her story, the technique captures the secretive and cautious way of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In my article, it is not about secrecy but about, I suppose, unimportance. The smallness of individual lives and stories against the eternal story of the river.

***Along the Tevere (excerpt)***

Source of the Tevere – (c) Roberto Fogliardi /Creative Commons

“On the first evening, over dinner in their beautiful restaurant, the hosts explain how their work is centred on memory and tradition. But 82 years ago, their tradition abruptly changed, as they ceased to be Tuscan, and became Romagnoli. People are polite here, or is it careful? The carefulness that comes with having been ruled by many lords, with never much to say. Careful not to offend anybody, because who knows who will be the next masters? So people are cautious, stick to the facts: Yes, we used to be Tuscan. Now we are Romagnoli. They call it Tuscan Romagna. That’s us. Never a word about the power-hungry man from Forlì1, who thought he could influence destiny through geography2. A forced syllogism: what springs out of the sources of the Tevere must end in Rome. I am from Romagna. If the sources of the Tevere are also in Romagna, therefore, what springs from Romagna must end in Rome. In fact, he ended at the shores of an Alpine lake3. But that is a different story.

The story of the river is not one of destiny. A river has no destiny. The water never stops. It enters the sea, only to rise up again into the clouds, then fall down as rain on the top of the mountain, seep through the rocks into the underground reservoir4, and out again through the cracks. A little stream, trickling through the beechwood forest5, downhill, towards the valley and the city. An endless cycle, forever repeated. A river is movement. And in the movement, there is force. The force to carve a valley out of these mountains, or just to transport the heavy loads of the upstream harvests to the city. Grain and oil, milled with the force of the river. Wine. And people. Always people…”

1 Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Prime Minister of Italy 1922-1943
2 In 1927, Mussolini decreed that the borders of Romagna and Tuscany should be re-drawn, in order to include Monte Fumaiolo with the sources of the Tevere into Romagna, his home region.
3 Mussolini was executed by partisans at Lake Como, April 1945.
4 The sources of the Tevere spring from an underground reservoir on Mt. Fumaiolo.
5 There are many beech trees on Mt. Fumaiolo, because they are especially adapted to the local terrain – it is very sandy, and so only the beech, which has sprawling roots, about as many as it has branches overhead, can find enough hold to become very old there.

Read the full story here: https://arrow.tudublin.ie/tfschafart/212/

Bridge over the Tevere in Rome – (c) Giampaolo Macorig /Creative Commons

Unfortunately, all my own pictures from the trip were lost when my laptop crashed a while ago, so these pictures are from the Creative Commons, with thanks to the photographers.

Publication: A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

The paper I published in the journal East-West Cultural Passage entitled ‘”My Palate Hung With Starlight” – A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry’ is now available online! You can find it here: https://doi.org/10.2478/ewcp-2019-0010

abstract

Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney is celebrated for his rich verses recalling his home in the Northern Irish countryside of County Derry. Yet while the imaginative links to nature in his poetry have already been critically explored, little attention has been paid so far to his rendering of local food and foodways. From ploughing, digging potatoes and butter-churning to picking blackberries, Heaney sketches not only the everyday activities of mid-20th century rural Ireland, but also the social dynamics of community and identity and the socio-cultural symbiosis embedded in those practices. Larger questions of love, life and death also infiltrate the scenes, as they might in life, through hints of sectarian divisions and memories of famine.

This essay proposes a gastrocritical reading of Heaney’s poetry to study these topics in particularly meaningful ways. Gastrocriticism is a nascent critical approach to literature that applies the insights gained in Food Studies to literary writings, investigating the relationship of humans to each other and to nature as played out through the prism of food, or as Heaney wrote: “Things looming large and at the same time […] pinned down in the smallest detail”.

key words

gastrocriticism, Seamus Heaney, food studies, Ireland, foodways, georgic poetry

Thirst

Wet snow drips misery from the rooftops.  
I shouldn't have had that last bottle of beer.
Or the dozen before it. Or that shot of tequila – 
I guess that was not such a brilliant idea.
 
But last night, I was thirsty for beer and adventure
and a glint in your eye told me you were too.
So the drinks had no bottom, and the clock had no meaning,
'til the sky started turning a lighter blue.
 
You bought the first round at the bar of the venue,
a scene we've rehearsed on many a day.
Cold beer in the dark, heartbeat soaring with drumbeat,
and on stage someone sings what we never could say.
 
We picked up more drinks on the way to the party.
It was somebody's birthday, with cake and a grill.
Someone brought out tequila. Someone brought out a camera.
In the pictures you smile as only you will.
 
Early this morning I woke up on your sofa 
and snuck out of the house while you were asleep.
Maybe the next time we meet I will tell you
that it's for you that my thirst runs so deep.
Berlin, January 2013

Autumn in Piemonte

IMG_1820If you go for a walk in the woods one of these crisp Piemontese autumn mornings, you may meet a man carrying a wicker basket. In it, a few small mushrooms on a bed of fern. ‘Oh,’ you will say, ‘not so lucky today?’ – ‘No,’ he will answer, with a rueful look into his basket. ‘Not much luck today. Or maybe I just don’t know where to look.’ And, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, he will say: ‘Maybe this wood is not good for mushrooms. Good luck to you though.’

But if you were to come to the house of this man in these days, you will find him sitting at his kitchen table, carefully cleaning porcini mushrooms the size of his fist. He will be surrounded by several wicker baskets, full of glorious nut-brown and stone-grey specimens, resting on their bed of fresh green fern.

Continue reading

Only the Committed Drink on Tuesdays

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“Boss,the guy at the bar is making trouble.”

I looked up from the roster. Dario nodded towards the white-haired, red-faced man leaning on the bar with one elbow, clutching his wine glass. The man glanced erratically around the room then unsteadily focused on Manuela behind the bar. She had moved to the far corner by the coffee machine and was stiffly staring ahead. Her hands kept polishing the rim of a wine glass, round and round, and her eyes seemed shiny.

I sighed and got up. He owned a clothes shop in the neighbourhood, a confusion of colourful velvet, beads and mirrors. If it weren’t right on the main tourist thoroughfare, he would have been bust long ago. As it was, it still seemed to support his drinking habit. He seemed worse than usual tonight. Continue reading

How to edit: Rick Moody’s ‘Guide to Revision’

Even in our days of the internet, when almost everything can be found and traced online, there are still some things that are handed on, from person to person. In a creative writing course a few years ago, I received a copy of author Rick Moody‘s ‘Guide to Revision’. It is a very helpful essay, detailing twelve useful steps to improving one’s writing. The document itself seems rather quaint: there are no publication details, but rather a PO Box address for the author, and any source I could find on the internet seems to provide copies of the same, home-typed document. Here it is again, and thank you, Mr Moody: Rick Moody ‘A Guide to Revision’

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The Cooking Species (book review)

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I just finished a book I had been meaning to read for a long time: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. For anyone involved in studying food, this catchy title is irresistible. Cooking made us human? That validates our entire field of interest! This is particularly attractive because the preoccupation with food, even at a professional, scholarly level, is often considered at best to be a nice hobby, at worst a vain, superficial interest for a frivolous topic. As if the study of food was limited to the private appreciation of decadent luxuries such as white truffle or expensive wines. As if the study of food was not dealing with an absolute essential, with something that structures our entire lives from social relationships and physical surroundings to our time. Continue reading

A thought by Carl Sagan

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Happy #bookloversday everybody!

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a US-American astronomer, astrophysicist and author. One of his many awards and donors was the Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and Emmys for his television work. If such an accomplished scientist and scholar of human intelligence calls something magic, it’s about as serious a compliment as you can get!

William Scott, painter of pots and pans

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A grey and drizzly Sunday is perfect for visiting a museum or gallery, so my friend and I went to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin today. The current special exhibition of Vermeer was sold out, but we were actually more curious about the new wing of the Gallery, which has been done very nicely and now houses part of their permanent exhibition of Irish artists (and entrance is free, so go have a look!).

I am fond of modern art (say, from the last 150 years), and I particularly liked this painting above: Frying Pan, Eggs and Napkin (1950) by Irish-Scottish artist William Scott (1913-1989). The colours and lines remind me of retro fabrics (the painting is from 1950, so that is not far off), but I also like the everyday subject matter, of food, no less. Scott, as I have learned, painted almost exclusively everyday items, mostly food and kitchen tools, with different levels of abstractions. Some of his works consist of colourful shapes only, reminiscent of the outlines of cups and pans; in others, the fish, eggs, fruits and forks are more clearly visible.

William Scott apparently said that for French Cubist painter Georges Braque, “the guitar was his Madonna” and that “the frying pan could be [Scott’s] guitar” – his muse or artistic theme that never stopped urging him to paint. I find this rather similar to the creative urge behind literary non-fiction with its focus on the patterns and dynamics of everyday life.

 

 

A thought by Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.

In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Continue reading