Friday, September 21, 2012

who knows why or should

In my quest to read everything ever written by John Steinbeck, last year I acquired a used copy of The Log from the Sea of Cortez. In 1941, Steinbeck and his best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, mounted a nautical expedition that led them to Mexico's Gulf of California. A detail of their exploits, co-written by Ricketts, was published later that year as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.

On the evening of May 8, 1948, days before his 51st birthday, Ricketts' car was struck by a train just after leaving his lab. Ricketts held on for three days before passing away on May 11. In 1951, Sea of Cortez was republished as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Not only were Ricketts' species catalogs left out of this new edition, he received no credit as co-author.

While his name is absent from the cover, The Log from the Sea of Cortez contains a powerful tribute to Ed Ricketts penned by Steinbeck. Last May I haphazardly decided to read this appendix, simply titled "About Ed Ricketts." At the end of the tribute I found one of the most powerful Steinbeck passages I have ever read:

I have tried to isolate and inspect the great talent that was in Ed Ricketts, that made him so loved and needed and makes him so missed now that he is dead. Certainly he was an interesting and charming man, but there was some other quality which far exceeded these. I have thought that it might be his ability to receive, to receive anything from anyone, to receive gracefully and thankfully and make the gift seem very fine. Because of this everyone felt good in giving to Ed -- a present, a thought, anything.


It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive -- not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

Once Ed said to me, "For a very long time I didn't like myself." It was not said in self-pity but simply as an unfortunate fact. "It was a very difficult time," he said, "and very painful. I did not like myself for a number of reasons, some of them valid and some of them pure fancy. I would hate to have to go back to that. Then gradually," he said, "I discovered with surprise and pleasure that a number of people did like me. And I thought, if they can like me, why cannot I like myself? Just thinking did not do it, but slowly I learned to like myself and then it was alright."

This was not said in self-love in its bad connotation but in self-knowledge. He meant literally that he had learned to accept and like the person "Ed" as he liked other people. It gave him a great advantage. Most people do not like themselves at all. They distrust themselves, put on masks and pomposities. They quarrel and boast and pretend and are jealous because they do not like themselves. But mostly they do not even know themselves well enough to form a true liking. They cannot see themselves well enough to form a true liking, and since we automatically fear and dislike strangers, we fear and dislike our stranger-selves.

Once Ed was able to like himself he was released from the secret prison of self-contempt. Then he did not have to prove superiority any more by any of the ordinary methods, including giving. He could receive and understand and be truly glad, not competitively glad.

[Emphasis added]

[Photo Above: Ed with a Humboldt squid. Image from here.]

I don't know what the universal key to happiness is, but I imagine a big part of it has to with seeing yourself as you really are, not as seen through the lens of your experience, but as you really are -- and then accepting that. When you've accomplished that -- which is a difficult, fleeting thing -- it's so much easier to accept and love others.

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Want to learn more about Ed Ricketts? I do too. Turns out we're in luck. Independent filmmaker PJ Palmer recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete a documentary on Ed Ricketts and his influence on Steinbeck and other important minds of that era. The film is called For Ed Ricketts. Be sure to follow this project on Twitter and Facebook and check out the promo video on Kickstarter.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


The other day I made a peach pie. Having never before attempted a pie crust from scratch (well, it wasn't truly from scratch if we are to believe Carl Sagan), I was worried that it would fail. While there were a few things I will try differently next time -- using a bit less water (I hear too much makes the crust hard) and brushing the crust with an egg wash (to give it a deeper color) -- not only was the crust easy to make, it turned out better than I expected.

Behold the finished product. Please excuse my phone's inferior camera. Not even an Instagram filter can hide that blur. Is there an iPhone 5 in my future? We'll find out in May (so far away) when I'm eligible for an upgrade.

If you read the preface to the recipe I used, you'll notice the author makes a case for reducing the sweetener (here, a mix of brown and white sugars) and spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) in order to give the peaches a bit more credit. While I understand and respect where she's coming from, I like my pies more on the side of sweet and flavorful so next time I'll be increasing the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg a bit. (That said, this pie is still wonderful as it is.)

After baking this pie and enjoying a slice, I scrolled down the page to read some of the comments about the recipe. One in particular that stood out and got me thinking:

I agree with your premise. The classics are classic for a reason – and peach pie is absolutely among those. But then you get foolish and add cinnamon and nutmeg to it. You’re confusing your juicy, luscious, summery peaches for apples. It’s a common mistake. But when you consider the climate and environment peaches grow in, it’s easy to recognize. The truly classic peach pie needs no additional spices at all. Just peaches, a smidge of sugar, some sort of starch to thicken it, a pinch of salt, butter, and pie crust. If, for some unknown reason, you feel it needs more bite than that, a tiny grating of fresh ginger is more appropriate than the cinnamon and nutmeg additions you profess as correct. (Which is not to say they’re bad, just that historically speaking, they’re inauthentic.)

Apparently adding anything but "a tiny grating of fresh ginger" to a peach pie is "foolish" and a "mistake." If it is a mistake, it is a common one as the commenter says. A quick scouring online revealed that almost all peach pie recipes called for cinnamon and/or nutmeg, and not a single one mentioned a "tiny grating of fresh ginger." Curious.

During the two years I spent traipsing around eastern Canada I came across two -- yes, only two -- Mexican restaurants. Both were in Montreal. (OK, I can think of another in Ottawa but I never had a chance to eat there.) The first was called something like Au Coin du Méxique or similar (who cares about the name -- clearly I'm just showing off my French here). As I sat down to eat with a large group of fellow gringos, our server warned that what we were about to eat was authentic Mexican food, not the Tex-Mex we were likely used to. I made some statement about being from Arizona and that I know real Mexican food. To be honest, even as an Arizonan I hadn't had Mexican food that was as authentic as served at this small restaurant in Montreal.

The next place was also in Montreal, in a far less urban arrondissement (again, just showing off my French) called Lachine. I don't remember the name of this restaurant. I just know that it was delicious and that I ate there often. One of my favorite dishes was their chile relleno. The chile relleno that I'm used to, the kind that I understand to be authentic, is a poblano chile stuffed with cheese or sometimes meat, dipped in batter and then fried. It's one of my favorite Mexican dishes. But this restaurant did their chile relleno differently. Rather than using a poblano chile, they halved a bell pepper, filled it with diced carne asada, and topped it with melted cheese. Authentic? Unless this is how they do chile rellenos in a certain region of Mexico, I don't think so. Delicious? Yes, very.

Don't get me wrong, I love eating authentic food. I love experiencing food as the people from a certain place or time have experience it. But more than that, I love eating good food. In my experience authentic doesn't guarantee good.

Of course, I'm willing to substitute "a tiny grating of fresh ginger" in my next peach pie but I have my doubts that it will top the hominess of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Update [9.17.2012]: While checking this post for errors I began to wonder in what culture or time period a ginger-spiced pie would be authentic. If ginger has its roots (pun intended) in South Asia and sweet pies are primarily a European/American dish -- does anyone else feel peach pie is almost as American as apple pie? -- when and where did ginger and peach pie combine forces? Somewhere out on the American frontier? I doubt it. Perhaps the commenter above meant to say "complementary" instead of "authentic."