Strawberry jam

9 April 2016

Click a link on Twitter to a 1986 Paris Review interview of Robertson Davies. Interviewer, the editor & publisher Elisabeth Sifton, says by way of warming up to a question:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said.”

You jot down the last bit, which has a nice ring to it, you think to yourself, this way—

Mary McCarthy: “You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina

—and then you wonder what she actually wrote, because you have a brain disease contracted via freelance fact-checking work, and all of that yields the following quick dive into a rabbit-hole:

First comes from Mary McCarthy’s “Fact in Fiction”, published as an essay in the Partisan Review as a “paraphrase of a talk or talks given to Polish, Yugoslav, and British audiences” in early 1960. (Later collected in On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961). It goes like this:

“And the novel, like newspaper boiler plate, contains not only a miscellany of odd facts but household hints and how-to-do-it instructions (you can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina, and how to reap a field and hunt ducks).”

This is the punchline, kind of, to a loping series of examples of the way novels fold in fact, turning from papermaking in Balzac and tuberculosis in The Magic Mountain to the hotel business in Dreiser, whaling in Moby-Dick, etc.

“In newspaper jargon, you might call all this the boiler plate of the novel —durable informative matter set up in stereotype and sold to country newspapers as filler to eke out a scarcity of local news, i.e. of ‘plot.'”

People in the early ’60s had a tendency to use it in the ledes of book reviews (here’s Joan Didion who I think? is reviewing John O’Hara’s debut novel in 1960 for the National Review):

“Mary McCarthy observed not long ago that it is possible to learn from Anna Karenina a recipe for strawberry jam. It is possible to learn from Appointment in Samarra not only the details of a method of suicide but the name of a good hatter (Julian English wore none but Herbert Johnson hats); it is possible to learn from Miss McCarthy’s own stories any number of interesting and useful things, such as how to get free lemonade in an Automat or why it is unwise to go about on trains with safety pins in one’s underwear.”


McCarthy publishes The Group, the novel that would make her career and undo her, three years later, in 1963, and as you’d imagine a few reviewers trot it out unkindly (also, note the prim editorializing: “love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term” oh wicked burn Thomas Rogers of Commentary

In “Fact and Fiction,” one of her recent essays, Miss McCarthy points out that there are large chunks of informative matter in most great novels; for example, one can learn how to reap a field and make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps one can. But in Anna Karenina, when Levin reaps wheat with his peasants, what is uppermost is the moral meaning of the action. […] In contrast, Miss McCarthy’s technical and informative matter exists more or less for its own sake. She gathers her facts from domestic life, but the facts often become denatured in the process, so that when she describes such matters as nursing or love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term—she is very clear and specific, but discouraging.

Misattribution takes a while but is, in the end, inevitable. Julian Mitchell, the English playwright, turns it into a floating piece of folk wisdom in a 1976 issue of Radio Times: 

“It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

This is the one that tends to pop up on food blogs.

That eventually mutates into this cameo at the end of a 2013 essay about memoirs in the LA Review of Books: 

“The playwright and critic Julian Marks once quipped, “It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

(As far as I can tell, Julian Marks doesn’t exist—at least not in the conventional sense of writing plays & literary criticism, or of making quips. But, and I mean this at least twenty-percent seriously, maybe misremembering the name of someone else quoting from memory is appropriate in an essay about memoir?)

Forty-six years after her review of John O’Hara, Joan Didion’s recalls to The Guardian: 

“I remember reading a Mary McCarthy essay on how novels were bourgeois learning experiences,” she says, “and how you could learn to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Well, I’m not sure you can, but somehow I found that a very arresting thing to say. It kind of stuck in my head when I was learning to write.”

As it turns out, finally, you can’t learn how to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina, because the scene itself is about making raspberry jam:

“…jam was being made there according to a method new to Agafya Mikhailovna, without the addition of water. Kitty was introducing this new method which they used at home. Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been in charge of it before, and who considered that nothing done in the Levins’ hose could be bad, had put water in the strawberry and wild strawberry jam all the same, insisting that it could not be done otherwise; she had been caught at it, and now raspberry jam was being made in front of everyone, and Agafya Mikhailovna had to be brought to believe that jam without water could turn out well.

“Agafya Mikhailovna, with a flushed and upset face, her hair tousled, her thin arms bared to the elbows, rocked the basin in circular movements over the rbazier and stared gloomily at the raspberry jam, wishing with all her heart that it would thicken before it was cooked through.”

This goes on for a little while.

Does it work? Elizabeth Bishop says so. From a letter, dated June 15th, 1961 from Rio de Janeiro, she writes to Robert Lowell:

“I think Mary’s novels are awfully good, too, don’t you? It’s funny. Before I saw the first one I was telling Lota how wonderful Anna Karenina is—how it even tells you how to make raspberry jam, and I went and made raspberry jam from our wild raspberries just that way—excellent—and then Mary makes the same remark.”


One last thing. The Paris Review interviewer finishes the question she started:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly?”

Davies responds:

“Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t.”


30 January 2015

It’s easy to make fun of the wine-critic word salad Robert Parker invented, all layers & ripeness & things leaping from glasses–easy, too, to talk about ‘Parkerized’ wines, the style of winemaking that he is said to represent. Did he do a service, when he began to write about wine for Americans stressed out over buying $40 birthday presents for their bosses in more or less the same way that Consumer Reports reviews washing machines? In a very specific, very real way: yes. Has the idea of rating an idiosyncratic, living agricultural product in the same way as a washing machine done measurable harm? Well, yes.

And in the decades that have followed, and with all of the objections to for example the point system pretty much canon now, the wines that he got most enthusiastic over and the way he wrote about that enthusiasm have been caricatured so thoroughly that sometimes instead of attempting to parrot received wisdom it really truly is instructive to just survey & report. To put in another way: I could not write a better parody of Robert Parker’s prose, or describe the kinds of wines I’m told he liked, better than presenting his own writing with as little commentary as possible.

I came across this particular collection of text while looking for something more or less unrelated. (How a particular vintage of a modernist Barolo producer was received a decade and a half ago, if you’re curious.) So! Here are some words & phrases used by Robert Parker when he likes something. They appear, all of them, exactly as written, on a single page of his 2002 Buyers Guide. A dozen or so wines, all told. And without me saying anything more, maybe you can decide for yourself what he values in a bottle of wine, and what kind of things he likes to drink, and how he likes to write about drinking them:

up-front, sexy
sexy, in-your-face
a provocative bouquet
a luxurious bouquet
a hedonistic, explosive nose
big sweet perfume
supple and velvety
velvety and forward
ripe, and attractive
aromas jump from the glass
flavors cascade over the palate
Powerfully, unctuously textured
awesomely layered texture
with additional levels of glycerin and flavor
layers of glycerin
stunningly concentrated
fabulously concentrated
decadent level of richness
Pomerol-like lushness
Full-bodied, ripe
Full-bodied-and lush
opulent, lush, fleshy
fleshy and flamboyant
sexy, hedonistic, seamless
Rich, full, fat, opulent, and decadent
copious spice, glycerin, and alcohol
fleshy, and flamboyant, with huge glycerin levels
this textured, full-bodied, fat, lush wine.


25 October 2014

“The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since. I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons & others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit into a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished & apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of these apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once for an easier harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off til winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (p. 48–49) touring the Lake Geneva Plant Genetic Resources Unit.

Year in review

2 July 2014

From Twitter, between January 1 and December 21, 2013. Question for the day: how do you archive & resurrect experience of the digital over time?


My sister at breakfast: “Do you know what the German word for birth control is? ANTIBABYPILLEN.”
4 January, 3:44 p.m.

On the Difficulties of Recollecting the Plots of Novels One Has Partly Read While Drunk. #unwrittenessays
10 January, 12:48 a.m.

“…but those who believe, that Abel lived an hundred and twenty nine Years, think it improbable he should die a Batchelor.
10 January, 1:06 a.m.

“If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.”
11 January, 4:47 p.m.

Tarantino films that feature scenes in which characters literally give each other acting lessons: Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs.
17 January, 1:28 a.m.

“There you are, like butter in sunshine.” Martin Luther insult randomizer:
20 January, 12:50 p.m.

RT: Thank God for technology. Before Twitter, I just used to go up to strangers and whisper in their ears. @tejucole
26 January, 1:42 p.m.

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Primo Levi on distillation

26 February 2014

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think about other things, a little like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid, but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

— p. 62, The Periodic Table


14 February 2014

Some seasonally-appropriate tunes for all of you who are trapped inside walls of ice and already opening the second bottle. Here’s love as: something you can lock out, or be invulnerable to if you’re cold enough, or not human; a curse, a poison, a way to get revenge; ten gin-and-tonics; some kind of joke; a hungry bear.

1. Unbelievers // VAMPIRE WEEKEND
2. I’m gonna lock my heart // BILLIE HOLIDAY
3. Nothing but a heartache // THE FLIRTATIONS
4. Misery loves company // BLACKFEET BRAVES
5. Aftermath // SZA
7. Standard bitter love song #8  // THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
8. We sink  // CHVRCHES
9. Stepping over hearts  // INSIGHTFUL
10. Get lucky  // DAUGHTER
12. No one’s gonna love you as much  // NICOLE WILLIS & THE SOUL INVESTIGATORS
13. I don’t believe you  // THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
14. Don’t fuck around with love // THE BLENDERS

Download here.

November’s facts

2 December 2013

fact checking in action

Fact-checking detritus from various freelance assignments last month, culled from a lifetime in service to the truth.

From Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Raised in a Kauai geodesic dome by two surfing parents, Keala Kennelly has an untouchable reputation as the sport’s most fearless tuberider. […] Breaking rank from the girlish ‘surfette’ look that all but defined women’s surfing in the ’90s and early ’00s, Kennelly was a leather-clad and tongue-studded nightclubber who moonlighted as a DJ and often looked, as surf journalist Alison Berkeley put it, like ‘a sinister Disney cartoon character.’”

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