• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Remembering Pete Seeger: “I’ve got a song to sing, all over this land”

Here’s an edited repeat of a post from May 2009 celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday; you can read the original here. I was saddened, though not surprised, to read last night of his death at age 94. His was one of those long lives well lived, and so many of ours were that much richer for his.

(I haven’t checked all of the links, so if any are broken, please let me know.)

*  *  *  *

Pete Seeger has been presence in my life since childhood with his records and music, and I still recall one marvelous autumn day when I was about nine or 10 and we got to meet him and listen to him sing at South Street Seaport (I think I remember a pier covered with pumpkins, and while I don’t remember the sloop Clearwater, I think it must have been there as well), well before it was fixed up and turned into a tourist destination. We were also fortunate to live down the street from Pete Seeger’s old friend, Brother Kirk (the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, who died in 1987), who would sit on the sidewalk with his guitar and give impromptu sidewalk concerts. Together the friends collaborated on a 1974 children’s album, “Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street”.

As fascinating as Pete Seeger’s life story and career is his family.  He was the son of musicologist and composer of Charles Seeger and violinist Constance Edson; his stepmother was the noted composer Ruth Crawford Seeger;  his uncle Alan Seeger was the celebrated poet killed in World War I; his eldest brother Charles was a pioneering radio astronomer; his brother John, a longtime teacher at New York’s Dalton School, also founded Camp Killoleet in the Adirondacks; his half-sister is the singer Peggy Seeger; his half-brother is singer Mike Seeger.

No childhood is complete without Pete Seeger — for the music he has sung and written, for his sense of history,his family’s place in the history of American music, and his environmental and political activism.  You can listen to his music and listen to songs about America as it was, and America — and the world –  as it should be. Here’s a list, not nearly complete or comprehensive, of some of our favorite Pete Seeger records, books, and more.

Music especially for children:

“Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs for Children”

“American Folk, Game and Activity Songs”

“Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big)”

“Folk Songs for Young People”

“Song and Play Time”

Pete Seeger’s “Children’s Concert at Town Hall”

Music for the entire family:

“American Favorite Ballads”, on five CDs

“Frontier Ballads”

“Headlines and Footnotes: A Collection of Topical Songs”

“If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle”

“Love Songs for Friends and Foes”

“Pete Seeger Sings Leadbelly”

“Sing Out!: Hootenanny with Pete Seeger and the Hooteneers”

“Traditional Christmas Carols”

Pete Seeger/The Weavers 3 CD box set

“Pete Seeger at 89″

Pete Seeger discography at Smithsonian Folkways.  By the way, SF has a new publication, “Folkways Magazine”, just debuted with the Spring 2009 issue, and the main article is “Pete Seeger: Standing Tall”

Pete Seeger discography and biography at Appleseed Records

Books (many of which are children’s picture books based on his songs):

Abiyoyo with accompanying CD; and Abiyoyo Returns

Turn! Turn! Turn! with accompanying CD

One Grain of Sand: A Lullaby

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Musical Autobiography

Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book

His memoirsWhere Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies

The biography How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway, the companion volume to the radio series produced by Dunaway (see below)

Audio and Video:

PBS’s American Masters episode: “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song”; now available on DVD

How Can I Keep from Singing?, the three-part radio series produced by David King Dunaway

“To Hear Your Banjo Play” (1947)

“How to Play the 5-String Banjo” DVD, Davy’s favorite; there’s also an accompanying book (not on film, but also instructive and instructional is Pete Seeger’s “The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide”)

At NPR; and the NPR appreciation, “Pete Seeger At 90″ by Lynn Neary and Tom Cole.  At the latter link, you’ll find a little orange box on the left with The Pete Seeger Mix, a “five-hour mix of Pete Seeger classics and covers” put together by NPR Music partner Folk Alley

Pete Seeger at the pre-inaugural concert for Barack Obama

Websites:

Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, where Pete Seeger worked as an assistant in 1940

Clearwater, the organization Pete Seeger established in 1969 to preserve and protect the Hudson River

Bits and bobs:

Studs Terkel’s 2005 appreciation, in The Nation, of Pete Seeger’s 86th birthday

The New Yorker‘s 2006 profile, “The Protest Singer”, by Alec Wilkinson, and in hardcover

Pete Seeger’s biography at the Kennedy Center, where he was a Kennedy Center honor recipient in 1994

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Your own private writing seminar

with John McPhee, via the Spring issue (now online, thank goodness) of The Paris Review.

For example, the importance of using an outline, from the interview with Mr. McPhee by Peter Hessler, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 3”:

INTERVIEWER
Where did this method come from?

MCPHEE
It goes back to Olive McKee at Princeton High School, and the structural outline that we had to have before doing any piece of writing. It came up again when I worked at Time. My first cover story just floored me. It was five thousand words, and I really struggled with the mass of material. I was pretty unhappy. It was just a mess—a mess of paper, I didn’t know where anything was. So I went back to Olive McKee and the outline, sorting through this matrix of material, separating it into components and dealing with one component at a time.

INTERVIEWER
Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?

MCPHEE
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Also in the Spring issue, Ray Bradbury interviewed on the Art of Fiction, by Sam Weller, from which,

INTERVIEWER
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

INTERVIEWER
You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?

BRADBURY
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

Read the rest of Mr. Bradbury’s interview, especially on why he refused to write the screenplay for War and Peace, here. (I wrote about Mr. Bradbury and libraries last year here.)

And don’t miss the Review’s interview index, with gems from 1953 to the present.

*  *  *

Books by John McPhee, wonderful wonderful stuff and the perfect living books to include in your home school studies with older children, especially for science.  If you have to choose only one, make it Annals of the Former World, Mr. McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of four books on the geological history of North America, published in a single volume in 1998.

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.

Carriers of arts, letters, and dumplings

I had a post yesterday on Rebecca Mead’s current New Yorker essay, “Learning by Degrees”, on the purpose of education, which I agree with her should not be to “compete in the global economy”, as our politicians like to natter on about, but as Ms. Mead wrote, to “nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.”

So I was interested last night to read in yesterday’s New York Times Wednesday food section the article, “Their Future, Made By Hand” about a new twist in the road for “young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, and unemployed” New Yorkers who now find themselves at “the intersection of the economic downturn and the rise of the local artisanal food movement”, leading to “the recent flowering of small culinary start-ups” and food entrepreneurs:

As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens [and possibly college…] altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

That “ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently”, learned in high school or in college (if not afterwards for many of us), can come in very, very handy. Keep your mind and your options open, and your future might well be delicious.  Read the rest of the Times article here. (And while you’re at it, go get the recipe for 1989 Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse.  Yummy.)

Related Farm School posts:

Moving in a common rhythm; from which one of my favorite Andy Rooney quotes, from his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia, “Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

Carriers of arts, and letters

Rebecca Mead, in her latest comment piece, “Learning by Degrees” in the current issue of The New Yorker, writes,

The skip-college advocates’ contention—that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment—has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money’s worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth. For who’s to say in what direction a letter carrier’s thoughts might, or should, turn, regardless of the job’s demands? Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University. (A philosophy graduate in the Class of 2010, by the way, stands to earn an average starting salary of forty thousand dollars a year, rising to a lifetime median of seventy-six thousand. Not exactly statistician money, but something to think about.) Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee of easily found employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course, one nice think about home schooling is that you can start early nurturing critical thought, exposing the small individuals you love to the signal accomplishments of humankind; and developing that ability to respond intelligently.  You also have the chance to teach them basic economics, that expenses should not exceed income, so that they don’t find themselves with an enormous, unpayable bill at the end of four years; and also marketing 101, that there are wonderful professors to be found at institutions without snazzy T-shirts.

National Poetry Month 2010

April, as always, brings May showers and…

National Poetry Month

brought to you as always by the Academy of American Poets.  You can request your own poster, designed by Canadian artist (and recent TEDTalk 2010 speaker) Marian Bantjes.

Here are some bits and pieces from some of my previous posts on National Poetry Month, with a few updates, and at the end links to various Farm School poetry posts (most of which you can find at the green “Poetry” tab at the very top of the blog on the right):

Poetry is like peace on earth, good will toward men.  It’s something we should read and enjoy year-round, not just in Spring and all, but for many of us, without the extra effort of a special day or month, it gets rather lost of the shuffle of daily living.

National Poetry Month is celebrated both in the US, under the auspices of the Academy of American Poets (whose page has oodles of links — some good ones are How to Read a Poem [often] and Tips for Booksellers), and in Canada, under the auspices of the League of Canadian Poets.

New for 2010:

The CD “Poetic License”, featuring 100 poems read by 100 performers, comes out April 2, in time for National Poetry Month.  It’s the first project from the new label GPR Records (Glen Roven, Peter Fitzgerald, and Richard Cohen), which will record and distribute Broadway, classical, spoken word, and children’s music.  Poems and performers on the new CD include Louis Zorich with Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”, Michael York with Kipling’s “Tommy”, and Barbara Feldon with Margaret Atwood’s “I Would Like to Watch You Sleep”.

My old blog friend Gregory K. at GottaBook celebrates the month with his second annual 30 Poets/30 Days celebration.  You can find last year’s celebration here.

This year’s Cybils children’s poetry book winner is Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarensky; winner too of a 2010 Caldecott Honor award.  The list of all the poetry nominees is here, and Ms. Sidman has a free online reader’s guide to the book for students in grades 1-4 here.

Poet J. Patrick Lewis asked last month, “Can Children’s Poetry Matter?” in the journal Hunger Mountain. It’s aimed toward parents with children in school, but there’s still much that parents who home school can learn:

American children grow up in a country that poetry forgot—or that forgot poetry. The reasons are not far to seek. I have visited four hundred American elementary schools here and abroad as a latter day Pied Piper for verse, and I can confirm that too many teachers still swear allegiance to an old chestnut: the two worst words in the language when stuck side by side are “poetry” and “unit.” …

Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives. And not in the way Billy Collins has memorably described — and vilified — by tying poems to chairs and beating them senseless until they finally give up their meaning. We do not look to poetry to find answers or absolutes. Nor do we investigate verse with calipers and a light meter, though at least one benighted school of thought has tried. …

But any genre buried in unread books is useless. Make poetry a habit with students. If children are reading poetry they find insipid or pointless, they naturally reject it for the playground. Let them choose their own verse favorites. Encourage volunteers to read them. Open a Poetry Café, no textbooks allowed. Ask students to ask their parents for their favorite poems. Then invite the parents to the classroom/café to read them.

Go to the source:  Seek out the poetry lovers among teachers and discover the strategies that have worked best for them.

Read the rest of Pat’s essay here, and then go back to the list of the Cybils children poetry book nominees, write them down or print them off and head to your favorite bookseller or library.

Crayola’s activity pages for National Poetry Month 2010 include coloring pages of Langston Hughes and Edgar Allan Poe and a Poem in My Pocket craft.

Poetry Friday is celebrated in the blogosphere all year, every year, and you can read more here and here.  For all of the Farm School Poetry Friday posts, just type “Poetry Friday” in the search box above.

Some of our family’s favorite poetry resources:

Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work, from Tennyson to Plath (book and three CDs), edited by Elise Paschen (2007 saw a new expanded edition)
Poetry Speaks to Children (book and CD), edited by Elise Paschen

A Child’s Introduction to Poetry: Listen While You Learn About the Magic Words That Have Moved Mountains, Won Battles, and Made Us Laugh and Cry (book and CD), edited by Michael Driscoll and illustrated by Meredith Hamilton

A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, edited by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon J. Muth
The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, edited by Caroline Kennedy

Poetry Out Loud, edited by Robert Alden Rubin

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows

Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris

The Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work (audio CD); ignore the publisher’s sloppy labeling job and just sit back and listen

Seven Ages: An Anthology of Poetry with Music (audio CD) by Naxos AudioBooks

Voice of the Poet: Robert Frost (audio cd), from Random House’s “Voice of the Poet” series
Voice of the Poet: Langston Hughes (audio CD), from Random House’s “Voice of the Poet” series. Search for “Voice of the Poet” at Powell’s, Amazon, B&N for the rest of the series.

Poetry for Young People series; includes volumes of poetry by Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Coleridge, Longfellow, and more.  Very nicely done and perfect for strewing about the house.

Emily by Michael Bedard and illustrated by the marvelous Barbara Cooney
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires
“The Belle of Amherst” on DVD; Julie Harris in the one-woman stage production about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934) on video, starring Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Frederic March as Robert Browning
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, illustrated by Kate Greenaway

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You by John Ciardi and illustrated by the fabulous Edward Gorey
How Does a Poem Mean? by John Ciardi

Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People, edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch
Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry by Kenneth Koch
Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry by Kenneth Koch

Beyond Words: Writing Poems with Children by Elizabeth McKim and Judith Steinbergh

A Crow Doesn’t Need a Shadow: A Guide to Writing Poetry from Nature by Lorraine Ferra and Diane Boardman

Magnetic Poetry (something for everyone)

Poetry podcasts and other online audio poetry:

New from my old blog friend Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children: poetry podcasts

The Library of Congress’s guide to online poetry audio recordings

The Academy of American Poets “Poetcast”

The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts and audio selections

Cloudy Day Art podcasts

Houghton Mifflin’s “The Poetic Voice”

HarperAudio!, where you can hear Ossie Davis read Langston Hughes, Peter Ustinov read James Thurber, and Dylan Thomas read his own works

The UK Poetry Archive

BBC’s “Poetry Out Loud”

PennSound

Learn Out Loud’s “Intro to Poetry” podcast

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s Poetry Series podcasts

Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac

First World War Digital Poetry Archive podcasts

Poetry at NPR

KCRW’s Bookworm podcast

*  *  *

Previous National Poetry Month celebrations and other Poetry Posts at Farm School (you can also click the green “Poetry” page link up above, second from the right over the carrot leaves):

National Poetry Month 2009: Essential Pleasures and Happy National Poetry month!

Something different, a list of poetry books and other poetic resources

How I got my kids to like poetry and broccoli

Poetry sings

More poetry aloud, with PennSound

Poetry Is Life, and some Great Books too

A monthlong celebration of delight and glory and oddity and light (National Poetry Month 2008)

Adding even more poetry to your life, just in time for National Poetry Month (NPM 2006)

“Feed the lambs”: On the difference between poems for children and children’s poetry, Part 1 and Part 2

Thoughts on The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems and classic poetry

An appreciation of John Updike and light verse

Langston Hughes, the “social poet”

Eugene Field, “the children’s poet”, and his plea for the classics, for ambitious boys and girls

Robert Browning, with another plea and an explanation of how children learn best

You can also use the “category” clicker on the sidebar at left to find all of the Farm School Poetry and Poetry Friday posts

Schnitzels and shells: Cooking behind the lines

This being what the Canadian government now calls Veterans’ Week, it seems a good time to note that the new documentary film “Cooking History” by Peter Kerekes just had its New York City premiere at the American Museum of Natural History.  From the website,

What keeps the armies of the world going? Tanks, submarines, airplanes, bullets, bombs? Actually, bread. Bread and blinis and sausage and coq au vin, even “monkey meat” rations. As one cook puts it, without food, the army would be in a shambles. Taking a tour of 20th century battlefields, Peter Kerekes revisits its mess halls and field kitchens, asking the cooks to recreate the meals they served at the front. One Russian woman prepares blinis she once made for the soldiers fighting off the Germans outside Leningrad. Another hunts mushrooms in a Czechoslovakian forest. Hungarians slaughter a pig for kolbasz. A German sings a fight song while baking black bread for the soldiers who just took Poland. A French conscientious objector chases a cockerel for his dinner. Reliving the battles while they prepare the food, the cooks are proud of their roles in serving their countries yet remain haunted by the suffering.

You can watch the trailer at the AMNH website, too.

And from Variety‘s review,

Proving the maxim “An army marches on its belly,” playful docu “Cooking History” inventively uses the field kitchen as a prism through which to view 20th-century European history. Slovak multihyphenate Peter Kerekes (“66 Seasons”) provides fascinating sociological insights via powerfully staged interviews with a baker’s dozen of military cooks, plus Marshal Tito’s personal taster. Already released in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and winner of the international feature prize at Hot Docs, this tasty morsel (including 10 recipes) should be gobbled up by niche arthouse distribs and broadcasters around the world.Structured as separate episodes that consider conflicts such as WWII; the Russian invasions of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Chechnya; the Franco-Algerian war; and the Balkan bloodbaths, Kerekes lets his articulate (and mostly aged) subjects hold forth in monologues, prompted every now and then by his off-camera questions. Through their subjective recollections, food preparation becomes a metaphor for battle strategy.

Engrossing as the cooks’ personal histories are, the extraordinary nature of the docu lies in the theatrical way in which the monologues are staged. Never mere talking-head shots, they take place against clever and elaborate backgrounds; in some instances, the subjects play to the artifice of the helmer’s setup, deliciously adding to the stories they tell.

For instance, Peter Silbernagel, the only crew member to survive the sinking of the submarine Hai in 1963, talks about his experience while preparing schnitzel on a sandy beach in Sylt, Germany, as the tide slowly rolls in and floats his table away.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Blue Trout and Black Truffles: Peregrinations of an Epicure (1953) by the reporter Joseph Wechsberg, who wrote for The New Yorker (more here), Gourmet, and Esquire:

For a great many people 1929 was the end of Prosperity.  For me it was the end of Gastronomy. I was drafted for eighteen months’ service into the Czechoslovak Army.  

Military experts have called the old Czechoslovak Army a good army, but I’ve often wondered how far the army would have got if, following Napoleon’s celebrated dictum, it had had to march on its stomach.

At five in the morning — the hour when I’d gone to bed in my happier days of freedom — we had to queue up for something called, for lack of a more suitable word, “café.”  This “café” came in large squares, which had the size of tombstones, the color of dehydrated mud, and the smell of asphalt.  The squares were dumped into large containers of boiling water, where they dissolved instantaneously into a witches’ brew.  It was always lukewarm when the cooks poured it inot our tin cans, though it might have been piping hot only a moment ago.  “Café” and a piece of dry bread were the soldier’s breakfast.  Fifteen years later, when I was drafted into another army — the Army of the United States — there used to be much griping at breakfast-time because the eggs were not sunny-side up or the milk wasn’t cold enough.

There were no such gripes in the Czechoslovak Army.  There were no eggs.  There was no milk.  We hated the witches’ brew until the winter maneuvers started.  After lying outdoors all night long in snow and ice, we were overjoyed at the sight of the field kitchen arriving through the misty dawn.  Something miraculous had happened to the “café“: it was piping hot, had the color of fine Italian espresso, and tasted like an exquisite blend of Puerto Rican and Guatemalan coffees.