Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
Guest Host: Diane Vogel
Simon Schama is an art historian, world traveler, and author. But his newest work focuses on popular culture running the gamut from Ozzy Osbourne to ice cream. We chat with Schama about his newest book, “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble”
- Simon Schama University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University and author of "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother (Ecco/Harper Collins)
Read an Excerpt
From Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. Copyright 2011 by Simon Schama. Excerpted by kind permission of Ecco.
Simon Schama’s Favorite Bolognese Recipes
Marcella Hazan’s version
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 tbsp butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 lb. ground beef chuck
fresh ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 and 1/2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, torn into pieces, with juice
1 and 1/4 – 1 and 1/2 lb. pasta (preferably spaghetti), cooked and drained
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table
Put the oil, three tablespoons of butter and the chopped onion in a heavy 3.3-liter (6-pint) pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, then add the chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about two minutes, stirring the vegetables to coat well.
Add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef has lost its raw, red color.
Add the milk and let simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating, about an eighth of a teaspoon, of fresh nutmeg and stir.
Add the wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all the ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just and intermittent bubble breaking through the surface. Cook, uncovered, for three hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it will begin to dry out and the fat will separated from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add half a cup of water as necessary.
Elizabeth David’s version
85g uncooked bacon or ham (both fat and lean)
1 small piece of celery
225g lean minced beef
115g chicken livers
3 tsp concentrated tomato puree
1 glass white wine
salt and pepper
2 wine glasses meat stock or water
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
Cut the bacon or ham into very small pieces and brown them gently in a small saucepan in about 15g of butter. Add the onion, the carrot and the celery, all finely chopped. When they have browned, put in the raw minced beef, and then turn it over and over so that it all browns evenly.
Add the chopped chicken livers, and after two or three minutes the tomato puree, and then the white wine. Season with salt (taking into account the relative saltiness of the ham or bacon), pepper and a scraping of nutmeg, and add the meat stock or water.
Cover the pan and simmer the sauce very gently for thirty to forty minutes. Some cooks in Bologna add a cupful of cream or milk to the sauce, which makes it smoother. I add a light sprinkle of nutmeg. Another traditional variation is the addition of the ovarine or unlaid eggs which are found inside the hen, especially in the spring when the hens are laying. They are added at the same time as the chicken livers and form small golden globules when the sauce is finished.
MS. DIANE VOGELFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Diane Vogel, sitting in for Kojo. This hour on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," you know we're always happy to bring you serious thinkers on any type of program. But when you picture serious thinkers, you don't often envision them slurping down cold pasta Bolognese standing outside their refrigerator. You also don't picture them waxing poetic about their love of ice cream. But you may not know Simon Schama.
MS. DIANE VOGELSimon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University. But telling you that is like telling you nothing. He's a documentarian. He is an author of many, many books on things from slavery to Picasso, to anything else. His latest book out is a collection of essays entitled "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble." And it covers everyone from Winston Churchill to ice cream to his mom. And Simon Schama, it is a pleasure, pleasure, pleasure to welcome you back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. SIMON SCHAMAThanks very much, Diane. You've obviously been talking to the wrong serious thinkers. If they don't want to eat sort of cold pasta sauce for breakfast, they got no life at all. It's good for the brain.
VOGELI would agree. And, in fact, the cold pasta you'll be hearing about later is a decadent pasta Bolognese that has been -- recipes that have been tweaked and tweaked by Simon Schama and who was gracious enough to allow us to put it up on our website so you can check out the pasta Bolognese at Kojo...
SCHAMAIt causes great controversy actually. You're going to regret this, because there's the, yes, nutmeg and the no nutmeg factions actually. And they've never known to make peace really.
VOGELWell, "Kojo Nnamdi Show" is known for having won a James Beard Award and we usually have our -- we usually have our food shows on Wednesday. But we're breaking the rules for you. And that's why we're going to...
VOGEL...make you talk about Korea as -- the demilitarized zone in Korea as well as your favorite ice creams and cheese soufflés and so on.
SCHAMAThat's fine. I'll try and oblige.
VOGELAll right. Well, you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and you can join our conversation with Simon Schama, 1-800-433-8850. If you've read any of Mr. Schama's books before, feel free to ask some questions about that. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy and e-mail us a question about anything that we talk about. E-mail us at email@example.com.
VOGELI wanted to start the show by thanking you for teaching the name of the man who built my favorite building in Washington, D.C. And that is the National Building Museum and the man who built is Montgomery Meigs. I did not know that before and I was not aware of all the other fascinating things he had done.
SCHAMAYeah. He was someone featured in my called "The American Future: A History," because I wanted to talk about the torn conscience that America has always had about war itself. And Meigs was someone who came out of West Point. He came from a family of soldiers and physicians in Pennsylvania. And he was someone who actually had known, coming out of West Point, Robert E. Lee. They were both engineers on the Mississippi together. And while he in his early life actually building forts around the country, now we're in the golden age of Millard Fillmore around the 1850s.
VOGELOne of my favorite -- one of my favorite golden age.
SCHAMAHe's everybody's favorite president. And so when Fillmore (word?) and he wouldn't describe Meigs actually until the crisis really, which led to the Civil War, very important for us to remember, of course, right now. He wouldn't have described him as a raging abolitionist, but he became one. And he assumed that Robert E. Lee and many of his other old West Point fellow stars, as in, you know, distinguished graduates, would actually do the right thing, especially since Lee had been offered to come on to both Union and Confederate Armies. And when Lee did the wrong thing, Meigs never forgot. And iron entered his soul.
SCHAMAAnd he became -- he was the man in charge of many things. He was the great logistic, organizer who produced everything from ammunitions to tents, to food to bandages. Without him, really, arguably, the north would not have won the Civil War. But he was also responsible for finding a place to bury the dead. And one of those places was going to be what became Arlington National Cemetery. And it was no coincidence that it was the home of Lee, where Meigs and his wife have been received by Robert E. Lee and his wife. And Meigs was determined to set an example by expropriating as a state in order to bury the first, some of the earliest Union dead.
SCHAMAAnd so, it was -- the Meigs story is an extraordinary, rather moving story of a divided nation and a divided conscience. And as you said, he was, he was the person who finished Capital Dome. He was not just an engineer, but really a kind of, not exactly an amateur architect, he knew architecture back to front. But he wasn't specifically an architect himself. But the case of the building, which he built two house, the office that produce Veterans Pensions, for people who've been wounded. After the Civil War was the building, that South Building Museum. It still has, if you not noticed it, Diane, beautiful murals actually that Meigs was responsible for commissioning actually.
VOGELWell, I will certainly go back and notice that again. And for those who haven't noticed that the Building Museum is on about E Street and I don't know the exact location. But you can look it up. It is, if you've never been inside it, I highly recommend it. It is one of the hidden treasures of Washington, D.C. And I think it holds a, some sort of Guinness Book of World Record for largest indoor columns.
SCHAMAYes, it's huge. It's a perfect place for Bar Mitzvah, actually, I think, if columns are your thing.
VOGELAnd black tie gala events there many nights.
SCHAMAI'm sure, yeah.
VOGELMeigs also gave the city fresh water.
SCHAMAHe did. He was -- part of his engineering interest actually were building what, for the 1850s, were extremely modern single-span arches actually, which he turned into aqueducts. So, yes, that was one of the -- it was very important both in Philadelphia and Washington actually to establish the credentials of a city's self-esteem by trying to provide water the citizenry that wouldn't be guarantee that they suffer from dysenteric diseases in the summer. And Washington was famously and hideously unhealthy place, unlike now of course. All those little bugs rising, humming from the Potomac.
VOGELWell, it's funny because you, I believe, called it. Now I don't know if you were quoting someone or if this was your own language. But you said that Washington was sometimes called the Great Serbonian Bog. For those who don't know the Serbonian Bog, perhaps you can explain the reference.
SCHAMANo, I can't remember the Serbonian Bog. That would be certainly wasn't my reference actually. It was -- there were travelers who used to come to Washington actually and they heaped derisive epithets actually. They always used to talk about, particularly the novelist Nancy Trollope, his mother had an experience of trying to settle in America in Cincinnati opening a department store. Anthony Trollope came around the time of the Civil War and saw soldiers really bivouacked on where the Mall is now. And he was horrified that people would sort of ran pigs and cattle and how swampy it was. So, who exactly was the Serbonian epithet provider, I can't quite remember.
VOGELThat's okay. Well, I did my due diligence and I looked it up because I had no idea what the word even meant, Serbonian bog. So I looked it up and I learned that it was a fabled, I guess, lake or quagmire in Egypt, where armies went and were legendarily swallowed. Where you could get into, but you could never get out of. So I think there are some people who would believe that Washington is...
SCHAMARemains a bit Serbonian.
SCHAMANow budgets get swallowed and...
VOGELVery good point. Well, you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, sitting in for Kojo. I'm talking with Simon Schama. He is Columbia University professor of art and art history. He's won the National Book Critic Circle Award and an International Emmy. He works with the BBC, with PBS. He's a contributing editor and columnist with the Financial Times. He even writes a food column for GQ. We're talking a renaissance man. You can join our conversation to talk about just about anything at 1-800-433-8850, 1-800-433-8850. Or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VOGELWhen we talk about the range of topics, one of the articles or essays in your book that grabbed me was on the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. And I thought maybe you could talk just a little bit about it. Your essay is called "Comedy Meets Catastrophe." And I guess what I thought was particularly interesting was the way in which the two sides interact. What are your memories from your time in Korea and what are you trying to get across to the audience?
SCHAMAIt was a very vivid experience. We went actually to film. I was making a two-part for the BBC about America, it's foreign policy and its domestic economic policy, a year into the Obama presidency. And I began rather counter-intuitively, I guess. We really were thinking about Afghanistan, but we wanted to think about it indirectly and the decisions that Obama's going to have to make about commitment, how in fact -- in some ways, how deeply to get stuck into the Afghanistan war. And as is my warrant, you know, the historical analogy seemed to me all important.
SCHAMAIf the historical analogy was going to be about a place that seemingly America didn't have vital security interest and such a place was Korea in the 1950s. So that's why we went back into the Harry Truman story at a time when America had itself produced its enormously at size of its armed forces after the war, much to the nation's appreciation and gratitude. And then suddenly, in the summer of 1950 we're stuck with the decision about whether or not America had a credible position vis-à-vis the defense of a liberated Japan. And indeed, by extension, in Europe. So, we went to film in Korea. And I, you know, I was expecting, Diane, you know, what didn't surprise me in a way -- well, the first thing, actually, I should backtrack a bit, which is very startling. This sounds so doltishly, duh moment.
SCHAMAWhen you fly to Seoul, you're not expecting to see church piers, at least I wasn't expecting church piers. You see, Asia, you know. But of course actually it's deeply Christian country and they are, like, you know, bristles on the back of a porcupine, sort of everywhere actually. Serious protestant churches, some Catholic churches as well. And the first thing you see, if you've been to Japan, which I haven't but I've been to China quite a lot and other Asian cultures, you think you know Korea, but Korea has its own sense, a very peculiar, a forceful sense of identity. Fiercely differentiating itself, both North and South, from Japan, that has rather raw memories obviously of what happened to it during the period when it was annexed as part of the Japanese Empire.
SCHAMASo I'm not sure what I was expecting exactly, but I knew that there'll be some element really of -- the DMZ would be kind of a relic of that moment in the 1950s, that the Korean War have never ended. Every so often you go to a kind of fulmination from one of the -- our dear slash beloved leaders about threatening to rain fire and brimstone and, you know, march straight down the highways into Seoul. The DMZ is not that very far away from Seoul. So, you think, well, this is sort of kind of joke. It's sort of nuclear armed Ruritania, you know. As I say in the piece, a kind of mad, dark version of duck soup. And then you realize actually it's quite serious and you go to the DMZ and there are, as I say in the piece, the kind of dueling architectural statements.
VOGELI thought perhaps that you could read a little bit from that because, for me, as I was going through the book, that is page 48 to 49.
SCHAMARight. I will, yes.
VOGELAnd I found it to be such a perfect synopsis of -- because you had titled the book, "The Comedy Meets Catastrophe --" titled the essay, "Comedy Meets Catastrophe," and I was wondering where the comedy was? And then some of this came through.
SCHAMAYeah, here's what it looks like. "Negotiations for the original armistice and any discussion of infringements are conducted in long low huts, painted respectively blue for the U.N. and aluminum silver for the North Koreans. Two large buildings face off in emblematic hostility. Ours, the South Korean, known as Freedom House, sports granite floors, polished chrome and glass doors. Theirs, optimistically named, Welcome House, is a number assembled from the Leonid Brezhnev Album of Architectural Style. When Freedom House was seen to stand taller than its opposite number, the North Koreans lodged a protest and added a glass walled story to theirs."
SCHAMA"South Korean guards stand behind the blue huts, precisely half of their helmeted heads hidden by the walls, the other half exposed to the foe, fists clenched at their side, as if auditioning for a martial arts movie. Their opposite numbers prowl the welcome terrace, stopping to brandish a pair of aggressive binoculars in our direction. But from the roof of Freedom House, you can peer through much bigger binoculars at them glaring right back at us."
SCHAMA"I must regretfully report the enemy has a definite edge in tactical glowering. All this is so, fabulously loony, a living museum of Cold War craziness. One has to remind oneself that behind a mutually assured scowling, there is in fact something profoundly serious at stake, the moral significance of which is not depleted by its repetition in the mouths of blow hard politicians, namely the price to be paid for the survival of freedom." And, I mean, Diane, as I say that, it still sounds like a cliché.
SCHAMAIt's (unintelligible) . But, you know, you go to Seoul and you go and stand over the DMZ which is an incredibly beautiful -- the spine of Korea -- these extraordinarily densely green forested, lush mountains. But they were the kind of same mountain range which people perished in the 10s of thousands during the war. But you go there and you hear the reports, and it's certainly true and there are photographs of them of North Korean soldiers, sort of, desperately trying to make it across the river that divides the two Korea's.
SCHAMABecause not, you know, particularly because of freedom. But because they're really starving. They're very, very hungry. Other North Korean soldiers foraging for wild pigs in the forest. And you realize in all sorts of ways that the outcome of these kind of cold war pantomime is not a trick at all. And actually if you drive back down, you notice rather -- in rather a more sober manner, down from the DMZ to Seoul, you can see sentry posts which are actually, you know, with young soldiers in them.
SCHAMAMachine -- little machine gun there every quarter of a mile or more. So it is, as I say, comedy with a possibility of catastrophe at any moment.
VOGELYou're listening to Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University. Author of numerous books, most recently, "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill and My Mother." We're -- you'll -- we'll be right back after a short break. I'm Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo.
VOGELWelcome back. You're listening to the Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU 88.5. I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of the show, sitting in for Kojo. We're talking today with Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University. And author, most recently, of, "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writings on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill and My Mother." We were just talking about one of your essays about the demilitarized zone, that was an essay that appeared in the, Financial Times, I believe it is, where you're contributing columnist and editor.
VOGELI think Kathy in Clifton, Va. wanted to talk to you about that. Kathy, you're on the air.
KATHYHi, good morning -- good afternoon. Thank you, Dr. Schama, for giving us that wonderful description of the demilitarized zone. I have the privilege of traveling there with our Secretary of Defense William Perry about, I don't know, 15 years ago. And it was such a surreal experience and one that I will never forget. And I think you've described it just wonderfully and I just wanted to share my experience of being up there on a very cloudy, hazy, kind of humid day.
KATHYAnd there -- my experience was that the South Korean and American soldiers and the North Korean soldiers were sort of faced off at this line. But I didn't experience, kind of, any tension at all. They actually seemed to be, kind of, handing cigarettes back and forth to each other. I heard stories of the North Korean soldiers, kind of, trying to convince the South Koreans to kind of just come on over the line. And that life was great over there. And at the same time, we heard this eerie, eerie operatic music which I heard to be, maybe, Chinese.
KATHYI'm not exactly sure whether it was Korean or what, but just booming through the mountains and the landscape. And I was told that this was propaganda, entice -- that this is made to keep our soldiers awake so that they would become very tired. And that this went on all the time at all hours of the night. And it was just -- we walked into the center building that was -- that straddled the two sides. I can't recall what it says. But I recall going on the North Korean side of the building and seeing all the soldiers peering in the windows at us like little monkeys in a cage.
KATHYAnd all of a sudden, going -- thinking to myself, oh, my God, this is real. What is going to happen here? And so anyway, I did also experience it as both a comedy and a tragedy. And I thank you for your own description.
VOGELThanks so much, Kathy.
VOGELAnd the question, I guess, I would have is who were the monkeys in the cage? Were you guys the -- were they peering at you as monkeys in a cage or were you peering at them as monkeys in the cage?
SCHAMAI should just say, you know, we've learned from the (word?) in Arian folding in Libya, that just because, actually, someone is completely stark raving crazy, doesn't mean to say they can't also be exceptionally dangerous. And, Kathy, it must've been you, you know, your influence that made it more, kind of warmly humorous moment, actually. Because at a time when leadership's uncertain, as an uncertain passage of succession from a sick leader to yet another (word?), it's quite extraordinary actually how didacticism actually seems to sulfide everywhere in the modern world where -- in the modern world where everywhere looks.
SCHAMABut when that happens, then there is a course of temptation within communist parties, within closed in systems to actually stake a claim for the succession by doing something rash. There's a certain amount of, kind of, ferocious. We're back again to higher prime mate chest beating, metaphors. But it's a temptation to, sort of, gorilla like beat your chest by attacking a South Korean boat.
SCHAMABy ramping up on the stakes. And it just -- because it's such a small country, because it's so bristling with arms, because the North Korean army is, is an army of starving people but millions of them, they'll sell a trip wire for something serious happening. It's actually never far away. And I think we shouldn't lose sight of that. And you really hope that both the Department of the Defense and the State Department doesn't lose sight of it. It certainly didn't in the Clinton era when you were there.
VOGELNow, do you have -- from a historians perspective, can you either make an analogy or do you see -- do you have hope for the future there or does a historian's perspective on that kind of look a little bit bleaker?
SCHAMAIn Korea itself? Well, I mean, you'd have to say that, you know, the sort of -- the objective trends. Who would want to be like North Korea, you know? It's impossible to think of them -- when we're in the middle of the Cold War, there was a possibility that, as it were, the other side would win. But in heavy quotation marks, the other side is now capitalist, deeply, mega corporate capitalist China pretending, extremely unpersuasively, to cover their capitalism with a fig leaf of the communist party.
SCHAMASo in that since, you don't have this kind of brontosaurus like clash of ideologies. And that leads one historically to say, how North Korea behaves is very much a function, of actually, how much under the more rational control of the Chinese they are. But the answer is to that, is a little worrying. Is again, if you really accept the maverick runaway loony theory, that disproportionate damage can be done by irrational moments, Chinese don't have absolute control, actually, at that place.
SCHAMAAnd the Koreans know that. And that's reinforced by the fact that the Koreans, South and North, do not want to be like anyone else. You know, they really don't. So it's -- you -- it's essentially an optimistic scenario punctuated by moments of sensible terror.
VOGELWell, that is a perfect description of so many things, perhaps. Simon Schama, you're listening to Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University. Author of numerous books, most recently, "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill and My Mother." I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," sitting in for Kojo. We invite you to join the conversation, talk with Professor Schama about anything of interest.
VOGEL1-800-433-8850 is the number or e-mail us at kojo, K-O-J-O@wamu.org. In that essay on the DMZ, one of the things I noticed was this great little throwaway line that pesticides are not allowed to be used on crops there. And so the military will tell you that the rice grown in the DMZ is the most fragrant, wonderful rice in all of Korea. That is, for me, epitomizes almost your essay style. So I've learned this great fact, I've been taken with it and I can even smell what the air smells like. Tell me about writing essays and about that.
SCHAMAWell, thank you very much for that. Yes, you just have to be very much aware. When someone, you know, one of the soldiers, the United Nations soldiers, told us this and it turns out to be true. (word?) be difficult because it's very expensive to get DMZ rice. You're looking, I think -- the great masters of the essay with whom I, you know, whose skirt hem I'm not fit to kiss, you know, from Roble (sp?) through William Hazlitt. Anybody out there doesn't know the essay writing of William Hazlitt, who is a contemporary of the end of the 1800 century, early 19th of William Wordsworth -- and you should.
SCHAMAAnd onto George Orwell, it depicts something really vivid and improbable, a kind of a surprise. And we, if out of that moment, are sharply observed surprise, something in a way of more general meditation. I'll give you one example. One of my favorites in Hazlitt and it's a great art form, the essay. The essay is really a non-fit -- when it's done well, is a non-fiction short story with the same rules of withholding pace, the interpellation of reflections with physical, concrete descriptions that great short story writing has.
SCHAMAAnd I'd say, horrible damage has been done to the craft of the essay by the blog, in my view. I'm not an enemy of the blog. I'm not a luddite about that, but blogs are kind of anti-essay. In which they welcome formless effusion of the ego usually on the assumption that there's going to be someone out there with even more effusions of the formless ego. Actually, which we'll want to -- a word I would like to delete right now from the English language, share. The blog is all about sharing, whatever it is you bloody well want to share. And I...
VOGELYou know, every kindergarten teacher right now is keeling over in their car. They say sharing...
SCHAMAYeah, share -- yeah, well...
VOGEL...is the most important thing we teach kids.
SCHAMAYeah, I hate sharing. And the great essay is a hard form. It's -- you have to earn the attention of your reader. Here's an example of -- from Hazlitt, most -- who was a bit, I won't say like me, but I'm a bit like him in that Hazlitt wrote about everything. He was a sports reporter. He was the first person to write brilliantly about boxing and a little bit about horse racing. We're talking about 1805. He was parliamentary correspondent. He was an art critic. He was a theatric critic.
SCHAMAHe was truly an astonishing figure. And he wrote a wonderful essay called, actor -- "Why Actors are in Boxes." I think I may have got the title slightly wrong or on actors in boxes. And all he did was observe. He said, "Lately, there's been a problem. It's that not only do we have to suffer through exaggerating performances on stage, we now have to actually look at actors in plays in which they do not feature, parading themselves before the audience. This is even worse."
SCHAMAAnd you realize as Hazlitt goes on in his wonderful, sort of, mad lyrical vituperation that he's talking about the beginnings of celebrity culture.
SCHAMAAnd that there is a kind of craving to say, oh, ah, the great actress or the great actor. And so the thing that -- one of the gifted thing in an essay is to try and start with something very sharp, something improbable, something startling, something funny and then move out of that into some general observation. But it's -- it should be hard work, the essay, and it should be a thing that's kind of gem like and rocky and hard. And whether we're talking about great essays on pop music, for example, I'm a, you know, huge fan of the late Lester Bangs.
SCHAMAHe was brilliant or food writing, great food writing. Those same rules really apply. But we're in the kind of, you know, as I say, the kind of swampty ectoplasmic world of the, you know, infinite blog, ick.
VOGELWell, we'll come back to your distaste for blogs or your questionable, I know, you've embraced the internet a bit, but not in full. There are things that you certainly have taken issue with. At the same time, I do want to get more of our callers involved. So Jeanie in Silver Spring, Md., you're on the air, Jeanie.
JEANIEWell, you answered part of my question already, Dr. Schama. What I was more interested in, essays versus extended works. Because you've written both and I've enjoyed both. By the way, they make very good audio books. But would you rather -- does it give you more pleasure to do an essay about a topic or to do the extended research and the development that goes into making a full book?
SCHAMAI'm going to give you the most depressingly obvious answer, Jeanie, and that's they both have their own magic, really. And they're both quite frightening, actually, of course. You know, when, for example, I did the regular bi-weekly beat as the art critic of the New Yorker magazine, you know, 10 years ago or more, the terror there was you had to work very fast. And the way I did it was, be -- do loads of homework in advance. If it was about a, kind of, area of art with which I was only slightly familiar, then went to the show, not on opening.
SCHAMAA good friend of mine, a very distinguished art critic said, Simon, if you're going to do this, never go to openings. It's just people drinking their bad Bulgarian chardonnay and checking each other out. And he was quite right. Go when it's being installed or go with Joe Public, it was quite right. But you then go and then you have a kind of immediate, you know, some people call it eyeballing, you have an immediate response of what you're looking at.
SCHAMAAnd then you go into your pencil over a coffee and then you -- but then you have to sit down, there's no luxury of time. And you want somehow to be nimble, agile, even possibly funny, sharp, smart and again move out from a particular moment, a picture, a painting or a sculpture into some more general reflection about the way this show, this work of art, this piece of armor -- I wrote a piece about an armor show. It was wonderful, at the Met.
SCHAMASaid something about the nature of art itself. Now, the big book thing is a different sort of terror entirely. There you have, you know, your publisher's not going to wait forever, actually. But you have much more time. And there, in fact, you start with a sort -- at least I do, I start with a sort of assumptions. Why have I come to this subject? What's going to be the main story lines? What's going to be the main questions for analysis? You ask yourself and then you let yourself be hit by archival evidence.
SCHAMABy voices from the past, really you're letting yourself be open to a kind of séance that's gone wrong, when the kind of voices you're expecting don't arrive and voices you're not expecting really do arrive. I'll give you, if I may, Diane, just one very quick...
SCHAMA...I promise, example. I'm at work on a kind of work about Jewish history right now and in particularly, about the relationship of Jews, sort of, on the margins territorially. Not necessarily in Judea or in other places. And I didn't discover this archive. But I hadn't quite clocked, as we say in Britain, its significance. In the fourth -- fifth century B.C., there was a town of Jewish mercenary soldiers in Egypt. In a place -- on the island Elephantine, opposite where Aswan is now and indeed Syene was then.
SCHAMAAnd we have an amazing archive of papyrus and there was -- on one of the papyrus, all written in Aramaic, still papyrus never really degrades as far as I can tell. So it's exquisitely preserved and some of papyri are in the Berkeley Museum, some are in Berlin, some are in Oxford. One of the papyri letters was a letter to a wise man in Jerusalem saying, this is very topical for this week, excuse me, we've sort of forgotten how to celebrate Passover.
SCHAMAAnd of course, here are mercenary soldiers, kind of thugs all marrying Egyptian slave girls in Egypt, saying, excuse me, what should we be doing to celebrating the exodus of Egypt which we have no intention actually of fulfilling because we're quite happy staying in Egypt as a matter of fact, how do we do this? We're a bit confused. And this adorable moment of head scratching was suddenly a wonderful illumination. It got me to throw away an entire chapter at the beginning of the book, rethink it through, and think about the gorgeous paradoxes of Jews at home and abroad.
VOGELWell, you know -- thank you Jeannie for your call. It's funny, as you -- I hadn't planned on this, but as you mentioned Passover, it brought up in my head one of your essays about ice cream. And the thing that caught my eye was you celebrate halvah ice cream. You celebrate unique flavors of ice cream, and you recommend in Washington D.C. a great halvah ice cream. I do not know if it's still available, I don't know if you've gone by. Oh, and tell us a little bit about your love affair with ice cream.
SCHAMAOh, yeah. I sort of always did. I -- are we allowed to say where it is, or...
SCHAMALarry's, you know. And they have...
SCHAMALarry's has halvah ice cream.
VOGEL...north of DuPont -- DuPont Circle.
SCHAMAYeah. My daughter -- my daughter lives in Washington, and has for some time, and she told me about Larry's, and we went along. And their reputation for, how shall I say this, forthright service...
VOGELSome -- some have compared to Larry to...
SCHAMAThe Soup Nazi, right.
VOGEL...a Seinfeld character.
SCHAMAYeah. The Soup Nazi, right. Yeah. Not quite as bad actually, but yeah. But don't expect to be mollycoddled. But the halvah ice cream was really a fantastic and bizarre thing. And now you can get -- you get sort of ice cream in almost, you know, bacon and egg flavors and so on, to go from something Jewish to something not Jewish. And -- but I always -- I always loved ice cream, for what those in the trade call the mouth feel, in other words, actually.
SCHAMAThat it's both something that's really kind of shocking inside the mouth, and then a very, very kind of voluptuous sensation actually. And I love making it, and its many varieties, if we extend ice cream to include sorbets and granitas and so on. You can go from tremendous kind of sharpness, something that really wakes up the palate to something which is incredibly kind of, you know, fatty in the best way, fatty, creamy, self indulgent, wonderful in that way. So I've always liked it, and this was actually a commission.
SCHAMAI wrote the first long essays -- long-form essays I wrote were for Vogue magazine in Britain, and that seemed to come to an end actually. I don't know where -- the editor, I now have a different magazine gig where I have a monthly column, which is wonderful. I love it.
VOGELAnd that's the food -- is that the food column with GQ?
SCHAMAIt's the food -- it's British GQ, but you can -- which is hard to find here, but it's -- yeah. It's every month, and you can get the articles online, yes.
VOGELAnd I know that you were celebrating, I believe, (unintelligible) ice cream in the article...
VOGEL...in the essay that we read here.
VOGELAnd again, again, the -- the small things that you get to learn, I learned about these fruits -- these fruits...
SCHAMADominican Republic, yes. I have a friend -- I'm not sure -- I mean, you need to get the fruits actually. Occasionally -- I have a friend has a sort of magnificent place in Dominican Republic, and if I'm a good boy I'm occasionally allowed to go there, and he has these for breakfast. And they are very, very seasonal. Seasonality is something, it's now a platitude, but it's always been of intense importance to me I think as a child. Because now we are accustomed -- it's true of the kind of whole foods thing as well as anywhere else to getting strawberries all year round and asparagus all year round. They're trucked in from everywhere.
SCHAMAOn the one hand, you want to support the people who are growing these things. On the other hand, food is, of course, through the nose and the palate, an amazing vessel of memory, something that's of interest to all historians. And the memory of food, it's intensity of flavor, depends really on its brevity. You know, all forms of beauty, really. I mean pre-supposed loss, that's really true of human beauty I think, even of art in a way. And so you have to know that asparagus is not gonna be available 12 months a year. It's gonna be here just during May in order to really get into that extraordinary intensity.
SCHAMAA very famous, very famous, one of the most famous cooks in the United States, was with her daughter in a restaurant in London. And she was for some reason took against the wait service, and -- and came to -- it was a Chinese restaurant, and it came to the point where she wanted to pick dessert and it said seasonal fruits, and it was February in England. And she got at the waiter and said, now, tell me, where exactly in Britain are strawberries seasonal in February? And the guy said 9/11, madam, actually.
VOGELI think 7/11.
SCHAMAWhoa. Yes. No. He said 9/11. That was, I say, war was declared in this Chinese restaurant, yeah.
VOGELWow. Well, appreciating that brevity is what, you know, is part of what makes something so wonderful. I'm sorry to say we're closing in on the amount of time we have left with you. So we're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we're gonna be talking more food. We want to talk the Bolognese recipe and some other art history, a little bit more art history before we go. So you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
VOGELI'm Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo. We're talking with Simon Schama, professor of, I don't know, just about everything at Columbia University about his latest collection of essays, "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble." We'll be right back after this short break.
VOGELWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, "Kojo Show" managing producer, sitting in for Kojo today. And we're talking with Simon Schama. Simon Schama is the professor -- the university professor of art history and history at Columbia University. He's also winner of the National Book Critic Circle Award. He's won international Emmys, he does documentaries -- more than 30 documentaries with BBC, PBS and The History Channel. He's a contributing editor and columnist with The Financial Times, and a food columnist for GQ Britain, and he is also, of course, a professor, as we said, of art history.
VOGELAnd I think Anne has a question about that. Anne, you're on the air.
ANNEHi, Dr. Schama. My husband and I absolutely adored your art history TV series.
ANNEAnd we were both wondering how -- with so many artists, how did you select the ones that you featured on the show, and also, do you have any more TV series in the works?
VOGELGood questions, Anne. Thank you.
SCHAMAThank you very much, Anne. That's very kind of you. Yeah. As you may remember, each of the programs was built around one work of art and we -- from which we backtracked to larger issues in the artist's career. Not unlike the kind of (unintelligible) essay writing I was talking about. So it was important, without forcing the issue, that the artist concerned had quite a crisis, both in esthetic career, and with any luck, you know, in the general relationship with their patrons and so on.
SCHAMAIn a case for example of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the great sculptor, you couldn't get a bigger crisis. He just built two bell towers for St. Peters, one of which started to fall down, and both of which were ordered demolished by the Pope. So Bernini was coming out a very, very bad spot when he went on to make the Ecstasy of St. Theresa about which the film was structured. So we chose -- we chose artists who did not have a kind spurious soap opera forced romantic mythology kind of crisis, but a real one.
SCHAMAAnd one or so artists whose lives were richly documented either by themselves or by contemporary biographers, or people commenting on their lives at the time, so we could get genuine voices of how people were responding to those crises. I do have some dauntingly ambitious television projects in the works. One, quite less dauntingly, is we're gonna film two programs about Shakespeare's history plays actually this summer, which will try and put together the politics of Shakespeare's own time with what he makes of it in the text of Richard II, Henry the IV, I, II, and Henry IV.
SCHAMAAnd the Brits -- we Brits are trying to find subjects of interest for our television that are actually believe it or not, not about the queen or the Olympic games...
VOGELOr the royal wedding.
SCHAMA...for 2012. So Shakespeare is high on that list. And then there's an even larger, crazier project about Jewish history which I'm embarking on next year. Very exciting actually.
VOGELAnd you can all -- anybody who has the time available this evening, you can ask Simon Schama more questions, hear him read from the book, at Politics and Prose tonight at seven o'clock. That's on Connecticut Avenue Northwest in D.C. Seven o'clock tonight at Politics and Prose. There is always more to take to Simon Schama about. And I was thinking the art history -- one of the more fascinating things I learned from your essay book was about Picasso's fascination with Rembrandt. I knew nothing about this.
SCHAMAIt's an amazing thing, isn't it actually. I actually gave a lecture at the National Gallery here some years ago about -- called really old masters, which repaired artists in their very, very last years. And I paired Picasso with Matisse because it seemed to me in their old age, both after surgery of one kind, both after severe medical problems, they went in utterly different directions. Matisse thought of art as a kind of memory bank of essential memories, love, swimming, flowers, hence the cutouts.
SCHAMAAnd Picasso was really a huge professor. Much of his life had been spent arm wrestling with his predecessors. And he became obsessed by actually by (word?) El Greco, and above all by Rembrandt. His last years, he had a slide projecting the Night Watch on the wall of his last studio at Mujer, and it was as though the great modernist ,who had wanted so much of his life to spit in the idea of the Canon, came at the end to want to be buried beside the great master. So very -- very moving actually in the end.
VOGELFascinating. Well, I don't want to promise something and not deliver. And I'm watching the clock tick down. So we've got to talk spaghetti Bolognese and tell me...
VOGEL...how you -- how you came to be such an expert on this topic.
SCHAMAActually, I'm not -- well, actually, I was asked to do this by the Guardian newspaper, and I would call it Ragu pretentiously, which is really what Italians call what.
SCHAMABut in Britain -- I know. Britains call it spag bol. That's the -- which everyone can do. And I was, you know, one of my editors at the Guardian had had my spag bol, which has to have chicken livers in it. But you never tell your children this because they have the kind of liver, ick, kind of eew, thing, so don't tell them mashed livers up. It needs the cream or milk in it, it needs very, very slow cooking. Try not to do it in a hurry. This is a gorgeous, scrumptious, long -- it's like very long lovemaking in the kitchen actually.
SCHAMAIt's not a quickie everyone out there. You'll be rewarded by gorgeousness for days after. So that's the message I wanted to get across, and it met with some approval.
VOGELWell, it certainly did. You had two recipes in there, one by -- you've given us two recipes.
VOGELI believe one is by a Hazan I think, Marcella Hazan.
SCHAMAMarcella Hazan. The other one is Elizabeth David, yeah, exactly.
VOGELAnd now, did you -- did you pull your favorite pieces of each? Have you mastered your Spaghetti Bolognese, and is there a trick since we've now posted at the Kojo website, www.kojoshow.org. You can get these two Bolognese recipes that Simon Schama swears by. But I'm guessing that there are some special tweaks that you do that maybe you haven't told us.
SCHAMAWell, I -- there are a bit. I mean, I move more towards Elizabeth David's recipe, because it's -- you start with bacon or prosciutto or something like that, before you actually put your vegetables in. But yes. My naughty trick is actually -- is, you know, when you eventually let this thing do its thing and fill, you know, the kitchen with aromas to make people kind of die salivate with hunger, is you actually do grate two or three ounces of parmesan into the sauce maybe half an hour, 40 minutes before you're gonna serve it.
SCHAMAStir it well. Let it actually marry with it. So you're gonna actually serve grated parmesan when you actually serve it, but that -- that kind of -- it's a last piece of wicked cardiac arrest quality, a sumptuousness. So it mingles with everything else that's been going on. And everyone will love you for it.
VOGELWell, I -- I don't doubt that anyone who tries the recipe -- just having read it made my mouth water. I also had to ask, there is almost -- I've almost never before been tempted to ask this, but how important do you think handwriting is? Because you obsess on your own handwriting. And in fact, you open the book a bit with how...
SCHAMAYeah. My two styles, yeah.
VOGEL…perhaps schizophrenic your handwriting is. So tell us a little bit about that.
SCHAMAYeah. I describe my...
VOGELAnd tell us how important, or what you read into somebody's handwriting.
SCHAMAI -- well, you know, I -- kids don't any longer do this very much, and I'm not sure are they still taught handwriting, and...
SCHAMA...particularly in the age of the laptop. Penmanship (word?) . I do think actually an awful lot of your personality goes in. As I say, you know, disturbingly, I have what I describe as the anal style and the loopy style. And the anal style is all my students out there will recognize it immediately. This kind of crabbed, sort of mutilated spider style, which leans towards the left, and which I was told by a girlfriend a long time ago, said, oh, Simon, I didn't know I was dating a serial killer.
SCHAMAAnd sort of this strange tortured kind of critical moment. And then there is the loopy style which, um, I was taught again by a friend of mine a long time ago, which is really the kind of bounding imagination. You need -- if you can develop a style which is sort of flamboyant, where the ink flows freely, you've got to do it with ink I think. I'm sorry everybody, but you know metal and free-flowing ink is what it's all about. Then somehow, just by the act of, you know, the way your fingers are working, free associations just blossom and flourish and flower.
SCHAMAAnd it'll make you a happy person. And -- when's the last time you wrote a handwritten letter, Diane, when -- to someone?
VOGELI -- I wrote a thank you note the other day, does that count?
SCHAMAThere you go. Well, you're -- why would I ever doubt it actually? But people love receiving it actually, or love receiving handwritten notes. Everyone should do it.
VOGELOh, I agree a hundred percent. Well, Simon Schama, thank you so much for joining us today. Again, you can see Simon Schama at Politics and Prose at seven o'clock on Connecticut Avenue. His most recent book is "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble." Thank you for joining "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." The great team behind "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Taylor Burnie, with help from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and A.C. Valdez.
VOGELThank you to our intern, Virginia Paisley, whose last day is today. Engineer today is Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. Check us out on our website at kojoshow.org. I'm Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo. Thanks so much for listening.
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