A Week in Culture: Elizabeth Samet, Writer and Professor, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Samet’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


I’ve been following the bassist Peter Washington around New York this week. I didn’t plan it that way: I didn’t know that Washington would be playing not only with Ann Hampton Callaway but also with the Terell Stafford Quintet at the Village Vanguard. A friend of mine who will be moving out of Manhattan in a few months told me he had never been to the Vanguard. This is unacceptable. Besides, it has been far too long since I’ve heard anyone there. The very first time I went to the Vanguard I was just out of college: I heard the late Illinois Jacquet play “Flying Home” that night. There are worse introductions.

Tonight there are two hecklers at the table behind us. Does this really happen? Do people pay a cover to heckle jazz musicians? I don’t get it. They are soon bounced, and the only other distraction proves to be the pair of unabashed lovebirds at the table in front of us. I guess the music of Billy Strayhorn—Stafford has just released This Side of Strayhorn—can have that effect on people. It took me in other directions, prompting a reflection on my relationship to the music of Strayhorn and Ellington, which was for several years just about the only music I listened to. I would prowl the excellent jazz department at the old Tower Records in Boston for more and more Ellington: first cassettes and then CDs, everything from the early Brunswick and Vocalion recordings to Money Jungle, the 1962 trio session with Max Roach and Charles Mingus.

Stafford closed the set with Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately.” I’m listening now to the version on The Blanton-Webster Band. But if you really want to get a sense of the Strayhorn mystique, listen to Ellington calling “Strays” out on stage to join him for “Drawing Room Blues” and “Tonk” on Live at the Blue Note, a recording of a 1959 date in Chicago.

And Peter Washington? His playing was luminous—again. And a brief conversation with him in between sets suggests he’s as gracious as he is good.


Having just finished the chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, I am inspired to have lunch at Prune. Her restaurant is about four miles away from my apartment, and I like to work up an appetite, so I set off across town on my way to the East Village. Until I reach Fifth Avenue, I remain blissfully unaware of the date (March 17) and its attendant St. Patrick’s Day parade. To cross the avenue, I must enter what looks like a cattle chute formed of metal police barricades: south side of the street for eastbound foot traffic, north side for westbound. Then I fight my way through midtown, head down, elbows out, until the green-hued crowds thin. East First Street is altogether another town.

It is impossible to read a review of books about food these days without stumbling on the unsavory phrase food porn. Sure enough, there it is in another review of Hamilton’s book. But as I think back to the most memorable examples of the genre, it’s not the food alone but its human context—the people cooking and eating it—that gives the writing its heft. It is not, for example, the buttery Brobdingnagian dinners at the restaurant on the Rue Saint-Augustin but rather the man who consumes them—Yves Mirande, “small” and “merry,” “with the face of a Celtic terrier”—that makes A. J. Liebling’s “A Good Appetite” a great essay. What are the Sunday dinners of M. F. K. Fisher’s Long Ago in France without her portrait of their creator, the slightly terrifying Madame Ollangnier? Indeed, Fisher herself tells us that the people are the point.

It’s the way people know and reveal their craft—be it growing, cooking, or eating—that most excites me. That’s why I can still remember being mesmerized more than a decade ago by a woman deftly butchering chickens at Florence’s Mercato Centrale, why I never tire of watching the white-coated countermen at Zabar’s smoked-fish department. They never look at you but keep their eyes fixed on the fish before them, anticipating, trimming, scraping with their knives stray pieces of the silver skin, sensing bones invisible beneath the fibrous pink. They’ll cut your nova “extra thin” and then demand, “What else?”

Hamilton reveals her own love of craft repeatedly in Blood, Bones & Butter. I was particularly struck by two episodes: Michel, the cigarette-smoking crêperie cook in Brittany declaring “E voilà!” every time he plates a crêpe; and the chef Andre Soltner splitting eggs open with two hands instead of the daredevil one on the way to making an omelette. I went to Prune with one goal in mind: eggs. The caraway omelette was perfect, and so was the walk home.


I’ve just been to the trash room, where someone, perhaps in preparation for a move, has placed a tall stack of DVDs. I spot The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Rounders, and Steel Magnolias. Clearly, these were, as a friend of mine likes to say, purchasing errors. Evidently, one of my neighbors suddenly awakened to the realization that never again to see Steel Magnolias would be to deprive herself of nothing.

I retreated to my apartment pondering all the movies that have crawled so deep inside my head that were I never to see them again they would still belong to me. I saw many of them at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where my mother suspects I spent the majority of college watching double features. She may be right. Some of the films I had seen before, but it was there that they seized me. And they’ve never let go. I could never grow weary of seeing the great Dalio give Bogart a wink and a Gallic shrug in Casablanca; of hearing Barbara Stanwyck declare that she needs Henry Fonda “like the ax needs the turkey” in The Lady Eve; of watching Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard kicking her leg in the air as she tells William Holden she has oil in Bakersfield, “pumping, pumping”; or of listening to Fred MacMurray interrupt one of Edward G. Robinson’s tirades in Double Indemnity: “Okay, turn the record over. Let’s hear the other side.” I once ended a friendship with that line. He didn’t know it was an allusion, but I doubt it would have mattered.


On the walk home from Prune I passed the Morgan Library on that block of Madison Avenue that manages to preserve a dignified calm even on St. Patrick’s Day. I noted a sign for an exhibition I hadn’t heard about: “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” Serendipity. I don’t normally keep a diary, and I wasn’t going to refuse this kind of help.

I read about Charlotte Brontë’s loneliness; Walter Scott’s recognition of his own increasing debility; John Ruskin’s mental crisis, signaled by a diary page left blank except for the words “February to April—the Dream.” I’m a bit uneasy with all of this. Am I spying? Or is it true that if they didn’t want someone to read it, they would never have written it? Would have thrown it—dramatically, at the last possible moment—into the always roaring nineteenth-century fire?

A week is not a life, but seven days ought to be time enough for something to happen. One thing that seems to have happened is that I have ended up reliving part of my twenties, albeit selectively in a more illuminating way. This week was my (sort of) vacation: work in the morning, adventure in the afternoon, each day more thoroughly suffused by the recognition that the week could never accommodate all that I needed it to: all of the grading, planning, organizing, reading, writing, tax-return preparing, corresponding, practicing, socializing, bicycling—and the just plain walking around the streets of New York that restores me like nothing else. Well, at least I’ve got a diary to show for it.

Elizabeth Samet is the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.