California Dreaming

Last spring brought a nasty shock. I was walking down a leafy side street off Como Avenue, hoping to admire in passing the jolly gingerbread woodwork around the eaves of the tumbledown duplex where my POSSLQ and I shared our first Minnesota home. The place was in pretty poor nick when we rented it twenty years ago; the waste pipe for the kitchen sink (located for some reason on the landing) was held together by duct tape, squirrels nested noisily in the roofing felt. But in happier times it had been a boyhood home of Governor Floyd B. Olson. Indeed, a previous tenant had tried to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but apparently there was no enthusiasm in official circles for starting a Floyd B. Olson Boyhood Home Tour—the future governor’s family had moved house rather often. No doubt the authorities thought he was better remembered by half of Highway 55 and one of the world’s biggest bronze double-breasted suits.

Anyway, as I rounded the corner I saw not crumbling timber but a large brown hole. This dust inbreathèd was the house, the wall, the wainscot, and the mouse (no shortage of mice). Above the hole, memories swam suspended in a patch of sky: Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Please will you be/ My POSSLQ. This empty air was where we opened the sherry which had been a parting gift from my previous employer; it was where we survived on short commons till the first paycheck came in, a month after our arrival.

I recall tearing into the envelope and announcing—as any Englishman might—that we should celebrate by going out for curry. Except, of course, in those days there were no curry houses in the Twin Cities. We compromised on an Afghan place, where we chose to sit on the floor cushions, feeling full of Eastern promise—the POSSLQ, fortunately, is better upholstered than I am.

Today we would have plenty of choice. The proliferation of curry houses is one of the best things to happen in the Twin Cities during the past ten years. Not that they form an oenological opportunity. I have met wines that will stand up to curry but none yet that forms as happy a marriage with it as IPA, the India Pale Ale brewed by Victorian box-wallahs for precisely that purpose.

This happy marriage is no more than you might expect. The standard curry-house menu derives, like IPA, from the long symbiosis between the peoples of the British Isles and those of the Indian subcontinent; it is not “authentically” Indian. Chicken tikka masala, now (“studies have shown”) England’s favorite national dish, was probably invented in Birmingham, not in Bombay; the balti certainly was.

The Indian restaurant menu, in fact, is the latest stage in a long relationship that is at least as much cultural as culinary. In the University Church in Oxford is a marble memorial engraved in Latin. On one side of the plaque stands a conventional Roman-style Mourning Victory, but on the other is a gent with a Yul Brynner haircut holding a writing tablet inscribed in Sanskrit. In the pediment is a Brahminic bull. The Latin commemorates Sir William Jones, an English judge in Calcutta in the eighteenth century, who, without losing his own, absorbed so much of the local civilization that he discovered the links between the Indo-European languages.

And there are older culinary links as well. You might not take to mulligatawny soup, but kedgeree is a pleasure; originally khitchri, an Indian confection of rice and beans, it became in the hands of Anglo-Indian cooks a mixture of rice, flaky fish (usually smoked haddock), sliced hard-boiled eggs, and cayenne pepper (with parsley to taste). Try it at home.

And with it try Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, a bright, refreshing white wine with a smoky center, from the Sonoma Valley of California, available in Minnesota at around fifteen dollars. Kendall-Jackson are the New Critics of the wine world. They seem to think their product should speak for itself, and so tell you little about its history or terroir, for that is what I gather advertising folk call “backstory” and the rest of us information that might lead to a rounded appreciation (those who are ignorant of history, after all, are condemned to repeat it). Though, come to think, it is perhaps this deliberate, fresh-eyed innocence that is itself the backstory of California. Anyway, if this wine speaks for itself, what it says is “Hi.” And the kedgeree has enough history for both. They make a marriage a good deal more pleasing than the concrete confection I fear is about to rise on the site of Château Floyd B. Olson. Eheu fugaces