Prentiss Riddle: Books

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Procrastinator's bookshelf

I'm back in school again with a semester's worth of deadlines stretching before me, so now it's time for one of life's guilty pleasures: procrastination reading. Like the time I put off writing a German paper to take up a sudden passion for Papiamento, the best kind of procrastination has an air of studiousness about it while being pointedly off the point. It should give one the illusion of neglecting one's schooling in the service of one's education.

At the moment I'm in the grip of two fine examples of frivolity in scholar's clothing. The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World by Dane Kennedy is not quite a biography of the legendary linguist and explorer, rather it is a gentle debunking of the notion that Burton stood entirely outside Victorian society. Kennedy's thesis is that Burton consciously created the scandalous mythology around him and was not so much an exception to Victorianism as an expression of its secret underpinnings. At least that's what I've gotten from the first hundred pages or so. Unfortunately in letting some of the air out of the myth, Kennedy threatens to take away part of the fun. I'm not sure I want to give up the tall tales of Burton the linguistic wonder, ethnographic chameleon and sexual rebel. We'll see. Kennedy recommends some recent biographies that may be worth a look as well: A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton by Mary Lovell, and The Devil Drives by Fawn McKay Brodie.

The Highly Civilized Man by Dane Kennedy Curry by Lizzie Collingham

I've never read any culinary history before, but if Lizzie Collingham's Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors is representative, I need to read more. Collingham tells the story of Indian food as a series of cultural invasions going back to Babur, the first of the Mughals, who took Delhi in 1526. One of the charms of using food as a key to history is that it humanizes the facts that it touches -- I confess that I could never keep my Mughals straight before, but now I can think of them in terms of the degree of culinary fusion in their courts, from indophobe Babur through indophile Akbar to cosmopolitan yet thoroughly indianized Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Collingham offers a similarly detailed view of regional Indian cuisines and their interaction with different stages in the development of Portuguese and British colonial rule. She also offers recipes, both historic (roast black rat from the court of King Someswara III, ca. 1130 AD) and contemporary (I must try out her vindaloo). Some surprises: although Indians had never seen chile peppers until they arrived from the New World in the 16th century, they were already cooking fiery hot food with liberal use of two kinds of black pepper (Piper longum and Piper nigrum). The main genres of North Indian food with which most westerners are familiar are essentially a fusion of classic Persian cooking styles with Indian seasonings. And although invasions, migrations and new ingredients have introduced countless changes in Indian cuisine, many regional characteristics -- the Gujarati love of sweet flavors even in vegetable dishes, for example -- have been unchanged for centuries.

Okay, enough of that. On to another form of procrastination: I'm hungry.

books 2006.09.10 link