Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Good Life (Lessons of a Rag Doll and a Chicken Dinner)

The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory saga in my daughter's fourth grade classroom is not yet complete, and for the past couple of days, and reaching back to the weekend, she and I have been engaged in fashioning a doll from one of the characters in the book, her class assignment. Not wanting to make a paper doll or a wooden doll or a foam doll, as many in her class were doing, she wanted to make an old-fashioned rag doll, the kind with which a girl might cuddle. I realised, not long after she described the process to me in minute detail, that her passion for the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books she read over the summer was probably responsible for this desire, though she has always appreciated dolls.  What I hadn't fully anticipated was the degree to which the making of the doll would bring her tremendous joy and pleasure.

Like many fortunate girls her age, she has a collection of dolls, mostly French and nearly all with French names, at least two of which I have purchased for her in Paris: Lisette, Marie-Solange, Yvette, among others.  She has an American girl doll as well, which Santa brought to her last year and which her grandmother outfitted with beautiful hand knit dresses which fit into a suitcase dresser.  These are beautiful dolls, all, and are outfitted with gorgeous Liberty dresses she and I have made (from fabric scraps left over from her dresses) on Saturday afternoons, once the rooms are clean.  In the process, she has become quite skilled at design, and has definite ideas about how a dress should be cut and what beauties should adorn it.   As you would expect, she regularly holds dolls' tea parties in her room, dolls propped up on all the chairs, and having attended many myself, I can only comment that they are magical in every sense.  For a girl not terribly fond of collecting or accumulating things, this is one exception. For it is the loveliest of things to see a child delighting in make believe, and the conversations between the dolls are priceless, in broken French (which is very limited, but expertly accented), and English.  They are surely not the only, but must be among the few dolls regaled with elaborate lessons on how to "Pestify" one's big brother (in classic tomboy style), followed by a sermon on the Beatitudes or a discussion of what we know of God, followed by cooking lessons, fashion tips and charm lessons (complete with books on heads to learn proper posture). These dolls are getting an education akin to the finishing school sort which my grandmother received several generations ago! Our favorite book to read each Christmas together is the beautiful Tasha Tudor book "A Doll's Christmas," which has inspired many projects at The House which shall be Unnamed, and lives in our collective imagination long after the holidays have come and gone.  Chiefly, this little volume is about delighting in simple pleasures and handmade things of beauty, and it is this inclination which is responsible for her desire to make a rag doll the in "the old way."

We ended up making two dolls, as the first one came out too small to meet the detailed specifications given by my daughter's teacher, so the process was a little more involved than I had planned.  In keeping with the rag doll tradition, my daughter decreed that the doll had to be made of rags and "old things," so we cut up an old sheet and pillow case for the body and stuffing, and she removed the hand tatted lace from the old case, which had sadly ripped in the laundry not long ago. Thus, yesterday afternoon, she was ripping up the old sheet into yet more ribbons of fabric to stuff into the doll she had designed, cut and sewn (with a little help).  As she had decided on Violet as her character, her characterization included lavender button eyes and a round mouth which she drew on with infinite care, as well as golden hair with curls all around her face. We made a Violet dress with all the trimmings, which she designed herself, and a little purse, complete with a gum wrapper protruding, which you may recall if you have read the book is Violet's chief distinction: her love of chewing gum (the louder the better).  The pure delight became increasingly apparent on my daughter's face as the doll began to take form, and once the head and arms and legs were stuffed, she squealed with joy, commenting that she had got the legs "just right" and the face "perfect." I asked her if the Violet in the book had such a serene countenance, and she countered that she wasn't about to cuddle at night with a frowsy faced doll, and besides, it was no longer her grade on the project that mattered. Violet mattered.  Enough said.  I am quite sure that not even the chic dolls from Paris were nearly so well appreciated and loved as that beautiful rag doll, which made we wonder afresh if we do our children any favors with ready made gifts when the gift of an afternoon with Mother, creating something from scraps and rags that becomes beautiful before one's eyes isn't a far better gift and a life lesson to boot.  Of course, Violet accompanied my daughter to bed last night, easily more important than preserving her pristine appearance for the class submission.  A doll can't be a doll sitting on a shelf, I was told, significantly. A Doll must be cuddled to be Real.  Love makes her come to Life.  Everyone knows a Lifeless doll cannot be properly presented at class.  Yes, Ma'am!

As is often the case with these undertakings, we both lost track of time, and when the phone rang, I realised that I hadn't even thought about dinner, so engrossed had we been in the doll making. Knowing that nearly all the members of my family had had a long and tiring day, I wondered what I might create at this late hour to soothe the ravages of the onslaught of homework, classes, long hours at work without much reprieve for weeks, and hunger at this late hour.  ("Mom, I see No signs of dinner, my son reminded me).  "Go and set the table and  light the candles, Cherie," I said to my daughter, and I began to think along the lines of food for the soul. To my son, I suggested he turn on the oven.   Unprompted, he also opened a bottle of champagne and poured me a glass, toasting Violet's emerging life as he did so (entranced himself at what had come of the rags and scraps) and commenting that it was not everyday we had such an August birthing in our house. Out from the refer came some skinless chicken breasts, some haricots verts, and some arugula; from the pantry, some beautiful little French fingerling potatoes, and from my fruit bowl on the table, a red and yellow heirloom tomato. We sprang into action, bolstered by the champagne (Orangina for the urchins) aperitif. 

The first thing I did was to cut the fingerlings in half, toss them with olive oil, seasalt and chopped, fresh herbs and roast them in the oven at 400 degrees.  I made a little saffron aioli to accompany the chicken and the potatoes and the make shift salad.  I pounded the chicken breasts with my French rolling pin and dipped them in egg wash and then in some breadcrumbs I made in the food processor with stale bread, salt and pepper. This went into a medium hot copper fry pan, to which I had added both some oil and butter, once it had reached a hot enough temperature to prevent holding my hand over the pan comfortably. I then seared the breasts on each side until golden, but not cooked, and put them on a platter into the oven, which I had turned off.  The residual heat from the potatoes, which were not done, was more than sufficient to finish cooking the chicken to perfect tenderness and moistness, and when they emerged they were golden, gorgeous, meltingly tender and perfectly done.  On a big, white, oval Apilco platter, I put a layer of stunningly beautiful, dark green arugula, and around the edges my son arranged alternating slices of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes. Then he drizzled both with a light stream of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled on some sea salt. On top of this masterpiece, we placed the pounded and breaded chicken and the fingerling potatoes and scattered the whole with a few more finely chopped fresh herbs.  Finally, we put the haricots verts, which had been simply cooked in generously salted water and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, on each side of the platter. The presentation was gorgeous, but the food was even better, complemented by the saffron aioli, which was equally good with the greens as it was the chicken and fingerlings.  We all sat in the dining room, candles blazing, listening to the music of Lully (Divertisements de Versailles), drinking a Cote de Ventoux from Provence, and allowing all the stress of the day to ebb away. As she was served, my daughter said "This is just Wonderful Food.  We have a Good Life."  I thought how much pleasure came of that simple and simply prepared dinner, and it seemed to echo the simple joy of the rag doll project. Love made us come to Life, just as my daughter had said of Violet.

Philosophers have long debated the meaning of the good life. Since ancient times, there has been much discussion of what constituted happiness, or perhaps a better word, well being.  Eudaimonia or eudaemonia, from the ancient Greek, sometimes Anglicized as eudemonia , is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing" has been proposed as a more accurate translation.   Socrates, largely captured by the philospher Plato, argued that true eudaimonia is the proper care and feeding of one's soul, from which virtue is a necessary outpouring.  Aristotle later argued that Arete, or excellence in accordance with reason was the ideal human state of being, and that while virtue was necessary, it was not sufficient to achieve eudemonia.  Other things, like beauty and wealth, contributed to wellbeing. The Stoics argued that living in agreement with nature was the ideal state, and that moral virtues, written into nature, were necessary and sufficient for achieving this ideal state.  I have lately been reading the writings of an Italian artist of the Renaissance era who describes the good life at his country villa in Tuscany, extolling the simple virtues and pleasures there.  Christ, however, argued that the meaning of the good life was the Life of God in us, that true well being did not come from virtue as the goal, but rather as the blessed state of accepting Love and the blessings which come of surrending ourselves to this Love. I think perhaps my daughter had it right, as children often do, possessed of a wisdom we seem to lose as we age. Love brings Life, which animates even the stuffed and ragged, the hungry and the weary. "Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and you will find rest for your souls, " Jesus said. It is this rest, wholeness (Shalom), that is the true flourishing of the human soul.  Perhaps we are all rag dolls in the end, stuffed and lifeless without the Love for which we were created, Him, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. We comfort ourselves with all sorts of things to stave off the sense that we are lifeless, but in the end, even the most delicious chicken dinner will not cure the kind of hunger created in us to point to Him. But at the table is a pretty good metaphor, in my view, for what it means to accept and embrace Love.

Pumpkin Soup to follow. More anon. Try the chicken, mes amis. You will be surpised. A bientot.

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