May 10, 2011

The Smile

by William Blake

There is a smile of love,
And there is a smile of deceit;
And there is a smile of smiles,
In which these two smiles meet.

(And there is a frown of hate,
And there is a frown of disdain;
And there is a frown of frowns
Which you strive to forget in vain,

For it sticks in the heart's deep core,
And it sticks in the deep backbone.)
And no smile that ever was smiled,
But only one smile alone—

That betwixt the cradle and grave
It only once smiled can be.
But when it once is smiled
There's an end to all misery.

"The Smile" by William Blake, from Selected Poetry. © Oxford University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It’s the 100th birthday of novelist Bel Kaufman (books by this author), born in Berlin, Germany (1911). Her grandfather was Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer, whose short stories were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. Her parents were Russian, and she spent her childhood in Russia, immigrating to New York City at the age of 12. She went to Hunter College and graduated with honors, then went to Columbia to work toward her master’s degree.

She decided that she wanted to be a teacher, but in order to teach in the New York Public schools, she had to pass a rigorous test. She failed the oral exam three times in a row because of her Russian accent. She said, "The examiners fixed me with their collective eye, asked if I were born in this country, then had me pronounce some very difficult sentences." She finally passed the fourth time with the phrase He still insists he sees the ghosts — she said, "I hissed it to their satisfaction." But then she failed the interpretation piece of the exam — she had to interpret the poem "Euclid Alone" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the examiners said it wasn’t good enough. So Kaufman sent a copy of her analysis to Millay, who wrote back to say that it was wonderful and she couldn’t have interpreted the poem any better herself. Kaufman sent Millay’s letter to the examiners, but they were unmoved — they failed her anyway. Finally she passed, and went on to teach in the public schools for about 20 years. From that experience, she wrote one of the most famous novels about American public schools: Up the Down Staircase (1965), a humorous story of an idealistic college graduate named Sylvia Barrett who set out to teach in a New York public school and ran up against bureaucracy and impossible students. It spent 32 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and it was translated into 16 languages and made into a movie. The novel is told in epistolary form — through notes, memos, letters, essays, etc. Kaufman satirized her own experiences as a teacher, including her attempts to get through the teaching exam — in the novel, she writes in one "intraschool communication": "A friend of mine, a Millay scholar, was failed for poor interpretation of a sonnet by Millay. Her appeal was not granted, even after Edna Millay herself wrote a letter to the Board explaining that was exactly what she had meant in her poem. My friend did establish a precedent, I believe: ever since, candidates for the English license have been given poems by very dead poets, long silent in their graves."

At the age of 99, she was hired by Hunter College to teach a course on Jewish humor.

It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. Their ruling was in light of a 10-year-old piece of legislation called the Tariff Act of 1883, which ruled that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The case, known as Nix vs. Hedden, was filed by John Nix and several other tomato importers against Edward Hedden, the Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. The case wound up in the Supreme Court, where Webster’s Dictionary was heavily cited. The plaintiffs argued that according to the dictionary definition of fruit — the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds — a tomato was a fruit. They called two witnesses, both of whom heard the definitions of "fruit" and "vegetable" out of the dictionary and were asked whether those definitions were any different in the world of trade and commerce. Both talked for a while but said no, the definitions were no different. The counsel for the plaintiff then read the definition of tomato.

Each side then proceeded to read a series of Webster’s Dictionary definitions. The counsel for the defense read "egg plant," "squash," "pepper," and "cucumber" — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are widely considered vegetables. In response, the counsel for the plaintiff read the definitions of "potato," "turnip," "parsnip," "cauliflower," "cabbage," and "carrot," none of them botanical fruits but all considered vegetables.

Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court, and he said: "Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert."

Nix v. Hedden has been referenced in numerous cases since, including a 1990 Second Circuit Court of Appeals case about a delay in a tomato shipment. The judge wrote: "In common parlance tomatoes are vegetables, as the Supreme Court observed long ago, see Nix v. Hedden, although botanically speaking they are actually a fruit. Regardless of classification, people have been enjoying tomatoes for centuries, even Mr. Pickwick, as Dickens relates, ate his chops in ‘tomata’ sauce."

The debate has continued, but the problem is that "vegetable" has no actual scientific or botanical definition — it is a culinary term. In 1987, the state of Arkansas designated the Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as their official state fruit and vegetable.

Tomatoes were slow to catch on in the United States — in 1845, the editor of the Boston Courier wrote that tomatoes were "the mere fungus of an offensive plant, which one cannot touch without an immediate application of soap and water with an infusion of eau de cologne ... deliver us, O ye caterers of luxuries, ye gods and goddesses of the science of cookery! deliver us from tomatoes!" This opinion was echoed over and over again by journalists, agricultural experts, farmers, and gardeners across the country.

The poem "To Preserve Tomatoes" by "A.B." was published in the "Ladies’ Department" of the American Agriculturist in July of 1849, the first known tomato poem to appear in America:
"Six pounds of tomatoes first carefully wipe,
Not fluted nor green, but round, ruddy, and ripe;
After scalding, and peeling, and rinsing them nice —
With dext’rous fingers ‘tis done in a trice —
Add three pounds of sugar, (Orleans will suit)
In layers alternate of sugar and fruit.
In a deep earthen dish, let them stand for a night,
Allowing the sugar and juice to unite!
Boil the sirup next day in a very clean kettle,
(Not iron, but copper, zinc, brass or bell-metal)
Which having well skimmed, ‘till you think ‘twil suffice
Throw in the tomatoes, first adding some spice —
Cloves, cinnamon, mace, or whate’er you like best —
‘Twill add to the flavor, and give them a zest,
Boil slowly together until the begin
To shrink at the sides, and appear to fall in,
Then take them up lightly, and lay them to cool,
Still boiling the sirup, according to rule,
Until it is perfectly clear and translucent —
Your skill will direct you, or else there’s no use in’t —
Then into the jars, where the fruit is placed proper,
Pour boiling the sirup, direct from the copper.
After standing till cold, dip some paper in brandy,
Or rum, or in whisky, if that is more handy,
Lay it over the fruit with attention and care,
And run on mutton suet to keep out the air,
Then tie a strong paper well over the top —
And, ‘now that I think on’t the story may stop.’
If you’ll follow these rules, your preserves, never fear,
Will keep in good order till this time next year."

Pablo Neruda wrote "Ode to Tomatoes"
"The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness."

It was on this day in 1749 that the 10th and final volume of Henry Fielding’s (books by this author) novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was published. The novel form was still very new in English — other fiction writers presented their work as if it were factual, or as a moral allegory, whereas Fielding just wanted to write a good story. He said, "I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever; for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein."

Tom Jones tells the story of Tom, who is dropped on the doorstep of Squire Allworthy as a newborn, and raised by the squire as his son. He is a kind and generous young man who loves women and gets into all sorts of sexual adventures, which caused many 18th-century novelists and critics to condemn Tom Jones as immoral. Tom falls for the neighboring squire’s daughter, Sophia, but neither Sophia’s father nor his own adopted father will sanction their marriage since Tom is illegitimate. Tom gets a little too friendly with some of the local girls and gets kicked out of his household, so he moves to London. Sophia wants to marry Tom but is set to marry Squire Allworthy’s nephew. So she runs off and follows Tom to London.

In Tom Jones, Fielding wrote: "To paint the looks or thoughts of either of these lovers, is beyond my power. As their sensations, from their mutual silence, may be judged to have been too big for their own utterance, it cannot be supposed that I should be able to express them: and the misfortune is, that few of my readers have been enough in love to feel by their own hearts what past at this time in theirs.

"After a short pause, Jones, with faultering accents, said — ‘I see, madam, you are surprized.’ — ‘Surprized!’ answered she; ‘Oh heavens! Indeed, I am surprized. I almost doubt whether you are the person you seem.’ — ‘Indeed,’ cries he, ‘my Sophia, pardon me, madam, for this once calling you so, I am that very wretched Jones, whom fortune, after so many disappointments, hath, at last, kindly conducted to you. Oh! my Sophia, did you know the thousand torments I have suffered in this long, fruitless pursuit.’ — ‘Pursuit of whom?’ said Sophia, a little recollecting herself, and assuming a reserved air. [...] ‘O my Sophia! my only love! you cannot hate or despise me more for what happened there than I do myself; but yet do me the justice to think that my heart was never unfaithful to you. That had no share in the folly I was guilty of; it was even then unalterably yours. Though I despaired of possessing you, nay, almost of ever seeing you more, I doated still on your charming idea, and could seriously love no other woman. But if my heart had not been engaged, she, into whose company I accidentally fell at that cursed place, was not an object of serious love. Believe me, my angel, I never have seen her from that day to this; and never intend or desire to see her again.’ Sophia, in her heart, was very glad to hear this; but forcing into her face an air of more coldness than she had yet assumed, ‘Why,’ said she, ‘Mr Jones, do you take the trouble to make a defence where you are not accused? If I thought it worth while to accuse you, I have a charge of unpardonable nature indeed.’’ — ‘What is it, for heaven’s sake?’ answered Jones, trembling and pale, expecting to hear of his amour with Lady Bellaston. ‘Oh,’ said she, ‘how is it possible! can everything noble and everything base be lodged together in the same bosom?’"

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