Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayna

We are on the threshold of the holidays when the cookbook aisle at most public libraries is a busy place. Most women I know are about to throw themselves into turning out cookies like elves on espresso.

I am, however, a kitchen klutz who did hard time in Remedial Home Economics as a high school senior. Cookbooks given to me by well-meaning friends have actually become mildewed from lack of exercise. I’m the one who habitually brings raw vegetables and dip to the holiday feast. Or Jell-O accompanied by festive soda straws. Or cream liqueurs which, when camouflaged lightly with milk, fortify the real cooks in my family with what we started calling “enhanced calcium.”

Last weekend, while checking the cookbook cupboard for instructions on how to safely microwave a whole squash without attracting the attention of the Town of Newbold Volunteer Fire Department, I ran across a book called I Didn’t Know That: or Why We Say the Things We Say edited by Karlen Evins.

I didn’t know that I owned it and can only assume the slim paperback may have been fraternizing with my cookbooks because “I didn’t know that” is frequently heard in my kitchen. As in “I didn’t know that tin of baking powder was dated September 1975.”

The phrase “I didn’t know that!” is also uttered many times a week in our nation’s public libraries, where equal attention is paid to all questions – whether they concern matters that will have a significant impact on somebody’s life or just something trivial that’s bugging someone.

In her introduction, Evins tells the story of a new bride preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner by of illustrating how knowing what’s behind certain traditions may enable us to take a fresh approach to life’s ongoing challenges.

Evins wrote that as the young woman began to dress the turkey, “she cut off the ends of the bird and placed it in a pan. Her new husband, not certain of the proper cooking procedure, asked his bride, ‘Why do you cut off the ends?’ Her reply: ‘Because my mother always did it.’

“Later that day, the mother of the cook dropped by for lunch, and the newlywed husband thought it an opportune time to learn more about cooking turkey, so he asked his mother-in-law, ‘Why do you cut off the ends of a turkey before you cook it?’

“With as much consideration as the daughter had given the question earlier, the mother-in-law answered, ‘Because MY mother always did.’

“Finally the meal was prepared, the guests were seated and the grandmother of the bride was posed the same question by the now anxious and eager grandson-in-law. ‘Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of a turkey before you cook it?’ he asked.

“With trembling hands, the grandmother replied, ‘Well in my day, the pans were only this big!’”

Karlin Evins concludes, “This story illustrates a point and that is that our reasons for many of the things we do today make little sense logically, though at one time, perhaps they did.”

The homily could easily apply to library policies and procedures devised B.C. (before computers) or otherwise held onto long after the reasons for them have faded into the mists of bibliographic time.

Recent weeks have seen much speculation on how congressional cooks might influence what’s brought to the table in a presidential election year. Not only the federal budget table, but also in the sense of what’s on the actual dinner table of ordinary Americans hungry for a meaningful role in their government and a greater sense of economic well-being.

Speaking personally as a member of our notoriously fact-based profession, much of what passes for info-tainment in the political arena these days – at both the state and national levels and especially on the debate stage – is enough to drive a person to enhanced calcium.

From a librarian’s point of view, trying to set a national course without knowing or understanding our common history and literature is like wasting the ends of a perfectly good turkey. “I didn’t know that” is no excuse. “I don’t need to know that” is even worse.

If new cooks merely end up following traditional recipes that value concentrations of wealth and power but devalue working people, the turkeys will still be dry and tasteless regardless of being surrounded by different distracting garnishes or presented on a blue or a red platter.

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