The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio




That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


Thoughts on the Fading Summer in Washington

On my way to work, I usually pass by the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.  This morning, while stopped in front of the building at a traffic light, I happened to look up at the hotel facade, and in one of the floor-to-ceiling windows on the third floor stood a little boy of maybe 5 or 6 years old, wearing dark blue pajamas covered in stars, moons, and clouds.  He had slipped between the curtains and was standing by some luggage, watching the traffic and the passersby, probably excited at the bustle of early morning in the city but regretting that it was his last day in the city.  We caught each other’s eye, and waved to each other enthusiastically before the light changed, and I was off again.

This event might have slipped past my notice had I not already observed, while waiting at the bus stop this morning, something else which made me think of the passage of time here in the Nation’s Capital: all of the interns are now definitely gone.  Every summer, a huge flock of university students descends on Washington, to work on Capitol Hill, the White House, at political interest groups, etc.  For the past three months, the bus stop I usually walk to in the morning to catch my ride downtown would have a good dozen or more people waiting, the majority of whom were probably just barely old enough to legally consume alcohol, if that.  At the end of last week thee were still a couple of young faces in ill-fitting suits left, but just one or two.  This morning there were none, only the usual 4 or 5 neighbors I see all the time but never actually speak to.

Tourists are departing, Congress is away, the interns have vanished, and people are trying to get in their last summer breaks at the shore or in the mountains between now and Labor Day on September 3rd, the unofficial end of summer in the U.S.  Whether in anticipation of autumn or no, even the weather the past two days has been more like September than August.  This is not exactly cool, compared to September in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, because Washington is still quite warm and humid in September, but the deadly, intense heat and humidity of the summer in the Capital always seems to break sometime after the Feast of the Assumption.

It is hard to imagine now that I myself moved to Washington for the first time twenty-one years ago.  There remains a kind of stability in this city at the change of seasons which I quite like, and which you become aware of as you get older.  The patterns of interns, tourists, and students, for example, become ingrained into your seasonal expectations, as much as if you were waiting for the swallows to come back to San Juan Capistrano.  During the summer the standard, preppy Washington men’s summer “uniform” of navy blue blazer, striped tie, and beige trousers is still everywhere, even if there are more hipsters in D.C. now to add other styles of dress to the mix.  And there are still plenty of trees taller than the buildings around them, providing thick but fading green canopies this time of year, which will soon begin to turn to other colors and thereby formally announce the arrival of autumn.

The next few months before Christmas will be exciting ones here in the Capital.  It is first and foremost a Presidential election year, with a great deal at stake.  And as this is the ultimate company town, there will be little else to speak of but conventions, debates, and polls until the beginning of November, with arrivals and departures to be picked over and analyzed after that until the first snowfall in December.

That being said, before we plunge into all of it, it seems to me a good thing to enjoy the quiet now, before things really get noisy again. Anticipation and excitement over what comes next is terrific. Yet if we never take the time to live in the now, to enjoy our surroundings as we have them, but instead focusing always on what is going to come next, then we are losing out on actually living.

View of Georgetown from Arlington, VA