Other segments from the episode on November 11, 2002
DATE November 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Arnost Lustig talks about his new novel, "Lovely
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Arnost Lustig is a Holocaust survivor and a novelist. He's not nearly as well
known as Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, but many critics believe he should be.
The New York Times describes his work as `wholly unsentimental and without
self-pity.' He's written 15 novels, including "Night and Day," "Darkness
Casts No Shadow" and "A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova," which was nominated
for a National Book Award.
Lustig was just 16 when he entered the Nazi concentration camps, first in
Theresienstadt. Later he was transported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After
escaping from the camps at the end of the war, he returned to his native
Prague, became a member of the Communist movement and began writing novels,
short stories and screenplays set during the war. He was an influential part
of the Czech New Wave cinema; he also hosted radio programs. Lustig left
Czechoslovakia shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1968 and emigrated to the
US. He teaches literature and film now at American University.
His new novel is "Lovely Green Eyes," about a young Jewish girl who survives
the war by passing as a Gentile and working as a prostitute in a brothel for
German soldiers. We begin with a reading.
Mr. ARNOST LUSTIG (Author, "Lovely Green Eyes"): (Reading) This is a story of
my love. It is about love almost as much as it is about killing, about one of
love's many faces, killing. It is about No. 232 Ost, the army brothel that
stood in the agricultural estate by the River Somme before the German army
retreated farther west, about 21 days, about what a girl of 15 endured, about
what it means to have the choice of going on living or being killed, between
choosing to go to the gas chamber or volunteering to work in a field brothel
as an Aryan girl. It is about what memory or oblivion will or will not do.
I fell in love with Hanka Kaudersova's smile, with her wrinkles, even though
16 years old, with the effect her face had on me. What saved me, apart from
the uncertainty of it, is time. There are fragments out of which an event is
composed. There are its colors and shades and there is horror.
BOGAEV: Arnost Lustig, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. LUSTIG: Good morning.
BOGAEV: I was thinking that in one sense, this novel is about young people
whose lives and their love, even their erotic imagination, is twisted by war
and brutality. What did you find interesting about that side of the Holocaust
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell you, erotic was sometimes the last freedom of people. It
was a limited freedom, but it existed. It existed and it represented beauty
of life, of man, and to omit it would be a mistake. It existed. It existed
when people were not completely hungry. When you are hungry, there is no
erotic, there is no sex. But when you are not starving, literally, so there
is, especially among young people, erotic.
BOGAEV: I was also thinking that Hanka, or Skinny, as this girl is known in
the brothel, is thrown back on her instincts in her encounters with these
German soldiers in the brothel, that it's a very elemental situation, a sexual
encounter, buying sex, and he has a very elemental fear of giving herself away
as a Jew. Is that part of what you struggle with in this book, what you're
exploring, what people rely on when they're pressed?
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell, my motives was a kind of anger at the Nazis, what they
did, how they twisted life of people, and what I learned is that when somebody
makes you into an animal, so you adopt animal instincts. So this happened to
Hanka. It's a fiction. It's a fiction based on hundreds of fragments of
experience, and the deepest motive for that was what the Nazis did to innocent
people, and Hanka was innocent. She was 15, she was a virgin, she had some
fantasies about sex, but no idea about real sex, because she had a lot of
time. And suddenly she was in a situation to die or to be "hired," sort of,
quote, unquote, into a German brothel under the conditions that she will lie
about her age, that she's not 15 but 18, and about her race, about her
origins, that she's an Aryan girl. She looked Aryan, so this was sort of
advantage. But she had no idea what to expect, and it's an accusation of this
Nazi system, how they despised dignity of man. It's really the story about
love and about dignity and about courage to exist under such circumstances,
because not everybody would be able to do it.
BOGAEV: I know that you once went to the ballet with Milos Forman. You went
to see Baryshnikov.
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah.
BOGAEV: And that was part of what gave you the idea...
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah.
BOGAEV: ...to write about young girls in war.
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell you what happened. Forman called me and said, `Look, here
is Misha Baryshnikov from Petrograd, and come to the hotel. He's performing
here, and you are invited for some brandy.' So I went, and saw him exercising
for "Nutcracker," for the next day, and he invited my family for "Nutcracker,"
for the opening evening. And in the second act of "Nutcracker," it's a
beautiful act. It's about snowflakes, 16-year-old girls are dancing. It's so
moving and so beautiful, and my daughter suddenly, sitting next to me, said,
`Father, what happened to you?' And I said, `I will tell you later,' because
I had got a horrible idea that these beautiful girls on stage are Jews, and it
would be Jewish--they would pack them into a railroad car and kill them. And
this was only an idea, but it was scary, this idea, and I decided to write for
my daughter a book. So I told her a horrible thing, but I told her, `Look, I
am going to write about a girl like you, who became a prostitute but wanted to
save her soul, so tell me everything about life of 16-year-old girl.' So she
did, I wrote the book, let her read it, and she said, `But Father, there are
too many juicies.'
BOGAEV: You mean, she meant there was too much sex in it, too much about
Mr. LUSTIG: Too much sex, yeah.
BOGAEV: ...and the body, and...
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah. And so I forgot it. I put it into a drawer and really
forgot it. But five years later, she asked me, and said, `Father, what
happened with the book?' I said, `You didn't like it because there was too
much of sex.' But she said, `But then I was 16, 17, but now I am 22.' So I
let her read it again, and she said, `It's fine. It's not about sex. It's
BOGAEV: I find this so poignant to think that you talked to your daughter
this way. I'm also thinking that so many survivors never spoke of their past,
and especially not to their children, that they wanted to shelter them or they
didn't want to rob them of innocence or impose their experience, their pain,
on their children's imaginations.
Mr. LUSTIG: I didn't. You are right. I didn't speak about it to my
daughter, but this evening, I had to speak to her, and then I discovered that
speaking or not speaking, she had nightmares anyway.
BOGAEV: You said you asked her what it's like to be a 16-year-old. Did you
ask her about her dreams, her fantasies, her life?
Mr. LUSTIG: Yes, exactly. And I told her that I'm not interested in any
explicit sex, that I am interested what it does to her, what are her feelings?
That I am really not interested in any details of sex, in case that she has
some. And she really told me beautiful things. For instance, I used a dream
where she steals a coupon for food, which means that she will be taken out
from a transport, because the rule was that if I survived, Barbara, like now
talking to you as a survivor, someone else had to be killed. And this is this
strange feeling of guilt of every survivor.
BOGAEV: You write about a lot of women.
Mr. LUSTIG: You know, in camps women were treated so horribly because the
Nazis didn't like women. They say that woman belongs to church, to bed or
into the kitchen. And they humiliated women, you know. I saw my mother, for
instance, walking naked through the mud and I saw she's walking in Auschwitz
to the gas chamber. And there is so much dignity in women. And they have to
endure so much more than men, so I came from camps with respect for women.
And, you know, when you have this experience, you cannot get rid of it, so
it's in me.
BOGAEV: Can I ask you a real personal question...
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah.
BOGAEV: ...not as if these weren't personal questions, but had you had any
sexual experience before you were sent to the camps?
Mr. LUSTIG: No. I was young. I had only fantasies and we did what all boys
are doing, you know. But I had no--I tell you, when I was 16, so my father--I
was working with my father and I was in love with my father. He was the best
father. He never beat me, you understand. And we were working hard on the
railroad, so we were getting double portions of food. And at a certain
moment, my father started to ask me if I was with a woman, and I was
embarrassed because I knew I was thinking about it, but I never was. And I
said, `Father, leave me alone.' But then I got angry and went to a prostitute
who was a horse driver, and a beautiful girl, 20 or so. Her real name was
Inga(ph), and she was known for selling herself for margarine and sugar and
whatever. So I told her if she can do it with me, and she said if I did it
with someone else. I said, `No, but I really know everything about it.' So
she said, `OK, so come this day.' And said that I will be number 11 or 13.
This I don't remember, but it was over 10. So I was the last one and she was
very nice to me, but I didn't like it. I said, `My God, is this all what my
father wants and people dream about?'
But the more time passed, the more romantic it seemed, like looking back. And
so I went to her again and we became friends, and when we left for Auschwitz,
so boys who knew that we are going to die said, `So bring this girl,' and no
one really is a virgin. So I brought her and really no one left as a virgin
from these boys. The youngest was 14 years old and his name was Milanic
Oppenheimer(ph). And when I survived, I visited his parents. And he died a
horrible death and I'm not going to speak about it, but it was horrible.
BOGAEV: In the camps?
Mr. LUSTIG: In camps. They amputated his legs and threw him, alive, to the
bottom of a railroad car. And one day when I invited his father to radio,
because he liked this canteen and we had really good things, coffee and cakes.
So he started crying and I didn't know what to do with him, so I told him,
`Mr. Oppenheimer, I have to tell you that before Milanic went to Auschwitz, so
we invited a beautiful woman and she made love to Milanic. So he went to
Auschwitz experienced.' And this man started smiling mildly, crying and
smiling. And I knew in that moment what it meant for my father to be with a
woman, you know. Maybe for fathers, it's initiation in life in some--adult
life and fathers don't want to cheat their children, so this was my
BOGAEV: So it was a comfort that you were able to offer this father of your
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah.
BOGAEV: ...that his son did not go to his death without...
Mr. LUSTIG: Exactly.
BOGAEV: ...experience with women.
Mr. LUSTIG: He was "happy," quote-unquote.
BOGAEV: Arnost Lustig's new novel is "Lovely Green Eyes." We'll talk more
after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Arnost Lustig. He is one of the leading Czech-born
writers of the past century. He's a survivor of the concentration camps
during World War II and the author of many books set during the war and
afterwards, including his latest novel to be translated into English, "Lovely
Arnost, you grew up in Terezin, which was then, before the war, a town in
Czechoslovakia and the site of Theresienstadt, the Nazi ghetto and
concentration camp. As a young boy, what did you know about the mounting Nazi
horror? Did you see the Nazis build the camp before your eyes?
Mr. LUSTIG: It was built by Jews, so everybody had to see it and we all were
parts of building it, because the city was originally for 5,000 people and
Nazi packed over 60,000 there, so there was building going on all the time and
I was one of those "builders," quote-unquote. I was working cleaning streets
and building the railroad, which in the end took us literally to Auschwitz.
And Nazis wanted--they said to our leaders, `And now prove to us that you are
not luftmenshen, people of the air, that you can take care of yourself and
build an exemplary ghetto.' It was a fake, of course. They wanted to
concentrate people from the occupied Europe and to organize their transfer to
the liquidation camps like Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and so on and
BOGAEV: It was also a propaganda site. It was a model camp that the Nazis
set up initially to fool a Swiss Red Cross inspection team into thinking that
the Nazis were humane and building a new society, a fine new city. When you
were there, were you then involved in these preparations to beautify the camp
for the inspectors?
Mr. LUSTIG: Everybody was. There was a coffee house and concerts and, you
know, theater and operettas. The Nazis, German Nazis, were really masters of
fake. And, of course, they once invited a corrupted Red Cross inspector who
spent one afternoon in Theresienstadt and found everything very well because
they didn't show him what was not so well.
BOGAEV: You were sentenced to death--What?--three times, I think.
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah, three times. But I was sentenced definitely more times
than three times. Many times I didn't know about it. Once I was in a
quarantine in Auschwitz where we were waiting only to be gassed, because
if--you know, this is a funny side of fate, that when they were gassing
Hungarian Jews, so it was "good," quote-unquote, for Czech Jews.
BOGAEV: When you were in quarantine and you were waiting to die, to be
executed, what did you all do? You were with a lot of young teen-agers.
Mr. LUSTIG: The first three days we were really scared to death, but then we
were bored, so I remember that we were--with a rag ball we were playing soccer
and I was a goalie between two posts, and the electricity wire had 10,000
volts. And I knew that I cannot lose the ball because it would be end of our
play. And came in is this man, really elegant, and said, `What are you doing
here?' And we told him, `Sir, we are waiting to be gassed and in the meantime
we are playing soccer,' and he couldn't believe it. And I am--you know, my
nature makes me remember this almost funny, bizarre episode because the
writing man, I'm looking for something what's not average because, you know,
as writers, we know that average is our enemy, that things have to be worse
than bad or better than good. This is the approach of a writer. And, you
know, I don't believe that one writer can describe Holocaust. It has to be
many writers, many writers together, to create a picture. One writer is not
enough. No one writer can make it, even if he would be Leo Tolstoy.
BOGAEV: Novelist Arnost Lustig. His new book is "Lovely Green Eyes." We'll
continue our conversation after the break. I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is
BOGAEV: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Czech writer Arnost
Lustig. Also, we talk with Chef Mario Batali, cooking show host, restaurant
owner and author of several Italian cookbooks. And Maureen Corrigan reviews
"On Being Ill," a reprint of a Virginia Woolf essay.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross, back with
Czech writer Arnost Lustig. His many novels and short stories are set during
World War II. Lustig is a Holocaust survivor. After he escaped the camps, he
returned to his native city, Prague, and joined the newly formed Communist
Party. He became a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. Like his
contemporaries Milos Forman and Vaclav Havel, he criticized the party's
policies. Lustig emigrated to the US in 1968 and now teaches literature at
American University. He was recently featured in the film "Fighter" directed
by Amir Bar-Lev in which he returns to Prague with his friend and fellow Czech
emigre Jan Wiener and retraces the journey Wiener took in his flight from the
Nazis. During the filming, the two friends argued about the separate paths
their lives took after the war. Wiener was accused of being a British spy by
the Czech government and imprisoned in a Communist labor camp. In this clip
from "Fighter," Lustig explains his own choices to his friend.
(Soundbite from "Fighter")
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell you it's not a joke that a billion people voted Communist.
It must mean that the illusion was horribly strong...
Mr. JAN WIENER: No, it meant that the...
Mr. LUSTIG: ...for some.
Mr. WIENER: ...government was extremely powerful and that these people
thought it was for keeps and that it would be a good thing to join the
winners. And that's why they stayed in the party, to have an easier life...
Mr. LUSTIG: This is one way. This is your way. I don't agree with you
completely on that.
Mr. WIENER: ...and to pursue their own ambitions.
Mr. LUSTIG: I would ask as a question. Everybody should ask the question:
How many people did you renounce? How many people did you harm? How many
people did you beat? How many people did you kill? I didn't denounce, didn't
harm, didn't beat, didn't kill. I feel clean.
Mr. WIENER: I have absolutely no doubt about that. Absolutely no doubt.
Mr. LUSTIG: I know, but I was a Communist. So I was a stupido. So you can
give me for politics a terrible grade.
Mr. WIENER: I give you for politics a three minus.
Mr. LUSTIG: You know this.
BOGAEV: You're close to many Czech intellectuals, emigres, to Vaclav Havel,
Josef Skvorecky, Milos Forman. And I imagine you've had the same kinds of
conversations and arguments even with them that you had with Jan Wiener
looking back over your experience in Prague after the war in your belief, your
support of communism.
Mr. LUSTIG: You know, support of communism, it was an experiment. It was a
beautiful experiment which completely failed. And at 18, you are not as
"clever" as at 76, "clever," quote, unquote, you know? So--and we had, you
know, the party was weak really. From '58 till '68, the party was very
liberal and we could make films and write books as we wished. They only told
us, `You can do whatever you like, only don't attack two things: socialism
and the Soviet Union.' And I was writing about Jews and Forman was making
movies about the bizarre side of life and so on and so on. We really had
beautiful 10 years. Then it ended.
BOGAEV: When you did you begin to lose faith? And when did you become aware
of surveillance, of betrayals, of...
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell you, when I found out that in my country there are
concentration camps for so-called enemy of people, this was too much for me
because I thought that communism means more tolerance, more democracy. It was
an idea which failed, and I felt sick. I really felt sick and I criticized
the party, you know? I had five serious warning to be expelled from the
party, but because I had so-called clean hands. I didn't collaborate with the
Nazis. I came from the camp. So I was a clean-hand man in the party. So
they never expelled me, only later when I was already in the United States,
but, you know, it's very complicated. When there is a totalitarian regime,
there is only one party. And if you want to exist, you have to be part of
this party, but they were so many elements. They were democrats, fascists,
religious people because there was no other party. So this party was a
conglomerate of many elements.
BOGAEV: Are you involved in the politics of the Czech Republic now?
Mr. LUSTIG: No, I am not involved because nature of writing is different than
nature of politics. You know, in politics, quoting Khrushchev, "The duty of a
politician is to convince people in a village where there is no river to build
a bridge." And literature has different nature. Literature is looking for
the most profound truth not tainted by any lie or mistake or whatever. So
being a politician is not for me.
BOGAEV: How much time do you spend in the Czech Republic? How often do you
go and who do you hang out with when you're there?
Mr. LUSTIG: ...(Unintelligible). I spend as much time as possible because I
feel like a sardine in the sea. It's my home, you know? I am at home there,
but at the same time, I am very happy that I can go back to America. And in
America, I am looking forward to go to Prague. I cannot work in Prague, to
tell you the truth, because there is too much excitement for me and America is
an ideal place for me to write because nobody bothers me. I teach, I go home
and I write and, you know, American is a better place to work for me, to
BOGAEV: So in Prague, you're too busy talking to old friends?
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah, it's so exciting. I get up at 5 in the morning because I'm
so excited what they expect me to do during the day, but it's very bad for
work, but at least then I am longing to work.
BOGAEV: Amidst all the research and your books and the film, there was also a
whole bunch of information about your passion for soccer and pages and pages
from a Web site devoted just to your passion for soccer. And I'm remembering
that you said that soccer had a place in your past when you played in the
camps. Is there a lifelong connection there?
Mr. LUSTIG: I tell you everybody has some hobbies and inclination. So I love
soccer. It's one of the most elegant games invented. So I played soccer in
camp where the German officers were betting on their own teams. And if
somebody didn't perform well, they sent him to the East. But in the meantime,
it was a lot of fun to play with my students. Not now, unfortunately; you
know, age makes me slower and slower, but in my mind, I am still playing with
my students, soccer, and it's a good game.
BOGAEV: So the memory has been transformed over the years.
Mr. LUSTIG: Yeah. So now I play in my memory. So don't believe those Web
BOGAEV: Arnost Lustig's new novel is "Lovely Green Eyes." He's featured in
the documentary film "Fighter," which is available on video.
Coming up, chef Mario Batali. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Chef Mario Batali discusses his views on food and cooking
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Warm lambs tongue in a black truffle vinaigrette with Pecorino and a
three-minute egg, fennel-dusted sweetbreads and sweet pea flan. These are
just some of the dishes on the menu at Mario Batali's popular upscale
Manhattan restaurant Babbo, but alongside the esoterica are also such simple
offerings as spaghetti with 100 tomatoes. That mix sums up Batali's deeply
researched approach to Italian cooking, which Italian food fans can enjoy at
the three other restaurants he co-owns in the city or can learn to reproduce
at home from watching him on his cooking shows on the Food Network.
Although Batali is from an Italian-American family, he didn't specialize in
the cuisine until he apprenticed at a little mountainside family-run trattoria
near Bologna called Lavolta(ph). When he arrived at Lavolta, the chef and
owner, Beta(ph), asked him what kinds of pasta he knew how to make.
Mr. MARIO BATALI (Chef): Spaghetti with lobster and green Thai curry, and,
you know, this and that. And she looks at me like I'm from another planet.
And she says, `Well, this is how we make our pasta. Do you want to learn?'
I'm like, `Well, that's exactly why I'm here.' So we started by making what
we called 24 eggs' worth of pasta, which is an egg per 100 grams of flour.
It's double-zero flour. And we mixed it up in the giant well method and then
we knead it by hand and then instead of running it through a pasta machine,
she starts rolling it out with this giant wooden dowel.
Well, it turns out that in Emilia-Romagna there's this beautiful culture of
making handmade pasta between a wooden dowel and a wooden board. And in their
opinion, the texture that you get from these two more rougher textures is
something that allows the pasta to hold the condiment or the sauce a little
bit better and it has a certain mouth-feel to it, which is very important to
the Emilia-Romagna culture--the way things actually are perceived on your
tongue and in your mouth as you chew them--as opposed to the way that
traditionally pasta's made, which is rolled through two metal smooth dowels,
which in turn is still a very good thing, but it's a little different. And
they roll it and it becomes a little bit what they call liscio, or more
So we learned how to make this and I just thought, `Oh, jeez, this is the
bomb.' I thought it was the coolest thing. And it was something that, you
know, I couldn't master in a week. It took me literally four or five weeks to
get it down where I could be trusted to roll out the dough between the rolling
pin and the dowel.
BOGAEV: Is this how you still make pasta?
Mr. BATALI: At this point, no. Now we make it with an electric machine that
has wooden dowels or metal dowels because it just takes so much longer. And
right now I have--at Babbo we have two guys who work 50 hours a week each, so
that's 100 man- or people-hours a week just making the noodles for our
restaurant that only serves dinner.
BOGAEV: So give us an example of a recipe or a dish or an inspiration that
you brought back with you from Lavolta that you use in your restaurant.
Mr. BATALI: Well, something as simple as what--well, what is seemingly as
simple as a ragu bolognese, the classic meat sauce, is something I learned
there that is easier than pie and yet all based on how you do it. And you
take equal portions, or equal percentage, equal weight, of ground veal, ground
beef and ground pork, relatively fatty, maybe shoulder pieces, not necessarily
loins. And you cook a third of that volume in celery, onions and carrots
chopped very, very fine in a combination of butter and olive oil until it's
very, very soft. Then you add that meat and you cook it until it starts to
brown, which seems like a very quick step, but it takes literally an hour to
an hour and 20 minutes before it really starts to brown because what it has to
do is exude most of its own fat, and then start cooking in that very fat
So then you leave the fat in there, then you add first tomato conserva, which
is like our double tomato paste. No canned tomatoes or anything. Just the
tomato paste. Cook that until it basically dries away. Then you add milk and
cook that until it dries away. Then you add red wine--I mean, white wine and
cook that until it dries away. Then you add a little bit of their brodo, the
brodo which was not necessarily like our chicken stock. It would have like
one beef bone, one chicken, one onion, one carrot and two peppercorns. And
they would make a broth out of that which is their--for their tortellini
eventually. But they would use that to cook.
And then you'd allow it to just simmer on just the pilot light itself for two
and a half to three hours. And then that's where you got ragu bolognese. And
to this day, we make it just like that at all the restaurants.
BOGAEV: There's another popular dish at Babbo, beef cheeks. And I've noticed
now in New York that you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting a
restaurant that serves beef cheeks.
Mr. BATALI: They have taken New York by storm.
BOGAEV: Yeah. What's the allure? Why do I want to eat beef cheeks?
Mr. BATALI: Well, beef cheeks are a very succulent--the--a lot of Americans'
misconception with what makes things taste like big or with huge flavor is
that the most tender is often enough probably the least flavorful. In my
opinion the filet mignon or the tenderloin of beef has very little flavor, but
is interesting for many because it's so tender like butter. But the cuts that
actually work harder, for example, the shoulder blade or the cheek of the
animal, for that much, who's chewing constantly while he's awake, has
a--develops a sinew. And in my opinion one of the reasons why it tastes so
much better or has so much depth of flavor is because so much blood goes to
these muscles and it's bringing whatever the animal's eating closer to it. So
you get more sense of whatever the animal's food system was. So you get a
deeper, a more complex flavor with something that's got a lot of muscle and
sinew in it.
The only trick with that is that cooking something with muscle and sinew is
not something you can just throw on a grill. You have to either braise it or
slowly cook it in some other way that allows it to become more tender and a
little bit more gelatinous is the word that we like to use when we're talking
about something with a lot of muscle.
BOGAEV: I know a new food that you like to offer in your restaurant is lardo.
I don't know if you present it under that name, though. What is lardo?
Mr. BATALI: It depends on--lardo is exactly what it sounds like. But to many
people, it sounds better if I call it prosciutto bianco, which just means
white prosciutto. And it's basically the fat of the neck--the back of the
neck of a pig that has been salted and cured very much like a prosciutto, and
then hanged to allow it to age and develop flavor and mature, and then sliced
paper-thin and either draped over warm toast or grilled bread or even just on
the plate by itself and people just kind of pick it up. It's not something
you'd eat a pound or two of like, you know, maybe salami or a lunch meat, but
it's something that has a very delicate flavor very reminiscent of some
people's favorite meals, particularly in Tuscany where they have this lardo
della carinoto(ph), which is aged in these marble caves up above Carmagnola.
BOGAEV: And I think you've described it as tasting--you can practically taste
the last thing the pig was eating, which is not the loveliest thought, but
then I understand these pigs that you raise for this eat better than I do most
of days. What was the last thing these pigs ate?
Mr. BATALI: We have a particularly good relationship with a group called the
Vermont Farmers Cooperative, who will basically do whatever we want. They
want to bring us an animal that we're happy to serve. So our animals eat
organic pretty much throughout their lives. And in the last six to eight week
of their lives, they eat a diet at least every day enriched with hazelnuts,
walnuts, apples and cream. And in fact, if you taste this lardo, you can not
necessarily taste it like a huge flavor, but you can get the scent or the feel
of the nuts and the apples without a doubt.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Chef Mario Batali. He is the chef and owner of the
popular restaurant Babbo in Manhattan. He has a number of other restaurants
in the city. He's also a cookbook author and he's the host of a number of
shows on The Food Network, including "Molto Mario" and a new show
Now when a dish comes back to the kitchen, what do you do? And I've seen
sitcoms of chefs of restaurants, I've read about this; I've heard that you all
stand around and taste the dish.
Mr. BATALI: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, we try to figure out, first of all, if
are we wrong? Did someone put too much salt in it? Is it radically wrong?
Does it look good? Does--the probably main reason why dishes come back is
either because it's undercooked or overcooked meat. So I mean, you know, you
take a look at it and you can tell in a fifth of a second if they ordered it
rare and it looks medium well--well, then, you know, the first thing you do is
say--actually, before we even assess it, we say, `What do they want?' And we
start making that. Then we look at the dish and try to figure out whether
we're crazy or they're crazy.
And, you know, often enough it's a combination of the two. If it's a question
of cooking time, though, it's, obviously, you know, when you make 240 dinners
a night, the grill guy might make a mistake on the temperature of the lamb
rack, so basically we try to figure out what the problem is. Then we try to
convince ourselves that it wasn't our problem, and then we send another one
BOGAEV: How hard is it to get a table at one of your restaurants?
Mr. BATALI: Well, the whole reservation thing--and it's quite a scam that's
been cooked up by all the phone reservation people for all the restaurants in
the city--there's a lot of pressure to get that 8:00 table on that Saturday
night, and we take reservations exactly one month to the day in advance. As a
matter of fact, today we were booking for either a Friday or a Saturday
judging from the volume of calls in December, which would be December 7th. We
start taking phone calls at 10:00. By 10:20, all of the main seating is
filled. And the bulk of the early part of the late seating and the late part
of the first seating are filled. By 10:45, there's not a table left in the
restaurant at any of my three restaurants. And that's just because New
Yorkers are obsessed with eating out at Saturday night.
If you walk in on any night other than Saturday night without a reservation,
we have tables in each of our restaurants that are reserved that are not
reserved. They're saved for customers on a walk-in basis. So there's always
a chance to get a table. One of the things that I can advise people on in
terms of kind of cracking this code or this barrier: If you really want to go
to a particular restaurant, try to go a little bit on the off hour and even
without a reservation. If you walk in every night, there are cancellations
and no-shows at the last minute from every restaurant from Danielle's to Le
Cirque down to, you know, Fultod's Parmesan Palace(ph).
And what it means is that there's a flexibility in that the restaurants don't
not--we do not want people not to come in. We want them all to come in and
have a good time. But there's only so many tables you can reserve. When
those people show up, we'd love to have people come in. And that's why we
actually advise them to come on in on a walk-in basis and see if there's an
opportunity, because there invariably is.
BOGAEV: Where do you go after your restaurant closes or when you're still out
on the town to eat?
Mr. BATALI: Well, New York's filled with options to eat after closing. You
know, between 12 and 4, there's hundreds--literally hundreds of restaurants.
I guess my biggest thing right now is the Korean food, though. The Korean
town that we have in New York City is pretty much 24 hours a day. You go up
there and they will bring you plate after plate of meat that you grill on your
table. They have little barbecues in the middle of the tables. And then you
take the grilled meats and you wrap them in lettuce leaves with all of these
different pickled vegetable things they call kimchee, which is kind of spiced
and vinegared roots and cabbages that are just absolutely delicious and very
much something that I kind of crave after Western food all week. It's
absolutely delicious. And it's also really good with beer, which is something
that you kind of crave after working a hot night in the kitchen.
BOGAEV: Well, Mario Batali, thanks very much for talking with me today. It
Mr. BATALI: Thanks for having me.
BOGAEV: Mario Batali is the chef and co-owner of the restaurants Babbo, Po,
Lupa and Atto(ph) in Manhattan. He collects some of his favorite recipes in
his books "Simple Italian Food" and "The Babbo Cookbook."
Coming up, a review of a newly reprinted Virginia Woolf essay. This is FRESH
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Review: New release of Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1925, the poet T.S. Eliot asked his sometime friend Virginia Woolf to write
an essay for a new magazine he was starting. She responded by writing "On
Being Ill." Unlike other Woolf essays like "A Room of One's Own," "On Being
Ill" has not been republished in an individual book since 1930. The Paris
Press, a non-profit press that publishes neglected work by women writers, has
just brought out an edition of "On Being Ill," and book critic Maureen
Corrigan has an appreciation.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
`Write what you know,' advises the old saw, and what Virginia Woolf knew as
well as she knew the ins and outs of English sentence structure was what it
was like to be sick. Mental breakdowns, severe headaches, depression,
mysterious prolonged fevers, heart troubles, extreme weight loss, neurasthenia
and suicide attempts--the last one successful--mark Woolf's adult life. No
wonder she gravitated to the subject when she was invited to write an essay
for T.S. Eliot's magazine The New Criterion.
Eliot published the essay in January of 1926, but he didn't like it. Woolf's
herky-jerky style wasn't his cup of tea, nor was her subject. Notoriously
disassociated from anything below his own neck, and tormented by his sick
first wife Vivian, Eliot would probably rather have read a cereal box than
this, an essay by a woman on bodily dysfunction.
"On Being Ill" hasn't exactly been lost since 1930, when it was published as a
stand-alone book by Woolf's own Hogarth Press, but it's been hard to come by.
In fact, a normally docile colleague of mine, who teaches courses on the
literature of pathology, nearly ripped the essay out of my hands when she saw
me reading it.
This new attractive edition by the Paris Press reproduces the original book
jacket art by Woolf's sister, painter Vanessa Bell. It also features an
introduction by acclaimed Woolf biographer Hermoine Lee, who among other
insights points out the subtextual toying with suicide that runs through "On
Lots of fine writers throughout the 20th century have written powerful,
first-person essays about being sick. Woolf distinguishes herself from that
crowd of fellow misfortunates by for better or worse avoiding confessional
revelations and, of course, by her powers of illumination as a stylist. To
loosely quote Eliot, `Woolf takes us back to common thoughts, experiences,
states of mind only to know the place for the first time.' The temptation
with Woolf is that when she's at her quicksilver best, a critic like me just
wants to surrender and quote her extraordinary sentences rather than talk
Woolf opens with one of those trademark, page-long, grandstanding sentences
that demands to know why illness has not been among the chief themes of
literature. She then ruminates on a subject that's received a lot of critical
attention in recent years, namely how few words for pain there are in the
English language. `The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love,' Woolf says,
`has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to
describe a pain in his head to a doctor, and language at once runs dry. He is
forced to coin words himself, and taking his pain in one hand and a lump of
pure sound in the other, as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning,
so to crush them together that a brand-new word in the end drops out.
Probably it will be something laughable.'
Woolf teasingly talks about the dearth of real sympathy the sick receive,
given that listeners reflexively talk about their aches, their gastric
troubles. She's also witty on the solitude of sickness, calling the ill
deserters in the army of the upright. Then in a flash, Woolf becomes gloomier
on the subject of sick room isolation. `That illusion of a world so shaped
that it echoes every groan, where however strange your experience, other
people have had it too, is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let
alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole
stretch of the way.'
"On Being Ill" veers off as Woolf's writing sometimes does into a bizarre
final digression, this one about two minor female figures in English history,
that makes some of T.S. Eliot's frustration with this essay understandable.
But before she disappears into the fog, Woolf talks vividly about the
liberating effects of illness and about the stark knowledge of endings it
bestows upon the recumbent.
One of the most moving things about this singular essay is how Woolf's
language goes to battle here. She gives the body its full due, acknowledging
how hunger, toothaches, racing pulse beats and nausea among other ills blunt
the mind. But while paying homage to illness, her own greatest adversary, she
also marshals her words to transcend it.
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "On Being Ill" by Virginia Woolf.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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