Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 21 1997 3:30 AM

Alison Lurie

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       In San Francisco food is an aesthetic interest equal to music, art, and literature. Conversation moves seamlessly, and with the same tone of civilized seriousness, from the poems of James Merrill to the best ways to cook eggplant or Cornish game hens. Yesterday Alice Adams, Diane Johnson, and I had lunch in Berkeley at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' famous restaurant--so famous now that there is no visible sign outside. Among the exotic (to me) offerings that my friends accepted without surprise were sheep's milk cheese, torpedo onions, morels, cranberry beans, squash blossoms, iced peach tea, and white grape sherbet.
       Diane, of course, is more used to culinary sophistication than I am since she is not only a gifted cook but lives most of the year in Paris. Her brilliant and best-selling new novel, Le Divorce, will appear there in a French translation this autumn. It's not certain how the French will receive the book, since it makes subtle fun of their manners and mores, including their enthusiasm for Euro Disney, where the climactic scene takes place.
       In Berkeley we also visited a frame shop where Diane collected the restored portrait of her great-grandfather, a romantically handsome, slightly sulky young man in black named Charles Stuart Elder, who emigrated from upstate New York to Illinois in the mid-19th century. Since I have an ancestor named Charles Stewart who emigrated from upstate New York to Michigan in the mid-19th century, we speculated that we might be distantly related. I hope that's so.
       The owners of the frame shop, Brian Hourican and Erik Martin, are featured in a remarkable new book called Weird Rooms. Their Weird Room is a sort of temple devoted to fruits and vegetables: The walls are thickly encrusted with two- and three-dimensional reproductions of everything from apples and apricots and artichokes to yams and zucchini. Most of the fruits and vegetables are plastic or crockery and papier-mâché, brilliantly glazed and painted, so that the effect is strikingly cheerful as well as devotional.
       The current issue of the Journal of American Folklore, one of my favorite magazines, contains an engaging article by Jeannie B. Thomas called "Dumb Blondes, Dan Quayle, and Hillary Clinton: Gender, Sexuality, and Stupidity in Jokes." Jokes about dumb blondes, the author says, may represent a backlash against the increasing presence of women in professions where intelligence is a requirement, but are covertly about all uppity women. Example: Why are dumb-blonde jokes so short? So brunettes can remember them.
       Thomas also examines another recently popular joke-cycle centering on Dan Quayle, suggesting that it shares some themes with the dumb-blonde cycle. Perhaps, if Quayle decides to run for president next time around--as some political commentators predict--he should dye his hair or (even better, if possible) let it go a mature gray.

Alison Lurie is a novelist and a professor of English at Cornell University.