Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Canon and the Cheesecake

The Doryphorus of Polyclitus
The Doryphorus of Polyclitus

In order to ponder the theoretical work on art entitled Canon by the fifth-century personality Polyclitus, Elaine Jakes, having recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided to have a meeting of a few minds. Three of Elaine’s friends, members of the fringe of the New Hope intellegentsia were to be invited to consider Polyclitus’ sense of proportionality, evidenced in his work of the high-classical period of ancient art. They would ruminate on his famous Doryphorus, reflecting on its canonical attributes, as his Canon is itself lost. At this event—a tea party, for Elaine loved tea parties—a certain kind of cheesecake was served, consisting of a combination of recipes. One of these Elaine had learned, even as a child, at her mother’s apron strings; the other she had deduced from being invited to try the cheesecake served at an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia at which she in fact never dined, when she had lived there in 1964, five years prior to the tea party in question.

That restaurant, now shuttered, was called Bookbinder’s, founded in the late nineteenth century by a Dutch immigrant by the name of Samuel Bookbinder. Bookbinder was a man of irony. Though he was a Jew, his restaurant specialized in lobster and clams, neither of which should ever be on any truly Kosher menu. Perhaps it is for this reason that Elaine, who was, when she lived in Philadelphia, practicing a kind of quasi-Kosher Judaism (i.e. un-Kosher inasmuch as she was not herself born Jewish but now somewhat practiced Judaism, yet Kosher in so far as she at least tried not to eat pork) delighted in the idea of Bookbinder’s, if not the restaurant itself.

Sinatra on VF cover copyEven though Frank Sinatra was a regular at Bookbinder’s with a private booth there, and thus Elaine, like anyone else, would have loved to see that singer trying unsuccessfully to eat a well-buttered lobster, Elaine’s sole interest in the restaurant had to do with its cheesecake. Although she never actually entered the restaurant proper, had she been able to, she likely would have enjoyed sitting in Sinatra’s very seat, were the singer not present. Yet, too, if she had entered and had seen it, she would certainly not have approved of Bookbinder’s huge and very, very un-Kosher lobster tank, said by some to have been the largest in the world. That tank was, at any given time, the central display of the lobby of Bookbinder’s, a watery final home to more than two hundred of those doomed crustaceans.Lobsters

None of this did Elaine know, or if she did, it neither piqued her interest nor kindled her usual animal-friendly ire. Rather, as we have already noted, she was concerned with the restaurant’s remarkably tasty cheesecake, principally because the Welsh cheese cakes, to which she was accustomed and of which she had time and again as a child assisted in the making, is, like so many things Welsh, spurious, and this troubled her not a little when she was herself but little.

Nutritional mendacity among the Welsh is not unusual. It is common knowledge that they purloined from the Cornish their principal lunchtime dish, the pasty (rhyming with “nasty,” not “tasty”) sticking to one’s ribs in a manner quite different from its near homograph (cf. Curious Autobiography, 171). Further examples abound: Welsh plum pudding, my personal favorite, consists of neither plums nor pudding—but that recipe I will save for Christmas time. Add to this that even the legendary and most-beloved Welsh cakes (also known as Welsh cookies) are in fact neither cakes nor cookies; rather, they are something like petite, rotund, raisin-laced tortillas; but more on those near Christmas time, as well. Finally, there is the notorious Welsh cheese cakes, which, though truly Welsh is also neither of the latter, once duly separated, two words, for it is neither cheese nor cake. And while Elaine had, through the course of her life, let the misnomer Welsh cookies slide, and she was oddly never vexed by Welsh plum pudding, she found herself troubled beyond words by the Welsh cheese cakes that her mother joyed to make during the cold upstate Pennsylvania winters. Such  cheese cakes (for they came individually like cookies and more than one would be served at a time), quite unlike the singular New York style (or even Bookbinder’s style) cheesecake, were always, in the Jakes household, served with tea.

Yet as an adult, Elaine rarely made true Welsh cheese cakes, especially because she had befriended a woman named Scottie in south Philadelphia’s Italian Market in the fall of 1964 when they both happened to be shopping there, Elaine for prosciutto, which she had not yet realized was not Kosher, and Scottie for ricotta to mix with cream cheese for her secret cheesecake recipe. As it turned out, Scottie was, at that time, the sole cheesecake baker for Bookbinder’s. With Scottie’s help, Elaine soon found herself on a personal quest to put the cheese back into Welsh cheese cake.

Scottie was immediately appealing to Elaine on a number of levels: first, she was from Scotland, whose denizens more than any of the others of the British Isles are the most like the Welsh. They are, as it were, the more logical cousins of the Welsh, something like the Milanese are to Neapolitans. Further, Scottie was a nickname for Siubhan, a perfectly good Scottish name (meaning “a woman of praise”) but not one that even in the cosmopolitan 1960s was intelligible to most Americans. Thus, Siubhan, after transplanting herself to the United States to escape her failed marriage, went by Scottie, and Elaine knew her only as that. Despite their friendship, Elaine had mentally misplaced her last name, remembering only that it started with a Mc- or Mac-. But she knew that cheesecake—that is Bookbinder’s cheesecake—because she was often at Scottie McSomething’s flat to assist Scottie, simply sampling a sliver of the savory sweet before the real cheesecakes were delivered to Bookbinders. Scottie undertook this delivery day in and day out at 3:00 p.m. and Elaine would, even with her five-year-old child (c’est moi) in tow, often help Scottie deliver the cakes.

That day, then, the one we set out to talk about, which involved Polyclitus’ Canon, was the day, some five years later, after Elaine had moved to New Hope, PA, that she first served in public “Welsh” cheese cake made with actual cheese. To make the cakes, she combined Scottie’s secret recipe, as best as she could recall it, with her mother’s spuriously Welsh cheese cake recipe. The result was perhaps not as good with tea as truly spuriously Welsh cheese cakes, whose dry and flakey texture works rather well with the hot wet substance. Nevertheless, all the guests attested to the fact that the new Welsh cheesecakes—for she served them as individual treats, rather than cut from a wheel, as was Bookbinder’s—were in and of themselves truly delicious.

And this is how Elaine’s spurious Welsh corrective treat came into being. It preserved an element of the original Welsh because Elaine added her fruit on the inside, which is laid out below one of the attached recipes. The first of them is the Welsh cheese cakes of Elaine’s mother, Blanche Evans Jakes. The second is Elaine’s adaptation of the Bookbinder recipe that she garnered from Scottie.

Elaine’s new concoction was not only praised, but itself provoked, as she had hoped, a thoroughgoing discussion of the concept of the canon between the three guests of her tea party. These were Toni Pacino, voluptuous and then still married to famous jeweler and careful craftsman Fred Pacino, the “artist in residence,” as he sometimes called himself, of New Hope’s Pacino Fine Handcrafted Jewelry. The second was Ned “Super Jew” Tannenbaum, an admittedly odd name for a Jew (particularly someone who styled himself in nearly every conversation as a “Super Jew,” often saying self-deprecatingly, “But I’m just a Super Jew, so what do I know?”). Yet one never knew why this tall, even wispy, floppy-haired, erstwhile, retired-quite-early professor of literature (apparently all literature, as no one could determine what his particular specialty was), who had taught at no-one-knew-which-or-where-or-when university called himself “Super Jew.” Finally, the third invitee was, of course, Leni Fontaine, local artist and spiritual adviser, to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated.

Following the guidelines that Elaine had laid out, they each took turns discussing the ideas of the canon of Greek classical proportionality as they gazed upon the postcard of the Doryphorus that Elaine had bought in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bookstore,. Two rounds of postcard gazing and tea bibbing produced an increasingly rich discussion of art and soon, for Ned, literature, but it finally returned, appropriately, to the cheesecake. “You know, Elaine,” Leni said, “This cheesecake enjoys the kind of proportionality and flavorful dimension one sees in Polyclitus’ work. Like the Doryphorus, it is balanced, even nuanced, and, like the contraposto pose, shifts its flavor back and forth within your mouth.”

“And it has body, and makes my mouth water … for a hunk of man,” piped in Toni, though her thoughts seemed to be far more fixated on the well-cut body of the handsome Doryphorus (and men in general) than on the tea cakes.

“No, the cheesecake is like literature,” Ned said. “It’s rich and complex, and will not soon be forgotten.”

tea setThough the conversation thence descended to ephemeral discourse and trivialities, the day was great for Elaine: she had, through a mere tea party, provoked the kind of intellectual discussion she had hoped, and she had not only aligned her own baking with Polyclitus’ canon, but had restored to Wales the cheese that its cheesecake had hitherto, if not merited, perhaps always desired. If, in the end, the only thing spurious about Elaine’s Welsh cheesecake is that, in fact, it is no longer truly Welsh, at least it can still claim ultimately to be Scottish.

Welsh cheese cakes

Elaine's cheesecake

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