Sinfully Delicious, Martha!- Truffle Brownies!-193 eggs, 152 cups of sugar, 145 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 184 3/4 cups of flour used so far- 66 recipes to go!

March 14, 2011

Martha's Truffle Brownies

André's Truffle Brownies

“My mother is a fish.”

-Vardaman from As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It was the evening of Valentine’s Day and I had prepared a romantic dinner for two. I wanted to make a dessert that would be the perfect ending to a terrific meal. Something I knew my partner, Dan would love. Dan’s favorite dessert has always been brownies with chocolate sauce. I didn’t serve this particular brownie with chocolate sauce. I didn’t need to because the entire dense, rich and caky brownie is topped with a layer of silky and smooth chocolate ganache. I served it with a dollop of vanilla bean gelato and it was absolutely delicious, if not just a bit decadent.

Surprisingly easy to make, I wholeheartedly recommend giving this recipe a try. It’s buttery, rich and chocolaty with a bit of a salty bite that accentuates the sweetness with a touch of sophistication. It’s also a really classy-looking confection and is sure to impress. Just be sure you cut with a very sharp knife, cleaning the blade in very hot water with each new incision as to maintain the integrity and beauty of each slice.

I should explain the enigmatic quote at the top of this post. As indicated, it’s from William Faulkner’s equally enigmatic novel, As I Lay Dying. The title comes from a quote in Homer’s Odyssey where Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus:

“As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”

My first encounter with Mr. Faulkner and this book came in High School. It was required reading for Mrs. McDowell’s Freshman English class. I have to admit the nuances of the book were lost on me as well as much of the plot. In all honesty, I never really read it. The book is a series of fifty-nine chapters each named for the nineteen characters who narrate the story from their perspective. The setting is a fictional county in rural Mississippi (circa 1930s). The voice of the characters are written in their own idiosyncratic syntax and therefore not an easy read. Most rural Mississippians are difficult enough to understand when speaking, much less when read.

The quote from Vardaman at the top of this post is an entire chapter of the book. Possibly the shortest chapter in any famed work of fiction. It is spoken by Vardaman, the youngest son of Addie and Anse Bundren. He is mentally and developmentally challenged and tries to make sense of his mother’s death. After catching an enormous catfish from the riverbed he observes it gasping, gulping the air with its wide mouth till it finally dies. In Vardaman’s feeble mind the fish has breathed its last. His mother has breathed her last. Therefore his mother is a fish… a lifeless fish finally done with the struggle of living. It’s a five-word chapter but it speaks volumes.

My next introduction to the writing of William Faulkner came years later when I worked in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I had secured a contract with The American Stage in the tiny retirement community disguised as a city. The average age of a Saint Petersburg citizen was seventy-four at the time. I had purchased a bumper sticker for my car while I lived there. It read- When I retire I’m moving up North and driving really slow!

The theatre had a visiting artist who had developed a fascinating one-man show about the life and accomplishments of William Faulkner called, Oh, Mr. Faulker, Do You Write? The title came from a Hollywood party Mr. Faulker had attended in the mid 1930s. Clark Gable was in attendance and after a brief conversation, when Mr. Gable realized that Faulkner was a writer, remarked- “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” To which Faulkner replied- “Why yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?”

Fast forward to almost a decade later. I was working for Swine Palace Productions in Baton Rouge as the resident music director and composer as well as the director of the education and outreach program. We had a guest director who’d come in from England to direct a production of As I Lay Dying he’d adapted for the stage.

I was thrown back by the idea after I picked up the book  and gave it another read.

I think the best way to describe the plot of  As I Lay Dying is in terms of a board game- not so different than Milton Bradley’s Game of Life. Imagine you have a family of four boys- Darl, Cash, Jewel and Vardaman- a girl- Dewey Dell- a father- Anse Bundren- a mother- Addie Bundren.

Addie dies and her final request is to be buried in a neighboring county across the river- her hometown. Thus the game begins. Imagine five little blue pegs and one pink one sticking out of the top of a plastic game-piece shaped like a coffin. The boys build a casket and load it onto the cart and have the horses pull it to the river. Unfortunately, in the As I Lay Dying board game, the family keeps getting dealt Begrudged cards. They pull the cart across the river as a swell sweeps away the cart and one of the horses. Cash receives a compound fracture to his leg. Meanwhile Darl is quickly losing his grip on reality. Not a happy story indeed. Another Begrudged card is dealt when the barn they take refuge in for the night catches fire, probably started by Darl not being his right mind. The casket with their soaked and now, partially singed mother begins to reek from the decaying corpse inside. The Bundrens press on. The game is finally won when they get Addie buried, they get Cash’s leg fixed, Anse gets new teeth, a new wife and a record player, Darl gets committed and Dewey Dell gets and abortion. Yatzee!

I loved the story, having visited it again after high school. What I couldn’t picture, though was how to put such a complex narrative on stage.  The director, Edward Kemp, was an absolute joy to work with and a true theatrical visionary. His script captured the voice of the characters while moving the plot forward. The dialogue captured the strong subtext and secrets that were just below the surface of each and every character. Edward and I chatted quite a bit about what the music for the production should be. I listened to a lot of rare recordings of rural Southern Baptist choirs from the period. They were loud, nasal, clipped and often contained lyrics referring to fire, brimstone, blood and sacrifice. It seemed right. We both agreed that the cast of twelve would self-generate the score for the production with their voices and small acoustic instruments that could be easily carried or concealed.

The production would also be completely free from the confinement of multiple sets. Rather, the production would rely on the audience’s imagination to see the water, to see the fire, to smell the stench through the actor’s deeply honest performances. The narrow bridge across the river, for instance, consisted of large planks resting on the shoulders of half the cast who supported the weight of the family as they crossed to the other side. There was a sense of danger and suspense, no different that the danger and suspense one would feel if they were to cross a narrow rickety bridge.

The difficult challenges of setting, natural elements and the passage of time were solved organically by the talented cast. It was amazing to watch the rehearsals and see the production slowly come to life.

The audiences were small. No one really wants to attend a play called As I Lay Dying. Those brave audience members that did attend were spellbound by the production. Many admitted that they’d never understood the story, having also been required to read it in high school. Our production woke them up to the beautiful and strangely haunting language of William Faulkner.

Each night I had the privilege to have my heart broken by the specter of Addie  as she spoke of her beloved illegitimate son, Jewel. Jewel had been the result of Addie’s infidelity with the local reverend and as a result Jewel was hers and hers alone. She loved him like none of her other children who served as constant reminders  of her loveless and suffering marriage to Anse.

She recounts the time that her dear Jewel nearly worked himself to death in order to purchase a horse. She sees her son bloodied and broken. Without the words she needs, in a voice cracked with pain- the voice of a mother who can no longer bear to see her child suffer she weeps and says- “Jewel! I’ll give!- I’ll give!- give!”

It was one of the saddest and most moving moments I have ever seen on stage. The actress’ performance was an exercise in truth-simple and naked and it broke my heart every night.

People ask me what’s been my favorite play I’ve work on in my sixteen years in the theatre. This is the one. More precisely, it was that moment. That perfect and simple moment when Addie has no words left in her.

I had found an old Baptist hymn that I thought reflected Addie’s love for Jewel. I simply had to use it in the production. The song still makes me tear up a bit. In the production, it was the only bit of beauty floating in the harsh emotional landscape of the Bundren family. The hymn is about love in its simple, naked and most painful state.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!







4 Responses to “Sinfully Delicious, Martha!- Truffle Brownies!-193 eggs, 152 cups of sugar, 145 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 184 3/4 cups of flour used so far- 66 recipes to go!”

  1. Tommy Salami Says:

    As a Yankee we were robbed of Faulkner in my school days. I’ve only read his lawyer tales, Knight’s Gambit, I believe they were collected as.
    Well, I know what the first book I’ll pick up is. Thanks for sharing this memory.

  2. Rachael Says:

    After reading this I wish I could go back and watch the production again. . . my judgment and focus at the time was clouded by a stupid personal resentment. I do remember the human bridge – actually thought the staging was all pretty incredible.

  3. BAnn Says:

    Required reading in Mrs Exner’s 10th gr English class at BHS. The 1 and only thing I ever remembered about this book, was “my mother is a fish”. Didn’t know who said it or why, only that it was a chapter, so thanks for letting me know I wasn’t alone!

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