14 January 2009
Visiting Fellows Reading Group
The new term has come and we welcome two new Fellows to our little community. We are pleased to see them arrive, so we can all attach a smile to what for many had just been a name on our website. Still, I felt our welcome could have been warmer, but for no reason we could control.
The Pittsburgh climate is pleasantly varied, cycling through four seasons. There are luminous falls, crisp springs and hot summers; and there may be a week or so of quite cold weather in winter. Our two new Fellows--Laura and Federica--arrived just as one of those terrible weeks began. Through the week, temperatures are slowly falling from the 30s and 20s F down to a very chilly 5F for Friday's high temperature. Some welcome, I thought, for two Fellows with warm mediterranean blood in their veins. I promised Federica that the weather would improve. By the end of her stay, the bare trees in the large park she looks over from her window, will be covered with lush green foliage.
Just 27 years ago, we had arrived in New York from sunny Australia to experience our first North American winter. It seemed impossible to get warm, no matter how many layers we wore. On one memorable day, we lumbered with coats, gloves and scarves into Bloomingdales. Its halls were permeated with the delicious aroma of freshly baked cookies. We scooped one of two from the tray next to the oven. The chocolate chips were still warm and oozing. They fed our stomachs and then our souls.
It was a cultural initiation for us. Every cuisine has some tradition of cookies, or "biscuits" as they are known in Australia and most other places. What is quintessentially American, however, is a fascination with fresh, home-baked cookies. It is synonymous with home, hearth and family.
The first meeting of our reading group was scheduled for Wednesday, when the Mercury still had farther to fall. How could we welcome our new Fellows to our little family? We have a small, battered toaster oven in the lounge. All we needed was some cookie dough. So started a little quest in my downtown neighborhood for rolls of unbaked cookie dough. After all efforts failed, Joyce came to my rescue. She stopped into the supermarket on her way to work. "Can you find some extra chocolate chips?" I'd asked. It is axiomatic. They never have enough chocolate chips in the dough.
Half an hour before our meeting, Joyce and I stood in the lounge, slicing rings of dough from the roll, pressing more chocolate chips into them and laying them out on sheets of aluminum foil, fashioned into makeshift baking trays. We could fit in six at a time. We soon found that, with the oven set to its highest temperature, the magical transition would happen in about ten minutes. Sticky lumps of dough melt and flatten into golden crisp discs, studded with gooey pools of chocolate. They release an aroma that arouses some primitive parts of our brains that say comfort and community.
We sat around the table to begin discussion. These is no assigned reading this week. To initiate our new Fellows and to keep us abreast of each others thoughts, we spend the time going round the table. Each Fellow recounts their latest thoughts and hopes for the development of their project.
Flavia, just back from Switzerland, has brought a wonderful packet of biscuits, baked as only the Swiss know. She shows me proudly that one is a chocolate rendering of Mont Blanc. Our home baked cookies keep coming. I find myself jumping up in mid-sentence to pull the latest batch from the oven and replace it with new dough.
I had worried that there might not be enough to say to fill two hours. Those worries were misplaced. The time passed quickly and I could see our new Fellows making mental notes, on who is clever, too clever and who to seek out later for further discussion. "So you're interested in mechanisms too."
John D. Norton
Visiting Fellows Reading Group
Wednesday, 14 January 2009