The, um, unusual-looking entree you see above is a ground sausage made of barley, pork fat, crackling, lungs and blood, plus some finely chopped onions and spices. It was popular primarily in the German Democratic Republic—East Germany, land of the Stasi, the Trabi, and rationed food (hence, probably, the use of a bunch of gnarly-sounding offal as primary ingredients to sausage).
Its name—in the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up—is tote Oma, which is pronounced TOTE-uh OH-mah. At least one put-upon German is using it to make a big important point about post-reunification Germany, but I have to explain some stuff first before we get to him, so make like an East German who wants to get assigned a new apartment, and wait a sec.
First things first: Unlike all of the other excellent German phrases I teach you on these pages (which I assume you are dutifully practicing at home and abroad), tote Oma is probably not something you should parade around saying, because it means “dead grandmother.” It is almost certainly not a direct reference to, but still very vividly evokes, the (SPOILER ALERT) climax of the strangest book I have ever read, KAFF auch Mare Crisium (in English, Boondocks/Moondocks), the 1960 masterpiece by Arno Schmidt, literally the biggest weirdo ever to exist.
Momentum A to F
Whatever has to start whatever started whatever didn’t
The women have always pulled their runes
Even in bathtubs in covert backyards somewhere
where no one likes a loud room
But who’s really talking about volume?
If my hair was maybe flattened maybe smoke
If my hair was maybe not hair
it’d be a problem
What I’m always talking about are my mistakes
For instance, this Styrofoam lampshade
and how the world still sees me
when I don’t see it back
Every day I am wearing a black T-shirt
of the band you already hate
And my black jeans are cropped above
my ankle tattoo of a predictable mermaid
★ The back walls of apartments, sun-struck, floated in the otherwise mirrored side of their tower. The bright morning was welcome and fleeting. The newspaper and the weather app had completely different messages: no rain, or a brief spike of it later on. By afternoon, color seemed to have drained from everything; leaves were still on the trees but it took effort to notice the reds and greens and golds against the omnipresent sidewalk gray. A drizzle fell and then there was, in fact rain, and more of it than even the worse forecast had said. It splashed prettily in the lights of the early night, each impact flaring up from the ground. A penny lay underwater at the foot of the subway steps. The wet streets mirrored the electric brightness and tossed it back up, as lovely and uncomfortable as the earlier hours had been ugly and comfortable.
Writing about classical music often means I’m constantly learning and shifting my own expectations, yet in the year since I started writing this column, I’m surprised at what I’m able to pick up on. This past week’s symphony program included Béla Bartók’s Divertimento For String Orchestra, and midway through the piece’s tumultuous and haunting second movement, I flipped through my playbill to see what year it had been written. “What is this, 1939?” I thought only before seeing, yes, wow, hm, interesting, the piece was, in fact, from 1939. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I have garnered the ability to tell when a piece is more or less about Europe on the verge of crumbling.
To backtrack a little: Bartók was the only composer on last week’s program I was fairly unfamiliar with. If you asked me about Bartók’s music a year ago, I would have said something stupid like, “Oh, Bartók, yeah, he’s, like, interesting,” with no further explanation. By “interesting,” I would have really meant “atonal.” Odd, unsettling, despite how tonal Bartók might have argued his work was. He was an early 20th century composer, existing right on the cusp of romantic and modern classical music, and one of two of the most prominent Hungarian composers.
Here’s music. Enjoy.
★★ The blowing drizzle under the dark gray sky was too warm to be raw, the way it ought to have been. It stopped for a while and new dry leaves landed on the old wet ones. The honeylocusts were dropping entire compound leaves now, not just scattering leaflets. Rain came quietly and passed quietly, and then the evening and the night were finally, genuinely cold.
In the early spring of 1836, a British “hygeist,” as some practitioners of pill-based medicine were called, was found guilty of manslaughter after he advised the deceased, a formerly “stout, healthy man” identified as Captain Mackenzie, to ingest 35 pills of questionable origin. The pills were Morison’s pills—also known as Morison’s Vegetable Pills—and were touted as a miraculous cure-all, good for treating everything from a bum knee (like in Mackenzie’s case) to soreness around the eyes. These deadly capsules were created by one of the most famous charlatans in European history, James Morison. The chief ingredient was gamboge, a powerful laxative and diuretic derived from the sap of deciduous trees found primarily in Cambodia.
Morison’s story is nastily familiar. Like today’s snake oil salesmen (and saleswomen, lest we forget GOOP and Amanda Chantal Bacon), Morison “appealed to the general public because of the missionary-like zeal in which he opposed ‘orthodox’ medicine; in particular, he attacked physicians’ excessive fees and toxic medicine.” He claimed that his vegetable pills, which he began peddling in 1825 at the age of 51, cured 35 years of his own “inexpressible suffering.” But it wasn’t long before these crap laxatives—made from gamboge, aloe, colocynth, cream of tartar, myrrh, and rhubarb—got the good doctor (and his salesmen) in hot water.
No, it’s not just you, everything is noxious now. You spend your day ingesting poison. Whenever you wonder why you’re feeling unwell you need to remind yourself that everything you take in each day is toxic. It is painful, it is pernicious and there’s no escape. It’s all poison. Anyway, here’s music, enjoy.