This is a transcription of Literary Street in Vilnius and Two New Books — 19 May 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a time-travel machine in the form of a cookbook.
David: A novelist writes a book about his brother-in-law.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: If you listened to our episode about Lebanon or are a newsletter subscriber, you know I got a little distracted by hummus for a few weeks. I was blitzing chick peas, garlic, and various amounts of tahini in our food processor like it was a second job. Most hummus has 4 or 5 ingredients, but I recently discovered a video for an ancient Egyptian hummus recipe with 22 ingredients.
Melissa: I found it on the YouTube channel Tasting History with Max Miller. He combines a love of food with extreme history nerdiness, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Yes, I do want to know about the food in second class on the Titanic right now! Please, tell me more about the duck recipe inspired by King Tut’s tomb.
Melissa: If you also want to go down the rabbit hole of delicious and/or interesting recipes from the past, you might like his new book Tasting History: Explore the Past Through 4000 Years of Recipes.
Melissa: This book is beautiful! It’s filled with photos and ancient art. Every recipe includes the original, often written in unhelpful but charming prose, like, ‘Lamb leg meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You sear.’ That’s from a Babylonion stone tablet. The original recipe for the desert called Tiger Nut Cake has no text at all — it’s just a series of pictures painted on the walls of an Egyptian tomb.
Melissa: Max Miller transforms these snippets into real recipes that honor the originals, but make sense for a modern cook. I found it fascinating and inspiring. It’s one of those books that’s great to dip into for a little reading break. It’s Tasting History: Explore the Past Through 4000 Years of Recipes by Max Miller.
David: My book is This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew by Daniel Wallace. Daniel Wallace is a novelist. He’s the author of ‘Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions.’ That book was turned into a Tim Burton film and a Broadway musical.
David: This is his first non-fiction title. It’s about his brother-in-law, William. Daniel, the author, first met William when William was standing on the top of Daniel’s house, about to jump into the swimming pool. Daniel was 13. It was 1972. There is an absolutely gorgeous first chapter in this book where Daniel describes that moment, and what it meant to him. William makes the leap, and becomes a super-hero to Daniel. He is the impossible cool. And then, about thirty years later, after William had married Daniel’s sister, William took his own life. It has been twenty years since then.
David: This book is a little bit of a love story, a little bit of a crime book, and an exploration of grief and growing up. For me, the writing has taken me right there, on that sunny afternoon in the suburb where it all started. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it. It’s This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew by Daniel Wallace.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: Today I want to take you to a special street in Lithuania. It’s in the capital city of Vilnius. Image a medieval Old Town in Eastern Europe. There are stucco buildings with orange tile roofs. Lots of spires. And a river winding through the middle. Down a narrow cobbled alley, you notice small objects attached to the walls of the buildings. When you get closer, you see they’re plaques, photographs, illustrations, and other little tchotchkes. This is Literary Street, or Literatų Gatvė, and it celebrates Lithuanian writers and literature.
Melissa: It’s named for the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz who lived there in his youth. Mickiewicz is claimed by Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus — what with borders being ill-defined things in previous centuries. His most famous poem Pan Tadeusz begins, ‘Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like good health.’ Although it name-drops Lithuania, is a Polish national treasure and is required reading in Polish schools.
Melissa: Adam Mickiewicz is one of those larger-than-life, 19th century rabble-rousers.
Melissa: First, I want you to picture him. He has a broad, angular face, all domineering eyebrows, wide cheekbones, and a long, pointed nose. He wore his hair thick and long, curling against his collar. In the photo I saw he’s wearing a black high-necked jacket that looks like a turtleneck. He’s handsome in an ‘I will drink absinthe and be very dramatic’ kind of way.
Melissa: He was born in 1798 and published his first poem when he was just 20. It was called Winter in the City. It’s a Romantic poem about a snowy city and how great it is to be young. Around that time, he also founded a secret society! In 1917, he and some university friends started a secret organization called the Philomaths. It was a cross between the freemasons and a nerd club. They got together to talk about science, math, and literature — and for radical discussions of Polish independence. (At the time, what we know as Poland was split among Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia.)
Melissa: In 1820, he met the love of his life! Her name was Maryla Wereszczakówna. But Adam’s family was poor with no social status, and Maryla was promised to Count Wawrzyniec Puttkamer. Maryla doesn’t have an English Wikipedia page, but in her Polish one, she’s described as a noblewoman, countess, and ** beloved of Adam Mickiewicz **.
Melissa: In 1823, Adam was arrested and imprisoned at Vilnius Basilian Monastery because of his political activism. He was banished to Russia! When he was finally free, he traveled all over Europe. He met the philosopher Hegel in Berlin and the poet Goethe in Prague. He visited Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome. When Poland’s November 1830 Uprising happened, he traveled with a fake passport, and there’s speculation that he carried intel to the French underground.
Melissa: He later moved to Paris where he became besties with Frederic Chopin and wrote his epic poem Pan Tadeusz. It tells the story of two feuding Polish families in the early 19th century and is packed with vivid details about food, scenery, and culture. Our hero poet was a revolutionary right up until the end. In 1855, during the Crimean War — when he was 56 years old — the French government sent him to Constantinople to rally Polish troops in the fight against Russia. After visiting a military camp, he fell ill and died. The standard line is that he contracted cholera, but others speculate he was poisoned by his political enemies.
Melissa: When I started researching the Literary Street of Vilnius, I 100% did not expect to become a fan-girl of Adam Mickiewicz. But here we are. There’s an English translation of Pan Taduesz on Gutenberg.org, if you’re curious. There was also a blockbuster Polish film. I found a trailer with English subtitles I’ll put in show notes.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more links to all of this plus more about the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock.
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