Archive for March 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.

How to make the perfect grilled cheese — without killing yourself

3 March 2012
Categories: Uncategorized

In Episode 45 of the ever-entertaining, always-informative podcast How To Do Everything, guest contributor McKay Marshall gave his technique on “How to make the perfect grilled cheese.”

I found his method to be dangerous and scary. Not saying it’s wrong, but it is for experts only. Grabbing ingredients on the fly, using a pan that’s “as hot as you can get it,” his inversion technique for flipping—these all need someone who knows what he or she is doing and can work at a short-order cook’s pace, not to mention a spatula that is shaped to allow you to invert a pan over it without the risk of burned fingers.

One of the How-To guys (Ian, I think) said this “high-action method” was “making [him] tense.” It did me, too. They likened it to mixing a drink à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. But when you screw that up, you spill booze and break bottles. Screw up Marshall’s grilled cheese method, and you’re throwing around scalding hot oil and melted cheese. Next stop, burn unit.

My method takes only slightly longer, but anyone can do it with very little kitchen expertise. To paraphrase “The Tortoise and the Hare,” low and slow wins this race.

Start with your mise en place—a French chef’s way of saying “get your shit together.” Butter one side of bread, set it butter-side up on your work surface, then butter the next slice and set it on top of the first, buttered sides facing each other. This back-to-back layout keeps you from getting butter on everything, and now you have an open-faced area on which to put your cheese—grated cheese will melt better than slices—and any add-ons. (As an aside, my favorite addition is roasted green chiles from a can.)

Meanwhile, heat up your pan at a setting only one or two notches above simmer at most. I highly recommend a cast-iron pan, which does the best job of grilling and also avoids the health risk of dry-heating a non-stick pan. If you must use a non-stick pan, either put the sandwich into a cold pan, or use Marshall’s butter-in-the-pan-not-on-the-bread method.

When everything’s ready, and the pan is hot but not searing, pick up the entire back-to-back sandwich and place it into the pan as if you’re cutting a deck of cards: take the top slice with its cheese and put it on the bottom, and the bottom slice and put it on top, so your sandwich is now fully assembled as it starts to grill.

Cover the pan very loosely with a lid—enough to trap some heat and speed the cheese-melting, but not enough to trap steam and make the bread soggy. By the time the bread is nicely grilled, which will only take a few minutes, the cheese will have begun to melt—this will allow you to flip the sandwich normally. Grill the second side uncovered. While this is happening, you’ll have time to clean up without risk of overcooking the sandwich.

Ten minutes, start to finish, and with any luck no calls to the fire department.