Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mainly I do like Mainz

Your peripatetic editor finds himself, for a few days, in the city where Gutenberg was born. This is not accidental.

The old city of Mainz is a pleasant place to walk around. Street food is mediocre by German standards; restaurant food can be very good. This is the height of asparagus season, and every chef in Germany is taking full advantage. There are a couple of varieties grown (one with the purplish tip seen in the US—similar to Martha Washington—and one with an unpigmented tip that is just a whitish green. In the market stalls and stores there is little green asparagus to be had, though. The bulk of what is grown and sold here is white asparagus. This is, I assume, the light-tipped variety that is blanched.

If you are a gardener, you understand blanching: keep the light off the developing vegetable to eliminate the bitter chlorophyll note. Celery is blanched by laying boards up against both sides of the row to shade the bottom of the stalk as it matures—or perhaps the dirt is mounded against it instead in some locales. The curd of cauliflower is kept snowy white by tying the outer leaves together to form a little light-tight tent over the developing head. Belgian endive is blanched by a somewhat more complicated technique. I don’t know that it’s still done this way commercially, but the traditional method is to dig the plants at a certain stage and bury them in layers of clean, damp sand so that they can head up in total darkness. But asparagus is different. A mature asparagus plant can be five feet in diameter, and the stalks can emerge from anywhere in that circle. My understanding is that the German growers mound about eight inches or so of soil over the entire row, so that the crown, instead of being just below the surface of the soil, is now much deeper. Then, when the harvester sees the tiniest tip emerged above the surface of the mounded soil, she plunges the knife at just the right angle to cut and lift the white stalk at perfect maturity. And everywhere we walk, someone is selling boxes and boxes and boxes of white asparagus in diameters up to an inch and a quarter or more (as well as whatever other size you might prefer).

(Spring is also rhubarb season, as gardeners and cooks know; and on the train from Köln—take the guided tour of the Dom—to Mainz we passed several fields of rhubarb of a hectare—2.5 acres—or more. By American standards, that’s a helluva lot of rhubarb.)

But I didn’t come to Mainz for the food. I came for Gutenberg. And I was disappointed. The Gutenberg Museum houses a magnificent collection of objects, to be sure. And there were some worthwhile and interesting displays (including quite a lot of Asian material printed from moveable type in the centuries before Gutenberg). But overall, the curatorial approach seems to miss the mark. There are stories to be told with the collection—the story of the development of the technology, the story of the rapid spread of the technology in a few decades after its invention, the story of the Renaissance—that are only alluded to in the most off-hand and random ways. To be sure, many of the descriptive placards were in German only, but the main exhibits were described in German and English. So I don’t think my lack of German was the main issue. I just felt the Museum Plantin-Moretus, in Antwerp—even though it made hardly any effort to present information in English—did a much better job of telling stories. The Mainz museum was more of a static catalog of artifacts, artifacts that were not even arranged according to any obvious system or criteria. And what emphasis there was was on printing presses; there was hardly anything said about the development of letterforms into typefaces through the mediation of the punchcutter. And the uninitiated visitor—apparently the intended audience—cannot piece together either the historical progression from monastic scribes to modern printing or the production progression from manuscript to finished book by walking through the museum exhibits.

Color me disappointed, but don’t color me blue yet. Mainz has other attractions. The oldest parts of the Dom are a thousand years old, and the Dom Museum does house some remarkable objects. But the most spectacular and sacred space (not a description you hear often from an atheist) is St. Stephan’s. This is a church that was bombed in World War Two and then restored over the ensuing decades, ending with a commission to Marc Chagall to create the stained glass windows. Chagall was getting on in years, but he completed the main windows that he agreed to do, and the collaborator with whom he had worked on his stained glass projects for many years, Charles Marq, did nearly all of the remaining windows in the church, in his own style but very much in keeping with the feeling and mood established by the Chagall windows. The experience of walking into such an old building and finding it filled with a cerulean glow of clearly modern windows is breathtaking. Now you can color me blue. But a peaceful, happy blue.

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