“The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, Isaiah Berlin, Tolstoy, “The Last Station” & spicy beet and coconut soup

I dropped out of college last semester because I wanted to focus on my cooking business. I started working with several clients a week, filling their fridges with delicious home cooked meals. This meant that I needed to focus on how to take care of each client’s varied food requirements and how best to utilize my time. These demands on myself have proven to be successfully set into place and my clients are happy with their full fridges when they arrive home from a long day of work.
When I am bored I start getting involved in other people’s lives and try to sort out their problems. This role I take on only ends up with me losing friends and a distrust of human nature. A book on tape seemed like a good solution and more movie going. This week I have started reading “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” and I went to see “The Last Station”. The book has been translated from french. The writer, Muriel Burbery was a french philosphy teacher in Paris. She writes using the first person voice of Renée, a short, ugly and plump 54 year old and Paloma, a 12 year old tenant in the fancy building where Renée is the concierge. They both reflect on life, art, literature, class, privilege and power. Barbery chose an adolescent child and a poor lady because they are typical stereo types from social groups that feel trapped in their situation. Both Renée and Paloma hide behind the perception others have of their roles. They are less perceptive of themselves. Renée isn’t seen beyond her profession and appearance. The tenants are unaware of her love of Tolstoy, Japanese cinema and Mahler. Both Renée and Paloma comment on the class conscious tenants in the building. Eventually Paloma becomes aware of Renée and guesses that the concierge has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant”.
Thus the title of the book. This title brings to mind Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The hedgehog and the Fox”. He believes that there are two kinds of thinkers. The fox gathers multiple, unrelated ideas and the hedgehog includes everything into a controlled vision. Renée, like Tolstoy gathers her ideas from all sources of life and yet she rejects the theory of life. Therefore they are both by nature a fox but believed in being a hedgehog. Hence the title for this book. I will keep on listening (the audiobook is available on itunes for $6.95).
This brings me to “The Last Station”. I enjoyed the film because I have never read or learned anything about Tolstoy. In the last few years he has gained in popularity and “War and Peace” has been given the accolade, by many magazines and newspapers, of being the greatest novel ever written. The movie proved that he was both a fox and a hedgehog. The viewer, like myself who didn’t know anything about Tolstoy was kept in suspense as to whether he would sign away the copyrights to his writing to the people of Russia or whether he would will it to his wife and children. I will not ruin the ending for those who are as ignorant about Tolstoy as I am.
Los Angeles has plenty of rain this week. There are talks of flooding and being prepared for the homes sliding down the hills. I live in a home that will not suffer the effects of the rain. Therefore I am contented to see the land getting moistened and air being free of contaminants. Long live the rain!!
This means a cooking day at home to celebrate the gloom. Soup. I will make Simon Rimmer’s Spicy Beet and coconut soup, in celebration of the Russian Borscht. My russian knowledge of Tolstoy needs a food accompaniment.

Simon Rimmer’s recipe from “The Accidental Vegetarian”:

500g/1lb 2oz fresh beetroot, scrubbed
vegetable oil, for coating and frying
2 banana shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
600ml/1 pint vegetable stock
400ml/14fl oz can of coconut milk
sea salt
fresh mint, cilantro and chopped, de-seeded cucumber, to serve

For the paste
2 stalks of lemongrass
2 garlic cloves
3 red chillies (de-seeded if you like)
5cm/1in piece of fresh ginger, peeled
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 lime, juice only


1. Put all the ingredients for the paste into a blender and blend until smooth (the smoother the paste the nicer the soup, so take your time).
2. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Put the scrubbed beets into an ovenproof dish, sprinkle with oil and sea salt, then wrap in foil and roast for about 35 minutes until soft. When cool enough to handle, peel and chop the beets.
3. Gently fry the shallots and cumin seeds in a little oil, then add half the paste and cook for five minutes to release the fragrance.
4. Add half the beets, cook for a couple of minutes, then add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 7-8 minutes.
5. Just before serving, put the soup, coconut milk, the rest of the paste and beetroot in a blender and blend until smooth. It will be a bright pink. The soup should be hot enough, but if necesssary reheat gently for a minute or two.
6. Check the seasoning, then serve immediately topped with mint, cilantro and cucumber.