Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Idler's Dish

“Idleness is not the opposite of working hard, but is instead a rare, hard-won mode in which your art is your work, and your work is your art." Joshua Glenn, from The Idler’s Glossary.

I have been carrying my worn copy of The Idler’s Glossary around with me for weeks now, its small volume tucked in a coat pocket or thrown into my tote, where it has lived among banana peels, half-eaten apples, a non-toxic water bottle, an i-phone, various uncapped pens, crayons, notebooks, pages of editing and various other accoutrement of my hectic life.

Written by Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell, illustrated by Seth, and published in September by Biblioasis, The Idler's Glossary contains spurts of short, philosophical prose. Covering the A-Z of idleness, including sloth, hedonism and freeloaders it makes an subtle argument for inactiveness.For instance, this entry for Flâneur:

Flâneur: "idle-man-about-town": O, how much is contained in that definition! Contrary to what you may have heard about him, the flâneur does not suffer from ennui, nor is he blasé. Instead he is an engaged aesthete who practices a kind of refined street theater, thumbing his nose at bustling urban crowds by loitering ostentatiously. For Baudelaire--who admired flâneurs like Nerval, who may or may not have walked a lobster on a pale blue leash--the "perfect flâneur" is that urbanite who is neither aloof from the crowd nor surrendered to it, but both at once: this "kaleidoscopic" faculty allows him to perceive the subtle eruptions if the infinite into the everyday. See: DRIFTER, IDLER, INDOLENT.

I found myself enjoying the book most when I needed an escape; in spare moments at the playground, waiting for the kids to get out of class, or at the most idle of moments––a stolen hour at a café (“historically, one of the idler’s favorite haunts"). The thing that makes The Idler’s Glossary so ideal for such occasions is that it demands enough of your brain to remind you that you have one, but not so much as to make you feel like a jackass for how little you actually use it. Reading the book requires a certain idleness in itself.

Case in point: the introduction, written by the philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, contains not only references to Aristotle and La Tzu, but my kids' favorite prophet, Yoda.

The true idler knows that using the adjective ‘true’ does not commit him to any special rules of idling, even his own. Try not. Said the impatient Yoda said to Luke Skywalker. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Exactly. The gift of the idler is that she can just be, without having to scrape out some identity by producing recognition among the larger society, particularly through monetary rewards. What if, the idler supposes, being is enough—and to make an art of this being, to take living seriously is what life is about? Idleness is about circumventing the whole working/not working paradigm. To idle is to engage fully, for engagement's sake.


As Mark Kingwell points out there is nothing more idle than this glossary. A glossary, after all, usually comes at the end of a book—in this case the glossary stands on its own, with an entire treatise in the beginning as its introduction. As a conflicted yet considerable idler, as this blog would prove, I find a certain affirmation here and a sense of historical continuance—many writers and philosophers I have always admired, Henry Miller, Baudelaire, among others, were idlers too.

While Kingwell instructs us not to thank Glenn for writing the book––as an idler, creating the book should be gift enough--I wanted to do something for him. So I decided to cook a dish in honor of his achievement. Perhaps one day I will make it for him and his family if they ever come to New York City.


But what to create? At first I thought I’d make something decidedly French, like a big piece of beef braised for hours in red wine and herbs, as a reference to the country which has produced and influenced hundreds of idlers. But no merci, that would be too obvious a choice.

Red meat in general, while perfectly suitable for dinner parties, would also be out. It would conjure up too many memories of “meat and potatoes” for a book with intellectual references. Chicken, of course, would be too pedestrian, and pork, while my favorite meat, just didn't seem fitting.

A safe bet, for sure, would be to cook some sort of seafood dish—maybe a paella with mussels and clams or a Bouillabaisse stew redolent of the flavors of Marseilles--orange peel, basil, fennel, saffron, garlic, onions and leeks. Except that I don’t like cooking fish—its delicate nature always seems too precious for me.

After all this deliberating, I realized that Glenn could be vegetarian or follow other dietary restrictions. I paused for only a moment and moved on. I could not be held up by food avoidance (real or imagined).

Then I remembered that I could procure duck quite easily in the city. Rare, yet not necessarily expensive, duck implies a certain cosmopolitanism that matches the tone of The Idler’s Glossary. I mean, Europeans eat duck. The Chinese—overachievers that they are--eat duck. Coming from Long Island and organic to boot, my duck could also be very old world food production rather than modern day factory-farmed, so that by doing very little, everyone eating the duck would feel quite good about themselves. Duck legs being both impossible to overcook and more economical than a whole duck would be perfect.

Now what to do with said duck legs?

I figured the dish would need to be slow-cooked—there is something extremely seductive about having to remain home for a few hours because you have something cooking on the stove. The gym is certainly out of the question, as is any extra-curricular outdoor activities with your children. A deeply satisfying preparation, with just enough richness that it could be consumed with a glass or two of wine and require a nap afterward. (The Glossary contains at least seven entries associated with sleeping).

So I turned to the New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. His recipe for Slow-Cooked Duck Legs with Olives fit the proverbial bill. Succulent duck legs cooked slowly for a few hours, in a sauce rich with the flavors of garlic, olives, tomatoes, herbs and vegetables. A bit french, a bit new world, sort of modern with a nod to the past. Delicious.

I have included a version of it here. For Josh.

Time: 2 hours

8 duck legs
10 or more cloves garlic
2 cups olives, preferably a combination of green and black
3 or 4 sprigs thyme
1 28-ounce can tomatoes with their juice
1 large onion, roughly chopped (optional)
2 carrots, roughly chopped (optional)
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley (optional) for garnish

1. Trim all visible fat from the duck legs, then lay them in a large, broad skillet. They can overlap if necessary. Turn the heat to medium, and add the remaining ingredients except the parsley. When the mixture reaches a lively simmer, turn the heat to low, and cover.
2. Check the mixture occasionally. It should be bubbling gently. Cook until the duck is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the duck to a warm plate, and cover (or place in a very low oven), then turn the heat to medium-high under the remaining sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to a thick, saucelike consistency, about 10 minutes. Spoon over the duck legs, garnish with parsley if you like, and serve.

Yield: 4-6 servings.


  1. This is so great! A wonderful review of the book, and a delicious-sounding recipe. My family and I aren't vegetarian, and I think I've only eaten duck once in my life, so this sounds terrific. When should we show up? Thanks so much for this post.