If you can read this, then i have learned to moblog. feel free to hum thus spake zarathustra in my honor.
Dear friends, it’s not you, it’s me. I know, I know, you’ve all heard it before, from rakish men and coldhearted women, but this time, babies, it’s for real. It’s not you, it’s me.
I have concluded that there is an existentialism virus wending its way around the world as we speak, and it is every bit as virulent as the flu, with none of the flu’s meager benefits such as getting to stay home from work and eat soup while watching Food Network and reading Get Fuzzy. It is like the Insomnia Plague in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and, like the Insomnia Plague, is more fun in the abstract than the concrete, more fun to read about than to live through.
I have no doubt that this is a fast-moving virus, and within days I’ll be ready to post some 10,000-word monograph on toast or luncheonettes or some such nonsense, but for now, I have been hit hard and laid low. (Lest I carry the metaphor too far, I will admit that I have been to my mental health professional—because in New York City it’s practically the law, you have to have a mental health professional before you’re allowed to put down a security deposit on an apartment or buy an unlimited-use MetroCard – and said mental health professional has suggested that I may have been a little more shocked by Monday morning’s near-collision with the taxi than I had thought.) Whatever the cause, it is an odd, odd piece of real estate inside my skull this week. It is as though I were looking through my own eyes, but from a distance of about 300 feet. I don’t know who is piloting the controls, whose fingers are typing this out, whose eyes trawl blankly over my research material (confidential to aethele: I found an English translation of the Aldrovandi book we were looking for!), whose brain and heart were once filled with dreams of baking, of waking up at 4 and going to bed 20 hours later and working my heart out in the intervening hours, all for the love of something to call my own, because, dearies, it sure doesn’t feel like my fingers, my eyes, my brain or my heart.
Fortunately, I know better than that. It is my fingers, my eyes, my brain and my heart. I see a light in the distance, I hear a warm happy chorus of voices, a chorus of dear friends, and they’re all saying there you are! Would you like some soup? Why, sure. Thank you. Would you like to join me in a little dessert?
Mel e Motto
Ricotta or farmer cheese, the fresher, the better
Honey, your choice (Any honey is good; I like the strongly flavored ones like chestnut or buckwheat. If you can find leathertree honey from Tasmania, snap it up in quantity, as the perfume and flavor are like the best kiss you’ve ever had.)
Nuts, your choice (Almonds are good; so are hazelnuts. I like them toasted, but if you prefer raw, it will still taste fine in this.)
1. Slice yourself a piece of ricotta (or scoop it, if you bought it in a tub).
2. Drizzle generously with honey.
3. Strew nuts over top.
4. Eat, accompanied by either a nice dessert wine like tardio or banyuls, or a cup of strong black coffee.
1. Every morning at 7:42 a.m., I watch “In the Papers” on NY1, a brief summary of the dailies’ more notable stories, properly thoughtful about the news, dry-witted about the features. Nothing should surprise me anymore, and yet the story on the front page of the Daily News is enough to bring a sick start to my day: Find Marie’s Killer, shouts the front page, and I know I should look away, leave the room, be anywhere but here, but of course I don’t. I stay long enough to hear the terrible details, and even though I know that the odds of dying by rock flung from an overpass through my windshield are pretty low, I can’t help but project to a hundred different scenarios. Here I am, riding in my mom’s car, on the way into Philadelphia to get our hair cut. Here I am with Lloyd on the day we moved from Philadelphia to New York, Lloyd behind the wheel of a Ryder truck with no rear view mirror, riding on the Blue Route the week after it reopens. Here I am on my first day trip out of the city in years, on a day off from work no less, chatting merrily to the friend who has rescued me from a summer day in the box factory. How easy it would have been to lose my mother, my love, my friend, darlings all, gone in an instant. I have to force myself to stop thinking about this.
2. At 9:00 a.m., I am standing at the corner of Park Avenue and East 49th Street, outside the Waldorf Astoria, waiting to cross the street, my office building waiting on the other side. This corner is always terrible for traffic because there is a delivery dock to our office building, there are always idling trucks that forget that the Waldorf’s delivery area is on 50th Street, there are people generally in a hurry to get to the East Side for whatever reason. As it is every morning, eastbound traffic on 49th Street is blocking the box; the 49th Street traffic has the right of way, but nothing is moving. Pedestrians take advantage of this by crossing against the light, through the maze of idling cars. I stay put, as I always do, because you never know when traffic will start moving, and once it starts moving, those cars don’t stay idle for long. A taxi waits behind a laundry truck. The truck moves up, the line changes, we start to cross. The truck, past the crosswalk, stops and idles. As I am about to cross in front of the taxi, the driver pulls up to the truck’s bumper, leaving no room to cross. I look through the driver’s window, wondering if he did that on purpose. I raise my eyebrows. He gives me the finger. Fine, then, I will just join my fellow peds, crossing behind the taxi, into moving traffic on Park Avenue. The traffic slows and stops to let us pass. As I get to the front of the line, a taxi pulls from its standing stop in front of the office building, fast. The driver is looking at the green light ahead of her. It takes me a nanosecond to realize that she doesn’t see the gridlock, or the pedestrian traffic. She is still looking at the light, still accelerating. I realize that there is no way for me to dodge, no point in going left or right, she’s going too fast, I can’t get out of the way. I should be moving, but there is no point in moving, so I freeze. I don’t know what brings her eyes back to the road, but she sees me, goes white, hits the brake hard. When she stops, there is less than six inches between us.
3. At lunchtime I cross Park Avenue and head to the deli. I pick up some indistinguishable lunch and curse myself for not packing a lunch instead. As I head back to the office, a guy with an empty handtruck steps into the street, crossing in the middle of the street, not watching for traffic. He is crossing against the light. There is a crosstown bus headed right for him. Once again, my own body fails me. I should be running to pull him out of the way, or yelling for him to look out, or anything, but the bus is flying through the intersection, no traffic to impede it. The guy pulls the handtruck onto the sidewalk the instant before it would have been crushed under the wheels of the bus. He doesn’t even look up. The driver pounds on the horn. I am rooted to the same spot. A guy in a suit, youngish guy, power suit, suit fulla money, meets my eyes and touches his face. He keeps looking at me and touching the same spot on his face. It takes me a moment to realize that he’s telling me that my lip is bleeding.
A caveat, one without which I am too cowardly to share the thoughts below: The opinions expressed below are mine and only mine, and they are opinions and only opinions. They may be completely wrongheaded, and what I find intensely praiseworthy may be only as so much shite to you. You are even free to tell me so, although, of course, I will like you better if you don’t.
There are two kinds of writing that I love. One aims to soothe, the other aims to challenge and enlighten. I am a big fan of stretching one’s boundaries, challenging one’s assumptions, shining a light on misconceptions and false assumptions. But that is a discussion for another night. Tonight I am considering the nature of comfort.
I have eaten a lot of cooking and read a lot of writing that is meant to engender a very specific food memory, mostly of the comfort-food variety. True comfort food is supposed to evoke Mom, or Grandma, or a gaggle of aunties, or a Mom-Grandma-Auntie-like neighbor lady. It is supposed to be about nurturing, sharing, love made tangible, communion with ourselves and each other and nature and generations of ancestors. I have no quarrel with such ideals as long as they are organic, by which I mean that they flow naturally out of your own experience. But if you try to create a Momma’s Kitchen O’Love idiom when you hated your grandmother or your mom believed that real women make reservations, then the people reading your words just might suspect that they are being sold a bill of goods. They will feel manipulated. They will become vaguely resentful.
This is a problem I have with a particular culinary memoir, one that I won’t name here (although if you’re an astute foodie, you may be able to guess what it is). When this book came out, I was thrilled. It had everything to recommend itself to me: It was a collection of thoughtful essays about food, which I love to read. Each essay boasted plenty of research, incorporating science, history, funny stories and puckish observations. It was a celebration of home-and-hearth cooking, a glorious field that has not been given proper historical consideration (although, thankfully, that is changing thanks to the work of disciplined culinary historians). It was published in hardcover by my favorite publishing house, a small press that, among other worthy tasks, is rereleasing the long out-of-print works of my adored Dawn Powell. It is filled with terrific recipes. It is written by a bright, funny, kindhearted woman who is obviously a demon cook. If I were invited to her house for dinner, I’d consider myself lucky.
And yet, and yet. It is hard for me to overstate how cold I was left by this book. I was not won over by the tale of her father’s first taste of stew and polenta at his mother-in-law’s table. I was not enchanted by her breadbaking aunt. I should have been enamored of her grandmother’s blackberry pie recipe, but instead I was irritated by her repeated shots at restaurant food and the cooks who were unable to tell pate brisee from good old American pie dough. I was irritated even more by her unspoken but urgent insistence that I love all these women, women who were certainly kind and gentle and skilled cooks, but who I barely knew, certainly didn’t know well enough to love, and felt disinclined to love by virtue of that bludgeoning: See how lovable they are, so much more so than those awful, awful restaurant chefs? By the time I got to the essay on food as aphrodisiac, I wanted to throw the book across the room. At the same time, though, I felt guilty. Wasn’t she writing exactly what I wanted to read? Wasn’t she writing exactly what I wanted to write? Aha...a question of sour grapes? Maybe I should try reading it again? Surely the problem was with me, not with her? The reader reviews on Amazon were unanimous in their praise. Writers I respected showered accolades on the book. It had to be me.
Friends, I read this book four times. In the end, I decided that the problem is probably with me, but I just can’t will myself into feeling something that just isn’t there. I am sure that the writing works a special kind of magic, but I am just impervious to it. That’s fine. None of us is universal, no matter how we wish we were. And I have to admit that I am curious about the earlier drafts of the book, seen only to the author and her editor. The author is a graduate of a writing program, and it shows in her writing: technically, it is flawless, but there is, to me, anyway, an overwritten, overrevised, overpolished quality to it. I wonder if there is an earlier, rougher, more compelling draft, burnished into smoothness. The author also claims that she used a large number of sources to research her essays, but her bibliography doesn’t reflect this; instead, she gives a “recommended reading” list. Did she try to include all of her sources, and was she discouraged from doing so? (I do have to take issue with a flight of fancy she has about Fannie Farmer “stamping her dainty foot” as she insisted on volume measurements in recipes. Anyone who has ever seen a picture of Fannie Farmer, or read even a brief biographical sketch of her, would know better than that.) Once upon a time, was there a book inside this book that I just might have loved?
Enough with kicking this poor book to the curb already. So, Jen, just what do you want, anyway? Despite my seemingly harsh words earlier about comfort food writing, I do have a particular fondness for writing that evokes a certain kind of comfort, the kind that is found in a temporarily well-ordered universe. I call it “Friday night mind,” that feeling you get when your immediate burdens are lifted, when you are freshly delivered from work and obligation, when you can deviate from your regular dinner routine (i.e. cooking if you live on takeout during the week, ordering takeout if you cook during the week), where you can stay up late if you want to. It is a sense of presence, a moment of contentment and satisfaction with the present moment.
It is the feeling I get every time I read Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” from Home Cooking. In this piece, Miss Colwin reminisces about a 7’x 20’ apartment in Greenwich Village where she lived for eight years, cooking on a two-burner stove, doing dishes in her bathtub, cultivating her coffee palate. Although all of her anecdotes are rich and funny, I particularly liked the story of her moving in, aided by two friends named Alice, on a cool summer day. As a housewarming present, a friend had given her a fondue pot, and she decided it would be nice to serve steak fondue to the Alices. She bought a fancy piece of sirloin from the butcher, made two dipping sauces and bought a third, bearnaise, from a delicatessen. The fondue was not a success, the oil going from not hot enough to so hot that boiling oil overflowed from the sides of the pot. Miss Colwin saved the day by sauteeing the steak cubes in a frying pan and pouring all of the sauces over them. She and the Alices devour the steaks, then head out to a bar for burgers and fries.
It is also the feeling I got the first time I read “Doing the Subcontinental.” This simple essay was like a little movie for me, the image of a cold weatherworn night, the heroine with a mind full of worry and a heart full of trouble, visiting a friend stirring something interesting in a pot, taking it home and replicating it in her own kitchen. I also love the party at which the keema macaroni is served. I think of a large group of happy people, broken off into smaller groups of happy people, the table with the keema macaroni sitting on it, “calling no attention to itself.” It is hard to elaborate, or to encapsulate, just what it is that resonates with me so, but resonate it does.
It was this essay that inspired me to track down a copy of Curries Without Worries, which brings out that familiar rush of comfort and pleasure. I have a lot of Indian cookery books, all of which are splendid books full of luscious and fragrant recipes, but Curries is easily the friendliest, chattiest, calmest, warmest of the bunch. Sudha Koul is both a great believer in basic Indian home cooking and an enthusiastic teacher of it. Consider the following passage, from the introduction to the 1983 edition (I have the 1994 edition, published by Cashmir, Inc., Pennington, NJ):
I still remember the day when some very dear friends of my husband invited us for dinner and served an Indian meal. They had, on occasion, enjoyed Indian meals cooked by my husband and wanted to give his still quite new bride a surprise. And they did! I had come to the U.S. for the first time and was intrigued by the prospect of eating an Indian meal cooked by Americans. To my surprise they served a delectable looking vegetable curry and hot, fluffy rice...a simple and authentic Indian meal. I eagerly took a mouthful and bit into something hard and pungent, almost bitter. The quintessential Indian spice turmeric...in its natural state! Swallowing it rapidly, I thought to myself that the recipe must not have explained that ground turmeric was required. I cannot think of any spice used in Western cooking that would even approximate such a culinary disaster had it been added whole instead of ground.
Even a cookbook must be inspired, and this episode sowed the seeds of a desire to introduce my new friends to Indian cooking. I hope my relating this episode at the very beginning of the book will not make an apprehensive reader even more apprehensive. I must add that, after removing the remaining pieces of turmeric, I enjoyed a hearty and delicious meal. The food was not rich, heavy, overly spicy or gourmet, rather, it consisted of wholesome, honest-to-goodness, everyday Indian preparations, thoroughly enjoyable and healthy, despite the aforementioned oversight. I was made to feel at home by the thoughtfulness that had gone into its preparation and by its superb quality.
The second edition, published in 1989, includes this amendment to the introduction:
Remember, this is not a book for fanatics. It is an authentic Indian cookbook used by genuine cooks of Indian cuisine. Adjustments have been made to a new time and place. No cuisine stipulates only one way of making a dish. Betty’s apple pie tastes different from Pam’s, both are real and delicious. You may not be able to replicate that dal you had at a friend’s house, but there are as many ways to cook dal as there are friends!
If I had a friend like this at my elbow, I would never know a moment’s fear in the kitchen. This passage, this book, it is more than comforting, it is fortifying. It makes an argument for kindness as one of the most powerful weapons we have against the things that would sap us. Spite, indifference, needless cruelty, sloppy work, sloppy weather, heartbreak: we cannot make them stand still, yet we can make them run, as Andrew Marvell said. Take a pot of keema, a tray of gingerbread, a bowl of lentils, a tub of bearnaise sauce from the delicatessen. When they help you find a place in time that you would not trade for anything, that’s when you know you have found something special.
Happy birthday to Lloyd,
Happy birthday to Lloyd,
Happy birthday, y’old bastard,
Can we eat cake now?
(No, I’m not being needlessly cruel. He likes it when I get a little cruel with him.
Note to Lloyd: No, I didn’t tell anyone how old you are. Your secret’s safe with me, Methuseleh.