Dear friends, it's can-shaking time at PTMYB, by which I mean I am making an appeal for charity, not shaking my round and not-insignificant cans at you. (Although if you'd like to imagine me shaking my round and not-insignificant cans at you, who am I to stop you, really?)
Those of you who are regular visitors here may recognize the lovely and talented Professor Bunni. Some of you may even be friends of the Professor herself. She is my neighbor and my pal, and she wields an invisible cat-o'-nine-tails over me every time I fall into the slough of despondency, threatening to beat me about the head until I cheer up -- and cheer up I always do. She inspires me in dozens of little ways, and now she has inspired me in a big one.
Here commenceth the can-shaking. On Saturday, August 6, I will be participating in Blogathon 2005. From 9 a.m. on Saturday the 6th until 9 a.m. on Sunday the 7th, I will be posting to PTMYB every 1/2 hour. Yes, that means I will be staying up all night. No, I can't promise that what will be posted will be coherent. But I can promise that this will be for a good cause. I will be raising money for Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, which provides aid and assistance to the families of the food, beverage and hospitality workers killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. As a rule, foodservice work is not the highest-paying work in the world, and many of those workers supported families on very, very tight budgets. The loss of these fathers, mothers, sons and daughters was not only an emotional catastrophe for their loved ones, but a financial one as well. Windows of Hope helped provide emergency food and housing assistance to these families immediately after September 11, and continues to work to provide educational funds and health insurance for them. This is a charity that is very, very near and dear to me, and I want to help them as well as I possibly can, even -- especially -- if that help includes quaffing Red Bull and taking plenty of cold showers.
If you are interested in making a pledge, please click here. You will receive instructions for how to log in and pledge to the campaigns of your choice. (If you click on the "View Campaigns" link, you will be able to access both my and Bunni's pages directly. Bunni's is on page 2; mine is on page 7.)
If you are interested in blogging along with us, please accept my thanks and kisses! And, uh, please click here.
If you have any ideas for what you would like to read in my 24 hours of madcap posting, please feel free to leave a comment below.
Here endeth the can-shaking. Thank you, dear friends, for your consideration and support.
Once upon a time I wrote a little piece of stray nonsense about apples, in which I gently took the writer Jack Butler to task for understating the greatness of a really good apple. Granted, he had been talking about apples in the context of not being able to find any with taste at his local grocery story. Even so, he still had faint praise for even the best of apples, preferring instead the straightforward seductions of a peach picked ripe off the tree. While I am not immune to the thrill of a ripe peach at the height of summer, I still recognize it as an easy pleasure to come by, all flowery perfume, sugar and softness and juice bursting under your teeth, running down your chin. Apples seem elusive in their charms compared to peaches, but really, they're not. An apple will still give you that juice, that sugar, that burst in the mouth, but you won't necessarily know it until you bite into it. It is not a showy beauty; it is the kind of beauty that can get lost in a crowd unless you pay careful attention to it, but once you do, you are rewarded in a multitude of ways.
As a not-obvious beauty myself (not that I'm calling myself a beauty; at best I can be occasionally fetching, and no, this is not false modesty talking), I still believe this as much as I ever did, and I still love a nice tart Winesap, yes I do. So I hope you'll grant me a bit of indulgence as I brag about the showy beauties with which I've been spending my summer. This weekend found me and Lloyd at my mom and stepdad's house in Philadelphia. I love to cook in my parents' kitchen more than anything. It is not a particularly flash kitchen. Like my own kitchen, it looks huge from a square-footage perspective, but as soon as you need counter space, you realize just how little space there is. (Granted, Mom has much more counter space than we do.) I don't know what it is about Mom and Bob's kitchen. Maybe it's that it's a bright, airy space, compared to our own oddly-lit, God's-Little-Acre kitchen. Maybe it's the kitchen window looking out at the patio and backyard, where I can look at the herbs and tomatoes and cucumbers in the garden, see the bees crawling around the hydrangea blossoms, hear the cicadas call out to each other. Or maybe it's just the general pleasure that comes from cooking in a kitchen that is not your own. What would be quotidian, or even tiresome, within your own four walls, suddenly feels new and smart. Whatever the reason, Saturday morning found me in that kind and happy kitchen, cutting crosshatches into a dozen peach bottoms, dropping those peaches into boiling water for ten seconds, lifting them out and dropping them into an ice bath. Once they had all cooled down, I slipped the skins off each peach and gave them a quick gentle rubdown with lime juice to stave off oxidation. From there, I prepared what felt like an immense quantity of biscuit dough -- four times the batch I usually make -- to serve as the base for peach pizza. (Lest the idea of peach pizza send you screaming, I hasten to mention that this is not a Neapolitan-style cheese and tomato pizza topped with peaches; it is merely a biscuit dough sweetened ever so slightly, rolled out to fit a sheet pan, spread with thinned jelly, topped with the sweet summer fruit of your choice, sprinkled with sugar, baked until done, broiled until caramelized and slightly sizzling on the top.) Biscuit dough waiting patiently in a half-sheet tray, shiny with jelly, I prepared to slice each peach into eighths and arrange them attractively on the surface. It was at that moment that I cursed myself for forgetting to bring my camera with me, for at that moment the sun cut through the kitchen window at just the perfect angle to make those shiny slippery naked peaches glow. They were deep gold, washed with the most graceful pink blush I had ever seen, deeply fragrant, sweet but with enough acidity to cut through the butter in the biscuit and the sugar in the jelly. I could not take my eyes off them. They seemed almost lit from within, like amber.
Beauties though they may be, I will admit that given the choice between a near-perfect peach and a near-perfect nectarine, I will go with the nectarine every time. Local nectarines aren't at the market yet -- at least as of last weekend they weren't -- so I've been making do with the Californian ones I buy at the fruit markets in Astoria. The good news is that California appears to have a bang-up crop of nectarines this year, and I've been feasting on them like a monkey on chinaberries. I once heard someone refer to nectarines as a poor second cousin of the peach, whose best asset was a skin that did not require peeling. To me, that's like saying that creme brulee's best advantage over vanilla pudding is that it's served in a shallower dish that's easier to wash afterwards. The nectarine is nobody's poor second cousin. A good nectarine will go from your mouth directly to your bloodstream, filling it with sunshine and promise. It stands up to the peach for sheer sweet shirt-splattering juiciness, and, at least to my nose, its perfume is even more intense than that of even the ripest peach. I lived on them last year when I was in Arkansas, buying them on a thrice-weekly basis at Eureka Market, taking them back to my room with a pint of raspberries and a quart of unsweetened vanilla yogurt, turning them into electric-pink-colored Melba smoothies that I drank for breakfast on the deck every morning. I can't eat a nectarine now without thinking of those breakfasts. I don't know whether to cry or smile at the memory.
Left to my own devices with peaches and nectarines, with my beloved Elephant Heart plums, which will also be arriving at the market soon, and with the apricots and sugar plums and greengages -- oh, mercy, I don't even know where to begin about how much I love fresh greengages, greengage jam, greengage tart, all things greengage -- I could be perfectly happy this summer. But apparently the fates have been paying attention to me, to the rotten mood in which I frequently find myself, and to my jaded palate, and this year, they sent me a gift in the form of currants. Of course I've been seeing redcurrants and whitecurrants at the market for close to a dozen summers. I have made redcurrant jelly; after a disastrously-overcooked first batch, I rode the learning curve and turned out jar after jar of brilliant red tart jelly. But this year, after years of patient waiting, I finally got my mitts on fresh blackcurrants, a staple in English cookery and confectionary but almost unknown here thanks to a decades-long ban on the cultivation of blackcurrants in several states due to concerns that blackcurrants spread a blister damaging to white pines. Thanks to some enterprising scientists and horticulturists, the link between this blister and blackcurrants has been found to be an erroneous one, and New York State has finally cleared the blackcurrant for cultivation within the state. I have been eating and drinking blackcurrant-flavored things for years: cassis sorbet, which I used to buy at Haagen-Dazs shops until they dropped it from their product line in the mid-1980's; creme de cassis, the two-fisted blackcurrant liqueur that becomes a kir when added to white wine and a kir Royale when added to champagne; blackcurrant yogurt, which I found all over the U.K. and northern Europe, but am hardpressed to find here; even blackcurrant-flavored cough drops, which I mainlined in Scotland after catching a cold on my second day there. When I am really desperate for that astringent, deep-berried taste, I buy a bottle of Ribena, the blackcurrant concentrate beloved of British children, even as I know I that I'm also getting an extra-heavy dose of sugar, even after the required dilution with water, with my blackcurrants. (According to this nifty factsheet, the majority of the blackcurrant crop in Europe is sold to Ribena's manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, a fact which leaves me mysteriously depressed.) When I don't even have the energy to hunt down a bottle of Ribena, I buy myself a bar of this and retreat to the shower, and marvel at how satisfying this is, even though I can't eat it. But now, now I have access to the real thing. I look forward to a summer of jelly, of blackcurrant flip, of blackcurrant ice cream and fool and tart. These will all be coming to our table, but now I am working my way happily through my first pound of blackcurrants, which I brought home, cooked with only a bit of sugar, forced through a sieve and chilled. Every morning I take my little container of blackcurrant puree to work, stopping at the Greek deli along the way to buy two little tubs of lowfat Greek yogurt. I sit at my desk, careful not to spill anything on the pile of specs for which estimate requests must be submitted. I crack open a tub of yogurt, I pour the puree in, I begin to stir, and I feel the long-dormant thrill that little kids feel when they mix two unlike things together. That snowy-white yogurt, that blue-black puree, eventually they turn into something bright purple, tart and ridiculously fragrant, something to unknot my brow, fill me with Vitamin C and make me glad to be alive. Eating this is one of the two purest pleasures I know.
Dear friends, Lloyd and I spent the weekend in Philadelphia, helping my mom put together a picnic for a few dozen relatives and friends. While I recover from the adventure of peeling and slicing a dozen peaches in a single go, making a quadruple batch of biscuit dough to put under these peaches, and generally feeding and watering the relatives, who are nothing if not a quirky bunch, here is a geographically appropriate post, my valentine to Philadelphia, originally published on April 11, 2004. Regular meditations on the peeling of peaches and similar foodish ephemera will resume tomorrow. Thanking you as always for your patience.
It sounds either like the beginning of a joke or a punchline: I love Philadelphia. Always have, always will.
It is a weird, not-always defensible love. People who hate Philadelphia -- and there are plenty who do -- will remind you of the history of staggering corruption; of the sheer strip of billboarded ugliness that is I-95; of former police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo jumping on the ribcages of unruly perps; of that day in May 1985 when Wilson Goode sent the cops to bomb the radical separatist group MOVE from its house on Osage Avenue, which ended with the near-destruction of the entire neighborhood; of the vacant lot/hole on 8th and Market; of that beautiful building on 10th and Chestnut now falling to ruin and being stripped of its copper wiring by desperate junkies; of the smell of the city in the dead heat of August; of that accent, that squashed nasally swallowed vowel accent. I know it all, I understand it all, I cringe at it all, and still I love Philadelphia, the way the protagonist in "Leader of the Pack" loved her juvie delinquent boyfriend: "They told me he was bad, but I knew that he was sad." I love Philadelphia for completely irrational reasons, the kind that will not change the mind of dyed-in-the-wool Philahatas, or sway any fence-sitters, but they are mine.
When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad were living in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, attending East Stroudsburg State College (now East Stroudsburg University). A friend of my mom's said that she should arrange to deliver me either in New York or Philadelphia, so that I would not bear the stigma of being born in a little whitebread redneck mountain town, even a wb/rn mountain town with a teacher's college. It turned out that she didn't have to, though, because as soon as I was big enough to be bundled into a car seat, we were headed down to Philadelphia on an almost weekly basis. My mom and dad both grew up in Philadelphia and my stepdad grew up in south Jersey, so there were always plenty of relatives to visit. In 1991, my mom and stepdad decided that they'd had more than enough of the bucolic charms of the Poconos, and ran screaming back to the big city, where they've remained happily ever since. The summer they moved back, I was working for Tower Books and managed to get a promotion that involved relocating from New York to Philadelphia, so I moved in with them for a while. My mom was a sight to see that summer. We would drive into the city, or take the train, to go shopping, to have lunch, to just walk around the city, and her eyes would be bright. "Go ahead and say it, Mom," I'd say. "I love it here," she'd reply.
So do I. So does Mary Elizabeth Williams, who wrote this travel essay for Salon back in 1997. I will admit that while I understand Mary Elizabeth's affection for the strange vibey aspects of the city, I am a bit more sympathetic than she is to the people who come in for the galleries, for the historical sites and for the pretty neighborhoods like Society Hill and the entire length of Delancey Street. I love that there is a place for everyone here, art fans and Art Problems, tourists, the marginally employed, the overemployed, frat boys and anarchists, M. Night Shyamalan and David Lynch (although I'm sure David Lynch would be just as glad to give his place to someone else).
I love those pretty neighborhoods, and the ugly ones, and the inbetween ones. I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Mutter Museum, the museum of medical curiosities not for the faint-of-heart. I love the main branch of the Free Library, and the fountain of Leda and the Swan in front of it. I love TLA on South Street, where Lloyd took me on my birthday to see Television, and Chestnut Cabaret, where we saw Bleach, Kingmaker and Kitchens of Distinction on a triple bill. I like the cheesesteaks at Pat's and Geno's just fine, but I really love the cheesesteaks at Jim's on South Street. I used to love the water ices at Jennie's, but I understand that Jennie's is long gone. No worries, though; you can't keep a good water ice stand down. (Rogues and plebeians may call it "Italian ice," but those of us in the know know that "water ice" is the only correct nomenclature.) I love the Reading Terminal Market, and I know I'm not alone. I love the Bassett's Ice Cream counter at the market, and the ice cream itself. I love getting breakfast at the Down Home Diner, one of the stomping grounds of Jack McDavid, who used to do the "Grilling and Chilling" show on Food Network with Bobby Flay. Jack is still behind the counter at the Down Home, making some of the best breakfasts in the city, when he's not at the stoves at his restaurant near the Art Museum, Jack's Firehouse. He also shops at Reading Terminal, champions the small farms from which he buys the lion's share of his produce, and waves hello to anyone who calls out, "hey, Jack" -- and a lot of people do. I love that whenever my mom buys meat at Ochs' Prime Meats, and she hands over her credit card, they always ask her, "were your husband's people in meat?" (Indeed they were; my stepdad's grandfather and uncle ran a butcher shop in south Jersey.) I love that Saveur magazine put Philadelphia at the top of its annual Saveur 100 list in January, and that its sister magazine in France, Saveurs, ran a travel piece on Philadelphia in March, entitled "Philadelphie: La vie 'made in USA.'" And I love the Melrose Diner in South Philadelphia, because everybody who knows goes to Melrose.
Heaven help me, I even love that oddball nasally Philadelphia accent, that of the squashed vowels. Steve Lopez, the former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist turned novelist, has a great scene in his novel The Sunday Macaroni Club, in which the newly-arrived-from-Boston assistant district attorney gives a secretary a coffee order, and the secretary asks her, "Do you want that in a starfame cup, hon?" Flooded with frustration and homesickness, the a.d.a. runs to the women's room, locks herself in a stall, and holds her head in her hands, chanting to herself, "sty-ro-foam, sty-ro-foam, sty-ro-foam" until she feels grounded and fit to reenter the office again.
While the city has plenty to recommend it, and I will be pleased and happy to show it off to anyone who wants to visit, I will allow that my affections may not be completely transferable. I love Philadelphia because, simply put, I fell in love down there, and thus even the darkest, saddest, chronically-broke-and-underemployed-bookstore-clerk memory still has a warm amber-and-rose patina about it. To me, this city is love.
The summer I moved back in with my parents, I was not thrilled to be back in Philadelphia, although I was glad that I wasn't moving back to the Poconos. I had been in New York for two years, laid off from a job I loved, trying to live on minimum wage and failing, spiralling deeper into debt. Come help us open our new store, said Tower. You can be the children's book buyer. You can work in the record store for the summer if you'd like. Thus it was that I found myself at 23, living in my parents' new house, working at Tower Records, feeling like I'd had one chance at a shiny interesting New York City life and I had failed at it, failed myself, failed my parents, failed, failed, failed. I was tedious company that summer.
Shortly after I'd moved, my friend Val came down from New York to visit me. We trooped around the city, ending up at Sassafras Bar on Second and Chestnut, which became on that day, and remains to this day, my favorite place in Philadelphia to while away an afternoon. Tin ceiling, white lights, dark and cool in the summer, dark and warm in the winter, kind yet unobtrusive service, small but perfectly-executed menu, menschy bartenders, and the most beautiful tile on the walls, mottled green, blue and brown, the exact color of bruises. The women's room is on the second floor of the building, up a flight of stairs. It's a huge bathroom, almost the size of the whole first floor, complete with deep, claw-footed bathtub. The first time I went in there, I saw a languid, recumbent figure in the tub. "Oh! I'm sorry!," I cried, startled. She didn't move. On closer inspection, I discovered that the bather was a mannequin. She sat in the tub for years, startling countless female patrons. One day she was gone. "What happened to our friend?" my mom asked the bartender. It turned out that she gave up her head to a local art society's Bastille Day celebration. I appreciate the sacrifice, but I miss the weird little frisson she brought to my every trip to the bathroom.
After that first trip to Sassafras, Val and I, fortified by several perfect vodka gimlets, decided to visit the Tarot reader next door, just for giggles. "You will have two daughters and one son," she announced. ("Shows you what she knows," I said to Val later. "I'm only having one, tops." "Maybe you'll have triplets," she said.) "And you will marry someone who is in your circle. You may not know him now, but he is present in your life." ("She must be kidding. I don't want to marry anybody I know right now." "Maybe you'll meet someone while you're here," said Val. "Don't be ridiculous. Who am I going to meet in Philadelphia?"
Lloyd showed up in Philadelphia eight months later, having moved from Seattle, transferred from Tower Books in Bellevue, Washington, to run shipping and receiving for our store. Within a month, I was in love. Within six weeks, we were shacked up, living in sin, on love and cheap food, drinking dollar beers at McGlinchey's, going out to breakfast at Diner on the Square off Rittenhouse Square, sitting in Washington Square Park, fingers interlaced, staring at the similarities in our skin tones. Within six months we were engaged; within a year we were married at First Unitarian Church on 21st and Chestnut. Since we couldn't get away for a honeymoon, we dropped some cash on the bridal suite at Hotel Atop the Bellevue on Broad Street. We didn't change out of our wedding clothes before leaving the church, mainly so we wouldn't have to schlep my ginormous and impractical wedding gown around. This turned out to be a smart tactical move. If you ever want to be treated well at check-in, show up in the Full Wedding Monty. You will practically be handed champagne and foie gras as you turn over your credit card. Our window had a clear view of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. A local artist had designed a giant Phillies cap for Billy P, in honor of the Phils' confounding our expectations and making it to the World Series. We turned the game on and watched to the fifth inning, when ignominious defeat was all but inevitable. "Well, that's about enough of that," I said to Lloyd. "What should we do now?"
Last October, almost 10 years to the date after that wedding, my no-longer-baby brother and his beautiful and excellent girlfriend were married at Arch Street Presbyterian Church. The weather was warm and beautiful for October. The trees in Rittenhouse Square were still in bloom. The air smelled pretty and green. I saw friends and relatives I hadn't seen in years. It was a weekend made for a wedding, a weekend made for me to feel goofy with love. I love Philadelphia. Always have, always will.