WFD: O Avocado by David Lazar

17 Sep

O Avocado

by David Lazar

My urges for certain foods are completely clear to me—I loved to eat saltines and tomato juice when I was in nursery school (much nicer to say than pre-k, which introduces children to the harsh world of consonants and attenuation—we don’t have time, even then, to say kindergarden) and I like to drink tomato juice and eat crackers now. Lots of salt, and tomato juice seemed novel when I was a child. Some adults drank tomato juice, it seemed, before expensive meals. This is a cultural fashion that has passed. I don’t recall the last time I was in a restaurant and witnessed a Heinz apertif. But when I was a boy, and still now, it gave and gives tomato juice a bit of juice. Some people have an aversion to tomatoes, especially children. My own son looks at a tomato, sliced, juiced (I never understood the exception for sauced) as a food horror, perhaps the seeds, in the slices, waiting to invade, and the texture of the juice, unfit for a drink. Sometimes I’ll go several months without having tomato juice and a strange need will overtake me. I’m not sure if it’s emotional or physiological necessity, some combination. But I have to rush out and buy and drink several glasses of tomato juice at once, like some kind of tomato junky. I have visions of being found, sprawled, with a can of V-8 beside me, detectives shaking their head: “He got a bad case. Up from Mexico. Tomato Cartel.”

 

Other urges from my childhood are more resistable. I think of having liver every so often. I used to love liver. If you really needed to, you could say I was a liver lover. You could even taunt me by saying that. Liver lover. But apparently I don’t crave it enough to yield to the desire. Will I ever again eat liver? Not chopped, but an actual cooked piece of liver, with onions. I’m working myself up into a yen by writing about it. “Yen” is a word that isn’t much in vogue anymore. I love “yen.” I’d love to bring yen into vogue through the good offices of liver.

 

I like very fresh bread, and slightly stale bread. Slightly stale rye bread from a bakery, with butter. My father used to say that he liked stale bread, and he did, very stale bread, capable of crumbling, for birds. This intrigued me as a child, and I’ve inherited a modified version of it, as though the grip of the Depression were lightening generation by generation through the relative freshness of foods of we consume. I like to put a single slice of slightly stale rye bread, well-buttered, on a plate, and eat it while watching an old sitcom, like Bob Newhart, or Dick Van Dyke. Then the difficult decision of whether to have another is muted by the involvement of the show, which I’ve invariably seen. I frequently decide to have half a slice, because to have another full slice would be too self-indulgent. Little pleasures pushed too far fall over the edge and land on the carpet, butter side down.

 

Eating anything very late at night  . . . I have to eat alone—that’s the essence of guilty pleasure in food. I can’t experience guilty pleasure eating with anyone else. It’s completely masturbatory. I sometimes worry that my son will catch me eating something after he’s gone to bed. When he finds out that I’ve eaten something after he’s gone to bed, he sometimes acts betrayed.

 

I frequently don’t eat what I really had the urge to eat, and I’m filled with regret. And I don’t understand why I didn’t order, buy or make what I really wanted. I don’t understand why I sabotaged my pleasure. And then I dislike what I’m eating, and my meal or snack becomes work-eating. I have to just get through it. And I’m annoyed at myself, because the idea of interrupting the meal to reclaim the desire is more than I can muster. It must be put off for another time! I must be disappointed! And the idea of beautiful, moist egg salad, warm of course, sits on my pleasure hope chest and whimpers, mutters.

 

Right now I’m thinking about herring. It’s the first food I remember eating, creamed, the herring, not me, with my grandfather in his kitchen. I must have been five or so. I like to buy the little jars and dip crackers into them for a day or two. I do that two or three times a year. But why not more, why not less? Why do our urges press when they do, and then recede?

 

Many of our urges are charmingly regressive. Some less so, no doubt. Some best left unsatisfied, less the urge curdles. I’d love to go to the circus again! But the odds are it would leave me dyspeptic if it were the standard Barnum and Bailey run. The circumference of my amazement and the standards of performance have both changed too much. This is true with certain foods, too, which can no longer be replicated.  Or my own taste too far down a certain road. I shiver at the salvers of sliced tongue we used to have on Sundays, piled onto sandwiches alongside potato sandwiches, and occasionally have the urge to try again. But I just know this one wouldn’t go anywhere if tested. The conceptual tide has turned. Tongue is best—sorry—licking the contours of memory.

 

Sometimes one experience can fuel a lifetime of urges. Before I had moved to California in the late nineteen seventies, I had never tasted an avocado. Mexican restaurants hardly existed in New York in the sixties, and they weren’t in our cultural milieu. I was in grad school in California, and riding home from the supermarket with my bag and stopped along the way. I took out the avocado I had bought, and used my pocket knife to cut the oval top off, and ate the fruit from the skin. It was the most orgiastic taste experience of my life. I devoured the whole thing. I loved eating that avocado so much that I kept the pit for a few years. Avocados, to me, tasted like nothing else I had ever eaten—I couldn’t find a category for them—neither quite sweet, nor tart, when perfect they were soft but had texture. O the avocado! I’ve kept eating them since, my urge for them unabated, trying always to recreate that first swoon. But, interestingly, the pleasure so strong, both in tasting again, and in memory, that disappointment, even when the occasional unripe agent of my urges appears, isn’t a cause for alarm. I suppose that’s the definition of mature love when it comes to urges, and food that is, my avocado love.

david lazar

 

David Lazar‘s books include Occasional Desire (Nebraska), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Essaying the Essay(Welcome Table). Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming are After Montaigne (University of Georgia) and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy (Etruscan Press). In 2014-15 he is curating a digital chapbook on nonfiction editing for The Conversant.org/Essay Press. Six of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays, the latest in 2014. He created the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year.

WFD: Kitchen Table: A History by Jill Talbot

17 Sep

Kitchen Table:  A History

by Jill Talbot

I thought the refrigerator was a stove.  From the pictures the landlady e-mailed of the apartment we’d be renting in Chicago, we figured out there was one room, a bathroom with a shower, a kitchen area with what was clearly a microwave on the counter, and somewhere, a couple of shelves. My eleven-year-old daughter, Indie, and I began packing the house we had rented for two years from the small university where I taught in northern New York—the house with a front porch, a kitchen with a top shelf of cabinets I couldn’t reach, a garage door opener, two stories, and a backyard extending into woods that Indie liked to disappear into with a backpack and our big dog, Blue. On weekend afternoons, I’d stand at the kitchen sink and watch the two of them from the window. Would it give too much away to tell you now I wish I were still standing there?  Seeing Indie and Blue duck behind the pine tree that shouldered the snow in the winter?  I’d wait until I couldn’t see the straps from Indie’s backpack, the jagged stick she’d picked for walking, and the white tip of Blue’s tail. Then I’d turn and sit back down at the kitchen table. There, during the writing hours, I kept my laptop next to a folded blue napkin with a cup of coffee or a fountain drink from the gas station on the corner. The table set, as it were. For writing, nothing more.

***

Three years before, I bought the table in 2010 at an Antique Mall in Stillwater, Oklahoma when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University teaching four sections of composition every semester.  The price tag on the table—a 1940s white mottled Formica and chrome with two blue chairs—read one hundred and fifty dollars. It is still the most I have ever spent on a piece of furniture. In our duplex, it set against the wall in the cramped living room because there was nowhere else for it to go.  The kitchen already overcrowded with a narrow counter, a refrigerator, a gas stove, and a stacked washer and dryer.  Indie and I joked that only one of us could be in the kitchen at a time, especially if the refrigerator was open.  And I couldn’t use the oven except in the winter, because anything over three hundred degrees lit up all the rooms like a furnace.  Maybe the worst thing was the dryer—when it ran the walls sweat, and our apartment disintegrated into swells of humidity. When a neighbor, a former Marine who’d fix anything for a six pack of Heineken, hauled the unit from the wall and found at least two years worth of lint in the vent tunnel, he told me we were lucky it hadn’t caught fire. Maybe that wasn’t the worst thing.  I know it wasn’t the worst thing we had coming.

***

When I started graduate school in my twenties, I gathered furnishings for an apartment from friends and family. One friend contributed a wooden kitchen table she found in an abandoned house in Texas. It was a narrow drop leaf with carved legs, and I paired it with two Target chairs and moved it to three different cities until I had two Masters and a PhD.  During those years, I met a man in Colorado, and after a bunch of back and forth, mostly from me, I gave myself over to loving him. Kenny and I moved into a basement apartment in Fort Collins, and in the kitchen, he made us chai tea and we split a grapefruit, an English muffin, and conversation every morning. In the evenings when the window above our kitchen table darkened, we’d laugh over bottles of red and marinated chicken or spinach-stuffed pasta shells. Once at that table, he tried to get me to try sushi, but after one bite, I pushed the plate over to his side and got up to make myself a turkey sandwich.

I have always been adventurous in my life—too much so.  Too impulsively, I have risked too much for not enough.  I have made many, many people shake their heads, but in the kitchen, I am a different woman.

Men who have loved me have told me my restlessness exhausts them, that I’m not “safe,” that they can’t be sure I’ll stick around. Yet more than any other, they (we?) struggle against their inability to unloosen my melancholy (how would I write without it?).  And they’ve all left. Kenny was no different. After four years together, he pulled away (or had I already began my slow pull away from us?), and when he walked out the door for the last time, he left both me and Indie, who was then only four months old.  That was July, and one night months later, when the evenings cooled enough for sweatshirts, I lit candles on the wooden table and spooned sweet potatoes and bananas to Indie in her high chair. A Bread CD (or was it Simon and Garfunkel?) played on the portable stereo. It was the first time I realized I could make the kitchen table whatever I wanted it to be. This paragraph has parentheses because I’m not sure. Of so much.

***

After Kenny left, I finished graduate school writing about nothing but him—about us— in an attempt to write him home. I sent him every essay, and I waited. Longer than I should have. I sent words and words and got none in return.  It was a tough lesson: to learn the difference between writing my life and the art of writing. I still write about Kenny (see?), but I don’t write him as much as the ghost he’s become.

The next summer, Indie and I left for Utah, where I began teaching at a university in the southern part of the state. We took few belongings—her nursery furniture, my writing desk I’d had since my second graduate degree, a night stand, some end tables, and twenty-seven boxes of books.  On the day I unpacked, Indie stacked blocks in the living room, and I set the wooden drop leaf table in the kitchen. Then I picked it up and carried it out the back door to the edge of the yard for the trash collector.  To me, the kitchen table was Kenny.

I bought a faux-vintage white table with blue chairs, but for the three years we lived in that house with the large kitchen and its seafoam counter and glass-cabinet doors, I couldn’t sit us down to the table for any meal. In my mind, a kitchen table was memory.

A kitchen table was missing.

A kitchen table was being abandoned.

A kitchen table was a ghost.

For three years, Indie and I ate on the couch or even the living room floor and sometimes dinner was no more than popcorn. I walked around the kitchen table innumerable times to the pantry, where I’d pass Frank Sinatra in his studio, smoking a cigarette. Hat on head. The blue frame around the large photograph of Frank pulled the kitchen together—the blue of the chairs, the blue of the frame, the blue of Frank’s eyes (even though the photograph was black and white). The kitchen was pulled together. I was not.

And so, what I kept pulling, night after night and eventually some mornings, from the refrigerator in that kitchen was Chardonnay.  We moved from Utah for reasons not important to what you’re reading here, and I gave away all the furniture in the house: Indie’s crib, which she had outgrown, a green couch from a thrift store, a futon someone had given me. My writing desk, like me, had finally fallen apart there. And the kitchen table? A man slid it onto a blanket in the back of his truck. I was glad to see it go. I wanted nothing of what had held me in that house. Nothing of the middle of the night me, staring out the window, wine glass in hand, afraid to sit at a kitchen table.

***

I’m aware that most who are reading this know more about food, about cooking, than I do. (My mother never let me into “her” kitchen while I was growing up—and still doesn’t.) So in preparation for writing this essay, I looked up some common cooking errors and found that in my kitchen(s), I have committed most of them:  I boil pasta in a small pan. I have one knife I use for everything.  I have a very small plastic cutting board.  When I buy tomatoes, I put them in the refrigerator. I overcrowd the pan (I have one, so it’s all or nothing). I mix cookie batter (by hand, I don’t have a mixer) until even the brown sugar crystals have dissolved.  I don’t wait for the oil to get warm enough, and I had no idea that there was a “right” time to add garlic.

***

The first time I spoke with our landlady in Chicago, I stood in our kitchen in New York, watching Indie and Blue in the backyard. Indie throwing a tennis ball. Blue running after it. It was difficult to watch while the landlady told me she didn’t accept dogs, even though I had already realized that a studio apartment, Chicago—the compression of its streets—was no place for a Blue Bear who loved to run.  But there were other factors to consider, such as the rent, the neighborhood, if Indie would be able to walk to school, and whether the apartment would be furnished.  It would, the landlady told me. Was there a private entrance to our apartment?  There was not.  We could enter through the front door of the house and go through the living room or we could come in through the back door through the kitchen.  And you can use the kitchen anytime you want, she told me.  We never did.  Not once during the conversation did I think to ask if she rented other rooms of her house.

***

On an afternoon in July, the landlady led us down the narrow stairs to the basement and opened the door. One twin bed sat lonely in the room.  (Indie would end up sleeping on the mattress on the floor, and I would sleep on an air mattress atop the box spring.) In our kitchen, the stove turned out to be a mini-fridge. The pictures the landlady sent had hidden what was between the fridge and the microwave:  a hot plate.

Before we packed one box in New York, Indie and I had long talks about the sacrifices we would both be making. We talked about how the large cut in my salary would affect our lives. The friends she’d leave behind. The downsizing from our two story to a studio apartment. Trading the privacy of our home for one we would share with a woman we didn’t know. No cable. I worked to assure us both it was worth it—a Writer-in-Residence position in a prominent nonfiction program in Chicago could catapult me to a tenure-track position.  And after that, we wouldn’t ever have to move again.  There would be more opportunities for us both. I would only be teaching two classes, so I could be home more. It was Chicago. Finally, as I was putting Indie to bed one night, I told her that in the morning when she got up for school, I would toast a bagel for New York or a waffle for Chicago.  When she walked into the kitchen groggy the next morning, there was a waffle on her plate. I’ll never forget that, because I thought, wait.

This is supposed to be an essay about food, and it is.  It’s about sustenance. What we live with. What we live without. What we learn to forgo when it suddenly becomes clear we’ve gone too far in what we thought was the right direction, and it turns out to be the wrong one. Like accidentally switching out sugar for salt. It’s about how our tastes change, because our lives do.

***

When I think back to the kitchen in New York, I see Indie and Blue from the window. I see the kitchen table in the middle of the room and Frank Sinatra in his frame on the wall. I see my laptop. The snow spilling diagonally from the gray sky.  And when I let myself, I see eggs in a bowl on an October morning. Turkey bacon in the microwave. The coffee sputtering to drip. And me, falling like a puppet released from its strings.

The dryer in Stillwater had heated our small apartment like a furnace, but in New York, we had a furnace with a split in the chimney, and the exhaust seeped through the rooms of our house for months, leaving us exhausted, nauseous, and sore, until that morning when I woke up on the floor beside the kitchen table, and I knew something was wrong.  I poured the eggs into the sink and rinsed the bowl, wrapped up the turkey bacon, and rinsed the coffee pot. (My mother may have never let me into her kitchen, but she taught me to leave the house neat in case something happened and I never came back.) I roused Indie from her deep, sweaty sleep, and we stumbled out the door. Someone found us in the front yard. We spent the day and the night in the ER being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

The house in New York shivered for us every day after that. And the kitchen and its table remained little more than my writing space. Indie and I ate side by side on the couch, the one we rented along with our beds and a love seat. On the day we moved out, we placed our pennies. Whenever we move, the last thing we do is place three pennies in spots that have some significance for us:  I always have one.  Indie has one.  And we have one together.

I put mine on the sill of the kitchen window where I had watched Indie so many times, and she put one in her room. When it came time to place our penny, we put the last one on the front window sill, where I had seen her climb up the school bus steps in the  mornings and down them in the afternoons, and where she had watched Blue be driven away in the back of a stranger’s car while I stood on the front porch, doubled over in sobs. Before we walked out the back door for the last time, I stood in the spot in the kitchen where I had collapsed. How close we had come, I thought, to not being here.  And how much closer, it seemed, Indie and I now held on to one another. On the day we locked the UBox and I gave the wave to haul it away, there was one piece of furniture amidst all the boxes:  the kitchen table.

***

When we unloaded our boxes and carried them down to the basement, I put the kitchen table against a wall, and I hung Frank above it.  And every morning, after I had followed Indie down the street and watched her turn into the open gate of her school, I set out my blue napkin and my coffee cup.

There are spaces in our homes we can simply make or re-make, no matter the city, no matter the size. Indie took the tie-dye wall hanging that had covered one of the walls of her room in New York and hung it like a triangle from perpendicular walls to fashion a canopy over her mattress. We called it her “room.”

I can delude myself.  I often do, but at no mention of her “room” did I forget that my daughter was sleeping on the floor. And maybe by now you’ve come to know, if you don’t already, that for some (most?) writers, writing is a life of austerity and transience. House to house, city to city. But writers or not, we all make do in this life, one way or another.

At night, I’d sit on the floor next to where she sat on her mattress.  We’d eat Lean Cuisines or sandwiches, sometimes something as simple as cheese and crackers with fruit. The hot plate never hot, all of my pots and pans still taped up in the storage room on the other side of the basement stairs.

***

There are dangers that lurk in houses unseen.  But some stand right in front of you, a threat.  In Chicago, that threat was the man who rented a room on the second floor.

We’d know he was home by the stench of the food he fried on certain nights, when he’d come home after what we assumed was hours, more like a day’s worth, of drinking.  He’d stomp across the living room floor, pound up the stairs to his room and back to the kitchen. We could hear our landlady trying to talk to him, talk him down, maybe talk him through. We heard his mumbled “uh-huh”s and the sizzle of the oil in the pan. Sometimes I’d worry about our landlady. She seemed to find him charming (or impossible to escape or an antidote to her loneliness), and on those nights, I’d sneak up the stairs and sit on the top one to listen. On the worst nights, he was incoherent and loud, tossing sentences of slurs.  I could make out a word or two, nothing more.  She’d tire of him and wander up to her bedroom while he stomped up to his room and back down to the kitchen. So many nights, I’d stay awake until I didn’t hear him anymore—then I’d sneak upstairs to check that the burner was off.

The smells of someone else cooking can be a comfort, but they can also be a discomfort.  I think of young Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” who suffered “the loathing of a house penetrated by kitchen odors . . . . inescapable.”  This was me and Indie, burrowed down in the basement, forced to discover a stranger’s secret—that a long day of drinking ended with the sizzle of a fry pan and the same foul-smelling dish.  But because I understand addiction, because I understand the darkness that can keep a person up at night, I kept quiet.  For a while.

***

Every morning in that basement, I’d sit down at the kitchen table in the blue chair facing the living room so I could look out our two small windows. From them, I could see the bird feeders that hung from the tree branches, the ones I kept filled during the long Chicago winter because I liked to watch the birds flit and feed while I wrote.

In dark times, it’s the writing that holds me back—like someone gripping me by the arms to keep me from the precipice of darker.  I pulled my writing chair out so many times in that apartment the blue cushion gave way, and no superglue would hold it together longer than a day or two. I found a rubber band to keep it in place. Indie’s nerves—my nerves—just as fragile. And what had held us together was now tenuous, as we separated from each other as if running and ducking for cover.

One night while we were falling asleep, Indie’s voice came soft from the dark:  Can you get us out of here?  And my answer went back across the dark to her:  I promise.

I had already been trying—I was in the middle of the fall academic job market season, I had application materials at several universities, but nothing came of it.  In December, we got on a train to Texas to visit my parents, and I tried not to think about all the interviews I hadn’t been offered.  When it came time to board the train to Chicago in January, Indie and I lingered as long as we could beside the tracks.  Boarding, we confessed to each other month’s later, was one of the hardest things either of us have ever done.

***

The remaining winter months in Chicago pulled forward as slow as a starting train, but in late April, I received an e-mail from a university in New Mexico offering me a Visiting position.  I would be teaching classes in the essay—creative and academic—which meant I would be returning to the composition classes I promised myself I would never teach again. But some promises we make to ourselves. And some we make to others. I took the job the day after it was offered.  When I told Indie, we jumped up and down in the space between our beds, relieved.  The relief was interrupted.

 

***

There are few meals I remember. Probably because I’m not attuned to food as much as I am to the conversation around it.  Memories I struggle with, too.  But some tastes linger with us long after the check comes or the dishes are cleared by the host. And some moments run in our minds as if they’ll always be happening.

Like this one.

Not long before midnight, the man upstairs barrels for the third or fourth time through the living room on his way back to the kitchen. I have no business being upstairs at this hour of his drunkenness, but I find myself turning the corner to the kitchen.  He teeters before the stove, a spatula in his hand. The oil sizzles like an eerie warning.  Until this night, Indie and I have both kept our distance and our eyes down in the house, and now here he is. And here I am.

Every night.  Every morning.  You stomp down those stairs and across this floor.

 

That’s as far as I get before he yells and comes after me and I run. I race down the stairs, hands on the wall all the way down as if bracing myself.  I slam the door. Indie is awake, standing outside her room. He’s standing at the top of the stairs. Now he’s stomping down and trying to get in the door. He beats on it. Yells threats. He calls me terrible, disturbing names no daughter should ever hear her mother called.  I dial 911.  I forget to say we’re in the basement, so when we hear the knock on the front door, we also hear the muffled politeness of the man upstairs and the landlady answering them away.  In minutes, he’s back at the top of the stairs. Back at the door. More threats, worse names. Indie runs, and I follow. She opens the pantry door at the end of the kitchen. Good, I tell her. Hide. I call 911 again. Four police officers—all male—stand beneath the tree in the front yard and scoff at my plea. One tells me this isn’t a police matter—that I need to talk to my landlady. The next morning we do, but all she does is insist I never talk to the man upstairs after he’s come home late at night because he’s “stressed.”  The nights of drunk-food-frying increase.

***

 

After that night, Indie had a little over a month of school, and I had two weeks left in my semester.  Every time I put the key in the front door lock, I felt the way Paul did every time he turned onto Cordelia Street,  “the waters close above [my] head.” I knew we wouldn’t make it unless I did something to put our last days right, to salvage something from the year long struggle.

I knifed the box labeled “Pots and Pans” and pulled out the small skillet, the only one I have. I grabbed the cutting board, the one I had since graduate school.  And while Indie hung out in the park after school with a friend for as long as she could, I marinated chicken or seasoned some ground turkey while chopping carrots and slicing apples and pouring green beans into a bowl and adding one packet of Sweet and Low (this, in my cooking, is flair).  I moved the oscillating fan onto the kitchen table, poured a glass of wine, and turned the hot plate to 5.  I pivoted my laptop and chose an episode of The Office.  And every night for the last month we lived in Chicago, I cooked.  I made it an event, and when Indie came downstairs and into our apartment, I had one chicken breast or a turkey burger in the skillet and a plate of appetizers (carrots and ranch, cucumbers and Italian) on her side of the table.  She’d sit, crunch, ask which episode I was watching, and I’d sip wine, flip whatever was in the skillet, then set a slice of provolone or layer some shredded cheddar jack on top in the final minute before the alarm on the microwave dinged.  Then we’d move the fan, the laptop, and the blue napkin from the table. And in their place, we’d set one plate on my side, one on hers, and we’d sit down to dinner.

For the past year, we looked forward to our walks around the block at night to unwind the day, to get away from the man upstairs, and to share the best and worst parts of our day. During these last nights, we didn’t lose the walks, but we exchanged those parts over dinner while we sat across from each other and ate a meal I made or one we made when her friends had other places to be. What we made was never more than three items and five ingredients—we kept it simple and sure.  No more mistaking baking power for baking soda.  I wanted to get this right.

For so many years after Kenny left, I saw us—Indie and me— as living alone.  In Chicago, for the first time, I saw that we lived together. And that what we have is enough. Even with all we don’t have, with all we have lost, and with all we have had to lose along the way, what we have is each other, and where we have it best is at our kitchen table.

The other day, Indie asked what I am most looking forward to when we get to our new rental house, and I could picture it before she finished the question.  The kitchen table, once again the only piece of furniture in a UBox somewhere on a highway between Chicago and New Mexico.  It’s in there with those two blue chairs and a rubber band. It’s the same kitchen table from Oklahoma, the same one from New York, the same one I’ll set for writing and the one I’ll set for dinner, where Indie and I will share the best and worst parts of our coming days.

***

On the afternoon we made our final walk through the basement apartment in Chicago, pennies in hand, Indie disappeared while I stood in front of the windows and carefully set my penny on one of the sills where I had looked out all those writing mornings, when I had tried to write my way outside of where I was and beyond that basement.  Indie came back in the room to stand beside me. She told me she put hers in the pantry in hopes that no one would ever have to hide there again.  When it came time to place our penny, I left it up to Indie, the way I always do, and she didn’t hesitate.  Put it where the kitchen table was, she pointed, because we had our best times there.

***

Sometimes the stove is a refrigerator.

Sometimes the kitchen table is a writing desk.

Sometimes we put in too much salt.  And it’s a challenge to put it right.  But we try.

jill Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded:  Women and Addiction (Seal, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (U of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from BrevityDIAGRAMEcotoneThe Normal SchoolPassages NorthThe Paris Review DailyThe PinchSeneca ReviewZone 3, and more.

WFD: Chicago Part One: David Lazar and Jill Talbot

17 Sep
David Lazar and Jill Talbot

David Lazar and Jill Talbot

We met David Lazar and Jill Talbot at Sofi. I wore my hippest dress, which isn’t really all that hip, because of all our Writers for Dinner dinners, this is the one that most made me feel as if I was getting above my raising. Both Jill and David and hugely accomplished, and both are very talented and original writers. The sorts of writers who I expect to encounter in books, but not at dinner. I was thrilled when they volunteered (I would never have had the nerve to impose on either of them by actually asking).

Our dinner was lovely. I had an amazing rabbit ragout over pappardelle that was beyond a doubt the best thing I have eaten on the WFD Summer Tour. Dominik had Zuppa Livornese, a fish stew full of everything lovely from the sea. The food was lovely, but it was also the least interesting thing about having dinner with David and Jill. That, of course, was the conversation.

photo 4 (1)An unreadable business card except for "Henry Law Group" and a photograph of a middle aged man in a bow tie and black blazer.

The Man in the Bow Tie (card intentionally made unreadable)

David became completely fascinated by a man eating alone in the corner of the restaurant; a man who wore a bow tie and looked famous to us, though we couldn’t say why. We spent much of the dinner trying to figure out who he was, but couldn’t. We suspected he was a politician or a pundit, but maybe also a character actor or a star academic in a field just to the left of our own. When he left, Jill ran out into the rain to ask him who he was. It turned out he wasn’t someone we would know from Sunday morning political shows or The Chronicle of Higher Education, as we’d thought, but an attorney in town for conference. He gave us his business card. We should have invited him to have dessert with us, but when we thought he was famous, it seemed the wrong thing to do. It was like one of those paintings of the ever-reflecting mirror: I was having dinner with writers too famous for me really to have dinner with, and those writers were thinking of inviting a man in a bow tie to join us for dessert, but thought he might be too famous to welcome the invitation.

Jill and David were lovely and kind and generous with their stories and their advice.  They talked about writing, about being in academia, about Chicago. They gave us good advice (write what you want to write, apply for every job). David reminisced about being at Ohio University (where we graduate students are still grateful for his amazing fund raising talents and still benefit from them). Jill give me a lovely scarf that says “you inspire me” that I now wear on crappy writing days as a talisman. (I have a lot of crappy writing days. It’s getting a lot of wear.) They have been even more generous with their essays. We are very excited to bring these pieces to you, and beyond grateful that they would each give us original work to publish. We hope you enjoy their work as much as we enjoyed their company. It is delicious.

WFD: You Don’t Know Anything Until Someone You Love Dies by Anna March

30 Jul anna

You Don’t Know Anything Until Someone You Love Dies

by Anna March

A passage from my memoir in progress.

An earlier version of this appeared, in different form,  in Connotation Press.

———————————————————————

You don’t know anything until someone you love dies and then you know entirely too much.

My grandfather, Gus, has been gone a dozen years now, but before that he taught me to cook, to bake, to care about food, to think of the stories that go with meals.  When I was growing up in the 1970s, Gus would come home from Mass every Sunday morning and set about making the gravy. “Gravy” being his term for what most people call spaghetti sauce. This was a production that took about an hour to get on the stove to begin its marathon simmer session of another 4 hours. That’s 4 hours minimum, as Gus would insist.

Gus wanted Italian music while he made the gravy. But the record player was too far away to be heard in the kitchen, and the radio didn’t play Italian songs. So sometimes he hummed, sometimes he’d sing a little (with a dash of broken Italian thrown in) while he browned onions and added basil and oregano to the simmering tomatoes. I liked to sit in the kitchen with Gus, reading, doing my homework and helping him with the meatballs. We never talked much during those times, though we talked the rest of the time because Gus was a talker. But I liked the quiet of the kitchen. Me and Gus getting the gravy ready, him rattling out tunes, humming, crooning, telling me to take it easy on the pepper, the big window getting all steamed up…. Sometimes I’d draw pictures in the steam, pictures of what I imagined Italy to look like.  Perhaps it’s there I learned to become a writer. Inventing stories for my window-steam Neapolitans.

In addition to being a talker and a fine cook, Gus was the kind of grandfather who made life irresistible – sort of a Mary Poppins without the dress – with a manner of speaking that was pure Italian/South Philadelphian.

He was also into gadgets. We had all sorts of them in the ‘70s. Those mini-infomercials shilling Ronco products populated the television after Gus’ baseball games ended late at night, so we had battery testers (to test the batteries for all the other gadgets), car seat warmers, an automatic ice scraper, a moisture meter for the soil near his beloved fig tree, and all sorts of other contraptions. And then, one day, there it was: a Panasonic cassette tape recorder/player and a carton of blank 60-minute tapes.

The Panasonic was the gadget that got the most use, and the only one that didn’t make my grandmother roll her eyes. In fact, they had met at a dance during the big-band era and were forever going on about Glenn Miller, singing snippets to one another here and there. She loved music, and Gus loved that tape recorder.

In fact, he was the first to introduce me to the mix tape. He was “1/2 Irish by marriage” as he liked to tell strangers, by way of my grandmother, Mary Agnes O’Connell. She would sometimes dismiss the lot of us as “You Italians” when tempers flared or voices were raised. His first mix tape was for my grandmother. It was populated entirely with Irish music that her Irish-born father had liked, and songs that my grandparents listened to when they sipped a Saturday night cocktail at the Irish Inn.

His other mix tapes covered it all: Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan, Pete Seeger, big-band, show tunes – he was a sucker for South Pacific in particular. When he made the Italian mix tape, I called it “Songs to make the gravy,” though he simply marked it “Italian.” (The others were marked “Irish,” “peace,” “bands,” “shows,” … he was a man not given to artifice.)

From then on, the Italian tape became a permanent ingredient in his gravy-making ritual. Until I was 13 or so, I would sit with him and listen. The songs were by Italian singers or musicians or about Italian culture. Even now I wonder about the cartoon nature of some of the songs, but my grandfather had a big heart and probably didn’t notice the caricatures. Where I might see teasing, he only saw affection.

He would sing, do a little jig and waltz around the kitchen floor while deftly launching a pinch of salt into the burbling gravy. He’d sing along to the deepest notes with “Ezio,” and reach for the highs with Maria Callas (not Italian, but “honorary,” and singing an opera by an Italian composer). Midway through Maria, the end of Side One would be announced by a sharp click and – stay with us, pally – we’d flip to continue.

There was Caruso, my grandfather’s fellow Neapolitan, and of course Francis Albert Sinatra, who was so adored in my household that I truly thought that one day he would be canonized by the Church. Only the Kennedys and the pope were similarly revered. And, well, Cesar Chavez.  (They were PROGRESSIVE Catholics. Like Dorothy Day and Martin Sheen they were big into liberation theology. It was the ‘70s, after all, and my grandfather was moved by the plight of the farm workers. We boycotted Gallo and table grapes and sang “We Shall Overcome” from time to time. But that’s another story.)

Sometimes while Sinatra sang, my grandfather would dance with me. It was on those Sundays that I learned to dance “like a grown up,” though I never really learned to dance like a kid. By the time the tape ended, with Gus singing “buona sera, signorina, kiss me goodnight” to the pot of gravy, the flame would be reduced and the gravy would simmer for its quartet of hours (minimum) and stirred every 15 minutes. (The “remember to stir the sauce” bits from the film Goodfellas take me to tears every time. Like my grandfather, I find sentiment in odd places.)

Over the next 20 years, I didn’t sit with him often enough to make the gravy. And now I wish I had spent more time with him during my teens and twenties, but you don’t know anything until someone you love dies. And until he died I was ignorant of many things. Now I know what loss is. What I wouldn’t give for one more Sunday – just one more time to hear Gus warble along with Caruso.

…And so we beat on. I make the gravy on my own now, and I still listen to the songs from that Italian tape, though the cassette itself has long since been tossed out. I don’t like to talk much when I make the gravy, either, though like my grandfather, I am something of a talker.

I recall Gus fondly and often, but never more so than on Sundays when I make his gravy. I wonder now if he was quiet during those times because he was recalling his own mother who died when he was in his 40s, before I was born. I wonder now if he was thinking of making the gravy with her in the kitchen he grew up in. I wonder if she sang, if she thought of her own parents or grandparents. I wonder as I sing and hum and twirl around.  I wonder how we learn to do anything, staggered under so much weight, the weight of the whole past. I wonder how we learn to feed others and ourselves; I wonder how we learn to tell stories.  What makes us cooks, what makes us writers.  I wonder, as I think of Gus, as I take it easy on the pepper, as I lower the flame. As I remember.

The face of a white woman with dark hair, vintage glasses, and red lipstick.

Anna March

Anna March’s writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus, numerous other publications and is forthcoming in the New York Times Modern Love column. She has recently completed a novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, and is at work on a memoir.  She likes to eat, and cook, and of course, pasta is her favorite. 

Read more at annamarch.com or follow her on Twitter@annamarch.

WFD Summer Tour: Rehoboth Beach

30 Jul photo 1 (4)

When we left DC, we headed to Rehoboth Beach to see the fabulous Anna March. In the corner of the writing world in which I live, Anna March is a force of nature. She has five thousand Facebook friends, and she knows who each one of them is and what they do. She is one of the organizers of AWP HEAT, a marathon reading benefiting VIDA and pretty much the best networking opportunity at the conference. She’s widely published as both a literary writer and a cultural critic. In other words, she is made of awesome.

A large pile of boiled hard-shelled crabs on a paper-covered table.

Anna taught me how to eat crabs–it was surprisingly like opening up a beer can.

Dominik spent much of this leg of the trip locked in our little motel room in a nearby town, working diligently on a translation of Jim Butcher’s Side Jobs for his German publisher, so Anna took me to lunch at Claws and I had my first ever big-pile-of-crabs. I’m now crazy about them. What’s not to love about a huge pile of delicious seafood that comes with a hammer? It was part lunch and part DIY project. I see yearly pilgrimages to crab restaurants in our future.

But, of course, the best thing was that it takes a long time to eat crabs, so I got to talk with Anna for a long time. You know how, when you set out to do any sort of arty thing, you daydream about long afternoons spent talking about art with other people passionate about it? And how, really, that’s a rare thing? Well, this afternoon was the most wonderful example of that rare thing. Anna knows everyone and everything, and she is very, very generous with that knowledge. I kept thinking, “This must have been what it was like to go and visit Gertrude Stein in Paris.” Except, of course, that Anna is a better dresser and a whole lot less imperious. But you get my drift. We talked about publishing strategies. We gossiped about writers we both know (but, don’t worry, not you.) We swapped inside information on agents, platforms (though we found artful ways to avoid that awful word), and the whole awful money side of writing. It was amazing. I want to live next door to Anna March for the rest of my life and have these kinds of afternoons ALL THE TIME.

A white man with long blond hair in jeans and a white shirt walks barefoot on the beach.

Dominik got about five minutes of beach time, but he was an awfully good sport.

Post-crabs, I headed back to the hotel, where I had just enough time to wash the butter and crab shell bits off my hands, throw on a dress, and pull Dominik away from his work. I felt awful for him, and a little awful for me, because we both love the beach and would loved to have spent some time walking by the ocean together, but he is the kind of person to never miss a deadline (which is part of why he’s so amazing) and so pretty much he had time to take off his shoes, walk far enough out onto the sand for me to snap this picture, then put on his shoes and go to dinner. Next year, my love, I promise we’ll find a way to actually get you all the way down to the water!

We then went to Blue Moon with Anna and her fabulous husband Adam. Because this is Rehoboth, and because it was Memorial Day weekend, the restaurant was packed with gay men here to celebrate the start of the season, so it was particularly wonderful to be there. Anna is also clearly a force of nature in her community as well as in the writing world: on the way to the restaurant, at the restaurant, and on our way back from the restaurant she was pulled into conversations with almost everyone we passed. I can’t tell you what I would give to have a tiny portion of her social acumen and her amazing memory for names, faces, and the details of other people’s lives.

A set table with a martini glass in which a plastic square lit by a green LED is floating.

My cocktail lit up and changed colors! It was very festive. Also, very yummy.

The food at the Blue Moon was wonderful (although my enthusiasm was a little dampened by all those crabs, Dominik ate heartily and praised everything he ordered). The hit of the meal, for me, was my cocktail–which lit up and changed colors! We talked some more–I could talk to Anna every day forever and never get tired of listening to what she has to say–and the time just flew by. This was one of those WFD dinners where it felt like I was seeing an old friend again after a long absence, not really meeting someone for the first time. (I had, of course, met Anna at AWP, but that only barely counts. Everyone is so busy that it almost doesn’t count.) It was the sort of evening I envisioned when I conceived of the tour, and it was wonderful.

“Winner: Sarah Einstein Mot, A Memoir” OMG!

17 Jul

I am very, very grateful to the readers and judges who chose my book, Mot: A Memoir, as this year’s winner for the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. I’m even more grateful to the friends, workshop members, mentors, and family members who helped me with and supported me through the writing of it.  This book was a long time in getting out into the world, but I couldn’t be more happy about the way in which it will do so.

(P.S. That sounds stilted and a little off-putting, doesn’t it? I wanted to just write “Holy Crap, Friends!” and post a link, but while that felt more honest, it also felt less dignified and I’m working on being more dignified. At damn near fifty years old, it seems like I either need to get a handle on dignified now or that I never will.)

Sarah

Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

WFD Summer Tour: An excerpt from Laura Bogart’s novel in progress, tentatively titled “Your Name is No.”

7 Jul

I can’t tell you how excited I am that we get to publish an excerpt from Laura’s novel-in-progress. I’ve had the good fortune to read a draft of it, and it’s wonderful. You’re gonna love it in that give-it-to-folks-for-Christmas kind of way, I promise. — Sarah


Excerpt from Your Name is No by Laura Bogart

 

 

Angelina had to improvise with the knife she’d stolen from her mother’s kitchen. She leaned her cast against the handle and pushed down on the dull edge of the blade with her good hand as she chopped the basil leaves to sprinkle inside the ground turkey that crackled and browned inside a thin pool of olive oil. She’d stir in goat cheese crumbles and dried cranberries once the meat had cooked more thoroughly. Then she’d add it all to the nude pasta boiling on the back burner.

Janet only owned one pan, which she’d only purchased at a yard sale because it had a tacky, shellacked-looking rose-colored finish and it matched a teakettle that was on sale for a dollar. Angelina banished the paper mache pumpkin and the Godzilla from the top of the fridge, and replaced them with a blender and a basket of peaches. Janet came home to find them in the closet; she wasn’t angry, since Angelina explained how, really, it was time to have a fully functioning, adult kitchen; she had the space, and she should use it well. “I guess that makes sense,” Janet said, her voice small and flat with concession. She’d get used to it. She was bringing containers of home cooking into work instead of downing the greasy mall fries and funnel cakes she said gave her indigestion. Then, she’d more than just get used to it. She’d really love it.

Angelina brought the pot for the pasta, a high school graduation gift from Rhea that she couldn’t bring herself to sell. Rhea had given her a cutting board and a blender, a set of silverware and flat-bottomed wine glasses when she’d set out for college.

“Whatever happened between us,” Rhea had said, “I still want you to live on your own like a grown woman. Not some kid eating with plastic utensils and drinking from Styrofoam cups.” But she’d piled the boxes in Angelina’s arms, one after the other, just so they couldn’t look each other in the eye. Even this was a mercy, because Angelina knew that her face would betray her. Don’t do another nice thing for me. Please. This is like feeding an eight-pack of McNuggets to a dog that you’re about to put down. 

Angelina spent most nights at Janet’s and she’d taken to cooking dinner. She joked about “earning her keep,” a pong of sonar to detect any hint of annoyance, any feeling of imposition, in Janet’s response.

Although, sometimes, Janet’s response to the sonar joke was an “of course not” that doth protest too much. And sometimes, she did want her “alone time,” which was never “alone time” since she’d inevitably spend it with Frankie, who had started dating a young boi who was charming and dapper, but whose “pride in presentation” had become a preening narcissism that was as tedious as it was vacuous; and Maxine, who needed Janet’s hardwood floors to practice her new roller derby inspired routine.  Even when she wasn’t spending the night at Janet’s, Angelina felt cocooned in the cloth of their shared affection. That cocoon generated a gentle, thrumming warmth as present yet imperceptible as her pulse.

She could move through her mother’s drab house and eat her mother’s straight from-the-can creamed corn, freezer-burned fishsticks, and summer salads that were nothing more than spring mixes from plastic bags, croutons, and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing because she knew that Janet’s fridge was filled with fresh produce and organic meats. She’d fill her cart with a bag of almonds and a pound of sweet potatoes, alighting from aisle to aisle on a cloud of rapturous obliviousness. No matter if some 80s power ballad or the wispy, wistful crooning of some 90s girl singer dominated the supermarket’s PA system; her heart played a Sinatra song.

Angelina found most of her recipes online, searching under “quick and easy.” But she’d gotten this one from Rhea, who’d prepared it so many times, sipping from an open bottle of wine (“I’m the only one here who can drink legally,” she’d say. “And besides, I don’t have cooties.”). A kitchen really could be a place where love was fragrant and baked, plucked from gardens and spoonfed by hands that trembled from laughter. She was already smarter and stronger than her mother ever would be; and she would be better at this, be better at love, than her mother ever was.

Most days, she simply heaped the sweet potatoes, dried apricots and almonds she’d serve over salad greens into the crockpot before work; or else, she’d put in ribs or loin of pork; ground beef and salsa verde for chili or taco shells. But tonight, the night of basil-flavored turkey over rigatoni was a Saturday. Janet would return from a double shift at the mall, and then, after dinner, dip out for drinks with Frankie. Angelina had been invited, of course, but she preferred to stay in (stay home, she’d started to say, but caught herself) and confront the bare canvas on the easel she’d set up in the rococo kitsch of Janet’s living room.

“Maybe we can spray-paint it gold so it can at least sorta compliment the couch?” Janet suggested in a question. Angelina’s eyes answered with a “no.”

Angelina had turned off the burner and was trying to lift the pot off the stove to dump its contents into the strainer she’d put in the sink when Janet’s key turned in the door. The two left fingers that were un-enplastered were simply too weak to grip the pot handle, and the pot was too heavy to be held by one hand alone.

 

A woman in a black dress and raspberry sweater seated with a medium sized dog.

Laura Bogart and Tova the Wonder Dog!

Bio: Laura Bogart‘s work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Manifest-Station, Press Play and many other fine publications. She had the pleasure of meeting Sarah and Dominik at Clementine during the Writers For Dinner Tour. She has made all of the recipes in this excerpt (including the freezer-burned fishsticks).

WFD Summer Tour: Baltimore with Laura Bogart

7 Jul

Our summer tour actually included two stops in Baltimore; one on the way to our annual camping trip in Maryland, and one on the way back. For this first trip, we took the train from DC to eat at Clementine with the fabulous Laura Bogart.

I am an unrepetent Laura Bogart fangirl, as I confessed when I interviewed her for Brevity last summer. I find, in her writing, a voice that says the things I wish I could say (though often through the lens of having life stories which I’m not sorry are not mine to tell), things that are important and meaningful and make the lives of all women better because they have been said.

Yeah, I am THAT big a fan. And you should be, too.

This is also why there are no pictures to go with this post, and I can’t really remember what we had for dinner (although I remember that it was very, very good.)

Laura Bogart is the kind of writer who, if her voice speaks to you as it does to me, makes you feel as if you are her friend when, really, you’ve encountered her on the page in the same way that thousands of other people encounter her. I was lucky enough, after interviewing her, to develop a Facebook friendship, and to have that further solidified by our being “broken ankle sisters” during this year’s AWP. (Hers kept her from attending; mine just kept me at the Brevity table instead of wandering around the bookfair.) But, until this dinner, we had never met.

A seafood dish with noodles and croutons.

I don’t think we ate this, but it looks very, very good. I stole the photo from Clementine’s website.

So, apparently, I forgot to take pictures of what we ate. And I have also forgotten what that was. But I can tell you what we talked about: her writing, my writing, Dominik’s writing. Her dog Tova. How much I wish we could have a dog. What it’s like to work and write vs. what it’s like to be a graduate student in a writing program. How much we love The Hunger Games. Some gossip about writers we both kind of know, which is all I’m going to say about that (but don’t worry, I don’t mean you). How much we love Anna March (who will be our next Writer for Dinner on the blog)! How worried we are about the way all conversations about women seem to be shifting further and further to the right. How good the food tasted, even if I don’t remember now what it was. How great it was to finally meet face to face.

I’m sorry that I’ve fallen down so completely on the food part of this food/writing blog for this trip. All I can say is that I was having such a very, very good time, it apparently never even occurred to me to reach for my phone and document it. And if you know me, and how hard it is for me to leave my phone alone for more than a few minutes, you know that’s a big deal. But dinner with Laura Bogart is a big deal. One I hope to do again, soon. She’s amazing.

 

WFD: What I Eat by Randon Billings Noble

23 Jun

What I Eat by Randon Billings Noble

 

The Maasai herder eats 800 calories a day: cornmeal porridge, black tea with milk and sugar, a single banana and boiled well water.  The U.S. Army soldier, the Roman friar, and the student from the barrio all eat 4000 calories a day – but from very different sources: a jambalaya MRE, farfalle with grilled eggplant, and Samba Maxi candy bars.  The snacker mom, on an unusual day, eats 12,300 calories: bacon sandwiches on toasted white bread, Walker’s cheese and onion chips, mint chocolate chip ice cream.  All of these people, and their meals, come from the book What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio.

Cover of the book What I Eat, showing a man in running clothes standing in front of a variety of food stuffs.

I have no idea how many calories I eat in a day.  As the mother of three-year-old twins I eat most of my meals on the fly and too much of what I eat is what they reject: peach skins, bread crusts, carrots picked out of fried rice, anything that a tomato has touched, a banana that has sat out for too long.  I once told a friend that everything I eat is “good” (healthy food, whole food) but I don’t eat enough of it, and certainly not in the right ratios.  Reading What I Eat is changing that.

What do people eat?  We see what our families eat, and what our friends eat.  We read in magazines what celebrities eat when they are interviewed over lunch (lots of salads and spring water it seems), or, in other magazines, that non-celebrities aren’t eating because of famines, wars and floods.  Sometimes we see people eating sensually and romantically in movies (Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, I Am Love).  Occasionally we see people eating on TV but it’s usually in the form of tasting (not really eating) a dish prepared in a competitive kitchen, or a commercial for foods we probably shouldn’t be eating anyway.  We see people eating in restaurants, but this, too, isn’t everyday food but rather like the clothing seen in fashion magazines: it performs its function (feeding or covering our bodies) but with an enormous amount of fantasy involved.

I’m not much interested in fantasy.  But I have become very interested in what people eat.  What I Eat shows 80 individuals from 30 countries and what they ate on one particular day.  The fact that you can see this food gives it quite an impact.  You can immediately judge its quantity, its variety, how much is packaged and processed, how much is home- or vendor-cooked.  And what is the food stored in?  How is it served?  A communal dish?  A jar that once held something else?  A Styrofoam tray?  A copper pot?  A china plate?  I was amazed at how much could be revealed about a person and a culture just by looking at a picture of what the person ate.  (Also fascinating were the brands: I had no idea that Knorr had such global reach and I loved learning about Mahou Classica beer and Nymjolk milk, Kurkure tomato chips and Janis candies, Richester cream crackers and Verona Romeo wafer cakes, to name only a few.)

In looking at these pictures I had instant, intuitive reactions: I want to eat like this, I don’t want to eat like that.  The ways I wanted to eat were mostly Asian: a bowl of rice with a few small dishes to add to it (spinach, green onions, twice-cooked pork), or European: slices of dark bread with different meats and spreads, cut vegetables and coffee on the side.  (I guess I like “deconstructed” cuisine.)  Keeping these pictures in mind, I got to work in the kitchen.

In the morning I made a pot of brown rice.  I ate it with eggs and tomato in the morning and various sautéed vegetables in the afternoon.  Over the next few days I baked a basic no-knead bread and bought country wheat baguettes from Whole Foods.  Then I made what my husband and I call “boards” (inspired by a lunch we ordered at the Book Mill in Massachusetts – a cutting board with various breads, cheeses, meats and mustards).  I’m not a big cheese fan (or a fan of mustard, for that matter) but I arranged some slices of bread with butter or Italian salsa verde, some red pepper crescents or carrot sticks, a ramekin of berries, and maybe a couple of salami slices or bits of cold chicken leftover from dinner the night before.  All of this was both visually pleasing and epicurically satisfying.  The bonus round is that the twins like it too (but with plain rice, separate eggs, no tomato, the breads toasted, and no red pepper or salami).

I still look through What I Eat on a regular basis, perpetually fascinated by its 80 diets and the essays interspersed among them (on portion size, food taboos, calorie-counting and the pleasures of eating).  But mostly I’m intrigued by the lives revealed by these meals – so many different ways of living in the world, and I feel very lucky to be able to choose my own.

 

 

A black and white photo of a woman in a t-shirt and pants sitting on the floor with a book or journal.Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York TimesThe Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Sweet: A Literary Confection; Rain Taxi Review of Books; PANK; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah and elsewhere.A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts.Currently she is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor atPANK.

WFD: Seasonal Market Delight by Richard Peabody

23 Jun

Seasonal Market Delight by Richard Peabody

 

The term “rhubarb” is a combination of the Ancient Greek rha and barbarum; rha refers both to the plant and to the River Volga . . . where the plant has grown wild along the banks of the River Volga  for centuries . . .  Marco Polo went looking for it along the Silk Road . . . Rhubarb has been used for medical purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years,[2] and appears in The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, which legend attributes to the mythical Shen Nung, the Yan Emperor, but is thought to have been compiled about 2700 years ago.[–summarized from Wikipedia

Most of my friends when they think of rhubarb, if they think of rhubarb at all, imagine a brawl. This is due to the late great Red Barber’s use of the term while announcing Brooklyn Dodgers games. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first citation of “rhubarb” as a description of  “an argument, or a mix-up, on the field of play” in the 1943 NY Herald Tribune.

And while that is all fine and good, my parents were Southerners and to the extent that they loved such things passed on to me a love of pie in general, plus a lifelong love of rhubarb in particular.

Not the processed junk you get at truck-stops or diners (which is always more strawberry than rhubarb), but the pie made from the Christmas ornament red-and-green veggie stalks themselves. Pie with fiber. A pucker not like citrus and an acquired taste for we few.

I can’t really imagine what the first human to decide to chew on a rhubarb stalk was thinking, any more than I can imagine WTF? the first one who decided to eat an oyster was thinking. At least the shellfish adventurer had seen a bird drop oysters onto rocks from above. The veggie-loving pilgrim had just watched “Cousin It” try some pretty berries and fall over dead.  So, thrilled to still be alive, the rhubarb experiment a resounding success, our adventurer tried the stalks out on the kids. Nothing doing. And then the idea–adding honey.

First recorded in 17th century England, after affordable sugar became available to common people. . . Rhubarb first came to the United States in the 1820s, entering the country in Maine and Massachusetts and moving westwards with the European American settlers . . . Laura Ingalls Wilder refers to rhubarb as “pie plant” . . . reaching a peak between the 20th century’s two world wars–summarized from Wikipedia

When Sarah and Dominik invited me to partake in their Writers for Dinner series I had no way of knowing that a rhubarb dessert was a possibility. Time of year and/or availability make it a very rare find on any menu. Sarah gave us carte blanche to order whatever we wanted.  So, what a delightful surprise to discover Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler on the menu at Vidalia. I didn’t know what to expect but I was all in.

Now, I used to say things like, “I’ll marry the woman who can make the perfect rhubarb pie,” shooting my mouth off just to learn what I think. (Classic male.) Once in college I made the mistake of saying that line at the wrong time and wrong place. And being a guy (and yet to do my thesis on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End—“Only Connect”) I said this to a wonderful platonic female friend who showed up at my door a few evenings later with rhubarb pie in hand. So typically, idiotically male, I ate the tasty pie, praised the pie-maker, and never understood her expectant intake of breath. Never figured out why she left so quickly, or why tears were forming in her eyes. I didn’t make the connection. Not a clue.

A mutual female friend explained things the next day. “Oh,” I said. I’d only been riffing, punching a button on my mouth’s tape-deck. Nobody paid me the slightest bit of intention or took me seriously. Who takes a 20-year-old guy at their word?

Why had she? D’oh.

We never discussed the episode. We grew apart. Different jobs, different worlds. She never married. She’s not online. I sent her a Christmas card last year and it bounced back address unknown.

In former days, a common and affordable sweet for children in parts of the United Kingdom and Sweden was a tender stick of rhubarb, dipped in sugar. It is still eaten this way in western Finland and Norway, Iceland and some other parts of the world, including rural eastern Ontario. In Chile, Chilean rhubarb is sold on the street with salt or dried chili pepper, not sugar.–Wikipedia

So what about my wife? She bakes but prefers cake to pie. (Just desserts I guess.) I married her anyway. The things we do for love.  We considered naming our daughters Pye. And call one “Laurel Pie” all the time.  And seeing how my birthday is 3/14 (Pi) this is somehow fitting.

My family slathers hot rhubarb pie in vanilla ice cream. (Our home being a place where one could get into a rhubarb over rhubarb.) Cold rhubarb out of the fridge is a different sort of treat with a gooey texture and flavor. I don’t prefer one to the other. But when the waiter brought the tray with the rhubarb delight with a dab of Vanilla Bean ice cream melting seductively over the pastry topping I just knew this might be the Holy Grail of rhubarb. (And turned a whiter shade of pale.)

Rhubarb is usually considered a vegetable. (And a tomato is a fruit? Hello.) In the United States, however, a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit, it counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. I wonder if that means they get to tax it more or less?

Vidalia’s rhubarb offering was excellent. A subtle balance of rhubarb and strawberry, heavier on the rhubarb and near perfect in that orgasmic way that all food should be.  I guess it’s a good thing rhubarb pie has a small window of availability or I’d eat some everyday. Either the pie would lose its place in my sensual universe or I’d have to seek out the AA for rhubarb addicts. Talk about an exclusive club.

 

 

 

A man wearing glasses, a blue shirt, and a black leather jacket, shown from the torso up in profile.

Richard Peabody

 Richard Peabody is a French toast addict and native Washingtonian. His latest books areSpeed Enforced by Aircraft (Broadkill River Press) and Blue Suburban Skies (Mint Hill Books). He won the Beyond the Margins “Above & Beyond Award” for 2013.

 

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