Half the Whole of It

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I posted a new food debacle on my other site, icantbelieveididthis, in which I confessed to the latest kitchen horror involving meatloaf. Maybe the suspense was too much about how I salvaged this hot mess:

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Or, perhaps, the blizzard conditions outside kept people inside bored crazy and reduced to scrolling through the internet for anything at all amusing. Whatever, I received a ton more likes from this than most of the Scraps postings concerning all my hand-wringing over writing and the story I’m working on now. Not only is the subject matter on I Can’t Believe This  different but the voice and style is, as well. If I’m honest with myself, these are factors in why my food writing found an audience while my straight writing remains obscure.

What can I say…both writings and blogs are equal halves of the whole of me. Every time I face the blank screen/page it’s like putting me in a paper bag, shaking me up, and be surprised at what tumbles out.

Moral of this story: Lighten up. Enjoy everything I do. Find humor after a day of slogging in the trenches. Not everything I write has to be serious.

A Quandray Over a Video or I Don’t Want to Be Noticed! Damn It I Do!

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I honestly don’t know how or why I got involved in this video from Food Crimes, a part of Anthony Bourdain’s vast endeavors, but here I am in it talking about saffron because I happened to have written a book full of stories about saffron and the reporter who contacted me was charming as well as a voraciously expert reporter. You’ll find me mostly in the second half, not at all as serious as all the other talking heads, babbling along, sweaty and frizzy haired (it was a humid 96 degree in my house made worse by all the lights they carted in), with bags down to my chin.

When the book came out it gathered a lot of notice because saffron is so mysteriously exotic.  I cook with it a lot  so it wasn’t as much a mystery to be explored but the stories I uncovered in my research from which I realized I could compose a string of stories that would allow me to stretch as a food writer.  It was short listed for Best Literary Cook Book by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and included in a volume of Best Food Writing.

Here’s the thing: this is my least favorite book of mine. The writing embarrasses me for being stilted, even a little pompous. After publishing two books I really loved and proud of (Pie Every Day–which did get a lot of notice and I still earn puny royalties from; and A Soothing Broth,  the one I really have a sweet spot for), I had an ulterior motive in writing this: I meant it as my bid to become the new M.F.K.Fisher.  If I was any smarter, and certainly less ambitious, I would have known that the results would lead to being too aware of the writing in a way I wasn’t with the others. The stories failed to take off and be, well, entirely like me.  In other words, I am no M.F.K. Fisher.

However, it’s the one I receive the most fan emails for (and let me be clear–my fan emails amount to maybe 2 or 3 a year, at best). But it’s for the spice and not the writing. The general public like the history but often complain about the lack of recipes. Culinary writers, historians, and academics, including students writing their dissertations, want my research and sources (there isn’t a bibliography–it’s a book of STORIES, God damn it, and did M.F.K. Fisher ever include a bibliography? No!). I politely respond with something that translates to “Do your own damn research.” Mine took a whole year of daily digging through all kinds of books and documents in many different places, that now fill two boxes down in my basement: Everyone else can go ahead and do the same thing.

This is not a complaint–I realize I’m so lucky to have this tiny trickle of notice and bless the few readers it may lead to me. It’s complicated, though, because if I feel this way, why am I sharing the video link?  Ego, I suppose, and eagerness to be at least out there at a time when I’m quietly writing the Clare stories.

I’m slinking back into my room now…..

The Secret

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We are sitting in Margie’s small living room that looks over the morning shadows across the lawn, through the cedar trees to the wild place that gives the residence’s its name, The Meadows; another cursed dry, beautifully warm sunny day in Napa. It’s around 9:30 and nothing much is going on except drinking coffee, reading the news, the busy birds outside a counterpoint to the room’s quiet comfort. 

I don’t know why but my aunt mentions Stewart, their best friend and one of the reasons they settled in California. She first met him in Berlin when he was dating her roommate and she introduced him to Frank.  The photo she gives me is of a military man in his mid-twenties with a long masculine face—high cheekbones, sharply cut chin, sensuous lower lip, almond-shaped eyes. Margie adds that he was six-three in his stocking feet.  I’m pretty sure both men and women raised their heads when he walked in.

The romance ended with her roommate but his friendship with Margie and Frank deepened.  Stewart served as the procurement officer for the American sector of Berlin until he was called back to Washington.  Margie and Frank began their Far East postings but, in-between their assignments, the three conspired to hook up for various adventures.

Margie brings down from a shelf a book of Stewart’s many casual, Ogden Nash-like, poems (upon Eisenhower becoming ill: Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord Ike’s soul to keep./If Ike should die before I wake,/I pray he also Nixon take).  In addition to the poems he composed every day, he wrote letters to Margie and Frank. Three, four times a week, they received one and she answered back wherever they might be living at the time—necessary witty news, both trivial and profound, about everyday life.

“He signed, ‘Love Stewart’, and I would sign back ‘Love Peg…and Frank’,” she says. 

I ask to see the letters and she says “Of course,” but doesn’t move to find them.  It’s early in the day and I bide my time.

My social life has tripled since coming to the Meadows. I gather dinner and lunch dates, invitations to art shows and brunch.  It’s an enormous advantage, of course, to be the youngest person in the dining room.  But that wouldn’t count for much if I wasn’t connected to Margie whose gracious good humor is honey.  Tonight we have a date with a very charming man who just returned from a boating trip, starting in Normandy and ending in Aix-en-Provence. In celebration and because Margie hasn’t had a good pate in some time, we make a reservation for a tiny French restaurant in one of the few old buildings not destroyed in the earthquake last fall. He orders a bottle of wine from an unsung vineyard for our dinner and, from then on through dessert, gives a fine lesson on the region’s wines. He’s not a snob. He has his favorites (Powderkeg wine where they are in the habit of taking him downstairs to a private tasting room). He’s horrified when I ask him what vineyard Margie and I should drive to tomorrow. On a Saturday?! With all the tourists?! We won’t survive the murderous tour buses and despicable limousines disgorging drunks in every parking lot. Instead, he offers a small sampling of his own in his apartment.

“We may scandalize the lot,” he says, clearly relishing the possibilities and, yes, it’s near ten when we emerge from his apartment after finishing a bottle a 2012 Scuppernong—a sweet thick golden dessert wine–from Spiriterra Vineyards.   I startle him in the hall with a long hug and then we totter back to my aunt’s apartment. She settles into her Danish wing chair, I lounge across from her in the curved Victorian rocking chair. Our shoes are on the floor and our pretty dinner outfits are loose and wrinkled.

“Stewart asked me why I stopped writing him,” she says.

It’s the same as the morning—Stewart’s name mentioned from nowhere. When did the letters stop, though?

“He reminded me: ‘For two years, I didn’t hear anything from you.’”

“What about Frank? He didn’t write, either?”

“Not him, either.”

“Why not?”

“I couldn’t tell him what the matter was. I didn’t know myself.”

“What was the matter?”

“I don’t know,” she says and, while I believe she means it, I’m pretty sure she does know.

“Something happened,” she says.

“What?”

She studies a point on the carpet for a while. “Some things are too private.”

“But you mentioned it,” I point out.

“I don’t know why.  But I couldn’t even tell Stewart about me, about that time. I needed the years. And it was traumatic and could be damaging, you understand, to people around you, people you love.”

“But if you want me to write this story, you need to trust me about these kind of things.”

I’m slightly astounded at how hard my words sound. If this was a usual interview I would press on even harder. But it’s not, so I lean forward to explain why she must tell me about those two years.

“Things maybe like this shape you.  Events lead up to them and you go through them with what you have until then, and afterwards you’re different because of them.” I hold my arms out, the palms of my hands parallel, as a crude illustration of time, with the space in the middle standing in for the event (or series of events) that create the whole of a life. 

What could my aunt have done? What atrocity could she have committed that wouldn’t be understandable to anyone but her?

“I can’t say,” she insists.

“I won’t be able to write about you, then. No one will really care, or understand, about you and Frank.”

I settle back into the rocking chair, sure I’m going to hell for the defeated sadness on my aunt’s face and the way she is now slumped against one side of the wing chair.  

Then it comes to me. “You were in Indonesia, weren’t you?”

She sits up straight and smiles, no more exhaustion or defeat. “How did you know?”

I don’t, really, but I remember a scene she told me in another talk when she and Frank were walking into a ball at the Embassy and, in a blue silk gown and with her red hair piled high into a French twist, she suddenly sank wordlessly down on the step. She didn’t hear Frank’s pleads to stand up, nor the concern of their friends, or even the Marine guards coming down behind her. She didn’t move until she was carried to a car. Afterwards, as she told me then, Frank arranged for her to stay a few months at a coastal resort being waited on hand and foot.  Back when she told me this, it was with the decided implication that it was a lovely way to receive a vacation.  Now I know it was not.

I remind her of the Embassy’s steps and the blue silk gown.

“Oh.”

“So what happened, Aunt Margie?”

She doesn’t say. The wine and the charming company, this roundelay song about her past, has worn us both out: It’s late and I’m not cruel.

I gather my things and go over to kiss her.

“Let’s think about going to Paris in the fall,” I say, immediately astounded at the idea, like Stewart to her, popping suddenly into my mind.  Then again, wouldn’t it be a wonderful kind of ‘before and after’, a change in both our lives?  And it would be a gift for her to be in Paris once more.

“Oh yes, let’s talk about that tomorrow.” She finds her memo pad and a pencil on the table beside her. “I’ll need to renew my passport.”

I leave her planning Paris, but I walk down the empty hallway back to the guest room thinking only of Stewart and the two years of silence.

We will go on a long drive tomorrow taking the back road of the Silverado Trail where there’ll be few tourists but pretty fields and, somewhere along there, without a thought, the secret may be revealed.

 

A Lunch at Genova Delicatessen, 2 p.m., Napa

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We  sit at a small Formica table in a deli eating translucent slices of prosciutto smeared with melting sundried tomatoes and crushed basil, all piled high on a sourdough roll. My glass of shiraz is from the deli’s own vineyard; Aunt Margie’ chardonnay comes from the owner’s cousin’s farm—not quite a vineyard but on its way to being one, so we’re told. This leads to a short exchange on the intriguing topic of, aside from husband, children, friends, “How can I ever go home to Brooklyn again?”

I mention the sandwich’s passing likeness to the hoagies we ate growing up in Philadelphia. Margie complains that the Residence tries to pass something off as a hoagie every now and then so the Easterners won’t feel so homesick but which, in their very incompetent construction, makes homesickness even more pronounce. Pepper pot soup, another entry in Philadelphia’s culinary box, is similarly butchered by the Residence’s kitchen.

Margie grew up on pepper pot soup. “What’s in it? I can’t remember.”

I pull out the phone: honeycomb tripe, bacon, onion, celery, a good beef broth, three leeks, one bell pepper, cloves, red pepper flakes, black pepper, one potato and a thickener of flour and butter. Honeycomb tripe, Google reminds us, is a cow’s second stomach and you have to soak it a little in hydrogen peroxide before anything else can be done with it.

I very much doubt her when she claims pepper pot soup is incredibly delicious.

“So name something you wouldn’t eat,” I say.

“What’s hummus made of?”

“Ground chickpeas.”

She makes a face. “That was the first thing I ate when we got to Egypt. They sell it from street stalls or even from little pots carried around. Weirdest thing ever and I won’t have it again.” Sixty years of chickpea deprivation has, indeed, followed.

But the markets in Egypt—she’s suddenly walking through them again, peering into barrels and baskets, sacks of dates, the furry green shells of just-picked almonds, cloth bags full of spices. Dried leaves hanging from posts—mint, basil, something that when she crushed it into the palm of her hand left a red stain that didn’t come off for a week. Bolts of yellow silk, soft white cotton; tin cooking pots, incense, leather sandals (she bought two—one red, the other green painted with silver stars). Chickens clucking in wooden pens beside pyramids of warm eggs.

“You die with delight each time you walked through the markets. Everyone else in the Service would go to the country club first and have a drink when they arrived but we threw our bags down and headed smack into the center of Cairo, crazy to see and smell and eat and drink.”

Margie just remembers a story about a German journalist who came to stay with them while covering the region’s increasing tensions over the Suez Canal. He was a tall, thick bodied young man, shaggy brown-haired handsome with a smile that raised his bushy eyebrows to form a constantly intrigued gaze. He worked for Frank on the newspaper in Berlin and who had taught him how to interview and cover stories. He was the man Frank sent out with cameras and a notepad to talk to people who would not talk to the American press.

It was the journalist’s second day in Egypt and Margie decided to take him to the market. He could help her carry home what she would purchase for a dinner party that night, beginning with a nice-sized hunk of lamb. She dressed like a high school girl in the 50s–pencil skirt (“I loved that skirt—it gave me hips!”); a white short-sleeved blouse, saddle shoes and, across her shoulders a long scarf she had become accustomed to wearing just in case she needed to cover her hair. A notebook was jammed into the journalist’s back pants pocket. Margie thinks there were two pencils and one pen in his shirt pocket. Very clearly, though, three cameras hung around the journalist’s neck.

She took him to the smaller market, maybe four block square, near their apartment in the center of Cairo because she had become acquainted with a few of the merchants and trusted the butcher and wanted a second look at a silver bowl that might look nice filled with lemons. By now the two servants the Embassy had hired for their apartment called Margie “Tante Peg,” and they gave her a list of ingredients they would need to cook the meal that she insisted she would cook herself—or as much as they would let her since she was supposed to be a “lady” and ladies do not cook. But she hadn’t gotten used to the notion of being a lady at all, or that the American Embassy provided her with servants—help, she insisted, not servants—who conceived of her as any kind of lady at all.

What was on the list? A careful sip of Chardonnay and a bit of prosciutto at the deli table doesn’t reveal a clue. Margie shrugs. The point is she took the big, darling, friendly German journalist to the market and they walked among the men and women sitting on the ground under an awning of fluttering cloth to protect everyone and everything from the hard-nut sun. Every now and then she stooped down to examine one thing and then another, paid for a paper bag full of something, a cloth-wrapped kind of cheese, not paying much bother to the increasing commotion behind her until it was impossible not to and she turned about to find her companion snapping photographs of old men in doorways and women wrapped in black cloth sitting behind their meager offerings. Pitched intonations began to echo from towers near and far and he was scrambling about and clicking while prayer mats unrolled and the faithful knelt.

The roar, the roar of the men turning against them and the women spitting and Margie pulling on him to stop, STOP! You don’t do that, we need to go. You’ll be killed, she told him. But the journalist was too lost, uncomprehending among such strange and powerful beauty until a contingent of Egyptian soldiers surrounded them and suggested they hurry away.

“It was a delicate time to be white in Egypt, to look European,” Margie explains of the moments before the war erupted. “We were watched wherever we went, even by those in society who came to the Embassy’s parties and were educated in France. Of course, it was forbidden to take photographs in the market and he was rude but the war was coming and we looked too much like Israelis.”

An hour or two of sitting in a deli over plates of prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, basil, two glasses of wine, cracks us into a moment when she was 21 and hurrying to merge into the crooked, crowded, pungent streets of Cairo, Egypt, respecting danger but not deterred—hungry in so many ways.

Going to Napa #1

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I am flying to Napa, California to visit my 85 year old aunt, research a book, explore vineyards (and what the drought is doing to them), drink a lot of wine and, hopefully, cook a few meals.

Aunt Margie is the last of my dad’s seven brothers and sisters. For most of her life she’s been a stranger to us. She and her husband Frank worked in the Foreign Service with posts in many of the 20th century’s politically trouble zones: Germany in the early 1950s; Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis; Cambodia at the start of the revolution; and Indonesia through the Vietnam War. She and Frank never told the family much about their lives or work when they came back to visit every 2 years. After they retired from the Foreign Service, they settled in California to be among friends from the Service. Whenever the family visited them the talk was never much about them except for the trips they had recently taken. It wasn’t that the family wasn’t curious, didn’t openly wonder about their lives away from them in foreign counties. There was certainly a lot of backdoor speculation about the coincidence of coups and revolutions occurring soon after they arrived? However, among the family’s most annoying traits is an abiding resistance to explore matters that may be problematic—better to leave things alone, to repeat “everything is fine” until it is.

Frank died a few years ago and Margie now lives by herself in the kind of retirement community I will never be able to afford. She possesses a lovely, art-filled apartment within a complex where residents gather for a cocktail hour from 4:30 to 5 that is followed by terrific dinners that most everyone brings bottles of wines from the surrounding vineyards.

The research I’ll try to accomplish is for a book about her life. I’ve been interviewing her for the last two years but have gotten no further than a basic skeleton. She has shown me some papers and documents, photographs of her and Frank working in different countries, and the parties and outings they attended or arranged. She was required to leave the Service once she married Frank and then her main occupation involved getting to know local dignitaries, mentoring embassy wives, caring for foreign journalists and bureau chiefs. She accompanied this by entertaining them by creating card parties, luncheons, cocktail parties and dinners. Through the years she developed skills far from the dirt poor manners of her upbringing to a rather more refined scale of fine porcelain and silver. She happens to be sharp-witted and charming, with a natural ability to make people feel they are the only one she is interested in. Plus, she is very funny. For the forty years that Franks worked as a press attaché and cultural developer for the State Department, she supported his efforts by educating herself on every aspect of the countries’ cultures and taking very good care of the people around her.

The problem involved in writing anything about her is hampered by all those years of training to keep many secrets, making it very difficult to reveal what I need to know to effectively tell her story. So far I’ve written two brief sketchy sections that take her from poverty to her acceptance in the Service as a very naïve 21 year old. My agent rightly considered them lacking in enough depth and verve to attract editors. My job for the next five days is to get her to reveal her very personal secrets, follies, and wisdom gained by working in a destroyed, hostile Germany; being evacuated without her husband from Egypt eight months after marrying and suffering a miscarriage; navigating rebels while setting up a home in Cambodia and befriending the King’s court; and learning who among their friends were CIA agents, who were the journalists who couldn’t be trusted, and who among the native population did not have her best interest at heart. To be clear, Margie is very much a partner in this endeavor. But, unfortunately she possesses what I call the Willard’s defining trait to ignore much of life’s difficulties through denial and deflection. Everything is always “fine”; her life “fun”. She even told me she had “a grand time” wandering about Europe as a refugee while Frank was dodging bombs and bullets in Egypt.   The little details I do have were collected in unguarded moments, say after the third glass of wine, when she’s told me about breakdowns, an attempt on her life; vast loneliness and boredom; marital discord; and the sorrow and trial of taking care of an increasingly frail husband. Come the next day and without wine, we’re back to everything being fun and grand, with her Cheshire cat smile that could be denying the revelations captured in the previous night’s notes and recording.

Writers attempting to tell any true stories run into this dilemma many times. This is where the rest of the trip’s agenda comes in. We’ll drives into the hills to explore the vineyards. We’ll drink wine. I’ll accompany her to dinner at 5 to sit among her friends. We’ll cook a little in her old copper pans, from recipes in one of her well-stained cookbooks. Whenever I’ve had to get someone to open up to me, this is how I’ve done it—accompany them through their everyday lives which, in itself, reveals so much about their character and past.

We’re over Nevada now according to the little map on the screen. I’ll post this and then add more as the days go by. And I’ll be forcing myself to Twitter about it, too—another dictate from my agent to help me build a community composed of I don’t know who or what. I assure you, though, Aunt Margie is terrific company, even when she’s not strictly telling the truth. If nothing else, I promise to tell you about the vineyards, the wine, dining at 5 (which just may be the biggest challenge of them all!), and cooking great meals. Maybe there’ll be some recipes. Gotta keep the food writer in me going….

Girls

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Weeks after it arrived, I finally got to The New Yorker issue with the profile of Chris Rock. It was terrific but there was one bit that made it truly priceless for me. Rock’s first performance included this observation: “I was born a suspect.” The world already expected little of this tiny bundle, except eventually, and in one way or another, be guilty of something and, thus, feared.

I read the profile midway in writing “This Is How I Lost It,” at a point where I was beginning to realize what the story was really about. When it opens, it seems to be about the mundane situation of one character losing her virginity. The story, though, develops into realizing that growing up a girl is perilous nearly from the get-go just by being born a girl.

From her father on, men have always seen Clare one way–as someone with limited resources who they have a right to treat in a way they would never tolerate themselves. She’s an object of desire that is baited and hounded no matter where she goes, including at home, and her main fight in life is claiming value beyond her body, to be taken seriously for whom she is. For the last couple of stories in the series, Clare goes about this in one of the few ways she knows how: she accentuates her figure, takes pride in how it attracts men so she can handle them on her own terms, using them then casting them away before they will eventually discard her. Every woman knows this way is more damaging to herself than men. The last story showed Clare beginning to claim her talents–a power that will shield her better if she’s allowed to adhere to it. As a woman, there’s a lot that could interfere with that, including falling in love as she is doing now.

Her friend’s war concerns her intellect. Her mathematical skills have been a source of pride throughout most of her schooling but she’s realizing how in advancing through math boys are beginning to receive all the attention while she grows practically invisible, a freak at best. She makes the conscious decision to neglect her studies and bungles her chances to sharpen her mind. Instead, she turns to distinguish herself in a more acceptable way for a girl. She knows enough that her thin, barely developed body would only be accentuated by the unforgiving fashion of the day and chooses instead to wear the carefully tailored, close-fitting dresses and jackets from the ‘30s and ‘50s, or the loose peasant blouses from the late 60s and 70s.She perfects lavish eyeliner and streaks her red hair in different colors every month. She wears leather and thigh high boots. So armored, she feel special and beautiful and steps in to sex as if it leads to a greater sense of herself.

They’re walking a path where their prodigious talents will either flourish or wither. The best way for them to become who they are–instead of what the world sees them as–is to stand by each other. There’s a doubt about that by the end of the story but I hope they will. You just never know.