I have a new blog on cooking!

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Years ago, somewhere in a post down below, I said something about being tired of food writing–which I was, sort of.  In any case, I wasn’t coming up with any good ideas the way I used to. I felt I said everything I wanted to say about food and the kind of food writing and cooking books being published didn’t fit me. Besides, let’s face it, I’m lousy at selling magazine articles or keeping abreast of anything on social media to keep my food brand (that’s what they call it) in circulation. To be perfectly honest, I just wasn’t interested anymore.

Plus, I began to write my Clare stories and couldn’t think of anything else.

Then last month, I was emailing my most wonderful friend, Chris Welch who is an incredible book designer. Someone sent her one of those “how to entertain” books full of stylish illustrations, but the writing came off as stuck-up in a know-it-all way, the kind that leaves the reader (well, me) despondent and feeling like a real smuck in the cooking and hostess department.  Chris said I could do better and, because I was sort of in a holiday manic phase after giving a large (imperfect behind-the-scenes) party of my own, I started riffing on the idea that, instead of writing about splendid parties and accomplished cuisine, why not tell the truth and shout about all the dumb, stupid, hilarious, lame things that happen to all of us in the kitchen or with people about?

So I started a new blog called I Can’t Believe I Did This that’s going to admit to all the mistakes and disasters I’ve ever made in the realm of cooking and entertaining.  I’ll explain the solutions and excuses that sort of rallied me through most mishaps,  in a spirited way that  just may assure the reader it’s not the end of the world.  I hope to hear from others, too, maybe get a discussion going about how we’re all sick of those cooking shows and blogs and magazines that make us hopelessly anxious. Isn’t it about time we admit there are other things more important in the world than the lopsided cake that plopped out for your kid’s class birthday celebration or how you wish you could throw off your high heel shoes at your own party?  Cooking is too much fun, being with friends (sometimes even relatives) too important, to ruin it all by worrying about little mayhem.

I bet that, together, we can find ways to make something wonderful out of a pig’s ear. (Actually, you can–it’s not good for you but it tastes great!)

 

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Now, here’s the first of two posts: And you thought this would be healthy

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…..

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.

How (not) to Feed the Sick

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The morning’s Styrofoam tray held a hardboiled egg knocking against a tiny plastic cup of soggy fruit cocktail.  A slice of while bread anchored a corner, its wrapping extolling the absence of trans fat but the presence of enriched bleached flour and a bunch of chemicals I can’t pronounce.

Noon arrived accompanied by two slabs of cooked beef on a roll, another fruit cup and one more roll.

Dinner was a salty Salisbury steak, buried under floury gravy.  However, good news on the side’s front: the hash browns were acceptable and the carrots were almost fresh, not too watery. Two stale chocolate chip cookies stood in for dessert.

No one expects hospital food good hospital. Anyway, I wasn’t very hungry.  Still, lying in the ICU surrounded by all its beeps and moans,  I was in great need of assurance my body would mend and get out of there. A little cup of port wine jelly would sooth my nerves, or a clear consommé coaxed from marrow bones would provide strength, if only to sit up.  How hard would it be to serve delicately poached chicken or fish—just a bit, no more than a sliver dampened with white wine?  Finally, in the middle of summer, with a fine fresh produce market just down the street from the hospital, couldn’t a small plum be stewed until its natural sweetness released, its flesh softened and its flavors fortified by steeped chamomile.  Surely dishes such as these would give me something to look forward to through the long day of recuperation. How easily I would revive.

But I would have to somehow be whisked into the 19th century, possibly the early 20th, when feeding the sick was an integral part of healing.  These years saw many advances in medicine and the care of the sick—most developed from the era’s unceasing warfare.  An important aspect of care was a whole catalog of dishes and rules for how they were served, known as invalid cooking.  For the most part people were nursed at home—hospitals of the time being deadly places—and women served as nurses and cooks. Common sense formed most of the dishes, including the dictate that, no matter what a family’s economics were, only the freshest of ingredients used to ensure the highest nutrition and little risk of contamination.  My Salisbury steak in its coagulating gravy, for instance, was close to poison for its heaviness on a weakened stomach and the questionable quality of its ingredients.  Finally, there was the belief that serving the dishes on a pretty tray, with the best plates in the house, perhaps accompanied by a small vase of flowers, would do much to brighten the patient’s spirits and make her feel human again.

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Cookbooks of the time inevitably devoted pages to invalid recipes but many more were simply handed down as part of a young girl’s household training.  The first time I came upon them was in used bookstores when I was caring for my mother-in-law and my own parents.  I found recipes in private papers, in oral history and in my own relative’s reminiscence of a time when a tray with one or two good smelling dishes enticed them to eat and build their strength back up.

I was realistic when a wrote a book from my research.  Hospital were not going to change their ways. Our lives are not conducive to the careful stirring and straining that many of the dishes required. But I wanted the book to be reminder of the central role food plays in healing our loved ones. 

That stuff on the plastic tray given to me in the ICU was so far below what I needed for me to walk out of the ICU sooner than I did.  Lait de poule (a thin custard drink flavored with orange flower water), or Scutari broth (cracked veal marrow bones, a handful of cabbage and chervil spring), and finally a cocoa cordial before bedtime (Dutch processed cocoa, a tablespoon or three of port wine) certainly would.

To read more, consider reading my book, A Soothing Broth, or finding recipes of your own in any old cookbook. skill