Foodish and Bookish Pilgrimages

It’s funny – some vacations start as something simple. Amanda and I hadn’t been on an honest to goodness vacation – one completely unrelated to either of our jobs – in years. In an effort to check some items off our California Bucket List, we planned a whirlwind trip to Yosemite, Napa Valley, and San Francisco. There’s lots to do in all those places. But for me, there were a couple things I needed to see:  I needed to go to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and I needed to go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley

There are times when, as a writer, I feel like I have missed a movement:  because of my age and the time I was born, a movement has passed me by. I’ve grown up in a time of processed foods and food industry scandals and shockumentaries and all these diet choices and it becomes SO much. The New Yorker ran a piece last month called “A Foodie Repents”. I had a lot of feelings about the post, but ultimately, for me, the post is about that feeling that, to borrow from Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us” when it comes to food. Reality shows and food blogs and Pinterest and apps and product placement and so, so, so many recipes:  it can become a bit daunting. It is part of the reason I’ve had blogger’s block. What can I possibly add to the conversation? What can I say that’s not already being said by hundreds of other people? What is the point in trying to chase after a movement that feels like it has passed me by?

Yosemite

Yosemite

But, to return to this nice little vacation with my wife, there’s something grounding about traveling. About escape. But mostly about putting your feet on the ground in places rooted in the movement(s) you’re passionate about. Which brings me to Chez Panisse. Alice Waters is, for those who don’t know, the chief reason we have a local food movement. She’s written widely about the importance of local, whole foods that taste exactly like what they are. I obeyed the instructions to leave our phones off the tables and just enjoy the meal. It was simple food, well-prepared. Nothing fussy or fancy. On the bar was a pear tart that was being doled out, slice by slice, to order. There was rustic artisan bread. I thought for a moment that I saw Alice Waters and freaked out a little (it wasn’t her, I decided). My fried chicken came with a sweet puree of root vegetables and perfect collard greens and this meal was so lovely, so nourishing, I had no choice but to go back to my hotel and nap.

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When I woke up, Amanda suggested we drive into San Francisco and walk around a bit. I was in a food hangover, wrapped in fatigue like a warm, heavy blanket, but I walked with her, making our way to Ghirardelli Square, and I was glad I hadn’t fought her on it:  seeing it all lit up at night is very different from during the day. We stopped for a simple salad and all the sourdough we could eat.

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And the next day, on our real trip into San Francisco, the pilgrimages (what I call these trips that not only offer escapism but also restoration) continued. We started at the Ferry Building, where we had waffles and coffee. The best waffles, with chew and density (secret ingredient:  cornmeal) and just a sprinkling of sugar, ones you held in your hand and dipped in your coffee. The farmers market was going on, and we walked among the stalls, and listened to musicians, and watched people eat. I was homesick for my kitchen, for my markets. But before the day was over, we had to walk pretty much the entirety of San Francisco (slight exaggeration, but my feet felt like it was the whole city) and make our way to City Lights Bookstore.

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This blog splits its focus between food and writing, and so I must mention City Lights because it is part of that feeling of trying to hang on to a movement. The Beats are pretty much from a bygone era, but independent bookstores, small affairs with funky floors and close wooden shelves and an entire second floor for poetry just show that this is one movement that (contrary to what “publishing is dead” folks will tell you) is very much alive. I wore my Little Women shirt for the occasion and happily waited for my picture to be taken in front of those windows.

I took no pictures of my food, and I focused on time with my wife, and I soaked up the experience of vast Mother Nature and delicious wine and all that San Francisco had to offer. And it restored me a bit to myself. I still feel, perhaps, that the world is too much with us, that I’ve missed things and I can’t catch up. But at the end of the day, I want what these pilgrimages celebrate:  to write well; to celebrate and cook and eat simple, whole foods, well-prepared, and lovingly served; to shut out the noise and enjoy my work and my books and my food and this community, which I have missed.

On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary

A few months ago, I began writing for a really fantastic site called Book Riot. Periodically, I’ll be re-posting articles from that site here on the blog. But hey, don’t just read my stuff here – go to Book Riot and check out all the great bookish stuff our writers have to offer.

On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary

I received my copy of Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary from a friend as a present for my 23rd birthday. It took me six years to finish reading it;  I did a great deal of growing up in that time, transforming my reading experience as I grew.

My friend inscribed the book to me, calling me a strong and bold woman and writer. But I didn’t feel strong or bold. I felt weak and scared. Nothing I did seemed right. My writing was a mess. I regularly concocted theories that my professors had been drunk when they decided to admit me to my MFA program.

I turned to Virginia Woolf for help and guidance. When I began to read her diary, I looked to her as an oracle of writing. She intimidated me even as she taught me, but to my surprise, she was terribly critical of herself. Over and over again, she lost hope in her own writing. It seemed that she was always waiting to find that she had lost her gift, her will to go on with writing. When she found the ability, the nerve, the energy for it again, she always seemed surprised.

She struggled not only with her own high standards, but also with her illness, with headaches and bouts of depression. She ran a press, she had a husband. Then there was the war.

But even with those obstacles, Virginia Woolf was a writer’s writer. For as many moments of artistic despair as there are, one also finds glimmers of hope, of faith in the process. In 1933, she wrote, “I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler: […] No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before.” In 1934, she spoke directly to those of us who would come after her:  “A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing:  up down up down – and Lord knows the truth.”

I have always found difficulty in reading books about Virginia Woolf. The professor who introduced me to her in college suggested that it was because we weren’t – and still aren’t – ready to have lost Virginia Woolf. As I neared the end of her diary, I braced myself for it. Virginia Woolf always wrote sporadically in her journals; her final entry is dated three weeks before her death. She and her husband had fled to the countryside, and their home in London, their neighborhood, and the homes of their friends, had been blown to bits. She had begun to see the people around her die. Despair had settled in.

When I taught literature classes, I warned students against reading an author’s biography too deeply into their creative works. I knew this rule, and yet, as I neared the end of Virginia Woolf’s diary, I found myself looking for clues. I wanted some warning, some self-awareness, some moment that might explain what was to come.

Her final entry is unremarkable. But it’s her final sentences that broke my heart, that has haunted me for months to follow:  “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

Sausage and haddock? She’s Virginia Woolf, she terrifies me and astounds me, and I love her, and her final written words to the world of her diary, before she took her own life three weeks later, is about sausage and haddock. The cook in me smirked, the way we smile over a bittersweet memory of loved ones who have passed. After all that, it’s sausage and haddock. It’s life. But the writer in me – the part of me that doesn’t always have food on the brain – stalled out.

We build up authors so that they become epic and mythic, each huddled away on their corners of a literary Mount Olympus, scribbling or typing. The place smells of coffee and books and anxiety. But in the end, they’re people, not gods. They’re people who must eat dinner and fear bombs and attempt to get a handle on cooking sausage and haddock. This is a challenge as big as writing The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was epic to me. But she was also just a person. She could no more fix my insecurity than fix her own. But her diary showed me that I’m not alone. “A note, by way of advising other Virginias…”

That’s me. That’s us, her literary daughters. Whether writing our stories or gobbling up books or cooking dinner or fighting our demons – it’s all the same, and we must write it all with equal devotion, follow the trains of thought that make up our lives. “Up down up down – and Lord knows the truth.”

**

This post originally appeared on Book Riot. 

My Reading Month: October 2014

The end of October already? I’ve watched leaves change colors and children get dressed up in adorable costumes (all via Facebook). I’ve watched my Pinterest get covered in all manner of apple, butternut, and pumpkin things. And of course, I’ve read some books. I also took a fabulous pilgrimage (that’s what I’m calling my vacation) to some food and literary places that I can’t wait to tell you about. But unfortunately, that’s a post for November.

While we’re on the cusp of that, though, here’s a look at My Reading Month.

Currently Reading at Time of Publication

On Immunity:  An Inoculation by Eula Biss.

Books

IMG_6208October was a fun month. That’s the word I’m choosing to describe it:  definitively fun. I did some traveling back to Virginia, where I was a presenter at the ODU Literary Festival, and I don’t know what it is about a Kindle book and a cross-country plane ride, but I just tear through books. And when they’re this fun, it’s even more tempting to do so.

  • Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson. This was a digital review copy (it’ll be out in March 2015), and it was a tie for my favorite book that I read this month. This book features a cast of characters for whom things have gone astray. A woman wakes to find the front wall of her house missing. A pianist goes to his studio, only to discover the keys to his piano have disappeared. A directionless woman literally loses her sense of direction. Loves, jobs, and memories are all lost, and it’s a race to either find them before the damage is complete, or acclimate to this new, lost life. This book was quirky and full of strong characters – make sure you check it out in March.
  • My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. And here we are, the CA –> VA leg of my reading binge. I read this in one airplane ride. I was dazed at the end, but it was lovely. Rakoff’s first job after college was as a secretary at a venerable literary agency, the one that represented J.D. Salinger. As she sorts out her own life, she gets to know the book business, Salinger’s work, and her own path towards the future. A great, bookish coming-of-age memoir.
  • Rooms by Lauren Oliver. And this book took me from VA –> CA. I didn’t do this in one sitting, alas, but I feel like I could have. This book tells the story of a dysfunctional family who has come to the estranged father’s house after his death to sort through his belongings. Twist? The house is haunted by the ghosts of previous inhabitants. The drama of the afterlife meets the drama of the here and now, and I couldn’t put it down.
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. You guys. This book is raw, and rough, and yet so tender. As Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Mississippi coast, this family – three boys, one pregnant girl, and their alcoholic father – try to survive and prepare, all the while negotiating love and loss and hope. This book made me uncomfortable in ways that I thought were valuable and important.
  • 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Helene-Marie Bertino. This book was the other tie for favorite read of the month. Musical, kinetic, quirky, and so scrappy, this book was funny and wild and also takes place over a span of about 16 hours, which is downright impressive. I’m recommending it to everyone. So, you know, read it.

I usually include a few articles, but truthfully, there’s only one I want to talk about, and I think it’s for another post, all on its own, about food and excess and identity. (I mean, aren’t I always yammering on about food and identity?) So for now, there’s My Reading Month. You read anything good that you want to recommend?

My Reading Month: September 2014

After a busy summer, it’s been good to settle into the security of fall.

But then, I remember:  I live in Southern California. Fall is really just summer, but in months that end in R.

For me, though, fall is more than just weather. (I mean, it’s the weather. That part still depresses me.) But fall means back to school, which for me always meant back to reading more – reading for homework, reading to learn, to enjoy, to grow. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to challenge myself in my reading life, reading things that stretch me out of my comfort zone (like Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist and Annia Ceizadlo’s memoir, Day of Honey) and also things that further immerse me in the areas I want to learn more (like the biiiiiig book I’m currently reading, The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher).

So while I might have to be satisfied with only the tips of the fronds of the palm trees turning a bit yellow, and the warm days and cool nights, I still have fall reading, and that’s no small thing.

Books

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay:  This book has gotten tons of buzz, and it’s just as good as everyone says it is. Gay takes a kind approach toward feminism, embracing empathy, human fallibility, and common sense. This book made me uncomfortable at times, but it also made me think, made me ask questions, which is what I had hoped it would do.
  • The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant:  My first Diamant! This book reminded me a lot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and told the story of a young girl growing up at the beginning of the 20th century in Boston.
  • Day of Honey:  A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo:  Holy crap, this book. As Iraq descended into civil war, Annia Ciezadlo and her new husband spent their honeymoon in Baghdad, where her husband would be working as a war correspondent. Herself a freelance journalist, she spent the next six years living in Baghdad and Beirut, eating, learning, and writing about the people as wars and skirmishes flared up around her. A thoughtful historical look at food and war and what both mean in the lives of civilians.
  • Delicious by Ruth Reichl:  This may be unfair, but I didn’t expect this book to be as good as it was. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel set at a food magazine, written by the women who would know that world best. A definite recommendation for those who love food and fiction.

Over at Book Riot

This month at Book Riot, I held forth about the necessity for writers to read; my editor crush on Judith Jones; how much I loved the novel The End of the Point; my weird habit of evangelizing to people about booksmy outright giddiness over three memoirs by funny ladies coming out this fall; and four methods for choosing your next book to read.

Articles

The Goat Note | grilled pizzas

I have, for some time now, half-joked to Amanda that if the volume is loud enough on my car radio, I can sound exactly like [insert name of singer here]. Reba McEntire. Lea Michele. Mariah Carey. Idina Menzel. Oh yeah. That high F in “Defying Gravity”? If the radio’s loud enough, I can hit it. Ever. Single. Time.

When I was in high school, my friend Liz and I went through a pretty big Sister Act 2 phase. We watched it all the time. And while chatting on the phone one day, I attempted the radio volume trick without the help of the radio. I attempted to hit the high note in “Oh Happy Day.”

I wasn’t trying hard or anything. I mean, I’m not crazy. I actually can’t hit a high F.

Unless I’m in my car.

With the music really loud.

Alone.

Point being, I went for it, and it was a mess, and we joked and laughed about it for years. I was understandably upset that she did not ask me to perform “Oh Happy Day” at her wedding, but since she probably couldn’t have gotten me a gospel choir anyway, it was really a lost cause from the beginning.

I hadn’t thought about that in awhile, until I happened on this the other day.

Oh yeah. The goat note. I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, and it still just tickles me.

But this feeling that I can do something that’s actually outside of my ability is one I often suffer from. When I watch So You Think You Can Dance, there’s a part of my brain that really believes I can extend my leg up over my head, and I reeeeeeeallly want to try. But I know I can’t. I will end up disappointed and injured. I cannot jeté, and that is my cross to bear.

And y’all. That’s how I felt about homemade pizza too. I’ve got a pizza stone. I’ve tried things. I’ve done the makeshift pizza peel off the back of a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. I’ve tried different dough recipes. I’ve tried under-saucing. I’ve tried under-cheesing. And still, whenever I made pizza in my oven, on that stupid pizza stone, I was met with disappointment. The dough of that disappointment was still raw in the middle. The bottom of that disappointment would be disproportionately crispy to the rest of the soggy, stupid pizza.

I had given up. And then, oh happy day, I discovered grilled pizza.

The grill allows a forgiving workspace that is level to our bodies, no longer requiring us to hunch over and extend our bodies (or our arms) into a hot oven. There’s no need to slide the pizza onto an already hot stone; you just flip that dough on the grill, letting the shape fall as it will.

A few things I learned for successful grilled pizza:

- Let the dough sit out for at least half an hour before you stretch it. This allows the gluten to relax (or something scientific like that) and makes it so you can stretch out the dough without it shrinking back.

- Organize your stuff. Get all your toppings ready to go because once the pizza dough is on the grill, you’ve only got a few minutes before it’s time to add toppings.

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- Sauce is not necessary. Yes, I know. I said it. Sauce is great – I mean, who on God’s green earth doesn’t love sauce? But sauce is not essential. I used a brushing of olive oil, and it worked beautifully.

- Dress up your crust! Why not? Before I put my dressed up pizza back on the grill, I brushed the crust part with olive oil, added a little salt, and it was a fun ending to each slice of pizza.

Essentially, here’s the deal:  preheat your grill to medium or medium-high heat. If any toppings need pre-cooking (for instance, I grilled some zucchini first), go ahead and do that once it’s hot. Pat out and stretch your pizza dough (I used pre-made dough from Whole Foods) to the desired size(s). Assemble your area with your toppings. Pour a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.

When you’re ready, spray the grate with cooking spray, and then pick up your dough using two hands and flip it from the tray/cutting board/plate/cookie sheet onto the grill. Imagine you’re turning over a place mat; that’s the motion. Don’t worry if your dough isn’t a perfect circle. This is homemade.

Close the grill, let it cook a few minutes (taking care not to burn it); 3-5 minutes should do the trick. You’re looking for light golden grill marks. When you see those, use a pair of tongs and flip the dough over. Allow to cook 3-5 more minutes, till you get grill marks.

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At this point, remove the pizza to a tray and dress that sucker up like it’s heading to church. I made two pizzas:  one with grilled zucchini, torn basil, mozzarella, goat cheese, minced garlic, and a sprinkle of pecorino; the other with sliced heirloom tomato, goat cheese, torn basil, mozzarella, garlic, and pecorino. I found two smaller pizzas easier to work with, and it can be a good way to make a grown-up pizza and a kid pizza, in case you have children with strong pizza opinions.

Once the pizzas are dressed, open the grill, use your tongs, and slide the pizzas onto the rack. You’ll want to bake 5-7 minutes, most likely. You’re looking for melty toppings and golden crust without burning the bottom.

When the pizzas are done, remove from the grill, let sit for a few minutes before slicing, and then cut those things up and enjoy.

Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes. I thought it would be like singing “Oh Happy Day.” I thought it would be the goat note of pizza. But it wasn’t. It was easy and delicious and fun and satisfying. The leftovers were great, too, and I was in no way disappointed. Quite the opposite, actually.

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Remembering the Two Fat Ladies

This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever. 

I was peripherally aware of Two Fat Ladies when their shows first aired in the late 90s. I was a little bit of a Food Network junkie back then, a teenager with big dreams of becoming a pastry chef, and I liked these two quirky broads riding a motorcycle around England. My taste had no discernment back then – I watched anything and everything food. But in my late twenties, when my dreams of professional chefdom had gone the way of my dreams of becoming a figure skater and a country music star, Two Fat Ladies resurfaced for me. And now that both of the Ladies – Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Wright Dickson – have left this earth, we are left only with our ability to remember the Two Fat Ladies.

In my late twenties, when I was introduced to The Cooking Channel – the cooler, more community-oriented younger sibling to The Food Network – I spent hours hanging out with my then-girlfriend (now wife), watching Unique Eats, Unique Sweets, and to my glee and utter enjoyment, reruns of Two Fat Ladies. We set the DVR and gorged ourselves on episode after episode of these two hilarious British ladies cooking dishes we had never seen, and sometimes never heard of.

Food television has become formulaic and well-practiced. Allen Salkin’s book From Scratch:  Inside the Food Network gives an excellent history of how cooking shows settled into the formula we know today. Early shows lacked money and production value. Things went wrong. But as time has passed, we have come to expect flawless sets, beautiful dishes, beautiful hosts. There is something pristine and clean about food television these days.

Perhaps that’s why we glommed onto these reruns of Two Fat Ladies. These women cooked throughout England and Scotland (and even Jamaica in one episode), in a variety of different kitchens, usually rustic-looking, sometimes close and tight, sometimes cavernous. They wore clothes suited to their frames, personalities, and comfort levels. Most shows ended with Jennifer enjoying a cigarette and a drink.

Their humor was naughty. We do not call the immersion blender by its proper name in my house; we call it the kitchen vibrator, as Clarissa did in one episode where Jennifer made a potato soup. They joked on vegetarians, on Americans, and lovingly, on each other.

I remember one episode where the women took off walking in search of eggs. After awhile, Jennifer pitched a fit. She was tired of walking, and she announced that she was done. She sat down, and despite Clarissa’s entreaties to keep going, she stayed put and smoked a cigarette. It was a moment of awkwardness, of unscripted on-camera human behavior that is completely absent from food television. A woman is tired from walking and refuses to go on. The awkwardness was palpable as we watched. And when Clarissa came back, riding in the open bed of a truck, her feet swinging, a smiling face for her friend, all was well. The day was won. The dishes were made. But we still remember and talk about that episode.

Try finding that on Food Network these days. You won’t.

We remember singers by listening to their songs. We remember artists by visiting their paintings or sculptures. We remember cooks by making their recipes. But this is where my problem comes in.

A friend gave me the cookbook, Cooking with The Two Fat Ladies, for my birthday a few years ago. I recently looked through it, knowing what I would find. A lot of meat. Like, seriously. There was one episode that my wife and I remember often. Clarissa lined a terrine with bacon, then filled it with whatever she was making, and then covered the top with bacon as well. She made a bacon lid. Just let that sink in for a moment.

I’m a vegetarian, and even if I weren’t, many of the ingredients are hard to find in the States. We don’t readily have game available. My only options are desserts, which do look delicious.

But the conclusion I came to was that to remember the Two Fat Ladies, I will have to look to their other influences on my life. My wife and I still enjoy watching those old reruns, though we’ve seen almost every episode. We sing the theme song together. We joke about the kitchen vibrator whenever we make soup with an immersion blender.

And we remember the nights at the beginning of our life together, when we would make a snack and settle in for marathons of Two Fat Ladies. We can remember them as the soundtrack of our courtship. We can remember them as icons of our eating lives. Remembering the Two Fat Ladies won’t happen through making their recipes (or a bacon lid, just imagine), but it will happen by the simple act of remembering.