Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Discerning Eye (Continued)

This is how we end up driving south on the 101, our travel duffels nestled together like an old married couple's. My mixed feelings have become such a constant state that the serenity of my previous solitary existence is beginning to take on the sheen of a past idyll.

We take turns behind the wheel. Daniel has brought a sketchpad: perched in the passenger seat, he draws like a happy child. I've brought no pads, no paints or colors of any kind; it seems like bad luck. I never work away from home anyway.

With two people driving we are soon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, its spires lost in cottony grey tangle of clouds. Despite the windy cold a few brave tourists stroll along the walkways, aiming video cameras here and there.

The house is large and rickety, surrounded by apartment buildings. The girlfriend, Ella, is small and thin, with dark hair pulled carelessly into a ponytail. Bill is squat, thickly muscled. They hug Daniel enthusiastically, then shake my hand politely, sizing me up.

We all troop inside the entryway. Bill tells us the house is over a hundred years old. "I spent the summer working on the foundation." He says.

A dim, narrow hallway runs the length of the house, lined with doors. It appears much smaller inside than out. Ella and Bill lead us from room to room, happily describing plans for moldings and wallpaper, flooring and furniture. There are Christmas decorations spread tastefully about, wreaths, red candles nestled in evergreen boughs, an imposing tree in the dining room, heavy with baubles, nearly reaching the ceiling.

Bill inhales deeply. "Smells fantastic, eh? Hell to lug in here, but worth the effort."

It does smell nice. I glance over at Daniel, who is smiling politely. Does he remember the fragrance of pine?


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Friday, September 29, 2006

Cooking with turnips

It's fall, even here in California, The air has an edge. The leaves have done their minor color change and fallen into the gutters. Our farm box is schizoid now, filled with summer's final offerings in the form of late tomatoes and corn, pointing toward fall with greens and Tokyo turnips.

Tokyo turnips are smaller than the baseballs commonly seen at supermarkets. Raw, they are sharp without being bitter. Cooked, they take on a silky quality with a nice bite. I had a bunch with their greens still attached. As the days passed and the greens began wilting, I took action in the form of turnip soup. I also had a nice square of duck liver mousse from the Fatted Calf. I wanted to serve it with toasted bread, and thought the soup would be a nice foil for all that richness.

I've probably lost a few readers at this point. Thank you, intrepid souls still with me. The turnip, like its friends the rutabaga and parsnip, are victims of the bad rep only generations of poor preperation can foment.

I riffed off Deborah Madison's Turnip Soup with Gruyere Croutons, found in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Her recipe calls for turnips, their greens, potatoes, butter, leeks, garlic, parlsey, thyme, white pepper, water or vegetable stock, cream or milk, and the recipe for Gruyere Croutons, which is on page 209.

I did not have Gruyere, leeks, milk, white pepper, or parsley. I did have potatoes, onions, garlic, chicken broth, thyme, and smoked bacon, which I utilized to excellent effect.

My recipe for turnip soup:

About eight cups chicken broth
1 bunch Tokyo turnips with their greens, everything washed and sliced into blender-friendly sizes
garlic to taste--I used four cloves, sliced
One onion, sliced
one large or two to three small potatoes, Idaho or Finns, sliced--Peruvians, with their purple flesh, would make this soup bizarre-looking
Olive oil
four slices smoked bacon, sliced into bits.

Heat the olive oil (a sploosh, as Tamasin Day-Lewis would say) in a soup pot. Add the onion, garlic, and bacon. Allow the bacon to render while the onion and garlic soften. Add the turnips and potatoes, allowing them to soften and cook a bit without browning too much--no more than medium heat. After about ten minutes, add the broth. Allow the vegetables to cook about fifteen minutes. Add the greens. Let everything cook gently, until the vegetable are soft, about half an hour.

At this point, you can handle the bacon two ways. I was prepraring the soup the day before eating it, and wanted the smoky flavor to penetrate the dish. So I just tossed mine into the soup pot. But If you are planning to eat your soup the same day, you could saute the bacon in another pan, so it gets nice and crispy.

Puree the soup using an immersion blender, if you are lucky enough to have one, or use your blender, remembering all the while that soup burns are not a nice way to spend the evening.

Now you can either sprinkle the bacon over your soup and serve, or you can do as I did and allow the soup to cool, refrigerate it, and heat the next day, adding more smoked bacon for a nice surpise on the spoon amidst the pureed soup.

Go easy on the salt, as the bacon will be pretty salty. If you have things like yogurt or sour cream, go for it. Or spread your bread with duck liver mousse, eat it, and cut the richness with a nice peppery spoonful of turnip soup.

Hockeyman pronounced this soup "very fallish" and consumed a great bowl of it. Kitty was less impressed. Finally, something he doesn't eat.

Madison's recipe may be found on page 219 of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Broadway Books, New York, 1997.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder

Quick--before Kakutani or Maslin can attack, before Updike writes an almost jealous review (like I share their audience...ah, delusions of grandeur....), as he did in the New Yorker with Oryx and Crake--Moral Disorder is an amazing book. It is difficult not to fall prey to suspecting it veiled autobiography, but I won't succumb. I will say Atwood's vantage point as an older writer gives the stories in Moral Disorder an elegaic tone, particularly "The Bad News", "The Labrador Fiasco", and "The Boys at the Lab." I think any reasoning person (granted, this rules out many of our fellow citizens) will find something to relate to in her stories of elderly parents and aging spouses. Mortality is everywhere in this book, and why not? Mortality is everywhere, period.

Atwood is mistress of many forms, but this, her twentieth novel, is her first foray into "linked stories", a style that had its shining moment in the late nineties, then waned. But because she is Atwood, and mightily talented, she makes the form fresh. Her sentences, always pithy, have grown only more compressed:

"Then she became afraid to walk, though she never said so, and then she became angry about her own fear. Finally she became rebellious. She rebelled against all of it: the blindness, the restriction, the falling down, the injuries, the fear. She no longer wanted to have anything to do with these sources of misery, and so she retreated under the bedcovers. It was a way of changing the subject." (207)

"It was a way of changing the subject." A Didion-worthy sentence summing up the horrors of aging better than any eldercare workshop, more pithily than social worker queries or glossy assisted living brochures. The truth is aging is usually a brutal battle with increasing losses. Taking to bed, turning your mind inward--what better response?

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is published by Nan Talese Books and should be available at your local bookstore, so long as you don't shop at Black Oak.

Authors, Books, Margaret Atwood, Review

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The thin line between memoir and muck

My unhappiness over Maryann Burk Carver's memoir of life with Raymond got me thinking. When is a memoir a welcome contribution, and when is it sensationalist?

A random list of sensationalist memoirs, assembled courtesy of the search engine:

From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking by Edward A. Malloy, Cardwell C. Nuckols, Chris Volkmann, and Toren Volkmann

More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra

How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir
by Jessica Hendra (Author), Blake Morrison (Author)

I read the Elizabeth Wurtzel book. I hated it. Talk about rich, spoiled, and whining. I have not read the others, and cannot comment on their literary quality. What I can say, though, is they attach themselves to current-day issues. Everyone is worried over teen drinking, drugging, and screwing. Everyone wants to know what it is/was like to cohabitate with the (in)famous.

The Hendra memoirs inhabit an especially bizarre spot in the memior pantheon: the treacly tell-all by a mildy famous person (Tony Hendra is the beleagured band manager in the classic movie "This is Spinal Tap.") Jessica Hendra, his daughter, offers a bracing corrective in her memior, accusing her father of molestation. Did he? Maybe. But do I NEED TO KNOW?


Some older folk may recall Barbara Gordon's 1982 memior of Valium addiction, I'm dancing as fast as I can. Her ex-boyfriend, heavily villanized in the book, wrote a response of his own, which I am sorry to say I cannot locate. I can't remember his name. I do recall his efforts to assert his own goodness and fine behavior in helping Barbara overcome her troubles by locking her in their bedroom. I also recall--I was 15 in 1982--thinking what jerks both of them were. Why hold the seamier aspects of private life up for public scrutiny?

Well, money, for one. Money is nice, and I am certain the above folks got some. Fame. Glory. Visits with Oprah. The need to publicly get it--whatever IT is--off your chest. To be understood.

Another random memior search, not from Amazon, but my living room bookshelves:

Julia Alvarez: Something to Declare

Joan Didion: Where I was From

Andre Dubus: Meditations from a Moveable Chair

Donald Hall: Without

Kathryn Harrison: The Kiss, the Mother Knot, Seeking Rapture

Nancy Mairs: Waist High in the World

Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's second wife, has written extensive amounts of poetry about her life with and without Ray. These poems appear in various volumes.

Oh, yes, Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. Wouldn't want to forget that one.

From this incomplete list you may discern an interest in women's lives, dislocation, drug use (Patchett writes about Lucy Grealy), incest (Harrison), and disabled folks (Mairs, Dubus). Sensationalist topics all. So what makes these books better than Marley and Me or Tuesdays with Morrie? (okay, cheap shots, yeah, I know.)

Hmm. Well, all of the above were writers before they were memiorists. They put in time the hard way. To use the old saw, they honed their craft. All took tough topics--you try writing about incest--and rendered them into beautiful sentences.

Here's Joan Didion, talking about her Californian ancestors:

"These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew. They could shoot and they could handle stock and when their children outgrew their shoes they could learn from the Indians how to make moccasins." (7)

Nancy Mairs, discussing life with Multiple Sclerosis:

"The world to which I am a material witness is a difficult one to love. But I am not alone in it now; and as the population ages, more and more people--a significant majority of them women--may join me in it, learning to negotiate a chill and rubble-strewn landscape with impaired eyesight and hearing and mobility, searching out some kind of home there." (63)

Finally, Ann Patchett's closing words from Truth and Beauty:

"Lucy, having survived thirty-eight operations, had become officailly invincible. She believed that the most basic rules of life did not apply to her, and over the course of our friendship, without me knowing when it had happened, I had come to believe it myself. The sheer force of Lucy's life convinced me that she would live no matter what.

That was my mistake." (256-7)

Like the finest novels, these memiors take you places you might never otherwise visit, much less understand. In relating their stories, these writers do not ask for our pity or demand our sympathy: instead, they earn our respect.

Still, the line's a thin one, subject to fickle opinion. The memoir machine will grind on unchecked, feeding the public's appetite for the badly behaved, the tragically afflicted, those who knew somebody famous. People will be paid good money to write bad books read by an unthinking public.

Don't believe it?

Mitch Albom is embarking on a 62 city book tour.

Caveat Emptor.

Books cited:

Joan Didion. Where I was From. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Nancy Mairs. Waist high in the World: A life among the non-disabled. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Ann Patchett. Truth and Beauty: A friendship. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Authors, Books, Memoir

Monday, September 25, 2006

A little more on Andrea Lee

I just finished Russian Journal, her first book. Yeah, more from the Random House publicity machine. The book chronicles ten months Lee spent in Moscow with her first husband, a student of Russian History. It's an amazing document about Russian life before Perestroika. Lest one think the repressive regime she writes of dated, we need only remember certain Middle Eastern countries, North Korea, China, and even, subtly (though arguably increasingly), the United States.

Russian Journal descibes endless lines for food, the preferential treatment received by Party higher-ups and foreigners, the endless harassment citizens suffered at the hands of KGB. Particularly chilling is her description of teaching a clandestine English class to a group of Jews about to emigrate to the United States. She is warned by friends that involvement with emigrating Jews can get her thrown out of the country. Yet she takes the assignment on, even after it is clear the KGB is following her. The class responds by shifting locations. The Russians take the KGB's presence in stride, even going so far as to holler back at intimidating phone callers. They are starved to hear about the U.S but stunned by Lee's descriptions: surely the state owned her family's home of eight--eight!--rooms.

It's a wonderful book, beautifully written, well worth searching out. A new edition is in print to coincide with Lost Hearts in Italy.

Then, if you require an additional Lee fix, check out the 9/25 New Yorker for an article about Fendi handbags. Then wait another six years or so for her to write another book.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Too much information, that is. A popular slang term out here on the West Coast, applicable here in the case of Maryann Burk Carver's memoir of life with Raymond.

The NYTBR story is written by Joyce Johnson, no stranger to the cottage industry of linking oneself to drunken writers who died too soon.

Of course Burk Carver suffered at her husband's hands--Carver's horrific drunken antics are well-documented, as is his shocking indifference toward his children. In fact, he admits to them himself in the raft of interviews and biographical fragments available in William Stull's Remembering Ray (which is out of print).

Having attended Humboldt State University, Carver's alma mater, I am well versed--and thoroughly sick of--the mythologizing. Carver was a tremendous talent who influenced countless writers. He was also all too human, both good and bad. We are now left with the gift of his work, along with the sadness of knowing there will be no more.

I have nothing but sympathy for what Maryann and her children suffered. But I would have respected her far more had she kept her own counsel. There is something to be said in our overly confessional society for quiet dignity, a quality that appears to be going the way of the dodo.

Authors, Books, Biography

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Lamb, endless lamb

Last month a coworker gave me nearly twenty pounds of lamb, slaughtered on her farm in Central California. In previous posts I have discussed the strange state of the meat--weirdly cut, haphazardly frozen in disorganized chunks. This morning I pulled another lumpen, plastic-wrapped hunk from the freezer and allowed it to defrost; it looked like four chops, each differently sized. I trimmed them of fat and rubbed them with Molly Stevens' Moroccan Spice Rub:

1/2 tsp Fennel seeds (I don't have these in the house)
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp black peppercorns
1/4 tsp allspice berries
3/4 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg (I don't like nutmeg, left it out)
1/4 tst cinnamon
Pinch tumeric
Pinch cayenne
Pinch saffron (can't stand the stuff.)

Toast the first four spices, then grind in grinder or mortar and pestle. Add the remaining spices to blend, then pat them on your lamb. Leave 12-24 hours.

I increased everything save the cinnamon to a half teaspoon, including the tumeric and cayenne. H-man and I have jaded palates.

Tomorrow I am supposed to braise all this with a sliced onion, butter, and stock.

This should go well with the leftovers from last night's eggplant adventure--baked eggplants and tomatoes with bread crumbs and basil. This from Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking, and while not difficult, it's fussy and requires a lot of time.

The full recipe is on pages 94-95 of the text. Suffice to say it involves peeling fresh eggplant (not very easy), slicing them, precooking them in a 400 degree oven, boiling tomatoes to skin them (forget it), slicing those, making a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, basil (we had almost none: kitty had eaten most of the plant) and garlic. I chopped, prebaked, slilced everything into half moons, artfully arranged, drizzled vinaigrette. Tore up some sourdough bread for the crumbs, layered, baked. Oh, yeah, and then there was the parmesan cheese sprinked across the top. It turned out fine, if rather messy.

Stay tuned for the glossy photos of perfectly prepared and plated meals, complete with me looking like Tamasin Day-Lewis, windblown, sexy, with nary a greasepot on my Prada apron.

The next day (that is, today...)

Browned the lamb, then I sauteed a shallot (you may recall Hockeyman's aversion to onion) with some garlic. Added a cup of chicken broth. Cooked in a 300 degree oven for one hour and fifteen minutes. The result:

Hockeyman pronounced it excellent. I thought it was okay but not great. I'm just never going to be the sort of person who likes cinnamon with her dinner.

Alas, I am not having a Tamasin day, and my Prada apron is in the wash.

Ever alert, lest we require his assistance.

Atwood: Mission Accomplished

Because I was in downtown Berkeley anyway, I decided to duck into Pegasus Books. There the Atwood was, literally front and center. They did not have the new Janet Fitch, but the helpful fellow behind the counter called the Solano store and asked them to send it over. "She wrote White Oleander, right?" He asked.

I'll have the book Tuesday. Incidentally, he did not ask for my bag, which had three freshly sharpened knives in it.

Authors, Atwood, Books, Independent Bookstores, Janet Fitch

Morning of the long knives

Hockeyman and I have a knife fetish. No, not what you're thinking (shame on you!). We love big, heavy chef's knives. I have a seven-inch Henckels, my first real cooking investment. I paid $100 for it four years ago. It's on the small side, but as my hands are no larger than a ten-year-old's and I have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, it's perfect for me. The knife sees daily use. Hockeyman has a larger Wusthof, which I sometimes use when he isn't home from work's very German; if this knife sang opera, it would be a Basso Profundo.

Then there's the cleaver. Hockeyman bought it for me last Christmas. Again, a Wusthof, heavy, able to shatter bones by sheer force. It is the sort of tool you don't use daily, but it's the right one for hacking up rabbits or shattering chicken bones.

Knives are like tattoos--once you have one, you long for more. I have no tattoos, but my knife shortlist includes a Japanese cleaver--like the one Morimoto uses--a Japanese Santoku, and a ceramic knife. This last just for the hell of it. I have also long wanted a mezzaluna, known less lyrically in English as a chopper. Mezzalunas are wonderful for herbs, pesto, or chopping chicken livers into pate.

But I didn't want just any mezzaluna. I wanted my Grandpa's, which went to my mother after he died in 1980. This was hardly an item I could pilfer without asking, so I gently let it be known that the knife had a home when she was ready.

Yesterday, these arrived in the mail:

Please excuse the less than Steichenesque photo. The object at right is my Grandma's potato masher. Note the wooden handle. Not plastic, silicon, or those godawful latex "good grips". Wood! real wood! On the left, the mezzaluna. I snapped this shot before this morning's trip to the Berkeley Farmer's Market, where knife sharpener Eric Weiss gave it a nice new edge. This link to Eric is rather old, but he doesn't have his own site, and the information is accurate. He still wears the same hat.

I asked about polishing up the blade. He said to leave it alone, but recommended I oil the handle with food-grade oil.

I look forward to pulverizing some basil.

Cooking, Food

Friday, September 22, 2006

I knew I forgot something!

How to read. Damn. I knew something was wrong.

It's funny, actually, because I was planning to write about acquiring Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer, used. It's hardback, but the index is messed up, carrying over on to the inside back cover of the book. So I might miss a few "Books to Be Read Immediately." That's okay. I usually find such lists more instructive about a writer's personal preferences than anything else.

But back to Grimes' article. This little spate of books, Prose's aside, depresses me. It reminds me of the Voice imprint, playing to our insecurities. This is what to read, this is how to read it. Here's a list of books that will change your life. Your overworked, hate your job, have too much housework, childcare, get-to-the-gym life. The one you barely have time to read in. So why are you wasting your time on somebody else's list of good books?

So why did I buy the Prose book? Because I like her writing and respect her ability to move from fiction to essay to journalism to critcism and back. Because her name turns up everywhere--from Real Simple Magazine to the NYTBR, both as author and contributor. Because Blue Angel was a great contribution to the literature of academia. Because she is the kind of writer I would love to become--combining intellectual rigor with depth and reach.

In other words, her opinion is meaningful to me. I fully expect to learn a great deal from the book. I cannot say the same for YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS BOOK! 55 PEOPLE TELL THE STORY OF THE BOOK THAT CHANGED THEIR LIFE, by Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks. These are the chicken soup for the soul people. Their books are almost enough to make me wish for the firemen of Fahenrehnheit 451.

Authors, Books, Publishing

Friday Cat Blogging

In our home this behavior is referred to as illegal cuteness.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

In Search of the lost Chord and the new Atwood

Today after work I made what I hoped would be quick stop at Black Oak Books for Janet Fitch and Margaret Atwood's new books. I handed my bag to the older woman behind the counter and rapidly scanned the hardcover fiction table. Nada.

"You want your bag back?" the lady asked me. I've seen her before. She asked to hold my bag behind the counter, then complained about how heavy it was.

"No. I'm looking for a couple new books."

The store had neither book. Worse, she'd never heard of Fitch and had no idea that Atwood had a new novel out. "Are you sure?" She asked. "She published a lot of books this year."

I insisted. She pulled a copy of the New York Review of Books from under the counter, as if to disprove me. Finally another employee appeared. Yes, there was a new book. He'd ordered ten copies. In tomorrow.

The woman fussed and fretted. She would hold a book, she would order this Janet Fritch person.

"Fitch," I said.

"Oh!" Cried another employee. "White Oleander!"

My question: how in hell can you work in one the United States' premier independent bookstores and NOT know Atwood has a new book out? Never heard of Janet Fitch? These aren't IUniverse wannabes!

The lady kept dithering. I told her I had to leave. Managed to get home alive, though I did witness the aftermath of a child hit by a car. He rode out into the street on his bike and got smacked by a car exiting the 24 freeway. He was on the sidewalk, crying loudly, which in this case was a reassuring thing to see. His bicycle was still under the car.

At this point it was either drink myself stupid or make a nice dinner. This being a weeknight, I opted for the latter. And one very decorous beer. At table Hockeyman noted that Margaret Atwood was looking older.

"Honey," I said. "She's seventy."

Hockeyman blanched. Then he asked what up-and-coming writers would be around to take her place when the terrible time comes.

There aren't any. Not really. No new Joan Didions or Philip Roths. No heirs to the Atwood throne. Not that there aren't good new writers out there. But they're different. Special Topics in Calamity Physics may be a tour-de-force, but how is Pessl going to follow it up? With another novel chockablock with quotes and quirky fake citations? Does this kind of work possess longevity? Foer seems able to keep it up, as does Lethem. But will we return to these works in ten, twenty, thirty years and see them as lasting contributions, or exemplars of a particular era? If not, who will we return to? Zadie Smith is on the hairy edge of this hypertextual style, but her themes have lasting resonance. Jeffrey Eugenides may be with us for the long haul--I certainly hope so. Anybody else under 45 that we see writing book after thoughtful book, each deepening as the writer gains experience? ZZ Packer. Jhumpa Lahiri.

But publishing today is like the music industry--driven by the hit single. The days of buying the new Led Zep (yeah, I'm old and square) without even hearing it, knowing it'll be good because it's Led Zeppelin, for chrissakes, how can it be bad--are long gone. The literary equivalents of Led Zep or Pink Floyd aren't getting nurtured along book by book. Write the hot thing, sell it to Hollywood, appear on Oprah or in People magazine.

Yes, Lahiri got published, Packer got published, Eugenides won the Pulitzer. But they are exceptional, and I would bet the lady in Black Oak hasn't heard of any of them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reading List

Just wanted to comment on two books I've read recently.

The first is a the Hayden Herrera biograpy of Frida Kahlo. Like Sylvia Plath, Frida attracts lots of mythologizing. But Herrera is solid, a scholar who has written widely about art, and while her prose has moments of dryness, she ultimately does an amazing job of giving us a sense of Kahlo as a person.

And what a person she was. We all know she was lovely, talented, a stylish dresser who suffered terrible physcial griefs. We know she loved Diego Rivera hopelessly (and God, was he a spoiled boy.) But I had no idea she was so bright. Here was a woman who spoke English fluently and read widely, writing to a friend at one point about the wonderful book she was reading: War and Peace.

The book offers numerous photographs of Kahlo and her work, which is no less stunning in paperback-sized black and white.

I couldn't help reading it and wondering how a personality like Kahlo's would exist today. Would she have kicked Diego to the curb in a feminist rage? Written a blog? Made art using photoshop? Would we, the public, have recognized her unique greatness amidst the sea of mediocrity passing for public culture?

I'd like to think so. I'd like to think people would flock to her today as they did in 1950, and leave Paris Hilton out in the cold, shivering and talentless in her short skirts.

I'm getting my knickers in a twist and it's only Tuesday. Never mind. Let's talk about the other book, Andrea Lee's Lost Hearts in Italy. You'll have to order the book, as this writer is so undersung that even the independents don't carry her.

I got my first taste of Lee in the New Yorker, which published "Brothers and Sisters around the World", a short story from the collection "Interesting Women."

Lee is an African-American who lives in Italy. Here is an interview with her, courtesy of the Random House publicity machine.

Her point-of-view--African American, foreigner in an ancient, heavily coded culture--informs her work and takes us places we would otherwise never go. At least, I woudn't. Lee has the rare, wry insight of a writer who has lived far from home for a long time, becoming privy to another culture while remaining outside it to some degree. And though the interview above calls her work a sort of Sex and the City for the literary set, I find that reductive. Lee's writing has infintely more depth than SATC. (Full disclosure: I loathe that show. I find it unrealistic and stupid.)

Lost Hearts is the story of Mira Ward, an African-American girl who follows her white husband to Rome and becomes involved in an affair with the much older, wealthy Zenin. The affair destroys her marriage and leaves lasting scars on all three people. Flashing back and forth in time, moving fluidly amongst the three characters and a few observers, this is the sort of book that you ride along on, lulled by the beauty of the sentences while marveling at her talent. For example:

"And she knows that some part of her does belong to Zenin. And a part to Nick as well. As we always belong forever to people who have hurt us badly, or been badly hurt by us." (7)

There are no drawings, invented quotes, or characters named Andrea Lee in the book. It's just (just!) an old-fashioned novel, elegant, perfectly structured, evocative, moving. In an alternate universe, this book would be on the NYT bestseller list instead of the garbage below.....

The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list as of 9/17/06
Hardcover Fiction

Week Last
Week Weeks
On List
1 THE BOOK OF FATE, by Brad Meltzer. (Warner, $25.99.) The apparent murder of a presidential aide reveals Masonic secrets in Washington and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson.
2 RISE AND SHINE, by Anna Quindlen. (Random House, $24.95.) The lives of two sisters, one the host of a television show and the other a social worker. 1 2
3 DARK CELEBRATION, by Christine Feehan. (Berkley, $23.95.) Carpathians from around the world join together to oppose their enemies' plot to kill all Carpathian women. 1
4 JUDGE & JURY, by James Patterson and Andrew Gross. (Little, Brown, $27.99.) An aspiring actress and an F.B.I. agent join forces against a powerful mobster. 2 6
5 RICOCHET, by Sandra Brown. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95.) A detective is attracted to a judge's wife who he also suspects is not telling the truth about a fatal shooting.


A Discerning Eye (continued)

I show this work because I am an artist and make my living so. That these paintings are fraught is unfortunate, but hiding them would be the worst sort of cowardice.

The media will descend, pleasing Robert to no end. I will remain silent, allowing the work to speak for itself. I've nothing relevant to add. Besides, the media will not report accurately anyway. They swarmed over my father's death like vermin, vermin with large lying mouths.

I want to see the works in the flattering light of the gallery, to honor them properly before they move on to their futures.

Birkenau Barracks is completed and dries in the middle of the studio. Papa's ghost has evaporated, leaving my eyes, my hands. Yet the studio still feels charged, the air thrumming with unharnessed energies. Winter is nearly here. A few leaves turn yellow before drying out, but most don't bother with the effort. Only the evergreens remain an implacable hunter green.

I wait for a painting to edge into my vision. I take care not to think too hard, leafing through a book of Camille Claudel's work. But looking at her sculptures and the endless comparisons to Rodin makes me think about Daniel. We could be in a book like this, a book filled with lush color photographs, magnificent works created by two artists in love, two artists who torture one another. Yes, we could be like this, bitter, broken, sick. Never mind. Reaching for a sheet of glass, I start mixing some blues for a watercolor of the ocean. The ocean before the rain.


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Monday, September 18, 2006

When people are desperate to publish....

I have nothing but good things to say about Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle blog. I am also a huge fan of Rebecca Skloot's father, writer Floyd Skloot. But today's post about the "Sobol Award" sets off every alarm. Doubtless "Sobol" will receive many, many submission with the requisite $85 via paypal or credit card. Certainly any number of oft-rejected, would-be writers will hope fervently for good news.

I understand. A couple years ago I wrote a novel and was able to secure an agent, who sent my baby all over New York. As the rejections piled up, she'd say blithely "Oh, it'll get published." She was hardworking, honest, and kind, until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2004, when she telephoned to announce she was leaving agenting immediately for another position, entrusting my book to the senior agent.

The senior agent clearly wanted nothing do with me; she had not read the book and did not answer the two emails I sent her. When I wrote asking to excuse myself from her representation, she answered within ten minutes. She then mailed me a copy of my mss with a pile of rejection letters atop it.

I was crushed. Also confused. The book had been rejected by numerous houses, which was fine by me--my agent had yet to hit the indies or smaller publishers, where I frankly thought the work had a better chance. But what agent wants to take on an already tainted book by a nobody from the left coast?

I submitted to a couple more agencies, interacted with some stunningly unprofessional people, looked around at what was getting published, and started putting the book up here. Along the way, I have had countless crises of faith about writing. On my worst days I tell myself I will stop making myself sick by age forty. Then I remember Julia Alvarez--first novelist at 43--or Janet Fitch, who slaved for twenty years before White Oleander got published--also in her forties.

I relate all this not to engender sympathy, but to say I completely understand the kind of desperation that would drive somebody to underwrite a "writing contest" with money better spent on books--the new Atwood is out tomorrow--or on lots and lots of stamps. You can query lots of publishers with $85 worth of stamps.

Keep on rocking in the free world.

Books, Publishing

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Squash soup

A few nights ago I prepared cream of butternut squash soup for the first time.

I do not come from a family of adventurous vegetable eaters. This was due in part to living in Michigan during the seventies and eighties; a depressed economy coupled with those pre-foodie times meant mediocre vegetables. Even now--I have not returned in years--I doubt Michiganders have the wondrous glut of produce we Californians take for granted. Snow and ice do not lend themselves to lush year-round gardens.

Further, vegetables were not the focus of Jewish food culture. It was more important to buy an Empire kosher chicken, or especially nice piece of brisket. Onions, carrots, and potatoes were the inevitable standbys. Salad meant iceberg lettuce with slices of mealy tomato and bottled dressing. Canned peas and carrots, frozen green beans, and canned or frozen corn comprised the rest of our plant diet.

Beets, turnips, celery root, rutabagas, brussels spouts, mustard greens, torpedo onions, okra, fresh ginger, easter egg radishes, artichokes, fresh asparagus (canned was a special treat in my home, the spears divided carefully amongst five people), leeks, garlic, portobello mushrooms, eggplant, and parsnips were all as foreign to me as natto. Squash meant pumpkins, appearing as Jack O’Lanterns or the rare Thanksgiving pie.

I couldn’t tell a rutabaga from a turnip from a parsnip. I did not know that tomatoes grew in a profusion of varieties. To me, there were only the small, round supermarket tennis balls and their little brother, the cherry tomato—equally hard and tasteless, just cuter.

But you cannot miss what you don’t know. Even after my family moved to California, we continued eating as we had in Michigan, sticking with the familiar, going so far as to cut down the mature avocado tree growing in our yard. We considered it a nuisance. Its roots were breaking the concrete, the fruit dropped into the pool. My father went out and brought home three strapping Mexican fellows, who diligently removed the tree. God know what they must have thought of us foolish gringos.

It was Hockeyman who turned me into a vegetable person. The son of a fine gardener, he was accustomed to beautiful tomatoes, peppers, and lemonade squeezed from the fragrant lemons growing in the family’s southern California yard. When we moved in together and I began cooking, he gently asked if we might eat more fresh vegetables. I ventured into the Vons produce section and bought some brussels sprouts. I thought them interesting-looking.

In short order I stopped buying canned and frozen produce. Eighteen months ago I joined Full Belly Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture box program and have never looked back. Fifteen dollars weekly brings us seasonal, organic produce—everything from walnuts to corn to tomatoes to okra.

When I tell people about our CSA, I am invariably asked whether we decide what goes into the box. When I say no, I am met with surprise. People cannot imagine giving up that kind of choice. It does not bother me, as I am forced to learn new things, like how to prepare all that eggplant or deal with a red kuri squash. (Half became bread, the other half, soup.) Nor do I ever worry our vegetables making us sick.

Butternut Squash Bisque, adapted from Jessica Prentice’s recipe, which can be found here.

Or in her book, Full Moon Feast.

My adaptation of Butternut Squash Bisque
Feeds 2-3. Two hours to roast the squash (a good thing to do ahead), about an hour to prepare the soup.

--Half of a red kuri squash, approximately 1 lb., roasted and scraped from the shell

--Summer squash, peeled and sliced. I used three.

--One medium onion, sliced

--Fresh garlic, sliced, to taste. I used four cloves.

--olive oil

--fresh thyme

--salt and pepper

---Chicken Broth to cover. Three cups was ample for dinner and one lunch the next day.

--3/4 cup buttermilk at room temperature

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and garlic. Saute until softened over medium heat. Add all the squash to the pot and allow it brown slightly. Stir so the roasted squash does not stick (you may need to add a bit more olive oil).

Add the chicken broth and seasonings. Stir.

Allow the soup to come to a simmer but don’t let it boil. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and the roasted squash has begun to come apart in the stock, about half an hour.

Puree using either an immersion or coventional blender. I do not have an immersion blender, so I ladle the soup into the blender goblet, then hold the lid down with a towel. Remember, this is hot liquid. Be careful!

Pour the blended soup back into the pot to reheat gently.

Serve topped with croutons, chopped scallions, creme fraiche, or yogurt.


--I was afraid the soup alone would not be filling enough for H-man, so I added orzo, which I prepared in a second pot while the soup simmered. The next day the soup had thickened to a near-stew consistency but was still delicious.

--I stirred yogurt into my soup, which added a nice, tangy flavor. Hockeyman loathes yogurt and ate his soup with plain sourdough bread. (It was a weeknight, and I was too tired to bother with croutons).

Given squash’s essential blandness, the soup had a suprising depth of flavor. With the deep orange of the squash tempered by the creamy buttermilk, the soup was as pretty as it was tasty. Perfect the cooler weather.

Food, Cooking, Community Supported Agriculture,

A Discerning Eye (continued)

Emily does not try to contact me. I don't know what to do about her. The truth is I welcome her silence, and so do nothing.

I work on Astrid II, on the intact side of the Revenge soldier's face. Emily drew until she was sixteen, until Papa's insanity ruled our house and she gave way to Mother. The extent of her ability lies uncharted, a once clear path now overgrown with middle class trappings. She fears madness and so stifles herself. As if repression were ever a successful method of dismissing the truth.

Not that we were ever close. Even before she stopped artmaking she lived closer to the surface. She could better negotiate the world, its arcana governing how a Valley girl dressed and walked and talked. She hung out with other movie industry children, affecting the correct amounts of disdain, ignoring the Mexican maids who carried trays of Coca-Cola out to the pool. I could never deal with any of it, peeling palm trees, blistering Santa Anas, the dirty freeways choked with cars and smog. I always knew I would leave, that my existence in Southern California was an accident requiring correction. Though ultimately my family imploded like something out of a Joan Didion essay, something peculiarly Californian, and now only Emily is left.


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Thursday, September 14, 2006

A fashion moment

I had my yearly fashion moment. I bought the September issue of Vogue.

For those of you who do not share this insidious addiction, the September issue is the biggie: Fall Season. Summer is nice and all, but it's hot. Nobody wears much. Fall, and its attendant friend winter, means lots of layers. Leggings and pants and blouses and sweaters. Oh, and coats. Some fur, casually snuck in. And you really, really need some jewelry with that, and a Prada handbag, and the new platform shoe, five inches high, perfect when you're running for the train on a wet platform.

As an adolescent I was a fashion mag junkie. I have no idea why, as I have never harbored any interest in fashion and certainly lack the figure for it. Still, I devoured all those moronic articles about how to wear my hair and what color my eyelids should be. I bought into the notion that I was not thin enough, and paged through the photos of models jealously, vowing to better myself through starvation. Of course I failed.

As I grew older I came to appreciate the idea of couture as an art form. I have the perfect body for Dior's New Look, except the look was new during the forties and I really don't live a life calling for wasp-waisted skirts and little jackets. Also, high heels make my knees hurt.

A couple years ago I subscribed to Vogue anyway. It was the Playboy excuse all over again: I liked the articles. Their arts coverage is strong, and the initmitable Jeffrey Steingarten is house food writer. But the fashion was just so annoying. In addition to looking to too thin, the models began looking too young. Every few months there would be an issue purporting clothes "for real women". The spread would include somebody very tall and thin, the "petite" person, who was usually around 5'5 and weighed eightly pounds, the pregnant woman, and the "curvy" woman. With the exception of one year where a genuinely fleshy girl was pictured (Hockeyman was in love with her) the curvy woman was tall and maybe a 32B. Like, maybe she needed a bra for jogging.

I ALWAYS need a bra. My waist is small, my hips wide but not hugely so. I cannot find pants that fit properly and spend most of my life in long skirts. I have never seen anybody in Vogue who looked the faintest bit like me. Honor Fraser, former model-turned-gallery owner, is no exception.

"I was always in corsets because of my big boobs," Fraser says of her modeling years." (459) Now, we are told, "chicer edges are being added to its (the hourglass) Jessica Rabbit proportions." (459)

The accompanying photograph of Ms. Fraser, while indeed chic, shows no evidence of aforementioned boobs or an especially waspy waist. She looks like every other six-foot, 120 pound beanpole.

I let my subscription lapse in favor of the yearly moment.

I am about three-quarters of the way through the issue; I read it while drinking my morning coffee. It's like visiting another planet, where people publicly wear odd costumes and take tights seriously. I got my fix, and won't buy the magazine for another year--it will take me that long to forget how stupid it is. By now I am confident enough in my aging, imperfect self not to worry over the magazine's admonitions about wrinkle prevention and the right shoe. The people I worry about are the girls in articles like this one.

Alex DeVinney was twenty when she died. At five feet, eight inches tall, she weighed seventy pounds.

Do I blame Vogue? Of course not. It is up to us, readers and consumers, to reject the culture the magazine promulgates, and to help young women like DeVinney see Vogue and its sister magazines for what they are--hawkers of ridiculous fantasy.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

Daniel spends his free time sketching at Creel's Reef. He is obsessed with the water-washed architecture, the old, soft wood. He is making some gorgeous things on linen rag. I plan to purchase one when he is ready, a charcoal sketch of an abandoned Victorian high above the beach, its windows gone, the fine detailing above the doors and window eaten away by sand, wind, rain.

We both work well, hard, then come together in the evening for tomatoes and arugula from the farmer's market, for the creamy blue-veined cheese made at Bluestem Creamery. Daniel invents pasta dishes and I make salads. We talk little, easier in our actions, our bodies, than with words. Though I occasionally find bloodied tissues in the garbage can, there are no more nosebleeds.

It is the closest to an adult domestic life either of us has experienced.


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More Porcine Dalliances

Last night Hockeyman and I took another stab at pork loin roast. After some argument (I was into a recipe from the Chez Panisse cookbook. He wanted something spicier) , we settled on Country Style Pork Ribs with Chipotle, Roasted Tomatoes, and Red Peppers, from Molly Stevens' All About Braising.

We had neither the ribs nor the tortillas the recipe seemed to call out for. We substituted our pork loin roast to excellent effect, then decided to make the simple tortilla recipe in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Until about a year ago Hockeyman could cobble together only rudimentary meals. Early in our courtship he made me pasta with tomato sauce. It was very good, but he prepared it only that once. Afterward I became chief cook. I liked cooking, and was better at it. He, in turn, was, and is, much better at balancing the checkbook and mananging our money. He's also my personal computer tech--he set up this entire blog and ensures the links work smoothly.

Then he announced that he wanted to learn more about cooking. I was game, and set him up at the kitchen table with my largest cutting board and beloved chef's knife.

Here, I'd say, chop this.

How big? how small? How many?

His questions were all good, and all puzzling. I chopped garlic and onions without thinking, throwing them heedlessly into the pot.

How much salt? Why?


How much is some?


We split tasks: he usually handled the vegetables while I took on the meat. I moved faster than he, and often found myself waiting, the roast browned, while he minced the last garlic clove into microscopic bits. Dishes that normally took me thirty minutes of prep stretched into forty-five minutes or longer. Meaning the final dish came to the table later. We had a few nine o'clock Sunday dinners before I got the hang of cooking with him.

Our cooking styles are analogus to our personalities. Hockeyman is the more sanguine one, calmer, more inclined to think a point through before speaking. I am quick to move, to think, to act. Cooking is no exception. I don't think about working quickly; I just do.

Now, though, when cooking with my husband, I have learned to move slowly. I stop to give instruction, to explain about gluten formation or why browning is a good idea. I am still stymied at times by physical experience. How do you explain why the tortilla dough needs more water, or when it's been sufficiently kneaded?

Feel that, I say. Taste this.

We bought him a chef's knife, a ten inch Wusthof. Most Sundays find us in the kitchen together. We tend toward braised dishes like the pork roast. We've prepared Zuni Roast Chicken several times. I am far more interested in cooking with him than preparing an elaborate meal a la Gourmet magazine, with its fancy photo shoots of beautiful people at table--so like the Williams Sonoma Catalogue in their efforts to sell the perfect entertainment experience. With Hockeyman, I can drink a beer and wear old clothes and not worry if something isn't perfect. And I don't need to pull out the wine charms.

Country Style Pork Ribs Braised with Chipotle, Roasted Tomaotes, and Red peppers can be found on page 367 of All About Braising.

The tortilla recipe we used can be found on page 653 of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Kitty approved.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Remembrance of things past

Rather than contribute to today's sea of words, I defer to Keith Meyers' beautiful slide show.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Saturday Cat Blogging

There are no wayward shoelaces in our home.

Frey Pays. Part Two.

When I drafted the original Frey Pays posting, Hockeyman disagreed vehemently. The point, he argued, was that Frey and Random House defrauded consumers, who then deserved a refund.

I kept trying to bring the arguement round to the book itself, to the inherent risk in reading something unknown, but H-man is inexorably logical. The issue wasn't literature. Frey had lied about his product. That the product was a book was secondary.

My righteous belief shaken, I held off on publishing what I'd written. Hockeyman is right, which means so are all the folks who went to court.

Then I saw this post on Critical Mass. Hmm......

So, on the one hand, the people who thought they were getting a memoir and sued are scoring the moral point. They are also exercising their rights as consumers to get what they paid for.

People like me, who have followed the entire mess the way people once watched Shakespearean farces, can only toss up our hands. There will be another James Frey. There will be lots more druggie memoirs (which lately seem to be trending toward the horrible experiences of teenagers,) because our societal hunger for sensationalism is insatiable. So, a caveat emptor to the people who will buy these books: you can consume only so much junk food before you get sick.

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Frey Pays. Part One.

New York Times on James Frey

"Readers in several states, including New York, California and Illinois, filed lawsuits saying that Mr. Frey and the publisher had defrauded them by selling the book as a memoir rather than as a work of fiction."

Now that is amazing. Yes, Frey lied. The Bible warns us against bearing false witness. He did, and he's paying the price in a ruined career and public humiliation.

But lawsuits? Over a book? If the pages in question were an exercise book leaving many with lasting physical injuries, I could understand. If a person were subjected to libel, sure. But a guy who lied about being a druggie? People, he ain't Emile Zola. He wasn't before the truth willed out. The book was never going to win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer or anything else. Frey was--is--one more lousy memiorist amidst zillions in our brave new confessional world.

If we as readers sue Frey, Opal Mehta, another very bad girl, isn't far behind. The point is not to allow liars and plagiarists to run amok, but to question our motivations as readers and book buyers. We have all had the experience of buying a book that fell far short of our expectations. Instead of suing the author, we simply stopped reading. And when the author came out with a new work, we passed over it.

Anne Rice came highly recommended to me. I liked horror stories, particularly about vampires, and I always wanted to see New Orleans (sadly, I have lost that opportunity.). Everyone told me to read Anne Rice. I went out and bought the Lestat books, in those days only a triology. They were to be my college winter break reading.

I couldn't get through the first fifty pages. The writing was congested, dull, wordy. (I later learned she does not permit line-editing of her work.) Disappointed, I tried, but never got much past Lestat's opening monologue. I went to the bookstore and paged through a few of her other works. Nothing doing. When the movie came out, I watched Anne's little opening speech about how Tom Cruise was really okay in the role after all, and thought her a pretentious fool.

Never once did I think to sue her. Instead I mostly ignored her. Then the Blood Canticle debacle erupted. I read her screed and decided to completely ignore her.

To those of you unhappy enough with books to consider suing their creators, don't sink to their level. It doesn't befit your status as a honest citizen with good taste. Yes, twenty-five dollars is a lot spend on a crappy book, but in the grand scheme of things, the time and effort lost to lawyers is worth immeasurably more than a refund. After all, you can't get time wasted returned.

One can argue the moral point scored via the winning lawsuit is important (See Frey Pays, Part II).

Move on. Refresh your mind with something enduring. Re-read a little Hemingway. Spend a few minutes with Emily Dickinson. Or pull your favorite author down from the shelf and remember all over again why you love to read.

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A Discerning Eye (continued)

After returning from the photo lab I stand Tickets, Beggar's Wheel, and Nightcage in a row on the studio's east wall. Tickets strikes me as the most visually arresting. The other two cannot stand alone; they need the company of the series. It is the works as group that impart weight, imply profundity.

I think of the Astrid series, of how I have avoided the political in my work, at times dismissed it outright, yet here I am, poised between two overtly political projects …


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Thursday, September 07, 2006

lifestyles of the middle-aged upper middle class (sort of)

If you are middle-aged, upper middle class, and reside in the Bay Area, you receive lots of glossy catalogs in the mail: Room and Board, Crate and Barrel, Title Nine, The Territory Ahead. Anthropologie, with its seven-hundred-dollar skirts. L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Land's End. Postcards advertising season tickets to the symphony, the ballet, the University lecture series (Oliver Sacks! Steven Hawking! The Dalai Lama!).

If you are middle-aged, upper middle class, and reside in the Bay Area, yesterday's mail brought the ultimate in lifestyle/food pornography: the September Williams-Sonoma Catalogue. You know the one, with the green Le Creuset braiser on the cover, featuring Cannelini Beans in Herbed-Tomato sauce, see recipe at

Most of the catalogues are recycling-bound. I would never order furniture through the mail. I don't surf, ski, or play tennis, so wicking gear is out. Being short and curvy means buying clothing without trying on is out of the question. Besides, I will never, ever spend seven hundred dollars on a skirt. A set of All-Clad pots is another thing again, but when the time comes, W-S is the last place to buy cooking equipment. One might as well toss money off the Bay Bridge, or, even better, shop at Sur le Table, where there is a mark-up on the mark-up.

Let's have a peek at Williams, shall we? Here are Paul Bertolli's Fra' Mani sausages, a forty dollar bottle of Tuscan olive oil, a set of salt and pepper mills for eighty dollars. A gnocchi ridger. (I'd been needing one of those). A stainless steel olive oil can that looks like a postmodern version of what Dorothy used on the Tin Man. Italian grannies everyone are coveting one at this very moment.

Okay, I'm being bad. Williams-Sonoma products are certainly high-quality. I bought my beloved red Le Crueset Braiser from them last year. What puts me off is the lifestyle marketing. Lots of faux-Tuscan, pseudo-French Country settings, trestle tables set to look to like they are smack in the middle of a Calabrian grove, marketed toward people who are happy to have a tiny balcony.

The All-Clad pots (roughly the equivalent of the centerfold) are ranked: the set for "someone who is learning to cook or prefers to have only the most indispensable cookware pieces in the kitchen." The set "most cooks need, whether you're preparing everyday meals for the family or cooking for a party." Finally, the money shot: "If you love to cook and entertain, this is the set for you. A superb choice for experienced cooks who spend a significant amount of time in the kitchen, it's configured to handle a wide range of cuisines and culinary techniques."

Who wrote this copy? Are you one person or a team? Did you attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop hoping to pen the next Special Topics in Calamity Physics, then get sucked into the maw of corporate filth? Are you drowning your sorrows using the Picardie Tumblers on page 22? Or have you allowed your eyebrow piercing to close as you laugh all the way to the bank?


My current pot and pan repertoire consists of one Target stockpot, one Calphalon ten-inch stainless saute pan with a lid, a twelve-inch Calphalon non-stick pan, an Analon stainless four-quart saucepan with a lid, the aforementioned Le Creu, and a cast iron skillet. That's it. With this motley assortment I have managed to turn out dinner every night for thirteen years. Do I want some All-Clad? You bet. More Le Creu? Sure. But do I need the fifteen piece set that somehow magically knows tonight is tagine and not tortellini? Hell, no! Do I have room in my non-Tuscan, non-stainless kitchen for all those pots? I live in the second most expensive city in the United States! My kitchen is ten feet by four feet!

BUT--and here it is--people like me should want the copper risotto pot and those cute serrated knives with the colored handles. I mean, we're serious cooks, right? We eat organic grass-finished beef. We refuse fruit from Chile. We eat fresh tomatoes only in season. And when we entertain, our guests feel exactly as we do. And if they don't, if they buy their kitchenware at Costco and eat tomatoes year-round, well, we can feel superior to them as we serve butternut squash risotto made from jarred butternut squash puree (a steal at $18 for two jars), the pork Arista in the Ruffoni Copper Roaster (Hopefully our guests are not Jews or Muslims....), then close the meal with affogato, using the ice cream we prepared in our Cuisinart Supreme Ice Cream Maker ($249.95).

Serving this meal using the right pots, pans, and serving utensils will evoke certain feelings: security, superiority. The opposite, perhaps, in our guests. But isn't that what we're after?

Yes and no. Most of the people I know pride themselves on being able to cook and entertain in a sophisticated manner. The one-upshamanship is subtle but present; I attended a dinner party last year where a guest spoke at length of a knife shop in Japan. "The next time you're in Japan," he said to me, "be sure to stop by this place. I go there whenever I'm in Tokyo."

I have never been to Tokyo. Travel plans are not in the immediate offing.

Or consider acquaitances of ours. We'll call them Mike and Sue. Mike and Sue married a couple years ago and promptly bought a sizable home for a sizable sum. The place was built in the forties and needed a great deal of work. Mike and Sue are handy types, and dug in. The home morphed from a aging white elephant to a sleek dwelling straight out of the Crate and Barrel catalogue. Their wedding photos hang along a hallway, pristine in their floating frames, each carefully styled to look candid. The kitchen boasts a large knife block filled with Wusthof cutlery. Sue serves wine with glass charms. These earring-like tchokches help guests remember which glass of pinot is theirs. A tour of the house display rooms painted in the latest colors: snappy yellows, mellow creams, bronzed browns and bloody deep reds. Their bedroom furnishings are heavy dark wood; the bed is dressed in a heavy goosedown comforter housed in a white duvet. Everything is spotless.

The food at Mike and Sue's parties is as delicious as it is beautiful. Elegantly skewered bits of chicken. Handmade phyllo pastry encasing mushroom filling. Tapas platters that look like Japanese flower arrangements.

Feeling wormlike with my mismatched bedroom furniture and workmanlike condo, I compliemted Sue on her home.

You really like it? She asked, clearly pleasantly surprised. It turns out she and Mike were overwhelmed by the prospect of decorating an entire house. So much so that they went to Crate and Barrel, catalogue in hand, and bought entire rooms by showing a salesperson the pages they liked. Literally.

I've been to the house a few times now. It grows lovelier with each visit. Yet the place is completely impersonal. Apart from the staged wedding candids, nothing tells you Mike and Sue live there. There are no knicknacks or books or sporting equipment; nothing is lying around.

Mike and Sue are the ultimate lifestyle customers. Uncertain of their tastes, they relied on a slavishly styled, slickly photographed catalogue to create a home. In that home they are living the Crate and Barrel lifestyle, right down to the wine charms. When friends visit, they are overcome by the perfection of the rooms, the delicious, delicate food, the hip aura Mike and Sue emanate. It's easy to buy into it for a few hours, to feel wrapped in a falsely generated magic. When the evening ends and I return to my comparatively inadequate home, I cannot help but look around and feel a tiny bit ashamed by the shoddy entertainment center, the ugly baby blue kitchen tiles, the cabinets with their worn metal hardware.

The catalogue got all of us, coming and going.

This is not to say any of the aforementioned products are bad in themselves. They are merely things, and the power they have over us--me, Sue, the person who orders the superb choice of All-Clad pots at $1500--isn't generated by the evil copywriters. How nice it would have been to blame them. Instead, I tossed the cataolog into the recycling bin and made dinner using my cheap Calphalon nonstick pan.


Mystery Lamb Stew

I took another bag of Norah's lamb from the freezer this morning. Photo one is what it looked like before defrosting. Photo two is what I ended up with on my cutting board. The only recognizable cut is the shoulder chop on the top right. I have no idea what the rest of it is. Ribs? And what about that hunk below the shoulder chop? Part of a leg, maybe?

Using my chef's knife and occasionally the cleaver, I trimmed as much meat as possible from the bones, shaved off as much fat as I could, then tossed everything into the old braiser to brown. I added a can of Muir Glen whole tomatoes and their juices, white wine, a little olive oil, onion, carrot, garlic, a bay leaf, and one fresh tomato that was nearing the end of its life. Shoved it in a 300 degree oven, where it is now slowly cooking into what I hope is a nice mystery lamb stew.

Update, four days later....

The stew came out fine, if a bit bland. It might have benefited from more lemon, or some green olives. Hockeyman declared it "very good" and has dutifully been cleaning out the leftovers.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What should I eat with that book?

The Book Club Companion, by Diana Loevy, contrives to help female book groups match their reading choices with the appropriate food, dress, and etiquette. A reader's list and questions, along with advice from a veternarian to control wayward pets during meetings are all helpfully provided.

All I can say is perhaps Ms. Loevy could connect with the folks behind the Voice imprint, thus not only selecting books for the overwhelmed amongst us, but also providing the ways we should think, feel, and respond to what we've read.

In the spirit of the niche/long tail movement, I propose the following books for the Voice/Loevy reading conglomerate, to be re-released with a Voice/Loevy imprint easily recognized by their target demographic:

1. The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek.

Wear: drab skirts and tops.

Eat: Boudin Noirs

Smoke: Nothing. Instead, bring razors to nick oneself with.

Discussion Topics: The impossibly of reconciling art, a meaningful career, and a fufilling sex life whilst dealing with aging parents.

2. Cleaned Out, by Annie Ernaux
(A brutal recounting of a young woman's abortion)

Wear: French Schoolgirl's Uniform

Eat: Nothing.

Drink: nothing

Discussion Topics: Recall own abortions during college. Share with group. Cry collectively; practice effective listening skills learned during marriage counseling sessions.

3. Baise-Moi (Rape Me), by Virginie Despentes

Wear: Tight jeans

Eat: chocolate

Drink: beer

Smoke: hashish

Discussion Topics: the disaffection of today's youth, the negative effects of pornographic films on same. Share with group formerly secret urges to kill spouse and or boyfriends and how you avoided doing so.

4. Story of O., By Pauline Reage

Wear: Bondage gear; thigh-high stockings, heels, crotchless underwear

Eat: nothing

Drink: red wine

Smoke: Gauloises. Do not smoke them; rather, use to brand the woman beside you.

Discussion Topics: Violence against women, Caitlin Flanagan, The Duke Lacrosse incident.

Future books and topics for discussion:

--Jennifer Weiner on Anna Karenina

--Sandra Lee's cookbook oeuvre: Time saver or societal detriment?

Be sure to look for the Collected Works of Danielle Steel, a special edition limited release, bound by Prada in lizard green calfskin. Available in stores in October, just in time for the holidays!

Authors, Books, Satire

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Discerning Eye (Continued)

My father went mad very quickly. That is, he was troubled for a long time, certainly his entire life after the camps, but he functioned fairly effectively until I was thirteen. Then the retreats into the studio began, stretching from hours to days. His company gave him an early retirement. I don't know what precipitated this, only that he worked and then he didn't. My mother treated this as a wonderful opportunity for the two of them to travel, to take up golf. Of course nothing of the kind transpired; he went into the studio and refused to emerge. He lost much weight, he hardly spoke. Emily began her beach life and was almost never home. My mother yelled at my father through the door. Why are you doing this to me? Stop being so selfish! Josef! Joe!

Papa never answered. I hid in the rec room, angry. She should have said: Why are you doing this to us?

Meanwhile his reputation grew: shows in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Francisco. His paintings were in demand; Blue Midday was made into a poster that sold millions worldwide, acquiring the weight of icons like Picasso's peace doves or Klimt's Kiss. Always comfortable, we became wealthy. Hence my house with an ocean view, Emily's penchant for spa vacations, Mother's piéd a terre in Westwood, sold for an insane amount to a Chilean businessman.

None of this helped my father. He inhabited a private, incomprehensible hell. He never asked for help; my mother never offered. She treated his behavior as an annoying indulgence, a wash of pity he needed to transcend. Afterward people tried to excuse her, to palliate her absent guilt with fancy Californian self-help jargon. Denial. Co-dependence. Enabling behaviors.



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Fat kids on a Hungry Planet

I work in academia. Fall semester began last week, giving me my first look at this year's batch of incoming freshmen. I know I've mentioned this before, but these kids are overweight. Many are fat; most are carrying the roll of fat around their middles indicative of high junk-food intake.

The girls are amazingly tall and naturally busty, making me wonder about synthesized hormone levels in food. At 5'2" and 120 pounds, I would describe myself as a medium-sized woman, leaning toward the small side. Amidst these amazons, many well over 150 pounds, walking on size nine feet, I felt postively tiny. The sensation was an unnerving one.

There is a campus cafeteria close to my office. Though I try to bring lunches from home, I couldn't get my act together last week and dashed over a few times to grab a quick meal.

A few years ago this cafeteria served truly unpalatable food. In response to student complaints, they upgraded many of their offerings. You may now purchase a variety of sandwiches, salads, fresh fruits, yogurt, sushi, and Indian foods provided by local caterers. The grill station and bakery shelves carrying donuts and muffins remain, as do the potato chips. Still, it is possible to get a healthy, reasonably decent meal.

Curious, I watched what the students were selecting for lunch. My extremely unscientific survey method consisted of peering into the plates of those in line with me, then standing around the condiment station staring (discreetly) at what people were eating. I'd say ninety percent had made their selection at the grill station, and were tucking into Sysco-provided burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, and fries. All of them had fries. I've had those fries myself a couple times, and let me tell you, even a shower of salt and a bath of catsup cannot alter the immutable fact of their awfulness.

The question, then, is why these kids opted for the worst-tasting items. Forgetting health concerns for a moment, I really wonder at the appeal of bad-tasting food. Familiarity? The final childish vestiges of a limited palate? I have no idea. All I do know is these people are our future doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. And far too many of them will face--sooner rather than later-- health problems associated with poor nutrition. Amazingly, these problems will stem not from too little, but from too much.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day Cat Blogging

We thought we'd show everyone how this blog's namesake celebrated his Labor Day holiday, because we know how hard he works the rest of the time. Here he is sleeping in ...

and here he is helping prepare duck legs for confit (see the snout in the lower left corner). The big chunks of garlic were all his idea.

Cat Blogging, Cooking, Food

Hungry Planet

In an incredibly lucky score, I found Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's Hungry Planet used at Pegasus Books--$24 instead of $50. Sometimes I really wonder at what people choose to sell.

The book chronicles thirty families around the world, photographed in their homes surrounded by a week's worth of food. The accompanying text offers a description of their lives, the politcal situation as it affects their foodstuffs, and a family recipe.

The photographs had the same effect on me as images from the Ninth Ward: I knew these things existed, but seeing them in full color is sobering indeed. Yes, all us foodies know that industrialized nations eat the worst foodstuffs, that the richer we are, the further we move from fresh produce, grains, and unprocessed meats. To look at the photoessays of the American and English famiies is to feel sick. Each smiles amidst boxes, bags, packages. In fact, the Revis family of North Carolina was so horrfied by their family photo that they are making efforts to improve their diet.

The reach of McDonald's, Kentuckey Fried Chicken, and Coca-cola is stunning. They appear in nearly every photo, save for African refugee camps and the hilly farms of Bhutan. The creep of fast food into previously inaccessible areas is documented: rural China, South America, Cuernevaca, where the Casalese family is pictured with twelve quarts of Coca-Cola (mind you, this is a week's worth of food). Mom and Dad, and seven-year-old Emmanuel are all overweight.

Beautiful forty-year-old D'Jimia Souleymane, a refugee of the Janjaweed, makes do in a Chad refugee camp, providing for five children with appallingly little. Weekly Oxfam rations include no dairy, nine ounces of dried goat meat on the bone, and seven ounces of dried fish. Something called a corn-soy ration. This for a family of one adult and five children, two of whom are teenaged boys.

The French, Italian, and German families are attractive and eat well; all cook family meals and seemed disinterested in fast food. The elderly Japanese, whose food looks wonderfu, disdain non-traditional food while noting their children and grandchildren are incoporating more fast food into their diets.

In sum, the book is an eye-opener, and if you have the opportunity to page through it, have a look.

Books, Culture, Food

Sunday, September 03, 2006

When a writer you love writes a book you don't

This particular entry has been months in the making. Long before blogging was a glimmer in my luddite's eye, I read of the "snark wars" waged between reviewers like Laura Miller, Dale Peck, and Heidi Julavits. Initially I sided with Miller, but was taken aback by the ferocity of Peck's more vitriolic screeds. And while I am not a fan of The Believer, I had to agree that attacking writers for the sheer joy of nastiness was, well, nasty.

Now comes Michiko Kakutani's withering take on Jonathan Franzen's latest, a memoir entilted The Discomfort Zone. Like every other wanna-be writer, I followed Franzen's Corrections trajectory: the Oprah debacle, the National Book Award (including the speech, where he thanked Oprah), the Kathryn Chetkovich Granta essay. If Kakutani's review is any indication, Franzen should suit up for a fresh round of abuse from the literary hoi polloi. (It must be noted that Ed Champion, who first alerted me to the concept of snark, has read Franzens' book, and hates it more than Kakutani).

This is not to say his new book is wonderful or the criticisms undeserved. I haven't read it and cannot comment. But Franzen, alas, seems adroit at putting his foot in his mouth, and while I appreciate his talent, I'm not sure I'd want to be his friend.

Which leads us to the separation of the writer from the work. At times, particularly in the memoir genre, this can be difficult, if not impossible. But even a memior, which purports accuracy, is a book. Not the writer himself or herself. Meaning the thoughful critic, while hating the book and maybe even its author, should refrain from personal attacks.

With these thoughts in mind, I want to discuss Kathryn Harrison's 2005 novel, Envy. Harrison is perhaps best known for The Kiss, a memoir depicting her incestuous relationship with her father. Given its content, the work generated tremendous publicity, much of it overlooking Harrison's tremendous writing talent. Hers is the kind of prose oft described as "luminous", "limpid", "crystalline". This exquisite prose ranges from historical fiction to work set in contemporary New York to the non-fiction found in Seeking Rapture and The Mother Knot. Her NYTBR reviews are models of evenhandedness.

I have followed Harrison's career ever since finding Exposure in a used bookstore. The year was 1995; Hockeyman and I were attending grad school and flat, flat broke. Used books were all we could afford, and even those in limited quantities. The only authors we bought new in hardcover were Margaret Atwood--I remember the thrill of buying Alias Grace new--and William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties. But Harrison's writing so enchanted me that I immediately went out and bought Thicker than Water as a new paperback. Later I special ordered The Mother Knot and The Road to Santiago, both in hardcover. Each is in print but difficult to find. When the Seal Wife came out, in 2002, I went to see Harrison read at Black Oak Books. She was beautiful, rather fragile-looking, and very gracious. Despite her kind demeanor, I was too initimidated to get my copy signed.

Harrison is a relentless chronicler of her mental states--episodes of severe depression, bouts of anorexia, Graves' disease. Knowing this made me hesistant to speak ill of her work. Not that she is likely to find out, or even care that some anonymous nobody blogger didn't like Envy.

Still, the entire business gave me pause. My primary problem with the book is its overburdened plot. There is the death of Will Moreland's son, Luke, its effect on his marriage, specifically, on his sex life with wife Carol. There is Will's estranged twin, Mitchell, a famous swimmer wih a disfiguring birthmark and some nasty habits. There is Will's college lover, Elizabeth, with whom Will is certain he has conceived a child. Finally, there is Will's problem patient (he's a psychotherapist), Jennifer, who may or may not be his daughter. In an act of what could almost be called reverse rape, Jennifer seduces Will.

Any one of these topics would easily make an entire novel. In Envy, we are confronted with this bewildering, frankly unrealistic set of events and gamely try to follow along. At least, I did, with increasing dismay. Will Moreland comes across as a hapless fool, his wife and daughter are one-dimensional ciphers. Jennifer is convincingly bitchy and awful, so much so that I wondered at Will's weakness in the face of her sexual behaviors. A saner person--which Will reportedly feels he is--would have fled.

Given the efforts needed to reign in a plot like this, Harrison's ususal facility with prose suffers. Hardest hit is the diagloue, which struck me as so stilted at times that I wondered if wealthy New Yorkers indulged in a variant of Berkeley's pc speech mannerisms.

The following snippet takes place between Will and his therapist/mentor, Daniel.

""Will?" Daniel innterrupts a lengthening silence. "Where are you?"

(Will gives a long reply about being vs. becoming, which I will skip.)

"Becoming?" Daniel says.

"Yes. My whole life, my work life and my personal life, is devoted to this...conceit of becoming." (Again, I am skipping. Will expands on this.)

"Why do you call it a conceit?"

"Call what a conceit?"

"Becoming. The idea of becoming."

"I don't know. I mean, obviously, I believe in becoming. But maybe the god I serve is false. Maybe I'm deluded."

"Maybe we all make our own gods, each as valid as the next's person's."" (185)


In the acknowledgements that conclude The Mother Knot, Harrison thanks her agent, Amanda Urban, for stopping her from publishing a certain book. One wonders what it was about that particular manuscript that gave Urban pause, and why such a keen-eyed woman did not intervene with this book.

Still, from my seat as anonymous blogger, under contract to nobody, it's easy to pass judgement. And one flawed book in eleven is an enviable record few of us can claim to match.

Harrison publishes about every two years; with luck there will be something new in 2007. Acting on past experience I will buy the book in hardcover. The odds are good she won't let me down.

Harrison, Kathryn. Envy. New York: Random House. 2005: 185

Authors, Books, Book Reviews

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Discerning Eye (continued)

"You're wondering why I married him," she says.

"It's none of my business."

"He's awful, isn't he? A shame, really. I deplore egotistical people. I met swarms of them while modeling. As if God made them in His image." She wrinkled her nose, then bit into a piece of apple slathered with honey. "You're not like that, though. You're the true thing. None of that big-headed rubbish."

I've forgotten the tea. I rise and pour the water, dropping a tea bag into the mug. I hope Astrid won't continue, but of course she does.

"I wanted to get away, from England, modeling, my family, who naturally disapproved of all of it, my career, my arrogant American boyfriend. Soon I'll be a citizen." She smiles brightly. "I'm so looking forward to it."

Is life ever not messy? Is happiness possible without utter solitude?


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More confit

I am honoring labor by spending my Monday holiday smearing my kitchen with duck fat. That is, I am preparing a second batch of confit.

For those of us living outside France, confit requires forethought. One must find duck legs, duck fat, an appropriate vessel. Because Berkeley Bowl was out of duck legs, I went to Andronico's, where the only legs were Grimaud (they of the Stockton duck fat producers) Moulard legs. They were $7.99 a pound, shrink-wrapped, and appear smaller than the Pekins I normally purchase. Then it was on to Enzo's butcher, where I bought the last three pounds of duck fat they had. The woman next me eyed the containers warily as the butcher asked "Making something good?"



Back home I needed to clean out the glass container, still filled with fat from the previous batch of confit. I confess I was tempted to toss the entire greasy thing and start over, but ecological and financial considerations overruled.

I spooned some of the fat into a smaller container for cooking. But there is no way I will use up four pounds of fat before it becomes rancid. I filled two empty yogurt containers and took them to the dumpster. Now there was only the glass jar, which looked like it was coated in vaseline.

I filled the sink with hot soapy water and began wiping the jar out with paper towels. One the one hand this was terribly wasteful--all those paper towels--but on the other, we all know fat and sink drains do not mix. Half a roll later the jar wasn't as gelid. It is now standing, soaking.

The legs are defrosting. This time out I plan to use Paula Wolfert's cure: kosher salt, shallots, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf, and thyme. She also calls for parlsey, which I'll skip.

If only there were some way to deal with the mess. I wonder what the French do?