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, March 31, 2007

Modern Yentas

I am three issues into a subscription to The New York Review of Books.

This publication is a terrific way to mine your intellectual lapses. After wading through articles like Jonathan Raban's "The Conservative Soul," or learning that Robert Fagles has yet another translation out--this time of Virgil's The Aenied--you may turn to a discussion of Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World.

By now, if you are me, you're feeling damned inadequate. Why, in your desperate scramble to find gainful employment, leading to excesses like food and health insurance, you forgot to learn Ancient Greek! And what about schooling yourself in the niceties of the history of Philosophy? You are to be scorned for the sin of poverty, which held you back from these august pursuits. Life is waning! Get busy!

So it is, with a heavy heart, that you find yourself perusing the Classifieds section. And lo, your mood immediately lifts at the sight of so many personal ads.


Yes, even the NYRB must scrabble for ad revenue, and what better way, besides all those full-page University Press ads, than advertisements from the magazine's target audience?

Full disclosure: I have always loved reading personals ads. When they first began appearing in alternative papers, back in the nineties, I devoured them with great, condescending amusement. All those pretty, wealthy, evolved people. Then, finding myself single, working in a field populated by women, I decided to place one myself.

This was in '92-'93. Fewer women ran ads in those early days, so I was able to place mine free of charge. I avoided cliche; I did not say I was beautiful or wealthy or that I wanted somebody who was. But I lived in Southern California, where appearances and finances are paramount. I received scores of responses from men who rode horses, surfed, and spelled out their physical attributes in great detail. One guy left several voicemails bragging about his Malibu ranch.

The entire experience was excruciating. I would listen to the voicemails, taking notes. I would screw up my nerve (no small task), and call a few guys. I would go on three or four awful dates. I would stop for a few months, despairing, fine-tune the ad, start again. I finally hit on the line "looks and money not important," which sent some of the worst packing. One day I screwed up my nerve yet again. I would make a few calls. The first guy on my list wasn't home. I skipped down to the number below him, a person who had left a one-line message in a very quiet voice. I had not planned to call this fellow, but there I was, sitting by the phone, adrenalin pumping. I dialed, and had my first conversation with Hockeyman.


So here we are, fourteen years later, on page 84 of the April 12th issue of the NYRB. I count twenty-seven ads. Most are about fifteen lines long; advertisers are charged by how many times the ad is run. One-time: $5.50 per word, fifteen word minimum. Run the ad for a year and get the bargain rate of $4.50 per word.

Twenty-four of the advertisers are straight women, one a GWF, one a SWM, aged 68. The final ad comes from a MWM, aged 69, seeking a female, preferably married, for a "long-term liason."

The straight women are alarming. Seventeen describe themselves as stunners, knockouts, beautiful, thin, slender, fit, pretty, head-turning, with bodies ranging from sexy to fit to elegant. They want you to know they have great legs, are spiritually evolved, gourmet cooks, love opera, theatre, world travel (especially Paris), and Film, as opposed to movies. One is "crazily beautiful," another posses "uncomplicated, sexy style with just a touch of glamor."

So why do they need to advertise? Well, it is hard to meet people these days, what with the demise of the various social institutions where one met mates--churches, synagogues, parents looking to forge imperial alliances. I am entirely sympathetic. But how does the single, NYRB-reading male select an advertiser from this sea of dazzling adjectives? Does he necessarily believe all these women's claims? Are they really all that gorgeous? Is this statistically possible? Yes, the sample size is small, but think of twenty-four women you know. All they all stunners? Maybe a couple. But the rest are, well, the rest. Just like us: average. Well-dressed, well-nourished, well-cared for, succumbing to the depredations of ageing. Shit happens.

Suppose he ventures a repsonse. What does he say of himself to "Appealingly thin, beautiful inside and, deep thinker?" Or the woman with "Garboesque good looks" who "adores reading on airplanes?" What of the one "known to create beauty wherever she is?" How is it possible to approach such people? I, too, am gorgeous, ageless, an Olympian with a command of ancient languages? My favorite place to read, en route to tapas in Spain, in on an airplane? I am looking for a woman who can create beauty while washing my socks?

Do the advertisers really believe these things about themselves, or are they flinging words about in their attempts to hook a live one? What kind of person describes herself as "considered perfect person with whom to be stranded (mind that word count!) on a desert island?" And what sort of person would want to date her?

Finally, do the advertisers actually read the NYRB? Or is it merely a patch of prime hunting ground? And is the hunt successful? Inquring minds want to know!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crock Pot Cookery

A long time ago, my mother had a neighbor who had a second wedding. Said neighbor then held a garage sale to unload all the duplicate household items acquired at wedding number two. Amongst the pickings was a new Rival Crock Pot, which my mother bought for five dollars and sent along to me.

My maiden venture was a recipe for beef stew. I didn't really know how to cook yet, but bought stew meat, carrots, and potatoes. If I thought to add anything else, I don't remember now. I suppose there was some sort of liquid, likely wine. I got home from work, arranged all my ingredients in the pot, then stood there, increasingly distressed, as the pot barely heated up. Why, it was five-thirty! Six! This thing worked really slowly!

At that point I must have read the instruction booklet and realized my error. God knows what we ate that night.

Fourteen years along, the metal heating element has grown dingy with encrusted yuck. Yes, I wash it. But it isn't submersible. The insert and plastic lid are going strong. The appliance itself is ugly, a sort of blue and cream "country flower" design that looks laughable beside today's gleaming stainless numbers.

Yesterday, as I turned off the pot for the zillionth time to serve dinner, I realized the cord was tangled and perhaps may be crossing into the frayed n' flammable zone. It may be time for a new one. A troll of the net reveals that money may buy programmable pots, pots with multiple temperature settings, and "removeable stoneware with an easy-clean finish." Say what? My humble cooker boasts two settings: high and low. Low is around 225 degrees. I have no idea what high is; I've never used it.

It's funny, but for whatever reason I associate Crock Pots with right-wing Christian ladies who collect Precious Moments figurines, the provenance of declasse, meals-in-minutes cooking.

I realize my stereotype is inaccurate--no less a chef than Paula Wolfert uses a Crock Pot to prepare confit. I cannot imagine doing this, as confit preparation is all about temperature control. Paula must have the Ferrari of Crock Pots. I do not, and limit my exploits to stews and roasts. I've tried soup, but the long, slow cooking means whatever is in the pot either disintegrates into mush or expands--as in the case of lentils--into stew, intended or not.

Poultry doesn't fare well, either. Both chicken and duck take on an odd texture, almost chalky, if you can imagine wet chalk. Pork also takes on this strange mouthfeel.

The pot really does best with dishes like short ribs or braised beef. All respectable cookbooks instruct one to brown the meat first, but in my view Crock Pots are about easy meals. A Crock Pot is for the weekday from hell. Yes, all weekdays are hellish. I refer here to the hellish days where you know cooking dinner will not be an option. The night before, take out your Crock Pot. Fill it with your short ribs or piece of tough beef or your stew chunks.

Now you have some choices. You can add the usual suspects: carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes. A bay leaf. Olive oil, wine, canned tomatoes. A squeeze of tomato paste. Some celery, if its aggressive flavor doesn't bother you. From here, if you are making beef stew and can afford citrus in our global-warming-destroyed-the-crop economy, trim a piece of orange peel and toss it in to the pot. Yeah, I know it sounds weird. It will be wonderful. Trust me.

If you do not keep kosher, salt pork or some diced smoked bacon will do wonders.

But say you have little. Tomorrow will be long day, because your supervisor, who has a lousy marriage and therefore prefers to be at work, has scheduled a meeting for 4:45. You will deal with the stupid meeting, fight your way through traffic, only to get home to your significant other and perhaps some people under fifteen who want to be fed. Or maybe you'll get home to a wonderfully empty, peaceful home, greeted only by your cat. No matter: you deserve a nice meal after all that hard work.

This is what to do. Right now, or really, really soon, take out your Crock Pot. It you do not own one, Rival Crock Pots may be found at drug and hardware stores across the land. Get your keys.

Back? Fabulous. Make this:

Beef (stew cuts, short ribs, and chuck all work beautifully) with canned tomatoes and mustard.

The original recipe comes from Gourmet's Five Ingredients, a fun cookbook I almost never use. They call it "Braised Short Ribs with Dijon Mustard," and it you want to follow it slavishly, turn to page 96.

Quantities are up to you. This recipe is extremely forgiving. You can make it for a dozen or you and kitty.

Red Wine--2-4 cups.

Cow of some kind suited to long-cooking (see above). You want something heavily marbled, tough, and cheap. I generally cook one pound of meat for two people. This leaves leftovers. Impress your office mates with your terrific lunch.

Shallots (onions work just fine). Amounts to taste.

Coarse grained Dijon Mustard (I've used all kinds of French mustard with success, though ballpark American mustard would be too harsh). The original recipe calls for 1-3 Tablespoons. I never measure. I just slather some on the meat.

4-6 plum tomatoes, halved (I always, always use a 14 oounce can of Muir Glen canned whole tomatoes).

Throw all of the above into your Crock Pot right now. You might think about cutting up the shallot or onion. You might also smash up some garlic cloves and throw them in. Or not. Toss in some salt and pepper. Put the insert in your fridge. Tomorrow morning, while you wait for the coffee to brew, take the insert out, shove it into the heating element, and turn the pot on. Drink your coffee. Put on your work costume. Your sane, I-am-a-contributing-member-of-society uniform. Leave the house.

Now, a few of you are mumbling about leaving the house with something electrical on. Yep, you are. Your tv, microwave, telephone, and home computers are all also plugged in, might spark the towering inferno, and are certainly draining the grid. If you have a gas oven, the pilot is on. Don't forget your little bedside alarm clock, or all those smug surge protectors protecting your expensive media system.

You get where I'm going with this. So quit worrying about it, ok?

Endure work. Come home to find your abode perfumed with the scent of something good. Prepare for Kitty to mew piteously depsite his full bowl of Science Diet (dry food, people!). Pour yourself a drink. Slice some bread. Turn off your Crock Pot. Serve yourself, or the S.O. and the progeny. Bask in the glow of your culinary genius. Consider the cooking life. Perhaps you should give up the corporate grind. Hone your skills at the Culinary Institute of America.

I hear Gordon Ramsay is looking for chefs.

Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

License to Ill (a hairball)

Thanks much to BDR, who sent this link.

Buford opens his piece with "Gordon Ramsay, the only chef in London honored with three stars by the Guide Michelin, is not a monster." His article appears to disprove this, or at least indicate that Ramsay, if not a monster, is psychotic.

Much of America knows of Ramsay via Hell's Kitchen, his Fox reality show. I have never seen this wondrous media document, but have read widely of the Legend Ramsay. Here is a man famed for his temper; indeed, the article leads us to believe many diners seek reservations at his restaurants hoping to witness an untrammeled display: "One day, a woman shouted from the chef's table, situated just in front of the pass, 'Gordon, tell your cooks to fuck off, and I'll leave a thousand-dollar tip!'" Ramsay demurred, but at night's end, found she had tipped with largesse. "Oh, how funny. I must have lost it and not realized it. At least the waiters were happy."

More temper: calling the cooks (all male) "cunts," reducing a sommelier (later fired for theft) nearly to tears, screaming at his cooks until they are too flustered to move, whereupon he shoves them aside and cooks the occasional dish himself.


Much is made of New York's restaurant culture, the insane pressure to acheive stardom in an overpopulated field, to please fickle critics Adam Platt, Frank Bruni, and Ruth Reichl. Ramsay tells Buford he does television so he can "do New York...Basically I'm a prostitute. I prostitute myself so I can have a restaurant here. But I don't fully take off my knickers." No, and he hardly has the time to cook, either, what with his outposts--I counted thirteen on his website , documentaries, and television shows. His latest television venture? Another reality show, transplanted from Britain: Gordon will come to your failing restaurant, holler obscenities at you, and tell you how to turn things around.

Which begs the question of precisely what Ramsay truly wants to do. Jet around the world to various kitchens, abusing chefs? Attain fame via Fox reality shows? Become excessively wealthy?

There is no question the man can cook. If anything, let us give credit to his disinterest in what Buford calls "the gastro-pseudoscientific trend of the moment." Ramsay is fond of the foods all tony chefs adore: foie gras, truffles, lobsters. His cooking does not attack the diner with foams or, God help us, tobacco infusions. But, to Ramsay's dismay, New York has failed to fall adoringly at his feet. Receiving two starts from Bruni instead of three is taken like a cancer diagnosis.

Does the man want to cook, be famous, run an empire? What would please such a person? He seems far from the pleasures of chopping garlic, or even bossing around a few other guys chopping garlic. What a life.

Alas, it gets worse. Ramsay's charming temperment is enhanced by his paranoia. In 1998, feuding with his backers, he
became certain his mentor, Marco Pierre White, would be called in to replace him at the august Aubergine (that's eggplant to us dumb Yanks). But then, no! The Aubergine reservations book was stolen by a man on a motorbike. This, before the days computerized reservations, was devastation. Ramsay publicly blamed White. White denied involvement.

'"It was me," Ramsay said. 'I nicked it...Because I knew it would fuck him and that it would call off the dogs."'

Maybe he isn't psychotic, but paranoid schizophrenic?


This story is appalling on a number of levels. That the public wecolmes such awful behavior, even courts it, says little for our species. And why are people willing to work for this guy? Are fame and culinary genius more important than quality of life? What does that kind of behavior do to people over time? Nothing good: one either falls into victimhood or, in self-defense, mimics the abuser.

Finally, this is restaurant cooking were talkng about. Recreational food, when you get down to it. And from my wussy left coast viewpoint, we would be well advised to remember that. Gordon Ramsay may behave like a trauma surgeon stanching a shooting victim's carotid, but he's not. He's a cook. And he's cooking for people who haven't been truly hungry for a very long time.

Five hairballs, truffled.

Citations from Author: Bill Buford

Monday, March 26, 2007

Investigating Lulu

A few kind people have inquired about acquring copies of A Discerning Eye. Hockeyman and I are investigating publishing it either in e-format or on Lulu. Lulu seems a good way to go, but requires "The Creator" to provide cover art and layouts. This saves money, but will take time. We hope to have something available for the masses by mid-April. Thanks for asking, and for your patience as we fumble along in this brave new world.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hell in a Handbasket, Part II

Are we not going to hell in a handbasket? Is the internet not facilitating our decline? In this thoughtful article, we read of the cooking revolution taking place via sites like and And here the hoi polloi, the terrifying inexpert masses, indeed converge.

"Cheryl Lore of Asheville, N.C., an active member of Recipezaar for six years and now a leader of its beverages forum, said the Web site has encouraged her to explore ingredients and cuisines far beyond the Southern cooking she grew up with.

“A lot of people wouldn’t try something if other posters didn’t say, try this! It’s great!” Ms. Lore said of the site, known for its tightly knit international cooking communities. “You’ve got all their suggestions on what they added to make it even better. It’s like cooking with a friend.”

'I made grilled octopus not long ago,” she added, “and I had no idea how much I liked Lebanese food.'"

Such a comment warms the organic hearts of food snobs (full disclosure: me) everywhere. But Zanne Stewart, of Gourmet, laments the freewheeling attitude home cooks take toward recipes the Gourmet staff have extensively tested. “You see Emeril, the most genial guy in the world, making a U-turn in the middle of a recipe, and people think they should cook like that, too,” said Ms. Stewart of Gourmet. “They forget that he’s a highly trained chef.”

Well, they might forget until serving the altered dish and discovering it, far from the Bam! of television, inedible.

Then we have Debbie Wilemon:

"... an active member of Allrecipes, grew up in Virginia, and spent time in Arkansas and Texas before moving to Larkspur, Colo. Her cooking bears strong traces of her childhood.

'I like lots of flavor,' she said. 'If I’m going to take the time to cook something, it’s going to be good.' Her arsenal of favorite ingredients includes Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, Bolner’s Fiesta Fajita Seasoning and garlic powder. Ms. Wilemon said, 'When we grill a steak, we smear it with liquid smoke, unsalted Cavender’s, Fiesta Fajita, then a little garlic powder.'

Not surprisingly, perhaps, her recipe for chicken and dumplings also includes Cavender’s, Fiesta Fajita Seasoning and garlic powder."

Ouch. Ms. Wilemon is the sort of cook who, were she a reader, would upset Daniel Mendelsohn. Equally dismaying to the snobbish amongst us are the lovers of cheese, who plop it upon asparagus, caviar(!), and pan-fried romaine But the article's author, Celia Barbour, generously notes tastes are not quick to change, and that recipe tinkering existed long before the internet.

A century ago, people cooked badly. They read bad books, and made uneducated observations about them. Many lived without toilet paper. There was no penicillin. They could not opine broadly on a computerized forum.

Annie Dillard writes:

"There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it always has been..." (88)


Last Friday the April issue of Gourmet arrived in the mail. April being a holy month, the magazine offers dinners for both Easter and Passover. All I know about Easter is that ham is traditional. But the Passover menu had me shrieking loudly enough to scare Kitty.

My objection, specifically, is to the gefilte fish recipe, tinkered with by New York-by-way-of-India chef Floyd Cardoz. Mr. Cardoz is something of a celebrity chef, owner of restaurant Tabla and author, with Gourmet writer Jane Daniels Lear, of cookbook One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors.

Let us digress a moment with a discussion of gefllte fish. Gefilte fish is like a quenelle--sort of a whitefish dumpling, bound with matzoh meal, poached in chicken broth. The classic recipe, taken here from Jennie Grossinger's The Art of Jewish Cooking, calls for whitefish, pike, carp, onion, water, carrot, ice water, sugar, and matzoh meal. You chop everything finely, add the carrots, then, with wet hand, form the mixture into balls. Over-handling produces hockey pucks. Jennie poached her gefilte fish in broth made from the heads and frames of her fish; my grandmother used chicken stock. Serve with horseradish.

That's about all the variation I've ever seen with gefilte fish. Maybe somebody bought red horseradish if the white was sold out--a common occurrence during Passover.

Today almost nobody makes real gefilte fish anymore. It can be purchased in glass jars. This should be avoided, as those who have never tasted the real thing will think the jarred stuff the real deal, and not very good. Or, for those who have tasted the real deal, jarred gefilte fish will make them recall the preparer, most likely dead, and then the person will suffer both the longing for the remembered dish and its maker.

It's a no-win proposition.

Enter Mr. Cardoz. His recipe for this traditional food calls for a fish stock using cloves, rosemary, and cilantro. The gefilte fish calls for scrod or hake, rather than whitefish or carp, lime zest, chives, more cilantro, egg, and black pepper. As if this weren't enough, the dish is set in a tomato base comprised of cumin, coriander, tumeric, cayenne, onion, ginger, garlic, and a plum tomato.

I'm certain the dish is excellent. But serving it under the auspices of "gefilte fish" is right up there with piling Boursin on caviar.

Hockeyman objected to my shrieks. What right had I to object to the above? Was I not a pork-eating, Catholic-marrying Jew? A staunch advocate of the new and improved? How could I defend my right to opine on the internet and then yell about an old recipe?

He's right. We all have our biases; some cannot endure the rise of critics everywhere. Others, the deracination of an ancient recipe already in danger of dying out. We all have our sticking points.

I engaged in a little daydreaming about who might prepare this strange gefilte fish. Surely not the handful of observant Jews who will slave over stoves this Passover. No gefilte fish with weird spices, no chipotle or coriander in the brisket. As for the mango chutney suggested as side dish, well, my grandmother is spinning. Mango chutney is great. Just not for the Passover seder. (The traditional meal and reading of the Haggadah, held during the first two nights of the weeklong holiday.)

What came to mind was a Ruth Reichl (Gourmet's editor) sort of person. A Jewish New Yorker, sophisticated, well traveled, a food snob extraordinaire, assimilated. A person who grew up with the old ways, who could tell you what the charoseth and hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water represented at the Passover table, a person who sat through the endless reading of the Haggadah, growing increasingly famished as the night wore on. A person who experienced his or her first moments of drunkenness quaffing the Manischiewitz when it was time to drink the wine. On an empty stomach.

But those days are gone, and the person who prepares this menu is unlikely to read through the entire Haggadah. Instead he or she invites some fellow urbane Jews to dinner, Jews who bring their goyishe spouses, perhaps an adopted child or two, people who won't miss the traditional, for they have transcended it. During the meal their blackberries will beep at them; a cell phone might ring. A lively discussion of the worst matzoh balls might ensue, for everyone has an ancient Aunt Minnie or Ida whose rubber matzoh balls became family lore.

Are we worse off, or better? We are both. Many of us--me, Mr. Mendelsohn, Zanne Stewart--have difficulty with this reality. We want certain things to remain untouched--our personal definitions of what is good, right, necessary. Yet we are pleased with the evolution of things less inimical to our existences. Or, worse, our relationships are mixed. I both loathe this computer and appreciate it deeply. I would vastly prefer to be writing books, spinning 20 lb paper through my mother's IBM Selectric II. But those days are gone, so I write here, and, amazingly, am read. For which I am grateful. The internet brings us too much information. We must sift, and rely upon ourselves to determine what is worthy of sustained attention. Liquid smoke or freshly ground coriander?

In the end, does it matter?

Annie Dillard: For the Time Being. New York: Knopf. 1999.

The Gourmet recipes appear on pages 130-131 of the April 2007 issue.

Jennie Grossinger: The Art of Jewish Cooking. New York: Bantam Books. 1958: page 38.

Hell in a Handbasket, a post in installments

After my internet tangle with Daniel Mendelsohn, instead of picking up The Lost, I reached for Annie Dillard's For the Time Being. The book is a collection of observations about birth, sand, Hasidism, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, cloud formations, Israel, China, birth defects, and chance interactions with strangers. This sounds bizarre in the listing but adds up to a sustained observation about humanity existing through time. The book was a fortuitous choice, head-clearing in its farsightedness, yet timely.

Dillard writes:

"Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones?...Dire things are happening...People are making great strides toward obliterating other people, too, but that has been the human effort all along, and our cohort has only broadened the means, as have people in every century...Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news?...New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?" (30-31)

Later Dillard quotes an eleventh century Buddhist master, a twelfth century Rabbi, and St. Theresa. All mourn the dereliction of their times and people, who are inferior to those past. Their music is poorer, they are incapable of study, they are obsessed with material wealth. Times past, and their people, were better, harder-working, luckier in their innocence of present disasters.


So it was that I read this article.

I buy as much local food as I can: produce from a farm box, meat, bread, and dairy from California. I am fortunate to live in a place that makes such choices easy. I also have the means to purchase this expensive food. Having no children, I have more time to prepare home-cooked meals. I also have the means to purchase carbon offsets for my unavoidable vehicular sins. My family, who live elsewhere, find my concerns twee. Smug. Slightly batty.

Mr. Beavan's work as a writer allows him some degree of freedom, the time to bake his bread and feed his sourdough starter. And though it is never stated, the family must have some cash--their lifestyle experiment is taking place in a Fifth Avenue apartment; Ms. Conlin describes her pre-experiment shopping binge of Chloe boots (one pair underwritten by a parent). Her cosmetics are Kiehls, Lancome (a friend works there: samples or discount?), and Fresh. When the bottles empty, she will give them up, along with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and spices forbidden by their project. At some point we may read of the entire adventure: Mr. Beavan has a book deal with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. And, naturally, a blog:, where Mr. Beavan gamely fields dubious people like me.

Of course all right (left?)-thinking folk want to save the environment, leave a lighter carbon footprint, save the animals. We'd better--nobody needs me to discuss the destruction we've wreaked upon the planet. But the Beavan-Conlin experiment has a few holes: a weekly cleaning woman, whose cleaning products are not discussed. The computer. The basement laundry room. The acceptance of gifts. The documentary filmmaker trailing them. The book deal. The peculiar sense that the personal is public. And profitable.

Are the Beavan-Conlins doing a good deed? Yes, on a small scale. But this year will end: then what? Will they welcome the return of Green Forest toilet paper? Allow their cleaning woman her paper towels? Resume consumption of Italian olive oil? Buy another pair of Chloe boots (A quick netsurf pulled up Chloe knee boots at Bergdorf Goodman: $995 a pair)? Will they continue to hew to their "Walden Pond, Fifth-Avenue style" experiment? Or, like me, find livable compromises? For we no longer live in Walden's world, much as we might wish to. So: the local meat, the Italian vinegar. The local olive oil--Bariani, from Sacramento--but Bass Ale, from England. Toilet paper, post consumer use.

Annie Dillard writes:

"A hundred years ago Americans saw frenzy consuming their times, and felt the whole show could not go on much longer...Surely theirs were apocalyptic days...They could, by their own accounts, scarcely bear their own self-consciousness."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

M.F.K. Fisher's A Cordiall Water

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was the original American food writer, the woman who lived and ate in France before the word "Provence" became a tagline for bestsellers about middle-aged writers purchasing charming farms (surely all those farms are bought up? Is paradise paved for a parking lot?). I have a decrepit copy of The Art of Eating, acquired during a time of poverty. I read "How to Cook a Wolf" whilst deadly ill from a virus contracted by one of my stripper colleagues. I lay on the couch, our empty kitchen looming, reading about how to weather the indignities of war rationing. I myself was unable to eat a thing, and after watching me for a week, Hockeyman insisted I visit the local ER.

This connotation having stamped itself into my subconcious, I never sought out the rest of Fisher's works. Occasionally I happened across something in an anthology and read happily.

But a couple weeks ago I found A Cordiall Water in Spectator Books, and as I am a sucker for an interesting edition, I picked it up. The book itself is small, palm-sized, with a sturdy yellow dust jacket. I love books with dust jackets, especially books you don't expect to have them--small paperbacks like this one, cookbooks intended for serious use, poetry volumes. Some of you may find this admission weird, but the bibliophiles are all nodding.

But back to Mary Frances. Orginially published in 1961, Water is a compendium of ancient recipes--receipts--addressing the ailments of animal and man. Many, Fisher notes, utilize alcohol, while others involve warm poultices, fluids, and rest. Others are emetic in nature, or address the need for the occasional "cleansing."

While most of these receipes are charmingly archaic, any person living in California, as I do, cannot read without thinking of the alternative practitioners plying their trades all round. I am a block from a Naturopath/Acupuncturist, three blocks from a tradional Chinese physician. If I am so inclined, I can drive the five miles to Elephant Pharmacy, where the staff will happily lead one amongst the aisles of tinctures, formulae, and pills, explaining the virtues of this or that.


Even those of us outside easy radius of alternative medicines are increasingly aware that the contents of our medicine chests may be doing more harm than good. I write this as a grateful recipient of Western medicine, which has saved my life on more than one occasion. I heartily endorse and participate in much that Western medicine has to offer, and have no intention of abandoning my health insurance program.

But about the Lunesta I swallowed just last night...clearly it's not great stuff. As a sleep aid it helps. That is, if I take it I can be certain of four solid hours of sleep. After that I begin waking, far too early. My insomnia is stress-related, and I am unwilling to clobber it with Ambien, which I have taken a couple times. I am a small woman, and broke the sample capsule given me in half. I was sitting up in bed, reading, when I began feeling the sheets were moving toward me in waves. I woke hours later with the lights burning and the metal barrettes I'd used to put my hair up still in place. This happened before sleep-driving and eating were known about. I refused my doctor's offer of a prescription. Insomnia is horrible. It makes me insane. But which is worse? The illness or the cure?

When my bowel troubles spiraled out of control, I was offered every med in the world except for the ones that ultimately worked--opiate-based narcotics. To put it bluntly, opiates constipate. They also, mercifully, reduce pain. But my doctors were certain amitryptiline, Zoloft, Prednisone, Lotronex, and a host of even more dangerous meds were the tickets. In the end, an aspirin-based drug called Pentasa, coupled with the opiates, changed my life. Both are plant-derivatives. As one pharmacist once told me: "Opium is older than God. It will never, ever hurt you."

So what are we to make of MFK's charming little volume? That at 142 beautifully written pages, it is an evening's enjoyment, a visit to a more primitive time. Or that, like her works on food, it transcends time. Here are her words on growing fat, written nearly fifty years ago:

"In other words, we eat too much...(she was speaking specifically of Americans)...Most doctors, for hundreds of years, have urged people not to get reduce their weight gradually and sanely...Eat when you are hungry, eat according to the seasons of the year, and always rest afterwards." (101)

We may smirk at the rubbings of animal dung or the ingestion of powdered stag horn. Or we can read the oft-repeated prescriptions for fluids, rest, mindful eating of fresh foods, a touch of drink, and allow, perhaps, the tiniest bit of ancient knowledge in to rest beside our bottles of Vioxx.

M.F.K. Fisher. A Cordiall Water. North Point Press: San Francisco. 1961.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Disagreeing with Daniel Mendelsohn, Part II

So I was cooking dinner, happily contemplating--I kid you not--beginning Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost when Hockeyman, who was doing some maintenance work on the blog, mentioned there were numerous comments we'd missed. He read a couple nice ones, one from a raving lunatic (all in caps, misspelled) and then he said:

"There's a comment on your Daniel Mendelsohn (see 1/1/07) post."

"From Matt Mendelsohn?" I asked, thinking of last week's discussion with Ed and Sarah.

"No, from Daniel Mendelsohn."

Much swearing ensued as we smote our foreheads and adjusted the blog to alert us when comments come in.

To all of you who commented and never heard back from me, my apologies. I believe in thanking people. Including Mr. Mendelsohn--I'm sorry to have missed your initial comment, which I am reprinting here to make my responses clearer. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

I have no desire to devolve into a flame war. I hope you don't, either.

1) The author of the Poets & Writers article was Andrea, not Andrew, Crawford.

Sorry, Andrea.

2) I nowhere said, nor would I say, that the internet *tout court* is "ruining criticism"; like you and all intelligent persons, I recognize--and have often said, in fact, in my various defenses of the internet as a tool for education--that the Internet is merely a medium (like print, or illuminated manuscripts, or oral poetry, or whatever), and that what appears on it is merely as good as the author.


What I did say, and do believe, is that in order to be worth reading, literary critics, like other kinds of judges (I cited Olympic sports judges in the P&W article) have to have deep expertise in their field. (Part of this expertise is to avoid glib second-hand paraphrase and actually to have read what one is critiquing, I might point out.)

For clarity: I wrote in the blog that I didn't care to get in hot water by quoting without permission. My comments were strictly about the PW article.

My point about the internet is that the ease of access to all sorts of online opining, regardless of the value of the source, coupled with the instantaneity and the breadth of the coverage that internet postings have, poses a more insidious threat to a vast audience's appreciation of the dividing lines between expert and amateur opinions on important matters such as literature than was posed by print media, access to which, although broad, was more restricted. In other words, anyone with access to a computer can be "published" on any subject, whether he or she deserves to be read.

Yes, the hoi polloi can, and are, getting in on the act. Would the two of us ever have met in any other arena? Unlikely. Is everyone on the net deserving of readers? Well, that's up to the readers, who can vote with their proverbial feet. In terms of "insidious threat," inherent in this is the idea that people are incapable of formulating opinions without trained critics. Literature is important--essential--to a shrinking group. Those of us who care enough to read the critics, the books themselves, then form opinions and write about them are far fewer than the folks watching "Desperate Housewives." I would argue that the lack of education in this country is where the real trouble lies.

As for your (expertise-laden) "bullshit" in response to my position about the novel as a genre that has reached its end--a position that was reduced to a one-phrase summary in the P&W article, and which, therefore, can't possibly be engaged in an intelligent fashion, as any serious critic would have recognized--any time you'd like to debate this point in a serious medium, and at length, I'm game!

What's a serious medium? The NYTBR? NYRB? Not the internet?

The genre argument is a genre unto itself. Best left to the nitpickers.

Some reasons why I think the novel is alive:

Chimamanda Adichie
Margaret Atwood
Margaret Drabble
Richard Ford
Kent Haruf
Claire Messud
Scarlett Thomas

All writers who published fiction in 2006. Ann Patchett and Lydia Davis both have new books coming out in '07. Oh, and William Gibson has a new one (genre alert!).....Can't forget Michel Faber, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, or Annie Dillard. Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt. Kiran Desai. Her mother, Anita. Jonathans Lethem and Franzen. Jeffrey Eugenides. Kate Atkinson. (Fiction or mystery? More importantly, is the book good?)

I could go on, but you get my point. There's plenty of space for the novel and non-fiction to peaceably co-exist.

Along with polite differences of opinion.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Another month, another catalogue

The ever-faithful Williams Sonoma catalog has arrived. It's like a magazine: Williams Sonoma, The Catalogue for Cooks. April 2007.

Features include Mother's Day, Easter, and elegant brunches.

I have written before (see 9/7/06) about the ways the W-S catalogue alternately angers and unnerves me. I should toss it the moment it arrives. But the lure is irresistible. What are the Spring-must haves for the chic cook?

How about fondue pots? Yes, friends, fondue is back. Some of you may recall your mother's fondue set, the pot and inset dust-covered in the breakfront's recesses, the handy forks used to spear the weekday chicken dinner. Never, ever, did your mom produce sterno, heft the pot out, and actually melt something in it. Your mother, like mine, had small children who made plenty of noise and mess. She did not need a fondue pot to create more.

But those little pots are back, elegantly All-Clad for $150, accompanied by a recipe for blue cheese fondue (which you are warned not to whisk, lest it turn blue), an artisan bread board, and a set of French platters. Now you, who may have small children of your own, can replicate your mother's hostessing, or lack thereof. If you are from California, your fondue experience, differing as it does from your mom's, may qualify as a Healing Experience. Especially if you allow your kids to help you make the fondue while wearing one of W-S's "personalized kids' apron," a steal at $22. You can wear an apron, too, $24-$34, depending on whether or not you monogram it.

Or you could go to Ace Hardware and buy a plain white apron for $7.99. Or you could filch one of your husband's old oxford button-downs, its collar too frayed for formal use, and wear that. Excellent coverage and comfort. Machine wash and dry.

As always, half the joy of the catalogue is its copy. Here, an "An Elegant Brunch:"

"A celebration of the pleasures of fine food and drink, brunch soon became a favorite for sophisticated entertaining on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, we continue this gracious tradition with stylish table-setting ideas and delicious recipes that make it easy to host a sophisticated brunch perfect for Mother's Day or other springtime celebrations." (5)

Sigh. This paragraph, surrounded as it is by photos of expensive French plates, champagne flutes, and two perfect women of a certain age toasting each other in a huge, perfect dining room, is certain to inspire guilt, envy, sadness, and a general sense of inadequacy. I write this on Sunday morning: my husband, exhausted from the workweek, is still asleep. Instead of a skirt and top, I am wearing sweats and a torn shirt. My mother is three thousand miles away; my husband's mother, five hundred miles distant. It is safe to say neither will come for Mother's Day brunch, which is a good thing, as my kitchen table seats only four. I have no dining room. I have no buffet to arrange platters upon, much less that many platters. As for those smiling women, one clearly intended to be the mother, to all of you whose mothers are dead, or maybe not on the best of terms with you, I'm sorry. Please do not take this catalogue to heart.

As for those of us with moms we get along with, well, Sunday brunch ain't it. Most of us work all week. We're tired. We don't want to get up at six a.m. on Sunday morning to produce an elegant meal that will require hours of clean-up. We want to sleep late, or lounge in our jammies drinking coffee. We want breakfast in bed with the cat nosing into our eggs.

We don't want company. We want--God help us--a little downtime.

Okay, enough about brunch. It's Springtime on our beleagured planet! In many places it's already too warm, or farmers are attempting recovery from the freezing temperatures that ruined California's citrus crop. No matter! Let's hop into the SUV and go berrying! When we return, we can prepare crepes with berries and ricotta, using:

"berry colanders: These wonderful colanders are adept at smaller tasks such as rinsing juicy berries..." (10)

Who knew a colander could be adept? Order yours today!

No? How about an espresso machine for $3659? Or the less expensive model, at steal at $1599?

Moving right along to the baking section, full of twee baking pans, molds, and decorating kits certain to frustrate all but the most sophisticated bakers. Three dimensional cookies? Bunny cake molds with smaller egg shapes? How does the larger cake finish baking without burning the smaller egg-shaped cakes? Tears on the horizon, people ...

Then there's the "W-S Kids (tm)" section. Here you can buy a kid's AeroGarden Indoor Garden. If you have the space for this item, I daresay you have the space for a real garden. Or the Salad People Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. Limited edition, signed by the author. We've come a long, long way from Moosewood.

I could keep going--to the Martha Stewart Homekeeping Handbook, complete with hilarious photo of Martha actually holding a spray bottle and paper toweling. I'm certain Martha hasn't cleaned a thing since leaving prison. Or I could talk about the mangle, or the lamb's wool duster. I could tell you all about the decorative bluebirds, which are "so lifelike, you almost expect them to break into song."

Maybe the colanders are adept enough to sing along?

Friday, March 16, 2007


I have finished Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne.

It is a fascinating book on numerous levels. In one sense it is foil to Didion's work. The two wrote screenplays together, and her acid observations about the workings of Hollywood are corroborated in his essays. Both were absorbed in the mechanics of dealmaking, the people and places and false fronts. Being writers, nay, married writers, they were like x-rays, seeing through to the bones and reporting, most often witheringly. But where Didion made her name in the definitive if slightly obsfucating sentence, Dunne tells it straight. On Pauline Kael, he writes:

"Reading her is like reading Lysenko on genetics--fascinating, unless you know something about genetics." (253)

Further: "It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmaking that prevails in all of Kael's books." (255) The monstrous Julia Phillips, producer-cokehead-author of You'll never eat lunch in this town again, exhibited "... a pointlessly agressive verbal style, compounded by a voice that could cut metal." (268)

For those of us endlessly interested in the lives of Didion Dunne, there is much material, here from John's viewpoint. Rare is the opportunity to read one gifted writer's version of domestic events, only to find the spouse's equally deft response. For Joan's famous "In Bed," the primer on migraine, Dunne counters with "Dealing," the story of their ill-starred interaction with director George Hill. Didion and Dunne were called in to write the screenplay of John Le Carre's Little Drummer Girl. Negotiations broke down largely over Hill's notorious parsimony. When the Didion Dunnes refused to budge over what was by then a ridiculous moot point, Hill displayed his admiration of their grit by mailing them a case of wine totaling $756.

Alas, Dunne writes:

"The sad thing is that neither my wife nor I will ever be able to drink a single drop ... We both have migraines, and red wine is a migraine trigger." (64) He later mentions Julia Phillips' raid on their medicine chest. Phillips gleefully thought herself in the company of fellow junkies. Dunne made no attempt to dissuade her; instead ruefully noting the crammed medicine chest is populated with failed headache remedies.


Covering the Chavez Grape strike in Delano, California, Dunne wrote:

"The insatitable appetites of instant communication have necessitated a whole new set of media ground rules, predicated not only on the recording of fact but also on the projection of glamour and image and promise. The result of this cultural nymphomania is that we have become a nation of ten-minute celebrities. People, issues, and causes hit the charts like rock groups, and with approximately as much staying power." (97)

Incredibly, he wrote this in 1971. He lived long enough to see the internet, the explosion of telecommunications and cell telephones; he wrote of giving way to the laptop. Yet he remained a classically educated man, one of "the silent generation," born between wars one and two, too young to be affected by WWII but too old to catch the youthful fire of the sixites. In a way, he was one of the last of his kind, a writer who noted everything lest the material present itself later, a man of wide curiousity who wrote as engagingly about baseball as he did a trip to the Los Angeles Morgue. The ability to comment intelligently on such a breadth of material is increasingly rare; the writers of his generation are dying off, only to be replaced by niche purveyors.

Whether this is a commentary on education, the nature of media then and now, or the kinds of people we are interested in reading I leave to you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hairballs in the Amazon, that is. I'm not linking. You all know where to find it.

I can count on one hand the times I've ordered from Amazon. We use them during the holidays, sending e-gift-certificates to distant relatives whose taste we cannot intuit. I've used it when Pegasus couldn't get me something. But I cannot recall when that last was, until Jane Grigson.

Try finding English Food in this country. If you can, please contact me. I will pay you. Really. Black Oak carries a copy of Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. Or they did; it was a hardcover first edition and cost close to my salary.

So it was I ordered English Food and Good Things from Amazon on January 7th. I was duly informed these items would take time. Then, a few weeks later, I received an email saying the books were futher delayed, and would appear Februrary 28th.

Yesterday, after some struggle, I managed to email customer service. I received the following reply:

Thank you for writing to us at

We are very sorry for the delay in completing your order #---
I can see your experience has been far less than positive. We strive for
convenience and efficiency at, but in this instance we
have fallen short of our goal. I'm truly sorry that your impression
of doing business with has been so negative.

I have already contacted our appropriate department regarding this
situation and they have already contacted a different supplier to
obtain this item for you.

I can assure you that we are working hard to obtain these items for
you and we will ship it as soon as we are able to obtain it. This
means that we will ship these items as soon as we receive it from
our suppliers.

Please allow me to explain that sometimes unexpected fluctuations in
supply can add time to our original availability estimate. We have
learned that "Good Things (At Table)", "English Food" are now back-
ordered, and our supplier has not been able to let us know exactly
when they expect to have more in stock.

I'm sorry that you were not notified sooner of this change in

We will ship these items as soon as we are able to obtain it. You
won't be charged until we ship it to you. On the date of shipment,
we'll send you e-mail confirming the date, contents, and method of
your shipment.

In an effort to compensate for any inconvenience caused by this
situation, I like to give you $3.00 promotional certificate towards
your future order. You'll find all the details below. I
do understand that a promotional certificate cannot really make
amends for this inconvenience. Please accept it as a goodwill
gesture and apology.

This amount has been automatically redeemed onto your account.
You will not receive a claim code.

To use your promotional certificate, follow these steps:

1. Add the items you want to your Shopping Cart and click the
"Proceed to Checkout" button to fill out our order form.

2. You should see the promotional funds listed in the order cost
summary that appears just before you submit your order. As
long as the order qualifies, you don't need to do anything else
to receive the promotional discount.

3. If the cost of your purchase exceeds the amount of the
promotional certificate, you will be prompted to provide your
credit card information for the remaining balance.

4. Promotional certificates are subject to certain restrictions.
Please visit the following link for more information:

We would understand if you feel order is too late for your need and
if you'd prefer to cancel your order. You may cancel unshipped
items through the "Your Account" page, accessible at the top of any
page on our web site. To cancel your order, simply click "Cancel
items or orders." After signing in with your e-mail address and
password, you will be able to view your order history and cancel
your order for any item that has not yet entered the shipping

If you have further questions, feel free to visit our online Help

In addition to a wide selection of items, one of our aims at is to provide a convenient and efficient service; in this
case, we have not met that standard.

Again, I am truly sorry that we were not able to fulfill your
expectations for this level of service. I hope that you will give
us another opportunity to prove the quality of our service to you.

We thank you for your patience and understanding in this matter, and
thank you for shopping at

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click here:
If not, click here:

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept
incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help
section of our web site.

Best regards,

Vignesh S.

Still with me?

Though guilty for ordering from one of the behemoths, this rare case felt justified. Nobody in the greater Berkeley/Oakland area seemed to stock Jane. So I swallowed by misgivings and got smacked for it.

Now I have a couple questions.

1. Why didn't Amazon simply take the $3.00 off this order?

2. Where is Vignesh S.? I realize none of this is his fault and that wherever he is, he needs a job. But am I adding insult to injury by ordering from the behemoth who then farms out customer service offshore? Maybe not; maybe Vignesh is down the street. But the phrasing--"please allow me to explain", "I hope that you will give us another opportunity to prove the quality of our service to you"--suggest otherwise. Go ahead and tell me I'm wrong. Make my day.

I cancelled the order. carries English Food. They must also order it, and promise delivery in mid-April. At least they are an independent, and that if there is a customer service problem, I can actually telephone Portland and talk to a human. Or Fup.

(Why did I even order from a place that doesn't have a store cat??)

Two hairballs, dropped on my foolish head.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Making Peace with Tamasin Day-Lewis

In my 1/21/07 post I bring up my mixed feelings about Tamasin Day-Lewis, whose Good Tempered Food is in constant use in my kitchen. So it was I found Tarts with Tops On last week and bought it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tamasin, here is a breezy link.

Now, if you are at all like me, Tamasin may evince a bit of dismay. Perhaps you are not so very long-legged, slender, and doe-eyed. Or maybe your family pedigree is less ... well ... pedigreed. Perhaps you do not shoot your own grouse or fish for your own freshwater shrimp.

Perhaps you are a poor baker and fear pie crust above all other culinary exploits, excepting anything involving egg whites.

Here you are, reading Tarts with their Tops Off. And you are hating Tamasin even more, because in addition to all her other impossible achievements, she is a terrific writer.

Writing about food has its pitfalls. Namely, adjectives. How often can a dish be delicious, tasty, nourishing, heartwarming, or the ultimate comfort food? Light, fluffy, delicate? Or how about that gloss for heavy meals, "hearty winter fare?"

Enter Day-Lewis, ever the poet's daughter. On gathering summer fruits from her grandparents' garden:

"I remember best the scent of the currants picked warm from the branch, splurting purple juices on fingers and mouths, then stripping the sun-ripened orbs from the stem with a fork, rolling them in the gritty sugar that would breathe its sweetness into their acidity just so, turning the sharpness into a mere undercurrent." (introduction, unpaginated.)

On purchasing salmon:

"Farmed salmon is a sacrilege, a sop to the supermarket mentality that the punters have to have everything they want all of the time." (33)

She'd play really well here in Berkeley. Which leads me to wonder why she isn't more popular here ... more on that later.

On preparing a Layered Ricotta and Feta pie:

"... Brush with melted butter and add another sheet of filo ... Repeat this until your last storey of mixture, then add the penthouse roof of a double layer of filo ... Cut a diamond pattern into the filo roof ..." (40)

Not only amusing, but informative. In context you understand what to do; the preparation of a potentially difficult dish reads as something easy, even fun to prepare. In other recipes, pies are "musky-breathed" (46), cayenne is "a dusky hot hit" (56). Meat loaf pie is "... the culinary equivalent of a stater home." (76) That is, so simple that even her nine-year-old daughter Miranda could make it, and did.

As for the pies themselves, they are largely, defiantly, British. Recipes call for organic green streaky bacon (whatever that is), Rich Jersey Milk, clotted cream, double cream, mutton. Bottles of anchovy essence. Suet and lard. Montgomery cheddar and ox kidneys. Squab. Most dishes are well-suited to their cold, clammy homeland and would set in California-acclimated tummies like so many rocks, but they'd do well in other parts of the United States. We Americans need to shed our seemingly inbred revulsion toward British Isles cookery; then again, this observation may be extended to many other aspects of our conduct on the international floor. But back to food. As insight into another culture, the recipes are fascinating--classic pies that made the most of what was at hand: excellent dairy products, lamb, sheep, pigs, game.

Which leads us back to Day-Lewis' surprising lack of fame stateside. Her cooking encompasses more than pies--she has seven books to her credit, and is an avid supporter of organic, sustainable eating. And she is gorgeous: Americans love a gorgeous girl cook. All I can think is her uncompromising promotion of English foodstuffs has failed to draw American fans. Or perhaps she isn't interested in conquering America a la Gordon Ramsay? Whatever the reason, like Jane Grigson, she deserves more of our attention.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bastard Garbure

Garbure, literally, "the whole grab", is a classic French soup or stew, depending on your point of view and your ingredients. Garbure, like bouilliabaisse, gumbo, and cioppino, is a Helen-of-Troy dish: people willingly go to war over what goes in the pot. Elizabeth David lists goose fat, onion, tomatoes, piment basquais, confit, and ham. (46) Paula Wolfert's version takes three pages and nineteen ingredients, calling for, among other things, a ham hock, a duck carcass, pancetta, garlic, duck fat, onions, leeks, celery, and duck confit. (43-45) In The Pleasures of Slow Food, Corby Kummer gives us Georgette Dubos' version, calling for smoked bacon, turnips, and the confit. Her recipe serves ten. (99)

Having no urge to fight, and feeding only two people and one cat, I humbly offer a highly bastardized verson of "La Garbure Landaise." I was inspired by the contents of my fridge: duck confit, aged since December, a huge collection of poultry bones that needed to be cooked down into stock, two bunches of farm carrots, leeks, and shallots. I also have two small cabbages, and as of this writing, remain unsure whether or not to add some. I don't want the cabbage to take over the entire dish, as brassicas are wont to do. To avoid this, I would need to cook the cabbage separately and add it tomorrow, when I intend to serve this. So we'll see.

I began this morning by making the stock: quail carcasses, frozen into one bristling bunch, a chicken carcass, the ends of some leeks, carrots, and garlic. A bay leaf and some peppercorns. I reached into the pot and tried to break up the quail glacier barehanded. A renegade bone slashed the pad of my middle finger, resulting in a shallow cut that bled profusely. I managed not to ruin the stock.

At noon I strained the mess into another stockpot, adding fresh carrots, two shallots, and more garlic. I splashed in a little Armagnac. Then I hefted the duck confit jar out and set it on the counter to warm up a bit. Just now I fished out two legs with a minimum of the duck-fat-everywhere experience inherent in confit. I began tearing meat from the legs only to be rudely interrupted by the cat, who jumped on the counter, demanding treats. I got him down with promises of sharing later, dumped the meat and bones into the pot, and am now contemplating whether or not to add a little rice. I know, this is the bastardized part. But I like a thick soup.

I'll let this go a couple more hours, on a very low heat, then cool it and serve tomorrow. This is definitely the sort of soup that benefits from waiting. It is also a very farewell-to-winter soup, which seems appropriate on Daylight Savings Day. I loathe daylight savings. But we must eat, and why not celebrate losing a precious hour of my weekend by making soup?

Meanwhile, we'll hope the Trojan Horse isn't waiting outside the door.

Works cited:

Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking. Penguin Books: New York. 1970.

Corby Kummer: The Pleasures of Slow Food. Chronicle Books: San Francisco: 2002.

Paula Wolfert: The Cooking of Southwest France. John WIley and Sons: New Jersey: 2005.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The end of this story

My mother had a birthday recently, and though we have a pact not to exchange gifts, a few months ago I found her the pefect one, and bought it. Of course this perfect gift was a book: Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne. The edition was used, at Pegasus, with a forward by Calvin Trillin.

I held the book a few weeks, waiting until my mother's birthday to mail it. In the interim she emailed me announcing she'd made the most wondrous find. I wrote back wryly, mailing her the book anyway. She returned her (new) copy, suggesting we both read it.


Our love of Joan Didion's work arose independently but is equally passionate. My mother keeps a special shelf to house Didion's books; we each bought The Year of Magical Thinking the day it came out. When notices of the play began running, we fantasized a trip to New York.

My mother also likes Dominick Dunne, whose Hollywood gossip puts me off, and has, I think, read some John Gregory Dunne. A few years ago I found a hardback copy of Quintana and Friends in a hospital charity shop. I sent it to her.

Until today I had read no John Gregory Dunne. I don't know why, really. Just never got around to it. But in paging though the table of contents, I found the essay "Quintana," which is about her equanimity regarding her adopted status.


The Didion Dunne family was royalty to us; they were our personal Kennedys. Perhaps the Didion Dunnes were not as beautiful, but they were brilliant. They were the best thing in the world there was to be: writers. Great writers. And their family! Dominick, another writer. His daughter Dominique, an actress. Griffin, another actor. And Quintana, who grew up to be the next best thing to a writer: a photographer.

Quintana Roo Dunne was a year older than I. Her work appeared in the shelter magazines I read in my twenties: Elle Decor, Metropolitan Home. Read the byline on Joan Didion's author photos: Quintana. The photo of John Gregory Dunne on the cover of Regards: Quintana.

Quintana's devastated health plays a large role in The Year of Magical Thinking, but one is left with the hopeful impression of recovery, which never came: she died on August 26th, 2005. She was thirty-nine years old. The age I am now.

I remember arriving at work on August 26th, 2005, the first real business day of the academic year, the real new year in my world. I logged on the computer, and as I do every morning, checked the New York Times online, where I found Quintana's obituary. I remember my dismay as, near tears, I emailed my husband and my mother. Nobody in my office had heard of Joan Didion, much less her daughter.


There are people whose lives somehow intersect with ours without ever really doing so. That is, we are interested in them for some reason or other. For most this means reading articles or looking at the photos or watching them on tv as they age alongside us, parallel, never meeting. In rare cases interest grows into obsession and the Quintanas of the world are stalked. But I was not a stalker. Just an interested observer. What was it like to grow up with two of the finest writers alive? To take for granted that Mommy is with Otto Preminger, who has no hair? That Mommy will take you to see Georgia O'Keefe's Sky Above Clouds at the Chicago Art Institute? That you will be surrounded by famous writers and actors as a matter of course? That you will appear in People magazine with your parents on a Malibu deck?

Oh, that photograph. It's on the back of Magical Thinking now. Joan holds a cigarette; her drink, which looks like a vodka tonic, rests alongside her on the deck's wooden railng. She is looking away from the camera at John and Quintana. She wears a long dress and a half smile and it's the only photograph I've ever seen of her looking truly happy. John is looking at the camera, his own drink cradled in his hands, his body bent over Quintana, who is blonde, beautiful, and looks into the camera with a knowing expression beyond her ten years. The California coastline stretches behind this impossibly glamorous family, a line of earth meeting water, the edge of America.


At the time of John Gregory Dunne's death, Quintana was unconscious. Various things had gone horribly wrong--things that never should in an otherwise healthy young woman--and Quintana did not recover. She left her new husband and notoriously fragile mother behind. Also relatives, friends, and strangers like me.


In Dunne's essay, he writes admiringly of Quintana's aplomb. Faced with a group of twenty chattering little girls at her eighth birthday party, she imperiously announced her adopted status, rendering it something enviable. She did not, it seems, ever develop qualms about her birth mother or inquire about her unknown birth father. Instead she asked her parents the occasional question, leaving Didion and Dunne to endure the idiotic remarks and patronizing literature of adoption. Dunne readily acknowledges his daughter may decide to search for her birth mother, and knowing her name, is likely to find her. But, he writes:

"All parents realize, or should realize, that children are not possessions, but are only lent to us, angel boarders, as it were. Adoptive parents realize this earlier and perhaps more poignantly than others. I do not know the end of this story." (331)

We do.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up

As ususal, Ed beat me to it ... no pun intended.

Stephen Elliott's collection of autobiographical vignettes/stories center primarily on his sadomasochistic hookups with women found via the internet. Elliott, who blames his need for kinky sex on his appallingly abusive childhood, details the whys, wheres, and hows of bondage, cutting, and strap-ons. The writing is a little clunky, hurried in favor of content, which is invariably graphic. The man seeking these acts is clearly intelligent, somewhat self-aware, and painfully damaged. I found Elliott's need to find women who beat him viciously as he cried more alarming than his predilection for BDSM. Then again, I live in the Bay Area. And then again, I worked briefly as a topless dancer, and believe you me, you see all kinds in such a job. But more on that later.


Part of Elliott's mission, he tells us in the introduction, is to keep alternative sexual practices permissible in our Bushwhacked nation. I couldn't agree more. What consenting adults do in the bedroom is their own business. Wanna marry? Come on down. But most of Girlfriend is not especially consensual; Elliott's experiences at the hands of inept tops makes for frightening reading and does little to further the cause of serious BDSM practitioners. To his credit, Elliott does note in his introduction that much of the action depicted took place "when I was younger, before I made the effort to acquire the information I needed." (xiii)

Unfortunately, as Ed notes in his review, there isn't enough here beneath the sex to lead the reader into enlightenment. Many, many people are into B&D. Many had lovely childhoods. They're just kinky. And I really wonder what Elliott will write about beyond his awful father and wearing a butt plug.


My goodness, you're thinking. How does BK know so much about BDSM? And she was as stripper? Our dull girl?

My foray into the world of sex work was brief--perhaps four months total. About a month of that was dancing at a topless bar that had no liquor license, so it wasn't too wild. We had just finished grad school: financial aid had dried up, but H-Man had eight weeks before he began his new job. And we were broke. As in no food. The bar was hiring. I reasoned that with my dance training and hourglass build I could get a job, and I did.

The job wasn't awful, mostly because it had a set endpoint. I would cake my face with make-up, spray my hair, put on a pair of black patent platforms, and dance onstage. Lap dances and full nudity were not required. I was once asked by the dance manager if I wanted to do a private party with another girl, a pretty young blonde. Two hundred fifty dollars, he said to me, as if I'd leap.

To do what?

Anything goes, he said.

I declined, and wasn't asked again. But other girls did parties; a few went into porn films. All the girls at this bar save me and one other were addicted to meth: they danced to feed the addiction. Many were lesbians and hated men. Their girlfriends would come in, butch and mean, and sit watching sullenly. It was weird.

I was the oldest, the calmest, the one least willing to act out. Older men liked me. I was often told I resembled Rita Hayworth. I do not. Trust me on this.

From topless dancing I moved to writing erotica. Again, under a pseudonym. I wrote for a popular sex-toy store's website. I was good at it, and made a fair amount of money. Only I hated doing it; I felt like an imposter. Miss Literary Aspirations, with her Master's Degree and heavy tomes on Blake, writing about sex the in back of vans. What in hell was I doing?

Well, reading a lot of erotica, for one thing. It's always a good thing to be informed about your genre. I read Susie Bright and Pat Califa, good old Anais Nin, The Story of O. I read about Bob Flanagan and rented the movie Sick, which is heartbreaking, and learned a lot about BDSM. I also realized I had no taste for it, written, danced, or otherwise. Sex work, to me is, like eating hazelnuts: some people love them and cannot get enough. Go for it. But none for me, thanks.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by several Bay Area porn anthologists for work. I interacted with a couple. One was flaky, the other a complete bitch. When the webmaster posted my real name, I quit. The guy told me I was breaking my contract. I pointed out he'd really, really fucked up using my real name--my family's name--and I could sue. He caved.

And that was the end of my professional sex career.

I don't see Elliott getting beyong the immediacy of his pain. And I see him continuing to be successful, in a fashion, because people like McSweeney's think themselves hip for publishing graphic work and lots of readers are freaked and fascinated by people who get off from rope and clothespins. Or are secretly inclined so themselves. If you are, I would say there's better stuff out there. Nin's Delta of Venus. Story of O still holds up as an extraordinary book. Check out the photography of Steve Diet Goode, which is beautiful in addition to being kinky.

And remember you can eat the hazelnuts. Or not.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Correction

Thanks to reader Will Entrekin, who corrected me regarding Nate Sobel--he is not the same Sobel of the nasty lit contest. My apologies!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The reading pile

Having expected to be occupied by Smiley's nearly 500 page tome, I'd allowed the reading pile to diminish. This, atop a difficult work week (day jobs ... sigh) meant some retail therapy was in order.

I went to Oakland's Spectator Books. Spectator sells some new stuff, but the bulk of their inventory is used. Their stock is variable; shopping there is like going to Ross Dress for Less: some days you really score. Other days all you can find is trash.

The Spectator experience is also heavily influenced by whoever is behind the counter. The gentlemen are friendly, helpful bibliophiles. But some of the ladies, alas, are downright rude.

Happily, yesterday was a doubly good day: one of the nice men, who ordered me Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost, and some great finds:

(listed in order of the pile on my table)

1. Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems

I read a little poetry and am no expert. But Oliver's work, focusing mostly on nature, is accessible even to the most boneheaded amongst us. And she's incredible. Her lines are just gorgeous. Here, at random, a line from "Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard"

"Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear--" (85)

Somebody sold this book. What was this person thinking?

2.Tamasin Day-Lewis Tarts with their Tops On

Did I need another cookbook? Hell, no! But this lovely little volume was only $7.98, and I feel it is high time I overcome a longstanding fear of piecrusts. The book is largely devoted to classic English pies--steak and kidney, shepherd, a variety of chicken pies, cottage, etc, etc. An entire chapter is devoted to American pies, respectfully describing pecan, peach, and Jefferson Davis. How could I resist?

3. Annie Dillard: For the Time Being

A collection of essays, written in her inimitable style:

"Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us?" (119)

Annie, it's Sunday morning. Let me have another cup of coffee first.

4. Stephen Elliott: My Girlfriend comes to the City and Beats Me Up.

I bought this new. Evidently Elliott is the new darling of people who like Bukowski. This book was blurbed by Audrey Niffenegger and Curtis Sittenfeld. There's a combination. The cover, meanwhile, depicts a redhead in bondage gear. And she's clearly the Top. This book will either be great or terrible.

5. Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Editors: New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond.

Sudden fiction became popular in the late nineties, the new new thing after the Gordon Lish/Morgan Entrekin crowd winnowed short fiction down to the bones. I just read the acknowledgements page ... oh, dear. [Edited to remove the inaccurate mention of Nate Sobel in connection with a certain "contest." Nate Sobel has nothing to do with it. D'oh! We here at BK regret the error.] Carol Houck Smith of Norton, the only editor to write me (via the vanished agent) the one truly nasty rejection letter I received back in my circulating the manuscript days. Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian, who run writing workshops here in the Bay Area. I get flyers from them every six months or so, exhorting me to hand over several hundred dollars for the benefit of their expertise.

Well, the contributors are promising: Tobias Wolff, Lan Samantha Chang, Aimee Bender. Joyce Carol Oates ... no self-respecting anthology would publish without her, eh?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Five days in the hills

A. O. Scott beat me to it, but we're in agreement.

I made it halfway through Jane Smiley's latest--day five of ten endless days--before giving up. Hockeyman exhorted me to finish. Was I not a serious reader/blogger/would-be critic? I guess not. I found myself doing all things I do when I don't like a book--putting off reading it in favor of rereading other, favored novels, paging through magazines, leaving the book idling on the coffeetable.

Ten Days in the Hills is set in the Hollywood Hills, specifically in Max's house. Max is an ageing producer. Along for the ride is girlfriend Elena, their respective children, a childhood friend, an ex-wife and her squeeze, the ex-wife's mother, and the ex-wife's mother's friend. Oh, and Max's agent Stoney, who has been sleeping with Max's daughter Isabel since Isabel was sixteen.

The book is modeled on a medeval text called the Decameron, wherein ten wealthy Italians hang out at a villa and chat. A lot. The Decameron is set in 1348, so one might forgive the lack of what modern readers seek in traditional plots. But Smiley has no excuse. Ten Days is a lot of people tossed into a very nice house with inadequate explanation for being there--they are not, after all, hiding out from the Plague, as the Decameron folk were, and all have envious lodgings elsewhere. Zoe, Paul, Delphine, Simon, Cassie, and Stoney all live nearby--Cassie, Stoney, Delphine within walking distance of Max's capacious abode. So why the hell are they all camping out in the house? With nothing to do but talk about Iraq and have sex? The premise rapidly collapses, and stays that way for 449 pages.

I wish I could say something nice about this book. I loved Moo, A Thousand Acres, Good Faith, Ordinary Love and Goodwill. The Greenlanders was terrific. I could even deal with her horse books. Smiley is a true talent, and as she grows older, we readers who appreciate her work want to see the kind of depth we're getting from Atwood, Oates, Munro, et al. This book seems indulgent--an opportunity to rant against the war, something she has ample opportunity to do in her blog (I even link to it!!)--and to write endlessly about sex.

I have no idea why Smiley spent so much of this novel depicting people in the act. How many descriptions of erections can one write, or read, without going numb? I don't mean to sound prudish. Moo had a chapter called Who's in Bed with Whom worthy of being taught in MFA programs across the land. But the amount and detail of sex here is, like the dialogue, ultimately pointless, exisiting just to exist. And Smiley is capable of so much more.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Catholic Boys: concluded

17. A concert.

We got front row tickets to a concert. This was before computers, before Ticketbastard. A fluke. It was a famous acoustic band, three men with guitars. The night of the show I fell ill, but insisted on attending. The evening was magical, even as I grew sicker. By night’s end I was feverish and shaking. I had to be helped back to the car. You stroked my forehead tenderly and called me baby. We laughed about that, calling each other baby. We had made fun of Amanda and Jay for doing so, and here we were, hot with fever and love. Baby.

18. Sex.

Fucking, really. We were young and healthy with young and healthy sex drives. We mistook this for depth.

You liked to play Neil Young’s Decade when we were in bed. Two long tapes. A Man needs a Maid. Star of Bethlehem. The Needle and the Damage Done.

The Loner.

You told me how much that song meant to you. It was you, watching but saying nothing. I fancied myself the woman who saw you watching, moved by your silence.

Romantic love made me an idiot. But only with you.

19. Old Photographs

I have a few, surprisingly few when I think about how many photographs I took in those days. They are still difficult to look at. And now the backgrounds—the houses, the city we inhabited—have also taken on the freighted weight of memory. Better maybe not to look.

20. The watch.

You had your eye on a watch, a fancy digital that did lots of things; such watches were novelties back then. It cost forty-nine ninety five, which I saved up, painfully, on my $3.35 an hour secretarial job. I had taken this job to pay for certain things: glasses, clothing, a heavy woollen coat and fleecy boots. I had given up AP Courses and the International Baccalaureate for this job, attending school in the morning and then working from noon until five.

I saved and saved and finally bought you that watch for Christmas. I was so excited, giving that to you.

Christmas morning was spent with your family, who again made their dislike of me clear. God, they were cold to me. Though your sisters were nice. They were the ones that raised you, really. They were happy to see you happy, and young enough to get around my Jewishness.

You bought me a pair of ankle boots, with a moderate heel, lest I stand over you. Shiny black boots with pointed toes, shoes Lanie or Amanda would wear. On me they were all wrong; mine was a wardrobe of careful corduroys and matching sweaters, polite flat boots in dull neutrals. And they hurt: my toes are wide, my heels narrow, the exact opposite of those expensive shoes. I clomped about in them gamely, embarrassed. They were shoes for a thin girl, meant to emerge from the bottoms of stovepipe jeans I did not, could not, wear.

The shoes say everything, don’t they?

You lost the watch. It didn’t take long, a few weeks. You apologized. Said you would replace it. Did not.

By then we’d begun to fray. To fight. Did you break the watch? Sell it for blow?

How many forty nine ninety fives did you put up your nose instead of replacing the watch I bought you, the one you so wanted?

21. An ending

I say we’d begun to fray. Over parents: mine were increasingly unhappy with my obsessive behavior. Yours certainly made their feelings clear.

Your refusal to better yourself upset me. I did not want to live with a man who earned four dollars an hour. But I wanted to live with you, therefore, why weren’t you enrolling in the technical college, like Ryan? Didn’t you want to climb up, like me? Out of poverty?

You began saying things like: I will not let a Jewish Girl tell me what to do. Or, even worse, the morning you woke up and said: It’s Sunday and I’m in bed with a Jewish girl.

Add to the humiliation of throwing myself at you and trying to make you over the later humiliation of a woman looking at her younger self with disgust. I should have dressed and called a cab. Demanded you take me home.

Told you to fuck off.

Sunday morning with a girl who would’ve done anything for you. Instead of sleeping off your hangover alone. As if you would have hurried off to church had I not been sullying your Catholic bed.

What a fool I was.

For all your shyness you had taken your father’s view of women: submissive wifeys. Only now, at twenty, with a girl to treat badly, were your real feelings emerging.

Hence maybe this Baltic wife.

We broke up on New Year’s Eve. We both cried.

22. Aftermath

For months I could think of nothing else. I imagined, in graphic detail, our reunification. These fantasies, strangely enough, were not sexual. They were rescue fantasies. Something terrible had happened, a dead parent or brother, I was summoned to comfort you.

I missed you. I missed your voice, the way you laughed, your smell. You filled my being. Two years later, in college philosophy, a professor would try to explain the term noema, the immanence of being that fills a thing or person. You were mine. Which was, to continue the professor’s metaphor, living in bad faith, investing one’s reality in the existence of another.

It took two more years for me to stop living in bad faith. Four years, getting over you.

23. A conclusion, on wheels.

You loved cars and motorcycles. You drove a rusted old American car, a gas eater with a choking muffler. A German sportscar, not running, moldered in a side yard. In better weather you rode a rattling Honda 550. A Yamaha 650 with a loose front axle awaited repair in the garage. I was in, or on, all of these vehicles at various points: we rode in the sports car with the top down until transmission troubles sidelined it; you took me down the block on the Yamaha, the bike doing a wheelie courtesy of its dicey front end. You quickly turned for home. Too dangerous, you said.

So you drove me around in the Big American Car or behind you on the Honda. You even tried to teach me to ride the bike myself, but I was too inexperienced, too frightened. I was seventeen; I barely knew how to drive a car.

Just before we broke up, the American Car died. This because we took it to a parking lot and did something I’ve forgotten the name of. The idea was to simultaneously put one foot on the brake and the other on the gas, pressing as hard as possible. The engine revved like mad, the car made a terrible noise, and that was that. The replacement car was small, economical. It was necessary, soulless, and as a good a signifier of what happened as anything else.

Readers...thank you so much for reading.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Catholic Boys: fourth installment

13. The late humiliation of wrong-headedness.

I pushed you to attend college. To rise above your minimum wage job.

It was none of my business, and you said so. You were right. It was none of my business to make you over. I thought I could do that, back then. Find smart people and make them over into the people I wanted them to be. More accurately: the people I wanted in my life.

By this I meant people I thought could be intellectuals, people who simply lacked the correct tools. Who, once handed such tools, would take them up with gratitude, becoming, in the process, my friends and lovers.

I was not trying to be selfish or demanding, though of course I was. I truly thought the world was filled with people like you, people searching for the right person to extend a helping hand. I had seen this happen within my own family and extrapolated, wrongly, to rest of the world. I have no excuse apart from being very young at the time. Now my early thinking amazes and embarrasses me. But I learned my lesson well. I am sorry for what I did to you. It was wrongheaded, if well meant. After you, I never did it again.

Much later I heard you attended college. I don’t know whether you finished.

There is so little I truly recall of you. It’s shocking to realize how much of our relationship, one I considered pivotal, was purely projection. Though this belittles you, the good things you offered, your side of the story.

14. Other people

For all my talk of weight and face, I was a reasonably pretty teenager, certainly presentable girlfriend material. I was funny and smart. Your brothers liked me; Ryan and I got along especially well. One friend, Carl, was universally feared for his impatience with stupidity. We hit it off instantly. He told you to marry me.

And then there was Marcus. He was a madman, given to extreme drink and loud temper. His girlfriend, Lanie, was the girl you so lusted after. Lanie was indeed pretty. But she was also a high-school dropout and heavy druggie, drifting from job to job. She and Marcus had an arrangement: Fridays were free. They could see anybody else, do anything, and neither was held to account. Saturday nights were spent together. This arrangement intrigued you. Go for it, I said. But I’m not interested. I’m a one man kinda gal.

I thought myself so advanced, so sophisticated. I meant it, though. I’m not the jealous type. You never took me up on it.

Marcus liked me. He liked a pair of black suede boots I wore; he told me to tuck my jeans into them. Like this, he said, then lifted the toe of one socked foot to my calf, tucking the denim edge into the boot cuff. I did not take his behavior as flirtation; I simply accepted it as fashion instruction from a man whose beautiful girlfriend knew how to dress.

I was—am—prone to laryngitis. Any cold I get is certain to settle in my throat, leaving me hoarse, then voiceless, for days. So it was I came down with laryngitis and was reduced to whispering.

Marcus reached up to a high kitchen cabinet—unlike the rest of us, he was tall—and brought down a bottle of Crown Royal. He poured me a shot.


Swallowing it felt wonderful. My voice returned.

You and your brothers were shocked. Marcus shared his Crown with you?

Crown Royal was the hard liquor of choice in your house. Like coke, it was precious, expensive, hidden and hoarded from others.

Marcus shared his Crown with you?

Soon afterward Ryan and Marcus fought over the dishes left to molder in the sink, and Marcus moved out.

15. Meeting your parents.

Then it was summer and you took me to meet your parents.

They lived about an hour north of us, in a house built beside a lake. When we arrived they were not home. This was expected; you let us in with your key. You took me down to the dock, leading me to the small speedboat. It was a hot, clear day, the kind of day people call glorious. I was very happy in that boat, with you smiling beside me in blue bathing trunks. The summer spread before us, days of parties and the wet slapping sex of humid weather. We docked and went up to the house. We cleaned up, dressed, and then your parents were home.

Your mother looked shocked when she saw me. “I thought you’d have dark hair,” she said. At the time I attributed this to Jay’s girlfriend with my name. Perhaps your mother had conflated us. Now I think it was simply me, my Semitic face and red-brown hair, the too-big body. Your father said little. He was not a large man but in his younger days had been violent. You were afraid of him.

Lunch was served. It was sliced ham. I forget what else. Your mother looked at me maliciously.

My family did not keep kosher, but we ate little pork. Still, I ate the ham.

Somehow the afternoon passed and it was dinner time. Your mother served pork roast with potatoes. I picked at the meal, leaving the meat untouched. Her nastiness sickened me. Not only to me but to you. I was the first girl you had ever brought home. They lacked the decency to even fake kindness.

Driving back we said little. I thought of your oldest brother, who had married a Jewish woman and moved far away. He was highly educated, with a good job. He had little contact with the family. Now I knew why.

16. Interlude: the present.

I found a website where you can track people. Type in a name, and you get a list of cities inhabited and “relatives.” I typed yours: Jay came up, a list of plausibly blue-collar towns near our hometown, and a woman’s name. Foreign. That is, a foreign variant of a common Catholic name.

Obviously a wife.

Of course I Googled her, and you, and found nothing. At stay-at-home mail-order wife? A woman with an unusual name who somehow has avoided the net of the net?

For $9.95 I could have learned more. For $35, the works. I looked myself up, noted with relief the great amounts of misinformation surrounding my name, and logged out.

This wife. I always imagined Lanie: short, slender, irreproachably blonde. But this woman makes me think of dark hair and telephone conversations in Baltic languages.

I’ll never know. That’s fine. I don’t need to.