Think you better slow your mustang down

I hardly slept the night before my driver’s test. I lay awake, going over parallel parking in my mind: cut hard to the right, reverse, gradually straighten it out to back in at a diagonal, cut hard to the left, ease it in, straighten it out… all night long. In my mind’s ear, I heard my hard-ass driving instructor (Brendan) saying, “What are you DOING!?” and “You have to pay attention!” and “NOOOO!!”

We got up the next morning at 6:00, which for us is pre-crack of dawn. I showered, then fed and walked a sleepy and perplexed Dingo; Brendan made coffee. There was a sepulchral silence in the kitchen as we ate our toast. Shaky from insomnia and nerves, I drove us the hour and a half from Portland to the DMV in Tamworth, New Hampshire. I made so many uncharacteristically nerve-wracked mistakes on the way that if it had been my driving test, I would have failed several times over.

“I’m going to flunk,” I wailed. Dingo, his head in the rear view mirror, ears at half-mast, seemed to concur, if his consternated expression was anything to go by. “I’ll probably hit a tree on my test.”

“You’ll be fine,” said my instructor. “You know what you’re doing. Just relax. I promise, you will pass.”

He later told me that he knew exactly what the test would entail: this was the same DMV where he got his driver’s license, sixteen years ago.

My examiner was a sweet, taciturn, portly man with a short white Afro who had me drive for fifteen minutes on gently rolling country roads. Remembering to signal, stop, check my mirrors, and obey the speed limits, I took a right, another right, a left, then a right, and another right. Then came the hard part: he asked me to back the car into a spot in an empty church parking lot. I couldn’t see the white lines I was supposed to park between and had no other cars to guide me, so I fucked it up not once, but twice; I’d asked for a do-over. After all that anxiety, I hadn’t had to parallel park at all; unfortunately, I’d practiced reverse parking exactly twice.

I drove out of the parking lot in disgrace, took a left turn onto the sleepy road, a right turn onto the two-lane route I’d started on, and suddenly, there we were, back at the DMV. It was over.

“I took some points off for your parking,” said the examiner. “Because that was…” He paused as if searching for the correct word. “Terrible.”

With a dour expression, he handed me the score sheet. And then I saw that he had checked the box next to “Pass.”

I leapt from the car, giddy with joy, threw my arms around my strict, demanding, handsome driving instructor, who was waiting there with Dingo, and waltzed inside. As she took my beaming photo, the DMV lady told me, “Oh, honey, no one can park, we all park like crap. I practically hit my own garage every night.”

After that ordeal, the rest of the day was ours. Brendan drove us to the farmhouse. His parents made us a beautiful lunch: fresh pesto, cantaloupe with proscuitto, and a Caprese salad with ripe farm stand tomatoes. Sitting outside at the table in the grass, looking at the mountains, we drank the bottle of Taittinger I’d brought to celebrate.

Then, for an hour or so, I fell into a near-coma on the couch in the summer barn. Dingo, as worn out as I was, burrowed into a spot behind the couch and conked out, too.

Later, Brendan and his mother and I went blueberry picking up Foss Mountain. We settled into a patch on the flank of the ridge, hot in the sun, and picked handful after handful of the low-bush, perfectly ripe little berries, which fell off the stems into our hands. Dingo wallowed happily in a shady leftover rain puddle.

“FUCKER!” Brendan suddenly yelled at the wasp who’d stung his hand, dropping his box of berries and leaping about. As his hand swelled into a monstrous lobster claw, we decided the fun was over. We quickly consolidated all the remaining berries in the basket we’d brought and hiked back to the car, which lurched down the steep, mud-rutted dirt road. Back at home, we put on bathing suits and gathered towels.

We joined Brendan’s father down at the dock by Snake Cove, which thank God has no snakes in it anymore, that we know of. As the sun set, back at home, we sat outside and drank cold Frascati, watching hundreds of dragonflies trolling through the air for little gnats and midges and, we hoped, some of the wasps who’ve taken up residence this summer in every available crevice of the house’s exterior.

At the long table with candles lit in the summer barn, we feasted on steamed lobsters and lemon butter, corn on the cob, and asparagus. Dessert was maple-walnut ice cream from a local creamery with, of course, blueberries.

After dinner, Brendan drove us back to Portland: it was very relaxing to be a passenger again. But now, I’m a licensed driver, not just passive deadweight. Now, I am legally allowed to get into a car and drive it anywhere I want, alone! Look out, world.

Berries a la Susan

Tonight, a couple of friends, both excellent cooks themselves, are coming over for dinner. In hopes of impressing and pleasing them, I’m making a recipe my friend Rosie sent me: lobster paella with chicken thighs and chorizo. And dessert will be the blueberries I picked the other day.

When I asked my friend Susan, who lives in London but is vacationing right now in Jamestown, Rhode Island and living on local farm stand produce, for advice about what to do with them, she wrote back the following sort-of-recipe: “Last night I made strawberries and blackberries with whipped cream topped with almonds crushed a bit and toasted under the broiler. The nuts made it astonishing.” So that is what I’ll do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

O are you a pirate or a man-o-war? cried we

Our friends Ethan and Lindsay invited us up to Phippsburg last weekend. They’re a quintessential pair of native Mainers if there ever was one; she’s a designer who works for L.L. Bean, and he’s the stern man on his lifelong friend Lawrence’s lobster boat, and he runs charters in the summertime.

It’s wild and beautiful up there, a small lobstering and fishing village right on the water. I drove us the hour north from Portland on a cloudless, golden early afternoon. We turned off Route 1 in Bath onto a curvy two-lane country road that took us down a peninsula through marshland, villages, and coastal forests.

We had lunch at Spinney’s, a low-key clam and lobster shack right on the Fort Popham beach. After lunch, we headed down the road to meet them at 3:00, as arranged.

“We have a situation,” said Ethan after we pulled up to the Fort Popham dock and parked. “My wife has been shanghaied by my father.”

“That pirate!” I said; it seemed appropriate.

“We have to go and get her,” he told us.

We all, Dingo and their dog Pepper too, climbed into the Guppy, a large wooden dory with an outboard, the smaller of Ethan’s two charter boats. We motored out through the harbor, past rocky, grassy islands.

“That’s my mother, in that boat,” he said as we approached the narrow gut that led into the open sea. “She and my stepfather live there.” He pointed over to nearby Georgetown Island, to a shingled house with big windows on the cove.

Out on Sheepscot Bay, we picked up speed and slapped head-first over the calm water. Ethan slowed when he saw another boat headed back toward the dock. He hailed them and spun around to meet them head-on.

For the next hour or two, we hung out on the ocean. Ethan’s father, Bill, who’s also a lobsterman, had just won a lobster boat race to Pemaquid, for which he’d “shanghaied” Lindsay and her friend, Jamie, a photographer who works with her at L.L. Bean, to be his “bow fluff,” which is just what it sounds like, along with Ethan’s lobstering partner and old friend, Lawrence, as crew.

We pulled the two boats together with our feet resting on each other’s boats to keep us from drifting apart. We pulled out cold beer and wine and talked as the boats bobbed up and down on the waves. The sky was blue, the air warm, and there was no wind. Usually, Ethan told us, there’s a breeze and it’s chilly and choppy on the water and partly overcast, but that afternoon was perfect.

Lindsay and I put our heads together and discussed our work. I told her about the book about Maine I’m working on, “How to Cook a Moose,” since the occasion for this trip was ostensibly research for it. She described the magazine/catalogue she wants to start, both print and online, well-written stories alongside beautifully photographed and designed pictures of various products made by hand in Maine. It would represent, she told me, the traditional, DIY, down-to-earth, year-round reality of Maine, not the elitist, moneyed, summer-people bullshit that predominates in so many publications now. I told her I’d happily write for it anytime.

On our way back to the dock, we stopped off at Seguin Island, which boasts the second-oldest, and tallest, lighthouse in Maine. Ethan stayed on the boat to make some work phone calls while the rest of us jumped ashore and lifted Dingo and Pepper over the waves. As we climbed up to the bluff above the rocky little beach, we ran into the caretaker, who was fixing the tracks for the little tram that hauls supplies up from the cove and beach for the lighthouse and living quarters. He knows Ethan and Lindsay because Ethan’s ferry service takes tourists over to Seguin, so even though it was after-hours, he generously offered to give us a tour.

We climbed the sandy path to the grassy plateau at the top of the island, where the main buildings are. It’s a great view from up there, over a hundred feet above the water on the last island before the open ocean.

The Seguin Island lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and installed in 1797. Its light is a modern-day electric bulb amplified by a many-petaled flower of very old glass, recently hand-polished by the caretaker and sparkling in the late-afternoon sunlight. We walked around the catwalk outside the cupola; far down was blue water, all around us, in every direction. Close by, we could see Monhegan and many other islands. The second inlet, far down the coast, was Casco Bay and Portland. It was a memorable view, both intimate and full of grandeur.

With the dogs, we climbed down to the beach and got back on board the Guppy and headed for the dock, where we got into our cars and drove to Ethan and Lindsay’s place. They live in an airy but cozy post-and-beam house on the water that Ethan’s father built in the 1970s; he now lives with his girlfriend in a newer house just up the cove.

After we parked by the house and got out, Ethan stuck his head into the basement storage space. Dingo followed him and flushed a stray hen from her hiding place. “There she is,” he said. “I knew she was in there.” He tossed her into the nearby coop to join the rest of the flock, who were just settling in for the night.

In the buggy, darkening evening, we picked vegetables from their greenhouse and garden. They apologized for the weeds, which they don’t have time to pick, but we were too impressed by the bounty to notice.

The men stayed outside and boiled the red potatoes just picked from their garden, in the same pot with the lobsters Ethan had just pulled out of one of his traps, on an old propane double burner cookstove. Meanwhile, Lindsay and I stayed in the kitchen and cooked, like good women. She fried the rest of a striper Ethan had caught the day before while I made a salad with the vegetables we’d just picked: cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, garlic, basil, green beans, and green pepper. While I made dressing, Lindsay sautéed the zucchini and garlic we’d just pulled out of their garden with olive oil from Ethan’s brother’s wife’s family’s place in Greece, which added a whole other level of homegrown to the mix.

“What should I do with the vegetable scraps?” I asked her. “Do you have a compost bucket?”

“Just throw them out the window for the chickens,” she said. “They’ll see and get excited for tomorrow morning’s breakfast.”

With perfect timing, when everything was just about ready, Bill, Jamie, and Lawrence arrived with a story of another adventure they’d all just had. We gathered around the table, heaped our plates, and feasted on lobsters, fish, salad, potatoes, and zucchini.

While we ate, I realized that the entire meal was food that Lindsay and Ethan had grown or caught; this was a real “farm-to-table” meal, gathered and served without fuss or fanfare. Everything was simple and perfectly delicious—the lobsters didn’t need butter, and the vegetables were still alive.

Afterwards, we all sat out on their deck, talking and laughing, looking at the gleaming estuary while the full moon rose and the tide came in.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Fly silly seabird, no dreams can possess you

Do we all fall into contemplative moods in the weeks leading up to our birthdays, or is it just me?

One thing I’m pondering is the fact that the neighborhood seagulls wake me up lately at 4:30 or so. They caterwaul overhead, starting before dawn, screaming bloody murder at one another in the sky. City seagulls! They sound like Southie mothers shrieking, “SEAN, you betta not end up like ya fuckin FATHA!!” and “Bobby O’Houlihan, if I catch ya I’m gonna SKIN YA ALIVE!”

When I look out the window, I can see one of them on the rooftop across the street, strutting along the peak, shrieking its head off, probably at another gull on another rooftop, waiting for a response, then shrieking back.

The British aren’t coming. They have no predators to warn one another about, that I know of. The sun isn’t even up yet; what urgent news could there be to impart? How is this productive? How does this advance their cause in the world? Why aren’t they down by the water, catching fish and nourishing themselves?

Seagulls are mysterious, I conclude every morning. Then I put in earplugs, pull a pillow over my head, and go back to sleep.

Inside the house, during this fresh, sweet, blue-green-gold Maine summer, I’m passing my days with four solid goals in mind: train for the 10K race in September, finish the Moose book, judge the Kirkus literary contest, and get my driver’s license. Every day, I try to make progress on three out of four fronts. And it’s working. I’m learning to parallel park, and today I’m going to take us on the Interstate. I’ve knocked almost all the books off my third of the list and am about to move on to the other two judges’ picks and the late entries. I’m starting to write the chapter about lobsters in the Moose book, and, in a stroke of perfect timing, today we’re going up north to Phippsburg to go out on the boat with our lobsterman pal, Ethan.

The first time I ran, at the beginning of June, I kept losing my wind and had to slow to a walk till I caught it again. Every time I go out, I can run a little farther, a little faster. I ran four miles on Friday evening, from our back door to the end of the Eastern Prom and then back to Bam Bam bakery on Commercial Street, then I walked the rest of our daily route home; eventually, maybe by the end of August, I’ll be able to run all 5 ½ miles at one go, even the uphill part at the end.

In my experience, that’s how things get done: by increments and daily practice. I don’t know any shortcuts.

It’s not the most exciting summer anyone’s ever had, to put it mildly, but internally, it is life-changing, even radical. To focus so completely on four worthy goals at once, to have the time and liberty and discipline to pursue them all to the fullest, and to feel myself able and capable of doing so, is a profound experience of fun, adventure, and satisfaction.

As an unexpected consequence, other, necessary, important aspects of my life are shifting, changing, and improving—some in explosive bursts of revelation and almost involuntary action, others in a deep, underground way I’m hardly aware of until they manifest themselves, and some a combination of the two.

I’m turning 52 on August 22, and in all the years since I was old enough to drive, although I’ve had four learner’s permits and even learned to drive 25 years ago, I have never once taken a driving test; something always prevented me, probably my own fears. This time, I’m going to do it.

And this time around, I’m writing a book I want, rather than need, to write, a crucial distinction. I am very glad I wrote “Blue Plate Special,” but as I worked on it, I sensed, beyond the chronology of my own life, another interesting (to me) idea for a book about my happy life in New England and the current economic reality of food in this country and the intersection of those two things. I had to write that other book to get to this one, and I did, and now here I am. Writing this book makes me happy, excited; writing that one was painful and anxiety-inducing. But every book has its own trajectory, and nothing can be rushed.

In 2002, I ran the New York City marathon. I completed it in 3 hours and 58 minutes. I find it hard to believe now, but never having run before, I had set a goal for myself of under four hours, and I achieved it, in spite of a hospitalization for hyponatremia, IT band problems that required physical therapy, and severe pronation that was resolved finally with handmade, expensive orthotics.

And then, after all that trouble and expense and commitment, I stopped running immediately after the marathon—until now, 12 years later.

Training for the 10K race feels small by comparison, but it’s not, it’s something else entirely. The marathon was a one-off thing, intended to help me recover from a profound depression following 9/11. This upcoming race is not the point. Running is the point. And I hadn’t intended certain side effects of running, but I’m drinking much less alcohol lately (one ice-cold low-alcohol sorghum beer is nothing short of divine after a run and a shower, but that’s it, I’m done), eating differently and less (almost no red meat; two smallish meals a day), sleeping more deeply (seagulls aside). After the race, I plan to keep running and see what other good things might happen, even if it’s only increased wind and stamina. At almost-52, those might be the best things I could ask for.

And despite the masses of piles and rows of books around my clawfoot tub and on the downstairs bookshelves, I’m happy to spend a few months reading so many good novels and story collections. Running, writing, reading, driving. And Pilates, and smaller writing deadlines, and sneaking purely-for-pleasure reading, and walking Dingo. That’s my summer.

Meanwhile, I’m not cooking much, not thinking about food except as it relates to the Moose book. It takes a lot for food to recede from the forefront of my mind. I wonder how and when I’ll come back to my lifelong love affair with it.

When I do, I plan to make Moroccan chicken for Brendan with one of the intriguing spice packets I just got in the mail from Laura, a reader in Oregon, who made it for her now-fiancé, George, on their first date. She told me in her letter that when people ask when they’re getting married, she answers, “One of these days.” That’s what Brendan and I always say. That’s another goal, the best one.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Dammi un sandwich, e un po’d’indecenza

Yesterday, Brendan and I took a break from working and had ourselves a party. We watched the last World Cup game with tequila-grapefruit cocktails and ham-and-cheese sandwiches on toasted gluten-free “rye” bread with a shit-ton of mayo and mustard. After the game, we took Dingo for a long walk down the road. We humans swam in the lake in the total solitude while Dingo lay on the beach under the picnic table.

We walked home, fed Dingo, and sat on the porch for a while watching the dragonflies troll through the air like beautiful, predatory machines, eating mosquitoes. While the huge moon rose, we sat at the table with the kerosene lamp lit and played a few cutthroat rounds of Spite and Malice with the two humidity-softened old decks of cards and drank cold vinho verde and ate pasta with fresh tomato sauce, again.

It was the best pasta of any kind I’ve ever had, hands down. Brendan made it, of course. As always, he used gluten-free penne from Italy and made a fresh tomato-garlic-basil sauce with lots of garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan. It was so good last time, silky and rich and garlicky and savory, but somehow, this time, it was even better; it was divine, superb, memorable. This time, he used ripe, flavorful Roma tomatoes instead of regular, and he swears that made the difference. Whatever the case, I moaned YUM and made other guttural animal noises as I ate. The cook took this as the highest praise, as he should have.

We were deeply asleep before midnight. I woke up at 7:45 this morning with a start; I had slept the entire night through, a rare and lucky occurrence.

Possibly because I was so well-rested, and possibly because I had set myself certain goals and deadlines, today, unlike yesterday, was a day of achievement and forward momentum. I reached the halfway point on my new book, How to Cook a Moose, which is about living in Maine, with as much local history, food lore, and information as I can reasonably cram in. I want to have a draft done by summer’s end, and now I think I can do it.

We also ran to the beach and back two times, once in the late morning, once in the early evening, for a total of six miles, and we swam twice, too. Our Scotch Club has decided to run a 10K race as a team in September. The race is appropriately (for us) named the Trail to Ale, and there will be drinking when it’s over, so of course Brendan and I have been training as well as we can for it. We want to uphold the Scotch Club’s hoped-for reputation as badass drinkers who aren’t afraid to sweat. So we’ve been sweating a lot this summer. Running on the unshaded sidewalks of Portland is harder than running the wooded, soft dirt roads up here, even though our route up here is much hillier; I get winded easily when I overheat, and the sun feels hotter when it glances off asphalt, and the breeze isn’t nearly as cool down in town as it is in the mountains, even on the Eastern Prom, on the trail along the bay.

So we’ve made a little bit of progress in our speed and endurance during our sojourn here in the farmhouse. However, true to the Scotch Club’s unspoken motto, “Run then Drink,” we have not cut back on our nightly consumption of wine. Nor have we slacked off on our ability to enjoy and consume a certain quantity of food, which we view as our reward for all that exertion.

Just now, after our second run and swim of the day, we came home to a barking-mad Dingo, who is too old to keep up with us when we run, and who overheats easily on muggy days, but who can’t understand why he can’t be with us every second of his life. He was mollified by his dinner; he’s still cool and wet from his bath, napping soundly at my feet under the table. The sky is cloudy; a thunderstorm is on its way, maybe not until tomorrow, but we can already feel it.

Brendan is making another vegetable pasta, because all this running is making us crave carbohydrates, or something: this time, it’s leeks and spinach, both of which we happened to have in the vegetable drawer, so instead of going out, as we’d planned, we put on the well-worn Paolo Conte CD (he’s a gravel-voiced Italian crooner who I confess can make me swoon a little) and poured some ice-cold Albarino, and then I sat down to write this blog post even though I don’t have much to say except that it’s summer, and this is a hard-working but lovely one.

And Brendan is making dinner again, lucky me. First, he steamed an 11-ounce package of baby spinach briefly until it wilted. Meanwhile, he chopped three cloves of garlic and cleaned and chopped the bottom halves of three leeks. Then he chopped the spinach roughly. While the water for Le Veneziane fettuce heated, he sautéed the garlic in olive oil and butter, then added the leeks. When they were soft, he added the spinach with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes. After five minutes, he added another bit of butter and turned off the heat.

“This dish wants fat,” he says. “It’s rich. Do not skimp on the oil and butter.”

He’ll serve it with finely grated parmesan cheese and a simple salad with a vinaigrette. I’ll shuffle the two decks of cards, which I can do as fast and expertly as a Vegas dealer (apparently it’s because I’m a first-born, says Brendan, although why that is I have no idea), and we’ll deal out a game of Spite and Malice. The moon will rise, we’ll drink more wine, and then, by midnight, we’ll be sound asleep again.

This summer feels like childhood again, back when school was out, and all I did was what I loved most: read, write, eat, swim, nap, laze around, and see friends. Tomorrow, our friends Emily and John are coming with their adorable two-year-old daughter, Tug, and the next day, Jami and her puggle, Sid, arrive, and although it’s supposed to rain while they’re here, there’s plenty to do inside in the summertime, especially with a two-year old and two dogs in the mix. We can drink cocktails, kibitz, play cards, cook, eat, and watch Tug, Sid, and Dingo all try to figure one another out. This will be fun.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills

Yesterday, we came to New Hampshire for the weekend. I drove us here, because this is the summer when I will finally get my driver’s license – I am determined. I did all right, although I’m still fine-tuning my steering technique, and I got honked at in a roundabout for being daft. After being a passenger all my life, it’s refreshing to be honked at for being daft. For decades, I’ve made fun of other drivers from the safety of the passenger seat, exactly in the spirit of a non-soccer-playing fan opining on the World Cup. It served me right to be honked at. Once I’d threaded my way out of the roundabout, I pulled over to the right with my blinker on and let five cars go by me, feeling the presence of karma in the hot, humid air.

Finally, I pulled our old algae-colored Subaru into the spot in front of the barn, put the car in Park, and turned off the engine, having successfully completed the single longest drive (an hour and a half, with a quick stop at Hannaford, during which I practiced parking and unparking) of my life. Dingo mooed with excitement until we let him out of the car; this is his favorite place on earth, as far as we can tell.

As we carried groceries and bags toward the house, we saw the view of Dundee Mountain’s lush green slopes, just past the barn, tiger lilies in the foreground – I think I might have made a little happy mooing sound of my own. We haven’t been here since March. We came into the house, which was stuffy and smelled faintly of wood smoke, and went around opening curtains and windows, stowing our stuff, putting groceries away, looking out the windows at the mountains, the unmown fields, the familiar landscape so radically changed from the black-and-white sepia-tinged scene of ice and snow of a few months ago.

After we’d eaten a quick lunch of leftover black lentil salad with the pickled jalapenos, red onion, and radishes I’d made to go with chicken tacos last week (a winning combination), we put on our bathing suits and set off toward the lake. We turned off the dirt road onto the steep path to Brendan’s aunt’s dock, walking downward through clouds of blackflies and mosquitos. At the lake, we stripped off our clothes and ran to the end of the dock and plunged into the clean, chilly-then-warm water, which was full of little wavelets and covered with a thin scrim of pollen.

Dingo plumped himself down on the dock and watched us, and then, once we’d swum away, he retreated to the shrubbery, where I could see his triangular head and bat ears as he spied on us through the shifting leaves; he won’t swim, no matter how hot it gets. He used to bark at us to come back whenever we went into the water, but in recent years, he’s evidently become resigned to our demented behavior. Now he just sighs with disapproval to himself from a distance.

By the time we got back to the house, we were hot all over again. The afternoon stretched out, the haze deepening, the heat baffling our ears like sound insulation. We took cool showers and dressed in as little as possible and tried not to move. As the sun went down and we got hungry, we tried to imagine what we could possibly want to eat on such a day.

“I know,” said Brendan. “I have the perfect thing.”

He put a big pot of water on the stove and poured us each a small glass of rioja with several ice cubes. When the water boiled, he plunged ten medium-sized ripe tomatoes into it for three or four minutes, until their skins split, then he took them out and peeled (but did not seed) them. Meanwhile, he peeled and chopped a heap of garlic.

In a deep skillet, he poured some of the olive oil retrieved from the stash of bottles in the cupboards over the fireplace; it comes from his family’s olive trees in Tuscany, and it’s the best I’ve ever had, and every time I eat it, I feel insanely lucky.

I sipped my wine and spaced out, looking out at the mountains, while Brendan sautéed the garlic for a scant minute, then added the chopped tomatoes along with all their juice and some salt and pepper and a smidgen of crushed red pepper. He let the sauce cook down for twenty minutes or so until it thickened, then added a handful of chopped fresh basil at the very end.

He tossed the sauce with a pound of gluten-free penne rigate, made from rice and imported from Italy (Rustichella d’Abruzzo, but Le Veneziane, or really any gluten-free pasta from Italy, is also incredibly good).

While he threw together a simple salad, I poured us some more rioja and added ice. We sat at the table in the pressing heat and devoured everything with moans of pleasure until the pasta dish was empty and all I could do was run a finger along its bottom to dredge up every molecule of that sweet, savory, beautiful sauce.

After dinner, cool air started to blow in with far-off thunder and lightning. The storm was slow in coming, and its approach was dramatic. We went outside and watched from the porch as the darkening sky became saturated with electricity, echoing booms of rolling thunder and white-hot lightning cascading through the high clouds, blinding explosions of streaking brachioles of light that illuminated everything for several beats then faded. Over the fields, fireflies were winking and glinting.

When the hair on our arms prickled from the combined chill and electric charge in the air, we figured we’d better go in. We turned off all the lights and went into the downstairs bedroom and sat in the bay window seat, watching the light show, gasping like theatergoers at a great production of “The Tempest.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Entschuldigen Sie, ist das der Sonderzug nach Pankow? Ich muss mal eben da hin, mal eben nach Ost-Berlin.

On an August afternoon a few years ago, I ate five bowls of tomato soup one after another on the train from Prague to Berlin. I sat with Brendan in the dining car at a small table with a bottle in an ice bucket, set with real cutlery, china, and cloth napkins. As I finished each bowl, I deliberated for a moment, hoping the intense desirous urge had passed, and then, unable to control myself, I asked the waiter, an expert and upright professional with thick, wavy chestnut hair and a thrust-forward pigeon chest, for yet another bowl of tomato soup. I made these successive requests sheepishly, half laughing, but also firmly: I wanted another one, dammit. He brought each new bowl with deepening solemnity, refusing to engage in this American frivolity, my self-mocking bemusement at my own gluttony.

We had traveled in the opposite direction a few days earlier to meet Brendan’s father in Prague, and now we were headed back to Berlin, where we were spending the month. Our train route today was along the same tracks, but in reverse, that had once carried trains filled with Jews, transporting them from Germany to Eastern European concentration camps. After lunch, hunched in two pull-down seats in the cramped crowded train passageway between compartments, we looked out the window at the landscape flashing by, empty farmland, dark woods, and blue, placid rivers, and we said aloud to each other, softly so no one else could hear, “This is probably almost exactly what they saw from the cracks in the cattle cars.” We felt a terrible shiver each time we thought about it. It felt inconceivable that after that funny, rollicking lunch, during which we’d drunk cold dry German white wine and laughed at my tomato soup addiction and left a big tip to placate the waiter, we were lucky enough to huddle together in these jump seats, free travelers, when just decades before, other travelers on these same tracks…

I was sleepy, but I couldn’t nap. The historical disjunction was too troubling. The landscape was so blank and unassuming. I felt as if we were passing through ghostly long-ago echoes and imprints on the air of human terror and horror. I could tell that Brendan felt it, too. We absorbed as much of it as we could, staring out the window. It felt like a sworn pact, something those long-ago passengers deserved from us, lucky as we were, carefree in our own time in political history, secure in our own privileged identities. At least, for now, we were, but you never know what waits for you. There was no assurance that something like this would never happen to us.

Of course the waiter had no way of knowing that my hunger, or maybe it was thirst, for tomato soup was uncontrollable but pure. Tomato soup has a complex quality, familiar and comforting and seductive: warm, salty, sweet, creamy, bright, acidic, childlike, full of umami, with a taste of seawater, and something animal too, a metallic hint of beef blood, a profound amalgam of nostalgia and life and brine and warmth. Being on that train on a bright summer day, on vacation with the person I loved most in the world, I felt the possibility of loss and danger, and so I retreated to the dining car and glutted myself with liquid food that returned me to my childhood, when my mother would open a Campbell’s can and dump the cylinder of quivering orange-pink into a pot and add a canful of milk and stir it until it was warm enough to put into a bowl and spoon up and dip my grilled-cheese sandwich into. That ubiquitous soup formed the template of expectations that I bring to every bowl I eat. Its recipe, or maybe I should say formula, was generated and precisely calibrated by our food industry, that uniquely American mechanism that simultaneously slakes and creates hunger.

The other day, I made myself a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and opened a box of tomato soup and heated it while my sandwich browned in butter in a cast iron skillet. I sat down with my sandwich, cut on the diagonal, and an enormous bowl full of soup. Between bites of the sandwich, I spooned soup steadily into my mouth with increasing greed until I’d eaten it all, then I refilled my bowl and ate that one the same way.

I had another box of tomato soup in the cupboard, but I didn’t open it. I saved it for another day. That day is now: my craving has caught up with me again. In a few minutes, I’m going to pour the soup into a pot and heat it and make a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich, and I’ll repeat the debacle I performed the other day, a heedless tomato-soup gluttony. Once I start eating that stuff, I cannot stop. My craving generates more craving. Each bite demands another. Sometimes I lift the bowl to my mouth and gulp it slowly. When my bowl is finally empty, I need another one. All the tastes wash over my tongue in various combinations to create an unending loop of desire. When the soup is gone, I walk away from the table as filled with longing and curiosity as I was before.

No other dish has this effect on me; no other food brings me into that state of weird cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous apprehension of childhood comfort and the complexity of human existence. I’m too overwhelmed by these untenable parallels to ever get a complete grasp of it all while being simultaneously awestruck by the perfect deliciousness of the thing itself, so I have to fill my stomach to its bursting point, hoping to achieve a Zen state in which past, present, and future melt away and it’s just me and my bowl of tomato soup. Something tells me that this will never happen. But I can’t stop trying.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Here’s a little tip I would like to relate: big fish bites if ya got a good bait

I think that might have been a perfect dinner, just now, that thrown-together bunch of salads, that sort-of Maine spring Nicoise. In fact, I almost don’t want to write about it, it was so good, and all the tastes are still lingering on my tongue, garlic and fish and asparagus and potato and capers. But of course the need to write about food, mixed either with memory or desire, is almost as strong as my love of eating, so here goes:

At the local market this morning, after our hike on the Eastern Prom along the blue bay on the green bluffs in the liquid sunlight and dewy air, past blossoming trees and unfurling ferns and lush grass, we bought asparagus and chives, pea shoots and arugula.

We took another hike this afternoon, on another path along another bluff, in more gold liquid sunlight and fresh barely-warm air, past a ruined stone villa in a copse, crumbled forts and batteries, and the oldest lighthouse in Maine, watching small birds ride the swells where the waves crashed into the seaweedy rocky shore, stopping to sit on a stone wall so Dingo could loll in a patch of tender young dandelions like an odalisque, prompting us to call him Dingolion and Dandelingo because we were totally loopy with the beauty of it all, high on it in fact.

Afterwards, at home, while Brendan fed Dingo and opened a bottle of cold Orvieto, I washed four Yukon Gold potatoes and put them on to boil and trimmed this morning’s asparagus and put it on to steam, feeding a few of the ends to Dingo, who considers them delicacies on a par with anything in the world. I chopped the quarter head of radicchio and the endive that were in the fridge and put them into a big salad bowl with a handful each of pea shoots and arugula.

I made a sauce for the asparagus and potatoes: two generous tablespoons of Hain mayonnaise plus the juice of one juicy lemon, a big handful of minced chives, 3 garlic cloves, minced, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and a lot of black pepper.

When the asparagus was just steamed, I cut it coarsely into bite-sized pieces and let them cool on the cutting board. When the potatoes were just tender, I quartered them lengthwise and tossed them in a vinegar bath, equal parts apple cider and white wine, and let them marinate and cool in the fridge, for 15 minutes.

The crisp salad was tossed in the following dressing: olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, mustard, a few drips of honey, black pepper.

I divided the asparagus between two plates, then opened a can of wild Alaskan pink salmon and divided it likewise, then drizzled the fish and the asparagus in some of the chive-lemon-garlic-mayonnaise dressing. I drained the vinegar-soaked, cooled potatoes and tossed them in the rest of the mayonnaise dressing with two minced celery stalks and dished it out, threw a handful of capers over the potatoes and the fish, dusted the potato salad with smoked paprika, then put the dressed salad alongside everything else.

We sat at the counter, a little sunburned, relaxed from all the exercise in the fresh clean air. We listened to Edith Piaf and ate every scrap of everything while we sipped the crisp, barely-fruity wine. Dingo sprawled at our feet, too sacked out to beg.

It’s so good to be home. I just finished a three-week book tour to promote the paperback of “Blue Plate Special:” airports and airplanes and hotels and cities and taxis and old people I love and new people I love, eating meals on the fly, standing up in front of people and reading and talking, waking up early in the morning. I was thrown off-kilter in the manner of all homebody/introverts taken out of their routine, but I felt exhilarated and grateful and lucky the entire time.

Now that I’m home, I’m writing a new book, and when that’s done, I have two more stacked in the air behind it, waiting to land. The cycle of the writing life, the flushed anxiety of starting something new and the deeply introverted work of getting it out and the nervy excitement of revising and the extroverted pleasure of selling and promoting it and then starting all over again at the very beginning, never ends, if you’re lucky, and nothing is harder or more pleasurable or more meaningful or more scary or more thrilling, and so forth, until you die. If you’re lucky.

Anyway, it was a relief today to let my mind becalm itself as I sat in the sun on the wall leaning against Brendan, Dingo on his back in the dandelions next to us. Across the bay, old summerhouses sat cozily on an island in green scrub atop rocky cliffs. We watched a fishing trawler, a blue, trim, old-style boat with a short mast, chug past the islands to the mouth of the harbor, beyond the lighthouse, out to sea, to catch – what? Smelts? What’s left out there now? We chewed on that for a while.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments