Yerushalayim shel zahav, veshel nechoshet veshel or

Sometimes my brain goes offline. It puts itself in Idle. This happens after periods of intense thought and writing and reading, but at other times, it happens for no apparent reason. I wake up stupider than usual, and I have a hard time making conversation, and I can’t write anything at all, and reading anything more challenging than a glossy magazine is an effort. So I sit in the bath with a glossy magazine and drool gently and stare into space and let my thoughts bump around like bears in the dark. That’s been my general state these past couple of weeks. Three or four weeks, actually. It’s been going on for so long, I’m starting to suspect it’s my natural state, and my occasional bursts of sustained writing and reading are the anomaly, artificially induced by deadlines.

The one thing I can still do when my brain is in sleep mode is cook. Thank God, because I still have to eat. Lately, I’ve even been having dreams about cooking. One night, I made linguine, over and over, all night long. I cracked an egg into a mound of fine-milled buckwheat flour, threw in some salt, mixed it into a dough, rolled it out, and cut it in long, fine strips and hung them on a rack. During the course of that night, I must have made enough fresh buckwheat linguine to feed the homeless population of Portland, Maine.

Anyway, a couple of nights after the linguine dream, I had a dream about a cucumber and tomato salad. It was very simple—summery, juicy, crunchy, and fresh. In my dream, I was so excited to eat it, I couldn’t stop banging on about how good it was and how much I’d been craving it.

When I woke up, it seemed obvious that I needed to make and eat this salad as soon as possible. Later that morning, after a fast hike through the slushy snow and ice on the Casco Bay trails at the Eastern Prom, we stopped at the small market on Munjoy Hill and bought a basketful of groceries. I love this little market. It’s tiny, but it’s full of everything we want and need, all of it beautiful, most of it locally grown.

We bought vegetables, herbs, tahini, chickpeas, lemons, feta, wild rice, and wine. Just before suppertime, I put a cup of wild rice on to cook in two cups of chicken broth. Then I made a batch of hummus in the little Cuisinart: first a quarter of a cup each of lemon juice and tahini, then when that was all smooth, a couple of cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of olive oil and a 15 ounce can of chickpeas, well rinsed, in two batches, with a dash of water. I dumped the creamy, rich hummus into a bowl, smoothed it out, then sprinkled cayenne and paprika and poured olive oil on top. It tasted better than any store-bought hummus I’d ever had. I’d never made it from scratch before, and now I couldn’t fathom why not.

Then I peeled, cored, and chopped two cucumbers along with two ripe tomatoes, diced a red onion, and minced a big bunch each of mint, cilantro, and parsley. I diced two red peppers, squeezed half a cup of fresh lemon juice, and then I was ready to throw together a tabbouleh and a salad.

I stuck the cooked rice in the freezer for a while to cool, then took it out and added half the chopped herbs, half the red onion, and a red pepper. I poured half the lemon juice into it, doused it with olive oil, added black pepper and cumin, mixed it well, tasted it, and lo, it was done.

The cucumbers and tomatoes, the second red pepper and other half of the red onion, and the rest of the herbs and lemon juice went into a separate bowl with more olive oil, cumin, and black pepper. I crumbled the entire block of feta over it, considered and decided against olives, mixed it well, and then that was done, too.

We heaped our plates high, piling the salad on top of a bed of baby arugula and the hummus on top of the tabbouleh. We sat at the counter, crunching away. The cucumber and tomato salad was as good as the one in my dream, or maybe even better, since I hadn’t thought to add feta in my dream. Sometimes real life is better.

We ate the leftovers for dinner the next night; the salad had marinated in the olive oil and lemon juice, and the wild rice tabbouleh had steeped in its own flavors, too, so everything was even more delicious the second time around.

My brain is still offline. But it’s a bit clearer; that influx of fresh raw vegetables seems to have given it a sort of boost, along with the “Israeli sandwiches” we’ve been eating for breakfast. I call them that because they remind me of the breakfast buffet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where I had the luxury of staying when I was in Israel for my cousin-in-law’s wedding, many years ago. In the hotel dining room were tables filled with platters mounded with smoked fish and creamy cheese and sliced raw vegetables and bagels and rye breads and fruit salad and olives and hummus and babaganoush and tabbouleh. I’ve been to Israel three times, and Jerusalem is an amazing, awe-inspiring city, of course, but that breakfast was memorable.

Israeli Breakfast Sandwich

Spread soft mild goat cheese on two pieces of hot toast. Add plenty of smoked fish (I used bluefish), ripe tomato and peeled cucumber, and a small handful of arugula. Clap the pieces together and eat it right away.

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We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet

2014 is going to be the Year of No: no blurbing books, no reading anything I don’t want to read, no writing anything I don’t want to write, no drinking and eating too much, no spending so much time on the computer, no spending money on anything but necessities, the most important of which are Dingo, our house, the car, groceries, and books. NO NO NO. It’s also going to be a year of writing a new novel, a novel I’m starting to feel excited about, something new and different.

On December 14th, after two long, grueling days of driving back home from Iowa City, we crossed the Maine border well after dark (“Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be”). We pulled into our garage that night at 8:00. Laden with stuff, we unlocked the door and walked into our house. I staggered around, my jaw agape: I couldn’t believe it. While we were in Iowa, I focused anxiously on all our house’s problems.  I had forgotten how beautiful it is.

When the car was unloaded, Dingo walked and tucked away in his bed, we went straight to our favorite corner bistro and ordered the meal we’d been dreaming of for 1,000 miles: cocktails and lobster tail salad, then green salads and steak frites with a bottle of robust red wine. It was heavenly to be back there, eating our favorite meal; all the waitstaff remembered us and said welcome back. Walking home through the icy, snowy night, we had a silly fight, because we were as tired and cranky as two-year-olds after a birthday party. We laughed at ourselves, collapsed in our big comfortable bed, and corked off to the best sleep we’d had in months.

And then, in the week that followed, while Brendan got right back to work without missing a beat, I crashed into mornings and afternoons of long baths and spaced-out daydreaming. However, in a deeper sense, I also felt recharged, inspired, reconnected to my literary roots by my time in Iowa. I missed my students, the profound camaraderie we shared all those months. But it was good to be back in this ocean town with its briny winter air, softer somehow than the Midwestern bone-dry Arctic chill.

We spent Christmas in New Hampshire with Brendan’s parents, brothers, and grandmother, cooking feasts and playing games and walking in the icy snow. There was a tall, festooned pine tree in the library. On Christmas day, Brendan and his father made an Italian bolito, beef roast simmered with carrots and potatoes, then the fragrant broth used for tortellini soup and the tender meat served sliced with the vegetables alongside and a salsa verde of minced capers, anchovies, parsley, garlic, hard-boiled eggs, vinegar, and olive oil.  We drank wine at the long table by candlelight as the sun went down and toasted one another – “To family.” This was Brendan’s and my fifth Christmas together and my third with his family. It was the best one we’ve ever had.

On the 28th, this past Saturday night, we threw a small cocktail party. It started at 5:30, as most evenings do in this town, and was over well before 10.  About twenty of us drank two and a half bottles of whiskey, six bottles of wine, and three bottles of cava. We also ate a heap of food, a good-luck southern New Year’s spread: pulled pork (for health and forward motion), hoppin’ John (for luck), macaroni and cheese (for gold), and collard greens (for money) simmered with smoked ham hocks (for even more health and forward motion), plus doughnuts (for continuity, coming full circle) for dessert. We had decked the living rooms with pine wreaths and boughs (which we got for free because it was after Christmas, so the guy at the flower shop down the street was about to throw them all out), plus lots of lit candles and strings of old-fashioned colored Christmas lights, the 1970s bulb kind. The rooms were aglow and gorgeous, but of course everyone congregated around the food and booze in the undecorated, brightly lit kitchen and didn’t budge. And so it always goes… but it didn’t matter. It was so good to see our friends again.

We spent last night, New Year’s Eve, with more friends. My paperback editor and her husband, who are in town for the holidays, came over for a glass of wine and a couple of hours of bubbly, convivial conversation, and then we drove to South Portland to a dinner party with one of our favorite couples, Michael and Jeffrey, and some old, dear friends of theirs. First, there was smoked fish with flash-pickled carrots and beets along with Japanese roast pork wrapped in lettuce with hot pepper sauce. For dinner, they had made a Boston boiled dinner, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes, another variation of the good-luck traditional humble New Year’s meal – “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.” 

We all laughed and talked all night on gusts of warmth and happiness. Our hosts’ charming, gamine seven-year-old daughter, Phoebe, performed magic tricks with aplomb, then brought out her whoopee cushion and remote-controlled flying sphere, to endless hilarity. The two dogs and lovely little tabby cat were charming and gamine, as well. We got home by midnight, went to bed shortly after that, and awoke to a bright new year, ready to let go of the old one.

Hoppin’ John

Sauté in plenty of olive oil 1 chopped onion, 2 ribs celery, 1 green and 1 red pepper, and 8 cloves of chopped garlic. Add very generous dashes of cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, thyme, as well as 2-3 minced jalapeno peppers and a bay leaf. Add 1 package chopped turkey andouille (4 sausages) and sauté until everything is fragrant and soft. Add 2 cups of chicken broth, a can of diced tomatoes, several shots of Tabasco, 2-3 cans of lightly rinsed blackeyed peas, and ½ cup long-grained white rice. Simmer, covered and stirring every now and then, for 30-40 minutes. Add more broth if needed. Taste — adjust seasonings — cook until rice is soft.

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Hooray for the fun, is the pudding done? Hooray for the pumpkin pie

My workshop met every Tuesday afternoon this fall from 4:30 until about 7. It always felt like the high point of the week to me, when all ten of us emerged from our lairs to sit together around the long table in my office, talking intently and passionately about writing.

My office was inhabited by other visiting writers before me. It’s filled with the sediment of their tenure at the Workshop: boxes of abandoned kitchen stuff, personal letters and photos in the desk drawers; someone’s books on the shelves; a stale pack of American Spirits. (I’ve left some things of my own there, to join the archives.)

As the semester went on, it got dark earlier and earlier, of course. Maybe to combat the encroaching darkness, a collection of small toys appeared in the middle of the table. People liked to fiddle with them. Jamie contorted the skeletons. Nana and Ashley wore the rubbery starburst rings. Jonathan had his own helicopter, until it broke. Others poked the plastic turkey and pumpkin.

The two writers who were “up” were responsible for bringing snacks. After class, we stored the rolled-up bags of chips and popcorn, the rest of the cookies and pretzels, on a shelf in the back of the room. Our snack collection grew as the weeks went on. Sometimes, during my office hours, a hungry student came in to raid it and, incidentally, to talk to me.

Despite the snacks and toys, the laughter and chatting for the first 20 minutes or so of every meeting, we all worked very, very hard together. It was an intense, lively collaboration, in which everyone was engaged, everyone had things to say. No matter whose work was under discussion, what we were really talking about was writing itself, the discipline we’ve all committed ourselves to for life. Some of us tended to be more visceral, others more cerebral, but we were all working toward the same end. Each workshop meeting ended, somehow, with a sense of resolution, clarity, and accord.

After workshop, we went out somewhere together, the Bluebird or Clinton Street, to sit at yet another long table, talking and drinking and eating, the ten of us a diverse and varied group that somehow always seemed to cohere into a whole. Avro is Indian, from Mumbai; Okezie is Nigerian-American, Nana is Cameroonian-American, Tom is Vietnamese-American, Jonathan is Iranian-British. Josh is from Arizona, Jamie is from Florida. Ashley is from No Cal, Casey is from So Cal.  I’ve lived all over the country. We’ve all moved around a lot, we’re all gypsies of one kind of another. And here we were, in Iowa City, a temporary tribe.

Like every tribe, we developed our own catch phrases, shorthand for a concept. Everyone got a nickname, gradually; Smash, Alpha, Uncle Queso, Saucy Eggplant, Spicy Mango, Sterno. Sometimes it felt like camp, in the best way.  And always, every week, we put our hearts and souls into our shared work.

At the first workshop meeting, I was informed, quietly but firmly, that the workshop would be having Thanksgiving together. The implication was that this would happen at my house. So in the weeks before Thanksgiving, I ordered a 24-pound turkey and researched corn bread-sausage stuffing recipes and dug up the cranberry relish recipe from my former mother-in-law. I developed a cocktail for the occasion with the input of my friend Rosie Schaap. And I sent out a list of all the sides we needed: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, kale salad, pies, appetizers.

On Thanksgiving Day, Brendan and I set up the rented tables and put the extra leaf in the dining room table. We draped tablecloths. I arranged the centerpieces: clementines, small gourds, pomegranates; tea lights on decorative fall leaves. The turkey, rubbed with fresh minced herbs and oil, stuffed with cut-up green apples, lemons, and onions, and sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and sage, went into the oven at 10:30. I assembled the stuffing so it would be ready to bake when the turkey came out: buttermilk corn bread baked the day before, cubed and left out overnight; two pounds of fresh, spicy chorizo; minced onions and celery; toasted walnuts; dried cranberries I’d made the day before.

People started arriving, twenty-one guests in all – my workshop plus their friends and mates, all of them dressed elegantly, laden with food and wine. I made a round of Cranberry Criminals: bourbon with cranberry-orange puree and ginger beer, garnished with a slice of orange.  We set out the cheese plate and Lauren’s rosemary-olive-fig tart. The kitchen counters were crowded with baking dishes and bowls. Jamie assembled her kale salad, which had taken her two hours to make. Casey brought the mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, as planned, but he also brought a “surprise” – gorgeous handmade Jello shots with bourbon-soaked cherries inside, set into halved orange peels and sliced. Okezie and Jonathan had both baked bread. There were spicy quinoa and macaroni-and-cheese casseroles and Nana’s amazing sweet potatoes that melted in your mouth.

The turkey emerged at 4:00, golden and crackling and tender, its meat perfumed with herbs and aromatics. I whisked fine-milled buckwheat flour into the drippings, then thinned the gravy with the giblet broth that had simmered for hours on the back of the stove. Wine bottles and wineglasses migrated to the long tables; the tea candles were lit. It was just dusk.

We filled our plates at the buffet table and found seats. I stood up and said, “Welcome, everyone, bon appetit, I’m so glad you’re all here,” and then we ate and drank and ate and drank some more. The food was the best Thanksgiving food any of us had ever had. All those months of working together had infused us with the habit of collaboration. The meal was a sort of outward expression of our teamwork, the manifestation of what a tight crew we’d become.

We ate some more. A couple of people went out to smoke cigars. I walked Dingo. A few people rinsed plates and put away the leftovers.

And then we had dessert, along with the best White Russians in the history of the cocktail. James, one of my seminar students, had made Momofuku cornflake milk. He brought small-batch vodka with a handmade label, and added fresh-brewed coffee to the Kahlua. And Lauren’s gluten-free pumpkin pie was perfect.

It was suddenly late, but no one felt like going home. “Let’s play Werewolf,” several of us said. It’s a game of teamwork as well as psychological nerves. The wine kept flowing. Jamie, although she was coming down with a deathly cold, hung on staunchly as our stellar God, and we went down rabbit holes of accusation, murder, and retribution. After working together for the common good all semester, it was good black fun to kill, accuse, and recriminate.

Maybe because I was their teacher, their leader, my students were initially reluctant to accuse me, even after I’d all but confessed. But they got me, in the end.

Cranberry Criminals

(So-called because they’re based on Cranberry Culprits,  swapping out amaretto for orange. And orange is the color of convicts.)

In a blender, put a cup each of tart cranberry sauce and orange juice and blend until smooth. Into each rocks glass, over a few cubes of ice, pour 2 ounces Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, as suggested by the amazing Rosie Schaap. Add a glug of the puree and top with strong-tasting, spicy ginger beer; I like Maine Root. Stir and garnish with an orange slice. Make more puree as needed.

All quantities are slapdash and approximate.


Uncle Queso’s Old-Fashioned Jello Shots

Brandy-Soaked Cherries:

Wash and pit a pound of cherries. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, ½ cup water, 2 tsp. lemon juice, and 1 cinnamon stick. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium. Add the cherries and simmer for 5–7 minutes. Remove from heat, add 1 cup of brandy and let cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Bitters Syrup:

Combine 1 ½ cups water, 1 cup sugar, and 9 tablespoons Angostura bitters in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until mixture boils, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Jello Shots:

Combine 2/3 cup soda water, 2/3 cup bitters syrup, and 2 tablespoons of the cherry liquid in a small saucepan and sprinkle with 2 envelopes Knox gelatin. Allow the gelatin to soak for a minute or two. Heat over very low heat until gelatin is dissolved, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add 2/3 cup bourbon, stirring well to blend. Casey says: “Can’t stress enough to add the whisky off the heat… don’t risk cooking out your booze!” (Reserve the rest of the cherry liquid and bitters syrup for the next batch.)

Halve 6 clementines. Carefully remove the fruit to preserve the peels intact. Stabilize each peel half-shell in a muffin tin. Pour liquid gelatin mixture into each half. Spike with the cherries. Chill until set, then slice into sections, garnish with lemon zest, and serve to a crowd of suddenly happy writers.


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What a long, strange trip it’s been

About a month ago, one of my seminar students, Tim, a first-year fiction writer, said to me, “You should come with Deb and me to a Hawkeye game. Deb tailgates. You’d love it.”

Deb West has run the office at the Workshop for twenty-five years. Her first year there was also mine, as well as Frank Conroy’s first year as director; I was in his first-ever workshop. So Deb and I have a bond. We’re old-timers. We remember back when the Workshop was in EPB, the dark English-Philosophy Building, back when it was male-dominated and scary.

I said, “Which game? When?”

This past Friday afternoon, Gretchen arrived on the Megabus from Chicago. She had packed all her warmest clothes, because it was supposed to be the coldest home game on record. Gretchen, who came to the Workshop the same year I did, was the obvious person to invite to be my date for the tailgate: She had never been to a Hawkeye game, either, but for different reasons from mine.

I grew up in a family that was only uneasily American; my mother was born in Switzerland, her father in Germany, and after the Pusches emigrated to America during WWII, she grew up in Rudolf Steiner communities and Waldorf boarding schools, which are little puddles of European elitism. In Berkeley in the 1960s, my parents protested the Vietnam War and marched against the government. My mother and sisters and I were outsiders, weirdoes, misfits in the Baptist, Republican Sun Valley of 1970s Arizona. We did not watch sports. We listened to Bach and sang rounds and went camping and made our own dolls and wrote plays and stories and looked askew, askance, at American culture, even as we yearned to be part of it. (Only recently have I realized that, of course, we were quintessentially American.)

Gretchen, for her part, didn’t go to Hawkeye games when we were at the Workshop because, as a lifelong Oklahoma Sooners fan, she scorned Big 10 football. She grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the daughter of a petroleum engineer and a psychologist. She worshiped Jane Austen, wrote poetry, and was a math genius. Despite all this, she was always comfortable with her own Americanness, maybe because her family didn’t cast themselves as outliers. There was no cultural disconnect for her. When I first met her, I realized this about her and loved her for it, and I also, secretly, envied her.

“You do know the rules of football, right?” she asked me in the car on Saturday morning at 8:00, right before we picked up Tim.

As it happens, I do know the rules of football, because my ex-husband, who grew up in Pittsburgh, watched almost every Steeler game on TV during the fourteen years we were together, so thanks to him, I had absorbed the intricacies of downs, fumbles, and interceptions.

“Thank God,” said Gretchen. “Then I won’t have to explain it all during the game.”

We parked near Deb’s silver Caddy. She and her husband Mark and his brother were putting up the sides on the tent when we arrived. She greeted us with a big hug. It was the first time she’d seen Gretchen in twenty-five years.

I had been more excited about tailgating than going to the game, and I wasn’t disappointed. There was a propane heater going full blast by some folding armchairs. A huge pot of water had been set to boil on a burner, and they’d set up two tables and a grill. On the first table were plates, napkins, a pitcher of Bloody Marys, and a tray of strawberry confections, half of which were Jello shots. On the other table was an array of omelet fixings, a gallon jug of eggs beaten with milk, and a box of plastic bags. Evidently we were going to boil our omelets; I was dubious, but game.

“I learned it from fishermen,” said Mark.

“It’s Boy Scout omelets,” said Deb.

I added a pan of jalapeno-cheddar cornbread, a horseradish-heavy pitcher of Bloody Mary mix, and a jar of pickled asparagus to the first table. Gretchen plunked down a bottle of vodka.

It was eleven degrees Fahrenheit, and I had lost my hat the night before, so Gretchen and I went up to the Hawkeye-paraphernalia stand and picked me out an orange and black thermal cap with dangly ear flaps and a pom-pon on top. I put it on. Instantly, I was warmer. Also instantly, I was a Hawkeye fan. I could feel it. The whole time I’ve lived in Iowa City, I’ve been mystified by the amount of bumblebee-colored gear everyone wears. For the first time, I could understand the appeal, that warm sense of belonging to a tribe.

Back at the tent, we all poured ourselves breakfast cocktails and toasted, “Go Hawkeyes!”

Deb and Mark have been Hawkeye fans for many years; Tim, a transplanted New Yorker, is a recent convert; Gretchen had finally managed to add love for the Hawkeyes to her love for the Sooners; and I felt as if I were popping my football-fandom cherry then and there.

Just then, out of the blue, I remembered that my father used to be a Hawkeye fan. In the summer of 1988, when I was twenty-six, between my first and second years at the Writers’ Workshop, I spent the summer in the Bay Area. On a sort of whim, I called my father, whom I’d seen only sporadically since I was eight. One night, he took me to dinner; this was the last time I would ever see him, but I didn’t know it then. When he heard I was living in Iowa City, my cool customer of a father got eager and excited, like a kid.

“The Hawkeyes,” he said. “Great team. When I was at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s, my friends and I used to drive down to Iowa City for home games. We’d drive all the way back again that same night. Do you go to games?”

“No,” I said, startled.

And now, here I was, tailgating with my old Workshop pals, and just like that, everything came together, the past meeting the present and resolving itself. I belonged here as much as anyone, as much as I belonged anywhere. It was no big deal.

We assembled our omelets in plastic bags and boiled them. They came out fluffy and moist and better than just about any pan omelet I’ve had. We ate them with the cornbread, warmed on the grill in its baking pan, and Mark’s brother’s classic-seeming Midwestern casserole, “cheesy potatoes,” frozen hash browns mixed with a can of onion soup and a can of cheese soup and topped with grated cheese and baked. And we had chocolate-dipped strawberry Jello shots for dessert and Bloody Marys to keep us warm, and Deb’s homemade salsa with corn chips to snack on.

By kickoff at 11:00, it had warmed up to eighteen degrees. Gretchen and I put handwarmers in our toes. We made our way into the stadium with everyone else and stood in the stands with 70,000 fellow Hawkeye fans, jumping up and down, chanting, dancing, and yelling “Whoooo!”

Cheering, it turns out, keeps you warm. And it also works: the Hawkeyes fought their way from behind to win the game, 24-21, against their hated rival, the Michigan Wolverines.

Fisherman’s Omelet (or Boy Scout Omelet, depending who you ask)

Beat a dozen eggs with half a cup of milk and pour into a gallon jug. Assemble a cup or so each of various fillings, chopped or grated: bacon, sausage, onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, gruyere, Velveeta, and olives.

Put your choices of fillings into a tough plastic zip-lock Baggie, then pour enough egg mixture in so it fills about an inch and a half of the bag. Roll it up to get all the air out, then seal it well and write your name on it with a Sharpie. Boil it for 20 minutes, then open it and eat on a plate with salsa, cornbread, and cheesy potatoes.

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Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night

Today was my day off. It was also cold and stormy and dark. I woke up late and drank a big cup of coffee and tried and failed to catch up with my emails, my to-do list, and my business stuff.

In the early afternoon, chilled and sleepy, I gave up and spent a few happy hours in a hot bath full of scented bath salts. I read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which several of my workshop students have commanded me to read; I discovered, to my delight, that it’s dedicated to Brendan’s grandfather, who was his close friend. Time went by and the sky went from dark to black; hard rain fell against the windows. I was too absorbed in the book to think about anything else. When Brendan got home and fed and walked Dingo, I got out of the bath, opened some wine, and, in my bathrobe and pajamas, threw together a quick, easy vegetable coconut curry with brown basmati rice.

This was a much-needed, very quiet day. Last Friday, we took the Megabus to Chicago to visit our friend Gretchen. We arrived near Union Station at 2:30. Gretchen whisked us to the French Market for lobster and coleslaw, then took us on the El through the Loop and back to her top-floor apartment, whose building abuts the Graceland Cemetery.  Sitting around a table in her cozy treehouse of a windowed porch, we ate four different kinds of cheese and drank autumnal Templeton rye-pumpkin hard cider cocktails we invented and dubbed Leaf Rakers, to the tune of “Goldfinger,” with the intent of “Moonraker.”

Later, with Gretchen’s friends Betsy and Rob, we walked through the cold, windy night to Mixteca, where I ordered the cochinita pibil and ate every bite of it. At Carol’s, the neighborhood bar, we drank nightcaps and danced off our dinner to the live country house band whose “girl” singer, Reba, is 60 if she’s a day and glamorously sultry, showing off her amazing legs in a short skirt and cowgirl boots. I requested “Crazy,” and she crooned it while I burped gently against Brendan’s shoulder like an overfed baby and closed my eyes and let him shuffle me around the dance floor.

The next day, Gretchen took us to Angel Food Bakery for hangover brunch, which gave us the wherewithal to explore the architectural salvage museum, or rather emporium, for a couple of wide-eyed hours–we saw, among 4,000 other wonders, an old autopsy table, prison desks, a papier-mache but convincing human skeleton, a confession booth, an old, rickety Argentinean wooden farm bed whose slats were hairy cowhide and which was obviously haunted by childbirths and consummations and deaths galore, plus a vintage plastic hamburger from an old McDonald’s, eerily lifelike. Then, on a hot tip from the owner’s sister, who just bought a house there, we took a fast drive for several miles down Lakeshore Drive to Jackson Park, home of Jesse Jackson, just to check it out. We gawped at the beautiful houses for a while, driving slowly up and down the quiet streets. Then we took a long, windy walk around the lake and harbor at Montrose Beach, winding up at the Magic Hedge, a former gay pickup hotspot and now a bird sanctuary. Walking back to the car, we passed a dinghy in the harbor called the Flounder Pounder, which sent us all into paroxysms of smutty punning.

After aperitifs at Gretchen’s friend Jeff’s artist pad in the former fruit market, we went to the Honky Tonk for Memphis-style dry-rub racks of ribs (it was a weekend of pork) with black-eyed peas, greens, coleslaw, and sweet potatoes. We drank whisky-lemonade cocktails called Lonely Presbyterians and listened to a terrific, louche band of four young men in zombie face paint (it was Halloween weekend, after all). When the burlesque began, we cut our losses and moved along to the amazing and beautiful Green Mill Jazz Club for a nightcap. We sat in one of the plush little semicircular booths under a mural in the dim light of the torch lamps overhead and listened to a Midwestern jazz band that included two dueling male sax players and an elderly, zaftig, strident female singer in a bright yellow fright wig. As she warbled “My Funny Valentine,” Gretchen showed me the booth where Al Capone used to sit; he could see the front entrance and the back exit at the same time, so from whatever direction trouble came, he could scurry out the other way. No doubt, there was also a secret passage behind the bar.

The next day, we went to church with Gretchen. The 4th Presbyterian Church’s Reformation Sunday service was stellar: the scriptural reading featured apocalypse and damnation; the sermon was about fighting a hard battle; there was a bagpipe player in a kilt who played “Scotland the Brave;” plus we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with the church’s chorus, who were up in the loft, including a divaesque, statuesque, flamingly redheaded soprano whose voice was blisteringly radiant.

After that, starving and righteous, we repaired to Mojo Spa for mani-pedis and a decadent brunch of egg-and-bacon on a roll (mine was gluten-free and baked in-house) and cranberry vodka cocktails. Then, laden with the vintage black Italian widow dress Gretchen gave me, a beautiful painting Jeff made of Montrose Beach and gave us, and our new spa products, plus a bag of leftover ribs and sides that we ate on the way home, we burbled back to Iowa City on the Megabus, and a new working week began.

Easy Coconut-Vegetable Curry

Put a cup of brown basmati rice and 2 cups of chicken broth into a pot, bring to a boil, cover, and turn down to simmer.

Mince 4 garlic cloves and a tablespoon of ginger and one large yellow onion and add to a heated tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Turn to low and let it all soften, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add a can of coconut milk, 1-2 tablespoons of curry powder, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon tamari, and ½-1 teaspoon salt (to taste). While the sauce simmers, cut up 2 carrots, one large stalk of broccoli, a small yellow pepper, and a handful of button mushrooms, or any other vegetables of your choice, about 3 cups in all. Add these to the pot, stir well, cover, and simmer. If you need more liquid, add a little chicken broth. Stir frequently and adjust seasonings when the vegetables soften. Toward the end of cooking, add a big handful each of minced cilantro and basil.  Stir well and serve over rice with Major Grey’s chutney.

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Make you want to dance, love and happiness

It’s getting cold in Iowa. The other day, wet snowflakes fell. Yesterday, we walked around Lake MacBride in a lowering, gloomy, chilly dusk. The lily pads have all withered to dark thin stalks with pods at the top; they looked like a spooky, abandoned miniature sci-fi city floating on the surface. Geese flapped over the becalmed lake. Smaller birds flew up from the weeds at the water’s edge in an eerie rush of beating wings. The grasses and leaves blazed bright white-gold, orange, and russet. Dingo frisked along, flushing a deer, chasing squirrels, grinning up at us as he barreled by. He loves cold weather. It makes him a puppy again. We hunched in our coats with our hands in our pockets to keep them warm until we’d walked far and fast enough to get our blood going.

After our walk, we fed Dingo his dinner—kibble, a squirt of fish oil, his chondroitin/glucosamine/MSM tablet, and some cut-up apple in lieu of the canned stuff he usually gets—on the ground by the car, followed by a bowl of water. He fell on his piquenique sur l’herbe grunting—with joy, we presumed. Then we drove to Mount Vernon for our Wednesday night dinner at the Lincoln Café. We were both starving; we’d been working all day and had both forgotten to eat lunch. We ordered the prawn appetizer; five big shrimp came with their heads on, eyes broiled red, tiny arms and all, drenched in miso butter with pickled daikon radish and cayenne-puffed rice. We grunted like Dingo as we ate them. Five minutes later the plate was practically licked clean.

Then came the trout salads: fresh green lettuce with carrot and cucumber slices, capers, chunks of smoked trout, and a trout paté. This is our current favorite thing, anywhere. After we demolished those, we got huge plates of chicken breasts wrapped in bacon over “heirloom buckwheat” polenta with chanterelles and cheddar and horseradish-apple salad. Given that combination of ingredients, plus the fact that the people cooking back there really know what they’re doing, of course it was fantastic, but I could barely eat mine; the trout salad is filling. So we had it boxed up and brought it home.

This morning, I cut up the chicken and bacon while a pot of corn polenta simmered, then added the cubed meat to the pot with the leftover buckwheat polenta and chanterelles, then dished it up in bowls. We needed a warming breakfast. The polenta was as creamy as hot cereal, which it arguably is. And what doesn’t go with chicken and bacon?

Warm silkiness not something I generally think much about, but lately it’s the quality in food I’ve been craving most, without realizing it until just now. I’m in the mood for food with the texture of Al Green’s voice. The other day, I made a rich, light avgolemono, an easy fast Greek egg-chicken lemon-rice soup. A couple of days before that, we made a tagliatelle alla carbonara (Brendan found a really good gluten-free pasta, imported from Italy, made of brown rice, salt, and egg) with twice the eggs and cheese and bacon the recipe called for. We used uncured English bacon, which was lean, chewy, and full of porky flavor.

I’m also hankering after zabaglione, the Italian egg custard made with vin santo or Marsala and very little sugar.

All of these dishes are made with barely-cooked beaten eggs, which provide the sexiest texture I know of. Raw beaten eggs are tossed with piping-hot pasta and sautéed chopped bacon for carbonara. For avgolemono, Arborio rice and chicken are simmered in chicken stock, then some of the hot broth is drizzled into beaten eggs and lemon juice while whisking, then that mixture is, in turn, folded back into the pot after the heat’s been turned off. For zabaglione, beaten eggs, sugar, and dessert wine are stirred over a double boiler until they thicken, then served immediately. In each case, the eggs turn delicate, satiny, decadent, sheeny, the texture of nursery pap—Cream of Wheat, pillowy tapioca pudding. All three of these savory egg dishes are a yolky, buttery yellow-gold.

Sometimes on winter mornings Brendan makes “coddled” eggs; but his version doesn’t involve whole eggs in a bain-marie. He beats four very fresh eggs with a little salt and sugar and a dollop of half and half. After melting plenty of butter in a simmering double boiler, he gently coaxes the eggs along in the warm butter until they form big, creamy, barely coalescent curds. We eat them with buttered toast, like little kids, wriggling our toes.

Double-Your-Pleasure Carbonara

The carbonari are the charcoal burners in Italy who, according to some, were the original inventors of this dish, which could be tossed together on a cold night in the hills as they tended their charcoal fires. (In the States, it’s sometimes called “coal miner’s spaghetti.”)

In Italy, it’s usually made with Guanciale, unsmoked cheek bacon, the closest American approximation of which is “jowl bacon,” a staple of soul food. Some day when I find both, I want to make cheek-by-jowl carbonara, but for now, plain old bacon works fine.

Cook a pound of long, thin pasta; spaghetti is best, but linguine or tagliatelle are good, too.

While the pasta is cooking, chop 8 ounces of slab bacon or pancetta and slice 4 garlic cloves and sauté it all in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until crisp.

In a large mixing bowl, beat 4 eggs and add a cup (or two) of grated parmigiano-reggiano and plenty of black pepper.

When the pasta is done, drain it well (this recipe requires no reserved cooking liquid) and toss it in the pan with the bacon and garlic until it’s soaked up the fat and flavors, then add the whole shebang to the egg-cheese mixture and toss it fast and lightly until the strands of pasta are coated with barely-cooked, silky egg and melted cheese. Serve immediately with more grated cheese and chopped flat-leaf parsley.

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And Rocky said “Doc, it’s only a scratch”

Whenever we drive out to Lake MacBride, we remark on the quantity of dead, car-struck animals at the side of the road. Most of them are raccoons. In certain macabre moods, I wonder whether there’s a suicide pact among a faction of the coon population of Iowa. These are intelligent creatures, after all.

High above the dead animals are buzzards and carrion crows, slowly circling on updrafts, waiting for a cessation of traffic to swoop in for a feed.  They, at least, seem to understand the danger of cars.

Wild animals coexist with humans in an increasingly uneasy imbalance. The animals generally lose the ongoing struggle for territory, resources, and survival. For every deer who wanders into a house and makes itself at home, coyote who poaches domesticated chickens, or bear who snuggles up in a car, snacking on leftover McDonald’s, there are exponentially more tales of woe: thousands of geese killed to protect airplanes, mysterious massive die-offs of honeybees and now moose, the total disappearance of sardines from Pacific waters.

And road kill is everywhere. In New Hampshire, it’s usually deer, 1500 a year or so. It’s legal there to eat the deer you hit with your car. In fact, over a dozen states have passed pro-roadkill laws, including Georgia, where bear is often on the menu. You just have to call the authorities after you hit the thing and have them okay it, and then you’re free to take home your bumper game, or flat meat, as it’s called.

Road kill has become so popular in certain parts of rural New Hampshire that there is growing suspicion that these deer are not killed by accident, but are “car hunted,” in typical DIY Yankee derring-do fashion, due to new restrictions on traditional hunting. “Live free or die,” indeed.

PETA approves of eating road kill; it’s healthier than factory-raised meat. “It is also more humane,” their website reads, “in that animals killed on the road were not castrated, dehorned, or debeaked without anesthesia, did not suffer the trauma and misery of transportation in a crowded truck in all weather extremes, and did not hear the screams and smell the fear of the animals ahead of them on the slaughter line.” In other words, the free-range, hormone-free, cage-free animal never knew what hit it.

A very helpful and informative Wiki website called “How to Eat Road Kill” advises that the following are edible: “Badger, hedgehog, otter, rabbit, pheasant, fox, beaver, squirrel, deer (venison), moose, bear, raccoon, opossum, kangaroo, wallaby, possum, rabbit, etc. Reptiles can also be eaten, but they might be fairly squashed. Rats may carry Weil’s disease and are therefore best avoided.”

Down at the bottom, there is this comforting reassurance: “Rabies virus dies fast once the host is dead. Cooking destroys the virus.”

Okay then!

Anyway, so as we were driving along the highway the other day, staring out at the motionless furry critters by the side of the road, one after another after another, we started talking about the idea of eating road kill, not for the first time, and not in any actual or intentional way, just in that speculative musing mood that often besets motorists staring idly out at cornfields and sky, daydreaming aloud. In other words, we have no plans ever to eat road kill, but it’s an interesting thing to contemplate.

That night, my independent-study student, Vanessa, came over for dinner and a “work sesh,” bearing a gift: Iowa’s Road Kill Cookbook by Bruce Carlson, published in 1989 by Quixote Press. It’s a small grey paperback with a silhouette of a squashed rabbit in a tire track on the cover.

“How did you know?” I sputtered excitedly. (As a side note, a phrase like “sputtered excitedly” evidently breaks one of the MFA-program rules for dialogue writing, which only makes me want to use it all the goddamned time from now on.) “We’ve been obsessed with eating road kill lately!”

“Dude, I just found it at Haunted Books. I must be psychic.”

We sat out on the porch and discussed her project and ate wild Alaskan salmon filets with a simple but delicious chipotle sauce I invented a couple of years ago and never get tired of (into the blender go a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce, a big dollop of mayonnaise, the juice of one lemon, and three garlic cloves; whizz into a smooth creamy sauce, pour over the fish, and bake). Alongside, as usual, I served wild rice and garlicky baby spinach. The salmon was, presumably, not killed on any road, anywhere.

Folded and tucked into the book was a menu, mimeographed on cheap paper, from Nebraska’s Roadkill Cafe: “You Kill It… We Grill It!” Inside, Chef “Wheels” Pierre offers such delicacies as Chunk of Skunk, Smidgen of Pigeon, Awesome Possum, and Rigor Mortis Tortoise. For the more adventurous, there’s Pit Bull Pot Pie, Poodles ‘N Noodles, and Shar-Pei Filet. The Shake ‘N Bake Snake looks especially tempting. However, I might be inclined to skip the Daily Special, “Guess That Mess:” “If you can guess what it is… you eat it for FREE.”

The book itself is dedicated to Iowa Ventre Montanters, a French term for those who salvage animals who are “Belly-up.” Ventre Montant cuisine, according to the author, is eco-conscious, sensible, and budget-friendly.  However, the tone of the book is irreverent and cheeky and not for the squeamish, and the recipes are improbably disgusting. Still, it has added a level of connoisseurship to our daily drives to and from the lake. Very freshly killed raccoons have begun to strike me as acceptable candidates for certain of the more playful dishes.

Crunchy Coon Gizzards


2 C. coon innerds

1 C. rye flour

2 duck eggs (if unavailable, use chicken eggs)

2 C. Rice Krispies

Spread in greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes


1 C. chopped coon gizzards

5 large Hershey bars

Mix in blender till smooth. Spread on baked innards and season to taste. Serves 4.

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