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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain

I awoke early this morning to another cold rainy gray day. As I got out of bed and put on my robe, Dingo came back soaking wet from his walk. While Brendan made coffee, I toweled him off and fed him, and then he sloped off to the couch for a nap while we drank our coffee, holding onto the mugs for warmth.

We’re all craving sun and warmth. Every time I put my coat on yet again to go out, I think, what season is this? Outside, I adjust my expectations, put on my hood, try to convince myself that it’s not late February. The chilly air forces me to stay retracted into myself, like a prolonged inhalation, when I’m jonesing to expand and turn outward and get the stale air out of my lungs. The trees and bushes in this town are just starting to bud, but barely, cautiously; I’m sure they all feel the same way I do, as well as the bulb flowers, which are getting a late start in recently thawed dirt. The ash tree in back always puts out leaves much later than the trees around it. It’s showing no signs of renewed life yet, and I don’t expect anything from it for a while. We’re all walking around hunched into our warm clothes, looking askance at the sky, griping to anyone who will listen, marveling at how disappointed we all are after such a brutal winter to be denied a warm, sunny spring. It feels unnatural and cruel. Our bones are cold and our timbers are shivering, up here in the north.

Rebelling is pointless. Yesterday, at the Japanese place, the waitress was surprised that I wanted cold sake rather than hot. Defiantly, I ordered it, along with a big cold fresh crunchy salad and a summery cucumber-avocado roll. It’s spring, dammit, I thought. But the meal failed to warm my cockles; I stayed chilled. I had to drink a pot of piping-hot tea to recover from it.

This morning after cinnamon French toast with hot maple syrup and blueberries, we took our daily walk on the Eastern Prom, the foghorn lowing, the high tide slapping and sucking against the stone sea wall, the pavement and gravel and grass all sopping wet. It was too foggy to see the bay or islands. The rain slid down, greasy and cold, not a spring rain but a chilly one, with malicious intent. Up on the cliffs, the still-bare branches dripped.

The only people out besides us were two groups of men, none of them up to any good: a couple of wild-eyed hobos drinking hooch and puffing cheap cigars on the stone steps up to the trail (“Happy spring! Beautiful spring day!” they trumpeted at us as we climbed up past them, cackling as if this were the best joke ever made), and then a group of three preppy, athletic-looking teenage boys in blazers and khakis. They ambled by us on the path, not making eye contact, trailing the smell of skunky ganja. They looked like sweet-natured, well-bred high-school seniors cutting school.

“That could have been me fifteen years ago,” said Brendan.

“One of them even looks like you.” I paused. “Ha ha, you were in high school fifteen years ago.”

“That’s right.”

“I was in high school thirty-five years ago.”

“That’s right.”

I laughed. “I was in the class of 1980.”

He laughed. “I was in the class of 2000.”

“I’d been married for four years by then. I’d published a novel.”

“You graduated from high school two years before I was born,” he said.

It never fails to amuse and entertain us, our age difference. We never seem to tire of exchanging these facts and marveling at them, holding them up like shiny objects, cocking our heads at them. “You were how old then?” is a question guaranteed to amuse us.

Maybe we’re so fascinated by these things because we’re equals. When we’re alone together, we feel as if we’re the same age. He knows all the old songs, he’s seen all the old movies, he’s read all the books I’ve read. I could never condescend to him or make him feel callow, nor would I. And because he’s emotionally steadier and calmer and more grounded than I am, he never makes me feel hoary or staid. We’ve decided that we’re both around forty. Or maybe I’m a little younger than that. Who knows? What is age, again?

“We were the only ones out today without booze or drugs,” I pointed out as we climbed the steep hill to where we’d parked. “I feel left out.”

“I want some whiskey now,” said Brendan.

“This is a good day for whiskey.”

“Perfect whiskey weather,” said Brendan. “Something peaty and single malty.”

“We have some Laphroaig left from Scotch Club.”

We got into the car, Dingo in the backseat with his wet, dirty underbelly, us humans in front with our wet, muddy shoes. The windshield was soaked with rain. Windshield wipers creaking, we drove slowly along. It was time to discuss the night’s menu.

I decided to forget about rebelling against this damned unnatural weather and try to combat it.

“How about a fish soup, maybe a chowder?” I said. “With hot bubbling melted cheese toast?”

“Yes,” said Brendan. “And whiskey.”

At Whole Foods, we bought Yukon Gold potatoes, a bag of frozen corn, a bunch of parsley, plus frozen fish broth and half a pound each of monkfish, haddock, and sea scallops. We got a chunk of goat gouda for the cheese toast.

We came home and toweled Dingo off. Our house felt chilly. The heat was on, the radiators were doing their best, but lately the air in here seems to be refusing to warm up, as if in protest.

Later on, after our work gets done, we’ll make a batch of cocktails based on something called a Penicillin that Brendan drank in a bar in L.A. once, to cure his cold: Laphroaig, ginger-honey simple syrup, and lemon juice. It’s a cold cocktail, as befits the season, but it ought to warm us up just fine.

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Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you apple and plum

The other night in Brunswick, late in the evening, after we’d all drunk a lot of wine and the conversation had turned free-form and far-ranging, my friend Genevieve posited that the movie “Terminator 2” is to blame for the female hard-body phenomenon of the 1990s, which persists to this day.

“If you watch ‘Seinfeld’ through the years,” she said, “you can see it happen. Pre-‘Terminator 2,’ Jerry’s girlfriends all look like normal women, like us. Post ‘Terminator 2,’ after 1991, when Linda Hamilton got all buff, they’re suddenly all ripped. It’s James Cameron’s fault.”

We had just eaten a decadent and lavish feast; I was not feeling particularly muscular, to put it mildly, even though I have been to exactly two Pilates classes this year. Our hostess, Mary, had made cod and shrimp poached in olive oil, with piperade, a slow-cooking stew of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, over polenta, and chard steamed in garlic. While dinner cooked, we guests all crowded into the kitchen with wineglasses and chatter and offers to help. It was a crowd of ten writers and painters, equal numbers of men and women.

As I poured myself more wine and jumped into a conversation about the deliciousness and seasonal ephemerality of fried shad roe, I was thinking about what makes a successful dinner party: this obviously was one, from its first moment, when we parked and got out of our car, and Mary’s son, who was outside playing with Brock and Lane’s son, told us we could go straight through the barn into the kitchen.

We wandered through the barn and found a door. When we came into a comfy big kitchen with a sunroom though an arch, Mary handed us cocktails of Campari, grapefruit juice, and lime. (I had forgotten all about Campari; now I remembered how much I’ve always liked its herbaceous bitterness.) After eating some cheese, crackers, and dates while kibitzing a bit in the sunroom, I wandered into the kitchen and was handed a small cutting board, a head of garlic, and a knife. I started crushing and peeling garlic cloves while Brock washed chard and Mark did something else. Mary was monitoring an inch of so of olive oil with garlic and herbs in a shallow wide pot. I looked at the table where other ingredients awaited their fate and espied a cookbook. Peering at the recipe, I blurted out without thinking, “Wow, you use cookbooks!”

“You really don’t?” said Mary, surprised, and I had to admit that I really don’t, not usually, except for the cardamom chicken with rice and caramelized onions from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and a couple of other standby favorites. Although I poke around the Internet when I want to learn new dishes and methods, I am singularly and habitually unadventurous when it comes to trying actual recipes from actual books.

After I handed off the minced garlic and before I began chopping chard stems, I pawed through this one, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was beautiful and expertly laid out and looked like it might be a lot of fun to cook with. The piperade, I noticed, began with a soffrito of diced onion and grated tomato flesh, which is apparently meant to cook slowly for up to five hours…

“Five hours,” I said admiringly. “You’ve been cooking all day.”

“Not really,” said Mary.

When the food was ready, we all moved into the candlelit dining room and took our places around the long table, which exactly seated the ten of us. After Mary finished lighting all the candles and sat down, we lifted our wineglasses and toasted her and toasted her again, and then we began eating. The food was superb: the shrimp and cod were tenderly poached, the piperade was dense and savory-sweet, and the polenta was luscious.

I vowed to start using cookbooks more often, right then and there, because being a monkey, I am imitative, not unlike all the hordes of female moviegoers in 1991 who copied Linda Hamilton and started lifting weights and possibly taking steroids, although that’s just idle speculation. I imitate other people constantly, unconsciously, simply because it’s human nature to do so. During dinner, I admired everyone, especially all the other women, their diction, ideas, and gestures, their hair, their expressions. In groups, when I’m feeling happy and relaxed, I often find myself melding with everyone else, a willful deviation to a better norm. It’s a pleasant feeling, a kind of melting of boundaries, the sharp edges of identity blurred.

By the end of the night, many hours after the party had begun, the wine was gone and the individual ramekins of caramelized butterscotch pudding with crème fraiche had been scraped clean. Moving a little slowly, we cleared the table and put the food away and washed enough dishes so we wouldn’t have to worry that Mary would spend the entire next day at the sink, and then we dispersed cheerfully into the night, heading home in our various cars.

The next morning, I woke up still laughing at many of the things that had been said the night before, still tasting the cod, still determined to cook more with actual cookbooks.

And then, yesterday, serendipitously, a gorgeous and lavish new cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue from Ben, a magazine editor I’ve worked with frequently over the years. It’s called Yucatan. I’ve traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico more times than I can count; it’s one of my favorite places, and I am mad about the food there, but I’ve never learned how to make any of it.

I opened it at random to a recipe, which coincidentally involves poached seafood and a Mexican sofrito, and which I am going to make tomorrow night, unless hell or high water prevents me. It’s called Langosta con Leche de Coco, or Lobster Tails Poached in Sweet Coconut Milk; you can use frozen lobster tails, and its sofrito includes shallots, garlic, and chiles and only takes three minutes as opposed to five hours. But the photo alongside the recipe looks amazing. Tomorrow, I’m going to buy all the ingredients and lay in some Campari. I’ll shake a couple of ounces over ice with a dash each of grapefruit and lime juice and start chopping.

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Put on the skillet, slip on the lid, Mama’s gonna make a little short’nin’ bread

The other night, I was talking on the phone, an occurrence much rarer than a blue moon, to a brand-new friend named Melissa who lives in Montreal. It started out as an interview, which is how she got me on the phone at all, but quickly devolved into, or rather progressed to, a fun exchange of banter and stories, in the course of which we exchanged information about what we were eating right then. She, being in a big French-influenced city, had amassed an enviable spread. This included champagne, shrimp cocktail, and two kinds of fresh oysters, shucked by her husband, who is 11 years younger than she is; “my child bride,” she called him, whereupon I told her about Brendan’s and my idea of a cooking show called “Cougar Kitchen.” This led to an interesting side discussion of our respective happy marriages.

Then we got back to food. I, despite being in the middle of something like nowhere, had a couple of good cheeses, some mixed spicy olives, and a bottle of excellent $12 Rioja on hand, thanks to Brendan, who had gone shopping earlier that day. I had requested phone-friendly, non-crunchy, savory snacks, and he’d found the best Hannaford had to offer.

“So what are you going to cook for dinner after we hang up?” Melissa asked.

Swallowing a chunk of Wisconsin white cheddar, I told her: a pound of boneless, skinless fresh chicken thighs, marinated in a winning combination of harissa spices with jerk spices, baked in peanut oil. The jerk spices were sent to me by a former Iowa student, Nana, a Cameroonian-American who got them on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and who immediately became my favorite person in the world when they arrived.  She had made amazing, addictive jerk chicken for our final workshop; I’d asked her for the recipe, and she had not forgotten.

“I read in your blog that you like packages in the mail,” Melissa said then, in a tone I took to be promising, whereupon I immediately gave her my address, spelling the street name carefully so that anything that might happen to come in the mail from Montreal wouldn’t go astray.

Alongside the spicy thighs, I went on, I’d cut Japanese yams into wedges and toss them with garlic powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and basil, then roast them on a cookie sheet in more peanut oil. “Japanese yams are so much better for cottage fries than the other kinds,” I said excitedly, swilling some wine. “They’re firm and starchy and just sweet enough. The other kinds are too sweet, and they fall apart.”

I was planning to serve the chicken and yams with White Trash Fancy Sauce, a highly sophisticated recipe I hit upon a while back and have never altered: a mixture of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise I find perniciously addictive and not entirely unlike McDonalds Special Sauce. And for the veg, two bunches of red chard, chopped up and sautéed in chicken broth, chopped garlic, and olive oil, which, I bragged, had come from Brendan’s family’s olive trees in Tuscany.

“You should brag about that,” she said.

“I do,” I said. “And now that I think of it, this meal is a blue plate special.”

“This brings me to an actual official question. What is a blue plate special, exactly? An old American diner term?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a cheap diner meal, some meat, a starch, and a veg or two.”

“Did they use actual blue plates?”

I considered this question. Did I really not know the answer? I really didn’t, although I had named a whole book after the thing.

“Something of an oversight, I think,” said Melissa.

“You could say that,” I said. “You know, it always felt like my family’s made-up term, something our mother made us in memory of the years when she was a poor student, living in New York, eating fried farina she made on a hot plate in her tiny rented room. A blue plate special was a big treat, and I think she would eat her friends’ leavings on their plates…”

I tried to picture the scene. Were the plates in question literally blue?

“What’s fried farina?”

“Also a good question,” I said. “It sounds disgusting. I should get the recipe from her.”

“You should!” she said.

We hung up after almost two hours of comparing the many parallels in our lives, shooting the breeze about food, and occasionally clinking our wineglasses against the mouthpieces of our phones. Then I made dinner, exactly as described, and Brendan and I set upon it like ravenous wolverines while Dingo and his visiting best friend, Brendan’s aunt’s dog, Bandito, watched from a polite but easy-access distance on the floor nearby, their eyes never leaving our forks.

While we ate, I went to Wikipedia and looked up “blue plate special” and found the following: “It refers to a specially low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a ‘meat and three’ (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate rather than on separate dishes. The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007, there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression. A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: ‘A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.’”

As for the “blue” part of the equation, no one is exactly sure, but it probably comes from those blue, segmented plates as well as Spode or Wedgewood blue willow patterned plates, both of which were popular in restaurants back then.

The entry goes on, “In contemporary use, a ‘blue-plate special’ can be any inexpensive full meal, any daily selection, or merely a whimsical phrasing.”

That’s the expression as I know it, and as my mother used it: a blue plate special is a plain, cozy, square meal, filling and cheap, nourishing and satisfying, the kind she used to serve us, our favorite kind of meal.

We swiped the last yam wedges through the Fancy Sauce and pushed our plates away, glutted, slaked, and stuffed.

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You send me, honest you do

I love getting packages in the mail, especially food-related items. Ordering ingredients and kitchen tools is always fun, especially when I’ve forgotten I’d done so and they arrive like surprises, but it’s even more festive and exciting when people send me stuff out of the blue. It feels like an old-fashioned treat, like Christmas, no matter when it happens.

Last spring, for example, a friend who lives in London mailed me two china plates stamped “Manhattan Blue Plate Special” and a big bag of Guinness crisps, which are insanely good and greasy (and gluten-free). If I lived anywhere near where they were sold, I would eat them all the time, so it’s probably lucky I don’t. Last fall, my sister, who lives in Amsterdam, sent me a care package chockfull of treasures from a HEMA shopping spree, including little sake cups, an apron, chocolates, and dishtowels.

And last week, an old friend, a Brooklyn writer who has a house in Costa Rica, sent me a bag of dried black peppercorns from the “winter garden” he and his wife maintain down there. Their airy house, with a cozy wraparound veranda plus a roof with an amazing view, is perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Caribbean. Just up the hill behind it, a solid wall of unbroken, thick jungle apparently goes back all the way to Panama.

Many years ago, on my birthday, I sat on their roof veranda, looking out over the lush hillside and ocean while the sun set, drinking rum and eating turtle soup that had simmered all day on their stove. It was a guilty pleasure, but it was memorably delicious, rich and flavorful and tender, and I ate two bowls of it and craved it again when I woke up the next morning.

Another time, a group of us trooped into the jungle behind their house to shoot guns at targets. We got caught in a rainstorm so intense, it was like being in a lukewarm shower turned on full force. Water streamed into our eyes, drenched our faces and shoes. We stumbled back the way we came, but now our machete tracks were obscured by mud and battered leaves, so we got absolutely lost. The wall of vegetation around us was so dense, there was no gauging direction. Somehow, maybe just dumb luck, we found the way out, but there was a tricky half hour or so during which I imagined the many miles to Panama with more than a little nervousness.

Last week, safe and dry in my kitchen in Maine, I opened the double-wrapped package that had just thunked onto the entryway floor through the mail slot. I inhaled the fresh, strong, earthy smell of the peppercorns, instantly inspired to figure out what to do with them. I thought about steak au poivre, but I didn’t feel like a hunk of red meat just then; I wanted something lighter, but satisfying and filling.

And then my thoughts turned to Asian noodle soups. A while back, I learned to make pho from a Vietnamese cook who showed me how to toast a spice bouquet, then simmer it to make the broth. I decided to tinker with that spice combination to make a broth and serve the soup with bright and spicy ginger scallion sauce. For the soup ingredients, I decided on cod, baby bok choy, and shiitakes. I used thick Thai rice noodles, but if I could eat them, slippery, hearty udon noodles would be my first choice for this soup, the perfect combination with the firm fish and tender vegetables.

Fish Noodle Soup With Ginger Scallion Sauce

In a cast-iron skillet over high heat, toast the following spices for about 5 minutes: 5 crushed cardamom pods, 2 teaspoons of authentic homegrown Costa Rican peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, and 5 star anise. Add them to 6 cups of chicken broth in a stock pot along with sea salt to taste, 1 chopped hot pepper, 8 crushed cloves of garlic, a thumb-sized piece of ginger crushed with a meat tenderizer mallet, and a quartered yellow onion with the skin on. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for about an hour.

While it bubbles away, make the ginger scallion sauce. In a Cuisinart, mince a thumb-sized piece plus a finger-sized piece (ouch) of ginger, stopping before it becomes a paste. Do the same with a roughly chopped bunch of scallions. Put the scallions and ginger into a big, tall-sided pot – the taller the better, because this is going to be a flash mini-volcano. Add plenty of salt and mix — it should taste just slightly too salty. Heat ½ cup peanut oil until it smokes. Pour the molten oil into the pot all at once, and stand back. When it calms down, stir well, let cool, and put into a serving bowl.

Meanwhile, wash and chop 3-4 heads of baby bok choy, separating whites from greens, and a box of shiitake mushrooms. Cut 1 1/4 pound of cod into bite-sized pieces.

Prepare a package of udon or rice noodles according to the directions on the package.

Pour the hot broth through a strainer into a wok over medium heat, adding couple of dollops of toasted sesame oil. Add the white parts of the baby bok choy and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shiitakes, the green parts, and the cod. Stir and simmer everything for a few more minutes till the fish is flaky and the vegetables are just soft.

Divide the noodles into 4 bowls and ladle the soup over them. Garnish with generous dollops of ginger scallion sauce.

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She’s my neighbor, fill my cup… sugar on my tongue

Just as we were heading out to take our walk this morning, Tom Earle, the local farmer, came walking up the icy path across the yard to our front door, asking to tap the maple trees that line the driveway by the barn. We tagged along with him over to the barn, where his pickup truck was parked. He scrambled up into his truck bed to gather stacks of galvanized steel buckets. “Apparently now galvanized steel is no good for eating,” he said, “but I don’t know.” From the cab, he fetched a ball peen hammer, a battery-powered drill, a small metal tap, and a plastic spout.

He approached the nearest maple tree. We followed him, clambering over the hard icy packed snowdrift. They’re old, the trees here, with silvered, hoary bark, tall and shaggy.

He told us this is a good time for mapling now, cold nights and warmer days, when the sap, frozen in the roots all winter, thaws in the sun and rises hydraulically up the trunk and into the branches to feed the tree. “They have vacuum pumps now, the modern maplers, and even with the new machinery, they only get about 7 percent more than with these old methods. And that’s only 10, 20 percent of the tree’s sap. Some of them are planting maple trees a few feet apart and when they get high enough, they go through and whack off the tops and take out the sap that way.” He shook his head and laughed.

“Kind of like mountaintop removal mining,” I said, cringing a little as Dingo took a shit right by the front right wheel of Tom’s truck.

Tom politely ignored Dingo and considered the lower trunk. This one already had a mapling hole in it. “The hole always leaves a little bruise,” he said. “You don’t want to use an old hole.”

He walked around the trunk and stopped. “The sap is everywhere right now, but a good spot is usually under a branch.” He drilled a shallow hole a foot below the biggest low branch, then gently pocked in the metal tap with the hammer. “You can hear the sound change when it hits the sap.” He set the bucket’s handle into the hook in the tap so it was wedged securely just below it. A clear, thin drop welled and pinged into the bottom of the bucket. “The first drop,” he said, attaching the spout.

“I wonder who first thought to tap maple trees,” I said.

“The Indians didn’t have buckets, so they hollowed out tree trunks and set them under the spouts to collect sap,” he said. “And to sugar it off, because they didn’t have pots, they would drop hot rocks into the tree hollows. It’s 40 to 1, the ratio of sap to syrup. It takes two days in a pot with a good fire going. Imagine how long it took with hot rocks.”

“I wonder if animals like maple sap,” I said.

He laughed. “Everyone knows sugar,” he said. “I’ve got a terrible sweet tooth, myself, but we’ll have enough maple syrup left over to sell.” He invited us to visit his sugar hut later on, an invitation we accepted, and then off we went for our walk in the sudden springlike warmth. The dirt road had melted in rivulets and ice shards. The air temperature was less than 30 degrees, but the sun warmed everything up.

By the time we got back, less than an hour later, Tom had moved off to tap another copse of maples, and the trees lining the drive each had two buckets attached to their lower trunks.

It’s amazing to me, a former New Yorker who spent my entire post-school life in the city before I first came up here 5 years ago, to live in such close proximity to people who know how to DO shit, who’ve learned, and who practice, the old traditional ways. When my ex-husband and I renovated our 19th century row house in Greenpoint, we did most of the work ourselves, in part because there was no one to hire. Jon had worked for about 15 years after college as a building contractor, but when his joints gave out and he left that business, there was no one to hand it on to. All the young kids were now in I.T. and media.

Up here, this is not the case. The contractors who renovated our Portland house were our tenants’ best friends; finding them was the easiest thing in the world. I had been wanting to watch someone tap a maple tree, and he came walking up to our front door one warmish late-winter morning.

Sometimes I feel like all I have to do is ask, and I meet someone who has what I want.  Last month in Portland, at the first meeting of our newly formed Scotch Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, I idly expressed a yearning to cook moose. It turned out that Bri, who lives two blocks away from us, had a freezer full that she wasn’t sure what to do with; her girlfriend’s father is a hunter.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “If you give me some of that moose, I’ll cook it for the next Scotch Club meeting.”

When I went to her house to collect it, she handed me three packages of frozen meat marked “backstrap,” “New York sirloin,” and “stew meat.” I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I took them straight home and thawed the packages in a pot of hot water. The meat was a deep ruby-purple. There was no fat on it. It smelled mineral-fresh, not gamey at all; I reserved all the liquid that pooled in the bags from thawing.

I had decided to bourguignon the hell out of the moose, so I used Ina Garten’s recipe, substituting moose for beef. I used plenty of thyme, butter, lardons, cognac, and an entire bottle of dry red wine.

That night’s Scotch club meeting began in the living room with cheese, crackers, and a tasting of the night’s first single malt, Glenfiddich, which we all pronounced smooth and tasty. Then we thronged into the kitchen and filled our plates with buttered fresh gluten-free fettucine topped with moose bourguignon and buttered peas, and alongside, a salad of herb mix and fennel with a strong vinaigrette. The moose meat was tender and savory and stalwart enough to sop up all the rest of the single malts that followed that night.

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