Friday, October 6, 2017

Adventures in Cooking

Anyone who is Facebook friends with me knows I post a lot of recipes.
One reason is that I like to entertain and am always imagining my next dinner party and wondering what to serve. But recipes were also my entrée into cooking. It’s only through recipes and cookbooks that I ever learned to cook.
            Back in my twenties, when I was single and living in Manhattan, I didn’t have a clue.  My mother cooked, but I wasn’t particularly close to her.  I never watched what she did, and I was so immature that I would not give her the satisfaction of asking her any questions about what she made.  I figured she didn’t know what she was doing and assumed if I wanted to know how to cook I’d have to figure it out myself.  To that end I bought I Hate to Cook by Peg Bracken.  In fact, I still have it in all it’s broken binding and torn cover glory, along with dozens of other cookbooks that I’ve acquired since.  But I Hate to Cook holds a special place in my heart and when Peg died last year, I felt as if I lost a close friend. 
This little paperback was the perfect introduction to cooking.  The recipes were simple, her instructions thorough, and her commentary funny and irreverent.  Most significantly though, her book made cooking seem easy.  Thanks to her I didn’t hesitate hosting my first dinner party in my sixth floor walk up railroad flat on the upper eastside.  I don’t remember the party except that I made Peg’s lasagna but I’m guessing it was a success because I’ve been hosting dinner parties ever since.
            From Peg Bracken I discovered Marcella Hazen, whose death last year I also mourned, and then onto Julia Child and Gourmet Magazine.  I learned about fine cooking and how to make the perfect beef bourguignon, leg of lamb, coq au vin and scads of other recipes.  But it was Peg who launched me and it was Peg’s recipes that I used during law school when I’d host a crowd in my Brooklyn Heights studio.  It was Peg who made me fearless, reminding me that as long as you provide your guests with something to drink and good company, the party will be a success.
            So it’s Peg that started me collecting recipes, always imagining the next dinner party, thinking of who to mix with whom, and what would be easy to serve so I could enjoy my guests instead of toiling away in the kitchen.  Her advice was invaluable and, at least for me, has made entertaining something that I enjoy doing instead of thinking of it as daunting or an obligation.

            Thanks to her I discovered that cooking is just the first step to sitting down to a meal with family and friends and one of life’s great pleasures. It’s not the actual eating or even the food that’s primary, but the conversations and interactions that take place while eating.  This is true at any meal, but more so at dinner parties. And it’s possible that sharing recipes on Facebook is my homage to Peg Bracken and will inspire another novice cook to host their first dinner party.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS

My husband, daughter and I recently stayed at a B&B on Nantucket.  On our first morning, the owner asked the twelve of us at breakfast a question:  If you could have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be? 

I avoided answering because the question seemed so personal.  I didn’t know this woman and had just met the others.  No matter whom I picked, I was afraid my answer would be too revealing.  I’m sure that says something significant about me, but that’s not my point here. Nor will I address why I feel comfortable now answering this question in my blog that could, theoretically, reach more people.

My first thought, if I had answered, was to say I’d like to talk to my mother. She died when I was in my forties before my children became adults and before I’d become the person I am now. She was not easy to talk to and the number of real conversations the two of us had could be counted on the fingers of one hand with several left over. I like to think with more years of life behind me that I’d be able to talk to her now and push past her defenses and get real without her shutting me down. 

But if I had answered that morning I wouldn’t have said my mother.  Instead I’d pick a writer who I admire.  My first thought was Jane Austen because I have read all her books and love every one. But I think the times she lived in are so different than ours that we would not have the same concerns. In addition, because she never had a husband or children she never had to juggle work, children and a spouse or justify occasionally putting herself first.

On the other hand, Ann Tyler, another favorite author, is alive and does have a family. I love how she turns domestic stories into brilliant character studies.  Because I’ve read most of her books, I’m not sure I’d need to ask her any specific questions.  Instead, I’d like to hang out, have lunch, coffee or a glass of wine and chat.  That way I’d find out if she’s a lot different than I am or more like my friends and I with the extra dash of genius that produced such novels as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

I’d also pick her because she’s a woman.  It seems so many male writers have big egos, assistants and attitude.  I don’t think they would let their hair down or forget that they’re famous and part of the literati as easily as a female writer.  In sum, I don’t imagine they’d be that much fun to spend time with over a drink. 

But mostly Ann Tyler would be my choice because of an essay she wrote about having to schedule her writing time around her children’s activities.  In the essay she described how she’d put away a manuscript to go to her child’s athletic event.  As a woman and a mother, I can so relate to that.  I don’t see a male writer interrupting his afternoon of writing to catch his daughter or son’s soccer game though maybe I’m being harsh and hasty in casting aspersions.

Most significantly though I’d pick Ann Tyler because the last conversation I had with my mother was about one of Ann Tyler’s books, Breathing Lessons.  My mother thought the book was funny.  I read it later, after she died, and didn’t find it funny at all.  But I like to think that talking about it and why we had such different reactions could be a starting point for us.


I wonder how others would answer the question: who would you want to talk to, alive or dead?  Would it be an historical figure?  An ancestor, or would you also go for someone who you could relate to and learn from?  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

OWNING AND LOVING BOOKS



I’m the oldest person in my family and as such, have participated in cleaning out my grandmother’s, my parents’ and my in-laws’ houses.  When my father died, a number of years after his and my mother’s house had been emptied and sold, he left a suitcase of clothes, a small bookcase full of books and a bundle of papers neatly organized.  That’s my goal, to own just a few possessions and not be overwhelmed by stuff.  I’m not there yet, but I envision a time when I know where everything is and use everything I own.

That’s my goal, but it should not come as a surprise to fellow writers, book lovers and anyone who knows me that my biggest indulgence is books and it’s books that are overtaking my house. I drop by bookstores wherever I am and rarely leave without buying several.  I read book reviews, get recommendations about new authors from friends, and attend conferences where I listen and meet new authors.  I pick up or order those books too.  When I go to the library I come home with a stack to read.  Unfortunately, I don’t have time to read all of them, I may never, but I anticipate a time when I will and having those books and knowing they’re there to read when I’m ready brings me joy.  I recognize that not everyone feels this way, but for me books are a window into other worlds and an opportunity to meet people who I’d otherwise never know.

But I do have too many books. I live in a big farmhouse in upstate New York where every room except the dining room has several bookcases and each of them is filled to the brim.  I have a small apartment in New York City with two big bookshelves and those and my bedside tables are also overflowing.

In my quest to simplify my life and environment, I’ve started getting rid of some. It has not been easy.  It’s one thing to get rid of books that I didn’t like or duplicates, another to get rid of books that I love.  I started by telling myself that I would only keep the books that I haven’t read or if I had read, intended to read again.  It meant I gave away some of my very favorite books from college and my younger days as well as classics I knew I wouldn’t reread.  Although painful at times, I’ve managed to get rid of a lot, donating them to our local library’s annual book sale or leaving them in the lobby of my apartment building in the city. I plan to keep at it and consider every book that I own to determine what to keep and what can go.  In the course of this divesting, I’ve come face to face with the realization that there is a finite time for everything including reading books.  But it’s also meant I’ve revisited old friends and been reminded of books that I’ve loved and now can share with others.


Believe me, I still have all those bookcases overflowing, but at least now not all of them are double shelved and of course, there will always be room for new books.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Best Kept Secret: Getting Old is Okay

                        

When I was in my twenties fresh out of college, for a few months I lived with my parents who’d left suburban Long Island when their last child, my youngest brother, went off to college. 

I think it’s the first time I was conscious of their age.  I was temporarily back home and meeting new people.  I saw them through my friends’ eyes along with my own and I saw them as old.  They were fifty.

I do remember how excited they were by all the things they could do, the opportunities that were now open to them living in the city.  My father was still working, but after work he loved trying the restaurants that until now he’d only been able to read about.  My mother, who hadn’t worked since I was born, immediately got a membership at the Metropolitan Museum, started volunteering at the local Red Cross and signed up for courses at the New York Botanical Garden.  She especially took to the city like a duck to water.  It was as if she had a new lease on life and I remember being proud of her, but I was also amused because she was “old.”

Now I’m older than they were then, but I don’t feel “old.” If I’m old, and by most definitions, I am, I’ve discovered that it’s not a bad place to be.  From the time I was a child until I went away to college, I didn’t feel like I had control of anything, let alone my future. It wasn’t much better after that.

For as long as I can remember there were people to worry about, standards to measure up to, and of course, the competitions.  I never figured out the rules to those competitions until it was too late, so I wasn’t very good at them, but I worried anyway.

For some reason, those competitions don’t matter so much anymore.  Maybe I’ve been around so long that I can see a lot of them are silly and have finally figured out that comparisons don’t usually make any sense.  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that I’m finally at the age where I don’t worry so much about what other people think and I don’t spend a lot of time comparing myself to others. 

There will always be people that are better looking, have more and by certain standards, are more successful.  But I’ve pretty much stopped judging myself by others.  I know I’m very lucky and have the life that I want to lead.

Of course bad luck or tragedy could be around the corner.  Most of us have experienced that first hand: a loved one who dies without warning, a serious illness that changes everything, or a personal disappointment.  No one is immune.  But even so, being older is the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my own skin.  Looking back I think that’s exactly where my parents were when they moved into the city.  My mother, particularly, was the happiest I ever saw her, but both my parents were excited and alive—even though they were “old.”  I think the same could be said about my husband and me and that makes us very lucky.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

UNIVERSAL ATONEMENT

My husband and I were down in the Virgin Islands on vacation last week where we took a sunset cruise.  As we looked off into the horizon and watched the sunset a conversation started with ‘what do you do.’

One of the two women I was talking to explained that she was an ex-Catholic studying to be a Methodist minister.  This led to a discussion of Lent and how we were going to observe it.  To my surprise, as a nominal Catholic, the third woman in our group, a Jew, fully participated in the conversation.  The future minister mentioned Pope Francis and his recent comment about sacrifice and what was really important about Lent.  We three ultimately agreed that some form of giving was a better way to observe Lent than giving up something we love, even if the giving up was difficult.  I’m still struggling with how, based on that philosophy, what I should do, but that’s another story.

I wouldn’t think this conversation or my thoughts on it would be right for a blog, except that like politics these days, it’s a subject that seems to be on everyone’s minds.  In my art class here in New York City, we’re a group of nine, ranging in age from thirty-seven to seventy, who are Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants and agnostics, but Lent and how we observe it, or what we were going to “give up” was the conversation at my last class.  Everyone had an opinion, Pope Francis’s recent statement was mentioned, and it seemed that whether we intended to observe it or not, we all had thought about it.

I’m not sure what this seemingly universal recognition of this Christian season means.  It doesn’t happen at Christmas, where the holiday and all its trimmings are observed from afar by everyone but Christians, even if with nostalgia and pleasure.  True, there are Jews that have Christmas trees, but at least from my observation, those who do have trees are in the minority. Instead, there is an emphasis on Christmas being a Christian holiday, not a universal one. 


Could it be that in these tumultuous and stressful times that just as we find comfort in the existence of a holy man like Pope Francis who renews our hope that there is good in this world, we also find comfort in how we’re alike, not different.  No matter what our religion or belief system, I think we recognize that we all good-hearted and thoughtful people. When times are uncertain, I think we see a need to find universal truths and be prepared to sacrifice or atone with the hope that we’ll participate in making the world a better place. Or am I complicating it?  Is it simply that as a people we have far more in common with each other than we realize?