Gourmet Goes South

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“There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented.” – Edna Lewis, “What is Southern?”

Thanks to the internet and the graciousness with which epicurean magazines publish their recipes online, I have come to think of buying foodie mags as a real luxury. I don’t aspire to be a food writer so that’s not a good excuse to shell out $4 per cover, but I gravitate towards the publications’ alluring photos and delicious-sounding recipes, to which the Internet does only partial justice. Once I’ve bought these precious pubs, I keep them for a long time – much longer than necessary – the way unseemly old men keep copies of Hustler and Playboy, stashed away for future feasts and (epicurean) fantasies.

So, like any addict who knows the danger of giving in to her weaknesses, I try to practice restraint in the cooking magazine aisle. But something about Gourmet gets me. I love the swirly, Coca-Cola-like cover-title writing, the luscious-sounding feature recipes, the impression of myself as a very-accomplished-cook-indeed upon execution of the pub’s more complicated dishes. Still – I try to keep my distance. I remind myself that I have a problem, that I own plenty of cookbooks, that I recently gave a truck load of (cooking) magazines away to the American Kidney Fund.

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But this January’s issue of Gourmet – a “Special Collector’s Edition” featuring both Southern cooks (Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock in particular), and Southern writers (Ann Patchett – an old fave) – sent me completely over-the-top.

The writing in this issue is especially good, alive with colorful prose and the sort of Southern delicacies that must make all those New York foodies (who actually subscribe to Gourmet) seriously consider carpet-bagging. The cover photo pays homage to the perfect biscuit and sumptuous blackberry jam; inside, Hoppin’ John, Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread, and creamed collards (or winter greens) highlight the best of the South, conjuring, for me at least, the American pinnacle of food-as-experience, food-as-memory.

I come from a long line of wonderful cooks and cooking influences, all of whom are (or were) Southern and who embrace(d) the region’s culinary offerings with zeal. My grandmother, Doll, made the best homemade rolls South of the Mason-Dixon line – and taught my mother to make the same; Stell, the lady who kept me when I was just barely old enough to reach the kitchen counter, made sweet, warm, hand-squashed grape jelly that still makes my mouth water; my father cured his own country ham and sausage, and people from one end of Virginia to the other claimed they’d never tasted any better.

But the thing about all this food – like any good food – is its transcendent quality. In our house, the food and its preparation became dinner table conversation. Analysis of what did or did not go into certain dishes could entertain my family members for an entire meal. And thus, it became a memory made. It became experience shared; a generous gift to guests, hand-made and carefully measured. It became an outpouring of more than just flour and sugar, but of heritage and heart-felt celebration.

I love to cook, and to read about cooking, not just for the deliciousness of the food, but for its deeper meanings and its meaningfulness. A lot of chefs believe in food science, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from them, but in the South it seems we may be more about food-poetry, or food-religion.  I remember reading Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and, thanks to my Southern roots, recognizing something universally true about the Latin American book’s magical realism; for me, cooking has always been tied to a sort of unavoidable emotional outpouring and it seemed perfectly rational for a cook’s emotional turmoil (and cuisine) to affect his or her dinner guests for better or for worse.

In January’s Gourmet, there appears an essay by Edna Lewis called “What is Southern?”. From time to time she references Southern writers (Truman Capote, Carson McCullers) and artists (Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith), but her most memorable passages embody with down-home eloquence the food she spent a lifetime perfecting. “Southern is a great yeast roll,” she writes, “the dough put down overnight to rise and the next morning shaped into rolls and baked. Served hot from the oven, they are light as a dandelion in a high wind. Southern is a sun dog – something like a rainbow, or the man in the moon – on a late summer afternoon. Southern is a mint julep. A goblet of crushed ice with a sprig of mint tucked in the side of a glass …”.

In Miss Lewis’ words and her passion for good Southern food is deference to and admiration for the culture that created her. Reading her essay makes me wish I’d known her, or that she’d written more, and it gives me new-found respect for Southern hospitality.

Southern hospitality can sometimes conjure images of white-gloved ladies, lots of sterling silver and general insincerity. But when paired with down-home Southern food, those gloves come off. (After all, who can eat fried chicken while wearing white gloves?) The combination of Southern hospitality and Southern food is a cook’s sincereist form of flattery to his guests; there is nothing more to-the-point.

I’ve gone on too long here (maybe I’m an aspiring food-writer after all!), but – you have to admit – there’s something about Buttermilk Cookies and pimiento cheese that is just downright laudable.  Take my advice and go get January’s Gourmet before it leaves the newsstand. Heaven knows I won’t let you borrow mine.

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Space

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A room without books is like a body without a soul.
– Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

Readers, I apologize for the 10 day lapse in blog postings. I hope some of you are still hanging in there with me. I did not have the baby, as some might have wondered, but simply have not had anything to say for the past week or so.

This weekend, just three weeks away from D-Day, we put the finishing touches on the nursery, which used to be my office, and transformed a corner in our guest bedroom into my new workspace (see above photo). In the past, I’ve had grandiose ideas about the place in which I might best write, imagining a small, sparsely-decorated shed in our back yard with French doors, a lot of sunlight and fresh air, or a nice, bright corner room (in some other, bigger house) with ample desk and bookshelf space and inspiring prints/quotations/magazines/journals/art strewn haphazardly around the place.

While I recognize these imaginings as pure vanity, the thought of cramming my beloved books and necessary files in this tiny guest bedroom corner has still depressed me. I knew it was coming, but hadn’t had the energy or the strength to face it. I’ve been using our living room as an office, perching myself Indian-style on the couch (with Ivy by my side) for hours on end, covering our too-large coffee table with reading materials and the Mac, cluttering the biggest room of our home (which is still rather small) with papers, receipts, and whatever shoes I might kick off in the throws of creative process.

This weekend, APK put an end to all that nonsense. He claimed his own nesting instincts with such enthusiasm he really could have been in his own male-style pregnancy trimester. From the glider in the nursery, I watched as he cleaned out closets, shoving two bags of golf clubs, old briefcases, keepsake boxes and random junk into unspecified locations. He artfully reorganized my bookshelf, rearranged furniture, created a make-shift file cabinet for me out of a little table with hidden trunk-space. By the time Andrew was finished, the guest bedroom corner looked way more professional and organized than my previous “office” (a real catchall room) and was far cozier. Thanks to his efforts, I’ve spent the morning comfortably confined by a real desk in front of a window with a hot cup of tea, plenty of books within reach, and Ivy still beside me.

Throughout my pregnancy, I have been the uneasy recipient of well-meaning ladies’ commentaries on how “life will never be the same” once the child arrives, and intensely annoyed by other misguided attempts at humor in which young mothers claim I’ll want to “put the baby back in the womb” once I’ve had it at home for a few days. Gee, thanks – all that sounds like a lot of fun. (To which these people would respond, “Oh, it is fun, so much fun. It’s just a different kind of fun.”)

So it’s no surprise that fixing up a permanent space for my pre-baby self – the self with a writerly bent and time for creativity – has made me feel as though I am claiming a space, however tiny, that will remind me of what I feel called to. It was silly of me to think that a tangible space would make or break my creativity – a means of procrastination I relied on too easily – or to fear that having the baby take over my old office was a metaphor for him/her taking over my brain space/life/general sense of sanity.

In the end, after all this dithering about where my “stuff” would go and where I might be inspired, I’ve discovered that my physical space could be a table at a coffee shop, or a local library carel, or underneath a tree. As long as it feels like it’s “mine,” the details don’t matter much. The more vital lesson here is that I (and any other writer, regardless of motherhood or other life swings) give myself to the mental space of the work, that I make wiser use of my time, that I hole up in whatever sliver of space exists, do what I have been trained to do, and enjoy it.

Narrative – A Magazine Review

I’d planned on reviewing Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel by the young and talented (and beautiful) Marisha Pessl, but I couldn’t get through it in time. I blame this not on the writer, but on my own brain’s current fitful, circuitous state. My mother-in-law and mother, two women whose literary opinions I hold in high esteem, both thought the book was brilliant. It just wasn’t linear enough or short enough for me right now and I needed to give myself permission to put it down.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magazines lately, both as a means of planning submissions and as a source for inspiration. Narrative Magazine is an online literary journal; in its five years of existence, it has blazed a path of great prestige in the online world. To say you have been published by them means that you are Well On Your Way (if you aren’t already There); in the journal’s current issue are essays by Gail Godwin and Bill Barich, both Guggenheim fellows, fiction by a woman named Ann Pancake, who I happily discovered a few years ago, and poetry by Ted Kooser – the US poet laureate from 2004-2006 – among others.

Whether the writing featured in Narrative is by Guggenheim fellows or by up-and-comers, I’ve found it is consistently engaging, moving, solid and smart. Yesterday, I read a piece by Wendy Sanford called “Bodies.” It depressed me. In fact, it depressed me and the depression stayed with me – which is always proof of good writing. This morning, I read the magazine’s excerpt of Gail Godwin’s “Solo Notes,” and got inspired – and the inspiration has stayed with me. I will feast upon Narrative’s pages until I’ve read each piece even if its writing makes me angry for an entire day, or wistful, because there is such joy and satisfaction that comes from reading good sentences, such affirmation to be found in reading about Things That Matter.

In my opinion, there are few magazines – in print or online – that offer readers such fine work with such consistency. The Establishment once dismissed online publishing as unsophisticated – akin to self-publishing and self-promotion – but we are living in a digital age, and digital media has begun to become very sophisticated, indeed. Best of all, Narrative is free!

Yellow Bird

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When I was in first grade, my classroom was divided into three groups: yellow birds, blue birds and red birds.  Although no one ever actually said so, it was clear that the yellow birds flew more slowly than the blues, and that the red birds took to the sky most quickly.  This was my teacher’s gentle way of helping young students take to learning at a pace best suited for them.

I was a red bird, but I loved the color yellow – and perfect, chirping yellow birds – and I thought it unfair that I couldn’t sit at the yellow bird table.  Mrs. Hogston, my first grade teacher – a tiny woman with smile lines around her eyes  and a sweet Southern accent – assured me that I should be a happy little red bird, proud of my feathers, and insisted that I stay at the red bird table.  I did so, but begrudgingly, learning how to add and subtract with one eye on the yellow bird table and the other on my text books.

For most of my life, I’ve kept pace with the red birds and I learned to enjoy it.   Yet, now, at a time when I would most like to be dive bombing with a flock of cardinals, I fear my feathers are turning … well … a tinge of yellow.  I’d heard that pregnancy might do this to me, that words would mysteriously slip away; that I might suffer memory loss; that I might – on occasion – make sense only to myself.  But my little red bird brain eschewed such notions as an old wives tale.  It promised to keep processing the material and meaning of life with utmost efficiency; word retrieval problems were for other sorts of pregnant people — not writers, not teachers, not red birds.    

Yet, as I sit composing this blog posting in Starbucks – writing, and then deleting, and then rewriting and rereading the sentences I’ve written – I feel defeated.  My red bird brain has succumbed to the hormones after all.  I find myself staring at my Mac for longer than necessary, the synapses of my brain firing with less enthusiasm than usual.  Staying on topic is difficult; finishing an essay – impossible.  Sometimes, in conversation, my husband has to help me with words.  That thing on the kitchen counter?  Ah, yes – a coffee maker.  The thing we use to walk the dog?  Right.  A leash.

To make myself feel better about this incapacitation I did a little research.  A study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that 81% of women suffer memory loss and word retrieval problems during pregnancy.  The article called this impairment “significant” – though certainly not permanent – and I rejoiced.  In 1998, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study confirming pregnant women’s memory loss and word retrieval issues would be most significant in the third trimester.  Another study cited “brain overload” and “memory dysfunction.”  Hooray!

It is hard to be a writer; now I know it is even harder to be a pregnant writer.  I wish I’d done this research months ago. I thought I was just losing my edge because I’m no longer in graduate school.  So – as of today I’m cutting myself a little slack; I am preening my feathers at the yellow bird table.  Forgive me if my blog postings don’t make sense, or if you find them boring, or if I write that something is “obvious” rather than “obsequious.” My red bird brain has flown South for the remainder of winter.  Here’s hoping it’ll come back to me this spring.

Hallelujah

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It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah!
It’s Raining Men! Every Specimen!
Tall, blonde, dark and lean
Rough and tough and strong and mean …

– It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls

For some reason I have always had an affinity for the song “It’s Raining Men.I like the imagery of it, and I like its passionate upbeat. I like its singers’ throaty, celebratory tone. I also like that the song contains the word Hallelujah. Recently, “It’s Raining Men” skipped, unbidden, through my head. It was the day after Christmas and I was in the mall, at Brooks Brothers, with Andrew.

Since I was very small, I’ve loved men’s clothing stores. As a little girl, I would hide inside King & Co.’s round racks of suits while my father tried on clothes. There, the smooth, tightly woven fabric of finely stitched wool, silk and seersucker enveloped me. I could peer between the lapels’ fine folds and beyond strong-looking, elegant tortoise shell buttons to observe upstanding men as they stepped tenuously out of their dressing rooms onto the store’s red and green plaid carpet. When they saw themselves in the three-way mirror – out of street clothes and into King’s finery – they stood a little straighter; they tilted their chins up a notch, allowing themselves a brief moment of vanity.

My father, a farmer, had few occasions to wear a suit so we didn’t go to King’s often, but our visits there still impressed me. To this day I find the mingled scents of fresh leather accessories, spicy aftershave testers, and crisp, new-smelling silk and wool enchanting. I admire men – young and old, short and tall, wide and narrow – who worry over stacks of cashmere sweaters, who hold a series of striped ties up to finely pressed shirts, who pull suits from tightly-packed racks and peer at them analytically, considering the clothing’s probable impact at a wedding, or in a board room.

I know that my deference for fine men’s clothing makes me sound old-fashioned – and I guess that I am. I’m a Carey Grant kind of girl: I swoon for men in suits the way other chicks squeal for rockers with gel-slicked hair and leather pants. APK, who cuts a dashing figure in a well-tailored suit, picked me up for our first date wearing a crimson tie, a starched white shirt, a dark suit and a long, black overcoat. He’d come from work, and that he hadn’t even bothered to loosen his tie made my stomach drop. I loved that he wasn’t trying to be cool, and that he stood up straight, and that he didn’t apologize for not having had the time to change clothes.

Now, whenever the opportunity avails itself, I go to Brooks Brothers with APK. For his bank job, he wears a suit daily. This year, he’d worn a few of his best to tatters, which led us to Brooks Brothers’ doors the day after Christmas for the store’s annual mega-sale. We arrived before 10 AM to find the store brimming with men and overheated sales guys. When the tailor, Farhad, saw us, he hugged Andrew and kissed him on both cheeks. Like a math teacher working out an equation on a blackboard, he made quick, deft chalk marks on Andrew’s chosen suits. Farhad commended the choices, acknowledging the suits’ fit and functionality as he marked my husband’s measurements.

Between Andrew’s fittings, Farhad graciously welcomed other customers to stand on the carpeted platform in front of the three-way mirror, and he made them feel good about themselves. The men, in turn, stood up a little straighter with their chins up-raised; they inquired about half-breaks and sleeve lengths; they bought, and bought and bought. Which is when the Hallelujah part of “It’s Raining Men” ran through my head. Until then, I’m not sure I’d known the depth of my gratitude for well-dressed gentlemen, for these old-fashioned snatches in today’s society. Had I been bolder and/or in a Grease-like movie (and, of course, not seven and a half months pregnant) I might’ve done a little Weather Girls’ routine right there in the middle of Brooks Brothers. If I had, I bet I could’ve gotten the guys in the dressing room to buy a few more suits.

Beyond whatever shallow analysis one might take from this random posting, I’d like to point out that observing male shoppers does offer a unique perspective on masculinity. I think that’s why I find places like Brooks Brothers so thrilling: the men’s store gives voice to its consumers vulnerability and pride, their desire not just to command respect, but to be respectful.

For this, I am envious of men’s shopping experiences. In comparison, women’s clothing stores are much more insidious; too often, they feed our insecurities and shame us into buying things that will last only for a trend or for a season. Women are expected to care – too much – about how they look. And while I am not so naive as to think that there’s no hype at men’s clothing stores, what hype there is strikes me as good hype, classy hype, hype geared to affirmation — the kind of hype that makes me, at least, want to dance on a tailor’s platform and sing karaoke.

New Year, New You

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I have spent the better part of today cleaning/organizing my house. If any of you know me well, you might wonder what’s come over me: by nature, I am neither a cleaner nor an organizer.

I tend to stack things in neat piles and leave them to be sorted later … years later. I collect magazines, especially cooking magazines, convinced that I will reference them in the future. I kick off my shoes and leave them lying all over the house. (I then find said shoes lined neatly against the wall beside my closet – thanks to my very neat and organized husband – shaming me out of bed and away from my delightfully good books.)

I used to consider this rather disorganized aspect of my personality proof of my creativity. It was a sort of badge of honor, a testimony to my laid-back nature. But in the past couple of months, something’s come over me: I neurotically sort and organize. I not only clean out my refrigerator, but I also clean – with hot soap and water – its shelves. I recycle magazines. I leave next to nothing on my kitchen counter tops. I sort and file bills. I relish a long walk through the Container Store’s aisles, imagining a house filled with giant, neatly labeled, color-coordinated Rubbermaid bins.

I cannot explain this sudden personality shift, except to say that I think it means I’ve officially entered into the “nesting” phase of my pregnancy. Before last August, I didn’t even know there was such a phase. When a new-mother-friend of mine mentioned it, I laughed it off. Me? A nester? No way.

Oh, but how wrong I was. Over the holidays, I even let my overzealous nesting habits seep into the enjoyment of my time at my mother’s house. She has two refrigerators; I cleaned them both out and organized the shelves by ingredient. I then berated her for the four bags of all-purpose flour I found in refrigerator #2 while ignoring my husband’s gentle, whispered reminders to consider my own repeat purchases of late (cleaning supplies, mostly – a sign of the times).

After I’d laid siege on the refrigerators, I removed stacks of cookbooks and catalogs my mother had left on her couch and put them in a more discreet, but still reachable, location. I wrapped presents with the determined fury of a department store clerk on Christmas Eve. As if my life were hanging in the balance, I loaded and unloaded the dishwasher with furrowed brow; I cleaned off the kitchen table; I swept the counter tops of non-perishables and put them away in cupboards.

There is something divinely satisfying about completing such tasks. But I am also a little unnerved by this sudden, head-spinning change of personality. (No doubt, my mother was unnerved by it, as well.) I wonder if the hormones will ever relent or if I am now – whether I like it or not – a whirling dervish equipped with broom and garbage bag. My only hope is that this productivity and organization will also find its way into my profession – that I will make spreadsheets filled with deadlines I will meet, goals I will strive for and ideas I will act upon, that I will take care of my intellectual life the way I’ve recently been caring for my cupboards.

I would write more, but there’s no time left to muse today — I’ve just spotted a stack of magazines I’ve got to unload.

Godspeed to you all in 2008. Thanks for continuing to read my blog. It’s nice to know you’re out there.