Home cooking


The best thing my mother made was fried chicken. She would plug in her Sunbeam electric skillet — square with rounded corners, a black plastic beaver tail handle, and a domed lid made of thinner gauge aluminum that rattled tinnily when seated — and in it melt, I swear, four sticks of butter. She’d put flour, salt, and pepper into a brown paper bag, and my job was to drop the breasts, thighs, and drumsticks in the bag and, holding it closed in one fist, shake the bag like a tambourine until the pieces were thoroughly coated. Into the pan the chicken would go, its powdered white surfaces almost instantly overcome by noisy waves of swirling golden foam. I have no idea how long it cooked, or whether she covered the pan (it strikes me now that a lid would generate unwanted steam, certainly more than could escape from its  little pie slice vent), but the results were glorious.

il_fullxfull.297962321The other dishes in her repertoire, not so much. Hamburgers she would brown for just a minute or two in the Revere ware frying pan and then clap on the lid so they puffed up and steamed to death. Halibut entered the oven as a frozen rectangular brick and exited warm but still white and in much the same shape. For exotic, Mom made chop suey, with lots of celery.

The miracle is two-fold: one, that she cooked at all, and two, that she managed, in spite of a few lapses and America’s post-war love affair with TV dinners, to introduce me to real food — fresh vegetables, honest cheeses, and balanced, unprocessed meals — and to instill in me a welcoming curiosity about what bounty the world might provide.images

It can’t have been easy. Divorced at the age of 45 with a preschooler to feed and nothing in her disposition that might suit her to nursing or secretarial work, the other two choices, she became a teacher, earning $4,800/year. Our first apartment after the divorce was the second floor of a house in Birmingham, Michigan, that was covered in Spanish moss and owned by Mrs. Rogers, who smelled sour and had dark red horsehair couches in the room I’m sure she called a parlor. We had no kitchen, just a galley with a hotplate. Water came from the bathroom sink, and for refrigeration there was a porch. I remember milk, and watermelon, but Mom must have been depressed out of her mind, and the whole period is shrouded like the house in gray, coiling mystery.

Mom with jade pinIn time she renewed her capacity for delight. She loved Northern Spy apples, kumquats, young sweet corn, curries, tarragon, blueberries, trout, and caramel. Lightyears away from Brooklyn delis, she experimented with beef tongue and heart and kidneys. She steamed fresh artichokes and ate them in the kitchen, dipping each leaf into lemon butter and scraping its pale green pulp with her teeth. This was an astonishing sight to my friends in the neighborhood, at whose homes macaroni and cheese was the norm.Northern_Spy1

While there were days when I longed for mac and cheese in my own home, and for Coke  and chili dogs at the side of the road, I learned to appreciate her framework and am glad I never acquired a taste for soda or white bread. It’s not that I learned to cook from my mother: I lived on yogurt in college and was well into my 20s before I attempted to bake a potato. But she taught me to be open to taste and authenticity, and to fear no strangeness in the kitchen. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.images-1

Loose Ends

photoIt’s been a long time, I know. We haven’t spoken since Rob and Sharon got married, she with the diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Turns out my friend Karen is the “rich girl” in the song, but that’s another story. My phone is bulging with photos of food, and my mind keeps haphazard watch over an evolving list of topics — pork fennel dumplings in Toronto, our neighbor’s garden, Passover, fat flushing, sweet spinach pie, planning ahead, forks, Costco, etcetera, etcetera. People have asked, what’s with the blog? I’ll get to it, I say. I want to feel inspired. My son charitably describes me as “more of a writer than a blogger,” thus attempting to transpose my unreliability into something lofty. I’ll take it, but it’s bogus. Like eating too much being OK if you’re wearing elastic waist pants.

I hoped to burst back on the scene with a clever post — wise, witty and well documented. But I am at loose ends, so we’ll talk about that.

Being “at loose ends,” describes a vaguely unhappy sort of restlessness, an inability to dig in to things that need doing (paying bills, painting the bathroom trim) or even things that in another mood I would like to do (reading old New Yorkers, trying out a new recipe, blogging) threaded with guilt about not doing those things. Perhaps you know what I mean. It will pass, but there’s a stickiness here in the midst of it such that unpleasant sensations attach to each other like circus elephants holding trunk to tail in a long, disspiriting chain.images

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

I am at loose ends for a slew of reasons, first world problems but still. As usual, it’s a combination of intimate disconnects — feeling cut off from the people and activities that sustain me — and impotent distress about things over which I have no control, such as the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent week of drama, the Senate’s inaction on background checks. Fill in the blanks.IMG_2899

Closer to home, my work is spotty, my freelance clients wrapping up projects or on hold or on vacation or on to another freelancer. My darling daughter (in the yellow dress) is in the throes of her last semester of college and so stressed that she had to say, “Mommy, I love your emails but will you hold them for a couple of weeks?” I send her goat cheese and gluten-free Larabars by express mail, but hold the messages. My son has decided to go to grad school in Austin, Texas, and while I’m fantastically proud and happy for him — and Bill reminds me that we’ve been working toward this since the moment he was born, gradually taking down the parental scaffolding — Austin feels like a very, very long way away.


Waaa! Nobody needs me! 

Meanwhile, a girl has to eat.

Comfort food is called for, but real comfort food requires a degree of intentionality I don’t have when I’m at loose ends. Macaroni and cheese, for example. You need the mac and the cheese and the better part of an hour to do it justice, and there I days when I have none of those on hand, so I graze on almonds and chocolate chips.photo (2)

Wiser folk, like my sister-in-law Joan, make chicken soup. She brought some over the other day in a Greek yogurt container, wrapped like a Japanese present in a beautiful embroidered tea towel from Williams Sonoma. All I had to do was heat it up in a bowl. Warmth and the bowl are key.photo

I’m feeling better now, so undertaking to tea-smoke chicken in the grill. Here’s the smoke packet: with equal proportions Russian Caravan tea (smoky, like Lapsang Souchong), uncooked rice and brown sugar, plus star anise, five-spice powder, and orange zest. We shall see. I think I’ll serve it with black rice and coconut-sesame sauce, in a bowl.


P.S. The smoking was a bit of a fail. The air smelled nice around the grill while I pulled weeds from the patio, and in the end the tea-and-spice packet was satisfyingly toasted, but the chicken, though juicy, didn’t have the slightest hint of smoke or orange or anise. So I juiced the orange into coconut milk with a splash of Siracha for a sauce and all was well. photo

The preliminary title of this post was Seudat Mitzvah, but Sharon’s shoes, as you will soon see, were too fabulous not to have top billing. First, the food. This from The Jewish Chronicle:

The priority Jews place on food in our communal celebrations … comes from a central religious tenet called the seudat mitzvah, a commanded meal, which is required after celebrations and life cycle events. Meals served after weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even funerals are all considered to be occasions requiring a seudat mitzvah. The priority of food after an important occasion in Judaism is not about feeding people per se; it is about sharing an event in your life with the whole community. Mourners should not grieve alone and celebrants should not celebrate alone; the commandment is on the entire community to be with the people undergoing a significant moment whether it is significant to just one family or to the entire community.  Meals are seen as the natural post-experience gathering place in Judaism and the role of the seudat mitzvah is a central one in Jewish communal life.

I like it, despite the slightly jarring implications of obligatory feast. And even more than the concept, I liked the seudat mitzvah–aka brunch–that my family and I enjoyed at Rob and Sharon’s wedding. Rob, you may remember, is gifted and generous cook, so it came as no surprise that the wedding was not just celebrated by food but wrapped in it. Food is life, and it’s right that all our special occasions be marked by the sharing of food with a community of friends. Bill and I were married in our backyard, 25 years ago, and the food still shines in memory.

We gathered last Sunday at 11am in a private dining room at the Wayne Hotel, mingling with the other guests and snagging proffered mimosas and champagne from the circulating wait staff (I was grateful to be served Pellegrino in a wine glass, not the usual clunky tumbler) and eyeing beautifully plated appetizers on a counter. In-laws fretted briefly about certain teenagers getting ahead of themselves by noshing on the apps, but lo–we were invited to partake, even before the ceremony! Caprese bites, smoked salmon, pastries, yogurt parfait with raspberry preserves, duck balls, ricotta cheese bread pudding, pineapple and melon, each one as distinctively pretty as high-end sushi.

Thus satisfied, we were then invited to gather around for the wedding ceremony itself. Sharon in sparkling lace and Rob in a smart gray J. Crew suit stood together beneath a soft cotton chuppah with the rabbi, who explained everything. “The chuppah symbolizes the home Rob and Sharon will have together.” Looking up, she said, “this one looks like it might be from the kitchen.”

“It’s Indian,” said the mother of the bride.

Prayers and blessings ensued, sung in Hebrew and translated, wine was sipped, vows were exchanged, and rings placed on fingers, though the bride’s knuckle, recently sprained at the gym, proved a challenge. We guests stood beaming, aquiver with happiness for these two friends, while they took the leap of faith we call marriage. Then Rob stomped on a wineglass, a ritual variously interpreted as a reminder that even in times of great joy that there is sadness; that although the couple came together as a single union, the world as a whole is broken and needs mending; and that just as the glass is forever changed, so is the couple. At which point we all shouted “Mazeltov!”

A pearly paper scroll lay at each of our places with the words Congratulations Sharon and Rob! running along the edge. Were this a different kind of wedding, one might have expected this scroll to be some kind of souvenir, perhaps a reprint of the wedding vows. But no, it was a menu, and a fine one at that. My Scottish salmon was deliciously strewn with slivers of green grapes, almonds and teeny tiny florets of toasted cauliflower. Bill got the Eggs Benedict, with the poached eggs perfectly jiggly. If you look very closely, you will see that Bill is wearing his wedding tie.

All this time, a flower-bedecked white cake had been perched on the sideboard, so smooth and flawless that, abandoning all I know about Rob and Sharon, I entertained no hope for its taste. I was so wrong. This was a fake cake in what turns out to be a fairly common wedding practice, that of substituting a fondant clad, styrofoam prophylaxis for the real deal and thus, as they say, having one’s cake and eating it too. For the ritual cutting of the cake, the bride and groom sliced into the one real corner of the stand-in, shared a [real] piece, and had their picture taken. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the staff was cutting pieces of a delicious, honest-to-goodness cake with chocolate mousse filling and hazelnut buttercream. The coffee was first rate too. What a great day!

The official photos haven’t come through yet, but here’s an incomplete portrait of the extended family. Not for the first time, Rob is wondering where Sharon’s mother has got to.

Are you ready for Sharon’s fabulous shoes? Like Rob’s new suit (“You are not getting married in pleated pants!”), the shoes were mandated by Rob’s daughter Hadley, she of the blue dress and cocked eyebrow in the top row. Ta na na, ta na na na. She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

Three friends have died within the last six weeks, I think. It could be more. I say this with uncertainty because I’ve only just now stumbled into the news about two of them on Facebook, of all the godforsaken ways to find out, and there’s no way of knowing what else I have missed. The shock of their deaths is compounded by the shock of not having known, and by not having said goodbye.

Willy-nilly, through the tears and regret, I’ve been thinking about the food I shared with these friends–and  how food mirrors life itself. Both are glorious, challenging and diverse beyond measure. Both are ephemeral; here today, gone before you can say itadakimasu.

Carole was mild in manner and coloration, a soft-spoken woman of whom it was wise to assume had the heart of a tiger. I didn’t know her well, or long enough–we met in the crucible that was the Obama campaign of 2008, powering through thousands of phone calls on the strength of a doughnut and a few stale bottles of water–but well enough to recognize in her a radiant being. Her husband had been sick; he was the one we were worried about. The last time I saw her was on a Thursday at Tung Chen Grocery, where she was stocking up on tofu delivered fresh that day along with bahn mi and bánh tro to those who knew it was there. We smiled at our little secret.

Domingo was my landlord for five days in 2008, when he gave us his 9th Street storefront for use as a Get Out The Vote office. There were more than a few degrees of separation between the Dominican businessman and this white lady volunteer from the suburbs, but in that 5-day lifetime we became what I can only call soulmates. It didn’t matter that I never knew much about him, nor he of me; we had trust and a tremendous fondness for each other, and that was enough.

He came running into the office on the Sunday before the election, waving his arms and insisting that I come right that minute to the church down the street. Outside the big red doors of St. Paul’s, a woman was telling the exiting parishioners they would be bad Catholics if they voted Democratic. The priest rolled his eyes discreetly heavenward, and Domingo and I handed out Obama stickers to the grateful crowd. On Election Day, while I was busy wrangling hundreds of volunteers, he caused several dozen pork and turkey sandwiches to appear at the office.

Domingo was a deacon at St. Paul’s, and in the years that followed, he introduced me to the tamale stand that pops up between masses and to the fundraising dinners at the parish hall where for $5 you can load up a plate with pulled pork and beans and corn and tostones and flan and coconut cake. I would make a pie or a batch of cookies and drive over to 9th Street, knowing I would find him there at one of his businesses. The last time I saw him I was canvassing near his house, and he invited me and my friend Jess inside to meet his wife. Jess spoke with her in Spanish, I waved, and Domingo showed us around his gorgeous three-story brownstone that in Manhattan would cost $6 million. There were signs of a recent child’s birthday party–crepe paper, deflating balloons. He sent us off with a slab of cake apiece. He had cancer.

And then there was my friend Doc, a brilliant, audacious man who in August lost his struggle with depression. Doc was guy you could connect with on a lot of dimensions–baseball, Unitarian Universalism, Bruce Springsteen, kids. With me and Doc, it was the Red Sox—not that I know anything about baseball, but I am from Boston and my husband is a fan and that was way more than enough for Doc. He showed up at my door one day with a Red Sox jacket he’d found at Goodwill.

We also shared an interest in John Updike, and thanks to Doc’s initiative we spent an evening in Harrisburg, in the august seats of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, listening to Updike explain why James Buchanan was not the worst president of all time. 

But most of all, with me and Doc, it was food. He wasn’t fussy. As with everything else, if it was fun and with friends, he loved it. Doc learned that I had a knack for sushi, and the next thing I knew he had acquired a sushi-making kit and was clamoring for a shopping list and a guest appearance at his house. This was Doc as I knew him—an enthusiast, grabbing hold of an idea, wrapping his arms tight around it, and charging ahead with a fervent devotion that captivated everyone in his path.

I should have worn a kimono; he would have thought that was fabulous, and launched into a narrative Q&A designed to teach the kids something about Japanese fashion of the Heian period. As it was, there was plenty of discussion about just what constitutes sushi (it’s the vinegared rice, not the raw fish); the architecture of it—either rolled on a membrane of dried seaweed, or shaped in the palm to form quail’s egg-sized balls of rice draped with little quilts of fish; the aesthetics, though we made a pretty big mess of the kitchen; and of course, the eating of it, which was also messy.

I didn’t know then that for me and Doc, that was the last supper. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see Carole again after that Thursday at the market, or Domingo after he wrapped up the birthday cake. One doesn’t, usually. Which is why—as I’m learning so very slowly that I have to admit to resistance—every moment we have together is important. 

I am in many ways a bad friend. I get busy and then neglectful. I take it for granted that there will always be another chance to pick up the phone, but there isn’t, always. I am trying to make up for lost time by renewing some of the relationships I’ve let slide–by making amends, by writing to cousins and college friends, by telling my kids more often than usual that I love them more than I can ever say, and by remembering to give thanks for everyone and everything involved in the process of bringing food to my table. Thank you to the cooks and the farmers, the shoppers, clerks and truck drivers, the rain and the sun, the chickens and the broccoli. And thank you to those with whom I have shared a meal. Itadakimasu, yo.

Wednesdays with Jadah

If you’re going to eat at home, Wednesday is a good night to do so at our house.

Every night is a good night, truth be told, but on Wednesdays we get treated to a new adventure every week–a recipe plucked from the Internet, made and served by the divine Miss Jadah.

We’ve known and loved Jadah since she was 12, when she and her grandmother (aka “G”) made phone calls for Obama on our front porch in 2008. Last September, G’s failing health threw her housing and access to school into disarray, and since Bill and I were able to offer both, Jadah came to live with us, a blessing to us all. Add TLC, a weekly trip to the grocery store, and a few cooking tips, and we have Wednesdays with Jadah.

It began with that old favorite, mac and cheese, prepared from scratch rather than via the microwave method Jadah was taught at Wyomissing High School. (“Which of six store-bought boxes is best?” is what passes for education.) She cooked the pasta in boiling water, made the roux, stirred the thickening white sauce, grated the cheese–even crumbled the bread that became the crunchy, toasted crumbs on top–and served it up with a side of green beans and a splotch of Sriracha. Comfort on a plate.

The following Tuesday, I asked what she was going to make next. “Do you mean I’m supposed to do this every week?” she said, the penny of awareness of domestic responsibility dropping with a clatter. She rose, as always, to the occasion, varying the creamy pasta theme with a spinach, red sweet pepper and chicken alfredo, with massaged kale on the side. Several Wednesday dinners have since then been built on chicken and pasta, each time with a tasty twist.

Chicken Pesto

Jadah gets her ideas from the world around her. Inspired by a gluten-free meal prepared by my daughter Alex, Jadah created two delectable pizzas one evening from Bob’s Red Mill pizza crust mix. Caramelized onions (made slowly, the only way possible) and sauteed mushrooms topped one; spinach, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella the other.

On another occasion, she took a cue from a low-carb cauliflower crust prepared by my son Sam, who found the original recipe where I never would, on a site called Testosterone Nation. Though I can’t speak to the hormonal impact, the crust–and Jadah’s pizza–were sufficiently amazing that we now keep a cauliflower on tap just in case.

Jadah’s friend Soua has introduced us to Hmong cuisine, a unique mix of Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese influences, plus in our case, a bit of whatever thrown in. Soua is justifiably famous for her egg rolls (red cabbage, scallions, carrots, pork, egg, rice vermicelli) and Jadah has become her roller-in-chief.

My personal favorite is a soft rice flour pancake, sprinkled with sauteed ground pork and scallions, and turned into a floppy roll-up of deliciousness. Serve all of the above with soy sauce , Sriracha (of course) and sweet egg-roll sauce, which we sometimes fake with fish sauce, sugar, and grated carrot.

Jadah and I experimented at long, hilarious length with the pancake, tossing a few gooey messes into the trash, but she transformed one version into something great–a hearty pancake embedded with pork and scallions.

Last week, which seemed like Spring had come at last, Jadah made Pasta Primavera: fusilli, with snap peas, broccoli, yellow bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, pepper flakes, mint and cheese. The called-for goat cheese was too expensive, so we used a few feta crumbles purchased below rate from the Giant’s salad bar. And when she discovered that the snap peas had missed the prescribed pasta-water bath, she simply tossed them in the bottom of the colander for a hot shower along with the draining pasta. They were perfect, and so was dinner.

In loving memory of Mary Spencer, June 29, 1951-April 12, 2012.

How many burritos?

Sam is home and he’s hungry, plowing through the spinach, the broccoli, the escarole-chicken soup, and the eggs. He would put a dent in the 20lbs of Korean bulgogi marinating on the counter, but that’s for Charles and Bernice’s wedding on Saturday and he has admirable self-control. Once sated, he’s after me again to write a blog post. It has been too long.

So this is in honor of Sam, and in particular, Sam’s capacity for Chipotle burritos. How big is it? Soooo big!

“Let’s see how many burritos I can eat,” he proposed one recent weekend. He likes to take his own measure, not just in terms of food intake but bench press weight, philosophical discourse, and alcohol. 

“Why not?” said Bill and I. It’s not as if he were talking about shots.

Sam’s almost-23-year-old palate is astonishingly nuanced, able to discern subtle undertones of flavor that would be lost on most people, and to know just what to add–a pinch of fennel to the bouillabaisse, espresso to the mole. It is a treat to let him handle the ordering in a tapas place, provided one pays the bill. He is quite a good cook, but for the most part he’d rather not. Fortunately, home is not too far away, and in between he takes sustenance with generous foodie friends like Rafe and Robin Major, who happily works at Whole Foods.

Sam wanted us to bet on how many burritos he could eat. Bill guessed three; I thought that four might be Sam’s limit, but I voted for five to stir things up. He made me promise not to talk to everyone in the restaurant.

Of course he had a strategy: lots of green peppers and onions, hold the rice, and easy on the hot sauce. He ordered two for starters, chicken and beef. Bill and I, meanwhile, with the latitude of modest intentions, loaded up  one apiece with black beans and rice along with the veggies, cheese, and multiple sauces. Then we sat down to watch.

At Chipotle, a burrito a substantial, foil-wrapped bundle about the size of what I imagine is a human stomach before getting stuffed with burritos. Sam’s Burrito Number Three was pork, at which point I was too delirious to keep track.

Some weeks later, Sam texted me at 11:07pm.

How many burritos did I eat? I need someone to back me up.

Five, I replied.

This is Sam’s friend [read the next text]. I don’t believe it.

Believe it, said I, for it was true. Chin slightly abraded, fingers coated with sauce, Sam polished off five Chipotle burritos in one sitting.

Which fills me with admiration and reminds me of the wonderful Tom Cheney New Yorker cartoon I like to trot out each decade.

Not all of us are so lucky as to be able to play these games. Sam’s benefactor, Robin Major, is raising money through the Whole Planet Foundation for a microloan program for women in India. Whole Foods Market covers all administrative costs, so every penny goes to loans. I donated today; it was the least I could do to thank her for all the meals she feeds my son.

Exhibit A: Harpo Marx, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Blake, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Woody Allen, Dame Judi Dench, Jay-Z, Bruce Lee, Christopher Plummer and Bette Midler.

Sagittarians are truth-seekers [says astrology.com], and the best way for them to do this is to hit the road, talk to others and get some answers. Knowledge is key to these folks, since it fuels their broad-minded approach to life. The Sagittarian-born are keenly interested in philosophy and religion, and they find that these disciplines aid their internal quest. At the end of the day, what Sagittarius wants most is to know the meaning of life, and to accomplish this while feeling free and easy.

Also, they do not care for the phrase “at the end of the day,” especially when paired with “it is what it is.” They (or at least I, for I am among that blessed cohort) do like their food, much like our astrological ruler Jupiter, King of the Gods. Which is enough of a segue for me to post about some of my dearest, most fervent meaningoflife-seeking friends who also happen to have been born between November 22nd and December 21st.

My friend Rocki, aka Roxanne St. Claire, is the New York Times bestselling author of (this from a literary snob) truly fabulous romantic suspense novels and coming soon–halleluia!–a whole lot more. Rocki and I worked together at Hill and Knowlton (truth: she was my boss) back in the day when there existed such clients as Digital and Quotron. Never has going to work been so much fun. Dressed in our suits, silk blouses and pumps, we’d rope in the clients with our charm and PR genius, and on days when we were both crazed with PMS, we’d stand in front of the candy machine, always in the suits, contemplating our choices (“Twix are good”) as if the fate of a $10 million contract depended on it.

Rocki grew up in family rich in confidence, hilarity and ambition, along with a few, shall we say, food issues. The refrigerator door was packed with bite-sized chocolates whose purpose seemed to be willpower training, since no one, certainly not Rocki, was supposed to eat them. Instead, less caloric items were framed as treats. Imagine the scene–

[parent enters with hands cupped] “Guess what I have for you?!”

[child, excited] “Ooohh, what is it?”

[parent reveals contents of cupped hands] “Parsley!”

Fortunately, she married an Italian who cooks–and looks, I might add–like an angel. Read her books. Any and all of them.

Harriet Goldman is my partner in literary fiction, which is to say we take ourselves rather seriously, shun happy endings and usually don’t get paid. (There are exceptions to that last point, notably our fellow alumna of the Jane Street Workshop, the inimitable Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, who generously gives us all credit in the acknowledgements.) Unlike me, Harriet actually does the work, sitting at her desk, day in and day out, developing characters in idiosyncratic detail, crafting the story lines and giving voice to experience, and as a result she has a novel and an astonishing collection of stories to show for it.

It was not Harriet so much as Harriet’s body that developed a challenging relationship with food. Mysterious rashes appeared. Inexplicable aches. The doctors looked at her askance. Alas, like my gluten-free daughter, she had inadvertently joined the ranks of people who can’t eat certain things, only in Harriet’s case there was no certainty about what those certain things were. It can be tiresome to dine with someone who makes a centerpiece of what they can’t eat, but lovely Harriet maintains a cheerful, adaptive attitude, gracefully threading her way through cocktail parties and dinners out, and finding amusement rather than a badge of gloom in a magazine called Living Without. I can hear her laughing now.

Lucky me, I got to have lunch today with my friend Julie Myers, who is just back from  eight months in Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps. We met two decades ago at a children’s museum on the strength of my purple Converse hightops, her luminous smile and our mutual certainty that the person across the crowded room was somebody we wanted to know. That’s her in the turquoise head scarf on the left, telling about the noodles:

This picture is my favorite; Babushka, Ellie and Mukarem, our 14 year-old sister, and me making spaghetti for lagman, a specialty of the Uighur cuisine.  The noodles are served with a spicy sauce and topped with an assortment of stewed vegetables- peppers, onions, potatoes, sometimes a handful of kidney beans, shredded carrots and lots of garlic.  Served on the side, there’s a delicious ragout of eggplant, peppers and more garlic, which can be added to the mixture.  It’s divine!  I felt honored to be allowed to help make the noodles. Richard would have liked to also, but it was subtly and clearly communicated to him that this was a girl thing.  He stayed for a bit and took pictures, even a video of Babushka’s deft and beautiful hands rolling, stretching, and winding the noodles with amazing grace and dexterity that comes of having repeated an action over and over for many years.

We got together for a Birthday Lunch at a place called Gramma’s in Pottsville, splitting the distance between us with complete disregard for the food. I had an egg and bacon sandwich on toasted white, not that it mattered next to Julie.

My indescribable friend Etsuko Funo is a permanent fixture of this blog, filling the second paragraph of the About page, and a constant, vivid presence in my life despite the barriers of language and 9,800 miles. She lives and works in East Osaka, Japan, rising at 3am every day but Monday to make sandwiches and bake bread and rolls for her shop, Bakery Tombo (it means dragonfly), laughing and joking and working until close at 7pm. At which time she makes dinner for her family. Twenty years ago, we lived in the same apartment building, randomly and overpromisingly called GL Mansion, and Etsuko made me crazy for about a month until I realized I couldn’t live without her. 

She wrote me little notes, half in Japanese, half in English, explaining how long eggs and milk and tofu could be kept in the refrigerator. I wanted to scream, “We have eggs in the United States!” but she only escalated her assault on my helplessness. (My husband and I lost weight at the beginning of our stay in Japan because I had NO CLUE how to put food on the table.) Etsuko started bringing me bags of groceries, an embarrassment of riches. Then she brought full meals–warm, delicious, multi-course–followed by a recipe and the ingredients necessary for me to do it myself. Reciprocity is a guiding principle in Japanese etiquette, and although as Americans we were never going to get it right, it was awkward to be the recipient of so much generosity we couldn’t possibly return. My protests, I soon realized, were in vain. Etsuko was not to be deflected and besides, we needed the eggs.

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Etsuko transformed my relationship to food. (She transformed my relationship to Japan itself, but that’s for another day.) She opened the secret door to how Japanese working people eat at home and how the flavors of mirin and fish stock and egg and pork and green onion can be woven together in a million ways to produce comforting and beautiful food. She taught me to make baby food for my kids out of soft rice, seaweed and teeny, tiny fish, and fed them their first chowanmushi and green tea. Those Mondays she had off? She took care of my children and fixed us dinner so I could rest. My son Sam is now 22 (he was 2 1/2 when we left Japan) and he still melts in the presence of good Japanese food–the links between aroma and comfort forged by Etsuko–as if he were coming home.

And then (I can hardly bear the loss, still) there’s the one and only Anne Zevin, the ultimate Sagittarian, though she scoffed at the notion. Avadon took this picture during one of her many lives. Anne drove a lot of people, especially her daughters, completely around the bend, but for me, perhaps because I had the luxury of not being her daughter, she was a treasure and an inspiration. She was a traveler, a collector and a changeling, ravenously curious and interested in learning, with fancies that took her all over the world–to the west coast of Ireland to write a book about St. Patrick; to a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam; to Paris in the winter, because it was cheap and she could afford to stay a month. She was taking a class at Harvard on the Peloponnesian War when she died, and making plans to go to Brittany.

Anne wasn’t a great cook, at least during the thirty years I knew her, but great cooking took place around her. She had the house on Cape Cod where we gathered, and later in Woods Hole, where Harry and I would whip up pies and pastas while Bill and Anne and Leslie and Janie and Howard and Dale and Guillermo and whomever else was around would drink wine and carry on, old jazz on the player or Anne at the piano, belting out Broadway tunes. For Easter, she would make a lamb cake with coconut icing and decorate the table with flowered linens and daffodils in McCoy vases. In the summer, we made castle cakes festooned with shells plucked from the beach, and life was very, very good. I have some of her plates now, and the black and silver pin you can just barely see in this picture taken at her 70th birthday.


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