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Archive for December, 2011

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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