Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Come With Me"

This is what we're saying, after all, when we tell a story.

And this is the title of the little book I just received in the mail, sent to me by father, authored by his brother.  Uncle Joe. In his late 70s. A storyteller all his life, who finally gathered up his stories at the exhortation of his brothers and his wife and made a book.

My dad edited it and their brother, my Uncle Bill, provided the many photographs that tell another version of those stories. I know most of them already. And still, my heart breaks with joy at the sight of them on pages, all together, names and images and turns of phrase that add up to my family and my home and Uncle Joe's overalls and his cornbread and his laugh and the cigarettes he sneaks and the jelly he gives me as "rent" for the muscadines he poaches from my land, adjacent to his in Van Buren County, Arkansas.

 From his acknowledgments, speaking about his brothers:

They are both experienced authors, and a few months ago they decided that this book should be published...we had to have a "book meeting" every Friday morning following breakfast. After sixteen weeks, thirty five pounds of ham and two hundred eighty-eight biscuits, we got it all together.

He has always wanted to write a book.

And now he has.

My uncle, the author.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sitting Shiva, Holding the Wake: Remembering Gourmet Magazine

From the time I was a small child, I knew that a death meant food and laughter and crying and more food.

People gathered. They brought platters of cold fried chicken or deviled eggs, a pound of coffee in a can.

They sat on webbed lawn chairs in living rooms, and the bereaved were hovered over by ladies in dresses and brooches and men in short-sleeved shirts and ties.

There was some crying, but not as much as there were laughter and stories. Sometimes the recounting was about a silly habit the deceased had, or the time the hand brake had given out on his car, sending him running down the dirt road after the runaway vehicle. Oh, the chortling, and then the sighs and the handkerchiefs dabbed at eyes and noses.

Just so, this past Saturday, a group of us gathered to remember: not a person, but an institution--Gourmet Magazine. Instructed to prepare a favorite recipe from the long history of the publication to share, we had compared ideas throughout the weeks ahead. No one really called dibs on anything, but as the day of the celebration approached, we started to stake out our culinary claims.

And on the night of the party (from wake to celebration to party), we arrived one by one and two by two. It was already dark and there were twinkling lights decorating Kim's house. We came in, holiday style, all bundled and apple-cheeked, bearing cloth-covered dishes and bags. There was a fire in the fireplace, candles, stacks of plates, and extra chairs. Oohs and aahs and nods of recognition as each new dish was unveiled and placed on the table. "Oh, yes, that was a classic!" "We always made this one for birthdays." Several of us made cocktails from the Gourmet collection, and folks gathered to mix them up and clink glasses, nibbling at the finger foods and showing great restraint around the larger dishes.

Finally someone, I don't remember who, grabbed a plate and we all fell on the repast spread out before us. Dishes balanced on laps, cheeks even more apple-y from the Cranberry Gin and Tonics and the fire, shouted greetings to late arrivals. Jon gave an oyster-shucking demonstration and we cheered as shuckapprentices tried their hand under his careful guidance. Daisy the Collie tried desperately to get her nose into the guacamole, into anything and shhhhhh, don't tell, I did hold my empty plate to her sweet head for her to lick as clean as a whistle.

We went around the room and told stories about what Gourmet had represented in our lives. We meant it when we said it would endure, and surely our gathering and respect for the good food offered and our genuine affection for each other were testaments to the cultural bond we all shared--because of a magazine.

The Magazine of Good Living.

All of us in that warm house on Saturday night found our way to each other because of our love of Good Living. Gourmet was our scripture. Our Requiem, our Shiva, were appropriately marked by smiles and pampered palates, hugs and compliments over a crust just so, a presentation artfully designed, a flavor that awakened a memory.

It led a full, rich life, that magazine. It fed full, rich lives.

We live better because of it.

Let us give thanks.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The art of art.

I was in one of those conversations.

Two art collectors in a clearing at a gallery, circling each other rhetorically, sizing each other up.

I was supposed to be fawning over the stuff I was there to see, but I really couldn't. Damn me and my honesty (I once drove 20 miles in Appalachia to return the excess money a cashier had returned to me after an insignificant transaction, much to her confusion). So I said, half apologetically, "I don't love it."

I could tell my conversation partner didn't know where to go with that, and since I didn't want to get into any chest-thumping about something as capricious as what art I love, I gestured toward my friends gathering at the door, shrugged my shoulders faux-ruefully, and scurried out.

Fast forward to tonight.

I swept into a West Seattle home of strangers, was greeted like family, could barely look at the art because of the engaging conversation still in the foyer...and the living room...and the stairwell...and the bathroom...and the kitchen.

No posturing. Images that spoke to me. People that cared about art, life, each other. Generosity of spirit, generation of the spark that fueled the return of me to myself at the end of a hard week.

And it made me think: so much of the art in my home is not about a careful calculation of collector value (although I'm lucky that I've made good choices in that regard), but rather is about the very subjective experience I have when I encounter it.

Sometimes I buy something because the image follows me around. I keep turning to look at it. I go past it and back up. I look at it over my shoulder again and again, and I know.

And sometimes I collect something because I love who made it. Every single time I look up at the brooding, painted eyes over my desk, I think of Jerry. John is in every cup of coffee I drink from the stoneware he made.

And sometimes, like tonight, I am seduced by the combination of a quick drive through Friday evening rush hour traffic with a friend, our animated chatter the soundtrack to the city lights receding behind our drizzle-soaked window; arriving at a warm home on this windy night; compelling images that tweak my memory-strings; the easy hospitality of people who love sharing food and space with friends; a painter who is honest and frank, both in his work and in his being; a photographer whose skillful, intimate photographs are juxtaposed with her nervousness and broad smile (nerves trumped by delight).

I would have loved the paintings and the photographs without all that.

But I got a soul-feeding, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nanny's Chow Chow

And, no, it's not a breed of canine.

It's a relish, omnipresent on plates at 711 E. 17th Street in Little Rock, AR during my childhood. It's what Nanny and Daddy Gene, my maternal great-grandmother and great-grandfather, canned at the end of the summer with all those green tomatoes still on the vines just before first frost. It was the tart and crunchy that went with the greasy and salty on the rest of the plate.

Here's my mom's description, upon receiving some from her brother recently:

It was delicious! We opened one of the two jars and served it up at the farm today, and it brought back fond memories! Nanny ALWAYS served chow chow with turkey (or chicken) and dressing...always!! Of course it was a staple for other foods and occasions, as well! You said we might want to add more salt, but we don't need it anymore than you do (even though we grew up on favorite meal was fried saltmeat, fried okra, fried or boiled new potatoes, turnip greens, purple hull peas (or great northern beans), fresh tomatoes out of Daddy Gene's garden, along with green onions, cucumbers and radishes...and slathered in "grease gravy", with cornbread to sop it all up! I'd give anything to have just one more of those meals!

And here's my uncle's e-mail from this morning, a response to a request for the recipe. Seems Seattle is overrun with green tomatoes, and chow chow is the first thing that occurred to me.

Here is the recipe. I changed it a little because I started using an electric grinder, The percentage of the mix can vary a little. Each batch has a little different flavor. Nanny just used what she had. She liked a lot of flavor and hot pepper. She used the long red peppers because that is what Daddy Gene grew. The recipe makes about 40-50 pints. You might try half that on your first batch.

It's messy! On my first batch my feet were sticking to the floor!

Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.

And here, friends, is the recipe, in my uncle's own words. I wish I had a picture, too. If anyone makes it, let me know--I would be happy to make you some cornbread for barter. Enjoy.

Nannie’s Chow-Chow Recipe


One crate of green tomatoes
One-half bushel Onions
One-half bushel Bell Peppers (a mix of green and red adds color)
Twelve to Fourteen heads of Cabbage (medium size)
Five cups of Apple Vinegar
Four cups Sugar
One-half cup Salt
Small bag of Pickling Spices (about one and a half to two inches in diameter
One-half pound of Hot Peppers (about 20 to 50 depending on the pepper used)

Grinding Instructions:

If using an electric meat grinder, use the largest holed grinder plate. Grind each ingredient separately and keep separate. Reserve all the fluid in each ingredient. It is best to grind because it produces more reserve liquid. If a food processor is used you may have to add water when cooking. If you must cook in more than one batch, try to estimate the volume of each ingredient and keep the blend as close to the same as possible in each batch.

Cooking Instructions:

Bring Vinegar, Sugar and Salt mixture to a boil and place the bag of Pickling Spice in the liquid when it is early in the boiling process. Let the Pickling Spices boil for awhile. (The longer the stronger, you can add more later) Remove before adding the ground ingredients. Reserve the bag of Pickling Spices for possible later use. Place the ground ingredients into a large Pot (the flatter the better, you may have to use two burners) and add the Vinegar mix. Add all of the reserved liquid. You must have enough liquid to cover the solids when you seal the jars.)

Bring the mix to a simmer under medium heat while stirring frequently and cook until the cabbage is soft but not mushy. Start to taste when nearing completion and add more flavor to your taste. Judge the taste with a small amount that has been cooled in a small bowl in the refrigerator or freezer. You can add more pickling spice by heating a small amount of Vinegar or water in a cup and letting the bag of spice soak for awhile. Make sure there is enough liquid at the end. It should look like you have too much liquid at the end of the cook. Boil your jars and lids and fill with the mix making sure there is liquid at the top. Use pints for condiment use and pints or quarts for side dish use. Seal the tops tightly and tighten more when cooled. You can use the water bath method but Nanny never did and we have never had a problem with spoilage if used in a few months.

For condiment use the ratio of ground ingredients should be about 30% Cabbage, 35% Tomatoes, 20% Onion and 15% Bell Pepper.
For side dish use the ratio of ground ingredients should be about 35% Cabbage, 35% Tomatoes, 15% Onion and 15% Bell Pepper.

A half crate of green tomatoes is about half a grocery sack. Adjust all the ingredients (ground and flavors) to the tomatoes. You can use more Cabbage than above if you can’t find enough green tomatoes. You can adjust the flavors at the end. I usually make a lot more of the Vinegar mix than I think I need (double) and add more to taste near the end of the cook. Nanny always added more near the end. I have never had too much liquid at the end. When opened a jar should be eaten in two or three weeks. If you buy jars and want to use the box for storage, you need to reinforce the box with tape. I use cayenne peppers.

You will usually need to do one batch to get it the way you like. I screwed up my first batch every way possible and it was still good.

Update: I told my uncle there were some friends who might be making this, and he got all excited. Here's his response:

It is great to have a lot of tomatoes. They can use more tomatoes in the recipe and get a better side dish type of chow-chow. I think they would probably like that type of chow-chow better if it's their first time to taste it. It could still be used as a condiment. If they use a food processor, I would use the large grater disk. Unless they have tasted Nanny's original they may not know how to adjust the flavor. I would advise them to make it a little stronger than the recipe because I usually add more of the vinegar mix at the end. It's fun to make if you already have the tomatoes. It gives you the old frontier spirit if you have grown the tomatoes!

You might not know that chow-chow was the vitamin pills for rural people in the old days. It was eaten almost every day. Nannie and Daddy Gene ate it with every full meal.

Give your friends my best!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grown-Up Tea Party (quince fried pies; cheese & bacon grits)

It's not that I never had good tea parties growing up, it's just that they were in my head.

Today I went to one with real, live people and animated conversation in a light-filled room. There were nibblies of every sort and jams and curds and teas. Some people brought traditional tea party fare and others brought "it's a celebration and this is what my people do" offerings. Still others shared the bounty from season's end gardens or the farmer's market.

All of us ate too much and apologized not one bit for it.  Here's to grown-ups getting their little kid tea party on.

My contributions were quince fried pies and cheese and bacon grits.


dough for 12-ish pies:

2 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. rendered leaf lard (you could use shortening, but butter would burn, I think)
1/2 c. whole, raw milk from Sea Breeze Farm (sure, use a different kind, but you'll miss the love!)

Sift flour and salt together. Mix in cold lard with fingertips until it resembles sand. Stir in milk until shaggy and just holding together. Turn onto floured board, gather together into a ball, then a flat disk, and cut into quarters. Cut those into thirds and form into a small ball.  This dough is more forgiving than pie dough--it's really closer to a biscuit dough, and the lard makes it easier to work with.


 5 quince, peeled, cored, and diced (give yourself time; quince are ornery)
water to just cover
+/- 1 cup sugar (depends on how astringent the quince are--you'll just have to play*)
1 knife tip ground cloves
2 knife tips ground cinnamon
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 t. vanilla (scrapings of a vanilla bean handy? even better)
3 T. butter

Place fruit and sugar in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the spices and lemon juice. Stew the fruit over low heat until it's soft, but still a bit chunky, and most of the liquid has cooked away.  At the very end, stir in vanilla and butter. Let cool (if you do this ahead and refrigerate, bring back to room temperature before proceeding).

Assemblage and fryage (I made that second word up):

1 c. or more of leaf lard
1 c. sugar

Roll each circle of dough into a 5 in. circle. Place a heaping soup spoon of filling in center. Moisten edges of dough with your fingertip and water, then fold over gently (careful--don't tear dough) and seal all edges completely. Crimp with a fork.  Continue with the rest of the dough.

Put lard in a steep-sided, wide skillet and heat until a tiny ball of dough sizzles mightily when tested in it. Gently lay the pies in, without crowding, a few at a time. Fry in batches until golden, then turn gently and fry the other side. You may have to stand them upright, too, to get an all-over gold (add more lard as necessary).  Take pies up and immediately place them on a plate of sugar, turning quickly to coat all sides. Remove to rack to cool.

These are good at room temperature, but I encourage you to organize your life around having at least one while still warm. Or kind of wreck the first one, so you'll be forced to eat it, lest you serve something unsightly to a guest.  Hospitality requires it, you know.  wink

*it's for a tea party, after all


2 c. stone-ground grits
6 c. water
1 t. salt
4 T. butter
1/2 lb. shredded cheese (I used Beecher's Flagship and Estrella Valentina*)
12 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled (I used Skagit River Ranch)
1 c. milk
3 large eggs
1/2-1 tsp. Louisiana Hot Sauce or similar (heck, we're in Seattle, maybe Sriracha!)
1 t. fresh thyme leaves
cracked black pepper and additional salt to taste (depends on saltiness of your bacon and cheese)

Bring water and salt to boil and add grits in a steady stream, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Lower heat and cook, stirring often, until water has been absorbed.  Remove from heat.  Stir in butter and transfer to large mixing bowl. Beat eggs and milk and hot sauce together, then stir into grits. Add cheese (reserve 1/2 cup), bacon and thyme; season with pepper and (if needed) salt. Pour into ungreased, shallow dish.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top and bake for an additional 1/2 hour or so.  The grits should not jiggle when they're done and the top should be golden. [Note: today, 12/6/09, I actually DID use Sriracha. I liked it even better than Louisiana Hot Sauce, as chagrined as I am to say it.]
*A reader on Shauna and Dan Ahern's "pork, knife & spoon" blog's re-printing of this recipe reminded me that these are Puget Sound cheeses. For those in other regions, just choose a hard cheese that is bold and flavorful and sharp enough to cut your tongue!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

S & H Green Stamps

Every once in a while someone will say something that yanks me from where I am to a long-ago forgotten place--forgotten because of how inconsequential it was In The Grand Scheme Of My Life.

Like last night.

I was sitting at The Hideout with a group of friends and colleagues, sipping a Lillet on the rocks, when one of them mentioned S & H green stamps.  Seems she had encountered some thing or another that made reference to them and had no idea what they were.

Since I was the Elder in the group (made manifest by the fact that I DID know what they were), I explained their history with the handy assistance of an iPhone and Wikipedia.

What I didn't explain, though, was the memory of a little red patent leather pocketbook stuffed with dollars and an "identification card" filled out with perfect cursive script and school photos of my friends and jauntily folded over strips of S & H green stamps.

Or the booklets that contained the sheets of them, that got fatter and fatter as more stamps were affixed, or the smell of a bottle of Mucilage or the feeling of running a finger over a full page of stamps and noting the ragged edges of the stamps as it went. Or the brown grocery bag that held the completed booklets and the redemption catalog next to Nanny's platform rocker and behind her snuff spittle can. Or the excitement of going, finally, finally, with a full bag of completed booklets to the S & H Redemption Center to turn it all in for some then coveted and now irretrievably discarded treasure.

To be honest, I can't remember one item I ever got for those stamps. The thing was not greater than the sum of its stamps, gathered 3 or 4 at a time and over months and months.

Petite green markers of delayed gratification, they were, like the practice of putting clothes on "layaway" at M.M. Cohn's in Little Rock until I had paid them enough money to pick the clothes up and take them home.

Typing these words, I think of how foreign this would read to someone half my age.

"Save S & H green stamps and trade them in for an object."
"Put clothes on 'Layaway' until you have paid for them."

As awkward and unfamiliar as bowing in Japan or eating with bare hands in North Africa.

And I lament something as I think about this, but I'm not sure what...

A practice, a ritual, a habit?

Surely not the S & H green stamps themselves, or the items they procured for me. Nor even the notion of delayed gratification.
I will go right now and tweet about this...
in 140 characters (instantaneous and succinct)...

and muse later about the slight discomfort I feel...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On gravy.

I don't experience things in isolation.

Whatever stimuli lap up on the shores of my consciousness join other stimuli, some still foamy, some soaked in.

My experience of a meal this time last week--a tangle of dishes, smells, laughs, and stories at a potluck--was layered onto the sum of meals shared with friends and family in every corner of the world over a lifetime.

So when I recounted to a new friend what red-eye gravy was (essentially ham grease and hot coffee), I was on a stool in downtown Seattle and, at the same time, in the kitchen in a farmhouse on a red dirt road in Van Buren County, Arkansas in the 1960s.

And when I talked to my dad on the phone this weekend, and he told about how he and his brothers still make red-eye gravy for Saturday morning breakfast at the cabin, he was holding a cell phone link between himself and his Seattle daughter, as well as standing knee-high to his own mother in the kitchen he knew first.

"Oh, I remember that sound," he said. "She would take up the ham and put it on a plate and while it was still sizzling, she'd pour that coffee in with a big old 'WHOOSH' and Lord, that would cause a cloud of steam." He paused. "I miss that old girl," he admitted. And I paused, too. Mamaw, in her dress and clip on earrings, but with sturdy shoes, an apron, and a lumberjack jacket--because a preacher farmer's wife is both a lady and needs to get the hogs slopped, after all. Mamaw with her slightly high-pitched voice and her flour bin drawer built into the cabinetry. Mamaw with her pans of biscuits and jars of sorghum.

Dad and I rehearsed whole litanies of memory in the instant it took the "whoosh" to cross the airwaves, but litanies require a moment of silence as punctuation. We gave it. And then we moved on to other matters: how the dogs are; how well the pond and lake are filling up; how I want to spend some time in the darkroom over Christmas with him and his brother with some old school black and white film and chemicals.

I hung up, but stayed, Matrix-like, caught between there and here. At the farmer's market on Saturday, I didn't steer toward the things I might: chanterelles, local apples. No, I packed my bag with turnips and greens, scoured each stand for still-green tomatoes, accepted fresh cranberry beans as a local compromise (had we known them in Arkansas, surely they would have been our floral, fragrant legume of choice). I also tucked in a packet of pig skin, courtesy of Sea Breeze Farm, which I turned into cracklings later that day.

Sunday passed, Monday, Tuesday, and me still psychically stuck in the foothills of the Ozarks, but unable to leave work and other commitments aside to go there wholly.

But tonight was the night. I put rendered pork fat in my treasured skillet and put it in the oven at 450 to heat. I measured out two cups of stone-ground cornmeal into a bowl with a bit of salt, soda, and baking powder, and then quickly beat in an egg and 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk, plus a handful of cracklings. When the skillet was smoking, I pulled it out of the oven, swirled the grease around in a flash and poured it with the most luscious sizzle into the batter and beat like hell, quickly, and then quicker still back into the still blazing hot iron skillet, and back into the oven. [Whew. If that takes more than 30 seconds, start to finish, pitch it out and start over, friends.]

Beans were already simmering and the turnips and greens were in the pressure cooker (the jiggle also a sound of my childhood).

I tossed the green tomatoes in the leftover cornbread batter still in the bowl, tossed them in more cornmeal and quick, into a skillet with more rendered pork fat.

I cut up a bit of fresh onion and trimmed two radishes. Once the cornbread was done, I took it out and turned it onto a cutting board. No need to run a spatula around, this skillet is so well-seasoned that the cornbread slides right out. A matter of pride, that.

It was good. It was very, very good, in that way that memory foods are.

And now, full circle, the host of last week's potluck has sent a note that we are gathering again, impromptu. We can come in our sweats, our PJs. We can come as we are, because as we are is good. As we are: funny, smart, engaged, busy, committed, curious, talkative, sense-appreciators. Who know better than to let experiences pass. Who know to gather up memories greedily.

Who know that gravy is not just gravy.

Measurements for Cracklin' Cornbread + Cracklin' recipe

rendered pork fat or bacon grease

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal 
1 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1 egg 
1 1/2 cups of buttermilk
1 handful of cracklings 
(process outlined in blog)

Cracklings: for 1 1/2 lbs. pig skin, cut it into strips, simmer in 2-3 cups water with 4 t. baking soda and 2 t. salt until skin is tender (45 minutes-1 hour). Remove from water and dry completely. Place skin side up on jelly roll-ish pan (i.e. heavy and shallow, but still a bit of wall) and place in 425 degree oven. Skin will blister and render fat (it's a mess when the blisters pop, no way around it). When the skin is rich brown and blistering has subsided, it's done. Cracklin' image here. Drain on paper towels. Clean oven. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

A rising tide lifts all boats.

My immediate response to the announcement that Condé Nast is closing Gourmet magazine has been waves of nostalgia. Not for what Gourmet is today, really, although I still love it, but for what it meant to the evolution of my food consciousness.

Growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, Gourmet set me apart. I glimpsed in its pages a world beyond Velveeta and Cream of Mushroom soup, and in my teenaged brain, "apart" was where I wanted to be. My friends and I started a gourmet club and wrecked our parents' kitchens in succession, when it was our turn to host. I had my first taste of Lebanese cuisine in one of those gatherings, and I can still remember that initial explosion of exoticism in my mouth.

My parents were part of a similar, grown-up, club and the dinners ran the gamut: at one end, valiant efforts at trying to re-create meals from Gourmet's pages with the ingredients available at the Conway, Arkansas Piggly-Wiggly store; at the other, my Aunt Dena and Uncle Joe being emboldened to craft the epitome of 1973 glamour--a Gourmet quiche--out of a humble ingredient: poke sallet. The word locavore didn't exist yet, but surely that was a prototype.

In short, in those days and in that place, saying one got a recipe from Gourmet Magazine was the culinary equivalent of steering a Rolls Royce into a crowded parking lot of Ford trucks.

So what has changed? Why is Gourmet closing? Many will lament the dumbing down of High Culinary Culture and blame the Food Network's "BAM!" and "How good is that???" approach to cooking. A little dab of EVOO and every person on the block has genius aspirations.

Others will point to the prevalence of food blogs and the immediacy of online resources, and to the wiki-tization of knowledge.

Still others will bemoan the cultural shift away from reflective practices...the slow turning of material pages in one's hands, by lamplight, in peace and quiet at the end of a day.

And surely all those things are somewhat at play.

But the good side of all these things is that people are now in love with cooking and food in all its cultural manifestations: from food blogs to twitter conferences to TV shows to mainstream movies about culinary icons to farmer's markets to CSA programs to farm-to-table dinners...people feel empowered to take spoon in hand and craft bread to break together with loved ones.

And in spite of my personal sadness that Gourmet is returning to dock, I can't help looking at all the many boats bobbing in the water out there and knowing in my heart that I learned to navigate my craft and love the water due, in part, to Gourmet's influence.

A salute to you, then, Gourmet. Ironic that your pinnacle status contributed to a democratization of food culture.

And I hope my parents still have all those back issues in the storage shed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Now that's service.

Many, many years ago, maybe 1989 or so, I was living in Wooster, Ohio.  I was in my first teaching job at a small, private liberal arts college in a midsized, practical, midwestern town.

I was teaching German cinema and finishing my dissertation and had found a dear friend in Elizabeth. Both of us struggled mightily with making a life in a place where our way of being in the world--brazenly devoted to beautiful food, personal adornment, much laughter, and, well, just generally EXCESSIVE in every way--seemed so counter to the culture.

We made common cause. We threw lavish dinner parties, and shared two apartments in one house, and spent Saturday mornings in our bathrobes eating croissants and drinking cappuccino out of her handpainted majolica imported from Italy.  Of Italian extraction herself, Elizabeth had quite a collection of dishes, and I admired them regularly.  At one point, her sister Teresa must have witnessed my envy, because soon she made me a gift of one of these cups.  Was it my birthday? I don't remember.

But after a while, I had my own collection. Piece by piece, friends added to it--every birthday a cup or a plate, larger serving dishes for larger landmarks.  Most of the pieces came from a little store on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where I spent a good portion of my 1993 fall sabbatical. By that time, Elizabeth had left Wooster for good, and she was gracious enough to let me camp in the front room of her Bernal Heights home (underneath her landlord, whose devotion to Steely Dan knew no boundaries of time or volume).  There I pounded away on an article for the Women in German Yearbook and boarded BART several days a week to go over to the Berkeley campus and imagine that my Visiting Scholar status meant something fancier than, essentially, library privileges.

Where Prufrock measured out his life in coffeespoons, Elizabeth and I measured out that fall in dollars spent on culinary adventures up one side and down the other of the Bay Area.  Greens?  Did it.  Chez Panisse?  Of course.  And the dinner parties, oh, the dinner parties.

And still, we had our touchstone, which was Biordi.  We'd drive to North Beach in Elizabeth's Saturn, park, and either have a little lunch or coffee, or maybe wander around City Lights Books.  Each trip was different, but each ended with our noses pressed to the windowpane of Biordi.

Since that time, I have added to my collection by poring over the annual catalog that comes in the mail.  Occasionally, a friend will still send me a piece, or--as in the case a few years ago--I took my own trip to Italy and returned home with some bowls wrapped in articles of clothing.

This past December, I was in San Francisco again for a conference.  On my last day in town, my friend Joseph drove me to North Beach and I went into Biordi to see about making a purchase of plain salad plates and plain pasta bowls.  Because the dinner plates and cups and serving pieces are so ornate, I had started purchasing unpainted salad and pasta bowls, but I only had four of each (and eight each of the cups and plates).  The store seemed unchanged since 1993, and Gianfranco located my "record" in his index file box.  All my purchases were still noted there, and I was given a respectful acknowledgment for being a steadfast customer over the years.  I made my order, paid for it, left my mailing address, and left with a promise of a box of dishes from Italy about three months hence.

April came and went, as did the first part of the summer.  Then a phone call came, with an apology--turns out the order from Italy was all wrong, and we would have to start over.  Finally a box arrived, but it contained plain dinner plates.  Still wrong!

After several phone calls and e-mails, I got this note from Gianfranco:

I am going to Italy in two week and this time
I will ship them myself (if I have room in my suitcase I will take them here
with me on 9/22). Again my apologies!


Today, a box arrived.  It contained the right dishes.  They were wrapped in Gianfranco's shirt.

I was stunned.  The shirt off his back cradled my dishes all the way from Italy back to the west coast.  I'll send it back to him now, but I can't help thinking that it's probably the most improbable and charming gesture of customer service I will ever encounter.

And somehow in keeping with a man who sells beautiful vessels for the breaking of bread among friends.

The cup is Teresa.  The serving bowls are Elizabeth.  The coffee urn is Karen for my dissertation celebration. The small bowls are Italy and my parents and brother and sister-in-law and I sitting around a table drinking Santa Cristina (oh, that's just table wine, Bellissima!).  Each dish has been plated with something delicious and served to my family of friends in Wooster, in Memphis, in St. Peter, in Seattle.  Laughter has surrounded them, and love.  Hands, not only mine, have carefully, oh, so carefully, washed them in warm suds as the last wine is being passed around late at night.

Now I will wash the new plates and add them to the collection.  They have a tall order to fill, if they are to compete with their china cabinet mates for happiness plated and served.

They've got a good start.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Nothing is original."

And yet...

no one else, in the history of all creation, ever stood at the exact latitude/longitude coordinates as I did today at 5:30 PM on October 1, 2009.

I, alone, was there on Queen Anne hill in Seattle, surrounded by friends and strangers at the last farmer's market of the season.

Only I had a conversation--facing east--about the intersection of art and food while rain drops pelted me, and only my shoulder felt the weight of my Book Culture bag filled with chanterelle mushrooms and the last huckleberries of the season and two loaves of bread and a book. Only my back went rigid when I saw Becky throwing vegetables into a cast-iron skillet, since only I have spent a lifetime protecting my own skillet from being touched by anything but cornbread batter.

Only I took a picture of Keren and her little boy with my iPhone camera to distract him from the fact that he was fussy, and only I had the combination of a Banh Mi sandwich and a cup of burnt sugar gelato for supper in my car, pointing west.

And now I am home, between the seasons, with tomatoes bubbling on the stove, since they arrived in my CSA box somewhat worse for the wear.  I'm doing the unoriginal save: chopping them up and turning them into sauce, as generations of thrifty cooks have done before me.

No grand art, this.

But it's my performance, and no one else takes this particular spoon in hand, to stir this day's collection of memories into tomorrow's sustenance.