I had cabin fever all day today. The world is iced over; it’s treacherous to walk outside without crampons. Yesterday, it was bitterly cold and windy, but, creatures of habit, we tried to take our usual walk to the main road and back. We all kept slipping and fighting for traction, so we left the road and surf-slid and butt-sledded down the meadows, Dingo on all four paws sliding right next to us, ears flying behind him like the Red Baron’s, down to the woods. We were sheltered from the wind in there. We crunched our way through a sugar-crusted, hard-packed snow to the iced-over beaver pond, where we all shoe-skated. One of us sniffed, rubbed against, and then peed on the grassy tussocks that are usually out of reach in the middle of the pond. We walked home another way, up through the woods and the other meadow below the house, and came in warm and tingling and ready for wine, or kibble.
But today it was too nasty, in my opinion, to go out. When I woke up at 7 this morning, it was dark and snowing wetly onto the hard freeze, and it didn’t let up all day. Brendan and Dingo went out for a while in the afternoon and came back panting and wet and smiling, but I stayed inside, all my settings turned to “low,” my mind idling but sputtering every so often like an outboard motor.
I spent the day staring out at the mountains, the bare trees, daydreaming memories in Technicolor. I was remembering all those years when I went to the Mermaid Parade out at Coney Island to kick off the summer in New York City. The boardwalk was sardine-packed with paraders and spectators, distinguished sometimes only by who was moving and who was standing still. I was always a parader, always affiliated with one band or another – the first year, I gyrated and lip-synched in a blonde wig, aquamarine Spandex minidress, and fishnets on the back of my band’s friend Larry’s pickup truck with the other Sporkettes, who were similarly sluttily attired, as was everyone else at the Mermaid Parade, male or female, gay or straight. We won “Best Musical Group” that year – 1992 or 3? – as well as the next year, when I marched with my husband’s band, the Hungry March Band. I marched with them I don’t know how many years in a row, and we always won “Best Musical Group,” although one year we blatantly bribed the judges at their booth with booze, pulchritude, and ripe fruit…
It was so much fun. We fueled ourselves on Nathan’s hot dogs before the parade, then mingled with all the other mermaids before we marched. All of Williamsburg and the entire East Village turned out with all due pale tattooed pierced flesh, black leather bustiers, and Doc Martens lace-up boots. Costumes and floats were inventive, beautiful, funny, everything nautical – sea creatures, underwater gardens, schools of fish, squid puppets, floating plankton, dolphins, little girls in glitter and mermaid costumes dressed just like their mothers, green-painted skinny algae-men in Speedos, body makeup melting in the heat, dogs on leashes, music, cheering, the background noise-wash of rides and games…
The Hungry March Band always ended their parade by marching off the boardwalk down the steps onto the wide, crowded beach, through the sand and crowds on towels, into the ocean, gathering followers as they went. We splashed and cooled off in the tepid, foamy water and didn’t once think about hepatitis or e. coli or floating syringes. The musicians played Latin and Balkan songs on horns, winds, and drums, right in the water; we all stood thigh-deep in the lapping shallow waves in a Bacchanalian, decked-out, ragtag bunch until it was time to disperse, and then we drifted in clumps back up the beach to Ruby’s, the bar on the boardwalk, which had a food stand in front with raw clams and deep-fried everything. There was always a half-hour wait in line for the bathroom. The bartenders were witty and frantic. All the customers, all of us, seemed tipsy and happy and sunburned.
After we’d drunk and eaten at a picnic table in front of Ruby’s, watching the remnants of the parade and saying hello to all the people we knew walking by, a group of us walked a mile or so down the boardwalk over to Brighton Beach to watch the sun set and eat Russian food and drink vodka. This was the serious part of the night: this was another world. We always went to the Winter Garden. There always seemed to be a table outside big enough to accommodate us. There was always a group we knew at the next table, so we expanded to include them.
From the beautiful, mock-scornful, playfully-sneering (I never could believe their attitudes were for real, but maybe they were) waitress, we ordered pelmeni, oysters, blini with caviar and sour cream, broiled whole fish, shrimp cocktails, octopus and crab salads with mayonnaise dressing, and beakers of vodka. It was Saturday night: Shabbos was ending, and the Russian Jews came out to celebrate after sunset – a whole new parade on the boardwalk, and we were the spectators this time. Just as we had all known one another at the Mermaid Parade, they all greeted one another, kibitzed in Yiddish and Russian, caught up, moved on to the next group of friends – the older men dapper in white suits, the younger ones fashionably urbane in tight jeans and loose shirts, women of all ages as sluttily dressed, in their way, as the Mermaid Parade-marchers – slippery sexy short summer dresses, perfume that wafted behind them on the warm air, movie-star makeup, scalloped baby-doll hair.
This rite of passage into summer was my ritual for many years. I doubt it’s the same now; the parade started turning corporate in the oughts when Coney Island got bought out, and we old regulars started complaining. But who am I to say?
Here in New Hampshire, tonight, as the sun set, we opened our usual bottle of Marques de Caceres rioja and watched the mountainsides go dark. Brendan put on David Grisman, a lilting, wild album of klezmerlike bluegrass. There are no mermaids or Russians here in the frozen north in January, that I know of, anyway. But festivity can be found anywhere.
I spent the summer of 2002 training for the New York City marathon. I had never run before, or rather, I hadn’t run since I’d been on the track team in junior high. I was doing this because I thought it might help me recover from the destabilizing depression I’d fallen into as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers the September before – for many years, I had stood on the sidelines cheering. I always found myself in tears at the grit and camaraderie of the runners thronging the streets. Now I wanted to join them instead of watching from the curb.
Because I lived in north Brooklyn on an avenue known for its heavy truck traffic and constant diesel exhaust, and because this was an unusually hot summer, much of my training took place on the treadmill at the air-conditioned gym up near Kellogg’s on Metropolitan Avenue. My gym was .65 mile from my house; the jog there and back counted toward my daily quota (training for a marathon involves doing more math on a daily basis than I had ever expected). Because I was insane at the time, because I wanted to finish the marathon in less than four hours, I was following an Intermediate training schedule I’d found online. The Beginning one didn’t seem ambitious or dreadful enough. This decision landed me in the emergency room with hyponatremia, a dangerous and often fatal sodium deficiency, but that’s another story. The point is, as soon as I was released from my weekend at Beth Israel, I resumed training right where I’d left off, only now I drank Gatorade instead of water.
My then-husband and I had planned a trip to Glacier National Park that August. We stayed in a motel near the lodge and hiked during the day. Every night, after our long, demanding hikes, we went happily to the lodge for dinner and drank tequila cocktails and ate enormous meals of bison burgers, venison steaks, and roast wild game birds.
Glacier National Park is full of stupendously beautiful trails through fields of wildflowers to aquamarine glacial lakes and up mountainsides to windswept glaciers and peaks, but I wasn’t thinking about the scenery, or rather, I wasn’t concentrating on it. I was counting the miles, timing our walking speed, pushing us to go as fast as we could so that I could count these hikes as part of my daily training mileage. I was determined not to fall behind; it was almost autumn already, and I was in the thick of it.
Maybe at least partially because of my unswerving, single-minded drivenness, my husband, who had easily managed to keep up with me, pulled his ankle on our third hike and was down for the count. Instead of taking the next day off and keeping him company in our cabin, as any rational, thoughtful spouse would do, I assembled a lunch for us both from whatever I could find at the general store attached to the motel, made sure he was supplied with ice and whatever else he needed, filled my water bottles, and stuffed a sweater into my day pack.
“I’ll be back in less than five hours,” I said. “Promise me you won’t worry till then.”
“I can’t promise that,” he said.
And so I set off for a 13-mile round-trip hike up to the Continental Divide and back. I was delighted to be able to do it alone. I’d been terrified all summer, trying to run my daily miles, that I’d never be able to do 26.2 of them, all at one go. This hike was my test.
For the first few miles, I wound over streams, through lush meadows, blooming and bright. Eventually, the trail turned vertical, running on a narrow cut-out up the mountainside. I charged up it, passing two people on horseback admiring the view, not bothering to look at it myself.
Up and up I climbed, my muscles working well, my breathing even and steady. I was walking, not running, but my pace was extremely fast, and I wasn’t winded. This hike was half the length of the marathon; New York City is pretty flat. If I could keep up this pace, I told myself, I’d do all right on November 3rd. I’d run the Staten Island half-marathon in well under two hours, after all.
Feeling cocky, I left the vegetation behind and scurried across a bare, rubbled mountain face and continued up and up, winding through a gravelly moonscape. The wind had picked up, but I wasn’t cold, I was sweating and exhilarated. I felt like I had the place to myself, but then I saw, coming toward me, a park ranger in a green uniform and hat.
“Hello!” he said. “You’re the first person I’ve seen in a while. Be careful around Devil’s Elbow, there’s a hailstorm going on up there.”
He tipped his hat (literally) and continued down. I had no idea what Devil’s Elbow might be, but when I got to it I knew: it was a narrow section of the rocky path that took me out and around a jutting cliff face. Down below, the green valley looked very far away. Hail pelted me and the wind tried to blow me off the mountainside, as if I were a bug. For the first time, I was spooked. I caught a glimpse of the mountain range I was in, stretching away, dizzyingly far. I was up very high.
The higher I climbed, the colder and windier and more desolate it got. I climbed past the glacier field near the top, past a hikers’ cairn I added my own rock to, and then there I was, on the roof of the world. I crouched in the howling wind, shivering in my sweater, and ate my lunch as fast as I could, shoving it into my mouth with both hands – 2 hummus sandwiches, an apple, 2 carrots, and a chocolate bar. I drank all my water. I was still hungry and thirsty, but that was all I’d brought. A black storm was boiling up on the other side of the mountain. Two weather systems were colliding right where I sat.
In a hurry to get back down now, I started back, down past the glacier, across Devil’s Elbow, down the mountainside. An hour later, I recognized that I was exhausted. I was a city girl, used to flat streets, air-conditioned gyms, and a deli on every corner. My feet were heavy, my back was sore, my teeth were clenched, my breathing was shallow, my foot was cramping, and I was shaky; I was out of gas. I thought of my husband waiting for me in the motel room, trying to keep his mind on his book, with only a radio for company. I knew him: If I were one minute late, he would feel compelled to come and find me, and he was in no condition to walk. I hated thinking of making him anxious if I were late. I wasn’t even into the valley yet. I had miles left to go.
I kept going, faster than I thought I could, but my mind was in charge now, not my body. I forced myself to forget I had a body at all, much less a depleted one. I came to the verdant valley. It was filled with hikers in the late afternoon sun, groups of schoolchildren and couples out for a little adventure. I stomped past them, as single-mindedly set on my goal as ever. The valley was shockingly gorgeous. I had no time for it.
Then, with two miles to go, beyond hunger and thirst, I experienced a strange, unexpected thing: I recharged. Out of the blue, I was given a surge of energy, as if my body had held it back to spur me at the end, to reward my persistence. My feet were light again. My muscles worked again. I charged along, amazed and grateful.
When I flew into our motel room, my husband looked up from his book with a furrowed brow and a relieved smile. “In five minutes I was going to go out there and find you,” he said.
I helped him gimp into the lodge to dinner. I ordered a venison steak with extra potatoes. I drank all the red wine I wanted. I looked out at the lake and surrounding mountains, replaying in my memory all the views I’d missed that day. It had been worth it.
Gluten-Free Carbo-Loading Dinner
I was extremely gluten intolerant when I trained for the marathon, but I didn’t know it yet. Because of all the pasta and bread I was eating, for more than I normally would have, my symptoms intensified, and, to make things worse, they were all the things my training had been intended to eradicate: namely, an ongoing crushing sense of doom, hotheaded irascibility, bloat (especially depressing when you’re exercising constantly – I gained 8 pounds of water weight in my stomach and hips and had permanent waterbags under my eyes), insomnia, fluttering pulse, and foggy brain. I ate almost none of what I should have eaten – cornmeal, potatoes, quinoa, gluten-free pasta, brown rice. With tremendous difficulty in the final 6 miles, I managed to run the marathon in less than four hours, but the doubt has always stayed with me – what if I’d trained without gluten?
In any case: melt a good lump of butter. Saute a cup of well-rinsed quinoa and 1/3 cup sliced almonds in it, stirring, over medium heat, until the almonds start to brown and the quinoa crackles and pops. Add 2 cups of hearty broth and simmer uncovered till the quinoa absorbs all the liquid. Stir in a large dollop each of hummus and babaganoush, a handful of pitted chopped olives, and a handful of minced parsley. Eat the whole thing all by yourself. This goes very well with roasted spiced vegetables.
In the early 70s, my family used to go camping in Mexico with a group of my mother’s graduate school friends. Our 1973 blue Dodge station wagon joined the caravan down to Puerto Penasco, Rocky Point, on the Sea of Cortez, only 100 miles from the border. Back then, it was a tiny town with a wide, clean, sandy beach. We always stopped for lunch in a town called Ajo, Arizona, which in our collective opinion had the best A&W hot dogs in the world.
Camping trips meant special food, stuff we never got at any other time – orange and grape Tang, instant powdered lemonade, breakfast bars, and astronaut space sticks — the peanut butter ones were my favorite; they tasted like a combination of Elmer’s Glue and those chewy peanut-butter candies whose name eludes me now, but I can still remember their sweet, fake-nutty greatness.
The town had an old colonial hotel with a wide, deep colonnade and an inner courtyard with a fountain. We had late-afternoon lunches there. The grownups drank bottles of beer with limes; we got Shirley Temples. We ate shrimp with garlic over yellow rice, grilled fish, chicken enchiladas in green sauce. There was Mexican music playing, and an ocean breeze blew in through the tall open windows.
We sat around big driftwood bonfires at night. My sisters and mother and I slept in our big green and orange canvas cabin tent. The beach was quiet and dark except for the intermittent headlights and putt-putt-putts of beach buggies going by. I did my best to whip my little sisters into a frenzy of fear so that I wouldn’t be alone in my own anxiety about being crushed under those big rubber wheels in my sleep. In the mornings, miraculously still alive, we emerged from the tent’s zippered door, already in our bathing suits, into sunlight and wind, hungry for space sticks.
One day, my mother’s friend Claire, who was young and pretty, announced that she and her boyfriend, Keith, were going to take a walk down the beach. Everyone but me apparently grasped the significance of this.
“Can I come?” I asked instantly. It sounded like the most fun thing in the world. I’d been playing on the beach all day and was getting a little bored. Claire and Keith were so cool. It would be an adventure to take a walk with them.
They looked at each other. “We’re going to take off our clothes,” Claire said.
“Let them go,” I’m sure my mother must have told me if she’d overheard this.
“Please?” I said. “I don’t care if you take off your clothes. That’s okay.”
They didn’t say no, so the three of us walked for a glorious mile or so along the hot, breezy beach. I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt it was my duty to entertain them in return for letting me come, so I kept up a stream of information about myself – books I liked to read, gossip about people at my school. I offered the best shells I found to Claire. I ran ahead of them and back again to show them how fast I could go. I interrogated them: where did they grow up? What were they like when they were little?
They were so nice. They listened to me and answered my questions and praised my sprinting. Eventually, we stopped walking and picked a spot on the sand as our base of operations for the afternoon. When they got naked and went out swimming together, I stayed on the beach for a while and guarded their clothes from nonexistent thieves and looked away, down the beach, to give them privacy. I dug in the sand with a big abalone shell and watched seagulls land and take off in the waves. I peeked – just once – and saw their heads close together, far out in the water, bobbing up and down.
On the walk back to camp, I was quiet and shy, having finally realized, too late, that they had really wanted to be by themselves. I couldn’t figure out how to apologize to them for foisting myself into their private afternoon without making it more awkward than it already was, so I didn’t say anything, but inwardly I was seething with embarrassment and regret.
When it was time to drive back to Tempe, our mother let the caravan drive on without us, and we spent the day in town. We got to walk around the streets, peering into open doorways, seeing the romantic way they lived there, with hammocks and crucifixes and TVs in their front rooms, and smelling their exotic, delicious cooking smells. (Our mother was as shamelessly nosy as we were.)
We got to have lunch at the hotel, just us. Afterwards, our mother told us that we could choose one thing, anything we wanted, from the curio shop. We were all instantly in an agony of indecision, sure that if we chose the wrong thing, we would regret it forever. I had never heard the word “curio” before, but suddenly it struck me as the most glamorous, fantastic word in the world, and I couldn’t stop using it as I walked around the little shop, inspecting all the curios. I fell in love with a round little turquoise ring, but then I saw a mermaid made of shells glued together and painted beautiful colors. I could only have one; I wanted both, desperately. I chose the ring and yearned for the mermaid all the way to the A&W in Ajo, where I drowned my sorrows in a root beer.
Beach Camping Sandwich
Between two pieces of whole wheat bread, put 2 pieces of baloney and a slather of mayonnaise and several unintentional grains of sand.
Last night, on the last leg of my delayed, rebooked, rerouted plane trip home, the woman in the seat directly behind me talked for 2 hours straight in a loud, shrill, strident, sloshy-drunk voice – at the gate, during announcements, during takeoff, during the 1 hour and 45 minute flight to Boston, during landing, all the way up the aisle to deplane, and, as far as I knew, beyond. I learned more about her than I know about some people I consider acquaintances: she makes 4 million dollars a year and the government takes 40 percent of it and gives it to people who don’t work hard, spreading it around to undeserving freeloaders. It pisses her off that she can’t keep all of it. She’s bored with her husband, with whom she runs a large Social Security disability law firm, and she works out constantly. “I’m 43,” she said. “I’m a fit slender tiny little person, but I don’t look 30 anymore. Should I get Botox? I wish so much I could look 30 again.”
She was sitting between two men, “the nicest guys in the world,” as she kept calling them. “How did I get so lucky to sit between you two? Most people won’t talk on planes.” One was a 30-year-old law student at B.U., her law-school alma mater, who earnestly asked her for advice he was surely planning to ignore, and the other a bluff, low-key grandfather of three who kept slyly putting her in her place, calling her “the 1%” and telling her he would have been interested to hear her husband’s side of things. Oblivious, she yammered on, always circling back to the question of her looks, her age; neither man offered a word of encouragement or reassurance, no matter how persistently she fished.
I listened to her, spellbound, along with my two row-mates, a serious-looking, handsomely scruffy man about my age and a young pretty black girl with complex, ropy dreads. Occasionally we would all exchange looks, or, in bursts of incredulousness, discuss what was going on behind us, like sports commentators. “She’s drunk off her ass,” I told them. “She said so as soon as she sat down. She’s been drinking wine all day on a layover.”
“Mmmm, mmm,” hummed the black girl in quiet dismay. “I’d hate to be her husband or her kids.”
“Jesus,” said the guy. “Is she going to talk the entire time?”
She was, and did. We all learned so much. She’s from Boston and is one of ten kids; her father, a French immigrant, was a plumber. He’s dead now, and her mother lives on his $1200 a month disability, and that is the only money anyone in her family has ever taken that they didn’t earn. They work! Hard! Never mind that her sister Patrice – who is “so much fun, the bubbly charismatic kind of person people wanted to bring things to at the resort where we stayed, more towels, more champagne” – lives off her rich husband while she makes plans to open a restaurant…
Just before we began our descent, she got up to use the ladies’ room. I heard the two men behind me leaning across her seat and discussing her in low, astonished, commiserating voices.
Just before midnight, four hours late, I came out of the airport to find Brendan and Dingo waiting for me. I don’t know who among us was happier to see whom. During that long, strange day I hadn’t eaten much of anything. Brendan had brought along gluten-free jerk chicken sausage pizza with roasted hot and sweet peppers and scallions, and half a bottle of rioja.
On the drive north, as I ate and drank, I talked about my trip, how much I had liked my time at the Waldorf School. I was happy to be there, glad I’d come — I hadn’t anticipated how at home I would feel. It was instantly familiar to me, the west-coast twin of the one I went to. It has a working biodynamic farm with livestock on the banks of the American River and is about four times bigger than mine was. But the buildings are that same beige-gold stucco, doors those hobbit-like portals, the same hanging globe lights, same bulletin corkboard in the administration building… and the kids look like we did, even 30 years later.
On Tuesday at noon, after I’d finished my talk, reading, and workshop at the school, I took the light rail to downtown Sacramento to meet my friend and former neighbor, Molly. A botanist, she works at the Office of Mine Reclamation in a huge, Death Star-like corporate monolith, re-vegetating abandoned mines. We ate Thai curry for lunch, talking nonstop, then took the light rail to her house, a cheery, cozy yellow bungalow she shares with three cats. Her garden, like the one in Brooklyn we spent so much time in, is wild, beautiful, and full of surprising things – raisins drying on a vine, an old, fecund peach tree, kale and onions growing in a circular raised bed, a small empty self-contained pond she’d built for the indigenous tadpoles she’d rescued from a local development, who were immediately eaten by a raccoon.
We took a long hike in the mild sunlight along the American River, inhaling the rank, fresh compost smell of rotting cottonwood leaves and black mustard greens. After a drink at a “pre-Prohibition” bar called the Shady Lady, almost too meticulously restored, we met Molly’s friend Giles, who’s getting her Ph.D in whale biology, at a tapas place called Aioli. I’m gluten-free, Molly is vegetarian, and Giles is vegan, but we feasted nonetheless on generous salads, grilled vegetables, olives, a bruschetta salsa with endive and olives, and plenty of red wine. On the way back to Molly’s, we drove by the house Joan Didion grew up in, a white, gracious-Southern-style mini-mansion with a groomed lawn, all lit up. I tried to guess which window she’d sneaked out of as a teenager.
It was a memorable trip. Still, I can’t stop thinking about that strange, arrogant, drunk woman on the plane, whatever her name is. She kept insisting on her own happiness: “I love running a company! I love Boston! It’s great having three kids. My husband is a good guy. My life pretty much rocks.” But the real story seeped out as she talked and talked, as real stories will, if you give someone enough time. “I’m reading a lot of self-help books about how to make your marriage better,” she said at one point. “Having three kids is a nightmare,” she said later, and then, “All I do is travel and work my ass off.” Her desperate need to be reassured that she didn’t look old might have escaped the men she was sitting with, but it did not escape me.
At the end of the flight, after we got off the plane, I finally got a good look at her. She was tall, skinny, with a blonde-red shag-pageboy, a sharp face, pointed nose and chin, wearing a hot-pink sweater and black leggings. She did, in fact, look younger than her age. And she was still talking. The 30-year-old law student bent his head to listen as they headed off toward baggage claim.
It’s a nice thing on a late winter afternoon to knock off work and open a bag of potato chips and a bottle of rioja, and we would have done so today, but we have no potato chips. So Brendan sliced 3 large peeled organic yellow potatoes as thin as he could, heated up some peanut oil in a wide skillet till it was good and hot, then cooked the chips layer by layer, draining them on paper towels and salting each layer as it came off. We’re eating them now, and we might never buy potato chips again.
At just after 10 this morning, I said goodbye to Brendan and Dingo at Departures drop-off and went inside to the United check-in kiosks to learn that my flight had been canceled, or postponed, they weren’t sure which, due to a mechanical error. The anti-skid device had to be replaced; they were working on it. I waited in a long, shuffling line, was rebooked with a long layover and change of planes in D.C. by an unusually patient airline employee, who clucked and shook her head at my misfortune and did what little she could to help me. My new arrival time in Sacramento was now 6 ½ hours later than scheduled, long past my bedtime.
I got through security with a rare minimum of personal humiliation and discomfort and found an aggressively nondescript airport restaurant. I ordered coffee and a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and no croutons. The waitress, a plump, tall girl in her mid-20s with a dyed black bob and blue eye shadow, kept breezily calling me “my dear,” which gave me some inward amusement. I ate my plateful of limp, browning (and unwashed, I feared) chopped Romaine, gloppy dressing, and half-grilled shrimp with no joy, to the accompaniment of crashingly histrionic electro-pop.
It’s January. My body and brain and soul are in deep hibernation. I want to stay home in comfortable clothes for the rest of the winter and write, walk, cook, drink wine, watch “Star Trek: Voyager” reruns, and talk to Brendan, who is likewise in hibernation. Last summer, though, I was invited to come to the Sacramento Waldorf School to give a talk and a reading, teach a workshop, and address the high school morning assembly about the writer’s life and my own experiences as a Waldorf student. I accepted; it sounded like fun, and they offered to pay me. But as the day approached, I began to worry that my brain was boiled-turnip winter mush, that I’d get up in front of these various audiences and lose my train of thought, babble, forget what I’d planned to say. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded — last night I couldn’t remember the words “dental floss,” cycling instead through “thingie thing,” “mouth stuff,” “tooth string,” and “lip gloss.” I am fairly certain I don’t have Alzheimer’s. My brain is in seasonal deep freeze.
Having my flight plan disrupted knocked me sideways, I hoped in a helpful way. Instead of boarding my scheduled flight like a mute, tender, blinking vole just emerged from underground, to arrive on schedule, get a good night’s sleep, and, as rested and clear-headed as possible, deliver my planned talk to the school assembly, I found myself stalled at Logan, thinking about how to explain what the writer’s life is really like, honestly, without either wishful hyperbole or unintentional cynicism. The best idea was no doubt to be as circumspect and positive, within reason, as I’d originally intended to be; no need to delve into the bouts of itchy self-doubt, the social weirdness that can result from day upon day of deep interiority, or the wrenching shock an introvert feels before talking to an audience, especially in January.
Also adding to my concern about my fitness to speak cogently was the fact that I was up all night last night with bad insomnia, remembering with spiky retrospective dread the times in my life, or some of the many, when I let people down or betrayed them, behaved in terrible ways. When I was much younger, I used to lie in bed seething with rage at the humiliations and wrongs that had been perpetrated on me. That was truly nightmarish; I’d infinitely rather feel like an active villain than an aggrieved victim. This way, my debts are many, but no one owes me anything — I’m free from grudges, from passing judgment. This gives me an odd kind of happiness, or maybe it’s evidence of it.
For some reason this preference reminds me of eating briny, plump, raw oysters, the weirdly sexy feeling of something half-alive in the mouth, cold and wet and slippery and potentially dangerous, something risky that should be disgusting, but is pure sensual pleasure. Anthony Bourdain wrote, “The body isn’t a temple. It’s an amusement park.” People who really love food — by which I mean people who love it without being kitchen Nazis, puritanical crackpots, trend-followers, or snobs — tend to be adventurous and free-thinking – predators, not prey. They’re my tribe.
Thinking about oysters lulled me back to sleep, and I awoke with a craving for oyster stew – specifically, for M.F.K. Fisher’s recipe for oyster stew as laid out in her masterpiece, “Consider the Oyster.” It’s the simplest thing imaginable: hot milk, oysters, black pepper and salt, a lump of butter, with homemade oyster crackers floating on top. No doubt I’ve forgotten an ingredient or two, paprika maybe – I’ve never made or eaten it, but, as I sat laboring over my grim Caesar salad, the craving for it resurfaced, stronger than ever. I imagined it as savory and buttery and subtle.
Just as the check arrived, I got a message from someone I knew in college, at Reed, all those decades ago. In it was a recipe for oyster soup.
I went to my new gate to await my much-later flight, only to see that my original flight was just finishing boarding at the next gate. On a sudden whim, I asked the woman at the desk whether I could still get on it. It turned out that I could, which meant I’d fly straight to California instead of detouring to Dulles, thus saving hours.
I boarded the plane, found a row by myself, and, when we were airborne, bought from the food cart a package of “tapas.” Ignoring the crackers, I slowly ate the hummus, olives, red pepper spread, Rondele cheese, and almonds, still dreaming of oysters in hot broth.
Beau wrote: “This soup is about as easy as the day is long to execute and it’s sublime. It’s from the original Trader Vic’s, which had the original Tiki bar. I guess the name is meant to sound Polynesian, though I can’t imagine there’s anything Polynesian about this. It’s our favorite thing around here, now, though. I went oystering in 30 degree weather a couple days ago so we could make it. Kate, this is partial payment for Francis Lam’s scallion ginger sauce, which I made and which is as stellar as billed.”
Put a cup of shucked oysters and a cup of oyster liquor in a pan on medium, bring just to a simmer, poach gently maybe 2 minutes, until they plump up a little and their edges start to curl. Puree in a blender with a cup of chopped steamed spinach.
Bring 2 ½ cups half-and-half just to a simmer over low heat, add puree along with 2 tablespoons of butter, a minced garlic clove, ¾ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, 1 ½ teaspoons A-1 steak sauce, and a pinch of cayenne. Return just to a simmer.
Mix 2 teaspoons of cornstarch with 2 teaspoons of cold water and stir (gently) to combine, stir into soup, simmer 2 min. more, then pour into four oven-ready soup bowls and set these in a baking dish.
Whip 2/3 cup heavy cream to soft peaks and spread a thickish layer of it on top of each bowl of soup. The cream wants to slide around: put a big dollop in the middle and spread outwards, dragging two large spoons or whatever toward opposite sides.
Broil 5” from heat for about 3 minutes, until tops are browned. Watch carefully: they go from browned with maybe a nice little black spot or two to wicked black really fast.