Yesterday afternoon, Brendan and I drove back to Portland. I was supposed to give a reading with Cathi at 7 at Books-A-Million in South Portland. I was going to read from my new paperback, and Cathi was going to read from her “stunning, fearless, dazzling” (says me, her greatest fan and promoter) new novel, Gone (Atria, $24.95; website: www.cathihanauer.com).
After I finished at the soup kitchen, Brendan and I went to Whole Foods to lay in supplies for the next few days, armed with a list I got in an email from Cathi. At home, we unpacked an unfamiliar array of food: orange-flavored seltzer, an approximation of Cinnamon Life cereal (Whole Foods naturally carries an organic alternative, not the thing itself), half a gallon of 1% milk, watermelon and berries and “pluots,” a carton of Chunky Monkey ice cream and a box of ice cream sandwiches, caramel popcorn, and a box of penne and a jar of pasta sauce in case Phoebe doesn’t like whatever meal is served at any point.
The Hanauer-Jones family arrived just before 5, laden with backpacks, sleeping bags for the kids, plus a bag of enormous cookies, most of which turned out to be gluten-free, tomatoes from their garden, and the wine we had brought to their house 2 weeks ago and didn’t drink.
I quickly wrote an introduction to Cathi’s and my reading, 5 long, sincerely gushing, earnestly admiring and adoring paragraphs; when Brendan proofread it, he asked me if I were really intending to read it aloud in front of an audience.
“I’ll wing it,” I said. “I promise I’ll try to be funny.”
Cathi and I got gussied up in dresses, brushed our hair, and then we all trooped out to the cars. When we arrived at the huge Maine Mall and found the bookstore, a vast chain affair in a low cinderblock building that sprawls over about 100,000 square feet, Cathi’s father, Lonnie, was waiting for us outside, in a bit of a flap.
“Apparently they think you’re just doing a signing,” he said. “They set up a little table with two chairs. There’s no reading.”
I was instantly relieved: this was great news. So Cathi and I sat together at the little table and signed copies of our books for three extremely famous female writers who’d shown up because one of them, Elinor Lipman, is friends with Cathi. Their lovely husbands had come too; they chatted with Brendan and Dan and Lonnie and Bette, Cathi’s mother, while she and I scrawled our signatures in as many of our books as we could find in the store. Everyone there evidently felt compelled to buy one of each of our books; it turns out that signings are a good idea, and stealth signings are even better.
After Cathi and I had thanked the staff, signed the poster with our book jackets and author photos side by side on it, and posed for photographs standing by the poster, taken by Phoebe, Dan, Brendan, and Bette, Cathi’s mother, in a flurry of paparazzi-like clicks, it was time for dinner. Brendan suggested, for convenience’s sake, a nearby seafood restaurant called the Weathervane. “Ahoy, matey!” we called to each other as we walked into the heavily air-conditioned, fish-smelling place. After a bit of a kerfluffle, they seated the eight of us at a long table in back and handed around menus.
“Can I have a kids’ menu?” Phoebe asked. Although she’s 17 and theoretically capable of eating adult food, and the menu is for kids 10 and under, they gave her one, including the box of crayons. After she ordered “Kraft® mac and cheese” with a side of celery sticks, Nathaniel, whose palate is 14 going on 30, asked for the “wicked cheap” Thursday night special of 2 steamed lobsters, which arrived lurid red, splayed on a platter. He began expertly dismantling them with nutcracker and pick while his older sister tucked happily into her neon-orange noodles.
“The best Kraft mac and cheese is at Friendly’s,” she announced. “They squeeze hot cheese stuff out of a bag onto some instant noodles then let it sit for 20 minutes so you think they made it fresh. It’s the best anywhere.”
Cathi, who had been laughing too hard to order when the waitress was making her rounds, had nonetheless bravely managed to squeak out a request for 5 separate plates of food, including a fried seafood platter “breaded with crushed Ritz™ crackers” and “steamed” asparagus, which had been drenched in butter and melted cheese. To my right, she was working her way through most of it, still laughing, as was I, almost too hard to eat my “lazy man” lobster with drawn butter.
“Why do they call it drawn?” we all wondered. No one had an answer.
After we’d finished eating, Dan performed a dramatic reading of my ardent encomium for Cathi, inserting the word “erotic” into every paragraph and accentuating certain especially over-the-top words and lines.
“But I meant every word,” I said weakly.
“You were going to read that aloud?” her father, Lonnie, wondered.
“Maybe I was going to paraphrase,” I said.
Nathaniel had finished with his platter and was now gnawing on a giant gummi bear the general size, shape and color of a lobster. We could almost see his braces dissolving in all the sugar. It inspired a new round of ordering: more Cabernet for Brendan and me, a hot fudge sundae for Cathi, and ice cream pie for Phoebe.
When we got home, there was an email from Lonnie: “It is always fun spending time with two teenagers — and Nat and Phoebe were there too.”
Bette Hanauer’s 1970s homemade version of Kraft Mac and Cheese, as described by Cathi Hanauer
Melt half a stick of butter and stir in enough flour to make a thin paste. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of whole milk to make a roux and stir until it thickens and scalds. Add mounds of Velveeta or American cheese and stir well, then pour this thick, cheesy sauce over 1 lb. hot cooked macaroni elbows, mix, and serve immediately to your 4 kids, all their friends, and the rest of the neighborhood.
This weekend, we made a pact to try to stay off our computers as much as we could. Brendan succeeded entirely, which was no surprise, because he’s not as addicted as I am to the computer in the first place, and also, his laptop went mysteriously dead yesterday morning.
I was less successful, but I had a good reason to be online. My mother had a serious operation on Friday morning, and her blood pressure fell very low afterwards so they’ve kept her in the ICU, so my computer has been my lifeline to her and to my sisters. We had all wanted to jump on planes to Arizona to be with her, but she adamantly told us not to come, so we three all hovered around our email programs on separate continents, Susan in Holland, Emily in New Zealand, and me up here in New Hampshire, about as far from Arizona as it’s possible to get and still be in the continental U.S.
Our mother came out of surgery and began sending us cogent, hilarious, poetic bulletins as soon as she was awake enough, typing with her pinky fingers on her iPod. All three of us sisters kept the round robin of emails going, checking in as often as we could. There’s a golden hour, or maybe half hour, every day, when the four of us are all awake at the same time, Emily just getting up, Susan on her way to bed, my mother and me somewhere in the middle. It’s a narrow window: Emily’s having breakfast and rushing to get her four kids to school; Susan’s tired from her day of working hard and mothering her two kids and eager to get to sleep. We all love it, though – that feeling of temporal simultaneity in the virtual computer world.
My mother will be 76 on Wednesday; I’m turning 50 next month. My two oldest nephews, Eben and Luca, who were newborn babies about a week ago, are teenagers now. The mysteries of aging and a lifespan only deepen with time; there’s a startling disjunction that begins at about 30 and widens with every decade. How can I be 50 when I’m still 15? How can my little sisters be so damned old? How can I ever live without my mother in the world? The next generation is coming up fast; all too soon, before we can blink, Susan and Emily and I will be the old ones, the ones having serious operations, the ones the younger people will have to face losing. And our mother will be gone. I can’t fathom any of it.
It was quite a weekend, and I didn’t succeed at all at staying off the computer. But the attempt to at least stop trolling the Internet forced me to do other things, summer things, things that reminded me of being much younger, that brought back that sense of summer, the bottomless, open, bright and empty days, oceans of sunlit hours. We went kayaking on the lake, paddling past the rocky, piney little island where Brendan camped as a little boy with his brother and friends. “It seemed so far away back then,” he said. We dove in and floated in the bathtub-warm water, low from the drought, but still clean and sweet-smelling and silky on the skin.
We played Scrabble all afternoon in the summer barn, the windows open to the thunderstorm. At sunset, we sat on the stone bench down in the meadow and watched the light change on the mountains. We took long walks along the road by the lake, bought paper bags full of vegetables, local wine and cheese and ice cream, homemade sausage, and berries from the farm stand over in Maine. We went up Foss Mountain to look out over the whole mountain range and valley; we sat on the slab of granite at the top and watched two little boys pick blueberries, eating more than they managed to save. We took deep, quiet late-afternoon naps, sprawling barefoot on the couches.
We’re spending 10 long days in the house Brendan was born in. All of his early childhood history is here. It’s a cozy, welcoming, homey farmhouse surrounded by mountains and woods. Almost nothing has changed here, physically, since Brendan was born. Being surrounded by his family’s happy past is always comforting, but this weekend, it was especially so. I remembered being 8, 10, 13 in the deep summertime, buried in long hot days that ended with bedtime when it was still light outside. Waking up the next morning, it was all the same again, and would be, it seemed, forever.
Farm Stand Pizza
On a ready-made or homemade crust, spread pureed, cooked-down Roma tomatoes mixed with olive oil, minced fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. On top, spread a good layer of shredded mozzarella. Meanwhile, roast sliced onion and red pepper in olive oil on a cookie tray till they start to caramelize. Spread them generously on the pizza, then add a layer of sliced fully-cooked sausage. Bake in a hot oven till the cheese is melted and bubbling.
Brendan and Dingo and I just spent three days in Western Massachusetts with my best friend Cathi and her husband, Dan. The occasion of our visit was Cathi’s and my first joint reading together, ever, in almost a quarter century of friendship.
She and I first met at a party in 1989 and talked all night. We were both 27 and single and living in New York, and we hadn’t even started writing what would be our first novels. Cathi was an editor at Seventeen. I was an editorial assistant at William Morrow. We wore tiny black miniskirts and high heels. We often met for lunch in midtown: hamburgers and fries, a beer for me, cake for her. I was always late getting back to the office. When she met Dan later that year, I went out with the two of them to inspect him and check him out. They came to my wedding and comforted me when my marriage broke up 12 years later.
Now Cathi and I are middle-aged women who wear comfortable shoes and live in old houses in New England. We’ve published 10 books between us. She and Dan have been married for 20 years. Their kids, Phoebe and Nathaniel, are teenagers now; I’ve known them since they were babies. We live a 4-hour drive apart, so we email each other every day, back and forth, often for the duration of one of our old lunch-hour conversations.
Brendan instantly loved the whole family when they met 3 years ago, and it was mutual; it was as if they’d always known one another. This time around, it felt like a reunion of old friends. And Dingo got along just fine with their two younger, sleeker, stronger dogs after some initial old-man teeth-bared grousing at the adolescent Rico, who tried to hump and French kiss him until Dingo put him in his place. They all ran barking to the door in a flap together whenever anyone arrived as if they were a pack of three: Cathi dubbed them “the Avengers.”
The weather was stultifyingly, paralyzingly hot while we were there. The dogs lay semi-comatose on the cool kitchen floor. Brendan and I parked ourselves at the table and didn’t budge while all around us their life revolved like a family sitcom in which we got to play the childless visiting couple, sipping cold wine and eating all their food.
Cathi, who is the tiniest adult I’ve ever met, and who eats more than almost anyone I know, is a human hummingbird. She buzzed and darted around us, offering plates of ripe cut-up nectarines and watermelon, bowls of boiled red potatoes, while Dan came and went laconically, with wry asides that cracked us up. “Bye, honey,” we called after him as he left to go to work. “Have a good day at the office.”
We ate like kings: Cathi had stocked the refrigerator so full, you had to be careful when you opened the door that something didn’t fall out and hit your foot. The first night, she marinated a huge bowl of fresh chicken pieces in olive oil, lemon, tamari, ketchup, and garlic. Dan grilled them outside while she boiled ears of corn and made an epic salad from lettuce from their garden. Her salads are my favorite, anywhere, anytime: they always have just the right amount of extras — mushrooms, sprouts, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, dried fruit — and her dressing is a rich vinegary-creamy emulsion.
We all sat around the long table and stuffed ourselves. Cathi jumped up after the table had been cleared to fetch an armload of sweets, among them an enormous gluten-free chocolate cookie she’d bought just for us. We usually never eat dessert, but it would have been rude to ignore it when she’d gone out of her way to get it for us, so we fell on it and ate the whole thing with the rest of our bottle of rosé. Meanwhile, everyone else devoured ice cream, chocolate, cake, cookies, and whipped cream: They are a family of avid, gluttonous, connoisseur-like, perplexingly thin and healthy sweets-eaters, as serious about their treats as Brendan and I are about our wine.
The next night, after the reading Cathi and I gave at a local bookstore, we came back to their house. While Brendan made dinner and Dan kept him company, Cathi and I dashed out to the supermarket for a few things: they were out of orange juice, but, more importantly, Phoebe had just had an impacted wisdom tooth pulled and therefore desperately needed a tube of slice ‘n bake cookies. Cathi had meanwhile developed a sudden yen for two kinds of pie and apple turnovers. Nathaniel wanted two kinds of ice cream.
When we got back, the kitchen was even hotter: Brendan was frying flank steaks in butter and roasting a pan of asparagus in the oven. When the flank steaks had arrived at various stages of doneness from rare to medium, something for everyone, he forked them onto a plate and sautéed a minced red onion and a heap of sliced button mushrooms with some fresh thyme in the butter and meat juices, then poured red wine into the pan and reduced it. He poured this velvety, savory sauce over the steaks. While the dogs lay at our feet, panting, we ate this rich, meaty, fantastic meal.
Afterwards, we found it in our hearts to eat the gluten-free carrot cake Cathi had laid in for us, only for politeness’ sake, of course.
Spread mayonnaise on a piece of hot toast. Slap a slice of deli Jarlsberg and two thick slices of perfectly ripe tomato on top with salt and pepper. Devour with a sweet, creamy iced coffee.
For a couple of years, Brendan and I have batted around an idea for a TV show called “Cougar Kitchen” — scripted, but imitating a reality show, with a sexy, bitchy older woman and a sexy, obedient but slightly seething younger man.
The cougar in question, a toned, sultry actress in her 40s, would wear babydoll silk negligees with stiletto feather mules. She would perch on a stool with her legs crossed, smoking a cigarette and holding a wineglass, her hair loose and wild around her almost-bare shoulders, as if she had just arisen from bed and would return there as soon as she’d eaten her fill – three bites, because she’s always watching her figure — of the feast her paramour was being instructed to prepare for her.
“Chop it rougher, baby,” she’d say. “Large dice! I didn’t say mince!”
The much younger man, wearing only boxer briefs and an apron, would be played by a 20something actor with cut-glass musculature and satiny skin and the pouty, smoldering hotness of Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights,” but with clean hair and a tan.
“You want large dice?” he’d say to his mistress. “I’ll give you large dice.”
And then the camera would cut out for a while, as if it had toppled over in the heat of their passion. When it came back on, she’d be splayed on the counter, spatchcocked where he’d left her, panting and slitty-eyed and spent, and he’d be chopping things into large dice, his apron unsullied, his hair adorably mussed.
Suffice it to say, this scenario generally does not play out in our own kitchen. When Brendan cooks, for one thing, I do not presume to boss him around. Also, I do most of the cooking, and I don’t wear negligees when I make dinner, and I don’t smoke.
Also, unless something happens to remind us that I’m almost 20 years older than he is, something very specific and outside the usual course of things, we almost completely forget about it.
At the beginning, when we first got together, we were self-conscious about being around other people in public. Would they treat us weirdly, look askance, make unflattering assumptions about us? In fact, they did, but only people who knew us, a few friends and family members. We have never, not even once, encountered any awkwardness or judgment from strangers. Everywhere we go, when we meet people, they instantly get that we’re together, and they don’t seem to think anything is amiss about it. It’s not that I don’t look older than Brendan: I certainly do.
Once in a while, in the late afternoon, if we both get our work done early and feel like going out, we go to the New Orleans place, 2 blocks away, for Happy Hour. We sit in a booth looking out at the street and order plates of spicy barbecued chicken wings with ranch dressing along with silver tequila cocktails made with passion-fruit juice and hot Thai pepper slices. We devour the wings, attack them like hyenas, and leave neat piles of stripped bones on our plates. We drink the first cocktail and get our order in for the next one, and a dozen oysters, before Happy Hour ends at 6:00. If we forget, our waitress reminds us.
Last time, we ended up sitting there for 4 hours, several rounds of drinks, and, later on in the night, a shared plate of mixed barbecue with coleslaw and fries. We were talking, as I recall, about our work: what we’re writing, what we want to be writing, how we wrote when we were 13, how we’ve both experienced the depressing horror of writing badly for an extended length of time, and how I’m not Brendan’s mentor, not in any way at all, even though I am technically ahead of him. It’s the same as it is with cooking: he knows what he’s doing.
At the end of the night, our waitress brought the bill.
“How long have you guys been together?” she asked us.
“Three and a half years?” we said in almost-unison.
I wondered if maybe now was the time we’d find out what people really think, looking at us together.
“Well,” she said, “you just match.”
Cougar Kitchen Frittata
Make sure you each have a fresh mimosa. Have your smoldering, half-naked young man chop into large dice the following: 2 small red potatoes, 1 red onion, 1 red pepper. Have him grate 2 medium carrots and half a cup of gruyere. Instruct him to beat 6 eggs, well. By now, the butter he put into the large cast-iron skillet should be almost melted. Make sure he stirs all of the salted, peppered, spiced vegetables frequently with a wooden spoon while they soften and start to caramelize on low heat. This will take a while. Have another round of mimosas. When the vegetables are cooked, tell him it’s time to pour in the beaten eggs. Turn off the camera for a while.
When the eggs are set but the top is still wet, turn the camera back on so the audience can watch him sprinkle the cheese over it and run it under a hot broiler. When it’s golden-brown and puffy and tender, have him serve you a small piece while he devours the rest to keep up his strength, which he will need.
I walked in to the soup kitchen on Thursday morning to find Monica, the kitchen manager, almost in tears, in a state of awe. There were 10 or 11 boxes on the floor by the steam table, the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen, glistening and alive and gorgeous and colorful — lettuce, radishes, kale, chard, spring onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, scapes. Florence House was just awarded a grant worth $100 a week, which pays for a full membership in a farm collective share. The collective is local, in Portland and right outside. They train immigrant women to farm. For several minutes, Monica and Alison and I stood there beaming at each other and at the vegetables.
For lunch, we used up all the vegetables that were already there to make room for this incredible new stuff. I augmented a steam table pan of leftover fried rice with a medley of chopped carrots, onions, celery, and peppers, stuck it into the oven to heat, then made two big stir fries, one vegetarian, one with many pounds of donated Whole Foods organic chicken. When it was noon and time for lunch, Alison held down the serving while I did dishes and prepped radish greens. I hadn’t known radish greens were edible. They’re mildly peppery, a little like arugula.
Meanwhile, Monica was breaking down the shipment of farm-collective vegetables. Then, using a fish tub full of vegetable scraps, she made a stock for a spring onion and potato soup.
I am always so happy to be there, to feed homeless women such nourishing, well-cooked food. And it feels good to work so hard. I’m a writer who usually works in a chair at a desk. At the end of a three-hour shift of nonstop dishwashing, pot-scrubbing, chopping, serving, and cleaning, I feel tired and relaxed, as if my brain has had a real break. I imagine that it would be hard do this for a living. Volunteering is profoundly and essentially different from working for pay. It’s pure, and it’s egoless, and it allows for a rare, happy sense of being in the pocket, in the flow of life, without thinking about anything.
My sister Susan runs a yoga center in Amsterdam. She’s told me that just about anything can be yoga — it’s all in the state of mind. I didn’t understand what she meant, then, but I think I’m starting to now. In my rudimentary understanding of what my sister was talking about, it seems that the practice of yoga can create an impersonal, transcendent love.
I love the women at the center from some deep core in myself I haven’t had much experience with before. It gives me an odd and powerful joy to rinse their plates, to mop up milk or soy sauce spills from the dining room floor, to clean the tables where they’ve eaten. The more menial the task, the closer I feel to something rich and mysterious and new. It feels like a blessing, this work.
It’s not about me at all. I’m the one who’s grateful, to Monica of course, and to the women who volunteer alongside me, but mostly to the women who eat at the Florence House soup kitchen. The troubles they’ve been through, the pain they’ve experienced, the difficulties they struggle with, the things they lack and yearn for – those are deeply private, and I can’t know them. I can only look into their faces as they take their plates of food, or as they return their used plates to the dish window. I don’t know exactly what it is I am receiving from them. I can’t put it into words. It feels like a pure exchange of love. They always thank me. I always thank them back.
Soup Kitchen Stir Fry
From the fridge, take all the fish tubs of chopped or sliced vegetables and chop and slice up everything that hasn’t been prepped yet. Assemble your flavorings: the carafes of teriyaki and soy sauce and the jug of corn oil and the jar of roasted pureed garlic and the little thing of Five Spice powder.
When everything is ready to go, heat a giant drum pan over two burners. Pour in about a cup of oil. When it’s hot, throw in a wad of garlic and a heap of aromatics: onion, carrots, celery. Stir. After two minutes, add chopped peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, and summer squash. Stir, sprinkle with soy sauce and Five Spice powder until it smells really good. Keep stirring. Add a heap of well-washed, minced farm-share radish greens. Stir like mad. The drum pan should be over half full.
When the stir fry is cooked but not overcooked, get someone to help you lift the pan to divide the contents between two deep steam table pans. In one of them, leave room for the chicken. Put the pans into heated steam table slots and cover them.
Return the drum pan to the heat. Add a cup of corn oil. Stir fry all the chopped chicken, adding teriyaki sauce at the end. When it’s cooked, add it to one of the vegetable stir fry pans and mix together.
Florence House also is home to a number of hard-working, well-trained service dogs, registered emotional-support companions. Make sure to leave enough chicken out of the teriyaki sauce for anyone with a dog who asks for it.