Being cooked for is a great and startling pleasure for those of us who are used to being the ones who cook for others.
For my 50th birthday last week, Brendan and I drove up to Montreal with Dingo for 3 nights of walking, eating, and trying to speak French. On our way north, we stopped in Woodstock, Vermont. My older half-sister Caddie had cooked me a birthday lunch with her husband, Vin, and their 22-year-old daughter, Thea. They had made a rich pureed carrot soup with yogurt and toasted pine nuts, a delectable salad with oil-packed Italian tuna and niçoise olives, and a gluten-free ice cream cake. Thea helped me blow out the candles, and then I opened my present and cards. They had never met Brendan before; this was their first chance to check him out.
The five of us sat around the table on their screened treehouse-like porch and feasted and talked while Dingo lay at my feet. We stayed an hour longer than we were supposed to, and didn’t want to say goodbye. As I hugged Caddie, she gestured to Brendan and whispered, “Great guy!”
Months before, back when we were comparatively flush, Brendan had rented a bright apartment with a terrace on Avenue Laval, on the Plateau, that took dogs. Dingo had a loopy grin on his face the whole time we were there. He climbed the Mont-Royal twice off-leash on wooded paths, cadged cucumber, shrimp, red pepper, smoked salmon, and artichoke hearts during our picnics in the grass, and sniffed, if we let him, every single thing on the streets with an almost narcotic pleasure. When we went out for dinner every night, he subsided without complaint into his bed and greeted us with sleepy mildness instead of his usual sharply accusing barks when we got home, hours later.
On my birthday, Brendan took me to Marché 27, where we sat for more than four hours, maybe even five, eating dark briny seductive little Malpeques oysters, a brilliant salmon tartare with chipotle and mango, fresh beautiful salads, and a lot of Sancerre… the meal cost a fortune, but he’d set money aside months ago for my birthday. I toasted his thoughtfulness several times during the meal.
“What,” he said each time, “I’m not going to spoil you on your birthday? Of course I am!”
On our way home to Maine, we stopped in New Hampshire for dinner with Brendan’s mother, Kathy: lobsters, ears of corn, green beans, and tomato cucumber salad. We sat at a table outside in the clear, bugless evening and feasted yet again. The soft-shell lobsters were tender and so buttery they needed no butter. The corn was so sweet and fresh, it needed no butter either. Still, we availed ourselves of the melted butter, because it was there. Then I opened the present she’d bought me, a casserole tureen with a lid, made by a local potter: exactly the thing I needed. After dinner we lingered, still talking, until it was time to pull ourselves away and drive the hour and 15 minutes home.
When we landed at the Phoenix airport the other evening, Brendan stayed behind at the gates to change planes and fly on to LA for the night. My mother was waiting for me at the arrivals area just outside the passenger exit.
“This airport,” she said, after we’d exchanged our hugs and happy greetings and were waiting for the elevator to the parking garage, “is the worst. The signs are terrible! I asked two different people for directions, a janitor and a cop, and they both ignored me. They pretended they didn’t hear me! I actually said ‘Fuck you’ to the cop.”
“You did?” I laughed. “That is exactly the kind of thing I would do.”
My mother, who turned 76 and had carotid-artery surgery only a month ago, looked shockingly beautiful and strong and youthful. I couldn’t stop looking at her, telling her with joy and relief how good she looked. Brendan and I had booked our tickets to Arizona right after her surgery, when she was being kept in the ICU with dangerously low blood pressure. We were very worried about her then, but she’d commanded us to come later on, when she was recovered and could enjoy us. Well, she had certainly recovered.
We came out of the air-conditioned chill into the hot, dry air I remember so well from my childhood. We got into her Prius. I was very hungry. She had told me she’d bring something “light and cool” for the two-hour drive down to Oracle, so I hadn’t eaten much on the plane. She handed me a shallow, flat-bottomed straw basket full of covered dishes.
“Wait,” she said, “I have to put it all together.”
In one container was a cold cucumber soup, which she had made and frozen and let thaw on the drive up to Phoenix so it was perfectly chilled. She added a fresh salad of cut-up cherry tomatoes and stirred.
In the other container were dips to go with spicy blue corn chips: an olive and dried tomato tapenade, a pistachio, pea, and parsley dip, a white bean and sun-dried tomato paté, and a roasted red pepper spread.
I fell on this elegant, savory portable supper with joy. The soup was cold and thick, sweet with the tomatoes, and the dips were dense and rich with the crunchy spicy chips. The dinner was delicious and satisfying in itself, but it was made even more so by the fact that she’d made it just for me, had packed it so beautifully, and planned for it to be just the right temperature when I ate it.
We drove through the flat, hot, scattered-neon night with the air conditioning on, and I ate the cold food and we talked and talked. We somehow wound up going through Casa Grande and Coolidge, an unintentional scenic detour that landed us on a dirt road at one point, but we didn’t lose heart: we stopped and asked for directions, my mother hopping out of the car at a Circle K, a gas station, and yet another gas station. No one she talked to was a native English speaker: there was a sleepy Pakistani woman in the bullet-proof gas station booth, a scary-looking Mexican dude in the convenience store, and a second Mexican guy at the next gas station. No one had any idea where the town of Florence was, or the highway we needed to be on. No one had a map. No one was able to be the least bit informative, and their English was halting, but, unlike the cop and the janitor at the airport, they were all friendly, cheerful, and eager to give whatever advice they could, even if it was only to tell us to ask at the next gas station.
Finally, after burbling chattily through the night, we made it to Oracle, to my mother’s sprawling, cool, airy house on a rise with views of mountains all around. We sat at her table drinking red wine with ice for a few hours, talking and laughing until we dropped with sleepiness, and then the next morning we got up and kept talking until it was time to pick Brendan up at the Tucson airport. This time, we did not get lost.
The worst dark nights of the soul, I think, are when my smaller failings rise up one by one in a chorus of metallic voices: that unwritten obligatory important letter, my tipsy, laughing, unintentional, klutzy faux pas booming into a sudden silence, the failure to speak when speaking would have helped someone…
These things are much worse to recall than any of my gigantic, life-changing mistakes. Those are boulders too big to see all at once, hulking, unmoving, and strangely safe, whereas the little things generate a cascade that turns into an avalanche. They’re all attached to one another somehow, neurochemically or magnetically, so that remembering just one of them sets off a chain reaction sparking all the way back through the decades with increasing centrifugal urgency until I’ve looped through my entire life, all the way back to the first one, which now seems worse than ever in light of all the others.
Deep breathing has never worked for me even remotely, but refocusing sometimes pulls me to safety if I can trick my brain into latching onto a different, equally powerful whirligig and transferring its grip. Evidently, my mind wants to whirl in those dark little hours when there’s nothing to distract it from its own petty storms. It wants to obsess and stew, rehash and foment.
But sometimes, if I start to picture what’s downstairs in the kitchen cupboards and fridge and those bowls on the counter, and try to piece everything together in a series of interesting meals, and fill in any gaps with a mental grocery list, it turns into a fun, riveting game so engaging I forget what a horrible person I am and fixate instead on the far more relevant question of what I plan to cook and eat in the near future. Let’s say, hypothetically, that there’s some goat cheese downstairs, plus a butternut squash, some red onions, ginger, garlic. Also, there are some apples… a box of chicken broth… pine nuts…
Before I know it, I’m asleep again.
Those waking night voices of sharp remorse are the exact opposite of the escapist pleasures of the waking daydream, except for one thing: none of it is real, neither the urgent horrors of remembered transgressions nor the inventions of the untethered mind. Also, both are vastly improved with thoughts of food.
I used to talk to myself a lot as a kid and teenager. I used my imagination’s power to lift me out of whatever circumstances I found myself in, to whisk my brain away from anxieties and dissatisfactions. When I was 12, in 7th grade, I had a paper route. As I rode along on my blue 3-speed Schwinn through suburban streets, flinging the Phoenix Gazette onto lawns and patios and carport driveways, I told myself stories, aloud-under-my-breath, so engrossed in my narration, I never noticed anyone staring at me or looking at me at all.
I was especially fond of English characters, since I fancied I had an excellent British accent. I loved to say things like, “I don’t hold with that, Lady Winthrop, you know that perfectly well! I’ve always disapproved of such goings-on,” or, “My goodness, child, you’re all drenched from the moors! You’ll catch your death! I’ll draw you a hot bath straightaway, that’ll take care of those chilblains.” These stories always had food in them, which I conjured with loving, envious happiness: kidneys and rashers of bacon and buttered toast in chafing dishes at the breakfast-table for Lady Winthrop; strong tea and currant scones with jam by the bedroom fire after that hot bath.
On those days when I wasn’t in the mood for drawing rooms and moors, I narrated the ongoing saga of a group of high school students in Hobson Heights, a made-up 1950s Midwestern neighborhood, their romances and heartbreaks, the strivings and ambitions of the more interesting among them. On weekend nights, they piled into someone’s jalopy and went to the Burger Shack Drive-In to order icy Cokes in waxy cups with straws, salty, crisp French fries, and cheeseburgers with extra pickles and ketchup from girls on roller skates. After school, they loved to make cocoa, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate-chip cookies before doing their homework at the dinette.
Eventually, I grew up and stopped talking to myself on a regular basis. I confined myself to the occasional gasp or soft screech during public waking hours whenever I realized something awful I’d done; I kept everything else to myself.
When I moved to Portland, Maine last year, it began to dawn on me that this town is filled with people, grownups, who walk along the sidewalks, yakking away. They’re not wearing earpieces. No one is with them. They don’t make eye contact with anyone. But their conversations seem fierce, opinionated, and punctuated. They cackle, roll their eyes, gesture, nod, and tsk-tsk at themselves.
So I’ve started doing it again, too. Everyone does, so why not me? Shortly after I got here, initially startled by the preponderance of what used to be called “crazies,” I started jokingly calling the place Freaktown. I still call it that, but there’s nothing but fondness in the term for me now, as well as self-implication. People in this town feel free to pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, while the rest of the world walks along in silence.
Dark Night of the Soul Soup
Peel, core, and chop a butternut squash and three apples. Peel and cut up a red onion. Coarsely chop a knob of ginger and peel 8 cloves of garlic. Roast everything in peanut oil on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Puree with enough chicken broth to make a thick soup, adding half and half as desired. Salt and pepper to taste. Heat in a saucepan. Serve in large shallow soup bowls with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts on top.
Back in my late 30s, when I lived in New York, I used to go fairly often with my then-husband to a French bistro called Casimir on the edge of the East Village, at 6th and B. Their waitstaff was sleek and snotty, and the food was mostly-hit and sometimes-miss, but the atmosphere was magical: old wood and candlelight and mirrors, great French accordion-and-violin jazz coming from invisible speakers, and, in those days, a tourist-free clientele – everyone in the room seemed to be whippet thin with aggressively understated hair, shining darkly with ennui, disdain, and savoir-faire.
In those days, the late 1990s, New York felt like a different place to me from how it feels now – before the Towers fell, before Times Square and Soho and my former neighborhood, Williamsburg, turned into urban Disneyworlds for tourists, before the police took over the streets, before NYU colonized most of lower Manhattan, the city felt provincial and worldly, sharp and dreamlike, gritty and dazzling, wild and enclosed, an island nation everyone was free to join at his or her own risk.
Of course, I was a lot younger then; things have a way of changing, perspective-wise, with age. Maybe younger New Yorkers find all those things, still, in the city. But as time went on, I found it all ebbing away, heartbreakingly, until I had to leave.
Back in the old golden days at Casimir, we generally scored a table only after waiting with glasses of wine by the bathrooms for what felt like an hour while waiters huffed to and fro, all of them seemingly empty-handed and trailing cigarette smoke. We always started by sharing a “Parisian salad,” which seemed to be the invention of someone in their kitchen, having nothing to do with either Paris or any traditional French dish, that I know of, anyway. But it was the perfect thing to have before their rich, perfectly flavored steak tartare, the other thing I always ordered, which came with a small bucket of perfect fries and a side of house-made mayonnaise. Parisian salad was light and savory and fun and elegant and beautiful – both plentiful and not too filling, the hallmark of a great starter.
Yesterday morning, way up here in bucolic, quiet old New England, I woke up craving those savory lentils and little mounds of beautifully dressed grated root vegetables; I also craved accordion-and-violin jazz blowing on wafts of candlelight over old dark wood reflected in enormous mirrors, but that, unlike the salad, was a little more difficult to come by.
Over my cup of coffee, I looked for Casimir’s menu online, just to doublecheck the elements, but I found that it is not on the menu anymore – yet another part of the New York I loved that seems to have gone forever. I searched for “Parisian salad” to see if it did, in fact, exist anywhere in recipe form; apparently, it does not, at least not the version I know — Elizabeth David offered a recipe for a Parisian salad made with cold sliced beef that looked amazing but which wasn’t, alas, the one I was jonesing for.
So I decided to recreate it from memory, but with a modification: instead of sliced tomatoes and a halved hard-boiled egg, I’d substitute leeks vinaigrette with chopped egg, my other favorite French salad. And I decided to add feta to the lentils just because I love the combination. Somewhere in bygone-menu item heaven, a scornful Casimir chef was no doubt frowning on me with displeasure, but I did not care: up here, I felt perfectly safe from his or her wholly imaginary wrath. It served them right for taking it off the menu.
And so, when Brendan went out yesterday afternoon, I gave him a list: du Puy lentils, baby arugula, feta, celeriac, carrots, beets, leeks, eggs, a red onion. He came back with all of it, and a slender green bottle of vinho verde we put in the freezer to fast-chill and then opened and drank while I cooked.
Tiny, green du Puy lentils are known as “the caviar of lentils.” They’re evidently grown in volcanic soil in the Auvergne without fertilizer, and they cost about $5 a pound, but they’re worth it. They taste richly of minerals and, because they have less starch than other lentils, they don’t get mushy when you cook them, so they are phenomenal in salads.
While a cup of rinsed lentils simmered away in salted water for 17 minutes, I steamed 3 cleaned, trimmed, chopped leeks and hard-boiled 2 eggs. Then I whisked together a strong-tasting, satiny vinaigrette, about 2/3 cup in all, of olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, a glob of Hain mayonnaise, and plenty of black pepper.
After the al dente, toothsome lentils had been rinsed under cold running water and well drained and put into a glass bowl, and the still-bright green but softened leeks had been plunged into an icewater bath, squeezed dry, and put into another glass bowl, I peeled and grated a large carrot, 2 medium-sized beets, and half a baseball-sized celeriac root and minced a medium red onion.
I divided the minced onion between the leeks and the lentils and added a big handful of baby arugula to the lentils. I peeled the eggs and crumbled them over the leeks, then I crumbed a big handful of fresh, mild feta into the lentils. I dressed both the leeks and the lentils with enough dressing to coat.
And then I arranged everything on two plates: a mound of each of the root vegetables, red and white and orange, then a mound of green leeks, and then a heaping mound of lentil salad. I drizzled dressing over the root vegetables on the plates.
And dinner was ready. It was just as good as Casimir’s, and maybe even better because of the leeks and feta, which added their slippery lusciousness and tart crumbliness, respectively, to the whole. My taste-memory was sated. I didn’t miss the steak tartare, but that is high on my list of other favorite restaurant dishes I want to make.
It rained all weekend, perfect weather for long, all-afternoon games of Spite & Malice played on the uneven narrow coffee table with small green glasses of red wine at our elbows, using two ancient, soft, weatherbeaten card decks we found in the summer barn. It’s an aptly named, vicious game, not necessarily recommended for happy couples, especially hermit couples, unless they want to spice up their humdrum everyday adoring contentment with insults, curses, snarls, and threats.
“You bastard,” I hissed at Brendan when he insouciantly screwed me out of yet another move. “I may never have sex with you again.”
Evidently this was not a deterrent, or else he didn’t believe me.
Our friend Madeleine, a doctor I went to Reed College with way back when, stayed with us for three nights last week. She and Brendan are collaborating on a project together, so much of her visit was devoted to work, but the rest of the time, we tried to entertain her, or rather, we made her entertain us. She has led, and is leading, an unusually adventurous, colorful, interesting life, and it’s possible to convince her to talk about it, which she does hilariously, with matter-of-fact, brilliantly articulate frankness.
In return, we cooked for her. One night, I made broiled lamb chops (rubbed first with a paste of garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, and olive oil) and farmstand gazpacho. The next night, Brendan made his sublime spaghetti with pesto. One morning, I made custardy, fluffy French toast with wild blueberry compote and maple syrup.
Brendan’s aunt’s dog Bandito has also been with us for the past week. He’s a sort of small schnauzer-pinscher combo (he looks like a spider monkey) who grew up running freely around the hills and forests in Italy. Now he races through the woods here, flushing turkeys and deer, driving them out just yards ahead of wherever we happen to be on the road or path while he yips madly behind them. If we carried guns with us on our daily walks, we would have a huge storeroom full of game by now.
He and Dingo are fellow former stray-rescue mutts; maybe because of this implied kinship, the two of them are fast, easygoing pals. They prowl around outside together, side by side, sniffing and idling and lying in the sun. Bandito watches Dingo eat various unfamiliar things — watermelon, cucumber, red pepper, apple — and then he tries them himself. The two of them line up for treats, sitting and looking up at me with identical expressions, cocked heads and open mouths and very bright eyes.
Because Madeleine, like Bandito, is avidly outdoorsy, we decided to forego our usual 4-mile morning tramp for something more ambitious, namely, a hike up a mountain. First, I made a breakfast to fuel the ascent: grilled Andouille sausages and eggs scrambled gently in butter to make big, tender curds, served in a toasted gluten-free baguette. Then the five of us, humans and dogs, plus two backpacks, climbed Mt. Chocurua, whose trail is steep and very rocky, and whose bald, boulder-strewn summit gives a wild, breathtaking view all around of the peaks of the Presidential mountain range, its forested slopes and valleys and shining lakes, under an enormous sky.
We ate our picnic near the top, sprawling on huge boulders. Dingo and Bandito scored plenty of apple, cucumber, and goat cheese. They lay at our feet, looking up at us rather than at the view, which seemed to leave them cold.
“Remember the first time we did this hike?” Brendan asked me.
“There was a foot of snow and ice, and I wore sneakers with no treads,” I said. “It was early April. More than 3 years ago. We had just fallen in love.”
“So you were dizzy with hormones,” said Madeleine.
“We brought a pack of cigarettes and two bottles of hard cider,” said Brendan.
“And a baggie of cashews,” I said. “Nothing else.”
“God, I wish I had a cigarette,” said Brendan, who quit smoking almost 2 years ago.
“Me too,” I said. “And some booze.”
“I would kill for some booze right now.”
“You guys are so weird,” said Madeleine, offering us the bag of craisins.
Spite & Malice Pizza
We made pizza last night, with amiable cooperation, between deadly rounds of cards. On gluten-free crust from the health food store in town, we spread Pomi strained tomatoes with basil, salt, black pepper, oregano, red pepper flakes, and a little olive oil added. Then came a generous layer of shredded mozzarella, and then a heap of roasted vegetables: red and green Bell peppers, red onion, whole garlic cloves, and baby bella mushrooms, all sliced and coated in olive oil and baked in a hot oven on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes or so.
On top of that went the piece de resistance: tiny turkey meatballs made with farmstand ground turkey, minced white onion and garlic, hot red pepper flakes, an egg, cream, ketchup, gluten-free bread crumbs, salt and pepper, lightly mixed then dropped from a spoon into hot olive oil in our biggest skillet and fried in batches. They were fantastic on the pizza, but next time, I might add a minced jalapeno, grated Parmesan, pine nuts, and maybe a small dash of cumin.
When the pizza was hot and bubbling and starting to brown on top, we pulled it out and sliced it and ate it with more hot red pepper flakes and grated Parmesan.
We both had a touch of indigestion in the night, but somehow I don’t think it was from the pizza.
All my life, I’ve done a lot of daydreaming, otherwise known as woolgathering, fantasizing, and spacing out. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, along with eating. It’s free and portable and available to anyone, anytime. You don’t need any equipment or training. All you have to do is ignore whatever’s right in front of you and let your mind go wherever it wants. There are no rules, no one is watching, and nothing is off-limits. It’s one of the few absolute, eternal freedoms we possess.
The best daydreams are the ones that erase the present and feel so real it’s almost as if they’ve become true through sheer force of the imagination: the transporting ones, the ones that give the daydreamer something like a temporary parallel existence.
In mid-morning today, staring at a blank computer screen with a sense of dread, feeling the stresses of adult life and unwilling to contend with any of it, I rowed off in my mind across a vast, quiet lake in a canoe with a huge picnic basket, a canvas tarp, and an old-fashioned zippered sleeping bag.
I was 11, with my imaginary childhood best friend. Simultaneously, I was 14, with my imaginary summer boyfriend, sneaking away from our families for an afternoon. Also at the same time. Brendan was paddling in synch with me, Dingo sitting between us, his big bat ears peaked in the lake breeze. But really, I was alone in the absolute quiet.
After a long time, I came to a piney, rocky island in the center of the lake, isolated and far from any sign of people. I landed the canoe and carried everything ashore. I strung a rope between two trees and slung the tarp over it and weighted it with rocks, and then I unrolled my sleeping bag inside.
After I wedged the picnic basket in the roots and shade of a huge tree, I stripped and dove into the clean, cold water. And then, ravenous after a long, hard swim, I sat on the edge of the island, looking out over the water, and opened my picnic basket.
This was the best part of the daydream, the high point, and the purpose. In the hamper was a carefully curated picnic, one that took me a while to come up with as I stared into space, choosing, rejecting, and adding. In the end, I brought with me half a juicy, cold roast rosemary-and-lemon chicken, a container of vinegary, creamy German potato salad, a large, chewy sourdough roll, dusty with fine flour – I can eat all the gluten I want in my daydreams – and a mild, buttery brie, a hard, aged Gouda, herbed mixed olives, a hard salami, and cornichons. I also had a container of cold raw vegetables: sliced cucumber, red pepper, radishes, and celery. And a bottle of chilled red Cotes du Rhone, which is my favorite thing to drink this summer.
For dessert, I had a sack of fresh-picked wild blueberries, a bar of hazelnut bittersweet chocolate, and a big Thermos of tart, fresh lemonade, crackling with little ice cubes.
After I’d glutted myself, I sacked out in my canvas lean-to on my sleeping bag with the shadows of pine branches making patterns on my eyelids. A sweet-smelling breeze lifted the tarp gently and let it go again, without making a sound, as if I were inside a healthy lung. Dragonflies helicoptered through the air with a soporific buzz. The pine needles gave off their perfume. The pine boughs lifted and sank with a hushing sound.
I got chilly after a while and burrowed into my bag without waking up. The soft flannel inside smelled of long-ago campfires and past summers. The taste of the chicken and cheese and salami stayed on my tongue while I slept. When I woke up from this epic nap, I drank a bellyful of lemonade and dove into the lake again, and then, while the shadows got longer and the air cooled, I packed everything into the canoe and paddled for a long, calm, quiet hour back home.
When I got back, my computer screen was there in front of me, still empty, along with every damned thing I was worried about. Also, I was hungry. From the fridge, I fetched the rest of the purple cabbage, three carrots, and a head of greenleaf lettuce. With a red onion and a can of smoked kippers, I made a lunch so simple but good, it almost made me forget the imagined one.
Wash and tear into small bits 10 tender, fresh leaves of greenleaf lettuce. Thinly slice ½ red onion. Open a can of Bar Harbor peppered smoked kippers. Toss all ingredients with the liquid from the tinned fish, a dollop of mayonnaise, and the juice of ¼ lemon. Serve alongside a light, crisp coleslaw.