Today was my day off. It was also cold and stormy and dark. I woke up late and drank a big cup of coffee and tried and failed to catch up with my emails, my to-do list, and my business stuff.
In the early afternoon, chilled and sleepy, I gave up and spent a few happy hours in a hot bath full of scented bath salts. I read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which several of my workshop students have commanded me to read; I discovered, to my delight, that it’s dedicated to Brendan’s grandfather, who was his close friend. Time went by and the sky went from dark to black; hard rain fell against the windows. I was too absorbed in the book to think about anything else. When Brendan got home and fed and walked Dingo, I got out of the bath, opened some wine, and, in my bathrobe and pajamas, threw together a quick, easy vegetable coconut curry with brown basmati rice.
This was a much-needed, very quiet day. Last Friday, we took the Megabus to Chicago to visit our friend Gretchen. We arrived near Union Station at 2:30. Gretchen whisked us to the French Market for lobster and coleslaw, then took us on the El through the Loop and back to her top-floor apartment, whose building abuts the Graceland Cemetery. Sitting around a table in her cozy treehouse of a windowed porch, we ate four different kinds of cheese and drank autumnal Templeton rye-pumpkin hard cider cocktails we invented and dubbed Leaf Rakers, to the tune of “Goldfinger,” with the intent of “Moonraker.”
Later, with Gretchen’s friends Betsy and Rob, we walked through the cold, windy night to Mixteca, where I ordered the cochinita pibil and ate every bite of it. At Carol’s, the neighborhood bar, we drank nightcaps and danced off our dinner to the live country house band whose “girl” singer, Reba, is 60 if she’s a day and glamorously sultry, showing off her amazing legs in a short skirt and cowgirl boots. I requested “Crazy,” and she crooned it while I burped gently against Brendan’s shoulder like an overfed baby and closed my eyes and let him shuffle me around the dance floor.
The next day, Gretchen took us to Angel Food Bakery for hangover brunch, which gave us the wherewithal to explore the architectural salvage museum, or rather emporium, for a couple of wide-eyed hours–we saw, among 4,000 other wonders, an old autopsy table, prison desks, a papier-mache but convincing human skeleton, a confession booth, an old, rickety Argentinean wooden farm bed whose slats were hairy cowhide and which was obviously haunted by childbirths and consummations and deaths galore, plus a vintage plastic hamburger from an old McDonald’s, eerily lifelike. Then, on a hot tip from the owner’s sister, who just bought a house there, we took a fast drive for several miles down Lakeshore Drive to Jackson Park, home of Jesse Jackson, just to check it out. We gawped at the beautiful houses for a while, driving slowly up and down the quiet streets. Then we took a long, windy walk around the lake and harbor at Montrose Beach, winding up at the Magic Hedge, a former gay pickup hotspot and now a bird sanctuary. Walking back to the car, we passed a dinghy in the harbor called the Flounder Pounder, which sent us all into paroxysms of smutty punning.
After aperitifs at Gretchen’s friend Jeff’s artist pad in the former fruit market, we went to the Honky Tonk for Memphis-style dry-rub racks of ribs (it was a weekend of pork) with black-eyed peas, greens, coleslaw, and sweet potatoes. We drank whisky-lemonade cocktails called Lonely Presbyterians and listened to a terrific, louche band of four young men in zombie face paint (it was Halloween weekend, after all). When the burlesque began, we cut our losses and moved along to the amazing and beautiful Green Mill Jazz Club for a nightcap. We sat in one of the plush little semicircular booths under a mural in the dim light of the torch lamps overhead and listened to a Midwestern jazz band that included two dueling male sax players and an elderly, zaftig, strident female singer in a bright yellow fright wig. As she warbled “My Funny Valentine,” Gretchen showed me the booth where Al Capone used to sit; he could see the front entrance and the back exit at the same time, so from whatever direction trouble came, he could scurry out the other way. No doubt, there was also a secret passage behind the bar.
The next day, we went to church with Gretchen. The 4th Presbyterian Church’s Reformation Sunday service was stellar: the scriptural reading featured apocalypse and damnation; the sermon was about fighting a hard battle; there was a bagpipe player in a kilt who played “Scotland the Brave;” plus we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with the church’s chorus, who were up in the loft, including a divaesque, statuesque, flamingly redheaded soprano whose voice was blisteringly radiant.
After that, starving and righteous, we repaired to Mojo Spa for mani-pedis and a decadent brunch of egg-and-bacon on a roll (mine was gluten-free and baked in-house) and cranberry vodka cocktails. Then, laden with the vintage black Italian widow dress Gretchen gave me, a beautiful painting Jeff made of Montrose Beach and gave us, and our new spa products, plus a bag of leftover ribs and sides that we ate on the way home, we burbled back to Iowa City on the Megabus, and a new working week began.
Easy Coconut-Vegetable Curry
Put a cup of brown basmati rice and 2 cups of chicken broth into a pot, bring to a boil, cover, and turn down to simmer.
Mince 4 garlic cloves and a tablespoon of ginger and one large yellow onion and add to a heated tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Turn to low and let it all soften, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add a can of coconut milk, 1-2 tablespoons of curry powder, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon tamari, and ½-1 teaspoon salt (to taste). While the sauce simmers, cut up 2 carrots, one large stalk of broccoli, a small yellow pepper, and a handful of button mushrooms, or any other vegetables of your choice, about 3 cups in all. Add these to the pot, stir well, cover, and simmer. If you need more liquid, add a little chicken broth. Stir frequently and adjust seasonings when the vegetables soften. Toward the end of cooking, add a big handful each of minced cilantro and basil. Stir well and serve over rice with Major Grey’s chutney.
It’s getting cold in Iowa. The other day, wet snowflakes fell. Yesterday, we walked around Lake MacBride in a lowering, gloomy, chilly dusk. The lily pads have all withered to dark thin stalks with pods at the top; they looked like a spooky, abandoned miniature sci-fi city floating on the surface. Geese flapped over the becalmed lake. Smaller birds flew up from the weeds at the water’s edge in an eerie rush of beating wings. The grasses and leaves blazed bright white-gold, orange, and russet. Dingo frisked along, flushing a deer, chasing squirrels, grinning up at us as he barreled by. He loves cold weather. It makes him a puppy again. We hunched in our coats with our hands in our pockets to keep them warm until we’d walked far and fast enough to get our blood going.
After our walk, we fed Dingo his dinner—kibble, a squirt of fish oil, his chondroitin/glucosamine/MSM tablet, and some cut-up apple in lieu of the canned stuff he usually gets—on the ground by the car, followed by a bowl of water. He fell on his piquenique sur l’herbe grunting—with joy, we presumed. Then we drove to Mount Vernon for our Wednesday night dinner at the Lincoln Café. We were both starving; we’d been working all day and had both forgotten to eat lunch. We ordered the prawn appetizer; five big shrimp came with their heads on, eyes broiled red, tiny arms and all, drenched in miso butter with pickled daikon radish and cayenne-puffed rice. We grunted like Dingo as we ate them. Five minutes later the plate was practically licked clean.
Then came the trout salads: fresh green lettuce with carrot and cucumber slices, capers, chunks of smoked trout, and a trout paté. This is our current favorite thing, anywhere. After we demolished those, we got huge plates of chicken breasts wrapped in bacon over “heirloom buckwheat” polenta with chanterelles and cheddar and horseradish-apple salad. Given that combination of ingredients, plus the fact that the people cooking back there really know what they’re doing, of course it was fantastic, but I could barely eat mine; the trout salad is filling. So we had it boxed up and brought it home.
This morning, I cut up the chicken and bacon while a pot of corn polenta simmered, then added the cubed meat to the pot with the leftover buckwheat polenta and chanterelles, then dished it up in bowls. We needed a warming breakfast. The polenta was as creamy as hot cereal, which it arguably is. And what doesn’t go with chicken and bacon?
Warm silkiness not something I generally think much about, but lately it’s the quality in food I’ve been craving most, without realizing it until just now. I’m in the mood for food with the texture of Al Green’s voice. The other day, I made a rich, light avgolemono, an easy fast Greek egg-chicken lemon-rice soup. A couple of days before that, we made a tagliatelle alla carbonara (Brendan found a really good gluten-free pasta, imported from Italy, made of brown rice, salt, and egg) with twice the eggs and cheese and bacon the recipe called for. We used uncured English bacon, which was lean, chewy, and full of porky flavor.
I’m also hankering after zabaglione, the Italian egg custard made with vin santo or Marsala and very little sugar.
All of these dishes are made with barely-cooked beaten eggs, which provide the sexiest texture I know of. Raw beaten eggs are tossed with piping-hot pasta and sautéed chopped bacon for carbonara. For avgolemono, Arborio rice and chicken are simmered in chicken stock, then some of the hot broth is drizzled into beaten eggs and lemon juice while whisking, then that mixture is, in turn, folded back into the pot after the heat’s been turned off. For zabaglione, beaten eggs, sugar, and dessert wine are stirred over a double boiler until they thicken, then served immediately. In each case, the eggs turn delicate, satiny, decadent, sheeny, the texture of nursery pap—Cream of Wheat, pillowy tapioca pudding. All three of these savory egg dishes are a yolky, buttery yellow-gold.
Sometimes on winter mornings Brendan makes “coddled” eggs; but his version doesn’t involve whole eggs in a bain-marie. He beats four very fresh eggs with a little salt and sugar and a dollop of half and half. After melting plenty of butter in a simmering double boiler, he gently coaxes the eggs along in the warm butter until they form big, creamy, barely coalescent curds. We eat them with buttered toast, like little kids, wriggling our toes.
The carbonari are the charcoal burners in Italy who, according to some, were the original inventors of this dish, which could be tossed together on a cold night in the hills as they tended their charcoal fires. (In the States, it’s sometimes called “coal miner’s spaghetti.”)
In Italy, it’s usually made with Guanciale, unsmoked cheek bacon, the closest American approximation of which is “jowl bacon,” a staple of soul food. Some day when I find both, I want to make cheek-by-jowl carbonara, but for now, plain old bacon works fine.
Cook a pound of long, thin pasta; spaghetti is best, but linguine or tagliatelle are good, too.
While the pasta is cooking, chop 8 ounces of slab bacon or pancetta and slice 4 garlic cloves and sauté it all in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until crisp.
In a large mixing bowl, beat 4 eggs and add a cup (or two) of grated parmigiano-reggiano and plenty of black pepper.
When the pasta is done, drain it well (this recipe requires no reserved cooking liquid) and toss it in the pan with the bacon and garlic until it’s soaked up the fat and flavors, then add the whole shebang to the egg-cheese mixture and toss it fast and lightly until the strands of pasta are coated with barely-cooked, silky egg and melted cheese. Serve immediately with more grated cheese and chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Whenever we drive out to Lake MacBride, we remark on the quantity of dead, car-struck animals at the side of the road. Most of them are raccoons. In certain macabre moods, I wonder whether there’s a suicide pact among a faction of the coon population of Iowa. These are intelligent creatures, after all.
High above the dead animals are buzzards and carrion crows, slowly circling on updrafts, waiting for a cessation of traffic to swoop in for a feed. They, at least, seem to understand the danger of cars.
Wild animals coexist with humans in an increasingly uneasy imbalance. The animals generally lose the ongoing struggle for territory, resources, and survival. For every deer who wanders into a house and makes itself at home, coyote who poaches domesticated chickens, or bear who snuggles up in a car, snacking on leftover McDonald’s, there are exponentially more tales of woe: thousands of geese killed to protect airplanes, mysterious massive die-offs of honeybees and now moose, the total disappearance of sardines from Pacific waters.
And road kill is everywhere. In New Hampshire, it’s usually deer, 1500 a year or so. It’s legal there to eat the deer you hit with your car. In fact, over a dozen states have passed pro-roadkill laws, including Georgia, where bear is often on the menu. You just have to call the authorities after you hit the thing and have them okay it, and then you’re free to take home your bumper game, or flat meat, as it’s called.
Road kill has become so popular in certain parts of rural New Hampshire that there is growing suspicion that these deer are not killed by accident, but are “car hunted,” in typical DIY Yankee derring-do fashion, due to new restrictions on traditional hunting. “Live free or die,” indeed.
PETA approves of eating road kill; it’s healthier than factory-raised meat. “It is also more humane,” their website reads, “in that animals killed on the road were not castrated, dehorned, or debeaked without anesthesia, did not suffer the trauma and misery of transportation in a crowded truck in all weather extremes, and did not hear the screams and smell the fear of the animals ahead of them on the slaughter line.” In other words, the free-range, hormone-free, cage-free animal never knew what hit it.
A very helpful and informative Wiki website called “How to Eat Road Kill” advises that the following are edible: “Badger, hedgehog, otter, rabbit, pheasant, fox, beaver, squirrel, deer (venison), moose, bear, raccoon, opossum, kangaroo, wallaby, possum, rabbit, etc. Reptiles can also be eaten, but they might be fairly squashed. Rats may carry Weil’s disease and are therefore best avoided.”
Down at the bottom, there is this comforting reassurance: “Rabies virus dies fast once the host is dead. Cooking destroys the virus.”
Anyway, so as we were driving along the highway the other day, staring out at the motionless furry critters by the side of the road, one after another after another, we started talking about the idea of eating road kill, not for the first time, and not in any actual or intentional way, just in that speculative musing mood that often besets motorists staring idly out at cornfields and sky, daydreaming aloud. In other words, we have no plans ever to eat road kill, but it’s an interesting thing to contemplate.
That night, my independent-study student, Vanessa, came over for dinner and a “work sesh,” bearing a gift: Iowa’s Road Kill Cookbook by Bruce Carlson, published in 1989 by Quixote Press. It’s a small grey paperback with a silhouette of a squashed rabbit in a tire track on the cover.
“How did you know?” I sputtered excitedly. (As a side note, a phrase like “sputtered excitedly” evidently breaks one of the MFA-program rules for dialogue writing, which only makes me want to use it all the goddamned time from now on.) “We’ve been obsessed with eating road kill lately!”
“Dude, I just found it at Haunted Books. I must be psychic.”
We sat out on the porch and discussed her project and ate wild Alaskan salmon filets with a simple but delicious chipotle sauce I invented a couple of years ago and never get tired of (into the blender go a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce, a big dollop of mayonnaise, the juice of one lemon, and three garlic cloves; whizz into a smooth creamy sauce, pour over the fish, and bake). Alongside, as usual, I served wild rice and garlicky baby spinach. The salmon was, presumably, not killed on any road, anywhere.
Folded and tucked into the book was a menu, mimeographed on cheap paper, from Nebraska’s Roadkill Cafe: “You Kill It… We Grill It!” Inside, Chef “Wheels” Pierre offers such delicacies as Chunk of Skunk, Smidgen of Pigeon, Awesome Possum, and Rigor Mortis Tortoise. For the more adventurous, there’s Pit Bull Pot Pie, Poodles ‘N Noodles, and Shar-Pei Filet. The Shake ‘N Bake Snake looks especially tempting. However, I might be inclined to skip the Daily Special, “Guess That Mess:” “If you can guess what it is… you eat it for FREE.”
The book itself is dedicated to Iowa Ventre Montanters, a French term for those who salvage animals who are “Belly-up.” Ventre Montant cuisine, according to the author, is eco-conscious, sensible, and budget-friendly. However, the tone of the book is irreverent and cheeky and not for the squeamish, and the recipes are improbably disgusting. Still, it has added a level of connoisseurship to our daily drives to and from the lake. Very freshly killed raccoons have begun to strike me as acceptable candidates for certain of the more playful dishes.
Crunchy Coon Gizzards
2 C. coon innerds
1 C. rye flour
2 duck eggs (if unavailable, use chicken eggs)
2 C. Rice Krispies
Spread in greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes
1 C. chopped coon gizzards
5 large Hershey bars
Mix in blender till smooth. Spread on baked innards and season to taste. Serves 4.
For me, autumn is always a season of smoky nostalgia and lucid reckoning as well as new beginnings and optimism. This time around, I’m constantly verklempt, amazed at the richness, primarily the intense energy and brilliance and flat-out loveliness of my students, but also the way the past is resolving itself while I’m here in Iowa City.
Last week, Connie Brothers, who has been the heart and soul and prime mover of the Writers’ Workshop for as long as anyone can remember (yet still looks exactly the same), appeared in my office doorway. “Who in your family cooks?” she asked. “We both do,” I said. She handed me a big butternut squash from her garden with the warning that she couldn’t vouch for it; “It might be a little wan.”
I took it home and cut it open. It was not wan: it was a deep gold-orange. I peeled it and cut it up and roasted it in the oven with a lot of garlic, a cut-up onion, and three stalks of rosemary for perfume, then ran it through the blender with chicken broth and a bit of buttermilk, salt and pepper and cumin, until it became a rich, smooth, incredibly flavorful soup. While we ate big bowls of it, I reminisced about how Connie used to sit with some of us in the student lounge before workshop, the scariest, most nerve-jangling time of every week, and how comforting her presence always was for me.
Back then, as an aspiring MFA student in my mid-twenties, a quarter of a century ago, I lived 2 blocks from where we’re living now. I remember myself as intimidated, lovelorn, uncertain of my literary aims, and painfully shy. My friend Gretchen, an exuberant, intrepid, generous poet, whisked me off to country auctions, late-night truck-stop breakfasts, and a George Strait concert in Cedar Rapids.
Gretchen came to visit two weekends ago. Some of my Workshop students invited us to go bowling with them and their friends on Friday night. They were a stellar bunch of interesting people. Thanks to Gretchen, there were Jello shots (only half ironic) all around, and the jukebox played “Shoop” more than once, and everything felt sparkly and festive. “You’re great, too,” one of them said kindly to me, “but she’s amazing.” The next night, we played pool at the Fox Head, the old fiction writers’ bar. Afterwards, we came home and stayed up late, talking, on the porch. On Sunday before she left, we had a John’s deli picnic of salami, cheese, potato chips, grapes, sardines, and iced tea in the little park near our house. Having her here brought me back in a significant way to that real past, the one I actually experienced. When she drove off toward Chicago, I got a little misty-eyed. It’s a lucky thing to have a close, lifelong friend.
Last Sunday, a brand-new friend came to town, the musician Mary Chapin Carpenter, who is touring the Midwest right now with her friend Shawn Colvin. I was about to buy tickets when she emailed me and invited Brendan and me to the show as her guests; she asked us to come backstage to say hello beforehand. I had never met her before, but we’d written back and forth a bit. She read and praised my new book, which thrilled me no end; I am a lifelong fan of hers.
The instant I met her, I fell I love with her, the way you do with your real friends. She’s exactly the same person offstage as on: funny, thoughtful, filled with integrity, boundlessly generous of spirit. We hugged, and complimented each other’s work, and smiled at each other. She told us about the glamorous life on the tour bus (sleeping, eating, playing games on Iphones). I told her my sisters couldn’t believe she’d actually read my book. And then it was time to say goodbye, but next time she comes to Maine, I plan to cook her dinner.
Then we went out and sat in the audience and for the next two hours, we were enthralled and moved. Mary Chapin’s voice sounds more strikingly beautiful now than ever before, rich with experience and striated with twined ropes of feeling and unbreakably strong. Between songs, she talked about her new album, “Ashes and Roses,” and what inspired it: the death of her father, the end of her marriage, and a pulmonary embolism that almost killed her. These songs are deeply sad, gritty, full of pain, but they’re also beautiful and hopeful. Watching her onstage with Shawn Colvin (whose lifelong fan I also am), I fell in love with her all over again.
She talked about “song walking” with her dogs on her land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, taking long, meditative walks to work on whatever she’s writing. Then, in the magic hour between dusk and darkness, she sits on her porch with all her cats and dogs, her “people.” When she sang a song inspired by these walks and the dusk-to-dark hour on the porch, Brendan and I both were moved to tears. We both knew exactly what she meant.
A few days later, my independent-study student, Vanessa, came over for our weekly meeting. She’s in the poetry workshop, but she’s doing a side project with me that we’re both excited about. Because I love to feed starving writers, or anyone for that matter, I made lunch for her: a mushroom-leek-carrot frittata with gruyere, chicken Andouille, and buckwheat-buttermilk apricot muffins. She brought me a book: “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Cookbook,” published in 1986, the year before I got here. I opened it to the following recipe, which reads like a short, short story, an autumnal mediation on past, future, and resolution:
¾ cup split peas
½ cup lentils
¼ cup barley
in a pot of water and add a couple onions and a couple stalks of celery with all the greens—cut into a couple pieces so you can eat it later. (When I was growing up we used to throw out the celery.)
Let it go for an hour till the peas and lentils are soft and mushy. Add 3 or 4 carrots and cook till done. Sometimes I add a whole can of tomatoes or fresh tomatoes.
When you serve it, add ½ cup peas or zucchini. It’s important never to let the carrots get too soft. Never.