The first draft of the new book I’m writing, whose working title is Blue Plate Special: the Autobiography of an Eater, is halfway done as of this week. It’s emerging so quickly, I think, because it’s something I’ve been writing in one form or another for many years, in pieces, in essays, in my own head, here on this blog, and now in book form — everything is tumbling into place, interlocking and coming to rest, finally. I feel hyperfocused, turbocharged, like a wind-up toy, charging over or bumping into and richocheting off anything that happens to be in my way.
Consequently, I am rather difficult to live with these days, especially for myself, but also, I imagine, for everyone else.
Our friend Jami is living here with us for the month; she and Brendan are both working as hard as I am. Dingo is busy lying on a chair near me, protecting me from any possible attackers or nogoodniks, growling deep in his throat whenever anyone walks by the window. As far as he’s concerned, that’s his job, and he’s hard at it. Jami is writing upstairs at the desk in the guest room. Brendan works at the dining room table. I’m in the second living room at a small table in one corner; I have a great view of the old Victrola we just got for $200, a Craigslist find, from a bald German gentleman in Falmouth named Mannfred who kept it in his garage for years next to his gleaming new BMW. It’s our new prize possession: a mint-condition 78 record of Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marlene” recently arrived from an ebay seller.
The two activities (besides drinking wine, playing fiddle tunes, reading in a bath, and, of course, sex) that most effectively loosen and ease my tightly-wound brain are cooking and walking. Every day, Brendan and I take Dingo over to the Eastern Prom for an hour-long, fast walk across the headlands, down on the bike path, up around the water treatment plant, along a wooded trail, back down the hill to Dog Beach, where we let Dingo say hello to all the other dogs and run along the sand to the rocky outcropping — then we walk the path on the other side and climb the stairs to the monument, and then we tramp back to the car. Dingo can be off-leash for most of it, which we all love. We have a view out over Casco Bay the entire time. The weather has been clear and sunny and cool all week – scintillating, sparkling Maine spring days. Today it’s rainy and cool… but we’re going anyway. Sanity demands it.
But cooking is the best tension-reliever I know of, bar none. When my brain is too full of ideas and images, loaded so full it churns around like a cement mixer, I go into the kitchen and start chopping things. I have a sturdy-handled, big-bladed knife and a big heavy wood chopping board my ex-husband made years ago from leftover ipe when he was making our shelves. Last night, my skull crammed to bursting with words, I stood at the counter and chopped and minced until there was nothing left to cut up for the meal: a big piece of ginger, Serrano peppers, a big white onion. I smashed and chopped so many garlic cloves I lost track, and as I did so, I felt the cement mixer slow down, rock gently back and forth, come to a settled point at which its heavy weight lay in its belly and was still.
I devised a spicy basmati rice, cooked in the shimmering rich and golden chicken broth I had made the night before, with saffron, Serrano peppers, ginger, garlic, and a dash of garam masala. I stewed the leftover chicken from the cacciatore I’d made the other night, pulled from the bones, in a sauce of tomato, spices, lemon, and ginger. Brendan made spinach minced and cooked in butter, garlic, ginger, and onion. With this warm, spicy meal, we drank cold rose and listened to bluegrass; somehow, it all went together.
The other day at the soup kitchen, Monica asked me to make an applesauce to go alongside some pork chops for a later dinner. I filled a small red crate with a variety of red and green apples from the big fridge in the pantry, washed them in the small sink, took off the little stickers, then set up a big cutting board with a wet cloth underneath to keep it from slipping. All through my shift, whenever I had a spare several minutes, I stood at my little workstation, happily and steadily reducing that big box of apples to a smallish dice. I prefer to leave the peels on. Cutting them small makes the applesauce smooth and palatable. I also like dicing; I’ll take any excuse to do it.
By the time my shift was almost over, I had filled a deep steam-table pan. I added a big handful of brown sugar, 3 bay leaves, some minced fresh rosemary from the plant in Monica’s office, a good pouring of cinnamon, and another of salt. After I mixed it all together, I poured 2 cups of water over the pan, covered it in parchment paper and then foil, and stuck it into a moderately hot oven to bake for the next hour or two.
I left not knowing how it turned out; it didn’t matter. I was so soothed and refreshed by chopping all those apples over the past couple of hours, I came home energized, smiling, almost euphoric, and managed to sail through a whole chunk of the chapter about my wretched adolescence.