A few years ago, I gave a one-day memoir workshop whose focus was food writing. One of the students, Elizabeth, wrote an essay about the meals she cooked and ate in Tibet, where she lived in a house with several revolutionaries during the 2008 uprising against China. Her piece answered the question, “What do you eat at the revolution?” What they ate—simple communal meals with occasional flashes of subversive decadence in the form of chocolate—turned out to seem, in her hands, inextricably linked to what was going on politically.
Even in times of turmoil, upheaval, and resistance, we still have to eat. Since the recent presidential election, I’ve found myself thinking differently about what and where and how I eat, and I doubt I’m alone in this. Eating at the revolution is different from eating during a time of peace of mind and prosperity of culture. When everything I value is under siege, when an ignorant, lying madman is issuing daily and hourly decrees that threaten this country’s basic rights, it’s hard to get worked up over the search for the perfect steak tartare or the most amazing bouillabaisse. I’m keenly aware of the millions of people in the U.S. alone who can’t afford to eat well or have no access to good food. I seem to have lost my zest for lavishness.
Everything right now, including food, feels politically charged: I don’t want to support corporations whose policies and actions I oppose, so I boycott their products. I want to stay strong and healthy because I’m not sure what the hell is going on with health insurance in the near future, and we need energy to resist and protest whatever’s coming. Cooking is a source of comfort and distraction, and eating in restaurants is very expensive, so I cook and eat at home most of the time, nourishing meals that are easy to digest amid biliousness and stomach-churning anxiety.
Recently, as a sort of 2017 resolution, I quit eating red meat. I made this decision, I regret to say, not out of compassion for animals, those dear cows and sheep and pigs, so intelligent, so emotional, so deserving of mercy and tender feeling. I didn’t do it for them, and I didn’t do it for my health or my budget, either. I love animals, but I also love eating red meat. No, I did it because I learned that cattle raising is devastating to the environment. Vast swaths of rain forests have been cleared for grazing. Billows of methane are released in the form of cow farts into the atmosphere, contributing hugely to global warming. In fact, the cattle industry, worldwide, causes more damage than all the carbon emissions from cars, planes, trucks, and factories put together.
Somehow, knowing this, I can’t hungrily ogle a steak or hamburger or pot roast with much justification. I can’t find it in myself to eat something that’s so undeniably detrimental to our overpopulated, overheated, overstressed planet, especially something I don’t need and can easily forego. So I’ve quit outright, except for a piece of holiday roast with family or plate of wild-caught game from a hunter friend. Becoming a quasi-vegetarian feels like a tiny drop in an earth-sized bucket, but so is any individual effort—we make decisions every day about what to eat, what to do without, what to buy, what to avoid. We do what we can, and I can do this.
Today, after a morning of bad, surreal, terrifying news, I marched to the kitchen and hauled a heap of raw vegetables out of the crisper and chopped up a plateful of carrots, celery, jicama, and red cabbage. I threw together a dipping sauce out of tahini and yogurt, with mustard, dill, garlic, lemon juice, honey, and chipotle powder. Eating this loud, fibrous lunch didn’t solve a damned thing, but my jaws chewed something tangible instead of clenching with impotent rage, and the creamy, savory sauce soothed my taste buds, which had been coated all morning with bile and the sourness of fear.
Still, like Elizabeth and her Tibetan revolutionary housemates, we all need something decadent once in a while, and there’s nothing more festive, thankful, and comforting than pumpkin pie. This recipe has a twist—it’s got a nut crust, and the filling has no milk or eggs. But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Traditional American cooking has always been able to withstand change.
Pecan-Crust Coconut Pumpkin Pie
For the crust:
- 2 ½ cups pecans,
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed or other mild-tasting oil
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- ¼ cup brown sugar
In a Cuisinart, mix all ingredients together until the pecans are well ground. Press into a pie plate. Chill for an hour in the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prebake the crust for 12 minutes or so. Then remove from the oven and fill with the following mixture:
- 1 ½ 15-oz. cans of pumpkin (give the other half of the 2nd can to your dog)
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- ½ 15-oz. can coconut cream (save the other half to put on top instead of whipped cream)
- ½ cup almond or coconut milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Pumpkin spice: 2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp each ginger and nutmeg, ½ tsp each cloves and allspice, mixed
- 1 tsp salt
Mix all ingredients together well with a hand mixer and pour into piecrust. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Let it set in the fridge for a couple of hours before serving. Slather with coconut cream and devour.
Damn, that was a gnarly winter. Winters here generally are, but this one was especially long and cold and snowy and stormy and full of work and anxiety and obligations and upheavals. Our old car died; we got a new one. Our tenants moved out; we lost their rent income but gained access to the upstairs apartment, which is in dire need of renovation, which come to think of it is another source of anxiety. We installed a baby gate at the foot of the stairs so Dingo’s poor old hips wouldn’t slip and slide down them every morning, but then we took it away when he made it clear he wasn’t ready for his baby-gate years and would descend at a more stately pace from now on as befits his elder dignity, thank you, and he’ll continue to sleep in his room, which he prefers to the living room downstairs.
I traveled too, all winter long, most of it for business. Sometimes with Brendan, more often not, I went to Austin, Miami, Virginia, Los Angeles, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, New York, Los Angeles again, Miami again. The astute reader will note that these are all points south; the astute reader might further surmise that these trips were welcome diversions from a climate standpoint, and he or she would be right, and every single one of those trips was flat-out wonderful for a lot of reasons, but they were also grueling, because they entailed getting on planes.
My hatred of flying has shaded in recent months from virulent to grimly resigned; there’s no point in spending all those hours shoved in a cardboard seat in a tin can with gritted teeth and slitted eyes, because life is too short for that state. So I’ve given up and learned to acquiesce to all the depredations and humiliations flying now routinely entails, from the security conveyer belt through the toe-tapping, claustrophobic agonies of disembarking. Now, a flight that leaves on time is a blessing. A flight that isn’t delayed, rerouted, or canceled is cause for in-flight sparkling wine and a deep breath of thanks to the gods of the air.
However, eating on planes is the one challenge I haven’t quite figured out yet. Sometimes I bring hard-boiled eggs, cut-up raw vegetables, goat cheese, and gluten-free bread with me, but by the time I’m hungry, it’s all taken on the sweaty, crumbly sheen of third-grade brown-bagged lunches. Sometimes I buy food from the terminal, but I have to read labels obsessively to avoid gluten and basic dreck, and it never seems to be what I want; I’m suspicious of those fruit-and-nut bags that cost eight bucks, which I always seem to overeat without feeling satisfied. And don’t get me started about on-board food, always overpriced and overpackaged, at best a ripoff and at worst an insult.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to rant. I’m home now finally for the entire summer, for four months, till the Moose book is published and I turn my attention and energy to its fate in the world. What a luxury this is: I have nothing to do all summer but be a hermit, hunker down, and write my novel. I feel triumphant about this. I feel as if, by dint of repeated forays out into the world to read, talk, and teach, I’ve earned the right to withdraw from the world and write fiction again, the greatest joy I know.
Brendan’s in Los Angeles right now, and he’s coming home in a few days. Meanwhile, I have the house to myself. So what did I do, yesterday and today? Anything but write. Last week, I ordered a squirrel-repelling electronic noise machine; it arrived this morning, whereupon I installed it up in the crawl space on the 3rd floor, Dingo helpfully panting below as I climbed the ladder. Because it appears to be spring at long last, I bagged the piles of brush, leaves, twigs, and detritus leftover from fall and winter, six big leaf bags full, and stored them in the garage, then I hauled out the patio furniture and set it up on the patio.
Afterwards, I researched growing vegetables in pots in this northern climate. It was all I could do not to drive straight to the gardening store, but the adult part of my brain reminded me that Brendan would probably appreciate it if I waited for him to come home, because this is the fun part of home-owning. So I drove Dingo to the eastern prom instead and walked with him in the liquid-gold late afternoon while the bay unfurled its blue, blue waves on the rocky shore and the sailboats bobbed with the suddenly-green islands behind them. Spring in Maine is always like a protracted gasp of apology that feels sexually dysfunctional but really, really hot—I’m sorry I hurt you, baby, I know that snow was deep, I know you were cold, I know it was dark, but look what I’m doing now with my rich green grass and unfurling buds and vibrantly feathery, bursting blossoms, smell this sweet air, baby, you know I love you, I’ll never do it again. I fall for it every year.
And the curb-to-compost bucket also arrived this morning. Big excitement! So I set up a Tupperware thing on the counter to put coffee grounds, eggshells, vegetable scraps, and fruit peels into while I cook, and the bucket is in the mudroom with the recycling bin, and I’m dreaming of farmer’s markets and a CSA box if we can figure out how to stay put long enough to make it worthwhile.
Right now, I’m listening to bluegrass turned as loud as I want (no tenants!) and cooking dinner just for me: a mildly schizophrenic but delicious-smelling pot of sweet short brown rice with minced fresh turmeric, garlic, rosemary, oregano, red onion, jalapeno, Bragg’s amino acids, sea salt, mushrooms, green beans, and currants. The Sriracha is standing by. The windows are open. The hot pink flowers I bought at the co-op yesterday are opening with languorous decadence in the vase right in front of me. Home again, home again, jiggety jig.
For about the past month, I’ve been in a state of waxing and waning dread: low-level, then sharp, then low-level, then sharp again. And for more than six years before that, ever since I left my marriage and started the process of separation and divorce, I’ve been in limbo, first guilty, sad, and nervous, and then, over the years, increasingly angry, resentful, and at times, murderous (show me one person mired in a divorce battle who hasn’t fantasized about a handy bus coming along and killing his or her would-be ex, and I will show you a saint, or at least a martyr, or maybe an exceptionally mature person, which I obviously am not).
My dread this past month was caused by the fact that in the end, in order to get free of my long-defunct first marriage, I was forced to go down to Brooklyn divorce court and face my ex-husband, with our lawyers, before a judge. It was, as one friend suggested, like ripping off a bandage and reopening old wounds. I had nightmares about it. I realized anew why I’d left. I remembered things I’d worked hard to forget.
On Thursday morning at 6:00, my plane took off from Portland. We landed at JFK at 7:30. For an hour and a half, I sat in a cab in snarled, ugly, potholed rush-hour traffic. It was a grey morning with hard, dirty air.
What is the opposite of nostalgia? Is there such a word?
The divorce ceremony was surreal and quick and painless. The presence of my lawyer, a smart, kind, charming Brit, was like a security blanket. My ex and I had no eye contact, didn’t acknowledge each other, a skill we’d perfected in our first year of marriage, when we’d sometimes go as long as a week in the same apartment, sleeping in the same bed, without speaking.
Divorce is never easy, of course. Dissolving a marriage can take years, emotionally. But legally, once agreement has been reached and especially when there are no kids involved, it’s over in minutes. I left the courthouse with my lawyer, exchanging stories of Maine. I felt light-headed with relief.
I got into a cab with trepidation: how long would the return trip take? But this time, it sped me to JFK: no potholes, no traffic, and the city looked brighter than it had earlier, less dreary, intriguingly dense, full of stories, and I remembered why I’d loved it once.
At the Jet Blue terminal, after I went through security, it was only 11:30. I had nearly two hours until my 1:24 flight, well over an hour before it boarded. And I was starving: I’d eaten nothing but a banana all day. Luckily, as it happens, the Jet Blue terminal at JFK has a kickass food court. I perused the row of menus then wandered indecisively to the hostess stand. “What’s my best bet for gluten-free food?” I asked the two young women who stood there.
They instantly took me in hand, a special-needs project on a quiet Thursday. One of them went off to interrogate the chef of the Thai place about the pad Thai, which they assured me was excellent. The other looked through the menus with me, discussing my options: the French bistro had salads; the tapas place had plenty of things I could eat; the steakhouse might not be the ideal place for me; but really, the Thai place was their favorite.
“Okay,” I said. “Thai it is.”
The young woman who’d gone off to interview the chef came back. She was my waitress, it turned out. “He can’t say for sure,” she said. “But he’s happy to make you something off the menu. Some sautéed vegetables?”
“Can I have rice and shrimp, and can he make it spicy?”
“Done,” she said. “Anything to drink?”
I ordered a glass of cava. “I’m toasting myself,” I told her, and then I explained why I was drinking bubbly wine before noon on a weekday.
Her expression wavered: compassion? Solidarity? Congratulations? I banished her doubt. “It’s long overdue.”
She smiled and brought me an enormous glass of pale, bubbly celebration. “I brought you the prosecco instead of the cava,” she told me, and then my lunch arrived: oyster, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms in a spicy sauce with spears of broccoli rabe, alongside a mound of rice and a heap of grilled shrimp. I ate every scrap, drank every drop, left a huge tip, and flew home.
Brendan and Dingo came to get me at the airport, which is a seven-minute drive from our house. Everything felt solid again after that weird morning in divorce court. Our little city looked so beautiful: the snow was white, the houses were elegant, even the shabbiest ones, and our house, when I walked into it, was warm and snug and safe. I went upstairs and wrapped myself up like a burrito in a duvet and slept for two hours, a deep, dreamless, stress-free sleep, the first one I had had in weeks.
Yesterday, all afternoon and into the night, a heavy, icy rain fell steadily onto the shallow snow, turning the meadows into science labs of temporal precipitation layers: hard old snow packed on the ground, then newer softer snow over that, then a crust of brand-new ice, and on top, slick wet sleet in progress. As the ice-water fell, it piled up on power lines. It was only a matter of time before they started collapsing under the weight.
After our usual long walk, except the occasional slippery doggy foray into the yard, we all stayed safely inside during the sleet storm: Brendan and me, and Dingo, and Brendan’s aunt’s two dogs, Shasta and Bandito. They’re Dingo’s pals. They often stay with us and are like family, and whenever they’re here, we all automatically fall into certain class systems, like Downton Abbey. Brendan and I are definitely on the downstairs end of things.
Bandito, a small black spider monkey (actually, he’s a Jagdterrier, a German hunting dog, but he hops like a monkey with his tail in the air and has fiercely intelligent, preternaturally aware black monkey eyes), steals Dingo’s bed, or rather, he lolls in it while staring at Dingo as if daring him to challenge his right to it. Dingo stands mournfully nearby in silent passive protest, looking up at us humans to make sure we see what’s going on. “Work it out,” we tell him. “Fight for your rights.” It must be said that Dingo has the best bed: a cozy brown donut, soft with foam, with a sheepskin for warmth. Sometimes, in empathetic soft-heartedness, when Dingo looks particularly doleful and weary, we scoop Bandito off so Dingo can reclaim his territory, but usually we leave the situation alone. Dingo never looks particularly grateful or happy to be forcibly given his bed back. There are two other dog beds for him to lie on. As far as we can tell, he and Bandito are enacting some sort of doggy drama the nuances and implications of which we aren’t privy to.
Shasta is a year-old golden retriever puppy, a leggy, pretty Miss Congeniality, a brown-eyed surfer girl, blonde locks gorgeously mussed. Since she appeared on the scene, Dingo has done everything in his power (snarling, correcting, dominating, nipping, taking her entire head in his mouth, and so forth) to ensure that she developed from a rambunctious, needy, pushy, heedless puppy into a better-behaved, more subdued and polite child. In the almost ten years since I rescued him, or since we rescued each other, Dingo has shown a keen hyper-awareness of social mores and a frank horror at rudeness. In recent years, as an elder dog, he’s turned into a crabby enforcer, a stickler for manners and protocol. If he were human, he’d wave his cane and shout menacingly, “Quit that, whippersnapper!” Instead, he forces Shasta, who is about twice his size and weight, to lie down under his paw so she’ll learn the deal. As with Bandito’s bed takeover, we don’t interfere. The dogs have their own ways, just as the overlords of Downton Abbey have theirs. It is not our place to question them.
Last night, the power finally went out at around 10:30, right after the Patriots game ended (as a former New Yorker, I can’t quite believe I just typed that). At 3 in the morning, when the entire household was deeply, solidly, mutually asleep, the lights came back on; the heat roared back to life. The three dogs streamed upstairs, panting with inquiry: what the hell!? I took them back downstairs, let them out to pee, turned off the lights, turned the heat down, then told them to go back to sleep and went upstairs and did the same.
In return, this morning, while I slept, Brendan got up to let them out and feed them their breakfasts. Evidently he wasn’t going fast enough for Dingo’s liking, because Dingo came bustling upstairs and stood by the bed wagging his tail and snorting with bossy insistence until I got up and followed him down to the kitchen and helped my fellow human servant with the twice-daily food service: three different amounts of three different highly nutritious kibbles, scoops of organic canned food for all three, fish oil and chondroitin for Dingo, an elaborate treat system for dessert.
Meanwhile, we humans forgot about our own breakfast until almost 11. It regularly gets lost in the morning hubbub. Our lives are currently ruled by dogs and weather.
However, there’s a leg of lamb thawing in the fridge. It came from the biodynamic farm down the road and was a gift from Brendan’s uncle. We were going to save it for spring, but we’ve been eating a lot of rice and fish and chicken and vegetables this winter; it feels like time for some red meat. We’re planning to roast it the usual way, slowly, with salt and garlic and rosemary, and serve it alongside roasted potatoes and a heap of garlicky sautéed greens. It will do us good to serve ourselves a decadent meaty feast while the dogs lie on the floor at a respectful distance. It’s time to shake up the social order. Revolution is in the air.
My mother and sister Susan and her husband Alan and their two sons are all in New Zealand right now, visiting my other sister Emily and her husband Campbell and their four kids for Christmas. They’ve been emailing me photographs of themselves. I send back photos of Dingo and the snowy view outside the farmhouse window. Not for the first time, I have been offering heartfelt thanks for the existence of the Internet, which prevents me from ever feeling isolated or cut off, no matter how deep in the countryside I may be.
Winter is my favorite time to be here. There is no better place to work productively, day after day, free of social obligations and distractions. Brendan and I sit writing at the kitchen table while Dingo guards the house on his window seat, ears pricked, eyes trained out the window. Outside, the world is muffled and still. Bare black branches drip in an icy rain. Fog hangs over the lake and shrouds the mountains. Snow lies in a thick blanket up to the first rung of the fences. The sky hangs low over the hemlocks on the ridge.
Every day we’re here melts into the next with a comforting repetitiveness that feels like childhood, like vacation, like being sealed off from the world in a little bubble. Our days have a reassuring sameness to their rhythms: we get up, feed Dingo his breakfast and let him out; make coffee; drink coffee and write emails and read the news; take a long walk at 11; work; eat leftovers for lunch; write and read until 6; open a bottle of wine; feed Dingo his dinner; cook; eat; watch “Jeopardy!”; build a fire and play “It Was a Dark & Stormy Night;” let Dingo out one last time; go to bed and read aloud from a book we both loved as children, currently “The Secret Garden;” go to sleep.
But two nights ago, the whole household was up and awake at three in the morning. We humans woke up first. Brendan went downstairs. Optimistically, I tried to lull myself back to sleep just because it seemed like the thing to do, but then it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I got up now and then slept all morning. Suddenly hungry, I put on my bathrobe and went down to see what was happening.
Brendan was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, writing. He’d built a little fire, and the room was dark and warm. Dingo wasn’t in bed anymore, either; he lay on his window seat. He looked at me, thoroughly befuddled: why was it time to start his workday when it was still dark? Where was his breakfast?
I curled up at one end of the couch and started reading yet another memoir of life in Maine, a genre I’m unapologetically addicted to. (Who knew there were so many, and who would have suspected that they’d all be so riveting?) I was instantly sucked in. The room was aglow with firelight. Brendan tapped away at his keyboard. The logs crackled. Dingo snorted gently to let us know he was still wondering where his breakfast was.
Outside, it was absolutely dark. Inside, we were three solitary wakeful beings marooned together in a pool of light and warmth in a vast, sleeping landscape.
I suddenly remembered that I was hungry. Wee-hour hunger isn’t like other hunger, there’s no meal associated with four in the morning, so there’s no particular food you automatically think of to fill it. After pondering for a while, I realized I wanted a piece of toast slathered in butter and honey: nursery food. I brought Brendan one, too. Dingo got some venison jerky.
I read the whole book in three hours, then, yawning, my eyes almost shut, I climbed the stairs, got back between the flannel sheets, pulled the down comforter over my head, and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke to soft, snowy, late-morning light coming in the dormer windows and the smell of coffee.
Chicken Thighs with Lentils and Braised Cabbage
The other night, our provisions were getting low, but there was enough to throw together some sort of supper: a package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, a small red cabbage, some onions and fresh dill and a box of clementines, along with some odds and ends in the cupboard and pantry.
I took out the small, nearly empty tub of duck fat I’d splurged on at Thanksgiving and melted a tablespoon of it in the big skillet and browned a sliced onion while I cored and chopped the cabbage. I added the cabbage to the skillet and let it soften for ten minutes while I melted another tablespoon of duck fat in a cast iron skillet and seared then cooked the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
That seemed like a good start, but it wasn’t going to make a meal. I rinsed the cup of du Puy lentils I found in the cupboard then cooked them in two cups of chicken broth. Then I zested three clementines and juiced what was left of them. I minced all the dill, about half a cup.
I added a cup of balsamic vinegar mixed with red wine to the cabbage and let the liquid cook off. Then I added half a cup of golden raisins, the lentils, the zest and juice, stirred it all together, and nestled the thighs in. I covered this fragrant, vaguely French-ish dish and let it cook for a while. I deglazed the chicken skillet with more red wine and stirred up all the fat and browned bits until I’d made a glossy pan gravy. I poured it over each piece of chicken in the pan, sprinkled the minced dill over everything, and then it was time for dinner.
It was delicious, and oddly coherent, sweet with raisins and fruit and savory with meat and rich with duck fat, the cabbage velvety, the lentils toothsome, the dill piquant. Like most cupboard suppers, it was better than a lot of other things I make on purpose.