My workshop met every Tuesday afternoon this fall from 4:30 until about 7. It always felt like the high point of the week to me, when all ten of us emerged from our lairs to sit together around the long table in my office, talking intently and passionately about writing.
My office was inhabited by other visiting writers before me. It’s filled with the sediment of their tenure at the Workshop: boxes of abandoned kitchen stuff, personal letters and photos in the desk drawers; someone’s books on the shelves; a stale pack of American Spirits. (I’ve left some things of my own there, to join the archives.)
As the semester went on, it got dark earlier and earlier, of course. Maybe to combat the encroaching darkness, a collection of small toys appeared in the middle of the table. People liked to fiddle with them. Jamie contorted the skeletons. Nana and Ashley wore the rubbery starburst rings. Jonathan had his own helicopter, until it broke. Others poked the plastic turkey and pumpkin.
The two writers who were “up” were responsible for bringing snacks. After class, we stored the rolled-up bags of chips and popcorn, the rest of the cookies and pretzels, on a shelf in the back of the room. Our snack collection grew as the weeks went on. Sometimes, during my office hours, a hungry student came in to raid it and, incidentally, to talk to me.
Despite the snacks and toys, the laughter and chatting for the first 20 minutes or so of every meeting, we all worked very, very hard together. It was an intense, lively collaboration, in which everyone was engaged, everyone had things to say. No matter whose work was under discussion, what we were really talking about was writing itself, the discipline we’ve all committed ourselves to for life. Some of us tended to be more visceral, others more cerebral, but we were all working toward the same end. Each workshop meeting ended, somehow, with a sense of resolution, clarity, and accord.
After workshop, we went out somewhere together, the Bluebird or Clinton Street, to sit at yet another long table, talking and drinking and eating, the ten of us a diverse and varied group that somehow always seemed to cohere into a whole. Avro is Indian, from Mumbai; Okezie is Nigerian-American, Nana is Cameroonian-American, Tom is Vietnamese-American, Jonathan is Iranian-British. Josh is from Arizona, Jamie is from Florida. Ashley is from No Cal, Casey is from So Cal. I’ve lived all over the country. We’ve all moved around a lot, we’re all gypsies of one kind of another. And here we were, in Iowa City, a temporary tribe.
Like every tribe, we developed our own catch phrases, shorthand for a concept. Everyone got a nickname, gradually; Smash, Alpha, Uncle Queso, Saucy Eggplant, Spicy Mango, Sterno. Sometimes it felt like camp, in the best way. And always, every week, we put our hearts and souls into our shared work.
At the first workshop meeting, I was informed, quietly but firmly, that the workshop would be having Thanksgiving together. The implication was that this would happen at my house. So in the weeks before Thanksgiving, I ordered a 24-pound turkey and researched corn bread-sausage stuffing recipes and dug up the cranberry relish recipe from my former mother-in-law. I developed a cocktail for the occasion with the input of my friend Rosie Schaap. And I sent out a list of all the sides we needed: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, kale salad, pies, appetizers.
On Thanksgiving Day, Brendan and I set up the rented tables and put the extra leaf in the dining room table. We draped tablecloths. I arranged the centerpieces: clementines, small gourds, pomegranates; tea lights on decorative fall leaves. The turkey, rubbed with fresh minced herbs and oil, stuffed with cut-up green apples, lemons, and onions, and sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and sage, went into the oven at 10:30. I assembled the stuffing so it would be ready to bake when the turkey came out: buttermilk corn bread baked the day before, cubed and left out overnight; two pounds of fresh, spicy chorizo; minced onions and celery; toasted walnuts; dried cranberries I’d made the day before.
People started arriving, twenty-one guests in all – my workshop plus their friends and mates, all of them dressed elegantly, laden with food and wine. I made a round of Cranberry Criminals: bourbon with cranberry-orange puree and ginger beer, garnished with a slice of orange. We set out the cheese plate and Lauren’s rosemary-olive-fig tart. The kitchen counters were crowded with baking dishes and bowls. Jamie assembled her kale salad, which had taken her two hours to make. Casey brought the mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, as planned, but he also brought a “surprise” – gorgeous handmade Jello shots with bourbon-soaked cherries inside, set into halved orange peels and sliced. Okezie and Jonathan had both baked bread. There were spicy quinoa and macaroni-and-cheese casseroles and Nana’s amazing sweet potatoes that melted in your mouth.
The turkey emerged at 4:00, golden and crackling and tender, its meat perfumed with herbs and aromatics. I whisked fine-milled buckwheat flour into the drippings, then thinned the gravy with the giblet broth that had simmered for hours on the back of the stove. Wine bottles and wineglasses migrated to the long tables; the tea candles were lit. It was just dusk.
We filled our plates at the buffet table and found seats. I stood up and said, “Welcome, everyone, bon appetit, I’m so glad you’re all here,” and then we ate and drank and ate and drank some more. The food was the best Thanksgiving food any of us had ever had. All those months of working together had infused us with the habit of collaboration. The meal was a sort of outward expression of our teamwork, the manifestation of what a tight crew we’d become.
We ate some more. A couple of people went out to smoke cigars. I walked Dingo. A few people rinsed plates and put away the leftovers.
And then we had dessert, along with the best White Russians in the history of the cocktail. James, one of my seminar students, had made Momofuku cornflake milk. He brought small-batch vodka with a handmade label, and added fresh-brewed coffee to the Kahlua. And Lauren’s gluten-free pumpkin pie was perfect.
It was suddenly late, but no one felt like going home. “Let’s play Werewolf,” several of us said. It’s a game of teamwork as well as psychological nerves. The wine kept flowing. Jamie, although she was coming down with a deathly cold, hung on staunchly as our stellar God, and we went down rabbit holes of accusation, murder, and retribution. After working together for the common good all semester, it was good black fun to kill, accuse, and recriminate.
Maybe because I was their teacher, their leader, my students were initially reluctant to accuse me, even after I’d all but confessed. But they got me, in the end.
(So-called because they’re based on Cranberry Culprits, swapping out amaretto for orange. And orange is the color of convicts.)
In a blender, put a cup each of tart cranberry sauce and orange juice and blend until smooth. Into each rocks glass, over a few cubes of ice, pour 2 ounces Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, as suggested by the amazing Rosie Schaap. Add a glug of the puree and top with strong-tasting, spicy ginger beer; I like Maine Root. Stir and garnish with an orange slice. Make more puree as needed.
All quantities are slapdash and approximate.
Uncle Queso’s Old-Fashioned Jello Shots
Wash and pit a pound of cherries. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, ½ cup water, 2 tsp. lemon juice, and 1 cinnamon stick. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium. Add the cherries and simmer for 5–7 minutes. Remove from heat, add 1 cup of brandy and let cool. Refrigerate overnight.
Combine 1 ½ cups water, 1 cup sugar, and 9 tablespoons Angostura bitters in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until mixture boils, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Combine 2/3 cup soda water, 2/3 cup bitters syrup, and 2 tablespoons of the cherry liquid in a small saucepan and sprinkle with 2 envelopes Knox gelatin. Allow the gelatin to soak for a minute or two. Heat over very low heat until gelatin is dissolved, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add 2/3 cup bourbon, stirring well to blend. Casey says: “Can’t stress enough to add the whisky off the heat… don’t risk cooking out your booze!” (Reserve the rest of the cherry liquid and bitters syrup for the next batch.)
Halve 6 clementines. Carefully remove the fruit to preserve the peels intact. Stabilize each peel half-shell in a muffin tin. Pour liquid gelatin mixture into each half. Spike with the cherries. Chill until set, then slice into sections, garnish with lemon zest, and serve to a crowd of suddenly happy writers.