Yesterday afternoon, after I taught my seminar, I came home and changed my shoes, and then Brendan, Dingo, and I drove out into the countryside past rolling hills and wooded farms to Lake MacBride. A well-tended gravel trail runs alongside the big, peaceful, many-fingered lake for miles, past an old farm, some big houses on the bluffs, through woods, past marinas whose docks are full of pontoon boats. While we walked, we saw several deer, a heron, flocks of geese, a pair of woodchucks, many red squirrels, a toad, butterflies, fish jumping (the man-made lake is stocked annually for fishermen), lilypads, wildflowers, and algae, and almost no other people or dogs. The air smelled cool and clean. The sun was slanting down, lighting the surface of the water, casting deep shadows. At the halfway point, we all lazed in the grass for a while, looking up through treetops at the blue sky.
Wednesday marks the end of my teaching week, which always gives me a Friday-night sense of jubilation and accomplishment. And so it is that our routine these days is to have Wednesday night dinner at the locally famed Lincoln Café in Mount Vernon, half an hour’s drive north of Iowa City, about fifteen minutes from the lake.
After our walk, we drove to Mount Vernon and parked on the pretty, sleepy little main drag, gave Dingo his dinner and a bowl of water, then left him to snooze and went into the restaurant. Sitting in a booth, we drank pinot noir and ate salads of fresh lettuce with capers, smoked trout, and smoked-trout mousse. Then came the entrées: I had a roasted filet of Wild King salmon with black pepper beets, rich, salty salmon roe-egg salad, and horseradish creamed kale. Brendan ordered the Amish chicken, a roasted, juicy breast and leg that came on a schmear of spicy chili chevre with sautéed maitake mushrooms, a slab of braised bacon that melted in the mouth, and zucchini slaw.
We toasted the end of the workweek, even thought Brendan’s wasn’t over, and neither, technically, was mine. We toasted the fact that we’ve been here almost six weeks, and the time is whizzing by. We toasted my brilliant students, who are renewing my formerly flagging excitement about fiction. We toasted Brendan’s almost-finished screenplay. We thought we had run out of things to toast, but then we remembered the fact that our friend Gretchen is coming on Friday evening to visit us for the weekend.
Our plates were empty, the bottle of wine had been mysteriously drained, and we were tired and happy. We drove home and went to sleep.
I woke up this morning with the bleak knowledge that the cold had won our battle. It had finally got me, this cold that’s been dogging me all week, the one Brendan just got over after ten miserable days, and the one he likely gave to me, if we’re going to get all finger-pointy about it, which of course we’re not.
I had meetings today with students. During the first one, at 11:00 this morning, I managed to complete my sentences, for the most part, or so I hoped. During the second, I found myself struggling to hold on to a thought, let alone articulate it. Just before my last meeting at 2:00, I realized that I was wallowing in a miasma of stupidity, a bubbling sinkhole into which I could feel my I.Q. descending. My sinuses were pressing against my brain. My ability to speak was compromised by a dry throat, a rattling cough, and a severe diminishment of vocabulary.
There was a dinner for a visiting novelist at 5:00, before his reading, to which I had agreed to go, along with a few other faculty members and students. I sat at my desk looking out at the golden, dry, bright fall day, and I weighed the prospect of a free meal in a good restaurant with interesting people, having thoughtful conversations, drinking a glass of cold white wine, against the idea of going home and putting on my pajamas. I was so hungry my stomach was growling. I was wearing a skirt and boots. It would have been so easy to go to the dinner instead of backing out, which I always hate doing, even when I’m sick.
I emailed Brendan, torn.
“I’m on deadline,” he wrote back within 45 seconds. “I can’t go anywhere till I hand in this script. So I’m out.”
Dingo lay sacked out at my feet, setting a stellar example of mindless, unapologetic, necessary sloth.
Caving in to familial pressure, I sent an email begging out of the dinner.
After my meeting with my last student, which lasted an entertaining hour and a half, I plodded home through wide, quiet streets with Dingo. I came in the door and shucked everything. By 4:00, I was in my pajamas, collapsed on the couch with my laptop and book. By 5:00, Brendan had made pasta with pea sauce and a simple salad. We ate out on the porch. As I write this, at 5:30, my plate is empty, my stomach is full, and in this state of sated repletion, my drooling stupidity no longer matters at all.
Pasta with pea sauce is the chicken soup of pasta. It has curative powers. It’s nothing but a sofrito—onions, carrots, and celery, minced small—sautéed in olive oil. Then you add a bag of frozen peas and vegetable broth, then most of a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes with a dab of tomato paste and lots of crushed red pepper. As it bubbles on the stove, the alchemy of ingredients fills the house with a sweet-savory fragrance that’s restorative and nourishing in itself. When it’s cooked down, the sauce is tossed with hot fettuccine and served with grated cheese, and that’s it, but the flavor is rich and complex. And you can shove it in your mouth as fast as you want; it hardly needs chewing. It’s divine comfort food.