Sunday, April 4, 2010

Give a Fig

Some days I am seriously discombobulated. Yesterday was one of them. I went to the supermarket with the express purpose of buying saffron, became distracted by the Fruit Jellies Kettle Cooked Candy With Real Fruit Extracts and walked out of the store with a plastic box of candy and no saffron. I told my older son I would take him ice skating, positive that the public skating session went from 2:30-4:30. We arrived at 3:15. The session ended at 3:30. We rented skates and raced around the rink for ten minutes, telling ourselves that we were intensifying our fun. We almost believed us.

When we got home, I went on line to check our bank account. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember my user name and the bank wouldn't remember it for me. (When the bank finally did remember who I was, I discovered I was making $30 more a week than I realized. Oh joy!)

Part of the problem is that I am sitting around, waiting for a lot of things to happen---or maybe nothing at all. I'm supposed to start teaching a creative writing workshop in Manhattan in early May, but the place where I teach ( no longer publishes or mails out a class catalog so it's up to me to cajole people via email to register for class. The pressure to hussle to sell seats for a writing workshop would be no problem if I had years of experience in sales, instead of um, writing.

Then there's the short story I sent out. I submitted it to a journal and a few days later, received an email back from the editor. Hallelujah! A real email from a real editor! Except her email was about a technicality: Half of the story I submitted was truncated because I had saved it as a doc.x document. Could I please resend it without the x? Of course. Now I'm waiting for the follow-up email that says, "Yes, we are publishing this story AND all of your other unpublished short stories so please send us everything you have ever written as soon as possible, because Random House has a two-book deal just waiting for you!!"

Yep, I'll keep waiting for that email.

But what is really rattling my cage is this: I recently asked for help with writing. I feel kind of ridiculous because I teach writing, and have been employed on and off as a writer since the second Reagan Administration, but I've been reading Julia Cameron's awesome and soothing book, The Artist's Way:A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. (Yes, I know this sounds like feel-good, spiritual mumbo jumbo, but really, this book rocks.) In her chapter on Recovering a Sense of Compassion, Cameron says you have to admit: "Yes, I do need help...The ego always wants to claim self-sufficiency. It would rather pose as a creative loner than ask for help. Ask anyway." Cameron's voice is firm but loving; She manages to write as if she is speaking directly to you, and understands your fears and fantasies. You end up wanting to take her advice. So I sent out a portion of a novel I've been writing off and on to an editor. This editor was recommended to me by my agent. She edited a book I've read portions of and she got a nice call-out in the author's acknowledgements. Plus, she used to work with someone I know from high school. All of this adds up to an excellent credit check and this woman sounds highly competent and delightful, but at one point, she wrote and said that her baby son was keeping her up at night and she was sorry she hadn't gotten to my manuscript yet and when did I really want feedback from her?

Well, of course, I wanted it five minutes ago. But I remember well the nights when my baby boys kept me up, and the hysteria and brain-freezing exhaustion that set in the following mornings. I wanted to be sympathetic to this relatively new mother and didn't want to come across as a demanding, impatient lunatic who has nothing better to do than write fiction and harass people she doesn't know for feedback about it. Plus I know too well that a sleep-deprived reader is not an enthusiastic or attentive editor so I wrote back, "Oh, I'm not really planning to get back to any real writing until the semester is over..."

All of which was true at the time, but has since turned out to be a big, fat lie. I teach journalism two mornings a week and though sometimes I have more quizzes and papers to correct than I know what to do with, this week I do have time to write (obviously). But I'm terrified of writing anything more, or revising what I've already written, until this person I've never met tells me to keep writing---or waves the white flag and says, Bag this fiction-writing business, baby, you're done.

On top of all this hurry-up-and-wait is my anxiety over the fact that my older son, because of the multiple concussions he got playing hockey, can't find a team sport to play this spring (thus, the thwarted trip to the cold, indoor skating rink, on a warm, sunny, Saturday afternoon). My theory is that in order to stay sane and out of trouble, teenage boys need to sweat, bump into each other, put on equipment and show up somewhere for practice (Teenage girls probably need to do this too---I just don't have any to test my theories on). My older son is playing ultimate frisbee at school and hockey and basketball on the driveway, but he's spending way too much time slumming on Facebook, which is really just the Devil's playground.

I know none of the above is life shattering, just life mattering. And sometimes when you can't do what you want to do, or can't do anything about what you want to do something about, you're supposed to find something physical to do. That's what Cameron suggests in her chapter on Recovering a Sense of Autonomy. (I know I sound like a Julia Cameron fan club freak, and I realize it's Easter and her initials are JC.) Anyway, Cameron writes wisely and persuasively about the Zen of Sports: "What we are after here is a moving meditation. This means one where the act of motion puts us into the now and helps us to stop spinning."

I count cooking as an act of motion (really). Standing around chopping, stirring, mashing and melting---food prep can still the mind like nothing else. Plus, the good smells in the house make everyone in it love you just a little bit more that day. And I've noticed that if I stand in the kitchen and chop, my children will sit in the kitchen and talk. But sometime cooking backfires and becomes work, not play (and Cameron says you're supposed to let the artist in you play). When that happens, I like to read about food. For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading David Tanis's A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Tanis is one of the head chefs at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and he is a reassuring and sensual writer. His words have a comforting and mesmerizing rhythm; this book reminds me of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. It's confessional and full of warm, chatty food-related anecdotes. His confidence makes you think that everything is going to be okay. That said, it's clear he's used to having an army of workers do some of his prep work and he doesn't have any children under foot.

A few of his recipes require so much work, they make me laugh. In the recipe for Lobster Risotto, which sounds unbelievably good and also calls for saffron, you are supposed to make six cups of lobster broth before you even start on the risotto---and those six cups of broth require that you boil five lobsters, live.

In the recipe for Fava Bean Salad With Mountain Ham and Mint, Tanis writes, "I usually try to enlist help and I always wish I had a houseful of kids or a couple of resident grandmothers...peeling favas makes a nice multigenerational chore." The recipe he is writing about calls for 8-10 pounds of fresh fava beans, shelled by hand. If Tanis had children, he wouldn't be shelling ten pounds of anything by hand, and he would know that no child of his could be enlisted to help with such a chore unless he was given a nice, multi-generational bribe.

Still, the book is luscious and delicious, and many of the recipes are doable and brilliant. (For instance, he suggests you turn leftover risotto into small hamburger-like patties that you dip in beaten eggs, coat with bread crumbs and then fry up in olive oil.) Last night, I made one of his simpler recipes. Our neighbors invited us over for dinner. They were making linguine with clam sauce and potato salad with mustard dressing. I offered to bring Tanis's recipes for carrots with saffron and garlic, and grilled parsnips. The only problem was that the supermarket had no parsnips and I forgot to buy the saffron. I bought three pounds of string beans instead and made my old standby of string beans with slivered almonds. When I finally did remember to get the saffron, I made the carrot recipe too. It was delicious hot and even better cold the next day.

If I ever sell a short story, I'll make that lobster risotto.

Saffron Carrots
3 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into circles
2 tablespoons butter
2-3 chopped garlic cloves
Crumbled saffron
Salt and pepper
Lemon zest
1 cup water

Peel and slice carrots.
Melt butter in large frying pan. Add garlic, saffron, salt and pepper.
Add carrots, and lemon zest.
Add a cup of water, cover pan with lid and let simmer for 6-7 minutes.
Season to taste.

Roast String Beans with Toasted Almonds
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2-3 pounds of green beans, trimmed (if you are feeling fancy, splurge on haricots verts)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Place almonds in dry skillet over medium heat. Cook the almonds, shaking and stirring often, until they start to smell (good). When they are golden around the edges, put them on a plate and let them cool. You can do this several days in advance.
Mix the string beans with the olive oil, salt and a little pepper.
Spread them out flat onto two cookie sheets. Roast 12-13 minutes, until they are slightly brown.
Mix with almonds.

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