Write-Back.

March 6, 2015 · 19 comments

ChapterOneArt

It’s either a brain tumor, or maybe because I’ve had Lyme Disease four times. It could be the fact that I’m like fly-paper during the summer (seriously; when I’m around, Susan doesn’t even need bug spray), and the town I live in was hit with West Nile Virus last year. Maybe my body is overreacting to my experimenting with gluten again since I discovered that all those starch-based, non-wheat breads made my cholesterol soar. I suppose it could be Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Hashimotos (I have all the symptoms and it runs in my family). Or it’s Ebola. Maybe.

“Maybe,” Susan said, “it’s the book.” She was sitting on the couch with the dog, having a cup of tea. I limped into the living room looking like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, when his hump switches sides. I groaned, and tried to straighten up. 

“It’s not the f**king book,” I told her. “I’ve been feeling like dreck for months and months.”

“—since you started writing the book,” she answered in her usual Zen manner. “Do you want a drink?”

“I shouldn’t,” I said, virtuously. I assumed she meant something alcoholic, even though we’d long decided to have no wine during the week; this, I reasoned, meant that a small glass of bourbon, or Scotch, or a tiny gin and tonic weren’t entirely off limits. But I didn’t need the sugar, did I. Especially not now, with all the inflammation.

 “Just some seltzer,” I told her. “With a little spritz of organic ginger juice, to strengthen my immune system.”

“What constitutes a spritz?”

She said spritz like someone from northern Connecticut wearing a Fair Isle sweater and carrying a Bermuda bag. S-p-r-i-t-z. Like S-p-r-i-t-e. I said it the right way: SHPRITZ. Like SCHMEAR. When we first met, she said SMEAR but I explained the medical connotations, which made her wince.

This is what things have been like around here for the last few months, while I’ve been writing my next book, Treyf. I appear to have become a neurotic mess. Yiddishisms have oozed out of the depths of my subconscious, like jelly from a donut. My long-deceased Queens vernacular creeps into my sentences. I stand up from my desk and moan like I’m suffering, God forbid, from a herniation. I wake up grinding my teeth, and with a massive headache; every part of my body hurts, from my shoulders to my toes. I’ve stocked up on jars of Tiger Balm and boxes of Turmeric Tea, although my mother suggested maybe I try Ben-Gay.

“It’s a very good product,” she whispered cautiously, like she does when she calls to say that someone she knows has c-a-n-c-e-r.

Yoga

I’ve taken up a fairly hysterical yoga practice, and discovered that I sleep in advanced tree pose; I always have. Vrikasana, my yoga teacher calls it. But now, while I write this book, I wake up stiff and straight, my hands at my sides, in corpse pose; Shivasana, my yoga teacher calls it. I call it Rigor Mortis.

Last week, while sleeping in corpse pose, I had a vivid dream about the lobby in my grandmother’s apartment building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. I could see the tiny brown and gold octagonal floor tiles leading up to the ancient Staley elevator. Because I breathe so deeply in shivasana — let’s face it; who doesn’t? —  I could actually smell the place, its rippling, faux stucco walls damp with a thousand Friday nights of schmaltz. Flat on my back, dead to the world, I dreamt of a Sunday afternoon lunchtime argument between my father and my Orthodox cantor grandfather, half in English, half in Yiddish, back and forth, over and over, across German porcelain bowls of what appeared to be blood surrounding a large stone, but what was actually cold borscht and a boiled potato. It was a fight dripping with rage and a love so furious and thick that I could actually feel it in my sleep, like humidity

602_1

I’ve dreamt about my father feeding me Spam and eggs for breakfast while my mother smoked the day’s first cigarettes and drank the day’s first Sanka out of a brown melamine mug, stubbing out her Virginia Slims to reach up and kiss our ornate silver Mezzuzah on her way to work. I’ve dreamt of eating shrimp and lobster sauce at our local Chinese restaurant after my best friend’s Bat Mitzvah. Of my frum friend, Shaina, getting me toasted out of my twelve year old skull on a cocktail of Manischewitz and Coke while her parents were in shul for the Havdalah service. Of the stinking, sweet smell of sun-baked garbage and honeysuckle that wafted up and onto our terrace from the yellowing patches of grass on Austin Street, mingling with my Gaga’s Shabbos roast chicken. Of hiking into the tenebrous bowels of Kissena Park with my father’s best friend who carried sticky bags of GORP and a stained copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus in the back pocket of his Sansabelt jeans; alone and silent, we gingerly stepped over used syringes and old condoms and dead tree limbs, and I believed I was really in the woods. Which I was.

Rigor mortis sets in every night after a day of writing, when I dream of treyf, and what it means, and the wide frame it’s created around my life. The forbidden, the taboo, the illicit — plaited together in a messy, unkempt braid — form the lens, as writer and teacher Dani Shapiro describes the memoir process, through which I see the world, and always have. Treyf is the story of all of that forbidden-ness and the quiet shame that travels alongside it in a sidecar of memory; it’s about what it means to search for a clearing in the muck and the mess, and to find safety and peace and the spiritual ground beneath my feet in the act of feeding people.

Good or bad, hard or easy, I wake up the way I did while I was writing Poor Man’s Feast: pummeled, achy, as though I’ve been excavated like a rotting tooth. Every morning during the writing of Treyf, I feel Rolfed even before my eyes are open, like my fascia has been separated from my muscles and reorganized during the night.

It’s not Rheumatoid Arthritis or Hashimotos, Lyme Disease, Celiac, or Ebola. It’s not a brain tumor or rigor mortis. It’s just neurotic old me, suffering from an affliction I call Write Back, which I first experienced when I was working on Poor Man’s Feast. I’d forgotten all about it the way my friends tell me they forget all about the pain of childbirth once they feel soft baby breath on their neck.

“Can I get you anything,” Susan repeats, as I sink into the down couch cushions.

“Maybe,” I say, deciding against bourbon, my deadening agent of choice, “I’ll take some of that seltzer. With a spritz.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 19 comments }

It’s been a long while since I’ve written, but I have a (semi-) decent explanation: I’m coming in to the end zone on my next book, which will be published by Berkley Books, most likely in autumn of this year. (I’m very happy to also announce that Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking is coming out in paperback this August, also from Berkley, the fact of which makes me want to shriek with glee. If it weren’t so very out of character.) Here’s the gorgeous new cover, for which I’m so totally grateful to Berkley’s design team. Damn, they’re good.

I wrote Poor Man’s Feast over a period of about sixteen months, from late 2010 into very early 2012, and I’d forgotten what it’s like — the sitting down every single day, the isolation, the writing bird by f**king bird, the forgetting to have breakfast or lunch as I get Hoovered deep into the wormhole that writing memoir seems to require. When I was writing Poor Man’s Feast, I spent days reliving the early part of my new relationship and food’s role as our third, silent partner: I relived that primal urge to cook for someone during our first year together, and what it tasted like, looked like, and felt like to us in that narrow sliver of time where we managed, against all odds, to find each other and make it work. I had been a single city woman for so very long. She had ended a longtime relationship a year or so earlier and retreated to the place where she grew up, in the (very) rural Connecticut countryside. One afternoon a few months after we met, I mistook a large bear emptying the contents of the neighbors’ bird feeder into its mouth for a purebred Bouvier I was certain had just escaped from a nearby Litchfield manse after winning a local AKC competition.

That’s how it went for a while with us: all country girl/city girl.

There was, of course, a lot of food in Poor Man’s Feast: there were the illicit, fancy French meals that my father and I shared under the wire when I was a child and my mother wasn’t looking. There were the cavernous restaurants we frequented in 1970s Manhattan — Maxwell’s Plum and Mr. Chow and Sign of the Dove — which gave way to my brief stint at cooking school in the late 1980s, where I failed chocolate, and two years working at the original Dean & Deluca, where my days were filled with six-figure, brain-sized truffles from Alba. There were the obscenely tall meals I made in a pompous, fruitless attempt to woo my new partner; unmoved, she simply knocked them over like the fragile house of cards they were. There were the less-expensive butcher’s cuts I learned to prepare as we began our parsimonious life together — the shanks and the oxtails and the cheeks — that demanded I stop cooking with hysterical bursts of fire and flash and instead commit myself to slowness, focus, and care. In learning how to cook this way for Susan, I learned how to live this way, which I still mostly do, unless my mother is visiting or Mercury is in retrograde. Or both.

So with that story — a tale of how sustenance for the belly goes hand in hand with nourishment for the heart and spirit — about to appear in paperback, I find myself back at my desk and writing the next book: Treyf: A Memoir of Family, Food, and the Forbidden. I can’t/won’t talk too much about it beyond the fact that it’s about human transgression — in the kitchen, at the table, in love, even at prayer — and what happens when we use taboo — including prohibited foods — as a way to separate past from present. Pre-hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn makes a guest appearance in Treyf (my great-grandfather, Marcus Gross, owned a kosher butcher shop within spitting distance of what is now the pork emporium, Marlow & Daughters); so does 1970s Queens, The 2000-Year-Old-Man, Peggy Lee, Spam, Devils-on-Horseback, fondue pots, and the pork dumplings and shrimp and lobster sauce served at my best friend’s Bat Mitzvah in 1974.

In addition to food and family, there also seems to be a lot of music showing up in Treyf, so here’s a short playlist just to sort of grease the contextual skids:

Jumble Jamboree

Fever

Blue Velvet

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero

Time and Love

Lady Marmalade

Maggie May

Loving You

Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat

Half Breed

Meanwhile, amidst all of the writing and re-writing and editing, Susan and I just celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. We met in 2000, on a freezing January Saturday afternoon and have been together ever since, with mercifully little time apart; this year, we celebrated with dinner at home on a bitter January school night during a recent snowmageddon when the car had just about frozen to the driveway and the roads were like a luge run, leaving me gastronomically stranded. I had been to our wonderful fishmonger a day earlier for the main course, but I wanted to make something a tiny bit different for us to nibble on while I cooked us dinner. We’re not big appetizer people — there’s only two of us — but I considered my options: I could fry the three sad Castelvetrano olives that were languishing in the back of the fridge. I could roll up the thin-sliced ham I’d bought on a whim at the coop and pipe them full of low-fat cream cheese, like my grandmother would have done in 1976. Or I could head down to the dusty Metro shelves in our basement, where we keep the weird canned goods that Susan’s late mother, God bless her soul, used to send us home with in the event of nuclear disaster.

For whatever reason, I chose the third option and uncovered some Laurel Hill Artichoke Hearts (NOT the marinated sort). Susan adores artichokes in whatever form they come, but especially Carciofi alla Giudia, which there was absolutely no chance of my turning these things into. So I settled for artichoke heart fritters, dunking them whole in a traditional, egg-based batter and bread crumbs, and then shallow-frying them in a straight-sided saute pan. Eating them hot and golden as they came out of the oil reminded me of the way we used to feed each other back in the early days of our relationship, when we lived in tiny Harwinton and simply cooked whatever we could find, devoid of show or pomp, and celebrated the miraculous fact that we had found each other against all odds.

Artichoke_Fritters_Snapseed

Artichoke Heart Fritters

There are a few (important) keys to making this very easy appetizer: first, if you’re using canned artichoke hearts, buy the highest quality you can find, and make sure that they’re not marinated (they should be packed in water and either lemon juice, or citric acid, and that’s it). Second: when you pop the can, rinse and then drain the hearts in a sieve and shake it well to dry them out as best you can. Otherwise, the batter will roll right off them and into the hot oil. Finally: Lest I upset any of my anti-canned food readers…I am not advocating eating canned food over fresh. But my car was frozen to the driveway and, well, you know how the Donner Party ended up.

Serves 2

1 14-ounce can best quality artichoke hearts, NOT MARINATED

sunflower or grapeseed oil

1 large egg

1 tablespoon all-purpose unbleached flour (GF if you’re GF)

1/4 cup whole milk

3/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs (GF if you’re GF)

Maldon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Wedges of fresh lemon

Drain the artichoke hearts in a sieve, give them a quick rinse, and shake to dry the hearts as best you can. Set aside. In a large, straight-sided saute pan, slowly heat half an inch of oil over medium heat.

While the oil is heating, assemble the batter: in a small bowl, beat the egg and whisk in the flour until the mixture is thick. Pour in the milk and beat gently — the batter should be lump-free. (If it’s too thick, add a bit more milk; if it’s too thin, carefully whisk in a bit more flour. The consistency should be that of pancake batter.)

When the oil reaches a temperature of 375 degrees F and using spring-action tongs, dip one of the hearts first into the batter, allowing any excess to drip off, and then into the breadcrumbs, coating it uniformly. Carefully set the heart into the hot oil, and repeat with the rest of the hearts. Turn the first heart over after about three minutes, and follow suit with the rest. (They should be a deep golden brown, but no darker.)

Remove them to a plate draped with a paper towel, season them well with salt and pepper, and serve them immediately with fresh lemon. They won’t keep (and they won’t have the chance to).

{ 24 comments }

indiebound

 

©2009, ©2010, Poor Man's Feast. All rights reserved. To reprint any content herein, including recipes and photography, please contact rights@poormansfeast.com