because I wanted it.

April 10, 2017 · 7 comments

A few weeks ago, I attended a writer’s retreat in Bridgehampton led by my friend and teacher extraordinaire, Dani Shapiro, whose new (remarkable) book, Hourglass, is about to be released tomorrow. We were a small group of women writers at the beautiful Topping Rose House; the workshop was an immersive, intensive experience capped off each day by Nancy Alder’s great restorative yoga, which was held in a small barn on the property. The cool, calming, monochromatic accommodations were luxurious in their simplicity; they let the mind rest at the end of each day. The surroundings, Dani’s teaching, the yoga, the sea air in early spring — they all conspired to quiet my brain, making the place ideal for the generative writing experience it was.

After four months living in a state of high anxiety, the few days at the workshop affected me in the same way that Marie Kondo’s life organization book did; I could finally focus. I could see the promise of the serene on the horizon of my frenetic, hysterical life. As a rule, I believe that things would be better if I wrote more, owned less, ate less, drank less, weighed less, had fewer chins, and lived a hygge-ish life in reassuring, subtle shades of gray and white. I arrived at the workshop with the plan to use it as a creative reset after the last few very trying months when everything — my work, my home, but most of all, self-care  — has gone by the wayside. The night after our first group dinner boded well: without the stimulation of the brash and loud, I fell asleep in my soaking tub while reading the new Joan Didion.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is responsible for the food at The Topping Rose House, and it is stellar. The restaurant staff turns themselves inside out to make sure that every diner with every permutation of dietary restriction is accommodated, and so, on the first morning of my stay, when I ordered gluten free toast (from the menu) with my eggs and house-made spicy maple-chile sausage and my server asked if I had a gluten allergy — not a sensitivity, but an allergy, which I took to mean like the one my friend in LA has; she has to give herself a shot of adrenalin to keep from going into anaphylactic shock if she accidentally ingests a breadcrumb — I, with self-care in mind, said Yes. Because I’ve learned that gluten, in many cases — not all, but many — can make me unwell, and I didn’t want to run the risk of eating something that was going to make me ill to any degree. My truthful answer to the server’s question — that I have a sensitivity and a thyroid condition worsened by gluten, but not a potentially fatal allergy — would, I decided, possibly result in my situation being taken less seriously. So I answered the way I did even though a sensitivity is not the same as an allergy, and feeling drunk and drugged and euphemistically undone is just not the same as dropping dead.

My breakfast arrived along with everyone else’s; we were all gabbing and drinking our very dark coffee and eating our very crispy smashed potatoes sprinkled with flakey sea salt along with our local eggs. Everyone had ordered simply, and without any fuss or special requirements. I spread sweet butter on the slice of pale beige gluten free toast that came with my dish and it was fine. It wasn’t stretchy and pliable because it couldn’t be. Being gluten free, it was not the same as the other bread that had arrived for my friends — the bread I secretly lusted after in my heart — and that I couldn’t take even a teeny bite of because I had just announced to the entire universe that I am unlike everyone else. I am different. And this made me feel very badly, and covetous, and a little enraged. And when I get enraged, I tend to take my fury out on one person: Myself. And I engage in activities that might be considered the complete opposite of self-care.

That night at dinner, more baskets of warm bread arrived on the table. One of my friends ordered crispy calamari as an appetizer, and like a misbehaving child, so did I. Because I wanted the crunch, the crumble, the salt, the bite. I wanted the batter without the squid. I didn’t want to think about what I was eating, and instead, to just enjoy it like everyone else. I didn’t ask the server if it was dredged in corn meal (gluten free) or einkorn flour (not gluten free but tolerated by many gluten sensitive people) or gluten free flour (not likely) or locally-milled flour (likely) in order to gauge exactly how unwell I might be at the end of the night. I said fuck it, and just ate it, and I followed it up with a piece of warm bread, which I blithely dunked into the (flour-thickened) jus on my pastured roast chicken.

I had just succumbed to what my novelist friend Jane Green calls a case of the fuck-its. 

Fuck you, gluten, I thought. I’ll show you.

My workshop-mates were lovely and said nothing. If it had been me on the other side of the table, I would have tried to keep my heart open in an accepting and compassionate manner. A few years ago, I would have thought What an asshole. But that’s the old, judgy me speaking.

For a few minutes after the calamari, I was sated, happy, drinking a massive glass of Barbaresco and feeling completely normal and carefree. I had thrown caution to the wind without fear or concern about anything: not the fried calamari, not the bread, not the jus on my chicken, not the goblets of wine I kept ordering even though I’d promised myself I’d only have two because my shut-off switch sometimes gets stuck in the ON position.

When dessert arrived, a wave of self-loathing swept over me like the ocean at high tide: when the chocolate cake I ordered was set down in front of me as everyone else ate their sorbet, my ears turned red with hot embarrassment. What I had done was inexplicable, and had I been in unkind company, I would have been (rightfully) reamed for my behavior, and obvious lack of credibility. I felt morally bankrupt, and like everyone I’ve always complained about who claims to be gluten free and then — like the pleasure-hating Alfred Molina character in Chocolat who is found passed out in the front window of Juliet Binoche’s shop, his face smeared with ganache — takes themselves out to lunch in a different town and secretly sucks down a bowl of hand-twisted garganelle.

Which is what I ate the next night.

Everyone else had the salmon and vegetables.

I just got it for the rustic meatballs, I explained. They were spectacular.

So was the pasta. Everyone had a bite. We all enjoyed it.

The next morning, I woke up in my hygge sea of soft grays and whites with a raging migraine so bad that I thought my eyes were bleeding. At breakfast, my new friends were going to have to listen to me guiltily drone on about my suspect behavior the night before, and the fact that because I’m working on some serious life issues at the moment, I had gone on a self-destructive bender and ordered the most glutinous thing on the menu and ate it with abandon.

I’m sure it was just the wine, I said to one of my new friends, as she handed over an Alleve before the start of that morning’s session.

Of course, she agreed.

A few days after I got home, I came down with a sinus infection so hideous that it required two antibiotics and a steroidal puffer, much time spent in bed, and four boxes of tissues. I’m not positive that one thing had to do with the other; I couldn’t help but think it. There are articles about this kind of thing, which I will not post here.

I had a lot of time to think about what I had done. What is it that compels us to act this way — to say one thing and do another; to take a firm and public stand that impacts others (because foisting one’s dietary needs on professional kitchens does impact others, as it does when your friends know you as a gluten-avoider and go to the trouble of filling their pantries with gluten free crackers should you happen to drop by) and then throw it in their face; to announce at the top of your lungs the dietary restriction that makes you feel good and healthy and is the very embodiment of the self-care that you deserve, and then to do the opposite. To say I can be just like everyone else. I can handle it. Just watch me.

What compels us to not act in our own best interests just because we want something we’re not supposed to have? (Fill in the blank here. I’ll help: the non-gluten free bread; the secret box of chocolate; the fourth glass of wine; the eighth tube of lipstick; the entire sleeve of Fig Newtons that my father used to binge on in the closet when he was furious with my mother, which was always). Because, in our world of instant gratification coupled with the fact of too much of everything, we want what we want when we want it.

But to quote Augusten Burroughs, Just because you want something doesn’t mean you have to have it.

At its core, this is the addict’s lament, the same thing that pushes the drinker off the wagon, the pill-popper to say why not, the gambler to take the bus to Reno: Sure, it says, I can be just like everyone else. Only, I can’t. And that makes me feel very badly. And when I feel very badly, I do everything in my power to make myself feel even worse, as though I’m somehow punishing myself for the fault of my own sheer humanity.

I want what I want when I want it is more than a credibility issue: it results in a metaphysical tangle that would make Marie Kondo’s head explode. Whether you’re talking about too much stuff that you wanted when you wanted it — the five striped shirts instead of two; the twelve pair of flats instead of three; the purses; the fifteen tubs of powder like the ones hidden away in my mother’s vanity — or the inclination to gorge yourself on what you wanted even though you’ve told the entire world you can’t eat it but you do and you end up feeling like a you’ve been hit by a paving truck, the result is the same: a muddled brain, a monkey mind, an overabundance of psychic stuff that no amount of hygge will help you cope with.

It took me nearly three weeks to get over my sinus infection; I spent much of it in quiet reflection and review of the chapter I’d workshopped in Bridgehampton. The original version felt heavy, laden with excess, stuffed with dross. Susan made a pot of chicken soup for me and clarified it over and over, pouring it through a fine mesh sieve until all that was left was a crystalline broth. I drank it out of a hand-thrown mug while wrapped in our vintage 1940s Hudson Bay blanket, gazing out the window at the world, anxious to start over.

 

{ 7 comments }

 

I couldn’t peel it; my hands shook.

I ran them under cool water and dried them on my favorite blue striped linen towel hanging off the oven door handle — the one that I never use, that I’m afraid to stain lest it cease being the new, fresh, perfect towel that it is. Still, my hands trembled, and when I tried to peel the morning’s freshly boiled egg, I failed. I brushed the shell away with my thumbs to coax it off like my grandmother used to do when she made eggs for me in the chipped black and white enamel saucepan of my childhood. Instead, I gouged it violently, my thumb piercing straight through membrane, glair, crumbling orange yolk with its halo of overcooked green, until all that was left of the egg was the suggestion of sustenance.

My throat tightened. I fought back tears, and laughed at the utter ridiculousness of it: to cry over a mangled egg is inane and emotionally frivolous. Boiling an egg on this particular morning during this particular winter was all I could possibly manage, and I couldn’t even manage that.

We call one another good eggs, tough or rotten eggs….We walk on eggs to spare fragile egos….We find the bestowal of an egg to be expressive of wildly divergent emotions: handed over graciously it betokens favor; delivered at high velocity it plainly indicates disgust, said Robert Farrar Capon. I add to this the egg’s subtext of Life, cap L, and hope: in The English Patient, when David Caravaggio, erstwhile spy and thumbless thief, produces a single, purloined fresh egg for Hana, it means that the war is nearly over. When he drops it and it splatters at his feet, we know that the war will continue, however briefly, and more will die.

I grew up having an egg every morning of my life. My father and I sat side-by-side at our Danish modern kitchen counter in Forest Hills, our backs to the Chambers stove where my mother silently soft-boiled two of them for three minutes, cracked them over slices of cold diet white bread stuffed like cotton balls into two brown melamine egg cups, and set them down in front of us. Years later, in the egg white omelety 1980s, I began to curtail my egg intake because of the genetically high cholesterol I was gifted from my mother. In the 90s, I discovered oeufs en meurette at the defunct La Goulue in  Manhattan, and would have them once a year when I took my mother to her favorite restaurant for Mother’s Day. In the early 2000s, I married Susan, who taught me how to make a meal out of a perfectly poached egg on garlic-rubbed sourdough toast drizzled with olive oil; we ate this at least once or twice a month.  In the mid-early-2000s, when I began to write full time from home and was blessed with a chicken-keeping neighbor, I started making a single boiled egg every morning: I would sprinkle it with sea salt, roll it around in a shallow stoneware dish of dukkah, and eat it standing up in the kitchen, the dog at my feet. And then, like clockwork, my mother would call.

I can’t talk, I’d say. I’m having breakfast. I’ll call you back.

What are you having? she’d ask.

An egg, I’d say, my mouth full.

I’ll stay on the phone with you while you eat, she’d say. I’ll do the talking. 

And she did: sometimes happy, sometimes angry, often raging against one person or another who had somehow done her wrong. There were laundry people who used the wrong detergent, cab drivers who took her the wrong way to her destination, makeup that she’d ordered that didn’t arrive when she needed it, an accompanist who didn’t return her call, the Jewish deli that forgot to remove the peas from her matzo ball soup. There were old friends of sixty years with whom she was engaged in constant battles, bus drivers who drove too slowly, bus drivers who drove too quickly, the cable company who was trying to bilk her, her long-deceased ex-husband — my father — who she was convinced was crazy, her second husband who didn’t make provisions for her before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Perry Mason, who she was completely in love with even though 1) he didn’t actually exist in real life; 2) Raymond Burr was dead; and 3) when he wasn’t dead, he was gay.

It wouldn’t matter to me, she’d add, and continue on.

I have to go, I’d say, wiping the dukkah crumbs from my mouth.

After her fall in December — after the surgery and the rehab and the return to her home with a caregiver — her morning calls came earlier. A pre-dawn text from the caregiver would come in first: She’s calling you in five, she’d write. Just FYI. 

By January, cartons of eggs — my neighbor’s chicken eggs, a plastic tray of quail eggs, six duck eggs that I’d bought over the holidays as a treat — began to pile up in the refrigerator, shoved into the back alongside half-empty jars of Hellman’s mayonnaise and squashed tubes of anchovy paste; I lost track of them, and couldn’t remember which ones were old and which were fresh. I forgot to eat breakfast, and sometimes lunch. I’d look up from my computer at three o’clock, the sky outside my office beginning to change, and realize: I hadn’t eaten anything all day. My skinny jeans began to hang off me.

You look terrific, my mother would say, when I’d come to visit every week. You have cheekbones again. 

How are you sustaining yourself, a friend asked me. What’s the easiest way for you?

Eggs, I told her. But I have no appetite. 

Don’t you understand, she said. Eggs are life. They are perfect. Boil one for yourself. Every morning. Even if you don’t eat anything else until dinner, you’ll be okay.

The next day, after Susan left for work and the dog had been walked, I took out the carton containing the ones from my neighbor; they were large, small, narrow (one of her girls lays eggs that are nearly flat), round. They were blue, green, and white. There were brown speckles on some, and bits of feather stuck to others.

I placed a small green one in my favorite ancient Le Creuset butter warmer. I filled it with water, put it on the stove, and when it boiled I covered it, removed it from the heat, and set the timer for twelve minutes. When the bell went off, I drained the pot, ran the egg under cool water until I could handle it, stood over the sink, and tried to gently peel it. The phone rang four times and stopped.

I peeled.

The phone rang again and stopped.

I peeled.

The phone rang again, and I plunged my thumb through the shell; it came out the other side. I cried at the absurdity of it: I was a food writer who couldn’t even feed myself an egg, or provide myself with the most basic form of life-giving sustenance. The egg is arguably the world’s most perfect food and I had destroyed mine. I dropped its remains into the butter warmer, and put the pan in the sink. I looked out the window at my backyard, partially covered with snow.

The cold New England winter sun streamed into the kitchen; it was a quiet time of day.

The phone rang again; I let it go.

I picked up what was left of the egg, and did the best I could with it; it was misshapen in places, broken, flecked with shards of shell. I dropped it back into the tiny pan, sprinkled it with sea salt and dukkah and ate every last drop with my fingers, savoring its promise of sustenance, its imperfection, its symbol of the maternal.

 

 

 

 

{ 10 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