My office was in the windowless basement of an asbestos-lined, faux-Georgian building outside Manhattan when I first began thinking about launching Poor Man’s Feast. Skull-and-crossbone construction signs were taped to locked interior stairwell doors, and more than once I became trapped between floors on my way to or from a meeting and had to wait to be sprung by someone — a chair-throwing art director; a sales manager and mother of a three year old little girl with a voice like Al Pacino — so that I wouldn’t have to sleep there overnight. Our work area was commonly referred to as The Morgue, and not long after starting  there, I began to resemble the Tom Hanks character in Joe Versus the Volcano.

 

Eventually,  I began to look elsewhere for employment, and came close to being offered a job with a Manhattan cookbook publisher (I’ve moonlighted as a cookbook editor for years). But there was a problem. Actually, two.

The woman who got it,  a colleague said, has a blog. And you don’t. Also, she has more, well— you know— energy.

So I went back to my little office-in-the-morgue, and, having discovered that I could finish a week’s worth of work in two days, closed my door and launched Poor Man’s Feast. Initially, it was meant to be a daily publication (see energy, above), and a place where readers could go to find a simple, easy, delicious recipe that would cost them very little. The food I wrote about would always have context — a story; some history; connection to place and person and time — but the focus of the writing would be primarily on the recipe. It sounded like a good idea.

It’ll never work, my colleague said. It’s the word POOR. Nobody likes the word POOR. 

It was getting to be Thanksgiving, I had a few days off, and I gave the whole business some serious thought. And then I broke the rules: in my heart of hearts, I knew this colleague was wrong. Susan, who is a book designer, cobbled together the banner from a sixteenth century, public domain butcher’s advertisement, and added the type. My artist cousin Mishka Jaeger helped me set it up. We worried about offending some of my friends and family who don’t eat pork. Then there were the vegetarians and the vegans who would run screaming into the night when they saw the pig.

Just write the first post, Susan said, and we’ll go from there.

It was me or the asbestos.

After a few months, Poor Man’s Feast began to take on a life of its own; there were snarky, snappy, wink-wink/nod-nod posts about parsimony, pantry-stocking, the eating of squirrel, and a cooking smackdown between two New York Times food writers. 1970s porn star Ron Jeremy showed up in a post subtitled Member’s Only Dining. There were interviews with Maira Kalman, Deborah Madison, Andrew Zimmern, Joan Nathan, Tamar Adler, and Dorie Greenspan, who talked about burning down her parents’ Brooklyn kitchen as a child. I wrote about an addictive knoepfli dish produced by a Seattle woman of Swiss-Chinese lineage, who left us much too soon. There was the realization why Americans think of eating vegetables as a chore, and what to do about it. There was a wedding at Buvette, two James Beard Award finalist nominations and a win, an earthquake, a story of breakfast eaten in anger, an essay on the ghosts that reside at one’s table, a piece about losing family and the healing power of light, an imaginary letter to Elizabeth David, eggs and aging mothers, midnight cooking after a day of traveling, varying attempts at faddish diets, forgetting how to cook for a brief time, two memoirs (this and this) and a new one coming in 2019 from Ballantine Books, many externally-published articles and essays in places including The Guardian and The Washington Post, and the most-read piece on the blog since it’s inception: an admission that, like many [many] food writers, my off button sometimes gets stuck in the on position where wine is concerned.

Along the way, there has been, I hope, a growing up of sorts that has resulted in a shelving of culinary snark, replaced with a focus on balance and substance rather than trend; a dedication to the craft and practice of writing about what sustains us, whoever we are and wherever we live, both at the table and far beyond. Over these last eight years, I’ve met remarkable people — food producers and farmers, cookbook authors and bloggersnovelists and poets and memoirists and essayists, artists and editors, photographers and multi-job-holding single mothers who manage to get a meal on the table for their children every night without fail. It’s been a learning process for me, and it has been enlightening; I gravitate now to food as history, nurturing, economy, politics, and sustenance, rather than entertainment. My readers —- you — who found me eight years ago and have stuck with me have taught me more than anyone else: about the importance of humanity and kindness and authenticity, and I’m forever grateful to you.

My employment at Asbestos Central ended after about three years, when the company liquidated my department and the local branch of the EPA eventually showed up in hazmat suits and shut down the building. My colleagues weepily packed up their boxes and clogged the hallways, asking each other if they were surprised, and what was next for them. Thanks to Poor Man’s Feast — the blog that I was told would never fly because the word poor was in the title — I was leaving the next day for Emilia-Romagna, on a trip to meet old-school producers of Parmigiana Reggiano, balsamico tradizionale, and Proscuitto di Parma with writers Rowan Jacobsen and Kim Sunee. While we were there, we learned the process of making culatello — literally, the little ass of the pig — which is salted, stuffed into its own bladder, hung, and aged in humid, 500-year-old caves.

The poor of this area have been eating it since the time of Caesar, I was told. They saved everything they could and made beauty and flavor against the odds.

That is food, but it’s also life.

And if it’s the definition of poor, I’ll take it.

A note to readers:

PoorMansFeast.com is re-launching in the coming months at this URL. Until then, this version will remain live, and I will continue to engage with all commenters, as always.

Many grateful thanks for your continued support and readership.

 

 

 

 

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Deep in the summer, when Susan’s schedule changes — she works longer days but spends every other Friday at home — the alarm clock goes off earlier than usual. The dog is still asleep, the cats are still asleep, I’m still asleep. A splash of pre-dawn light filters through the window over my dresser. For a long time, I rolled over and went back to sleep, but lately, I’m getting up with her, which is not like me. It’s five in the morning and I hate five in the morning, especially if I’ve slept fitfully, which I often do when I’m in the throes of anxiety or the after-effects of excess. (This is usually an attempt to stave off the aforementioned anxiety and frankly never works. Fuel on fire.)

Lately, I find myself looking forward to these early mornings. Most days I lay in bed and read — actual books of the actual paper variety — until seven or so, and then I get up to feed the wild hordes and walk Petey around the block. I make myself a cup of coffee and sometimes a hard-boiled egg, I check my email and try not to get sucked down the wormhole that is Facebook, and then I get down to work: I re-read the previous days writing and pray that it propels me forward which, if the stars are aligned, it sometimes does.

I’ve been reading a lot of morning poetry lately, before I’m even upright, drawing from a stack next to my bed: Mary Oliver, Marie Howe, Hafiz, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Jane Hirshfield, and always, Mark Doty, who many years ago showed me that the line between exquisite prose and poetry was gossamer. I picked up Heaven’s Coast after two of my best friends, a couple, died of AIDs within a year of each other in the early 1990s, leaving everyone who knew them staring into an abyss, broken and wordless. I watched Peter and Tim — kind men and practiced meditators who, every day at their country cottage rose before the sun to sip tea in their garden — shrink and fade into vague glimmers of themselves, aging before my eyes as their lives became a litany of cocktails and T-cell counts and hospital visits. One by one, their friends began to die, their beautiful upstate New York weekend houses in bucolic places like Saugerties and Mount Tremper sloughing off cherished possessions like skin. Couches, dressers, dining room tables were passed around until there was nobody left to pass them to; estate sales and auctions turned up familiar place settings, and first edition leatherbounds that might have been read three years earlier in front of a fireside dinner party. I have pictures of Tim in my first Manhattan walkup apartment from the years before he and Peter got sick, ebullient and beaming over a blue and white Conran’s planter that I bought for his birthday, which he used strictly to grow Genovese basil on his Chelsea windowsill. And I have his last Christmas gift to me: a small wall sculpture in the shape of an angel.

So I clung to Heaven’s Coast like a blanket, and I let its words and its sorrow fill my ears and knit my heart back together. This is what good writing does; it’s a balm for grief. And when Susan and I were still in the earliest phase of our relationship — she had just gone through a breakup and we were emailing but hadn’t yet met (although we had first set eyes on each other in Central Park in 1986 back when we were mere children in our twenties and thirties) — and she told me that she was spending a lot of time in the early mornings sitting in her kitchen reading Donald Hall’s Without, that was it for me. That was all it took.

It’s been a very noisy few months here, filled with the clatter of uncertainty, of not knowing: my mother’s accident and her sudden need for eldercare; my cancer scare; politics so loud and unhinging that steadying myself has become a full-time job; writing my next book, which actually is my full-time job. So the need for quiet, for an anchor, for psychic ballast, is ever-present in my home. Waking early before dawn to read poetry grounds me like almost nothing else except, perhaps, cooking. It’s a genetic thing: when my grandmother died and my mother cleaned her apartment out, she found Gaga’s Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, copyright 1915, its spine shattered and held in place with silver gaffing tape. When she couldn’t sleep, my grandmother paced her Queens living room from one end to the other while reciting Evangeline mostly from memory until the sky turned red, the book clutched in her hands.

Getting up before the day is what she used to call it. Waking before the noise, windows open, sweetness in the air, up before the din. It’s soothing and restorative to hear good sounds; like poetry, it’s music to my ears.

Tim’s Pesto 

Admittedly, the world does not need another pesto recipe. This is the first one I ever made and it is good, if elemental. Tim and Peter were vegetarians and ate this tossed with pasta, as one does. When they weren’t looking, I often left out the cheese, thinned it out with a little water, and drizzled it over hard-cooked eggs or the freshest white fish I could find — Halibut or Black Sea Bass — which I still do today, all these years later.

1 large bunch (2 heaping cups) Genovese basil leaves, washed and patted dry

2 cloves garlic

1/3 cup pine nuts (or 1/4 cup walnut meats)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for storing, if necessary

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano

 

In a food processor or blender, blitz together the basil leaves, garlic, and pine nuts until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil and continue to process until smooth. Taste and correct the seasoning, and add the cheese. Continue to pulse until smooth. To store, place in a lidded container and top with a slick of more oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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