citgosign

Last week, I drove to Boston for readings and signings at the great Wellesley Books and Brookline Booksmith, the latter of which was my local independent bookseller in the 1980s when I was a student at Boston University.  Returning to Boston always feels like coming home, but it’s also bittersweet; it was the first place I lived alone, the first place I learned how to cook for myself (The simple: eggs, bowls of rice, steak, chicken soup. The tortured: pounded veal cutlets rolled around a filling of crispy pancetta and Fontina Val D’Aosta, and braised in dry Marsala fortified with a pound of butter. Vile.), the first place I discovered what being secretly, completely, hideously in love felt like.

This particular person cooked and so I did, too. That’s the way these things go.

At the time, it seemed incredible to me that someone my age could feed, nurture, and sustain herself and the people she cared about. Cooking, I thought, was an act reserved for older people — parents and grandparents — taking care of themselves and their families. People my age were why pizzerias and Cup-a-Noodle and sub shops were invented. I was sure of this.

Like most BU students, I crept my way further west down Commonwealth Avenue with each passing year, until I found myself no longer living in Boston, but in Allston, on the Brookline border. In the mid-1980s, it was a rough place to live; rumor had it that there were more cockroaches per square inch in Allston than people, and I once came home from my summer job as a Beacon Hill psychiatric practice assistant to my first apartment — an L-shaped studio directly upstairs from the area’s first Thai restaurant; every day, delicious clouds of lemongrass and curry wrapped themselves around me like a blanket — where I was greeted by a four inch-long water bug as exuberant as a puppy. My downstairs neighbor was a jet black-haired bass guitarist in a punk band that played every week at The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square ; he liked to position his amplifier on its back and crank the volume so loud that when he practiced, my shirts swayed back and forth in time where they hung in the closet. When I politely complained, he appeared at my door with a baseball bat, a row of safety pins piercing the entire width of his lower lip.

The 1980s.

cla_boston82

BU Boathouse, Charles River, College of Liberal Arts, 1982

Every weekend during the school year and the summer, my ritual went something like this: wake, coffee, eat breakfast (eggs or oatmeal if I was feeling virtuous; cold, leftover pizza from T. Anthony if I was hungover, which I often was), walk into Brookline to the Booksmith, past the beautiful, sprawling Victorian homes with their deep, tidy porches and ancient, massive elms. I’d dream — this is what you do when you’re in college — about the future, about the object of my affection, about safety and security and love, about growing up and growing old in a rambling, drafty old house in Brookline with a massive kitchen and creaking floor boards. I’d imagine myself living there, and by the time I reached the bookstore, I’d be lost in a reverie undone only with the purchase of a stack of remaindered paperbacks, and, at the neighboring health food restaurant, an iceberg lettuce salad tossed with a handful of cold canned garbanzo beans, and a small, damp sandwich made from something called Mock Chick’n Surprise.

But living there was not to be; by the time I graduated in 1985, I couldn’t wait to leave. Most of my closest friends — there were seven of us — had graduated a year earlier and were gone. I had been in love for the first time in my life — wildly, stupidly, mind-bogglingly so; unrequited and embarrassing, it surprised both me and the object of my forbidden passion: a deeply devout, very straight, Episcopalian woman from western New York State — and everywhere I turned were reminders of us. The day after graduation, I packed my father’s rented U-Haul in less than an hour; when I arrived at my mother’s apartment in Manhattan that evening, I realized what I’d left behind in my haste to get on with my life as an adult: my rusted-out Ross Eurosport bicycle, a box of photographs of my college friends, a Vietnam-era Army jacket I’d found in a used clothing store at the start of my freshman year, the name patch —  Corporal Tedesco — beginning to fray with time. The only thing I took: my guitar, my clothes, my books, and the white and blue-flowered Correlle-wear service for twelve that my father bought for me when I moved into that first apartment: if I was actually going to cook, he said, I was damn well going to cook for someone other than myself.

I didn’t return to Boston for a long time; it was too hard. When I finally did, I imagined that I saw her everywhere, in quick glimpses out of the corner of my eye, down alleys and side streets where we used to walk after class, on leafy St. Paul Street in Brookline, at the vegetarian restaurant on Harvard Avenue, outside the Victorian house with the rambling, open kitchen where I was certain we’d live someday. The thought of her left me undone, and when I ran into her ten years later at the funeral of a mutual friend, she talked to me as though nothing had happened; the weight of our story had been carried only by me.

Did you ever learn how to cook, she asked.

I went to cooking school, I said.

She hugged me and smiled, and floated away like a ghost.

westboston1982

Allston and Brookline at sunset from 700 Commonwealth Avenue, 18th floor, C tower. 1982

When I arrived in Boston last week, the day after my Wellesley reading, I did what I always do when I first get there: I parked the car a little bit west of the building that was my freshman dorm — Warren Towers — and looked up at what had been my 18th floor window from 1981-1982. For one solid year, not yet out of my teens, I stood there and watched the sun set every night; I looked west into Brookline and imagined what my life would be like after graduation, where I would live, what I would become, who I would cook for, who I would love, and who would love me back.

Last week I stood on Commonwealth Avenue before my reading, gazed back at that eighteen year old girl and told her: she would find joy in the act of nurturing and sustaining others, and she would marry the love of her life, who actually loved her back. And that things would be good.

I wished her well, and drove to my reading.

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meatballs

 

It wasn’t planned.

There wasn’t a secret memo saying We’re all going to make meatballs, FYI.

Last Friday, Susan and I managed to get the last two seats on a flight out of Raleigh Durham; I had flown down to do an event with the amazing Marcie Cohen Ferris as part of her Food For All project at UNC, and was on the fence about leaving because I had a few book signings planned for the next few days at the [amazing] Quail Ridge BooksThe Regulator and Flyleaf books, but Hurricane Matthew bore down on the south and there was no guarantee that North Carolina would be safe (it wasn’t; the eastern part of the state was hit terribly hard, and there have been casualties) or that we’d be able to get home if the storm turned north. At some point in Raleigh Durham — land of voracious readers, phenomenal food, and lovely people — I decided to lift my knapsack up with my right hand and blithely fling it over my shoulder (this is the knapsack that ends up weighing 40 pounds because of my laptop, my iPad, the three books I carry with me everywhere and never read, my two Moleskines, and my various plugs and jacks). Mid-fling, I knew I was in trouble: I felt a sharp stabbing pain in what I know to be my coracoid process (my ex was a doctor), dropped my bag, and whined the rest of the way home. My amazing massage therapist had an opening the next day and I nearly passed out on her table. After it was over, all I could think about was Sunday dinner which, because I cannot use my right arm, would have to be made by Susan who — I never talk about this but I should — is an extraordinary cook. Not only is she great at everything she makes, but because she’s a book designer, everything that needs to be uniform is uniform. Like little soldiers.

It was debate night, and we wanted something comforting; we (suitably) opened up Julia Turshen‘s new cookbook, Small Victoriesto the meatball recipe. We went out shopping, came home, and Susan deposited me on the couch with my iPad and my iPhone, both of which were showing low levels of battery juice, so I plugged one in while I mindlessly scanned the other. What the hell I was scanning for I will never know, but I know what I found: rage, enmity, divisiveness, fury, anger, panic, virtual pugnaciousness, tantrums, nonsense, paranoia.

And meatballs.

Many meatballs.

I texted a writer friend who lives nearby. She said she was making comfort food for dinner. What was she making?

Meatballs. (Lamb.)

Another friend in Seattle, hunkering down for their storm of the century, was also cooking. Meatballs.

meatballsandsauce

Everywhere on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest, scores of people who don’t even know each other were also apparently making meatballs. Some were healthier takes on tradition (pine nuts, masses of kale, ground turkey; grass fed beef, masses of kale, currants), some were fried, some were baked, and some (all pork, for the hardcore) were very traditional, and simmering in Sunday gravy. Some were vegetarian, some were vegan and made from lentils. But on this, the first officially cool night of the season, with the future of the country unspooling before our very eyes in ways that have left both sides of the aisle gasping for air, everyone, regardless of political persuasion, wanted meatballs.

It reminded me of this past summer, when literally every person I know was going to the water on vacation. Lake, ocean, river, pond — images of docks and lighthouses and beaches and sand clogged up Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest feeds like mud. Everyone, it seemed, was fleeing for safety to what is universally known as a source of healing and comfort, whether they realized it or not. As humans, we know when are souls are hurt; we know what we want, and how to nurture and care for ourselves.

Water; meatballs.

Still, we’re generally not big meatball eaters in this house. The few times that my beloved Gaga made them, each one weighed in the neighborhood of half a pound, making them more like polpettone than polpettini. She also was not of the mind to soak bread in milk and stuff it into meat — and not because she was kosher, which she wasn’t — but because she thought it was somehow wasteful; I loved everything else she ever made for me, but her meatballs were solid meat and the consistency of a Lower East Side handball: dense, rubbery, inconsistently bouncy. Also, I grew up in a Queens neighborhood blessed with several very good Italian restaurants (among them Lidia Bastianich‘s first restaurant, Buonavia), so there was really no need to make our own meatballs: if we wanted them, we knew where to get them.

When I make them, they’re invariably lumpish and hard, but the other night all I wanted to do was soothe my heart with a small bowl of them set atop a tangle of [gluten free] pasta blanketed under a rich, thick, garlicky tomato sauce. So that’s what Susan made: Julia Turshen‘s Small Victories turkey and ricotta meatballs. They were the very best I’ve ever had, of any kind, anywhere. By the time the night was over, I, like so many others, was worried, angry, bewildered, and sad that our politics has devolved into a sideshow straight out of Duck Soup.

I did the only thing I could do: I grabbed my bowl and headed for the kitchen, where the pot, still warm, was sitting on the stove, and had a few more.

plated-meatballs

Julia Turshen‘s Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs

from Small Victories  

Possibly the best meatballs I’ve ever tasted. Julia Turshen calls for ground turkey, preferably dark meat; at first, I was dubious because every turkey meatball I’ve ever had could double as a squash ball. These were remarkably tender, flavorful, and so tasty that I’m still dreaming about them. One small change: the original recipe calls for Parmesan cheese. We used Parmigiana-Reggiano, freshly grated.

Serves 8 or 4 with leftovers (makes about 30 meatballs)

Two 28-0z cans whole peeled tomatoes

7 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

7 garlic cloves; 4 thinly sliced, 3 minced

Kosher salt

1 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

1 cup Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1-1/2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese

1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiana Reggiano

2 pounds dark meat ground turkey

Pour the contents of the tomato cans into a large bowl (reserve the cans) and crust the tomatoes with your hands. Rinse one of the cans with 1/4 cup of water, pour it into the second can and swish it around to get all the excess tomato out of the cans, and then pour the water into the tomato bowl.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, add the sliced garlic, and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil on the baking sheet and use your hands to rub it over the entire surface of the sheet. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the minced garlic, basil, parsley, ricotta, Parmigiana, turkey, and 1 tablespoon salt. Blend everything together gently but authoritatively** until well mixed. Then, use your hands to form the mixture into golfball-sized meatballs; the mixture will be sticky, so wet your hands with a bit of water to help prevent the meat from sticking to them. Transfer the meatballs to the prepared baking sheet as you form them. Drizzle the meatballs with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and roast until they’re browned and firm to the touch, about 25 minutes.

Use tongs to transfer the meatballs to the simmering sauce (discard whatever fat and juice is left on the baking sheet). Cook the meatballs for 10 minutes in the sauce (they can be left in the gently simmering sauce for up to 1 hour) and serve.

**Best process instructions EVER, said the former cookbook editor.

 

 

 

 

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indiebound

 

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