motherland 2.0

December 2, 2017 · 19 comments

We were no longer cautious about our conversations. The rules about what a doctor can say to an adult daughter whose older mother is not taking care of herself can be bent when that mother is in danger.

She will fall, her doctor told me almost two years ago, and it will be bad.

I tried to believe that if only she ate what I fed her — she has a horrible relationship with food and always has; I wrote a years-worth of columns for the Washington Post and gave a TEDx talk about it— my mother would stay healthy and young and vital. She would be safe. Forget the laws of probability.

I tried to pretend that if she remained as remarkably beautiful as she is, as she has always been, my mother would never be at risk. Beauty, I was sure, would protect her from the inevitability of time.

One day a few months before the accident, I walked behind her on Madison Avenue to watch how the pose she has stood in her entire modeling life, coupled with atrocious nutrition, had taken a toll on her body: her left foot was pointed out so hard that her ankle was rolled to near-disjoint. She stopped to look in the window at Chopard; twenty years earlier, she owned one of their signature watches–the kind that has a few tiny diamonds free-floating beneath the crystal. Over the course of two months, she exchanged it five times, each time for a different color face and strap; I often accompanied her. Eventually, the clerks stopped buzzing her in, which enraged her to where she’d stand in front of the glass door, glare at them ignoring her on the other side, and not move.

I tried to explain why they wouldn’t let her in anymore — that she couldn’t keep returning the watches over and over again. It reflected her entitlement, and her addictive need to make her life better with things. But nothing was ever good enough — even with the watches she was still the same person with the same life and the same problems  — so she returned them over and over again, as if each new color might make her happier and safer than the last one. They were expensive; she felt it was her prerogative; I tried to understand. Standing in front of the shop window more than twenty years later, she seemed wistful; she stared at the display and shook her head, her shoulders sunken with grief. I gazed down at her ankle. I was once romantically aligned with a modern dancer who didn’t make it into Twyla Tharpe‘s company because her turnout wasn’t good enough; my mother could have been Twyla’s principal. When the fall came, it would splinter all of those delicate ankle bones like wooden matchsticks. Even beauty and fashion and Chopard watches with the little diamonds floating on their faces couldn’t stop time.

A year ago tonight, I was finally home from a long book tour for Treyf, my memoir of growing up in 1970s New York, in an assimilated, deeply quirky family that was always on the outside looking in. My last stop had been an overnight in California and a reading at one of my favorite bookstores. I was home less than twenty-four hours later. I dropped my bags in the entry way of our house, and Susan and I sat on the couch, exhausted. We went out to buy our Christmas tree, and we set it up in its cheerful red cast iron stand. We reheated frozen beef stew. We opened up a bottle of decent Pinot Noir. We listened to the radio as we do every Saturday night, our dog curled up between us. The phone rang: two hours away, my mother had gotten up from watching television, her foot was asleep, and her ankle exploded beneath her. There would be no going back to the way life had been before, for either of us. No amount of fashion or makeup or diamond watches or herb-stuffed organic roast chickens made by me with love and tenderness could protect her.

Over this last year, there have been two surgeries, forty days in a rehab facility, one consultant, three caregivers, two attorneys, four longterm care managers. There was the fight about the grab bars, the fight about the walker, the fight about the money, the fight about the insurance, the fight about the cane (which she carries tucked under her arm, like Peter Boyle dancing to Puttin’ on the Ritz in Young Frankenstein), the fight about the proper medication prescribed by two different doctors for the osteoporosis she doesn’t believe she has, the fight about the personal emergency alert system because one of her man friends who is younger than my wife doesn’t like them. My mother’s filing system involves gigantic white plastic garment shopping bags strewn all over her apartment, so it took me weeks to find her personal documents, which were dog-earred and stuffed between the pages of a Playbill for the 1995 Broadway stage revival of Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close in her first role as Norma Desmond.

I live two hours away from her, so we speak on the phone at least once a day; my heart stops when I hear her voice, until I know that she’s safe, until I know that she isn’t raging about one thing or another. My hands shake when her name comes up on my caller ID, or when she calls my cell and if she can’t reach me, Susan’s. I haven’t been sleeping well this last week — no amount of Sleepytime Tea or meditation or booze will help. (As if.)

A year ago tonight.

I’m not a Christian woman, but I know that Advent begins tomorrow. I’m reminded of the great old Anne Lamott piece, which I first read in 1997 when it appeared in Salon, back around the time my mother was fighting with strangers about diamonds.

Broken things have been on my mind as the year lurches to an end, because
so much broke and broke down this year in my life, and in the lives of the people
I love. Lives broke, hearts broke, health broke, minds broke. On the first
Sunday of Advent our preacher, Veronica, said that this is life’s nature, that
lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll
never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the
emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take
the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room,
until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice
and graham crackers.

Every day living with a senior person is like opening the little door on an Advent calendar; what will we be faced with? What is behind door number one? Love, grief, fear, anger, health? A good day? A bad day? My mother would hope for her old Chopard watch with the little diamonds floating beneath the crystal, now long gone (I can’t remember which one she finally settled on; ensnared in fury and rage, she rarely wore it).

All I’d like is peace, and maybe a cookie.





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: 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.








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