And a bowl of oranges too

January 5, 2014 · 18 comments

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An absorbing errand is the agreement to undertake and sustain a compelling practice of your own, an effort at mastery that requires time and focus. It is an adventure with many perils. Yet, in return, you gain a window seat, forward motion, and a landscape made new. — Janna Malamud Smith, An Absorbing Errand 

 The thing that I love most about winter is the light and the way it bathes and warms me, in spite of my latitude. Winter light lures me, the way summer light — all expected, refulgent glare and burning, assaultive haze — never could.

Our house was built in 1970 and has a very deep roof overhang; we’re set back on the middle of our property and surrounded by a crazy army of non-native trees that the original owners planted when they built the place. Apparently, they thought that living in what sometimes feels like a tangled thicket would keep things cool in the summer, and protect their home from the elements in the winter. (They also never opened their windows in the thirty-five years they lived here, if that says anything.)

And so the natural light in this house, during any season, is brief and splintered; you could blame it, I suppose, on our northern location and the grove we live in, but also on the fact that the original owners — they were in their late eighties when we bought it from them — were Depression children who believed that more windows simply meant more wood needed to heat the house; more money spent on oil deliveries; and more opportunities for the dangerous and unruly outside world to find its way in. They didn’t think of winter light the way I think of it: filled with promise and health, and a sort of earthly peace that envelops me and transcends practicality.

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I’ve always been a natural winter baby, although I was born in the summer; the heat makes me claustrophobic, and humidity drowns me. One of the primary reasons we’ve shelved our trip to Southeast Asia is because during cool season, the temperature drops to 98 and it pours for months; Susan says she doesn’t want to travel to the other side of the world just to hear me complain about pit stains and bad hair. No matter how much I adore travel — it allows me, as Pico Iyer says, to become a young fool again, to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more — and no matter how much I adore all things Southeast Asian, I’d rather put on a sweater than be sweating.

One of my clearest winter memories is of my grandmother forcing me out of the house at seven years old to play for hours in the courtyard that connected my Queens apartment building to hers; it was 14 degrees out. I came home frozen to the bone; the zippers on my snow boots were locked tight in a thick rime of ice.

It’s invigorating, she said, prying me out of the boy’s Mighty Mac parka that my father bought for me on the sly, and which my mother to this day believes is the single most likely cause of my lesbianism. That day, Grandma fed me a small bowl of chicken soup and a plate of thinly-sliced celery drizzled with fresh lemon juice and parsley; she insisted that bitter cold coupled with the human tendency toward cold weather hibernation demanded bright, clean flavors that let you know you were still alive amidst all the protective layers, the apartment’s sickly dank steam-heat, and the hermetically-sealed windows. She was right, of course; even now, when the temperature plummets and the blue-gray winter light slips in under the overhang and through the trees that surround my property, all I crave are the freshest, brightest, strongest flavors I can find: orange, bitter herbs, incendiary kimchi, briny oysters, oily mackerel painted with Meyer lemon and run under the broiler.

This year — like last — I trundled into the holiday season wildly ill; instead of Christmas shopping, I slept the days away under a pile of woolen blankets in the dark of our bedroom, the shades drawn. Twice I attempted to walk the dogs around the block, telling myself that a blast of cold, fresh air would snap me out of it; I was wrong and I was woozy and each time I passed the stocking-colored raised ranch on the next street over, I didn’t quite know where I was. I thought about everything I had to do — the shopping, the cooking, the writing, the editing, the end-of-year posts — and I couldn’t do any of it. At all. It was as though some pure force beyond my control had propelled me through the year’s events — my book publication; the thirteen incredible cities I visited on tour and the wonderful people I met everywhere I went; my mother-in-law’s sudden illness and death; dramatic dislocation from people I’ve loved — and now, that propulsion resulted in my body just saying Stop. Please. Take care of yourself.

Months ago, after my mother-in-law died, Susan decided that she didn’t want to be home for Christmas this year. She wanted to be someplace else just to look at the water, to be warmed by the light, to read, and to cook with the bright, fresh flavors that we both turn to just as our friends are starting a season of putting pots of murky, meaty stew into their ovens. Totally out of character — I tend to be the planner and the organizer — she rented us the top loft apartment in a two-story house in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge; it was sparsely decorated, light-splashed and painted white, with a soaring, beamed ceiling. Lying in bed in New England, flattened with bronchitis and a high fever, I wasn’t sure I’d be well enough to travel (and I have rules about flying while contagious; it’s selfish, outrageous, and ethically wrong) by our departure date. We wound up flying out a day late, but we got there nevertheless.

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When we walked into the loft, I went directly to the wall of broad horizontal windows and pulled them open to let in the herby air and the Eucalyptus and the soft light; winter is winter everywhere in the northern hemisphere, but Pacific winter light is more diffuse, and decidedly western. There were no shades or blinds in the house — not anywhere — so we woke with the sun and felt the temperature instantly drop when it disappeared behind Mt. Tamalpais. I left the laptop at home. Susan and I agreed that it would be a week of resting and reading, of walking when we could, of not running around, of eating fresh, local, seasonal fish — as much as we could manage within reason — and of sitting in the winter light and listening to this.

And sometimes not listening to anything at all.

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The flight out had taken its toll on me, and the day after we arrived, Susan left me alone in the house while she shopped for dinner in Mill Valley. I sat in silence on the couch for the hour she was gone, staring out the shade-less window at the Pacific winter light, past a makeshift altar. I considered the year ahead of me and knew it would be different; it had to be. An absorbing errand, an undertaking, sustaining a practice of my own without apology or regret; an adventure with peril, a forward motion and a slowing down of time, a delicious landscape of bright flavor and brighter health, of life made new. 

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 Lemon and Green Olive Salad

(From Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place)

A few years ago, Susan and I rented a cottage in Mill Valley; one of the biggest draws for us — apart from the fact that it was in Mill Valley — was that the entire house was lined in books. There were poetry books and chapbooks lining the two bedrooms, art books all over the living room, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of cookbooks in the kitchen. And of all the cookbooks that we had access to that week, the one we kept returning to over and over again was the long out-of-print Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place. We cooked from the book all week and read it cover to cover; as much as the recipes themselves are wonderful, the book itself is a remarkable primer on sensory cooking. Here, the act of pressing your nose up to a tomato tells you how fresh it is; a good mortar and pestle replaces the food processor; recipes are seasonal, sensual, and vegetarian, while the author herself is not (the latter, anyway). Over time, Susan and I found ourselves coming back to this recipe, which is one part salad, one part relish. While the author recommends it spooned onto a thick slice of country bread, we’ve eaten it dolloped onto ribbony tagliatelle along with fresh ricotta; spread on a broiled mackerel filet and drizzled with olive oil; or tossed with chopped red onion. The flavors are distinctly wintry, bitter, and fruity all at once.

Makes 4 servings

1 cup small green olives in brine, drained

2 lemons, preferably Meyer

4 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

1 tablespoon fruity extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon toasted, ground cumin

fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Pit olives and cut in half lengthwise. With a vegetable peeler, remove thin yellow skin from lemons. Leave white pith, or at least some of it. (The sweet and nutritious pith keeps the lemon segments intact.) Cut lemons into horizontal slices and pick out seeds. Following the pattern of the flesh, cut lemon slices into small segments.

Toss the olives and lemons together in a medium bowl and season with the remaining ingredients. (I let this stand for an hour at room temperature before serving.)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jacqueline January 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Love the winter light, too. Sweaters vs sweating, yes. Adventure and travel, ditto. Wishing you a sunny room full of windows in your heart, enough warmth to chase out that bug, and pull you toward new challenges.

2 Nancy January 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm

1) I agree with you about the winter sun. We live in a small cottage in Redding that has a dining room with glass doors on two walls, and a big picture window in the living room on the other side of the cottage. The winter light coming through is enough for me to forgive the poor insulation in this house.

2) Though it is easy to get citrus in the supermarket in the winter now, it was still a treat to get a big box of Florida citrus in the mail from a friend for the holidays. It reminded me of this poem I read a long time ago the luxury of an orange in winter–the imagery was spot-on. I wish I could remember the title–maybe you know which poem I mean?

Happy New Year!

3 Didi January 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm

But coming from Southeast Asia (I grew up there), this is the coolest time of the year. You’d be sweating so much more during the other months (Especially during the summer…yegad!)…Sweating is integral to the Southeast Asian experience 🙂

4 elizabeth January 5, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Winter light is wonderful: it always appears to be naturally diffused even when there isn’t a cloud in the sky thanks to its position, but it’s so fleeting, which does make it special and worthy of being cherished. I’ll always prefer the harsher, hotter light of summer to winter I think, but a beautiful winter day is a wondrous thing to behold.

5 Linda January 6, 2014 at 3:18 am

While I prefer summers for those lovely long days, there is something special about winter. I miss many sunsets living in an apartment with the sky hard to see not to mention good light but, if I am out and about in the afternoon, I get to see the delicious slant of the sun as it sets casting long shadows and then a sunset.

6 Lucy Vanel January 6, 2014 at 8:52 am

It sounds like a very nice way to consider the year ahead, Elissa. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this recipe, we’ll give it a try one night this week.

7 Carol January 8, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Having just come home to NYC from a month in Lhasa/Kathmandu/Shanghai with a vile bronchitis, I can empathize. Haven’t been able to do much but sleep and drink warm gingerale, read, and then sleep some more. I long for the Jewish grandmother fairy to show up at my door with clear chicken soup with dill, spiked with lemon.

Reading your post made me feel better — thanks so much.

8 Elissa January 8, 2014 at 5:04 pm

So sorry Carol! Wish I could force some Jewish chicken soup through the wires….!

9 stuart itter January 8, 2014 at 5:11 pm

So special, Viana la Place, and not well known. Have not seen “unplugged” but have many of Viana’s other books. Love “La Bella Cucina” for thin swordfish fillets and menus and “Panini” for avocado bruschetta; both for so much more.

10 Margot Van Schaick January 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Elissa, in this post, you speak to my very soul! Reading this makes my heart lift, in hope and anticipation, to re-dedicate myself to acting on the deep desire to live my life in “an absorbing errand”. To allow myself to take the risk, to fully explore the opportunities, thereby “gain a window seat”–to be ALIVE! Thank you for voicing my thoughts, and giving me that extra little push to begin. (I am well after years of severe illness, awakening to possibilities, not entirely sure of what is real, determined to make the most of the adventure of being alive.

11 JoyofCooking January 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Thank you for your always clear and vibrant writing. Yours is one of the few blogs I actually READ rather than skim or glance over. A true treasure.

12 Elissa January 15, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thanks so much Megan-

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