If this is Friday, it must be Iowa.

April 1, 2013 · 17 comments

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Newtown, Connecticut -> New York: 78.6 miles

New York -> Chicago: 790.2 miles

Chicago -> Los Angeles: 2,015.5 miles

Los Angeles -> Santa Barbara: 124.8 miles

Santa Barbara -> Berkeley: 323.5 miles

Berkeley -> San Francisco: 13.8 miles

San Francisco -> Portland: 635.5 miles

Portland -> Seattle: 173 miles

Seattle -> Ann Arbor: 2,303.3 miles

Ann Arbor -> Minneapolis: 648.2 miles

Minneapolis -> Chicago: 408.6 miles

Chicago -> Iowa City: 222.6 miles

Iowa City -> Hartford: 1,098.4 miles

Hartford -> Newtown: 48.4 miles

(8,884.4 miles logged from March 15th through March 30th)

It runs in the family: we travel to learn, to experience, to see, to visit, to eat. After the War was over, my father purposely took a job that would keep him moving around, because he was always looking and searching and walking, like an eternal flaneur. (The reason for this is revealed in the book.) One Sunday afternoon in 1948, he showed up in his Plymouth at my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn, tossed them in the car, and drove them cross country, just like that.

You’re going to live and die in this two bedroom apartment in Coney Island, and never see America, he told them. They couldn’t argue, so off they went. Someplace, I have a picture of them standing in front of the Hoover Dam, looking a little bit surprised. They ended up in California four days later and just in time for the Rose Parade, where my Orthodox cantor grandfather waved at Jane Mansfield riding up high on the backseat of a pink Cadillac convertible. He yelled Hey Janey Baby, and she waved back, or so my father swore.

And this is the kind of thing that happens when you travel; you get sucked out of your mundane day-to-day and into extraordinary circumstances involving extraordinary people living their own mundane lives. Because, like my dad, I love seeing the world in extraordinary circumstance, and meeting some people with whom I would likely otherwise never cross paths, I love to travel. So when my publisher, Chronicle Books, sent me on a long book tour for Poor Man’s Feast, it was thrilling; it was also arduous, but in a good way — the kind of arduous that resulted in my coming back to my hotel room, bone-tired, sitting down in a series of stiff gingham hotel wing chairs, and thinking long and hard about what happens when a stranger with whom (on the face of it)  you share virtually nothing in common comes up to you at a book reading on the other side of the country, and suddenly she’s telling you about her food, and her family, and how the table has been transformative for her. Differences fall by the wayside: she doesn’t care about your color or your religion or your ethnicity or your politics, or even if you’re married to someone of the same sex. The mash-up of food and storytelling, of conviviality and sustenance breaks down barriers and kicks down walls, and for that, I love my job.

I’ve been traveling nonstop since I left Connecticut on March 15th to attend the Edible Institute in Santa Barbara (I know; poor me) — a convocation of Edible Communities publishers, speakers, thinkers, film makers, writers, and pretty much anyone who has dedicated their life to issues of food justice, organics, and sustainability. Logistically-speaking, it was a crazy trip: I left Connecticut early in the morning — it was still pitch black outside — and flew through Chicago and Los Angeles before getting to Santa Barbara that night. Pea-soup fog hugging the Central Coast nearly stranded me with dozens of other travelers, but we made it even though I arrived too late to attend a taco party on the beach with my friend and Edible keynoter, Marion Nestle. Instead, the plane that I was on — it’s interior lights held in place by heavy duty packing tape — touched down, I checked in, and settled myself in at the hotel bar for a meetup with my friends Kurt and Kim Friese, of Edible Iowa River Valley. Attending Edible Institute every year is my balm and my breath; it reminds me, in a world teeming with naysayers and greensheening, how important and difficult the work of sustainability really is, and that we can never look away, not even for a second.

Susan joined me in California the day after I arrived, and when the Institute was over, we drove north to the Bay Area; I kicked off my tour with a reading at the remarkable Omnivore Books, which houses a hand-curated selection of cookbooks and food-related titles so spectacular that I could happily move in. We had lunch with my author, Erin Scott, and her husband Paul, at Burma Superstar in Oakland; the Scotts live in Berkeley with their children, who attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard was born. (Extraordinary.) We were staying with my dear college friend, Juliana, her lovely partner, David, and their two cats, a bird called Heizel, and a brindle pitbull named Odetta. Juliana was an art major in college; I remember her spending a lot of time stretching canvases. Many years after graduation, she decided to go to veterinary school, which resulted in her practicing in Oakland where she has spent considerable time rehabilitating pit bulls. (Extraordinary.) David is a computer guy who moonlights as a tuba player of great merit. (Also extraordinary.) Before we left, Odetta ate a very expensive bag that Susan had just bought for me to celebrate the publication of my book. Odetta is a pit bull of huge intelligence, but also smug humor: Celebrate the publication of your book? Who cares, you ridiculous human. It’s all about food. 

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The day after my Omnivore reading and a great dinner at Contigo, we flew to Portland, where we were picked up by my friend, Diane Morgan, author of Roots and many, many other great cookbooks. Following an (extraordinary) lunch at Pok Pok — I’ve already dreamt about the roast chicken stuffed with lemongrass — we visited Clive, where Diane had recently purchased an (extraordinary) espresso machine requiring a vast amount of knowledge regarding the nuanced act of making a single cup of coffee. The Man With The Glasses who worked there talked gravely about being in the pocket — that place where your coffee is neither bitter nor sour — and it involving pressing A Button on The Espresso Maker and letting water drain out of the machine for 26 seconds (not 25, not 27). Diane took notes. Susan and I considered buying an artisanal espresso tamper made out of sustainably harvested wood, but I was sure it’d put me over my weight limit. Fred and Carrie, if you’re listening: it took a village to make coffee from this machine the next morning, after Susan spent half an hour quietly trying to reattach the basket to the gasket. The coffee was delicious, as was my signing at the mind-blowing Powell’s that night, where a young woman came up to me and asked if I was Harris Wulfson’s Cousin Lissie.

I am, I told her, and I tried not to cry.

Extraordinary.

Over the next week and a half, I visited places I’ve never been to; I finally broke bread with people I’ve only ever spoken to electronically (Tara Austen Weaver, Jill Lightner, Faith Durand), and others I see far too infrequently (Becky Selengut, Shauna Ahern, Barbara Marrett, Stevie Boggess, Amy Feigen Noren). There were some slow nights, and some outright surprises (one lady at the Cooks of Crocus Hill event in Minnesota introduced herself as having stolen a container of green peppercorns from Dean & Deluca while I was working there in 1988), and even some great standing-room-only readings. There were astonishingly good meals both large and small, and a dinner at Delancey with Molly Wizenberg that proved to Susan that the very best pizza in the world is made in a small restaurant in Ballard, by people so completely devoted to simple ingredients and the process that, with the elemental combination of fire and flour/yeast/water/salt, they produce something truly extraordinary.

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There were high moments and low: feeling shaky and nearly undone by exhaustion, I craved a steak in Minneapolis and against my better judgement, ordered one at the hotel restaurant. It arrived hanging off the plate, a mammoth Flintstone’s rib-eye cooked expertly (which, let’s face it, is not what you expect from a hotel restaurant); next to me sat two newspaper journalists, one of whom had been just laid off from her job. She drank a chocotini neat, and blamed the depression she simply cannot shake on Newtown, where I live. I thought about introducing myself; instead, I ate half the steak, drank a middling Malbec, and went to bed.

My tour ended where it began: sharing some wine again with Kurt and Kim Friese, who embody the very word extraordinary. Beyond publishing Edible Iowa River Valley, they are the owners of Iowa City’s Devotay (which has been at the epicenter of this small city’s thriving culinary scene for sixteen years) and fixtures at the NewBo City Market in nearby Cedar Rapids. They know absolutely every person remotely involved in the Iowa food and literary communities; when Kurt called to say that the famous Prairie Lights Bookstore wanted me to read there, I levitated. I spent only twenty four hours in Iowa City: it’s not about the baseball, and it’s not about Greg Brown, or even about the writer’s program at the University of Iowa. I’ve learned that, plain and simple, I just love this state for reasons I have trouble explaining.

Somewhere towards the middle of my tour, Iowa Public Radio’s Charity Nebbe and I talked, for the better part of an hour, about Poor Man’s Feast; we talked about food and my father and my childhood, about Susan and her family, and how I came to be transformed by this thing called the plate. And then she talked about the thing that surprisingly hadn’t yet surfaced outright during the many readings and radio interviews I’d given, the thing that people had otherwise danced around: that Poor Man’s Feast was my love story — mine and Susan’s. That it was also the story of a love affair between two mature women, and what did I hope that people might take away from that part of the story.

I stumbled and stammered.

When Charity and I spoke, the DOMA hearings had just started; the issue of same sex marriage was being talked about all over the country by people with vastly differing opinions on it. I live in a state where the fact of who I am isn’t an issue. But, out on book tour, facing hundreds of people I’d never met in American cities I’d never visited, I didn’t know what to expect. Ultimately — surprisingly — it didn’t seem to matter. As Charity said, This isn’t the kind of love story we read often; for most of us, this is the kind of love story we live.

Extraordinary.

And, after nearly 9000 miles on the road, that was the most delicious thing of all.