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.

Essex_Snapseed

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.

 

 

 

 

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linda April 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Love is love. Delighted that you have had a awesome book tour.

2 Cooks For 3 April 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Elissa,
I just finished reading your wonderful novel for the second time. My husband ordered it for me as a birthday gift and as soon I got it, I consumed every word with relish! Upon finishing it, I waited a day, then I started at the beginning again, and read it straight through. Last week, on spring break, my mom joined us on a trip to Florida. She picked up your book and enthusiastically read it, hardly putting it down. She thought it was hilarious. She laughed so hard that the other folks at the pool were staring at her like she was a kook. (She has a hearty laugh). Well done! I am recommending POOR MAN’S FEAST to my book club and by the way, as a “fancy” Polish Catholic cook married to a Jewish man, I identified with so much in so many ways. This is like comfort food in a book. Thank you. P.S. Will you eventually make it to Denver, Colorado?

3 Ashley Bee (Quarter Life Crisis Cuisine) April 2, 2013 at 9:58 am

This makes me want to pick up your book. So much heart. What a wonderful journey you’ve had!

4 Pam April 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Elissa, I’ve always been in awe of your talent and you. Can’t wait to reconnect at the NYC book signing. I’ll be there with lots of friends.
Congratulations on the book, the tour and for adding so much clarity to this crazy world.

5 Elissa April 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Thanks Pam! Can’t wait to see you!

6 Sarah April 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Love it. Welcome home.

7 katie April 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Glad I had an opportunity to attend your talk at Omnivore Books, Elissa. I’m really enjoying your book–entertaining, amusing, heartwarming, as I expected.

8 Wendy April 2, 2013 at 2:56 pm

What, no DC visit? I very much enjoyed your book and am so pleased that you shared your story with us.

9 Elissa April 2, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Wendy, I’ll be at Sixth & I in June!

10 Amanda April 3, 2013 at 11:23 pm

My God, YOU are extraordinary. Read the article, read the post, met you at Omnivore. You might think if I expected one thing and got another (explanation pending publication on my own blog, and in an email) I might be disenchanted somehow, disappointed. But no! You blast through it all. So, so glad you are in this world and writing it–the love, the life, the little things I can’t even remember. Thanks.

11 Oweeny April 7, 2013 at 9:40 am

Elissa,

Loved your book! I did find myself, laughing out loud many times. Have a great book tour and I am enjoying reading your blog too.

Bonne chance.

Oweeny

12 Louita Clothier April 8, 2013 at 10:38 am

I listened to your interview on IPTV while driving to Des Moines. I was so touched by your warmth and humor that, before any appointments in D.M, .I stopped at Barnes & Noble and bought Poor Man’s Feast. I’m finding it a refreshing autobiography, so unusual in its weaving of food commentary and the love story of you and Susan. Having lived in London for eight years, we have chosen for our permanent home the simplicity of rural southern Iowa over a the cultural riches of the big city. I have only just finished Part 1, yet appreciate your growing appreciation of the simpler life, symbolized by the art of cooking.

13 Elissa April 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

Thank you so very much for your lovely note Louita. And best wishes–E

14 Anne April 10, 2013 at 10:26 am

Thank you for reminding me that I live not only in a wonderful state but also in a great city, I sometimes forget how special Iowa City is. We eat at Devotay and shop at Prairie Lights, they are a part of our everyday lives yet at times I take them for granted. I also take for granted that I live in state where everyone is free to marry the love of their life, no matter their sex. Thank you.

15 Stacey April 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Hello! I am a long-time reader but have not commented much. I adore reading, blogs, novels, anything and everything but have never been able to translate that into a love of writing. I rarely even comment on blogs because I don’t know that I can put into words how much someone’s writing moves me – your writing always does and today more than ever. Mostly though, I am commenting to say that I missed your reading in Minneapolis and am more sad than ever that one of your low moments was in our city…alas, please return some day and I will be sure to show up.

16 Tovah May 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I love Iowa City and the state as much as you do. When I lived in Kansas City, the first trip I took once I bought a car was the pilgrimage to Prairie Lights. I spent a couple joyful days in Iowa City–eating, reading, walking, watching, listening. What a wonderful place.

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