It was the hardest work. Ever.

October 28, 2012 · 16 comments

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately hurtling around the world at 40,000 feet, stuffed into a metal tube, breathing forced air, willing my exhausted self to not get sick (I failed at that; as I write this I sound like a cross between Brenda Vaccarro and Bea Arthur), and trying to enjoy the quiet airborne downtime where no one can call or email me and expect a response. Flying back and forth to Norway was no problem, really, except when we left Iceland on the first leg of the trip and the turbulence over the Norwegian Sea was so bad that it felt like our plane had been kicked by a mule the size of a Mack truck.  Blessedly, the gorgeous flight attendant ladies on Icelandair — all of whom look like they fell off the Mad Men set (I’m not kidding)— kept the passengers plenty lubricated with alcohol, so we felt nothing. Mostly.

“Ooh–she’s pretty–” I slurred to Peter Hoffman on the way to the Arctic, as the plane lurched and bucked like a bull wearing a flank strap.

Then about ten days ago, Tamar Haspel and I were guests of Whole Foods and the people at Diestel Turkey and Mary’s Free Range Chicken in northern California to see for ourselves what a humane poultry processing plant looks like mere weeks before Thanksgiving, and to witness the Whole Foods global animal partnership program in action (stay tuned for another post on that, soon). So before I had a chance to recuperate from my Arctic trip, I was in the air again, this time wedged tightly between two gigantically tall men — on both ends of the excursion — one of whom thought that my tray table made the perfect desk for his right elbow. By early in the week, I was so exhausted I’d lost track of days and was remembering where I was by the breed of turkey pecking me in the ass: If these are Spanish Blacks, it must be Tuesday in Sonora.

At some point during my travels, Susan called excitedly to tell me it was up.

What’s up?

Your book—on Amazon. 

Oh right—my book. I think I might have yawned.

Honey, it looks great, she said.

So I looked, and it did. It does. And honestly, I’m so excited that it’s coming out that I could just about plotz. (For those non-Yiddish speakers reading this: plotz = faint from either something very good or very bad. This would be very good.)

The book has been a long time in the making; as I wrote back in August of 2011, it was the hardest work, ever. I’ve written about it a lot here, and I’ve also spent a good deal of time speaking publicly about the act and process of writing a book when you’re both a writer and an editor who understands what goes on on all sides of the fence (and believe me, sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it’s just like when a doctor tries to diagnose his own hangnail and winds up in a hypochondriacal frenzy from which he needs to be extracted for his own good). Luckily, I have an amazing, mind-bogglingly creative publishing team behind me who have metaphysically patted my hand when I’ve started to froth up into a small lather, and for that I’m far more appreciative than I could ever say. Chronicle rocks.

Writing this book — despite the blogging and the social media and the buildup, and words like platform and traffic — has been ironically solitary and deeply private work. I say ironically because the necessary combination of visibility married to privacy is a lot like going on a blind beach date with a nudist: despite your sudden discomfort upon realizing why everyone romping in the sand seems to be wearing the same bathing suit, you want to feel edgy and cool and like you’re totally fine with showing what you think is your best private stuff to people who appreciate good private stuff.

Of course, you also want to hide under a large rock.

And that’s the crazy thing about writing food narrative: we want it to be like eating, which is the second most profoundly sensual act that humans engage in. We want it to be private and personal and enticing and delicious while also knowing that it’s going to be consumed in the most public, visible of ways. Deeply personal, wildly public, all at once. As writers, we also need to keep a steady, focused eye to proportion so we can recognize when too much is just, well, too much. To quote Arnaud, the French butcher who you will meet in my book, too much of anything is like too much perfume: eeet steenks.

So, I’m exuberant about the book’s going into its pre-order stage, but right now, I’m also focused instead on getting the Ts crossed; going through the pain-staking process of checking pages, of reading and re-reading, of making sure the permission I needed to seek for using a Mary Oliver poem was in place (it was), of re-confirming the yields on the recipes that punctuate some of the chapters. We’re all systems go, and the book will be a Book round about March 1st 2013. I hope I’ll finally get a chance to meet you when the it comes out because, honestly, without you — whoever you are out there reading this — there’d be no it. That bears repeating, over and over.

So, what is it, exactly? My mother goes around yelling to people “She wrote another cookbook! Another cookbook!” and then I have to stop her and explain that no, while there are some recipes in it, it is very definitely not a cookbook. She wants details, of course, because she (rightly) suspects that there is plenty between the covers about her, and she wants to know Like What? So I remind her of the time when Craig Claiborne linked arms with her at Dean & Deluca‘s opening party, to examine the lamb chops in the new butcher case and she thought he was too skinny to be a food writer and refused to believe him when he said he was. Or the small broiling frenzy she went on in the late 70s, when everything that she could lay her mitts on got shoved under the live flame in our Chambers stove and promptly immolated, sending me and my Airedale racing to the far end of the apartment while angry flames licked out of the broiler drawer, where they were beaten back by my grandmother wielding a schmaltz-caked kitchen towel. Or the time when we were in California back in 1970 with my father who, dressed by my mother in a cream-colored triple weave leisure suit with matching belt and shoes, decided it’d be a terrific idea to drive our rented Torino through still-ravaged Watts because we had a little time to kill before our dinner reservation at The Bantam Cock on La Cienega, a few weeks before Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died.

But mostly, I told her, it’s about food and love, and growing up and settling down, and discovering that sometimes, the way we assumed we’d live our lives — the way we were trained to, brought up to, expected to — has nothing at all to do with reality. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants, hurtling through life at 40,000 feet; and just when we get back on solid ground and we’re sure we’ve got a firm grip on things, there we are again, standing in the mud surrounded by thousands of angry turkeys hell bent on pecking us in the ass.

Nothing to do but sit down with the people we love, and eat.