I say it quietly, under my breath, looking at my shoes.
It’s like when Pandora automatically lets my Facebook friends know that I’m listening to early John Denver. I fumble for public explanation. I drop my iPhone in the toilet while trying to quickly change the station because it’s obviously a mistake. Why am I listening to John Denver in the bathroom. Why am I listening to John Denver at all. And now, 2,315 people know the hideous, vile truth about me: I’m a sap, of epic proportion.
When my friends asked what I was doing for my 50th birthday, I was cagey. I stared at my sandals. I made a wee little joke.
I’m doing what every red-blooded, American liberal creative woman slipping into decrepitude does on their 50th birthday, I said, in my best self-deprecating pose. I’m going to hear Garrison Keillor. Live. At Lenox. With thousands of other American liberal creatives. And then I made some snide comment about the best way to clear the parking lot at Tanglewood:
Will the owner of a silver Prius with the license plate HAP-E MSW please move your car.
It’s sad to have to resort to pathetic yucksterism of this kind, but perception is a very important thing, isn’t it? I’m a Paris Review–Bernard Henri Levy–Claire Messud kind of reader, I insist. No really; I am. My iTunes folder is packed with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and Robert Thurman lectures from the Rubin. Really. It is. I’ll show it to you if you want to see it.
Just as soon as I pull my iPhone out of the toilet.
(Truth: Yes to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Yes to Robert Thurman and Claire Messud. Yes to the Paris Review, on which I am hopelessly hooked. Yes even to John Denver, whose remarkable prowess on twelve-string guitar went long unrecognized. Bernard Henri-Levy, on the other hand, sometimes makes me want to tear my face off: button up your shirt, sir. Tom Jones, you’re not.)
When I learned that Garrison Keillor was going to be at Lenox on my birthday, I let out a little, slightly embarrassed squeal of delight. All I wanted to do, if I couldn’t go to Paris or eat pho cuon in the Truc Bach section of Hanoi, was sit under a big tent in the heat of a late June evening in the Berkshires, and listen to distinctly American cornball humor at the hands of a man who has made lutefisk a household word among everyone from my Jewish grandmother to the Yemeni refugees who live down the street; a man who is often compelled to sing publicly when he perhaps shouldn’t; a man who talks so sexually about fresh asparagus, and fat blueberries, and warm peach pie that you can smell the musk; a man who had the temerity to make an American poet laureate a regular guest; a man who begins every show, off-the-air, with a proud belting of The Star Spangled Banner sung on key, by a thousand or so standing ex-hippies whose hybrids sit glimmering in the fading sunlight across the road in the grassy parking lot, at least in Lenox.
Like many listeners, I have a very special, deeply personal relationship with Garrison Keillor; from January of 1990 into mid-1992, he was the only man in my apartment. It was a long stretch, even for a lesbian.
I had been through a horrible breakup — the kind that leaves you on the floor, panting, exhausted, kicked to bloody bits — and in my hasty retreat to 602 — the apartment that was home first to my grandparents, and then to my newly divorced father, and then to my widowed grandmother — I found myself alone. My friends, who were making that sickening decision who to remain close to — my ex, or me; she was bubblier but I could cook — refused to come visit: the apartment was an hour and a half from Manhattan on the F train. If I went into the city on a Saturday and stayed out late, I risked a $50 taxi ride or a dodgy nightime walk from the subway station over on Avenue U. So for nearly two years, I didn’t go out on Saturday night.
Whatever my daytime plans were on Saturdays, I’d be home by six. I’d turn on A Prairie Home Companion, pour myself a glass of wine while I cooked a quick dinner on the stovetop, and then curl up in the foyer chair with my little plate and my glass, listening to this gigantic man with the kind voice talk about quiet things and quiet lives, about hope and expectation and the sheer magnificence in mundanity.
As it happened, I was working for Garrison’s publisher at the time, and his editor, a lovely English lady as petite as Keillor is tall, came into my office one morning and told me that she’d gone to the Metropolitan Opera with him a few days earlier; if memory serves (and it may not; this was a long time ago), it was Gotterdammerung, and even though Wagner just plain exhausted her, Katherine couldn’t say no when Garrison invited her, so off she went. The house lights went down, her head went back and she fell asleep and she slept straight through it, which is saying a lot for someone listening to Wagner at the Met, much less a very well-mannered English person.
That Saturday night, settled into the brown paisley foyer chair in my late grandparents’ apartment out in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn, balancing my dinner on my lap and a glass of cheap white wine on the lamp table next to me, I listened to A Prairie Home Companion the way my grandparents had listened to the radio on Saturday nights sixty years earlier. Garrison opened the show with a story about going to the opera that week with a friend who, shortly after the curtain went up, began to snore, and snored through the entire thing. The e-n-t-i-r-e thing. He said the word snore a few times, punctuating it with a sharp change in timbre, to indicate his deep surprise, or distress, or extreme amusement.
That was the closest I ever got to Keillor — that few degrees of separation thing that somehow binds us all to each other. And when I left 602 almost two years later and moved back into Manhattan, to an apartment that was literally right smack in the middle of everything, I found myself either staying home on Saturday nights to listen to Keillor’s show, or going out after eight o’clock, just so I could catch it as I was getting ready for my night out. My friends, my dinner dates — they would all ask: why do you either have to stay home, or meet us after 8? I would just stare at my shoes, in silence. Still, my Saturday nights wouldn’t be the same without him, this tall storyteller and lover of the extraordinary in the plain, who has been the only man in my life for a very long time.
So, it was a good birthday this year; the weather was lovely and although our seats weren’t great — there was almost nothing left once the tickets went on sale — I could see Keillor on stage, reduced by distance to a blue-jacketed, bespeckled blur. When the show was over and Susan took me out for my birthday dinner, we wound up where we had been the night before, at Nudel, a small and remarkable restaurant in Lenox; for a moment, we considered going white tablecloth-fancy — it being my 50th birthday and all — but instead we sat at the counter as we had the previous evening, and ate plates of local, last-of-the-season asparagus roasted on the stovetop and dolloped with fresh goat ricotta.
It wasn’t hip, or cool, or terribly cerebral food. There wasn’t any nage. It was delicious and uncomplicated and honest, just like the radio man I’ve spent every Saturday night with, lo these many years.
Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Goat Ricotta
In a world clotted with nages and snows and gelees and deconstructions, this dish was a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that no matter how wonderful Chef Blahbaddyblah thinks he’s being by turning a trout into a Twinkie, nothing beats fresh, local, seasonal ingredients unfettered by ego. At Nudel in Lenox, this dish was served with a dollop of sunflower seed pesto accompanying the ricotta; I’m still working that out. Until then, omit it or replace it with your favorite pesto if you wish.
1 bunch not-mammoth asparagus, as fresh as you can find them (about 8 spears)
extra virgin olive oil
coarse sea salt
goat ricotta (or failing that, sheep ricotta)
Optional: pesto of your choosing
Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and reserve them in a container in the fridge or freezer for vegetable stock. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Place the asparagus spears in a medium, oven-proof skillet set over medium-high heat, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, just enough to make the spears shimmer. Sprinkle with sea salt, and toss the asparagus, cooking until they turn a bright green, about five to eight minutes. Dollop the spears with a few tablespoons of the ricotta and pop the skillet in the oven for another five minutes, until the cheese has softened and the spears are tender and just this side of blistered.
Serve immediately, with a swipe of pesto across the plate.