Thanks. Giving.

November 25, 2014 · 24 comments



In 1974, when I was 11 years old, I took part in a Thanksgiving play at school. Gaga, my grandmother, ran out to the local fabric store on Austin Street in Forest Hills, and came home with enough polyester yardage to make me an outfit that she was certain would replicate what Priscilla Alden wore on the day she stepped off The Mayflower. Borrowing a neighbor’s sewing machine, Gaga turned into Gramma Walton, and sewed me a long gray dirndl skirt, a matching gray blouse, and a white smock that looked a little like a Zen rakusu. There was also a gray bonnet, which I distinctly remember trying on with Seasons in the Sun playing in the background.

You look like a real Pilgrim, my grandmother said proudly, and I did, until my mother insisted that I wear the gold chai that she and my father had given me for my birthday a few months earlier.

When I stepped out onstage into the vast, black, cavern of silence that was my grade school auditorium and the audio visual guy threw the massive switch on the giant spotlight, my mind went blank; to this day, all I can remember is “My name is Priscilla Alden. In 1620 I landed on Plymouth Rock…..” That was it for me before I began to develop a weird sort of bonging in my ears. I had memorized a three-hundred word speech about the long, awful journey from England, and the happy and helpful Indians (sorry; this was before the days when we said Native American) and how they gleefully taught the men and women of the Mayflower how to plant corn, until everyone came down with the flu and died. But the spotlight that hit me might has well have been a two-by-four: I stood there, in shock, my eyes wide open, my bonnet slightly askew.

Loser, one of my school friends whispered, laughing from the wings; I burst into tears and had to be ushered from the stage.

I’ve had a tense relationship with Thanksgiving, its tradition, and its meaning, ever since.

For a long time, the holiday was marked by the presence of Danny Kaye and Joseph Walsh singing Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen in Hans Christian Andersen, which I used to watch every Thanksgiving morning while Gaga was in the kitchen, putting the marshmallows on the sweet potato and Corn Flake pie. I’d sit in front of the television with my arm around my Airedale, Chips, and we’d sway back and forth together like a pair of idiots, singing along about the salty old queen of the sea. This went on for years, until things started to go south in my parents’ marriage, and I spent the morning hiding out in my best friend’s apartment around the corner, while our Thanksgiving meal was prepared in silence and ultimately eaten with the sort of enmity that’s usually reserved for warring nations.

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After they divorced, I spent roughly fifteen years celebrating Thanksgiving with my father’s sister and cousins, and their children; there was music, and great food, and — because we smushed Hanukah into the celebration — toys and games for the kids. Eventually, the children grew up, as children do, and started their own families; they scattered to different parts of the country where they began to make their own traditions.

This year, like last, Susan and I are having sixteen people to our table: my mom will be with us, along with some single friends and their very young children, and our neighbors and their teenage children (and some teenage friends of the teenage children). There will be nearly as many vegetarians as meat eaters, and so while there will be two heritage turkeys — one done on Susan’s dad’s old 1959 Weber Kettle grill, one done in the oven — there will be far more vegetables on the table as there will be poultry. I suspect — I hope, anyway — that there will be much laughing, and joy, and happy eating sounds before many of us pass out in a tryptophan haze.

But still, I struggle. I struggle with the meaning of Thanksgiving—a holiday that can be so overwhelming that it leaves me frozen and a little panicky and unable to form words, like I was that day on the stage at PS 174, when I was dressed as Priscilla Alden with a chai.

This year, though, as I was applying the salt brine to our turkeys, keeping busy, keeping moving, searching for the meaning, as ever, I remembered.


I remembered late September, and our friend Deborah, hiking with us and her husband Patrick, and their dog, out into the hills amidst the scrub and across the arroyos near her home in New Mexico, and visiting the vast and glorious Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, and breathing the roasting Hatch Chiles and meeting Dorothy Massey at Collected Works, and going back to the house to await the arrival of Deborah’s friends, and cooking and laughing and listening to music and feeling like if the house next door were available, we would buy it without a second thought.

I remembered Becky Selengut walking us out into the woods somewhere south of Tacoma, Washington on a soggy, gray day early last month, and, for the first time in my life, foraging pounds and pounds of magnificent Chanterelle mushrooms, slicing them way down into the ground with the small, ancient folding knife I found buried in a pile of sawdust in my late mother-in-law’s garage before we sold her house last spring. There we were, Susan and Becky and I, in the middle of nowhere, finding gobs and gobs of mushrooms, real food, from the earth — the actual EARTH! — covered in dirt and Douglas Fir needles, and at last, I learned why the act of foraging is as electrifying and thrilling as it is grounding. It gives and it gives; the key is not to take and take which, it seems, is the human impulse.







I remembered Barbara Marrett, Susan’s dearest friend from college, who we never see, and who welcomed us to her home in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the veritable ends of the earth. There was the long drive to Anacortes from Seattle, and the way the air became sweeter and warmer, and the ferry ride that left me weeping for the beauty of the water and the mountains — I tried to hide my sobbing from Susan; I told her it was just the wind — and arriving there and being introduced to a guy, just an old grisly guy, who plays sea shantys on a button accordion at a local pub a million miles away from anything, and it turned out to be Mike Cohen, who I’ve listened to for years, and whose brother is John Cohen, of The New Lost City Ramblers.


And how Barbara, who happens to be the Communications Manager at the San Juan Islands Visitor’s Bureau and knows every single square inch of the islands and the incredible farmers/producers/growers/wine-and-spirit-makers who live and work there, introduced us to the miraculous food of the islands. And how, on our last night, she and her lovely man, Bill — who plays the harmonium, and leads chanting! The harmonium! Like Krishna Das! — invited friends for dinner, and the salmon, which Bill caught, was extraordinary, and the friends were as warm as bear hugs, and the night ended with hours of guitar and mandolin playing and a bunch of old hippies sitting around and crooning, as old hippies tend to do. When we got ready to leave the next morning, I stepped outside to breathe the air off Barbara’s deck, and heard rustling in the trees less then eight feet from where I was standing; someone had come to say goodbye.






So this Thanksgiving feels different, somehow; I get it, I understand. And I’m grateful.

Sauteed Mushrooms on Toast

It might seem a little bit lackluster to put up a simple recipe at a season of such great excess; maybe that’s the point. The fact is, amidst the giant turkeys and the platters of vegetables and stuffing and tables creaking under the weight of our bounty, I sometimes think that Thanksgiving needs to be scaled back; the food needs to be simpler, less fussy, and more, well, of the earth. The day that Susan and I went foraging with Becky Selengut, author of the seminal book on mushrooms, Shroom, we came home with a gift that literally changed the way I think about food. There was nothing to do to these chanterelles but give them a (very) gentle wipe, a quick chop, and a saute in a hot pan with some sweet butter. And give thanks for them.

Serves 2

1-1/2 pounds of the freshest Chanterelle mushrooms you can find, gently wiped of dirt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

sea salt

4 slices sourdough bread, toasted, and rubbed with a clove of garlic

fresh parsley, chopped

Give the mushrooms a quick chop; remove any woody stems, and save them for stock. Place a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, warm the butter in the pan until it stops foaming, and add the mushrooms to the pan. Lower the heat a bit and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and most of it has evaporated, about 8 minutes (taking care not to burn them). Season with a little sea salt and spoon them out onto the toast along with their buttery juices. Sprinkle with some chopped parsley leaves, and serve immediately.


Earth and Sky

November 6, 2014 · 10 comments


It’s hard to say for sure, but I’m starting to believe that the minute I go into my writing cave — I’m at work on my next memoir which is due out from Berkley Books sometime in 2015; the “cave” is what happens when I hit the place where I think, 24/7, about nothing other than what I’m writing. I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it, and I think about it every waking moment in between — the world laughs at my pathetic attempt to control my own schedule. Which means that if I block out a solid month for nothing but work, the gods roll their eyes and suddenly my dance card gets slammed, and what began as uninterrupted writing time ends up being small threads and tiny snippets into which I have to glue my ass to my chair and take the phone off the hook. Even if it’s for two hours.


Which has been no easy feat lately: my mother, a former television and cabaret singer and model who lives alone in Manhattan, has taken to calling me five times a day to regale me with stories of her days in front of the camera, and to wonder whether she should call William Morris to set up a meeting — they represented her some time ago — or should she just walk in and ask the security guard to let her upstairs. There are long conversations about why it doesn’t seem right that she’s so obsessed with Perry Mason because 1) he was played by Raymond Burr, who was gay, and 2) he isn’t real, and other conversations about why it’s not okay for her to defrost a bucket of chicken soup on the counter for three days, even though that’s the way her grandmother did it in 1943, and nobody died. There was the small issue of her colonoscopy appointment which she had written down on three different dates in three different calendars; she ate the tiniest smidge of roast chicken during the 24-hour/clear liquids-only period because she was sure the doctor said she could. There’s also the new Facebook page that she’s launched, which offers readers daily tips on living and life as she knows it; she sleeps only two or three hours every night, so she has a lot of time to think about these things, she says.

And honestly, this is who she is; this is who she always was, forty years ago, and who she is now — this isn’t some weird manifestation of time — and I love her for it. Even though I’d like to take a Valium the size of a steering wheel.

Beyond dealing with the worry, the hand-holding, the constant calls, and the moving from crisis to crisis throughout the day while trying to write on a hysteria-inducing deadline, there was the issue of Susan’s long-awaited sabbatical from her job at Random House. This would mean that, in the throes of writing around my mother’s schedule, Susan and I would be traveling out west (the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest won out this year over Paris. Sorry, Paris.) for three weeks, driving from Santa Fe up through Utah, Idaho, and Oregon, and finally arriving in Seattle where we would perch for ten days before spending another four in Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands. With my mother calling. And me scribbling writing notes before sunrise and again very late at night. And generally trying not to have a stroke while remaining calm and cheerful and a pleasant travel companion for Susan, who has worked mightily and brilliantly for ten years.


I was a complete wreck when we left, but I quickly learned that a road trip through the west is actually the ideal thing for a mind that is clogged with the debris of life like a hair-packed drain; before we hit the road, I had been feeling existentially warm and sticky, as though I’d rolled around in vat of honey and then put on a sweater. But when the earth opens up long and quiet and the sky feels so close that it seems like a ceiling of blue; when you realize the years that it took for nature to carve the Arches outside of Moab, and what those Arches bore witness to as the centuries and the millenia rolled by, you then also realize that all of the aggravation and the worry, the hand-holding and the constant calls, and the crises that keep you from writing the book that you are certain will win you that MacArthur you so obviously deserve —- when you see the west unfold in front of you, you realize that you and your problems and worries are nothing but, as my late father would have said, a speck of fly shit on the great windshield of life.






So, there was The West, and Santa Fe, and seeing dear friends who feel more like family every time we’re together, which is a rare occasion; there was the farmer’s market down by the old rail yard, and the guy who roasts Hatch chiles while proclaiming his to be the real thing: Organic and Hispanic. There was Moab, which looked like the set of a 1950s spaghetti western run headlong into a creature feature about Mars. There was Salt Lake City, where we watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse before visiting a bookstore I thought was just another wonderful local indy (the lovely and kind folks at Deseret Books were as confused about our being there as we were; I expected to see stacks of Gone Girl. The racks of Jesus coloring books should have been a dead giveaway). There was the endless drive through southeastern Idaho, which was the color of a baked potato, straight through to Pendleton, Oregon, where we landed on Kol Nidre and, in the shadow of the Pendleton Roundup ate Thai food before the sun went down, and I quietly pleaded to God/Jesus/Buddha/Whomever to forgive the sins I’ve committed, knowingly and not, against people I love and people I don’t, and to please, please bless me with patience and compassion for my aging mother despite wanting to stick my head in the oven after her fifth call about the William Morris Agency, and how handsome Raymond Burr is if he’d only lose some weight.

(He’s probably very thin at this point, Ma. He’s been dead for years.)


We had traveled for days on end without seeing or smelling the water, so when we eventually arrived in Seattle and moved into the tiny Ballard bungalow we’d rented, it was a (gorgeous, gray) relief. Our first night there, after arriving late, we ran out to the local supermarket and bought a thick, fatty Coho salmon filet caught in local waters, and roasted it slowly alongside tiny new potatoes and a handful of fresh chanterelle. We expected days of relaxing and reading, of my squirreling myself at the basement desk we’d set up so that I could keep writing, but every day and every night we saw friends we never get to see across platters of some of the most remarkable, fresh, simple food I’ve ever eaten. When Jess Thomson, co-author with Renee Erickson of Renee’s brilliant new cookbook, A Boat, A Whale, and a Walrus told us about Renee’s author dinner at our friends’ Brandon Pettit and Molly Wizenberg‘s restaurant, Delancey — one of my favorite places in the world — we splurged, and went, and laughed and drank and ate copious amounts of Brandon’s remarkable food, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the packed dining room, shouting over the din to be heard, and woke up the next morning in a bed that wasn’t ours in a cottage we didn’t know with sore throats and hoarse voices and feeling like maybe we should move. Maybe this was really home.

Or maybe we were just running away.

Slow Roasted Coho Salmon


Ordinarily, I buy my fish — wherever I am, but especially in fish-forward communities — from small fishmongers, but when we arrived in Seattle very late one day, famished from the road, it was all I could do to get myself to the Interbay Whole Foods, not far from our cottage in Ballard. Yes, it really did look like this when I had the fish guy slice me a filet from the center of the fish; October is Coho season in Puget Sound, and with salmon this fresh, the less you do to it, the better. Which meant that I turned to a tried-and-true method by Alice Waters, which she mentions secondarily in her wonderful The Art of Simple Food: slow roasting. I find her recommendation to serve the fish with a drizzle of vinaigrette far too rich for such an already-rich fish. Instead, I melt a tablespoon or two of sweet butter together with the juice of a whole, very juicy lemon, which cuts the fat while remaining silky. Nothing could be simpler, or better.

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 very fresh Coho salmon filets, about 6 ounces each, skin on, preferably at room temperature

Extra virgin olive oil

fresh herb sprigs (I prefer rosemary; rosemary and salmon is an unbeatably earthy combination)

1 tablespoon sweet butter

juice of one whole lemon

Lightly season the fish with sea salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 225 degres F. Lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet, and cover it with a layer of fresh herbs, placed roughly in the same dimensions as the salmon. Set the salmon down on the herbs, skin-side down. Drizzle the salmon with a bit more oil, and bake at 225 degrees F for 30 minutes.

Two minutes before it’s done, warm the butter together with the lemon. Plate the salmon and drizzle with the sauce. Serve immediately.




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