On Earth Day Ennui

April 22, 2015 · 8 comments


On April 22, 1970, I was seven years old. Mrs Kwartowitz, my first grade teacher, wore a brown suede poncho and hoop earrings big enough to shoot a basketball through. Her husband (Mr. Kwartowitz) looked a lot like Allen Ginsberg, and made it his job to tie-dye the jeans of every one of his wife’s students who provided him with a pair. (Gaga, my mother’s mother, thought it was a fabulous idea and ran to Alexander’s on Queens Boulevard, where she bought me a pair of Wrangler bell bottoms that were so stiff they stood up by themselves.) In preparation for the inaugural Earth Day celebration, which Mrs. Kwartowitz said was a very big deal, the entire first grade at P.S. 174 took up Save Mother Earth collections in little green UNESCO boxes; I have no recollection of where they were sent, only that mine was bursting at the seams like a small hippie Tzedekah box. Mrs. Watkins, a gorgeous Angela Davis-lookalike who taught the class next door to Mrs. Kwartowitz’s, showed us how to grow an avocado tree using an avocado pit and two toothpicks. But at home, my grandmother still used toxic Noxon on the silver; we drank Tab and Hawaiian Punch almost every day, and blithely tossed the empties out along with our voluminous industrial meat scraps down the incinerator shoot, which belched enormous black mushroom clouds of pollution into the sky above 98-05 67th Avenue. I begged my mother to get us some house plants — Mrs. Kwartowitz said they purified the air naturally — which she did: a Ficus tree that died when our Schnauzer repeatedly mistook it for a fire hydrant; and a Wandering Jew, which clung to life until the start of second grade, when my mother forgot to water it and it dried up like California.

Fast forward forty-five years and Earth Day (which seemed to be such a positive, tree-hugging thing to get people involved in back in 1970) sometimes feels depressing and aggravatingly futile, as if those of us who care about the planet are attempting to put out a forest fire with a thimble of water. I can’t quite remember who it was who first said that the planet is a living, breathing, sentient organism with a pulse and a temperature — like a hospital patient — and that if we essentially do to it what my Schnauzer did to my Ficus, it will die a protracted, painful death, which can be avoided (or at least slowed) by doing, among many, many others, two things: 1) Addressing in a serious way what appears to be the uniquely human propensity for entitlement on both the personal and public scale; and 2) Redirecting breathtakingly vast subsidies away from industrial monoculture and genetic modification geared to profit above all else, and pointing them instead toward food production and organic farming and permaculture practices that conserve resources, reduce water consumption, and ultimately, respect and heal the planet while feeding its inhabitants. This is an old, old story; point number 2 is self-evident. Point number 1 can best be described this way: We believe ourselves to be an entitled animal. We somehow feel a God-given right to manipulate everything and everyone around us, because we have thumbs and we have resources; if we don’t like it or it cramps our style or it doesn’t impact us directly, we change it or politicize it or kill it. Or, if we don’t want to discuss it at all, we simply pretend it doesn’t exist, like the elephant in the room: we’ll only talk about it if it serves our purpose, or if we want it for its tusks.

So, on the forty-fifth anniversary of my attempting to grow an avocado tree in a jar using toothpicks, I’m not feeling particularly sanguine about the health of the planet, or the inclination of its inhabitants to actually band together to do something about it. We’d rather argue and call each other names, which is often the most politically expedient thing to do, especially as we head into an election season here in the States.

My response has been decidedly more personal; over the last few months, I’ve taken to reading, listening to, and cooking from works that give me hope, energy, and no small amount of faith and stability when I find myself suffering from environmental ennui. To loosely paraphrase the great Terry Tempest Williams in her conversation with Krista Tippett, this is a time for people on opposite sides of the fence to sit down and figure out how to move forward together with the safety of the planet and our human community in mind

Here are my greatest Earth Day inspirations:

To Listen

Terry Tempest Williams, On Being

Wallace Stegner, Day at Night

Bill McKibben, On Being

Wendell Berry on Diane Rehm

Wendell Berry on Bill Moyers

Deborah Madison on Food Farmer Earth

Nikki Henderson at EdibleSchoolyard.org

Joanna Macy, On Being

Sylvia Earle on TED

James Balog on TED

Mary Oliver, On Being

Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, On Being

To Read

Krista Tippett: Einstein’s God

James Krupa: Defending Darwin

Peter Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard

Wallace Stegner: Wolf Willow

Wallace Stegner: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

Terry Tempest Williams: Finding Beauty in a Broken World

Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds

Mike Tidwell: Rite of Passage

Gary Snyder: The Paris Review Interview

Gary Snyder: The Man in the Clearing

Mas Masumoto: Epitaph for a Peach

David Gessner: All That Remains

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

Barbara Kingsolver: High Tide in Tucson

Elizabeth Kolbert: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Dan Barber: The Third Plate

Richard Payne: How Much Is Enough?

To Cook

Deborah Madison: Vegetable Literacy

Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Sarah Britton: My New Roots

Heidi Swanson: Super Natural Every Day

Heidi Swanson: Near and Far

Viana La Place: The Unplugged Kitchen

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall: The River Cottage Cookbook

Paul Bertolli: Cooking By Hand

Bryant Terry: Afro Vegan

Alice Waters: The Art of Simple Food

Nina Planck: Real Food


Infrequent Potatoes

April 7, 2015 · 37 comments


I was a particularly tiny baby; my mother didn’t know that she was pregnant for six months (being unable to get her antique garnet ring off was a clue; she went to the doctor at her teenage niece’s suggestion) and the diagnosis sent her into a tailspin. In a shaky picture of my parents taken by my grandmother in Carl Schurz Park, the evidence is barely noticeable: there is my mother, the East River over her shoulder and Queens behind her in the distance, her wrists so slender and lithe even in her ninth month that her charm bracelet, heavy as Marley’s chain, would slide off her hand until she had a few links removed. There I am, the incontrovertible affirmation of her pregnancy, and nothing more than a minuscule bump under her pink and white cotton blouse. My mother carried me to term, almost to the day; I weighed four pounds at birth which, for scale, is more or less the size of an average supermarket chicken.


My mother at the Washington Square Park Art Fair, nine months pregnant. June, 1963.

The words my mother uses to describe me as an infant: spindly, delicate, tiny, petite, exquisite, dainty, fine-boned, wispy. Not being one to nurse — I would have wound up with a chest like your grandmother’s, she says — she fed me tiny amounts of formula, botching the instructions given to her by my first pediatrician at New York Hospital. I screamed all day and all night for my first three months, until our next door neighbor in Yorkville, a gorgeous German woman with a face like Marlene Dietrich, told my mother that I was probably hungry; she instructed her to fill my bottle with thinned-out oatmeal, cut an X in the nipple, and let me eat. She did, and at last, I stopped crying. I also ballooned up like a scaled-down version of The Michelin Man.


No longer the size of a chicken.

Eventually, the oatmeal weight fell off me: like most middle class American children of the Sixties and Seventies, I was fed a regular diet of meat, chicken, fish, lamb, and, because I was almost always anemic, beef liver, which looks surprisingly like beef liver. I shuddered at its jiggling, squidgy presence; my grandmother, who cooked most of our meals, broiled it until it took on the consistency of a stiff brown sponge, and my mother served it to me on our heavy burnt umber earthenware next to two flaccid spears of canned asparagus; there was no bread at our kitchen table, no rice, no pasta, and infrequent potatoes. My mother and I drank Tab by the bucketful, going through a six pack every two days. By the time I was four, I had become an unwitting adherent to something resembling The Atkins Diet; I was so skinny that my mother shook me into my school leotards like a pillow into a pillowcase. When I went into first grade, I carried damp tuna sandwiches made on Diet White bread, which disintegrated into a dense brick of bleached mush that curled itself around my red plaid thermos like the letter C by the time I arrived at school.

As I wrote in Poor Man’s Feast, when my mother went off to have her hair done every Saturday, my father — not someone I would call corpulent, but certainly not thin — secreted me away for fancy lunches that were as enlightening as they were forbidden: I learned what happens when you apply a coating of egg and flour to trout, saute it in hot butter and bathe it in wine and lemon juice. I learned what happens when you slice potatoes to a thin film, layer them in a shallow copper dish, and blanket them in cream. I learned what happens when you roll a crepe around warm apricot preserves and dust it with confectioner’s sugar and chopped hazelnuts. And I learned to keep my mouth shut once I got home, because food was the enemy of the body.

My mother went back to work when I was eleven; my grandmother stepped in after school and fed me regular grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, potato latkes, pizza, and, because she loved him, Arthur Treacher’s fish and chips. All that food fueled my raging tennis addiction; I played it every day, for hours. My mother never noticed what I was eating because my grandmother chose not to tell her, but also because all that tennis turned my skin and bones into solid muscle. I became a swimmer and my shoulders broadened; I hit puberty and the chest that kept my mother from nursing me as an infant was suddenly mine. My mother’s desperate, hysterical need for thinness, achieved by starving her teenage self in order to be the model and television singer she eventually became, was a blip on my genetic screen. My body rebelled in the most profound of ways: I was no longer skinny. As a teenager, I began to resemble almost every woman on my father’s side of the family: thick-boned, solid, muscular, and zaftig enough to acquaint me with the bitter flavor of self-consciousness.

“You’ll lose that chest if you drop some weight,” my mother said when I started college, as though That Chest was a disembodied entity unto itself, with a mind and government all its own, like Texas. At school, the freshman fifteen worked the other way for me: with everyone gorging themselves on pizza and East West lasagna at the cafeteria, I ate nothing but taco-flavored Doritos and Diet Coke in my dorm room, but only when my roommate wasn’t around. I came home that October, fifteen pounds lighter.

My mother was confused and irate a few years later, when I went to work for Dean & Deluca, and attended cooking school at night: I wanted food in my life. I wanted to understand sustenance, and to find that almost spiritual connection that comes from feeding your self, and others, thoughtfully and well. I wanted to recreate a family table of goodness and peace, where food was not the devil, and it didn’t have to be hidden.

My body responded to the stress of her furious consternation with uncanny irony: surrounded as I was by masses of food every day and night, the pounds cascaded off me without my even trying to lose them. My nails went brittle and my hair thinned, and then fell out. My thyroid was off kilter and my heart rhythm wonky and I passed out twice — once in the walk-in, once on the loading dock while signing for a Sid Wainer delivery — but man, did my body look great: my fat jeans were a size two, my everyday pair, a zero.

“Okay,” she said, as though I was competitively orchestrating my weight loss, “you win. You can stop now.”

Over the years, my body has settled like a house; the Title Nine catalog invariably arrives when I’m feeling sluggish and thick. My knees and hips creak, and I have a bottle of Aleve in every bag. No matter what — no matter how many steps I take, no matter how dedicated to my FitBit I am, no matter how much yoga I do, no matter how often I go to the gym, no matter how much I cut out wine or sugar or infrequent potatoes — my weight travels along a five pound continuum: sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. Like my mother when she was pregnant, I gauge change by how tight my rings are. On the days when I can’t get them off, I don’t go to see her; I don’t tell her why.

Recently, she came to stay for Passover and Easter; I saved my beloved matzo brei — the crack cocaine of my people, which I make once a year — for the breakfast after our seder. That morning, we sat at my dining room table while she drank a cup of hot water and watched me lift my fork to my mouth; she glared violently at it, and me, like we were the devil incarnate. I pushed myself away from the table and took my plate into the kitchen; I stood at the sink and ate with my back to her, hidden from view.











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