We have been living here for thirteen years. It sometimes seems like we just moved in; other times it feels like we’ve been here forever. Four books written by me, hundreds of books designed by Susan, roughly eighty books edited by me. Three dogs, seven cats, although thankfully not all at once. Over the years, we have lost all of Susan’s aunts (there were five when I joined the family in 2000, out of a total of eleven siblings), her Uncle Bob, her mother, my father, who passed two years before we arrived here from Litchfield, and my cousin Harris, who died in 2008. Between our younger cousins, nine babies have been born, four on my side; we have met all but one of them, a handsome blond boy who was named for my father. Early on in our time here, we considered having children of our own, and for reasons both biological and not, we didn’t.

In the evenings, we look across the table at each other; we have gotten a little heavier and a bit grayer. We earnestly, often frenetically, try different diets: Mediterranean, Whole 30, Paleo. We drink less: only on the weekend, or Saturday night, or Friday and Saturday night. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. We have accumulated: too many pounds, too much stuff, too many things. We have skinny jeans, fat jeans, the hiking clothes we never wear because we never go hiking, six pair of golf shoes, two sets of clubs, (piles and piles of) books, small appliances (a soda maker, a spiralizer), half a dozen sets of wedding china for twelve from the aforementioned aunts, two sets of silver, thirty-two knives that used to hang off a magnetic strip under the pot rack that holds a dozen or so pans from my life as a professional food person (whatever that means), twenty-seven red-striped cotton Ikea towels that we have stockpiled over a decade, handmade patchouli goat-milk soaps that spawn like bunnies under the bathroom sink, a plastic crate of expired medications for long-healed illnesses, old computer equipment including three non-working printers, my father’s SX-70 cameras for which film is no longer available, my uncle’s pristine Yashica-Mat twin-lens reflex for which film is available, a 1927 Underwood typewriter originally belonging to Susan’s Uncle George, a 1939 Remington Noiseless that had been my Uncle Marvin’s high school graduation gift from his parents and passed along to me by one of his daughters, to whom I no longer speak.

There have been thousands of meals cooked in a kitchen that is still a work in progress. Hundreds of bottles of wine have been consumed, ranging from expensive Bordeaux opened for a birthday celebration to the cheap plonk that my grandmother would have Germanized as pishwasser. I remember only a handful of the good ones; they have retained their importance by connection to an event or to the people with whom we drank them. For years, we saved the corks in a massive green glass jar, as if someday, in our dotage, we might sit down of a quiet evening and review them the way one might look through a photo album: This was the Bandol that we had with Lisa. This was the Brunello that we drank with Porter. This was the Sauternes that we had with Gale. Recently, we discarded the jar and its contents when we realized that the memories were more important than the corks, which were just another thing to keep, although at one point, we did consider making a trivet from the better ones.

We have an issue with things in this house; I attribute it in part to being adult-only-children-without-children (AOCWC), and to the fact that over the last few years we have lost so many people that it sometimes feels incomprehensible.

A small, personal holocaust, a friend of mine once said. You woke up and they were suddenly gone, taken away in the middle of the night.  And so, without siblings in whose faces we might see our pasts, and without children who reflect back to us ourselves and our future, we cling to the representational, the inanimate, the stuff to which we attach memory and meaning.

But there comes a point when this detritus of life begins to pile up; it becomes dangerous. The accretion of things makes it impossible to walk a straight line, to put anything away, to see anything else but history.

Did you just move in, a contractor asked me the other day when he had to check our water tank. When I told him how long we were here, he seemed alarmed.

To be clear: we do not have a Collyer Brothers problem. But when I went downstairs to our basement a few nights ago to get something out of our freezer and found myself face to face with a small, gray nylon sack — the sort a rock climber might use for chalk; I’d never seen it before — filled with ancient pottery chips purloined by Susan’s ex on a southwestern camping trip twenty-five years ago, my heart stopped. A familiar, cold clamp of anxiety seized the back of my neck: I could instantly recall how I felt when this woman threatened our relationship when it was in its infancy. I could actually feel my slightly nauseous response to the every-Saturday-night-at-eight phone calls from long ago; the moments when I’d see her name come up in my email with a coy Hello darlin’ in the subject line; the promise to me that she would never, ever leave us alone, even though she and Susan had broken up years earlier.

It’s just a thing, Susan said, when she saw my face. I’ll get rid of it. 

But why do you even have it, I asked. Why is it still here?

Susan pointed around the basement.

Why is any of this stuff still here?

There was my father’s blue metal screen on which he last showed home movies at our house party in 1971, before he knew that his best friend, drinking Scotch in the kitchen with my mother and a neighbor, was driving me alone to an abandoned park every day after school; there was a dust-caked, roll-top cassette case, holding the Memorex tapes of upstate New York shamanic healings that my ex and I made for each other in the 80s; there was a Jack Kramer Pro Staff wooden tennis racquet with a peeling pink gauze grip that, when I picked it up and inhaled, smelled like sweat and Dentyne and the hot clay I kicked up on the courts at Milton Academy, where I played the summer I was sixteen.

Piles of shopping bags sit everywhere: here are framed photographs of my father’s family, that lined the entry way to my studio apartment in Manhattan, where I lived for nine years. When you walked into the foyer, they were the first things you saw: This is my family, the wall said. This is my blood. I am not alone. Stacks of Susan’s family photos are piled up on our old couch between the oil burner and the washing machine: the aunts are still alive in those pictures — Ethel in her white mink stole on the 1962 Atlantic cruise where Arthur Miller apparently made a play for her; Phyllis in her kitchen, a calendar in Polish hanging over her shoulder; devoutly religious Millie and George at the Connecticut shore in 1937, wildly, carnally, in love. If they are here with us, surely, then, they must still be alive. My college lacrosse stick rests alone on a shelf; I pick it up and cradle it in my arms and it’s 1982. I am nineteen and my father is not yet sixty, and Harris is eight years old. My cousins, alive, dead, no longer in communication, are here with me. Susan’s aunts are here with her.

As long as we have the stuff — the photographs, the tapes, the bits of ancient pottery, the corks — time is anchored in place. Or so it seems.

A few weeks ago, we had the entire interior of the house painted. Susan loves color. When I first moved to her house in the country, every room was a different shade of pastel: peach, green, yellow, like a basket of Easter eggs. When we moved in here, she painted individual rooms herself: butternut squash for the kitchen, the guest room a wrought iron gray, the bathroom a weird taupe that never worked with the pea green 1970s tile. After a decade, it felt busy and distracting, a background for the things in our lives that gathered dust in every corner of the house, but mostly in the basement, where no one could see them but us.

I wanted every room to be painted the same color. I wanted the trim the same color, the wall alongside the stairs down to the basement the same color. I wanted my office to be the same, the kitchen to be the same, the den with its brick fireplace: the same. We argued about it. And then we hired painters, who moved everything we owned — the things we carried into our life in this house and dropped like an anchor — into enormous piles in the middle of every room. The walls were painted a bright white, as though the entire house was dipped in promise. After two weeks, it looked clean and fresh and uncluttered, like the beginning of new lives belonging to other people. The things of our pasts, obscured with drop cloths, were suddenly invisible; our stuff was gone, and all we had was ourselves, our home, our name. A blank slate.

After the painters left, we began to put things away. We stopped. It was overwhelming. A week went by. We couldn’t face the task. What to keep; what to weed out.

What are the memory triggers that bend our hearts? What are the things that break them?

I unpacked my office, since it is where I work every day. We hung our entry way mirror and the massive 1929 Italian poster that we bought for the wall above our basement stairs. We put away our pots and pans, and Susan attached a single magnetic knife strip to the wall next to our stove, to hold just five knives, not thirty-two. Everything else is still in boxes. We’re almost afraid to reopen them, to be dragged back into the past and unable to see the future.

I spent yesterday in the garden, weeding around the raised beds and the four roses that are suffering under the strain of the Virginia Creeper that threatens to strangle and siphon away their nutrients.

Let the Creeper climb the fence, a master gardener friend once told me. It’s beautiful. 

But it’ll overtake everything, I said.

You just have to pay attention to it, she said, and not let it get out of control. 

We refuse to use garden poison for fear of tainting our vegetables and our ground water. It might kill something we need, something we love. It’s a balance: what to keep, what to pull, what to release. The living versus the dead, the past versus the future. A constant battle against chaos.

What we have, Jane Kenyon once said, is the present. It’s all we ever had, really, except for memory. 

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I can pinpoint when it happened, when I realized that writing about the table could be a bonafide job: it was April 1984, in Boston. I was sitting alone in my suite on South Campus at Boston University, and I picked up a copy of Gourmet that someone left on the living room table. I read it from cover to cover. One article was about a young woman who had studied cooking in Paris and was spending some time in northern France. A photograph showed her dressed smartly — skinny jeans, a striped shirt, a slouchy cloth bucket hat — and standing in a field with a cow. She was nuzzling the cow; the cow was nuzzling her back. I vaguely remember the caption: The cows are very friendly in this part of France. I was mesmerized. There were a few recipes and a picture of a table laden with food — nothing fancy — and short, footed glasses of wine, of the romantic, rustic variety that a French farmhand might hoist after a morning in the field.

A few days later, one of my cousins asked me what I was planning on doing after graduation. I had been thinking about going into academia, which didn’t thrill my parents. I considered law school, which didn’t thrill my English professors. But when my cousin asked me this pointed question, it took me two seconds to answer: I wanted, I said, to write about food and wine.

My cousin was very kind, but my response baffled her. At that time, no one in my family read Gourmet. Who could possibly imagine holding down such an outlandish job (if it could be considered a job at all)? After I said it, the subject was changed, and I never brought it up again, to anyone.

It took a few years for me to nudge my way into the food world. There was a job layoff from a now-defunct publishing house, and a short spate of unemployment. There was the morning that I sat on my living room floor in my walkup apartment on East 93rd Street, with the New York Times job pages opened up, and the ad for book buyer at Dean & Deluca. I called and went down to Soho for an interview, and got the job. I started the next day. I was surrounded by books — all of the Elizabeth David volumes in imported Penguin paperbacks; M.F.K. Fisher, in the lovely, French-flapped reissued editions published by Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press; Auberge of the Flowering Hearth; Richard Olney; John Thorne; Alice Waters; Felipe Rojas Lombardi; Laurie Colwin — but also food of the most astonishing breadth and variety. Somehow (and it embarrasses me to say this: it’s such a weird word) it was discovered that I was what they horrifyingly used to call a supertaster: I would stand in the back of the store with a handful of other colleagues, taste samples that had been delivered by purveyors and producers from Tuscany to Tulum, and identify obscure ingredients in the most minute proportions. At days’ end, we would sometimes go out — sometimes to The Cupping Room, sometimes to Jerry’s or Raoul’s or Food — and talk about what we ate all day while we ate more, and drank insane, ridiculous quantities of wine until we could barely stand. This was in the late 1980s; there was also a fair amount of cocaine, which enabled everyone to stay out until three in the morning, sleep for a few hours, come back to work, and slice cold-smoked County Mayo salmon so thin that you could read the newspaper through it.

I wasn’t much for the drugs — cocaine terrified me, and like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, the last time I smoked pot I tried to take my pants off over my head — but man, the wine. I loved it, and it loved me right back. We became inseparable. My customers would ask for advice: Bandol, Beaune, or Zin? Chianti, Barbaresco, or Bordeaux? I would answer them in great detail, down to the year: ’83 was my favorite, especially for tannic Rhones, like Gigondas. I had educated myself: I actually knew what the hell I was doing because it was my job. A little while after I left the store, I found myself regularly invited to wine tasting dinners, sometimes twice a week: six courses, each place setting surrounded by a small army of Riedel glasses: Chablis, Sauternes, Gruner, Chianti, Bordeaux (Mature), Burgundy, Cognac, Water. We were all professionals to some degree and we all managed to hold it together, even though by the time the Burgundy was poured, most of us were so smashed that we couldn’t tell the difference between the seared foie gras and the lollipop lamb chops if you blindfolded us.

 

In my home kitchen, there was more wine: the Salice Salentinos I loved to sip while cooking for my family and friends. The cool, round Cakebread rose I’d open when the temperature climbed above sixty. The Barolos I’d pour when it snowed and everyone I knew showed up for the game birds I liked to roast and serve perched atop polenta and wild trumpet mushroom ragout. At family functions, I was the one who knew about food and wine, who could talk about Emilia Romagna and Languedoc like they were in my backyard. Wine and food made me funny and confident and smart, and pulled me out of my thick, protective shell: in my family, I went from being a dour, quiet, chronically-depressed teenager navigating the waters of my parents’ failing marriage to the bawdy, tipsy grown-up cousin pontificating about the provenance of the Alsatian muenster and dribbling her overpriced kosher Bordeaux onto the pages of her Passover Haggadah. The rituals of my life began to merge with the requirements of my profession like a Venn Diagram, and at its gray, overlapping center was excess. After years of this — the tasting events, the wee sips before/with/after dinner, the professional vodka samplings after which it was assumed I’d drive myself home, an hour away — my so-called supertaster palate was shot to hell, gone, adios, sayonara, along with my feet; that much alcohol … that much pure, unadulterated sugar … had effectively killed my supposedly nuanced tastebuds and slapped an extra twenty pounds around the center of my five foot one, sturdily-built, formerly size six frame. I looked in the mirror, and my bubbe from the old country stared back.

And this is the thing about the food world that no one ever seems to talk about: being a food professional — a writer, a chef, a caterer, a wine distributor, whatever — totally legitimizes excess, be it on the plate or in the glass or both. Comus, God of Excess, representing chaos, a wreath of flowers on his head and a torch in his hand always in the process of being dropped, is the son of Bacchus, God of Wine; it’s a very slippery slope. If you have just the tiniest smidge of a predisposition towards addiction in whatever form it comes (Instagram, Facebook, anger, Twinkies, whiskey, yoga, Blahniks) and even if you don’t, you will be fighting the worst ogre of all, and that little demon inside you — the one who promises that what you’re doing is for work, or for ritual, or for both — is going to convince you that getting stuffed and/or hammered in the name of all that is culinary on a regular basis is really okay. Because, after all, it comes with the gig. And then, as thirty-five becomes forty, and forty becomes fifty, your body will begin to break down: your blood pressure will soar, your thyroid will die, your weight will climb, your neck will sag like a child in a hammock, and your face will start to resemble a sort of pouch. Your liver will fatten up like a goose in Toulouse, and all those Bandols, Beaunes, Bordeaux, and Barolos that you swirled and savored and drank with the most perfect very French-style rosy-pink lamb or Umbrian wild boar braise will take their toll. If you’re lucky, you’ll know when to stop, or at least when to cut way back because you’ll begin to feel like you’re hauling around a sack of potatoes strapped to your ass. If you’re not lucky, you’ll have a nice come to Jesus moment right before they put the stents in, and you’ll know that food and wine are just as delicious when had in moderation. Maybe moreso. Or, in the case of the latter, maybe not at all.

I grew up in the 1970s, and back then, the d word that everyone — food and wine writers, magazine editors, health gurus — now loves to throw around meant one thing: a stay at Betty Ford or Hazelden. Today, detox has been usurped by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Bon Appetit to the Pinterest food boards: we live in a binary world accepting of extremes, of feasting and fasting, where detoxing no longer means a month inpatient, but a delicate bowl of steamed green broccoli, a dollop of artisanal goat yogurt, and a sprinkling of dukkah, or a bright purple smoothie topped off with hemp seeds soaked overnight to make them more digestible, or a ten day juice fast.

So laden with the assumption of excess is the world we live in that the fact of too much is just something we take for granted, like clean air and fresh drinking water and guns. But what would happen if the food and booze community — those of us who glamorize the massive portions and the artisanalia and the out-all-nights-eating-ramen, the vintage cocktails and the whiskey parties — not only preached the moderation we love to snarkily laugh at every January when detoxing grabs the headlines, but actually practiced it? What would happen if moderation was romanticized in place of decadence? Detox is a word and a practice that is now glorified; something is seriously wrong. All of this yearning and hungering and gorging and drinking signifies a certain longing for nurturing, a need for sustenance in a world that, with every passing day, grows more and more enraged, and we, more disconnected from each other.

It’s been thirty-two years since the day I picked up Gourmet Magazine, and twenty-eight since I went to work for Dean & Deluca, did a stint in cooking school, and began to attend regular meat-a-paloozas, deep-fried vegan patty festivals, craft beer bashes, wine tours that poured four massive glasses with every course (at lunch and dinner), and whiskyfests that left me with great human interest stories, but otherwise staggering. In 2013, I was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, an aortic aneurysm, hypercholesterolemia, and high blood pressure. Since then, I’ve changed the way I eat and drink; I’ve had to. And I feel better. But I still struggle to think about food and wine in smaller portions and moderate pours. Excess is what I’ve known for so many years, and, as I’ve written here, my off-switch sometimes gets stuck in the on position.

Every day is no longer a feast; it shouldn’t be. I still take pleasure in feeding the people I love, but the joy and sustenance I used to associate with decadence I now find elsewhere: in doing good work, in my garden, in my yoga classes, in art, in the company of friends and family, in the mundane, quiet life I’m lucky enough to live with Susan.

And that’s enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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