Monday, July 27, 2009

At First Sight

On Friday, June 26th, Kim, Andi, and I saw Kate Christensen at Books & Books Coral Gables for her latest book, Trouble. Christensen also wrote The Great Man (which has been on my to-read list for some time) and three other books. Approaching a decade in the book business, I can say with authority that no author looks better in person than they do on a dust jacket. Author photos are sexier, younger, thinner, moodier, more intelligent-looking and mysterious than the actual people. Marketing folks are genius at finding these shots.

I have mixed feelings about this, knowing I can look younger, thinner, and sexier in a photo than real life, too. When the time comes to publish, hopefully an editor will look at me and think, “now there’s a face that’ll sell books.” At the same time, MTV killed real music. Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz are undeniably movie stars, but would we have been patient with their performances, watching them improve over the years, if they weren’t so damn pretty to look at? Publishing catalogs feature author headshots the same size as the book covers. God very rarely gives looks and talent in equal measure, yet we keep giving breaks to beauty over talent, lowering the bar on good art.

But I digress.

Reading Trouble, I fell in love with the author a little bit. Christensen’s slightly grating and self-centered narrator was living my emotional turmoil in print. I ate Mexican food for a week and wondered if I had any friends as close to me as Raquel and Indri are to Josie. I also wondered how much of herself the author put on the page.

There are few things more sexist toward, or dismissive of, a female author than focusing on her physical beauty over her work, which is why I want to emphasize that my appreciation of Trouble brought me to the reading. Besides, when Books & Books emailed the blast about the event, I saw a black & white author photo, slightly horse-faced and goofy, clearly years out of date. Not a dust jacket you’d pass to a co-worker and say, “I hope she comes in for a reading.”

Um, yes… booksellers do that.

Before the reading, I exchanged eyes with a woman about my age, maybe younger. I wasn’t piggy about it – my wife was with me, after all – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say she turned my head. She wore a tight black dress with a thin, black, woven top over it for modesty’s sake. The pattern of the top was widely-spaced, the fabric clingy. Easy to see the definition in her arms, the width of her shoulders. She was tall and did nothing to hide it (which is really all it takes to turn my head, truth be told); wore heels, in fact. No makeup. Striking natural beauty.

Kate Christensen, of course. Nearly ten years older than me, looking five years younger. When she stepped to the podium and I realized it was her, my jaw dropped. Her answers during the Q&A were intelligent and articulate, and I developed my first full-fledged author crush.

Booksellers mingle with authors at dinners and signings, discovering sometimes they are as beautiful and charming as the pages they’ve written. Some co-worker always comes back from BEA or an event gushing over someone. I’ve always found the author crush pitiable, akin to teen girls I used to know with posters of feathery-haired rock / soap stars on their bedroom walls. Then I got one, and I remembered why it’s called a crush.

A week after the event Andi finally said, “Jesus, shut up about her.”

The reason I couldn’t shut up? I assumed Christensen had exorcised the demons from her relationship by putting them in print, but it turns out her husband is now her ex-husband.

There’s nothing more pitiable than hope.

What would I have done, if Andi and Kim weren’t there (and I didn’t have a garlic-soaked gazpacho for dinner and the subsequent breath that would wilt a vampire)?

“Mrs. Christensen, I noticed you don’t say ‘uh’ or ‘um’ when you’re thinking of what to say next, you simply wait for the thought to arrive. I do that, too.”

“Kate, I was going to ask what kind of advice you had for keeping a marriage together when going through the crisis your narrator is going through, but now that you’ve split from your husband…”

“You said you wanted to be a rockstar, like your character Raquel? There’s a great karaoke dive bar called the Seven Seas not far from here.”

“From the Q & A, I assume that blogger character was based on Perez Hilton. He’s from Miami, did you know? I never heard of him, then he did a signing for Red Carpet Suicide at the Lincoln Road store. Billy from Southern Book Service sent me his Wikipedia page. His whole personae is pretty appalling. Of course he sold out of 250 copies in half an hour, but don’t feel bad comparing tonight’s sales with his. Didn’t you know, popular culture is the new low-brow culture?”

Some things you can’t do for the sake of your marriage.

Besides, if I tried being half of one of those cool, literary, New York couples, it would just push the gaps in my education and erudition to light.

Kate Christensen went to Reed.

She doesn’t have children, either. It’s why we both look younger than our years, and probably why our relationships got scrutinized to death. Without children to fill up the first part of your marriage, it has no arc. Raising children, it’s acceptable for your relationship to suffer. There’s a pulling away that’s necessary to effectively assume the roles of mother and father. Once the children are gone, it’s time to address the relationship. Rebuild yourselves as husband and wife first, father and mother second.

In a childless relationship, there’s no excuse for boredom, complacency, or mutual taking for granted. Beyond the obvious. As the narrator in Trouble says, “It might as well have been scripted, for all the surprises it would contain.”

Standing behind the podium, Christensen radiated light. She had an energy, a vibe Andi responded to. Like calls to like. Andi wants to be a rock star, too. She also lights up a room. I hope Andi was thinking about how good she’ll look in a clingy black dress in nine years, not admiring Kate Christensen for dropping her husband.

For the sake of your marriage, some questions you don’t ask.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bottega Challenge

To ensure I’ll have plenty of time for Saturday’s big meal, my work starts Thursday with the Marina sauce (page 235). My only previous experience with from-scratch Marina is the recipe I learned in my teens at Leo & Sons Big M Supermarket in East Syracuse, so it’s a showdown between Frank Stitt’s recipe and Joe Cacciano’s. Sentimentality precludes me from using phrases like far superior, and cliché avoidance makes blown out of the water unusable. Let’s call Joe Cash’s recipe utilitarian, good to make by the gallon and keep for weeks yet still satisfy the largely Italian clientele, while Frank Stitt’s recipe is artisan. A gorgeous, orange-tinged red thick with flavor.

Two extra days in the fridge will make those flavors sing. It will also give my taste buds an objectivity born of distance – and doesn’t everything taste better when someone else makes it?

My other timesaver is supposed to be making Spring Minestrone (pg 55) on Friday night. The plan is to have two appetizers knocked out before my wife and I even shop for Saturday. Instead, Books & Books keeps me until well after dark on Friday. I tell my wife I’ll wake at my usual time, make the soup, then wake her. It won’t be second-day flavor, but an all-day stovetop slow cook will blend the flavors beautifully and perfume the air.

Andi wakes before I finish the Minestrone. She suggests we split up to get more done; she’ll do the grocery shopping while I finish the soup. It takes some convincing – I hate losing those few precious weekend hours we share alone – but I agree. When she leaves, I promise to start cleaning up if I finish the soup before she gets back.

It’s worth noting the original plan was for me to cook all day while she cleaned.

When Andi returns some hours later, the smell of minestrone and cleaning products fills the air. Besides the minestrone, I’ve tidied, scrubbed, dusted, cleaned, polished, bleached, finally dressed the bare walls of the guest bathroom with some pictures, reorganized the books to look less flea market, and performed full cat-hair removal on all furniture, pillows, the cat tower, and drapes. All Andi needs to clean is the floor.

We’ve been together sixteen years. She has a magical combination of humor, beauty, and intelligence. Only now do I realize her cunning.

The marina is for a Baked Feta and Toasted Foccacia (pg 37) appetizer. I’ve never baked bread from scratch. With fresh groceries in hand, I start with Foccacia (pg 82). I figure if I fail, there’s time to call one of our guests and ask her to bring bread.

It looks like I’ll fail spectacularly.

With the yeast mixture blended thoroughly with flour and salt, I’m supposed to cover the mix and set it aside to rest. When I do, I see the quarter cup of oil I overlooked. I rip the saran wrap from the bowl and throw the oil in, cursing under my breath as I blend again.

As the mix becomes harder to move, I have flashbacks to watching my father make pizza dough. Every Sunday until I was perhaps fourteen, my father made pizza dough from scratch. I remember the snapping sound when one of his wooden spoons would break, leaving the bowl and several inches of handle sticking up from rapidly thickening dough.

My spoon is short-handled – the long one commandeered for Minestrone maintenance – so I don’t need to worry about breakage. My hand, wrist, and forearm ache, the mixture grabs the spoon, so hopefully I’m headed in the right direction.

I replace the cover and give the dough (and myself) a few moments of rest. When I turn the mixing bowl onto my flour-dusted counter and begin kneading, I try not to panic. My hands look like I’ve dipped them to the wrists in oatmeal. Sloppy goo streaks the counter. I re-read the recipe several times, looking for a mistake and finding none. The mixture reminds me of paper-maché paste.

It smells right, though. It has good color, too. Memory and scent lay side-by-side in the brain, so I draw the fresh, yeasty aroma into my nose. I see my father’s hands, thick fingers and wrists covered with flour and bits of dough. When I read knead, I picture what Harry does to my stomach before he lays down. It’s been years since I’ve thought of my father’s violent, table-shaking movements, ripping the dough free of a yard-square cutting board and pounding it back down. Stepping back, glue running from my fingers, breathing deep the smell, I feel my father with me, coaching me on.

I step to the counter once more and mimic his movements, shaking more flour, scraping up streaks of gluey dough with my fingernails, trying to make this mess into something malleable. It’s not baking, it’s a fight.

By the end, there’s flour dusted to my mid-forearm and oatmeal handprints everywhere, but I have a lump of dough the size of a softball. I set it aside to rise, thinking of how my father saved my bread even though he isn’t here (he’s not dead or anything, I just mean he lives 1,500 miles north, in Syracuse, NY).

Unfortunately, when I planned the menu, I didn’t allow for the foccacia fight. I’m amazed how quickly the afternoon has bled away. I don’t know when I’ll fit in making the third appetizer, Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Goat Cheese (pg 32).

I might also mention I have yet to shower.

Finished with the floor, Andi comes to the kitchen to prepare Biscotti (pg 233) for dessert. Fresh dough has never entered our kitchen, now we’re making it twice in a day.

Knowing my guests will be eating and talking and drinking while I’m trying to nurture a needy Summer Risotto (pg 200), I figure my best defense is to prep as much as possible. I have the ingredients cut, chopped, grated, and measured in bowls. For the Jumbo Asparagus with Shaved Parmigiano (pg 191) I’m serving on the side, I follow step one of the recipe, blanching the asparagus so all they need is a quick sauté before they’re ready to serve.

Andi and I pass the recipe book back and forth. Amazingly, we’re still excited for the dinner instead of snapping at each-other, which I mark down to ample prep time. We realize we could never have put this dinner on in any other place we’ve lived in Miami, or in any place since the first apartment we shared over Harvey’s Pharmacy in Syracuse. A women’s youth hostel at the turn of the century, it housed mostly drama and musical theater majors when we lived there. We put on Sunday brunches, inviting most everyone in the eight apartments to follow the wooden structure in the alley – too modest to call a porch and too grand for a fire escape – to the back door of our kitchen for French Toast and omelets, coffee and juice.

Our roommate, Kim, gets home from work and offers her help. Andi’s biscotti is oven-ready, so she goes upstairs to shower and dress.

I should clarify Kim. A roommate is some stranger who annoys you by leaving dirty dishes in the sink and playing Guitar Hero with her stoner friends until three AM when you have to work in the morning; Andi, Kim, and I have been friends since those long ago brunches. Andi and I moved to our new place with a mind to her joining us, and it’s worked out beautifully.

While chopping veggies for the risotto, I talk Kimberly through the Baked Feta. We pop it in the oven and I ask her to keep an eye on it while I adjourn for a much-needed shower.

There’s just time to drizzle red and yellow bell peppers with olive oil and put them in the oven to roast before our friends begin to arrive. Kim greets them with refreshing Mirtillo Martinis (pg 13). I like my vodka neat from the freezer, preferably Zyr, and my martinis straight up, dry, and dirty. Still, I find these cocktails delicious, perky, barely sweet, and with a bubbly white wine base that keeps the vodka from coming on too strong.

The Baked Feta with Foccacia sits on the counter between our open kitchen and the dining room for whoever wants a nibble. With a smatter of freshly minced parsley and a dash of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, I dish out the Spring Minestrone. Our friends wander, nibble, ooh and ahh. While I sauté the various vegetables which put the “summer” in our Summer Rissotto, I kiss the women hello and give elbow-hugs to the men to keep them clean.

They rhapsodize over the fresh foccacia, yet I remember why my father stopped making breads from scratch. All that effort, scarfed in seconds.

Andi and JC elbow me aside, tackling the third appetizer so I can start the main course. While I’m not a fan of raisins mixed with anything, the Roasted Peppers with Goat Cheese appetizer is the evening’s clear winner. A perfect blend of textures and flavors- creamy cheese, succulent pepper, the soft crunch of pine nut; spicy, savory with a hint of sweetness, brought together with a kick of cayenne. The glow of white wine helps me push jealousy aside; I’m glad the meal is a team effort.

Everyone knows Andi and me, but not everyone knows each-other. The slow imbibing of alcohol eases awkwardness. Some people vaguely remember each-other from a Thanksgiving potluck dinner Andi and I held some years back, which also helps. Before long conversation comes easily, groups form and reform.

I’m surprised to realize we’ve known Amanda eleven years now. She was my supervisor at Miami’s fourth Starbucks on the corner of Dixie and Ludlam. My first memory of her is fighting over whether or not a Mocha automatically comes with whipped cream. Amanda was right, of course. I’ve since learned not to question her judgment about much.

Some people simply have children; Marta and Irvans raise theirs. I can’t say it about many parents I see, but I have tremendous respect for their skills in raising
two beautiful children. Their yoga studio in Miami’s Design District failed, but Marta responded by starting her own magazine. We owe our LEBO paintings to that studio.

Like us, JC and Laura don’t have children. Like us, they make up for it with a lot of love; in friendships, family, and especially with each-other.

I’ve never seen Maria happier than the last few months she’s been with Roy. Maria has been a vegetarian for twelve years, at least half of which we’ve been friends. I ate vegetarian for seven years so I know it’s a small thing, but I didn’t want any of our guests to feel even the slightest sense that they didn’t belong. But since the last time we saw each-other, Maria has started eating meat (thankfully, Irvans’ vegetarianism means my careful menu plan wasn’t wasted). Not only that, I still think of Roy as Maria’s new boyfriend, but it turns out they’ve been dating two years.

I can’t remember which writer described time as the Old Bald Cheater,* but it’s so.

Sure it's just dinner, but it's nurturing the ties which brought us together in the first place. My mother, gathering my family to the table each night. Our extended-family barbecues and Easter Suppers and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day meals, the week-long Thanksgiving feast. My family traditions live in me when Andi and I cook for our friends.

By the time I brew Italian Roast and Andi brings the biscotti, we’ve meshed as a group. I take a moment to look around the table, see their faces, and let my heart fill. I’ve learned that friendship circles change as our lives evolve; I’ve also learned not to judge the process, but instead to appreciate moments like this evening.

Although I’ve been known to spin a fine web of bullshit with words, romance on short notice is not my specialty. When it’s time to toast, I have nothing. Even though it's no longer in fashion, I opt for sincerity.

“To love and friends,” I say, “the only things that matter.”
I forgot to mention family, but otherwise it’s a passable toast.

Sunday morning, Kim, Andi and I sit at the table. The atmosphere is bittersweet. The quiet is soothing, peaceful, but there’s definitely an after-party letdown. We comment on both.

We were supposed to have Panna Cotta (pg 215) with the biscotti the night before. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize it needed to set overnight. That’s fine, though. With berries, biscotti, and coffee, Andi’s Panna Cotta makes a world-class breakfast.

A spoonful of rich, creamy goodness, and it’s like the meal hasn’t ended.

* “Thou art not to learn the humours and tricks of that old bald cheater, time” - Ben Jonson

Thank you, Frank Stitt, for putting together a great cookbook. Thanks Craig Poplears and Algonquin Books for giving us an excuse to make an excellent meal. Thanks to everyone who ate.

If you know you’re way around the kitchen, the flavors you’ll find in Bottega Favorita are easy and yield amazing results.

Friday, July 3, 2009


Maria always wanted a bounce-house for her thirtieth birthday. With the guests ranging in age from twenty-two to sixty-five, injuries included – but were not limited to – lost fingernails, pulled groins, a broken toe, and one torn ACL which required surgery. I avoided injury by learning from the mistakes of my fellow party-goers. When it came time to fall, better to release your body and let it happen then to fight it.

My abdomen was sore for the entire week from all the bouncing I did. When you’re a kid running around, laughing and giddy until you don’t have breath left, collapsing and laughing even harder, it’s an hourly occurrence. Given the right circumstances, anyway. Even as my parents drank and smoked themselves into lives of quiet desperation, as my brother and sister hung with the neighborhood toughs doing God knows what, I remember spinning and spinning in my neighbor’s yard with two girls, getting dizzier and dizzier, laughing to my bones as the three of us hit the grass together.

I’d forgotten what that felt like, but Maria’s birthday reminded me.

I’m not sure why it makes me think of death. Maybe because it’s all rushing by so quickly, it seems a blink from one moment to the other. Maybe because at midlife, my mind continually turns to the type of life I want to live, how I’m living it now.

To wring everything from life, to give it all I have, then collapse with exhausted laughter before I even realize I’m out of energy, I think that’s a good way to go.