pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

’tis always the season for futzing . . . (at the cookstove, anyway . . .)

a hundred thousand years ago, at a bend in my life when i was mostly a dreamer, and under a rather dark cloud, i hoped i might grow up to be the sort of someone with friends who come for saturday lunch. i’d also hoped i’d live in a house where the walls were stacked in books, rows upon rows of them. and, for reasons that escape me, i dreamed of a bespectacled mate, one with his nose often in books; something of the professorial sort. check, check, and check, lo and behold.

not a day goes by that i don’t all but bend my creaky knees, and press them against the floorboards, whispering not only thank you’s, but practically screeching, holy mackerel how did my dimly-lit hopes come tumbling true?

but about that saturday lunch: there is something in particular about company lunch on a saturday that seems so, well, civilized. cultured, even. people with big ideas come for lunch. to get a jump on the thinking perhaps. to cogitate and prognosticate by the light of the sun. (people who want to plop on a couch inhaling hotdogs and football, they come for lunch too, but they’re not the ones of my attention today.)

dinner by candlelight is a whole nother thing, a thing that might entail the tucked-away china and silver. lunchtime, though, is cozier, maybe with a soupçon of euro-sophistication (it’s long been a way of life in paris, barcelona, or rome to insert a midday pause in the chaos, and relish a slow, sumptuous feast, unfurled in the afternoon’s heat.) and, besides, anything more haute than PB&J suggests true commitment to kitchen wizardry.

those who come for lunch, maybe can’t wait.

lunchtime company kicks off their shoes. settles in for old-fashioned simple foods. bounties built on the basics: soup, cheese, bread, fruit, unfettered sweets. (i suppose my tastes––even in menus––tend toward the monastic.)

but it’s not something i’ve ever done much of. not the sitting-down sort of a lunch. the lunch that’s not pulled from a grease-splattered paper sack, or laid out on the rickety old door of a table i refuse to retire out on our porch (the protests rise higher and higher, summer after summer, as the rickety door grows more and more rickety, but i like it too much to admit its demise).

at six-point-five decades and counting, i am still very much stumbling along. trying to make good on a few more of my dreams before my time is expired.

so it’s no small deal that company’s coming for lunch on the morrow. this particular company is coming with a wee baby, the most scrumptious sort of company i can imagine (especially since i’m not seeing any babes anywhere on the horizon here at this old house). this company is someone i dearly love though i’ve only just known him for the last several months (it was pretty much love at first zoom). he’s a new papa who is achingly in love with his new baby boy. and because he wrote me a bracingly beautiful, deeply vulnerable, letter the other day, i know this lunch will commence in the deep end, where feelings hew close to the heart, and eloquent words are put to the truths. i imagine there might be a tear or two, adding a droplet of salt to the menu.

in dreaming up the sort of lunch that might set the mood for the day, i settled on high comfort: grilled cheese and tomatoey soup, though i’m taking both up a whole notch.

grilled cheese is truly straightforward: bread + butter + cheese. sizzle low and slow for high-level melt. my aim is to dream up a scheme to make these ahead, and slice them into fingers, thus giving me the chance to stack them into a geometry of puzzling dimension (think: jenga of oozy-cheese strips).

and the soup prompted a deep dive into the cookery books, where i’ve settled on a non-negotiable trinity: san marzano tomatoes (tinned, as the lovely brits would put it), basil in leaves and stems, and rind of parmesan. a dribble of red-pepper flakes, an ooze of olive-y oil, a few cloves of garlic, and an overnight slumber in the fridge should provide a bowlful of summer in the darkening days of early december.

because i’m an inveterate futzer, and usually can’t manage to leave well enough alone, i almost never take one recipe’s word for the matter. i like to peruse and muse, and mix things up, culling my plot till it’s just the right calibration. in my mind, i’m cooking before i ever step near the cookstove, before i’ve laced up my apron strings.

because we’re at the cusp of the darkening season, with a few more weeks till the longest, darkest night of them all, it seems a fine moment to haul out the soup pot, and commence the stirring.

here, should you have reason for a saturday lunch, and find yourself in the mood for a summery bowl, is my game plan for provencal tomato, basil, parmesan soup, brought to you by a cooking collective.

Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup, a collective effort…

call me a futzer, or call me a fiddler (or maybe even a muddler), i cannot keep from plucking a little this, a little that, to reach for the stars. And so it goes at the cookstove, when more often that not i stand with an array of roadmaps and mull over the smart way to go. a parmesan rind from Column A, stems of basil from B. 1 + 1 = 3 in my arithmetic book. 

here’s my final equation, when the assignment was a splendid tomato basil soup with undernote of parmesan for saturday lunch with a friend….

Provençal Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup

By Martha Rose Shulman and Ali Slagle and Babs

Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves four 

Martha learned to make this soup years ago when she lived in France. She tells us that if there are no fresh tomatoes at hand, use canned. And she thickens with rice or tapioca, which we’re forgoing, at least on the first go-round. Ali chimes in: “What if you could have a tomato soup that was as plush as a cream of tomato but tasted like pure tomato? Enter Parmesan. Simmering tomatoes with a Parmesan rind is like seasoning a bowl of soup with a shaving of cheese 100 times over. It gives the soup an undercurrent of savory fat and salt that only bring out tomato’s best sides. Many specialty groceries sell containers of rinds, but if you can’t find any, stir 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan into the final soup (or cut off the rind of a wedge you’re working through). Rinds will keep in the freezer for forever, so start saving.” Babs echoes and amplifies both, having plucked the very best bits from each of the kitchen geniuses.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves (to taste), minced
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
Salt to taste
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juice, or 4 pounds tomatoes, cored and diced
Pinch of sugar (optional)2 large sprigs basil, or about 16 leaves, plus 2 tablespoons slivered basil for garnish
[i’m skipping Ali’s call for 1 quart water (or 1/2 wine, 1/2 water), because i’m doubling up on San Marzano tomatoes]
6 ounces Parmesan rind
 Freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup rice or tapioca (optional; i’m trying without it. if necessary, we’ll float our grilled cheese bits in the tomatoey pond.)

For the Garnishes
Garlic croutons (thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted and rubbed with a cut garlic
Grated or shaved Parmesan 

PREPARATION
—Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about five minutes. Stir in half the garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar (if adding), basil sprigs or leaves and remaining garlic. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, 15 to 20 minutes. 

––Add Parmesan rind and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 30 minutes. (If adding the tapioca or rice, add it at the 15-minute mark, then simmer for the remaining 15 minutes until tapioca is tender and the soup fragrant.) Remove basil sprigs and Parmesan rind. Puree in a blender in small batches, taking care to place a towel over the top of the blender and hold it down tightly. (Martha adds: If you used fresh unpeeled tomatoes and want a silkier soup, put through a strainer, using a spatula or the back of a ladle to push the soup through.) Return to the pot, add pepper to taste and adjust salt. Serve garnished with garlic croutons and/or Parmesan, if desired, and slivered basil leaves. If serving cold, refrigerate until chilled. 

Tip:
 Advance preparation: The soup will keep for two or three days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. 

what wintry recipe will you be bringing to your lunchtime table?

leftovers . . . (and a few other morsels besides)

the dishes are mostly done––except for a few errant goblets. the cutting board is oiled and tucked away for a well-deserved slumber. the beds at the top of the stairs are finally all full, and certainly rumpled. (a triple delay between newark and o’hare made me wonder if boy No. 1 would ever get home.) along the day, no one got cut, or burned, or splashed with red wine, and other than bellies too full, we escaped without harms.

it was in fact as hilarious and raucous and savorable a day as ever could be––testament to julian of norwich’s promise that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (i need to inscribe that on my kitchen wall, as i fret and perseverate and plot and re-plot my time charts and checklists, clocked to the quarter hour.)

my prayer is that your day, too, rolled out without a hitch. or at least no unfixable hitches. i know there were empty chairs, and hollowed hearts to go with them. i know some forsook big birds, and all the fussing. but deep down i hope a trickle of grace and gratitude slipped in through one of the cracks.

while the rest of the world races to the mall, or speed dials black-friday shopping deals on their keypads and phones, i’m taking to the woods, or the simple turning of pages. and i’m leaving just a few morsels here.


poets corner: first up, from ross gay, the bloomington, indiana-based poet whose “catalog of unabashed gratitude” is a fine place to begin:

“And thank you, too. And thanks
for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
a pillow, dear one,
for I can feel this is going to be long.
I can’t stop
my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
you, for staying here with me,
for moving your lips just so as I speak.
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.”


nature beat: once upon a time in november of 1947, a poet by the name of jack kerouac sat at his mother’s kitchen table in the working-class ‘hood of ozone park in new york city. he’d just coined the term “beat,” (a word in which he saw double meaning, derived from both “beaten-down” but also “beatitude”), and while waiting to see if he might ever get anything published, he unleashed these lines on november’s harsh winds and inked them into his journal (posthumously published as Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954):

Powerful winds that crack the boughs of November! — and the bright calm sun, untouched by the furies of the earth, abandoning the earth to darkness, and wild forlornness, and night, as men shiver in their coats and hurry home. And then the lights of home glowing in those desolate deeps. There are the stars, though! high and sparkling in a spiritual firmament. We will walk in the windsweeps, gloating in the envelopment of ourselves, seeking the sudden grinning intelligence of humanity below these abysmal beauties. Now the roaring midnight fury and the creaking of our hinges and windows, now the winter, now the understanding of the earth and our being on it: this drama of enigmas and double-depths and sorrows and grave joys, these human things in the elemental vastness of the windblown world.

Jack Kerouac, 1947

storybook corner: i stumbled onto a wonder from nobel-prize winning polish novelist olga tokarczuk the other day, a mostly-picture book titled the lost soul. it’s the tenderest story of a man who’s lost his soul, and in the whole book there are only four pages of text (and three of those are barely a few lines long). the story picks up here:

“once upon a time there was a man who worked very hard and very quickly, and who had left his soul behind him long ago.” a paragraph later we find that “during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and he couldn’t breathe. . .”

he visits a wise, old doctor who tells him: “if someone looked down on us from above, they’d see that the world is full of people running about in a hurry, sweating and very tired, and their lost souls, always left behind, unable to keep up with their owners. the result is great confusion as the souls lose their heads and the people cease to have hearts. the souls know they’ve lost their owners, but most of the people don’t realize that they’ve lost their own souls.”

the wise old doctor’s prescription: “you must find a place of your own, sit there quietly, and wait for your soul.”

and so the man waits. and waits. and waits some more. and with nary another word, we finally see his soul come knocking at the door of a little cottage on the edge of the city, where the man had gone to sit in pure quiet.

and here’s the happy ending: “from then on they lived happily ever after, and john (the man) was very careful not to do anything too fast, so that his soul could always keep up with him. he did another thing too––he buried all his watches and suitcases in the garden. the watches grew into beautiful flowers that looked like bells, in various colors, while the suitcases sprouted into great big pumpkins, which provided john with food through all the peaceful winters that followed.

and may this day in the wake of so much blessing be filled to the brim with the pure joy of savoring –– all without timetables, and stopwatches, and sinks to be scoured.

which will be the first leftover you sink your fork into???

a jump on counting my blessings . . .

photo by will kamin*

the days of late have been plenty gray, sodden gray, gray the color of chimney ash. 

the gray started seeping into me especially this week when someone i love lost her father who might have qualified as one of the dearest men on earth. he was 97 and as alive and filled with curiosity and charm as anyone whose tales i’ve ever known through the close transitive property of one shared soul. i’d never met him, though i longed to, but he came alive to me because his daughter, our very own amy of the chair, told the most animated love-drenched stories of him. his last name was neighbour, and i am pretty sure his amy must have grown up thinking the whole world was singing along with mister rogers when the sweatered one belted, “won’t you be my neighbour?” because who wouldn’t want to be hub neighbour’s neighbor??

the grayness, though, started to shatter when i looked up late yesterday afternoon and saw not one, not three, but six scarlet cardinals circling round my feeder, taking turns at the 0s where the seed dribbles down for the plucking. 

that’s all it took to remind me to count my blessings. 

so i begin with six: cardinals, all in a ring, chasing away the murky gloom of twilight, chasing away the murky shadow that’s been eclipsing a chunk of my soul. . .

more blessings: 

the boy driving home from college on sunday. the dinner i’ll serve, a birthday feast for my very own mama who turned 92 this week, and who longs for birthdays to end, so she can “go home,” to the heaven she pines for. . .

the boy flying home on thanksgiving morn, when his hours among us are brief, too brief, but at least he’ll be here long enough for me to reach under the table and give his fingers a squeeze. and that hallowed night i’ll fall asleep to the sounds of two boys in two ‘cross-the-hall rooms rustling the sheets of their boyhoods, snug in their long-ago beds. . .

the faraway cousin who bathes me in books, this week’s batch a quartet on the birds and wild herbs and trees and critters of ireland, complete with marvelous lore and legend. (according to one celtic telling, the robin is the bird thought to bring comfort to the wounded and suffering. and here’s my favorite part: the plump little bird came to boast its red breast, according to the heavenly irish, when it pulled either a thorn from Jesus’s crown while he hung on the cross, or a nail from his hands or his feet, so Jesus’s blood spattered on the robin and thus it became red-breasted.) . . .

the husband who sits across from me at dinner each night, fielding my curiosities and never ever failing to say thank you for a dinner he always claims “delicious,” (even, i swear, when it’s not). and who, even after all these years, can set my heart soaring because of the way he captures a thought or a phrase, and whose unheralded kindnesses often only i witness. . .

these lines i read from rabbi jonathan sacks’ posthumously published, studies in spirituality: a weekly reading of the jewish bible (more on this some other friday), in a chapter on judaism as a religion of listening . . .

“If I were asked how to find God, I would say: Learn to listen. Listen to the song of the universe in the call of the birds, the rustle of trees, the crash and heave of the waves. Listen to the poetry of prayer, the music of the Psalms. Listen deeply to those you love and who love you. Listen to the words of God in the Torah and hear them speak to you. Listen to the debates of the sages through the centuries as they tried to hear the texts’ intimations and inflections. 

“Don’t worry about how you or others look. The world of appearances is a false world of masks, disguises, and concealments. Listening is not easy. I confess I find it formidably hard. But listening alone bridges the abyss between soul and soul, self and other, I and the Divine.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

the poet friend who’s found the courage to once again plunk herself at my so-called kitchen table writing school (virtually, this go-around), so we can try to chase away whatever demons spook her into thinking she can’t write when in fact she writes in a way that takes my breath away. . .

the friend who never fails to ping me when there’s a glorious moon rising or looming out my late-night window. . .

every single one of you who pulls up a chair. for all these years, known or unknown, you have graced me and blessed me. . .

that’s more blessings than i can count, and i am only just beginning. 

what lines are you adding to your litany of gratitudes this year?

*photo by will kamin, from his AP art photo portfolio from his senior year of high school. now professor kamin, our very own assistant professor of law….

please keep our amy in your prayers. and the soul of her papa.

slow birding

A force in us drives us to the untamed. We dream of the wild, not the domestic, for it is wildness that is unknown….It can be a daily need, a desire to connect with the wind, to live facing the unexpected.

What will bring us wildness in the places we live, domesticated with warmth and culture? For some, icy branches scratching together will suffice. A glimpse of a gibbous moon or a pomegranate-stained evening sky might help. But more than these, more than perhaps anything else, are the birds. These winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones, and made many other compromises for flight––these organisms connect us with here and there, with then and now, as they chatter outside our windows or soar past our lives. 

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan E. Strassmann

i surrender my soul to anyone who looks out the window and sees so vastly, so deeply. someone who understands that the pulsebeat of all creation––timeless creation––is as near as the fluttering in the branch that scrapes against the panes of our window. 

joan strassmann, an animal behaviorist and beloved professor, is the someone who penned those words. she penned them in her new book, Slow Birding, a title that immediately caught my eye (and when i mentioned it to my birdwatching mother, she swiftly informed me she’s been slow birding forever; so much for novel ideas). strassmann writes that she, like my mother, has been a slow birder all her life, not one of those birders frantically motoring hither and yon for a quick glimpse through the binocular lens, a scribbled addition to the “lifelist,” and then onto the next spotting. strassmann is not about “spotting.” she’s about slow-paced study. about taking the time to delight in the humors, startle at the spats (as even regal papa cardinal squawks away the lowly sparrowly choristers), marvel at the parabolas of flight, as feather takes on the wind. she’s all about absorbing the wonder. 

here at my cloister-in-the-making, where the walled garden soon will be serpentined with climbing hydrangea, where an elegant and capacious shingle-roofed bird B+B has been ceremoniously mounted on an elegant hand-carved post (the resident architecture critic thought it would be nifty if the scrolled brackets of the house were matched by post brackets that echoed the scrolling; and our beloved jim the builder obliged), it’s the feathered flocks that spring the whole place to life, to effervescent animation: the crimson troupe of cardinals, the squawking trio of jays, the countless sparrows, the occasional and pesky grackles, the ominous hawk.

with a mind toward soothing and stoking the soul, we’ve pared our dwelling here in this old house to an unfettered few balms: armchairs are ample and poised for conversation, a fireplace crackles with logs from the forest, books line the walls, hours are filled with the quiet of pages turning and spices simmering on the near-ancient cookstove. 

it’s the birds who bring the wild to our windowsills and put flight to our wondering. my housemate here, the aforementioned architecture critic, a man who makes an art of the rhythm of routine, has made it his solemn and devoted morning chore to scoop up a tin of seed and ferry it out to the flocks. whenever i can manage to beat him to the punch, i punctuate my seed dumping with a cheery call to the flocks, to let them know that breakfast is served. i refer to my birds in the diminutive. “here, sweeties,” i call, much to the dismay, i fear, of the neighbors. (but, oh well, they put up the fence so i can do as i wacky-well please in my now-secret walled garden.)

and even though our birding has always been slow, i find strassmann’s intentionality, her keen and fine-grained observations of the ways of each and every genre of bird, has me upping my game. putting down distraction, training my eye out the window for longer and longer spells of the day. taking note of peculiar particulars i might otherwise miss. (it’s excellent training for the whole of one’s closely examined and attentively-lived sole chance at life.)

strassmann passes along the wisdom of famed ornithologist margaret morse nice whose instruction is at once spare yet richly complex: sit still and watch. draw what you see, perhaps, the singular birds who flutter and flit. befriend them. scribble notes in a journal you keep by the window. 

but why a whole book, a 334-page book, if the instruction itself is so brief? well, strassmann explains that she delves into the intricacies of sixteen birds––and five bird-watching places––because to know the ways of the birds, to know each particular one’s biological story, is to illuminate all the more what we might otherwise be utterly missing out yonder. and thus we might look and look more closely.

the stories, obtained over the lifetimes of various ornithologists who trained their lenses on a single question or puzzle or species, might leave you oohhing and ahhing and racing to windows.

for instance: blue jays––noisy, bossy––are “the most american of birds, occurring in every state” (though not a single state claims the jay as its state bird); the american robin is the “earthworm whisperer,” and when a robin cocks its head toward the earth, it’s listening for the rustle of the underground worm; the ubiquitous sparrow is a bird with roots in bethlehem (yes, that bethlehem), and once was considered a pot-pie delicacy (thankfully those days are behind us––and the sparrow); and finally, the cardinal has reason for chasing after the reddest of berries: the carotenoids in the fruits make for a deeper red of its feathers (and not only that, but the redder the cardinal, the more desirable it’s regarded in the feathered fiefdom of red-bird mating).

it’s all endlessly wondrous to me, the alchemy of poetry and science and feather on air, the proximity of the wild, the animations of beings both social and singular. 

there is something about the delicate ways of the avian world, something about the simple existence of seed and nest, flight and song, that stirs in me an exercise of the prayerful. it’s as close as i come to the wild day in and day out, and it draws me every time into a marveling that makes me sense i’ve been brushed by the holy divine. 

what will you do slowly today?

the other night i was blessed to sit and listen in proximity to pádraig ó tuama, who among many wonders spoke about how he loves birds and irish names for birds, and i was enchanted. because he’s as kind and generous as he is brilliant, yesterday afternoon he sent me the poem he’d read—“now i watch through an open door”––with the irish names for various birds woven into the poetry, and so i am including here the last stanza, with the names highlighted and i’m adding a little glossary below, so you too might be enchanted by the names the irish put to their birds…..

Oh forest flame, oh young light on the old oak,
oh small brown druid I hear
but never see. Oh red king of the morning, oh dainty feet
among the dungheaps, and fierce goose
with fierce goslings, oh muscled hare, russeted
by the long evening. Oh my
low deer, powerful and insignificant,
oh glen, oh magnificent.

irish names for birds:

*goldfinch: “bright flame of the forest” 

*wren: “brown druid”

*chaffinch: “red king”

barn owl: “graveyard screecher”

red wing: “little red one of the snow”

meadow pipit: “little streaked one of the bog/moor”

kestrel: “wind frolicker”

bullfinch: “little scarlet one of the woods”

greenfinch: “little green one of the oak tree”

oh, sigh, oh magnificent irish….

one last thing: i’ve been invited by a dear friend, the poet mark burrows, to partake of a celebration of the great austrian-bohemian poet rainer maria rilke, on dec. 4, rilke’s birthday. i quake to tell you that we’ll be in conversation with none other than pádraig ó tuama, and the details are spelled out in the flyer below. and you can find out more and register for the free zoom program here. (you’ll need to scroll down a wee bit; it’s the third in the roster of events…) (my favorite part of the flyer is where it notes the time of the event in ireland! be still my ol’ irish heart….)

and that, dear friends, is it for the week. be well, and be slow….

george booth has died and other news of the week…

George Booth, the New Yorker cartoonist who created a world of oddballs sharing life’s chaos with a pointy-eared bull terrier that once barked a flower to death, and sometimes with a herd of cats that shredded couches and window shades between sweet naps, died on Tuesday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 96.

so begins the new york times obituary of a man who infused my childhood. no, he didn’t frequent the five-and-dime in our leafy little town. he didn’t populate the pews of our native church. he came in the mail. every week. and in the weeks when he graced the cover, or was tucked inside the confines of william shawn’s new yorker (known as “the holy grail for cartoonists”), you could count on tracking down my mother if you traced the vapors of her out-loud laughing to where you’d find her giddily all but hiding behind the glossy pages of the slick. she would laugh, back then and even now, in a way that made you think there was something almost-naughty about those pages, which of course made us, her troupe of five, scamper to its pages soon as she abandoned it on the stack of mail, where hours later our ad man of a dad (who never met a joke or pun he didn’t relish) would saunter on the scene and chuckle at whatever was the funny. 

george booth proved to us that our mother — the very one who trained us to eat our peas and lima beans without complaint, and never tell a lie, to ne’er ignore the dinner bell, and always look both ways –– had a secret compartment full of almost-naughty humor. and if we kept close watch, we too might figure out the shortcut to some eternally redemptive funny bone. 

thus, coming upon the news that mr. booth has died this week, and that his wife of 64 years had died a mere six days earlier (such tales of love and lives that end in stunning unison nearly always make me weak at the knees), i felt a thud to the heart that only certain deaths elicit. 

there is a minor cast of characters in every childhood — the names that brought applause, the ones whose books most frequently recurred, the ones whose movies brought us the rare chance to blow a bedtime  –– who indelibly marked our evolution, and maybe formed the foggy outlines of who we aimed to be when we grew up. or at least what attributes we might try on for size. 

if i close my eyes and tick through the litany of those my mother ushered in, the ones held up in near heroic halo, it’s george booth & co., the new yorker cartoony cast; peg bracken, she of the i hate to cook cookbook; it’s doris day and julia child, all of whom made my mother giggle. it must have been the giggle that so allured. it was a merriment i must have longed for, and long for still. laughter belongs to a human register all its own, audible proof of joyful stirring deep inside. w. h. auden once observed: “among those whom i like or admire, i can find no common denominator, but among those whom i love, i can: all of them make me laugh.”

thank you, mr. booth, for bringing laughter, so much muffled laughter, to the house where i grew up.

in other news, i find myself absorbing the miracle of 70-degree november days. took me a long time — too long — to learn to freeze-frame pure joy and deep-down contentment. but now the hours of my days are as if beads threaded on a string, not unlike the rosaries i long ago learned to pray: mysteries joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. not a bad paradigm for living. learn to live bead by bead, moment to holy saturated moment. allow each orb to shine in all its constitution, be it radiant or shadowed or somewhere in between. and the beauty of these days, when the leaves are blazing paint-pot hues –– aubergine and persimmon, pure gold and harvard crimson –– they tap me on the soft shell of my soul, and whisper: this is holy time. behold it well. 

george booth would make me laugh at that. but he’s no longer here. so it’s on us to find the humor hidden in the chaos of the every day. 

who comprised the minor cast of characters in your growing up years? who made your mama laugh or cry, who or what did you aspire to be when you grew up and moved away from home?

this is booth’s cartoon in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the new yorker had decided no cartoons for that issue, but george submitted this anyway; the cat covering its face with its paws, the usually animated fiddle-playing miss rittenhouse (a recurring character modeled after booth’s mother), head down, hands clasped in prayer, sadly silenced by it all.

musings on sainthood . . .

soon-to-be-beheaded st. babs

i’m actually in amherst, massachusetts, this morning, about to traipse over to the homestead, the butter-yelllow brick house where emily dickinson was born and penned her nearly 1,800 poems, and i’m even hoping for a peek into the upstairs room where it all flowed from her inkwell, a room not normally on the itinerary of those who tiptoe in hushed tones through the hallways of emily’s house on the hill. but with an eye toward next week’s all saints day (a day that’s always captured my imagination), i spent a bit of this week musing on sainthood, just another name for what this world needs abundantly, urgently, in the form of plain old honest-to-goodness holiness, empathy, unheralded kindness, and megadoses of humility.


saint (n.)

early 12c. as an adjective, seinte, “holy, divinely inspired, worthy of worship,” used before proper names (Sainte Marian Magdalene, etc.), from Old French saint, seinte “holy, pious, devout,” from Latin sanctus “holy, consecrated,” past participle of sancire “consecrate.” It displaced or altered Old English sanct, which is directly from Latin sanctus.


i’ve had my eye on the saints since i was a wee thing. in the catholic imagination of my first and second grade, i thought hard about the haloed ones held up in the pages of my religion books. we were schooled to be demure, kind (endlessly kind), and enamored with Jesus (always dashingly handsome with his ambered skintones and long flowing locks in the full-color catechism primers, which wisely omitted most of the stories of tortures to which the anointed had had to submit). 

every night, i prayed to be saintly and attempted what i thought might be a postural shortcut: i began by smoothing my patchwork covers, then i’d lie as still as the mummies that scared me in the darkened chambers of chicago’s labyrinthine field museum of natural history, and then––the clincher––i clasped my hands in my best saintly imitation and hoped to move not even a squiggle during the night, to awake still clasped in prayerful pose. it seemed the first in a series of requisite feats on the dusty pilgrimage to sainthood.

by day, i practiced my fledgling aspirations on a lady bug, my fumbled attempt at assisian communing with all of creation. i built her a village––complete with steepled church––and ordained her high priestess of the cardboard hamlet. i checked on her last thing at night, and first thing in the morning, making sure her wings still opened and closed, and that she hadn’t succumbed to inside air. then i let her go. opened the window and unfurled the chant: “go little lady, go free!” and off into the orchard behind our house she flew, the happiest well-loved ladybug that ever there was. 

since i’ve long been an ecumenicist at heart, and don’t subscribe to any of the ecclesial hoops and tangles that dictate who’s in and who’s out in the saintly department, i go about my saint-watching by intuition and impulse. i know a saint when i see one or sense one. a saint to me is just another name for someone whose deep-down goodness is pure as pure can be. while catholics insist on a step-ladder to sainthood, other world religions seem just as intent on holiness but without the boxes to check. according to page 8033 of the thomson gale encyclopedia of religion (2nd edition):

“Historians of religion have liberated the category of sainthood from its narrower Christian associations and have employed the term in a more general way to refer to the state of special holiness that many religions attribute to certain people. The Jewish hasid or tsaddiq, the Muslim waliy, the Zoroastrian fravashi, the Hindu rsi or guru, the Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist shengren, the Shinto kami and others have all been referred to as saints.”

the best of the saints (hasids, waliys, fravashis, gurus, bodhisattvas, shengrens, kamis), in my book, are the quotidian ones. the ones whose everyday garb keeps them from being noticed. except for their kindness, the certain radiance they leave in their wake, the sense that something holy has just brushed by, you might not notice the saintly among us. 

but they leave behind a mark, a certain mark, a change of heart, a new expanse of seeing. we become better, bigger of heart and soul, kinder, gentler, maybe quieter, certainly softer, because of them. that’s saintly to me. 

among the saints i’ve known in my life, there was the old wrinkled man who perched on a fire hydrant befriending the pigeons. “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today,” joe zeman, the pigeon man of lincoln square once told me. 

and there was the foster mother who’d taken in nearly 100 newborns, and who was sitting by a hospital crib when she looked up and told me: “i’m no mother teresa,” she insisted, wrapping her fingers around a metal rung of the crib, as her littlest toddler was being infused with drip after drip of cancer-fighting chemo. “i always think of something i saw in the New World (a catholic newspaper) in which a columnist was saying, `i’d hate to be in line at heaven’s gate behind mother teresa when God looks down and says, `you could have done more.’”

even now, when it’s no longer my job to scour the landscape in search of those sorts of souls whose goodness leaps off the newspaper page, i find saints in the unlikeliest places: behind the cash register at the grocery store; in the catering office of my college kid’s dining hall; at a check-in gate at america’s busiest airport; in the lady down the alley who never dresses in anything fancier than her mud-stained sweats but who routinely writes checks for thousands of dollars for families in trouble, be it escape from afghanistan or domestic abuse. (a secret i discovered only by listening closely, and connecting a dot or two.)

so what makes a saint a saint, or a hasid a hasid, or a bodhisattva a bodhisattva

is it answering to an otherworldly call, the whisper of the holy divine? is it believing that the glimmering lights of the public square are simply distractions; turning instead to a quieter code, one infused with boundless empathy more than anything: love as you would be loved? is it the courage to call out injustice, to muster the chutzpah to say, “this isn’t right. you’re treating her poorly. your words are scarring her, leaving welts where they’ve hit her.” is it emanating a peacefulness, a serenity, that comes from knowing yours is a timeless eternal, a blessing for ever and all time?

what makes a saint a saint, what makes holiness holy? 

it’s a question worth asking, but mostly it’s a question to put to work. what are the scant few things you might include in, say, a manual for the would-be saint, the very title of a poem i left here on the old maple table a few years ago, after coming upon them in a book i was reviewing for the tribune. i’ll leave the first lines here again, as a place to begin your own musings on sainthood. 

Manual for the Would-Be Saint
by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…but you might be inclined to pen your own…)

because i’m so worried about the world, and the evils and horrors that seem to be steamrolling goodness, i’m thinking we might put forth a collective effort here, outline a framework for how we might bring a bolus of holiness into this world. have at it. i’ll chime in too…

what do you see or sense when you encounter someone you’re sure is steeped in a certain holiness, another name for the sainted?

emily d., the belle of amherst

contemplating hope . . .

In Any Event

If we are fractured
we are fractured
like stars
bred to shine
in every direction,
through any dimension,
billions of years
since and hence.

I shall not lament
the human, not yet.
There is something
more to come, our hearts
a gold mine
not yet plumbed,
an uncharted sea.

Nothing is gone forever.
If we came from dust
and will return to dust
then we can find our way
into anything.

What we are capable of
is not yet known,
and I praise us now,
in advance.

Dorianne Laux

i am contemplating hope, as it seems to me — and maybe to you, too — that we are living in a darkening world. a world whose headlines are chasing me away, whose headlines often sicken me. i find myself feeling the urge to draw within, to curl into a tight mollusk, a chambered nautilus of the soul. i look at flickers of the news and hear the echoes of history, a boomerang of hideousness i never dreamt would come this way again. 

i am giving thought to how to live in a world where darkness gathers, how to keep an ember glowing. in my soul and in my world. can random acts of kindness be enough to keep the incandescence from extinguishing? is unending prayer enough to shift the course of history, to undermine the ugliness that seems without end or purpose? has it ever been?

i’d been thinking more humility was the desperately-needed imperative, the very thing this self-obsessed world — intoxicated by celebrity, by overblown parading in the public square — most emphatically calls for. i still think so. humility in a world of supersized ego is as countercultural as can be. and it just might expand our gaze, allow us to see past our own blinding appetites, make us more willing to quietly, determinedly turn the other cheek. to be the necessary instruments of peace, to sow pardon where there’s injury, love where there’s hatred. it’s a centuries-old prayer, the prayer of st. francis, and it is true for me each and every morning. now more than ever.

but read a little further in the prayer, and it calls for hope where there’s despair. 

despair is spreading like a cancer. it undergirds the cynicism everywhere. it’s the magnetic pull toward apathy. it’s surrender punctuated with slamming of the door. it snuffs out every shard of light.

so now i’m thinking hard about hope, the counterforce of gloom, despondency, profound sorrow (each and every one, another name for despair). where does hope begin? how might we stir it? feel its updraft catch beneath our wings? 

i don’t have answers. 

in time, though, i may stumble on inklings.

but there are poets, now and ever. poets like dorianne laux, whose words came to me this week and made me feel that fetal kick that might be where hope begins. when someone wiser and deeper draws the faint outlines of the life ropes we just might need. 

dorianne laux

dorianne laux, who worked as a waitress, a sanitorium cook, a gas-station manager, and a maid before getting a BA in english at 36 from mills college in oakland (and has gone on to be a pulitzer finalist, and a guggenheim fellow), and who is absolutely one of my most beloved poets, begins with “fractured” in the poem above. 

fractured is how i sometimes feel. fractured has sharper edges than just plain broken. fractured is what bones do when they split and crack. sometimes hairline, sometimes compound. fractured makes a snapping sound. fractured is low-down broken. sometimes shattered.

but dorianne doesn’t leave us at fractured. she turns our gaze swiftly toward the stars, which are fractured too, but into pretty little points. and it’s the points of stars where the shining, twinkling comes. it’s where the light pings or oozes i don’t know which; i’m not a physicist of the heavens. i’m only someone who watches and wonders. maybe it’s where the light –– twinkling, shining –– bounces off the brokenness. it’s the brokenness that makes for the dizzying luminescence. stars in their brokenness are bred to shine in every direction. maybe that’s something to think about.

and then dorianne goes on to tell us that it’s not time yet to lament. “there is something more to come,” she promises. 

our hearts still are goldmines to be plumbed. our little bitty self-contained vessels of all that’s good, all that’s holy; no one’s got a right to reach in and steal those hearts, to tap those hearts of all that’s bottled up inside. all the sweet succulence of all the kindness we’ve known in our whole lives. all the times we’ve been forgiven. all the times someone gentle looked our way and whispered words that might have made us feel beautiful, and seen. don’t abandon those sacred hearts, turn over the keys to whatever evil awfulness might flatten you. guard those good and plenty hearts as if your life depended on it, as if the good world depended on it. because it does, it does. 

and so, dorianne was just the lifeline i needed as i began to consider hope, as i set out to figure out how to live wisely and luminously in a world where dark skies are growing denser in the distance. 

my considerations of hope are only just beginning.

What we are capable of
is not yet known,
and I praise us now,
in advance.

where do you find hope? does it come in faint traces, or in bold strokes that sometimes bowl you over? do you sometimes feel the hairline fractures in your heart or your soul? 

i let it rip this week. once upon a time, this would be the very sort of meander my mother-in-law would have met with deafening silence. too dark, she’d diagnose it. and leave me to second-guess the whole day long. should i have held back? but to ignore the chasms that rend us apart, push us away from one another, to ignore the fallout that inevitably shrouds the tender among us is to let the rot seep in till it’s too, too late. i am determined in my searching for hope. and thank you, dorianne, for pointing me in hopeful direction….

something screwy happened when i was typing and all of the sudden everything shrank. i tried and tried to fix it, but it might still be screwy. i’ll keep trying to fix it. till then, put on your magnifying lenses……

turning the page with a tug and a pull

we are definitely turning the page here at this old shingled house. the bespectacled architecture critic no longer calls me from the office at 8 at night, saying he’ll be stuck writing for a few more hours. there are no carpools to coordinate, no getting up at 5 in the morning for soccer matches in kingdom come. i’ve gotten used to the new geographies in my head, the ones that have me simultaneously keeping track of news, weather, and covid in new york city and the middlelands of ohio, the current turfs of both of our birthlings. 

somehow, without notice, without even a sign posting the warning, we’ve moved into the loveliest calmest quietest chapter of our married life that ever there was. (do not think of even uttering a syllable of the R word, the one synonymous with hanging up one’s professional hat; one of us has no intention of putting away the keyboard and the other seems to have taken up full-time swimming, biking, and running across finish lines). underscoring the shift, this year we’ll be racking up plenty of lasts in the kid department: the last college drop off. last parents weekend. last winter and spring breaks. last graduation. last packing up the dorm room. last whopping tuition bill. 

we are, very much so, on the final verge of true empty nesting.

it’s a mix tinged with poignancy, and a good measure of disbelief. time passes so swiftly, you suddenly realize. after years and years of thinking the routines will never be broken. poof, and they’re gone! 

we’re late to this party, only because i found myself in a delivery room when others i knew were there awaiting their grandbabies, but i was there because of what felt and always will feel like i somehow squeaked through the maternity ward as the very last egg was being cleared from the deck. and, as with so much in my life, i’ve been soaking it in from every which angle, taking none of it lightly, extracting as much as i possibly could at every twist, turn, and trial along the way. 

ours, these days, is a quiet life by choice. my favorite hours are nestled in books and on my knees in the garden, over coffees with people i love, and the dinners at the end of the day when we weave together the threads we’ve both followed all through the day. i know full well that every drop of it is pure blessing, a benevolence no one deserves, for life is not doled out in rewards and punishments. we just get what we get, and it’s ours to savor or squander. i’ve had more than enough hours staring into the shadowed abyss, imagining sudden endings, to perk up my relishing gears. (the bright side of being a doomsayer is that any and every happy ending is reason for rousing hallelujah. don’t mind my scrambled up wiring. seven decades in, it works for me just as it is.) 

anyway, this weekend’s the last-ever parents weekend, that glorious mix of scintillating speakers and professorial panels, long strolls across a campus straight out of the picture books, and delivering a pile of groceries and pies and blankets and boots only a college kid’s idiosyncratic tastes would relish or request (who else would send a middle-of-the-night text asking for portwine spread cheese, rubber-soled boots, and someplace good to go out for dinner?). i plan to savor every sweet drop, knowing not long from now i’ll pine for the chance to make-believe i’m a kid savoring college. (as long as i don’t peek in the mirror, and wonder who in the world is the one with the locks now the color of silvery moon.)

i know, because life has taught me over and over, whole new adventures await, and none of this will ever get dull. but i’ve loved this part where you hover fairly closely over the shoulder of the kids you’ve brought into the world, and feel your heart grow by the week and the month and the year. i know, because life is already teaching me, each of their new adventures becomes vicariously mine, and therein lies a whole nother joy. but now, here i am at the precipice looking both ways. and mostly i’m grateful for this heart that finds it hard to let go….


because we’re motoring back and forth in three short days (the weekend cut short by a work trip to houston for the one more apt to be running or riding these days), i’m keeping this short, and will leave you instead with two little morsels: a peek inside the little book that landed on my stoop the other night, and a soup i plan to make on one of the autumnal days next week when the critic is chowing down on texas barbecue. slow cooking is in sync with my slow, savoring ways. 

first, a peek at the Advanced Reading Copy of The Book of Nature, with a look at the cover, the table of contents, and the first page of the foreword.


photo by Bobbi Lin, NYT

Creamy Cauliflower Soup With Harissa Tomatoes
By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Yield: 6 servings

INGREDIENTS
1 large head cauliflower (about 3 pounds), trimmed and cut into 1-inch florets (about 12 cups)
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) and freshly ground black pepper
1-1⁄4 teaspoons ground coriander
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 small bunch thyme (about 10 sprigs)
1 pound plum tomatoes, halved, seeds scooped out
2 to 4 tablespoons harissa paste
3 large bunches scallions, whites and greens thinly sliced (about 21⁄2 cups)
1 jalapeño, seeded (if desired) and coarsely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1-1⁄2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
6 cups vegetable stock
3⁄4 cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more for optional garnish
1 lemon

PREPARATION
Step 1
Heat oven to 425 degrees and line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
Step 2
In a large bowl, combine cauliflower, 1 teaspoon salt, a large pinch of black pepper, 3⁄4 teaspoon ground coriander, 3 tablespoons oil and half the thyme sprigs, tossing everything until well coated. Spread the cauliflower evenly across one of the prepared pans.
Step 3
Using the same bowl (no need to wash it first), combine halved tomatoes, 1 to 2 tablespoons of harissa (depending on how spicy your harissa is; taste it first), 2 tablespoons olive oil, a large pinch of salt and the remaining thyme sprigs, and toss gently until the tomatoes are well coated. Spread tomatoes on the other baking sheet, cut-side up.
Step 4
Place both sheet pans in the oven and roast for 20 minutes, then stir the cauliflower but not the tomatoes. Continue to roast until cauliflower is golden brown and tender, 15 to 20 minutes longer (35 to 40 minutes total roasting time). Transfer cauliflower pan to a rack, and discard thyme sprigs.
Step 5
Using tongs, gently flip tomatoes over so their cut sides are down. Using the tongs, pinch off the tomato skins – they should slip right off – and discard. Brush 1 to 2 more tablespoons of harissa onto tomatoes and continue to roast until shriveled and condensed, about 15 to 25 minutes (35 to 45 minutes total roasting time).
Step 6
While tomatoes are roasting, make the soup: In a large pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium. Add scallions (saving 1⁄4 cup scallions for serving) and jalapeño, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly colored, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add another 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt, black pepper to taste, cumin and tomato paste, and cook until tomato paste darkens and caramelizes, 2 to 3 minutes.
Step 7
Stir in roasted cauliflower and stock, and bring to a simmer. Cook, partly covered, over medium-low heat until all vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. (Alternatively, you can purée it in batches in a food processor or blender.)
Step 8
Transfer the roasted tomatoes into a mixing bowl and add cilantro. Using a Microplane or other fine grater, grate zest from about half the lemon into the bowl, then stir in 1⁄2 teaspoon coriander and reserved scallions.
Step 9
Using a fork or spoon, break up some of the tomatoes as you combine everything. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze a little into the tomatoes, then taste and add more salt and lemon juice as needed. It should taste well seasoned and a little tangy.
Step 10
To serve, squeeze in the juice from half the lemon. Taste and add salt, pepper and lemon if needed. Ladle soup into individual bowls and dollop harissa tomatoes on top; top with olive oil and more cilantro, if you like.

how do you savor the most succulent parts of your life? and do you, like me, find turning the page a bit of a tug and a pull?

an ode to figs, the “bursten” fruit

in which for no reason other than pure whimsy and succulence itself, we behold the fig—to my taste, the essence of autumn, and the finest fruit borne from the boughs of any earthly tree….


few are the foods for which i churn an honest-to-goodness hankering. foods that might wake me up in the night, and turn my tummy to growling. the fig of october is one such specimen. i am not one to dream of cakes, couldn’t care less for a mousse, and turn up my nose at anything chocolate (yes, yes, i count these among my mis-wirings). and while there are foods aplenty that i eat day after day—broccoli, apples, nonfat greek yogurt, frozen bananas (the banal list of a thoroughly unadventurous eater)—rare is the edible that stirs me from stupor or slumber, yearning to nibble. (midway through wednesday’s yom kippur fast, and deep in my recent string of high-fevered days, i found myself longing for even one succulent fig. and that’s when i knew i needed to compose a commonplace ode to the Ficus carica, a fruit ancient and timeless.)

yes, rare is the fig, which i pile on my plate but for one short season a year. well before we get to its taste, the way it melts across the tongue and glides down the gulch with a honeyed-sweetness all along the way, i find the fig a mouthwateringly beautiful object, a bulbous aubergine orb, streaked with brushstrokes of plum and sienna. and that’s only the outside. 

to split the fig from its umbilical nub into quarters is to expose its sumptuous flesh, densely seeded, nearly R-rated. it’s no wonder renaissance painters often found ways to tuck a fig into the frame (almost a where’s waldo of painterly fruits). inside or out, it’s summa botanica.

it’s a fruit at the root of all the world’s religions. did not adam and eve reach for the leaf of the fig the very instant they realized their nakedness? the original pasties, i suppose. even now, the fig leaf is the very symbol of flimsy modesty, of shabbily covering that which shames or embarrasses but which is more or less in plain sight anyway. hardly shamefully, the fig was the tree that shaded Siddhartha Guatama for the 49 days during which he enlightened his way toward becoming the Buddha. his fig tree was the Bo, or Bodhi—Ficus religiosa, a species known to grow ninety feet tall and live for two thousand years, and whose leaves are shaped like hearts. 

for the more than the nine thousand years the fig has heavied boughs in the global garden, it’s been considered a “keystone species,” one critical to the survival of a disproportionately large chunk of an ecosystem, and without which that ecosystem would be drastically changed. no fewer than twelve hundred different kinds of animals depend on figs, including one-tenth of the world’s birds, and, yes, a certain wasp that takes its name from the fleshy fruit, the diminutive fig wasp.

you might be surprised to know that figs are actually inside-out flowers, hundreds of flowers trapped inside that aubergine casing. and if perhaps, as a young child, you were scared off from figs because someone told you that if you bit into it you’d be biting into a dead wasp wedged inside, here’s the real story:

the female fig wasp, dusted with pollen from her own birth inside yet another fig, wriggles her way into an unripe fig by way of the opening at the round base, called the ostiole, whereby stripping off her wings in the process. (imagine a piling of itty-bitty diaphanous wasp wings there at the base of every wild fig tree.) she is a wee waspy thing—roughly the size of the tip of a pencil or crayon (an aubergine crayon perhaps, from the original 64-color crayolas that stand as pert bright-colored soldiers all in their rows)—and she lives for only two days, during which she is duty- and DNA-bound to safely penetrate the fig and lay her eggs among the tiny flowers, thus pollinating the flowers. she dies shortly after. (fear not, the enzymes of the fruit dissolve what’s left of the wee wasp; and fear even less because nearly all figs you might find in the fruit bin these days have been domestically produced, and are not of the wild waspy variety.) of the juice left behind, post waspiness, pliny the elder termed it “the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.” (case in point: my febrile hankering.)

figs, it’s been said, are “extra, full of drama.” cleopatra, it’s told, ordered that the Egyptian cobra she intended as her suicide weapon, be brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. alexander the great claimed that ten thousand of his soldiers sheltered under a single fig tree. and d.h. lawrence, whom i never knew was something of a raunchy ol’ fellow, compared an overripe “bursten” fig to a prostitute “making a show of her secret.” 

here’s the poem where he plays with that…

the first few lines of his 1924 poem, titled simply, “figs”…(and said to be confirmation of why this man of letters was considered one of the most risqué writers of his time…)

The proper way to eat a fig, in society
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist,
honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put  your mouth to the crack and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.

now i’ve not ever considered the fig in a trollopian way, though i can see how its sweet succulence might push it toward the precipice of such considerations. 

while my one and only way to eat a fig is straight-up; rinsed, quartered to reveal its “bursten”-ness, speared with tine of fork, and inhaled in a single shwoop, you might take your figs more encumbered, or rather baked into something beyond deliciousness. if you’re of the latter class, here’s an almond and fig cake for you….

almond and fig cake
from mrs. larkin’s kitchen on food52
Serves 6

8 – 10 small ripe figs, stems removed, sliced in half vertically
3/4 cups slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top of batter
zest of 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

*Set oven rack to upper third. Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter an 8″ cake pan and line with parchment paper.
*Process almonds, 2 Tablespoons of sugar and orange zest until finely ground.
*Beat butter and remaining sugar together at high speed until pale and fluffy. Add vanilla and combine. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the almonds, flour and salt.
*Spread batter in cake pan. Place fig halves in concentric circles, evenly spaced, over the batter. Press in slightly. Sprinkle some sugar (about 2 tablespoons) over the entire surface. Bake on a sheet pan until cake is firm and nicely golden brown with darker edges, about 25 minutes.
*Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a dish, remove parchment, and re-invert onto a serving plate.

what might be the fruits that lure you to the fridge (or the tree) in the deep of the night, or the heat of the day??? and how do you like them best?

with a little poking around, i found the taste of the fig described thusly, as if a high-end wine assayed by a fine-palated sommelier: NPR describes its “honey-like sweetness with a subtle hint of berry and fresher shades of the flavor you might recognize from a certain cookie.” a restaurateur says figs taste something like a “berry dipped in a honey glaze.” one poet wrote that the taste of a perfect fig “cuts straight through time.” how might you describe it?

p.s. i am, i believe, cured from whatever the heck ailed me for six straight days. whatever it was, it wasn’t covid, and it was nasty. but it’s history now, and the month of october awaits….

sick days

the countryside i’d been hoping to see before a fever felled me this week….(photo by elizabeth marie black)

Wednesday I woke up with a fever. Thursday I woke up with a fever. And now it’s Friday, and I am still lying here with a fever. It’s not covid! But it’s not very friendly. And it’s the second time in two weeks my bones have ached so much I considered trading them in.

Sick days when you’re long past school days aren’t much fun. Excitement comes in the form of planting a thermometer under your tongue, and waiting for the beep. I try to guess if the numbers will be up or down.

I was supposed to be out in the country on Wednesday. But the cows will have to wait. And the waist-high grasses glistening in September’s sun. 

Once upon a time, I never minded a sick day. Once or twice I might have rubbed the thermometer against the threads of my bedsheets, registering a fever that gave me excuse to stay home from church and tucked under the covers reading a book I couldn’t put down. In a family of five getting to ring a little bell, beckoning gingerale or saltine crackers, meant for a little extra notice from the folks running the show. 

But nowadays, I sit by the window watching the sunlight and wish I was playing outside. 

In the meantime, a thousand prayers for everyone in the wake of Ian, the terrible horrible hurricane. The world is fevered, all right. 

what’s your tried and true cure for the days when you’re felled by a bug?

because i hate to leave you short, here’s an autumnal salad from my dear friend emily nunn, who started the “Tables for Two” column at The New Yorker, and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, and is side-splittingly hilarious and whose department of salad: official bulletin is worth every penny of its annual subscription, or free for an abbreviated once-a-week edition. and read even more about her here when dear emily graced the cover of the new york times food section.:

*RECIPE: An Autumnal Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Radicchio, Pecorino and Pepitas
from the inimitable Emily Nunn
Serves 4-6

2 small sweet potatoes, roasted in their skin until fork tender but not mushy, then refrigerated unpeeled; emily does this at 400°F, for about 50 minutes to an hour
1 medium head of radicchio, leaves separated and torn into bite-size pieces (you may also shred the radicchio as if for coleslaw, which is delicious and beautiful, but it won’t stay as crisp, something to consider if you’re interested in resilience here)
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced (emily used her mandoline), tossed with fresh lemon juice (a tablespoon or so)
1 tart fall apple, cored, quartered, thinly sliced crosswise (no need to peel; again, emily used her mandoline), then gently tossed with lemon juice (a tablespoon or so; don’t break your apples when tossing)
1 very small shallot, minced (or 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion)
Pecorino (or Parmesan, if you wish), a 2 to 3 ounce chunk, shaved with a vegetable peeler (emily likes a lot)
1/2 cup or so roasted salted pumpkin seeds (or pepitas)
Chopped chives, a half cup or more
Torn basil leaves, a half cup or more
Prosciutto, one or two slices per person, on the side (optional but recommended)
Flaky sea salt
Molasses Vinaigrette (below)

  1. Peel and slice your refrigerated sweet potatoes into 1/3-inch rounds, then into half-moons or quarter (I used rounds in the photo simply because they were pretty; you’ll get better distribution with halves or quarters).
  2. Line a platter or shallow bowl with the torn or shredded radicchio (you may wish to toss it with a few tablespoons the dressing first).
  3. Decorate the radicchio with the sweet potatoes then strew it all with the fennel, apples, shallot or red onion, and generous pecorino shavings; scatter this with the pumpkin seeds and herbs. Drizzle generously with the Molasses Vinaigrette and bring to the table, accompanied by the extra dressing in a little pitcher, a dish of flakey sea salt, and a small plate of abstractly folded slices of prosciutto, for those who wish to enjoy it alongside their salad.

    NOTE Another way to do this: Gently toss all the ingredients—except for the cheese, pumpkin seeds, and the prosciutto—together with some of the dressing (about half, to start; add more to taste) then top with the cheese and seeds; serve the extra dressing and the prosciutto on the side.

Molasses Vinaigrette
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 small clove garlic, grated on your microplane
2 teaspoons molasses (emily buys the basic grocery store stuff used for baking; she says it’s delicious but powerful)
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ to ¼ teaspoon cayenne (one or two pinches)

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all the ingredients and shake until well emulsified. You may want a touch more cider vinegar or lemon, or more salt; do this now and re-shake.

i’m especially saying prayers this morning for marsha in low country who’s expecting a walloping from ian today, and janet who might be down florida way but might still be safely tucked on the shores of a wisconsin fresh-water lake. and the millions we don’t know in the sweep of ian’s devastation.