Friday, February 27, 2009

In the Argentina of My Mind and Plate

Part of my love for the midwest is the fact that I also love to leave it. This interest in leaving began as early as when my older brother started to bring home exchange students for family dinners. Jan, from Germany, had striking shoes and came dressed for a funeral instead of for meat loaf. Aya Iwata, from Japan, had amazing pencils and pens, which she gave each of us along with band-aids that had English phrases like," toad soda green," and our own exchange student, Charlotte from Southern France, brought a thick sexy accent and a drawer full of condoms. I am pretty sure Charlotte took that drawer-full of condoms back home with her, but the point is, Charlotte's mom gave them to her. In case, as Charlotte told me, "I take zee lover." As if it was something like taking up a new past time like cribbage or shuffle board.

Charlotte's parents even came to visit us. Us in the middle of nowhere and twenty some miles from the nearest ethnic restaurant. There we were, Charlotte in between these well-dressed and scarf darning folk, and my parents nodding and looking at me with my high school French, shaking my head. I had no idea what they were saying, but all I knew was that I loved it. The sounds, the way Charlotte's mom carried herself--up and erect with a sense of not bothering with the fact that she couldn't understand my own mother's direction to the bathroom, and of course, I adored their clothes.

I once had a Australian friend tell me, he could tell a foreigner by their gait, the way they walked. Me, my theory is much more simple, I can tell by their shoes. And Charlotte's mom in the middle of April was wearing heels. Heels in our house, not the sensible clogs or rubber boots, but well-tailored pumps. Perhaps my attraction to her shoes seems oh so expected, like something for a green young girl to be obsessed with. But all I knew, as I sat on the other end of the dinner table with this austere, kind and well-dressed couple, was, I too wanted to be an exchange student. I wanted to sit and sing my words, looking slightly bothered and most importantly, look terribly well turned out.

Like most things that start with a narrow and naive outlook, they usually end with a narrow and naive advancement; however, my interest in traveling with a sense of adventure started at a very young age and I'd like to think it has given me more than just an amazing shoe collection. I do believe that traveling with a sense of earnest naivete is a wonderful characteristic to have. And if I can think of one word to describe myself at 16, it would be earnest naivete. Okay, two words.

Some other two-words I can think of from that time of my life are: get out, leave home, go far, and second language. I was accepted to be a Rotary Exchange student and one of the best parts of being a pre-exchange student is filling out the form of your preferred countries. One page with twenty-eight countries to numerically order. At that time in the early nineties, it was mostly Europe, South America and a Few Asian countries. We eager-to-leavers, were constantly questioning returning exchange students who informed us on the side, that Europe is all cathedrals and sausage and be ready to take their eighth grade math, Brazil is constantly Carnivale and lots other national holidays, so you don't have to go to school and Asia is for people who didn't get any of their first choices. This sounds harsh, but we were calculating and anxious to get what we wanted. There were so many conferences where we'd get to chat with returning exchange students and hear their elevated stories of cultural awareness that sometimes sounded more like pageant speeches, " I feel so aware and want nothing more than to help others." These now overweight blazer-toting returners were ignored, but who we did interrogate were the "real" foreigners. Mostly, I spoke with the Argentines.

I knew so little about Argentina other than there were mountains, Spanish, and beautiful teens who looked like tanned, relaxed Europeans who smiled at all of the conferences. They told me that I could learn Spanish at home, French at school and almost all of the students had beach houses. Okay, seemed simple enough. Now, we were also told by the Rotarians that rarely, if ever does a student get their first choice. "Be prepared, my future ambassadors, you will most likely get your third choice at best." So, I thought I was really smart by putting Argentina third. I remember really struggling with that form more than any other, more than any essay or explanation as to why I would be a fine future diplomat. I've never been a good gambler, and sadly I cannot say I've ever been a diplomat.

So when I was given my first choice, I was secretly disappointed with Australia. Now living down under is a whole book of stories, but I confess, I haven't yet let go of my desire to go to Argentina. I have sat through slide shows of couples returning from their honeymoon in Patagonia, my boss went on a wine trip--showing me photos of carne and kilometers of endless vines and my husband has travelled to ski to this country twice. One of my favorite poems which hangs by my desk is titled, "In the Argentina of my Mind." Yet, my passport doesn't carry any stamps yet to be filled with Baraloche or Buenes Aires. Not yet. For now, I do what most newly married wives do in a recession. They cook to go places. And so, I have found a way to make Chimichurri that I'd like to think even an Argentine would yearn to eat. As with most recipes I deconstruct, it is originally from Bon Appetit, but I changed a key ingredient: mint. Buen Provecho

Chimichurri de las Pampas de Montana

2 tablespoons of olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 bay leaf, fresh and chopped
1/2 cup shallots
1/4 cup or more freshly chopped mint
1/3 cup of Kalamata olives
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar or pomegranate vinegar
2 tablespoons of water
salt and pepper to taste

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. And garlic, red pepper, a bay leaf. Stir for one minute. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Remove from heat: stir in mint, olives, and vinegar. Add one tablespoon of water. Add more water by teaspoons to thin as needed. Salt and pepper to taste.

This of course is meant to be served over a steak, some sort of carne. I found out that Chimichurri was not actually first made by an Argentine, but an Irishman in Argentina. I think it would be excellent over grilled chicken or even perhaps a whitefish of sorts. Regardless of your choice of meat or fowl, this certainly brightened my grey February and started me thinking of a plan to travel yet again to Argentina. This time not solo.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Sawdust of Rome

I can't think of one person I know who prefers to eat alone. When dining out in Italy, I was used to requesting a table for, say, 18 or more. In soup kitchens in Poland, you'd often see a long table of men or women curled over a bowl of borsch, sometimes exchanging conversation, but mostly just eating--eating together. Even in the mountains of France after climbing up some rock crag, you'd find a whole table of folks sharing sandwiches. Eating alone is not natural, but then again it might be cultural. 

For a country that shows we love to eat or eat a lot, I am often surprised by how many Americans eat alone. Everyday where I work I see people eating over a newspaper; I know they come to the Good Food Store to see people, watch them or hopefully find someone to eat with. My husband who is back in school loves cafeterias. I'd like to think he's going back for his MBA and not just to eat at the Food Zoo. He told me his lunch routine is to find a person, usually the most awkward-looking, and join them. Yup, sit right next to them, tray by tray and introduce himself, strike up a conversation and well, have lunch with a stranger. 

I've had some pretty memorable lunches with the most random people--on trains sharing oranges, marooned in random bus stations exchanging our last peanuts, even on hiking trails splitting an apple or coveted dark chocolate. But I must admit, I hate going out to eat alone. I remember the first time I came upon this dilemma. I had taken a bus from Poland to the Netherlands alone and not quite with an itinerary other than to just explore the city where my grandmother was from and mostly to see the Keukenhof Gardens. I arrived in a brutal April downpour and walked to the city center to find a hostel. I was so hungry, cold, and suffering from travel lag and a bit of shock between rural Poland and cosmopolitan Amsterdam. I can recall walking by tiny bistros with fogged windows, people eating bowl after bowl of tomato soup or chowders, laughing with grilled cheese in their teeth.

This was like entering into some strange canto, or level of hell. Here I was yearning to eat and too shy and travel-green to just walk in, I couldn't. I couldn't muster the guts to just find a small seat and order the soup de jour. It would take me years to learn this, but really I just didn't like to eat alone.

It is this simple fact that spurred my interest in cooking. As a college student, food is merely a function or a community event. When I was a caregiver, I certainly cooked meals, but there is a difference between cooking to eat and cooking because you want to eat well. Even in Italy, I never really learned how to cook much of anything because I was too busy eating--everything. It wasn't until I found myself in Northern Michigan and well, alone did I really learn to cook. I was a writing fellow working on poems and teaching when I found myself with a lot of time at night and a longing for foods I couldn't find. And I figured, if I cooked then I could invite people to come over and eat with me. It sounds calculating, but really I just wanted to fill my house with flavors that I missed and laughter that my cat certainly wasn't filling my sparse space. 

On those occasions when I found myself alone with my cat, I would actually pull down a mirror and set it on the end of the table. This was by no means an act of vanity. It was an odd reaction to loneliness. I mean some people invent other people to talk to, chat to absolutely nobody on their cell phones in public. But in private, when it is February in Northern Michigan and the snow is even quieter at night, loneliness can creep in fast. I used to place the mirror not directly in front of me, rather on the side as if to reflect some dinner guest. I usually pretended my guest was Franco. 

Franco was the man who gave me the mirror and the following poem was written for him. Franco was a Cornici, or a framer of artwork. His tiny shop filled with sawdust and golden frames seemed somehow familiar and soothing. Maybe it was the smell of sawdust that reminded me of my own grandfather. I would sometimes visit with Franco and have a snack, chat and really just talk about the details of my day. He was the one person I found myself confiding in and explaining how being foreign was lonely and isolating. Franco would listen and give me advice. It wasn't the advice you'd give to your granddaughter, like someday you'll find someone to eat dinner with, or all you really need is a boyfriend. No, Franco's advice was about how to live with loneliness. He loved to laugh, get angry about soccer like most Italians, but unlike a lot of Italians, Franco knew how to be alone. He was happily married, had children, but somehow through my stilted Italian and his 1950's English we communicated about something that perhaps isn't cultural or maybe it is--we talked about loneliness. He used to tell me that being lonely would actually help him work better. He felt it was his loneliness, not sadness, that helped him turn to his work for comfort. Franco told me he loved his work so much that when people would come to visit, he could give them all of his attention because he knew once they would leave he would have something, something of his own. I was one of the lucky ones to walk through his door, to get some of his attention and to learn a little from him too. He'd say to me, "Amelia being lonely ees like de weather, just waita and it'll passa, wait for change, no?" Sounds really simple and trite, but it's true. Just wait and someone might show up to eat dinner with. If not, cook as if they might. 

The Sawdust of Rome

I walked through a garden on the edge
of the Pacific, found a bunch of poppies
under the moon, blanched and waiting
for morning to turn red

And it's the mornings here
that make me think of Rome,
like I'm living under the same sun.
Some days Rome was just dog shit
and traffic. My neighbors,

the sisters, never shut their windows,
swore at each other and their dead mother.
The strange loneliness of living in a city
with bored and beautiful people.
Franco, the Cornici, would wave me

down off the bus after work, 
his store filled with wooden frames, empty
and naked like an open eye. His radio
covered in sawdust played Sinatra.
We'd sing along and draw stick figures

of soccer players and politicians 
to understand each other. He'd take out
photographs, sepia shots of himself
car racing, or Franco the bambini
under the palm next to his nona.

He'd point to himself, puff up his chest
and say his name as if he were the foreigner.
And when I told him I was leaving for America, 
he gave me a mirror. Not as a reminder
of him or a means to fix my  my hair.

But to hang on my wall
like a window. Like a window held open.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cicelia Topeka's Cotija Cake

I took a train across country, a three day trip from Portland, Oregon to Grand Rapids, Michigan with just five dollars to my name. It wasn't an experiment as much as I was just plain flat broke. I remember having some sort of nut mix, a few bananas, some water, but I wasn't thinking about food. I was just wanting to sleep and sleep to the hum of the train like some sort of mechanical wave back home.

I'd like to say her name, this girl from Kansas who I sat next to, was something slightly foreign and sophisticated because that is how she was--a small duffel bag filled with clothes she had found in second hands in Hawthorne, a copy of Vanity Fair's Hollywood edition, and Dunhill cigarettes in her worn leather tote. She was all coffee and small talk at first. But she was simply named, Linda, Linda from Topeka. I started conversation with her with something dull like, "so you liked Portland?" Conversation was stilted or maybe even stale at first. At first, she didn't want to talk to me. I probably looked boring and too eager for friendship, definitely not hip. But I think somewhere in Wyoming or maybe even Colorado, she started to talk.

She was born in Kansas and had been visiting friends who were in a band in Portland, going out on her spring break from the University of Kansas to buy clothes, see shows, and to get out of well, Kansas. She didn't act like she hated the state, but actually had an irony about it I found refreshing and familiar. In Denver, we went to a bar and combined our money, a total of twelve dollars and bought nachos and two shots of the cheapest whiskey they had. We walked to a book store, exchanged titles. She was into Russian novelists, I was into Polish poets. Walking back to the train station, we bemoaned the night we would have to sleep through sitting up. Neither of us had couchettes, we each had a single seat home. 

We arrived in Topeka the next morning and it was all still, flat and slowly greening. It was not quite spring, but April and snow had been slow to leave. We didn't exchange numbers, e-mails or even addresses, just a good-bye, or take care and Linda was gone. This memory of Linda reminds me of why I adore midwesterners-- their slow sense of shyness, their guarded confidence, their use of irony for humor usually and almost always their reliance on kindness with strangers instead of competition. You see when you grow up in the middle, you are always aware that it is probably better somewhere else, that there is New York, LA, Seattle, and San Francisco. There are always smarter, more attractive, more cultured people somewhere else. You grow up knowing that there is always somewhere--else that is probably better than where you are from. What can you say if you are from say, Wisconsin, we've got so much, cheese? Michigan, cars that are too, big? Minnesota, lakes that are too, cold? Kansas, a myth of a girl?

But all this middleness can be an asset too. Perhaps one of my favorite midwesterners and people from Kansas is my friend Cicelia. Like Linda, I was intimidated at first by how hip, calm and beautifully serene she is. But unlike Linda, Cicelia has a name to match her sophistication and her heritage. Born Cicelia Genevieve Ross-Gotta, she's a true Italian of Calabria and Genoa descent, right down to having an uncle Franceso, a baker in Topeka, who changed his name to Pete to fit in, to not be so perhaps well, Italian. But thankfully, Cicelia hasn't lost her heritage, her sense of pride and with a childhood from Topeka, she's one of most talented and modest people I know. Besides our shared geography and her love of trains too, Cecilia is a wonderful baker, a connoisseur of cheese and one who spends her time practicing calligraphy. She's the cheese buyer where I work and every time she gets a new wheel of something she likes, she writes a prose piece on flavors, textures, and tastes. A small poem, laminated over a block or wedge. Like Linda who read novels in Russian and worked at a book store, modesty abounds for Cecilia too.

So let me promote her talents, especially her baking.  This cake recipe that Cicelia gave me is perhaps one of the best white cakes-ever. The texture takes you by surprise, so light and moist and with the use of rice flour its a favorite for gluten-freers. I don't know where Cicelia got this recipe, perhaps from Francesco, but I bet she made up. It's divine with a bit of drizzled dark chocolate or a simple ganache. 

Cicelia's Cotija Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temp
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup very finely crumbled cotija cheese
3/4 cup rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 8 inch round pan. Line with parchment or wax paper and grease paper and pan sides. In a medium bowl, combine butter and sugar, blending until soft and fluffy. Add eggs, milk, vanilla and cheese. In a small bowl whisk together flour and baking powder, and add slowly to butter, egg, cheese mixture and blend well. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown and springy in center.

serves eight or in my case two very happy people for a few days and even tastes great with coffee in the morning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Defense for Delight

I liked a boy once who told me I would never be a poet, simply because I laughed too much. He told me I could arm wrestle Hemingway in prose, but I simply lacked the seriousness of poetry. "Poets are serious people," he said, " They are mysterious and fierce." I am sure I nodded and looked at my shoes, black. And my jeans, black. Ran my fingers through my cropped short hair, black. I was posing in dress, but I couldn't help myself. I liked to laugh.
And deep down, I think he liked that fact too. He would show up at my window in the early hours of six am after working the night shift at the undergraduate library or even spending the early hours with some other girl. It didn't matter. He threw stones at my window, never coming in, waiting until I walked out and then we would talk into the morning. We walked the early sleepy city that never woke before eight and talked and talked of Marquez, Whitman, and always Yeats. We just talked until he would fall silent, retire to his house with the rising sun and not be seen until the following weekend.

Sure, it sounds so cliche and naive, and it was. We never kissed and I think he kept it that way. My ability to find humor in moments of seriousness intrigued him, but really laughter was just too simple, too vulnerable. After he graduated, he left for Mexico, for Chiapas, for seriousness.
I didn't hear much from him until he called me up one summer while I was living at my parents. Said he had to see me. His voice urgent and still. I gave him the address and sure enough, he arrived at my house, close to dawn outside my window. We walked to the lake and he told me of the intensity of travels of how he wanted to go back, how he was writing about it all. How Mexico had changed him. But it hadn't. He still preferred lines of  Yeats to his own feelings and found my humor a shortcoming. I remember my mother taking a picture of us, on the steps outside of my house and me wanting nothing more than to leave him on the steps, leave his heaviness for himself. We never did kiss, not even by the lake, not even after he had traveled so far. Kissing was like laughter for him, something of a distraction.

I was distracted too those days. Perhaps by my own quest for heaviness, my own ideas of travel and searching for something dark, "mysterious and fierce," like he had said I needed to be. Despite my earnestness in my search, I don't think I ever changed. I wasn't searching to prove to that boy in college or one like him, but I was trying to create some definition of myself as being someone who knew something, someone who could write from witness of this world. I wanted to become a serious poet who had lived and seen "powerful" things. 

Three winters in Poland couldn't shake my grin. Being left on a city street in France by someone I had followed for years, couldn't whither my need for joy. Even the longest summer in Rome, alone navigating deserted streets couldn't make me sad, stone and cold. I'm glad I finally ignored that boy's definition of poetry and somehow excepted my comfort in delight, not to be blind or ignore the ugliness, but to realize that no matter how hard I tried, I gravitated towards beauty. There is always light, some laughter, somewhere. If I learned anything from my quest for seriousness, then I learned how stupid I was and how funny it was to think I could wander years for something I could never really turn myself into. Smarter people already knew this. You cannot write as someone you aren't. Better poets perhaps had sat still longer and just wrote in hopes to become farmers of poetry. They already knew that Beauty is a poet's greatest defense. Delight is our duty. 

I cannot think of a better person to articulate this than Jack Gilbert, a man who has lived his life as a poet, a happy person, he even calls himself a farmer. This is best stated in the poem, "A Brief for the Defense" from his book, Refusing Heaven.

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengali tiger would not 
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. This is laughter
every day in the terrible city of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We much risk delight. We can do without pleasure, 
but not delight. No enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

And the poem continues, but I want to say this for my own defense for this idea of middleWest. Somewhere in the dream of ourselves, our search for what we hope for and what we want, somehow we will find what we already are--that there is acceptance even in the moments of greatest resistance. No matter the gravity of your own darkness, there is light, there is delight somewhere in what we have. We must risk the delight, the beauty in what we already are. No matter what languages you learn to speak, countries you travel, you will still speak the language you are born with the best. You may be just a girl from the Midwest, a girl who likes flowers, Chopin and flat fields. A girl who climbs hills, and has learned to navigate islands even in Greece--but you are always in the middle, in the middle of becoming again and again. This is our struggle. But it is not our burden. No matter the size of the boulder we push, that we still have the choice to smile, to smile pushing. Maybe even laughing too.

Paradoxical Undressing

A girl walking home through blizzard
can sometimes hear her blood's rhythm.
She counts the beats with her hand spread open
in the chord of C. Her fingers scissor
each note as she lifts the bodice
of dress over head, her face flush pink
in the heat of the numb sun. She wets her lips
shut, unties the knot at her neck, stands naked
in a chemise. When she's found with only
her bonnet in a bank of snow, her eyes
are all smiles. Her last tracks outline a waltz.
Her body, no longer a pulse counted
but pearled in the field. Not a snow globe shaken
with bone and rice. Not something trapped under glass.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ptarmigan Under Glass

Traveling teaches you to taste. From craving fried cheese in a cafe in Bratislava to savoring an espresso sized cup of hot chocolate in wintered Verona, flavors didn't really begin for me until I spent time instinctually eating and curiously trying--anything abroad. Until that winter with George, I didn't know food would become not just something for sustenance, it would become part of my, well, character. I think this is true for most people. Food guides us into our most precious and powerful sense: our sense of smell. A meal can stay in our minds and lead us into stories we want to share. We later mimic that meal when we return, somehow never letting that moment ever leave us--trying to share it beyond us. Yet, I think it isn't just the food, but the hues of scent that we want to search for and find. We want to somehow return to a sense of ourselves, maybe lost in a foreign city, maybe around a table of family.

It is like a game we can play. Think of a scent, you'll find the memory. Molasses, my grandmother's kitchen, Smoked Bacon and Sweet Rolls, my other grandmother's kitchen. The sulfur of cherry spray, nights with my window open as a child. Okay, so this might seem trite, but scent is so often trumped by sight in a good story. Scent is also part of how Faulkner worked his own keen descriptions. He worked from his nose first and then found the image.. Trust me, reread A Rose for Emily . It was also how George told his stories too.

George would tell me about a meal he had had along the Southern French coast and how the calamari was coated so lightly it crumbled in his mouth, how the first scent was butter, not fish as he lifted his fork. I asked him one night, while we were eating dinner, "George if you could have one more meal from your past, what would it be?" Like many answers, George found a way to create a story. He told a chronicle of memorable meals beginning with his mother's one-pot stews in a cast iron skillet over an open flame. These were meals of George's summered youth in a place called Indiana Woods, a thick forest of birch and beech along the shores of Lake Michigan in the protected harbor of Leland. He then told of random places like a steak in Argentina that he still sometimes dreamed about. Yet, George would never forget the original question regardless of where he weaved himself. He would return to say, "Simply, there is one dish that I would want. Ptarmigan under glass."

Now at the time, I found myself at a loss. I asked in hopes that I might in some earnestness try to make his coveted dish. Shyly, I asked, "George, I don't understand. under glass?" Laughing, he said, it's a bird I ate once on the Queenie Two. The first time Beulah and I went to Europe. I only ordered it because I had asked my friend, Mr. McSweeny what to order to not look so well, to not look like I didn't know what I was doing."

And really, that is how I felt cooking for George. I really didn't know what I was doing and here was this man who had traveled and had a mind and memory of flavors and tastes far more advanced than my elementary skills. What was I but a young college girl marooned in a boarded up beach town in the middle of November, cooking meals I found in a cookbook called, Hollyhocks to Radishes. But it was with that book, I found my own flavors of place. The midwest is more than mushroom soup and casseroles. It can be the delight in the simplest ingredients, not boiled or overcooked, but fresh and simple. And of course, never flashy, just modest tastes for modest people, regardless of where they might later travel. Here's one of my favorites and one George really enjoyed from those days of fumbling with my own new nose and flavors. I have changed it a bit from the first time I made it,  but I still come back to it as a fond memory, a scent of that winter with George.

Fancy Tomato Pie

1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked
1 cup finely chopped leeks
2 tablespoons of butter
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon of fresh basil
Dash of salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup of milk
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup Parmesan Reggiano
1 cup Jarlsburg cheese
2 medium tomatoes peeled


1. Partially bake pie crust at 400 for seven minutes. Cool.
2. In a medium saucepan, saute leeks in butter until soft. Add tomatoes, basil, and a dash of salt. Cover and simmer for five minutes.
3. Uncover pan and mash tomatoes. Cook briskly, uncovered, over medium heat until all liquid has evaporated. Depending on the tomatoes, this will take 10-20 minutes. Cool.
4. Reduce oven to 350.
5. Whisk together eggs, milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir in grated cheese and cooled tomato mixture. Pour into prepared pie crust. Bake 35 minutes of until center of pie is firm to touch. 
6. Cool on a rack and garnish with sliced tomatoes and fresh bail.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I first met George Hathaway Littell in his underpants. It was October. The afternoon on a cold day when the sun was refusing to set. I was meeting Mr. Littell at his house with my mother who was a nurse and for awhile worked to help elderly people find some help around their homes from cooking meals to shoveling driveways. George was 98 years old at the time and really, he didn't need much help. Up until that past spring, George still drove the three blocks to collect his mail, went to his coffee club once a week, and he had already employed someone to dust his room and vacuum the rugs. But his three sons were worried about that fact that George had decided he didn't want to go to North Carolina that winter. George wanted to stay in Leland. His sons wanted someone to read the Wall Street Journal to him, make a warm meal a couple times a week, and they wanted someone to talk with him.

I was that person. I arrived early for our appointment that October late afternoon which might explain why George was wearing his boxers. He hadn't quite finished getting dressed. Don't get me wrong, George was not a man of leisure or laziness. He dressed himself everyday in trousers, a button down shirt and always a sensible sweater. He still kept his correspondence going by typing letters with one hand and a flashlight held up to the page with the other. He did his taxes. He kept up with the stock market daily. And George loved to write poetry.
I had just finished that past spring at the University of Michigan with a degree in Literature and frankly didn't have a clue as to what I wanted to do outside of getting out of Michigan. I just wanted to write poems and forgot that it wasn't the 15th century anymore. Not a lot of patrons supporting poets. So I was doing odd jobs, living at home, and basically just saving and waiting to leave. It was my mom's idea to work with George that winter and I can still hear her tell me, "sometimes doing something for someone else helps us, helps us in ways we don't even know we need."

She was right. There I was in a small boarded up summer town reading the Wall Street Journal and learning to cook. I guess it was the ideal situation to practice simple dishes like poached whitefish and cream potatoes. George liked everything and anything with salt and was understanding of whatever mistake might have happened. But mostly, I cannot remember the specific meals as much as I remember our conversations.
I had moved us from eating in the linoleum kitchen back into the dining room and unearthed dishes his wife, Beulah, had coveted. I found eight-tracks of Beethoven to play while I was fixing dinner so George could have a gin and tonic with the sunset, with the music. He'd shout memories from the other room and I'd say, "tell me a story at dinner George, tell me the whole story."

And he would. He told me of traveling by the Queenie Two to Europe and how he went to see a grotto so blue it still glistened in his mind. He told me of Africa, traveling by boat along the Nile, a winter in Moscow under the curtain, and how he and Beulah traveled around the world and always they came back to Leland. Always Leland in the summer. 
George didn't grow up in Leland and he and Beulah had met in Chicago while he was selling, if you could imagine, Life Insurance during the depression. George would tell me stories from all parts of his life and some not as praised as his travels. One story he told me, while sipping on his ginned iced, was about a woman who came to the cafeteria where George would have his lunch. It was the winter and this woman wore just a calico dress and worn shoes, no socks. It was Chicago and it was cold. George said he watched her sit down, alone and penniless. He asked her if she needed money and bought her a bowl of soup. He said he will never forget how slowly and cautiously she took the spoon to her mouth. How she ate with her eyes closed as if to hold that flavor even farther in her stomach. George told this story as he would with most stories with vivid details down to the color of calico, her red chafed hands, but this time in the middle of describing her eat, George started to cry. No, not a subtle tear on the side of a cheek. The kind of cry that stops your own breath for a moment. For a moment, George sat with his large hands over his eyes, taking air in and continuing the story. As if he surprised himself, he said looking up, "she could have been my mother, Emily, she was just an old woman, old and alone."

And what does all of this have to do with poetry, food and this idea of middleWest? This week is Valentines, sure it might be a contrived holiday or one of strange origins, but it is also one to reflect on love. Someone once told me that you cannot really write a poem, even a poem about sharks, starvation, avalanches or even aging without loving it, loving it so you can hold it close enough to be able to write it, to write it well. I think it is true. This is the gift of George. For a mere few months, I got to study under someone who really loved this world and who could even in cataracts and isolation could see the good, want to find the good, remember it all as it was, even the ugliness. George would hold the ugliness, the parts of this world which we never take a photograph of and he taught me to hold these images even closer so we could believe it might be something worthy, something worth finding beauty in. 

Men in Parks

In Kielce, I was mugged
by a man who wore eyeliner.
With three teeth,
he told me I was beautiful.

Here, most men in parks smell
of foul meat, wash their faces 
in beer and piss 
standing up.

They curse Mary,
their mothers and call out
to Cyclops or buses
they never get on.

One night, I  passed a bus stop,
heard a man crying
Przeprazam, Przeprazam,
Polish for sorry.

I just sat with him in the snow
and never once tried to say
anything. I just nodded,
and mouthed the word with him.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

La Pera, Le Poire, my Grushka

I grew up with a pear tree outside my window. It was a house warming gift given to my parents and it is still thriving in the acidic sandy soil of Northern Michigan where they still live today.
I'd like to say that is why pears are my favorite fruit for some nostalgic purpose: a childhood compulsion to return to your first window of the world. But actually , I think it is even more simple. Frankly, it's their color. From chartreuse for the under ripe to the ruddy hues of burgundy, pears are never pastel. Not shy, but not too vibrant and they are oh so French down to their shade, shape and flavor. Yet pears are not the fruit of royalty, temptation or even mass allusions in poetry. Sure, Odysseus devoured them while feasting with the Phaeacians and Linda Pastan's poem titled Pears references their feminine lines and allure--their "cello" shape. Yet pears are practical. They can be used in all courses of a meal. Certainly, a pear tarte makes more sense the a pear pie; however, a pear sausage pie is a different breed. There is a simple complexity (if that could be said and make any sense) about this fruit that I am constantly wanting to discover and then reinvent--cold pears served sliced in a salad with goat cheese, toasted walnuts and a simple vinegrette to poached with cardamom ice-cream. Finally, I bring notice to this fine fruit for its main quality of my attraction: its humility. The never too flashy or forward tasting sugar. I honor pears for their subtle sweet, their meaty modesty. To me, they represent the middleWest of taste.

I recently came across a soup that has reconfirmed my loyalty and love for the pear. It is from Bon Appetit but I made a few changes. I fixed it while at work when Great Northern Beans and carrots were on sale. A friend told me, "this is like being hugged from the inside," which seems to be about the best thing you could hear after feeding someone. This can also be made in less than 45 minutes and like most soups, it just gets better and better...just like the stages and color changes of a ripening pear.

Cream of Carrot, White Bean and Pear Soup


1/2 stick of butter (four tablespoons)
2 cups of leeks, white and pale green parts
4 cups (or more) of chicken stock
3 cups of thinly sliced carrots
2 15-ounce cans of Great Northern Beans (or cook your own), drained
2 cups chopped pears (I like to use Bosc)
2 tablespoons of fresh rosemary
1/2 cup of milk or half and half


Melt butter in a heavy saucepan and add leeks. Saute leeks until tender, about ten minutes.
Add chicken stock, carrots, beans, pear and rosemary; bring to boil. Reduce heart to medium-low, cover and simmer until carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

Puree soup with an emulsion blender. You can decide on how smooth, then add the half and half. If soup seems too heavy add water, but I prefer to use more chicken stock for flavor.
(This soup originally called for water instead of stock, but I had recently made some stock that I wanted to use and I think it really adds to the feeling of as my friend says, being hugged from the inside.)

For me, this was the perfect February lunch. I needed something warm on these cold grey days, but I was tired of chili soups and chowders. This soup smelled like Thanksgiving, yet had the taste of sweet fruit and carrot to remind me that winter is just a sleep away from spring.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In Medias Res

In Medias Res--in the middle of things
seems to be the best of any places
to begin.  middleWest is a not just a place
of in-between as much as it belongs 
to being in transition, to being in the middle.
The West has been the American ideal, 
the place where one can begin
again. We cannot really go back to the beginning.
Usually, we just start in the middle.
So here is a story to show this place, this idea of middleWest:

Last week, I was at work. I work in a cooking school in Missoula, Montana and I find things around the store that are on sale. I walk around with a clipboard and try to piece together recipes that are simple, elegant and healthy from these saled ingredients. While passing by the wine department, I saw a label in bold scrip, ORVIETO. I stopped and mouthed the words to myself, slightly practicing an accent, but mostly for nostalgia. For moments, I sailed back to the city of hilled stone and thought of a lunch I once had in cold sun. How if I could, I would find all of the ingredients and make it again. I would serve it to people in this valleyed city I now call home. But truffle oil is not for everyone's palate and instead I have a poem. This poem that I share with you was first placed in Orvieto, but upon further thought and long before I had even moved to Montana, I changed it from Italy to someplace that had mountains and rivers, a place with a valley and some sense of distance and intrigue, a place like Montana. 


You took me out of the dog dish
of Missoula and into the country
where we got lost in the winding
of our voices with windows open.

Everything was open then. We talked
of the winged man in Brazil
your cat Lulu, my dog in Michigan,
and ignored the Bitterroot River.

The dirt roads kept us from lunch.
We sat on a rock wanting to undress
each other layer by layer,
down to the skin we would later learn

to sink into. And when we stood 
on top of a butte, I stared
at your hair, dark like a stone too heavy
to move. As a child I collected agates,

smooth and black like tadpoles
in a desert pool. I thought I could take 
darkness out of water. Today, I sweep up
hair from my dying black lab and I cannot stop

thinking of you. I can't stop the cancer
growing inside her, chasing her
while she dreams of squirrels.
Dogs are smart. Or not. Either way, they don't look back.