Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Upper West Side Grace

The first time I saw New York City, I cried. I was fifteen, awkward and so fully aware of my awkwardness that I just kept quiet hoping it might not be so obvious as I sat on a bus filled with mothers and daughters headed up from Baltimore, Maryland for a weekend in "the city." Perhaps this seems melodramatic to cry from a view, but call it feeling overwhelmed by anticipation. As I sat under a dark hue of grey clouds and night skies on a coach weaving into light, I remember the city seemed to move like the moon--chasing me in the reflection of the window. It was my cousin's private school's yearly outing to go on a mother/daughter visit to NYC before Christmas and thankfully my mother and I got to tag along all the way from the Midwest.

As a girl growing up in the middle of nowhere in the middle of this country, you learn that frankly, you are in the middle. This is a good thing. You learn that there is always somewhere else that people are trying to live, wanting to live in order to tell themselves they are somewhere and when they leave their middle town they can "finally be somebody." Or tell themselves so. City names become more like identities, I myself am very guilty of this. At times I've said with pride I lived in Rome, and other times I sound like some pretentious privileged wannabe I myself would roll my eyes at. Yet as a child, I remember reading Madeline books and staring more at the city pretty women, then the twelve girls in two straight lines in Paris. I recall being older and reading about girls growing up in the Upper East Side of New York and taking elevators out of their homes and cabs to school and I would dream at night in the quiet of orchards of sidewalks and city parks. Long before I traveled outside of even Michigan, I would say distant city names: Paris, Warsaw, Prague and Florence as if they were fiction, as if they were some kind of distant gods I wanted to worship or at least live under.

And that first night I saw New York, it was the mere fact that the fiction of a city I had visited in my mind was becoming real. This is what made me cry. No, I wasn't afraid which may sound like a lie coming from someone who hadn't ever been to a city larger than Lansing. From that bus window, New York was a backdrop that I had nothing to compare to, nothing to identify as familiar and yet I knew I liked it immediately. I liked how it did seem to move from a distance and even closer in the city it was in constant motion with buildings towering over water and forgetting about anything wild.

As the bus dropped us off at our hotel, I was immediately hit by city-heavy cold air, the orange glow overhead, the wreathed sky scrapers and I recall forging for some scent of Christmas in all the concrete. It was mid-December and what I did notice women were in fur vests and matching hats and a frank resistant to showing any sense of being cold. I'd love to tell you all that we did from Radio City Music Hall to Central Park, but frankly I don't remember. What I do remember are the clothes and the fashionable fast moving New Yorkers moving just as their city did from a distance. The speed of the women rushing in their importance who seemed to me catalog fresh, and frankly, Vogue worthy.

My previous exposure to fashion had been through reading Vogue at the local library and taking home back issues and trying to mimic outfits. Granted, I was in fourth grade at this time and had a healthy supply of OP pants and turtlenecks. Actually, I think I may have still been wearing Oskosh overalls and of course very thick glasses. I recall one outfit post-Desperately Seeking Susan Madonna consisting of bangles and a headband of lace. I overheard my sister that morning commenting to my mother about my assembled Madonna wanna outfit. As I came to breakfast with my still round belly and elastic pants shadowed by my twelve bangles on each arm my sister said, "you can't let her wear this to school, she looks ridiculous." And yet thankfully, my mother did let me even though I did look ridiculous. No, I didn't take it to the child-whore like a virgin state ever but I would like to think this was my first attempt at merging preppy and punk or maybe geek and goth. Regardless, in fourth grade I thought I would stand out. I'm sure I did.

Thankfully, my mother let me go through other tragic fashion phases and also she thankfully required that I buy my own clothes. So on that trip to New York City, I purchased a head band from Laura Ashley and sadly lost it two days later in a cab. My mother also taught me a lot about sensible style long before our first trip to NYC. I used get up and talk with her in the mornings before she would go to work as a nurse at our local doctor's office. She'd be getting dressed and say, "Talk to me Emily while I get ready." And I would. I would tell her about school, ramble on about something that worried me while my mother would transform herself from bathrobe to beautiful. My mother always looked and still looks attractive even in her uniform. During one of those mornings she told me her personal philosophy of style with clear authority: "Emily, there are three very important things to your sense of style that hardly cost you anything. Number one, always wear clothes that fit you, your body size and shape. Number two, always shower, nothing is more unattractive than someone who looks sloppy and smells. (she'd laugh at this point.) And three, always make sure you have a good hair cut."

I'd like to think these maxims are universally shared and honored for their simplicity, but I want to give my mother credit due to the fact that from a very early age she made her own clothes, took hand-me-downs from more stylish and wealthy aunts who lived in cities, but my mother always had something else. This is something that my husband's grandmother, Doddie also says, "a woman needs a sense of P-R-I-D-E." Yes, Doddie still spells this out each time she says it. This sense of pride is something that I am still developing. Due to a long phase of all black and only jeans and shorn short hair for years, I am still trying to discover my own sense of style. Basically, it took me years of watching old women in foreign countries and in America who would never be caught dead in elastic waist anything, especially sweat pants to really understand style is something you create, not buy, for yourself.

The elegant Roman signoras each day leaving their homes with high heels and stylish sunglasses carting their sometimes dated but always matching handbag have been my greatest teachers. No, it wasn't the women I'd watch slowly extending their long legs out of Ferraris on side streets in Rome, nor the city skinny women of Paris, not even the Eastern European heighted women smoking in cafes who moved as slow and as elegant as silk on skin helped me see style might be in what you put on, but beauty is how you carry yourself in your clothes regardless of age. Roman women taught me that even in age, sun damage and years of living under even a dictator of Mussolini couldn't take away their pride in asserting their beauty. For me, it took two years of waiting at my bus stop before going to school early in a Roman morning, Italy early like 8:30am, to see how women asserted their stylish beauty regardless of gravity or age. I recall when watching one woman barely able to board a bus clowned with her huge Gucci sunglasses and teetering her last days in high heels, I wasn't laughing, but longing. Longing for this kind of stubborn belief in yourself regardless of age or wrinkles.

So I've added another maxim to my mother's sensible sense of style: Beauty is an act of grace. Attractiveness is not youth, labels or even attitude, but something subtle and well, sublime that causes people to pause. Grace is defined as effortless beauty that I believe emanates by confidence. This isn't ego confidence or some kind of feminist edge, asserted over other women, but joy, pure joy in doing what you love and selflessly sharing this passion with others. This joy is an action, say, in making a pie for your family, riding your horse until you are 70, playing tennis into your 80's, looking sexy at 50 or just putting on your best dress at 95 for your birthday. But really it is the joy in still being present and part of this world, not aging into some sweat suit and cropped permed hair, that gives some women gracefulness.

Let me explain. This past spring Greg and I spent some time in New York City to visit friends and to get a city fix of food and to wander together for the first time in a big city as married people. We had such a good time eating cupcakes from Magnolia, an epic burger and fried pig's ear at the Spotted Pig to just loving any random deli sandwich we could find and of course watching beautiful people busily go by.

One morning, Greg had said he wanted to check out a bakery on the Upper West Side which was owned by his brother's college girlfriend's mother. Frankly, I heard Upper West Side and Bakery and that was all I needed to know to hop on the subway to find it. It was sunny and a perfect day to sit in Central Park and well, eat or ponder just how pretentious Paul Simon's lyrics are. As we walked along the sidewalk on the Upper West side headed towards 107 West 70th to Soutine, the bakery, the streets were quiet and bare. The only echo of sound was coming from a lone songbird hiding in the green of a city tree.

That morning as we entered the sweet of the bakery, Greg walked up with the air of confidence and introduced himself to a woman seated behind the counter. She was tallish with a pink stiff dress shirt, a white apron and a matching pink scarf tied around her salt and pepper bobbed hair. I recall smiling and saying nothing but watching her face change as she heard Greg's name. Now smiling she said, "Now that's a name I haven't heard in awhile" as she stood up and moved towards us. I remember watching her hands, her artist hands, for on the subway Greg had told me how Madge Rosenberg had recipes in the Joy of Cooking and how her bakery was famous for wedding cakes. Hands seem important to me as a cook, a writer, a woman and seem to show a person's history as if hands are like some still life attached to each of us. Madge had beautiful hands and she spoke with such clear and steady diction, never rushed, never forceful, just a slow ease of elegance as she filled white bags with sandwiches and fresh berry tarts. She spoke of losing her husband, her three grandchildren, her life in New York alone for the first time while I listened and stood slightly on the side. I just stood back and stared at the birthday candles in packages with a slight covering of dust and overheard Spanish coming from the back of the bakery.

As Greg and Madge were speaking, a group of ladies came in for their order of sandwiches and brownies. These women were part of the Garden Club of America meeting just down the street and stopping by Soutine to pick up their lunch. I noticed one of the woman's sweater had rhinestones spelling out Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Sheboygan. I couldn't resist. I said, "Are you from Sheboygan by chance?" Smiling she said yes and I told her of Michigan and living across the lake, growing up in a village called Suttons Bay. While speaking with this woman, Greg told Madge of my job and I fumbled into their conversation stating how cooking has really merged from my private passion into a job I really adore. She laughed and said, "You know, I never even cooked before I went to Italy. Before that, I just liked to eat. I was in college and I just decided I wanted to learn how to cook and how to bake." I'm not sure why this statement triggered something deep inside of me, but it did. Again, there I was in New York wanting to cry. How pathetic right? Here I go again, being overwhelmed. But as I spoke with Madge, I thought for some brief moment, I could take this feeling or being overwhelmed or intimidated and transform all this awkwardness into grace. I could carry myself like Madge even if I was as old as her daughter, I could resist the ego driven sense of myself. I could stand with a slow calm and say without feeling pretentious that, "I lived in Italy and it humbled and grounded me, while also teaching me to want to be beautiful. Because it did. It gave me the chance to see women who have a stubborn pride and hope in themselves who also seem to be taught as I was that there is beauty feeding others.

As we stood there, I started to pull out my wallet to pay and Madge who just shook her head and in a quiet voice said, "just put that away, Emily." Our bags were full and as we were ready to walk away and say good-bye, Madge said slowly, "wait." She walked back into the kitchen which I couldn't help but peering into, where there was a tray of brownies still warm in the pan. Madge carefully selected a few and put them into yet another white sack. She smiled at me as she extended her arm full of brownies, "these broke" shrugging her shoulder, "enjoy Emily keep cooking," she said holding my eyes with her eyes and smiling fully.

Greg and I walked loaded with food and silently headed towards the green tips of Central Park, passing the Botanical ladies and saying hello again, we kept walking in silence. As we found a place along a small pond to sit and eat our sandwiches, I said to Greg. "I feel like we were just in the presence of someone so beautiful, so present and I cannot explain why I feel like crying." Greg nodded and thankfully he didn't joke about how sweeping of a comment I had just made, he himself was about to cry. He just smiled a slow smile nodding his head while steadily holding my eyes. As we pulled out our baguettes of ham and cheese carefully wrapped in holed plastic, we couldn't stop talking about how Madge had remembered so many details of Greg's family, a visit with Greg's parents and how Madge almost cried herself when she told Greg how sorry she was to hear of Greg's dad's death. Almost finishing our sandwiches, I put my nose into the still warm bag of brownies and said, " I don't think you can make beautiful food without being beautiful yourself." Again, a silly broad generalization, I guess I haven't fully learned the ability to be quiet and graceful yet. As we sat on rocks watching young Koreans practice a wedding, a Russian couple sat slowly in a row boat, and the Majestic seemed to almost hang in the perfectly sunny sky above our view, we ate those brownies and every last crumb in silence watching other couples lose themselves to the midday afternoon in the city park. As if all of us gathered to find a place to slow ourselves down.

Thankfully, Greg and I wrote to Madge to thank her for everything and of course I asked her for her brownie recipe. I want to share it with you so you too can make the simplest of desserts an act of beauty. Remember folks, this is a person who has been in the Joy of Cooking, so this is the real deal. I feel so honored to have met her. Enjoy.

Madge's Brownies

8 ounces semi sweet chocolate
2 ounces milk chocolate
1/2 pound sweet butter
1 3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 large eggs or 4 jumbo eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9"x 12"x 1 1/2" pan.
2. Melt chocolates and butter over double boiler or in microwave.
3. Beat sugars and eggs, vanilla very well.
4. Beat chocolate mixture into eggs and beat until well combined and color lightens a little.
(Do not over beat or brownies will be crusty).
5. Mix flour, salt, baking powder and nuts into chocolate just until everything is well combined.
6. Spread batter in pan and bake for 40 or maybe less, check at 30 minutes.

Yields: 12 brownies and can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated and kept for three to five days.

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