Rules

The truth is,

people who make the rules, who demand you follow the rules, rarely follow them.

And it is tricky, because they may lead you to think they follow them. But just wait until the moment that the rules are no longer convenient.

Wait until circumstances change. Or time passes.

Funny, how that happens. For them.

And so it is that I joined up with a Master Class of a Master Chef, and there he stood: “no pignoli in the kitchen,” he said. “Use breadcrumbs instead.” Which I have been using like a criminal, all along. “If you don’t have enough basil, throw thyme..mint.” Which had been my secret. “Tradition is useless if you are locked to it,” he said. “Evolution, is what you need to consider.”

I already know that.

I paid all that money.

I have an idea

When my family went on summer vacation, we went for two weeks. We moved from one location–the city–to another location–the country. For a few years my mother went in with her brother, my uncle Ferd, and bought a pick up truck with a camper fixed on top. We drove that around for a while, taking baths in mountain streams that for no logical reason had moving water instead of ice floes. We ate warmish, wettish sandwiches with apples that had been rolling around the mini hallway that measured one foot square, between the door in the back and the bed in the back. Then my mother remembered that she was claustrophobic. Each night we would drive until we found a campground with a parking space for the truck and a lean-to for my mother.
There was a woman at the community sinks who was a tooth brushing olympian. I watched her for a while.  “You are the fastest tooth brusher I have ever seen,” I told her.  “I have never known anyone who could brush their teeth as fast as you.” “It is easy”, she said.
My mother realized that she was also afraid of bears, and a lean-to only has three walls. My parents sold the camper, and for a few years we went to a house in the woods in Vermont. We had sandwiches that were cold the way they were supposed to be because there was a full on fridge. Every once in a while during the vacation we would go for a ride, but most of the time my sisters and I were left to our own. My oldest sister built a chapel out of tree branches and spruce fronds with a friend of hers. It had an altar and seating. My little sister and I were impressed.  We kept to low lying construction. We built villages for ants from moss and twigs. We walked for miles with a packed lunch to see how far we could walk and when we got there, if there was water, we fished with a stick.  We caught nothing. We watched beavers build a damn, and water bugs walk like Jesus across the world’s smallest swimming hole. When we were hungry my mother would say, “there is a cookbook. Cook.” I made apple crisp and grilled cheese sandwiches over and over, day after day. We read. I did my hair. We practiced walking without shoes.  We were always walking, just never after dark. We didn’t have a curfew; I was afraid of the dark.
By the time we were 14 and 16, I weighed 126 pounds, but I could have taken someone down at the knees just by looking at them, so no one ever looked at us.  That was my theory. It was like robbing a house.  If a house is well lit and locked up, it is harder to break into; you try the next one.  If a girl looks like she might kill you if you talk to her or the sister, you move on to see who else there is.  My first two survival skills:  how to occupy my time on a dime and how to give an old man a look that will make him wish he forgot to put his teeth in.  I have carried them in my pocket all these years like money.

I got an idea for a virtual cooking class.  It live streams with a friend of mine and guide on the ground in Italy.  I cook, he walks through a village and tells us everything.  It is called Dimmi Tutto.  Tell me Everything.  Ha.  On the menu for Fossombrone:  Cherry Divine.  I made it up.  There is a wine from Le Marche from the smallest DOCG in Italy, called Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, a sparkling dry red, mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. No way we are going to find that, so I reduce a little red wine with sugar and a piece of lemon peel until it is the consistency of Karo syrup and then off the heat, I perforate a few cherries with a fork and throw those in there.  Pour a thumb of prosecco in a glass, and then drizzle in to make fake Vernaccia.  Drop in a cherry.  We move on to crescione, a version of piadina. We stuff it with serious sausage and black cabbage and finish with cantucci with dried cherries, pistachios and if we feel like it, shards of dark chocolate.

Love

I am white. And just because I may love people for who they are, including the beauty of their black, brown and golden skin and all that that is, some of which I know, and most of which I will never know, I cannot understand. Because I am white.

Just because I grew up in a predominantly black school and black church, with 3 other old white ladies aside from my family in the congregation, and just because my mother didn’t have “a black friend”, but black family, a part of my life as much as my own mother, father, sisters and grandmother, I don’t pretend to understand the suffering of what it is to go through what people of color are going through in this country. Again.

Just because I would pray when I went to sleep that my skin would be a glowing chocolate brown in the morning, and when I played dolls with my friend Kelie I would wear a bath towel on my head, pretending to be a black girl pretending to be a white girl, or would rub vaseline into my white girl’s hair, it doesn’t magically carry me any closer to what it is to walk through this world as someone who is not white. I cannot. Because I am white.

As a child, when I witnessed with my own eyes and ears the leaden drag of dirty looks and fearful glances of white people in the presence of black people and the sick words of subcutaneous hate dressed up in “there is nobody black in the room at the moment-who is it going to hurt?,” I would go silent. Not because I didn’t want to cause a fuss, but because it made me sick. It left me mute. I couldn’t make sense of the history of white people; I couldn’t make sense of how white people knew that history and continued it, moved it forward, kept it going.

Forever after, I have spoken up in the face of prejudice that was evident, every single time. Always. As uncomfortable as it may have made people, as impolite in the company present as it may have been. I could have given a fat rat’s ass. Because you can talk about how important it is take things in their own good time, how important it is to talk about racism in the “right” way, how important it is to respect someone else’s space, someone else’s home that you may have been invited to, and I say: it has always been too late for that. The job of a human is to stand up for another human. That is what the white world has got to reckon with. We are all human. The only reason to keep someone separate is because I don’t think they are equal. They are not as deserving as I, they are not as special as I, they are not as white as I am.

There are so many other times when I wasn’t aware, when I had no idea, when I myself was the cause of pain, when I could have, should have spoken up, should have known, and did not.
This is not my moment to suffer or know what the right words are or pretend that everything will be all right and that we are going to walk off into a sunset, everybody holding hands and singing kumbaya.

Now is my moment to continue to stand up for, defend, protect, and stand back. The lead will be taken by those who have suffered enough from being told what to do and educated about what is best for them and encouraged to be patient. If I am sad beyond words and uncomfortable in my skin, so be it. I will be at the ready, with all the love I have ever known and all the hope I have always believed in.

on the bright side

I have nearly a full roll of toilet paper.

I woke up at 3:16 this morning, but couldn’t move. There is nothing wrong with me physically, unless I am an asymptomatic carrier and the virus is lurking in me like an old wolf dressed up as me and my cells. Or if my son, who also appears not to be sick, shed the virus on me when I hugged him as if he were a ship with no compass after he finished eating last night and told me he was headed for home. He was in his slippers and was going no further than to where he lives; across the street.
It is wearying to live in constant and necessary fear of something you don’t know and can’t see.

It is my heart that is not winning the war. I called the heart ambulance. He wasn’t up yet, but he answered. I couldn’t say anything, because who wants to start crying before you even say hello to someone, so I just looked at him. And he was who he always is, like that rock connected to the earth’s core that shows itself in low tide. The sight of him is enough to remind me that this isn’t all there is. The world as we know it may have changed for better or worse, but this way station of waiting in a valley of uncertainty will not own us forever. The future will come.
Some of us won’t have the joy of seeing loved ones when it is over because they are gone–stolen during the siege–and we will have to gather around them. But hope will come. Hope will rise from the ashes.

I listen for it. I listen for it in the birdsong that travels easily now over the sound waves of city air. I listen for it in my dreams of the hot summer when we might be able to venture out again.

I try to grow it by planting everything from my kitchen cabinet that has the possibility of sprouting. My chances of success take a nose dive every time I dig it all up to check on signs of life, but the hope is worth a faster heart rate.

I try to capture it with yeast from used fruit, added to flour and water. The directions say to throw half away for the first five days before feeding, but I can’t bear to. I use what I am supposed to ditch, to make another. I hide the starters like Easter eggs all over the apartment, wrapped up in tea towels to protect them from the wide open windows.

I try to pass it along when I go out walking. I wave. Every smiling eye I get, patches the cracks.

My potted tulips are twice the height they were when I bought them a week ago. I just read how to save the bulbs for next year.

I found a stash of cheap candles at the deli.

Ferdinand is good.

I saw my friend Julia by chance in the afternoon, half way across the Polaski Bridge. I waved like crazy and slammed to a stop 6 feet from her and we chatted through our masks about all the news we could think of.

It was supposed to rain today, but the sun is shining.

Vintage for the win

The man I love, makes clothes. Not just any clothes. Clothes that take your breath away. Beautiful clothes that fit like nothing ever fit before. The colors remind you of what color is meant to be and the fabrics make you want to hug them like a lover. I used to be able to keep all the clothes I own in a chest that would fit in the backseat of a compact car–I cook–the only clothing requirement I have is that I have something I can wear, and something I can wash for the next day.
Not any more. He gives me clothes as if they were Sunday breakfast. “Here you go,” he says. “Try that on for a walk.”
But what I wear now, what I reach for every morning when I talk myself into getting out of the bed for another day of soldiering through, are the sweaters that he left folded up on his dresser, because he knew I loved them. Stuff that he had worn for years, pocked with holes and saturated with the essence of him. Stuff that brings him back to me.
I don’t know exactly when I will see him again, but the first thing I will make for him will be a lemon cream pasta. The one where you simmer a pint of heavy cream with a few wide strips of lemon zest, taken off with a peeler, a clove of garlic, a few sprigs of thyme, and a good grind of black pepper. I am sure I have already told you how to make this, but I will tell you again. I simmer it over a low flame, until the garlic is soft, and then smash it through a sieve to strain the sauce. The best pasta to use with this is, homemade. One that doesn’t have too many eggs, so it doesn’t compete with the cream. Roll it out on a wooden board until you can just begin to see through it. Hang it in sheets over the back of a chair and then fold the sheets up like a business letter. Cut into narrow strips. Boil the pasta for 2-3 minutes and then drop into the simmering sauce. Shower with parmigiana reggiano, or a pecorino from the Marches, Umbria, or Tuscany.

survival mode, NYC

as the days go by, I am struggling to eat. I offer up all kinds of treats for breakfast to myself that I know I love. Corn cakes with blueberries and maple syrup, or yogurt with pumpkin seeds and bananas, a pile of clementines, dried figs. I light a candle and put it all on the table with a silver spoon from my grandmother and a mug I got in the airport at Fiumicino and a blue and white plate that Steve from Champfreau gave me that came from saving up all of his G&H stamps and handing them in at the gas station. I play Flamenco guitar or Pavarotti and sit down at the table. I take as long as I need to in order to eat at least one of the pancakes. Normally, I drink one cup of coffee, but drinking is easier than eating, so now I drink two cups of espresso loaded with whole milk for the calories.
For lunch I insist on one of everything. Meat or beans, vegetables, more fruits. If I can’t, I whisper to myself to at least eat a bowl of hot oatmeal with butter and honey. Maybe another banana. I buy full fat ice cream and shove a spoon right into the container. Forget the dish, I say to myself; just eat. Eat the Rum Raisin.
For dinner I lay all of my cookbooks on the kitchen table and open them randomly to pages that I may have never considered before. I listen to the people who wrote them, my mentors who speak to me from their notes and recipes. I listen to my mom and my grandma and my friends in Italy whose wish for everyone is a good appetite. They could care less if you talk too loud or talk too much, and they might remind you to take your elbows off the table, but they don’t really care about that. They are offended if you leave something on the plate.
Last night I had hopes in the wild mushroom minestrone, from Mr. Portale. I looked at the picture and argued with him about how much tomato should go into it. I disagreed how long to cook the onions, and I thought I could get more complexity if I added a little leek; instead of adding the garlic at the beginning, I chopped it finely, threw in pepperoncino to the pan with olive oil and stirred it in at the end. I got up from my chair to prove my point. I chopped up an onion, carrot and celery that I had bought a few weeks ago, but still had life in them. I added a leek, rosemary, parsley and a bay leaf that I had walked to Brooklyn for. I let that simmer slower than a herd of turtles. The vegetables collapsed at the bite. I cut the mushrooms thickly and waited until they had some color to add the salt. I didn’t have any beans left. I added enough whole tomatoes that I pureed, and then a little water to cover. I let it simmer for an hour. I wished I had a little red wine for it. I added the garlic and pepperoncino and olive oil. Mr. Portale was happy enough. I flooded tagliatelle with it and used my vegetable peeler to drop shards of parm over the top. I ate all of it.

Brave New World

Huxley wrote the dystopian novel amidst massive unemployment and abandonment of the gold currency in England, way back in 1931. He was convinced that in order for people to be happy, there had to be order. True. We are all feeling it.
We are at once being asked to order our lives in ways we never imagined that the whole world in real life would ever have to do together, and at the same time; we are all suffering from the upheaval from being confined to our homes; or in the trenches of care for others. There is no order to the stumbling to understand where it will lead us.
But
as human beings, we cling to our phones and computers for news. Of each other. We cling to our need to connect. To love. That is a beautiful thing. There will be no perfect way to get through this, and no need to worry about getting it right. The only way through is through.
I will tell you all the good things, because I imagine you have enough of everything else.

I realized how much I love butternut potage before it is pureed. It made me cry. (everything makes me cry right now–happy, sad, you name it.). Because it was so delicious. Because it took me so long to find it and that I found it. Because no one was there to eat it with me.

Ferdinand hasn’t been much for talking lately. His number one choice for school has closed, so there is no telling when he will find out if he got in or didn’t. He can’t see his friends, or potentially go back to school for the rest of his senior year. He is out of work, and just generally frustrated. He never misses coming over to see me though. I considered it a necessary for him. He is 17. I am not his primary residence, but he touches nothing, walking across the street from his house to my house. He doesn’t touch a doorknob, and he needs me as much as I need him.
I asked him what was new last night.
“nothing,” he said.
“you see anything good on the internet?”
“no.”
“did you talk to anybody today?”
“no.”
After a few moments of silence I said, “Ferd”, “I can’t see anyone, and I have 10 more days of it. Please tell me something.”
I don’t usually call on Ferdinand to be an adult. I don’t usually cry in front of him.
He looked up at me and his face changed. It was filled with compassion.
He told me a story about a guy and his wife on his last subway ride before it was restricted from anything but essential travel. He told me about his last visit with his best friend, who lives a subway ride away. He told me that he loved me.
He stayed with me for at least a half an hour. He joked about the cooking videos he was going to make for me, and then he waved.
“I will see you tomorrow, mom.”

I am a cook

I am a cook. It is not only how I make a living, but it is who I am. I speak in Food.
As of yesterday there are no more jobs on the horizon, but I continue to cook. Ferdinand needs to be fed. My boyfriend loves to eat. The date that Ferdinand and I had every Tuesday and Thursday with my friend his French tutor, stands. The French has been completed, but we love eating with Julia too much to let that part go.
I bought calamari yesterday. Up at Citarella in the city, they have a meat and fish selection to beat the band. Glistening squid was only $10 a pound. I am going to dust it in cornmeal, fry it and serve it with my favorite avocado, lime and tomatillo sauce.

Hold on

Way back in 1978, when my family came to NYC to see the museums (not the sights, not Broadway, not the food) my stepfather was predicting a pandemic. He was even more frugal than he was apocalyptic, so we took the subway instead of cabs, and as we walked down the steps with all of the other thousands of people shoving their way through, he would call out,
“Don’t touch the railings. They are diseased. Everybody is sick!”

On a day like today, he could have finally taken a deep breath and said, “you see, I told you so”.

My mother was a member of the same team, but she didn’t have the same energy for in-depth lectures or research, so her panic was reserved more for personal devastation. If you went to the hospital because you were pregnant, you were at risk of death from the girl in the bed next to you. Who knew what she had? Or if we were downtown having a soda and a doughnut, and a firetruck drove by, it was on its way to our house. “You know”, she would say, “the house is built from wood and full of fabric.”

I never thought of there being an upside to growing up like that, but I recognize now that the upside is, you are at every moment, mentally prepared for anything, including, to do whatever it takes to make dinner. No matter what happened or was imminent, my mother made dinner. Always.

So in the midst of all of this confusion, I am cooking. I do the daily mother check of a child, and then I forage for food. At the moment, I look for stuff to make soups with. I figure if anything happens, I will have soup in the freezer. After washing your hands every six minutes, and keeping 2 feet away from everybody, making soup is imperative.

And hold on the railings. A pandemic does not prevent you from breaking your neck.

On my list for today:

Tomato garlic soup

Pea soup, using combination of dried and fresh peas and bouquet Garni

short rib soup with danish butter balls (so far I have only found shoulder meat, no bones or ribs; I may have to substitute chicken bones to get more flavor for lack of beef bone)

pasta fagioli with mushrooms

broccoli soup with garnish of mascarpone and croutons

will cook for French

Ferdinand has a French tutor. She comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 for dinner and at 7:00, I do the dishes, and they do the French. She is a friend of mine and as reliable as the sun rises and sets. In she comes, and right behind her, my son. I make them meat sauce with bucatini or little steaks with chive butter, chicken parm or a pile of rice and lentils with a starter of red pepper potage, and they laugh and talk and then somehow a little miracle happens, and the two of them plow through a semester of vocabulary and verbs.
I am so entirely grateful.