When I was seven, I decided to teach myself how to bake with my mother’s 1958 edition of the Betty Crocker cookbook. My mother had friends over one night and they were all sitting in the living room; I came in crying with a saucepan full of cement.
“It’s a rock,” I said. My mother took a look in the pan and was unimpressed. “You used flour instead of sugar–I’ve done that; just try again.” Then she turned to her friends and said, “She is working on her caramel filling.”
My mother knew she had little time and less patience, and so she offered books; Greek Mythology, Are you there God, it’s me Margaret, Simplicity Sewing Skills and Betty Crocker. I slapped the Betty Crocker on the table for support and was sucked in full throttle. I read the fine print. It was a Come to Jesus.
In the Betty Crocker test kitchens, they loved their food, and their outfits were full on serious. White shoes, white stockings, white dresses, white hats, and white aprons. There was a buzz of camaraderie, confidence, sensible directions and a tangible deliciousness that floated from the pages into my swelling, seven year old heart.
I now know that Betty Crocker was a sales pitch for Gold Medal flour and all I can say is, it was a damn good campaign. I learned how to make caramel sauce and I memorized the tips.
Tip #1: always bring something unusual to a dish. It was implied that this would keep your man happy. I don’t mind that. It was also implied that it was the to way to make cooking your own. That is vital.
Fast forward to last Saturday night. I was in the homestretch of dessert, which was that apple tart tatin with creme anglaise. Common knowledge calls for a baking apple for this kind of thing. Ditch it. Say what you want about golden delicious, but they are the best for a tart tatin. I would stand up and compete with that. You are also supposed to cook the apples on the stove top for about 30 minutes. No way. Are you making it with apples or applesauce? Make your mind up. 15 minutes tops on the stove to caramelize, before they go in the oven. There are chefs who would close shop if they had no vanilla bean for the creme. I say, keep your boots on; in America, unlike France, we have beautiful extract. Truth: It will never give you what the bean gives, but it will take you halfway. For the other half, my go to Faye Standard, the bayleaf. Throw it in the warming cream along with an unpeeled knob of fresh ginger. Autumn in Anglaise.
Thank you, Betty.
I am back in New York. My bags are unpacked and I have done my laundry, which is an event, because there is no washing machine at my house and I am too cheap to take it to the cleaners. It has been a few days, so I am waking up at 4:30 in the morning instead of 2:00.
I am cooking the most basic things I know. Chicken pot pie and pea soup. I could use a roast beef and popovers with buttered and honeyed carrots. Macaroni and cheese. A pork chop. Butterscotch pudding and whipped cream. I might pop some corn in a pan and drown it in butter.
Saturday I have to put my chef suit on and French it up, but until then I just want home.
In case you are in the mood to travel, Saturday’s Plan:
The beauty of Gabriel Hamilton’s food stirs my insides, so to get me going I am starting with her Planked Tomatoes and browned butter
Then I will walk in with the First.
Buckwheat galette, Roquefort, schmear of cold unsalted butter under a rip of fresh basil or I am going to stir the roquefort into a little heavy cream and finish it with creme fraiche. It will settle people into their chairs.
Pan seared and roasted chicken with so many cloves of garlic and wild mushrooms
Salad and cheese course.
Greens with fresh herbs and classic vinaigrette
Cheese—I have to wait and see what moves me at Murray’s
Marrons Glace—there is never a guarantee guests will like these, but at this point in the meal they need the boost of getting fired up talking about how much they love or hate, oversugared chestnuts
Apple tart and creme anglaise
I am thinking of serving a red wine pear sorbet in the living room when they come in the door. Risky, but it is good to remind people there is another way of doing things.
Knee socks are cute with a skirt. It doesn’t always have to be stockings.
Montsoreau market this morning in the rain. My students asked me if we were going to cancel. “Cancel?” I don’t even carry an umbrella. I think I was a farmer in my past life, or the principal in the “before” ad for Noah’s Wife Wear. I gave them an extra 15 minutes with their coffee, and then we made our way over the single lane bridge to the village. We found every vegetable ever invented for Fall in the French countryside—-cauliflower, parsnips, as many onions as you can think of, pumpkins in the shape of fat raindrops, tomatoes of every shape, and horseradish root.
I will wait til we get to know each other before I buy the horseradish; it always makes me cry. Which of course happened anyway when I saw the pink mushrooms. I was unprepared for them. It was windy and the rain was coming down, and there they were under a little umbrella shelter, just as pink and ruffled as they could be. I told the vendor she was beautiful. She was.
I know for my swagger that I am easily mistaken for Mr. Schwarzenegger if you squint, or possibly “Mama” from that Carol Burnett skit.
But the truth is, there is a list of things that scare the bejeezus out of me.
Wild boar when it is pitch black outside and I am walking on my own.
Any fish that brushes by me in the water—I don’t care if you are a minnow—stay on your side of the pond.
Taxes. I would rather give you all of my money than worry that I overlooked paying some tax, leaving myself wide open to jail time.
I am definitely afraid of jail time.
Love used to be on this list.
But it is not anymore.
Definitely cooking if I feel it involves a test, spoken or unspoken.
I am about to go to France, and France is a test. I know how to cook. I do not know all of the cheeses and all of the wines. I cannot identify all the fish off the coast of Normandy, and I have never fattened a goose for its liver. And about one thousand other things. They would struggle to mistake me even for a minnow in a restaurant kitchen in Paris.
But I can make a boeuf bourguignon that you want more of. And a tender cheese soufflé. I am confident of my coq au vin and of my delicate whole fish stuffed with herbs and packed in a salt crust with a silky side of beurre blanc. I can make a rice pudding hum with the scent of vanilla bean and caramel.
Which isn’t much; none of it. Unless you are coming home. And it is waiting for you.
I just parallel parked in front of a packed house at the Fizz bar, in Lisciano Niccone. Lisciano Niccone has a total population of 64 people. Not that many, but a tough crowd to impress. Parallel parking is all I have got.
I have been coming to Lisciano for 25 years, but they don’t really believe I am an actual cook; I am an American.
I arrive to work in Italy without my child; never completely acceptable.
I speak Italian like a problematic car with a good paint job.
So, nothing. All I have got is the parking.
I did it in one fell swoop.
Unusual around these parts only because although they are only 64, they have a parking lot next to the bar for at least 100; more if people drove with a buddy. There is loads of parking around the fountain in the center and up the side streets you can park where you like. So there is absolutely never actually a need to parallel park.
There is no need to ride two ponies while standing up, wearing a pink tutu, but people do it.
I ate leftover osso bucco and risotto for dinner last night, with a side of fresh fennel. Dinner of champions.
I have decided on my days off between teaching, to go camping at the beach.
It is called Fiorentina della Pescaia.
There is an ancient fort at the top of the village and a row of restaurants along the shore below. My favorite is a place at the very beginning of the rocks that divide an inlet from the sea. The dining room is nothing but windows wide open to the water and salty air, and tables and chairs that look like they have been recycled at least twice. Fishing boats anchor alongside and the flapping and snapping catch is loaded directly into the kitchen. I don’t know what the kitchen looks like behind those swinging doors.
There can’t be much more than a massive bucket of teeny, tiny clams, a bucket of butter, a barrel of fresh parsley, one of garlic, a pasta pot loaded with baskets of spaghetti, a load of hot pans ready for the clams and somebody with a good arm and a loud mouth, for throwing everything together and then yelling that it is ready.
Unless you are allergic, there is no reason to get anything other than spaghetti alle vongole.
It is perfect every time. Along with, I get a half carafe of slightly fizzy white wine. No dessert. When I am done, I like to just sit for a minute with the tablespoon of espresso, heavy with sugar that sinks to the bottom of the cup and then get up and walk along the beach in the dark.
The ocean always brings me back; like they used to promise in those Calgonite commercials.
Next to where I sleep at home, under the lamp, there is a teeny, tiny little shell to remind me.
To get to the room where I sleep at La Macchia from the back door, you first pass through a small entry hall with a bathroom, then through the room where the riding equipment is kept, the walls lined with saddles, bridles, and whips, then through the hall with the winter kitchen to the right, and the main steps to the left. Keep walking straight on, to pass through the telephone room, where all the fencing gear hangs on three of the four walls, and where the door to the larder is all the way to the back and to the left. It is packed with homemade marinara, marmalade, beans, and pasta. Keep going, through the holding room, where platters are held for service in the dining room or great room, depending on the size of the crowd; those are the two doors to your left. The two doors to the right are my bedroom, and a tiny bath with a tinier tub. My room is huge. Massive wooden beams on the ceiling and a bed fitted with cotton sheets as heavy as wool blankets. The windows are eight feet high and even though they are on the first floor, they are twenty feet from the ground.
Below me is the cantina where the olive oil and wine is kept. There is a chariot down there as well and an old convertible Volkswagen bug. There is a press for olive oil, with massive stones and a hook up for the mule, but it is not used anymore.
There are guests visiting at La Macchia from England, and tonight is their last night. There are 36 rooms in this house, and even though they were sleeping directly above me, for their first four nights, I had no idea they were here. I have heard movement up there before when there was most definitely no one else in the house, so I don’t pay attention. The house was built in 1300; possibly before, but that is as far back as the family bible shows record of. If ghosts are going to rumble, this is the place.
I have the honor of being considered family, so as the rest of the family was off to the beach for the weekend, I was asked to look after the guests.
I will cook. I am going to make a mushroom risotto, osso bucco, and a salad of arugula, peaches, chive, red onion, and mozzarella. From there, I don’t know. I have to lift myself from this seat to have a look at what is left in the village market.
It has been sunny since I got here, with a thick fog in the morning that coats your arm hairs. Mountains of clouds wash through and occasionally drop rain, but never for more than an hour.
The group drove off to San Gimignano with a visit to a winery. They only stole one glass and bought enough wine to put in a few more rows of grapes.
Tonight: Chianina steaks and sausages. Roasted planked potatoes with a spill of cream, fresh sage and garlic baked covered, and then rip the foil off the pan and broil til crusty brown as soon as the meat is off the grill.
Until the steaks are ready: naked eggplant, and mozzarella with tagiasche olives and basil.
At the end, a chocolate flourless cake with a little espresso, covered with gently whipped cream with vin santo tipped in.
There is a kitten that jumps me every time I sit down by the stove to watch the eggplant under the broiler, and has taken ownership of my lap.
I used to carry home with me, like a turtle carries its shell. From one place to another. I was a human RV.
But today, as I was driving over the mountain to Camucia to buy more groceries, I got homesick. I had to pull over to the side of the road, because my eyes started to flood.
I rerouted up to Cortona for an ice cream cone for lunch at Snoopy’s. Then was back on track to get my 10 liters of wine pumped, a piece of Gorgonzola dolce for my pasta, and back over the mountain to Trabalza for pork chops, cut in front of me, the way they do.
Even though it is raining, if I shove the chimney of the grill just outside the overhang from the tobacco tower, I should be all right.
We are doing a lemon tart for dessert with just the tiniest bit of mascarpone stirred into the curd.
When I was 14, my chores included clearing the table, doing the dishes, laundry, dinner on Tuesdays and cleaning the upstairs bathroom. I earned 35 cents a week. To make up for what I considered not enough pay for hard labor, I babysat. I was fierce. I baked with toddlers and I took the big kids for field trips on the public bus. When the parents got home, everybody was sleeping and the house was clean. I couldn’t be touched. I owned Kenyon street, Oxford, and North Beacon, and worked an average of four nights a week. I spent next to nothing. I liked the feeling of money in the bank.
It made my step father nervous.
We were in direct competition for who was the boss of me.
He didn’t have a regular job and I assume he had no money in the bank. He knew he was losing. I bought my own clothes, my own shoes, shampoo and snacks. I could have bought my own food if I had to. I said nothing about school, and never had a complaint come back from the office. I left the house early and came home late. My mother was tired. She worked.
My total control lasted until my first kiss. It was at Jackie Maurer’s on Halloween night, and it was the best thing that had happened to me since my first grand jete. The feeling of flying through the air in a full split, had been replaced.
I was in a constant shudder of hope that it would happen again, right there in the middle of the day. School didn’t suffer, it just got harder to walk the hallways. Even after I accepted that the one who had kissed me would never look my way again.
Inside me though. Inside was a forest with no floor. I was devastated. I couldn’t understand it. How you could love someone from the truth of who you had never dared to share, and they were unmoved.
When you are 14, you don’t question the love you feel, only the love you don’t receive.
It shook the waters of me that had been previously undisturbed. I could think of nothing else but how undesirable I must be. Not in a sad way. I wasn’t sad about it, I was just trying to face the facts. There was something about me that must not be right.
I went shopping. I took the bus to the suburbs where I thought the answer might be. I poked around with my skinny butt and fat wallet in the Junior Miss section. Typically I bought stripes and solids. Painters pants or kakis. Work clothes from the Army/Navy. But I was on a mission for another kiss. I thought a maxi dress would be too much. I picked out a pair of blue grey thin wale corduroy flares and a peasant blouse sprayed with tiny flowers that oozed pink and satin ribbons. I matched it with my Frye boots and a lavender cream shadow for my eyes. I felt I might turn the world and Jacques Q. upside down.
I had forgotten though, about the in house contest. When I came down the stairs in the morning, I was unprepared for comment from the stands.
My stepfather could feel the weakness. He could feel it without touching, that my skin was thinner. I still have a fear of losing my callouses.
“Well you look like a whore in uniform.”
Coming from a God fearing man that believed in good manners.
I lost being the the boss only for a tsunami of seconds. And then I collected myself.
I stayed silent. I turned my left heel into my right arch and anchored my left hand to the same hip. I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. Then I left.
Every night that I was assigned dinner, I made a slightly underdone, barely warm, potato and cottage cheese casserole. And then I would catch the bus for the late class to grand jete across a solid linoleum floor.