A Quiet Place

The house next door, once vacant and more or less abandoned for years, is alive again with the sound of workmen’s saws, jackhammers, and polka music from 8 to 4. The overgrown jacaranda in their yard that used to shielded my living room from the afternoon sun and give me the half-illusion of living in a Southern California arboretum if I squinted hard enough has been cut down and hauled away to make room for piles of rotten wood and old concrete, which are then cleared away at regular intervals to make room for new piles of ejecta. It’s good that the owners are sprucing up their neglected property, but the noise from all this improvement is excruciating.

My across-the-hall neighbor Rachel moved out two months ago to co-habitate with her boyfriend. I wish her all the luck in the world, but resent the different sort of banging that could be heard from the other side of our shared bedroom wall as the handymen refinished the floors and did whatever else they typically do when freshening up a place in order to entice new tenants into paying $3,500 a month for a small one-bedroom apartment.

Last month the noises started coming from an entirely new direction when the low, constant-yet-oddly-soothing Satchmo-like growl of my downstairs neighbor, Stephen, was replaced with the sound of power tools and yelling to be heard over power tools. I found his kitchen door wide open as I climbed down the back stairs to the laundry room. The place was gutted. Any trace of the man who had lived there for the last forty-four years had been eradicated, which caused me to worry. Did he move out by choice? Was he ill? We weren’t friends, but we were neighborly. The owners are now installing new kitchen cabinets, which have been boxed up and cluttering the building’s foyer for a week. I saw another tenant moving out the other day. One I’d never even met. They’ll be starting on his apartment next and the noise will continue. The only quiet hours of daylight occur on Sundays. If I’m lucky. At night, there is an eery silence with my part of the building now half-empty.

My neighbors are vanishing one by one. News from the outside has been relentlessly awful. It is either too noisy or too silent to write much, even when I am able to concentrate. And so, dear reader, I feel as though I am slowly going mad.

Most means of escape that I once took for granted like hopping on a train to stay with friends or an airplane to visit my family are currently not an option. I get clammy just thinking about getting on a bus to go take a peek at the ocean, mask or no mask. My world has become remarkably small over the past few months and there are precious few places to which I can safely flee to find a bit of peace and quiet.

Fortunately, there is one tiny corner of the world where I feel I can take refuge– my local park. It’s a very short walk to a place designated to honor a man with an extremely long name– Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, the French hero of The American Revolution. It’s a small park, but it is surrounded on all sides by points of personal interest. To its west lies the hospital where I had my appendectomy. To the east is the home of Julie Newmar’s somewhat creepy younger brother. To the south is a building which offers up the dubious claim to have been the temporary residence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And what, you may well ask, is so special about the northern edge of the park? It is dominated by a Beaux-Arts confection called The Spreckels Mansion, built by syphilitic sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels and his artists’ model wife, Alma. It also happens to be the San Francisco residence of the 4th best-selling author of all-time, Danielle Steel.

In the park there is a long bench, high up and shaded by trees, which overlooks Washington Street and the mansions that line it. For example, Mrs. Merrill’s house, where I was once invited by my friend Justin (her live-in personal chef) to hang out as he prepared her dinner. After her meal was finished, Mrs. Merrill asked to meet me and suggested that Justin give me a tour of the house. From the top floor, he pointed to an enormous place across the little stretch of Octavia Street where Alma Spreckels convinced the city to place barriers in the road to slow down traffic enough to help with her husband’s sexually-transmitted headaches. He indicated that it was Ms. Steel’s house and that was my first glimpse of the woman, wearing a nightgown and pacing her bedroom carpet. Feeling a bit Peeping Tom-ish, I averted my eyes by lifting them to her rooftop, where I saw a play set– one of the cheap sorts in primary colored plastic. From my perspective, it looked as though the yellow slide would shoot any child brave or stupid enough to use it straight over the side and down three stories into her privacy hedges. That could not have been the case as I realized such placement would be architecturally unlikely, but it was my first impression of the woman and I cannot say it was entirely wrong.

And twenty years later, I find myself sitting on a park bench across the street from from her house in Portuguese fisherman sandals and a surgical mask wondering where all the time and most of my sanity and even that ugly play set have gone.

I always bring a good book with me when I visit the bench. There is perverse satisfaction to be had in reading good literature in front of the house of a pulp romance writer, though I can only get through ten or fifteen pages at a sitting because my attention span is shot to hell. But I tell myself it’s what I should be doing. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, which was given to me for my birthday. I had the book tucked under my arm when I left the park the other day and ran into a friend at the grocery store who mentioned she knew the author. I told her I thought I had another friend who might know him and it turns out she’s friends with my other friend and all I could think was “San Francisco is the smallest world in the world.” Everything seems connected. Every book and every person and every park bench and every mansion, if you’ve lived here long enough and that, in its small way, is grounding.

When I arrive most mornings, when I find I can get out of bed at all, it’s foggy and cold, which is how I like my San Francisco summers. Yesterday, I shared the long bench with a bottle of water belonging to a woman doing Tai Chi. I looked up from my book at one point to find her hands open and held away from her body like a department store mannequin, rotating her torso slowly towards the mansion. Her hands then gently clenched into fists and I read far more into that gesture than was likely intended. Had she, like I, overheard Ms. Steel’s out-of-touch complaint regarding the quality of diamonds in San Francisco? Had she, too, been left with an unwanted party favor pack of cards labeled “Fifty Fabulous Farts”? I may never know for certain. The bottle was eventually replaced by a woman who took off her mask to smoke a cigarette, thereby breaking at least two park policies. She looked as though she was having a rough morning, so I said nothing. I read maybe five pages before my brain stopped working and returned home to the noise.

And that, dear readers, is another glimpse into my day-to-day, COVID-inspired life. I know I’ve been away too long, but it feels like the wrong time to tell my stories and the idea of ironic or clever recipe writing makes me feel a bit… “whoopsie”? Is that the current polite term for being sick to one’s stomach? I may have recently heard that come out of the mouth of Brett Sommers on a Match Game ’74 YouTube clip and I hate that I’m not certain.

I feel like there are more important things to be doing right now, although I feel a bit helpless to do anything at the moment except check in on friends from time to time, send condolence cards when needed, call my family once a week, iron absolutely everything that can be ironed in my apartment, and try to believe that there is any sort of future ahead that isn’t totally bleak.

But it’s also good to reach out and tell people you’re doing okay. Or that you’re doing not-okay. Some days I’m one, some days– most days, really– I’m the other. But I’m alive and that, I suppose, is a good thing. I need to give myself permission to write as a diversion and that’s a challenge right now. But I’ll get there, I promise.

Just as soon as all this god damned* hammering stops.

*I was going to say “Just as soon as all this fucking hammering stops”, but my father hates it when I use profanity on my blog.


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In My Solitude


A pair of mourning doves were fucking outside my kitchen window the other day. At the very least, they were giving it the old college try. The male fluttered his well-groomed wings from time to time to maintain an awkward balance on top of the female. She locked her small black eyes on mine for a moment, but they were so expressionless, her attitude regarding the experience seemed very much open to interpretation. I broke away from her gaze. It was awkward and anyway I was cleaning a chef’s knife which required my full attention— a trip to the emergency room is a horrifying thought at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s unthinkable.

Resignation. That was the look. Not ecstasy, not annoyance, just an avian impression of stoic practicality.  

“Lucky bitch,” I thought as I carefully placed the knife on the rack to dry.

This morning on my way home from the market, an Irish Setter placed its cold, wet nose on my forearm as I knelt down to tie my shoes. Its owner apologized and I said “No problem” as clearly as possible through the hot mask that was pulling at my ears. What I really wanted to say was “Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve been touched by another living thing in nearly two months.” I sighed into my face covering, picked up my bags of groceries that now felt 30 pounds heavier, made it back home, stripped down, and took a hot soapy shower where I sat in the tub with the water spraying over me and sudsed and scrubbed until I felt immaculate enough to safely hold my head in clean hands.

Sheltering in place alone isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I don’t expect it’s meant to be. I often think it would be lovely to share the burden of waiting out the plague with another human. Someone I could cook for and while away the days curled up in bed with to watch British Whodunits. Someone who would tell me to stop touching my face and cajole me into putting on pants. Or to take them off, depending on my mood. Someone I could then shut away in a cupboard until I felt lonely again. I have the feeling my therapist would tell me that’s not how healthy relationships work and I would tell him I agreed, but really I’d think it would be marvelous.

How lovely, I often wonder, would it be to have a cat? It might be nice to have a sweet, furry creature purring in my ear or kneading my chest in the morning with its paws in order to get me out of bed and give it food. I could almost forgive a clawed up couch and the ammonia whiffiness of the cat box if it meant having a warm-blooded animal respond to my touch.

But at the moment all I’ve got are two houseplants and if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this whole nightmare is that a Pepperomia Frost doesn’t hug you back. I do the best I can with my adopted flora. I’ve even named them. The problem is that I can barely remember what I’ve called them from one week to the next. Currently, they are called “Hannah” and “Her Sister”. I think they’re good names. Hannah is the Pepperomia. She’s dependable and gives me very little trouble. Her Sister is probably Holly, the Dianne Wiest character, because she’s kind of a mess and is all over the place. I have no idea what species she is– she’s just viney and prone to drama, as much as vegetation can be. She’s currently got one of her tendrils on my Joan Didion. My therapist says it’s fine that I can’t remember their names for very long and suggests that a non-strong attachment to one’s houseplants is probably a good thing and that gives me comfort.

Cooking in isolation does pass the time, but I find little joy in it. Over the weeks, I’ve made runny lemon curd, indifferent buttermilk fried chicken, and so many meatballs that I quickly tire of them and attack them as they simmer away in the pot until I have a lumpy, beefy sauce. But I do cook every day. I find it helps. I very much doubt I’ll jump on the sourdough yeast starter bandwagon. I’ve never been much of a bandwagon jumper on-er. The only bandwagon I’ve ever enjoyed is a film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Or, as I prefer calling people by their real names, Frederick Austerlitz and Tula Ellice Finklea, which reminds me of two things I have discovered about my self during this social exile:

1. I fall into Wikipedia rabbit holes a lot
2. Isolation exacerbates my tendency to ramble and take off on tangents.

Reading is a challenge. As is watching full length movies. I set out to tackle François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine last week because I was filled with self-horror for never having seen it. After twenty minutes, my eyes glazed over and nobody was home, so to speak. My friend Shannon gave me a book she thought I’d love, which I do. But I read maybe ten pages at a time. I’ll pick it up again today and go for twenty. The shortening of my attention span is aggravating. I find it difficult to hold a sustained thought for very long, which is one of the reasons I haven’t posted on this here blog earlier this month.

Music is a mixed blessing. I naturally lean towards sad songs in the best of times, so I thought I’d try to counter that by only playing happy songs and then I realized I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head and wondered what my therapist would have to say about that. I pulled up Nina Simone on Spotify last week and let her rip as I was doing housework because her voice always has a positive effect on me no matter what particular mood she happens to be in. I was scrubbing my kitchen floor to her version of Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and noted how satisfying it was to be performing the same domestic drudgery as the heroine of the song. Other tunes followed as I tidied my way through until she started in with Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude”, which stopped me dead in my tracks:

“I sit in my chair
I’m filled with despair
There’s no one could be so sad
With gloom everywhere
I sit and I stare
I know that I’ll soon go mad”

It was an unfortunate choice of music and I found myself marooned in the middle of my kitchen floor still wet with watered-down bleach, wondering how soon until I, like Miss Simone herself, went mad. My feet were damp and if I ran into the living room to turn off the music, I’d ruin the rug. I just stood there until the song was over, motionless and feeling like an idiot. “Well, if I’m going to go off the deep end,” I thought, “I’m going to do it in a spotless kitchen.”

I somehow doubt I will go mad. I’m quite used to my solitude because I’ve had years and years of practice being alone. I enjoy my own company and, as a third child who grew up with much older siblings, I know very well how to entertain myself.

I generally like being alone. But when the choice to go out into the world and press the flesh, so to speak, is no longer a viable, responsible possibility, that aloneness can feel grim.

But I know I’m not alone. Physically alone, yes, but not socially. I know I’m lucky to have family to call every week who are healthy, and friends to Zoom and FaceTime with to shoot the breeze and share a cocktail or two.

I’m also lucky to have a roof over my head, food on my table, and enough resources to get through this year that seems to stretch on forever. Next year is another story entirely, but I’ve decided to cherry-pick from my mother’s trusty 12 Step Program and take this thing one day at a time.

And though I probably don’t say it enough, I count myself very luck to have you, too, dear readers.

Thank you for letting me wander all over the place with this post. I hope it finds you healthy and as well as can be under the circumstances. I wish I could give a sustained, uncomfortable-because-it-lasts-for-more-than-three-seconds hug to each and every one of you. And if I happen to see you in person after this nightmare is over, I want to apologize in advance for being uncharacteristically touchy-feely, but like I mentioned earlier, if you’ve ever resorted to hugging your houseplants, you’ll understand. And forgive.

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The Assholes of the Sea

When I heard my therapist tell me Madonna was a marine biologist the other week, I was surprised to say the very least. We’d been discussing sea urchins because they happened to be the topic currently taking up too much space in my head that day. It was good to know she had another career to fall back on in her later years, but the idea seemed unlikely. I asked him to repeat his statement, just to be sure.

“I said my daughter was a marine biologist,” he dittoed. I was glad for his offspring, but disappointed for Ms. Ciccone. I explained my initial confusion and he laughed. The conversation stalled for a few seconds, during which time I realized that a) we were both taking a moment to imagine the pop star with an advanced science degree and a wetsuit and b) I was the sort of person who hears only what he wants to hear, at least the first time around.

I had developed a craving for urchin over the holidays that remained unsated for weeks. And when I say “craving”, I suppose I mean “had the urge to destroy as many of these terrible echinoderms as I possible within the confines of my rather limited current budget.” I popped around the corner to Swan’s Oyster Depot– I knew they had them from time to time, but was told it was only an occasional item. I called a few other places around town and the answer was always roughly this: “Yes, we get them in sometimes whenever anyone feels like diving for them.” Why, I wondered, weren’t divers out in force scooping up these creatures en masse? I was certain the answer had more to do with the combined forces of weather and economics than general laziness on the part of the harvesters. Still, I was frustrated. And a bit peckish for uni– the silken, tongue-shaped roe of the urchin. The thought of them made me rather homesick for my former restaurant alma mater.

We sold fresh sea urchin at Kokkari whenever the season and our chef’s inclination to serve it coincided, which was always. I loved describing its preparation to my guests. “We crack them open while they’re still alive,” I’d tell them, my eyes wide as I pictured a pantry cook caught in the violent act. “We put them on top of a bowl full of ice and serve them raw with just a little drizzle of olive oil and some lemon. The spines are still wriggling as you scoop out the roe.” Not everyone was moved by my straightforward– if vivid– descriptions of specials at the restaurant. I once described a dish called kokoretsi to a table of twelve as “goat guts on a stick”. A few people looked horrified, but I sold three of them on the spot. The squeamish never order the out-of-the-ordinary, so I prefer to paint a picture with as few words as possible. It’s a quick way to assess who’s an adventurous eater and who orders the chicken. It was the same with the urchin.

One lunchtime, as the mad gallop of Friday service slowed to a canter, I described the dish in my usual way to two women. One of them, who ordered a glass of crisp Santorini assyrtiko made her excitement immediately known. “Oh yes!” she ejaculated, “Urchins are assholes! You know they’re destroying kelp beds which is terrible for sea otters and I love otters,” she said to her rosé-drinking lunching partner, who seemed dubious. “We should be eating as many of those fuckers as we can.” She then took a breath and apologized to me for her language. There was no need because I was already in love. I simply smiled and said that, thanks to her, I would forever think of sea urchins as “the assholes of the sea”. Miss Santorini once again looked at her friend and asked, “Shall we?” The rosé drinker, not wanting to appear anti-otter, assented.

A few minutes later, I returned to them with one of the giant purple urchins, lobotomized and spines writhing, and placed it in the middle of their little two-top. I squeezed a wedge of lemon over the exposed roe and suggested they scoop it out and spread it over the bread provided. “I’ve never eaten an asshole before,” she confessed, realizing what she had just said as soon as she had said it.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” I answered. “Just be gentle. I’m sure you’ll be wanting a bit of privacy.” And with that, I quietly left the table, pleased by the thought that, because of my efforts, one more asshole in the world had been well and truly licked.

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Not Over, Easy.

Cracked EggDear Gentle Reader,

Happy New Year to you all. It’s been nearly six months since my blog confession and, in the world of internets, that’s an eternity. While we’re on the subject,  it’s been 36 years since my last proper Catholic confession, but that is another story for another time. Dirty priests.

Although I admit there were some wonderful moments in 2019, overall I didn’t much care for last year. From a writing standpoint, it was a total disaster, but you know what? I’m not going to beat myself up over it. 

For once.

Instead, I’ll just glance over my shoulder, wonder where all the time went, pour myself a drink, and move on. That said, the longer one stays away from trying to fill up a blank page, the harder it is to fill one. The brain and fingers get rusty. So I thought I’d start the year off with something easy to both make and digest. Something symbolic, if you like: the humble egg.

In Greek mythology, Chronos (Time) and Nyx (Night) created the world-egg, out of which hatched Phanes, the hermaphrodite generator of new life. In my view, if an ovum is good enough for the gods, it’s certainly good enough for me. We all start from one, so it’s as fine a place as any to begin. And heaven knows an egg is easier to source and a lot more culinarily versatile than its partner in procreative crime, sperm. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re at the market, tell the woman at the customer service desk that you’re in desperate need of semen and count the seconds until security is called to escort you off the premises.

The shell of an egg– a hen’s egg, at least– also requires very little effort to crack, which is a pretty good metaphor for 2019– the year I cleared my schedule to do the same. NOTE TO READER: Do not schedule time out for a planned breakdown because they do not, in general, adhere to a fixed timetable.

Runny Egg

The Soft-Boiled Egg

The soft-boiled egg is a tender thing, its insides ideally a warm, ill-formed goo. It is what posh people in film & television set in the 1930s are brought in bed by the help on a breakfast tray with coffee and toast. It is Nick & Nora, Jeeves & Wooster. The onscreen consumers of the soft-boiled breakfast never fail to cut off the top shell with grace all the while discussing this morning’s plans or recovering from last night’s hangover. It is as comforting as it is economical, which leads me to point out that no one seemed to breakfast as cheaply as the Depression Era rich.

The soft-boiled egg is how I intended to start off the New Year, but forgot and had oatmeal instead. The habits of 2019 die hard.

Serves one aspiration breakfaster. 

Ingredients:

• 1 egg coaxed from the cloaca of a chicken, preferably by someone unseen.
• A pinch of salt
• 1 piece of white bread sliced from the belly of a Pullman loaf, toasted and cut into batons.

Preparation:

  1. Pour enough water into a saucepan deep enough to cover your egg. Bring water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Gently lay the egg into the water and simmer for exactly 5 minutes. If you can persuade a hen to lay the egg directly into the pan, all the better, but I prefer this step to be performed with a minimum of squawking.
  2. Remove the egg from the water with a slotted spoon and let rest for a minute– just enough time to remove a small plate and an egg cup from the cupboard.
  3. Put the egg cup onto the plate (A small linen cocktail napkin to place between the two is a lovely touch but not strictly necessary.) Place the egg into the egg cup, narrow end down. Arrange toast batons onto plate, and serve on a breakfast tray with a small knife, an even smaller cellar of salt, and coffee or tea.
  4. If you have a gentleman’s gentleman to do this for you, you may ignore steps 1 through 3.
  5. Gently lobotomize the top of the egg by lightly tapping around the shell, then pull off the top, laying it to one side of the plate. Sprinkle salt over the egg with a dainty touch.
  6. With care, plunge a baton of toast into the bowels of the egg and remove. Place the object now possibly dripping with runny yolk into your mouth, carefully avoiding the ruination of your maribou bed jacket. Chew satisfactorily and swallow.
  7. Repeat until all of the yolk has been consumed and ignore the remaining, solidified white that still clings to the inside of the shell.
  8. Ring to have your tray removed.
  9. When no one arrives to clear your breakfast, wonder how you could have possibly gotten to your age and still not be able to afford domestic help.
  10. Remove tray from lap, carry into the kitchen, remove maribou bed jacket, and rinse out  your morning dishes. Do not leave them in the sink because dried egg yolk is an absolute bitch to remove.

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Lamb Dressed as Mutton.

Olay Lamb

I never expected to be this old, really. Fifty. Fifty. It’s such an important-sounding number.

It’s the exact number of dollars Holly Golightly requires for the powder room. It’s how many Nifty United States my brother coughed through in a live Salute to America pageant recording. It’s how many shades of grey the author of a poorly researched sex novel thinks there are. It’s the sum total of ways Paul Simon suggest you can leave your lover. It is a figure so significant that people whose marriages miraculously last that long receive presents made of gold. Gold.

To celebrate this milestone, I thought I would make Mutton Dressed as Lamb. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the recipe would be, but I thought the idea was appropriate for a middle-aged writer who still prefers wearing short pants. I Googled “where to buy mutton in SF” but was directed to places that only sold lamb. I widened my search, thinking I could mail order some from slightly further afield, but I am not at all comfortable buying meat from the UK unless I am actually present in the UK to eat it. My internet probing was disheartening. Perhaps I could special order it from my local butcher shop?

I called Bryan’s Quality Meats and chatted with one of the butchers. They do special orders. They have sweetbreads pre-packaged in their refrigerator case, so the idea didn’t seem too farfetched. “Mutton? Hmmm…” the gentleman on the other end said. I imagined him stroking his chin with his non-phone hand as he considered my request. “We don’t carry it. I’ll bet you could special order it with somebody who raises lamb, but that would probably mean committing to buying a whole sheep.” I expressed my disappointment and thanked him for his time and then he added, “People like their lamb young. When it gets old, nobody seems to want it anymore.” When I hung up the phone, I was suddenly depressed. More depressed than usual, that is.

“When it gets old, nobody wants it anymore” kept running through my head and I didn’t much care for it. I hadn’t been too worried about hitting the half-century mark until that moment. I wasn’t what you might call looking forward to it either– I’m not exactly sweet on birthdays. I hide my natal day information of Facebook because I don’t want three hundred people wishing me well. It makes my homepage so untidy. I get uncomfortable when people other than my father and stepmother sing “Happy Birthday” to me because it means I have to sit there and take it and I don’t know what to do with myself for the 17 seconds it takes for everyone to get through the lyrics. I die a little when it happens in restaurants. I prefer a small, quiet celebration spent with a few people who know it’s my birthday without a major social media platform having to tell them. And after that phone call to the butcher I just felt like a pile of old meat that nobody wanted.

I was being pathetic and I knew it. Old meat. Perhaps I am now old meat, but apart from a bit of grey hair, I think I’m doing alright. I recalled one of my favorite quotes regarding aging from Jeanne Calmet, the world’s oldest woman, on the occasion of her 110th birthday: “I’ve got only one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.” Except I imagine she said it in French. The act of conjuring that mental image always seems to cheer me up.

Old meat. What, pray, is wrong with old meat? Don’t people like their steaks aged? Aren’t pheasants hung in dark places to quietly rot in peace? And let us not forget our porcine products: Jamón Ibérico, Speck, and Serrano Ham are highly desirable. And very expensive.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective, really. Fresh meat has its own pleasures to be sure, but I am well past the spring chicken stage. Younger, tender viands lack complexity, and often rely on older, more experienced meats to help them along. It’s the prosciutto  that makes a Saltimbocca jump in the mouth, after all, not the veal.

The more, I think about old meat, the better I feel about it. But I am done for now. I’m going outside for a little fresh air. The fresh lamb steak I reluctantly bought instead of what I really wanted will be wrapped up tightly and put in the freezer. Do you think perhaps in a year or two it will have aged into something better? Probably not– no matter how hard you might try, you can never really get away with dressing up lamb and passing it off as mutton.

Posted in Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Simply Astonishing: Nun’s Farts

Christina the AstonishingIt was a seizure that killed Christina the first time.

She may have been tending her sheep or terrorizing passersby or perhaps both when the paroxysm occurred. Her sisters discovered the body, but by then she was past saving. They were grief-stricken and possibly a bit relieved. Severe, pious, and with a clear distaste for the company of other people, Christina had never been an easy person to live with.

Her funeral was held at the church of Sint-Truiden in what is now called Belgium but was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, which many scholars would like to remind you wasn’t very holy, not the least bit Roman, nor even much of an empire, no matter how large it may have seemed at the time. The local congregation gathered to pray for her soul, hear a mass, and see the unpleasant 21 year-old safely in her grave. But as the priest delivered his sermon something rather unusual occurred.

Christina sat bolt upright in her coffin, uttered a soul-piercing shriek, and promptly flew up into the church rafters. As the amazed congregation stared helplessly up at the ceiling, the priest gently coaxed her down. She later explained that she had been shown the terrors of Hell, the suffering souls in Purgatory, and the blessed ones in Heaven. At the end of her journey, she was offered a choice by God– to stay in Paradise or return to earth and lead a penitential life to expedite the suffering of those awaiting entry into Heaven. She chose the latter. When asked about her little levitation trick, the young woman with a second lease on life confessed she did it to get away from the crowd because the stench of sin that came from them frightened her.

Eye witnesses would later refer to the event as “astonishing”. It was an adjective that would hang about Christina well beyond her natural days, much as the odor of transgression clung to those she both prayed for and disdained.

She took to her new life with impressive brio. When she wasn’t hurling insults at sinful strangers, she avoided them altogether and sought out sufficiently lonely places for suffering wherever she could find them. In winter, she would plunge beneath the ice of the Meuse to meditate for weeks under the freezing water. When the weather was more pleasant, she would float down the same river until she met up with the nearest watermill and let its wheel carry her body round and round until it was properly mangled. But her preferred hiding place was a raging furnace, where she could pray in proper torment and carry her burning passion for the saving of souls to a literal extreme. But after each appointment with agony, Christina’s body would miraculously heal itself.

She was arrested twice for suspicion of being possessed by demons.

Upon being released for the second time, she steered her penitential life in a surprising direction for someone who disliked the company of others– she joined the Dominican monastery of St. Catherine’s, conveniently located in her hometown. A mendicant order, the Dominicans were sometimes referred to as “God’s fighting dogs”. Their poor and semi-rabid reputation suited her. She spent the rest of her days in quiet prayer and died– for the second and presumably last time– of natural causes on the 24th of July, 1224 at the age of seventy-four.

The prioress of the monastery later testified that, during her life at the monastery, Christina served God humbly and obeyed any order the prioress might give. She was still prone to levitation because she detested the sinful odor of her fellow nuns, but it’s nice to know she obligingly came down from the rafters when asked.

I see that as an astonishing mark of personal growth on her part.

Pets de nonne

Pets de Nonnes (Nun’s Farts)

Once upon a time, I wrote a proposal for a cookbook with recipes based on the lives and horrible deaths of Catholic saints and martyrs. I enjoyed the hell out of writing it, but when my agent sent it out to the publishing houses, the general reaction was essentially this: “It’s weird and we don’t know how to market it.”

Someone even asked the question: “Where do we file this? Under Food, Humor, or Religion?” Nobody wanted it, so it’s been collecting dust on my hard drive ever since. Or whatever the appropriate equivalent is for something that doesn’t exist in a place where dust can penetrate.

So I thought I might share a saint-related recipe on this blog from time to time, where no one but my commenting readers can tell me it’s a bad idea. Or tell me where to file it.

The recipe pairing for Christina the Astonishing was an easy one– pets de nonnes are the obvious choice for a holy woman who not only finds the smells of her fellow brides of Christ unpleasant, but can make herself lighter than air to boot. The dough is plunged into hot oil and rises to the surface when (and only when) it’s damned good and ready to. Had Christina consistent, easy access to giant vats of hot oil, I feel certain she would have availed herself to such a novel means of self-torture. Just imagine her crispy skin. But I’m getting ahead of myself– that’s a recipe for St. Bartholomew.

The following recipe is derived from the proper, French confection– little puffs of choux pastry, light as air. There is another version of pets de nonnes, sometimes referred to as pets de sœurs, which is Québécois in nature and is therefore to be avoided. I have no wish impugn the integrity of French Canadian cuisine. I merely fail to find anything wind-breaking about them.

The finished product is tasty, but austere, which is appropriate given the inspiration for this comes from a mendicant order of holy women. The next time I make them I (and I definitely will be making them again), I might fill them with a light pastry cream, or a whipped cream folded with jam. But I’d have to figure out another name for them because the idea of stuffing a nun makes me shudder, even as a recovering Catholic.

By the way, Christina the Astonishing is not an official saint of the Roman Catholic church,   but she is still venerated and considered by her followers to be the patroness of not only the mentally ill, but of people who own and operate watermills.

Makes…I don’t know… 18 “farts”. This may depend upon how many you initially burn, which is rather difficult to do. But sometimes, nature calls and cannot be avoided. Even while frying. Also, I got bored of counting them, so I stopped.

Ingredients:

For the pets:

• 6 tablespoons of butter
• 1 cup of cold water
• 1 cup of sifted all-purpose flour (I find sifting annoying, too.)
• A heavy pinch of salt.
• 4 whole eggs which have come from a healthy chicken’s cloaca.
• A large amount of vegetable oil. (Enough to ensure a 3″ depth in your frying implement.)

In which to roll said pets:

• 1 cup of white sugar
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon of freshly ground clove

Preparation:

  1. In a small bowl, mix sugar, cinnamon, and clove thoroughly. Set aside for the fun, easy part of this recipe.
  2. Put butter, salt, and water into a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat once boiling status has been reached, then add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon, continuing to do so until it forms a dough and pulls away from the sides of the pot in a more-or-less glossy, clean ball. Return the pot to the stove and, over low heat, keep stirring for a couple of minutes to dry out the dough.
  3. Add the eggs, one at a time until each has been fully incorporated into the floury mass. It will slip and slide and you may well think, “This really doesn’t look right.” But it is. Just keep stirring and incorporating until it hurts. Christina would approve. Set aside and let cool. It does not have to be cold. Just give it a little rest post-workout.
  4. In another heavy-bottomed pot (or the same pot, just cleaned and dried), pour the oil to a three-inch depth. Make it four if you are feeling flush. Or two if you don’t come from an oil-rich nation. Just as long as there is enough depth to fully fry your farts.  Place over medium heat until the oil reaches 350°F.
  5. To fry these “puffs” as I shall now call them, dip a (measuring) tablespoon into the oil and scoop it into your awaiting mass of dough. Re-dip into the hot oil, which should immediately liberate the little tablespoon-sized ball. You may regard the amount of dough you’ve just placed in heated fat and think “That doesn’t look like enough”. But then it suddenly puffs up to a size large enough for you to say aloud “This is sufficient. I am happy with the circumference of this particular nun’s fart.”
  6. Each puff will rise when the natural, God-given gas within has expanded. It will also flip itself over when it feels it is ready, which I find fairly miraculous, given the subject matter of this post. But not always, so do keep a good eye out. When the the puff is beautifully golden brown on all sides (beautiful golden-browning time: approximately 5 minutes), remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined rack. Repeat the process until all of your farts puffs have been expended. Do not overcrowd the oil pot. Fry them a few at a time.
  7. Roll each still-warm puff into your sugar mixture and place them in your favorite serving vessel. These treats are delicious, even when cold, but there are few things more satisfying than serving your friends and family a bowl full of nice, warm farts.

 

Posted in Rants and Stories, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Let’s Just Forget That Ever Happened.

Paris CatIf I had to liken this blog to a common domesticated animal, I’d say it was more catlike than anything. It isn’t so mean-spirited and short-lived as a hamster, nor does it constantly beg for attention and occasionally eat tissues like our canine friends. And it certainly is nothing like a goldfish except that its author does occasionally go near water.

It is most positively, definitely feline. It shows up on your doorstep every once in a while with a questionable offering and does its business in the same place every time. Occasionally, it grooms its private areas in front of company.

And when it gets sick, it goes and hides until it either feels better or dies. Or, hopefully, somebody notices and hauls it off to the vet.

Fortunately, this furry little blog is not dead. Turns out it just got lost in the bushes, killed a few lizards, went to stay with an elderly couple who don’t understand the internet for a while, then got bored and decided to come home. It looks up at you, purring and blinking, with a short meow that seems to say, “Let’s just forget this little episode ever happened now, shall we?” And then it brushes past you slowly to find the nearest warm thing to sleep on.

And that is pretty much what this author is asking you to do. It’s been nearly six months since my last confessional. In cat terms, I felt that slinking off somewhere was much better than horking up something dreadful on the living room carpet.

I am anything if not polite.

Poppy WhiteEverything’s okay. Or at lease will be.

Depression is a total bitch of a mistress and that’s all I’ll share on the subject for the time being. I thought I had run out of things to say. I felt supremely uninteresting. And the thought of writing anything seemed not only distasteful but impossible.

I had forgotten that I write and keep this blog to entertain myself. It’s the place where I have traditionally had a lot of fun being creative. It’s because of this little thing that I have met so many fascinating people, gotten to do some pretty marvelous things, and won an award or two along the way.

Everything has felt so grim and serious over the past couple of years. This is most likely because so many things really are. It’s taken me a while to accept that it’s okay to enjoy myself from time to time. In fact, I think it’s probably medically necessary.

And now I remember why I started this blog in the first place– to have a good time and to keep myself sane.

So let’s just forget these past few months ever happened, shall we? Good. Because, if pressed, I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened during that time– it’s been so bloody boring and depressing without you.

Poppy Cocktail

Poppy Cocktail

According to a Nina Simone song I rather like, the poppy is the flower of forgetfulness. As the source of opium and its derivatives like morphine, laudanum, and heroin, it can certainly help you forget just about anything. For a time, anyway.

If Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz is to be believed, poppies will also put you to sleep.

And, just to confuse things, the poppy is a well-loved symbol of remembrance to those who wish to commemorate those lost to the horrors of war– from the battlefield of Waterloo to the Fields of Flanders, where the deep red flowers burst into bloom where the iron-rich blood soaked the earth.

There are few flowers more fraught with meaning.

I may have come up with an appropriate name for this drink at one time, but I have completely forgotten and that is, after all, one of the points of poppies. You can call it a Poppycock if you care to do so– this author is quite often full of it.

Once after a rather memorable dinner party at the home of my friends Holly Heyser and Hank Shaw , my hosts offered me a digestif of home-made poppy seed liqueur. I must have enjoyed it immensely because I woke the next morning on their couch in more or less the same position. I must have dreamed, but I honestly don’t remember a damned thing beyond the fact that the previous night’s elixir must have been pretty damned wonderful. Or maybe it was simply the fact that I had consumed multiple courses of food and several glasses of wine over the span of several hours.

California PoppyThis concoction does not contain Hank’s magic potion, but rather a commercially-produced, small-batch amaro from Greenbar distillery made, as it states quite grandly, “in the City of Angels”. It is made from the indigenous Eschscholzia californica (California poppy, for those of you not into Latin names) which, though not a source of opium like the European or Asian poppy, does contain properties purported to combat sleeplessness and anxiety– two major plusses in my book.

It’s a drink for when you wish to pretend you’re much more louche than you really are. I like to imagine I’m George IV– fat, gout-ridden, and unloved by his people– spiking his brandy with laudanum and then washing the whole thing back with a magnum of champagne. For those of you more creative types with less severe self-image issues, you might prefer to dress up as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drink a few of these and then wait for your fascinating dreams to come until your own “person from Porlock” arrives to make you forget them again. Or dress your hair in sausage curls for all I care and drink it to ease your pains à la Mrs. Barrett-Browning.

Just drink it, if you ever happen upon a bottle of poppy liqueur. I make no promises as to its cure-all properties, but I can guarantee you’ll look great quaffing it. And, if you consume enough of them, it’s sure to make you forget any of this ever happened.

Makes 1 cocktail

Ingredients:

• 1 ounce brandy
• 1 ounce poppy seed liqueur
• 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon simple syrup (or less, if you like)
• Decent champagne. Or indecent, if you’re really going for the whole louche thing.

Preparation:

  1. Pour brandy, poppy liqueur, lemon juice, and simple syrup over ice that has been conveniently placed in a cocktail shaker. Stir until very cold.
  2. Transfer the mixture into a chilled champagne coupe. I prefer them to champagne flutes, because flutes are a) easy to knock over, b) a bitch to clean well, c) not nearly as versatile or attractive, and d) annoying.
  3. Pour champagne into the glass to your desired level.
  4. Drink as many as you like, put on a bit of Chopin or Berlioz (they were hooked on the stuff), then put on your nightshirt, crawl into bed, and fall into the arms of Morpheus. What you do in his arms is your own business.
  5. Do not give this to your cat, if you own one. Like anyone could truly own a cat. (See: horking.)

 

 

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , | 54 Comments

Crème de Pot

CdPPdCOn Election Night 2004, I went to my friend Adam’s house to watch the returns. He greeted me warmly at the front door and introduced me to an inflatable replica George W. Bush and encouraged to give it a damned good thrashing. The awkward knuckle sandwich I served to its facial area caused the thing to fall backward, which was oddly satisfying, but seeing it immediately right itself with a smile on its face was unsettling. Though clearly a bad omen, I said nothing and sat on the couch, surrounded by friends, drinking gin, and feeling increasingly demoralized as the evening wore on. When the outcome became depressingly clear, Adam disappeared upstairs and returned a few minutes later dressed in a pink leotard and tutu, proffering Valium on a small silver tray. He was a very thoughtful host.

Having failed to kick Bush out of the White House, we decided to do the next best thing– kicking his effigy out of Adam’s, down 19th Street, and into the middle of the Castro Street intersection where we watched drivers do their damnedest to run it over with their cars. It was wonderfully cathartic. It was also the moment I understood that Human Companionship + Mood Altering Substances= Election Night Emotional Survival. 

In 2018, I am now far too old to be mixing drugs and alcohol willy-nilly willy-nillily pell-mell cavalierly and have yet to secure my Election Night companionship, but I do know what I’ll be serving to those who do decide to endure this biennial ritual with me:

 

Crème de Pot Pot de Crème

Heroin BottleI’ve been wanting to make this for æons eons ages but never quite knew the best way to go about it. This is largely owing to laziness and the fact that some members of my family believe marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin use. But it was also, in part, due to the fact that I don’t really enjoy what are referred to in the Locoweed Universe as “edibles”. They can be a bit whiffy and, for the impatient, it’s easy to have too much of a good thing. Remind me to tell you about Easter Sunday 2005 some time.

But now cannabis use is perfectly legal where I live and I’ve found a wildly simple (if not inexpensive) way of getting it into food without it tasting as though it had even a passing acquaintance with little Miss Mary Jane herself.

I’ve based recipe on Melissa Clark’s New York Times dessert. I should state very clearly that I have absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Clark’s views on this particular herb. Rather, my decision was based on two criteria: 1.) It’s a damned good, very easy recipe and 2.) She’s fun at parties.

Makes: a) 4 to 6 servings, b) those who eat it temporarily less anxious about election outcomes, c) total sense when you think about it, or d) all of the above. 

Ingredients:

• 1 ½ cups of heavy cream
• ½ cup of whole milk
• 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
• 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate , savaged in the same fashion
• 4 large egg yolks
• 3 tablespoons of sugar
• a very heavy pinch of salt
• 100 milligrams* of a golden, waxy  magic substance from Jetty Pen Dablicator™. I chose “Reckless Rainbow” because the name is so layered with possible meaning I wouldn’t even  know where to begin unpacking it all.
• Freshly whipped cream or the fatty, white, and dollop-able of your choice.

Preparation:

  1. Heat your oven to 300°F. Bring cream and milk to boil in a heavy saucepan, remove from the flame. Next add the chopped chocolate, mortifying it so thoroughly that it blends completely with the hot dairy.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Do this by hand because it is a marvelous way to expend aggressive energy. Really get the metaphoric cane out of the cupboard and have at it. When beaten into silky, almost ribbon-like submission, incorporate the chocolate mixture into the egg amalgam.
  3. Jetty PenAdd your cannabis-based waxy substance now, whisking confidently to ensure its even distribution.
  4. Divide the mélange into small (2 to 4 ounce) containers: tiny ramekins, espresso cups, old prescription bottles (excellent for those who need a reminder that what they’re about to consume is indeed medicinal), or tiny French yogurt pots one has brought back from Paris in one’s suitcase because one is pretentious.
  5. Set the filled containers in an appropriately sized, baking dish (Pyrex, metal roasting pan, what have you) and place the dish on the center oven rack. Fill the pan with hot tap water until the level reaches about halfway up the sides of the pot de crème vessels. Cover with foil, making certain to poke a few air holes into said foil with a fork for ventilation.
  6. Remove from the oven when the edges are lightly set and the center jiggles slightly like a high school football player’s belly at his 10 year reunion (about 30 to 35 minutes) and refrigerate for several hours until the desserts cool and set. (At least three hours.)
  7. Serve to your friends with freshly whipped cream and the assurance that you will be there for them come what may. Should the election results be to the satisfaction of yourself and your friends, congratulations. If the opposite is true, REFUSE TO GIVE YOUR GUESTS A SECOND HELPING AND TELL THEM IT IS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD. In this case, my best advice is to go upstairs, put on that tutu, bring on the Valium, and pray that we’ve only got two more years of this shit.

* This amount works well for me. I am a 6 foot tall, 200+ pound male. Adjust dosage at
your own risk.

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In My Own Little Corner.

JesterjpgSomething happened to me last month and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it– my friend Jean offered me the other half of her office. O-F-F-I-C-E. I’m struggling to get my head around it because I am not, by nature, an “office” type. Whatever that is.

I have spent exactly one month of my adult life working in an office– as an intern under Michael Bauer at the SF Chronicle Food Section. And even he fled when I was but two weeks in. To Antarctica, specifically. “The only place on earth without any god damned restaurants,” he joked. At least I took it as a joke.

But you know what? I’m not going to worry about whether I’m the office type or not. It doesn’t matter. I have a specific, carved-out space for writing, which it turns out I very much need. I’ve committed myself to showing up at least four times per week. It means I have to put on pants. It means I have to leave my apartment. It means I have to start writing enough to justify the expense of a writing space.

It’s pretty damned wonderful. And the best part?

IT’S ABOVE A <EXPLETIVE> BOOKSTORE, which means that people who sell used books for a living are my  <expletive-expletive> landlords. How’s that for a <expletive>-great coincidence?

DeskI have my own, dedicated desk, where I eat my lunch and keep important things like heavy foreign language dictionaries from college I cannot bear to toss, stamps, pens, and shiny cardboard tubing that once housed confetti tossed by Rip Taylor?

Every morning, the first thing I do is sit there and write a postcard to someone. I bought a collection of 50– each with an image of a different bird saying something fairly upsetting. I consider that my warm up– so much less intimidating that sitting down to write a proposal. It’s also a good excuse to update my address book.

Book StackHaving an office is also useful because it allows me to take stacks and stacks of books out of my small apartment and put them somewhere that exists by (thanks for selling ’em, Green Apple!) and for the writing of the things themselves. I keep a special stack of them immediately to my right, for two, very simple reasons: 1.) They serve to remind me that I do not completely suck and 2.) Gloria Upson was so very right about books being awfully decorative, don’t you think? The dirty French slang books add a certain <explétif> je ne sais quoi, and The Matter of The Mittens is simply there to remind me that I need to return it to my friend Julie Michelle.

Tea ThingsOccasionally, Jean makes me tea because she is kind and for no other reason. I have brought my own tea things in, but she does not care for my choices. She much prefers the herbal varieties, ones with far less ammonia and rodenticide than I’m used to. Please remind me to add these to my shopping list. And to save my receipts because I can now write off office supplies. Except I’ve had no income for the past year, so I probably needn’t bother because I won’t be paying any taxes. But do remind me for next year. Set an alarm on your calendar. Thank you.

Schubert'sOh, and there’s one more important thing, which I can’t remember if I’ve told you. Remember the memoir thing I’ve spent the past almost-year working on  avoiding melting down over? I had a long, productive talk with my absurdly patient agent and have decided to shelve the mother-<expletive>. I’ve moved on to something more pleasant. A new topic. One that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. I consider this a step in a healthier direction. And it’ll be a hell of lot more pleasant to read. Early stages yet, but I’m working on the proposal. At my office. At least four times a week. And if I’m good, I can treat myself at the Swedish bakery across the street with a slice of fucking Princess cake.

 

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Hallo, Fremder.

Dark WandererForgive me, reader. It’s been three months since my last confessional. I think that’s the longest I’ve ever gone without writing in this century.

It’s a boring but important issue to address, so let’s just get that out of the way, shall we?

Oh let’s do. I promise to keep it short.

Over the past several months, I’ve felt a very strong need to step back from the world for a while and figure out what to do about writing. Not whether or not I should do it, but rather what I should be writing about.

Life has felt unbearably grim for quite some time. I retreated from social media for a month, thinking it might help minimize my angst, weltschmerz,  lebensmüde, and any other unpleasant mental state that can only be described accurately in German.

The withdrawal only made me feel more isolated than usual. This is, of course, not a smart thing.

I’ve struggled for ages with the idea that, given the current political scheißsturm we’re in, I have no right to be funny. Or even mildly entertaining. Toddler torture doesn’t exactly inspire humor.

Instead, I’ve spent my time in a combined state of anger, horror, helplessness, and exhaustion. The never-ending news cycle has helped turn my brain into something like a stale loaf of bread soaking in a bowl of milk and liquid chloroform—sodden, cloudy, and fuming to the point of near insensibility.

Combine that with a year spent digging up altschmerz in the boneyard of Memoir-land and Presto! You’ve got a delicious recipe for a mental health disaster.

Know what? It’s a pretty fucking black place to inhabit.

No one needs to live in a near-constant state of darkness unless one is, say, Scandinavian. But even the Finns know the light will return if they just hold on long enough. They take their vitamin D, use the sauna, toss their hair to Speed Metal, or do whatever it takes to get them through to a brighter day.

Whatever it takes.

And that is essentially what has finally sunk into my think, thick skull– doing whatever it takes to not succumb to that blackness.

Talking things over with my friend Craig the other day, he said, “You may not be able to save the world, but you can at least help to make it a world worth saving.”

Then he added, “I have no idea if I got that right or even who I’m quoting, but you get the general idea.” I think I do.

It’s exhausting absorbing darkness all the time. And maybe throwing off a little light now and again isn’t just acceptable, but necessary.

So I’ve decided to keep on writing and telling stories and will do my best to not feel guilty about doing so. And with a regularity that might suggest I were treating it as medication. Not like a four times a day insulin shot that helps to keep one alive, but rather like a once a month flea-and-tick pill that helps to keep things from sucking so much.

Yes, that’s it. When you think of me, I want you to now think of me in this way– as oral dog medication.

Thank you so much for letting me get that off my chest.

I’ll be back sooner than later with some titbit or other for your (hopeful) enjoyment. Until then,

Auf wiedersehen, pets.

Michael

 

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