Monthly Archives: August 2009

Ugly Naked Guy

It never ceases to amaze me that people, ok so they are out of towners but puleez, don’t realize that what goes on inside their room is fair game until they draw the drapes. Most of the time, the guests pull the curtains just before they crawl into bed. Fortunately for us, by nightfall, our shades are generally down so we tend to miss the goings on across the street and vice versa.

Butt, almost without fail, on the occasion when we’ve neglected to pull our shades, we can’t help but catch a bare bottom or two. What are those people thinking? Are they not familiar with the “Ugly Naked Guy” from Friends? Sheesh.

We SEE you.

We SEE you.

PUT SOME CLOTHES ON DUDE. Or draw your drapes. Please. Sooner rather than later.

Murder and Mealtime in the Mountains

dinning_room_img1“Hot Springs, Virginia is an extraordinary place – disarmingly rural, it is also the setting of one of America’s great resorts. Like the legendary French chateaux, The Homestead holds dominion over the striking Warm Springs Valley.” – Dining at The Homestead by Albert Schnarwyler, Eleanor and James Ferguson, 1989.

But in March of this year, a gunman entered the kitchen of the exclusive resort, fired his semi-automatic handgun and killed two of his co-workers. The murder suspect was never captured and is thought to be on the loose (or more likely, he is hiding in the lush forests of the region). 0323_homesteadpicAccording to The Roanoke Times, Beacher F. “Hackney is a 5-foot-6-inch, 145-pound, balding white male. He wears glasses and was last seen wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and jacket and black shoes. He is considered armed and dangerous.Anyone with information about Hackney’s whereabouts should call the Bath County Sheriff’s Office at 839-5300.”

Life in the hills is truly other worldly.

In addition to speaking with a Southern accent among the locals and many of their guests, some of the vocabulary never fails to affect me.

“Where are your people from?” said one woman to another as they sat by the outdoor pool.

“Mostly Roanoke,” said the other. “But some of my people live in Charlottesville.” As in VuhginYuh.

Uh, People?

And then there’s the food. Out of this world in terms of richness and times past when TOP CHEF meant French chefs like Georges Auguste Escoffier.

The Homestead’s dedication to traditional cuisine is unlike most places I’ve been.

Whereas my family and I tend to stick to the no-carb, high protein diet, the Homestead is anything but that. Think eggs, butter, cream, veal, sauces (Béarnaise, Hollandaise, May-O-nnaise) made from stock that is made from scratch. There are cold soups (Vichyssoise or watercress) and hot soups (lobster or shrimp bisque, cream of asparagus). Coquilles St. Jacques au beurre blanc, baked oysters with crabmeat gratinée, Pompano in papillote, consummé. Any mention of the word vegetable equals beaucoup de butter and potatoes, maybe a pea or julienned carrot. The multitude of heavy items on offer all of the time strikes me as a real blast from the past. Julia Child would be in her element. Bear in mind that until the 1970s or somewhere not quite a lifetime ago (mine, at least), men and women dressed for dinner when the headed to the Dining Room. In these parts, that means black-tie and long dresses. Everynight.

Menus for the ladies (or whomever it is that won’t be picking up the tab) are printed without prices. Only the table host knows. That, too, is of another era.

For dessert, the operating word is flambé . Cherries Jubilee with kirsch, Crepes Suzette with Grand Marnier and brandy or Bananas Foster with Meyers rum, Cointreau and banana liqueur are prepared and flamed tableside, something my children have never seen before and most likely won’t again. They didn’t like the liqueur flavorings (and neither do I). The theatrics, on the other hand, are something to write blog about. Dessert.

tomatoIn the early 1900s, guests of the homestead traveled on horseback or in buggies to the Fassifern Tavern in Warm Springs. There, they enjoyed a luncheon menu that included southern fried chicken, corn pudding and fassifern tomatoes. Have you ever heard of such a thing? DEE-lish.

In case you feel like cooking, dt, I LOVE these toms.

The Homestead’s Fassifern Tomatoes

Yields 10 Servings

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
½ cup sugar
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon corn starch
¼ cup cold water
2 cups toasted bread cubes
(4 pieces, edges cut off)
1/3 cup melted butter

Recommended equipment!

A 3-quart saucepan
wooden spoon
small bowl
baking dish 8 x8 x 2 inches
baking sheet
small saucepan for melting butter!

Preheat oven to 300F
Put the toms with their juice into the saucepan, add sugar, salt and pepper and bring to boil over medium heat. While the toms are coming to a boil, mix the cornstarch with the cold water in the small bowl and set aside. When the toms are boiling, remove the saucepan from heat and slowly pour the cornstarch mixture into the toms, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon. When well blended, set the saucepan back over medium heat and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Adjust heat so that the toms will cook gently for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

While the tomatoes are simmering, cut the bread into ½ inch cubes, set them on the baking sheet, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. When done, remove from oven and “reserve.” (!!!!)

Put the butter in the small saucepan and set it over low heat.

When the tomatoes have finished simmering, pout them into the baking dish, arrange the toasted bread cubes over the top, drizzle on the melted butter, and put the baking dish into the middle level of the oven to bake for 20 minutes.

The tomatoes can be simmered several hours ahead of time and wait in the baking dish for their final cooking. Top with bread cubes and butter just before baking.

Beware and bon appétit.

Driving Miss Daisy

Hot Springs, VA – When my now 15-and-a-half-year old was three she dressed as a pink-pussy cat for Halloween. Her name was Daisy the Cat.

For several years thereafter, every now and then, the blond curly headed little girl would take on her alter ego, lick my hands and crawl around on all fours, purring. She’s come a long way from the days when she wore pink cat ears, pink leggings and a fuzzy pink boa tail.

She shed the cat costume some time ago. She no longer licks my fingers/paws nor does she meow yet her prowess is forever increasing. Today, she’s behind the wheel of a car driving with her grandfather, affectionately known as PopPops.

Until now, Daisy has had the privilege of driving her grandparents’ golf carts at their winter home in cart
Yesterday, PopPops, invited Miss Daisy to take the wheel of his 23 year-old silver Volvo, as he rode shutgun. Following his lead, they’d drive down a Virginia country lane or two for some instruction.
silver volvo

They weren’t gone for long, maybe ten to twelve minutes. I was surprised to see them return so quickly. It’s not that I was anxious, not at all. I was excited for the girl’s growing independence and the special moment she’d shared with her grandfather.

When they pulled into the driveway, Daisy’s grandmother, Grandmamma, and I met the duo in the garage. The driver beamed as she exited the shiny car, having pulled it into the narrow space on her own. Her ear-to-ear smile and bright blue eyes said more than any words could. Her sense of accomplishment and excitement was contagious. PopPops smiled proudly too.

He told us that he’d directed Daisy to drive down the quiet road. Under the impression that the other summer residents were all away, he had her turn into a driveway. Much to their surprise, another car was moving toward them. Calmly, Miss Daisy backed up and out of the oncoming car’s way. She reached the roundabout and PopPops told her to back around in reverse twice, rather than drive forward.

Learning how to drive is something, I think, a person never forgets.

I don’t mean the “how to” part of driving but the “how it happened.”
PopPops remembers when he was 15 years old in Iowa, he learned to drive on a black Plymouth. plymouth Grandmama, who learned from her older brother, started driving when she was 14 in Nashville, TN. She learned to drive a Chevrolet. I remember turning 15 and learning to drive my mom’s dark blue Volvo. (couldn’t find an accurate image but the shape to follow is true to form).
blue volvo

That car was just a decade older than the silver car that Daisy’s been learning to drive. The passage of time is a weird thing.

Sunday morning while the Grands were at church, Daisy and I headed out for a Sunday drive in the country. We reached an empty paved parking lot and the pussycat took the wheel.

Frontwards and backwards she drove. Depressing the accelerator VA-ROOM, I felt the car jump forward, faster and more rapidly than appropriate. I remained calm. She got the hang of which way to turn the steering wheel while driving in reverse. Like almost everything this kid does, she took it all very seriously.

After a few minutes of back and forth, we switched places and headed
back to the Grands’ country road.

“Do I have to drive with PopPops this afternoon?” she whined. “You said we could go to the pool.”

I thought briefly about what she asked. Was it that she didn’t want
to drive? That she was nervous? That she wanted to go to the pool?

I didn’t care. I thought some more.

“Daisy,” I said, “PopPops is going to die. I don’t know when.” I paused.

This is a chance for you,” I continued. “Not only to learn how to
drive but really, it’s a chance to do something with him that you
will always remember.

You create memories. And they will always be with you. People
die but your memories of them stay with you.

I winced at the wisdom I was imparting. Was she listening? Was she cringing? Was she rolling her eyes? There was silence on both of our parts. I contemplated filling the thick air with more words but let the time pass. Silence.

I turned onto our country road, stopped the car on the flat at the bottom of our hill and turned the driving over to my passenger.

She drove us home, parked in the driveway.

Twenty minutes later, the Grands returned from church.

“Daisy,” said PopPops, “are you ready to go for a drive?”
I hesitated yet took a deep breath.

“I guess so,” said Daisy.

And the two of them were off.

Creating memories.

Uptown Out of Town: Virginia

En route to Bath County, VA to visit the grandparents, we tuned in to npr (WAMU) and listened to Writers Almanac.

Whether it’s because my in-laws, who grew up in relatively small rural towns, are getting older or because some of our friends are reaching the half-century mark and I’m not too far behind (just shoot me)… the following poem hit a soft spot:

by Jo McDougall

Meadow Lane on the Jackson River

Meadow Lane on the Jackson River

Growing up in a small town,
we didn’t notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker’s floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss—
our days filled with open fields,
turtles and cows.

One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we’ve become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we’ve seen a turtle
or a cow?

“Straightpins” by Jo McDougall, from Satisfied with Havoc. © Autumn House Press, 2004.

And with that in mind, in all seriousness,
look who wandered across the “Grands” front path the day we arrived:
Hi, I'm a turtle

Dear Turtle, Thanks for reminding us to stop and smell the roses, or in your case, to stop and spot the turtles and cows.
ps. “Grands” is my nickname for the Grandparents.

Fishing for Work

I’m taking a brief break to work on actual writing and securing my next gig. I’ll be back in September. Until then, I leave you in the capable hands of Uptown, who will hopefully post something soon (pressure!)

And I’ll also leave you with a picture of a most excellent doormat.



Some people spend nine months incubating a child.

I [and about 100+ others] spent nine months of hard labor on this:

Click image for link to trailer

Click image for link to trailer

It takes more than a village to raise a movie and they’re way more expensive and needy than children. Why do we bother? Well, probably for the same reason why people have children. Because LOOK at how beautiful they are! How marvelous! They are a reflection of our stories, can reach beyond the boundaries that we may have slammed against, and they are filled with the promise of possibility.

My Culinarification

We are in the midst of a culinary orgie, thanks, in part, to the Food Network, Top Chef, Nora Ephron, and Julie Powell. Even the New York Times got into the act, running pieces by both Michael Pollan and Maureen Dowd. Pollan’s article starts off as more reflective. He recalls watching Julia Child on TV and how it changed the cuisine in his childhood home (for the better) and the types of dishes his mother would make thanks to JC’s show.


Pollan’s piece got me thinking about my own food memories. Julia Child was not a figure that loomed large in the culinary landscape of my childhood. I remember catching bits of her show on PBS and thinking she sounded a lot like the Chef from the Muppets, but apart from that I can’t say she had any sort of impact on me, let alone on my mother or even my grandmother’s cooking. The women [and man] in my family have had a love/hate relationship with cooking that can be traced back mainly on the maternal side of the family, starting with my grandmother.

In the 1970’s, my grandmother owned an Italian restaurant in a little town in upstate New York (now, it’s a fashionable “weekend getaway” neighborhood, back then it was a hick town). She was the only [Italian] restaurant in the area, and the place was a family affair with my grandfather hosting and running the front of the house, my mom waitressing and my dad helping out in the kitchen. My grandmother introduced the neighbors to eggplant, broccoli rabe, homemade ravioli, soft, pillow-like gnocchi, and fresh basil. On Sundays, she sold plates of pasta and meatballs for $1.50 She was living her dream. Then, the first Domino’s Pizza moved in and shortly after, my grandmother’s culinary dream went up in smoke.

My mother, having spent a good part of her childhood and young adulthood cleaning up after my grandmother’s culinary adventures in the kitchen, hated cooking. She grew up eating the freshest food available, grown in small, but lush backyard gardens in the Bronx and cooked by my grandmother and great grandmother, who argued (in Italian) about which olive oil to use for a particular dish (the virgin or the extra virgin). Sunday dinners in that house were an event that all of the relatives would partake in, showing up with Corningware dishes filled with garlicky aromas and the scent of fresh basil or stewed tomatoes. The inevitable bottle of homemade wine would be cracked open and each child would be given a peach pit, drenched in wine, to suck on while the adults drank glasses of wine or demitasse cups of espresso with a slice of lemon.

When my mom grew up, she never cooked. Instead, she married my father, who (as luck would have it) learned to cook from his mother. He and his brothers (my uncles) were required to make dinner as part of their daily chores since both parents worked. My dad, being the youngest, always got stuck with dinner duty. The first (and only) meal my mom tried to cook for my dad involved Salisbury steak, and, due to the absence of oil to coat the pan, my mom thought karo syrup would be an appropriate substitute. Much to her dismay, not only did theBurgerSteak sirloin patties have to be thrown out but the pan as well, since the patties were glued to the pan thanks to the karo syrup. That night they ordered out and did so nearly every night until my sister was born.

In 1985, my dad was working in the meatpacking district (again, before it was fashionable and when Stella McCartney was a place called “Quality Meats” a fact my dad likes to dwell on when we walk past there today). My father started as a meat inspector for the government, which pretty much entailed him threatening to shut every place down (from what is now La Perla all the way to Diane Furstenberg) that was in violation of the health code, or, conversely, the macho mafia-type meat men threatening to shut my father down with a gun. He then moved on to a safer career, as a meat purveyor to restaurants around New York including the Carnegie Deli and Windows on the World. The irony at this point was that my dad (and the rest of our family) never ate meat.

Long before Gwenyth Paltrow even knew what tempeh was, my family was macrobiotic. My breakfasts consisted of millet and miso soup. My sister snacked on nori (seaweed) and raw kale. When we went to birthday parties, we arrived armed with our own soy pizza (organic, whole wheat crust, tomatoes and soy cheese) and something called a magic brownie, (not what you’d think) a chocolate-less, dairy-less, sugar-less,


& flour-less square of carob with walnuts. If we went to a 4th of July BBQ, we brought our own tofu pups (tofu hot dogs) and potato salad made with Nasoyaise (tofu mayonnaise, which I still prefer to this day). My sister and I didn’t eat red meat until we were ages seven and 11, respectively. We had the occasional bit of chicken or fish, but I don’t really remember it. Our grains and veggies were eaten when in season, we never drank with meals (and when we did drink, it was water or a natural black cherry spritzer) and French cooking was the farthest thing away from seared tofu and arugala sandwiches that you could get. I don’t even remember ever having butter in our house (quelle horreur!) After eight years of eating Amy’s soy pizzas, tofu, miso, veggies, and bulgar burgers and whatever food the local health food store cooked up that day, my parents saw that macro was still too micro in the mainstream food world for us to continue to function without them attempting to cook on daily basis. Little by little, skim milk began to replace soy milk, turkey replaced tempeh, and cheese, the chard. I also ate my first hot dog (and promptly threw it up). Things only got worse from there.

Take out menus replaced the Moosewood cook book and candy suddenly appeared — the first time my parents gave my sister a chocolate bunny for Easter, she played with it, not knowing it was edible. Our waistlines also grew and so did the battle to keep them down without having to resort back to the granola crunching lifestyle. Cooking a meal was only something we did when company came. Any other time, we went out to eat or ordered take out. We had a tab at the local Italian restaurant. When I went off to college (ironically situated in the same town as the famed Moosewood restaurant) I thought such things were normal, only to discover in my first month away that people would reminisce about what foods their parents (mainly their moms) cooked. “Her tuna casserole,” “My dad’s fish tacos,” “My mother’s steak and pomme frites.” They turned to me. “My mom’s take out menus,” I said, only half kidding.

My junior year of college, my roommate with an aspiring Stepford wife. She made everything from scratch. One day she told me she was going to make a chocolate cake. “But we don’t have cake mix,” I informed her. She looked at me like I was crazy. “I don’t need cake mix,” she said. I quietly wondered just how she was going to accomplish this without a mix. It never occurred to me that one could make a cake with flour, sugar, milk and eggs. I (sheepishly) watched her measure, pour, whisk, bake and create. All she had to do was follow the recipe and liquids became solids (and vise versa). It felt a bit like watching a magician perform an illusion that you know has a logical answer, but you just can’t wrap your mind around it.

During my senior year of college, I discovered the Style Network and their one cooking show, and import from the BBC, Nigella Bites. A dark-haired, British woman who clearly loved to eat (as illustrated by her curvy figure) and with a penchant for chocolate, Nigella Lawson taught me that  preparing food is a form of entertainment and almost as fun as, well, sex. The camera work was borderline pornographic, with shots of Lawson sucking up oil-soaked spaghetti, naked chickens being rubbed down with butter, the pop and sizzle sounds of a ham as it developed its brown sugar crackling. But most impressive to me was the chopping. Nigella’s Global knife glinted and flashed as she quickly diced an onion (“it need not be cut perfectly,” she would say), chopped carrots or deboned a duck. Until then, I never realized that the act of cooking itself could be so full of pleasure. A type of creation, but


better yet, a creation that can be celebrated and nourish family & friends (as was always exhibited by the merry house-full of guests that Nigella had share the fruits of her labor at the close of an episode). That same day, I purchased my very first cook book, Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess (Yes, the title is unfortunate, especially if you consider yourself a feminist). At the time, I heard baking was even harder to learn than cooking savory dishes because of the accuracy you need with ingredients and chemistry (I now know this to be half true). I knew introducing myself to the harder of the two would make anything else seem like … a cakewalk.

I proved to be a natural baker from charlottes to pavlovas, biscottis to pies. It’s all about measuring, following directions and maintaining as much control over your environment (temperature, humidity, sound, work space, etc) as possible. Around the same time, I stumbled onto Julie Powell’s blog. Julie was way more of a cook than I was when she started the Julie/Julia Project, but I thoroughly enjoyed following her exploits, tortures and cheering on her successes. Both Julie Powell and Julia Child’s fearlessness encouraged me to branch out from the Brits (at this point, I had also included Jamie Oliver, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers into my culinary fold) and turn to the Italians (with The Silver Spoon cook book), the food scientists (with Hervé This and Molecular Gastronomy) and even back to my old organic roots and on American soil (with Alice Waters). I read cook books like they were novels, until I realized there was a whole genre of books about food and cooking like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

In 2004, however, I caught the Julia Child fever when My Life in France was published. I read about Child’s life even before I tried any of her recipes. I got caught up in her spirit, her humor and the voice –which by now I was googling online for video clips just so I could hear it. One of the most defining quotes from My Life in France is actually attributed to Paul Child, Julia’s husband:  “If variety is the spice of life, my life must be one of the spiciest you ever heard of. A curry of a life.” It is the Childs’ zest for life and how they embrace the journey, even the unknown, that made me approach my own “unknown” challenges with more enjoyment and less fear.

I only recently started cooking from Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 1, when a copy of the book was given to me at the Julie & Julia set sale (it was one of five used in the film). I perused the book, afraid the Julia Child I had gotten to know through My Life in France and her biography wouldn’t be as evident in cook book

birds-eye-clafoutisspeak. But, I began to finding familiar phrases and Julia’s same authoritative, exacting voice, still with that hint of humor and mischief. Ah, there was the Julia I knew. The first recipe I tried was simple. The name, cherry clafoutis, caught my eye because it happened to be the start of cherry season and, since I had also just seen the play God of Carnage, in which, James Gandolfini talks about an apple and pear clafouti (I initially misunderstood him and thought he as saying Tofutti, as in the tofu ice cream I used to eat growing up). The resulting clafoutis was sweet, but slightly tart, and a little custardy. Like a more dense version of a crepe. It was delicious.

I might not yet be ready to master Julia’s omelette or French bread recipes, but my culinary mentors have taught me to embrace cooking and food in a way I never witnessed growing up: with conviction, love, joy, and absolute fearlessness.

passion ambition butter