Tomato, Cucumber, Corn, and Herb Summer Salad

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A friend from graduate school recently came to town. We drank tequila cocktails that looked deceptively like pink lemonade in tall sweating glasses and talked and talked and talked, like we used to do when she lived two blocks away and not across the country. Our conversation eventually turned to writing, and I congratulated her on a recent publication. She gave me a funny sort of look. “I’m taking a break,” she said, “from everything. From all of it but the writing. Worrying about success in this field is a full time job, and I need a break.”

After she said it, I knew she was right. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m far too preoccupied with the minutia of “success,” a loaded word if ever there was one. Done poorly, it’s counterproductive: the more energy I expend worrying, the less I have available for the work itself. And though I can’t quantify exactly what success looks like, I do know the prospect of not capturing it terrifies me–if I’m not successful, then do I get to call myself a writer? And if I’m not a writer then–good God–what am I? Cue all the panicked feels.

It was an enormous relief, to hear my friend echo some of my same worries about writing. Writing is a solitary act. It requires time and patience, a fact completely at odds with the connectivity, networking, marketing, and PR you must now do yourself if you want anyone to read what you’ve written. It’s too much, we decided, too much for any one person to do well.

Somewhat fortuitously, this summer I’ve fallen down an Ann Patchett reading rabbit hole. I recommend it. Her writing consistently adds intellectual and emotional pleasure to my day. I’m currently on her latest book, a memoir in the form of essays, and one strikes me as particularly relevant. The Getaway Car–A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life is long and rich, full of writing advice collected over a career. The essay contains various specific truths, but its overarching message is this: if you want to be a writer, write. Sit down at your desk, and get it done. It’s really that simple.

And so that is my goal for the summer: to write. To write just for the sake of it, just to practice. To create things and enjoy the process and learn and improve. For now, I need to divorce the output from worry over an immediate outcome. I need to turn away from fruitless comparisons, and temporarily look past how bad I am at Twitter. In short, I want to get back to the heart of it.

tomatoes and basil

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Radish, Snap Pea, and Burrata Salad with Chives and Lemon

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I wake up abruptly, for no reason at all, in a white bed on Rue Cambon. The Frenchman is asleep, one arm thrown over his head like backstroke. He’ll have been out until small hours, drinking beers on the Canal St. Martin with friends. The room is small, all white, all teeth, except for a stained mirror occupying one wall. A single window runs to the ceiling: beyond gauze white curtains, a gray window box, a spray of fuchsia geraniums, and beyond that, the pearl light of an overcast summer day.

I brush my teeth to an episode of Downton Abbey I’ve seen several times already and then set out into the drizzling city. My first stop is G. Detou (the French love wordplay: “j’ai de tout” means “I have all”) where I sometimes buy fifty bean pouches of vanilla for a song, but today a massive bag of quality cocoa powder. I skirt along the edge of Les Halles. Paris is a city of settled beauty, but I love it for the tiny details, so easy to overlook: the almost hidden covered passages containing multitudes, the throwback, neon green detective’s sign just before the Louvre.

I take myself to Fish for lunch and sit at the bar and order Sancerre. I’ll have the white bean velouté, thin and earthy with whisker slicks of olive oil and sourdough croutons half submerged like sunken ships. I’ll eat juicy sole over tangles of purple cabbage, zucchini ribbons, fennel fronds, chervil, capers. It’s really raining now, so I order the darkest espresso there ever was and drop in a craggy raw sugar cube that I break up with a miniature, heated spoon. I read my book. The rain subsides.

The book is almost finished, and I’m downright heartbroken about, do you know what I mean? I walk to Shakespeare and Co. for a new one and there’s a line out the door; a tall, blonde, American actress is also buying books. I need some peace. I wind my way into the 3eme, so many turning, narrow streets, hushed like the inside of a maze. I want to visit the Picasso Museum, a beige square block surrounded by towering beige walls, but it’s still closed. It’s been years. I’m starting to think they’ll never reopen.

I make my way back to the hotel. I needed the day alone. In the wake of the last week, how does a person put one foot in front of the other? Evening will bring dinner with my family, and then more beers with the Frenchman’s friends. In the room, the bed’s been made, a chocolate left on each pillow. I shower in the white marble bathroom, maybe just for the luxury of donning the billowing white robe. I read some more, enmesh myself in someone else’s tragedy. Then I eat both the chocolates, and lick my fingers clean.

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Spring Vegetable Tartines with Charred Scallion Mayonnaise + Hard-Cooked Egg

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It’s been an odd week. On Sunday, I woke up with a sore throat that petered out by Wednesday, but then flared into a brief fever. Since, I’ve nursed a persistent stomachache that I can’t seem to shake. I’m a kaleidoscope of maladies over here. I seldom get sick, and rarely do I get so sick that I can’t work. As a result, I’ve found myself with a surplus of down time to just sit and think.

My 10-year high school reunion was a couple weekends ago. I attended with a clutch of dear friends and when I really think about that, it astonishes me–I’ve counted these women as friends and confidantes for almost half a lifetime. And although we’ve been largely separated by time and distance, we remain closely bonded by those invisible threads of shared experience and deep affection. At this point, conversations rarely need prelude–we know each other on a level that I think only happens with time.

It was wonderful to be back on campus (even if our class was relegated to the freshman boys’ dorm), to see old classmates, and visit with old teachers. Walking around campus was a minefield of half forgotten memories–names and events I’d tucked away until I returned to the physical place, until we were all together. High school was not all sunshine and roses for me; I suspect this is true for most people, but I can’t deny it was sometimes very sweet, and certainly formative. Being back, it was easy to remember the good (sledding in the dead of night) and the bad (slipping on black ice on my way back from swim practice and flashing probably the whole indoor track team).

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Both nights we stayed up too late and drank a little too much, but that’s what was required. I made us a strawberry tart, a fancier version of the dessert we used to buy for birthdays from the local A&P and eat with our hands in a huddle on the dorm room floor. We followed tradition and devoured it in the most uncivilized manner possible.

On Sunday, my friend and I walked down to the dorm where we served as prefects our senior year. I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. A current dorm parent let us into our old room–the room that is still gargantuan in my memory. There’s a picture of us at seventeen, dressed up for halloween, in the common room. (I’d forgotten that the whole dorm dressed as characters from Peter Pan that year.) A photograph I took in class, developed (underexposed) in the darkroom still hangs in the hallway.

If you had told me then that, in ten years, I would be performing maid of honor duties for her October wedding, and she mine the following May, I would have had a million questions. What would I tell my eighteen year-old self? It’s been an eventful decade. I am grateful for the milestone, and for the opportunity to celebrate the start of important, buoying friendships in the best possible way, with strawberry tart and plenty of wine. Read more »

New Orleans

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We recently spent three days in New Orleans–a first visit to the city for both of us–and that lucky thing happened where a weekend can feel like a proper escape, like a proper break. We walked across great swaths of the city, and in between we ate and drank like princes. The Frenchman exhausted his business-accrued hotel points and rented us a room bigger than our Brooklyn apartment; we basked like lizards. One muggy afternoon we traded site-seeing for the hotel pool, and I fulfilled a childhood dream and ordered a strawberry daiquiri from one of the passing waiters. (The daiquiri tasted more like red-flavored corn syrup than actual strawberries, but never mind. Isn’t it glorious to be an adult sometimes?)

I was told, and it’s true: New Orleans is a bit magic. It’s not a tidy city, but then–those massive tufty trees, like something out of a fairy tale, looming and mossy and colorful bead-dappled. And the sound of brass instruments ringing from the insides of one dark bar or another. The intricate, woven iron balconies, festooned with bright and hanging flowers; the promise of so many ghosts. An oppressive heat informs a checkered past–a history that takes in origin, culture, and religion–and gives New Orleans a character all its own. I have never seen a place to match it.

During our sojourn, we saw as much as two people can manage in three days, but I know we left stones unturned. Next time, I’d like to return in the company of friends who know the city well; I have a feeling there are experiences waiting below the tourist surface. New Orleans seems to me a lady with many faces.

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Chocolate Cake with Rhubarb-Strawberry Compote + Crème Fraîche Cream

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Swan

Did you see it, drifting, all night on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air,
an armful of white blossoms,
a perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings: a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
a shrill dark music, like the rain pelting trees,
    like a waterfall
knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds–
a white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light
    of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

–Mary Oliver

rhubarbchocolate cake batter

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Orecchiette with Peas, Ham, Herbs + Garlic Breadcrumbs

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Summer arrived in New York last weekend, suddenly and unexpectedly, like an uninvited guest. As I biked around our neighborhood, collecting ingredients for a Mother’s Day meal from more retailers than most would deem reasonable, I was struck by the outrageous greenery I think must have sprung up overnight, while we were all asleep. Asparagus just arrived at the market and I have not seen a single sugar pea, but still, all evidence suggests summer. Honestly, I feel a little gypped. I love spring, and there is a snap pea salad recipe I’ve been waiting to work out.

I have a friend who is happy. There is no other way to describe it–she is generally, genuinely, effervescently happy. Of course she is not without her troubles or hardships; when she is sad, she fully embraces sadness, a two handed hand shake. But she does not dwell in sadness or self doubt. She has a natural, easy ability to see the best in people. She is a loving friend. I often wonder–are some people born preternaturally happier than others? Or is happiness instead a conscious choice, or maybe a series of micro choices? Does it care where you’ve come from, or more about where you are going?

orecchiettepeas

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Spinach, Mushroom, and Goat Cheese Quesadillas

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Part of the Frenchman’s job involves visiting clients on site. He might be home for few months, and then sporadically gone for the next handful. There is often little notice–“I have to go to x-far flung city in a couple of days.” I hate this aspect of his job. I hate when he goes away.

If it’s possible, he will catch an early morning Monday flight, so that we can spend a full weekend together. This isn’t always convenient, but he does it anyway. He gets up at the edge of dawn and creeps out of bed. I am one quarter awake: I hear the soft wash of the shower; later, the scrape of a suitcase zipper. The bar of light pressing from the living room through to our bedroom lets me know he is still here.

When he leaves, he kisses me good morning, goodbye. Maybe it is 5:30am. The front door clacks behind him and I snap awake. I usually can’t fall back asleep after that.

The day will go by as usual. Often, he has landed, or almost, by the time I get to work. We talk on various mobile devices throughout the day. It’s only at night that I really register his absence. Our apartment feels somehow smaller without him there. I cannot be bothered to cook something complicated for just myself, and I am reminded of what a social experience food is, how quietly significant it is to share dinner and conversation with this person I love on a regular basis. Dinners together are an investment–in us, for our future, toward a balanced life.

Of course, these business trips are probably healthy for us in the long run. They make me conscious of what we have. After five plus years together, the reality of love is not often butterflies. How reassuring then, to really miss someone when they are gone. In the gloom of the thick of it, I think about homecoming, about dinner. I think about dashing on some red lipstick to meet him at the airport, stomach full of butterflies.

crimini mushrooms leek

flash pickled red onion and serrano pepper

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Los Angeles

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A couple weeks ago, the Frenchman and I flew to Los Angeles for a quick long weekend. It was my first visit, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was desperate for a little sunshine, though, and really looking forward to seeing old friends. True to fashion, I also compiled a laundry list of restaurants I wanted to try.

We managed to pack quite a few activities into a short span of time; nonetheless, the trip was brief, and I feel like we only scratched the surface. I am still unpacking my thoughts about LA, but I wanted to share my impressions, experiences, and favorite places to eat, in the hope that this information will prove useful to future visitors. (Also, these travel records are useful for myself—-I have the memory of a guppy, and I don’t want to forget!)

Thank you to the people who made such great recommendations: Antonio, Stef, Crissy & Ryan, Julia, and Amanda. Read more »