New Years in San Sebastián

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A Drinking Song

  • Wine comes in at the mouth
  • And love comes in at the eye;
  • That’s all we shall know for truth
  • Before we grow old and die.
  • I lift the glass to my mouth,
  • I look at you, and I sigh.

W.B. Yeats

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Christmas in Lanzarote

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We spend Christmas, my fifth with the Frenchman’s family, in Lanzarote–the easternmost island in the Canary chain. I eat the best pulpo of my life. I’ve developed a tan.

The island is largely covered by volcanic rock, remnants of an eruption as recent as 1730. In December, the sun shines bright and warm, but the constant, insistent wind carries a chill, and sometimes it’s necessary to change from a bathing suit into many layers in a matter of minutes. The island is stippled with cacti and aloe plants. There are palm trees too; not the willow-trunked variety–these are low, compacted trunks, as if hunkered down again the wind. For days at a time, a film of sand blown in from the Sahara blankets the sky–calima, it’s called–and hazes the atmosphere. Driving in the car, past villages, each building white-washed, low, and square, each door and shutter painted the same, gem olive green–we pass unusual vineyards: vines winding through volcanic gravel, each plant protected from the wind by semi-circles of black rock.

I’ve passed the time here uncharacteristically disconnected from all my electronic devices. Meals with the Frenchman’s family are communal events, and we play games after dinner, or walk along the water. I’ll have a small glass of wine with lunch. My French and Spanish is all jumbled together now, and I have to pay attention not to weave both languages into sentences. I’m grateful for this trip–it’s been restful in a way I forgot was possible. For once, my mind isn’t running one hundred miles per minute. I give myself over to books for hours at a time, and writing isn’t just another item in a long list of to-dos. I have time to let the words roll around, time for them to percolate. It’s a joy.

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A Winter Salad of Fennel, Celery Root, Lemon, and Pecorino

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I have never met a group more reliable to have a good meal with–and it should be said, a few drinks with–than poets…Poets tend to love the details, the process of food, the languid hours of a good meal–meaning not just the vittles but the talk, often loud, that accompanies it.

This may also be because the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch. Both rely on the seasons, but also human history; both also consist of tradition, on knowledge passed down either from books or from generation to generation, hand to mouth. In poetry, there are few shortcuts, but there are secrets. Food and poetry each insist that we put our own twists and ingredients in the mix: we make each dish, like a good poem, our own. With any luck, the result is both surprising and satisfying, exactly what we wanted, perhaps without even knowing it.

However, we know well the ways in which our society has abandoned good food, and too often poetry entirely–as if it grows without water and light, and that our neglect won’t reveal itself. “Can one be inspired by rows of prepared canned meals?” asked Alice B. Toklas, who knew her way around both poetry & a kitchen. “Never. One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen.”

A Winter Salad of Fennel, Celery Root, Lemon, and Pecorino ingredients A Winter Salad of Fennel, Celery Root, Lemon, and Pecorino prep

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Whole Wheat-Kitchen Sink Tart

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This is the longest absence, by a long shot, I’ve taken from this blog since its inception more than three years ago. It’s been a struggle, to put into words exactly why I needed a break. I still have no solid reason. Nothing happened. It was just a persistent feeling: the need to sit peacefully for a minute, to take time away from constant, frenetic connection.

It’s been a season of sea change. I am re-learning how to focus on what’s actually, concretely important, instead of attempting 100% all the time, running myself into the ground in the process. I’m rejiggering my expectations: drinking a cup of tea and staring out the window doesn’t have to be a lazy act; often it is restorative and necessary. I put so much pressure on myself, both in this space and in life, and it’s only served to make me bone tired. Constant activity, trying to please everyone—it’s simply not sustainable.

I’m working to figure out what I want. I’d like to come out the other side a more joyful person. Like anything worth doing, progress is slow, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m no longer swimming under water.

I don’t have any Thanksgiving material this year (but oh boy, did I ever last year. Check it out here, here, and here), but here’s a small summary of things-that-make-me-happy lately:

The woman across the restaurant in the big hat, who smacks her lips unembarrassedly and pronounces her wine “delicious.” Serial. Sandy Kenyon’s movie minute. The apartment-filling smell of caramelized onions. Walking along the Manhattan bridge alone on a brisk November Sunday, listening to a book on tape. Sauce, copious sauce, in almost any variety. The port-in-a-storm quality of the international foods section in the otherwise hectic Bed, Bath, & Beyond on 6th avenue. The earth-sweet-pungent smell of Concord grapes at the market. Homemade hot chocolate. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, licking oozing goat cheese slowly off a dull knife. Pulling a slim volume of Mary Oliver poems off the shelf and carrying it to bed.

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A Road Trip To Maine

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In and around Labor Day, the Frenchman and I finagled six days off for a road trip to Maine. We passed long car hours listening to Radiolab, and then long nature-hours playing B for Botticelli (or, B for Butter and Jelly, as we call it). We filled our days with the rush of dark trees. We considered the secret depths of lakes. Mostly though, we stepped outside our normal routine, and paid attention to the quiet.

We also explored many charming port towns, and drank our share of local beer. And we ate well, of course, we ate well.

If you’re planning a trip to Maine, I hope this day-to-day guide–and the subsequent extra recommendations–will prove useful. We loved our time there, and hope to make it back soon.

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* I will mention as a disclaimer: I was only in Maine for six days; I’m sure I missed so many gems. I only included the spots I really loved and would recommend without reservation. This is as much a record for myself as it is a guide for others. If you live in Maine, I’d love to hear your opinions about my finds (or better yet, what I didn’t find) in the comments. This is where I went and what I saw in August 2014; if you find a broken link sometime in the future, I apologize. Finally, thank you to the many generous people who made recommendations for our trip.

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Peach and Blueberry Coconut Crisp + a Giveaway!

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Until a couple months ago, I was living in the gymnastics dark, unaware I could participate in this–frankly, awesome–sport as an adult. (Thanks, Amelia!) And now that I know, I’m eager to make up for lost time.

I was competitive as a child, although my average skills never quite matched my intense love for the sport. I went to gymnastics camp and met Dominique Moceanu, though, and favored a burgundy crush velvet leotard and matching hair scrunchie–legitimizing qualifications if ever you heard them. And then I went away to school, and transitioned into flinging myself off of 1 and 3-meter diving boards instead. Later, in college, after a beverage or two, I liked to throw messy back walkovers on whatever surface was available to me: grass, or sometimes, hotel hallways. I am still a frequent handstand-and-cartwheeler in the sand, because life is short.

That brings us to the present. I have attended four classes now, and joy is the simplest way to describe it. Just walking into the gym–the primary colored mats and barrels, the expanse of trampolines, the foam pit–seems to dissipate stress.

My body is remembering front extension rolls (a series of which left me feeling terribly motion sick after my first class), back bends, kick overs, headstands, and almost back handsprings. Week to week, tangible improvements. I’m sore the next day (who knew the body contained so many distinct muscles?), but still I want to practice handstands against our apartment door: “You need to be looong,” instructs Rodrigo, pulling out the word to match his arms stretched high above his head. “Practice being looong.” So I do.

I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, and I would rather shop for tomatoes than go on a hike, but for some reason this gymnastics business has become a highlight of my week. It quiets all the overwhelmed, busy thoughts in my head.

Last week, we front flipped. With each turn, I stared down the alley of floor in front of me and in that suspended moment, nothing mattered except the anticipation alive in my fingertips. With each turn, I slid into a long-strided run, just before the mat pike-punching hard to launch my body upward with everything I had. It’s an act of faith, really. A hard tuck, willing mind and body to follow in a neat circle through the air, hoping that–this time–I’ll land on my feet.

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Arugula Pistou + Kinderhook Farm

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I live in the city, a fact I’m acutely aware of from the moment I wake up (to the sonorous pounding of multiple high-rise constructions) to my subway hop home (look! a host of sparrows eating….an old piece of pizza?) There are many things I love about my neighborhood of Brooklyn (this, this, and this, to name a few), but the urban reality also means that whole months go by when I forget what silence sounds like. I forget that the sky is really a wild, open, spangled thing, and not always doled out in tetris patches.

This push and pull is noisiest in late summer, when the city’s muggy and farmers’ markets are ripe with peaches. I get restless. By August, weekends become little islands of opportunity. And so for two years now, we reserve the first weekend of August for Kinderhook Farm.

This year we traveled to Ghent, New York with friends, and the most stressful thing I did all weekend was lose a game of Scrabble. Otherwise, we made power-relaxation our raison d’être. I cooked quite a lot: spaghetti with melted tomatoes, corn, and mozzarella I hope to share with you here soon. Grilled pizzas and corn on the cob. Cheeseburgers made with ground beef sourced from the farm. And s’mores, the Frenchman’s first.

It was such a pleasure. Two days of concentrated time with friends is a gift. And nothing makes me happier, absolutely nothing, than cooking with and for those I love. It’s an easy, immediate joy.

I also love the place itself, for its restorative properties. I love how Kinderhook contrasts my everyday life, and the feel of the barn’s wooden planks against my feet, almost warm. I love the fire pit and the technicolor chickens pecking wherever they please. Keys are obsolete. We wander the pastures and lounge in hammocks pitched at the edge of the yard. We buy local beer by the growler. The only noises are nature-made: bleating sheep, violining crickets, the rustle of wind through leaves. If you’re a light sleeper, roosters announce the new day. It’s tonic for the spirit.

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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.

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