Letter from an exotic not-quite-divorced filmmaker to the somewhat dopey narrator, who wouldn’t let him make love to her over Christmas. He’s off to London to work on his documentary about plumbing (really).
How are you? We parted bad friends and don’t think I didn’t notice the resentment in your fat bottom as you hurried into your huckster shop.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking of you and I forgive you everything. I’m working very hard on those glorious sewerages which I told you about; and I’m staying in a hotel, which is full of young American girls! Makes me nostalgic for the old days, but have no fears, none are as awkward or as pretty as you. You are a nice, kind, dear, sweet, round-faced pollop and now that I’m all mixed up in you and your mad hair, don’t set fire to yourself until I come back to you.
If you have any days off, please go out and light fires in the bedrooms and open windows, as I’m sure [charlady] won’t.
Good night from your devoted
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Tags: edna o'brien, letters in books
When I moved to New Orleans, some well-meaning friends encouraged me to start a blog about my New Orleans food adventures. I said no.
First, it’s hardly uncovered terrain, and I’m happy to read Ian McNulty and Todd Price and Brett Anderson and Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (when he stops over) and all the other wonderful writers who cover the topic. Second, though I make the occasional pot of red beans and grab the occasional po’boy (and snarf the occasional slice of pâte at places like Toup’s Meatery, which has the world’s least atmospheric chairs, and the Delachaise, whose Uptown lawyer boys wear plaid shirts in an utterly charming attempt to look like hipsters) I don’t live on “New Orleans food” the way it’s typically defined: My stomach can take only one traditional New Orleans meal in a row. Third, I don’t like to go to restaurants: I like to cook.
When you pull up stakes, there’s something to be said for the comfort of continuing some habits. For 11 years — I’m the earliest CSA-adopter I know — my habit was to get a bunch of local vegetables every week for as much of the year as possible, preferably pre-selected by a farm so I would be forced to embrace variety.
Thus, instead of chasing down the perfect gumbo, my way of eating New Orleans has been to pick up a box share at the Hollygrove Market every week or so and cook whatever vegetables they give me. Usually in a simple manner because I’m lazy, albeit the kind of lazy that thinks it’s easier to bake crackers than to put on real clothes and go out to buy crackers. Though the outside world focuses on shrimp and pickled pork and rice and goop, southern Louisiana is a great place for vegetable-lovers, with a full-year growing season and bundles of tomatoes and okra and oh lord the spring strawberries &c. (And banh mi.)
This time of year, there are figs.
Someone told me I’d stop baking in the summer. To which I say, pish tosh. I live in a shotgun and there’s a reason shotguns have the kitchen in the back. I also have central air and ceiling fans and I live on the shady side of the double and the kitchen is several rooms away from the thermostat so running the oven doesn’t even crank the a/c. My New Orleans kitchen is cooler than my non-air-conditioned Somerville one. Besides, a girl does not drive her sourdough starter 3,000 miles to abandon it come August. And something else people told me about August in the South has proven true for me: Until nighttime, I stay inside, often near the kitchen.
So there I was leaving Hollygrove with an overpiled pint of figs, rubbing my hands like Scrooge with a vegetable complex, thinking of all the cookbooks I’ve read that say “if you can get your hands on fresh figs….” I kept them around for a few days and then made a fig-and-peach free-form tart to thank my friend Jeri for commenting on the latest draft of my book. The peach side was glorious: looked like a blushing sunset and tasted like one too. The fig side, however, was utterly without flavor.
“?!” I wailed at my colleague the great food writer Judy Walker, a person I torment regularly and loudly, which presumably drives the rest of the newsroom crazy so I periodically bring in sweets. “Does storing them in the fridge destroy their flavor? Do you have to eat them within a day or two?” She told me sometimes they just don’t taste like much — oh cookbook writers, how I resent thy ungrounded promise — and advised me to try one of the T-P’s many recipes for fig preserve cake. Thus when Hollygrove gave me more figs, I made compote; when the brothel girls invited me for a rainy-Sunday cookout, I made a cake.
Notes on the recipe:
- I wanted pecans but I didn’t want obvious nuts, which seemed inelegant for a cake, so I tossed them into the food processor with the compote. (Grinding them alone would’ve risked turning the nuts into butter.)
- After adding the rum and doing my standard spice expansion — what’s with all these recipes that call only for cinnamon when obviously any “spice” dessert should have a mixture relying heavily on ginger? — I put two and two and the weather together and realized this was a — well, normally I’d call it the cake version of a dark ‘n’ stormy but people here are understandably uneasy about storms at this time of year, so I back-formed a name from the Moscow Mule.
- The original recipes called for Bundt or tube pans but since the cookout had only five guests I wanted to make the cake look small and Bundts always look huge — so I went for a springform, turned down the heat, and reluctantly accepted the cake would be in the oven forever. I am writing this from the front room.
Alone yesterday elbow-deep in fried okra, peach sorbet, hummus, and sautéed long beans, I asked Jeri if my cooking habit might be a little bit compulsive. She said it was a productive and positive compulsion. Then she invited herself over for lunch.
3 large eggs
1 c. white sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 c. fig compote, puréed
1/2 c. pecans, ground
3/4 c. soured milk
1/4 c. dark rum plus extra for the top
1 tsp. each fine salt, cinnamon, powdered ginger
1/2 tsp. powdered galangal (or more ginger)
1/4 tsp. allspice
some gratings nutmeg and black pepper
1 c. vegetable oil
1-1/2 c. white flour
1/2 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. baking soda
When U.S. recipe-writers use volume measurements, are there typical weight conversions to start from?
Preheat oven to 325. Dab some butter on the bottom of a 10″ springform pan, line the bottom with wax paper, and butter and flour the pan. Purée the compote (if chunky) with the pecans. If you don’t have buttermilk (no one ever has buttermilk), pour about a teaspoon of white or cider vinegar into a measuring cup and top off with milk.
Beat the eggs until foamy; add the sugars and beat until thick and shiny. Beat in the preserves-and-nuts purée and the milk and rum, then the salt and spices. (This is untraditional but I like to mix the salt and spices in early because I think they disperse/dissolve better that way, and in the early stages you can beat the batter harder than you can beat it after you add the flour. Feel free to use your own favorite combination of spices.) Beat in the oil.
Dump the flours and soda on top of the wet ingredients, stir the dry part to mix, and fold the dry ingredients into the wet by hand. This is the lazy way to mix your dry ingredients and I think it works just fine, thank you. I gave it a brief whisking to break up the flour.
Pour into pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for one hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry. Try to avoid overbaking but when you touch the center it should feel like the cake is solid and not a barely congealed brownie-like substance.
Remove cake from oven and pour three additional capfuls of rum over the top. Let cool in the pan about 20 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan. When cool, sift or sieve on some confectioners’ sugar.
Correction, 8/26: I completely forgot to tell you to put rum IN the cake. Fixed.
p.s. I forget what I fed my friend Paul that he labeled, affectionately, “Northern white-girl food.” Maybe my pantry staple dinner of pasta with browned onions, walnuts, olives, and soppressata.
p.p.s. I’m reading Adam Gopnik’s book on the French attitude towards eating, The Table Comes First — having briefly overcome my violent envy of his perfect life and dream career — and I’m wrestling with the irrational conviction that there is more appetite involved in deciding what to cook than in choosing from a menu — but more on that another time.
Filed under: colorful surroundings, it's what's for dinner, obsessions | Leave a Comment
Tags: cake, figs, judy walker, new orleans food
“It’s just not worth scrimping on sausages. The legal minimum meat content for a pork sausage is a scandalously low 42 per cent — and that ‘meat’ can include 30 per cent fat and 25 per cent ‘connective tissue’ — so less scrupulous manufacturers will pump their bangers full of sulphites and sawdust, guar gum and gizzards. The serious breakfaster shouldn’t put up with economy meats, though occasional exceptions may be made for certain grades of hangover and the friendlier kind of greasy-spoon café.”
“The tomato is surely South America’s greatest gift to the world. At the very least, it would be in the quarter-finals, along with el jogo bonito, the potato, Che Guevara, the Incan Empire, cocaine, Jorge Luis Borges and sexy dancing.”
Filed under: it's what's for dinner, reading list | Leave a Comment
“Yes, I was depressed at her age, at something unstable about her, but I was also depressed at the implied criticism of The Voyage Out, & at the hint that I had better turn to something other than fiction. Now this seems to me foolish, & I wish I could make up a cure for it, to be taken after such encounters, which are bound to happen every month of one’s life. It’s the curse of a writer’s life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that writing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that on the whole I get infinite pleasure from it; that I make one hundred pounds a year; & that some people like what I write. But Janet would only admit that love counted, & said that her friends had succeeded only in ‘coming off’ in life, not in art.”
Filed under: my brilliant career, reading list | Leave a Comment
But mostly Frank O’Hara, from Lopate’s new essay collection this time. We’re not going to talk today about my reasons for not taking Kenneth Koch’s classes in college but I will say my senior-year flatmate Irwin did one hell of a Koch imitation. First two paragraphs are Lopate, if it’s not clear, third is O’Hara in WordPress’s somewhat unfortunate blockquote format.
… So I settled for becoming a prose-writing hanger-on of the New York School of Poetry, with entrée to the scene provided by Ron Padgett, all of us worshiping at the shrine of Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashberry.
The one whose poetry appealed to me most at that time was Frank O’Hara, partly because of his unapologetically urban, movie-mad sensibility, partly because of his doctrine of Personalism:
You just go on nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.” … How can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.
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Tags: yet more phillip lopate
I don’t tend to post stories here — you can find them all on NOLA.com, and someday I will update the clips page — but this one, somewhat off my beat, has a drawn a huge response. Well over 30 people so far have called or emailed me directly asking to pay for Ka’Nard’s 11th birthday party not counting all the posts on social media, calls to the T-P, etc. One of my luckier catches — broke the news that one of the Mother’s Day shooting victims was also a key player in the most shocking shooting of 2012, and his dad’s death in October made the front pages too.
As my friend Paul says, “News is always broken,” and sometimes you have to wonder if the same is true of the rest of the world.
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Tags: briana allen, ka'nard allen, mother's day shooting