Sunday, March 6, 2016

Girl Goes Down the Mountain

Iran, I have found you in the news again, but this time the landscape is promising and dotted with color. Oh, snowy slopes of my youth, what are you doing in the New York Times, brightening my kitchen counter while I light the griddle for pancakes?

I was an awkward twelve-year-old when my mother signed me up for ski lessons. She marched me straight to the only ski shop in Tehran where I was fitted for skis and boots. My outfit was borrowed--a bright tangerine parka with matching pants that were too snug. Doomed is how I felt.

On weekends, just before dawn, our instructor, Mr. Pazooki, picked up his students and drove to Dizin, the ski resort just an hour and a half from Tehran. As we wound our way up the mountain, six of us bounced on benches in the back of his Land Rover. On a good day, I threw up only three times. The five other children learned to recognize the signs and screamed "Agha (mister), pull over! Pull Over! Quickly!" Mr. P would swerve to the gravelly shoulder and leap out to watch me tumble from the back onto the snowdrift. He waited patiently on the edge of the road and listened to my shallow breaths as if he had all the time in the world. I prayed he would just leave without me.

I fell on my first run and my orange pants ripped in half exposing my underwear to the world. The children howled. These days I would have been arrested for indecency, but in 1972, my instructor shrugged off his parka and tied it around my waist, anxious to resume the lesson.

Did I refuse to go back after that first time? Yes. But my mother had paid for a season and by golly, she would carry me up that mountain herself if she had to. So I went. I vomited on the way, and it was hard, and I trailed behind the other kids, always the last link in the chain that made its slow descent towards Mr. Pazooki, who stood at the bottom, gazing up at my flailing arms.

Then it happened. I'm pretty sure it was the fifth or sixth lesson when fear washed away. Suddenly, all I could see was the light on the snow glinting around us and the only sounds were the soft slushy scrape of our skis racing down the hill and Mr. P smacking his gloved hands in applause.

Why this sudden longing in my chest? I have no idea. Standing here now, over a smoky griddle, I can hear the chair lift rattling and my friends shouting You dropped your stick! Snowy mountains are not far but nowhere is the peak so high, the range so immense and beautiful, the powder so soft as in Dizin.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two Pigeons and a Fava Bean

Lean Food with Cook Utensils, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin

My grandfather raised pigeons in his backyard. I used to think the sound of cooing was a hymn unique to his house. To me, my grandfather's garden was an infinite maze of surprise and discovery.

I know if I went back today it would seem small and tangled, but in my childhood it loomed large and full of possibility. The rows of cages on stilts with their tiny doors were the closest thing I had to a dollhouse. Yet I was afraid of the erratic movement of birds each time my grandfather lifted the latch on those doors to "let the little devils out". If he allowed me to accompany him, I trailed behind apprehensive because I didn't much like pigeons outside of their cages. Their flutter, fits and starts between my feet made me anxious and I stood fixed as a pole in the midst of their nervous merriment. But I went for the occasion that occurred most rarely.

It seemed more like a magic trick the first time my grandfather reached inside a cubicle for an egg--like the penny he found behind my ear. I can still see the smooth and speckled orb he cradled in his palm. "How?" I gasped. "Two pigeons and time," he replied. I stared openmouthed as he pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket to wrap the egg. "Take this inside." I dashed like a courier, cautiously holding the bundle in front of me, up the path, past the fountain, to the kitchen, where the woman who cooked his meals after my grandmother died, was bent over a basket of shelling beans. How did beans make more beans? How did pigeons make more pigeons? I remained puzzled over the former, but the latter was less vague and nothing short of a miracle.

I have since learned that in Italy, there is a gentler way of achieving two ends with a single effort. In Italian, a fava bean replaces the proverbial stone to kill two birds. My friend Susanna taught me this kinder expression: due piccioni con una fava. I thought of my grandfather and how in one afternoon, he taught his granddaughter about nature and nurture.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Eternally Yours

Mitchell Johnson, "Rome (Marcello)," 2015 22x26 inches, oil/linen

My last visit to Rome was in the summer of 1968. I was six years old and my shoes were too tight. My mother agreed to a pair of two-tone, suede Mary Janes which were too small, but I kept that to myself until I was whimpering through the narrow cobblestone streets, through the Vatican and the galleries, through the ruins and the basilicas. That she kept a brisk pace and crossed the streets like a Roman, didn't help. An absolute virtuoso, weaving through Fiat toy cars, staring straight ahead, like she knew where she was going, briefly consulting a map before lunging once more into traffic, all the while pulling me along as I half ran, tripped, and hobbled to keep up.

Rome in 1968 must have been splendid, a far less congested tourists' playground. If only I could remember what I saw...Bernini's fountains, the Colosseum, the Sistine chapel, but my eyes were fixed on my shoes. Oh, how pretty they were--soft pink and pistachio green, with a small suede flower stitched to the buckle. I brushed each and every smudge with my sleeve. Oh, how they hurt. Oh, if only we could rest a bit. Then she stopped. Do you see what I see? her smile said. Inside the gelateria was like stepping into a clock and stopping time, for the minutes it took me to stretch up to the glass case, to choose a flavor from the range of colors, and the moments we sat on a bench with an ice cream in our hands, were long and indulgent--an eternity to a child.

When the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Rome came up, I immediately recalled my suede shoes and the taste of my first gelato forty six years ago. My husband is a visiting artist at the American Academy, and in hindsight, I cannot believe I initially resisted the idea of joining him for part of his stay. What about our son's school, homework, basketball practice, I protested? What about my novel at the finish line? They stared at me Are you nuts? Well, yes.

Returning to Rome with my own family this winter, I watch my son, now taller than me, taking long strides across the same streets, stopping motorists with the same bravado as his grandmother, and once again I'm half jogging to keep up. At a cross light he slaps away the hand of a pick-pocketer unzipping my bag Don't touch her! he yells into the woman's face and she flees. He spends the next few hours devising schemes for catching thieves, luring them with fake money or filling a backpack with shards of glass. He's wound up. What does he think, I wonder, of walking along the Via Sacra in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, or the multilayered Basilica of San Clemente above a 1st-century Roman house, and the spooky underground passages beneath the Colosseum where men and beasts waited to be slaughtered? What about the young doctor in skinny jeans and a leather jacket who makes a house call when he's sick and examines him with such tenderness (say aaah like an Italian), or the homeless man who plays soccer with him in the park? What will he remember?

I'm seeing it all for the first time, really. Inside the Pantheon, my eyes are drawn to the dome and the opening to the sky. In the Sistine Chapel, I look to the ceiling for Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Bird watching beneath the tall umbrella pines in the Pamphili park, oh, how formal and dignified they stand, and yes, those are parrots nesting in the parasols! My gaze is unaccustomed to such splendor. It's like love and a new sky just opened above me. How can there be this feeling of newness in a place so ancient? They have all been here for an eternity, adapting again and again over centuries to their latest surroundings, to the next wave of humanity, insisting on their place. It is impossible to explain where we've been, but this time I feel connected to what we've seen. I won't wait so long to come back.

I wear more sensible shoes now, but my neck hurts. Isn't it time for an ice cream?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Swimming with the Stars

Henri Matisse The Swimming Pool

Never mind the oldest and the youngest. In the pool we are all the strongest. Our lane mate, Ann, turned eighty yesterday. Our pool sleeps under covers in the dark and on most mornings, Ann wakes up before the birds to lift and reel the heavy bedspread on a spool. At 5:45, it's always our turn to play! We show up like an army, thirty or forty of us to break the glitter she has uncovered, to splash and puff and shiver and swing our arms, to leave our rigid selves on land and watch the first, small, pink clouds sail above.

For years we've watched and learned from Ann's long, beautiful stroke, her razor sharp flip turn, the ear to ear smile and praise she lavishes on us when we've shaved a second off our interval. If I've arrived early enough to watch her take aim and jump in the pool, I'm reminded of hopping into fountains as a child and the defiant whoop whooping, I am the life in the fountain! Catch me if you can! 

This morning she swam beneath a canopy of balloons tied to a vase of flowers from Karen's garden. There goes joy in the water, I thought. 

Happy Birthday Ann.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Simmering Dinner

Photo: Wayne Bremser

Hearing that Judy Rodgers had passed away sent me to the kitchen. Her beautiful cookbook is one of three on my shelf and I've turned to it again and again because Judy, anchored as she was to technique and history, often had answers to all my questions, because repetition came before creativity and innovation. If you think making the same dish day after day is easy, it's not. If you're not falling in love with the same dish each time you carefully gather the ingredients for it, whether it's a caesar salad or a hamburger, you should untie your apron and order take-out. 

I never had the privilege to work with Judy, but have always felt her tall slender presence nearby--a quirky angel with waist length hair, mini skirt and bright colored tights--you would have to search the planet for a more serious, dedicated, intelligent chef. Restaurants come and go, chefs tire and retire, but Zuni stayed and Judy never looked away. She spoke to every single diner through her intensely flavorful soups, her simmered dinners, creamy scrambled eggs, and summer puddings. Moored to her stove, gliding through the dining room with a champagne flute was not for her. She was marrow to the bone.

Tonight, in memory of Judy, we're making her braised chicken with honey and vinegar, substituting dates for figs, and remembering all the soulful meals, the birthdays and anniversaries we celebrated at Zuni.

So long Chef. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

At Last

“Hey, do you know this author Alice Munro,” my husband asked. “She’s Canadian. Did you ever read any of her books?” I woke up at five fifteen this morning to the news of my beloved author’s Nobel prize. What a glorious day! It’s been too long since I’ve actually jumped up and down over the announcement. The last time was in 1995 when Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), another good shepherd, received the award.

I’ve devoured every word Munro has ever written and reread her books when I miss her. Her stories come in teaspoons to be read and savored, page by slow page. To choose a favorite would be like finding one child more enchanting than the other. She taught me that all stories are right here in our backyards, laying low, subversive, unassuming as leaves, if only you bend down to examine them. I learned that a leaf lives an interesting life if you care to look closely and trace its veins like a palm reader to find the miracle of economy. Your entire world is there like an only child.

“Do I know her?” “I worship her!” How had he missed that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Seventeen Going On Eighteen

During my senior year in high school, I took home economics with Mrs. P. The bulk of my repertoire at the time included banana bread and its many variations, but I came eager to learn how to transform eggs, butter, and sugar into cake, ground beef into meatballs, or flour, water, and yeast into bread. A teenager is always starving and I was no exception. There was no limit to my appetite and the 6th period class came late in the afternoon when I would've eaten my binder if it weren't for the promise of macaroni and cheese or shredded carrot raisin salad with honey mustard dressing.

Our co-ed class met in a big airy room with a cheery light that came through the windows. It felt like being let out of prison. Finally, in this space between the deep sinks, four burner stoves, and Mrs. P's pantry, I felt free. I didn't know it at the time, nor did I have a word for it--the closest image I can draw for you is that of Julie Andrews on the green Alpine pastures, breaking into song. Most of my classmates weren't there to learn how to feed themselves. Let's face it, it was an easy A and despite her stern expression, Mrs. P was a sweetheart, a P-for-pussycat who had been teaching for thirty years and passed the A's like a platter of snickerdoodles--more on her generosity later. Her curriculum focused on comfort food, dishes I turned to again and again in college. Except for her wonderful bran muffin recipe (the only one I've ever had that didn't taste like tree bark), there was no back-to-the earth, holier-than-whole buckwheat and barley gruel. She started each lesson by handing out a recipe or two, three-hole punched for our Home Ec binders, then walked away, leaving us to gather the ingredients, to weigh and measure. Oh, how I wished she wouldn't turn her back because the moment she disappeared around the corner into her office (more like a cubby in the back where I think she took the edge off with a pony of sherry), the first raisins followed by a scoop of ketchup (yes, we made our own) flew across the kitchen to land at your feet, if you were lucky, but often on your neck. This business of a "food fight" and its battle cry was as alien to me as pink hair and punk rock. Call me prudence, but this was where you could single me out as the foreign student. Throwing food was not only unthinkable and barbaric, but my mother would've yanked the hair from my scalp if I threw a grape in the air and tried to catch it. I had no choice but to appoint myself as the class monitor, at first begging them with Come on guys, stop it please, to emphatic cries of Children are starving in Ethiopia! Of course, it was useless but little did I know that trying to maintain order in a kitchen full of teenagers would be my first step to becoming a chef. Bless my friends for taking it well and girding the area around me, but they weren't about to stop. After all, what better place to offer their affection to the person they fancied?When you're young and savage, you show your love with a lump of baking chocolate and butter slipped into an unbuttoned polo shirt. A juvenile be-my-valentine, but effective.

Mrs. P emerged from her cubby, tall and teetering a little on her sensible heels, to praise our efforts, refusing a taste with an elegant wave of her hand, Oh no dear, I couldn't possibly digest that! She had sampled enough meatloaf and quick bread, knowing the good ones from the bad at a glance. We were dismissed lovingly and allowed to take home the remains of our cakes and custards. 

One March afternoon, upon receiving my first college rejection letter, I went to class with a lump in my throat. One of those lumps that a tap on my shoulder or a simple Are you okay? would have me dissolve into a puddle of tears--you know the kind. At five feet three inches, I came to Mrs. P's waist and she folded in half to look into my eyes before shooing me to her office where I wept on her shoulder and she brought me a glass of cold water and actually said there, there. When my hiccups subsided, she suggested I stop by her house for a chat one evening. I rode my bike to her little bungalow and she greeted me at the door in the same belted knee-length dress she wore to school (did I expect she'd be wearing sweatpants?) and ushered me to "the parlor" for a little glass of sherry served in a doll size cordial glass. I smelled almonds but tasted figs. Less than an ounce, but enough to overcome my awkward disposition so I could sit on a beautiful old chair across from her. She didn't offer me a cigarette (that would've blown my mind), it was a thrill just watching my teacher light one in front of me-- a smoke signal that graduation was near and we would part friends. Mrs. P spent the next hour asking me about what I expected to do with my life. No one had ever asked before. She didn't realize that I was straw in the wind, that she had given me the confidence to shape my longings into food, to tide over that gnawing hunger. 

It all started in a home economics class that is no longer offered in high school. I thought of Mrs. P after reading and commiserating with Jim Sollisch's article, Cooking is Freedom, in the Sunday Times. He reminded me of my Julie Andrews moment.

Mrs. P's Snickerdoodles

4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

-Preheat oven to 350'.
-Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
-Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
-Fold in the flour, baking soda and salt. Mix just until combined.
-Chill the dough for 15-30 minutes before rolling into 1 inch balls.
-Combine cinnamon and sugar in a bowl.
-Toss the balls in cinnamon sugar, not at each other! 
-Place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake 8-10 minutes until golden.