Friday, December 16, 2011

Humble Pie

Apricots by Amy Weiskopf, Courtesy Hirschl-Adler Gallery

I took my knives to Austin wrapped in a thick kitchen towel I bought years ago at the Saturday market in Buonconvento, Italy. That day, the apricots were so ripe, I bought the dishtowel to swaddle them, and carried them in their makeshift sling back to our apartment where they tumbled out playfully on the kitchen table. I ate them standing up, one hand cupping my chin. A kilo of “albicocca”, just like that—the very word makes me smile.

The trouble with traveling with the tools of your trade is checking your bags. To plead innocence, I made sure to tuck a harmless gadget like a zester next to them. I imagined the furrowed brow of the security guard scrutinizing the contents of my bag relaxing when he saw a ten-inch knife nestled next to a melon baller. Before 9/11, when I was a young chef cutting my teeth, I traveled frequently with my knives in a canvas carry-on pouch. I didn’t care if my suitcase was lost as long as I had my tools. I never wanted to arrive in a kitchen and ask to borrow a boning knife. In my youth it was a matter of honor to carry my blades sharpened, my initials painted with red nail polish on the handles. It worked in my favor dozens of times when I was looking to get my foot in the door, from The Pierre in San Francisco, to Le Crillon in Paris.

But these days, I’m through with proving that I’m the hardest working cook in the kitchen. I carry two knives in a cotton dishtowel with faded apricot stains and find my way to a lakeside resort in Austin where I’ve been invited to teach a cooking class and talk about my book. This will be the last stop on a book tour that began in Chicago one October evening, and took me through Wichita, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Mountain View, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle.

To recount anecdotes from each place is to restore the warmth I experienced at independent bookstores and small inns along the way. Everywhere I stopped, I was greeted with open arms wide enough to hug a tree. In Illinois, I read in three libraries, like visiting three bookish aunties. At Highland Park library, the elegant Beth served hummus and pita bread, in Lake Villa, Naomi brought me homemade jam, in Lake Zurich, there was a heated discussion about setting the table with china and silver even when you have take-out. In Chicago, when I arrived at my hotel after driving for hours in pouring rain, Gina took one look at my travel weary face and ducked away to return a moment later with a plate of stuffed peppers, remnants of their staff dinner, and poured me a goblet of red wine fit for Henry VIII. At Watermark Books in Wichita, they had been featuring recipes from Maman’s Homesick Pie in their café for days before my arrival. My cousin drove three hours from Kansas City to come to my reading. We talked late into the night and slept facing each other, our pillows close, like we used to when we were little. The next morning at dawn, when my cab didn’t show up for my early flight, Helen, who had greeted us so graciously the day before—“I read about your book in The Wichita Eagle!” she exclaimed, like Madonna was checking in—grabbed her keys and took me to the airport.

Shiraz restaurant in Grand Rapids had printed flyers announcing my arrival to read at Schuler’s books. The lovely owners made trays of dolmas and brought them to the bookstore. And that night, Fred and Gail, the same cousins’ in-laws, treated me to a delicious dinner and presented me with a pouch of you-make-your-own-luck polished pebbles—a take-off on the story of Stone Soup.

In Ann Arbor, after searching strip malls for a Detroit Lions sweatshirt for my son, I took a break and had the best cappuccino of my life at Comet Café tucked in the Nickels Arcade. For a few short moments, I basked in the youthfulness of the Michigan campus, entertaining ideas of becoming a teacher so I could walk along those leafy paths and share their sense of possibility. That evening, at Nicola’s bookstore, I was humbled by the display of my book in their front window, and their dogged search for The Swiss Family Robinson I intended to bring home for my son. Best of all was meeting Kit, a classmate from Iran I had last seen thirty three years ago, now a professor of Mid-East studies. She sat in the audience like a proud sister, flanked by friends she had brought along. And in Seattle, I gasped at the feast my childhood friend, Jackie, had orchestrated at the Book Larder, where I was lavished with more affection.

All this back and forth has not been easy on my family. They left the meatballs and baked ziti that lined the freezer untouched. Instead, I would call home around dinner time to learn my husband had invented a new dish, fried rice with a leftover pork chop, eggs in a basket, chop chae, and I loved the delight in his voice that our son had devoured it and would take the leftovers in his lunch box. But I could hear, too, a weariness, a when-are-you coming-home-mom, in my son’s “Goodnight, maman.” I would look in their gleeful eyes when they’d pull up to the curb to pick me up at the airport and think, how can I leave again in three days?

So I left for Austin, and once again, like Cinderella arriving at the ball, I found the utterly beautiful Lake Austin Resort, welcoming me at dusk. I hung my gown, a pressed chef’s coat and checkered pants, in the closet, and sat down on what had to be the fluffiest duvet, to gaze out my window at the lake. This sanctuary, with its dim lights, its enormous bathtub, its lake view, and private patio, was mine for two precious nights. Later, I walked underneath an arbor along a gravel path to a barn where I discovered an Olympic size pool! Ah, the sight of all that blue against the warm cherry wood. And like a kid on the first day of summer vacation, I swam until I saw the first stars in the sky.

I went to dinner exuberant, hungrier than ever, and sat with Victoria from New York. We talked about my cooking class the next day and when she asked about my book, I told her how humbling it had been to share this story with perfect strangers who received me like they had always known me, who told me again and again: “I wish I had known your mother.”, who were inspired by her recipes, enough to walk into their kitchens and make Persian dishes. “So it’s not tedious, all that traveling?” I must have looked at her like she had a screw loose. “Guess not!” she chuckled.

We ate scallops and risotto and talked more about what it was like to lose your homeland: “It was like your Katrina.” she said. Oh, I nearly kissed her! In all the years, and number of times I have tried to recount the tale of exile retrospectively, I have never been able to convey the utter despair, the mayhem, the heavy and sinister aftermath of a storm that leaves people, an entire nation, unmoored. Then I remembered watching footage of Katrina and sobbing, a growing pile of tissues at my feet. “Yes, in the sense that there was no home to go back to.” We said goodnight and I walked back to my room. But before collapsing onto the world’s fluffiest duvet, I unfolded my bundle of knives to inspect the blades, to cradle the handles, and trace the initials of that young cook who grew up to learn that there was still so much to learn.

My Katrina. It happened thirty three years ago. Noah made an ark, I made stone soup.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wish You Were Here

Soup (Red Plate), 1997 50x58 inches Mitchell Johnson

When I was in college, my roommate Megan came back from Thanksgiving break with news that her Uncle Arnold had dipped his head into a bowl of chestnut soup and then left it there. His heart had simply stopped beating. Everyone at the table assumed he had had too much Jameson. “My Aunt Mary didn’t even budge!” Megan exclaimed.

I recall that story from time to time, and after so many years, the image of Uncle Arnold with his head in a bowl of soup has a certain patina. I imagine that I was there, too, watching Megan’s extended Irish clan raise their glasses to make a toast while her uncle perished.

This brings me to the relative period of silence since my post in November. This Thanksgiving, one minute my husband was playing checkers with my little niece, and a moment later he disappeared into the bathroom indefinitely. I knew enough not to make Aunt Mary’s mistake, and discreet knocks on the bathroom door only revealed a meek: “I think I overdid it.” I sighed and slipped him an Alka-Seltzer, then continued to calmly serve pie, cranberry cake, and coffee as if his vanishing act was quite ordinary.

What a fretful night he had and suffice it to say that my brave husband has an immense threshold for pain. His surgeon praised him post his appendectomy and fended off his rapid fire questions about how soon he could get back into the pool—he is an avid swimmer. He is also a terrific patient and recovering quite nicely, showing off his belly to whoever stops by with candy and puzzles.

Leaving my family for a few days to resume my book tour, I learned he is back on his bicycle and swimming a few thousand yards a day. Earlier in the week I did a reading for the Ross School Book Fair in Marin and I was so touched that the parents had made my date bars and my mother’s quince marmalade to serve with scones. The Book Passage had done a beautiful job selecting the books for the fair and I was glad to do some Christmas shopping there. The following day I left for Seattle for a reading at the brand new Book Larder, a most inviting space, its shelves lined with gorgeous cookbooks, and Lara, the owner, calling out a warm hello to everyone who walked through the door. My childhood friend, Jackie, who lives in Seattle, had made posters announcing my arrival and driven around town pinning them up in all the coffee shop windows. She and her “Maman” had made trays of  baklava and Persian rice flour cookies scented with rosewater for the event. Cardamom tea bubbled in a silver urn and everyone who braved rush hour traffic, came in from the cold to be folded into Jackie and Lara’s welcome. I wished for time to slow down so I could take it all in, all this affection tucked into layers of filo dough and drizzled with honey. I wanted to take slow sips of tea and talk about my maman till dawn. I wish you had been there, too.

Our Thanksgiving may have been thwarted by a trip to the emergency room. There may have been hours of hand wringing waiting for surgery. But the real thanksgiving came later, when Papa came home from the hospital and asked for cream of wheat with brown sugar, and later in the week in Seattle.