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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Write With Me: Your Force of Habit

When I can, I love to escape from C’est si Bon! and write at a café to cut down on the distractions I find at home and the pressure to multitask. At the café I can’t hear the ding of the phone, the ring of the dishwasher (prompting me to do something) only the sing of the birds or the drone of a generator on a truck parked behind the café. I can be undistracted, and get to work. Yes, there are times I stop and talk to people who also come day after day. But if you do this all the time, what have you accomplished in leaving home?

One thing I struggled to control was this wandering mind. But then with advice, found a way to gain the upper hand. Lately I’ve been trying to medi-write. No, not writing on medication, though, maybe... No! What I have been doing is picturing a pond or a puddle and each new thought that comes to the edge skulking about just falls into the water. One day I will strain out the pond. But not today.  

My eye wandered, though my mind was rigorously focused.

Out of the corner of my eye I’ve been studying one lady who arrived almost at the same time as me. We greet each other now, but have not gone so far as to introduce ourselves. That is a big step.

She claimed not one but two tables pushed together. And one day when she was “late to work” she told the young man sitting there that she “had her eye” on him for when he left she was going to swoop in and reclaim “her” table. She was very light-hearted about it but it made me think we’re all such creatures of habit. And I asked myself to not get too stuck in my “new” routine, lest it be interrupted by an outside force, called life.

One of my main concerns though was power and that restricts my experience to certain areas of the cafe. (Ha-ha, I meant electrical power, but I see a Freudian slip here) I love being outside... And free.

But my dilemma or (distraction) to worry over where would I sit if the table I was used to sitting at was quell horror, taken. I arrive by 7:30, sometimes even by 7 am but realized I was panicking over a plan, if that ever changed.

On one hand I could not and nor would really want to be in control of the wonderful happenings around me that – have a quirky life of their own.

And so, I decided each day to sit in a new seat, and not wait to have “mine” taken. From there I can be free to entertain new perspectives, breezes and whispers as they arrive.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Walk With Me: Bliss, Ignorance and Potage in Hot Springs

We entered Elmer's Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC as all do, through the kitchen door. It was eclectic and charming and cluttered, full of nurturing aromas. Elmer was chopping onions as he sat on a stool at the central chopping block.

The house was built in a previous time, the date escapes me, and is hidden from the main street. Elmer does no advertising and no social media. But media is the out of place word, because Elmer's, as I came to understand, is inherently a social gathering place. A watering hole. He relies on word of mouth, and as you walk in and he asks you questions and you realize your entire life depends on whether there is place for you or not. Luckily the answer was yes, and my friend, Kitty, and I made a collective sigh. The Sunnybank Inn is not only a good place, but the ONLY place you could be at that moment.

Elmer in His Kitchen, Photo by Kitty

But how did we get there? If I can back up a bit - truthfully, I was a tag along that weekend. A faithful pup of an unknown breed. Ever curious for the road. But unprepared. I was neither not one of the same family, that of wanderers, nor exactly one of their kind, a mountain trail hiker full of knowledge and hutzpah.

But I was there with my amazing chum, long time compadre, friend, stellar writer and wise soul, Kitty Lynn, who was hard at work gathering research and experiencing the life of an AT hiker for her WIP, a devoted novel and journey entitled, Aesop's Trail. If  I remember correctly, (Kitty, can you correct me as you read this?) we had made a sort of pact. As writer's we love and we live in our conjuring and imagination and Kitty, who is routinely brave in this category, wanted again to move out of her comfort zone; she was not satisfied to remain sequestered in her writer's world and wanted to confront head on what experiences were really like just after hikers came down from Grafton Notch, one of the most difficult spots on the NC AT. I was game, if not cowering a bit behind her, and my role was that perhaps I might aid in collecting bits of information and might see things that she wouldn't see because of what she knew. Some things might be more obvious to me, because they were unfamiliar.

Kitty Lynn, Author

So, how did that work? I am so thankful to have been along, but not sure I did my job!

To me everything was new and strange, what I knew about the AT I learned from Kitty, terms like Nobo and Sobo (north and south-bound hiker) and that a flip-flop hike was not one where you slip on light and decorative but ill-chosen mountain footwear, but where you set out on a given portion of the trail and then once at your destination you flop back down the trail (I was hoping "flop" portended some relaxing time) and head back to where you begin. What I didn't know, was staggering. And what is that saying? Ignorance is bliss? I was so full of bliss and totally yup, ignorant.  Kitty had a major kind of trust going on and in her trust, I give gratitude for being along for the ride!

Trail Ride, Photo by Kitty

But bliss and beginning knowledge lay the base for our four day adventure. We hiked up and camped out on top of Max Patch. We sobbed on horseback as we watched helplessly as dozens of ewe's bleated all over creation and the mountain side because it was lamb, their lambs, slaughtering day. We soothed our muscles in very hot and hard-boiled egg aroma'd Hot Springs and this was awesome, we gave away our cabin to Chile and Pepper because we had "gotten in" at Elmer's. We ate, not as much as some, but still had our fill on an all you can eat spaghetti supper in Hot Springs at the Fire Station, I think.

Over the days we met Swamp Dog, George from Georgia, Bear, Elmer Number 2, Hunny Bunny, River, Vega, Bumblebee, Squatch, Halo, Snake Hips, Spud, Toto, and then more common named folks like Mike and Mary and Kirsten and of course, who every pup looks up to -- German Shepherd.

Elmer and Elmer, Photo by Kitty

And I suppose I can't (or shouldn't) speak for Kitty -- but the culmination of our trip, and what we experienced at Elmer's was quite transportive. We shared and I hope, I acknowledged - ha, did I even tell Kitty this? - that travelers from and in all parts of the world, were following all kinds of paths, in this case, the AT or the Appalachian Trail, but it could be the Pacific Coast Trail or the Camino in Spain, or the Appian Way, or the road Marathoners in Greece took, or as they walked to Jerusalem - and each must rely in varying and unknown degrees on themselves to make it, get through. You are the only one who can get yourself through. Though you may occasionally have someone walk beside you, chances are they will pass you or you, them, for your pace will differ. Even if they want to, and you want saving more than they want to save you, no one can carry you. But the next step to all of that, yes, its coming, is what makes your journey resonate beyond the steps over rocks and creeks. It's what gets you through impossible heat or chilling rain.

It's at the end of the day around the table. Gathering together at the end of the day in a community is really what its all about -- as you walk the trail you experience your own journey, but sharing it and your garnered knowledge is part of bringing it out and back into the world.

So back to Elmer's kitchen. The stove was old and antique, a garland with a real griddle. Dan, one of Elmer's assistants, closed the door, but to keep it closed wedged in a a sliver of wood chip on the right hand side. How I laughed at the irony using wood to keep the oven closed. Elmer sat peeling vegetables, in the center of the wood island. On the menu for supper was vegetable mushroom lasagna with potatoes as pasta, a beautiful fresh and crunchy salad, with ak-mak crackers, and "carrot cake generously enthused with icing and vanilla ice cream." 

Elmer is a Jesuit devotee and also a wonderful chef. But the ingredients were so much and more than that sum, they were intangible. His hostel establishment is part museum, part restorative, a treat and divine - a center of nurturing and of food served that is life-giving and all vegetarian.

A giant bell called us and all hikers and guests downstairs.

In the dining room we wandered to the long table. A beautiful pottery bowl, each different, held soup at each place. A creamy zucchini and perhaps cauliflower potage of porage, all the bowls lined up and waiting like a still life painting to be entered, at each place. What happened to me at that point I  am not sure I can even explain. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

But what was it that was so moving? Was it more in my comfort zone? Oh my aching legs!!

The conversation at the long table in the smallish, cozy dining room lit with soft candles really began when
Elmer asked the question; “if you could take anything out of this world, what would it be?” 

Elmer began without hesitancy - does he always answer the same I wondered? He wished for the technology of loud motorcycles to be taken out of the world. "What a disruption to the tranquility of the town they were!" 

Other things mentioned were war, explosives, lack of empathy, and fast food. 

So, what would it be, fellow travelers, if you were sitting at Elmer's table? What would you not miss if gone from the world as we know it?

I wouldn't miss the wind, 
but would sorely miss my green ground mat!
(Photo by Kitty)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Write With Me: La Cote Basque, Mr. Capote, A Night in Tunisia

Do you have an Author who you consider your mentor?

My work in progress is getting a lot of attention these days, as I head towards another completion (oh that I can achieve this on time!) and explorations include the merge of fine dining with the world of food-styling, what it means and how it impacts the story and the film. 

Of course, Tunisia, is also involved. How is all this connected, logically, together? Listen to Ella, she sets the mood with her rendition of the song "A Night in Tunisia."

I have fairly well fastened another book to my wrist and that is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler

In my research I also learned a lot about the NYC restaurant Le Cote Basque and a work of Truman Capote called "Answered Prayers." This article in Vanity Fair  entitled "Bye Bye Society" in 1988 pretty much explains his dilemma. It is perfect!

As it turns out Truman thought he would write a Societal Work such as Remembrance of Things Past, as his idol did, and here we have a quote from that writer/idol who offers a bit of wisdom. 

“The pleasure that a writer experiences among them, far more than among other writers, is not without danger, for there is a risk of coming to believe that the things of the past have a charm in themselves, of transforming them bodily into this work, still-born in that case, exhaling a tedium for which he consoles himself with the reflection: It’s attractive because its true; that’s how people do talk.”

Marcel Proust.

Whose work do you admire? I guess I could say with all certainty, that Proust did it all so very well. But I am not about to line my room with cork. Corks maybe. But only if it doesn't quiet down soon. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

French Travel Adventures: Chestnut Recipes and the Keystone

Do you love trees? Is there one you go to, speak to? Walk around for good luck?

It's okay, you can tell me!

Trees are fascinating creatures, yes, creatures, with lore and legends surrounding them. And this one - the oldest and largest known chestnut tree in the world, by thousands of years, somehow became the inspiration for the ending of my novel, City of Ladies.

It is also known as the Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree, being named for protecting a hundred horses during a storm and lives in Sicily near Mount Etna. I didn't know about it when I visited, so long ago now, in 1998.

Sicily itself is one of those places in the world that has felt the trampling of many forks and its most marvelous cuisine that has been blessed by the impact of all its invaders. Roman, Turkish, Arab, and Greek.

I say the tree somehow became the inspiration for the ending of the novel, but upon reflection it was like a keystone that fit all the pieces together. Chestnuts can, and often did, make bread, hundreds of years ago!

The chestnut flour that I have on hand makes a great chewy bread and comes from Italy (actually got it in Philadelphia at Di Bruno Brothers shop there near the old 9th Street market) and is deeply aromatic and smoky. The smoke and fire fit in so well with City of Ladies.

I know its the wrong season for them - we tend to think of them in the fall. But isn't fall present in the flowers  that will become Chestnuts when they bloom?

So, how about Chestnuts, have you ever clowned around with them in the kitchen besides roasting them and putting them in stuffings? There are many famous Chestnut dishes - and not to leave France out of the mix - as they have an AOC region in Languedoc that is justly famous for it's Chestnuts, and that are often used in dessert Marron dishes such as Marron Glace and Mont Blanc, a stupendous pastry that consists of sweetened chestnut puree, crunchy meringue, and unsweetened whipped cream.

Italy too, has their chestnut dishes. The ones I am familiar with are divinely savory.

Gnochetti di Castagne. This video appeals! 
My cat started purring around the laptop when I played it.

Castagnaccio. A Chestnut Flour Cake with Pine Nuts and Raisins and Rosemary. 
(recipe from Babbo, NYC)

Ravioli di Castagne. A Dessert featuring Chocolate and Chestnuts. I know, ummm. 

But back to the tree at hand (which is certainly worth more than a tree in a bush) what makes it so compelling?

Do you adore trees? Can one be a keystone? I really want to visit this one, who's with me?

File:Castagno dei cento cavalli - Jean-Pierre Houël.jpg

Necci, Chestnut-Flour Crepes

I first made these back in September of 2006, and while they are used as a nice little blanket for sweet trappings of ricotta and fig preserves, I see no reason (nada!) why they can't share the same treatment as the Saracen crepes from Brittany, and be utilized and embellished with tuckings of shredded parm, prosciutto, and okay, you know you want it, an egg - all drippy and yolky and sunny, right in the middle of your crepe, bursting flavor all over your plate when you apply pressure with your fork. 

1½ cups Italian chestnut flour
1 cup cold water
pinch of salt
1 t. olive oil
fig preserves and ricotta cheese

Sift the flour to remove all lumps. Chestnut flour has a tendency to absorb moisture, then place the flour in a bowl and make a small well in the center. 

Start adding water little by little, mixing with a wooden spoon. When the water is all used up, add salt and mix again. Be sure that there are no lumps in the batter. If there are, please whisk them away! Cover and let the batter sit for ¼ hour on bottom shelf of refrigerator. 

Place a seasoned crepe pan or cast-iron griddle over medium-high heat. And when it is hot, brush it with 1 tsp. of oil. 

Pour ½ cup of batter in the center of the griddle and tilt the pan to let it run all over the hot surface. Let it cook for 30 to 40 seconds, until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip and cook for 1 more minute until the crepe is golden brown. 

Place the prepared necci on a platter, cover with fig preserves and ricotta cheese, or your choice of savory fillings, and roll it up. Repeat this procedure, until your batter is depleted and spent. Use 1 tsp. of oil for every 3 crepes.

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