Baked Alaska.

When I was little, my mother was Martha Stewart before there was one. She was Betty Crocker, Emily Post, Jackie Kennedy and Cher all rolled into one. She made Betty Draper (pictured) look like a hillbilly. She actually had Williams-Sonoma-type kitchen gadgets while most people were mastering the can opener. She knew what a chinois was for. At Christmas she brought out her Christmas linen and a special “cookie tree” – a multi-tiered tree-shaped-platter-thingy meant to hold cookies. She would buy glass cookie jars and fill them with a dozen different homemade varieties. And she did it all with style, grace, and a lot of bitching.

And this is why I write about food. Because when I stood in the lunch line in 5th grade talking about the Baked Alaska we had for dessert on Saturday night, my friends would give me blank stares as they chomped on their graham crackers. What? Didn’t everyone dine by candlelight while listening to Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back on the turntable? Wasn’t everyone eating sukiyaki with lemon raspberry tart for dessert on a Thursday night?

I guess not. I’d sit there in our lunchroom munching on a dry, crumbly apple brown betty, or at least something that resembled as much, and try to enjoy it. While at the same time trying to engage my friends in conversations on the joys of using brownies and mint chocoloate chip ice cream in your Baked Alaska instead of the usual yellow cake and vanilla. But they had had Oreos for dessert, hot dogs for dinner, and didn’t understand in a gosh darn minute what the heck I was talking about.

SIDE NOTE FOR THE UNINITIATED – Baked Alaska is a dessert – so fashionable in the 1960’s – where you pile ice cream on top of a cake, then meringue on top of that, then bake the whole thing in an oven for a few minutes. The ice cream does not melt, and the dish is out of this world good. Especially with mint chocolate chip ice cream. And a brownie.

This is why I write about food. Because my mother made me love it. I learned to grease and flour a cake pan when I was four. I was baking cakes with her by the time I was seven. And Momma was a caked crusader. She had ones for every occasion. Valentine’s Day called for a heart-shaped 4-layer yellow cake with pink frosting and tiny heart-shaped red hots all over it. Easter called for a white cake with vanila frosting and coconut smothering it. With jelly bean eyes and paper ears sticking out of its head. It was my job to color and cut out the ears. And never with white paper either. Yep, we were the only bunny cake in town with a white body and purple ears.

I used to love doing this, putting the finishing touches on the cake, but I remember the older I got, the more I grew to resent it. I grew to resent Easter. I HATED making the ears after a while. I’d grit my teeth and cringe – here it comes – she’s going to ask me to cut out the ears I just know it – holding my breath…

“Would you please make some ears for the bunny cake?”

Grrrr…. and I would trudge along to my fate grudgingly, as only a resentful teenager can do. Not only did I see it as yet another chore, eventually it came to represent everything I wasn’t allowed to do when it came to cooking. I could flour a pan with the best of ’em, but when it came to baking, the only thing I was qualified for was cutting out the bunny ears. Or maybe putting on the frosting if I was having a good week. With all other cooking I was assigned to less than prep work. Of course they say hindsight is 20-20 and memory is much less so, but I do recall being relegated to a class lower than dishwasher when it came to helping my Momma cook. She was willing to show me how, every way and every time, but not always willing to let me try.

I think my current hesitance to cook comes from this. I can write about food until the cows come home, but actually cook? Nah. I’m too afraid of failure. And at cooking, my Momma never failed. I don’t remember her burning ANYTHING and really don’t remember any massive culinary failures (okay, the way she baked flounder with no seasoning on a roasting pan wasn’t the greatest, but it was edible). Seriously though, all of her cooking was perfect. Beautiful, flavorful. Perfect.

So, as a young woman, I’d end up standing at the kitchen counter trying and trying to cook and be frozen scared stiff to a standstill. I couldn’t even get started because I believed by then that meals were events. EVERY meal was an event. And this event had to be a showstopper. It had to be perfect. My Momma, without even knowing, had set the bar pretty damn high.

It was even worse when cooking for someone else, like family or a boyfriend. Forget it! It’s quite all right to overcook the pasta when you’re alone, fine, just eat it mushy. But to burn the quail you’re serving for the first time to your family to impress them with your new-found independent zeal? Unheard of. Unthinkable. Cooking for me became episodes of psychotic breakdowns, violent outbursts, shaking fists at the sky. A crying, blubbering mess. I remember the first time my husband and I made Thanksgiving dinner for both sides of the family. I actually had a freak out breakdown because we didn’t have potato rolls on the table. “But Nana ALWAYS had potato rolls!” I wailed. Hubby rolled his eyes and went to the store.

It’s like Momma had trained me all those years to be understudy, but once I was called upon to perform, I froze. You know, I started this entry thinking it would be why I write about food, but now I think I should’ve entitled it, “Why I Hate to Cook”. But I sure as hell can WRITE about food. And I do as often as I can. And I don’t worry if it’s perfect or not. It’s just me. Loving food. Writing about food. I write about food and sometimes it helps me remember. And sometimes it helps me grieve. I actually started this entry because of a cookie. Not a Baked Alaska, but a cookie.

I remember one particular episode in 2001 – my mother had died that March, the same year I started teaching high school. I remember that year as chaotic, full of high highs and low lows. I got married that year, and it was the most magical event of my life. We moved to Pittsburgh a mere two months after my mother’s death. By moving so far away I left behind memories. I left behind grief. I poured myself into my teaching and tried to forget how sad I was. And one day I stopped at a Barnes and Noble to grade papers. Purchased a latte and a Reese’s peanut butter cup cookie simply because it sounded delicious.

And it was. I bit into the chewy nutty cookie and the flavors of chocolate and peanut butter flooded my taste buds. And I started to cry. Because my mother used to make this kind of cookie for Christmas, only she would take the peanut butter cookie dough and mold it around a Hershey’s kiss. So the cookie ended up shaped like a kiss. I bit into this Barnes & Noble cookie and I couldn’t hold back my tears because it tasted just like hers. EXACTLY like it.

I remembered my Momma, and I remembered Christmas, and I remembered her showing me how to bake cookies, and flour cake pans, and whisk eggs, and make vinaigrette, all those basic things you need in order to build a cooking repertoire. She was teaching me the basics, so I could take it from there. And I didn’t have to be perfect. I just had to try.

I bit into the cookie and I grieved. I really grieved for our loss and for myself and all the lessons learned and all the things that went unsaid. Because of a cookie I grieved for my Momma for the very first time ever. People surrounding me probably thought I was crazy, sitting there buried in English essays, crunching away and crying. I didn’t care. I ate. I grieved. I allowed myself to feel sad.

I hadn’t made this cookie. She hadn’t made it either. But the cookie reminded me of the woman who had made it first. A long time ago. And she made it perfectly.

Meme For The Old Year.

Another great meme I found right here. I think you’re supposed to do this at the beginning of the new year. But it’s close enough right? And heck, I’ve still got Christmas lights up…

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?
Actually began writing on a daily basis. Had always talked about it, thought about it, never actually done it. Now it feels weird if I don’t write something every single day.

2. Did you keep your New Year’s Resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I’ve decided the only resolution I ever need to make and keep is to find balance. Continually seek balance, strive for balance, and be happy when I find moments of balance.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
My friends Susan and Stephanie both gave birth to sons, Aiden and Mills.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Both my Muddy and Aunt Ann passed away. I wrote about them in this very space.

5. What countries did you visit?
The Dominican Republic in January for the wedding of a cousin. I saw so many things I have yet to write about because I haven’t processed them. I will though. Also traveled to London with the family and wrote extensively about it. I just love London, it’s such an easy city to visit.

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?
Friends that live in the same town. All my friends seem to live someplace else.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
November 4. For obvious reasons.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Finally committing to making a career out of writing. And finally beginning to run. I think Mom would be happy and proud of that. I’m running in my first 5K in two weeks.

9. What was your biggest failure?
The job I took in July. It’s so different from the work I did at Chatham University, not nearly as challenging, or as rewarding, or as meaningful. I just hate it. But it did help me realize I need to focus more on writing as a full-time job. Whether it pays or not.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Yes, and I’m still dealing with it, but I’m confident to be fully well by summer.

11. What was the best thing someone bought you?
My husband bought me the most incredible meal of my life at Petrus in London. It was the meal of a lifetime – we’re still talking about it.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Everybody who voted for change this past November.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Some of the candidates during the election. And the people who voted for Prop 8. And actually the behavior of some of the people I work with continues to depress me. Narrow-minded gossipy behavior. Yuck.

14. Where did most of your money go?
We moved from Pittsburgh to Virginia, so there’s that. And student loans.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
I was super excited about the destination wedding in Punta Cana. The trip ended up being more trouble than it was worth. Drama-filled family surrounded by an all-inclusive resort in the middle of nowhere with ultra poor bussed-in Dominicans working there. Very depressing. I wanted to give them everything I had and then some. I need to write about it.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?
Anything from the movie Once. I spent most of the year listening to the soundtrack.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

– Fatter or thinner?
Fatter. Damn desk job.

– Happier or sadder?
Sadder, but not awfully. I just hate my job and wish I could spend more time at home writing. And walking my dog Lois.

– Richer or poorer?
Richer because we just sold our house last month, finally.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Running. Yoga. The only things that seem to calm my anxieties and fears.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Worrying. Being afraid. Eating bad foods and drinking and popping a pill every time I was worried or afraid.

20. How do you plan to spend Christmas?
Oh, I am late on this. I spent Christmas sick as a dog. Entertaining my sister, her kids, and my dad. Trying like hell to play Martha Stewart when I felt like curling up in a ball. It sucked.

21. Did you fall in love in 2008?
I’ve been in love since the day I met my husband in 1999.

22. How many one night stands?
Not since I fell in love, and not much before.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
Mad Men. Nothing else comes close and here’s why.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
Hate is such a strong word for someone who tries to meditate and practice yoga. There are definitely people I work with that I wouldn’t choose to hang around on a regular basis.

25. What was the best book you read?
Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
FINALLY seeing Nick Cave live. Damn he was fantastic! Like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond and Mick Jagger all rolled into one. One of the top five concerts I’ve ever been to.

27. What did you want and get?
A bigger yard for a garden. We got that and acres of woods when we moved. I love it. Where before I used to hear sirens, now I hear cows.

28. What did you want and not get?
A meaningful job.

29. What was your favorite film of this year?
Once. I loved everything about it and have recommended it to everyone. And Waitress because it reminded me of my family, and No Country for Old Men (for the direction) and Eastern Promises because whoa, is Viggo Mortensen a badass or what?

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 41, and for the life of me can’t remember what we did. I know I went to Continental Divide for my birthday tequila shot. The shot is a tradition started way back when by my husband and me. We do it every year just to prove we’re not too old to do one.

31. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
To have a meaningful job. To have been able to spend more time at home writing and walking Lois, our doggie daughter.

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
I watched a lot of Tim Gunn and discovered I needed a shot in the fashion arm. I cut my hair, ditched all the clothes that didn’t fit, and started dressing in “thirds” rather than “halves” Watch Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I also realized a uniform of jeans, a cute top, and heeled boots isn’t necessarily tired if you always look good in it.

33. What kept you sane?
My husband, my dog, and music. Running. Watching the sunsets out my kitchen window. Listening to mooing cows at sunrise. Meditating to the cicadas and the crickets in the summer.

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Fancy? Well, Javier Bardem is as hot as they come. Woof.

35. What political issue stirred you the most?
Gay marriage. People need to relax and let people, all people, find love where they can find it.

36. Who do you miss?
My friend Scott Nichols. I keep looking for him on Facebook with no success. I want to apologize for being such a shitty friend and losing touch. Not being there for him when he needed me.

37. Who was the best new person you met?
All the new neighbors we met are wonderful. We moved from a city neighborhood where people barely spoke, to a rural neighborhood where people actually say hello and share the time of day and look out for one another. It’s fantastic.

38. What was the best thing you ate?
The meal at Petrus in London. I wrote all about it, for weeks and weeks it seemed. My husband and I still talk about that meal. The meal of a lifetime.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008?
No food, drink, or pill can truly take away your anxiety or fear. It only blankets it.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:
I heard this song on my iPod during a particularly bad day and it stayed with me. It struck a chord and really spoke volumes. Now, whenever I have a really bad day at work I play this song to calm me down:

Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly)

…People let me tell you that the time
In your life, when you find who you are
That’s the golden time of day

And then in your mind you will find
You’re upright, shining star
That’s the golden time of day

When you feel deep inside
All the love you’re looking for
Don’t it make you feel okay

That’s like the time of the day
When the sun’s going down
That’s the golden time of day…

Ed Trask.

Saturday, February 7, 2009, if you are anywhere near Farmville, Virginia, I URGE you to go see Ed Trask’s show, “Long Gone” at the J. Fergeson Gallery. Not only is Ed a masterful painter with an eye for capturing bleak, urban landscapes in such a way as to make them seem miraculous and poetic (my own amateur critique), he’s also my cousin’s husband and just an all-around terrific guy. A constant smile on his face and a big hug at the ready. Porkpie hat and a blond soul patch, puppy dog eyes and paint-splattered clothes. That’s Ed.

When I look at his work I’m instantly reminded of Richmond. Gritty, sweltering summer days on the hot concrete of Grace Street when you feel you can barely move or breathe. Roaming around the abandoned factories on Brown’s Island before they turned it into a museum. Back when it was still a hangout for teenage punks who just wanted to be alone and smoke.

I’m reminded of the urban Gothic South of abandoned railroad tracks, derelict buildings, rusted steel, hulking trestles spanning the James, crows sitting on telephone lines, old guys in fedoras and shirtsleeves smoking Camel unfiltereds on street corners with nowhere to go. I’m reminded of Carson McCullers’s books and Gilbey’s gin. I’m reminded of my grandfather.

Pop-Pop was a rover and a rambler who ran away from a North Carolina tobacco farm at 14 and lived by his wits on the concrete streets of Washington, DC. He wore a fedora, smoked those Camel unfiltereds, and drove his hulking, enormous 1971 blue Chevy Bel Air real fast. I adored him. And he adored his granddaughters. Every Easter he would drive us down to Newberry’s so we could pick out whatever candy-filled basket we wanted. As the eldest, I remember him best (he passed away when I was 8). I remember being incensed that I was considered too young to attend his funeral. Forced to stay behind with the rest of the kids when all I wanted was to tell him goodbye. To thank him for driving loose and fast over the rolling hills between Front Royal and Winchester, making my heart rise up in my throat. Just like a rollercoaster.

I’m reminded of all these things looking at Ed’s work. So imagine my shock and awe when I went to visit Ed and my cousin in their new house a few years back and saw a painting of a bunch of guys standing around in fedoras and shirtsleeves. “They look like Pop-Pop,” I declared. My cousin agreed, and then pointed out something on the far wall. A huge portrait of Pop-Pop in his fedora. I gasped. Then teared up. It was beautiful. It captured the crinkle of his eyes, his engaging smile, and that air he always gave off of being half Woody Guthrie, half Francis Phelan (of Ironweed fame). Perpetually hopping train cars during the Depression in my mind, even if the calender said it was 1971. Living by his wits. Living day by day and for the moment. That’s what Pop-Pop will always be to me. Hard-drinking consummate storyteller. More myth than man, I suppose.

When Hubby and I eloped in 2001, we held a reception for family and friends at our house in Pittsburgh. We had registerd in a few places, so I knew what to expect when opening the gifts. But I was not prepared for the phenomenal gift Ed gave. A framed print of a painting he had done. My Nana, standing in front of their house in Front Royal. My Nana who I missed so much, who had passed away just two years earlier, and who had put up with Pop-Pop for 40 years plus after marrying him only two weeks after they met. I bawled big tears. Couldn’t help it. Here was my Nana in front of the house I loved most in the world, a place where I had experienced so many memories. And he had painted it. To this day it is the best gift I’ve EVER received from anyone.

There’s another picture I cherish, which I have to admit I “lifted” from Nana’s house shortly after her death. I just couldn’t bear to part company with it. It seemed too precious to languish in a dusty album and now sits framed in my study where I can look at it often. Pop-Pop and Nana are young and dressed to the hilt. He wears a suit, no tie, and she’s in a 1940’s skirt suit with pointy lapels and a perky little hat off at an angle on her head. He has her arched back into a dip and is kissing her full on the mouth. She’s got her hand up at her hat so it won’t fall. I love this picture. It’s perfect. Full of humor, love, and the promise of all that is to come. This is them at the beginning when it was all magic and new and perfect, before the children and the worries and the hard times that lay before them. It’s the prelude to all else. Someday when I’m rich I want to commission Ed to paint it. He’s the only one I know that would capture what they’re feeling right then. I know it.

So, if you’re near Farmville, go to Ed’s show. Marvel at his genius. And buy one of his paintings. Someday, I will.