On the Plate in August: Books to Read

Books to Read in August

Hello and happy Monday! With only a stitch of summer left, I’m woefully behind in sharing some of my summer non-required reading because what do you need more of than more books to read, right?

Onward.

I’m obsessed with cake right now. As such, I would be sunk without this seminal book that you probably already own or have heard about. My gratitude runneth over that just as I needed to explore its wisdom, Green Apple Books had one copy in the used section. Score! If you’ve ever wondered how ingredients work in baking, Shirley Corriher brings her background in chemistry into a very insightful and well-laid out book. Bakewise will make you wiser in the kitchen.

Chasing a rabbit can lead to parts unknown. I stumbled across a Gary Snyder poem that delighted me and ended up finding out about his new book of letters to and from Wendell Berry called Distant Neighbors. Two prolific poets and writers swap details about their similar but far apart livelihoods in this new book from Counterpoint Press. While I am still poring over the introduction, it already is a beloved book of mine. Snagging an autographed copy from both authors makes me exultant.

On the topic of letters, I also picked up the Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1892-1910. Rilke has long been one of my favorite poets- the spine is falling out from the translation by Stephen Mitchell of his Collected Works- it is the book that accompanied me to Paris the last time I visited that fair city. “Requiem for a Friend” haunted me as I wound my way through the Tuileries, Place Saint-Germain and on. While “Letters to a Young Poet” did not necessarily stir within me great attachment, I am keen to read more of what Rilke was thinking about, what he wrestled with and see more of a candid response than in the measured form of poetry.

As much as I have enjoyed working in restaurants and in the foodservice / hospitality business, the idea of opening my own bakery or restaurant gives me palpitations. It is hard work to keep things running smoothly and can be rough goings on the way to profitability. Molly Wizenberg’s writing has always endeared me to her, so when I learned that she had written a book, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage, about starting the pizza restaurant of the same name, with her husband, I knew I needed to read this and see how she wound her way through that labyrinth mostly unscathed, still happily married and serving what I hear are excellent pizzas. I expect her trademark humor and grace to be stamped on each page.

Call me a late bloomer (in some ways, very much), but when my friend Pam mentioned she had just finished a book she thought I would love called, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, I agreed that it is a book I have long wanted to check out. Five days later, a manila package promptly arrived. This is a book that will get packed in my bicycle basket for an afternoon lolling in the park reading (is there anything better?!) with me when the sun decides to pay us a visit.

 


Cooking with Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia OKeeffe cookbook

After a brief summer hiatus, I’m back, and so is the fog. We had actually been experiencing summer-like temperatures in San Francisco, which is completely unexpected and requires copious amounts of cold confections to withstand the 80 degree heat. My Texas self would shake its head in shame…

In our last exploration, we dug our heels into the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George exhibit at the DeYoung museum this spring. I hope I did an adequate job conveying what an important role that museum visit played in forming questions for me about the process of art as well as seeing her own style change. As I exited the exhibit, I happened upon a small book in the gift shop and had to work hard to contain my glee as I held A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe by Margaret Wood. I clutched my new treasure and pedaled home quickly to plumb its depths. Little did I know then that O’Keeffe prized good food and did due diligence to seek out nourishing recipes!

The cookbook features a foreword from local Bay Area vegetarian chef and powerhouse, Deborah Madison of the restaurant, Greens, in Fort Mason, and author of Vegetable Literacy as well as my marked up favorite, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (I have the original printing of this now updated cookbook). Her description of the book is right on when she says, “No dish is encumbered with complicated embellishments; there are no intricate layerings of flavors and textures.” (p. x) This insight perplexed me a bit because when I think of O’Keeffe’s artwork, all I can envision are intricate layers, though no embellishments. Does her artistry reside solely on the canvas? The recipes enclosed in this book are brief in method and ingredients. I read the book in two days, annotating along the way.

Madison quotes biodynamic gardener, Alan Chadwick:”The cooking has been done for you in the garden; it’s merely finished in the kitchen.” (p x)  This really gets to the heart of A Painter’s Kitchen. O’Keeffe kept a ranch garden from which most of her meals derived since the alternative for fresh fruits and vegetables was 70 miles away. Margaret Wood describes meeting O’Keeffe and beginning to cook for her when she was 24 years old and O’Keeffe was 90. Her stories and details about O’Keeffe in the headnotes are the real reason to pick up your own copy of A Painter’s Kitchen. From it, I learned that Georgia O’Keeffe occasionally slept on her roof under the stars. What a way to dream! Woven throughout the headnotes are snippets of her practical wisdom, such as this comment from a dinner she held with two visiting poets: “It’s easy to talk about what you’re going to do- you can talk yourself right through without really doing anything.” (p. 44) This was not the first time poetry was mentioned in the cookbook, as Wood remarked on O’Keeffe’s appreciation for Chinese poetry.

The food being served from O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch kitchen focused on healthy ingredients, and centered on vegetables from her garden, organic grains and meats. I smiled visibly when I read that O’Keeffe made her own bread using a small mill to grind her own flour, while the housekeeper canned and preserved foods. Her approach to scratch cooking and concern over food sourcing parallels contemporary cooking in my neck of the woods and home (although I play the role of cook and housekeeper).Wood describes O’Keeffe’s style of eating as “simple food… with fresh and pure ingredients.” (p xxi) That neighbors would bring her food gifts of wild asparagus because it delighted her reminded me of why I appreciate her art and compositions.

You can tell from reading the cookbook that this experience working with and for O’Keeffe left an indelible mark on Margaret Wood- the kind you want to share with others. The glimpse she provides to other fans of O’Keeffe’s artwork is one that is intimate, as if inviting us to join them at the table. This cookbook lives with my others but I like to keep the cover faced out, so that when I am cooking, if I happen to glance in the direction of my cookbook collection, Georgia O’Keeffe is smiling out.

 


Painting a Portal to Another World: Notes from the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George Exhibit

Georgia O'Keeffe Lake George Reflection Seascape

What happens in the unseen world? It is a question artists have tried answering through their media since the beginning of time. Perhaps it is one of the reasons Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have always pulled at me. While we try to remember to “stop and smell the roses,” she is examining their inner caverns, the hidden places that other than her seeing eye, only pollinators explore. Her close cropping to focus our attention on the interior world of a flower can’t help but keep me transfixed.

O’Keeffe offers insight into her approach: “I said to myself- I’ll paint what I see- what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it- I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

My own appreciation came at a young age, probably at an art exhibit in Dallas. Overwhelmed by her vibrant use of color and lines, I sought out her work in the beginning entranced by the floral compositions. The red poppy might still be one of the most iconic works by her but recently, I found myself equally moved by Red Canna, 1919 with colors that anywhere else might clash, but here, orange, coral, burgundy, chartreuse, turquoise and purple cavort playfully.

Recently, I attended the Lake George exhibition of O’Keeffe paintings at the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. The idea had been to wake up early enough to have time to spend lingering in front of the paintings before the melée of the masses had roused from their beds.

What is it about O’Keeffe’s paint style that beckons to throngs of people?

From O’Keeffe in 1976, “Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form of the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”

This quote makes me think of David Chang’s offhand remark to Anthony Bourdain about Bay Area cuisine consisting of figs on a plate, but how ingredients like figs on a plate get interpreted and assembled into a larger whole. Her assertion that in the abstract she finds the definite makes me wonder how each of us clarify the intangible? For her, she paints to get closer to the truth. For me, I write and sometimes sketch really bad poems to get closer to the Poem.

While I knew of O’Keeffe’s fascination with the natural world, the Lake George exhibition revealed her appreciation of food. She is not someone I previously associated with food as I might Cezanne with his still life paintings. Hanging from the museum walls were “alligator pears” from 1920 and 1921- in a bold vivid stripped down still life of avocados with her telltale vibrancy letting the emerald avocados pop against the more muted background in puce with grey and white, along with a basket in brown and burgundy. There, I read a note of O’Keeffe describing growing corn as “one of my special interests.”

On O’Keeffe’s pared down perspective: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

Isn’t that the object of the artist- to figure out where to turn the attention of a by-stander, to understand that the work will become public domain as soon as it is seen but first to figure out what the work wants to say and then slice away all superfluous and extraneous detail so that there is no confusion as to where to look? It’s not as if she is averse to detail. No, one thing that makes her paintings shimmer are the illuminated edges where flowers touch leaves or one petal ends and the other begins. It hearkens a halo effect on the inside of the flower forms that creates dimensionality.

As in poetry where one thing might stand for another, this kind of indirect communication is something that makes paintings the very best kind of puzzles. At the end of the exhibit one wall bears three paintings of leaves. Without reading the description to the right of the central painting, there is one looming leaf and another that is diminished and brittle. The loneliness in these paintings made me hate them. Their lack of that infusion of color and choice of muted tones made them cold and uncaring. It didn’t take much to see that these works were important for the artist even if they were not emblematic of the whole body of her work. They seemed to me like catharsis paintings and I felt sorrow for the small leaf on the outskirts. But even in these dull colors of decay and fall, a lesson emerged of beauty displayed in the sheen of satiny leaves.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings take a risk. They embody an urgency to live life now – to open one’s eyes to the incredible unseen world all around us. I left the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George exhibit charged with energy to keep my creative work progressing. I also heeded the not so subtle nudge to get outside and slow down enough to appreciate what is always changing, always growing or dying but never ceasing to impart some great truth about why we are all here.

“It takes courage to be a painter. I always felt I walked on the edge of a knife and could fall off on either side. But, so what? What if I did fall off? So what? What if you do fall? I always wanted to do something I really wanted to do.”

So, if you write, write on! If you paint, paint on! If you sing or play guitar, play on! The time is now. Like the colors outside that keep changing, so will life. I’m grateful to keep her vibrant outlook writ on the walls of my mind for the journey ahead.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe painting, “Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape)”


Food Poetry: Cream of Tartar by Julia Wendell

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships between mothers and daughters. They can be so fraught of misunderstanding. My mother used to denounce my teenage years as the years I didn’t talk to her. How could I explain the gulf of emotion and crisis upon which I was cresting outside of writing and reading my way through those four profoundly influential years?

Julia Wendell shares a story about cooking with her mother in the kitchen, how together they shared a secret that one of them knew and the other had yet to learn. Her mother’s arthritic hands made certain small acts in the kitchen difficult for her but provided opportunities for her daughter to participate in the process. At the time, Julia questioned the validity of her contributions until she too developed arthritis in her hands year later, and with it, understanding of how important her help had been to her mom. Mothers and daughters can do a kind of circle eight dance, can’t they? So many years later, my mother and I are the closest we have ever been but it has come at the cost of all of the lessons life has taught us through one another along the way.

Julia Wendell’s new book, Take This Spoon explores this tenuous balance between mothers and daughters, grounding it in the food they make together. I caught a glimpse of her food poetry and knew that I wanted to share it with you. Be sure to read beyond her poem, “Cream of Tartar” for Julia’s Cheese Souffle recipe that includes the secret ingredient alluded to in the poem above it.

Take This Spoon by Julia Wendell

 

Cream of Tartar

by Julia Wendell from her new book, Take This Spoon

 

Pot-holdering a cloud

of toasted soufflé,

its voluptuous body

billowing over the dish,

we kept its infallible, flawless secret,

 

referencing the butter-

stained recipe card

by memory only.

Teamwork, we’d wink to each other—

and lots of stirring—never revealing

 

what separated mother and daughter

from our guests’ amazement

at this seeming perfection—

fleeting, and only as good

as our shortcut:

 

a bitter white powder lodged

in a glass spice jar

that doubles in volume without fail

what it starts with, transforming

impossible into easy.

 

 

Julia Wendell’s Cheese Soufflé

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese

About 1 ½ cups milk

5 eggs, separated

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

In a double boiler, melt the butter. Then add the flour and stir until well blended. Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese, stir, and remove from the heat. Beat the egg yolks until light and sunny. Add to cheese sauce which has been allowed to cool slightly. Beat whites until stiff but not dry. Fold in cream of tartar and then blend cheese mixture into it. Pour mixture into a greased ceramic deep dish and place that dish into an oven-proof pie pan that has about ½ inch of boiling water added to it. Place dish and pie pan in middle rack of oven. Cook at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or until soufflé has risen and crust has browned and a knife inserted in center comes out clean. DO NOT open the oven door while cooking. Only check for doneness at the end of the hour. If the pie pan runs out of water within the cycle of cooking, open the oven door ONCE to add a little more boiling water.

Around my house, we always served the soufflé with baked potatoes, peas, and a “Seizure Salad”—but that’s your call.

 

food poetry Julia Wendell
ABOUT JULIA WENDELL
Julia Wendell grew up in the Allegheny Forest of northwest Pennsylvania. Educated at Cornell University, Boston University, and the University of Iowa, Writer’s Workshop, she left her mid-careers as teacher and editor for the world of horses and three-day eventing. Her children John Logan (a classical sitarist) and Caitlin Saylor (an actor/playwright), grew up with their mother and her husband, poet and critic, Barrett Warner, on their horse farm in northern Baltimore County, where Julia and Barrett still live and work. Julia is enamored of jumping horses over immovable obstacles while galloping cross country. Discover more of her work at JuliaWendell including her new book of poetry about food and the complexities of a mother-and-daughter relationship, Take This Spoon.


Star in Your Own Rock Opera

Rock Opera

If you ever find yourself in the middle of a rock opera, strap yourself in for one doozy of a ride.

Maybe you’re puzzled by the idea of a rock opera and wondering if it too has a fat lady who sings. The answer, like most things in life, is maybe. What you can count on are several interesting plot points to build the story of the hero or heroine (that’s you), a low point (or one or two), a climax and the volta or turn of the story where the hero or heroine comes out ahead. The exception here is the tragic story line where the hero or heroine dies of consumption (Mimi, La Boheme), tuberculosis (Violetta, La Traviata) or death by stabbing from a former lover now driven mad with jealousy (Carmen). On the other hand, be glad you are in a rock opera and not traditional opera. It’s safer that way.

The months of April and May should have come with instructions. A warning of what was to come might have been stuffed inside an envelope delivered with the monthly bills and mail. I would see that as a courtesy. Instead, one announcement and event prepared me for the next as if someone gave me a domino and then asked that it strike other unseen dominoes to set off the chain of events. It’s a good thing I’ve learned to grow thick skin. It’s a good thing that my skin is so porous that I soak in what befalls me that I might attempt to fully appreciate each event separately and in tandem.

Let’s go back to rock opera first because a definition is necessary. Trusty Wikipedia defines a rock opera as “a work of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections in the manner of an opera.” That sounds right.

In high school, I auditioned for and made it into an exclusive youth music choir group. One of the members of the group was a wisecrack named Michael Turner. He could make me chuckle or guffaw better than almost anyone with his quick wry responses or clever disseminations of a situation. He sang tenor and I sang alto with occasional forays into soprano territory. Some of my happiest memories of high school consisted of choir tours including one in which I clinched a solo rap that I can still recite with the right rhythm and bravado so many years later though I no longer wear my ball cap backwards.

After high school, I ventured off to college and would you believe it, Michael eventually made his way to the same college following a more circuitous route involving a get-away car, a high school sweetheart in Waco and a change of venue. But, first, he enrolled in the college’s theater program and auditioned for the lead role in their production of Tommy by the Who, the first rock opera.

Tommy was my first rock opera experience so many years ago. I watched my friend Michael transform into the lead character, a young boy who retreats into himself after a horrific experience, becoming blind, deaf, mute, finding music inside and a penchant for pinball. The story takes the expected turn with a climax of Tommy the pinball genius gathering a following of cult-like status who later revolt and leave. It doesn’t end on a happy note, but it doesn’t really matter. What I remember about Michael’s performance was his slaphappy look of joy playing pinball, oblivious, at that point of his popularity.

This story, my story does not have a sad ending, though it has a challenge or two thrown in for good measure. Recently, a mantra made its way into my head for me to sound aloud when I needed the stamina. It goes like this: “suffering leads to endurance; endurance leads to character; character leads to hope and hope does not fail.” These words became bedrock during my own rock opera.

In the span of one month plus change, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, underwent surgery to remove the cancer, and learned a week later, on Thursday, that she is now cancer-free without need for chemo or radiation. We whooped as much as one can do without raising your voice in sweet exultation in a surgeon’s office. Inside I sang a Hallelujah chorus by my lonesome. On Friday, a personal project made great strides which gave me the courage to go knock on the door of my father’s house and spend 10 minutes talking with his widow who I hadn’t spoken with for four years at her behest. I didn’t know that just two weeks later I would be laid off due to reduction in workforce.

One domino set the others into motion. The constant image in my mind during all of this is trying to find examples of what joy looks like. In spite of the more challenging parts of this rock opera, I, the heroine, can choose to sink or swim and I can see land in the near distance, so swimming is the only option. When one door closes, do you have the temerity to walk through the one that opens?

Suffering – Endurance – Character – Hope

So, the question I would ask you is how can you become the hero or heroine in your own rock opera? What change of tactic or mindset will help you see the horizon line- what will compel you to swim if you’re flailing right now? In the darkest moments of the time of my mom’s diagnosis or waiting to find out if the cancer had spread, when I found my hands gripping the knotted end of my rope, I held up a hand and tried to pull others up as a method for pulling myself up. All of us are starring in our own rock operas and the end doesn’t have to be tragic or grim. It is my hope for you that together we can muster through the tough bits to claim the glorious ones with the electric guitar solos that sing.