Friday, December 21, 2012

Year End Gratitude Thoughts From Ketchum, Idaho

Last week I drove from Chicago, Illinois – where I live, across a big chunk of America so many of us never, ever see. My destination -Sun Valley, Idaho where I’ll be spending the holidays, teaching three memoir writing workshops, and editing my short story collection. All this will occur while I’m enjoying the amazingly pristine scenery and winter snow of the American Northern Rocky Mountains. Arriving after the 1,746 miles in two and a half days with my two gigantic dogs, I was crabby and exhausted.
It was at that moment when I decided to leave my unpacking and instead, to take a long walk in newly fallen snow. I watched my dogs bound through powdery drifts for the sheer fun of it, chase each other, burrow their heads deep into tunnels and emerge covered in crystals. Suddenly, I realized that I was smiling, realized that my mood had lifted tremendously and realized, especially, how incredibly grateful I am to have such tremendous opportunities!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Does Ohau Have to Do With Proust?

Sometimes small details and little touches, harness incredible powers - transforming "simple" into "simply elegant." A good dose of good luck landed me in Honolulu this week for an entire week. What greeted me as I opened my hotel room door was a beautiful and exceedingly welcomed late afternoon treat; papaya with lemon wedges that proved sweeter than any I've ever enjoyed on the mainland.
(Blogger's observation: do not to say "in the U.S.A" but rather remember the word mainland, lest you come across as a total moron!)

I couldn't help but wonder if, in fact, this papaya really was much sweeter than those I usually eat at home in Chicago or whether my perception of flavor was the result of an interplay between my sense of vision and my sense of taste. Besides, I arrived ravenous. It was too late for lunch, too early for dinner, and my body clock knew it was four hours beyond the local time.

Like most things in my life, I immediately related my quandary to a book I'd read - one in which the author addressed these dilemmas head on; the influence of our senses upon one another, all tied up in our perceptions. And hence - what I remembered was the interplay between vision and the taste of food as we've perceived it.

And that book? Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a non-fiction book by Jonah Lehrer published in 2007.

In this book, Lehrer contends that Proust, along with most of his fellow artists, discovered things about the brain that took Neuro-scientists decades to understand. There is an inter-connectedness between art and science but there's also a crucial impact visual presentation has upon our other senses. My favorite discussion pertains to how important detail is in the way a chef plates his or her culinary creation. We learn much about the visual display's influence upon the diner 's enjoyment of the food's taste and smell.
Proust Was A Neuroscientist, by Jonah Leher

Lehrer also presents profiles of eight artists - most of whom are writers but also include a chef, painter and composer. The author  argues that often these creative individuals understand vastly more about our perceptions than do neuro-scientists. The primary observation: truth can begin with "what reality feels like." I suppose that might also be "what reality tastes like"!

So, even though the book examines the importance of art and the role that vision has in human perceptions including sensory stimuli such as taste and smell, Lehrer also addresses art and artists. The wonderful quality of this book is that it reminds us how complex and subjective our perceptions really are.

I consider Lehrer's peak essay to be his piece about Auguste Escoffier, the chef credited with inventing modern French cookery. Lehrer's personal interest in food preparation leads to his research about the invention of MSG ( monosodium glutamate) and umami - the amino acids that play with our taste buds. In this way, science influences perceptions about taste.

The author's background includes lab work, science writing and fine cuisine. He's discussed Cézanne's breakthroughs in understanding human sight, Walt Whitman's comments about how biology influences our thoughts and- the impetus for the book, Proust's efforts to tap into his memory by immersing himself in childhood recollections.

As recently as five years ago, The Wall Street Journal challenged conventional culinary science with its story entitled: A New Taste Sensation- Parmesan cheese has it. So does ketchup.
It's umami, and it's changing the way everyone from top chefs to Frito-Lay executives thinks about food. WEEKEND JOURNAL December 8, 2007 reported about the mysterious (at least in the USA) role umami plays in our perceptions of taste.

"Americans are taught from an early age that there are four basic tastes -- sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But what describes the taste of chicken soup?"

An ever increasing number of professional chefs and food-industry experts have begun to refer to "umami," as "the fifth taste."

Lehrer tells us that umami was first identified by a Japanese scientist more than century ago but it remained a very obscure culinary concept. The reason? it's tough to describe and to define although it's commonly discusses as a meaty, savory and very satisfying taste.

And so that all came back to me in the multi-sensory encounter with a papaya! Think about what you'll be tasting after you've given your food a good stare-down.

Friday, November 16, 2012


January 16th, 23rd, & 30th

Have you wondered about what exactly "memoir" is? What's the difference between memoir and memoirs, autobiography and biography?  Why write one and just how or where do you begin? Who would care?
There are many reasons to write your memoir but don't confuse "memoir" with non-thematic "memoirs", those disjointed reminiscences most commonly written by celebrities. Also, memoir shouldn't be confused with autobiography.

Everyone has stories - unique ones and ordinary ones. Some are amazing and inspiring, others funny or sad. But one thing is certain;  we all have lots and lots of them. Many of our life-stories fall into themes but not  knowing how to select those themes is a major roadblock to beginning a memoir.  Mostly, we're overwhelmed!

If you've considered writing your own memoir, this workshop is for you. Whether you're a complete novice or a seasoned writer, I'll teach you how to use "prompts" to help engage your writer's memory. Regardless of your intentions - self-publishing 20 copies to share with your family or in hopes of future publication and sale, we'll learn how to focus our stories while also having fun.

We'll meet for 2 1/2 hours for three consecutive weeks. And given the use of "threes," the memoir-writing workshop consists of 3 components to help us along;

1. Instructional exercises, worksheets and discussion
2. short readings - to be handed out in class
3. Group writing assignments and sharing our work 

What you'll need to bring:
1. Your writing journal if you keep one
2. One-two personal photographs 
3. Your enthusiasm and positive attitude

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Spelling, Grammar, and Remembering Homophones

A pair of pears, get it?
This past week I've received my usual hundreds of emails per day from writers' groups, community blogs and writing programs. Nothing unusual about that really. What is alarming: the percent of "writerly" emails packed with spelling errors, grammatical errors and misused words or phrases - the kind that most of us should have mastered by middle school, especially those of us who claim to be writers.

        Are they the result of sloppy proofreading or something more profound? Proofreading is mysterious and elusive! Proofreading and then proofreading already proofread work tends to reveal an error here and there that we were certain we fixed. I'm no exception. Typos happen to everyone - the unavoidable function of typing quickly in our efforts to keep up with thoughts moving forward much too quickly for our fingers to keep pace.

        In all honesty, it's not as though I'm exempt from typographical errors or spelling mistakes but there are several tricks that, while old-fashioned and very low tech, remain tried and true.

        First: I reread all my work aloud, even writing I'm positive I've already proofread and already corrected.

        Second: I actually print out my work.  I've yet to understand it but transitioning from a screen to ink on paper often reveals something I missed before - sometimes simply an extra space or superfluous comma, but they do appear easier to spot.

        Last: Once printed, I walk away for a while - ideally, a day or two but not always. Coming back for a second, and even third, view can yield a few more surprises.

        Even with all those precautions, I've had the horrifying experience of reading an essay I've published or something I've posted online only to discover a glaring mistake gone public! For some mysterious reason, it totally evaded detection.

        The event that inspired my current rant: four emails I received this morning from writers' blogs, writing journals and community boards for writers. Of those four, three had blatant errors. The particular errors that seem incredible are grammatical or word usage ones made by those who consider themselves to be professional writers.

Number I - from a community blog for food writers as follows:
        "If your a food blogger or writer..."
My guess is that the intended word is "you're," the contracted form of "you are."
Number II - an email from an organization that supports writers stating:
        "You should of received your first newsletter ..."
The correct statement, "you should have..." should have been mastered by third or fourth grade.
Number III -  a set of guidelines for posting from an online community for women writers I joined recently. Etiquette rules are a primary concern as the email noted:
        "We have a no-all-caps policy. We want to remain a polite, positive group and if a few people are aloud to shout, it spoils it for us all!"

And that noted, shouting aloud may work in a sentence but wouldn't it make more sense for writers to request that participants not be allowed to shout? Hopefully, this was just an example of "clumping theory" that seems more common in probability studies.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Writing Workshop

Calling memoirists, journal writers, family chroniclers, and all  those who don't know where to begin!

I'll be in Ketchum, Idaho conducting a writing workshop entitled:
Writing Your Life: Beyond Journaling  
Join me on January 16th, 23rd, & 30th. I'll take you from scribbling notes to organizing and writing your memoir as your family legacy or for possible publication. 

* Please check back in two weeks for exact times and location.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Even Truer Words

My essay, “Why Do I Cook?” was accepted for publication by True Words Anthology, Fall 2012The journal is available both in print and ebook from Story Circle Network.

To purchase, visit:

They're Not Morels and Not For Your Risotto!

Fall and spring are serious mushroom seasons in the American west, specifically in Southeastern Idaho but also in many other regions of the U.S.A. Wild morels in spring are found throughout the damp forests, shiitakes, wood mushrooms that seem to be an American version of what tastes much like Italian porcinis, domestic buttons, portobellos, plus a multitude of others the names of which i cant remember.

And, of course, the coveted truffles imported from Europe and some even from Asia, seem to reappear in fall and spring. However, regardless of the multitude of excellent wild mushroom hunting guides available that, complete with fabulous photographs and precise descriptive details that will lead us to identifying and collecting edible ones, I’ll stick with more mundane, cultivated store bought varieties. I do cross the line for the  wild, aromatic and rare truffle. And maybe a few morels now and then!

Wild mushrooms - those intriguingly mysterious growths that appear to sprout overnight from nothing, are often also referred to as toad stools. The terms ‘mushroom’ and ‘toadstool’ are subjective, not scientific so they do have a wide range of interpretations.

Webster's Dictionary defines them as:
        1. Any of various mushrooms having a stalk with an umbrellalike cap, especially the agarics.
Note: I wasn't at all sure what "agarics" were until consulting Wikipedia for further enlightenment!
        2. A poisonous mushroom as distinguished from an edible one.
        3. Any of various other fleshy fungi, as the puffballs and coral fungi.

Generally, mushrooms are also described as,
         "fungi with fruit bodies that have a cap more or less centrally placed on top of a stem are referred to as ‘mushrooms’, or as ‘mushrooms and toadstools’. Some people broadly consider that all fungi with a cap and stem are ‘mushrooms’, while others consider only edible fungi as ‘mushrooms’. In the strictest sense, the word ‘mushroom’ refers only to members of the genus Agaricus, e.g. the cultivated white button mushroom." (Wikipedia).

  ‘Toadstool’ is more of a layperson's term for any fungus with a cap and stem that appears different from Agaricus, regardless of its edibility but  usually it's suspected of being poisonous!

Taking photos in Idaho of some of these strange fungi really got me going on one of my favorite non-cooking obsessions: Research. While I was intrigued by the eerie, extra-terrestrial appearance of these lawn decorations, I quickly became fascinated by newly gained, and equally intriguing, information: Famous Historical Figures Poisoned by Mushrooms.

So I'm thrilled to present a brief list of some famous poisonings although I'm sure that if I really put my nose to the research grindstone, many more would appear.

  • Siddhartha Gautama (also known as The Buddha): It's believed that Gautama died of mushroom poisoning some time around 479 BCE but this claim has come under a good deal of debate.
  • Roman Emperor Claudius is believed to have been murdered by being fed the death cap mushroom. This story appeared approximately two centuries after the events amidst controversy about whether he was, in fact murdered or the unfortunate victim of an unfortunate gastronomic choice.
  • Pope Clement VII is rumored to have been murdered by mushroom poisoning as well. Again, a great deal of debate surrounds the conclusion.
  • Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Tsaritsa Natalia Naryshkina are believed to have died from eating the death cap mushroom.
  • According to a popular legend, the composer Johann Schubert died in Paris, along with his wife, one of his children, maidservant and four acquaintances after insisting that certain poisonous mushrooms were edible.
  • The best-selling author Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer) was poisoned after eating Cortinarius speciosissimus.
  • Physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit's parents (the creator of the Fahrenheit temperature scale), died in Danzig in 1701 from accidentally eating poisonous mushrooms.
Bon appetite! 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Elections, Writer's Block & Great Writing Moments Remembered

For several days now I've been experiencing one of those things I've heard writers complain about so often - the one that hasn't plagued me since those days when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation! It's the bane of writers throughout history: Writer's Block.

I've been facing a blank notepad, a shining computer screen, and simply staring with glazed-over eyes. The challenge of embarking on a new essay or concept summary seems daunting. Maybe it's because for the last month I've focused most of my efforts on editing, re-editing and re-re-editing my collection of short stories. Or, maybe it's all the election buzz, television overload, radio commentators, newspaper headlines and persistent public chatter that's driving me to distraction? Fortunately, it will end by midnight Tuesday. Unfortunately, and in all likelihood, it will be replaced with post-election analysis overload.

Complaining to a writing friend yesterday, she offered some sage advice. "Just forget your 'writer's block' for a few minutes and think consider this idea: try to remember your best and most productive writing moments. Try to recall,  not so much the event or time but rather, the feelings." The only way for me to imagine those times was also to consider what's changed, what's different? I thought about that one for a good long time before an answer began to bounce around my cranium! Now it seems ridiculously simple and trite yet none the less accurate!

Nothing outside is different or, that is,  different enough to inhibit my usual uninhibited flow. What's really changed over the past decade however are the demands I make of myself - the expectations I put on my writing, my editing, and upon the lyrical quality and nature of my words. The more words I put on a page, and the more writers' whose art I read, the greater are the demands I place on my own writing. It's impossible to identify my best writing moments, but recalling the emotions that accompanied them tells me everything I need to know. And "Inner Critic" is the parent of my "Writer's Block."
My goal on Election Day ever is to banish that Inner Critic until another Election Day rolls around!

Upcoming Events

 January 4, 2013 - 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Truer Words

I'm Pleased To Announce that my essay, “Why Do I Cook?” was just accepted for publication by True Words Anthology, December 2012

The True Words Anthology is an annual members-only newsletter, published each Spring, and made up of stories and poetry to showcase the wonderful writing of the members of  Circle Story Network

Details Coming Soon.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Before Darkness Settles

Fall is definitely here with her earthy smells of damp leaves, wet soil, and depending upon where I am - routes walked or roads traveled, the increasingly crisp morning winds may be redolent of pine or of ocean scents mimicked by Lake Michigan. 

I love fall in a melancholy sort of way. It's an ambivalence really, one full of nostalgia for those autumns of my childhood. Becoming aware of fall's earthiness also is to become keenly aware of other scents now absent. Like youth, they're grounded in another  life.

Maybe somewhere in America - in her suburbs and rural communities, in urban residential neighborhoods, leaves are still raked into huge piles. In those places, maybe children continue to jump into those piles, and parents continue to nag their children to help with the raking? It's a task not unlike tormented Sisyphus's. Poor pathetic Sisyphus who continuously pushed a boulder upward, and that boulder continuously rolled back upon him.

But is there anywhere in America where piles of leaves are still being burned, still filling nostrils with a smoke- laden dampness? Oddly, it wasn't entirely an unpleasant scent.  I don't really know except that today, staring at leaf patterns on my walkway, then lifting my head to absorb ambient fall aromas, I realized that scent of burning leaves most likely is gone forever.

Today, I'm reminded to enjoy the few remaining days before taking my dogs outside will require pulling on boots, hats, parkas, gloves and more; to enjoy the few remaining days before darkness settles on my neighborhood at 5:00 p.m. and Thanksgiving is on the horizon while spring seems years away!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

GOOD NEWS! I've become an Amazon Reviewer.

Approaching the commercial arena:

I'm always on the lookout for wonderfully written books and articles about food and travel, another heavy-on-food genre as well as books about writing, research methods and the usual heart wrenching narrative.  But let's keep in mind one critical fact - we can't eat scenery and really do tend to remember those wonderful meals enjoyed away from home. Consequently, I'm usually a bit hyper critical of food writing but this collection definitely makes the grade and hit the spot for me.

You can read my Reviews at

Monday, October 1, 2012

Research Time and Place: Salmon River

I've always been intrigued by research - the process, the investigative challenges, and of course the results. Any writing that contains even the slightest reference to a time and place -whether fiction or non-fiction demands validation of facts.

When the writer describes a scene, presents dialogue or refers to an event, the past about which he or she is writing is really occurring the "NOW..." for the characters - individuals who created the public records. Historians may live in the present while looking back into the past but writers have an under-appreciated yet just as important of a responsibility: to place the reader into the context of by-gone events and eras. In doing so, the writer brings characters forward into the present for the reader.

Accuracy allows readers to experience the kinds of emotions with which the characters are dealing - their hopes, conflicts, pain, and resolution but presented accurately so readers will internalize those feelings as though actually living in the time period being written about.

One of my favorite books - one that brilliantly deals with numerous difficulties and concepts of historical research is The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.  That noted, clearly the same strategies and rules are followed by writers of nonfiction, too!

Thom details methods for:

     *Finding and using historical archives

     *Conducting real-life field research

     *Reconstructing a milieu about which you're writing- people, voices, cultural contexts & physical environments

     *Achieving verisimilitude - the appearance of the true, in speech, action, and setting

I strive, in my writing, to focus upon verifying all information I've gathered that might end up in my stories or essays. To me, it's clear that if I plan to weave historical fact with a compelling plot then accurate descriptions comprise the foundation of my stories' believability.

Several days ago, I was drafting an essay about the first two or three times I ever visited Idaho. Those trips included drives across the Galena Summit and down through the Stanley Basin. Last week I took the same drive. It was twenty years later and when I arrived at an historical scenic overlook, a turnout really on Rt. 75, the road market indicated we were at an elevation of about 8000 ft. The highest peak in the area is 11153!

I was describing rivers. I was checking a map and listing names of those I could see from the overlook. But I was most intrigued by the names of several rivers noted in large italicized fonts on my topographical maps. there is the Big Lost River; another lists the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. My reference sources claimed that it is the largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States.

I stopped to take photos. When I read the sign post at the overlook, the graphics and text imbued a drama feel to the sign post when considered within its historical context.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Feature: Where I am Now

Fall has arrived and so have the last of the homegrown tomatoes we’ve nurtured all summer.  Where I am this week– approximately 7000 ft. altitude in the Northern Rocky Mountains, summers are short-lived, very short as in 6 – 8 weeks. This translates to very short growing seasons.  

If you reside anywhere in the Northern hemisphere, fall officially began at 10:49 a.m. EDT. Also known as the autumnal equinox (equinox is Latin for "equal night"), it’s one of the two equinoxes in which the Sun crosses the celestial equator so, as a result, the number of night hours and day hours are equal.

So what does this have to do with tomatoes? Simple – as the growing season shuts down in cooler agricultural zones, grab the last of your harvest before frost does. Besides, the threat of frost – already a nightly event here at higher elevations, the decreased daylight hours means your edible bounty probably won’t ripen much more outside.

My solution: 
Create a “mini-greenhouse” of sorts using 2 clear glass baking pans to nudge along any potential ripening. I placed mine on the kitchen counter moving it, mid-day, to a coffee table near a sunny window.  I rotate the tomatoes a bit for an even “suntan.” But that noted, smaller green tomatoes may not ripen at all. Those are the ones I’ve committed to the pickling jar and the soup pot.  My mini-greenhouse solution works well for green-peppers that will morph into red after being exposed to extra sunlight.  Enjoy your crop and future pickles!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just What Is a Curveball?
As in baseball, people talk about a curve ball in real life. Usually, they’re referring to situations in which they’ve guessed incorrectly about upcoming events or in which they may have been fooled by a clever opponent. For instance, a company may have priced their products based upon their competitors’ current prices only to discover that the other company had a new, less expensive product being developed. That could be regarded, by the first company, as a “curve ball” from a strategic perspective. The term suggests an element of being caught unprepared or prepared for the wrong kind of event.

Today is a curveball day – the kind of day on which I must contemplate an interesting, age-old philosophical question:  If I knew the day on which I’d take my last breath, the one that was to be my last on earth, would I do something special? What, if anything, would I do differently? With whom would I spend that last day and where?

I’ve read volumes and volumes about writing techniques: where and how to find writing prompts, how important it is to write regularly – that magic 1000 words a day every day. It’s an activity both serious and worthwhile – the practice of making a regular date with ourselves to write, the importance of keeping that date just as we‘d schedule a lunch with a friend or a meeting with a colleague and would never consider canceling. One writer’s manual I consult regularly even advises, “Write as though it was your last day on earth.”

And so, today is what I’ve come to refer to as “a curveball day,” one on which I challenge the conventional wisdom delivered to writers by writers.  So really,  if today was  my very last day on earth,  honestly - would I spend any part of it writing? Probably not!
 Today I’ve accomplished nothing tangible or at least, nothing that looks productive. When life throws me a “curve ball,” I must summon every ounce of stored knowledge about what it means to be a compassionate friend - supportive when I myself have a tremendous need to be both understood and supported.
A long-time friend (let’s call her Marsha) who’s ten years older than I, phoned me this morning to relay shocking news. Her husband of 35 years just died. The “just” is as in “just,” – like a few hours ago.” He didn’t fade away. He didn’t suffer. He wasn’t ill or elderly, and surely wasn’t taken from planet Earth in an accident. Nope, not at all! Literally he simply just died, dropped right there in his tracks, just stopped. Most likely his were hiking tracks, a trail in the wilderness area. My friends live in the mountains of Idaho and after a full day of hiking, a day filled with sunshine and majestic scenery, Robert packed their day packs and hiking poles in through the SUV’s hatch. “My feet hurt.”  Robert  said followed by a thud. And, that was it. He was gone as in dead.
Well traveled, vigorous and adventuresome, these two friends had braved remote regions of Rwanda where they observed gorillas; the Yukon Territory of Canada where they made camp among the disappearing polar bears, and to Patagonia to live among gauchos crossing mountains by day on horseback along terrifying ridges and staggering terrain. When Marsha described their approaching challenging trips, I pondered the inherent dangers. It wasn’t out of the question that Marsha and Robert were risking bear mauling, possible murder by rebels, or death resulting from a fall off horseback as in a tumble over rocky cliffs? Why at their ages, I wondered, do they pursue such craziness – the stuff I would have considered only when I was in my 20’s?

Today I’ll obsess about life’s tenuous nature as I will tomorrow and the day after and many days after that. Today, I’ll consider the extent to which we take for granted that we’ll be here next week, next month, tomorrow!  We’ll take care of ourselves beginning on Monday, beginning next week or on our birthdays. Today we’re too busy.  We’ll call that close friend of ours who lives overseas, the one we’ve been neglecting for months. We’ll hug our spouses, our children (grandchildren if we have any) and our parents if they’re still alive.

Tonight my husband and I are going to a movie. It’s one we’ve been meaning to see for quite some time. If our friend had known today was to be his last day on earth, I have to believe that he wouldn’t have chosen to spend it any other way!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why Do I Cook?

My mother’s culinary creations evolved in concert with the progression of her life. She never owned a cookbook. She carried nothing tangible forward from the destruction of her past into her life in the present. In many ways, the obliteration wrought by the Holocaust she survived deleted my history as well. Foods she cooked were grounded in her recollections of life in Romania before World War II, not in recipes scribbled on yellowing or stained note-cards handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter or from aunts to nieces and beyond. 

When I’m in my kitchen, I reminisce about the meals entirely unique to my mother – ones my brother and I still challenge each other to reproduce. My mother’s cooking spanned the range of our economic status - poverty to plenty and all that lies between. Those memories weave the responses I proffer to friends and strangers alike, who ask, “Why do you cook?” or “Who taught you to cook?” I cook a great deal, blog about cooking, watch shows about cooking when the world news is replete with tales of destruction. 

I write articles about cooking that occasionally are published. I’ve even taught cooking! Can I answer these seemingly straight-forward questions but not ruminate about women passing their recipes and cooking secrets on to their progeny? At times I’m compelled to ask: who did teach my mother to cook? My mother – the smart young woman from an Orthodox Jewish family growing up in a remote Romanian village; my rebellious mother who pursued education in lieu of culinary skills during the era, historically, when Jewish girls married young and rarely ventured beyond their garden gates. 

My mother couldn’t learn from her mother - one of millions of mothers and “would-be” mothers killed in places bearing names like Dachau or Auschwitz or Ravensbruck. So what is my answer? It’s not one but a complex web of answers! I cook to create what reminds me of the scent of home and the security of family. I cook because cooking distracts me from life’s problems as I become absorbed by the ingredients’ sensory elements. 

I cook because going to a restaurant when I’m tired or harried does the chef a disservice and deprives my taste buds of due appreciation. I cook because it’s the consummate way I can show family and guests that I care about them - a hug around our most basic senses and with the power to unite strangers. Cooking, tasting and memory become inseparable. I cook to celebrate spring’s intense colors; newly ripened berries, crisp baby greens, and delicate young vegetables picked before they’ve grown large and tough. I cook as an adieu to vestiges of summer, to welcome fall’s heartiness with pumpkins, apples, peaches and squash. 

I’ll reconfigure fall’s bounty into spreads and soups and pies. They’ll become the flavors of summer that live on in my kitchen to help brace me for winter ahead, a winter of short days and cold, early evenings. I cook to boost my self-esteem of which a part depends upon being better at one thing than anyone else in my family is - a family comprised of men who know everything about most things yet vastly less about cooking than I do. I cook as my avenue to creativity like the many short stories I write and books I savor. 

I cook to progress in life. Cooking is progressive. And, as I progress, I know that all those meals I’ve cooked over the years will help my sons remember me when they’re far away or I’m no longer here. I cook to invent and to be creative. Then, I reinvent, edit and test again - exactly as I reinvent myself each morning and with each edit of my stories. I cook as a way to challenge myself to grow, to travel the world, and to befriend it by meeting the foods and flavors of unfamiliar lands and cultures. And when I do, I inhale their scents, touch the delicate and coarse and if ever the opportunity to visit arrives – well, then their familiarity will welcome me in like a friend inviting me to a meal. 

I cook because it provides an exceptional avenue into understanding others – observing what they will or won’t eat, like and dislike. Not to cook would render me incomplete; not cooking would deprive my senses of one of life’s crucial components. I cook to nurture myself and those around me, to calm and sooth, to make merry and celebrate.

Cooking legitimates my sporadic excursions into ethnic neighborhoods and out-of-the way markets where I become a student of foreign spices, herbs and aromas, a discoverer of sauces and pastes, cookies and cakes. The vendors’ sounds are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. In their tones, I recall childhood’s long forgotten memories; the French farmers coming to sell their goods in my Montreal old French Quarter neighborhood. Mine are the memories of Polish butchers selling homemade sausages, Jewish immigrants hawking kosher pickles and apple strudels and Greeks
peddling aromatic herbs and unfamiliar cheeses.

When my table is cleared and all who’ve graced it are content, I know that every reason I cook is intertwined with me understanding who I am, what I’m capable of, and discovering not what I can do with ingredients at hand but, most important, all I can do without yet still being satiated and whole, continuing to impart what I’ve learned to those for whom I’ll cook.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

So just what is a toque blanche?

Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris
 oil on canvas by William Orpen

1921 Royal Academy of Arts, London, England.

A “toque blanche” is the French term for "white hat" usually just referred to as a  “toque.” It’s a tall, round, pleated white hat worn by chefs, the folds on a toque are supposed to symbolize the numerous ways in which the humble egg can be cooked by a top chef.

Most likely, this type of hat evolved from head coverings cooks wore throughout the centuries. They include the “casque a meche” - the stocking cap worn in the 18th-century by French chefs. The color of the “casque” represented the wearer’s rank, white or “blanche” as the highest .  Talleyrand, the French statesman, insisted that white toques be worn by his chefs for sanitary reasons. I suppose knowing now what we do about questionable hygiene including the common presence of head lice, it’s no surprise that the toque had an important practical function!  The modern toque is believed to have originated with Auguste Escoffier

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back On the Shelves!

Great News, I found copies of my book
The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival at a Large Retail  chain  this week. Which means they've gone back to print!

Now you can purchase the paperback or the Audiobook in big box Stores and these things
called book stores!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Writing and editing or writing and rewriting and re-rewriting drafts?

Drafting the draft, editing the draft, producing a final draft - all before the first actual first version of an essay or story is a description of a process that made absolutely no sense to me until I began to write in earnest. During the past three weeks, I've been drafting and editing a number of short stories that were reviewed and "workshopped" at the University of Chicago Writers's Studio and at the University of Iowa Summer Writers' Festival.

Recently, I read an article about one of my all time favorite and most inspiring writers - Bernard Malamud. The article claimed that Malamud was legendary for his incredible meticulousness when editing his work. But meticulousness was just one characteristic of his writing habits. He was most notorious for his drafts, edits of his drafts, and then even more edits.  Before embarking on the editing process, it wasn't that unusual for Malamud to write as many as fifty drafts of any given story.

Clearly, by the time Malamud determined, at last, that the story with which he'd been consumed was really done, i.e., "ready for prime time" but not to be confused with finished, he knew every nuance of what was in the story.

Malamud began each of his beloved stories as a vague concept. His hope was to write "story" as a vehicle with which to illustrate precise, deep yet common emotions. But only through successive drafts was it possible for his intuition to dominate. Malamud's intuition provided accurate material, the accuracy of which grew continuously as a result of his continuous scrutiny and persistent revisions.

Literary art is neither entirely conscious nor unconscious; rather, it's an interplay between two attitudes typical of the process top writers employ.  Drafting a story necessitates movement from inception to completion but simultaneously is a move from lesser to greater consciousness in both content and technique.

Much Like musicians and artists, writers practice, learn, and over-learn techniques of their art so that once inculcated, they can be performed with exactness, ease, and proficiency all fed by inspiration.

For those of us who've devoted so much of ourselves to writing, the fantasy that creativity pours spontaneously from the writer entices and thrills us. But reality prevails! Writing - good writing, is a complex process. It seems as though we experience the pleasure of spontaneity and freedom the most during our drafting phases.

Once we put our drafts on the road to becoming a finished work - the phase where drafts begin to transform into eloquent and excellent writing, then our greater focus is upon pleasing potential readers. Writing multiple drafts temporarily ignores readers' needs and pleasures. Instead, if we can extend the writing process a bit, then we also extend the uninhibited and self-indulgent nature of writing but we also extend the stage of most gratifying creativity.

Those not familiar with Bernard Malamud, might be interested to know that he was not regarded as especially prolific but was, and still is, regarded as an outstanding story teller and writer. My personal favorites are The Natural (1952) and The Assistant (1957) but below is a list of Melamud's other works.

The Magic Barrel (1958)
A New Life (1961)
Idiots First (1963)
The Fixer (1966)
Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969)
The Tenants (1971)
Rembrandt's Hat (1973)
Dubin's Lives (1979)
God's Grace (1982)
The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1984)
The People and Uncollected Stories (1989)

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Good Endorsement for Speed-Reading

In Idaho getting all my books and notes unpacked and organized but with the impending Sun Valley Writers Conference quickly approaching, there's so many books and so little time! The website contains a reading list and summary of all the authors who will be presenting this year as well as program notes. Sun Valley Writers Conference, August 17th - 20th.

Seeing the West I’ve Read

Last week I drove from Chicago, Illinois to Sun Valley, Idaho – a distance of 1846 miles and three days on the road through incredibly diverse and expansive landscapes. Few Americans these days see this vastness since, given a choice, most would fly. I know I would!

But I drive because my two giant dogs, who will spend three months with me in the northern Rockies, can’t fly on commercial airlines, not since 9/11 - the date indelibly imprinted in our collective memories. I can’t afford to fly them charter, so each summer we take to the road.

I was only able to grasp the enormity and diversity of the U.S. after driving out west. Starting from Chicago, we drove west out of Illinois into Iowa, across Iowa on through Nebraska,
Wyoming, into Utah and then north into Idaho.

In Illinois and Iowa jade corn fields extending to the horizon transitioned from flat to rolling. In Nebraska fields of crops progressed to cattle feed lots so densely packed even the most committed carnivore would reassess meat consumption. In central and western Nebraska,hundreds of long inactive oil pumps had been modernized and pressed back into service.

The North Platte Valley was crossed by mile-long trains transporting loads of coal or flat beds stacked 2 high with global shipping containers. The scene brought to life Stephen Ambrose’s books, Nothing Like It In the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad and Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark western expeditions. Yet, among it all,the North Platte Valley was dotted with rivers and lakes, lush with trees and fields that gradually
thinned as we climbed into Wyoming.

In arid areas, tumbleweed blew like sci-fi creatures across the interstate. The great American dust bowl was so cataclysmic, that decades later the west still bears its scars. Classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became increasingly poignant across the miles as did Timothy
Egan’s incredible dust bowl era chronicle, The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Herds or wild mustangs, white-tailed antelope bounding across plains, and occasional ranches where bison grazed were sad sparse remnants of the millions of buffalo that grazed on these same plains decades ago. Richard White’s amazing book, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West proved to be reading time well spent.

In Wyoming, landforms turned dramatic in our approach to the Vedauwoos vi də vu:), a rocky outcrop of Sherman Granite in south-eastern Wyoming  just north  of Medicine Bow - Routt National Forest.  The name, anglicized from the Arapaho language "bito'o'wu"  means "earth-born" and the cliffs are extremely popular with rock climbers from all over the world who test their skills.

I first read about the Vedauwoos in James Salter's book Solo Faces,  a novel in which the  fictional character climbs there and is based upon actual climbers Slater – himself a climber,  met. Seeing ant-sized climbers rappelling down cliffs faces is the only sense I get of how massive these rocks really are.  In addition to the exit marked “The Vedauwoo”, my favorite exit is Happy Jack Road, the alternate route to the main outcroppings between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Crossing from Wyoming into Utah brought to mind Sally Denton’s American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. In it, she illuminates a still controversial battle between two Mormon sects. And so we turned north crossing out of Utah into Idaho and a shelf filled with yet more books and hundreds of others I forgot to mention!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Energized in Iowa: A Week of Inspired Writing

Schaeffer Hall- building at University of Iowa in which all of our writing
workshops met daily.
This past week I accomplished more toward my writing goals than I have in the past  six months. How did I do this? Simple - I spent 7 days in Iowa City at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, that's how!

I returned home all energized about my writing - that lasted all of 3 days. This week, I've really been struggling to maintain the same momentum I had in Iowa City. I realize that just because the workshops I took were excellent, there was vastly more to the process than merely fantastic instructors, eager participants, exciting speakers, and plenty of time in which to write. I know, what else could there be?

Each day, there were writing assignments, readings to analyze and to discuss, classmates' essays to "workshop" - that special University of Iowa process in which each group member gets copies of the other group members' papers to read the day in advance. Each day, several participants' works were discussed positively,  constructively, and systematically. Accountability goes a long way, too.

Baaa. the exterior of the Natural History
Building on U of Iowa campus.


"What worked for you?" asked one instructor.

"What didn't work- but state this in the form of a question to the writer." said another.

"We all need praise and suggestions or advice." said the first one."

And the second one reminded us to, "always read your work out loud. You'll be surprised by what you can learn."

But there was even more to move me forward; I was in a place that gave legitimacy to my answer, "I'm a writer." when responding to the question, "what do you do?" And everywhere I went, people seemed focused on quality reading and writing. On the other hand,  there was no grocery shopping to distract me, or dogs to walk, or cooking and cleaning to manage. There was no laundry to fold as an escape, and no bills that couldn't wait for a week until I got home.

Recently, I read that Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage in just ten days and nights. Of course, his maid, man-servant, and cook managed all the aspects of his life that weren't related to his writing.

I like to imagine that if I, too, had all those mundane aspects of my life taken care of for me by others, I could surely be as productive as Crane was. Fortunately, I'm at no risk of having my fantasy destroyed!