The Reason Good Things Come In Threes

I don’t want to shock you, but I am not a professional book reviewer. It’s hard to tell because of all the profanity and sloppy grammar. I am not sought out by respected book-centered publications to share my book-centered insights. I KNOW RIGHT? Fuckers. In truth, it’s a very good thing, because I am the last person on the planet who should review any newly published book. I have a bit of a problem, shall we say, being succinct. When I’m excited about a book, I don’t want to deliver a high-level, erudite overview.  I accelerate to Mach 10 Fangirl and no detail is too unimportant for me to exhaustively examine. It’s not that I’m trying to ruin your personal reading reveals, it’s that I have no filter combined with the blind exuberance of a Labrador. Usually, by the time I’m done, you don’t need to read the book. Like Twitter during a new episode of The Walking Dead, I am gonna spoil everything.
Me: the dish ran away with the spoon
World: wth you told me the ending?
Me: SO COOL RIGHT

The book I want badly to spoil for you today but I won’t because DISCIPLINE is Kitchens Of The Great Midwest (Viking / Pamela Dorman Books) by J. Ryan Stradal. This book is California-based Stradal’s first novel, and it’s really good, so in all likelihood it will not be his last. In about five years I am going to have to revise this post to include mentions of his two or three equally successful follow-up novels. Frankly, that’s irksome because in five years I planned to be in London on location shooting my Christmas special with guest stars Imagine Dragons and Hannah Hart but whatever. Way to jack my production schedule, J. Ryan Stradal. At any rate, Kitchens of the Great Midwest perfectly juggles a large cast of wonderfully realized characters who enter, exit, and overlap in ever-expanding and ever-shrinking concentric circles centered around Minnesota’s contemporary food culture. I loved reading it and I can’t hold back—MUST MAKE TALK ABOUT KITCHEN BOOK. I’m like Michael Myers. You can shoot me, blow me up, and set me on fire, but I keep showing back up to discuss symbolism and exposition and story structure. I’m an invincible monster not from this world. Fortunately, I am also an inventive genius, because I have hit on a way to go DEFCON 1 with enthusiasm without spoiling. (*bows, graciously accepts MacArthur Grant*)
Me: I’d like to apply for a patent
Patent office: what did you invent
Me: a way to not spoil a book
Patent office: shutting up is not an invention

Plot, point of view, and character development? Spoiler quicksand. But sentences—nice, juicy, standalone sentences-deliver the flavor and feeling of a book without giving away anything. A perfectly structured sentence gives me a case of the vapors. Those sentences that just scream “LOOK AT ME! I’M SO DAMN QUOTABLE!” Yes, you are quotable, you precious little nugget. Come here so I can watercolor you onto some stiff paper. Kitchens of the Great Midwest has lots of perfect sentences. I e-read it and I highlighted (highlit? Highlightered.) so many passages it looks like I had a lipstick fight with my Kindle. I’m sharing three of my non-spoiler favorites. Sentences are the burlesque dancers of my book review strip show—provocative while revealing nothing.

(1)Lars had also grown to become a little wizard in the kitchen, and by his unintentionally mastering the tragic hobby of lutefisk preparation, its potency was skyrocketing.
There should be a word for “being pissed about getting really good at something you never wanted to do in the first place, like making lutefisk”. Actually there probably is a word in German for that, but until we derive one in English, I nominate the phrase “tragic hobby” because it captures that feeling so aptly. I will go even further and suggest that any time I use “tragic hobby”, it should be accompanied by a sad trombone riff. Also, until reading this book, I was ignorant of how lutefisk is prepared. It was a cool thing to learn and I don’t ever want to eat it ever thanks.
Musician: I’m here for the tragic hobby auditions
Me: what are you playing today
Musician: “Walking On Sunshine”
Me: did you even read the job description

(2)They were generous in the way of people running a garage sale who give things away to the folks who come at the end.
Ah, convenient generosity. I love this line in no small part because I PERSONALLY HAVE DONE THIS. I didn’t give the stuff away because I wanted to be generous though. I was too lazy to want to move all my crap back inside. So change “generous” to “lazy” and you have summed up my character and now I am in a shame spiral.
Book: way to make that all about you
Me: I’m using contrast to highlighter the sentence genius
Book: you manufactured a shame spiral so you could drink wine
Me: (takes long sip, nods thoughtfully)

(3)In the Fellowship Hall, a skinny woman in an impertinent white summer dress—no sleeves, low neck, and a cut above the knee-threw an ivory cotton tablecloth over a folding table.
Is there ever a way to win when you’re meeting a new group for the first time? It doesn’t matter how hard you try. You thought you dressed appropriately, but it turns out you’re getting brazen hussy all over the tablecloths. It is really hard to get brazen hussy out of polyester. You have to use holy water and baking soda.
Musician:  do the sad noise now?
Me: yes that would—dude is that an accordion
Musician: yes. for extra sadness
Me: you are so hired

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an absorbing, charming read. It’s satisfying not just for its perfect sentences, but for elements like the main character that—um, no. Okay so there’s this big dinner party that happens because….ok. Not that either. There is a hilarious skewering of hipster food culture in a…CRAP. NOPE TIME TO STAB ME AND LEAVE ME IN A CLOSET. By all means: assume I’m dead. That worked out for Jamie Lee Curtis.
#sentenced

 

lutefisk

I skipped the first step.

Action items

 

Skip the lutefisk at Thanksgiving

 

The Reason To Order The Special

I don’t like to brag, but I am really good at going to restaurants. For example, I can figure out where the bathroom is without even asking. I know to choose the side of the table that puts my back to the wall so I can immediately spot assassination attempts. If I am sitting at the bar, I order a drink that complements my outfit. I’ll stop with all these great specifics because I don’t want you to feel sad about your own inferior restaurant skills. Okay…one more. My BEST restaurant skill is that I always order the special. I’ll even order fish on a Monday because I’m brave like that. I LIKE SALMON AND I GIVE ZERO FUCKS.

Restauranting (a real verb that I just made up) is something that I’ve dedicated hours and hours to perfecting, primarily because at restaurants they cook stuff for you when you ask and then they take way your dishes so you don’t have to wash them and that always seems like a good idea to me. It took a while to get good at it, and I made some training mistakes. Lucky for me I picked the right mentor, someone I looked up to, someone I wanted to be. Someone who was not just good at restaurants, but good at life-M.F.K. Fisher.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s body of work chronicles an American woman’s coming of age in the first half of the 20th century: childhood in rural California, falling in love, experiencing life through two world wars, three marriages, and extensive travel. The Notorious MFK lived on her own terms. She is categorized as a food writer, and that’s (maybe) fair, because she published cookbooks, translated Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology Of Taste, and riddled her writing with recipes. For me, though, her work is a bold, sensual exploration of human desires – food, love, sex, curiosity – through the prism of eating.

I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a collection of M.F.K. Fisher’s works, The Art Of Eating. I have the same problem in bookstores that I have in libraries, in that I’m incapable of editing the stack. If I put it on the stack, I already own it. That’s made for some regrettable, er, interesting purchases, as well as some truly startling credit card balances. I’d never heard of M.F.K. Fisher but the book was on a shelf at the end of the aisle and books merchandised on endcaps are my Kryptonite. The Art Of Eating (1954) is a compilation of essays previously published in five other books (Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets.) I tore through it and my hands-down, runaway favorite was the radical, slightly perverse, and rivetingly humorous essay “Define This Word” from The Gastronomical Me (1947). It is my jam. (YAY FOOD JOKE)  In “Define This Word”, M.F.K. Fisher describes a meal that she had in 1936 in rural France while on a hot, tiring, day-long country walk. Stopping for lunch at a highly rated but deserted restaurant in the spring off-season, she is the object of the full, unsettling attention of the restaurant’s sole waitress. The waitress, recognizing in her customer a rarefied palate, colludes with the unseen but talented chef  to launch a full-out gourmet assault with an endless parade of French deliciousness that almost puts M.F.K. under. The story is a battle of wills between two strong-minded and like-minded women and in it M.F.K. demonstrates the very essence of Restaurant Confidence.

Restaurant anxiety is a real thing. All of the primary hungers intersect there, magnified by the virtue of being on display. Just ask anyone navigating a first dinner date. Who doesn’t relate to Melissa McCarthy eating the hand towels in front of Jude Law in Spy? Ok, I don’t, I’ve never eaten a hand towel in a restaurant or even in the privacy of my own home. The point is, restaurant behavior and etiquette expectations can be a trap, waiting to spring and make you look like a rube with an uncontrollable fabric fetish. I loved “Define This Word”, but it made me cringe, because there was some painful truth in there about self-possession. I saw a lot of opportunity to improve how I was going about my business. Let’s just say I had substituted confidence with narcissism, I had a PhD in self-centered hyperawareness, and had done my thesis on Me In Restaurants. It took dedication to make the food ordering process all about me but I had succeeded admirably. “How can I, too, make this otherwise neutral business transaction all about me?”, you ask? It’s simple. Through magical thinking, assign social acceptance rankings to all of the dishes on the menu. Then, obsessively try to choose the dish that aligns with your waiter’s values so that he/she LIKES YOU. Remember, if you get it wrong, you’re a bad person.
Menu: I gots some killer groceries tonight
Me: omg omg omg freaking out
Menu: What?
Me: What projects supreme likability, chicken or lamb?
Menu: Seriously? Weirdo.
Me: Not helping, menu
Menu: Order some Nobody Cares

Wanting to be liked isn’t the worst thing to want. Wanting to be liked so much you use a menu as a Magic 8 ball? Time for a get-over-yourself bat upside the head. My reaction when reading “Define This Word” was “SHE WALKED INTO A RESTAURANT ALONE TO EAT ALONE BY HERSELF ALONE IN A RESTAURANT ALONE?” It was a novel idea that there was a level of emotional maturity that elevated beyond ME being at the center of everything. Walk into a restaurant alone to eat by myself on purpose? Why not just walk naked into a math test that I forgot to study for and have to borrow a pencil from a guy I have a crush on?
Menu: Crazy, party of one, your table is ready
Me: Shut up
Menu: You know self-absorption makes you a dick, right?
Me: Does my hair look ok?
Menu: I give up

The Notorious M.F.K. did not have time for navel-gazing. She was too busy being an authentic badass to strive for inoffensive perfection. Confidence, yo. Confidence is so weird in that it makes you generous. If you aren’t busy reapplying your lipstick in the bathroom, you have time to observe your world. And you know what you are are going to see? Some weird shit. M.F.K. walked across France (alone), sat in a deserted restaurant (alone), and went toe-to-toe with a waitress whose laser focus on her customer’s dining experience made French food culture seem like a carnival funnel cake truck by comparison.

Reading “Define This Word” was a double dog dare challenge. The world around me wants to show me what it can do, not manage my neuroses. It was time to get the fuck over myself. I’m not perfect at this (yeah for example “I” is used in this post at least 15 times, so there’s some work to be done on self-focus, WHATEVER) When I am at a restaurant, I ask myself, What would M.F.K. do? And do you know what she would do? She wouldn’t worry about where her table was. She would not care if the waiter liked her. And she would order the damn special. The chefperson spent time going above and beyond to show off a particular ingredient or dish or technique and that is good enough for me. Show off, Chefperson! I’m going to be a great audience.
Menu: So there’s chicken and—
Me: Gonna have the special
Menu: I wouldn’t for real
Me: Not about me! I said the SPECIAL! Done
Menu: It’s wild boar aspic. We left the bristles on! BWAHAHAHAHAHA
Me: well played, menu

I stand corrected-I do like to brag. I am good at restauranting. While we wait for my artisanal slice of hairy boar jello, let’s sip these fresh cocktails and talk about you for a bit.
#thenotoriousmfk

Action Items
To discover your own Notorious M.F.K. work, start herehere, or head to your local library
See Melissa McCarthy in Spy

The Reason To Circumnavigate

Due to wine, I ran a 5k in Concord, Massachussetts. Notice I did not say “5k Race”. Other participants were racing. Being neither a natural athlete or a proficient runner, I do not 5k with any designs on competition. My 5k career simply confirms that after two glasses of wine I think I’m capable of anything and am likely to say really dumb stuff like “I’ll sign up for a 5K!” or “I’m starting a blog!” Two glasses of wine is confidence. Three glasses of wine is me demanding hash browns, which goes to prove the old saying “It’s a short distance between confidence and hash browns.”

Concord is a notable location because in the middle of the 19th century, if you were an American writer destined to write Important American Literature, you probably lived here. Or wanted to live here. Or knew people who lived here. I haven’t interviewed all the dead American writers to verify this non-fact but apparently there was a very lovely swim/tennis community with reasonable HOA fees, and that was all it took to get Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott to accept attractive relocation packages and settle in Concord. The result, as everyone knows, is a comprehensive catalog of successful screen adaptations (with the exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson because apparently nobody will greenlight a buddy-cop action version of “Self-Reliance”). Concord is also closely associated with the philosophical movement American transcendentalism, which emphasized spiritual awareness through personal focus on intuition. It’s the third most popular kind of transcendentalism, behind Canadian transcendentalism and Sylvester Stallone movies. For a literary nerdfan, Concord isn’t just a mandatory juice ingredient. It’s a pilgrimage.

The 5k run I found myself “running” is an annual event that benefits The Orchard House, the home where Bronson Alcott settled his family and where his daughter Louisa resided when she wrote her classic of classics, Little Women. Inspired by her own experience, Alcott’s novel chronicles a family’s sacrifices, faith, and devotion to each other as four daughters come of age during the Civil War. It’s charming, moving, and a sweet picture of domestic life. Louisa May Alcott was already a published, prolific author who didn’t really want to write Little Women, but in the way of all things, she is known for Little Women because people are unpredictable jerks who don’t remember you for the stuff you want them to remember you for. The March sisters are beloved by generations of American readers (is there a Buzzfeed “Which March Sister Are You?” quiz? There should be) and Little Women is somewhat of a trancendentalist handbook, stressing self-improvement through good works and self-sacrifice. All that was lost on me, though, because I’ll always know this book (NSFW) as my introduction to house porn. Let’s call it gateway real estate.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS CONTAIN GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES. RATED MA-FLOORPLAN.

Little Women makes a strong case for family relying on each other to grow, change, and survive in trying circumstances. Whatever! I first read this book when I was in fourth grade and was completely intoxicated by the descriptions of the houses that made up the Little Women world. I sped through the boring “people talking to each other-plot-exposition blah blah” passages and constantly flipped pages to get to the X-rated parts. You know, where Alcott describes in lurid and explicit detail the layout of a garden. Or a comfortable sofa in front of the fireplace. There was a roomy kitchen from which pies emerged regularly, everpresent kittens, and long, long staircases. Alcott’s New England practically glowed with quaint awesomeness and I wanted to roll around in that glow and get alllll dirty.
Book: I have morals you know
Me: tell the part about Laurie’s foyer again
Book: you are really missing the point here

The March sisters did not have a boring, plain old attic. They had a GARRET. The girls and their friends, in various configurations, frequently retreated to the garret to sulk, cry, analyze the works of Charles Dickens, and engage in other puberty-inspired behaviors. As a child of the suburbs, I felt keenly my drab, non-Federalist-style dwelling. The suburbs didn’t hold geographical inspiration, at least not until John Hughes got ahold of them. I grieved for my lack of opportunity to retreat to a garret to contemplate life’s larger questions. If I wanted to retreat somewhere, the best I could do was close both doors on the Jack-and-Jill bathroom. How was I supposed to suffer life’s larger questions in a Jack-and-Jill bathroom?

Like all beautiful houses, the March house only hung out with beautiful other houses. It was part of the infamous Concord Block Posse, and it included the sprawling mansions of both Aunt March and Laurie Laurence. They rolled like posses do: buying designer sunglasses in bulk, spa days, apple picking parties. The March sisters’ New England country life, with its poverty, chores, and day-to-day routines, was grounded and concrete, but with a slightly surreal, idealized edge. Handy wealthy neighbors, for example, who conveniently cover pesky financial needs whenever emergencies arise. Much like a fairy tale, where everything looks just like the real world – until the mirrors start talking.
Mirror: loved your book
Louisa: thanks
Mirror: when those kids go through the wardrobe to Narnia-wow
Louisa: looks like i’m about to have seven years of bad luck

That pristine, model Little Women domicile lived in my imagination for a long time and became my idea of The Perfect House. I gave unsolicited advice to ranch houses: “You’d be so pretty if you just converted the crawlspace over your garage. I know a guy who does great work, looks totally natural. You’ll never be able to tell you got anything done”. I considered subscribing to House Beautiful (just for the articles).  Going to Concord in person for the first time, I was struck by how much the town resembled my imaginary Little Women world. The route for the run winds through beautiful residential sections and people stood in their yards, cheering on the runners and handing out water. The run begins and ends at Alcott Elementary School and goes past The Orchard House. Louisa May Alcott started her story with her view from her window. She took her intimate sphere and threw it wide, making a universe where her readers could dwell too. It made me appreciate how personal geography shapes what anyone ultimately offers the world, whether it’s a book or a philosophical movement. The March sisters inhabit all of the Alcott sisters’ favorite spaces. New England nurtured transcendentalists. (Trancendentalism would never have begun in Florida, because you can’t make a hard left turn there without hitting an alligator and sinking into a swamp. There are zombie roaches there. It’s difficult to embrace the divinity of the individual when the roach you just thought you killed with a rock is now holding the rock and coming back at you.)
Roach: shit just got real
Me: can’t we hug this out
Roach: you want to hug a roach? ick

Running (OKAY, TRUDGING, I GET IT I’M A BAD RUNNER WHY ARE YOU SO STUCK ON THIS) past Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, I paused to take a quick break. Looking over the solid squareness of the house, I realized: this is probably exactly where Louisa May Alcott stood to take a break when SHE ran 5ks. It gave me goosebumps. I felt positively transcendental.
#straightouttaconcord

Action items: Run a 5k at Orchard House

The Reason To Let It Snow

The most underutilized feature in my house is the mantel. Once a year, I will use it to lose something. It does not matter what it is–if I put it on the mantel, I am not going to find it until months later. (BTW it’s kind of awkward when you do this with a cat.) It’s because a lot of the time I forget I even have a mantel. There are lots of things I could be doing with my mantel that I’m not, such as:
-Propping one elbow on the mantel whilst contemplating
I never use my mantel to contemplate because I’d have to take up smoking a pipe and I don’t have time for new hobbies.
-Propping one elbow on the mantel while burning mysterious letters in the fireplace
I’d have to go to all the trouble of building a fire when it’s so much easier to turn on the Fireplace Channel. Also I don’t get mysterious letters since it’s not 1848.
-Propping one elbow on the mantel while I gaze at the portrait over the fireplace
There isn’t a portrait on that wall. Or anywhere. I live in a portrait-free zone.

Truth be told, I don’t think about the mantel at all unless it’s August, because August is when the holidays arrive in my mailbox. August is when the lifestyle book of all lifestyle books is delivered, personally, to me: Christmas with Southern Living. It’s a holiday-centered entertaining/decorating/cookbook that has been produced annually by Southern Living magazine since 1981.  Lushly staged and lovingly photographed, this book solves all the holiday problems I didn’t know I had. The covers alone make me swoon–the signature Southern Living cake headshots (“Look at the camera, gorgeous! Now show me buttercream!”) with mathematically precise slices removed to showcase dreamy multi-colored layers. Because of this book, my Holiday Badass Level is Ninja. SANTA NINJA. I am fully prepared to host a post-tree-trimming hot chocolate party, a New Year’s midnight dessert buffet open house, and a day-after-Thanksgiving pre-shopping breakfast. I can cook for, decorate for, and thematically execute on any kind of holiday mood—Dickensian classic, North Pole merry, or Winter Wonderland frolicking forest. In August, when the new book is delivered, I retreat to spend an hour just flipping through the pages to see what is the latest in turkey basting technique and ornament crafts, but the very FIRST thing I look at is the mantels section.
You: have you ever HAD a hot chocolate party?
Me: hmmmm?
You: tell me about the last turkey you basted
Me: well, it was, um, turkey shaped
You: your halls are decked with boughs of bullshit

Busted. I am not, by any definition, a homey-crafty-decoratey person. My decorating efforts are an endless Pinterest fail. And I don’t even have a Pinterest account. People visiting my house for the first time ask “Did you just move in?” Yup. Eight years ago. Don’t rush me. I’m still basking in the glow of having managed to unpack all the boxes. I don’t want to harsh my buzz by going shopping for stuff like furniture or curtains or dishes. I did procure a new couch recently, having been forced into it because the one I had would shed nails (or bolts or whatever holds a couch together) every time someone sat down on it. It had disintegrated to the point that you could only sit on one half of one cushion right in the middle, and you could only sit upright. NO LEANING BACK. I have a vague sense that legit adults don’t live this way and it is my sincere wish that those legit adults invite me over to their houses so I can spend time with responsible people whose decorating ethic has evolved past Dorm Room 101. Also, if I am not in my own house, I don’t have to worry about decorating it. But when Christmas with Southern Living arrives, I’m flush with the potential to deck the crap out of my halls.

These books are endlessly gorgeous, picture after picture of beautifully styled, inviting rooms, expertly plated food, and homemade placecards. I have the same reaction to these pictures that I have when I see a masterpiece on a museum wall–it’s beautiful, but it’s unattainable beauty, not meant for mortals like me to create. I am perpetually in awe of people with decorating talent. How on earth does someone look at a branch, pine cones, and an ice bucket and come up with “charming centerpiece”? My brain is not wired that way. I have an ice bucket. It’s in a cabinet and the last time I touched it was to move it out of the way to get to a bag of Fritos that had fallen behind it. Christmas with Southern Living gives me hope that one day I’ll gain the ability to use a glue gun without ending up in the emergency room. Well, not “ability” so much as “interest in making an effort”.
Glue gun: wrong end
Me: what? not listening
Glue gun: I know that’s why—
Me: MY FINGERS

As great as everything looks in these books, my absolute favorite are the decorated mantels. There are garlands (fresh greenery, ornaments, homemade stockings) and candlesticks (add beads! Or more greenery! Or ribbon!) and mercury glass. There are shiny abstract tall objects artfully placed next to shorter shiny abstract objects, interspersed with lush branches. There are stocking hooks shaped like letters spelling out cheery holiday words. These mantels radiate a ‘seasonal hospitality’ vibe, which would be a nice change from my mantel’s usual ‘deserted prison parking lot’ vibe. I get excited and sometimes even go so far as to mark a page in the book that has a swagged-out mantel that I particularly like. Then, because it’s August and I am fucking hot, I put the book on the shelf with all the other Christmas with Southern Living books and go turn up the air conditioning. Do you know how much stuff I would have to get to make a magical holiday mantel? I’d have to cash in my 401k just to lay in a base inventory of floral foam.
Book: but adult goals!
Me: can’t, complaining about the heat
Book: look I’m so inspiring
Me: shhhh busy not maturing

Mantel

This mantel looks great. That’s how you know it’s not mine.

Like I do with all my other problems, I am solving this dilemma with books. I am absolutely, positively going full holiday on my own ass. I am getting all my Christmas with Southern Living books off their designated shelf and lining them up on the mantel, right after I move that 4-month-old pile of mail and the Sharpie that I lost last spring. In December, when you come over, I’ll invite you to go through them and find your favorite mantel. Victorian splendor or atomic age retro? Be bold! We’ll prop the book open to your chosen picture, sit down on my functional sofa, and soak up all that silver bells atmosphere. I will even pour you a cup of freshly made wassail. HAHAHAHAHA I don’t have any wassail. Let’s just go out.

#icebucketandfritocenterpiece

Action Items
Take down the Christmas tree before Easter