Archive for April 2010


Pink Birthday Cupcakes for Emma, via Mount Etna

April 26th, 2010 — 7:09am

I’ve had a thing for blood oranges ever since I first saw them at the incomparable Berkeley Bowl market more than twenty-five years ago. I asked the nearest produce guy about a bin of small oranges blushed red like peaches, and I thought I heard him wrong when he said they were “blood oranges.” It sounded a little too gruesome for a fruit. But he cut one open with the knife he kept in his green apron, and I got it –  the flesh was mottled orange and red, the juice a clear vivid pink. And was it my imagination or did they actually taste a little different from an ordinary orange?

According to the experts, blood oranges do have a more complex, deep flavor than, say, Valencias or navels, both tart and sweet, like raspberries. To me they taste of their exotic history, an import to the southern Mediterranean and thereabouts – particularly Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Italy, but also Morocco, Greece, and the Middle Eastern countries — from Southeast Asia, brought by Arab traders along the Silk Road, or maybe the Portuguese after Columbus. The Italian arancia and Spanish naranja probably derived from the Arab nãranj, which in turn probably came from the Sanskrit for orange tree, nãranga.  In Sicily any arancia you get is likely to be a blood orange, and they’ll tell you the juice is the blood of Mt. Etna, as Gary and I discovered on our honeymoon. Every morning with our tiny cups of searing espresso and flaking cornetti we were served spremuta d’arancia, freshly squeezed over ice to cool it of its mythic vulcanism. The idea didn’t seem entirely farfetched as we sipped our brilliantly red juice while sitting at a table overlooking the rocky Ionian coast off Taormina, bougainvillea blooming all down the steep cliffside and Mt. Etna belching smoke in the far distance behind us: the three cyclopes at work, forging thunderbolts for Zeus.

Blood oranges still have that faraway appeal even though you can find them readily through the winter and into spring, and they’re usually no more expensive than their more ordinary cousins.  I hoard blood oranges like a squirrel hoards acorns, and I can’t resist any opportunity to substitute blood orange for the plainer varieties: I segment them into winter salads with kale and sliced fennel, add blood orange bitters to margaritas, stew them with chicken and dates, cook them into marmalade.

If I see them mentioned on a menu, I want whatever it is. Who wouldn’t want sorbet the crimson of roses with the flavor of a morning in Cadiz, like this one at Camino Restaurant in Oakland?

Camino's Blood Orange Sorbet with candied pomelo peel

Blood oranges figure prominently in several of my favorite cakes: sliced in their skins and sautéed with brown sugar and butter for the eventual candied topping of an upside-down cake, or their zest and juice added to another cake I made up when I was missing the flavors I remembered from past trips to the sunny Mediterranean – an almond and polenta torte with blood orange and lemon, and depending on whether you’re feeling Sicilian or Spanish or Venetian, the options of saffron, cinnamon, and cloves.

This year I used what I figured might be my last blood oranges of the season to make birthday cupcakes for my friend Emma. Emma is Greek, so I thought she’d enjoy the blood oranges’ generalized nod to her cultural heritage. Plus Emma often has a streak of pink in her platinum blonde hair, so I knew she’d like the color.

The cupcakes are a variation on the Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe from Cakewalk, with the blood orange zest rubbed into the sugar before creaming with the butter, and the juice as a partial substitute for the milk. Orange flower water and either lemon or orange extract add to the fragrance and flavor, and though the cakes don’t look particularly orange (or pink or vermilion for that matter), the frosting – also using zest, juice and the citrus flavorings – is gorgeously, festively pink. There’s nothing like pink cake to make you feel like it’s your birthday.

You can find the recipe for Blood Orange Birthday Cake and Cupcakes in Cakewalk, but here is my Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake.

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Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake

April 26th, 2010 — 7:06am

Stuck in San Francisco or St. Louis, wishing for Seville or Spoleto? Never fear: your Mediterranean fantasy is a mere two blood oranges away.

Zest and juice of 2 blood oranges, in separate containers
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (not polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cups ground almonds (or almond meal)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp lemon extract
½ tsp orange flower water
½ tsp almond extract
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 375˚ and butter and flour an 8” springform cake pan. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt and set aside. Rub the zest into the granulated sugar until well mixed.

Cream the butter for a minute or two, then add the sugar and beat until creamy and light. Mix in the ground almonds, then add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the juice and extracts and mix well, then fold in the flour-polenta mixture by hand with just a few strokes, just until the dry ingredients disappear.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top, then bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is deeply golden brown but the center is still not quite set. There will be a circle about 3 inches across that will still be a little unsteady when you lightly touch or jiggle the cake.

Cool the cake in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then loosen the sides of the pan and allow to cool thoroughly. Dust the top with confectioner’s sugar. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

VARIATIONS:
In general:
–Substitute other lemony or orangey citrus if blood orange is not available: oranges, tangerines, meyer lemons, lemons
–Use 2 cups ground almonds for firmer texture
–Use polenta instead of cornmeal, but it will be too crunchy for most people

Geographically particular:
–Spanish or Sicilian Style: Add 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads to the juice and allow to dissolve while putting the rest of the batter together. Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the flour-cornmeal mixture.
–Venetian Style: In addition to the saffron and cinnamon in the Spanish or Sicilian Style (above), add 1/4 teaspoon cloves to the flour-cornmeal mixture.

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Roasted Rum Bananas

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:50pm

And here’s another way to redeem your bananas for the good.

½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup dark rum
pinch of salt
4 small, ripe (not overripe) bananas, sliced in half lengthwise
Vanilla ice cream

Preheat the oven to 400˚. Place the butter in a shallow glass baking dish large enough to hold the 8 banana halves in a single layer and place the pan in the oven. When the butter is melted, about 5 minutes, add the brown sugar, stir, and cook until the sugar is bubbling, about 5-8 minutes. Add the rum and pinch of salt, and stir the mixture together. Arrange the bananas in a single layer and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the bananas over, coating with the sauce, and bake for another 10 minutes, until the bananas are tender. To serve, place 2 banana halves and a scoop of vanilla ice cream in each of four shallow dessert dishes or plates, and distribute the rest of the sauce over the bananas. Makes 4 servings.

2 comments » | Baking, Dessert, Recipes

Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:44pm

Here’s one way to redeem your bad bananas…

½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/3 cups mashed, very ripe banana (about 5-7 largish bananas)
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces high quality chocolate (milk, semisweet or bittersweet), coarsely chopped
1 cup toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350º.  Butter and flour a 9×5” loaf pan, knocking out excess flour. In a medium bowl cream the butter on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute, then add the sugar and beat until creamy and light, another 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until the mixture is again creamy and light. Mix in the vanilla, then add the bananas, mixing on low just until incorporated.

Whisk the flour, espresso powder, baking soda and salt together and fold into the banana mixture by hand just until the flour disappears. Fold in the chocolate chunks and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (if you insert it and it comes back covered with melted chocolate, try again). If the banana bread is getting too brown on top, cover with foil until it tests done. When it’s ready, let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the wire rack, top side up, and cool completely. Makes one loaf.

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Redeeming the Bad Banana

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:37pm

I haven’t eaten a banana in fourteen years. Bananas were one of the few fresh fruits I ate daily as a kid – in our house, pears and pineapple and mandarin oranges came out of cans, and otherwise we had apples, watermelon, the occasional berry, and the ubiquitous banana – but my juvenile banana glut isn’t why I don’t eat them now. I went off bananas when I was newly pregnant with Celeste: a banana was the last thing I ate before I was pitched headfirst into morning (and afternoon and evening) sickness. For about four months, twenty-four hours a day, I felt like I was on the deck of a rolling ship in high seas. I groaned on the couch with one foot firmly planted on the floor, like a drunk fighting off the whirling down tornadoes. Whatever I’d eaten the day before was unthinkable to ever eat again, until I was subsisting on a diet of half a plain bagel – if I even saw the other half it was too much for me – and See’s milk chocolate Bordeaux candies. Just the thought of the smell of a banana has made me run the other direction ever since. Weirdly, Celeste, too, can’t stand bananas.

Then early last year, while I was in the last phase of editing the manuscript for Cakewalk, I read a New York Times article that said the most popular recipe on the site allrecipes.com was one for banana bread.  Just about then I was ruthlessly cutting whole chapters and many beloved recipes from my way-too-bloated manuscript, and one of the recipes I most regretted losing was for Nell Cliff’s bananas roasted in rum and brown sugar.

Nell was the mother of my college boyfriend, to this day one of the great influences of my life and the person who taught me more about baking and cooking and than anyone else ever has. She still gets her due – I guess I should really say her just desserts — in Cakewalk, but with only one of the many exemplary recipes she passed on to me. Seeing her roasted bananas on the cutting room floor made me wonder if maybe it was time to try bananas again . . .

Not, however, raw: that is still beyond my capabilities. But I looked up the popular banana bread recipe at allrecipes.com, and it looked like something I might actually be able to stomach, if I doctored it a bit with some flavors I knew I could manage. One of those flavors is chocolate, about which I tend to think in terms of Mark Twain’s statement about whiskey: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough.”

Too much chocolate is almost enough, if you ask me.  So I added chunks of chopped milk chocolate to my banana bread, as well as powdered espresso and toasted walnuts. I brought the fragrant maiden loaf on a canoe trip with stalwart family friends, and when I unveiled it on a gravelly beach during our picnic lunch, after one bite Farhad, who in our circle is the High Priest of the Church of Wretched Excess, started shaking his head and laughing. It was that good.

It’s banana bread as an extreme sport. Unlike most recipes, this one calls for a lot of banana, so it’s got that unmistakable fragrance and flavor, but elevated to another level, which, given my banana problems, is perfectly fine with me. It’s kind of like banana bread candy. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re eating something vaguely healthy. So here’s that recipe, my rendition of Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread.

But back to Nell’s roasted bananas, which deserve their own moment of glory. They’re incredibly easy to make and perfect for a last-minute dinner party dessert that you can put together while everyone is lingering over their glasses of wine. Nell made them that way, and because of my naïvete – not just in the kitchen but in polite society — I once put my foot in my mouth when the roasted bananas were presented at the conclusion of an annual party with old family friends. “Oh good, you’ve made the roasted bananas again,” I brayed as we all oohed and ahhed over our plates of sizzling bananas in their pools of rummy sauce. “When you made these at last year’s party, Nell, everyone loved them!”

Nell, the consummate gracious hostess and ever indulgent of my flaws, flinched almost imperceptibly, and her daughter Molly shrewdly steered the conversation toward the deliciousness of our dessert. I didn’t know that a good hostess does her best not to serve the same dish to the same company a second time, nor did I realize that a good guest would have avoided embarrassing her hostess by mentioning such a repeat performance. Now I know better.

Nell’s recipe evolved from one of the cookbooks by Victor Bergeron, the Trader Vic of Trader Vic’s famous San Francisco restaurant, where the theme was Polynesian Tiki Room, the food was great, and the cocktails were strong – that’s where the Mai Tai was invented. Somehow I managed to never write down Nell’s recipe, and in my ramblings through used bookstores over the years I’ve never found the right Trader Vic’s cookbook with the original recipe, but here’s a version of Roasted Rum Bananas that’s pretty close, and I hope it makes up for my roasted banana bad of years gone by.

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One City, Many Books

April 19th, 2010 — 8:10am

This weekend I was one of thirty Bay Area authors feted and feasted as “Library Laureates” at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s 14th annual gala dinner.  Why was I so surprised by the enthusiastic, celebratory crowd of hundreds that had gathered downtown at the Main Library? Maybe it was a holdover from my childhood suspicion that the library — a place where they’d let you borrow their books for nothing, trusting that you’d bring them back —  was a big secret, something you didn’t talk about lest it be discovered you were pulling a fast one and the whole thing was taken away.

The opposite, of course, is true: talking about and supporting our public library system is vital to keeping them open and their resources available – not just books but music and film and news and internet access, career counseling, art exhibits, readings and lectures, computer classes, and of course story time for kids. Maybe these figures about the 16,000-plus public libraries in the U.S. will surprise and impress you as much as they did me:

*Every year, Americans visit their library more than they go to the movies. Every day they borrow 2.1 million DVDs (for free, remember!), in contrast to the 2.2 million rented from Netflix.

*Every day 300,000 Americans get job-search help at their public library. There are 13,000 U.S. libraries offering career assistance (from career counseling to help writing resumes and filling in applications), compared to the 3000 U.S. Department of Labor One-Stop career centers.

*Nearly 12,000 U.S. libraries offer free wi-fi – that’s more than all the Starbucks put together.

*There are more public libraries offering free computer training classes than there are computer training businesses in the U.S.

In San Francisco this weekend, there was even more reason to celebrate: thanks to the passage of a massive city bond measure, the Branch Library Improvement Program created a plan to renovate or rebuild 24 branch libraries across the city. Fourteen of those branches have been completed and reopened, and another eight are now in construction, including my beloved neighborhood library, Golden Gate Valley, about which I feel rather pathologically proprietary, driving by slowly a couple of times a week and surveying the contractors’ modular trailers with a gimlet eye, part rubber-necking voyeur, part self-appointed inspector (Who’s the guy handing out Krispy Kremes? And hey, buddy – you better not chip any plaster off that della Robbia door frame!)

But we weren’t just celebrating our libraries. The Friends of the Library organization hosts this dinner every year to celebrate writers, feeding us filet mignon and toasting us with good wine and urging us to take home the rapturously beautiful table centerpieces at the evening’s conclusion.

It was humbling to say the least to know that you were surrounded by these incredibly generous, visionary folks who not only recognize how vital public libraries are, but back up their convictions with their time and their money. Their mission statement is worth quoting as a standard for community involvement:

“Friends of the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to creating, stewarding and supporting a superior free public library system in San Francisco. We are committed to raising the standard of excellence of our libraries by funding programs and services beyond what’s allocated in the City’s budget. We believe in free and equal access to information for all.”

Raising the standard of excellence. Above and beyond. Needless to say I wasn’t the only writer who felt genuinely moved and honored to be included at this event. City Librarian Luis Herrera, one of my tablemates, suggested that when all the branches are reopened, we should have a city-wide celebration, and all the Library Laureates of past years would be invited to take part. He won’t have to twist our arms. One by one we each talked about how much libraries have supported us as places of inspiration, as practical resources, as mobile offices: Kathryn Ma talked about being a library “nomad,” visiting one branch or another depending on her mood. Joshua Braff, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters and Katie Williams all revealed that their books were written in libraries – in Ethan’s case, in the very room where we were enjoying our tangerine upside-down cake with blood orange syrup. Victoria Zackheim read from an essay by Malachy McCourt, who remembered “the miracle” of a Carnegie library opening in his boyhood town of Limerick. Here’s what I had to say:

“Libraries and books and the pleasure of reading have always been mixed up in my mind with sugar, with sweetness. That association started with my grandmother, a San Francisco schoolteacher who rewarded me with miniature candy bars when I was learning to read and write. We lived in Sonoma when I was small, when the town, too, was small, and the library was a stately red-brick building set in the middle of the Plaza, right across from my father’s law office and an Italian bakery that sold cinnamon pull-apart cakes. The library, it seemed to me then, was the biggest and most important building in the town, the Rome to which all roads led. They let you take all the books you wanted, bringing them back when you were done, and I was not quite sure I believed it at first.

We didn’t have many books at home. Books, I learned early, were precious things.  My father had taken a job writing and editing encyclopedia entries while he was in law school, and that set of encyclopedias, devoid of any acknowledgment of his contributions, was housed with his law books behind glass in a barrister’s case. There was a set of Time-Life cookbooks nobody looked at but me, and I mostly looked at the pictures. I remember a hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and my mother’s copy of Anna Karenina from before she was married, and a paperback biography of Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston; I knew he was famous but I didn’t realize he wasn’t the same person as Alfred Hitchcock until a military history class in high school. My father’s oversized dictionary had its own its stand, and it was always left open, waiting to be consulted, like a magician’s book of spells, or the story of the world. That dictionary was my origination, my Genesis.

In Sonoma I rode my bike to the library every week to check out a stack of books, holding my breath at the circulation desk in case I was told I was too greedy; but the librarians always slid the entire pile back over the counter to me, and I sat cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section, reading on one of the rag rugs, light shafting through the arcing Palladian windows. I could pick anything, unrushed, unquestioned, any day, and as I sat with my books scattered around me, turning the pages of one after the other, the incense of hot cinnamon and caramelized sugar wafted over me through the open windows. How could anything ever be more delicious?

Much of my childhood was more bitter than sweet, but those afternoons at the library are some of my most tangible memories, that and crossing the street to walk home with my shy, lonely father at the end of his work day, my latest stack of library books piled into the basket of my banana-seat bicycle, my father stopping at the bakery on the way home, tucking his folded newspaper under his arm so he could carry his briefcase and the pink bakery box, its strings taut under his fingers.

Libraries and books and the words they protect are still precious to me, still imbued with sweetness, sometimes with the bittersweet, and always with the weight of importance. Even now when I think of how I feel while reading a truly extraordinary book, it’s the same feeling I get from eating the world’s best dessert: the rapture of words filling my mouth, the yearning for it to last.  And I still feel that sense of wondrous awe, of being luckier than could possibly be believed, of getting away with something really great whenever I am in a library.

These days my library is the Golden Gate Valley Branch at Green and Octavia. A Carnegie project built around the same time my grandmother started teaching San Francisco first graders to read in the 1920s, the Golden Gate Valley Branch was designed to resemble a Roman basilica, a long narrow rectangle with a curved apse. Outside, the stone façade drips Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance details – carved garlands, moldings, fluted pilasters. On the inside it’s full of light from the tall windows with their curved, arching glass – Palladian windows like those at the library in Sonoma – and the original corniced shelving is still intact on the walls all around. I love the dignity and solidity of it, and how the building was sited close to the street, with no imposing landscaping to render it less inviting: a treasure box found on the sidewalk, waiting to reveal all it holds to you.

I love this library so much that it has found its way into my second novel, just as Sonoma’s library has shown up in my memoir, Cakewalk. I’ll close with the thoughts of the fictional librarian who works at the Golden Gate Valley branch, whose feelings about what that library means to her are not so different from my own:

Her library. Her sanctuary, her temple. It even resembled a church. She said it sometimes deflectively, jokingly, but the truth was she meant it: that library was her religion, the books it housed and the words within them her one redeeming faith. She carried in her head scenes and sentences and images, the astonishment of recognizing herself in the worlds and words of others. The lines and metaphors accreted in her memory, coming back to her in unexpected moments with the same startling intimacy, like snatches of remembered conversations, or a taste indelibly recalled, a sweetness at the back of her throat, as when she’d first read them. To be there, to hold the books in her hands, was a kind of atonement, a word she used privately in its original sense, at one: a harmony, an accord, a reconciliation. A word she’d learned when she was small, standing before her father’s dictionary.”

When the Golden Gate Valley branch reopens next year, I’ll be there: that too will be an atonement. And I’ll bring the cake.

1 comment » | Books, CAKEWALK, Uncategorized, Writing

Fruition

April 15th, 2010 — 6:40pm

Here’s what it looks like, at least in my life, to be a writer: there are tumbleweeds of dog hair blowing down the staircase. The sink is piled with dishes. I missed the UPS man’s arrival because I had to take Celeste to the dentist this morning and then to meet her 8th grade class at a field trip: thirteen-year-olds slouched and vogue-ing for an invisible audience in front of the Exploratorium. But when I got home, the first copies of Cakewalk had just arrived from my publisher, the package ripped open on the butcher block counter that still has crumbs on it from last night’s dinner.

It’s a strange, dislocating sensation, the physical evidence of the work of your imagination; in the case of a memoir like Cakewalk, the work of my memory and my heart. Forgive the obvious metaphor, but it really is a lot like motherhood. It’s as strange as seeing your child cross the street by himself for the first time, or, years later, listening to the grown man’s voice on the phone as your son tells you his plans for staging a production of a Sam Shepard play this spring at Oxford.  You can’t quite believe this came from you.

This time, though, I got help in believing in what’s come from me because of something else that arrived in the mail at the same time as my new book: a birthday card from Zachary. This is what he wrote:

“…I went to a fabric store in Oxford today to buy fabric for one of the plays I’m working on and it reminded me of how you made all my Halloween costumes by hand and how cool it was to have completely original, hand-made costumes, which were extra-good because they were made with mom-love, and I want you to know that every day I have moments like that.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think of how lucky I am to have the best mom in the world, who has given me so much and taught me so much. Every time I cook for my friends, which I do as often as I can, it makes me feel proud to pass on to my friends the recipes and the love of food and cooking that you gave to me, and it makes me feel closer to home. I taught Calder how to make a roast chicken last winter like you taught me, and he has been teaching all his friends, and now they’re all using your roast chicken recipe.

When I read To the Lighthouse, I imagine you reading those same words and reveling in Woolf’s language and wit. I have inherited so many of my pleasures and passions from you, as well as much of what I seek to bring out in my own character. Most of all you have taught me by example to be generous and to take joy in giving pleasure to others. I am so lucky that you’re my mom. In the card you sent me on my birthday, you wrote about all the cakes you’d ever made for me. I can’t do it this year, but someday I’d like to make you a birthday cake! Love, Zachary.”

Consider it already made, my sweetie.

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“…so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…”

April 14th, 2010 — 8:12pm

Sometimes you just have to cheer because somebody got it right: That’s how I felt on Monday when I heard that Paul Harding’s brilliant, gorgeous first novel, Tinkers, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is always exciting when a genuinely outstanding book — a real work of art — is recognized for its author’s achievement, but it’s even more gratifying when that book is an underdog: published by a small press (the first small independent press to publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in almost thirty years) and overlooked by many, including the New York Times, which acknowledged its oversight in a somewhat embarrassed-sounding column in The Paper Cuts blog after the Pulitzer announcement. Especially now, when the publishing industry has been so hard hit by the economic crisis, independent bookstores falling like flies and newspaper book reviews as rare as common courtesy, it’s so heartening to everyone invested in the future of books that a novel like Tinkers would get the attention it deserves.

Why is Tinkers so extraordinary and what’s it about? I think the clarity and seemingly effortless lyricism of Harding’s prose is the best answer to that question. An old New Englander who collected and repaired clocks in his retirement – a tinker, like his father — is dying:

“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”

As George Crosby’s mind wanders in his dying body he imagines not just his own past and present – in a tour de force opening scene he hallucinates that his house and then the entire universe, windowpane by coat closet by cloud by star, collapses in on him as he lies helpless on the hospital bed set up in his living room — but also that of his father, an epileptic who drove a wagon and sold sundries and fixed pots and pans for a living, whose inner life had been unassailable to the young son he left behind when he abandoned the family without a word.  From its description of a father watching his son conduct a private Viking funeral for a mouse to its sensory observations of weather and the changing of seasons, to its acute record of the minutia of family life or detailed instructions on how to build a bird’s nest, every page of Tinkers is dense with scenes and paragraphs and lines so freshly perceived and economically crafted and breathtakingly true – as art, as reflections of humanity — that you want to grab someone and read whole passages aloud.

Here is Paul Harding on what an oncoming epileptic seizure feels like: “The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinquished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”

Or pulling the tooth of a crusty old hermit: “Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. . . . squinting to get a good look, [he] saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

Or a patient dog lurking near the table during a Christmas dinner: “Buddy the dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners.”

I particularly love this next scene, in which George Crosby’s father imagines what he might say to one of his hardscrabble customers, the frugal country wives who gazed at his display case of cheap jewelry year after year but never bought anything unnecessary, their lives as meager as their yearnings are unanswered:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give our or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps only feel the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.”

Paul Hardy’s Tinkers is an elegy to the passage of time, the randomness of memory and mortality, the startling grip of what lasts for each of us: a moving and life-affirming lament for  “the loss of this world of light and hope.” Don’t take my word or the Pulitzer committee’s word on it. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy and read it for yourself!

1 comment » | Books, Uncategorized

I Want Candy

April 8th, 2010 — 10:47am

Despite my peeping about Easter being my favorite holiday, how I love all the frills and frippery and fakey grass, blah blah, this year the Easter Bunny kind of laid an egg. Maybe not as far as the kids were concerned – Celeste and our three visiting juvenile friends from Brooklyn still got baskets turgid with fuzzy chicks and amusing toys and chocolate and jelly beans, and prodigal son Zachary, spending his junior year abroad, got an Easter treat befitting a 21-year-old reading classics at Oxford: a copy of an audacious first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  But all parents know that the primary reason to overload kids with candy at Easter and Halloween is to benefit said parents, who will be tiptoeing across darkened children’s rooms late at night for weeks to come, palming through the beribboned baskets or plastic jack-o-lanterns for a handful of Reese’s miniatures or malted milk balls, girding themselves for daylight’s less-than-sweet aspects of adult responsibility.

Thus in the two decades since I became a mother my Easter palate has become more selective, since junk candy from Walgreen’s is not what I want when I ransack the baskets as my offspring snore gently in their beds: I want the See’s Candy decorated chocolate buttercream egg, heavy as a hand grenade, to hack my way through in the privacy of my midnight kitchen, or a few post-modernist truffles from Joseph Schmidt, San Francisco’s answer to Willie Wonka. When Easter approacheth I have been known to drive all over the Bay Area and pore through catalogs and troll the Internet for the most adorable, delectable treats, tucking them into papier-mâché eggs and crinkly cellophane bags sealed with baby animal stickers in my quest not just for the eventuality of pleasurable parental consumption, but to be the cleverest, most imaginative Easter Bunny ever.

But not this year. This year, the Easter Bunny spent the month of March on post-operative nursing duty, for her husband is parked on the couch with the television remote and two new, virtually unused titanium knees. When she is not plumping pillows and doling out oxycontin the Easter Bunny has been driving the girls chorus carpool every afternoon, boiling rice and chicken breasts for a dog with acute digestive problems, and writing thank-you notes to high school admissions directors at 2 a.m.. Not to mention the depressing stress of starting the South Beach Diet (who cares about no starch and no booze? The trauma is no sugar!) to prepare for the publication of my book about my lifelong, frantic consumption of sugar. To make things even more challenging from the candy-foraging perspective, trusty and tasty See’s closed their flagship store – a mere five-minute stroll from the tired Easter Bunny’s house (See’s, how could you? Why do you think I moved to this neighborhood?!). Joseph Schmidt, too, went into retirement and locked the doors of his Wonkaesque shop.

So this year’s baskets, architected via Walgreen’s and a single rushed trip to Target, were kind of lame. Lots of chocolate that tasted like wax. Jelly beans with no flavor whatsoever. Funny — mediocre candy is not like mediocre wine: it does not start to taste better the more you have. Okay, so I was cheating on my diet, and it wasn’t even worth the guilt. If you’re going to cheat, you might as well cheat with some real candy with quality control. Using the excuse that I had essential errands to run for invalids and teenagers, I escaped my house and headed for The Candy Store.

The Candy Store opened in my neighborhood a couple of years ago. It looks like an apothecary designed by the Jetsons, with a stylized black-and-blue logo and glass jars lining the walls, all of them filled with something fabulous, like chunks of toffee rolled in peanut butter and then dipped in milk chocolate, or gummy butterflies, or green-apple gum balls. It’s fun just knowing that there’s a dedicated candy store three blocks from my house, and the owners, Diane and Brian Campbell, are so friendly and good-natured they tend to offer you a sample if you stare too long at one of the jars on display.

I usually leave with a handful of mixed Swiss Fruits because they look like doll house food: tiny dimpled oranges and blushed green pears and miniature bananas speckled microscopically with brown. But today I wanted something really great, not just the usual, something that would override the taste of carnauba wax from the Brach’s jelly beans I choked down by the handful last night. The first thing I noticed at The Candy Store was a display of coconut & Hawaiian pink salt brittle. Brian makes the brittle in small batches, toasting the organic coconut he uses, and I could smell it even through the cellophane bags.

The Candy Store's handmade brittle

As I chatted with Diane at the counter while paying for my brittle, she noticed me eyeing a polka-dotted box of something wrapped in waxed paper. “Those are amazing,” she told me. “They’re marshmallows covered in a salted caramel with a little cocoa and three kinds of roasted nuts. A woman in the East Bay makes them.” She continued under her breath. “I think they’re my favorite candy in the store right now. No – I think these may be the best candy I’ve ever had.”

Diane knows her candy, and even though they were pricey at $3 a piece, with that endorsement I had to try one.  I took my bag of high quality candy, picked up a cup of tea to go around the corner, and drove off to do my real errands.

Ten minutes later I pulled my car over to the curb so that I could call Diane back at The Candy Store. I’d already broken into the coconut brittle, which was brilliant, the crunch and toastiness of the coconut and blonde brittle balanced with savory sweetness. But the caramel-covered marshmallow – something about its combination of textures and flavors, the slight bitterness of the dark, nut-flecked caramel with its hint of chocolate against the airy, melting marshmallow, was staggering. I’d eaten it in one bite and unlike most sweets, it was so completely satisfying that was all I needed. That one perfect mouthful.

“You were right,” I told Diane on the phone. “That marshmallow-caramel thing ties for the most amazing piece of candy I’ve ever had”—I thought quickly to the unforgettable rose-flavored Turkish delight my family bought a couple of years ago at a gas station not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Termessos, a candy so tender and perfumed and beautifully pure I would have wept except that I was too busy elbowing the rest of my family away from the box as they wolfed it down.  Later we learned that we’d stumbled into the village renowned for making the best Turkish delight in the country. Now my other best candy is right around the corner from my house. Even at $3 a pop, it’s a lot cheaper than going back to Turkey.

BonBonBar's SCN Caramallows and my grandmother's toy tea set

You too can buy that marshmallow-caramel thing, called a Salted Chocolate Nut Caramallow and made by Nina Wanat of BonBonBar, through The Candy Store. You can buy Brian Campbell’s brittles, too, if you’re lucky – they tend to sell out the day they’re made.

Coconut & Hawaiian Pink Salt Brittle reposing before it disappears

And Nina Wanat, who left the film industry and then law school to start making really good candy, has a blog about dessert called Sweet Napa, where you can find out more about BonBonBar. After the salty-sweet SCN Caramallow and the coconut brittle, and my fond memories of that rosy Turkish delight, I’m ready to try Nina’s recipe for a rosewater-flavored pavlova.

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